“The Matter With Things” by Iain McGilchrist

“Questions such as those concerning scientific truth, the nature of reality, and the place of man in the cosmos require for their study some knowledge of the constitution, quality, capacities and limitations of the human mind through which medium all such problems must be handled.”

-Roger Sperry (1952)

I’ve just finished reading The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World (2021), Iain McGilchrist’s two volume follow-up to The Master and His Emissary (2009). Volume 1 of TMWT focuses on “the ways to truth,” revisiting the hemisphere hypothesis and unpacking the respective roles of the left and right hemispheres in attention, perception, judgment, apprehension, emotion, creativity, science, reason, imagination, and intuition. Volume 2 then explores the implications of the hemisphere hypothesis for what is likely to be true about the universe itself, including deep inquiries into time, motion, space, matter, consciousness, value, and the sacred.

I’ll have a chance to discuss the book with Iain this weekend via video conference, an event hosted by my graduate program (CIIS.edu/pcc) which is open to the public (Sunday, Oct. 16 at 11am Pacific; email me for a Zoom link). What follows are some initial thoughts, shared to introduce but also in an effort to think with the ideas laid out in this marvelous book.

The Matter With Things presents a comprehensive argument intended both to diagnose and to treat a pathological world view. Neuroscience is relevant not simply for the truths it unveils about how the brain permits and constrains our consciousness, but because of how an understanding of these constraints can help heal what ails us. Modern Westerners are doing grave damage to the world—to ecosystems, to culture, and to ourselves—as a result of a lop-sided way of seeing. McGilchrist has laid out a comprehensive and, in my opinion, thoroughly convincing case that this imbalance can be fruitfully interpreted as the result of a “left hemisphere insurrection” (1325). As he had already argued in The Master and His Emissary, the materialism, egoism, and other sordid pathologies affecting our world can be read as the consequence of the left hemisphere’s usurpation of the right, claiming for itself the starring role when its evolutionarily intended part is that of supporting actor. Readers familiar with Owen Barfield and Rudolf Steiner, or other thinkers of the evolution of consciousness (e.g., Jean Gebser, Sri Aurobindo, William Irwin Thompson, Ken Wilber, …) will find what McGilchrist has to say about the growing dominance of the left hemisphere nicely complements their accounts of the rise of the modern materialistic mode of thought out of the more participatory modes which preceded it.

While McGilchrist is trained as a psychiatrist and well-versed in the study of neuropathology, his explication of the disordered brain is decidedly not another example of “Nothing-Buttery” seeking to reduce human consciousness to neuro-chemical mechanisms. Rather, brain pathologies are studied as windows into the enabling powers of consciousness. As Sperry* put it above, and as biochemist Erwin Chargaff reiterates, the wise scientist will be aware of “the eternal predicament that between him and the world there is always the barrier of the human brain” (The Heraclitean Fire, 123). The brain is the barrier between but as such also the physical medium through which consciousness comes into contact with reality. The brain is a medium, mind you, not a cause.

Rather than resorting to some kind of neuro-idealism—i.e., the view wherein, as Whitehead quipped “bodies, brains, and nerves [are thought to be] the only real things in an entirely imaginary world” (Science and the Modern World, 91)—McGilchrist emphasizes the extent to which brain lateralization mirrors the dipolar coincidentia oppositorum at the creative core of the cosmos itself. It is not just that the brain organizes our knowledge and experience of the world in this way, but that reality is this way, with the brain reflecting it because, as Whitehead would say, every interrelated part of Nature has a tendency to be in tune. As Plotinus and Goethe knew, the eye sees by becoming sunlike. Just so, the brain thinks truly by conforming with the rhythm of being.

“Understanding the structure of the brain and how it functions can help us see the constraints on consciousness, much as, to use another metaphor, the banks of a river constrain its flow and are integral to its being a river at all, without themselves being sufficient to cause the river, or being themselves the river, or explaining it away.” 

-McGilchrist (TMWT, 34)

Further, while the right hemisphere is clearly the protagonist of McGilchrist’s story, the solution is not to excise the crucial function of the left. When properly kept in check and attentive to context the left hemisphere offers much that enhances our unique human capacities.

“The brain needs two streams of consciousness, one in each hemisphere, but they are like two branches of a stream that divide round an island and then reunite.”

-McGilchrist (TMWT, 1101)

In the healthy brain, each act of perception begins with the implicit wholeness of reality being taken up by the right hemisphere; the left hemisphere then goes to work explicating and analyzing, seeking the correct account of things. But unless its accounts are continually complicated and synthesized again by the right hemisphere, the bits of information provided by the left fail to acquire any meaning.** Problems occur when the left hemisphere imagines it can interpret and navigate the world on its own.

