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No two ways about it: We are making ourselves wretched. We are more affluent than ever, but riches—and power, the only point in having riches—do not make people happy. Ask a psychiatrist. Or take a look at the face of Vladimir Putin, who has, alas, the power of life and death over millions of people and is the owner of the most expensive toilet-paper dispenser in the world. No, affluent as we are, we are also more anxious, depressed, lonely, isolated, and lacking in purpose than ever. Why is this? I suggest it is because we no longer have the foggiest idea what 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.

Leaving nuance aside, and condensing three decades of research and a vast body of supporting evidence into a phrase: We are now mesmerized by the least intelligent part of the human brain. For reasons of survival, one hemisphere of the brain, the left, has evolved over millions of years to favor manipulation—grabbing, getting, and controlling—while the other, the right, has been tasked with understanding the whole picture. So conflicting are these goals that in humans the hemispheres are largely sequestered, one from the other. Our seeming ability these days to hear only what comes from the left hemisphere does not arise from the brain’s having changed radically in the last couple of centuries, though it is indeed always evolving. It’s more like this: You buy a radio set, and you soon find a couple of channels worth listening to. After a while, you find yourself listening to only one. It’s not the radio set that has changed; it’s you. In the case of the brain, it would not matter so much if we had settled on the intelligent channel—but we didn’t. We settled on the one whose value has nothing to do with truth, or with courage, magnanimity, or generosity, but only with greed, grabbing, and getting. Manipulation.

And no, the difference between the hemispheres is not a myth that has been debunked, as I have explained at length elsewhere. What does need to be debunked is the old pop-psychology myth wherein the left hemisphere “does” reason and language, and is dull but at least reliable, like a slightly boring accountant, whereas the right hemisphere “does” emotions and pictures and is apt to be flighty and frivolous. All of this is wrong. 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—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 after damage to the left. Without the right hemisphere to rely on, the left hemisphere is at sea. It 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 disaster.

You may say: “But so what? I don’t care where things go on in my brain.” It matters because each hemisphere takes a different view of the world, and their views are not strictly compatible. And so, when we reflect, philosophize, or discourse publicly, we are forced, without knowing it, to favor one “take” or the other.

What are these two hemispheric visions of the world like? You may recognize them from experience. The left hemisphere, using narrow-beam attention to one detail after another, sees what is familiar, certain, static, explicit, abstract, decontextualized, disembodied, categorized, 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 mapped world: useful to the degree that it leaves almost everything out. And its only value resides in its utility.

The left hemisphere perceives everything as a re-presentation. “To represent” literally means to present a thing again, when it is no longer present, but dead and gone. By contrast, the right hemisphere sees not the representation 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: humor, poetry, art, narrative, music, the sacred, indeed everything we love; it understands that nothing is ever static and unchanging, that everything is flowing and interconnected. This is a free world, an animate universe—and a bureaucrat’s nightmare. It has all the richness and complexity of that world the left hemisphere simply mapped.

Each of these two ways of seeing the world is vital to our survival. We must simplify and stand apart in order to manipulate things, deal with the necessities of life, and build a civilization. But to live in that civilization, we must also belong to the living world. This division of attention works to our advantage when we use both hemispheres. But it is a handicap—in fact 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 civilization started out with a fruitful harmony of left and right, but as it overreached itself, it moved toward the left hemisphere’s take on the world and then collapsed. The same trajectory is now being pursued for a third time. After the miraculous outpouring of creativity in the arts, science, society, and philosophy that we call the Renaissance, our civilization has, since the Enlightenment, moved further and further to the left, drunk on the belief that it knows everything and can fix everything. We are like sleepwalkers ambling toward the abyss.

There is a phenomenon in psychology called the Dunning-Kruger effect, whereby 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 it thinks it knows everything. The right hemisphere, which understands far more, is aware of those vast unknowns.

When we are functioning well, the right hemisphere tests against experience the left hemisphere’s theory about reality. But the left hemisphere’s vision of a lifeless, mechanical, two-dimensional, geometric construct has been externalized around us to such a degree that when the right hemisphere checks back with experience, it finds that the left hemisphere has already colonized 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 alert us to the inadequacy of our reductionist theories are fading away. They were: the natural world; the sense of a coherent shared culture; the sense of the body as something we live, not merely possess; the power of great art; and the sense of something sacred that is real but transcends everyday language.

AI—artificial information-processing, by the way, not artificial intelligence—could in many ways be seen as replicating the functions of the left hemisphere at frightening speed across the entire globe. The left hemisphere manipulates tokens or symbols for aspects of experience. The right hemisphere is in touch with experience itself, with the body and deeper emotions, with context and the vast realm of the implicit. AI, like the left hemisphere, has no sense of the bigger picture, of other values, or of the way in which context—or even scale and extent—changes everything.

But, you may ask, can’t AI help us by relieving us of mundane tasks and freeing up our time? Of course, information technology saves time by doing things quickly. Or does it? Bosses save wages, but we become their new, unwilling wage slaves. Meanwhile, with the automation of more and more processes that used to take a five-minute phone call, we find ourselves entering into hours-long commerce with computer programs that lead us into Escher-like closed loops, only to report playfully, “Oops, something went wrong . . .” And if after this you stay on the phone so you can speak to a real person, the real people increasingly appear to have been so degraded by enforcement of machine-like algorithms that they might as well be machines. IT, then, is quite capable of making life worse. This is already apparent in the increasing stress of everyday existence, and in the many small signs that we are losing our connection with other human beings. This loss of connection has become much more obvious in the last four or five years, and not just because of Covid.

