Is Thinking Enough?
In addition to the Theory of General Relativity, Einstein is often credited with this insight:
“We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”
Most people read this and assume Einstein is encouraging us to expand our thinking. Therefore, the postulate(1) most people mistakenly take away from Einstein’s observation is that if we improve our thinking, we can both solve yesterday’s problems and create new ones to solve tomorrow.
Common experience – in fact, the entire Age of Reason or Rationality or the Age of Enlightenment or plain old Experience itself – supports this truism. However, the evidence all around us suggests that, in the context of evolution, something more fundamental than thought makes long-term improvement much more than problem-solving. Additionally, the novel context of artificial intelligence has created expectations that we can solve our hard problems more quickly.
The trouble is that improving thought – by whatever means – is in itself bound by the process of thinking. And, as we can easily observe, thinking operates at many levels, even within any specific thinker.
Sampling Levels of Thought
Take, for example, the failure of humankind to up-level its thinking about competition. We are biologically hardwired to survive, and if “survival of the fittest” is true, this hardwiring is an insurmountable fault to up-leveling our thinking, since it results in the massive destruction of businesses, bodies, and bank accounts by those of us whose survival tends less toward cooperative solutions and more toward greed.
Along those same lines, we can observe the thinking of authoritarian dictators, religious fanatics, and plain old megalomaniacs, whose thought biases – some might call them “belief systems” – leave no room for the expansion of thought beyond their desire to eliminate anyone who does not comply with, believe in, or submit to their chosen dogma and the proprietary thoughts about it.
We ought to also include the intractable beliefs of those who must, for existential purposes, subscribe to levels of thinking that are demonstrably false per most accepted norms: flat-earthers, moon landing deniers, and all sorts of wild-ass false conspiracy acolytes. To a certain extent, these threatened existentialists also include partisan political believers.
Ultimately, it may be impossible for carbon-based organisms to think free of the hardwiring that has ensured the perpetuation of every living organism and agglomeration of them on our tiny ball of rock, not least of which is aggregated humanity and civilization as we perceive it. Although, riding the cosmic journey right alongside of us on Earth are organisms that are not bound by thought and that do quite well, thank you. We’ll return to them presently.
As much as we’d like to believe that thinking as a discipline is expanding and will continue to do so, or to believe that we ourselves default to a continuously elevated level of thinking, there’s a self-evident corollary(2) in Einstein’s observation that most people miss:
Problems are created by thinking
Am I impugning the mind one of the greatest thinkers of all time? Not at all. Rather, I’m offering Einstein’s observation as an undigested paradox of the mind – a thought experiment of thought itself. The issue? Although thinking appears to evolve in positive ways, thinking itself is also the problem. Let’s call this “Einstein’s Paradox”(3) to recognize the invitation we’ve been given to boldly go…beyond thought.
An Undigested Paradox
Philosophers have been considering thought itself for a long time. Great advances in thought during the Age of Enlightenment continue to our present day. Reason is legendary…except for the inconvenient truth that reason has, so far, done little more than create a bigger, better, faster environment for us, together with the downsides that accompany it: ever more problems.
Sure, it’s great to be able to go anywhere faster…so long as the environment of our beautiful planet can sustain the impact of our desires. Sure, it’s great to care for the unfortunate slice of humankind that has needed care for as long as humankind has been around, just not at my personal expense or in ways that I believe are unholy, thank you very much.
To be clear: Reason, especially at the level of artificial intelligence, is nothing more than inference-based pattern matching. Research has given us ample evidence of this. Ideas that are novel appear to originate with “smart” minds who can assemble and process so many patterns that an apparently “new” concept emerges from them. Chess grandmasters, Go players, and theoretical physicists are revered examples.
And that, Dear Reader, is your quick history of the Age of Reason itself. Thought – even as good as we can make it – has gotten us to precisely where we are today: escalation of good ideas that demand more thinking to resolve their bad downsides. Examples include atomic energy, alternating current, the internal combustion engine, and batteries. How does our advanced thought-based civilization respond? We add more data and think again and have some further ideas and implement them and suffer the consequences of the new problems that arise from the process. It’s a first-order doom loop, even though many of us believe we are truly making “progress.”
