Insufficiency of Language

Language insufficiency or the inability of language to facilitate accurate or precise communication has been a notion I’ve stressed for years. In fact, I have another post with a similar title,

Conceptual language is likely to have been formed for a purpose different to social communication. It may have been formed to facilitate internal dialogue. This language was not written and may not have even been words as we know them, but we could parse and reflect upon our experiences in this world. Eventually, we developed speech and then writing systems to share communication. We went on to develop speculative and conditional language, visions of possible futures and answers to ‘what-if’ queries.

My intent is not to create a piece with academic rigour, though I might wish to. I may not even deign to link to references I’ve accumulated over the years. They are in memory, but it takes time and effort,especially when one isn’t purposefully accumulating citations.

I was prompted to write at 4am when I read in a story that Google CEO Sundar Pichai was taking “full responsibility for the decisions that led us” to twelve-thousand-odd layoffs at the company he helms. But what is the responsibility he cites? It’s meaningless. What can it mean—that he’s sorry? Responsibility is a weasel word. That and a dollar won’t buy you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. And on one hand, he can say that at least these people were employed with income in the first place, but thqat is little consolation for the expectation of longevity. Here’s a lesson in impermenance and trust. We tend to trust companies, but the trust is rather hope. We hope they don’t let us down. Hope is another weasel word, as is trust. Trust me.

About 40% of words employed…are phatic or filler words with little objective communication value

About forty per cent of words employed in a typical day are phatic or filler words with little objective communication value, though some provide a social function. This may be superfluous, this is not insufficiency. Insufficiency stems from not being to articulate what one wants to say or the expectation to understand what is being conveyed to you. In fact, people tend to overvalue what they hear or read.

In most cases, this may not matter. As long as the content of a transmitted idea contains enough value to convey a message, this is good enough for everyday communication. “Look out! There’s a car turning into your lane.” “I’m hungry. There’s a restaurant.” “That was a good movie.” “Let’s meet at four o’clock.” In fact, much can be communicated without words—in gestures and facial expressions. It might even be argued that these vectors carry as much if not more communication content than the words we use.

IMAGE: Communication without words

“There.” I point to a drive-through restaurant ahead on the road. “I’m hungry.”

I could probably omit the there exclamation and just point. Here, words are sufficient, even if they may be redundant. There are challenges even at the fundamental level. Notably, aesthetic concepts are often nebulous.

“That restaurant is good.”

What does this statement mean to convey? Essentially, it means that I, the speaker, has been to the referenced restaurant and liked at least some of the food they tasted: “[The food at] that restaurant is good.” Perhaps, they are referring to the staff or the atmosphere. It depends on what good is qualifying. It also depends on a shared definiton of good. This is a insufficiency.

Of course, this insufficiency can be mitigated fairly quickly. Once you understand the ‘tastes’ of your interlocutor, you can parse whether the goodness also applies to you. If you don’t happen to like, say, Indian food and that is the restaurant being referenced, then you can dismiss the comment as phatic. If you don’t prefer satire, you might want to chalk up a statement like ‘M3GAN was a good movie’ to a sharing of personal information rather than a recommendation.”

Perhaps the biggest insufficiency is in the communication of abstract concepts, a category where aesthetics also sits. These are concepts such as God, love, and justice. Iain McGilchrist seems to feel that although these words may be insufficient, we all know what they mean. These are right brain notions that the left hemisphere just can’t rightly categorise. Though this might be a left brain argument, I am going to disagree by degrees.

My (hopefully not strawman) argument is that we do have subjective notions of what these things are, but the communication value is still diminished and in some cases insufficient. If my statement means to convey justice as {A, C, D, X} and the receiver understands justice to mean {A, B, C, Y, Z}, then the only shared aspect is {A,C}. If that is the only portion contextual to the conversation at hand, that’s fine. Communication has been sucessful. But is the message was meant to emphasise {Z}, then the communication is insufficient.

