Skip to content

How we got into this mess, and the way out

By Charles Foster

This week I went to the launch of the latest book by Iain McGilchrist, currently best known for his account of the cultural effects of brain lateralisation, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western WorldThe new book, The Matter with Things: Our brains, our delusions, and the unmaking of the world is, whatever, you think of the argument, an extraordinary phenomenon. It is enormously long – over 600,000 words packed into two substantial volumes. To publish such a thing denotes colossal confidence: to write it denotes great ambition.

It was commissioned by mainstream publishers who took fright when they saw its size. There is eloquent irony in the rejection on the ground of its length and depth of a book whose main thesis is that reductionism is killing us. It was picked up by Perspectiva press. That was brave. But I’m predicting that Perspectiva’s nerve will be vindicated. It was suggested at the launch that the book might rival or outshine Kant or Hegel. That sounds hysterical. It is a huge claim, but this is a huge book, and the claim might just be right.

Nobody can doubt that we’re in a terrible mess. The planet is on fire; we’re racked with neuroses and governed by charlatans, and we have no idea what sort of creatures we are. We tend to intuit that we are significant animals, but have no language in which to articulate that significance, and the main output of the Academy is to scoff at the intuition.

‘As we think, we live’, observed Alfred North Whitehead. That’s McGilchrist’s contention too. We live badly, miserably, incoherently and shamefully because our thinking is dysfunctional. That, says McGilchrist, is because our ways of perceiving and being in the world have been hijacked by the left hemisphere, which is designed to manipulate the world, not understand it. The left hemisphere is nerdish, conservative, petulant, and fond of power. It is good at filing and narrow, concentrated attention. It is morbidly fond of its own precious categories, and gets jumpy and upset if it is suggested that anything in the world might not fit neatly into them. It’s a dualistic organ, perfectly at home in the binary digital world which we, tragically, are learning to describe as home. It doesn’t do context. It was meant to administer; to be an executive, but it has arrogated to itself the right hemispherical job of comprehending; of putting things together to see a whole which is always greater than the sum of the parts; of wisdom; of realising that the truth is often found in the resonance between two seemingly contradictory notions.

This, says McGilchrist, has landed us where we are now: seeing the universe as a mere machine (and there’s nothing obviously wrong about smashing up a machine, is there?) and human individuals as rather incompetently managed enzyme factories whose eventual and inevitable closure is of no significance.

This grim verdict on the world has been the main philosophical bottom line since the eighteenth century. Metaphysics is bunk: you signify nothing: deal with it. Follow science and reason and you’ll be freed from the mediaeval delusion of purpose.

But (and this is the main subject of the first volume of The Matter with Things), science and reason say nothing of the kind. Very, very far from it. One could only reach that verdict by deploying a childish pastiche of science and reason and strenuously ignoring other factors which one should take into account into coming to conclusions about the nature of the world.

Science: great. More of it, please. But proper, sceptical science – not the sclerosed fundamentalism of much modern biology, in which the scientific enterprise is seen as the business of forcing data into the old, tired, creaking paradigms.

Reason; great. More of it, please. But reason informed by intuition and imagination. Just look at how tectonic discoveries in science, mathematics and philosophy are actually made. Often (ask any mathematician) the conclusion comes first, delivered by intuition and imagination, and then a professional lifetime is spent puzzling out the proof.

Our current epistemologies are woefully inadequate. It’s not surprising, given the flawed way in which our brains process data and construct our view of the world. We’ve no idea what the world is really like. No wonder we don’t feel at home here. If we don’t know what we are or where we are, how can we be secure or happy or fulfilled or act decently? Most of us, myself included, don’t live in the world at all. How can we? We don’t know where it is. We live in virtual, self-created worlds: echo chambers of echoing loneliness. We inhabit not landscapes but maps.

The second volume of The Matter with Things examines the great themes of philosophy, science and religion, asking what we can conclude about them if we can exclude the distortions introduced by the inappropriate contributions of the left hemisphere – but taking into account its appropriate contributions. It’s exhilarating, iconoclastic stuff: the nature of space, time and consciousness, matter, value, purpose, and the sense of the sacred. It would be hubristic if it weren’t humble and exhaustively (but not exhaustingly) argued. If (for instance) you’re a material reductionist, committed to the dogma that there is only matter, you’re in for a rough time – for no one has the faintest idea what matter is.

Let there be no doubt what this is. This is an attempt to describe the way the cosmos really is, and to suggest how, in the light of the way that the cosmos is, we should live in it. It is no religious wolf in philosophical clothing, but it is an argument of remarkable power for the proposition that meaning and purpose are part of the web and weave of the universe.

As a species and as individuals we may not survive the left hemisphere’s determined attempts at suicide and genocide, but if we do, we need to ask what we are surviving for. How are we intending to live, and why? McGilchrist’s book identifies how we got into this mess, how we can get out, and what to do if we escape. It is a vital read for anyone who wants to know what they are, where they live, and how to live.


