Thinking cuts furrows into the soil of being. (Heidegger)
Where can I find a man who has forgotten words, so I can talk with him? (Zhuangzi)
To say we have gone further down the rabbit hole the past few years is to measure the present against some vision of normality. It certainly seems as though there is some level of absurdity underpinning events within the modern global culture. Metrics tell us we have never been better off, whilst other metrics tell us we are on the brink of catastrophe. It is within this context that I have been trying to make some sense of what the hell is going on, for some time now but with an earnest over the past few years. This has lead me down several rabbit holes, forcing me to confront my own vision of normality. This year I have read several profound books which have helped me further clarify what I think might describe how things have come to be the way they are. It is not a case of what we think, but how. This is such a simple statement to make, but a much harder one to fully comprehend the significance of.
I started this year by reading Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary and everything fell into place. Building on and clarifying an intuition that had been growing, this book set the tone for what I would read and think about this year. McGilchrist says, “certainty is the greatest of all illusions: whatever kind of fundamentalism it may underwrite, that of religion or of science, it is what the ancients meant by hubris. The only certainty, it seems to me, is that those who believe they are certainly right are certainly wrong,” adding that, “none of us actually lives as though there were no truth. Our problem is more with the notion of a single, unchanging truth.” And this, it seems to me, is where we are at today. Politics aside, no one seems to have illustrated this global predicament more this year than Jordan Peterson. I read Maps of Meaning after The Master and his Emissary, at the suggestion that Peterson’s ideas mapped somewhat onto McGilchrist’s. It is perhaps this that has occupied my academic enquiry the most this year.
The other two books that most occupied me this year were Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics and George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh. Whilst quite different to McGilchrist and Peterson, I have found a common thread underpinning these four books, illuminated along the way by returning to Heraclitus, and a new (to me) philosophical translation of the Daodejing by Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall. The implications of this leave no aspect of ourselves and our relationships with each other and our environment untouched, and an appreciation of which could lead the way to a more harmonious way of life. Eisenstein says:
Under the sway of dualism, we have essentially sought to divide the world into two parts, one infinite and the other finite, and then to live wholly in the latter which, because it is finite, is amenable to control. Our lordship over nature is at heart an egregious self-deception, because its first step is to attempt nature’s precipitous reduction, which is equally a reduction of life, a reduction of experience, a reduction of feeling, and a reduction of being: a true Faustian exchange of the infinite for the finite. This reduction comes in many guises and goes by many names. It is the domestication of the wild; it is the measuring and quantification of nature; it is the conversion of cultural, natural, social, and spiritual wealth into money. Because it is a reduction of life, violence is its inevitable accompaniment; hence the rising crescendo of violence that has bled our civilisation for thousands of years and approaches its feverish apogee as we conclude the present wholesale destruction of entire species, oceans, ecosystems, languages, cultures, and peoples.
What follows is my analysis of a way of thinking that has been influenced this year by these books. A few disclaimers: I have done my best to eschew the ‘poeticism’ of my previous years in review and write as clearly and succinctly as possible. It is of course impossible and pointless for me to summarise large academic texts, so I would refer you to the books themselves for the full extrapolation. Rather, I have taken sections from each to build up a picture of how various seemingly different ideas are implicitly interlinked. Despite my intentions, this is not an academic essay and therefore I am well aware that, whilst I have tried hard not to, I may seem to contradict myself in places and to use some terminology confusingly. My hope is that, if you are interested in thinking about the world, you may want to engage with these ideas in constructive discussion. I certainly would not confess to having things figured out, but I feel comfortable, perhaps for the first time in my life, with my narrative.
