Are you certain? For sure? No doubts at all? 100%? Your faith in what you know is absolute?
The left hemisphere of your brain is firmly in control of you -- recognizing that almost certainly (notice that almost? my brain's right hemisphere is working) there's no difference between "you" and "your brain."
This is my second post about Iain McGilchrist's fascinating book, "The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World." See here for the first. I'm hugely enjoying learning about how the left and right hemispheres function.
After all, how the world appears to us is a result of how the brain processes information. Interestingly, "what" is a left brain thing; "how" is a right brain thing.
Ultimately if the left hemisphere is the hemisphere of 'what,' the right hemisphere, with its preoccupation with context, the relational aspects of existence, emotion, and the nuances of expression, could be said to be the hemisphere of 'how.'
This is related to the left hemisphere's focus on certainty. It shies away from amibiguity, whereas the right hemisphere is much more comfortable with not knowing for sure. The left hemisphere will make up stories about how the world works even when there is no good reason to believe in them.
(See "The reasons we give for what we do: are they reasonable?")
Religiosity, then, seems to be supported largely by left brain goings-on. Religious people weave together myth, wishful thinking, dogma, blind faith, unsubstantiated stories, and vague personal experiences into a confident This is How the World Is tale that's extremely resistant to criticism.
McGilchrist points out in his book the obvious: both the left and right hemispheres are vitally important. It isn't possible to live a normal life without both sides of the brain functioning nearly normally.
But we need to recognize the tensions between left and right. Like I said before, the divided brain is the root of our divided sense of self. McGilchrist says:
Before embarking on this chapter, I suggested that there were two ways of being in the world, both of which were essential. One was to allow things to be present to us in all of their embodied particularity, with all of their changeability and impermanance, and their interconnectedness, as part of a whole which is forever in flux. In this world we, too, feel connected to what we experience, part of that whole, not confined in subjective isolation from a world that is viewed as objective.
The other was to step outside the flow of experience and 'experience' our experience in a special way: to re-present the world in a form that is less truthful, but apparently clearer, and therefore cast in a form which is more useful for manipulation of the world and one another. This world is explicit, abstracted, compartmentalized, fragmented, static (though its 'bits' can be re-set in motion, like a machine), essentially lifeless. From this world we feel detached, but in relation to it it we are powerful.
This helps explain the appeal of religious theologies, spiritual philosophies, mystical teachings. They present devotees with a nice tidy package of beliefs with few, if any, loose ends. Want to know what God is like, what happens after death, what is right and wrong?
Just embrace Holy Book X, Guru Y, or Master Z and all of your questions will be answered. Of course, few people fret about why it is that X, Y, and Z have such different answers; true believers assume that they have been singled out to know the Truth with a capital "T," while all others are deluded.
The brain's left hemisphere loves this! Certainty delights it! Forget about flux, impermanance, interconnectedness, subjectivity. That's right brain stuff. Us left hemispheres just want to know that we know.
The left hemisphere likes things that are manmade. Things we make are also more certain: we know them inside out, because we put them together. They are not, like living beings, constantly changing and moving, beyond our grasp.
Because the right hemisphere sees things as they are, they are constantly new for it, so it has nothing like the databank of information about categories that the left hemisphere has. It cannot have the certainty of knowledge that comes from being able to fix things and isolate them. In order to remain true to what is, it does not form abstractions, and categories that are based on abstraction, which are the strengths of denotative language.
...Even in the absence of amnesia, the left hemisphere exhibits a strong tendency to confabulate: it thinks it knows something, recognises something, which it doesn't, a tendency that may be linked to its lack of ability to discriminate unique cases from the generalised categories into which it places them. The left hemisphere is the equivalent of the sort of person who, when asked for directions, prefers to make something up rather admit to not knowing.
...So the left hemisphere needs certainty and needs to be right. The right hemisphere makes it possible to hold several ambiguous possibilities in suspension together without premature closure on one outcome.
...The right hemisphere is also more realistic about how it stands in relation to the world at large, less grandiose, more self-aware, than the left hemisphere. The left hemisphere is ever optimistic, but unrealistic about its short-comings.
