Intro. [Recording date: May 10, 2018.]
Russ Roberts: My guest is... Iain McGilchrist. He is the author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, and that is our topic for today.... Now, you've written an extraordinary book. It's 460 pages of dense print filled with innumerable philosophical, cultural references that are hard to parse. It's probably over 200,000 words; the print is small and the margins are small. So I really can't recommend this book--I can't--to my listeners. But, at the same time, I can't recommend it enough. It is earth-shaking in its provocativeness. If you stick with it, listeners, it will fundamentally change the way you view the world, and possibly yourself. And, I'd like to say I couldn't put it down. That's not true. I put it down many, many times because I could only read a few pages at a time. But they were always fascinating. It's really an incredible achievement. I know you worked on it for a long time, and it shows. As I said, it changes--it gives you an entirely different lens for looking at the world than you had before. So, part of our discussion today is going to be neuroscience; part of it's going to be applications of that neuroscience to Western civilization; and part of it will be the part I bring in, which is the applications to economics. So, let's get started.
Russ Roberts: You start with the deep idea that we have misunderstood the differences between the left side and the right side of the brain. They are not symmetrical--but that we've misunderstood what's important about that asymmetry. Explain your vision of those differences and how that vision has emerged from your understanding of the neuroscience research.
Iain McGilchrist: Well, although I--intuit you'd say early on there was something rather important here, I was comprehensively warned off treating this subject, because, as many of your listeners will assume, it's an area of pop psychology that has no validity in science. That was unfortunately the prejudice that I had to work against. But, there is absolutely no question that there is a massive difference between the two sides of the brain. It's just a question of what that difference is. And, in the book, I lay out, with the help of about two and a half thousand references to the literature, exactly what I think those differences are. It's probably worth saying that this is not just a human thing at all. It goes, not just in mammals. It's in reptiles, amphibians, fish, nematode worms, mollusks, insects. And, indeed the oldest living creature that we have, which is a sea creature that lives off the Isle of Wight, 700 million years old, already has a lateralized neural network. So, it's extremely basic to all living beings. Now, what is the difference about? People get put off because there were a lot of very silly things said. And I understand why my colleagues were nervous. Because, you know, it used to be said that the left hemisphere was, you know, down-to-earth, a bit dull, but terribly reliable, rather clever, linguistic. The right hemisphere was a sort of caricature--pink and fluffy, creative artist of some kind, with little to contribute to language or reason. None of this turns out to be right at all. Both hemispheres are very much involved with everything. So, does that mean there's no difference? Well, no: it doesn't at all. First of all, when you look at the brain, the two halves are physically different in a whole range of ways. In any case, why is the brain divided? You know, if you go to an organ--
Russ Roberts: It's a crazy idea--
Iain McGilchrist: Yeah, that exists to make connections. So, how about, let's bring a huge great divide right down the middle? And, you know, this structure is in all the nervous systems of all creatures that we know. So, there's something ancient and important there. And, as I say, if you measure them, the two hemispheres are different sizes, different weights, different shapes. The sulcal gyral markings[?], these sort of convolutions are different on the two sides: they have different ratios of gray-to-white matter. They respond to neuro-endocrinal hormones differently. They use different preponderances of neurotransmitters. Even some of the nerve structures are different. You can't say there is nothing going on here. Especially when you realize that the band of fibers that lays through the brain, called the corpus callosum, which connects the hemispheres--only 2% of neurons actually cross that. And, the upshot of what they are doing is often to say to the other hemisphere, 'Keep out of this.' So, it's not so much they are recruiting one another, as carefully inhibiting one another. All that is fascinating. And was the background to why, for 20 years, I studied this--
Russ Roberts: And we know about that from people who have strokes. Various types of neuro-imaging that's now available to us. Right? So, the difference is you are going to talk about [?] aren't just speculation, like it's an inch long, it's a centimeter longer here, etc.
Iain McGilchrist: No, no. These things are very important. And, you can quickly tell the difference between a neuroscientist who doesn't know anything about medicine or people, and a neurologist or psychiatrist or neuro-psychiatrist. Because we who are clinicians know, from our experience, in ways that Oliver Sacks has made very popular--the fascinating ways in which people's world changes when they have a stroke. And, it changes not just according to the site[?], but according to the side of the lesion. So, that's just taken for granted. If you live in a lab and you spend all your life working on a single cell, and you think of the brain as a machine, you may not know this. Or you may just choose to forget it. But it's absolutely clear. So, what is going on here? I have a theory which, I don't know that it's a contending one, but it's just a hypothesis. But it has an awful lot of evidence going for it. Which is, that, it's there for good reasons, Darwinian reasons, of survival. Because, every living creature has effectively to do two things: It has to be able to get hold of stuff to use it--food, shelter. It has to be able to manipulate things--pick up twigs, build a nest, grab a seed quickly and precisely, catch its prey, lock on to it. So, in order to use the world, it's got to have a kind of very targeted, local, highly focal attention. But, the trouble is, if that's all it's doing, it will be extremely vulnerable to everything else that's going on. Everything else, whether it's your friends and mates around or it's a predator, you need to be on the lookout to see where you are in the world, how you relate to it. So, if you wanted a kind of sound bite: Effectively the left hemisphere is good at helping us manipulate the world, but not good at helping us to understand it. To just use this bit, and then that bit, and then that bit. But the right hemisphere has a kind of sustained, broad, vigilant attention instead of this narrow, focused, piecemeal attention. And it sustains sense of being, a continuous being, in the world. So, these are very different kinds of attention. And they bring into being for us quite different kinds of a world. It is not so much what each hemisphere does: it's the way in which it does it. By which, I don't mean by what mechanism. I mean, the manner in which it does it. It's better to think of them really like different people, or [?] different machines. In talking about the brain, people are always a bit [?], because you've got choose either to talk about [?] as if people are a machine--which it blatantly isn't--or you've got to talk about it as a person. I mean, it's closer to that; but clearly the brain isn't a person, either. But, the two halves of the brain have, as we do, different goals, different values, different preferences, different ways of being. So, that brings me to what I discovered in a nutshell. Which is that, if you like, the left hemisphere has a map of the world; and the right hemisphere sees the terrain that is mapped. So, one is seeing an immensely complex, very hard-to-summarize, nonlinear, deeply[?] embedded, changing, flowing, never-constant, ramifying world. And in the other, the left hemisphere's take on the world, things are clear, sharp, distinct, dead, decontextualized, abstract, disembodied. And then they have to be put together, as you would put things together like building a machine in the garage. You have to put the world together, as if it were a machine. And, I believe that--and I'm writing a book at the moment--another, I'm afraid, very long, long book--which is really saying, 'We've got to stop thinking about ourselves and the world as machines,' because it's not accurate scientifically. And it's very destructive, socially, psychologically, and emotionally; and helps us to believe all kinds of terrible things about what our duties are towards the planet, what our duties are towards one another. And what it means to be a human being at all.
Russ Roberts: Well, we used to think it was a machine, the brain or ourselves. But now we know better. It's a computer. It's not just a machine. Right?
Iain McGilchrist: Heh, heh. No, it is not.
Russ Roberts: A lot of people, of course, believe that.
