The Relationship between Matter and Consciousness. A talk by Iain McGilchrist

This post reports on a talk given by Iain McGilchrist at the Field&Field conference in the Cotswolds, UK, in October 2021. Iain is author of ‘The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World’ (2009) and ‘The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World’, his new book which will be published on November 9th 2021.

The talk relates to Chapter 25, Matter and Consciousness, in his new book. In this chapter, Iain discusses (so he told us. I haven’t yet received my pre-ordered copy of the book) the relationship between consciousness and matter; consciousness and life, and what we can learn from the hemisphere hypothesis. The hemisphere hypothesis was explored in his book ‘The Master and His Emissary’.

As in other posts on these difficult topics covered by Iain, I need to say at the start that any errors in this post are mine and should be attributed to my understanding, or lack of it, and my interpretation of what Iain said, rather than what he actually said. I have included full references to Iain’s two books at the end of this post, where some of my sources can be checked.

Iain started this talk by saying that there has been no progress on the hard problem of consciousness. “The hard problem of consciousness is the problem of how physical processes in the brain give rise to the subjective experiences of the mind and of the world.” (David Chalmers)

The relationship between matter and consciousness

Iain suggests that the brain and consciousness are intimately related and work in tandem, and that there are three possible relationships between the brain and consciousness.

  1. The brain emits consciousness
  2. The brain transmits consciousness
  3. The brain permits consciousness i.e., the brain shapes forms and brings into being the consciousness that we experience.

Iain believes that consciousness is neither emitted, nor passively transmitted, but permitted by the brain. Some things are allowed to be transmitted and others are not. The idea of emission gained traction amongst biologists because they think we understand matter, but matter is just as difficult to understand as consciousness. The relationship between matter and consciousness is baffling. Iain suggests five possible routes to resolving this:

  1. Deny the existence of consciousness
  2. Deny the existence of matter
  3. Believe that both exist but are totally distinct
  4. Believe that both exist and are the same
  5. Believe that consciousness and matter are distinct phenomena reflecting different aspects of an indivisible reality.

One of the problems is that we think in terms of things and thingness. We need to move away from things and whatness (the left hemisphere’s view of the world) to processes and howness (the right hemisphere’s view).

The word consciousness has many meanings as is explored in Adam Zeman’s book, Consciousness. A user’s guide, but Iain is not talking about losing consciousness when we sleep or die and similar meanings, but about the experiential; something that has inwardness. This covers all activities that go on unconsciously, pre-consciously and consciously. The conscious and the unconscious don’t inhabit separate chambers. Iain uses the image of a spotlight on a stage to explain this.

A spotlight illuminates just one part of the stage (consciousness) but the rest of the stage (the unconscious) is still present. We are just not focussed on it. The unconscious is very large, but not inferior. The right hemisphere is aware of this unconscious and what is being focussed on (the conscious), but the left hemisphere is only aware of what is under the spotlight. We’re only conscious of a small part of all that we know. The unconscious is the most important and extensive part of our experience. We do many things in our unconscious minds; discriminate, reason, find things beautiful, solve problems, imagine possibilities, fall in love and so on, without being wholly aware of this. For this we rely on our whole embodied being. We only bring consciousness into play when there is a problem, which needs our focussed attention.

Can we deny consciousness? Some senior academics do and think consciousness is an illusion, but where is it an illusion if not in consciousness itself? Galen Strawson has written:

[Some philosophers] are prepared to deny the existence of experience. At this we should stop and wonder. I think we should feel very sober, and a little afraid, at the power of human credulity, the capacity of human minds to be gripped by theory, by faith. For this particular denial is the strangest thing that has ever happened in the whole history of human thought, not just the whole history of philosophy. It falls, unfortunately, to philosophy, not religion, to reveal the deepest woo-woo of the human mind. I find this grievous, but, next to this denial, every known religious belief is only a little less sensible than the belief that the grass is green. (Galen Strawson, 2008, Real Materialism and other essays. Oxford University Press).

Philosophers are now beginning to wake up to the idea that consciousness is foundational in the cosmos. There is nothing more certain than the existence of experience. It can’t be an illusion because an illusion requires consciousness.

Could consciousness be reduced to anything else at all? Many prize winning physicists state that it is impossible for consciousness to be reduced to anything else. We know about the experiential directly from experience; it’s the thing we know most about but we understand very little of it. We know that matter is disclosed to us by our minds, but we do not know that our minds are disclosed to us by matter. Denying consciousness doesn’t solve the hard problem.

Can consciousness emerge? This doesn’t explain anything. There is no such thing as consciousness being nascent. It doesn’t emerge. Once consciousness is born, there it is. It must have been present at the origin of things; it can’t simply emerge out of matter. If it did do this it would have to keep repeating this, not only in evolution, but every time a creature is born.

And what of matter? Can we deny matter? Matter is an adjective that describes an experience; it is not a thing. It is a mental abstraction, a convenient fiction, that no-one has seen. We’ve only seen elements of the world to which we attribute the quality within our consciousness of being material. Matter substitutes an idea for an experience and in doing so produces something static, no longer in process, no longer an experience, now a thing. Matter and mind remain mysterious. We shouldn’t deny matter, although it may not be what we think it is. Matter is that which persists and endures. It appears to be an element within consciousness that provides necessary resistance to creation, and for individuality to arise. Our bodies are ever flowing rivers. Matter causes change to slow down for a while. It gives shape and meaning.

