This is the essay by The Prudential Liberal that gave me the idea of a guest post. I asked him if I could publish it on my blog because it resonates so well with some of the concepts I’ve written about here. His thoughts on Belonging/Individualism are a good fit with my essay Is “Groupthink” Evidence of Another Moral Foundation?, and his ideas on Style of Thought add offer an additional interpretation that supports my take on Cognitive Style.
Two sides to the same coin
by The Prudential Liberal
An amalgamation of Moral Foundations Theory from Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, with Ian McGilchrist’s theory from his book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World which deals with the specialist hemispheric functioning of the brain.
It articulated several challenges to Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundation Theory that I find compelling. In fact, there’s no doubt in my mind that property or ownership, the first challenge, is hugely intertwined with morality. It is, after all, the major concern of the vast majority of human beings on this planet, and both sides of the political spectrum take very distinctive positions on it. Following the Sacrilege isn’t a bad explanation, but it is not compelling. There must, I believe, be a further moral foundation underpinning it. I am not inclined to believe, though, that property, of itself, is a true moral foundation, because it may go back in evolutionary history to a point before we became tribal (a lot of solitary animals will defend their food, particularly their kill). However, I think that there is a possibility that it may be tied to a potential Belonging foundation. Because, I think that Belonging/Individualism and style of thought in particular, are both parts of the puzzle that are missing from the original theory.
Belonging, in particular, seems to me to be the most obvious candidate for a further moral foundation; or maybe a pre=moral foundation. The need to belong to a group or retain independence is such a basic moral dilemma and what is best for an individual often conflicts with what’s best for the group as a whole. Indeed, according to Janis (1963), during World War II observations were made by psychiatrists, psychologists and sociologists that the average combat soldiers willingness to engage in hazardous combat duty increased depending on group identification (feeling of belonging). Also, from a genetic perspective, genes must try and advance their own selfish agenda in order to be carried into the future, a good offence, while maintaining the best possible defensive position just to survive in the present. In which case, it occurred to me, that attachment to a defensible nest would be a valuable evolutionary asset. And, as you would expect, attachment to place runs deep within all of us, but particularly in rural areas, which, incidentally, makes me think that the acronym WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) should be stretched (almost to breaking point admittedly) to WEIRDUr, in order to incorporate the word Urban.
In any case, in his book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World Ian McGilchrist (psychiatrist, doctor, writer, and former Oxford literary scholar), advocates in favour of the theory that “the evolutionary roots of the integrated emotional system involved in the formation of social attachments may lie in more ancient and primitive animal attachment to place. Some animals bond as much with their nest sites as with their mothers… the sense of place is not just where we were born and will die, but where our forefathers did, and our children’s children will.” Many farmers believe (I know, I’m starting to sound like Donald Trump) that there is a flock memory in sheep, because they will stay in their own part of a mountain, where their ancestors grazed. Furthermore, similar to other moral foundations, we may be born wired in advance of experience with a need to belong, but we must learn where and why we belong. This has implications for the blood and soil type of nationalism that is so prevalent here in Europe. It also has implications for the development of a sense of community (it’s not just that I belong here, but we belong here), and further to ultimate attachment and connectedness with one another. And it may also have implications for property (MY nest, or OUR territory?).
McGilchrist speculates that theory of mind may well have developed from group belonging. We think this and I think this, so perhaps, therefore, you think this. There probably wasn’t a Rubicon moment, but I like to think that some primate fell out of his tree and all the other primates laughed. In any case, to this day we can become very upset and moralistic when a member of our group displays thinking that is different from our perception of how our group thinks (Political Correctness on the left and Patriotic Displays on the right… interestingly, one verbal and one visual). We cling to our shibboleths and use terms like ‘common sense’ in a derogatory fashion. Which makes sense to me when I look at these understandings as the tenuous threads that we rely on to indicate that we are connected to others, that our understanding is the groups understanding, and that we poses the very valuable evolutionary adaptation (and the warm fuzzy feeling that goes with that) of knowing what’s going on in other people’s heads.
Furthermore, it would have taken time for traits like duty and loyalty to have evolved (which has more to do with internal integration than external adaptation anyway). In fact to this day it still takes time for things like loyalty and duty to take effect. And men, in particular, can belong to many groups (golf club; cat pool; vintage car society) without feeling any sense of loyalty, duty, authority or sanctity. These groups are just a loose collection of individuals. They could be galvanised into a survival vehicle if the need arose, but all that usually keeps them together is shared interest and a sense of belonging. Now I imagine primates were already bound into a loose collection of individuals by the time we started to evolve, but there must surely have been a preliminary foundation to hold a group together? Something caused the first groups to adapt in this way. And belonging is not just something that is triggered by a specific context like the Authority foundation. We don’t just need to belong when attacked, although that does accentuate the need. Also, human belonging, indeed pack mentalities in animals as well, is constant, even over long periods of separation and loss of contact. And interestingly, from personal experience, longing (the word has connotations) for a place where our ancestors belonged can persist through several generations (for Irish Americans anyway).
