Chapter eleven is the first of three chapters discussing truth from the perspective of science. These chapters are followed by truth as seen from other perspectives, namely, reason and intuition.
Check out the table of contents for this series of summaries. I continue to render interstitial commentaries in grey boxes with red text, so the reader can skip over and just focus on the chapter summary.
The author posits that in the West, most of us trust science to deliver the truth of the matter, as “science alone holds out the promise of stable knowledge on which we can rely to build our picture of the world“. He admits that it does have value, but it has inherent limitations and yet draws us in like moths to a flame. Here, he distinguishes between the discipline and practice of science and Scientism as it is practised by laypeople. Science understands its place and domain boundaries. Scientism is omnipotent with delusions of grandeur that will never be realised.
Some philosophically naïve individuals become very exercised if they sense that the status of science as sole purveyor of truth is challenged
— Iain McGilchrist, The Matter with Things, chapter 10
Politicians who promote science as a bully pulpit prey on the public in a manner similar to bludgeoning them with religious notions.
Science is heavily dependent on the exercise of what the left hemisphere offers.
The point the book makes is that like the turtles that go all the way down, science doesn’t have a grasp on what’s beyond the last turtle. Like trying to answer the toddler who can ask an infinite number of ‘why‘ questions, the scientist gets to a point of replying ‘that’s just the way things are’, or the equivalent of ‘it’s bedtime’.
Scientific models are simply extended metaphors. A challenge arises when a model seems to be a good fit and we forget about alternative possibilities getting locked into Maslow’s law of the instrument problem, where ‘to a man with a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail’. Moreover, the left hemisphere is fixated on instrumentation, so it’s always trying to presume a purpose behind everything. Nothing can just be.
This is likely where Scientism begins to trump science.
Dogmatism inevitably obscures the nature of truth.
— Alfred Whitehead
McGilchrist points out that a goal or promise of science is to be objective and take the subject out of the picture. Unfortunately, this is not possible as the necessity for metaphor ensures we cannot be extricated. Objectivity is legerdemain. We create a scenario and claim it to be objective, but there is always some subject even if unstated. He goes into length illuminating with historical characters.
The sciences do not try to explain, they hardly even try to interpret, they mainly make models … The justification of such a mathematical construct is solely and precisely that it is expected to work.
— John von Neumann
In fact, science itself is predicated on assumptions that have not and can not be validated through science.
In conclusion, McGilchrists wants to emphasise ‘that just because what we rightly take to be scientific truths are not ‘objective’ in the sense that nothing human, contingent and fallible enters into them, this does not mean they have no legitimate claim to be called true.’ ‘The scientific process cannot be free from assumptions, or values.’
Following this chapter are several pages containing dozens of plates of images.
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.
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.
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.
jimoeba mentioned that he enjoyed an interview with Vervake and Fridman in a comment, so I thought I’d give it a listen. It turns out there are several including a 3-plus-hour version. Arbitrarily, I chose this one. Even if it’s not the particular interview on the meaning crisis, it gives me a sense of the two and their dynamics. I’m glad I listened to it. I like Vervaeke. I can’t say I’m much of a Fridman fan on first listen.
This interview content provides an orientation of where Vervaeke is coming from. It helps to clarify his position. His claim seems to be that many people today identify as having no religion but being spiritual. By extension, he posits that this cohort is searching for meaning. I can’t disagree. What it tells me is that I am not in his target demographic. I have no religion, as I am an atheist. I have no spiritual void to fill. This is Vervaeke’s goal—to find something to perform the function of the religion without the, perhaps, baggage and dogma.
I sympathise with his goal. He brings up Nietzsche’s “God is dead” quote, famous or infamous depending on your worldview. Essentially, he wants to answer Nietzsche’s query of what to do now that it’s been revealed that humans created God, not the other way around. His aim is to replace the font of wisdom for this generation.
For me, wisdom is a heuristic, part of the Gestalt McGilchrist mentions. McGilchrist’s work is even referenced here. Of course, I interpret McGilchrist’s references in this space to be metaphorical. It seems that he views it as ‘real’. I’m not sure where Vervaeke places it. Somehow, I feel that if there is a spectrum, Vervaeke leans closer to McGilchrist than me, and that’s OK. They just happen to be wrong.
I still don’t get the need for meaning. I don’t feel despondent that there is no inherent meaning in anything, but we are free to invite or adopt one or many. I remember a Christian mate of mine who explained that people have a God-sized hole that can only be filled by God. Essentially, Vervaeke is making a similar claim, but his void is filled by wisdom. I suppose that I don’t feel I have a void doesn’t mean there isn’t one.
