The Value and Limits of Imagination

On a 4-day Field & Field course I recently attended on The Divided Brain. Coming to Your Senses, Iain McGilchrist told us that there are four paths to knowledge: science, reason, intuition and imagination. He gave a one-hour talk on each of these topics. In these posts I am sharing the notes I made whilst listening to the talks. For previous posts see:

And for further posts on Iain McGilchrist’s work, see

The Value and Limits of Imagination (NB these are my notes, based on my hearing, and my interpretation. Any errors are mine)

Iain started by telling us that imagination is a bit suspect these days.

‘Inspiration is something we cannot control, towards which we have to exhibit what Wordsworth called a ‘wise passiveness’. As the nineteenth century wore on, this lack of control fitted ill with the confident spirit engendered by the Industrial Revolution, and this lack of predictability with the need, in accord with the Protestant ethic, for ‘results’ as the reward for effort. Imagination was something that could not be relied on: it was transitory, fading from the moment it revealed itself to consciousness (in Shelley’s famous phrase, ‘the mind in creation is a fading coal’), recalcitrant to the will. In response to this, ‘the Imaginative’, a product of active fantasy, rather than of the receptive imagination, began to encroach on the realm of imagination itself….’ (p.381 The Master and His Emissary)

The Reformation of the sixteenth century could be seen as having involved a shift away from the capacity to understand metaphor, incarnation, the realm that bridges this world and the next, matter and spirit, towards a literalistic way of thinking – a move away from imagination, now seen as treacherous, and towards rationalism. (p.382 The Master and His Emissary)

But imagination is not something that leads us astray; it is our only hope of leading us to reality and not only for great artists. It is for each of us in our everyday experience. We should go to meet it. If we don’t we are closed in a hermetic cell. We need imagination to get out of this.

In talking about imagination, Iain referred to Schelling (1854-1775) and Coleridge (1772-1834), saying that Schelling was a very profound philosopher and that Coleridge helped to make his ideas more comprehensible. Beyond this, Iain said little about Schelling. I know nothing of Schelling and it appears from a brief internet search that he is a philosopher who would take some getting to know, but as far as I can fathom, Schelling’s main thesis was an opposition to mechanism, materialism and scientific theorising and a view that nothing in nature is completely lifeless. ‘Nature is mind in the process of becoming conscious. Mind (or the self), on the other hand, is something which in its cognitive, rational activity, creates nature.’ (Dictionary of Philosophy. Penguin. P.555). Further brief reading around this topic suggests that understanding this relationship between mind and matter requires a leap of imagination.

Coleridge drew on Schelling’s ideas to develop his theory of imagination. Coleridge distinguished between fantasy and imagination. Fantasy is about escaping reality. It recombines things that are already known to us. But imagination is bound up with reality. It looks at what is and sees it for the first time. Imagination is a process where we never quite arrive, a process where we go to meet things, where the progress towards reality is one of ascending a spiral and seeing the whole.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

William Blake’s painting of Jacob’s ladder

When ascending the spiral, reaching a higher plane also involves a ‘coming back’ and being able to see and maintain contact with what is below.

Coleridge thought human imagination had two distinct parts, the primary and the secondary. Primary imagination is, he thought, the spontaneous act of creation that is not at our beckoning or under our control. There may have been years of mental work prior to this. Secondary imagination is the conscious act of bringing a composition into being from primary imagination. In other words, as Shelley said, inspiration is already dying when composition starts, hence ‘the mind in creation is a fading coal’. Poetry, music and composition come through us.

Creativity

Iain then went on to talk about creativity, telling us that the right hemisphere of the brain is much more creative than the left hemisphere, although both hemispheres are involved in creativity. We can’t make the creative act happen. To encourage it, don’t do things.

Iain then discussed three stages of the creative process:

  • Preparation, a long process involving hard work, skills and knowledge, both conscious and unconscious
  • Incubation, an unconscious stage which is not under voluntary control and can only be impeded by conscious effort
  • Illumination, when a flash of insight flowers out of unconsciousness

In looking for this model of creativity I found it can be attributed to Graham Wallas. Maria Popova has written a useful post about this on her brainpickings site.

Iain also told us that for creativity there must be generative, permissive and translation requirements. The generative phase brings together things that normally can’t be brought together. In the permissiveness phase we have to get out of the way so that this can work for us; there is a relaxation of self-imposed constraints. Creation is always also self-creation. We make things and ourselves. The self and the Other create one another.

“A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.” Percy Bysshe Shelley

In the translation phase, the analytic mind plays a part, but it needs intuition to discover things. Criticism mustn’t happen too early. The subliminal self is superior to the conscious self. It’s interesting to consider the extent to which scientists actually use the scientific method, and how much they rely on the subliminal self, imagination and intuition.

