This essay will begin by looking at the structure and function of the brain, and at the differences between the two hemispheres. I’ll be reflecting on the literature of Iain McGilchrist, a renowned psychiatrist who draws on a vast body of recent brain research to reveal that the two hemispheres actually have whole, coherent, but incompatible ways of experiencing the world.
Broadly speaking, the left hemisphere is detail-oriented, prefers mechanisms to living things, and is inclined to self-interest, whereas the right hemisphere has greater breadth, flexibility and generosity. The tension between these two worlds is revealed in the thought and belief of thinkers and philosophies. In this essay, I will draw on the literature of McGilchrist to argue that there is indeed a ‘correct’ way in which the two hemispheres ought to relate to each other, and that despite its inferior grasp of reality, the left hemisphere is increasingly taking precedence in the modern world.
Towards the end of this essay, I will speculate on how our societies have shifted to a one-sided (left hemisphere dominant) view of the world, which may explain the rise and growth of atheism in the West. This is not to say that one hemisphere is theistic while the other is atheistic, certainly not, but an under utilisation of the right hemisphere and an over reliance on the left, that is, a brain which does not function properly, will naturally lead to an incomplete, atheistic and an increasingly mechanistic, fragmented and decontextualised world.
Introduction: two different worlds in the same brain
I do not believe that the brain equals the mind. McGilchrist suggests that the brain is what necessarily gives structure to mind, and I think that’s closer to the truth. At the most basic level, the brain is structured into two hemispheres, and each hemisphere attends to the world differently; each have their own way of understanding the world – their own ‘take’ on it. This means that the human brain has two very different priorities, two different modes of experience, and that each is important in bringing about the recognisably human world.
While the left hemisphere is responsible for focused attention, the right hemisphere supports breadth and flexibility of attention. As a result, the left hemisphere perceives things abstracted from context and divided into bits, from which it then reconstructs a “whole”, while the right hemisphere sees things whole and in their context, something quite different. It turns out that our ability to connect with people through traits like empathy and emotional understanding is predominantly a right-hemisphere function. McGilchrist continues to explain the differences:
“In the one, we experience the live, complex, embodied world of individual, always unique beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected. In the other we ‘experience’ our experience in a special way: a ‘re-presented’ version of it, containing now static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented entities, grouped into classes, on which predictions can be based. This kind of attention isolates, fixes and makes each thing explicit by bringing it under the spotlight of attention. In doing so it renders things inert, mechanical, lifeless. But it also enables us for the first time to know, and consequently to learn and to make things. This gives us power.”
Because each hemisphere attends to the world differently, they have different ways of construing the world. It is the emergence of these two worlds – not different ways of thinking about the world, but different ways of being in the world, that form into the mind of a person.
It’s important to clarify that the differences between the hemispheres doesn’t mean they don’t collaborate. Both hemispheres are involved in almost all mental processes. Information is constantly passed between the hemispheres, transmitted in either direction several times a second. So when I say that the ‘left hemisphere does this’, or ‘the right hemisphere does that’, it should be understood that in any human brain at any one time both hemispheres will be actively involved. I want to avoid the risk of encouraging a simplistic dichotomising, because in regard to the two hemispheres there is almost nothing that is confined entirely to one or the other. At the level of experience, the world we know is synthesised from the combined work of the two cerebral hemispheres.
Professor of Psychology, Joseph Hellige, arguably one of the world’s best-informed authorities on the subject, writes that while both hemispheres seem to be involved in almost everything we do, there are some very striking differences in the information-processing abilities and propensities of the two. Although each hemisphere is crucially important, delivering valuable aspects of the human condition, and though each needs the other for different purposes, the left seems to continually dominate the right. So while the hemispheres need to cooperate in order to produce a valid understanding of the world, they also compete as to which side takes the upper hand.
What do the two hemispheres do?
We have mentioned that the two hemispheres have their own ‘take’ on the world, and have briefly touched on what those different priorities look like, but there’s more to unravel.
The left hemisphere has its own representation of the world. It divides the world up and focuses on the individual parts, requiring a selective, highly focused attention. The right hemisphere, on the other hand, is responsible for every type of attention except focused attention; it has a broad, global, and flexible attention. We may say that it is ‘on the lookout’. It has to be open to whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves, as much as possible without preconceptions, not just focusing on what it already knows or is interested in. This requires a mode of attention that is broader and more flexible than that of the left hemisphere.
