The Value and Limits of Reason

In this post I will share the notes I made when hearing Iain McGilchrist speak about the value and limits of reason on 4-day Field & Field course I recently attended in the Cotswolds, UK. For a background to the content of this post, see my previous two posts relating to this course and the page on this blog devoted to The Divided Brain and Iain McGilchrist’s work.

Iain McGilchrist described this talk as ‘a series of soundbites’ and I expect this is how these notes will come across. My note-taking can be lacking in both accuracy and coherence, and as such, I stress that these notes are mine. They are a record of what I heard, what I noted as significant for me (and by no means everything that Iain said), and necessarily reflect how I interpreted what I heard. I want to stress that any errors are very definitely mine. Please feel free to challenge or correct me in the comments.

A bit of background

Iain has written about reason before. There is a section in The Master and His Emissary devoted to a discussion of ‘Reason Versus Rationality’ (p.64), where Iain argues that there are different kinds of reasoning and that although linear, sequential argument is better executed by the left hemisphere, the right hemisphere is better at deduction and less explicit reasoning (p.65).

Rationality involves a causative linear way of thinking in a limited environment. Reason seeks a global, holistic understanding which only makes sense in the round.

This discussion about reason and rationality in Iain’s book invited a response from author Kenan Malik, who in 2013, wrote an article critical of Iain’s arguments – to which Iain wrote a robust response. This discussion/debate was not referred to on the Field & Field course, but it is probably worth reiterating before sharing my notes that at the beginning of The Master and His Emissary, Iain makes it clear that he is not demonising reason.

I hope, however, it will be obvious from what I say that I hold absolutely no brief for those who wish to abandon reason or traduce language. The exact opposite is the case. Both are seriously under threat in our age, though I believe from diametrically opposed factions. (The Master and His Emissary, p.6)

Equally this book has nothing to offer those who would undermine reason, which, along with imagination, is the most precious thing we owe to the working together of the two hemispheres. My quarrel is only with an excessive and misplaced rationalism which has never been subjected to the judgment of reason, and is in conflict with it. (The Master and His Emissary, p.7)

And a quote from Blaise Pascal

There are two equally dangerous extremes – to shut reason out, and not to let nothing in. 

The Value of Reason (NB these are my notes, based on my hearing, and my interpretation)

As Whitehead and Russell pointed out it is important to think logically. A widespread problem is that science fails to question its methods, so reason keeps us from complacency, but reason should also question its own methods.

Reason is a consistency tool, but it has to start from something. It starts from axioms (axiom comes from the Greek word axia, meaning values). Reason can’t make people see what you can see; it can only lead them closer.

As David Hume famously wrote in his A Treatise of Human Nature (p.415),  “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” So reason is a tool which we should control. It is our servant, but not our master. McGilchrist writes on p. 203 of The Master and His Emissary:

He [Hume] did not mean that unbridled passion should rule our judgments, but that the rational workings of the left hemisphere (though he could not have known that that was what they were) should be subject to the intuitive wisdom of the right hemisphere (though he equally could not have recognised it as such).

Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier have a different take on the value of reason, which they propose in their ‘argumentative theory’ is not principally to improve knowledge and make better decisions, but rather to win arguments. They believe that we do not seek truth, but rather arguments that support our views; we are, after all, competitive animals. For a more in depth discussion of this, see, for example, this post ‘Is reasoning built for winning arguments, rather than finding truth?

Some Problems with Reason (NB these are my notes, based on my hearing, and my interpretation)

G K Chesterton is quoted as saying: “A madman is not someone who has lost his reason but someone who has lost everything but his reason”. Make of that what you will. My interpretation is that reason alone is not helpful. The full quote might help:

“If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by clarity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

In this section of his talk, Iain alerted us to some of the potential limits of reason.

  • Reason prioritises the system over reference to reality, which can lead to a false premise, e.g. as in the porcupine is a monkey syllogism (see p. 192 in The Master and His Emissary for further discussion of this).
      1. Major premise: all monkeys climb trees;
      2. Minor premise: the porcupine is a monkey;
      3. Implied conclusion: the porcupine climbs trees.
  • We judge many things on the basis of experience rather than reason, e.g. love. There are an infinity of such experiences that surpass reason.

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

  • There are an infinite number of truths that we can’t get to with reason (I recently wrote a post that included reference to Julian Baggini’s book – A Short History of Truth, and I have heard Iain talk about truth before). Some things do come with linearity, e.g. rational people formulate goals and take the most direct route to achieving these goals, but some things can’t be pursued or willed. Happiness, for example, is a by-product that comes from forgetting yourself; it can’t be pursued. Sleep and appetite can’t be willed. Wisdom, humility, courage, love, faith, admiration, sympathy (and more) similarly can’t be linearly pursued. Understanding cannot be given, imposed or transmitted.
  • Similarly, morals cannot be derived from reason alone. Moral values are not something we can work out rationally. They are not utilitarian. They come from within (see the work of David Hume and p.86 of The Master and His Emissary). Morals are irreducible aspects of the phenomenal world.
  • Reason involves distancing ourselves from the natural world, but taking things out of context (abstraction) can be a mistake. John Dewey warned against the neglect of context. “I should venture to assert that the most pervasive fallacy of philosophic thinking goes back to neglect of context”  (see The Philosophical Fallacy – and p.144 The Mater and His Emissary). Things change as context changes. The response to this is often to categorise things on the basis of a single feature, but we need overlapping contexts. It is the left hemisphere that categorises things on the basis of a single feature. The right hemisphere looks for general similarity. For the left hemisphere there is a need to focus attention narrowly and be precise, but serendipity plays a big part in determining what can be predicted, and the more precise and reduced something is, e.g. language, the less useful it is. Being too precise means losing the overall picture, just as a map has precision, but this does not reflect life and all that we cannot quantify, such as beauty, anger, hunger. Some values cannot be measured and being precise can be less helpful than being imprecise, and even entirely irrelevant.

