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.

References

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 https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/the-matter-with-things-2/

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.

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:

References

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

The Matter With Things. Chapter 10. What is Truth?

‘I believe that, despite our always contributing to the reality we experience, there is something apart from ourselves to which we can be true – that reality, in other words, is not purely made up by the brain. There is a relationship there – something to be true to.’ (McGilchrist, 2021, p.379)

In the first chapter in Part 2 of The Matter With Things, Iain McGilchrist explores the relationship between the hemispheres and paths to truth , which he sees as science, reason, intuition, and imagination

But what is truth ? We will never fully know and there is no one overarching definition.

McGilchrist claims that each hemisphere has a different approach to truth, because each hemisphere experiences the world differently, but these approaches are not equally valid. The right hemisphere has an intuitive embodied awareness of the world – the world ‘presences to us through the right hemisphere’; the left hemisphere experiences the world as a mental re-presentation from which we are quite separate.

For the left hemisphere truth is a ‘thing’, an element there for us to find, something outside of ourselves that represents correctness. Here is how McGilchrist describes this approach to truth:

‘Truth, this thing, would be conceived of as existing in the realm of subjectivity (in the mind) as a suitable representation of something conceived of as existing in the realm of objectivity (outside the mind). From this point of view, the way to approach truth would be to start with a secure set of facts, and then work upwards by rules of logic, to a series of other facts, putting one secure item on top of another, to build the pyramid of (represented) truth. In principle this truth would be impersonal, something that could be transmitted, as it stands, directly to another; timeless and unchanging – and independent therefore of context; ultimately single, in that if the path is rigorously followed, everyone should reach the same conclusion; and ultimately perfect, precise and certain – theoretically attainable goals that are not yet achieved, so the argument would go, only because we have not yet concluded our deliberations.’ (p.382)

The other idea about truth, the right hemisphere’s perspective, is that of unconcealing, clearing away misconceptions, and opening a space to make contact with the truth. From this perspective truth is a process, not a thing achieved by confirming one element to find the next element. From this perspective truth has a relational aspect and is an encounter with reality. From this perspective, truth is a process that is continuous and alive, intrinsically incomplete, and uncertain.

The right hemisphere, ‘…. Instead of seeing a subjective realm and an objective realm which should as near as possible mirror one another, [sees] a constant reverberation between two (never completely distinct) elements within our consciousness – thoughts and experiences – whereby they ‘answered’ or co-responded to, one another this ever better accord, or attunement, would be the evolving truth’ (p.384)

Truth is neither wholly independent of us, nor wholly made up by us; truth is not dissociated from the speaker, but in ‘the betweenness’. But betweenness is not the same as compromise. We need both opposed positions, both the left hemisphere and right hemisphere ‘s perspectives; they are mutually necessary but not equally veridical. The left hemisphere’s vision is limited; the right hemisphere’s is more capable of disclosing reality.

The test of truth is whether or not we are caught out by experience, whether it corresponds with the totality of our experience. Truth does not exist by analysing elements that are in relationship, but in the whole relationship; but the fact that we don’t know the whole of truth, doesn’t mean that the facts that we do know aren’t true; we can only establish some things as truer than others.

Truth is not a proposition but a disposition and is related to trust. We live in a post-truth era, an era in which trust, and truth are suffering from an epidemic of decay. McGilchrist believes that the basis for our decision making is the two different perspectives of the hemispheres. In Part 2 of The Matter With Things he looks at the strengths and limitations of the paths to truth through these different perspectives, starting in this first Chapter 10 with the question What is Truth. McGilchrist feels that it is a disaster that science and philosophy have separated from one another, and in these chapters tries to bring them together.

Part II opens with a quote from Alfred North Whitehead (1938, 87)

A philosophic outlook is the very foundation of thought and of life. The sort of ideas we attend to, and the sort of ideas which we push into the negligible background, govern our hopes, our fears, our control of behaviour. As we think, we live. This is why the assemblage of philosophic ideas is more than a specialist study. It moulds our type of civilisation.

There is more in this chapter than I have written about here. See for example McGilchrist’s discussion of presencing versus re-presentation (p.380), correspondence and coherence theories of truth (p.387) and the subject-object divide (p.393). Also see his discussion about this chapter with Alex Gomez-Marin.

References

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

Whitehead, A.N.  (1938). Modes of Thought, New York: Macmillan Company. Reprinted New York: The Free Press, 1968.

Mackness, J. (2016). Where Can We Go for Truth? (Blog post)

Mackness, J.  (2018) Truth in a Post-Truth Age. (Blog post)

The Matter With Things. Chapter 6. Emotional and Social Intelligence

It is unsurprising that emotional and social intelligence is regarded by Iain McGilchrist as one of the ‘means to truth’. Both forms of intelligence are thought to be important aspects of education and learning, at least in the West, and many educators will know of Daniel Goleman’s work on this, not that McGilchrist mentions education. McGilchrist’s focus is on the role of the hemispheres in understanding the human world.

McGilchrist starts this chapter (p.193) with a nice quote (see below) from Johann Gottfried Herder, 1828, so clearly the role of emotional and social intelligence in our understanding of the world is not a new idea.

‘Anyone who wants to be all head is as much a monster as one who wants to be all heart’.

McGilchrist tells us that emotional and social understanding are central to understanding all human situations. Social and emotional intelligence are required for being able to judge what is real and what is not. Experience of the world is an encounter, a relationship, a process; it is not a static thing. Relations are of key importance in social and emotional intelligence. Everything exists as a relationship. How to understand people and see another person’s point of view involves emotional and social intelligence and our grasp of reality.

