Category Archives: Soapbox

Virtual digitalism

Decorative image of 10 micron spheres in nanoscopeSome months ago I wrote about the likelihood that we are in a simulation [see ‘Are we in a simulation?‘ on September 28th, 2022] and that we cannot be sure whether are or not.  For some people, this will raise the question that if we are in a simulation, then what is real?  In his book, Reality+, David J Chalmers provides a checklist of properties possessed by real things, namely: existence, causal powers, mind-independence, non-illusoriness and genuineness.  The possession of these properties could be established by answering the five questions in the box below and we would expect real objects to possess one or more of these properties.  Objects that are found in a virtual world generated by a simulation are real objects because they have at least one, and often many of these properties, such as causal powers and independence from our minds.  We can consider them to be digital objects, or structures of binary information or bits.  This leads to a form of the ‘It-from-bit’ hypothesis because it implies that molecules are made of atoms, atoms are made of quarks, and quarks are made of bits – unless of course we are not in a simulation but we will probably never know for certain.

Source: David J Chalmers, Reality+: virtual worlds and the problems of philosophy, Penguin, 2022.

Image shows a self-assembly of 10 micron spheres viewed out-of-focus in bright-light optical microscope.

Rotten eggs in the store

Photograph of boiled egg for decorative purposesDo you feel like a battery hen? I ask the question because I know many of the readers of this blog are academics and in her 1995 introduction to the revised edition of her book ‘Beast and Man‘, the philosopher Mary Midgley describes the current approach to the writing and publication of academic papers as a battery-egg system in which the number of publications produced by an academic are simply counted when assessing promotion cases and grant proposals. She suggests that ‘this arrangement encourages industrious mediocrity’ such that even gifted and original researchers are forced to choose small topics for research in order to maintain their publication rate [see ‘Reasons for publishing scientific papers‘ on April 21st, 2021]. Reputable journals are supposed to be the guardians of quality through their peer-review systems; however, it matters little because the volume of papers published is so huge (more than 2 million per year) that most will never be read – no one has the time [see ‘We are drowning information while starving for wisdom‘ on January 20th, 2021]. So, Midgley predicts that journals will become ‘merely reputable cold-stores for eggs that everybody knows will never be eaten’. Unfortunately, many of the eggs are rotten because peer review systems are being undermined by disreputable authors, reviewers and editors operating ‘peer-review rings’ which have led to the retraction of hundreds of paper by publishers, including 511 papers by Hindawi & Wiley in August 2022 and 463 papers by IOP publishing in September 2022. So, if you do find time to read some journal papers, be careful what you believe because the work might be fraudulent.

Mary Midgley, Beast and Man – the roots of human nature. Abingdon, Oxon. Routledge Classics, 2002.


Reflecting on self

In a recent interview, the artist William Kentridge described becoming another person when standing back from a work in progress and becoming a critical director of the other person’s work.  He talked about ‘constructing myself from yesterday’s dream and tomorrow’s expectation’.  I have had similar experiences when I am speaking to an audience, lecturing to students or making a presentation at a conference.  I mentally stand back from the speaking self and the other self reviews what is happening and sometimes starts mind-wandering triggered by something said by the speaking self or a reaction from the audience.  I talk about ‘self’ when I am lecturing on leadership as part of our Continuous Professional Development programme [see ‘On being a leader’ on October 13th, 2021].  I am often asked what is meant by ‘self’ and ‘identity’, particularly in the context of Kegan’s scheme of cognitive development [see ‘Illusion of self’ on February 2nd, 2017].  I sense that students are often dissatisfied with my answers.  So, let me attempt a written answer here.  A dictionary definition of ‘self’ is ‘the entire being of an individual that constitutes the individuality and identity of a person’.  In psychology, it might be defined as ‘the totality of the individual, consisting of all characteristic attributes, conscious and unconscious, mental and physical.’  A dictionary definition of ‘identity’ is ‘the distinguishing character or personality of an individual’ and in sociology it is ‘the qualities, beliefs, personality traits, appearance and, or experiences that characterise a person’.  Hence, combining these definitions, identity is the attributes that characterise your ‘self’ and distinguishes you from others.  Kegan’s schema implies that our sense of self develops through childhood, adolescence and early adulthood to the extent that some people (about 35%) can separate their relationships and identity from their self and hence are capable of more nuanced decision-making – this is known as the Institutional stage.  About one percent of the population develop to a further stage, known as the Interindividual stage, where they are capable holding many identities and handling the resultant paradoxes that arise, which can help them to exercise both emotion and rationality as leaders.  I think that self is closely related to our consciousness and consequently is constructed from yesterday’s experiences and tomorrow’s dreams to misquote Kentridge.  So, perhaps it is reasonable to think that we construct, or at least evolve, a self each day as we engage in different roles, for example in my case as a teacher, researcher, university leader or family member.  I suspect that it is my researcher self that sits on the shoulder of my teacher self and mind-wanders while my teacher self talks about something else.  My experiences and dreams in each role are different, divergent even, and means that I have at least two selves that exist towards opposite ends of the ‘Change Style Indicator and have different qualities as well as experiences.