As Edmund Burke said: ‘It is the nature of all greatness not to be exact’ and ‘A clear idea is another name for a little idea’. Similarly from Rabindranath Tagore:

  • Finally, there is always a truth in the opposite of something. The left and right hemispheres both contribute to logic, but the right hemisphere makes a better contribution to deduction and the left hemisphere to induction. The right hemisphere is better at testing reality, but the left hemisphere gets swayed by what it already knows.

Iain ended this talk with reference to The Monty Hall Paradox to illustrate the point that the correct choice in this game is so counterintuitive it can seem absurd, but is nevertheless demonstrably true. The Prisoner’s Dilemma presents a similar paradox (see p.145 The Master and His Emissary). I took this to mean that adopting a right hemisphere perspective on the world and recognising that reason can have both value and limitations can seem counterintuitive.

Reference

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

 

The Value and Limits of Science

A bit of background

On the recent Field and Field four-day course (June 8th – 11th 2019), Iain McGilchrist discussed key ideas from his book The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, talking for an hour on each. For the most part these talks were familiar as I have attended this course before.

  • Introduction to the Hemispheres
  • Brain Disorders of the Hemispheres
  • What is Language For?
  • Are we Becoming Machines?
  • What Does it Mean to Think?
  • The Power of No

I have blogged about these topics after attending previous courses.  See my page on The Divided Brain, on this blog.

But Iain is now writing a new book which will have the title (proposed, but not yet confirmed) – “The Matter With Things”. It was good to get this update, as on the last course I attended we were told that the title of the book would be There are no Things. I think Iain feels that his philosophical position is clearer with the newer title. This new book will argue against reductionism and materialism and for betweenness.

In the second part of this new book, which Iain is still working on, he will discuss what he told us are the four main paths to knowledge: science, reason, intuition and imagination. He stressed that we need all four, but that intuition and imagination have been downgraded in favour of science and reason, a result of left hemisphere dominance. So we were very fortunate to hear five one hour talks about these most recent ideas.

  • The Value and Limits of Science
  • The Value and Limits of Reason
  • The Values and Limits of Intuition
  • The Value and Limits of Imagination
  • Everything Flows

The value and limits of science  (These are the notes from Iain’s talk. Any errors are mine and I do not at all mind being corrected in the comments).

Collingwood wrote: Science and metaphysics are inextricably united, and stand or fall together.

And Heidegger wrote: Science does not think, science does not venture in the realm of philosophy. It is a realm, however, on which without her knowing it, she is dependent. (translated from the original by Iain McGilchrist)

(I cannot find these quotes online to verify them, and I learned on this course that my note-taking has slowed down, so I am not absolutely sure of their accuracy, but, as written, they provide the gist of Iain’s argument. For more on this, see the Update – 17-06-19 – at the end of this post.)

The word science simply means knowledge. We need science, but we rely too much on the left hemisphere. Public science is different to what good science is telling us.

The two hemispheres find two different worlds. Objectivity is not about what is out there. There isn’t a thing out there that we can know. Things only come into being through interaction with our consciousness. The more you dig into a tiny hole, the less you can see the whole. So the question is: What constitutes evidence in life? The ‘howness’ of the ‘what‘ matters a lot. Objectivity is a ‘howness’ – a disposition towards the world. You try to be just and truthful, to bring an understanding. This reminded me of the work of Gayle Letherby et al. on Objectivity and Subjectivity in Social Research .

There are no things that are not unique. How does science cope with this? In science when we say we understand something, we are comparing it to something else. Everything is built on analogy.

Science is not chaste (pure and virtuous). It starts from certain axioms/assumptions, e.g. the world is fully comprehensible physically. This is an unlikely but reasonable assumption. But why do we want to understand the physical?  Iain thinks this is related to ‘the matter with things’, the title of his new book, so I expect we will learn more about this when the new book is published (hopefully by the end of 2020).

Science is reluctant to accept anything that can’t be measured. It is based on a false dichotomy between facts and value. There is always a value involved in seeking any kind of truth. We try to rise to meet this through objectivity. Many things in science can’t be separated from value, but there is value involved in appreciating what is a fact.

Problems with science

There are 3 problems with science

  • Intrinsic problems built on assumptions
  • Problems of the model of the machine
  • Institutional problems – the way science promulgates what it is doing

Intrinsic problems built on assumptions

There is no one truth, only more or less truth, but we must be loyal and faithful to truth. (See Where Can we go for Truth? for more of Iain’s thoughts on truth). So how do we decide which questions are worth asking?

