Iain McGilchrist and His Magnum Opus

I have written about Iain McGilchrist and his magnum opus, The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World, here and here on matters of science and bureaucracy. Now that I have finished reading the massive tomb I will try to briefly touch on the grand scope of the book.

First, in his words is his fundamental hypothesis and its far reaching consequences.

We have been seriously misled, I believe, because we have depended on that aspect of our brains that is most adept at manipulating the world in order to bend it to our purposes. The brain is, importantly, divided into two hemispheres: you could say, to sum up a vastly complex matter in a phrase, that the brain’s left hemisphere is designed to help us ap-prehend – and thus manipulate – the world; the right hemisphere to com-prehend it – see it all for what it is. The problem is that the very brain mechanisms which succeed in simplifying the world so as to subject it to our control militate against a true understanding of it. Meanwhile, compounding the problem, we take the success we have in manipulating it as proof that we understand it. But that is a logical error: to exert power over something requires us only to know what happens when we pull the levers, press the button, or utter the spell. The fallacy is memorialised in the myth of the sorcerer’s apprentice. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that while we have succeeded in coercing the world to our will to an extent unimaginable even a few generations ago, we have at the same time wrought havoc on that world precisely because we have not understood it.

He continues,

I am very far from being the first person to argue that the prevailing view is badly mistaken. But I do believe that the hemisphere hypothesis casts a very revealing new light on those disputes and strongly suggests that the view that has prevailed – a view heavily indebted to a belief in reductionism – very seriously distorts the evidence of the nature of reality that is before our eyes if only we would attend to it fully. It provides a genuinely new and compelling context in which to revisit these issues, one that may encourage us toward very different conclusions.

Here are quick explanations of Parts II and III.

In this Part II of the book we are concerned with the paths by which we may approach the truth. Contemporary culture favours science and (very much in theory) reason as the ultimately valid approaches, and is deeply sceptical about intuition and imagination – the former because it is regarded as primitive, quirky and unreliable, and the latter because it supposedly just ‘makes things up’. I suggest that this is profoundly mistaken. In Chapter 19, I will explore how intuition, in the form of producing insights, acts with imagination to establish our sense of the world and of what we can truly say about it.

Throughout Part III, I have emphasised a number of positions that are not the norm in our culture (though they are, I believe, accepted by many contemporary physicists); the primacy of motion over stasis, and the importance, in particular, of flow; the reality of time as an expression of that extended flow, not a series of linear moments; consciousness and matter as not simply irreconcilable, leaving us with the problem of how to get consciousness out of matter, but in reality aspects of one another, in which consciousness is nonetheless primary; and the world having purposiveness without reductive, preordained purposes. As the reader will have observed, all of these themes are consistent with what I have to say in this chapter.

The most important point I can make is to realize that the hemisphere hypothesis and its explanation by McGhicrist in Part I of the book is a very left brain hemisphere concept in itself. Furthermore, and more cogent, is that the philosophical explanations and societal critiques of Parts II and III are devastatingly consequential independent of the accuracy of Part I. That is, the two ways of thinking described are relevant whether or not they exist in the two distinct physical locations of the brain.

After you have taken this concept of the left-right way of thinking into your worldview  you will recognize evidence of it everyday of your life. A tiny sample of the breadth of sources and subjects are illustrated by the quotes below.

We should be used to this idea of truth and falsehood, because we are constantly confronting the fact that the world does not confirm our modern Western ‘take’ on it. It doesn’t respond, or correspond, to our fantasies. Yet we behave as though our theories about reality were more important than what experience keeps telling us. This is consonant with our world view being skewed towards that of the left hemisphere.

Yet science cannot possibly fulfill the burdensome role of sole purveyor of truth. This is not a failing in science. Good science is aware of its limitations. Scientism, the belief that science will one day answer all our questions, is not.

The Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky pointed out that ‘objectivity can only be the author’s, and therefore subjective, even if he is editing a newsreel’. Any statement about anything is always both an inclusion and an exclusion, its meaning derived both from what is said and what is not: choices are always involved. This is not a point about documentary film-making, but about life. Ideas, including scientific ideas, do not live suspended in a vacuum, but have relationships across time, and at a point in time, with others, forming out of observed regularities the ‘models’, ‘laws’ and ‘principles’ which are our own creations, shaped as much by what they do not include as by what they do.

