Iain McGilchrist and the Attack on Life and Understanding In Our Times

When a man as brilliant as Iain McGilchrist speaks, it can be a challenge to follow. Not because his words, subject, or syntax are obscure—quite the opposite—but because he touches on so many matters of importance that you want him to stop a moment so you can digest what he has just said. You may not agree with one thing or another, but given the source, you want a moment to consider, or reconsider. More often, he is opening windows and doors you had failed to open yourself. 

In a recent conversation with podcaster Mark Vernon, entitled “The attack on life and understanding our times.” McGilchrist dives well into the middle of matters that concern us all. Thank goodness it is on YouTube, and we can pause the conversation as need be, long enough to catch up. Of course, that means a lot of pausing for me, but so it should be with matters so momentous. 

Reiterating the plain language of a true scholar is intimidating. He speaks too well for himself. But there are a few points I think worth going on about here because they are the sorts of things we encounter every day, things that too often use up our time, and things we all have a sense of without necessarily having connected them to larger philosophical issues. 

British psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist is a relatively new name to me. I first encountered him through a conversation he had with Jordan Peterson concerning his 2009 book The Master and His Emissary. Subtitled The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, it is a study of the differences between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Such brain experiments had previously struck me as the too convenient conjectures of “behaviorism” and the mechanistic psychology of codifiers. But this presentation was revolutionary and not just another sort of determinism. Here was an understanding of why the brain cannot be replicated by the artificial intelligence of a computer. 

McGilchrist taught English literature at Oxford before getting his medical degree, and his fascination with creativity was clearly a motivation to his research on the workings of the brain. He argues, “that we have become enslaved to an account of things dominated by the brain’s left hemisphere, one that blinds us to an awe-inspiring reality that is all around us, had we but eyes to see it. He suggests that in order to understand ourselves and the world we need science and intuition, reason, and imagination, not just one or two; that they are in any case far from being in conflict; and that the brain’s right hemisphere plays the most important part in each.” 

Now, McGilchrist has produced another masterwork, The Matter with Things: Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World, which extrapolates his theory into general history, epistemology,  and metaphysics—not subjects many people are likely to tackle without some guidance. Unfortunately, most people are unlikely to afford the cost of the two volume work, coming in as it does at over $100, but thankfully, there are the excerpts and interviews online that make an introduction painless, and a paperback version is in the offing.

Dropping all the other categorization, this is true philosophy. This is what it is all about. The matter is not to agree or disagree with this or that, but to question, and to attempt to understand. Anything less than that is an invitation to confusion and chaos in a world already being manipulated by those who do not have your best interest in mind. 

Just one small portion of the interview with Mark Vernon details the bureaucracy and the unintended consequences of “efficiency,” as captured in what has become for most of us an everyday occurrence. In this case, it was the absurd paperwork and time involved in simply getting paid for a lecture he gave at Oxford, which offers a glimpse of what the issue might mean to all of us:  

It’s not really to do with toxic individuals wanting to have power over us [or] a group of individuals who are going to take over our lives, but very often they are [also] victims of the process . . . Indeed bureaucrats are themselves as enmeshed in bureaucracy as the rest of us. It’s not as though they are spared this. And once you fetishize a means which may be an administration or technology to an end . . . whatever the end it reaches, then you’ve completely lost the plot, and that’s where we’re at the moment.

As McGilchrist points out, the importance of the matter was incidental, but when he “finally contacted the people who were trying to administer this, they said, ‘Oh God, it’s such a headache for us. It takes up so much of our time.’ When you think of how expensive the time of all the people involved in the drama is, and how many useless hours were used up, this is a terrifically wasteful process, at the very least. I’ve noticed in the last two years that just doing something simple that used to take a five-minute phone call can now take up to four hours on the internet.”

This is the tyranny of the petty that seems to have overtaken us. Making a doctor’s appointment on the phone requires a 20-minute wait before the chance to explain yourself to a medical technician who is entrapped by the empty boxes on a form questionnaire. Seeing a doctor is allowed for seven minutes. And then not being given the time to fully explain how it hurts requires coming back again—or worse. 

McGilchrist remembers the pleasure of simply going to a bar on impulse with a friend and sitting down and meeting with others—a process in London that is now proscribed by the use of a mobile phone and presenting vaccination status, and ordering with a QR code. All the odd and mundane pleasures of interaction with other human beings have now been reduced to numbers. 

Why haven’t the bar owners and their patrons already revolted, I wonder? But then, this is only a small part of the procedural psychosis of our age. 

Contact with people is being phased out. Of course, because people are expensive, but the machine—‘we value your business and because we care,’ and all this nonsense actually just covers up a situation in which life is degraded, it’s becoming less human, it’s becoming more difficult to accomplish some simple task. 

And at the higher level, you are being monitored and your movements and your health status, in a way that we would never have accepted a few years ago—is one of the very important messages to me. We must, all of us, fight back. We must not rest until all the emergency procedures that were brought in [during] the early days of covid are repealed.

These are not the expected musings of an academic psychiatrist, but of a social observer who has carefully considered the human condition and the consequences of our human actions. But isn’t it of such small things that a good life is made, he asks. The COVID experience has perhaps done us a great favor and revealed the monster in our midst—the ghost in the machine—before it is too late. To ignore this routine reduction of our humanity is to devalue ourselves.

About Vincent McCaffrey

Vincent McCaffrey is a novelist and bookseller. Visit his website at www.vincentmccaffrey.com.

Photo: OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images

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