A divided look at the movement

“The master and His Emissary” is a book written by doctor and psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist (an animated summary was recently published) which examines the thoroughly divided nature of the human brain. The fact that it’s divided is easily discerned simply by taking a look at it; the two cerebral hemispheres are asymmetrical and connected only by a structure called the Corpus callosum. The theory that this might have some major impact on the way we function goes a long way back, but our understanding of it continues to evolve.

The purpose of this article is not to make claims regarding the intricate workings of our brains, but rather to use the concept detailed by McGilchrist to analyze some of the stuff going on within society today.

McGilchrist warns us against the simplistic view of the brain that was especially prevalent in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, which gave the faulty impression that the left part of the brain deals only with reason and that emotion is handled exclusively in the right hemisphere. Instead, he says, they differ in the way that they “view” the world, or rather where they focus their attention.

The left hemisphere deals with details; its attention is focused on the parts of a mechanistic reality. It divides, defines and carefully examines. It abstracts and manipulates a decontextualized, closed system. Its right counterpart instead regards the big picture. In the words of McGilchrist it “yields a world of individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate, living beings in the context of the lived world”.

The concept of these two views is not entirely new and might even be instinctively recognized by some. I was personally reminded of Robert M. Pirsig’s classic “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance” in which the main character Phaedrus talks about two different ways of viewing the world: Romantically or Classically. Romantics like to see "the whole" while Classics are more interested in the parts and how they relate to each other. The analogy he uses to describe this is that if the world is a desert, the Romantic mind will pick up a handful of sand and marvel at its texture and appearance, while the Classically inclined will start to sort the tiny particles and try to figure out how they comprise the sand. Both are valid ways of looking at things, but one should note none of them can fully grasp the vastness of the desert.

So how does all this relate to the movement? To answer this I have examined some problems that could be related to the limitations of the Classic and the Romantic mindsets.

The limitations of the Classic mind

While the left hemisphere is adept at dealing with logically coherent theoretical structures, it must always rely on certain axioms that it takes for granted. This can give rise to complicated cognitive models that while completely logical in and of themselves are essentially detached from reality, even creating impossible paradoxes that Immanuel Kant called Antinomies. It has a hard time understanding things outside of this closed system, often disregarding them as unimportant.

This matters to the Zeitgeist movement because we find ourselves within an extremely intricate system, a societal construct that is based on some very old assumptions about human nature. To question the very foundations of such a system is very hard for the classically inclined. Instead it is often up to the right hemisphere to create a paradigm shift, to broaden the view to let the creation of a new system take place. I believe this is the essence of what the Occupy Wall street-movement is all about. Its language is that of values, of instinctive human principles that are being violated by the workings of the current system. This sentiment was perfectly articulated by Charles Eisenstein in a video published on youtube:

“You can't just say ‘We demand a world of peace’. Demands have to be specific. Anything that people can articulate can only be articulated within the language of the current political discourse. And that entire political discourse is already too small. And that's why making explicit demands reduces the movement, and takes the heart out of it. So it's a real paradox, and I think the movement understands that.”

But the Classical mind doesn’t like anything that doesn’t conform to its limited reality. It understands love and emotion, but only as subjective data sets in an objective world. The value of these things is not intrinsic, but defined by the system.
Our challenge is be as clear and precise as possible while still stressing the importance of a paradigm shift. Don’t alienate the classically inclined by speaking of things she doesn’t understand. Make her question the validity of her axioms, and give her some time to realize the rationality in your position.

The limitations of the Romantic mind

I’ve recently spent some time in TZM’s Facebook group, which, with its more than 150,000 members, tends to be a melting pot of differing viewpoints and ideas. In places like this you will inevitably encounter people with some controversial beliefs; terms like “New World Order” and “Illuminati” are likely to appear in their posts. Another popular subject is what I’ve come to dub “The Cult of Tesla” - the belief that the engineer Nikola Tesla in the late 19th century stumbled upon the secret to unlimited energy, a secret that has since been kept from us.

I found a post linking to a video on this subject and, being rather skeptic of such claims, decided to educate the person posting on the workings of the scientific method and the virtues of a skeptical mindset. She soon answered that she didn’t know enough about Tesla to know if it was true or not, but that she couldn’t see anything wrong with it. I proceeded to ramble a bit about how the claims in the video violated the laws of thermodynamics (which I honestly only know a tiny bit about) and ultimately only succeeded in making a fool of myself.

A third person then entered the discourse with a post that read something along these lines:

“I think she only meant to point out that other sources of energy are possible, which is quite important.”

This set me off guard because it made me realize that the original poster’s true message was a Romantic one. The purpose of the right hemisphere is not to make logically coherent, factual claims, but rather to express greater truths. The importance is the soul of the message, not the words used to express it. The problem arises when the Romantic core is missed by the interpreter and the metaphors used to express it are considered actual claims. For example, the “God” meant to describe a fundamental transcendental unity becomes an actual, physical being, a concept in which we can invest and identify with.

As McGilchrist explains, the truths of the right hemisphere cannot be proven with arguments. It essentially lacks a voice and must use metaphors such as art and poetry to express itself. The romantically inclined tends to fear or loath “science” because its Classical nature aims to define a perfect but ultimately soulless world. Our challenge here is to point out that science can also reveal the magical, extraordinary parts of reality. The scientific truth does not have to be a stale, cold one, but should rather be viewed as emergent and never fully defined.

We should strive to achieve a better understanding of these viewpoints, as I believe the conflict between them is what causes many of the problems we are faced with today.

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do, 12/01/2011 - 11:05am | I have almost the same world (Score: 1)
do, 12/01/2011 - 11:50am | This post may change me a (Score: 1)
vr, 12/02/2011 - 6:56am | I'm very glad it made an (Score: 1)