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An Alternative View of Mental Health

We live in a world that takes a ‘mechanical’ view of mental health more and more for granted. Everything is about technical manipulation: just as I would take a car that isn’t performing properly into a garage to be fixed, when my head is not running right I take it into a psychiatric service shop staffed by trained technical experts. It is the job of these experts to run a few diagnostic tests on me, and then sort me out as well as they can, so that I can return to where I had been in my life before the episode of mental ill health had so rudely interrupted me. Professor of nursing Margaret Newman calls this linear interventionism: everyone knows what being mentally normal is, and so all we have to do is fix the error, and thereby bring the unfortunate person back safely to within normal operating parameters. There is no room here for questioning these ‘normal parameters’ – that is not what the mental health industries are about at all.



Of course, even when I am functioning okay I can – if I want to be pro-active in my search for mental health – avail of all sorts of mechanical (i.e. rule-based) techniques and procedures designed to maximize my success in living a happy and meaningful life. ‘Success’ is the key word here; everyone wants to live successfully which means that the emphasis is on ironing out self-doubt, stress and negative thinking, building healthy self-esteem, and acquiring all the skills that will allow me to win out over the negative stuff. What is wrong with this? It certainly sounds reasonable. The only problem is that, no matter how reasonable the ‘technical manipulation’ approach to mental health might sound, it just doesn’t work. In the following few pages we will take a look at why it doesn’t work.




The first point that we will make is that both the pro-active and retro-active options that we gave above essentially involve a ‘a handing over of responsibility’; they depend upon a willingness to believe in the existence of an external source of authority that, if followed, can deliver us to the promised land of perfect happiness and fulfilment. When we hand over responsibility we generally do feel good – we feel in control, we feel that we’re on the right tracks, we feel that we are (at long last) getting somewhere. Naturally enough, there is little enough incentive to question such a nice feeling. The only problem is, however, that we are on a trip to nowhere. This type of ‘feeling good’ always follows the exact same pattern: at first there is the rush of euphoria, the glow of confidence, the feeling that we are getting somewhere, and then the second act unfolds which consists of the gradual onset of disillusionment and emptiness, and the bitter taste of futility which slowly but surely takes over from the sweetness of the euphoria. Eventually we emerge from the rebound depression and stagnation and start looking for a new bandwagon to jump up on, a new theory or a new therapy, or a new course of pills.



Any journey that starts with the high that comes from handing over responsibility for thinking for ourselves and living life for ourselves is bound to turn out to be a journey to nowhere in the end. Because we want so much to believe in the validity of our trip, we concentrate on the positive and ignore the negative, but as the ancient Chinese principle of the identity of opposites reminds us, YES eventually turns into NO and the more emphatically we assert YES the harder is the NO that comes back to hit us in the face. This is exactly the same as what happens when I push a big heavy pendulum bob away from me: by putting in effort I displace the pendulum bob away from the neutral position, but the more energy I put into displacing it in a ‘positive’ direction, the more energy is going to be rebounding on me later on when it inevitably swings back in the ‘negative’ direction. The initial euphoric YES is the short-term gain, and the unwanted rebound of the NO is the long-term cost.



This sounds distinctly demoralizing but the point is that there is another sort of journey we can make, a journey that starts with the withdrawal of blind faith in external authority, and the acknowledgment that inner change can only come when we starting seeing the truth for ourselves. In this case, there is no initial rush of euphoria, but rather a slow painful dawning of how we have been fooling ourselves all this time by invariably opting for the ‘quick fix’, the short-term gain. This pain exists in stark contrast with the euphoria of the short-term gain, but the long–term consequence that follows is genuine movement, a genuine increase in freedom: instead of a ‘trip to nowhere’, we find ourselves on the ‘long journey’, Jung’s longissima via which is the journey of life itself.




What we are basically saying is that the mechanical view of mental health and mental ‘illness’ is part of the problem rather than being part of the cure. By ‘mechanical’ what we mean is that the theories and models that we use to understand mental functioning represent a static, disconnected (or extrinsic) mode of knowledge which actually takes us away from the reality of the situation which – we will assert – cannot be understood in a rational, ‘common sensible’, cause-and-effect type way. What, then, is a ‘non-mechanical’ definition of neurosis, assuming of course that there is such a thing? As it turns out, we can without too much difficulty come up with just such a definition, although in order for to make sense properly we will have to work up to it via a number of explanatory stages.



The first thing that we will do is to lump together neurotic disturbances such as anxiety disorder, panic attacks, phobias, obsessive behaviour, compulsive (or addictive) behaviour and clinical depression along with what are commonly called ‘negative emotions’. Negative emotions might be said to include states of mind such as anger, resentment, bitterness, self-pity, sulkiness, envy, jealousy, and craving (intense desire). The reason we call such states ‘negative’ is obvious – they distort and constrict our normal consciousness and cause us to enter very miserable mental spaces. We can legitimately lump together the clinically defined neurotic disturbances and the commonly experienced negative emotions because there is connection – an essential ingredient that exists in all of them. The connection is compulsivity, which we can define as an extrinsic source of order which causes us to obey certain rules.




The way we will define ‘extrinsic order’ is by saying that it is the type of order (or structure) which would not be there if no special instructions had been issued. It does not arise naturally (i.e. spontaneously), but as the result of an ‘implanted’ set of instructions that we have somehow acquired, like a program that has been downloaded into a computer. This is a bit of a weird concept for us because our automatic prejudice is to assume that unless some instructions are issued (from whatever authority might be involved) then nothing gets to happen. The predominance of the rational paradigm means that we tend to see all the changes that happen in the world as being the result of external mechanical forces, the principle here being that for every event there must be some causal antecedent. Since the eighties and the rise of the self-organization paradigm (pioneered by such people as Ilya Prigogine, Erich Jantsch, and more recently Stuart Kauffman) it is now generally accepted that order can spontaneously emerge without any need for instructions or causal agency of any sort whatsoever. The universe spontaneously produces marvels; it ‘surprises itself’, in other words.




