Matt Perryman

Is there a pimp controlling your mind?

Hear me out.

By Matt Perryman

We have fallen out with nature, and what was once (as we believe) One is now in conflict with itself, and mastery and servitude alternate on both sides. It often seems to us as if the world were everything and we nothing, but often too as if we were everything and the world nothing.


The past few weeks, one of my favorite currently-working writers introduced a powerful new term to the lexicon. Archdruid and occult writer John Michael Greer tells of how our post-industrial civilization shifted from building real things to stone-cold pimping.

A pimp is an individual who inserts himself into a transaction between two parties, by force, without minimal value add. In economic terms this is the role of an intermediary, the one who stands between.

Greer’s given us a new term, lenocracy, from the Latin root leno, to describe today’s political economy in the West as “rule by pimps”. I can think of few more accurate labels. You come for the hilarious shock value, stay for the iron-serious problem expressed in the concept.

Nearly all aspects of life in the US, Europe, and their satellite nations filter through multiple layers of pimps taking a cut. This whole “rules-based order” we’re meant to suffer under is nothing but a sprawling, complex, multi-layered system of pimps.

Whether they’re here from the government to save you from getting anything done or private actors extorting you through other means, for any activity more complex than breathing your own air, you’re dealing with layers upon layers of pimps.

So much economic activity revolves around pimping that it’s become respectable practice. People line up by the tens of thousands each year to get in on the racket.

There’s even pimps at work in your own mind. If you find that unlikely and implausible, keep reading.

In my last article I wrote about the fundamental failure of what I called the mental picturing theory. In one line, this generic theory holds that all human perceptions and knowledge of “the world” are filtered through a mental picture constructed by your mind using data received through the senses.

The theory falls apart because of a logical contradiction embedded in its basic assumptions. If mental picturing is true, there is no “world” to know.

I want to circle back to that idea and riff on it with Greer’s idea of the lenocracy. If this sounds like an unlikely combination, let me state up front that there’s a surprising connection between the two. This will partly explain one reason the mental picture theory is so influential — and why mental picturing is eerily similar to another pattern of false beliefs and tropes in our culture.

In his book To Have or To Be? Erich Fromm writes of a monk who comes upon a freshly-bloomed flower one fine spring morning.

The monk faces a choice. He can pluck the flower, take it as his own, return to the monastery and study the dead thing like a scientist.

The alternative is to enjoy the flower’s presence as it is, to allow it to be a flower, and experience it as a being in its own right.

The monk’s two options for approaching the flower symbolize two existential modes of relating to the world.

The first mode, having, orients a person to the world according to the logic of acquiring and possessing. We’re talking about “having” in the literal way, as a greedy man pursues wealth. Beyond that surface level, the having mode concerns certain metaphysical characteristics. For example, we talk of objects having properties, as red apple has the property of “redness”.

It goes deeper. If I ask you the question “Who are you?”, your most likely automatic response is to tell me your name. Your name was given to you by your parents. It’s a property that you have. It tells me nothing about who you are.

Extend that thinking but a little ways, and you’ll find yourself listing all manner of statistical, demographic, and quantitative facts about yourself. Your job, your address, where you were born, your age. A nice list of details.

None of it answers the question of who you are.

If you aren’t what you have — in economic or metaphysical terms — then what can we say about you?

That question brings us around to the second mode, the mode of being.

We find a clue to the being mode in the monk’s appreciation of the flower without a need to possess it. Plucking the flower from the rock and taking it apart for study destroys it. Enjoying the flower is to experience it and, in a way, participate in its existence.

In the being mode, the monk engages with reality and with himself in a different way. He doesn’t strive to acquire the flower or possess it. He doesn’t fear losing it or having it taken from him.

The flower is no longer a list of abstract quantities and objective facts.

Neither is the monk.

So what, you ask? These two existential modes describe two very different ways that human individuals relate to the world. In the domain of the mind and the intellect, the having and being orientations track two dominant paths of thinking throughout the history of ideas.

One path of thinking aims at the invariant and the universal. Mathematical truths and logical syllogisms are the stuff of invariant thinking. Two plus two is always four, for anyone, anywhere, at any time.

