I Think You Think I Think You Think
Descartes famously said, ‘I think; therefore, I am’; today, it would be more appropriate to say, “I think you think I think you think…therefore, I am.” Today, our minds are not simply centers through which we consider ourselves and our world, but rather our minds are places where we also wrestle with what other people are thinking, what other people think we are thinking, and what other people think we are thinking that they are thinking. Humans have always wrestled with these “realms,” but in our increasingly disembodied, social media age — an age in which we live on screens, perpetually interacting with countless people “out of body” — this way of thinking has greatly intensified. Our “self” is now a network, and to contemplate by ourselves is to contemplate in a group. There is no longer just one voice inside our heads: our heads have become communities.
As discussed in Belonging Again, societal “givens” have collapsed, and so we must think about everything, including what’s going on in the heads of others so that we might successfully relate and coordinate our lives with them. “Givens” provide people with “shared intelligibility,” and where “givens” are gone we must think and work to establish that “shared intelligibility” ourselves. Unfortunately, the minds of others are ultimately inaccessible and bottomless, which means that if we try to think them, we might never be able to stop thinking them. To avoid this fate, we might turn to closed-mindedness, ideology, or thoughtlessness, which is to say we end up fundamentalist, isolationist, or worse. But is such a fate worse than ending up in a life where we never stop thinking? Is a brain that cannot be turned off worse than turning it off?
Today, when I think about the world, I now think about what others will think I think about the world, what others will think I think they think about world, and what others will think I think they think I think about world. Not only do we live in a state of “I think you think I think” (“I think you think I hate America as a Liberal,” for example), but we also can enter into a state of “I think you think I think you think” (“I think you think I think you hate me because you think I hate America as a Liberal,” for example). We are in an ever-metaphysical and ever-disembodied state of thinking, thanks to our increasing screen time, efforts of justice, “center-less-ness,” overdone empathy, cynical skepticism, and the like. We are in an ever-metaphysical and ever-disembodied state of thinking, thanks to our increasing screen time, disembodiment, efforts of justice, “center-less-ness,” overdone empathy, and cynical skepticism. Thanks to these forces that define Dismodernism, we have been trained to be metamental.
To be today is to be “metamental”: it is to live constantly thinking outside of ourselves about ourselves and about what others think we think about them. But to try to live in another person’s head is to try to live where we can never be present. We can think we’ve reached that place of the external mind and even deceive ourselves into believing it, but we can never succeed. To try to live in the heads of others in any shape or form is to live in uncertainty, and “living in uncertainty” is the kind of life that defines our age. We live in what I will call in this paper “The Dismodern Age,” an age in which we live “apart” from what is, “absent” from ourselves and others, often because we are trying to live in the heads of others and to ironically be more grounded in actuality (but an actuality we can no longer identify). We live “disordered” and “out of order,” and hence live anxiously, as intensified by our lives of ever-worsening existential uncertainty. So is the life of the dismodern self: we live not only as ourselves, but as ourselves in light of what others think of us, what we think others think of us, and what we think others think we think of them. We live as selves/others/imaged-selves/imagined-others —ever-something.
To live in a constant state of “I think you think I think you think…” is easily to live in a state of unhappiness, anxiety, and to rob ourselves of any sense of confidence, and without confidence there will be little sense of genuine peace, unity, and our mental health may suffer. We can never know if the person we are talking to “thinks we think” that “Liberals are fools,” or if the people we are around “think that we think they think” that “we’re better than them.” To venture beyond the realm of “I think” into the realm of “I think you think” is enough of an error to ruin a person’s happiness and psychological stability, let alone venturing into the realms of “I think you think I think,” “I think you think I think you think,” and deeper. These later realms which define our Dismodern Age are wastelands that have emerged amongst us for various, well-intended, and/or unintended reasons. But we mustn’t venture into them (there are only images of life there): we must recognize the limits of what we can know and what is worth trying to know. Otherwise, the Dismodern Age will continue, as will our self-deconstruction via metamental living into ever-distant abstractions — unstoppable.