Does the right hemisphere play a part in creativity?

Evidence of the right hemisphere’s special role in creativity comes from studying the work of renowned artists, composers and poets, before and after having a stroke. See, for example, a paper written by H. Bäzner and M.G. Hennerici – Painting after Right-Hemisphere Stroke – Case Studies of Professional Artists. In this Bäzner and Hennerici discuss the work of Otto Dix, whose paintings became flatter and more schematic following a right hemisphere stroke.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This move towards static, flatter and more narrowly focussed images can also be seen in film makers following a right hemisphere stroke.

A left hemisphere stroke has the opposite effect. For example, Benjamin Britten is thought to have done his best work after a left hemisphere stroke; Stravinsky composed more after a left hemisphere stroke; Handel wrote his Messiah in just three weeks shortly after his left hemisphere stroke, and William Carlos Williams’ poetry output became prolific after his left hemisphere stroke.

Damage to the left hemisphere, or just suppressing the left hemisphere, can lead to improvement in all kinds of creativity, e.g. the 9-dot problem can be solved much quicker following a left hemisphere stroke.

The challenge is to draw four straight lines which go through the middle of all of the dots without taking the pencil off the paper

 

The Relationship between creativity and mental illness


Aristotle linked melancholy to creativity, and research has linked depression and alcoholism to creativity. Rates of creativity are abnormally high in people with mental illness or mood disorders. Studies on male and female poets have shown higher rates of mental disorders, and in her book Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, American psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison examined the relationship between bipolar disorder and artistic creativity. Comedians tend to suffer from depression. But no-one is very creative while they are ill. When they are well, the fact of having been ill makes them creative, but stress and anxiety promote the left hemisphere’s view of the world.

Unfortunately, as Iain told us at the beginning of his talk there seems to be a resistance against the notion of imagination. In briefly following this suggestion up, I found that in her paper The Odd Position of the Melancholic – The Loss of an Explanatory Model? Dr. Helena De Preester has written (p.18) that this resistance also applies to notions of melancholy and inspiration.

‘ …. the notion of melancholy is pushed to the side of a very subjective and personal discourse, and seems to have lost its all-pervading cultural and historical meaning, which was very helpful in directing discussions about (artistic) creativity, inspiration and imagination.’

‘ … the term ‘imagination’ is not very popular anymore: young artists or students in the arts often prefer to say that it all comes down to working very hard and to having the accidental (and economic) luck of becoming famous.’ …

‘creativity’ is an effect of working very hard, but it does not figure in a broader discourse on inspiration. The notions of ‘imagination’, ‘creativity’, ‘melancholy’ and ‘inspiration’ thus seem to have become vague and private notions, which rather block than deepen a discussion on the specificity of artistic creation and the position of the artist.

But Iain suggested that to be creative we need to open ourselves up to unconscious influences. This critical phase must be out of our control. We have to avoid interruptions and stress for creativity. Play and being relaxed are important. Consciousness is a stage with a spotlight. We need to get out of the glare of consciousness, out of the spotlight for creativity to flourish.

The Value and Limits of Intuition

 “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.” — Albert Einstein

This is the fourth post I am writing to share the notes I made on a 4-day Field & Field course that I recently attended in the Cotswolds, UK. The title of the course was Exploring the Divided Brain. Coming to Your Senses and the keynote speaker for all four days was Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

For further background information to this post and the course, see the following previous posts and the page on this blog devoted to The Divided Brain and Iain McGilchrist’s work.

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

Intuitions often get a ‘bad rap’ from psychologists. We don’t know when we are intuiting and intuitions can be a source of error. Sometimes they are wrong and we can be deceived by them, but often they are not. Intuitions process large amounts of information in a short time. Most of what we do we are not conscious of. For these reasons, Iain started this talk by telling us that we should not give up on intuitions.

He then went on to discuss intuitions in terms of

  • instincts,
  • prejudices,
  • knee-jerk reactions,
  • gut feelings, and
  • embodied skills.

Instincts

Instincts are fascinating. Do humans have them? Yes they do.  Iain referred to the work of William James, who believed that certain instincts are essential for human survival, e.g. fear, anger and love.

At the core of James’ theory of psychology, as defined in The Principles of Psychology (1890), was a system of “instincts”. James wrote that humans had many instincts, even more than other animals. These instincts, he said, could be overridden by experience and by each other, as many of the instincts were actually in conflict with each other. In the 1920s, however, psychology turned away from evolutionary theory and embraced radical behaviorism.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_James

Instincts cover a lot of behaviour in all animals. For example, animals instinctively know what to eat, or how to fly and how to mate, including ‘on the wing’. The instinct to imitate is so important and explains how we learn so much. Children instinctively imitate other human beings. Learning begins at 45 minutes of life and babies respond to a smiling face within 48 hours. In his book (p.253) Iain writes:

The overwhelming importance of mimesis points to the conclusion that we had better select good models to imitate, because as a species, not only as individuals, we will become what we imitate. We will pass down the behaviours we have learnt to imitate by epigenetic mechanisms, and for this reason William James, in an inversion of the popular prejudice, saw the human species as having a larger array of apparently instinctual behaviours than any other.

