The Matter With Neuro-Sophistry
The Matter With Things by Iain McGilchrist has a fascinating premise - that we as a culture have become overly rationalistic, scientistic, quantitative, and reductionist. It is a concern I very much share. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to care much for me. Not that he has ever heard of me, but he attacked me nonetheless. You see, I’m autistic, and autistic people seem to be the main villain in his narrative. To be sure, he also goes after schizophrenics, whom I wish I had more insight from which to counter his callous attacks, but I will say that there are studies showing how schizophrenia manifests very differently depending on cultural context. With autism, however, I do have something that he doesn’t: lived experience.
McGilchrist’s argument rests on a kind of neuro-reductionism based on the hemispheric division of the brain. The left hemisphere, he says, has a preference for stasis, symmetry, abstraction, literalism, certainty, precision, and detachment. The right hemisphere, by contrast, is open-ended, process-oriented, metaphoric, embodied, and emotional. The problem with our society, he says, is that we have become increasingly left-brained. He has a particular ax to grind with what he labels right-hemisphere disorders, particularly autism and schizophrenia.
Among his claims about people like me is that we lack creativity, that we focus on the details and miss the big picture, that we are materialistic, that we are conformist and unimaginative, that we are over-rational and literal-minded, that we lack a sense of embodiment, that we are unempathetic and unemotional. I’ve certainly heard similar accusations before, but it’s always bizarre to me. I play guitar, I have a rich spiritual life, I am if anything too much of a big picture thinker. We autistic people are often told that we are unemotional, yet we are pariahs when we have meltdowns from our social anxiety. We are called unempathetic by people who think they can simply analyze us from the outside and never have to listen to us about our own lived experiences. We are told that we are inflexible, yet when we ask for accommodations for our sensory issues or the need to stim, neurotypicals refuse to budge, and force us to be flexible to their needs. At one point, McGilchrist suggests that what makes us truly human is our flexibility. Exactly one paragraph later, he complains that autistic people are rigid and inflexible. I’m not a math person, but I feel like there’s a syllogism there. Perhaps someone can help me with that one.
It may seem odd that as an autistic person, I should share many intellectual influences with McGilchrist, such as Henri Bergson, Stuart Kauffman, Christopher Alexander, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, George Lakoff, David Bohm, and Alfred North Whitehead. If my neurotype disposed me toward the kind of concrete-literal thought that he suggests, it would be strange indeed for me to be drawn toward such philosophies. Certainly there are autistic people who do have such technical minds, but there are many others who are artists and creatives. Anthony Hopkins was diagnosed late in life, and it’s hard to see how he could act so brilliantly without both a creative mind and a great sense of empathy. As it happens, my neurotypical brother is an aerospace engineer, while I ended up becoming a humanities person.
When we talk about autism as a spectrum, few people realize how big a spectrum we’re talking about. It’s also misleading to think of the spectrum as going from more to less autistic. Autism is a cluster of traits that any one autistic person may have to a greater or lesser degree. These traits include fixations, abnormal speech, sensory issues, social awkwardness, anxiety, abnormal posture, poor eye contact, stimming, aggression, and depression. If there is one that unites us all, it’s that we just don’t quite seem to fit in.
I would dare say that there are more ways of being autistic than there are of being neurotypical. Where neurotypicals grow up taking social cues from others and conforming to what is expected of them, autistic people have to consciously learn the unspoken social rules that everyone else just follows unconsciously. We are essentially anthropologists in our own society. This is portrayed as a lack of empathy, but we are in fact forced to be more empathetic than others simply to get by in this world. Because we don’t follow the social cues of others, we are more prone to develop our own special interests, our own ways of thinking, our own unique perspective on the world. Contrary to his characterization of us as conformist, the autistic mind is, if anything, far more resistant to conformity.
McGilchrist would do well to familiarize himself with what is called the “double empathy problem.” This refers to the fact that communication breakdowns between autistic and non-autistic people are a two-way street. It challenges the notion that the deficit is all on our end. In fact, neurotypicals are far less likely to try to understand things from our perspective than vice-versa. For all the insistence that we’re less embodied and can’t read social cues, it sure would be nice if neurotypicals could take a hint when they’re blocking my path, or intruding in my personal space, or turning on the overhead lights when I’m trying to relax. If only I could trade some of my embodied experience with theirs.
McGilchrist isn’t the first psychologist to pathologize our differences like this. On more than one occasion, he cites Tony Atwood in describing the autobiographies of autistic people as having a “pseudo-philosophical” quality, showing an over-rational, hyper-reflexive self-awareness, disengaged from embodied existence. I, for one, would not throw stones about “pseudo-philosophy” if I were using the kind of neuro-reductive arguments McGilchrist uses. In fact, it brings to mind The Moral Universe by Sam Harris, who claims to have discovered objective morality by doing utilitarianism with an MRI. What’s puzzling about McGilchrist is that he uses these neuro-reductive arguments to advocate a worldview that undermines the very premise of such an approach. A holistic, open-minded, pluralistic, intuitive, process-oriented approach would surely not base its arguments on such reductive, fixed categories.
