I’m not really worried about whether Plato was left-handed. But I’m worried about the influence of people who see the world in the way Plato seems to have seen it. Because it is a view of reality that still exercises immense influence in the modern world.
I am not thinking, at this point, about Plato’s super-natural perfect world which has been hijacked by Christian theology and populated with spirits. I don’t believe in the existence of that world, but my concerns tonight are for the influence in modern thinking of what I think is a form of brilliant semi-autistic thinking.
In particular, I am thinking of a small group of people, of whom I suspect Plato was one, who are highly gifted mathematicians and often musicians, but who, at the same time, are severely handicapped in their ability to understand less numerical concepts. As a result, they are often extremely shy, uncomfortable in social situations, unable to intuit what appears to us as the most obvious feelings of others. They are sometimes surprisingly concrete in their interpretations of what they hear, and so don’t understand poetry at all and misinterpret symbolic thought as literal.
Plato himself thought that poetry should have no place in society, and instead told poets that they should say “what they really mean.”
I remembered that yesterday when I heard a leading scientist here publicly argue for saving money in our schools by teaching only science and math on the grounds that literature and the arts were a waste of time we could not afford in this time of austerity.
It is an argument that has been running through the philosophy of science and through what are considered the “softer” sciences like psychology, sociology, and political science for more than a century.
Fundamentally, the argument has been whether everything that counts can be counted, and whether what can’t be counted should be included at all in a valid scientific analysis.
The recent financial crisis is a dramatic illustration of this debate applied to real-world systems. Chastened economists have been looking at the rubble of the economic system they thought had tamed financial risk with sophisticated mathematical formulae powered by prodigious computer technology. One economist even wrote a history of risk entitled “Against the Gods” in which he argued that financial risk had been permanently reduced by derivatives, securitization, CDOs, and the whole panoply of complex configurations that only a few could understand.
Financial analysts, traders, regulators, or bankers who argued that there was something else that needed to be taken into account besides what was included in these quantitative analyses were dismissed as old fogeys. They were shelved and dismissed while for ten years a new form of credit risk dazzled and blinded financiers.
Not every gifted mathematician shares a blind spot for interpersonal, symbolic, poetic, and social reality. Research suggests that those who are truly incapable of understanding these things lack what neuroscientists call “mirror neurons.” It’s a syndrome that exists on a gradient, so one may be extremely a-social, belonging to a group labelled autistic. But lesser versions appear as Asperger’s syndrome, or merely as shyness or social awkwardness.
I’m thinking about these people because when they are brilliant, even geniuses, it is not obvious that there is a whole half of reality to which they have no direct access. Rather the way a color blind-person has no immediate experience of the difference between green and red.
I’m also personally concerned. Because this syndrome runs in our family. And although I am right-handed, I have recognized for many years that I have what you might call a “left-handed brain.” I’m good at math and music, and with some instinctive wisdom, I became a cognitive psychologist, and went into university teaching, rather than becoming a psychotherapist.
What I worry about is just how big a blind spot I have when it comes to understanding other people. Do I unknowingly miss the obvious? Do I run rough-shod over the feelings of others? Am I more sensitive to their effects on me rather than mine on them?
I know no one can really tell me the answer. But simply entertaining it as a serious possibility has greatly increased my tolerance for other people who seem to me to so callously dismiss the feelings of others or to judge them with such arrogant ignorance.
I mean, maybe I do too.