In all societies hitherto this has been achieved by the influence of knowledge embodied in traditions, sometimes religious, that asked for acceptance by an appeal to imagination, not to reason alone. ‘The most dangerous stage in the growth of civilization’, wrote Friedrich Hayek, may well be that in which man has come to regard all these beliefs as superstitions and refuses to accept or to submit to anything which he does not rationally understand. The rationalist whose reason is not sufficient to teach him those limitations of the powers of conscious reason, and who despises all the institutions and customs which have not been consciously designed, would thus become the destroyer of the civilization built upon them. This may well prove a hurdle which man will repeatedly reach, only to be thrown back into barbarism …

Of course one does not need to rely on abstruse mathematics to see the limitations of reason. Anyone who understands poetry, drama, ritual, narrative, music, painting, architecture, or the sheer beauty and majesty of the natural world – or for that matter has ever fallen in love – can see that ultimate meaning will always lie beyond what reason can conceive or everyday language express.

There is a clear connexion between the will to power of the left hemisphere, and a tendency to try to make reality conform to our theory; wisdom lies in conforming one’s theory as far as possible to experience.

Wherever money comes from to support the arts, the only way that makes sense – as with research in academe – is to choose good people by judgment rather than by formula, and let them get on with it, not hover over them, brandishing a metric, and breathing down their necks.

But it is quite a jump from such a utilitarian justification of calculation to the wider belief that any conclusion reached by the exercise of reason can be truly rational only through the deployment of calculation. Yet that, it seems, is a view increasingly held, explicitly or otherwise, in the contemporary world. And it involves (indeed it requires) the transposition of what the right hemisphere identifies as ‘quality’ into what the left hemisphere can manipulate as ‘quantity’ – that’s to say, the conversion of something imprecise into something precise – a number – the necessary precondition for calculation to proceed. Much harm ensues.

I wish simply to note that it surely says much about us as a society that serious moral philosophers now believe there is a calculus of morality, whereby we can tot up the costs and benefits, and come up with an answer. This is the fulfilment of Leibniz’s dream of his famous abacus, and declaration calculemus (‘let us calculate’). Thus we have the infamous ‘trolley’ thought experiments: would you be doing the morally superior thing if you pushed a fat man off a bridge in such a way that in landing he switched the points, and changed the course of a runaway truck, so that it would kill only one adult and two children instead of five adults?

Is it possible to combine ‘knowledge about’ (savoir/wissen, the stepwise understanding of the parts) with ‘knowledge of’ (connaître/kennen, the awe-inspiring encounter)? The intellect is ‘incurably abstract’, as CS Lewis says, while experience is intrinsically concrete. How can we have both kinds of knowledge at once – knowledge about, and knowledge of? You cannot study Pleasure in the moment of the nuptial embrace, nor repentance while repenting, nor analyse the nature of humour while roaring with laughter. But when else can you really know these things? ‘If only my toothache would stop, I could write another chapter about Pain.’ But once it stops, what do I know about pain?

The rightful rejection of the Cartesian fantasy of an isolated, decontextualised, rational mind, hopping around the universe accessing uncontaminated truths, is at the heart of the last hundred years of philosophy in Europe, and is what Heidegger, Scheler, Merleau-Ponty and others were striving to achieve and to communicate. Not to have affections, not to have affiliations and loyalties, not to have love, but only reason to act for us in understanding what we do and who we are, is literally a form of madness.

The appearance of scientific unanimity is a powerful political tool, especially when the evidence is weak. Dissent becomes a threat, which must be marginalized. If funding agencies and journals are unwilling to brook opposition, rational discussion is curtailed.

Scientists sometimes imagine that their formulations are the reality which the formulations merely represent, whereas they can only ever be practical tools that help us manipulate one aspect of reality for a while. They are not wrong for being partial, like all truth. But the mistake is to take them for the absolute truth.38

When we are asked to be thankful we no longer have to work as hard as our forebears, she says, the comparison conjures up the dreary life of mediaeval peasants, toiling steadily from dawn to dusk. We are asked to imagine the journeyman artisan in a cold, damp garret, rising even before the sun, labouring by candlelight late into the night. These images are backward projections of modern work patterns. And they are false. Before capitalism, most people did not work very long hours at all. The tempo of life was slow, even leisurely; the pace of work relaxed. Our ancestors may not have been rich, but they had an abundance of leisure. When capitalism raised their incomes, it also took away their time.

There were long vacations at Christmas, Easter and midsummer. Apparently even the ancien régime in France guaranteed 180 days holiday a year (that is, including Sundays). It was only with the advent of capitalism, and especially industrialisation, that lives became miserably hard. It is capitalism that generated true poverty.

I believe that we are indeed losing depth, but because of a whole change of heart and mind that has come over us in the last 200 years or so, only part of which can be said to be caused by technology, and of which technology is at least as much an effect as a cause. Technology is one expression of the desire for power and control over the world, which is of course the primary motivation of the left hemisphere, in which it repudiates the right hemisphere on which we rely for our sense of depth in every sense of the word.

