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Beyond the Scientific Revolution: Ian McGilchrist’s “The Matter With Things”

Richard Cocks at VoegelinView

While the scientific revolution produced many benefits, the scientific perspective omits purpose and value, without which life is meaningless. With The Matter With Things, Iain McGilchrist makes a valuable contribution to the body of poetry, literature, psychology, and philosophy that has rebelled against scientism and sought to give a more expansive, spiritual, and humane view of us and the cosmos. His deep understanding of the way the left and right hemispheres of our brains deal with the world provides a useful framework for thinking about what gets left out of the scientific worldview. Even were the hemispheric differences to be understood as a metaphor, and they are far more than that, McGilchrist has provided a vocabulary for referring to things which are by their nature hard to express or point at. The process began with The Master and His Emissary but is taken much further with The Matter With Things. Interestingly, some of what has taken place culturally and linguistically has rather exact parallels in the realm of madness and developmentally derived mental pathologies. His fellow psychiatrist, to whom McGilchrist appeals, Louis A. Sass, author of Madness and Modernity, concurs. The cynics and skeptics, those lacking imagination, those convinced that humans are robots and nothing more, have the easy task of heaping contempt on those of us who are none of those things. This teenage mode of asserting one’s superiority; the ones who consider themselves willing to face the truth that man is “nothing but” a mechanical doll; a collection of atoms and molecules following its programming, resembles, in significant ways, the schizophrenic, the autistic, and the psychopathic. The first two, at least, have trouble recognizing the reality of both themselves and other people. The right hemisphere is responsible for our intuitive sense of the reality of the world around us, and this sense can be compromised when things go wrong and these abilities are harmed.

Majoring in analytic philosophy, for the non-autistically inclined, can indeed feel like entering a madhouse. The apparent message? Life is far less interesting than you think it is. Professors strip any meaning, significance, or interest from any subject to which they turn their minds. “Writer” in Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie Stalker, avers that UFOs, telepathy, and the Bermuda Triangle do not exist. Everything is boring. And, if it turns out that alien civilizations exist, they will be boring, too. Writer might be right about UFOs, etc. But, anything that excites the imagination and produces wonder can be good if taken in the right way. King Arthur and Atlantis might or might not be fiction, but what material they give us to ponder! To what other thoughts may they lead?

Zamyatin’s We has much the same critique of the left hemisphere preferences of certain types of people. Having initially supported the Russian revolution, three years of living under Lenin’s dictatorship enlightened him as to the error of his ways, and We was his response. It was immediately banned – indicating that it hit rather too close to home. In Zamyatin’s dystopian novel, everything is to be rational and planned. Crooked roads are to be made straight. Anything natural or wild is to be walled off and happiness is to be achieved by making it compulsory. Those parts of the brain leading to questioning the order imposed on the population, or wishing to escape from rigid thinking and regimentation, were to be surgically removed. And which part was that? The imagination.

The truly great cultural changing scientists exhibit imagination in spades. They use their intuition, insight, inspiration, and creativity – all the things the lesser scientists and their philosophical followers despise – either overtly or in practice. McGilchrist has copious quotations from those geniuses decrying their narrow-minded and less able brethren, though their chidings seem to do no good.

There is a certain mindset that imagines that science is the only way to discover the truth, though science itself says no such thing. And that all important questions will be answered by recourse to science, which again is not a scientific claim. Arguing with such people is most probably a lost cause. So, is McGilchrist preaching to the converted? To a large degree; yes. If The Matter With Things is on Daniel Dennett’s reading list, it would be most surprising.

However, The Matter With Things can serve two purposes. One is to reassure and restore the confidence to those whose psyche is dominated by the right hemisphere, as all healthy brains are. No. You are not crazy. Quite the reverse. The other would be to convince the still young and immature that the really smart people embrace humor, dreams, insight, intuition, understanding, purpose, meaning, creativity, imagination, emotion, metaphor, and they do so without embarrassment. They do not disparage the contributions of the left hemisphere; logic, analysis, language, and clarity. But, they recognize them as tools in service of parts of the mind that frequently resist analysis; that, in fact, analysis destroys, such as humor. The problem-solving abilities of the right hemisphere frequently rely on sleep and specifically REM sleep (dreams). The resulting insights emerge from the subconscious to the conscious mind. Exactly what it has been doing before surfacing is unknown. But, since knowledge begins in the realm of mystery before it becomes the known and light of day, this seems entirely appropriate.

