There are rumblings about the end of Western civilization. Some people, including Iain McGilchrist, have noted significant signs and symptoms that our civilization is in decline and perhaps even on the brink of collapse. Why should our civilization last forever? Why shouldn’t it go the same way as the Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilizations before it?
McGilchrist blames the dominance of the left hemisphere of the brain. Obviously we can’t really “blame” the left hemisphere – we can only blame ourselves for creating a culture that promotes it to the detriment of the right. In any case, it is the chief features of left hemispheric understanding and manipulation of the world that appear to be producing all the signs of a decadent civilization in chronic decline: the rise of technocratic and bureaucratic systems of governance, the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources and despoliation of the natural environment and the neglect and loss of faith in the culture and values of the civilization itself.
I will stop the list there to avoid free falling into rant mode. But do we really have cause for such existential pessimism? What about the optimism of clever people like Steven Pinker and Matt Ridley? Aren’t we actually better off now than at any other point in history? So what if literary theory kills English students’ appreciation of the classics? It’s not the end of the world is it?
And what do we mean by Western civilization exactly? Are we decrying the betrayal of Western Enlightenment values by radical political activists? Is it the Enlightenment we’re worried about? But Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now argues that, although it always needs defending from crazies, the Enlightenment project is actually at the top of its game.
McGilchrist would presumably retort that that’s exactly the problem. The excessive rationality of Enlightenment thinking is a classic expression of left hemisphere dominance. Even with the opposing force of Romanticism attempting to temper this bias, we have still managed to end up in a hyper rational technological dystopia. The Enlightenment is the problem, not the cure (Alisdair MacIntyre would concur).
Perhaps it’s not so much the Enlightenment as the Judeo-Christian tradition out of which it sprang that we are in danger of losing. The Bible is the mythical backbone of Western civilisation. When that goes, everything might just fall apart. Jordan Peterson thinks that we abandon our mythopoetic heritage “at our peril” because these are the psychological roots of our humanity.
From the traditional religious point of view, the Enlightenment was a disaster. If the Enlightenment project was the attempt to base societies on purely rational, utilitarian principles, in neurological terms, that’s tantamount to saying that the left hemisphere should rule. In McGilchrist’s parable, the Master has been usurped by his Emissary.
The left hemisphere’s dreams of power and control end up as nightmares, because reality does not work the way the left hemisphere thinks it does. If McGilchrist is correct, then the “End Times” of every civilization are characterized by the dominance or even complete take over of the left hemisphere in a significant portion of the population (and especially those in positions of power).
And, sadly, this seems to be the case in our time. The first sign is that people stop believing in anything beyond their own limited conception of reality. In other words, they stop believing in their gods. This happened to the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans. For one reason or another, they just stopped believing. According to the mythology of all three civilizations, the gods not only created and sustained the natural world, but also the social one. Athena founded Athens for example. And the myths were pointing to a literal truth: civilization is sustained by belief in the gods of that civilization.
The Judeo-Christian God has been relegated to the margins of society by the seemingly unstoppable march of technological progress and secularization. The only gods we have left are “me” and “us”. We are now moving toward the self-conception of “Homo Deus”, as Yuval Noah Harari expresses it. Instead of the divine becoming human, the human is now made divine. Humanism ultimately leads to narcissism, solipsism, self-worship and self-imprisonment in the “known” cognitive systems of the left hemisphere.
The result is exactly the kind of madness you find with right hemisphere damage. Although Louis Sass’s classic work, Madness and Modernism was about schizophrenia, schizophrenic symptoms are actually almost identical to those found in patients with right hemisphere injuries, which suggests (to McGilchrist at least) that the alienation and “aperspectival madness” of modern and post-modern art and literature is the consequence of excessive left hemisphere dominance.
Towards the end of their civilization, the Aztecs clearly went mad. Are we slowly going mad as well? Are we trapped in a post-modern hall of mirrors? Prisoners of our own technological hubris? Worshippers of pop idols?
G.K. Chesterton was right when he said, “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”
But let me qualify that a bit. It’s not possible to literally believe in nothing, obviously, but it is possible to believe in nothing much. People who believe in nothing much are what I call “muggles”. They basically believe whatever the left hemisphere tells them, which is basically that they live in a material, mechanistic universe. They believe in facts and figures. People who are capable of believing in anything are what I call “muppets”.
When you choose not to believe in God, you close the door to the unfathomable mystery of existence and in doing so, over-ride the natural primacy of the right hemisphere (see chapter 5 of The Master and his Emissary). The word “God” is a transcendental signifier – it points to something beyond. It doesn’t matter what form “God” takes as long as it point beyond the confines of the world according to the left hemisphere.
Without a transcendental God, we are reduced to worshipping ourselves and our creations. Perhaps deep down we cannot avoid being “homo religiosus”. So we develop a belief in the perfectibility of humanity and human society. Without a transcendent God we end up worshipping idols. We worship ourselves and each other. We worship science and technology. We worship machines and devices. We worship naïve pie-in-the-sky ideologies. Whether it’s a techno utopia or socialist utopia, our “religious” hopes and beliefs simply intensify our muggle and muppet left hemisphere fantasies of perfection.
So what to do? You can’t just click your fingers and “believe in God” can you? Well, maybe you can. The first step on the path to spiritual enlightenment in the Buddhist tradition is to arouse bodhichitta, “the thought of enlightenment”. There is no “God” in Buddhism, but there is faith in the enlightenment of the Buddha and the potential for enlightenment in everyone (“Buddha Nature”). You could say that bodhichitta is the Buddhist version of believing in God.
Buddhists believe in enlightenment. Taoists believe in the Tao. Hindus believe in Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna and a host of other deities. Jews believe in Jahweh, Muslims in Allah, Christians in the Trinity (apart from the Unitarians). Panpsychists believe in a universal consciousness. It doesn’t matter. It’s all “God”.
Find a way to believe in the mystery beyond the closed system of your mind and you have found a way to believe in God. The “thought of God”, like the “thought of enlightenment” is the chink in the armour of the left hemisphere. It’s only the left hemisphere that says it can’t be done. For the right hemisphere it’s easy.
What are people saying when they say, “I envy religious people. I wish I had their faith, but I just don’t.” They are probably insinuating that, sigh, they are just too intelligent to have the simple minded belief in the supernatural that religious people seem to have. What they are actually saying is, “my left hemisphere encompasses the whole of reality and I bow to its dictates. My right hemisphere is dead to me.”
The left hemisphere comes to dominate our world and our lives when we stop believing, and when we forget what belief even means. (The word “belief” has completely different meanings according to the two hemispheres – see the section on “faux amis” in chapter 4 of The Master and his Emissary). Then civilization itself begins to run down. Everything becomes rigid and mechanical. Empathy and imagination are squeezed out. Magic is dismissed as childish superstition. There is no space for wonder, beauty or faith.
But faith never dies. New gods emerge from the ashes of the old. God is resurrected once more. So it may be true that Western civilization is on its last legs. It may be that we are witnessing The Suicide of the West (Goldberg) and The Strange Death of Europe (Murray). But there are also signs that a new faith and a new civilization are emerging at the same time.
I don’t believe in a facile New Age (because most of the New Age is so facile) but I am hopeful that there are enough glowing embers in the dying fire pit of Western civilization to survive the present decline. All it takes is a spark and the human genius will flare up again and usher in a new chapter in the ongoing Phenomenology of the Spirit.