Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Free will versus the Left brain - a 'fusion' of McGilchrist and Sheldrake?


Reading Iain McGilchrist's The Master and his Emissary and mixing in some ideas from Rupert Sheldrake, provides me with what seems a very promising way of thinking about that long-standing philosophical chestnut - free will versus determinism.


McG makes it clear that the Left hemisphere perceives reality in a deterministic way - as linear sequential chains of discrete causes and effects.

Yet the Left brain also has a problem, an intractable problem, of truly linking cause with effect, since reality is seen as static units resembling a 'snapshot' and it is difficult/ impossible to see how a cause statically-conceived can actually 'cause' anything.

But although the Left hemisphere can perceive that its own perspective is inadequate, it is intrinsically incapable of conceptualising anything else!

It has its precise and partial way of representing reality, and that is all that it can do.


Determinism is like that.

If we conceptualise the world in terms of causes and effects, then of course then can be no free will since we have already decided that everything is caused by something else.

On the other hand, this assumption opens up an infinite regress (as Aristotle realised) which can only be terminated by a first cause or unmoved mover. For some reason, modern thinking never acknowledges this infinite regress of causality - just too impatient I guess...


To assume that reality is conceptualised in terms of causal chains is and unfounded - it is not something that humanity has discovered.

Rather it is something that modern man cannot help doing.

We know it cannot be the whole truth - yet (we moderns, at least) cannot conceive of any other way of imagining things.


Well, McGilchrist points to another way - the Right hemisphere way.

Whereas the Left sees reality as a sequence of snapshots, the Right sees reality as a dynamic whole.

A dynamic whole cannot be expressed in terms of a sequence of snapshots; but how can it be expressed?


My notion is to conceive of Right brain function in terms of three-dimensional and dynamic morphic fields to complement the Left brain conceptualised in linear cause and effect sequences of static units.

(In reality, there are both linear sequences and morphic fields on both sides of the brain, considerable overlap - but McG is completely convincing that there is also a qualitative functional distinction, and this can be summarised - the point can be made - by treating the Left as if it were purely linear sequential and the Right as if it were a morphic field.)

This seems helpful to me; the idea of Right brain as a field of activity exerting its effects in a manner analogous to magnetic fields or gravitational fields.


Note: by Sheldrake's account a morphic field imposes form, pattern, structure onto the system in it influence - organising disparate events and processes; furthermore the field is teleological, containing 'attractors' which dynamically shape the system towards goals.


The Right brain (by this view) is in contact with the environment by being affected by other morphic fields - the gives it the distinctive 'holistic' grasp that the Left brain lacks.

McG conceives the optimal cognitive situation as being when the Right hemisphere dominates, using the Left for specific detailed processing tasks, then the Right taking up the results of Left processing and integrating them into the larger whole.

This could be imagined as the Right brain taking detached linear sequences of the Left brain (like strings of beads) and embedding them into dynamic three dimensional patterns of organisation - so that each causal sequence is put into its proper place and related to other sequences and to the much larger and dominant aspects of form that are not encoded as causal sequences...


So, this picture of the brain would have free will as fundamentally a Right brain phenomenon; with free will operating as a field; this picture standing in contrast to free will being more usually (but incoherently) considered in a Left brain fashion, as the first, (somehow) uncaused and initiating step of a chain of causes and effects leading to obervable behaviour.


I am suggesting that morphic fields, conceptualised in terms of McG's Right hemisphere functionality, could be considered a mechanism for the operation of free will, an explanation for 'how' it works.

This is, of course, merely a manner of thinking about free will: a new analogy which breaks the tyrannical power of free will conceptualised in terms of Left brain causal chains.

To see free will as a field does not describe what free will actually is, or what makes it free. In a sense the shift from linear to field thinking has only pushed back the explanation by another step - but this pushing back does create the space necessary as a preliminary to recognizing that the exclusion of free will is a metaphysical property of a form of representation, and that the exclusion of free will is not a property of the observed world.


Because free will is a metaphysical concept, not a physical concept - free will cannot be discovered by science, but nor can its absence be discovered by science.

There is a very widespread notion that 'science' has discovered that free will is an illusion, never existed, was merely a religious dogma.

This is a mistake - the actual situation is that the assumptions and methods of science have made free will incomprehensible.

Modern people cannot even imagine what is meant by free will - and assume that this means that science has discovered the absence of free will, or discovered that free will is an unnecessary hypothesis.


Free will is not a thing which is, or is not, out there in the natural world waiting to be detected - or found absent.

Free will is a metaphysical assumption - just as determinism is a metaphysical assumption.

