Keywords: hemispheric brain asymmetry, autism, dipolar opposites, flux, McGilchrist, Plato, Heraclitus.
Iain McGilchrist (The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World, 2021) advances the thesis that the Western mindset has become over-reliant on the left hemisphere and therefore fails to grasp the whole for being too focussed on the parts. Abstractions are becoming more real than actualities. It’s as if words are experienced as more real than their referents, and they tend to refer only to other words, like in a hall of mirrors. So it’s like we are living in a map and not in the real world. In consequence, there’s an imbalance verging on mental illness in our current society, and it represents an acute threat to our civilization. As a remedy, intuition and metaphor must take center stage again.
While I am sympathetic to this analysis, I find it hard to get through McGilchrist’s tome. Although much of the factual content is interesting, it sprawls in every direction. He mixes sound views with esoteric philosophical thought: “Whatever-it-is-that-exists-apart-from-ourselves creates us, but we also take part in creating whatever-it-is” (Introduction). He explains that Nothing is an irreducible element in existence, in which Nothing and Being are dipoles (ch. 20). What troubles me is the many uncritical references to Nietzsche (35 times) and Heidegger (45 times). After all, these are the two “Nazi philosophers” of modern times. One shouldn’t cite such philosophers so heavily without acknowledging their dark side. He also draws on Hegel (28 times) whose philosophy of collectivism has caused so much suffering. He is the philosopher hardest to understand, says Bertrand Russell, who even claims that Hegel’s whole system arose from a fundamental logical mistake (Russell, 1967, ch. xxii). Carl Jung is referenced 32 times, a thinker who must be regarded as mainly a fantasizer, granted that he also confers much wisdom. The controversial New Age philosopher Rupert Sheldrake (‘morphic resonance’), whose ideas have been criticized as pseudoscience, is referenced 6 times. There is much evidence lifted from poetry, literature, myth, and even a Mozart opera.
For this reason I have a hard time taking him seriously, although he also refers to estimable thinkers, such as Hans-Georg Gadamer and Michael Polanyi. Central to McGilchrist’s philosophy is that everything for its existence depends on opposites in tension, or else the phenomenon couldn’t even exist. “You cannot have heat without cold, or brightness without darkness” (ch. 20). But these aren’t real opposites, because cold means low in heat and darkness low in brightness. So heat and light do not depend on cold and dark for their existence. One could well think of a universe which is permeated with light (photons) or one that is entirely dark and cold, which is how our universe will eventually become, according to the prevailing theory. Moreover, protons and neutrons, which make up stable matter, do not depend on opposites for their existence. In fact, they consist of three quarks in constant cooperation. Not everything is built around dichotomies. I think McGilchrist misuses Cusanus’s term ‘coincidentia oppositorum’ when he understands it to mean that opposites coincide while their mutual exclusion is excluded (chs. 20; 28), a misinterpretation that derives from Jung. Says McGilchrist: “God is not simply oneness, according to Cusanus.” Yes, but this is only because God cannot be compared to the worldly kind of oneness, which is always composite. According to Cusanus, opposites are completely enfolded in God. It explains why God is ‘simple.’ Only the simple, the uncomposite, transcends the one and the many (cf. De Docta Ignorantia I, 24).
If nature depends on dichotomies then also the brain must be a dichotomy. Accordingly, the two hemispheres should have very different views of the world, strictly speaking incompatible. But according to Professor Michael Spezio, pronounced hemispheric asymmetries find little support in the empirical material (Spezio, 2019). I guess the jury is still out. McGilchrist says that “reality is primarily shaped by the right hemisphere. So when the right hemisphere is malfunctioning, the left hemisphere is relatively at a loss” (ch. 4). This gives rise to the many bizarre mental consequences of right hemisphere lesions, of which he gives many examples. So he reasons as if the right hemisphere were out of the picture, and then the left hemisphere takes over with its deeply inferior capacity of formulating a sensible world, an incapacity that shows “extensive and very striking points of similarity with schizophrenia and autism” (ch. 9, Summary). From a layman’s perspective, it seems more plausible that the right hemisphere, due to destructive interference, causes the left hemisphere to malfunction. If it weren’t for this, it would function finely.
I glean from Internet searches that many operations have been performed where a diseased hemisphere is entirely removed, so called hemispherectomy. Regardless of which hemisphere is removed, doctors are surprised at how well-functioning the patient is afterwards. Having the right hemisphere removed does not create a severely alienated person suffering from grave autistic or schizophrenic symptoms. It seems to give the lie to McGilchrist’s view that “the left hemisphere cannot attend in the manner characteristic of the right hemisphere, even where necessary” (ch. 2). (But what do I know?) Toward the end of the book I get the impression that the author backpedals a bit; the left hemisphere does not necessarily fragmentate the world but can also see wholes. It’s just that it deals with parts and wholes in a different way, bottom-up rather than top-down (ch. 21). It seems, then, that the left hemisphere is not as severely handicapped, after all, and I’m getting more and more skeptical about McGilchrist’s whole idea.
