This is not a discourse on the English spoken by those from the subcontinent. Rather, it’s just a short and simple observation. Perhaps, someday I’ll post something on the phonetics that makes Indians sound like Indians instead of native western English speakers, but not today.
I’ve recently taken a new job and all of my more junior team members are what’s known as off-shore. The two more senior team members are Indian by birth but live in the United States. We have daily ‘stand-up’ calls where no one really stands up, but each team member summarises how their day went and what they plan to do tomorrow. They are at the end of their day as commence mine. If there is anything impeding them from their plan, we have time to remove the impediment.
I’ve worked with Indians for years. In fact, as an Economics student in the 1980s, many of my classmates were Indian. But until now, I didn’t notice a certain phraseology that makes them sound unnatural to my ear. I am not claiming that my way is right or their way is wrong. I’m just noting the difference.
These team members routinely mention the name of the person to whom they are speaking.
Yes, I will do that, name.
I understand, name.
No, name, that’s not what I meant.
And other such constructions. A native speaker will not generally insert the name.
Full disclosure, this could rather be cultural deference as these people are junior and speaking to someone in a manager role, so perhaps it’s less their English speaking but rather a cultural injection. I haven’t heard them cross-talk with each other enough to gather if this name-ness is dropped with peers.
It could well be that their English is overly formal like the French I studied in school but that no one actually speaks. It is overly formal and stilted. Natives can always tell that you’re school-taught and haven’t been exposed to French in the wild. As I mentioned already, it may be cultural etiquette or simply perceived etiquette. If someone knows or has an opinion, I’d like to hear it—especially if you are a native Indian speaker of English.
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 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
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
The link between language and cognition is interesting though not entirely grasped.
“I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse.”
― Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (probably not, but whatevs…)
In the West, we tend to be quite self-centric. We are the centres of our universes, and this has several implications. Firstly, we orient conversation around ourselves; occasionally, we orient conversation around others. Instead, some cultures orient themselves around their world.
Self as Centre
Ordinarily, if a Westerner is asked which is their dominant hand, they might answer left or right. If they are asked to describe where something is spatially, one might answer on my left or right or above or below me. If the person asking is present, they may simply point to the object as a gesture.
Other as Centre
In some cases, we might feel it necessary to orient relative to another? The answer to the question, “Where is the book?” might be, “On your left”, or “You’ve got something on your left cheek”.
Terrain as Centre
In the West, we have notions of cardinal directions—North, East, West, and South—, but we still tend to orient communication around ourselves or others. In some regions, the use of cardinal directions is more prominent than in others. For example, when I am in Boston, I didn’t find many people reference places by cardinal directions, but when I am in Los Angeles, much conversation is relative to head north or head east. I notice that Google Maps tend to employ this. It’s often confusing when I am in an unfamiliar place, and the voice instructs me to travel west toward Avenue X. If I happen to have remembered where Avenue X is, I might internally orient toward that. Otherwise, I head in some direction until Google reinforces my choice or it rather recalculates based on my bad choice, if even nonjudgmentally.
In some cultures, this cardinality includes the body, so in comparison with the aforementioned self-as-centre dominant hand query, the response would depend on which way the subject was facing. Were they a southpaw (lefthander) facing north, they would respond that their west hand is dominant. But if they were facing south, it would be their east hand. This may seem to be confusing to a Westerner, but to a native, they would explicitly understand because they would be intimately oriented. As Lera relates in the video, someone might point out an ant crawling on your southwest leg.
To be fair, this space is not entirely alien to some Westerners. For example, mariners can shift the conversation from themselves to their ship or boat. Rather than left and right, relative to themselves or another, they might refer to port and starboard relative to the vessel. Being on the vessel and facing front (the bow), left is port and starboard is right; however, facing the rear (the stern), left is not starboard and right is now port. So, if someone asks where the lifeboat is, landlubbers may say it’s on their left whilst a sailor might say it’s on the starboard side.
Time is another aspect we centre on ourselves. I won’t even endeavour to raise the circular notion of time. If an English speaker thinks about a timeline, we would likely configure it from left to right equating with past to future. This aligns with our writing preference. For native Arabic or Hebrew speakers, they might naturally opt to convey this from right to left in accordance with their preferred writing system.
For the Aboriginal Kuuk Thaayorre in Australia, their rendition of time was contingent on their orientation in the world. Essentially, time flows from east to west, perhaps in accordance with the apparent movement of the sun across the sky relative to Earth. Facing south or north, they rendered time left to right and right to left, respectively. When they faced east, time came toward the subject, with time moving away from the body when facing west.
So-called modern or advanced societies have developed number systems, but some cultures either have no counting or limited counting, having systems that might extend 1, 2, many, or 1, 2, 3, many. This means that tasks we learn like accounting, inventory management, or comparing counts of apples and oranges are not only not available to these people, they are irrelevant to them.
