So, since late February I've been reading Iain McGilchrist's "The Master and His Emissary" - 600+ pages (and while admittedly a large fraction of those are the endnotes, it's a very dense read). I've been reading about a section a day, generally after a chapter of something else.
July 28, 2021
The book takes on the difference between the Hemispheres - first from a physiological point of view (and trying to get much more firmly planted than the 80s/90s pop-psychology left brain/right brain stuff) and then the cultural ramifications, with different periods of history featuring different levels of balance. (And different cultures; near the end of the book he muses on how many Asian cultures seem to have less predominance of the left hemisphere, see things less in isolation and more in context.)
Even if you're skeptical about the physiology of the split, I think there is much to the concepts of holism vs reductionism, whatever the cerebral substrate!
But he definitely makes a pitch for the physicality of it - I think what most stuck with me was the idea of bird brains during feeding, the research showing the right side of the brain keeping track of the whole environment, ever watchful for predators, while the left side focused in on the task at hand. In this model, the Right Hemisphere is holistic, takes things in context. the Left Hemisphere categorizes and isolates. I would put it as, the right hemisphere accepts the world as it is, the left hemisphere focuses on how the world as it can be manipulated.
Anyway, here are the quotes I scraped, with some further thoughts.
The right hemisphere deals preferentially with actually existing things, as they are encountered in the real world. Because its language roots things in the context of the world, it is concerned with the *relations between* thingsMy interest in this book coincides with trying to understand the difference between me and another class of computer programmer, a theme I'll get back to. Here is an early thing - I have alway been more concerned with how parts interact rather than what they are. But, from the rise of Object Oriented programming on forward, this view has been a bit on the downslope.
The separated hemispheres in split-brain patients each have a distinct personality, with characteristic tastes and preferences, according to one of those most closely involved with the study of such patients. The unconscious, while not identical with, is certainly more strongly associated with, the right hemisphere.Such a striking idea! This goes along with "parts" thinking in psychology, like "Internal Family Systems"- IFS is much finer grained and dynamic than the two hemisphere way of thinking about things, but still. I often feel there is a singular other - my inner child or what not and I've often thought less of that other - maybe even more like an "inner unruly pet" having me grab snacks than even a child - but now I have to understand that my linguistic, Left Hemisphere side maybe takes too much credit.
Strikingly, I realized that probably my flare ups of temper- rare, but loud - aren't my silent, sullent Right Hemisphere, but the fury of my smart but emotionally stunted Left Hemisphere rebelling against the world that's defying its categories of how Things Are Categorized, how they should be.
At the 'bottom' end, I am talking about the fact that every word, in and of itself, eventually has to lead us out of the web of language, to the lived world, ultimately to something that can only be pointed to, something that relates to our embodied existence. Even words such as 'virtual' or 'immaterial' take us back in their Latin derivation – sometimes by a very circuitous path – to the earthy realities of a man's strength (*virtus*), or the feel of a piece of wood (*materia*). Everything has to be expressed in terms of something else, and those something elses eventually have to come back to the body.I do wonder about this. Can all cognition be traced back to being an embodied actor?
Before there can be harmony, there must be difference.Lovely line.
Attention is a moral act: it creates, brings aspects of things into being, but in doing so makes others recede.Another good pithy observation.
According to the latter vision, that of the right hemisphere, truth is only ever provisional, but that does not mean that one must 'give up the quest or hope of truth itself'.And here I see a tie-in with my spirituality, such as it is. That I feel the by-definition necessity of "best description of what should be" - that Truth is ultimately subjective, a shareable reality, not just an objective personal experience - but that we can NEVER be certain that our own view is the most accurate one. but it's important to keep striving.
For Heidegger, truth was such an unconcealing, but it was also a concealing, since opening one horizon inevitably involves the closing of others. There is no single privileged viewpoint from which every aspect can be seen.I think of this in comparison to my metaphor of "the view from God's Throne, but the impossibility of reaching it" - in fact the very real likelihood that there can never be a divine End in that chair.
