‘The Master and his Emissary’ by Iain McGilchrist

Extended review by Robert M Ellis

I have been more excited by ‘The Master and his Emissary’ than by anything else I have read for a very long time. It is an immensely original, synthetic, multi-disciplinary, bold, and insightful book. It is also a big, baggy monster, apparently the result of about twenty years of thought, with all sorts of engaging, but sometimes rather loosely related, ideas slung into it from psychology, art, literature, philosophy, history and sociology. It is for the most part engagingly written, but at the same time a substantial and challenging read. Most of it is extremely well-referenced, and its core arguments (though not all the subsidiary ones) are based on a good deal of evidence. Much more exciting than any of these qualities, for me, though, is the way it offers new approaches and new evidence that I can use in my own work on Middle Way Philosophy. Little though he realises it, it seems to me that McGilchrist is writing about the Middle Way, and he offers a new way of understanding it – in terms of the brain.Master & his Emissary

My response to the book is not uncritical, though. In fact I have many substantial criticisms to offer of it as well as praise. It is a measure of the book’s stature, however, that its overall value remains for me despite these substantial criticisms. It is as though a great, majestic mountain had an ugly quarry carved into its foot on one side: one would prefer the quarry not to be there, but it does not prevent the larger impression of the majesty of the mountain. Nor does it prevent me recommending everyone to go and see the mountain, and to climb it.

To try to do justice to the majesty of this book will require an extended treatment rather than just a short review. I will divide this review into three sections. Firstly a summary of what I take to be the main argument of the book, for the benefit of those who have not read it. If you have read it, you may prefer to skip this bit. Secondly I will explain some of the ways that I think this book is positively important, including its relationship to the Middle Way. Thirdly I will explain my criticisms of the book.

Summary of the argument 

McGilchrist begins with scientific evidence about the two hemispheres of the brain, their functions and relationship. Each hemisphere of the brain is linked with the opposite side of the body. A degree of specialisation between hemispheres is not unique to humans: for example, birds tend to use their right eye (linked to the left hemisphere – hereafter LH) to focus on their search for food, while the left eye (linked to the right hemisphere – RH) maintains a broader alertness for predators. This degree of specialisation has evolved as a benefit which gives us greater flexibility. The LH is more efficient in familiar situations, the RH in unfamiliar. While one hemisphere does a task better (even though it might often be possible for it to be done by the other) it will be consistently used for that task. The corpus callosum that joins the two hemispheres mainly does the job of inhibiting the other hemisphere from doing a task the specialised hemisphere will do better.

The LH is more self-referential and independent, having more synaptic links within itself. The RH on the other hand has more external links, and co-ordinates action between the two hemispheres. The RH can cope with LH tasks and approaches much better than the LH can cope with RH tasks. The LH tends to assume that objects will have enduring properties – it thinks in terms of types and categories. The RH, on the other hand, deals with each new experience afresh and treats every object or person as a unique individual. Meaning for the RH is contextual, whereas for the LH it is part of a closed system of representation.

LH is often thought to be the language hemisphere, but this is an over-simplification. It handles abstract and familiar language and connects language grammatically. The RH on the other hand deals with unique referents, unusual words, new words and metaphorical relationships. Everything in the LH is focused and explicit, whereas the RH specialises in diffuse, implicit and unconscious processing. The LH maintains memories of facts, the RH personal memories. The LH engages in explicit sequential argument, whilst the RH is better at reasoning with an unconscious element, especially problem solving and the spotting of anomalies.

The RH engages with others as persons and with other living things as autonomous alive things, whereas the LH is much more concerned with manipulation and will treat everything as a manipulable object. This is also related to the way that the LH divides things into parts whilst the RH sees things (or people) as wholes. The RH thus handles social relationships, is capable of empathy, and emotional arousal and perception. The LH can only offer superficial, ‘willed’ emotions and anger if its will is blocked. The general mood of the LH is superficial optimism, whilst the RH engages in any kind of pessimistic or ‘negative’ emotion, as well as the more profound positive ones.

Music is overwhelmingly processed by the RH, except by professional musicians. The RH can relate events in time and thus handles narrative, but the LH can only sequence things in a decontextualised logical way, and lacks a sense of temporal relationships between events or the continued existence of people over time. The RH also deals with motion, having control over the whole body when necessary, whilst the LH thinks of relationships between types of thing as static.

The LH is dogmatic, drawing mistaken conclusions from limited evidence and sticking stubbornly to them, whilst RH is always open to new evidence. LH is rule governed and inflexible, whilst the RH can tolerate ambiguity and can hold different possibilities together imaginatively without premature judgement. The LH’s certainty is related to its narrowness of focus – it has to limit the options in order to focus effectively and act at one point. The RH’s openness, on the other hand, enables it to respond to unexpected dangers and difficulties.

McGilchrist claims that moral values are entirely the preserve of the RH and are “irreducible aspects of the phenomenal world, like colour”. The LH is only concerned with fulfilling its will and calculating how to do so. This is a point I will return to later.

After explaining the basic functions of the hemispheres, McGilchrist devotes most of the rest of the book to exploring their relationship (and its many implications) in various contexts. So although he begins with scientific evidence, it soon becomes clear that he also thinks about the functions of the hemispheres in many other contexts, particularly in art, literature and philosophy. To a large extent his arguments about these could stand independently of the information about the brain, but nevertheless the identification of brain functions gives these other arguments a dimension they would otherwise lack. He first clarifies the relationship between the hemispheres in relation to language and philosophy, then in the second part of the book goes through the history of Western civilisation in terms of the relationship between the hemispheres.

He argues that language did not evolve initially for the purposes of communication, but rather communication using music developed before representational language, and representational language was then specialised in the LH because of its proximity to the brain centre responsible for grasping and manipulation. Language, he argues, was used by the wilful, purposeful LH as a tool to clarify the boundaries of objects to work out how to act in relation to them, thus explaining causal relationships (which could then be manipulated) and dominating others. The explicit focus of representational language was developed at the expense of awareness of the implicit, so the RH then developed metaphorical uses of language to overcome these limitations in LH language.

The RH is our interface with experience, and language becomes stale and meaningless when handled by the LH alone. The meaningfulness of language is thus based on physical experience and metaphor, as argued by George Lakoff. Although the LH thinks of language as linked to the world, that world is just the one it has constructed for itself out of language, not the fresh and surprising world of experience. The RH’s implicit reasoning also makes it clear that thought is not dependent on language, but can take place implicitly without it. We are thus only able to understand things explicitly in language because they have already been addressed implicitly by the RH without it.

Philosophy is seen overwhelmingly as an activity of the LH, in which it tries to make sense of the RH in its own terms. McGilchrist notes the predominance of dichotomies in Western thought: these are the dichotomies of the LH, which tends to think in terms of either/or, applying the law of excluded middle. However, in the terms of the RH these dichotomies simply do not appear and are not a problem. For example, Zeno’s paradoxes, such as the argument that an arrow shot from a bow will never reach its target because the space and time it passes through are infinitely divisible: in terms of the LH this paradox shows the puzzling failure of the perceived world to conform to the constructions of the LH, which do not include space and time. To the RH, however, the observable fact that arrows do reach their targets is enough, because it can perceive this in a framework of time and space that it grasps.

The philosophical LH is associated with the two extremes of solipsistic subjectivity and with ‘view from nowhere’ absolute objectivity. Both of these are alienated from experience, which involves partial, uncertain, and ambiguous awareness without the certainty that the LH craves. Similarly, analytic philosophy is puzzled by empathy and tries to explain it in other terms, but for the RH this is just an experience.

Despite writing that trying to use philosophy to understand the RH is “a bit like trying to fly using a submarine”, McGilchrist thinks that there are some Continental Philosophers who have tried just that. He discusses Heidegger, his contemporary Scheler, and Merleau-Ponty in this connection, and in other places he also discusses Hegel and Wittgenstein. I will not go into further detail as to what he says about these philosophers here, as it is not crucial to his argument. However, I do have some criticisms of his use of these philosophers, which I will return to.

McGilchrist argues that the relationship between the hemispheres is asymmetrical. Although they are both essential to human functioning, the RH is the sphere that engages with the world of experience beyond the mind and provides the source of all meaning. Whilst the LH often has an essential role in brain processing, the processing usually follows a pattern of right-left-right (stimulus – explicit processing – contextualisation. For this reason McGilchrist claims that the RH has “ontological supremacy”.

McGilchrist also points out that our judgements and our willed actions are shown by scientific observation to occur intuitively before we develop any conscious cognitive processes to explain them. Gestures also unconsciously precede associated speech. Our LH ‘reasons’ appear to be rationalisations for judgements that have already been made by the RH and put into action by the body. This again suggests to him the primacy of the RH. The RH is also claimed to have primacy because it is the co-ordinator and adjudicator between the hemispheres. It can produce a dialectical synthesis between the processing of LH and RH, where the LH only engages in competitive opposition.

However, despite the “ontological supremacy” of the RH, McGilchrist also acknowledges that the LH has the edge in terms of power. It is better able to suppress the RH than the RH can suppress it, so the LH dominates in cases of conflict. The LH is also likely to gain more control because it develops systems of representation of the world that determine consistency of action over a period, whereas the RH just responds to experience. LH dominance is constantly reinforced by the dominance of language in our conscious experience.

The LH can also become increasingly dominant because it can enter a spiral of positive feedback. Whatever it does creates a represented world and a set of rules for that world, and if that world is not disrupted by major new difficulties, it can continue to be reinforced indefinitely by its own preference for positive feedback. The RH, on the other hand, is more likely to respond to negative feedback, so that if it is becoming too dominant and we are less effective as a result, it will be brought back more into balance with the LH more readily than the LH will.

These arguments about the relationship between the hemispheres form the basis for McGilchrist’s historical survey in the second half of the book. This part of the book is especially rich in fascinating side-issues, from the reasons for Greek (and thus all Western languages) being written from left to right to the psychological effects of atonal music. However, I will try to stick to the main claims.

McGilchrist first tries to clarify the ways in which the brain can be said to influence the development of culture. He is not offering a complete causal explanation based on the brain, but one where the brain had an important relationship of mutual causality with changes in its cultural environment. He argues that changes in brain functioning can be passed on epigenetically, that is through the immediate inheritance of certain preferences for the expression of genes (rather than genetic selection of genes that are there in the first place, which takes much longer to produce changes). These epigenetic changes interact with learned behaviour gained through imitation of ancestors, so that the epigenetic selection makes the learned behaviour more likely and the learned behaviour expresses and encourages the brain development. By this means some synapses in the brain can be predisposed to be strengthened or eliminated in response to stimuli. This can help to explain big changes in brain functioning at different times in history, even though the structure of the brain itself has not significantly changed.

