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The Matter With Things Volume 1 Book Summary – Iain McGilchrist

What you will learn from reading The Matter with Things (Vol 1):

– The assumptions and limitations of Science. Your eyes will be opened to the fact that most things are still up for debate.

– How a more analytic approach to the world quantifies it and strips it bear of values that can’t be quantified and dissected.

– The limitations of language and concepts in general which can lead us to false confidence in what we know.

The Matter with Things Volume 1 Book Summary:

The Matter with Things is a monster of a book, it’s so big that it’s broken into two chunky volumes. Each reaching around 700 pages. You can tell this book was 10 years in the making and I can safely say, it was worth the wait.

Iain’s previous book The Master and His Emissary is a fascinating exploration into the why our brains are hemispherical and the difference in function of these hemispheres. I would highly recommend checking that book summary out before jumping into this book as it builds on many of his ideas from that.

If you’re interested in philosophy (specifically epistemology), the philosophy and limitations of science and what reality is really like. Then you’ve found the perfect book. 


The Three Main Questions The Two Volumes attempt to answer:


  • What means do we have at our disposal in approaching the world?
  • What paths should we follow in approaching the world?


VOLUME 2 (To be uploaded Shortly) :

  • What can we say about the form, the structure and nature of this world?


The Means of Approach:

The World Reduced:

Reductionism envisages a universe of things – and simply material things at that. How these things are related is viewed as a secondary matter. However, Ian suggests that relationships are primary, more foundational than the things related: that the relationships don’t just ‘connect’ pre-existing things, but modify what we mean by the ‘things, which in turn modify everything else they are in relationship with.

That is because what we are dealing with are, ultimately, relations, events, processes; ‘things’ is a useful shorthand for those elements, congealed in the flow of experience, that emerge secondarily from, and attract our attention in, a primary web of interconnections.

So, complexity is the norm, and simplicity represents a special case of complexity, achieved by cleaving off and disregarding almost all of the vast reality that surrounds whatever it is we are for the moment modelling as simple (simplicity is a feature of our model, not of the reality that is modelled).


What is the nature of reality?

In the last century or so, there has been a tendency, at least in popular discourse, to pull reality in opposing directions.

Some scientists, whether they put it this way or not when they are asked to reflect, still carry on as if there just exists a Reality Out There (ROT), the nature of which is independent of any consciousness of it: naïve realism. These are usually biologists; you won’t find many physicists who would think that. In reality, we participate in the knowing: there is no ‘view from nowhere.

Meanwhile, on the other hand, there are philosophers of the humanities who think that there is no such thing as reality, since it’s all Made Up Miraculously By Ourselves (MUMBO): naïve idealism. Such people, by the way, never behave as though there was no reality. Nor of course, by its own logic, can they claim any truth for their position.

These viewpoints are closer than they look. One party fears that if what we call reality were in any sense contaminated by our own involvement in bringing it about it would no longer be worthy of being called real. The other fears that, since we manifestly do play a part in its coming about, it’s already the case that it can’t be called real. But just because we participate in reality doesn’t mean we invent it out of nowhere, or solipsistically project it on some inner mental screen; much less does it mean that the very idea of reality is thereby invalidated.

Why are the two brain hemispheres divided:

Every animal, in order to survive, has to solve a conundrum: how to eat without being eaten. It has to pay precisely focussed, narrow-beam attention that is already committed to whatever is of interest to it, so as to exploit the world for food and shelter.

Put at its simplest, a bird must be able to distinguish a seed from the background of gravel on which it lies, and pick it up swiftly and accurately; similarly, with a twig to build a nest. Yet, if the bird is to survive, it must also, at one and the same time, pay another kind of attention to the world, which is the precise opposite of the first: broad, open, sustained, vigilant attention, on the lookout for predators or for conspecifics, for friend or foe, but also, crucially, open to the appearance of the utterly unfamiliar – whatever may exist in the world of which it had no previous knowledge.

How on earth can you dispose your consciousness towards the world in two conflicting ways at once? The answer is the evolution of two neuronal masses, separate enough to function independently, but connected enough to work in concert with one another, each capable of sustaining consciousness on its own, In other words, a bipartite brain. Thus the need to sustain two incompatible ‘takes on the world simultaneously explains, Iain believes (and there is no significant competing theory), that this is the extraordinary why the brain is so deeply divided.


The Key Right Hemisphere vs Left Hemisphere difference:

The RH is better at seeing things as they are pre-conceptually – fresh, unique, embodied, and as they ‘presence’ to us, or first come into being for us. The LH, then, sees things as they are ‘re-presented, literally present again’ after the fact, as already familiar abstractions or signs. One could say that the LH is the hemisphere of theory, the RH that of experience; the LH that of the map, the RH that of the terrain.


The brains structure as constraints:

Understanding the structure of the brain and how it functions can help us see the constraints on consciousness, much as, to use another metaphor, the banks of a river constrain its flow and are integral to its being a river at all, without themselves being sufficient to cause the river, or being themselves the river, or explaining it away.