It could be that further conversation reveals this, but often times, a shared definition is assumed. When I say “I want justice” or “I take responsibility”, I have a notion of went denotative and connotative elements I have in mind. I expect the the receiver of my statement shares these elements.

In the case of the statement by Pichai, his notion of responsibility is clearly divergent from mine. This might fall back on some notion of blame, but he has no real repurcussions for his action. Perhaps reputationally, but like politicians, CEOs of large companies are already expected to be sociopaths with empty words, so he’s appologised with no weight, and for most people that’s good enough. The people who have been affected are just as unemployed as before. He may have arranged for a severance package, but in the case of the family referenced in the article, this means nothing because they have 60-days to become employed or they will be forced to leave the United States as a conditiopn of their H1B visa.

On a personal level, I was recently chatting with an Indian mate with an H1B visa who had just been hired after having been layed off by another company. He was racing against this 60-day clock. He had received a verbal offer, but once the company discovered that he needed sponsorship for his via, they offered him $30,000 less per year because they knew he had no bargaining power. This is just an editorial aside, so I won’t go down the rabbit hole of wage slavery, but know that I recognise the relationship and the exploitation in it.

When I have time, perhaps I’ll flesh out this notion and provide additional support. Of course, I also know that I am shovelling against the tide owing to the insufficiency of language. I won’t even start on the related topic of the rhetoric of truth.

Path Less Travelled

Some people seem to need to find meaning, yet they arrive from different experiences. These days, many insecure Western males appear to meet in a particular place that leaves them to make a decision. Of course, there is no decision because, in a Freudian-Jungian way, they arrive with issues and baggage. This dictates which path will be chosen—Andrew Tate or Jordan Peterson. Why not both?

This is not a commentary on a lack of free will, though that may come into play. It’s more a general lack of degrees of freedom when one arrives from such a place and has these two characters (caricatures?) as options for role models. In each case, overcompensation is evident.

It’s a slow news day and I’ve been otherwise occupied. I don’t have much to add, but I felt sharing this meme would fill space and time.

Onward to more substantial fare.

Austrian Economics Bollox

A citizen of the Internet shared this as if were gospel along with this comment:

Late Professor Steven Horwitz expanding on a Misesian theme. Monetary profit helps allocate resources to higher valued uses. Elsewhere, Mises spoke of profit in a broader sense, “profit” being the goal of every action. In any case, those familiar with what pundits (from the left mostly) tend to say about “profit” may be completely surprised by this take, since it is so contrary to what they often read and hear.

Of course, these are vapid words and wishful thinking. How and why do profits signal that value has been created? I dunno. They just do cuz I said so. The only thing that profits signal is a market that doesn’t understand the true cost of production and consumers can’t be bothered to do it themselves. Mattresses and shaving razor blades are two high-margin consumer goods with mattresses yielding 500 per cent profits and razor blades even higher. These profits represent economic rent and not value. The fact that imperfect information shrouds this excess does not make it ‘value’.

Regarding the mortgage market meltdown of 2007-08, there were houses being built into a market with no buyers. The same ‘value’ being created was demonstrably vapour. Say’s Law was off-target again. Supply does not create its own demand.

Is it no wonder that so many Capitalists are also Protestant Christians who believe in Bible tales as well? Even worse are the Christians who are not Capitalists but are exploited by Capitalism the same way they are exploited by their religion. I guess once you’ve profiled the gullible, you might as well just keep exploiting them until there is nothing left to extract.

The Matter with Things: Chapter Ten Summary: What Is Truth?

In this first chapter of the second section of The Matter with Things, Iain McGilchrist asks, What is Truth? Section two has a different focus than the first, which was focused on foundation building. From here on in, he wants to build on this foundation.

Check out the table of contents for this series of summaries. Note that I have rendered my interstitial commentaries in grey boxes with red text, so the reader can skip over and just focus on the chapter summary.