Lera tells us about the blues. Not B.B. King Blues, but the categorisation of blue, blues, and colours more generally. I’ve discussed this before in various places. As with numbers, some languages have a lot and some have few; some have only distinctions for light and dark, or equivalents of white, black, red, and so on. Colour names are typically added to a language in a similar order based on the frequency within the visual colour spectrum. I may have written about that earlier as well if only I could find it.
Different cultures and languages categorise colours differently, subdividing them differently. In many non-English languages, pink is simply light red. English opts to assign it a unique label. On the other hand, blue is basically one colour name in English whilst it is further broken down in Russian to goluboi (light blue, голубой) and siniy (darker blue, синий). This mirrors the pattern of pink (lighter red) and red (darker red) in English, a distinction not prevalent in other languages. Of course, we also have variations of reds and blues such as crimson or cyan, but this is rather second-order nuance.
Interestingly, in neurological studies, when measuring a person with a language that splits a colour, say a Russian looking at blues, the instruments capture the event of the subject having noticed the category shift. No such shift occurs in speakers without such a switch. I would be interested to know what the results would be for a bilingual speaker to be asked to respond in each language. Informally, I asked a Russian mate of mine if he experienced anything differently seeing blue whilst thinking in Russian versus English. He said yes, but couldn’t really provide any additional information. If a reader happens to be fluent in two or more languages, I’d be interested in hearing about your experiences.
One last note on colour, I’ve read studies that claim that women on balance have more colour names than men, which is to say where a typical male only sees shades of blue, the typical woman sees periwinkle, ultramarine, cyan, navy, cobalt, indigo, cerulean, teal, slate, sapphire, turquoise, and on and on. Of course, many English-speaking males may be defensive about now, arguing, “I know cyan. I know teal. Who doesn’t know turquoise?” Knowing is different to employing, and perhaps you’re not typical. You’re an atypical male. Let’s not get into gender challenges. Rather, let’s.
Yet again, gender rears its ugly head. I am wondering when people are going to start demanding fluidity among gendered nouns. Sticking with Lera’s examples, a bridge happens to be grammatically feminine in Germans and masculine in Spanish. When asked to describe a bridge, German speakers are more apt to choose stereotypically feminine adjectives, beautiful or elegant whilst Spanish speakers opted for stereotypically masculine terms, strong or long. I suppose she was reaching for laughter on that last reference.
Objects and subjective injection are other possible conventions. Lera mentions a tourist bumping into a vase. In English, one would be comfortable declaring, “The man knocked the vase off the pedestal.” In Spanish, the same event might more often be described as “The vase fell off the pedestal”. Notice the shift in agency and dispersion of blame. In English, we have some apparent need to inject not only a cause but an agent as a source of the cause. As I see it, one might have these several (possibly inexhaustive) options:
He knocked the vase off the stand.
Someone knocked the vase off the stand.
The vase got knocked off the stand.
The vase fell off the stand.
I decided to note the relationship between the case and the stand. I suppose this is not strictly necessary and might seem superfluous in some contexts.
In case 1, a specific agent (he) is responsible for knocking off the vase. This does not suggest intent, though even negligence carries weight in many circles.
In case 2, the agent becomes indefinite. The speaker wants to specify that the vase didn’t just fall over on its own.
In case 3, agency is not only indefinite, but it also may not have a subject. Perhaps, a cat knocked it off—or the wind or an earth tremor.
In the final case, 4, the agent is removed from the conversation altogether, All that is conveyed is that the vase fell from a stand.
One might want to argue, “So what?” but this is not simply a convention of language; it stems from perception—or perhaps perception was altered by language through acculturation, but let’s not quibble here. It determines what someone pays attention to. When an event was witnessed, people from cultures where agency is a strong component, the witness is more apt to remember the culprit, whereas a non-agency-focused witness, would not be as likely to recall attributes about the person who may have knocked it over. Practically, this leads to issues of blame and culpability. Clearly, a culture with an agent orientation might be quicker to assess blame, where this would be further removed from the conversation from a different cultural perspective. I am speculating here, but I don’t feel it’s a large logical leap.
In a retributive justice system, the language that assigns agency is more likely to mete out harsher punishments because he broke the vase, it wasn’t simply broken. The use of language guides our reasoning. This leads me to wonder whether those who are ‘tough on crime‘ use different language construction than those who are more lenient.
I just wanted to share my thoughts and connect language with cognition. I don’t think that the connection is necessarily strong or profound, but there is something, and there are more language nuances than noted here.
In the spirit of full disclosure and to set the stage, I’m an atheist and can’t remember being otherwise. I’ve discussed this here before at length. Iain McGilchrist is not.
Religion is the topic of chapter nine of The Master and His Emissary. I understand what the author is saying, and I think a question I have about a fundamental issue is coming to head. Although I’ve spoken at greater length before, I’ll recapitulate here.
An assertion of McGilchrist’s is that we should judge the hemispheres by how well each corresponds to the truth of reality. He goes on to tell us that the left hemisphere is the controller of words, so we shouldn’t get hung up on the word truth and the definition that pales relative to the intuition of truth. I have an issue with this, but I’ll return to it in a moment.