All experience in this life as we know it (and this applies whether we conceive the brain as the originator, or as a transducer, of consciousness) comes to us through the brain, and is therefore inevitably constrained, and shaped, by it.

Everything is different:

Against the view that whatever we have come to love, celebrate and honour is ‘nothing but’ something else, Iain suggests a different view: nothing can ever be ‘nothing but’ something else, because nothing whatever is ever the same as something else; that all that exists is more than we could ever be in a position fully to understand; that, far from being much less than we imagine, we are almost certainly far more than we can imagine.


The whole comes before the parts:

Although you may imagine that you construct the world by putting together the bits that your gaze lands on, adding the pieces one by one and recognising that this must be – tada! – your living room, in fact it is the other way round: you take in the whole first, and then your gaze is attracted by particular parts.

The exploration of complex scenes begins with a global take, characterised by short visual fixations and long-range saccades (brief, rapid eye movements), which within a few seconds proceeds to a focal mode of processing. This correlates with shift of activity from the right to the left hemisphere.


How often do we say; ‘there is not enough information’:

One of the reasons schizophrenics are deluded is their tendency to jump to conclusions without weighing up overall whether these conclusions are probable. This is thought to be because of a need  for closure – a tendency to prefer an answer, irrespective of its plausibility, to ambiguity and uncertainty. This is a tendency that is also reflected in the culture of modernity: it encourages us all to rush for closure. When told that there are sheep and five dogs in a flock, and then asked ‘How old is the shepherd?’, three out of four schoolchildren will produce a numerical answer, rather than reply that ‘there is not enough information?


The similarities between aspirin and witch doctors:

Studies of magical thinking in the context of ethnicity are few, but one carried out in New Zealand suggests that magical thinking is commoner among Maoris than among Western settlers. And there is more in common than one might at first think between the average Westerner’s acceptance of the efficacy of aspirin and the African villager’s acceptance of a spell from the witch doctor: neither understands, or even asks for, a causal explanation, but accepts treatment on the basis of authority and past experience.

As anthropologist and philosopher Robin Horton puts it, ‘the layman’s grounds for accepting the models propounded by the scientist are often no different from the young African villager’s ground for accepting the models propounded by one of his elders’


The Left Hemisphere as the will of the ego:

While the right hemisphere responds to the realm of the world beyond the self, the left hemisphere expresses the will of the ego acting on the world. And since, as we have seen, the key advance of the left hemisphere in humans was to enable us to manipulate the world vastly more effectively than other animals, the consequences of damage should largely have to do with our capacity for utilisation.

In the left hemisphere this could be said to be ap-prehending (from Latin ad + prehendere, to hold onto) the world, and in the right com-prehending (from cum + prehendere, to hold together) the world.

The Emotional differences between your brain hemispheres:

In keeping with everything else we know about hemisphere differences, the right hemisphere is engaged in social bonding and empathy, the left hemisphere in social rivalry and self-regard.

This explains the clear relation between sadness and the capacity for empathy, guilt and compassion, all of which appear to be associated with predominance of the right frontal pole; and elation with irritability, anger, insensitivity and exuberant self-confidence, all of which appear to be associated with predominance of the left frontal pole.


The change from functional to taxonomic categories:

A person who views the world through pre-scientific spectacles thinks in terms of the categories that order perceived objects and functional relationships.

When presented with a Similarities-type item such as ‘what do dogs and rabbits have in common’, Americans in 1900 would be likely to say, ‘You use dogs to hunt rabbits’ The correct answer, that they are both mammals, assumes that the important thing about the world is to classify it in terms of the taxonomic categories of science. Even if the subject were aware of those categories, the correct answer would seem absurdly trivial. Who cares that they are both mammals? That is the least important thing about them from his point of view.

“The preference for taxonic answers (categories that classify the world and extra credit for the vocabulary of science), Flynn continues, ‘is extraordinary’; and it reached an even higher level 2003.

Today we are so familiar with the categories of science and are so imbued with the scientific world-view, that it seems obvious that the most important attribute things have in common is that they are both animate, or mammals, or chemical compounds … 

However, our ancestors in 1900 were not mentally retarded. Their intelligence was anchored in everyday reality. We differ from them in that we can use abstractions and logic and the hypothetical to attack the formal problems that arise when science liberates thought from concrete referents.


The Hemispheres and Creativity:

All the literature on creativity in whatever field makes the same point: that it is about seeing unperceived parallels, seeing shapes or Gestalten that others have failed to see, standing back and taking the broad view, not squinting at the same microscopic field and looking up the rule book. Talent hits a target no-one else can hit, wrote Schopenhauer; genius hits a target no-one else can see.”

Virtually all insights involved a change in understanding . a surprising number of insights were triggered by inconsistencies and contradictions. The insights that were triggered by contradictions seemed to depend on the person taking the anomalous data point seriously rather than attempting to explain it away .