The other path of thinking concerns contextual and situated phenomena. A phenomenon is what appears to someone, at some time and place. The contextual path looks to particulars as we find them, and looks for order in the things themselves, instead of stepping out of all perspectives to discover a universal formula.

Iain McGilchrist, possibly today’s most vocal defender of the split-brain hypothesis and its consequences, traces this difference to an oddity of human neuro-anatomy.

Our brains are divided into two superficially equal hemispheres down the center of our body, one each on the right and left sides.

For reasons not entirely understood, the left specializes in verbal, analytic, and empirical reasoning, where the right tends to the intuitive, imaginative, and holistic.

The left tends to be loud, critical, and fast, where the right is quiet, contemplative and slow.

McGilchrist clarifies that the difference is not so much what the hemispheres do. Both are involved in the full range of cognitive abilities like speech and language, perception, mathematical reasoning, and creativity.

The difference is how they do it, the means and methods of achieving those cognitive targets.

I don’t want to leap too far ahead here, but I see a fair path connecting these discoveries of neuroscience to our two very different ways of thinking, grounded in two very different existential modes of having and being.

Let’s bring this back around to the main topic.

McGilchrist’s most interesting idea is that the left brain, being both fast, loud, and friendly to science and technology, came to dominate in our civilization. We’ve built an artificial world out of left-brain specializations, which exists to suit left-brain dispositions and needs.

The result is a civilization happy to treat possession as its highest and greatest ends, and willing to treat the world, and the people in it, as resources for that purpose.

In other words, our artificial civilization is built to favor and encourage the having mode and filter out the being mode.

If you found yourself wondering why a dumb old monk would sit and stare at a flower, “what’s the use in that?”, guess what?

You’re up to your ear-holes in the having mode of existence.

By favoring “having” (almost) exclusively, we relate not just to nature, not just to other people, but to ourselves as nothing more than lists of facts, quantities, and statistical data.

The worst part is, because “having” becomes the default logic ruling our thinking, it becomes difficult to even see the “being” mode as an alternative.

We can’t even address ourselves in our being. Your essential nature becomes a list of dead facts.

Yes, this means that your understanding of the mind — our best scientific theories and many philosophical theories inspired by them — is all filtered through this urge to possess things, and the fear of losing them.

This is why we can speak of our mental characteristics as possessions. It’s why we can talk about our brains as if they are minds.

The content of a thought, belief, desire, wish, emotion, feeling (etc.) is not physical. But in the logic of the “having” mode, mental phenomena are no different in form from a physical object which has properties.

An idea is a discrete thing “in your mind”, no different than how a stick of gum can be in your pocket.

This is one way of stating the fundamental flaw of all present artificial intelligence. These machines duplicate certain capabilities of human cognition. The more interesting question is what they can’t do. Because AI is based on explicit objects and step-by-step algorithms, machine intelligence is grounded in the “having” mode.

Which leads to another question. Why should we understand our minds, our own basic natures, in these terms when so much is left out?

The “having” mode can’t explain our innermost experiences of being here. It can’t tell us what it is like to be alive and experience a world. It leaves out inner being, will, imagination, the vivid and irreducible wholeness of What It Is Like.

But there is a counter-question. What’s rational about this talk of “inner being” and experience? Why take that seriously when The Science says so much about what we are? Why care when technology allows us to do so many cool and neat things that seem very mind-like?

There’s a couple of excellent reasons in an old and almost forgotten movement of artists, poets, and philosophers.

What do you know about the Enlightenment?

Odds are you were told a story about an age of illumination in Europe, somewhere around the 17th century when Galileo invented science. Soon after, everyone got very smart, realized religion was stupid, built factories, powered them with the fruits of the Earth, and we’d have colonies on Zeta Reticuli if it weren’t for stupid religious throwbacks deciding to be dumb.

The truth is a little more complex than the sappy one-sided hagiographies that nerds tell each other.

In the late 18th century, a counter-movement appeared in response to what some saw as the dehumanizing, alienating threat of cold-blooded reason and industrial technology that defined the Enlightenment.

