The Matter With Things. Chapter 12. The Science of Life: a study in left hemisphere capture

This chapter is about the problem (as McGilchrist sees it) with biology, biologists, and the life sciences – namely that they view the world as inanimate and mechanistic, and until very recently have ‘been stuck in a mid-Victorian mechanistic vision that physics abandoned over a hundred years ago’ (p.431).

At the beginning of this chapter McGilchrist is at pains not to comes across as attacking life scientists, writing:

‘Please don’t get me wrong. I have nothing but respect and admiration for the ingenuity and hard work of my colleagues in the life sciences, and am exhilarated by the ever-growing body of knowledge about the natural world. It manifestly proves itself to be useful in myriad ways and, fairly obviously my thinking too depends heavily on the broad reliability of recent scientific evidence about the brain and mind. Nevertheless there is a problem’. (p.432)

And nevertheless for me the chapter comes across as ‘having a go’ at life scientists, principally for their view of the organism as a machine. This is not a surprise. I have often heard McGilchrist criticise the life sciences. He feels there is a mental apartheid between what they see and describe, and officially what they are allowed to describe and imagine. Scientists should be describing what they see rather than what they think they ought to see. This mismatch in language arises, McGilchrist says, because life scientists persist in describing organisms using the language of machines, the language of programmes and codes. ‘… if you ask biologists explicitly, they will, with a few exceptions, cleave to the machine model; but when you listen to what they are saying, implicitly they abjure it.’ (p.436). Normative terms full of value laden ideas pervade the whole of the discussion about life. The life sciences have been captured by the left hemisphere, which views the world as a machine.

The main bulk of this chapter is devoted to exploring and explaining why organisms (that includes us!) are not machines. I first heard McGilchrist discuss this in 2018. In this chapter he greatly expands on what he said then, citing many biologists, positively and negatively, but the list of main points remains almost the same, if slightly re-ordered and re-organised.

Why organisms are not machines

  1. On-off

An obvious point but so little talked about is that an organism cannot be turned off. If an organism is ‘switched off/stopped’, it dies. It is more like a flame than a machine said J.B.S. Haldane. It is more like a process than a thing.

Organisms are not made. They become. You can take them apart, but you cannot put parts together to make an organism. All machines must have instructions that pre-exist their making.  A machine does not generate instructions to make itself in the process of becoming itself.

McGilchrist spends some time debunking the idea of genetic programming and that heredity is defined by genetics, saying that DNA is one of the most inactive of all proteins. It is a storehouse on which the cell can draw. The cell is not a blind robot doing the bidding of the DNA. It draws on DNA to make intelligent decisions. We know that genes are not always main players by observing that fruit flies in which the genes for development of eyes have been removed, will after a few generations of interbreeding develop eyes once more, despite not having the gene. (p. 466)

McGilchrist does not support Dawkins’ idea of the ‘blind watchmaker’. ‘… organisms are not at all like a watch; and evolution ‘simply does not proceed like a watchmaker, blind or otherwise’ (Nicholson, 2014). (p.485).

  • Motion vs stasis

To remain the same, an organism must change all the time. Organisms are stable metabolic flows of energy and matter. The metabolism of a cell is the way in which it remains the same. A machine is static until it is switched on, but an organism is in a state of constant flux. Process and flow are at its core. ‘Life is not a rearrangement of already known nuts and bolts, but the constant creation of something radically new.’ (p.447)

  • Non-linearity

Machines follow instructions in a sequential way, but living things are complex non-linear systems, that are constantly correcting themselves. An organism is not pushed from behind following a sequence of pre-determined steps but is constantly unfolding itself and constantly correcting itself.

‘In a classical mechanism, causation is linear and can be clearly outlined. However, in biological systems, causation tends to follow not straight lines, but spirals, involving recursive loops, and multiple causes leading to multiple effects across a network, with sometimes competing factors cross-regulating one another, reciprocally interacting, and in ways we do not understand taking information from the whole. …. Context is everything.’ (p.447/8)

‘A machine is a chain and is dead’. ‘An organism is a flow, and is alive’. (p.449)

  • Not one-way action – maybe not even interaction?

Cause and effect in organisms are not one-way, but reciprocal. The process is reverberative, back and forth. In the video where Alex Gomez-Marin and Iain McGilchrist discuss this chapter (see below), Iain refers to the microbiologist Kriti Sharma, describing her book, Interdependence, as fascinating, and quoting her as writing that ‘the cell is not exactly reacting to an environment, but is reacting with an environment, as oxygen reacts with iron and where both are transformed.’ (p.453) Sharma describes this process as mutual constitution – each becomes what it is in the act of creation, each is causative of the other, causality is reciprocal.

  • The ‘parts’ are themselves changing

In a machine the parts do not change with their context. The machine changes when switched on, but the parts do not. In an organism the parts (if you can call them that) are constantly changing according to the context. They respond to different environments to produce different effects. Organisms are ‘antifragile’ systems functions just the right side of chaos. ‘… antifragility, which thrives on flexibility, makes small adjustments and thereby not only survives but evolves.’ (p.457). Living beings perhaps should be called living becomings, always in process, always in flow.

  • The influence of the whole

An organism is a process, which unlike a machine, has no clearly defined parts. An organism in reality is an indivisible unity. The influence of the whole on the parts can be seen in the case of injured organisms that can heal and regenerate their injured parts. One of the most extreme examples of this is in the case of flatworms, which have a centralised brain with true synaptic transmission. If these worms are decapitated, then not only can they grow a new head and brain, but the new brain preserves the memories of the decapitated brain.