Iain McGilchrist: A lot of people believe that. That's my problem with them.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. And it's fascinating. Of course, they could be right. But, I'm sympathetic to your view--
Iain McGilchrist: No, they're not right--
Russ Roberts: Well, they could be right. I'm sympathetic to your view, and I found myself struggling, alternating between thinking every word in this book is true, versus, 'Wow, is there really--how strong is the case for that claim?' Because there's a lot of, um--it's a book of--here's the way I would describe it: It's a bit of a prosecutor's brief. I made a list of some of the words you used, against the left side, in favor of the right side. I made a list of the words--I don't think that you used necessarily every single one of these, but it's close. This is the left side: static, fragmented, linear, solipsistic, controlling, over-confident, objectifying, two-dimensional, virtual, lifeless, mechanical, context-free, and sees the whole as nothing more than the sum of the parts. But, I've got both. And let's say that's true. But I have two sides. I've got them both. We all have both. Other than stroke victims. So, in what sense is the left side like, taking over or dominating--leaving its tasks and taking on more than it was meant to take on, and running our culture--which we'll get to in a little bit.
Iain McGilchrist: Yeah. Well, Russ, of course you make a very good point. Which is that we both, all of us, have two sides to our brain. And there's very good reason that we do. I'm not suggesting we'd all be better off if we had a left hemisphere stroke. No. There's nothing wrong with the left hemisphere. As I often say: It's my second-favorite hemisphere. And we definitely need both to be working together. The problem comes from the fact that the right hemisphere is, if you like, a both-and style. Whereas the left hemisphere is an either-or style. And, the right hemisphere sees more. So it knows what it is it doesn't know. But the left hemisphere, seeing less, thinks it knows everything and doesn't know what it is it doesn't know. So, in fact, they do relate in a different way to one another. The right hemisphere communicates--this is a literal, near-physiological fact--that it communicates more and more quickly with the left does reciprocally with the right. And all those things that you read out, I wouldn't quibble with any of them. I'm sure I did use all of them, those adjectives. And, I haven't got time right now to give you chapter and verse for them. But they are not just figurative. They are not just, you know, a hasty caricature. All of those terms I could flesh out in greater depth philosophically, and neuropsychologically. So, yes: You do have a world which is fragmented. Decontextualized. Appears meaningless. A heap of bits. You have a brain half which is very good at procedures. Much better, actually, at carrying out routine procedures than the right hemisphere. But it doesn't understand exactly what it's dealing with. So, I'm going to be sympathetic to you for a moment. I'm going to really regret saying this--because I do consider that the--seriously--and I have a lot to say about the new[?] nitty-gritty about why it's wrong. The brain is nothing like a computer. It's nothing like any kind of mechanism at all. But, if you like, the left hemisphere is a little bit more like a personal computer. It isn't a computer. But the parallel would be that when you use a computer, you understand data that you're interested in. And then you then put it into this machine that can manipulate it in ways that would take you years, in seconds. The machine hasn't the slightest clue what it is doing. It spews this stuff out. You, then, take it back into the lived world, where it makes sense. And so, if you like, the right hemisphere understands what it's giving to the left for processing. And it needs to get it back. Take it back. Bring it into the world of meaning. And let me give you an example. Um, so, for example, if you are learning a piece of music, you start off by being attracted to it. And then you need to do a lot of rather mechanical processes. The 10,000 hours, if you really want to be a concert pianist. You have to do a lot of practice. You do your scales. You practice fingering.
Russ Roberts: And you'll take a difficult passage--you'll take a difficult passage and play it over and over and over again just to make sure you--
Iain McGilchrist: Play over and over and over again. Till you contextualize, and so on. Yeah. Now, all that is not wasted time. But, when it comes to performing it, you've got to forget all that. If you are thinking about all that, you'll never perform the piece at all. So, it needs to be taken back, now. Having been enriched by being temporarily taken apart into a new whole. And everything is like this. Language is like this. For example, the left hemisphere has, if you like, the dictionary. The--funnily enough[?]--the right hemisphere also has quite a decent dictionary. But, for most purposes, we rely on the left hemisphere to give us the words and the complicated syntax. But, actually, the business of--the first idea, when it comes to you, and the understanding of the utterance at the end of the process as a whole--so the grounding of it and the bottom and the kind of interpretation of it at the top--you need the right hemisphere to do that. In the intermediate step, the left hemisphere is very good is, as I say, looking words up in the dictionary, stringing them together according to pre-arranged rules. But you get metaphorical, try to convey implicit meaning, and it's at a loss. So, that is a very important difference. And I give the example sometimes, but it's quite a good one. You know, if I say to you, 'It's a bit hot in here,' you know, using your right hemisphere what I mean, which is: 'Can we open a window?' Which is not what I said. But the left hemisphere is thinking, you know, 'Why is he telling me that? I know it's hot in here. What's that got to do with anything?' So, in a way, if you like, the left hemisphere hasn't a grasp of the overall picture. It doesn't understand humor. It doesn't understand metaphor. It doesn't understand embodied meaning. It can't read faces. It can't read body language. It doesn't know that the things I don't say are just as important as the things I do. It doesn't know that the tone of voice in which I say them completely alters their meaning. All of that has to come from the right hemisphere. So there's no question that the right hemisphere is far more in touch with the whole picture. Understands it better than the left hemisphere. Even though the left hemisphere is expert at following familiar procedures. As long as it's routine, as long as it's met this one before, it's going to be fine. If it's any way new, forget it.
Russ Roberts: So, there's one other piece of the distinction that you talk about that I want to bring out. It's central; you just haven't mentioned it yet. Which is: You've talked about context and the whole; but you haven't mentioned this idea that the right hemisphere is about between-ness. It's about our relation to others. It's about how we fit in. It's less solipsistic. It's less about me, me, me; and it's a recognition that I'm part of something larger than myself. Which, of course, we're going to have a lot to say about that. But, talk about that for a little bit.
Iain McGilchrist: Okay. Well, it starts off in animals, who socialize using their right hemisphere, broadly speaking. So, you--you know, for example, a bird will approach more to a mate and will conduct an exercise in wooing using more its left eye, which in a lot of birds is wired fairly much straight to the right hemisphere, than it will the other way around. You ought to gloss that, because people get mixed up about this. In humans, the left eye and the right eye don't just cross over to the other hemisphere. The left visual field will for both eyes go to the right hemisphere and the right visual field. Both eyes go to the left, so that's good if you've got eyes on the front of our head. But, a lot of animals and birds very conveniently for doing science have the eyes on the side of their head. So you can tell which hemisphere they are preferring for this task. And, you know, they will actually turn their head round, inconveniently, to look with the eye that is appropriate for the task that it is actually carrying out. But, so, socializing is more the right frontal expansion. Which was never mentioned at medical school, because actually the largest asymmetry in the brain, we were taught that the left hemisphere is expanded in what is known as the language area. But we weren't told that the right hemisphere actually has an even bigger expansion, which is in the frontal lobes, and is the most highly evolved and lately evolved to the brain structure morphology. And that is what gives us the capacity to be what Aristotle called 'the social animal.' That we are these beings that can read others' minds, live with them, don't have to have everything explained but can understand the nuances of massively complex situations; can read tiny changes that last just for a few hundredths of a second in somebody's eyes--that kind of thing. So, being able to be social is something the right hemisphere is very important for. And it's also very good at, for example, things like humor, which is important socially. But, what I think you are saying is that I haven't talked about things like theory of mind? Or is that what you want to hear?
Russ Roberts: No--it was fine. That's exactly right. I wish we--
Iain McGilchrist: I think, how do you gloss the word 'betweenness'?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Talk about.
