The Future of Conversation
Carl H. Flygt
Self-consciousness, because it is all-pervading and so close to the private and personal concerns of the individual, is perhaps the most powerful cosmological force shaping society through history. Social interactions are generally structured around the need to avoid embarrassment and impropriety, and individuals are largely motivated in life to achieve moments of love, recognition and praise. These sociological patterns of interaction are deeply inbuilt. Moreover, whenever a new way of experiencing self-consciousness is discovered and becomes acceptable, for example with the advent of a new religion or of the widespread use of psychoactive substances, society generally develops in ways that reflect the new mode of experience. If any one thing holds a key to the evolution of society and our world generally, self-consciousness would appear to be the prime candidate.
There exists a mode of self-consciousness that until recently has been invisible as a possible instrument of social change and evolution, and that is individual self-consciousness in well-formed conversation. The reason for this invisibility is that “well-formed conversation” has only recently shown signs of being definable. Critical to that definition are John R. Searle’s 1979 classification of possible speech acts and my own 2006 essay entitled Conversation – A New Theory of Language. Should a highly self-conscious mode of conversation prove logically tractable and generally workable, it seems all but certain that a good bit of social evolution will have to follow from it, because such a mode of conversation will depend crucially on new patterns of social interaction and individual self-regard.
What exactly is well-formed conversation? Essentially it is a social situation in which moment to moment everyone present is satisfied by what was just uttered. It is a situation in which each individual’s intentionality is, in an important sense, identical with the intentionality of everyone else. It is a condition in which everyone present is in possession of the same mental content and by extension shares the same mental state. It is a condition in which an intended unity binds the experience of everyone present into a whole that transcends the experience of the individual, and at the same time makes total use of that experience for purposes that usually cannot be understood by the individual alone. It is an ideal or archetypal form of collective intelligence, in which a group of free human beings functions in substantially the same way a school of fish or a flock of starlings does. It is a situation in which language and language use emerge as tokens of a deeper, psychic mode of communication and a biological field phenomenon takes center stage in determining behavior and social normality.
Twenty-five years of the study of Chinese qigong has been sufficient to convince me of two things. The first is the usable reality of biological fields, the energies of mind and body that are responsible for growth and morphogenesis, for learning and memory, for instinct and intuition and, more likely than not, for telepathy and clairvoyance. The second is the primacy of fundamental ease and unity in the use of the body itself. In reality, experience in a human body is or should be eternal delight. It is or should be nothing but cosmic energy patterns of unending goodness and beauty, of bliss and surprise, of symmetry and strength, of health and wholeness. It is something godlike or angelic, as though the human being were engineered for a higher domain of existence and experience, for pure energy, form and power, for color and harmonious vibration, and the world in which the human being participates likewise a domain of higher, ideal existence and community.
Notwithstanding these two great facts and potentialities in the human body and the human mind, a certain gap between what is possible in consciousness and what is actual needs to be explained. Why is Chinese qigong, for example, so difficult to master? Why is spiritual enlightenment, for practically everybody, so remote a possibility? What explains this gap? I believe the answer is simple but profound. We fail to live like gods because we fail to use language properly, with knowledge of its power to cause lasting effects and intelligent, holistic adjustments in the body and in the world itself. We interfere with the bliss in the body with a certain imprecision of thought and idea, a misuse of the material of consciousness itself, a misuse which is to be remedied, should one subscribe to the notion of an intelligent design in our constitution, and even if one does not, by an improvement in conventions involving language and linguistic products.
It is the absence of this knowledge and these conventions, generally speaking, that precludes the enlightenment of the body and of society generally. We find it difficult to practice enlightenment because our practices with language are defensive and individualistic, immaterially conceived and executed, informal and unmannered, casual and inartistic. Should these linguistic usages be superseded by something more social, such that individual self-consciousness becomes a more collective affair, we would not find mind-body practices to be quite so difficult. If our use of language were more coincident with the actual nature of language, our consciousness and our societies would begin to reflect a higher, more evolved character, and the traces of our daily language and our ordinary movements in space and time something closer to art and the purposes of art.
Certainly a mind populated by fantasy and all manner of self-involved impulse and emotion represents a suboptimal deployment of the human energy system. Useless and circular machinations of the mind, familiar to all who attempt meditation for the first time, is the mechanism that usurps a subtle, harmonious and complex flow of energy and relationship that would otherwise pervade the body – its nerves and connective tissues, its blood circulation and synovial joints, its moments of attention and mood – with ongoing delight and surprise. The energy of the body is like the weather in the atmosphere of our pale, blue and delicate planet – regular and seasonal, but full of turbulence and complexity, and quite impossible to anticipate in any detail, but only to follow with ever increasing awareness and ever deepening satisfaction. Language and thought, like the sun, planets and fixed stars, lie close to the fundamental causes of this weather.
What manner of language use then can be calculated to improve our experience of our bodily situation, and to tame the wilderness of our inner lives, to settle it, to build in it and make it more like a pleasant garden and less like a rough thicket of confusion, contradiction, frustration and dissatisfaction? The answer, in a word, is conversation, but conversation of a sublime and archetypal sort. The conversation of the future will be performative and materially efficient, not casual and superficial. It will flow out of the nature of language itself, and the nature of language is deep and essentially mysterious. It will induce real self-consciousness in the mind and psyche of the ordinary individual, and transform him (her) into an angel or something like an angel. Our world will then become full of such free individuals, each working tirelessly and out of his (her) own initiative to perfect it and all beings in it until it and they disappear into a great radiance where the weather is always pleasant, the architecture exalted and nothing material need be repeated.
