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Biology, the Brain, and the Meaning of Life with Philip Ball

A Conversation with Philip Ball and Iain McGilchrist


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Samuel Loncar 


Welcome to this conversation hosted by the Marginalia Review of Books, between Philip Ball, leading science writer, and Iain McGilchrist, a leading scientist of the brain and the mind. 


I’m delighted to host this as part of the Meanings of Science Project at the Marginalia Review of Books, which is supported by the Templeton Foundation. Philip Ball and Iain McGilchrist are distinguished members of the Meanings of Science Project—last time we saw each other was for our symposium at Oxford University, two years ago—and I’m excited to bring them together and have this conversation.


The Meanings of Science Project is a way of bringing together the great scientific minds—the scholars, the writers, the philosophers, and the practitioners who think deeply, not only about scientific, technical specializations, but about how they’re connected to the whole web of other scientific disciplines, and the meanings that science has for us as human beings.


At Marginalia, we firmly believe knowledge is the path towards progress, and that science can best be served by having deeply intelligent conversations with the best people about the issues that affect us most, and we couldn’t have two more perfect people to bring into conversation today than Philip Ball and Iain McGilchrist. 


We’re going to focus today on Ball’s new book, a groundbreaking work in biology called How Life Works: A User’s Guide to the New Biology, published by the University of Chicago Press. Iain McGilchrist is the author most recently of the two-volume, extraordinary work of science and philosophy, The Matter with Things. 

Phil has been giving many talks and conversations about his book, but I wanted to start the conversation, Phil, by throwing it to you and asking you about how you see your work, this book, and your whole scientific arc, and what you think is special about this book and special about what you hope to see happen in the field of biology. Are you helping show and catalyze a scientific revolution? I know it’s a big question. But this is a very large-scale book, so I’d love to hear you start by telling us: How do you see this book in terms of your work and what you hope it’s doing in the world?

The New Biology: Agency, Purpose, and Meaning


Philip Ball


Well, maybe I should start by talking about what I mean by “the new biology.” And some people have asked this already—what’s new about it? Isn’t it the same old thing carrying on? And this is a book that has, I guess, in some way or another taken me decades to get to. During the 1990s, I was an editor of physical sciences at the science journal Nature. So I was on this very steep learning curve about biology at that stage, and it was fantastic to be in that position, because Nature was receiving, particularly in the life sciences, work at the absolute forefront of the field. And my fellow editors who handled those papers were extremely knowledgeable. So it was a great place for learning what was going on in biology. 


As the years went by, I started to feel there was something that didn’t seem quite right. There seemed to be a disjunction between the way the discourse about life, about biology, happened in the public sphere, and the kind of research that I was seeing coming into Nature and getting published. This began as nothing more than vague misgivings, but as time went by, they became a bit more than that. 


Then I was invited to be a visitor for the summer of 2019 at Harvard Medical School in the Department of Systems Biology—which is a fantastic and very forward-thinking, very creative-thinking department. I arrived there full of vague misgivings about the narratives that biology was using, and it seemed to me that pretty much everyone in the department that I spoke to said, “Well, yes, and it’s worse than that and this is why.” I found out that, actually, things were even more different from the public narrative. 


So when I’m talking about a new biology, I’m trying to get across what has changed in biology over the past two or three decades, particularly, and perhaps not coincidentally, since the completion of the Human Genome Project. Some people might have got the impression that this project was going to answer all the questions about biology, because, after all, it was going to, as we were told, decode the code: the instruction booklet from which we are made.


Obviously, understanding those instructions was going to take some time, but this was the project that was going to allow us to do that. It seemed to me actually, and it certainly seemed to the people I spoke to at Harvard, that it hasn’t quite worked that way. What we have come to understand over the past 20 years or so about the details of how life works is that, while they look incredibly complicated, the more we understand about them, the more it seems that old narrative of an instruction book that is just read out to build us is no longer the right one. It simply doesn’t work anymore. 


The new biology is about trying to describe and find ways of talking about—find narratives, really, for—this new understanding that we have. I would say, it’s a more sophisticated view of how it is that life works and how life gets put together. The trajectory of the book goes from the very small up to the whole organism: starting off with genes, and looking at proteins, and how proteins work together, and how cells work, and how cells assemble into tissues, and so on.


It seems to me that at every one of these stages of, if you like, the biological hierarchy, the story that’s being told, certainly that’s being told about us as complex organisms, is not the one that you’ll see in school biology textbooks—which is all the biology a lot of people get. It’s not the one that has tended to be told as a way of talking about something like the Human Genome Project, and it’s not really even the one that is often told in some parts of the specialist scientific literature. When we really start to take on board what the work over the past 20 years or so has done, we have to acknowledge that it’s time for a new story. 


And this book is not telling that story, because I don’t know what it is; I don’t think anyone knows what it is now. But it’s trying to make a start. It’s trying to suggest at least what we could start leaving behind, and it’s trying to find better narratives that give a more accurate impression of, as the title says, how life works.


Samuel Loncar


It’s extraordinary. So there has been a revolution in life, but we don’t know where it’s leading yet; yet you’re arguing we have to see that the old ways of thinking are completely inadequate. Iain, I’m curious how Phil’s project and what he’s doing sounds to you. Are you surprised, given your work on the nature of science and how science has both the powers and biases it has? Are you surprised by this sort of critique and development of biology? Or is it in a way something both novel, but something your own worldview and work on the brain would have led you to expect might be coming?


Iain McGilchrist


I very much hoped that it would be coming, and there have been signs for some years now—for a very long time, perhaps 10 or 15 years—that things are changing in biology. I’m not at the forefront of any of it, so I’m just reporting my understanding. But I want to thank Phil for his wonderful book. I loved it; I found it very well-written for somebody who doesn’t necessarily know all the technical details. I learned a hell of a lot in the course of reading it. 


I wonder, though, if you’re underselling, Philip, not perhaps the novelty exactly, but the import of what it is you say in that book. I noticed there were moments, if I may say so, where you move towards saying there’s something here that’s a real problem for science, and then step back pretty fast, saying. “No, I’m very much inside the fold,” which is understandable because getting on the wrong side of that fence in science is not a picnic. But I wondered if you sometimes just held back from saying the import of this. You do actually say at the end of the book: to unfold what this means for evolutionary biology would be a whole other book in itself, and enormous. I think that’s right. But it’s that speculative edge. At the moment, speculation has a bad name in science, but speculation is actually how science moves on, and somebody needs to be speculating in an intelligent way about what is happening here.


You unlock all kinds of mysterious mechanisms, which are fabulous to read about. But at the end of it, I was left with a number of feelings that cohere about where we’re going to have to go with this in the future. The first is the barrenness of the reductive enterprise. And I think you are very clear on that; you don’t hedge any of your bets about that. Reductionism is simply not going to work. At one stage, you say, “Maybe the only way to truly understand life is with reference to life itself.” And I remember the words of Sydney Brenner, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist poet, as of course you know, who said that the only way to express what’s happening here—and he’s talking about how amazing the complex intracellular processes are—there’s hardly a shorter way of giving a rule for what goes on there than just describing what there is—which is, in a way, the death of the reductionist enterprise. It’s not just another unique mystery, but there is something—and of course, we will, I hope, come to it in the course of time, though probably not during this conversation that I’ve opened. You probably will need to come to some ways of thinking about it. 


I’m just going to name a few areas in which there are problems. The first is, in a way, the sui generis nature of life, which I think I’ve just talked about. Another is top-down causation, where things seem to be attracted from in front or led from beyond towards something, which is, as you say, a very difficult area to talk about. As Haldane said, purpose is a mistress that the scientist can’t live without but is unwilling to be seen with in public. In other words, it’s something that scientists are always saying has to be there, but they find other words to express it.