As I’ve stated countless times by now, the left cerebral hemisphere is convergent and closing whilst the right is divergent and expansive. The left is intellect whilst the right is intuition. The left is categorisation, naming, and re-presentation whilst the right is Gestalt and presentation. The left is literal whereas the right is metaphorical. I’ll return to this presently.
Before touching on religion, I’ll articulate my challenge. He makes an unsubstantiated assertion that we can’t build a whole from a sum of parts. Instead, we need to accept the whole as presented as is, and realise that we may not be able to fully account for all of the parts. Just trust our intuition of the experience.
My contention here is that neither is quite right. Whilst the left hemisphere has the possibility of leaving things out, the right hemisphere has the possibility of adding irrelevant or otherwise injected content. In the case of religion, this would be along the lines of inserting a god of the gaps. I’ll come back to this.
All religions are not created equal. McGilchrist argues that Catholicism is a right-hemisphere religion whilst Protestantism, in particular Lutherans, operates from the left hemisphere. He even cites Max Weber’s writings noting the connexion between Protestantism and Capitalism. Despite being raised in an area with seventy-odd per cent Roman Catholics, I don’t know enough about Catholicism to critique that part of his assertion, but I agree with his statement on Protestants. As for my intuition, I’d say that all of the rote ritualism is a left-hemisphere function, but I’m not sure.
As he continues his argumentation he makes a case that religion needs to be taken metaphorically and cannot be deconstructed. This is to lose the proverbial woods for the trees. Of course, this is not only precisely what the left hemisphere does it’s also what the Protestant reformation did and Protestantism continues to do today. Like Capitalism, the focus is on the individual. For Catholics, it’s communal. Although he doesn’t cite Calvanlism and the ideal of work, the result is the same. Hard work yields a preternatural payoff.
I have no problem with metaphor, whether in speech, writing, art, or music. I’ve been a musician and dabbled in art. Much of my favourite fiction is metaphorical, and I don’t need to dissect it any of these to enjoy the experience.
I am even willing to grant that religion can be experienced metaphorically. I have no quarrel here. Where his argument tends to lose ground is when it becomes prescriptive and systematised. Again, I am no expert on Catholicism, but I have attended Catholic church ceremonies. I even got ejected from CCD classes I had attended with a mate when I was eight or nine years old—not a great way to win hearts and minds.
When I lived in West Los Angeles—Palms to be exact—, my apartment was across the street from an Anglican church. Down the road, there was a Hare Krishna ashram—very diverse. I poked my nose into each. In fact, the Anglican church was my designated voting location, so I visited there on that occasion periodically. The spectacle of the smoke of frankincense and myrrh billowing out and wafting up is still a pleasant recollection. Frankly, I hadn’t thought of it in years, but writing about it returned the memories. Of course, the ashram had its own incense; only it was nag champa.
Some self-professed ‘spiritual’ people I have encountered, love the spectacle of a Catholic ceremony. There are candles, rituals, chanting, kneeling, chorals, and incantations. I can see how these can be taken metaphorically, but it’s also rote. But that’s not where my difficulty lay.
My problem is not that religion can’t be interpreted metaphorically. In fact, I can’t agree more. My problem is that this metaphor further aligns to God or to gods. But wait. I know what you’re thinking. Those are just metaphors, too. And I agree. The problem isn’t that I don’t grant or understand that. It’s that the parishioners don’t. They think there is an old bearded man in the clouds issuing commandments and listening for their prayers. And if you don’t toe the line and play nice, your eternal life prospects don’t look good.
He does argue that this fire and brimstone are artefacts of the Protestants, but this is what I see depicted in films and books. Obviously, the Southen Baptist preacher at the pulpit shrieking sermons is Protestant fare. On the other hand, Catholics have demons to exorcise and rosary beads and confession. I can see that these are metaphorical. Perhaps he’s right. I don’t know if Catholics have the equivalent of eternal hell. They do have—or did have—a purgatory. Do they have a decalogue. As far as I know, they do. Perhaps he was just speaking in relative terms—that Catholic tradition is just more right-hemisphere-oriented than Protestantism.
If this is the extent of his claim, we agree, but he goes further and invokes the divine. Yet again, I can accept this as a metaphor, but I feel he means it to be taken more literally. In any case, the followers seem to tend to.
This brings me back to God of the gaps. Metaphors are concepts or notions. I say this because, metaphors don’t, for example, answer prayers. The act of praying may be metaphorical—perhaps I could equate it to singing or meditation—, but no physical action is expected in return. With singing, the effect may be a connexion or an emotion. The music is aiming to lift spirits or make one reflective or sad—perhaps add tension in a suspense movie. With meditation—guided meditation notwithstanding—, the idea is to let go and forego attachment. What do your suspect we are letting go of? What are we detaching from? The fetters of the left hemisphere—the bastion of judgment.
