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.

Reference

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.

The Value and Limits of Reason

In this post I will share the notes I made when hearing Iain McGilchrist speak about the value and limits of reason on 4-day Field & Field course I recently attended in the Cotswolds, UK. For a background to the content of this post, see my previous two posts relating to this course and the page on this blog devoted to The Divided Brain and Iain McGilchrist’s work.

Iain McGilchrist described this talk as ‘a series of soundbites’ and I expect this is how these notes will come across. My note-taking can be lacking in both accuracy and coherence, and as such, I stress that these notes are mine. They are a record of what I heard, what I noted as significant for me (and by no means everything that Iain said), and necessarily reflect how I interpreted what I heard. I want to stress that any errors are very definitely mine. Please feel free to challenge or correct me in the comments.

A bit of background

Iain has written about reason before. There is a section in The Master and His Emissary devoted to a discussion of ‘Reason Versus Rationality’ (p.64), where Iain argues that there are different kinds of reasoning and that although linear, sequential argument is better executed by the left hemisphere, the right hemisphere is better at deduction and less explicit reasoning (p.65).

Rationality involves a causative linear way of thinking in a limited environment. Reason seeks a global, holistic understanding which only makes sense in the round.

This discussion about reason and rationality in Iain’s book invited a response from author Kenan Malik, who in 2013, wrote an article critical of Iain’s arguments – to which Iain wrote a robust response. This discussion/debate was not referred to on the Field & Field course, but it is probably worth reiterating before sharing my notes that at the beginning of The Master and His Emissary, Iain makes it clear that he is not demonising reason.

I hope, however, it will be obvious from what I say that I hold absolutely no brief for those who wish to abandon reason or traduce language. The exact opposite is the case. Both are seriously under threat in our age, though I believe from diametrically opposed factions. (The Master and His Emissary, p.6)

Equally this book has nothing to offer those who would undermine reason, which, along with imagination, is the most precious thing we owe to the working together of the two hemispheres. My quarrel is only with an excessive and misplaced rationalism which has never been subjected to the judgment of reason, and is in conflict with it. (The Master and His Emissary, p.7)

And a quote from Blaise Pascal

There are two equally dangerous extremes – to shut reason out, and not to let nothing in. 

The Value of Reason (NB these are my notes, based on my hearing, and my interpretation)

As Whitehead and Russell pointed out it is important to think logically. A widespread problem is that science fails to question its methods, so reason keeps us from complacency, but reason should also question its own methods.

Reason is a consistency tool, but it has to start from something. It starts from axioms (axiom comes from the Greek word axia, meaning values). Reason can’t make people see what you can see; it can only lead them closer.

As David Hume famously wrote in his A Treatise of Human Nature (p.415),  “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” So reason is a tool which we should control. It is our servant, but not our master. McGilchrist writes on p. 203 of The Master and His Emissary:

He [Hume] did not mean that unbridled passion should rule our judgments, but that the rational workings of the left hemisphere (though he could not have known that that was what they were) should be subject to the intuitive wisdom of the right hemisphere (though he equally could not have recognised it as such).

Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier have a different take on the value of reason, which they propose in their ‘argumentative theory’ is not principally to improve knowledge and make better decisions, but rather to win arguments. They believe that we do not seek truth, but rather arguments that support our views; we are, after all, competitive animals. For a more in depth discussion of this, see, for example, this post ‘Is reasoning built for winning arguments, rather than finding truth?

Some Problems with Reason (NB these are my notes, based on my hearing, and my interpretation)

G K Chesterton is quoted as saying: “A madman is not someone who has lost his reason but someone who has lost everything but his reason”. Make of that what you will. My interpretation is that reason alone is not helpful. The full quote might help:

“If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by clarity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

In this section of his talk, Iain alerted us to some of the potential limits of reason.

  • Reason prioritises the system over reference to reality, which can lead to a false premise, e.g. as in the porcupine is a monkey syllogism (see p. 192 in The Master and His Emissary for further discussion of this).
      1. Major premise: all monkeys climb trees;
      2. Minor premise: the porcupine is a monkey;
      3. Implied conclusion: the porcupine climbs trees.
  • We judge many things on the basis of experience rather than reason, e.g. love. There are an infinity of such experiences that surpass reason.

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

  • There are an infinite number of truths that we can’t get to with reason (I recently wrote a post that included reference to Julian Baggini’s book – A Short History of Truth, and I have heard Iain talk about truth before). Some things do come with linearity, e.g. rational people formulate goals and take the most direct route to achieving these goals, but some things can’t be pursued or willed. Happiness, for example, is a by-product that comes from forgetting yourself; it can’t be pursued. Sleep and appetite can’t be willed. Wisdom, humility, courage, love, faith, admiration, sympathy (and more) similarly can’t be linearly pursued. Understanding cannot be given, imposed or transmitted.
  • Similarly, morals cannot be derived from reason alone. Moral values are not something we can work out rationally. They are not utilitarian. They come from within (see the work of David Hume and p.86 of The Master and His Emissary). Morals are irreducible aspects of the phenomenal world.
  • Reason involves distancing ourselves from the natural world, but taking things out of context (abstraction) can be a mistake. John Dewey warned against the neglect of context. “I should venture to assert that the most pervasive fallacy of philosophic thinking goes back to neglect of context”  (see The Philosophical Fallacy – and p.144 The Mater and His Emissary). Things change as context changes. The response to this is often to categorise things on the basis of a single feature, but we need overlapping contexts. It is the left hemisphere that categorises things on the basis of a single feature. The right hemisphere looks for general similarity. For the left hemisphere there is a need to focus attention narrowly and be precise, but serendipity plays a big part in determining what can be predicted, and the more precise and reduced something is, e.g. language, the less useful it is. Being too precise means losing the overall picture, just as a map has precision, but this does not reflect life and all that we cannot quantify, such as beauty, anger, hunger. Some values cannot be measured and being precise can be less helpful than being imprecise, and even entirely irrelevant.

