“A mind enclosed in language is in prison.” Simone Weil
Imagine you are able to travel backwards in time, hundreds of thousands of years, to a time before the use of language. There is no consensus among linguists on how language developed – whether it occurred as a gradual process or a quantum leap – but we can safely assume that there was a stage in the prehistoric past that involved our ancestors existing without complex language. So imagine, then, that you have traveled back to this pre-language time with the following task: to convey information about our present human culture to those primitive ancestors.
Is it possible? Could you transmit the concept of a skyscraper, for instance, without using language? Your first instinct about sharing your idea might be to attempt to describe it: they are watching you there, as you stand and move your hands about while you make a long string of various weird vocal sounds. Or perhaps you’d try to draw a picture in the sand with a stick. You point to the stick figure people you have drawn beside an enormous rectangle, and try to convey that the figures represent people, by pointing first to the drawing and then to oneself and to individuals in your audience. Do they understand that the drawing is meant to show images of people? And if so, do they then understand the relationship of the figures to the large rectangle? Do they even understand that you are trying to give them an idea from inside your own head? Or do they instead simply regard you as different, not to mention demented, and probably even dangerous?
When our species developed language, a whole new level of consciousness emerged, and our reality changed. Before language, there was no way to even convey the existence of an object that was out of one’s line of vision, let alone its characteristics, its history or its potential uses. For heaven’s sake, we can’t even manage it sometimes during a game of charades. We take language utterly for granted, when it in fact facilitates our entire human culture.
Now imagine you are visited by a person from hundreds of thousands of years in the future. This person is no longer Home Sapien – we very likely will have evolved into something else by then. What might that be? And what if that person’s consciousness constructs a different version of reality to the one we currently share with one another? What if they live in a world with its own equivalent of “skyscraper” – unimaginable to us in our current state of mind and degree of experience. How would this individual communicate their understanding of reality to us here and now?
This thought experiment is speculation of course, about something which words can never capture. Words cannot adequately describe that imagined future reality because by its very nature it would have been shaped by a different kind of consciousness, one that had evolved beyond language.
Now what if – just what if – our present mental states already hold the potential for our future evolution, in the same way that our ancestors’ mental capacities held the potential for venturing into the terrain of language? After all, our ancestors were set up somehow to permit language, such that it was a viable course for evolution to follow (otherwise language couldn’t have happened.) What if there is another state of consciousness that transcends our current language-bound existence, and which would shape a very different version of consensual reality? What if that state of consciousness is showing its first glimmers in the form of mystical experience and/or psychosis? What if we as a human race will reach a point of critical mass wherein we collectively experience this transcendent state?
A common feature of the mystical experience is its ineffability. As John Horgan writes in his 2003 book Rational Mysticism, “Over time, mystical knowledge came to be defined as that which transcends language and so cannot be revealed.” Moving to a state beyond language means moving into the unknown – and it evokes fear and trepidation in most people. “Universal insanity?”you might think. “Are you crazy?”
Yes, perhaps I am. But I will end this here with a thought articulated, through language; the wise words of a very smart man:
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” Albert Einstein