At first, he establishes that each hemisphere ‘thinks’ it knows the true truth and has the best vantage on reality. He makes it clear that a short chapter will not do the topic of truth the justice he feels it deserves and notes that others have written books on the matter. He just wants to make a few points and clarify his position.

As we discovered in the first section, the left and right hemispheres perceive the world differently. The right hemisphere experiences the world as it is presented in a Gestalt manner. This is contrasted by the left hemisphere which views the world as a symbolic re-presentation. It’s not unfair to say that the right hemisphere experiences the world directly whilst the left hemisphere views a cache of the world.

In this chapter, McGilchrist (Iain) attempts to convince the reader that one side is more correct or correct more often than the other and so is more veridical. As he says, the left hemisphere ‘is a good servant but a poor master’. Of course, if we had a third hemisphere [sic], we might think it could mediate the other two, but then we’d need a fourth and a fifth, ad infinitum to act as the new arbiter.

Spoiler Alert: The right hemisphere wins the battle on truth pretty much hands down.

He wants to make it clear to the reader that he is no strict idealist. There is a reality ‘out there’ apart from mental processes that objectively exists even in the absence of a subject. Reality is not exclusively a projection of the brain.

His choice rather relies on the correspondence theory of truth, which is to say that the hemisphere that conveys perceptions more correspondent to our perceived reality would be more veridical.

Here, I challenge his reasoning on two accounts. In the first place,each hemisphere may operate better in one context versus another. In the second case, there may be a consequential factor, which again distils down to context. In risk management, there are notions of probability of failure and consequence of failure. For example, a failure to recognise the truth of a matter (we’ll use truth as a proxy for ‘fact’), may be inconsequential. If I am assessing the probability of a pipe bursting in a nuclear facility and the pipe is connected to a sink to deliver tap water, the consequence of this failure is practically insignificant. But if I am assessing the probability of a pipe containing radioactive materials, even if the probability of failure is low, the consequence of failure may be catastrophic.

Evolutionarily speaking, if you mistake a garden hose for a venomous snake, the consequence of failure is trivial. Turn the tables, and mistake a snake for a garden hose, the consequence may be fatal. I am not attempting to claim that one hemisphere interprets the low consequence scenario and the other interprets the high. I simply want to raise this nuance.

He makes the point that if we compare some known authentic object to a recollection, we want to retain the one that is more accurate.

I see a similar challenge. Hypothetically, let’s say I present a red disc and manipulate the hemispheres to activate only one at a time, asking to recall the object. If the left says it’s red and the right says it’s a disc, which is more correct? Again, I am not claiming that this is a real scenario, but if one side possesses facts unavailable to the other side, we’ve got a problem in making a truth claim.

To reiterate, the left hemisphere is more analogous to a photograph or a video account whereas the right hemisphere is to be in the place that is being photographed. The right hemisphere is duratively presenced whilst the left is re-presented. We move from a nominative form to a verbial form of representing reality. This leads him to ask if ‘truth’ is a thing or a process.

He shifts to a linguistic argument. When people view ‘truth’ as a noun, as a thing, the expectation is that it is static. Moreover, the descriptors of truth are rendered mainly in the past tense—representation, fact, perfect, precise, certain, and concluded. He provides definitions. When viewed duratively, ‘truth’ becomes a process. It is an active relationship. It flows. It’s an intercourse.

We may not ever get to an agreed truth, but neither is every position valid. Interpreting a text, for example, may have several conflicting meanings, but the possible meanings are relatively finite.

Take a simple sentence such as, “The dog bit the hand that feeds him.” This could be meant literally or figuratively. We might imagine different dogs, hands and person to whom the hand is attached. Perhaps the hand is attached to a bonobo. Perhaps, it’s a robotic hand. These are among various possible interpretations, and we may not ever agree on the truth of the matter. However, we can rule out that a giraffe or a watermelon were central to this narrative for what it’s worth.

The bookgoes on to discuss the etymology of the word ‘truth’ and of its relationship to the word ‘true’ (faithful) which is further related to ‘trust’. I won’t exhaust his explanation.

