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The Matter with Things

Foi o Mark Hudson que me alertou para a publicação da obra de Ian Mc GilChrist.

Não hesitei em comprar.

Os dois enormes volumes, um já foi comigo para o café, tornaram-se livros de consulta.

Segundo o autor, o livro lê-se de acordo com o nosso interesse, somos livres de escolher os capítulos. Mergulhei no primeiro, cheio de casos médicos que tanto surpreendem e ensinam sobre o cérebro. Agora saltei para o segundo volume, capítulo 20, com uma linguagem mais filosófica.

Mesmo que não compre os livros, compreendo que é necessário um interesse específico nesta matéria, veja o que o Mark Hudson tem a dizer sobre o que ele aprendeu ao ouvir Ian Mc GilChrist ser entrevistado.

Minnie Freudenthal

The Matter with Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World, by Iain McGilchrist (2021)

Mark Hudson`s review

What is consciousness? How does it relate to matter? How is everything inter-connected? What are we? And how does this relate to the global climate crisis now underway? These are some of the fundamental questions which the remarkable Iain McGilchrist (IM) probes in his lucid and punningly-titled tome, The Matter with Things. This truly renaissance sage starts from the point where philosophy, science and theology meet – the nature of reality. He writes with great authority, grounded in logic as well as the leading edges of Western knowledge – philosophy, neuroscience, psychiatry and physics.

Above all, McGilchrist is full of curiosity and wonder. What is especially good, I think, is that the author grapples with the intellectual arguments of his reductionist adversaries, and thus is very far from writing in a vacuum. A huge number of leading thinkers, alive and dead (and not just from Europe and America), are referenced in his massive, two volume (1,579 page) tome – but it is the writer’s cogent logic and deployment of an astonishingly wide range of research which is most persuasive.

McGilchrist – born in 1953 and living as a semi-recluse on the Scottish Isle of Skye – has an exceptionally wide knowledge-base. He is a big thinker, a psychiatrist, and a former Oxford literary scholar who retrained in medicine, later becoming  a neuroimaging researcher at Johns Hopkins University. The list of his awards and clinical experience is daunting. He came to prominence in 2009 with his ground-breaking work, The Master and his Emissary, which replaced the superficial notion that the ‘left’ brain hemisphere is logical while the ‘right’ is creative with the more fruitful idea that the difference is how they attend to the world, the left being detail-oriented, the right being whole-oriented.

This review focuses on McGilchrist’s formal focuses: the relationship between matter and consciousness; the role of consciousness in life; whether the brain plays an important part in this; and why experience is the basis of all knowledge.

A confession: this review is based mainly on McGilchrist’s 2 hour podcast about his book which was hosted by the Pari Center via Vimeo in 2021.

The core argument of Iain McGilchrist (IM) in this dense work seems to be as follows:

1. How do we ‘get’ consciousness out of matter? There has been no progress on this. IM says that the matter has been misconceived. He outlines three possible relationships between the brain and consciousness: consciousness as an ‘emission’ of the brain; as a ‘transmission’ by the brain; or, (IM’s view) that the role of the brain is ‘permission’, in that it allows some things to be transmitted while others are not, akin to the process of sculpture. In other words, though IM does not immediately spell this out, reality is an infinite consciousness which is available to us, in theory, but our brain filters out most of it by denying ‘permission’, so as to enable us to focus on the critical matter of survival.

2. Emission. Many biologists think that consciousness is an emission secreted out of the brain. They think we understand matter, and therefore if we reach out to consciousness in terms of matter, we can understand it better. However, we don’t understand matter – Quantum physics tells us that definable matter, per se, does not exist – and it is in fact more mysterious than consciousness, and not independent of it.

3. One way to cut the Gordian knot regarding the baffling link between matter and consciousness is to deny the existence of consciousness. Another is to deny the existence of matter. You can also say that both exist but are totally distinct; or that they exist but are effectively the same. Or you could say (IM’s view) that they are distinct phenomena reflecting different aspects of an underlying indivisible reality.

