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 Meaning of ‘Flow’ in Education

Anyone who follows this blog will know that I am interested in the work of Iain McGilchrist and what we can learn from his book The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Currently I am thinking about what implications some of the central themes of this book might have for education. The theme I have been exploring is ‘flow’.

When educators talk about ‘flow’ in education, they are more likely to be thinking of the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced ‘me-high-cheek-sent-me-high’) rather than Iain McGilchrist. Csikszentmihalyi’s work has been influential in encouraging teachers to consider questions of motivation and how to fully engage their students in learning. His theory of flow, ‘the holistic sensation that people have when they act with total involvement’ (Beard, 2014) or ‘being in the zone’, dates back to 1975, when he noticed that artists could be completely immersed in their work for hours and hours, losing sense of time passing, and completely focussing on process rather than outcome. They ‘go with the flow’. He wondered why then did schools treat children as if they were rats in a maze, ignoring the importance of process and focussing instead on outcome and reward.

Csikszentmihalyi has described eight characteristics of flow:

  1. Complete concentration on the task
  2. Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback
  3. Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down of time)
  4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding
  5. Effortlessness and ease
  6. There is a balance between challenge and skills
  7. Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination
  8. There is a feeling of control over the task

These characteristics describe the process needed to experience ‘flow’ in Csikszentmihali’s terms. Being in a state of ‘flow’ is thought to deepen learning or at the very least make learning more enjoyable.

Csikszentmihalyi is known to have related his work to education, whereas McGilchrist relates his work more broadly to living in and attending to the world, which, although not specific to education, certainly has implications for education. In his book The Master and his Emissary, McGilchrist provides substantial evidence for two ways of attending to the world;  the way of the left hemisphere of the brain and the way of the right hemisphere. I have written a number of posts about this in the past and am not going to repeat it here. A good introduction to those new to McGilchrist’s work is this video  and this short book, which summarises his key ideas – Ways of Attending: How our Divided Brain Constructs the World.

For Iain McGilchrist, ‘flow’ isn’t something experienced only when certain conditions are met. Rather he considers that all things are in flow all the time, including ourselves. He often uses the mountain behind his house to illustrate this, saying that if we could slow things down sufficiently we would be able to see the mountain flowing.

Source of image: http://player.lush.com/tv/matter-relative-matter-iain-mcgilchrist

We are always growing and are therefore always in a state of change and self-repair, and always in a state of flow. We are never the same from one moment to the next, neither is anything else. As Heraclitus is purported to have said, we can never step into the same river twice.

McGilchrist suggests that seeing the world as in a state of flow, is to understand it as ‘live, complex, embodied’, a ‘world of individual, always unique beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected’ (p.30). This perspective avoids fragmentation of knowledge, something that Csikszentmihalyi also believes is necessary to experience flow. But if everything is always in flow and always changing, how can anything ever be known?

The answer, according to McGilchrist, is that ‘We have to find a way of fixing [experience] as it flies, stepping back from the immediacy of experience, stepping outside the flow’ (p.30).  The evidence that we do this in education is all around us. However, there is a danger in doing this if it results in an obsession with ‘fixing’ such that our experience is fragmented, and knowledge is always broken down into measurable ‘bits’ which can be tested, the assumption being that we can then tick that ‘bit’ off as known. Stepping ‘outside the flow of experience’ gives us a view of the world that is ‘explicit, abstracted, compartmentalised, fragmented [and] static (though its ‘bits’ can be re-set in motion, like a machine)…’ (p.93). Such a world is easier to manipulate and control, and makes us feel more powerful.

According to McGilchrist, the problem is that, whilst we need to ‘step back from the immediacy of experience’ to know anything, we tend to get ‘stuck’ in this view of the world which prioritises ‘clarity; detached, narrowly focussed attention; the knowledge of things as built up from the parts; sequential analytic logic as the path to knowledge; and […] detail over the bigger picture’ (p.177). As such we lose sight of the whole.

For McGilchrist experiencing ‘flow’ means experiencing the whole and understanding:

  • Empathy and intersubjectivity as the ground of consciousness
  • The importance of an open, patient attention to the world, as opposed to a wilful, grasping attention
  • The implicit or hidden nature of truth
  • The emphasis on process rather than stasis,
  • The journey being more important that the arrival
  • The primacy of perception
  • The importance of the body in constituting reality
  • And emphasis on uniqueness
  • The objectifying nature of vision
  • The irreducibility of all value to utility
  • Creativity as an unveiling (no-saying) process rather than a wilfully constructive process.
  • The challenge for educators is how to reconcile the need to fix and test within a flow mindset.

McGilchrist has always stressed the importance of ‘both/and’ thinking, as opposed to the ‘either/or’ thinking, which seems to dominate much of our work in education. He tells us that for strength and stability, and to avoid fragmentation and disintegration, we need to be able to hold opposing ideas in dynamic equilibrium, an idea that seems particularly relevant to current times. He illustrates what he means by this with an image of the taut string of a bow or lyre (p. 270):

The taut string, its two ends pulling apart under opposing forces, that for bow or lyre is what gives its vital strength or virtue, is the perfect expression of a dynamic, rather than static, equilibrium. This holding of movement within stasis, of opposites in reconciliation, is also imaged in Heraclitus’ most famous saying, that ‘all things flow’. Stability in the experiential world is always stability provided by a form through which things continue to flow’.  

An education system which focused more on ‘both/and’ thinking and seeing the world as being in continuous ‘flow’, would need what McGilchrist has called ‘a change of heart’. Amongst other considerations, there would need to be less fragmentation and measurement, a greater focus on process, connection and context, an appreciation of depth, a tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty and a view of the world as embodied rather than conceptual. From this perspective knowing would be seen as an emergent process, rather than fixed. Is such a paradigm shift achievable, or have we already stepped so far out of the flow of experience that we have lost sight of the importance of also viewing the world from a perspective of ‘flow’?

References

Beard, K.S. (2014). Theoretically Speaking: An Interview with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on Flow Theory Development and Its Usefulness in Addressing Contemporary Challenges in Education. Educ Psychol Rev. 27, 353-364

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