It is the right hemisphere that has a grip on reality. It’s ‘mode of attention, capacity for pragmatic understanding and communication, superior perceptual integration, and ability to shift belief appropriately in the light of new evidence’ (p.193) all make this possible. It understands how context changes meaning. Damage to the right hemisphere leads to a diminished sense of reality and emotional disconnectedness, whereas damage to the left hemisphere can lead to an increased intensity of experience. This was experienced by Jill Bolte Taylor following her left hemisphere stroke. The undamaged left hemisphere is less in touch with the body and the implicit than the right hemisphere, jumps to conclusion, is unable to shift mindset and does not ‘get’ the emotional import of human behaviour.

But all this does not mean that the right hemisphere is ‘emotional’ and the left hemisphere is ‘cool’ and rational. Both hemispheres can underwrite emotions. Anger, irritability, and disgust are all lateralised to the left hemisphere. Sadness, melancholy, and depression are more associated with the right hemisphere. So, there are differences in the emotional capacities of the two hemispheres.

Theory of mind – the capacity to put yourself in someone else’s position, see what they see, and feel some of what they feel (empathy) – is highly dependent on the right hemisphere. Right hemisphere damaged people (as in schizophrenia and autism) lose the ability to read faces, understand metaphor, sarcasm, and tone of voice. They become literalistic in the ways they interpret things, and ‘may show a ‘blanket disregard’ for the feelings, needs and expectations of others’. (p. 201) Following left hemisphere damage patients become better at understanding implicit metaphorical meanings.

Metaphor is not an addition or ornament at the top level; it is the bedrock of language, making connection between symbol and experience. Metaphor means to carry over. Whenever we use language, we are using metaphor, but we have become so familiar with many of them that they no longer act as metaphors. We have to distinguish between dead clichéd and live metaphors. The left hemisphere deals with cliches. Live metaphor is dependent on the right hemisphere.

The word ‘intelligence’ is derived from two words in Latin, inter (meaning between) and legere (meaning choose) (see https://www.universal.org/en/renato-cardoso/do-you-know-the-meaning-of-the-word-intelligence/).  And the original meaning of the word ‘understand’ was to stand in the midst of, since ‘under’ did not mean ‘beneath’, but rather ‘among’ or ‘between’. So social and emotional intelligence through which we understand people, their motivations (‘why’ they behave in the way they do) and our world, depend on relations. The right hemisphere is dominant and superior for all forms of emotional receptivity and expressivity (p.204)

‘… emotion is a critical part of capacity to comprehend the world at all, the ability to understand and interact with other living things. Without it we are foolish, however much we may know, and we are only alive in a diminished sense of the word.’ (p.224) The right hemisphere is critical for this understanding.

There is far more in this chapter than I have written about here. For a discussion about the chapter between Iain McGilchrist and Alex Gomez-Marin watch this video

References

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

The Matter With Things. Chapter 5. Apprehension

This fifth chapter of Iain McGilchrist’s latest book, The Matter With Things, is short; only 10 pages long, compared to some chapters which are almost book length; for example, Chapter 28 is more than 100 pages long.

In Chapter 5 McGilchrist takes a different approach to that taken in preceding chapters in that instead of examining what happens after right hemisphere damage, here he focusses on what happens after left hemisphere damage. This is in relation to the left hemisphere’s propensity to manipulate the world by grasping or holding on to it, i.e., to apprehend it, as opposed to the right hemisphere’s propensity to encounter the world, explore it and hold things together, i.e., to comprehend it.

McGilchrist doesn’t explain why he took this different approach. Perhaps there is more evidence of what happens after left hemisphere damage, but I found myself wondering how the chapter might have been different had it been titled Comprehension instead of Apprehension.

As ever, McGilchrist shares his understanding of the etymology of the two words.

Ap-prehending, from Latin ad + prehendere, to hold onto – manipulating

Com-prehending, from Latin cum + prehendere, to hold together – understanding

I always find McGilchrist’s explanations of the origins of words helpful in understanding how he interprets and represents them. So, from this, the left hemisphere apprehends and the right hemisphere comprehends. When there is damage to the left hemisphere the world is still there and comprehensible, but it can no longer easily utilise the world or represent it. The simple act of utilisation is lost. We see this in left hemisphere stroke patients whose right arm and right hand function is impaired. McGilchrist uses further patient vignettes to illustrate this point that left hemisphere damage leaves the patient unable to use simple tools such as a key or a toothbrush.

The right hemisphere explores with the left hand. This behaviour can be seen in the great apes that use the right hand to grasp something, but the left hand for making contact with others. Right hemisphere damage rarely results in an inability to use tools, but instead affects the patient’s ability to perform a sequence of tasks to achieve an end, for example, make a cup of coffee.

When the left hemisphere is damaged, as in a stroke, not only is the patient’s right arm and hand function impaired, but also their use of language. McGilchrist suggests that the left hemisphere uses language to map the world, i.e., it uses language to manipulate the world and maps the territory through the use of a system of symbols. But a map leaves most of the world out. ‘In the left hemisphere’s world words are seen as arbitrary signs: in the right hemisphere’s world they are seen as to some extent fused with the aspect of reality they represent.’ (p.185).  The right hemisphere sees the reality of the terrain it maps. In the left hemisphere signs are substituted for experience, but the aspects of language that tether it to the lived world, and the body, metaphor, prosody (the inflection of the voice, the sound of the word and the meaning conveyed), and pragmatics (understanding utterances in context) are right hemisphere dependent.

