Thoughtland by Steve Lansford

[The following is the text portion of Steve Lansford’s multimedia presentation Thoughtland. Links to the audio/visual portion of the presentation are given at the beginning of each section of this text.]

1.  A History of Human Thought(s) 

Thoughtland 1 

Fuller, in Critical Path, described spoken language as “the first industrial tool,” but he might also have seen the co-creativity involved as nonsimultaneous and noninstantaneous, instead requiring artful interplay between two or more personalities. Here, one might ask: What sort of industry did early humans engage in, between ten thousand and one million years ago? After a previous million years of not speaking in coherent terms, what flash of intuition occurred to induce the co-mingling of sounds with other senses? Surely, this was no ordinary industrial activity, to be characterized as either work or play: it probably had neither the drudgery of present-day labor nor the disengaged escapism of contemporary leisure. Based on one primitivist theory, I suspect naming objects and/or events may have started among intimate friends exploring the sounds of their own voices along with other senses, much the same way improvisation may precede musical composition.

People have often said technology is “just a tool,” with each of us personally responsible for how we use it, but I find technology is really someone’s art. Like a painting or sculpture, it also has a creator and underlying mentality, albeit anonymously, so it is never solely “ours.” Prehistoric tools were created by and for those who used them, but civilization – with modern emphasis on consumers and spectators instead of creators and participants – alienates many from their own latent creativity. If language is a tool and a technology, then we must each use it as artfully as possible. Today’s highly virtualized and standardized society, dominated by such technologies as artificial intelligence and mass media, often overshadows our own latent creativity and seems to think for us, who now risk losing the ability to think and speak with our own voice.

I consider civilization a way of life emphasizing artificial structures over natural ones. Creative acts most certainly generated such structures, and such acts arguably had an initially natural, instinctive impetus. Creativity, like Jung’s notion of mental health, entails making the subconscious conscious. Our primitive ancestors, ushering in humanity’s transition from nature to civilization, may have had little or no sense of having a subconscious. Their innovations may have been shrouded in mystery, even to themselves. People, then perceiving themselves to be atomistically individual, probably found such creativity divinely inspired, thus invoking various creationist deities and the notion of intelligent design. Little did they know that intelligence depends on design, and (excepting genuine sages or mystics) that their own sub- or supraconscious minds were the true divinities here. Creation is no contrived act. It is a path of least resistance from subconscious to conscious to supraconscious. As Jung indicated in Man and his Symbols, the subconscious mind is quite living proof of the illusion of the individual. Certainly, creativity does involve personal expression, but if personality were completely unique and unintelligible to others, would one need to express oneself at all? Thus, the sole difference between “my” self and “your” self may be the ongoing shuffle of our respective cards and not the cards themselves. Vigilantly tracking this shuffle then comparing notes with others may be the real life goal, a question of individuation, not individuality.

Fuller called Universe “a minimum of two pictures,” and unity “plural and at least two.” Unity here is process: two or more shaving off over time into one. Unity as an end result is not observable in our ordinary 3 dimensions, 5 physical senses, and linear time.

Pre-civilization people sought personal fulfillment through creative acts, whether in cave paintings, pottery, music, or rudimentary living structures. All these acts reflected some exploration of personal potential and were neither purely utilitarian nor purely escapist. For various reasons – perhaps in response to seemingly chaotic natural phenomena or to avoid being marginalized by growing populations – power structures developed in the form of civilization, and certain types of creation accelerated ahead of others in the form of agricultural fields, tool making, and crude city structures. Thus, standardization also developed, diverting attention from subconscious drives and fostering the conscious illusion that only privileged people were creative. Such standardized creativity, though seeming more utilitarian and depersonalized, still expressed itself through the distinctive geometric patterns of agricultural fields, buildings, and city streets. Whatever the reason, civilization was an attempt to emphasize order over seeming chaos. Seemingly amorphous textures of nature, not sufficiently investigated, may have been assumed to exist outside the known patterns humanity increasingly explored through certain creative acts, and standardizing these patterns generated artificial common denominators like currencies, measurements, and writing systems by which local peoples increasingly identified themselves. But texture never exists outside pattern, and the unique texture of any life, whether yours or mine, may be perceived as an interweaving of various patterns.

