Advocating the Devil II
Prickles, Goo and the Divided Brain
We are divided down to the core of our perception.
Just as our opinions frequently contradict one another, our own minds are internally conflicted in how we should view the world.
Are there opposing ways that the world actually appears to us, depending on the way we look at it?
“The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments.”
These are the words of the father of American psychology and philosophy, William James, who’s insight and clarity I have found matched by very few thinkers. He described the “dilemma in philosophy” as a polarity in the way temperaments manifest themselves in the personalities of people, while calling out the broad brush that a simplification like this necessitates and recognizing the nuanced ways the modes can manifest in individuals. He saw a difference between the “tender-minded” and “tough-minded”, which carries shades of many of the philosophical polarities we introduced in the previous chapter. He saw that the former are often rationalists and idealists, while the latter were often empiricists and realists (with a physicalist bent). The “tender-minded” are more likely to be religious and believe in free will, while the “tough-minded” are more likely to be skeptical and deterministic.
In the first chapter, I claimed that we have faith (mostly implicitly) in a belief system that underlies how we interpret and act in the world. What we come to have faith in is critically influenced by our temperament, although that doesn’t mean our temperament is final and isn’t constantly modified by our actions throughout time. It does mean we have a problem in discerning how to find the truth through one’s particular temperament, without claiming that others must be flawed or that there are only relative and subjective truths that don’t correspond with any ultimate reality.
Alan Watts is another of my favorite philosophers, who took this problem seriously and had a wide-spanning curiosity, with an incredible ability to distill his observations in a concise and entertaining manner. He was influenced by James and famous for interpreting Eastern belief systems like Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism in a meaningful way, for a Western audience. In one of his most well known lecture series, Out of Your Mind, he builds on this polarity within philosophy itself:
“There are basically two kinds of philosophy: prickles and goo. Prickly people are precise and logical- they like everything chopped up and clear. On the other hand, goo people like it vague. In physics, prickly people are those who believe that the ultimate constituency of matter is particles, whereas goo people believe in waves. In philosophy, prickly people are logical positivists [or realists], and goo people are idealists [or transcendentalists]. And they’re always arguing with each other. But neither could take a position without the other person, because you wouldn’t know that you advocated prickles unless there were someone out there advocating goo. You can’t know a prickle without the goo. And life is neither prickles nor goo- it’s gooey prickles and prickly goo.”
Besides succinctly summarizing the nondual perspective with ‘gooey prickles and prickly goo’, Watts paints a vivid picture of the classically contrasting ways to philosophize about the world.
The prickly philosophers are “tough-minded, rigorous and precise”, stressing the “differences and divisions between things”. One might see them in the modern world, dominating the philosophy of science, often viewing the world as a cold, zero sum game of survival between ‘selfish’ genes, creatures and ideas; while in the past, many seemed to believe in some type of “Ceramic model” of the universe, in which it was the work of a Cosmic Craftsman, who rules ‘His’ creations with strict laws and an iron fist.
The gooey ones are instead the “tender-minded romanticists” who love “wide generalizations and grand syntheses”, being “inclined to pantheism and mysticism”. This perspective points to the interdependence, harmony and underlying unity in reality that runs through many Eastern schools of thought, as well as in some Western mysticism and religious sects. In the modern world, many are part of the New Age camp, who search for spiritual belonging through their (often misguided?) interpretation of traditional practices and beliefs.
Although this idea was presented by Watts somewhat playfully, I believe the implications of his ‘prickles and goo’ metaphor go even deeper than he ever got to know, as there are some interesting parallels that can be drawn down to the architecture of our brains. To explore this claim, we have to turn to a body of experimental research in neuroscience that was conducted on split-brain patients throughout the 1960s.
It is readily apparent when looking at the brains of most animals, including that of human beings, that there is a clear bifurcation (division) between two asymmetrical ‘hemispheres’ of cortical tissue. In fact, there are signs of asymmetry in even the most primitive neural networks. Thus, when a neural system starts developing, it does so in an asymmetrical way from the start. In the human brain this development has become incredibly complex, with a tendency towards both more differentiation and integration. A bridge of tissue, known as the corpus collossum, serves as the main set of connective pathways between these two hemispheres of our cerebral cortex, and its function seems to inhibit messages passing between them as much as it facilitates information sharing. It seems that when executive functioning develops through a nervous system, two ways to view the world are immediately necessary and they aren’t completely integrated or separated…
In the mid-20th century, severing this bridge served as a treatment for some patients with epilepsy as it stopped the communication flow between the hemispheres. This lead to the discovery of some, at first, subtle behavioral changes, which launched speculation on what the functional differences were between the two halves. The early theories were that the left hemisphere was dominant, with a hold on rational thinking and speech, while the right hemisphere was seen as unsophisticated and quietly taking a back seat in harboring our emotions and visuospatial capacities. However, these early generalizations have largely been left behind as either entirely incorrect or too simplistic, leaving open questions as to whether there are any good reasons why our brains are asymmetrically separated.
The psychiatrist Iain McGhilchrist has an alternative theory, which he synthesized into his phenomenal work, The Master and His Emissary, published only a decade ago and in it proposes a more comprehensive assessment than the popular misconceptions that came in the immediate aftermath of the studies. He doesn’t see the distinction between the hemispheres as one of function, but rather, as a difference in perspective.