There is a vast range of natural processes which display what is called ‘emergence’, ranging from the movement of tectonic plates and the organization of hurricanes, to the way bathwater goes down a plug-hole. The point about emergence is that the systems in question suddenly deviate from their regulated existence and manifest highly organized activity which cannot be explained or predicted on the basis of their previous mode of behaviour – the information simply wasn’t there beforehand. This is not at all the same thing as so-called ‘intelligent’ behaviour in robots or computer controlled devices because this type of intelligence relies on software, whereas emergent behaviour isn’t programmed in advance. In order to understand where the information encoded in the new behaviour pattern comes from we need to get our heads around the concept of the instability phase. Under standard conditions the self-organizing system is regulated by a specific set of rules but when pushed out of this ‘area of stability’ it enters an area where more than one set of rules becomes a tenable solution to the problem of maintaining the system’s existence. This represents a jump in the information content of the system – it no longer has ‘just the one way of doing things’ but ‘many possible ways’ and somehow (as the result of being nudged in a particular direction by a random fluctuation) the system re-emerges out of chaos on a new and higher level of organization. The counter-intuitive thing about all this is that although the change is spontaneous (i.e. not pre-programmed) it results in a modality of behaviour that is more not less organized than before.



The most fantastic emergent structure is probably the bizarre mathematical oddity known as the Mandelbrot set – this structure, being endlessly non-repeating (i.e. complex) in its nature, could never be specified (or at least, only by a set of instructions so long that it would take forever to write them down). The emergence of information which no one had specified in advance points to the existence of intrinsic order, which is what Kauffman calls ‘order for free’. Normally we think of information as something that has to be laboriously stored and managed, and then made available to only to those people who can pay, or perhaps those who have the correct security clearance. Information is power, so they say, and for this reason information is always jealously controlled. The idea Kauffman is talking about however is that there is a vast resource or reserve of information that is available to everybody. This ocean of information was not created and cannot be destroyed, but it can be tapped into: it is ‘free for all’, and yet nobody knows that it is there!




We now have at least some sort of a handle on extrinsic versus intrinsic order, but how does this apply to mental health and mental illness? Well, in a very intuitive way, we could use the concepts discussed above and say that mental health is when we are freely able to tap into the ocean of intrinsic order, and thereby enrich our lives with its infinite wealth. This spontaneous mode of mental functioning is our birthright – generally speaking, we possess it as children and then gradually lose it again as adults, perhaps never to regain during our adult lifetime. We can explain mental ‘ill health’ (speaking specifically about neurosis here) by saying that it is what happens when, oblivious to the ocean of free information all around us, we start investing our time in the laborious business of obtaining and safeguarding extrinsic order. As soon as we do this, we can’t help swallowing hook line and sinker the spurious belief that any good result can only come about as a result of our purposeful endeavour (or that any bad result can only be avoided as a result of our purposeful action).



Extrinsic order, as we have said, has to be fought for – it has the quality of some precious but limited commodity and so when we play the game of obtaining extrinsic order we necessarily become cunning and suspicious, ever watchful in case some other player diddles us in a deal, or gets a free ride at expense. Although it has the apparent character of ‘wealth’, the attempt to amass extrinsic order always results in inner impoverishment: we become greedy for gain, and fearful of loss; jealous of those who have more than we do, and mean to those who don’t. We also become prey to anxiety, because we have made ourselves dependent upon a commodity which is strictly limited, and which we can lose at any moment. As a result of what the investment which we have had to make in order to enter the game, we have automatically impoverished ourselves even before we started.




The impoverishment of neurosis is an ironic impoverishment, because through our greed for gain and fear of loss we have turned our backs on an unlimited supply of order, an Infinite Ocean of Order which we are at no time separated from. We said that this was an intuitive explanation and such explanations may be clear straightaway, or they may remain as clear as mud. We are not limited to an intuitive approach however, we can also go a certain distance using a more rational argument. The first thing we can do to tie our explanation to a rational framework is to develop the ideas of extrinsic and intrinsic order in terms of information.



Extrinsic order basically means rules, which means that it is always associated with the type of change that occurs as a result of following instructions. This type of change may be described as being ‘linear’, ‘quantitative’, ‘controlled’ or simply ‘purposeful’. As we have said, intrinsic order (or emergence) does not come about as the result of instructions, and therefore it can be called ‘non-linear’, ‘qualitative’, ‘uncontrolled’ or ‘spontaneous’. What we have here then are two complementary types of change, purposeful versus spontaneous, which can be very straightforwardly defined in terms of the quantity W, (i.e. information). Let us take purposeful change first.



[1] The basic action here is copying: we start off with an abstract pattern or template (or ‘idea’) which gets actualised in reality in some way. This looks just like an act of creation (i.e. something new appearing) but, counter-intuitively, there is no information-jump occurring at any time during the process. Purposeful change is therefore characterized by zero increase in W content of the system being observed. There is of course the appearance of change but this is tautological change because the information in the thing that has been actualised is exactly the same as the information in the idea for the thing – nothing new comes into the picture, and nothing is lost. If there were not this fidelity of reproduction we would not be talking about purposefulness; the basic principle in goal-orientated activity is that when we want to realize a goal, we do not want any surprises (i.e. we want the goal, and nothing but the goal). What we want, in other words, is predictability, and this is interesting because information is generally defined as a reverse measure of predictability, which is to say, the more predictable a message is, the less information it contains. Maximum predictability must, therefore, contain minimum information (i.e. minimum news) and this in turn means that purposeful change can be defined as apparent change that is in fact no change.


[2] The essential action here is creating – obviously we do not start of with any idea about what we are to create because that would be copying not creating. This is simply to say that creating is perfectly non-purposeful in nature. Because of the utterly unpredictable, utterly unprecedented character of the type of change that happens as a result of creativity, there has to be a dramatic jump in the information content of the system. Spontaneous change always comes as a surprise, and because surprise is the enemy of control (or purposefulness) we can see that these two types of change are fundamentally opposed to each other. What this means is that when we are busy in the purposeful mode (i.e. when we are preoccupied with trivial change) the nature of this ‘business’ excludes the possibility of genuine or radical change.




Fritjof Capra uses the terms self-maintenance and self-transcendence when talking about the two types of change.  As we have implied, in the life of self-organizing systems it is only at certain pivotal moments that self-transcendence comes into the picture – for the rest of the time self-maintenance is the rule of the day and everything proceeds according to precedence. The ‘sacred blueprint’ is everything, fidelity is everything, and chaos the ultimate evil. But when self-transcendence is the thing, then that value system becomes reversed because then it is the old pattern which is ‘evil’, and chaos which is ‘good’. This crucially important principle states that what is good at one time, is not necessarily good at all times…



The way that Jantsch (1980) explains the relationship between spontaneous and purposeful change is to say that through the risk-taking of creativity, something valuable is won, and after this come the difficult task of consolidating that win, and building upon it. It is only when this new, successful pattern in turn becomes insufficient to the task that the time has come when everything that has been attained has to be dissolved back into the chaos of the instability phase once more. We can see here that although self-maintenance and self-transcendence are inherently opposed to each other, there is no need to ‘pick sides’ and say that the one is good and the other bad; all that is needed is sensitivity to which is the right thing at the time.



