I’ve decided after all to share my thoughts as I journey through Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter with Things. Come join me.
Intro and Biographical
I’ve decided, perhaps against my better judgement, to have a run at Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter with Things. At almost 3,000 pages this seems a bit daunting at the start. I debate whether I wish to pursue this course because it slows my pace significantly—perhaps allowing me to progress at a rate 15 to 20 per cent of what I might have otherwise been able to maintain. However, creating content affords me at least two offsetting benefits. Firstly, I get to share my experience with a wider audience and do so in the moment. Secondly, it allows me to better absorb and comprehend the material. As a former professor of economics myself, I internalised the aphorism “to teach is to learn twice.” Of course, this is not teaching so much as regurgitating and providing my own reactions and perspectives in places. It may be akin to learning some one-point-some-odd times. Let’s round up to two.
Biographically, McGilchrist was a lecturer of Literature at Oxford before refocusing on Medicine and then Psychiatry with an interest in Neuroscience. Interestingly, he was particularly interested in hemisphere differences in the brain and was advised strongly not to pursue this academically, as it was a certain career-killer. Besides the domain was already over-studied and summarily disproven. Iain persisted.
As it happens, the older notions of hemispheric differences were facile nonsense, but there was evidence of brain asymmetry—which will become readily apparent in the opening chapters—, and this has been his passion project ever since.
The Matter with Things is a two-volume set presented in three parts, the first two contained in the first volume. Neuropsychology—both neurological and neuropsychological—is the theme of the first part, which is comprised of nine chapters. The second part consists of 10 chapters with a focus on epistemology. The second volume, being the third part, is about metaphysics.
The first chapter is aptly named, Some Preliminaries and How We Got Here. Per the author, this is the most technical chapter with the added encouragement: “If you survive this, you’re good to go.”
This chapter provides some basic history of the evolution of the brain. He establishes that the “raison d’être [of the right hemisphere] is to enable us to be on the lookout for potential predators, to form bonds with mates, and to understand, and interpret the living world around us” whilst the left hemisphere’s purpose “is to enable us to be effective predators.”
This is a gross oversimplification, but details will follow. Essentially, the right hemisphere experiences the external world rather holistically as presented whilst the left hemisphere interprets, codifies, and maps this world for later access. He doesn’t mention it in this chapter, but since I’ve read a bit ahead already—so we’ll return to it presently—the left hemisphere does not, loosely speaking, interact with the external world. It creates map based on what the right hemisphere conveys of the terrain, as I like to call it, and refers only to the map from then on. This sets us up for some peculiar behaviours, but we’ll get to that in upcoming chapters.
I don’t have much to say about this first chapter as it is pretty much scientific facts, and I don’t have any unique perspective to offer. As I expect to reserve the tail of these segments for perspective, I’ll use this allotted space for some general thoughts going in.
I am not sure where McGilchrist falls on the Realism versus Idealism front. As I understand from other sources, he believes there is an out there out there, and without our brains, perception couldn’t happen. I also understand that he’s a Panpsychist, which is to say that he believes that everything has consciousness, so it will be interesting how that all comes together. Unfortunately, I feel this is second-volume fare.
As I am an Analytic Idealist, I believe that there is an out there out there as well. But I don’t believe we have any access to its veridical nature. What we experience is a Bayesian approximation, the best guess necessary for us to survive and evolve. I mention this as I believe it is a difference of opinion I have up front, so I am offering full disclosure of a potential bias. Also, I get the feeling that he conflates this paradigm with those espousing views that we live in a Matrix-style simulation, or everything is a hologram or holograph, and one day I’ll understand the difference between the two.
If you know the difference between a hologram and a holograph, let me know in the comments or on the blog.
Have you read this book already? Are you interested in reading it? If so, stick around and perhaps you’ll gather enough information here to catch your attention.
Chapter 2, Perspective, is also available.