Cognitive Complexes: Everyone’s Hang-Up, Especially Sex

The diametric model sees the mind as complex in a new sense.

Posted Aug 22, 2014

Laplanche & Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis
Source: Laplanche & Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis

Psychoanalysis introduced complex to psychology, signifying a tangle of ideas, memories, and emotions rooted in the unconscious and usually derived from early childhood: notoriously, the “Oedipus complex” (above, entry from Laplanche & Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis). The term caught on in everyday folk psychology when you heard people talk about someone having a “father complex,” or a “guilt complex,” or whatever, meaning that they had some kind of unresolved psychological problem in that respect. A slang synonym was hang-up, which emphasized the aspect of being entrapped by the problem, and unable to get over it.

One reason the term caught on might be that traditionally people have always thought of the mind as complex in the sense of complicated. The human brain, we are told is probably the most complex single system in the universe, and if that is so, the mind must be just as complicated in its own way. Certainly, the imagined complication of the mind is one of the things that feeds credulity for belief in its irreducibility to the brain and immunity to scientific scrutiny, recently stigmatized as “neuromania” or “Darwinitis,” as I pointed out in an earlier post.

But complex does not have to mean complicated. A precedent comes from mathematics, and specifically from the concept of complex numbers. A complex number is expressed in the form (a + bi) where a is a real number and bi is an imaginary one. Real numbers are the infinite counting series beginning, 1, 2, 3… etc., while imaginary numbers are numbers multiplied by i, which stands for the square root of minus one. They are imaginary because there is no real number which has a negative square.

Today complex numbers are an established part of mathematics, widely applied in science and engineering to solve otherwise insoluble problems. An interesting consequence of the idea is the so-called complex plane, which effectively expands the one-dimensional line of natural numbers into a two-dimensional number space thanks to the addition of a second, imaginary dimension (below).

Christopher Badcock
Source: Christopher Badcock

Complex numbers provide an ideal analogy for the diametric model of cognition, which implies that it is complex in much the same sense. Thanks to the fact that we have two parallel cognitive modes which we can equate with real and imaginary numbers, cognition in general can be seen as complex—in other words, as composed of two components: an abstract, subjective mentalistic part epitomized in culture, religion, art and literature, and an objective, mechanistic equivalent institutionalized in science, technology, engineering and maths. 

Furthermore, this is the root of the real complexity in human thinking: the fact that we can see things from each of two radically different viewpoints, one real, and one imaginary. And just as imaginary numbers expanded the one-dimensional line of the real numbers into a two-dimensional, complex plane thanks to the addition of an imaginary dimension, so human cognition has been broadened into a two-dimensional plane of cognitive complexity by the addition of imaginary, mentalistic thinking to real, mechanistic cognition, as illustrated in the previous post.

Indeed, you could argue that, if the mind is complex in this sense, one notable result has been a number of cognitive complexes: in other words, tangles of irresolvable confusion that result from failing to see that cognition is complex in the mathematical sense of combining real with imaginary. Such cognitive complexes usually have the following characteristics:

  1. They are long-standing, seemingly irresolvable, and endlessly debated, and despite the best efforts of many, no definitive solution ever emerges that is widely accepted.
  2. The debate can fan the flames of controversy to the point of igniting political, emotional, and ethnic reactions that render the issues almost impossible to discuss rationally and objectively. Effectively, such issues become taboo and as a consequence, those on the wrong side of the argument are stigmatized by various derogatory labels, and may be subject to slander, violence, legal sanctions, or other forms of persecution.
  3. Thanks to such sanctions against those who question the dogma, it inevitably becomes a belief that cannot be tested by rational criticism or factual refutation. And because belief is not the same thing as knowledge, even if the dominant dogma is correct, it is right for the wrong reasons.

Examples touched on in these posts include free will and determinism, which is a good example of  (1) above. Nature and nurture is another case where accusations of “racism” or “sexism” against those on the nature side illustrate (2), while the intelligence controversy epitomizes all the points. Finally, Lysenkoism in the USSR reveals the appalling costs to society of such stigmatization of science. But there are many more examples much closer to home—some too dangerous even to mention—and each age and every society generates its own selection. 

But things can change remarkably quickly even in the same civilization: consider the reversal of the taboo regarding a rational approach to homosexuality in modern Western societies. In the past, you were not allowed to say anything that might be construed as positive about homosexuals or homosexuality. If you did, it would have been taken to imply sympathy with or endorsement of homosexual practices, which were then criminalized. But today the reverse is the case, and anything that could be interpreted as unsympathetic or critical of homosexuals or homosexuality is anathematized as “homophobic”—a serious thought crime in the modern world. How easily the sign of the imaginary, mentalistic term changes—in this case from negative to positive!

And to make things even more complex, part of the problem with homosexuality is that the issue overlaps with the more basic one of free will and determinism. If you regard homosexuality as a free choice in a climate of criminalization of the behaviour, it is all the easier to justify such sanctions. But if you claim that homosexuality (at least in men) is genetically—and epigenetically—determined as much scientific evidence suggests, you might have been open to charges of appearing to condone and justify criminality—for example by portraying it as both “natural” and “involuntary.” Today much the same might be said, but some might resent the implication that homosexual men were in some way victims of their biology and prefer to regard the practice of homosexuality as a “human right:” in other words, as something that people can—and indeed should be allowed to—exercise of their own free will.

In fact, this is the true basis of what is controversial and conflicted about sex in general: sexuality is complex to the extent that it comprises both a mental and a mechanistic part, and the complex results not from repression as Freud would have had us believe—a ludicrous idea in today’s world—but from the complexity of the issue as defined here. And as I have pointed out before, in this particularly important case, we have conscripted a new term, gender, to mentalize and politicize the whole subject of sex.

Using complex numbers has solved otherwise insoluble problems in maths, science, and engineering, and much the same could be achieved with our collective, cognitive complexes by adopting the diametric model. Indeed, in the long run, this may turn out to be one of its greatest benefits for civilization as a whole.