Why modern science sucks

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”

Hanlon’s Razor

Those looking for an explanation for the absurdly dysfunctional state of modern western society usually turn to one of two explanations. Either the problems are caused by individual leaders and their failings e.g. a senile Biden, a narcissistic Trudeau or a clownish Boris Johnson, or they are the deliberate attempt on the part of some group of masterminds to bring about a new world order; in other words, a conspiracy theory.

Part of the reason why these explanations are preferred is because they allow the possibility of redress. You can vote out an idiot leader and get a better one. And a conspiracy theory can be unearthed and held to justice.

The large-scale conspiracy theory is also quite flattering to the human ego. It implies a team of evil super geniuses who are so intelligent they that they are able to pull the strings of all nation states simultaneously turning the leaders of countries into puppets while hiding their nefarious intent from the general public. It’s pleasing to think that we are capable of that level of intelligence and competence. It’s also a comforting thought because the bad guys can be brought to justice. All we have to do is uncover their dastardly plot and bring them before the courts. The German lawyer, Reiner Füllmich, has been playing on this idea right from the start of corona with promises of convictions against those who pushed the “public health” measures. Unless I missed the news, none of his attempts have succeeded.

In this post we’ll sketch out an alternative explanation which is that the system itself is the problem. When the system is the problem it becomes really hard, maybe even impossible, for individuals to make a difference. I have seen such a dynamic with my own eyes in the form of dysfunctional organisations where new management was brought in to fix things. These were intelligent people who knew what was wrong and had a plan to make it right. But organisations are systems and systems have their own dynamic that is independent of any of the individuals involved. A system also has an external context that affects it. An organisation in a dying industry cannot be saved no matter how smart the people who are trying to save it. For these reasons and others, the system-based explanation is less gratifying and therefore less popular. But that doesn’t make it less truthful.

We’ll use the example of modern science to explore this concept because the question of whether science is corrupt or incompetent has become quite urgent in the last two years as we have watched the corona debacle unfold.

There are at least two underlying assumptions in our general culture when it comes to science. Firstly is the idea that anybody can do science as long as they have access to education. We can represent this graphically as follows:

That is, everybody has the same amount of innate ability to do science and the only thing preventing them from realising that ability is a proper education.

The second assumption is that all science problems are equally solvable which we can represent as follows:

Another way of saying this is that all science problems are equally complex. If you assign equal resources (time, money, people) you will get equal results.

Let’s look at a different model for both of these using the “Zipf curve” which has been shown to hold across numerous domains. Note that the Zipf curve matches the Marginal Benefit curve used in economics to capture the concept of diminishing returns.

What this graph aims to capture is the idea that the more people you train in “science” the less quality of scientist you get. This can be for reasons of nature or nurture (or a combination of both). The innate talents required to become a high quality scientist are not shared equally in the population and we would expect something like a Zipf curve to represent the distribution of those talents in the same way that not everybody has the collection of talents required to become a professional athlete.

When it comes to intellectual matters, you might argue that we could make up the difference in talent through education. But even if that were true, it would be more costly to educate the less talented people as they will need more time to develop their skills and knowledge. Once again you would run into a Zipf curve where the Marginal Benefit from education falls because the Marginal Cost rises. If we further assume that the talent pool of science educators is also a Zipf curve, then the quality of education would fall the more people get educated because there aren’t enough good teachers to teach them. Either way, you still end up with a curve of diminishing returns.

But what happens if the domain of “science problems” is also a Zipf curve? This would look as follows.

What this curve describes is the “low hanging fruit” dynamic. The problem domain of science is not equally distributed. There are a set of problems which are more simple and therefore more easily solved while the majority of problems are more complex.

If we combine these two concepts we get a story about the evolution of science. In a time of resource constraint such as in the 1800s, only the most talented people become scientists (assuming a relatively merit-based system of resource allocation). Those scientists will be working on the relatively simple problems in the field and therefore they produce the most valuable results. Everybody gets excited by the results and as wealth accumulates we throw more resources into the field expecting even more impressive results.

The extra resources would produce more results if the curves for ability and simplicity were flat. But they are not. They are Zipf curves. What happens, therefore, is that less capable scientists are put to work on more complex problems i.e. the intersection of the two diminishing Marginal Benefit curves. We spend more money to get fewer, less valuable results. But even though the Marginal Benefit falls, the overall cost-benefit equation might still be positive.

The problem of diminishing returns is exacerbated by a third consideration. More resources means more people are working on “science” and adding more people reduces the quality of communication. The following diagram is often used to summarise this problem.

Communication becomes more difficult as the number of people involved increases even if the quality of the information remains static. But if less talented people are working on more complex problems, we would expect the information quality to degrade leading to a situation where there is more communication of lower quality information. In short, the signal-to-noise ratio goes to hell.

You can see this dynamic even in small groups. Take a musical band, for example. If there are five people in the band, it only takes one person to be “out” for the whole band to be “out”. Similarly, on a small engineering team if one person doesn’t understand, this effects the overall communication flow because erroneous messaging is introduced and more time needs to be spent correcting the errors. If the person is a line level worker, it’s usually possible to work around them and try and exclude them from communication. But I have been on teams where the person who didn’t understand was the senior manager on the team. It’s a lot harder to move a senior manager out of the way so that things can get done.

A key thing to bear in mind is that a low signal-to-noise ratio won’t appear to be obviously “wrong”. This is true both for the people on the inside doing the work and also to external participants. Noisy communication is worse than the case where communication is “wrong”. Wrong communication is almost as useful as right communication. If you know somebody is always wrong, you just invert whatever they say and now you have truth. You can’t do that with noisy communication. Noisy communication is ambivalent, unclear and confusing. Again, the musical group example is a useful here. A somewhat incompetent band doesn’t sound “wrong” but rather “blah” or “meh”. You shrug your shoulders and say something like “it’s not bad but it’s not good either”. This is in contrast to a band like Nickelback who are technically proficient musicians that happen to make bad music.

When the signal-to-noise ratio is low, it becomes far more difficult to show that something is wrong because there are no clear and obvious errors. There is no smoking gun that will set the record straight and restore order. Rather, there is an accumulation of numerous small errors which are much harder and more time consuming to identify and correct. In a small group such as a band, it’s possible to find the weak link (usually the drummer) and get rid of them. In larger groups it becomes far more difficult and in really large organisations like corporations and government departments it’s as good as impossible.

It’s important to understand that this dynamic of noise accumulation occurs before politics, commercial money and the enormous egos of billionaires and celebrities gets involved to make things even more confusing. Corona provides a useful case study. There was never any reason to believe that the mRNA vaccines would work to end a pandemic. The science had not proven the matter one way or another. To put it in terms we have been using, the science had a low signal-to-noise ratio. This meant it was possible to believe that the vaccines “might” work. After all, anything “might” happen. Once upon a time, science was about “laws” and was founded upon hard-nosed cause and effect relationships that had been empirically proven. That’s the kind of science you see at the “simple” end of the Zipf curve. But as complexity increases, the clarity of understanding diminishes and you no longer have “laws” but “guidelines”.