In the ancient world, particularly ancient Greece, he sees an initial bi-hemispheric advance in which both hemispheres function more effectively with the development of ancient civilisations. This bi-hemispheric advance mainly occurs in the frontal lobes in both hemispheres, creating more ‘standing back’ – inhibition of impulses of the lower brain to enable greater conscious reflection. This particularly happens in ancient Greece, where development remains reasonably balanced until about the 4th Century BCE[1]. Balanced RH development in Greece is shown particularly in its art, strength of community and early philosophy, Heraclitus particularly illustrating a RH-sympathetic philosophical stance. At the same time LH development was boosted by the developments of numbers, trade, money for explicit exchange, and phonetic writing from left to right.

From about the 4th century BCE however, alongside the continued flourishing of art, Plato’s philosophy appears, with its radical emphasis on the reality of the LH world of ideas and the unreality of the RH world of the senses. Plato was able to use the Greek invention of the definite article to idealise any quality into an abstract noun: “The Good”, “The Beautiful” etc. From this point LH influence grows, reaching a fuller expression in Roman civilisation. Rome became highly dependent on rigidly systematised LH ways of thinking, such as law, bureaucracy, and the totalitarian rule of the emperors. The conversion of the emperors to Christianity and the union of Church and State in the late Roman Empire encouraged this tendency by bringing the regulation of the state into every area of life.

Medieval thinking then became dominated by legalised abstractions. Although Aristotle was revered, this originally empiricist thinker was rigidified into a limited scholastic form. The limitations of culture in the Middle Ages can be connected to LH dominance: a dominance that can be seen in medieval art, where it is ideas rather than observations that are depicted by the proportions of figures.

The Renaissance consisted of a new bi-hemispheric general “standing back”, in which the RH flourished as much as the left. This can be seen in the development of perspective, the increasing emphasis on the individual, and in the rich multiplicity of Renaissance drama such as Shakespeare’s. However, the Renaissance was succeeded by the Reformation, in which the perceived inauthenticity of the RH dominance creates a LH backlash. The Reformation emphasises the value of the LH word, distrusting the ambiguity of images. The inner world of the individual was taken to be the only authentic one, and external symbols to be inauthentic. Further LH tendencies are seen in an absolutist division between truth and falsehood, rejection of the body and its sexuality, and rejection of the metaphorical understanding of the eucharist. The Reformation has also been associated with the development of bureaucracy and capitalism, both very LH-based.

Although science first started to develop from a RH concern with the outward natural[2] world during the Renaissance, by the 17th Century science began to be seen more as a way to dominate nature. The deeply LH-dominated philosopher and scientist Descartes tried to support science through a process of doubting the senses, and claimed that what we conceive clearly and distinctly must be true. Descartes’ reasoning shows complete detachment from his body, and he even had a problem with temporal continuity.

The Eighteenth Century Enlightenment then showed a further lurch to the LH through the cult of reason and the explicit. At the same time boredom was first discussed and darker negative emotions became taboo. Enlightenment writers thought of metaphor as mere ornament on basically denotative texts that could only express a limited number of standardised ideas in different ways. Jeremy Bentham tried to regularise conduct through utilitarianism and distrusted intuition, religion and even common law.

The Enlightenment concern with equality is a LH concern because equality cancels the effects of individuality and change, which the LH denies. At the end of the 18th Century two revolutions, the American and the French, promoted equality as well as liberty, both idealised abstractions of the LH. Whilst the American Revolution was a bit more realistic, the French Revolution produced only destructive effects because its ideals were so LH dependent. Changes in society can only be developed gradually and organically through the use of the RH, in continuity with tradition.

The Enlightenment dependence on LH led to the RH response of Romanticism. Romantics were inspired by the Renaissance and by Classical Greece, two more balanced eras of the past. Romanticism developed areas of RH experience neglected by the LH. Personal and emotive memory, particularly active in childhood, was explored by Wordsworth. Science motivated by engagement with the natural world and linked with the arts was developed by Goethe. Increased awareness of distance in time and space (foreign to the LH) and the linked concept of the sublime are used in Romantic art and literature. Romantic artists focused on the details of light and colour and were accepting of partial and incomplete forms (which the RH processes much better). Blake made the conflict with the LH (‘Ratio’) explicit in his writings.

The flowering of Romanticism was followed by a ‘Second Reformation’ of materialism led by Feuerbach (and, one would think, Marx, though McGilchrist barely mentions him). Here explanation in terms of matter replaced the “word” of the Reformation as the idealised basis of the LH reaction. Denying the divine was just as important to these materialists as affirming matter. This movement became the basis of modern scientism, which assumes the union and sovereignty of scientific method and that science is above morality and religious dogma.

The industrial revolution shows the LH externalising its own concepts and changing the environment radically to fit them. The natural world was fully dominated, and manufactured articles followed the LH relationship to types, as opposed to unique things in the external world. This created the basis for the artificial urban environment and eventually for the virtual world of TV and the internet. Mobility produced alienation and loneliness, and people and things were removed from the contexts in which the RH related to them. The wider population was forced to become more LH dependent.

According to McGilchrist, the modern world shows many of the features of schizophrenia, which is a RH-deficient condition. It offers passive, alienated disengagement and detached over-aware introspection, the loss of a grounding sense of self, a loss of meaning, bizarreness and absurdity, and a tendency to veer between fantasies of impotence and omnipotence. Modern art reflects this in perspectivism and a plurality of viewpoints, aesthetic self-referentiality, and attention focused on the medium rather the object. For example, the loss of perspective is shown in Picasso’s cubism, and the bizarreness and absurdity (LH sense of novelty) in Dadaism and Surrealism. An increased incidence of schizophrenia is paralleled by a rise in other RH-deficient conditions in the modern world, such as anorexia, multiple personality disorder and autism.

Modernity is also characterised by increased boredom and sensationalism, dependence on text, bureaucratisation and reductionism. In avant-garde music the rebellion against traditional RH structures even goes as far as the removal of harmony and melody and their substitution by abstract LH ideas. The RH responds to dissonance as though to a noxious stimulus.

At the same time some streams of modernity have been relatively successful in continuing the traditions of Romanticism in maintaining both hemispheres’ involvement. Words still retain their RH meaning even when writers abandon some conventions, so twentieth-century literature has been more successful than art or music. The development of film has also been a success.

In his conclusion, McGilchrist underlines his overall message that modern civilisation is drifting too far under LH domination, by explaining the features of a LH dominated society – which by a pretended coincidence are largely those of modern society. These include increasing specialisation, bureaucratisation, reduction of skills to abstractions, virtualisation, rigid dichotomous thinking, abstract frames of reference, an emphasis on measurability and analysability. In this LH-dominated society ‘higher’ values would be derogated, social cohesion disrupted, relationships depersonalised and trust (especially of professionals) in decline. Responsibility would fall to be replaced by regulation and surveillance. Death would be taboo and sex explicit, rage and lack of will power on the increase. The world would become disenchanted and denatured. Exemplars would be ironised out of their moral status. Boredom would be pervasive and implicit meaning not comprehended. Language would be profuse and abstract. McGilchrist indirectly suggests rather than directly claiming that we live in such a world.

McGilchrist claims that by the LH’s own standard, which he assumes is that of utility, it has not succeeded, because prosperity in the modern world has demonstrably not brought happiness. The LH thus needs to be kept in its place as a servant (or ‘emissary’ as in the title) not a master.

McGilchrist then discusses three possible exits from our over-dependence on the LH: body soul and art. The body, being messy and limited, is a constant rebuff to the omnipotent fantasies of the LH. We need to live in the world according to the body rather than treating it as another object. Spirituality has also been assaulted by the LH. If we give up worshipping God, claims McGilchrist, we will worship other things instead, but even if we don’t approach spirituality through formal religion we should do so through art. A spiritual ethos is needed to help us approach the spiritual Other using the RH. Art, the third exit, needs to recognise the value of beauty and allow the medium to point to the object rather than being subordinated to symbols or concepts.

McGilchrist also believes there are sources of hope. Historical developments are often seen as circular rather than linear, suggesting that LH dominance will eventually change. We may also get stronger through adversity, and learn how to value the RH. Western culture is also not the only culture, even though it is dominant in the world, and East Asian culture shows greater sensitivity to the RH.

Finally McGilchrist stresses that theory of this kind is uncertain, but a picture can emerge through an accretion of detail. Certainty is a LH illusion so cannot be expected here, and complex things in the world are likely to be resistant to too much precision and clarification.

The importance of this book 

The major importance of this book, in my view, comes from its synthetic approach. It relates ideas usually only considered by specialists in very different fields. As a former literary scholar who retrained as a psychiatrist, McGilchrist is uniquely placed to engage in such synthetic argument in a considerable degree of depth. We can only engage effectively with the most important underlying processes of human experience in a multi-disciplinary way. Though this may not satisfy all academic specialists, it is a rigorous and balanced depiction of the big picture that we need more than anything.

As McGilchrist fully acknowledges, certainty is impossible in our attempts to represent the world. Whilst this recognition does not exempt him from a responsibility to try to reflect the facts as far as we can understand them, as far as I can tell McGilchrist fulfils this responsibility in a very impressive way. He uses a wide variety of facts to support a synthetic theory of a kind that is far too rarely created, especially with such depth and insight, and in the process produces a book that is capable of changing our outlook in important ways that a more limited or specialised book could not. A more careful or limited book could not do this. In appreciation of this point we need to be tolerant of the inevitable weaknesses in such a book (though pointing them out), see them in full context, and take a gradualist view of the way in which the book’s strengths can contribute to a gradually more adequate account of its material.