He does discuss correspondence and coherence theories of truth and discounts others such as consensus theory and social constructivism. He cautions not to equate truth with correctness. This is a left hemisphere game insisting on dichotomising things.

The book declares the despite a general agreement on the source or nature of truth, there is something there, so don’t give up un it. In the end, he seems to settle for a Pragmatistic version à la William James.

Personally, I feel he and others are over-invested in the nature of truth. And inflate its meaning over ‘fact’. To me, Capital-T Truth is an archetype, but it doesn’t otherwise exist. We have facts, and truth is sort of a perfect version of a fact. Love is in the same category, though I know Iain would disagree with this assertion. Of course, James dismissed semantic argument as petty and insisted that people simply know the truth of something. I’ve always found this take to be dismissive. I also feel that Pragmatism is too steeped in Empiricism and loses hold of the notion that what happened yesterday may not in fact manifest today or not in the same way.

I’ll also argue as others have before me that (besides being archetypal) the term is a redundant filler word. On a minuscule level, if I say ‘The cup is red’, saying ,’It’s true that the cup is red adds nothing’. The equation was already asserted. This leaves one to wonder what the purpose of it is.

Returnng to the asymmetry of the hemispheres he cautions up not to take a position that one of the other side is correct. Rather, even though there is an asymmetry in value, there is still a synthesis.

Iain uses the example of Newtonian and Einsteinian physics. At one point, they are practically synonymous and interchangeable. Only as we reach the speed of light does Newtonian physic exceed the bounds of its scope. He also educated the reader on the difference between precision and accuracy.

I like to view this in a musical context. If I play two notes together, say a B over an E, neither is more correct than the other. Notionally, I am playing an E5/B. This is neither an E or a B. The chord is the result of the two playing simultaneously. In this case E and B are both true and not true because the E5 is a synthesis. If I add a G# I get an E-major chord, subsequently adding a D renders an E7. In each of these cases, the truth of the notes, B, D, E, and G# remain true to their identity, but the fact is that the individuality is subsumed by the collective. This is the prevailing truth even though a person with perfect pitch can still individually identify the constituents of the chord. I don’t know if this is more confusion than necessary, but it helps me.

I’ve always like this illustration with target grouping, but this was not referenced by the book.

Image: Precision and Accuracy Chart

Interestingly, he cites Jay Zwicky’s definition: “Truth is the asymptotic limit of sensitive attempts to be responsible to our actual experience of the world … ‘sensitive attempts to be responsible’ means truth is the result of attention. (As opposed to inspection.) Of looking informed by love. Of really looking.” He accedes that there are degrees of truth.

Truth is the asymptotic limit of sensitive attempts to be responsible to our actual experience of the world

Jay Zwicky

This asymptosis is how I describe Truth in my Truth about Truth post.

As the chapter comes to a close, he leaves us with a twisted categorical syllogism,

  • [p1] All monkeys climb trees
  • [p2] The porcupine in a monkey
  • [ c ] The porcupine climes trees

This structure presents a valid argument. However, it is not sound. It follows the Socratic logical syntax:

  • [p1] M a P
  • [p2] S a M
  • [ c [ S a P

Because of our exposure to and experience with the external world, we can assess this argument to be unsound, which is to say untrue by observation. Without this context, we could not render this assessment. He discusses the way right- and left-hemisphere occluded subjects respond to this discrepancy. In summary, an isolated left hemisphere with defend the logical syntax over the lived experience.

In conclusion, the hemispheres take different paths to assess truth and often end up at different destinations. The left hemisphere sees truth as a thing whilst the right views it as a process.

Unwitting Carnivores?

Children are ethically indisposed to think it’s wrong to eat animals. This article from the Journal of Environmental Psychology published a year ago looks into the schism and cognitive dissonance assuaging mechanisms in play.

This study relied on a small sample size (n=176), between the ages of 4 and 7 years living in a metropolitan area located in the southeastern region of the United States. The sample was otherwise diverse.

