The Master Betrayed #4
A series based on Iain McGilchrist's conclusions about a left brain dominated world
In the conclusion of Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary, the question is asked, “What would the left hemisphere’s world look like?” if the left hemisphere of the brain “became so far dominant that, at the phenomenological level, it managed more or less to suppress the right hemisphere’s world altogether”.
In this series of posts I’d like to break down his conclusion and discus just how closely our world is conforming to the left hemisphere’s perspective.
So much for the tendencies toward abstraction. But there would also be the tendencies toward reification1. Increasingly the living would be modelled on the mechanical. This would also have effects on the way the bureaucracies would deal with human situations and with society at large. When we deal with a machine, there are three things we want to know: how much it can do, how fast it can do it, and with what degree of precision. These qualities summarise what distinguishes a good machine from a bad one: it is more productive, faster and more precise than a less good one. However, changes in scale, speed and precision in the real world all change the quality of the experience, and the ways in which we interact with one another: increasing them no longer gives a clearly positive outcome - it can even be very damaging. In human affairs, increasing the amount or extent of something, or the speed with which something happens, or the inflexible precision with which it is conceived or applied, can actually destroy. But since the left hemisphere is the hemisphere of What, quantity would be the only criterion that it would understand. The right hemisphere’s appreciation of How (quality) would be lost. As a result considerations of quantity might come actually to replace considerations of quality altogether, and without the majority of people being aware that anything had happened. (Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary)
To begin with, my last essay on Iain McGilchrist’s chapter 12 of The Matter With Things, covers the topic of the machine model in a bit of detail. Please consider it as commentary to much of what is brought up in this paragraph from The Master and His Emissary:
When we deal with a machine, there are three things we want to know: how much it can do, how fast it can do it, and with what degree of precision.
Certainly bureaucracies, especially under a totalitarian system, can treat people as machines. In the West, at the moment, with all of this woke demoralising madness that’s afoot, that aspect of left hemisphere control is shrouded by a distinct lack of expectation for anything resembling productivity, efficiency or precision. But if we get away from the sociopolitical topics of gender, race, and physical attributes, there is, for the ‘normal’ world of work, an increasing demand for more, faster, better. And if we can’t deliver, even with out machine appendages, then the bureaucracy will quickly swap us out for an actual machine as soon as one is available.
Scale, speed and precision, the high value attributes for the left hemisphere, can severely alter the quality, experience and value of things as well. Take writing for example, especially now that we have bots masquerading as online journalists - output volume, speed of delivery, and precision in articulation can equate to a lot of words written very fast and probably technically correct (or very funny when the bot gets it wrong). But it misses all the human elements of character, humour, personal experience and the subtle creativity that come from a human journalist. It’s similar to the art produced by AI driven systems - they can be amazingly precise (or weirdly psychedelic) yet misses subtle human elements. I must say, however, modern art (which I’ve written about here) with it’s trade of beauty for utility and political clout, is easily emulated by machines, as indeed many modernists have themselves tried to emulate machines.
Dostoevsky declared, "beauty will save the world" (once again see my post here), but it seems beauty isn’t in the mind of the left hemisphere and modern art or literature, but utility: The means to shock, to politicise, to make a social commentary (often the art cannot do that by itself but requires an accompanying narrative otherwise the onlooker won’t have a clue what the artist is on about). But the left hemisphere is the hemisphere of quantity (the what) and not quality (the how) of the right hemisphere, and so quality is disregarded.
I’m sure you can come up with many examples of quantity over quality in the world today, especially in the commercial world - the disposable world of mass production where the thoughtfully designed and truly hand-crafted object is a rarity, reserved for the indulgence of the wealthy. It even seems many things are designed to fail after a certain time (usually a month after the warranty has expired) simply for the commercial ploy that you have to replace it - cynical of me I know.
Let’s take the social sciences, which I know best, and look at the practice of counselling psychology. This, you would think, is the last place for machine-like thinking, but here too we are looking for the algorithm, the formula, the sequence that we can exact on our unsuspecting clients (also considered machines) to heal them (and to get as many through the door as possible - although no one would admit as much). Students of counselling asking for the magic steps, the “A.B.C.” that they can memorise and then go off to perform on clients. Why bother with the deep work of understanding people and ourselves and, even worse, the laborious and frustrating time-consuming job of just living and experiencing life and others? Just give me the algorithm! Our left hemisphere bent society has us all falling in line with the machine model (again check out my post here on the machine metaphor)
Now over to you. How is our quality of experiencing the world and each other being impacted by an increasingly left hemisphere way of being? would love to hear your comments.
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Reification is a false attribution of concreteness to a mere abstraction.