That’s not all that’s the problem, because top-down causation isn’t just about purpose and direction, though it probably does involve that necessarily. Then there’s the whole levels of freedom of interaction and the complexity. So, in a single cell, there are probably a million, maybe more, chemical interactions going on, and even a very small one is immensely complex. In the book, I quote some researchers from Brussels who present what they call a “horror-graph”, which is just four stages of five interlocking processes, and show that it’s almost impossible to describe this as anything other than a “horror-graph”, because of its complexity; and the idea that this inevitably seems to result in, or almost inevitably results in, a benign and productive outcome is remarkable. 


And then you’ve got things like the structure of the brain, as it comes into being in utero. In the human brain, about a quarter of a million cells are generated every minute during the nine months of gestation—a quarter of a million in a minute! And they’re all necessarily going to be different in the long run, and we can work that out, saying: as they develop their environment, they will change in response to that. The sophistication of this dance and the level of technical exactness that has to be produced at the end, if you look in detail at the microstructure of the brain, is something absolutely extraordinary.


Another thing is, where is the missing information? Where is the pattern that shows what that brain should look like? Where is the pattern that dictates a deer’s antlers if you cut them off? They have a unique pattern inside, and you know that it will regrow exactly to that pattern. Where is it stored? When a nematode worm has its head cut off, it will regenerate a head; but with it, it regenerates the memories that the old head had. Where are the memories? Where are the forms?


These questions are all, I know, very difficult. It’s very unfair to launch these at you, because I’m not expecting you suddenly to have an answer. But these are the questions that your book threw up in my mind. It’s very exciting! And I hope we can talk about this a little.


Philip Ball 


Well, Iain, you’ve spotted my strategy, because it was a strategic decision. You’re absolutely right: I do want to come at this conservatively. You will know very well the antipathy that can be aroused when one starts to talk about these taboo words in biology, like purpose and meaning. Very quickly, the barriers go up. And so I want to try to introduce that idea as gently as possible. 


But it was a strategic decision also because I want to recognize—I don’t think it is false humility—that I am no expert in any of the areas that I’m talking about in the book. I want to recognize that there’s always something else in biology - there’s always some layer that certainly someone like me is not going to know about, is not going to understand. That was the approach I wanted to take. 

But it was also a strategic decision to be conservative about the way I put things because I felt one of the key things I wanted to do in this book was to try to make sure that what I was saying was going to remain linked to what the regular molecular biologist actually does day-to-day: looking at cells or looking at molecules in the laboratory. So often, books that have tried to paint a bigger picture of what life is, how life works, very quickly get into abstractions that may well turn out to be the right ones, but they are all but useless for the practicing molecular biologists, for example, or cell biologists, because it doesn’t relate to what they’re doing. 


I wanted—sometimes to a degree that I felt a bit uncomfortable about in a book that’s aiming at a general audience—to stay focused on the fine details. Sometimes it’s the fine details of how this molecule does this particular task that produces the insight. Then suddenly you start to think, “Ah, it’s working this way, rather than the traditional way, for this reason.” 


For example, for a long time, as someone who originally trained as a chemist, I was very happy with the picture that’s often told in molecular biology. The cells are full of thousands and thousands, maybe millions, of different molecules packed into this small space. How on earth do they do what they’re supposed to do and not interfere with each other all the time?


The standard story about that is that they have these very particular shapes: it’s all about molecular recognition. They fit together in certain ways. Proteins have a particular shape that fits with the molecule they’re meant to modify and they ignore everything else. This is what biochemists and chemists call molecular recognition. There’s absolutely some of that going on in the cell, but what actually shocked me to some degree—and this is something I heard about at Harvard—was in our cells, in the cells of complex organisms like us, that’s often not the case at all. The molecular interactions are surprisingly promiscuous. The proteins that we learned about as having these beautifully sculpted shapes—well, instead many of them, and particularly the ones that are often most central to what cells are doing, are quite floppy. They’re what biochemists call “intrinsically disordered.” This is something that we’ve only started to understand in the past 10 or 20 years, again because we have the methods for doing so. In the past, to understand the structure of proteins, we needed them to form crystals and they only do that if they do have well-defined shapes. 


This story of intrinsic disorder is everywhere in ourselves; at least 50% of our proteins have some degree of disorder, and so they have some degree of promiscuity we didn’t know about. How does that work? This seems to make it even more messy. Not only do we have these molecules, and they have to build these complex systems, but they don’t even choose their partners with the specificity that we thought they did. It turns out that this is an essential part of how they work. This promiscuity—this openness to finding new partners—is a crucial part of how we work. And not only how we work from day to day, but also it builds into the system a kind of evolvability. It provides a possibility for new interactions to form, which give rise to new phenotypes, which allows evolution of these very complex systems to happen. 


It also gives some slack in the system, because it means that it’s no longer essential for this molecule to meet that particular molecule at this time and place, and if they don’t get together, everything goes off the tracks. That might be, to some extent, how it is in bacteria. But for us, it’s no good, because most of the time, the cells are very messy. They’re very noisy. That sort of mechanism isn’t going to work. We need something that is much fuzzier, much looser than that. 


This is one of the themes that came out at me. You mentioned that, as Sydney Brenner said, maybe you have to describe all of what’s going on in the system and can’t do any better than that. I started this book thinking that’s all I’m going to be able to say. But actually, as I went deep into it, these general principles seem to emerge, and one of them was this fuzziness of the interactions and their combinatorial nature: different combinations of the same molecules give different outcomes. I talk about committees of molecules getting together, having conversations, if you like, and out of that comes the decision. It’s no coincidence that this happens much more in us than in simpler organisms like bacteria. That is actually an essential part of how an organism like us works. 


These more general principles started to emerge, and that’s an example of the kind of story that I think we should now start telling about life. You’ve made it very clear in your book—and in lots of what you’ve said, Iain—that this is one of the reasons why we need to get away from this machine metaphor.


Iain McGilchrist


Well, obviously what you said—I agree with it, all of it. Not that that particularly matters, but I do. First of all, there’s no reason to feel at all uncomfortable at the idea that you’re not an expert on all these things, because such is the level of specialization now in all the sciences that it’s very hard for anyone any longer, however well trained in science, to keep some kind of overview of what’s going on, and it’s that that’s desperately needed. We won’t find the answers to the questions that we both agree need to be answered by going into one rabbit hole. We’ll have to put together information from a whole range of different areas. And I agree with you that often detail is a very good way of clarifying that something actually is working in a different way. So the payback of examining the detail may be much larger than that detail gives out to be at the start. 


Then, somewhere in the book I say it’s typical of the left hemisphere to call a maximally flexible protein an “intrinsically disordered” protein! This idea that, as life advances, it becomes more flexible and more stochastic in a way (but there’s still very clearly the shape) means we have to be on the borders all the time. Life seems to me, if you want, to be on the borders of chaos and order. It can’t sacrifice order to chaos, but it can’t get anywhere unless there’s an element of chaos there. 


Mind you, we know that simple single-cell organisms can find an adaptation to a harm that they were not prepared for by evolution and that they had never experienced, and they can find it very quickly. So, it doesn’t take a billion years of trial and error for the solution to pop up. It pops up during the time that it’s required by the cell. There’s a lot of very interesting things in that. I don’t know if you have any reflections on that. But in any case, I think that’s absolutely right and I love that. 


But when you write about a committee, or a boardroom, we get the contained and manageable idea of messages being passed across the table between people in a committee. But, in fact, we are dealing with committees on a scale that beggars belief. It’s very hard for the imagination to see how all these complex things can work, and not come up with a random outcome, but come up with a desirable outcome. But they do, and they need to. 


