In this first chapter of the second section of The Matter with Things, Iain McGilchrist asks, What is Truth? Section two has a different focus than the first, which was focused on foundation building. From here on in, he wants to build on this foundation.
Check out the table of contents for this series of summaries. Note that I have rendered my interstitial commentaries in grey boxes with red text, so the reader can skip over and just focus on the chapter summary.
At first, he establishes that each hemisphere ‘thinks’ it knows the true truth and has the best vantage on reality. He makes it clear that a short chapter will not do the topic of truth the justice he feels it deserves and notes that others have written books on the matter. He just wants to make a few points and clarify his position.
As we discovered in the first section, the left and right hemispheres perceive the world differently. The right hemisphere experiences the world as it is presented in a Gestalt manner. This is contrasted by the left hemisphere which views the world as a symbolic re-presentation. It’s not unfair to say that the right hemisphere experiences the world directly whilst the left hemisphere views a cache of the world.
In this chapter, McGilchrist (Iain) attempts to convince the reader that one side is more correct or correct more often than the other and so is more veridical. As he says, the left hemisphere ‘is a good servant but a poor master’. Of course, if we had a third hemisphere [sic], we might think it could mediate the other two, but then we’d need a fourth and a fifth, ad infinitum to act as the new arbiter.
Spoiler Alert: The right hemisphere wins the battle on truth pretty much hands down.
He wants to make it clear to the reader that he is no strict idealist. There is a reality ‘out there’ apart from mental processes that objectively exists even in the absence of a subject. Reality is not exclusively a projection of the brain.
His choice rather relies on the correspondence theory of truth, which is to say that the hemisphere that conveys perceptions more correspondent to our perceived reality would be more veridical.
Here, I challenge his reasoning on two accounts. In the first place,each hemisphere may operate better in one context versus another. In the second case, there may be a consequential factor, which again distils down to context. In risk management, there are notions of probability of failure and consequence of failure. For example, a failure to recognise the truth of a matter (we’ll use truth as a proxy for ‘fact’), may be inconsequential. If I am assessing the probability of a pipe bursting in a nuclear facility and the pipe is connected to a sink to deliver tap water, the consequence of this failure is practically insignificant. But if I am assessing the probability of a pipe containing radioactive materials, even if the probability of failure is low, the consequence of failure may be catastrophic.
Evolutionarily speaking, if you mistake a garden hose for a venomous snake, the consequence of failure is trivial. Turn the tables, and mistake a snake for a garden hose, the consequence may be fatal. I am not attempting to claim that one hemisphere interprets the low consequence scenario and the other interprets the high. I simply want to raise this nuance.
He makes the point that if we compare some known authentic object to a recollection, we want to retain the one that is more accurate.
I see a similar challenge. Hypothetically, let’s say I present a red disc and manipulate the hemispheres to activate only one at a time, asking to recall the object. If the left says it’s red and the right says it’s a disc, which is more correct? Again, I am not claiming that this is a real scenario, but if one side possesses facts unavailable to the other side, we’ve got a problem in making a truth claim.
To reiterate, the left hemisphere is more analogous to a photograph or a video account whereas the right hemisphere is to be in the place that is being photographed. The right hemisphere is duratively presenced whilst the left is re-presented. We move from a nominative form to a verbial form of representing reality. This leads him to ask if ‘truth’ is a thing or a process.
He shifts to a linguistic argument. When people view ‘truth’ as a noun, as a thing, the expectation is that it is static. Moreover, the descriptors of truth are rendered mainly in the past tense—representation, fact, perfect, precise, certain, and concluded. He provides definitions. When viewed duratively, ‘truth’ becomes a process. It is an active relationship. It flows. It’s an intercourse.
We may not ever get to an agreed truth, but neither is every position valid. Interpreting a text, for example, may have several conflicting meanings, but the possible meanings are relatively finite.