The story of the Romantic’s protest against Enlightenment rationalism is a big story that I can’t tell here.

Keeping with our topic, I want to zero in on one small but vital element of the revolt against modernity.

Possibly the signature idea motivating the philosophy of the Romantic movement is that the inner world of feeling, accessed by the faculties of intuition and imagination, in tune with nature as its primary source of meaning and value, is the path to truth.

Forget about the power of calculating reason. The French Revolution showed where that would lead us.

It’s feeling and imagination, expressed in aesthetic appreciation and artistic creation, that reveal the truth to us. Beauty, not the empty reasoning of a machine, is our mode of access to the totality of existence, called the Absolute.

There are detailed philosophical elaborations and defenses of this idea which I’m not going to tackle here. The interested reader could attempt Immanuel Kant’s third Critique, the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment.

In that work Kant elaborates on two notions key to the Romantic movement: 1) aesthetic experience and production and 2) the teleological function evident in the living world.

To summarize a long and detailed argument, Kant’s point is that the beautiful object contains its own self-contained law-like order, though there is no external law to constrain it.

Beauty reveals truth to us by revealing certain responses to beautiful objects, which are grounded in a universal mental state of free play in the imagination.

If you don’t follow that, don’t worry too much about it. All you need to understand is that aesthetic experience of beauty in nature and art doesn’t stem from discursive reasoning, our powers of conscious, rational thought. Beauty is another order unto itself that cannot be pressed into any universal formula. Kant described aesthetic experience as “lawful without a law”.

While the Romantics are villainized by pro-Enlightenment propagandists, such as Steven Pinker in his recent book on “Enlightenment”, the truth is more complicated.

Writers in this tradition, from Blake and Coleridge to Hölderlin and Schiller, did not criticize reason because they were irrational critics of progress, or opposed the Enlightenment’s stated goals.

The Romantics pointed out that sterile rationalism based in math and science and technology left out the important parts of life, and did not get us to the moral and ethical goals of freedom, autonomy, and self-determination. The Enlightenment’s worship of universal reason was itself a kind of irrationalism. This failing became a living reality after the French Revolution.

Fascinating as this is, that’s as far as we’ll go into Romantic epistemology for now. What I want you to take away is that there are good arguments and good reasons for challenging the shallow “facts and logic” rhetoric that hypnotizes shallow online intellectuals.

Art and beauty are essential and indispensable parts of the rational human experience. But they don’t neatly fit into the preferred cognitive styles of your brain’s left hemisphere, including its preference for “having” logic.

There’s a place for the right brain’s holistic and creative sense of being. We’ve pushed so far into abstract thinking with quantities that we downplay, or ignore, concrete experiencing of qualities.

Let’s turn now to popular ways of comprehending the mind, in science and philosophy and in wider public conversations, and see what threads we can pull out of our Romantic friends.

The major question mark left by the Romantics has to do with a version of the mind-body or mind-world problem.

How does a subject relate to an object, such that the object shows up as meaningful for a subject?

You already know the Enlightenment’s answer to that question. Some version of the mental picturing theory explains the connection between mind and world by way of an idea or image held before the mind.

Notice that the mental picturing theory is exactly the kind of explanation that you would expect from a mode of thinking preoccupied with acquiring, grasping, and possessing things. It is a “having” theory produced by typical left-brain cognition.

Ideas bang around in your mind in a non-physical but quite serious analogy with physical particles slamming into each other according the causal laws of science.

If there’s objects out there to grab hold of, then it’s a natural move to assume a mental equivalent, some object-like element in here, held before the mind. It is no accident that we use that very expression, “held before the mind”, to describe mental acts of thought and perception. The mind seizes upon an mental object as a hand takes hold of a tennis ball.

With Descartes’s transformation of the mind into reasoning processes unfolding in the immaterial Thinking Substance, and the continuation of that theme in John Locke’s “way of ideas”, nearly all modern theories of the mind place some kind of mental picture in between the subject and the object.

You never perceive the rock, but the mental picture of the rock.

