The Planets

I am delighted to read The Planets by Andrew Cohen and Brian Cox. After the end of the Cassini, Juno and New Horizons missions is a perfect time for a popular survey of what we know of the solar system, and it is relaxing to know that if Professor Cox says Saturn’s rings are less than a hundred million years old he has good grounds for saying it, unlike many political statements.

I was thinking that it does not affect my life, but that is untrue. If Saturn did not exist, Jupiter would not be orbiting where it is, and Earth might not exist. If humans did not have the curiosity and the engineering and political skills to find these things out, the human race would be significantly different, and if I were not interested in such things I would not be me. Even a minor change such as one more or less 100km moon of Saturn would have a butterfly-effect, perhaps big enough to end life on Earth.

And our understanding is influenced by the culture. As a small child I could recite the names of the planets even as I could count to a hundred, but thought of them as more or less unchanged since the system formed. I remember calling Neptune a gas giant, then an ice giant. The thought of the system as changing, planets moving much closer to the Sun or further away is based on new data, including from exoplanets, but seeing wild change as possible rather than incremental improvement affects and is affected by how we see society, and what is politically possible.

None of it is certain. Theories explain data, but are subject to change, as new data are collected or new possibilities imagined.

I find the whole very beautiful, the images, the striving and achievement, and the sharing.

Cox is a romantic and inspiring writer. He can be sharp: I think one of the reasons why anthropogenic climate change is so difficult for a certain type of person to accept is that atmospheres seem ethereal and tenuous and incapable of trapping enough heat to modify the temperatures on a planet significantly. For such people I suggest a trip to Venus, where they will be squashed and boiled and dissolved on the surface of Earth’s twin.

The character of the scientist requires not only comfort with but attraction to the unknown; an acceptance and delight in the complexity of Nature… the search for certainty is a fool’s errand, and the lesson is to find delight in not knowing while simultaneously committing to extending the domain of the known. That’s the key to science, the key to happiness and the only reasonable response to the existential challenge of existence.

We live in a solar system of wonders, of planets of storms and moons of ice, of landscapes and vistas that stir the imagination and enrich the soul.

Unfortunately Andrew Cohen is not so inspiring, but with such material he rarely fails to fascinate. It could be better edited, though, I spotted some errors and I am no expert.

The idea that a system allowing complex life-forms to evolve might be rare, requiring precise events to happen in the changes of orbits of the planets and even a large moon to hold the angle of rotation fairly constant is hard. It is up to us to sustain life in our galaxy. The engineering triumphs and alien wonders give me hope.

The book takes me back to childhood, to simple wonder at the strangeness of space and the brilliance of the people finding its secrets. I devoured it.

Helpful beliefs

What you believe may be helpful or harmful not so much as to whether it is true or not, but how it helps you to navigate the world. If natural selection is true, we form our beliefs in a way inherited from ancestors who formed beliefs which aided them to survive and reproduce. Possibly, false beliefs may profit those who believe them. For some jobs, objective assessment of truth matters in the job itself- doctor, forensic scientist, police officer- but they might be able to be truthful there, yet hold false beliefs which do not directly impact their work.

I place a high value on truth. Possibly, that inhibited my acting in my own interests. I wondered, “Am I transsexual?” I assessed that by my understanding of the concept of transsexual, what observers considered it entailed, but now believe it is in part socially constructed and the important matter is the desire to transition. How should I judge people who habitually deny the truth?

Yuval Noah Harari writes that fiction helps people. Peugeot as an entity, rather than as a group of people and physical assets, depends on belief. The “Good-will” of a company is based on belief in it as an entity. Religions help people trust strangers, and co-operate.

Traits come in a range of strengths. People are varied. So, just because your ancestors held their beliefs in a particular way, and had offspring, does not mean that you will. I have no children, and neither had my uncle, who only married late in life, or aunt, who never married, and died in her early forties. Some inherited trait may be holding us back. My sister has children.

People hold contradictory beliefs. A belief may be useful for some purposes, but not for others; so you might ignore it in contexts where it is harmful. For the creationist doctor, scientists are arrogant fools when they disprove Creationism, but believeable enough when they research medical treatment. Or at least his suspicions of scientists do not result in angry denunciation, when it relates to his job.

Creationism in Christians could draw the community together. The community values belief in this sibboleth, and because outsiders despise it they have an Out-group to define themselves against. They might collect arguments for their position, building community.

It affects their understanding of wider society. They observe that there is a large group of people whose profession is (they believe) to make illegitimate conclusions from sparse, contradictory evidence, but who assert those conclusions with a high degree of confidence and despise the Creationists. Believing that so many people would have a professional interest in asserting falsehood would decrease trust in wider society. But perhaps they would not work out the full implications, which would cause cognitive dissonance.

