I have been reading David Attenborough’s most recent book, A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future. I can recommend it as an easy-to-read summary of the enormous challenge the human race and life on our planet faces, along with his ideas of our way through, particularly through the re-wilding of nature. At the end, in fact in one of the last paragraphs, he writes:
The living world has survived mass extinctions several times before. But we humans cannot assume we will do the same. We have come as far as we have because we are the cleverest creatures to have ever lived on the Earth. But if we are to continue to exist, we will require more than intelligence. We will require wisdom (my emphasis) (Attenborough 2022:220)
Attenborough is balancing intelligence with wisdom. To this point I have been balancing instrumental knowledge with wisdom. It amounts to the same thing. We now almost exclusively associate the word knowledge with what we need to act on the world in our interest, rather than what we need to relate appropriately and wisely with the world and each other. One is knowledge bestowed mainly by the left brain, the other by the right brain. Sadly though, Attenborough does not develop what he thinks wisdom is and how we can get more of it.
Another interesting writer, developing the work of Iain McGilchrist, does however, or at least begins to; James Daniher. He writes of knowledge:
Knowing is a left-brain activity that reduces experience to words that can be mapped into theories and beliefs that are compatible with our inherited understanding of the world. If we trust the maps and theories that our left-brain provides, God can be reduced to a knowable object to be obeyed, revered, and worshipped. If, however, we are able to still our left-brain’s rush to translate our experience into something knowable, we can experience an unknowable oneness with God that exceeds our understanding, but not our experience. (Danaher 2021:690/3000)
He also introduces a beautiful concept that captures how we might grow our right brain through coming to experience the presence of what is around us in the world and each other; beholding. Beholding has become an important part of my spirituality and I continue to work on it.
Beholding is a way of experiencing beauty and goodness before it is processed through the conceptual understanding of the left-brain. Beholding is a state of being rather than a state of knowing. It is the state of being present to something in order to really take it in. We are seldom in such a state in the normal business of our lives. We generally operate almost unconsciously by processing the data of our experience through the understanding the world has provided. (Danaher 699/3000)
The idea of really taking something in is not new of course. Goethe believed it was the way of true science, through relationship and not only through observation and objectifying. Pay attention to something with your whole being and it will begin to reveal itself to you. He was critical of how modern science was developing in his time, with its assumption of matter and the eventual denial of the inherently personal nature of consciousness.
I am hoping beholding will become something the Wisdom Circles explore in detail.
But before we do that, we need to face a fundamental issue, implicit in Goethe’s and others’ critique, and which is still quite unresolved in our understanding of ourselves and the human condition; the nature of consciousness. This is where the triumph of the left brain, the emissary in McGilchrist’s terms, is most damaging and unfortunate. I only became aware of it myself in my thirties, after two university degrees. I was a true product of our modern culture. The great diarist Samuel Johnson said that science kicks a stone and assumes it is really there. That’s what I assumed also. I assumed that I experienced the world as it is apart from my experience of it. I had no idea that I played a pivotal role in creating the world that I experience, despite the fact that this is possibly one of the major issues behind the whole of our philosophical tradition. The language of matter has largely swamped the language of psyche, mind and spirit in our modern, scientific world, and yet I only experience psyche, mind and spirit directly, not matter.
Briefly, the experience that awakened me was this. I was studying in Britain. One day I was walking through a wood when I came upon a stile in a fence. I climbed over the stile and as I went to put my foot down on the ground I saw that I was about to step on a frog. Just in time, I was able to move my leg and missed the frog. I then went to look, and it was not a frog at all. It was a dead leaf. But I had seen a frog. I had really seen a frog. I had spontaneously in that split second put my percept under the wrong concept and had created the image of a frog instead of a dead leaf. For the first time I had an inkling that I help create the world I experience.
The significance of this might have gone unnoticed had I not been reading a book by Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity at the time.
When somebody steps on my toe, what I experience is, not his stepping on my toe, but my image of his stepping on my toe reconstructed from neural reports reaching my brain somewhat after his foot has landed on mine. Experience of the exterior is always mediated by particular sense organs and neural pathways. To that extent, objects are my creation…….