Prayer is different. On one hand, there is the metaphorical aspect of compassion and sharing, But it doesn’t end there. Susie has surgery and we pray for her recovery. Metaphorically, a believer may feel consoled by compassion. Even Susie may feel better, which will lead to a more positive disposition that may lead to faster recovery and healing, even if by placebo effects. On the other hand, perhaps not. And then there’s distance healing where the recipient isn’t even aware of the prayers, but they are either brokered by God or simply permeate the fabric of the universe or Jung’s collective unconsciousness. This is where it goes off the rails.
So, when I am asked to accept religion metaphorically but am also asked to accept magical thinking as part of that equation, I’m just not on board. Sorry. It makes no sense and doesn’t even feel intuitively right.
Call me a cynic, but for me, religion is about power. Perhaps at one time, the religious experience was a feeling, but all evidence points to this being almost immediately exploited by the priest classes and then by Government and other nefarious actors. Some countries are worse than others, but that’s no consolation.
In the end, I get the religion-metaphor connexion, and I trust that Iain is not so naive to see the Foucauldian power-control angle. Besides, if culture is shifting to the left hemisphere and can’t interpret metaphors very well—something experience demonstrates—, so I’m not sure the defence holds as much water as he wants it to.
Most people have heard the term schizophrenia. It’s a mental health pathology wherein people interpret reality abnormally. To oversimplify to make a point, in a ‘normal’ brain, the left and right hemispheres operate together to regulate bodily functions and to interpret the world we live in. In brief, schizophrenia is a condition where the left cerebral hemisphere overly dominates the right. Some might be led to believe that schizophrenics interpret reality irrationally, but the opposite is true. Schizophrenics are hyperrational to a fault.
Schizophrenia has been on the rise this past half century or so, but this might just be a symptom of Modernity, as cultures are also experiencing a leftward shift—a shift toward hyperrationality. Cultures have swung like a pendulum from left-hemisphere-dominance to right dominance and back through the ages, but we may be seeing an uncorrected swing further and further to the left, led by science, followed by commerce and politics, dangerously close to the territory of schizophrenia, if not already occupying this territory. Allow me to briefly summarise how the hemisphere function to help the reader understand what it means to be too far left or right.
Cerebral Bilateral Hemispheres
Most people experience the world—what some otherwise known as reality—with both cerebral hemispheres, and each hemisphere has a function. In a nutshell, the right hemisphere experiences reality holistically, which is to say that it views the world through a Gestalt lens. The right hemisphere is open and divergent. It is creative—generative. It knows no categories or subdivisions. All is one and connected. I like to refer to this as Zen. Many people can relate to this Zen notion. The right hemisphere is a creative and empathetic centre that only knows the world as it is presented—without words or naming. Intuition lives here. It distinguishes differences in the world in a manner similar to that of a preverbal child who can tell mum from a bowl of porridge without knowing the word for either. Children are right hemisphere creatures. As we mature toward adulthood, the function of the left hemisphere increases to offset the dominance of the right.
The left hemisphere is the sphere of intellect. Its function is to categorise, to create symbols—words, names, labels, icons, and so on. It doesn’t know how to create, intuit, or empathise. In fact, it doesn’t even experience the world as presented; it relies on re-presentation. To borrow from a computer analogy, when it experiences something in the world, it caches a symbol. Where the right hemisphere experiences a tree and just appreciates its ‘treeness’, and it doesn’t know that it’s a tree by name. It’s just another thing in the world. The left hemisphere, on the other hand, notices these things with ‘treeness’ and categorises them as trees—or des arbres, árboles, Bäume, 木, درختان , पेड़, or whatever. And it reduces the tree to an icon, so it can file it away for later retrieval to compare with other tree-like inputs.
The left hemisphere is where difference, the sense of self, and ego come from. Where the right hemisphere is open and divergent, the left hemisphere is closed and convergent. It is particularly egotistical, stubborn, and always thinks it’s right if I can anthropomorphise analogically. The left hemisphere knows no nuance, and it doesn’t recognise connotation, metaphor, allegory, or allusion. Everything is literal.
The left hemisphere can use similes and understand that a man is like a tiger, but it takes the right hemisphere to know that a man is a tiger, has metaphorically embodied the tiger and assumed its form, say in the manner of indigenous Americans. Poetically, there is a difference between being a tiger and being like a tiger. The left will have none of this. The response to hearing ‘he was a tiger’ would either result in ‘no he isn’t, he’s a human’ or ‘someone must be talking about a male tiger’. The nuance would be lost.
At the risk of further digression, this is why a poem can’t be dissected for meaning—this despite so many valiant attempts by high school teachers and undergraduate professors. Dissecting a living poem is like dissecting a living animal. You might learn something, but at the risk of devitalisation—you’ve killed the subject. It’s like having to explain a joke. If you have to explain it, it didn’t work. You can’t explain a work of art or a piece of music. The best you can do is to describe it. Although we’re likely familiar with the adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words”, a thousand words is not enough to do more than summarise a picture. This sentiment is captured by Oscar Wilde when he wrote, “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” Education is a left-brain function, that can be stuffed like a sausage, but no amount of education can make someone feel a work of art, music, or poetry. This can only be experienced and is apart from language.