Left hemisphere damage doesn’t alter reality; the world is still there but a left hemisphere damaged patient can’t use it. Damage to the right hemisphere causes alterations in reality.

The purpose of the left hemisphere is to become powerful, not to understand reality. Damage to the left hemisphere results in loss of this power to utilise and manipulate the world through the right hand and language, but reality remains largely unaltered.

For a discussion about this chapter between Iain McGilchrist and Alex Gomez-Marin watch this video

References

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

The Matter With Things. Chapter 4. Judgment

In Part 1 of his most recent book, The Matter With Things. Our Brain, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World, Iain McGilchrist discusses The Hemispheres and the Means to Truth. Currently I am reading and discussing the nine chapters that make up this first part of the book with a group from Channel McGilchrist, who meet once a month to discuss one or two chapters at a time. To date we have met and discussed Chapters 2 and 3:

The Matter With Things. Chapter 2: Attention

The Matter With Things. Chapter 3: Perception

In Chapter 4 McGilchrist discusses Judgment as a means to truth and asks the question, what roles do the hemispheres play in reaching beliefs and making judgments?

In Chapter 4 McGilchrist notes the difference but also overlap between hallucinations which result from perceptual distortions associated with right hemisphere dysfunction, and delusions (distorted reality judgments) which also result from right hemisphere dysfunction. He writes (p.135)

‘Distinguishing delusions (distorted reality judgments) from hallucinations (distorted perceptions) is to some degree arbitrary, since misperceptions can give rise to misbeliefs, and misbeliefs give rise to misperceptions. Added to which, all perceptions involve a judgment undertaken before we are aware of it. We don’t see a shape, a texture, a bunch of colours, and only then deduce ‘a tree’. We see the tree whole and immediately, because somewhere way below consciousness we are discriminating what fits best in the context in which we find ourselves.’

Altered perceptions are treated separately from altered judgments in psychiatry, but it is artificial to separate them as they might affect each other. Altered perceptions result in things like hallucinations; altered judgments result in thinking bizarre things or delusions. The question is, how much can we trust the testimony of the left and right hemispheres? On its own the left hemisphere tends to delusion.

The thrust of this chapter is summed up on p.180, where McGilchrist writes that ‘Virtually all delusional syndromes are more commonly the result of right hemisphere than left hemisphere dysfunction;  ….’ And ‘Overall, in general it is the judgments on reality made by the right hemisphere that are more reliable.’

In the preceding 45 pages, McGilchrist presents an extensive synthesis of the research into hemispheric difference in pathologies of judgment (e.g., delusional misidentification, paranoia, Othello syndrome and more) and altered role of the body (e.g., Phantom limb, xenomelia and more). To be honest, I found this chapter tedious. Perhaps this is because after 10 years or so of reading and re-reading The Master and His Emissary, I don’t need further scientific research to convince me that we are living in a world dominated by the left hemisphere. I am more interested in what the implications are for how we live our lives.

Some of the ideas in this chapter that might implicitly inform how we live our lives relate to:

Pessimism, optimism and realism (p.150)

  • the left hemisphere is .. unreliable in daily life: it has a tendency to jump to conclusions, to become entrenched, to be unwilling to see other points of view and, frankly, to make stuff up, if it needs to, in order to maintain its point of view. It has a desperate need for certainty. (p.154)
  • Optimism is related to denial by the left hemisphere.
  • Insight is very largely right hemisphere dependent. (p.150)
  • Although relatively speaking the right hemisphere takes a more pessimistic view of the self, it is also more realistic about it. (p.150)
  • … depression has repeatedly been shown to be associated with greater realism – provided the depression is not too severe. (p.150) Depressed patients make better judgments.
  • The evidence is … that.… up to a point, being depressed gives you insight. (p.150)
  • Insight into yourself and your own illness is dependent on the right hemisphere.
  • The right hemisphere is important for reality testing.

False ‘memories’ and confabulation (p.155)

  • … the left hemisphere just is not reliable about the self. And since, in a sense, the self is all we know directly, that’s got to be a handicap.’ (p.158)

Magical thinking (p.158)

  • Magical thinking is associated with creativity. (p.158)
  • … ‘magical ideation’ is by definition not in itself delusional, though it may be on a continuum with delusion. It simply suggests a greater willingness to consider connexions, some of which are no doubt non-existent, but some of which may simply not be recognised in the current Western standard model. (p.1610
  • … to be ‘totally “unmagical” is very unhealthy’, and reduces one’s capacity to appreciate value and to take enjoyment in life. (p.162)
  • Most people engage in magical thinking. There are certain truths that can only be understood through a myth. Deep truths can’t be encompassed in words.