It also occurs to me that although Belonging/Individualism may well predate other moral foundations it would have been highly adaptive once joint intentionality evolved. Indeed I have had some experience of herding on the farm, separating and cornering a cow for instance, which would be similar to a primitive hunt. And a group that acts as one (belonging to the hunt) is much more efficient than a group of individuals that understand and share the same intention, perhaps, but are just doing what seems appropriate at the time (too slow). This creates a distinction for me between joint intentionality and shared intentionality; but perhaps joint intentionality arrived in stages. This also applies in sports, where teams of brilliant individuals, who all understand and share the same intention, are often beaten by less brilliant but more cohesive teams who act as one.
Also, while the flash of indignation I get when someone on the farm fails to act as one, just fills a gap, is undoubtedly a moral emotion, I don’t think that my burst of impatience arrives because they failed to understand our intention. And I don’t think that joint intentionality was the first primitive moral emotion either. I think it probably came third after lack of reciprocity and group identification (Belonging). It would, undoubtedly, have been very beneficial for a primate living in a group, where they had already developed the ability to remember who was likely to return a favour and to understand what another primate’s goal was, because then they could help them achieve it (fill the gap). But they would have had to be living in a group to begin with so that they had time to observe who was likely to return the favour. There is no point helping someone who isn’t going to appreciate it. And it would have taken it a huge step further to go from just being helpful, to doing something as one entity. It is interesting, also, that when someone fails to act as one, we don’t feel they were disloyal, and the group doesn’t react to such transgressions the way it would to disloyalty. They don’t beat, punish or seek revenge. They just tend to make them feel that they no longer belong.
This, I believe, also has implications for how the kill (property) is divided. If it’s not my kill, but our kill, then it follows that we should share it equally. And perhaps we should bring it ‘home’ to the place where we all belong to share it. Individuals, who understood joint intentionality and were good at sharing, would, presumably, have been more successful at hunting than others who did not have the same inclinations. This would surely have been an improvement on a hunting method where a group went hunting but only one got a kill, leading that individual to feel entitled to all of it or, at least, as much as they could take. However, when the newer method arrived, hunting 2.0, and most of the hunt was hunting with joint intentionality, there might still have been individuals doing their own thing, who just filled the gap really well, or, because they were the ones who actually brought the animal down, felt a more primal urge towards ownership in the old manner (signified no doubt by raising their arms aloft with clinched fists accompanied by a guttural roar). Hence you could have a previous evolutionary adaptation competing with the newer model. A compromise, as we evolved, might have been proportionality, the hero’s portion in Celtic mythology. This may be why there are still two competing ideologies when it comes to dividing resources among the tribe, one still feels the guttural roar build up inside them, whereas, the other, newer model, sees an equal distribution of the proceeds of labour as representing hunting 2.0. Indeed, even people who weren’t on the hunt, but shared the intention of the hunt, might feel that WE had a kill, whereas, the individual who killed the animal might think that the kill belongs to ME, the fruits of MY labour.
In any case, in order to achieve joint intentionality our primitive ancestors would have had to be part of a group to begin with. It would have been very difficult to arrive at a joint intention with a primate who just wanted to do its own thing, or who was in active competition with you? Although, some individuals who just wanted to do their own thing may have been dragged along half heartedly, by a mate possibly (men in a clothes shop?) or by belonging to a group (which might explain today’s libertarians). There is also, I believe, some evidence of a missing moral foundation in this area anyway. For instance, I find it difficult to reconcile Asch’s conformity experiments with any of the existing moral foundations, and the subjects of the experiment, to my eyes at least, are clearly acting under some form of moral pressure. So here’s what I think the new moral foundation would look like:
Evolutionary Challenge: Protect resources and offspring
Original Triggers: Family, Defence of Territory/Nest, Hunting
Current Triggers: Family, Home, Place, Community, Club, Team, Church, Nation, Race.
Characteristic Emotions: Attachment, Pride, Patriotism, Security, Loneliness and Ostracisation.
Relevant Values: Cohesion, Tolerance (within group), Safety, Prejudice.