Success at manipulating the world is attained through the left hemisphere. But, to comprehend it and to see it as it is, writes McGilchrist, takes the right hemisphere. We ourselves are part of reality. Any errors in understanding the world become even worse when it comes to misunderstanding our own nature. The scientistic tendency is to imagine that we are machines merely because only mechanism is visible from the left hemisphere perspective. We denigrate ourselves and all humanity when we think in this manner. Once we get past the idea that nature consists of senseless particles, science can improve, but science is incapable of dealing with all the dimensions of the human being simply because it is so partial.

While The Matter With Things is a richly rewarding book, the reader might or might not find McGilchrist’s view of God appealing. He rejects what he calls an “engineering God” in favor of something like Alfred North Whitehead’s “creative advance into novelty.” This involves the idea that there is an engine of creation within nature itself. The divine is within nature, not imposed from without. The tendency of the universe over time has been to spontaneously produce ever greater order and complexity; an idea that seems related to the title of Robert Bly’s beautiful collation of poetry – The Soul Is Here For Its Own Joy. Nature too seems overflowing and exuberant, realizing potentialities hidden within it. That all seems appealing enough, but as to whether there is room for a transcendent and divine realm, whether an aspect of God could be a Person, whether our sojourn on Earth is only part of the soul’s journey to be continued in the afterlife, seems to be answered in the negative. This seems to be because for McGilchrist a disembodied soul is anathema. We are always embodied and the body has its own wisdom and contributions. One might counter that the idea of a spiritual body in the afterlife is a commonplace idea and no one thinks of the afterlife as consisting of free-floating invisible minds. The thoughtful Australian rock musician, Nick Cave, one of whose sons died in an accident, writes that his wife frequently dreams of her dead son. They meet and embrace and she is filled with a sense of his presence, but they do not talk because communication does not require words where her son resides. Those who experience near death experiences also frequently testify as to the continuance of existence after death. Deathbed visitations too are a commonplace. Ministers of religion often have people confiding to them that they have been visited by deceased loved ones in spiritually embodied form exactly resembling their bodies during life. These stories are frequently otherwise kept private for fear of being thought mad. Dostoevsky has a character in Crime and Punishment, Svidrigailov, who claims to have been visited by his dead wife, Marfa Petrovna, three times. In Part IV, Chapter I, he describes her as walking into the room and asking casually, “Good day, Arkady Ivanovitch! How do you like my dress?” Svidrigailov says; “She stood turning round before me. I looked at the dress, and then I looked carefully, very carefully, at her face. ‘I wonder you trouble to come to me about such trifles, Marfa Petrovna.’ ‘Good gracious, you won’t let one disturb you about anything!’” When Raskolnikov suggests he see a doctor, Svidrigailov comments that perhaps only the sick can see the existence of another world. Dostoevsky himself had mystical experiences filled with infinite meaning and significance shortly before his episodes of epilepsy, so there is a reason for thinking he might be sympathetic to such an idea.

However, even if one feels as though McGilchrist’s theology is incomplete and presents a partial picture only, this does not mar what he does say unduly.

McGilchrist describes a Heraclitan world of motion, order, the implicit, complexity, potential, and continuity. He argues that their opposites have no real existence and only constitute limit cases – approached, but never reached. There is no true stasis, or randomness, or the completely explicit, or the completely actual, though things can draw near those states.

Experience of the world is direct, but partial. The left hemisphere re-presents the world, but with the right hemisphere, the world is present to us. We play a role in bringing what we experience about. In our experience, potentialities of the world come to actuality. Dewey would say we foreground out of a background. McGilchrist refers approvingly to Dewey at several points in the book, but as a naturalist, Dewey’s experiential realism does not fit his metaphysics. What is more than matter? God, the transcendent, the divine, the spiritual and Dewey rejects all of that. (See Dewey’s A Common Faith.) Dewey helps himself to a concept, experiential realism, that his impoverished naturalistic metaphysics makes impossible.