Judgments formed on intuition (p.162)

  • There are differences between men and women. There is more specialisation in each hemisphere in men, and more overlap between the hemispheres in women.
  • In normal adults, sex differences in functional cerebral asymmetries have been reported in a wide range of areas, including decision-making …. but extending to areas such as language, working memory, spatial orientation, spatial attention, face perception, verbal and musical creativity tasks, emotional ‘processing’ and appreciation of beauty. Except in the case of language, males have generally been found in every one of these areas to be more reliant on the right hemisphere than females. (p.163)

The role of reasoning in forming judgments (p.167)

  • both hemispheres contribute to reasoning. (p.167)
  • the old dichotomy – left hemisphere rational, right hemisphere emotional – is profoundly mistaken, on both counts; not to mention the fact that reason and emotion are never entirely separable. (p.167)
  • the tendency of the left hemisphere is to treat things as more certain than they are. (p.169)
  • Induction is associated with the left hemisphere. Induction is based on an assumption of the normal and expectable (p.169). The left hemisphere tends to reach hasty conclusions on the basis of what seems likely. (p.170)
  • The left hemisphere is more likely to act on its theory as though it represented reality. (p.179)
  • Deduction  … is seeing something is implied by what one knows, and is latent or implicit in it …
  • … the right hemisphere is our bullshit detector. (p.172)
  • … unlike the left hemisphere, the right hemisphere can operate with several types of uncertainties: inexactness, incompleteness, probabilities, fuzziness, observer error and so on. (p.174)

So, as McGilchrist writes in the summary to this chapter (p.180)

‘Both hemispheres play a part in reasoning, and when the situation is relatively simple, completely specified and the outcome in accord with expectation, the left hemisphere plays the key role; when any of these conditions does not apply, the right hemisphere is more reliable and veridical.’

As on the previous zoom calls, although the discussion was interesting and enjoyable, I did not feel any the wiser at the end of it. More questions were raised than answered, such as:

  • In a non-clinical setting, is it possible to be able to identify predominantly left hemisphere individuals? If so, could two of the identifying traits be blanket cynicism and fragmentation?
  • Is it possible that hemisphere specialization or preference could lead to the evolution of two distinct human species? Homo Machine/Bureaucrat v Homo??
  • How do we use this work to understand early childhood development?
  • What are McGilchrist’s genuinely helpful contributions to neuroscience or philosophy? How do we best judge the value of his work?
  • What is belief? How does this differ from world view? Where does emotion or pre/unconscious fit into belief? Is personal investigation the best way to find truth?

Thanks to Laura Thomas for collating these questions.

The next meeting of this reading group will be on Friday 8th July at 4.00 pm UK time, to discuss Chapters 5 (Apprehension) and 6 (Emotional and Social Intelligence) of The Matter With Things.

References

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

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

The Matter With Things. Chapter 3. Perception

To repeat: don’t think, but look! (Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1976)

The Channel McGilchrist reading group met again yesterday to discuss the third chapter, Perception, of Iain McGilchrist’s new book, The Matter With Things. The discussion was quite wide-ranging, and not always on topic, but nevertheless interesting. For example, there was a discussion about whether we can trust McGilchrist’s interpretation of the research papers he has read and referenced in support of his overarching argument that ‘the right hemisphere is a more important guide and more reliable one to the nature of reality’. The question was asked, how many readers will actually seek out and read the papers that McGilchrist references to check whether or not we agree with his interpretation, and if we do not, then how can we be sure that his interpretations are correct? I wasn’t sure that everyone grasped the significance and importance of this question, and I haven’t quite sorted out in my own head, how relevant it is to discussions of McGilchrist’s book, but it is easy to recognise that McGilchrist’s work attracts people who have already bought into his key hypothesis, that we live in a world increasingly dominated by the left hemisphere, and therefore it is quite difficult to engage in critical discussion. But one person did say that we don’t necessarily have to read McGilchrist’s work and engage with his ideas by standing outside it and analysing it objectively. We can wear it like a garment and dance around in it, until we no longer need it. This reading group is only just getting going, and I hope it won’t shy away from more challenging discussions.

My interpretation of the discussion around perception was that no-one had really got to grips with it. Compared to other chapters in the book, this is quite a short chapter – 30 pages, and McGilchrist sticks to discussing perception in relation to the hemispheres, considering hemispheric differences in normal perception, and the hemispheres and pathologies of perception. So, he does not mention philosophy of mind, although questions about the relationship between mind and body, and brain and body, and how we can know whether what we perceive is real or not, seem to me to be implicit in the writing. In his book The Master and His Emissary, McGilchrist does briefly mention ‘the mind-brain question’, although he says that it is not the subject of the book and that he does not have the skill or space to address the topic at any length (McGilchrist, 2009, p.19). He seems to have taken the same approach in this book, The Matter With Things.

McGilchrist starts Chapter 3 by writing:

‘Perception is not the same as attention, and not at all the same as thinking. But the world we choose to attend to, indeed choose whether and how to attend to, is nothing without perception.’ (p.105, The Matter With Things). It is worth remembering at this point that Part 1 of The Matter With Things, which includes Chapter 3 on Perception, is about the hemispheres and the means to truth. So along with Attention (Chapter 2), which we discussed in our first meeting and which I have already written about, McGilchrist considers perception to be a means to truth.

McGilchrist defines perception as follows:

‘Perception is the act whereby we reach out from our cage of mental construct to taste, smell, touch, hear and see the living world.’ (p.105. The Matter With Things) and ‘To be good at perceiving is to be good at integrating information.’ (p.106 The Matter With Things). 

There was some discussion in the group about the difference between sense and sensation, and the role of emotions and feelings in relation to perception, but we didn’t come to a clear understanding of this, and McGilchrist doesn’t explicitly address this in the chapter. Perhaps the nearest McGilchrist comes to addressing this is when he tells us that Merleau-Ponty saw perception as a reciprocal encounter.

