We spend days, months, even years looking for answers. People who find the answer are celebrated as geniuses, prophets and inventors. The world beats a path to their mousetrap. In contrast, we don’t spend much effort looking for questions. That the outcome of a long investigation could be a question rather than an answer seems absurd. From five years ago:
there are two ways of being: the answer way and the question way. The answer way wants certainty, though it will settle for closure when it can’t get certainty.....
The question way has much less prestige. There are no patents for questions. There are no named professorships at Harvard for questions....
To the questioner, an answer is just a question’s way of asking another question.
This essay comes after 30 months of question seeking or what I call presearch. Towards the beginning of that journey, on February 26th, 2018 I wrote with some arrogance:
On January 1st, I took on the minor ambition of reimagining our planetary condition as my new year’s resolution....We are entering an era of existential politics, where the current obsessions of government such as taxes are going to be replaced by the elemental obsessions of air, water, food & climate.
Should have added viruses to the elemental obsessions.
We need a term that reflects the earth straddling impact of humans. It also has to be a term that reflects the agency of the various beings who live on this planet and finally, the institutions we want to create to negotiate this new order......I believe that term is Geocracy.
I am confident that Geocracy is the correct setting for existential politics, just as democracy is the right setting for representative politics. But is there a larger entity for which it’s the right setting?
Of course, there is. Geocracy is a way of ordering terrestrial existence; understanding the latter should give us some clues.
The only life we know is terrestrial. It's what we take for granted: the world beneath our feet. Science says that rocks and stones are mostly empty space, but that doesn’t persuade me into jumping off the cliff. Science also tells us we are an inconsequential species on one planet out of trillions. Not the most exalted presence. But technology tells us we are making the earth great again and again.
We are the rulers of the Anthropocene after all.
Whether we live in harmony with the trees and the birds or we slash and slay them, the only reality we know in our bones is terrestrial reality. Therefore the question arises: how to understand this terrestrial reality?
Mind and Society
The earth has many more beings besides the human, but one mark of the Anthropocene is how small a role these beings play in our imagination of the good life. How many of us consider the tree in front of the bedroom window the reason why life’s worth living? For us, terrestrial life revolves around two pillars of the human world:
One focusing on the individual and the second on the collective. The discipline most associated with the mind is psychology, which is primarily an investigation of the empirical human mind: how we think, perceive, feel and act in the world.
It's a relatively new discipline, starting in Germany in the late nineteenth century though its fair to say that Freud's work catapulted psychology into the public eye as a discipline that informs life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
At least in the West.
A Minor Rant
And since the western style of thinking is the one we are conditioned to act upon, I might as well start with its division of labor.
Even if you believe ancient Indians had the bestest ideas about the mind and even if you’re true in saying so, your life in the 21st century is derived from the Western way of life.
In fact, every time someone says 'Indian Psychology' is better than 'Western Psychology' they're already accepting the London frame. Resisting that imperial frame will take more than stamping ‘Made in India’ on a bottle of whisky.
End of rant.
Let's now look at how psychology carves up the mind.
Four Psychological Minds
Psychology is a rich field with distinct ways of using the term 'mind.' While those meanings are related, they offer distinct pathways to elaboration and research. Let me name a few minds here:
- The healthy mind.
- The mind in the brain
- The private mind
- The meditative mind
A brief discussion of all four minds below
M1: The Healthy Mind
Most of us prefers happiness to sadness and pleasure to pain. We have created large and powerful institutions designed to boost our spirits and help us make sense of finite existence in a sometimes unforgiving world.
As parents and caregivers, we take particular note of the feelings and well being of children.
Which is to say that whether we use the term 'mind' to gauge our own feelings of pleasure and pain or not, it has an ongoing role in our lives through the assessment of our state of being. When we find ourselves chronically incapable of finding balance, we seek advice and care, whether from a guru or from a pill.
M2: The Mind in the Brain
Digging deeper into happiness and its causes quickly leads to the neurochemical and neurological origins of feelings. We now know that the subjective aspects of experience have a correlate in the brain and scientists are discovering ever more subtle ways in which mental phenomena have a basis in brain networks.
In short, when scientists talk about the mind, they increasingly do so in the context of the brain. Increasingly, questions of mental health are also being translated into pharmacological interventions.
M3: The Private Mind
The private mind is the mind of subjective experience. Toothache makes it hard for me to conduct my life but it doesn't affect other people at all - they continue with their lives as if nothing happened. In contrast, an earthquake affects us all the same.
What's the difference between a toothache and an earthquake?
One powerful account says that all mental feelings, perceptions and thoughts have an irreducible 'subjective' component that's only available to me and no one else. Which then poses a deep question: how does subjectivity arise in a world of objects? How do electrical impulses in the brain lead to the perception of pain and pleasure?
M4: The Meditative Mind
Digging one step deeper into private experience, we can ask what happens when people find themselves in exceptional mental states: in dreams, by ingesting or inhaling drugs, or most systematically, through deep meditative experience. There's a very basic question: “what's more fundamental?”
- Every day experience of which meditative experience is a refinement OR
- Meditative experience of which everyday experience is a pale reflection.