Values, judgement and insights are very important in science. Great scientists allow ideas to incubate for a long time. Science eliminates the idea of purpose. This is a tenet of science; there is no purpose to science. Science cannot address things like love or an understanding of God. We can see these in operation, but they cannot be explained by science. But science is teleological – things happen for a reason, although the value of reason itself can’t be reasoned.

An example of a problem built on assumptions is DNA. DNA is not a building block; there is just not enough information in DNA. DNA is a resource from which the cell can draw. It is not a script. Only 2% of it expresses anything. Quarter of a million new neurones a minute are developed in the brain. We cannot get this from a linear script. The genome is not the answer.

Problems of the model of the machine

We are not machines. A machine can be switched off, but life is constant and cannot be switched off. A machine operates close to equilibrium; you have to put energy in to make it change. Life is the exact opposite. It is always changing, but how does it remain stable enough to keep going better? Through homeostasis. Human beings and living things change. Natural selection is the thing that stops change, it doesn’t cause change.

Organisms are not on/off. They involve inconceivably complex reactions to maintain stability between motion and stasis. They are non-linear, action is not one-way as in machines. The parts of organisms themselves are changing. This doesn’t happen in machines. The genome restructures itself all the time. DNA is not the robot master. The same genes can give rise to different effects, e.g. Pax6 gives rise to different eyes in the fly, the frog and humans. Some animals can regenerate parts of their body. If you cut off the head of a nematode worm, it will grow a new head with the same memories. Living organisms are not machines. The instructions for life are within the organism.

See also a previous post – The Human Versus the Machine 

Institutional problems

Science is carried out by normal people with egos etc. Fashions of thinking dominate. Science depends on results, safety, conformity, narrowness. There are many dogmas that can’t be broken.

Scientists are expected to publish or perish. This is destructive to morale. Scientists are rated on the number of papers they can churn out, but they need fallow periods, and they can get caught up in administration, particularly if they get promoted.

Lots of science papers need to be retracted, because they have been made up. And Ceci and Peters’ research raised doubts about the reliability of the peer- review process.

Scientists are also subject to predatory journals to the extent that Jeremy Beale published a list of journals which researchers should avoid.

Truth matters, but these problems with science show that finding out what is true is more difficult. We need more replication work. The amount of replication work is very low.

Why is truth important? We are here to engage with the world. If it is pointless why go with truth?

Update (17-06-19) re the Heidegger quotes (with thanks to Iain McGilchrist for this information)

The first part, » Die Wissenschaft denkt nicht «, is originally from page 4 of Heidegger’s Was heißt denken?, the version of his lectures given in Freiburg in 1951-2 published by Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen (1954), and later translated into English by FD Wick & JG Gray as What is Called Thinking?(Harper & Row, 1968).  Heidegger then repeated it in a conversation with his pupil the German philosopher Richard Wisser on the 17th September 1969, in which he follows it by another phrase in explanation, thus: » Und dieser Satz: die Wissenschaft denkt nicht, der viel Aufsehen erregte, als ich ihn in einer Freiburger Vorlesung aussprach, bedeutet: Die Wissenschaft bewegt sich nicht in der Dimension der Philosophie. Sie ist aber, ohne daß sie es weiß, auf diese Dimension angewiesen «. In H Heidegger (ed), Martin Heidegger: Gesamtausgabe, Part One, Veröffentlichte Schriften 1910-1976, vol 16, Reden und Andere Zeugnisse eines Lebensweges, Vittorio Klostermann, Frankfurt am Main, 2000, 702-710 (705).

Coming to Your Senses with Iain McGilchrist

I have just returned (exhausted, but exhilarated) from a four day course in the Cotswolds – Exploring the Divided Brain. Coming to Your Senses. The course focuses on the work of Iain McGilchrist, principally his book The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. This is the fourth time I have attended this course and it didn’t disappoint. In fact this was probably the best of the four courses.

Iain gave eleven one hour talks over the four days. He was interviewed twice, including once by John Cleese, and answered questions for an hour for the final session of the final day. He rightly received a standing ovation at the end of the course.

Iain’s talks bore the titles:

  • Introduction to the Hemispheres
  • The Value and Limits of Science
  • Brain Disorders of the Hemispheres
  • What is Language For?
  • The Value and Limits of Reason
  • Are we Becoming Machines?
  • The Values and Limits of Intuition
  • The Value and Limits of Imagination
  • What Does it Mean to Think?
  • The Power of No
  • Everything Flows

I will come back to some of these in future posts

There were also a number of  participant presentations, workshops and participant led discussion groups.

Talks were given by:

James Murray-White  – Finding Blake: Reimagining William Blake for the 21st century (https://findingblake.org.uk/exploring-the-divided-brain/)

Robert Franklin (two talks) – The Left Hemisphere and the Holocaust: The Holocaust by bullets and The Left Hemisphere and the Holocaust: Golden Harvest

Mary Attwood – Renaissance Art – A Harmony of the Hemispheres

Tywi Roberts (two sessions) – Music workshop

Simon Maryan – Trauma and Post Traumatic Stress

Samantha Field (two talks) – Feeling Music through the Rhythm of Movement and Dance and Communicating without Words

Georgina Cahill (two talks) – Mindfulness: Noticing our Everyday Behaviours and Mindfulness: Ideas and Practises to take home with us

Susannah Healy – The Seven Day Soul: Finding Meaning Beneath the Noise

The wide range of these talks made for a very rich experience, and the depth and breadth of knowledge shared by the speakers that I listened to was impressive. It is always humbling to hear Iain McGilchrist speak, but it was also humbling to be on a course with so many very talented people.