 Another striking example of the influence of the whole given by McGilchrist is in relation to the structure of the heart and the development of the septum in the foetus. McGilchrist quotes biologist Craig Holdrege (p.445)

‘Before the heart has developed walls (septa) separating the four chambers from each other, the blood already flows in two distinct ‘currents’ through the heart. The blood flowing through the right and left sides of the heart do not mix, but stream and loop by each other, just as two currents in a body of water. In the ‘still water zone’ between the two currents, the septum dividing the two chambers forms. Thus the movement of the blood gives parameters for the inner differentiation of the heart, just as the looping heart redirects the flow.’

The structure of the heart is as much a result of flow as the cause of it.

  • Imprecise boundaries

A machine has clear boundaries and distinctive parts, but processes do not have boundaries; they overlap. Symbiotic life forms are the rule rather than the exception and this require collaboration and cooperation, two of the main characteristics of life and its evolution. Organisms are complex systems involved in a combination of competition and cooperation. ‘Such a relationship in which division and union are fruitfully balanced, is what we mean by collaboration.’ (p.471)

  • Boot-strapping

This point repeats what was briefly mentioned above. Machines do not and cannot make themselves. ‘… the instructions for making the machine cannot themselves be the product of the very machine they are designed to make.’ (p.471), but as Griffiths and Stotz (2018) paraphrasing Oyama (2002) write (quoted by McGilchrist on p.472)

‘… the developmental information expressed in the organism is not present in the starting point of development, but is itself created by the process of development, through feedback from the current state of the organism to the states of the resources that will influence future development.’

McGilchrist goes on to complete this chapter (another 30 pages) with a discussion of why the machine model has proved so attractive, the dreadful question of purpose, attempts to save the machine model in biology, and the question of whether the stream of life is a better model.

Very briefly the machine model is attractive because of its simplicity, familiarity, ease of use and past success in delivering the goods. It ‘encourages the sense that we can easily understand what life is and learn to control it.’ (p.474).

The dreadful question of purpose (teleology) is a problem for the life sciences. Haldane is quoted as saying ‘teleology is like a mistress to a biologist; he cannot live without her but he’s unwilling to be seen with her in public.’ (p.477). The purpose that McGilchrist is talking about ‘is nothing extrinsic, but rather intrinsic potential that is fulfilled within a process as the process unfolds.’ (p.479). This idea of teleology requires biologists to focus not on things but on processes, in which there are no plans or predetermined steps. ‘A purpose here is not a plan. It is a tendency inseparable from – woven into, as it were, the fabric of – a life, which leaves all the detail, and even the final outcome, undetermined’ (p.478) just as a woman can purpose to be a mother but cannot determine or predict the path that will be taken. In attempting to save the machine model, orthodox biologists attempt to brush the issue of purpose under the carpet.

Finally, McGilchrist returns to his argument that the trouble with biology is that it focusses on things rather than on processes and flow, quoting von Bertalanffy writing as long ago as 1952, ‘…. In biology there is no rigid organic form as a bearer of the processes of life; rather there is a flow of processes, manifesting itself in apparently persistent forms.’ (p.490)

This is a long chapter, about 70 pages, in which McGilchrist provides a lot of evidence and notes to support his arguments, more than I personally needed, but perhaps enough to convince biologists that there are problems with the machine model for the study of life. There is a suggestion towards the end of the chapter that ‘we should banish from our speech and writing any use of the word “machine” as an explanation or definition of anything that is not a machine.’ (p.496).

I have barely skimmed the surface of the content of this chapter in these notes, and any errors in this post are mine. The videos in which Alex Gomez-Marin and McGilchrist discuss each chapter of this book, The Matter With Things, provide helpful in summaries of the key points. I find it useful to watch them alongside reading the chapters.


McGilchrist, I. (2021). The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Perspectiva Press.

Mackness, J. (2018) E-Learning 3.0: The Human versus the Machine (Blog post)

The Matter With Things. Chapter 11. Science’s Claims on Truth

Another interesting and enjoyable chapter in this very long book, which I am not even halfway through, despite having bought it very shortly after publication in November 2021. At this rate it will be 2024 before I finish it!

As mentioned before, the book is in three parts. The first part is made up of nine chapters and a coda, in which McGilchrist writes about The Hemispheres and the Means to Truth. I have yet to finish reading the last two chapters of Part 1, but for notes on Chapters 2 to 7, see

In Part 2 McGilchrist writes about The Hemispheres and the Paths to Truth. In the first chapter, Chapter 10, he explores the question What is Truth? . Chapter 11, Science’s Claims on Truth is the second chapter. So far, I am enjoying Part 2 more that Part 1.

The main thrust of this chapter is that in the West, recent history has seen a move away from religion to science, and more particularly, to scientism (the belief that science will one day answer all our questions), in our search for truth. But, says McGilchrist, there are intrinsic limits to science, which tends to make exaggerated claims, use models that distort, and succumb to institutional pressures. Science has come to be thought of as the only path to truth and a discussion of its limits is often not welcome. Whilst McGilchrist is emphatic about the value of science, his concern is that it can’t answer the big questions; it can’t, for example, tell us what it means to be in love. Science finds it hard to deal with all that is experiential, but most of what we value in life is experiential, not observable, or measurable. The bigger the human meaning, the less science can offer. What we are asking science to do is to give us information/data but can that be converted into an understanding and what part does science play in the achievement of an understanding? Science can answer questions where explicit, mechanistic explanations are required, but not where understanding is required.

Explanation, metaphor, and models

Science cannot escape using models and metaphors because they are the basis of all understanding, so science depends on metaphors derived from concrete experience. All understanding depends on metaphor. Science uses models. Models are simply extended metaphors. The choice of the model is critical because:

‘We never just see something without seeing it as a something. We may think that our theories are shaped by observations, but it is as true that our observations are shaped by theories. This means that we can be blind to some very obvious things in our immediate environment. We don’t look where we don’t expect to see, so that our expectations come to govern what we can see.’ p.410

In the past the dominant model was a tree, a river, a family – something in the natural world. These days the dominant model is the machine (as favoured by the left hemisphere). The machine model is science’s defining paradigm, but it is a form of metaphor, and not all metaphors are good metaphors. All models are only a partial fit. A model determines not only what we do see but also what we don’t see, and we affect the model. No one model will ever be the perfect fit. We need to try and test different models, even though we may ultimately need to jettison them. Ideas of 100% truth cannot be sustained. In science certain things will be neglected. We may think that only things that are quantifiable are real (a left hemisphere perspective), but we have to rethink objectivity.


