Posted on 12 mins read

Depth and problematization

You can’t unthink a thought. I’m speaking of thoughts outside the borders of what we have previously thought about. These thoughts are apt to unsettle us, even consume us for a period of time. Ultimately we will incorporate them into our normal thought patterns and move on, but we will be fundamentally different selves from that point on.

These thoughts often can’t be communicated in the same words they were formed with. That’s because a thought can be experienced at multiple levels of depth, and nobody can go deep on everything. A thought like “what is love?” has the potential to be transformative for one person and totally bland for another. There is a ready-made shortcut built into most of our brains: “oh, that’s when you care deeply about someone.” Easy. But when we coast by on grade-school definitions we experience only as much metaphysical satisfaction as a grade schooler.

Depth is an end in itself. Not everyone is interested in it. But it’s also an essential dimension to knowledge—the means by which knowledge examines itself and is held accountable. Without depth, knowledge is chaos: the product of one’s social life instead of the byproduct of question and study. What’s worse, knowledge can be a form of control. If the person who communicates knowledge to you also has the ability to constrain your willingness to think about it—or to keep you so busy you don’t have time—they can lead you down paths that sacrifice your wellbeing and the wellbeing of others in favor of their own.

Our brains work against us here. Human survival has often depended more on being included than being right. We are weak individuals and strong groups. Even as we honor the ideologues of history who have stood against their peers in the defense of moral values, we punish those who do so in our presence. There is a dangerous humility in the evolution of a mind that defines its conscience in relative terms to the social norms that surround it, but that is how we are. We are indebted to our forebears for the fact that modernity has brought an improvement of many social norms. But there’s still a long way to go, possibly longer than we can imagine.

How does one acquire depth? Philosophers speak of problematization, which is the revelation of complexity and flaws in something that was previously thought to be unchallenging or complete. For example, most people’s views on parenting are straightforward before they have children of their own. Then the process of raising a child problematizes the subject. Westerners are conditioned to speak of parental love as boundless and noble, and perhaps it is—but it’s also imperfect. At times it’s soothing and healing; at times it’s ill-performed and insufficient. Generally it’s all of the above. We may say we love our children, and of course we do. But on closer inspection there are many moments when love (as it’s commonly understood) is not the dominant force. If we’re lucky, our habits guide us through those times without major incident. You may paint those habits as the product of intentional commitment and say “that’s what love is, anyway,” but that’s merely an attempt to reabsorb complexity back into the untroubled surface of a cliché. Love, as a concept in its depth, can’t be summed up. It is the joyful parts, the warm feelings, the kindness, the commitment and the self-restraint, the fear, the irrational frustration, and an infinity of other things. If we tease it apart in our minds we will find that it has as many meanings as we have time to consider, many of them sublime, a few harmful, and several contradictory or imaginary. That doesn’t mean love is bad or fake. It means that it’s symbolic.

Many people find this uncomfortable. Complexity upsets ease; depth erases certainty. It’s natural to feel a magnetic attraction to rote answers, phrases that short-circuit problematization by giving us something to think about without actually deepening our understanding. Most if not all of us have given time to the cartoonish meaning-making of cultural ideals, TED Talks, political cosplay, motivational speakers, religious zealotry, and pseudoscience. The concepts therein are symbols in the guise of truth, proverbs communicated with social and emotional force so as to encourage acceptance without scrutiny. A person surrounded by these messages can be happy. But they may be living in a dream.

Suppose you were offered a button that, if you pressed it, would transport your mind to an engrossing, inescapable paradise of the imagination. Everything you dreamed of would be yours. Hardships would end and perfect happiness would be guaranteed. However, your physical brain and body would remain in their current state, acting out (without your awareness or permission) whatever joys and pleasures your mind is experiencing—much to the entertainment or horror of anyone who sees you. The transformation would be permanent. Would you press that button?

If you would decline, as I believe I would, then you are someone who values truth at least as much as happiness. Your enjoyment of things is co-important with the belief that they are real. A thinker in the tradition of Descartes may argue that we can’t really be sure anything is real. But that doesn’t put all shades of reality on equal ground. Something we dream up in our minds is less real to us than something we can touch and hold, and we can’t very well escape our own senses.

This gives us the opportunity of turning down happiness more often than anyone is comfortable admitting. While it may be possible to achieve a measure of happiness by surrounding ourselves with echoic postulates of meaning, this is maintained only by habitual redirection of the mind away from self-examination. We set up mental dead ends for ourselves and slowly brick them up with statements that reassure our sense of self. This is natural, childlike, almost universal behavior. Those of us who have explored beyond the boundary of one of our beliefs is still bound by the rest, most of them invisible or so bound up in language and being that we don’t even have the tools to transgress them.

Yet the appearance of the right idea in the right moment can tear a seam at the edge of our awareness. And once our mind has spilled through the gap, there is no force other than death that can put it back in. We can act the part of someone whose mind has not transgressed, but we can’t summon back the ease and certainty of that form. Like Adam and Eve, we’ve tasted the tree of knowledge and are unable to ever return to the naive and placid garden where we used to live. To clarify: the garden may still exist, there may be no barbed-wire fence around it, but we will see weeds where there used to be vines, thorns instead of grass. If we want to fit in there we’ll have to pretend not to notice the blight, train ourselves not to wince when something pierces our foot.

On the other hand, happiness is not destroyed when the mind expands: it is transformed. Certain comforts may be lost to us, there may be a period of shame or discouragement, but other things are received in exchange: satisfaction, interest, integrity, awareness. One might not be happy in the same way they were before. But I rarely meet someone who wants to go back.