Ever since encountering Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning in my youth, I’ve pondered why people search for and indeed invent meaning. By meaning, I am speaking in terms of finding a higher purpose or some spiritual affinity rather than the meaning of why bad things happen, though there are undoubtedly some intersections of the concepts.
This lecture, Ep. 39 – Awakening from the Meaning Crisis – The Religion of No Religion, from a series by John Vervaeke was recommended to an associate in my social network by another trusted associate, and it’s got me going. I’ve long been a nihilist and existentialist. I am even partial to aspects of the philosophic framework of Zen Buddhism. But I’ve never felt there was some higher meaning or raison d’être that isn’t self-imposed. How else would it be imposed? A person may be indoctrinated, but in the end, ignorance is no excuse from self-imposition.
I guess I can’t quite understand what drives this search for meaning. As Vervaeke notes, even some noted atheists like Richard Dawkins have suggested that we should find a secular proxy for the religion—or the namesake religion of no religion. I understand the social function of religion as well as some psychological functions, but the disconnect for me is that I have no such drive. I am admittedly an introvert, so whilst I admit the need for social cohesion and coöperation, I don’t understand the fabrication of religions or the personal, not only belief in meaning, but a yearning for it and even a belief that one has found it.
I am empathetic to people like Iain McGilchrist who asserts that there is exogenous meaning out there to be had. He’d probably also assert that asking for proof is a left-hemisphere cerebral request but that absent the imposition by the left hemisphere, one would just feel it and know it. I just can’t abide.
Vervaeke does touch on the postmodern critique of religion as a power play, which is how I feel about it, but this is about the social aspect and doesn’t touch on the personal search for meaning. What I can’t say is whether a person would have this drive to search for meaning if they were either absent socialisation or exposed only to people who are not going to suggest meaning. I understand that previous generations have shown this propensity, but are there cultures that don’t? And is there a common thread to those who do?
In the past, many cultures have asserted gods and higher powers (whether or not as a power play), but could this simply prompt the people to search for alternative meanings, perhaps having noticed the dissonance between certain dogma and their lived lives?
Interestingly, some people don’t search for meaning so much as they feel they have discovered meaning, but when their discovered meaning doesn’t jibe with another’s discovered meaning, the result is a search to justify or reconcile this conflict.
It’s late. Time to retire for the evening. I have none of these answers, but I will jot the questions down on my to-do list just above the search for meaning.
God be in my head, And in my understanding; God be in mine eyes, And in my looking; God be in my mouth, And in my speaking; God be in my heart, And in my thinking; God be at mine end, And at my departing.
Sir Henry Walford Davies put this traditional prayer to music as a hymn. Iain McGilchrist recited it as a poem after a brief setup in an interview.
I am an atheist, and the closest I get to gods is through metaphor, allegory, or allusion. And I don’t engage in it, but I understand when others invoke it. And to be completely honest, I was multitasking when Iain was reciting, and I misheard it, and this miss was more profound for me.
God be in my head, And in my understanding; Don’t be in mine eyes, And in my looking;
That’s what prompted me to seek it out and pen a post. In the original form, it’s more of an invocation. In my misinterpretation, I felt he was saying to keep God in your head as a metaphorical reference—as an archetype—, but God is not for the eyes and the looking. God is a matter of faith.
As for the rest, it flows the same. Speak as you understand it. Feel God in your heart, if you should so choose. Think about him if you wish. And carry this thought with you until the end if it brings you comfort.
Myself, I get no comfort from the notion. I don’t feel I need it, but it is a cultural phenomenon, so to be aware is a part of cultural and emotional intelligence.
I feel that I’ve always intuitively understood metaphor. I remember listening to Joseph Campbell in the 1980s as he was describing how one of his biggest challenges was to get people to understand the embodiment of metaphor and not just the vapidity of simple simile.
As humans, we often leverage systems. They seem to make life easier. Whether a routine or a step-by-step instruction through an unknown process, a system can guide us. Systems are also connected, interactive entities, but that’s not for this segment. I am more interested in the loss of humanity that systematic processes and bureaucracy bring, so I am interested in imposed systems rather than systems we invent to find our keys and wallets.
If we consider systematisation and humanity on a scale, we can see that any move toward systematisation comes at the expense of humanity. It might make logical sense to make this trade-off to some degree or another. The biggest hit to humanity is the one-size-fits-all approach to a problem. It removes autonomy or human agency from the equation. If a system can be that mechanised, then automate it. Don’t assign a human to do it. This is an act of violence.
As I’ve been reading and writing a lot about Iain McGilchrist’s work lately, I feel one can easily map this to left versus right cerebral hemisphere dominance. System-building is inherently human, but it’s in the domain of the left hemisphere. But my imposition of a system on another is violence—one might even argue that it’s immoral.