The brain deficit literature reviewed by McGilchrist makes it clear not only that the left hemisphere on its own is incapable of sustaining a coherent picture of the world-rhythm, what’s worse, it has no idea when it has lost the beat. Patients with right hemisphere damage (thus relying on the left for processing experience) will vehemently deny anything is wrong with them, even when deficits are obvious.

Inspired by William James, McGilchrist provides a helpful list of theoretical interpretations of the mind/brain relation (TMWT, 1085) (these are my glosses):

  • Emission” theory, where neurochemistry is considered to be the fully explanatory cause of consciousness. In such a view, humans are just especially complicated robots designed by a Dawkinsian Blind Watchmaker. For McGilchrist, and I certainly agree, such views are utterly incoherent and self-contradictory, symptoms of possession by an overzealous left hemisphere.
  • Transmission” theory: the embodied brain is considered to be a passive receiver of a cosmic mind-field. As McGilchrist described it, “It thinks—thought takes place in the field of me.”
  • Permission” theory: inclusive of transmission but also understands the embodied brain as a creative constraint and purposeful filter actively contributing new value to mind-at-large. If not already obvious, McGilchrist favors this theory.

It follows that consciousness is not a thing, nor a brain excretion, but a betweenness, a process of connection permitted by the living activity of our organism. And as Whitehead reminds us, the brain and body are “just as much part of nature as anything else there—a river, or a mountain, or a cloud” (Modes of Thought, 30). Consciousness is not a part accidentally added on to the periphery of the universe when the right number of neurons became aggregated. Consciousness is the inside of the whole world-process. It is amplified by the brain, but not produced inside the head.

One of my favorite chapters in TMWT is Ch. 12, “The Science of Life.” McGilchrist does a wonderful job summarizing new paradigm approaches to biology that break free of the incoherence of mechanistic reductionism. There remains “a manifest dissonance at the core of biology today,” as many biologists still insist on equating science with mechanical explanation, despite the fact that physics long ago left simple mechanism behind. McGilchrist makes easy work of Dawkins’ genetic reductionism (i.e., “selfish genes”), revealing the structural similarities between his mechanomorphic imagination and that of natural theologian William Paley. Dawkins, in effect, saves the machine model by reinventing God, putting his eyes out, and calling him by another name. The place of teleology in modern biology is captured well by Haldane’s analogy (cited by McGilchrist): telos is the mistress that biologists cannot be without but are unwilling to be seen with in public (TMWT, 1186).

Translating the hemisphere differences into philosophical terminology stemming from the German Idealists, McGilchrist distinguishes Verstand from Vernunft. Kant originally intended to capture the Latin distinction between ratio and intellectus, themselves attempts to render the Greek terms dianoia and nous (both on the supersensible side of Plato’s divided line analogy). There are various ways of translating these terms into English. I’ve tended to render them as “understanding” and “reason,” respectively, but McGilchrist prefers “rationality” and “reason.” The terms we choose are immaterial; the point is that the distinction has been thoroughly discussed by Western philosophers and indeed seems to map precisely onto the hemisphere differences. Rationality is a linear, piecemeal, analytic mode of thought, while reason seeks a more well-rounded, unifying, and organic sense of the world.

“I suggest that these two versions reflect the typical mode of operation, and exemplify the characteristics of, the left and right hemispheres, respectively. [Verstand/Rationality] is rigid, aims for certainty, tends to ‘either/or’ thinking, is abstract and generalised, ignores context and aims to free itself from all that is embodied, in order to gain what it conceives to be eternal truths. [Vernunft/Reason] is deeper and richer, more flexible and tentative, more modest, aware of the impossibility of certainty, open to polyvalent meaning, respecting context and embodiment, and holding that while rational processing is important, it needs to be combined with other ways of intelligently understanding the world.”

-McGilchrist (TMWT)

Rationality can (or should) only ever be an intermediate processor, since it cannot ground itself at the perceptual bottom end nor give meaning to its outcome at the conceptual top end; in this sense it is always bookended by intuition and imagination (TMWT 552). Intuition here means an immediate and embodied sense of the Gestalt pattern holding sway at the base of each perceptual event, and Imagination the mysterious power that Kant affirmed was essential for synthesizing general concepts with particular percepts to bring forth meaningful experience. As Wordsworth had it in The Prelude, this highest form of Imagination acts not only cognitively but lovingly, being one and the same as “reason in her most exalted mood.”

