Iain McGilchrist (Selections from The Matter With Things)

As I near the end of the first part of this book titled The Ways To Truth I encounter more and more sections which shed light for me on what is good about what I’ve come to see as the purpose of Christianity during my time here at BioLogos. I’ll share passages that seem especially meaningful to me taking my cue from Mervin’s very fertile thread devoted to MacDonald’s thoughts.

Fair warning - the book is enormously long and I am a glacially slow reader.

From Chapter 18: The Untimely Demise of Intuition

Reason is not opposed to feeling, but dependent on it. ‘There is no such thing in practice as a desire without a belief or a belief without a desire’, writes philosopher Robert Ellis:

We need to start seeing alienated boffins not as ‘unemotional’ but as people with over-abstracted metaphysical beliefs that interfere with their emotional integration. Similarly, an ‘emotional’ person has lots of beliefs which they are reasoning about a good deal: just on the basis of over-narrow assumptions. It is this false dichotomy between rationality and emotion that, I think, more than anything, is responsible for moral failures in the history of Western thought.123

Hume would have agreed. ‘By reason we mean affections’, he wrote, ‘… but such as operate more calmly, and cause no disorder in the temper: which tranquility leads us into a mistake concerning them, and causes us to regard them as conclusions only of our intellectual faculties.’124 As CS Peirce puts it, ‘Man is endowed with a form of emotional rationality; he has the ability to cognize from his disposition to feel; what is valuable seems to be immediately felt and cognized.’125

This seems relevant to the apparent conflict between faith and science. While some lines of inquiry rightfully adhere to what can be justified by observation and careful measurement, others including theology as I am seeing here, cannot. How do we go on valuing inner conviction which we would never offer as scientific testimony? Should we subject our deepest values to the same standards as scientific conclusions? (Of course not says this agnostic.)


This excerp follows closely on the last one. Where I think of the first excerpt as characterizing what intuition is in relation to reason. This one contrasts what reason alone would be like in comparison with reason in combination with human intuition.

There is a difference between the irrational – something that is defined by its opposition to reason – and that which transcends, reaches beyond, rationality, where rationality no longer can hold sway. This is not to exalt the irrational, but to pay due respect to what one might call the ‘supra-rational’. In this realm lies intuition, and by one’s openness to it no claim is made that it is somehow infallible.

Intuitions can change with time and place, rather as moral codes do: yet neither should be thought of as for that reason random, or as something entirely invented, rather than in part discovered through experience. To both intuitions and moral codes there is a remarkably consistent core over time and place, though much may change ‘around the edges’. For the health of any society, one of the most important senses is that of the reasonable, one of the best examples of something that is clearly context-dependent, not just in its proper functioning, but in its constitution: a combination of rationality with intuitive understanding. The reasonable is enormously hard to reduce to rules or principles, yet without it we cannot function properly as a society: it is a vital concept in law, and ironically, since the law is often conceived to be about rules and principles, the law may be one of the last places left in which it is evident. But it should be, and largely was, evident in many other areas of life, where systems have now become mechanical, inflexible, black and white, entirely neglectful of context – in other words attuned to the computer, not to the human person. It is a worrying reality that we could lose our intuitive sense of what is reasonable altogether if it gets no reinforcement from day-to-day experience.

This part makes me think of all the fascination with chat bots. Hopefully more people will recognize how undesirable it would be to think purely rationally in the manner of a computer and appreciate the many worlds of experience which our intuition open up for us. Mortal embodiment is the best.


That “how do we” is a good question with a few meanings. I think the first, most common reading would be asking for justification: How do we justify going on….”
I choose to read it as “By what means do we go on valuing….” I think we must all answer this question in this second way. We all have inner convictions of some kind, whether they have to do with some type of spirituality or faith, or not. Your extended quote does a good job of highlighting that.

Should we subject our deepest values to the same standards as scientific conclusions?

Does anyone do this?
Considering ethics might be a good place to start. We can evaluate scientific practices and application of scientific conclusions ethically. We can also look at our deepest values through ethics as well, and perhaps by that process recognize where our values fall short of what we say we believe, where our practice is damaging, ineffective, or inadequate.


Modern apologetics seems to or perhaps that is just an affectation which it is hoped will ‘bring more people to the light’? The trouble is it misrepresents what faith really is and reassures me that the less evolved but highly tangible faith I have as an agnostic is preferable. So as a strategy it won’t be universally effective.

