Mystery and Order in the Human Brain
In The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist writes that a bird, as with the rest of us, needs two types of consciousness simultaneously. It must be able to focus on something specific, such as pecking at food, while it also needs to keep an eye out for danger which requires a more general awareness… The post Mystery and Order in the Human Brain appeared first on VoegelinView.




In The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist writes that a bird, as with the rest of us, needs two types of consciousness simultaneously. It must be able to focus on something specific, such as pecking at food, while it also needs to keep an eye out for danger which requires a more general awareness of environment. These are quite different and incompatible activities. To solve the problem of having to do two opposite things at once – focusing both broadly and narrowly – the left hemisphere of the brain (LH) has evolved to be adapted for a narrow focus. The right hemisphere (RH) for the broad. Ordinarily, the two modes merge at the level of conscious experience, so we do not notice the two different contributions of the separate hemispheres. Since the exact nature of what might be a threat cannot be anticipated, it could be a predator, it could be the dead limb of a tree choosing that moment to fall, a competitor trying to steal its food, and so on, the RH must be “open-minded” and not simply follow preconceived ideas. The brains of all birds, mammals, and reptiles have this same LH/RH division because all animals need these two functions.
For 97% of people, the LH governs the right side of the body, the RH, the left side. With birds, the left eye (RH) maintains general environmental awareness, dangers of various kinds, while the right eye (LH) focuses on food and specifics. It should be noted that what is significant philosophically is not what part of the brain does what, but that human consciousness combines two very different ways of looking at the world. These modes of perceiving the world can get off kilter due to a brain pathology with a biological origin, or a problematic emphasis on one at the expense of the other on the part of an individual or culture.
The LH deals with the explicit, the familiar, the literal, tools, the known, the light of day, mechanism / machines, the man-made and the inanimate. The broad focus of the RH is necessarily vaguer and more intuitive and handles the anomalous, novel, metaphorical, the living and organic.
The LH exhibits unrealistic optimism and self-belief. The RH, on the contrary, has a tendency towards depression and is much more realistic about a person’s own abilities. LH has trouble following narratives because it has a poor sense of “wholes.” In art it favors flatness, abstract and conceptual art, black and white rather than color, simple geometric shapes and multiple perspectives all shoved together. This LH cubist painting by Picasso called The Muse follows these precepts, except it is highly colorful in the manner of the RH. Paintings with a RH emphasis may depict vistas with great depth of field and thus space and time, emotion, figurative painting[1] and scenes related to the life world. Oswald Spengler, the writer of the famous The Decline of the West, makes a connection between visual depth of field; space, and the spiritual and transcendent. Mystical experience is RH, as is experience in general. Meditation, for instance, seems to be partly about bringing into conscious awareness the RH which in ordinary consciousness tends to remain implicit, not explicit. By meditating, one is likely to feel more connected to one’s physical environment and to empathetically feel the presence of God.[2] The Ego, with its borders and strong sense of division, exists in the LH and can potentially tend toward feelings of isolation and alienation. RH, by contrast, is expansive and connecting. Followers of Eastern religious traditions sometimes mistakenly think that the ideal would be to get rid of the Ego, but this would be pathological. A person would lose all sense of his own separate identity and be unable to function. We cannot simply merge with the physical and social environment and still operate normally and productively. Such merging, if it is experienced at all, has to be episodic and temporary.
Meditation could help convince someone that he is more than his Ego, but the Ego is transcended and included in this “more,” not eliminated. The connection between LH and Ego can also be seen in the fact that the LH is competitive, contentious, and agonistic. It wants to win. It is the part of you that hates to lose arguments. It is possible to feel your very identity is threatened in the struggle.
In music, LH likes simple, repetitive rhythms. The RH favors melody, harmony and complex rhythms. Thus, contemporary popular music, notably, the driving repetitive thump of Techno music or Disco emphasizes the LH.
One reason children’s art is typically so bad is that children and many adult non-artists tend to draw what they “know” (LH) rather than what they perceive (RH). The child/non-artist is effectively drawing a concept. The good artist, what he sees. It seems strange that most people draw their LH abstract idea of a table. The following picture of two tables illustrates the difference:
The non-artist knows the table is rectangular and so a rectangle is drawn with a couple of legs sticking out. In doing so, he follows the LH. The picture on the right is closer to what is actually seen. The RH is connected to experience, not theory. Think of the archetypal, ubiquitous and awful picture that nearly all of us draw in elementary school with a strip of blue at the top representing the sky, a strip of green at the bottom representing grass and the ground, and the same boring house with two windows, a door, a roof, and a chimney, maybe with smoke coming out. Somewhere near “the sky” is a yellow sun shining. Perhaps there are some figures standing outside the house looking at the painter, representing a family. All these items could be said to represent ideas and concepts and have very little to do with anyone’s visual experiences.
It usually takes a lot of training and practice to draw or paint something resembling what is really experienced. The default is LH ugliness and two-dimensional flatness. Good figurative painting requires a sense of space and depth. Concerning colors, the LH tendency when attempting to paint a black velvet dress, for instance, would be to grab a tube of paint black paint and to apply it. The LH “knows” the dress is black. In reality, even black velvet dresses are made up of multiple shades of color. They are not black holes after all. Light is reflecting off them no matter how dark they are.
The LH picture of a table and the RH table make an excellent visual metaphor for the frequent crudity of LH theory and unreal abstract concept-driven thinking. Homo economicus, the perfectly rational and egoistic consumer invented by bad economists, or the notion that all human psychology is hedonistic and driven only by pleasure, or brains are information processing devices, are examples of the gross LH simplifications and distortions that actually make human behavior harder to understand and predict, and more, not less, inexplicable. If you think humans are simpler than they really are then you will be continually confused by your inability to predict them.
