• Finn Karsten

What Forms Of Progress Are Desirable?

In a recent discussion between the public intellectual Jordan B Peterson and the polymath Iain McGilchrist, Dr Peterson alluded to the influence the ideas of thinkers like Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, Bacon and pre-enlightenment rationalist Rene Descartes who popularized the idea of a mechanical natural world that could become subject to human control if rationally understood. More specifically, he made the, in part, convincing case that these thinkers' ideas, concretized in Science and Technology, have done much to improve the living standards and material conditions of both developed and developing nations. Statistics usually used to signify this achievement by the industrial rationalists(i.e Pinker, Ridley, Lomborg) are the dramatic drop in extreme poverty in countries like China, for example, 750 million people in China lived below the poverty line in 1990 dropping to an astonishing 7.2 million people in 2016. We also have anaesthetics, semiconductor chips, medical advancements thanks to the human genome project and electricity(to name a few). Further, technological advancements for the industrial rationalists will be key to tackling the climate crisis. All of this looks like progress(and surely it is?), but interestingly, both Peterson and McGilchrist felt that there was something crucial missing to this improvement to the lot of Human’s, as McGilchrist sais “remedying extreme poverty is of course extremely important, no feeling person could argue against that, but it's not enough...one cannot live by bread alone…in this story there is only bread!”(making a sly reference to a well known historical figure). The reason I wanted to mention Dr McGilchrist’s comments on the industrial rationalists is because it gets to the heart of what I believe to be the central challenge of the modern world. That is, nesting the achievements of the industrial rationalists into a picture of human life that has a very broad understanding of flourishing and makes all of the advancements worthwhile. All of which, promoting a breads eye-view of the world can’t do.

Before getting to the crux of what I want to say, I will first explain why McGilchrists work in Neurology and Philosophy will act as a model for understanding this gap between the rationalists understanding of enlightenment, compared with a rich and widely encompassing view of Human flourishing. Most notably, McGilchrist has developed a new hypothesis, backed by neuroscientific data, that suggests the left and right brain hemispheres in humans are profoundly divided, but most fundamentally attend to the world in very different ways. It is firstly important to mention that the title of McGilchrists second book, The Master and his Emissary(and currently most influential although his new book surely will be), derives from an archetypal story about the distribution of power. Briefly, the master sends out emissaries to look after the distant lands of the Empire when eventually one emissary abuses his power given to him by the master and his province becomes a tyranny and collapses as the emissary tries to control something he doesn’t understand. The right hemisphere produces a world of interconnected, changing and evolving processes which has a skepticism towards certainty. Equally, the right hemisphere is empathetic, being responsible for the mirroring of pain and having a close connection with the Limbic system. The right also sees things as gestalt rather than separated into parts which allows things to be seen as embedded within a context. On the other hand, the left hemisphere which is dependent on denotative language and abstraction has the capacity to generate concepts in an attempt to make things graspable both physically and cognitively. Where the right hemisphere’s attention is sustained, broad, open and flexible, the left-hemisphere’s attention is narrow, sharply focused and obsessed with detail. Very importantly as well, the left-hemisphere relies on a simplified model of reality in order for it to grasp things, for example, the 17th-18th century thinkers mentioned above have tended to understand the human being as a machine which is a useful metaphor when attempting to understand a very small aspect of human anatomy but doesn’t account for the complexity of the whole in myriad ways.

(e.g. Machines aren’t social beings, they don't have values, they can be turned on and off, they don’t have consciousness, feelings, personality, will or individuality, they don't appreciate music, dance, theatre, poetry or nature, they have no humour, they have no past or future. They don’t have spiritual awe, morality, creativity, they don't have bodies, they don't die! - see McGilchrist The Matter with Things). And that's only discussing Human beings. The natural world in which humans are embedded is no less complex.!