The left hemisphere’s inclination, as Ramachandran observed, is to preserve the model at all costs, dismissing an anomaly; the right hemisphere again, according to Ramachandran, is the ‘anomaly detector’, the ‘devil’s advocate’


The modern campaign against generalisations:

There is a prejudice against broadly true generalisations, on the basis that we can all think of examples that don’t conform, is one of the prevalent fallacies of our age. All knowledge is uncertain, but not therefore invalid.


Why we shouldn’t doubt intuitive conclusions:

Our intuitively conclusions cannot easily be proved. But neither can many – perhaps all – of our beliefs regarding the most important human concerns. All approaches are open to challenge, but it would be mindless to dismiss all approaches to important questions on that basis. It smacks of the narrow-mindedness of the left hemisphere.

On this basis no one would ever be allowed to have fallen in love. You can imagine the fuss. What does it mean exactly to ‘fall in love’ – what counts and what doesn’t? Should we rely on self-report, with all the attendant problems, or should we not measure something? If so, what? How many subjects should we study? Who would count as control subjects? Whose judgment do we trust? Presumably no-one’s? So, we gravely conclude, the concept is meaningless, and the phenomenon an illusion.

The left hemisphere simply ignores, dismisses, and ultimately denies the existence of, anything it can’t pin down and measure.

Brain Disease as a type of being:

Mental illnesses and brain diseases are sometimes discuss though they were like mechanical faults. But they are not. It’s that the mind ‘doesn’t work’ properly, as if a component has ceased to function. In the first place, when something is altered in the brain or the mind, it is never just a component, inert and isolated. Brains and minds are living, constantly adapting, interconnected systems. And they are conscious. A brain disease or mental illness, then, is a change in a person’s whole way of being in the world.

Nietzsche and the Death of Myth:

Nietzsche bemoaned the state of normal human beings, those semi-animals unhinged from instinct and no longer able to ‘count on the guidance of their unconscious drives, being forced instead ‘to think, deduce, calculate, weigh cause and effect – unhappy people, reduced to their weakest, most fallible organ, their consciousness!

The schizophrenic is the apotheosis of this tendency in modern man: Nietzsche’s prototype of ‘theoretical man’ and his ‘determination to destroy myth? Myth is otherwise known as the deep, embodied, imaginative understanding available to the right hemisphere – and seen by the left hemisphere as a lie.


The Paths to Truth:

The hierarchy of truth:

Once the theoretical mind is untethered from the body and community, in which it is grounded, and from which it receives it’s intuitions, there simply is no longer any solid basis for discriminating truth from untruth.

And once again one sees parallels in some kinds of contemporary philosophy, and some kinds of belief systems driven by the irrationality of identity politics, which lead subjects to doubt everything except the validity of a bizarre conclusion which they feel driven to accept by formal rules. But never doubting the rules.

Despite our always contributing to the reality we experience, there is something apart from ourselves to which we can be  true – that reality, in other words, is not purely made up by our brains. There is a relationship there – something to be true to. Assuming there is something there to know implies that some understandings will inevitably be better than others.


The difference between facts and process:

A ‘process’ is not generally completed at the moment it is alluded to, but is temporally open: it may be continuous, and ever more coming into being. A fact’ is, however, intrinsically finished, or ‘established, as we say – which means standing firm (cf stable’), unmoving, where it is. A fact is a thing, not a process.


What makes something true?

Coherence? A whole set of beliefs could be mutually coherent and entirely false: everything depends on where you start from. How are we to judge the best place to start? If we believe the world is flat, we can hold a myriad of ideas that are coherent with that – but what’s more, why do we suppose that truths may not conflict?

Opposites may both be true. It’s possible, I agree, to have amongst your beliefs an overarching belief that contradictory statements may both be true, but this seriously undermines the usefulness of coherence as a criterion of truth.


Modernity and rejection of truth:

There are a number of ‘deflationist’ – or in Iains’ view, more accurately, defeatist – versions of truth. One holds that the whole idea of truth adds nothing to a linguistic assertion that something or other is the case, and should therefore be abandoned.

‘Relativist’ versions suggest that, since there is no one clear truth, everything being context-dependent, once again the whole idea of truth needs to be abandoned, each of us having our own truth.

Social constructivism’, at least in its strong version, suggests that truth is simply fabricated by society, being in effect what that society holds to be true – an invention that, according to some, is used by a powerful elite to disenfranchise others.

Some postmodernists leap from the uncertainty of truth to its non-existence, but this assertion is open to the obvious rebuttal that it is a truth statement, which asserts that the assertion that ‘there is no truth’ is truer than its opposite, that ‘truth exists. If we seriously doubted the existence of truth, none of us would get out of bed in the morning, because there would be no point in preferring any one course of action to any other. There’d certainly be no point in writing, or reading, a book. No philosopher that ever lived, whatever his professed creed, behaved as if there were no truth.

Truth as attraction within experience:

Truth might be more a matter of something to which we are drawn freely as it were ‘from in front’ – attracted – rather than compelled inevitably ‘from behind’ – pushed. Very little that we take for granted as most essential to life – love, energy, matter, consciousness – can be convincingly argued about, or even described, without becoming ultimately self-referential. You have to experience it to know it: all we can do is point.