Once the vaccine question became political, the political imperatives took over and politicians had to gloss over the inherent ambiguity in the science. Thus, we were assured the vaccines were “safe and effective”. Meanwhile, corporations which exist to maximise shareholder value were happy to sell a product when governments indemnified them against legal liability.

It’s not a coincidence that the corona event took place in the domain of viral disease as this is arguably one of the more complex scientific domains. I would place it somewhere about here on the graph. In other words, highly complex.

Note that viral disease as an object of study also has a built-in communication problem because it runs over three separate scientific disciplines: virology, epidemiology and medicine and that’s before you consider the mathematical epidemiologists, the immunologists and other sub-sub-disciplines. Viral disease is firmly in the category of study that the systems thinkers of the 20th century posited was not amenable to reductionist science which means it cannot be simplified to the point where calculation can be done. The best we can do is assemble cross-disciplinary teams to undertake research aimed at obtaining general principles of action. Those general principles were exactly what constituted the public health guidelines that were the accepted wisdom of how to deal with a pandemic prior to March 2020.

The post war period has seen huge amounts of resources pumped into science and yet we have ended up with the “reproducibility crisis”. The reproducibility crisis is just another word for the noise generated by the intersection of multiple diminishing returns. No amount of extra education and training and money will solve the problem. The result is not error but noise and when the noise gets raised to a high enough degree you have a situation where anybody can read into it whatever they like. At that point, science becomes a giant Rorschach Test.

The problem of a low signal-to-noise ratio is not limited to science. Most things in the modern world suffer from it. Everything is “blah” and “meh”. It’s the paradox of success. We have huge resources to apply to problems and we invest those resources into new ventures.  It works for a little while but the law of diminishing returns means that everything quickly turns to mud and the quality of everything falls sharply. This is true in the consumer economy, in the political sphere, in the media, in the arts and in science and technology. Rather than accept this as a fact of life, we pump more resources in until the returns turn negative and that leads to inflation and the debasement not just of the currency but of political, social and cultural capital. We’re pretty far into that dynamic right now and it’ll probably get worse before it gets better.

It’s partly for this reason that societies and cultures seem to peak when strict resource limits are in place. Without limits, the signal-to-noise ratio falls and everything becomes saturated and over-exposed. The noise floor steadily rises until and only those who can shout the loudest get heard. To quote the New Zealand Prime Minister during corona, “we (the government) will be your single source of truth.” The words that usher in the age Caesarism.

Your attention, please

Here’s a strange fact: I can remember every flu I’ve had in my adult life (where “flu” means I was in bed with a fever).

Partly, this is because I can count the number of flus I’ve had on one hand and partly it’s because I’ve always found fever dreams to be interesting. Who needs LSD when you can catch a flu and hallucinate for free? In one particularly memorable flu I had, I remember visualising geometrical shapes for hours and hours. It was like my own personal Pink Floyd lightshow. But it went on so long that it got annoying and I wished I could make it stop. Some years later, I learned how to make fever dreams stop. I’ll tell the story of that shortly.

Down here in Australia, we have been slowly catching up to the rest of the world in covid infections after our initial covid-zero “victory”. I’d say about half of my acquaintances have now had the virus. I know this because everybody who gets the virus loves to tell others about it. Last week an acquaintance of mine was relating their experience. They were explaining how unusual covid was because they had been hallucinating geometric shapes while in bed with a fever, something that had never happened to them before. Based on this fact, they concluded that the sars-cov-2 virus must really have been manufactured in a lab in Wuhan because it “felt unnatural”.

The story resonated with me because their experience of hallucinating geometric shapes sounded identical to the flu I’d had many years ago. Their conclusion about the origins of the virus was also invalid. Specifically, it is based on an error of reasoning sometimes called attentional bias where a person gives undue weight to something just because they are paying attention to it. Learning how to direct your attention is an important skill, especially in the modern world where literally all the institutions in society are fighting to get your attention. It was through directed attention that I was able to make my own fever dreams stop when I had a flu a few years ago.

At the time, I had been working through the exercises in the book “Concentration” by Mouni Sadhu. Sadhu, whose real name was Mieczyslaw Demetriusz Sudowski, was born in Poland, spent WW2 as a prisoner of war and afterwards travelled to India where he undertook Vedanta study in an ashram. He later migrated to Australia where he lived in my home town of Melbourne working a day job as an engineer while practising esoteric spirituality on the side; surely a lonely practice among the rampant bourgeois materialism of the post war years in Australia.

The book “Concentration” is about achieving mastery of your mind. It’s light on theory and heavy on practical work. The core exercise of the book is extremely simple. You take out a pin and hold it in front of your face at a comfortable distance. You must focus your sight on the head of the pin, seeing it as clearly as possible. That’s the easy part. The hard part is that you cannot allow a single other thought to enter your mind while you are staring at the pin. If ones does, you must restart the exercise. You go through this process trying to focus on the pin without interruption from other thoughts. First you aim for 15 seconds of uninterrupted concentration, then 30 seconds, then one minute and then two minutes.

Two minutes doesn’t sound like much but it takes months of daily practice to get there. In the process you learn about the contents of your mind and specifically that you have a whole stream of noise running through it. Some of the noise comes from external sources like television, radio, internet and some from internal sources. Maybe you were listening to a catchy pop song in the morning. The melody will suddenly pop into your head while you’re staring at the pin and you have to start the exercise again. Maybe you’ll start thinking about what you need to buy at the supermarket later or that thing you have planned on the weekend. You have to start again.  Getting to two minutes of uninterrupted concentration is a significant achievement.

I had just reached that goal and had moved on to the next exercise in the book when I came down with the flu. As I was lying in bed with a fever, the usual fever dreams began. I had the idea of trying to apply the concentration method I had learned to make the fever dream go away. I set out to deliberately change the focus of my concentration away from the fever dreams and onto an empty black space. Voila! It worked first time. I was able to turn my mind away from the fever dreams just like I had learned to turn my mind away from random thoughts and focus on the pin. As soon as my concentration slipped, the fever dreams returned.

The ability to do this is of philosophical relevance. The Epicurean philosopher, Lucretius, made the argument a couple of millennia ago that the fact that disease affected the mind was evidence that the mind would expire at death just like the body.

“Since the mind is thus invaded by the contagion of disease, you must acknowledge that it is destructible.”

Lucretius assumed that fever dreams are inevitable. There’s nothing to be done about them except wait until they pass much like the physical disease itself. But if you can control fever dreams and stop your mind being “invaded” by them, then his argument falls apart. This doesn’t prove that the mind exists after death, but it does show that there is a “substance” outside of the mind that can govern the focus of the mind and force it to concentrate on a pin or not concentrate on fever dreams. This substance is the Will.