Such an approach is appropriate also because it is consistent with McGilchrist’s message. A specialist who preaches to us about the drawbacks of over-specialisation, or a LH-dependent scholar telling us about the wonders of holistic and intuitive experience with irritable sideswipes at the slightly different views his opponents have of the matter – these may not be wrong, but their authority is potentially undermined by a misfit between the medium and the message. McGilchrist can offer us a sense of the power and importance of the RH from the inside, arising from his obviously deep engagement with art and literature. As the RH deals with particulars, not with generalities, this has to be conveyed through telling details. Take, for example, this story about Wordsworth “walking out at night to meet the mail coach from Keswick that would bring eagerly awaited news”:

Lying full stretch on the road so that he could put his ear to it and pick up the distant rumbling that would indicate the approach of the mail, his eye happened to chance on a bright star glittering between the brow of Seat Sandal and Helvellyn, and struck him suddenly ‘with a pathos and a sense of the infinite, that would not have arrested me under other circumstances’” (p.377)

Merely talking about pathos and a sense of the infinite in general would not do the trick here. We have to engage our RH’s in the narrative, imagine ourselves listening for the distant rumble, and then be arrested by the unexpected power of the star. It is stories like this one that make this a forgivably baggy book, not merely an argument (which by itself could be conveyed much more briefly and tightly) but also a treasury of resources that illuminate the two hemispheres in a variety of ways and contexts.

This is also a deeply moral book – a point that might be surprising given that it contains little explicit discussion of morality, and gives a lot more attention to scientific evidence on the one hand and aesthetic matters on the other. However, McGilchrist does not deny that his message involves a prescription: that the emissary should serve the master rather than usurping his proper dominance, that we should avoid the overweening dominance of the LH and seek a dialectical synthesis of the strengths of both hemispheres under the supervision of the RH. McGilchrist’s moral condemnation of many aspects of LH dominance in modern life is also obvious. Here McGilchrist is implicitly offering a moral prescription of a kind unfamiliar to the Western tradition. It is certainly not traditional religious ethics, or Kantian ethics or utilitarianism. He makes approving mention of moral exemplars which suggests an approval of virtue ethics, but the moral exemplars that he has in mind as virtuous ones are presumably ones which exemplify the dialectical union of left and RHs.

This is where I think McGilchrist’s work has an exciting inter-relationship with the Middle Way. It is not just an attempt to present the good in dialectical terms, but (unlike any previous attempts to do this) he gives us a new, much better-grounded, understanding of the opposed values that are synthesised in the dialectic. It is not reason and emotion, or sense and sensibility, or good and evil, or eternalism and nihilism, or any other of the clumsy approximations that have been used in the past in various contexts to label the two tendencies to be synthesised. Thanks to McGilchrist and the neurological research on which he draws, we can now talk instead about LH and RH with more precise understanding of the two modes and their relationship. This understanding is not only shaped by scientific investigation into the brain, but such investigation has nevertheless made a valuable contribution to clarifying our experience and its interpretation.

McGilchrist has also here made an important conceptual contribution in making clear the ways in which the contributions of the two hemispheres are asymmetrical. It is not just a question of synthesising RH and LH, as though these were two opposed and competing forces of a similar kind. Instead, we have to bear in mind that the RH is both the gatekeeper and the adjudicator for both hemispheres. It is only the RH that offers us the potential to dialectically unite opposing forces at all, for if it was left only to the LH, we would be stuck with competition between the hemispheres and eternal (and disastrous) dominance by the left.

The Middle Way, as I have been developing it philosophically (drawing initially on inspirations from the Buddha), consists in an avoidance both of metaphysical assumptions and their denial (exemplified only in some respects by the traditional Buddhist poles of eternalism and nihilism), so as to more effectively address conditions. The Middle Way requires us to develop provisional theorisations both of facts and values because of the delusive effects of attachment to rigid beliefs, which interfere with the objectivity[3] of our understanding of conditions. In this way the Middle Way offers us an account of the good.

In the terms of ‘The Master and His Emissary’, I think that the Middle Way needs to be understood not as the Middle Way between LH and RH, but as the Middle Way between different conceptions offered at different times by the LH, all of which are potentially deluded in the terms of the RH because of their reliance on a closed, self-referential, representational world. The RH’s objectivity – in the sense of engagement with external conditions – and openness to a wider context enable it to mediate these potentially conflicting and potentially deluded beliefs, making use of what is best in them in terms of a wider and more adequate framework. But only the LH can create new, progressively more adequate representations out of the remains of those unified by the RH.

There are several points in ‘The Master and His Emissary’ that support this interpretation. One is the point, mentioned repeatedly, of the LH’s inability to process relationships through time (e.g. pp 75-7). The LH’s wilfulness and power mode are also repeatedly mentioned (e.g. pp 171,219). These two points put together imply that the LH is the ego, in the sense of a rigid identification with desires held at a particular time. Dominated by these desires and unable to think contextually beyond them, the LH is unable to recognise that its desires change without the help of the RH to put them in perspective. If the LH becomes too dominating or separated from the RH then it will be unable to maintain continuity of intention over time or exercise self-control, as it will identify completely with a passing desire without giving it any wider context. It is this conflict between desires at different times that creates conflict within us over different priorities, whilst external conflict is of course between the LH of different people, or collectively of the people comprising different groups.

These conflicts in will also have a cognitive dimension. McGilchrist discusses the stubbornness with which the LH can hang onto its representations of the world, confabulating to cover up gaps in evidence and sticking rigidly to rules in defiance of experience (pp.81-2). Again, this rigidity can be related to the LH’s lack of any sense of continuity over time, or indeed of any sort of contextuality. The LH cannot appreciate that beliefs change with changing experiences, and therefore assumes that what it “knows” now must be right. McGilchrist makes it clear that representational language developed because of its practical utility (pp.113-5): the LH fixes things in language in order to manipulate them more easily, and thus its fixed beliefs are closely associated with its fixed desires (indeed the desires can only be understood in terms of the beliefs).

So, as a result of reading McGilchrist I am in a position to understand with another level of detail and evidence what the Middle Way means. It means the avoidance of fixed beliefs (and associated desires) held by the LH in order to enable the mediation of such beliefs by the RH. With such mediation we can continue to address conditions in every sense, but without it we are caught up in self-perpetuating, unhelpful delusions. The ability to relate it to brain structure makes doubly clear the universality of the Middle Way: that it is a function of the way we understand things and thus applicable in some way to every person, not the metaphysical construction of one religion (Buddhism) and not limited to its cultural, historical or explicit practical context.

In my work so far I have called these fixed beliefs of the LH ‘metaphysics’, and described metaphysics as being of two types that need to be avoided, positive and negative (loosely related to the original eternalism and nihilism found in Buddhist tradition). Positive metaphysics consists in claims beyond the examination of experience, and negative metaphysics in the denial of these claims, which are equally beyond examination. Metaphysical beliefs thus tend to come in dualistic pairs of affirmation and denial. McGilchrist does not offer an account of metaphysics as such, and does not seem to be aware of the full range of ways it can be manipulated by the LH (indeed he uses “ontology” in a Heideggerian way that I find unhelpful). However, McGilchrist does show a recognition of the way that dichotomies are a function of the LH (pp.136-7) and the ways that denial of a claim can involve just as much LH commitment as asserting it (p.384). He shows awareness particularly of the limitations of the metaphysical dichotomy of solipsistic subjectivity and alienated objectivity (p.141). He also identifies many specific dogmas as functions of narrowed LH domination, including Platonism (p.286), Early Protestantism (p.314 ff), Cartesianism (p.328), Utilitarianism (p.339), Scientism (p.385-6), and Logical Positivism (p.391).

McGilchrist’s account of meaning is also congruent with the one I have developed in Middle Way Philosophy, confirming my understanding of the importance of recognising that meaning as we experience it is not based on truth-correspondence, for it is this way of thinking about meaning that enables the LH approach to claim absolute certainty for its dogmas when they consist only of a construction within the self-referent LH. Instead, McGilchrist seems to support the Lakoffian account of meaning as dependent on bodily experience and related to language through metaphor (p.97). He can add a new dimension to this explanation by making it clear that all meaning has to involve a relationship to a live experience – and live experience only happens in the RH. Throughout the book, McGilchrist also shows a strong concern with affective meaningfulness and the effects of its loss at times of LH dominance, for example in his attacks on modern art that reduces metaphorical richness to a mere concept (p.401) and in his attacks on bureaucracy and its thin meaningless language (e.g. p.434). The task of integration using the Middle Way, then, involves not merely the integration of the desires and beliefs of the LH using the right, but also the integration of meaning that has become fragmented due to LH dominance through the use of RH metaphor and contextuality. Again, it is not the types of meaning in the two hemispheres that need to be balanced so much as differing LH assumptions about meaningful language and reference in different contexts, which can only be unified by greater use of the RH. Just bringing the languages of different specialisations into full contact with each other, as McGilchrist does here, is a step forward in integrating fragmented meaning.

Not only, then, does McGilchrist offer much explicit and implicit support for the Middle Way which can help me in the development of Middle Way Philosophy, but I also believe that the Middle Way could be of great help to McGilchrist – or of any others that take up his line of thinking and develop it further. The philosophical aspect of McGilchrist’s project needs a lot more work (see next, critical section). McGilchrist also does not seem at all familiar with Buddhism, although he writes about the differences between Western and East Asian hemisphere preferences, but he could find much relevant material in Buddhism. Greed, hatred and ignorance in basic Buddhist doctrine, for example, seem clearly products of the dominant LH. The path of Buddhism, insofar as it is understood the Middle Way, can be seen as the dialectical mediation of the RH. McGilchrist only mentions meditation once, and then in relation to the left frontal lobe as providing a capacity for detachment in meditative experience (p.92). This must referring to fairly advanced states of meditative absorption, but it seems clear to me from experience of practising meditation linked to McGilchrist’s account of the RH, that meditation is overwhelmingly a RH exercise, beginning with body-awareness and focusing on non-conceptual objects in order to relax the LH and produce a temporary integration of competing LH demands. Meditation could prove very helpful as a way forward for integrating the hemispheres, whether practised in more or less formal or traditional ways.

So, overall, in my view this book is not just important in its own right, for the synthetic insights it contains, but also for the moral (as well as epistemological and aesthetic) direction it offers. This moral direction has already been presaged by Middle Way Philosophy (which in turn owes a large debt to the insights of Buddhism), and much fruitful cross-fertilisation between all three is possible.

Criticisms 

However, as mentioned in my introduction, my criticisms of this book are also substantial. These criticisms are concerned overwhelmingly, not with specific evidence that McGilchrist uses, but with the philosophical assumptions used in developing the whole book. It seems to me that he needs a philosophical approach which is rigorously consistent with his account of the hemispheres if his approach is to succeed, and at the moment there are some major inconsistencies between his philosophy and his account of the hemispheres. Of course, I also think that Middle Way Philosophy could help to address these weaknesses.