We have become accustomed, in our Western way, to see all exchange of ideas as a kind of battleground in which there will be conquest and defeat. In the East, ancient truths have not commonly been thought such that they can convince (the word comes from Latin vincere, to conquer) through argument, but rather that they become appreciated (the word comes from Latin pretium, value) through a patient, disciplined opening up of the self to experience.

Pragmatism as a way to truth:

Pragmatism is a form of :open-mindedness that judges ideas not by their roots but by their fruits.

Speaking of the elementary laws from which the rest of physics must be deduced, Einstein had this to say: ‘To these elementary laws there leads no logical path, but only intuition, supported by being sympathetically in touch with experience.” This is Pragmatism, pure and simple.


Distinction and division:

The problem arises because we jump from an awareness of a distinction to the assumption of a division. The poles of a magnet are clearly distinguishable but are not divided; indeed they are interdependent, mutually necessary, ultimately indivisible parts of the same whole.


We can’t see the world objectively:

The philosopher Michael Polanyi: “Alternatively, if we decided to examine the universe objectively in the sense of paying equal attention to portions of equal mass, this would result in a lifelong preoccupation with interstellar dust, relieved only at brief intervals by a survey of incandescent masses of hydrogen – not in a thousand million lifetimes would the turn come to give man even a second’s notice. It goes without saying that no one – scientists included – looks at the universe in this way, whatever lip-service is given to ‘objectivity.

Nor should this surprise us. For, as human beings, we must inevitably see the universe from a centre lying within ourselves and speak about it in terms of a human language shaped by the exigencies of human intercourse. Any attempt rigorously to eliminate our human perspective from our picture of the world must lead to absurdity”


Sciences claims to truth:

‘Some of the major disasters of mankind have been produced by the narrowness of men with a good methodology.’ – Alfred North Whitehead

Where would most of us now, in the West, look for truth? Surely the answer has to be science – science which has taken over from religion as the lodestar (guide) of our age. In an era of materialism, where the speed of societal change and the fusion of peoples have made traditional cultural values problematic, science alone holds out the promise of stable knowledge on which we can rely to build our picture of the world.

Explanation, science’s forte, is a subset – an explicit, rigorous, disciplined subset, but still a subset – of understanding. All understanding depends on metaphor. What we mean when we say we understand something is that we see it is like something else of which we are already prepared to say ‘I understand that. That, in turn, we will have understood because we have likened it to something else we had previously understood, and so on. It’s metaphors all the way down.

In science this inescapable role of metaphor is manifest in the model the science uses in order to seek an explanation of the phenomenon it is investigating. Models are simply extended metaphors.

The choice of model is crucial here because the problem for seekers after truth is that that choice governs what we find. We find more or less according to what we put there. Since a model always highlights those aspects of what it is modelling that fit the model, any model Soon begins to seem like an uncannily good fit.


The Machine Model that underpins science:

Our expectations come to govern what we can see. This is why the model is crucial. In the past such a model was often something in the natural world – a tree, a river, a family. Nowadays, unless otherwise specified, it is the machine.

Yet the machine model remains only a model, a form of metaphor. However productive it may have been in explaining and manipulating the world, it is still no more than a metaphor. Even at the relatively lowly level of explanation it has exhausted its potential, something that was obvious in physics some time ago, and is becoming increasingly obvious in the life sciences. In other words, it doesn’t fit with a multitude of important findings that can’t be ignored.

We don’t see what our metaphors blind us towards. All models are in this way a partial fit, giving a selective view of the matter.


Obscurantism and Science:

‘Obscurantism is the refusal to speculate freely on the limitations of traditional methods. It is more than that: it is the negation the importance of such speculation … A few generations ago the clergy, or to speak more accurately, large sections of the clergy were the standing examples of obscurantism. Today their place has been taken by scientists… the obscurantists of any generation are in the main constituted by the greater part of the practitioners of the dominant methodology. Today scientific methods are dominant, and scientists are the obscurantists.’Alfred Whitehead


The Issues with Sciences claims on truth:

The blinding effect of using models in Science:

Observations are not as simple as they are conceived to be, even if there is apparently complete agreement between a number of them. ‘Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use”, as Einstein pointed out.

The point is that we cannot discover whatever aspect of truth is revealed by a certain approach unless we commit ourselves to it sufficiently to find out; but by the very act of doing so, other aspects of truth become concealed, aspects which, when pointed out by others, will tend to be unrecognised, or ultimately dismissed.

The Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky pointed out that ‘objectivity can only be the author’s, and therefore subjective, even if he is editing a newsreel. Any statement about anything is always both an inclusion and an exclusion, its meaning derived both from what is said and what is not: choices are always involved. This is not a point about documentary film-making, but about life. Ideas, including scientific ideas, do not live suspended in a vacuum, but have relationships across time, and at a point in time, with others, forming out of observed regularities the ‘models’, ‘laws’ and ‘principles’ which are our own creations, shaped as much by what they do not include as by what they do.

