Imagination Mystery and the Divine Mind

Dave Pendle
9 min readFeb 15, 2024

On McGilchrist and McIntosh in dialogue

Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

I was totally delighted when two enormously influential figures, in their respective fields, showed up just before Christmas 2023, dialoguing about First Principles and Second Sight. Hosted by Perspectiva the Systems Souls and Society think and do tank, who curate meaningful relational and purposeful spaces, to co-create relevant and emergent culture. These luminaries Iain McGilchrist and Alastair McIntosh have made immense contributions in their own specialist fields, but more impressively across interdisciplinary domains, well outside the scope of their normal professional remits.

Meeting McIntosh
I first met Alastair McIntosh at the Gaia Foundation in Hampstead 2010–2011. Where he was promoting a book he had just published. Whilst he had already been very active in the world of ecology and environmental justice as well as education, the notion of sustainability had not yet, fully taken hold in public or corporate life. McIntosh struck me as someone who was deeply involved in this struggle with all of his being. The sharpest impression he made on me, was when describing his personal environmental struggle to free Gaia of unnecessary burdens. Whereby he openly acknowledged and expressed, the true depth and extent to which he was, also complicit in destroying Gaia. This contrasted so vividly at this time, with the nascent sustainability movement, that largely was pointing accusatory fingers at the guilty, mainly corporate parties. Additionally the manner and style of delivery of his readings, stories and presentation, I found really intriguing. As it was a mix of full bore passion and unabashed zeal, that would not have been out of place in an Episcopal or Presbyterian church! This notwithstanding McIntosh struck me as an honorable man, of great integrity, depth and spiritual wisdom.

Encountering McGilchrist
In the middle of 2013 to early 2014 a number of my best friends and I were in the midst of the global collapse of a spiritual organization, to which we had dedicated our whole lives. Where we had given up everything to serve the evolution of consciousness and culture. My best friend was reading Iain McGilchrist’s then latest publication titled ‘The Master and His Emissary’. He raved about the book and kept passionately declaring the contents explained everything about how and why our best spiritual efforts had failed. Based on that compelling recommendation, I went to hear McGilchrist speak in the autumn 2014. Most poignant was how he was able to reel off, ten instances of prevailing solutions to systemic problems, that had only made matters worse. Illustrating how conventional ways of approaching complex issues, were no longer adequate to meet the challenge. A very brief summary of the central tenets from his book can be found in this wonderful animated video produced by the RSA

Fast Forward to 2023
Since then, I have been very aware of McGilchrist’s work, though it took him the best part of ten years to write and publish his follow up ‘The Matter with Things’. I was present online at the book launch plus over the summer of 2023, I also closely followed a series of interviews organized with his publisher Perspectiva, to publicly explore issues raised in his new masterwork with expert innovators across a variety of disciplines. I was able to attend almost all of the dialogues in the series. In these exchanges. McGilchrist was able to express and share the full range of his genius. He carries and embodies the spirit of true spiritual, philosophical and intellectual enquiry. A scientist psychiatrist, neuroscience researcher, philosopher and literary scholar, whose academic and practical explorations are grounded in the love of the arts. Whose encyclopedic breadth of knowledge in literature, anthropology, philosophy, spirituality and other related disciplines is immense. The very epic scope and enormity of his work, both emulates and embodies, the heroic human spirit that, which we could all do well to mirror in our daily lives. Thus the very first encounter between these two rare beings really stirred my curiosity, I was really intrigued to perceive what might transpire between two such mighty hearts and souls.

Photo by Zach Lucero on Unsplash

First Principle, Second Sight and Imagination
Their first ever encounter did not disappoint and if you want to watch the whole exchange it can be found here. While their full hearted interchanges were amusing and entertaining including their shared approbation of Scottish myth, landscape, culture and genius. What had the most impact on me, was their shared contemplations about imagination.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the most relevant exchanges when they explored the topic of imagination. Plus I have also included a pertinent and incisive question posed by Jonathan Rowson founder of Perspectiva;

McIntosh; Do we merely have imagination? Or are we moving in imagination? Are we moving in cosmic imagination? And this is what you’re writing, where you open up pathways to profound interconnectedness in your analysis of time, plus how it interacts with how you see the right hemisphere of the brain is also totally relevant. It matters because it’s about our relationality together. It raises the question of whether we are a parts of one another?

I find these musings from McIntosh exceptionally impactful, is imagination a possession a thing that we can claim as our own as an individual characteristic? Or is it the very stuff of the oceanic consciousness that we swim in? Or as he further extends the question or thought. Or is it woven into the very fabric of the cosmos? If imagination transcends the limited and the personal, what does that mean about our subjective experience and our relationship to the world? McGilchrist then responds to McIntosh’s query

McGilchrist; Probably the central message (of my book) is that everything exists in relation. That relations are prior to the things that are related. Which is why there was a problem with things because things, are secondary to the relations that they exist in, the network that they exist in.

