A Brain of Two Minds: On Iain McGilchrist’s “The Matter with Things”

January 8, 2023   •   By Rowan Williams

The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World

Iain McGilchrist

ON PAGE 99 of the first of two overwhelmingly detailed and sophisticated volumes published in November 2021 under the title The Matter with Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World, you will find a couple of visual images that indicate, more vividly than any verbal summary, the foundational problem that their author, Iain McGilchrist, sets out to address. Some regions of the brain focus on “granular” questions, the exact representation and configuration of detailed local perceptions, while others enable the mapping of such perceptions in complex mutual relations, both in time and space. If the former regions are affected by lesions or dysfunctions of any kind — strokes, tumors — quite a lot of what we regard as normal perception survives. If the latter are inhibited or disabled, the result is chaos.

The images show us these different effects in unambiguous form. Given a “target stimulus,” an image of a letter or number composed of disjoined smaller items, trial subjects with right cranial hemisphere dysfunction produced copies showing the overall shape of the initial image, while subjects with left cranial dysfunction simply sketched amorphous clusters of the discrete smaller items making up the figure.

On the same page, there is an even more graphic instance: a patient with a tumor inhibiting the right hemisphere has been presented with a picture of a human figure cut up so that head, torso, and limbs are separated. Invited to reassemble the whole body, the patient’s response is a confused medley, with the torso inverted and the arms emerging from the hips. Countless further examples are described and reproduced here — including instances from the work of visual artists who have experienced serious cerebral incidents, showing how a skilled and fluid representational style can give way, after right-hemisphere damage, to strange proportions and perspectives and general “spatial dislocation” — or, after left-hemisphere damage, to what is described in one case as “something more visceral, less intellectual,” both emotionally deeper and formally looser.

This is not only about visual representation. There is plenty of clinical narrative to illustrate the effect of cerebral dysfunction on the perception of one’s own body and the bodies of others. (Some readers will recall the pioneering writing of Oliver Sacks on these matters.) Someone may be unable to recognize that the object lying beside their torso is their own arm. Very significantly for the overall argument, McGilchrist notes that a number of subjects living with right-hemisphere damage and experiencing effects like these will attempt obsessively to produce rationalizations of their disrupted perceptions — “confabulations.” They may be unable to accept or appropriate for themselves logical argumentation that ought to show them that their reading of their environment is distorted. A long discussion of schizophrenic and “autistic” conditions notes and explores how these can display comparable effects, linked with right-hemisphere dysfunction.

In brief, then, it looks very much as though the characteristic activity of the right hemisphere is the construction of those frameworks that enable us to see our environment in a continuous way — as an environment in which local items of perception are assembled into both intelligible and durable form. The very idea of having/being a body depends on the proper functioning of the right hemisphere, without which we cannot plot our relationships with other continuous and three-dimensional objects. We cannot act with either temporal or spatial intelligence. We may see details, but we cannot learn the strategies we need to cope with a world in which things both move and retain intelligible shape.

McGilchrist admits that “lateralization” (the associating of disparate functions with the brain’s two hemispheres) is not the solitary silver bullet that will solve our puzzles about consciousness. The brain’s remarkable capacity to adjust and repurpose its components to deal with damage should warn us against simplistic stories of left and right brain as representing “intuitive” versus “rational” modes of engagement. But he is right to stress that the extent of functional lateralization and its correlations with various kinds of familiar dysfunction still needs a lot more exploring and has in many contexts been oddly neglected.

It is telling that some of the critical responses to this work, as well as to McGilchrist’s 2009 treatise The Master and His Emissary, illustrate so vividly some of the skewed perceptions under discussion. McGilchrist could be forgiven for responding “I rest my case” in the face of some of these. He has been charged with oversimplifying the neurological evidence, setting up a “Manichaean” duality between a “good” right brain and a malign left brain, or deploying an implicitly deterministic neuroscientific narrative in order to undermine deterministic scientism. The inconsistency (and, it must be said, superficiality) of many such responses strongly suggests that some of his readers have missed the essential and more or less unarguable point: human consciousness functions adequately through the workings of different areas of the cerebral cortex, and when some of these workings are privileged over others in our account of how and what we know, we make ourselves, more than ever, strangers in our world, and we become more dangerously incompetent in our handling of it.

