McGilchrist – Attention is a Moral Act
The following text is a quote from Iain McGilchrist’s book, ‘The Master and his Emissary’, chapter 4, titled ‘The Nature of the Two Worlds’:
‘Our attention is responsive to the world. There are certain modes of attention which are naturally called forth by certain kinds of object. We pay a different sort of attention to a dying man from the sort of attention we’d pay to a sunset, or a carburettor. However, the process is reciprocal. It is not just that what we find determines the nature of the attention we accord to it, but that the attention we pay to anything also determines what it is we find. In special circumstances, the dying man may become for a pathologist a textbook of disease, or for a photojournalist a ‘shot’, both in the sense of a perceived frozen visual moment and a round of ammunition in a campaign. Attention is a moral act: it creates, brings aspects of things into being, but in doing so makes others recede. What a thing is depends on who is attending to it, and in what way. The fact that a place is special to some because of its great peace and beauty may, by that very fact, make it for another a resource to exploit, in such a way that its peace and beauty are destroyed. Attention has consequences.
One way of putting this is to say that we neither discover an objective reality nor invent a subjective reality, but that there is a process of responsive evocation, the world ‘calling forth’ something in me that in turn ‘calls forth’ something in the world. That is true of perceptual qualities, not just of values. If there is no ‘real’ mountain, for example, separate from one created by the hopes, aspirations, reverence or greed of those who approach it, it is equally true that its greenness, or greyness, or stoniness lies not in the mountain or in my mind, but comes from between us, called forth from each and equally dependent on both; as music arises from neither the piano nor the pianist’s hands, the sculpture neither from hand nor stone, but from their coming together. And then the hands are part of the lived body – or, put more conventionally, are the vehicle of the mind, which is in turn the product of all the other minds that have interacted with it, from Beethoven and Michelangelo down to every encounter of our daily lives. We are transmitters, not originators.
Our attention is responsive to the world, but the world is responsive to our attention. The situation presents a paradox for linear analysis, like M. C. Escher’s hand that draws the hand that draws the hand. This paradox applies to the problem of how we get to know anything, but is peculiarly problematic for the special case whereby we are seeking to approach the very processes whereby knowledge itself comes into being. It is not possible to discuss the neuropsychological basis of our awareness of the world without adopting a philosophical position, whether or not one is conscious of doing so. Not to be aware of doing so is implicitly to have adopted the default standpoint of scientific materialism. Unfortunately, according to this position, one of the hands in Escher’s picture must come first.
Neuropsychology is inextricably bound up with philosophy. In recent years this has been increasingly recognised, more by philosophers than neuroscientists, with one or two important exceptions. Some of these developments are very much to be welcomed. However, all too often there is a potentially treacherous, because undetected, process at work. What science is actually doing when it delivers its revelations goes unexamined: the scientific process and the meaning of its findings is generally taken for granted. The model of the body, and therefore the brain, as a mechanism is exempted from the process of philosophical scepticism: what it tells us becomes the truth. And, since the brain is equated with the mind, the mind too becomes a mechanism. The philosophical world view is brought into line with that, and reveals – the truth of the mechanical model as applied to brain and mind. As a result, in a spectacular hijack, instead of a mutually shaping process, whereby philosophy interrogates science, and science informs philosophy, the naïve world view of science has tended by default to shape and direct what has been called ‘neurophilosophy’.
If the world of the left hemisphere and the world of the right hemisphere are both present to the mind, and form coherent aspects of experience, should we expect to find the resultant incompatibilities reflected in the history of philosophy? The hemispheres have different answers to the fundamental question ‘what is knowledge?’, as discussed in the last chapter, and hence different ‘truths’ about the world. So on the face of it, yes. But the default approach of philosophy is that of the left hemisphere, since it is via denotative language and linear, sequential analysis that we pin things down and make them clear and precise, and pinning them down and making them clear and precise equates with seeing the truth, as far as the left hemisphere is concerned. And since the type of attention you bring to bear dictates the world you discover, and the tools you use determine what you find, it would not be surprising if the philosophical vision of reality reflected the tools it uses, those of the left hemisphere, and conceived the world along analytic, and purely rationalistic, lines. It would be unlikely for philosophy to be able to get beyond its own terms of reference and its own epistemology; and so the answer to the question whether the history of philosophy would reflect the incompatibilities of the hemispheres is – probably not.
If there were, however, evidence that, despite this, philosophers had increasingly felt compelled to try to give an account of the right hemisphere’s reality, rather than the left’s, that would be of extraordinary importance. Admittedly, trying to achieve it at all using the conventional tools of philosophy would be a bit like trying to fly using a submarine, all the while making ingenious adaptations to the design to enable one to get a foot or two above the water. The odds against success would be huge, but the attempt alone would be indicative that there was something compelling beyond the normal terms of reference, that forced one to make the attempt. This would be far stronger evidence for the ultimate reality of the right hemisphere’s world than any amount of philosophy that confirmed the left hemisphere’s reality, which would be only to be expected.’