We can speak of all kinds of ‘certainty’ – whether mathematical or mental or physical – as being due to the production of a ‘decompression wave’ in an n-dimensional hypervolume. A decompression wave is made up, we might say, of a travelling band in a medium which consists of a less dense region of that medium. So what travels is the ‘decompressed’ region rather than any physical entity. This is also known as a ‘rarefaction wave’, the thing about a rarefaction wave being – as we have said – that what we see travelling or being propagated is the rarefied region, which then gets to look like an actual entity in itself, an actual positive ‘thing’.
A commonly given example of this sort of this is what happens when a slinky (which was a popular toy in the seventies) is stretched out and then used as a medium to send a pulse – or series of pulses – down it. A phenomenon then occurs in which the eye of the observer picks out (or latches onto) the less dense region of the slinky-coils as being the thing that travels, rather than the bunched-up region. It is therefore the rarefaction of the medium that is perceived as a positive entity rather than the medium itself even though the medium is of course the primary – if not the only – reality.
Returning now to the topic at hand, the medium which gets decompressed in order that certainty (or ‘the possibility of definition’) can be produced is ‘an n-dimension hypervolume’ rather than a slinky, but the principle is the very same. This odd-sounding medium may be said to possess such a high level of dimensionality such that there is no way for us to measure that level, or define it, or say anything about it at all. We can only talk about what goes on in the attenuated or ‘thinned-out’ region, which is where the dimensionality is strictly finite, where n equals a number such as 3, or 4, or 5, or 6, and so on. The fact that we can’t say anything at all about this supposed ‘hyper-dimensional medium’ naturally tends to sound highly suspicious to us, to say the very least, since we generally only give credence to matters that can be measure or defined or described. The suggestion that there is a fundamental medium which is of such a high level of dimensionality that we can say nothing at all about it (since without parameters of any kind we can’t know anything about it) does not sound even remotely ‘scientific’.
If we think that however then that is simply due to our deeply-ingrained misunderstanding of what science and the scientific process is all about. The popular understanding of science is that it is a technically precise and logically rigorous way of obtaining objective knowledge about the universe we live in; in short, we imagine that it is souped-up process of finding out stuff about the world whereby we obtain that most precious of commodities, certainty. That’s pretty much why we like science – because it gives us a sure and certain picture of things, because it reduces everything to facts and figures in the most satisfactory way.
‘Certainty’ is another, more colloquial way of talking about positive knowledge – positive knowledge is knowledge that we know for sure, knowledge that we can totally rely on because it is absolutely objective and therefore absolutely unquestionable. The rational mind loves this kind of thing (since without a firm basis to act out of it cannot even get started) and inasmuch as we are largely identical with our rational minds so do we. The very fact that we like certainty (or the idea of positive knowledge) so much ought to be enough to alert us to the presence of some kind of a rat, but it isn’t. If I like an idea, if I am favourably inclined towards it, then the first question I should ask myself is “why do I like the idea?” rather than “how can I prove to myself that it is right?”. One way lies truth, the other delusion. To take one’s own inherent biases as being proof that whatever we are biased or prejudiced about must be true is clearly absurd in the extreme – this is the exact opposite of the scientific spirit, which is distinguished from all other processes of ‘finding out about stuff’ by the fact that you don’t find something to be true just because you want it to be.
The fact that we are not suspicious of our intense attraction towards unquestionably true answers, for facts that can be ‘taken to the bank’, shows very clearly that we are all profoundly asleep; throughout human history the one predominate theme is that we like to have something to believe in, we like to have something that we can count on as being absolutely valid, and so the existence of this basic need to have a definite picture of the world is something that ought to make us very cautious indeed with regard to what we choose to see as true or not true. Human nature has not changed over the millennia and all science has done – for the majority of us – is to provide us with a new, improved form of certainty to cling to. This is what E.R. Schumacher referred to as material scientism – a degenerate analogue which, while holding onto the outward trappings and appearance of science, in reality is only there to covertly serve our need for existential security. In centuries past we had organized religion, now we have degenerate scientism.
Facts and figures are a narcotic, like valium or heroin, and only serve to send us to sleep (which is – of course – exactly what we want anyway). Who wants to be woken up? Who wants to learn that what they thought was true, isn’t the case at all? Who wants to have their prejudices falsified? What we want is to have our fundamental worldview confirmed, so we can relax and concern ourselves with whatever trivial matters remain to be dealt with. All the big stuff is taken care of, so we can just get on with the small stuff, the superficial stuff!
