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On occasion, if you read blogs written by rationalists, you’ll come across posts that start with a notice about their epistemic status. This is particularly the case when such status is still fluid, i.e. the post is highly speculative. Given that this might be the most speculative post I’ve ever done, perhaps I should follow suit:

[Epistemic status: wildly speculative, mixes religion, science, and neurology in a way that is almost certainly overly simplistic, and furthermore advances a “this explains everything” argument which obviously overlooks much of the subtlety and complexity of our moment. All that aside I think there’s something to it….]

Many things came together to create the theory I’m about to expound. And I’m hoping that if I lay these things out as sort of a foundation, that you might see the same connections I did. So let’s start with that.

I.

I just barely mentioned religion, and we might as well get that out of the way. For the non-religious out there who might be worried, I assure you that the religious element is not necessary for the rest of the argument, but there’s a specific parable I heard long ago that encapsulates what I think is one of the central insights. This parable was given in a speech all the way back in 1977, by Boyd K. Packer, an apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS/Mormon). It went something like this:

There once was a man who wanted something very much, and went into debt to get it. Under the terms of the debt, payment was due in its entirety many years later. And while the debtor didn’t entirely ignore the debt, when it eventually came due he had paid off only a small faction of it. And it was only then he realized that if he couldn’t pay the debt in full that the creditor would send him to prison. In deathly fear of being imprisoned, he pleads for mercy. In response the creditor demands justice. Both justice and mercy are important principles, but it’s clear that in this case you can’t have both, if the creditor forgives the debt, that’s merciful, but it would ignore the justice of his claim, on the other hand if the creditor throws the debtor into prison this would be just, but no one would say that it is also merciful. 

Fortunately a friend of the debtor intervenes. He pays off the creditor, thus fulfilling the demands of justice, while also rescuing the debtor from prison, and thus also fulfilling the demands of mercy. In the process he restructures the debt into something the debtor can conceivably pay. (This being a religious parable the friend represents Jesus, and his paying off the debt is analogous to the way in which Jesus paid for our sins.) For our purposes I want to take away three things:

  1. The conflicting demands of justice and mercy.
  2. The need for a third party to resolve this conflict.
  3. The idea that mercy doesn’t eliminate the debt, but it does restructure it into something that can be paid.

The next piece in my foundation is the play Fences by August Wilson. I first saw it at the nearby Pioneer Theater a few years ago, and I remember, at the time, expecting it to be about a noble black father and his family who had been thwarted by 1950s racism. And to a certain degree it was, but the main character, Troy, was also a deeply flawed individual, and at the time I left with mixed feelings. It was hard to take the side of someone who *spoiler alert* had cheated on his utterly faithful wife, Rose, only admitted to the affair when his mistress got pregnant, refused to stop seeing his mistress even then, and finally, when his mistress died in childbirth, asked his wife to help raise a child that wasn’t hers. But then, a few weeks ago, I watched the movie adaptation with Denzel Washington as Troy and Viola Davis as Rose (btw I cannot praise the acting highly enough, they were both beyond amazing) and I finally realized that rather than marring the play, Troy’s “sins” were what made the play a masterpiece.

This realization had an interesting impact on the way I view the current BLM protests, and while I understand trying to make this connection might get me in trouble, I think it nevertheless might be an important one. That first time around I wanted Fences to be a straightforward tale of injustice, of a black family and a black father that could have been successful except for the injustice of racism. In a similar fashion I think the people protesting also see things as a straightforward case of injustice, of black families who could have been successful except for the injustice of racism. Not only is that narrative attractive, it’s simple, probably too simple, because just like the story of Troy in Fences, the story of race and racism is a complicated mix of justice and mercy, of things that should have been done much better, and other things where people did the best they could. In the play Rose knew that despite all the wrongs which had been done to her, that it was still important to keep her family together, and that justice for Troy would have meant injustice for the daughter, and so she raised the daughter of her husband’s mistress, but in the process declared to Troy, that “you’re a womanless man.” Thus mercy and justice were both served but it took the sacrifice of a third person.

Unfortunately, no straightforward policy recommendations fall out of this observation. Though I think the need for more mercy among all the parties to the current unrest is self-evident. I also admit that it’s not entirely clear who the third party is that needs to make a sacrifice so that both justice and mercy can be served in this situation. But despite that it does serve as another point towards my claim that perfect justice is not only unattainable, but in conflict with many other important values, especially mercy. 