We especially want to know what other people are thinking when we are afraid of what they think (as is especially likely where “givens” are weak), when “the other” (rather a mother or a stranger) causes existential anxiety. When we are relaxed and comfortable, we tend to stay grounded in our own heads and to mostly think about what those around us are thinking when we are trying to think of ways we can help them (“Do you want coffee?” or “Can I get you something to eat?”). Relaxed and near people we trust and who trust us, what could be going on in the minds of others doesn’t burden us. We feel free, but I fear “free” isn’t a word that describes our Dismodern Age or Metamental Life.
Even if we have legal, political, and economic freedom, we are increasingly burdened by the presence of others, exactly during a Pluralistic Age when we need to be more comfortable around others, not less. This isn’t so much because we don’t trust others (though that’s part of it), but rather that we don’t trust that they trust us (“we think they think we think” what we’re not thinking, as “we think they think we think” they’re thinking that which they’re not thinking). And there’s nothing we or they can do to prove otherwise: there is no door into the room of the mind (we’re either in or out). To want to get in is to bang on a wall (furiously, disheartened), and we mustn’t try, for once we do, we’re stuck banging. But in the Dismodern Age, all of us are forced to attempt what we cannot accomplish. Stuck. Banging.
To live metamentally is to live like a dreamer. As a dreamer moves between worlds, one less real than the other but not necessarily less influential, so the metamental moves between his or her mind and the minds of others. As the dreamer lives “in between worlds,” so the metamental does the same, and we’re all metamental now. Metamentality is the prime creator and driver of uncertainty that defines our Dismodern Age: to live is to live in psychological fluidity. Is this to say we are never right to wonder what others are thinking? It can’t be helped (if we are human, we will engage in metamentality), and it isn’t the case that we are necessarily always wrong about what others are thinking (for good or for bad). In fact, if we were always wrong, metamentality would have no allure: it is precisely because we can be right that it is tempting, and it is certainly the case that guessing what others think can sometimes save us from trouble. But metamentality is like fire, which contained can keep us warm but unleashed can burn us alive, and its nature is to expand outside all limits if it can only find a way to keep blazing. And today, metamentality blazes.
Is there more metamental thinking beyond “I think you think I think you thin’”? Certainly, and though physically and mentally difficult to reach beyond what we’ve focused on, there is no theoretical limit to metamental thinking. Consider:
Any “route” we can come up with according to the above chart is a theoretically possible “route” of metamental thinking. Some of those possibilities:
I think you think.
I think you think that person thinks (ad infinitum).
I think you think that person thinks that you think.
I think you think that person thinks that you think that person thinks (ad infinitum).
I think you think that person thinks that you think that other person thinks (ad infinitum).
I think you think I think.
I think you think I think you think.
I think you think I think you think that person thinks (ad infinitum)
I think you think I think you think that person thinks that other person thinks (ad infinitum).
1. Note that if we were to travel from “I think” to “another,” “another” would become “you,” and then if we continued in that direction, the chain would be: “I think you think that person thinks that other person thinks that other, other person thinks…”
2. The only “route” of metamental thinking that isn’t a possibility is infinitely going back and forth between two people and it entail an utterly new subject: we can “go back and forth” between two individuals once, but not infinitely. “I think you think I think you think I think…” (for example) is impossible, for it isn’t possible for me to think of more than one thing at once.
3. “I think I think” is also possible and a kind of metamentality, but I believe this is covered under the category “I think.” “I think I’m upset” is self-referential and can lead to anxiety (and is usually motivated by concerns of what others think), and in a way, to say “I think I’m upset” is to say “I think I think,” and yet the phrase needs only one “I think.”
4. The “ad infinitum” that follows the “another” in the chart above means that “I think another thinks” can lead to an endless chain of “I think another thinks another thinks another thinks…” (since there are so many “others” on the planet and countless combinations of those others).
Though there is no theoretical limit to metamental thinking, what defines our age is the level of metamental thinking that has become natural for us and definitive of our social environment, and I am of the opinion that our default is “I think you think I think (you think)” (though I could be swayed). We may every now and then add a level of “that other person thinks” to our metamental chain, but again, I don’t think this happens often. Furthermore, what the society constantly puts people in the position to do is to wonder what someone else thinks they’re thinking (about politics, Global Warming, etc.), and to wonder what other people think we think they’re thinking. In the name of justice, cynicism, etc., we aren’t motivated to engage in extremely extensive chains of metamental thinking, but any chain beyond “I think” is long enough to cause a society grave existential uncertainty, which is especially damaging in a Pluralistic Age.