4. The problem of our attempt to get hold of consciousness is that we think in terms of ‘things’ and ‘what-ness’, as against approaching knowledge via processes and ‘how-ness’. The legacy of the left-hemisphere way of conceiving of the world is that we think of it as made up of things and therefore it has to be connected by a schema that we develop; whereas the right hemisphere is very skilled at seeing not just what is there but the how-ness of it, the quality of it.

5. What do we mean by consciousness? A veritable quagmire. IM recommends Adam Zeman’s Consciousness, a User’s Guide. Is consciousness what you lose when you get knocked out? Or is it what is missing when you die? These are different senses. IM is talking about the experiential, i.e. something that has inwardness, covering all activities including unconsciousness and pre-consciousness. These do not inhabit different realms or ‘aquarium tanks’. IM prefers the image of a stage with a moving spotlight on different parts of the stage; all parts are present all the time, but at any one moment we are focused on only one aspect (or perhaps, several aspects). The left hemisphere only takes account of what is in the spotlight (which is necessary for immediate survival) while the right takes in the totality (intuition, experience, understanding, memory etc).

Though unconscious knowledge constitutes the majority, this does not mean that it is either superior or inferior: it is all part of the one thing. In fact, much of our intelligence happens unconsciously: we find things beautiful, we solve problems, we imagine possibilities, we fall in love, we struggle to balance competing values and priorities… unconsciously, all the time, without being reflectively aware of it. Our calculations derive from our whole embodied being, conscious and mostly unconscious. We bring consciousness into play when there is a problem, or a tension.

6. A.N. Whitehead, whom IM says is one of the greatest English-language philosophers of the last 100 years (with his focus on process and relationship as key to reality), says that ‘operations of [conscious] thought are like cavalry charges in battle: they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and they must only be made in decisive moments.’

7. Can we deny consciousness? This is incoherent because even to conceive of consciousness as an illusion we need consciousness: where is it an illusion if not in consciousness itself? We should wonder at philosophers and scientists who deny the existence of experience. It is good to see that mainstream analytical philosophy is waking up to the fact that perhaps consciousness is foundational in the cosmos.

8. Can consciousness be reduced to anything else? IM claims that an army of the greatest Nobel-prize-winning physicists of the last 100 years all state that it is quite improbable or impossible that consciousness can be reduced to anything else. The life sciences are behind in their understanding. We have now reached the point where, in David Bohm’s witty formulation, those whose job it is to deal with inanimate matter have discovered that there is an animate universe, whereas those whose job it is to deal with animacy have concluded that it is all a dead mechanism.

9. We know about the experiential direct from our personal experience, though we understand little. We can only assume the non-experiential, albeit similarly, from experience. To say that experience exists and can be fully defined in non-experiential terms (i.e. language) is to deny its existence. No amount of words can describe the taste of tea, except by appealing to analogous experience – it is like x or y. Even then, words do not work, because each person brings their own sensibilities and life-experience to that first taste. IM is firmly on the side of empiricists, who say that experience is foundational to human knowledge, as against rationalists who believe that it is acquired through reason.

10. Can consciousness ‘emerge’, as a transmission? This is like a magic wand, with the rabbit emerging from a hat. It doesn’t explain anything. How can it be born from nothing? If evolution is to work smoothly, consciousness must have been present at the very origin of the cosmos. And if consciousness did emerge out of matter, it would have to keep repeating this in terms of evolution (e.g. in radically different animate branches such as cats, octopuses and crabs), and it would also have to repeat it every time a creature – to which we are prepared to admit consciousness – is born. (Of course, IM says, all animals, and indeed far more than animals, have consciousness.) Every time a human is born, if cells are inanimate, consciousness has done that amazing thing of just ‘emerging’ – nobody knows how, when or why. IM says that some identifiable quality of consciousness has to be present in that pre-emergent thing, but matter has no such known quality, unless it is already endowed with consciousness, i.e. it is not inanimate.

