Between Two Worlds: Iain McGilchrist and the Crisis of Modernity


By Wayne Allensworth

This is the second of my articles on Iain McGilchrist and his hemispheric theory of human cognition, which posits two apparently opposing, actually complementary, modes of being and perception as expressed in the Right and Left brain hemispheres (RH and LH hereafter). In the first article, I raised the issue of relationships and how our personality—and our world—come into being through an interplay with “the other” in the form of our environment and other people. Both the RH and LH play roles in that interaction. In this article, we will look at the basic assumptions of McGilchrist’s ideas on the hemispheres as expressed in three books, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World and the two volume The Matter with Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World, an encyclopedic survey of McGilchrist’s thought. The material McGilchrist persuasively covers in his books, lectures, and podcasts is so vast, so detailed, so impressive a display of erudition, that my articles can only hopefully serve as a teaser drawing attention to his theory. I have come to believe that his work is of immeasurable importance. We find ourselves in a crisis, a crisis McGilchrist traces back to the two hemispheres and the dominance of the reductionist, analytical approach of the LH in the modern world. Permit me to back up and review just what a LH-dominant worldview espouses…

You may have noticed, dear readers, that the world we live in operates within a paradigm that denies any reality other than a dead, material one, one in which traditional morals are an illusion, and much of what we see may not be “real,” either. In that materialist world, a mechanistic view predominates in the sciences, the bureaucracy, in the trans-national corporations that dominate the “global economy,” and permeates society in entertainment and culture.

In this view…We are masses of atoms operating in a deterministic manner, calling the notion of free will and individual responsibility into question, and undermining the reliability of our own thoughts. If our thoughts are determined by mechanistic processes, how can we trust them? Consciousness is an epiphenomenon of our material existence, which somehow arises, as life supposedly did, from lifeless matter, the appearance of which itself was a cosmic accident.

If something is difficult to define within hard and fast parameters, it doesn’t exist. All must be categorized, pigeonholed, defined in precise terms. There can be no ambiguity. The idea of continuum with fuzzy boundaries as a basic attribute of reality, applicable in a wide variety of instances, with hard and fast definitions the exception, not the rule, is dispensed with. All is “either/or” by definition. There is no room for “both/and.” Opposites cannot both be valid.

Every issue in our world and society is a problem to be “solved” by manipulations guided by a technocratic, engineering, managerial bureaucracy aimed at finding the single answer, as only one is possible in this paradigm. Uniformity and control by “experts” are the ideals. Ideologies supportive of this view dominate and are rigid in their structure and demands on us as a few values supersede others (absolute equality and the primacy of the atomized, radically autonomous individual, for instance). These values cannot be placed in any context with other values to be balanced and weighed according to their relative importance in particular circumstances. Whatever runs counter to the accepted paradigm is denied or denounced as atavistic bigotry. Theory trumps experience. One will encounter sarcastic dismissal or even rage from the managerial class if you challenge the theory. Any point that contradicts theory is dismissed or explained away. The wisdom of the ages is disdained as a collection of old wives’ tales or oppressive “constructs” established by a culture whose only aim was power. What most would call “common sense” is mere superstition, as is religion, or any belief that life has purposes and meaning that are both transcendent and implicit.

Human beings are “meat computers,” operating on mental algorithms. We are machines that can be treated in the manner of reductionist science, which seeks its answers in the parts, while ignoring the whole. “Issues” are treated in isolation from their context. Indeed, de-contextualization is a hallmark of modern life. One size fits all. Any problem is treated as a separate thing that exists in a vacuum detached from the larger reality. Human relations themselves are deterministic and utilitarian, driven by “selfish genes.” Love is an illusion. Ultimate truth is unknowable or nonexistent. We construct our own truth by rationalistic means with utilitarian aims. There is no actual basis for phenomena that cannot be explained or rationalized in precise language—the love of a mother for her children, a patriotic love of people and place, friendship and romance. All are illusory and easily dismissed as fairytales hiding basically selfish aims.

These parameters are the predictable outcome of a modernity based on the scientific revolution and materialist reductionism, one that has phased into post-modernity, which is a more modern modernism. Materialism easily slips into nihilism.

Iain McGilchrist’s vast body of work can help us make sense of the world modernity has made.

McGilchrist is a neuroscience researcher, a psychiatrist, a philosopher, a literary scholar who has taught at Oxford, and has worked on neural imaging projects at prestigious medical institutions. He has spent most of this century studying, writing on, and lecturing about what he sees as the crisis of the modern world, a crisis based in our own brains. In his books, he marshals a vast array of evidence from neurological studies, psychology, physics, biology, and history to posit a theory of human perception, his hemisphere theory. In his view, the dominance of a LH perception of reality is largely responsible for the state of affairs described above.

