Notes: Iain McGilchrist - ‘Iain McGilchrist on The Matter With Things’

Notes: Iain McGilchrist, The Jim Rutt Show - ‘EP 154 Iain McGilchrist on The Matter With Things’, ‘EP 155 Iain McGilchrist Part 2: The Matter With Things’


Jim: But to turn loose of objects as a core object in cognition for useful action in the world, I think is very dangerous. I often run into people trying to sell too much quantum mechanics with respect to its relevance higher up in the world.

Iain: […] my point is not that thinking of things as objects in daily life is necessarily wrong from a pragmatic point of view. I’m really making a philosophical point that actually when you come to look at them, that they’re better understood as processes, some very slow processes, some much more rapid processes. But it stops one from making elementary mistakes, like seeing them as sharply defined and distinct from the environment that they thrive in.

Jim: Maybe time is discontinuous at that range, or as I like to think, the distinction between continuous and discontinuous disappears into a fog of confusion at that scale, but I think my takeaway is that things that occur at this ultra micro level do not matter at the level of us.

Iain: Yes, you are right in one sense that when we’re dealing with daily life, we don’t have to be thinking about whether there is continuity or not.

Rutt points out that there are certain distinctions that are irrelevant at the everyday scale - that, for instance, it doesn’t really matter to most of us whether time is ultimately discontinuous because whether it is or isn’t has no impact on our decisions.

McGilchrist makes the point that distinctions at the level of ‘deep code’ are in fact important - that everyday life is, in fact, downstream from such deep, philosophical distinctions, and so it is important to get them right. Our worldview is the water that we swim in, it affects everything albeit in a very indirect fashion.

For instance, to give ‘process’ primacy over ‘state’ is important as it gives us a philosophical base which leads to wiser decisions at the everyday level. It establishes that the right hemisphere is primary and checks the expansiveness of the left hemisphere from the get-go.

Deep code, defaults

I take randomness to be an asymptotic element that we can only approach ever nearer to, but never actually to achieve - that order is the principle that is visible everywhere and that true randomness is not a reality. 

Although degrees of chaos, degrees of disorder are very, very important to the functioning of almost anything that we can think of, especially of life.

Animism, consciousness, order, process are the defaults, and their opposites - inanimacy, chaos, stasis - are asymptotic, limit conditions. That they appear to be real - that an object appears still, or a process appears chaotic - is an illusion of scale. Look closely enough and a deeper reality is revealed.

State / Process

I’m a follower of process philosophy. The most famous person in that sphere is A.N. Whitehead. And I effectively believe that what we see as things - which implies somehow that they’re contained and perhaps rather static and until given a push - is a mistake if we see it that way, because what they really are all processes.

I sometimes give the example of the mountain behind my house, which looks very solid, a very great big lump and a thing. But actually if you had a time lapse camera going back 13 billion years, you would see that it’s part of a wave that still hasn’t finished its motion.

So yeah, this business of freezing things, examining little tiny parts […] it can tell you something about the little bit you’re looking at, but it can’t tell you about the bigger picture.

I sometimes quote Yates saying, “How can we tell the dancer from the dance?” Because in a way, we are what we do, we become what our actions and interactions in the world make us.

Life is in some sense a speeding up of specific fundamental processes within a bounded region, a whirlwind.


[…] we have to have some idea about how we come towards ideas that are truer than others. And I’m not suggesting that there is one simple truth, but we wouldn’t be able to do anything or say anything unless we believe that certain things were truer than others. So how do we get that?

[…] there’s a difference between the left hemisphere’s idea of truth and the right hemisphere idea of truth.

[…] correspondence truth is the idea that the propositions that we make or have the thoughts, beliefs that we have a kind of version of the world, they reflect the world so that we’ve got a model to be able to work on. Whereas, coherence theory says it’s not about correspondence in a one-to-one way, it’s more about do these various aspects of what we believe to be true make a coherent whole?

I don’t think that either of these is right and I quote Anthony Quinton saying that probably truth will turn out to be an amalgam of these points of view.

But I think we can also, using the hemisphere approach, see a certain difference, which is that the left hemisphere is again viewing the world, the cosmos, as made of things, of stuff, bits here and there, whereas the right hemisphere is likely to prioritize relationships. This is what it is always seeing in both the human and the non-human world. And so it’s interested in the relationships that come and go between the observer and the thing that’s observed.

And the idea of this is not truth as a thing or correctness - which lies in a way behind all the left hemisphere versions of how we get at truth, including the coherence theory and the correspondence theory - it’s not so much like that, as a clearing a way of error.

So it’s working apophatically, in the way that science actually works, which is to clear away mistakes. Science never says this is true, it just says, this doesn’t look true on the basis of what we know now. And that leaves you with something else that you can work with.

[…] truth [is] as a process […] a never ending journey of a reverberative kind in which our consciousness and the consciousness of what is around us come into alignment. And this doesn’t really have the same features as a world of things that are in principle knowable, even if we can’t actually know them too well.

I oppose to that, the idea of truth as unconcealing, in other words, clearing away so that we see the picture ever more clearly, rather as a sculptor makes a statue, not by putting together an arm, a leg ahead, and a torso, but by actually clearing away the stone, that makes the thing stand out.

The process view of truth is provisional and more humble - it stops us from thinking that we have the truth, and so prevents the ‘seizing up’ of fundamentalism.

'Correctness' is only truly relevant to closed systems, such as mathematics. There is no binary correct/incorrect within a complex domain, only probability.  

Tradition is the container of innovation, which is another way of saying that the left hemisphere is contained within the right. 

In modernity the left hemisphere is uncontained and rampant, and so innovation becomes aimless and ultimately toxic for the wider collective.

The presence of complexity indicates the presence of a soul.