Imagine the Limits of the Imagination (Part I)

From Supernatural Magazine
From “Supernatural Magazine”, used without permission (please forgive)

I want to write simply, but the pathways of habit, belief and assumption that I’m trying to describe are entangled. I’m not interested in trying to dis-entangle each strand. I’ve never been able to untangle a hose let alone a mind. But there’s a difference between thinking your way out of a mental entanglement and letting the entanglement unravel of its own accord. I can’t think my way out of a wet paper bag. But it’s easy enough to fall out of one.

It’s a lazy man’s way of learning. Keep going along the usual twisted pathways, but be alert enough and precise enough in the description to at least “embarrass” the habits of thinking into “thinking twice.” This is a small part of what Jeppe means by “refiguring,” and an aspect of the plasticity that Tony refers to. And it’s a small part of what I tried to describe in the manifesto as “second sight.”

I’d like to carry on playing in this virtual sandbox with perspectives recently unearthed by Tony and Jeppe. Unfortunately, this post traces patterns that are particularly entangled, dealing with what I think may be the mother of all double-binds. I could have waited a few more posts before diving into this, but it’s too much fun. And all I want to do is get a good look at the knot – one glimpse of a blind spot that may lie at the very base of the brain stem (for all I know).

This is only a sandbox. So I don’t expect these perspectives to hold water for long. Perhaps long enough for you to elaborate on this theme, correcting it where necessary, in your own sandboxes.

Thought Experiment #1

Imagine beings who can only hear. They move along corridors of sound inaudible to us. They read intentions in the merest inflection of tone or the lightest footfall.

They would scoff or perhaps wonder at the idea that they’re living in a stunted world. Just as we might scoff or wonder if the suggestion were made about our own five senses. For their world is infinite to them as ours is to us. Theirs is limitless in its tonal shades of meaning.

Now imagine that they share their world with beings that can only see. But sight so much more subtle than an eagle’s. They move according to visions that we can’t share.

Now imagine the shock and disorientation these creatures would feel in suddenly “toggling” from their own sensory dimension to the other creature’s sensory world. This is what it means to experience parallel universes, and to step over the boundary of one’s invisible limits. Without the luxury of our own multi-sensory perception, they would have no way of relating the world of sound to the world of sight. By themselves, sound and sight describe worlds more distant from one another than stars. They would need to discover some imagination to merge these vastly differing perspectives into one whole vision.

In our lucky situation, a primitive imagination seems to have developed along with the various senses, merging sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste into one whole dimension. It takes imagination to make this merger. Imagination is therefore a kind of sense in its own right – a sense that detects the various other senses and “makes sense” of them.

I want to use imagination to roll around in their shock for a moment. Because there are several aspects of their predicament that seem relevant to our own.

It’s interesting to reflect that there’s no way for hearing creatures to imagine seeing. Their metaphors would be sonic. And though these metaphors might be subtle enough to suggest “something else”, some limit to their own view, they would sing “something else.” And it’s likely that they’d get confused by their own sonic metaphors, and come to believe that these metaphors actually lead them past their own sounds into real seeing. But from our privileged vantage point we can tell that the infinity of sight would not be accessible to their sonic imagination.

Only if they developed real sight would imagination be able to step in and make the connections between the disparate dimensions. Not prior to that.

I think this offers a clue to what imagination can and can’t do. It can imagine the limits of its own domain, but it can’t imagine what lies “beyond.” It’s customary to raise imagination on a pedestal, projecting unlimited powers to this dimension of existence. And I think this glorification of imagination actually does it disservice and can quickly devolve to sloppy, new age thinking. And by failing to appreciate the limits of imagination, we also accidentally fail to appreciate its real potential.

The shock those creatures would feel is familiar. It’s the shock I feel when I get an inkling of a realm that is not rooted in thought. For the world that toggles into view through proprioception is at first disorienting, calls what we’ve taken for reality into question. To suggest that there is a dimension that is not imaginative or based in thought first sounds nutty, and then creates a certain angst. We can’t picture what comes next, so it feels empty. Why would we give up everything for nothing.

This is what a hearing creature would say if offered to toggle into a realm of seeing. They would fear the loss of their whole infinity of hearing, and anticipate only an emptiness where the dimension of seeing supposedly exists. It would take a leap of faith to enter that new dimension.

This thought experiment is offered partly to suggest an example of the kind of transformation we’re asking of ourselves. And it’s a way to start questioning the proper role of imagination in that transformation.

The puzzle gives a hint of the sustained shock (the alertness to something new) that seems necessary to transform fear into wonder when undergoing an abrupt change from one mode of perception to another.

One can also discern in this experiment the basis for an open-ended faith in the unfolding order of the universe. A change of order scares us only when we stop equating a merely disorienting landscape with a vision of hell. It’s quite the opposite. It’s a wider, more magnificent world that’s beginning to toggle into view.

