It’s Time to Return.


It’s time to return. I noticed a flurry of activity on the blog yesterday, but don’t know why. In any case, I see this as a signal to return in earnest. The timing is right. I can see the end of my book rewrite in sight. What started as an exercise I thought would take a matter of weeks has stretched into half a year. I am pleased with the results so far. I think it is going to be very good, but I am not quite sure. I gave about half of the book to my wife to read and keep hearing strange, ominous sounds as she is going through it.

I have essentially replaced all my previous arguments that grounded flourishing on philosophical grounds with a little biology thrown in with the reverse emphasis: biology with a little philosophy. I have continued to digest the work of McGilchrist I referred to before my long absence and see it as an extraordinary model for both understanding the absence of flourishing today and designing a path toward getting more of it.

I have a couple more chapters to edit, but these are the easy ones, although I have said that about most of the pieces only to find myself re-writing them essentially from the start. The book is just part of my excuse for staying away from the blog. I have found it very difficult to pay attention to the daily stream of news. In situations where previously I might have found something to post about, now I want to shut my eyes, turn off my brain, and hide out.

When I do pay attention, I am usually disappointed by the failures of both the US political economy and the measures offered in response. Partisan bickering and name-calling do not reveal the shambles of our system; it only adds to the piles of muck that cover the root causes. I may be overly immersed in my work, but I see the basic problem in the lack of care in the whole political economy. The emphasis on markets to provide everything drives out the personal and any shreds of empathetic interchanges. The libertarian slant to government does the same. Taking the financial policy of Harvard, “Every tub on its own bottom “to the extreme, everyone is expected to look out for themselves. Recent comments by Senators Hatch and Grassley in conjunction with the tax bill reinforce this.

One of my friends just posted a blog that fell back on the Hobbesian and others claim that human nature was basically self-interested and protective to explain what has been going on in the world.

Those beliefs presumed that human beings are essentially good. Free from social and psychological duress, we would almost invariably act generously towards our fellow human beings. But that undergirding assumption of mine has been eroded. I have become more skeptical about human nature. During the last decade or two, I have come to believe, with the Founding Fathers, that human beings are not so benign. They have good and generous impulses, but they are also greedy and tribal, often pitting their own group against others. “America First” is only one expression of this inclination.

I see now that people are anxious and defensive about their safety and property; and, when they even imagine others will attack, they attack first. Where once I lived in the world of Rousseau I have become a disciple of Thomas Hobbes. Where I believed that the freer the populace, the more generous and peaceful it would become, I now believe in the need for restraints on this rougher human animal that I’ve come to know. I believe in structure, checks and balances, careful organization—a Constitutional form of government—to guard against our baser impulses and provide room for our better angels to emerge.

I have no disagreement with his argument that people are acting out of anxiety, as if they live in a Hobbesian world, but I do not believe it is a consequence of “human nature.” My recent explorations of the brain, thanks to Iain McGilchrist and his book, The Master and his Emissary, argue we act dichotomously, depending which hemisphere of the brain is in control. Further there is a connection between the culture and the dominance of the hemisphere. The modern culture, since the Enlightenment, reflects and reinforces the dominance of the left hemisphere.

Here is a Table from the book I am finishing that describes the general characteristics of human actors, depending which side of the brain is in control. The entries are all from his book. He has developed his model from a massive amount of clinical evidence, not from some a priori theory. It is pretty clear that the Hobbesian human was being dominated by the left-brain.

McGilchrist table.png

The Enlightenment thinkers, going back to the Greeks, believed that humans, like all objects, possessed some intrinsic nature. What made a “table” a table was tableness. That idea of a nature, applied to humans, has persisted even today and still forms the basis of most philosophy, economics, and other social sciences, which domains, in turn, have defined the foundations of our major institutions, which, in turn, reinforce and further embed this notion in the metaphorical societal and real individuals’ brains.

But, if McGilchrist is correct (and I find his work highly believable), there are two “human natures.” The human of the right brain is connected to the world and to caring. The idea of good or virtuous is not part of this model. Left-brained people can be good and virtuous, so goodness is not the correct criterion. The main difference is whether humans are connected to the world or not, and can accept the other to be as much a part of it as they are. Nurture (acculturation), not nature determines which one shows up. If this argument is correct, then more structure and restraints are exactly the wrong way to go.

Since we are normally in the left-brain mode in our culture are stuck on the Hobbesian abstraction, it seems to make sense to batten down the hatches. The left-brain will find even more reasons to take over, and strengthen its hold over us. The correct strategy is to start acting as the empathetic, concerned, connected human we have just as much right to claim is our “nature” as that of the selfish, protective person of the left. Given the current attitudes, this path is not likely to be taken by our government, but that should not prevent all of who do care to start finding ways close to home and outside of the presently paralyzed political system.