This key difference explains why the right hemisphere is especially important for flexibility of thought. Since the right hemisphere is vigilant for whatever it is that exists ‘out there’, it is able to deliver information other than what we already know. The left hemisphere, on the other hand, deals and prefers with what it knows, and therefore prioritises the expected. This makes it more effective in routine circumstances where outcomes are predictable, but less effective than the right whenever the original assumptions must be altered or when it is necessary to differentiate between old and new information. Because the left hemisphere is drawn by its expectations, the right hemisphere outperforms the left whenever prediction is difficult. For example, in the case of problem-solving, the left hemisphere takes the single solution that seems best to fit what it already knows and sticks to it. In contrast, the right hemisphere presents an array of possible solutions, which are held in consideration while alternatives are explored.
Because the left hemisphere is so focused on what it already knows, it is largely concerned with pre-existing knowledge, and as a result, often overlooks information that does not fit its existing mental framework. The right hemisphere pays greater attention to such discrepancies. It acts as a “devil’s advocate.” We need both of these approaches day-to-day, but they often conflict with each other. The benefit of the right hemisphere is that it is able to ‘borrow’ or ‘employ’ the left hemisphere when it wants to investigate something in more detail, whereas the left hemisphere cannot use the right in the same way. So while the left hemisphere gains more benefit from a single strong association than from several weaker associations, only the right hemisphere can use either equally.
It is here that we need to highlight the importance of the right hemisphere taking precedence in our sense of what it is we are attending to. Because the right, with its more global attention, sees the bigger picture, it is therefore able to guide the left hemisphere’s local attention, rather than the other way around.
We are presented with a hierarchy of attention – the right hemisphere has the grounding and ultimately integrating role, with the left doing the detail level work needed to build upon the broader picture generated by the right. This is an instance of the right → left → right progression. We start with the right which sees the whole, the bigger picture, before whatever it is gets broken up into parts in our attempt to ‘know’ it. Since the left hemisphere perceives part-objects, the left now rules this area, while the right will continue to use this knowledge to understand the overall picture and the relationships between objects. This is what I see as the correct use of the hemispheres, with the right being the ‘leader’ of the two.
Because of the way in which the left hemisphere is biased towards identification by parts, and the right hemisphere towards the full picture, they also differ in the way they understand what they experience. Because the right hemisphere sees things as a whole before they have been digested into parts, it also sees each thing in its context, as standing in a relationship with all that surrounds it, rather than taking it as a single isolated entity. The left hemisphere, on the other hand, because its thinking is decontextualized, tends towards a slavish following of the internal logic of the situation, even if this is in contradiction of everything experience tells us. Now sometimes this can be useful when we need to reach beyond our intuition, but it can often be a weakness as it tends to ‘jump the gun’ and agree too quickly to a theory. The left hemisphere fails to take a step back and reflect, drawing on the relationship and bigger picture.
Since the left hemisphere tends to see part-objects, it has a tendency to classify what it sees. The right is different in that while it can identify individuals, it is more concerned with the uniqueness and individuality of each existing thing or being. François Lhermitte, one of the great neurologists of the 20th century, drew attention to an essential difference between the hemispheres when he described a case which confirmed that the right hemisphere is more concerned with living individuals than man-made objects. This greater concern for individuals means the right hemisphere plays an important role in what is known as ‘theory of mind’, a capacity to put oneself in another’s position and see what is going on in that person’s mind. The right hemisphere has a clear advantage in emotional understanding and empathy. It is the mediator of social behaviour. Without the right hemisphere, the left hemisphere is unconcerned about others and their feelings.
Despite the right hemisphere’s important role in emotion, the popular stereotype that the left hemisphere has a monopoly on reason is mistaken. I want us to draw away from the idea that the right deals with emotion, whereas the left with reason. In fact, there are different types of reasoning. While sequential argumentation is clearly better executed by the left hemisphere, other types of reasoning, including deduction and some types of mathematical reasoning, are mainly dependent on the right hemisphere. In short, more explicit reasoning is underwritten by the left hemisphere and less explicit reasoning (such as is often involved in problem-solving, whether scientific or mathematical) by the right hemisphere. An extensive body of research indicates that insight and problem-solving is often associated with activation of the right hemisphere.