So far we have been tending to look at the idea of the two types of change in physical processes, but it is of course obvious at this stage that this way of looking at things can be applied very fruitfully to psychological considerations. One particularly poignant parallel with physical self-organizing systems is the idea of meta-stability. When a system persists in clinging to its old mode of functioning, despite the fact that this old pattern of interaction no longer represents a viable solution to the problems posed by life, then the structure is said to be meta-stable. At this point everything that had been useful about the old way of doing things, is now the opposite of useful. The rules were there to help, but now they merely oppress; instead of healthy stability and growth there is now nothing but stagnation and futility. This situation, from a psychological point of view, has a very familiar ring to it – in fact it is a remarkably apt description of neurosis. Students of Jung will find that this type of description echoes Jung’s own ideas, which in turn paralleled those of the ancient alchemists, whose system rested on the two-fold principle of dissolution and coagulation  (‘solve et coagula’).




It is easy to argue that predictability (i.e. information content) is just about the best way we have of describing human cognition and behaviour: at the one end of the spectrum (the purposeful end) we find a highly regulated, highly routinized mode of existence – there is a basic pattern which is endlessly repeated, carried over from day to day, month to month, year to year. Precedence is the golden rule here –“I do it this way because I have always done it this way”. All I ever do is copy what I have done before, and this behavioural predictability is mirrored by cognitive predictability – “I look at the world in this way because I have always looked at the world in this way”.  My thinking has been wholly given over to opinions, rigid beliefs, unchallengeable ideas and unquestionable assumptions. There isn’t an original thought in my head, all I ever do is tread the same old mental paths, over and over again, coming out with the same tired old formulae. What is involved here is the type of information called by Ernst and Christine von Weizsacker confirmation – everything that I see and do confirms the validity of my basic underlying assumptions.




At the other end of the spectrum the type of information that dominates is novelty – everything I see and do falsifies my assumptions, and so I have no ground to stand on, no shred of cognitive stability whatsoever. If we find neurosis at the extreme confirmation end of the spectrum, then the extreme novelty end is where we encounter psychosis. In psychotic states the problem is not that there is too much reiteration of the known, but rather that there is a devastating implosion of the unknown. If the data associated with neurosis is banal and impoverished in terms of its qualitative diversity, then the data we have to deal with in psychosis is overpoweringly rich and new – we just do not have any way of processing such a torrent of impressions, and hanging on to our nice, neat, rational description of our place in the world becomes an impossibility. Our theories become grotesquely convoluted and bizarre as we try to accommodate and assimilate the super-high information content of our perceptions. Characteristically, simple events and communications take on multiple levels of meaning; nothing is straightforward and nothing is what it seems. Ordinary everyday objects confound us because we see them in so many different ways all at the same time; hundreds of competing viewpoints interpenetrate each other, making our categories leaky and mutually contaminating. Weird connections are everywhere, and there seems to be no such thing as a reliable ‘dividing line’ anymore in our experience. There is nothing anywhere that I can be really sure of. In a nutshell, novelty fatally undermines every assumption we ever held sacred; like a universal acid it ruthlessly corrodes ideas, beliefs and concepts, propelling us inexorably into the state of ungrounded instability (or ‘infinite relativity’).




At the C-pole of the confirmation/novelty spectrum I suffer from a terrible literalism, an inability to look beyond the banal surface-level appearance of my claustrophobically oppressive world, whilst at the N-pole I suffer from the inability not to see through mundane appearances, with the result that I cannot believe in the same cosy, matter-of-fact view of the world that everyone else happily shares a belief in. In essence, we can say that the problem with life at the confirmation end of the scale is that I don’t have any perspective, which means that I am effectively imprisoned by my own (and other peoples’) constructs, whilst at the novelty end I have too much perspective, which means that I can see through any construct going. Being able to see through mental constructs is a bit like being the man with X-ray eyes – it might seem like fun at first but it can get terribly scary once you realize that you can’t stop seeing deeper and deeper. What happens then is that you start craving to return to the comfort zone of not having to think about things too deeply. This basic form of psychological security (which comes down to having believable boundaries) is something we take totally for granted when we have it, but miss sorely when it is pulled from under us, like the proverbial rug.



This is not to say that when we see through the apparent substantiality of our mundane reality we end up in some sort of  ‘deficit situation’, finding out that our world was no more than a shell with nothing behind it. On the contrary, as Aldous Huxley observed, the conceptual mind works like a reducing valve, supplying us only with the watered down type of information that we can safely deal with.  When unreduced the information that floods into our system causes us to question everything that we automatically rely on to provide us with orientation, such as the sense of a separate, independently existent self. This reassuring sense of a solid ‘me’ is the first thing to go, which is why an increase in the novelty content of our perceptual information feels ‘persecutory’ (as R.D. Laing notes) and provokes desperate defensive measures.



The point is that the matrix of reified concepts within which we orientate ourselves contains less not more information than the unconditioned environment; our primary unconscious mental activity involves the automatic over-simplification of reality and the substitution of an analogue-version in its place. The social ‘reality tunnel’ which we all take for granted is an example of such a process: society conditions us to accept a certain view of existence, and this view totally dominates the way we perceive ourselves and the world. From young adulthood to old age we orientate ourselves in a world full to the brim with conditioned mental structures, never pausing to consider the possibility that it is all a preposterous over-simplification – a virtual reality game, in fact.



Our natural reaction is of course to doubt this (or, more likely, to totally refuse to consider it) but practical everyday experience can be used to provide evidence for this ‘theory of reversed expectations’. All I need to do is compare my view of the world when I am stressed out trying to achieve some goal or other, with my view of the world when I am not stressed. Which is the broader, which contains more information? Obviously, when I am preoccupied with an all-important goal, then all consideration that have no relevance with regard to that goal make no claim on my attention, which means that my world has ‘shrunk’ because of my seriousness. Similarly, if I compare my everyday, run-of-the-mill awareness with an episode of heightened awareness caused by climbing a mountain or jumping out of an airplane (hopefully with a parachute), then I am bound to say that the information content of what I am experiencing has again jumped up a few notches. The characteristic symptom of such expanded perspective is that ‘old things are seen in a new way’. Incidentally, this might also be said to be one of the qualities of art and poetry: poetic descriptions of the world contain more and not less information than rational descriptions.