Take a simple sentence such as, “The dog bit the hand that feeds him.” This could be meant literally or figuratively. We might imagine different dogs, hands and person to whom the hand is attached. Perhaps the hand is attached to a bonobo. Perhaps, it’s a robotic hand. These are among various possible interpretations, and we may not ever agree on the truth of the matter. However, we can rule out that a giraffe or a watermelon were central to this narrative for what it’s worth.
The bookgoes on to discuss the etymology of the word ‘truth’ and of its relationship to the word ‘true’ (faithful) which is further related to ‘trust’. I won’t exhaust his explanation.
He does discuss correspondence and coherence theories of truth and discounts others such as consensus theory and social constructivism. He cautions not to equate truth with correctness. This is a left hemisphere game insisting on dichotomising things.
The book declares the despite a general agreement on the source or nature of truth, there is something there, so don’t give up un it. In the end, he seems to settle for a Pragmatistic version à la William James.
Personally, I feel he and others are over-invested in the nature of truth. And inflate its meaning over ‘fact’. To me, Capital-T Truth is an archetype, but it doesn’t otherwise exist. We have facts, and truth is sort of a perfect version of a fact. Love is in the same category, though I know Iain would disagree with this assertion. Of course, James dismissed semantic argument as petty and insisted that people simply know the truth of something. I’ve always found this take to be dismissive. I also feel that Pragmatism is too steeped in Empiricism and loses hold of the notion that what happened yesterday may not in fact manifest today or not in the same way.
I’ll also argue as others have before me that (besides being archetypal) the term is a redundant filler word. On a minuscule level, if I say ‘The cup is red’, saying ,’It’s true that the cup is red adds nothing’. The equation was already asserted. This leaves one to wonder what the purpose of it is.
Returnng to the asymmetry of the hemispheres he cautions up not to take a position that one of the other side is correct. Rather, even though there is an asymmetry in value, there is still a synthesis.
Iain uses the example of Newtonian and Einsteinian physics. At one point, they are practically synonymous and interchangeable. Only as we reach the speed of light does Newtonian physic exceed the bounds of its scope. He also educated the reader on the difference between precision and accuracy.
I like to view this in a musical context. If I play two notes together, say a B over an E, neither is more correct than the other. Notionally, I am playing an E5/B. This is neither an E or a B. The chord is the result of the two playing simultaneously. In this case E and B are both true and not true because the E5 is a synthesis. If I add a G# I get an E-major chord, subsequently adding a D renders an E7. In each of these cases, the truth of the notes, B, D, E, and G# remain true to their identity, but the fact is that the individuality is subsumed by the collective. This is the prevailing truth even though a person with perfect pitch can still individually identify the constituents of the chord. I don’t know if this is more confusion than necessary, but it helps me.
I’ve always like this illustration with target grouping, but this was not referenced by the book.
Interestingly, he cites Jay Zwicky’s definition: “Truth is the asymptotic limit of sensitive attempts to be responsible to our actual experience of the world … ‘sensitive attempts to be responsible’ means truth is the result of attention. (As opposed to inspection.) Of looking informed by love. Of really looking.” He accedes that there are degrees of truth.
As the chapter comes to a close, he leaves us with a twisted categorical syllogism,
- [p1] All monkeys climb trees
- [p2] The porcupine in a monkey
- [ c ] The porcupine climes trees
This structure presents a valid argument. However, it is not sound. It follows the Socratic logical syntax:
- [p1] M a P
- [p2] S a M
- [ c [ S a P
Because of our exposure to and experience with the external world, we can assess this argument to be unsound, which is to say untrue by observation. Without this context, we could not render this assessment. He discusses the way right- and left-hemisphere occluded subjects respond to this discrepancy. In summary, an isolated left hemisphere with defend the logical syntax over the lived experience.
In conclusion, the hemispheres take different paths to assess truth and often end up at different destinations. The left hemisphere sees truth as a thing whilst the right views it as a process.