In the 1800s, exercises that developed the will became very popular in Europe following the publication of Schopenhauer’s “World as Will and Representation”. Many of these exercises involved the deliberate use of the senses. For example, you might set out to notice everything that is coloured red in your neighbourhood. You might go for a walk and deliberately try to smell all the different smells that are present. You might sit down and try to hear every sound including things far off in the distance. These exercises are very similar to Mouni Sadhu’s pin concentration exercise and part of the reason why Europeans became interested in the Veda and other eastern philosophies is precisely because they realised that those philosophies had already discovered the will, something that was new to Europe (Schopenhauer was also influenced by the Eastern philosophies).

Note that the ability to concentrate is implied in the scientific method. This was given the name “will to knowledge” in the 1800s because you were using your will in order to learn something. Western science has been primarily concerned with learning something about the material world while Eastern science (like the Veda) was far more concerned with learning something about the spiritual. This all ties in with a longstanding bias against the material world which also exists in the western tradition (Plato especially). The reason philosophers and sages didn’t turn their attention to the material world wasn’t because they couldn’t but because the material world was considered the “lowest” sphere of existence and you wouldn’t waste your time on it.

The upshot of all these will and attention exercises is that you learn to be highly sceptical of things you have not paid active attention to. As you have not paid active attention to most things in the world, you learn to become sceptical of pretty much everything. This is the basis of true science and is captured in Feynman’s first rule of science: thou shalt not fool thyself. The easiest way to fool yourself is to unquestioningly believe something you have not paid active attention to.

This brings us back to my acquaintance and his covid fever dreams. Most people have never actively paid attention to colds and flus because colds and flu are an everyday part of life and we are taught from a young age not to worry about them i.e. not to pay attention to them. You go to bed for a few days and then get on with your life. In modern times, you might not even go to bed. You’ll pop some pills to keep you going and plow through the illness. Prior to 2020, nobody cared about your respiratory infection and if you tried to tell them about it they wouldn’t have wanted to know.

What happens when we create a new name for a respiratory infection and then overturn all the existing rules of society over it? One of the things that happens is that everybody starts paying attention. Those who have done will/attention exercises know what’s that like. You go out and decide to look for everything red in your neighbourhood. Suddenly, red things seem to be everywhere and you’re amazed by all the red things you never noticed before. It feels “new”. But the red things were always there. The only thing that changed was your mental state. So it is with covid.

Of course, the whole point of the giant propaganda machine we have created in the modern world is to direct your attention. When you set out to direct your own attention, such as by staring at a pin, you realise how many of the random thoughts running through your mind are somebody else’s thoughts and that it was somebody else’s will which put them there.

The self-improvement ethic (which later became known by the less useful name of self-help) of the 1800s did have this going for it: it was about learning to direct your own attention and use your own will. Most people at that time were trying to break through the propaganda of the Church but our modern propaganda machine is far more pervasive than the Church could ever have dreamed. Now more than ever, winning back control of your attention and your will is a valuable thing to do.

Confucius, Kautilya and Voltaire

Sometimes in this globalised world interesting connections occur. When I was in early high school, the ABC (Australian public broadcaster) ran a BBC-produced version of a Japanese TV series called “Monkey Magic”. The English overdubbed version was very popular in Australia, New Zealand and the UK at the time and the show was also popular in Japan where the lead actors became household names. For those who haven’t seen it, you can have a look at some episodes here – https://archive.org/details/monkeymagic1.

The soundtrack for Monkey Magic was done by Japanese rock band, Godiego, and the closing credits featured their song “Gandhara”. As I used to religiously watch the show, this is one of those songs that I still know by heart. As a 12 year old, I had no idea what Gandhara referred to. Nor did I know anything about the larger context for the story itself. And that’s the way it stayed until about fifteen years later when I landed a job that involved travel to China.

China is a big country, so it’s a coincidence that the city I happened to travel to for work was the old capital Xi’an. On one of my weekends off, I did the usual touristy things and high on the list of tourist attractions in Xi’an is the “Big Wild Goose Pagoda”. It was there that I found an exhibit telling the story of the Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, who left Xi’an in around 629 AD to travel to India to bring back scriptures. I immediately recognised that this was the same story as Monkey Magic and after some investigation I learned that the Japanese TV show was based on the classic book of Chinese literature, “Journey to the West”, which was a work of fiction written in the 16th century. Journey to the West in turn was based on the travels of the famous monk a millennia earlier. So, there I was standing literally in the place where the Journey to the West started. I saw that the destination for Xuanzang in India was Gandhara. Hence the name of the song from the TV show. Gandhara was a region bordering the Indus river which was famous for its sages and monasteries. The area once called Gandhara is in modern day north-west Pakistan and across the border into Afghanistan.

So that was cool. I finally learned what Gandhara was all about and remarked how strange it was that a boy from Australia who used to watch a Japanese TV show would end up travelling to the exact place that the Journey to the West depicted in the show started. But just to make things even stranger, I realised I had several months earlier travelled to the other end of Xuanzang’s journey. About six months before my trip to Xi’an, I was invited to a wedding in the north of India on the exact route that Xuanzang must have gone through. The wedding itself was held only a few hundred kilometres from the former Gandhara. That was the first connection to Gandhara. I recently realised there was another.

As my trip to India came to an end, I found myself in New Delhi airport with some left over rupees to spend and several hours to kill waiting for the flight. Fortunately, there was a fantastic bookstore at the airport with an extensive selection in English and, after perusing the shelves for a couple of hours, I decided to buy some Indian works which I knew nothing about but which I figured I would not be easily able to find elsewhere. One of those books was The Arthashastra.

The word artha means “wealth” in Sanskrit while shastra means, among other things, “treatise”. So, The Arthashastra is a work of political economy quite similar to The Wealth of Nations but written almost two thousand years earlier in the 2nd century BCE. The beauty of such books is they reveal the timelessness of certain questions. Taxation naturally figures heavily. So does the world’s oldest profession. As was usual for most of history, prostitution was not just regulated by the state but managed through the state. What’s more, prostitution was a skilled profession where the women were required to know how to play music, dance and make conversation with their clients. Meanwhile, the madams of the higher end establishments held positions of significant power (yep, the Ghislaine Maxwells and Jeffrey Epsteins of this world are nothing new).

Recently, I pulled The Arthashastra off the bookshelf to check something and decided to look up the author, Kautilya, who I realised I didn’t know anything about. While reading up on him, I learned that he was born – guess where? – Gandhara. It’s quite possible that the Chinese monk, Xuanzang, came across The Arthashastra on his pilgrimage to Gandhara some 8 centuries after Kautilya died. Maybe he even took a copy back to China with him.

Kautilya was a teacher in Gandhara when Alexander the Great invaded the area. Just like Aristotle was the tutor of Alexander, Kautilya was a tutor and advisor to the emperor, Chandragupta, in India at the time and The Arthashastra is a textbook of statecraft which presumably formed the basis of his teachings. Thus, Kautilya was a philosopher-sage in the same category as Aristotle and also Confucius, who advised the great rulers of China a few centuries earlier.

