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Symbolism All the Way Down
Memory, association, language, reality - is everything symbolic?
One of the main reasons people fall for fakes like Andrew Tate is the sorry state of their psychological worldview. This is simply a worldview informed by accurate psychological knowledge. Some of this consists in basic common sense, but the more refined it is, the better understanding you have of people (including yourself), and that means you have a better chance of making effective decisions, individually and collectively.
Lobaczewski summarizes some basics of this worldview in chapter 2 of Ponerology (and chapter 3 of Logocracy). Here’s the bit I want to focus on, highlighting memory and association, two of the most fundamental components of human consciousness:
Thanks to memory, that phenomenon ever better described by psychology, but whose nature remains partly mysterious, man stores life experiences and purposely acquired knowledge. … This collected material constitutes the subject matter of the second psychological process, namely association; our understanding of its characteristics is constantly improving, although we have not yet been able to shed sufficient light upon its nature. In spite of, or maybe thanks to, the valuable contributions to this question by psychologists and psychoanalysts [fn: and more recently by the holographic theory of memory and association], it appears that achieving a satisfactory synthetic understanding of the associative processes will not be possible unless and until we humbly decide to cross the boundaries of purely naturalistic comprehension. (PP, pp. 29-30)
By naturalistic he means scientific naturalism, or the view that tends to define nature solely in terms of empirical, physical reality. But as basic as memory and association are to our experience, they defy material explanation—they are fundamentally mental or cognitive operations. As such, they require either a supernatural (i.e. metaphysical) explanation, or an expanded view of nature that takes mind seriously as a fundamental aspect of reality and doesn’t merely treat it as a secondary, emergent property of matter.
In other words, the psychological worldview can profitably be refined by the philosophical worldview. So fair warning: strap in or bail out, because things are about to get metaphysical.
Association and memory
To start out the year, I re-read Alfred North Whitehead’s short book, Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect, originally published in 1927. Whitehead was originally a mathematician (coauthoring the Principia Mathematica [1910-1913] with Bertrand Russell). In his later years he turned to philosophy, developing a “philosophy of organism,” now referred to as “process philosophy”—an expanded naturalism in which experience is the fundamental stuff of reality, not mindless matter.In Symbolism he focuses on his account of perception, the centrality of symbolism, which has direct bearing on memory and association, and some wider implications.
Association is that fascinating process by which one thing prompts another in our stream of consciousness, or more generally: any mental connection between ideas and things. The connections can be largely arbitrary—and by arbitrary I don’t mean meaningless or random. Rather, there doesn’t seem to be any deterministic law by which one thing must form a connection with another thing and not with others, like some form of mental chemistry. For instance, one’s experiences with stiletto heels will not exclusively form associative connections with images of walking, though that will be common simply by virtue of repetition. Other options are available. The resulting connections are contextual, governed by something like relevance, value, or emotional valence, which is like the universal glue that can bind together anything, no matter how seemingly dissimilar.
That’s why certain scents can bring back nostalgic memories to some, images of terror to others, or nothing much at all to yet others. It works with anything: words, images, sensations, concepts, emotions, colors, shapes, silences, tones of voice, sexual arousal, music, phrases, postures.
Some people are also what I call more associatively limber. They make associations where others do not. In some cases, this is just schizophrenia, but it’s also the province of genius—to connect two or more seemingly unrelated facts in a creative way that expands our understanding of one or all of them together.
And of course, association would be impossible without memory, without which there would be nothing with which to associate any given element contributing to the construction of our present experience. What are our most vivid memories? The ones that are most important or emotionally valent, for whatever reason. We don’t remember every time we happened to be naked, just as we don’t perceive every face in a crowd. Though if we found ourselves naked in a highly novel situation, we’ll probably remember it for a lifetime, and perhaps the crowd’s faces too.
