Communing With The Countryside

Apart from one specific long-distance charity-walk challenge a few years ago, I don’t believe I’ve ever mentioned in the blog my walking and hiking in the local moorland and coastline and appreciation of the local bird-life / wild-life as my main mind-clearing activities.

It’s something I do.
It’s not something I re-present in language.

I post noisily, here and Twitter on anything and everything philosophical and political but only very occasionally post a picture or a report from the outdoors, or from a Sparrowhawk visit, and only on Facebook, just to family and friends. Local beach covered in Sanderlings these days. Dolphin pod not seen since early October. Lovely Twitter exchange overnight with a journalist identifying owl sounds outside their London window, from 300 miles away.

I post here now, because I suspect it’s going to become topical in brain-mind progress discussions how much we embody our philosophies as opposed to re-presenting them as academic objects. It’s already become popularly topical that walking in and access to a rural environment is important to mental health generally. But there’s more. How one embodies one’s philosophical take on life, the universe and everything IS one’s mental state – full stop. Nothing more, nothing less.

Mind<>World participation and identity is central to McGilchrist’s hemispheric hypothesis and many on the similar parallel thought journey(s) have their own meditative or mindfulness preferences.

For me that’s being part of the environment.
Experiencing the landscape,
the geography,
the weather,
the living

(Here’s one I prepared earlier, from a little farther afield.)

McGilchrist and Trolleyology

A large part of McGilchrist’s hemispheric hypothesis, beyond actually understanding the place of human brains and minds in the world, is essentially moral philosophy from the ancient Greek virtues onward. Given how we understand ourselves in the world, how should we act, etc.

At one point, he is particularly scathing without naming names, about what I generally call “Trolleyology”. Thought experiments about the ubiquitous runaway railway trolley switching tracks or not, killing and or sparing a cast of characters in increasingly complex and artificial scenarios.

Utilitarianism’s stock-in-trade are scenarios designed to force unpalatable choices in an attempt to make us aware of our “irrationality”. They are amusing, but … That people calling themselves moral philosophers can seriously debate whether … it might be right to act in this way … suggests there is something very wrong …
McGilchrist TMWT p1134/5

In pop-morality circles there is a whole industry under the Trolleyology umbrella and, like McGilchrist, I despair at a whole generation of people who might actually think that’s how morality works – a utilitarian calculation.

In defence of Michael Sandel who is a popular exponent of the trope, having seen him lecture I know he understands it’s a “toy” model in the philosophical jargon. I’ve come to see it as a thought experiment designed to demonstrate that this is precisely how morality cannot be. How important not only agency, but real-life participation must be. But that doesn’t assuage the despair.

The Matter is Complete

I finished my read of all three parts, both volumes of McGilchrist’s The Matter With Things last night, peppered with notes.

[Latest updates re The Matter With Things:

A handful of disagreements, omissions(!) and disappointments which I will need to articulate, but overwhelmingly positive. So many connections with important lines of thought already noted. All the new points reinforcing and building on existing.

Will be tough, will need a plan on how, to “review” the whole especially since thoughts are already turned to practical future actions – where to take it. Chapter 26 (Value), Chapter 27 (Purpose) and the final Chapter 28 (The Sense of the Sacred) will probably be my focus.

Made me smile that that last Chapter concludes

“I have nothing to add.”

And is then followed by 70 pages of Coda, Epilogue and Appendices, not to mention 200 pages of bibliography, names & index. Gerry Coyne may want to look up his own name in the index and read Appendix 8

“When confronted with the overconfident, even contemptuous pronouncements of some scientists to the effect that [religion is incompatible with science and that] God does not exist … [etc].”

Suffice to say, there is a good deal on the entirely naturalistic relationships between religion, theology, teleology and orthodox science. This really is where the argument needs to be taken … the 21st C fetish with “science-led” everything.

More from me later.

Never mind what I think – this is some recommendation?

