The Human Capacity for Insight

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    Featured Columnist – Meditations
    Martin LeFevre

    When asked where the capacity to be creative comes from, Eric Kandel, the Nobel Laureate neuroscientist, answers very assertively: “It comes from the brain!”

    Statements such as this reflect a growing scientism in the Western world, which is the belief and attitude that science has, or can provide all the answers. That kind of outlook is endemic to organized religion; to the degree that science embraces it, it becomes a religion.

    Where does insight come from? It is simply another form of dogma to insist that it comes solely from inside the human brain. Such an assumption implicitly upholds the dualism between inside and outside, between the human brain and the evolutionary process that gave rise to it.

    Science cannot study anything without taking a position that is separate from the object of its study. Such a stance is necessary for science to even exist. But scientific detachment begins to break down with the notion that the brain can make itself an object of study.

    Kandel, in dogmatically proclaiming, “Creativity comes from the brain!” is really saying there is no outside agency that inspires and infuses the human mind. In other words, there is no separate deity that breathed life into the human brain, and intervenes in its creative processes.

    But Kandel leaves the equally erroneous idea of inside agency unquestioned. Indeed, it’s ironic that many neuroscientists, who convincingly argue against the illusion of the outside agency of God, uphold the illusion of the inside agency of the self.

    Ultimately, the organ that is doing the investigating cannot make itself an object of study. That doesn’t mean that a great deal of knowledge cannot and should not be accrued about the brain. It simply means that science has to recognize the inherent limitation of its basic approach. When it doesn’t, it becomes scientism. Dogmatism is dogmatism, whether of the religious or the scientific variety. And both lead to a dead end.

    There is another approach, which is neither the product of belief, nor of knowledge. It is one of perceptual detachment that eschews faith. Though similar to science in that it takes an attitude of doubt and questioning, perceptual detachment is very different from science in that it does not seek to accrue knowledge, only to have insight and understanding in the present.

    The relationship between insight and creativity is crucial, but they aren’t the same thing. Creativity can refer to the birth of something altogether new; but it can also refer to the recombination of existing forms in a novel way.

    “The brain is a creativity machine,” Kandel asserts, thereby betraying his scientific and philosophical bias. It is the old idea of the universe as machine, rather than a creative unfolding (which includes and is exemplified by the human brain).

    Oliver Sacks, also a neuroscientist, voices the essential spiritual and artistic question when he says, “I want to understand how the new can come into being.”

    Such insight cannot be codified into knowledge. Therefore we need to gain an insight into insight. Where does it come from? Does only the human brain generate it, or do other animals have insights?

    Clearly, they do. Higher mammals such as chimps, orcas, and crows have problem solving insights that become part of their cultures, and are passed on to their offspring.

    The question then is: Is insight the creative movement of the universe itself? Indeed, is insight integral to the universe’s ongoing creativity in humankind?

    The universe is not a machine, and does not operate like a machine. Rather, its more or less stable forms can and do spontaneously give rise to something new. The diversity of life on this planet is an expression of the inherently creative drive in the universe.

    As a great religious philosopher once said, “We have not changed much. We still kill each other; we seek power, position. We are corrupt. Man is the same today psychologically as we were thousands of years ago.”

    Will insight, the creative drive of the universe, change man, bring about a transmutation of our consciousness? It is the only human capacity that can do so.

    Then what is blocking the flowering of insight in the human being? Clearly, the dead weight of the past is choking off the explosion of insight that human consciousness requires. That includes tradition, experience, identification, association, and even (forgive me Eric Kandel), memory.

    Insight is an untapped potential in the human brain. It can only bloom in space and silence, when thought and all its accretions (cultural and scientific) are effortlessly set aside.

    Martin LeFevre

    [email protected]

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