The central problem is that of how one could develop a philosophy of any kind that supports the dialectical mediation of the RH, given that, as McGilchrist writes, the LH dependence of philosophy means that the task is a bit like trying to fly using a submarine. Any philosophy whatsoever will consist of explicit verbal representations related using sequential reasoning, all of these functions of the LH. However, as McGilchrist also notes, philosophy can also be used to reveal the limitations of the LH by showing the contradictions of a self-referential system attempting certainty (p.201). McGilchrist seems unaware of the ways that both classical (Pyrrhonian) scepticism and Buddhist philosophy have developed this approach of using sequential reasoning to illuminate its own limits and support practical goals.

My argument is that thorough-going sceptical agnosticism is the only way to avoid LH dominance being promoted, perhaps surreptitiously, through any type of philosophy. It is not enough for philosophy to claim that it is supporting RH functions, or even to claim to be dialectical, for these are just ways for the LH to appropriate the prestige of the RH by turning actual RH functions into more ideas. You have to continually reinforce awareness of the limitations of all representations in order to maintain the RH link to our representations that prevents undue LH dominance and maintains their provisionality. It is not enough for philosophy to challenge positions traditionally associated with LH functions: if philosophy is to become the servant rather than the master it must also pass the test of its claims being metaphysically agnostic, avoiding all kinds of representational certainty including both the affirmation and the denial of metaphysical claims.

The philosophers on whom McGilchrist places so much reliance – Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Hegel particularly – simply do not past this test[4]. In some ways they appear to be adopting a sceptical agnostic position, and in some ways, as McGilchrist notes, they appear to say positive things about the RH. However, they all also make dogmatic assumptions that reveal their philosophical moves to be just another power grab by the LH. I will not go into details of the reasons for this assertion here, but they are detailed in the sections on these philosophers in A Theory of Moral Objectivity. In brief, far from investigating the world or the self, Heidegger tries to reduce both to an abstract ontology. He is obsessed with “Being”, a category about which we can say nothing meaningful without conflation with “experience”.  Wittgenstein, whilst trying to “give philosophy rest”, uses his own “grammatical” intuitions as a source of authority, and makes major negative metaphysical assumptions about the conventionality of meaning, the separation between inner and outer experience and the fact-value distinction. Hegel, whilst developing a dialectical framework, made major dogmatic assumptions about the inevitable unfoldment of that dialectical framework in his theory of history. Like all philosophers, these three offer a mixture of insights with failures, but if their use is to serve the integration of the hemispheres it needs to be both balanced and critical: McGilchrist’s is neither, for he seems both to idealise them and to unquestioningly adopt their often misleading self-presentation of their ideas.

Whether McGilchrist has relied on these philosophers in forming his ideas, or whether he discovered a parallel between them and ideas he had already formed, the result is also a number of questionable philosophical assumptions, some of which appear to be inconsistent with McGilchrist’s own standards. Our approach is worth making philosophically consistent, not because the LH’s demand for consistency needs to be met for its own purposes, but because philosophical consistency is still valuable in a ‘servant’ philosophy. Granted that the value of any set of representations is only understood when they are set against conditions in RH experience, nevertheless a consistent set of representations is more likely to be of help in engaging with conditions than an inconsistent set, and will also be easier to integrate with other representations. Philosophical consistency is not sufficient, but it is necessary, for the justification of beliefs that help to integrate both hemispheres. This is not because we can be certain that the universe is consistent, but because we understand it and engage with it better when our representation of it is so.

The first and most important of these inconsistent assumptions consists in McGilchrist’s account of ethics. He writes:

Moral values are not something that we work out rationally on the principle of utility, or on any other principle, for that matter, but are irreducible aspects of the phenomenal world, like colour. I agree with Max Scheler, and for that matter Wittgenstein, that moral value is a form of experience irreducible to any other kind, or accountable for on any other terms….Such values are linked to the capacity for empathy, not reasoning; and moral judgements are not deliberative, but unconscious and intuitive, deeply bound up with our sensitivity to others. (p.86)

Such a view of morality, understandably trying to do justice to the role of the RH in moral intuitions, succeeds only in turning moral judgements into a matter of mysterious revelatory authority so that the LH can claim certainty in them by appeal to the idea (rather than the actual experience) of the RH. Even if our moral judgements are made unconsciously, the LH still justifies them using reasoning in relation to a world represented in language, and if there is no relationship to other aspects of our experience involved in that reasoning, the LH can justify anything. You cannot just exclude the LH from moral judgement in which it is intimately involved, or the result will be either appropriation or alienation, and the fact that the LH cannot have perfect or certain justifications for moral judgement does not necessarily exclude it from contributing to moral judgement. It is as if a child was excluded from an important family decision: the fact that the child is not given the ultimate responsibility of the choice does not mean that the child’s views cannot be taken into account. If they are not the child may then either be resentful at exclusion or pretend to have been part of the decision and to have had power over it when she did not.

Wittgenstein’s reasoning on this point was extreme to the point of absurdity, as he said that if there was a book about ethics that was really about ethics, the world would explode. This involves an absolutisation of ethics that pushes it beyond our experience, but respect for ethics and its universality does not need to imply such absolutisation. Instead we need to think of all judgements as having an ethical dimension, and those judgements being justified to a greater extent the more integrated they are. The moral reasonings of the LH may be more or less objective depending on the extent to which they are accessible to the RH and linked with experiential realities. Metaphysical accounts of moral justification, which appeal only to conceptual assumptions that cannot be examined through experience at all, will obviously not be justified in this way. However, moral rules that have been initially supported through experience may have a greater or lesser relevance.

McGilchrist’s account of ethics here is also inconsistent with things he says elsewhere. His whole book can be taken as a moral recommendation, but being read primarily by the LH, how can we follow this moral recommendation to integrate the hemispheres without the involvement and support of the LH? For example, he describes attention as a “moral act” (p.133), and he complains about the lack of responsibility taken under LH dominance (p.432). Sometimes he gives explicit general recommendations, such as “Ultimately we need to unite the ways of seeing that are yielded by both hemispheres” (p.174). In his conclusion a clear moral urgency develops along with an intense moral disapproval of LH dominance of modern society. It would be disingenuous to suggest that the ethics McGilchrist in fact advocates does not involve the LH or reason, and are not at all accountable to any extent in other terms (such as those of integrating the hemispheres), however much empathy may also be a necessary aspect of ethics.

It is possible that McGilchrist’s contradictions here have emerged from an implicit acceptance of the fact-value distinction. This distinction is not mentioned in the book, but seems to me to form a central part of LH analytic rejection of the RH. First explicitly mentioned by Hume, this distinction is foundational to analytic philosophy and is also taken for granted by many scientists. However, it is based on the assumption that values cannot be validly inferred from facts, because values are supported in a completely different, “subjective” way that sets them apart from facts that can be “objectively” verified. The uncertainty of all theory that McGilchrist admits rapidly undermines this line of argument. If facts are not verifiable in a conclusive way, then they cannot be so crudely set apart from values. Rather, both are dependent on RH experience for their justification, and the representations of both facts and values by the LH need to be accepted as provisional through a continuing link with the RH.

Another aspect of McGilchrist’s incoherence on ethics is his unqualified hostility towards utility and utilitarianism. In his conclusion he attempts he assess the success of LH domination, by “its own purpose” which he takes to be utility (p.434), and then finds it wanting because greater wealth in Western society has not produced more happiness. This contradicts other places where he associates the LH with puritan religious ethics (p.319), with ideals of freedom and equality (p.345) or with general rule following (p.429). Obviously the LH is associated with rule-following and rigidity in general, then, not with a specific theory about ethics such as utilitarianism. Utilitarians do have explicit rules and procedures for determining moral judgement, but these may be quite flexible because they attempt to cover all possible cases. Like those supporting any other form of ethics, they may appeal to moral intuitions to try to support their belief that maximising happiness is the most justified approach to moral decision-making. In general, then, they do tend to make heavy use of the LH, but not exclusively, and not to a greater extent than many other forms of moral reasoning. The special opprobrium heaped on them seems unjustified, given that utilitarians, like deontologists or those appealing to “higher values” (p.431) may think in narrow rule-following ways and may be hubristic, but may also make us recognise more objective moral requirements we had previously been blind to, using sequential reasoning. For example, it is the utilitarian Peter Singer who has done more than almost any other thinker in the world today to bring our attention to our full moral responsibilities towards animals.

Absolutist ethics have to conceive of our moral motives as either pure or not really moral at all. However, morality as we experience it is a product of mixed motives in which both hemispheres are probably involved. Utility, like other moral motives, may form part of our motivation for acting in a more moral way than we would otherwise. Using it, for example, may make the difference between freeing slaves and leaving them chained, or torturing an animal and leaving it a dignified existence. We cannot wait for moral intuitions that may or may not be correct intuitions, and that may or may not be correctly understood, to act morally, but instead have to make do with the incremental indications that reason affords us. It is also a mistake to assume that if we actually make judgements intuitively then moral reasoning is irrelevant: the reasoning involves a LH that might otherwise disrupt that intuitive process and may also have longer-term effects on other judgements.

In addition to an incoherent account of ethics, a further philosophical weakness in the book is its unnecessary conservatism. McGilchrist has a strong point to offer about the importance of continuity in society because changes need to be adapted and made realistic using the RH, not merely imposed according to the idealistic plans of the LH. For example, he rightly points out that the failure of the French Revolution to produce lasting positive results was due to its over-dependence on the LH (p.345). However, the need for change to be gradual does not necessarily imply either that change is unjustified or that sticking with tradition offers a better alternative to a planned change.

