Saturday, February 20, 2010

Left brain, right brain

A comment I made on another blog recently got me to thinking about reductionism and the fear religious people commonly express about it. The writer recommended a long article from a pontifical academy on the theology of Darwinism, which made a special point of denying the ability of reductionism / materialism to describe the essence or being-ness of humans. At the end of a comment, I said:
"Reductionism is not a reflection of the world, really, but of our mental capacity to understand it. We require abstracted models and systems, benefiting from breaking down and rebuilding in abstract fashion the complex entities of the world."
The world just is, whether we approach it with awe and mysticism, or with reductionism and analysis. The violence we do to holistic world views through dispassionate analysis is not violence we do to the world, but to the sensitivities of our fellows who have different perspectives. Conversely, theistic claims of sensitivity to holistic, indeed supernatural, phenomena, do violence to the understandings of anyone with an analytical bent, but again, not to reality itself.

Are the persepctives really so incompatible? I doubt it, and therein lies another approach to resolving the culture wars. Each side has a symbology or ideology by which it represents its perspective, each problematic in turn when taken too literally. These sides can be typified by the left-brain, right-brain divide, which is a bit of hyperbole, since we all partake of both sides, and differences tend to be minor. But still, people do seem to have slight preferences either for the left brain's analytical, concrete, reductive tendencies, or the right brain's holistic, intuitive and mystic tendencies.

On the analytical side, people often mistake description for understanding, and mistake understanding for participation and meaning. For all the detailed knowledge of physics, for instance, we still do not truly understand the fundaments of the universe- why matter and energy exist, and whence something as simple as gravity really arises (or the space-energy interaction on which it is based). Being able to describe in detail the workings of gravitational systems is a huge advance over our prior ignorance, in both practice and theory, but it is not yet full understanding. Such understanding may not be possible. But we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that labeling a lot of boxes with fancy words and gaining some operational and intellectual power over their relationships amounts to full understanding, or fulfillment of the human search for knowledge. (Which finds perennial expression in spiritual "seeking".)

These partial successes have given us great power over our environment, powers that continually reveal nasty side effects, but do they make us happier and better? Do they deepen our connection with the world- the participation mystique that forms one basis of happiness? They give us security against natural events, (acts of god, as it were), as they also alienate us from world-participation. Our involvement in nature becomes, at best, aesthetic and optional, rather than the Wagnerian life-and-death drama in which we were embedded primordially. Thus happiness has a frought relationship with what we in the modern left-brain West call knowledge and success.

On the other hand, the right-brain attitude of holism continually seeks greater significances and numinosities in the world, focusing not on how it is put together, but how it adds up to meaning. This syle of thought tends also to work with images and symbols rather than analytic ideas. Thus meanings are symbolized in religious imagery, starting from a plethora of spirits imbued into inanimate surroundings or sympathetic spirits experienced in hunted prey, and continuing on to civic deities and universal, patristic monotheisms apotheosizing increasingly complex social and philosphical concerns.

Obviously, these symbologies have their problems, not in their artistic expression and portrayal of psychological yearnings and dynamics, but in their morphing into matters of "fact" rather than matters of art or psychology. All too easily, left brain-types find themselves drawn into the vortex of imaginative religious ideas and feel a need to systematize, organize and regularize. And then to insist that not only are these ideas beautiful, but they are real. Indeed, real-er than real, with the prospect of greater lives after this one, higher worlds beyond this one, and deeper intelligences at work behind it all.

What is striking is that each style of thinking leaves such strong imprints on its content, doubtless because one can't avoid it. And that the cross-talk between styles of thinking can be so maddeningly fruitless, even destructive.

When taking this test on left-right tendencies, I come out right in the middle.

  • Jung and Avatar, over at the oil analyst, of all places!
  • Politics and physiology/temperament.
  • Politics and mythology.
  • Jewish orthodox cultism.
  • The business card economy takes on China.
  • Economic classic- Coase, on the nature of the firm.
  • See-no-evil, hear-no-evil.
  • Mitchell quote of the week, speaking of deficit terrorism in the context of the Federal budget:
"In general, the imposition of these restraints reflect ideological imperatives which typically reflect a disdain for public endeavour and a desire to maintain high unemployment to reduce the capacity of workers to enjoy their fair share of national production (income)."

1 comment:

  1. Very nice post.

    I think that reductive thinkers can leave room for experience which may fall outside the realm of intellect and concepts.

    And "holistic" thinkers need to understand that "reduction" doesn't mean reduction in value.

    I just listened to a great interview with Robert Wright and Brian Swimme, a physicist. It really felt like Swimme was trying to forge a new language to talk about the universe. Definitely process philosophy.

    Thanks again for a very insightful post.

    BTW, I think perhaps the dangerous people are the ones who are quite left-brained....inside a religious tradition. "Religious positivists"? ;)