There’s also a subtle point, which I’m sure you would agree with, but it wasn’t expressed exactly in the way you talked about. Almost all of it is done on the fly. Very little of it is stuff that was previously planned, but it actually has to be done at the moment. Things change in response to what’s happening around them, which is also changing. And I always mention this lovely book by Kriti Sharma called Interdependence. It’s a very short book. I don’t know if you know it. But in it, she makes the point that organisms and their environment are interdependent, but not in the conventional sense that an organism has an effect on the environment and then the environment has an effect on the organism. But actually, they co-create one another at the same time. So as the environment is sculpting the organism, the organism is feeding back and sculpting the environment. Now you’ve only got those two concepts. But in biology, all over the place, we’ve got masses of these things going on. 

I don’t want to talk about hemispheres yet, but I’m sure we will eventually. Yet it’s worth pointing out that there is a distinct difference between the modus operandi of the left hemisphere and the right. As I understand it from Computer Sciences, left hemisphere procedures are highly computable, and that’s very obvious; in fact, I believe that AI is a way of pushing out the left hemisphere mode of thinking into the environment. But what the right hemisphere does is strictly non-computable, because it has no points of certainty in it. The computer needs at least one or two reference points to begin working with. But in essence, there is nothing but experience, either the experience—if one can talk about this, and I think one can—of the cell (or the plant or the root or whatever it is), but effectively the single cell. It can’t be engineered according to principle. 


When we look at some of the things you so beautifully describe, it is a wonderful book. Very far from reducing the wonder of what we’re contemplating, it increases it, and I think that is a great accolade for a science book because the thing that  attracts us in science, if we’ve still got a soul at all, is the wonder of it. And there’s not enough wonder in this world.


Wonder, Life, and the Mystery of Living Organisms


Philip Ball


I’m so glad to hear you say that, Iain, because that’s absolutely what I wanted to convey. It seemed to me that the old narratives of biology—the very mechanistic narratives of this being an instruction book that’s read out and so forth—as well as no longer being an accurate way of talking about how life works, they also reduce the wonder of living things themselves. I found that myself. I found that as I would realize, “Oh, this is why this is working, this is why this principle is adopted in a complex creature,” it was wonderful in a way that it seems to me simply isn’t being conveyed. The idea of thinking about living organisms as machines—what could kill that wonder more than that? 


Very often one hears about a gene-centered view of life, and again I’m going to be, I hope, conservative about it in saying, of course, genes are a central element of life. We should never forget that. We should never imagine that genes aren’t somehow a central piece of that narrative. What they do and how they do it and what they’re for might not be what we’ve heard, but nevertheless, they’re central.

But if we make everything about that, and certainly if we have that gene-centric view of evolution, then you end up with what Richard Dawkins has called “the paradox of the organism.” The organism itself, the thing that is alive—because genes don’t have agency—becomes a mystery, becomes a paradox. You’ve lost it, and you have to try to get it back again. Sure, there are interesting discussions to be had about the tensions that might exist between the way genes are operating and the way an organism’s operating. I can understand that discussion. But if you’ve got to the point where suddenly it seems that actual organisms are no longer needed, then something has gone astray.


You’ve talked about notions of top-down causation. That’s where the organism starts. That organism-centric view of the way life works has to be there. We absolutely have to have reductionism in the sense of burrowing down to the level of understanding of protein structure, or understanding what a particular gene encodes, in order to understand what is going on. But we must not lose that top-down notion, and in particular the fact that somehow all of these processes are supporting each other at various hierarchical levels to create this organism. That’s the mystery. That’s the extraordinary thing. 


I suggest in the book that’s where we might benefit from having some better understanding, some better dialogue, about what agency is. For it seems to me that if there’s one thing that distinguishes living matter from nonliving matter, it is this notion of agency. It’s not some checklist that says for it to be alive, you have to have metabolism, you have to have Darwinian evolution, replication, all the rest of it. You have to have agency. So we need to understand what that is. What are the attributes that are required of a system for that to come about?


Even saying that much is seen by some biologists as being heretical. Or they will say, “We have no notion of agency. We can build it back up from the bottom.” But it seems to others that until we’re able to have that discussion about organisms as agents—as agents that have purposes, that have goals, and that are able to operate on themselves and on their environment in order to achieve those goals—then we’re missing a central aspect of what life is.


Iain McGilchrist


I agree completely. There’s something very exciting happening now, and it feels to me like physics in about 1910. Biology is, a hundred and a bit years later, catching up. Physics was all supposed to have been completed by 1900: nothing more for physicists to do. Then suddenly the carpet is pulled right out from under their feet, and they still don’t quite know what it is they’re dealing with. I think the same thing is happening in biology, and it’s perfectly understandable that people who have all their lives thought a certain way—and their jobs depend on keeping going in that way—will want to do so, but we needn’t worry about them. They will die out. As Max Planck said—or is said to have said—science evolves one funeral at a time.

I think that’s right. But the business about where this stuff is, is worth a mention, isn’t it? Before we lose track of it, have you any speculations on where? It’s not in the genes, we know that. But where is the information in heredity? Heredity is very clear; it clearly can’t work in the way we thought it did or not all the time. It may, in part, work that way. But there’s got to be something else that’s permitting heredity. There’s some other agent of continuity between the parent organisms and the offspring, which is not encoded in the genes. So where is it? Where are the patterns that tell an organism that it’s missing something in a three-dimensional schema and knows to put it in? Where is the knowledge that the brain has about its complexity and where things should go? Where is the memory of things, like the memory of the nematode worm? Where is it? Where are all these things? I’m not suggesting that there isn’t an answer to these questions. There must be. But they’re very interesting questions, and since I’ve got the privilege of having somebody like yourself sitting here with me: What are your speculations on that?


Philip Ball 


I find it—and I’m not alone in finding it—very hard to think about these questions in informational terms, as missing information. I can’t help wondering whether going too far down the line of trying to add up where the information is may not turn out to be the right way of doing it. It might turn out to be too much of a computational method that we don’t need. It’s clear that there is literally, as far as we can talk literally about information, there is literally information in DNA that is passed on, of course. We have examples certainly for a bacterium where, if you remove its genome or put in the genome of a closely related bacterium, it starts to behave in that new way. It’s perfectly understandable that people might think, “Oh, then all the information is there. You’re rebooting it with a new operating system, if you like.” Certainly for bacteria, there’s a degree to which that seems to be the case. 


But where I think we should look for the answer to those questions is with the aspect of biology that for a long time was overshadowed, and is now resurging, and that is developmental biology. It’s interesting to me to look at the history of what happened, and this is something that Evelyn Fox Keller has been very good at doing and pointing out. Iain, I’ve also seen you point out elsewhere that it was folks like Conrad Waddington, J. B. S. Haldane, but particularly Waddington, who always felt that developmental biology—or embryology, as it was once called—had been put aside. It was the center of biology in the early part of the twentieth century, and then along came genetics. Along came Crick and Watson. And understandably, because DNA was such a rich discovery, developmental biology was put aside. We somehow thought we no longer have to think about the riddle of development because we’re going to find it encoded in the genome.

We now recognize that that isn’t where we’re going to find answers to the questions of how an organism is put together from its constituent cells. Somehow the cells are—and I will put it this way round—able to use their genetic resources to develop assembly characteristics that have a palette of possible outcomes. The cells will assemble themselves, using that information, into these outcomes. And usually, in the situation in which we arise within the womb—usually, for humans—it will come out looking something like us. There are variations in that, some of them quite dramatic variations. But nevertheless, it’s something like us. But it’s quite possible—in fact, it’s probably inevitable—that there are other possible outcomes of that assembly process, most of which won’t be viable, most of which evolution will never have hit upon. It seems to me that that’s a necessary characteristic of organisms like us. Cells and tissues need that versatility, that adaptability, that ability to innovate, in order to be viable at all.