When it comes to the subject of certainty, this is the domain of the left hemisphere. It prefers things that are man-made, because what we make is also more certain, in the sense that we know it inside out because we put it together. What is man-made is not like living things that are constantly changing and moving, often beyond our grasp. This is an important difference between the two hemispheres. The right hemisphere doesn’t have anything like the left hemisphere’s data bank of information about categories because it sees things as they are and is constantly learning new things. It cannot have the certainty that comes from being able to fix things and isolate them, instead, the right hemisphere acknowledges the importance of ambiguity. It therefore is relatively shifting and uncertain, in contrast to the left hemisphere, which may be unreasonably, even stubbornly, convinced of its own correctness. Researchers found that not only does the left hemisphere tend to insist on its theory at the expense of getting things wrong, but it will later cheerfully insist that it got it right. The left hemisphere needs certainty and needs to be right. The right hemisphere, on the other hand, tends to be more considerate of other views – it makes it possible to hold several ambiguous possibilities in suspension without premature closure on one outcome. The right prefrontal cortex is essential for dealing with incomplete information and has a critical role to play in reasoning about incompletely specified situations. Without guidance from the right hemisphere, the left has a tendency to premature over-interpretation.
In regard to self-awareness, the right hemisphere is also more realistic about how it stands in relation to the world at large. It is more self-aware than the left hemisphere. The left hemisphere is ever optimistic, but unrealistic about its shortcomings. In the words of one researcher into head injuries, “children with right-brain deficit disorder ignore task obstacles, accept impossible challenges, make grossly inadequate efforts, and are stunned by the poor outcomes. These children act fearlessly because they overlook the dangers inherent in the situation.” It is natural for those with right hemisphere damage to be overconfident and unaware of their own lack of capacity for a task.
The enhanced self-awareness of the right hemisphere can also lead to states of melancholy. While studies are not conclusive, there seems to be a tendency for the right hemisphere to be more sorrowful, and I think this can be seen as related not only to being more in touch with what’s going on, but more in touch with, and even concerned for, others. Psychopaths, with no sense of shame, guilt, or responsibility, often have deficits in the right frontal lobe.
I have often thought about the relationship between feeling and suffering. Perhaps to feel at all is inevitably to suffer. This is just one reason to doubt the easy equation between pleasure and happiness, on the one hand, and ‘the good’, on the other. Truly caring for another essentially involves experiencing sorrow at the other’s serious misfortune. After all, to be just is to be disturbed by injustice. Pain can sometimes reveal what we value. It is with the right hemisphere that we are more capable of compassion, and with the inactivation of this area, we act more selfishly.
There is much more to be said about the differences between the two hemispheres and what they do. All I have offered is a snippet of some differences between the hemispheres, and hopefully I have said enough to reverse the entrenched prejudice that, while the right hemisphere may add a bit of colour to life, it is the left hemisphere that does the serious business. The right hemisphere is far from ‘silent’, in fact, we are utterly dependent on it.
To summarise, it can be said that if the left hemisphere is the hemisphere of ‘what’, the right hemisphere, with its preoccupation with context, the relational aspects of experience, emotion and the nuances of expression, could be said to be the hemisphere of ‘how’ and ‘why’.
The right hemisphere gives attention to the “other,” whatever it may be that exists outside ourselves and with which it perceives itself in close relationship. This is the primary distinction between the two hemispheres. It is incredibly drawn to and intrigued by the connection it has with this “other.” The left hemisphere, on the other hand, is focused on the self-contained but ultimately unconnected virtual world that it has built. Although the left hemisphere is strong, it can only function on and understand itself.
Both hemispheres have a role to play. Our talent for division, for seeing the parts (the left), is of staggering importance – second only to our capacity to transcend it in order to see the whole (the right).
The nature of the two worlds and the primacy of the right
We have clarified that each hemisphere has its own ‘take’ on the world, and somewhat explained some differences between the hemispheres. Furthermore, I have made the comment that the right hemisphere ought to be the leader of the two hemispheres, but now I want us to explore this view in more detail.
The key distinction between these two ‘worlds’ is that the left hemisphere is always engaged in a goal. It has an end in view and downgrades whatever has no instrumental purpose in sight. The right hemisphere, by contrast, is without preconceptions, without a predefined goal. So while the left sees the world as mere parts or objects to be used for an agenda, the right hemisphere has a relationship of concern or care with whatever happens to be.
