On the Medium of Thought

Contemplate the following three quotes together:


Excerpt from Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) by Neil Postman (pgs. 17-23)

Chapter 2: Media as Epistemology

In the hope of simplifying what I mean by the title of this chapter, media as epistemology, I find it helpful to borrow a word from Northrop Frye, who has made use of a principle he calls resonance. “Through resonance,” he writes, “a particular statement in a particular context acquires a universal significance.” Frye offers as an opening example the phrase “the grapes of wrath,” which first appears in Isaiah in the context of a celebration of a prospective massacre of Edomites. But the phrase, Frye continues, “has long ago flown away from this context into many new contexts, contexts that give dignity to the human situation instead of merely reflecting its bigotries.” Having said this, Frye extends the idea of resonance so that it goes beyond phrases and sentences. A character in a play or story—Hamlet, for example, or Lewis Carroll’s Alice—may have resonance. Objects may have resonance, and so may countries: “The smallest details of the geography of two tiny chopped-up countries, Greece and Israel, have imposed themselves on our consciousness until they have become part of the map of our own imaginative world, whether we have ever seen these countries or not.”

In addressing the question of the source of resonance, Frye concludes that metaphor is the generative force—that is, the power of a phrase, a book, a character, or a history to unify and invest with meaning a variety of attitudes or experiences. Thus, Athens becomes a metaphor of intellectual excellence, wherever we find it; Hamlet, a metaphor of brooding indecisiveness; Alice’s wanderings, a metaphor of a search for order in a world of semantic nonsense.

I now depart from Frye (who, I am certain, would raise no objection) but I take his word along with me. Every medium of communication, I am claiming, has resonance, for resonance is metaphor writ large. Whatever the original and limited context of its use may have been, a medium has the power to fly far beyond that context into new and unexpected ones. Because of the way it directs us to organize our minds and integrate our experience of the world, it imposes itself on our consciousness and social institutions in myriad forms. It sometimes has the power to become implicated in our concepts of piety, or goodness, or beauty. And it is always implicated in the ways we define and regulate our ideas of truth.

To explain how this happens—how the bias of a medium sits heavy, felt but unseen, over a culture—I offer three cases of truth-telling.

The first is drawn from a tribe in western Africa that has no writing system but whose rich oral tradition has given form to its ideas of civil law. When a dispute arises, the complainants come before the chief of the tribe and state their grievances. With no written law to guide him, the task of the chief is to search through his vast repertoire of proverbs and sayings to find one that suits the situation and is equally satisfying to both complainants. That accomplished, all parties are agreed that justice has been done, that the truth has been served. You will recognize, of course, that this was largely the method of Jesus and other Biblical figures who, living in an essentially oral culture, drew upon all of the resources of speech, including mnemonic devices, formulaic expressions and parables, as a means of discovering and revealing truth. As Walter Ong points out, in oral cultures proverbs and sayings are not occasional devices: “They are incessant. They form the substance of thought itself. Thought in any extended form is impossible without them, for it consists in them.”

To people like ourselves any reliance on proverbs and sayings is reserved largely for resolving disputes among or with children. “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.” “First come, first served.” “Haste makes waste.” These are forms of speech we pull out in small crises with our young but would think ridiculous to produce in a courtroom where “serious” matters are to be decided. Can you imagine a bailiff asking a jury if it has reached a decision and receiving the reply that “to err is human but to forgive is divine”? Or even better, “Let us render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s”? For the briefest moment, the judge might be charmed but if a “serious” language form is not immediately forthcoming, the jury may end up with a longer sentence than most guilty defendants.

Judges, lawyers and defendants do not regard proverbs or sayings as a relevant response to legal disputes. In this, they are separated from the tribal chief by a media-metaphor. For in a print-based courtroom, where law books, briefs, citations and other written materials define and organize the method of finding the truth, the oral tradition has lost much of its resonance—but not all of it. Testimony is expected to be given orally, on the
assumption that the spoken, not the written, word is a truer reflection of the state of mind of a witness. Indeed, in many courtrooms jurors are not permitted to take notes, nor are they given written copies of the judge’s explanation of the law. Jurors are expected to hear the truth, or its opposite, not to read it. Thus, we may say that there is a clash of resonances in our concept of legal truth. On the one hand, there is a residual belief in the power of speech, and speech alone, to carry the truth; on the other hand, there is a much stronger belief in the authenticity of writing and, in particular, printing. This second belief has little tolerance for poetry, proverbs, sayings, parables or any other expressions of oral wisdom. The law is what legislators and judges have written. In our culture, lawyers do not have to be wise; they need to be well briefed.