Are matter and consciousness one and the same? Matter and consciousness interact. There is nothing merely physical about the physical. Consciousness and the observation of an event seem to alter the nature of that physical event. Thoughts and ideas can change matter. Simple belief can make something work, e.g., the placebo effect. Consciousness can interact with matter.

Iain is not convinced by the argument that matter and consciousness don’t look alike or behave similarly. They can be and are aspects of the same phenomenon or entity, just as water can be liquid, solid or gas, but nevertheless is always water. Schrödinger wrote:

It is the same elements that go to compose my mind and the world. This situation is the same for every mind and its world, in spite of the unfathomable abundance of ‘cross-references’ between them. The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived. Subject and object are only one. The barrier between them cannot be said to have broken down as a result of recent experience in the physical sciences, for this barrier does not exist. (p. 127 Schrödinger, E. 1944, What is Life? Cambridge University Press)

Does this mean that we make reality up? This is not the case. It’s like the performance of piece of music. The music only exists when we perform it. When we perform it, it’s always slightly different, but always recognisably the same, and some performances may be truer to the reality of that piece of music. We do deal with reality and know it. We don’t see a projection of it on a screen in our heads, but my consciousness can never see the whole of reality, just as all 15 stones in the Zen Garden at the Ryoanju temple in Japan, can never be seen at once. From any angle in the garden only 14 are visible at one time.  We can never get the whole picture, so it’s wise to have as many takes/perspectives on reality as possible.

We neither make reality up, nor is it just out there. We midwife experience into existence. The attention we give to nature, the way we approach it, determines what we find. It is a reciprocal process. Through our experience we change what is there and vice versa. Everything is reverberative. Reality is constantly coming into being. Reciprocity is a profoundly important idea. Relations are prior to relata.

Is consciousness then not just in us but in everything that exists? This is pan experientialism, panpsychism and Ian believes that the answer to this question is ‘Yes’, and that the idea is gaining traction in the Western world, a world that would have dismissed it 20 years ago. This is a universal idea in the East. Reality conforms to what you have been taught to believe. But panpsychism has been recognised in the West by a number of different philosophers such as Heraclitus, Spinoza, Leibniz, Goethe, Schopenhauer, and Diderot.

All beings circulate through each other—thus all the species . . . everything is in a perpetual flux . . . Every animal is more or less a human being, every mineral is more or less a plant, and every plant is more or less an animal. There is nothing fixed in nature . (Diderot, D. 1769. D’Alembert’s Dream).

So, summing up this section, we can say:

  • Mind and matter have a close relationship
  • We cannot logically dismiss the existence of consciousness or matter
  • Matter and consciousness are not so distinct that they cannot interact
  • Matter and consciousness are not identical and may be aspects of one and the same reality
  • Matter and consciousness are not equal. Consciousness is prior ontologically to matter

Consciousness and life and their relationship, and whether brains play an important part in this

Here Iain adopts the position taken by Robert Rosen, that inanimacy is the limit case of animacy. The whole cosmos is animate and living; the bits that we call inanimate are those in which the characteristics of life are at a minimum. Inanimacy is the ultimate reduced case of animacy; there is not a hard and fast boundary between them. Animacy is the norm. Inanimacy has to be explained. Animacy enables processes to develop many orders of magnitude faster than they would without it and magnifies the elements of inter-responsiveness in the cosmos. There are sacrifices to being animate. Inanimate things decay a lot slower than living things; there are costs to becoming more highly evolved beings, e.g., they have relatively short lives. “Life requires cognition at all levels” (James Shapiro); cells are themselves capable of cognition; they act purposively and solve problems that they couldn’t be programmed to have a solution to.

So where do brains fit into this? Are brains necessary for awareness? The evidence suggests that neuronal complexity is not sufficient nor necessary for awareness (waking consciousness). We can lead a conscious life without a cerebellum. Slime moulds have no neurones and can solve mazes. Some people can function without brains, the space being filled instead with cerebro-spinal fluid (John Lorber). Plants can remember and make decisions (Monica Gaglioano et al. 2016) and have intentions and experientiality. Sparse neuronal connectivity is sometimes superior to dense connectivity. Complexity is not always advantageous.  By the time of birth a human brain has already lost 70% of its neuronal connections. It is becoming less credible/credited that only humans have consciousness. Consciousness is in all forms of life (Peter Godfrey-Smith, 2017, Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness).

So why are there brains at all? Brains are the material counterpart of some aspect of consciousness, and they give relative permanence to it. Brains give a degree of persistence and endurance (Schopenhauer. Matter is that which persists and endures). Brains don’t have the capacity to predestine your thoughts, beliefs, or actions. They don’t know something before you do. The decision to act can be unconscious. (In relation to this see Iain’s argument reported on in this paper How a flawed experiment “proved” that free will doesn’t exist ).