In short form, the RH grounds us in reality. It is the hemisphere through which our perceptions of a global perspective, a holistic view of what is out there and our place in it is based. It is the home of intuition, which is not guessing (as the LH would have it), but the avenue for gathering all that we see and integrating it into a full picture. It is pattern recognition. It is the foundation of imagination, which is required for the perceptual and cognitive leaps so common in our experience. That “Ah ha!” flash of insight, which is the result of unconscious processes that are constantly at work and, indeed, are where most of our decisions and judgements are made. Thus, the RH operates on the basis of memory and experience. It is where an appreciation of things that cannot be rationalized—beauty, truth, goodness, art, religious insights, and morality (as McGilchrist points out, inhibitory actions are perhaps more important in the functioning of our brains than anything else)—are at home. The RH is a love of music. It is the home of our sense of wonder, awe, and enchantment. The RH is where our humane sensibility is located. It is empathy and an ability to read the emotions, body language, and feelings of others. As McGilchrist has it, the RH is where we “presence” the world in an unselfconscious way.

The LH is the basis for narrow focus, for solving particular, immediate problems. It is impersonal and rational, separated from intuitive perceptions, though we must not confuse rationality with reason, in which both RH and LH perceptions and judgements are integrated. That is the apparent origin of the hemispheres, two entirely different modes of perception, which are, in evolutionary terms, meant to be complementary, with apparently clashing modes of being, perceiving, and thinking melding to form a basis for our being (indeed, the hemispheres are present in all creatures with brains). The LH lacks empathy, and disdains emotions—other than anger. The LH is the seat of reductionism, of taking things apart to see how they work, and has been quite successful in using scientific reductionism to build the machines and technology that are the basis of the modern world. Its tendency to rationalize is the foundation of Western/modern industrial, technocratic, and economic organization. What is lost when this view is predominant is a sense of the whole, an understanding of the living, constantly changing, but nevertheless continuous world. The parts are not the whole. The LH prefers slices of reality (which it sees as dead material) in isolation but mistakes those slices for reality itself. Ideally, the RH presences what is out there, notices some anomaly, or some novelty, then transfers it for a narrow, focused, study by the LH, which then reintegrates its take with the RH to make a judgement on where this novelty fits in its global perception. McGilchrist cites a slew of scientists on the possible origins of this manner of dealing with the world in a primitive form as the RH as the cognitive “lookout,” the LH as the “predator” always focusing in on the search for food. Both are necessary.

The LH wants to categorize and favors sharp definitions and precise answers. It is an “either/or” mode of being. It cannot deal with ambiguity, with imprecisions, with continuums. It cannot conceive of a world—which, as McGilchrist writes, it sees only as a representation, a frozen snapshot of a given “thing”—commensurate with the RH’s fluidity of perception, its acceptance of ambiguity and imprecision, its insights and intuitions. The LH is focused on detail, even minutiae, and cannot see the forest for the trees, a useful function in certain circumstances, but destructive if the LH and RH are not working in concert. I should also add that relations in everyday cognition between the hemispheres, which interact constantly, are being simplified here—yet the broad point, as the RH would have it, of hemispheric difference is the most important one.

McGilchrist is not saying that the brain is the origin of mind. That is precisely the mechanistic, materialist position he is refuting in his work. Consciousness, the universe of mind, is in a complementary relationship with matter. In fact, he sees mind as ontologically prior to matter, with matter and consciousness as two aspects of one reality, a position similar to that of a number of the most renowned figures in science, philosophy, and religion. The brain is the filter through which the mind perceives and experiences the fullness of reality. Inhibition again. What is left out is perhaps more important than what is left in, much as a sculptor cuts away chunks of stone to find the beauty of the figure inside it. McGilchrist uses experience as his philosophical guide throughout his work—reductionist science, bound by theory, tends to discount phenomenology, but as McGilchrist points out, modern physics and, indeed, a number of sciences, point in another direction, one that the official structures of an unsurprisingly LH-centric bureaucratic establishment seek to reject and shut out.