Patients with RH strokes, now dependent on their LH, tend to feel that their paralyzed left sides of their bodies do not belong to them. Patients have been known to throw their own (left) arm out of bed because they are convinced the arm is not theirs. Of course, they tend to throw the rest of themselves out of bed in the process. Patients with LH strokes are not similarly divorced from reality.
People dependent on the LH tend to be averse to accepting responsibility. The paralyzed portion of the body has nothing to do with them, they think. In one experiment a doctor injected saline solution into a patient’s paralyzed arm and told the patient the arm was now paralyzed as a result. Once the LH patient could blame someone else for the paralysis she was happy to acknowledge that the paralyzed arm was her own. By focusing on tangible physical causes, rather than reasons for human behavior, and by rejecting the existence of free will, those who have an excessive LH emphasis tend to deny agential responsibility, both moral and practical.
Schizophrenia is a disease of extreme LH emphasis. Since empathy is RH and the ability to notice emotional nuance facially, vocally and bodily expressed, schizophrenics tend to be paranoid and are often convinced that the real people they know have been replaced by robotic imposters. This is at least partly because they lose the ability to intuit what other people are thinking and feeling – hence they seem inhuman, robotic, and suspicious. They become alienated from parts of themselves and think some of their own paranoid thoughts are coming from someone else, i.e., they hear “voices,” that are really their own mental vocalizations.
McGilchrist, like Spengler, characterizes the West as awash in phenomena associated with an extreme LH emphasis. Spengler argues that Western civilization was originally much more RH (to use McGilchrist’s categories) and that all its most significant artistic, musical, literary, architectural, and philosophical achievements were triumphs of RH accentuation. Science, on the other hand, focuses on the objective, measurable, third person perspectives, and mechanically repeatable as its method, all of which is LH. This is as it should be. Though scientists’ hypotheses to be tested originate in RH intuition, creativity and imagination. The theory of relativity is perfectly objectively true, but it took a great feat of imagination for Einstein to conceive it. People fool themselves into imagining that knowledge can be constructed using solely the objective and measurable, the well-defined, and light-of-day, and want to emulate the success and prestige of science. In doing this, they ignore the origins of scientific discovery. The philosophy of logical positivism, which attempted to do this, ended up being self-contradictory and impossible. Philosophy, as originated by Plato, begins with a religious intuition, involving wonder and mystery, the RH, not the LH.
The RH is where novel experiences and the anomalous are processed and where mathematical, and other, problems are solved. The RH is involved with the natural, the unfamiliar, the unique, emotions, the embodied, music, humor, understanding intonation and emotional nuance of speech, the metaphorical, nuance, and social relations. It has very little speech, but the RH is necessary for processing all the nonlinguistic aspects of speaking, including body language. Understanding what someone means by vocal inflection and facial expressions is an intuitive RH process rather than explicit.
Though communication exists between the two hemispheres, there is a fairly high degree of independence and needs to be. Awareness of context or extraneous background sounds can interfere with focus. Getting lost in specifics can harm a sense of the big picture. Making RH intuitive processes explicit can actually harm, slow them down or even destroy them. A joke explained is no longer funny. A metaphor spelled out can no longer function. The gestural aspect of speech (RH) if made conscious is merely distracting. Self-consciousness (LH) interferes with “flow” and public speaking. Processes like going to sleep involve letting go. We fall asleep, but wake up, having control over, rising above your feelings. Having a name on the tip of your tongue is more likely to be recalled if you stop focusing on it. Shortly before executing a jump in figure skating, breaking a board in karate, shooting at a target, thinking must cease. Happiness is best achieved indirectly not explicitly.
RH is very much the center of lived experience; of the life world with all its depth and richness. The RH is “the master” from the title of McGilchrist’s book. The LH ought to be no more than the emissary; the valued servant of the RH. However, in the last few centuries, the LH, which has tyrannical tendencies, has tried to become the master. The LH is where the ego is predominantly located. In split brain patients where the LH and the RH are surgically divided (this is done sometimes in the case of epileptic patients) one hand will sometimes fight with the other. In one man’s case, one hand would reach out to hug his wife while the other pushed her away. One hand reached for one shirt, the other another shirt. Or a patient will be driving a car and one hand will try to turn the steering wheel in the opposite direction. In these cases, the “naughty” hand is usually the left hand (RH), while the patient tends to identify herself with the right hand governed by the LH. The two hemispheres have quite different personalities. It does not take a surgical division of the hemispheres for someone to experience inner conflict like this.
Using the metaphor of Mystery and Order, the RH deals with Mystery – the unknown, the unfamiliar, the implicit, the emotional, the dark, danger, the chaotic. The LH is connected with Order – the known, the familiar, the rule-driven, the explicit, and light of day. Learning something means to take something unfamiliar and making it familiar. Since the RH deals with the novel, it is the problem-solving part. Once understood, the results are dealt with by the LH. When learning a new piece on the piano, the RH is involved. Once mastered, the result becomes a LH affair. The muscle memory developed by repetition is processed by the LH. If errors are made, the activity returns to the RH to figure out what went wrong; the activity is repeated until the correct muscle memory is developed in which case it becomes part of the familiar LH.