We cannot do without objectivity, but it is easily misinterpreted. To quote McGilchrist:

‘Science provides us with that objective knowledge by taking ‘us’ out of the picture, so removing subjective distortion from its objective presentation of how, in itself, the world actually is.’ p.413

We have already seen, however, that this aspiration to take ‘us’ out of the picture is compromised by the fact that science can’t get going without metaphor and metaphor is something from which ‘we’ cannot possibly be divorced.’ p.413

‘Objectivity is always someone’s position, situated somewhere and making some assumptions.’ p.414

Objectivity should be able to inhabit a lot of different perspectives – we ought to try to see from different perspectives.

Between us and the world there is always the barrier of our brains, and since we have two hemispheres in our brains each with their own view of the world, there are at least two views that science must take into account.

All methods rely on our judgements and values, even though these can’t be measured. Science frequently passes over what can’t be measured. It can’t cope with things that are imprecise or can’t be generalised. When considering objectivity, we need a more nuanced interpretation which recognises that existing answers are inadequate and provisional; there are always alternative answers. There are no whole truths, only half-truths, and context is of critical importance. Science tends to take things out of context. In trying to make science robust, we veer unstably between black and white positions, but we shouldn’t make statements that are too great or absolute. Instead of trying to make science robust, we should make it anti-fragile.

Hidden Assumptions

There are many assumptions in science. Science assumes that everything is understandable in physical terms, but science’s explanations both reveal and conceal. Sometimes assumptions are justified, but we must acknowledge them. Science can do very, very much, but not everything. As mentioned above, it cannot answer the very big questions, about values, meaning and purpose in life. Science is far from having all the answers – it is alive, provisional, and uncertain.

On p.420 McGilchrist quotes Max Planck as saying – ‘we have no right to assume that any physical laws exist, or if they have existed up to now, that they will continue to exist in a similar manner in the future.’

The scientific method

The scientific method is a myth. A belief in the notion of scientific objectivity, has led to a loss of imagination in science, but science requires imagination to come up with fruitful hypotheses. Chance and serendipity, intuition and inspiration play important roles in science.

Great discoveries are often made through images and metaphors rather than through chains of logic. Big insights are not made by following a logical linear sequence of steps, but by things like pattern recognition. Results can come in a flash of intuition and often precede arguments. Good hypotheses always ‘go beyond’ the immediate facts.

‘….. this does not discredit science in any way: it shows, instead, what an exciting and humbling business science is. We collaborate with nature, and with fortune, pay attention and learn from her. We neither withdraw the human element, as the myth of the scientific method implies, nor force nature to our preconceived ends.’ p.425

‘…. Just because what we rightly take to be scientific truths are not ‘objective’ in the sense that nothing human, contingent, and fallible enters into them, this does not mean they have no legitimate claim to be called true. … truth is never objective ….. All knowledge whatsoever is contextual and contingent. p. 429

Scientists must have faith, and science must be aware of its own limits.

For a discussion about this chapter between Iain McGilchrist and Alex Gomez-Marin, see:


McGilchrist, I. (2021). The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Perspectiva Press.

The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man: Hannah Arendt

Between Past and Future: The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man

This final thinking essay in Hannah Arendt’s book, Between Past and Future, was added to the second edition in 1963. The essay asks us to think about how science and technology transform the human condition. Arendt starts the chapter by asking the question…

“Has man’s conquest of space increased or diminished his stature?”

Inspired by the humanist’s concern with man, she addresses this question to laymen rather than scientists.

The assumption is that if man can conquer space then this must increase his stature, but Arendt’s concern is that science emancipates itself from our humanistic concerns and is at war with common sense (p.260). For Arendt, science makes us distrust our senses and replaces a common sense objective world view with a subjective world view, and because science undermines our senses we begin to see the world ever more subjectively; we treat objects as things that are disposable and changeable by man, and see the world as humanly made. Whilst this view increases the stature of man, it also diminishes his stature because we become objects in the world and study ourselves. This is especially the case when we begin to see ourselves from the Archimedean point (p.272).

So the answer to Arendt’s question about man’s stature is not a scientific activity, but requires a humanist approach. This she discussed in her essay on The Crisis in Culture (p.221/2), where she quoted Cicero as having said, “I prefer before heaven to go astray with Plato rather than hold true views with his opponents.” She explains this as follows:

“What Cicero in fact says is that for the true humanist neither the verities of the scientist nor the truth of the philosophy nor the beauty of the artist can be absolutes; the humanist, because he is not a specialist, exerts a faculty of judgment and taste which is beyond which each specialty imposes on us.” (p.222)

Does the conquest of space make it more difficult or potentially impossible for humans to remain free to make judgements of taste, so that they can choose friendship over a determinative truth?  Is it true that we live in a world that only scientists understand? She writes:

“…. notions such as life, or man, or science, or knowledge are pre-scientific by definition, and the question is whether or not the actual development of science which has led to the conquest of terrestrial space and to the invasion of the space of the universe has changed these notions to such an extent that they no longer make sense. For the point of the matter is, of course, that modern science – no matter what its origins and original goals – has changed and reconstructed the world we live in so radically that it could be argued that the layman and the humanist, still trusting their common sense and communicating in everyday language, are out of touch with reality; ….” (p.262/3)

Arendt believes that the scientist has left behind not only the layman, but also a part of himself and his own power of human understanding. We can create machines which do things that we can’t do and which we can’t fully understand; that are beyond our human understanding and that defy “description in every conceivable way of human language…” (p.265). This challenges our earthliness. Arendt thinks that we won’t be able to keep up with this mechanical world of scientists and technicians (the latter she calls ‘plumbers’) who share the conviction that the human world is not the real world, that the earth is simply something to be understood rather than our home, and that there’s a truer world, which for scientists is a question of knowledge, and for plumbers a quest of a will to power, a quest to change the world.