Although objectivity, in the sense of a fair consideration of all possibilities, is an honourable and necessary aim, objectivity in the sense of adopting a viewpoint that makes no presuppositions is intrinsically impossible to achieve.


Measuring our values:

Just because we can’t measure values, they are neither less important, nor less rightly operative, in science: the confusion comes from science’s reluctance to accept as real what cannot be pinned down and measured. It therefore unwittingly drives itself into a culde-sac: the false divorce of fact from value.

Note that the distinction is valid: it is the divorce that, as so often, causes the problem. Science frequently passes over entities, however important they may be, that cannot be measured. Attempts to evaluate systems often end up measuring what can easily be measured, rather than what actually matters, but can’t be measured.

When it comes to the really big questions – such as the nature, meaning or purpose of life, consciousness, time, love, energy, matter, beauty, truth or goodness – science encounters the limitations inherent in its dependence on models as the necessary means of proceeding, for in these cases there not only isn’t an appropriate model, there can’t be one, because each of them is completely sui generis (unique).

The ultimate nature of reality, as well as the origin of values, meaning and purpose in life, lie beyond the remit of science, though they continue to be of supreme importance for living.


Taking scientific findings out of context:

Science has always suffered from the vice of overstatement. In this way conclusions true within strict limitations have been generalised dogmatically into a fallacious universality.

In scientific investigations the question, True or False?, is usually irrelevant. The important question is, In what circumstances is this formula true, and in what circumstances is it false? Alfred Whitehead

The neglect of context or circumstance sacrifices subtlety to all or nothing’ answers. Science tends to take things out of context in fact, many would say that this is exactly what is special about a genuinely scientific explanation.


The Core Hidden Assumption of Science:

It is not only presupposed by science that the universe is fully comprehensible (which means, inevitably, comprehensible by a human being), but presupposed that it is fully comprehensible physically.


Faith in Science:

An element of faith is necessarily involved in the scientific process. That is in no way to the discredit of science, since all paths to knowledge whatever have to involve assumptions built into the model, as well as certain axioms, ‘truths’ that cannot be proven, but are taken for granted.

Science requires a degree of commitment to an idea for a while until one finds out whether or not it works: without engagement many truths will escape us, which is why, inside or outside science, it is not an option to sit on the side-lines of life, waiting for ‘objective’ evidence to accumulate before making a commitment.

The link between science and imagination:

The whole enterprise of science as she is practised is dependent on imagination in order to interpret what it is one is seeing. The problem is not that it is hard to rule out the human element, but that by attempting to rule it out – especially by ignoring the role of interpretation – we misrepresent the situation we describe.

Once again, this does not discredit science in any way: it shows, instead, what an exciting and humbling business science is. We collaborate with nature, and with fortune, pay attention and learn from her. We neither withdraw the human element, as the myth of the scientific method implies, nor force nature to our preconceived ends.


Rethinking the Machine Model of Science:

Organisms and environments co-determine each other:

The organism is the consequence of a historical process that goes on from the moment of conception until the moment of death; at every moment gene, environment, chance, and the organism as a whole are all participating … Natural selection is not a consequence of how well the organism solves a set of fixed problems posed by the environment; on the contrary, the environment and the organisms actively co-determine each other.



1. On-off

First, a machine is static until switched on, and may be switched off without ceasing to exist. Organisms, as Nicholson points out, much like waterfalls or tornadoes, do not have an off switch. The very existence of an organism is, from beginning to end, one unceasing flow of matter and energy. For it to stop, even for an instant, would mean immediate death.

Organisms may be taken apart, but they are not put together; they are not made – they become.


2 · Motion vs stasis

This leads seamlessly to the next obvious distinction. What has to be explained about a machine is how it changes at all. This is because it is a system that exists close to dynamic equilibrium. When power is applied, one otherwise static and self-contained component transmits energy to another static and self-contained component, and so on, in a linear chain.

Then it is switched off, and it returns to equilibrium, where it can remain indefinitely.

In an organism, by contrast, what has to be explained is, not how it changes, but how it remains stable, despite constant change on an unimaginable scale. The stable continuance of a stream is owed to change. It depends on the flow of water molecules through it, entering and passing on elsewhere, and if the water ever stopped steadily flowing and replacing itself the stream would cease to exist. In this way, as Nicholson points out, the idea of an organism as a stream of life rather than a machine captures two essential and complementary elements: ‘the continuous exchange of matter that defines metabolism on the one hand, and the stability of form that is maintained in spite of it on the other.


3. Non-linearity

Which means we cannot simply account for organisms from the bottom up, but must do so at least as much from the top down. Not to mention from the sides, as in a web. We might be accustomed to thinking of biological processes in the abstract, isolated artificially by our mode of attention. But each element in each process is likely to be involved in several other ‘causative chains’, more like an unimaginably complex piece of choreography, where members of one group pass in and through another, for a while belonging to both or neither – each process having its own apparent end.

It is the difference between a sequence – a concatenation, a chain – and a single, indivisible movement, a flow. Flow is a process: a chain is a series of things, that are static until one is given a push or a pull by the thing next to it. An organism is a flow, and is alive. A machine is a chain, and is dead.

