Cogito ergo sum is undoubtedly one of the most well-known phrases from philosophy. Just like other popular memes such as e=mc2, the catchy phrasing hides a wealth of complexity. The “I think” part is problematic enough. What is this “I”? And what does “think” mean? English grammar implies that the “I” is causing the thinking to occur and yet that’s clearly not always true. In fact, the opposite might be far more common. What if thinking happens to us? Anybody who’s tried meditation exercises knows that experience and if you’re lying awake at night unable to sleep cos there’s a million thoughts going through your head, you certainly don’t feel like the causative agent in the process.
In his meditations, Descartes was carrying out an example of what is sometimes called directed thinking. He intentionally set out to doubt everything and then realised that the one thing he could not doubt was that he was doubting. Other famous examples of directed thinking from history include Archimedes jumping out of his bathtub with the answer he was seeking, Newton or Kepler pouring over the mathematical patterns of the solar system, or a Socratic dialogue. The Manhattan Project and the Apollo Space Program are classic examples from the field of engineering. These all fit into what I have been calling, following Gebser, the Mental Consciousness.
In the modern world, we equate this kind of thinking with “truth” and yet there are other kinds of mental experience that also claim to discover truth. French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, wrote of an experience he once had lying in a boat on a lake in Switzerland. He told of being overcome by a feeling of oneness with nature. We might describe his state as a kind of disintegration of the ego as if there was no longer any “I” involved.
Does Rousseau’s experience count as “thinking”? It certainly wasn’t an example of directed thinking and yet there are religions and philosophies in the world (mostly eastern) that argue that this kind of experience gives access to the true nature of reality. They might say “I don’t think, therefore I am”, as if thinking somehow got in the way of perceiving what is real.
With the changes brought about by Rousseau and the romantic movement in general, the seemingly simple phrase “I think” had become rather complex by the beginning of the 20th century. Edmund Husserl founded the discipline of phenomenology which examined mental phenomena in great detail and found that “directed thinking” was just one among many types of cognitive activity. Meanwhile, Freud and Jung found that the “I” was made up of many parts. Jung further found that consciousness had both an unconscious and a collective aspect i.e. the collective unconscious, while the broader historical investigations of the 19th century placed thinking/consciousness in a historical context. Descartes’ original certainty has become far less certain, but arguably also more interesting.
Recently, I’ve been pondering the issue of consciousness from the point of view of “energy”. The turn towards energy in physics had its precursors in the 18th and 19th century but reached a new peak with Einstein and Quantum Mechanics. But the focus on energy was not just limited to scientific investigations. Through the industrial revolution, the harnessing of energy changed society. Fast forward to today and we have a society that runs on energy, something we have come to take for granted but are going to have to re-learn the hard way in the years ahead.
As I’ve intimated in the last several posts, some of that newfound energy was turned turned into psychic energy – aka Magic – in the form of propaganda, advertising, marketing and public relations and it is here where it makes sense to model psychological phenomena in terms of energy. To do so, we can use a couple of concepts from Nietzsche.
Most people who’ve heard of Nietzsche know about his concept of will to power. In the original German, the phrase Nietzsche used was Wille zur Macht. Macht can mean, among other things, strength (it is related to the English words might and mighty). The word strength appears a lot in Nietzsche and is arguably one of the most misunderstood concepts in his philosophy. Nietzsche was primarily concerned with psychology. Accordingly, he gave the word strength a specifically psychological meaning: the ability not to respond to a stimulus.
In Latin, a stimulus is a stick or pointy object and so the modern meaning is a metaphorical extension from a physical cause i.e. getting poked with a pointy object, to anything that causes a mental or emotional response. Let’s take the everyday example of bullying. While bullying can and does take physical form, the majority of bullying occurs at the psychological level. The bully provides a stimulus that they hope will achieve a response from the victim: fear. The ability not to show the bully that you are scared, even if you are, is where the strength comes in. In the Nietzschean sense, that’s the ability not to respond to the stimulus. We see the exact same thing with internet trolling where the goal is simply to elicit a response of anger or outrage. As the saying goes, don’t feed the trolls. Don’t respond to the stimulus.
From the philosophical and intellectual point of view, Nietzsche’s definition of strength evokes the idea of epoché from the Pyrrhonic school of philosophy in Ancient Greece. In its more extreme forms, epoché is the idea that any assertion of truth is invalid (quite similar to certain eastern philosophies). But there are less extreme interpretations of the same notion. Goethe, for example, advised us to investigate a phenomena from many different angles before drawing conclusions. The systems thinkers of the 20th century promoted the same idea.
What we are talking about here is scepticism. It’s indicative of our culture that scepticism has a bad connotation similar to cynicism. But just like the original cynics were mostly concerned with freedom, the original sceptics were concerned with investigation, exploration and discovery. They saw the premature assertion of “truth” as a limiting act. Having worked in the science and technology fields my whole adult life, Nietzsche’s implication that scepticism requires strength seems to me to be true. It’s hard to be sceptical. It’s difficult to withhold judgement and keep an open mind. That’s true of individual psychology and it becomes even more true when social and political pressures enter the picture.
If we translate this into energy terms, we can put it this way: it takes more energy to be sceptical. It takes more energy to keep an open mind, to do one more test, to consider one more alternative hypothesis. To the extent that society punishes scepticism, it takes strength to withstand social pressures and hold onto your own mind.
We see a variation of this in cheesy cop movies where the grizzled detective knows the suspect is innocent and won’t let the case go despite the fact that everybody else is happy with a guilty verdict. This is how it often works in the real world. Things are abandoned when they are good enough, not when they are absolutely good or true in some abstract sense. What’s more, forcing people to re-evaluate what they already believe to be true is the equivalent of making them do work and typically gets the same response as asking them to do real (physical) work.