The late 19th century stage of the Industrial Revolution, when civilization asserted itself more fully than ever, brought more developments. Linguistics, through Saussure, became increasingly standardized as semiology. He saw language composed of signs, namely a signifier, made of marks or phonemes, and a signified, which is the denotative meaning linked to the signifier. Saussure assumed signs were arbitrary creations. The primordial synesthesia whereby the subconscious combines the five senses may have been unfathomable to him. Saussure also acknowledged a sign to have a referent, which is the immediate, personal, present-moment meaning of a sign. But he only gave this referent cursory attention, considering it more the domain of psychology.

In short, Saussure rendered both the creative process underlying language and the moment-to-moment evolution of meaning irrelevant. The standardized, socialized aspect of signs was paramount. But a sign, with a signifier and signified but no referent, is only two-thirds of a word. I call this mostly unheralded development in linguistic evolution “the birth of modern banality”. Though seemingly innocuous at the time, the predominance of signs acting as words solidified the Cartesian mind/body split and led us right up to the highly virtualized society that we live in today.

Other banalities also asserted themselves. Despite Darwin’s recent theories, people gave little thought to the future direction of human evolution. Newly developed disciplines like neuroscience sought only past-tense answers to this present-tense question as animals, despite limited capacity for abstraction and language, were assumed to have appropriate analogs for the human brain in experiments. Freud, though acknowledging the subconscious, interpreted it in terms of first sex then the death wish, failing to see that frustrated creative drives may have underlied both. Civilization and its Discontents pessimistically found civilization and nature both humanly unbearable. All this evidently ignored Thoreau’s suggestion, decades before, that the intelligence of the civilized man could ideally be combined with the physical strength, resiliency, and self-reliance of the savage.

Western science, contrasted with Western religious superstitions, certainly did usher in some progress. But debates between the two are ultimately moot, as both disciplines made similar assumptions about deeper dimensions of human thought and the relationship between civilization and nature. For centuries, scientific and religious circles both believed that less intelligent beings like animals could not feel pain, and many similar assumptions were made about small children and infants. Sexually unorthodox practices were seen by both science and religion as diseases to be cured. Private thoughts and lives, which may have found a healthy outlet through artistic pursuits, meditation, or simply loving, intimate relationships, were often dismissed or underestimated by both religion and science as idle and unproductive to society. Many primitive cultures already instinctively knew such assumptions were incorrect, but many of these assumptions were still popularly accepted by civilizations well into my own lifetime, maybe even yours.

Eastern thought, acknowledging personal contemplation and not just institutionalized dogma, may have bridged some of these gaps, but idiomatic English translations of Buddhist, Taoist, and yogic teachings were quite rare until forty to fifty years ago. Thoreau, well-versed in Latin, Greek, and rough English translations of Eastern classics, moved quite well between science, spirituality, language, art, philosophy, and nature itself. As bodies of knowledge to learn from, all disciplines validly add to the texture of life, but no one discipline can be raised to the status of a universal pattern. Thus, pattern recognition itself may be the real discipline needed for our ongoing evolution.

2.  Mean(s) and Meaning(s)

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In preparing this presentation, the issue of meaning repeatedly came to mind. I guess it all began about three years ago, when I whimsically asked myself, “What does meaning mean?” Pursuing this question further unexpectedly brought me to at least a two-pronged answer.

Without doing any homework at all, I initially assumed “meaning” to be derived from the noun and adjective “mean,” in the sense of median. This evidently traces back to Middle English mene and Latin medianus. Based on this assumption, “meaning” would seem to be something mediating between subject and object, in effect filtering and partially getting in the way of what one wishes to fully understand. Admittedly, I dislike this, as it assumed a state of perpetual alienation between me and everything else. Interestingly, this etymology also ties in with “mean” in the sense of “cruel” or “ill-natured.”.This adjectival use of “mean” evidently denotes leading a median existence, lacking distinction. It is a synonym for “common,” derived from Old English gemaene, also etymologically related to “mean.”

“Mean” as a verb in the sense of “meaning,” however, actually traces back to Middle English menen and Old High German meinen, both meaning “to have in mind.” I suspect that these and similar expressions may trace back further to Sanskrit manas, which works its way into familiar Sanskrit terms like “mantra” and “mandala” but also acts as the etymological root of “mind.”

Thus, meaning is what engages the mind, and this engaged sense of “meaning” is more appealing to me in many ways. I now give a tentative sense of what meaning is, as follows: “The maximum, engaged pace of mental activity that can be tracked by oneself, and with which one can feel truly at home.” This necessarily requires me to ongoingly step up my own mental pace and allows both meaning and myself to evolve. By this reasoning, absolute meaninglessness does not exist. All phenomena either fall in or out of critical proximity with me and either have more meaning or less, but no utter absence of meaning.

