The brain consists of two halves: the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere. In a healthy person, they work together constantly and do many of the same things. Both halves are necessary for a healthy existence.
But the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere attend to the world differently. Our attention affects the world, which in turn affects us. "[T]he nature of the attention we bring to bear on anything alters what we find there." The Master and His Emissary (Yale, 2009), 333.
If we pay attention to the world with the left, we get a world that looks like the left. If we pay attention to the world with the right, we get a world that looks like right. It’s a “vicious circle.” The Matter with Things (Perspectiva Press, 2022), 26.
The Tautology that Drives the Hemisphere Hypothesis
As a man is, so he sees. Who he is, then, determines how he sees. And how he sees determines what he finds. And what he finds affects how he is. The Matter with Things, 17, 67; The Master and His Emissary, 456
We are meant, in the final analysis, to attend to the world with the right hemisphere. The left hemisphere’s way of attending to the world is expedient. It’s meant to help the right hemisphere govern properly by bringing to the right hemisphere good information and handling mundane chores. It’s meant to be the servant — the emissary — of the right.
A few key differences in the way the two hemispheres attend to the world:
The L.H. yields focused attention; the R.H. yields broad attention.
The L.H. looks at the parts; the R.H. looks at the whole.
The L.H. reaches out to manipulate and control it (for power); the R.H. reaches out to the world without purpose.
The L.H. seeks to apprehend; the R.H. seeks to comprehend.
The L.H. is better with language and prose . . . it is a means to manipulate, apprehend, and control; the R.H. is better with metaphor and poetry.
The L.H. is "either/or"; the R.H. is "both/and."
The L.H. focuses on explicit knowledge; the R.H. appreciates tacit knowledge.
The L.H. deals with what's familiar; the R.H. deals with what's new.
The person with a well-ordered soul will attend to the world with right hemisphere primacy. If a person attends to the world with left hemisphere primacy, he or she will have a disordered soul.
Reality consists of three parts, all of them situated in a thing that Plato called the "metaxy."
The Tao has been known by many names. Thomas Aquinas called it the "Act of Existence." Zen Buddhists call the "first principle of Zen" (noting that, if you could name it, it would then be the "second principle of Zen").
Aquinas was very aware of the elusive nature of the Tao. He recognized it; he respected it. At the end of his life, he got a view of it and was so awestruck, he quit writing, telling his friend Reginald that everything he had written was mere straw compared to what he had seen. This is from a man that even secular historians and philosophers consistently recognize as one of the Top 10 thinkers of all time.
It was fitting that Aquinas quit writing. Language is the province of existence and its qualities: essence, traits. It is also the province of the left hemisphere.
The Great Rejection (the Rejection of the Tao)
Aquinas was the pinnacle of Western civilization. By "pinnacle," I mean a civilization fully engaged with all three spheres of reality: the Tao, essence, and existence. The Dark Ages had long been gone. Civilization was advancing economically, intellectually, artistically, and scientifically.
Aquinas lived from 1225-1274.
They're dates worth memorizing.
Because after Aquinas, things fell apart.
The 1300s were awful. Materially, things got better in the 1400s, but Europe continued to undergo a lot of emotional and psychological shocks (fall of Constantinople (Rome), the discovery of the New World). In the 1500s, Europe was torn apart by the Reformation and the vicious Thirty Years' War.
By the 1600s, Europe was tired.
In particular, it was tired of the Tao. The attempts to understand it (philosophy), to interpret it in light of revelation (theology), the debates (polemics), the fighting (wars).
Europe wanted something different. Anything, just as long as it got away from the Tao.
That's why a manifestly idiotic theory like Descartes' took hold. Descartes didn't look for the Tao, much less did he try to interpret or apply it. He started with his mind and told others they could do the same. All truth started with one's ideas, not the Tao.
Descartes' philosophy gave people certainty.
Everyone sighed in relief.
The problem was, Descartes' philosophy was simply absurd. It wholly separates mind and body, leaving no way for them to interact, which produces a shedload of ridiculous conclusions (e.g., my mind has no influence on whether I raise my right hand). Descartes himself might have been nuts.