These days you can find out about all this with just a couple of clicks on a computer. But for most of western history, Europeans were completely ignorant of the history of China and India. It wasn’t until the late 18th and 19th centuries that intellectuals in the West first started hearing about the great works of Indian and Chinese culture mostly via translations done by missionaries. It must be said that a lot of the western intellectuals at the time seem to have been attracted to such texts by their inherent dissatisfaction with institutionalised Christianity and the feudal system in general. They were looking for ideas to change the status quo in Europe and one of the main things that caught their eye was the teachings of Confucius. In particular, the Confucian bureaucracy, which used entrance exams to decide who to hire and was therefore a meritocracy, appealed to thinkers such as Voltaire who despised the hereditary, nepotistic nobles of the European courts.

The desire to break the power and corruption of an established nobility is another of those perennial topics of politics. Confucius faced the same problem way back in 500 BCE. However, the idea of entrance exams for public servants was older than Confucius and was only made the norm in China several centuries after Confucius’ death. Furthermore, the entrance exam as we know it in modern society has a lot more to do with a school of thought which was opposed to Confucianism known as the “legalist” system.

Confucius believed that society should not be governed through law and rules but through virtue. He stated that if the king and the aristocracy behaved correctly and upheld the shared morals of society then the public would be governed by their conscience which was a deeper and more binding mechanism than just following the laws. The irony is that Confucius’ philosophy had a lot more in common with the feudalism that Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire were trying to get rid of because feudalism is based more on virtue than on rules. Voltaire also believed in virtue. His main problem was with the corrupt court officials (including Church officials) of his time. He thought that virtue could be better attained through education and reason and that a meritocratic public service would ensure that the best and brightest were elevated into positions of power.

The early bureaucracies of the 1800s in western nations were similar to the Confucian model in emphasising not just academic learning but also character assessment. In practice, this fell out naturally because the higher education institutions of the day also taught non-academic traits such as etiquette and manners. Everybody who graduated university was expected to have an understanding of the classics and through them morality. In this way the public service should be populated by not just the academically gifted but the morally upstanding. This meritocratic notion of free access to education and by extension the public service contradicts the noble ethic of “high birth” which is another perennial of political history and which is present in The Arthashastra where it is stated that if you have two people of equivalent academic capability, the one of high birth is to be preferred as the public is more likely to follow them. The idea of high birth was also prominent in European culture prior to the wars and was a remnant from feudal times.

Interestingly, one of the arguments the legalists in ancient China used to justify their system was that a bureaucracy founded on rules would enhance the power of the king because turning bureaucrats into nothing more than pen pushers and paper shufflers would make them more easily manageable. Legalists noted that an established bureaucracy always becomes an impediment to the power of the King because, just like modern bureaucracies, it comes to serve its own interests ahead of the state or citizens. The problem is exacerbated to the extent that the bureaucrats commanded moral authority. Thus, an intelligent king should implement a rule-based order to reduce the power of the bureaucracy.

I have mentioned James C. Scott’s work “Seeing like a State” multiple times in this blog. His notion of “legibility” is the one pursued by the legalists in ancient China. A State that seeks centralised power prefers rules over virtue. Legalism (or legibility) increases the power of the state while virtue-based systems such as Confucius’ reduce it (at least in the short term). The Arthashastra provides an interesting counterpoint to this because the Indian society at that time was ordered according to the Vedic philosophy. Thus, even the king was expected to prostrate himself before the Brahmins, the highest caste and guardians of the Veda. State power was subordinated to virtue.

It’s notable that Mao Zedong explicitly tried to weed out the remaining Confucian ideals from Chinese culture and replace them with a legalist framework when he was in power. It’s also noteworthy that Maoist China has a special chapter in Scott’s book because millions of people died of starvation under that regime. These two things are not unrelated. A rule-based bureaucracy eventually loses all contact with reality.

We have seen this development in our own societies in the last two years and yet we are in a predicament in modern society which is at least different in terms of scale from anything the ancients dealt with. The element that was missing in the ancient world was modern technology. The machine-obsession of the West is a natural fit with the legalist framework and tilts society in that direction by default. Combined with modern capitalism where the average business manager is not expected to be a paragon of virtue but simply to maximise shareholder value and post-war education where any “moral” or “character-based” pretentions are explicitly rejected, we see a social system almost entirely predicated on rules to the exclusion of virtue. This is pretty much the opposite of what Confucius and Voltaire had in mind. As we watch the latest round of lockdowns in China, where it is reported that over 100 million people are imprisoned in the latest series of “public health measures”, we see the victory of the legalist philosophy taken to horrific heights when combined with modern technology.

Meanwhile, the bureaucracy in the modern west, what we might also call the deep state, has ended up becoming exactly the kind of weight around the neck of the executive branch that the legalists in ancient China were trying to avoid. This was especially obvious during the Trump presidency where the deep state was actively subverting the power of the president. The rules-based order was supposed to solve that by making bureaucrats replaceable so it’s noteworthy that the modern deep state enacts its power through virtue-signalling. But virtue-signalling is the exact opposite of the Confucian ideal. Confucius said that the leaders, including the public service, should not preach morality but uphold morality. If they did so, the public would notice and they would follow of their own accord. In other words, leading by example. The modern aristocracy preaches one thing and does the opposite. Virtue-signalling is nothing more than a power play. Thus, in the modern West we have combined the worst aspects of the rule-based system with the worst of the virtue-based system; an impressive achievement.

Over the last decade or so, whenever somebody in the West wanted to try and claim that “progress” was still happening they would point to China and say “look how many people have been lifted out of poverty in China”. I doubt anybody will point to China as a symbol of progress any more, but the larger question of poverty also comes up in the ancient texts such as The Arthashastra. In that time (and still today in parts of India and China) there were entire categories of people deliberately living in poverty, mostly different grades of religious ascetics. The religious ascetics were leading by example and practising what they preached. They were following Dharma, which can be translated as virtue. The Arthashastra notes that the king’s job is to create the conditions where his people follow Dharma. To do otherwise is to invite the destruction of the state.

Confucius had said much the same thing several centuries earlier. He noted that given a choice between defunding the military, failing to provide food or allowing the state to come into disrepute (not following Dharma), the ruler should choose the first two before the third because without the moral acceptance of the state by the public, the state is finished.

If this is true, it does not portend well for the modern West. We follow an extreme version of the legalist framework while practicing the opposite of virtue. Most of the leaders of our society have no claim at all to virtue. They do not lead by upholding Dharma but simply because they acquired positions of power. Meanwhile, we “trust the experts” not because they are virtuous but because they are supposed to know the rules (of the universe). But experts who know rules are just part of the legalist framework and do nothing more than gain legibility for more centralised control. All of this is just will to power i.e. the desire of the state to increase legibility in order to intervene in society to pursue its own ends. The lockdowns are the ultimate example of that and perhaps the ultimate example of what happens when a legalist framework takes over to the exclusion of virtue.