Adam John Miller
20th December 2018
There is no certainty, fixity or isolation in nature. Things we make give the illusion of being so. Machines give us the idea that the world is made from bits put together. At least in the so-called ‘life’ sciences, we still imagine that things are mechanical, in just this way, while in physics the idea was discarded around a hundred years ago. We talk of the brain having wiring, circuitry and switches, of its ‘functioning’, ‘processing’ information, etc From this you might deduce that we knew exactly what sort of thing a brain was, or at least what sort of thing a neurone was, but in reality we don’t have the slightest idea. In fact every individual cell is a quite extraordinarily complex self-regulating and self-repairing system entirely unlike any wire that ever existed. It forms tens of thousands of connections. As there are billions of neurones involved, the number of connections is virtually infinite. And everything in such a system is reciprocal rather than linear. This is not like anything we can know.
Though people talk of the problem of consciousness, I would be inclined to turn things on their head and say, ‘What problem? The real problem is matter.’ Consciousness we know inside and out; but matter, that is closed to us. In fact it is its closed quality, its way of offering resistance to consciousness, that defines it. The existence and nature of matter is at least as hard to explain as the existence and nature of consciousness – I would say harder: it is just the familiarity with which we treat it every day that makes matter seem simple.
It probably sounds like a cop out, but I do believe that prescriptions are one of the reasons we are so messed up nowadays. We always have to have a plan, an algorithm, a set of bullet points, and that immediately narrows things down, so we imagine that we just need to put this plan into action. It discounts the creative, the spontaneous, the improvised, the unexpected, the fruits of the imagination of those who take the ‘plan’ forward. What I can see now is limited; what others may see is limitless. Our plans are always at too local, too detailed a level. For example, if you want to educate people, you don’t give them a lot of procedures to carry out or just information to spew. You inculcate habits of mind: curiosity, a habit of sceptical questioning, enthusiasm, creativity, patience, self-discipline – the rest comes naturally. Equally you can’t go into a country and set up the structures of democracy. That is back to front, and they will inevitably fail. What is needed is a habit of mind that sees the value in democratic institutions; in time they will then emerge naturally, and flourish.
It is irrational, and in the end unscientific, to imagine that we understand everything because we have a way of analysing it into ever smaller parts. We are seduced by the simplistic take on the world offered to us by our left hemisphere, the part of us that we know actually sees less, and certainly understands less. The worst and most damaging aspect of this is the arrogance of those scientific materialists who believe they know it all – the internet is full of the evidence of their rage and intolerance towards anyone who does not buy their philosophy. Their minds are as firmly closed as those of any religious fundamentalist – and let me make clear that I find religious fundamentalism every bit as mindless and as damaging. The arts, I believe, have a pivotal role in putting us in touch with the transcendent, with whatever it is that is beyond us. They are core to a civilisation, measures of its health, and should be treated as such by government. They are not an optional extra. But they also matter too urgently to become purely intellectual games. They need to have viscera, and affect us viscerally. Which is not at all the same as saying ‘gutsy’, in the sense of constantly ‘shocking’ and ‘daring’ – in fact rather the opposite. They need to stop being just ‘clever-clever’, ironic, disaffected, ‘above’ it all in a place from which one can see that ‘really’ there is no meaning to anything. Seeing no meaning may say more about you than about the world you are looking at.
How to bring these things about? Well, first of all we need smaller communities. We are not equipped to deal with social groups on the scale of a modern city. When Johnson said that ‘when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’, he was talking of a city less than a tenth the size it is now, and very much more like a collection of villages. In smaller communities we recognise one another, learn about one another, feel we know whom we can trust, and are able to form bonds. We also need to live closer to our ultimate context, the natural world. We are part of it, not as we see ourselves, standing over against it, taming or subduing it to serve our deracinated urban existence. We can bring this about without losing the sense of overall connectedness. In the past, often small communities were inward-looking, developed antipathies through ignorance, and became too certain of what they believed. One of the advantages that has come with technology is that we can remain far more in touch with one another and with what others are thinking than we could before.
Iain McGilchrist in conversation with Jonathan Rowson
Full transcript and information here.