What if this paradoxical doom loop of thinking-created problems was digestible by appealing to not-thought?
Although humans have lots of perceptive capabilities, we have taught ourselves that there are basically two ways to organise perception. Both are based on thought and reason.
- First, the scientific method, where perception is tested over and over until it has enough empirical evidence for us to accept the perception as “current understanding.”
- Next, belief itself, which circumvents the scientific method and accepts any random but popular perception as “current understanding.”
The tension between these two levels of thinking is alive and well on Earth today. It takes form in arguments such as Science vs Spirituality, Critical Race Theory, Scientific Creationism, and Intersectionality. The tension is alive in just about every form of the sociological and political sciences, as well as in psychology and neuroscience. Researchers use this tension to propel a great deal of understanding about the measurable effects of “thought” with a head-brain-centered fervor that is sometimes alarming.
Alongside this head-brain-centeredness is intriguing research on human and non-human systems that also appear capable of perception and response. Let’s call these systems “not-thought.” These not-thought systems have been known for millennia, and are only recently getting scientific attention and study and thus becoming part of the “current understanding.”
Not-Thought In Real Life
You may recognise some of the human practitioners of not-thought as yogis or lamas, shamans, or tribal elders. Modern human manifestations of not-thought include the Dali Lama, Ram Dass, and David R Hawkins and their acolytes, whose thinking surpasses mere pattern-matching and whose operational results defy understanding by pattern-based current understanding. This bundle of not-thinkers covers mystics, seers, psychics, channelers of music, literature, and the arts, and intriguing manifestations of not-thought such as “Abraham,” the non-physical collection of beings that interact with us through the person of Esther Hicks of Law of Attraction fame.
Turning to non-human not-thought, we may observe the instantaneous not-thought communication of mycelium, the “hive minds” of many insects, and quantum entanglement, all of which work much more quickly and effectively without reason and apparently without thought.
What used to be called “miraculous” is now beginning to be understood and accepted as a demonstrable potential that exists outside of thought. Meditation is a commonly understood opportunity for not-thought, and the results of a meditation practice are becoming widely accepted in the current understanding of behavioral health, even without specific mental comprehension of the mechanics of how meditation “works.”
Does this mean that, if I meditate, I’m practicing not-thought? Unfortunately, no. Quieting the pattern-matching mind is only the first step. Sadly, for many of us, a quiet mind is an end in itself, not merely the beginning.
The rising interest in structured breathing and cold immersion is another indicator of eagerness to participate in not-thought. However beneficial huffing and puffing protocols and ice-cold temperatures may be to the physical system, one misses the implied opportunity if these are used merely as tools for physical, mental, or even spiritual wellness, or used solely to approach not-thought without actually venturing into it.
Not-Thought, Consciousness, and Einstein’s Paradox
You see, the awareness that results from not-thought practices is only the first step in digesting Einstein’s Paradox. That awareness is not mental, and it is not reasonable. One might call this awareness “unity consciousness” even though our current understanding of consciousness itself still seems to be based in and rely on the head-brain pattern-matcher.
A more apt description of the threshold of not-thought might be the “ego death” experienced in transcendental states. “Ego death” implies a kind of child-like acceptance and awareness of a world beyond or free of conscious thought.
Some(4) view consciousness, whatever its location, as just one component of thought and/or not-thought, although placing consciousness external to the head brain is a difficult leap for Science to take based on its current understanding. Einstein himself acknowledged this.
Similar to precisely determining the speed of light(5), the true value of Planck’s Constant(6), or the precise number of decimals in the value of pi(7) and other irrational numbers, there is no precise, quantifiable proof of consciousness. With the speed of light, Science assumes a close enough approximation, just as it begrudgingly allows for the existence of consciousness without precisely “knowing” what it is.
Can you appreciate how this works? It kicks the can full of more-precise knowledge that we don’t yet have further down the road into a future understanding while recognising that what could be a small unknown – eg the actual speed of light – might result in a huge error later that, hopefully, we will be able to fix at that time once our then-current understanding has caught up. Somehow.