I am making two principal claims. The main claim is that value, whether it is truth, goodness or beauty, is not, as our culture has come to regard it, an ‘add-on’, a human invention, some sort of extra that is not intrinsic to the nature of the cosmos, but is, rather, itself constitutive of the cosmos and is discovered by, and disclosed in, the encounter of life (and not just human life) with whatever it is that exists. The attendant claim is that that encounter is best served – indeed, served only – by the right hemisphere, optimally when it is assisted by the left; and if, on the contrary, the left hemisphere usurps the right hemisphere and ‘goes it alone’, it will not only fail to comprehend what is true, good or beautiful, but, by misconceiving it, help to destroy it.

How did it get into those nets? My answer is contained in the second half of The Master and his Emissary. It involves, at some level, hemisphere imbalance in the history of the Western World. But let me turn now to what happens to the sense of the sacred when the left hemisphere ceases to be a faithful servant, and takes it upon itself to be Master.

Because scientism has all the qualities of the worst kind of religion (with luck, this remark will confirm itself by being appropriately anathematised). Things over which science has no jurisdiction are a threat, not to real scientists, only to adherents of scientism, whose motive is power.

A secular construction of the human world in the West, with little or no place in it for the spiritual, has become the default view among the deracinated, intellectual classes, who prioritise autonomy over most other values. As Peter Berger explains: There exists an international subculture composed of people with Western-type higher education … that is indeed secularised beyond measure. This subculture is the principal ‘carrier’ of progressive, Enlightenment beliefs and values. While its members are relatively thin on the ground, they are very influential, as they control the institutions that provide the ‘official’ definitions of reality, notably the educational system, the media of mass communication, and the higher reaches of the legal system … I can only point out that what we have here is a globalised élite culture.

A religious cast of mind sets the human being and human life in the widest context, reminding us of our duties to one another, and to the natural world that is our home; duties, however, that are founded in love, and link us to the whole of existence. The world becomes ensouled. And we have a place in it once more.

As a society, we pursue happiness and become measurably less happy over time. We privilege autonomy, and end up bound by rules to which we never assented, and more spied on than any people since the beginning of time. We pursue leisure through technology, and discover that the average working day is longer than ever, and that we have less time than we had before. The means to our ends are ever more available, while we have less sense of what our ends should be, or whether there is purpose in anything at all. Economists carefully model and monitor the financial markets in order to avoid any future crash: they promptly crash. We are so eager that all scientific research result in ‘positive findings’ that it has become progressively less adventurous and more predictable, and therefore discovers less and less that is a truly significant advance in scientific thinking. We grossly misconceive the nature of study in the humanities as utilitarian, in order to get value for money, and thus render it pointless and, in this form, certainly a waste of resource. We ‘improve’ education by dictating curricula and focussing on exam results to the point where free-thinking, arguably an overarching goal of true education, is discouraged; in our universities many students are, in any case, so frightened that the truth might turn out not to conform to their theoretical model that they demand to be protected from discussions that threaten to examine the model critically; and their teachers, who should know better, in a serious dereliction of duty, collude. We over-sanitise and cause vulnerability to infection; we over-use antibiotics, leading to super-bacteria that no antibiotic can kill; we make drugs illegal to protect society, and, while failing comprehensively to control the use of drugs, create a fertile field for crime; we protect children in such a way that they cannot cope with – let alone relish – uncertainty or risk, and are rendered vulnerable. The left hemisphere’s motivation is control; and its means of achieving it alarmingly linear, as though it could see only one of the arrows in a vastly complex network of interactions at any one time. Which is all it can.

Indeed, if you had set out to destroy the happiness and stability of a people, it would have been hard to improve on our current formula: remove yourself as far as possible from the natural world; repudiate the continuity of your culture; believe you are wise enough to do whatever you happen to want and not only get away with it, but have a right to it – and a right to silence those who disagree; minimise the role played by a common body of belief; actively attack and dismantle every social structure as a potential source of oppression; and reject the idea of a transcendent set of values.

Two questions, perhaps treated in his first major book, The Master and His Emissary, is why and how the left brain came to dominate Western culture and what we should do about the resulting problems? Fortunately, there is another way to learn about these questions and McGilchrist and his work in general than reading his big books, watch the numerous online discussions in which he has participated. I link to a sample below.

Dr Iain McGilchrist – YouTube

Iain McGilchrist: “Wisdom, Nature and the Brain” | The Great Simplification #85 – YouTube

The Enchantments of Iain McGilchrist ━ The European Conservative

Iain McGilchrist and D C Schindler: Is Love the Source and Sustenance of Everything in the Universe? – YouTube