I am surprised by the fact that he adopts the concept of a ‘mental unconscious,’ deriving from psychoanalysis. Neuroscientists generally say that the term ‘unconscious’ merely refers to brain processes. McGilchrist insists that the unconscious can carry out background tasks while the conscious mind is focusing on something else, and we can even decide to hand over such tasks to the unconscious (ch. 17). Professor Nick Chater repudiates this idea and says that the mind can consciously attend to just one problem at a time and there can be no background processing (Chater, 2018, p. 131). This is yet an example where McGilchrist relies on dubitable theory. It risks leading the reader astray.
I am critical that the author interprets Platonic Forms as abstractions. He contends that this has contributed to the trouble with Western thinking, so focussed on the abstract rather than the concrete. In fact, the Platonic Idea is really an atemporal ‘thing,’ a sublime and perfect exemplar serving as a model for earthly things. Plato actually celebrates the unworldly yet concrete particular, not its abstraction, and he elevates Love and Beauty as highest principles. The Form is not a ‘re-presentation,’ but a real presence, and the goal is to achieve the ‘presencing’ (a term introduced in the book) of the Form. It’s important to remember that, according to Plato, the intellect is capable of “seeing” the Forms directly, similar to how the eye sees worldly particulars. We do not construe the Forms in an abstract manner. Plato’s philosophy does not conform to left-hemisphere thinking, not the way the author portrays it.
McGilchrist promotes a metaphysics of flow; stasis and fixity are not fundamental to existence — it’s the flowing which is the ultimate reality, and he recruits Heraclitus in support of this view (ch. 23). In fact, Professor Jessica N. Berry explains that
…Heraclitus in fact insists upon the existence of stability or persistence in the natural world. To whatever degree the “flux” motif appears in Heraclitus, it is overshadowed by the theme of logos, and by themes of measure (metron), regularity, order, design, law, and necessity. (Gemes & Richardson, p. 97)
Heraclitus says: “Wisdom is one thing. It is to know the thought by which all things are
steered through all things” (DK B41). It means that the continual flux adheres to the logos, which defines the justice that upholds orderliness among battling opposites. Probably the author has been misled by Nietzsche. Heidegger has criticized Nietzsche for his faulty interpretation of Heraclitus. If there are no absolutes, then we are on swampy ground and risk sinking down into relativism. This was what worried Einstein, about his Theory of Relativity. The name might lead people to relativism. In fact, the theory postulates fixed absolutes, which in turn give rise to strange relativistic phenomena. Moreover, the universe depends on fixed laws, and creation seems to have been predetermined to the umpteenth decimal. There’s no evidence that flow takes precedence before fixity and law.
The author says that “[t]he static and the timeless has been privileged in the West ever since Plato followed the path of Parmenides, not Heraclitus” (ch. 22). Parmenides saw change as an illusion; but Plato didn’t deny change. On the contrary, he said that it was characteristic of the worldly realm. The world is real, although less real than the timeless Platonic world. Physical things are real to the extent that they participate in the world of Forms: “[T]he physical world is not as real or true as timeless, absolute, unchangeable ideas” (Wiki, ‘Theory of forms’). Thus, Heraclitus and Plato do not stand far apart.
Although I learnt much from this book, there is too much intellectual woolliness and lack of exactitude for my taste. As I see it, some authors are misinterpreted while some are augmented although they ought to be severely criticized. Abstruse philosophy might lead young readers astray. A world that is “a seamless, always self-creating, self-individuating, and simultaneously self-uniting, flow” is clearly not the whole truth and it leads to relativism. The author has not quite convinced me that an imbalance towards the left hemisphere in the general population is responsible for the cultural decline of the Western world. What I do know is that women, immigrants from backward countries, and decision makers on the autist spectrum, have today much greater influence than before. Most importantly, women have acquired voting rights, which easily explains the vulgarization and infantilization of politics. It appears that women are more left-hemisphere oriented (ch. 4). He ought to have discussed the female way of thinking and its destructive effects on our civilization. I give the book 3 out of 5.
© Mats Winther, 2022.
Chater, N. (2018). The Mind Is Flat: The Illusion of Mental Depth and the Improvised Mind. Yale University Press.
Cusa, N. of (1990). (Hopkins, J. transl.) Nicholas of Cusa on Learned Ignorance: A Translation and an Appraisal of De Docta Ignorantia. The Arthur J. Banning Press.
Gemes, K. & Richardson, J. (eds.) (2013). The Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche. Oxford University Press.
McGilchrist, I. (2021). The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Perspective Press.
Russell, B. (1967). A History of Western Philosophy. Simon and Schuster.
Spezio, M. (2019). ‘McGilchrist and hemisphere lateralization: a neuroscientific and metaanalytic assessment’, Religion, Brain & Behavior, 9:4, 387-399.
‘The Fragments of Heraclitus.’ (here)
‘Theory of forms.’ Wikipedia article. (here)