[In the 20th century] themes emerged from philosophical debate which, unknowingly, corroborate the right hemisphere's understanding of the world. These include: empathy and intersubjectivity as the ground of consciousness; the importance of an open, patient attention to the world, as opposed to a wilful, grasping attention; the implicit or hidden nature of truth; the emphasis on process rather than stasis, the journey being more important than the arrival; the primacy of perception; the importance of the body in constituting reality; an emphasis on uniqueness; the objectifying nature of vision; the irreducibility of all value to utility; and creativity as an unveiling (no-saying) process rather than a wilfully constructive process.Good general overview of the concepts.
This is what I have expressed as the left hemisphere's way of building up a picture slowly but surely, piece by piece, brick on brick. One thing is established as (apparently) certain; that forms a platform for adding the next little bit of (apparent) certainty. And so on. The right hemisphere meanwhile tries to take in all the various aspects of what it approaches at once. No part in itself precedes any other: it is more like the way a picture comes into focus – there is an "aha!' moment when the whole suddenly breaks free and comes to life before us.Boy O Boy do I see this in programming. Unit tests, strong typing, functional programming - they are all very Left Hemisphere, reductionist ways of trying to achieve better and better control. So I'm thinking my view must be more Right Hemisphere - I see these others as looking to 1,000 trees and thinking less about the forest.
Like with unit testing... I see bugs as an emergent property! Very few units don't do what you think they do - in isolation - but as you connect more and more of them up, problems and misunderstandings and misassumptions occur. (The counter argument is that focusing locally better defines the units, makes misunderstandings less likely, and that without something like functional programming, you just get an untraceable mess of context sensitive side effects. But one of the points of the book is that the best answers come when the two sides are balanced.)
Although language is the only way we can scientifically bridge the chasm between mind and brain, we should always remember that we humans are creatures that can be deceived as easily by logical rigour as by blind faith ... It is possible that some of the fuzzier concepts of folk-psychology may lead us to a more fruitful understanding of the integrative functions of the brain than the rigorous, but constrained, languages of visually observable behavioural acts.I think this is a good line for agnostic/atheist types to keep in mind as they look to the power of other ways of knowing - even if you distrust the appeal of the supernatural, sometimes these systems have a lot of built-in wisdon.
For even rationality cannot get by without imagination, but neither can imagination without rationality. The marriage of the two is, however, of such a peculiar kind, that they carry on a life and death struggle, and yet it is only together that they are able to accomplish their greatest feats, such as the higher form of conceptualising that we are accustomed to call reason.Man, sometimes I feel bad for liking parts of Nietzsche... (and even crediting his description of Amor Fati, the love and embrace, not just getting-along-with, the world as it is to inspiring my secondary tattoo, "This Fate"... as being the thing I want to love so much I will have it inscribed on my skin.)
Reasonableness would be replaced by rationality, and perhaps the very concept of reasonableness might become unintelligible.I find myself.... I dunno, still loyal to rationality! It seems so important to be open to ideas outside of one's lived experience, and one way you do that is through words and rational thought. But I'm willing to accept some of his ideas that it's the hemispheres in unison that work best.
The only certainty, it seems to me, is that those who believe they are certainly right are certainly wrong.My view of epistemology in a nutshell.
The true value of a man is not determined by his possession, supposed or real, of Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get to what lies behind the Truth. It is not possession of the Truth, but rather the pursuit of Truth by which he extends his powers and in which his ever-growing perfectibility is to be found. Possession makes one passive, indolent, vain – If God held enclosed in his right hand all truth, and in his left hand the ever-living striving for truth, although with the qualification that I must for ever err, and said to me 'choose', I should humbly choose the left hand and say 'Father, give! pure truth is for thee alone.'I'm not sure I quite buy the "striving is what makes it worthwhile" - I really would like a guaranteed view of The Truth, but still. I see a parallel to me trying to grow to like challenges more. I gravitate to ego-pleasing low hanging fruit in life, and if it's not a game I can win I don't always see the point in playing. But life is full of challenges it would be useful to be willing to take on, and I think accept challenges is a muscle that can be built up.
So yeah, I think I took a lot from this book! I think it rates with Dennett's"Consciousness Explained", Hawkins' "On Intelligence", Hofstadter's "Goedel Escher Bach" and Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" in terms of books deeply impacting what I think I know about thinking I know myself.