Though he draws upon countless sages East, West, and Indigenous, McGilchrist expresses a deep allegiance to four philosophers in particular, a German, an American, a Frenchman, and a Brit: Friedrich Schelling, James, Henri Bergson, and Alfred North Whitehead. From Schelling, he inherits a feeling for the Weltseele or World-Soul, the animating spirit of the universe of which each organism is a unique recapitulation emerging like a whirlpool in the river of reality. He quotes a few sentences from the first pages of Schelling’s 1805 Aphorismen über die Naturphilosophie, which are worth sharing in some length since his words capture well the overall thrust of TMWT:

“There is no higher revelation, neither in science, religion, nor art, than that of the divinity of the universe: yes, these originate and have meaning only through this revelation. … Where the light of that revelation fades, people seek to understand things not in relation to the universe, as unified, but as separate from one another, just as they seek to understand themselves in isolation and separation from the universe: there you see science become sclerotic and disintegrated, with great effort expended for little growth in knowledge, as grains of sand are counted one by one to build the universe. … Not only is it mere abstraction that separates the sciences from one another, it is also abstraction that separates science itself from religion and art. … Science is knowledge of the laws of the whole, that is, of the universal. But religion is contemplation of the particular in its bond with the universe. Religion consecrates the scientist priest of nature through the devotion with which he cares for what is separated. It guides the drive for the universal along the bounds set by God, and thus mediates science and art as a sacred bond forming the universal and the particular into one.”

Excerpted in my Physics of the World-Soul (2021). Translation is my own, with help from Christopher Satoor.

From James comes McGilchrist’s appreciation for a sense of pure experience originally undivided by the concepts of subject and object. He also upholds the pragmatic maxim that concepts and theories must always be evaluated in terms of their consequences for experience, thus refusing the left hemisphere’s haste in explaining away whatever does not fit into its abstract models. There is no “outside” beyond experience against which science might compare its models, and so ultimately our criteria for truth must be consistent with and adequate to experience, lest we devolve into incoherence by denying the very conditions that make our knowing possible. Below I share my response to a tweet by Richard Dawkins, who you might call the archbishop of scientistic fundamentalism.

From Bergson, McGilchrist learned the importance of the distinction between Intelligence and Intuition, which is another way of describing the respective approaches of the hemispheres. Intelligence (or the left hemisphere) ignores the fluidity of the world, petrifying everything living and applying a logic of solid bodies in order to grasp and utilize the world piecemeal for its own purposes. Intuition (right hemisphere), on the other hand, puts us directly in touch with the creative life inherent to temporal flow and organic development.

From Whitehead, who like Schelling, James, and Bergson emphasized the reality of concrete becoming over abstract being, McGilchrist draws several lessons. One concerns the care that must be taken when engaging in abstract thought by attending to the importance of a “right adjustment”—a proper measure and manner—in our deployment of abstractions (576). In other words, there are aesthetic criteria that should inform our use of concepts when carving up the world. Whitehead was an especially hemispherically balanced philosopher capable of navigating the heights of logical analysis while never losing touch with the depths of visceral feeling. It is a rare mind indeed who can understand and advance the algebras of Grassman and Hamilton as well as the poetry of Wordsworth and Shelley. Whitehead realized that some degree of abstraction is inescapable, even in our perceptual experience of the world (e.g., each of our five sense organs abstracts a specific channel from the aesthetic continuum of cosmic becoming). Similarly, our concepts cannot help but cut up the complex wholeness of the world, but if we trace the grain of the wood as we do so, we are less likely to do violence to the Real. By never losing sight of the limitations of the models we deploy, we can avoid succumbing to the left hemisphere trap of replacing the territory with a map (Whitehead’s famous fallacy of misplaced concreteness).

Whitehead was also unwilling to conceive of value as something invented and added on to the world by our human subjectivity. Rather, like Max Scheler who argued we perceptive value in the world via “value-ception” (Wertnehmung) (TMWT, 1127), Whitehead’s cosmos is pervaded by value-experience, which each act of perception (or “prehension” in his terms) discloses to us. Our experience of value discloses the world’s truth, beauty, goodness, and purpose to us. Our human values are derived from these cosmic values. As McGilchrist puts it, a “web of values [underlies] the meaning of our actions” (TMWT, 1123). Those familiar with Whitehead’s process theology may sense the resonance between McGilchrist’s underlying “web of values” and the primordial nature of God.

