To be or not to be? That – I have it on the authority of a member of the Danish royal family – is the question. But not the only one. Some others are these: What is life for? Who are we, anyway? And, what are we doing here?
In my recent book The Matter with Things, I do my best to address these very questions, and try to set out why we are getting things so badly wrong. I am not ‘just’ here referring to our heinous crimes, such as poisoning the earths’ oceans, destroying its forests, and persecuting its indigenous peoples; fighting wars and enslaving people in the pursuit of rare earths; melting the ice caps, and bringing to extinction rare and beautiful species of living things; fading the glories of the world. These are visible; but less visible perhaps is that we are making ourselves wretched. There are no two ways about it. We are more affluent than ever; but riches – and power, the only point in having riches – do not make people happier. Ask a psychiatrist. Or take a look at the face of Vladimir Putin, with power, alas, of life and death over millions of people, and the owner of the most expensive lavatory-paper dispenser in the world. No, affluent as we are, we are also more anxious, depressed, lonely, isolated and lacking in purpose than we have ever been. The effect is of staggering size and the evidence is clear: it can be shown to have little to do with diagnostic fashion. So why is this? I suggest it is because we have no longer the foggiest idea what a human life is about. Indeed there is a sense in which we no longer live in a world at all, but exist in a simulacrum of our own making.
You expect me to speak of brains, and I will not disappoint you. Leaving nuance aside, and condensing three decades of research, and a vast body of supporting evidence into a phrase: we are now mesmerised by the least intelligent part of our brain. For reasons of survival, one hemisphere of the brain, the left, has evolved over millions of years to favour manipulation – grabbing, getting and controlling; while the other, the right, has effectively been given sole charge of the task of understanding the whole picture. So conflicting are these goals that in humans the hemispheres are largely sequestered one from the other. Our apparent ability these days to hear only what comes from the left hemisphere does not depend on the brain itself having radically changed in the last couple of centuries, though it is certainly always evolving. It’s more like this. You buy a radio set, and you soon find a couple of channels worth listening to. For a host of reasons, after a while you end up listening only to one. It’s not the radio set that has changed: it is you. And in the case of the brain it would not even have mattered so much if we had settled on the intelligent channel — but we didn’t. We settled on the one whose value is nothing to do with truth, nor with courage, magnanimity or generosity, but only greed, grabbing and getting. Manipulation.
And no, the difference between the hemispheres is not a myth that has been debunked. That itself is a myth that requires debunking, and which I have been rather successfully debunking for some while now. What definitely does need to be debunked is the bad old pop psychology story, that the left hemisphere ‘does’ reason and language, and may be a bit dull but is at least reliable, like a slightly boring accountant; and the right hemisphere ‘does’ emotions and pictures, but is apt to be flighty and fay. All of this is wrong, since we now know that each hemisphere is involved in everything; and that, for the record, the left hemisphere is less emotionally stable, as well as less intelligent – and I mean cognitively, as well as emotionally and socially – than the right. The right hemisphere is a far superior guide to reality; delusions and hallucinations are much more frequent, grosser and more persistent after damage to the right hemisphere than to the left. Without the right hemisphere to rely on, the left hemisphere is at sea: it quite literally denies the most obvious facts, lies, and makes stuff up when it doesn’t know what it’s talking about. And it is relentlessly, vacuously cheerful in the face of overwhelming disaster.
You may well say – ‘But so what? Why the fuss? Actually I don’t care where things go on in my brain.’ But it does matter hugely, because each hemisphere takes a different view of the world and those views are not strictly compatible. And so, when we reflect, philosophise or discourse publicly, we are pretty much forced, without knowing it, to favour one ‘take’ or the other. It seems that for us to be of two minds, to appear inconsistent, is a greater sin than to be consistently wrong. No room for ‘yes, but’, for nuance, for seeing the hidden opposite that is always there in whatever is being peddled to us.