So if that is psychosis, then where do we find ‘sanity’? A good guess would be ‘somewhere in the middle’ and this answer corresponds both to what Jantsch says and more recent discoveries in the field of complexity theories which suggest that self-organizing systems naturally migrate to a special zone in ‘rule space’ where stability and chaos are balanced. Complexity scientists have called this zone ‘the edge of chaos’.




This is not to say that we necessarily recognize our compulsions as being interlopers, because the way that they work is by ‘taking over’ so that we end up thinking that what the compulsion wants me to do, is what I want to do. A classic example of this is the urge to drink – if I develop an addiction to alcohol the compulsion is of course for me to get a drink down my neck, but usually I perceive this as being the exercise of my own free will, rather than something that is forced upon me. It is only when I seriously try to shake off the addiction that I start to gain insight into the discrepancy between what I want and what the compulsion wants. This is true for alcohol addiction, and it is equally true for every compulsive state of mind known to human experience – we identify with our compulsions and do our best to obey them, even when this causes the destruction of everything we love.



Joining together the major disturbances to our mental health (which are generally known as ‘mental illness’) with the everyday minor fluctuations such as a common or garden bad mood is a very useful exercise.  When I find myself suffering from what is called mental illness, I tend to perceive a great divide between what I am experiencing and the type of experiences that are had by the general population. Well-meaning individuals might try to empathize with me by saying that they know what it is like because they have had bad times too, but I know that they haven’t a clue. By way of an analogy, it is as if their only experience has been living like mites on top of the dining-room table, so that they can only talk about the ups-and-downs of the wrinkles in the table-cloth, whereas I have fallen right off the table altogether. They think that the table is the whole world, so how can I even begin to talk to them?



Similarly, if I am part of the population of those who have not (yet) suffered from any major mental disturbance, I will tend in my heart of hearts to view the behaviour of those affected as being bizarre and incomprehensible, if not downright reprehensible. Experientially, we have to admit that the divide is there, but it is also true that if we can begin to understand the nature of the compulsive states of mind, as it manifests in the most petty and short-lived ‘negative emotion’, then we have also understood the essence of the most virulent and intractable neurotic hell–worlds. Furthermore, we will understand that the way to helpfully work with (as opposed to simply struggling against) the compulsive states of mind is in all cases the same.



The biggest part of our problems as a civilization in dealing with what we call mental illness lies in the way we see it in isolation. This isolation exists not only between the mentally ‘well’ and the mentally ‘not well’, it also exists between the different types of mental disturbance such as anxiety, depression, OCD and bipolar affective disorder. We have no common ground between them, no understanding of any essential principle beyond the mechanical idea that there is ‘something wrong with the functioning of the brain’. Another problem that we will shortly deal with is the problem of how we define ‘mental wellness’; this doesn’t usually seem like a problem because we all assume that we know what mental health is – how could we not know something as basic as that?  And yet, as we shall see in a minute, this really can’t be taken for granted. One possible reason why we have difficulty in understanding ‘mental illness’ is that we never properly understood what mental health is all about in the first place. If we could throw new light on our assumptions on this point, and derive some sort of ‘unified theory of mental illness’ then this would have to be a real step forward. This is entirely possible, as long as we are prepared to take a radically new tack. But before we take a look as what possible types of definitions we might be able find for the state of mental health, we will go back to the topic in hand, which is neurosis.



At the beginning of this section we said that we would come up with a ‘non-mechanical’ approach to neurosis. Neurosis is responsible for only a portion of mental distress and suffering (albeit a large portion) – it does not cover conditions such as schizophrenia which are classified as psychotic disturbances.  We will leave the psychotic conditions to one side for a moment, not because they can’t be understood in the same way as the neurotic conditions, but because things get a bit more complicated when we try to explain psychosis in terms of compulsion. We are now in a position to make a more thorough explanation of what we mean when we talk about the ‘mechanical approach’. A mechanical approach is where there is a definition of what the problem is, and a definition of what the solution is. We know what <RIGHT> is and we know what <WRONG> is, which is to say, there is a known goal and a known sequence of steps or procedures which can allow us to reach the goal. We know this paradigm so well that it is practically impossible to see any fault with it. All the same, there is a fault in it, and it is a big one.



The fault has to do with the fact that we live in a complex universe. Complex objects are objects that require more than one ‘level of description’ in order to do them justice. This is another way of saying that one perspective (or ‘frame of reference) does not encompass all of the aspects that a complex object has. Furthermore, all objects in the real world are complex! The only objects that aren’t complex are the objects we create with our thoughts, which in the technical jargon are referred to as ‘formal’ as opposed to ‘real world’ systems. Now we can see the problem that always comes with mechanical (i.e. linear) thinking. The problem is that in order to manipulate or control, we need to have a frame of reference, a particular perspective on things. There can be no such thing as purposeful action without the certainty that comes from having a fixed and unquestionable frame of reference. Any goal that we might have, any assessment of signal versus error (hit versus miss), can never be any more than a projection of that static framework of understanding. What this means is that there is an inevitable incoherence implicit in all our purposeful activity, a mismatch between reality and our ideas about reality.



For some tasks, this incoherence does not make any appreciable difference. To go back to our example of a car having its engine fixed by a mechanic – there are no consequences here regarding the predominately linear paradigm that is being exercised. However, if we were to try to calculate (and control) the interaction of all the car engines in the world with the planet-wide weather system, we would run into problems because non-linearity comes into the picture in a big way when we look at something as global as this. Similarly, for the task of understanding and fixing neurotic patterns of thinking and behaviour, the mechanical paradigm is no use at all – I cannot extricate myself from the neurotic tangle using rational, goal-orientated behaviour.



Why should this be? Why would the human mind be more ‘global’ than a car engine? The answer is, obviously enough, that in order to do its job, the mind needs to be able to relate to a whole realm of possibilities. It needs to be able to turn through 360 degrees of ‘possibility space’. Therefore, the globality in question involves a wideness of vision, a type of conceptual flexibility. In a nutshell, the mind has to be open rather than closed, in order that it can relate to the breadth (i.e. the complexity) of the universe within which it operates. Openness is (mathematically speaking) a funny thing: there is no formula for ‘openness’, no way to specify it, no set of guide-lines or rules that can help us orientate ourselves to it. We can be open, but we cannot plan to be open, or calculate how to be open, or deliberately make ourselves be open. It is not a goal, in other words, but rather it is the lack of all goals. What this means is that all formulae, specifications, guide-lines and rules are the exact opposite of opposite of openness – they automatically exclude a whole range of possibilities without registering anything about the possibilities that they are excluding. Therefore, all rule-based approaches to the world invariably result in the state of organizational closure, which can be defined as the state of being bounded or limited without realizing that we are so bounded or limited.



