Saturday, December 12, 2015

Zac Hassan's Review of The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte-Taylor, and the Myth of Creation

The author [Roderick Tweedy]'s analyses of the profound connections between Blake's figure of 'Urizen' and the complex of left-hemisphere activities, of Jill Bolte Taylor's case of brain lateralization due to a hemorrhage in the left brain, as well as of compelling new discoveries in modern neuroscience, all converge into a discussion that suggests a rather radical reinterpretation of the 'God' of Creation texts.

Parallel to its analysis of the relationship between brain lateralization and the psychological basis for the God referred to in these early texts, the author pursues a line of inquiry into the relationship between Reason, or the complex of rationalizing and ordering processes identified as the left hemisphere, Morality, and psychopathology. The author explains how religion and science have developed as a result of the emerging dominance of the left brain over the right brain, and how the historical discrimination against the right brain has resulted in the cultivation of psychopathology, which is ubiquitous in modern society.

The main argument of the book is that 'Urizen' is [an instantiation of] the left brain, and that Blake is unique because he recognized the 'God' of the Book of Genesis to be Reason personified, and hence referred to it as 'Urizen' or the 'Holy Reasoning Power'. This God is a creator by division and abstraction, which are employed in order to impose order on reality. The author shows throughout the book just how this brain function on the one hand, and daemonic power or personality on the other, manifest in human nature.

The basic drive of the God of the left hemisphere - or Urizen, the left brain - is a need for control and dominance, which stems from existential angst: a fear of emotion, and indeed, of being alive. The promise in worshipping Reason, by obeying laws and moral codes, is to assuage the fear of uncertainty and to achieve a semblance of predictability. Thus, Reason creates a world where the human is a physical machine on one end and a statistical unit on the other, where man becomes regular either way. In the former he is a predictable material object and in the latter a predictable mathematical concept. This is post-enlightenment philosophy in a nutshell, and schizophrenia is the embodiment of such a phenomenological state.

The emergence of left-hemisphere dominance has been a process of increasing doubt in immediate and embodied subjective reality, which, according to Blake, has subsequently led to a separation of the human from the divine. It is important to note here that Blake thought of divinity as an empathic mode of attention in relation to another, which, the author adds, can be accessed through the right hemisphere. This severance from what Blake referred to as Energy, or the bodily and imaginative (the right brain), is responsible for the loss of emotion, spontaneity, and vitality, and the consequent enslavement to a state of rationalizing and egoic compulsion. Blake identified the traditional ‘Satan‘ as a personification of this state. The controversial assertion is that the devil resides not in hell but in the human brain, and more specifically in the left hemisphere.

Blake exposed the concealed moralistic dimension of rationality: that Reason is evaluative and ego-centric and not neutral or objective. The author empirically corroborates this by demonstrating that Reason and Morality have a common neurological source rooted in left-hemisphere networks, where the complex of processes that are commonly referred to as ‘ego' are located. Therefore, there is no actual opposition between Science and Religion, because these two systems are two versions of the same thing ‘battling for supremacy over the left hemisphere‘ (p. 93). Instead, ‘the real clash [is] between rationality and imagination’ (ibid.), which is to say between the left and the right hemisphere.

To summarize: the greatest trick the devil pulled was not only to convince human-kind that he does not exist, but to be worshiped under the guise of Morality by the theistic adherents of religion and under the guise of Reason by the atheistic adherents of Science. Needless to say, this thesis is challenging to both parties. Nevertheless, there is hope, the author reassures the reader. Salvation lies in repentance: by returning to the God of the right hemisphere, and thereby silencing the left hemisphere. But be not alarmed, for this kind of repentance does not depend on supernatural grace but on neuroplasticity. The author is calling for an end to the discrimination against the right hemisphere, and recommends the educational system as a good place from which to start.

2015. Zac Hassan

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Math is a Language and a Technology

Math educators have a “split-personality” approach to mathematics. On the one hand, math is the ancient, other-worldly Platonic paragon of Reason, while on the other hand, math is the present-day, natural engine that runs technological optimization and scientific invention.

Neither of these views are wrong--the problem is in attributing one view to the past and the other to the present. Math has always been both language and technology.

n fact, math is one of the earliest technologies of our species, numbers having preceded writing by thousands of years. 

When we write out mathematical calculations by hand, all we are doing is using an outdated piece of technology. Calculating by hand is outdated today because computers are much better at it. The difference is comparable to driving a horse and buggy instead of a car. Sure, before calculators were omnipresent, calculating-by-hand was quite a valuable skill. During WWII “computers”--not machines, but humans hired to crunch numbers all day long--were hired by the US military and paid a salary of $1,440, the 2015 equivalent of $20,000. Calculators changed that, but apparently educators were the last ones to notice! 

The counter-argument has always been, “we teach math for students to learn logical reasoning.” It’s true that mathematical arguments follow reasoning and a formal logic. But it is dishonest to say that is how math is being taught today. The focus today is on getting students to reproduce the procedures, not be able to logically prove them.  

The larger point is that it is a mistake to see Reason as math’s biggest contribution to society. Mathematics does not hold a monopoly on reasoning, despite what Stephen Hawking says. Pascal recognized this almost 400 years ago, writing, “Custom is the source of our strongest and most believed proofs. It bends the automaton, which persuades the mind without its thinking about the matter.” Claiming that mathematics education is primarily about reasoning is like a corporate CEO claiming the advertising division’s primary focus is creating beautiful cinematography or the military claiming that marksmanship training is primarily for the Olympics skeet shooting competition.

Mathematics as language is about Reasoning. Mathematics as calculation is about technological progress.

Our society has no problems letting computers determine our economics (which in turn runs our politics)--but for a student to use a computer to solve a quadratic equation is cheating. Rather than calculation-by-hand, we might as well be teaching students to use slide rules or, better yet, play video games. 

Even the Common Core's math standards, while a useful idea in principle, are hopelessly stuck in the calculation-by-hand philosophy. And they could not have been implemented at a worse time. Teachers are increasingly teaching to the test at a time when they should be experimenting within the new digital world to cultivate students’ curiosities into interests and passions. This is especially true of math, which lends itself to digital learning more than other subjects.

Isaac Asimov wonderfully named the split-personality mindset that mathematicians (and many others in our society) have historically suffered from: Spacer ideology.
- “Space-out” when discussing the downsides to a technology.
- Outsource as much human labor to machines as possible.
- Blindly trust that technological progress is the same as social progress.

So what about education, specifically, has prevented this outsourcing of computational labor to computers in math classrooms? Mark Weston identifies the “lack of school-level support” for helpful educational technologies, combined with the entire field of education “ignoring its own research” and “failing to investigate and build consensus about how to take what works to scale.”

Math teachers across the world, take action before it’s too late! As math teachers, we have to learn to coexist with digital technology. The organization Computer-Based Math laid this information out years ago, but it’s calls have largely gone unheeded. Don’t resist it any longer!

Strive to find the balance between the two extremes. Don’t fall for the promise of easy technological fixes, but also don’t refuse technology altogether. Instead, collaborate. Seek out other educators to figure out what works. Move into the networked reality of our “Spacer” global economy, while keeping a critical awareness of the potential downsides to technology, and not abandoning the logical, linguistic foundations of math.