So what are these two hemispheric visions of the world like? I hope you may recognise them from experience. The left, using narrow-beam, scattered attention to one detail after another sees what is already familiar, certain, static, explicit, abstract, decontextualised, disembodied, categorised, general in nature and reduced to its parts. All is predictable and controlled. This is an inanimate universe – and a bureaucrat’s dream. It is like a map in relation to the world that is mapped: useful to the degree that it leaves almost everything out. And its only value is utility.
Note that all here is a re-presentation – which literally means present again, when it is actually no longer present, but dead and gone.
The other, the right hemisphere, sees not the re-presentation but the living presence. Bringing broad, open, sustained, vigilant attention to bear on the world, it sees what is fresh, unique, never fully known, never finally certain but full of potential. It understands all that is, and must remain, implicit – humour, poetry, art, narrative, music, the sacred, indeed everything we love; it understands that nothing is ever merely static and unchanging, but flowing and radically interconnected; that parts are the left hemisphere’s invention, and that what are seen as parts are already wholes at another level. This is a free world, an animate universe – and a bureaucrat’s nightmare. It has all the richness and unfathomable complexity of the world that the left hemisphere simply mapped.
These two ways of seeing the world are each vital to our survival. We need to simplify and stand apart to manipulate things, to deal with the necessities of life, and to build the foundations of a civilisation. But to live in it, we also need to belong to the living world and to understand the complexity of what it is we are dealing with. This division of attention works to our advantage when we use both. However, it is a handicap – in fact, it is a catastrophe – when we use only one.
As I explained in The Master and his Emissary, twice in the history of the West – in ancient Greece and then in Rome – a civilisation started out with an extraordinarily fruitful harmony of left and right; but, as it over-reached itself, it moved ever further towards the left hemisphere’s take on the world – before collapsing. And the same trajectory is now being pursued for the third time. After the miraculous outpouring of creativity in the arts, science, society and philosophy that we call the Renaissance, our civilisation has moved since the Enlightenment, drunk with the arrogant belief that it knows everything and can fix everything, further and further towards the left. We are now like sleepwalkers, whistling a happy tune as we amble towards the abyss.
There is a phenomenon in psychology called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which means that the less you know the more you think you know – and vice versa. The left hemisphere doesn’t know what it is it doesn’t know, and so thinks it knows everything. The right hemisphere, which in reality understands far more, is aware of those vast unknowns.
When we are functioning well, the right hemisphere tests the left hemisphere’s theory about reality against experience. But the left hemisphere’s vision of a lifeless, mechanical, two-dimensional, geometric construct has been externalised around us to such an extent that when the right hemisphere checks back with experience it finds the left hemisphere has already colonised our reality – at least for those of us who lead a modern Western urban life. It finds a perfect simulacrum of the world according to the left hemisphere. The things that used to give us a clue that our reductionist theories weren’t all they were cracked up to be are fading away for most of us. These were: the proximity of the natural world; the sense of a coherent shared culture; of the body as something we live, not merely possess; the soul-moving power of great art; and the sense of something sacred that is very real but beyond everyday language.
Turning to AI – Artificial Information-processing, by the way, not Artificial Intelligence – in many ways it could be seen as replicating the functions of the left hemisphere at frightening speed across the entire globe. Since the evolutionary reason for developing left hemisphere functions was solely to enhance power, this could indeed be seen as the ultimate logical aim of the left hemisphere. It has after all no sense of the bigger picture, of other values, or of the way in which context – and even sheer scale and extent – changes everything. Every angel has his devil: what looks good in one context may be far from good in another, or when extended too far.
But every devil has his angel. And full credit to AI where it has potential to be an enormous help to us. Above all, I believe this is in finding ways to help reverse the damage done by the tide of destruction that industrialisation itself has brought about, the destruction of the living world which I started by referring to. Ecological repair, then. Here it can be truly a good angel – the very best we could hope for. And there is much else to be grateful for: it can help treat diseases, and perhaps find less destructive ways, such as nuclear fusion, to generate power. (As an aside, maybe our dependency on power, though, is part of the problem; and we should be aiming to use far less power in future.) And though as a doctor I believe in treating diseases, length of life is not by a million miles as important as the quality of that life, and we will all die of something one day. We must focus on quality, not quantity, of life. Here again I believe AI can help us. But how? I suspect by dealing with the sort of technical problems I’ve mentioned and keeping as far as possible out of our daily lives. Let me explain.