As Lobaczewski writes, associations, as a subcategory of memories, are psychologically relevant. They form who we are, what we believe, and what we do and will do. And in the context of ponerology, these processes can become ponerogenic. I have in mind what Lobaczewski calls conversive, or dissociative, thinking. We can be emotionally motivated to block out or deny certain memories or facts. (Like associations, all facts are also memories, as far as our conscious awareness of them is concerned.) We can selectively give preference to certain memories over others to create a biased representation of the thing being thought about. We can become creative with our memories, rewriting our own and others’ personal history and to create a more palatable and self-serving (or self-deprecating) version. Thought of in this way, most political thinking is simply pathological memory: ignoring inconvenient facts and highlighting others, real or imagined.
Whitehead takes this even deeper. Because, while we wouldn’t have associations without memories, we wouldn’t have memories without experience itself, i.e. basic cognition/perception. Our perceptions/cognitions are what become memories, and a memory is simply a re-“perception” of a past experience. And fundamental to all these things is the subject of his short book of three lectures: symbolism.
Modes of Perception
In modern western philosophy, sense perception is usually thought of as primary to our more refined conceptions about the world, including notions such as its very existence as a real world, and the nature of causality (i.e. that something actual actually causes our perception of it). According to the common scheme, these conceptions are built on top of those basic sense perceptions, importing and imposing order on them which is not present in the perceptions themselves.
To adapt one of those typically boring examples philosophers love, a follower of Hume who sees a red stiletto may say that all we can know in this scenario is that we are perceiving color of a certain shape surrounded by other colored regions. Our notion that it is in fact a shoe out there, in 3D space, causing us to see it, is a mere inference. A skeptic or idealist might conclude that we can never be sure that our perceptions don’t just exist in our minds—there is no stiletto.
Whitehead flips this on its head. Rather, it is perception of the causal efficacy of the shoe which is basic, overlaid by the “presentational immediacy” of sense perception, which brings vividness to the inherently vague sense of causal efficacy and spatial location. Our most basic awareness is of a world of things exerting their influence on us, via our organs of perception. Our actual sense perceptions fill in the details and color them with relevance. In other words, we don’t just infer causation, we directly experience it.
Whitehead points out that Hume himself acknowledges this implicitly, without realizing its import. While making the point that we don’t perceive causal efficacy, he wrote, for example, that “If it be perceived by the eyes, it must be a colour; if by the ears, a sound.” Whitehead comments: “His argument presupposes that that sense-data, functioning in presentational immediacy, are ‘given’ by reason of ‘eyes,’ ‘ears,’ ‘palates,’ functioning in causal efficacy” (p. 51). We know, on a very basic level, that we see by virtue of our eyes, i.e., by virtue of the causal efficacy of our eyes. While this fact may not be at the front of our minds at all times, it is hard to ignore when exposed to a blindingly bright light and we feel it. But even in ordinary circumstances, no one mistakes vision and our eyes’ function for the function of our toenails. We know it because it is basic to our experience.
The reality of the world-deniers isn’t so much that of a disembodied mind getting fed illusory images of false world, but a decontextualized body “seeing,” “hearing,” and “tasting” things that supposedly aren’t really there. When visualized like that, the absurdity of the position becomes pretty apparent. Because in practice, even a world-denier automatically presupposes the efficacy of his own body, no matter how much he may want to deny its concrete reality. And the division between body and environment is largely arbitrary. Rather, we intuitively trace the chain of causation from something to our mouth, for example, which we then sense by virtue of our mouth and our palate.
As for the process by which our “high-grade” sensory perceptions are formed, Whitehead calls it symbolic reference—a transfer between the two basic modes of perception, from symbol to the meaning of the symbol, the thing it represents. He defines this as “when some components of … experience [i.e. symbols] elicit consciousness, beliefs, emotions, and usages, respecting other components of … experience [i.e. meanings]” (p. 8).On the one hand we have our very real experiences of the objective world, populated by countless beings, from photons and rocks to plants, animals, other humans, and stars. But these perceptions are inherently vague. Divorced from any symbolic content, our vision is a mass of poorly differentiated color, overlapping sound, and indistinct pressure.
