The Matter with Things: Chapter Ten Summary: What Is Truth?

In this first chapter of the second section of The Matter with Things, Iain McGilchrist asks, What is Truth? Section two has a different focus than the first, which was focused on foundation building. From here on in, he wants to build on this foundation.

Check out the table of contents for this series of summaries. Note that I have rendered my interstitial commentaries in grey boxes with red text, so the reader can skip over and just focus on the chapter summary.

At first, he establishes that each hemisphere ‘thinks’ it knows the true truth and has the best vantage on reality. He makes it clear that a short chapter will not do the topic of truth the justice he feels it deserves and notes that others have written books on the matter. He just wants to make a few points and clarify his position.

As we discovered in the first section, the left and right hemispheres perceive the world differently. The right hemisphere experiences the world as it is presented in a Gestalt manner. This is contrasted by the left hemisphere which views the world as a symbolic re-presentation. It’s not unfair to say that the right hemisphere experiences the world directly whilst the left hemisphere views a cache of the world.

In this chapter, McGilchrist (Iain) attempts to convince the reader that one side is more correct or correct more often than the other and so is more veridical. As he says, the left hemisphere ‘is a good servant but a poor master’. Of course, if we had a third hemisphere [sic], we might think it could mediate the other two, but then we’d need a fourth and a fifth, ad infinitum to act as the new arbiter.

Spoiler Alert: The right hemisphere wins the battle on truth pretty much hands down.

He wants to make it clear to the reader that he is no strict idealist. There is a reality ‘out there’ apart from mental processes that objectively exists even in the absence of a subject. Reality is not exclusively a projection of the brain.

His choice rather relies on the correspondence theory of truth, which is to say that the hemisphere that conveys perceptions more correspondent to our perceived reality would be more veridical.

Here, I challenge his reasoning on two accounts. In the first place,each hemisphere may operate better in one context versus another. In the second case, there may be a consequential factor, which again distils down to context. In risk management, there are notions of probability of failure and consequence of failure. For example, a failure to recognise the truth of a matter (we’ll use truth as a proxy for ‘fact’), may be inconsequential. If I am assessing the probability of a pipe bursting in a nuclear facility and the pipe is connected to a sink to deliver tap water, the consequence of this failure is practically insignificant. But if I am assessing the probability of a pipe containing radioactive materials, even if the probability of failure is low, the consequence of failure may be catastrophic.

Evolutionarily speaking, if you mistake a garden hose for a venomous snake, the consequence of failure is trivial. Turn the tables, and mistake a snake for a garden hose, the consequence may be fatal. I am not attempting to claim that one hemisphere interprets the low consequence scenario and the other interprets the high. I simply want to raise this nuance.

He makes the point that if we compare some known authentic object to a recollection, we want to retain the one that is more accurate.

I see a similar challenge. Hypothetically, let’s say I present a red disc and manipulate the hemispheres to activate only one at a time, asking to recall the object. If the left says it’s red and the right says it’s a disc, which is more correct? Again, I am not claiming that this is a real scenario, but if one side possesses facts unavailable to the other side, we’ve got a problem in making a truth claim.

To reiterate, the left hemisphere is more analogous to a photograph or a video account whereas the right hemisphere is to be in the place that is being photographed. The right hemisphere is duratively presenced whilst the left is re-presented. We move from a nominative form to a verbial form of representing reality. This leads him to ask if ‘truth’ is a thing or a process.

He shifts to a linguistic argument. When people view ‘truth’ as a noun, as a thing, the expectation is that it is static. Moreover, the descriptors of truth are rendered mainly in the past tense—representation, fact, perfect, precise, certain, and concluded. He provides definitions. When viewed duratively, ‘truth’ becomes a process. It is an active relationship. It flows. It’s an intercourse.

We may not ever get to an agreed truth, but neither is every position valid. Interpreting a text, for example, may have several conflicting meanings, but the possible meanings are relatively finite.

Take a simple sentence such as, “The dog bit the hand that feeds him.” This could be meant literally or figuratively. We might imagine different dogs, hands and person to whom the hand is attached. Perhaps the hand is attached to a bonobo. Perhaps, it’s a robotic hand. These are among various possible interpretations, and we may not ever agree on the truth of the matter. However, we can rule out that a giraffe or a watermelon were central to this narrative for what it’s worth.

The bookgoes on to discuss the etymology of the word ‘truth’ and of its relationship to the word ‘true’ (faithful) which is further related to ‘trust’. I won’t exhaust his explanation.

He does discuss correspondence and coherence theories of truth and discounts others such as consensus theory and social constructivism. He cautions not to equate truth with correctness. This is a left hemisphere game insisting on dichotomising things.

The book declares the despite a general agreement on the source or nature of truth, there is something there, so don’t give up un it. In the end, he seems to settle for a Pragmatistic version à la William James.

Personally, I feel he and others are over-invested in the nature of truth. And inflate its meaning over ‘fact’. To me, Capital-T Truth is an archetype, but it doesn’t otherwise exist. We have facts, and truth is sort of a perfect version of a fact. Love is in the same category, though I know Iain would disagree with this assertion. Of course, James dismissed semantic argument as petty and insisted that people simply know the truth of something. I’ve always found this take to be dismissive. I also feel that Pragmatism is too steeped in Empiricism and loses hold of the notion that what happened yesterday may not in fact manifest today or not in the same way.

I’ll also argue as others have before me that (besides being archetypal) the term is a redundant filler word. On a minuscule level, if I say ‘The cup is red’, saying ,’It’s true that the cup is red adds nothing’. The equation was already asserted. This leaves one to wonder what the purpose of it is.

Returnng to the asymmetry of the hemispheres he cautions up not to take a position that one of the other side is correct. Rather, even though there is an asymmetry in value, there is still a synthesis.

Iain uses the example of Newtonian and Einsteinian physics. At one point, they are practically synonymous and interchangeable. Only as we reach the speed of light does Newtonian physic exceed the bounds of its scope. He also educated the reader on the difference between precision and accuracy.