As full of potential for error as that may be, I’m not suggesting that we sweep all the “unknowns” and irrational numbers into a pile and call that not-thought! On the contrary, Einstein’s Paradox invites us to accept the possibility that thought as we understand it is both the basis of our problems and also not the answer to them. This is not about knowledge we don’t yet have, reasoning we can’t yet make, or calculations we have yet to create that prove stuff we don’t yet understand.
Not-thought, as Einstein perhaps wryly observed, is the “how” that can lead us to truly bettering ourselves and our civilisation. Not-thought may help us integrate the observed universe in ways that give us manipulative powers over the very space/time weave we are barely capable of observing. Not-thought may be the way things happen outside of the boundaries of three dimensions, outside the boundaries of what or where we believe that consciousness exists or lies. Clearly, out of our heads.
This is not a Hail Mary pass into some future end zone. It’s meant to invite a fresh how-based perspective instead of yet another stale why- or what-based one. And, so far, let us be mindful that the only tools we have to approach this well are our fascinating but limited head brain, the “heart brain” and “gut brain” (as they are being explored and for want of better terms), and the various unexplained phenomena of communication in our physical world (the examples of mycelium and insects promised and mentioned earlier) and potentially external to it, such as quantum entanglement.
We have arrived once again at the Science vs Spirituality threshold, which is resurfacing powerfully with the turning tide of interest in psychedelics. One way to begin sorting things out is to engage more deeply with civilisation’s time-tested wisdom literature, a monumental reconciliation for which artificial intelligence may eventually condense the time scale. However, without having to wait, you can, interested Dear Reader, begin this work now and on your own based solely on your current understanding.
How Do I Discover Not-Thought?
If you doubt the veracity of not-thought, use that energy to fuel your time with deep wisdom literature. Not-thought has been with us for a long time, and its practitioners speak and write about it in ways that require us to read and hear beyond their literal words. To keep this brief, I will share only a few examples: three that are based on wisdom literature and three from non-literary modalities beneficial to and suggestive of not-thought.
“That which cannot be named.” If that’s not not-thought, what is? From the Taoist perspective, we may observe schools of not-thought such as Buddhism and the various practices that flow from it (eg yoga and meditation), which are doorways to not-thought.
A discipline of thought itself, which attempts to free the thinker to discover and operate from awareness of not-thought.
Jesus taught in metaphor, and he was not the first nor the last to do so. Why? It’s very difficult to teach spirituality using physical language. Jesus’ teachings of “now and not yet,” the precise location of the Kingdom of Heaven, Hell, “Last Days,” and the “second coming” are all grounded in paradox, and, like Einstein’s, paradox invites a deeper awareness beyond thought before the underlying teaching can be fully appreciated and practiced. The awareness tool Jesus used was contemplative prayer – communion within not-thought itself.
Why “communication within not-thought itself?” Because not-thought is in some ways an encouragement to suspend belief and embrace potentially paradigm-busting…ideas? Concepts? Rules? Doctrines? Language can only point toward not-thought, and so long as the spoken word is the best communication tool we have, we are shackled to it to convey not-thought using allegory, imagery, metaphor, simile, and all the other literary devices missing from STEM education that are now essential to evolving the current understanding of not-thought.
If digesting the wisdom literature of the world is too big a task, and if those who have made an attempt to do so (there are many more than the three examples offered above) aren’t convincing, there are other ways forward. Remember, not-thought is not a “what,” it is a “how.”
Psychedelic journeys are in vogue at the moment. Sadly, the focus of society’s interest in these journeys seems to resonate more with behavioral health than it does with digesting paradox. Fortunately, however, research into the effects of psychedelics must pivot away from their effects on the head brain, and other physical systems within the body, even if only to admit that “something else” is taking place, too. This is the intersection of science and spirituality writ large, and it is an open invitation for explorers of not-thought.
A curious offshoot of “energy work,” eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) was “discovered” almost by a happy accident and turned into a protocol by a psychologist/clinician. Science is not precisely sure why EMDR is effective, although it appears to be aligned with thought field therapy (TFT) and emotional field therapy (EFT), which are sometimes generally referred to as “tapping.” Acupuncture “meridians” and kinesiology (muscle testing) might be related aspects of EMDR as well. What can be said about EMDR and this basket of tools is that, while thought is necessary to initiate them, the effects are clearly external to the head brain’s reasoning abilities. That is, EMDR, TFT, and EFT are not-thought in practical action.