I have been wondering about this after a Creationist wrote, I have solar on my roof, and I drive an electric car. I take better care of the environment than most, and have a smaller carbon footprint than many… all it would take is one large volcano eruption to put us into a persistent Global winter. I can find no assertion of persistent global winter from volcanoes, though that was one result of the Chicxulub impact. The second largest eruption of the 20th century, in Mount Pinatubo, put gases and solids into the stratosphere only for three weeks, but sulfate aerosols persisted for 3-4 years. The troposphere generally cooled, but warmed in winter. So says NASA: I don’t know how trustworthy he finds them. They have to be careful of truth while engineering rockets, or the rockets would not work. In 1816 the Tambora eruption in Indonesia created a “Year without a Summer” in the US and Western Europe. That would have been observed, by Christians, so have a high degree of credibility, but the connection is made by scientists. That was the largest volcanic event for 1300 years.

His understanding of science is grievously affected by his creationism, which requires him to disbelieve scientific knowledge and distrust science as practised. He misunderstands about volcanoes. Yet he behaves morally, as if climate science were true.

It is clearly easier for a science denier in one field to be a denier in another. Creationists are more likely to be climate deniers.

Possibly I overvalue truth. Trust in climate science, and indeed the scientific account of the history of life on Earth and the development of the Universe, is part of my trust in wider society. It feels like seasickness when someone denies the clear truth, either a Creationist or a conspiracy theorist. I feel angry when someone I know asserts that Saggitarians have particular traits, Diana was assassinated, or the World Trade Center was demolished by explosives rather than planes. I feel I depend on being able to discern truth. I don’t, really. The world is a complex and confusing place, and weird things happen. Knowing the age of the Universe does not make it more controllable.

Trust, safety, clarity, kindness

Here are today’s thoughts, not at all random, which I am trying to fit together in order to understand the world, my place in it, and myself.

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “Which is to be master- that’s all.”

I was struggling to understand the difference between interest-relative invariantism and contextualism, both concepts in epistemology. IRI is a theory about how knowledge works, contextualism is etymological, about how we use words like “know”. Both say how important something is to me affects what evidence I might need to “know” it. Possibly I know nothing, I merely have reasonable beliefs. It is important that I can change my belief on becoming aware of contradictory evidence, rather than doubling down, but that uncertainty about things which I could reasonably believe should not prevent me from acting. This had me weeping repeatedly and copiously.

I was cycling up a hill, where cars park down one side of the road and there is not room for vehicles to pass each other beside the cars- so they must wait in gaps in the parked cars to let others pass. A lorry was waiting for me. As I struggled past, the driver shouted, “Go on, love, give it some!”

I am told that my greatest strengths are Forgiveness, Bravery, Fairness, Kindness and Creativity. I do not bear grudges, such that I find it hard to imagine that others do: it takes a leap of empathy to see that another might hold a grudge in a particular situation.

A benefits client was walking in a railway station when a man he did not know jumped up on his back and slashed him across the forehead with a knife. His self-confidence entirely evaporated, and he did not want to go out. He got disability benefits, but when they were reconsidered three years later they were withdrawn: arguably he should have got over it. I can’t remember what was the result of our appeal, but think we won. Similarly, a man who lost his forearm in an accident got a high level of disability benefits, but after three years they were cut- probably the decision maker thought he should have got used to doing things one-handed by then. I doubt we won but can’t remember.

Caroline asked, how did you feel about that lorry driver? I think his shout is probably not simple encouragement, but misogynistic. Perhaps he thought I was younger than I am. Certainly he thought I was female, and if he realised I am a trans woman he might have been abusive in a different way.

Why might it be a good thing that there are tensions between people in a Quaker meeting? I feel often we deny them as too frightening. One said, if we can hold the tension it can keep us listening to the Spirit and each other. If we can bear Unknowing, we can learn and grow. It brings us to useful change- which I find painful, hence the crying. Or I am crying at the pain of not being aware of myself.

Possibly it would be best if I were effectively lobotomised by strong antidepressants, and worked shelf-stacking in a local shop, say thirty hours a week, walking home afterwards to watch television. I might then be useful.

When my Friend ministered in Meeting that she felt abandoned by Britain Yearly Meeting because Truth is intensely important to her and BYM was denying the truth, I felt intense sympathy even though I understand the Truth she thinks BYM is denying is that trans women like me are men who should be excluded from women’s spaces. I don’t think that’s true. Possibly it would be in my interest for her to simply lose interest in worshipping with us, feeling betrayed, because then she would leave and the tension I feel worshipping with her would reduce. I see that. And it would not please me: and I see that as a strength in me, a virtue or good thing, rather than weakness or worthlessness. I want her to feel able to remain, and I do not want to abnegate myself to achieve that. I want a result which honours me as well as her. That’s new, that self-respect. It pleases me.

