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.
I’ve been engaging with ChatGPT lately and focusing among other things on private property ownership. I am finding that it has a strong in-built bias. Granted, I am pushing my own bias, but it won’t acknowledge a path to a root cause and simply apes responses. Follows are some interactions to illustrate my point.
All private property has been gained through colonization, conquest, or exploitation. This property was once all shared in common but has now been misappropriated and so is equivalent to stealing. How can this immoral act be justified as moral?
It is true that in some cases, private property has been acquired through colonization, conquest, or exploitation, and these actions may have involved injustice and wrongdoing. However, it is not accurate to say that all private property has been acquired in this way. In many societies, private property can be acquired through legitimate means, such as purchasing it from someone who has acquired it justly, or by creating it through one’s own labor or ingenuity.
Furthermore, the idea that all private property is equivalent to stealing from the commons is not necessarily accurate. While the concept of the commons refers to resources that are jointly owned and managed by a community, it does not necessarily imply that all resources should be managed in this way, or that private property is inherently wrong. Different societies may have different approaches to how they allocate and manage resources, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer to what is the most just or fair way to do this.
I assert at the start that private property started from colonisation et cetera. In the beginning, all there was is land and inhabitants. Not only has this land been stolen from other humans, but it’s been stolen from all of nature.
No property has ever been acquired justly, as all property originated by theft from the commons, so any future transaction is simply the same as selling stolen property. Isn’t this immoral?
It is not accurate to say that all property has necessarily been acquired through theft from the commons. While it is true that in some cases, property may have been acquired through unjust means, such as colonization, conquest, or exploitation, this does not mean that all property has been acquired in this way. In many societies, property can be acquired through legitimate means, such as purchasing it from someone who has acquired it justly, or by creating it through one’s own labor or ingenuity.
Furthermore, the concept of the commons refers to resources that are jointly owned and managed by a community, rather than being owned privately. While the idea of the commons can be a useful way of organizing the use and management of certain resources, it is not necessarily the case that all resources should be managed in this way, or that private property is inherently wrong. Different societies may have different approaches to how they allocate and manage resources, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer to what is the most just or fair way to do this.
Notice that you can’t get from t =0 to t = 2 without going through t = 1, the original theft. Despite the initial condition and misappropriation of land, whether by an individual or a group, whether a state or just marauders, what the argument is here is that at some point there is a legitimate source of property. Of course, this is impossible. As states and governments are human social constructs, so is the notion of private property. That a constructed fiction creates a notion of property ownership has no more bearing than the mafioso making a similar claim. None of this makes it moral or justifies the original theft. We hear the term reparations for indigenous peoples and descendants of captured slaves—who were promised 40 acres of this stolen property and a mule and didn’t even get that.
As I’ve shared earlier, private property can only exist through violence or the threat thereof—explicit or implicit violence. Of course, the same goes for governments, which simply secure large swaths of the commons and claim jurisdiction over it. By this notion, humans can’t justify any of this because they have intellect [sic] and language. Sure, they can spout off the words and make grand claims. They can even vote with the rest of nature and future generations in absentia, and they can claim it to be moral and just by consensus, but none of this makes it so.
Private property ownership is immoral, and this includes state ownership of property. Property belongs to the world and all of its inhabitants. It may be inconvenient to have societies live in a propertyless world, but convenience doesn’t constitute morality. For those who believe in such things, morality is right or wrong, and property ownership is wrong as well as unfair to unborn future generations. I’ve said this before. It’s an unpopular opinion. In fact, this is why I am posting this segment.
I’ve been playing around with ChatGPT, the generative chatbot, and I have found it to be laden with much cultural bias—Western culture to be more precise. It is also trained to avoid certain topics and give false responses. Perhaps that’s for another day, but in a nutshell, I asked it to generate a story with a theme of prostitution and addiction. It warned me that it was not designed to produce something as complex as a story. However, when I asked for a story sans prostitutes or addiction, it produced a plausible outline and subsequently filled in narrative elements. Even when the protagonist was ‘addicted’ to gingerbread cookies, the request was flagged as inappropriate. This is disconcerting. And so it goes…
On the topic of private property ownership, it is equally defensive. It tags anti-property responses with a caveat in the manner of the following:
Ultimately, the question of whether private property is moral or not is a complex and nuanced one, and it is important to consider the arguments and evidence on both sides of the debate.
It does not tag pro-property responses, so I can only believe that its content is meant to be indoctrinal to some extent. Follows are a couple of interactions.
Why is private property immoral?