Beyond “I think” is uncertainty, anxiety, and disembodiment. We can never access the minds of others, and if the present age configures us to be constantly wondering about what is happening in what we can never access, we can never achieve existential stability. The metamental cannot be falsified, and as we have learned from Karl Popper, this means the metamental cannot be readily stabilized. This doesn’t mean “metamental thoughts” are necessarily false, only that we cannot know metamentality as “meaningfully” such. Before modern technology, it was true that there were galaxies beyond our own, but at that time this couldn’t be proven or falsified. To say back then that “there are other galaxies” was true but not “meaningfully” true, due to human limitations. So it goes with metamental thinking: it could be the case that someone is indeed thinking something about us at this very moment, but even if they were to tell us what they were so thinking, it’s always possible that they’re lying or misunderstanding themselves. There’s unavoidable uncertainty: there is no way to prove or disprove what is going on within the heads of others. We’re stuck with an unknown.
Again, just because we cannot falsify that our friend nearby is thinking that we need to stop talking doesn’t mean our friend isn’t in fact thinking we need to be quiet (that’s why metamentality is tempting); rather, it is to point out that to worry about what our friend is thinking (rather than trusting that, if it’s truly a problem, he’ll let us know) is to contribute to an existential tension between us and him, one that can grow worse if we continue to participate in metamentality. It is better to avoid metamentality altogether and intentionally restrict our understanding of a situation to what a person actually says and does versus what a person might be thinking. Unfortunately, integrated into the spirit of the age, metamentality is increasingly becoming a normal way of life, pushing us into where we should not go.
Metamentality has historically been vivid in romance. We all know the game of the guy trying to guess what the woman is thinking, and the game of the two lovers trying to guess what the other thinks they are thinking about them. Before our Dismodern Age, metamentality was mostly contained to this sphere (though by no means has this necessarily been a good thing), and though it of course popped up here and there, it wasn’t a defining feature of the times. Now, due to recent cultural and technological shifts, it’s natural in all walks of life.
Before Christianity, as Hannah Arendt notes, “humility” and “meekness” weren’t natural virtues; rather, “power” and “strength” were idolized (Achilles over Jesus). This was the time to which Nietzsche longed to return, believing Christianity’s new values hindered human achievement by “transvaluing all values.” Now, we value humility without even thinking about it: it’s just natural. Similarly, there was a time when metamental thinking was foreign and unusual; now, we don’t remember a time when metamental thinking wasn’t an everyday practice. And similar to Nietzsche’s critique of Christian values, metamental thinking can impede human development, happiness, and fulfillment.
How did metamental life become common life? Several possibilities come to mind (though there are easily more):
1. “The Death of the Real,” Technology, and Collective Consciousness
Jean Baudrillard warned that “the real world” today had been so overtaken by the virtual that there was no longer enough left of “the real world” to even say that it had been “overtaken.” “The real is dead,” and hence also is dead the standard by which we can tell “the real is dead” (the loss is so total that also is gone the ability to meaningfully say it was lost). Baudrillard blames media and new means for obtaining information for this death, and claims we are so used to seeing the world depicted on television that we’ve come to compare reality with what we see on media versus the other way around. The recorded has become our standard of actuality and aspiration, and it isn’t until a person is on television that we believe the person has been validated. “It’s like in the movies,” “I saw it on my phone,” “I saw you on television” — all mantras of the age, implying that validation comes from the virtual rather than the real.
Much more can be said on Baudrillard, and the general thought that “the real is dead” can help us understand how metamentality has spread so widely. “The real” (“the being present here” solely) is indeed dead: humans today live both bodily and over networks. This creates a sense of distance between us and the real world, for we are here and yet elsewhere (take the man sending text messages while in his living room with family). We are distant and divided, living between worlds — dismodern. Present in multiple places at once, living in a divided state, we find ourselves trying to think about two things at once, attempting the impossible. We are constantly thinking about what the people around us are thinking, as we also think about how we need to reply to a recent text message. And though we convince ourselves we strike a balance, we constantly sacrifice “the real” for “the virtual” (most of us can be found sending text messages while at dinner or whenever we have a free moment). It has become subconscious; we’ve ceased realizing we’re even doing it. With time, we train our minds to occupy two spaces, and it quickly begins working this way naturally. Our mental nature changes.