Share on

12 Comment on this post

  1. As a start, “How we got into this mess” may indeed be coming into clearer view, even without the fine scholarship of Mr. McGilchrist. But how we ‘escape’ is much more problematic. As A. Einstein wrote: “Problems cannot be solved by thinking within the framework in which they were created”, thus one must ponder whether the species and ‘reason’ that created the mess we’re in, prisoner to the corruptions and limitationns of it’s evolutionary, materialist paradigm, in spite of the aspiration, even has the potential or intellectual honesty to discover or implement a solution. Probably not!

    “What constrains the highest of human aspirations is rarely imagined but if the catalyst with the necessary authority to realize the dream were ever revealed, who would care enough to believe with sufficient courage and conviction to act? Unfortunately the world has usually preferred the soft, the easy and more convenient ways of intellectual vanity, political correctness and spiritual confectionery than the honesty and courage to question and confront human nature itself!.”

  2. Many thanks, Robert. I’m not so pessimistic about the prognosis. But you and Einstein are right: thinking within the framework that created the problem will do no good. But our natural thinking – the mode that we used for the vast majority of a history as a species – is not in that framework at all: it is the antithesis of and the cure for the dangerously toxic thinking that has brought us to where we are. I think there are plenty of signs indicating radical, determined and sophisticated rejection of those dangerous modes of representing and manipulating the world. We need urgently to get back to what we constitutionally are and to think as we are constitutionally disposed to think.

  3. What we ‘constitutionally are’ is at the very heart of the question. I would suggest a confusion and a general dishonesty over the very nature of the human condition. While one may aspire to find a way out of ‘this mess we’re in’, to dream of a different, yet undiscovered better world, those aspirations and dreams remain outside the potential of natural reason to generate the ethical constuct to build that better world. And even if that were plausible, the necessary authority to define those changes are outside the province of any existing political process, left or right. Cop (out) 26 provides the prefect example of the clash between the demands of the future and the self defeating inertia of the established order. Any solution will probably be something that has yet to be imagined possible and not of human intellectual origin!

  4. Thank you, Robert. But the place we need to find is not an ‘undiscovered better world’. It is, rather, the world from which we have come; the world in which we grew up as a species, and in which we spent the vast majority of our time as Homo sapiens. We still have all the cognitive hardware and software that we had then, and we thrive best when we run those early programs in the way that they first ran. But there has been a catastrophic shift in the operating system – from the right to the left hemisphere. We need both hemispheres, of course. but there’s no doubt which one needs to be in charge if we’re to work properly

    1. When I speak of an undiscovered, better world, I refer to the advance in moral insight and wisdom necessary to create such a sustainable future , which self evidently does not exist at the moment. I would take the position that our cognitive hardware and software are in desparate need of an upgrade and removing the ‘bug’ in the operating system. Yet I can find not even a hint of a suggestion, in all of what exists as, history, philosophy or religion, that such effect might be forthcoming from any currently known source. And to continue with the your computer metaphor, to return to the original operating system, will require a yet unknown insight into how it was intended to work in the first place!

  5. Thank you again, Robert. You say: ‘And to continue with the your computer metaphor, to return to the original operating system, will require a yet unknown insight into how it was intended to work in the first place!’. Well, as it happens, and though I’m reluctant to blow my own trumpet, I’ve just written a book about that: It’s called ‘Being a Human’ (2021).

  6. I shall leave you with a thought from Plato:

    there is “a major stumbling block – the lie in the soul, a falsehood one accepts as truth at a fundamental level, which then distorts one’s interpretation of reality, of other people’s behaviors and motivations, and of one’s own vision of self and truth.”

    And that is where humanity remains.

  7. Thank you. And I shall leave you with another thought from Plato: that all true knowledge is ‘anamnesis’ – unforgetting. We have to go back to unforget – and thus to be able to know anything properly.

  8. It’s an interesting indication of the extent of the left hemisphere takeover that Plato’s forgetting is often taken to be forgetting something from the past, something within linear time, rather than ever-present outside “time” (if “ever present and eternity is not a contradiction).

    At conclusion of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna thanks Krishna for helping him to “remember” the Truth – the Truth which he realizes then he has “always” (outside “time”) known.

  9. Interesting read and commentary. Paradoxically you seem to be having a very left-hemisphered discussion as to taxonomy, ironic given the subject matter at hand. Perhaps a small but meaningful cohort re-presents the great minds of the species as taken from a right-hemisphered frame of reference. Cheers

  10. Keith, you might want to look at Sri Aurobindo’s writings. His vision suggests something far beyond BOTH left and right hemisphere thinking/feeling/seeing/intuiting.

    1. I will! I’ve read a considerable amount of Woodroffe (Arthur Avalon,) Jung, and J Campbell which generally lead to McGilchrist, albeit 20 years later. Not that matters, but my “LH” observation was more meant for the two commenters above. New to Mcgilchrist and loving it, though tbh at this point i’m perhaps 100 pp into the Matter w/ Things.

Comments are closed.