David Bohm puts it well:

‘The entire universe must, on a very accurate level, be regarded as a single indivisible unit in which separate parts appear as idealisations permissible only on a classical level of accuracy of description. This means that the view of the world being analogous to a huge machine, the predominant view from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, is now shown to be only approximately correct. The underlying structure of matter, however, is not mechanical term ‘quantum mechanics’ is very much of a misnomer. It should, perhaps, be called ‘quantum nonmechanics.’


4. Not one-way action – maybe not even interaction?

A further problem with a machine model is that it suggests a direction of action of one thing on another. In organisms there is never just action without both interaction and mutual construction.

Research over the last 80 years or more demonstrates that it is not true that genetic change is simply due to accidents or damage to the DNA. Organisms actively reconstruct their genomes in response to their conditions.

“Today’s biologists’, writes the physicist Evelyn Fox Keller, recognise that however crucial the role of DNA in development and evolution is, it does not do anything by itself. It does not make a trait; it doesn’t even include a ‘program’ for development. Rather, it is more accurate to think of a cell’s DNA as a standing resource on which a cell can draw for survival and reproduction… it is always and necessarily embedded in an immensely complex and entangled system of interacting resources that collectively are what give rise to the development of traits.

Shapiro points out that the genome is actively shaped by the cell, as conditions change, over three distinct timescales: first during cell reproduction, involving the formation of nucleoprotein complexes; then during multicellular development, involving epigenetic formatting; and ultimately in evolutionary change, involving changes in DNA sequence structure: one of the main adaptive features of DNA-based heredity is that DNA is a highly malleable storage medium, permitting rapid and major changes to complex organisms without disrupting their functional integrity.”

5 • The ‘parts’ are themselves changing

A machine is made of parts that do not typically alter with their context. A tappet, a widget or a gasket continues its existence effectively unaltered wherever it is put. In an organism, unlike a machine, the parts’ are continually engaged in changing themselves, sometimes radically, depending on context.

What that means is that cells use DNA to adapt to new ends; it is not a matter of DNA using cells to further its own ‘selfish’ ones. The idea that genes are somehow (how?) ‘programmed’ to pass on their DNA does not sit well with the fact that cells are constantly acting on it to change it or to repair it; and such persistence as there is depends on ‘elaborate editing and correcting processes in the cell?


6 . The influence of the whole

While a machine has clearly defined parts, this is not, then, the case in an organism.’ A process arguably has no parts and is, in reality, an indivisible unity. As Scott Turner puts it, ‘integrity and seamlessness seem to be the essence of an organism.

Complex objects are no mere aggregates, but possess a defining unity.” And at the phenomenological level we see this all the time. As molecules form new wholes, utterly new qualities, unpredictable from the apparent constituent parts, emerge: so a tasty white crystalline substance – table salt – emerges from the compound of sodium, a dullish grey, malleable metal, and chlorine, an evil-smelling, poisonous, greenish-yellow gas.


7 · Imprecise boundaries

That leads to the next issue. A machine has clear boundaries; a natural system does not. The machine model involves being able to identify viably distinct, stable things as parts, and a viably distinct stable thing – the machine – as the product of their combination.

Processes, by contrast, can overlap in a way that ‘things’ typically do not.


So, How should we think of living systems?

Kriti Sharma asks for a radical shift in the way we conceive of living systems. She suggests that not one, but two, steps are needed:

The first is a shift from considering things in isolation to considering things in interaction. This is an important and nontrivial move; it is also a relatively popular and intuitive concept… [But] to get to a thoroughgoing view of interdependence, Ian Mcghilchrist argues that a second shift is required: one from considering things in interaction to considering things as mutually constituted, that is, viewing things as existing at all only due to their dependence on other things.

This second shift is potentially more subtle and difficult than the first, because though the first requires considering the mutual relations and influences between things, it does not actually require a change in the many habits and assumptions that usually commit us to viewing things as fundamentally independent.


Life has cognition at all levels:

Even the single cell seems to have what the biochemist Jesper Hoffmeyer describes as ‘tacit knowledge’ that is ‘inherent within the cellular organization and must be presupposed by, rather than materially built into, the DNA description.” Hence Shapiro’s claim that ‘life requires cognition at all levels’.

As yet, we have little idea of how the ‘parts’ seem to ‘know’ what whole they belong to, and how it should be shaped: it is an ancient question, to which no-one has ever given a satisfactory answer. One answer worth considering is that the part quite simply does not exist: the being can only be considered as a whole.


Example of how little we know about biology:

Indeed, some relatively complex creatures, such as flatworms, can regenerate the entire body including their centralised brain, from a fragment of the original animal. This was noted by Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin. In one case a planarian, a type of flatworm, was cut into 279 pieces, each of which proved capable of generating a new body within a few weeks.’ Each part appears to know what it lacks, and can thus regenerate a new whole.

