Iain McGilchrist, 'We Need to Act'
The influential philosopher/psychiatrist believes that we are at a point of crisis
Iain McGilchrist has been outlining for many years that a fundamental problem in the way we are perceiving the world is likely to lead us into trouble. Now in 2022 he believes the situation is reaching a crucial turning point and we need to wake up urgently.
In this conversation with Rebel Wisdom's David Fuller he talks about how our current culture's domination by a 'left brain', reductionistic, materialist and literalist perspective had reached crisis point.
"In the Master and his Emissary, I said we look like sleepwalkers who are shuffling our way towards the abyss. In the 13 years since I wrote that, I just feel that we are much, much closer to that abyss. And unless we wake up, we will fall to destruction."
Iain outlined his theory about the clash between the way the left and right brain perceive reality in his book The Master and his Emissary thirteen years ago, and followed up with his epic The Matter With Things which came out earlier this year. He explains how the left brain sees the world as a series of discrete, unrelated objects, and it was the right brain that was able to understand context, nuance and the relation between things.
He talked about the danger of restrictions on free speech and that there were now many subjects that simply could not be questioned. Also that the left hemisphere way of looking at the world was prone to black and white thinking and to fixed delusional beliefs.
"The right hemisphere, however, sees that everything is ultimately connected, that things are never static and fixed but evolving and changing, that they they move and create complexity, beauty and order out of their being. And that this is something that can never be disembodied and turned into a process that a machine could do.
"So, in fact, a lot of our thinking has gone towards the idea that we are kind of faulty machines, that has none of the complexity, the depth or the meaning. That is the important part of a human life."
He talked about the sense of being lost and untethered in our own lives, similar to the sense of 'Domicide' (destruction of home) that the cognitive scientist John Vervaeke talks about in his Awakening From the Meaning Crisis series:
"The root of the word belonging is the same as the root for longing, which is the sense of being connected to something that stretched away from us. And we have no sense of that tethering to a place, to a time, to the collection of those that we love, to our own place in this cosmos.
Instead, we see ourselves as as completely like vagrants in the universe with no place that which has meaning for us and no place of connection with what came before or after."
Iain's work can be found here: https://channelmcgilchrist.com/
A very important message. The right brain is the creative side and that is what we need to use now to get out of this mess, if we can.
I really admire Iain McGilchrist, and I agree our society feels more broken than it ever has (in my lifetime anyway), but McGilchrist did not offer a very clear diagnosis. His left-brain / right-brain hypothesis rings true, but he lost the narrative when he tried to point to concrete manifestations. At that level, it sounded like a fruit salad of generational grievance – kids these days.
McGilchrist didn't mention "wokeness" specifically (that I can recall), but his critique was recognizable. The idea is that there's an illiberal left that's actively silencing all discussion (i.e. dissent) around a range of issues, but the only example any of these critics ever seem to mention is gender. It seems to be just this one thing that's so incendiary. Okay, issues around race are sometimes mentioned, taking distant second place.
So is there really a widespread cultural problem of ideological intolerance on the left, or is there just passionate skirmishing around a couple of issues? And are people really being silenced in a broad and systematic purge, or is it mostly just loud disagreement with a tiny handful of genuinely unjust persecutions? Finally, is this really new, or have there always been waves of skirmishes around new and marginal ideas?
But the really big question I have here is, why this? It seems like such a strange and small thing to have spent so much of this hour on. Certainly we are seeing the confluence of multiple crises, and certainly we need to act. Iain McGilchrist is someone I still believe can help point us in a better direction. His books are brilliant guideposts, but sadly, he did not do his own work much justice in this appearance. We need to hear more from Iain McGilchrist, but this was not it.