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Metaphysics and the Matter with Things: Thinking with Iain McGilchrist Conference Retrospect

Metaphysics and the Matter with Things: Thinking with Iain McGilchrist Conference Retrospect

Metaphysics and the Matter with Things was a well spring of humanity.  Anchored by the work of psychiatrist and literary scholar Dr. Iain McGilchrist, the conference took its namesake from his recently published two volume set, The Matter with Things.  McGilchrist’s masterwork presents a compelling case for what he terms “the hemisphere hypothesis” by demonstrating with exhaustive evidence the phenomenological distinctions between the left and right hemispheres of the brain.  McGilchrist argues society has grown imbalanced, and this imbalance is mirrored in the lateral asymmetry of our brains.  The left hemisphere specializes in language, analytical thinking, and the details of experience – abstracting the world for the sake of manipulating it to our benefit.  The right hemisphere comprehends experience holistically and creatively – it recognizes faces, empathizes, and sees the world in all its rich uniqueness.  Having closer connection with embodied sensations, the right hemisphere supplies living percepts to the left hemisphere for analytical processing which then returns its results for contextual reintegration by the right.  Because the right hemisphere has a wholistic view of the outside world and is capable of properly contextualizing the information it receives, it is far more veridical in its understanding than the left.  The left primarily works within the meaningful Gestalt given to it by the right but permits the brain as a whole to arrive at penetrating insights.  Oscillating between the two, human cognition orients itself in an ocean of information. 

Deepening the case for the analogy made in his prior book, The Master and His Emissary, McGilchrist likens the relationship between the hemispheres to that of a Chinese parable:  The leader of a sizable jurisdiction realizes the challenge asked of them is beyond their resources to manage alone.  To maintain a scope of awareness fitting of their constituency, they outsource certain analytical and communicative tasks to their emissary.  The emissary, conflating the master’s letters with the reality of the world, believes themself to be the rightful master.  Having delegated communicative responsibilities to the emissary, the master is vulnerable to the emissary’s penchant for exerting influence unbefitting of their role.  Harmony is lost and destruction ensues under the guidance of a leadership out-of-touch with the reality beyond its abstractions.  Such is the state of contemporary Western civilization, McGilchrist argues. 

Co-organized by the California Institute of Integral Studies and the Center for Process Studies, the conference was anchored on a process philosophical framework.  As such, the emphasis on living movement underlying abstract categorization was a recurring theme.  Welcoming a transdisciplinary approach, traditionally disparate fields were brought together to explore how breaking free from the left hemisphere’s propositional hegemony might reframe some of our most perplexing challenges.  Speakers’ backgrounds ranged from physics, neuroscience, and biology, to theology, cognitive science, and fiction – each found resonance with McGilchrist’s’ central message and brought the true range of its implications to bear.

Metaphysics and the Matter with Things: Thinking with Iain McGilchrist conference photo - audience

Physicist-turned-neuroscientist Dr. Alex Gomez-Marin opened the conference by making a case for considering consciousness as more than the production of experience from discrete parts.  Instead, he explored consciousness as a creative force which seeks not just a way forward but also a way upward.  Gomez-Marin’s intriguing mix of scientific thought and aesthetic sensibility set the tone aptly for the ensuing two days.

Exemplifying Gomez-Marin’s sentiment, fellow neuroscientist Dr. Michael Jacob discussed his approach to studying the brain wholistically rather than as a mechanical process.  Jacob presented the results of his work taking EEG and FMRI measurements simultaneously to gain a more comprehensive picture of the brain’s functioning.  This research helped support, he suggests, a notion of metabolic vulnerability which comes to see that “the information we have is inextricable from the energy that constitutes us”.

Finishing up the first session was Reverend Thandeka, who recounted the history of the west and its crisis of identity.  Mixing affective psychology with theology, Thandeka emphasized how trauma separates the mind and body, allowing the mind to deny the sensuous and social origins of its pain.  Inspired by the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Thandeka sees affective emotional regulation as the primal function of religion.  To correct the prevailing imbalances, she suggests creating safe spaces in small groups where trauma can be integrated by bringing mind and body into proper relationship.  

Next, physicist Dr. Ruth E. Kastner drew analogies from McGilchrist’s hemisphere hypothesis to the differences between classical mechanics (left hemisphere) and quantum mechanics (right hemisphere).  Rather than forcing quantum reality to fit into the left hemisphere’s analytical framework as classical quantum mechanics does, Kastner describes how her work on direct action theory explores a more holistic and relational understanding of quantum physics indicative of the right hemisphere’s mode of processing.  Rather than treating quantum mechanics as something happening in a spacetime filled with discrete objects pushing each other around, Kastner suggests, there is a kind of “acceptance” or “handshake” happening at the quantum level which permits “an actualization out of this realm of possibility”.  