I like to view this in a musical context. If I play two notes together, say a B over an E, neither is more correct than the other. Notionally, I am playing an E5/B. This is neither an E or a B. The chord is the result of the two playing simultaneously. In this case E and B are both true and not true because the E5 is a synthesis. If I add a G# I get an E-major chord, subsequently adding a D renders an E7. In each of these cases, the truth of the notes, B, D, E, and G# remain true to their identity, but the fact is that the individuality is subsumed by the collective. This is the prevailing truth even though a person with perfect pitch can still individually identify the constituents of the chord. I don’t know if this is more confusion than necessary, but it helps me.

I’ve always like this illustration with target grouping, but this was not referenced by the book.

Image: Precision and Accuracy Chart

Interestingly, he cites Jay Zwicky’s definition: “Truth is the asymptotic limit of sensitive attempts to be responsible to our actual experience of the world … ‘sensitive attempts to be responsible’ means truth is the result of attention. (As opposed to inspection.) Of looking informed by love. Of really looking.” He accedes that there are degrees of truth.

Truth is the asymptotic limit of sensitive attempts to be responsible to our actual experience of the world

Jay Zwicky

This asymptosis is how I describe Truth in my Truth about Truth post.

As the chapter comes to a close, he leaves us with a twisted categorical syllogism,

  • [p1] All monkeys climb trees
  • [p2] The porcupine in a monkey
  • [ c ] The porcupine climes trees

This structure presents a valid argument. However, it is not sound. It follows the Socratic logical syntax:

  • [p1] M a P
  • [p2] S a M
  • [ c [ S a P

Because of our exposure to and experience with the external world, we can assess this argument to be unsound, which is to say untrue by observation. Without this context, we could not render this assessment. He discusses the way right- and left-hemisphere occluded subjects respond to this discrepancy. In summary, an isolated left hemisphere with defend the logical syntax over the lived experience.

In conclusion, the hemispheres take different paths to assess truth and often end up at different destinations. The left hemisphere sees truth as a thing whilst the right views it as a process.

Language Perception

The link between language and cognition is interesting though not entirely grasped.

VIDEO: TED Talk on YouTube — Lera Boroditsky

“I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse.”

― Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (probably not, but whatevs…)

Perspective

In the West, we tend to be quite self-centric. We are the centres of our universes, and this has several implications. Firstly, we orient conversation around ourselves; occasionally, we orient conversation around others. Instead, some cultures orient themselves around their world.

Self as Centre

Ordinarily, if a Westerner is asked which is their dominant hand, they might answer left or right. If they are asked to describe where something is spatially, one might answer on my left or right or above or below me. If the person asking is present, they may simply point to the object as a gesture.

Other as Centre

In some cases, we might feel it necessary to orient relative to another? The answer to the question, “Where is the book?” might be, “On your left”, or “You’ve got something on your left cheek”.

Terrain as Centre

In the West, we have notions of cardinal directions—North, East, West, and South—, but we still tend to orient communication around ourselves or others. In some regions, the use of cardinal directions is more prominent than in others. For example, when I am in Boston, I didn’t find many people reference places by cardinal directions, but when I am in Los Angeles, much conversation is relative to head north or head east. I notice that Google Maps tend to employ this. It’s often confusing when I am in an unfamiliar place, and the voice instructs me to travel west toward Avenue X. If I happen to have remembered where Avenue X is, I might internally orient toward that. Otherwise, I head in some direction until Google reinforces my choice or it rather recalculates based on my bad choice, if even nonjudgmentally.

In some cultures, this cardinality includes the body, so in comparison with the aforementioned self-as-centre dominant hand query, the response would depend on which way the subject was facing. Were they a southpaw (lefthander) facing north, they would respond that their west hand is dominant. But if they were facing south, it would be their east hand. This may seem to be confusing to a Westerner, but to a native, they would explicitly understand because they would be intimately oriented. As Lera relates in the video, someone might point out an ant crawling on your southwest leg.

To be fair, this space is not entirely alien to some Westerners. For example, mariners can shift the conversation from themselves to their ship or boat. Rather than left and right, relative to themselves or another, they might refer to port and starboard relative to the vessel. Being on the vessel and facing front (the bow), left is port and starboard is right; however, facing the rear (the stern), left is not starboard and right is now port. So, if someone asks where the lifeboat is, landlubbers may say it’s on their left whilst a sailor might say it’s on the starboard side.

Centring Time

Time is another aspect we centre on ourselves. I won’t even endeavour to raise the circular notion of time. If an English speaker thinks about a timeline, we would likely configure it from left to right equating with past to future. This aligns with our writing preference. For native Arabic or Hebrew speakers, they might naturally opt to convey this from right to left in accordance with their preferred writing system.

For the Aboriginal Kuuk Thaayorre in Australia, their rendition of time was contingent on their orientation in the world. Essentially, time flows from east to west, perhaps in accordance with the apparent movement of the sun across the sky relative to Earth. Facing south or north, they rendered time left to right and right to left, respectively. When they faced east, time came toward the subject, with time moving away from the body when facing west.

Counting

So-called modern or advanced societies have developed number systems, but some cultures either have no counting or limited counting, having systems that might extend 1, 2, many, or 1, 2, 3, many. This means that tasks we learn like accounting, inventory management, or comparing counts of apples and oranges are not only not available to these people, they are irrelevant to them.

Categorical Imperitive

Lera tells us about the blues. Not B.B. King Blues, but the categorisation of blue, blues, and colours more generally. I’ve discussed this before in various places. As with numbers, some languages have a lot and some have few; some have only distinctions for light and dark, or equivalents of white, black, red, and so on. Colour names are typically added to a language in a similar order based on the frequency within the visual colour spectrum. I may have written about that earlier as well if only I could find it.

Different cultures and languages categorise colours differently, subdividing them differently. In many non-English languages, pink is simply light red. English opts to assign it a unique label. On the other hand, blue is basically one colour name in English whilst it is further broken down in Russian to goluboi (light blue, голубой) and siniy (darker blue, синий). This mirrors the pattern of pink (lighter red) and red (darker red) in English, a distinction not prevalent in other languages. Of course, we also have variations of reds and blues such as crimson or cyan, but this is rather second-order nuance.

Interestingly, in neurological studies, when measuring a person with a language that splits a colour, say a Russian looking at blues, the instruments capture the event of the subject having noticed the category shift. No such shift occurs in speakers without such a switch. I would be interested to know what the results would be for a bilingual speaker to be asked to respond in each language. Informally, I asked a Russian mate of mine if he experienced anything differently seeing blue whilst thinking in Russian versus English. He said yes, but couldn’t really provide any additional information. If a reader happens to be fluent in two or more languages, I’d be interested in hearing about your experiences.

