“Describe” actually literally means something like “draw a circle around.” That’s why, in geometry, you don’t draw a circle, you describe one. I want to play a kind of a game in which we use the word “describe” very literally – so, when we talk about “describing an idea” or “describing a person”, we have to find a way to say it as actually drawing a circle around something. And the attendant implications of that circle are that it is both real and arbitrary at the same time.
If you think of a piece of paper, and on a piece of paper there are a bunch of dots, and some dots are red, and some are blue, and some are green. You could draw a circle (here “circle” is being defined very loosely) around only the red dots, and then you could say, “look, there’s a red object on the page!” Is that true? Well, yes, kind of. I mean, there are red dots on the page, those are real. And the circle is certainly real, you just drew it. There is, in that respect, definitely a red object there. But at the same time, you could have also drawn a circle around all the blue dots, and made a blue object – so, we could say that there’s one real object (the red one), and two more potential objects – the blue one and the green one, since those dots are still there, they’re just waiting for you to draw a circle. But really there’s more than that, because you could have drawn a circle that included one blue dot for every red one and said there’s a purple object, or a circle that included all the dots and said “here’s an object I call ‘dots’”, and those would be equally real.
Real in the sense that they exist; arbitrary in the sense that you could just as easily have drawn a circle around something else.
So, the first step is imagining some nonsense.
Imagine a big sphere, a kind of giant universe, in which all the minds of all the people are floating in it like stars. Very easy. Now, imagine each mind isn’t a star, but is exploded into a galaxy – a person is like the Milky Way, and inside the spiral arms are all of these other stars, and those stars are each individual thoughts or ideas or feelings, whatever the smallest irreducible component of a notion is. I don’t know what you’d call that, or even if it really exists, don’t worry about it for now, just imagine it.
We’ve got this vast cosmos then, and it’s all full of galaxies, and each of those galaxies is a person made up of billions and billions of individual thoughts.
Now, let’s take an idea – for the sake of this discussion, let’s use “Masculinity”. This is a good choice I think, because it’s both a very big concept, and it’s a concept that we’re all fairly familiar with in practice, but it’s also a kind of variable concept, in the sense that you and I – while we might both have an idea of what masculinity consists of – don’t necessarily have the same idea of what masculinity consists of.
So you could draw a “circle” (maybe more like a wobbly blob) around all the stars in my galaxy that compose the idea of “masculinity”, and you could draw a circle around all the stars in your galaxy that compose the idea of masculinity. And maybe if we looked at your circle and saw that it composed a large portion of your galaxy, we might say that you were very masculine, and if we looked at my circle and saw that it composed a smaller part of my galaxy, we might say that I was not very masculine.
But this is complicated by a couple of factors, right? The first one is that you and I each drew a circle that we called “Masculinity”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we drew the same circle. Our circles might encompass different things – maybe your notion of masculinity is very modern, and thinks that “writing poetry” is not a masculine characteristic, but I (for whatever reason [Dad]) inherited a very old-fashioned notion of masculinity which regards the composition of poetry as an essential aspect of manhood.
So, if I drew MY circle on YOUR galaxy, that might compose an even smaller part of your galaxy than it does of mine, and if we drew YOUR circle in MY galaxy, it actually might compose a very large part of it.
Oh, good okay, so when you and I disagree about our definition of a notion, what do we do? We ask other people about it. So, let’s imagine that everyone in our giant psychic cosmos here drew a circle around their own individual notions of Masculinity, and then we all went around and were able to compare each of these circles to each other, so that we could have a broad, working notion of the definition of Masculinity.
There’s a problem, though, and that problem is the way in which we create that composite notion. Do we average all the different shapes together, until we get one general shape that is kind of like all the individual shapes? The interesting thing about this, of course, is that not only are all of us likely to have some differences between our own notions of Masculinity and the General Notion of Masculinity, but it’s entirely possible that no actual person has the exact General Notion. The General Notion is a sort of a fiction that informs all of the individual notions, and may, in fact, not exist anywhere at all – it’s an arbitrary amalgam of already arbitrary notions.
The other way to do it is to say, “what are the attributes that most notions have in common”, and then to rate those attributes according to how many different individual notions share them. And this is obviously problematic in the first place, because the overlap between these notions could all be very small – maybe no more than half of them think of “building things with tools” as a masculine characteristic. Maybe not even half, maybe it’s just a plurality – 35%. Is that really sufficient to serve as a foundation for our general notion? Well, I don’t know. If not 35%, then what number? 40%? 55%? 80%? The dividing line is arbitrary, and so we’ve got that same arbitrary delineation of arbitrary definitions that we had before.
But this second way is further complicated by the fact that we’ve also got to take into account how we define other notions – for Masculinity to be a thing in itself, it needs not only attributes, but attributes that distinguish it from similar things. It wouldn’t really be a very useful General Notion of Masculinity if, for example, it was practically indistinguishable from our General Notion of Femininity.
