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Searching the shore

11th January 2021

I am no biologist, and I don’t really know very much about shore life.  Before retiring and moving to be near the sea I worked in physics and engineering.  The attractions of the sea were for me, like most people I would think, a mixture of fresh air, the simple pleasures of sun, sand and sea on skin and the novelty of a different environment. But the coast has also always inspired. I used to walk along the shore and use the sea and sand to spark thoughts about physics. Actual physics, such as wondering how sand ripples form or more esoteric metaphysical thoughts, inspired by the sea, about the universe or time and space. Biology was never my thing, a bit too squishy and potentially messy for my liking and, I thought, less fundamental and therefore intrinsically less interesting than the big questions of physics. 

Bird watching was the nearest I came to an interest in life sciences. I had often thought that once retired and settled in, I would look for some ornithologically themed volunteer work. I imagined myself monitoring bird numbers along some stretch of wild Pembrokeshire coast. Motivation for a regular walk and a chance to feel like I was doing something useful in the face of the constant soul-destroying news of climate change, pollution, habitat loss and declining wildlife.       

It was my son who noticed the online advert for volunteers for Living Seas Wales (https://livingseas.wales/ )   and passed it to me. Not birds, but the life of the seashore. Recording what is present, but also looking for invasive species or species indicative of climate change.  

The novelty intuitively appealed. The chance to learn something new. Not just new, but quite different. The sea, an unknown alien world to most of us, is particularly good at firing our imaginations and I enjoyed the thought of immersing myself in this new subject. I made contact and after a pleasantly small amount of admin and some online training, was ready to go. 

Since discovering it a few years ago I have greatly enjoyed the area around Dinas Island on the north Pembrokeshire coast. The walk around the head itself is beautiful and dramatic with views out into Cardigan bay and across to North Wales. There is even a small sea stack which, in the spring and summer, hosts colonies of beautiful, raucous seabirds including razorbills and guillemots.

Razorbills and guillemots on Needle Rock, Dinas Island

It was maybe natural then that I would choose a bay near the Head for my first shore search.

Picking a pleasant day, I arrived a little before low tide. It was easy this first time. I knew nothing and so everything was new. I thought the easiest thing might be just to take photographs and identify what I found back at home with books and the internet to hand. I walked over the sand, heading to the rocks that form one side of the bay, photographing the different seaweeds that were either growing on rocks or cast up on the sand as I went. 

I like the early stages of getting into a new subject. It reminds me of looking out onto a field of newly fallen snow.  You have no preconceptions or mental clutter and are free to wander where you will, think what you like and ask whatever questions come to mind. I remember wondering whether seashore life is as seasonal as life on the land and whether the types of rocks, or how exposed a shore is, has much effect on what will be found there. I also had more specific questions such as whether those little fish you sometimes find in rock pools choose to live there or just get stranded as the tide goes out and if a rock pool is simply a visible bit of the undersea habitat that lies all around or a fundamentally different and unique eco-system.

Arriving at the east end of the bay I chose a moderately sized, attractive looking rock pool and knelt for a closer look.

Rockpool

It is a cliché I know, but rock pools do look like gardens. Some look like flower gardens, full of life and colour, others are more like Japanese Zen gardens, austere arrangements of rock and light and shade. This one was of the first type, a play of weeds of different shapes and colours; greens and reddy-browns, flat, and feathery, with the rock basin below the water line covered in that pale pink growth you sometimes see; a type of under-water lichen perhaps?

There were a number of those sea anemones that look, when they are closed, like blobs of red jelly, as well as shells of various sorts, some I recognised as limpets but others I was not sure about. I took photos of all these before spotting something more unusual; a broad piece of brown seaweed covered in a fine geometric pattern. I had no idea what this was. More photographs.

I was just about to move on when I became aware of a small patch of pale star-like growth, partially hidden among the weed on the bottom of the pool. As my eyes tuned in, I realized there was quite a lot of it, perhaps it was another type of anemone.

A quick look around, followed by a cup of coffee sat on a rock and a short, shouted conversation about the pleasantness of the morning with a fisherman setting out to pick up lobster pots and it was time to go. It had been good. There is something about going to a place with a sense of purpose rather than just strolling along looking at the view. You engage with things more deeply, people come up and talk to you, interested in what you are doing.