As with bureaucracy, these imposed systems are Procrustean beds. Everyone will fit, no matter what. And when human beings need to interact with systems, we can not only feel the lack of humanity, but our own humanity suffers at the same time.
A close friend of mine recently checked herself into a mental health facility. After a few days, she called and asked if I could bring her a change of clothes and some toiletries—deodorant, soap, and shampoo. She had some in her house, but the packaging needed to be unopened and factory sealed. I stopped at a shop to buy these items and I brought them to the facility.
At the reception area, I needed to be cross-referenced as an authorised visitor, so I was asked to show proof of my identity as if it mattered who was delivering clothing that was going to be checked anyway. No big deal, they recorded my licence number on a form and ask me to fill it out—name, phone number, and what I was delivering.
The form stated that any open consumable items would not be allowed. I signed the form. An attendant took the bag and told me that I needed to remove the ‘chemicals’, that they would not be delivered. I pointed to the lines on the form that read that this restriction was for open items and reinforced that I had just purchased these and showed her the sales receipt. She told me that the patient would need to obtain a doctor’s permission, and she assured me that the patients all had soap.
I’m sure she thought she was being compassionate and assertive. I experienced it as patronising. Me being me, I chided her lack of compassion and humanity, not a great match for a mental health attendant. In fact, it reminded me of a recent post I wrote on Warmth. In it, I suggested that service staff should at least fake conviviality. I take that back. Faux congeniality is patronising. She mimicked me. “Yes, systems are so inhumane, but here we follow a system.” My first thought was of Adolf Eichmann, who kept the trains on schedule without a care for the cargo. This is the violence inherent in systems.
Systems are not illogical. In fact, they are hyper-logical. And that’s the problem, logic is traded off at the expense of empathy. And one might have a strong argument for some accounting or financial system process, but I’ll retort that this should be automated. A human should not have to endure such pettiness.
I can tell that this will devolve quickly into a rant and so I’ll take my leave and not foist this violence upon you.
Most people have heard the term schizophrenia. It’s a mental health pathology wherein people interpret reality abnormally. To oversimplify to make a point, in a ‘normal’ brain, the left and right hemispheres operate together to regulate bodily functions and to interpret the world we live in. In brief, schizophrenia is a condition where the left cerebral hemisphere overly dominates the right. Some might be led to believe that schizophrenics interpret reality irrationally, but the opposite is true. Schizophrenics are hyperrational to a fault.
Schizophrenia has been on the rise this past half century or so, but this might just be a symptom of Modernity, as cultures are also experiencing a leftward shift—a shift toward hyperrationality. Cultures have swung like a pendulum from left-hemisphere-dominance to right dominance and back through the ages, but we may be seeing an uncorrected swing further and further to the left, led by science, followed by commerce and politics, dangerously close to the territory of schizophrenia, if not already occupying this territory. Allow me to briefly summarise how the hemisphere function to help the reader understand what it means to be too far left or right.
Cerebral Bilateral Hemispheres
Most people experience the world—what some otherwise known as reality—with both cerebral hemispheres, and each hemisphere has a function. In a nutshell, the right hemisphere experiences reality holistically, which is to say that it views the world through a Gestalt lens. The right hemisphere is open and divergent. It is creative—generative. It knows no categories or subdivisions. All is one and connected. I like to refer to this as Zen. Many people can relate to this Zen notion. The right hemisphere is a creative and empathetic centre that only knows the world as it is presented—without words or naming. Intuition lives here. It distinguishes differences in the world in a manner similar to that of a preverbal child who can tell mum from a bowl of porridge without knowing the word for either. Children are right hemisphere creatures. As we mature toward adulthood, the function of the left hemisphere increases to offset the dominance of the right.
The left hemisphere is the sphere of intellect. Its function is to categorise, to create symbols—words, names, labels, icons, and so on. It doesn’t know how to create, intuit, or empathise. In fact, it doesn’t even experience the world as presented; it relies on re-presentation. To borrow from a computer analogy, when it experiences something in the world, it caches a symbol. Where the right hemisphere experiences a tree and just appreciates its ‘treeness’, and it doesn’t know that it’s a tree by name. It’s just another thing in the world. The left hemisphere, on the other hand, notices these things with ‘treeness’ and categorises them as trees—or des arbres, árboles, Bäume, 木, درختان , पेड़, or whatever. And it reduces the tree to an icon, so it can file it away for later retrieval to compare with other tree-like inputs.
The left hemisphere is where difference, the sense of self, and ego come from. Where the right hemisphere is open and divergent, the left hemisphere is closed and convergent. It is particularly egotistical, stubborn, and always thinks it’s right if I can anthropomorphise analogically. The left hemisphere knows no nuance, and it doesn’t recognise connotation, metaphor, allegory, or allusion. Everything is literal.