“Experience is a sensorimotor – and intuitive – participation, a fusion of one’s own awareness with awareness of the world. Speaking of his perception of the blue sky, Merleau-Ponty wrote that ‘I abandon myself to it and plunge into this mystery, it “thinks itself within me”… Perception is not passive reception, but participation.” (p.106 The Matter With Things). Perception is an active process, bound up with motion. We see something as an opportunity to act. When we see things, our whole body is engaged in perception; perception is embodied.

In this chapter McGilchrist looks in some depth at the left and right hemispheres’ roles in visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, local and global perception. He also discusses what happens to perception if the left or right hemisphere is damaged, writing at some length about visual hallucinations and distortions, auditory, olfactory, gustatory and tactile hallucinations, and concluding from examining a wide range of scientific evidence that hallucinations are more often due to right hemisphere damage than left hemisphere dysfunction. I am not going to repeat the details of the evidence that McGilchrist provides here. They are all in the chapter, and you can listen to McGilchrist talking to Alex Gomez-Marin about this chapter in this YouTube video:

Lastly, one of the questions we considered was, if we agree with McGilchrist that the right hemisphere is a more important guide and a more reliable one to the nature of reality (because of its pattern recognition ability, its ability to deal with incomplete information and its ability to see the whole), then can we train ourselves to make more and better use of our right hemisphere and be less dominated by the left hemisphere (which tends to objectify and jump to quick conclusions, seeing things out of context, seeing the map rather than reality)?

McGilchrist has suggested that practising mindfulness or meditation is one method, but also spending more time in nature, looking at art, and listening to music.

Another method is to think about optical illusions. McGilchrist uses the image of Schroeder’s stairs (p.114 The Matter With Things).

He writes:  ‘While the left hemisphere underwrites local attention, the right hemisphere underwrites global attention – and the ability to switch between them.’ This ‘… inevitably makes a difference to the world we perceive. What it means is that both to perceive the form of something as a whole, and to see it differently to the way you are accustomed to see it, depends on the way of taking in the world that is underwritten by the right hemisphere of the brain. If you think and adopt the way of being of the left hemisphere world, not only will you struggle to see the overall shape, but you won’t be able so easily to switch – or even be aware that you can. If someone else tells you they see something quite different there, you might well, sincerely but wrongly, believe that they must be mistaken.’

Members of the reading group provided further links to interesting illusions for us to think about:

https://www.upworthy.com/people-are-freaking-out-over-this-rotating-cube-illusion

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4493744/Video-shows-car-driving-WITHOUT-wheels-rotating.html

And finally, here is an exercise suggested by Cynthia Ford in the comments under McGilchrist’s video,  which might be interesting to try out.

There’s a writing exercise in which you walk somewhere deeply familiar, that you know so well that you hardly see it, and you notice and write down only one color, every instance of that color. Or, following the Oulipo school, you notice only the unnoticed, the trash, or detritus, or signs, the unaesthetic. You can actually feel the perceptual shift from the left brain to the right brain as the place changes and becomes new.

Our next reading group meeting will take place on Friday 3rd June at 4.00 pm UK time, when we will discuss Chapter 4. Judgment (as a means to truth).

References

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

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

The Matter With Things. Chapter 2: Attention

I have joined a new online reading group, which will meet once a month to discuss chapters of Iain McGilchrist’s latest book, The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World. This has been organised by Laura Thomas and Elspeth Crawford, two members of Channel McGilchrist. Many thanks to them for taking this initiative, as The Matter With Things is an overwhelmingly long book, over 1500 pages, and I suspect I am not alone in wanting some help in reading it. Unlike some of the others in the group, I have not yet read the whole book, and what I have read has been selective, i.e. I haven’t started at the beginning but have so far read the chapters that appeared to me to be potentially the most interesting. I have written some posts about them. I have also written about the overall structure of book before, so I won’t repeat that here.

So far the group has met on zoom once, to discuss Chapter 2 on Attention, although necessarily quite a bit of time was spent on ‘getting to know each other’ and administrative issues.

McGilchrist starts Chapter 2 by writing, ‘Who we are determines how we see. And how we see determines what we find. …. Attention brings the world into being’. Not only this, but how we attend changes who we are. What we mean by reality depends on attention from the word go. We are in a reciprocal relationship with the world. There is a back and forth between the attending person and what is attended to.

Those who are familiar with McGilchrist’s work will know that everything he writes is based on the premise that the two hemispheres of the brain attend to the world differently. The right hemisphere’s attention is broad, sustained and vigilant. It attends to the whole. The left hemisphere’s attention is narrow and focussed. We need both kinds of attention. In the Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, McGilchrist explained this in terms of a bird having to focus on the grit in the ground to find the seed to eat, whilst at the same time keeping an open eye out on the whole surroundings for a predator.

            “ In order to stay alive, birds have to solve a conundrum: they need to be able to feed and watch out for predators simultaneously. How are you to focus closely on what you are doing when you are trying to pick out that grain of seed from the grit on which it lies while, at the same time, keeping the broadest possible open attention to whatever may be, in order to avoid being eaten? It’s a bit like trying to pat your head while rubbing your stomach at the same time – only worse, because it is impossible. What we know is that the difference in attention between the hemispheres makes the apparently impossible possible. Birds pay narrowly focused attention with their right eye (left hemisphere) to what they are eating, while keeping their left eye (right hemisphere) open for predators.” (McGilchrist, 2019, p.13)

But we are not birds and we do not have eyes on the sides of our heads. Are we humans able to use our left hemisphere to focus attention whilst at the same time using our right hemisphere to attend to the whole? McGilchrist argues that whilst these two kinds of attention are mutually incompatible, ‘we need to be able to employ both simultaneously.’ (McGilchrist, 2019, p.14). His argument is that we now live in a world where we are losing the ability to see the whole and are increasingly attending to the world from the perspective of the left hemisphere, with a narrow, focussed gaze.

