Insufficiency of Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMAGE: Communication without words

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

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

“That restaurant is good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Path Less Travelled

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

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

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

Onward to more substantial fare.

Systemic Bias in AI

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.

Against Property

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.

ChatGBT Reponse

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.

John Vervaeke and Lex Fridman on the Meaning Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weird, That

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

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

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

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

Common sense is not so common

— Voltaire

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

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

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

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

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

Retributive Injustice

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

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

The Agent

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

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

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

Society

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

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

So What?

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

Special Case?

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

When Then?

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

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

What am I missing here?

Whence Morality?

Where does morality come from? I believe that there exists three possible vectors for morality in one of two categories—objective and subjective. Absolute objective morality derives from some single source outside of the subjective experience. Monotheistic religions have the propensity to adopt this ontology. Subjective morality is a human social construct and may be subdivided into logical and emotional subcategories. As a non-cognitivist, I feel that I am biased toward the emotional vector.

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In my view, emotion always proceeds logic. I’ve been told for as long as I remember that I am hyper-logical and can be as dispassionate as Mr Spock or the Data character from the Star Trek franchise. As an economist, I was trained to stand back and objectify problems. However, the impetus for attention in the first place is always emotional. Or at least I can claim it to be alogical or prelogical. Even so, there would be a chain of events that moved from prelogical to emotional to logical. One may claim that applying logic to 2 + 3 requires no emotional content, but this has been habituated. Neither is there emotion nor logic. It’s a simple rote recitation.

I am going to take literary licence and dismiss objective reality out of hand as excessively unlikely. I think it’s fair to categorise the logical view as Kantian. In this view, humans employed reason and I suppose a consequentialist framework to arrive at the notion that it just made sense to construct moral underpinnings. Of course, by the time of Kant, the Enlightenment was firmly afoot, so we could just borrow and advance the same moral notions. I feel he’d be OK accepting the claim that some classes, say religious, if we follow the money and power trail, and realised that they could exert control and manipulate the playing field if they were the arbiters of morality. I am neither a deeply-read Kant scholar nor an anthropologist, but this is how I see it.

I feel that the emotional impetus for morality might best be characterised by David Hume. In his view, morals would have been made on sentiment and empathy. Then they were interpreted and amended by different cultures and societies. I feel this adjustment is actually the logical element in play.

Fundamentally, animals want a sense of fairness. This is well-documented even in monkeys, so morals are an attempt to codify fairness and fair outcomes. Of course, fairness means different things to different people, so that makes for an unstable foundation. I think Nietzsche takes a more instrumental stance but would side more with Kant with the addition of the power plays that caught Foucault’s attention in the last century.

I’ve shared my perspective here several times. As a non-cognitivist—in the manner of Ayer, Stephenson, and Hare—, morals are entirely emotive responses that then become prescriptive as a template for a civil society. However, as Nietzsche points out in Genealogy of Morals, this template is on the one hand not neutral and, on the other hand, applied differently to different cohorts.

This is not an attempt to provide a deep discourse on morality. Rather, it is just documenting my current perspective on a yet unresolved topic. I’m not sure there that the Kantian or Humean perspective will be the definitive answer. Evolutionary biologists have been tossing their proposals in the hat, but I don’t think we’ll ever get beyond speculation and opinion. This reflects mine.

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Religious Confusion

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.

religion can be experienced metaphorically

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.

With meditation … the idea is to let go and forego attachment

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.

religion is about power

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.

Schizoid Workplace

What is Schizophrenia?

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

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.

Almost finished

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.

Postscript

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.