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Iain McGilchrist and The Matter with Things

Written by Professor Lance Butler.

After ten years of intense work Iain McGilchrist has now finished his second magnum opus. His first was The Master and his Emissary of 2010 and here, just published, is The Matter with Things which, like its predecessor, starts from the basic question of why there is a difference between the two halves of the brain. From the undoubted fact that our two hemispheres do different things McGilchrist’s work expands into a brilliant new picture of the world – new but one that echoes much wisdom from the past. In The Master we learnt how our perceptions are not simple and how they can mislead, and also how the left hemisphere has come to dominate Western culture. Now, in The Matter with Things, we are taken much further: the subtitle of the book is ‘Our Brains, Our Delusions ands the Unmaking of the World’. It is a book about everything.


Throughout the ten years of his writing I have kept up with Iain who, as you probably know, has lectured in our Tuesday Talk programme. Now he has returned to the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Centre where he lectured and held seminars over the weekend of April 7th and 8th  and launched his book. The impression he made on our audience that weekend was extraordinary. His learning is vast, the breadth of his knowledge is astounding and the result is one of the most important books to have come out in my lifetime. It extends, across two large volumes, to more than 1500 pages; the bibliography alone covers two hundred closely-spaced double-column pages. Scholarship has rarely gone further.


And yet the amount labour here, impressive as it is, is not the point. Massive volumes do not necessarily mean profound thought, but in The Matter with Things size, depth and significance go hand in hand. For this book moves us much closer to an answer to the great question behind all the questions that we are now asking. I say ‘we’ and I think I mean everyone who thinks at all, but I certainly at least mean philosophers, theologians, psychologists, physicists and all those people interested in the topics that a place like the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Centre deals with every day. And here it is, our great question, crudely expressed:




Which is to say: is it really true that the whole universe and all of history can be accounted for, exclusively, by number and measurement? That there is nothing but mindless matter anywhere? That all the things we call imagination, or think of as ‘religion’, all the experiences that we dismiss as ‘anomalous’, all notions such as intuition, all these and many more, are reducible to tiny packets of energy bumping into one another? Is it really true that contemporary science not only has all the answers to any specific question we might currently ask but that it is also sure of providing answers to any future questions without shifting its materialist paradigm? Are physics and chemistry, thus naively conceived, just it?


We have had long enough to wake up. It is over a century since Einstein’s bombshell about the universe as a whole (macro level) and almost a century since the establishment of Quantum Mechanics blew apart our simple picture of what happens ‘inside the atom’ (micro level). We now know for certain that it isn’t just one-way traffic between matter and mind but that they interact. Nobody denies hypnosis or the placebo effect, and the evidence for telepathy and precognition is much better than we are usually allowed to think. There have been literally millions of credible reports of Near-Death Experiences since they were first given that name in 1975 (the namer, the man who ‘invented’ the NDE, Raymond Moody, gave a Tuesday Talk for us in March and will I hope come again).


McGilchrist is a doctor, a psychiatrist and a researcher in neuroscience and you won’t find any dismissal of the value of hard science in these volumes. But he is also a student of culture and a literary scholar and he can see ‘both sides of the picture’ with remarkable clarity. And all this is based on the two-hemisphere trick. That trick, small as it might seem at first when we are thinking about God, the Universe and Meaning in the broadest senses, is infinitely fecund. It is based on a re-examination of the two halves of the brain: only recently these were regarded as rather similar to each other, and then more recently their differences were in dispute; but now we have learnt that they see the world, and thus create the world, in two very different ways.


We have lived through a period, since the Enlightenment at least and perhaps since Galileo, of left-hemisphere dominance (calculation, language, lists, science, analysis) and neglected the right-hemisphere (holistic thinking, big picture, synthesis, the arts, the sacred). But if we were to see the world with more right-hemisphere emphasis it would look richer, deeper, more significant, more poetic, more meaningful. And there is no reason to suppose that this partial right-hemisphere view is any less ‘accurate’ than the overly left-hemisphere view that has dominated modern thought.


Here, then, is  a wake-up call, an opening of doors towards the things we are interested in at the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Centre: the spiritual, the holistic, the sacred and much else. A very serious and well-organised opening of doors by a really good philosopher, scientist and person of common sense.


The book is very attractively and written and infinitely open-minded, huge and wonderful and very funny in places; entirely readable. The great value of Iain’s work is that it forces open, incontrovertibly, the gates of current science and also undermines the assumptions that we all make every day as we revert to our default position of general scientific materialism. To add something to the usual cliché: ‘There are now quite certainly more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy…’


Put Iain’s work alongside the work of Bernardo Kastrup (who is talking for us again in the autumn by the way) and see if you can’t feel the coming of a new, deeper, better view of our lives and the universe.


[Iain McGilchrist, The Matter with Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World, Perpsectiva Press, 2021. Available on Amazon]

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