We increasingly live in a world in which all objects are humanly created. We rarely touch something that is not man-made and even if it is natural, it’s only natural in that we’ve made the choice to let it be. When we now encounter the world we don’t encounter the object we only encounter ourselves.

“The astronaut, shot into outer space and imprisoned in his instrument-ridden capsule where each actual physical encounter with his surroundings would spell immediate death, night well be taken as the symbolic incarnation of Heisenberg’s man – the man who will be the less likely ever to meet anything but himself and man-made things the more ardently he wishes to eliminate all anthropocentric considerations from his encounter with the non-human world around him.” (p.272)

This life in a man-made world on the one hand gives us grandeur and dignity, but on the other hand we lose our capacity to make humanist, as opposed to scientific, judgements. Do we want to live in a world where everything we see and touch is a human creation, including ourselves, or do we believe that there are certain parts of the human world, that as thinking human beings, we should agree to leave untouched? We are increasingly living in a world removed from nature, such that our earthliness, our freedom, and our spontaneity have become increasingly less meaningful and our stature in the world is increasingly diminished.


To write this post I have drawn heavily on the following sources. The freely accessible video presentations and discussions produced by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, have been very helpful, thanks to Roger Berkowitz .

  • Arendt, H. (1961). Between Past and Future. Penguin Classics

Source of image:

Beauty in Science and Art

In this fascinating discussion on Forum for Philosophy, Adrian Holme, Milena Ivanova and Jonathan Birch discussed questions surrounding the nature of beauty, and the role of beauty in the relationship between science and art.

Jonathan Birch, the host, started the discussion by posing the following questions: We know that nature inspires art, but can abstract science inspire art? What counts as beautiful science? What’s the significance of beauty in science? Is beauty a guide to truth?

In response Adrian Holme showed us some examples of where science has inspired art. The first example was Joseph Wright of Derby’s, An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, 1768, where the process of science, the experiment, was the inspiration for the painting.,_1768.jpg  

In this painting we see the fearsome power of science to destroy the objects it investigates.  Air is being sucked from the glass chamber. The bird in the chamber is dying. The painting also shows that both art and science are public activities which require an audience.

Then, when Adrian showed us an image of The Shah Mosque in Isfahan, the discussion turned to the role of mathematics and in particular, geometry, in unpicking the relationship between art and science.

In the past, sculptors had to have a good understanding of mathematics and there was always a correlation between art history, science, mathematics and geometry. In the time of Leonardo da Vinci there was not a great conceptual divide between art and science. Both required knowledge and skill. In relation to this image, Adrian made the interesting comment that pattern runs deep into who we are.

The third image was of Olafur Eliasson’s 360o Room for All Colours 2002

This is an installation which consists of a circular space that surrounds visitors with slowly changing colours. It is a scientific experiment on our optical experience, but is also aesthetically pleasing. It plays with our perceptions of vision and is disorienting. Eliasson is interested in the ways in which people respond. Like Joseph Wright of Derby’s painting, this art works at the interplay between pleasure and discomfort. This installation raises the question of whether art can actually be science.

A member of the audience then raised the question of whether art would have the same appeal if it were created by machines, algorithmically. Adrian thought it might, although he thought that machines will create art better and quicker, but that the art would be banal. However, Milena Ivanova said that she had seen art created by artificial intelligence that she could not distinguish from art not created by machines. This raised the question of whether machines can be conscious and have their own subjective points of view or are they just mimicking humans? Milena pointed out that machines can create their own algorithms, but these questions related to artificial intelligence and consciousness were clearly straying away from the topic of the nature of beauty. Jonathan Birch, as host, then pulled the discussion back to the question of whether there is a definition of what art is and can a scientific experiment be an art work? Adrian Holme thought that some might be, if we think of scientific experiments as a performance.

The discussion up to this point was led mostly by Adrian, who drew on his experience as an artist to consider what science has done and can do for art. The second part of the discussion focussed on what art can do for science and whether science can be beautiful. These are ideas that Milena has recently been researching. At the beginning of this year she published a book with Steven French – The Aesthetics of Science. Beauty, Imagination and Understanding. She was very knowledgeable about this topic and had a number of interesting points to make, but she talked very fast and was sometimes difficult to follow. Hopefully there will be a recording of the discussion.

Here are some of the points I captured during this second part of the discussion.

Scientific phenomena can be beautiful, but what does it mean to know this? Scientists tell us to trust theories, without the evidence, because they are beautiful, and there is evidence that theories have been accepted on the basis of their beauty. Science can be motivated by the idea and search for beauty. There are aesthetic claims for theories of physics. How can we justify aesthetic judgements?

There seem to be some constant values which people use to make judgements about beauty and what is beautiful in science, e.g. simplicity, symmetry, elegance, naturalness, unity. These are some of the values that seem to be uniformly understood by different communities as related to beauty in science. But Milena noted that standards of beauty change over time, and sometimes there is resistance to this change, for example the beauty of the shape of an ellipse as opposed to a circle; this change occurred with changing understanding of the earth’s orbit round the sun. Here Milena referred to James McAllister’s work on Beauty and Revolution in Science. McAllister questioned how reasonable and rational can science be when its practitioners speak of ‘revolutions’ in their thinking and extol certain theories for their ‘beauty’.  He studied the interconnection between empirical performance, beauty, and revolution.