Steven Pinker is, of course, both clever and influential, and there is much that I would agree with him about. So when he makes what he calls an impassioned plea for an understanding between science and the humanities, something that I feel strongly about, too, and indeed believe to be of the greatest importance for our future, it seems churlish to find fault, especially as I am grateful to him for the opportunity to explore in more detail issues about which it is obvious we both care very much. But for all that he claims to be setting out to reassure his colleagues in the humanities, I doubt that his essay will have the desired effect. In fact I fear that it may appear to some to exemplify everything that those in the humanities fear to be the case about the contemporary science establishment.
The marriage, or at any rate the peaceful cohabitation, of science and the humanities is essential for the health of our civilisation. I speak as someone who has a foot in each camp, and an interest in their rapprochement. I agree wholly with Professor Pinker that each can learn from the other. And Professor Pinker is right to recognise that all is not as well as it might be in this relationship. Perhaps he feels he is offering therapy.
However in any relationship there are at least two points of view, and two stories to tell about where the trouble lies. And to engage successfully in therapy you need to see both.
In the field of religion there are dogmatists of no-faith as there are of faith, and both seem to me closer to one another than those who try to keep the door open to the possibility of something beyond the customary ways in which we think, but which we would have to find, painstakingly, for ourselves. Similarly as regards science, there are those who are certain, God knows how, of what it is that patient attention to the world reveals, and those who really do not care, because their minds are already made up that science cannot tell them anything profound. Both seem to me profoundly mistaken. Though we cannot be certain what it is our knowledge reveals, this is in fact a much more fruitful position – in fact the only one that permits the possibility of belief. And what has limited the power of both art and science in our time has been the absence of belief in anything except the most diminished version of the world and our selves. Certainty is the greatest of all illusions: whatever kind of fundamentalism it may underwrite, that of religion or of science, it is what the ancients meant by hubris. The only certainty, it seems to me, is that those who believe they are certainly right are certainly wrong. The difference between scientific materialists and the rest is only this: the intuition of the one is that mechanistic application of reason will reveal everything about the world we inhabit, where the intuition of the others leads them to be less sure. Virtually every great physicist of the last century – Einstein, Bohr, Planck, Heisenberg, Bohm, amongst many others – has made the same point. A leap of faith is involved, for scientists as much as anyone. According to Max Planck, ‘Anybody who has been seriously engaged in scientific work of any kind realizes that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words: Ye must have faith. It is a quality which the scientist cannot dispense with.’ And he continued: ‘Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.
In this book certainty has certainly not been my aim. I am not so much worried by the aspects that remain unclear, as by those which appear to be clarified, since that almost certainly means a failure to see clearly. I share Wittgenstein’s mistrust of deceptively clear models: and, as Waismann said, ‘any psychological explanation is ambiguous, cryptic and open-ended, for we ourselves are many-layered, contradictory and incomplete beings, and this complicated structure, which fades away into indeterminacy, is passed on to all our actions.’ I am also sympathetic to those who think that sounds like a cop-out. But I do think that things as they exist in practice in the real world, rather than as they exist in theory in our re-presentations, are likely to be intrinsically resistant to precision and clarification. That is not our failure, but an indication of the nature of what we are dealing with. That does not mean we should give up the attempt. It is the striving that enables us to achieve a better understanding, but only as long as it is imbued with a tactful recognition of the limits to human understanding. The rest is hubris.
If it could eventually be shown definitively that the two major ways, not just of thinking, but of being in the world, are not related to the two cerebral hemispheres, I would be surprised, but not unhappy. Ultimately what I have tried to point to is that the apparently separate ‘functions’ in each hemisphere fit together intelligently to form in each case a single coherent entity; that there are, not just currents here and there in the history of ideas, but consistent ways of being that persist across the history of the Western world, that are fundamentally opposed, though complementary, in what they reveal to us; and that the hemispheres of the brain can be seen as, at the very least, a metaphor for these. One consequence of such a model, I admit, is that we might have to revise the superior assumption that we understand the world better than our ancestors, and adopt a more realistic view that we just see it differently – and may indeed be seeing less than they did.
Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.