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The Matter With Things. 2


Last night I finished reading Iain McGilchrist's The Matter With Things, Our Brains, our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World, the biggest book I have ever read, in all senses of the word "biggest". Back in 2017 I wrote about books which had been important to me, and, however I would recompile that list now, The Matter With Things would go straight to the top. Really. It's that good. I've read every word: no skipping or coming to and realising that my eyes have been glazed over for the past ten minutes. It's taken me a couple of months to engage  with its 1300 or so pages of text, and, as well, there are another couple of hundred pages of  appendices and bibliography (well, OK, I haven't read the bibliography). At the end of the book proper there is an epilogue which is a "so what" chapter in which McGilchrist speculates about the implications of his hemispheric theory for the world in the immediate future. This epilogue is preceded by a very short coda in which he sketches the outline of the argument of the book, without paraphrasing or repeating it. This coda is a reminder that The Matter With Things, though it is presented as 3 parts in 2 volumes, is actually one connected argument. 

The first two parts of the book are contained in volume 1 and concern themselves with our engagement with the universe: firstly, how we connect with the universe and gain information/knowledge about it, covering such issues as attention, perception, judgement, emotional, social and cognitive intelligence and creativity; then, in part 2, with the ways we deal with knowledge, in which he asks the question what is truth? and addresses issues such as science and the scientific method, reason, logic, intuition and imagination. The first volume, which I talked about in my last blog post about the book, contained enough revelation for me to think I had got more than my money's worth from the somewhat eye watering purchase price, but it has been the second volume which has been, for me, the most important.

The second volume contains the various addenda and part 3 which is about the bigger issues; Titled The Unforseen Nature of Reality, it addresses topics such as the way our consciousness is structured and how it comes to be. It talks of the nature of reality itself and the issue which has confounded physicists for more than a hundred years now: the counter intuitive properties of matter, including the links matter has with consciousness. This third part of the book addresses issues such as time, flow and movement, space and matter, Value and Purpose. It ends by addressing issues of spirituality and the sense of the sacred. There is very little in this third part - and indeed in the book as a whole - that I haven't encountered before, but what Iain McGilchrist has done for me is to take the scattered fragments of my understanding, expand and deepen them, provide them with support, in the kind of carefully annotated sources which my particular personality generally skips over, and weave them into a coherent whole. 

I have an image which arose within me during the reading of the book. Iain McGilchrist hands me a large box. I open it to find it contains jigsaw puzzle pieces. I examine them and see that they are, by and large, familiar to me, though they are bigger and more complex than I remembered and there are quite a few new ones. I sit down and over the space of a couple of months put them together. When I am finished I am astonished to find that I have constructed not a picture, but a mirror. I look into that mirror and am enthralled, excited, appalled and devastated in equal measure. I see myself anew (Oh wow! Oh shit! Really?), and see, also, those around me. I also see, reflected back, the world I live in and it is not same world I thought I inhabited a couple of months ago. 

I am comfortable with... no... excited, overjoyed with the picture of the world displayed to me. I'm not going to unpack all of that here: after all, it took Iain McGilchrist 1500 pages to do it, and he's brighter than me, so why do I think I can do it in a few lines? But I will suggest some of the boundaries. McGilchrist argues for the absolute reality of time, and for consciousness being foundational in the structure of the universe. As theories go, these are not as controversial as they might have been a few decades ago. More controversially he argues also that value is foundational, and for a panentheist spirituality. He follows Whitehead and others in seeing the universe, consciousness, and matter as process rather than material. He explores the role of paradox, and the tensions inherent in dipolar oppositions in the formation of all that is. The ideas are complex, often counter-intuitive and sometimes challenging, but his aim is to communicate, and his prose is well crafted and always accessible, even to those without deep knowledge of the various disciplines (psychology, philosophy, biology, physics, literature, history, amongst others) that he draws from.

He has many sources. He has been heavily influenced by the French Philosopher Henri Bergson, and also by William James. He quotes extensively from most of the great figures in early 20th C physics, but also from contemporary physicist Lee Smolin. He is a huge fan of Wordsworth and is deeply informed by  music. His range of quoted sources is encyclopaedic and contains, all the usual suspects: Jung, Freud, Darwin, Planck, Boeme and Bohm, Shroedinger, Sartre and Shakespeare; but also, surprisingly and delightfully, such names as David Bentley Hart, Gerard Manley Hopkins, N T Wright and C S Lewis. He is  clinically devastating to Richard Dawkins, religious zealots (including the new atheists) and to identity politics of every persuasion. He puts up a pretty convincing case for Quantum Wave Theory, and another against the Multiverse hypothesis. He speaks of some counter intuitive concepts: the ontological precedence of movement and of relationship over those things that are moved or which relate, for instance, and that matter arises from consciousness, and not the usually supposed vice versa. 

Central to this book is the hemispheric hypothesis: that we have in effect, two brains, and that they perceive the world in two seemingly paradoxical ways.  To grossly oversimplify, the right brain is the one which engages us with the universe. It sees wholes. It is good at engaging us with the gestalt of things: their completeness and their engagement with the universe. It is comfortable with paradox and works by way of metaphor. The left brain processes and orders the universe that is perceived by the right brain. It apprehends what the right brain comprehends. It is focused and oriented to order and to language. It organises things sequentially and perceives things. It is concerned with  analysis, order and control. Our two brains operate together: the Right brain gathers data, passes it to the Left which structures it and then, in turn, passes it back to the Right so that the new construct can be integrated with the wholeness of the perceived universe.

