Everything Flows

In early June I travelled to the Cotswolds for a 4-day course organised by Field and Field, and featuring the work of Iain McGilchrist. Iain was the keynote speaker on each of the 4 days giving 14 one hour talks/interviews over this time. Some of these talks related to his book The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, but five of them related to material he will include in his new book (due for publication by the end of 2020), which bears the provisional title – ‘The Matter with Things’. This new book will argue against reductionism and materialism and for ‘betweenness’. Iain told us that the reductionist approach is the norm, i.e. we start by thinking about material things and then how to connect them, but he believes that it should be the other way round. We should start with connections and networks and notice the parts and things later.

The first part of the new book will focus on the question ‘What do we mean by truth?’ For the left hemisphere, the truth is ‘out there’; for the right hemisphere, truth comes into being; things are potentially ‘out there’, but only come into being with consciousness. There is a chapter on paradox in the first part of the book.

Iain believes that it is important to consider:

  • How we attend to the world
  • How we attend to perceptions
  • How our judgements are formed

We need emotional, social and cognitive intelligence to understand what is going on, and the right hemisphere is superior in all this.

The third part of the book will explore what we know about the foundations of reality – time, space, matter, consciousness, the sacred, the divine and more. These are all dominated by the left hemisphere.

The second part of this new book is devoted to what Iain sees as the four paths to knowledge: science, reason, intuition and imagination. We need all four, but tend to focus too much on science and reason (the left hemisphere way) and not enough on intuition and imagination (the right hemisphere way). These were discussed in four separate one hour talks. I have shared my notes on these talks in previous posts. See

The fifth talk, which also relates to Iain’s new book, was ‘Everything Flows’. In this post I will share the notes I made whilst listening to the talk, but before I do, I should explain that, for this talk in particular, I have found it difficult to make sense of my notes. This could be because this was the last of Iain’s talks on the final morning of the course, by which time I was exhausted. I lead a quiet life so am not used to high levels of stimulation as experienced on this course. I lost a lot of sleep! Or it could be that the ideas are complex and counter-intuitive. Or it could have been that Iain himself is still developing his thinking in relation to the idea that everything flows. Whatever the reason, my notes are not as coherent as I would have liked. As such this post may come across as somewhat disjointed. If so, then all I can recommend is that at the end of 2020, you look out for the new book, ‘The Matter With Things’, as I will be doing.

Everything Flows (NB these are my notes, based on my hearing, and my interpretation. Any errors are mine)

Iain started by telling us that it was the ancient philosophers, Heraclitus in particular, who had insights about flow, but these were later lost.

Heraclitus is famously obscure, but is well known for saying that everything flows and that you cannot step into the same river twice. He believed that the cause of coming into being is the vortex (flow) and that things are in a constant state of change and flow. Thus, everything keeps returning to a flowing state, a state of homeorhesis rather than homeostasis, where the former describes a steady flow, and the latter describes a steady state.

Iain then went on to discuss the idea of everything flows in relation to a variety of contexts with which we may be more or less familiar, making the point that

‘philosophy in the West is essentially a left hemisphere process. It is verbal and analytic, requiring abstracted, decontextualized, disembodied thinking, dealing in categories, concerning itself with the nature of the general rather than the particular, and adopting a sequential, linear approach to truth, building the edifice of knowledge from the parts, brick by brick. While such characterisation is not true of most pre-Socratic philosophers, particularly Heraclitus, it is at least true of the majority of philosophers since Plato in the West until the nineteenth century…..’   (p.137 The Master and His Emissary)

Parts and wholes

We are used to the idea that the cells in our bodies are constantly dying and being replaced. So the question is, is it still your body after a number of years? Well – it depends on how you look at it. If you see your body as a made up of a number of parts (the left hemisphere view), then ‘No’, but if you see your body as a whole and more than the sum of its parts (the right hemisphere view), then ‘Yes’. People are not constituted part by part. There is continuity. This dilemma is illustrated by the Ship of Theseus Paradox. Paradox did not worry Heraclitus, but concerned later philosophers, as referred to in the quote above.

Iain then mentioned Leibniz in relation to lines, points and extension, and time. I have nothing more than this in my notes, so it has been difficult to make sense of, but the significance seems to be the belief that space and time are relational – ‘spatial and temporal relationships between objects and events are immediate and not reducible to space-time point relations, and all movement is the relational movement of bodies’. (Basil Evangelidis, 2017, p.1)

In 1714 Leibniz (1646-1716) wrote:

Some people who have misunderstood my ideas have thought ·me to have implied· that every soul has a mass or portion of matter which is its own and is assigned to it for ever, and therefore every soul has other living things that are inferior to it, destined always to be in its service. That doesn’t follow; and it isn’t true, because all bodies are in a perpetual state of flux, like rivers, with parts constantly coming into them and going out. (Leibniz, 71) https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/leibniz1714b.pdf

There is no such thing as a piece of time and there are no parts of time (see a previous post which relates to this point – Exploring the Divided Brain – Time, Space and Reality).