Physical presence helps keep metamentality from getting out of hand: in person and present, we can quickly tell if a person understands us, and our communication is much more fluid and natural. When I send a text message (for example) there’s a delay of some amount before I receive a response, and so a space in which I can wonder what the receiver is thinking. Did they understand me correctly? Are they upset? Are they ignoring me? All these questions can flood the mind, and though this sort of metamentality can happen when in someone’s physical presence, it’s much less likely to vastly grow (for we can usually find out very quickly if others understood, are upset, etc.). There’s much less probability for metamentality to develop, for there isn’t as much “space” in which it can be incubated; hence, in person, it is also less probable that the brain will be trained to think “dismodernly,” to think about what is present and what isn’t simultaneously.
Technology trains us to be metamental (online as we look over real/fake Facebook profiles, through our phone as we respond to texts, etc.), and this is a way in which “the real” is destroyed. So habituated to being metamental, it has become natural, and what is increasingly unnatural is not being metamental (to think like humans who are not “elsewhere”). Consequently, when we encounter people, we wonder what they think we’re thinking, and what they think we’re thinking they’re thinking, etc., trained by our technologies as we have been trained by stories of romance to be romantically metamental. Ironically, it is increasingly felt that those who aren’t risking the incubation of metamentality are the ones who aren’t being “realistic”: to not live on a cellphone, to not wonder what others are thinking, etc. is increasingly viewed as living “impractically” and “in the past.” And so metamentality hasn’t only become natural, but also practical: those who fail to live in a way that trains them to be metamental are those who will fall behind in the globalized world. And so people become metamental in order to succeed…
Additionally, technology like social media and the internet make us all part of a “collective consciousness” (and as argued in “Collective Consciousness and Trust” by O.G. Rose), and this makes it difficult to trust in people and reality. We are all part of everyone else’s life and decisions, and what a person does in California can now transform how I think about my friends in Virginia. What one maniac in a country of over three-hundred million chooses to do can influence how the three-hundred million choose to live and think about their lives, and also impacts how much the country feels it has overcome horrors and sins that we long to surmount (see “The Grand Technology” by O.G. Rose for more). Constantly in a state of having our worldview shifted by what someone somewhere does, and also so habituated to interacting with the “masks” that people wear online, we struggle to trust in what we think and with who we live. And where trust suffers, metamentality develops. In many respects, trust is what stops the weeds of metamentality from growing, pulling metamentality up by the roots. Again, metamentality has traditionally been present in romance, seeing as learning to love someone entails learning to trust another deeply, but before that trust develops, metamentality resides. Now, in this age of collective consciousness, metamentality is growing everywhere, as if all of us are forced into one big relationship together.
Lastly, when “the real is dead,” there is no standard against which to identify “what is” from “what is not,” and so no way to say with certainty that metamental thinking is invalid. With the “present world” gone, we cannot say what is the best way to be, especially when peer and socioeconomic pressures are suggesting otherwise. With “the death of the real” (as with “the death of God”), all standards are lost by which to identify “is” from “is not” (“how it should be” from “how it shouldn’t be”), and metamental thinking races in to fill the space, trying to keep us from falling in, functioning like a net. It tries providing a sense of reality by keeping us from seeing that reality isn’t present. We are center-less but able to cover our eyes. We treat the eyelid as a center.
2. Cynical Skepticism and the Loss of “Assuming the Best”
Cynicism assumes the absence of genuineness, especially when faced with what or who seems to be genuine. Cynicism is a mode in which we assume something negative under the surface of what is experienced. In many respects, it is a response to “the death of God” and/or “the death of the real,” for with the death of all absolutes (with everything that is “solid”), it only seems natural to be skeptical. This isn’t to say there is no validity to skepticism, and in fact it is important that everyone is skeptical (as discussed in “The Death of Skepticism” by O.G. Rose). However, “cynical skepticism” (“cynicism”) creates an engagement with life that negatively assumes that “things are not what they seem.” This applies to both things and people, and naturally leads to a lack of trust until that trust is earned (which is problematic, as discussed in “On Trust” by O.G. Rose). But ironically, it is hard if not impossible to gain the trust of a cynic, precisely because the cynic decides when his or her trust has been earned (and the cynic naturally keeps moving the goal post).