The final piece of the foundation is a book I’m reading, The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. It’s a book about hemispheric differences within the brain, and it’s yet another one of these very dense, massive books, clocking in at nearly 600 pages, and as I alluded to I’m not done, but for the purposes of this subject McGIlchrist makes two very important points. First that hemispheric differences are real, though much more nuanced than popular culture has led us to believe. And that the increasing dominance of the left hemisphere is responsible for much of what makes Western culture unique, but also responsible for much of what ails it as well.

As I said it’s a massive and densely argued book, and I’ll get into it more in my month end round-up, but for our purposes the key difference between the two hemispheres is that the left is the half that focuses in on something, and breaks it down into parts, while the right is the half that assembles discrete things into a coherent whole. The title of the book comes from a story Nietzsche told about a spiritual master who manages a large domain, and while his concerns must be for the whole domain, and everything associated with it, he does occasionally need to focus on specific places, and urgent issues. To do this he appoints an emissary who can act in his name and go forth to deal with localized problems, or perhaps gather the knowledge the master needs. In this analogy the right brain is the master, and the left brain is the emissary, but McGilchrist contends that the emissary has usurped the authority of the master, and it’s this imbalance, this perversion of the way things should work that’s causing many of our modern problems. 

It’s at this point, in an attempt to ground my theory in actual neurology, that I make my biggest conceptual leap. And believe me I’m aware that I’m doing it, but I’m hoping that you’ll at least stick with me to the end of the post before you pass judgement. That plea in place, my core observation is that we are currently suffering from an overactive drive for justice, and that at a larger level this overactive drive for justice is part of a dangerously ascendant left hemisphere. That to a certain extent we have a neurological problem. More controversially, I’m going to make the claim that it is useful to equate left hemisphere attributes to the concept of justice and right hemisphere attributes to the concept of mercy. 

It’s not my intention to give a full review of McGilchrist’s book at this point. For the moment I just want to bring him in as a buttress for my theory, but in order to do that, some additional context would be helpful. McGilchrist places the start of this trend of leftward ascendence at the start of Western civilization and philosophy, especially Plato, and in bringing his book to bear, I’m not willing to go that far, but we don’t have to in order for this theory to have some predictive power. You can even imagine that the left and the right hemisphere’s are in perfect harmony up until the end of the last century, all you have to accept is that the left hemisphere is all about the specific. It’s the half of the brain that reaches out to grasp something. And my argument is that even if this “grasping” nature is unchanged since our first ancestors descended out of the trees, that modern technology, and social media in particular has led to a sky-rocketing in the number of things available to grasp. That a profusion of stories, and anecdotes, and data, and hypotheses and accusations rather than being our salvation is proving to be our doom.

II.

While the three things above proved to be the theoretical foundation of my hypothesis, the practical expression of it hit me while I was putting together my last post. For those who may have missed it, I spent nearly 5000 words examining just one tiny set of data: police officers killed since 1965 by left or right wing extremists as reported by the Anti-defamation League. It is possible that I exhausted what could be said about those numbers, but I suspect not, and even if I did, I reached no unassailable conclusion. At best I demonstrated that the ADL had incorrectly interpreted the numbers to emphasize right-wing extremism, but that was about the extent of it. So I spent 5000 words on a very focused examination of a small set of data, and ended up without much to show for it, and as I went through this laborious exercise, it hit me, data isn’t the solution, it’s the problem

That’s a pretty bold statement, and many people are going to start by questioning not the last half of that statement but the first half, the idea that the bulk of people have an ideology driven by evidence and facts, so let’s start by tackling that. Obviously the scientific revolution happened centuries ago, but I would argue that it didn’t percolate down to the “masses” until after World War II. As just one data point, the number of people graduating from high school doubled between 1940 and 1970 going from around 40% to around 80%. As a consequence of this and other trends just about everyone absorbed some part of the scientific method, with all of its associated recommendations: backing up arguments with data, the way in which biases can influence data, etc. And not only was the importance of the scientific method impressed upon the minds of nearly everyone, more importantly, they also had revealed to them the great reward this methodology could provide. If it were followed it would spit out the (blog) Truth. And once you had the (blog) Truth, you could use it to pursue (blog) Justice! Furthermore, and most distressingly, if your Justice was based on objective, data-driven, verifiable (blog) Truth, there would be no need for mercy. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This state of things was already pretty well developed when the internet, and later social media arrived on the scene, and their advent only served to make things worse. First by creating an even greater emphasis on data and evidence. (I know that the internet seems like a cesspool of biases and baseless insults, but it’s also equally full of people challenging and/or providing evidence for every assertion.) And second by vastly increasing the amount of data available. 