A good deal of McGilchrist’s final two chapters, where he strongly criticises modernity, however, convey the impression of a presumption in favour of tradition which is not justified by mere political incrementalism. For example:

Pervasive rationalistic, technical and bureaucratic ways of thinking have emptied life of meaning by destroying what Berger calls the ‘sacred canopy’ of meanings reflecting collective beliefs about life, death and the world in which we live. The resultant anomie, or loss of all bearings, the demise of any shared structure of values, leads to a sort of existential angst.  (p.390)

The traditional collective beliefs he is talking about might have included (one might imagine) repressive disapproval of pre-marital sex, belief that sinners are destined for hell, superstitions, the justification of honour killing, fixed class boundaries, and rejection of all compassion for the ‘undeserving poor’. Nobody doubts the sometimes traumatic effects of change in modern society, but McGilchrist unnecessarily absolutises these into “a loss of all bearings, the demise of any shared structure…” and fails to balance the picture by comparing the disadvantages of modernity with its many advantages (other than by very general, vague assurances that he appreciates the positive LH contribution). He also makes no allowances for the extent of human resourcefulness and adaptability, which soften the effects of such changes. It is the RH that is largely responsible for such adaptability, as it appreciates a new situation using experience and engages empathetically with a new group on the basis of common humanity. One is left with the impression that McGilchrist merely dislikes change on the basis of prejudice (a very LH condition) rather than on the basis of the more complex experiences we all have of it.

Another more directly political aspect of McGilchrist’s conservatism is his apparently knee-jerk distrust of the state. It is only mentioned in connection with the modern development of bureaucracy and surveillance, never positively in relation to, say, the development of education (including education in the arts, for example, which would directly benefit the RH) or the development of state health services.

Such a government [i.e. under LH dominance] would seek total control – it is an essential feature of the LH’s take on the world that it can grasp and control it. Talk of liberty, which is an abstract ideal for the LH, would increase for Machiavellian reasons, but individual liberty would be curtailed. Panoptical control would be an end in itself, and constant CCTV monitoring, interception of private information and communication, the norm. Measures such as a DNA database would be introduced apparently in response to exceptional threats and exceptional circumstances, against which they would in reality be ineffective, the aim being to increase the power of the state and diminish the power of the individual. (p.431)

The mention of the very specific case of the DNA database, which came up as an issue in the UK during the last decade and was the subject of a legal challenge, really gives the game away here, revealing that McGilchrist is actually thinking of the modern world, rather than some abstract LH-dominated world that only incidentally happens to resemble the modern world in most respects, as he pretends throughout pp.428-434. This abstraction appears to be a loose cover for failing to take responsibility for his general claims about what the modern world is like, and thus having to provide evidence for them, or at least present them in a reasonably balanced way. These claims appear to be the expression of the LH state of paranoia (which McGilchrist has previously described as a state of schizophrenics) more than of a balanced appraisal of modern events and their motives. A more balanced appraisal might well suggest that although some politicians may be Machiavellian when they talk of liberty, most are quite sincere. CCTV surveillance generally has the goal of stopping crime (though there is some debate about whether it works) rather than being for its own sake. The DNA database in the UK has been of fairly well-evidenced effectiveness in convicting some criminals and also avoiding conviction of the innocent, probably part of a reasonably balanced attempt to use technology to improve justice, and only a threat to the individual in the event of corruption.

I could go on and say much more about McGilchrist’s unbalanced, over-stated, heated and rhetorical concluding comments on modernity, but the danger would be of descending too far into the mode of operation he has evidently fallen into at this point. In contrast with the bulk of the book, where there is a careful and balanced use of evidence, sanity and fascination, McGilchrist here slides into little more than a conservative rant. I do not blame McGilchrist here for being conservative, or demand that he cease to be himself and adopt any kind of false neutrality. Nor do I disagree with his main point that at least some aspects of modernity exhibit too much LH dominance. Rather I become distressed by the way that at this point he exhibits the very narrow LH traits that he is criticising.

McGilchrist’s unnecessary conservatism is also more generally evident in the way that he singles out some metaphysical positions for criticism as products of LH dominance, but ignores or implicitly supports others. In general, he more often attacks those that deny absolute moral values (what in A Theory of Moral Objectivity I referred to as ‘nihilist’ theories) than those that affirm them (what I have called ‘eternalist’ theories). On the nihilist side he attacks scientism, relativism, materialism, analytic philosophy, atheism and post-modernism, but on the eternalist side only Plato, early Protestantism and Descartes are subject to his censure. The metaphysical assumptions in other forms of Christianity and in other religions, as well as the influential metaphysical assumptions in Kant, Hegel, and the Existentialists escape his censure. He sees religion as mainly a RH matter (p.441) because of the importance of metaphor and shared values in religious contexts, but does not seem to recognise that these shared RH values may often merely serve narrow LH conceptions in the doctrines of the religious establishment. For example, can he really separate the value of Catholic worship so completely from the moral and financial support it encourages for destructive papal dogmas, such as the Pope’s discouragement of HIV sufferers from using condoms to prevent the transmission of their condition?

To integrate LH dominance it is important to be rigorously even-handed, and clear that all metaphysical claims, positive or negative, are instruments of LH dominance. One then needs to let go of them, not by asserting the opposite and thus supporting another LH reaction, but through agnosticism in connection with the RH. Supporting some metaphysical claims rather than others because they happen to be traditional merely skews the response from one kind of LH dominance to another, setting LH identifications in competition with one another. Of course one needs to also support contexts of RH development, but these occur even in ‘modernist’ contexts (as McGilchrist has to admit on pp.421-2) and can be developed without dependency on LH dogmas. I thus think McGilchrist makes a mistake in favouring more traditional dogmas over modern ones, and suggest that his account of the hemispheres requires a more even-handed approach.

To return to other philosophical weaknesses in The Master and His Emissary, I have one more left to criticise. This is McGilchrist’s “veto theory” as I shall call it. This first appears on p.197 in the following form, and is applied in a number of places thereafter.

The relationship between the hemispheres is permissive only. The RH can either fail to permit (by saying ‘no’) or permit (by not saying ‘no’) aspects of Being to ‘presence’ to it. Until they do so, it does not know what they are, and so cannot be involved in their being as such prior to their disclosure. Subsequent to this, the LH can only fail to permit (by saying ‘no’) or permit (by not saying ‘no’) aspects of what is ‘presented’ in the RH to be ‘re-presented’: it does not know what the RH knows and therefore cannot be involved in its coming into being as such.

With the moral intuitionism and the conservatism, I think I can see how they arose even though I disagree with them. However, the philosophical assumptions here simply left me puzzled. I was puzzled about what kind of justification there was for them (including whether the justification was supposed to be philosophical or scientific) as well as what the point of making this claim is supposed to be. Although it is mentioned and apparently used several times later in the book, it did not seem to make any substantial different to the argument. It is simply stated in this form, and McGilchrist (unusually) does not offer a reference for it, so I presume that it is a theory of his own construction.

What this seems to amount to philosophically is an attempt at some kind of compromise between freewill and determinism: we cannot merely choose whatever we wish, but nor are we powerlessly determined to act in a certain way. Instead it seems to be claimed that both RH and LH have a veto over the effects of conditioning which can lead either of them to stop it. If it is meant to be a philosophical compromise, it is a completely incoherent one: there can be no such thing as a compromise between freewill and determinism. Any libertarian will agree that our choices are restricted by circumstances, and if our choice happened to be restricted to two options, then we would still have a choice. So this theory will not curry any favour with determinists.

What is most puzzling is why one should choose (or assume, or fail to say ‘no’ to) this particular option. Why is having a binary choice any more likely or unlikely than any other kind of choice? McGilchrist does not explain. The effective reduction of the two hemispheres to binary code seems an uncharacteristically mechanical thing for McGilchrist to assert of the brain hemispheres (especially the RH), given his hatred for LH-dominated “mechanistic” accounts of human life. It is also philosophically a big thing to assert on no evidence – apparently a metaphysical dogma not subject to any possible evidence. Again this would be inconsistent with the sceptical agnosticism that I would suggest is the best response to LH metaphysical claims. So I am simply left puzzled by this aspect of McGilchrist’s argument.

 Conclusion 

These criticisms need to be put back into a wider context before I finish. They are substantial because the book is substantial, but seen in the context of the book as a whole they are relatively minor. I have given a considerable amount of detail on the criticisms, because this was probably required in order for them to be understood properly. However, I would not like this to convey the impression that I am more interested in the criticisms than in all the positive insights that this book offers. To dwell on them disproportionately would be a LH-dominated response, and I want to reproduce the insights of the book as far as possible by reviewing it in a reasonably balanced way.

Also, a disclaimer. Some of my criticisms may be about substantial issues. I certainly think that the point about ethics is one of those. However, others may just be a matter of interpretation, and I may have misconstrued McGilchrist’s intentions. In such a large and complex book, is easy to focus on what one paragraph appears to be saying at the expense of others, and to miss the wider intended message. I have tried to avoid this through careful study and reflection on the book, but I may not have succeeded. There are also some points (such as the “veto theory”) where I do not really understand what he is saying or why he is saying it. So I apologise in advance if I have unfairly misrepresented McGilchrist.

Finally, it seems that both the strengths and the weaknesses of the book suggest the same message: that the process of integration and our understanding of the best way to achieve it are an ongoing project which involves spiritual or moral practice as well as increasingly adequate theorisation. To develop and improve the theory we need provisionality, and genuine provisionality requires an integrated and practical approach involving self-awareness, the giving and acceptance of criticism, an avoidance of the temptations of excessive rhetoric, and in general an adequate cultivation of the RH by the individual to limit the excesses of the left.

 

Robert M. Ellis, Dec 2011



[1] McGilchrist uses BC rather than BCE, and also uses masculine universals (“The Master” of the title also representing female RH’s!): this style is no doubt a mark of his resistance to modernity, which I will discuss later.

[2] Within this summary I am following McGilchrist’s use of the words “natural” and “nature”, although I try to avoid using them myself otherwise, other than critically, because “nature” is a highly vague and manipulable LH-created abstraction. In my own writing I prefer to speak of “conditions” to mean roughly what McGilchrist means by “nature”.

[3] The term ‘objectivity’ is one that I use in a completely different way from McGilchrist. McGilchrist uses it only to refer to the absolute ‘view from nowhere’, whereas I treat it as an incremental quality of persons, a matter of degree. I am supported by a widespread use of the term in this way, even though many scientists and philosophers seem to have forgotten this usage and focus only on absolute objectivity. (“He is quite an objective person” makes sense in common parlance, and does not mean “He is God”).

[4] McGilchrist also discusses Scheler and Merleau-Ponty. Since these thinkers are less familiar to me, I will refrain from any judgements of them here, except to say that what McGilchrist says about them suggests similar points of response might be appropriate as with the other three philosophers.