I agree. Obviously we do go on so the right question concerns how, not if. But one wonders how much trust -which is the true essence of faith- goes on with us? Or does the faith one continues with become a hollow, performance version, a placeholder for had been?


The only area of law about which I have done even minor reading is copyright. Copyright law ( and application of it) is a perfect example of “the reasonable” as IM discusses it here. The law is so undefined for exactly the reasons mentioned above: the reasonableness of the use of intellectual property is entirely contextual.


Yeah. That’s where the rubber meets the road, isn’t it? It IS easy to be a practical humanist with Christian trappings. I’m very good at it myself. What AM I trusting God for? Its something every Christian needs to be asking her/himself, particularly today.

(Thus SK. Wrangling with the same questions.)


People will complain that unless the law is precisely spelled out those who apply it will just ‘make up’ what they like. Your example is a good exemplar for why room must be left for the spirit of the law even if not everyone will be able to appreciate that need. The expertise approximated by the law is imprecise to the degree necessary to enable its just application - not as a ready loophole for exploitation.


Obviously reading Penner on Kierkegaard has made an impression on me, which overhearing discussion of his F&T only reinforces. You certainly do look at this challenging question head on and despite the difficulty in answering it allow it to matter to you. Keeping faith alive is important but a living faith even more so. Best of luck to you.


BTW - before it gets too far buried, I appreciated your reference in your OP to Hume’s agreement with the critique of our self-appraisals concerning our own ‘rationality’.

It isn’t often, perhaps, that we hear Hume referenced favorably around here, and so to see our human rationality set into its more humble contexts by him was a good thing for me to read.

A question for all of us indeed! Just as we trust (by hearing about it from others) that a larger world is in place beyond our own personal sensory experience, perhaps in the same way we are obliged to trust in God’s revelatory testimony through the mouths of others that there is also a larger context beyond even our corporate intellectual reach or appraisal.


I liked that Hume quote as well. I think there was previously more social comfort with speaking of matters relating to a shared understanding of what the world is and what we are, including those aspects for which we can only glimpse as through a dark glass.

Last night I made it to chapter 19, the last one devoted to intuition. But today’s excerpt comes from the one I just finished.

It is obvious that a loss of common sense can lead to delusional misinterpretations of experience. But it leads to much, much more than that – to a sort of cutting adrift of the soul from its moorings. What is lost is unreflective engagement with the world, the sense of a shared, unexamined reality. And a loss of the sense of proportion, which humour and common sense each imply.

The best exploration of this topic is acknowledged to be by the twentieth-century German psychiatrist and philosopher Wolfgang Blankenburg. In a paper entitled ‘First steps toward a psychopathology of common sense’, he demonstrated just how important to the proper functioning of a human being this lived, intuitive skill that we take for granted can be. ‘Borrowing from Goethe’s well-known formulation’, he writes:

one could say that common sense is an ‘organ’, which is formed in communication for the purpose of communication. It is formed in reciprocal interaction for the sake of this interaction.139

Common sense, Blankenburg says, is content with uncertainty, with the probable, as the eighteenth-century philosopher Giambattista Vico had pointed out; whereas science seeks certainty.

Edited to add that common sense and intuition generally are examples of subjective experience which we are apt to take for granted as ‘ours’. Of course they are but if any of this is ever subtracted by way of trauma or mental illness, we discover that what is our’s by virtue of it happening to us, is not our’s as our creations. We haven’t the capacity to will these things into being anymore than we can will our heart to beat or sleep to come. All we can do is be grateful and in awe of the life we are given.

Slept through my reading time last night so no new excerpt today. However I’ve discovered that there is a two hour video out now of a conversation between IM and a younger neuroscience and animal behavior researcher from Spain, Alex Gomez-Marin. I intend to finish watching it now without worrying about ruining the book for me. The more the ground is prepared the better the harvest should be.

Couldn’t help myself. I started listening and I found a part I found interesting and think some of you may too. The automated transcription is really horrible and they both have distinctive but different accents which probably exceeded its capacities. But I gave it a try. If anyone can make it out better I’d be happy to make revisions.

This is what I could make out between 33:09 and 41:01.