[More updates re The Matter With Things:

Senses Working Overtime

Trying to catch-up on some day-job priorities with a bit of peace and quiet over the weekend I find some very old tennis > elbow > foot word-association running riot as some dialogue starts-up on the back of those of us reading Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter With Things – in “Channel McGilchrist”.

In this very old and detailed yet chaotic review in 2002 of Steve Pinker The Blank Slate I summarised Pinker’s own conclusions:

“the mind, in contemplating it’s place in the cosmos, at some point reaches it’s own limitations and runs into puzzles that seem to belong in a separate divine realm”

That is very close to the Goldstein / Melville / Spinoza quote I posted just yesterday, saying it felt spookily close to McGilchrist.

“In Spinoza, we follow our own individual flourishing, pushed on by the conatus that constitutes our identity, and when we grasp as much of reality of which we’re capable we see that our identity is not exactly a nothing but not exactly a something either.”

And I only got to that 2002 Pinker review because I picked-up a search hit on Dostoevsky’s “Talking Nonsense” which references the The Baloney Generator, which I mention in that 2002 review and last mentioned here in 2019 order to cross-reference McGilchrist’s “Berlusconi” metaphor from his Master and Emissary, and to highlight the Pirsig, Pinker and Gazzaniga connections.

What’s more, in the that 2002 review above, I already mention the Pinker / Pirsig / Melville connections. Pinker and Goldstein are “an item“. James Willis and I both currently active in the McGilchrist discussion forum share the Pirsig influence on our 2000 and 2005 thought journeys. There are hardly any issues in current dialogue in 2021 not already apparent in that 2002 piece.

There is very little new under the sun.


This is almost all about rehabilitating ancient wisdom.

Spinoza, Melville and Identity Politics

“The structure of reality demands
a rethinking of the reality of the self.”

Still not managed to get myself a copy of Rebecca Goldstein’s essay on “Literary Spinoza” that forms the Coda to The Oxford Handbook of Spinoza by Michael Della Rocca. [It’s very expensive to buy, even in Kindle form, there are precious few used copies to be had and I’ve not got myself sufficiently organised to find it in a library yet, not even through my British Library membership – ho hum.]

But I picked-up on it in an interview I first mentioned in the long list of bookmarks I brain-dumped here. And having read it (the interview transcript) again, this one Q&A pasted below is effectively Goldstein’s fascinating precis of the Melville / Spinoza / Identity connection:

3:16: I’m a great fan of Moby Dick – so can you tell us why Ahab is the great literary anti-Spinozaist! (I love your essay on this btw!) And how do you you answer your own question: does Melville side with Spinoza in the end, acknowledging that the structure of reality demands a rethinking of the reality of the self? And do you agree with that conclusion – and if so, what do you think we should think of the self?

RNG:Yes, Moby Dick. What a novel! There were always passages in it that made me suspect that Melville knew his Spinoza, in particular, Spinoza’s views on personal identity, so I set out to trace the trajectory. It goes from the Pantheism Controversy, which made Spinoza such a central figure in Germany a hundred years after his death, and then to England by way of Coleridge, who closely followed what was going on in German intellectual and artistic circles, and himself took to studying Spinoza, becoming preoccupied with Spinoza’s views about personal identity. He wrote about his struggles with Spinozism in his Biographia Literaria, which Melville in turn studied.

Let me just say a brief word about the difficult view of personal identity which Spinoza presents. He requires us to be sufficiently attached to the reality of the self to be motivated to do all the difficult work of understanding, as far as is humanly possible, the true nature of reality in all of its deterministic necessity. But if we are successful in understanding, then, in the end, we will come to identify less with the finite self, a mere implication from the vast implicate order, and rather identify more with the implicate order itself, as more and more of the ideas that constitute Deus sive natura become our own ideas. Our identification with the whole order ought to become so complete that we can accept our own mortality with the kind of equanimity that the person of faith, believing in his own personal immortality, experiences. Therein, in more or less yielding our grip on our own identities, lies our redemption.

