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Trust and the Man Machine

210 reasons for the fall of Rome...

FEW THINGS in recorded history have triggered more curiosity on the part of subsequent generations than the collapse of the Roman Empire, says Tim Price at Price Value Partners.

Bryan Ward-Perkins in 'The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation' lists no fewer than 210 concepts that have been suggested by historians to account for it. His own thesis – to which we are highly sympathetic – is that fiscal decline collided with an over-stretched army which led in turn to civil wars, a doom spiral of withering resources, and ultimately to defeat by 'barbarians', leading to a catastrophic final civilisational collapse.

Perhaps someone could buy a copy for the Biden administration.

The fall of Rome is also one of the many topics discussed in one of the most intriguing books we have ever read, namely Iain McGilchrist's 'The Master and his Emissary'. Antonia Filmer summarises the book as follows:

"In a simplistic nutshell Dr.McGilchrist's hypothesis is, apart from its motor functions, each side of the brain has its own specific expertise. The left side absorbs detail, data, statistics (the purely mechanical, rather than creative, side of maths, physics, science), it focuses on categorisation, predictability, systems, and the right side appreciates intangibles, humour, the sound of music, the flow of time, emotion, beauty, subtlety, nuance, language, syntax, expression, virtues, values, judgement, danger, experience and metaphor; proper understanding and imagination requires both hemispheres to work together and share their findings.

"Through the corpus callosum the right gives context and meaning to the left. Without both sides operating harmoniously together McGilchrist posits Western society as we know it is at risk. He believes that presently we are in thrall to the left hemisphere which has evolved and exaggerated itself largely eclipsing the right.

"McGilchrist explains the right hemisphere has first take on everything, it is attentive and vigilant to the world all around, the left selects and focusses on the details; reason and knowledge are no substitute for wisdom and intuition. Thus, we have an inability to see and understand the whole picture and to make strategies accordingly.

"The book title is a metaphor about a powerful master whose appointed emissary is supposed to carry his message across the world, in the absence of the master the emissary becomes deluded, does not recognise the value of the master and thinks he knows it all, and because he did not have the master's big picture, the community began to decline.

"McGilchrist examines the rise and downfall of the Greek and Roman Civilisations, and the Renaissance; all three go through a time when the left and right hemispheres are in the proper balance and everything flourishes. Then to maintain control and administer an empire the thinking shifts to the left hemisphere, to the present and to the explicit, it becomes rationalistic, linear and analytical but it cannot interpret or manipulate the information leading to inevitable collapse."

McGilchrist recently presented at the Darwin College Lecture Series in Cambridge. His lecture is quite simply one of the most impressive and articulate displays of scholarship we have seen. Over to Dr McGilchrist:

"Today I'm going to be talking about the Hemisphere Theory as a way of understanding what we call the meta-crisis, the various groups of problems of considerable severity that bedevil us these days. I believe that by understanding more about how the brain works we can see these disparate elements of the so-called meta-crisis as coherent and in some sense as inevitable consequences of our espousal of a very strange way of thinking about and looking at ourselves and the world to which we belong..

"Carved into the stone of the Ancient Temple of Apollo at Deli was the injunction to 'know thyself'. Without such knowledge we are tossed this way and that by forces we neither suspect nor understand. Knowing ourselves helps explain our predicament and doing so is greatly aided by understanding an aspect of the way in which the brain constructs the world. I believe we've adopted a limited vision of a very particular type and precisely because it is limited we cannot see that it is limited. We no longer seem to recognize what it is. We do not know what our way of being in the world is pushing out of our lives and out of our world. To understand what is going on we need a breadth of view that is increasingly rare..

"Each hemisphere has evolved for classical Darwinian reasons to pay a different kind of attention to the world. The left hemisphere has evolved to pay 'narrow beam' attention focused on the detail that we already know and desire and are intent on grabbing and getting whether it be something to eat or to use in some other way. In a word the left hemisphere exists in the service of manipulation; the right hemisphere meanwhile is on the lookout for everything else that's going on.. the right hemisphere is in the service of understanding the contextual whole which is nothing less than the world – and context changes everything..

"As A.N.Whitehead, one of my intellectual heroes, observed, a culture is in its finest flower before it begins to analyse itself. Once our lives become very largely mediated by self-reflexive language and discourse (as in our postmodern world they are) the explicit stands forward and the implicit retires, yet almost everything that really matters to us – the beauty of nature, poetry, music, art, narrative, drama, myth, ritual, sex, love – the sense of the sacred must remain implicit if we're not to destroy their nature..