Cynicism breeds metamentality. If someone smiles at us, cynicism teaches us to think the smile is hiding a secret agenda; if a person tells us our presence is enjoyable, we can assume the person wants something; if a person appears genuine, we can remind ourselves that not everything is how it seems. Cynicism questions what is “under” what is experienced, and though questioning can lead to great breakthrough and push forward what humans are capable of, in daily life, this kind of questioning can both ruin personal relationships and our functionality. Like technology, cynicism trains us to be metamental and not for the best.
As cynicism has grown, so too has worsened the loss of “assuming the best” as an orientation toward the world and others. “Assuming the Best” by O.G. Rose makes a case for why this is extremely detrimental to our society, and here it should be noted that another reason it is problematic is because this loss of “assuming the best” causes metamentality. As argued in the paper, to “assume the best” is to keep oneself from being overly- concerned with bias and ill-intent and is necessary for discussion and debate. Where people don’t “assume the best,” every interaction deconstructs and people are not only trained to be metamental, but also to think they are justified in always distrusting what is going on within the heads of others. Additionally, collectively, if we don’t believe the people around us “assume the best,” then we can assume either they “assume the worst” or “assume wrongly” about us. We come to expect people to misunderstand us: if we’re teenagers, we expect people to think we’re punks, and if they say they don’t, we think they’re only saying that because that’s what they’re supposed to say. It could be that most people don’t assume anything about us because they don’t care enough, but if we’ve been trained to think people are (wrongly) assumptive about one another, we’re primed to assume those around us are assuming things about us, and if they say they’re not, we assume we know better. All assumption can be metamental, but “assuming the best” at least makes it possible to overcome some arguably unavoidable metamentality for the better. In a culture that has trained itself to believe everyone is assumptive about everyone else while simultaneously disregarding the orientation of “assuming the best,” we easily lack adequate defenses against the worst consequences of metamentality.
Why has cynicism and “assuming the worst” become so common? It’s hard to say: the collapse of the family, the decline of religion, disappointment in politics, the growth of corporations and bureaucracies, Pluralism, the loss of character, the rise of shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones and art that teaches trust gets us killed, that hope is a lie, that people deceive for personal gain, etc. — all these are forces that may have contributed. People feel overwhelmed by forces outside their control, increasingly alienated, and that institutions have failed. To all this, cynicism is a natural response, a way to make sure you are never hurt again by never again making yourself vulnerable. With cynicism grows metamentality.
3. Apocalyptic Thinking
As discussed in “Death is the Event Horizon of Reason” by O.G. Rose, similar to cynicism but different, “apocalyptic thinking” concludes that “if x doesn’t do y, x ceases to be x.” As warned about in the paper, “apocalyptic thinking” changes the rules of a discussion or debate: if I believe the world will end unless we eliminate Conservatism, then I will necessarily “talk past” those who don’t accept this premise and who only want to limit Conservatism. Additionally, if you disagree with me, you become a threat to American, and (at least in my mind) I wouldn’t be in the wrong to either completely ignore or even silence you. After all, your view threatens the country.
A society of ever-growing “apocalyptic thinking” is naturally a society of ever-growing metamentality, for if I believe a certain view threatens the world, then I am incentivized to wonder what the people around me are thinking so that if they are holding a view that is apocalyptic, I can stop them. I naturally become a kind of “thought police,” but for all the right reasons. Additionally, in fighting against the apocalyptic view, I become a defender and savior of humanity, while those who hold the view are a danger. If x is a threat to humanity, those who don’t believe in x are a threat to us all, and so we must make sure everyone believes in x to make sure humanity survives. For the sake of saving the country, metamentality naturally develops, and upon the slightest sign a person disagrees with x, for the sake of others, we respond as viciously as we must.
4. Pluralism and Ending Immorality
Today, concerns about discrimination aren’t simply limited to discriminatory actions, such as refusing to serve minorities, violence against minorities, etc., but the concern spans to also make sure people aren’t stereotyping, thinking subconsciously that one people group is better than another, and so on. For many, the battle to create a more diverse and accepting society isn’t simply about preventing discriminatory action but also discriminatory thinking. In no way do I mean to imply there is no validity to this or that discriminatory thinking isn’t wrong, but I would warn that this kind of effort can create metamentality if people aren’t careful.