Milena also referred to Sabine Hossenfelder, author of Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, who has argued that an obsession with beauty has led physics astray. ‘Why should the laws of nature care what I find beautiful?’ Hossenfelder asks. ‘The more I try to understand my colleagues’ reliance on beauty, the less sense it makes to me.’ This suggests that science is not always about truth.

So is there a single concept of beauty for different realms? Do biologists have the same concept of beauty as physicists? Philosophers and scientists believe we should trust in beauty, but if science is not always about truth, what is the relationship of beauty to understanding and truth? Milena believes that beautiful ideas, simple and elegant, are easier to work with. Maybe it’s not necessary to obsess about truth.

The introductory material for this discussion included the following questions:

When presented with two equally good theories, scientists often prefer the more beautiful. Does this mean that more beautiful theories are also more likely to be true? That, as Keats wrote, beauty is truth, and truth beauty? Does this tell us anything about the nature of reality? And what does this mean for science and art and how they inform one another? We discuss the nature of beauty and reflect on the symbiotic relationship between art and science.

Whilst very enjoyable and interesting, it seemed to me that only the last two questions were discussed and even then it was impossible to come to a conclusion. A definition of beauty, art or truth remains open to question. But there seemed to be agreement that art and science influence each other. There does seem to be a symbiotic relationship between them and both aim for beauty whether or not we can articulate its nature.

What is philosophy for?

At the age of 99 and in the year of her death (2018), Mary Midgley published this ‘little’ book (her description), full of big ideas (my description) laying out her belief in the importance of philosophy in our daily lives. She points out that many university departments of philosophy have been shut down over recent years, for economic and other reasons, and many students who do study philosophy are no longer required to read the works of historical figures such as Aristotle, Kant and Descartes. But, she says, the past does not die. ‘…we need to check the details of past philosophies to protect ourselves against distorted versions of these people’s messages that are still working in our tradition’ (p.79).

Mary Midgley.
Source of image:

Why should we study philosophy? As Midgley reminds us, Socrates warned us against living an unexamined life. She writes that the prime business of traditional philosophy is ‘surely the effort to examine our life as a whole, to make sense of it, to locate its big confusions and resolves its big conflicts…’ (p.11).

What Midgley makes abundantly clear is that our world and lives are far too complex and unpredictable for there to be one answer, and that we cannot find answers by progressing in straight lines. Everything is always changing and so we need to adopt many ways of thinking. This of course needs cross and interdisciplinary approaches to study, so that we can see things through new lenses. Philosophers light up life from unexpected angles.

Midgley bemoans the emphasis on specialization in our current education systems saying that we need different perspectives to give us space to think differently. She recognises the difficulty of bringing together different ways of thinking, and stresses the need for new inventive thinking to address complex questions such as those related to free will, the relation between mind and body, consciousness, health and quantum mechanics. Some things are beyond our understanding. We need new methods to find ways of asking the right questions. Measurement isn’t the answer. Not everything can be measured. Original thinkers stand back from their local context and look at problems in a wider context to see how they connect with wider questions. They use both telescopes and microscopes for philosophising. Philosophy tries to find suitably wide contexts to make sense of the whole. It looks at the positions of our various ways of thinking and tries to map their relation.

Midgley insists that philosophy is of value for its own sake. It is loose and mobile with more questions than answers; with conceptual difficulties rather than factual ones. Philosophy is about how to think, imagine, visualise, conceive and describe this confusing world. ‘If truth of some kind is our aim, it must surely be this larger, more distant truth, not a simple convergence on a nearer one’ (p.53).  Truth is too complex to be expressed in a single formula.

In the second half her book, Midgley focusses on the influence that science has had on philosophy, but says that philosophy has different aims to science. Science spirals in and down towards truth, but philosophy looks at the sum of all truths and the relation between them; it looks outwards for patterns and connections, although philosophy sometimes needs to deal with detailed technical questions. Philosophy is something we are doing all the time, a background to our lives. Its effect is primarily on our imagination; it profoundly shapes our inner life. Good philosophy does not easily get out of date.

Midgley writes of scientism as the new sedative which has overtaken religion as an authority in our culture. Today, physical knowledge and reliance on the future of machinery is valued above all else. The dominant symbol of machinery is very powerful for human imagination, but, Midgley warns, machines can only be produced by living minds. Machine imagery has become habitual and is no longer questioned. The new divinity is not God, but machines, but human nature is not a machine. Midgley believes it is a myth that machines can take control. She writes that machines cannot move from the role of servants to employers because they cannot draw on a lifetime’s experience of detailed human interactions. A machine cannot be programmed for this. Machines cannot choose their direction to raise their own questions; they cannot work in the general bewilderment that man lives and works in. There is no certainty.

In the final chapters of her book, Midgley discusses singularities (the idea that non-human intelligence will combine with human intelligence to provide answers to our unanswered questions), technological singularity (the point at which machines become more intelligent than humans) and whether intelligence can be measured, writing that the idea of singularity will die as memes have (memes have been found not to work like genes). Intelligence, she says, cannot be measured. It is not quantifiable stuff. There are many different sorts of intelligence. Understanding something depends on context; a single scale of cleverness is a myth.

In these final chapters Midgley also discusses what she calls ‘soul phobia’. Whilst according to Midgley the modernist creed is reductive and seeks to exorcise souls, there is, she says, a world beyond the abstract. She points out that claiming that nothing exists apart from matter, excludes God, our minds and subjectivity, but that nevertheless we each think separately and subjectively, and we have to work hard to achieve intersubjectivity and become objective.