Thus, I shudder at Saussure’s sweeping generalization about linguistic signs: “In the matter of language, people have always been satisfied with ill-defined units…”

Though Saussure’s nascent attempts at semantics may have been well-meant, I still suspect none of his friends were ever poets.

Shortly after Saussure, Alfred North Whitehead wrote Science and the Modern World which, Fuller notes, solidified the rift between science and the humanities. The ultimate aim was to standardize value-neutral thinking against the humanities’ unwieldy diversity of personal expression.

As may now be seen, though, standardize means marginalize.

Neutral values assume one to be everywhere at once or nowhere at all. Our various levels of conscious awareness actually work quite differently from this, however, for some thing (or things) is always quite literally on our minds and is quite far from nothing or everything.

Value-neutral thinking, underpinning such fields as Western science and psychology, tacitly assumed an observer’s personal thoughts to be easily put aside and not significantly affect the observed.

But each of us does have a personal life and doesn’t wish to compromise it for long.

Early Western interpretations of Madhyamaka Buddhism were thus quite skewed. The Sanskrit madhya also relates to Latin medianus, so “Madhyamaka” means the “Middle Way” – but middle of what and what?

Many would see this as a grudging middle ground between extremes, but then the Buddhist notion of equanimity (upeksha) would be a synonym for banality, though it is certainly a much more transcendent mental state than this. Nor should equanimity be equated with apathy or indifference, which tacitly place us nowhere and dismiss our experience as nothing. Indeed, high equanimity as a meditative state leaves nothing out and is only achieved after states of deepest bliss and deepest suffering.

If we don’t experience or know everything, how do we attain such equanimity? Perhaps we can test the limits of our ever-changing knowledge and experience by keeping pace with the way they both change. The ever-changing verb/noun that we are is, after all, always part of everything. Perhaps equanimity is what Fuller called “dynamic equilibrium,” with equilibrium etymologically meaning something like “equally free.”

Equality, as a present-day socio-political concept, assumes a level playing field, but our immediate, highly textured sensory/mental experience has never operationally experienced any such levelness. Some of us seem bigger, smaller, nearer, or farther than others, so few of us are clear about this most well-intentioned concept of “equality.”

Perhaps our invisible but constant mental evolution should be the real common denominator for our equality. As once said by the 18th century Irish lawyer John Philpot Curran, “the condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance,” so keeping pace with our mental evolution more vigilantly with each fraction of a moment could be the real issue here.

3.  A “Relationship(s)” Workshop

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[Responses to a questionnaire prepared by me – many thanks to all the friends and conference attendees who contributed to this!]

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4. Strength in/through Numbers

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The level playing field assumption also presumes that we’re already fully conscious and complete just the way we are – whole units, so to speak. The truth is, we’re still fractions, which, though not always equal to each other, are still equal inasmuch as they add up to one, i.e. Universe, and can’t exist outside of it. Cosmology-wise, this realization is quite advanced, considering that the West, until 1545, assumed only men had human souls, and even the East assumed, until quite recently in human history, that only men became enlightened.

Much of the issue here is individuality, which etymologically implies that our personal identity has some undivided state of being, but is that really the case? Each of us has, at the very least, a conscious and subconscious mind, which implies division of our psyche by at least two. At least partial proof here is our dreams, which despite the apparent “realness” of our waking existence, insert themselves into our lives anyway. If our waking lives were 100% real and 100% complete, it is quite safe to say that dreams would never occur in the first place. In my experience, it does no good to dismiss dreams as completely real or completely unreal. Rather, they vibrate constantly between something and nothing.

Conclusions drawn thus far: Our conscious minds and conscious lives are not whole units but fractions. I have never once been an individual, and neither have you. Thus, we can no more respect each other’s individuality than we can consider each other fully alive when, in all honesty, some fraction of each of us has still not fully lived. Still, some people continue to devote their whole energy to only the conscious, waking fraction of their lives.

Jung obviously addressed these issues in much more detail than I have, which greatly explains why he put individuality aside in favor of individuation, thus making wholeness a work in progress rather than a finished product.

To be sure, there is something unique and irreplaceable about the moment-to-moment experience of each of us. I might be able to put myself in your shoes, but not while you’re wearing them. But to equate this intimate, here-and-now experience with individuality would be like assuming that everything making up your shoes was only made by you, or that your shoes will never change from what they are. These highly personal, irreplaceable moments of our experience do have a unique texture, but life proves over and over again that texture cannot exist outside the broader pattern of Universe. Thus, the unique texture of each person’s life is still only a fraction, not a whole unit.