Up next was former NASA plasma physicist, Dr. Timothy Eastman.  Like Dr. Kastner, Dr. Eastman found deep analogs in the mysteries of physics with the differences in left and right hemispheric processing.  Integrating his Logoi framework and the work of David Bohm with McGilchrist’s work, Dr. Eastman associates the left hemisphere with quantitative approaches to physics as the movement of material from past to future.  In contrast, the right hemisphere displays an emphasis on the qualitative aspects of physics and the web of relations constituting a unitive moment.  Eastman emphasizes the need to provide analysis with holistic context so that science can be integrated into the larger realm of experience in much the same way the emissary is to report to the master. 

Next, biologist Michael Levin summarized some of his cutting-edge work on the bioelectric fields that guide cellular development.  Seeing the self-organization of life as the embodiment of mind, Levin shows how intimate analyses of embryonic development appear to indicate life itself is constituted of agential material.  Seeking to bridge the Cartesian gap between mind and matter not just philosophically but experimentally, Levin and his laboratory suspect they are uncovering cellular collective intelligence at work – “Cognition is even more fundamental, and biology is just what cognition looks like for us” he concludes.

The next session began with process philosopher Dr. Matthew Segall introducing the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead.  Recounting the path that led the modern milieu to scientific reductionism, Dr. Segall offers a reminder of the theological ground it grew out of.  Rather than trapping nature in the analyses of increasingly disparate scientific specialties, the effort toward knowledge might be reunited under Whitehead’s scheme where the truth itself is a process which “must be held partially and shared between us all”.  A proper orientation towards the unknown anchors our scientific endeavors and reflects our relationship to it – a challenge which calls for a plurivocal effort to explore a world pregnant with possibility. 

Following Dr. Segall’s invitation, writer and futurist Zak Stein warned of the grave dangers approaching with the advent of artificial intelligence in his essay “Opening the Eye of Value”.  Deeply relevant given the conference’s location in downtown San Francisco, Stein provided a palpably dark articulation of how radically an immature and grandiose sense of value could irreparably obfuscate humanity’s perception of the real and sacred as it encounters increasingly powerful means of technological manipulation.  Stein implores us not to mistake tools for beings that truly care, and to maintain a steadfast awareness of what is valuable in human experience. 

Finishing up the first day, novelist Carolyn Cooke brought the conversation into the world of fiction to show how it can help us clarify what matters most.  Storytelling is among our most essential means of embracing the uncertainties of existence, formulating our ideals, and exploring what it means to be human. 

The final session of speakers focused on spirituality and the sacred.  Cultural historian, Richard Tarnas, opened by highlighting the consistency with which the modern milieu fails to see how “moral ontologies are just as real for orienting and impelling us as our perception of physical space”.  We must always contend with the question of, “How do I direct my energies to live a moral life?” For Tarnas, recognizing the mistakes of reductive materialism brings to the fore a human-shaped hole in our picture of the universe.  

Next, cognitive scientist John Vervaeke presented his work displaying how cognition is an embodied process centered on the realization of relevance.  Relevance realization he argues is intimately intertwined with a sense of felt connectedness to one’s environment – of the sense that one matters.  “Mattering” in this existential sense is tightly correlated with metrics of well-being and severely lacking in a modern culture grappling with meaninglessness.  As a diagnostic, Vervaeke offers three questions, “What do you want to exist even if you don’t?  How real or meaningful is it?  What are you doing to contribute to it now?”.

Closing remarks for the conference came from philosopher and director of the Center for Process Studies, Andrew M. Davis.  Davis encapsulated the conference’s ethos in a deep exploration of value.  Seeing propositions as Whitehead did – not as categorical determinations but as “lures for feeling”, Davis called back a recurring theme of the conference: how we attend to experience supersedes our attempts at knowledge.  Articulating a view of human beings as an expression of the cosmic, for Davis, what lures us is value.  Value is the constitutive element of the universe, declaring itself in each moment of experience.  By stepping out of left-hemispheric abstraction, humanity is re-immersed in the right-hemisphere’s sensorial context.  Experience is bathed in a sea of value where the mind is no longer alienated from a hostile universe.  Life exists to uphold the achievement of value, and grounds itself positively in the face of chaos which is not it’s opposite but it’s fertile origin.

Kevin Dowling

Kevin Dowling works by day as a consultant to state and local governments advising on fiscal management and the financing of large capital projects. Outside of his consulting work, he leads the financial operations of an NGO working to reduce maternal and infant mortality in rural Sierra Leone, and is a graduate student at the California Institute of Integral Studies focused on metaphysics and process philosophy.