My lasting impression was just how much life there had been. Fifteen species1 within a few square yards, some of which I had never seen before and had not known existed. Seashore life is not cosy or cute, but it is beautiful and wonderfully alien. You might as well be exploring life on other planets, Star Trek style, as delving into rock pools. Getting to know the shore is bringing home to me that Life is at least as great a mystery as the abstract questions of physics and of course, you only have to look up and the birds are there as well.

A few of the species described above (tentative ID):

  1. As of now (January 2021) this total is now 28. I have an on-going photo-record at: https://jonjamesart.com/shore-search/

Philosophy of Mind

4th January 2021

I recently completed an Oxford University short course on Philosophy of Mind. This is an area I have interested in (or maybe I should say tormented by) for a long time.

I would like to write some more on this at some point, but for the moment I have just copied the final essay of the course below. Probably it wont be of interest to anyone, but I feel it might as well go here as anywhere, or nowhere.

Can one reasonably be a dualist in this day and age?

Before attempting to answer this question, it is important to clarify what we are referring to by the term ‘dualism’ and to delineate the scope of what we are wanting dualism to be a reasonable explanation of.  For example, we might construct an argument that makes a reasonable case for dualism as an explanation of those subjective conscious experiences (such as seeing a colour), known as qualia, but that fails to account for the possibility of mental states interacting with and controlling the physical, as is required for mental causation and our apparent capacity for exercising free-will.  Whether we consider the position of the dualist ‘reasonable’ may depend on whether we consider these phenomena real and in need of explanation.

We assume here that qualia are real and so reject forms of eliminativism that conclude otherwise. Further, while we look for reasonable explanations of qualia, we leave aside, initially, questions of mental causation. In this way we allow (though do not necessarily endorse) the theory of epiphenomenalism, which holds that mental phenomena, though real, have no causal agency. This is a significant step as it removes the need to address questions of how the mental might influence the physical and whether physical events can have non-physical causes, a possibility denied if, as is often stated, the universe is ‘causally closed’.

Dualism comes in two flavours; substance dualism, as most famously expounded by Rene Descartes in 1641 and property dualism. Substance dualism suggests that there are two fundamentally distinct substances in the world; the material substance, as explored and to some extent understood by the science of physics and a mind substance, hitherto unknown, other than, it would be argued, through subjective experience.  Property dualism on the other hand holds that there is only one substance; the material substance of physics, of which mental phenomena are a property. We take the dualism of the title question to refer to either of these flavours. 

It might seem from the above that one or other form of dualism must be true.   Under the proposition that qualia exist and as they appear not to be accounted for by our current scientific understanding, they must surely be due to either a new undiscovered mind substance (substance dualism) or a new undiscovered property of material substance (property dualism).  

Contra to this impression however there are philosophies of mind that are classified as neither substance nor property dualism. For example, reductive physicalist theories are generally considered distinct from property dualist theories, even though both propose the existence of only one type of substance: physical matter.

Such distinctions seem to depend on how we define, label and group properties.  Property dualism holds that mental properties are ‘ontologically distinct’ from, or somehow ‘over and above’ physical properties, whereas reductive physicalist theories hold that all properties, including those that account for mental phenomena, are physical.   

The interpretation of the word ‘physical’ seems to be pivotal here. What do we mean by ‘physical’? Physical seems, generally, to be taken to mean ‘as known to science’ or more specifically physics. But physics is an evolving discipline, so ‘as known to physics’ is a time dependent category. If we take the physical to be defined with respect to the current state of physics then reductive physicalism appears to be false, unless we think consciousness can be explained by current physics, in which case we might reasonably ask what combination of currently accepted physical properties (velocity, mass, charge, etc) accounts for my subjective experience of the colour red. If on the other hand we take physics to refer to some ideal future body of knowledge then reductive physicalism might be considered trivially true, since it might be expected physics will expand to include the phenomenon of consciousness in time. This difficulty around the definition of ‘physical’ is expressed in similar terms by Hempel’s dilemma (Hempel 1969) and is a problem in delineating physicalist theories of mind.

Taking the definition of ‘the physical’ as ‘that known to current physics’ as the most reasonable option we suggest the following three propositions.