The point being as I will come to explain is that the left-hemispheres take on the world which is in part responsible for the enormous increase in material conditions and plays an important role in planning institutions and maintaining civilisation as a result of the LH’s ability to reduce things, decontextualise them and make them graspable, can only ever see a small part of the story of what is meaningful for Humans and how we should live. It’s role should be the emissary.

2. Social Change…You Have My Attention

“We can't solve new problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." - Albert Einstein

“The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” - Henry Thoreau

For me, part of the wisdom of McGilchrist’s work is that it accounts for the LH eye-view of the world that many previous critics of modernity have attempted to push aside, in fact he calls it his second favourite hemisphere! However, what we need is a shift in the balance of the hemisphere’s so that the right can take its rightful place as the Master. A typical approach of the modern age might be to hand out little books with a 10 step process for reaching hemispheric balance, presumably with the title “a very very short history of almost everything you need to know to rebalance your attention” or perhaps, “The McGilchrist method: 10 easy steps to get balance in your life”. Of course I am making a slight caricature but it wouldn’t be untypical for a clean-cut solution to be offered that doesn't consider the most important part in Dr McGilchrist’s thesis, that the Hemisphere’s attend to the world in different ways, and attempting to find a useful solution to “wicked problems” in the rich, interconnected, complex tapestry of human societies and planet earth, requires a cultivation of a certain form of attention that doesn’t attempt to simplify the world into manageable bits in order to make it immediately graspable.

Attention for McGilchrist is a moral act, and depending on the disposition of your attention, certain aspects of things come forth into being whilst moving other aspects out of the picture. What a thing is is directly related to who is attending to it and in what context, for example, a tree for a lumber trader is a virtual commodity, for a lumberjack it is a source of profit, for a child it might be the foundations of a treehouse, for a reductionist scientist it might be a complicated machine, for an ecologist it might be an organic system embedded in a web of interconnections, and for a lover of nature it may be a source of beauty and spiritual connection. Similarly with Human beings, we have attended to each other in history as commodities as in Slavery, but figures such as St Francis of Assisi show us the other extreme according to the philosopher Max Scheler who saw how St Francis attended caringly and gratefully to other Humans as well as aspects of nature such as fire, water and even fundamental dimensions of reality such as space and time(Nature of sympathy: p87).

Even more interesting in McGilchrist’s thesis is the fact that both hemispheres for McGilchrist have different modes of attending to the world. Characteristics of the left-brain, John Ehrenfeld in The Right Way to Flourish neatly points out is a world(in a Heideggerian sense) that is lifeless and mechanistic, decontextualised, disembodied in space and time and lacking meaning whereas the RH’s world is one of living, interconnected, organically evolving processes that are richly context dependent and laden with meaning. In addition to this, the different modes of attending bring different values forth into the world which again differs between the hemisphere’s dispositions, for example, McGilchrist makes important reference to Max Scheler’s hierarchy of values in which the the lowest values, the values of utility and pleasure are placed below the values of life such as courage, bravery, loyalty and humility, the values of the intellect such as beauty, justice and truth(along with their opposites!), and the final set of values, those of the Holy. In the case of the Left Hemisphere, it sees the values of life, intellect and the holy in service of utility and pleasure, whereas the Right Hemisphere sees the values of utility and pleasure in service of the higher values helping to provide the balance. You may disagree with Scheler’s values which is reasonable, as there are many values people hold cross-culturally that can be discovered through attention but it is quite clear that there is a polarity in the values of the RH and LH. As in the earlier reference to Petersons and McGilchrists conversation, for the LH everything is in service of “bread” which leaves out everything else that we can and should value!

3. Technologies Unintended Consequences

“A lack of systemic wisdom is always punished” - Gregory Bateson

It seems as though at this point in history the West is prioritising “revolutionary” technological innovation to dig ourselves out of the climate crisis, to improve our GDP and “feel more socially connected”(the zuckerverse). This vision of society is misleading as a method of change for two reasons, the first of which leads to the second. The first is that most technocrats still have a cartesian view of the universe in which the complexity of the world is reduced to a simpler but naive view of cause and effect that can be useful in addressing technical or engineering problems(like fixing a computer) but is not good for addressing complex socio-economic or ecological problems as it relies on taking fragments of reality out of their context, a bit like studying the importance of an eye for human beings without understanding how the eye is interconnected to every other process of self-organisation.