As you’ve mentioned, one of the mysteries is when something goes awry during the developmental process. How is it that sometimes the cells are able to compensate and find their way back to what, if you like, the outcome is supposed to be? Sometimes they can’t, sometimes they do something else entirely, but very often they can. We’re not going to find that information somehow encoded in the genome in any form we can read. It’s something to do with the self-organizing characteristics of cells themselves that have these assembly properties. Personally, I don’t know how to think about that in informational terms. It seems that we need something dynamic.


Iain McGilchrist


Yes, I completely agree. I agree both that we need something dynamic and that we need something four-dimensional—not a strip of information, as it were. But of course, the word information can mean (and I tend to think of it as still viable in the sense of) what literally in-forms whatever is there, so it “gives the form” to it. It’s that kind of stuff that we need to be looking for. 


I’m the first person to say, and I think I did say, that although genes are very important, there still must be other things. What we’re seeing is an enormously creative process, which starts being—astonishing: the genesis of a single cell, and the amazing intelligence that James Shapiro says is in a single cell, is extraordinary. And I think the word intelligence is right. The systems seem intelligent. The single cells in them seem intelligent. They can solve problems. They can solve problems they weren’t set up to solve. And that seems to me to be one of the definitions of being intelligent. So that is very interesting.


But not only does evolution govern or suggest or produce or call forth changes in organisms, but if you allow me to put it this way, there’s an evolution of evolution. So evolution itself seems to be moving to complex, more-difficult-to-follow ways of doing its job, as organisms become more complex. As you say, it’s much easier to see what’s going on when you manipulate the genome of a single-cell organism or bacterium or something of this kind. And at this stage, everything does look a bit mechanical. But as you go further on and outwards, it doesn’t anymore. And actually, it was a point made by Freeman Dyson that an organism seems to be more mechanical, the smaller you take the units. But as you then go smaller and smaller from there, it becomes less and less mechanical. There’s a bowtie shape, in which, in the middle, mechanism seems to be quite good. But for the rest of it isn’t.


This is a philosophical point, but I’ll say it anyway. The opposite of life is not death. Death is part of life, and life and death go together, and it’s not a negation of life. What is the negation of and the complete opposite of life is mechanism or mechanisticity. These are the ultra-incompatible elements. And we are moving, I believe, into a world where we think more and more in terms of mechanisms. It’s wonderful that physics has had to give this up, and now it looks to me as though biology is having at least to sophisticate it and move on.


There are mechanisms in a complex system. You’ve probably seen—but if you haven’t, I do recommend finding it if you can—a wonderful map of what was going on in Afghanistan when the Americans were still there. Perhaps you know the one I mean. It was made by a London management consultancy firm to advise the US Army on all the different elements in Afghanistan and how they interacted, and it’s hilarious because it’s a massively complicated thing with arrows going all over the place. When it was presented to General McChrystal, he dryly commented, “When we have understood that map, we will have won the war” – which you could take in whatever way you like. But the point is that if you look at this map, you can see little areas where there are simple linear chains; if you intervene here, you actually make a big change. And so, although the system isn’t a mechanism, there are nonetheless things we think of as mechanical interventions.


I love something you said in the book: that a lot of these interventions in the genome—the tweaks, as it were—are rather like inserting a comma in a sentence; it’s a small intervention that can completely change the meaning of the sentence. I thought that was an extraordinarily good way of expressing it. Sometimes tiny tweaks—and we’re quite good at recognizing where to tweak—can make a difference. But the ability to do that leads us to believe we understand the thing as a whole, and I don’t think it does. 


I wanted to move on to an even more central but interesting point: why have life at all? You said agency, but what agent decided that agency was good? How did evolution “think” that it needed agency? How did any kind of evolutionary process evolve to be the one that says we need agency? Agency’s interesting. But I’ve come to believe that the big divide—and obviously, it is a huge divide— between the inanimate world and the animate world is not as hard and fast a thing as it would seem to be, in the sense that all the things that life is capable of, inanimate life can more or less do, just very, very slowly and cumbersomely, and, as you say, without any agency. So it gets its form changed by forces it interacts with, and it gives rise later to some formation, which could have been predicted. In essence —perhaps it’s stretching the idea, but – inanimate substances can produce more of an inanimate substance. So perhaps they even self-propagate? I don’t know. What I’m saying is that what seems so startling about living creatures is, yes, that agency, entirely; which suggests agency towards some sort of end – because agency that’s entirely random and chaotic wouldn’t have any point; so the agency must be used in pursuance of something: and the other thing is values. 


Values are incredibly important, and I think you definitely recognize that in what you wrote. You talk about values and that living things have values, and I don’t just mean survival. That’s why I say, “Why have life?”


A. N. Whitehead, who you probably know is one of my favorite philosophers, second only to Heraclitus, said, “What is the point of life? If life is about being able to persist, then the secret is never to have been alive.” Rocks last for billions of times longer than human beings. It’s also true that evolution has taken us away from length of survival. Actinobacteria at the base of the ocean, some examples of which are half a million years old, do very much better even than trees, never mind people. So there are some things – values – that attract organisms in this process, because I believe there is a kind of complexity, a beautiful complexification, in whatever it is unfolding.


I don’t claim to understand it. But that seems to be what I’m witnessing as I come to know more about the cosmos in which I live; and part of what life does is to respond to value. It responds—in my view, but I don’t expect you to go there with me—to things like beauty, goodness, and even truth. Difficult to interpret in terms of microorganisms, but there are tendencies; and the thing about the human being is that the human being, far more than any other organism, seems to be able to do this kind of responding.


It’s fashionable now to demonize humankind for having been enormously destructive, and I wholly agree with that verdict. But the other side of it is that we are only able to do that because we’re also very creative. It would not be a good thing if human beings died out in this world, I believe, although it may be necessary for something to recover in the natural order. I don’t know. But all I’m saying is there’s something rather special about increasing complexity and evolution that seems to drive a machine against entropy. It’s very fragile. It’s very costly in terms of energy consumption. And it presents many more problems than having a totally inanimate world.


Philip Ball 


I’m quite happy to be materialist about this, Iain. I had a very interesting conversation recently with David Bentley Hart, who has the entirely opposite point of view. You probably understand that he believes that mind is the beginning of everything. 


Iain McGilchrist


So do I. You’ve got another one here. 


Philip Ball


I loved the conversation. I loved David’s book, and I loved your book, because it pushes me to see to what extent I can defend a purely materialistic approach to this. But at this stage, I’m very happy to have, again, that conservative point of view. It feels to me actually—and I say in the book—that life itself is what creates a point. Life itself is what creates a meaning. What is extraordinary to me is that as far as we can tell, I’m happy to believe that the laws of physics—nothing more than that, the laws that govern the way matter behaves—make life possible. That’s utterly extraordinary. There is no way we would have predicted that from the laws of physics. It’s much, much more extraordinary than that there are black holes and all these extraordinary astrophysical phenomena. That’s completely understandable as far as I can see, but life? It’s amazing that as far as we can see you don’t need to add anything to physics to get life. 


The question then becomes: Is it an inevitability? Is the appearance of life in the universe something that inevitably would happen in a universe like ours? I don’t know the answer to that. But I do feel that when that happens, that is when meaning and value enter into the universe, that actually life itself is what creates that. To a lot of people, it sounds like you’re now deep into metaphysics, or aesthetics, or something; you’ve left science way behind. But actually, taking an evolutionary perspective on all of these questions—just as one can on agency, just as one can on freewill, and our brains, which I want to come to—you can do this with meaning and value. The simplest organisms we know of, like bacteria, if they’re going to persist as entities, will have to, in a sense, perform value judgments on their environment. They’re going to have to attend to some stimuli and not to others. They’re going to have to notice if there is a depletion of moisture, if things are getting too hot, where the nutrient is, and not attend to other things that are of no value and no threat to them. 