It would be interesting to know what Voltaire would have made of it. I suspect he would have been horrified. Nevertheless, the modern cheerleaders of “Enlightenment values” have been among the most enthusiastic supporters of what has happened in the last two years and also happy to praise modern China’s rise too. The assumption of Voltaire and others like him was that virtue could be derived from rational thinking and therefore if you improved the rationality of society you would get “more” virtue into the bargain. We can see the practical results for ourselves in the modern world. We got rid of religion (the traditional foundation of virtue/Dharma) and what happened was the state became all powerful. As the state only cares about power, all society gets tilted in that direction.

With corona, the state has breached the very thing that Confucius warned against: it has allowed itself to come into disrepute. Confucius believed people could be governed entirely by virtue. I doubt that’s true. But if the state is going to govern by law only then it must uphold the law at all costs. Once the state starts acting outside the law, it has brought even the law into disrepute and people will only follow the law to the extent that it suits them, exactly the thing Confucius warned about. Everything is then reduced to a power game meaning government will need to continue to exercise raw power outside the law to get anything done. It’s a slippery slope and I think most western governments in the last two years have started the long slide down the slope. In the years ahead, we can expect more and more laws to get broken as the state tries to hold things together.

Of course, all this ties in with Spengler and the theory of historical cycles. The ancient Indian culture already had a sophisticated theory of cycles within the Vedic tradition as did the Chinese with Taoism. The Arthashastra was written at a time when India was very similar to the feudal era of Europe. There were many small kingdoms and society was held together far more by informal relations than laws. In Spenglerian terms, it was a time of culture. But culture gives way to civilisation and rule by law rather than virtue. Eventually the rule of law breaks down when the government itself starts breaking the law and you return back to a virtue-based system. That looks to be exactly where we are in the cycle.

Archetypes and Geopolitics

I feel the need to start this post with a disclaimer: all models are wrong but some are useful.

What I’m going to do here is take my Devouring Mother model and apply it to the world of geopolitics. At first glance, this might seem like drawing a long bow; stretching the tenuous sinews of a psychological theory into the domain of realpolitik. It may be objected that we already have the disciplines of political theory, economics and military theory to explain geopolitics. What can psychology add to this mix? These may be valid criticisms and yet it seems that the archetypal theory does have something interesting to say about current world events. In any case, there’s no harm in sketching it out. So, with these caveats in mind, let’s take archetypes for a spin around the block and see how they fare accounting for the current state of geopolitics.

I hinted at this geopolitical archetypal analysis in one of my earlier posts on The Devouring Mother (click here for a description of the archetype). Here’s the executive summary: the US Empire is The Devouring Mother. The Devouring Mother has acquiescent children and these are the inner circle of the empire, known as The West (including Japan and South Korea). The Devouring Mother also has rebellious children and these would be the countries who most openly defy the empire including North Korea, Iraq, Iran and now Russia.

The key to the archetype is that The Devouring Mother and the acquiescent children are in a relationship that is not healthy for either party. The mother keeps the children in a perpetual state of dependence which prevents their growing up into full adulthood. Her outward portrayals of kindness or motherly love are facsimiles of real affection and serve to hide her deeper intention which is a will to power and a desire to dominate.

As it turns out, the US Empire fits the concept quite well. Of course, all empires are in the business of domination. What distinguishes the US Empire in the post war years is that it has been run almost entirely on what we can call soft power. We can compare this soft power to an example of hard power in the Roman Empire. The Romans expanded their empire by military conquest. They would subjugate entire areas by force and then convert whoever was still alive into Roman citizens. In archetypal terms, this form of empire building belongs to The Warrior. The Warrior was also dominant in Europe in the centuries leading up to the world wars (it’s not a coincidence that both Hitler and Mussolini idolised Rome). In comparison to Rome and the pillaging and plundering of the colonial era, the American Empire has seen relatively little overt warfare and where war has taken place such as in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, it has mostly been a failure. It has been the soft power that has worked to keep the US Empire running.

Much like The Devouring Mother hides her true intentions behind a façade of niceness, soft power is a cloak for what is really going on: wealth transfer. This happens mostly through financial means such as the dominance of the US Dollar, but it’s also present in more subtle ways. Let’s take a trivial but representative example. Australia is in the inner circle of the US Empire and is therefore one of the acquiescent children. There are a small number of famous Australian actors in Hollywood and yet the Australian film industry is practically non-existent. These two facts are not unconnected. The reason the Australian film industry is non-existent is because American movies and other cultural products flood the Australian market and make movie-making unprofitable here. As a result, the only money available to make movies in Australia comes from the government and because government money always has a number of criteria attached to it that have been cooked up by committees of braindead bureaucrats, it’s practically impossible to make a good film using government money. That’s why most Australian movies are about as entertaining as a catatonic koala on half a pack of Valium. It’s also why anybody with an ounce of talent leaves the Australian film industry as soon as they can and heads to the US.

This is an example of soft power at work. The US benefits because the most talented people from Australia (and other countries) are drawn to it. Those people were raised and educated in Australia using Australian wealth, but they spend their most productive years making money for the US economy. For the US, this is an economic bonus; for Australia, an economic loss. The same thing happens in sectors other than the film industry. This leaves Australia in the position of the acquiescent child, unable to develop our own industries and dependent on the US Empire for products.

Australia gets certain benefits out of being in the inner circle of the US empire but the cost is not just our film and other industries but also the ability to pursue independent policy. Thus, Australian troops were sent to Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and wherever else the US empire decides to fight. Similarly, Australia is stunted in relation to trade, economic and foreign policy where we are not free to pursue our own interests but must ensure that whatever we do gets the okay from Washington first.

One of the benefits Australia and other nations get from being in the inner circle of the empire is that we can enact the same kind of wealth transfer on countries further down the pecking order. But it is here we are starting to see one of the many indications that the soft power of the US Empire and therefore The Devouring Mother is coming to an end.

A few weeks’ ago I was at a party and got talking to a woman who had migrated to Australia from India. Australia has a large number of immigrants from India who are mostly skilled professionals working in IT and other industries. This woman mentioned to me that she was about to go on a holiday back to her home town in India and I asked whether there were any travel restrictions due to corona there. She immediately and vociferously replied “No, they’re free! Not like us” (where “us” meant Australians).

The bitterness of the reply took me a little by surprise although it shouldn’t have. One of the more shameful episodes in the last two years was when the Australian government made it illegal for anybody who had been to India in a two week period to return to the country. This was a blanket ban justified at the time because of the emergence of the so-called Delta strain. The ban even applied to Australian citizens. The policy stayed in place for about two weeks before being quietly dropped; proving that there was still some limit to the craziness. Although this was an affront to all Australian citizens, it’s not hard to imagine that the Indian community would have felt they were being directly discriminated against and I don’t doubt that the bitterness in this woman’s voice was partly due to that incident.

