The big problems the Planet is facing can be traced back to a root cause: domination. Climate change and other “environmental” concerns arise from human activities that dominate the natural world. We impose our will through actions resulting in changes that upset the natural order. Social concerns also arise from the same cause whenever humans are compelled by other humans to act in undignified ways, that is, to act according to someone else’s intentions.
Domination, per se, is not necessarily a bad thing. Dominating the natural system did not create significant problems for many millennia because it was sufficiently resilient to tolerate human encroachment. But, now, our footprint on the Planet far exceeds that ability to maintain some sort of sustainable order. Domination in institutional settings, the foundation of cultures, is necessary in order to create their rules and allocate the resources needed to produce normal institutional outputs. Institutions are formed by declarations—linguistic acts with enough authority—permission to be dominated—behind them to create new object-like entities whose rules and norms participants are willing to abide by.
But when does domination become pathological and upset the natural order of things? My response has been when the system fails to flourish, which I have defined as the state in which all living species attain their potential. All life forms have a biological potential determined by the expression of their genes. Humans possess an additional existential potential, comprised of two elements. One comes from the fact that humans are highly social animals, expressing their intentions through coordination with others, using language to mediate their collaborative interactions. Language allows humans to give meaning to their worlds; create stories about them; and design and construct cultural structure (beliefs, normative legitimacy, tools, authority) that guides normal behavioral patterns. Humans can be said to exhibit social coherence, the way individuals’ actions conform to the structure of the myriad institutions constituting a society—the many systems in which we coordinate our collective lives.
Human behavior also has a second, autonomous, free-standing aspect: personal wholeness. Personal wholeness describes the fullness of the expression of one’s unique, historical self in action. It expresses the authentic way of being, resulting in actions that could be described as being owned by the actor. To flourish, humans must exhibit both personal wholeness and social coherence, related, respectively, to 1) the development of one’s autonomous self and 2) effective involvement in cultural institutions.
Flourishing depends on finding the right balance between these two basic modalities of human behavior. “Finding” is the correct word in this case because there is no predetermined balance point according to some theory-based rule. Moral and ethical rules have been created over time from observations of human experience to assist actors in finding that balance, but are insufficient today, given the overwhelming evidence that both natural and social systems are in trouble.
The fundamental Marxist critique is consistent with this surprisingly simple model of human existence. The personal wholeness (autonomy, dignity) of workers is dominated by the structure of capitalist institutions, enforcing social coherence, which squelches personal wholeness. This model is still very much in the background of political debate in the US today with the right wing arguing that the left wing program of high levels of social coherence (big roles for institutions) is damaging freedom, considered to be equivalent to personal wholeness. Historically, compromise and pragmatism have helped in finding some balance point between these two extremes that worked (at least for a while), but no such mechanisms are able to function effectively today.
But there is more going on than a political debate and stand-off. Our modern brains are out of whack. The basic modern belief about how our brains work has become the source of the domination that is creating our concerns about the future. We have become captured by our belief that we can know how the world works, and act in accordance, so that our intentions become transformed into reality. This conclusion follows from Descartes’ model of the brain as a mirror of the world out there (reality) and his portrayal of that world as a machine. In addition, he argued that humans were rational beings, who understand how the machine runs and can figure out ways to manipulate it to their ends. These beliefs have come to dominate modern life with disastrous consequences.
Descartes got only part of the story right. Part of the brain does mirror reality but not perfectly or completely. Stunning research by the British psychiatrist and philosopher, Iain McGilchrist, argues that the two brain hemispheres attend to the world in strikingly different ways, presenting two distinctive domains for human action. We are, metaphorically, not a single rational actor driven by our brain, but a set of fraternal twins, each controlled, more or less, by one of its two hemispheres.
The right hemisphere is connected to the outside world by the senses and captures a contemporaneous, context-rich snapshot of the immediate world. The left hemisphere takes elements out of that context, decontextualizes and abstracts them, and retains them for future use. It is where our beliefs, the myriad linguistic statements about the natural and social world that comprise our knowledge, are stored. The left is our personal scientist, using reductionist means to create that knowledge base, ready to be called upon to construct the correct acts to satisfy our intentions. In action, the left re-presents a picture of the world, constructed from its cache of bits and pieces of theories and facts it has stored up that it believes fits the case at hand, but has no way to judge that fit.