Peter Aspden, ‘The self is a construction we make every day: Lunch with the FT – William Kentridge’, 22 October / 23 October 2022.

Kegan, R., The evolving self: problem and process in human development, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Longman Dictionary of the English Language, Harlow, UK: Longman Group Limited, 1984.

Storm in a computer

Decorative painting of a stormy seascapeAs part of my undergraduate course on thermodynamics [see ‘Change in focus’ on October 5th, 2022) and in my MOOC on Thermodynamics in Everyday Life [See ‘Engaging learners on-line‘ on May 25th, 2016], I used to ask students to read Chapter 1 ‘The Storm in the Computer’ from Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason by Manuel Delanda.  It is a mind-stretching read and I recommended that students read it at least twice in order to appreciate its messages.  To support their learning, I provided them with a précis of the chapter that is reproduced below in a slightly modified form.

At the start of the chapter, the simplest emergent properties, such as the temperature and pressure of a body of water in a container, are discussed [see ‘Emergent properties’ on September 16th, 2015].  These properties are described as emergent because they are not the property of a single component of the system, that is individual water molecules but are features of the system as a whole.  They arise from an objective averaging process for the billions of molecules of water in the container.  The discussion is extended to two bodies of water, one hot and one cold brought into contact within one another.  An average temperature will emerge with a redistribution of molecules to create a less ordered state.  The spontaneous flow of energy, as temperature differences cancel themselves, is identified as an important driver or capability, especially when the hot body is continually refreshed by a fire, for instance.  Engineers harness energy gradients or differences and the resultant energy flow to do useful work, for instance in turbines.

However, Delanda does not deviate to discuss how engineers exploit energy gradients.  Instead he identifies the spontaneous flow of molecules, as they self-organise across an energy gradient, as the driver of circulatory flows in the oceans and atmosphere, known as convection cells.  Five to eight convections cells can merge in the atmosphere to form a thunderstorm.  In thunderstorms, when the rising water vapour becomes rain, the phase transition from vapour to liquid releases latent heat or energy that helps sustain the storm system.  At the same time, gradients in electrical charge between the upper and lower sections of the storm generate lightening.

Delanda highlights that emergent properties can be established by elucidating the mechanisms that produce them at one scale and these emergent properties can become the components of a phenomenon at a much larger scale.  This allows scientists and engineers to construct models that take for granted the existence of emergent properties at one scale to explain behaviour at another, which is called ‘mechanism-independence’.  For example, it is unnecessary to model molecular movement to predict heat transfer.  These ideas allow simulations to replicate behaviour at the system level without the need for high-fidelity representations at all scales.  The art of modelling is the ability to decide what changes do, and what changes do not, make a difference, i.e., what to include and exclude.


Manuel Delanda Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason, Continuum, London, 2011.

Image: Painting by Sarah Evans owned by the author.