For the first time, I also offered a discussion group/workshop, in which I was keen to hear participants’ view on what the implications of Iain’s work might be for education. In particular I am interested in questions such as:

  • What are the advantages and disadvantages, with respect to education, of the left hemisphere’s view of the world?
  • What could the right hemisphere’s view of the world contribute to education?
  • What changes in education might we need to make to prevent left hemisphere dominance and reflect a more balanced view of the world?

Here I will very briefly provide an overview of how the discussion went.

There were 22 people in my session. I asked participants to work in small groups of about three people. We worked through three exercises.

  1. Each person was given the following handout and asked to draw on their own experience to discuss it in terms of how the different characteristics of the left hemisphere’s view of the world resonates with their personal understanding of education, teaching and learning.

2. We then did the same for the right hemisphere

3. Finally, drawing on the previous two discussions, we discussed the question:

What changes would you make to education to ensure that the strengths of the left and right hemispheres are best represented?

Here are some of the responses (in no particular order)

We should get rid of SATs and OFSTED and change the culture of education to focus on better values. We shouldn’t worry about ‘screwing up’.

We should value truth and fairness.

There should be greater emphasis on context and inter-connection in the curriculum ,e.g. as in topic-based learning.

We need to rebalance STEM subjects with the Arts and Humanities and aim for holistic learning and embodied, exploratory and self-motivated learning.

There should be greater awareness and appreciation of the differences between the left and right hemispheres of the brain.

Education should involve curiosity, playfulness, wonder and fun, and learners should discover purpose and meaning for themselves.

Diversity of views should be respected and encouraged.

We need to change the global paradigm of education

I need to spend more time thinking about all this. We had about an hour and 10 minutes for this discussion, which was really not long enough. There is still plenty to think about and to say. I may come back to this in a later post. For now I want to focus on the notes I made in Iain McGilchrist’s talks and try and process it all, so in my next few posts, I will share these notes.

This four day course will run again for the last time next year from 3rd – 6th October 2020 In the same location – Tewkesbury Park Hotel – in the Cotswolds, UK.

Truth in Education

To help us prepare for the Rebel Wisdom Summit on May 12th , in London, participants have been sent links to a number of videos which feature the keynote speakers, Iain McGilchrist, Bret Weinstein, Heather Heying and Jordan Greenhall (see my last blog post for links to the videos). I have been particularly interested in the videos in which Heather Heying appears. Heying is an evolutionary biologist who, having been forced, in 2017, to leave her tenured position at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, together with her husband Bret Weinstein, now describes herself as a Professor in Exile.

Although I was not aware of Heather Heying’s story before watching the Rebel Wisdom videos, the idea that free speech is being curtailed in the name of political correctness and social justice, is not new to me. Mariana Funes and I discussed this in relation to the work of Jonathan Haidt in our 2018 paper When Inclusion Excludes: a counter narrative of open online education.  I have some personal experience of the negative consequences of ‘going against the grain’, so I was interested in what Heather Heying had to say in the video in which she and Bret Weinstein discuss ‘Having a Real Conversation” with David Fuller, a founder of Rebel Wisdom. According to some news reports, Bret Weinstein asked students for a ‘dialectic‘, a ‘real conversation’, rather than a ‘debate’ about the issues that led to his leaving Evergreen State College with his wife Heather Heying, but this did not transpire.

A lot of what Heying and Weinstein say in the ‘real conversation’ video is not new to me. My experience is that good teachers know that they have to ‘set the stage’ when starting a new course or a new term with school children, and that it is worth spending some time at the beginning of the course or term mutually agreeing how the class will work. Good teachers also respect their students and know that they must ensure that everyone has a voice and that alternative perspectives are respected. I am not an evolutionary biologist, so I cannot say whether the potential for conflict in evolutionary biology classes and similar subjects is greater than in, say, something like physics or mathematics, but I suspect that it may be, especially in America where there are schools teaching creationism.

At about six minutes into the video, Heather talks about freeing students from the yoke of authority and learning to think for themselves. At this point she also says, If we’re trying to figure out what is true, science is the best tool we have,  and If we find that we can’t do science on what you’ve said, what can we do to what you’ve said to make it falsifiable. The longer we can’t falsify it, the more likely it is that it is true. So she takes a scientific approach to truth.

I specifically noticed this because I have just finished reading Julian Baggini’s book, A short History of Truth. Consolations for a Post-Truth World. On the back cover of this book is written:

How did we find ourselves in a  “post-truth” world of “alternative facts”? And can we get out of it? A Short History of Truth sets out to answer these questions by looking at the complex history of truth. Renowned and respected philosopher Julian Baggini has identified ten types of supposed truth, and explains how easily each can become the midwife of falsehood’.