One last note on colour, I’ve read studies that claim that women on balance have more colour names than men, which is to say where a typical male only sees shades of blue, the typical woman sees periwinkle, ultramarine, cyan, navy, cobalt, indigo, cerulean, teal, slate, sapphire, turquoise, and on and on. Of course, many English-speaking males may be defensive about now, arguing, “I know cyan. I know teal. Who doesn’t know turquoise?” Knowing is different to employing, and perhaps you’re not typical. You’re an atypical male. Let’s not get into gender challenges. Rather, let’s.

Gender Problems

Yet again, gender rears its ugly head. I am wondering when people are going to start demanding fluidity among gendered nouns. Sticking with Lera’s examples, a bridge happens to be grammatically feminine in Germans and masculine in Spanish. When asked to describe a bridge, German speakers are more apt to choose stereotypically feminine adjectives, beautiful or elegant whilst Spanish speakers opted for stereotypically masculine terms, strong or long. I suppose she was reaching for laughter on that last reference.

Structured Events

Objects and subjective injection are other possible conventions. Lera mentions a tourist bumping into a vase. In English, one would be comfortable declaring, “The man knocked the vase off the pedestal.” In Spanish, the same event might more often be described as “The vase fell off the pedestal”. Notice the shift in agency and dispersion of blame. In English, we have some apparent need to inject not only a cause but an agent as a source of the cause. As I see it, one might have these several (possibly inexhaustive) options:

  1. He knocked the vase off the stand.
  2. Someone knocked the vase off the stand.
  3. The vase got knocked off the stand.
  4. The vase fell off the stand.

I decided to note the relationship between the case and the stand. I suppose this is not strictly necessary and might seem superfluous in some contexts.

In case 1, a specific agent (he) is responsible for knocking off the vase. This does not suggest intent, though even negligence carries weight in many circles.

In case 2, the agent becomes indefinite. The speaker wants to specify that the vase didn’t just fall over on its own.

In case 3, agency is not only indefinite, but it also may not have a subject. Perhaps, a cat knocked it off—or the wind or an earth tremor.

In the final case, 4, the agent is removed from the conversation altogether, All that is conveyed is that the vase fell from a stand.

One might want to argue, “So what?” but this is not simply a convention of language; it stems from perception—or perhaps perception was altered by language through acculturation, but let’s not quibble here. It determines what someone pays attention to. When an event was witnessed, people from cultures where agency is a strong component, the witness is more apt to remember the culprit, whereas a non-agency-focused witness, would not be as likely to recall attributes about the person who may have knocked it over. Practically, this leads to issues of blame and culpability. Clearly, a culture with an agent orientation might be quicker to assess blame, where this would be further removed from the conversation from a different cultural perspective. I am speculating here, but I don’t feel it’s a large logical leap.

In a retributive justice system, the language that assigns agency is more likely to mete out harsher punishments because he broke the vase, it wasn’t simply broken. The use of language guides our reasoning. This leads me to wonder whether those who are ‘tough on crime‘ use different language construction than those who are more lenient.

Enfin

I just wanted to share my thoughts and connect language with cognition. I don’t think that the connection is necessarily strong or profound, but there is something, and there are more language nuances than noted here.

What is real? What is true?

An online colleague published an essay on another essay (en français). The gist was to say that their ideas were the same save for whether a core foundation was reality or truth. I am going to stylise these and derivatives in capital initials, e.g., Real and Truth. I am not sure I see the connexion, and perhaps Lance will chime in here directly to correct any misunderstandings and fill in any holes.

Podcast: Audio rendition is this page content

At least in English vernacular, True and Real are close synonyms. I don’t feel they are as close as we may assume at first glance. I think each of these terms carries with it its own ambiguity and connotation, so a meaningful discussion may prove to be difficult.

I’m not sure if it’s a fair characterisation, but I feel that most people consider Real as what they can sense or experience. Some may not even allow for the experiential component. In my mind, metaphorically thinking, of course, a book might be real; an idea might be real; even the idea of a unicorn might be real, but unicorns are not real. If we want to claim unicorns as part of Reality or include it in the set of Reality, then it would be a second-order sort. Substituting Harry Potter for unicorns, the idea of Harry Potter is real, but Harry Potter is a figment. Of course, Harry Potter may be the name of a human or your pet otter, but this is not the manifest Harry Potter of the idea. And Harry Potter is not a unicorn.

Harry Potter is not a unicorn

I mention Harry Potter and, indeed, unicorns, because I have had people argue that these things are real. For me, they are off the table, whether real or imagined. I feel that some people may also reduce Real to material, so a Realist would be the same as a Materialist. That’s fine except we end up with obvious non-material stuff on the cutting room floor. What do we do with emotions and so-called qualia? Sure, some might equate emotions with biochemical reactions and some synaptic exchange in some parts of the brain, further articulated through facial and bodily expressions and gestures. For the Materialist, we may not yet know the mechanism, but it’s only a matter of time—in the same manner as atoms became protons and electrons, which became quarks with spins and colour, and this morphed into fields.

Being sympathetic to Analytic Idealism, I might argue that none of this is real because all we can experience is what we can sense, but what we sense is a second order of Reality. We can’t even experience the first-order variety. The usual analogy is to look at computer bits or the funky Matrix code, and it doesn’t reveal what we see or experience through the interface. In the case of the Matrix, the interface is their perceived reality. But perception isn’t Reality. At least Descartes suggests as much. If first-order Reality is unattainable, we can either consider this sensed and experienced world second order. This leaves our unicorns and Harry Potter to be third order. In this case, we might idiomatically consider the first-order to be understood to exist, but our use of Reality extends only to the second-order variety.

In any case, I don’t expect to resolve the mystery of Reality here and now, but it is a dialogue where accord is necessary to be on the same proverbial page.

But then what is True? What is Truth? I’ve written about this previously. Here, we are explicitly invoking the capital-T version of Truth, not the minuscule-t version where it’s synonymous with pedestrian ‘facts’ and tautologies. By True, are we asking what is objectively real—unadulterated by subjective experience, some universal and invariable condition? And is this Truth what is Real? Are there Truths that are not Real?