Iain McGilchrist: It's a word I made up. And it doesn't mean just the sort of gap between two things. But, it is the--say, there's you and me, and we know one another very well; we're good friends. We have a relationship. My friendship with you and my other friends constitutes to a very large extent who I am, how I relate to the society in which I grew up. How I relate to everybody that I've met. My whole being is in a thing that is not just my body but ramifies through experience into the context of myself and the world. And, it can't be just thought of as simple relationship, because suppose we go back to, say, you and me. There's you. And there's me. And there's the relationship as it were--the betweenness. But that includes what you and I become in the context of this relationship, which is a whole new thing. So, I again give the example music. Music can, if you are a lover of music, this is something that can be the most important thing in your life. It can give you richness and meaning in life to a greater extent than almost anything else. And yet, what is music? It is a series of notes. And what is a note? Let's take it apart. Let's draw down this; let's be analytic. Let's see what it's made up of. Well, it's made up of these notes. Aha! At last. A note. What does a note mean? Absolutely nothing at all. Okay. Well, let's take another note. Means absolutely nothing. Put a few thousand of these notes together that mean absolutely nothing and you have something that means everything. Now, how did that happen? It can't be because, as it were, the gaps between the notes, because the gaps are silent. And it can't be because of the notes themselves, because they don't mean anything. So, it is the betweenness--which is not the notes on their own, nor the addition of that to the silences on their own, but the entire, whole, irreducible, indecomposable structure that is Schubert's C Major Quintet. Or whatever it might be. So, there's something that newly arises, that is quite different. It's a little bit like in chemistry: you take a dull, gray, malleable metal like sodium and you mix it with an evil-smelling, poisonous green gas, chlorine; and you get white crystals of salt that make your life right. Now, what's going on there? That's amazing. That is a kind of betweenness.
Russ Roberts: Yeah; I find it--well, I find it quite profound. Just to respond to that, a couple of thoughts that I had while I was reading the book. Obviously, a conversation--this conversation--is a special example. There's one conversation where I write down a bunch of questions and you answer them. And, I could have sent you the questions in advance; I could have read them out loud, then you answered them, and that would create this interview or conversation. That's not a real conversation. A real conversation is alive. It's more than just our back-and-forth. A real conversation is more than just alternating monologues. And I argue in my Adam Smith book that to be a fine human being--and I got this from Smith somehow--I forget how--but to be a fine human being, when you are talking to someone, you are not always thinking about what you're going to say next. You are actually listening. And listening is very difficult. The other area where I think it comes into play is narrative. Which is related to your idea of metaphor, which you talk about a lot. And a narrative is just--you know, one darn thing after another. Right? It's just a symphony of words. But somehow, a great story is more than just a sequence of events. And it has to do with, partly, all the events, how they all work out together. But, more than that, it has to do with how they are told. A great story-teller creates something transcendent, something that makes those connections, that illuminates the connections between the events, using the words, just like a great composer can use rhythm and other things in the instrumentation--the orchestration, and so on. But I think--the other aspect of it that I think is so important is how you see yourself in the world. We spend a lot of time inside our own heads--thinking, 'What do I need to do? What am I afraid of? I hope he doesn't say that. I hope he's going over there. Where's that car? What that doing?' We are deeply immersed in our own world.
Iain McGilchrist: Sure.
Russ Roberts: We have to understand that to lead a full life, we have to escape from that prison. And we have to interact with others. And it's not just--I'm going to go far afield here because I want to make sure I get to this. It's not just, 'Oh, I wonder what's in it for me?' It's got to be: What are we going to create together? Through our conversation, our dance, our song. And so, that metaphor, whether it's neurological or not, of the right side of the brain being aware and focused on that richness of context and interaction, to me, is a profound insight into the human experience, relative to what you call the left side of the brain--and again, I can't speak to the accuracy of it--that somehow it's all about me. And, there is a big part of me that's all about me. But that's all there is about me. I'm leading a very shabby and sterile life.
Iain McGilchrist: Indeed. Yes. I don't think one can emphasize enough this idea, because we start from this age-old, deeply entrenched idea that there are isolated entities. There me. There's this table. This chair. This room. And that it has to be constructed. But it isn't. It's a seamless whole as it stands. And the things that we identify are events that, as it were, stand out against the background. I'm writing a book called There Are No Things. And, I was--I was being in an interview with Jordan Peterson a couple of months ago, and I told him this; and he said, 'Oh. What are there, then?' And I said, 'Patterns. Flows. Relationships.' And that is actually what matters. That is where all the meaning is. It's in--and indeed, there's no news in that. If you came from an ancient oriental culture, you would know precisely what I'm talking about. But, in fact, you can arrive there late in the day, several thousand years on from having made big philosophical errors, in my view--you can find that now, in, certainly, current physics. But you can also find it in current biology. People are beginning to see the metaphor, the machine, is just completely wrong. It doesn't illustrate what we are at all. Doesn't account for it in any way. It doesn't work like a machine.
Russ Roberts: So--
Iain McGilchrist: So, that's why I'm rather down on that. And I haven't got time to give you the full story of that, but I'm hoping you'll buy the next 800-page book.
Russ Roberts: You'll be back. I'm confident of that. If I'm here. And if you're here. We'll both be talking--
Iain McGilchrist: If I am. If any of us is.
Russ Roberts: Let me bring us to economics now, which I think is--I should mention, we are going to get to it, but it's impossible to do justice to the full range of ideas in the book. The second half of the book is an application of this different way of interacting with the world that you posit the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere have. And applying that to the evolution of Western Civilization. A small task. So, you go back through Greek history, philosophy of thought, up through the modern era, with large stops at the Renaissance, Reformation, the Enlightenment, Romantic period. And, you talk about how--and this is--I find this difficult to say, to accept--but I like the idea of it, which is: You make the argument that at different times in cultural history, the left side was more ascendant, or the right side was more ascendant. And that's difficult, because culture doesn't have a brain. Each of us have brains. So, I'll let you defend that later, perhaps; but for now I'm just going to say, I want to think of it as a metaphor. Which you, at the last page of the book say very eloquently, that metaphors are not just for fooling around with: they are the way we understand the world. So, again, putting aside the neuroscience: If I look at the world as either a man of station--the way we understand the world is either a man of station of the left versus the right--the right side as the way you've described it has some very interesting applications to economics. So, through most of economics, the evolution of economics, going back to, say, Adam Smith. Adam Smith has understood narrative. He is interested in description. He's interested in understanding. He has a very emergent--and I would describe it as biological--view of human interaction. Biological meaning more of an ecosystem than a physical system like planetary orbits. It's not mechanical at all. There's nothing mechanical in Smith's, either the Wealth of Nations or The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He sees the world's complexity. He's not trying to build a map. He's giving you his perception of the terrain. And then we come up through 1945, and we get to F. A. Hayek's "Use of Knowledge in Society." Which is a Smithian essay he wrote about the interaction of people and market processes, and how prices mediate our interactions. And they are complex. And they are not mechanical. And, he wins the Nobel Prize, and in 1974, his address, "The Pretence of Knowledge," says, makes the same point. It's basically: We can't understand this. It's not a question of computing power. It's a question of the underlying complexity. And it's not fruitful to think of it as a mechanical system. And there he's talking about macroeconomics, business cycle theory, and so on. That was 1945. 1948, Paul Samuelson writes The Foundations of Economic Analysis, where he mathematizes and linearizes, more or less, economic life. And it starts, say, a trend, say, in seeing the economy as a system of equations. As something to be manipulated. As something we have mastered. As something that is precise. As something that is controllable. And so the change goes from a bottom-up perception, which tends--which is, almost by definition to be observed--to a top-down one, which is to be, then, controlled. And the economist then sees him- or herself as an engineer/priest--a priest/engineer that can manipulate the human beings. Ironically, Smith warned against this in 1776. Excuse me, in 1759, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He talks about the man of system, who thinks he can move the pieces of humanity and society around like pieces on a chessboard, forgetting that they have emotions all their own. So, in economics, I see the metaphor you are using very powerfully. And, so many economists see the world in your left-side way--what you describe as the left side. Which is, 'I know. I've got this. Let me do this. We know how to do this. We know what the minimum wage should be. We know what stimulus package we need to pass. It's a little--it's short by $234 billion dollars.' And your point is that, that's a deep misreading of what science should be, just as it is in many other applications. I would--you know, I harp on endlessly here on the program: epidemiology and other medicine--that the complexities are not controlled. We don't understand them. And yet, people, you know, go around as if they have all the answers. And it's very--I think your way of seeing it is very powerful. And I would just close with one thing on this; and then let you respond. But, of course, then I say to myself, 'Am I just kind of smugly dismissing their smugness?' You know: 'I'm so smart; I know how smart I am. They're so dumb they think they are really smart.' And so, I start to think, 'Maybe--I'm not so sure how to balance that out.' But, anyway. React to that.