How about permission and how can we relate this to the hemispheres?

Permission involves both inhibition and facilitation together. Some things are permitted, some things not. It is a sculpting process, like Michelangelo discarding stone to produce the image of David, which I have mentioned before on this blog. By discarding (by not permitting), the sculpture comes into being. Resistance as a creative act is essential. Consciousness has this role. Consciousness allows some things to come into being and filters others out, liked stained glass allows some things to come into being, because coloured glass blocks some frequencies of light. Another example is a cell membrane which is both a conductor and resistor – a semi-conductor.

Permission of consciousness is more likely than emission of consciousness from the brain. The brain becomes more powerful by shedding neurones and pruning connections. The primary function of the corpus callosum and frontal lobes is to inhibit. When people are approaching death, the filter appears to break down; a lot more might be permitted and we witness the experience of terminal lucidity. The same might occur when people take mind altering substances, which might filter the inhibitory effects of the frontal lobes of the brain. The idea of resistance is enormously important.

Reality is what it seems. We are not separated from reality; reality is not a projection on an internal screen. Our embodiment is what makes science possible, not our transcendence of it, and our imagination, not our avoidance of it. Imagination is necessary for every attempt to understand the world.

So, what is consciousness for? Consciousness is not to our purposes. We are to the purposes of consciousness. We speak the language of the cosmos and the cosmos speaks our language. The Universe is conscious. This is to make assumptions, but all models make assumptions.

How does our individual consciousness relate to this conscious universe? Iain’s preferred way is to think of waves in the sea or vortices in a stream; vortices are not separate from the stream, waves are not separate from the sea, they are there for a while, they have force, they are measurable and visible, they just are the nature of the sea or the stream for a while in that place.

What exists is locally differentiated, but ultimately a single field of potentiality which is constantly actualising itself. All is one and all is many. This is not simple unity. We need the non-duality of non-duality and duality. Each differentiation is a gestalt in itself, a new whole, not a fragment connected to the whole. This is the essence of creation, Differentiation is something not destroyed in its unity, but enriched as with the unfolding of something hitherto implicit into a new more explicit order which then re-enfolds it into an explicit whole (David Bohm writes similarly about consciousness).

Matter is a specific case of consciousness which is the primal stuff out of which the universe is made. The hemispheres attend to the world in different ways and their attention can alter the nature of reality. One is prior to the other, the right hemisphere to the left hemisphere, just as mind is prior to matter, and wave is prior to particle. Every point of view can be espoused in a left hemisphere or right hemisphere way.

This has been a difficult topic to understand and report on. It seems to me that what Iain is saying is that we need to move our attention from matter and particle (left hemisphere) to mind and wave (right hemisphere). If reality is mental and has a dual mode this is complementary to the two modes of attention of the brain hemispheres. Materialism is a product of the left hemisphere.


Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Iain McGilchrist (2021). The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the Western World. Perspectiva Press

Source of image: The Matter with Things

Source of image: Spotlight on a stage

Source of image: The Vortex Effect

4 thoughts on “The Relationship between Matter and Consciousness. A talk by Iain McGilchrist

  1. jarwillis October 28, 2021 / 8:37 am

    Thank you for writing this. A deeply intriguing, and probably invaluable, preparation for the imminent arrival of my two volumes of the book itself.

  2. jarwillis October 28, 2021 / 12:10 pm

    Books arrived two hours after posting that comment…

  3. jennymackness October 28, 2021 / 6:25 pm

    Hello James – Good to know your books have arrived. Mine arrived shortly after making this post. I have started reading them, but not sequentially. I am picking chapters that interest me and that relate to the talks I heard at the Field&Field conference. Hope you enjoy the books.

  4. John Thompson November 24, 2022 / 6:56 pm

    materiality is the product of nature and reflects how God made the material world to function. The creation of consciousness as experienced by mankind is an input of God too, putting in the hands of man, the power to question the workings of nature. Man by his disobedience to the protocols of approaching life and knowledge has transitioned himself into a “sinful” ( all the connotations that word brings with it) state of affairs. We have taken on the task of prescribing for ourselves, the exigencies which we now have come to face. Instead of living in obedience and enjoying the fruits of creation as promised to us, we have taken hold of our consciousness and proceeded to tamper with all the related outcomes coming from the combustion of life. it has culminated in a case of “mind over matter” ( enlightenment philosophy) where we feel the power of our consciousness can justify and even employed to mandate whatever outcome we see plausible. But alas, plausibility is essentially a construct of our imaginations. We do not understand enough about the natures of things and the creation, to say what is plausibility likely to be, given any particular interaction of any given amount of factors. So first, we lack the knowledge of the things we tamper with themselves and secondly, we lack the sense of practice to know how we should utilize such and any tools at our disposal. The ethical question of “use” e.g. nuclear weapons, abortion , do we need gender, climate control for all, etc. we are ill- prepared for. All WE HAVE IS THIS UNRELENTING CONSCIOUSNESS, THAT WHAT WE WANT MUST BE OBTAINABLE/POSSIBLE The battle between consciousness and nature rages on, until we mess up so bad we need to be rescued or, nature needs to rescue itself from us.

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