A Tree is not a Tree
As already noted, schizophrenics are hyperrational. They are devoid of the empathy and intuition afforded by the right hemisphere. So, they fail to connect the parts to a constructed whole. They presume that a whole is constructed of parts. This is the mistake of Dr Frankenstein, that he could construct a man from parts, but all he could manage is to construct a monster.
In the experienced world, there are only whole objects as experienced by the right hemisphere. As humans, we break them down for easier storage and retrieval, but this is like lossy compression if I can risk losing some in technical lingo.
But a tree is not built from parts. It’s just a tree. We can articulate that a tree has a trunk and roots and branches and leaves and seeds and blooms, but it’s just a tree. The rest we impose on it with artificially constructed symbol language. This is what post-modern painter Rene Magritte was communicating with the “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” inscription in his work The Treachery of Images—This is not a pipe. He was not being cute or edgy or trying to be clever. He was making the point that the symbol is not the object.
In the manner that the image is not the pipe, it’s been said that to document a system is to make an inferior copy. The documented system is less optimal. This may feel counterintuitive. In fact, you may even argue that a documented system allows subsequent process participants to plug into the system to allow it to continue to operate into perpetuity. Whilst this is true, it comes at a cost. I’ll leave this here for you to ponder. The right hemisphere understands the difference. The document is not the process.
Getting Down to Business
If you’ve been following along, you may have already noticed that the left hemisphere looks and sounds a lot like the business world. Everything is systematised, structured, and ordered. We have all sorts of symbols and jargon, processes, and procedures. Everything is literal. There is no room for metaphor. There is no room for empathy. HR instructs that there be empathy, but they might as well instruct everyone to speak Basque or Hopi. In fact, it’s worse because at least Basque and Hopi can be learnt.
Sadly, this leftward shift isn’t limited to the world of commerce. It’s affected science, politics, and entire cultures. It’s caused these entities to abandon all that isn’t rational as irrational. But empathy and intuition are irrational. Science says if you can’t measure it and reproduce it, it’s not worth noting, but science is not the arbiter of the non-scientific realm. Business takes a similar position.
Politics of the Left (Hemisphere)
And politics creates categories: left and right, red and blue, black and white, men and women, gay and straight, and this and that. All of this is all left-hemisphere debate.
Categories and names are exclusive provinces of the left hemisphere. If you are hung up on an ideology, whether Democracy, Republicanism, Marxism, or Anarchism, you’re stuck in your left hemisphere. If you defend your positions with logic and words, you’re stuck in your left hemisphere. If you can’t imagine an alternative, you are really stuck in the left. I’ll stop here.
Science and Scientism
How did we get here and come to this? Science was receptive to right hemisphere influence up until about the 1970s. That’s where Scientism began to take hold. Scientism is when faith in science becomes a religion. I feel that many scientists today are less likely to hold a belief in Scientism as a religious belief. Paradoxically, I think this is more apt to be a faith held by non-scientists. Unfortunately, this faith is exploited by politics as exemplified by the recent trust in science campaign perpetrated by politicians, which is to say non-scientists with their own agenda, whether they practised Scientism or not.
The problem is that the left hemisphere has an outsized ego. It thinks it’s always right. In practice, it’s right about half the time. Because of its reliance on stored data and a ‘belief’ that it doesn’t need to fresh its data until it’s effectively overwhelmed and acquiesced. It fails to give enough weight to the experienced world, so that it shifts belief further and further left, which is to say further from reality as it is.
It trusts the symbol of the tree more than the tree itself. We may all be familiar with stories of cars driving down train tracks and off cliffs because the SAT-NAV user put more faith in their device than the world outside. This is the risk companies face as well, choosing to believe that the documented process is superior to the system in and of itself.
Getting on About?
You may be wondering what inspired me to write this and where I get my information. My realisation started in chapter 9 of The Matter with Things and was reinforced by this video interview by its author, Iain McGilchrist.
Actually, it started even before this with The Corporation, a Canadian documentary and companion book released in 2003. One of the points of The Corporation is to articulate the parallels between corporate behaviour relative to the definition of psychopathy as presented in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, henceforth DSM. Per Wikipedia, the DSM ‘is a publication by the American Psychiatric Association for the classification of mental disorders using a common language and standard criteria and is the main book for the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders in the United States and is considered one of the “Bibles” of psychiatry’. Essentially, corporations ticked all the boxes.
Methodologically, this assertion is a bit weak, but it is at least sometimes entirely valid despite provoking an emotional trigger reaction. Nonetheless, this established corporations as pathological entities. But that is not my focus here. It simply tilled the soil for me to be more receptive to this topic. This topic is less about the legal fiction that is a corporation and more about the people embodied in it. From the height of the C-suite to the workaday staff, floor workers, warehouse workers, and the mailroom. Do they still have mailrooms? I digress.
