God Talk and McGilchrist

The small Matter of the Sacred

In a “Discord” discussion-group side-branch off from “Channel McGilchrist” we’ve been having some discussions about the sacred – the most important additional topic in “The Matter With Things” (TMWT) that is not already in his earlier “The Master and His Emissary” (TMAHE).

“The Sense of the Sacred” forms the final Chapter 28 of his ~1600 page TMWT. The sacred gets us close to the divine if not to God, and therefore if we expect the rationalist / free-thought / atheist / would-be-science-led / secular world to take any of this seriously we need to be pretty careful what we mean by the sacred and by theology / atheism / agnosticism etc when it comes to God talk.

[Also, as per the TMWT summary linked above, before reading TMWT and getting to this knotty stage in McGilchrist’s position, it is very important that new readers at least familiarise themselves with the underlying “hemispheric hypothesis” of his original work TMAHE via the 12 minute summary of that in the RSA Animation. His magnum opus TMWT massively elaborates on this and leads to the sacred conclusion, but in doing so, the simplicity of the original problem statement is easily lost by those who do not already have it in mind.]

A Big Conversation

In this UnBelievable Big Conversation entitled “Is there a Master Behind our Mind?” hosted by Justin Brierley with Iain McGilchrist and Sharon Dirckx, the “Master” implied is clearly “God” (ie Not the right-brain master of McGilchrist’s earlier work – though as noted elsewhere, the Master<>Emissary metaphor has it’s own misleading limitations in terms of “balance” in the hemispheric hypothesis.) In fact the UnBelievable Big Conversation channel is explicitly about “exploring religious faith” with believers and unbelievers.

I watched it and made notes a couple of days ago, but have struggled to write-up here until now thanks to a lot of extraneous and unnecessarily contentious content about which I have strong views and disagreements. I’ve put these meta-aspects aside in end-notes below, to focus initially on the core God topic, but the end-note distractions are very important caveats.

The Meat in the Sandwich

After some introductory background to the people and aspects of McGilchrist’s hemispheric hypothesis (and to the unnecessary contentious distractions I noted above and recorded below), the conversation arrives at McGilchrist’s God position after the commercial break at around ~36mins.

The meat of the conversation runs from there to the end at just over the hour mark. (As I type this I’ve not listened to the additional 30 minutes Q&A which forms a separate package of content.)

Brierley introduces the God topic explicitly, acknowledging it as the important new content on which this conversation is to focus.

McGilchrist admits – as he has in many dialogues since publication – to having his own doubts, as well as respected colleagues’ dissuasions, about whether to include Chapter 28 “The Sense of the Sacred”, given that the whole of the rest of the book stands as thoroughly “objective” research across the range of topics from neuroscience and psychology, to ancient history and mythology in literature. But clearly the sacred is the important new conclusion of that research and had to be included. (As well as already being a massive book – 3 parts, 2 volumes, 1600 pages – it is also a superbly produced masterpiece in terms of layout and referencing, and in this conversation we also get from him how much that was down to his own efforts.)

McGilchrist’s position is Panentheist – God in all things / all things in God.  Many a theologian, many an orthodox Christian church, even Buddhists actually hold this position. It’s a position where God is the ground of all being, existence itself – why anything exists rather than not existing.

There are several corollaries.

Such a God may be Omnipresent and Immanent, but is not Omniscient. It has no causal agent powers beyond nature. It’s beyond-being rather than being a super-natural being. It also means – like so much of the rest of Iain’s worldview – that it must be relational, must “withdraw”, make space to stand in relation to that which exists. Being the ground of all existence, it doesn’t itself exist in the world.

[As the Reverend Sam has added in one of the comments below – this is mainstream Christianity anyway, and quotes Denys Turner “in the sense in which atheists … say God ‘does not exist’, the atheist has merely arrived at the theological starting point. Theologians of the classical traditions … simply agree about the disposing of idolatries, and then proceed with the proper business of doing theology.”]

Also, like Buddhism and other seemingly non-theistic mindful spiritual or religious practices, prayer is about listening to – attending to – the world in mental silence, not about active pleading.

Faith necessarily entails doubt. It’s a choice or a disposition to believe despite doubt. Unlike other grounded forms of knowledge, where we will nevertheless have contingencies, these are statements of what is known. None of us can be literally certain of anything, whether we’re talking God or Science – ie it adds nothing to say we’re not certain.