I would say that is the evolutionary beginnings of value judgments. That is something that bits of the living system are doing, and we are an extreme elaboration of that. I take the view that having a brain is not something that is essential in order to be a cognitive system. You said that we have to think of a bacterium as intelligent, and in some sense, it’s cognitive. I think that’s absolutely right, and in fact it’s probably more than a metaphor, but even if it’s just a metaphor, it’s a much better metaphor for life - the cognitive metaphor - than computation or the machine. But it seems to me that, as far as we know on earth, the brain is the ultimate expression of giving that entity agency, that it is a way of devolving the decision-making from some genetically programmed system of doing things, which cannot hope to anticipate everything that a complex organism like us will encounter. We encounter things daily that we have never encountered before., and so we need some better way to respond to our environment than just an automated, genetically programmed way. That is what a brain is for. That is what enables an organism like us to persist. 


Whether evolution itself has some direct directionality towards that degree of complexity is an open question, and in fact the case has been made—for example, by the evolutionary biologist Mike Lynch—that you could get to complex organisms like us by accident, by neutral evolution that gives rise to increasing complexification in organisms. It doesn’t have to be adaptive. It’s not obvious to me that something with the complexity that we have is somehow any more finely adapted. We’re certainly no better at surviving than bacteria are, than fungi are. So it’s not clear that there’s an adaptive benefit. It could just be neutral drift that gives rise to greater complexity, and if that greater complexity is going to persist, then we need all these mechanisms that we talked about earlier: these sort of fuzzy operational principles, the ability of cells to communicate in ways that don’t depend on their fine details. That is going to be necessary for the organisms to persist and be able to adapt and innovate because of the greater complexity of their surroundings. But there may be no directionality in that. 


But it does end up ultimately with organisms like us that have brains that are, as far as we know, the ultimate expression of agency. They allow us to do things that are non-adaptive, clearly. We’re doing things all the time that are non-adaptive. They are able to do things that are creative, that are spontaneously creative, for their own sake. We have purposes and goals that no longer have any obvious relevance to survival or to reproduction.


There’s something else that seems to me to be such an extraordinary thing: that the laws of physics ultimately produce these beings that are aware of their existence, that are able to think about that existence, that are able to develop their own strategies, their own programs, their own goals, that seem to have transcended what evolution seems to do. Not to have escaped it completely, but not to be totally dependent on that. So that brings us to brains.


Iain McGilchrist


I think there’s more to say before we get to brains, because you’ve just said a lot of things. When you say a materialist explanation, does that entail that matter has nothing to do with consciousness? That it doesn’t have consciousness: matter is just “lumpen matter.” Just stuff without any direction, any value, any awareness. Is that right? That’s usually what people mean.


Philip Ball 


I’m content to start with that as the null hypothesis. I don’t think anyone knows how to get from that to consciousness. 


Iain McGilchrist 


I’m just going to unfold what I’m saying, but I think it’s slightly like your entirely accurate remark that Dawkins’ problem with the so-called paradox of the organisms depends on how you set the situation up. If you set it up so that the organism can’t be like an organism as we know it, then of course you’ve got a problem. And I always say, the hard problem, the so-called hard problem—it’s wonderful that somebody has become famous by simply saying this is difficult, but here we are—this hard problem is as hard as you set it up to be. If you try to get consciousness out of matter that has no element of consciousness, then you truly have a hard problem. I don’t think that that can be right. It doesn’t sound logical, and nobody’s got near explaining how this trick could happen. 


But I believe it’s true, too, as you yourself said, that when you get this kind of paradox, it’s worthwhile going back to your assumptions and thinking maybe there was something wrong with them. It seems a much more economic idea that there is consciousness. We have no experience of anything except from consciousness, and we don’t know that there’s anything that lacks consciousness. We only know there are things we recognize in our consciousness that we describe as non-conscious. Maybe it’s possible. But consciousness itself must exist. We don’t necessarily need a brain to have consciousness, but we certainly need consciousness to know we’ve got a brain.  It may be that we do need a brain. It’s a fascinating topic, and one that I don’t have a perfect answer to. It would be worth discussing.


But just to go back to lumpen matter, does it not trouble you that in a few years of evolution, lumpen matter can give rise to something like The Crucifixion by Cimabue or the St. Matthew Passion of Bach, or Chartres Cathedral, or a Mozart quintet?  It’s pretty extraordinary stuff, this matter, if that’s what it can do. So you’re not let off the hook of there being a miracle. 


It depends where you put in the miracle. I prefer to say nothing comes of nothing. Only a few things actually emerge from somewhere, and it’s because they have complexified, or varied, or been more creative with something that already has this in it.  What we’ve seen is the unfolding, like the unfolding of a bud into a flower, which is the fulfillment, not the negation, of the flower. I believe that’s the nature of the cosmos that we know. It is creative. If it is creative, and you agree that it is, of course—you can’t really deny it—then where does this creativity come from? What is the urge for creativity? Why not stasis? Why is the universe not actually Newtonian? Why is it not dead, until given a push? Why is it constantly on the change, constantly creative, constantly complexifying?


The other thing is about use. When you talk about value, as you did just now, I’m sure you would agree there are other values for human beings than use. But you were dealing only with what is useful to the organisms, what is utilitarian. You said, we have interest in many things that don’t have a point for use. I love that and I agree with that. I think that’s because we are able to respond to other values than those of mere use.


There is a problem with making use your only, or main, value. As was pointed out by Lessing in the eighteenth century, the utilitarian has to answer the question: useful for what?  If the answer is just for more use, then that doesn’t get us anywhere and you haven’t explained anything. If you say useful because it can create something beautiful, or good, or true, then that’s certainly a purpose. Animals can respond to beauty up to a point. Darwin himself said they definitely respond to beauty, but asks where does the beauty come from? He says it twice, in different places, which I quote in the book. You’ve probably read that. But it is a good question. Sometimes when one comes up with a systematic, mechanistic answer to a problem, what one has done is, as it were, gloss over the problem—how something so extraordinary emerged at all—given the pessimistic grounds of more or less dead nothing suddenly generating something very, very special.


Philip Ball


It does trouble me that evolution has come up with the St. Matthew Passion. I think it should trouble me. I think it should trouble everyone. However, I don’t know how troubled I should be. I don’t know how astonished I should be in comparison with the fact that evolution has come up with, say, the eye. That could sound rather like the discussion: “Clearly, it couldn’t have come up with a mechanism so beautifully achieved, so perfectly formed.” And there are very good arguments for why it absolutely could, without any kind of design, without anything going on behind the scenes. In a sense, simple natural selection could do that.


The way I think about the extraordinary things that we’re able to do that seem to have—I’m sure do have actually—no evolutionary value, but don’t have any obvious use, as you say—the way I think about that, at the moment, as a working hypothesis, is that for organisms like us—particularly now that we have these extraordinarily complex cultures—to be able to cope with an environment like that, with the cognitive demands that that requires, it’s no more feasible to think, “What is needed is a brain that is able to do precisely and only this and that,” than to think that one could build a laptop that only runs Adobe and Word and that’s all it can do. Of course, computers, by their nature, if they can do that much, they can do all this other stuff as well—the stuff actually I never use, probably you never use, but we know it’s there. We know that it has that possibility. 


For me, this is the wonderful thing about brains, certainly about our brains. I talked about it as thinking of the genes as the parents and the brain as the child, and the gene says, “Look, I’m going to give you all of this potential. You can do all of this stuff, but never forget that you’ve got to be fixated on surviving and reproducing.” The parents come back thousands of years later and they find the child working out the theory of general relativity, and they say, “What use is that to what I told you to do?” But the point is that if the child has been given that freedom, that ability to innovate, it’s going to end up doing those kinds of things. It’s going to transcend the usage to which it was supposed to be attending. I think of living organisms like that. If they’re going to fulfill the strictly evolutionary uses that we can think of them as having evolved for, it’s inevitable that they’re going to be able to do all this other stuff as well. That’s the only way you can make an entity like that. 