As this study was limited in geographic scope (see WIERD on a tangential note), it noted that eating habits vary by culture. For example, eating horse (or dog) meat is not condoned in the United States, but it is acceptable in many other places.

In summary, the childer were shown cards each with a picture of an item, whether a French fry, a horse, a cat, a fish, a tomato, and so on. At the start, they were asked to identify the item represented on the card. Next, they were asked to put the card into one of two bins, each decorated to approximate an animal or vegetation. Finally, they were asked to sort the cards into two areas, one represented by false teeth indicating edible products and a rubbish bin representing inedible items.

The subjects did a fair job of identifying the card items. They had very high image recognition of these particular animals. On the lower end of recognition were hamburger (ground beef patty), almonds, and shrimp. There was a difference between the older children and the younger children, but this may relate to the added acculturation their age would bring.

Without delving deeply into details, in this study, most 6- and 7-year-olds classified chicken, cows, and pigs as not OK to eat. The interesting cognitive trick is that these children also classified these derivative food items as non-animals thus removing the cognitive dissonance. No longer classified as an animal, their ethical framework remained internally coherent.

In discussing the results, many children were ill-informed about the source of various food products. Language games obscured the source. No one should eat a cow, but beef is fine—a hamburger is fine. Hot dogs grow on trees, don’t they?

This reminds me of the story wherein a chicken and a pig are conversing, and the chicken suggests that it and the pig go into the restaurant business. The pig considers the proposition and declines by the rationale that it would be committed but the chicken would only be involved. Children may believe that hot dogs are a by-product like eggs, fur, or feathers—don’t get me started on the down used in pillows, jackets, and comforters—rather than grasping that the animals yield these products at the expense of their lives.

Some people grow up and realise the inconsistency of their ethics and actions, but they find any number of ways to reconcile their actions, noting that the activity is normal and natural.

FULL: DISCLOSURE: For the record, I eat chicken, turkey (on festive holidays in lieu of chicken), and I eat beef (that’s cows, for the uninformed). I also consume some animal byproducts, i.e., chicken eggs and cheese. I also wear leather. I was a vegetarian for about three years until I opted to become a chickenatarian. My life partners goaded me into eating beef, and so I’ve since added that. In all cases, I feel bad for eating defenceless, sentient beings. I’m not sure it serves as any consolation that I limit my consumption to these three animals—or even if it were only one. For the record, I don’t particularly like the taste of turkey or beef, but it’s not offensive like pork, coffee, or alcohol. Chicken, I like. Sorry chickens.

Video: Homer Simpson’s (not so) ethical dilemma

For the record, this is post number 500 on Philosophics. Perhaps I should write a post about it.

John Vervaeke and Lex Fridman on the Meaning Crisis

jimoeba mentioned that he enjoyed an interview with Vervake and Fridman in a comment, so I thought I’d give it a listen. It turns out there are several including a 3-plus-hour version. Arbitrarily, I chose this one. Even if it’s not the particular interview on the meaning crisis, it gives me a sense of the two and their dynamics. I’m glad I listened to it. I like Vervaeke. I can’t say I’m much of a Fridman fan on first listen.

John Vervaeke and Lex Fridman interview: Human civilisation is facing a meaning crisis

This interview content provides an orientation of where Vervaeke is coming from. It helps to clarify his position. His claim seems to be that many people today identify as having no religion but being spiritual. By extension, he posits that this cohort is searching for meaning. I can’t disagree. What it tells me is that I am not in his target demographic. I have no religion, as I am an atheist. I have no spiritual void to fill. This is Vervaeke’s goal—to find something to perform the function of the religion without the, perhaps, baggage and dogma.

I sympathise with his goal. He brings up Nietzsche’s “God is dead” quote, famous or infamous depending on your worldview. Essentially, he wants to answer Nietzsche’s query of what to do now that it’s been revealed that humans created God, not the other way around. His aim is to replace the font of wisdom for this generation.