Belonging then, if it exists, supplants some of the Loyalty foundation. However, one of the things that struck me recently, while watching a WWII documentary on the history channel with one of my kids, was that Hitler, one of the greatest exponent of all time at generating an almost religious sense of allegiance and patriotism, would take an individual aside when he required them to carry out any kind of difficult undertaking, look them directly in the eye while shaking their hand slightly longer than usual, and ask them not to let him down. This, to me, indicates that loyalty is very intimate and personal act. In fact, I cannot imagine giving my loyalty to anyone I do not know personally. Although, I might stretch that to a leader I felt I knew. And, interestingly, in ancient times, treason was seen as disloyalty to the King (who was synonymous with the state). Therefore, if that is correct it would, of course, necessitate changes to the Liberty/Betrayal moral foundation. So I had a go at it:
Evolutionary Challenge: Form cohesive coalitions
Original Triggers: Take down dominant male? Support a leader? Pair off with a mate? Carry a log?
Current Triggers: Marriage, Family, Old Friends, Work Mates, Good Employer?
Characteristic Emotions: Friendship, Trust, Respect, Rage and Revenge.
Relevant Values: Duty, Fidelity, Faithfulness and Self Sacrifice
However, it is the next part of The Independent Whig’s critique, style of thought, that I find the most compelling, because some time ago I came across this wonderful book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Ian McGilchrist.
McGilchrist’s book deals with the specialist hemispheric functioning of the brain. NO, it’s not the stereotypical pop psychology of the 1970’s, but it does readdress to fact that the human brain, indeed not just the human brain, is distinctly and unarguably divided; and that division must surely have conveyed some evolutionary advantage and, therefore, effects that would be ongoing. McGilchrist’s thesis is that the differing worldviews of the right and left brain (the “Master” and “Emissary” in the title, respectively) have shaped Western culture, and that the growing conflict between these views has ongoing implications for our world and its societies. The book, which is the product of twenty years of research, reviews the evidence of previous research and theories, and, based on this and cultural evidence (a bit tenuous in fairness), he arrives at his own conclusions. Conclusions I find compelling (even if there’s no smoking gun).
Essentially, McGilchrist concludes that the old stereotype of mathematical left and arty right were indeed wrong, and that it’s not WHAT is being processed that makes the difference, but HOW that processing is done. Not the means by which either; but the manner by which it is carried out. This leads to two different modes of experiencing the world. He contends that the left hemisphere builds up a picture slowly but surely, piece by piece, brick by brick. One thing is established as (apparently) certain and that forms a platform for the next piece of (apparent) certainty. And so on. The right hemisphere, though, tries to take in all the various aspects of what approaches all at once, like a picture coming into focus. And, if I recall correctly, in one of your books you mention the framed-line task, where subjects are shown a square with a line drawn inside it, but when they turn the page they see an empty square that is larger or smaller than the original square and their task is to draw a line that is the same as the line they saw on the previous page. Westerners (WIERD) excel at the absolute task (in centimetres) because their original picture had pieces, so they ignore the new frame, whereas, non WEIRD people excel in relative terms (same proportion relative to the frame), because they automatically perceived and remembered the relationship among the parts. They saw the whole at once.
Knowledge though, he believes, comes forth in a reverberative process that results in a betweenness. This is because he believes the brain to be a system of opponent processors whose contrary influence (when working properly) makes possible finely calibrated responses to complex situations. Incompatibility in fact permits, “in a dialectic synthesis, something new to arise. “ Which is interesting, in and of itself, in terms of the liberal/conservative incompatibility in politics. It is McGilchrists contention that the relationship between the hemispheres is permissive only though. “The right hemisphere can either fail to permit (by saying no) or permit (by not saying no), aspects of Being to ‘presence’ to it. Subsequent to this the left hemisphere can only fail to permit (by saying no) or permit (by not saying no) aspects of what is presented in the right hemisphere to be ‘re-presented’; it does not know what the right hemisphere knows and therefore cannot be involved in its coming into being as such.”
What is more, he contends that the main purpose of a large number of the connections in the corpus callosum is actually to inhibit; in other words to stop the other hemisphere interfering. This sounds competitive but it is in fact necessary, he believes, for co-operation. For instance, it is not co-operation for the surgeon and assistant to both try and make an incision at the same time, co-operation requires balance. And negation can be seen as a creative process, as in science where we arrive at truth by eliminating what we know not to be true. Indeed the most highly evolved part of our brain, the frontal cortex, achieves what it does largely by negation, leading McGilchrist to conclude that any concept of ‘free will’ is, in fact, more of a ‘free wont.’ And, indeed, in politics the vast majority of people build their political identity more around what they are opposed to, than what they are in favour of.