This is not to downplay the left hemisphere; such a closed system has the advantage of perfection – the capacity to improving something until it is faultless. The problem, however, is that it can mediate knowledge only in terms of a mechanical rearrangement of other things already known. It can never really ‘break out’ to know anything new, because its knowledge is only of its own re-presentations. It has a mechanical way of interpreting the world, and if we assume a purely mechanical universe and take the machine as our model, we will uncover the view that – surprise, surprise – the body, and the brain with it, is a machine. To a man with a hammer everything begins to look like a nail. But because we can come to know things only in terms of other things we know, every ‘explanation’, however convincing, is merely a comparison of something with something else. So, to put it plainly, the left hemisphere understands the world as mechanical whereas the right hemisphere sees the world more like a living thing, a connected whole.
Now, if the two hemispheres produce two worlds, which should we trust if we are after the truth about the world? As I have suggested previously, I don’t believe that the relationship between the hemispheres are equal. While both contribute to our knowledge of the world, which therefore needs to be synthesised, the right hemisphere has precedence, in that it underwrites the knowledge that the other comes to have and is able to synthesise what both hemispheres know into a usable whole. Again, I am bringing back the progression mentioned earlier in this essay – from right hemisphere, to left, to right again.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
If we are after the truth, the right hemisphere should lead the left. For example, if you really want to understand something, that is, to truly “see” something, then not only do you need to pay focused attention to the object, but you also need to see through it to something beyond, to the context in which it exists. If the detached, highly focused attention of the left hemisphere addresses living things that are not later resolved into the whole picture by right-hemisphere attention, which yields context and depth, it is destructive; we end up ignoring, misjudging or even denying the meaning of things.
The conscious left hemisphere has somewhat deceived itself, in the sense that it thinks that it is in control, directing its focus where it wants, bringing the world into being as it squints here and there as it pleases, while the reality is that it is merely selecting from a broader world that has already been brought into being for it by the right hemisphere. The right-hemisphere world grounds that of the left. It supplies the context, it permits a living world to come into being, and it is from this that the re-presented world of the left hemisphere is derived. Those who have lost significant right-hemisphere function experience a world from which meaning has been drained, and because of the sense of detachment, such people can begin to doubt the actuality of what they see, wondering if it is in fact all a pretence, even unreal.
The process of bringing the world alive begins with the right hemisphere. There is something more fundamental about the world that is brought into being by the right hemisphere, with its betweenness, its mode of knowing which involves reciprocation, a back and forth, compared with the linear, sequential, unidirectional method of building up a picture favoured by the left hemisphere. The right hemisphere’s more fundamental perception of the world allows it to make new connections, create new ideas and pose novel questions that are “sent” to the left hemisphere for processing. Once the left has analysed it, its conclusions are then “returned” for the right hemisphere to re-contextualise them in the world, producing a new synthesis.
To help us understand, let’s warm up our intuitions with a metaphor. Think of the relationship between reading and living. Life has meaning without books, but books cannot have meaning without life. While life is greatly enriched by them: life goes into books, and books go back into life. But the relationship is not equal. Nonetheless, what is in them not only adds to life, but genuinely goes back into life and transforms it, so that life as we live it in a world full of books is created partly by books themselves. This metaphor is not perfect, but it helps us understand something of the relationship between the two hemispheres. The right hemisphere needs the left, but the left hemisphere depends on the right.
The right hemisphere uses the left hemisphere in order to be able to ‘unpack’ experience, but then that information is offered back again and taken up into a synthesis involving both hemispheres. This entire process involves an enrichment through a detailed analytic understanding, to a new, enhanced intuitive understanding of this whole.
Unfortunately, and as McGilchrist argues extensively, is that there has been “a tendency for the left hemisphere to see the workings of the right hemisphere as purely incompatible, antagonistic, as a threat to its dominion – the emissary perceiving the Master to be a tyrant. This is an inevitable consequence of the fact that the left hemisphere can support only a mechanistic view of the world… it would certainly be true that the unifying tendency of the right hemisphere would reverse its achievements in delineating individual entities.”
The rebellion of the left hemisphere
The left hemisphere is competitive, and its motivation is power. If the working relationship were to become disturbed, so that the left hemisphere appeared to have primacy or became the end point on the ‘processing’ of experience, the world would change into something quite different. It would be relatively mechanical, an assemblage of disconnected ‘parts’; it would be relatively abstract and disembodied; relatively distanced from fellow-feeling; given to explicitness; utilitarian in ethic and over-confident of its own take on reality – these are all aspects of the left hemisphere world.