But instincts are not for once and all. They are evolutionary. We can inherit them from our ancestors. Fear of a smell can be passed down through several generations. Physical gestures can be inherited. Anecdotal evidence suggests that transplant patients can inherit characteristics of donors, such as a love or hate of jazz. All this relates to epigenetic inheritance, the idea that inheritance does not only happen through the DNA code that passes from parent to offspring, but also by means of a parent’s experiences.

Rupert Sheldrake’s work on morphic fields and collective memory may also be relevant here, although it is worth noting that his ideas were considered so radical when first posited that his Ted Talk was, at the time, banned, but has since been reinstated. Iain also referenced Jungian archetypes, but both Sheldrake and Jung were only mentioned in passing and Iain concluded that we can’t say where all this is happening in terms of the left and right hemisphere’s of the brain, nor indeed whether there is any hemisphere relevance.

Prejudices

Prejudices are pre-judgements (forming an opinion before coming aware of the relevant facts) and are inevitable. Of course we make pre-judgements, but this is not the same as bias. Bias is the action of supporting or opposing a particular person or thing in an unfair way, because of allowing personal opinions to influence judgement. Prejudice does not necessarily lead to bias. By being aware of prejudice we can avoid bias. Most people ignore their prejudices, but information can override prejudice. For example, we make judgements on people’s faces within a tenth of a second, but we get better at judging faces with experience. The left hemisphere of the brain is more prone to bias than the right hemisphere. It tends to put things in categories, whereas the right hemisphere is important for pattern recognition.

Knee-jerk reactions, heuristics and rules of thumb

As nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman discussed in his international best seller, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, most of the time we do things ‘quick and dirty’ and make fast decisions, but when we need to, we slow down. In his book Kahneman discusses whether we need to slow down to avoid the errors that result from fast thinking, which he describes as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions and the planning fallacy. At the beginning of his book (p.10) he writes judgment heuristics “are quite useful, but sometimes lead to sever and systematic errors.” In another section of his book, Chapter 21, Kahneman discusses the accuracy of algorithmic formulas versus intuitions and calls into question the consistency of judgements made by professionals such as radiologists, auditors, pathologists, psychologists and organisational managers. For example, on p. 225 of his book he writes: Experienced radiologists who evaluate chest X-rays as “normal” or “abnormal” contradict themselves 20% of the time when they see the same picture on separate occasions.

In his talk, Iain talked of knee-jerk reactions, heuristics and rules of thumb more favourably than Kahneman, saying that intuitions are useful the majority of the time and that heuristics can be surprisingly useful. He illustrated this with the example of how ant colonies are built on the basis of random choices, but acknowledged that heuristics can lead to bias.

Gut feeling

In this part of the talk, Iain referenced Gerd Gigerenzer, Peter Struck an Malcolm Gladwell. In his book Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, Gigerenzer explains why gut feelings are so often right and can serve us better than reflection and reason. Sometimes less is more, and heuristics can make more accurate decisions with less effort. Peter Struck in his book Divination and Human Nature: A Cognitive History of Intuition in Classical Antiquity discusses how ancient philosophers ‘produced subtle studies into what was an odd but observable fact–that humans could sometimes have uncanny insights–and their work signifies an early chapter in the cognitive history of intuition. And Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink. The Power of Thinking without Thinking explores the phenomenon of ‘blink’, showing how a snap judgement can be far more effective than a cautious decision. By trusting your instincts, he reveals, you’ll never think about thinking in the same way again.

Iain told us that many gut feelings arise in social situations. An important element is to make quick decisions. This happens in the right hemisphere of the brain, the deep, ancient, emotional part of the brain, where decisions are made on the basis of empathy, intuition and morality, rather than utility. Gut feelings can take a long time to come to consciousness.

Embodied skills

Finally, in discussing embodied skills, Iain referenced the work of Dreyfus and Dreyfus. In their book Mind over Machine: The Power of Human Intuition and Expertise in the Era of the Computer, Dreyfus and Dreyfus develop a 5-stage model of how expertise develops. Novices start by learning the rules and sticking to these rules. Gradually they develop an appreciation of context and move through stages of competence, proficiency and expertise, finally reaching mastery. It is in the final two stages that intuition comes into play and the learner can see patterns and can make connections between different aspects of the work. Pattern recognition is an important element in becoming an expert. In these later stages, most the time we are not deliberating but doing things unconsciously.