The context of science is life. Science is something people sometimes do. Science is an attempt to find Order. It would not be necessary if people lived in an entirely orderly, explicit, known world. The lived context of science implies Mystery. Theories are reductive and simplifying and help to pick out salient features of a phenomenon. They are always partial truths, though some are more partial than others. The alternative to a certain level of reductionism or partialness would be to simply reproduce the world which of course would be both impossible and unproductive. The test for whether a theory is sufficiently non-partial is whether it is fit for purpose and whether it contributes to human flourishing.
For those who buy into the scientific worldview, it might seem that life is something that science might choose to study, which it can. But, the larger context of science remains life with all its RH components.
The LH looks for and finds order in the flux of experience. In reality, every person is slightly different and every experience is unique. The 100th time something is done is different from the 99th. In order not to just get lost in Mystery, the LH uses categories and applies them across experience. While focusing on the repetitive aspects of experience can be useful, too much LH and Order is boring – resulting in the feeling “been there, done that.”
Analytic philosophers pride themselves on trying to do away with vagueness. To do so, they tend to jettison context which cannot be brought into fine focus. However, in order to understand things and discern their meaning, it is necessary to have the big picture, the overview, as well as the details. There is no point in having details if the subject does not know what they are details of. Such philosophers also tend to leave themselves out of the picture even when what they are thinking about has reflexive implications. John Locke, for instance, tried to banish the RH from reality. All phenomena having to do with subjective experience he deemed unreal and once remarked about metaphors, a RH phenomenon, that they are “perfect cheats.” Analytic philosophers tend to check the logic of the words on the page and not to think about what those words might say about them. The trick is for them to recognize that they and their theories, which exist in minds, are part of reality too.
The RH test for whether someone actually believes something can be found by examining his actions. If he finds that he must regard his own actions as free, and, in order to get along with other people, must also attribute free will to them and treat them as free agents, then he effectively believes in free will – no matter his LH theoretical commitments.
By trying to emulate the explicit formulations of science, analytic philosophy effectively excludes from its purview and thus from its conception of reality, all RH phenomena. By focusing only on what can be made explicit and what can be put into words using them literally, they distort reality. This happens even in their discussion of consciousness.
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger tried to describe the human condition, how humans are in the world, in a more RH way. He invented the term “Dasein,” literally “Being-there” to describe us to get away from terms like “human being” which is a strictly biological, scientific and thus LH label. Our mysterious RH aspect is not captured by such prosaic approaches.
Dasein, Being-there, is also Being-in-the-world. The world is where we are “thrown” without our consent. We have a dim RH apprehension of the situations or contexts in which activities are undertaken. We are building a house, meeting a friend, sick of our lives, bored, relaxed, anxious, etc. Each RH feeling, mood, or purpose reveals the world in different ways, foregrounding some things out of the infinite complexity of background. The RH determines what the LH sees. One person experiences X as a friend, another as a son, another as a student, another as a mechanic. Each experience is legitimate and none is comprehensive. When someone is hungry, he divides the world into food and not food – foregrounding the edible, while the inedible recedes. As such, Dasein is a clearing in the forest where things get revealed according to the purpose of Dasein.
Heidegger described people as always, already in the world. The world is the largest conception one might have of context. It is pre-theoretical and implicit. We find ourselves in the world and then try to make sense of it. We are in the world and then proceed to have theories about it. We do not and cannot prove the external world exists as a theoretical matter.
Most of our interaction with the world is precognitive. When we learn a skill (anomalous at the time it is learned) we have to learn it consciously (RH). Once acquired, the skill becomes LH – the known, the familiar, the routine. Colin Wilson calls this “the robot.” By that he means all activities that can be undertaken without the necessity of conscious thought, such as driving a car in non-difficult conditions. Driving a car is not entirely unconscious, but neither is it very conscious.
We demonstrate that we know what a hammer is, what it means, by stretching out a hand and hammering with it. This learned skill is a LH affair and precognitive. Only if it breaks do we look at it and think about it: also LH, since we are focused on a particular object. The hammer is “ready-at-hand,” and then “present-at-hand” if it breaks. If we start to consider how to fix the hammer, that is RH problem-solving.
From a RH perspective, to understand a hammer is to understand what it means; its function. Since meaning is a matter of connections to context, the thing to be studied must be carefully placed in its appropriate context rather than being studied in isolation. Context might be considered either invisible or dimly apprehended; something felt and intuited by the RH, when we are not separated from it in time and place. Otherwise, when looking at a painting of, say, Napoleon painted c. 1800, we must attempt to consciously reconstruct the context, cultural, historical, artistic, in which the painting was painted and viewed. To understand a painting from another time period with sensitivity, it is not enough to describe only what we see. Likewise, just analyzing the wood and metal used to construct the hammer, which would be a LH approach, is not to understand its meaning. The exact materials, so long as they are fit for purpose, do not really matter.
To understand the hammer it is necessary to look at in relation to the tool users who employ it, then to recognize that it points to nails and boards and then to the items constructed out of them. These matters of context are understood dimly via the RH and not at all by the LH. The ultimate meaning might be to build a house; to provide shelter for people.
However, in order to manufacture a hammer, the materials and exact construction of the hammer matter and this is LH, bearing in the mind that the hammer is fit for its purpose, which takes into account function and thus the RH.
Dasein (that’s you and me) is in the world concernfully. How the world is going for it, matters to Dasein. Dasein is not an object with fixed borders to be fully seen and understood. It reaches into the past and imagines alternative futures. The past and the future are invisible, and yet we have links to them. We project ourselves imaginatively into possible futures and we experience ourselves as deeply connected to our past. This is one reason why it is inadequate to think of a person as an object. What you see is not all there is. We are Dasein invisibly extending forward and backward in time.