IM: …that’s right and actually just not moving on from it but staying with it is a large part of the business of wisdom. Staying, not dismissing it, carrying it forward in your life and there are ways in which that can be done, explicitly recruited if one wants to to but first of all one needs to open oneself to the possibility of something.
To say oh well that’s nonsense from the outset is to have made an elementary error because as I say it’s something that cannot be perceived until you’ve actually sincerely opened yourself to the possibility that this may be right. I’m not asking people to be gullible. In fact I’m asking them not to be so gullible as to believe that their reason can just tell that this thing doesn’t exist. I think that’s a form of gullibility. It’s rather like schizophrenic subjects, a lot like the the discourse of modern philosophy um is so left hemispheric that it it brings together a kind of unreasonable skepticism with an unreasonable gullibility. So a schizophrenic subject may be highly skeptical of ordinary things of everyday life that you must take for granted if you’re going to function at all, but at the same time is ridiculously gullible about things that can’t possibly be true …you know, like that there are martians living in the garden shed or whatever it might be. So they lose the faculty to be skeptical about certain areas but are over skeptical about things that, you know, we need actually to be able to accept, that for most purposes there is a table here in this room and so a lot of philosophy is like this.
And I think that, you know, the new atheists are a bit like this … that they strain at a gnat and swallow a camel. I mean that’s an expression I think from the Bible. But the idea is that they won’t accept for example that the Universe could be something ordered by a greater intelligence … which is really not a very difficult step to take. But instead they would rather swallow the delusion that there are just an infinite number of universes and so of course there’s this one. And that seems to me a far more gullible position than the the possibility that maybe there is intelligence in this Cosmos.

Alex: Yes and we’re seeing it in the studies of Consciousness too where where illusionists or even materialists or physicalists can do very sophisticated reasoning but it seems to us at least that they miss the fundamental point. It’s again another tragedy. How clever … how stupid, you know? it’s like -or maybe I’m stupid. I’m not getting why they’re so stupid but that seems to happen also in Consciousness.
Now one question will be well why God? So we talked about the ground of being. But then maybe the left hemisphere will question, well what explanatory work does it do for us? Why God? And you’re right, that God is less an object of knowledge and more an object of awe. That’s very interesting.

IM: Yes yes that’s right. The more intelligent approach to God is to accept, as it were, that there is something here that is going to be very hard for our limited faculties to get to but not impossible. So I’m not … I mean, of course if there was absolutely nothing there to reach out to or to feel a resonance with then that would be another matter. But I believe there is and that if you stop irritably reaching after fact and reason and trying to reduce it to um a set of explanations … I mean God is not there as an explanation of something. God is not sort of wheeled in in order to explain how certain things happen God is … even if these things can be explained, there’s still … I mean God doesn’t necessarily work irrationally why would God necessarily not work in ways that make sense in relation to the the world. It doesn’t exclude the idea of God.
So once again I think that we get further with this idea if we stop trying to, as I say, pin it down at the outset but instead use it as a what I call a placeholder an un-word. You know as soon as you cheat it is ah, I see so it’s one of those. Then it it seems like you’ve pinned it down, you’ve got it. You’ve grasped it. The left hemisphere goes fine I’ve now got a a whole drawer in my filing cabinet called “God”. That’s fine all this stuff can go in there. But I’m suggesting that this is the the wrong way to think about what God is, not an object of knowledge certainly but possibly the ground of knowledge. Rather like the eye is not the object of sight but the wherewithal for sight we don’t see the eye but through the eye we see and so we don’t we don’t situate God in the plane of things like the photocopier and the picture on the wall, another one of those however magnificent and marvelous and you know unimaginably great - but something that is on a different plane altogether, that underwrites our capacity to know the world and then the knowledge of whom comes through Kennen not through WIssen; through Connaitre, not through Savior … … yes so that contrast exists in almost every language except English which is a great shame and I I think that it may explain many of the problems in anglo-american analytic philosophy is the difficulty of distinguishing between knowledge that comes by experience and knowledge that comes as a matter of facts.