The Function of Imagination

As Jeppe pointed out in his recent post on imagination, an important distinction needs to be made between imagination as wishful thinking and the “imaginal”, which is an inseparable part of our biology, of how the brain stem and cerebellum assist in creating a functional vision of the world; and how the Neocortex extends this capacity through story-telling and theorizing in the best Bohmian sense: Trying to live coherently in a fluid world.

This is an attempt at something “imaginal.” But this post is partially asking if the imaginal has a limited application (not small or insignificant, but limited nevertheless)?

This sandbox is currently patted together to suggest the following: Up until this “moment in history” the imaginal has served to bridge or merge 1) different sensory dimensions (sight/smell/sound/etc); and 2) bridge or navigate the content within its own functional field (the different visions, “isms”, interpretations, biases, etc.).

The first function involved merging hearing, seeing, etc., into a larger whole. Without the assistance of a primitive imaginal capacity, senses would merely be inexplicable energy excitations.

The second function (navigating its own content) is two-dimensional. Now it can also navigate its own memory and the products of its own creation. (And this is only a metaphor. There is no “navigator” apart from the content, as Krishnamurti observes. But it’s a good enough metaphor for now).

This is what humans have generally done up till now – merging sensory perceptions on a biological level (in the brain stem and cerebellum); and bridging and navigating the content of imagination (in the Neocortex). In doing the second, we have regarded our ideas as if they were more or less as real as the objects perceived by our primary senses.

Now we seem to be reaching a very peculiar junction. The products of our imagination are becoming stumbling blocks. We are populating our world with almost nothing but ideas, technologies, beliefs, “isms”, dogmas, certainties, ideologies (products of imagination). But we are generally not aware of having created these things. Our most cherished beliefs seem to stand apart from imagination, as if they were eternal verities that must be defended against opposing verities. It’s as if thought has covered the world in a kind of mental glaucoma. Wishful thinking has emerged along with this glaucoma – like a feisty, lazy self-conscious “Mini-Me” version of the imaginal, perpetually trying to negotiate and argue its way between endlessly bickering ideas.

In other words, two-dimensional imagination is aware of the content (as external objects, as “Eternal Truths”), but is not aware of its own functional role in inventing them. (Bohm makes this function/content distinction with his usual clarity).

The awareness of function, in other words, would be a third-dimensional sense perception.  And I think it’s beginning to emerge in human consciousness. But we need to refrain from striking up a new age choir of angels. On one level all it means is that we finally start to notice that we’ve been tripping over our own two feet for several thousand years. It means we finally stop and wonder what the fuck we’re doing up there in our heads all day. It’s been wobbling up there like a walrus on a telephone pole long enough. It’s time to coax the thing down, so that imagination can fulfill what may be its culminating “destiny” (if you think of a hammer as having the inherent “destiny” to smash a nail).

But this third-dimensional sense perception would no longer be considered imaginal. The culmination of the imaginal is that it gains the maturity to realize when it should speak and when it should shut up. Now we are coming to the farthest reaches of the imaginal itself. In learning to navigate the function of imagination, the imaginal has an essential but limited role.

Is it possible that the imaginal power of story-telling, metaphor-making and theorizing is not so much aimed at making sense of the whole of existence, but “only” its own portion of that eternity? Is the imaginal a movement tending towards proprioception, towards a discovery of the limits of imagination itself? Is the imaginal culminating in the resolution of a root-level double-bind, which has kept us in thrall to the imagination itself, preventing us from taking a step into a radically new dimension of perception that has been called many things, though every name is imaginal?

I think that imagination as wishful thinking more or less corresponds to Bohm’s “thought.” And the “imaginal” corresponds to Bohm’s “thinking.” And proprioception may refer to a new sensory capacity that is just emerging. It’s perception that is neither thought (imagination) nor thinking (imaginal). But it doesn’t entirely supplant those functions either. It overlays the old in the same way the Neocortex overlays the cerebellum. Not a replacement, but a new dimension of perception.

This sandbox lets me surmise freely. Maybe as Bohm implied there is a latent potential in the Neocortex for perceiving itself (not as an external object, but proprioceptively). Maybe this potential will begin to swell and be reflected in a new unfoldment of the brain, which could overlay the Neocortex itself.

I don’t mean to suggest that proprioception is rooted in the material of the brain. But the brain is very subtle mud, and begins to show the footprints of something exceeding it. But proprioception seems to suggest what Tony Dias is saying – that proprioception is what evolution looks and feels like.

Plasticity and Evolution

Distinguishing between proprioception and the imaginal at the farthest reaches of the imaginal is almost impossible. There’s a zone of merger that is reminiscent of the contact point between lichen and rock – the zone where rock is transformed into something more animate and plastic.