This is the world we live in. For what still seem like very good reasons, we have spent decades emphasizing the values of science, testing, experimentation, data, etc. And we expected this sanctification of data to lead us to an evidence based progressive and technological utopia. But it hasn’t happened and for the longest time the feeling has been that we’ve just needed to push harder. Place an even greater emphasis on evidence and rationality, but I would say that among the many “gifts” 2020 has brought us, one would have to be a realization that this approach is definitely not working. Why? 

Well after reading McGilchrist, one theory would be that this whole drive is not a solution to the problem, but a symptom of it. That an emphasis on evidence, and discrete bits of data has not come about because we’re all committed scientists, but because it’s the perfect tool for an out of control left hemisphere trapped in a positive feedback loop. In other words, and I want to be very clear about this, what we’re seeing is not a failure of science but a perversion of it. Certainly the behavior we’re seeing is exactly how McGilchist describes what happens when the emissary usurps the master. From the book we read that:

  • The left hemisphere offers simple answers.
  • The left hemisphere needs certainty and needs to be right.
  • The left hemisphere is not keen on taking responsibility.
  • The left hemisphere is conformist, largely indifferent to discrepancies. 
  • The left hemisphere [possesses a] narrow focused attentional beam.
  • And finally, Reductionism has become a disease, a viewpoint lacking both intellectual sophistication and emotional depth.

I assume that at this point most people would like to see these points applied to something specific. Something that’s happening right now. So let’s take that most infamous of all current conspiracy theories: QAnon

III.

It’s possible that you are entirely unfamiliar with the QAnon theory, or that you only recently heard about it after Marjorie Taylor Greene, a supporter of the theory, won the Republican primary for Georgia’s 14th Congressional district, putting her on a probable path to win the election in November in heavily Republican Georgia. And to be clear I’m not claiming to be any kind of expert but I think I know enough about it and have interacted with enough people who believe it to explain how it fits into the framework I laid out above. 

To begin with I need to start by clearing up some misunderstandings and incorrect assumptions. The most common being that the conspiracy is baseless. And before you unleash on me, allow me to explain what I mean by that. When talking about QAnon people will mention that it’s fringe, or crazy, or something else essentially synonymous with the sentence immediately following the initial description in the Wikipedia article, “No part of the theory has been shown to be based in fact.”

I fully agree with all of these statements, but the problem is that this leads people to misunderstand the phenomenon, to assume that QAnon supporters are ignoring data and evidence, when in fact it’s the opposite they’re fixated on the data and evidence. This is not to say that the evidence and data would not be more properly characterized as a collection of anecdotes, or that it fits into anything resembling a broader model of the world, or that it’s not entirely circumstantial or that the evidence doesn’t follow from the theory rather than the theory following from the evidence. But rather to say they’re fixated on data and evidence in exactly the fashion you would expect from an overactive left hemisphere after reading McGilchrist’s book. Returning to the attributes I pulled from McGilchrist’s book:

The left hemisphere offers simple answers.

The whole point of conspiracies is they offer simple answers. The idea that there’s a worldwide cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who are running things, and that Trump is the only person who can stop them, is a pretty simple tale of good and evil. 

The left hemisphere needs certainty and needs to be right.

There is a lot of uncertainty in this world, and whatever else may be said of QAnon, it’s a worldview that’s far simpler than the real one. Further it allows people to justify their support for Trump. He wasn’t the best out of two bad options, he’s the only thing standing between us and Satanic pedophiles. And voting for him was the right thing to do.

The left hemisphere is not keen on taking responsibility.

Trump has made numerous mistakes as president. With QAnon it’s easy to avoid responsibility for those mistakes because they were all in service of a much more important goal. It’s everyone else that needs to be held responsible for tolerating the worldwide cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles.

The left hemisphere is conformist, largely indifferent to discrepancies. 

Certainly among some groups being a QAnon supporter is being a conformist, but obviously being indifferent to discrepancies is the attribute that really applies here because there are lots of discrepancies.

The left hemisphere [possesses a] narrow focused attentional beam.

This may be one of the best descriptions of what QAnon looks like that I’ve come across, it’s a narrow focused beam of attention which has all the time in the world to think about Epstein and the people who associated with him and very little time for anything that doesn’t fit the theory.