28 thoughts on “‘The Master and his Emissary’ by Iain McGilchrist

  1. Hi Robert:

    You just posted on my (almost defunct!) blog, “Shaving Science”.

    I have a thought for you – all the troubles with Buddhism and philosophy and general – say, for example, nihilism vs eternalism – and all the urging to apply agnosticism – apply, I think, primarily to the left mode way of thinking.

    The right mode, on the other hand, deals with “God”, “spirit”, “buddha-nature” etc in a completely different way, and the agnostic approach doesn’t help at all there; it only confuses the issue.

    I have no idea if this makes any sense, and it’s very difficult to communicate unless you’ve taken off left mode lenses.

    But it’s worth a try (I’m not particularly attached to McGilchrist’s phrases or his way of seeing things, but since you wrote about it, I thought it might be useful to convey this idea using his terminology).

    Thanks for writing by the way. yes I do like your blog very much.

    1. Hi Don,
      Thanks for coming by here in return. I just followed your link after seeing you mention McGilchrist in a discussion on David Chapman’s site.

      I don’t think the left mode of thinking is anything to be embarrassed about, as it’s what we have. The right hemisphere might have its own methods of unconscious awareness, but we can’t simply switch to it. I’m interested in using the right hemisphere to integrate the fragmentary identifications of the left rather than trying to switch to a wholly right hemisphere mode of experience.

      Agnosticism is thus, as I take it, a practical way of engaging with the left hemisphere’s tendency to make absolute metaphysical identifications with objects. It’s a reminder of the self-contradictions in any such absolute identifications, and a prod towards a wider perspective. No, it wouldn’t make sense from a right hemisphere perspective, but then the right hemisphere perspective is not conceptual, and it seems highly debatable as to whether a purely right hemisphere perspective is practically even possible.

      1. actually, i agree with everything you say, and realize I stated my point badly. I wrote hastily and was in error saying the “other” mode of knowing was simply a pure RH mode.

        Let’s see if I can say it another way – but this will be difficult as we don’t know each other’s use of language. But I’ll give it a try.

        Let me use non brain phrases – “critical analysis” vs “intuition.”

        Unfortunately, the word “intuition” is in many ways an absolutely terrible word and tends to be used for all kinds of contradictory purposes. If I define it as “knowledge by identity” (Sri Aurobindo’s phrase), or perhaps consciring – literally, “knowing together” – a knowledge that comprehends at once both subject and object. But again, since we have no background with each other, i dont’ know how you’ll take these words. but I’ll go on.

        I think that agnosticism is a wonderful, maybe even the best, cure for the many flaws inherent in critical analytic thinking. But let me hasten to add, when used correctly, I have absolutely no problem with critical analytic thinking. If i was on a New Age site where “anything goes” and people were making all kinds of vague sentimental, emotion-laden claims, I’d probably only write about the value of critical analysis.

        But here we are at an agnostic site. I think that agnosticism is useful, extremely so, only up to a point. If I talk about God, or prana, or chakras, it is probably best for the vast majority of people to thoroughly engage in deep, clear, crystal clear analytic thinking, and subject themselves to a thorough-going agnosticism, to weed out not only all the intellectual errors in the way we approach such things, but to gain many side benefits of weeding out all kinds of subconscious emotional attachments and prejudices.

        BUT!! having done that (and probably needing to do it from time to time over a long, long period), the job of the agnostic mind is done. It requires – or at least so it seems to me – a completely different mode of knowing (which I’ll very tentatively call “intuition” again, repeating that it’s a terrible word) to even begin to actually comprehend what “God” , ‘Chakras” and “prana” are really about.

        I hope that’s a bit clearer!

        1. Hi Don,
          I agree with you about the limitations of words: but so we don’t misunderstand each other, let me say a bit about how I would understand the terms you’ve used – ‘intuition’ and ‘a different mode of knowing’.

          What I’d normally understand by intuition is a fast shortcut when making judgements. This kind of fast shortcut is very helpful in many situations where thinking things through slowly would be inappropriately clunky. For example, Daniel Kahneman writes about this in relation to a psychological study made of firefighters. Experienced firefighters had all kinds of useful intuitions, that they needed to access quickly, about the way that fire behaves in different circumstances. This experience led them to trust their intuitions, which was entirely appropriate in the particular circumstances of firefighting. However, intuition in a less circumscribed environment more subject to variables, such as stock-picking, yields results no better than random.

          It would make sense for the right hemisphere to be bringing together experiences articulated by the left in a wider awareness in this kind of intuition. However, it also seems clear that the usefulness of our intuition depends on the environment it is used in and how predictable that environment is. It not a magic key to truth, just a different method of accessing the fruits of experience.

          That’s why I wouldn’t identify intuition with ‘a different mode of knowing’. There may be ways of sensing or experiencing that are not accessed easily by the left hemisphere, but to call them ‘knowing’ suggests that there is an access to truth (given that knowledge is normally defined as justified true belief). Even if there are relatively mysterious and unconventional ways of experiencing, I think we need to be very cautious about jumping to the conclusion that they give us special access to ‘reality’. They are just different ways of experiencing, that’s all, and subject to the same limitations of all types of experience, such as being finite and imperfect.

          I don’t know about chakras and prana, but God, if he exists, is normally understood as an infinite and perfect being. No finite experience, however mysterious or intuitive, can ‘know’ an infinite being – but I have every respect for those who say they’ve experienced something they choose to call God, so long as they hold back from drawing metaphysical conclusions about that experience.

  2. about the veto theory – I assume that McGilchrist is referring to the famous Libet experiments which most people (but not Libet!) take as proving free will doesn’t exist. people supposedly had their brains monitored while making a decision whether to push a button, and the “Decision” showed up in their brain before they had conscious awareness of it. There have been many excellent critiques of this, but the essential point is correct, I think – but only in terms of the left hemisphere, which for most of us mediates much if not most of our conscious awareness. the LH can give consent or not (veto) to whatever arises. the way the RH does this is profoundly different. And if consciousness is not produced by the brain (whatever that “image” is we refer to as “brain”) then there is still another completely different way of understanding “will” (which is inseparable from thinking, doing and being – boy these words will be impossible to understand through a left brain lens – that’s why sometimes I just prefer to use the old mythic terms. Brahma brings the world into being, and each “object”; Vishnu sustains it and Shiva destroys it. People think that non mythological language is somehow more ‘precise’ or ‘accurate’. I don’t know how else to go any further on this – it would be better if we developed our telepathic abilities and could converse without using words:>)))

      1. by the way, I’ve made the same mistake in this posting about the “Veto” – I’m using RH as a stand-in – a poor one – for what I referred to in my other comment as “intuition”. Also a terrible word, but I don’t know what else to use (holistic knowing? or Franklin Merrill-Wolff’s “interoception – which he defines similarly to Sri Aurobindo as “knowledge through identity”).

        Krishna Prem made a nice point, that “consciousness” has no active transitive form – that you can say “I am conscious of the bird.” But you can’t say “I conscious the bird.” Read wrongly, that sounds like subjective idealism or worse, solipsism, but that’ only if you take the “I” as an inherently existing entity. Well, when I first read Prem (in 1975 – it was in the first appendix to his Gita commentary) it was the first time I understood what I had been reading in krishnamurti for the past 3 years, that there is no separation, ultimately, between subject and object.

        It’s funny when certain words open a door for you. You may assume others will have the same experience. I’ve read that phrase from Prem to many people but I only recall one or two who were as blown away by it as I was. But we all relate to words very differently – what you’ve read that’s blown your mind may have no effect on me.

        Words!

  3. ah, then we shouldn’t use the word “intuition.” I”m a psychologist and quite familiar with Kahneman and the way that most psychologists think of intuition.

    Yes, don’t draw metaphysical conclusions but that “drawing of metaphysical conclusions” was what i was referring to as an inappropriate mode of knowing for such things as prana (we’ll leave God out of it for now).

    As soon as I say prana is a “non physical” form of energy – we fall into deep pits of confusion because nobody these days seems to have a way of talking about, much less understanding, what “non physical” might mean. And “energy” is a terrible translation of the Sankrit “Shakti” – for which there is no English equivalent, not even a remote one.

    So again, we’ll just have to develop our telepathic abilities so we can communicate without using words:>))

    1. Given that we’re stuck with words, can you say more about what ‘non physical’ means to you? And since you say “these days” presumably you think people understood these things in the past? So what has changed?

  4. Robert forgive me for being tangential, but I may have another way of communicating about this. Have you heard of “shared dreams”?

    That’s a dream where two people are experiencing the same “dreamscape” at the same time. For example, say we agree to meet in a shared dreamscape. We decide to meet in Central Park, in New York City (doesn’t’ matter if you’ve been there; your subconscious mind has picked up enough about it that when we connect, you’ll be there).

    You are in your bed in England (you are in England?) and I’m in my bed in Asheville, North Carolina. At some point during the night (taking into account the 5 hour time difference, but that doesn’t really matter because dream time is different from waking time) we meet in Central Park. We identify a number of distinct features in the park, and have planned to compare notes when we “wake up”, because you remain skeptical of this possibility.

    But what has happened is that you’ve forgotten about our agreement, and you find yourself in Central Park, but you are absolutely convinced you are awake. Your dream mind has inserted a whole bunch of assumptions, like you got on a plane at a particular time, and traveled to John F. Kennedy airport and took a taxi to meet me at 72nd street and Central Park West.

    Now, for this thought experiment, you don’t have to believe such a thing is possible (though there is irrefutable scientific evidence – at least, it seems to to me – that such things do take place). So, accepting this hypothetical description, here’s a question:

    How do I convince you you’re dreaming? What specific aspect of the environment or your experience can I direct your attention to so I can convince you you are dreaming you’re in Central Park. Really follow through the conversation in your mind and imagine what I would say, and how you – being totally convinced you’ve gotten on a plane and taken a taxi to meet me in the park – would respond.

    Then tell me what I could do to convince you that the ground underneath your feet, the trees and flowers around you, the sky, even your body and brain, are all non-physical?

    I personally don’t think there’s anything I could say to convince you, but perhaps you might come up with a response.

    Be careful, if you’ve never had a realistic lucid dream, you may fall into a trap of saying “well it’s so dreamlike it would be obvious.’ No, people have had lucid dreams that last over an hour in which they’ve assiduously checked the tinest detail and were completely unable to find even the slightest detail that would tell them they were dreaming (yet – here’s a clue – they DID know they were dreaming – the question is, how?)