What is still more extraordinary is that if flatworms – the ‘first class of organism to have a centralised brain with true synaptic transmission, and to share the majority of neurotransmitters that occur in vertebrate brains– are decapitated, they not only regrow a head, but retain their memories; for example, which way to turn in a maze they had previously ‘solved before their heads were chopped off. A body is a moulded river indeed.


Back to Science:

What is the purpose of Science?

The purpose of science is not utility: it can never be reduced to ‘how can I most effectively exploit the world? Schrödinger was right: science’s aim is nobler then that. It is to understand nothing less than who we are.

So the truth matters, and matters greatly. Furthermore, in the context of evaluating science as a path to truth – the purpose of this section of the book – it is, of course, the central issue. And the machine model is found wanting. As von Bertalanffy put it, ‘even as a fiction the machine idea does not attain its goal, because … it proves to be inadequate in the face of a large and important section of biological data.’

It’s not even as though the fiction of the machine is harmless It can be seen behind many of the more inhuman consequences of our technological society: our attitudes to both what human life is and to the living world at large. So, again: why does the model persist? Probably not just because of familiarity or utility.

Iain thinks that one element in the model’s popularity is that it encourages the sense that we can easily understand what life is and learn to control it – Faustian fantasies, in other words, of omniscience and omnipotence, that reductionists quite rightly dislike when they see them attributed to a God.


The dreadful teleological question:

The problem biology faces, but physics doesn’t, is that the phenomena it is trying to explain require it to ask not one question, but two. This has been succinctly pointed out by George Gaylord Simpson: ‘How?’ is the typical, and only meaningful, question in the physical sciences. But biology can and must go on from there. Here, ‘What for?’ – the dreadful teleological question – not only is legitimate but also must eventually be asked of every vital phenomenon.

Biology has a problem with teleology. In J. B. S. Haldane’s oft quoted words, ‘teleology is like a mistress to a biologist; he cannot live without her but he’s unwilling to be seen with her in public?

Teleology differs from determination:

Importantly, the idea of teleology, or purpose, does not entail determination: no prior plan, involving a sequence of predetermined steps to bring it about, is required.

A purpose here is not a plan. It is a tendency inseparable from – woven into, as it were, the fabric of – a life, which leaves all the detail, and even the final outcome, undetermined.

Thus, we tend towards certain ends, while leaving exactly what happens, and how, in any one case, undetermined.

Form in living creatures is, despite appearances, another aspect of the question about purpose: both imply a tendency, a direction of intent, an overall attractive outline. Some ‘sense’ of this, as Woese and McClintock would say, is what enables the organism to repair, or correct, itself. In other words, to correct itself is an inclination towards a form that is its goal, towards a goal that is its form.

So a system, including a cell or a multicellular organism, can be free and undetermined, yet despite the occurrence of random events, exhibit patterned and purposeful behaviour.

And in the early 195os von Bertalanffy, in a beautiful and succinct formulation, made an explicit analogy between physics and biology: ‘As in modern physics there is no matter in the sense of rigid and inert particles, but rather atoms are node-points of a wave dynamic, so in biology there is no rigid organic form as a bearer of the processes of life; rather there is a flow of processes, manifesting itself in apparently persistent forms.’


How scale effects the speed of reality:

It seems to Iain that the reason that the world looks different at the very small scale from how it looks at the level of the everyday has as much to do with time as it does with space. When we are looking at the molecular, and much more at the subatomic, level, processes are happening very fast indeed compared to the period of human observation. At the macroscopic level processes are generally slower. And this makes a crucial difference to what we seem to see.

The most solid-looking manmade objects in the world, say the pyramids of Giza, are quicker, smaller waves – but waves they are. They look static only because relative to our period of possible observation they are flowing slowly. And so it is with everything. Whether something is considered static or flowing is only a matter of scale.

Stasis is just an illusion of observational scale, both spatial and temporal.


Science as consumed by the public:

A problem for the general public is that the heavy-hitting articles with catchy titles make headlines in the popular press, while the more measured responses, that create a more nuanced picture, do not. So the public is served up two competing fantasies: that anything that comes from science is irreproachable, and that most of it is irredeemably flawed. This kind of polarisation makes rational debate about the true (therefore limited) value of science very difficult indeed.


Peer Reviews limitations:

A further serious problem is flagged up by the philosopher J. L. Auspitz: “There are never peers to review unique work, and the very bureaucratisation of intellectual labour entrenches the conventional.”


Philosophy and Vision:

What philosophy absolutely depends on, and without which none of its enterprises is worth the paper it is scribbled on, is a vision.

You can be as clever as you like at finding technical objections to the vision of another, but unless you have the courage to stand by one of your own, you are not a philosopher – just a logic-chopper.

Waismann: ‘What is essential in philosophy is the breaking through to a deeper insight – which is something positive – not merely dissipation of fog and the exposure of spurious problems. Insight cannot be lodged in a theorem and it can therefore not be demonstrated It is dangerous in philosophy to hunt for premisses instead of just going over the ground, standing back and saying: look.’