However, from my perspective, it is McGilchrist characterisation of the way both hemispheres go about their business that is most interesting. “The right hemisphere in birds, as in humans is associated with detailed discrimination and with topography, while the left hemisphere of many vertebrate animals, again as in humans, is specialised in categorisation of stimuli and fine control of motor response. Pigeons can, remarkably enough, categorise pictures of everyday scenes depending on the content. Still more remarkable, however, is the fact that each hemisphere apparently adopts its own strategy, with the pigeons left hemisphere using a local strategy – grouping images according to particular features that must invariably be present – whereas its right hemisphere relies on a more global strategy, taking account of the thing as a whole and comparing it with an ideal or exemplar.” In general then, the left hemisphere yields narrow, focused attention, mainly for the purpose of getting, grasping and feeding. The right hemisphere yields a broad, vigilant attention, facilitating an awareness of the surrounding world (open to both threat and opportunity).
McGilchrist contends that the hemispheres effect our sense of individuality and how we see ourselves interacting with the world as well: “if I am correct that the right hemisphere’s orientation is towards the experience of the other, whatever it is, the world in as much as it exists apart from the mind, whereas the left hemisphere has its own coherent system derived from what the right hemisphere makes available to it (bootstrapping itself), then both individuality and originality, and the relationship between them, are going to be different depending on which system dominates. My view is that the sense of importance of individuality and originality come in essence from the standing back mediated by both frontal lobes, and that the consequences are picked up in different ways by either hemisphere. We see ourselves as separate: in the right hemisphere case, still in vital connection with the world: in the left hemisphere case, because of the nature of the closed, self contained system in which it operates, isolated, atomistic, powerful, competitive. Thus, once again, individuality and originality are not in themselves viewable as the prerogative of one hemisphere or the other: both exist for each hemisphere but in radically different ways, with radically different meanings.”
One aspect that is radically different is how the two hemispheres view equality. He sees the relationship between the left hemisphere and equality as a consequence of its categorical method, where everything within a category is, in a sense, absolutely equal. “Categories are arranged hierarchically though, and some categories are more useful, powerful, and, therefore, of more value.” However, I believe that our moral foundations and our disposition towards equality or proportionality (Hunting 1.9 or Hunting 2.0) would divide us further, so that we end up with two economic systems being treated differently by the left hemisphere worldview. The dog eat dog free market capitalist class system on the right and the socialist system on the left, where all pigs are equal, but some are more equal than others.
The right hemisphere though, sees a world of unique individuals within different, changing contexts where no two individuals are ever equal in any respect. It then presents (because, according to Mcgilchrist, the right hemisphere has primacy in the chronology of thought) this to the left hemisphere. “Thus, since there is no equality in the givenness of things as they actually appear to the right hemisphere, equality becomes, for the left, a drive and a need to pull down anything that stands out as not equalling equality.” Hard right conservatives, with a preference for hierarchical categories, see anything at all that would alter, or distort, peoples categories, and any interference with the system that categorises them, as anathema to their worldview and, as such, has to be eliminated. And Marxists see the whole system of capitalism as the edifice that must be torn down.
McGilchrist also points out that “neither is there any liberty in what is given by the right hemisphere, which delivers a world as a living web of interdependencies, that require responses, and entail responsibility; not the exhilarating nihilism of casting off all constraints. The Liberty of the left hemisphere is, as is bound to be the case, an abstract concept, not what experience teaches us through living. That is what Edmund Burke was getting at in his 1775 speech on conciliation with America, when he said that ‘abstract liberty, like other mere abstractions, is not to be found.’ The left hemisphere’s version of liberty is a mere concept, not the freedom that can only be experienced through belonging, within a complex of constraints.”
The left hemisphere, in order to express its version of liberty “has to positively do something (but the only thing it can do is say ‘no’), is obliged to proceed by negation: to set about eroding and dismantling the structures of naturally evolved traditional communities in which such experience of liberty could be achieved, seeing them as impediments of an unconstrained free society. Fraternity too lives in the relationships that are formed in the communities of kinship and society made possible by the evolution of the right frontal lobe (not ‘Society’, a conceptual construct of the left hemisphere). The left hemisphere version of this is a sort of association of labour and the bureaucratic provision of what is called ‘care,’ at the same time that the network of private and personal bonds and responsibilities in communities, in which fraternal feelings and the actual experience of care are made possible, is eroded.”