Iain McGilchrist: Heh, heh. Well, my reflection on that it is not what you think. It's the how, of how you think it, that matters. As, it's not what you do but the manner in which it is done and the reasons for which it is done and the mentality with which it's done that changes it. So, you may be right that they're missing something without necessarily being smug about it. I think the degree of humility is what's missing from many of the crasser areas of physical science and social science. And, as you quite rightly say, several Nobel Prize winning economists who have got egg all over their face because just before everything crashed, they said, 'We know how to do this. It's never going to crash again.' So, there's no question about that. One very odd thing is, you know, I thought that neurologists and psychiatrists and philosophers and people in my sort of area would respond, or hoped that they might. I didn't think they'd respond as much as they have, but at least expected that. The bit I didn't expect was how my mail box was full of stuff from economists and people in the world of finance who said, 'You've just described exactly the problem.' Now, I know next to diddlysquat about economics and the world of finance. So, I was surprised by this. But of course having talked to them, I see exactly why they say that. And so I find myself being invited by people in the world of industry and economics to enter into a conversation. I think I could illuminate a little bit--you said--or perhaps you don't want me to address the question: but you did rather provocatively say, 'I'm not comfortable with this idea because a culture doesn't have a brain.'
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Talk about--respond to that.
Iain McGilchrist: Yeah. I mean, the thing is, I think there's a bit of a misunderstanding here. I'm not saying that, as it were, 'Something has happened in the brain and it's controlling you or controlling society.' What I'm saying is that the brain inevitably constrains the auctions for us. It's giving us--if I'm right--and there is no dispute that I'm right that the two hemispheres attend differently; I don't think anybody in the world who knows anything about neurology would disagree that on the whole the left hemisphere attends in a different way from the right hemisphere. And if I'm right in thinking, as I think most philosophers would agree, that if you attend to something differently, you see something quite different, then you can put those two together; and the two hemispheres will produce different versions of the world. It's logic. It's got to do that. And you see it happening in the history of culture. That's really what I was aiming to show. I wasn't suggesting that if you scanned people 500 years ago, you'd find different things lighting up in their brains, so to speak. That is not the point. My point is that we can get blinded to certain things by custom and by the way in which our culture talks. We can learn to ignore things that our brains are fully equipped to tell us but which our culture tells us we shouldn't listen to. And so, we can develop what in my view is a very simplistic, impoverished idea of the world--simple, predictable, mechanical, controllable, even perhaps complex as it gets underway, but nonetheless by routes that are effectively predictable and controllable. Or, you understand, that we don't know a tenth of what we are dealing with, and that these systems are intrinsically, not accidentally but intrinsically predictable. And that the fool is the person who thinks that they know it all and can control it all. I mean, that has been demonstrated comprehensively throughout human history. And was the background to, perhaps, [?] it was most valuable, the history of tragedy. You know that tragedy is about hubris. It's about when things come crashing down. And my own view is that our society is--I'm not generalizing about the human beings, who have the same capacity to be subtle, wise, kind as they ever did. But, the culture is not like that. The culture is missing an awful lot. I think it's rather crass. I think it's egotistic. I think it's highly materialistic in a way that is not helpful. I think we've lost--
Russ Roberts: It's [?]nasty--
Iain McGilchrist: a moral compass. I think we've lost the sense of the spiritual. It is nasty in a lot of ways. Yeah. And, what I've thought I saw and why I thought it was worth going there in the second half of the book was that there are parallels. That three times in the West we've had a civilization that's flourished. And it often came into being rather quickly. It sort of came almost out of nowhere. Suddenly, there was a great efflorescence of knowledge, learning, understanding--across the board. In science, in astronomy, in maps, in exploration, in philosophy, in the arts, in drama. And then, gradually, that waned. And you might say, if you didn't know much about human civilizations, you'd think they'd take a hell of a long time to grow, and then they'd just go, like that. But, actually, the pattern so far has been more like: They seem to come into being rather quickly--and I don't really want to try to explain that, because I can't--but they--well, I have my own theories but they are not worth saying--but, what's certainly happens is that they then degenerate over time. And in every case--as Greece went from the very rich era of, you know, the 5th, 6th century B.C. down towards the Hellenistic period and on; and then in the Roman period from the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire, which was a very rich period for the 4 centuries until Rome collapsed. And then again, with us, at the Renaissance--this wonderful efflorescence of everything--you know, good for science, good for art, good for every human endeavor. Enormously rich suddenly; incredibly creative. And then we've got more rule-bound, more rigid, more hubristic, more certain that we know things--always a bad sign. And now, I think, we're at a point where our civilization is ready to collapse. Partly some of that is economic and political, because I think in each case what's happened is a society has over-stretched itself by having an empire. And, we're doing that, too, both an administrative empire with the British in the 19th century but more now, the global and American empire of commerce. Anyway, sorry [?]--
Russ Roberts: Let me push back on that. Although I'm--there's a dour[?] and dark side of me that finds that appealing to accept. But, I want to push back. And I'll put on my Steven Pinker/Jonah Goldberg hat, recently here to talk about the Enlightenment. And so, let me make a brief case for the Enlightenment, and then you can tell me why you disagree. Or accept some of it, or not. So, the Enlightenment--which is the rationalistic, scientific, rejection-of-religion, embrace of reason is the sort of bumper-sticker version of it--that's led to the greatest advances in the world. We got out of that capitalism, and we got out of it democracy; and because of those two things working together, with science and engineering and technology, we've transformed human life expectancy. We've pulled people out of poverty. We have reached some of the greatest standard of living in human history, unimaginable for the masses. Certainly in the developed world, and increasingly in the developing world, the poor world. The number of people in the last 20 years who have come out of abject poverty is just shockingly glorious. And, women don't die in childbirth like they used to. Children don't die in their first 5 years as they used to. We've abolished smallpox. So many wonderful, glorious things from that left-side, focused reason: let's get rid of the mumbo-jumbo of superstition and religion and let's focus on what science and technology can do. And it's all good. 'What are you complaining about?'
Iain McGilchrist: Yeah. I mean, you don't need to tell me what the Enlightenment did for us. There's no doubt that if I'd been living in the 18th century--
Russ Roberts: 'Don't we need more of it? Don't we need more of it? We're on our way to the Singularity. We're going to have--we're going to upload our brains into machines and live forever. Everything is going to be great.'