What I heard in the tone of this woman’s voice was the sound of the soft power of the West circling the drain. Western nations have been an attractive destination for immigrants because of the rule of law, democracy and freedom. Immigrants from India and other countries came to Australia precisely because of the freedom they expected to enjoy here. After the last two years, they can see that Australia now considers the rule of law, democracy and freedom to be conditional. Worse than that, they watch on as our politicians continue to lecture other countries about freedom while failing to ensure it at home. Hypocrisy is fatal to any pretentions of moral leadership and by extension soft power and the hypocrisy of the West is now palpable.

It could be predicted from this that immigrants would be less willing to migrate to western nations and that seems to be exactly what is happening. Like most other countries, Australia is suffering a shortage of workers at the moment and with borders re-opened the government been trying to attract workers from overseas particularly in the medical and teaching professions. This tactic has been Australia’s bread and butter for the best part of two or three decades. I like to the call it the Immigration-Education-Real Estate Axis of Evil. It involves attracting skilled workers, international students and property investors to the country. What it amounts to in practice is nothing more than inflation for Australia while also robbing poorer countries of their wealth in the form of cash and human talent. Trouble is, the government’s new immigration drive isn’t producing the results that were expected. This makes sense if you consider that all western nations are currently competing for available workers at the same time. But I suspect the attitude of the Indian woman I was talking to is also a factor. The behaviour of western nations over the last two years has not gone unnoticed and the outrageous hypocrisy of leaders like Justin Trudeau blabbering on about freedom and human rights in foreign countries while actively violating these principles at home has the effect of reducing any remaining moral superiority the west might have had and with it the soft power that has been the engine of the US empire.

This is just one area where the soft power of the US Empire is going up in smoke. Another kind of soft power is the ability to control the narrative but, as I pointed out in a previous post, westerns nations cannot even control their own internal narrative anymore. The combination of censorship on social media and search engines as well as blatant fabrication of news in the mainstream media increasingly looks like a desperate last stand to try and create a unified narrative where none exists. This leads us back to the rebellious children and specifically to Trump who single-handedly hijacked the narrative in order to propel himself to the presidency.

Trump represented the rejection of the hypocrisy that had come to predominate in the west in recent decades. He didn’t speak nice and he didn’t play nice. He translated the business of geopolitics into raw displays of power. This was a version of straight talk that, whatever else can be said about it, had no hypocrisy in it at all. Trump’s victory put the existing narrative of the west into terminal decline because he forced his opponents to engage in blatant falsehoods (Russiagate) and censorship. In other words, he forced them also to engage in raw displays of power. All pretence of fairness was abandoned as The Devouring Mother showed her hand. In addition, Trump’s tariffs against China signified the end of the free trade status quo. This was another area where the US was no longer going to play nice. In these and other ways, Trump’s victory seemed to signify the end of soft power and therefore the end of The Devouring Mother.

It was tempting to think that Trump’s subsequent defeat in 2020 was a victory for The Devouring Mother and that’s the way it looked at the time. But I think we’re far enough into the Biden administration now to see that this is not the case and it’s mainly in the geopolitical arena that we can see why. The soft power of the US Empire is not coming back. We see that in the fact that various middle eastern countries were not even answering the phone to the Biden administration when the oil price spiked. We see it in the fact that most countries outside the west have not joined in the sanctions against Russia. We see it in the fact that India did a deal to receive Russian oil while also remaining neutral on most of the symbolic measures against Russia. Recently there was even this comedy video from Saudi Arabia mocking Biden. You know things are bad when even the Saudis are making (quite decent) jokes at your expense.

The final domino to fall will be the most powerful element of soft power which is the status of the US dollar as reserve currency. That looks not too far off. We heard news just this week that no less an ally than Israel is increasing holdings of Yuan and Ruble while Russia is on notice as saying it wants to see an end to US dollar hegemony and has a plan to try and bring that about by backing the Ruble with a combination of gold and oil.

Meanwhile on the domestic front there are empty supermarket shelves, spiking petrol prices and unfilled job vacancies in almost all western nations. I saw a random headline the other day that said something like “The days of having lots of choice in the supermarket are over”. Really? Just like that consumerism is all over? Consumerism was one of the defining elements of the post war years and the one that the West used to brag about in relation to the empty shelves in the USSR. In fact, Ronald Reagan’s old joke about buying a car in the USSR sounds a lot more like the west these days.

“You’ll own nothing and you’ll be happy” is the line from The Great Reset. It’s a catchy phrase, but it’s pure fiction. The whole consumer economy is predicated on the dopamine hit that comes from buying things. Where is that dopamine hit going to come from if there’s nothing to buy? In archetypal terms, the consumer economy is one of the foundational elements of The Devouring Mother – Orphan dynamic. It’s the main way in which the “children” are persuaded to acquiesce. If it goes away, so does most of the support for the archetype.

This is also true at the geopolitical level. The dynamic holding together the US Empire together has been the consumer economy with the steady supply of hydrocarbons to power it. The primary justification to ship manufacturing to China was to lower the price of consumer goods but that’s not working out so well any more. Meanwhile, the Russia-Ukraine war signals a paradigm shift in energy supplies. Ironically, it was Trump who had warned the Europeans about their reliance on Russia for energy. This clip has been doing the rounds on the internet in the last few weeks. It shows the then President Trump telling a German delegation that their country had become reliant on Russian energy. The Germans respond by laughing and shaking their heads but with Russian energy supplies no longer guaranteed they’re not laughing anymore. Currently it is US oil released from the strategic reserve that is filling the hole in European markets but how much longer will that last? At some point the US is going to prioritise its own interests over the Europeans and that’s when the relationship is going to break down for real. The Germans in particular seem to realise the situation as their recent announcement of rearmament indicates. That rearmament announcement also signifies the end of the soft power period when the Europeans felt they could freeload off the US military for protection.

What all this adds up to is that the era of The Devouring Mother is fast coming to an end. The soft power of the west is evaporating in real time. The consumer economy is imploding. The final death knell will be the inevitable reset of the US dollar. That event once seemed to be decades away but all of a sudden it may be imminent. When it goes away, so will many illusions about the world we live in. The naivete, denial and obliviousness – all shadows traits of The Child archetype – that has characterised western public discourse of the last few decades will disappear in a puff of smoke. The West will have to bargain in real terms for what it wants rather than rely on soft power to get it.

What can we expect when The Devouring Mother – Orphan departs the scene? We can invoke the other archetypes to make some guesses.

Let’s say The Child archetype comes to the fore. This matches up with anarchist, libertarian and self-organising tendencies. Just as children effortlessly organise their own play into games featuring rules that are never explicitly communicated, we could see brand new forms of social organisation spontaneously appear on the ground. The arrival of The Child would look like an unleashing of energy in localised groups not under centralised control. The Canadian Truckers protest is an excellent example of what that could look like.