This perennial wisdom, expressed through the voice of scientific neuroscience researcher, points to the limitations of the reductive approaches of materialism and scientism. The latter specializes in the study of things and not the highly, complexified, interrelated fields that give rise to the phenomena themselves. Which is my reading of what McGilchrist is pointing to here. Later on the conversation cycles back to the imaginal where McGilchrist also indicates the primordial qualities of imagination and the imaginal;

McGilchrist; And I think the important point about imagination is whether you make, a now customary distinction, between the imaginary and the imaginal. But I would say that there is nothing fantastic about the imagination. Wordsworth and Coleridge, two very important figures for me intellectually, they made a big distinction between fantasy and imagination. Fantasy takes you away from your reality, but imagination takes you into the depths of reality. I think what you’re seeing, and what you’re describing, in Lewis (a Hebridean Island off the North West Scottish coast), is that the meaning of the word imagination, is not a fantasy world, but more real than the one we imagine, it is the only real one.

This is a wonderful minor recursion to the title of the dialogue ‘First Principles and Second Sight’; where they at first evoked the awe and beauty of the Scottish landscape with its embedded myth and folklore. Paired with the wonder of paranormal phenomena where the imaginal is perceived to be a prime mover, or foundational aspect of reality. Thus McGilchrist in a few word, in a way, brackets the business of futuring, of horizon scanning, of imagineering as pure fantasy, because in my view these approaches overlook the causal nature of the imaginal. They are occupied with reimagining things, cities, states, nations, politics and energy to name but a few. There is little attention to the blindspot or the paradigms of thought out of which these manifestations of matter arise. McIntosh then responded by citing the work of a scholar of Sufi wisdom;

McIntosh; Henri Corbin a French Islamist, and a scholar of Ib’n Arabi has this wonderful line that prayer is a DREAM Act of the creative imagination, so he capitalizes dream as an act creative imagination.

Once more these two lions of the spiritual world weave a web that includes Mystery the Imagination the Cosmos and God. Not the mythic deified singular omnipotent male of yesteryear, but as I read it, more as a divine presence that underlies all existence.

Photo by Nick Jones on Unsplash

All of that being said the Founder of Persectiva Jonathan Rowson then intervened to open the Q&A section of the event, leading in to questioning whether imagination was in essence beneficial or not?

Rowson; ‘So the question is, first of all, for Alistair and I have a slightly different one for Iain. Although you can both answer them both. I’ll say you both invoke imagination, and I know Iain would be a big fan of imagination in general as well. But I wonder sometimes if people expect too much of imagination, it’s always assumed to be filled with goodness, because there’s also dark imagination. There’s also the imagination of those who longed for world domination and so on. What is it in the nature of imagination that gives you hope, or rather, what forms of imagination need to be brought into being such that they’re actually beneficent and positive and not destructive? Tell me more about what it is that gives you faith in imagination?’

McIntosh; As Henri Corbin says in his book on Ibn’ Arabi, imagination must be grounded in the divine. Hebridean people take God very seriously they take God as a matter of fact, as a matter of experience. In George Bernard Shaw’s play Joan of Arc, is questioned by her inquisitor, who asked ‘How do you know that the voices of God you hear, are not just your imagination?’. She replies ‘But that is how God speaks to us through our imagination’. On your question about dark imagination it is a work of art and of intellect. If it is not grounded in the God space. If it is not grounded ultimately in prayer then we must be very careful.

As many a native peoples will tell you the gift of charism can very easily turn toxic and poison both its possessor and those around it. I would say if we are working with imagination consider starting from a place of prayer, consider starting from of offering yourself and your works that will serve, what the Russian Orthodox church terms Philokalia, the love of beauty of divine beauty and our relationship with each other.

McGilchrist; I think Coleridge said something like that imagination is the repetition in the finite mind of the infinite I am. I am really saying the same thing. It is the way in which God speaks. You are right that it can be perverted as all things in the human realm can be perverted. I would stand up for the idea that there is a drive that wishes to thwart and pervert something, that traditionally has been meant by evil. It has power in human doings. People may think I am mad but I would defend myself on this.

So this aspect of their exploration of imagination concludes with a sumptuous interaction on the question of the intrinsic nature of the imagination. It can be thwarted, abused and perverted and marshalled towards unethical goals and outcomes. Yet both speakers highlight the magnificence, the scope and the intrinsically divine nature of imagination. I particularly love MacIntosh’s outspoken emphasis on God, not the singular male creator, but the embedded somewhat semi unconscious creative, impulse behind the manifestation of the whole universe. By expanding, broadening and deepening, the common understanding of the imagination, both luminaries point to whole other realms of being, whose enormity is beyond the grasp of the conscious mind. The reality of which may be the very stuff off consciousness, the imaginal realm, within which our time bound limited sense of self, incarnates and fades away, in the blink of an epochal eye.

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About the author Dave Pendle; I am synthesising almost 30 years experience in non profit enterprises with over 40 years of deep personal development experience. Passionate about enabling others’ sense of fulfillment, impact and trust, to engage wholeheartedly with inspiration and commitment to 21st century work and life.

My website Generative You, explains my interests in more in depth, so do sign up for my newsletter or express an interest in my services, or share there how you best like to connect with me. I also run a monthly conversation series Phenomenal Conversations co-exploring life defining topics, with pioneering changemakers who embody systemic and regenerative change in their whole life.



Dave Pendle

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