Iain McGilchrist: Sure. No, as I was saying, if I'd been living in the 18th century I'd have undoubtedly been enormously confident that what we were doing was very good. The thing is, you've mentioned a lot of things. But, everything in life--which is not the way we normally think: We think there's good stuff and there's bad stuff. But actually, if you look at things, every good has a dark side. And even the things we think are bad have their redeeming features at times. So, the world is more complicated. That was a very left-hemisphere story you just told me. And I know it's Steven Pinker's. I'm sure he would wear the badge of being very left-hemisphere minded as a badge of honor. But, I do think it's blinkered. Because, you mentioned things--some of them I would not dispute. It's better, obviously, that we don't physically suffer in the ways that we used to. But, we actually have a problem because of that. Because of the good things--like medicine and better nutrition, we now have a problem of resources, which is not going to be solved by technology. Because technology consumes resources. And I don't think most people really understand quite how bad that problem of resources is. There's an absolutely wonderful lecture by Al Bartlett, a physicist, on YouTube, which I expect you know. But if you don't, and if your listeners haven't, please go and look it up now and watch it. It's about an hour long. It could change your whole way of thinking--
Russ Roberts: But, don't go listen to it now. Wait till the end of this conversation--
Iain McGilchrist: No, no, don't listen to it now--
Russ Roberts: And we'll put a link up to it.
Iain McGilchrist: Make a note of it. No. Because, effectively, what you are saying is, there is absolutely no way. It's not a matter of, you know, if. It's a matter of when; and it will be very soon. We will have exhausted various kinds of resource which we are using exponentially. And, his point, which is human beings don't understand exponential growth. They, you know, the famous thing that you put a bacterium in a jar at 11 o'clock, and it doubles every minute. And you come back at 12 o'clock and it's full. When is it not full? 11:59. And when would a bacterium in that jar have realized that it had got a problem? At 11:58, the jar was only a quarter full. At 11:57, it was only an eighth full. At 11:56, it was only a sixteenth full, but that was four minutes before it hit the buffers. So, we're in that kind of a world. And, there's for more to a world than just having more years. You mentioned longevity. Is that necessarily a good? That we can get more stuff? Is that necessarily a good? Do you think we are happier? The evidence is we're not happier. The evidence is that actually people who lead lives that we in a somewhat as a patronizing way think of as very basic and sinful may have more stable existences, feel more fulfilled, and be as happy or happier than we are. So, it's not as straightforward. It reminds me of when I told a colleague of mine--who is a Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry somewhere, the research that shows, pretty clearly, that we aren't any happier. And there's a stronger case that we are not as happy as we were in, say, the 1950s or 1960s--when, you know, life was relatively uncomfortable on the terms you've described. And he said, 'But that can't be right. They've all got washing machines.' You know. And I'm sorry, what you just gave me, and what Pinker says, is a version of 'But, they've all got washing machines.' But, there's a bit more to life than that. And if we're not actually not able to understand and enjoy the spiritual aspects of life, and to feel a relationship to nature; and if we believe that we don't mean anything--what is the point in it? There's a rather curious element to modern thinking, which is: The more we think life doesn't mean anything, the more we hang on to it. The more we want it never to stop. Even though we are more stressed, and we used to have higher rates of mental illness than we used to do. And we're in the process of destroying not just ourselves, but the whole rich business of this planet. Its creatures. Well, I want to go on, because it--a long story, but I think it's one you know but can't be said loud enough. So, you know, I don't share this optimism. And I don't think it would be good if became more like machines. I think it would be good if we became less like machines. And we use machines to help us, in a sparing sort of way towards the things that really are drudgery and need to be got rid of.
Russ Roberts: So, I'm--I have mixed feelings about all that. I am not as pessimistic as you are--is it Al Bartlett? Is that his name?
Iain McGilchrist: Al Bartlett. Yeah--
Russ Roberts: As he is. But I'll have to give him a listen and see what I think.
Russ Roberts: But, on the other aspects about meaning, I think you are spot on. I always think of the phrase, 'Everyone's fighting a battle. So, be kind.' We all have our ghosts, our phantoms, our fears, our insecurities. And strangely enough, our higher standard of living don't help us with those things. They don't help us with our fundamental challenges of relating to other people and of empathy and maybe in fact make them harder--
Iain McGilchrist: no--
Russ Roberts: you could argue. But, if we have time-- Yeah, go ahead.
Iain McGilchrist: Mmm. Yeah: I was just going to say. Sorry. My favorite is: Never criticize someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes, because by then when they get mad at you, you are a mile away and you've got their shoes.
Russ Roberts: Ha, he, heh, heh, yeah. It's a good line.
Iain McGilchrist: Sorry.
Russ Roberts: Yeah; no, you can't help it. It's a good line. But I do think, to come back to the seriousness: I think most of us walk around with our armor on all the time, that defends us, protects us, from embarrassment, humiliation, shame. And, you can make a case that we've had an enormous loss of vulnerability in our ability to share with others. But I think that's a perennial problem of being a human being. And I don't think--washing machines don't help with that. And I do think: If you don't have a washing machine, it's transformative to have one. But I don't want to suggest that having one is somehow the ultimate. And I do think that, as economists, that we spend way too much time thinking of human beings as maximizing machines. And, you point out in the book, when you talk about people a certain way--you actually start to think of it as true. And we had a credible episode of EconTalk with Paul Pfleiderer where he talked about the challenge of--professors in particular of finance because that's his field--of actually confusing reality with their model. And I think that's a huge problem in science--
Iain McGilchrist: And that's exactly what I'm saying. The left hemisphere has a model; and it mistakes it for reality.
Russ Roberts: So, let me ask you, then--but I want to come back to--you just said something incredibly profound, which was: How is it that, as we lose our connection to the divine and the spiritual and we start to think that life is just a random set of biological events, we cling to it so deeply? And, I'd written a question before we started: I said, 'Why do you think we human beings care so much about meaning? Why can't we just enjoy life until we die?' And I think that's a--for an economist, a difficult--I'm not going to try to answer it wearing my economist's hat. But I would like your thoughts on it. If you believe that this material world is all there is, why do people care that it should have some "ultimate meaning," or "other meaning"? And many people are happy saying it doesn't and life is just a chance to indulge and enjoy and physically, you know, the Dionysian side of Nietzsche--I have to mention Nietzsche because you do many times, and any time you can mention Nietzsche, you should. But, what is this--why do we have this thing with meaning? What's that about? Why can't we just be an animal? We can't, evidently.
Iain McGilchrist: Well, you said, 'Why don't we just enjoy life without meaning?' I always think that's a kind of oxymoron, because when life is meaningless, it's very hard to enjoy it. As you know, [?] the simple pursuit of pleasure--
Russ Roberts: Yeah, but it shouldn't be. Right?
