‘In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love, and from the nightingale of affection and desire loosen not thy hold.
(Persian Hidden Words, No. 3: Bahá’u’lláh)
. . . . it is evident that the method of reason is not perfect, for the differences of the ancient philosophers, the want of stability and the variations of their opinions, prove this. For if it were perfect, all ought to be united in their ideas and agreed in their opinions.
(Some Answered Questions, page 298: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
When we have a problem situation to which we cannot find an easy solution, when our instinctive responses, whether or not they are obviously destructive, fail to deliver, we need to move from what Kahneman calls System 1 thinking, and which I have described as instinct, to the slower processes of System 2, what I am here calling intellect.
In order to access those processes we need to keep instinct on pause for significantly long periods of time.
Some, such as Kahneman, believe that this is as far as we can go in terms of depth processing. There is nothing else to do and it works well for most of the problems we will encounter.
Up to a point I agree. Effortful, conscious and carefully researched thought in itself constitutes a perfectly valid approach to problem-solving and decision-making. There are many excellent treatments of this theme, including Kahneman’s. Another good place to start is Levitin’s The Organised Mind. His book has some rather pedestrian passages which give over-extended illustrations of his main point, but one of the best chapters concerns Organising Information for the Hardest Decisions: When Life Is on the Line. This chapter almost makes the book worth buying even if the rest is something of a rehash of Kahneman.
He explains (page 221) why deploying the intellect is so important in making decisions about our treatment for medical problems: ‘Cognitive science has taught is that relying on our gut . . . often leads to bad decisions, particularly in cases where statistical information is available. Our guts and our brains didn’t evolve to deal with probabilistic thinking.’ And probabilistic thinking, based on an adequate understanding of statistics, is precisely what is required when we have to weigh up whether or not to have major surgery or cancer treatment. Then we are often dealing with a complex cost-benefit analysis. For example, he nails an important issue on page 239: ‘Ask your doctor not just about efficacy and mortality, but quality of life and side effects that may impact it. Indeed, many patients value quality of life more than longevity and are willing to trade one for the other.’
He uses prostate cancer (page 240) as an example. Surgeons in the US are prone to recommending surgery on diagnosis. There are complicating factors though. Prostate cancer is a slow killer – ‘most men die with it rather than of it.’ Also there is ‘a fairly high incidence of recurrence following surgery,’ along with a high risk of other side-effects including erectile difficulties (80%), urinary (35%) and faecal (25%) incontinence. Agreeing to surgery is therefore not a simple decision to make. Our gut is not to be trusted and we should not simply accept the default recommendation. We need to think hard and assess whether the benefits of surgery truly outweigh the costs for us. That’s where System 2 is on home ground and should be energetically deployed, and Levitin gives detailed guidance about how we can best use its strengths to disentangle the complexity and clarify the issues.
However, Iain McGilchrist in his masterpiece, The Master & his Emissary, has exposed for all to see how dangerous it can be for us to rely even on this supposedly rational aspect of our being to solve all our problems and make all our decisions for us. The conclusion he reaches that most matters for present purposes is on pages 228:
The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates [in our society] . . . . The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere that speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere. . . . which construes the world as inherently giving rise to what the left hemisphere calls paradox and ambiguity. This is much like the problem of the analytic versus holistic understanding of what a metaphor is: to one hemisphere a perhaps beautiful, but ultimately irrelevant, lie; to the other the only path to truth. . . . . .
He draws a further disquieting conclusion (page 229):
Once the system is set up it operates like a hall of mirrors in which we are reflexively imprisoned. Leaps of faith from now on are strictly out of bounds. Yet it is only whatever can ‘leap’ beyond the world of language and reason that can break out of the imprisoning hall of mirrors and reconnect with the lived world. And the evidence is that this unwillingness to allow escape is not just a passive process, an ‘involuntary’ feature of the system, but one that appears willed by the left hemisphere. The history of the last 100 years particularly . . . , contains many examples of the left hemisphere’s intemperate attacks on nature, art, religion and the body, the main routes to something beyond its power.
On the whole he concludes that the left hemisphere’s analytic, intolerant, fragmented but apparently clear and certain ‘map’ or representation of reality is the modern world’s preferred take on experience. Perhaps because it has been hugely successful at controlling the concrete material mechanistic aspects of our reality, and perhaps also because it is more easily communicated than the subtle, nuanced, tentative, fluid and directly sensed approximation of reality that constitutes the right hemisphere experience, the left hemisphere view becomes the norm within which we end up imprisoned. People, communities, values and relationships though are far better understood by the richly textured right hemisphere, which is characterised by empathy, a sense of the organic, and a deep morality, whereas the left hemisphere tends in its black and white world fairly unscrupulously to make living beings, as well as inanimate matter, objects for analysis, use and exploitation.
This implies that penetrating beyond the intellect’s currently preferred, complacent and self-protecting shell will require effort and skill. It is necessary to do so because some problems are so complex and nuanced that our intellectual processes do not seem able to crack the code and come up with an answer.
It is then we need to become aware that intense thought, marinating the mind as it does in the details of a complex situation, is also doing something else. The contents of surface consciousness are seeping down to deeper levels of awareness with access to other powerful but essentially non-verbal methods of problem solving and decision-making. It is as though we are sowing seeds in the subliminal mind where they can germinate in the earth of the heart to produce the fruit of creative solutions which will break through into consciousness at some unpredictable moment of insight.
That forms the theme of the next post.