To the end of the book, Midgley continues to point out the problems (as she sees them) with scientism, machines, materialism, artificial intelligence, and how scientists expect to be revered as the metaphysical source of all our knowledge, questioning on page 175 why anyone should ‘expect these extra calculative powers to make the difference that is needed’. ‘The confusions that now afflict human life are not due primarily to lack of cleverness, but to ordinary human causes such as greed, bias, folly, meanness, ignorance, ill-temper lack of common-sense, lack of interest, lack of public feeling, lack of teamwork, lack of experience, lack of conscience [and] perhaps most of all … mere general lack of thought. (p.186).

At the end of the book Midgley tells us that she writes books out of exasperation – general exasperation with our ‘modern’ outlook, which she sees as reductive, scientistic, mechanistic and fantasy-ridden, which distorts the world-view of our age.

For anyone who has read Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, the similarities between McGilchrist’s and Midgley’s thinking is marked, and indeed Mary Midgley wrote a very favourable review of The Master and His Emissary when it was first published, in 2009. McGilchrist writes that the ‘modern’ outlook described by Midgley is one dominated by the left hemisphere, and on page 15 of her book, Midgley writes about the divided brain, emphasising the need for more than one view of the world, and saying that science often needs to ask philosophical questions and to be connected to wider contexts. As she says, philosophy calls for a kind of controlled mental squint to reconcile a two-sided apprehension. We need to see from two sides, to be both actors and spectators. Philosophy can help us to do this. It answers large and unexpected questions and brings together aspects of life which have become separated, or disentangles them. There is only one world, but it is so complex that we need multiple thought patterns to answer it.  In accord with Hegel, we must find ways to combine the best part of a thesis with its antithesis, and examine what we are doing and how our thoughts determine how we act.

Finally, here’s a memorable quote from her book:

…philosophy is best understood as a form of plumbing. It’s the way in which we service the deep infrastructure of our lives – the patterns that are taken for granted because they have not really been questioned.’ (p.64)

Source of Image: Bryant Arnold.

The Value and Limits of Science

A bit of background

On the recent Field and Field four-day course (June 8th – 11th 2019), Iain McGilchrist discussed key ideas from his book The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, talking for an hour on each. For the most part these talks were familiar as I have attended this course before.

  • Introduction to the Hemispheres
  • Brain Disorders of the Hemispheres
  • What is Language For?
  • Are we Becoming Machines?
  • What Does it Mean to Think?
  • The Power of No

I have blogged about these topics after attending previous courses.  See my page on The Divided Brain, on this blog.

But Iain is now writing a new book which will have the title (proposed, but not yet confirmed) – “The Matter With Things”. It was good to get this update, as on the last course I attended we were told that the title of the book would be There are no Things. I think Iain feels that his philosophical position is clearer with the newer title. This new book will argue against reductionism and materialism and for betweenness.

In the second part of this new book, which Iain is still working on, he will discuss what he told us are the four main paths to knowledge: science, reason, intuition and imagination. He stressed that we need all four, but that intuition and imagination have been downgraded in favour of science and reason, a result of left hemisphere dominance. So we were very fortunate to hear five one hour talks about these most recent ideas.

  • The Value and Limits of Science
  • The Value and Limits of Reason
  • The Values and Limits of Intuition
  • The Value and Limits of Imagination
  • Everything Flows

The value and limits of science  (These are the notes from Iain’s talk. Any errors are mine and I do not at all mind being corrected in the comments).

Collingwood wrote: Science and metaphysics are inextricably united, and stand or fall together.

And Heidegger wrote: Science does not think, science does not venture in the realm of philosophy. It is a realm, however, on which without her knowing it, she is dependent. (translated from the original by Iain McGilchrist)

(I cannot find these quotes online to verify them, and I learned on this course that my note-taking has slowed down, so I am not absolutely sure of their accuracy, but, as written, they provide the gist of Iain’s argument. For more on this, see the Update – 17-06-19 – at the end of this post.)

The word science simply means knowledge. We need science, but we rely too much on the left hemisphere. Public science is different to what good science is telling us.

The two hemispheres find two different worlds. Objectivity is not about what is out there. There isn’t a thing out there that we can know. Things only come into being through interaction with our consciousness. The more you dig into a tiny hole, the less you can see the whole. So the question is: What constitutes evidence in life? The ‘howness’ of the ‘what‘ matters a lot. Objectivity is a ‘howness’ – a disposition towards the world. You try to be just and truthful, to bring an understanding. This reminded me of the work of Gayle Letherby et al. on Objectivity and Subjectivity in Social Research .

There are no things that are not unique. How does science cope with this? In science when we say we understand something, we are comparing it to something else. Everything is built on analogy.

Science is not chaste (pure and virtuous). It starts from certain axioms/assumptions, e.g. the world is fully comprehensible physically. This is an unlikely but reasonable assumption. But why do we want to understand the physical?  Iain thinks this is related to ‘the matter with things’, the title of his new book, so I expect we will learn more about this when the new book is published (hopefully by the end of 2020).

Science is reluctant to accept anything that can’t be measured. It is based on a false dichotomy between facts and value. There is always a value involved in seeking any kind of truth. We try to rise to meet this through objectivity. Many things in science can’t be separated from value, but there is value involved in appreciating what is a fact.

Problems with science

There are 3 problems with science

  • Intrinsic problems built on assumptions
  • Problems of the model of the machine
  • Institutional problems – the way science promulgates what it is doing

Intrinsic problems built on assumptions

There is no one truth, only more or less truth, but we must be loyal and faithful to truth. (See Where Can we go for Truth? for more of Iain’s thoughts on truth). So how do we decide which questions are worth asking?

Values, judgement and insights are very important in science. Great scientists allow ideas to incubate for a long time. Science eliminates the idea of purpose. This is a tenet of science; there is no purpose to science. Science cannot address things like love or an understanding of God. We can see these in operation, but they cannot be explained by science. But science is teleological – things happen for a reason, although the value of reason itself can’t be reasoned.