There are broader global implications here, of course. Any discussion of fractions and whole units in any context ultimately reflects how we evaluate ourselves, each other, and all other sensory/mental phenomena around us. Indeed, this evaluation starts the very moment we count something as “one,” that is, as a single, whole unit.

Such measuring-out of whole units is inevitable, not only with numerical systems but also with any language that uses them. Like many Western languages, English rigorously distinguishes between singular and plural terms. However, many Asian languages like Japanese don’t use article adjectives, and to my knowledge many ancient tribal languages also de-prioritize singular/plural distinctions or don’t verbalize them at all. Obviously, non-Western and tribal cultures can distinguish between one and more than one just as well as you and I can, but this distinction was first determined, moment by moment, through context, not necessarily through their language.

Such context-dependency also indicates to me that many non-Western and tribal languages were meant, first and foremost, to be spoken, and only when non-verbal information was insufficient. The immense complexity of the Chinese and Japanese writing systems, for example, thus belies how structurally simple their spoken languages actually are, and their writing systems possibly reflect the expansion of their civilizations and the ensuing increased scarcity of face-to-face contact with each other.

Writing systems of any kind have thus been a way of compensating for distance, contextualizing in the absence of actual context. Consider both those terms: contextualization and context. Our increasingly virtualized society makes them seem identical, but they can never be more than asymptotically close to each other. Contextualization, then, is really only a fraction, at most, of actual context.

It is again important to emphasize that living language is not purely mental but draws on all five physical senses as well as all conscious and subconscious levels of our mind. Poets may best realize this, but with time, all of us do too.

Computers, by contrast, only deal in linguistic signs, which again carry, at most, only two-thirds the significance of actual words. Put another way, computers treat each linguistic sign as a whole unit of meaning, irrespective of context, while you and I, in the moment-to-moment activity of our daily lives, can perceive each linguistic sign more easily for what it actually is: a mere fraction of meaning, becoming more complete with actual context. Put one more way, linguistic signs were devised to reflect only the conscious part of our experience, and computers now, not knowing any better, reflect this conscious part of our experience back to us as our whole experience, sometimes across thousands of miles of distance.

Significant moment-to-moment changes in our minds thus run the risk of being, at best, only belatedly updated.

Virtualization, by mimicking three-dimensional reality in the form of two-dimensional images and mimicking words in the form of linguistic signs, frequently tempts us into dividing truth by at least two.

The highly sequential nature of all language also perpetuates such divisions. “Carbondale” and “Illinois”, as signs written one after the other, can seem like two separate things to the unwary. No amount of text and images can convey the actual extent to which these two concepts overlap and interpenetrate each other – such can only be done by the multidimensional aspect of our own minds, an aspect well-needed in order for text or images to have any instructive value to us.

Such signs and images, as mere fractions of actual Universe, can thus add nothing to it. Consequently, the increased virtualization of our experience fools the unwary part of our minds into thinking we’re practicing addition when we may really only be practicing division.

Given my efforts to provoke some thinking here, it might be worthwhile to give my tentative sense what a thought is, as follows: The “shrinking” of allspace-filling supraconscious awareness down to a finite, conscious space, thus sensing a mere fraction of Universe as Universe itself.

Ultimately, the dimension of thoughts has to change. Verbalizing and quantifying is not enough, so let’s learn to feel words and numbers as shapes, moving shapes, and compare notes.

I now think of the Hindu story about how the god Brahma created Maya, the deity of illusion who proceeded to cut Brahma into numerous pieces and placed a piece of him into each and every human being. Brahma has been trying to piece himself back together again through each and every one of us ever since. Is this what each of us, as fractions of One, is really doing right now? What if the World Game were really a puzzle instead, only complete with each of us?

Are you and I here together or separately? If your mind wavers even the least bit at the answer to that question, then you now have a first-hand sense of why globalization is not really global and still remains no synonym for actual lasting togetherness. The truth is, that wavering of your mind is exactly what it currently needs to do, as your sense of my identity and your own incrementally changes. Is this what evolution feels like from moment to moment?

5. Our Path(s), Critically Taken

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In Synergetics, before wide knowledge of chaos theory, Fuller refuted the common notion that scientists wrest order from chaos, which is, in fact, an illusion. His assertion points up essential complementarities between simplicity and complexity, pattern and texture.