Can’t AI help us through freeing time up for us by removing mundane tasks? Of course, IT saves time by doing things quickly. Or does it? Bosses become rich by saving wages, but we become their new, unwilling wage-slaves. This is already apparent in not so small ways that add cumulatively to the stress of everyday life, and rob it of its feel of connexion with another human being, as well as robbing us of our most precious commodity, time. This has got much more obvious in the last four or five years, so not just because of Covid, though that accelerated an already obvious development. As more and more processes that used to take a five-minute phone call become automated, we find ourselves entering into commerce with a computer programme for several diverting hours, leading us into inescapable, Escher-like closed loops, and then reporting playfully ‘Oops, something went wrong …’ And if after this you hold the phone for an hour so as to speak to a real person, they increasingly appear to have been so degraded by enforcement of machine-like algorithms that they might as well be machines. Everyday life has got much worse.
As machines gradually displace humans, what happens to human flourishing? What happens when reliance on machines strips us of our skills – a process already well advanced; and especially what happens if for any number of reasons – such as shortages of what we call resources, extended power failures, the breakdown of civil order, or war … or just the unsustainability of present levels of growth across whole populations – we can no longer always have those machines to rely on? How resilient, resourceful, skilful, will we then turn out to be compared with our forebears? Leaving aside such alarming, but not I think merely alarmist, possibilities, what about the impact on us of the loss of daily contact with human beings as more and more jobs become automated? What happens to those who are rendered thereby unemployed? Yes, a few lucky clever ones may get jobs in IT – but the economic drive is very simple: machines are cheaper than people, so the aim has to be to employ fewer people – doesn’t it?
And what about our dignity as free individuals? Thanks to AI can we escape the appalling prospect – already realised in China – that wherever we go, whatever we buy, whomever we are seen with, our every word, every action, the very thoughts we express in our faces, all is monitored, potentially marked down against us; and whatever freedom is still left to us peremptorily curtailed accordingly. We become non-citizens, un-people. The only answer to this seems to me a kind of AI arms race in which the supposed goodies use AI to head off the AI of the baddies. But even if this could happen – and I can’t see how, but then I am not an AI expert – how do we know who are the goodies anymore? The WEF? The problem with every step that increases the reach of human power is that it will sooner or later be used for evil ends. And once a pernicious regime’s AI reaches a certain level it can effectively destroy any attempt to resist it, bringing the prospect of a totalitarianism which can have no end.
All decisions affecting humans are moral ones. And as I have argued at length morality is not purely utilitarian, and cannot be reduced to calculation. Every human situation is actually unique, and uniqueness has to do with personal history, consciousness, memory, intention, all that is not explicit, that we refer to in that deceptively simple word emotion, all the experience and understanding gained through, and stored in, the body, all that makes us specifically humans not machines. Goodness stems from virtuous minds, not following rules. While machines – or so it is claimed – get more like humans, humans are getting more like machines.
AI is there to make things happen, to give us control; but this is good only if we make progress in wisdom as fast as we make progress in technical knowhow. Otherwise it is like putting machine guns in the hands of toddlers. By the way, if you spot evidence of a comparable growth in wisdom, do send my PA a postcard, will you?
It’s worth pointing out that subjects with schizophrenia, whose thinking and behaviour are like those with left hemisphere overdrive and hypofunction of the right hemisphere, see a world made up of bits and pieces, and often imagine people to have become inanimate and machine-like– or zombies. To them nothing seems real any more, just a simulacrum, a pretence, a play put on to deceive them: a person may look like a person, but uncannily isn’t. Just AI.