There are at least two significant problems with this increased reliance on the left hemisphere for attention. First, the left hemisphere’s focussed attention makes it blind to everything else. There are a number of videos that neatly illustrate this point.

The Invisible Gorilla: https://youtu.be/vJG698U2Mvo

If you have seen this video before it won’t come as a surprise, but if you are watching it for the first time, it will probably be an eye-opener!

And second, not only is the left hemisphere blind to what it is not attending to, but what is not seen completely ceases to exist for the left hemisphere. This is starkly illustrated by the following video in which a woman with damage to her right hemisphere and therefore reliant on her left hemisphere, is unaware of anything on her left side (hemineglect). The left hemisphere only attends to half a world.

In addition, because the left hemisphere does not know what it does not know, when there are obvious gaps in its knowledge and understanding it confabulates. It invents stories to fill the gaps and blind spots and is ‘quite confident it is right’. So, a patient with right hemisphere damage will deny the existence of their left arm, and if asked to look at the left arm and say who it belongs to, will claim it belongs to another person. Whilst we do not all have physical damage to our right hemispheres, you don’t have to look very far in modern society to see behaviours that mirror those observed in people with right hemisphere damage, and it is quite concerning to realise how easily these behaviours can be induced through right hemisphere damage or split brain experiments.

McGilchrist argues that it is the right hemisphere that is more in touch with reality. It’s attention to the world is more open and receptive, and without preconceptions. The left hemisphere has an impoverished, devitalised view of the world, which lacks depth of space, time and motion. It re-presents the visual world as flattened, abstract and schematic, like a two-dimensional map, rather than in three dimensions. In The Matter With Things, McGilchrist references a large body of research (184 references in this chapter) to substantiate the differences between the left and right hemisphere’s ways of attending. Much of this research focuses on what happens to patients who experience right hemisphere damage, and their experience of attending to the world through the left hemisphere. In the final chapter of a small book he published in 2019, ‘Ways of Attending’, McGilchrist conducts a thought experiment. ‘What would it look like if the left hemisphere came to be the sole purveyor of our reality? The picture he paints is not a happy one. As is written on the back cover of this book:

‘Attention is not just receptive, but actively creative of the world we inhabit. How we attend makes all the difference to the world we experience. And nowadays in the West we generally attend in a rather unusual way: generated by the narrowly focussed, target-drive left hemisphere of the brain.’

In the first meeting of the Channel McGilchrist online reading group, a few people expressed the desire to find pragmatic responses to the problems of a left-hemisphere dominated world. Serendipitously, at around the same time as these thoughts were being discussed in the reading group, Matthias Melcher wrote a post outlining ways he thinks we could become more right-hemisphere dominant. See https://x28newblog.wordpress.com/2022/04/08/seven-ways-to/

McGilchrist himself tends to resist trying to find solutions to the left hemisphere dominated world he describes, although I have heard him suggest that it’s mostly to do with raising awareness, which aligns with Matthias’ approach. But McGilchrist does believe that we can train ourselves to attend to the world with our right hemispheres, through skills such as meditation and mindfulness, and through believing that the attention that we pay to the world alters what we find there.

For myself I think it’s important not to fall into the trap of demonising the left hemisphere. Obviously we need it’s focussed way of attending, but we don’t need it to the exclusion of the whole picture, and we should try to resist its dominance in the way we attend to the world. McGilchrist believes that if we ask which way of attending to the world is more viridical, which reality should we trust, then the right hemisphere has the upper hand.

The next meeting of the Channel McGilchrist reading group is on Friday May 6th Pacific Time (Los Angeles time zone), when we will discuss Chapter 3: Perception. The idea is that we will each submit a comment/question or provocation a few days before the meeting to help focus the discussion. This is how the Philosophy of Education Reading Network organises their meetings and it works well.

And fortunately for the Channel McGilchrist group, McGilchrist has just started to discuss the chapters of The Matter With Things with Alex Gomaz. Here are links to the first two episodes:

Understanding The Matter with Things Dialogues: Episode 1: The Introduction

Understanding the Matter With Things Dialogues: Chapters 1 & 2

References

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

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

McGilchrist, I. (2019). Ways of Attending: How our Divided Brain Constructs the World. Routledge

The Coincidence of Opposites. A talk by Iain McGilchrist

I have now heard Iain McGilchrist talk about the Coincidence of Opposites twice. Once at the Field&Field conference in the Cotswolds, UK, at the beginning of October 2021, and again at the end of October, in a talk given online to Ralston College, Savannah, GA, USA.

Also, I have now received my copy of Iain’s new book, The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World (abbreviated in this post as TMWT), which I have begun to read slowly, but as I explained in a previous post, not in the order written. The chapter on the coincidence of opposites, which bears the title ‘The coincidentia oppositorum’ is the first chapter in the second volume of the book, Chapter 20.