11. Could we deny matter altogether? Paradoxically, ‘matter’ is itself a mental abstraction which no one has ever seen. We have only seen elements of the world to which we attribute the quality, within our consciousness, of being material. In other words, it is an adjective, not a thing, which describes experience. Materialism has substituted an idea of a thing for an event, a static immobile slice, a representation of something which in reality is constantly evolving and flowing. Nils Bohr says that isolated material particles are abstractions, their properties being definable and observable only through their interaction with other systems. So materialism derives the only thing which we concretely know, i.e. experience, from an unknown abstraction, matter. Materialists appeal to modern physics to explain the brain, but particles are as mysterious to physicists as mind or consciousness itself (cf quantum mechanics). There is no solid ground here.

12. However, IM says that we should no more deny matter than consciousness. Matter appears to be an element within consciousness that provides the necessary resistance for creation and, with it, for individuality. IM sees the cosmos as a process driven by something that constantly evolves and produces uniqueness and individuality which is never isolated from the whole but which enriches and expresses part of what that whole is. Schopenhauer says that matter is that which persists. Each of us is ultimately not any one confirmation in matter, but is the confirmation itself, the morphogenetic field of life, which requires matter to be brought into being, but once, existent, matter persists and comes and goes within it.

13. So, are matter and consciousness (which is ‘mind’) one and the same? Descartes saw these as mutually unapproachable elements. But we know now that there is nothing merely physical about the physical and both physics and psychology show that they interact. Consciousness and the observation of an event in some respects alters that event. Psychology shows that a thought or a belief can have very obvious manifestation in changing matter (which is the whole basis of psychotherapy), not just in the brain – how it grows and evolves and interconnects – but in the human body (skin changes, paralysis, energy etc).

Matter and conscious are not separate, though we can conceive of them distinctly. Mass and energy are interconvertible, as ‘E = mc squared’ shows; the brain is a manifestation as mass whereas the mind is a manifestation as energy. They may not look alike or behave similarly, but this does not cut much ice with IM. For, what is water? It can be a translucent, flowing liquid; it can be a hard, opaque substance; and it can be invisible, in the air. All are different modes of water, a fair analogy for mind and matter, which are aspects of a different entity (i.e. reality) in different phenomenal guises. Schrodinger says that it is the same element which goes to compose my mind and the world, and the world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived; subject and object are only one. The barrier between them cannot be said to have broken down as a result of recent advances in physical science, for this barrier does not exist.

14. Does that mean that we make reality up? No, reality is something like the performance of a piece of music. We don’t make it up (as an illusion) but it only exists when we perform it; and when we perform it, it is always different though it is recognisably the same, and we are not in different little boxes. This doesn’t preclude the fact that some ‘performances’ may be truer to the original music. Our consciousness is not originating reality.

15. We deal with reality and know it. (This reminds me of the British writer Samuel Johnson who, after hearing Berkeley’s idealist theory of the non-existence of matter in 1763, struck his foot mightily against a large stone, and, recoiling in pain, exclaimed, ‘I refute him thus!’) We don’t see a projection of reality inside our heads where a little homunculus watches it. This is the left hemisphere approach, which does not understand the directness of experience but only deals with re-presentations, things that are no longer actually present to us but are reconstructed in a diagrammatic, map-like way.

Rather, experience is the real deal; when I taste a strawberry, that really is the taste of the strawberry. However, my consciousness cannot see the whole of reality, and therefore it is wise to take account of other people’s experience and wise understandings – rather than falling into the black and white approach, i.e. that the image in my head has no contact with reality or that reality is something one finds when one does an experiment (but this is only partial).

16. Most importantly, the way in which we approach nature, and the attention we give it, governs what we find. We neither make reality up nor is it separately ‘out there’, but we midwife reality into existence. We have a part to play in it, as it is constantly being created. Reality is the conscious universe finding out through the creative process its own potential, which enriches the overall field of potential of what then further comes into being. Thus, there has to be an electron to observe – we did not put it there – but the particular qualities of that electron come from our observation of it. It is a reciprocal process: we change the world by our experience of it. Reciprocity, that everything is reverberative, is profoundly important in IM’s new book: relations are prior to the things that are related. Things become isolated when we observe and pay attention to them, but they are not all reality. The wave is prior to the particle. ‘Things’ are distinct and individuated but they are not divided, separate. Things emerge from our description of experience and that includes the scale in which we observe, and this changes their nature and what comes to our attention, just as much as the quality of our attention.