As Edmund Burke said: ‘It is the nature of all greatness not to be exact’ and ‘A clear idea is another name for a little idea’. Similarly from Rabindranath Tagore:

  • Finally, there is always a truth in the opposite of something. The left and right hemispheres both contribute to logic, but the right hemisphere makes a better contribution to deduction and the left hemisphere to induction. The right hemisphere is better at testing reality, but the left hemisphere gets swayed by what it already knows.

Iain ended this talk with reference to The Monty Hall Paradox to illustrate the point that the correct choice in this game is so counterintuitive it can seem absurd, but is nevertheless demonstrably true. The Prisoner’s Dilemma presents a similar paradox (see p.145 The Master and His Emissary). I took this to mean that adopting a right hemisphere perspective on the world and recognising that reason can have both value and limitations can seem counterintuitive.

Reference

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

 

Coming to Your Senses with Iain McGilchrist

I have just returned (exhausted, but exhilarated) from a four day course in the Cotswolds – Exploring the Divided Brain. Coming to Your Senses. The course focuses on the work of Iain McGilchrist, principally his book The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. This is the fourth time I have attended this course and it didn’t disappoint. In fact this was probably the best of the four courses.

Iain gave eleven one hour talks over the four days. He was interviewed twice, including once by John Cleese, and answered questions for an hour for the final session of the final day. He rightly received a standing ovation at the end of the course.

Iain’s talks bore the titles:

  • Introduction to the Hemispheres
  • The Value and Limits of Science
  • Brain Disorders of the Hemispheres
  • What is Language For?
  • The Value and Limits of Reason
  • Are we Becoming Machines?
  • The Values and Limits of Intuition
  • The Value and Limits of Imagination
  • What Does it Mean to Think?
  • The Power of No
  • Everything Flows

I will come back to some of these in future posts

There were also a number of  participant presentations, workshops and participant led discussion groups.

Talks were given by:

James Murray-White  – Finding Blake: Reimagining William Blake for the 21st century (https://findingblake.org.uk/exploring-the-divided-brain/)

Robert Franklin (two talks) – The Left Hemisphere and the Holocaust: The Holocaust by bullets and The Left Hemisphere and the Holocaust: Golden Harvest

Mary Attwood – Renaissance Art – A Harmony of the Hemispheres

Tywi Roberts (two sessions) – Music workshop

Simon Maryan – Trauma and Post Traumatic Stress

Samantha Field (two talks) – Feeling Music through the Rhythm of Movement and Dance and Communicating without Words

Georgina Cahill (two talks) – Mindfulness: Noticing our Everyday Behaviours and Mindfulness: Ideas and Practises to take home with us

Susannah Healy – The Seven Day Soul: Finding Meaning Beneath the Noise

The wide range of these talks made for a very rich experience, and the depth and breadth of knowledge shared by the speakers that I listened to was impressive. It is always humbling to hear Iain McGilchrist speak, but it was also humbling to be on a course with so many very talented people.

For the first time, I also offered a discussion group/workshop, in which I was keen to hear participants’ view on what the implications of Iain’s work might be for education. In particular I am interested in questions such as:

  • What are the advantages and disadvantages, with respect to education, of the left hemisphere’s view of the world?
  • What could the right hemisphere’s view of the world contribute to education?
  • What changes in education might we need to make to prevent left hemisphere dominance and reflect a more balanced view of the world?

Here I will very briefly provide an overview of how the discussion went.

There were 22 people in my session. I asked participants to work in small groups of about three people. We worked through three exercises.

  1. Each person was given the following handout and asked to draw on their own experience to discuss it in terms of how the different characteristics of the left hemisphere’s view of the world resonates with their personal understanding of education, teaching and learning.

2. We then did the same for the right hemisphere

3. Finally, drawing on the previous two discussions, we discussed the question:

What changes would you make to education to ensure that the strengths of the left and right hemispheres are best represented?

Here are some of the responses (in no particular order)

We should get rid of SATs and OFSTED and change the culture of education to focus on better values. We shouldn’t worry about ‘screwing up’.

We should value truth and fairness.

There should be greater emphasis on context and inter-connection in the curriculum ,e.g. as in topic-based learning.

We need to rebalance STEM subjects with the Arts and Humanities and aim for holistic learning and embodied, exploratory and self-motivated learning.

There should be greater awareness and appreciation of the differences between the left and right hemispheres of the brain.

Education should involve curiosity, playfulness, wonder and fun, and learners should discover purpose and meaning for themselves.

Diversity of views should be respected and encouraged.

We need to change the global paradigm of education

I need to spend more time thinking about all this. We had about an hour and 10 minutes for this discussion, which was really not long enough. There is still plenty to think about and to say. I may come back to this in a later post. For now I want to focus on the notes I made in Iain McGilchrist’s talks and try and process it all, so in my next few posts, I will share these notes.

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.