That in broad outline is the future of conversation.
Now what is there in the nature of language to suggest that such a future is in the least bit practicable? There are actually several such features of language, and I have made an effort to outline them systematically in my new book, but here I would like to focus only on two, the principle of expressibility and the theory of causal reference, or mental externalism. The principle of expressibility says that all impulses toward self-expression, and even all moments of intuition and self-consciousness, already contain language, even if these impulses or moments occur silently, rapidly or otherwise without any apparent sapience or self-consciousness. To want to do something, to intend it, is already to frame that something propositionally. It is to make it into a mental content, an attitude of some sort, and thus to give actuality not only to a self or a soul which feels and knows something about it, but also to a certain picture of the world, a representation, an abstract and transcendental reality that renders tractable something, namely the world-in-itself, that would otherwise be completely unintelligible and unknowable. This expressibility or propositionality is just as true for the lowest conceivable forms of sentience and consciousness as it is for human beings, whose thoughts and feelings are complex and who form language explicitly and routinely in the day to day. An earthworm pricked by a pin knows that something noxious is there, and that knowledge is a use of something we can only call language.
I will not be surprised if we decide ultimately that the propositionality of consciousness is related fundamentally to sex. Sex is one of the oldest features of life on earth, dating back 1.2 billion years, well before the Cambrian explosion of some 500 million years ago, when multicellular life and predator/prey relationships became predominant. Blind and vital pleasure in the presence of another, complementary being, perhaps even the alphabetical separation and joyous recombination of energy-filled hydrogen bonds in long, sinuous strands of DNA, is the fundamental linguistic proposition, even in the consciousness of the single celled organism. Consciousness and life are geared for knowledge of that which fits together with them, or of that which distinctly does not, to such an extent we may begin to see language, or knowledge and its impulses, as fundamental to anything with sentient intelligence.
Language then is fundamental to self-consciousness because self-consciousness is propositional and the objects of self-consciousness are always describable or expressible in some way. The essence of language is at work in all consciousness, and all consciousness is self-consciousness. Now here we do well to recognize something else true about self-consciousness in general, and the qualities that language gives it. Self-consciousness is always motivated toward ideal conditions, and the ideal is never far from its notions and impulses. At the very least, self-consciousness always seeks to minimize pain and to increase comfort. From this undisputable fact it seems reasonable to suppose that under conditions where language is the sole means to provide self-conscious satisfaction, for example under pure conditions of conversation, with no social admixture of physical objects, no baubles, gadgets or tiresome reference to such things, that language will tend to become ideal. Conversation, left to itself and given enough time, will of necessity get better and better because that is what self-consciousness wants. Conversation, it would appear, is designed to give voice to and to materialize our most essential and idealistic spiritual impulses.
Now let us turn to a second feature of language, equally important in determining the future of conversation. This is the function of causal reference, and more generally the notion that the mind is constituted as essentially by objects in the world as it is by internal attitudes and moods experienced subjectively. On this externalism, the mind is spread out across space and time and its objects are as much in the world as they are in the head. The classic argument for mental externalism is Saul Kripke’s 1980 theory of naming and reference, where he argues that when linguistic reference to someone or something is made, for example to Julius Caesar, the image or object appearing in the mind is linked physically to a moment in history when the person of Caesar was formally baptized or given the name by which he was henceforth recognized. On Kripke’s theory, the use of language entails an untold physics wherein the mind of the language user is quite literally and apparently quite effortlessly transported across space and time to nestle up against a complex litany of historical events and situations that give that particular usage its sense and significance. It is as though in using language, we carry or should carry with us, or are carried by or should be carried by, some of the weight of history.
Although such a picture may appear merely fanciful and perhaps less than serious, one finds oneself pressed even to begin to muster an alternative account of what linguistic reference is in actuality. Kripke’s picture is plausible because it is hard to fault its premises. Words and sentences do make reference somehow, and perhaps this mechanical process really is how they do it. One begins to sense something momentous, moreover, when one reflects on the implications the picture has for conversation. If Kripke is correct, conversation is or should be more like priestly invocation and less like the irresponsible fantasy of much of our social lives, where cross-talk and solipsism are the norm. We actually bear some responsibility for the world when we use language, and parts of the world itself become present to us and to others, whenever we speak, or think or exercise our self-consciousness.
Now one begins to glimpse something of how conversation will be handled by the more evolved sectors of society, when the time comes for them to emerge. Words, sentences and thoughts will be treated materially, as monads of physical force with the power to transform and enlighten the body itself. Social situations, at least those one could call truly social, will be accorded considerable circumspection and respect, and even reverence and sacredness, because they will be actual moments of cosmic consciousness and cosmic initiation. What else could come out of occasions of focused human energy where both past and future history are quite literally brought into physical resonance with the present moment? In such situations and moments, the great aims of enlightenment yoga and religious faith will be incorporated and superseded by an advanced form of moral intelligence. The puzzling gap between the individual need for energetic satisfaction and the individual capacity for self-realization will be bridged by a form of heaven on earth. Among the angels, there are no problems of energy or intelligence, because these are supplied by the social plane on which these beings function. The situation will be analogous, perhaps identical, when human beings learn to use language in a radically social way.