  1. that the physical domain is defined as that described by today’s physics
  2. that qualia are real
  3. that current physics is unable to explain qualia

These propositions seem to entail property dualism and so, if we consider them reasonable, being a dualist, of one sort or another, must also be reasonable.

So far, we have deliberately made no reference to the need to account for mental causation. Such a position allows epiphenomenalism and coincides with David Chalmers Type-E Dualism, (Chalmers 2002). If we reject epiphenomenalism and require the mental to have causal agency, we must consider how mental events can affect physical events and must allow that such considerations may change our judgement as to whether or not dualism is reasonable.

Considering it desirable to not multiply entities unnecessarily, (and given natural constraints on the scope of this essay), we choose to concentrate on the possibility that mental causation can be accounted for using properties of the material world, i.e. we investigate property dualism. 

The main difficulty with ascribing the mental to properties of physical matter is that we think we know how physical matter works.  Working from the microphysical level we assume an upward causation, from the small to the large (from atoms to molecules to materials etc) thereby achieving, at least in principle, an explanation of the entire universe. Such upward causation seems to leave no room for the physical to be affected by some unknown mental process.  Opposed to this conclusion however is the idea that there may be gaps in this causal chain which are not readily apparent and at which other effects may emerge.

The two most cited candidates for such gaps are the quantum realm or the realm of the complex. The second of these gives rise to the idea of emergentism which holds that new properties arise when objects attain a certain complexity. At and above this complexity threshold the arrow of causation may be reversed, so that the behaviour of the whole can no longer, even in principle, be derived from an understanding of the parts. While it seems, many physicists would dispute the possibility of such emergent properties, other notable physicists offer it some support.  For example, the physicist and cosmologist Paul Davies discusses (Davies 2004) how there are arguments from within physics that leave the way open for downward causation at certain levels of complexity: 

“The numerical results of the previous section may be used to estimate the threshold of complexity beyond which there is no conflict between the causal determinism of the microscopic components and the existence of emergent laws or organizing principles at a higher level.”

The relevant complexity is calculated via a theoretical computability argument and he suggests, within the same article, that:

“… the key molecules for life—nucleic acids and proteins— become biologically efficacious at just about the threshold predicted by the Landauer-Wheeler limit, corresponding to the onset of emergent behaviour”

The thrust of the article is not to prove that emergent properties or downward causation exist, but to loosen fundamental objections to their so doing.

The second candidate for downward causation is the quantum realm.  As is well known and discussed in Chalmers (Chalmers 2002), observation by a conscious observer has long been mooted as a possible cause of ‘wave function collapse’, in which the smoothly evolving wave function, which allows a superposition of multiple states, collapses to a single measured reality.  More recently ideas of ‘de-coherence’ seem to be lessening the need for the conscious observer in this process.  However, it has more recently been suggested that phenomena such as quantum entangled states, do in fact exhibit emergent properties and allow downward causation. In their paper ‘Event ontology in quantum mechanics and downward causation ‘ Gambini and Pullin (2016) conclude;        

“We show that several interpretations of quantum mechanics admit an ontology of objects and events. This ontology reduces the breach between mind and matter”

“Basically, downward causation is present when the disposition of the whole to behave in a certain way cannot be predicted from the dispositions of the parts. The event ontology of quantum mechanics allow us to show that systems in entangled states present emergent new properties and downward causation.”

Reading Davies’ article or, more so, the quantum article cited above, brings to the fore a difficulty with our attempt to establish the reasonableness or otherwise of dualism. In considering subjects such as quantum physics and downward causation we are quickly drawn into highly technical areas of a very specialist nature. If we do not have the specialist knowledge (specialist even within the discipline of physics) to follow and critically evaluate such arguments how shall we proceed? 

We are forced to the somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion that if reasonable and knowledgeable men and women can take particular positions regarding such technical questions, we are beholden to at least allow that holding such opinions is reasonable. It follows that we should be free to consider the possibility of downward causation, emergent properties and property dualism as at least reasonable propositions, even when including mental causation within our ontology.

Beenakker, C. (2007) ‘Hempel’s Dilemma and the Physics of Computation,’ Knowledge in Ferment: Dilemmas in Science, Scholarship and Society (Leiden University Press)

Chalmers, D.  J. (2002) ‘Consciousness and its Place in Nature,’ Published in (D. Chalmers, ed) Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings (Oxford 2002).

