(Psychological Paradoxes & Puzzles — 6)

"Inside" and "Outside": Paradox, Puzzle, Psychological Meditation?

Among the most common words used as metaphors in psychological talk is the simple word in. "I'll keep it in mind and "I saw you in my dream" and "I am in a depression" all use in metaphorically (to give just a few examples). The idea of in and out are so important in psychological talk that I see them, together, as one of the Key Concepts of psychology (link to article).

We also find the idea of in and inner in religious writing. St. Teresa of Ávila, for example, wrote a book called El Castillo Interior (written in 1577). The title in English is, The Interior Castle. Her idea is that the soul is like a castle and, through the proper attitude, a person can penetrate deeper and deeper until he or she reaches the innermost room, and there it is possible to meet Christ. St. Teresa's image illustrates an important concept in the study of the psychology of in and inner and interior which is that these ideas bring with them the idea of levels — from outer to one after another level of inner and then to the innermost.

But the seemingly clear and simple ideas of in and out lead to a paradox, or, at least, to a puzzle, and it is the goal of this article to present and discuss this paradox/puzzle and then to show how it is, in a way, a psychological meditation for people of a certain type, the thinking-imaginative introverted type.


Wherever you are, you are in something which, in turn, is in something else. Even if you are outside in an open field or on top of a mountain, you are in the solar system which is in the galaxy. And all galaxies are in the universe. The universe is like a Russian nested dolls set where each doll has a smaller one nested inside it until we reach the smallest:

In the universe is a galaxy; "nested" within the galaxy is our solar system; within the solar system is our earth; within our earth (actually on our earth) is a human made structure (say a house); within the house is a room; and within the room is a person. We can continue this series in different ways. One way is to say that within the person (who is in the room) are thoughts, and there are things within the thoughts. One thing that can be within the thoughts of a person (who is in a room that is in a house on the earth in the solar system in a galaxy that is in the universe) is the universe itself, and, as we know, the universe has, within it, a galaxy with our solar system in it, and so on.

But, and this is the paradox, how can the universe be in itself (we are not talking about mathematical sets here)? And it's not just the universe that is in itself: The solar system that is in the thoughts of the person who is in the room is in the solar system (in which is the earth on which is the house in which is the room containing the person with his thoughts in which is the universe containing the solar system). If it doesn't seem paradoxical for the universe to be in itself, it is paradoxical for the solar system to be in itself (or for a house to be in itself, and so on).

It is possible to illustrate the paradox (or apparent paradox) with a drawing. The drawing is meant to be a crude picture of the whole universe with our solar system in it and with the earth within the solar system, and so on (I leave out the galaxy level, because the drawing is already complex enough).


This drawing is a visual representation of the verbal formulation of the paradox.

(Whether or not the nesting could go on and on or if there is a specific last circle is a puzzle I will leave to the reader to work on. If the nesting continues, it is always with the same levels, repeated. I will say the end point is indefinite.)

However, after all is said and done, it seems the paradox is only apparent, because it depends on using the word in, in two ways, first in a literal sense and then a metaphorical sense. The earth is in the solar system literally, but the universe is in the mind, in our thoughts, only metaphorically. So too for the solar system that is in the universe that is in our minds.

(Mixing the literal and metaphorical uses of in allows us to generate other apparent paradoxes: For example, we each have thoughts, and the universe can be in each of our thoughts, which seems to imply that there are many universes within the overall universe, a different one in each of our minds.)


But even as the paradox is dissolving, a puzzle appears which takes its place. The puzzle is tricky to state: When, above, we focused on the universe with the galaxies in it (and so on), what we were doing was thinking about, imagining the universe and the galaxies. We weren't seeing them or experiencing them except in our thoughts. Yet, while immersed in the thoughts, it seemed we were experiencing them. When we imagine something or think about it, in order to do so, we have to forget something, and what we have to forget is that we aren't seeing or experiencing. If I imagine my friend or dream of him or think of him, part of the imagining or the dreaming or the thinking is forgetting it is imagination or a dream or mere thoughts. And the same is true when we think of something: The minute we get invovled in imagining or dreaming or thinking about something, we forget it isn't present to us.

It seems to me it is just this feature of imagination and thinking that makes them useful for us: We can "study" something that is no longer present; we can hold it in front of our mind and examine it, and so on. Because of this ability, we have a tremendous advantage over other species, because it allows us to plan ahead in our minds and to change things in our mind in advance of changing them in reality. (I discuss this in my article Metaphor and the Imagination.) We can come up with formulas and equations to help us make predications and to deal with reality. And this is only because we have the power to forget we are only imagining and thinking.

It is this ability that allows clever thinkers to come up with effective ideas while they are withdrawn from the world (or even in their sleep). It seems ironic that a physicist who has never seen a weapon and has never even been in a fist fight could, in theory, invent a weapon so powerful it could obliterate a whole city and all those in it who could beat him in a fight with one hand tied behind their backs.

This may be ironic, but it is not paradoxical, because the physicist is not completely outside reality. He or she keeps an image of it or a schema of it with him (or her) in his mind as he sits in his study, in his house, and so on.

Still it can be confusing or puzzling just how completely we can forget that we are not in the presence of something we are imagining or thinking about. To make the following drawing I took the first one (shown above) and drew more circles (and added the labels) so that it is clear that the universe we were discussing was really nothing more than a thought in our minds. More accurately, when, in this paper, we first started to think about the universe, we imagined it (each in our own way) with its galaxies (and so on), and, if we did this well, we forgot we weren't seeing it or experiencing it. It's not so much we thought we were experiencing it; it is more that we forgot we weren't. We forgot we were "only" thinking and imagining, and it is this fact that I try to capture in this drawing.