The right hemisphere is our “window” on the real world. It cannot capture every detail of what is out there, but whatever it does take in is indicative of the present moment and changes with the course of time. It is our connection to reality. Actions run by the right side are empathetic and reflect the situation out in the world, not inside the skull. Their choice incorporates and depends on the context of the surrounding world. The right’s acts tend to be fitted closer to the reality that exists than do the those that rest on the abstractions stored in the left hemisphere, and lessens the likelihood of unintended consequences. Reality always prevails, no matter what we are thinking. Outcomes are determined by the real world, the one the right apprehends, not by the constructed world of the left. We often get fooled because much of the time, in familiar circumstances, the left’s constructed world is close enough to reality that the intended acts do fit well.
In action, both sides of the brain are always involved, but the nature of the act depends on which side is the master, that is controls the outcome. Actions that contribute to personal wholeness are largely the province of the right hemisphere, and those relating to social coherence largely that of the left.
McGilchrist shows that over time human cultures have vacillated between periods where one or the other side has been the master hemisphere with characteristics springing from its way of attending to the world. Romantic periods where the arts flourished were right-brain periods. Modernity, with its focus on science and technology, is dominated by the left side. Early human development, prior to the development of substantial literacy and numeracy, was largely right-brain dominated. Without language to create institutions and coordinate actions within them, human activities, necessarily, were run by a close connection between the present situation and the actors. Early humans, according to my definition, flourished for millennia, even though we might say that they lacked much of what we consider necessary.
But with the emergence of the alphabet and, then, science, the left began to take over. Cultures became more institutionalized and personal wholeness took a hit. And that is where we are today. The left-hemisphere of individuals and, metaphorically, of the cultures in which they live have become so dominant that the right side has lost not only its primal mastery, but even a minor role. The situation is worsened because the left-firmly believes it knows how to do most anything and wants to control and dominate the action. But it doesn’t know reality that well; its world is flawed and incomplete, and its actions often lead to serious, cumulative unintended consequences. Climate change and inequality can be considered to be such unintended consequences of normal institutional (left-hemisphere) behaviors. In actuality, the world is not a machine and does not behave like one. It is a complex system, full of non-linearities, emergent qualities, delays, and other traits that make precise prediction impossible.
“Big problems” tend to be systemic and cannot be fixed at the level of symptoms or proximate causes, although that is exactly what the left brain will promise. These must be treated at the root level or they will inevitably recur or grow. We are currently wasting precious time in addressing our big problems with what are essentially only quick fixes. For example, geo-engineering may, perhaps, buy us some time, but, unless the nations of the world drop growth as their primary policy norm, injuries to the earth arising indirectly from economic activity will continue to overwhelm the system. So will social concerns like inequality that has grown dramatically in the US over recent years. The only “solution” that holds out a possibility of slowly reversing the present dangerous trajectory is to shift the hemispheric balance of modernity back toward the right to some point where both the planet and its living inhabitants will be able to flourish.
This way to put the Planet back on a suitable trajectory is only a possibility, but one that makes sense. If people start to care, that is, to act with empathy and understanding, their actions should stop producing these terrible unintended consequences. Caring acts are the primary mode of behavior of the right hemisphere and are characterized by a reflection of the “needs” of the target of the intended acts. Mitigation should be applied when practicable, but never seen as the final solution to these problems. Institutional norms will eventually align with individual behaviors, so the place to start is with individual brains through practices, like mindfulness or artistic activities that strengthen the right hemisphere.
The primary method to use in discovering possible ways to attain the proper hemispheric balance is some form of pragmatic inquiry. Given the connection of the right hemisphere to the real world, pragmatic inquiry should be applied to analyze what is going on out there rather than expecting science to come up with the right answers. Pragmatism attempts to generate understanding of the world in context, rather than through reductionist, decontextualized methods. The understanding that it can generate has a better chance to fit reality and, as a result, produce outcomes that are on target and are without serious unintended consequences. As the world changes, however, the process must be repeated in order to maintain the fit with reality.
Science, as powerful as we know it is, is part of the problem because its decontextualized theories and facts, cannot be put back together to create a picture of the real world precise and complete enough to avoid error and unintended consequences. Pragmatic inquiry has a self-correcting feature that, if done well, always moves in the right direction towards sufficient understanding to avoid those errors and unintended consequences. Both forms are risky in that some aspects of reality are always going to be hidden nor misunderstood. But it seems clear, given the mess we are in, that the time to put pragmatism into action has come.