Two common mistakes about reason:

There are, then, two widely held and equally mistaken beliefs about reason. On the one hand, it is believed by many that, if properly followed, reason should compel all rational people to the same conclusions, and that these conclusions have ´objective’ truth – the fallacy of ratio-centrism (a cousin to scientism).

On the other hand, it is believed by some that, because this very point of view is so blatantly absurd, reason is somehow discredited, and we can act as though we owed nothing to it – the reciprocal fallacy, that of postmodernism.


Some quotes on the limitations of concepts:

‘A word becomes a concept insofar as it simultaneously has to fit countless more or less similar cases – which means, purely and simply, cases which are never equal and thus altogether unequal. Every concept arises from the equation of unequal things. Just as it is certain that one leaf is never totally the same as another, so it is certain that the concept “leaf” is formed by arbitrarily discarding these individual differences and by forgetting the distinguishing aspects.’Nietzsche

General terms, according to Charles Fried, ‘are attempts to sweep a large set of particulars under a single conceptual rug; but it is an attempt doomed to failure. General terms have no objective correlates; they are merely compendia of particulars collected together for our convenience in terms of similarities we note for our purposes. To say that general terms have no objective reality is to say first that general terms do not of themselves identify the particulars subsumed under them, and second that therefore the process of subsumption is a value-laden process, one which refers to human goals and purposes.’

Bergson points out that ‘our concepts have been formed on the model of solids? ‘Given that concepts are inevitably immaterial, this may seem paradoxical. What he means is that when concepts stand in for whatever it is that exists in the world of experience, and therefore within time, they immobilise and sunder the natural flow of the entity in question: they freeze, so to speak, elements that are in their very essence dynamic, and they separate into parts the essentially inseparable. Conceptualisation is a form of congelation, freezing in time.’

If something is imprecise knowledge will be the same:

Human affairs are a case in point. Knowledge of something that is by its nature not precise will itself have to be imprecise, if it is to be accurate. Aristotle again: ‘For when the thing is indefinite the rule also is indefinite … the decree is adapted to the facts.


The inability of words to capture experience:

The philosopher Bryan Magee writes that ‘whenever I see, all that language broadest and crudest of terms what it is that I see’: can do is to indicate with the utmost generality and in the Even something as simple and everyday as the sight of a towel dropped on to the bathroom floor is inaccessible to language – and inaccessible to it from many points of view at the same time: no words to describe the shape it has fallen into, no words to describe the degrees of shading in its colours, no words to describe the differentials of shadow in its folds, no words to describe its spatial relationships to all the other objects in the bathroom. I see all these things at once with great precision and definiteness, with clarity and certainty, and in all their complexity. I possess them all wholly and securely in direct experience, and yet I would be totally unable, as would anyone else, to put that experience into words.


Quantifying human variables:

The quantification of human variables is almost bound to entail measuring a proxy that is quite different from what it purports to be measuring, and coming up with a figure that implies a degree of precision neither the subject, nor the means of measurement, can sustain. This is not an amusing technicality: it happens every day and plagues our lives.

Our desire to calculate leads us to invent weights and measures to ‘evaluate’ issues before us. But numbers can never evaluate anything at all, precisely because they don’t deal with values. Even if you ‘evaluate’ something as ‘profitable’, the value is nowhere to be found in your measurement, which has no capacity to deal with value (although, subtly, it imports a pernicious value, that of the person who believes everything can be measured). The value is what is in the background here: your desire to make a lot of money.

Ultimately, many human qualities are just not quantifiable in any but the vaguest conceivable way, yet we know exactly when, and to a large degree how greatly, we experience them: for example, beauty, anger, hunger.


Living forwards and understanding backwards:

Kierkegaard It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards. And if one thinks over that proposition it becomes more and more evident that life can never really be understood in time simply because at no particular moment can I find the necessary resting-place from which to understand it – backwards.”

He is talking about the rather less obvious point that philosophy stops time and represents it, retrospectively; whereas when we are living, we experience the world as it happens, in the flow of time. Thus it cannot be ‘understood’ in the sense used by analytic philosophers outside of time.”

Comparing the brain with a machine:

In the 1960s and’70s academic psychology became dominated by an urge to demonstrate that human ways of thinking, dealing with aspects of experience in memory, and understanding the world through intuition, were radically flawed.

This coincided with the espousal of the idea of the brain as a computer, a calculating machine, encoding, storing and retrieving data from memory banks; ‘by the standard of decontextualised and literal processing of information on a computer hard disk, the human mind was a poor performer, says psychologist Brady Wagoner. We were seen as lazy, inefficient, ‘cognitive misers.


The Use of Heuristics:

Heuristics are indispensable for good decisions in uncertain situations, which is what life mainly offers. In an uncertain world, good decisions require ignoring part of the available information. The more noise in the observations, the more likely a simple heuristic will outperform more flexible strategies.  Complex problems do not always require complex solutions.

Reality is an act of co-creation:

And this is how we bring all our world into being: all human reality is an act of co-creation. It’s not that we make the world up; we respond more or less adequately to something greater than we are.

The world emerges from this dipole. We half perceive, half create.