Dasein is an embodied consciousness. The size and shape of our bodies is important. A chair is a chair for someone with a Dasein-sized body, but a chair is not a chair for an elephant. Birds have perches. Dasein does not. We have books. Birds do not. And then exactly how things in the clearing in the forest get revealed is relative to our concerns. Dasein is also “Being-toward-death.” The fact that we are going to die informs the rest of our experience.
The selective focus of Dasein, revealing objects relative to the subject, can be compared with Aristotle’s distinction between passive and active “nous.” We are constantly awash in sensations that we ignore – the feel of the socks on our feet, the press of our shirts on our backs, the view out the window as we think about a past conversation. This is passive nous. Active nous involves actively attending to sensations as we need to do when something unexpected happens on the road, or something catches our eye out the window. Dasein is a searchlight, selectively foregrounding out of the background.
Having a stroke in the RH means having to make do with the LH. Without the ability to deal with gestalts (wholes), the LH is forced to identify a person by single attributes, like a nose, or mouth, or haircut. Normal people recognize someone using the RH which has a broader focus and can see the whole face as a thing in itself. RH also deals with the unique – which is necessary to tell one person from another. RH perception takes multiple factors into account, including how a person moves. It provides fewer details, but it can see the forest for the trees.
Having a stroke in the LH, on the other hand, can result in what happened to Jill Bolte Taylor, herself a neuroscientist. Namely, she lost all sense of ego boundaries and found herself merging with the shower she was taking. She knew she was having a stroke, though she also enjoyed the feeling of connection with the world around her. She tried calling someone for help but had lost the ability to speak words. She also had a very hard time remembering the phone number. Thanks to neuroplasticity and rehabilitation she eventually made a full recovery.
It is possible in experiments to cause each hemisphere in turn to cease to function using magnetism – brains are electro-magnetic at some level and this can be manipulated. In one experiment, subjects were given the following syllogism:
All monkeys climb trees.
Porcupines are monkeys.
Therefore, porcupines climb trees.[3]
When the RH is functioning, subjects reject the argument as unsound since the second premise is false. The argument is recognized as technically valid – the premises if true would guarantee the truth of the conclusion – but that is all.
When only the LH was working, subjects accepted the argument as legitimate. When asked – but what about the second premise?[4], subjects acknowledged that it was false, but accepted it anyway saying “but it says here…”
The LH tends to accept a coherence theory of truth and knowledge– do beliefs create a self-consistent system? The RH embraces a correspondence theory of truth and knowledge – do beliefs actually match reality? (Lived experience).
The trouble with system-creation is that intellectual systems try to provide an answer for everything. This is a power-grab by the LH – making theory primary and comprehensive. It effectively claims omniscience via self-referential abstractions. Reality, however, includes a high degree of flux and process. Heraclitus’ aphorisms capture this well. “It is not possible to step into the same river twice,” he wrote. This is because man is in a constant state of change and with its flowing water, so is the river. There is a Logos that provides order to things so that things are not merely chaotic, but that order is better captured by the metaphor of the organic and the organic is wet, flexible, goal-directed, growing and changing. And it is the RH that deals with living things.
In the past, the universe and the world were thought of as alive and ensouled. The word “cosmos” refers to a harmonious well-ordered whole which has pleasant home-like connotations. The tendency since the scientific revolution has been to substitute the organic metaphor for the mechanical and metaphors tend to determine what is perceived.[5]
A LH mode of thought concerning free will or the existence of telepathy might be to reject them both on the grounds that – “I don’t see how that is possible,” i.e., they might seem to contradict the thinker’s materialistic metaphysics. In other words, LH arrogantly says, “If I don’t understand something it must be because it is impossible.” The RH response is to focus on the actual evidence and let the data determine the theory. The appropriate modus operandi[6] is to start with RH perception, perhaps modify those perceptions after pondering them (LH), and then return to RH experience.
For instance, someone is looking into the distance. Another person comments that the lights are beautiful. The first person alters his attention and focus slightly and he notices the beauty of the lights. Beauty is perceived but perception can be modified by thought. Likewise, little children and even some animals perceive injustice (RH) at least when it concerns themselves. This perception can be modified by thought and theory (LH) – not always for the better. The result can be a permanent alteration in perception. However, attempts to generate morality through moral theories like utilitarianism do not work. The LH is analytic, not generative.
We do not know the origin of life. We do not know how or even if consciousness can emerge from matter. We do not know the nature of 96% of the matter of the universe. Clearly all these things exist. They can provide the subject matter of theories but they continue to exist as theorizing ceases or theories change. Not knowing how something is possible is irrelevant to its actual existence. An inability to explain something is ultimately neither here nor there.
If thought begins and ends with the LH, then thinking has no content – content being provided by experience (RH), and skepticism and nihilism ensue. The LH spins its wheels self-referentially, never referring back to experience. Theory assumes such primacy that it will simply outlaw experiences and data inconsistent with it; a profoundly wrong-headed approach.