Davies, P. (2004) ‘Emergent biological principles and the computational properties of the universe,’ Complexity. 10. 11-15. 10.1002/cplx.20059.

Gambini, R. and Pullin, J. (2016) ‘Event ontology in quantum mechanics and downward causation,’ International Journal of quantum foundations 2, 89, 2016

Hempel, C. (1969) ‘Reduction: Ontological and Linguistic Facets’, in S. Morgenbesser, et al. (eds.), Essays in Honor of Ernest Nagel, New York: St Martin’s Press.

Hunting Patella pellucida

30th October 2020

They were there, on the first piece of kelp we looked at. On the side facing down into the sea, just where the fronds join the stipe. A little cluster of five, each no bigger than a fingernail.

It had almost been too easy. But, looking back the clues had been there a few weeks before when we had found, amongst the usual limpets and topshells, some small soft-brown domes with barely visible pale stripes radiating from one end. Apparently a type of limpet, but not looking like any of the textbook illustrations. We had wondered then if they were old and worn blue-rayed limpet shells.

Checking online and in our favourite textbook1 it appeared that blue-rayed limpets often feed on a species of kelp known as Laminaria digitata; a large brown fingered seaweed which grows on rocky shores and is usually only accessible at the lowest of low tides. I knew from sailing that these tides, ‘spring tides’ typically occur twice a month, near full and new moons, when the alignment of the earth moon and sun produces maximum gravitational pull. Looking at our local tide tables, we noted the date and time of the next such tide.  

But where to look? Laminaria digitata grows by clinging to rocks. Much of the north coast of Pembrokeshire is rocky, but as I had recently found this seaweed washed up on a beach near Dinas Island, while doing a shore search for Living Seas Wales (https://livingseas.wales/), we chose this as our hunting ground.

Arriving shortly before low water and climbing over rocks still wet from the receding tide, we made our way to the sea and turned over the first piece of kelp we saw. And there they were, smaller than expected, but unmistakable.  Tiny translucent fawn-green domes with piecing radiating blue-green lines; the living version of the pale brown shells we had found previously.  The tide was already on the turn and balancing on slippery rocks we took what photographs we could and retreated.

Blue-rayed limpets (Patella pellucida) feeding on kelp.

Looking at the photographs now the lines are striking. From amongst the dark softness of the kelp, where all is organic asymmetry, these draftsmen-drawn lines shine out like decals on tiny spaceships. Their iridescence arcs across the shell domes, with apparently little regard for the assumed concentric or radial growth patterns and symmetries. They are the colour of kingfishers caught in slanting light against the greens and browns of a river.  

References:

  1. A Student’s Guide to the Seashore. J. D. Fish & S. Fish (Third Edition)

Notes:

  1. Patella pellucida is the Latin name of the blue-rayed limpet. ‘Patella’ and ‘Pellucid’ are Latin words meaning ‘little dish’ and ‘lucid or clear’ or ‘to shine’ respectively.
  2. The iridescence of these limpets is an example of ‘structured light’, in which colour is caused, not by the usual method of pigmentation, but by geometric arrangements of microscopic structural elements that cause interference and filtering of certain wavelengths of light.  The example of blue-rayed limpets is unusual because this effect is created by mineral rather than organic compounds as is the case in creatures such as kingfishers or butterflies.
  3. There is a scientific study into the Blue-rayed limpet by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): The paper is here: (http://web.mit.edu/cortiz/www/LingLiPhotonic.pdf) and a less technical article here: https://news.mit.edu/2015/optical-structures-in-limpet-shell-0226. Some of the more accessible points are:
    1. The iridescence is produced by layers within the thickness of the shell rather than on the surface.
    2. The blue of the rays is the optimum shade for penetrating water.
    3. The changes in shell structure needed to cause iridescence do not weaken the shell.
    4. It is thought that the evolutionary advantage of the iridescence of blue-rayed limpets is that it mimics colourful species of toxic sea slugs (nudibranchs), such as Polycera elegans.  

Additional Figures:

The Preseli Hills

7th October 2020

A lovely place, this hare’s scrape of a lay-by, situated just below Carn Enoch on the hills above Dinas Island. To the north and west is mainly sea and to the south and east rural Wales. There are no large towns for many miles and the darkness here runs clear and deep.