It might help to compare what Spinoza is saying about personal identity to what Wittgenstein says near the end of the Tractatus. ”My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them —as steps—to climb beyond them. He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.” In Spinoza, we follow our own individual flourishing, pushed on by the conatus that constitutes our identity, and when we grasp as much of reality of which we’re capable we see that our identity is not exactly a nothing but not exactly a something either. We must kick the ladder—our identification with our own self—aside. Is this the robust denial of the reality of the self that we associate with Buddhism or with Derek Parfit? Not quite, but close. So that is the aspect of Spinozism with which Melville struggled, just as Coleridge did, finding it difficult to reconcile “personality with infinity.”

Maybe Reality really is inconsistent with the reality of the self, and maybe then, driven by our conatus, we ought to resist Reality. That’s the path that Ahab takes, and it doesn’t end well for him, nor for those under his leadership, who have relinquished their wills to his. After all, why is it even worthwhile to struggle to know Reality, to struggle after anything at all, if the self that’s motivating the struggle is ultimately nothing at all? That seems to be what Ahab is declaring in his most philosophically interesting passages. Those passages strike me as similar to the most philosophically interesting passages in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, where the narrator rails against 2 +2 =4 as diminishing him. One reason why a writer may turn to fiction with an irresolvable metaphysical dilemma deeply roiling within them is precisely because they feel it to be irresolvable.

That’s the case for me with my fiction. I don’t think Melville gives us an opinion in Moby Dick as to how the dilemma presented by Spinoza ought to be resolved. I think rather that he magnificently dramatizes the dilemma and makes it live inside his readers.The coffin that floats the narrator alone to safety belonged to Queequeg, the “cannibal” who initially had terrified the narrator we’re instructed to call “Ishmael.” (The mystery of personal identity is flagged in the first sentence of the book.) Part of Queequeg’s “frightful” appearance is the result of his being tattooed all over his body with strange hieroglyphics that tell of all the mysteries of the heavens and the earth and a “mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth.” Queequeg, being illiterate, can’t read these symbols he’s covered with, but they’re so intimate to his own sense of himself that, after recovering from a mortal illness, he builds himself a coffin and transfers all the symbols to it—”so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them.” Melville is a mysterian, and so am I.

This quote in particular – Goldstein’s own words after Spinoza and Wittgenstein – is breath-taking. Surely related in some profound way to McGilchrist’s latest?

“In Spinoza, we follow our own individual flourishing, pushed on by the conatus that constitutes our identity, and when we grasp as much of reality of which we’re capable we see that our identity is not exactly a nothing but not exactly a something either.”

Yes, I had to look up “conatus” too: ‘Conatus is an innate inclination of a thing to continue to exist and enhance itself. This “thing” may be mind, matter, or a combination of both.’ (Almost a definition of life itself?)


[Aside, don’t tell anyone, but ... Part of my personal fascination is that Ahab’s wife > daughter > grandson is a literary jumping-off point for my own writing aspirations. An everyday story of Quaker folk. But this “identity” connection is a newly found additional string to that bow. I love it when a plan comes together.]

More Mystical Numerology From Katøi?

For a while I was posting regular updates on “the thoughts of tweeter @katoi” – with the caveat that whilst it looked a lot like mystical numerology, there were some fascinating patterns in the numbers – well, in the geometry actually – from someone with no professed expertise in maths or physics. @katoi reckoned each batch of posts superseded the previous so wasn’t capturing these thoughts anywhere but Twitter, so for a while I kept adding the latest to the evolving stream of consciousness.

Well, I lapsed for a couple of months and I’m not going back to fix it now, so here is the latest batch in isolation:

In the middle of which I interjected and @katoi added to the branch:

Something “meta” about the geometry of “spacetime”. The numbers are not to do with dimensions they are exponents, and hence appear adjacent in multi-digit numbers – including decimal fractions – whatever the counting base. We very rarely see positive numbers less than one – fractions – expressed in any base other than 10 – hence deci-mals – so we wouldn’t normally even notice “basi-mals”.