What is called temporal sequencing is an ambiguous concept. Such sequencing, depending on what one means by that, may be right-hemisphere-dependent or, at least where the sequence has no ‘real world’ meaning, as it would in a narrative, left-hemisphere-dependent – the understanding of narrative is a right hemisphere skill; the left hemisphere cannot follow a narrative. But sequencing, in the sense of the ordering of artificially decontextualised, unrelated, momentary events, or momentary interruptions of temporal flow – the kind of thing that is as well or better performed by the left hemisphere – is not in fact a measure of the sense of time at all. It is precisely what takes over when the sense of time breaks down. Time is essentially an undivided flow: the left hemisphere’s tendency to break it up into units and make machines to measure it may succeed in deceiving us that it is a sequence of static points, but such a sequence never approaches the nature of time, however close it gets (p.76 The Master and His Emissary).

Streams and water

William James (1842-1910) first verbalised the phrase ‘stream of consciousness’, i.e. the flow of thoughts in the conscious mind.

The Dao, a Chinese word signifying ‘way’, ‘path’, ‘route’, ‘road’, is usually described in terms of elements of nature, and in particular as similar to water. Like water it is undifferentiated, endlessly self-replenishing, soft and quiet but immensely powerful, and impassively generous. Much of Taoist philosophy centers on the cyclical continuity of the natural world, and its contrast to the linear, goal-oriented actions of human beings.

Water is the basis of life and exists in phases, solid, liquid, gas. Consciousness also has phases. One phase is relatively static matter, but in another phase, everything flows, not just living things. Everything is connected and moving. Seeing this is just a matter of pace. If you interrupt flow you will see a lot of individual parts. You can see things as particulate or continuous. It depends on how you look at something.

Turbulent flow

Most fluid flows in nature are turbulent.  Richard Feynman described turbulence as the most important unsolved problem in classical physics. We don’t understand it.  It is both orderly and disorderly, on the edge of order and chaos, an unstable state in which minor adjustments have to be made all the time, just as a tightrope walker does. Flow is creative in a way that is inconceivable.

Patterns of flow

A major component of turbulent flow are vortices, which are caused by obstructions in fluids. An example is the Kármán vortex street.

(Photo by Jürgen Wagner of the Von Kármán vortex street behind a circular cylinder in air flow. The flow is made visible by means of the release of oil vapour near the cylinder.)

Vincent van Gogh painted vortices.

The Starry Night – Vincent van Gogh 1889

Leonardo da Vinci was also fascinated by vortices. The British Library in London currently has an exhibition of this work, which I was fortunate to see a couple of weeks ago.

So flow can be chaotic and fractal, with vortices within vortices, and movement in both directions. These flows are never the same but always unique.

Even the normal heartbeat is irregular, not wildly irregular, but there are variations in times of beat. But as A. N. Whitehead said rhythm needs sameness and novelty; there needs to be pattern and variance in the pattern.


A.N. Whitehead, 1919, An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge, p.198).






Knowledge and flow

Knowledge arises out of flow and for a time has a form, like vortices in a stream only exist because of resistance and are not a separate element. At this point Iain made reference to Friedrich Schelling. I did not make a note as to why this reference was made, but presumably this relates to Schelling’s Philosophy of Nature, in which he put forward the idea of the unity of Nature, an ongoing process from which man has emerged as an integral part. In other words, life is not separate from matter. The ‘two are continuous with one another, different aspects of a single process.’ (Bryan Magee, 1998, p.156). We are like waves in the sea. We are not disconnected from the water. We are always connected.

All this is comprehensible to the right hemisphere. As William Blake understood, once you analyse flow, you stop the flow.

Source – https://poets.org/poem/eternity

An example of analysis of flow, which is how the left hemisphere sees flow, can be seen in the case of Jason Padgett, for whom the smoothness has gone from everything he sees as a result of brain injury. The left hemisphere can only approximate flow by putting together straight lines. This is how Padgett now sees water going down the drain in a shower or the sink.

Source: https://www.livescience.com/45326-gallery-drawings-of-a-mathematical-genius.html

Finally Iain finished this talk by referring to the double-slit experiment to illustrate that light and elementary particles can be seen as particles as well as waves.

The video of the double-slit experiment suggests that the wave trumps the particle. Everything flows. It also suggests that observation can alter what we see. This supports Iain’s argument that things take the form they do because of our consciousness. The way in which we attend to the world determines what we see.

It is not just that what we find determines the nature of attention we accord to it, but that the attention we pay to anything also determines what it is we find…. Attention is a moral act: it creates, brings aspects of things into being, but in doing so makes others recede. What a thing is depends on who is attending to it, and in what way. … Attention has consequences. (p.133 The Master and His Emissary).

We can see the world as a series of static points and scenes, a sum of an infinite series of ’pieces’, or as natural and organically evolving in which everything flows.


McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

This is the last post in this series.

This four day course will run again for the last time next year from 3rd – 6th October 2020 In the same location – Tewkesbury Park Hotel – in the Cotswolds, UK.

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