Baggini discusses empirical, authoritative and reasoned truths, the idea that truth should be grounded in evidence, that truths can be known and that reason can lead to truth. All these seem to be the kinds of truths that Heather Heying focuses on as the basis for real conversations with her students.

But there are also, according the Baggini, eternal truths, esoteric truths, creative truths, relative truths, powerful truths,  moral truths and holistic truth. These seem to emphasise different aspects to how we recognise truth than the empirical truth focussed on by Heying. This made me wonder whether the idea that there can be many types of truth was discussed by her students and how this idea might influence the outcome of a ‘real conversation’.

According to Iain McGilchrist we cannot go to science for truth. As I wrote in a previous blog post he believes that

Science cannot fulfil the role of purveyor of truth. Good science is always aware of its limitations, but science cannot discover the purpose of life nor tell us about God’s nature or existence and science promotes the use of models. There is always a model whether we are aware of it or not, but the model we choose determines what we find.

Science places a high value on precision, but what about things we cannot be precise about, where apparent opposites come together? Science passes over entities that cannot be measured; it takes things out of context and decontextualizes the problem. We put our faith in science because it is seen to be objective, but science is not value free. A lot of scientific research is not adequately designed; we know that the Hawthorne effect can influence scientific results and positive findings are more likely to be published than negative ones. We can’t ask science to do what it can’t do. A hypothesis cannot be proved nor disproved. Each comes with many assumptions. Proof used to mean a trial run (as in a printed proof).

Science cannot provide us with dependable ultimate truths. It’s not pointless, but it does not provide us with reliable truth. Philosophy equally has problems with notions of intuition, uncertainty, rationality, reason and the complexity of truth.

Given that both Heather Heying and Iain McGilchrist will be speaking at the Rebel Wisdom Summit, I will be very interested to see whether the question of truth comes up, and if it does the extent to which they agree or differ on the meaning of truth.

And I wonder what they would both think of Baggini’s simple rubric to help us nurture truth. This is how Baggini ends his book in a discussion of future truths. (p.107)

  • Spiritual ‘truths’ should not compete with secular ones but should be seen as belonging to a different species.
  • We should think for ourselves, not by ourselves.
  • We should be sceptical not cynical.
  • Reason demands modesty not certainty.
  • To become smarter, we must understand the ways we are dumb.
  • Truths need to be created as well as found.
  • Alternative perspectives should be sought not as alternative truths but as enrichers of truth.
  • Power doesn’t speak the truth; truth must speak to power.
  • For a better morality we need better knowledge.
  • Truth needs to be understood holistically.

References

Baggini, J. (2017). A Short History of Truth. Consolations for a Post-Truth World. Quercus.

Funes, M. & Mackness, J. (2018): When inclusion excludes: a counter narrative of open online education, Learning, Media and Technology, DOI: 10.1080/17439884.2018.1444638 When Inclusion Excludes MF:JM 280218

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, “Having a Real Conversation”: https://youtu.be/ZBkF-xJh6tU

Rebel Wisdom Summit

Next month I will be attending the Rebel Wisdom Summit in Brick Lane, London, with two members of my family.

On the front page of the Rebel Wisdom website is the statement:

When our existing ways of thinking break down, it’s the rebels and the renegades, those who dare to think differently, who need to reboot the system.

I don’t consider myself to be a rebel or a renegade, but I am interested in people who think differently and the four speakers for the event all seem to fit this category.

I first came across Rebel Wisdom last November on Twitter, where I found that they were live streaming an interview with Iain McGilchrist, which I then attended. Aside from hearing McGilchrist speak, which is always enlightening, the main thing that struck me about that event was that it was male dominated, both in the chat that I participated in by posting a question, and also in the room where the live event was taking place. In addition, in the online chat, many of the men seemed to be fixated on Jordan Peterson, even though it was Iain McGilchrist who was being interviewed. Given that Rebel Wisdom puts a heavy focus on what they refer to as ‘New Masculinity’ perhaps it is not surprising that the event was male dominated, although Rebel Wisdom also seems about to offer a ‘New Woman’ retreat. This might redress the balance, but a course/retreat for just women wouldn’t appeal to me.

So it will be interesting to see whether there are more men than women at the Summit next month.

The build-up to this summit has been interesting. On buying the tickets we each had to sign an agreement. The organisers explained this with these words:In order to create a safe environment in which we can discuss challenging topics, we ask that all attendees read and ‘sign’ the agreement below by checking the box.”

I understand that the Rebel Wisdom Summit is designed to be a safe environment for discussing challenging topics, one in which all attendees commit to leaving preconceived ideas and ideologies at the door. 

I agree to take responsibility for my own responses and how I communicate. I am willing to have my ideas challenged. I understand that at times I may feel discomfort, and am willing to take responsibility for this as well. I am willing to practice self-inquiry and do my best to listen carefully to others. 

I agree to engage in discussions in good faith, without a specific agenda, and with respect. I recognise that others are entitled to their views, and agree to consider and critique their ideas, rather than them as an individual.

I am also willing to have fun, to be rebellious in my thinking, and to be a part of an exciting new form of cultural conversation.