McGilchrist believes that this is because “the left hemisphere misunderstands the importance of implicitness. There is therefore a problem for it, that certain logically desirable goals simply cannot be directly pursued <left hemisphere grasps… with the right hand>, because direct pursuit changes their nature and they flee from approach; thus the direct pursuit of liberty, equality and fraternity – despite being fine ideals – is problematic.” The French Revolution explicitly pursued liberty, equality and fraternity rather than allowing them to emerge “as the necessary accompaniment of a certain tolerant disposition towards the world,” and the results of that revolution did nothing to recommend the ideals they espoused. In McGilchrist view though, “the American Revolution is a rather different matter; for one thing, it was notably lacking in ‘Jacobins.’ Its approach was not to do as much as possible to bring into being freedom by an effort of will (the French model), but (to do) as little as possible: a laisse-faire approach which approximates to Berlin’s concept of negative liberty – as few restraints as possible. And as such it enjoyed, unlike the French Revolution, the support of Burke. Whatever its rhetoric, its aim was the reduction of formal restrictions of society, while maximising community, largely in the interest of economic well being.”Basically, in my view, an amalgamation of centre left and centre right ideologies, the ideas of espoused by Thomas Paine in ‘Common Sense and ‘The Rights of Man’ ameliorated by the Protestant ethic of the time and people like John Adams . From the two opposing worldviews, in a process of dialectic synthesis between right and left something new arose.
On top of this, in a talk I came across on youtube, McGilchrist believes that there are three aspects to good judgement that both hemispheres may combine, or fail to combine, differently. These three aspects are intuition, knowledge and experience, and logic, all of which have down sides. Firstly, something can be known, or felt, intuitively. But this leads to phenomenon known as naïve realism, where somebody believes that they see the world as it really is and everyone else should conform to their point of view (moral crusader). Also, if I see the world as it really is and if I believe the facts are there for all to see, it follows that those who disagree with me must be biased or wilfully ignoring those facts. Secondly, what is right can be learned, from others by simply following an established convention or through personal experience by interacting with others. But this allows people to think that there is a transcendent moral order, or orthodoxy, to which we ought to conform the ways of society. These conventions can be political/economic (capitalism and communism), legal (human rights), religious (sharia law), or all three (Dictatorship perhaps). Thirdly, one can use logic and rationality as was proposed by those who developed the ideas that led to the Age of Enlightenment, following in the tradition of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates. But this results in a cold, calculating and ultimately futile attempt to weigh intangibles in order to establish which has the greater utility. It also undermines all the benefits of established authority, belief and wisdom.
It is my thesis, then, that these styles of thought combine with moral foundations in order to give us the political systems we see today. That Liberals, propelled mostly by the desire for equality along with the Care/Harm moral intuition, adopting the orthodoxy of either the collective and external adaptation if set high on a potential Belonging foundation, or the individual and internal integration if set low on Belonging (they could get there just using Sanctity/Degradation, purity of concept, and abstract thought; but humour me), building piece by piece with the logic that flows from those positions, would, I believe arrive at a philosophical position favouring either a total redesign of society from first principles on the far left, where the citizens are secondary to the state, or incremental change and reform towards a more individualistic, rights and entitlements based, tax and spend society in the centre left, where the state exists to looks after its citizens needs. The far left seem to make their judgements about the society they envisage based on particular features that must invariably be present in order for all citizens to be absolutely equal. Features like ‘big’ government, everyone having the same income, education, leisure time or property, which, logically, requires total control of capital and the means of production. Whereas the centre left takes account of the whole, realising that apples and oranges have different features, and comparing the society they envisage to an ideal or exemplar (the Nordic model is often espoused in Europe for instance).
And, Conservatives, propelled mostly by the desire for proportionality along with all the moral foundations, adopting the orthodoxy of the collective if set high on a Belonging foundation, or the individual if set low, and building piece by piece with the logic that flows from those positions, would, I also believe, arrive at either a slightly individualistic (because Moral Foundations probably counteract any individualism drive… although a contradictory position is also possible), intractable, belligerent, heavily protected and privileged, class system on the far right, or a more collective, responsibility and freedom based, orderly society in the centre right, where the state’s role is to protect the citizen’s freedoms and organise society without getting involved in providing services. The far right seem to make their judgements about the society they envisage based on particular features that must invariably be present in an orderly hierarchical society where everybody knows their place. Features like homogeneous membership, ‘small’ government, powerful military and police force, with wealth and privilege flowing to the most ‘productive’ members of society. There is, however, no need to control capital and the means of production, because they own most of it. The centre right, though, takes account of the whole, realising that a society will not be orderly and stable where there is outright inequality, and comparing the society they envisage to an ideal or exemplar, which tends to be a distant past they would like to return to where everything was better.
