Reply To: Sense of self & the hemispheres

  • Mike Todd

    August 5, 2023 at 5:16 am

    Hi Whit,

    This could – and I hope it will – turn into a fruitful exploration. However, as with any exchange of ideas, there’s always a risk of talking past one another, so I’d like to forestall that, if possible, by offering a tentative framing, which I’d be more than happy for you to tweak and rearrange as seems appropriate; provided we end up with a shared set of referents, I believe we can begin to spelunk the rabbit hole. (And, of course, we acknowledge that dividing reality with arbitrary definitions and categories is a means to an end, unfolding with a view to enfolding.)

    If one accepts the premises that reality is both inherently processual and inherently relational, and that all experience is inherently mental (comprising thoughts, affective and sensational feelings, and perceptions), then all subjectively realised, i.e. conscious, mentation may be considered narrative, in the sense that conscious mentation is an account of the dynamic between the knower and the known, between “that which experiences” and “that which is experienced”, even in anomalous cases, such as nondual awareness (NDA) or minimal phenomenal experience (MPE), in which, despite there being neither overt subject nor overt object, there is still some shade of experience, requiring knower and known, as evidenced by the fact that seasoned meditators and other contemplatives are able to recall vague details of such.

    If the above proposition appears amenable, then conscious mentation can be categorised in terms of symbolic and asymbolic narrative; and symbols themselves can be loosely categorised with respect to a spectrum of opacity, ranging from opaque symbolism, such as the language of a typical legal document, through translucent symbolism, such as the language of poetry and spiritual texts, as well as imagery in the forms of natural phenomena and the visual arts, to more or less transparent symbolism, such as sublime music and liminal encounters in which the numinous is foregrounded.

    The above spectrum of symbolic opacity invites a multilayered view of reality, comprising nested spheres of increasing symbolic translucence supervening on an ineffable core, the singular Ground, which, on this view, may be approached directly only when the knower transcends symbols entirely, as in mystical experiences (e.g. NDA, MPE, etc.).

    What I’d like to suggest is, with the advent of scientific materialism as a current admitted into the stream of cultural thought, we began in earnest to flatten reality – we became flat-earthers – such that the outermost opaque symbolic sphere came to be seen as the plenum of reality, and its substrates in the inner and outer worlds, the egoic self and matter, respectively, came to be elevated, almost deified, in the cultural mindset. This appears borne out by the fact that the default metaphysic of the average Joe nowadays, at least in the West, is substance dualism: the egoic self is fundamentally real; matter is fundamentally real.

    The above is, admittedly, an oversimplification: as you noted, referring to Augustine, the threads of thought which twined to form substance dualism existed long before, and continue to exist in the wake of, Descartes, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution etc.; and translucent symbols, as vehicles of knowledge, haven’t been wholly discarded, although they have been overwhelmingly relegated, and with them have gone various principles which accord with a multilayered reality, notably: correspondence (as above, so below); recurrence (fractality); and, less obviously, the coincidentia oppositorum and its ramifications, hormesis and enantiodromia.

    Now, “McGilchrist Syndrome” – this can be seen as resulting from the near deification of opaque symbolism mentioned above, wherein symbolic manipulation (the work of the intellect) becomes an end in itself detached from any grounding in deeper layers of reality, as evinced in the hyperrational, bizarre but internally-consistent, mentation of schizophrenics. Much could also be said, along the same lines, with respect to AI (LLM) and symbolic manipulation, as foreshadowed by Searle’s Chinese Room. And when it comes to “control and the inner voice”, again this seems to me an example of symbolic manipulation as an end in itself. (Dragons, thankfully, are impressive enough as to retain their mythic, symbolic, character, and as such appear larger than life.)

    Manipulation, manipulation – isn’t that the MO of the LH?

    Thanks for sharing Hulburt’s research. I’m still digesting it – putting insomnia to good use. I believe I’m familiar with the phenomenon of “unsymbolized thinking”, often in relation to mundane matters. For example, I’ll open the fridge, and, accompanying the perception of it being rather bare, I’ll “think” to myself, without any inner speech or imagery, “I really need to get down to the grocers today”. The contents of the thought – as well as its emotional nuance, which is observed rather than felt – are implicitly and immediately known, without the thought itself taking any explicit form.

    I wonder how this relates to, or compares with, intuition. I also wonder whether Hulburt’s research debunks my proposal that “unsymbolized thinking” is manifest only when approaching the Ground; i.e., what does it have to do with surveying one’s empty fridge? Perhaps, even in such mundane moments, we are able access reality, or “truths” thereof (which may be questions as often as answers) without any mediation.

    Finally, as a parting gift – or a parting shot; take your pick – I’d like to suggest that the spectrum of symbolic opacity I mentioned, from opaque to transparent, segueing into the asymbolic, corresponds with a spectrum of left-to-right hemisphere involvement, which I believe accords with your musing about “silence”.

    It’s almost coffee-time.