But that was okay to Europe: anything was fine, just as long as it removed it from the Tao.
Tao fatigue is also why the highly-questionable empirical approach of the other major pioneer of modernity, Francis Bacon, became so popular. Bacon said everyone should put aside their grand ideas (often rooted in the Tao and its implications) and just focus on things that can be observed. We should build from the smallest to the greatest (induction) not build from the greatest to the smallest (deduction).
Between Cartesian rationalism and Baconian empiricism, the Tao was effectively sealed off. First, the intellectual classes rejected it, and then the rejection filtered throughout popular culture.
It was the Great Rejection.
Modernity is the Result of the Great Rejection
The mere acknowledgment of the Tao induces a sense of existential humility. No matter how much knowledge or control you have, you're always confronted with the great nameless "thing" that you can neither know nor control. The Tao, if acknowledged, is an innate "existential check" against hubris.
Modernity (as projected by Western civilization hegemony over the world) rejected the Tao and thereby lost that existential check against hubris.
With the Tao gone, modernity was ready to take control: it was ready to focus on what it could know and grasp. It was ready to conquer and colonialize. It would use huge strides in technology (ala Bacon) to subjugate whole new worlds, often bringing back slavery (a thing that application of the Tao had eliminated) . . . and rationalizing all of it (ala Descartes).
Modernity has been a parade of rationalized systems: ersatz religions. Men, with absolute confidence in their ideas (thanks to Descartes) and science (thanks to Bacon), constructed their own worldviews and, no matter how ludicrous or evil, believed in them.
The great Austrian philosopher of history, Eric Voegelin, identified the great rationalized systems (the ones designed to apply special knowledge to effect a change in the human condition) as various forms of "gnosticism": Progressivism, Communism, Fascism, Scientism. Gnosticism particularly afflicts the left side of the political spectrum, but the right isn't immune to it and even strains of libertarianism (e.g., Ayn Rand's Objectivism), which claim complete detachment from any sort of ideal system, are contaminated by it.
The results of these rationalized systems have been awful. Exhibits A and B: The Holocaust and Stalin's purges and liquidation of the Kulaks. But there is also a slew of other exhibits, ranging from nuclear weapons to environmental degradation to the general feeling of angst and hopelessness that has wholly swallowed Western Europe, giving it an apparent death wish, as exemplified by its childlessness and the European Union's policies.
Each rationalized system creates new gods: absolutes that must be obeyed within their rationalized system, and if anyone contradicts the rationalized system? F____ 'em: they're disputing, or otherwise falling outside of, the rationalized system and can be killed (Jews in Fascist Germany) or imprisoned (USSR's Gulag) or marginalized (minorities) or ridiculed (traditional religion) or de-platformed.
Tens of millions of people have died because of it. People are anxious about it, resulting in shockingly high rates of depression and mental illness, because they've lost touch with full reality. Freedoms are lost, as ideas that run counter to rationalized systems are suppressed. Efforts to suppress ideas are the hallmark of a rationalized system that is closed off from the Tao because the system must close off any contact with full reality in order to sustain itself and, indeed, isn't even aware that there is more reality than what it comprehends (see below).
Rejection of the Tao is a Left Hemisphere Principle
Rationalized systems and their corresponding rejection of the Tao are the trophies of the left hemisphere and the meaning of the title of McGilchrist's book.
It's a fundamental neurological fact that the left hemisphere of the brain looks to the right and the right hemisphere looks to the left. The following diagram symbolizes this left-right/right-left phenomenon as it applies to The Reality Spectrum:
Transcendence and the Tao are elements of the left side of reality. They are "prior" to immanence, essence, and existence. They are best apprehended by the right hemisphere, which looks to the left. The left hemisphere looks to the right and is occupied with essence and existence (with things and their qualities).
The above diagram symbolizes the fact that the left hemisphere is closed off from the Tao. The left hemisphere craves certainty, it defines and categorizes, it grasps. The Tao is uncertain, escapes definition, and eludes grasping. To the left hemisphere, the Tao doesn't exist, except maybe to be mocked.