Another not-thought modality with plenty of historical support and purposeful use is music. While much of Music Therapy is concerned only with protocol-driven evidence-based interventions for diagnosable clinical ills, the medium of music conveys not-thought in practical ways beyond the clinical for which scientific evidence is still very scant.
Anecdotal evidence for this dates back to before the so-called “Solfeggio frequencies” and the chanting or toning of Christian monks. Well before those relatively modern musical moments, Tuvan throat singers and an undateable and unknown number of musical shamans have, throughout recorded history and probably before, been the epicentre of non-physical phenomena that benefitted seekers of not-thought “solutions” in their ancient communities. Today’s interest in sound healing and vibrational therapy are two limited offshoots of musical not-thought, often poo-pooed by Science while still being of measurable benefit to those who receive and use them. All of these are approaches to not-thought.
With these examples of not-thought modalities and tools in mind, let’s return to Einstein’s Paradox specifically to examine how digestible it may be.
The Digestive Method
Paradox deserves digestion, and I’m humbly aware that any paradox can’t be fully resolved here or anywhere else for that matter. That wouldn’t be the point. Instead of merely welcoming paradox and moving on (eg using “and” to glibly elide and immediately excuse discomforting paradox rather than welcoming it with a more precise conjunction), paradox functions both as the invitation and the fuel for us to machinate within its bounds. That is unless we incorporate “how” into our pursuit of “what” and “why,” we will have ignored the more important opportunity to involve not-thought in the process of digesting paradox.
This digestion is not the pursuit of knowledge (eg the Tao), nor is it higher-order problem solving (the long-vaunted “Theory of Everything”). Paradox invites us to join, for a while, the dance of improvised collaborative movement without the baggage of goals and objectives. Why? Not to resolve things, but to deepen the goldmine inside the paradox itself. There is no end state to paradox; the invitation is to continuous digestion – a process, not an outcome.
Since we are bound by our current understanding of the physical nature of the universe and cannot live wholly within paradox just yet, any gold we find in paradox may be returned to the world of Reason as durable insight or innovation. Examples include the transition to collaboration over competition, to commons over capitalism, and to altruism over self-interest.
This is the dance of “over the cliff without a parachute.” It’s what helps the pearl diver stay underwater, the ultra-marathoner stay in the race, and the daredevil discovers the skills and courage to do the impossible. It’s why we revere the master painter, the virtuoso musician, and the inspired actor. We have a built-in desire to touch the spinning wheel’s needle, and a voracious appetite to have someone else do so by proxy.
I’ve chosen the verb “digestion” to reflect the ongoing nature of interaction with a paradox. It’s always going to be an imperfectly limited task to explain not-thought processes to a thinker; shall we try together and see how it goes?
I propose the following digestive method:
- We begin with our current understanding, accept that it is a known limit, and embrace it anyway.
- Then, we state the paradox as elegantly as possible. This helps eliminate some of the tendency of thought to argue against the small aspects of an idea that are always fungible.
- Next, we fuel the paradox as fully as possible, offering all observable evidence from current understanding and relevant questions arising from it. That is, we agree that these first steps often result in a series of questions, all of which have some value, and although there may be both bigger questions and smaller ones, each one represents elements of the tension contained in the paradox itself. These questions are the objectified fuel that will power the digestive process.
- Now, the real work happens! Similar to the way physical digestion of food extracts nutrients and sheds waste, we invite our various brains and consciousnesses (or awarenesses as you may wish to describe them) to masticate both the evidence and the questions. Doing this with intention beyond the threshold of not-thought is best since the potential for fresh awareness is higher the more we favour not-thought over limited pattern-matching.
- Finally, we welcome the conclusion of the digestive process. Those with practiced experience in this process will recognise a familiar moment when the digestive process feels complete; this awareness can be further refined with even more practice(8).
