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My Dad's Bigger than yours

My Dad's Bigger Than your Dad

In 1888, Paddy Murphy, a big, strong blacksmith with dark hair, and hands that could crush an apple, was striding across the fields of County Carlow in Ireland, thinking of his sweetheart waiting for him in the village over the next hill. He heard someone shouting at him and when he turned round, he saw a horseman riding hard in his direction. The rider, brandishing a whip, seemed furious.

'What the hell are you doing on my land?' the man snarled at Paddy in the booming, aristocratic tones of the English gentry, bringing his horse to a juddering halt just feet from Paddy. 'Go back to where you came from or I'll have you flogged.'

Paddy considered the irony of an Englishman in Ireland telling an Irishman to go back to where he came from. 'What makes you think this is your land?' he retorted.

The horseman seemed astonished. 'You impudent peasant. I'm Viscount Cottingley. My father gave me this land.'

'And who gave him the land?' Paddy picked up a fallen branch from the ground.

The Viscount stared at the primitive club in Paddy's hands and felt fearful. He was at least twenty years older than the Irishman. His soldiers were far away. He was alone with this fierce peasant.

'My family have owned these lands for eight hundred years.' He tried to sound as forceful as possible. 'We fought for them and won them and so they're ours.'

Paddy stared at the Viscount. 'Well, get off your horse because now I'm going to fight you for them.'


Actually, I don't know if there really was a Paddy or a Viscount. I heard this story in a bar in Dublin a few years ago and let's just say the teller was reputed for his tall tales. Nevertheless, it left a big impression on me because it made me question one of the building blocks of society: ownership.

As the story implies, many of our wealthiest people are the descendants of some of the most violent families in history. It's a simple fact that, in the past, the strong took whatever they wanted from the weak (I'm defining strength as relating purely to an individual's capacity for physical violence). After all, who was going to stop them? However, the children of the strong are often weak and there is nothing to stop the children of the weak from being strong.

Look around you and you'll see fat old men and women with plenty of money but who are every bit as weak as Viscount Cottingley, and, conversely, young, aggressive men like Paddy standing in dole queues with nothing to their name. Something very odd has happened. Why aren't the strong taking from the weak just as they used to do in the past? Of course, some try but they invariably end up dead or in jail, and they are very much in the minority.

Has civilisation changed the relationship between the weak and the strong? But what do we mean by 'civilisation'? If you strip the veneer from civilisation you'll see that it is merely a different form of violence. Behind every pampered rich person is the full force of the state - the army, the police, judges, courts, prisons etc. What the rich have succeeded in doing is creating a system in which their weaknesses are nullified. They lay a claim to morality but there is nothing moral about it - it's merely violence one step removed.

When we talk of owning a house, what do we mean? The reality is that all we really own is a paper agreement with society. If society broke down then our ownership would rest solely on our physical ability to defend our so-called property.

In revolutionary France, many of those who thought they owned things found themselves in tumbrels en route to the guillotine. Their paper agreement had just expired. France became the greatest power in Europe after sweeping aside its decadent leaders. Although, man to man, Paddy is always superior to Viscount Cottingley, he will never beat him because the aristocrat now has civilisation to provide him with the extra force his ancestors once had.

What I'm curious about is why so many people opt into society's paper agreements when they would be much better off without them. Our armies are full of poor, working class men who spend much of their time upholding the interests of the rich leaders of society. Many soldiers are fighting, and dying, in Iraq who have no idea what they are doing there in the first place. Whose interests are being served? Certainly not their own. They'd be better off rampaging over Britain seizing whatever they want at the point of a gun.

Why don't they? They're restrained by society, civilisation, morality, politics, honour, family, law and order etc. But what are all of these things? Nothing other than weapons of psychological warfare.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche relentlessly attacked every plank of the social structures and laws that our beloved politicians and religious leaders hold most dear. He set about proving that the roots of morality are immoral. He characterised Christianity as a religion that appealed only to people with a 'slave' mentality, consumed with resentment and fear of the strong. He announced the death of God and poured scorn on those who still believe, and those who don't believe but have simply replaced religious morality with identical humanist morality.