Henri Bergson – Note to Self

Added Bergson’s Creative Evolution to my reading list after finding so many references in McGilchrist’s latest. And had also noticed lots of cross-links between Bergson and Whitehead / James through an active “fan” of Bergson on my timeline in the last couple of years (Emily Herring).

Keep coming across references to him having been the most famous philosopher, most famous and decorated public intellectual in fact, in his early 20th C time – Brooklyn’s first traffic jam, etc. This, despite also being evidently influential on so many other important thinkers, leaving you wondering why he had dropped out of the headlines in the same way that (say) Einstein is constantly recalled to public consciousness.

However, as I added Bergson to my list I had that feeling I had acquired Creative Evolution before, a title that so obviously fitted my agenda. Sure enough I mentioned starting (trying) to read it back here in 2007 (9/11 2007 as it happens) having bought it in Barnes & Noble when we were living in the US. So I scanned my library, thoroughly randomised by a recent down-sizing house-move, and found it. (A 2005 edition of the 1907 Harvard translation by Arthur Mitchell, assisted by Wm James. And I only acquired it because an MoQ-Discuss / Pirsig reference noted.)

A short but familiar reading list in there too, several of which also in the bibliography of McGilchrist’s The Matter With Things. Small world. Add The Creative Mind and Time and Free Will to the reading list.

And that pic reminds me – Mark Solms Hidden Spring sits there unfinished too. A victim of priorities over the course of this year. And I never did finish Zeman’s latest either.

Heritability of Psychological Traits

Always contentious that atypical variations around the neurotypical “human condition” are (a) real in any objective sense and (b) heritable as much as they are plastic in mental development. Always PC to avoid medicalising conditions away from such norms, and variety has its own value anyway, but the woke extreme of PC often denies the basic facts.

Kevin Mitchell re-tweeted this from an older thread

Earlier in the thread (that I hadn’t actually been following at the time) he had said:

“All species accumulate genetic variation that leads to heritable differences between individuals in all kinds of traits (that have a genetically specified species ‘norm’) Human psychology is no exception. It is the product of an incredibly complex program in the canonical human genome that specifies a canonical human brain. Except no individual has the ‘canonical’ human genome or brain – we all have inevitable variations in our genomes and *consequent variations* in our brains and our psychological traits.”

NOT part of the thread, but an aside that hit me relating this to the McGilchrist work, is taking the same logic to the idea that there are canonical male and female human brains, even if no individual can be that canonical exemplar and the individual variation is enormous.

Like so much of any field that his been tainted by pop-psychology it is normal (ie PC, woke) to deny very real biologically heritable, brain/mind and psychological sex/gender differences.

“[That] genetic differences affect our individual natures – is completely expected. It couldn’t be otherwise.”

In McGilchrist terms the sex/gender differences are an aside to his main agenda, but no less real. Something I picked-up on in his original Master and Emissary and supported by even more evidence in his latest. In fact it is a reminder of the scientific thoroughness needed in recording all case sample features in order not to be fooled by randomness – a false randomness imposed by prior political conditioning.

(To be clear women being different to men is something to value for them and for humanity and says nothing against anyone’s human rights or opportunities. In fact it’s positively a reminder that despite any and all heritable differences we share common human rights. Vive la difference! as I may have mentioned once or twice before.)

And I am not alone in warning about being fooled by the statistical randomness of aggregation across the sexes. Here Kathleen Stock picked-up on Jonathan Haidt’s latest:


[Post note, coincidentally several threads generated by opinions about Haidt here. The recurring woke / PC problem of denying the deniers rather than attempting to understand subtle realities between extreme positions:

Includes even the gendered brain differences taboo – McGilchrist’s work is surely going to allow some common sense to pervade these spaces?]