The Matter With Things

I have spent many happy hours reading Iain McGilchrist’s magnum opus The Matter With Things. This is probably the largest and most expensive book (in two volumes) that I have ever read or bought, at 1578 pages, including appendices and an extensive bibliography, and a cost in the region £75-£90 (hardback), although there is apparently a cheaper Kindle edition. Why did I do this? Because I was inspired by his previous book The Master and His Emissary, which seemed to capture something very important about the predicament we find ourselves in today. See my review of that book here.

Also, I was inspired by hearing the man himself speaking in some of the videos produced by the Scientific & Medical Network. You can see some of these yourself on the website Channel McGilchrist. This man inspires by the depth of his erudition and the lengths to which he has gone to make his case. The Matter With Things took ten years of his life and provides a comprehensive justification and amplification of the theory in that earlier book. It speaks with equal erudition on neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, physics…

This is not really a book for the general reader; it does require interested effort and perseverance to complete, but I found the effort well repaid. When Iain presented his first draft to his publisher, the reaction was that it needed major editing and perhaps removal of references. He refused and chose to publish it himself. All the research and references were of importance.

I have no intention of trying any sort of summary. Perhaps the important point remains that first presented in The Master and his Emissary. We have these two modes of knowing about things: essentially rational and intuitive, which correspond strongly with left brain and right brain respectively. The proper mode of working of the human being involves both modes: initiation with intuition, working it through with rationality, and validating again with intuition.

Today’s problem is that the rational left brain has in many people significantly lost touch with the intuitive right, which is what grounds us in reality. The left tries to go its own way and ignore the right (the Emissary usurps the Master). We see the results all around in massive narcissism, and lost participation in the natural world, to the degree that we are apparently rather rapidly degrading it. The abstraction of the map has become more important than the reality of the territory.

In marshalling the evidence the book ranges widely over many fields. The first part considers the means to truth – attention, perception, judgement, intelligence (emotional social and cognitive) and creativity. The second part considers the paths to truth related to the brain hemispheres – science, reason and intuition. The third and final part considers the nature of reality, including the significance of opposites, the one and the many – parts and wholes, time, space, matter and consciousness, value, purpose of life and the nature of the cosmos, and the sense of the sacred. Wow.

Having seen various videos of the man in conversation, I found the experience of reading these volumes to be like having an ongoing conversation with an erudite and wise man – an enjoyable and educational experience.

McGilchrist sees this culmination of his life’s work to be the presentation and ‘proving’ of his theories, in an academic sense – there are just so many references, all beautifully laid out near the relevant text. Who can say that this is not a vital endeavour for humanity? These ideas are important!

Gödel, Maths and Physics

Edmund M. Law has some fascinating posts on his blog. A recent one had the following quote from Freeman Dyson.

Fifty years ago, Kurt Gödel, who afterwards became one of Einstein’s closest friends, proved that the world of pure mathematics is inexhaustible. No finite set of axioms and rules of inference can ever encompass the whole of mathematics. Given any finite set of axioms, we can find meaningful mathematical questions which the axioms leave unanswered. This discovery of Gödel came at first as an unwelcome shock to many mathematicians. It destroyed once and for all the hope that they could solve the problem of deciding by a systematic procedure the truth or falsehood of any mathematical statement. {53} After the initial shock was over, the mathematicians realized that Gödel’s theorem, in denying them the possibility of a universal algorithm to settle all questions, gave them instead a guarantee that mathematics can never die. No matter how far mathematics progresses and no matter how many problems are solved, there will always be, thanks to Gödel, fresh questions to ask and fresh ideas to discover.

It is my hope that we may be able to prove the world of physics as inexhaustible as the world of mathematics. Some of our colleagues in particle physics think that they are coming close to a complete understanding of the basic laws of nature. They have indeed made wonderful progress in the last ten years. But I hope that the notion of a final statement of the laws of physics will prove as illusory as the notion of a formal decision process for all of mathematics. If it should turn out that the whole of physical reality can be described by a finite set of equations, I would be disappointed.

— Freeman J. Dyson, Infinite in all Directions, 1985

Law presents this under the heading ‘Inexhaustible Mysteries’. To me, it’s just important to be reminded of Gödel’s Theorem from time to time. Mathematics is inherently open-ended, and I believe the implication is also that physics is also open ended. We can never have a model that fully describes reality. There will always be more for mathematicians and physicists to do.

Equally, we will never have a perfect economic system. There will always be space for economists and politicians. And those who seek single solutions to complex problems (e.g. ‘free markets’) are inherently misguided.

See also my post on Godel’s Theorem.

Picture of the tomb of Kurt Godel in the Princeton, New Jersey, cemetery by Antonio G Colombo, from Wikimedia Commons. What a legacy!

Mapping the Universe

I love Mekhi and Joe’s posts on physics on the blog Rationalising the Universe, which brings me more up to date on the enthusiasms for mathematics, physics and cosmology of my youth. But I had to take issue with the conclusion of the recent interesting post on What is a Field, which ended with the following statement:

There we have it, space is no longer a separate entity, space is a field and the universe now consists of fields and particles alone.

That’s exciting. Newton set the ball rolling on mathematical models of the universe, and the current mathematical model of the universe has now simplified to just fields and particles.

But look at the statement again. It says “the universe now consists of…”. Well actually it doesn’t, and I suggest that we still have little idea of ‘what the universe consists of’. But we do have a great model that explains what we see and can measure in a reasonably consistent manner.

The point is

“The map is not the territory”

Alfred Korzybski, 1931

Featured image from the blog Rationalising the Universe

What Newton really thought

Alert readers of this blog may have realised that I am reading Henri Bortoft’s book Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought. Bortoft throws interesting insight into the role of Isaac Newton in creating the modern scientific world, confirming Edi Bilimoria’s article mentioned in an earlier post.

Isaac Newton basically invented modern mathematical physics in his masterwork, Principia Mathematica (1687). To the theory of atomism and mechanical philosophy he added the notion of forces which act between bodies that are not in contact.

Bortoft suggests that from the eighteenth century onwards,  gravity began to be thought of as a ‘property of matter’, as if it were an attractive force inherent to matter. This is not what Newton thought. He did not believe in attraction as a real, physical, force.

For example, in a letter Newton said:

Pray do not ascribe that notion to me, for the cause of gravity is what I do not pretend to know and therefore would take more time to consider of it… Gravity must be caused by an agent acting constantly according to certain laws, but whether this agent be material or immaterial I have left to the consideration of my readers.

So Newton’s major discovery was to the effect that we could create mathematical models of the real world, what we now call ‘physics’. Subsequent founders of modern science were dedicated to the mathematical approach to nature, but ultimately the ascendancy of the mathematical was accompanied by the downgrading of the sensory and increasingly seeing the world as a mathematical abstraction. To many scientists the world became de-spiritualised and dead.

This was not Newton’s intention, although his name is often invoked as the originator of such a viewpoint.