Iain McGilchrist: It shouldn't be according to the left hemisphere's model. But, as I keep saying, the model isn't the reality. It computes, yes. But we aren't computers. That's not what we do. So, what we, famously, require is the sense of belonging and the sense of purpose. And very hard to deny the idea that there is a kind of teleology in living beings. It's a thing that biologists have until very recently have been loath to come out of the closet and say. But, meaning is something very deep, in life. And, what confuses the picture is that its very meaningfulness comes from not having an explicit meaning, an ulterior motive. It's exactly because it doesn't exist in order that or so that this can happen. It doesn't have an instrumental purpose. That is the foundation of its having a purpose, of being enjoyed in itself. So I think we are saying similar things, but I'm saying them, I think, from a very different philosophical position. Which is that, our satisfaction comes from letting go--not controlling, not thinking we know it all and being imprisoned in our little egos in which we try and force life to be something we want it to be. And try and indulge ourselves in pleasure. That is not fulfilling. Nor is it good for the human species, if we all did that; in fact if we were all like that, society wouldn't last. Maybe if enough of us think like that, it won't. But, there's such an idea as dignity. It's a very difficult one. Nowadays people are so allergic to it, in case it means somebody thinks big of themselves. But of course actually the very people who handle the idea of, you know, 'we're nothing but,' also have myths of their own. They also have a kind of arrogance of their own. And so, it's not as simple as that. But we do need to be able to sense the meaning in things. And it comes when we stop trying to find a meaning at one level. Which is why oriental philosophy is so complicated. It says that all is one and all is nothing, and all is many and all is being. The trouble is, that we come to paradoxes if we are really looking deeply into things. In fact, Niels Bohr [?] said, 'Oh, thank God we've got a paradox. At last, we're on to something.' And his son said, 'My father distinguished between small superficial truths in which paradox is just nonsense--simple, coherent, linear--and the deep truths, which don't have that structure at all. Which are like dipoles in which you can't--you take a magnet and you decide: I don't like the north pole of the magnet. I'm going to cut it off. All you've got is a shorter magnet with a north pole.' So, two things are mutually dependent. And, the big things in life are all of this kind. There's not one that's good and one that's bad. We have to see this complex picture. And, what I'm really saying--I'm sorry; that's a little bit way off. But, what I'm really saying is that there's two senses of meaning: I can't find--if I say, 'My wife means the world to me,' you say, 'Well, okay. What does she mean?' Well, you've misunderstood what I mean by 'meaning.' If I say, 'This piece of Bach, as far as I'm concerned, says everything.' You say, 'Well, what does it say?' You are not understanding the basis from which I am speaking. Now, life doesn't have a meaning that I can give you in so many words. It's meaning is unveiled to you in the process of living, if you are attentive. And so we come back to attention, which drowns[?] everything. And I love this saying by a French existential philosopher called Louis Lavelle, because I think it's succinct; and if you ponder on it, it really kind of brings home to you how important attention is. He said, '[? French, quote]'. In other words, 'Love is a pure attention to the existence of the other.' In other words: How we attend to things changes what there is in the world. How we look at the world changes what the world actually is. Not just in some nebulous way. It actually alters what's happening. And, it's a moral act. Because, by attending in a certain way to the world, selfishly, ruthlessly, mechanically, we can destroy its meaning. And go, 'Well, I can't see it's got any meaning, so I might as well just gobble it up before I go.' And so, our best image of a human being is some disconsolate, constantly impatiently seeking some further satisfaction. Fat guy with a large checkbook [?]. I mean, that is not an aspiration for a decent human being. In fact, we know that happiness doesn't come, with all due respect to your Constitution, from pursuing it. It will run away from you if you pursue it. It comes from forgetting about yourself. If you bring that up.
Russ Roberts: Well, I always want to mention a couple of things that this reminds me of, that have come up in the past for listeners who want to make these connections. I think about translation. You know, people say, 'Well, just give me the literal translation.' As if that was a thing. Right? The whole nature of language is ambiguity. And, again, just use your language, left side, the left side of my brain says, 'I don't like ambiguity. Just tell me what it means. When you say your wife is everything, or the world to you--let's see, world, I can look that up. Well, that doesn't make sense. That's a meaningless statement, obviously.' But, of course, it's not. My right side of the brain is moved by that avowal. So, translation, which I think is--I think it's very difficult for us--many people, and me, every human being has a bit of this: That has that left side, just says, 'Tell me what it means. I want to understand it.' You give me a poem and I don't understand that can be a feature, not a bug. But there's a piece of me that says, 'No, no, no! What did he mean by that? What did Gerard Manley Hopkins mean by dapple-dawn, minion--I can't remember it by heart. But, so that's one thing that I think about a lot, is translation. The other is metaphor. We used recently with an episode with Mike Munger; we'll put a link to it, where I've used this before to think about how we should behave. And I've used the metaphor of a dance floor. The metaphor of the dance floor is that--there is a piece of me, when I go out on the dance floor, I want to be seen as the best dancer. So, I want to say, 'My goal as a maximizer is to get the most I can out of this 20 minutes on the dance floor. And I want to show off. And I want to look great. Everyone's going to say, "He's a great dancer."' But, of course, that's a really bad dancer. A really great dancer says, 'I want to go out there and I want to make sure that neither I nor my partner step on anybody's toes. I'm going to make my partner look graceful and elegant. I am going to, with the other people on the dance floor, create something I couldn't create if I were alone. Even with a partner--that there's something magnificent about the swirling, unpredictable, spontaneous movement there. And a great dance like that is exhilarating in a way that a planned, 'I'm going to win this competition,' can't be. And the other distinction I want to make, which I heard recently from Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, which I think is a fantastic distinction, is between contract and covenant. A contract is about: What do I get out of this? And, I think: 'What's in it for me?' And, 'I've got to protect myself.' And, I've got to have these clauses to make sure I don't get taken advantage of or exploited. A covenant is a promise. A covenant says: We're together. So, a marriage, where I go into a marriage and say, 'I hope I'm a hit today. I hope I get more out of it today than I lost,' or 'I hope I got more--gee, didn't my wife, hasn't she failed to do this the last three times? It's her turn'? So, if you keep score, you have a lousy marriage. And the way to have a good marriage is to base it on love. And to say, 'Let's see what happens.' That emergent, attentive, enjoying whatever it is at this moment. And that's very hard for us. Especially that left side of us doesn't want that. It wants to say, 'I could get more out of this. I'm dissatisfied. I need a better x,y,z--whatever it is--whether it's a marriage or a job or a relationship with a parent, or a friend.' And I think that whole maximizing mindset, which economists adopt, has some real drawbacks in thinking about how you should live your life. We often rationalize it by saying, 'Well, but you've got to look out for yourself, don't you?' We often rationalize it by saying, 'Well, people don't--they're not literally like this, but they act as if they are.' And your point, I think correctly, is that: Well, if you keep thinking as if they act that way, maybe you start to think they do. And you start to think it's rational for you to act that way. Which is, I think, extremely destructive.
Iain McGilchrist: Yes. Well, it's not even rational. Because it won't be for your own fulfillment, or anyone's.
Russ Roberts: Right. It's not meta-rational.