I'll end with a few other passages that I liked in McGilchrist's book.
How do we get out of endless loops, trapped situations, blind alleys, unproductive belief systems? Religions want us to embrace more of the same. Growth requires something fresh and new.
The left hemisphere's 'stickiness', its tendency to recur to what it is familiar with, tends to reinforce whatever it is already doing. There is a reflexivity to the process, as if trapped in a hall of mirrors: it only discovers more of what it already knows, and it only does more of what it already is doing.
...The right hemisphere, then, is capable of freeing us through negative feedback. The left hemisphere tends to positive feedback, and we can become stuck. This is not unlike the difference between the normal drinker and the addict.
After a certain point, the normal drinker begins to feel less and less like another drink. What makes an addict is the lack of an 'off switch'-- another drink only makes the next, and the next, more likely.
So don't get addicted to religion. Have a few drinks of a belief system, then move on. Remember what the signboard said in one of my favorite movies, "LA Story."
The Signboard: There are more things in heaven and earth, Harry, than are dreamt of N your philosophy.
One might also cf. Robert A. Burton, M.D., _On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not_ (NY: St. Martin's Griffin, 2008).
Robert Paul Howard
Posted by: Robert Paul Howard | September 06, 2012 at 11:46 AM
To enlarge a bit on my previous note, I cite from the "Preface" (pp. xi-xiv) of Robert A. Burton's _On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not_ (2008):
"...The revolutionary premise at the heart of this book is:
"Despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of 'knowing what we know' arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason.
"To dispel the myth that we 'know what we know' by conscious deliberation, the first section of this book will show how the brain creates the involuntary sensation of 'knowing' and how this sensation is affected by everything from genetic predispositions to perceptual illusions common to all bodily sensations. ...
"I [Burton] must also confess to an underlying agenda: A stance of absolute certainty that precludes considerations of alternative opinions has always struck me as fundamentally wrong. But such accusations [/] are meaningless without the backing of hard science. So I have set out to provide a scientific basis for challenging our belief in certainty. An unavoidable side effect: The scientific evidence will also show the limits of scientific inquiry. But in pointing out the biological limits of reason, including scientific thought, I'm not making the case that all ideas are equal or that scientific method is mere illusion. I do not wish to give ammunition to the legions of true believers who transform blind faith into evidence for creationism, alien abduction, or Aryan supremacy. The purpose is not to destroy the foundations of science, but only to point out the inherent limitations of the questions that science asks and the answers it provides.
"My goal is to strip away the power of certainty by exposing its involuntary neurological roots. If science can shame us into questioning the nature of conviction, we might develop some degree of tolerance and an increased willingness to consider alternative ideas--from opposing religious or scientific views to contrary opinions at the dinner table.
"A personal note [from Burton]: The schema that I am about to present has given me an unintended new way of seeing common problems. ...The sense of an inner quiet born of acknowledging my limitations has been extraordinary; I would like to share this with you."
(The above from pp. xiii-xiv of Burton's "Preface.")
Robert Paul Howard
Posted by: Robert Paul Howard | September 08, 2012 at 10:23 AM
Robert, I also enjoyed Burton's book a lot. Blogged about it in several posts. Here's the Google search results:
"Knowing that you know: impossible" was my first post (well, second, actually, after reading a review of the book) about this fascinating subject of feeling certain without knowing why/how we feel that way.
Posted by: Brian Hines | September 08, 2012 at 10:41 AM
Thanks for your reference back to your older posting(s). I had wondered if, in fact, my awareness of Burton's book (and thus having had it out from the Library for so long) was not perhaps due to you to begin with. Now I can rest "certain" that it was.
I am glad to have added a few more lines from Burton's exposition in addition to those which you cited in your compositions from over four years ago.
I consider it well worth reading and I commend it to any others interested in the topic (even if they might be quite "certain" that it would be of no positive value for them).
Robert Paul Howard
Posted by: Robert Paul Howard | September 10, 2012 at 01:15 PM