And to me the belief that machines could become sentient is really just the obverse face of the view that we, sentient beings, are really just machines. The psychiatrist RD Laing reported a schizoid patient who saw his wife as a mechanism:
She was an ‘it’ because everything she did was a predictable, determined response. He would, for instance, tell her (it) an ordinary funny joke and when she (it) laughed this indicated her (its) entirely ‘conditioned’, robot-like nature …
In its assumption of determinacy and empty mechanistic ‘behaviour’ this reflects what is hardly even a parody of a certain not uncommon scientific position. It also represents a chilling psychopathology.
As to cyborgs, the best way to destroy humanity would be to hybridise it with a machine. I do not call those who pursue this aim evil – they may just have a failure of imagination or understanding; but the aim itself is evil if we can call anything evil. It can only further degrade our idea of what a human life is for; and it obviously opens us to totalitarian control which knows no limit.
It seems to me that we are like the sorcerer’s apprentice in the story, who knew the spell that would set things in motion, but had no idea how to make it stop. Obviously the genie is out of the bottle and cannot now be put back. Unless by a breakdown of civilisation, which is, I am afraid, far from unlikely. So what can we hope for the future?
What matters for the future of humanity is imagination, and the values by which we allow ourselves to be led. The left hemisphere can often be an impediment to imagination, and its value is single and simple: power. This is intellectually, morally and spiritually bankrupt. So can AI further the workings of the right hemisphere? Not I think directly, because it’s far from being a matter of different ‘processing’ – say parallel, rather than serial. But it can by choosing its projects very carefully, and positively turning away from those that will harm. Your choices are moral acts: you can’t shrug it off.
I have painted some dark pictures. But in the situation that we are in right now, while we have time, can we do something?
Oddly, the paradox is that to succeed at AI, whose entire purpose is to give us control, you must let go of control – at least to a large extent. Let go of mechanisms, bureaucracy, micro-management and strangulation by systems. We must work with, not against, nature. A gardener cannot make a plant, or make it grow; a gardener can only permit and encourage the plant itself to do what it does – or crowd it out and stifle its chances to thrive. Humans are like plants: we can only be more, or less, impeded in our growth by external pressures. We need spontaneity, openness to risk, and trust in our intuition, for imagination and creativity – and for us to be alive and truly present. So, I say, find people with a proven record of intelligence and insight; then give them time. Stop breathing down their necks. Stop asking how many papers they have published recently. Or how near they are to a patentable product. It is true that if you trust, sometimes you will be let down, but more often in this arena you will be handsomely rewarded; whereas if you monitor and control you will never get more than mediocrity. And we cannot afford mediocrity right now.
If we are not to become ever more diminished as humans, we need people to be in control of machines, not them in control of us. I am not talking here about an apocalyptic future: I am talking about apocalypse now. We are already calmly and quietly surrendering our liberty, our privacy, our dignity, our time, our values and our talents, to the machine. Machines will serve us well if they truly relieve us from drudgery, but we must leave human affairs to humans. If not, we sign our own death warrant.
All that we value most cannot be achieved by control or by an effort of will: many rationally desirable goals, such as sleep, are simply incompatible with the state of mind required to pursue them. They must come, if they come at all, as the by-products of a life well lived. Among these are wisdom itself, followed closely by imagination, creativity, courage, humility, virtue, love, sympathy, admiration, faith and understanding. They cannot be willed. What makes life worth living is what can only be described as a resonance, an encounter with other living beings, with the natural world and with the greatest products of the human soul: some would say with the cosmos at large. It is only in encountering the uncontrollable that we really experience the world and come fully alive. The resonance of a real relationship with a truly sentient other is not possible where there is no freedom, no spontaneity, no life.
There is a mighty challenge, then, ahead – one in which your decisions and responses, my friends, will be of the utmost importance. So I shall leave you with a question, an important question, which is one that every human needs to answer. To be or not to be: that is, in fact, the question.[/et_pb_text][/et_pb_column][/et_pb_row][/et_pb_section]
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