I like to arrive at twilight and sit as the world-clamour is replaced by a sheep-punctuated silence and the detailed landscape reduced to a lumpy skyline of soft dark hills.   The sense of peace is transformational, inducing a feeling of calm and opening.

As twilight deepens the lights around Newport appear, followed by the first stars. It is as if the town lights have lured the wild stars into visibility as decoys will lure wild geese. But the time scale over which the stars appear is awkward, too long, unless you have an astronomer’s patience to watch continuously, but short enough so that, having looked away, and maybe become momentarily distracted, you find, on looking back, the sky quite changed.  It reminds me of what happens in spring, when, one moment there are a few leaves against bare branches and the next a cathedral of green. Both transformations seem at once gradual and sudden.

But this place is not only beautiful by night. To the north lies the stretch of coast and sea-scape around Newport Bay and to the south the Preseli hills. The Preselis are not high, reaching only 536m at their highest point, but they are heath and moor and, for me, possess an unexpected wildness. There are no lofty peaks, but the open landscape induces a sort of walking meditation in which, because of this very openness, attention becomes focused on nearby details rather than distant vistas; the quick mid-stride gurgle of a stream running invisibly in the channel it has cut in the peat; patterns of rock and lichen; changes in vegetation; a momentary flash of sky in water collected around the base of a boulder. In the summer there is the constant background of the skylark’s song; a stream of summer consciousness mingling with the soft scents and changing airs of the moor.  Walking up here clears the mind and spirit leaving space to think and feel.

One of the more unique characteristics of this landscape is the large outcrops of rock that are dotted across it. The nearest to me here, Carn Enoch, lies just a few hundred yards up the hill from where I park.  It comprises large grey boulders, closely fitting in places, a looser tumble in others, and it rises so abruptly from the surrounding grass that you might think it had been placed by hand, inviting creation myths of giants and magic. These rocks are the haunt of wheatears and pipits and sometimes, when the evening sun is setting in a clear sky towards Ireland, of a beautiful warm golden light.   The first time I saw these rocks it was early spring and their soft grey colour, their creased and lined surface, and the way they rose out of the then brown grass, reminded me of a group of elephants kneeling or lying on an African Savannah. It is a feeling that has never quiet left me; that these outcrops are warm, wholesome and somehow animate.

Carn Enoch on Mynydd Dinas

I could spend a lot of time up here, parked in this spot, in this tiny camper van, tea and coffee to hand, wine for the evenings and a gas ring for cooking.  I would alternate between walking, reading, thinking, and trying to write and life would be simple and good. What thoughts might one have, slowly sinking into the peace of this place?


Mynydd Dinas
 
An early frost;
white and sharp under a blue sky.
The air full of larks and the scent of sheep. 
Grey rocks rise abruptly from winter-brown grass,
their skin lined and textured like elephant hide,
and with the same feeling of mass and warmth.
To have spent the night up here.
A clear dark sky, sliver moon,
pin sharp milky way and Orion dipping toward the sea.
A night to have felt part of the universe
and to have remembered.
Presili night

Darkness
Nothing to hear,
but a few sheep tearing the grass.
Nothing to see,
but a thousand suns,
blazing above the hills.

Copyright (c) Jon James 2020

Outer Hebrides

7th July 2020

The Outer Hebrides are a chain of islands about two hundred miles long, thrown up, seemingly, like an arm, to protect Scotland from the casual violence of the Atlantic Ocean. 

The beaches lying along the ocean facing west coast are extraordinarily beautiful, possessing, for me, an otherworldly quality.  The long journey from the south of England maybe contributes to this impression; wonders are passed and, as with many mythic journeys, things get stranger as you progress; brooding mountain ranges with snail-trail waterfalls high in their crags, wild moors and stony burns, gannet-mobbed ferry crossings and sinuous causeways linking island-dotted-sea to lochen-strewn-land. Gradually, it seems, the familiar world is left behind, and the imagination left vulnerable to subtlety and impression. 