Digesting Einstein’s Paradox
I have suggested and offered evidence that elevation of thought is problematic because the solutions to any higher-order thought problem also result in additional unsolved thought problems. I’ve also invoked Einstein’s playful nature to suggest that, behind his literal statement lies a more salient problem: thought itself is the root of what bothers us. We have considered real-life specimens of not-thought, and danced around the notion of digesting a paradox to discover “what” it may contain, humbly acknowledging that language is a poor means of communicating what we might find. It’s time to take the next step.
Let’s see where digestion of this paradox may lead. Because most of us are highly invested in our head brains, we will use reason and proceed slowly, allowing for the unavoidable attrition of Dear Readers when we venture beyond their familiar left brains. Even if certain pattern-matchers won’t, we dare to go.
Problems are created by thinking
- Repeating the thinking process has brought us to where we are today: more and more inviting problems and myopically inward-facing solutions (eg scientific inquiry, artificial intelligence, magical thinking) combined with increasingly scary outward-facing problems (eg pandemic, climate change, polarisation of wealth and thought itself). We want better outcomes, but we approach them Greek-ly: solely through thought.
- In our age, not-thought is enjoying a possibly-unprecedented resurgence. As generally practiced, not-thought tools and modalities are used more to escape problems than to embrace and digest paradox, and as that process is itself evolving we gleefully suspend judgment and accept the escape artists along with the not-thought explorers.
- The leading edge of paradox digestion and not-thought is becoming less mystical and more practical, even though it is as yet understood (sorry – had to bring it back to the head brain) by relatively few living practitioners of the not-thought arts (you will recall those mentioned earlier).
The Quick Side-Bar Summation and Questions
Rather than “out of the box thinking” or more David Covey-ish “Wrong forest!” machete-wielding paradigm-busting, the as-yet-unknown new way must start by tossing old paradigms completely. That is, while STEM’s attempts to compute our way to a problem-free world are noble, they are unfortunately unable to calculate themselves outside of or beyond the very pattern-matching that created them. Even allowing for the potential of quantum computing, what will Science do if artificial intelligence reaches the conclusion that not-thought is the way? More importantly, what will civilisation do without its fascination with Greed mitigated by Reason? And yet, that’s exactly what civilisation’s wisdom literature anticipates, isn’t it?
The meditation analogy works best here, provided that one has the skill to not think – clear the head brain – to invite the process to work. Another useful analogy is the dream state, where “solutions” often appear. Imperfect as these analogies are, they invite the potential we want for the digestive process of paradox. We might find questions reconciled to themselves as valuable building blocks – nutrition – from the process.
So, we activate our best not-think or meditate or psychedelic-download or ineffability machinery, and let it run through to completion (yes: you’ll know when the process is complete).
If there is a “goal” to this phase, it might be to discover “solutions” that operate within the very paradox we wish to digest. And (notice that “and?”) the probability of no insights at all diminishes with practice, so don’t hurt yourself and project that on others if nothing happens. Please.
If we truly wish to solve today’s problems, Einstein’s Paradox is an invitation to strengthen our not-thought skills and abilities. We can turn more intentionally towards the various not-thought modalities for a way forward.
We must increasingly function within not-thought to move toward durable process outcomes unavailable to us within thought.
Characteristically, Einstein’s Paradox offers renewable energy for this exploration and gives us guardrails to focus our progress. It’s a contemplation meant to be repeated. Why? Because “as a [hu]man thinketh…” is a reminder that not-thought is the way; that when we inhabit paradox fully, any temptation to think with our head brains cuts off its digestion. Remaining in the dace, or within the music, sculpture, painting, novel, koan, ego death, meditation, or contemplative prayer is the Way. Being within that way, we participate in the digestive process, recovering the fuel and discarding the waste of thought.
The end state? There isn’t one. That’s the nature of paradox in our current understanding. Setting a goal for the digestion of a paradox misses the opportunity it offers. However, one might soothe the troubled, goal-bound pattern-matchers to observe that we have plenty of practice left in this area and that it wouldn’t hurt to strengthen the practices that enrich opportunities in paradox if only to be prepared for the coming era of fascination with thinking machines.
As we tread the waters between thought and not-thought we may get tired. Some will drown, most poignantly the ones working hardest to advance not-thought against the entropy of thought itself. Whether we will work together or not is a big unresolved question, and civilisation seems to be at a tipping point. Some will favor the STEM-obsessed addiction to artificial everything; others will lean into the arts and the “new Romanticism” being bandied about.