I can’t claim to know what it is to be schizophrenic or schizoaffective, but I’ve known enough people who have these diagnoses. My brother was one of those. Although I use these and other labels, I am not a fan of labels, generally, especially psychological labels, specifically this label. Autism is another nonsensical label. Both fall into the realm of medical syndromes, which for the uninitiated is the equivalent of your kitchen junk drawer. It’s equivalent to the other choice when all others fail. I don’t want to go off on a tangent from the start, so I’ll leave it that these categories are overly broad and reflect intellectual laziness. There is no single schizophrenia or autism. There are many, but the distinction is lost in the category. The push to create an autism spectrum for DSM obscures the problem, but it helps for insurance purposes. As the saying goes, follow the money and you can gain clues to the driving force behind why this happened. I suppose you can also label me a conspiracy theorist. If I learned one thing in my undergrad Sociology classes, it’s to eschew labels.
Given the length of this segment, I am not going to summarise it here, save to say that this leftward shift in business and culture doesn’t have a good outlook. We are not only being replaced by machines, but we are also forced into becoming machines, and we aren’t even questioning it. All we need to do is to become more analytic, right?
What I suggest is to watch the six-minute video of Dr Iain McGilchrist discussing this topic, and if you really want a deep dive, read The Matter with Things, an almost three-thousand-page tome, to fill in the details.
Here’s a music analogy to help to express why the whole is more important than the sum of the parts. If I want to learn to play a new piece, I will listen to the piece first. Depending on the length and genre, I may have to listen many times. In some cases, once or twice is enough, but let’s say this is at least somewhat complex and not some repetitive three-chord pop song. I’ll probably break the song into pieces or movements—verse, chorus, bridge, and whatever—, and then, I’ll learn each note and each pattern of notes, perhaps as musical phrases. Once I figure out the verse, I might either learn how the next verse differs or move on to the chorus and defer that verse-to-verse step. I’ll rinse and repeat until I’ve got through each of the sections. If I’ve had the luxury of hearing the piece, I’m at an advantage as far as tone, timbre, and dynamics are concerned; otherwise, I’d better hope these are all documented and that I interpret them in the manner they were intended. If the audience is familiar with a tune, they’ll notice the difference.
When I am practising, I need to get the mechanics down pat. All of what I’ve described thus far is left-hemisphere fare. It’s translating the symbolic representation of notes—like letters and words in writing—into an utterance. In this case, it’s a musical utterance. But once I am ready to perform the piece, it needs to be performed through the right hemisphere or it will feel mechanical and stilted.
I used to earn my living as an audio recording engineer and producer. Most of the time I was working with unknown artists recording demo records and trying to get a record deal. For the uninitiated, that usually translated into not having a large recording budget. Occasionally, we want, say string parts—violins, viola, cello, or whatever—but we couldn’t afford union players. We’d hire music students from USC or UCLA. These players would be more than willing to play for cheap in exchange for something to add to their portfolios or experience chops.
Somebody would transcribe the musical notation, and we’d give it to the string player. Of course, it could be a keyboard or wind or reed part, but I’ll stick to strings. Part of music is the vibe. This is something that can’t be captured in symbols. Revisiting Scientism and the left-hemisphere analogy, vibes can’t be real because they can’t be notated.
Almost invariably, if we got someone with Classical training, they could not get the vibe. The music was right in front of them. We’d play it for them on piano, maybe on a synthesiser, but they couldn’t get it—even if they were playing along to a reference track just trying to double the synth part. They would hit every note for the specified duration and dynamic, but it might have as well been the equivalence of a player piano or music box. We could have played it on a synthesiser, but we might be seeking the nuance a real instrument would bring.
We never had the luxury of auditioning players or recording several players and grabbing the best parts. That’s for the bigger-budget artists who go through a half-dozen or more performers to get just the right one. When we got lucky, it was usually because we got someone from the jazz program. These cats seem to have a natural feel for vibe inaccessible to the classical performers.
In business, the classical performer is good enough, but for art, it wasn’t. Business might appreciate the difference if it happens to get it, but it won’t seek it, and it won’t pay for it. A pet peeve of mine is a quip in business I heard often—don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good. This is obviously a left-hemisphere sentiment based on Voltaire’s statement. Besides, even from a left hemisphere perspective, reciting, “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good” doesn’t mean you shouldn’t at least strive for good enough because I noticed that mark was missed often enough, too.
Creativity is chapter nine of Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter with Things. It also marks the end of part one of three in this two-volume set.
The main thrust is to provide a lot of cases of schizophrenia to elaborate on how the deficits impact perception—and of course, attention and judgment.
This chapter starts off by noting that mental illnesses are not a matter of the brain being broken like a machine. McGilchrist doesn’t much like the analogies to machines or computers, to begin with. Instead, they affect how their world is experienced. They attend to different things, which creates a different perception because we perceive what we attend to.
It is effectively a left-hemisphere challenge, but he is careful to say that we don’t have enough evidence to call it a right-hemisphere deficit. His rationale is that it could be one of these three leading scenarios:
The right hemisphere has deficits.
The left hemisphere is not performing its function to work with the right hemisphere, which is otherwise intact.