To sum it up, it is quite standard—although not universal by a long shot—to consider Real what we can experience whilst True is something that requires proof. A physical table might be real. Like unicorns, mathematic concepts may be true—I’d argue that this is tautological whilst others might defend some Platonic ideal—, but they are not real. They are an abstraction. I suppose my point is to not take these words for granted and presume they can be directly interchanged. I suppose in the adjective form, they are more apt to coincide—Is that a true Picasso? Is that a real Picasso? Clearly, when we are asking if it is real, we are asking if it is truly genuine rather than questioning its materiality.

It may be true that I am wittering away online in some masturbatory pseudo-intellectual frenzy, and the results may be virtually real, but I needed to let my mind wander for a bit. If you’ve gotten this far, bless your heart, and leave a comment.

And so it goes.

Moral Binaries

At heart, I’m an Emotivist. Following Ayer, I don’t believe that morals (and their brethren ethics) convey more than, “I like this, and I don’t like that.” Stevenson’s Prescriptivist extension makes sense, too: “I think this is good, and so should you.”

It seems that Hilary Lawson and I share this perspective. He makes the further point, one I’ll surely adopt, that morals and ethics are effectively ‘designed’ to shut down argument and discussion. It’s akin to the parent telling the kid, “Because I said so”—or “because it’s the right thing to do”.

Podcast: Audio rendition of this page content

I’m a moral non-cognitivist, but people have difficulty enough grasping relativism and subjectivism, so I’m only going to reference moral relativism here. As a moral relativist, right and wrong were both subjective and contextual. One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist. I won’t derail this with obvious examples. Once one adopts a position, they enjoy the luxury of turning off any critical thinking.

I’ll presume that morals predate religion and deities, but now that the thinking world has abandoned the notion of gods, they’ve replaced it with morals and ethics—and nature, but that’s a topic for another day. The faith-based world retains a notion of gods, but that is fraught with the same relativism of my god is right, and your god is wrong.

As Hilary notes, we’ve transferred the authority, per Nietzsche, from gods to morals in and of themselves, so it again becomes a device for the unengaged. He notes, as I do, that some absolute Truth is a fool’s errand. Echoing Donald Hoffman, what we need is fitness—what Lawson calls usefulness—, not Truth, which is inaccessible anyway—even if it did exist, which of course it doesn’t.

He cites the position Wittgenstein arrives at in his Tractatus. There is and can never be a place where language—words and symbols—intersect with ‘reality’, so the best we can do is to talk about it in a third-person sort of way.

As I consider the works of McGilchrist, it feels like Lawson is establishing moral simplicity as a left hemisphere function. Seeing beyond this is a right hemisphere activity, so that’s not promising. There seem to be few right-brain thinkers and then it comes to convincing the left-brain crowd. In a poor metaphor, the challenge is rather like trying to convey the maths of special relativity to the same crowd. They are going to tune out before they hear enough of the story. The left-brain is good at saying, ”la la la la, la la, la”.  

Without getting too far off track, a major challenge is that systems of government and laws are facile left hemisphere-dominant activities. These are people in power and influential. Rhetoricians have right hemisphere dominance, but they understand that their power depends on defending the status quo that has elevated them to where they are. As Upton Sinclair said, “’It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” This holds true for women and non-binary others.

In closing, Lawson asserts that apart from comic book supervillains, people tend to do what they believe to be good, and yet all goods are not created equally, nor all bads. And in the manner that one person’s trash is another’s treasure, one person’s good is another’s bad.

This moral discourse is not benign. It’s dangerous. I don’t want to steep this in contemporary politics, but this is being propagandised in things like the Ukraine conflict or the Covid response. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. This is divisive and creates a rift. That governments are propagating this divide is even more disconcerting, especially when they unapologetically backtrack only a few months later in the wake of people suffering economic impacts, including getting fired, for opposing a position that has turned out to be wrong and that was being asserted in the name of science and yet with little empirical support. These people are politicians and not scientists but attempting to hide behind science like a human shield, it serves to erode trust in science. Trust in science is a separate topic, so I’ll leave it there.

I recommend watching the complete video of Hilary Lawson to gain his perspective and nuance. My point is only to underscore his positions and to say that I agree. What do you think about morals? Are they a device to assert power over others, or is there something more to it than this? If not moral, then what? Leave a comment.

Cerebral Hemisphere Differences: Pattern Definition

Continuing with a quick post based on observations in The Master and the Emissary by Iain McGilchrist, another example of hemispheral specialisation is illustrated in the image below.

Podcast: Audio rendition of this page content

A typical person will envisage this large S composited with smaller Ss (that could be replaced with any symbols, so there is nothing special about the S comprised of Ss) as represented by the centre image of the rendition of the bilateral interpretations.

Where there is left hemisphere damage, the right would envisage something more like the S on the right—seeing the big picture but losing detail. Where there is right hemisphere damage, the left would perceive something more like the S on the left, which is the detail of the composite Ss without recognising that they composed a bigger picture. This is conveyed in the aphorism of losing the woods for the trees whilst the former right hemisphere dominant view might not realise that the forest has trees.

But even this misses the point slightly because if you are viewing this as a typical person, you can assemble the Ss on the left and realise that it makes a larger S whereas a person with right hemisphere damage will just see a mass of Ss and not see the larger S shape. Moreover, it’s not that the right hemisphere wouldn’t ‘see’ the smaller composite Ss, it just wouldn’t put any significance on them, thus ignoring them and considering them to be background noise.

I really do want to share about the non-stereoscopic animals as well as another instalment from The Matter with Things. At least one of these is probable for the next post.

Cerebral Hemisphere Differences: The Colour and the Shape

One key aspect of left and right hemisphere differences is the notion of identification versus naming and categorisation. I tend to view the right hemisphere as rather Zen. It just sees things as they are without particular care, judgment, or attachment.

Podcast: Audio rendition of this page content
2 Orange Circles as tentatively experienced by the left and right hemispheres of the brain.

I composited a quick illustration to convey the difference. Starting with the right hemisphere, the object is recognised in a global context. Whilst it can be distinguished from a blue thing or a square thing, this is done by holistically surveying the world. The difference is perceived but rather without reflection on memory.