The left hemisphere can use similes and understand that a man is like a tiger, but it takes the right hemisphere to know that a man is a tiger, has metaphorically embodied the tiger and assumed its form, say in the manner of indigenous Americans. Poetically, there is a difference between being a tiger and being like a tiger. The left will have none of this. The response to hearing ‘he was a tiger’ would either result in ‘no he isn’t, he’s a human’ or ‘someone must be talking about a male tiger’. The nuance would be lost.
At the risk of further digression, this is why a poem can’t be dissected for meaning—this despite so many valiant attempts by high school teachers and undergraduate professors. Dissecting a living poem is like dissecting a living animal. You might learn something, but at the risk of devitalisation—you’ve killed the subject. It’s like having to explain a joke. If you have to explain it, it didn’t work. You can’t explain a work of art or a piece of music. The best you can do is to describe it. Although we’re likely familiar with the adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words”, a thousand words is not enough to do more than summarise a picture. This sentiment is captured by Oscar Wilde when he wrote, “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” Education is a left-brain function, that can be stuffed like a sausage, but no amount of education can make someone feel a work of art, music, or poetry. This can only be experienced and is apart from language.
A Tree is not a Tree
As already noted, schizophrenics are hyperrational. They are devoid of the empathy and intuition afforded by the right hemisphere. So, they fail to connect the parts to a constructed whole. They presume that a whole is constructed of parts. This is the mistake of Dr Frankenstein, that he could construct a man from parts, but all he could manage is to construct a monster.
In the experienced world, there are only whole objects as experienced by the right hemisphere. As humans, we break them down for easier storage and retrieval, but this is like lossy compression if I can risk losing some in technical lingo.
But a tree is not built from parts. It’s just a tree. We can articulate that a tree has a trunk and roots and branches and leaves and seeds and blooms, but it’s just a tree. The rest we impose on it with artificially constructed symbol language. This is what post-modern painter Rene Magritte was communicating with the “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” inscription in his work The Treachery of Images—This is not a pipe. He was not being cute or edgy or trying to be clever. He was making the point that the symbol is not the object.
In the manner that the image is not the pipe, it’s been said that to document a system is to make an inferior copy. The documented system is less optimal. This may feel counterintuitive. In fact, you may even argue that a documented system allows subsequent process participants to plug into the system to allow it to continue to operate into perpetuity. Whilst this is true, it comes at a cost. I’ll leave this here for you to ponder. The right hemisphere understands the difference. The document is not the process.
Getting Down to Business
If you’ve been following along, you may have already noticed that the left hemisphere looks and sounds a lot like the business world. Everything is systematised, structured, and ordered. We have all sorts of symbols and jargon, processes, and procedures. Everything is literal. There is no room for metaphor. There is no room for empathy. HR instructs that there be empathy, but they might as well instruct everyone to speak Basque or Hopi. In fact, it’s worse because at least Basque and Hopi can be learnt.
Sadly, this leftward shift isn’t limited to the world of commerce. It’s affected science, politics, and entire cultures. It’s caused these entities to abandon all that isn’t rational as irrational. But empathy and intuition are irrational. Science says if you can’t measure it and reproduce it, it’s not worth noting, but science is not the arbiter of the non-scientific realm. Business takes a similar position.
Politics of the Left (Hemisphere)
And politics creates categories: left and right, red and blue, black and white, men and women, gay and straight, and this and that. All of this is all left-hemisphere debate.
Categories and names are exclusive provinces of the left hemisphere. If you are hung up on an ideology, whether Democracy, Republicanism, Marxism, or Anarchism, you’re stuck in your left hemisphere. If you defend your positions with logic and words, you’re stuck in your left hemisphere. If you can’t imagine an alternative, you are really stuck in the left. I’ll stop here.
Science and Scientism
How did we get here and come to this? Science was receptive to right hemisphere influence up until about the 1970s. That’s where Scientism began to take hold. Scientism is when faith in science becomes a religion. I feel that many scientists today are less likely to hold a belief in Scientism as a religious belief. Paradoxically, I think this is more apt to be a faith held by non-scientists. Unfortunately, this faith is exploited by politics as exemplified by the recent trust in science campaign perpetrated by politicians, which is to say non-scientists with their own agenda, whether they practised Scientism or not.
The problem is that the left hemisphere has an outsized ego. It thinks it’s always right. In practice, it’s right about half the time. Because of its reliance on stored data and a ‘belief’ that it doesn’t need to fresh its data until it’s effectively overwhelmed and acquiesced. It fails to give enough weight to the experienced world, so that it shifts belief further and further left, which is to say further from reality as it is.