Alex: Now I want hear the word “wonder” and it’s polysemy (?) is very interesting to me because if it’s a disposition and if you’re right, after making these distinctions between this object of knowledge and object of awe, you’re right about this position, so wonder is a disposition. But it also means a desire to know so perhaps is the kind of knowing that needs to be evolved it’s not curiosity it’s not I want to figure things out it’s a very special kind of desire to know: Wonder

IM: Yes that’s right and and Mary Ridgel(?) makes a marvelous distinction there between the idea … which I whole heartedly endorse … between the idea of curiosity as in wanting to find out how this thing works and wonder which
is a sense -which we have to regain- of quite how extraordinary every little living thing is … she said you know whether it’s a not even living I mean that this applies to our understanding of the cosmos. And it doesn’t rule out that we can get to know in the sense of Wissen and work out the answers to questions we’re curious to know the answer to. But there are certain things that don’t respond to the idea “I’m curious about this”, “I’m curious to know what the meaning of life is”, “I’m curious to know the nature of God”. This doesn’t work. Yeah nobody says that these are not things that are resolvable to that kind of an explanation.

Alex: And this brings me to the part where you write about a disposition toward the Divine …

Now I’m eager to read it in clear, written prose minus the spoken hemming and hawing.

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Okay, done with peeking ahead to the God chapter. Back to chapter 19: Intuition, Imagination & Unveiling

A degree of unknowing appears essential to the creative act. Thus Thackeray wrote: ‘I have been surprised at the observations made by some of my characters. … It seems as if an occult Power was moving the pen. The personage does or says something, and I ask, how the dickens did he come to think of that?’60 Indeed Dickens’ own experience was similar: ‘some beneficent power shows it all to me, and tempts me to be interested, and I don’t invent it – really do not – but see it, and write it down’.61

This something that is seen, not invented, thereby enjoys its own freedom.62 It is the artistic generosity that accommodates such freedom that is intrinsic to the genius of Shakespeare.63 And it suggests not something alien to the artist, but something nonetheless distinct within the artist’s mind at a level below consciousness, involving both what our senses ‘half create, and what perceive’ as Wordsworth puts it.64

That phrase is of the deepest significance to the argument of this book. It captures the idea that the creative imagination neither ‘just’ sees nor ‘just’ creates, but brings the new into existence through the combination of both, so rendering the authorship of what emerges ambiguous. 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.

This pretty neatly dovetails with the way I was thinking about God and the unconscious mind when I first started posting here. This for me is greatly illuminating of the process I was waving at before.

I’m afraid many of my Christian friends will fear this is trying to insert God into some blind, deterministic natural process. But I don’t see it that way anymore than I think evolution disappears the wonder of whatever teleological force has guided the unfolding of the cosmos’ and our becoming. I do think it may be more reasonable to think of origins that way than as the brief, spectacular residue of large bang as it drifts toward heat death. The latter seems to demand more gullibility than the former.


Thanks for that comparison. Around here we are mostly pretty well acclimated to not think that scientific explanations of things somehow “drive out God”. But it is good to also see the analogous choice of conviction that nor does any speculation about the inner workings of our subconsciences insofar as the source of our revelations go - nor does any of that ‘drive out God’ - as if God was not capable - indeed may even prefer - to start the Divine work deep within each of us.


That is what I think.

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Conversations With God : An Uncommon Dialogue by Neale Donald Walsch

Been there, done that, and found it to be an unclean spirit.

We are still free to disagree and talk about it :smile:

I’m more hesitant perhaps, than you, to show so much disrespect for God’s work. But that said, unclean spirits do exist too, and much discernment is always called for to be sure! There is that.

Philippians 1:6: “… the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.”

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Like you said, it’s a matter of a discernment.

When did the good work begin for you? For me, it’s not so easy to tell. There was my response a Billy Graham event when I was 9, then a bunch of bad mojo, and in my 20s I was totally convicted that I deserved to go to hell. That’s when I first understood the Gospel.

I wouldn’t be so convinced that God wasn’t in there – even through all of what you now recognize (or fancy that you recognize) as ‘bad mojo’. Are you sure God hasn’t allowed - no - perhaps even ended up using some of that bad stuff to help develop some good things in you now? That isn’t to justify evil - not by a long shot, nor do any of us wish “bad mojo” on others, much less ourselves. We shouldn’t chase it - or try to make others chase it; that’s for sure. But … the hand of God … it works in mysterious ways. Or at least that was Job’s perspective - and he didn’t always like it, much less defend it.

So I guess I should be asking myself just how much I’m being like one of Job’s friends when I think this way!

The thing is being able to recognize the good work. How this relates to the bad stuff, the unclean spirits, is less important.