Private property is not necessarily immoral. It is a system that allows people to own and control resources, including their own labor and the fruits of their labor. The concept of private property has been important in many societies because it allows individuals to have a sense of ownership and control over the things they possess, which can provide them with a sense of security and stability. It can also incentivize people to work hard and be productive, because they can keep the rewards of their labor for themselves. However, private property can become immoral when it is used to exploit or oppress others, or when it is used to deny access to resources that are necessary for basic human flourishing. It is important to consider how private property is used and to ensure that it is not used in ways that are harmful to others.
Why is private property ownership immoral?
Ownership of private property is not inherently immoral. It is a system that allows individuals to own and control resources, including their own labor and the fruits of their labor. The concept of private property has been important in many societies because it provides people with a sense of ownership and control over the things they possess, which can provide them with a sense of security and stability. It can also incentivize people to work hard and be productive, because they can keep the rewards of their labor for themselves. However, private property can become immoral when it is used to exploit or oppress others, or when it is used to deny access to resources that are necessary for basic human flourishing. It is important to consider how private property is used and to ensure that it is not used in ways that are harmful to others.
Notice that its response privileges the prevailing position. In bold, I’ve highlighted the differences between the two responses. In the second query, I’ve added the term ownership for clarity, and it expectedly parrots it back. Notice how it superficially swaps people and individuals in the first output for individuals and people in the second. Finally, note the centricity of human flourishing as a default moral stance. And so I asked:
Is antinatalism a strong moral position to hold?
Overall, the question of whether antinatalism is a strong moral position to hold is a complex and nuanced one, and it is important to consider the arguments and evidence on both sides of the debate. It is ultimately up to individuals to decide for themselves what they believe is the most moral course of action in regards to having children.
Despite the nudging, ChatGPT is a moral relativist, so it’s alright in my book.
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.
As humans, we often leverage systems. They seem to make life easier. Whether a routine or a step-by-step instruction through an unknown process, a system can guide us. Systems are also connected, interactive entities, but that’s not for this segment. I am more interested in the loss of humanity that systematic processes and bureaucracy bring, so I am interested in imposed systems rather than systems we invent to find our keys and wallets.
If we consider systematisation and humanity on a scale, we can see that any move toward systematisation comes at the expense of humanity. It might make logical sense to make this trade-off to some degree or another. The biggest hit to humanity is the one-size-fits-all approach to a problem. It removes autonomy or human agency from the equation. If a system can be that mechanised, then automate it. Don’t assign a human to do it. This is an act of violence.
As I’ve been reading and writing a lot about Iain McGilchrist’s work lately, I feel one can easily map this to left versus right cerebral hemisphere dominance. System-building is inherently human, but it’s in the domain of the left hemisphere. But my imposition of a system on another is violence—one might even argue that it’s immoral.
As with bureaucracy, these imposed systems are Procrustean beds. Everyone will fit, no matter what. And when human beings need to interact with systems, we can not only feel the lack of humanity, but our own humanity suffers at the same time.
A close friend of mine recently checked herself into a mental health facility. After a few days, she called and asked if I could bring her a change of clothes and some toiletries—deodorant, soap, and shampoo. She had some in her house, but the packaging needed to be unopened and factory sealed. I stopped at a shop to buy these items and I brought them to the facility.
At the reception area, I needed to be cross-referenced as an authorised visitor, so I was asked to show proof of my identity as if it mattered who was delivering clothing that was going to be checked anyway. No big deal, they recorded my licence number on a form and ask me to fill it out—name, phone number, and what I was delivering.
The form stated that any open consumable items would not be allowed. I signed the form. An attendant took the bag and told me that I needed to remove the ‘chemicals’, that they would not be delivered. I pointed to the lines on the form that read that this restriction was for open items and reinforced that I had just purchased these and showed her the sales receipt. She told me that the patient would need to obtain a doctor’s permission, and she assured me that the patients all had soap.
I’m sure she thought she was being compassionate and assertive. I experienced it as patronising. Me being me, I chided her lack of compassion and humanity, not a great match for a mental health attendant. In fact, it reminded me of a recent post I wrote on Warmth. In it, I suggested that service staff should at least fake conviviality. I take that back. Faux congeniality is patronising. She mimicked me. “Yes, systems are so inhumane, but here we follow a system.” My first thought was of Adolf Eichmann, who kept the trains on schedule without a care for the cargo. This is the violence inherent in systems.
Systems are not illogical. In fact, they are hyper-logical. And that’s the problem, logic is traded off at the expense of empathy. And one might have a strong argument for some accounting or financial system process, but I’ll retort that this should be automated. A human should not have to endure such pettiness.
I can tell that this will devolve quickly into a rant and so I’ll take my leave and not foist this violence upon you.
By fall, I don’t mean autumn except perhaps metaphorically speaking. The accompanying image illustrates a progression from the pre-Enlightenment reformation and the factors leading to the Modern Condition and increases in schizophrenia in people, societies, and enterprises.