    1. Hi Don,
      I’m happy to accept that such a scenario is possible, and also that there would be no way of convincing someone that they were dreaming in it. They might be dreaming or they might not be dreaming. In that respect, a person in a dream is in the same situation as we (presumably) are in now, in ‘real life’. We also don’t know whether or not we are dreaming at this moment. We also don’t know whether or not anything around us is physical or non-physical: these are metaphysical issues (as I interpret the terms) of little interest. So I don’t think you’d be able to convince me that the things around me were non-physical – but because of my scepticism, not because of the situation. You would have the same problem convincing me that the desk I seem to be sitting next to right now was physical.

      It would be more useful to point out the contrasting qualities of the dream – if there were any – to normal waking experience. That way the differences would be incremental and experiential rather than based on metaphysical assumptions.

  5. hi, just checking in – great comment! I don’t have time now or probably for at least a few days, but I’m eager to find time at some point to respond. Hopefully will be back soon.

  6. To return to a general point on ‘The Master and his Emissary’. After Barry’s podcast interview with Jonathan Rowson, I have just been looking at the detailed interview Rowson did with Iain McGilchrist at http://www.thersa.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/1016083/RSA-Divided-Brain-Divided-World.PDF

    This is extremely interesting and well worth reading. It gives some stock objections to McGilchrist’s approach and his responses to them, and a range of comments from other people coming from very different angles.

  7. seems like an amazing degree of misunderstanding from many participants regarding an incredibly simple point – 2 significantly different kinds of attention. Psychologist Les Fehmi and a number of his co-researchers found exactly the same thing back in the 70s and Fehmi has been teaching this under the name ‘Open Focus” for 30 something years.

    By the way, if you want to play a game, try assuming we’re in a collective lucid dream and psi is a common ability. you may find that agnosticism is not what you thought it was. Start with neuroscience, work your way through evolutionary biology and then back to the big bang. You’ll be in for some major revelations regarding many prejudices which masquerade as agnosticism.

  8. Whilst impressed with the breadth of scholarship I did not get much out of reading the book. The main issue I had concerns the category error of ascribing agency to brain hemispheres, using such words as ‘take a step forward’ or ‘make an audacious assault’. Contrary to what Robert suggested in his review, the book does not give an ‘incomplete causal explanation’, it gives no causal explanation at all for the purported changes in dominance of LH and RH through history which presumably have social and/or psychological causes. The brain is a biological entity in which every change in state must have a prior cause (even if that is a complex cause). As Gilbert Ryle has suggested in his book on ‘Dilemmas’, the way to avoid category errors which lead into a conceptual mess is not to confuse different and mutually contradictory universes of discourse. Gilchrist does state that he is speaking metaphorically in talking about the two hemispheres but metaphor can be misleading if it is used to ascribe any kind of will to an entity governed by the physical laws of cause and effect.

    I found the links made between schizophrenia and hemisphere dominance unconvincing. Schizophrenia has come to mean many different things to different people, there are wide variations in symptomatology and diagnosis between different psychiatrists, there have been systematic changes in the definition over time and in different social milieu. In addition the label is very likely to be disjunctive which means that it would not be a single entity: if you can be labeled schizophrenic if you show any (say) three symptoms for a list of 6, it is possible that two people with the same label may have nothing in common in their mental characteristics.

    One final, obvious point that it is not possible to get from any account of what is to a statement of what ought to be. The discussion of ethics needs to be on its own terms. The brain could be made of green cheese or anything else and it would not affect issues of morality which lies within the domain of minds, not bodies. Admittedly there is a grey area in judging the morality of actions in cases where bodily states may affect our actions but that needs very careful thought to avoid category errors.

    1. Hi Frank,
      Thanks for your comment. There are various assumptions, particularly false dichotomies, in your remarks though that I would not accept. I would thoroughly disagree with the view you quote from Ryle, and on the contrary argue that a lot of our problems arise from making false distinctions between ‘universes of discourse’ that need to be in creative dialogue with each other but have been falsely separated. I see nothing any more contradictory about ascribing apparent agency to one hemisphere than to both together, since agency in general is very mysterious and, indeed, described in metaphors whatever approach you take to it. the conventional approach is no less metaphorical than McGilchrist’s.

      I disagree even more strongly with your claims about facts and values, which can only be distinguished in abstract analysis. Any purported fact in practice is loaded with values and any purported value with facts – the two are inseparable. See http://www.middlewaysociety.org/middle-way-philosophy/facts-and-values/ for more detail on this point.

      I wouldn’t claim to know enough about schizophrenia to respond to your point on that. However, I can recommend ‘The Paradoxes of Delusion’ by Louis Sass, which is a fascinating account of the schizophrenic view of the world and to my mind seemed to confirm the association McGilchrist makes with left hemisphere dominance.

    2. I should also add that what you say about ‘ascribing will to an entity governed by cause and effect’ assumes determinism, which is a massive and unjustifiable metaphysical assumption for some reason routinely made by many scientists and analytic philosophers. We do not know whether or not the brain is subject to sufficient causes, as we do not for any object – but to claim to have got the causal picture sealed up with respect to an organ with trillions of neural connections is particularly bizarre. I recommend hard agnosticism with regard to the metaphysical dogmas of both freewill and determinism. We can talk of agency on the basis of experience of apparent agency without assuming either the brain’s sufficient determination or its total freedom.

      To assume that the use of metaphor is a problem or that some theories are ‘only metaphors’ is also to assume a representationalist theory of meaning with an alternative literal or non-metaphorical perspective. The embodied meaning thesis offers a perspective that also challenges that assumption: see http://www.middlewaysociety.org/middle-way-philosophy/embodied-meaning/. Given that on this account of meaning all but our most basic schemas from early infantile experience are in some way metaphorical, this again is a false distinction.

      If you read McGilchrist looking for quibbles or excuses to dismiss his approach, you will surely find them, as ‘The Master and his Emissary’ is a synthetic work and thus unavoidably exploratory, messy, imperfect, and in need of further clarification. Exactly the same can be said about my own work on Middle Way Philosophy. However, if you go looking for creative insights and new ways of understanding things in McGilchrist you will also find plenty of those, and it is this that makes his work worth more than that of a thousand pettifogging Gilbert Ryles stuck together. More than anything, he is telling us, not about the brain as an object, but about the very way we judge things. To confirm it, one only needs to spend five minutes in meditation and observe the absolutising representations of the left hemisphere that wants to dominate and thinks it has all the answers, its boredom and inability to maintain attention over time. McGilchrist provides scientific reinforcement of what we can all experience for ourselves.

      1. Robert, by coincidence I’ve been re-reading McGilchrist recently, starting from the beginning.

        The last paragraph of your post had a curious effect on me, which I will report here, without trying to explain it.

        I interpreted your words as a rare but powerful flash of righteous indignation directed at Frank Ledwith’s critique. My first impression was that they conveyed ‘righteous anger’, which I then modified to irritation, then indignation. But to impute emotions of any kind to you is pointless and redundant. More significant is the integrative effect they seem to have had on my right hemisphere, or perhaps on both.

        I read the thread last night, and slept on it. I woke this morning to an unusual calm and expanded awareness, which is still with me as I write.
        It’s very unusual, and may subside, but I thought it worth reporting, and that you might be interested to have my report.

        I attended Brentwood Meditation Group on Wednesday evening after a long interval and we discussed a short passage from Stephen Batchelor’s ‘Buddhism without Beliefs’. I contributed something about the Middle Way philosophy to the discussion, referring briefly to McGilchrist’s study of cortical asymmetry, and more broadly to your own development of the middle way teachings of the Buddha to embrace McGilchrist’s revelations on brain function, cognitive science, linguistics and the arts.

        Although I didn’t say much, what I did say was, I think, very well received. They are a very friendly and welcoming bunch, and very consistent and resilient – they’ve met weekly for more than seven years.

        To conclude, I love this snappy ending to your comment about meditation, which is the most forthright and helpful encouragement to meditators I’ve ever come across:

        “….one only needs to spend five minutes in meditation and observe the absolutising representations of the left hemisphere that wants to dominate and thinks it has all the answers, its boredom and inability to maintain attention over time. McGilchrist provides scientific reinforcement of what we can all experience for ourselves.”

        Bravo to you both!

        1. Hi Peter,
          I’m not proud of my irritation, indignation or whatever it is, but thanks for dignifying it with the term ‘righteous’. Whatever one wants to term it, I experience it as a surge of energy directed against rejected ideas. My representation of the world has been challenged, and I focus energy on repairing that representation. I hope that representation is at least more worth repairing if it has been constructed in some integration with the right hemisphere in the first place, but of course if one defends it too narrowly it rapidly ceases to be worth defending. I hope Frank didn’t experience it as directed against him personally, as I can assure him that it is all about ideas and not about him. Even Gilbert Ryle is a set of ideas as far as I am concerned, and he is long dead enough not to take personal offence.

          I have been through past phases where I was more likely to direct anger against Christianity, and then against Buddhism, both of these needing adjustment to find a balance after a reaction. The target that is most likely to get my goat at present, I’m afraid, is analytic philosophy, of which Gilbert Ryle is a particularly odious representative. I think this is very much about a feeling that analytic philosophers have failed in a responsibility to society that their training has given them. These are people who are highly trained in detecting assumptions but nevertheless leave their own assumptions unquestioned, who are highly conversant with scepticism yet use it selectively. Gilbert Ryle strikes me as the worst because of his smug certainty about the correctness of his categories, enabling him to point out ‘category mistakes’ in others where the categories concerned have no better foundation than the conventional acceptance of the categories he’s talking about. Analytic philosophers employ distinctions with an air of assurance that can only come from generations of establishment backing from the best universities, and then continue as though those distinctions were the ultimate truth, on no other ground than that they’ve made them – and others, of course, have ‘missed’ them. But the intensity of my irritation is probably much to do with my closeness to analytic philosophy, just as one can be far more deeply irritated by members of one’s family than by a stranger. I feel about them rather as one does about a brother who’s given the family a bad name by not fulfilling his responsibilities.

          1. I’ve been having misgivings about the comment above, as I was trying to acknowledge and discuss my negative emotions, but seem to have come perilously close to justifying them. Perhaps it would help to also make more effort to integrate those emotions by offering a bigger context on analytic philosophy.

