The Real Me
The last few posts have been concerned with the routine ways we behave within and without institutions when our actions are controlled by the left brain. In this post, I shift to the other side as the master, which change also affects the basic nature of our behaviors. Again I include the table of behaviors for comparison purposes. I am using the word, real, in the sense of the existential use of authentic, but as the table and this series of posts have indicated our various modes of behavior suggest that we have multiple personas, each related to the relative dominance of the hemispheres.
Mode of Being
Basic Behavioral Modes
The salient difference of acts that are controlled by the right hemisphere is that the action is grounded in the immediate present, and reflects the specific context of the scene. Details of the action may be taken from the left hemisphere, but to fit the peculiar contextual wholeness of the situation. This differs, importantly, from the routines or habits discussed in the previous post, which are selected to cohere with the generalized internal world that the left-brain believes is out there. When the right brain is master, the world presented to the actor includes explicit contextual details that are missing from routine or habitual situations. The actor is connected to that world and acts as if it was embedded in and a part of it. Again a difference from the separated, controlling stance of left brain.
Metaphorically, the left brain acts like the control room of some big machine (the outside world) it is running according to the knowledge it has previously acquired. The right brain has similar concerns about the external world, but understands that it is an integral part of the system, and eschews that kind of knowledge as dispositive, although, perhaps, helpful in designing the action(s) to be taken. The capability the right brain to ascertain contextual information gives it information about the important objects in the field of view that, again, are not available to the left, and provides input that allows the right to fashion responses to what it perceives that reflect the present, external world, not the one already stored in the left brain.
It is capable of being creative in a wholly difference sense than the left’s process to fashion actions. The left can choose from already existing beliefs and norms, but the right is free to go beyond and design actions from whole cloth, including actions that would appear contraindicated to the left. This distinction is not novel to the field of systems thinking, which is largely built on the presumption that systemic problems have to be addressed by bracketing the existing beliefs about how to handle them. The basic idea of bracketing exiting beliefs into order to perceive that is actually out there rather that what the brain is telling us is there goes back to the work of Edmund Husserl, the inventor of the field of phenomenology. Husserl was Heidegger’s mentor and is the primary link between many of the references to Heidegger than appear in my writing and the divided-brain model. Husserl argued that, in order to “see” what was out there in the perceptual field, one had to bracket, that is, put blinders around, the beliefs that were already there. Without any knowledge of the difference of the two sides of the brain, his work maps coherently on that model. Here are a few paragraphs from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) that elaborate his thinking (https://iep.utm.edu/huss-int/):
Whereas Descartes took his own conscious awareness to be epistemically basic and then immediately tried to infer, based on his knowledge of this awareness, the existence of a God, an external world, and other knowledge, Husserl takes first-person (right) conscious awareness as epistemically basic and then proposes the systematic study of this consciousness itself as a fundamental philosophical task. In order to lay the foundations for this project Husserl proposes a methodology known as the phenomenological reduction.
The phenomenological reduction involves performing what Husserl calls the epoché, which is carried out by “bracketing”, setting in abeyance, or “neutralizing” the existential thesis of the “natural attitude”. The idea behind this is that most people most of the time do not focus their attention on the structure of their experience itself (right) but rather look past this experience and focus their attention and interests on objects and events in the world, which they take to be unproblematically real or existent (left). This assumption about the unproblematic existence of the objects of experience is the “existential thesis” of the natural attitude. The purpose of the epoché is not to doubt or reject this thesis, but simply to set it aside or put it out of play so that the subject engaging in phenomenological investigation can reorient the focus of her attention to her experiences qua experiences and just as they are experienced. This amounts to a reorienting of the subject’s intentional focus from the natural (left) to the phenomenological attitude (right). A subject who has performed the epoché and adopted the phenomenological attitude is in a position to objectively describe the features of her experience as she experiences them, the phenomena. Questions of the real existence of particular objects of experience and even of the world or universe themselves are thus set aside in order to make way for the systematic study of first-person conscious experience. (The words in italics are mine).
Husserl also understood, without being aware of the divided-brain model, that the process of empathy was distinct from the routine or habitual way of acting, but critical in the way we understand the world. Here are a few paragraphs from McGilchrist’s, The Master and His Emissary about his work.