When two factors — the inability of a subject with right-brain damage to join up perceptions, and the shrinkage of any awareness of how the passage of time affects our knowing and imagining — combine, they imprison us in a frozen present moment of disjointed impressions that we can hold together only by acts of arbitrary will. While there has been a certain amount of grumbling about broad cultural conclusions being drawn from this, it is hard to deny that this rings uncomfortable bells regarding contemporary intellectual and moral habits. McGilchrist’s discussions of the nature of truth (and of the assumptions made by “institutional science”) lucidly analyze the peculiarly toxic split that is now discernible in the “Western” intellectual world: either truth is the sum total of exact and localized states of affairs, subject to empirical scrutiny in one or other kind of laboratory situation, or it is a relic of premodern superstitions allied with power relations, which must be contested over and over again in the name of autonomous self-definition. Mechanistic science, postmodern critiques of normative discourses, and sheer self-serving “post-truth” rhetoric can exhibit a worrying degree of symbiosis in the cognitive soup of late capitalism.

McGilchrist has a somewhat exasperated appendix on “public science” at the end of his first volume, laying out the leaps and non sequiturs in statistical reasoning that so often shape the confident claims reported in the media about “scientific” advice on health. And he earlier has some disturbing pages on the relative ease with which inadequately supported claims or even deliberate hoaxes can slip through peer review in an oppressively overcrowded field. As he says, the honest admission of institutional flaws and the need to expose bad and lazy science is not only compatible with respect for scientific method but also essential to its credibility and survival. One unintended consequence of too much loose talk about “following the science” is to feed a dangerous skepticism about scientific method itself when the results of scientific research fail to give us the certainties we wanted. If science has been presented as a god, then — to borrow a phrase from disillusioned communists of a few generations ago — it can readily become another “god that failed”: it can be seen as a wholly deluded and destructive project.

McGilchrist’s nuanced cautions and cautionary tales about some kinds of scientific establishments and their groupthink have nothing to do with this scapegoating of scientific expertise (and its replacement by cosmetic, politically motivated fictions); his aim is to demythologize science for us. As with “reason,” we need a larger and subtler picture of the range of activities we are actually talking about, with their in-built fallibilities as well as their massively impressive self-correcting protocols and checks. There is, therefore, pace some of McGilchrist’s hastier critics, nothing odd about appealing to experimental science as part of an argument designed to put such science in its proper place.

The author finds plenty of allies in the history of philosophy, from Plato to Cardinal Newman, Whitehead, and Wittgenstein. The essentialism that insists on rationality as a definable universal quality accessible to all right-thinking people has to give way to a more differentiated understanding of how and why different kinds of information exchange are traceable in different contexts. A good deal of McGilchrist’s second volume explores the ways in which static rationalisms can never cope with a world that is both coherent and surprising. And there is a recurrent theme to do with the risks of conceiving reasoning as an activity performed by free-floating individuals working on a mass of phenomena considered as wholly passive and distanced from the observer. Awareness that we are acted upon in our search for truthful speech, and that our action is part of, or in varying degrees attuned to, currents outside the individual reasoning subject, is vital if we are to avoid perpetuating the fiction that absolute control of our environment is a desirable and possible goal. Truthful thinking repeatedly returns to the recognition of its limits — and so also of its possibilities. Thought takes time; encountering a limit suggests new questions — including the question of whether we have thus far been asking the right questions. Thinking develops, but that does not mean that it follows a linear path towards determinatively complete representation. It must, by its very nature, manage and reflect upon its own incompleteness and the inescapability of difficulty and mystery.

And so, unsurprisingly, the second volume of The Matter with Things leads us into considerations about “the sacred.” The chapter on this subject is as long as a short book in itself. It is both the natural conclusion to the argument up to this point and a springboard for further refinement of the themes of the whole project. McGilchrist has no difficulty in seeing off the high-school-debating-society arguments of fashionable atheists (and has some pertinent things to say about the imagined tension between science and religion in another appendix). He quotes with malicious relish from one or two famous names in this field, to demonstrate the intolerant and philosophically crude way in which some polemicists have foreclosed the question of what counts as knowledge or as truthful speech, and draws extensively on the traditions of “negative” theology in the Christian tradition (Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa), as well as ideas from Taoist and Buddhist cosmology, Indigenous American lore, some strands of Jewish Kabbala, and (not least) William Blake.