Zamyatin, Gödel, Turing and Keats

The Vienna Circle, a group of mathematicians and logicians in the first decades of the twentieth century, hoped to get rid of RH related religion, theology, metaphysics, idealism (the notion that consciousness and ideas are more primary than physical matter, as seen in Plato’s philosophy of the Cave), the purely philosophical and speculative, and idolized LH clarity and scientific facts. The German mathematician David Hilbert thought of mathematics as the height of certainty and rigor and imagined a glorious future for math, charting out a territory of the known and the proven. Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead, Frege, and others set out, using set theory and logic, to prove that mathematics is true. It took Whitehead and Russell 700 pages to prove that 1 + 1 = 2, and even then they had to introduce axioms that seemed dubious, and the whole system was clumsy. Hilbert issued a challenge for someone to prove that mathematics could be formalized; reduced to a set of operations that consisted of symbol manipulation devoid of meaning and thus something a machine could do. If mathematical truths could be traced to specific axioms, and axiomatic systems were complete – meaning they could decide the truth value of any proposition occurring within the system – then everything could be reduced to a rule-governed system and all the truths of mathematics could be proven to be true. Mathematics, the search for novel mathematical truths and their proofs, could then be undertaken by machines instead of people.
Kurt Gödel, however, proved that any axiomatic system above the level of complexity of simple addition, gives rise to propositions not provable within the system. The human mind could see the truth of these propositions, but they could not be proven to be true. That meant that even mathematics could not be formalized. Human consciousness was necessary to determine the truth of certain propositions generated by the system. A machine cannot do it. And that is why human mathematicians will always be necessary. All consistent (devoid of contradictions) axiomatic system will be incomplete. There will be truths that arise from the system that cannot be proven to be true. Gödel’s Theorem established this once and for all. A theorem, unlike a theory, is a logical truth that cannot be superseded by later discoveries, just like the truths of mathematics. At the heart of the theorem was the statement, “This statement cannot be proven within this axiomatic system.” This is a paradox. If you prove the statement, you have proven that it is unprovable, since that is what it says “this statement cannot be proven.” If you cannot prove the statement to be true, then the statement remains true. Afterall, it is claiming that it cannot be proven.
So, this is an example of a Gödelian proposition. It is true. We can see that it is true. But, we cannot prove it is true. You can take such propositions and just treat them as an axiom in a new system, but that system will in turn generate new Gödelian propositions. Mathematics cannot be reduced to a combination of axioms and rule-following with every element proven to be true.
Alan Turing, the conceptual father of modern digital computing, likewise showed that testing the validity of computer programs cannot be mechanized. And he did this before any actual digital computers were even built. This is called “the halting problem.” A program that has an error in it does not work and will never terminate (halt). It will never come to an end with a definitive result. That is what is happening when you stare at your phone or computer with a little circle telling you that a program is loading. It would be nice to know if that circle will stop (halt) – the program will work – or if the circle will just keep circling forever, stuck in a loop. When it gets stuck it is because there is an error in logic somewhere. The algorithm is bad. It does not lead to a definite result violating the very definition of an algorithm – namely that it can give an answer to a “well-defined” question. (A question of the right type). But, no computer can be made to tell you whether you should keep waiting or whether you should give up. If you did have a halting machine (a program), imagine that you have to wait for that program to load. You would need another halting machine to tell you if your halting machine was working properly, and then that halting machine would need another one, ad infinitum. You have just reiterated the halting problem rather than solving it. It takes a human mind to check programs. The process cannot be automated, just as mathematics in general cannot be automated. Turing proved that if you imagine that a halting machine existed, it leads to a contradiction, and contradictions are always false. You could feed the halting machine itself – since the machine is just a program and we feed programs into other programs all the time, such as when we load Microsoft Word on an operating system like Windows. One program is running another program. We could tell the halting machine to halt if the program was going to run forever and run forever if the program was going to halt. This is a contradiction. Imagining that a halting machine could exist leads to a contradiction, proving that it cannot exist. You might wonder why anyone would give the halting machine such a perverse order. The fact is, that you can do it and that fact proves a halting machine cannot exist.
The kind of intuitive, non-rule governed, creative and imaginative thinking found in the RH cannot be eliminated. The LH and the RH must be kept in balance. It would not be good, of course, if the RH was all there was. There would be very little language, and no logic and analysis. We would not be able to focus on details and there would be no Ego marking the boundary between you and another person, you and the world. However, in the modern world in the recent past, the tendency has been to fixate on the LH and be suspicious of the RH.
What is very significant about Gödel and Turing is that they provide certainty about the irreducible nature of uncertainty. In other words, they provide definitive proof once and for all of the limitations of LH thinking. They demonstrate to what should be to the satisfaction of even the most die-hard LH rationalistic reductionist skeptic that the RH cannot be dispensed with. It is simply not possible to have everything in the clear light of day; dry, proven, known, and nailed down. Thinking is not merely computation.
Intuition, the context of lived experience, being always already in the world, emotion, metaphor, humor, irony, and all the other things associated with the right hemisphere of the human brain are here to stay. The left hemisphere’s love of logic, mechanism, clarity and certainty must be tempered by the right hemisphere’s tolerance for ambiguity, uncertainty, and the organic. The fantasy of an omniscient science should be extinct.
After the Russian Revolution in 1917, Lenin and the Bolsheviks took power. They believed in a planned economy and a perfected, and rational society; one designed from the top down. The trouble with a perfect society is that human beings are not perfect and they are rebellious. Many people would prefer freedom of choice rather than conforming to the plan of another person, let alone a giant bureaucratic state organization. Most of us, once we are adults, want to be left alone to make our own choices rather than have our parents do it for us. This will entail making mistakes, but at least they will be our own mistakes. And, mistakes are one of the ways we learn.
Yevgeny Zamyatin started out as a fan of the revolution. Within three years he had had enough and realized that the USSR was a horrible place to live. Everything was supposed to be for the good of the state, of society, and individual people were regarded as disposable. There was constant surveillance and purges and people lived in fear of the secret police. The state controlled everything. What room is there for the creative, imaginative, and unruly in such a place? Zamyatin wrote the dystopian novel We as a protest and criticism of this inhuman LH rationalism.