An example of a problem built on assumptions is DNA. DNA is not a building block; there is just not enough information in DNA. DNA is a resource from which the cell can draw. It is not a script. Only 2% of it expresses anything. Quarter of a million new neurones a minute are developed in the brain. We cannot get this from a linear script. The genome is not the answer.

Problems of the model of the machine

We are not machines. A machine can be switched off, but life is constant and cannot be switched off. A machine operates close to equilibrium; you have to put energy in to make it change. Life is the exact opposite. It is always changing, but how does it remain stable enough to keep going better? Through homeostasis. Human beings and living things change. Natural selection is the thing that stops change, it doesn’t cause change.

Organisms are not on/off. They involve inconceivably complex reactions to maintain stability between motion and stasis. They are non-linear, action is not one-way as in machines. The parts of organisms themselves are changing. This doesn’t happen in machines. The genome restructures itself all the time. DNA is not the robot master. The same genes can give rise to different effects, e.g. Pax6 gives rise to different eyes in the fly, the frog and humans. Some animals can regenerate parts of their body. If you cut off the head of a nematode worm, it will grow a new head with the same memories. Living organisms are not machines. The instructions for life are within the organism.

See also a previous post – The Human Versus the Machine 

Institutional problems

Science is carried out by normal people with egos etc. Fashions of thinking dominate. Science depends on results, safety, conformity, narrowness. There are many dogmas that can’t be broken.

Scientists are expected to publish or perish. This is destructive to morale. Scientists are rated on the number of papers they can churn out, but they need fallow periods, and they can get caught up in administration, particularly if they get promoted.

Lots of science papers need to be retracted, because they have been made up. And Ceci and Peters’ research raised doubts about the reliability of the peer- review process.

Scientists are also subject to predatory journals to the extent that Jeremy Beale published a list of journals which researchers should avoid.

Truth matters, but these problems with science show that finding out what is true is more difficult. We need more replication work. The amount of replication work is very low.

Why is truth important? We are here to engage with the world. If it is pointless why go with truth?

Update (17-06-19) re the Heidegger quotes (with thanks to Iain McGilchrist for this information)

The first part, » Die Wissenschaft denkt nicht «, is originally from page 4 of Heidegger’s Was heißt denken?, the version of his lectures given in Freiburg in 1951-2 published by Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen (1954), and later translated into English by FD Wick & JG Gray as What is Called Thinking?(Harper & Row, 1968).  Heidegger then repeated it in a conversation with his pupil the German philosopher Richard Wisser on the 17th September 1969, in which he follows it by another phrase in explanation, thus: » Und dieser Satz: die Wissenschaft denkt nicht, der viel Aufsehen erregte, als ich ihn in einer Freiburger Vorlesung aussprach, bedeutet: Die Wissenschaft bewegt sich nicht in der Dimension der Philosophie. Sie ist aber, ohne daß sie es weiß, auf diese Dimension angewiesen «. In H Heidegger (ed), Martin Heidegger: Gesamtausgabe, Part One, Veröffentlichte Schriften 1910-1976, vol 16, Reden und Andere Zeugnisse eines Lebensweges, Vittorio Klostermann, Frankfurt am Main, 2000, 702-710 (705).

Exploring the Divided Brain – Where can we go for truth?

21st August 2016 am – a 4 day course with Iain McGilchrist. Day 3 (am)

This is the fifth in a series of posts in which I am sharing the notes I took whilst attending a 4 day course- Exploring the Divided Brain- run by Field & Field and featuring Iain McGilchrist.

Here are the links to my previous posts:

Day 1 (am). Introduction to the Divided Brain

Day 1 (pm). The Divided Brain and Embodiment

Day 2 (am). Time, Space and Reality

Day 2 (pm). The One and the Many


Where can we go for truth? (Some thoughts about the question of what constitutes truth)

I think this may have been a repeat of the Laing Lecture that Iain gave earlier in the year at Regent College in Vancouver. It bore the same title. I can’t find a video recording of that lecture, but the introductory text on the web page  is …

How do we think about truth? Where do we go to find it? While science and reason have undeniable power to disclose many aspects of reality, they do not reveal everything. In this lecture, Iain McGilchrist explains why we cannot rely only on the reports of science or the power of rational argument and demonstrates that it is both unscientific and irrational to do so.

… and these were the same topics and questions that Iain covered in our session.

How do we think about truth? Iain’s answer was that if there is a God (and for him God is a process, an eternal becoming) then how can we stop ourselves thinking about truth, but he believes there is no definitive answer to this question.

On reflection I wonder if underpinning all Iain’s work is a search for an understanding of the meaning of ‘God’ (and here I use the word ‘God’ for want of an alternative). As he writes on p.150 of the Master and his Emissary, ‘Things are not whatever we care to make them. There is something that exists apart from our own minds’… and on p.151, he writes, ‘[Truth]is an act, a journey, not a thing. It has degrees. It is found by removing things, rather than putting things together.’

For the left hemisphere where understanding is built up from parts, there is objective evidence for truth, but for the right hemisphere, truth is derived from the whole and can only ever be provisional (p.142, The Master and his Emissary).

Where shall we go for truth? Iain suggested that we go to the beauty and awe-inspiring magic of the non-academic, non-religious natural world, where opposites tend to coincide as much as disperse and where intuition and insight is more directly compelling than reason. Reason, he said, is the endless paperwork of the mind, but for truth uncertainty is essential.

We cannot go to science for truth. Science cannot fulfil the role of purveyor of truth. Good science is always aware of its limitations, but science cannot discover the purpose of life nor tell us about God’s nature or existence and science promotes the use of models. There is always a model whether we are aware of it or not, but the model we choose determines what we find.

