two views of Iain McGilchrist

Andrew Louth:

Although McGilchrist is clearly arguing a case (a case that he feels needs to be accepted, if there is to be any future), his mind is profoundly capacious, capable of entertaining ideas coming from elsewhere than he is coming from. The case he is making, however, is not unheard of: it coincides with all-too-common laments about modernity, pointing to the reign of quantity, the rise of individualism, the abandonment of tradition — opinions easily dismissed by those who pride themselves on the achievements of modernity. Perhaps it is to these “cultured despisers” that McGilchrist’s case is directed — a LH case against the hegemony of the LH.

Whether that is so or not, this book is almost unique in combining extensive scientific expertise with learning characteristic of the humanities, a sensitivity to language, and an appeal to poetry as the ultimate language of truth. McGilchrist sounds like someone who knows of what he speaks. RH, he tells us, is disposed to pessimism, but this book gives grounds for at least a cautious optimism, amounting to “good thoughts in bad times.”

Rowan Williams:

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.

“in fact the mind was poorly understood”

Astounding, really, that Michel could consider psychology any kind of science at all. So much of it consisted of throwing together. Of thinking of the mind as a steam engine, the mechanical analogy most ready to hand during the birth of modern psychology. People had always done that when they thought about the mind: clockwork for Descartes, geological changes for the early Victorians, computers or holography for the twentieth century, AIs for the twenty-first…. and for the Freudian traditionalists, steam engines. Application of heat, pressure buildup, pressure displacement, venting, all shifted into repression, sublimation, the return of the repressed. Sax thought it unlikely steam engines were an adequate model for the human mind. The mind was more like — what? — an ecology — a fellfield — or else a jungle, populated by all manner of strange beasts. Or a universe, filled with stars and quasars and black holes. Well — a bit grandiose, that — really it was more like a complex collection of synapses and axons, chemical energies surging hither and yon, like weather in an atmosphere. That was better — weather — storm fronts of thought, high-pressure zones, low-pressure cells, hurricanes — the jet streams of biological desires, always making their swift powerful rounds…. life in the wind. Well. Throwing together. In fact the mind was poorly understood.

— Kim Stanley Robinson, Blue Mars