(So I would say both faith and knowledge are essentially pragmatic matters of what it makes sense to believe and declaring (testifying) on what basis, what kinds of evidence and experience. And as far as the wider God vs Science war caricatures are concerned this is essentially an atheistic position, whether we hold it agnostically or explicitly a-theist. I have clarified a long time ago what I mean as a “non-theist”.)

Iain goes on to imply his own agnosticism, that he is open to experience of the supernatural or miraculous. Technically open to experiencing the existence of God – ie technically agnostic – but I would say, atheistic for all practical purposes in both mythical / metaphorical and literal truth of the world. As noted above the idea of the existence of God in this world is meaningless in Panentheism. (See separate dialogue on the Big Bang and the sense of anything existing outside this universe.)

More importantly for the left-right hemisphere hypothesis, he / we are happy to accept the mythical & metaphorical as well as (even ahead of) literal truth. All symbolic / linguistic truths – even scientific ones – are metaphorical at root, it’s just that the metaphors eventually die when the language becomes embedded in use in everyday life. Iain refers to this “death” of the metaphor in terms of the “collapse” of a potential to the actual – (which will prove useful to mind-physical distinctions too?)

The Caveat End-Notes

Generally – I have a downer on people who feel the need to “diss” or counter other peoples views as part of promoting their own – as if it’s an essential part of critical thinking. In fact this “R.E.S.P.E.C.T” principle forms the basis of my own rules of rhetorical discourse. Discourse that disrespects such common courtesy makes me bristle. Unless someone agrees to be told where they’re wrong – eg in formal debate or critique – all discourse can better build from positions of finding & respecting closer agreement, discovering error in the process of dialogue.

Specifically Brierley makes – entirely erroneous and unhelpful – suggestions about Dan Dennett’s position in the earlier sections about consciousness generally. (God knows why?)

Dennett sees nothing but the material? Sees consciousness as entirely emergent from the physical? No he doesn’t! He’s open to informational pan-proto-psychism (eg in dialogue with Goff et al.) and in my own readings. It’s over 30 years since he first wrote “Consciousness (Not) Explained“. Evolution happens. Get used to it.

Dennett says consciousness is an illusion? No he doesn’t! No-one has spent more of their long life in philosophy trying to explain the reality of consciousness than he. Some aspects of consciousness are like illusions, models of reality, maps of the terrain, but not the terrain itself. Some of the intuitions we hold about what our consciousness is are illusory, but consciousness itself is as real as anything.

There is indeed “something more” than the materialist reductive view. Dennett is the biggest proponent of that thought.

People forget Dennett spends most of his life trying to talk sense into materialist / physicalist scientists, so spends a lot of time using their language, finding metaphors they can relate to. Ditto talking qualia with philosophers like Chalmers and his entirely misleading distraction of the “hard (non-)problem”. Evolving the language through that process is his quest. His brief sojurn into the God vs Science wars as one of the four horsemen was him lending a helping hand in the literal-biblical / evangelical US religious context, not to mention wider Islamic Jihadist terrorism, with his “Religion as a Natural Phenomenon“.

Talking of which, early in the Big Conversation above before we’ve got to “God”, Brierley suggests the word religion itself may be an impediment to progress? Well yes, in the sense that we have to get secular rationalist scientific types into the conversation, religious-talk, like god-talk, will be a turn-off. In practice, I have no problem with religion if we’re clear what we mean. Obviously non-ideological, non-authoritarian, non-supernatural, secular forms. Religion as a set of values that we agree bind our common ground as fallible humans sharing the one planet – the Popperian falsifiability of science(?) the form and value of evidence(?) the UN declaration(s) of human rights(?) – we hold these truths to be self-evident(?), whatever. Even having agreed them, it takes concerted efforts to maintain and defend them, even whilst being open to improving them, collectively, democratically or any of the least worst alternatives. Real life is a messy business.

Secular, natural, “religion by any other name” (after Rabbi Sacks).

Sacred Naturalism or Natural Theology, I might say, indeed have said in multiple contexts.

Anyway – let’s stick to the meat in the sandwich above. A recommended listen/watch. (Whether we agree or disagree about the Dennett-critical aside is irrelevant, so why even raise it.)

And let’s all make our own theistic / agnostic / atheistic positions clear.