Alternatively, The Ruler archetype might come to the fore. The Ruler imposes order from above. This allows people to take responsibility for their actions while also having the freedom to make mistakes. The Ruler would weed out graft and corruption and reassert national sovereignty. The Ruler would re-establish the rule of law (remember that?) and remove power from unaccountable and unelected bureaucrats.

We may see a return to The Warrior archetype. This could very well be a necessity in Europe and the talk of rearmament there looks to be a strong signal in that direction. However, The Warrior does not need to manifest in military form. It may also come to the fore in a business and organisational context too. Any large scale program requiring significant organisational skill would be an example of The Warrior in action.

Finally, we might see The Sage archetype manifest in the form of new religions or the re-emergence of old religions. This is what Spengler predicted with his Second Religiosity. This would sweep away all the hypocrisy, propaganda and gaslighting and replace it with simple but profound truths that re-unite society behind common assumptions about reality.

Of course, these are the positive forms of the archetypes and there is no guarantee that we won’t see other shadow forms take the place of The Devouring Mother. It’s also true that we can expect different nations to start to go their own way including those on the inner circle. As the US empire retreats, Europe looks to be particularly exposed and a return of The Warrior looks very likely. For Australia and New Zealand, a lot will depend on whether the US will be able to project power into the Pacific and how assertive China becomes. On current form, it seems quite possible we will continue to manifest The Child in shadow form whether under US or Chinese dominance. The US itself seems best placed to pursue the positive traits of The Child in the sense that there will be significant internal differences between the various states. Of course, those differences may become so great that they result in the dissolution of the country.

Finally, it’s worth noting that whichever archetype takes over from The Devouring Mother, it will still be the same old battle between the positive and shadow forms. As Solzhenitsyn noted, the divide between good and evil runs through every human heart and that’s not going to change any time soon.

The Age of The Orphan Part 12: Conclusion

In this series of posts we’ve taken a long and meandering route largely because I myself didn’t know exactly where the path would lead and so it’s been as much a learning experience for me as for anybody. That’s quite fitting given that the initial post in the series was about the path of learning and, as we’ve seen, there are multiple paths of learning or, looked at another way, multiple dimensions to the path of learning. Stories are a useful way to explain this idea because they also work at multiple levels simultaneously. There is the physical journey of the protagonist alongside an emotional, psychological and perhaps even spiritual journey. To return to one of the stories we have used throughout this series, we can map the journey taken by Neo in The Matrix onto the levels of being introduced in the last post and get something like this:

Level of BeingNeo’s Journey
SpiritualNeo learns the true nature of reality. He sees “the real world” with his own eyes for the first time
PsychicThe Matrix is the psychic realm. Neo learns to see the reality behind it and then to master it from the “outside”
PhysicalFrom the pod where he is nothing more than a battery for The Matrix to the ship with Morpheus and the others

The Orphan’s journey takes place in the physical world via the biological metamorphosis of puberty. It takes place in the  social world by coming-of-age i.e. finding a job, starting a family. These are universals of human experience. Participation in the other dimensions of The Orphan’s journey is dependent on the extent to which the individual is predisposed for them and receives appropriate guidance from Elders. Thus, in a culture that has an understanding of psychological matters, it’s possible to receive guidance from a psychotherapist or similar role. In a culture which practices metaphysics and spirituality, one may receive guidance from a spiritual leader. These dimensions of the path are less universal and, in fact, the spiritual path has always been reserved for the few. We can map these distinctions onto the story of The Matrix as follows:-

DomainNeo’s Journey
SpiritualAttains enlightenment i.e. understands the rules of The Matrix and how to break them but is also living in “the real world” outside The Matrix
IndividuationTranscends his shadow traits i.e. doubt, indecision, to fulfil the archetypal mission of The Sage
Coming of ageNeo abandons his job, his apartment and his place in the world and joins a group. There is a formal initiation into the group which marks the beginning of his membership and also the beginning of the psychic and spiritual journey. His romantic journey with Trinity also begins.

Although you wouldn’t know it cos of all the violence and action, the story of The Matrix is the story of a spiritual or religious quest and that is why Neo is best thought of as representing The Sage archetype. For most of the history of civilisation, only a small number of people were chosen for the spiritual path (esoteric spirituality). The majority of the population was inducted into the exoteric forms of religion and this formed part of their coming of age alongside finding work and getting married.

One of the things we have attempted to do in this series of posts is extrapolate The Orphan story to account for larger socio-cultural trends. This gives us something like this:

DomainWestern Culture
SpiritualGod is dead (and science isn’t looking too hot either)
IndividuationPropaganda, advertising, marketing, internet and social media all competing for “psychic real estate”. Psychoanalysis has not been able to counteract malefic psychic forces
Coming of ageBullshit jobs, bureaucratic micromanagement and the financialisation of everything reduce the esoteric component of work. Divorce and encroaching state power reduces the status of marriage and the family. Very low participation in exoteric religious forms

This current status of western society is the continuation of trends that have been in place for a long time. If we zoom back to the 1800s, we see that the esoteric component of the Church had long been moribund. The exoteric functions were still in place although the State began to take over many of those in the early 1800s starting with Napoleon and continuing right up until the world wars. The rise of the State alongside the new industrial economy was something quite new. Democratic capitalism, socialism and fascism were just the three best known configurations of how to order society in this new world. The utopianism of this period was a reflection of the optimism of a new dawn, an optimism that was quickly extinguished due to the tens of millions who died in the 20th century in wars, famine and other atrocities that were made possible due largely to the unprecedented concentration of power in the State.

This was the era when spirituality and metaphysics were explicitly rejected. Nietzsche announced the death of God while western philosophy and science lost all interest in metaphysical questions. Although science and technology have come to fulfil a quasi-religious role in the modern west, it is a simulation of real religion for the very reason that it eschews all metaphysical questions. Nevertheless, there was a strong esoteric component to science prior to the wars. It was the age of heroic science and the geniuses who dominated it are still household names to this day. However, in the post war period, science has largely come to take on an exoteric function beholden to the financial interests of corporations and the political interests of the State. This seems to have had the effect of all but extinguishing the esoteric aspect of the work. The shoddy science that was wheeled out to justify the corona debacle is the best indicator of this trend.

It’s noteworthy that interest in the psychic realm exploded at exactly the same time as the State was taking over from the Church in the 1800s. Could it be that the Church had been keeping a lid on this or was it the case that the new communication mediums amplified the psychic signal? Whichever it is, we have seen the progressive amplification of psychic content in the years since then. The word amplification is quite literally true when one considers the sound and light shows of the Nazis which represented something brand new at the time. In the post war years we saw the emergence of radio, television and finally the computer and IT revolutions all of which have seen the amount of “psychic content” that the average person consumes reach new heights. It’s fair to say that this barrage has now reached saturation point where there is simply no more hours in the day by which a person can hook themselves into The Matrix. The only way “forward” would be a qualitative change such as that promised by virtual reality and the metaverse.