This makes more sense to me now that I have watched the videos that have been sent to us this week to help us prepare for this event (see references below), a couple of which focus on what is described as “Having a Real Conversation”. I do wonder, though, whether they are expecting the discussions at the summit to be heated, and if so, what the topics for discussion will be. Interestingly we have been asked not to tweet or share content of what the speakers say, which is intended to ensure them a safe space in which to share their ‘Thinking in Public’. We can, though, share information from the group discussions, so long as contributing participants’ anonymity is maintained.

I already appreciate the advance organisers we have received from the Rebel Wisdom team, which from an educator’s perspective is a definite sign of good practice. I also appreciate the efforts being made to ensure that everyone can have their voice heard if they so wish. Asking participants to take responsibility for this is also a sign of good educational practice. I have not volunteered to moderate/chair group discussions, but it would be interesting to know what advice the moderators will be given on how to handle, for example, a dysfunctional group. Maybe I’ll find out on the day.

Having watched the videos and read the article (and there is still time to do more research before the event), and booked our train tickets and hotel, I am really looking forward to this event, which will even throw in a party in the evening, and I’m looking forward to meeting some of the other participants. The number for the event has been capped at 150 (Dunbar’s number!) and there is a long waiting list, so I feel we are lucky to have our places. I don’t see how it can fail to be interesting.

References from https://youtu.be/tyABweDYPe8

Rebel Wisdom films.

Embodied Learning: knowing with the whole body

 

Embodied learning is the final theme I want to explore in relation to Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. My interest is in how McGilchrist’s ideas might be significant for education.

The idea of embodied learning is not new. Philosophical discussion about the relationship between the mind and body has been ongoing from the time of The Buddha (480 – 400B.C.E.), and often centres around Descartes’ Cartesian dualism on the one hand, or the work of Merleau-Ponty on the problems of perception and embodiment on the other. In relation to philosophy all I want to say at this point is that, like many before me, I cannot align my educational philosophy with Descartes’ mind/body dualism. Merleau-Ponty’s (2004, p. 43) words (cited in Stolz, 2015), are nearer to my own thinking.

…rather than a mind and a body man is a mind with a body, a being who can only get to the truth of things because its body is, as it were, embedded in those things.

One of the earliest educators to recognise the importance of embodied learning was Maria Montessori, who wrote (as cited by Rathkunde, 2009b)

There is no description, no image in any book that is capable of replacing the sight of real trees . . . in a real forest. Something emanates from those trees which speaks to the soul, something no book, no museum is capable of giving (pp. 35-6).

Montessori encouraged a child-centred, holistic, place-based, experiential education, with a focus on hands-on activity. Teachers of infant children, children who cannot read or write, may never have thought of mind/body dualism, but they know intuitively that children learn with their whole bodies, They are daily surrounded, in their classrooms, by children playing in the sand tray, in the water, outdoors, dressing up, building with bricks and so on. In these activities, the children are learning without language. As we wrote in our paper ‘Synesthesia: From Cross-Modal to Modality-Free Learning and Knowledge (Williams et al., 2015)

What is most radical about the Montessori classroom is the lack of instruction or “linguistic scaffolding.” Instead the child is invited to explore the senses directly (p.50) (See also this previous post with comments on embodied learning).

Beyond the infant classroom, an understanding of the intimate connection between body and mind seems to get lost and education becomes increasingly disembodied.  Kevin Rathkunde (2009b) asks

‘How did we arrive at this alienating point of disembodiment in so many educational experiences?’

And further comments:

……. the disembodied view of the mind that is so ingrained in our technological society affects the daily practice of education. It lends itself to a fragmented view of learning where facts are taken out of context, and the personal experience and activity of the learner is seen as superfluous. It also lends itself to a production line view of schools that over-emphasize a business-like and efficient transfer of information and extrinsic rather than intrinsic student motivation. (Rathkunde, 2009a)

In a similar vein Stolz (2015, p.484) writes in the conclusion to his paper:

To some extent the former philosophical debates have either privileged the mind over the body (rationalism) or viewed the body as a type of sensorial instrument where knowledge is verified (empiricism). What is clear though is that neither viewpoint recognises the role of embodiment in how we come to understand and understand in a meaningful way.

The importance of the body in constituting reality is a theme that runs right through McGilchrist’s book, The Master and His Emissary. As Montessori knew, we see this clearly in how very young children acquire language in an embodied way, babbling and pointing at the same time, demonstrating the close connection between gesture and language. But embodied learning is not confined to young children. There is nothing that goes on in us that is not embodied. Most importantly, thinking and emotion are embodied. In 2015 on a course I attended I listened to McGilchrist discuss this:

“Our bodies are not assemblages of parts. There is a direct link between the heart and the brain via the vagal nerve. The heart feeds back to the brain, not just pain, as in the case of chest pain associated with heart conditions, but also in relation to other conditions such as epilepsy and depression. We talk about having a ‘heavy heart’. Depression is a condition of the heart as research has shown that after heart surgery there is an increase in the instance of depression. Thinking is thus embodied and so we should be mindful of our bodies and how we allow our thoughts to come to us. Thinking is distributed through the body, and there was reference here to the limbic system, which is primarily responsible for our emotional life; we know that emotion affects our immune system. This all relates to the embodied nature of thinking and emotion and the role of the right hemisphere, not only in emotion, but also in empathy and theory of mind” (quoted from a previous post, The Divided Brain. What does it mean to think?).