Several times McGilchrist says “relationship exists before what is related.” Perhaps, this is supposed to be an example of a right hemisphere paradox that should be tolerated. It certainly seems like, logically, relationship and relata are mutually constituting; neither existing without the other. Giving relationship temporal priority over relata seems to imply a view of individuality emerging from monism. But, monism has no “relationships” within it, and makes love impossible; there being no lover and beloved. So, the maxim seems rather unlovely!

A key idea for McGilchrist is that the world we experience and know is affected by the kind of attention we pay it. The attention of the right hemisphere is a richer one than the left. Yet, individual animals whose hemispheres are not sufficiently differentiated have a competitive disadvantage. So, one must not disparage the left hemisphere as an undesirable thing, but just remember that the perspective taken in manipulating the world should not be used for trying to comprehend that world. Heidegger complained that the instrumental worldview looks at a forest only to estimate how many planks of wood could be gleaned from it. Too much is lost if we do not prioritize the point of view of the right hemisphere with the left playing a secondary role. For the schizophrenic or autistic, however, this manner of perception might not be possible.

Philosophy means the love of wisdom. Plato’s contemplation of the Form of the Good, or the insight into reality gained from mystical insight, whether that of a Zen Buddhist or Meister Eckhart, is not itself wisdom. Aristotle writes that phronesis is necessary for being a flourishing person. Translating phronesis as “practical wisdom,” as it is usually done, makes it sound like there is some other kind, but there is not. The concept of wisdom necessarily includes the ethical, practical, and embodied. No hypocrite is wise. A psychopath or a heroin addict is not wise. A three-year old is not wise. Aristotle writes that to “hit the target” in life one must do the right thing, at the right time, in the right way, towards the right person, and for the right reason. To do all that means paying attention to concrete situations involving specific people with their particular qualities. To get to be wise, one must be smart, observant, and experienced with good engrained habits. One cannot rely on algorithms and rules. Instead, context is everything. Doing the right thing in one context cannot be extrapolated to all other domains.

Much of what is required for wisdom involves the right hemisphere in particular; the attributes of which are much maligned in modern times. Much of what McGilchrist is trying to do can usefully be conceived of as righting this imbalance and showing what is required for wisdom and thus philosophy. Being wise requires, among other things, right hemisphere intuition, emotion, imagination, the concrete, problem-solving, and the unique. A professor could deliver an excellent lecture on the topic of wisdom, but if he does not embody the Greek virtues of justice, moderation, generosity, and courage, he is not wise. At most, he could be clever or knowledgeable. An immoral, intemperate, miserly, scared person is not wise. And a hyperscrupulous, boorish, profligate, rash person is not wise either. The Greek virtues must be exhibited to the right degree – neither too much nor too little – to be virtuous at all. All this is familiar to anyone who has taught Aristotle, but it is possible not to realize that this account of wisdom is not some weird “practical” subspecies of wisdom, but wisdom in its entirety. Phronesis is closer to the techne of the craftsman than the abstract universal knowledge of episteme. Homer referred to the “sophia” of the shipbuilder too, so sophia and phronesis can be usefully conflated.

The reason the analytic philosopher is not a philosopher is that he is content to be clever, cynical, and to win arguments; to entertain skepticism and outlandish thought experiments, but who, like Hume, leaves his speculations in the classroom, office, and study, and never even contemplates trying to live in accordance with his speculations. Such people are known to say things like, “I’m a determinist, but, of course, it’s impossible to live without pretending to have free will.” Any normal reasonable person should be free to conclude that this hypocrite is not a determinist in real life at all, but merely a poser.

For those of us who love philosophy, McGilchrist can help get us back on track and provides a language to do this. It is interesting that he possibly shares the same caveat one should bear in mind concerning Aristotle – that his conception of the divine might not be fully adequate for some. With Aristotle, his god is strangely unlovable; what F. M. Cornford called the philosopher’s god. An autistic, self-centered logical necessity and First Cause that leaves it unanswered why the Cosmos should hope to emulate his “perfection,” seeming as he does, to be most imperfect. The reader will have to decide if McGilchrist’s picture similarly lacks a conception of the divine worthy of inspiring emulation and providing solace in what can, at times, seem a nightmarish world.

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