Previously in this essay I argued that the two hemispheres, as two vast coherent neurological systems, each capable of sustaining consciousness on their own, have different concerns, goals and values, and that these are therefore likely to be expressed in different wills. As per the evidence forwarded by McGilchrist in his book “The Master and His Emissary”, this is exactly what we find – a conflict of wills. We have discussed that the right hemisphere normatively has primacy, and that, though the left hemisphere has a valuable role, its products need to be returned to the realm of the right hemisphere and once more integrated into a new whole, greater than the sum of its parts. The right hemisphere is the primary mediator of experience, from which the conceptualised, re-presented world of the left hemisphere derives, and on which it depends. And yet, even though the balance of power ought to lie, and indeed needs to lie, with the right hemisphere, it commonly does not.
We have entered a phase of history in which no longer do our hemispheres always collaborate properly according to their strengths, rather the left hemisphere has taken too much control from the right, operating at a weakness. Despite the primacy of the right hemisphere, it is the left hemisphere that has all the cards and, from this standpoint, looks set to win the game.
The left hemisphere favours analytic, sequential ‘processing’, and therefore has a way of building up a picture slowly but surely, piece by piece, brick on brick. It establishes one thing as (apparently) certain, and this forms a platform for adding the next little bit of (apparent) certainty. And so on. The right hemisphere meanwhile tries to take in all the various aspects of what it approaches at once. It takes into account different streams of ‘information’ simultaneously. No part in itself precedes any other: it is more like the way a picture comes into focus – there is a lightbulb moment when the whole suddenly breaks free and comes to life before us. For it, though, knowledge comes through a relationship, a betweenness, a back and forth reverberative process between itself and the Other, and is therefore never finished, always learning. As culture breaks from the primacy of the right hemisphere, we tend to only think and evaluate in analytical terms, overly certain in our conclusions, unable to see the bigger picture, the context and purpose of the world we live in.
A world where the right is betrayed
Time for a thought experiment. Let us try to imagine what the world would look like if the left hemisphere became so far dominant that it managed more or less to suppress the right hemisphere’s world altogether. What would that be like? The picture Iain McGilchrist paints is a bleak one.
We could expect, for a start, that there would be a loss of the broader picture and a substitution of a more narrowly focussed, restricted, but detailed view of the world, making it perhaps difficult to maintain a coherent overview. The overall context and purpose of life would be ignored because the left hemisphere seeks a sense of certainty. In general, the individual components or parts of something would be considered more important and more likely to lead to understanding than the entire entity, which would be viewed as simply the sum of its parts. We would expect a sort of dismissive attitude to anything outside its limited focus, because without the right hemisphere the whole picture would simply not be available to it.
In this world, technology would flourish as an expression of the left hemisphere’s desire to manipulate and control the world for its own pleasure. But this would be accompanied by a vast expansion of bureaucracy, systems of abstraction and control. There is a complete loss of the sense of uniqueness and the sacredness of life. Increasingly, the living would be modelled on the mechanical and material. In this world, everything is analysable into constituent components, and everything can be taken apart and put together again in terms of these components; but there would be no context. From the philosophical perspective, the world would start to fragment, appearing to be merely a collection of material bits and pieces apparently randomly thrown together; its organisation, and therefore meaning, would come only through what we added to it, through systems designed to maximise utility.
Because the mechanical would be the model by which ourselves and the natural world would be understood, people in such a society would find it hard to understand the higher values except in terms of ultimate utility, and there would be a serious scepticism of such higher values, and a cynicism about their status. Morality would come to be judged on the basis of utilitarian calculation or enlightened self-interest. Since the left hemisphere prefers the impersonal to the personal, people will be more material focussed and less people focused. More concerned about their own security. The impersonal would come to replace the personal. Money would become a stronger motivator than relationships, and people may even focus on material things at the expense of the living. Exploitation rather than co-operation would be, whether obvious or not, the default relationship between humans and the rest of the world.
As a result, individualities would be dropped out, and we would describe ourselves primarily though social groups. Identification would be by categories: socioeconomic groups, races, sexes, and so on, which would also feel themselves to be implicitly or explicitly in competition with, perhaps even resentful of, one another. Because the material and impersonal would be prioritised, even at the expense of the living, trust would inevitably go out the window. A lack of trust would come to be the pervading stance within society both between individuals, groups, and would be the stance of government towards its people. Such a government would seek total control. It is an essential feature of the left hemisphere’s take on the world that it can grasp it and control it. Individual liberty would be curtailed.