He ridiculed socialism, capitalism, feminism, liberalism, nationalism; in fact every 'ism' there is. For Nietzsche, all of us are involved in a struggle for power and we'll adopt and advocate any set of beliefs favourable to us. Every choice we make is based on ruthless calculations of self-interest that we like to pretend are noble and altruistic. 

If you want to see your most cherished beliefs being savagely deconstructed, Nietzsche is your man.

'What, ultimately, are Man's truths?' he asked. 'Merely his irrefutable errors.'

The Freedom Delusion

One of the great slogans of political philosophy is Rousseau's: 'Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.' There's just one problem - what makes Rousseau think anyone is born free? Isn't it true that from the instant of our conception, our genetic make-up is fixed, and the environment into which we will be born is largely fixed too? If our parents are British, we will be brought up in a comparatively affluent society. If our parents are well educated, a prosperous middle class future beckons. In fact, as soon as a man and woman start talking about having children, we could probably predict with a high degree of accuracy what the future holds for their potential offspring.

What else is there except genes and environment in defining the life we will lead? Forget all the propaganda: conception is the key event of our life. Moreover, the two individuals responsible for our conception - our parents - will not only pass on their genes to us, they will largely provide and shape the environment in which we will mature into adults. We have no say in any of this. Choice is the last thing we are offered. We don't ask to be born, we don't get to choose our genes, our parents, our siblings or our environment. In other words, we have no control whatever in any of the key elements that determine our lives. Freedom simply doesn't come into it. We are, in effect, born in chains. But Man is born in chains; and everywhere he is in chains isn't exactly a rallying cry that will have people rushing out to man the nearest barricades.

Freedom is one of the most misunderstood concepts in philosophy. Not for want of trying, of course. Virtually every philosopher has had something to say about the subject, but how many of them have come up with anything persuasive? Freedom may in fact be a word that has no formal meaning - no element that can be connected to the real world - and hence why it has generated so much debate.

Imagine a thought experiment in which we are able to produce a computer simulation of any person we choose, including a perfect simulation of the workings of their brain. We are also able to produce a computer-simulated environment that perfectly reflects any environment that the simulated person might encounter in real life. We place our simulated human in its simulated environment, corresponding exactly to a real human in a real environment, and we monitor what happens to our real and our simulated humans. Now, if our simulated human behaves in exactly the same way in its simulated environment as the real human in the real environment would we conclude that the simulated human is free? Or draw the alternative conclusion that we are programmed creatures whose behaviour is entirely predictable, and lacking any trace of freedom?

Skinner and Watson's Behaviourism regarded the mind as a hypothetical construct that could be legitimately ignored. Skinner in his influential bookBeyond Freedom and Dignity sought to move beyond the old philosophical chestnuts of free will and moral autonomy. Yet in any class concerning Freedom, you are still far more likely to encounter the 'classical' arguments of renowned philosophers such as Kant rather than Skinner's quasi-scientific, deterministic approach.

Skinner says in Beyond Freedom and Dignity'In the traditional view, a person is free. He is autonomous in the sense that his behavior is uncaused. He can therefore be held responsible for what he does and justly punished if he offends. That view, together with its associated practices, must be re-examined when a scientific analysis reveals unsuspected controlling relations between behavior and environment.'

Skinner adds, 'The picture which emerges from a scientific analysis is not of a body with a person inside, but of a body which is a person in the sense that it displays a complex repertoire of behavior…What is being abolished is autonomous man - the inner man, the homunculus, the possessing demon, the man defended by the literatures of freedom and dignity. His abolition has long been overdue…Science does not dehumanize man, it de-homunculizes him.' ('Homunculus' for Skinner is the 'little man' inside an individual's head: a mind, soul, or will - the traditional focus of philosophers and theologians.)

If Skinner is right, freedom is a delusion. But if that's the case, why is it so attractive, so persistent; indeed so seemingly self-evident?

