There is no certainty, fixity or isolation in nature. Things we make give the illusion of being so. Machines give us the idea that the world is made from bits put together. At least in the so-called ‘life’ sciences, we still imagine that things are mechanical, in just this way, while in physics the idea was discarded around a hundred years ago. We talk of the brain having wiring, circuitry and switches, of its ‘functioning’, ‘processing’ information, etc From this you might deduce that we knew exactly what sort of thing a brain was, or at least what sort of thing a neurone was, but in reality we don’t have the slightest idea. In fact every individual cell is a quite extraordinarily complex self-regulating and self-repairing system entirely unlike any wire that ever existed. It forms tens of thousands of connections. As there are billions of neurones involved, the number of connections is virtually infinite. And everything in such a system is reciprocal rather than linear. This is not like anything we can know.
Though people talk of the problem of consciousness, I would be inclined to turn things on their head and say, ‘What problem? The real problem is matter.’ Consciousness we know inside and out; but matter, that is closed to us. In fact it is its closed quality, its way of offering resistance to consciousness, that defines it. The existence and nature of matter is at least as hard to explain as the existence and nature of consciousness – I would say harder: it is just the familiarity with which we treat it every day that makes matter seem simple.
It probably sounds like a cop out, but I do believe that prescriptions are one of the reasons we are so messed up nowadays. We always have to have a plan, an algorithm, a set of bullet points, and that immediately narrows things down, so we imagine that we just need to put this plan into action. It discounts the creative, the spontaneous, the improvised, the unexpected, the fruits of the imagination of those who take the ‘plan’ forward. What I can see now is limited; what others may see is limitless. Our plans are always at too local, too detailed a level. For example, if you want to educate people, you don’t give them a lot of procedures to carry out or just information to spew. You inculcate habits of mind: curiosity, a habit of sceptical questioning, enthusiasm, creativity, patience, self-discipline – the rest comes naturally. Equally you can’t go into a country and set up the structures of democracy. That is back to front, and they will inevitably fail. What is needed is a habit of mind that sees the value in democratic institutions; in time they will then emerge naturally, and flourish.
It is irrational, and in the end unscientific, to imagine that we understand everything because we have a way of analysing it into ever smaller parts. We are seduced by the simplistic take on the world offered to us by our left hemisphere, the part of us that we know actually sees less, and certainly understands less. The worst and most damaging aspect of this is the arrogance of those scientific materialists who believe they know it all – the internet is full of the evidence of their rage and intolerance towards anyone who does not buy their philosophy. Their minds are as firmly closed as those of any religious fundamentalist – and let me make clear that I find religious fundamentalism every bit as mindless and as damaging. The arts, I believe, have a pivotal role in putting us in touch with the transcendent, with whatever it is that is beyond us. They are core to a civilisation, measures of its health, and should be treated as such by government. They are not an optional extra. But they also matter too urgently to become purely intellectual games. They need to have viscera, and affect us viscerally. Which is not at all the same as saying ‘gutsy’, in the sense of constantly ‘shocking’ and ‘daring’ – in fact rather the opposite. They need to stop being just ‘clever-clever’, ironic, disaffected, ‘above’ it all in a place from which one can see that ‘really’ there is no meaning to anything. Seeing no meaning may say more about you than about the world you are looking at.
How to bring these things about? Well, first of all we need smaller communities. We are not equipped to deal with social groups on the scale of a modern city. When Johnson said that ‘when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’, he was talking of a city less than a tenth the size it is now, and very much more like a collection of villages. In smaller communities we recognise one another, learn about one another, feel we know whom we can trust, and are able to form bonds. We also need to live closer to our ultimate context, the natural world. We are part of it, not as we see ourselves, standing over against it, taming or subduing it to serve our deracinated urban existence. We can bring this about without losing the sense of overall connectedness. In the past, often small communities were inward-looking, developed antipathies through ignorance, and became too certain of what they believed. One of the advantages that has come with technology is that we can remain far more in touch with one another and with what others are thinking than we could before.
Iain McGilchrist in conversation with Jonathan Rowson
Full transcript and information here.