The second problem following from the first is that because many of our institutions are based on the cartesian model they produce many unintended consequences because it is continually misunderstanding reality, and reality is the harshest judge. Just to name a few unintended consequences:

  • James Watt’s steam engine powered the industrial revolution but created our dependence on fossil fuels which is the primary source of global warming.

  • The discovery of atomic energy produced the unintended consequence of the atom bomb.

  • Google, the greatest source of knowledge collation the world has ever known started with the slogan “don't be evil” but has profited off users' private information by selling it to 3rd parties.

  • Various social media platforms had hopes of creating a more connected world but has unintendedly enhanced polarity in countries such as the US, as well as having an increased negative impact on the mental health of teenage girls in particular(189% increase for teenage girls in non-fatal self-harm in US). At least part can be attributed to social media.

  • Bitcoin has enormous environmental challenges.

  • Future problems might be: genetic engineering, Global climate technological solutions that don't focus on context, the metaverse, companies like Symanto that are developing AI that can read people's emotional states “for consumer and employee opinion”(what could possibly go wrong…).

My point is NOT that technology doesn’t play a role, there is a need for new innovations in energy or genetics for example, but:

  1. Technology should be embedded in epistemic methods that actually get relatively close to understanding the complexity of the world.

  2. We need technology that actually serves the purposes of human beings and the natural world. Technology can act as a useful emissary for what we really value as human beings but shouldn’t take the role of Master.

In this section we have seen that unintended consequences arise from most current technological innovation because it doesn’t do very well at understanding the world, partly due to the cartesian model that is typical of the left-hemisphere. So how might it be possible for institutions to foster a more right-hemispheric approach to the world that takes into account complexity and the connectedness of things.

Institutional Change: Scale

“paying attention is how we use our mental energy, and how we use our mental energy determines the kind of self we are cultivating, the kind of person we are learning to be” - Robert N Bellah

I hope I have made a convincing case up to this point that a necessary change in the way we think, is partially reliant on the way we attend to the world which in turn changes our thinking, as Whitehead said “how we think, we live”. But of course this attention isn’t isolated, as Aristotle might say, we become most fully human when we are situated within a Polis(city-state), we are socio-political animals. I also agree with Aristotle that we live in and through institutions, so let's explore the role institutions have to play in enacting a balance between the attentional modes.

Karl Popper in The Open Society and its Enemies makes the important point that scale really matters when we talk about making meaningful change to society. He criticises the utopian engineering of Plato, Hegel and Marx by saying that we should be skeptical of ideas that aim to get to an ideal end for society as a whole. Ideas of this sort tend to rely on one absolute and unchanging ideal and that there are rational methods for understanding this as a whole and acting upon that methodology: One example is the belief that if we just invent more technology we can solve the problems thrown up by the previous technological solutions. Another commonly held belief before the 2008 financial crisis was that we can rationally predict and control economies into a state of moderation. Popper’s main point in the book is that we also tend to predict historical outcomes which has a close relationship with totalitarianism. I don't think that makes sense in this context but I think he makes a more important point about scale. That is that society as a plethora of complex systems cannot be understood sufficiently for us to develop a blueprint for society that can be implemented without context or an understanding of complexity and non-linearity. Instead change should be piecemeal, and aimed at individual institutions such as a new type of educational reform, health insurance or academic institutions, because at this level we can deal with complexity at a level that is manageable and can be subject to improvement via trial and error when tested against reality. Not only does this level of scale allow institutional change to be full of context but it also allows for adaptability, flexibility and pragmatic solutions without having to coerce people as is so often seen with top-down approaches.

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