A similar paradox exists in universities, and with roughly the same distribution of resonances; that is to say, there are a few residual traditions based on the notion that speech is the primary carrier of truth. But for the most part, university conceptions of truth are tightly bound to the structure and logic of the printed word. To exemplify this point, I draw here on a personal experience that occurred during a still widely practiced medieval ritual known as a “doctoral oral.” I use the word medieval literally, for in the Middle Ages students were always examined orally, and the tradition is carried forward in the assumption that a candidate must be able to talk competently about his written work. But, of course, the written work matters most.

In the case I have in mind, the issue of what is a legitimate form of truth-telling was raised to a level of consciousness rarely achieved. The candidate had included in his thesis a footnote, intended as documentation of a quotation, which read: “Told to the investigator at the Roosevelt Hotel on January 18, 1981, in the presence of Arthur Lingeman and Jerrold Gross.” This citation drew the attention of no fewer than four of the five oral examiners, all of whom observed that it was hardly suitable as a form of documentation and that it ought to be replaced by a citation from a book or article. “You are not a journalist,” one professor remarked. “You are supposed to be a scholar.” Perhaps because the candidate knew of no published statement of what he was told at the Roosevelt Hotel, he defended himself vigorously on the grounds that there were witnesses to what he was told, that they were available to attest to the accuracy of the quotation, and that the form in which an idea is conveyed is irrelevant to its truth. Carried away on the wings of his eloquence, the candidate argued further that there were more than three hundred references to published works in his thesis and that it was extremely unlikely that any of them would be checked for accuracy by the examiners, by which he meant to raise the question, Why do you assume the accuracy of a print-referenced citation but not a speech-referenced one?

The answer he received took the following line: You are mistaken in believing that the form in which an idea is conveyed is irrelevant to its truth. In the academic world, the published word is invested with greater prestige and authenticity than the spoken word. What people say is assumed to be more casually uttered than what they write. The written word is assumed to have been reflected upon and revised by its author, reviewed by authorities and editors. It is easier to verify or refute, and it is invested with an impersonal and objective character, which is why, no doubt, you have referred to yourself in your thesis as “the investigator” and not by your name; that is to say, the written word is, by its nature, addressed to the world, not an individual. The written word endures, the spoken word disappears; and that is why writing is closer to the truth than speaking. Moreover, we are sure you would prefer that this commission produce a written statement that you have passed your examination (should you do so) than for us merely to tell you that you have, and leave it at that. Our written statement would represent the “truth.” Our oral agreement would be only a rumor.

The candidate wisely said no more on the matter except to indicate that he would make whatever changes the commission suggested and that he profoundly wished that should he pass the “oral,” a written document would attest to that fact. He did pass, and in time the proper words were written.

A third example of the influence of media on our epistemologies can be drawn from the trial of the great Socrates. At the opening of Socrates’ defense, addressing a jury of five hundred, he apologizes for not having a well-prepared speech. He tells his Athenian brothers that he will falter, begs that they not interrupt him on that account, asks that they regard him as they would a stranger from another city, and promises that he will tell them the truth, without adornment or eloquence. Beginning this way was, of course, characteristic of Socrates, but it was not characteristic of the age in which he lived. For, as Socrates knew full well, his Athenian brothers did not regard the principles of rhetoric and the expression of truth to be independent of each other. People like ourselves find great appeal in Socrates’ plea because we are accustomed to thinking of rhetoric as an ornament of speech—most often pretentious, superficial and unnecessary. But to the people who invented it, the Sophists of fifth-century B.C. Greece and their heirs, rhetoric was not merely an opportunity for dramatic performance but a near indispensable means of organizing evidence and proofs, and therefore of communicating truth.

It was not only a key element in the education of Athenians (far more important than philosophy) but a preeminent art form. To the Greeks, rhetoric was a form of spoken writing. Though it always implied oral performance, its power to reveal the truth resided in the written word’s power to display arguments in orderly progression. Although Plato himself disputed this conception of truth (as we might guess from Socrates’ plea), his contemporaries believed that rhetoric was the proper means through which “right opinion” was to be both discovered and articulated. To disdain rhetorical rules, to speak one’s thoughts in a random manner, without proper emphasis or appropriate passion, was considered demeaning to the audience’s intelligence and suggestive of falsehood. Thus, we can assume that many of the 280 jurors who cast a guilty ballot against Socrates did so because his manner was not consistent with truthful matter, as they understood the connection.

The point I am leading to by this and the previous examples is that the concept of truth is intimately linked to the biases of forms of expression. Truth does not, and never has, come unadorned. It must appear in its proper clothing or it is not acknowledged, which is a way of saying that the “truth” is a kind of cultural prejudice. Each culture conceives of it as being most authentically expressed in certain symbolic forms that another culture may regard as trivial or irrelevant.