There are, of course, flaws in the thinking of both the centre right, and the centre left, unintended consequences, like the potential lack of competitiveness of the centre left society, and the potential for big business to ride roughshod over ordinary workers in a centre right society. But the two are, at least, compatible. Liberals with a right hemisphere bias who feel that society should be as compassionate and equal as possible might not be fully cognisant of the pressure posed by a highly competitive global economic system, people’s intrinsic dislike of curtailments placed on their freedom, or the need to discourage free riders, but this would be compensated for where they are forced to compromise with Conservatives that also have a right brain bias but might not fully appreciate that people who are in dire poverty have nothing to lose and are, therefore, prone to disorderliness and instability. This might lead to less bureaucracy and restrictions on small business as well as the prioritisation of resources and the use of government regulation to prevent unrestrained, dispassionate free markets from abusing their power.
Liberals and Conservatives with a left hemisphere bias though, would be incompatible even with their most moderate opponents (and some of their own moderates). Left hemisphere dominated liberals would start with the assumption that an abstract society where everyone is absolutely equal would lead to everyone being perfectly happy (Utopia), which would, in turn, result in better productivity and cohesion. They could then, in their logic, out-compete other, more internally competitive, divisive societies. They would build brick by brick on that assumption; using government to forcibly change any inequality, categorising people according to their needs. And the absolute control required to achieve their goal would justify colossal restrictions on individual freedoms. It would also require that individual’s rights and entitlements, like the right to own property for instance, be subsumed for the common good. Left hemisphere dominated conservatives, however, would probably start with the assumption that dog eat dog competition will weed out weaklings and produce a stronger abstract society (like they imagine we had in the past) that, in an evolutionary context, will be more likely to outcompete other weaker, equality based, societies who have to carry free riders. They would build brick by brick on that assumption; using government to maintain order, categorising people by their perceived utility, and national security would justify colossal restrictions on individual freedoms. Measurable aspects of both of those societies success, factors that would invariably be present in a successful society (economic growth, ability to wield power etc.), would be all important and the military would be used to further the country’s economic and philosophical interests.
It follows then, I believe, that we would all be better off if the individual orientated centre left and the group orientated centre right, both with a right hemisphere bias, could be brought together. But that is unlikely to happen because the modern world has been altered to favour a left hemisphere viewpoint. Education has become all about learning dogmas and passing exams, workers have become replaceable parts in a machine that can produce reliably and repeatedly, and human connectivity is becoming lost to the virtualised, re-presented world of Facebook and Twitter. In politics, the media no longer does political analysis, will not tolerate ambiguity, and compromise is slated as cowardice or corruption. Political debate is no longer the exchange of ideas in an effort to arrive at a solution; it more resembles two dogs barking at each other, both claiming to be absolutely right. And certainty, without hardly any grounds for its existence, is lauded as leadership.
McGilchrist also recognises that there seems to be an inexorable ratcheting in the direction of the left hemisphere. He contends that, though the right hemisphere is the primary mediator of experience and products of the left hemisphere “need to be returned to the right hemisphere in order to live,” the left hemisphere in fact holds the balance of power because it is closest to language, logic and self awareness; as well as the fact that “if knowledge is to be conveyed to somebody else it is, in fact, essential to be able to offer (apparent) certainties and to build it up for them piece by piece. Also the existence of a system of thought dependant on language automatically devalues whatever cannot be expressed in language; the process of analytical reasoning discounts whatever cannot be reached by analytical reasoning.” This is exacerbated in politics because the medium politicians use to get their message across is uniquely suited to what McGilchrist sees as left hemisphere attributes. Indeed, using disembodied talking heads on television to figure out solutions to human problems, utilising only a tool that might well have been developed to scream abuse at the monkeys in the other tree, has probably been one of the worst mistakes humanity has made so far in my opinion. Therefore, the style of thought that is beginning to dominate modern politics is incompatible with compromise because it is closed to the experience of the right hemisphere.
McGilchrist though, goes further, and, while he stresses that the nature of generalisations is that they are approximate, he never the less ascribes certain characteristics and traits to both hemispheres (largely gleaned from the split brain experiments and studies of brain injuries to one of the hemispheres) which begin to approximate personalities. McGilchrist writes that “from the experiments of Deglin and Kinsbourne that the left hemisphere would rather believe authority, ‘what it says on this piece of paper,’ than the evidence of its own senses. And remember how there is an unbridled willingness to deny a paralysed limb, even when it is confronted with indisputable evidence? Ramachandran puts the problem with his customary vividness… ‘There’s an unbridled willingness to accept absurd ideas’ but when the damage is to the left hemisphere … there is almost never denial. Why not?” He goes on to say that “it is the vehemence of the denial, not a mere indifference to paralysis, “that cries out for explanation.” The left hemisphere was essentially not keen on taking responsibility for the defect, however if it thought it was the victim <further experiment> of someone else’s wrong doing, well, that’s different. McGilchrist concludes that the left hemisphere produces “denial, a tendency to conformism, a willingness to disregard the evidence, a habit of ducking responsibility, a blindness to mere experience in the face of the overwhelming evidence of theory: these might sound ominously familiar to observers of contemporary Western life,” and to observers of both sides of the political spectrum, in my view.