According to the left hemisphere’s take on reality, individuals are not really “unique” as such, but simply interchangeable parts of a mechanistic system, a system it needs to control in the interests of efficiency. Therefore, we would expect the sense of individual responsibility to decline. Family relationships or skilled roles within society, such as those of priests and pastors, which transcend what can be quantified or regulated, and in fact depend on a degree of altruism, would become the object of suspicion. The left hemisphere misunderstands altruism as a version of its own self-interest, and sees them as a threat to its power. We might even expect there to be attempts to discredit them. In any case, strenuous efforts would be made to bring families and professions under bureaucratic control.
In this world, common sense would go out the window. Common sense is intuitive and relies on both hemispheres working together. Anger and aggressive behaviour would become more evident in our social interactions, since of all emotional states these are the most highly characteristic of the left hemisphere, and would no longer be counterbalanced by the empathic skills of the right. There would be unwillingness to take responsibility for others. There would be a rise in intolerance and inflexibility, an unwillingness to change track or change one’s mind.
We would expect there to be a resentment of, and a deliberate undercutting of the sense of awe or wonder; after all, the world and us are ultimately material and mechanical. There is nothing more to it. Religion would seem to be mere fantasy. It would become hard to discern value or meaning in life at all; a sense of nausea and boredom before life would be likely to lead to a craving for novelty and stimulation. We would expect society to become increasingly hedonistic, nihilistic, and even narcissistic. This is what the world would look like if the servant betrayed his master, that is, if the left hemisphere dominated over the right.
Because there would be a lack of ‘social connectedness’, I suspect there would be a fall in both physical and mental health. I honestly believe that our physical and mental health suffers when we are not socially integrated. ‘Social connectedness’ predicts lower rates of colds, heart attacks, strokes, cancer, depression, and premature death of all sorts. The positive effects of social integration rival the detrimental effects of smoking, obesity, high blood pressure and physical inactivity. Self-interest and self-concern is the cancer of happiness. If you want to be happy, reach outside yourself. Happiness is the by-product of having an outward focus – not the narrow focus of getting and using, but a broader empathic attention. We now see ourselves in largely mechanistic terms, as happiness maximising machines, and not very successful ones at that.
In the mechanical scope of the left hemisphere, the human is no more important than their DNA. Humans are reduced to machines. Such a tendency to see the body as an assemblage of parts, without reference to the whole (including emotional, psychological and spiritual issues), limits the effectiveness of much Western medicine, and drives people to seek alternative treatments which might be less effective. It is significant that the ‘normal’ scientific materialist view of the body is similar to that found in schizophrenia. Schizophrenic subjects routinely see themselves as machines – like robots, computers, or cameras – and sometimes declare that parts of them have been replaced by metal or electronic components. Because we can’t see our minds, we become duped to believe that we’re merely mechanical. As a result, other human beings, too, appear no more than things, because they are walking bodies. In the sense, we do not see unique people, but walking, expendable machines.
We mentioned that in this world, religion would be deemed irrelevant. The left hemisphere’s attack on religion is well under way. While the right hemisphere has a tendency toward religious feeling and a sense of the transcendent, the left has replaced it with a scepticism, and perhaps in its mildest form, romanticism. When we decide not to worship divinity, we do not stop worshipping: we merely find something else less worthy to worship. We turn from praising God to praising earth. From devoting our lives to what’s Holy to what’s material. Even the Church no longer has the confidence to stick to its values, but instead joins the chorus of voices suggesting material answers to spiritual problems.
If we continue to consider the combination of a desire for certainty and a materialistic understanding of the world, we can predict that scientism would result. Scientism is the belief that the natural sciences are the only reliable source of knowledge about the world. Scientific materialism would likely become dominant.
Science is doomed if it is approached with certainty. In fact, science does not gain any more authority by making bold statements of its unique access to truth or its supposed certainty. The recognition of doubt does not weaken science but liberates it from the straightjacket of an imperialistic hegemonic position that it cannot legitimately maintain. For science to flourish, it requires doubt, a continual questioning of theories.
What has limited the power of both art and science in our time has been the absence of belief in anything except the most diminished version of the world and ourselves – atheistic materialism. The difference between scientific materialists and the rest is only this: the intuition of the former is that a mechanistic application of reason will reveal everything about the world we inhabit, where the intuition of everyone else leads them to be less sure, and wiser with it. Of course someone could suggest that it is the theists who are the rigid, dogmatic and overconfident ones with their claim to know that God exists. But central to the claim of Judeo-Christian Christian theism is the concept of divine transcendence. This requires a continual humility in the face of an infinite being whose thoughts and ways will always be far higher than ours. Theists believe there will always be things we don’t know, the atheist needn’t be so humble.