It trusts the symbol of the tree more than the tree itself. We may all be familiar with stories of cars driving down train tracks and off cliffs because the SAT-NAV user put more faith in their device than the world outside. This is the risk companies face as well, choosing to believe that the documented process is superior to the system in and of itself.
Getting on About?
You may be wondering what inspired me to write this and where I get my information. My realisation started in chapter 9 of The Matter with Things and was reinforced by this video interview by its author, Iain McGilchrist.
Actually, it started even before this with The Corporation, a Canadian documentary and companion book released in 2003. One of the points of The Corporation is to articulate the parallels between corporate behaviour relative to the definition of psychopathy as presented in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, henceforth DSM. Per Wikipedia, the DSM ‘is a publication by the American Psychiatric Association for the classification of mental disorders using a common language and standard criteria and is the main book for the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders in the United States and is considered one of the “Bibles” of psychiatry’. Essentially, corporations ticked all the boxes.
Methodologically, this assertion is a bit weak, but it is at least sometimes entirely valid despite provoking an emotional trigger reaction. Nonetheless, this established corporations as pathological entities. But that is not my focus here. It simply tilled the soil for me to be more receptive to this topic. This topic is less about the legal fiction that is a corporation and more about the people embodied in it. From the height of the C-suite to the workaday staff, floor workers, warehouse workers, and the mailroom. Do they still have mailrooms? I digress.
I can’t claim to know what it is to be schizophrenic or schizoaffective, but I’ve known enough people who have these diagnoses. My brother was one of those. Although I use these and other labels, I am not a fan of labels, generally, especially psychological labels, specifically this label. Autism is another nonsensical label. Both fall into the realm of medical syndromes, which for the uninitiated is the equivalent of your kitchen junk drawer. It’s equivalent to the other choice when all others fail. I don’t want to go off on a tangent from the start, so I’ll leave it that these categories are overly broad and reflect intellectual laziness. There is no single schizophrenia or autism. There are many, but the distinction is lost in the category. The push to create an autism spectrum for DSM obscures the problem, but it helps for insurance purposes. As the saying goes, follow the money and you can gain clues to the driving force behind why this happened. I suppose you can also label me a conspiracy theorist. If I learned one thing in my undergrad Sociology classes, it’s to eschew labels.
Given the length of this segment, I am not going to summarise it here, save to say that this leftward shift in business and culture doesn’t have a good outlook. We are not only being replaced by machines, but we are also forced into becoming machines, and we aren’t even questioning it. All we need to do is to become more analytic, right?
What I suggest is to watch the six-minute video of Dr Iain McGilchrist discussing this topic, and if you really want a deep dive, read The Matter with Things, an almost three-thousand-page tome, to fill in the details.
Here’s a music analogy to help to express why the whole is more important than the sum of the parts. If I want to learn to play a new piece, I will listen to the piece first. Depending on the length and genre, I may have to listen many times. In some cases, once or twice is enough, but let’s say this is at least somewhat complex and not some repetitive three-chord pop song. I’ll probably break the song into pieces or movements—verse, chorus, bridge, and whatever—, and then, I’ll learn each note and each pattern of notes, perhaps as musical phrases. Once I figure out the verse, I might either learn how the next verse differs or move on to the chorus and defer that verse-to-verse step. I’ll rinse and repeat until I’ve got through each of the sections. If I’ve had the luxury of hearing the piece, I’m at an advantage as far as tone, timbre, and dynamics are concerned; otherwise, I’d better hope these are all documented and that I interpret them in the manner they were intended. If the audience is familiar with a tune, they’ll notice the difference.
When I am practising, I need to get the mechanics down pat. All of what I’ve described thus far is left-hemisphere fare. It’s translating the symbolic representation of notes—like letters and words in writing—into an utterance. In this case, it’s a musical utterance. But once I am ready to perform the piece, it needs to be performed through the right hemisphere or it will feel mechanical and stilted.
I used to earn my living as an audio recording engineer and producer. Most of the time I was working with unknown artists recording demo records and trying to get a record deal. For the uninitiated, that usually translated into not having a large recording budget. Occasionally, we want, say string parts—violins, viola, cello, or whatever—but we couldn’t afford union players. We’d hire music students from USC or UCLA. These players would be more than willing to play for cheap in exchange for something to add to their portfolios or experience chops.
Somebody would transcribe the musical notation, and we’d give it to the string player. Of course, it could be a keyboard or wind or reed part, but I’ll stick to strings. Part of music is the vibe. This is something that can’t be captured in symbols. Revisiting Scientism and the left-hemisphere analogy, vibes can’t be real because they can’t be notated.