Functioning at this unconscious level of expertise can lead to fast, unconscious decision-making, such as the counter-intuitive idea of literally ‘fighting fire with fire’, i.e. in the case of the fireman who in the face of an oncoming forest fire lit a ring of fire around himself, lay down in the burned area, and lived to tell the tale. Intuitions can also be guided by beauty and elegance, rather than rule-bound thought; mathematicians often do this. Problem solving often involves visual rather than verbal forms of work. There is only a small role for conscious thinking in these processes.

Intuitive and analytical problem-solving can also evoke different physiological responses, such as feeling warm just before solving a problem, i.e. at the intuition stage. When people have insights, spikes can be seen in the right hemisphere. The right hemisphere is better at regulating and inhibiting emotion as well as engaging with emotion.

The overarching message from this talk was that there is a place for intuition in our lives. We need a glimpse of the illusive nature of reality.

Today all the available sources of intuitive life – cultural tradition, the natural world, the body, religion and art – have been so conceptualised, devitalised and ‘deconstructed’ (ironised) by the world of words, mechanistic systems and theories constituted by the left hemisphere that their power to help us see beyond the hermetic world that it has set up has been largely drained from them. (p.244 The Master and His Emissary).

So we shouldn’t examine our interior thinking too early. There is a moment and a place to think consciously and critically, but this is a secondary phase and mustn’t come too early.

In the words of Kant:

‘concepts without intuitions are empty; intuitions without concepts are blind’ (cited on p.215 The Master and His Emissary)

References

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

Source of image: The Divided Brain RSA Animate Video  https://youtu.be/dFs9WO2B8uI

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.

Shocks of familiarity with Michel de Montaigne

At the beginning of her book “How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer”, Sarah Bakewell writes (p.5)

‘to read Montaigne is to experience a series of shocks of familiarity’. I have found this to be true.

I have only recently begun to explore Montaigne’s life and writing. More’s the pity that it has taken me this long. Even though he lived more than 400 years ago (28 February 1533 – 13 September 1592), there is still much we can learn from and relate to in Montaigne’s work. According to Sarah Bakewell, he devoted the last 20 years of his life to writing his essays, in which he wrote about himself and what he could learn about how to live by exploring and reflecting on the minutiae of his daily life. He wrote:

‘If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another; but those who are aware of it are a little better off – though I don’t know’.

Montaigne describes himself as being idle and slow-witted, with a tardy understanding and a weak imagination. He had a strong aversion to human pretension.

Sarah Bakewell points out that self-exploration and revelation, and discovering who each other is, as practiced by Montaigne, is one of the great adventures of modern times; this is easy to see in the success of social media. Whilst this kind of writing and communication seems very familiar in the 21st century, it was a completely new kind of writing in Montaigne’s time.

There is so much about even a brief encounter with Montaigne that I can relate to. Iain McGilchrist says that what you pay attention to determines what you see. The quotes below are what I paid attention to, but no doubt another reader of Montaigne would ‘see’ and select other quotes. My copy of his book of essays amounts to 1045 pages, so there is plenty to go at.

Here are some quotes from my brief acquaintance with Montaigne that have resonated with me.

Sorry the man, to my mind, who has not in his own home a place to be all by himself, to pay his court privately to himself, to hide.

There is no man who has less business talking about memory. For I recognise almost no trace of it in me, and I do not think there is another one in the world so monstrously deficient.

If I am a man of some reading, I am a man of no retention; so that I can promise no certainty, more than to make known to what point the knowledge I have has risen.

I seek, in the reading of books, only to please myself, by an honest diversion; ….. I do not bite my nails about the difficulties I meet with in my reading ; after a charge or two, I give them over.

The only hope of emerging from the fog of misinterpretation is to remain alert to its existence, that is, to become wise at one’s own expense.

When all is said and done, you never speak about yourself without loss. Your self-condemnation is always accredited, your self-praise discredited.

We are all patchwork and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment plays its own game.

Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself.

Sarah Bakewell quotes the journalist Bernard Levin as saying,

‘I defy any reader of Montaigne not to put down the book at some point and say with incredulity: “How did he know all that about me?’

That perfectly describes how I have felt in beginning to learn more about Montaigne, his life, times and essays.

Currently he is the person I name when asked who I would like to meet, or invite to dinner.

References

Bakewell, S. (2011) How to Live. A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer.  Vintage Books.

Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Works: Essays, Travel Journal, Letters (2003) Translated by Donald, M. Frame. Everyman’s Library.

Bakewell, S. (2010) Montaigne, philosopher of life (parts 1-7). The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2010/may/10/montaigne-philosophy

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

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