Generally speaking, both hemispheres ‘see’ the object, but where the right hemisphere is interested in the object as presented, the left hemisphere is interested in re-presentation. Where the right hemisphere is about being open to the experience itself, the left closes.

From an evolutionary vantage, the right hemisphere is interested in surveying the world at large and being alert to potential danger or survival queues, perhaps a food source. If the right hemisphere is triggered, the left hemisphere jumps in. This said, the left hemisphere is tightly focused, so if something does alert it—remembering that it is not switched off awaiting the right brain to activate it—, it will respond more quickly than the right hemisphere, though as I’ve noted previously, accuracy is not it’s forte, as the right hemisphere may have to convey that the snake that startled you was, in fact, a garden hose.

The left hemisphere is where categorisation and naming take place. Moreover, it stores the object for later retrieval, creating a map. If a subsequent observation is made, it is compared and contrasted relative to the map. After enough observations are made, the left brain isn’t so interested in observing the external world. It perceives a circle-y shape or perhaps an orangy colour and is convinced (metaphorically) that its cached version is satisfactory.

There is a book named Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain. I don’t want to comment on the book in depth, save to say that the author’s premise is that the so-called left-hemisphere person will look at the face of a subject and draw a generic oval shape. The eyes will be general eye shapes, following the same pattern for the nose and mouth. In the end, they will have rendered a portrait on the level of a child.

Whistler’s Mother, a restoration as reimagined by Mr Bean in the movie Bean.

The artist who inhabits the left brain will instead note the contours, shadows, and colours of the face in front of them. One exercise that I had learned in some art class years before I read this was to draw from an inverted portrait. Not being so common as upright faces, the left brain has no representations modelled and so defers to the right hemisphere that is now looking at the object—the terrain—rather than the model.

Inverted image of Igor Stravinsky, a popular subject for breaking left-brain fixedness

I find the divided hemisphere activity in animals without stereoscopic vision to be fascinating. Perhaps, I’ll comment on this next.


* I am not claiming that the right hemisphere sees the world as fuzzy or hazy. Rather, this was me taking artistic licence to not ascribe strict boundaries to the objects in the world, especially as constrained by language.

VIDEO: The Truth about Truth

I wrote about this content in 2019, but I wanted to revisit it for a video as well as create a podcast audio version.

Video: YouTube version of this page content
Podcast: Audio rendition of this page content

In today’s segment, I am going to share my perspectives on the truth about truth. To start, I’ll let the audience know that I do not believe in the notion of truth. I feel the term is ill-defined especially in the realm of metaphysics and morality. I feel that when most people employ the word ‘truth’, what they mean to say is ‘fact.’ That a fire engine is red, for example, may be a fact, if indeed the fire engine happens to be red, but it is not true. This is a misapplication of the term. If you employ truth as a direct synonym for fact, then this is not what’s being discussed here, and perhaps your time might be better spent watching some content by the Critical Drinker.   

My argument is that truth is not objective. Rather it is subjective and perspectival. I concede that there may be some objective truth out there somewhere, but it is not and will not ever be accessible to us because of limitations in our sense-perception faculties and cognitive limitations. Per Aristotle, we only have five senses with which we can connect to the world, and these senses are limited. If there is anything out there that would require another sense receptor—a sense receptor not available to us—, we would never be able to sense it, to even know of its existence. Perhaps the universe emits 100 sense signals, but we are only capable of receiving and translating five. We’d be oblivious to 95 per cent of reality.

I am not making any claims that this is the case, but human cognition is so limited, that we can’t even conceive of what another sense might be. If you can, please leave a comment.

To be clear, I am not talking about senses we know other species possess. Bats may have echolocation, and sharks may have electroreception. Some animals may have greater sensory acuity—superior vision and auditory senses, olfactory and gustatory, tactile, or whatever. Some can see into infrared or ultraviolet light spectra. Technology that includes biomimicry provides humans with microscopes for the microworld and telescopes for the macroworld. We have x-rays and sonar and radar, radios and televisions that extend our senses, but these provide no new sensory receptors.

Like the story of the blind people and the elephant, we are left grasping at parts. But even if we are able to step back to view the whole elephant, to hear the elephant, to touch and smell or even taste the elephant, if there is more to the elephant, we cannot know it. The same goes for ourselves.

I know that some people might inject gods or psychic or paranormal energy into this void, and sure, feel free, but I am looking beyond these pedestrian concepts. What else might there be?

But let’s depart this train and head in a different direction. I want us to focus on the senses we do have. For the typical human, sight is our primary arbiter of reality, at least as defined idiomatically. We tend to believe what we see, and what we see, we assume as real—even if we are later mistaken. I guess that wasn’t a unicorn or a pink elephant. I must have been hallucinating or dreaming. I could have sworn that was Auntie Em.

There are several competing theories around truth, but I’ll focus on the Correspondence theory, which is simply put, the notion that, proxying reality for truth, human perception corresponds with the real world. And a pragmatist might argue that’s close enough for the government.

Keep in mind that historically humans have contorted themselves into making calculations. Remember how long people had been tying themselves into knots to show planetary motion in a geocentric system creating epicycles and retrograde motion to map understanding to a perceived reality.

One might even argue that we’ve progressed. It wasn’t true or accurate then, but now it is. And perhaps it is. Let’s look at some illustrations.

NB: Due to an editorial mishap, this paragraph was dropped in the podcast, hence dropped from the video, which shared the podcast audio source. As such, this image was also not used in the video. This is unfortunate, as it was meant to introduce those with limited maths knowledge to the asymptotic curve, as described. Apologies, and I hope this serves to orient any travellers who may have lost their way at this point.

In this first illustration, we see Truth (or relative truthiness) on the Y-axis and Time on the X-Axis. On the top, we see a threshold representing Reality. In the plane, I’ve rendered an asymptotic curve, where over time, we get closer and closer to the Truth. But we never quite get there. More on this later.

The next illustration will help to demonstrate what’s happening.

Notice there is a gap between the curve and the Reality cap. For one thing, we don’t really know where we are relative to Reality. In the case of the geocentric system, we might have been at the leftmost space. Once we determined that the system is actually solar-centric, we might have moved right on the curve to close the gap. We might be tempted to defend that we’ve finally reached the truth, but we’d have been equally willing to make the same defence from the geocentric position, so we need to be mindful of the past.