McGilchrist forms a view, from the characteristics of the left hemisphere in his research, of what a world dominated by that hemisphere would look like. He contends that “we would expect, for a start, that there would be a loss of the broader picture, and a substitution of a more narrowly focused, restricted, but detailed view of the world… the bits of anything, the parts into which they could be disassembled, would come to seem more important, more likely to lead to knowledge and understanding, than the whole, which would come to be seen as no more than the sum of the parts. Ever more focused narrowing attention would lead to an increase in specialisation… In fact, we would expect a sort of dismissive attitude to anything outside its limited focus… Knowledge that came through experience, and the practical aquasition of and embodied skill, would become suspect, appearing either a threat or simply incomprehensible. It would be replaced by tokens or representations, formal systems to be evidenced by paper qualifications. The concepts of skill and judgement, once considered the summit of human achievement… would be discarded in favour of quantifiable and repeatable processes… in general one would expect a tendency increasingly to replace the concrete with the theoretical or abstract, which would come to seem more convincing. Skills themselves would be reduced to algorithmic procedures… There would be an increase in abstraction and reification. The world as a whole would become more virtualised, and our experience of it would be increasingly through meta-representations of one kind or another… The essential elements of bureaucracy.” I find this (post hoc admittedly) account of a left hemisphere world a brilliant description of the type of thinking found at both extremes of the political spectrum.
If, as McGilchrist’s book suggests, the left hemisphere brings to bear a narrow focus of attention that facilitates precision whereas the right hemisphere maintains a broader focus, an open, imaginative type of interaction with the world, then both hemispheres facilitate differing worldviews. But, according to McGilchrist, only one is actually capable of change, because only one takes account of context. And, as with any problem, different solutions apply in different contexts. “The right hemisphere is more capable of a frame shift; and not surprisingly the right frontal lobe is especially important in flexibility of thought, with damage to that area leading to perseveration, a pathological inability to respond flexibly to changing situations… It is similar with problem solving. Here the right hemisphere presents an array of possible solutions which remain live while alternatives are explored. The left hemisphere, by contrast, takes the single solution that seems best to fit what it already knows and latches on to it. V.S. Ramachandran’s studies of anosognosia reveal a tendency for the left hemisphere to deny discrepancies that do not fit its already generated schema of things. The right hemisphere, by contrast, is actively watching for discrepancies, more like a devil’s advocate.” People with a left hemisphere bias then (who do not return thoughts or concepts to their right hemisphere, or who’s right hemisphere does not do any processing with those thoughts or concepts), would appear to be stuck in a negative feedback loop, unable to move beyond what they already know about what they already know. This struck me, when I came across it, as symptomatic of the polarisation across the spectrum that is becoming prevalent in modern politics.
It also struck a chord with me because I think the same divergence of thinking he describes is recognisable within individual moral foundations. For instance, my dad used to pray morning and evening every day, very religious, very conservative, and obviously set high on the Sanctity/Degredation foundation. So was one of our next-door neighbour’s kids who was studying to become a priest at the time. But he was pretty liberal; gay (but not openly), vegetarian, environmentalist, and into physical fitness. However, they both got on like a house on fire because neither was in anyway fundamentalist in their views. My dad never pushed me to become religious, and I did not inherit his setting on the Sanctity foundation, so I didn’t. One of our local priests, though, came from the same cultural background (very homogenous at the time) as my dad and our neighbour. And, though he might have been set slightly higher than the others on the Authority foundation, he was, I believe, basically quite similar to the others. However he would make some of the present day Taliban look perfectly reasonable in their views. How could they all be operating off the same foundation? It occurred to me that it was not their moral foundation that produced this dichotomy, it was their thought processes. Now, there is an explanation for this in ‘The Righteous Mind’, the way the foundations are combined, leading to WHAT becomes sacralised. However, I find the application of McGilchrists theory on HOW we think about these things a better fit. Indeed, if I am right, it is this HOW that leads to the WHAT that is sacralised.
