Monday BS #15: 10.01.22
On the meaning of life, finally
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If my Load of BS tries to explain why we do the things that we do, then today I’m diving head first into it. And I may not surface with a totally clean face.
When I share ideas in this forum, I’m comfortable that not all are fully formed or understood. But if you’ll indulge me, then I’ll share my intellectual journey with you.
Inspired by the mind and writing of Dr Iain McGilchrist and my friend Tom Morgan, who recently completed reading his magnum opus ‘The Matter with Things’, I’m going to riff briefly on the meaning of life and the human brain, before handing over to Tom to share his view from the top of the mountain.
If this all feels too heavy going for a Monday in January, then here’s some Twitter candy instead:
‘Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.’
If that felt a bit cheap and you’re ready for some real nutrition, then read on.
Appoint a four year old as CEO
As Dr Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, remarks, adult human beings, in both appearance and playfulness, are essentially the “Labradors of the primate world.” Ted Slingerland’s book ‘Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization’ talks extensively of the role of our prefrontal cortex (PFM) in the brain, the HQ for cognitive control and goal-directed behaviour. As children, it takes time to mature and this early looseness in the PFM, if you like, is critical for our own development and learning; it’s what makes us creative and silly, if less able to complete tasks of any great utility.
If you’re wondering why, as adults, we lose our sponge like quality to absorb information or find lateral thinking harder, it’s the PFM’s reduced cognitive flexibility. Which is perfect for logistics and planning but less valuable if you’re playing the Unusual Uses game and you need to come up with secondary applications for a toilet roll.
And if you’re pondering why your organisation is slow to change or lacks creative thinking and you’re looking for a differentiating strategy, appoint a four year old immediately as CEO. Or alternatively, as Ted Slingerland might advise, have a drink.
What’s the matter with things?
All grist to the mill as I mull over why we do the things that we do. A propos this, I’ve recently come upon the work of psychiatrist, writer and philosopher Dr Iain McGilchrist, whose mind is so perceptive, whose ideas on the human condition, the awe-inspiring reality around us, are so rich, sensitive and dense, that I feel entering his world could be my great journey of 2022.
‘I have spent a decade absorbing the vision of McGilchrist’s previous book; I shall be happy to spend the rest of my life with this one, and still be learning things when I get to the end.’ Philip Pullman
McGilchrist is committed to the idea that the mind and brain can be understood only by seeing them in the broadest possible context. His first major work ‘The Master and his Emissary’ presents the premise that the two brain hemispheres have different ways of looking at the world. His recently published magnum opus ‘The Matter with Things’ goes a stage further and explores what this premise means for the world that we experience, and indeed its future. It seeks to expose the weakness of the current reductionist, over-simplistic view of the world which suggests we’re just machines, that the world is inert and mechanical, a collection of things for us to use and destroy.
The book, 1,500 pages long, addresses some of the biggest questions for humanity. Who are we and what is our purpose, what is the purpose of the world? And what are the tools to help us understand the world: science, reason, intuition and imagination. They all have claims and limits on truth but we must investigate them all.
It’s a brain of two halves
Central to the thesis is an understanding of the roles of the brain’s two hemispheres and the contributions they make to our interpretation of the world, to our experience. As I embark on this journey, let me share my understanding of this so far.
This is important as it goes against much of the traditional, over-simplified portrayal of left-right difference. Which says something like left hemisphere is for reason and right for emotion.
Actually both brain hemispheres are involved in reasoning and emotion. But the left is mechanistic, mathematical; it’s for grasping things, manipulating and narrowing possibility towards an illusion of certainty. The right is about ideas, words, meaning, intuition, colour, nuance and connection.
If these descriptions sound distant and abstract, let me go further.
The left is an enclosed representation of reality, the high-level map, while the right lives in the spaces in between. McGilchrist tries to bring this abstraction to life in an earlier essay ‘The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning’ and in the context of music. I love this conception:
‘Music does not exist in one particular note – which is in itself meaningless; or in a lot of such single notes, each in itself meaningless. I am tempted to say it exists more in the spaces than in the notes: the spaces between successive notes in pitch that creates the melody, the spaces between simultaneously sounding notes, that is the harmony, the spaces in time between the beats, that makes the rhythm.