            There are also good things to say about it, and much that I have learnt from it. That is, clarity of thought and analysis, a recognition of assumptions and awareness of the meaning of terms used. It also needs to be said that there are many analytic philosophers working to stretch the terms of their tradition in different ways. Figures like Bernard Williams, Derek Parfit and Peter Singer are from the analytic tradition but also offer many insights and challenges.

            I also have a good friend who is working his way up the ladder of a career in analytic philosophy. We manage to hold our disagreements within a wider context of friendship, I think. So, critical remarks about ‘analytic philosophers’ are only directed against the doctrines they have in common as such, not at the remainder of the complex individuals involved.

  9. Hi Robert and Peter,
    Who of us can go through our day to day lives without the experience of anger cropping up from time to time? I search for the source of my feelings of anger, they are complicated and go back decades, what I am being angry about now or whenever may have little to do with the present but be more about a sense of past injustice, that I have not had my side of the story listened to or understood ‘righteous indignation’! I calm down by sitting quietly and manage, after some struggle, to put such feelings into some perspective, being angry does no good, for my own good I let it go for the time being!
    What a balanced augument Adam Carter put forward in this week’s podcast, thank you again Barry.

  10. I have realised that, in my comments on Gilchrist’s book, I mentioned the book ‘Dilemmas’ and category errors but did not explain fully what my objections were to Gilchrist. I think that some people who have not read the book might be interested to hear the basic argument.
    I should say at the beginning that I have no objection to the idea that we all would benefit from having a better balance in our modes of experiencing and thinking about the world if we have a better balance of left and right hemisphere modes of response. Jill Nolte Taylor puts it very eloquently in her talk on TED.Com and she knows what she is talking about: she is neuroscientist who had a haemorrhage in her left brain and took years to retrain her brain to obtain a balance between hemispheres.
    My issues are to with a complete logic. To explain, I have a thought experiment for the reader. Imagine we met and had a disagreement. I became very agitated and hit you hard, causing serious injury. You would expect that I would be charged with assault. How would you feel if I said, in my defence, that there were a series of events in my brain, each with a prior cause, which led to my striking you: it was not me that caused the action but my brain? Would you accept that defence? Surely not as you would still feel aggrieved and be aware that such a defence would abolish the basis of the rule of law and of human society: that people are responsible for the results of their actions.
    The proponents of what Raymond Tallis. in his book ‘Aping Mankind’. has called ‘neuromania’ (the attempt to give a complete account of human behaviour and experience from neuroscience) can be quoted to demonstrate the possible category error. Colin Blakemore, in his Reith Lectures said: ‘It makes no sense (in scientific terms) to try to distinguish sharply between acts which result from conscious attention from those which result from our reflexes or are caused by disease or damage to the brain’. He may be right in regard to science but it does make sense to try to make such distinctions as sharply as possible in a court of law or anywhere else where we discuss issues of human agency.
    Why does it matter that there may be such category errors? I think it matters since neuromania is based on faulty thingking and can lead to a neglect and even denial of our responsibility as humans. We have John Gray, in his book ‘Straw Dogs’ stating that ‘The upshot of neuroscientific research that we cannot be the authors of our acts’ (italics added). That is absolutely diminished view of the potentials and gifts we have as human beings to enrich our lives and the lives of others.

    1. Hi Frank, I’m glad we have been able to restart the discussion, and I think from your argument I am now getting a better understanding of where you’re coming from.

      I agree with you entirely about the need to avoid ‘neuromania’, if by that one means the attribution of our judgements to events in the brain in a fashion that undermines out responsibility for them. However, McGilchrist makes it very clear that he is not advocating any such neuromania. HIs focus, as I see it, is not that ‘I’ am ‘forced’ to do things by ‘my’ brain, but rather that what I conventionally call ‘my’ judgements vary at different points may be more narrowly left-hemisphere dominated or more widely influenced by right hemisphere awareness. That doesn’t in the least imply that I’m not responsible for those judgements, and in your example, I certainly wouldn’t accept a legal avoidance of responsibility based on an appeal to the brain.

      There is only a determinist implication to this if one ignores all the complexity and difficulty in knowing what the causal processes are in the brain. and claims to know enough to rule out the possibility of freewill. I don’t think McGilchrist does this at all. The only point where he might be accused of trying to prematurely solve the freewill-determinism problem is in his ‘veto theory’, which I mention above as one element in the book that I was unconvinced by. I would argue that basic uncertainty requires us to avoid both freewill and determinism beliefs, both of which are metaphysical, and that it is an experience of choice and responsibility that should be the basis of our ethical thinking rather than beliefs about freewill.

      I agree with you that neuromania is based on faulty thinking, but not because it is a ‘category error’. Rather it’s mistaken because it assumes determinism, (which is a position that cannot be justified in terms of experience and involves metaphysical speculation) and along with that an absence of responsibility. There are a number of cognitive biases that involve such a failure to recognise responsibility in ourselves when we have in some way distanced ourselves from our own judgements – e.g. hindsight bias, where we think our own past actions were determined, and actor-observer bias, where we think of our own actions as determined when we have something to lose by admitting responsibility for them. I’d suggest that neuromania is another version of this. People might blame their brains when convenient, just as they might blame other conditions affecting judgement, but that doesn’t mean that they have any justification for doing so.

    1. Hi John,
      I had to rescue your comment from the spam filter, presumably because of the number of links. It isn’t quite spam, but I’m afraid I have to disagree with you that it is ‘covering the same ground as McGilchrist’. It starts off with metaphysical claims about finding absolute reality. I’m afraid that’s not what we’re about in the Middle Way Society: our starting point is the avoidance of such claims, and McGilchrist does not make them either.

  11. Robert,
    Thanks for your reply. Now we have both laid out our arguments, I can see that we agree on some major issues to do with ‘neuromania’ though could usefully explore some areas of difference.
    I think it would help if I clarified what I mean by ‘category errors’. I mean the inappropriate application of words to certain entities. Another way to put it would be ‘inappropriate transfer of epithets’. Some such transfers could mislead but generally do not. For example we all understand that a ‘disabled toilet’ is not a toilet which is disabled. However to say that a brain ‘thinks’, ‘decides’ or even ‘processes information’ are inappropriate. To use some examples from Gilchrist I think it inappropriate to use, in relation to the left hemisphere, I would give as examples such words such a ‘depressive’ or ‘takes revenge’. What I try to do is to ensure that I challenge any such inappropriate words. In the words reported of Jesus, I try to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to render to God the things that are God’s. Thus I try to follow the approach suggested by Ryle and try to be aware of dilemmas. In relation to that I would be interested to hear more of your objections to Ryle. Is that you feel that he poses false dichotomies? I know from my own experience of discussion with others that there are plenty of these about but I also think there some real dichotomies where terms applicable within one universe of discourse simply are inappropriate and wrong within other such universes.
    I agree entirely with you that we should be aware of our own limits of knowledge and thus be open minded and agnostic. However in regard to the mind-body issues I do not think that any increase in our knowledge of complex brain processes will get us out of the lack of commensurability of the two domains of discourse. I think that it is not just an empirical problem but also a conceptual one. I think I have detected a similar problem within quantum mechanics! I don’t know if you have heard of this competition to summarise quantum physics in as few words as possible. The one I found useful was ‘don’t look: wave, look: particle’. Thus to think of particles in the don’t look condition as if they were in the look condition will lead you into incommensurability, in a phrase ‘the uncertainty principle.’
    In regard to the ‘neuromaniacs’ I do not think they seek to avoid human responsibility, it is that they are trying to make a partial explanation of human behaviour and experience into a complete one.
    There are a number of questions to you implied in what I have written but I would add one more. I would like you to tell me more about your assertion that ‘freewill and determinism are both metaphysical ….and the experience of choice should be basis of our ethical thinking’. As our experience can be shaped by all kinds of non conscious biases do we not need to do some ‘slow thinking’, based on examining consistency of logic and implications of our thinking? I think this may be important in that I need to be clearer of the core beliefs of the Middle Way Society. My understanding of the middle way was from the way I have heard the term used in Buddhism: it is the middle way between asserting that there is only a material world or that there is only a mental world. It seems that the Middle Way Society may be based on something more than that.

  12. Hi Frank,
    To start at the end of your post, the Middle Way is not just another metaphysical position (as it often seems to be reduced to in some Buddhist interpretations), but a practice of recognising uncertainty between any pair of positive and negative metaphysical assertions. Buddhists have often assumed it only applied to certain metaphysical dualisms discussed in the Buddha’s time, but there is no reason to do this if one is using it as a general and practically-orientated universal principle. For more info on that see the ‘Middle Way’ page on this site and then ‘Migglism’ and other books.

    I don’t see from what you have said why it is ‘inappropriate’ to talk about a brain thinking or deciding, if it not an evasion of responsibility. This is just another way of talking about us deciding which takes into account the fact that we have brains.

    For there to be real dichotomies depends on a representationalist understanding of meaning in which the meaning of terms depends only on a correlation to some sort of assumed reality, rather than associations in embodied experience. See the embodied meaning page and the audio talks on embodied meaning on this site if you’re not familiar with the embodied meaning thesis. I see the assumption of representationalism as the central problem with the metaphysical thinking on either side avoided by the Middle Way. My objections to Ryle start with that representationalism – he is part of the logical positivist school that not only uses it, but uses it in a particularly narrow way to dismiss mental language as ‘meaningless’. No language can be meaningless if we experience it as having meaning in our embodied experience.

    I do agree that we need slow thinking, but the implication of this is that we avoid metaphysical shortcuts that might have served us well in a tribal war where instant group loyalty was required, but no longer do so in more discriminating circumstances where careful judgement is required. These metaphysical shortcuts consist in absolutisations that we use when more careful incremental thinking is required. The book I am currently finishing off, and hope to have out in the next few months, includes discussion of how metaphysical thinking relates to cognitive biases, and includes freewill and determinism, both of which are related to several cognitive biases (such as actor-observer bias, ultimate attribution fallacy, illusion of control). More simply, the claims of freewill and determinism both lie beyond experience: we cannot experience either that all our choices are free regardless of conditions, nor that all events in the universe are sufficiently caused and theoretically predictable. They are each speculative extrapolations of limited evidence, and neither can be understood incrementally: they are absolutes whereby we either have total responsibility or none. This absolutisation by itself is enough to indicate that these claims are metaphysical and unjustifiable.

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