So that may not be sufficient to get around the mystery of the St. Matthew Passion, but I think there are ways to refine that idea. We can find those capabilities in other organisms, those potentialities for music, for language, for complex social behavior.


Iain McGilchrist


I completely accept that, and I don’t think there’s a sudden disjunct when humanity arrives. There are things that make it a very big step, I know, and one of them is language. But music, which probably pre-dated language, is a way in which birds and animals can communicate, and some tribes, as you know, can also to this day do so.


But I don’t think that the purpose of everything can simply be utility because you’ve then got to explain why there should be this expensive effort in achieving just more utility. Why did the universe not rest? Why is it creative? And why, in particular, does it move in directions towards specific ends? For instance, the efforts that you described the child doing later, once it’s fulfilled its basic needs of survival, which are constructive and creative. They can be used for destructive purposes, I don’t deny. Indeed, we’re in a world now where I believe that is exactly what’s happening. I think—and maybe we can talk a bit about brains at this point—that particularly in the human case, two aspects of existence have been sequestered from one another, so that they can function best, without interfering with one another. It’s very hard to explain why brains should be bipartite at all, but they are. All the brains we know are. They’re also asymmetrical, which is interesting, because if we just want more room, why do it asymmetrically? That suggests that there’s some important difference between the hemispheres. 


Then, of course, there’s the mystery of the corpus callosum, which only arises in mammals. Until then we did without it altogether. But since we’ve got it, it’s not keeping up in terms of size: as the brain expands, it’s getting relatively smaller. And now, a lot of its action—not all of its action, of course—is inhibitory. So these are the things that set one thinking about this. 


The left hemisphere is the best way of tackling that need for survival which depends on competition – we’ve always been told survival is largely to do with competition. Competition is a very valuable thing, but again I’m sure you would agree with me that the organisms that have survived have tended to be collaborators. Collaboration requires the bringing together of a degree of competition, which is healthy, with a degree of cooperation, which is very healthy. So the story of the evolution of life is not just red in tooth and claw, but it’s about the evolution of something that seems to be getting more sophisticated in its way of relating to the world, for no obvious reason of a utilitarian kind. It’s certainly not leading to longer lives, and it’s expending a lot of energy. 


You don’t have to accompany me here, but I must put my cards on the table. I don’t think that it’s feasible to say that evolution would “just” do this because then you’ve got to say that evolution is a pretty remarkable thing. We just go, “Evolution will answer all our problems.” But where does evolution come from? It’s not just about hitting one another over the head with clubs, a massacre, but actually about finding ways to get through something to produce something bigger and more sophisticated.


Evolution does a lot of work in the kind of story which I’m familiar with, which you told, but as with my question about what matter actually is if it can do this: What is evolution if it can do that? What are its, I want to say, goals? But I know you won’t like that. So what are its attractive forces? What are the things that lure it onwards? Something is moving. The cosmos is on the move, everything is moving in a certain direction. I don’t just mean physically, but you know what I’m talking about, and I think it’s toward greater complexity. It’s towards the ability to reflect values. I don’t believe that values are inventions of human beings that they paint on the walls of their windowless cell in order to cheer themselves up. I believe that they’re more basic than that.


Dogs and apes can do very selfless things, which will harm them, in order  not  to inflict pain on another creature. It’s not just us. But, of course, that only takes you a few steps. The point here is that there is continuity with animals, and what they are beginning to do is respond to beauty, to be able to cooperate better, and to feel things that are not just drives—I need to eat, or I need to fight, or I need to copulate—but are to do with higher values and that they are what actually fulfill us. There’s too much evidence from people who follow paths other than the very reductive and basic one of “just what’s useful for me” to show that there’s enormous value for human beings in sacrifice, in helping others, in producing beautiful things, in bringing up children (this is one that a selfish society is no longer wishing to perpetuate because –  and as a father of three children, I’m not under any illusion – it’s no picnic). But these things are done because they are, to go back to your idea, valuable things in themselves. So I think there are things that have value in themselves situated in the cosmos that lure us towards them.

When Biology Lost the Concept of Life


Samuel Loncar 


I am delighted we’ve arrived here, and I’ll jump in now that there’s this huge theme. Phil, I’m not going to let you get away from the question, but if you don’t mind, I’m going to read a part of your book that I think is speaking directly to the scientific import of Iain’s question.


You say, “All these processes operate as if in thrall to some overall plan, with us as the goal. Biology looks uncannily teleological. That thought disturbs some biologists to no end”.  And then you go on to say,

“That’s to say, one of the big challenges for biology is to develop a rational, productive framework for understanding concepts such as agency, information, meaning, and purpose. These are not optional add-ons for the philosophically inclined…”

Of course, I know you wrote that. But I hear a tension, Iain, where you’re raising the great, hard, big question about the necessary implications of what you’re doing, Phil. Besides the direct response to Iain, could we go back to the issue of agency again as a way of focalizing this question?


You say in the book this incredible thing: that biology for 50 years actually lost the concept of life. By restoring an argument about what life means, you’re enacting a conceptual revolution at the structure of how we think of scientific explanation, which, as based on the physical sciences, is reductive. In theory, you can go from simple things all the way up to super complex things—a continuum of explanation—and this is the traditional reductionist program, the claim maybe we can get everything down to just physics. As you say, whatever the laws of physics are, they can yield life.


Iain, I hear you’re asking: How? What does that mean about what the background conditions of life are, if it’s going to produce the St. Matthew Passion


Could you talk more, Phil, about why we have to have this conversation even at the level of the biology? We don’t have to deal with culture, but you’re arguing we have to have a conversation about meaning, purpose, and agency as biological and scientific concepts. But if we have to do that, isn’t that in a way opening up a whole new challenge where the line between philosophy and the natural sciences is blurred? Kuhn says, when there’s a scientific paradigm change, scientists often become very interested in conceptual, narrative, and metaphorical questions. This is part of why I thought in the book you are saying, “I don’t have the new paradigm. But actually we do need a new paradigm.”


Can you talk about agency, meaning, purpose, because these sound like minded concepts? Maybe we don’t have to explain consciousness to recognize biology itself forces us to talk about intelligence, purpose, goal-directedness? How do we make sense of that as a scientific necessity, while also being open to lots of different kinds of answers to Iain’s huge questions that we have to ask, as human beings but not necessarily as natural scientists?


Philip Ball 


What I do say in the book is that there are ideas about how agency arises and what it is, but I think it’s fair to say we don’t have a theory, we certainly don’t have an accepted consensus theory, of what agency is, what elements it requires. I think that it’s absolutely something that could be developed. We have the beginnings of that. I think we can identify some aspects of what agents do or what they are. It is possible to break it down. For example, it seems that to have agency, an entity needs to have some memory. It needs to have some way of representing its environment such that it can attune itself to that environment and not—perhaps even literally, certainly metaphorically—end up banging its head against the wall, wasting energy.


Organisms, if they’re going to be evolutionarily viable, need to be efficient to some degree, and that efficiency comes from having representations of the environment or being predictive of what the environment is going to do so that it can make a smart choice rather than the wrong one. 


So I think there are ways that we can start thinking about agency in a mechanistic way, certainly in a more reductive way, to understand what the dimensions of it are. Likewise, I think we need to understand mind and consciousness as something that has many dimensions to it, many elements to it, rather than just being some single, magical sort of fluid that something has.


We can begin that discussion, but I think that central to the notion of an agent is the notion of goals and purpose, and once we recognize that something has goals, as I’ve said, then we can then start to have a minimal discussion about value in the sense that the agent is constantly having to evaluate: Does this thing, does this action, does this response, does this other organism, help me to reach whatever goal or goals I have? That’s going to be the beginnings of a value judgment.