But let’s use the metaphor of light. Proprioception is when the dark corridors of habitual thought are lit. Even if proprioception happens only in corrective flashes, it sheds enough light so that thinking (the imaginal) can create more coherent pathways between different contexts of thinking itself. It lets us navigate the content of consciousness without starting a war.

Instead of trying to picture proprioception (which would be as difficult and misleading as trying to see an audio recording), let’s see if we can’t picture instead what the imaginal is doing at its “culminating” moment.

We need to appreciate the unique qualities of mature imaginal perception. Only a primitive form of imagination was needed to merge the other senses into our familiar world. But Neocortex imagination (the fanciful and imaginal) seems to be the only “sense” that has enough plasticity to fold in on itself, creating its own sub-dimensions. (This seems to be reflected in the material of the Neocortex itself, which is extraordinarily plastic and composed of folds within folds).

Although thought and imagination have a tremendously plastic potential, these sub-dimensions tend to harden into “isms”, ideologies, and assorted certainties. Then, like great continental plates, these sub-dimensions tend to only slowly wear away or be subsumed as new cultural forces rise to the surface. And occasionally there are volcanic outbursts of new perception that reshape the landscape of assumptions. But in general, the great plasticity of the imaginal tends towards hardening dogma.

We’re edging towards the theory that this tendency of animate plasticity of mind to harden into increasingly inanimate habit occurs at present because proprioception is generally lacking. We’ve said that at present proprioception generally shows itself as a corrective flash (a volcanic outburst), rather than as a fully realized perspective.

And what is keeping this perspective from being realized? Why is there a tendency towards inanimacy (non-plasticity) even in the face of another, perhaps stronger tendency towards plasticity (learning)?

This provides a pretty picture of tides of animacy and inanimacy (death and life) flowing in and out, corresponding with the image of tectonic plate movement.

I hate to spoil the lovely symmetry. But I don’t think that’s it. Because a tendency towards inanimacy (a true death wish) is not the same as dying. Dying (and Krishnamurti speaks of this with tremendous precision and clarity) is a movement of plasticity itself. Death is negation, the surrendering of attachment to static form. By dying to an ideology or memory, a new vitality is freed from its clutches. Death is the shedding of empty shells. It’s only when we clutch shells of memory and idealism that we are tending towards inanimacy. Inanimacy is a rejection of both life and death.

So I’m squashing out that sand castle, moving on from that static idea.

What is the reason the mind tends to cling to static form (denying plasticity, denying negation, death and the perpetual evolution that is animacy)?

Here, the role of the imaginal is to show the starting point of its own march to inanimacy. The imaginal is not aiming now at something beyond its borders, some ideal state such as proprioception or “another dimension.” All that is beyond its reach.

What it needs to do is illicit a shocked recognition of its own limited movement (an alertness to its own inability to fathom a new sensory dimension, a geography it can’t map). And the doorway to this geography is proprioception.

My feeling is that we are not yet able to move there because the imaginal retains a root assumption of its omniscience that has not yet been exposed to light.

In part 2 I’d like to try the impossible, to construct a mirror that will shine light on the imaginal’s deepest assumption of limitlessness. I want something to shock us into recognizing the limits of the imaginal. Maybe it won’t shock us, but I think the potential of shock is in direct proportion to how deeply we drift into the proposed thought experiment. Next time I hope to catch a proprioceptive glimpse of imagination confronting its real limits.

19 thoughts on “Imagine the Limits of the Imagination (Part I)

  1. I can imagine one limit of the imagination and that is to imagine nothing. We discussed this at length before while you, Brian and I were wracking our brains. The imagination, seems to this imagination, a great sandbox, where all things known through experience are allowed free reign to play, and things not understood are puzzles to be pieced out. The idea of “nothing”, or “no thing”, becomes a thing when we conceptualize it. This concept, then, becomes something, so therefore, not nothing. Imagination seems to stand at the failing point of understanding nothing.


  2. Yes, if I can ever stay indoors long enough this week to start part II, I intend to go into “nowhere” or “nothing”. Thanks Justin! I was thinking of mentioning this poem in the next part, but here it is now:

    The Three Oddest Words

    When I pronounce the word Future,
    the first syllable already belongs to the past.

    When I pronounce the word Silence,
    I destroy it.

    When I pronounce the word Nothing,
    I make something no non-being can hold.

    By Wislawa Szymborska


  3. jeff, i’m not online much these days so i missed this and part 2 until now. but great to read your excursions into the imaginal, really exciting that you’re exploring this territory. it brought up lots of things for me, right now i don’t have the time or quiet to elaborate but will do so in due time! greetings from across the sea, sending you the best for your continued journey!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I just discovered your writings and started at the beginning, am reading through. So glad to be here, reading. Thinking of Parmenides, too… I’ll comment more as I amble along.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had to look up Parmenides. Very interesting. I’m ignorant of many worlds quite frankly, so any comments will be appreciated.


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