17. Is consciousness not just in us but in everything that exists? This is pan-experientalism or pan-psychism. Broadly speaking, IM would say, yes. This view is gaining traction in the Western world, which would have dismissed it 20 years ago. This has been a widely held view outside the West – notably in Zen Buddhism and in many indigenous societies – not because they are ‘primitive’ but because they don’t have blinkering pre-conceptions. As Goethe said, reality calls forth in us the faculties appropriate to appreciating it. If you are taught for long enough to dis-attend to something, the faculty for perceiving it will no longer be there, and reality will conform to just what it is that you have been taught. (Hence, the critical importance of openness above all else, a core precept too of science, though often ignored.) This ‘pan-psychism’ has also always been an important element in the West, not least in Christian mysticism, such as Meister Eckhart, and Western philosophers such as Spinoza, Leibnitz, Herder, Goethe, Schopenhauer… and even in core Enlightenment philosophers such as Diderot.

18. So, to recap, mind and matter have a close relationship; we cannot logically dismiss the existence of consciousness or matter; they are not so distinct that they cannot interact; neither are they identical and yet they may be aspects of one and the same reality. Nonetheless, they are not equal, in that there is reason to believe that consciousness is prior ontologically to matter.

19. Moving on to consciousness and life, and the role of brains: IM adopts the position of the biologist Robert Rosen, which is that life is not a peculiar element in a basically inanimate cosmos, but that inanimacy is a limit case of animacy; that effectively the whole cosmos is living. The bits that we call inanimate are those in which we call the characteristics of life are at a minimum – and there is no hard and fast boundary. Animacy does two things: it enables processes to develop many billions time faster than they would without it; and it massively magnifies the responsiveness of elements in that cosmos. There are sacrifices involved in being able to achieve this animate persistence, since, as Whitehead pointed out, inanimate things decay far more slowly than animate ones.

20. James Shapiro, Professor of Molecular Biology at the University of Chicago, says that life requires cognition at all levels, even in some form at the cell level. Where do brains fit into this? Are they necessary for awareness? Neuronal complexity is neither sufficient nor necessary for awareness. There are four times as many neurones in the cerebellum (70-100 billion), which are amongst the most highly evolved and inter-connected neurones, as in the neo-cortex, which ‘houses’ waking self-awareness. IM quotes various cases of brain damaged or brain-limited individuals who are nevertheless able to live relational and ‘thinking’ lives.

He dwells on the fact that the mean number of neurones reaches a maximum in human embryos at 28 weeks gestation, and then declines by 70 % to achieve a stable number of neurones by birth; thus, for intelligent life, we need far less neurones than we are capable of having. IM gives more evidence from slime-moulds, escaping from Petri dishes, and nematode worms, about intelligence being present without neo-cortex brains. Can plants remember and make decisions? Yes, effectively they can learn, remember and adapt. IM adduces various cases of experimental evidence. Plants have ‘intentions’ but move (or grow) very slowly. Do they have experientiality? Yes, to survive and adapt. And all animals have consciousness…

21. Therefore, what is the purpose of the brain? IM says that it is the material counterpart, for a while, of some aspects of consciousness; and it gives relative permanence to it. It cannot predestine our thoughts or movements. Objectors say this approach is too tied up with Quantum theory, which is not relevant in the real world. This is untrue, as IM goes on to argue: Quantum theory pertains in ‘real’ life. For example, even if you could theoretically have all the information about all molecules ever since Big Bang, you could not, intrinsically, predict even what path a billiard ball will take on a table (assuming infinite energy) after a mere eight collisions.