Iain McGilchrist: There are all these--I mean, of course, you've got to look out for yourself. But, I mean, a point that I think is a very interesting one that I came across recently in the writings of two process[?] biologists. They made the point which I have always believed, that is absolutely, that is absolutely true: that nature involves competition, quite clearly. But that's only half a story. It at least is importantly involves collaboration. Your body contains 37.2 trillion cells, that at some point in history decided to pool resources and cooperate with one another, in order to make something better. And all living things do this. Time and time again. And, in fact, the story of how things progress in nature and how creatures, evolve, is partly to do, surely, with competition. But at least as much with cooperation. And the combination is collaboration. And that gets us back, in a way, to this idea--it's not quite covenant versus contract. But a distinction, by the way, which I think is a very important one. So I agree with Sacks about that. But, you know, when you were talking about the dance floor, I always think of a couple of things that have been for me almost as pleasurable as anything I can think of in life. And, one is taking part very badly in--a kind of dancing that doesn't much happen these days. Where a community gets together, and there is a kind of flow into which you get taken or not. And, somehow you find yourself able to do the things without in any way thinking about them. And the sensation of belonging to this thing--you are taken out of time, and somehow you are enriched. And the same thing used to happen to me--when I lived in London, on a Tuesday night I used to go and sing in a choir that sang Renaissance Polyphony. On Wednesday night I'd go and dance--I was having dance classes in rock-and-roll. Which I love. But, anyway, to go back to the Renaissance Polyphony: One of the things we would do, I think: we thought we knew a piece really well. So there's just two or three people in each voice; and I was singing different lines against one another, would be to put the music down and walk around the room, as if in a dance. But sort of no particular reason for going any one place. And just listen, as you get close to someone else, to how their voice and yours interact. And so on. This is completely an amazing thing. If you play music together with people, it really means--it brings to life what I'm saying, about how the important things emanate from this. As they do, if you've ever worked alongside people on a common project, under difficult circumstances. One of the things about medical training, which in my day was particularly rigorous--I was, at one stage working 120 hours a week--and I can tell you that none of those involved sitting down. So, I was working incredibly hard. But the sense of--it wouldn't be the same, actually, now, because it's all much more managerialized. But in those days, there was a genuine professional culture in which we didn't count the hours. We didn't think, 'Gosh, it's time for me to go to bed.' We didn't think, you know, 'I'm getting paid £5 an hour' which is half what the cleaner is getting paid. You just did it. And you were part of the team. And the satisfaction you got out of doing it. I mean, I'm not saying there weren't times when you thought, 'This is crap.'
Russ Roberts: No, of course. There are a lot of times like that.
Iain McGilchrist: There's always that.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. But, afterwards--
Iain McGilchrist: There's always that mix in life. Yeah, yeah. And even at the time, actually. I mean, a lot of it is, you do get this extraordinary feeling out of it. So, yeah, no, definitely. This idea of the dance is good. But you also mention, and I can't let that go before, because it's so apposite: translation. I started off my academic life with literary criticism. And I wrote a book called Against Criticism. And that wasn't because I hadn't enjoyed and learnt an enormous amount from what I'd studied. But, it was because it seemed to me something wrong with what we were doing to it in the seminar room. Because, if I can express it as succinctly as possible: Someone, a real living human being in the past, had to an extent suffered to produce something very special and beautiful. Which was entirely unique. You know, if you have a favorite poet--one of mine is Hardy. If Hardy hadn't written poems like that, or Hopkins, who you mentioned, a very good example. If Hopkins hadn't written, you could never have thought of his poetry. Because it's entirely his. There would be a Hopkins-shaped hole in the universe if it hadn't happened. So, there was something unique. And there was something embodied. It didn't just consist of a few ideas: 'Okay, I got it.' Like a computer would. It actually affected my breathing. It affected, subtly, the tensions in my body musculature. It affected my blood pressure, my pulse, my heart rate--my hair stand on end. These things are implicit. And much of the meaning is implicit. You know, William Empson, very famous English critic, wrote a book called Seven Types of Ambiguity--one of the most famous books of criticism--that writing is all about the richness of ambiguity. So, it was unique. It was implicit. And it was embodied. And we came along, and we got out of it something that was general and abstract. And completely explicit. So, it just worked in exactly the opposite direction from the way in which it worked. So, if Hardy says, for example,
Here's the ancient floor,
Footworn and hollowed and thin
Here was the former door
Where the dead feet walked in.
Now, that's the opening of a poem in which he is saying how much he misses his wife. And he remembers this room, a time when they were happy together. To say that, is not to convey anything of the poem. Which is why it's so difficult to translate poetry at all. And I think it's a bit sad that, that when children no doubt study Shakespeare at school a bit, that they often are encouraged to go and read No Fear Shakespeare, because it will tell them what it means. In a way I understand that. But, it doesn't really tell them what it means, because it's in the words themselves. You know? Even Shakespeare said something--which is really a banality--you[he?] said, 'There is no art to read the mind's instruction in the face.' You know, I think, 'Wow.' But, what does it mean? It means you can't tell what people are thinking by looking at them. Kind of the thing you could hear in the pub. But somehow it's different, you know?
Russ Roberts: No, I've talked a lot on the program about knowledge and wisdom. And how we think somehow, I guess it has to do with facts. You need facts, to be wise and knowledgeable. But somehow, stating things--I'll give an example, a silly example--not silly, but, there's a TED Talk by Brené Brown. It's on vulnerability. And when I was reading your book, I was thinking about this talk. The talk, the point of the talk is: It's good to be vulnerable. So, I just told you the point of the talk. And you'd say, 'Yeah, I agree with that.' But, it doesn't get in your bones. And if you want to get something to get in your bones, you've got to say it in a way that gets into people's bones. One way to do that is with a 460 page book on the divided brain. And, you hammered on me for, you know, the hours it took. And so, I've absorbed the lessons of that book in a way that I wouldn't if you just listened to this one hour. I absorbed it in a way I didn't, having watched your 12-minute, animated RSA[?] version of this, which I'm going to put a link up to. Although those were all--they were great. And I hope people love this conversation. But, it's not the same. It's not just because, 'Oh, there's more in the book.' It's because the choice of the words and how it gets expressed makes all the difference. People have said to me--one of my favorite books is Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Taleb who has been a guest. And people say, 'Oh, there's nothing new in there.' Or, 'I knew it all, already.' And, of course, I knew it, too. Life has some random elements that are hard to distinguish from the things that aren't random. That's the point of the book. 'Oh. Oh, I get it.' No, you don't. You have no chance of getting it. You could spend a lifetime thinking about randomness. It's a--another guest, William Byers talked about. It's just the nature of some concepts--that, I think you say it, at some point--that the more you think about it, the more your realize that there's more to learn. It's not exhausted by describing. The other--before we end, I want to ask you to defend something. It's hard to defend on one foot. But, many times in the book, you talk about those who are influenced by the Left side--being focused on the material, the explicit, the concrete. And many guests on this program, many listeners, would say, 'Well, that's all there is.' When we had Jerry Muller on, recently, and he talked about the Tyranny of Metrics--how measuring things can lead to mistakes, right? And people say to me--I actually had someone write me and say, 'I'm very disturbed: you didn't give the other side.' And I'm thinking, 'What's the other side?'
Iain McGilchrist: They need to read Jerry's book. Because it's an excellent book. And it's very balanced, actually. I think he does a brilliant job.
Russ Roberts: But the person who wrote that was a data scientist who--what he meant by 'the other side' I think was that numbers are really good. And they are, of course. There are times when it's a very good idea to use numbers to measure things, for all kinds of things, to measure things in general. Right?
Iain McGilchrist: So, we're back to the fact that the Left Hemisphere is important, at times.
Russ Roberts: But maybe they're--but maybe--so, but the people--who--
Iain McGilchrist: It just doesn't[?] think it's a monster.
Russ Roberts: But the people who say that, the people who say that--and I gave this example then, and I'll give it for you, which is: When I would say to someone that certain financial techniques, of riskiness, of a portfolio are dangerous because you tend to start thinking you've actually understood how risk works when in fact you don't, a very Talebian point, someone says to me: 'Well, what's the alternative?' And of course the alternative is: judgment. And humility. And those are really--you are fooling yourself to think that you've somehow made it more it more precise by putting a number to it in certain settings. But, what do you say to the people who say, 'But there isn't anything beside the material? That's all there is. There's just the physical world.' There's stuff about spirituality, or the other, the transcendence, awe. All these things--those are just--those aren't real. What do you say to those folks?