Pattern, in brief, is a timeless phenomenon trending toward repetition. It is a mental path of least resistance that makes the pace of successive details more intelligible so that the passage of time is less overwhelming. Texture, then, is a time-full phenomenon trending toward variation. “Trending” requires emphasis here because pattern, texture, repetition, and variation are not absolutes in ordinary reality. No absolute texture exists because texture cannot exist outside of pattern. Fuller’s friend John Cage noted that a variation is a repetition, but with something new added. Patterns may differ and be subsets of larger patterns, thus doubling as textures, depending on whether plurality trends toward unity or vice versa. Absolute pattern would be textureless “pattern-ness” itself, maybe like the Sanskrit concept shunyata, often translated as “emptiness” but more appropriately as “openness.” It may also correspond to Kierkegaard’s notion of eternity as “ultimate repetition.”

How does unity shave off into plurality? I find the triggering factor to be the fatiguing point of thoughts themselves. Thus, we must always keep memory of the unseen and/or unknown active, even amid known experience. Fuller also spoke of how a boundary like a circle encloses two spaces, not just one.

Banality is recoil from texture. Unity does not disappear when we face complexity – only banality’s illusory unity does. When diverse components of any complex phenomenon enter our conscious awareness, we achieve closer unity with this phenomenon, and patterns inevitably emerge. Conversely, pattern does not oversimplify complexity – it is rather, a simplicity that helps access complexity.

Life is a cumulative lesson. Human intelligence realizes this more keenly than does artificial intelligence. Consider language: Give a computer a term to translate, and it will do so. With a sentence, it will be less accurate, and with a paragraph, mostly gibberish. Reducing ideas to their parts is a major AI problem. Once your mind and mine have mastered terms from a given language, we can readily adapt ourselves to new term combinations each moment. We almost always practice this example of synergy, and this moment-to-moment accommodation of novelty is a direct product of our conscious and subconscious combined with all five physical senses – in short, the essence of human intelligence. Thus, we consult a book of only linguistic signs, called a dictionary, and instantly adapt it to our current experience. For nearly 60 years, computers have only managed to translate 25% of a text accurately. In other words, a computer seeks meaning in a dictionary while we seek meaning through it. “In” versus “through” is crucial here: many AI deficiencies stem from seeking meaning in, not through, objects, which are really not objects at all but events.

Zen teacher Katsuki Sekida (関田, 一喜) described perception as three nen actions. The first nen is pure cognition, raw five-sense experience. The second nen is the immediately recorded mental impression of such raw experience. The third nen synthesizes the first two into a familiar concept. These three intertwine as a threefold structure that generates ego and reality itself many times per second. Sekida also mentioned the one-nen eon, a steady stream of first nen with no second- or third- nen afterthoughts – i.e., constant beginner’s mind. But the first nen never knows its own eon in progress, so the reasoning of the third nen is important, to preserve this eon for posterity. A first-nen eon would miss valuable patterns while a third-nen eon would be split-seconds short of right now and miss the texture of life. Thus, Sekida stressed the importance of purifying the third nen, in effect reverse engineering it back through second-nen mental impressions and first-nen sensory impressions, to experience time as both a continuum and as a string of moments.

Though less emphasized by Sekida, one should also explore the second nen, the crucial transition between the physical and mental, concrete and abstract, referent and linguistic sign. This second nen is a mental snapshot of all direct experiences and is the crux of creative inspiration. These nen are not culture-specific: They may correspond to the three paths between the lower three spheres of the Cabalistic Tree of Life. Fuller described three similar phenomena, observation, consideration, and understanding, and added articulation, thus bringing an objective element to Sekida’s subjective nen triangle and possibly making it a tetrahedron. But where Sekida sees actions and the Cabala sees paths, Fuller sees points. Could these be trajectories in an intersecting dimension?

Current society assumes our minds to have a low tracking speed, perhaps 2 to 3 events per second tops. But deep meditators can track up to 40 events per second, which may be easier than we think: You may hear 10 to 12 phonemes per second as I now speak. Computers have high tracking speeds but no first-nen consciousness. Instead of standardizing thought, they should generate variations, which our intelligence can then reverse engineer to learn new patterns. AI should really be IA, “intelligence assistance”, because our intelligence is really at issue here. Thinking about thoughts is our major evolutionary step. If survival is our common starting point, evolution may be our common trajectory.