Tying these threads together, we get a view of the human psyche as follows. It is a complex entity composed of parts. It is capable of multiple kinds of cognition of which directed thinking is only one. Its mental or psychic state is heavily influenced by external factors, mostly socio-cultural in nature. The “energy” that impacts the psyche can come from within in the form of desires, drives, instinctual reactions and will or it can come from without in the form of political hierarchy, peer pressure and cultural norms. Another way to think of the Nietzschean definition is that mental strength is the ability not to allow these energy flows, whether internal or external, to overwhelm the mind. In a more specific philosophic and scientific sense, it’s to be able to continue to think logically, rationally and sceptically despite pressure not to do so.
One of the things that has happened in modern society with the massive increase in the amount of energy available thanks to fossil fuels is that the amount of “external energy” impacting individuals has grown enormously. Although I don’t know how this could be quantified, I assume the amount of external stimuli the average person is exposed to has grown proportionally to the amount of energy available to society.
I’ve talked about this in relation to advertising and propaganda in the last few posts. In those cases, the stimuli in question is the images, sounds and words transmitted though newspaper, radio, television and now the internet. While all of these mediums can be enjoyable and educational, there is also no doubt that they now comprise the most extensive propaganda machine the world has ever seen.
But what is propaganda if not stimuli designed to elicit a psychic response? And that is the other main difference. Not only is there more stimuli, it is stimuli designed to achieve an outcome. It achieves that outcome by treating the individual as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. Such stimuli is de-humanising but it is this stimuli which has grown exponentially in the post war years. The de-humanising effects have been hidden by the fact that most of this has taken place via the feelgood mechanism of the consumer society. But now that consumer capitalism is starting to fail, we are catching a glimpse of the horror behind the curtain.
Modern capitalism has been increasingly employing such stimuli in order to sell products. Processed food might lure us in with the promise of convenience, but it is largely the sugar, salt and spice content that does the job of creating a regular customer often at the expense of the physical health of the individual and community (as the soaring rates of diabetes and other lifestyle diseases evidence). Computer games, pop music (check out the theory behind K-pop), internet marketing funnels and all kinds of other products are now designed with stimulus-response mechanisms in mind.
In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes an example of a company developing a household cleaning product that was odourless. Even though the product worked well as a cleaning agent (or so they said), it didn’t sell. The company stumbled across the idea of mixing a scent (a stimulus) into the formula and suddenly sales skyrocketed.
Now, it might be argued that what’s the harm in adding a little sugar and spice if it gets people to buy products that work. There’s at least two problems with that. Firstly, it’s a very small shift from hijacking people’s subconscious to get them to buy products that work to getting them to buy products that don’t work. In fact, this would make economic sense because you don’t have to waste all that money on research, development and testing (hello corona “vaccines”). You just churn out any old crap and let the marketing and advertising people sell it.
The second problem is that, even with the best intentions, the overall amount of stimuli will increase to the point where it overwhelms the psyche. If strength is the ability not to respond to a stimulus, we can also surmise that nobody is infinitely strong and through sheer volume of stimuli the psyche will get overwhelmed. This seems like a good description of modern society.
However, natural systems are not static. They adapt to stimuli. A good example of this can be found in recreational drug use. Recreational drugs change the chemistry of body and usually involve a large release of dopamine. The dopamine receptors in the brain are calibrated for natural amounts of dopamine. When the body starts producing unnaturally high amounts of dopamine due to a drug stimulus, those receptors recalibrate. They desensitise themselves as a protective measure. What that means for the drug user is that, over time, the same stimulus no longer has the same effect. Many users will increase the dosage to compensate and this all too frequently ends in overdose.
This seems to me to be a good analogy to modern society. The amount of stimuli the average person is exposed to has grown rapidly in the post war years and this has caused a subsequent desensitisation process to occur to protect the psyche. What this process feels like is meaninglessness. Nothing really seems to matter. Furthermore, the effect of any new stimulus is dulled by the already over-stimulated state of the system. More and more stimuli are then added to try and compensate in the same way the drug user increases the dosage.
The current state of western society to me can best be summed up by the adjective catatonic. In the aftermath of corona, arguably the greatest propagandistic stimulus in history, the psychic and political body of western society is completely moribund, zonked out on the floor like an opium addict, unable to respond to any stimulus at all. Coincidentally, the same is true in the economic sphere. Trillions of dollars are now pumped into the economy as a matter of course and all we get is inflation.
Science, philosophy and the Mental Consciousness in general have always been predicated on an absence of distracting stimuli. Kepler and Newton poured over their equations alone in their studies. Archimedes was (presumably) bathing alone when he had his eureka moment. Nietzsche lived alone in the Swiss alps and had his greatest thoughts while mountain walking. Einstein worked by day in the sensory deprivation tank of a patent office. All else being equal, we would expect an increase in stimulation at the societal level to lead to a reduced functioning of the Mental Consciousness and that does seem to be a fact of modern society.
If there’s a silver lining to be found, it may be this: as the amount of energy available starts to fall in the years ahead, that will mean less external stimuli to deal with. Is it too optimistic to hope that this will create conditions in which thinking can once again take place? It’s also true that longer-term adaptations can take place which open the possibility of increasing strength over time. Could that be a re-discovery of scepticism, withholding judgement for longer and integrating more? In short: the Integral Consciousness. Scepticism takes more time and within the current economic paradigm where time is money, it costs too much to be sceptical. If that economic paradigm disappears, maybe we’ll be able to afford to think again.