Virtually every great physicist of the last century – Einstein, Bohr, Planck, Heisenberg, Bohm, amongst many others – have made the same point. A leap of faith is involved, for scientists as much as anyone. In the words of Max Planck, “Anybody who has been seriously engaged in scientific work of any kind realises that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words: Ye must have faith. It is a quality which the scientist cannot dispense with.” And he continued: “Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.” Science, while insightful and useful, is limited in regard to understanding the great context of the world and the meaning of us in it. It may point us in the right direction, but the answer is not from the voice of the material realm. I hope it will not be necessary for me to emphasise, too, that I am not opposed to science, which, like its sister arts, is the offspring of both hemispheres. I’m only opposed to a narrow materialism, which is not intrinsic to science at all but can in fact harm it.
That is the short summary of what we might expect in a world where the left dominates. It doesn’t look good, and this is why the right hemisphere is of ultimate importance. I do not deny the importance of the left hemisphere’s contribution to all that humankind has achieved. In fact, it is because I value it, that I say that it has to find its proper place, to fulfil its critically important role. As McGilchrist said, “It is a wonderful servant, but a poor master.” Together the hemispheres synthesise a better world.
The right hemisphere, though it is not dependent on the left hemisphere the way the left is on the right, nevertheless needs it in order to achieve its full potential. Meanwhile, the left hemisphere is dependent on the right hemisphere both to do the foundation world at the ‘bottom’ end, and to lead it back to life, at the ‘top’ end.
A dysfunctional brain and the symmetry with atheism
In the previous chapter, we tried to imagine what the world would look like if the left hemisphere became so far dominant that it managed more or less to suppress the right hemisphere’s world altogether. But do we need to imagine? Doesn’t that sound much like the world today? In short, and to summarise what has been previously said, we would expect the following traits/worldviews:
- Materialism: a mechanical understanding of the world
- Scientism: the view that materialistic sciences are the only avenue to truth
- Cynicism: rejection of religion or any sacred beliefs
- Irresponsibility: lack of care for others and an increase in self-concern and self-interest
- Exploitation: created by philosophies of subjective morality, utilitarianism and self-interest
- Nihilism: no true purpose or meaning to life
- Totalitarianism: political structures with a rigid, totalitarian ideology
This is not an exhaustive list. But do you notice anything familiar about these points? They are direct attributes associated with a Godless worldview. I know that’s a bold statement, which may seem unfair, but let me explain.
Regarding points one and two, the majority of atheists are atheists because they hold a materialistic view of the world. Materialism refers to the view that there is nothing in the world or universe that is not made of matter in some form or another. That is, there is nothing which is not caused by, or arisen from, or identical to certain kinds of physical processes. Materialism therefore denies the existence of the immaterial soul, spirit, or God.
Along with this, those who deny God’s existence are bound to reject religious teachings (point three). Regarding points four and five, with the collapse of Judeo-Christian values governing society, secularism has attempted to come up with new moral principles, replacing the Christian ethic of laying down one’s life for one’s friend and enemy with the insipid ethic of “just live your truth”, or “whatever makes you happy”. Furthermore, along with a rejection of authority and responsibility towards others has come a rejection of any objective basis for moral obligations. This has resulted in a sort of utilitarian ethical system – which places no real obligation to the good of others at the expense of yourself. Removing God out of the picture, self-concern and personal happiness can become the ultimate reference for ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
Point six is a given, atheism often entails nihilism, as Richard Dawkins claimed: there is “at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” Like Dawkins, many now ignore or explain away ultimate purpose. In his book ‘The Will to Power’, Friedrich Nietzsche prophesied that two major consequences would arise from the denial of God’s existence, both beginning in the twentieth century. Firstly, as the purpose of human life became uncertain outside the purposeful structure of theistic thought and the meaningful world it proposed, we would experience an existential devastating rise in nihilism (again referring to point six). And secondly, he suggested people would turn from religion to rigid, totalitarian ideology, substituting God’s wisdom for man’s. This brings us finally to point seven. Previously, Christianity established the limited scope and role of government over the rest of society, but as that recedes, we have turned to government and politics as a new type of secular religion. We no longer seek God for guidance, but refer to ourselves. Man is seeking to fill God’s empty shoes.
The world dominated by the left hemisphere frames, broadly speaking, a secular take on the world. A dysfunctional brain, that is one dominated by the left hemisphere, naturally leads one to deny the existence or relevance of God. It is a bold statement, but a reasonable and consistent one.