This gives rise to a most perplexing conundrum for mechanical (or ‘directed’) thought. With regard to openness (which is the only way to relate to the whole of anything, i.e. the only way of not excluding a portion of the universe and being unaware of this exclusion) there is no ‘right way’ to approach the matter – there is no position or attitude that is the ‘right’ one. If I say that there is a right way, then I have limited myself to a game, which is when I abide by a set of rules that are taken so much for granted that I cannot actually see them. Alternatively, we can define a game by saying that it is the domain that results when I interact with the universe on the basis of a set of arbitrarily selected rules which are treated as ‘absolute’ or ‘unquestionable’. Mechanical, rule-based thinking can solve problems that can be totally defined within its own narrow frame of reference, but when it is applied to global (or ‘complex’) matters it creates undesired and unforeseen consequences which we then attempt to correct in the same counterproductive manner. Once we see this then it is apparent that I can never ever extricate myself from a neurotic tangle using mechanical thinking, because it is the over-reliance on mechanical thinking which caused me to get snared in the neurotic tangle in the first place.



This brings us (finally) to our definition of neurosis. All we need are the two basic ideas that we met at the beginning of our discussion: [1] the idea of ‘handing over responsibility, and [2] the idea of short-term gain and long-term cost.  Neurosis, then, can be defined as what happens when we hand over responsibility for how we see the world to a misrepresentative viewpoint. The reason we ‘hand over’ in this way is in order to obtain the short-term benefit (the ‘pay-off)’ which can either take the form of a reduction in discomfort or an increase in security (or comfort). The two motivations of avoiding discomfort and obtaining comfort are in fact perfectly equivalent. We can also see the pay-off that comes with handing over responsibility to a narrow viewpoint in terms of an increase of certainty, and a corresponding increase on compulsivity. It is a basic principle that the narrower and more constrictive the viewpoint we take, the more compulsion we feel to act in a particular way.




Why, we might ask, should this decrease in freedom be experienced as pleasurable, or satisfying? Loss of freedom doesn’t sound very good – we all want to be free, don’t we? The answer to this question is simple: when the compulsivity of the situation that we find ourselves in increases, the freedom which we have to wonder what we should be doing decreases, and so all we have to do is to ‘get on with it’. We have no responsibility for our actions, because we simply cannot see anything else that we could have done. This is just like joining the army – once in the army (or any other such institution) I no longer have to experience any angst wondering if I am doing the best thing because everything is already mapped out for me. All I have to do is get on with it, and although this will definitely involve lots of hard work, I have nevertheless managed to avoid the work of ‘taking responsibility for my own life’. We may deduce, therefore, that this second type of work is actually harder in some way.



Externally originated compulsivity (which comes, as we have said, from rules that we cannot question) provides us with a crude, black and white ‘meaning’ to our lives, just as the totalitarian state does, and it is the unacknowledged desire for this ‘framework of meaning’ which secretly motivates us. In a sense, we do want freedom, but the freedom we want is the freedom ‘not to be free’, i.e. the freedom to obey the rules behind the compulsion without ever having any regrets or second thoughts. This shows why neurosis is so intractable a problem – it is intractable because, deep down, we don’t want to be free at all. Rather than face this awareness, we would rather pre-occupy ourselves with spurious (or ‘theatrical’) attempts to free ourselves, which is what so many of our so-called ‘therapies’ come down to. We are caught on the horns of a dilemma – we want to be happy, but only on the condition that we can continue handing over responsibility. Unfortunately, this condition effectively rules out any chance of real happiness or peace of mind, and so all we can do is continue pre-occupying ourselves with positive and negative compulsions, which provides us with a crude substitute of genuine life. Instead of unconditional happiness we settle for the phantom promise of ‘happiness-within-a-game’.




The motivation behind games is based upon winning versus losing (or attraction versus aversion). Because this motivation doesn’t arise spontaneously, as an expression of our own free nature, but in response to a fixed (i.e. unfree) way of looking at the world which is imposed upon us ‘from the outside’, we can refer to the motivation of games as extrinsic. The order that develops in a game is extrinsic because it doesn’t occur as a result of ‘allowing things to be as they are’, but as the result of the enactment of a set of rules that are imposed from somewhere else. The structure reflects these externally originated rules, in other words, and not the natural or unmodified nature of the system when it is left to do its own thing.



Extrinsic motivation expresses itself in the form of the twin compulsions of fear and greed. It therefore equals ‘loss of freedom’. Fear and greed (aversion and attraction) have the function of taking up all available mental space so that we do not have the possibility of questioning (i.e. reflecting upon) what we are doing, and the state of ‘not knowing the true reason why we are doing what we are doing’ is nothing other than the state of psychological unconsciousness. When we are in the driven state of psychological unconsciousness we assume that we do know why we are doing what we are doing: we are trying to obtain a goal or avoid an ‘anti-goal’ but in fact the nature of both goal and anti-goal is assumed rather than actual. It is not exactly controversial to suggest that the goals of a game are assumed (or theatrical) rather then actual (or real). But, we might object, suppose my goal is a house that I want to buy, how is that theatrical?



In answer to this we have to reply that the desire to obtain a house is not in itself neurotic in the usual sense of the word even though the motivation involved is undoubtedly [+]-type extrinsic motivation. What happens in neurosis is that the meaning which a ‘real-world’ goal holds for me becomes loaded; I am, in other words, using the pragmatic necessity of the goal-object to further some unconscious purpose. Therefore, when I am terrified of visitors calling and finding out that my house is a tip, then the pragmatic desire to avoid dirt and untidiness becomes so over-powering that it is clear to everyone that the fear is ‘disproportionate to the threat’. The anti-goal of having an untidy house has become a ‘bad thing’ which holds me in terror, and although the state of untidiness is pragmatically real, the meaning I am projecting on it is out of proportion. I have assumed a ‘disaster’ when there is none, and if I were able to diligently examine my assumptions to see what exactly the disaster is I would find nothing there; I would be unable to say exactly why exactly tidiness has become so very important to me.



Similarly, the desire to eat is not neurotic because it is a pragmatic necessity. When the need to eat becomes disproportionately important to me, then it must be the case that the pragmatic necessity of obtaining and eating food has been hijacked by some ‘demon’. It is no longer relatively important that I eat, but absolutely important; I am now driven by an absolute motivation which is destructive and nihilistic in nature, since it is out of touch with all relative considerations. The short-term benefit of an addiction-type disturbance like this can be seen in terms of ‘space-filling’ – I am kept too busy to think about anything else that I might be doing, and so I have successfully avoided the responsibility of being autonomous (i.e. free).




