The Next Swing of the Pendulum? A Critical Look at Ian McGilchrist, The Matter with Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World

Ian McGilchrist, The Matter with Things (YouTube interview)

Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary (4.7 stars on Amazon)

Iain McGilchrist, The Matter with Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World (4.8 stars on Amazon).

Constantine Zalalas on Ken Peterson

Constantine Zalalas has a quite respectable YouTube presence, and one video comments on Ken Peterson, who apparently has said some helpful things about belabored inclusive language versus naturally inclusive language, and he is regarded as an ally by many Christians.

As Zalalas describes him, Peterson was asked if he was a Christian, and as quoted Peterson replied that the question bothered him, and when he looked in the mirror at why, he quoted Nietzsche to the effect that the only person ever qualified to call himself a Christian was Christ himself. And Zalalas tries to address this.

He didn't respond, as I do, that this is much the same as Barack Obama's answer in political debate to the question of where life began: "That question is above my pay grade," and the question of when life began was the prerogative of "theologians" and "scientists." To which I would quote a forgotten source: "A diplomat is someone who can tell you to go to Hell in such a way that you look forward to the trip."

Iain McGilchrist was endorsed to me by new Orthodox including my godson, and I would do my readers a great disservice to deny the obvious point that he reads to Orthodox like a major breath of fresh air. I thought while reading The Master and His Emissary that he might be Orthodox.

Perhaps my single biggest introduction to postmodernism was listening to a joint lecture by Alan Sokol and Michael Berube, where Berube's biggest leitmotif was the "brute fact" versus "social reality" postmodern analytic knife pushing the flawed "value" versus "fact" schema to its logical end. I raised the question of whether the fact that we have bodies with nontrivial structure that worked, and he answered by talking about wanting to know what the electron could say to us if only we could talk, meaning that the working complexity of the human body was not anything like McGilchrist's Gestalts, but while he did not deny the majot working complexity of living organisms, he placed a strong agnosticism about whether it should be knowable to us and the brute fact versus social reality distinction remained where us interpreting any Gestalts about our world was purely a matter of social reality that was not in the brute fact.

McGilchrist makes a very refreshing presentation and one that I believe that Orthodox can largely accept. People I've read talk about, for instance, a Buddhist Old Testament to an Orthodox New Testament, and I believe it is perfectly possible for Ian McGilchrist to provide an Old Testament to the Orthodox New Testament and find its fulfillment in Orthodoxy.

However, there is one regard in which I regard McGilchrist as significantly lacking.

Q: How many process theologians does it take to change a light bulb?<

A: Actually, what we're trying to change is the outmoded prejudice that "light" is somehow superior to "darkness."

McGilchrist sees a large portion of the troubles of the West now, which I agree with him are fully problematic enough to take down a civilization, in seeing everything as "things." He sees the West crippling itself with a language with nouns and no verbs, but his solution is not to use both nouns and verbs, but to adopt a language with verbs and no nouns.

His originally intended title for The Matter with Things was, "There Are No Things," and rejected it, not because he fails to provide a positive account of a universe of vibrant life without things, but because it would sound like "a nihilist brand of postmodernism," which simply not his project at all.

However, while what he says about a God who is the Ground of Being is close to being 100% valid, he opts in the end for an open theism process theology in which God is made mutable and God does not know the future. These are anathema to Eastern Orthodoxy, and not anything like a mere academic quibble. His project of speaking with verbs and abolishing nouns has no place to make for doctrine of God in which a God beyond change and beyond time itself. This is, incidentally, a point that most of the worst heretics like Arius, Nestorius, Apollonarius, and Sabellius got right: neither Arianism nor its ancient variations has the least difficulty acknowledging that God is beyond change and beyond time. Nor that there is an "I" in the divine "I AM."

G.K. Chesterton famously said, "The reformer is always right about what is wrong. But he is usually wrong about what is right." McGilchrist is a reformer. His position is without doubt interesting, and most of his critiques are right. For that matter, most of how he draws on different traditions is worthy of an Orthodox Christian. However, his verbs without nouns are an Achilles'sheel to his position. (And I regard his position on Islam as separable from fundamentalisms he despises, whether religious or anti-theistic, as lacking. He also does not recognize that what we think of as moderate Islam is lukewarm Islam, and what we think of as extremist Islam is normal and healthy Islam, or that at least according to Zalalas, Islam is consistent in working what Christianity would be like without a divine Christ and categorically denying love in the pre-eternal Trinity, and in fact Zalalas says that the Quran does not employ the term "love" in relation to its God.)

The next swing of the pendulum?

I regard McGilchrist as having written seminal works that deserve status as classics. Furthermore, this work is a critique of one Achilles's heel in his work. I am not trying to cover what he got right because I don't want to write additional huge tomes, just a blog posting.

McGilchrist has offered an interesting account of, among other things, a world where intelligence and consciousness belong, and where belief in such things as truth, goodness, and beauty belong and are not an anthropomorphism presumably writ large. There are really very few Achilles's heels that I sense in his writing: that as he said he does not belong to a Church, and he while he reaches an impressive doctrine of God from his various sources, his settling on animism does not reach a realization that the animism he embraces and the occult phenomena he briefly asks us to take seriously should be regarded as embracing the demonic.

(And, by the way, McGilchrist has managed the remarkable feat of providing a version of evolution that is not self-referentially incoherent. C.S. Lewis raised the question regarding Darwinian or neo-Darwinian evolution of what it says about itself: naturalist evolution can explain why we have brains good enough to help us find food, procreate, and avoid getting hunted to extinction, but not why we could possibly have brains good enough to posit a true theory of evolution. if romantic love is a biochemical reaction in a world where we are side effects of mindless forces that did not have us in mind, then the theory of evolution has not only explained away romantic love, but explained away all explanation with it, including the theory of evolution itself.)

I have written a few critiques of the nature connection movement, and I believe that standard critiques are part of rightly situating landmark works. But I would regard my own writing this critique as primarily significant in relation to the significance of McGilchrist's work. Although I am aware of other things that embrace the significance of human thought, such as the cognitive-theoretic model of the universe, McGilchrist's work comes pretty close to the first of its kind that I have found worth criticizing. (One postmodern friend talked about cognitivist and non-cognitivist readings of Derrida, and argued that if you are arguing a significant position in Derrida, you are de facto taking a cognitivist position. I have never written on Derrida because on what I have read, I do not have a basis to understand a basis for a cognitivist treatment, although I might find more in him if I reread him.)


I have tried to suggest how McGilchrist might meet a standard critique. I have not tried to appreciate what there is to appreciate. He provides an overarching, synthetic view, one that is in the best way "gooey" rather than "prickly." He also provides an incisive critique about a human layer to what is destroying our civilization. And, par excellence, he explores what the "right [brain] hemisphere" ("the Master") and the "left [brain] hemisphere" ("the Emissary") contribute, what is the right relationship between them, and what happens when in Luciferian fashion the Emissary tries to usurp all authority and take over as the master. This represents a profound contribution to the conversation I was concerned at some points of reading The Matter with Things that I would not see how it might be critiqued and thereby situate his work. I did not see any of my concerns arise when I earlier read The Master and His Emissary. The Matter with Things goes further and is much more than a more detailed view of The Master and His Emissary. Now I would like to help situate his work, and allow Orthodox to read McGilchrist for his strengths while avoiding his weaknesses.

Cheers to Ian McGilchrist, and salutations for writing works worth critiquing!