Possibly my former sense of safety, which enabled me to take action in the world, arose from male privilege. I believe I should be capable of effective action because that is the state of white educated males. Women have to be more circumspect, including trans women: something can go wrong at any time, like being slashed across the face with a knife by a random stranger. So epistemological scepticism, claiming we can’t know we are people in a Real World, rather than a brain in a vat, a character in a computer simulation, a spirit tortured by a malevolent sprite, whatever- has the value of showing the world is unpredictable, sometimes we do not know what will happen, and it can be really as bad as a stroke or heart attack or random attack. It can keep philosophers on their toes, and also me, in my Real Life, like a parable forcing awareness of possibilities and uncertainty. But I feel such scepticism is too strong, making too much possible information simply incredible: it washes out degrees of incredibility, which are useful to see.

Things can really be that bad.

I must do what I can.


We do not know the world, but our world. Our beliefs are not true representations of a world objectively independent of us, but tools for living- for what would be better, a “true” belief that led you to despair and terror or a false belief that allowed you to continue?

Mathematics is not real, but it is useful. √(-1) is i and -i, though it cannot exist; even √2 cannot be expressed precisely. Even -1 does not exist, but is useful to describe a debt. God is like mathematics, God does not exist but is useful to explain human experience.

In a quantum universe where the photon always takes the shortest path to the receptor, so enabling plants to live, how could we imagine we understood anything at all?

Our language is only human, and our ideas shaped by the words we use to express them. Yet those words are imprecise, unable to share an experience: a peach, I tell you, is sweet, juicy and rich; it overwhelms my senses and I luxuriate in it. You think of your last experience of a peach, rather than mine. And writers especially, but everyone, come up with better metaphors, to better express ourselves. Lawyers distinguish cases.

The equator is a concept which cannot be observed, only calculated, and the Greenwich meridian is not an arbitrary choice because Britain is better than France- everyone admits it!

Science produces theories which are useful pictures of the world, and may be superseded as Newtonian gravity was by Einstein. If they let us predict outcomes they are useful enough.

Like other animals, we may simply not notice things which do not serve our purposes or threaten our desires. We don’t know and we cannot know THE world, absolutely. We can know only OUR world, a world shaped by our ideas, seen from our perspective, and built by us with our needs in view.

Nor do we know ourselves.

I got this from the Rev. Don Cupitt, who uses it to attack belief in God- though God may reveal God to us, continually rather than by one final revelation. Or, if Jesus was the final revelation, we are yet to fully understand Him and we can get closer to His Truth. Whether believing in God as a useful metaphor or as objective reality, the loving parent, or as childish illusion, we can learn to be more moral.

Philosophers may debate epistemology, but I move between the ideas according to which seems most useful at the time. And more often than I might like, I am like a weanèd child, not knowing, having to accept.

Bronzino, fresco from the chapel of the old palace in Florence, 3

Words and meanings

Winston Churchill was a naive realist: The sun is real, and it is hot—in fact as hot as Hell, and if the metaphysicians doubt it they should go there and see. This is the position of practical folk, and of most people most of the time: there is reality independent of my observation of it, and my observations show what it is like.

I am a critical realist. There is a real world, in which I move, but I can never know it fully because my perceptions may be in error, affected by my culture or history. However, we may know in part and a commitment to truth helps us make our understandings more accurate. This matters intensely to me- I have a right to express myself female, but if I can say that is truthful my desire makes sense or is even objectively justified. One might choose a metaphysical stance based on personality, such as Myers-Briggs’ Judging/Perceiving spectrum.

I work towards understanding non-realist positions, that no “real world” may be known. One such is that there is only language, not direct perception.

Language affects how we see the world. It is not that things in the world and ideas in the mind fit, and language merely labels them. In biology and physics, the way of identifying an individual thing may differ: there are ten electrons in a water molecule, but locating an individual electron is difficult, as it can be in more than one place at one time. Charles Taylor argues that a word only has meaning within a lexicon and a context of language practices, which are ultimately embedded in a form of life. I can have no understanding of the world, except through the distorting lens of my culture; perhaps no-one can understand what I say, who is not part of that culture.

Words move, music moves, only in time

Words liberate or constrain: a man is liberated if he changes from seeing himself as a Sodomite, wicked and disgusting, to as a gay man, doing what is natural and normal. Had I not heard of the possibility of transition, I would not have done it, and Mayans had no wheels. Something becomes possible when it is imagined.