The notion of relative versus absolute needs (or ‘rules’) provides us with a good way to define what we mean by games: we can say that a game is when goals are absolutely rather than relatively important. When I am not neurotically involved, then my goals are relativistic, they are relativized by the global influence of all other goals (‘pragmatic necessities’) that might be important to me. The fact that this is a complex array of goals (or rules) means that the goals are not agreeing but competing, and so the overall effect is to place each goal in ‘its proper place’; which is to see, each is seen from the perspective of the whole. When the relativizing effect of complexity is not there, then the perspective shrinks and the issue (whatever it is) is seen apart from the whole rather than being ‘a part’. The importance of the unrelativized goal then becomes unchecked, and expand to fill all the space – the importance is over-valued, and the activity that arises from this magnified sense of necessity has no realistic relationship with its environment and so it ends up being destructive and down-right nihilistic. Thus, when one set of rules are imposed upon the complex whole (i.e. when a narrow perspective is taken), the degree of compulsivity increases. This is an equivalent statement to saying that ‘an isolated set of rules always expresses itself in terms of extrinsic motivation’.



In a game, the goals are always absolute. It is either WIN or LOSE; there are no grey areas – it is either one or the other. This certainty is the whole point of a game, that is why we play games. Life, on the other hand, is not a game – there is no winning or losing in life, it is just not that black and white. Even the most important pragmatic goal, such as the goal of self-preservation (the anti-goal of ‘not dying’) is not absolute. This agenda might be dropped because of some greater consideration. In neurotic living, on the other hand, the necessity to survive and protect one’s ground becomes an end in itself, which means that I will try to secure these goals no matter what the cost. As a result of this narrow fixation upon an unrelativized set of rules, my life becomes a living hell, it becomes ‘not worth living’, and yet despite this I cannot relinquish it. I am too locked into defending that I cannot see that it is my defending that is the root cause of my suffering.



The absolutized (or isolated) ‘me’ is always meaningless, because the only real meaning that it ever had came from its living (i.e. dynamic) relationship with everything else. On its own, it is nothing, unreal – it actually becomes no more than a pointless entrenchment, a barricade against Reality itself. The entrenched and self-contained ‘me’ may be defined as the extrinsic self – it is the self that (tautologically) makes sense only within the game within which it exists. It is created by our absolute need to defend (or promote) it, which means it is only lack of perspective that makes us think that it is so very important. The relativized ‘me’ is the ‘me-which-is-not-special’ – it could equally well be anything, and so it does not need defending. In a universe which is complex (i.e. where there is no ‘final word’) there is no compulsion to be a ‘me’ because I may always discover that what I took to be ‘me’ is not me at all. As James Carse has said, being a ‘me’ becomes a playful rather than a serious business, because the point is to be surprised rather than confirmed. Thus, the extrinsic self is forever old, whereas the intrinsic self is at all times new.




All rational approaches (theories and activity that is based on theories) are similarly tautological, which is to say, similarly meaningless. All approaches that are based upon focussing upon one aspect of the complex universe at the cost of all the others produce a distorted view of reality that engenders compulsivity, and the covert aim of the compulsivity is to maintain the viewpoint which created that compulsivity in the first place. This is complete ‘closure of meaning’ – extrinsic motivation arises out of a narrow viewpoint, and the result of this extrinsic motivation is to make the goals (and ant-goals) associated with it seem real so that the harder we strive to attain (or avoid) them, the more real they seem!




We can sum up this part of the discussion by saying that the goals and anti-goals of a game are ‘theatrical’, which is to say, they aren’t the real reason that we are doing what we are doing. The covert purpose of becoming pre-occupied with theatrical goals can be set out in a ‘tautological’ manner as follows. We can say that the covert purpose of trying to obtain a theatrical goal is to reduce any uncertainty regarding the validity of that goal.



This sounds a bit strange at first, but reflection it makes perfect sense: when I become engaged in purposeful activity in relation to a goal I obtain a basic form of ‘ontological security’ that is proportionate to the validity (or meaningfulness) of the goal. The more meaningful the goal is, the more meaningful ‘I’ am. There is a sort of inverse relationship between “WHY?” And “HOW?” here – the more I become involved in trying to obtain a goal (or avoid an anti-goal) the less aware I become of the relativity of the importance of that goal or ant-goal, so that I end up feeling that it is very very important that something should (or should not) happen, but not knowing why. My concern is all with “How can I do it?” and not at all with “Why do I want to do it?” This is compulsivity in a nutshell.  There is obviously security in this, but this security turns into a curse because it doesn’t go anywhere – it is a false solution, a phoney answer.



Although attraction and aversion are equivalent, it still makes sense to keep them separate because in this way we can divide neurotic conditions into those that are based upon positive attachment to euphoria or pleasure, and those that are based on negative attachment to pain or fear. Addictive behaviour is the most obvious example of the former. Tropism towards pleasure is of course a very normal (i.e. non-neurotic) tendency, but when the goal of euphoria becomes too important (or ‘too unbalanced’) what happens is we start to see the world in such a narrow distorted way that all other considerations become ‘as nothing’ to us. At this point our behaviour becomes self-destructive, it rebounds on us in an entirely unwanted way.



If we say that addiction (extreme positive attachment) lies at one end of the continuum, then at the other end we must find extreme negative attachment, examples of which would be phobia and the type of obsessiveness that is based on fear, horror or intense anger. When our view of the world is distorted due to extreme negative attachment the sort of behaviour that we engage in is also fundamentally counterproductive: if I loathe and hate a particular individual, then I am inevitably going to be thinking of this person a lot of the time, and yet this is not at all what I want – what I want is to be rid of the person but instead I carry the image that I have of them around with me full-time. This same involuntary ‘self-tormenting’ occurs when there is something that I fear very much. An example would be a man who has a phobia about microwave ovens – most of us, because we care neither one way nor the other, do not spend much time thinking about microwave ovens. When we need to use one we think about it, but then we quickly move on and forget about it. There are other concerns in our lives. A phobia is an all-consuming preoccupation with the object of the phobia, which means that if I have a phobia to do with microwave ovens then I will spend a disproportionate amount of time dwelling on them. Once I start tuning into to the risk of coming too close to a microwave oven, I realize just how ubiquitous they are. Everything I do has to be calculated in relation to the need to avoid risk of exposure to microwave radiation, just as an alcoholic has to figure all events in terms of their relevance to the central need of being able to get a drink. The obsession with control is the same both ways.