Almost invariably, if we got someone with Classical training, they could not get the vibe. The music was right in front of them. We’d play it for them on piano, maybe on a synthesiser, but they couldn’t get it—even if they were playing along to a reference track just trying to double the synth part. They would hit every note for the specified duration and dynamic, but it might have as well been the equivalence of a player piano or music box. We could have played it on a synthesiser, but we might be seeking the nuance a real instrument would bring.
We never had the luxury of auditioning players or recording several players and grabbing the best parts. That’s for the bigger-budget artists who go through a half-dozen or more performers to get just the right one. When we got lucky, it was usually because we got someone from the jazz program. These cats seem to have a natural feel for vibe inaccessible to the classical performers.
In business, the classical performer is good enough, but for art, it wasn’t. Business might appreciate the difference if it happens to get it, but it won’t seek it, and it won’t pay for it. A pet peeve of mine is a quip in business I heard often—don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good. This is obviously a left-hemisphere sentiment based on Voltaire’s statement. Besides, even from a left hemisphere perspective, reciting, “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good” doesn’t mean you shouldn’t at least strive for good enough because I noticed that mark was missed often enough, too.
The book arrives as two volumes split into three sections. Part one is the foundation the rest of the book builds on. I’ve recently finished it and summarised each chapter, but I feel a high-level chapter orientation would be in order. Part one contains nine chapters:
As this book is a follow-up to The Master and His Emissary, published in 2008, Iain has already laid much of the foundation for it. Moreover, he doesn’t assume that you’ve already read The Master and His Emissary, and the work leading up to it, so this is what he outlines here as he drops hints of what’s to come in the chapters ahead.
This chapter reminds us that we cannot perceive what we don’t attend to, to pay attention to. The world outside just is, and we can attend to this or to that. From there, our perception will develop, perhaps, in turn, drawing out attention elsewhere.
As is a thread throughout, Iain uses various mental illnesses and split cerebral hemispheres to make his points. In this case, he tells us how neuro-atypical people have attention challenges, whether attending to the ‘wrong’ or otherwise inappropriate things or attending to too many things at once, flittering from this to that to the next thing without pause or resolution.
This chapter articulates how we perceive after attention has been focused. Perception is based on prior experience and knowledge combines with new sensory inputs.
Following the trend of people with hemisphere disturbances, Iain reminds us that people coming from different experiential places will perceive the same scenario differently. And if they are attending to the ‘wrong’ stimulus, their perception may be limited to that context, even if that micro-focused scope is otherwise correct.
For some reason, Iain uses the American English spelling of Judgment, which in this case happens to be my preferred rendition, though my spell-checker disagrees.
In this chapter, we move from attention and perception to now being able to make judgements in this space. Of course, if we’ve attended to the ‘wrong’ thing leading to a variant perception, our judgment may be similarly out of order. Following the American trend, let’s say I am watching a baseball match, and the umpire calls a ball thrown out of the strike zone as a strike. If instead, my attention was distracted to another person in the stands picking his nose, my perception of the strike situation would be peripheral at best, and I would be in no place to make a judgment—about the pitch in any case. I may likely have plenty of judgment about the nose-picker.
In a nutshell, judgment is a left hemisphere function. The right hemisphere simply doesn’t care to judge. It’s a dispassionate observer taking in all without even categorising, let alone judging.
In this chapter, Iain explains that he is employing the term apprehension classically to mean to grasp or hold onto. This is a left hemisphere function as well. The right hemisphere is not grasping. Deficits in the right hemisphere don’t allow one to view the world in context as a whole. The left hemisphere will just see things are disconnected parts, so whilst we might grasp and apprehend, our comprehension is deficient. Without a robust big picture, we may just grasp at things indiscriminately.
Emotional and social intelligence
This chapter and the next are about intelligences. As the name suggests, this chapter is concerned with emotional and social intelligence. For me, I think of the Raymond character in Rain Man, itself the result of a misperception of the name Raymond for the phrase ‘Rain Man”. Raymond is devoid of emotional and social intelligence. He is limited to mechanistic cognitive intelligence and is a fine example of what one looks like without the other.
This chapter reminds us that the right hemisphere not only constructs our sense of self, but it also facilitates the construction of other selves, which allows us to empathise with others. It also allows us to assess intent. It allows us to see the value of the whole of society. Of which we are parts rather than thinking that we are simply parts that make up the whole. This is an important distinction. This is what happens with the ego of the left hemisphere denies the Gestalt of the right.
This second chapter on intelligence focuses on the cognitive variety. It’s what we think of when we consider IQ scores and such. It’s the reasoning part of the brain. It’s about rote learning and reciting trivia and perceived facts as re-presented by the left hemisphere.
In this chapter on creativity, we are told that this is a right hemisphere function. To be creative, the best advice to keep the left hemisphere from engaging and interrupting. Creativity comes to us holistically. It is not the result of a process. It is an absence of process. Thinking and analysis are the antitheses of creativity. This is a case where less definitely is more.