And finally, Reductionism has become a disease, a viewpoint lacking both intellectual sophistication and emotional depth.

Replace reductionism with QAnon and the statement remains just as true.

But beyond all of this, and most important for my purposes, QAnon is a search for justice. To the extent that Epstein and his many crimes serve as the kernel of QAnon, you could say that justice obviously wasn’t served. Epstein was a very, very bad dude. And while I’m not certain he didn’t kill himself (how could you be) I don’t think we can discount it either. But they have taken this kernel and allowed their left-brained thirst for justice to grow so large that it encompasses incidents and individuals who almost certainly were guilty of no more than being naive or in the wrong place at the wrong time, or maybe even nothing whatsoever. But I would still argue that justice is a huge part of it. It’s a simple theory where they end up in the position of both being the only ones who are right, and also the heroes. And in addition to bringing to justice all the pedophiles they also get to reverse the grave injustices which have been done to Trump, who really has been the target of an enormous amount of hate. How much of that hate is deserved or whether hate is ever appropriate I leave for the listener to decide.

Now, lest you think that this is only a phenomenon of extremists on the right, I would argue that if anything the list is more widely applicable to what’s currently happening on the left. At the risk of making this post ridiculously long (too late?) Let’s go through the list again and apply it to the current protests. 

The left hemisphere offers simple answers.

“White Fragility” and “Systemic Racism” are all pretty simple and straightforward answers to what is actually a devilishly complex problem. To this you might add assertions like, “Race and Gender don’t exist.” A statement that simplifies things almost to the point of ridiculousness. 

The left hemisphere needs certainty and needs to be right.

Obviously as I go through this list, the observations being made are my observations. But when I see the protesters chanting and yelling, the overwhelming impression I come away with is their absolute certainty in the justice of their cause, and their unassailable moral correctness.

The left hemisphere is not keen on taking responsibility.

George Floyd had a large amount of fentanyl in his system, but to even suggest that he might have been the tiniest bit responsible for what happened to him is essentially inconceivable. (Which is why, to be clear, I am also not suggesting that.) And in a broader context any discussion of responsibility that doesn’t involve racism by white people is also inconceivable. 

The left hemisphere is conformist, largely indifferent to discrepancies. 

The degree and speed to which people pledged their support to Black Lives Matter was frankly astonishing. It would be difficult to find something post 9/11 which had greater public support. Nor is there much tolerance for discrepancies, for example the inconvenient discrepancy in the narrative illustrated by the Ferguson Effect. Something I keep bringing up.

The left hemisphere [possesses a] narrow focused attentional beam.

As many people have remarked on, it was amazing how fast attention shifted from COVID to BLM. And how long that beam has been focused on a single killing, when killings of one sort or another happen nearly every hour of every day in the US.

And finally, Reductionism has become a disease, a viewpoint lacking both intellectual sophistication and emotional depth.

I believe I covered this one in my post, Things Are More Complicated Than You Think (BLM) and also several of the posts that followed it. 

After applying this list to both sides, I feel like McGilchrist’s theory has a lot of explanatory power. That people are looking at the data and evidence, but in a monomaniacal fashion which throws away the actual world which is messy, nuanced and complicated and replaces it with a simpler world of good guys and bad guys, of righteous acts and heinous atrocities. That, in other words people have dispensed with mercy, and are interested only in justice. They have beheld the world and passed absolute judgement upon it.

IV.

We covered a lot of territory in those first three parts so I’m going to try to bring it all together, but let’s take a different path. This time around let’s start with people doing things we disagree with and consider stupid. Let’s assume that we’re even correct, that these things are stupid, that we’re not suffering from our own biases, our own overactive left-hemisphere. How do we get these people to stop doing these stupid things? One method, which has been drilled into us since we started school is to prove that these things are stupid. How do we prove that these things are stupid? With evidence and data!

But we immediately run into several problems with this approach.

  1. There are mountains of data out there, and not only is that mountain growing it’s growing faster than it ever has.
  2. Even if the majority of the data supports one position there is always going to be data that supports the opposite position. Plus point 1 makes it even more difficult to survey enough data to determine what constitutes a majority.
  3. The only choice left is to focus in on a selection of data or to prioritize certain pieces of evidence over other pieces of evidence.
  4. But as I showed in my last post, not only can a narrow focused reading of the data back up nearly any position, but it becomes a positive feedback loop of validation and the push for more focus. This is particularly dangerous if McGilchrist is right about the prevalence of overactive left hemispheres.
  5. Even if McGilchrist isn’t right, we still have to grapple with things like confirmation bias, selection effect, echo chambers and the memefication of discourse.