So far so good. There is nothing too radical here, nothing too hard to swallow. But let us remember what it was we set out to do, which was to explain all mental ‘illness’ (along with the less major types of mental distress) in terms of handing over responsibility. We could also say that all mental ‘illness’ comes down to either illegitimately obtaining something we want, or illegitimately avoiding something we don’t want, by taking a particular slant on the world. This is ‘illegitimate’ because we have pulled a fast one somewhere along the line: we have taken a relatively true statement and said that it is absolutely true; we have opted to assume one viewpoint out of many, and then we have said that it is the only possible viewpoint. How do we apply this to extreme attraction/aversion? The basic ‘theatre’ here is that we can say YES without also incurring a NO, or vice versa in the case of aversion. We can believe that this is possible by taking an extremely narrow viewpoint, by becoming purely rational, and not at all intuitive.



From the purely rational viewpoint, YES is seen as not at all the same as NO, the two are as different as can be. This is why we are so convince that we can insist on having a positive swing of the pendulum without also having to reap the negative (or return) swing. For me to see that YES actually equals NO (which is a paradox) I would have to transcend rationality, which is perfectly possible and straightforward – in fact it happens every time I see a paradox. This is the same sort of thing that happens when we ‘get a joke’: to start off with we are stuck on a one-level (or ‘literal’) understanding of what is being said, and then all of a sudden we spontaneously transcend this restrictive level. Beforehand we only had one way of understanding the situation, now we have a new way.



We can say therefore that zero insight into YES = NO results in maximum compulsivity, and, of course, maximum ‘rebound’. This is why intensely neurotic states of mind are as hellish as they are. We must also make mention of a possibility that we have so far failed to cover – it is possible (or perhaps even inevitable) that enough time spend in extremely compulsive states can result in a break-through in understanding, so that we can actually link our action with the rebound that comes back to hit us in the face. Naturally, when this insight arises, our belief in the game we are playing (i.e. the game that YES exists independently from NO) is weakened, and so the force of the compulsivity is also weakened. The integrity of the game has been fatally injured; the powerhouse which drives the endlessly repetitive ‘self-tormenting’ neurotic behaviour has had its fuel supply cut off. At this point we will introduce the term negative freedom (from John G. Bennett) which can be defined as the freedom we have to obtain one of the opposites without also incurring the other. Negative freedom can also be defined by saying that it is the freedom we have to realize our theatrical goals (the freedom we have to believe that the game we are playing is real). Finally negative freedom can be defined by saying that it is the freedom we have to obey a compulsion. We cannot say that there is any specific limit to the intensity or duration of compulsivity that it is possible to experience, but what we can say is that at some point we start to run out of negative freedom, which is to say, we stop retreating from reality into games.




 Having straightened that out, let us now pick a condition. If we stay on the left hand (positive-compulsive) side of the diagram we see marked the state of euphoric elation. The condition associated with this region is unipolar affective disorder, which used to called mania. Unipolar affective disorder (as is depression) is conveniently explained in biogenic terms as the result of abnormally raised levels of certain neurotransmitters. ‘Biogenic’ means that the biological level reaches out and influences me, but I cannot (without technical help) reach back to influence it; this type of explanation says that disorders of affect (happy/sad disorders) are caused by abnormal neurotransmitter levels, which are caused by some defect in the organization of the brain, which in turn can be traced back to the level of the genes. Once we get to the genetic level or organisation we need look no further because this is the ‘ultimate’ level – you don’t need to ask why the genes have gone wrong because the only explanation possible is random mutation. What this means is that mental illness comes from some sort of statistical freak chance – it is purely accidental. “Nothing personal, you understand,” says fate with an apologetic shrug, “everyone gets dealt a hand in the game of life, and this just happens to be your one…” What we have here, then, is a perfectly ‘meaning free’ explanation of mental illness – we do not need to look beyond the random error occurring at the level of the genes. Needless to say, this makes sense within the wider ‘rationalist’ view of things since the phenomenon of life is itself seen in a perfectly ‘meaning free’ manner. “It just came about as a result of chance, and that is all there is to it…” we say. In considering the biogenic view of mental illness, then, we are also considering the overall ‘physical-reductionist’ paradigm that we as a culture have chosen to base our thinking on.



This is simply to say that the biogenic model is essentially a physical explanation – it assumes that the ultimate way of describing the world is in terms of its physical (or material) aspect. This, as we have said, represents the dominant viewpoint at the present time, and because it is the dominant paradigm that makes it very hard to think of any other perspectives we might take – that is what dominant paradigms do! Material realism (as physicist Amit Goswami calls it) seems so obvious that we just don’t think of questioning it; furthermore we don’t even notice that we don’t think of questioning it. All the same, we are perfectly free to question material realism if we want to, and the results of so doing are very interesting. We just need to get over a few mental hurdles first. The first objection we generally come up against when we question the cult of materialism is the objection that by refusing to take it as seriously as everyone else we are denying that the material world is real.  This is of course a totally devastating argument because, as anyone can plainly see, the material world is as real as you please. “I rest my case,” says the materialist, trying hard to avoid looking too smug about it.



There is sleight-of-hand going on here though. We are not saying that the material world we all see around us is not real, merely that it is not the ultimate reality. The point is not that physical descriptions are ‘wrong’ but rather that this level of description represents just one way of looking at the world – it is not the ultimate level, in other words. Actually, there isn’t any such thing as ‘an ultimate level’ because ‘level of description’ is just another way of saying ‘frame of reference’, and a particular frame of reference never gives us more than a narrow slice of the whole. It is impossible to survey the whole of mathematical space from any one vantage point, as Godel showed, and it is also impossible (as complexity pioneer Ilya Prigogine emphatically states) to model the whole of a physical system with just the one theory. ‘Material realism’ – which, it will be remembered, is the dominant way of thinking in this age – works by implicitly assuming that physicality is the be all and end all, the alpha and the omega. This paradigm says “What you see is what you get” (in contrast to the complex view which says that what we see and know is just one aspect of a greater reality). This insistence that ‘the buck stops here’ is both the strength and the weakness in the physicalist argument: it is the strength because it packs such a punch and it is a weakness because the power of the punch is an illusion. We can in fact see in the mighty wallop packed by the physicalist argument an unacknowledged but highly potent ‘psychological pay-off’, which is the pay-off of not having to look any further. In this, reductionist science is no different to a fundamentalist religion –both are secretly motivated by the need to obtain (spurious) ontological security. Basically, we don’t give a damn what we believe in, as long it is something totally and utterly unquestionable, like a great rock we can cling onto.