Confirmation is readily available for anyone who wants it. It is manufactured in vast amounts by our overly rational civilization. Whenever we investigate the world, or aspects of the world, from the standpoint of some unexamined framework, some taken-for-granted context, then that framework, that context, is re-affirmed. We then have more confirmation than we know what to do with. The more purposeful activity we conduct from the assumed basis of our everyday ‘box-like’ mind, the more that basis is confirmed as being the right one, and so the busier we are the better. We do not heed Plato’s warning to ‘beware of the barrenness of a busy life’. Since the basis of the everyday mind is purely arbitrary, it needs all the confirmation it can get, which is why we love ‘petty purposefulness’ so much, despite the fact that we hate it at the same time – on another, less acknowledged level – because it is so wretchedly tedious and uninspiring.
Civilization can be seen as the way in which we triumph over the dangerous unpredictability of our physical environment, but more significantly than this, it represents the way in which we triumph over the challenge of the radically unknown by making our mental environment excruciatingly unchallenging, excruciatingly tame and predictable. We manufacture confirmation for our shared world-view by the lorry-load, and so we succeed brilliantly, we succeed beyond our wildest dreams. We have erased any sign of a gap or discontinuity, any sign of anything important that has not been accounted for by our positive knowledge system and as a result we now possess the valued commodity of existential security in colossal abundance. We have it in spades.
Our runaway triumph over existential insecurity is at the very same time a runaway disaster since – as Alan Watts says – ‘nothing fails like success’. The more we succeed the more we fail since success is only experienced as such from a vanishingly narrow point of view; this means that our ‘success’ inevitably comes hand-in-hand with that very restricted viewpoint, or ‘lack of perspective’, which is in itself a disaster that neatly negates the advantage we thought we had gained. Every advantage comes with a disadvantage. The crisp and clear, ‘no-question-about-it’ perception of success (along with addictive boost of euphoria we obtain as a result) is dependent upon a truly catastrophic loss of perspective, but because the euphoria is so rewarding we keep on pressing the button, we keep on doing whatever it is we need to do in order to carry on obtaining it. Winning is everything – we don’t look any further than this. Not only do we keep on going for gold, we keep on perfecting and developing our techniques for winning, we keep on inventing new, improved strategies to do what we’re dead set on doing.
In general, as we have said, manufacturing confirmation is done by working away diligently and unceasingly ‘within the box’ and distracting ourselves from seeing thereby that the box actually is a box. The idea that we are in a box is thus the very last thing that we are going to see. We focus our attention, in other words, on the crisply-defined picture of the world that is created by taking a very specific, narrow viewpoint and then preoccupy ourselves with the type of stuff that makes sense within it. When we all do this then there is an immense pay-off in terms of what we are doing and thinking about seeming real and ‘relevant’ and important and so on, in terms of firming up and reinforcing the apparently impregnable ‘citadel of positive knowledge’ that we are building, but there is at the same time a tremendous ‘down-side’ to all this, a snag or cost regarding which we have now rendered ourselves entirely blind.
So what we have here is a situation where the gain is highlighted for us, and the price we pay for that gain is rendered quite invisible, and this means of course that we are going to charge ahead as fast as we possibly can. As a result of this state of affairs we are inevitably going to put ourselves in the position of having a bigger and bigger debt to pay, at some point in the future. The situation where the pay-off is visible and hugely emphasized in our minds and the cost or penalty completely invisible to us is more commonly known as addiction, and the craving that we have for existential security, for ‘validation’, for impregnable or unquestionable positive knowledge structures, is quintessentially an addiction. It is not a need like being hungry or thirsty because if we are hungry or thirsty then when we eat or drink it is done with and we can forget about it and move on to something else; the need for positive knowledge is different sort of a thing however, it is a ‘one-way street’, a trap. It is a trap in the same way all conditioned needs are traps, because once we have put ourselves in the position of needing whatever it is, we are then stuck having to continually service this need and can never get away from it again. Thus, before I become a smoker I can go anywhere I want, I am free with respect to the issue of buying fags, I have no leash around my neck; afterwards though, when I have acquired the conditioned need, I have to make very sure that I have my packet of fags with me wherever I go. The freedom I had beforehand – the freedom not to think about fags – is gone.