It is not a trivial assertion to note that very few persons, at least in our occidental culture, doubt the objectivity of such sense data as pain or their visual images of the external world. Our civilization is deeply based on this illusion. (Bateson 1980:39)
The tenor of our modern civilization under the sway of the left brain is to assert that matter constitutes the real world. We experience this world as it is through our senses. It exists quite apart from our experience of it. Consciousness is only an epiphenomenon of our material brains. As it happens, this experience has been greatly enhanced by the invention of the microscope and the telescope. We are in effect, it is believed, passive receivers of the reality of the material world at ever greater and lesser levels, from the astronomical to the quantum. The only real chink in this armour, apart from our philosophical tradition, is that reality at the quantum level seems to depend on the observer as much as what might actually ‘be there’. It takes the presence of the observer for there to be not only waves of energy at the quantum level, but also particles. In effect observing creates something. But apart from a few brave scientists such as David Bohm, the implications of this have been largely avoided. As long as the mathematics works, the parts of this ‘reality’ can be played with to enhance our power to act in the world. This is the positive feed back loop we are in in relation to our knowledge. Not only are we negating our philosophical and spiritual traditions; we are not taking seriously the full implications of our science.
It was this understanding of the world that my experience of the frog that became a dead leaf eventually betrayed and undermined. Thankfully. And I am convinced Bateson is right. The illusion of objectivity at really quite naïve levels seems to hold sway in our culture, and more generally, increasingly reinforced as we build our mechanical world around ourselves. Artificial intelligence is now already part of our lives in significant ways, and its influence has barely begun. The possibility of complete alienation from nature is now imaginable. It is hard to think there could ever be a cultural tradition more blind to itself than we are. Such is the power of the Emissary currently in relation to the Master in our world.
There is a push back, but it is up against very powerful forces. The epiphenomenal understanding of consciousness is now challenged by some scientists, and certainly by key philosophers. Consciousness, or what philosophy has referred to as the phenomenal world of experience, is being understood to have its own integrity and being apart from matter. Philosophically this is of course nothing new; but now some scientists are saying it, including of course McGilchrist. Even the most primitive and simple forms of life have some sort of awareness of the world external to themselves. It is this simple awareness that eventually evolved into our complex self consciousness, some contend. We are our worlds, and the part we play in their creation is as important as whatever may exist apart from us. We cannot step outside our own consciousness, and yet many factors go to constitute it. We can understand this in understanding ourselves better and balancing knowledge with wisdom.
Let me finish for the moment with a quote from Iain McGilchrist.
….the most fundamental difference between the hemispheres lies in the type of attention they give to the world. But it’s also important because of the widespread assumption in some quarters that there are two alternatives: either things exist ‘out there’ and are unaltered by the machinery we use to dig them up, or to tear them apart (naïve realism, scientific materialism); or they are subjective phenomena which we create out of our own minds, and therefore we are free to treat them in any way we wish, since they are after all, our own creations (naïve idealism, post-modernism). These positions are not by any means as far apart as they look, and a certain lack of respect is evident in both. In fact I believe there is something that exists apart from ourselves, but that we play a vital part in bringing it into being. A central theme of this book is the importance of our disposition towards the world and one another, as being fundamental in grounding what it is that we come to have a relationship with, rather than the other way round. The kind of attention we pay actually alters the world: we are, literally, partners in creation. This means we have a grave responsibility, a word that captures the reciprocal nature of the dialogue we have with whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves. I will look at what philosophy in our time has had to say about these issues. Ultimately I believe that many of the disputes about the nature of the human world can be illuminated by an understanding that there are two fundamentally different ‘versions’ delivered to us by the two hemispheres, both of which can have a ring of authenticity about them, and both of which are hugely valuable; but that they stand in opposition to one another, and need to be kept apart from one another – hence the bi-hemispheric structure of the brain. (McGilchrist 2012:5)
We do not experience matter directly. Only psyche, mind, spirit. Under the sway of the left brain we have culturally inverted what the ancients understood. The Emissary has usurped the Master.