But (and this is the main subject of the first volume of The Matter with Things), science and reason say nothing of the kind. Very, very far from it. One could only reach that verdict by deploying a childish pastiche of science and reason and strenuously ignoring other factors which one should take into account into coming to conclusions about the nature of the world.
This grim verdict on the world has been the main philosophical bottom line since the eighteenth century. Metaphysics is bunk: you signify nothing: deal with it. Follow science and reason and you’ll be freed from the mediaeval delusion of purpose.
This, says McGilchrist, has landed us where we are now: seeing the universe as a mere machine (and there’s nothing obviously wrong about smashing up a machine, is there?) and human individuals as rather incompetently managed enzyme factories whose eventual and inevitable closure is of no significance.
By Charles Foster
As a species and as individuals we may not survive the left hemisphere’s determined attempts at suicide and genocide, but if we do, we need to ask what we are surviving for. How are we intending to live, and why? McGilchrist’s book identifies how we got into this mess, how we can get out, and what to do if we escape. It is a vital read for anyone who wants to know what they are, where they live, and how to live.
Science: great. More of it, please. But proper, sceptical science – not the sclerosed fundamentalism of much modern biology, in which the scientific enterprise is seen as the business of forcing data into the old, tired, creaking paradigms.
Nobody can doubt that we’re in a terrible mess. The planet is on fire; we’re racked with neuroses and governed by charlatans, and we have no idea what sort of creatures we are. We tend to intuit that we are significant animals, but have no language in which to articulate that significance, and the main output of the Academy is to scoff at the intuition.
Reason; great. More of it, please. But reason informed by intuition and imagination. Just look at how tectonic discoveries in science, mathematics and philosophy are actually made. Often (ask any mathematician) the conclusion comes first, delivered by intuition and imagination, and then a professional lifetime is spent puzzling out the proof.
This week I went to the launch of the latest book by Iain McGilchrist, currently best known for his account of the cultural effects of brain lateralisation, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.  The new book, The Matter with Things: Our brains, our delusions, and the unmaking of the world is, whatever, you think of the argument, an extraordinary phenomenon. It is enormously long – over 600,000 words packed into two substantial volumes. To publish such a thing denotes colossal confidence: to write it denotes great ambition.
Let there be no doubt what this is. This is an attempt to describe the way the cosmos really is, and to suggest how, in the light of the way that the cosmos is, we should live in it. It is no religious wolf in philosophical clothing, but it is an argument of remarkable power for the proposition that meaning and purpose are part of the web and weave of the universe.
It was commissioned by mainstream publishers who took fright when they saw its size. There is eloquent irony in the rejection on the ground of its length and depth of a book whose main thesis is that reductionism is killing us. It was picked up by Perspectiva press. That was brave. But I’m predicting that Perspectiva’s nerve will be triumphantly vindicated. It was suggested at the launch that the book might rival or outshine Kant or Hegel. That sounds hysterical. It is a huge claim, but this is a huge book, and I think the claim might just be right.
‘As we think, we live’, observed Alfred North Whitehead. That’s McGilchrist’s contention too. We live badly, miserably, incoherently and shamefully because our thinking is dysfunctional. That, says McGilchrist, is because our ways of perceiving and being in the world have been hijacked by the left hemisphere, which is designed to manipulate the world, not understand it. The left hemisphere is nerdish, conservative, petulant, and fond of power. It is good at filing and narrow, concentrated attention. It is morbidly fond of its own precious categories, and gets jumpy and upset if it is suggested that anything in the world might not fit neatly into them. It’s a dualistic organ, perfectly at home in the binary digital world which we, tragically, are learning to describe as home. It doesn’t do context. It was meant to administer; to be an executive, but it has arrogated to itself the right hemispherical job of comprehending; of putting things together to see a whole which is always greater than the sum of the parts; of wisdom; of realising that the truth is often found in the resonance between two seemingly contradictory notions.
The second volume of The Matter with Things examines the great themes of philosophy, science and religion, asking what we can conclude about them if we can exclude the distortions introduced by the inappropriate contributions of the left hemisphere – but taking into account its appropriate contributions. It’s exhilarating iconoclastic stuff: the nature of space, time and consciousness, matter, value, purpose, and the sense of the sacred. It would be hubristic if it weren’t humble and exhaustively (but not exhaustingly) argued. If (for instance) you’re a material reductionist, committed to the dogma that there is only matter, you’re in for a rough time – for no one has the faintest idea what matter is.
Our current epistemologies are woefully inadequate. It’s not surprising, given the flawed way in which our brains process data and construct our view of the world. We’ve no idea what the world is really like. No wonder we don’t feel at home here. If we don’t know what we are or where we are, how can we be secure or happy or fulfilled or act decently? Most of us, myself included, don’t live in the world at all. How can we? We don’t know where it is. We live in virtual, self-created worlds: echo chambers of echoing loneliness. We inhabit not landscapes but maps.

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