Say that you were trying to establish your General Notion of Masculinity here, and you settled on, I don’t know, “Aggressive Posturing” as a key attribute of being Masculine. But say that you were also South Philadelphian, and one of the key attributes of your notion of South Philadelphian is ALSO Aggressive Posturing. Say that when you went to construct your General Notion of Masculinity, you found that 47% of individual notions found that Aggressive Posturing is a key component of Masculinity, but that the same number found it to be a key component of Being From South Philadelphia.
Well, so which one is it? While we’re at it, which is the real definition? The Average General Notion? The Common General Notion? My Personal Notion? Your Personal Notion?
Well, who fucking knows, right? Maybe we should just look it up.
“Connectome” is a word that refers to the interactions between neurons, but since I’m a Hermetic Mystic in addition to being a Zen Materialist, let’s pretend that we can take As Above, So Below seriously as a concept, and that means we can also take seriously the notion of As Below, So Above, and pretend that words that describe things on very small levels can also be used to describe notions on very big levels.
So, let’s go back to our gigantic psychocosm again, with all these galaxies floating around in it, and within these galaxies are wobbily blobs that we’ll call “circles” arbitrarily describing different large notions that are made up of irreducible components.
Stars are separated by physical distance, but let’s pretend for a moment that in this imaginary cosmology of minds, it’s not distance which separates things, per se, but connectivity.
In practice, a lot of times that looks the same. In One Million BC, your inhabitants of the Dneiper river valley and your inhabitants of the Peruvian mountains could be described as very far apart in our Macro Connectome because they were separated by physical distance, and it was very hard to communicate over that distance a million years ago. Their connective distance resembled their physical distance, but only sort of coincidentally; it’s not actually the physical distance that’s the problem, but the barrier that physical distance creates in terms of connectivity.
So, imagine that these distances are separated by connectivity, and in the empty space between these galaxies are other things – free-roaming stars, if you like. Some of these are physical objects, like books. A book that I have read very deeply, and that has had a profound influence on me, could be described as being “very close” to me in this sense. Likewise, if you and I had both read and been deeply moved by the same book, we could be described as “very close.”
If we went a step further and said that you and I read the same book, and so were close in the sense that this book bridged a gap between us, and then we talked a lot about it a lot with each other, the space between us might be even more dense with free-roaming stars. Our words are little bursts of light, because they’re ephemeral – for whatever long term effect that have in your galaxy or mine, the word itself only exists for a moment. A book is a longer, slower burn – it sits between us, among galaxies, until it rots away or is forgotten or lost.
Some books, obviously, last longer than others.
And really, anything that conveys information can be seen this way. A stopsign is a connective object in this cosmos, a semi-permanent storehouse of a very small amount of fairly boring (if important) information. A billboard is a less permanent, dense piece of information. Likewise movies, poems, dance. Your clothes convey information, your haircut. Every word that you say to everyone else. Whatever dumb internet meme you shared on facebook.
This entire body of information is called the Noosphere (I didn’t make this up, you can thank Vladimir Vernadsky and his magnificent fucking beard for that [what information does a beard convey in the Noosphere? Vernadsky’s beard conveys, “I am one Russian philosopher, motherfuckers”]), the sum of all human thought, both inside and outside of the brain.
Now we imagine this cosmos of all these galaxies, and we see them at different distances to each other, and with a different density of stars in between them. And you can easily imagine how this changes every time there’s an informational revolution – once we develop language, suddenly nearby galaxies have got all these exploding stars in between them. Someone invents the Stele, and now there’s these semi-permanent objects in this macrocosmic connectome between galaxies that used to be further apart.
More than that though, certain kinds of advances change the entire topography of the noosphere. Inventing spoken language doesn’t necessarily have a huge impact, since it mostly just increases the density of connections between objects that are already near each other. But written language can be passed along to other groups, left for future generations. The invention of vellum or papyrus, that makes the transmission of written language easier, means that the connections between disparate clusters are not just denser, but that the distance between them is smaller.
In fact, as all these advances increase connectivity between distance galaxies, they simultaneously create a reduction in the nearness of adjacent galaxies – that is to say, instead of devoting your time and energy connecting to the galaxies that are physically near you, you might devote time and energy to connecting to things that already share information with you. The physical geography of the world becomes increasingly different from the topography of the noosphere.
Anyway, anyway, hang on I’m getting to something else. So, imagine these different galaxies, they’re all next to each other, and they’re comparatively close because they share a lot of information, and in between them there are all these stars and what not, some for short times, some for long times, that are correspondent with those irreducible notions that each galaxy has.
All this time, we describe people by drawing a circle according to where we keep our skin, and that’s fine – it’s a perfectly reasonable boundary. But there’s no skin in the noosphere, just stars, and when you look at how close these galaxies are, and how densely the space in between them is filled, the line of a spiral arm starts to look a little less distinct.
And while it’s easy to draw a circle around a galaxy, it’s not like we HAVE to, right? Look back at those two galaxies right there, and the circles we drew, in each of them, around notions of masculinity. There’s all this information in between them, too – books, movies, TV shows, behaviors, clothes, stopsigns. Couldn’t we just as easily draw a circle around all those ideas, too? One big circle, that encompasses the Personal Notion of each galaxy AND all the information in between them?