Embodied learning is more than ensuring that learning is not ‘overly focused on abstract cognition at the expense of emotion, movement and processes rooted in body-environment interactions’ (Rathkunde, 2009a). It is a recognition that the body is the necessary context for all human experience (McGilchrist, 2009, p.118) and cannot be separated from its relationship with the world. McGilchrist feels that the importance of this for our being in the world has been lost.

The left hemisphere’s assault on our embodied nature is not just an assault on our bodies, but on the embodied nature of the world around us. Matter is what is recalcitrant to the will. The idea that the ‘material’ world is not just a lump of resource, but reaches into every part of the realm of value, including the spiritual, that through our embodied nature we can commune with it, that there are responses and responsibilities that need to be respected, has largely been lost by the dominant culture (McGilchrist, 2009, p.440).

Returning to Rathkunde’s question, ‘How did we arrive at this alienating point of disembodiment in so many educational experiences?’, I think McGilchrist’s answer would be that we have allowed our education systems to be dominated by the left hemisphere’s approach to being, which has lost sight of the whole, and separated the mind from the experience of the body.

References

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press

Merleau-Ponty, M. (2004). The world of perception. (O. Davis, Trans.). (T. Baldwin, Intro.). London and New York: Routledge. (Original work published 1948)

Montessori, M. (1973). From childhood to adolescence. Madras: Kalakshetra Publications.

Rathkunde, K. (2009a). Nature and Embodied Education, The Journal of Developmental Processes, 4(1), 70-80.

Rathkunde K. (2009b) Montessori and Embodied Education. In: Woods P.A., Woods G.J. (eds) Alternative Education for the 21st Century. Palgrave Macmillan, New York

Stolz, S. A. (2015). Embodied Learning. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 47(5), 474–487.

Williams, R., Gumtau, S. & Mackness, J. (2015).  Synesthesia: from cross-modal to modality-free learning and knowledge Leonardo Journal 

Source of image: https://www.simplypsychology.org/mindbodydebate.html

Two kinds of knowing

This is the third theme I have selected from Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, to look at more closely in relation to education. So far I have explored what he has to say about breadth and depth, and about flow. But I have also in past posts explored other themes with reference to McGilchrist – themes such as truth, betweenness, the meaning of ‘Other’. (I have linked to just one post for each of these latter three themes, but there are others).

McGilchrist’s work is an in-depth study of the divided brain. He tells us that both the right and left hemispheres of the brain are involved in almost everything we do, but they are each involved differently. This means that they are both involved in ‘knowing’ but have different perspectives on knowing.  New experience engages the right hemisphere; familiar, routine experience engages the left hemisphere. Thus there are two kinds of knowing, which McGilchrist describes as the new and the familiar.

McGilchrist is not the only person to observe that there are two kinds of knowing. Just in the past week I have been reminded by Maria Popova in her Brain Pickings midweek pick-me-up of the work of Marion Milner (British psychoanalyst and writer 1900-1998). Writing under the pen name Joanna Field, Milner wrote a book, ‘A Life of One’s Own’, in which she analyses her own personal experience of the pursuit of happiness. On taking this book off my bookshelf, I am now reminded that I highlighted exactly the same passage that Maria Popova has selected:

As soon as I began to study my perception, to look at my own experience, I found that there were different ways of perceiving and that the different ways provided me with different facts. There was a narrow focus which meant seeing life as if from blinkers and with the centre of awareness in my head; and there was a wide focus which meant knowing with the whole of my body, a way of looking which quite altered my perception of whatever I saw. And I found that the narrow focus way was the way of reason. If one was in the habit of arguing about life it was very difficult not to approach sensation with the same concentrated attention and so shut out its width and depth and height. But it was the wide focus way that made me happy. (Milner, 1934. Preface xxxv)

Also this week, I have listened to a recorded lecture by Jan Derry, Professor of Education and Co-Director of the Centre for Philosophy at the UCL Institute of Education. The title of her talk, which was delivered on May 22nd 2018, is Knowledge in Education: Why Philosophy Matters.

Jan Derry starts this talk by telling us that there’s intense disagreement in education circles between those who favour facts and disciplines on the one side, and those who favour meaning making and individual expression on the other. This debate has been ongoing for at least 50 years.

McGilchrist hasn’t opposed the two kinds of knowing. Rather, as we can see from his book, he makes the case that the favouring of facts and taking a narrow focus approach, is the kind of knowing favoured by the left hemisphere, whereas the favouring of meaning making and taking a wide focus approach, is the kind of knowing favoured by the right hemisphere.

McGilchrist writes of the nature of knowledge that it can be seen from both these perspectives (see p.94-97, The Master and His Emissary). Both kinds of knowledge can be brought to bear on the same object. (p.96)

The left hemisphere perspective is that knowledge is putting things together from bits, the knowledge of what we call facts.

  • This is knowledge in the public domain
  • It is fixed and certain. It doesn’t change from person to person, or moment to moment.
  • Context is irrelevant
  • It is only a partial reconstruction of aspects of the whole
  • It is concerned with repeatable findings
  • It is general, impersonal, disengaged

The right hemisphere perspective is that knowledge is an encounter with something ‘Other’.