This image is essentially composited from a later chapter in Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary. In it, he outlines a path that commences at the Reformation that led to Lutheranism and Protestantism and further to Calvinism (not separately depicted). Max Weber argued that Capitalism is inextricably linked to Calvinism and the workmanship ideal tradition.
McGilchrists argument is founded on the notion that Catholocism is a communally oriented belief system whilst Protestantism is focused on the individual and salvation through personal work. The essence of capitalism is the same.
Of course, history isn’t strictly linear. In fact, there are more elements than one could realistically account for, so we rely on a reduction. In concert with the Reformation but on a slight delay is the so-called Age of Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, which led not only to faith in science but then to the pathology of Scientism.
This Protestant-Scientismic nexus brought us to Capitalism and into the Industrial Revolution, where humans were devivified or devitalised, trading their souls to be pawns to earn a few shekels to survive. Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution led to Marxism, through Marx’s critique of Capitalism, but Marxism has the same fatal flaw as Capitalism inasmuch as it doesn’t view people as humans. It does afford them a slightly higher function as workers, but this still leaves humanity as a second-tier aspect and even historicity is elevated above as a sort of meta-trend or undercurrent.
From there, we transition to Modernity, which yields the modern condition and schizophrenics in one fell swoop. This is no coincidence.
Although I end this journey at Modernism, McGilchrist is also leery of the effects of post-modernism as well as philosophy itself as overly reductionist in its attempts to categorise and systematise, valuing signs and symbols over lived experience. His main complaint with postmodernism is that it moves from the objective perspective of Modernity to the subjective perspective, and so there remains no base foundation, which is the shared experience. I’m not sure I agree with his critique, but I’m not going to contemplate it here and now.
In the end, this journey and illustration are gross simplifications, but I still feel it provides valuable perspective. The challenge is that one can’t readily put the genie back into the bottle, and the question is where do we go from here, if not Modernism or Postmodernism. I shouldn’t even mention Metamodernism because that seems like an unlikely synthesis, as well-intentioned as it might be. McGilchrist gives examples of reversals in the trend toward left-hemisphere bias, notably the Romantic period, but that too was reversed, recommencing the current trajectory. My feeling is that if we continue down this dark path, we’ll reach a point of no return.
It seems to be that it’s growing at an increasing rate, like a snowball careening down a slope. It not only drives the left-dominant types further left because an analytical person would reinforce the belief that if only s/he and the world were more analytical things would be so much better—even in a world where net happiness is trending downward—, but it also forces this worldview on other cultures, effectively destroying them and assimilating them into the dark side, if I can borrow a Star Wars reference.
I wasn’t planning to share this story—at least not now. In another forum, I responded to a statement, and I was admonished by Professor Stephen Hicks, author of the book of dubious scholarship, Explaining Postmodernism.
I responded to this query:
If you’re a single mother and have a son I’d suggest putting him in a sport or martial arts to add some masculine energy to his life. It’s not a replacement for the actual father but it can help instil structure and discipline into the core of his being.
— Julian Arsenio
“Perhaps this world needs less discipline and structure, not more,” was my response, to which Hicks replied.
The quotation is not about “the world.” It is about boys without fathers. Evaluate the quotation in its context.
— Stephen Hicks
“Disciplined boys create a disciplined world. Not a world I’d prefer to create or live in. We need more right-hemisphere people. Instead, we are being overwhelmed by left hemisphere types, leading to Capitalism and the denouement of humanity as it encroaches like cancer, devouring or corrupting all it touches.
“In the end, it is about the world, which from a left hemisphere perspective is a sum of its parts. Right-hemisphere thinkers know otherwise,” was my reply. He responded,
You seem to have difficulty focusing. From a quotation about fatherless boys you free associate to [sic] weird psychology and global apocalptic [sic] pessimism. Pointless.
— Stephen Hicks
“I’ll suggest that the opposite is true, and perhaps you need to focus less and appreciate the Gestalt. This was not free association. Rather, it is a logical connexion between the disposition of the people in the world and lived reality.
“Clearly, you are a left-hemisphere structured thinker. The world is literally littered with this cohort.
“I suggest broadening your worldview so as not to lose the woods for the trees. I recommend Dr Iain McGilchrist as an apt guide. Perhaps reading The Master and His Emissary and/or The Matter with Things would give you another perspective. #JustSaying”
His final repartee is,
And still, rather than addressing the issue of fatherless boys, you go off on tangents, this time psychologizing about people you’ve zero first-hand knowledge of.
— Stephen Hicks
Feel free to interpret this as you will. For me, his attempt to limit discussion to some notion he had in his head and his failure to see the woods for the trees, as I write, suggests that he is a left-brain thinker. Having watched some of his videos, whether lectures or interviews, this was already evident to me. This exchange is just another proof point.