Perhaps, this last example was too obvious. We feel comfortable staking a truth claim—or at least a claim of fact. So let’s look at another example.

Let’s re-use the same axes—Truth and Time—, but rather than an asymptotic curve, let’s presume something more polynomial in nature—or not particularly cyclic. Rather than retrograde motion in planets, let’s visit the supposed progress of Newtonian over Einsteinian physics.

This takes a bit more setup but bear with me.  In this case, I have taken liberties and illustrated the Einsteinian physics gap to capture an inferior vantage on reality over Newtonian physics. Granted, I need to rely on a bit of suspension of disbelief, but in the bigger picture, I am trying to convey a scenario where some new paradigm puts the prior knowledge in perspective.

In this instance, both Newtonian and Einsteinian flavours of physics are based on a materialistic, particles-based model, which is where the modern physics consensus resides. But, let’s say that consensus changes in such a way that it is determined that something else underlies reality, say consciousness per Analytic Idealism as proposed by Bernardo Kastrup or per Integrated Information Theory (IIT) as advanced by Donald Hoffman and others. As with retrograde motion, we might end up finding that we were barking up the wrong tree. This might be a bit different because the particles are a directly perceived manifestation of the underlying consciousness, but I wanted to create a scenario where knowledge thought to have advanced actually regressed, but this wasn’t revealed until a new perspective was available.

Yet again, an important aspect of note is that we don’t actually know the distance between our perceptions and real Reality.

This last illustration builds upon the first asymptotic chart but has an in-built error margin meant to reflect language insufficiencies. There is some concept that people feel they grasp, but the consensus is not as unified as the group thinks.

I’ll share two examples, the first being the concept of justice. To me, Justice is what I deem a weasel word. It’s a word we commonly use, but it means different things to different people. To me, it’s a euphemism for vengeance by proxy, but for others, it transcends that and mirrors some impartial dispensation of just desert—some good old-fashioned law and order.

[Justice is] a euphemism for vengeance by proxy

Without getting stuck down some rabbit hole, my point is that if we aggregate these beliefs, the asymptotic curve represents an average consensus vantage rather than something as obvious as 2 plus 2 equals 4. On this note, allow me to clear the air.

Some viewers might be clamouring to say, “but 2 plus 2 equals four is true.” But this is tautologically true, which is to say that it’s true by definition. It’s a similar tautology to saying that it’s true that snow is white, or coal is black. We’ve already defined snow, white, coal, and black, so these may be facts, but they are true by definition.

Revisiting the chart, notice that there are two curves in the space. In this case, I illustrate competing truth claims from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. The case is whether the earth is an oblate spheroid or is flat. I am going to go out on a limb and assert the earth is spherical, as represented by the top blue curve—and we have some margin of error as to what that might mean. The bottom red curve depicts the perceived truth of the flat earthers, who also have some room for semantic error.

Given that I am presuming that I am in the right adopting the majority position—please be right—, the blue curve is closer to Reality than the red curve. Of course, in the event that the earth is really flat, then it proves my point that we don’t know where we are relative to truth, so we assume that the state of knowledge at any given time is what’s real.

Again, forgive my fanciful examples. Please don’t tell me that this spheroid versus planer earth is tautological too because you’d be correct, but I am already aware. They are just nonsensical illustrations. Nonetheless, I hope they’ve served to express a point.

I could have as well created curves that depicted two cohorts’ beliefs on the efficacy of tarot or astrology in predicting the future. I am sure that it might render somewhat like the last chart, but I’d also presume that both curves would have very low truth values as seen from an objective observer. Secretly, I hope tarot wins the truth battle.

Before I end our time together, I’d like to convey that for an Analytic Idealist, these charts might be more acceptable at face value. For a Realist, Naïve or otherwise, they may argue that this curve is not asymptotic and may in fact reach some tangency. I don’t happen to believe this is the case or I wouldn’t have spent my time assembling and presenting this. Time will tell. Or will it?

VIDEO: The Problem with Postmodernism

The theme of this Institute of Art and Ideas video is ‘Should we move away from postmodernism?

Podcast: Audio rendition of this page content

EDIT: Find my version of this content on YouTube:

Video: Postmodern Defence

At the start, I feel as usual, that the definition of postmodernism is nebulous, and the fora agree, methinks. Toward the end, Hilary Lawson concedes that key actors tied to the early postmodern movement denied being postmoderns, singling out Foucault and Derrida. More on this. Keep reading.

Julian Baggini, the bloke sat on the left and whose positions I am only getting familiar with, starts off the clip. He makes some points, some of which I agree with and others not so much.

He makes a play at claiming that there is some objective truth to be attained, following on with the statement that without this notion, it’s anything goes. I disagree with both of these assertions. Then he cites Thomas Nagel’s The View from Nowhere, wherein he posits that subjectivity and objectivity are extrema on a spectrum and that experience is somewhere in between. This conforms to my beliefs, but there are two provisos. First, the extremum of objective truth is unattainable, objectively speaking. Moreover, as I’ve written before, we have no way of adjudicating whether a given observation is truer than another. It seems that he leaves it that we don’t need to know the absolute truth to know “true enough”, but I think this is both a copout and wrong—but not too wrong for pragmatism to operate.

For example—not mentioned in the clip—, I can imagine that physicists feel that Einsteinian motion physics is truer than Newtonian physics, especially as we need to take measurements nearer to the speed of light. In my thinking, this might provide a better approximation of our notion of the world, but I can also conceive of an Ideal, non-materialistic perspective where both of these are rubbish from the perspective of truth. I feel that people tend to conflate truth with utility.

Julian makes an interesting point about semantics with the claim that “some people” define certain things in such a way as to not possibly be attainable and then claim victory. But what are his three examples? Free will, the self, and objectivity. If you’ve been following me, you’ll know that I might be in his crosshairs because I tend to be in the camp that sees these concepts as sketchy. And to be fair, his claim of defining something in a manner to keep a concept out of bounds is the other side of the same coin as defining something in such a way as to get it into bounds.

The self is different to free will insomuch as it’s a construction. As with any construction, it can exist, but it’s a fiction.

