January 2nd – Defining Philosophy (With A Little Psychology Myth-Debunking)
How do you define philosophy? Why are you interested in philosophy?
My most recent copy of Philosophy Now (September/October, 2012) includes “Philosophers on Philosophy” and features a number of thinkers talking about why they got interested in the subject (such as Emery Cournan with “The Journey”) and the current state of academic philosophy (Christopher Norris with “Philosophy Inc.”).
However, it’s the article by Carol Nicholson, called “Philosophy and the Two-Sided Brain” that intrigued me, because she appears to be drawing upon a common misconception about the brain to defend what she called “two different and incompatible definitions [of philosophy], one narrow and the other quite broad”. The reason why she sees them as being so different is because it’s “down to the double-sidedness of the human brain. I suggest that there is a direct relationship between dominance of the left brain hemisphere and a narrow definition of philosophy, and between dominance of the right brain hemisphere and a broad definition of philosophy“.
Firstly she draws upon two New York times columns, written by Stanley Fish in 2011: Does Philosophy Matter and Does Philosophy Matter (Part Two), in which she says he denies that philosophical conclusions “can dictate or generate non-philosophical behaviour“.
Naturally, after studying Philosophy for Children, I question whether philosophy is mere “navel-gazing” and of no practical use or has no measurable impact; his readers responded likewise with plenty of disagreement (as you can see in the links for yourself). But it’s on the basis of this article that Nicholson proposes that
…Fish and his critics are operating with different definitions of philosophy. Fish is using a very narrow definition, according to which the function of philosophy is exclusively the analysis of abstract issues, such as whether there are absolute moral truths. …Many would argue against Fish that even if philosophy cannot give access to truths that are somehow more ultimate than scientific or historical facts, it can offer self-knowledge about the most basic assumptions and values that govern our thinking and action, and a clearer understanding of what we are doing that can help us to do it better…
In the article, Nicholson credits reading Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World for developing the argument that:
…although human brains are vastly more complicated than bird brains, the separation of our brain hemispheres for different purposes is analogous: the left hemisphere demands precision and certainty, using literal language to represent, categorize and manipulate the world; while the right hemisphere is attuned to a broader context which enables it to empathize, to appreciate the uniqueness of individuals and to understand ambiguity, metaphor and humor.
However, McGilchrist makes it very clear in his work (as demonstrated in this animation of his lecture called “The Divided Brain”) that you should not think that “one side of the brain does reason, and the other emotion”:
(Those of you who follow the work of skeptic James Randi and activist Stella Young might recall that McGilchrist recently appeared with them on ABC Radio during the time Randi visited Australia at the end of 2012).
While I agree that we can certainly have different views as to why and how to approach philosophy, I don’t think that making the analogy to the dual-brain myth is one that Nicholson should be taking, especially since I don’t see it as supporting her eventual (and reasonable!) conclusion that we should consider both the “narrow” and “broad approach” to philosophy as requiring balance. As a skeptic, I’m aware that the left-brain/right-brain myth is one that has been repeatedly challenged for quite some time – for example, Dr Steve Novella, with his Neurologica blogpost on “More Left Brain/Right Brain Nonsense”. It’s a pity that the notion persists (and it’s not helped by misleading information like this infographic by groups like OnlineCollege.org, which suggests that there’s learning advantages by taking a dual-brain approach!)
The idea of the dual-brain myth first gained popularity in the 1960s, around the time that surgery to split the corpus callosum was being practiced in order to alleviate the effect of overwhelming electrical activity in the brain during bouts of epilepsy (Sperry and colleagues were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1981 for this work). As a result, it was found that:
There are some functional asymmetries in the brain, and it is true that certain regions of both hemispheres are specialized for particular functions. Speech illustrates this, but also shows that nothing is ever so simple when it comes to the brain: in most right-handed people, speech is processed in both hemispheres, but predominantly in the left. In some left-handers, speech is processed either predominantly in the right hemisphere or on both sides. – Neurophilosophy, October 13, 2007.
While I’ve seen a psychology video demonstrating this effect, my most recent experience of seeing this in action was via the TV drama House, in an episode called “Both Sides Now“. Naturally it’s fascinating, and it’s not difficult to then take the notion of right and left hemisphere differences and then run wild with it – just check out any high-cost course in “whole brain thinking” or book on “drawing on the right side of the brain“.
Even Carl Sagan, in his book “The Dragons of Eden”, was intrigued by the notion of the “rational” left-hemisphere and “creative” right-hemisphere, writing:
“…observations strongly suggest that those functions we describe as “rational” live mainly in the left hemisphere, and those we consider “intuitive,” mainly in the right….I think it is obvious that there must in fact be significant changes, but ones that require a deeper scrutiny. [The Dragons of Eden, pp.109-10]
When Apollonian/left-brain-dominated philosophy’s demand for logical precision tyrannizes over the right hemisphere’s wider vision, we get Fish’s emaciated kind of philosophy, defined so narrowly that it amounts to a mere game of logic-chopping, irrelevant to everyday life. On the other hand, when Dionysian/ right-brain-dominated philosophy spins out of control, we get pseudo-philosophies, such as religious fundamentalism, or belief in aliens and conspiracy theories, in which illusions, biases and passions dominate thinking without adequate logical regulation by the left hemisphere.
…so we should blame the right hemisphere of the brain for conspiracy-theory thinking and alien contact? We could remove the right-hemisphere for a “cure” or concluse that right-hemisphere brain damage is responsible for religious fundamentalism? I’m not convinced it’s that simple. Otherwise I’m certain there’s a keen population out there who would be more than ready with leucotomes for lobotomies!
As for philosophy? I tend (as you may have already guessed) towards what Nicholson suggests in opposition to Fish – that philosophy “offer[s] self-knowledge about the most basic assumptions and values that govern our thinking and action, and a clearer understanding of what we are doing that can help us to do it better…” However, I don’t think it’s a predominant right-hemisphere of my brain that leads me to that conclusion!
How do you approach a definition of philosophy – and do you think it’s a useful subject? Why?
Left Brain, Right Brain: An Outdated Argument – Kevin Boehm, April 15th, 2012, Yale Scientific.
Dietrich A, Kanso R.(2010). A review of EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies of creativity and insight. Psychological Bulletin, 136(5), 822-48.
Sergio Della Sala (Ed.) (2007). Tall Tales about the Mind & Brain: Separating facts from fiction. Oxford University. Press.