The frontal lobe which is supposed to moderate the hemispheres is not performing its function.
Schizophrenia and autism are distinct conditions, but there are some overlaps. He clarifies that schizophrenia and autism are too broad of categories (a situation made worse in the case of autism by the creation of the autism spectrum). There are types of schizophrenias and autisms that would otherwise be unrelated except for psychology’s kitchen junk drawer approach to categorisation, I suppose, following the lead of syndromes in the medical profession. I digress.
These conditions exemplify what it’s like to experience the world with an overreliance on the left hemisphere. A point he wants to make is that he feels society at large is shifting in this direction to the detriment of all concerned, that the world of business, science, politics, and bureaucracy more generally is migrating to a hyper-rational position at the expense of experiential reality.
He praises Louis Sass’s 1992 book Madness and Modernism as “one of the most fascinating, and compelling, books I have ever read”, primarily because it notes the relationship between schizophrenia and Modernism and a modern world that is experiencing an increase in the phenomena of schizophrenia.
McGilchrist goes into detail about how right hemisphere deficits affect perception in schizophrenic patients. I won’t share that level of detail here. Effectively, they miss the forest for the woods and make contextual miscues, lacking in empathy and intuition. Missing this context, they jump to conclusions—invalid conclusions. He goes on to explain this from the perspective of brain construction and physiology whilst extending the conversation to include the autism spectrum, noting a general overlap between these diagnoses.
He invokes the work of Eugène Minkowski—reflecting on the foundational work of Henri Bergson—, which resonated with me, wherein Minkowski tries to simplify and characterise the hemisphere as the left representing intellect and the right being intuition. This feels about right. He shares a list of terms generally representing qualities in schizophrenics that detail what is atrophied in the intuition of the right hemisphere and what is hypertrophied (or exaggerated) in the left hemisphere. I’ll not share this list here, but I like it. He promises to elaborate on this in chapter 22.
Essentially what’s missing is a sense of coherence with experience leading to a detachment from reality as we normally experience it—and a loss of vitality and a sense of self. These people live as outsiders looking in rather than simply feeling a part of the whole. Man becomes a machine built of parts and separate to nature. Everything becomes literal. There is no room for connotation in a denotative world. But this world is disconnected from the presented reality, instead relying on a re-presented version. The world loses depth and becomes a two-dimensional caricature.
My summary of this chapter left many details unsaid, probably more so than the preceding chapters, so a lot of context and nuance is missing. My biggest takeaway is really the scary connexion between schizophrenia and Modernity. It is far from comforting. Add to this the positive feedback loop otherwise known as a vicious cycle as societies more and more adopt a left hemisphere perspective, that of a schizophrenic, and it becomes scarier still. To make matters worse, this is not metaphorical. It’s analogical. I’m not sure how to reverse this tide.
This wraps up the chapter on schizophrenia, autism and the rest. As I mentioned at the start, this also marks the end of part one of the book. The next chapter is “What is Truth?” This will allow the reader to delve more deeply into various aspects of truth, from science to reason to intuition and imagination. This second part of the books takes us to the end of the first volume, traversing us through chapters ten to nineteen.
What are your thoughts on mental illnesses like schizophrenia and autism, especially around how they may shed light on neurotypical persons and the relationship between these and modern society?
Not really, but I’ve had visitors from these countries visit here in the past 7 days. Whilst I either try to be culturally inclusive or admit where I am obviously off, I live in the United States at the time and it just colours my perspective in the same manner it would be coloured if I was spending a lot of time steeped in some other cultural setting.
I am aware that people visit blogs for different reasons. Some are searching for confirming views or to broaden a perspective; others are scratching their heads and asking if people actually think like this or that. In all cases, you are welcome. You are also welcome to share your agreements or disagreements.
What I find most interesting are my subscribers (or whatever WordPress names them). from what I can tell, at least three-quarters of subscribers to Philosophics would appear to have views counter to my own. Of course, they are welcome, but it seems that a have a lot of, let’s say, ‘spiritual’ subscribers, where I hold antithetical if not diametrically opposed views. I’ll presume this is to keep a pulse on a different perspective, which I admire.
Nothing more to say at the moment. Just taking a quick break to give a special shoutout to anyone who has visited from one of these countries. If ‘Unknown Region‘ is some interdimensional visitor, you are still welcome. Thanks for stopping by.
I’ve never really liked the concept of normal being applied to behaviour, whether individually or societally. At a micro level, it might be fine, and one can assess a deviation from a norm, but at a macro level, we have averages of averages, so how many dimensions need to be out of calibration and for how long to be considered abnormal.
Moreover, statistically speaking, where we have a normal (Gaussian) distribution, we might consider a mean and a certain variance or standard deviation from that mean to be normal, but the reaction to deviance is asymmetrical.
An example that comes to mind is that of cheating. It is well documented that humans are predictably cheaters (and liars). Nonetheless, there are two measures of normalcy. There is a fundamental attribution bias in play.