I’ve spoken at length about my position on free will, but I am fairly agnostic and don’t particularly care either way. I feel that the causa sui argument as it applies to human agency is more important in the end. The self is different to free will insomuch as it’s a construction. As with any construction, it can exist, but it’s a fiction. Without interacting with Julian or reading his published works on the self, if there are any, I don’t know how he defines it. And here we are discussing objectivity.

Given Nagel’s objective-subjective polarity, it seems they want to paint postmodernism as claiming that everything is subjective and that science (and religion) hold claims to objectivity. Hilary Lawson, the geezer on the right takes a position between extremes, but he denounces Julian’s claim about objective truth, noting that many people (especially of religious persuasions) make claims on Truth that are diametrically opposed, ostensibly labelling the same object simultaneously black and white. And the object for all intents and purposes is red.

I’ve gotten out of order, but Julie Bindel makes some good points on Feminism and suggests that the philosophical feminists—may I call them pheminists? No? OK then—such as Judith Butler have set women’s rights back by claiming that the category of ‘woman’ is invalid. Minni Salami defended Judith by noting that Butler has helped constructively in some ways and, citing Simone de Beauvoir, that woman is a category established by men to create The Other Sex. Still, Julie—not incorrectly—states that without a category, women (or whatever collective term one decides is representative) cannot be afforded legal protections—because law, as facile as it is, is all about categories and classes.

Hilary reenters the fray and states that it is not acceptable for one person to claim that their lived experience is all that is needed just because that is their truth. To be fair, this feels like a bit of a strawman argument. Perhaps I need to get out more, but I am not familiar with anyone credible making this claim.

I enjoyed watching this clip and processing the information. I hope you do as well. If you have any comments, I’d love to read them.

The Matter with Things: Chapter Three Summary: Perception

Index and table of contents

In this segment, I continue the journey through Iain McGilchrist’s masterwork, The Matter with Things by summarising chapter three, Perception, a followup to the previous chapters, respectively titled Some Preliminaries and Attention. I strongly recommend that you listen to these in turn, but feel free to play the rebel and cut queue. No one will even notice but you, and if you don’t tell, neither shall I. Come join me.

Podcast: Audio rendition of this page content

Intro

Chapter two of The Matter with Things is titled Perception. Following the previous chapter, Attention, it’s about how we perceive what we attend to. Without attention, there is no perception, but perception is not always correspondent with the so-called reality “out there”.  

Content

From the start, McGilchrist wants to assess which hemisphere is more veridical. Spoiler Alert: It’s the right half. But you already knew that because you’ve been keeping pace. And you also know that I feel he is leaving an option on the table, that neither is veridical to the actual terrain; rather, one just better maps the map. But the question essentially resolves to the same place, not as much verity as trust.

Sensory perception occurs in both hemispheres, but it is better in the right hemisphere than the left, as the left has been somewhat relegated to re-presentation over time—the same hemisphere that is better suited for codifying and mapping using symbolic language—something reserved for the brains of primates—which gives us a virtually inexhaustible way of mapping the world.

Perception is holistic, something better handled by the right hemisphere, being as the left hemisphere is more about focus and specificity. On balance, the right hemisphere is the arbiter of performance delegation, whether to perform a task or delegate it to the left hemisphere. About three-quarters of perception functions are right hemisphere processes.

McGilchrist is partial to the position advanced by Merleau-Ponty, that is “perception as a reciprocal encounter.” Perception is not a passive act. It is an interactive intercourse with the environment. What and how we perceive is affected by our experience and the situation.

Visual Perception

Perception involves all the available senses—and by definition none of those otherwise unavailable. He starts with vision. The right hemisphere does a lot of heavy lifting here. It handles size, shape and pattern recognition, contour, shadows, distance and depth, for example, three-dimensional space, and motion and time as well as the ability to recognise objects from unusual angles or from incomplete information, which I tend to think of as playing some Gestalt role. The right also handles colour perception, though the left maintains the colour name mapping.

The left hemisphere is slightly faster at detection, but if what is detected has any signal degradation, the right hemisphere tends to be more accurate. And since the left hemisphere is, what I’ll call lazy, it may tire quickly and space out, so the right hemisphere may have to intervene, if even a bit more slowly. Paradoxically, if the left hemisphere is given more time, its recognition error rate increases. Incidentally, one reason the right hemisphere may respond more slowly is that it is deliberating to attempt to deliver the correct response whilst the left tosses out its first best guess and declares victory. Nailed it!

Nailed It!

Recall from the last chapter that the left hemisphere is also a master of denial, so it is unapologetic when it guesses wrong. I imagine it signalling ‘that’s not a bus’ just as it hits you and then insists that it never was a bus; that injury must have been caused by something else. Perhaps it was an untoward wrecking ball. 

Without delving into details here, McGilchrist points out that much early research might be invalid because it employed cathode ray tubes—CRTs—whose mechanisms present biased information to the visual field, thereby invalidating conclusions.

the left hemisphere is better at recognising tools—hammers and spanners—, but not musical instruments, which it perceives more as living entities

An interesting area for me is that the left hemisphere is better at recognising tools—hammers and spanners—, but not musical instruments, which it perceives more as living entities. And this is an apt segue to auditory perception.   

Auditory Perception.

Whereas the left hemisphere is better at symbolic language processing and “the processing of meaningless noises, such as clicks”, the right hemisphere pretty much handles the rest, from pitch, inflexion, tone, phrasing, metre and complex rhythm, and melody. The left keeps tabs on basic rhythmic patterns. It is assumed that rhyming relies on both hemispheres working in concert.

For most people, music processing is a right hemisphere event, but this is not true for professional musicians, who utilise both hemispheres, likely owing to the musical language translation processing unnecessary for the casual listener.

Olfactory Perception

Interestingly, the acuity of the nose is orders of magnitude superior to that of the eyes and ears. Olfactory recognition and discrimination have a right hemisphere preference, but emotional reactions to scent may be stronger in the left hemisphere.

Gustatory Perception

“Apart from five very basic tastes – salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami – which come from the tongue, all flavours come from the olfactory sense.” In general, gustatory perception is a right hemisphere function. However, there is an exception for professional wine tasters, who like professional musicians need to map experiences to words associated to rating and naming.