It isn’t about what the hemispheres are doing differently from each other, it is about how they go about attending to the world. They quite literally pay attention to reality in complementary but ultimately incompatible ways: with the left hemisphere utilizing narrow, sharply focused attention to detail and the right hemisphere maintaining sustained, open and vigilant alertness. He also inverts the classic opinion — seeing the right hemisphere as the ‘master’ and the left hemisphere as its ‘emissary’, which frequently denies the existence of its partner and believes itself to be in control.
One of the most enlightening ways he demonstrates their differing ‘takes’ is in describing how the division manifests within birds: imagine a bird having to focus its attention on picking up seeds from a gritty landscape, with a simultaneous need to stay alive and not be eaten itself. A situation as common as this highlights how two incompatible types of attention have to be maintained in the environment at one time. A bird typically uses the right eye (controlled by the left hemisphere) to focus on the precise details relevant for grabbing the seeds, while its left eye (right hemisphere) maintains an open attention to the environment, scanning for anything unexpected that might occur. McGhilchrist uses the example in birds to illustrate that, at the most fundamental level, the two hemispheric ‘modes’ support each other so that the organism can eat and not be eaten. Although, their ways of being manifest in more than just these predator and prey modes as life gets more complex.
In humans, the left hemisphere engages in focused attention to what has already been prioritized as significant. This allows for grasping and manipulation, both physically with the right hand for leveraging tools, as well as abstractly with the use of speech to categorize, distinguish and ‘grasp’ concepts. It prefers to operate within a realm of representations, which prove useful for reducing the complex environment into generalized categories and symbols, that can be more easily understood and leveraged. This detached view on reality sees it as a place of inert objects, a whole composed of simple, fragmentary parts that can be analyzed and reduced to their fundamental mechanisms. Thus, it isn’t entirely wrong to see why logic is often associated with it, as rational thinking is well suited for manipulating cause and effect in a static, closed system.
The right hemisphere is instead adapted for unknown situations, having to remain open for anomalies from that which hasn’t been anticipated or mapped. It has been likened to a devil’s advocate in this respect, as it has to attend to what is actually presented and not accounted for in the current framework. Creativity isn’t out of place in association with it either, as creative action is required to adapt in uncertain and evolving circumstances. It is intuitive and lives in an embodied world of the living and breathing, taking into account the contextual environment that things (and ideas) are embedded in at a given time. This open awareness forms a holistic and particularized view of what it attends to.
The left hemisphere’s boxing in leads to an ‘either/or’ view of objects and ideas, as they are chopped up and put into their understood corners of the mind. It is looking for control and views its relationship with the right hemisphere (when it recognizes its existence) as a competitive relationship, in a zero sum game. It sees things as fixed and devoid of context, sorting them into universal categories that are rigid, mutually exclusive and conceptual in nature. Its ultimate goal is self-consistency and certainty, which is necessary for analysis and forming a mapped out plan, although it becomes pathological when it closes itself off to what it doesn’t know and/or has left out. Interestingly, the left hemisphere is actually more physically stratified and compartmentalized, as compared to the diffuse structure of the right hemisphere.
The right hemisphere foregoes certainty for an opening up into possibility, living experientially in the flow of transformation which it sees as the only constant. This is why McGhilchrist sees the right hemisphere as the master, as it it quite literally sees more of the whole than its counterpart, in synthesizing the knowledge of the left hemisphere into a bigger picture that recognizes the complementary nature of their dispositions. Thus, even though McGhilchrist decides to call one the master, he recognizes that both perspectives must exist in a balance that allows their incompatible views to harmonize in a mutually beneficial way. I follow in his way of treating the hemispheres almost like personalities, which is obviously an over simplification, although I find it useful to get a sense of their differing style.
To me, it appears that McGhilchrist’s views can be summarized in Watts’ language, with the left hemisphere focusing on the static ‘prickles’ that emerge under a fixed spotlight of attention, while the right hemisphere sees the backdrop of ‘goo’ that flows and encompasses it all. Although we all most certainly use both half of our brains, doesn’t it make sense that we might place a different emphasis on their perspectives, leading to different beliefs and philosophies?
McGhilchrist seems to think so, believing that our culture has swayed more and more to a left hemisphere worldview in the West, permeating society in an increasing degree as we build a more industrialized, structured and predictable environment. Watts held a similar view with his own terms, seeing an imbalance of our beliefs toward the isolated and mechanistic in the prickly worldview. As the left hemisphere contains the aspects of speech that allow us to grasp concepts, it acts as an interpreter that better campaigns for its perspective in our conscious minds, becoming a media broadcaster through our thoughts and labels. For practical sake, we cease living in the territory and hold trust in our map. If we stay focused on the map too long, we fail to see what we have left out in the always elusive and changing territory.
In order to examine these claims further, we must take a deeper journey into how our beliefs and value system are formed through the framework we use to interpret the world, and how they can be shattered and reworked when we encounter things or ideas that we had left out. In doing so, we will naturally confront the is-ought problem raised by the philosopher David Hume, who took issue with claims of what ought to be (values) immediately following observations of what is (facts) — as there must be an assumption(s) underlying the leap from observing a ‘fact’ to a belief in whether it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and how it implies we should act.
In the next chapter, we will use the groundwork we laid in order to to see how we each rely on an evolving map of the world — which literally determines what we both see and believe to be true…