But determinism is carrying the day in practise, because people cannot understand what kind of a thing free will might be. Public thought can only see reality as chains of cause and effect, and can only assume that every human act of will, every choice, must have had a cause or causes (whether we know them or not) - and therefore every act of will or choice can be explained-away.

People are simply locked into this way of thinking and can see no escape from it.

Perhaps understanding Left and Right brain differences, and thinking of causation in terms of organising fields instead of linear sequences, might open up the recognition that there is no 'must' about determinism.


When we feel that reality 'must' be deterministic, we are simply reading-off the distal consequences of our proximate assumptions.

Change the assumptions, and determinism melts.



  1. The question of free will has been confused by incorrect positing of the binary "free will/determinism."

    The medieval understanding goes as
    A) Things that act without judgment (e.g. rocks)
    B) Things that act with judgment but without free judgment (e.g. animals)
    C) That act with free judgment (e.g. man).

    Animal judgment is held to be instinctive since they lack intellect.

    The "free" in "free will" refers to freedom from intellect (the will is free to disregard intellect and choose evil) and does not refer to freedom from physical determinism.
    Even animals are free from physical determinism as they are not rocks.

  2. The matrix of cause and effect is a useful way of looking at the world. But the soul which is the source of all consciousness and volition is not bound by this matrix because it is not part of it. It exists in another spiritual dimension of which science is not aware.

  3. I'm also reading McGilchrist, and reading him in light of Sheldrake, and this post opened up some interesting avenues of thought.

    It occurs to me that many of the philosophical difficulties associated with causation and free will (neither of which makes any sense if the universe is "just" a series of snapshots) are essentially versions of the binding problem.

  4. @WmJas - Although I was for several years (around 1996-2001) working beside colleagues who who working on the 'binding problem' - I never could see the nature of the problem. I suppose I had a different conception of how the brain worked than they.


    But from Sheldrake I got this amazed recognition that my whole concept of cause and effect was linear and sequential, and that field based thinking had many different qualities at a deep level.

    I wonder to what extent the past success of science was due to its self-imposed constraint of dealing with very short chains of linear causality - and ignoring what initiated that chain.

    One of the ways science goes wrong is in trying to deal with complex and inter-related causal chains, and thinking understanding has been achieved when it is only incomprehensibility - and another way is to forget that the first cause which science considers in any particular instance has been arbitrarily cut off from *its* causes.


    But the main problem with free will for moderns is that we don't recognize any entity that could have will - free or otherwise.

  5. Bruce,
    Where would you suggest beginning to read Sheldrake?

  6. @PhilR - start with the web pages - http://www.sheldrake.org/homepage.html

    There are also some detailed explanatory video lectures on YouTube.

    then decide which aspect most interests you.

    Sheldrake is a very consistent thinker (unlike me!) and his career has been an elaboration, testing and extension of a few basic insights which are present in his first book - so it doesn't really matter where you start. All roads lead into the same universe of ideas.

  7. PhilR,

    I found Morphic Resonance to be a good overall introduction to Sheldrake's ideas.

  8. Outstanding post, Bruce.

    It has great relevance for the study of financial markets and society (the topic of most pressing interest to me at this time).

    Older writers (as late as late Victorian era) were very much more aware of this approach. History was written with the idea of an entelechy inherent within the beliefs and ambitions of those alive at a certain time. And the idea of Providence shaping history led to a much more complete grasp of how events unfolded than our linear causation model of today.

    By the way, with respect to the left hemisphere understanding events as a series of snapshots, one can see this manifesting in a very literal way in popular culture, with the proliferation of the use of 'bullet time' that first appeared with the "Matrix" movie.

  9. I'm amazed by how much McGilchrist sounds, as I begin his book (pp. 5-6), like Owen Barfield in Saving the Appearances -- yet McGilchrist doesn't have OB in his bibliography; so he apparently worked these things out without knowing Barfield's work. I wonder if McGilchrist will be giving us much that's the best in Barfield, but without Barfield's baggage from Rudolf Steiner and Anthroposophy (e.g. the latter's gnostic Christology, his belief in reincarnation, etc.).

  10. I have listened to Dr. McGilchrist's Schumacher College talk "Things Are Not What They Seem" on Youtube. Much that he said would appeal to readers who are sympathetic to this blog, e.g. comments about organized education and about government. His audience appeared to be made up of people who 25 years ago would have been associated with the "New Age Movement." I would be interested in hearing what McGilchrist would say were he addressing orthodox Christians. (Christians of the Orthodox tradition would have corrected the good doctor's mistake about Judas being canonized as a saint, I am sure.)