Whitehead is an important presence in this section of the book, chiefly because of his conviction that “process” is a fundamental category for thinking not only about the finite but also about the infinite; there is an argument for the relation between God and creation being seen as a sort of feedback loop, through which the divine is “enhanced” in some way. McGilchrist also distances himself both from the classical Christian argument about evil as “privation” (that is, as something that has no inherent substantiality but is simply the negation or erosion of what is desired as good) and from the Buddhist affirmation of nonduality (which he sees as compromising the reality of moral choice). He holds back from any identification with a particular religious tradition but is skeptical of the assimilation of spirituality to generalized well-being that seems to pervade so much contemporary talk about religiousness.

Ultimately, as he says in a forceful and eloquent epilogue, we either acknowledge God or we invent a God for ourselves. If we invent a God for ourselves, we are bound to invent that God out of ourselves, out of our own psychic resources, and so sacralize our own ambitions and anxieties, projecting on to the universe our passion for analysis of and control over every aspect of what surrounds us. This is the idolatry that is literally killing us as a species. That is why it is so urgent to rethink how we understand thinking.

The final sections of the book are impassioned and searching, but I found them in some ways the least satisfying. Is commitment to a specific concrete religious tradition somehow inappropriate in the context of the whole argument? Surely not, given the powerful emphasis on the role of time and community in our thinking. Without this, are we not back with the benign vagueness of spiritualities of self-cultivation? If process is fundamental to finite reality, does this not in fact imply that it cannot be ascribed to infinite reality without making the latter an expanded version of the former?

When religious traditions like classical Catholic and Orthodox Christianity and Buddhism deny that the ultimate is subject to change, they are simply saying that the most fundamental agency of all cannot be conceived as in any sense “sharing” a world with what derives from it. Its generative energy is not in need of augmentation or modification from other agents, even if the record of its engagement with or exposure within finite reality is a story of diverse and developing perspectives over time. I suspect also that the account of Buddhist nonduality would need some polishing in further dialogue with practicing Buddhists: it is precisely a way of saying what McGilchrist is close to saying at many points — that neither unity as we usually conceive it nor plurality as we usually conceive it is an appropriate category for thinking what is abidingly real. There is no weakening in Buddhism of the reality of choice, no simple blurring of boundaries, but a central imperative to live without the myth of an enclosed self-subsistent ego. From that myth, Buddhists claim, flows all human evil.

Similarly, in the tradition that sees evil as privation, the point is not that evil is somehow less “real” in its effect and cost than we might think. On the contrary, its force derives from the fact that it is desired with the same energy as the good is desired, because it is a misidentified good, not because it has some “evil” essence. Genocide, torture, or child abuse happen because people who are lethally and hideously deceived think that they will attain some deeply desirable good (security, satisfaction, assurance, peace) through actions that are in fact destructive of themselves and others. If evil’s origins are in delusion, not in some evil power or element in things, this does not mean it is any less serious.

As McGilchrist has shown in his own magisterial argument, it is precisely the fatal skewing of perception which misreads the environment we inhabit that sets us out on our self-destructive path. The pages dealing with these metaphysical questions are tantalizing just because of the force and coherence of the rest of the work. It is no disrespect, I hope, to McGilchrist’s genius to say that these sections sometimes feel more careless or scattergun in their effect than the body of the argument.

But these are very minor matters indeed. There can be no denying that this, like McGilchrist’s earlier work, is a genuinely groundbreaking and exceptionally important challenge to what Mary Midgley, in a book very much in tune with this, called “the myths we live by” in North Atlantic modernity/late modernity/postmodernity. This is the era of “infotainment,” egregious public lies, corrosive cynicism, scientific fundamentalism, the barbaric functionalizing of education, and the Balkanization of public argument.

As McGilchrist’s subtitle tells us, we live in a world that is being “unmade” — not just corrupted here and there, but dismantled as a meaningful, intelligible environment in relation to which we are able to build models of human life that have some dignity and durability. We are losing the capacity to think honestly about ourselves, so it is hardly surprising that we shrink from facing the truth about the physical world we belong to and continue to abuse and unravel it.

In the long run, I imagine, McGilchrist would say that this is an unforgivingly big book because his subject matter is unforgivingly urgent and complex. And he addresses this with an extraordinary blend of detailed clinical evidence, a keen eye for the illusions of popular culture, a style of exemplary simplicity and energy, and a consistent moral passion.

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Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, has written widely on theology, philosophy, and culture, and now lives in Wales.