Since our entire environment exerts causal efficacy on us at all times, we are exposed to an explosion of information at every instant, much too much to process consciously. Our senses refine and canalize portions of this data, and through symbolic reference is added perhaps the most important ingredient: value or importance. Without value, no bit of information is more important than any other bit. That red blob is just as important as the surrounding colored blobs. That background noise just as important as the high-pitched wailing sound. That bitter burning taste just as important the salty savory one. That sharp piercing sensation no more important than that light pressure.
The object of symbolism is the enhancement of the importance of what is symbolized. (p. 63)
Our sensory perceptions import the emotional valence that makes the boundaries between phenomena clear, highlights some objects’ importance over others, and creates the world of familiarity and novelty we take as a given, where things are perceived as separate objects with utility value, sensations are differentiated (e.g. between pain and pleasure), and actions are valued as more or less useful in relation to certain purposes, either consciously (as with explicit aims) or unconsciously (as with most things relating to basic survival). And incidentally, here’s one more place—the very basis of perception—where inequality reigns supreme.
… all human symbolism, however superficial it may seem, is ultimately to be reduced to trains of this fundamental symbolic reference, trains which finally connect percepts in alternative modes of direct recognition. (p. 7)
Through symbolic reference, sense-perceptions become symbols for the more primitive objects of our experience. Sensory symbols (i.e. the “objects” of our perceptions) are transferred to the meanings found in causal efficacy. That colored area becomes something we know through past experience: a shoe. The meanings of symbols can take practically any form: other perceptions, feelings, purposes, functions, utility, felt value, importance, or simply meaning itself. For poets, sights and sounds are symbols for the words they choose. They discover the meaning of the sensory symbol in the perfect word or word combination. For readers, it is the opposite; the words prompt the discovery of their meaning. The symbol is how we penetrate into thing itself, but graspingly, with all the subjective and cultural associations that color the symbols.
What this all means is that our experience is fundamentally symbolic, and thus imbued with meaning. But it’s also fundamentally complex, and the meanings aren’t always clear. When we’re perceiving primarily in presentational immediacy, the true meanings of things are often closed to us, or at least at a remove—felt rather than clearly seen. We don’t see the “inside” of those with whom we interact, for instance. We perceive only a fraction of their external qualities.
Our physical perceptions represent only a thin slice of reality: those elements chosen to be objectified for us by other beings, and those we choose to incorporate into our own sensorium for our own purposes. There is much more unseen than seen. The “objective” elements of our perception are themselves abstractions of those unseen totalities. In the process of “objectifying” them, we select those elements and qualities of relevance (e.g. colors, spatial relationships), the ones to which we conform moment to moment, and color them with value.As Whitehead puts it, “no actual thing is ‘objectified’ in its ‘formal’ completeness” (pp. 25-26), i.e. in its fullness, its intrinsic character, and its synthesis of what it makes of the relevant things it takes into itself. In other words, we don’t bring out “whole self” to work, and neither does anything else. The objects of our experience only present one face, and the same goes for us.
Saying perception is symbolic in nature is just another way of saying that experience itself is linguistic in nature. Languages after all, are systems of symbols. Chris Langan arrives at similar conclusions riding a different train of thought. He writes:
The CTMU ignores philosophical defeatism and takes the obvious next step in the logico-linguistic tradition, which is to subject the problematic relationship between language and reality itself to logical analysis. When this is properly done, it turns out that reality and language are not so easily held apart. In fact, it turns out that they can ultimately be treated as identical for purposes of philosophical and scientific reasoning...that they can be melded in a single self-similar medium, SCSPL [self-configuring, self-processing language], which is everywhere both real and linguistic, i.e., “monic” in CTMU dual-aspect sense (as distinguished from the separative dualism pervading the sciences). (“An Interdisciplinary Approach to Reality,” in The Portable Chris Langan)
If reality itself is a language, we are examples of its terminal symbols, instantiations of metaphysical nonterminals (or syntactic variables). And what would be the “nonterminal self”—our true “meaning”? The full picture lies in the depths of the unconscious, and in the heights of our metaphysical being in the “nonterminal domain.” Glimpses of this being are commonly referred to as mystical or altered states of consciousness.