The reason we imagine we have free will is quite straightforward. When faced with any problematic situation, we can usually imagine several ways in which we might deal with the problem. From these different options, we choose one. However, if our decision produces an undesirable outcome, we might mentally revisit that situation and wish we had chosen one of the alternatives. Our original decision didn't seem cast in stone, and indeed if we are again faced with that sort of problem we will probably choose to behave differently next time around. The trouble with this retrospective analysis is that we aren't dealing with like with like. We have gained experience from the first situation and this then feeds into our decision-making process if a similar situation arises. If our original decision was successful, we are likely to repeat it; if not we will probably try something different.

The freedom delusion lies in our belief that we might have acted differently on that first occasion. In reality, the choice we made was the only one possible given the information before us at the time. Why? Because if that weren't the case then we would have to conclude that our behaviour is essentially random i.e. we generate options about how we should act and then pick one for no particular reason.

The cult novel The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart is all about generating possible actions in response to any given situation, assigning each action a number and then rolling a die. Rhinehart's protagonist has to perform whatever numbered action matches the result of his throw of the die. This is clearly behaviour based on a random element: no one would refer to it as the exercise of free will.

So, even though we can generate options each time we're faced with making a decision, they are never equal options…unless we apply a Dice Manprocedure that leads to random outcomes. In fact, we can hypothesise that each option is weighed according to an internal calculating algorithm - a cost benefit analysis based on anticipated rewards and punishments, pleasure and pain, measured according to our prior experiences when we did similar things in the past. The one that comes out of the calculation with the highest value is the one we choose. We can choose only this one. There's no free choice in the matter, and no randomness. We must select the option associated with the best-predicted outcome. It's the way we're hard-wired.

Memory is likely to be critical to the calculation. A creature with limited memory that performs highly instinctual behaviours (such as a crocodile) would never be considered to have free will.

Imagine that when faced with a dilemma we generate six options and decide that Option B is the best way forward. Are we capable of then ignoringOption B and performing Option E instead? If we are free in any meaningful sense then of course we can do this. But we know that in reality this is impossible. One option - the one that becomes our 'decision' - will always be deemed better than the alternatives and will be the one we invariably commit to. The sequence is fully determined. Freedom doesn't appear anywhere in this deterministic chain.

The freedom delusion arises from two sources: our ability, when faced with a particular problem, to generate several possible courses of action - gleaned from our memory of similar situations in the past - and our inability to perceive that these different options are then subjected to a deterministic calculation.

We would have no subjective experience of freedom if a) we were unable to imagine choices each time we encountered a problem and b) simply reacted instinctively (like a crocodile). And nor would we think we were free if we were conscious of the (hypothesized) internal calculating algorithm that we apply to each choice to decide which one we should select. If we were conscious that we had to perform one action, that the calculation we had performed had ruled out the alternative actions - if we became aware that we were just 'calculating machines' - then we would lose our grand notions of freedom. But the putative internal calculating algorithm takes place subconsciously and has no conscious 'visibility'. We simply assume that we are reflecting rationally on each choice, and that we could easily change our mind. We don't 'see' the causal unconscious mental machinery kicking in. (Skinner wouldn't even bother considering this hypothetical unconscious algorithm - he would simply look at stimuli applied and resultant behaviours observed.)

Summing up, do we freely choose which options to consider when faced with a problem? - no, they are provided to us by our memory, based on similar experiences in the past. Do we freely choose the particular option that will determine our actions? - no, we perform a calculation based on inbuilt personal criteria relating to our previous experiences of pleasure and pain. There is no free element in the chain. There is no free will. Freedom is a delusion, and all of the classic philosophical discussions of freedom are, frankly, a waste of time. We should adopt Skinner's stance and move beyond 'freedom and dignity'. Scientific and psychological ideas should replace those of philosophy and religion in respect of the 'freedom' debate.

Rousseau ought to have said, 'Man is born deluded, and doesn't see the chains that permanently enslave him.' But would that slogan start a revolution?