As I went through that list I kind of ended up lumping together both sides of things. As in the side where you dispense wisdom and the side where you receive (or gather) wisdom. But both suffer from the same problems. Whatever knowledge you’ve received through this method is bound to be fragmentary and biased, but in spite of this it also ends up laden with certainty, both because of its perceived scientific basis, but also because, as we’ve seen, that’s how the left hemisphere operates. And then when you turn to the project of dispensing that info, of explaining what a just world looks like, you run into the same problems, and that’s even if the person you’re dispensing it to is a blank slate. It’s actually far more likely that they have followed this same procedure and ended up with their own completely different vision of a just world, also imbued with the certainty that comes from focused but fragmentary evidence.

This idea that people don’t respond to facts and evidence is well covered territory (though hopefully I’ve approached it from a very different angle) and is so often the case, Scott Alexander, of Slate Star Codex’s contribution to the discussion is particularly brilliant. He argued that rhetoric and other similar tools are available to both sides and indeed any side of a debate, and thus the side you’re on accrues no inherent advantage by using these tools. But if the tool you’re using is the truth, then it does give you an advantage over those without it, even if that truth is hard to communicate, and percolates outward only very slowly. I have no strong disagreements with this view and indeed I’ve forwarded that post to many people, but I think it needs to be amended to include everything I’ve mentioned above.

More specifically I would argue that there’s a way of getting at something which feels a lot like the (blog) Truth, through a method that looks a lot like Science! A way that comes naturally to us, probably because we’re dealing with an overactive left-hemisphere, but that this is exactly the path that helped to get us into this mess. And that the most natural takeaway of a post like Alexander’s is to put people on this same path. I would amend it to guide people towards a path that is more subtle, and less certain, but that ultimately leads to deeper truths. If McGilchrist is correct it’s because this would be a more right-brained approach, but even if he’s not, I think it’s clear that we’ve been way too focused on data and evidence, and not enough on a broader picture of the interrelated nature of the world. Or to put it even more simply, that Alexander’s rationalism is best applied in service of mercy not justice. (For awhile that last bit was going to be the title of this post.)

This post is already 50% longer than one of my normal posts, and those were already too long. So I’d better wrap it up. Though I had a lot more thoughts on this subject. Some of which will hopefully appear when I review The Master and His Emissary, some of which may be developed in future posts. (This post should be considered a very rough draft of these ideas, a first pass on a collection of topics that’s pretty complex.) And some of which I’m going to quickly spit out here at the end.

  • I’m not sure how well it worked to frame all of this as a conflict between mercy and justice, but if this idea is to have any impact, it has to eventually take a form that’s easy to understand. Mercy and justice was my stab at that.
  • To put this in context with some of my other recent posts. One of the most important developments of classical liberalism is the creation of mediation and the rule of law, which acts as the third party I mentioned at the very beginning the party required to balance the demands of justice and mercy which are otherwise incompatible.
  • One problem with a more right brained approach is that if the right brain is The Master in charge of the entire empire, that empire is vastly greater today than it was for our hunter-gatherer/agrarian/medieval-village-dwelling ancestors. And it might be that it’s too big and too complex to allow for a return to a “right-brain” mode.
  • I think there’s an interesting connection between this topic and the discussion of theodicy that I mentioned in my review of A Secular Age. Theodicy deals with the evil in all of us, and mercy and justice are ways of coming to terms with our own evil. I mentioned that lately an alternative has come to the fore whereby if someone takes on the mantle of victimhood they can claim absolute innocence while placing 100% of the guilt on their oppressor. This is both, justice taken to its extreme, as I’ve discussed, and also a pretty left-brained view of things as well.

If you’ve made it this far I appreciate it. This ended up rougher and more scattered than I had hoped, that said I think I’m on to something here, and I’d love to know if you agree, and love to know even more if you disagree, and particularly what part you disagree with. If you take away nothing else I hope that in some respect I demonstrated, however strangely, the importance of mercy. Something that seems like a quaint and outdated concept, but perhaps that just means that it’s needed now more than ever.


There was a time when people were paid by the word. This is one of those posts where I wish that was the deal I had. Instead I get paid by my patrons, if that’s you, thanks! If it’s not, perhaps consider it? These long posts are even harder than they look.