Lobaczewski highlights the importance of this aspect of our being—the connection between our “terminal” and “nonterminal” consciousness—particularly in the fight against evil. He refers to it as spiritual cognition—mental associations which are “the result of supra-sensory causation” (p. 33):
Both [Socrates and Confucius] heard the same wordless internal Voice warning those embarking upon important moral questions: “Socrates, do not do this.” That is why their efforts and sacrifices constitute permanent assistance in the battle against evil. (PP, p. 59)
This soundless voice “unconsciously awakens our associations, reaches our awareness in the quiet of mind, and either complements or rebukes our cognition” (p. 285). This is particularly important if “there is no possibility of apprehending a situation fully, but a way out must nevertheless be found for one’s self, family, or nation” (p. 287). “In this extremely difficult battle, we must not renounce this assistance and privilege; it may be decisive in tipping the scales toward victory” (p. 317).
Without this “voice,” our symbol systems are prone to error—Whitehead calls symbolic reference the source of all error. The connections are largely arbitrary, contingent on accidents of experience, and fueled by subjective aims. We can be mistaken in our sensory perceptions, our analysis of symbols, and caught up in the power of meanings that we would avoid if we understood them.
But this flexibility is also what opens the space for our imaginative freedom. Error and uncertainty provide the impetus for discovery. They create a stress that is only relieved by search and insight. The perceptual errors caused by mirrors arguably gave us optics. The search for meaning in absurdity gives us comedy. And the search for the not-obvious meaning of everything has given us myth, religion, and philosophy. In everyday life imaginative freedom lets us “symbolize the future,” and plan accordingly. Not all of our grasping is successful, but even the errors can be fruitful, and part of symbolism’s freedom is the ability to grasp associations when we need them the most—a flash of insight, warning, or encouragement.
Whitehead ends his book with a discussion of symbolism’s importance for human nations, which he categorizes as balancing acts between maintaining the stability of the social structure and the disruptive effect of individualism, both of which are necessary. Language, for example, “binds a nation together by the common emotions which it elicits, and is yet the instrument whereby freedom of thought and of individual criticism finds its expression” (p. 68). Other symbols designed to harmonize action include “codes, rules of behavior, canons of art,” all of which refer back to “the ultimate purposes for which the society exists” (p. 88).
The meaning of such symbols is “vague but insistent,” “hypnotizing” us to complete the associated actions.
Thus the state depends in a very particular way upon the prevalence of symbols which combine direction to some well-known course of action with some deeper reference to the purpose of the state. The self-organisation of society depends on commonly diffused symbols evoking commonly diffused ideas, and at the same time indicating commonly understood actions. Usual forms of verbal expression are the most important example of such symbolism. Also the heroic aspect of the history of the country is the symbol for its immediate worth.
When a revolution has sufficiently destroyed this common symbolism leading to common actions for usual purposes, society can only save itself from dissolution by means of a reign of terror. Those revolutions which escape a reign of terror have left intact the fundamental efficient symbolism of society. (p. 76)
But communities change with time, and old rules lose their usefulness, requiring revision to stay effective. “The object to be obtained has two aspects; one is the subordination of the community to the individuals composing it, and the other is the subordination of the individuals to the community” (p. 88).
He closes the book with this warning:
The art of free society consists first in the maintenance of the symbolic code; and secondly in fearlessness of revision, to secure that the code serves those purposes which satisfy an enlightened reason. Those societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision, must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows. (p. 88)
Back to Ponerology
National traditions—from language itself to common forms of address, manners, shared images, holidays, heroes, ideas, architecture, artwork, music, literature, and more—are what hold communities together, give nations their purpose, and allow their populations to participate in that purpose. Think of them as the Four Olds—Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Customs, and Old Habits—precisely what that dementor-in-chief Mao destroyed in China. Whether through stagnation or purposeful destruction, nations die slow or relatively swift deaths.