All right, so but you could do that with almost ANYTHING. If we’re going to discard physicality and geography, you could put any bunch of notions and ideas and media next to each other in the noosphere and draw a circle around them and say that they’re one thing.
I mean, yes, you could do that, huh. Imagine if you could reorder the noosphere every time you wanted to look at a specific object – you started by saying, “Show me everything sorted out according to how deeply-connected everything is”, and that shows you all the things that are inside your brain as being close, and all those things that are outside your brain as being some distance away.
But you could demand of the noosphere, “Show me everything according to how it relates to Beverages,” and the whole thing is turned inside out. Most of your brain isn’t spent thinking about beverages, so it’s shunted to the sides, exploded out like a tree. The parts that DO think about beverages are much closer to the part of everyone else’s brains that thinks about beverages, and they’re mediated by a consistent set of interstitial mediating objects: in the case of beverages, advertisements mostly I expect.
And WHEN you do this, the big fat clusters where everything looks similar and is deeply inter-related, without skin and meat to clearly demarcate individual boundaries, something like Coca-Cola starts to look as much like a brain as you did, when we were arranging everything by brains.
Or any idea, you could take any idea – take War, for instance – and turn the noosphere inside out so that there were these clusters of inter-related irreducible concepts that look like minds of their own. If you could track their behaviors – the way they expand and contract, the way they reproduce, the way they attempt to fight with each other or ward off invaders into their space – you might find that they look just like living things, or so much like living things as makes no difference.
You could look at a thing like that and slap a name on it (“Ares”, for instance), put a statue of it in the Agora, and there’s a way you could describe it as a god – not in the sense of an independent entity that exists outside of humanity and exerts its will upon it, but of a living, psychic entity that exists within humanity and exercises its will through it. The word for this is Egregore, in case you are interested in more Hermetic Nonsense.
And you know, usually with think about ideas like this as being made up of our individual thoughts – that is, they start with us, with physical manifestations from the world around us, and then are projected back into the human noosphere, and obviously there’s a way in which that’s true. There’s nothing in the noosphere before we start putting stuff there, obviously.
But there’s another way in which the opposite is true – the thoughtform of War predates you or me, predates our parents and our grandparents, and will exist long after we’re gone. It’s bigger and more encompassing than any individual mind existing, as it does, in the parts of every individual mind that is concerned with War. And as a requirement of its survival – because to survive, and Egregore must take up residence in more minds – it must find ways to physically manifest itself.
You can look at a sculptor in the agora carving a statue of Ares as an individual creating an object that is derived from a part of itself; but you can also look at that same event as an Egregore creating an object using a portion of itself.
There’s a lot of ways that the egregores try to manifest in the world, too. You could say that America is an egregore, a thing that exists first as a thoughtform – a notion shared by a number of individuals – and then through various steps acts through those individuals to make itself physically manifest: has them make laws to support itself, causes them to create songs adoring it, and flags that represent it.
You see the problem, I’m sure, with all of this. Once we’ve disregarded the physical boundary between minds, how do we distinguish between those parts of us that are essential to ourselves, and those parts of us that are simply avatars of some larger egregore, acting through us?
What is human identity, if what we think of as “self” is just a point where tendrils of these vast, psychic thoughtforms come together that we happened to draw a circle around?
Oh, Uh. Good Question
Good question. I mean, that physical boundary is pretty important, I guess, it is a real boundary. And we did draw a circle, so that’s something. Though, that’s an interesting question too, isn’t it? If we briefly consider the notion that any one mind is made up of many pieces of egregores, then which one is drawing the circle? And doesn’t each egregore, which has a survival-motive that extends beyond the survival of individual aspects of itself, therefore have an agenda that governs how those circles are drawn?
This is further complicated by the fact that egregore can lie about themselves, can’t they? We know this is true, that a sort of General Notion, a big idea like “Nationalism” can really serve as a disguise for some other, more nefarious idea: Cruelty or Hatred or Greed. We know that even ideas like “Objectivity” can serve as a mask for “Selfishness” or “Chauvinism.” So, even if we could be sure of what egregores were drawing which circles in our minds, how can we be really sure that those egregores are what they say they are?
After all, we’re already looking at them with other egregores.
You can see why, I think, people like to become hermits in order to devote themselves to spiritual understanding. They’re trying to isolate themselves from the egregores, divorce themselves from the psychic thoughtforms that move through all humanity, and see what sort of bubbles up inside during their absence. But the brain isn’t just interacting with these psychic gods, it also stores little copies of them – you weren’t born and raised in a hermitage, after all, and so even if you went to a hermitage now, you’d still be apprehending yourself using tools built by something else.
Even when you sit down and you have something that feels like a sublime experience, a certain connection to the Divine or something, the experience of looking on the face of God – how can you be sure? You saw Him, you say. But egregores can lie about themselves. You felt him, you say. But your feelings are tools, built by the egregores. You have faith, you say. But faith is an egregore.
What are we, then, any of us, but subjects in a vast psychic war, fought beyond the limits of our conception?
Oh, dang, I don’t know. This is just some thought experiment, anyway, there aren’t really any circles.