22. So we come to the third postulate regarding how we ‘get’ consciousness out of matter, which is via permission. How does ‘permission’ act in consciousness? It involves both inhibition and facilitation in the brain, and is a sculpting process, not that of a machine being put together in a garage – and is closer to Michelangelo sculpting David, starting from a formless block of stone and then discarding. The five senses and their interaction with the brain, by the very fact of filtering out some aspects of reality, create our experience of the world. Consciousness allows certain things to come into being for us. The cell-membrane is a semi-conductor, good at both resisting and attracting… A damaged brain seems to know that something is no longer happening and it works around it, to a greater or lesser extent, quite different than a machine chugging along ineffectively when a part is missing. People in trances, or on some psychedelic drugs or in near-death experiences [and in some meditative states] experience a wider reality than in normal living: this is evidence of the brain being a filter to reduce our experience of reality to a manageable and necessary amount.

Henri Bergson, a major philosopher in memory and consciousness, saw the point of memory as being not to transmit but to mask aspects of the past for efficacy – and this has been borne out by medical knowledge since then.

23. Henry Stapps’s explanation of the interaction of consciousness with nature stipulates that a set of potential outcomes is being narrowed to what becomes an actual outcome. Potentiality is collapsed into the action through the brain’s interaction with consciousness, and that is what we then experience. William James used the image of vocal chords: if I have no vocal chords, the air passes through and nothing is said; but in normal circumstances, my vocal chords constrain and resist the passage of the air such that they cause sound and words, and these are the things that have meaning. The most important function of the frontal brain lobes is to inhibit; and humans have more inhibitory neurones than any primate. This enables us to see and understand thigs that other animals cannot, which is not to say that other animals cannot understand anything.

24. This idea of resistance is central to the role of the brain. Schelling noted that resistance and flow is creative of whatever comes into being and that this resistance emerges from the flow; it is not an extra something which is added in, but is something about and arising from the nature of the flow that causes resistance to come out of itself, that causes vortices in the water. They are not extra to the water, they are the water, for the time being. They have force and power.

25. Therefore, we return to the argument that reality is what it seems, and is not a screen, nor is it divorced from consciousness. What has made science possible is our embodiment of reality, not our transcendence or separation from it, and our imagination. Our imagination is necessary for all attempts to understand the world.

26. Finally, we get to the question, what is consciousness for? For IM, the question misunderstands wholly the nature of consciousness. Consciousness is not to our purposes; rather, we are to the purposes of (cosmic) consciousness. Julian Huxley said that man is that part of reality in which and through which the cosmic process begins to comprehend itself. Teilhard de Chardin said that man discovers that he is nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself. Thomas Nagel, a contemporary philosopher, has said that each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself.

This makes sense of otherwise very hard problems. If the universe is an emanation of a grounding consciousness it will have the necessary fine-tuned conditions for consciousness to come into existence, and will naturally have the qualities of order, beauty and complexity. Its natural being will be able to speak its language.

27. This doesn’t answer the question as to why there is something rather than nothing.

28. This is of course to make assumptions, as all models do. Reductionists (though IM does not use this term) make the assumption that the universe is not conscious and is not ordered, but is random and meaningless, and that other things (such as like consciousness) simply ‘emerge’ out of nothing. This creates more problems than it answers. It makes more sense to assume that the universe is conscious in the way that IM has described. Equally, the extravagant postulation that there are an infinite number of universes so our current reality simply had to appear, by chance, is neither scientific nor philosophically rational – and it doesn’t explain anything.

29. How does our individual consciousness relate to this conscious universe? The human being is a part, limited in time and space, of this whole; that we experience our feelings etc as cut off from the rest is an illusion which is designed to maximise survival.

William James (echoed recently by Merlin Sheldrake) used images of humans as trees which are apparently separate but are intimately linked underground, forming part of a single living web, like islands which are joined under the sea (and indeed by the sea). IM’s preferred image is to think of humans (and life) as waves in the sea, which are not separate from the sea; they are there for a while, they have force and are visible.

IM believes that what exists is a locally differentiated but ultimately single field of potentiality which is constantly actualising itself. Thus ‘all is one’ but, equally, ‘all is many’. We need not just simple non-duality but the non-duality of non-duality and duality. Or we could say that we need both ‘either/or’ and ‘both/and’. Nicolas of Cusa, the great scientist and theologian of the 15th century, as well as our contemporary David Bohm (the great American-Brazilian-British theoretical physicist), support this view.