This process is demonstrated for me in my encounter with the The Matter With Things. This book's main point (along with its predecessor, The Master and his Emissary) is that the primary hemisphere of our brains is the Right, and the Left is a complement but not an equal.  On a global scale, over the past millennium or so, and to our great cost, the Left Hemisphere has usurped the Right Hemisphere as master and the view of the Left Hemisphere has come to dominate our culture. McGilchrist argues for a reinstatement of the proper balance, and a recovery of the primacy of the Right Hemisphere. Of course, this is a very wordy and a very orderly book, so reading it (as, I suppose, was writing it) is very much a Left Hemisphere activity. The perceptions I have had of the world, accumulated over decades of reading and thinking and talking, have been gathered up and given shape. My Right Hemisphere has, in the reading of the book,  delivered the pieces to the Left, who has reconstructed them for me. The new construction was last night handed back to me, and  I now begin the work of reintegrating this new pattern into my broad perception of the universe. 

I'm not sure yet quite how to go about that, but I know the process has already begun. I want to return to people I read years ago, and who have been recalled by McGilchrist: Tielhard de Chardin, James North Whitehead and Lee Smolin. I want to acquaint myself with the work of Henri Bergson. But firstly what I think I might do is have a wee break. Let things settle. Chat to friends. Then, maybe around the end of the year, read The Matter With Things again.  


Anonymous said…
I haven’t read the book, but the idea of reverse time flow (future to past) seems to avoid the disordered time sequence problem of the Delayed Choice Double Slit Experiment. If time does flow from future to past at the quantum level then everyone has two life paths! For example, your quantum biography could be a retired bishop/photographer becomes a bishop. Then later the bishop becomes a priest who attends St John’s searching for meaning. Finally this now young man finds himself in a church in Wellington and has an encounter with God.
On the quantum level you had lived an exciting and inspirational life. On the Classical level a bit more predictable..
Kelvin Wright said…
I know that it is mathematically possible that the arrow of time could move either way, but not within the same (theoretical) universe. What you are proposing is a version of the Many Worlds hypothesis (albeit with only 2 worlds) and the solution runs into the 2 great problems of the MWH: 1. Occam's Razor - proposing the existence of entire universes to avoid perceived problems in our calculations is a very uneconomical solution; and, 2. So what? If other universes exist they can't interact with our own one, otherwise they would just be part of the one universe and the problems they purport to solve lie unaddressed. So a universe where time flows backwards? Possible I suppose, but who would ever know? and the Benjamin Button character in that universe who is a sort of reverse image of me isn't me. And to propose a flow of time running both ways within this universe, even at a quantum level would cause more problems than it would solve.

As far as the counter intuitive aspects of double slit experiments go, a far simpler solution, and to me a more plausible one is Quantum Wave Theory. And I would agree with Iain McGilchrist that time in the only universe we know is foundational; it isn't a thing but a (for want of a better term)dimension of the movement out of which the universe arises; it only moves one way.
Anonymous said…
I do not think the multi-verse theory is credible either. I am sorry you thought I was suggesting it. In the Delayed Choice Experiment information travels back in time in this one universe. That at the Classical Level time only travels forward but at the quantum level time can or does travel backwards. The key point here is that observation in the Delayed Choice experiment has an effect in the future and the past. This being an experimental fact, then decisions in the present time effect not only the future but also the past as well.

Is there any evidence that we can change the past by actions in the present? (Sounds absurd I know.) The only evidence I can think of for the present changing the past is anecdotal based on the way that history is constantly morphing. From a Christian viewpoint there is Jesus saying he is the Alpha and Omega. To “wipe all the tears” from our eyes Jesus would need to start at the end of time a work back to the beginning to undo all the world’s wrongs. In any case, what we do in the here and now is more important than most think.

Kelvin Wright said…
The delayed choice, or “eraser” experiments are certainly fascinating, but I think Quantum Wave Theory explains the apparent paradox without supposing time anomalies. Even without QWT, superposition would give a plausible explanation for the experiments I know of - Wheeler in the late 1990s and another later one by some Chinese physicists .

Iain McGilchrist’s view of time is a bit complex to try and expand here, but he does suggest that the present (which for him is not a spatially analogous “thing” or a point similar to a spatial point such as you might have on some infinite line) can be influenced by the future, and can in turn influence the past.
Kristin Jack said…
Fascinating discussion & ideas. I’m currently writing an historical-novel in which the main protagonists are J Calvin (God’s wrath towards man’s depravity, God’s sovereignty/predestination) & his protégé turned critic Sebastian Castellio (God’s loving mercy & man’s free-will / moral choices). After Geneva’s burning of Michael Servetus for having an unorthodox concept of the Trinity, a literary battle broke out between Castellio & Calvin, which of course a Calvin won - not because of better arguments but he had so much more power & control (to the point that Castellio’s writings & name have essentially erased from church history). Castellio was one of the first (as far as we know) to write about the need for freedom of conscience & belief & the inadmissibility of force for those who claim to follow Jesus. Anyway- I’d love to hear your thoughts on the classic freewill v predestination paradox & argument. Blessings- Kristin Jack

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