What schizophrenia and autism can tell us
Each of the chapters touches on aspects of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses and situations where the hemispheres get disconnected or out of whack. In this chapter, Iain drives the point home with a focus on these cases and what it can tell us about these neuro-atypical conditions.
People assume that schizophrenics and autism spectrum people are irrational, but this is precisely incorrect. In fact, it’s the opposite. These people are hyper-rational at the expense of empathy and social intelligence. It’s not a surprise that we are seeing more schizophrenics these days. Neither is it a surprise that we see a modern society that more and more resembles schizophrenia. But I digress.
This was only meant to give a high-level vantage to connect the chapters of part one of The Matter with Things. I give more comprehensive summaries on my blog. This will give you more of an idea, but my recommendation is to read the book itself as well as The Master and His Emissary which I recommend reading first. Don’t be like me.
Given the number of posts related to Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter with Things, I created a content index followed by a PDF copy of the table of contents for no reason in particular. I hope this doesn’t infringe on any copyrights.
In the last chapters, the topics were about different intelligences. As we’ll see, intelligence is one of the factors for creativity, but there are more. Let’s crack on.
Creativity is an elusive phenomenon that cannot only not be summoned at will, the very act of trying inhibits it. Unlike left-hemisphere-oriented intelligence, there are no simple tests for creativity because of their very nature. Assessing the left-hemisphere is relatively simple because it is systematic and any tests have definite known solutions—whether calculating some figure, solving a puzzle, choosing analogies, or recounting some trivia. There is no such test for creating something not yet created, but there are some proxies that most people categorically fail.
Psychologist, Colin Martindale, had this to say about the personal characteristics of creativity
“Creativity is a rare trait. This is presumably because it requires the simultaneous presence of a number of traits (e.g., intelligence, perseverance, unconventionality, the ability to think in a particular manner). None of these traits is especially rare. What is quite uncommon is to find them all present in the same person.”
— Colin Martindale
Whereas the left hemisphere is analytical, the right hemisphere (hence creativity) is a Gestalt. When given a difficult time-boxed challenge, the left hemisphere dominant individual who does not arrive at the expected response on time will commit to and defend an incorrect response (think escalating commitment), and the right hemisphere dominant individual will simply not commit to a response under the thought that there were still options to be explored.
Effectively, creativity can be broken down into three phases: preparation, incubation, and illumination.
Preparation is simply the accumulation of a particular domain of knowledge. For an artist, it will be to understand, perhaps, colour, shape, texture, form, shadow, media, or so forth; for a musician, it might be to understand melody, harmony, tempo, timbre, dynamics, and so on; for a mathematician, it might be basic arithmetic, theories, proofs, and on and on. It’s also important to note that accumulated information in multiple domains also forms a foundation leveraged by many polymaths.
Incubation is simply waiting for something to grow in the prepared garden. Incubation is an unconscious activity and cannot be controlled or accessed by the conscious mind. In fact, conscious effort and introspection will serve only to impede cultivation. Digging up planted seeds to see how they are growing will only hinder the process.
Illumination is the final phase. Again, this is unwilled. Prepared and incubated flowers bloom. Of course, this is an imperfect metaphor because the ground must already have been fertile at the start. Tossing seeds on fallow ground still yields no blooms no matter how carefully attended.
In essence, for the creative individual, the best we can do is to leave well enough alone. Anything but space and permission will kill the creative impulse.
McGilchrist discusses generative, permissive, and translational requirements.
“The key element in generation seems to be the ability to think of many diverse ideas quickly, demanding breadth, flexibility and analogical thinking – seeing likeness within apparent dissimilarity.” This can be summed up as divergent thinking. This is the openness afforded by the right hemisphere as opposed to the convergent behaviour of the left. As it happens, this is where artificial intelligence falls flat as it is predicated on convergent activity.
The right hemisphere Gestalten surveys the environment and notes otherwise unperceived parallels. It is not a systematic approach. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “Education is an admirable thing. But it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”
Schopenhauer sums it up nicely, “Talent hits a target no-one else can hit; genius hits a target no-one else can see”.
Citing Isaac Asimov writing about Darwin’s insight, he notes that before Darwin, many people had read Malthus and studied species, but they lacked the creative spark that Darwin had.
Steve Jobs noted that
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things … A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So, they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”
— Steve Jobs
This is a failing of the business world and of specialisation more generally. McGilchrist writes, “Linear approaches and analytic thinking, characteristic of the left hemisphere, are fine in the right context, and may at a subsequent phase take part in creativity by narrowing things down and eliminating some of them, but on their own will not achieve creativity”.