30. There is more about how the different spheres of the brain relate to this view of consciousness and matter, and how they/we encounter reality, in a two way process. Again, IM emphasises that Planck, Heisenberg and all the great physicists say that consciousness is prior to matter.

A few words, finally, from this reviewer’s perspective:

There are wide implications arising from IM’s thesis, not least regarding the necessity of our care of the planet, irrespective of global warming (which makes it dramatically urgent). The Western mindset (sadly now adopted by the elite everywhere) has evolved to manipulate and dominate the world, instead of understanding and revering it on its own terms. This has brought great material benefits since the Enlightenment began in the 18th century, but we now face a long, global catastrophe. IM says that the defining idiocy of our age is that ‘more’ is supposedly better. Our drive for ‘growth’ and for dominance through technology is a result of a profound spiritual crisis, in which nothing has lasting meaning except power – personal as well as political; think of ‘agency’ and ‘control’ – and immediate gratification. We have lost our sense of being part of a whole.

IM declines to offer a political programme, insisting that we each need first to get our philosophical and spiritual bearings, though he does not put it like this.

Linked to the blinkered state of the primarily Western ‘mind’, IM inveighs against philosophers – and, by implication, political thinkers and scientists – who do not acknowledge their underlying assumptions. Every plan and intellectual formulation, no matter how apparently stripped back and evidence-based, relies on assumptions about the nature of reality. In another context, but related, J.M. Keynes said that ‘practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”

A caveat regarding McGilchrist’s work is that he is too inclined to see the left brain as negative and the right as positive, almost personalising them: in writing about the influence of the left brain, he often falls into the left-brain judgemental trap which he so deplores. As has been said elsewhere – by Raymond Tallis in the UK’s The Literary Review – at some moments IM offers a reductionist critique of reductionism. Nevertheless, his hemisphere theory appears to my amateur brain to be broadly credible as an analogy for the uses and misuses of human thinking; I cannot comment on the neuroscience itself. Meanwhile, in the context of The Matter with Things, IM’s left/right brain theory is more of an explanation for how we can have got things so wrong than something which advances his central argument.

Another caveat, if such it can be called, is that there are too many words. It would be marvellous if IM could summarise his approach, which derives from a great many others as well as his own thinking, in 200 pages. The number of digressions and investigations, interesting or wearisome, is considerable. However, he shrunk his core argument down to its main outline in his podcasts.

In terms of going beyond IM’s thesis, it would be interesting to learn how IM sees the psychic ‘self’ and social personhood, and their inter-relation. Indeed, do ‘we’ exist, as autonomous, decision-making entities? Is it possible – in a reductionist universe, devoid of prior consciousness – to strip away genes, environment and human culture and be left with a separate ‘self’? Further, even in IM’s conscious universe of potentialities, can a ‘self’ be separate? This does not seem to be explored.

Not incidentally, IM’s thesis was neatly encapsulated 2,000 years earlier by John the Evangelist’s first sentence: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ The Greek ‘Logos’ (literally ‘word’ or ‘utterance’) was the nearest that the writer could get to a single term for ‘divine [aka cosmic] consciousness’ or ‘creative order’.

Mark Hudson
Março, 2023

Fotos de Manuel Rosário e Minnie Freudenthal

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Originally, a political and economic editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit. Later, co-founder and CEO of a company focused on the strategic and commercial opportunities for public services opened up by the technology revolution, which was sold to The Guardian newspaper in 2007. Next, an MA in Christian Theology at the University of London. Then, chairing L'Arche London (an NGO for a community of people with and without learning disabilities), followed by co-founding an NGO which assists small-scale entrepreneurs in sub-Saharan Africa. Since 2013, Mark has been been based in Dorset: writing; chairing a digital healthcare analysis company; and mentoring people returning from prison to live in Dorset.

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    Se o cerebro humano fosse tão simples que nós o pudessemos perceber, nós seriamos tão simples que nunca o poderiamos compreender……

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    Desculpem lá, mas sou eu de novo.
    Duas sugestões de leitura sobre o tema
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