I think maybe the question we’ve arrived at here is whether that notion of value and meaning is something that can emerge, in a technical sense, from evolution itself. I think I say in the book that evolution, it seems to me, is a goal-generating process, amongst other things. Is that sufficient? Or is Iain right in saying that, actually, there must be something, there must be some kind of value, some kind of meaning system already inherent in the universe to enable that process? And, Iain, this is also something that David Bentley Hart says—that that gap seems to be too great to be able to bridge it through mechanistic, physics-based science. There must be something more to it. I think that seems to be the question that we’ve arrived at, and for which I have no answer at this point.


Iain McGilchrist


Why bother with life at all, really? I think this is an important question if there isn’t something before life about the constitution of the cosmos that values certain kinds of things over other things. I also just wanted to quote something you say at the outset of your book, Phil, which I think is very correct: “The popular view that science is the process of studying what the world is like needs to be given an important qualification: science tends to be the study of what we can study”.

And that’s absolutely true and very important, because there’s a lot of things that are very relevant to what life is like for a human being that simply cannot be studied in the lab. If science insists that it will deal only with what is measurable, and to some extent can be made to be present in the lab and manipulated, then we rule out an enormous amount. That’s not a problem for science. Science starts from very respectable principles that it’s going for the moment to cut purpose and value out of question, because it wants to look at how the system looks if you just ignore those questions for the time being. It’s perfectly reasonable. But it’s not a logical deduction from having done so to say that there is no purpose, there is no value. But some scientists obviously think that. They think science has proved these things. It didn’t prove them, it assumed them at the very start. 


I sometimes say, in words actually borrowed from C. S. Lewis, this is as if a policeman stopped all the traffic in the street, and then wrote solemnly in his notebook, “The silence in this street is very suspicious.” That’s a problem. Science is not describing what life is, as you say; it’s describing certain things that it can deal with. And the trouble is, they loom very large in discourse as the things that can be relied on. But for me, there are bigger and greater things without which life would mean nothing. Tell me that they’re not real. I say experto crede: I’m the person who experienced them, and I know that they are real, and I’m not alone. Love. I imagine you’ve been fortunate to experience love. Is it real? Yes. Can it be measured? No. You can find proxies to measure in the brain, but that’s completely another matter, and they wouldn’t help you determine either whether love was present in this brain, or what that love was like. 


Much of what we’re dealing with, the most important things—which are the products of all the arts, I think, the products of love, community, fellowship with nature, the experience of things that are beautiful—all of these things are very valuable. And I would add into them the religious sense. There’s no people anywhere on earth until about now, over here, who wouldn’t. One may in a Dawkins-like way claim, “Of course, that’s because they were very simple people and they didn’t know what we know.” I think there’s more to it than that, and I don’t think it can be so easily dismissed. But it’s not one of those things, unfortunately, that I can prove to you, because that’s its nature. That’s why we’re talking about it.



Philip Ball


I think scientists are often—I shouldn’t generalize too much, but in my experience, many of them are very uncomfortable in sitting in that place of not knowing, which is the place that I want at the moment to be sitting. I suspect behind what you said is the question: If we’re going to start without consideration of things like agency or love, can we get them back again? If we’re going to start from just thinking about genes, can we get the organism back again? Maybe I’m doing the same thing and thinking, I’m going to see if evolution, if materialism, can give us back those things.


I think it may well be that it cannot, that we can find no coherent narrative that is based in evolutionary biology, or psychology, or anything else that will give us back those things that matter so much to us. I’m content at the moment to sit in that place of not knowing. But I think it’s absolutely necessary that we say that, rather than what people often say: “X is an illusion. It’s just Y. It’s just the brain. It’s just atoms doing things. It’s just neurons doing things.”


Iain McGilchrist


What I call “nothing-buttery”. 


Philip Ball


Absolutely, yes. “Free will is an illusion, consciousness is an illusion, love is an illusion. It’s just a trick that evolution is playing on you.” We need to avoid that. It’s far better to me to sit in that place of not knowing.


Iain McGilchrist


You may know that I’m a great fan of unknowing, in fact. One of the simple differences between the hemispheres is that the left hemisphere needs to resolve something. It needs to have a definite answer too soon, and this can be demonstrated in very practical ways. It’s not just a fanciful metaphor. It does not like the fact that it doesn’t know something, whereas the right hemisphere, seeing much more, knows how little it knows. It’s the Dunning-Kruger effect. The left hemisphere knows very little, so it thinks it knows the whole story. But it doesn’t. It doesn’t know what it is it doesn’t know. So I’m very much in favor of unknowing. 


I would also say that none of the things that I have said are things of which I can be absolutely certain. If I were I wouldn’t have wasted all that money and ink in writing a book which asks the question, “What then is true?”


At this point in life, it’s no longer good enough to say, “Truth is whatever you think.” No. Or “truth is just something that’s written in a book, and if you differ from that book, then you’re wrong.” Or that “truth is whatever a scientist tells you about something, and that’s the end of the story.” None of these is at all satisfactory.

So I move into an area, which involves necessarily philosophy, humanities, as well as neuroscience, looking at the different ways in which our brain can deal with the uncertainties that are the most important things, I think. 


At the end of that I’m not 100% sure of things, but I have a pretty consistent view that, to me, makes sense and draws together things from very different parts of life. I’ve had this slightly checkered career, drifting around in the humanities and plunging into science, and back again. In the book The Matter with Things, I start from neuroscience, I add in philosophy, and then I look at things like physics and metaphysics. The interesting thing is that these paths all seem to converge, as if from very different points on the surface of a sphere, on a core that is pretty consistent. And the thing about that core that pleases me is it also happens to be in keeping with the sort of things that have been said by the great wisdom traditions of the East, and of the early West, before it got corrupted by Platonism, and probably by a lot of Christianity. That’s not a dismissal of Plato or Christianity, but just a recognition that they have had undeniable effects on the way we think. They tend to “legalize” it and make it rather too formal. But in any case, all I’m really saying is that I agree with you. Long live uncertainty, and let’s live there. 


But that doesn’t mean giving up the questions, and it is a great thing, isn’t it? Not to feel that because you can’t answer a question you give it up. We keep battering away at these questions because little by little more information comes to us. Sometimes they tell us we were moving in the right direction. Sometimes they tell us we were getting it rather wrong or we need to rejig the paradigm. I believe that’s where we’re at with biology. 


Philip Ball


That’s exactly what I was thinking, and, Samuel, this brings me back to the question of the new biology. It seems to me that this is the place we are at now. We wanted the story of the genetic blueprint to provide all the answers we sought. We’re now at the stage where I think it’s clear that that is no longer adequate. So we’re in this space of not knowing, and it often seems in biology that the harder we look, the deeper we look, the more complex it becomes, the more mysterious it becomes. To me, and this is what I wanted to also get across with the book, to me that is really exciting.


How much more exciting is that than the old story about the genes! Actually this is a tremendously exciting and tremendously rich time for biology to be in, to have realized that we need something more. We need better metaphors, better theories, better experiments. And that’s what I hope the book is about: to say what a wonderful place that biology is in much more than 10 to 20, 30 years ago when we were decoding the genome. It’s actually partly thanks to that that we are in this position. Let’s celebrate that.


Iain McGilchrist


I agree wholeheartedly, as you know. I like the image of something that flows, rather than a static mechanism, a machine. Nothing in biology is very like a machine. In fact, I sometimes say there’s nothing in the universe that’s like a machine, except the few million pieces of metal that we created in the last few hundred years. Neither the inanimate nor the animate world is like a mechanism. But things do flow, and seeing that they flow and change is what evolution is. Seeing that there is continuity, and seeing that there need not be separations that are hard and fast, but distinctions that are beautiful within an overall seamless whole is a very good way that we could take forward in science. I think it’s happening already in physics, which is always one hell of a lot further down the line than biology. But here we are. 