Language, by the way, is forced into this same pattern. Your word “tree” doesn’t refer to the tree, it refers to your idea of the tree. Words signify objects by way of the speaker’s mental contents and activities. The two sins reinforce one another.

The mental picturing theory is why you find scientists on the cutting egdes of cognitive science and AI speaking this way about mental activity. They aren’t speaking metaphorically or with common idiom. They quite seriously want to explain all mental functioning as a process of creating internal representations.

Do you understand what we have here?

The idea, thought, mental image or picture, whatever distinct element “inside the mind” through which the individual comes to know the outer world, stands as an intermediary between the mind and its object.

All thought and perception of the non-mental world is mediated through a special element in the mind.

In other words, you’ve got a pimp inside your mind mediating every transaction with the outside world.

Philosopher Charles Taylor labeled this position mediationalism. There is a special, private mental element “inside the mind”, and only through that element does the individual come to access the outer, non-mental reality.

This may seem like a harmless enough philosophical theory. As with all harmless philosophical theories, you ignore it at your own risk. The mental picturing theory and some version of mediationalism fairly well serve as the default background system by which most all of today’s theories of mind come to be. Certainly all of them with widespread public awareness.

There remains an objection.

“But the machine can functionally explain everything relevant about human thought and experience as an empirical reality, and it seems to work by building internal representations of the world. What is left to your humanity or art when the machine seamlessly replicates experience in such detail that nobody can tell the difference? What matters about your inner world of experience?”

In other words, the pimp-ology of the “having” mode, where a mind “has stuff” that it thinks and knows, seems to do okay. What’s the missing ingredient that makes art and personal feeling and imagination so great?

This is a fair complaint.

The question to ask in response is, what are your criteria for judging what is, or is not, to be captured in these data-sets and correlations used by the Big Data Empire and its LLM agents?

Data is just data. Pattern-mining algorithms only find what’s present in that data. Without some criteria for picking what is important, total machine duplication of a mind is an illusion. LLMs get a free ride off the intentionality of their human designers.

LLMs get a free ride off the intentionality of their human designers. The data that the machine selects and uses depends on and responds to human feeling and imagination. The so-called View From Nowhere is always somebody’s view from right here.

What does all this matter?

Here’s one consequence. Before we turned the mind into a computer to manipulate with therapy, expensive pills, and cognitive war-gaming, psychologists and psychiatrists in the 20th century used to say a great deal about the schizoid tendencies of the modern individual.

The schizoid person is described as cool, cerebral, alienated from other people and, typically, from his or her own emotions and feelings.

If that’s not an accurate description of overwhelming left-brain domination, I don’t know what is.

The description of the over-thinking, self-directed personality detached and alienated from emotions and feelings is exactly what you get when you describe all experience as intermediated.

You never know or experience the thing, only your mind’s intermediation of it. Those pimps in your head intrude on your direct apprehension and appreciation of the world outside your own thoughts.

You don’t even know yourself because you’re obsessed with mental fabrications. I’ve often noticed how many people today are uncomfortable with their own bodies and bodily feelings. I don’t speak of Victorian prudery. I’m talking about a missing sense of familiarity. People seem disengaged from their own living flesh. This isn’t only an emotional disconnection, despite the widespread phenomenon of emotional incontinence.

People don’t even move right in their bodies. My past life as a coach and personal trainer involved a good deal of teaching average people how to move their bodies without getting in their own way. With so much involvement in social media and streaming — mediated living in another form — constantly experiencing life through a screen, I can only imagine it’s worse now.

That’s before we even get into the political and ethical ramifications of totally mediated life. Greer’s touched on some of these already. My point in this article is that even our minds, our own inner being, our most direct experience of living and existing, is tainted by the pimp-ocracy.

Despite all that, we still possess our powers of intuition and imagination. The left brain and its favored existential mode only dominate us as far as we allow them.

The Romantics gave us a map, showing a path out of this doom-loop through art and beauty and creative imagination.

The pimp in your head is your own conjuration. There’s a blinding range of new ways of living and experiencing once you get rid of him.

Before you get out of here

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