For me, wisdom is a heuristic, part of the Gestalt McGilchrist mentions. McGilchrist’s work is even referenced here. Of course, I interpret McGilchrist’s references in this space to be metaphorical. It seems that he views it as ‘real’. I’m not sure where Vervaeke places it. Somehow, I feel that if there is a spectrum, Vervaeke leans closer to McGilchrist than me, and that’s OK. They just happen to be wrong.

I still don’t get the need for meaning. I don’t feel despondent that there is no inherent meaning in anything, but we are free to invite or adopt one or many. I remember a Christian mate of mine who explained that people have a God-sized hole that can only be filled by God. Essentially, Vervaeke is making a similar claim, but his void is filled by wisdom. I suppose that I don’t feel I have a void doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

Weird, That

I’m not a fan of psychology as a discipline, so this WEIRD phenomenon comes as no surprise. In fact, it’s not even that new. If memory serves, I think I first stumbled upon the notion from Jonathan Haidt.

WEIRD—Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic.

WEIRD is the bias underpinning most university psychology studies—the ones that make the best memes and we tend to recite. The problem is that a vast majority of psych subjects are WEIRD—Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic. There is a marked selection bias, so the composition tends to be gullible first-year psych students. As even a neophyte in statistical methods will tell you that random samples are a key ingredient of a decent social study, and a broad demographic base is another.

But, “So what?”, you say. The problem is that these students are not only not a good representational cross-section, they’re actually outliers, which is to say statistically nothing like the average world citizen. So whilst these studies do reveal certain psychological propensities, they are of this subgroup.

Common sense is not so common

— Voltaire

By extension, this means, as per Voltaire’s quip about common sense, if you have been taught that a person behaves like this, you should immediately flip that on its head and presume that the ordination non-WEIRDo would behave contrariwise.

The bigger problem is that the US having only five per cent of the global population has the tendency to be jingoistic and wants to impose its worldview on the rest, but it often if not almost always doesn’t realise that the world is not like them and doesn’t necessarily want to be like them. Moreover, Americans tend to believe they are better and better off than the rest of the world. of course, through their own lens, perhaps they are, but this is a minority lens with a minority view. People in the US don’t tend to get out much, and when they do it’s as tourists like visiting a zoo rather than trying to acculturate, so most world travelling doesn’t realise the opportunity it otherwise might have.

Deconstructing WIERD, the Western portion is beyond obvious. This would remain a factor even if studies weren’t restricted to undergrads. Educated is a bit of an odd one. Who knows how many student progress beyond their first year? But they are industrialised. I’d argue perhaps postindustralised. Rich is an interesting notion I’ll come back to in a moment, and their democracy is in name only, though I know where they are coming from.

Returning to Rich, the mean income of a family in the US in 2021 was $97,962. The median was $69,717. Statistically, what this indicates is that there are a few high wage-earners skewing the figure from the median. This phenomenon is known all too well. Somehow, I feel this has a sort of halo or affiliation effect, similar to the feeling a city has when its sports team wins a championship. Even the poor people feel they are part of the prosperity that by and large spits on them and holds them down. These people are indoctrinated with this WEIRD pseudoscience.

I don’t have much more to say. I’ve been distracted and have been writing this since yesterday. Weird, that.

Search for Meaning

Ever since encountering Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning in my youth, I’ve pondered why people search for and indeed invent meaning. By meaning, I am speaking in terms of finding a higher purpose or some spiritual affinity rather than the meaning of why bad things happen, though there are undoubtedly some intersections of the concepts.

This lecture, Ep. 39 – Awakening from the Meaning Crisis – The Religion of No Religion, from a series by John Vervaeke was recommended to an associate in my social network by another trusted associate, and it’s got me going. I’ve long been a nihilist and existentialist. I am even partial to aspects of the philosophic framework of Zen Buddhism. But I’ve never felt there was some higher meaning or raison d’être that isn’t self-imposed. How else would it be imposed? A person may be indoctrinated, but in the end, ignorance is no excuse from self-imposition.