But that too is wrong, because the spaces are just silence, apparently nothing. It is not in the spaces or the notes, but in the spaces and the notes together, plus whatever it is that comes about from their union. This is what I mean by betweenness.’
A key message in ‘The Matter with Things’ is that our world is currently in thrall to the left hemisphere's way of thinking; an inclination towards an uncritical following of Newtonianism (black and white mathematical analysis, a world governed by rational and understandable laws). Financial crashes are good examples of left brain dominant thinking; an overdose of confidence, self-deception, belief in predictable models, machines and dogma. The right brain has self-doubt, it questions, it understands more.
I’m going to pause here, conscious of the complexity and let these ideas percolate. I am still grasping, reflecting and understanding myself what all this means. As McGilchrist himself says:
‘There is no royal road to certainty about what the world is, or what it is like.’
I continue in my learning.
A very personal view
Alongside my own early reflections on Dr McGilchrist’s thesis, I wanted to include those of my friend Tom Morgan who writes and talks most eloquently on topics ranging from finance to philosophy. Tom recently completed reading ‘The Matter with Things’, frankly an awe-inspiring achievement in itself, and so we represent travellers at different points in our journeys. While I lift off from base camp, looking skywards, excited to absorb a worldview which encompasses all of neuroscience, metaphysics and the cosmos, Tom has scaled the peak.
He indeed inspired me to tackle McGilchrist, such has been the impact his reading experience has had on him. So here’s what it feels and looks like from the top.
Guest contribution from Tom Morgan
“No single individual has done as much to change my perception of the world as Dr Iain McGilchrist. He has been my rational, scientific bridge back to the sacred.
I’d always felt that love was more than chemicals, our body was more than just cells and there was more to the universe than just atoms.
Dr McGilchrist’s central thesis is that the brain’s left hemisphere has become dominant when it should ideally be subservient. The left has a fundamentally reductionist tendency. It uses language and logic to reduce things down to their component parts. In showing that this culturally pervasive manner of thought is not necessarily the norm, he opened up a whole new way of seeing the world. If our right hemisphere were dominant, we might have a much more intuitive sense of the whole. It also allowed me to understand that the things that are most important cannot be named and categorized. The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.
McGilchrist thinks that this reductive and predatory imbalance has become reflected in our world of digital abstraction and ecological destruction. Perhaps most worryingly, he draws a very convincing parallel between modern society and the symptoms of autism and schizophrenia. Both of which seem to be relatively recent conditions, emerging post industrialization.
The key appeal for me is that he achieves all this using a wildly polymathic combination of neurology, psychology, philosophy, mythology and poetry. I have never encountered anyone who has assembled such a meaningful array of insights. So much modern non-fiction has the goal of enhancing characteristically left hemispheric ways of thinking. More objective rationality will solve all our problems. Yet McGilchrist persuasively argues that ‘the right hemisphere is responsible for, in every case, the more important part of our ability to come to an understanding of the world, whether that be via intuition and imagination, or, no less, via science and reason.’
In the latter stages of his most recent masterpiece, ‘The Matter with Things’, he concludes that ‘All that matters most to us can be understood only by the indirect path: music, art, humour, poems, love, metaphors, myths, and religious meaning, are all nullified by the attempt to make them explicit.’ This means that the right hemispheric way of attending to the world is the route to all that truly matters.
In McGilchrist’s own words, he wants to take people to a place where they see a different viewpoint that is new, but not alien. He often hears that readers intuitively know that his perspective is true, but haven’t had it articulated to them in this way before. That has been my experience; even if his framework proves to be a metaphor, it is the one that best fits my lived experience of the world.”
If all this tickles your interest and you’d like to dip your toe into this subject matter, message me and I’ll point you in new and stimulating directions.
Have a great week! 😃