Weird Scientists?

Are scientists social inadequates with less-than-inspiring sex lives? Or perhaps absent-minded, ham-fisted eccentrics? Dull anoraks who can't hold a decent conversation? Or what about cold, detached monsters with a penchant for amoral experimentation? The media have long had a field day playing with these unflattering portrayals of scientists, but do they have any basis in reality?

In The Birth of Tragedy, the radical German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proposed that there were two elements guiding human behaviour. He labelled these Dionysian and Apollonian in honour of two contrasting Greek gods. The Dionysian element is hot-blooded, impulsive and anarchic, the Apollonian cool, measured and controlled. Dionysus, the itinerant god of wine, represents intoxication, a wild world of passion and riotous lack of inhibition. Apollo, the god of light, breathes the rarefied air of Mt. Olympus and is dispassionate, critical and rational. Dionysus, the rebel, spends his time in the pub like your average arts student while Apollo, the dutiful academic, wears spectacles and a Parka and is usually found swotting in the library.

We're all part Dionysian and part Apollonian but how much of each? We can construct nine different personality types:

1) Weakly Dionysian/weakly Apollonian: Individuals of this type are passionless and dim-witted. They are simpletons, harmless village idiots.

2)   Weakly Dionysian/averagely Apollonian: These are averagely intelligent people lacking the spark of life. They are wallflowers. They go through life rather invisibly, never causing any harm, never doing much in particular. Grey people.

3)   Weakly Dionysian/strongly Apollonian: We have all come across bright individuals who seem content to dig the garden all day long: they don't have sufficient passion to motivate themselves to make proper use of their abilities. They lack ambition and self-esteem. Nothing engages their interest for very long. The disparity between their Dionysian and Apollonian attributes can give rise to psychological disorders. This is a tragic category: a waste of talent.

4)   Averagely Dionysian/weakly Apollonian: These are averagely passionate but rather unintelligent individuals - the underclass.

5)  Averagely Dionysian/averagely Apollonian: Mr and Mrs Average. They watch soap operas and devour tabloid newspapers. They are the 'glorious' bedrock of democracy.

6) Averagely Dionysian/strongly Apollonian: The typical scientist. The scientist's intelligence outweighs his passion, but not to an unhealthy extent. Nevertheless, he can come across as unexciting, unemotional and overly controlled. He will rarely be spontaneous, and never the life and soul of the party. Being more preoccupied with ideas than feelings, he may well strike people as inconsiderate, intolerant, aloof and unsympathetic. He is boring to people who aren't interested in ideas. Mind rather than body-centred, he may well display physical clumsiness. Moreover, his tunnel vision may make him forgetful of the humdrum details of life. The absent-minded professor.

7)  Strongly Dionysian/weakly Apollonian: We turn from the noble to the dangerous - the criminal class. These individuals are high in passion and low in intelligence. They react instantly, with little or no thought. There are few restraints on their behaviour. In Freudian terms, they are the "Id" made incarnate. There is no Superego counterbalance to regulate their conduct.

8)  Strongly Dionysian/averagely Apollonian: Most public figures belong here as do psychopaths and arts students! Film stars, pop stars, actors, poets, politicians and many writers belong here too, as do rapists, gangster bosses and newspaper proprietors and editors. Most of what makes life "colourful" is here.

9)   Strongly Dionysian/strongly Apollonian: This is the pick of the bunch - the Nietzschean "Superman" category, reserved for a tiny number of extraordinary human beings. The greatest sculptors, poets and painters belong here; individuals who combine tremendous passion with intelligence of the highest order. The most controversial and incendiary philosophers, composers and writers find their natural home amongst the highest peaks and deepest depths. This is the swirling, tempestuous kingdom of heaven and hell combined. Nietzsche himself is the supreme representative. He was a professor of philology at 24. He became a stunningly talented writer and philosopher, an unrivalled psychologist. He undoubtedly had scientific merit too. Scientists and mathematicians are not excluded from this landscape. The likes of Newton and Pascal belong here, but not too many other scientists and mathematicians. The air is too passionate to be conducive to calm thinking. Newton and Pascal (and Nietzsche himself) were forced to sever virtually all human contact to find peace to think. Many of the astonishing individuals in this last category are so riven by the war between their passion and their reason that they go mad (as Nietzsche himself did).