Some of my excitement is a remnant of childhood visits to Scotland.  A key element then was the inherent uncertainty around the means of travel “we’re going to Scotland in daddy’s car – if daddy’s car will get that far” was sung, partly for fun, but also maybe as a charm to ward off the real possibility of brakedown.  The whole venture felt like a game of chance: one wrong turn in labyrinthine Glasgow, for example, could see you sliding down a snake headed back to exactly where you were forty minutes ago. Or worse, you might step on The Gorballs* and not escape at all.  

In those days the goal was the Ardnamurchan peninsula, a final singular paradise, guarded by two small car ferries; throw a double six and you could be through in an hour, but anything less would see you locked for a seeming eternity on the wrong side of the water, unless, that is, you are brave enough to take a chance and dare the precipitous Kinlochleven road.

Today, the psychological geometry is different. The reliability of modern travel has diminished the physical uncertainty, but the desire to reach the haven of the islands is made both more powerful and more poignant by the need to escape everyday life and by an adult’s knowledge of vulnerability and change. That something will have happened to cause the magic to fail is a powerful subconscious fear.

The effect of the journey, and these feelings, is to create the impression, on finally arriving, of having reached somewhere that is more than special. A place that is simultaneously the edge of the physical world and the centre of an internal world: a singularity where to travel in any direction is to travel away. 

It is the beaches that convey these impressions most strongly, seeming places of essence rather than substance, removed from the material world and characterised less by geology and biology than by some more abstract discipline, theoretical physics or pure mathematics maybe. At times it feels that normality might be suspended, allowing secret truths  to be revealed.

Physical underpinnings of such impressions of otherworldliness can be identified. The coarse shell fragment sand does not hold much water and so is not cloying. Each flake is subtly distinct in form and colour and there is little sign of organic matter – all is clean, sharp and precise. The water too is different; being so clear that it might not to be a material substance at all but an abstraction; like the aether proposed by nineteenth century physicists, something only required to explain the observed properties of light, which, in this case, it diffracts and focusses into bands that flicker and lurch across the sea floor.

But these are places of contrast. If the islands are an arm protecting the mainland from the sea then it is a pugilist’s arm; hard, tough and sinewy, with course marram grass hair and rock bones that were formed three billion years ago when the world was young.  The rocks of these islands, some of the oldest in the world, make the era of the dinosaurs look like recent history. If the rocks are old and hard then the air seems new and soft. Under the prevailing westerlies these islands are the first land the wind strikes after a fetch of some thousands of miles over a bird-strewn, but otherwise empty ocean.  If you stand on one of the Atlantic facing beaches of the west coast you might think the air was freshly made and that you were the first to take it in.

I was on the island of Barra a few years ago, towards the end of a holiday. The holiday had not quite worked.  It had been cold and windy and the tent I was sleeping in had felt confining rather than liberating. Even in such beautiful surroundings it had been hard to relax. Then, one morning, the weather changed and, walking from the dunes at Eolaigearraidh in the north of the island, up over Beinn Eolaigearraidh Mhor, and dropping down onto Barra Beach in perfect light and with a rainbow for company, spirits started to lift.

Strolling along a beach is often an aid to dreaming and this morning was no exception. As I walked a sort of rolling reverie unfolded; a reverie in which the sand became a close packed star-field, and the scattered pebbles, planets floating against a starry background. The action of a retreating tide had removed sand from around each pebble-planet leaving it sitting in a small hollow – a distortion in the otherwise perfect flat of the beach that reminded me of the illustrations in physics textbooks showing how, in Einstein’s theory of relativity, space-time is distorted by massive bodies such as planets. The crabs even became small spaceships scuttling from oasis to oasis across the desert of space and the strands of beached weed exotic nebula. Finally, wandering down to the shoreline, I arrived at a perfect bounded infinity: a wave lapped edge of the purest translucent blue.

* No offence meant – I knew nothing of the Gorballs at the time, this was merely a child’s response to – I don’t even remember what.

Riemann Rhyming
Walk on Barra Beach
With eyes turned down to better see the sky
And you might observe
As I hope you do
(As indeed did I)
A pristine place
A field of stars
Olber’s paradox in sand
Where scattered there all round about
Disrupting the metric of the plane
Banded pebble-planets lie
In Sea-washed hollows of perfect curved space-time
And Hubble objects
Whorls of weed and jellyfish
May cross your field of view
And at the wave-lapped edge
A singularity of pure Euclidean blue

Copyright (c) Jon James 2020