The more ancient teachers of not-thought understood that our actual personal area of influence is very small, perhaps no more than one-to-one, and that assuming one could make a massive societal change by any means is hubris of the first order. (Note to self: evaluate leaders more from this perspective and less from the promises they make.) That is, unlike the impossible top-down advances offered by Reason (“If only everybody thought this way!”), not-thought is very much a bottom-up grass-roots process that may or may not attract a wide following. Honestly, that’s a shame, but it’s an observation that I’m merely the last to make.
And yet, civilisation has somehow evolved anyway. Enlightened teachers have appeared; some are still with us today. The potential for not-thought is vast; the opportunity it offers is unprecedented. We haven’t entirely forgotten the skills for inhabiting paradox, although making paradox a larger part of the process is still in its conjunctive “and” infancy. We know quite reliably how to strengthen new skills; will we apply that knowledge more diligently to paradox and not-thought?
Scientific inquiry itself gives us the treasure map to where the big opportunities for not-thought may be hidden. Still, it is the “micro” invitations, as we have seen, which are easier to notice, embrace, and accept as opportunities for digestion.
How will you use this information? Will you contribute to the inevitable critical mass of not-thought? Or will you remain content and comfortable with your beliefs? How malleable is your current understanding? I grant you that it is easier to stay lazy and delegate the hard stuff, and I respect that. Still, even if you’re fine, you have to look at our world and ask yourself how things are going from time to time, right? Is the mythical ease of an ivory tower truly unassailable? Entropy in the physical world is real; no one is immune. Therefore, you can stay within the crumbling constructs of Reason (OK I was judgmental there), or you can dare to find new breath in the realm of not-thought.
As you have now heard the bell of not-thought ring, I guarantee that you will also begin to notice evidence of not-thought. My ask? Evaluate that evidence carefully, then choose your “how.” As you do so, be encouraged: civilisation has merely forgotten these extra-reasonable superpowers and the yellow brick road of not-thought beckons. Shall we travel together?
(1) postulate (n): a thing suggested or assumed as true as the basis for reasoning, discussion, or belief.
(2) corollary (n): a proposition that follows from (and is often appended to) one already proved.
(3) This is not the Einstein–Podolsky–Rosen (EPR) paradox, although it is related. The EPR is a thought experiment proposed by Albert Einstein, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen which argues that the description of physical reality provided by quantum mechanics is incomplete.
(4) For example, quantum gravity research being done by Klee Irwin’s team, an offshoot of simulation theory or emergence, that expands quantum mechanics and discards string theory.
(5) See https://www.quora.com/Can-the-speed-of-light-vary accessed January 2024.
(7) See https://www.google.com/search?q=how+many+decimal+places+are+there+in+pi&rlz=1C5GCEM_enUS1029US1030&oq=how+many+deicmal+places+are+there+in+P&gs_lcrp=EgZjaHJvbWUqCQgBEAAYDRiABDIGCAAQRRg5MgkIARAAGA0YgAQyCAgCEAAYFhgeMgoIAxAAGAgYDRgeMg0IBBAAGIYDGIAEGIoFMg0IBRAAGIYDGIAEGIoFMg0IBhAAGIYDGIAEGIoF0gEJMTAyMjRqMGo0qAIAsAIA&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8 accessed January 2024.
(8) It is reasonable that some of the not-thought tools mentioned earlier, such as kinesiology, might be employed to help us identify when digestion is complete.
Over the course of more than 40 years of paying attention to how music works on us, Bill Protzmann rediscovered the fundamental nature and purpose of music. Bill has experimented with what he learned through performing concerts, giving lectures, facilitating workshops, and teaching classes. For example, he first published on the powerful extensibility of music into the business realm in 2006 (here and abstract here). Ten years later, in 2016, he consolidated his work into the Musimorphic Quest. In this guided, gamified, experiential environment, participants discover and remember their innate connection to this ancient transformative technology. Also, The National Council for Behavioral Healthcare recognized Bill in 2014 with an Inspiring Hope award for Artistic Expression, the industry equivalent of winning an Oscar.