There is a reason that this chapter bears the title ‘The coincidentia oppositorum’ as opposed to ‘The coincidence of opposites’ and that is that the word ‘coincide’ in this chapter,

‘… means more than that opposites happen to look like one another, even to cohere, to concur, or to be in accord, though those meanings are present, too: it means that they ‘fall together’, like the superposition of the two images which, when projected on a screen, overlap precisely to form a new image.’ (p.821, TMWT)

Like all the other chapters in this book, Chapter 20, The coincidentia oppositorum’, starts with some quotes; for this chapter, with quotes from a philosopher, C.S. Peirce, a physicist, Niels Bohr and a poet, Friedrich Hölderlin. I think the quote from Peirce (1931-60) gets to the essence of what this chapter is about.

‘A thing without oppositions ipso facto does not exist … existence lies in opposition.’

In our increasingly divided world, where polarization is spreading across the globe, ‘The Coincidence of Opposites’ is an important idea for our times. Of the chapters that I have read so far in The Matter with Things, this is the one that seems to resonate strongly with current experience of the world we live in. But the coincidence of opposites is not a new idea. It is an ancient theme, which as Iain shows us in this chapter, has been recognised by many philosophers such as Empedocles, Heraclitus, Hegel, Goethe, Nietzsche, James, Schelling, and Whitehead amongst others, as well as across cultures.  In preparation for the Ralston College talk we were sent a copy of the opening pages of this chapter, in which Iain recounts an ancient Iroquois legend to illustrate that ‘All things arise from opposing, but in some form nonetheless related, drives or forces. Energy is always characterised by the coming together of apparent opposites …’ (p.816, TMWT)

So, Iain draws on a wide range of resources to substantiate his argument that things and their opposites are not as irreconcilable and far apart as they may seem. Opposites do not have a linear irreconcilable relationship; it is not the case that the further you go towards one end of the line the further away you are from the opposite end. Rather, opposites eventually tend to coincide. If we could grasp this we might live in a happier world. The example I can think of which might help to illustrate this and that I have heard Iain mention in other talks is that both extreme religious fundamentalists and extreme atheists ultimately have the same left hemisphere view of the world. They go full circle and eventually coincide.

‘A principle that is extended too far, without respect to the opposite that is always inherent in it, may turn into the very thing that is not only undesired, but is being denied.’ (p.829, TMWT). If you go far enough in any direction you reach not more of what you desired but its opposite.

Jacob’s Dream William Blake 1805

So instead of a linear model, Iain prefers one of circularity or better still a spiral, since a circle comes back to the same place and is static whereas a spiral is constantly moving and changing, and circles round to come back to a slightly elevated position.  Linearity and circularity co-exist in a spiral.

Whilst opposites genuinely coincide, they remain opposites and are mutually sustaining. They give rise to and fulfil one another and are conjoined; you can’t have one without the other, but they remain distinct as opposites, as in heat and cold, brightness and darkness, mountains and valleys. Everything that exists can be thought of as a form of energy which results from the coming together of apparent opposites. Iain provides us with many examples of this, e.g., the north and south poles of a magnet, the positive and negative poles of an electric circuit and the merging of male and female gametes in the origin of new life.

A thing and its opposite can both be true at the same time. The individual and the general, the temporal and the eternal, the embodied and the disembodied present simultaneously. They are inclusive. Jacob Needleman (2016) wrote: ‘Stay with the contradiction. If you stay you will see that there is always something more than two opposing truths. The whole truth always includes a third part, which is the reconciliation.’ East and West are simultaneously present on a compass and need to be so, not just to navigate the world, but to have a world to navigate.

The idea of complementarity is foundational in Nature, morality, and spirituality. The whole is never an annihilation but rather a subsumption of the parts. All is one, but also all is many. Both are true. As Goethe (1948) noted, we need the union of union and division.

‘Dividing the united, uniting the divided, is the very life of Nature; this is the eternal systole and diastole, the eternal coalescence and separation, the inhalation and exhalation of the world in which we live, and where our existence is woven.’ (p. 837, TMWT)

Resistance and pulling in opposite directions are essential for creation, as we see in friction and Heraclitus’ bow and lyre.

Source of image: https://www.azquotes.com/quote/536803

The two hemispheres of the brain work together by being apart (separated by the corpus callosum). They cooperate by opposing one another. They inhibit and inform one another, at times standing back and away from one another, and also at times working in unison. Their relationship is oppositional, but not contradictory. The drive of the cosmos is about distinction without separation. But whilst the two hemispheres are equally necessary and need to work together, they are unequal in status. The left hemisphere needs to act as servant to the right hemisphere, which is the master.

There is an asymmetry at the heart of the coincidentia oppositorum. Union and division are asymmetrical. The principle for division and the principle for union need to be brought together, not divided ( p.833, TMWT). We need the union of union and division, not the division of union and division.

We need not either both/and or either/or, but both both/and and either/or.

We need not non-duality only, but the non-duality of duality and non-duality. (p.833, TMWT)

We need universality and particularity, precision and flexibility, restriction and openness, freedom and constraint.

We need to accept that in our society we are beset by paradoxes; by pursuing happiness we become less happy, by pursuing leisure through technology the average working day is longer and we have less time than before, through our eagerness that scientific research should lead to positive findings, scientific research has become less adventurous and more predictable, by trying to improve education through a focus on exam results we have seen a loss of free thinking, and through protecting our children from risk, we have made them more vulnerable. Everything has its dark side. There is nothing so good that it cannot have negative consequences and nothing so bad that it cannot occasionally give rise to good. We should not be tempted to deny the coincidence of opposites. The coincidence of opposites is at the origin of everything and gives rise to everything we know. It transcends ordinary reasoning and we mustn’t be tempted to resolve this.

