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In his book The Master and his Emissary, Iain McGilchrist argues that Western society has been oscillating between periods where cognitive-behavioural tendencies associated with the activation of the intuitive-melancholic right hemisphere of the brain, and periods where society was ruled by the approach and methodology associated with the optimistic-rationalistic left hemisphere.
For McGilchrist, the paradigmatic periods of Western thought which illustrate the function and approach of the right hemisphere are those of the Medieval Period and the Romantic Period. On the other hand, he presents the Enlightenment and subsequent Modern and Post-Modern periods as writ-large instantiations of left-hemisphere modes of being and thinking.
In case you doubt that post-modernism is rationalistic and optimistic, McGilchrist has an explanation: post-modernism for him is a consequence of a radical decoupling of left-hemisphere modes of being from right-hemisphere modes, and a subsequent domination of the right by the left. He argues that the left brain– thinking in terms of parts and unable to appreciate somatic or holistic gestalts– is running amok, fragmenting and alienating us from the bare facts of being.
To illustrate: in cases of right-hemisphere stroke to areas of the brain associated with proprioception and awareness of the body, patients entirely lose their sense of ownership and ability to conceive of the left side of their body as being either theirs or a body.
Why is this important? Well, regardless of where you stand on neurological issues like brain lateralization, there is an important intuition being presented here: that Western society oscillates between periods of emotionality and rationalism. Citing examples from art and literature, he illustrates a very plausible case to the effect that right-hemisphere dominated eras lead us to more holistic modes of being, an acceptance of death, a participatory-religious outlook, and an increased emphasis on collectivism in culture.
On the other hand, he argues that left-hemisphere dominated eras lead to a decrease in collectivism; a rise in individualism; a sense of alienation from reality; an absence of ecological and holistic thinking; a rise in hedonism, which he accounts for in terms of a desire to avoid that fear of death; and a fetishization of information and data. Does that sound like anyone you know?
In his paper Letting the Finite Vanish, Jacob Given cites the work of Jack Caputo in order to direct our attention towards the possibility of religion without religion, which for him is the experience of religiosity as participation in, and significance to the world without the adoption of a fixed creed or interpretation. As I see it, this necessarily involves a departure from taking conceptions and explanations as real over participation in being. This lines up broadly with the hemispheric divisions in modes of being as outlined by McGilchrist.
For some clarity: here, I mean being as being in a phenomenological sense. Not the set of all the things that are which I suppose we would call cosmological being if we wanted to run with Given’s distinctions, but the moment-to-moment experience of experience. On the other side of cosmological being, the list of all the things is ontological being, which is the immanent isness of all that is currently available to experience.
If you’ve ever been so surprised by something that you don’t know what it is for a few seconds, then you know what I meant by the moment-to-moment experience of experience. There’s a naked moment, just before the experience gets over-laid with an interpretation, where you get to see what I can only guess is the nearest approximation of the ding-an-sich.
If you have cultivated a mindfulness practice or a drawing habit to the degree that you have started to see the world in ways that you never initially considered possible, then you also probably know what I mean. For more on this, read the following piece of mine.
As I see it, Given’s work points to a broader possibility in the pursuit of participation in reality. As I hinted at– riffing on Vervaeke– in The Castle Without The King we have arguably lost our sense of participation in reality. One way this manifests is in terms of no longer feeling at home in reality. Who knows whether we should blame Capitalism for this or if we should blame Left-Hemisphere dominance, or if we should blame Satan, or whatever. I find it especially poignant to consider homelessness and domicide through the lense of the ongoing ecological crisis, but let’s not digress.
So there is a plausible case to be made to the effect that creed is at worst an impediment to participation in reality and at best maybe just a ‘finger pointing at the moon’, to borrow a phrase from the Sixth Zen Patriarch Hui Nen. In the middle case, could we do away with it completely? Where would that leave the study of theology in an academic context?
I’m a proponent of the idea that an academic study ought to support the pursuit of an experiential reality. ‘No man ever died for the cosmological argument’ says Albert Camus, which may explain why cosmological approaches to religion have been so easily supplanted by a materialist-scientistic paradigm. But where does that leave us in terms of pursuing participation in reality?
Maybe this will make the reader bristle, but I find Jordan Peterson to be an exceptional source of wisdom regarding the raw spiritual exercises that engage us in a participatory sense. Vervaeke would term these exercises psychotechnologies, and I’m inclined to agree. For a good intro to Vervaeke that saves you all the lectures at one burst, see this piece by Chris Perez.