McGilchrist’s book climaxes in a discussion of the sacred. He admits to some uneasiness about the “God” word, but there really are no suitable replacements. Perhaps “consciousness” in the sense McGilchrist uses it in an attempt to characterize the ground of being comes closest to a contemporary replacement, but even this term is hardly less charged with potentially misleading connotations. Dionysius the Areopagite spoke of “the superessential radiance of divine darkness” (TMWT, 1246), capturing the paradoxical nature of this Being of beings. The challenge with finding the right word is to mark that mystical sense of the “suchness” or “thatness” characterizing our existence without thereby creating an idol. The left hemisphere tends to see words as arbitrary signs, while the right to some extent relates to them as symbols fused with the reality they are meant to indicate (I think of Coleridge’s term to describe the self-contained, non-allegorical meaning of true myth, “tautegorical,” a word which won Schelling’s approval in his late lectures on the subject). McGilchrist quotes Abraham Heschel: “God is the result of what man does with his higher incomprehension,” which functions as a nice reminder that theological discourse is, at best, a left hemisphere way of representing something intuited by the right (TMWT, 1207, 1232). McGilchrist, in this spirit, affirms a panentheistic view of the God-world relationship wherein God is simultaneously in the world, and the world in God. Rather than an omnipotent and so impassive or unmoved mover, McGilchrist follows Whitehead in affirming a vision of God as feeling-with all creation, “a fellow sufferer” who in some sense needs our love to be fulfilled. “The power of God is the worship [God] inspires,” as Whitehead puts it in Religion in the Making. Or in Meister Eckhart’s terms: “We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born” (TMWT, 1237).

McGilchrist wagers that, when it comes to the existence of God, it may be that you must first believe in order to see. In other words, faith may be the prerequisite by which we cultivate the disposition necessary to perceive the divine ground of being. Faith is not a matter of assenting to particular propositions, but an attitude of reverent openness toward reality. As I wrote in my Physics of the World-Soul, and as McGilchrist reiterates (TMWT, 1219), whether in science or in religion “what there is to be known is reciprocally bound up with the way that we attempt to know it” (PWS, 59).

*Incidentally, Roger Sperry, who won a Nobel prize for his split brain research, did his doctoral work at the University of Chicago under the supervision of Paul Weiss. Weiss had studied with Alfred North Whitehead at Harvard in the 1920s. I am not sure whether any or much of Whitehead’s organic philosophy rubbed off on Sperry, but I found this connection notable.

** Those familiar with Whitehead’s account of perception in terms of causal efficacy (or bodily reception), presentational immediacy (or sense perception), and symbolic reference may detect some resonances (follow this link for a short essay explicating Whitehead’s theory of perception in light of Wordsworth’s poetry).

2 Comments

  1. I am reading TMWT, as McGilchrist invited, in one of the many video podcasts of him that I have watched over the last few years. A chapter at a time, following my intuition & what my perceptions are telling me I need to pursue. Just finished ‘Flow and Movement’.
    When I saw your zoom conference with him, I recognised you from having come across your thoughts on Rudolf Steiner, given that I am a PhD candidate at University of Sheffield in the UK, looking at how his 12 senses might be accommodated in our education ecology. This is me trying to bring the ideas to a general public;
    https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/twelve-senses-being-human-nathalie-bethesda/
    https://www.anhinternational.org/news/guest-article-a-divine-dozen-our-12-human-senses/
    I am in awe of Iain McGilchrist’s range of knowing and yours too. I have come to the academy late in life and came across Steiner belatedly. I am perplexed that Steiner’s thoughts are so overlooked and contacted IM after I read ‘The Master and His Emissary’, asking if he knew of Steiner’s work, was informed by one of his team that he did. His message is becoming increasingly urgent; Rebel Wisdom, ‘We Need to Act’; Channel McGilchrist, ‘Can we unmake the world we have made?’ His keynote address to the AI World Summit, Amsterdam.
    It seems to me that Steiner’s pedagogy & curricula indications, answers to so much of IM’s reflections. For example, on p949, after having discussed Bergson’s logician of straight lines needing get back to the curve of intuition, IM writes “The straight line is the curse of our civilisation.” I am reminded of time in the classroom of a wonderful teacher in a Steiner/Waldorf school in Leeds doing Form Drawing with the 6/7 year old children, something you may know of? Equally, as I read of an ‘ontology of motion’, I can not help but think about Eurythmy?
    I am inclined to get more than a little frustrated at the endless talk amongst each other, as children and young people are thrown into the lion’s den. And I am in danger of stalking IM online when he makes calls to action and asks such questions as those above, shamelessly suggesting he consider this;
    https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/sustainable-schooling-nathalie-bethesda/

    As to your work – thank you

    Nathalie

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