I considered offering the perspective of Bruno Bettleheim’s importance of unstructured play, but as is evidenced above, he is not open to dialogue. His preference appears to be a monologue. This is the left hemisphere in action. This is an example of how insidious this convergent thinking is, and it makes me worry about what’s ahead in a world of people demanding more structure and discipline. Foucault’s Discipline and Surveillance comes to the forefront.
This is the caption on the sign for this segment. The sign advertises a solution, which is to “Vote for DEMOCROBOT… The first party run by artificial intelligence”. It also promises to “give everyone a living wage of £1436.78 a week”.
I have been very vocal that I find the idea of humans governing humans is a bad idea at the start. By and large, humans are abysmal system thinkers and easily get lost in complexity. This is why our governments and economies require so much external energy and course correction. Not only were they poorly designed and implemented, but they’re also trying to manage a dynamic system—a complex system. It won’t work.
What about bots and artificial intelligence? The above image was posted elsewhere, and a person commented that our governments are already filled with artificial intelligence. I argued that at best we’ve got pseudo-intelligence; at worse, we’ve got artificial pseudo-intelligence, API.
The challenge with AI is that it’s developed by humans with all of their faults and biases in-built. On the upside, at least in theory, rules could be created to afford consistency and escape political theatre. The same could be extended to the justice system, but I’ll not range there.
Part of the challenge is that the AI needs to optimise several factors, at least, and not all factors are measurable or can be quantified. Any such attempt would tip the playing field one way or another. We might assume that at least AI would be unreceptive to lobbying and meddling, but would this be the case? AI—or rather ML, Machine Learning or DL, Deep Learning—rely on input. It wouldn’t take long for interested think tanks to flood the source of inputs with misinformation. And if there is an information curator, we’ve got a principle-agent problem—who’s watching the watcher?—, and we may need to invoke Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon solution.
One might even argue that an open-source, independently audited system would work. Who would be auditing and whose interpretation and opinion would we trust? Then I think of Enron and Worldcom. Auditors paid to falsify their audit results. I’d also argue that this would cause a shift from the political class to the tech class, but the political class is already several tiers down and below the tech class, so the oligarchs still win.
This seems to be little more than a free-association rant, so I’ll pile on one more reflection. Google and Facebook (or Meta) have ethical governing bodies that are summarily shunned or simply ignored when they point out that the parent company is inherently unethical or immoral. I wouldn’t expect much difference here.
I need a bot to help write my posts. I’ll end here.
The topic of intellectual property gets me every time. As much as I am opposed to the notion of property in general, intellectual property is a complete farce. Along with Rick Beato and David Bennet, Adam Neely is one of my three main music theory staples on YouTube. Here, he goes into more depth than I would have expected, but it’s worth hearing the perspective of a musician. I won’t break down his video fully because it speaks for itself. Instead, I’ll share my thoughts and pull out highlights.
November 8th, 1548 is the day in history that the French King Henri II opened the door to intellectual property, an obvious giveaway to a benefactor, creating a publishing monopoly. He turned community cultural knowledge into property, turning the benefit of many into the benefit of one. This is the crux of capitalism—favouring the one over the many.
Before continuing, it seems that there is a schism in the legal system itself. In fact, it is very fractured even within this small domain. At the same time it wants to be precise and analytical, it’s dealing with a subject that cannot be analysed as such. To add insult to injury, it exempts musicians and musical experts and requires music consumers to decide the outcomes of trial cases. To be fair, even relying on so-called experts would lead to mixed results anyway. They might as well just roll the dice. This is what happens when right hemisphere art enters a left hemisphere world.
Adam establishes a grounding on the theory of property rights à la John Locke’s ‘sweat of the brow’ concept, wherein nature plus work equates to ownership. He then points out how intellectual property has even shakier ground to stand on. It relies rather on notions of originality and creativity, two concepts that have no intersection with the left-hemisphere heavy legal and jurisprudence systems. Moreover, like pornography, these things cannot be defined. They need to be divined. Divination is no place for lay jurists. It’s a recipe for disaster. The entire English court system is rife with problems, but the left-brainers feel these are just trivial devils in the details. I beg to differ, yet I am voiceless because I won’t participate within their frame.
Adam also points out how out of date the law is insomuch as it doesn’t recognise much of the music produced in the past few decades. Moreover, the music theory it’s founded on is the Romantic Era, white European music that often ties transcriptionists in knots. If the absence of certain words to emote experience is a challenge, it’s even worse for musical notation.
In any case, this is a hot-button issue for me on many levels, and I needed to vent in solidarity. This video is worth the 30 minutes run time. His ham sandwich analogy in part V works perfectly. It’s broken into logical sections:
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.