I am always looking for examples of dichotomous situations that add to the credibility of McGilchrist’s divided-brain model. The more instances that it explains something important, the more likely it will be accepted as a new, paradigmatic design model for attacking those “big,” persistent problems in our individual and cultural lives we are struggling to overcome. Last night, as I was in bed, trying to quiet my thoughts, one really good one popped up.
I have been reading a series of essays by Richard Rorty, collected in his book, Philosophy and Social Hope (great read). One is devoted to a discussion of the importance of Thomas Kuhn, whose book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, changed the high place that science had held in the intellectual Pantheon since the days of the early Enlightenment and even going back to the Greeks. Rorty writes:
The main reason Kuhn was kept at arm’s length by the philosophy professors is that anglophone philosophy is dominated by the so-called analytic tradition — a tradition that has prided itself in having made philosophy more like science and less like literature or politics. The last thing philosophers in this tradition want is to have the distinctiveness of science impugned — to be told, as Kuhn told them, that the successes of science are not due to the application of a special ‘scientific method’, and that the replacement of one scientific theory by another is not a matter of hard, cold logic, but comes about in the same way as does the replacement of one political institution by another. . . . Kuhn’s major contribution to remapping culture was to help us see that the natural scientists do not have a special access to reality or to truth. He helped dismantle the traditional hierarchy of disciplines, a hierarchy that dates back to Plato’s image of the divided line.
For me, the outstanding feature of Kuhn’s argument was the difference between what he called “normal science” and revolutionary advances or the related notion of new paradigms. These were two distinct processes. The first is built on a set of established (by the consensus of peers) beliefs and methods, that is, by Kuhn’s definition, a paradigm. Normal science is reductionist by nature, always examining isolated instances under carefully controlled conditions. It is a (paradigmatic) left-brain activity. It relies on taking something out of its context, so that the results of the examination can be abstracted and generalized. The process of discovery is controlled and bounded, another left-brain feature. Normal science is also very powerful and has enabled humans to construct a vast technological structure by which they control the modern world, and, at the same time, controls the same humans that have built it. Quite a feedback loop.
Scientific revolutions, for example, quantum mechanics, arise from (paradigmatic) right-brain activities. The right-brain grasps some phenomenon in its context, which is absent in normal science, and explores new possibilities to understand what is going on out there. The new understanding may come from a purely cognitive process, as in Kekulé’s day-dreaming of a ouroboros (snake eating its own tail) that led him to describe the ring structure of benzene. Or it may come via a new technology/instrument that enables the viewer to add context that was previously unknown. Crick, Watson, and Franklin, without the tool of x-ray crystallography, would not have been able to posit the marvelous double helix structure of DNA. In such cases of paradigmatic, revolutionary leaps, the left is involved only as a platform from which the right departs. McGilchrist’s model fits this dichotomy virtually perfectly. His description of the corpus callosum (the neuronal structure that separates the two hemisphere) as a switch that controls the flow between the two makes possible the isolation of the right-side from the left and the possibility of new ways of explaining and acting in the world beyond those already known to the left-side.
McGilchrist writes (The Master and his Emissary, p 360): (I have omitted some of his references, and added the terms in [brackets].)
… Every new object, clearly seen, opens up a new organ of perception in us (Goethe).
This last, perhaps somewhat cryptic, sentence suggests that for us truly to experience something it has to enter into and alter us, and there must be something in us which specifically responds to it as unique [right-brain]. A consequence of this, as Thomas Kuhn recognized, will be that those phenomena with which we have no affinity, and which we are not in some sense ready to see, are often not seen at all. Theory, in the conventional sense of the term, can restrict one’s capacity to see things [left-brain], and the only remedy is to be aware of it.
Understanding, then, is not a discursive explanatory process, but a moment of connection [right-brain], in which we see through our experience — an aperçu or insight. All seeing is ‘seeing as’; not that a cognition is added to perception, but that each act of seeing, in the sense of allowing something to ‘presence’ for us, is in itself necessarily an act of understanding.
An extremely odd demand is often set forth but never met, even by those who make it: i.e., that empirical data should be presented without any theoretical context, leaving the reader, the student, to his own devices in judging it (the classic demand of Enlightenment science). This demand seems odd because it is useless simply to look at something. Every act of looking turns into observation, every act of observation into reflection, every act of reflection into the making of associations; thus it is evident that we theorize [left-brain] every time we look carefully at the world (Goethe).
Theory, in this sense, according to Goethe, is not systematized abstraction after the fact, and separate from experience, but vision that sees something in its context (the ‘making of associations’) and sees through it.
Complexity demands that we take the system in with our right-brain because the only hope we have of understanding it and, thereby, being able to effect deliberate change is to capture its contextual whole, without the filters the left-brain imposes. Given the immensity of big, complex systems like the Earth or a diverse society like ours in the US, that fact suggests we start with smaller parts of it and work from there. Maybe we should start with the individual human being, already a complex system. If we do not understand the dichotomous way the single brain works, we have little possibility of getting out from under the control of the left and its limits to seeing the world other than through some theory, as Goethe writes.
The great advances in science are the results of individual’s ability to shutdown the left’s control, even as they were probably unaware of such a process. So will it be in other spheres of human activities. I have argued in my new book that we can re-design ourselves to become right-brain dominant. Beyond that, I haven’t much of a clue to how to really make our present dysfunctional ways of life go away. Even if we enlarge our view to the dimension of family, the complexity quickly prevents us from learning how to solve all of the problems that we know trouble families.
That does not mean I am without hope. I am not. For a shift to the right-brain changes each of us from a controlling, self-interested, isolated individual to a caring, connected, open, human being. I can imagine all sorts of changes that would follow, naturally, which change would head us in the right direction towards flourishing for both humans and our Planet. Given the inability or willingness to “figure out,” a classic left-brain process, how to solve our growing problems like climate change, small and large wars, inhumanity in general, I can see no other potentially effective path forward.
No single individual is likely to stumble upon the new paradigm on which a flourishing world can be established. Nor are either the natural or social sciences; they are simply too constrained by their theories and methodologies. John Dewey gave us a possible way out of this box. Get together a group of concerned people, acting in a democratic fashion, and have at the problem pragmatically, that is, using the right-brain so as to avoid being trapped in the morass of the thinking that produced the situation, just as Einstein warned. Start by bracketing the most malevolent notion that drives virtually all societies today, that of continued economic growth as the primary goal for any polity. Seriously think of a world without greenhouse gases and how to get there as fast as possible. We really do not have other choices. Our right-brains know that. It’s only our left-brains that keep us locked into the craziness that, with a little more science and technology, and, perhaps, the immiseration of a few more humans, we can keep on living the same old way we have been for a couple of centuries.
(Image: Thomas Kuhn)