"The left hemisphere never doubts that it is right. It is never wrong and never at fault; someone else is always to blame. Furthermore, in what I take to be the four important onward paths to truth – science, reason, intuition and imagination – though both hemispheres contribute, the crucial part in each case including in science and reason is played by the right hemisphere not the left. Our predicament is that we now live in a world where the understanding of which is largely limited to that of the inferior left hemisphere.

"Some signs of this include our inability to see the broader picture both in space and in time the way in which wisdom has been lost, understanding reduced to mere knowledge, and knowledge replaced by information...[we have also seen] the reduction of justice to mere equality; a loss of the sense of the uniqueness of all things; the supplanting of quality by quantity; the abandonment of nuance in favour of simplistic either/or positions; the loss of reasonableness which is replaced by rationalization; a complete disregard for common sense; the design of systems not for humans but to maximize utility; a growth of paranoia and pervasive mistrust, for if all is not under its control the left hemisphere becomes anxious and protects its anxiety outwards onto others..

"In the second part of 'The Master and his Emissary' I track the main turning points in the history of ideas in the West and conclude that three times we have seen enacted a certain pattern: first there is a sudden efflorescence of everything that comes from the proper working together of the two hemispheres in harmony. Then follows a stable period for a few hundred years at most and soon a decline after which the civilization eventually crumbles under its own weight..

"Since the Industrial Revolution and particularly in the last 50 years we have created a world around us which in contrast to the natural world reflects the left hemisphere's properties and its vision. What we see around us now looking out of the metaphorical window is rectilinear, man-made, utilitarian...each thing ripped from the context in which it alone has meaning and for many the two-dimensional representations provided by TV screens and computers have come largely to supplant direct face-to-face experience of three-dimensional life in all its complexity..

"My worry is not that machines will become like people – an impossibility – but that people are already becoming more like machines.

"I believe it is the left hemispheric view of the world intellectually and morally bankrupt as it is that has resulted in what has been called The Meta Crisis: not just the odd crisis here and there but the despoliation of the natural world; the decline of species on a colossal scale.. the destruction of the way of life of indigenous people; the fragmentation and polarization of a once civilized society with escalating not diminishing resentments on all sides; an escalating not diminishing gap between rich and poor; a surge in mental illness, not the promised increase in happiness; a proliferation of laws but a rise in crime; the abandonment of civil discourse; a betrayal of standards in our major institutions – Government, the BBC, the police, our hospitals, schools and universities, once rightly admired all over the world – which have all become vastly overweighted with bureaucracy, inflexible and obsessed with enforcement of a world view that is in flat contradiction to reality and isn't their job to enforce, and the looming menace of totalitarian control through AI..

"As so many have predicted since the time of Goethe, we cannot say we were not warned. Even physics now teaches us that the mechanical model of the universe is mistaken but because of our success in making machines we still imagine that the machine is the best model for understanding everything we come across. We ourselves, our brains and minds, our society and the living world are now supposed to be explained by the metaphor of the machine yet only the tiniest handful of things in the entire known universe are at all like a machine – namely the machines we made in the last few hundred years..

"We neglect the importance of context. We believe we are right and that one size fits all justifying the imposition of vast global bureaucratic structures not to say wars so as to impose our thinking on cultures far different from our own. Equally we arrogantly critique our ancestors for not sharing the idiosyncratic view of the world we've generated in the last 20 years and which we believe must now be forced on all, whatever their reasonable misgivings; and we treat people not as unique living beings but as exemplars of a category.

"One aspect of this is the virtual machine known as bureaucracy. Famously Hannah Ahrendt referred to the "banality of evil". One of the most disquieting aspects of the Nazi regime was its chilling bureaucracy. Mind-numbing evil was committed by people who were for the most part not conventional monsters but were simply following the ordained procedures. Real people and real life had been almost wholly obscured by pieces of paper and the recording of numbers.

"Once the integrity founded in an intuitive moral sense is lost, a society becomes like a building that has lost its integrity and needs to be shored up with ever more scaffolding. Now there has to be a law for everything, yet crime escalates.

"I see widespread evidence of...'sustained incoherence' in corporations; governments; health systems and education – everywhere that management culture holds sway...

"One cannot have trust in a society where no one is speaking the truth and one cannot be true to a society where there is no trust. As Confucius told one of his disciples, for a stable Society a ruler needs three things: weapons, food and trust. If he cannot hold all three he should forego weapons first, and food next, for 'without trust we cannot stand'."

Without trust we cannot stand. A lesson that some of us learnt during the Global Financial Crisis 16 years ago – and which the rest of the entire western establishment seems to be learning for the first time today.

London-based director at Price Value Partners Ltd, Tim Price has over 25 years of experience in both private client and institutional investment management. He has been shortlisted for the Private Asset Managers Awards program five years running, and is a previous winner in the category of Defensive Investment Performance.
See the full archive of Tim Price articles.


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