Things change depending on the context, as we see in the phenomenon of hormesis. A very small amount of something, such as arsenic, may have beneficial effects, but may kill you if taken in large amounts. From any one position we can only see part of the picture. We should always try to see as many points of view as possible. As A. N. Whitehead (1954) noted, ‘To have seen it from one side only is not to have seen it.’ (p. 823, TMWT)

And to finish with another quote from Whitehead also from p.823 of TMWT,

‘… there are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.’

References

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

This is the fourth post I have written which relate to chapters in Volume 2, Part 3, The Unforeseen Nature of Reality, of The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Here are the links to previous posts.

Chapter 28: The sense of the sacred  

Chapter 25: Matter and consciousness  

Chapter 26: Value

Publication of Iain McGilchrist’s new book. The Matter With Things

On Tuesday (Nov 9th) Iain McGilchrist’s new book The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World, was published by Perspectiva Press. The launch was celebrated in a conversation between Iain and Philip Pullman, which was hosted by the How to Academy. This was a wonderful meeting of minds. There was also, of course, a launch party hosted by Jonathan Rowson, Director of Perspectiva, at which both Jonathan and Iain, as well as a few others spoke.

I now own copies of the two volumes and have started reading. The volumes are beautifully produced and I agree with Jonathan Rowson that the book is also beautifully written.

When I attended the Field&Field four day conference at the beginning of October 2021, where Iain gave 14 one hour talks, the opening talk outlined the process of writing this book, which took 10 years and was started soon after the publication of The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World in 2009.

Iain spoke about a demon possessing him in the writing of The Matter with Things. It was originally intended to be a shorter and more accessible book than The Master and His Emissary but ended up twice as long. The book takes forward the ideas discussed in The Master and His Emissary and tries to answer Plotinus’ question ‘But we – who are we?’ Iain feels that this question is more pressing now than it has ever been because humanity has lost the plot, imperilling the existence of our species. The planet will survive, but will we? And even if we can stop destroying the world, we will have to reimagine who we are and how we relate to the cosmos. These are the issues that Iain tries to address in The Matter with Things.

The book is in two volumes and three parts. Volume 1 contains Parts 1 and 2; Volume 2 contains Part 3 and a bibliography which itself is over 200 pages long.

Part 1 focusses on neuropsychology (how our brains shape reality). The Hemispheres and the Means to Truth

(attention, perception, judgment, apprehension, emotional and social intelligence, cognitive intelligence, creativity)

Part 2 focusses on epistemology (how we can come to know anything at all). The Hemispheres and the Paths to Truth

(science, reason, intuition, and imagination)

Part 3 focusses on metaphysics (the nature of what we find in the cosmos). The Unforeseen Nature of Reality

(the coincidentia oppositorum, the one and the many, time, flow and movement, space and matter, matter and consciousness, value, purpose, life and the nature of the cosmos, the sense of the sacred)

In total The Matter with Things is 1579 pages long. Iain has been asked whether anyone in this day and age has the time (or inclination?) to sit down and read a book of this length. In the book launch party Jonathan Rowson pointed out that to his knowledge, at this time, only about 10 people in the world have read the entire book.

A good reason for reading the book from beginning to end is that Iain develops his argument through the book culminating with the final chapter in which he tells us that one of the great losses from our modern world, perhaps the greatest loss, is a sense of the sacred. This, together with the loss of other values such as goodness, beauty, truth, and purpose, has led to the world’s current predicament. The book is so long because Iain doesn’t simply state his opinion. For each argument he makes he backs it up with extensive research into science, philosophy, ancient wisdom, and spiritual traditions from around the world. And through this research he has found that what he instinctively felt as a young man in his twenties, when writing ‘Against Criticism’, has been discussed in many traditions and cultures throughout history – that the whole is not the sum of the parts, the world is not inert and unresponsive, that opposites coincide as well as diverge, history is not linear but moves in spirals and everything flows. So, if you wanted to follow the development of his arguments it would probably be best to read The Matter with Things from beginning to end, particularly if you haven’t read The Master and His Emissary. The book ‘is intended as a single whole, each part illuminating, and in turn illuminated by, the others.’ (p. xvii)

But, Iain writes, the book ‘can be explored according to whim’ (p. xvii), which will be my approach. I have decided to dip into this long book and read chapters out of sequence, so I have read the last chapter (Chapter 28) The Sense of the Sacred first, because it seemed to me, having read The Master and His Emissary more than once, and being familiar with many of Iain’s core ideas, that this is the chapter that introduces ideas that I haven’t heard Iain pull together before. I next read the chapter on Values (Chapter 26) because I have been discussing values with a friend. I am now reading Chapter 20, The coincidentia oppositorum, because I have recently heard Iain speak of the coincidence of opposites twice and want to consolidate my understanding of the points he is making. So, for The Matter With Things, I will be dipping in and out and will not be in any rush to read the whole book.

Jonathan Rowson mentioned that Iain has a lot of speaking events lined up, so it will be helpful to follow those along with reading the book. Iain’s speaking events are usually advertised by Channel McGilchrist on their website, their Twitter stream (@dr_mcgilchrist) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/DrIainMcGilchrist). By joining Channel McGilchrist you can receive a regular newsletter of updates, if you are interested in following the developments surrounding this book.

The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World, can be ordered on on the Channel McGilchrist website, and a Kindle edition can be purchased on Amazon.

Update 12-11-2021

See also this post by Charles Foster – http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2021/11/how-we-got-into-this-mess-and-the-way-out/