If you believe that you actually own something, anything at all, we encourage you to think again; very carefully… In reality, the concept of ownership is one of the cornerstones of almost all modern societies. However, it turns out that it is a totally artificial and erroneous fabrication of the human mind. We humans like to believe in absolutes. This is largely because they help us to come to terms with our own existence and our place within the universe. As we progress (or regress) as a species and succeed in mapping out both the micro and macro-cosmos, we feel more and more in control of our fate. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Firstly, we should never forget that we are all born with nothing and we will all die the same way. Some would say that we are born with our own body at very least. Even this is not as it may seem. In fact, every single atom that makes up our body at birth was supplied from our mother’s body apart from a single and statistically irrelevant contribution from our father. They, in turn of course, were born the same way.
We all want to believe that we own our body but even this, as with most things in life, is open to interpretation. Let’s try to drill down to exactly what it is that we think that we own. There is a generally accepted basic law of nature that states that matter can be neither created nor destroyed. We all also accept that our world existed before we were born and will continue to exist after we die. No new material was brought to this planet to make us. Therefore, we will come from the earth when we are born and will return to the earth when we die. So any ownership, even of our own bodies, is only temporary.
A further addition to the conundrum lies in the fact that all cells in the human body only exist for a limited period of time. We know that if we compare an 8 pound baby to the fully grown adult that it eventually becomes, there is remarkably little resemblance. In reality, there will not be a single solitary cell in the body of a twenty-year old that existed at his or her birth. So which part of our body is it that we think that we own? The words often expressed over the grave of a recently deceased person suddenly take on a more sombre meaning: ‘Dust to Dust, ashes to ashes’. We were really only borrowing the stuff that our bodies are made up of!
Over the millennia and continuing right up to the present day, in various parts of the world, there are people who fervently believe that they can own not only their own body but also those of other humans as well. Furthermore, by most, if not all, of the yardsticks that we commonly use to determine ownership, they would appear to be correct. Yes, we invoke all kinds of hocus-pocus to back up our claims of ownership. Deeds, certificates of ownership, proclamations and court rulings are just a few of the arrows in our quivers when a fellow human has the audacity to claim something of ours for his or her own.
One of the most ridiculous tenets of the ownership concept is that we can actually own land! Even the lowly beasts of the fields and forests instinctively grasp the reality of the situation better than we humans. They bravely mark out a territory and will defend it to the death. However, when a stronger or smarter usurper comes along and successfully manages to wrest the territory from its former owner, the animal knows that the property is lost. Many of us further believe that such ownership is also a birthright. Since the misconception is widely held and upheld, it is propagated from generation to generation. However, there are limits to this birthright, which is, in and of itself, a contradiction, because in most jurisdictions, governments have the ‘right’ to claim a significant portion of your birthright when you come into it!
We also extend the concept of personal ownership to include groups of people. Now, we can draw natural or artificial borders around whole chunks of the earth, call it a country and claim exclusive property rights. A truly laughable concept in light of all the foregoing, but because we collectively condone it, it continues to be one of the most dangerous and divisive forces in human history.
Although it is slowly falling into collective disfavour today, historically, there was a trump card that was dealt to or stolen by a few select individuals over the millennia and that was the concept of divine right. God, the final arbiter, was deemed to have passed a portion of his omnipotence over to some apparently worthy individual who was then able to grab everything, including people, within reach and claim it as personal property. The most ridiculous part of this pretence was the fact that it only holds water as long as the subjects allow it to. Never, in the course of human history, has anyone ever seen the Word of God except as expressed by another human being. If only I could convince you that God has afforded me the right to abolish the concept of property!
As a slight aside, let us also consider for a moment, the concept of rights. Once again, this is a fabricated idea. By definition, a right is something that everybody has. I defy any reader to come up with anything concrete that is accorded to every single being on the planet. Contrary to popular myth, we cannot make anything a right by simply declaring it so on a piece of paper. Rights to life, liberty and freedom of expression and thought are just a few of the pipedreams that we periodically declare. In truth these are merely privileges accorded to a few of us by common consent and they can be, and often are, withdrawn at a moment’s notice. A true right cannot be withheld. The moment that it is, it ceases to be a right!
The idea of rights makes a nice segue into the final area of insanity in the myth of ownership: Intellectual Property. As the world becomes more accessible to the bulk of the population and electronic media becomes more pervasive, so are the walls of intellectual property being eroded. In recent years there have been many high profile cases of one individual ‘stealing’ another’s idea. Recently, the estate of an Australian author filed suit against J.K. Rowling and her publisher claiming that she copied ideas from ‘Willy the Wizard’ for one of her Harry Potter novels. George Harrison was accused of rehashing someone else’s song and passing off ‘My Sweet Lord’ as his own creation. I am not saying, in either case, that they did or did not commit the particular offense but it is obvious, once again, that copyright is yet another illusion. It is perfectly feasible that two individuals could and often would independently come up with very similar ideas, concepts, tunes etc. Once again, some human must make the determination of exactly what belongs to whom. “And who exactly accords the arbiter that right (or privilege)?”, you may well ask. Well, of course, we do. Or at least some of us do and some of us don’t and therein rests the crux of the problem of ownership.
On a larger scale, entire nations continue to battle over who was the true inventor of some of the most outstanding technical innovations of the centuries like radio, light bulbs, splitting the atom etc. It all comes back to the holy grail of ownership.
In summary, it seems obvious that ownership can be seen to be analogous to winning Olympic gold. Although you may have the metal disc that says you won, you only own the actual record until someone else comes along and takes it from you. Don’t forget also, that if enough people agree that you did not actually deserve to win, you can be stripped of the medal at any time….
So, whatever you’ve got, hang on to it tight! It is only yours for as long as the rest of us and the universe allow you to maintain the pretence.