Like Plato’s Republic, the story of We applies to the city/state, but also to the human soul. What was happening in Russia is comparable to the LH domination of the RH. Zamyatin imagines a world, which is a slightly exaggerated version of Soviet Russia, where people no longer have names, and only have a combination of letters and numbers. Everything is regimented. Even people’s sex lives are governed by appointments and filling out chits. Everything is mathematical and precise. But, as we have just seen, even mathematics is not immune to the RH. Certain truths of mathematics must be seen and intuited, not proved.
We was almost immediately banned and was not available to read in the East until the 1980s. We became the forerunner and inspiration for the two most famous dystopian novels in the West: 1984 and Brave New World. The main character in We gets recruited by a resistance movement to try to help overturn the repressive regime. The novel ends with the antihero having the node in his brain responsible for creativity and imagination surgically removed by order of the state. There is no other way to get people to conform to this rigid supposedly perfect order. LH is order. RH is mystery. Organic life walks the line between the two. Mechanized life is only order; only LH. A character complains: “Oh come on – knowledge! This knowledge of yours is utter cowardice. Yes, that’s it – really. You just want to build a little wall around infinity – and you’re afraid to look behind it.”[7] The evil One State tames a wild zigzag into a straight line – “a great, divine, precise, wise, straight line – the wisest of lines.” The tyrant does not like deviation from his plans. Straight lines or nothing. The main character, D-503, prior to his conversion to a new, liberated worldview that includes the RH, writes: “I personally do not see anything beautiful in flowers and the same goes for everything that belongs to the wild world…Only the rational and the useful are beautiful: machines, boots, formulas, food, etc..”[8] His soul has been deformed and stunted by the One State. The beautiful, the wild, the organic are RH. In writing this, Zamyatin demonstrates an exact understanding of the LH attitude and its limitations.
The LH has a tendency to turn the known world; the comprehensible, into the world; outlawing the transcendent and infinite – that, as D-503 writes, which is incapable of being encompassed by an equation.
Similarly, the Romantic poet John Keats became frustrated by fellow poet Samuel Coleridge’s desire for definitive answers and wrote in a letter to his brothers, George and Thomas:
Several things dovetailed in my mind, and at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason — Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.
“A fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery” means a genuine insight into the nature of reality taken from the innermost realm of mystery; from the intuitive RH. “Verisimilitude” means the appearance of being true or real. “Penetralium” means the innermost (or most secret) part of a building; an inner sanctum. A truth emerging from a mystery. Keats is complaining that Coleridge would reject such an insight because Coleridge could not fully explain or defend it. To preserve such an apprehension one must have “negative capability;” to accept something without insisting on total LH clarity, facts and reason. Facts are in a sense dead. Facts exist in the clear light of day. They are in the realm of Order which represents the familiar, the known, the robotic, and thus, the boring.
The point of intensest life and interest occurs at the dividing line between Mystery and Order. Creativity and discovery, philosophical, scientific and artistic, emerge from a state of wonder; neither being overwhelmed by infinity and the darkness of Mystery which would be fatal, nor insisting on the certainty of facts already known of Order. Scientific discoveries and artistic creation do not proceed along straight lines. Since the final result it unknown, there is no direct path to it. How can there be? Perhaps the process could be compared to water running down a uneven surface, avoiding barriers but also responding to them, getting diverted, taking wrong turns, doubling back, erasing one result, trying another, all the while trying to preserve forward momentum. A scientist asks a question and in the process of trying to answer it perhaps answers another question. Since practitioners do and theoreticians write, the role of theory and reason gets exaggerated in histories of discovery. The experimenter can have tentative hypotheses or intuitions but if he imagines that he already knows the outcome or insists on particular and foreordained results his research ceases.
Creativity has a tentative quality with no guaranteed outcome. There is an understandable desire to find the formula for creativity – rote instructions for writing the perfect novel might seem nice – but formulas and rote instructions are the opposite of creativity. Certainty and creativity are simply incompatible. There can be no creation machine. Creativity is more aligned with the organic, living, and “wet.” It is permeated by mystery and the dark.
It is hard not to fantasize about a Star Trek Next Generation future where all drugs, for instance, will be designer drugs and scientific discovery loses its haphazard guesswork and tentativeness.[9] Just one or two designer drugs, AZT being the prime example, have ever been created. The rest have come through trial and error. Typically, we do not know why a drug works, only that it does. In order to accept a drug even though we do not fully understand it is like Keats’ “negative capability.” Scientists have to resist an irritable reaching after fact and reason. The metaphor of Mystery and Order demonstrates why this will never change. Such “directed” research rests too heavily on what is already known or thought to be known; leaving no room for what is not already understood. Jet engines, for instance, were developed by tinkering. The theory of how they work came later.
Many scientific discoveries have been stupidly rejected because it could be proven that they were effective, but there was no LH theory to explain it. An example includes the use of pickled cabbage on sailing ships. Sailors were dying of scurvy from lack of Vitamin C due to an absence of fruit and vegetables on very long sea voyages and the pickled cabbage provided the missing nutrient. Though ship surgeons knew deaths were being prevented, they could not explain why, since no one knew about Vitamin C, and the cure was rejected. It is estimated that at least 100,000 sailors needlessly died as a result. Ignaz Semmelweis introduced handwashing using chlorinated lime for surgeons. It drastically reduced “childbed fever” that killed 10% of all pregnant women to under 1%. But, germ theory had not been invented yet. No one could explain the mechanism by which lives were being saved. Insanely, though proven effective at multiple hospitals, hand washing was rejected and women went on dying. At the time, doctors would go straight from examining a corpse to doing a pelvic examination of a pregnant woman with no disinfectant stage in between.