I guess I can’t quite understand what drives this search for meaning. As Vervaeke notes, even some noted atheists like Richard Dawkins have suggested that we should find a secular proxy for the religion—or the namesake religion of no religion. I understand the social function of religion as well as some psychological functions, but the disconnect for me is that I have no such drive. I am admittedly an introvert, so whilst I admit the need for social cohesion and coöperation, I don’t understand the fabrication of religions or the personal, not only belief in meaning, but a yearning for it and even a belief that one has found it.

some people don’t search for meaning so much as they feel they have discovered meaning, but when their discovered meaning doesn’t jibe with another’s discovered meaning, the result is a search to justify or reconcile this conflict

I am empathetic to people like Iain McGilchrist who asserts that there is exogenous meaning out there to be had. He’d probably also assert that asking for proof is a left-hemisphere cerebral request but that absent the imposition by the left hemisphere, one would just feel it and know it. I just can’t abide.

Vervaeke does touch on the postmodern critique of religion as a power play, which is how I feel about it, but this is about the social aspect and doesn’t touch on the personal search for meaning. What I can’t say is whether a person would have this drive to search for meaning if they were either absent socialisation or exposed only to people who are not going to suggest meaning. I understand that previous generations have shown this propensity, but are there cultures that don’t? And is there a common thread to those who do?

In the past, many cultures have asserted gods and higher powers (whether or not as a power play), but could this simply prompt the people to search for alternative meanings, perhaps having noticed the dissonance between certain dogma and their lived lives?

Interestingly, some people don’t search for meaning so much as they feel they have discovered meaning, but when their discovered meaning doesn’t jibe with another’s discovered meaning, the result is a search to justify or reconcile this conflict.

It’s late. Time to retire for the evening. I have none of these answers, but I will jot the questions down on my to-do list just above the search for meaning.

Retributive Injustice

I’ve already said that justice is a weasel word, but let’s pretend that it’s actually something more substantial and perhaps even real. I’ve spoken on the notion of blame as well. I have been thinking about how untenable retributive justice is and it seems to include restorative justice, too. But let’s focus on the retributive variety for now.

In short, retributive justice is getting the punishment one deserves, and I think desert is the weak link. Without even delving into causa sui territory, I feel there are two possible deserving parties. The agent and society. Let’s regard these in turn.

The Agent

An agent, or more specifically moral agents, are entities that can be deemed responsible for their actions on moral grounds. Typically, moral agency assumes that an agent, an actor, is fully aware of the cultural rules of a given society, whether norms or legislated. Under this rationale, we tend to exclude inanimate objects with no agency, non-human life forms, children, and persons with diminished cognitive faculties. In some cases, this diminution may have been self-imposed as in the case of chemically induced impairment, for example by drugs or alcohol. We might consider these entities as being broken. In any case, they do not qualify as having agency. An otherwise moral agent until duress or coercion may no longer be expected to retain agency.

Unless an informed and unimpaired agent commits an act with intent … there can be no moral desert

Unless an informed and unimpaired agent commits an act with intent, another weasely word in its own right, there can be no moral desert. But let’s hold this thought for a bit and turn our attention to society.

Society

For the purposes of this commentary, society is a group of like-minded persons who have created norms, customs, laws, and regulations. In most cases, people come into societies whose structure is already formed, and they need to acculturate and adapt, as changing the fabric of society generally takes time. Even in the case of warfare where a society is subsumed, cultural norms will persist for at least a time.

Whilst it is incumbent for a person to become aware of the rules of engagement and interaction with a society, this is reciprocally a responsibility of society to impart its norms through signalling and performance as well as through more formal training, such as public fora, schools, and activities. Even media and entertainment can serve to reinforce this function.

So What?

I argue that retributive justice is bullshit (to employ technical language) is because if an informed and unimpaired agent does violate some standard or protocol, the society is at least partially to blame—perhaps fully so. Again, if the person is not unimpaired, a pivotal question might be why is s/he uninformed? If the person has the information but ignores it, to what extent is the person impaired and what responsibility does society have for being unaware?