Excerpt from Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha by Daniel Ingram (pg. 24)

It is absolutely essential to try to figure out how you experience thoughts, otherwise you will simply flounder in content. What do thoughts feel like? Where do they occur? How big are they? What do they look like, smell like, taste like, sound like? How long do they last? Where are their edges? Only take on this practice if you are willing to try to work on this level, the level that tries to figure out what thoughts actually are rather than what they mean or imply. If my thoughts are somewhat auditory, I begin by trying to perceive each syllable of the current thought and then each syllable’s beginning and ending. If they are somewhat visual, I try to perceive every instant in which a mental image presents itself.

If they seem somewhat physical, such as the memory of a movement or feeling, I try to perceive exactly how long each little sensation of this memory lasts. This sort of investigation can actually be fairly easy to do and yet is quite powerful. Things can also get a bit odd quickly when doing this sort of practice, but I don’t worry about that. Sometimes thoughts can begin to sound like the auditory strobing section of the song “Crimson and Clover,” where it sounds like they are standing at a spinning microphone. Sometimes the images in our head can begin to flash and flicker. Sometimes our very sense of attention can begin to strobe. This is the point! The sensations that imply a mind and mental processes are discontinuous, impermanent.


One of David Pearce‘s comments in his Reddit AMA (2012)

Just as one can only imperfectly understand the nature of dreaming “from the inside” – even in a lucid dream – likewise the nature of the ordinary waking consciousness may yield only state-specific knowledge that can only imperfectly be understood “from the inside” too. How much does the medium of expression of propositional thought infect that propositional content itself? (cf. Nicholas Rescher’s “Conceptual Idealism“)


Analysis

What are your thoughts like? No, not “what are they about?” But their texture, what is it like? The medium of thought is not explicitly represented in the content of thought, at least not by default. The medium of thought adds constraints to imagination – what is and is not imaginable is state-dependent (perhaps not unlike our faculty of episodic reconstruction!). Your imagination is a reflection of the medium of your thought.

Restricted to the sober “everyday” (non-psychedelic, non-meditative) medium of thought, we are in a sense confined to only accept ideas as having the ring of truth when they appear in the right format, not unlike how legal proceedings are based on oral tradition proverbs in the West African tribe Neil Postman wrote about in the first of the three quotes above. For the most part, we have a culture and a language whose communication assumes a sober medium of thought, and in turn we reject as cognitively and epistemologically illegitimate anything that deviates from it. Sober thought is the arbiter of truth. But are we not perhaps missing out on valuable knowledge if we don’t investigate alternate mediums of thought?

Of course mastery over the medium of thought is only acquired through years of practice, tuning, and critical feedback. Consider how the sophistication of one’s thinking evolves over time; compare how a third grader thinks relative to a graduate student. There is no reason to expect this mastery over our sober medium of thought will translate into competence over exotic patterns of thought! When you take LSD for the first time and experience “LSD-like thinking patterns” you are like a newborn, faced with a completely new and exotic mode of self-reflective expression. No wonder “LSD thoughts”, when put into sober words, have a tendency of sounding like gibberish! But that is not to say that the medium of LSD-like thought patterns is doomed to be irrational, insane, or helplessly disconnected from reality. Far from it, as attested by the numerous anecdotes concerning genuine (and later verifiable) problem solving breakthroughs enabled by the psychedelic state (see: Harman’s and Fadiman’s research on psychedelic problem solving).

Source: Selective Enhancement of Specific Capacities
Through Psychedelic Training

Here I must agree with Steven Lehar: drugs are wasted on the young. In his book “The Grand Illusion” Lehar narrates how when he tried LSD as a teenager he thought it was interesting but couldn’t make any sense of his experience. After not taking it for more than a decade, he tried it again in his thirties while studying for a PhD in cognitive sciences. He was then much more capable of saying intelligent and insightful things about the nature of the state. I very much expect a Cambrian explosion of insights about the psychedelic state (and not only psychedelic insights!) if and when we bring together groups of seasoned neuroscientists and AI researchers together to trip in a systematic and grounded way. Perhaps we could organize a retreat in Jamaica? Importantly, I would suggest that we should approach the development of a scientific culture based on a psychedelic medium of thought with as few preconceptions as possible, yet allow it to be grounded in our modern scientific world-picture whenever possible.

Once we get past the prejudice against exotic mediums of thought (but without at the same time opening the floodgates to insanity either), we will actually get many new perspectives on consciousness, reality, and the very nature of semantics. Studying this on a large scale will entail using tools like Psychedelic Turk, Generalized Wada Tests, and Free-Wheeling Hallucinations. And further into the future, designer synesthesia may allow anyone to think in numbers. Dedicated linguists (or meta-linguists?) would be put to the task of identifying the isomorphisms between each medium of thought in order to create a state-neutral meta-language of thought (aka. the language of Harmonic Society).