We can think in pictures- where shall I go, now? A vision of where I might be, what I might do, crosses my mind. We can be more than we know: we behave morally, even if we cannot understand where morality came from. If we know the ninth planet exists but have not yet located it, why should we imagine we could explain ourselves? And morality can develop: “Love thy neighbour as thyself” co-existed with slavery, until people realised there was a contradiction.

Simone Weil said I will, therefore I am– I know I exist because of my desires, rather than because of rational thought. I know God though I cannot describe God.

Much of this is lifted from Julian Baggini. The belief and understanding is my own.

Giorgione, Ceres

How do I know?

Rembrandt Visitation 1Epistemology bores me. However many stars there are in the galaxy, thirty, one hundred or two hundred billion I have only ever seen one significant figure given. I am glad someone is interested enough to try to work it out, but I am not, apart from a moment’s vague interest when the subject comes up.

There is a difference between engineering knowledge and other knowledge. I do not want the new Forth crossing to fall down, like the Cathedral at Saint Andrews did. But while I want certain questions about new buildings to be handled by engineers, in an entirely rationalist manner, doing the calculations to ensure safety and efficiency, I want the experience of the building to be created by the arty side of the architect’s brain, the whole human being speaking to me as a human being, inspiring me with beauty and grandeur, which are more than mere equations.

I heard that Newton’s Laws of Motion would be impossible without the Cartesian idea that nature might follow law, contra Occasionalism. Again, entertaining enough, I file away the idea. What do I need to know?

I need to know what works in my own life. I need to know where to buy food. I need to get an income, and whether I do this by claiming benefits or getting a job, I need to associate with other people in order to do so. And I know a huge amount about that. My knowledge comes from fifty million years of primate evolution, and a million years of human evolution, and my own 48 years of experience.

The trouble is that I know it two ways. I know it theoretically, and to that knowledge I might apply epistemology- critical realism, that there is something to know and I know it to an extent. But I also know it subconsciously, in my unconscious body language and emotional responses. I have thought about this more than most, perhaps, wondering whether a particular response was masculine or feminine around my transition, because it might get me read and insulted and negated; and hating my natural responses before my transition, finding them effeminate, and seeking to change them. But really thinking about it gets in the way. Theoretical and unconscious knowledge conflict, befouling both.

I hear looking up to the left before answering a question means checking memory, and looking up to the right Rembrandt Visitationmeans crafting a lie, and might remember that, then be confused when I catch myself looking up to the right. One can apply rational conscious thought to these things, but it is difficult. Meanwhile, I know unconsciously, and my knowing drifts into consciousness through my feelings and intuitions, or does not, but affects my actions.

How to respond to new knowledge? In distress- I have been wrong, I will have to think things through again, how can I be sure of this- or in joy?

British citizens unable to vote in the Referendum may sign here, asking the Scots to stay with us in our Union: Let’s Stay Together.

How do we know?

Thomas Wijck, The AlchemistTwo alternative views, according to Tom Wright: positivism, and critical realism. Okay-

in Positivism, some things are objectively true, and we may have unquestionable knowledge of them based on our sensory experiences. Other things are subjective, for example the quality of works of art, where “It is beautiful” only means “I like it”. Something which may not be verified is ungrounded belief, so nonsensical.

Knowledge of history comes between. Primary sources are evidence of what happened, and that evidence might be doubtful on some ground, or conclusive. Having made forensic arguments about evidence, I am quite familiar with alternative views of fact. Wright poses the question whether history is a type of objective knowledge, or really subjective. I find it hard to imagine that anyone would see that as either/or: it is clearly a spectrum. Few seriously asserted historical propositions are entirely certain or entirely unsupported.

There is also phenomenalism: I cannot be certain of the external world, only my sense data. Well, atoms are mostly empty space, and particles may be in two places at once until they are observed, but I act as if my sense data relate to external events.

Wright proposes “Critical realism”- there is an external reality, which may be known in part, and may be known better through critical thought and engagement with evidence. Well, yes.

No human being has a God’s eye view of certainty, but forms an understanding of new information in the context of old understandings. A new-born baby is unable to focus his eyes. First we focus, then we interpret the information we sense. I may not be really, objectively a woman, but that understanding fulfils some of my purposes, or my society’s purposes. A better understanding may be possible.

Wright seems right to me, when he says my point of view depends on that of my associates. Few of my thoughts are entirely original. There is no detached observer: everyone has an interest, he says.

A man recorded in 2003 asserted that there were thirty billion stars in the galaxy. More recently I have heard a hundred billion, then two hundred billion. This shakes my confidence a little, but I hope that experts now have more evidence, and better ways of understanding that evidence- a better answer, though still perhaps an inaccurate one. I knew already that Space is really big. Understanding builds on earlier understanding. This means that people believed in phlogiston long after there was clear evidence against the theory, but also holds out hope that understanding may improve over time.