Science places a high value on precision, but what about things we cannot be precise about, where apparent opposites come together? Science passes over entities that cannot be measured; it takes things out of context and decontextualizes the problem. We put our faith in science because it is seen to be objective, but science is not value free. A lot of scientific research is not adequately designed; we know that the Hawthorne effect can influence scientific results and positive findings are more likely to be published than negative ones. We can’t ask science to do what it can’t do. A hypothesis cannot be proved nor disproved. Each comes with many assumptions. Proof used to mean a trial run (as in a printed proof).

Science cannot provide us with dependable ultimate truths. It’s not pointless, but it does not provide us with reliable truth. Philosophy equally has problems with notions of intuition, uncertainty, rationality, reason and the complexity of truth.

Iain quoted Edmund Burke as saying – ‘It is the nature of all greatness not to be exact’, and Rabindranath Tagore:


Source of image

Truth is not a proposition but a disposition towards the world. It is related to trust and what one believes. Belief is not signing up to a proposition but about a relationship. Truth and belief used to be embodied. We can’t passively wait for them. We have to make a move to meet them. There is no fail-safe path to truth.

Iain believes that truth has intrinsic value not just instrumental value. He mentioned but disagreed with Pascal’s wager. Pascal proposed that whether or not there is a God, we should live our lives as though there is one – just to be on the safe side! Iain believes truth is a moral value, like beauty and goodness. It is not a human convention. There will be truth when we are no longer around to see it. The pursuit of truth is greater than the possession of truth. Potential is greater than actuality.

Personal Reflection

I don’t remember God being mentioned on last year’s course as much as on this year’s course and it was interesting to hear Iain describe briefly what ‘God’ means to him. There was virtually no explicit reference to religion during the course. It seemed to me that the word ‘God’ was being used to identify or name ideas for which there is no adequate universally agreed explanation.

Reflecting on this session I remember that I have, in the past, done my fair share of searching for answers to the question of what is life all about and thinking that there must be more to it than all this. I was a child of the 60s (actually I wasn’t a child, I was already in my twenties), so I followed the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, owned a copy of the I Ching and practised meditation, before becoming dissatisfied and moving on to ‘religion’ (Christianity), with which, after a few year, I became equally dissatisfied.

I also remember that in the 90s when doing an MA in Education I read and wrote about the meaning of truth in relation to an assignment on research methods. On digging out this assignment, I find it includes these quotes:

‘No finitely describable system, or finite language, can prove all truths. Truth cannot fully be caught in a finite net’ (Nagel & Newman quoting Godel’s Theorem, 1959).

‘… there can be many points of view, or many faces of truth, some even mutually contradictory, and yet all equally real in the potential sense …’ (Zohar & Marshall, 1994).

So on reflection I can see that questions about truth have accompanied my life since my twenties and maybe even before, which perhaps explains my interest in Iain McGilchrist’s work and why it resonates. Having said that, what I like about Iain’s work is that whilst it makes reference to spirituality, it is more about how the right and left hemispheres view the world than about ‘God’ or religion. As he writes in The Master and his Emissary (p.92)

‘There is not likely to be ‘a God spot’ in the brain, and the area is fraught with problems of terminology and methodology: but there are areas that are often implicated as accompaniments of religious experience.‘

It’s not religion, but the idea of being able to see the ‘big picture’ and what it means to have an open mind that intrigues me.


Authors/people referred to during the session

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

Sir William Empson (1930). Seven Types of Ambiguity

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press.

Edmund Burke 

Rabindranath Tagore


Authors/philosophers who have most influenced Iain’s thinking

Of most interest for Iain is Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BCE)

Heidegger (1889-1976) – a struggle but a revelation

Hegel (1770-1831) – also a struggle but a revelation

The early and late phases of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work (1889-1951)

Friedrich Nietzsche  (1844-1900)

Scheler (1874-1928) – difficult

Mary Midgley – a modern philosopher – born 1919

John Cutting – psychiatrist and author

Louis Sass (1994) Madness and Modernism. Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature and Thought. Harvard University Press.

The work of A. N. Whitehead (1861-1947) on God and the Cosmos

‘We’ – my Facebook page and me

Elise Andrew, whose Facebook page ‘I F**king Love Science‘  is followed by over 1.7 million, recently shocked her fans by revealing her gender through posting a photo of herself on Twitter.

Here she talks to CBS This Morning about this reaction and with Michio Kaku discusses sexism in the field of science.

Her fans’ reaction is surprising on two counts:

  1. That her Facebook followers had failed to notice her gender, despite the fact that her name is posted on her FB page.  Perhaps Elise is not a familiar name.
  2. That the stereotypical image of a scientist as being male, wearing a white lab coat, having a ‘mad’ appearance – fuzzy grey hair, glasses and the like – and being surrounded by test tubes, bunsen burners, tripods, flasks and the like, is still so resistant to change and updating.

Many children still draw scientists in this image, despite many years of trying to break down this stereotype, dating from  Chambers’ Draw a Scientist Test in 1983


What I found most interesting about Elise’s CBS This Morning video was that when asked what the future might hold for her, she replied

Elise: We’ve had people talk to us about TV shows and about books…..

Interviewer: When you say ‘We” who do you mean?

Elise: When I say ‘We’, I mean the Facebook page …… me and my Facebook page…

This is fascinating.  This implies that Elise thinks of her Facebook page as a collaborative effort, a community, despite the fact that she runs it alone. Elise’s Facebook page appears to be ‘open’ to anyone.  Or maybe for her, her Facebook page has a life of it’s own.

But what else does it tell us about how people use social media, or why some people gather such a large following.

In the case of Elise Andrew perhaps the factors contributing to this are her

  • undeniable and contagious enthusiasm for her subject
  • apparent lack of ego evidenced by her surprise by all the fuss
  • knowledge of her subject and of reputable scientists, i.e. her connections
  • communication skills

… all of which come across in this interview:  Elise Andrew on why she loves science

Thanks to Sui Fai John Mak for posting a link to the CBS News video on his Facebook Page.