Husserl aimed to transcend the apparent duality of subjective and objective’ of realism and idealism, that had so troubled philosophy since Plato: he emphasised the role that empathy, the capacity not just to put oneself in someone else’s shoes but, importantly, to feel what they are feeling, plays in constructing the world. He came to the conclusion that there was an objective reality, but that it was constituted by what he called intersubjectivity This comes about through shared experience, which is made possible for us by our embodied existence alongside other embodied individuals. He distinguished between the two ways in which we know the body: as a material object (Körper), alongside other objects in the world, and in that sense alien to us, and the way we experience it as something not just living, but lived (Leib), as it were from the inside. When we see others engaged in action in the world, we feel them to be leibhaft, as though we shared with them our consciousness of embodied existence.
In this emphasis on the body, the importance of empathy, and intersubjectivity (which forms part of what I mean by ‘betweenness’), Husserl is asserting the essential role that the right hemisphere plays in constituting the world in which we live. He, too, emphasises the importance of context: things only are what they are because they find themselves in the surroundings in which they find themselves, and are connected to whatever it is that they are connected to. This raises the spectre of epistemological circularity, since achieving an understanding of any one thing depends on an understanding of the whole; and the tools of language and logical analysis take one away from context, back to the set of familiar concepts that, if one is a philosopher, one is constantly trying to transcend through analysis in language. That was the purpose of what he called the phenomenological reductions. His own approach is linear, but is forced to acknowledge the awkward truth displayed in Escher’s hands. The world arises from a circular process that circles and searches its origins, more like a picture that comes into focus all at once, than a linear address to a target: by a right-hemisphere process, in other words, rather than a left.
Heidegger, building on many of the ideas of Husserl, developed his own vocabulary to describe Husserlian notions, like intersubjectivity. Most importantly, he describes the most fundamental aspect of human being (living, existing) as care, not only being connected to the world but acting out of an understanding of its “needs.” Husserl anticipated this in his writings about empathy (again from the IEP):
. . . in Husserl’s eyes something like empathy also forms the basis of both our practical, aesthetical and moral evaluations and of what might be called intercultural understanding, i.e., the constitution of a “foreign world” against the background of one’s own “homeworld”, i.e., one’s own familiar (but, again, generally unreflected) cultural heritage. Husserl studied many of these phenomena in detail, and he even outlined the beginnings of a phenomenological ethics and value theory. In this context, he formulates a “categorical imperative” that makes recourse to the notion of lifeworld, or environment, as follows: Always act in such a way that your action contributes as well as possible to the best (the most valuable) you recognize yourself to be able to achieve in your life, given your individual abilities and environment (my emphasis).
All this philosophical background just to underpin the third row in the table. Caring is a distinct mode of behavior that occurs when the right brain is the master. Not surprisingly, given the connections to Heidegger (and Husserl), it is the what he called the authentic mode of being, and is constituted, in practice, by actions that reflect an understanding to the world, in particular an empathetic understanding of the Other. Husserl’s credo, reminiscent of Kant, is another expressive way of pointing to care and to the intersubjective me of the right brain. The ethical aspect of authentic actions is made clear by this formulation.
So what? My book and work, in general about flourishing, and McGilchrist’s work argue that the missing presence of the right brain in both individual and collective action in modern cultures (most of the world) is the root cause of our big problems. If one’s actions only are focused on the inner world of the left brain, it follows that the real external world would become nothing but the “standing reserve” Heidegger wrote about in his later work. Such acts would lack understanding of the needs of that world, whether other human beings or the Global system as a whole.
We humans have both a utilitarian and ethical obligation to take care of the world we inhabit. I’ll close this with another excerpt from one of my favorite articles about “wicked problems.” * Think about this through the metaphor of a collective left and right brain. The scientist corresponds to the left brain and the planner to the right.
10. The planner has no right to be wrong
As Karl Popper argues in The Logic of Scientific Discovery, it is a principle of science that solutions to problems are only hypotheses offered for refutation. This habit is based on the insight that there are no proofs to hypotheses, only potential refutations. The more a hypothesis withstands numerous attempts at refutation, the better its “corroboration” is considered to be. Consequently, the scientific community does not blame its members for postulating hypotheses that are later refuted—so long as the author abides by the rules of the game, of course.
In the world of planning and wicked problems no such immunity is tolerated. Here the aim is not to find the truth, but to improve some characteristics of the world where people live. Planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate; the effects can matter a great deal to those people that are touched by those actions.
* Horst Rittel & Melvin Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” (Section III), Policy Sciences 4 (1973), 155-169 .