Moreover, Peterson’s biblical lectures are probably the closest thing I’ve ever seen to constructing a propositional meaning to Genesis that is compatible with our modern scientific paradigm. It makes perfect sense to me that it would take a psychologist to do that, as it sure seems like psychology and psychiatry are the new heirs to the priesthood. The new master interrogators of the soul, who administer confession in an office rather than in church.
A disclaimer: I was trained in a philosophical tradition that argues we should give the benefit of the doubt to those we disagree with, and while I certainly do not agree with all or even most of Peterson’s political positions, I think that to discard the practical advice he has to give would be a case of a baby and some bathwater.
Several of his practices are adopted and modified from earlier practices. For example his Self Authoring Suite sure seems like a modified version of The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatious. But I’m not sure that’s a valid criticism, as I’m not sure he claimed to invent the material. I’m not completely certain that it’s right to sell them, but he’s given them away for free in the past, and I’ve benefited from that. Regarding my culpability at this point, I’m sure I have nothing to say.
I’m not entirely sure to what degree The Self Authoring Suite meets our criterion for rescuing right-hemispheric participatory conception from left-hemispheric tyranny, though. One possible explanation is that he directs the Self-author to “write in a reverie”: to enter a dream-like mode of cognition and to write without editing, therefore avoiding interference from the Great Critic. In this case, he seems to be suggesting a form of authentic writing which is nothing more or less than reporting internal experience without compromise.
As there is no research on the effect of free-writing on hemisphere activation that I know of, I can’t make any solid claims, but it makes sense to me. Especially given McGilchrist’s claims that the left hemisphere tends to be the more critical one. Regardless, from my own personal experience, I can say that writing with the sole intent of relating your internal experience authentically to yourself can lead you to some interesting personal developments. A piece on this to follow.
The principle which this seems to be rooted in is Peterson’s claim that the best lives are lived by speaking only the truth, as carefully as possible, and living with the consequences. This seems to necessitate a degree of respect for one’s being that is wholly in opposition to the alienating effect of Capitalism. This seems to be an attempt to honestly participate in being, rather than to manipulate it to one’s own ends.
Imagine any job you’ve ever had or applied for. What if you told the boss exactly what you thought of the company– though were careful about it? What if you didn’t have to carefully shape the truth and sometimes abuse it on a job application? What if there were no Bullshit Jobs?
For some of you, I’m sure this thought experiment will bring you into a closer relationship with your fundamental existential terror. Hopefully for others, this will be a redundant exercise. But for some in the middle of the pack, I hope this gets you thinking more closely about how you want to be fed.
I think you would be surprised to see what happens if you tried to relate authentically to the world. Christ has a lot to say on this, so I’ll let the bible quotes speak for themselves:
“But if God doth so clothe the grass of the field, which to-day is, and to-morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” Matthew 6:30
“Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” – Matthew 6:34
Ultimately, the point of this piece– and the point of my authorship as a whole– is to orient people towards more participatory modes of being. To free themselves from a cycle of boredom and yearning. To remember their own deaths and find solace in impermanence. To remember the importance of the intuitive and participatory, and its equal place next to the propositional. To feel at home in the world.
I know you can’t just jump into these states of being by being told about them. I can’t maintain them all the time either. It seems like a balancing act, but I think I can support those who pursue the same goal that I do by writing.
We have no functional creeds, because now we have science. The question now is, what functional pursuits can we undertake that deepen our participation? I have cited one in the piece: authentic writing. I’d be interested to see what the reader could offer to the conversation.
There has never been a set of psycho-technologies that did not have a communal structure supporting it, claims Vervaeke. I can’t find a community that meets my requirements dead on.
I’ve found some that came close, like /r/streamentry and /r/slatestarcodex, both of which are dedicated to developing clearer and more participatory modes of being, and both of which I’ve learned a lot from. But streamentry is far too Buddhist for me, and the rationalist community is– get ready for it– far too rationalistic for me. Both of them really lack the spice.
The closest thing I’ve ever seen to what I want out of a spiritual community is the reformed tantric approach outlined in David Chapman’s series Reinventing Buddhism, but even he admits that he doesn’t know of any communities that instantiate that ideal, and he figures he certainly isn’t qualified to start one.
Where are all the seekers who need some spice? I’m not talking about modern Gnosticism. I’m not into that new-age stuff with the crystals and conspiracy theories. Who else wants a way to find God again?