As machines gradually displace people, what happens to human flourishing? What happens when reliance on machines strips us of our skills, a process already well advanced? And what happens if, for any reason—such as a shortage of resources, an extended power failure, the breakdown of civil order, or war—we can no longer rely on those machines consistently? How resilient, resourceful, skillful will we turn out to be when compared with our forebears? Leaving aside such alarming, but I think not merely alarmist, possibilities, consider the impact of the loss of daily contact with human beings as more and more jobs become automated. What happens to those who are rendered unemployed? A few clever ones may get jobs in IT, but the economic drive is very simple. Machines are cheaper than people, so the aim must be to employ fewer people.

And what about our dignity as free individuals? Can we escape the appalling prospect—already realized in China—that wherever we go, whatever we buy, whomever we are seen with, our every word, every action, the very thoughts we express on our faces, all is monitored, potentially marked down against us, and whatever freedom is left to us curtailed accordingly? We become non-citizens, un-people. The only answer to this seems to me to be a kind of AI arms race in which the supposed goodies use AI to head off the AI of the baddies. But even in this scenario, who are the goodies anymore? The World Economic Forum? The problem with increasing 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 destroy any attempt to resist it, bringing the prospect of a totalitarianism that has no end.

Apart from that nightmare, there is much to fear if we leave important decisions in the hands of AI. All decisions affecting humans are moral decisions. And morality is not purely utilitarian; it cannot be reduced to calculation. Every human situation is unique, its uniqueness arising from personal history, consciousness, memory, intention, all that is not explicit, all that we mean by the deceptively simple word “emotion,” all the experience and understanding gained through and stored in the body, all that makes us humans and not machines. Goodness requires virtuous minds, not merely following rules.

It’s worth pointing out that people with schizophrenia exhibit thinking and behavior consistent with left-hemisphere overdrive and right-hemisphere hypofunction. They see a world of bits and pieces, and they often imagine that people have become inanimate, machine-like, or zombies. To them nothing seems real, and the world seems a simulacrum, a pretense, a play put on to deceive them: A person may look like a person, but uncannily isn’t. To me, the belief that machines could become sentient is the obverse of the view that we, sentient beings, are really just machines. The psychiatrist R. D. Laing described a schizoid patient who saw his wife as a machine:

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.

The assumption of mechanistic “conditioning” reflects what is hardly even a parody of a not uncommon scientific position. It also represents a chilling psychopathology. But this mentality is not unlike the way we may begin to see each other, should the mechanical processes of AI become the standard for human behavior. As machines—or so it is claimed—become more like humans, humans are certainly becoming more like machines, by reason of their being obliged to interact with them.

The prospect of cyborgs is grim as well. The best way to destroy humanity would be to hybridize it with machines. I do not call those who pursue this aim evil—they may simply have a failure of imagination or of 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 opens us up to totalitarian control.

We are like the sorcerer’s apprentice in the story, who knew the spell to set things in motion but had no idea how to make it stop. The genie of information technology and other advanced methods is out of the bottle and cannot be put back (unless by a breakdown of civilization, which is, I am afraid, far from unlikely). So what can we hope for?

What matters for the future of humanity is imagination. The left hemisphere is often an impediment to imagination, and its goal is single and simple: power. AI exists to make things happen, to give us control; but its doing so is good only if we make progress in wisdom as fast as we make progress in technical know-how. Otherwise, our “progress” is like putting machine guns in the hands of toddlers.

Nevertheless, if employed wisely, AI has the potential to be an enormous help to us. Above all, it may help us repair the damage done by industrialization, the destruction of the living world. It might help us devise ways of limiting and perhaps reversing the pollution of the seas—or less destructive ways of generating power. (Perhaps our dependence on power is part of the problem, and we should aim to use less power in the future.) And though as a doctor I believe in treating diseases, I also recognize that each of us will die of something someday. We must focus on quality, rather than length, of life. Here again I believe AI can help us by addressing specific technical problems, while keeping as far as possible out of our daily lives.

Making the most of these new technologies will require us to grasp a paradox: To succeed at AI, whose purpose is to give us control, we must relinquish control, at least to a great extent. In other words, we must let go of those left-hemisphere mechanisms: bureaucracy, micro-management, and strangulation by systems. We must work with, not against, nature. A gardener cannot create a plant or make it grow; a gardener can only permit and encourage the plant to do what it does—or else crowd it out and stifle its chances to thrive. Humans, likewise, can only be more or less impeded in our growth by external pressures. We need spontaneity, openness to risk, and trust in our intuition in order to exercise imagination and creativity—and in order to be alive and truly present.

So if we wish to entrust the future to good gardeners rather than manipulators, we will need people with intelligence and insight, and we will need to 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 you will be handsomely rewarded. By contrast, if you monitor and control, you will never get more than mediocrity. And we cannot afford mediocrity right now.

What makes life worth living is what can only be called resonance: the 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, or with God. Only in encountering the uncontrollable do we experience the world in its depth and complexity and come fully alive. The resonance we enjoy in a real relationship with a sentient other is not possible where there is no freedom, no spontaneity, no life.

If we are not to become ever more diminished as humans, we need to remain in control of machines, not come under their control. I am not talking 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 serve us well when they relieve us of drudgery, but we must leave human affairs to humans. If not, we sign our own death warrant.

Iain McGilchrist is a psychiatrist and the author of The Matter With ThingsThis essay was originally a lecture delivered at the 2022 World Summit AI in Amsterdam.

Image by Dano licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped, filter added. 

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