Philip Ball


As a physicist—former physicist—I’d very much like to agree with that, yes.


Samuel Loncar


It’s a beautiful image of science, Phil and Iain, to come in at the end: to recognize that ignorance isn’t a problem in science. Science is this incredibly unique, extraordinary human phenomenon in which ignorance is a great mark of success.


It’s an achievement, as you said, Phil, of decades of rigorous work in biology. It’s not like the genetic revolution was a mistake. It was what led to a far deeper understanding we could have never had without it. 


I think the liberating way of understanding that ignorance, when it’s scientific and not out of indifference or prejudice, is this: ignorance is a sign of openness to new creativity, new novelty. This, to me, is part of the meanings of science. That’s why, I think, science has an existential import. Ultimately, it embodies a way of life in which openness to creativity and openness to ignorance become virtues, rather than threats; and disagreement and conversation become beautiful things, beautiful distinctions, as you said, Iain.


To conclude this, I wonder if you would both just reflect for a minute or two on and answer: How do you understand the meaning of science? Why should anyone, whether a scientist or another human being who’s not sure, care about science? I think anyone listening to this is going to care deeply already. We’ve said so much already that I think there’s an implicit answer you’ve each given. But the meaning of the cell, the meaning of the organism—why is it so exciting and important for us to care about science? What does science mean to each of you?


Philip Ball 


For pretty much every book I’ve written—and there are a few now—there needs to be a point for me in writing those books, whether it’s about Chartres Cathedral or quantum mechanics or life, where I feel re-astonished by what I’m writing about. There needs to come a point where my eyes are reopened, where I start to see things that I didn’t see before. 


I found this way back in the book that I wrote at the end of the 1990s on pattern formation in nature. It was only when I was towards the end of writing that book, I was standing on a beach in Wales and suddenly realized, this is what I’ve been writing about all the time. It should have been obvious to me, but suddenly I thought all these patterns are around me. The patterns in the cliffs, they’re not random. They look random, but they’re not. The patterns in the skies. There are these sand ripples. There are the patterns in the gorse bushes on the cliffs. It’s that re-astonishment that is the most valuable thing that science can offer. 


And it’s one of the easiest things to lose, and for scientists to lose. They’re focused on getting their experiments to work day by day, their funding. So it is very easy to lose that astonishment. It’s also something that was brought home to me when I wrote a book on music. At one point, the music psychologist John Sloboda said to me that it was important for people working on that problem to make sure they refreshed their appreciation of music for its own sake. That it wasn’t going to dissolve into an appreciation of how we hear this tone as being different from that tone, or this rhythm from that one. That, actually, you’ve got to return to music and just be awed by it. So we’re back to Bach, as we always should be.


And it’s like that in science, I think. If scientists can, from time to time, remind themselves of how to be astonished by their own work, that will be such a valuable thing to be able to do.


Iain McGilchrist


It would indeed, I so much agree. The difficulty is that wondering at things involves a certain degree of humility and not knowing, which I think is professionally difficult for some scientists. It’s much easier for physicists, it seems, than biologists. Talking to physicists is a wonderful experience, because they admit that there’s very much they don’t understand. I think in future biologists will become much nicer as they realize that a lot of their certainties are not as certain as they once thought. 


I do think, though, that it’s very important. I think that science is terrifically important for both those sorts of reasons. I had a scientific father, and two scientific grandfathers, and I was brought up very much on science, and all that was very exciting. I loved that. But as I started to study it at school, it became much less interesting, which doesn’t have to be the case. When you’re inculcating first principles in science, they are mind-bogglingly obvious. It’s only much later that you get on to the really interesting stuff. But I think the problem is that it’s divorced from philosophy. I think science on its own is more or less nothing except a heap of data. How do you interpret these data? And what sort of a world does that suggest? 


I quote both Whitehead and R. G. Collingwood in saying that the divorce between science and metaphysics has been to the credit of neither party, and that they both suffered from it. In fact, Whitehead says that, like every family quarrel, it’s been a disaster for both parties. 


The difficulty is that philosophers think that they’re somehow above paying attention to what science reveals, which is a big mistake. But I think scientists in their own way are also sort of snooty about philosophy, that somehow it’s a bit of a waste of time. But actually, it’s only from bringing these things together again that we can make leaps forward in our understanding of the world—the meaning of it, not just facts. There’s no prize for the facts alone. The facts have to be of use in generating an understanding, and understanding is something a human being comes to, bringing many aspects of their knowledge or experience together. 


It was bad enough in the 60’s and 70’s, when I was studying literature at Oxford, when we had Marxists who just put everything through the mill of Marxism, and if it agreed with what Marx had to say, then it was a good book, and if it didn’t, it was a bad book; and there you are. That was followed by deconstructionism, which meant things mean whatever you want, and the author didn’t know what he meant either, and it doesn’t matter what the author thought it meant.


But we now have every kind of ism, lots of grievance studies, and so on, which do just the same to literature. That’s bad when it comes to the humanities, the misinterpretation of literature and history. But it’s worse in science. And there are now movements at your old journal [Nature], Phil, as you know, to say that if certain research seems to be correct, but we don’t like the answer it gives, we’re not going to publish it.


Now you may well wish to remain wisely silent, like that monkey that has his hand over his mouth, but I’m saying for you and for anyone else who cares about science that once science starts saying we pick and choose our science, depending on whether it fits our current narrative, that is the opposite of science. Once science is discredited, as it will be if that’s how it operates—you can’t rely on something as being a reputable finding in science—we have lost a very, very important lodestone on our journey. What are we going to trust if we don’t have science? That’s different from saying that science is everything. As I’ve said several times today, science is not everything. It’s something, though. It’s something very important, and we should protect it. When scientists themselves attack it—I’m sorry, they’ve lost my respect completely.


Samuel Loncar


Very timely and relevant words. Thank you, Iain and Phil, for giving such clear answers in your own conversation to the productive nature of a conversation between science and philosophy, in a conversation that cares about the distinctions but doesn’t think we can keep them separate. The conversation itself has embodied what the Meanings of Science Project is about, and I’m so grateful for your time. Thank you both.


Philip Ball 


Thank you so much, Iain. It was delightful to talk to you.


Iain McGilchrist


I enjoyed it so much, Phil, and thank you for it. 


Philip Ball is a scientist, writer, and a former editor at the journal Nature. He has won numerous awards and has published more than twenty-five books, most recently How Life Works: A User’s Guide to the New Biology; The Book of Minds: How to Understand Ourselves and Other Beings, From Animals to Aliens; and The Modern Myths: Adventures in the Machinery of the Popular Imagination. He writes on science for many magazines and journals internationally and is the contributing editor for Science at the Marginalia Review of Books. Tweets @philipcball


Iain McGilchrist is a neuroscience researcher and philosopher, a former Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, an associate Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford, a Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He has published original research on neuroimaging in schizophrenia, the phenomenology of schizophrenia, and other topics, and contributed chapters to books on a wide range of subjects, as well as original articles in papers and journals, including the British Journal of Psychiatry, American Journal of Psychiatry, Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology, Religion, Brain and Behavior [a special issue on his work], Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, The BMJ, The Lancet, The TLS, The London Review of Books, The LA Review of Books, The Listener, The Literary Review, Essays in Criticism, The Modern Language Review, The English Historical Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Times on topics in literature, medicine, psychiatry and philosophy. His books include Against Criticism (Faber), The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale UP), The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning; Why Are We So Unhappy? (Yale UP), and Ways of Attending (Routledge). His latest publication is the two-volume work, The Matter with Things which was published in November 2021 by Perspectiva Press.


Samuel Loncar is a philosopher and the Editor of the Marginalia Review of Books. He is writing a book on science as a spiritual revolution for Columbia University Press. Learn more at Tweets @samuelloncar



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