There is a direct link between intelligence and creativity. Ego crushes creativity.
He again cites Asimov:
“My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it …The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing.”
— Isaac Asimov
Some people excel at maths, but many are systematic and procedural left-hemisphere types; they apply logic and reason—insert tab A into slot B. The famous mathematicians understand the procedures, but their ideas come from intuition rather than reason. The left hemisphere doesn’t recognise this as a viable vector, and therein lies the rub. “Math is not about following directions; it’s about making new directions,” writes mathematician Paul Lockhart.
This is why we hear so many accounts of aha moments, something coming to one person in a dream or Isaac Newton’s falling apple anecdote.
Einstein told Max Wertheimer, founder of Gestalt psychology, “These thoughts did not come in any verbal formulation. I very rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterward”. Words are a left-hemisphere phenomenon.
Many accomplished musicians hear a piece whole. All they need to do is to compose it to staff paper or perform it. We hear this regularly: “I was driving from here to there and it just came to me. All I needed to do is to remember it long enough to get it down.”
I found McGilchrist’s inclusion of hemispheric damage quite interesting. He provides many examples of artists, composers, and poets, but I’ll only summarise them. For musicians and Artists with right hemisphere damage, those who even retained the urge to create did so at a lower quality level. However, those with left hemisphere damage operated at the same level and oftentimes at a higher level, without the inhibition and censorship of the left hemisphere.
It’s important to note that most people rely on both hemispheres. When I write left hemisphere dominant, I mean to say that either the right hemisphere simply underperforms or that the left hemisphere does not cede control back to the right hemisphere. Generally speaking, both hemispheres experience the world, and a strong right hemisphere will act as air traffic controller, or perhaps have the right of first refusal, but this is a loose metaphor because sometimes the left hemisphere just fields an experience and takes its best guess how to handle it even if it should have been fielded by the right hemisphere and even if the left hemisphere provides the wrong answer. The left hemisphere is the hemisphere of the ego and identity, so it is somewhat relentless and defensive even when it is wrong.
As a side note, I trust that political identity and escalating commitment are left-hemisphere activities and why modern Western politics feel so intractable.
After a strong argument for right hemisphere dominance and divergent thinking being hallmarks of creativity, he offers some counter-evidence and counters some of it.
A paper by Arne Dietrich and Riam Kanso co-authored a book citing instances of convergent thought processes that led to something innovative or creative. At the onset, McGilchrist calls them out for conflating problem-solving with creativity. In the end, the left hemisphere does play a role. He calls this the translational phase. Essentially, this is Mozart having heard his symphony and needing to put his thoughts to paper. Or the poet.
He goes off on a bit of a tangent noting how words pale concepts, and divergence and convergence are no exception. This fits in with my own insufficiency of language theory, but McGilchrist and I have different rationales for our arguments, so I’ll not side-track this summary.
He cites some statistics correlating creativity with mental health disorders and incidences of suicide. This will set the reader up perfectly for the next chapter about schizophrenia and autism.
In summary, creativity has got me riled up more than in the previous chapters. This is partially due to how it comports with my own observations. I have always felt that humans are not very creative or innovative despite protests to the contrary. In fact, I’ve often commented when I’ve heard people say something like “artificial intelligence will never create the next…” Fill in the blank: Mozart, Picasso, Michelangelo, Nabokov, Wordsworth. Or Einstein. Of course, neither will a human be the next of these.
All these people are right cerebral hemisphere dominant. AI operates systematically, in the manner of the left hemisphere. None of these people built up systematically. Instead, their ideas were wholly formed, and their creations were reductive rather than additive. Famously, Michelangelo was to have said, “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block before I start my work. It is already there. I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” He sees the solution first and then builds towards it.
In my professional life, I have been a strategist as a management consultant as well as a business analyst. In each case, I could quickly assess a situation and then spend weeks or months defending my intuition with words, diagrams, and numbers.
As a business analyst, I would offer a recommendation, and this would need to come with an estimate to deliver the recommendation. This figure would come to me in a matter of minutes. Then, per protocol, I would need to enter micro-level details into a pricing model so it could calculate from the ground up. First, this was time-consuming. Second, this would be circulated for review where different people would (almost invariably) reduce the number of hours estimated, typically due to pressure to reduce the cost. Ultimately, a number would be output and tendered to the client or the person footing the bill. Again (almost invariably), the number initially intuited was more accurate and reflective of what was ultimately invoiced. Unfortunately, business is a left-hemisphere endeavour, and that will be its Achilles’ heel and denouement.
This wraps up the chapter on Creativity. The next chapter is “what schizophrenia and autism can tell us”, and is the end of part one of The Matter with Things.
What are your thoughts and experiences with creativity now that you’ve heard McGilchrist’s take?