We view ourselves as basically honest and justify occasions when we act the same way. Regarding the chart below, we like to believe that cheating is uncommon. In fact, we chastise or otherwise punish cheaters.
Full disclosure this is not to scale nor representative of actual data. It’s merely an illustrative tool for conversation.
The bottom range in green represents the accepted and prescribed normal range of cheating. In this example, it might be anticipated that an average person might cheat on things like their taxes, their diets, not returning extra change at a vendor, and so on, about a third of the time, give or take. Anything more would be considered abnormal and unacceptable. Anything less and the person might be considered to be uptight or a goody-two-shoes, perhaps like Ned Flanders of the Simpsons franchise.
In practice, people operate well outside of this range. As illustrated by the top red range, people tend to cheat closer to two-thirds of the time. If a person is caught cheating, they are treated as being well outside of the prescribed range, society will look upon them harshly despite this actually being normal behaviour for those judging, those who know that they are guilty of the same activity.
One reason for the overreaction may be to signal that they are among the righteous. Here, it’s good to remember Jung’s quip: The brighter the light, the darker the shadow.
If I use IQ* for a reference, normal is the mean plus or minus a standard deviation (or sigma [σ]) of 16 points, so between 84 and 116. In the early to mid-20th century, clinical psychology nomenclature grouped IQs by bands:
Later moron was replaced by moderate mental retardation or moderate mental subnormality with an IQ of between 35 and 49. As with many things, and in the case of IQ, an observation above the norm is associated as better with an observation below the norm being considered as worse.
* IQ has many problems. At first, an IQ of 100 is supposed to represent the average (mean) of a population, yet the average IQ of the world population is just over 82, a number outside and below the 1σ threshold. In the United States, the average IQ is an unremarkable 97% (ranking 26 among 199 countries). Japan and Taiwan top the list at over 106. In fact, Asian countries comprise the top 6 slots. Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom are almost an even 100, falling ever so short. at 99 and change. Guatemala, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nepal fall at the bottom of the ranking, each with average IQs under 50.
That culture is a social construct is by now a meme. Those who disagree with the notion believe there is some objective measure—who disagree with the notion of cultural relativism—, almost invariable to their own belief systems. My goal is not to convince them otherwise. I’m sure their teacups are full. However, I’ve recently become aware of some data I find interesting. These data consider dimensional pairs of data. For example, do parents of certain cultures foster the message of imagination or hard work.
Hard Work vs Imagination
The caveat here is that no culture is monolithic. In practice, no two people are precisely redundant. People are effectively snowflakes—not the pejorative sort. Just insomuch that even identical twins are not, in fact, identical. What we are examining are generalised stereotypes. For example, the United States finds hard work over-indexing imagination. This comes as no surprise to anyone who takes even a cursory view will note that both political persuasions buy into and propagate this mythos. On the Right, imagination is something that can be explored. In fact, it needs to be propagated if only to buy into supported narratives. Imagination is over-indexed in Left-leaning countries. On the Left, a little more latitude is afforded, but in the end, someone needs to pay for the Volvos and Teslas. Given that the Left basically doesn’t exist in the professional politics of the US, imagination is more lip service than manifest.
Imagination need not apply. Britain, Australia, and Canada are more balanced, but they still favour hard work over imagination. Interesting to me is that the Nordic / Scandanavian countries push imagination more than their peers. I’ve never ‘imagined’ them to be imaginative. Perhaps it’s more an absence of Calvinism. Perhaps I’m judging. The piece suggests that Anime is evidence of Japan’s imagination. Firstly, this feels like a stretch. Secondly, this doesn’t resonate with my experience living in Japan. Perhaps I’m just conflating cultural obsequiousness.
Independence vs Obedience
Another pairing is independence versus obedience. Whilst I focus on the UK, US, and Canada, you may find represented your own country or culture of interest. Across these dimensions, the US, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand all favour independence over obedience, though I find this a strange dichotomy. Fundamental attribution bias is evident in full force and effect.
I just came across a meme that lauded the Japanese for fostering independence, but cultural obedience is a given. Honour, shame, and shunning are ubiquitous in Japanese, so I’m not sure how this manifests. Cognitive dissonance is strong here. I’m having a difficult time reconciling. Perhaps I need to evaluate the semantics.
Unselfishness vs Religious Faith
I debated including this dimensional paring. First, it’s an odd dichotomy. Are we trying to claim that the religious are selfish or that unselfish people are areligious? No matter. Let’s keep going.
I suppose this just shows that one can compare anything on a graph and someone can read something into it—like a Rorschach test or tea leaves. Here the US rides the fence. Great Britain and France self-assess as promoting selflessness, and Bangladesh is off the charts with its need for faith. Well, clearly not off the charts because it’s literally on the chart, but it’s trying.
Anyhoo, I feel I need to investigate the raw data and evaluate more parings. For now, I think it’s safe to say that cultural preferences are all over the map. And, even though these preferences have no objective centre, I can admit to having preferences of my own. On these dimensions, I favour imaginative, selfless independence, but that’s just me. Where do you stand?