And I really must get back to my writing project 🙂

===== End =====

[Post Note: and on the topic of “dissing” things whilst in the process of telling your own story – like dissing Dennett above – one thing Iain in particular has a downer on is anything mechanistic / computing / machine / algorithmic – eg several negative asides in this more recent piece that I’ve not written-up yet. As Iain is so keen to point out, restoring RH balance still demands a healthy LH – we’re not dissing objective rationality here. There is still a compelling story in the left-brain model of how brains and minds work, all of it, including the the RH processes and interactions. We like active process models too, don’t we, after Whitehead? I’m here to bury Systems Thinking not to praise Algorithmic Processes. No-one is being so crass as to suggest the brain/mind is “a” computer with “a” pre-programmed algorithm or two. Complexity benefits from many-layered systems thinking. Keep an open mind, please! I remain baffled what is gained by the negative asides.]

8 thoughts on “God Talk and McGilchrist”

  1. Fascinating stuff. One brief comment: “Being the ground of all existence, it doesn’t itself exist in the world.” That’s mainstream Christianity – which I’m sure McGilchrist knows – God does not occupy a space that would otherwise be occupied by something else, God is not a ‘rival’ within creation. And so on. Denys Turner’s ‘How to be an atheist’ is good on this, if you haven’t come across it.

  2. Hi Sam,
    “That’s mainstream Christianity”

    Absolutely, that’s why I tagged you in, it was ringing bells following our lunch conversation around the Hay HTLGI festival. It seems all conversations lead the same way 🙂

    I’m aware of Denys Turner, but not read him. Thanks for the ref.

  3. He he, I had actually commented before I saw your tweet! This is the ‘money quote’ from Turner, but the whole article is worth reading: “in the sense in which atheists… say God ‘does not exist’, the atheist has merely arrived at the theological starting point. Theologians of the classical traditions, an Augustine, a Thomas Aquinas or a Meister Eckhart, simply agree about the disposing of idolatries, and then proceed with the proper business of doing theology.”

  4. Interesting. A bit surprising if Iain is misrepresenting Dennett’s position to such an extent.

    Just a couple of thoughts on “doesn’t itself exist in the world” – the “God is not a thing in the world” is a very established line of theological argumentation, agreed. But the elusive part is the word “in” vs. exist. The spiritual realm (and the Divine) is not material and thus not a part of time and space in that sense. But it is unified with it, in countless ways (the theological view argues). It goes back to the nominalist discussions: Would numbers, the virtue of kindness, the dynamics of Hubris and Nemesis “exist” if the material cosmos collapses? One way of thinking would suggest; yes. They “exist” independently of the material creation. A bit like pondering if an act or manifestation of kindness shows that the virtue of kindness is “in” the world or not. You might say both. Both in it, and outside of it. Unified and connected. As a virtue it’s permeating the material world in places, sometimes. Sort of a yes, and no.

  5. Hi Richard,
    In this dialogue, it’s Brierley that misrepresents, and Iain merely goes along.
    With Iain my main antidote to this is my “rehabilitation” of computing machine / algorithm metaphors language in the soft living world – the whole Solms / Friston Active Inference / Markov Blanket story in living things. I appreciate so many “spiritual” people reject it – but it’s unfounded fear, it really is. (Same way we need scientists not to fear “god talk” – a two-way street.)

    (eg Virtues are naturally evolved in this world – see my point about defending and maintaining values?)

    For the theological interpretation of “God in the World” I defer to my Reverend friend Sam, but with our existing “Big Bang” thread I suggest we focus on what we mean by Universe. There are far fewer mysteries in the immaterial natural world than there used to be – thanks to McGilchrist / Solms / Friston et al … and Systems Thinking.

  6. I think you can agree with the view that god created space ‘in’ himself for creation, that all things are sustained by Him, and that God can choose to be immanent in any part of creation, without needing to go as far as panentheism. From a christian perspective, I see scripture as refuting anything more than a very weak panentheism (eg. Palamite ‘energies’).

    This dual sense of the in sustaining being, and in being able to be more directly immanent (such as in Eucharistic Adoration), only really makes sense to me in an Augustinian platonic sense, where gods divine ideas, the ideal things, fold out into time (and over time) as the multiplicity. So God is at the start of this cone shape, the end of which is the process of the representations (of the ideas) evolving. There is then a returning process where our free will plays a role, and of course the two processes could be seen next to each other as cow horns, arguably with the logos at the start of one horn, on the crucifix at the centre, and at the end (with all creatures that remain spiritually alive).

  7. Hi Simon, thanks for the comment.

    Not sure who you are addressing as “you” in your first sentence – but from my perspective,
    it’s a subtle distinction I don’t see any need to agree or disagree about.

    Maybe Sam or Richard might be interested?
    As Sam said, whether we use the panentheism label or not, it’s mainstream Christianity to a mainstream Christian.

    But people outside that religious / theological bubble will not notice that, so a word – any word – to bring attention to it is good?

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