There are No Things. There are patterns.

As we can see from his website, Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World,  is working on a number of further books, but the one that he talked to us about on the Field & Field course that I recently attended in the Cotswolds, was the one which bears the title: ‘There are No Things’, a book on epistemology and metaphysics.

Iain told us that this follow up book to The Master and his Emissary will focus on how everything is changing, flowing, connected and never fixed. He told us that if we could slow things down enough we would be able to see the mountain behind his house flowing.

Source of image:

Iain’s new book will make the case for no static and separate things, but instead relationships and patterns. For me, this brings to mind Stephen Downes’ work on the theory of connectivism and an early article that he wrote on his blog in 2009, where he wrote:

[Knowledge] is not an object (or objective), it is not discrete, it is not a causal agent. It is emergent, which means that it exists only by virtue of a process of recognition [pattern recognition], as a matter of subjective interpretation. 

  • Knowledge is not an object, but a series of flows; it is a process, not a product.
  • It is produced not in the minds of people but in the interactions between people.
  • The idea of acquiring knowledge as a series of truths, is obsolete

Even earlier than this in 2007  Stephen was writing about connectivism as follows:

At its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks.

It shares with some other theories a core proposition, that knowledge is not acquired, as though it were a thing (

The first time I heard Iain speak he told us that his follow up book to The Master and his Emissary would be a book entitled: The Porcupine is a Monkey.  The intention was to write ‘a popular Master and his Emissary’, a book that would discuss how science and education have become increasingly left-brained, but this book has been abandoned. He felt it would be repeating much of the work he has already done.

So Iain has moved away from an explicit focus on education, although clearly his work has implications for education, but Stephen has addressed how connectivism might influence pedagogy. He has written that connectivism:

… implies a pedagogy that (a) seeks to describe ‘successful’ networks (as identified by their properties, which I have characterized as diversity, autonomy, openness, and connectivity) and (b) seeks to describe the practices that lead to such networks, both in the individual and in society (which I have characterized as modeling and demonstration (on the part of a teacher) and practice and reflection (on the part of a learner)). 

But both authors, as philosophers, are interested in the relationship between knowledge and ‘truth’.

Iain told us that the first part of his new book will attempt to answer the question of what we mean by ‘truth’. In the Master and his Emissary he writes

‘Truth is a process.’ (McGilchrist, p.154).

‘No single truth does not mean no truth.’ (McGilchrist, p.150).

‘The statement that ‘there is no such thing as truth’ is itself a truth statement, and implies that it is truer than its opposite, the statement that ‘truth exists’. If we had no concept of truth, we could not state anything at all, and it would even be pointless to act. There would be no purpose, for example, in seeking the advice of doctors, since there would be no point in having their opinion, and no basis for their view that one treatment was better than another. None of us actually lives as though there were no truth. Our problem is more with the notion of a single, unchanging truth.’ (McGilchrist, p.150)

Stephen, in one of the quotes above, doesn’t write about a single truth so I am not sure what he thinks about this or whether or not he and Iain would agree about what we mean by truth. But it does seem to me that they agree on some epistemological positions, principally that ‘One must never [] lose sight of the interconnected nature of things’ (McGilchrist, p.154). The importance of patterns, relations and processes seem to be recognised by both.

The work of both authors work has implications for education, epistemology, and understanding our world and our existence.

16-03-2018 Update: Stephen Downes’ responds (Thank you).

I’ve said in the past that knowledge is recognition, and if I were pressed to describe what I think truth is, I would say that it is a strong feeling of recognition. This I think is consistent with what the early empiricists (like David Hume) would say. Formally, truth is an attitude toward a proposition: we say that a propositoon is ‘true’ or ‘not true’ and then try to explain that through an interpretation (such as Tarski’s theory of truth, or model theory, or some such thing). That makes truth easier to work with, but only because it abstracts the messier reality. Having said all this, I think this puts me in accord with Iain McGilchrist, cited by Jenny Mackness in this article, when he says things like ‘No single truth does not mean no truth.’ 

16-03-2018 Update

See also notes from last years course – Where we can go for Truth –

3 thoughts on “There are No Things. There are patterns.

  1. Nick March 21, 2018 / 3:25 pm

    I take it you’re familiar with James Ladyman?
    I haven’t watch all that discussion, at about 16:16 he says something about ‘circularity’, and I think that’s correct, that is the nature of the beast. Re Tallis’s questions about assuming an external perspective/observer I was half expecting Bishop Berkeley’ God to come up.

    And then I think of Jewish misdrash, at least according to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who points out that the creation myth in Genesis is incredibly brief – this is God as Elokim, (the god of Aristotle, supposedly, and essentially impersonal, the prime mover) however Genesis is overwhelmingly concerned with the God of Abraham, Hashem, as person… of family relations, sibling rivalries, good and bad faith; God is not neutral, he is fundamentally good.

    Philosophers generally obsess about the cosmos according to Elokim where the question of truth (was the world literally created, or formed, in seven 24hr days?) is important but the reason Jordan Peterson is making such an impact, is because the patterns/maps of meaning have been so severely neglected… people have been too much in thrall of Hollywood.

  2. jennymackness March 21, 2018 / 6:34 pm

    Thank you Nick for your comment. I am new to all things philosophical, i.e. in the formal sense, so no, I am not familiar with James Ladyman, but I will look forward to watching that video and to following up on all the references you make.

    I have to say though that my interest lies in Iain McGilchrist’s work and Stephen Downes. I know more about their work than I do about Jordan Peterson, who I have only come across recently because I was introduced to his recent book by my son, and then was intrigued to see him in conversation with Iain McGilchrist.

    I’m not sure if you have read McGilchrist’s book, The Master and his Emissary, but if not, then I can really recommend it. I am looking forward to his next book coming out, which was the reason for making this post.

  3. Nick March 28, 2018 / 7:32 pm

    You’re welcome, Jenny,

    I’m afraid, I spend probably too much time surfing the web, going from one thing to the next, absorbing all this information, that when I do pause to comment I don’t really take as much care as I should, hence why I just wrapped up my comment by rather abruptly throwing in references to Jordan and Hollywood.

    Regarding philosophy? meh, if you’ve read Master and Emissary, I’d say you’ve pretty much covered it, and some. I first got M>e (as I tend to refer to it) when it came out in 2009, by the end of 2012 my hard back copy was full of pencil notes and falling to pieces (I’ve still got it). Since then I’ve filled my kindle version with highlights and notes, so yes, I’ve certainly read it.

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