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!

Modes of knowing

In his magnum opus, The Matter with Things, Iain McGilchrist identifies Henri Bergson as a major contibutor to the understanding of the way we human beings know about the world.

Essentially, there are two modes of knowing, which I will characterise in a word as intuition and rationality. Intuition is to do with direct perception of the world and understanding what is needed; rationality is to do with language and analysis, rationalising about the world. Intuition ‘presences’ in the world; rationality ‘re-presents’ the world in its own terms.

These two modes were well understood by many thinkers of the past. In the early 1900s these included Bergson, William James, Einstein (see featured quote) and other quantum pioneers. In earlier times, for example, the Romantic movement of such as Wordsworth and Coleridge strove to emphasise the continued importance of direct perception in an encroaching world of rationality. The two modes are also well understood in the world of astrology, where the planet Jupiter represents the faculty of direct perception/ intuition, whereas Mercury represents rational/ analytical intelligence.

What neurologist/psychologist/philosopher Iain McGilchrist adds to this picture is the correlation of the intuitive intelligence with the right brain, and of rationality with the left brain – emerging from modern studies in neurology.

Humans evolved with these two different capabilities because they were necessary for survival. For instance, a hunt might have involved analytical planning to get in the right place to hunt, but intuitive perceptions of the dangers posed by other wild animals in the area. We rely on the combination of these two intelligences.

However, contrary to what you might think, there is no symmetry between the two in terms of their function. Intuition grounds us in the real world; rationality theorises about it. Our intelligence is powerful because the two co-operate – intuition suggests an approach; rationality evaluates and proposes the way to go; then intuition confirms – intuition is the Master.

The disturbing thing about left brain rationality, spotted by Bergson and others, is that it does not necessarily see the need for grounded intuition at all. In this extreme case it usurps the role of the right hemisphere, the intuition and the connection with the real world. The map becomes the territory. A world of abstraction is confused for reality itself. This was the theme of McGilchrist’s previous book The Master and His Emissary – the left brain messenger taking over and ignoring the right brain connection with reality.

Looking at today’s world, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is essentially what has happened to humanity in the large. Our connection with reality, with planet earth, is being slowly destroyed by the left-brain machinations of politics, capitalism, business, technology, consumerism. It will all end in tears for many people and many species of life; indeed it already has.

Yet we still each have those intuitive right brains and there will always be those who know the way to go, who love nature, the earth, their fellow beings, who fight the good fight against left brain extremism. This is the dance of life, and the peculiar destiny of human beings…