Iain McGilchrist: Well, I don't want to patronize them. But I do feel rather sad for them. Because, um, of course, that's exactly what I would expect. If you don't listen to certain things, and you come to say they don't have any meaning, because they, I don't take them into account, it's all you can see is the [?] face? Because, you are being misled by a, in my view, impoverished kind of a culture, into thinking in rather impoverished terms about the world.
Russ Roberts: But, Iain, your world--it's just an illusion. You're just saying these things. There's no evidence for these things. They don't--there's nothing--I can't touch them; I can't see them. I can't measure them. It's physical. It's all chemistry.
Iain McGilchrist: Well, yes. I know, of course, it's diaboli[?]. Yeah but, it's of course, if you think that the only things that matter are the things t hat you can touch, then you won't understand anything. I can't prove to you what love is. I mean, I can't measure it. I can't show you. I haven't got a handful of it. And, if you've never experienced it, you won't know what it is. But I can tell you it exists. And it's very important for many people.
Russ Roberts: It's just a set of neurons--
Iain McGilchrist: Time is intangible. Time is intangible. And it's not a neuronal twangle. The fact that neuronal activity accompanies everything we do doesn't tell you anything. Why wouldn't it? It's like: We found a bit in the brain that lights up when you eat a ham sandwich. Well, you know, what [?] it, there's something going to light up somewhere. But it is not itself--well, it can sometimes be helpful to know what it doesn't--I mean, it can sometimes be helpful. To know what it--you know, after all, I've spent my life looking at what connects with what in the brain. So there is something in there. But, on the other hand, a big mistake is to think, you describe what it really is by redescribing it at a more reduced level. But all the things that matter or of this kind. They can't be proved. But why should they be? Why waste your time trying to prove something to somebody who is constitutionally incapable of understanding it? I mean, for example, I'm completely convinced that Bach is a greater composer than Bing Crosby. It doesn't matter what you tell me: I'm going to believe that. 'Well, I happen to think Bing Crosby is far more, made far better music than Bach.' So, it's just your opinion. Yeah, okay. It is. It help you. But just because things can't be proved or measured doesn't mean that they are not important and real. In fact, you know, famously, it's the things that count, that can't be counted, and the things that get counted that don't really count. So, you know, we shouldn't surely get into such a naive trap as that. One of the most absurd things that's ever happened is Galan Strawson and the English analytic philosopher pointed out, is the denial of the existence of consciousness: It's the only thing that we can be certain of. It's massive. People say, 'A problem?' Well, what problem? I mean, that's the one and only thing that is non-problematic. Matter, however. What the dickens it matter? It's something in my consciousness, that I only know because I only have consciousness. That seems to resist my will. We don't know that we only have consciousness because we matter--we might or we might not. But we do know that we only know matter through consciousness. So, consciousness is the primary thing. And, to say it's an illusion is ridiculous. Because an illusion suggests a consciousness that can be illuded. It's a bit like-you know, if somebody says, you know, in my consciousness I see sunlight on a bowl of strawberries--I'm not really seeing sunlight on a bowl of strawberries. As it were: What would the real thing look like? You know? It's like people who say, that the old joke, 'Shakespeare wasn't really written by Shakespeare. It was written by another man of the same name.' The--if that isn't consciousness, then what is the real thing like? So, it's an incoherent concept, in other words--
Russ Roberts: well--
Iain McGilchrist: no consciousness, certainly not tangible. And we don't know that it emanates from matter.
Russ Roberts: I've become increasingly interested in it. And I tried to get some philosophers on the program; but they didn't, they thought better of it. For whatever reason. But it's fascinating to me. It's fascinating to me that, whatever we haven't quite--either there's nothing to it. Or probably we'll never understand it. Other than that, it's not interesting. I find it extremely interesting.
Russ Roberts: Let's close--I want to say something ironic about your book, and then I want to say something, I'll ask you a question about the book, I'll let you close with. So, one of the things I loved about your book was the embrace of ambiguity. I remember teaching MBAs [Masters of Business Administration] and saying some negative about the Swedish MBA system--the Swedish economy. And a student raised his hand, and he said, 'In our other class today, in Organizational Behavior, we learned that they have really good companies.' 'Yeeeah?' And what he meant was: 'So which is it? Are they good or bad?' The idea that they could be, have some good things or some bad things, that's not good for the multiple choice test? And we have that mentality of like, 'I don't like to balance two things in paradox. Just tell me the right answer.' So, at the beginning of this conversation, I made a joke about: I can't recommend this book and I can't recommend this book enough. So, the listener is thinking, 'Which is it? Is it a good book or not?' Well, it's a very good book. But it's very long. And it requires a great deal of effort, because there are allusions and passages that are challenging. There's a decent amount of Heidegger in the book--by 'decent amount' I mean more than a sentence. And Heidegger is very hard. There's maybe a page or two about Heidegger in total. You may struggle with that, as I did. You may want to skip over it. You may want to grapple with it. But, the other thought I had, and this comes back to this consciousness thing and that we have to use consciousness to understand consciousness, is: You've written a systemic book about the problems of systemic thinking. You've written a book that makes a powerful case condemning the over-reliance of the left side of the brain. And you had to use the left side of your brain to write that. Did you think about that at all when you were writing the book?
Iain McGilchrist: I definitely did. By the way, in my earlier life I wrote a book called Against Criticism which contained a lot of criticism. And now I've written a book which is against reducing everything to the brain but which actually does a lot of looking hard at what we know about the brain. But it really is--to be serious--it illustrates very well my point, which is not that there is something fundamentally wrong with the left hemisphere. It only becomes a problem when it thinks it knows everything. It should be a servant, not a master. That is in a nutshell my point. And so, I did a lot of very hard work in order to construct something which I hope persuades the reader. But there was a time when all I thought was, 'I can't write this book,' because everything I know connects and ramifies to everything else I know. In the end, when people read the book they say it reads in such a way that it's got this clear, linear thing; you are carried along by it. I had to really struggle to get that going. And I'd just like to gloss the systemic thing. Because, there's two kinds of meanings to that, really, as there are to just about every important idea. There's a left hemisphere type of system, and a right hemisphere. So, systematizing, in the sense of a flow diagram or something like that is explicit would be very left-hemisphere: building a system of that kind. But there's also seeing the broad patterns behind things in a more Jungian sort of way, if you like. By seeing imaginative patterns of how things connect with one another. Seeing a bigger picture. Not by putting together the lots of things in order with a screwdriver, but by, as it were, allowing something to come into being for you. Those are two different kinds of perceiving a whole: one a pattern and the other more of a system. And I would say that I hope my book ends up being more of that--that it is a very rich pattern in which people start to see that things that they experience relate to it. Probably there is something in that, because the [?] emails I get from people of the lines--I mean, I often get one with a strapline[?], 'Your book changed my life.' Which I think is a very nice thing, because I was a doctor and I had to give it up to carry on doing what I'm doing. And I thought, 'How are you going to feel about that?' And it turns out I can still help people. But, the other thing people say is, 'Oh, in a way I kind of knew this'--rather going back to what you are saying. 'In a way I kind of knew that.' They don't mean the neuroscience, or even the Heidegger, or anything else. What they mean is, 'What you have articulated for me is something I profoundly believe and live and understand; and I didn't have any words for it. You've given me words.' That's what they say. So, that is the way in which I think it works, is that I use the tools of those very analytic things to take people to a place where they can let them go. They can, as it were, you take the ladder up and then you can kick the ladder away.