For all his complaints about the descent of society into reductive rationalism and materialism, McGilchrist doesn’t seem to offer much of an explanation for how we got here. He does claim that our society is becoming more autistic, but offers little explanation for this other than complaining about kids these days and their cell phones. If he sought historical causes rather than neurological ones, he might look at Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, in which social relations take on the appearance of commodity relations. He might look at Foucault’s lectures on the birth of biopolitics, in which traditional forms of sovereignty give way to a bureaucratic, managerial form of power. He might consider Murray Bookchin’s theory of Social Ecology, in which our view of nature reflects our social relations. Among certain indigenous tribes, other organisms are viewed as having clans similar to one’s own. In the Medieval European world, nature was seen as organized hierarchically into a Great Chain of Being, with everything belonging in its proper place, including all people within the feudal class society. Under capitalism, our understanding of the world is shaped by the market. The cutthroat competition of the market was projected onto the biological world, with all organisms locked into a struggle for survival. The market depends upon commodification, so it is hardly a surprise that we live under what René Guenon calls the “reign of quantity.” If one is to seek the origin of a reductionist, materialistic, instrumental, quantitative mentality, one might want to consider that we live under a socioeconomic system in which everything is reduced to a price by which it can be measured against all other things.
That McGilchrist seeks his explanation in prejudice rather than socioeconomic analysis is likely a reflection of his own politics. He appears to be on friendly terms with the reactionary psychologist Jordan Peterson, and he cites the neoliberal economist Friedrich Hayek favorably. On the whole, though, he doesn’t seem to have much to say about politics, least of all social justice. In fact, his complaints about an empathy deficit seem to have more to do with decorum than actually caring about the plight of the oppressed, echoing right-wing concerns about cancel culture, suggesting that we are just too self-righteous and nasty to each other.
Having been in many leftist spaces, I can confirm that although wildly blown out of proportion by right-wing zealots, there is something to this phenomenon. I would suggest, however, that if one is to diagnose an empathy deficit in society, it would be the utter callousness of white, cishet, bourgeois, neurotypical men toward anyone else who isn’t like him. It is precisely from a deep well of empathy that he denies to people like me that I feel an urgency to fight against capitalist patriarchal white supremacy. One can see a great moral urgency in the famous autistic climate activist Greta Thunberg, who has emphasized the urgency of fighting catastrophic climate change that threatens to displace millions in the Global South and drive mass migrations of refugees. In an era of an eliminationist program against trans people, escalating police violence against black people, utter cruelty toward homeless people, and a global resurgence of fascism, the proper empathetic response is outrage, not decorum.
I see where McGilchrist’s appeal lies. He appeals to a certain type of neo-Romantic thought that doesn’t exactly have a name. It would be inaccurate to describe it as “New Age,” but there is some overlap. It is a scene characterized by a sort of nebulous, nondescript spirituality, panpsychism, process thought, Jungian archetypes, embodied cognition, organicism, holistic and systems thinking, mystical practices, and perennialist views on religion. It is associated with such institutions as Ken Wiber’s Integral Institute, Esalen, the Center for Process Studies, the Mind and Life Institute, and the California Institute of Integral Studies. I know this scene well because I have been a part of it. What inspired me to write this review was precisely the attention I saw him getting among others in that scene. What has often bugged me is how disconnected that scene is from another scene I travel in, namely those who give a damn about the world and are willing to fight for a better one. With reactionary bigots like McGilchrist enjoying such a warm welcome, is it any wonder if marginalized groups like autistic and queer people feel more comfortable with secularism?
There is indeed a problem with the prevailing social neurotype, but it is not autism. It is with the very normativity of any particular cognitive functioning style. We need a more pluralistic society, and one crucial plank has to be neurodiversity. I say this not only because I refuse to apologize to bigots like McGilchrist for the crime of being born different, but because a diverse society is a resilient one. A neurodiverse society means one in which people are free to become the best version of themselves, and that means not being regimented into a social order in which everyone’s talents are reduced to their market value, and this means fighting against a global capitalist order in which we must sell our labor to a private tyranny in order to live on this earth. Such a society would move us away from a regime that reduces everything to quantity and instrumental rationality, and instead enable a richer diversity of thought and values. We must seek what the Zapatistas call a “world where many worlds fit.” To get there, we must learn to listen to the struggles of others and understand them on their own terms, joining them in solidarity rather than paternalistically subjecting them to our own hierarchical systems. Go fuck yourself Iain.