Nietzsche eventually realised that even Apollo had to be partially Dionysian since Apollo's forte - clear thinking - is itself a passionate (and therefore Dionysian) activity. No one thinks for thinking's sake. Thinking is always a means to an end, and the end is something for which we must have a passion or we wouldn't be interested in reaching it. One of the greatest errors of Western philosophy was to set up Reason and Desire (Mind and Body) in opposition. In fact, there's no realm of 'Pure Reason.' Reason is the pragmatic tool humankind uses to further the ends of its desires. It has no independent existence. Since Reason is subservient to Desire, Nietzsche made Apollo subservient to Dionysus; the Apollonian merely an aspect of the Dionysian. Not content with that, he then declared himself Dionysus.

Mastering Change: Is the Management Bed Too Small For You?

The unsung hero of most major companies, plc's and corporations isn't the sort of person you would expect. Damastes, a robber of ancient Greek vintage, inflicted a bizarre torture on the unfortunates who came his way. He possessed an iron bed upon which he forced his many victims to lie. He lopped off the limbs of those longer than the bed until they fitted; he stretched those who were too short. For this reason, he was nicknamed Procrustes ('Stretcher') and this is the name by which he's better known.

The adjective Procrustean has entered our language to describe any situation in which individuals are forced to conform to a rigid mould. Most large companies, seeing in Procrustes the ideal symbol of control, have made him their unofficial patron saint. They would never admit such a thing, of course, just as Procrustes never revealed his dark secret until his prey were rendered helpless.

What companies either fail to realize, or perhaps actively desire, is that their Procrustean policies stifle innovation and make creative expression impossible. A degree of control is necessary in any organisation, but all too soon every aspect of a company can be so strictly regulated that there's no scope for individualism. Group think - management by committee - dominates every activity, with the usual inefficient, bureaucratic outcome.

In the business world, creativity and unorthodoxy should be recognised as key factors in giving companies a competitive advantage. However, truly creative and unorthodox individuals often suffer the indignity of being labelled 'dysfunctional' by rule-bound, middle-management apparatchiks. Many personnel officers, citing Saint Procrustes, have made a career out of stigmatising such people. In Procrustean organisations, employees are forced to 'shape up' to the prevailing suffocating culture or 'ship out'. Those who ship out are, more often than not, precisely those mould-breaking iconoclasts whom the company can't afford to lose if it genuinely wishes to change its ways.

An underclass of creative individuals exists whose dismal fate it is to flit from one company to another. Wherever they go they fail to fit in. Their curse -and their unique gift is that they are allergic to too many rules, to too much regimentation of their lives. Yet any company inspired enough to cultivate these individuals would find itself harnessing a remarkable source of energy, one that could rapidly transform the company. No company can afford the luxury ofnot courting these men and women.

So, how does a company, which has spent years scrupulously imposing tight controls on its staff, release the somewhat anarchic powers of creativity? To answer this question we must return to Procrustes' bed. If this were designed to accommodate the average individual, only those markedly shorter or longer would undergo severe mutilation.

By analogy, most people in a company don't feel unduly hindered by the various rules, restrictions and petty attitudes imposed by HR. It's only the exceptional individuals who champ at the bit. So, there should be one law for the majority and a separate one for the creative minority.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the supreme champion of the individual, furnishes the intellectual underpinning of this type of approach. Every company should have a creative unit of strong individuals who wouldn't prosper in conventional areas of the company. This creative unit should have an entirely different management style, personnel policies and recruitment strategies. It has to be a complete contrast to the mainstream: the antidote, in fact.