So it occurred to me, what if you apply McGilchrist’s thesis about left hemisphere dominance to people who are set particularly high on the Sanctity/Degradation moral foundation? What would the result look like? Well, first of all it would influence whether you saw a world of individuals who happen to be part of a society, because they all live in the same geographical area, or, you see society as an entity, in and of itself, made up of all the people who share a common heritage and background. WEIRD societies tend to believe the former. My dad, though, grew up in rural Ireland and he saw the world very much through the latter ideology. Eastern cultures, in general tend to see things that way too, and they tend to look at the West and western values as anathema to their worldview. Some are very religious but tolerant, like my dad. But some are very unlike him. Western society is considered deviant by Jihadists who seem to think that we should all be made to conform to what it says in the Koran about how people should live together. Some would impose Sharia law on everyone. They are certain of correctness of the Koran and wish to set up a caliphate so that they can enjoy the purity of their lives free from filth and corruption. They feel part of something greater than themselves, something that will outlive them; their faith.
I think that their fundamentalism stems from a particularly high setting on the Sanctity/Degradation moral foundation, accompanied by an abstract interpretation of the Koran that is uninfluenced by real world experiences, stemming from a left hemisphere bias. Hence, terrorists can live among a general population, buy groceries at the local store, interact with people in a relatively normal manner, then blow themselves up in the middle of the town square; because they are repulsed by our impurity and are corrupted by logical, abstract thought, based on a flawed premise. “We hate you because you are disbelievers who engage in all manner of devilish practices that are repugnant to Allah. Secular society orthodoxy does not separate religion and state and therefore allow things that Allah has prohibited. You must be stopped from spreading disbelief and debauchery, we must protect mankind. You attribute work of Allah to science. You must be punished for mocking our faith, vilifying the Shiria, killing Muslims, and invading our lands” (rough transcript of article in Islamic pamphlet read out by Sam Harris on one of his podcasts).
Despite the overriding principle of peace and tolerance being the driving force in most organised religions, the desire for purity accompanied by a left hemisphere thought processes, produces an abstract, dogmatic, inflexible, alogical system of thought, with a negative feedback loop (because it categorises by features that must be present… and they are seldom present), which leads to a paradoxical worldview where their religion drives them to commit atrocities. Their religion, in effect produces the opposite of what, in my opinion, was actually intended by those who wrote the scripture. This opposition, though a function of left hemisphere bias I believe, is not confined to right wing or left wing fundamentalists, because as McGilchrist points out “the opposition persists despite the right hemispheres unification of opposites, for the same reason that a tolerant society cannot necessarily secure the cooperation of the intolerant who would undermine it, and may ultimately find itself in the paradoxical situation of having to be intolerant of them.”
The trouble is, as Ghandi pointed out, this will inevitably lead to a world where everyone is blind. We have to find a way out of this hall of mirrors which, according to McGilchrist, is getting worse, “We are in my view witnessing a slide into the territory of the left hemisphere. These include a preference for what is clear and certain over what is ambiguous or undecided: the preference for what is fixed, static, and systematised, over what is multiple, fluid, moving and contingent: the emphasis on the word over the image, on literal meaning in language over metaphorical meaning, and the tendency for language to refer to other written texts or explicit meanings, rather than, through the cracks in language, if one can put it that way, to something Other beyond: The tendency towards abstraction, coupled with a down grading of the realm of the physical: a concern with re-presentation rather than presentation: in its more Puritanical elements, an attack on music: the deliberate attempt to do away with the past and the contextually modulated, implicit wisdom of a tradition, replacing it with a new rational, explicit, but fundamentally secular order: an attack on the sacred that was vehement in the extreme, and involve repeated violent acts of desecration.”
This slide is also gathering momentum. So it will not be easily stopped. It makes intuitive sense to anyone who sees themselves as an isolated, atomistic, powerful, competitive individuals endowed with a growing list of inalienable rights (and few responsibilities), to follow the dogmas of Dawkins and his fellow horsemen, building logically piece by piece on that to arrive at solutions, the efficacy of which will be judged by features that must, invariably, be present. All perfectly rational. But as McGilchrist, among others (including Haidt, if I recall correctly), intuit; “rationality can be an important part of reason, but only part. Reason is about holding sometimes incompatible elements in balance… Rationality imposes an either/or on life which is far from reasonable.”
There are grounds for hope though; moderate liberals and conservatives see themselves as connected to the world, part of a whole. Conservatives, for instance, realise that the interest of their group, order and stability, is best served by promoting peace and harmony in the world, and Liberals realise that there is more peace and harmony in the world, and a lot more equality, when people belong to strong, healthy communities. Communities tend to be stronger and healthier when everyone had certain basic human rights, and there tends to be more change and reform when the traditions and beliefs of the community are respected. So there is it would appear grounds for a common approach. As McGilchrist points out “we see ourselves as separate: in the right hemisphere case, still in vital connection with the world,” we just need to be able to see how those with a left hemisphere bias can be reconnected to that world as well.