This creates a vacuum for new purposes—new meanings—to redirect the actions of populations, for good or ill. Ponerization followed by pathocratic revolution makes use of this opening. Language isn’t just perverted—the very meanings which unify a people are destroyed or blocked from cognition. And when meanings are destroyed, which includes whatever means a society had for identifying and reining in the pathology in its midst, that pathology is free to take over to an even greater extent than it had prior to the destruction.
Language facilitates the creation of virtual worlds. When the language consists in images, not mere words, it’s called imagination (or internal projection). And when you break the common images or words, or your imaginative capacity is lacking, you court disaster. In such conditions, those with the least associative agility tend to take over. Then you get a brain-damaged cultural executioner like Mao whose frontal lobes don’t work too good and whose imagination is thus fatally limited. Combine that with a dose of egotism strong enough to kill a normal person and you get such genius ideas as the Great Leap Forward (or in our age, the Great Reset) and the Cultural Revolution (or in our age, the Woke Revolution).
So as the destruction of our common symbols continues, perhaps we should take Whitehead’s warning seriously, with an awareness of the social and metaphysical import of said symbols. But there’s hope. A culture’s symbolism is not so easily destroyed, even after a reign of terror. Here’s what Lobaczewski had to say on this:
The [pathocratically subjugated] society’s historical tradition and culture constitute a pillar for those strivings aimed in the direction of normal man’s structures. The more mature cultural formations in particular prove to be the most highly resistant to the system’s destructive activities. The subjugated nation finds support and inspiration for its psychological and moral resistance in its own historical, cultural, religious, and moral traditions.
These values, elaborated through centuries, cannot easily be destroyed or co-opted by pathocracy; quite the contrary, they even embark upon a more intensive life in the new society. These values progressively cleanse themselves of patriotic buffoonery, and their principal contents become more real in their eternal meaning. If forced by necessity, the culture of the country in question is concealed in private homes or disseminated via conspiracy; however, it continues to survive and develop, creating values which could not have arisen during happier times. (PP, p. 222)
Evil loves a vacuum, because the rent is free. But the fiery wrath that results also provides a most effective source of heat for the re-forging of values which have lost their power.
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Matter being experience in its objective phase. In process philosophy, experience takes the temporal form of events or processes, which are “actual occasions of experience.” That is, they are objective in the “classical” sense (actual); irreversible moments to which future moments must conform (occasions); and self-determinative—subjective and self-creating—wholes, discrete from other wholes (experiential). Every “thing” is both an object in the experience of others, and its own experiencing subject.
Brain-hemisphere theory comes into play here. For the left-hemisphere, the world presents as “flat.” The right-hemisphere adds depth. In Whiteheadian terms, the LH is more strictly in the mode of “presentational immediacy,” while the right hemisphere rounds out the picture with perceptions of “causal efficacy” (keep reading for more on these).
This requires the two components to be in a syndiffeonic relationship, to use one of Chris Langan’s words. I.e., there must be a similarity-context between the two different linked components.
I believe this is why parapsychological phenomena are usually either inherently vague or presented in symbolic form (see Carpenter’s First Sight). We either experience these informational transfers on a “primitive” level of experience, as mere inclinations or hunches, or our consciousness clothes them in symbols to make them clear and to highlight their meaning.
This conformation is what we abstract as “time”—the conformation of state to state, actualization to actualization. The “past” is those settled events to which we must conform, from basic things like our current spatial position relative to others, to more important things like the emotional state of our significant others and their thoughts on the dirty dishes we have yet to clean. These are limitations of pure potentiality (i.e. bound telesis, in the CTMU), and our obligations to conform to these established facts are expressions of the fundamental “grammar” or “syntax” of material reality.
In one sense this is purely spatial, as we only perceive the side of the object facing us, but it is also figuratively true. We present a certain “face” to the world, but our inner self is much more complex, and hidden from the ordinary perception of others.