Both have their votaries. By analogy, we could ask the same questions when it comes to the physical world: “what’s more fundamental?”
- The every day world of which the universe of stars and atoms is a refinement OR
- The subatomic and cosmic universe of which the everyday world is a pale reflection.
Here, we have come to a definite conclusion when it comes to the objective, physical realm: the reality exposed by precise and subtle experiments is more fundamental than the reality of the everyday physical world.
Mind as Psychology
In short, the dominant understanding of the mind lies within 'psychology,' which is increasingly being integrated within neuroscience with applications in mental health. There's also the ongoing relationship with computing and artificial intelligence. If I were to summarize the prevailing dogma in three lines, it would go as follows:
- The mind is attached to an individual, whose mental capacities and events are
- Grounded in firings of neural networks in the brain that in turn are
- Implementations of computational processes
In short: we are computers running on neural hardware housed in a human body.
That takes care of the mind, but what about the world? No one, whether ancient or modern, believes the everyday world is contained in the everyday mind. They may think an expanded mind, say, the mind of cosmic consciousness, swallows the world. Or an expanded world, say, the realm of neurons and synapses, swallows the mind. But absolutely no one thinks the everyday mind as it is swallows the everyday world.
Markets aren’t emotions, however irrational the exuberance.
If the mind isn't the world, then much of the world is left when we subtract the mind. How do we capture what's left? That's where society comes in.
What's missing in all these minds is a sense of shared reality, of collective experience. Whether we look at the brain or at private experience, the focus of investigation is the individual. There are traditions of social and cultural psychology that correct for the focus on the individual, but they typically look at how an individuals thoughts, beliefs, emotions etc are influenced by the social environment around them.
For example, that's one way of answering the question: 'what's the Indian mind?' by asking if there are patterns of thought and belief that arise systematically by being born and brought up in an Indian family.
But there's a very different idea of reality missed in all of these approaches: that we live in a shared world and experience it as such. Perhaps God, i.e., the one without a second, would have no experience but self-experience, but for the rest of us, to open our eyes is to reveal a world outside ourselves. The isolated individual is a useful abstraction for some purposes, but a brain or mind suspended in a featureless matrix squirts away what's most important about existence.
Consider that most insistent of worries: that I too will die one day.
If my death means the death of the universe, then I might feel the satisfaction of a cosmic suicide bomber, that I am taking all of existence with me. Alas, the world goes on as I fade away. And I know that. What the Buddha calls 'dukkha' - the inevitable suffering of all existence - is precisely because we are all embedded in the wheel of collective existence ('samsara' as the ancients called it). We can't escape that knowledge, for it reappears even in the depths of the mind, in the deepest sleep, in the height of meditation. What to do?
I will bracket that existential dilemma for it’s taking us away from a model of collective existence that works at an everyday level: society.
It's got its downsides: society typically means only other human beings, not heterogeneous collectives of humans, animals, plants and things. Even when we generalize the term, and say 'Monkey Society' or 'Dolphin Society,' we mean collections of monkeys and dolphins alone.
Why this assumption of homogeneity?
The ideal society would be a Shivji ki Baraat, i.e, the wedding procession of the God Shiva, in which there are beings of all kinds: gods, animals, demons and every other thing that exists.
Until then, we will have to content with human society. Society helps us manage many of the complexities of collective existence: in one umbrella, it brings together governments, parliaments, markets, taxes and other paraphernalia.
So what's the problem with society? There are at least two - one because of the moment we find ourselves and the second how it's always been.
- The sub-individual is as important today as the supra-individual. When Facebook can target my emotions with precision, I am no longer an individual in its eyes. Similarly, if we use personalized gut bacteria to regulate emotions, the reach of the pharmaceutical industry extends to my intestines. Social institutions such as companies no longer deal with me as an individual but as an 'internal collective,' which is another way of saying that a theory of collectives that starts with individuals isn't fine-grained enough.
- Societies aren't static: they change all the time. New ideas influence how people behave. New technologies influence how they travel and communicate with each other. Once a country builds railroads, it becomes possible to buy your goods from across the country rather than from my neighbors. This shift is fundamentally cognitive: i.e., new possibilities open up as a result of changes in the material system. To use tortured language: our world is full of actual materialities and possible materialities. Only a cognitive approach makes sense of both the actual and the possible at once.
Finally, after a meandering journey, we have arrived at a conceptual design brief:
Invent a term to describe collectivity that:
- Runs from the sub-individual to the global, exhibits cognitive and social features
- Exhibits cognitive and social features,
- Accommodates institutions
That, my friend, is cosiety.
And as I have argued in recent essays (here, here), cosiety is the right setting even for the most adamantly societal structures such as caste. If I was rewriting the previous 30 months from scratch, I would start with cosiety, make my way into geocracy and planetary politics and take a bow 🙇🏽♂️. Of course, that still doesn’t tell us what cosiety is, just that whatever it might be is lurking behind the bushes. Is it an elephant? A lion? Superbat? Don’t know, but there’s something out there.
I leave you with the question I have been seeking for 30 months:
What is Cosiety?