In the “real world”, the average person remained grounded throughout all these changes by the coming-of-age rituals of marriage, work and family.  But these have also been degrading steadily over recent decades with the rising divorce rates, low birth rates, casualisation of work, bullshit jobs and similar trends. With the globalisation movement of the 90s, millions of jobs were shipped to China which left whole areas of the United States in particular to become as good as desolate. As mentioned in post 10 of this series, we may now be entering a time when the exoteric structure provided by the religion of work itself begins to break down.

In short, it does seem like we are coming to the end of a cycle or perhaps even a number of cycles simultaneously. What is curious about that is that the rejection of The Orphan’s mission implies a rejection of part of what we can call the cycle of life and this rejection mirrors a rejection of another part of that cycle which is The Elder. The cycle might look something like this:

The physical journey starts at birth then continues through the physical changes of puberty into adulthood and closes up with the gradual diminishment of physical capacity that constitutes the Elder years. In the archetypal sense, we begin life as Innocents in a state where our consciousness is not fully formed. The Orphan stage denotes a metamorphosis of the psyche. It’s the time when we are metaphorically, and sometimes literally, kicked out of the parent’s house and forced to become adults. Psychically speaking, this represents the formation of consciousness. Finally, the Elder stage represents the gradual fall back into unconsciousness. This is true both in a personal and collective sense. Elderhood is the transition into death which means one is about to become an ancestor and the ancestors are part of the collective subconscious. Spiritually/metaphysically speaking, different traditions will have different explanations of what the death transition means.

Both The Orphan and The Elder represent metamorphoses in a physical, psychic and potentially spiritual sense. But, as we have seen, modern western society denies both of these metamorphoses. We don’t have Elders any more in the spiritual or psychic sense and even in the physical sense the elderly are usually physical removed from the scene of action and tucked away in nursing homes out of sight and out of mind. Stephen Jenkinson is perhaps the most eloquent of writers who has described the emotional ramifications of what happens when such people must come to face their death in a society which has no spiritual or psychic structure to deal with the subject. He, correctly in my opinion, views the increasing trend towards voluntary euthanasia as a denial of the whole problem of death. It’s the easy way out. One can also see this easy way out in the heavy use of sedatives and other drugs among the elderly.

Having gotten rid of The Elder transition, we now seem intent on getting rid of The Orphan transition too. The modern west has long since abandoned any esoteric spiritual path. Psychotherapy was seen as a great hope in the psychic realm; a way to reach the spiritual through the psychic. Yet its results have underwhelmed. Work and marriage have degraded as coming-of-age ceremonies on the physical plane. And now finally the transgender issue which has come to the fore in recent years seems also to target the biological metamorphosis of puberty. We are just now starting to hear about “puberty blockers” and other interventions designed to delay puberty. This looks an awful lot like denial just like euthanasia is the denial of death.

There’s very little evidence as to the side effects of long term use of puberty blockers. Of course, a lack of proper scientific research doesn’t seem to matter when it comes to medical inventions anymore.  I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see puberty blockers rolled out on masse in the years ahead. If they are, it would fit the schematic pattern to a tee.

Level of BeingThe metamorphosis of The Orphan
SpiritualInitiation
PsychicIndividuation
PhysicalPuberty leading to sexual and physical maturity

If our society no longer facilitates The Orphan’s transition in the spiritual or psychic realm any more, the transgender debate seems tailor made to bring the rejection of The Orphan’s metamorphosis down to the physical plane too. The notion of “eternal childhood” may very well be on the cards in a biological sense.

What is being rejected in the inability to facilitate both The Elder and The Orphan metamorphosis is some of the most basic conceptual dualities of life: birth/death, male/female, young/old. The trans debate seems custom designed to blow up the male/female duality; a duality which manifests during puberty and the subsequent years where The Orphan discovers their sexuality. It’s because these years are so difficult that traditional societies put all kinds of ceremonies and practices in place to help The Orphan through. Our society, by contrast, first removed those ceremonies and practices and now seems to want to remove the biological metamorphosis altogether. Viewed archetypally, there would be no more Orphan transition but that would also mean there would be no real adulthood. One’s life would be lived in eternal childhood as an Innocent. But this entails the rejection of the whole notion of cyclical time as well as the cycles of life. It’s also the rejection of the binaries of male/female, young/old, orphan/elder. It’s this rejection that underlies why nobody can define a woman in public discourse anymore or why biological men must be allowed to play woman’s sports. The underlying ethic, if that’s what you can call it, is the dissolution of all binaries.

In traditional theology/metaphysics, a binary is resolved by the ternary. But, if you dissolve the binary, you end up back at the unary. Another way to think about it is that it gets you back to the start of the cycle although in the “wrong” direction. The Hero’s Journey, like the life cycle, moves clockwise and at the end you have transcended to a new level. That transcendence is at the heart of almost all religious teaching. The direction of modern society is counter-clockwise and descends downwards. This is no transcendence, only dissolution.

12 o’clock is the point of death/(re-)birth and represents the point of maximal unconsciousness. That seems to be where we heading now in the west. Hence the fact that modern society really does resemble a madhouse where rationality and consciousness plays no role. The daily appearance of absurdities comes about because the dualities themselves are dissolving back into the unary, but the unary is where nothing is formed. In Jungian terms, it is the unconscious, disorder and chaos. If all this feels like anathema to the conscious, reasoning mind, it’s because it is. The good news is that life is more than consciousness and more than reason and logic. As the Buddhists say: the lotus flower grows out of the mud. At the moment, we’re stuck in the mud but eventually a new flower will grow and the next cycle will take hold.

With these thoughts we end the cycle that has been this series of posts. 12 in all, which matches to 12 o’clock (I swear I didn’t plan it that way). It’s also kind of weird that this post would just happen to be published on Easter: the resurrection.

What began as an exercise in applied Jungian theory has covered a lot more ground. I feel like there is a book in there somewhere but I’ll have to go back and sift through the material to find it. Perhaps the key point is that Jungian psychology is not just psychic. There does appear to be a structure there that aligns with and predicts developments in other dimensions i.e. physical, spiritual. That’s why we’ve been able to trace back The Orphan story from a kind of behavioural analysis and find that it matches to larger socio-cultural trends. I think Jung himself always believed this was true of psychology but the work still remains to be done to make the connections explicit. Maybe this is one step in that direction.

All posts in this series:

The Age of The Orphan Part 1: The Path of Learning

The Age of The Orphan Part 2: Defining the Archetype

The Age of The Orphan Part 3: A Short Theoretical Introduction

The Age of The Orphan Part 4: Initiation, culture and civilisation

The Age of The Orphan Part 5: Ok, boomer

The Age of The Orphan Part 6: The Spirit of the Depths

The Age of The Orphan Part 7: The Metaphysics of Archetypes

The Age of The Orphan Part 8: The Current State of Play

The Age of The Orphan Part 9: How to learn to stop worrying and love The Matrix

The Age of The Orphan Part 10: Work is our religion

The Age of The Orphan Part 11: The Missing Link

The Age of The Orphan Part 12: Conclusion