How to kill a research program

The following indicative story is from chapter four of John Gall’s The Systems Bible.[10] The story is fictional, but the scenario is all too familiar. It demonstrates how LH desires for clarity and explicitness in the name of accountability and efficiency, and the creation of complex systems can actually neutralize and ruin research programs.
Gall imagines Lionel Trillium, a shy young man whose questions about human reproduction went unanswered as a child and who developed instead an interest in the reproductive cycle of plants. He has been a moderately successful junior professor of biology with ongoing research programs.
His head of department, Baneberry, on the other hand, has been unproductive for years. He picks up a book about management and is struck with excitement. He will reorganize his department in a way calculated to boost productivity and efficiency. The administration greets this idea with enthusiasm. The plan is to get the other members of the department to write down their research objectives for the year. Their success or failure will then be judged according to the criteria that the faculty members themselves have provided. Baneberry will be able to hold them to account for any difference between what they said they were going to do and what they actually did.  A side effect of this approach is that any research that does not match the stated research objectives will be counted as a failure and the professor will get no credit for it.
The news of this new policy horrifies Lionel and has a depressing effect. If Lionel were going to write anything down about his goals and objectives it would be, “I love botany. Let me keep studying it.” However, this is clearly unacceptable to Baneberry. It would, however, actually result in the most productivity.
It is the very nature of research that it is not possible to list goals and objectives in advance. Or rather, one might have goals and objectives but they must be provisional and change as research progresses. If the outcome of research were known in advance no research would be necessary. By definition, what one will discover is a mystery. If you knew what you were going to find, you would, in effect, have already discovered it.
The results of science might be nicely clear, logical and explicit but the method of reaching these results necessarily involves delving into the unknown and mysterious. Generating hypotheses to be tested is a matter of imagination, intuition informed by experience and creativity. One is reaching into the realm of Mystery – what is currently unknown – and trying to find a hitherto undiscovered Order. To do that, inspiration and insight are required.
Inspiration and insight are likely to be the product of enthusiasm and interest. In fact, many seemingly intractable problems in various fields are solved by someone with no vested interest in the field; just a passing, but genuine curiosity. Nearly all the enormous range of scientific discoveries, industrial and farming advances in the nineteenth century came from interested amateurs. Universities have never been the center of innovation or creative thought.
Productive creativity in any area is likely to be a combination of expertise, skills, prior knowledge and crucially, enthusiasm. Etymologically, an enthusiasm is to be inspired by, or possessed, by a god. There is something wonderful and divine about it. Sometimes, enthusiasms are temporary, so it is important that a thinker pursues the interest while it exists and is at its keenest. Enthusiasm provides the needed grit not to stop as soon as things get difficult, promotes a joyful attitude and bolsters effort. Boredom and frustration are unlikely to help, whereas a certain relaxed playfulness might well assist. There are inevitably some boring aspects to mastering something. The goal-driven nature of enthusiasms means that these elements are likely to be better tolerated; simply subsumed within the larger sense of purpose.
Since enthusiasms are not predictable or possible to artificially generate, nor to know in advance what one will find, it is not possible to know what direction research will go in. There is simply no point in forcing someone to think about a problem that he has no interest in; not if the goal is to be creative.
Inspiration, creativity and enthusiasms are killed or thwarted by trying to systematize them. A system is akin to bureaucracy and in this case it is supposed to promote productivity and efficiency. Ironically, such a system is guaranteed to do the opposite and this is the case with nearly all systems. Systems are LH affairs.
A system is akin to an algorithm – a set procedure for producing predictable results. Systems arise in response to problems. There are several problems with this. One is that the problem the system is designed to remedy may not be the problem at hand. Another issue is that any problem the system cannot “see” is typically deemed not to exist. And finally complex systems produce unpredictable new problems of their own – often in exact opposition to the stated goal of the system. If authors and musicians were forced to follow systems the results would be predictably awful, and it is the same for scientists.
This is not the same as setting certain times of day aside for attempts at productive effort. There is nothing wrong with being organized – in fact, that will be very helpful. Writing music or novels in the morning hours, for instance, might be a very good idea. But no algorithm exists to guarantee the result. Algorithms are also known as “mechanical decision procedures” and they are literally a mechanical, rule-governed step-by-step method for achieving specific results. E.g., long division. They are tools, but they are no more creative than the chisel of a sculptor, although the chisel in this case is a crucial instrument for the creative process.
The National Institute of Health (NIH) takes nearly every productive scientist interested in cancer research and inserts them into a giant bureaucracy crammed filled with rules and regulations, research grant applications, goals and objectives, and effectively neutralizes these scientists by killing any spontaneity and unpredictable results. Research projects will have to be approved by committees and then funding for that goal and only that goal will be provided. Famously, the NIH tested 40,000 substances to see if they had any cancer fighting properties. None did. Zero. The amount of time and money wasted on this enterprise was stupefying. A machine-like uninspired mindless approach simply failed.
One reason that research in the private sphere is much more productive than government funded R & D is that companies are interested in making money. They are less filled with layers and layers of bureaucracy each one being accountable to the next. Viagra was discovered during research into blood pressure medicine. Erections were an unexpected side effect and initially treated as a problem. By remaining flexible and open-minded and not locked into stated goals and objectives, the company decided this side-effect could actually be the new product and Viagra was born. This kind of happy accident is actually the norm.