Of course, we do not generally have any sense that we are sheltering from some terrible fear. On the contrary, life usually seems as bland, matter of fact and safe as can be. The sheer pressure of all the mundane practical adaptations that we have to make are more than enough to keep us confined to the visible, material world. Routine activity automatically puts us into a state of mind in which there is no conception whatsoever of anything lying out there ‘beyond’ the realm of the known. When we are in this pre-occupied mode of awareness (the mode in which we unthinkingly assume the world that we can see, touch and know about to be the one and only reality) any intimation that ‘things are not what they seem’ comes as   a tremendous shock. We really did not see this coming and we more than just a little bit prone to fly into some form of denial. And yet, the idea that the world we see around us is no more than some sort of pale echo or reflection of some vaster more mysterious Reality has been around as long as human beings have. One only has to think of Plato’s cave analogy, and there are innumerable other such examples. It is one thing to learn about such ideas in a philosophy class, however, and quite another to see their relevance to everyday life; even if we do have the abstract knowledge (and most of us don’t) that the world we are familiar with is only a bunch of shadows projected on the wall of our cave, this so-called ‘knowledge’ doesn’t do anything to alter our actual awareness in the slightest – the scope of our consciousness is just as trivial as the next man’s.




Although we have this need for the solid reassurance that comes when we make the material world the alpha and the omega of our existences, that is not to say that we don’t also get fed up with the inherent restrictiveness, pettiness, and ennui of it all. Although we want it, we also suffer from it, and one of the key arguments that we are going to be making in this discussion is that neurotic distress (along with depression) is the price that we pay for being able to live in the comfort zone of a purely material existence.




Just to summarize what we have been saying on the subject so far, in the biogenic model the physical organization of the system being investigated has been elevated to the status of an inviolate level. This means that it can affect us, but we cannot affect it, i.e. a causal arrow comes out of the inviolate level, but there are no arrows coming in.  This is the definition of a ‘basic level’ – an ontological ground upon which everything in the whole universe rests. We could also say that this inviolacy thing is all about the property of ‘entity-ness’ – i.e. the state of being an independently existing self (or particle). The crucial thing here is that my integrity as a self doesn’t rely on anyone or anything – I am myself no matter what. In contrast to this we have the idea of the ‘conditioned self’ which says that the way that my way of being who I am is conditioned by my surroundings, so that – far from being independent entity – I am actually the resultant of all the things that have happened (and are still happening) to me.



These two opposing views can be illustrated by taking a look at ‘agency versus structure’ arguments familiar in sociology. To take a crude example, let us say that two sociologists are arguing over a man who has committed a crime. The ‘agency’ sociologist will point a finger at the man and say, “The crime which this fellow perpetrated came about as a result of his own free will. He is a ‘free agent’: it was a choice that he made, and did not have to make. We need look no further for an explanation of his criminal behaviour.” The structuralist will object vigorously to this, and assert that the man made the choices that he did because of predispositions to think in a certain way, predispositions which he had picked up from his environment during then course of his life.  If effect, the structuralist is pointing a finger at the person’s upbringing, and society in general, and saying that this is where the cause for the criminal-type activity lies.



But suppose we take this argument a bit further, and say that the individual creates society, and society creates the individual, so that there is no ‘basic level at all, not anywhere. This is referred to in Buddhist metaphysics as the phenomenon of ‘mutual conditioning’ and mutual conditioning is straightaway highly perplexing for us because there is no solid ground in it – there is no point anywhere in the loop that we can pick out and say “This is where it started…” if there were an agent, an entity somewhere, then that would resolve our perplexity at once and we would all feel a hell of a lot better about things. It is clear, therefore, that the notion of an entity (or of a ‘base level’ in general) is very satisfying for us. It allows us to simplify down ungrounded loop-logic – which horrifies us – into one-way linear logic – which puts us at our ease. The fact that we like linear logic doesn’t actually mean that it is a good way to describe natural systems though; it is only an easy way, not a good way. Gleick makes this point in his book on Chaos – scientists and mathematicians have until recent years studied linear equations almost exclusively, the messy non-linear equations were left alone because they did not permit easy solutions. It took the advent of chaos theory to bring our attention to the fact that the universe we live in is not a linear at all, but extremely complex. If we want live in the real world (which presumably we do), we have to confront the truth that there just aren’t any easy answers.



Of course, this is not to downplay the attractiveness inherent in persisting in a belief in a nice, cosy, linear universe. It can make more sense to carry on living in an over-simplified version of reality, because of the immediate benefits that such a view brings. What we do not want to lose sight of is the way in which a short-term benefit always comes with a long-term cost. For example, one big benefit of our current way of looking at mental illness is that there is always the promise of some advanced bit of technical manipulation in the pipe-line (a combination of psychopharmacology and gene-therapy, perhaps); the ‘minus’ here is the profoundly disempowering effect that the biogenic paradigm has on me, while I am waiting for the hot technology to come on line.  Another, not-to-be-underestimated ‘plus’ is the great sense of purposeful activity that comes with adhering to the technological approach. We have all those factories pumping out anti-depressants by the lorry-load, and universities and colleges training scores of mental health technicians in the ‘sciences’ of behaviour modification and cognitive restructuring. It really feels as if we are doing something, and if you are suffering from mental illness, or have a loved one who is, there is a terrible need to feel that something is being done, that someone somewhere knows what they are doing. We also have a huge need as a culture to feel that we are in control, which comes down to the need we have not to question the direction we are collectively going in – the direction of improved technical mastery of our world, our bodies and our minds (often known simply as ‘progress’). Two thousand million people just can’t be wrong. Can they?




We are going to take the position (just to see where it gets us) that a whole planet-load of people can be wrong. After all, it could be said that this is what we do best. Therefore, instead of getting sucked into linear causal chains (Z is caused by Y which is caused by X etc) that lead us into the swamps of arid determinism and futile reductionist tautologies, we are going to take a complex (or network) view. As we have been saying, the linear determinist view says that there is a basic level of description which everything reduces down to, whereas the complex view of the reality says that all the variables are connected with a network of two-way arrows, so that we can never pin down the ‘root cause’. If we can’t pin down the root cause then we can’t hit it with a hammer to fix it, and so then what can we do? It can be seen from this that the complex paradigm does not offer the promise of an easy (i.e. simple-minded) victory that the linear paradigm does; it doesn’t give us the satisfaction of pointing a finger and shouting “There’s the bad guy – lets go get him!”  The complex universe demands a more mature attitude of us, and although it doesn’t offer the promise of an easy victory, it does guarantee us one thing; it guarantees that it will be an interesting journey!




Author: Nick Williams

Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.

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