Special Case?

What if a particularly predacious person from Society A infiltrates Society B? Is the person broken or is Society A responsible to creating a person that would prey on some other unsuspecting society? Again, the person is never entirely responsible unless s/he is broke, in which case, s/he is exempt and not morally responsible.

When Then?

As I’ve said before, a person who commits an act against the interest of a society may be quarantined or perhaps exiled or shunned as some cultures practice, but these are meant to preserve the cohesion of the society and not meant to exact a point of flesh in retribution.

In the end, I just don’t see a use case where retribution would fall upon a single actor. If some transgression is made, how then do we ensure society pays its dues as well? In my mind, society is more apt to fail the individual than the other way around, but maybe that’s just me and my world.

What am I missing here?

The Matter with Things: Chapter Twenty Summary: The coincidentia oppositorum

I have a confession to make. I finished reading the first volume of The Matter with Things about a month ago, and I took a break from reading more of it. I finally got around to continuing, and I read chapter twenty. When I got to the end and turned to the next chapter—chapter twenty-one—, it dawned on me that volume I ended at chapter nine. I had inadvertently skipped volume II and began volume III. Oopsie. I’m lucky it wasn’t a novel, having skipped ten chapters.

Since I’ve read it, I might as well summarise it, Spoiler alert: there are no spoilers to alert. As this chapter is more about exposition and colour, this summary will be much shorter than the summaries of the first volume. I don’t know if this will be a continuing trend. We’ll find out together.

This chapter is labelled the coincidentia oppositorum, the coincidence of opposites. Effectively, the chapter wants to impart three main points.

Symmetry

Firstly, asymmetry is the norm. Symmetry is the exception. We perceive things in opposites. This brings attention to bear. Line straight lines, symmetry does not exist in nature. It is something the left hemisphere perspective approximates. No face is symmetrical; planets are not symmetrical. In fact, if one manipulates an image of a face and mirrors one side as both to appear as a face, it becomes obvious that something is amiss.

Excess

The Ancient Greeks had a penchant for moderation. Buddhists have the Middle Path. Everything is poisonous in large enough quantities. Even poisons can be therapeutic at low doses. The point is to retain this perspective.

To be or not to be…or both

This is not about Schrodinger’s cat. We need to break ourselves of the habit of thinking in opposites. Not everything is a dichotomy—black and white. Some things are black and white—and not just a draughts board. McGilchrist opens the chapter with a nice Iriqois about two brothers who were seeming opposites but were nonetheless necessary. In a manner, this is the good versus evil story. Opposition strengthens us. Trees raised in a windless environment don’t have the strength of natural-grown trees.

This story is encapsulated in a story told by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

A faithful man finds in the scriptures that Rabbi X said that a certain thing was true. Later he finds that Rabbi Y said that the very same thing was false. He prays for guidance: ‘Who is right?’ God answers: ‘Both of them are right.’ Perplexed, the man replies: ‘But what do you mean? Surely they can’t both be right?’ To which God replies: ‘All three of you are right.’

In the chapter summary, McGlichrists ends with this:

Just as there is an asymmetry in the relationship of the hemispheres, there is an asymmetry in the coincidentia oppositorum. We need not just difference and union but the union of the two; we need, as I have urged, not just non-duality, but the non-duality of duality with non-duality; and we need not just asymmetry alone, or symmetry alone, but the asymmetry that is symmetry-and-asymmetry taken together.

Summary

As I mentioned at the start, this is a short summary. I really enjoyed this chapter and its lessons. It’s nice to be reminded of such things. This extends to the asymmetry of the hemispheres of the brain. As much as I don’t appreciate the imbalance of the left hemisphere in Modernity, I need to be reminded that we just need to tweak the dial a tab to the right. We don’t need the right hemisphere operating at eleven, to share a reference to Spinal Tap.