This is puzzling, because, looking back, we can see that we, in reading this article, have been in our thoughts and imaginings all along, even though, we didn't think about it. This can be disturbing for a few reasons.

First, it can be disconcerting to realize that it is only after an experience is over that we can know for sure if it was of reality or whether it was in our imagination or thoughts. There is no mark in our experiences to distinguish imagination from reality. There is a difference, and it is the nature of imagination for the line to blur. Anyone who has ever been jealous (for what turns out to be no reason) will understand how real and true and vivid and immediate the imagination can be, even though, a moment later, when we find out the truth, it dissolves like a dream. This is, it seems to me, the essence of the psychological mechanism of Projection, the phenomenon where something inside is experienced as outside (for example, we see someone else as angry, when it is really we who are angry). Projection is not really a projecting out of something inside ourselves; it is that when we experience something it is experienced as outside until we realize it wasn't.

Second, it can be disconcerting to think about how much of what we think is real may be just our imaginations. We think of our wives or husbands waiting patiently at home for us, but are they? Is this just in our imaginations? We imagine an easy day at work, but will it be? Reality can be much worse than what we conceive it will be. And, when reality hits home, it can be a shock. We all come to expect how things will be, and so we all live in a world of our fantasies.

But, on the other hand, reality may turn out to be much better than we expect it will be. Looking back we will then wonder at the misery we can cause ourselves by imagining awful things that never were and never will be.

So the puzzle is: 1) that we can be deceived when we think or experience something; 2) that this can happen so often, as if our whole lives were really a web of imagination and thought; 3) that we can spend so much time worrying about things that will never happen or expecting joys that will be dashed; and, 4) that this ability we have, to think and imagine, with all its problems and imperfections, can be such a powerful tool for adapting to reality.

But, for many, the most puzzling thing of all (5), will come from a feeling of being trapped in ones own mind with no possibility of escape? This may lead to the worry that there is no reality at all outside of our own thoughts (as in the writings of the philosopher George Berkeley) or that, if there is, how can we ever get outside ourselves enough to know anything about it. And this is not just an abstract philosophical worry for many; it is a rational and practical question. There is a real question for imaginative, thoughtful introverts how to get out of their minds and back into the world of their senses.

I will postpone the discussion of this question until the section of Psychological Meditation.

Rewording the paradox (or apparent paradox)

We can review the line of thought we have followed so far. At first we talked about the universe and how it contains a galaxy which contains our solar system which contains our earth which contains (or has on it) our domiciles which contains in them room which contain us which has, inside, our thoughts which contain the universe which contains .... Here is a drawing meant to capture this line of thought:


But then we began to think of the first stage of our thought exercise and came to realize that, when we were speaking about the universe as a giant container, this thought was a thought in our own minds. And so it became possible to build a second picture:


Here, what we thought was the universe, turned out to be in the mind of ourselves who were reading this article in a room, in a house, in the world, in the solar system, in a galaxy, which is in the universe as a whole. But this last, "external" universe, is really part of this same line of thought (we are still sitting in the same chair, in the same room, in the same house, etc.), and so the upward movement can continue indefinitely.

We can even put these last two pictures together into one:


And now we can use this last drawing to state the apparent paradox: Going one direction around the circle: The universe has, within it, the solar system which has, within it, the earth which has, within it (or on it), our house which has within it our room which has within it us who have within ourselves our thoughts which contain the universe that contains our solar system ..., and so on, in an indefinitely long, perhaps endless circle.

Or we can go the other direction around the circle: The universe is in our thoughts which are in us, and we are in different rooms which are in different building which are in the world which is in the solar system which is in the universe which is within our minds which are in us which are in our rooms ..., and so on, in an indefinitely long, perhaps endless circle.

A rewording of the puzzle

And, to state the puzzle simply: "How can we get out of either one or both of the possibly infinite circles of thought?"

A psychological meditation

The puzzle, itself, can be used as a tool for understanding ourselves, that is understanding the nature of thinking and imagination. And, seeing this, can, in itself, shock us back into our sense, at least for a moment. This is probably why the line of thought developed in me, as I am a thinking/imaginative introvert who feels distant from the world of the senses and the world outside the room in which I write or the house in which I feel most comfortable.

Even if you walk outside and leave your book or computer screen behind and all your thoughts of the universe and its solar systems and are confronted with the world in a way that overwhelms and inhibits thought and imagination, it doesn't mean, that now you are finally in reality and experiencing the universe as it really is. You can't escape reality, even in the safety of your room, and, even outside, in broad daylight, imagination and thinking are present, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Still, there is a difference between sensing and thinking and imagining.

Meditation is, as we usually think of it, a religious exercise and discipline. It is found in many, if not in all religions. Sometimes it involves focusing on ones breath. Or it may require focusing on the letters of the name of the Lord. And so on. But the psychologically oriented can have their own meditations, and the above line of thought can be thought of in this light: It is, from one angle, an attempt to liberate oneself, at least for a moment, from the dragon of imagination and thought.

For many people, their thoughts and inner images are not the dragon; for them, their senses are the dragon, and they long to be liberated from them. So they can enter and explore the interior castle, so our line of thought is not meant for people of all types.