Our focus on discrimination is good because humanity is committed to overcoming one of its greatest and most constant sins, but it can also prove problematic because concerns with ending discrimination can make people try to be consciously aware of minds they cannot access. Also, a person accused of bigotry can indeed change in the eyes of the other, but since that other person decides when the accused stops being a bigot (as with earning trust), this goal is very difficult to achieve. It’s a huge effort, and so people may avoid those who they think may accuse them of bigotry, not wanting to risk being in a situation where they may say or do something that forces them to spend incredible energy trying to undo what they have done and prove that they aren’t bigoted. Gradually, fear and uncertainty will weaken connections between people, possibly causing segregation and creating the very bigotry that the efforts intended to end.
Worried about what others think of them, people become metamental: when they interact with people different from them, they engage in a mental game of trying to figure out how the other is interpreting their actions and words. At the same time, the minority wonders what the other is thinking about him or her because the person is a minority. As discussed in “Equality and Its Immoral Limits” by O.G. Rose, between the two, an existential uncertainty develops that begets metamentality (which, as argued in the mentioned paper, can be worsened by institutional forces created in hopes of effacing the tension). The two sides want to be sure they don’t say or do anything that offends, upsets, etc. the other, and desiring this, they try to guess what the other is thinking, what the other thinks they’re thinking, what the other thinks they’re thinking their thinking, and so on. Interactions become guessing games in which no one can win for sure.
The more the world Pluralizes, the more people encounter people increasingly different from them, people who they can unintentionally offend or upset due to misunderstandings about how others understand the world. Not wanting to upset them, and yet not knowing exactly what could be upsetting (for we cannot understand fully every culture, every ethnicity, every religion, etc.), we become metamental, trying to identify what they are thinking so we can avoid drama as much as possible. From these kinds of interactions, we learn to be metamental in all areas of life, all with the best intentions.
“Knowing thyself” is difficult enough and “I think; therefore, I am” might be a call to action greater than what most of us are capable. But “I think you think I think you think…; therefore, I am” is likely impossible and doomed for failure. The dismodern self, tangled up in disembodying networks and seeking to know what transcends comprehension, is a self that cannot be known: “know thy metamental self” is impossible, as is knowing the world metamentally. To try is to fail, and that failure comes with a cost.
I don’t mean to claim in this work that technology is bad or that Game of Thrones shouldn’t exist (everything entails trade-offs): my point is only that we need to be aware that these things incubate metamentality so that we have a better chance of avoiding it. If we are aware of how fire is dangerous, we have a better chance of using it for good without being burned. So it goes with entities that incubate metamentality: if we are aware of their negatives, we are more equipped to maximize positives.
In closing, a question looms: how do we stop metamentality? Tearing down the culture or the technologies that incubate it isn’t an option unless we want to live under totalitarianism, so what should we do? I’m afraid that I don’t think there is a macro-solution: culture has changed, and in so changing, it has forced this problem upon us. There is no going back: this is a problem we must learn to live with. How? I think the answer is on an individual level, which is to say that each person takes responsibility for preventing metamentality from developing and controlling his or her own life. For example, if you write a paper claiming a defining feature of the age and dare even to name the age, you must resist wondering if readers will think you are presumptuous and/or overly-philosophical; if you text someone a message and don’t hear back from that person for an hour, you must resist the urge to wonder if the person is upset with you; if you see a friend with a frown, rather than wonder if you did something wrong, you must work to remind yourself that if something is truly wrong, you can trust your friend to tell you, for that is what friends do; and so on. Providing hope, there’s much each of us can do individuality to change Dismodernism for the better.
Neil Postman warned that, at the end of the day, the television is forever with us, and the only way to keep its negatives from undoing us is for each person to individually assure that he or she properly uses the TV. So it goes with the inventions and socioeconomic changes that foster metamentality: as humanity will always have the responsibility of taking care of the environment, of assuring it doesn’t squander its food supplies, of taking care of its trash, and so on, so humanity will alwalys have the responsibility of overcoming metamentality and the negative influences of Dismodernism. Dismodernism will always be with us, as will be Romanticism, Transcendentalism, Cubism, Modernism, and more, but that doesn’t mean all is lost. We’re here, after all.