What’s the cause?
I should be clear on what I am NOT saying, I do not believe that the denial of God is always necessarily caused by a dysfunctional (left-dominated) brain. From the outset, it’s clear that “correlation doesn’t equal causation”. And secondly, dismissing a belief because of its cause would be to commit the genetic fallacy. It’s possible certain mental illnesses lead people to believe in gods too – the validity of a belief’s source doesn’t determine whether it comports with reality.
However, I am prepared to speculate that denial of God will naturally lead to a mind that corrupts itself, and perhaps, while only a speculation, to a brain which is further entrenched by the left hemisphere, without the guidance of the right. Two scriptures come to mind:
“Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind.”
“The god of this age [the devil] has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
(2 Corinthians 4:4)
I think the spiritual precedes the physical. I do believe that spiritual issues, that is, states of rebellion and disconnect from God, will naturally lead to a deprived, blinded state of thinking. Not only that, I also think this can perhaps be seen in the absence of the right-hemisphere’s influence over the left, which is spreading across society today. The atheist, who assaults spirituality, essentially mocking, discounting or dismantling what they do not understand and cannot use, are at risk of becoming trapped in a meaningless, self-concerned, God-less world. This world lacks context; it lacks an ultimate purpose.
While this is said, it’s important to clarify that just because a dysfunctional brain in which the left rules over the right will likely lead to an atheistic interpretation of the world, this doesn’t mean that a fully functional brain, with the correct relationship between the hemispheres, will necessarily lead to theism. My argument is that atheism, as it is held today, is, for many, likely the product of a singular way of thinking. Someone who has a healthy brain with both hemispheres working in harmony, will at the very least be far more considerate and thoughtful of theistic worldviews and will be open-minded to spiritual matters, but this does not mean they will be theistic, let alone Christian.
The Christian narrative
Personally, I do go the extra step in confirming Christian theism as the correct understanding of the world. For me, it is intuitively obvious that God exists. I find it quite astonishing that someone could really believe that all the dazzling wonder within and the infinite complexity present in the world is a mere cosmic coincidence, driven by a random first cause. That is irrational. Either human intelligence ultimately owes its origin to mindless matter self-assembling in a purposeless self-referential universe; or there is a Creator. It is strange that some people claim that it is their intelligence that leads them to prefer the first to the second.
The more I dive into the complexity of life, the universe, and all that science has and is revealing, the more I see how unrealistic it is to cling to a materialistic worldview, and how necessary it is to invoke a grand mind in the explanation of it all. The whole frame of nature signifies an intelligent author. But while that would seem intuitively obvious to me, evidently not to most. Our world is becoming increasingly God-less in its views, and in my opinion, losing basic intuition. Einstein said that the intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant but has forgotten the gift.
My closing point is that we need a narrative, a metaphor, a set of beliefs in order to understand the world. Such a mythos, a narrative, is not an ‘optional extra’, but is fundamental and essential to the rational process of understanding the world. We are not given the option not to choose one, and the narrative we choose is important: in the absence of anything better, we revert to the metaphor of the machine. A mindless, material, ultimately purposeless, atheistic universe.
But we cannot get far in understanding the world, or in exploring the values that will help us live well in it, by likening it to the car in the garage. Every worldview has to contend with three key questions of origin, morality and meaning. Any philosophy that flunks or denies the validity of one of these will have to suffer the consequences of abandonment within a generation or two. The 2,000-year-old Western tradition of Christianity provides, whether you believe it or not, an exceptionally rich narrative with three distinct features – creation, fall and redemption.
Christianity conceives a divine ‘Other’ that is not indifferent or alien – but on the contrary is engaged, vulnerable because of that engagement, and willing to suffering alongside its creation. The central message of Christianity is that God, revealed in Christ, suffered for the moral bankruptcy of humanity. God became vulnerable. At the centre of this mythos are the images of incarnation, the coming together of matter and spirit, and of resurrection, the redemption of that relationship, as well as of a God that submits to suffer for that process. It’s a narrative which allows us to approach a spiritual Other, and gives us something other than material values to live by.
Christianity was birthed from experiences and stories told of encounters with the divine. It requires a radical openness to community and the transcendent Other, yet over the centuries it has also made invaluable contributions to hard-nosed philosophy and laid the groundwork for the birth of modern science. Broadly speaking, Christianity is essentially a coherent right-left-right brained approach to the world, and as such, Christ gives us a well-rounded approach to reality and a helpful guide on how we ought to live.