Lionel Trillium is in the impossible situation of trying to guess what he will be interested in in the future. He desperately does not want to write anything down. By getting Lionel to write down his “goals and objectives,” Baneberry is actually neutralizing Lionel and ensuring that only a pitiful trickle of probably uninspired research will result.
If the rather timorous Lionel dares try to complain to Baneberry or Baneberry’s superiors, Baneberry can respond that he, Baneberry, did not decide on the “goals and objectives.” It was Lionel himself who proposed them so Lionel has no right to complain. Lionel is not being forced to do anything that he did not want to do. Except this is a lie. Lionel was compelled to predict a future that is unpredictable and then forced again to abide by what he wrote.
The European Union provides money for research and development. Scientists are supposed to outline research programs projected two years into the future. An engineer friend of mine told me that he would be asked to apply for such grants and then had to try to retrofit what he actually discovered or invented to what he said he was going to do. He now refuses to apply. Government funded R & D is immensely counterproductive for this reason; particularly because it tends to target previously successful scientists – the ones that had been doing just fine without government grants – and shut them down.
None of this contradicts the notion that innovation is 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration. Enthusiasm means someone is self-motivated and likely to work harder than could reasonably be expected by a supervisor. Supervision is expensive – supervisors are usually paid more than the people of whom they are in charge. A self-reliant employee is a cheaper and more productive one. A lot of hard work mastering aspects of a field of study is usually going to be required for any breakthrough of insight. However, when it comes to creativity, mere effort is insufficient. Scientists must come up with hypotheses to test and there is no algorithm for that.
A very few people are culture-changing geniuses. It is particularly important not to try to coral geniuses into bureaucratic organizations. A true genius is not only very high IQ but motivated by self-generated self-chosen endogenous[11] goals. He does not have a merely temporary enthusiasm, but a permanent overriding obsession. He will not quit until he solves his problem no matter how long it takes. When Isaac Newton was asked how he came up with what we now know as classical physics, he said “By thinking constantly upon it.” The genius starts from first principles. Newton taught himself mathematics from scratch, he had had no prior instruction on the topic, at the age of fourteen and in one year he was as knowledgeable as any person on Earth. He then set about developing classical physics as we know it, including calculus. Modern universities, on the other hand, are looking for someone who is “collegial,” good-natured, nice to students, happy to sit on committees and do what he is told. Geniuses have to have psychopathic tendencies and not care what people think, i.e., be antisocial; neither agreeable nor conscientious – conscientiousness being rule and norm following. They will be a horrible colleague. Newton was typically silent around other people and was so lopsided in his intellect that he failed his BA the first time he sat the oral examination. Einstein invented a new proof of Pythagoras’ theorem at the age of twelve, but failed “German,” a requirement to get into university. What geniuses discover is by definition disruptive and they will ruin many people’s careers and prove many things wrong upon which their reputations are based. If you care too much what other people think of you – you are too agreeable – you cannot be a genius. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the genius philosopher, would not sit on committees, or teach classes, and he would only teach a student if he liked him or her. When Albert Einstein applied for jobs at universities, he would write a letter explaining why everything the head of department had contributed to physics was wrong and worthless and then say, “Can you give me a job?” He never got an academic appointment until after he was famous. At that point, such people become like a badge of honor for an institution.
Dan Ariely, who is particularly good at asking questions and then devising experimental methods for answering them, proved this in a series of experiments outlined in The Upside of Irrationality. He found that offering incentives such as paying someone more for an activity works best when the work being done is mechanical and involves sheer physical effort. People have a modicum of control over that. If someone is asked to do as many jumping jacks as he can in one minute, paying him a hundred dollars might mean he squeezes out a couple more. If, however, someone is asked to paint a beautiful picture for one thousand dollars and then after it is completed, two thousand dollars is offered for a more beautiful picture, the chances are the artist will be unable to comply. Or, imagine a particular form of surgery has a 4% chance of complications – will paying the surgeon five million dollars above his usual fee for a successful outcome lower that percentage? Might his hands begin to shake, his forehead perspire and similarly unproductive things result? Would he not already be doing his best? Will asking someone to solve a puzzle faster by paying him more be likely to work? Unlike physical effort, these things are not directly in someone’s control. Puzzle-solving and picture painting involve creativity, and successful surgeons are already conscientious and doing their best. That is why paying a child to read a book makes more sense than paying him to get an “A” on an assignment, although such payments might have other unintended negative consequences.
[1] Representational painting and as such will include figures – people and objects. Recognizable elements from our environments, as opposed to mere geometric shapes or completely nonfigurative abstractions.
[2] This last is a personal assertion that many Zen practitioners would be likely to reject.
[3] The Russians who did this experiment did not know that some kinds of porcupines really do climb trees, so it is necessary to ignore this inconvenient fact!
[4] The first two lines are the premises (reasons) and the last line is the conclusion.
[5] Interestingly, women scientists tend to gravitate to the living and organic; inclined to major in biology and veterinary science rather than physics.
[6] Way of proceeding; method of operation.
[7] Zamyatin, Yevgeny, We, Modern Library, 2006, p. 37.
[8] Ibid, p. 44.
[9]Although STNG contains elements of Order, the Enterprises’ mission is explicitly exploratory. The drama of the stories exists only through encountering the unknown and unexpected with the constant threat of annihilation. The figure of the android “Data” also centers around the mystery of what it is to be human.
[10] General Semantics Press, 2002.
[11] Adjective: having an internal cause or origin. Biology: growing or originating from within an organism.

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