And that might be the most troubling thing of all. The left hemisphere is incapable of knowing it's cut off from the Tao. The idea that we should value the Tao ("It doesn't produce money, it doesn't advance an agenda, it doesn't work well in politics . . . it's not useful") completely escapes the left hemisphere apprehension. As a result, it plows forward without regard to it. McGilchrist calls it the left hemisphere's "silo mentality" and says about it:
[T]he left hemisphere not only clearly does not know what it is talking about, but behaves as though it knows perfectly well. [It is] confident and unhesitating, even when it is talking about something of which it knows absolutely nothing.
The left hemisphere, therefore, is entirely comfortable proceeding as though it's in complete mastery. It's hubris. In fact, it might be the essential characteristic of hubris: closure to anything that is not within (compatible with) one's own thoughts. It's a kind of existential solipsism resulting from its preference for its own concepts and abstractions that truth and reality.
“The point I wish to emphasize here is that the left hemisphere has to ‘blot out’ the right hemisphere in order to do its job at all.” The Master and His Emissary, 132.
The right hemisphere, meanwhile, is our router of the Tao. If there is a Tao (and there must be, based on the philosophical "proof" and the testimony of sages throughout the ages like Lao-Tse), then it has qualities (unable to be capture by language, full of paradox, uncertain) that can only be appreciated by the right hemisphere. The Tao's very nature makes it nothing but a phantom frustration for the left hemisphere. The only part of our brain that could connect to it is the right hemisphere.
Put another way, the empirical evidence (neurological science) for how the right hemisphere attends to reality leads to the necessary conclusion that only the right hemisphere can appreciate what the metaphysical evidence (philosophy and the unverifiable testimony of the sages) tells us about the Tao.
Put as simply as possible, if the Tao exists, it can only be the right hemisphere that can connect to it.
Ortega y Gasset once remarked that to create a concept is to invite reality to leave the room. Joseph Epstein, Life Sentences (1997), p. 35.
Post-Modernity is a Rejection of the Great Rejection
Unfortunately for the left hemisphere's hubristic drive for dominance, the Tao can't be suppressed. It's part of reality and, indeed, is the ultimate reality, so people have an innate desire to find it.
The past 200 years have seen scores of efforts to recapture the Tao. Here are just a few of its manifestations:
The rise of the occult and irrationalism
The popularity of existentialist philosophy (especially Albert Camus)
The ongoing popularity of existentialist literature (Flannery O'Connor and Dostoyevsky)
The intense attraction of St. Therese of Liseux's "Little Way"
We are Today Suffering Under the Minotaurs of the Left Hemisphere
Today's political battles aren't between Republicans and Democrats. They're not even between the Beltway (the DC-Wall Street corridor of power) and the rest of us. It's not between the One Percent (the Ivy League-Silicon Valley-Hollywood-Wall Street-Washington axis powers) and the 99%.
It's between the minotaurs of the left hemisphere and everyone else.
The minotaurs are winning big time. They have either won altogether or are nearing the end game. Although the Tao can't be blotted away (truth will out . . . eventually, albeit after millions of deaths), artificial intelligence (which is the most extreme tool devised by the left hemisphere) might signal the end game, when the left hemisphere will wholly stomp out the Tao by wholly stomping out humanity, just as Lenin and Stalin tried to stomp out the Tao through mass murder and imprisonment in the Soviet Union.
In the meantime, the left-hemisphere minotaurs are riding over Western culture and, increasingly, all other cultures, which are squished by American military dominance if they resist.
The modern gnostics, scientists, the tech moguls, the Wall Street bankers: they're all captured by their left hemispheres. It's all they know and all they care about it. Everything else is bunk. They can't see the Tao; they can't feel it . . . and people who think they can are delusional, superstitious, and otherwise beneath contempt and can be (and must be) ignored, ridiculed, and otherwise marginalized by the left hemisphere axis powers.