Tactile Perception

Remembering that the right hemisphere controls the left half of the body, whilst the left hemisphere controls the right, the sense of touch is superior in the left hand. Feelings of warmth, and temperature discriminations in general, are associated with right hemisphere activation. Interoception, the ability to perceive the internal workings of the body, is another right hemisphere process.

Local versus Global Perception

Recall that the right hemisphere captures the world holistically whilst the left hemisphere has a laser focus. This equates respectively to global and local perception. As it happens, the right can do both, but the left is limited to local. This means that if the left hemisphere is damaged, the right can pick up the slack, but if the right hemisphere is damaged, the left cannot compensate for the lost holistic perspective. In practice, the right runs the show and delegates to the left when it deems it to be appropriate for the circumstance. For some reason, normal adolescents have a bias toward local perception over global.

Pathologies of Perception

This leads us to abnormalities, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Deterioration of right hemisphere function leads to a sense of disorganisation and loss of sensation. This hemisphere is also responsible for constructing a sense of self and self-awareness. McGilchrist calls out that the term self has multiple meanings. Much of the notion of self is associated with the medial prefrontal cortex in both hemispheres, but the objectified self and the self as an expression of will (in the respect Schopenhauer spoke of) are left brain aspects.

Perception of a contiguous self over time is a right hemisphere function, the loss of which is not uncommon in cases of schizophrenia.

In discussing visual hallucinations and distortions, almost ninety per cent of these have been attributable to right hemisphere anomalies. McGilchrist shares examples over several pages, but I’ll summarise by description alone of what can be categorised under the umbrella term of metamorphopsia. These might lead to object impermanence, or viewing things as too large or too small, too close or too distant, skewed, or the wrong shape altogether. In some cases, only half of an object, including self-perception, was outsized. This might occur on a macro level or a micro level, which is to say that it may be entire objects or bodies or just faces, or just familiar faces or just eyes or just one eye.  This might occur on a macro level or a micro level, which is to say that it may be entire objects or bodies or just faces, or just familiar faces or just eyes or just one eye.

Some of these cases involved motion, for example, the sense that some object is receding away from the observer as the observer draws nearer to it.

After a journey through Charles Dodgson, AKA Lewis Carroll, and Alice in Wonderland, provides a plethora of examples in prose of some of these visual effects.

From visual hallucinations, we wonder through hallucinations of the other senses, though the data points on these are much sparser, but the left hemisphere does seem to be the culprit of most auditory hallucinations.

Perspective

To summarise, I am again left to feel that the left hemisphere is a deadbeat hanger-on. It’s there in a pinch, but it’s an unreliable narrator and worker that falls asleep at the wheel. Psychology does have a position on what a normal person should see and hear and taste and touch, but normal doesn’t mean real. 

I was hoping to see some information and perspective on synaesthesia, a condition where people perceive experiences through sense-perception organs different to normal. These people see music and hear smells or taste colours and so on. We consider this to be anomalous, but does it provide a fitness benefit, and are these people ahead of “normal” people or are they carrying excess baggage that creates a burden, even if the condition is otherwise benign.

Now that we’ve covered attention and perception, we’ll be covering judgment in the next chapter.  I hope you’ll join me.

What are your thoughts? What did you think of this chapter? Have you experienced or know of anyone who has experienced any of these so-called anomalies. Are you familiar with any of the effects mentioned in Alice in Wonderland? Leave comments below.

Hemispheres

I’ve only read the first four chapters of Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter with Things. My intent is to build up to how his ideas intersect with my workaday life in a future segment, but for now, I’ll summarise some main themes.

Podcast: Audio rendition of this page content (< 5 minutes)

The chapters I’ve read are

  1. Some preliminaries: How we got here
  2. Attention
  3. Perception
  4. Judgment

The next chapter is Apprehension.

Philosophically, or rather I have an interest in McGilchrist’s ontological model, but that appears not to arrive until the second volume, perhaps in chapters 24 or 25, respectively Space and Matter and Matter and Consciousness. Being that this underlaid my reluctance to engage with this book, I did take liberties and skimmed these chapters quickly in an attempt to discern whether he is a Realist or an Idealist.

Until recently, I’ve been a Realist with reservations, but now I consider myself instead to be an Idealist with reservations—though I may have fewer reservations, so perhaps I am moving in the right direction.

As a Realist with reservations, I felt that there was some underlying reality, but sense-perception and cognitive limitations limited access to it, so correspondence to it was necessarily limited.

As an Idealist with reservations, I feel that there is some underlying reality, and sense-perception and cognitive limitations limit access to it, so correspondence to it is still necessarily limited, so we generate an approximation.

I agree with Donald Hoffman’s assertion of Fitness Before Truth, in summary, that it is faster and more efficient to assess environmental fitness and take penalties where the assessment may have been a false positive. If one recoils in error from a coiled garden hose initially perceiving it to be a snake, the penalty is low. If a delay is incurred to assess some ‘snakeness’ truth value, we may have already been bitten. If we see something charging at us, better to avert and assess than to take time to discern. It’s of little consolation to consider, “Ah. I’m being mauled by a cheetah.” Better to have ducked and covered.

My chapter skimming was not enough to ascertain McGilchrist’s position. I’ll wait until I arrive there in due time. No need to spoil the ending. Given the book’s title, I am leaning toward Idealist, but I may be mistaken.

Moving on, these chapters build on each other. Not so much with narrative content as to represent the necessary chain of perceptual events: attention, perception, and judgment—in this order.

We cannot judge what we can’t perceive, and we can’t perceive what doesn’t come into the sense-perception space. McGilchrist reminds the reader that just because something is in a space where it can be perceived does not mean it can or will be perceived. He cites the example of the invisible gorilla in a basketball game study, which I’ll link to separately.

What we attend to is a matter of the situation and experience. Once we bring our attention to it, we can attempt to perceive it. Is it a snake or just a garden hose?  Finally, we can make a judgment—it was just a garden hose. Silly old bear. Or, I sure am thankful my reflexes are lightning quick.

Winnie the Pooh: Silly Old Bear

McGilchrist provides a plethora of examples, though most are tied to split-brain scenarios, which brings me to my last point. One of his theses is that left-right brain hemisphere differences are real and significant. Some had argued that the left-right representation is false, and he wants to take it back and regain that space by asserting arguments to the contrary.

I expect to discuss this more in an upcoming segment and apply my preliminary thoughts to my comprehension.