Any company far-sighted enough to introduce a two-tier system of rules, procedures and attitudes will avoid rediscovering the fate of Procrustes he had the same treatment meted out to him that he visited on his victims. The man who brought it about was Theseus, the same hero who later slew the Minotaur in the Labyrinth. Monsters always perish at the hands of heroic individuals and that's something Britain's monstrous business leaders should bear in mind. It's time to ditch Procrustes: his type of bed is no longer in fashion.

The Many Uses of Rose-tinted Spectacles

When Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, 'Hell is other people,' he was making one of the great statements of realpolitik - the politics of realism. Idealistic, optimistic and moralistic individuals might like to favour the adage that frequently appears in the windows of Irish-themed bars: Strangers are only friends we haven't met yet. Why doesn't it enter their heads that perhaps strangers are enemies we've been fortunate enough to avoid thus far?

In the business world, how many CEOs would acknowledge that many of their employees hate each other, and actively make life difficult for one another? If that weren't the case, these employees would be exceptional, quite unlike the rest of us. So, instead of pretending it's not happening why not confront it and try to put it to good use?

Too often, employees have been regaled by glossy, utopian management initiatives - devised by smiling American gurus - that allegedly point to management heaven. These schemes are useless because they're decoupled from what actually happens in the workplace, but they appeal to embattled CEOs, striving to placate shareholders and provide the illusion of constructive change.

No company likes to think of its workforce as a seething mass of resentment, frustration, jealousy, loathing, cynicism, apathy, disrespect, bitterness, conflict...yet these ingredients are invariably present in any group of people. management approach that acknowledges this will be more successful than one that pretends there are no unsavoury elements.

CEOs want their workers to respect each other, support each other, all pull together. But some employees are lazy, inept, fully deserving of the sack. Are we to respect, support and pull together with these employees? To what end? Should we not be trying to dismiss them for the good of the company? (How would we achieve this - particularly if they happened to be our bosses?) An 'idealistic' CEO doesn't wish to acknowledge the existence of bad employees: a realistic CEO knows they exist and wants to know how best to deal with them. While the idealistic CEO talks in patronising platitudes about model employees, the realistic CEO gets on with the real job, and his real workforce, warts and all.

Nowhere will the differences between idealism and realism appear more clearly than in the crucial area of change. Starting from a culture uncomfortable with change, how do we create a new culture eager for it?

An idealistic CEO thinks his employees' discomfort comes from lack of encouragement rather than any inherent defects. He decides that preaching is needed. Reams of literature are produced, and glossy videos made. Senior managers tour every part of the company, every employee is invited to a "conversion" weekend at a plush hotel, new training courses are established, with refreshers every six months. This impressive bombardment, so the theory goes, will ensure every employee gets the message.

A realpolitikal CEO regards this approach as fatuous. A passion for change goes hand-in-hand with a deep loathing of the current situation. You don't induce hatred of the status quo through bland management-speak. The hatred comes from within, from a restlessness and ambition that someone either possesses or doesn't. It's an inner fire that words can nurture, but didn't light.

So what will the realpolitikal CEO do? He scours his company for those who, as part of their nature, possess the qualities his new vision demands. If he places those individuals in positions of power, radical change inevitably follows because these individuals love change and thrive on it. Unlike the majority, they're intoxicated by the risks inherent in change.

The upshot is that the company of the realpolitikal CEO soon enjoys genuine and profound change, at low cost. The idealistic CEO, conversely, will have spent a fortune and nothing will truly have altered.

There's scarcely a single example of a company that isn't trenchantly Procrustean. Employees must 'shape up' or 'ship out'. If the prevailing culture is staid, stultifying and stupid (the customary state of affairs), the people who will be shipping out are precisely those dynamic, adventurous individuals the company can't afford to lose if it wishes to change.

A company that aspires to be extraordinary must be seeded with extraordinary individuals. Extraordinary individuals require extraordinary treatment. Where is the company willing to adopt Nietzsche's proudest statement as the motto for the cream of its employees: 'We are the new, the unique, the incomparable, those who impose on themselves their own law, those who create themselves!'