McGilchrist stresses again and again that reality is of such a complex and awesome nature that the precise language of the LH cannot hope to express it—only metaphor and poetry and religious language can do that, again, a position held by a number of the greatest figures in the sciences, philosophy, and theology. The LH is standardization. The RH is harmony. The LH is literal. The RH is metaphorical. The LH is reductionist, an implement that fragments our perceptions of reality, an agent of de-contextualization. The RH is a synthesizing agent. The LH favors abstraction and theory. The RH experience. The LH insists on measurement—what cannot be measured or quantified isn’t “real.” The RH is about evaluating that which cannot be quantified or measured. The LH is individualistic. It focuses on what “I” want. The RH is communal, recognizing the validity of others claims on us. It is about contextualization and relationships.

As McGilchirst wrote in The Master and His Emissary, the LH is about manipulation, control, and utility. “The left-hemisphere view is designed to aid you in grabbing stuff.” Indeed, it is about “grasping and amassing ‘things.” And that, as McGilchrist notes, “Is very convenient…as such it is seductive.” The LH is a simplifier. It offers simple answers to complex questions in a world of irreducible complexity. “It claims to offer the same mechanistic models to explain everything that exists…when this sort of thinking encounters a problem in reconciling apparent irreconcilables—for example, matter and consciousness—it simply denies that one element or the other exists.” Indeed, it has become commonplace for scientists and analytical philosophers to deny the one thing we can be sure of—our own consciousness and its experiences. Post-modernism is a natural outcome of this thinking. What’s more, the LH’s simplistic view “is easier to articulate.” The LH is the seat of language (but not of music, which McGilchrist uses frequently as a metaphor for our difficult to articulate experiences, or of metaphor, so critical to poetic and imaginative understanding). It is deceptively easier to make explicit that which is in reality implicit and hard to articulate via simplified, precise language.

McGilchrist sees asymmetry as an organizing principle of the universe—complementary aspects of reality that clash (resistance being a necessity in creative processes), then synthesize a harmonious whole that is constantly in motion but retains continuity. The LH tends to see inert matter as a natural state. The RH is, in McGilchrist’s hemisphere theory, “the Master,” the grounding of our sense of ourselves moving through reality. The LH is ideally “the Emissary,” called forth for special takes, then the two meld the varying takes to produce a wholistic perception.

What is the crisis of our world? That the LH mode of being and perceiving has become dominant. Since the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, modernity has meant standardization, homogenization, rationalization, bureaucratization, centralization, materialism, and reductionism. This is a mode of thinking that McGilchrist traces back to the logical analysis of Aristotle and Plato and the philosophical proposition that opposites cannot both be true at the same time. Is what is observed and measured in quantum physics a wave or a particle? Can it be both? For the record, McGilchrist favors the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, particularly Heraclitus, who formulated a more harmonious, holistic philosophy of becoming. McGilchrist’s philosophy is one of paradox, of two propositions both being true, though one can be more true than the other in a given circumstance. It’s a matter of context. The RH and LH perceive reality in two apparently contradictory ways. In fact, what they see is the same reality viewed from two different perspectives. McGilchrist argues that all perspectives obscure part of reality, and reveal part, so that there is no such thing as an objective, perfect perspective from which a complete picture of reality is revealed or apparent (which is how the LH insists it views things). The LH takes the object of its analysis out of context, whereas the RH sees all things contextually, in relation to others. Thus, he believes that relationship is more important, or even precedes, the things that are related. McGilchrist stresses motion and “flow.” His is a universe of processes, of waves and fields rather than of particles, of wholly distinct “things.”

In any case, the modern mode of thinking is leading us into a post-modern world of “woke” madness, without the check of the RH’s intuitions, insights, and imagination to put a brake on that slide into nihilism, an anti-human and an anti-humane dead end. Indeed, the bureaucratic, technocratic, and industrialized framework of present-day reality selects for and promotes those with the LH’s bent of mind, and acts, as the LH might, to suppress and dismiss and ridicule alternative views of reality.

If we are to save ourselves, we must find a way to re-enchant the world. To put the Master back in his proper cognitive place. To rein in his Emissary.

“Today,” wrote McGilchrist in The Master and his Emissary, “all the available sources of intuitive life—the natural world, cultural tradition, the body (Embodiment is a major theme in all of McGilchrist’s work–WA), religion and art—have been so conceptualized, devitalized, and ‘deconstructed’ (ironized) by self-consciousness and explicitness” that their power to help see something beyond the “hermetic world” of the LH has been “drained from them.” TVs and computer screens have supplanted direct experience. Our civilization and our world face what McGilchrist calls a “grave crisis,” and “if we are to survive,” we need a “complete change of heart and mind.”

Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of  The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood

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