Because the “work” needed to arrive at a culture based in exotic mediums of thought has yet to be done, across the globe we currently have a huge backlog of never-written insights from psychedelic users. You should perhaps think of this collective as a baby intelligence that is not yet verbally competent but which can think of the world in a completely different way than us. How many trips do you need to undergo before the psychedelic medium of thought acquires a verbal competence equivalent to that of our sober thinking? Considering the number of hours it takes for a toddler to learn language, probably quite a few! LSD and the Mind of the Universe by Christopher M. Bache is based on 70+ extremely well documented high-dose (~500 microgram) LSD trips. It is a book that I recommend reading for its phenomenological richness and clarity of “thought”. Despite the insanity that would typically be associated with anyone who has spent that much time in such radically altered states, Bache sounds completely cogent and grounded. His metaphysical conclusions are bizarre, yet familiar to anyone who has spent some time researching spiritual tropes. Yet the manner of presentation is exotic and fascinating. Who knows what hundreds if not thousands of rational psychonauts doing this kind of work could work out if they put their minds to the task of developing a language to talk about those states. To truly develop a community for such an exotic medium of thought, one will need to find ways to receive critical feedback from others. One needs critical feedback to learn and grow, so we may need to invent modes of communication for people experiencing exotic modes of thinking to fruitfully interact with one another.

What would be an example of a quality of the medium of thought of the psychedelic state? Based on countless trip reports, it seems that LSD and related compounds allow you to “think about infinity” in a way that sober thought simply lacks. That said, when someone says that they “experienced infinity” or even “became infinite” on LSD I do not take their word at face value. At least not in the sense of the term which sober thinking imagines. I do, however, believe people when they say that such phrases are pointing at something meaningful, something they experienced. “Becoming infinite on LSD” does not literally mean that on LSD you experienced an infinite amount of qualia (for is it even intelligible or logically cogent to have realized arbitrarily large numbers?). We have to realize that infinity as a term is very different than infinity as a concept: when you say infinity while on a high dose of LSD you are referring to an aspect of your experience rather than a formally defined mathematical or common sense conception of infinity. And if I were to guess, I would say that the quality of experience that is being pointed at is related to the symmetry of both phenomenal space or time: time-looping has a seemingly endless quality and symmetrical texture repetition gives you a sense of infinite space not unlike that of seeing the never-ending reflections of parallel mirrors. Given our normal habits of thought and only available cultural references, one is pressed to communicate this quality of experience in ways that invariably distort their meaning. Some things have to be experienced to be understood.

Are infinite reflections between two mirrors really infinite? - Physics  Stack Exchange

Another property of the psychedelic medium of thought is that DMT-like cognition may be very well suited to reason about and indeed experience non-Euclidean high-dimensional geometry. And, incredibly, there are reports that the medium of thought triggered by 5-MeO-DMT is well suited to contemplate the question of “Why is there something rather than nothing?”. Getting into the weeds of why I think this happens will take us very far afield, but just to hint at it without further comment: I think this is because in states of extreme symmetry Zero Ontology is much more intuitive. A topic to be revisited in another post.

Ultimately, full-spectrum supersentient superintelligence will entail having access to all of these exotic mediums of thought and many more. Our descendants may some day have the ability to seamlessly switch between radically alien modes of cognition to tackle conceptual problems we haven’t even conceived of. In fact, that we currently can’t even conceive of, lacking the semantic primitives needed to do so.

To end on an observation that is closer to home: you do not have to go as far into exotica as the outlandish states of consciousness induced by DMT to notice how our state of mind influences the medium of our thought. Subtle, but real, are the ways in which emotions texturize our thinking. Next time you have an intense emotion, introspect on the ways it influences your imagination. In a great mood, do you not have, perhaps, much more access to soft, regular, and manageable textures of thought you can use as building blocks for your field of imagination? And when in a depressive mood, aren’t thoughts, perhaps, more likely to be built out of nauseous, gloomy, starved, or self-loathing building blocks? It is thus why in a sense it is so hard, for the most part, to “think yourself out” of a depression. This is because the thoughts themselves are the ways the depression expresses itself! (“The world of the happy is a different one from that of the unhappy.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein). On a happier note, I would like to end by encouraging you to introspect on the way music genres influence the medium of your thoughts. How, for example, the repetitive strobing of the synthesizer sounds of psytrance gives your thoughts an energized, motivated, loopy, meta, repetitive, echoey quality. Or how the signal diversity, harmonic cleanliness, and fractal organization of classical music may give rise to highly narrative, interwoven, and coherent patterns of thought. Indeed, I believe that a focused exploration of music for thinking (and music for thinking specific kinds of thoughts rather than thinking in general) has a lot of promise. I would not be surprised to find out that there exists music that is highly beneficial for learning Einstein’s theory of general relativity, or quantum field theory. And perhaps just as important, if not more so, I wonder if there is music that allows us to learn directly, intuitively, and memorably the intricacies of the nature of phenomenal love. Wouldn’t that be lovely?


Featured image source: @fractjack