The effect of forbidding

One way of describing new, transformative thoughts is with the trope of forbidden knowledge. Our culture paints forbidden knowledge as being contained in various types of media. The Necronomicon, an imaginary book used in H. P. Lovecraft’s stories and many others, is one such archetype. It’s described as an ancient text that teaches of forgotten deities and details the spells that will summon them. Anyone who reads it is driven insane. We must assume this is not a physical property of the book itself, since Lovecraft wrote of multiple extant copies, but of the knowledge it contains. This archetype is carried on in the Darkhold, a popular prop in Marvel comics and TV shows, which likewise imbues its reader with powerful magic while corrupting their mind.

The recent attempts of alt-right contrarians in the United States to ban books that depict gay people, violence, or sex are bound up in a strikingly similar mythos: the idea that simply reading a book—of one’s own free will!—runs the risk of corrupting or damaging one’s mind. Of course book banning has a long and storied history, all of it bound up with the fear of forbidden knowledge. But as Lovecraft found with his Necronomicon, describing a book as too dangerous to be read only guarantees that people will stop at nothing to read it: librarians around the country had the unfortunate task of telling patrons that the book didn’t exist, and Lovecraft himself was inundated with letters asking where a copy could be acquired. In the 21st century, the human craving for forbidden knowledge is casually known as the Streisand Effect.

We rarely crave what we don’t have if we’re unaware of it. But as soon as someone tells us we must not have it, they both make us aware of it and force us to grapple with the intense urge to obtain it. When I was in college it was rumored that The Anarchist’s Cookbook was illegal to own, so naturally I spent some time scheming up a way to acquire it discreetly (before deciding it wasn’t worth the risk. I always was a goody two-shoes). It supposedly describes in detail how to make bombs and drugs, neither of which I had any interest in nor the chemistry background to follow through on. In reality, the book is neither illegal nor difficult to find. You can order it on Amazon in two clicks.

Before you go Googling it and end up on an FBI watchlist, everyone says it’s barely readable and the recipes in it are unreliable, even explosively so, so it probably isn’t worth your money.

It’s likely that the book’s rumored illegality and the transgressive nature of its contents are almost entirely responsible for its sales (over two million copies!). And a few books in similar veins have also enjoyed great popularity, likely not on the merits of original ideas or gripping prose. Could it also be true that the porn industry is buoyed up by Christian thinkers’ severe condemnation of it? Or that illegal drugs gain some of their allure from the parents and teachers who strenuously warn us to avoid them? Edgar Allan Poe spoke of the horrific impulse we feel, when standing atop a cliff, to jump off with no regard for our own lives. He called this the imp of the perverse. Prior art exists in the Jewish tradition as the yetzer hara, the universal impulse to disobey god. Modern psychology speaks of self-destructive behavior and reactance.

Perhaps this impulse is merely a manifestation of something in us that craves a deepening or broadening of our awareness, something that knows true knowledge only comes by way of transgression—not always the transgression of a religious edict or self-preservation instinct, but of the bounds within which we have previously behaved and thought. The mythological Eve prized knowledge above compliance. That is the tradeoff we often face. But for most of us it’s not the jealous god of the Bible who sets the limits, it’s our own mind in partnership with a social environment that fears betrayal more than it values possibility.

The tension between the need to transgress and the fear of social rejection is a founding principle of society. We can’t progress without transgressing, but this isn’t to say that all transgression is progress.

Genuine depth

There are people who, on a whim, reverse their opinion on a topic and claim to have achieved a greater understanding of it. Or worse yet, they adopt a “the majority is always wrong” mindset and go around feeling superior because most people disagree with them. This is worthless. An idea can be correct on its own or with millions of adherents. You don’t gain depth by going from “X is good” to “X is evil.” You gain depth by recognizing that “X” is something you’ve taken for granted—something that’s very simple to you, something you’re reluctant to question—and giving yourself space to expand it, to break it down into constituent parts, some of them good and others bad.

At the same time, we have to be careful “thinking our way to the truth” as Socrates would have us do. Our mental boundaries are reinforced by invisible biases that we’re unlikely to breach on our own. If our goal is to get the truth we have to step outside of ourselves and welcome in a variety of perspectives. Millennia of human thought and centuries of enlightened scientific inquiry have given us tools that we ignore at our own peril. And in accessing those tools, we have to be cautious not to mistake apologetics for rational thought. A question asked in good faith shouldn’t be answered with a quick rebuttal; we should let it stick in our minds for a while. If we go from yes to no or vice versa without developing a more complex understanding of the topic, we haven’t gotten anywhere—we’ll be just as easily persuaded back in the other direction. There will be nothing to immunize us against shallow arguments.

This is especially true for subjects that are unanswerable. A person who deeply understands religious belief may still choose to believe, although I maintain they won’t claim certainty about it. A person with the same amount of understanding may choose not to believe. Depth is not some “new conformity.” It’s the rejection of naive and facile opinions, not the abandonment of opinions altogether. People of profound understanding disagree all the time, often in very productive ways. Sometimes everyone is right and everyone is wrong. Complexity allows for that.

Depth isn’t featured in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We can live without it. But it seems to be the goal of the most interesting non-essential human activities: art, literature, science, travel. Any new experience, any instance of originality, has the potential to change not only what but how we perceive.

Lately I’ve found satisfying depths in the ideas of absurdist philosophy, atheism, happiness, and gender. To spend more than a few minutes thinking about something is, for me, to begin a new obsession. And in this Golden Age of information, a profound exploration of any topic—even a discourse that’s gone on for generations—is at our fingertips. There’s nothing to hold us back from truth if we care to look for it.