  • It is uniquely ‘my’ knowledge. It is personal, but also expects a consensus to emerge
  • It permits a sense of uniqueness of the individual
  • It is not fixed or certain
  • The whole is not captured by trying to list the parts
  • It is not easily captured in words and resists general terms
  • It is embodied and has to be experienced
  • This knowledge depends on ‘betweenness’ (an encounter)

Interestingly, these two kinds of knowing are not recognised in the English language as they are in other languages. In Latin, French and German there are different words for the first kind of knowledge, where it is pinned down so that it is repeatable, and the second kind of knowledge, which is never to fully know.

Knowledge of facts; fixed, certain, repeatable Personal knowledge; new, uncertain, never fully known
Latin Sapere Cognoscere
French Savoir Connaitre
German Wissen Kennen

Jan Derry has suggested that in our current UK education system the focus is on knowledge of facts and memorising these facts for exams and tests. This system promotes a mechanical process of transmission and assimilation, and policy makers deprecate attention given to meaning making. But as Jan Derry points out, simply memorising facts stops well short of understanding them. To illustrate this, she uses a Richard Feynman video (2.05 minutes), who points out the limitations of rote learning of meaningless terms without understanding.

Jan Derry’s interest is in inferentialism. I cannot do justice to her lecture or her ideas here, but one of her main points is that meaning comes from understanding things in relation to each other, i.e. the meaning of one concept is dependent on its relation to others. This relates closely to McGilchrist’s thinking (p,97)

Knowledge and perception, and therefore experience, exist only in the relations between things. Perhaps indeed everything that exists does so only in relationships, like mathematics or music: there are aspects of quantum physics that would support such a view.

This fact, that knowledge comes from distinctions, implies that we can come to an understanding of the nature of any one thing, whatever it might be, only by comparison with something else we already know, and by observing the similarities and differences.

Derry also quotes Robert Brandom (2015) as saying, “one cannot have one concept without having many”, noting that this appears to present a learning paradox. How can you understand one concept unless you understand them all?

Our education policy makers’ answer to this problem, and a common response, is to break teaching down into many elements or ‘bits’ and then start from the simple and work up to the more complex, putting the ‘bits’ together, which McGilchrist would recognise as a left hemisphere approach.  This is the approach which Jan Derry says comes from a belief that inferences can only be made when initial awareness is restricted to a representation, and only after this representation has been grasped. But she believes, referencing Vygotsky, that meaning making takes an inferential rather than representational orientation to knowledge. Vygotsky suggested that rather than introducing the learner to an accumulation of simple elements, instead we should start by introducing them to a rich domain in which they can begin to make sense of ‘what follows from what’ (relations between ideas), in which their responsiveness to the relevant reasons and relations that constitute concepts, can develop.

For McGilchrist we should not only start in the rich domain (the domain of the right hemisphere), but also end in the rich domain. McGilchrist suggests that ‘knowing’ is first experienced in the right hemisphere, before being passed to the left hemisphere for analysis and ‘fixing’, and then should ultimately be returned to the right hemisphere for further appreciation of the whole.

For McGilchrist, there are not only two kinds of knowing, but also two different ways of attending to the world, which in turn brings two different worlds into being.

In the one, that of the right hemisphere, we experience the live, complex, embodied world of individual, unique, beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected. In the other, that of the left hemisphere, we “experience” our experience in a special way: a “re-presented” version of it, containing now static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented entities, grouped into classes on which predictions can be made. This kind of attention isolates, fixes and makes each thing explicit by bringing it under the spotlight of attention. In doing so it renders things inert, mechanical, lifeless. But is also enables us for the first time to know and consequently to learn and to make things. This gives us power. (p.31)

McGilchrist makes the case that if we get  stuck in the left hemisphere’s world of the familiar, known, and explicit, where we focus on the parts rather than the whole, on abstraction and reification, we run the risk of missing a return to the right hemisphere’s way of knowing, which reflects Marion Milner’s wide focus, Jan Derry’s meaning making and individual experience, and Vygotsky’s rich domain.

Near the end of her lecture, Derry says:

Difficulties will almost certainly arise when knowledge is approached on the basis of the students’ construction of meaning, but equally these cannot be resolved by teaching facts unless the facts are situated in a network of inferential relation……Access to these inferential relations can be provided in numerous ways; it may involve how a task is designed or by the quality of questioning.

She ends her talk by saying:

Neither meaning making nor the presentation of facts should be dismissed but rather should be brought together through an inferential rather than a representational orientation to knowledge.

Likewise, as mentioned above, McGilchrist doesn’t oppose the two kinds of knowing that he writes about, saying we need them both. Currently the left hemisphere’s perspective on ‘knowing’ dominates. A more balanced approach between the two kinds of knowing requires having greater awareness of the right hemisphere’s perspective.

References 

Robert Brandom (2015) Interview by Richard Marshall, 3:AM Magazine

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Milner, M. (1934) A Life of One’s Own. Routledge

Vygotsky, L.S. (1998) The collected works of L.S. Vygotsky, volume 5, child psychology. In R.W. Reiber (Ed.), New York: Plenum Press