Too much existential security, too much confirmation, too much structure, is toxic, as Eric Jantsch says. We choke on it. We stagnate on it. We bury ourselves, suffocate ourselves, entomb ourselves. Too much confirmation (or ‘self-agreement’) means that we paint ourselves into a corner; it means that we imprison ourselves more and more in the misguided attempt to benefit ourselves. As we become more and more sure about things we lose alternatives in an irreversible fashion. This is what entropy is all about – we lose alternative ways of seeing the world without realizing that we are loosing anything; all we can see is the ‘firming up’ of the possibilities we like and the way in which we are actually narrowing ourselves the whole time by losing all the other possibilities is something that goes unnoticed, unmentioned, unreported. The more hemmed in and suffocated we feel as the result of our confirmation-maximizing strategies the more pressure we feel to come up with answers, to come up with better solutions. This pressure directs our attention ever more compulsively along the channels that have been dug for us. In this way there is – pragmatically speaking – only the one direction to go in and this direction leads further and further away from genuine spaciousness or freedom.
The reason confirmation or positive knowledge is a trap is because it causes suffering, and then offers us a way out from this suffering that makes us more dependent on confirmation that ever. The ‘escape’ offered to us therefore causes more suffering in the long run – even though the momentary increase in existential security looks attractive, and initially feels like ‘a good thing’. An excess of certainty is toxic is because whilst being more definite about things (who I am, what the world is all about, what I should or should not be doing in that defined world) initially feels good, it goes nowhere at all, just as a six foot hole in the ground ‘goes nowhere’, just as any defined attractor state or equilibrium level ‘goes nowhere’. Mobility (or ‘freedom of movement’) is progressively taken away from us, and this lack of mobility represents an unreservedly drastic diminishment in the quality of our lives, leading to the point where there simply isn’t any ‘quality of life’ in it – just the helpless obeying of pointless rules, with the ever-present deceptive promise of relief from pain if we obey well enough.
Confirmation is toxic because it leaves nothing undefined and definition itself is the lack of mobility, the lack of freedom. When something is defined, known from all angles, then it has zero information content. Of course, when seen from the context of understanding which supplies the definitions in the first place, this assertion doesn’t make any sense at all; when looked at from within the assumed framework, from the point of view that we have tacitly agreed to look at everything from, definitions are information – looked at from the point of view of the box, they tell us a lot. They tell us everything we want to know. From outside of the relevant ‘assumed context of interpretation’ (which tautologically interprets its own definitions as being meaningful) there is no information content at all – there is no information content to anything our interpreting mind tells us.
In a nutshell – the more I define an element of my experience the less information there is going to be in it because the more I define that element the more it matches my expectations about the kind of thing it could be.
When I define or name something this is simply me projecting my own meaning upon the world, and whilst the world as it is in itself can be said to constitute information, the meaning that I project upon it does not for the very straightforward reason that it is something that I knew already. If I ‘knew it already’ – i.e. if it is not telling me something new – then it can’t be information because the whole point about information is that it represents ‘something new’.
So when I look at the world through the context of understanding which is my rational-conceptual mind (which is the box I very rarely stray out of) what I am taking in is the type of information that makes sense within this given context, and this is the type of information that we have been calling ‘confirmation’. Confirmation is therefore provisional information – it is information just as long as we accept the rules which we use to interpret it as being valid. As long as this proviso is in place, then we can take conformation as being actual information (i.e. confirmation is information only if we agree for it to be so). This means of course that from outside of the assumed framework confirmation is not information – confirmation is just the framework – in fact from the assumed point of view everything we see is just ‘the framework’ and so how is that information?
This is not to say that the framework, when seen as ‘the framework’, is not information. The framework is a legitimate part of the world and as such it constitutes information just the same as everything else does. Thus we can say the assumed viewpoint (or context) which we use to construct ‘the virtual world of our ideas’ is genuine information, even though this virtual world itself – when taken on its own terms – is not. But if everything that is real is information by virtue of the fact that it exists, by virtue of the fact that it is real, then how do we get to this point where we are saying that the defined world which is the world as described by our rule-based context of understanding has ‘no information in it’? How can we say this?
The key to understanding this point is to see that the assumed context (or assumed viewpoint) is a rule. The assumed viewpoint – we might say – is like a pin-hole aperture in a sheet of black cardboard, behind which is a source of light. The pin-hole thus acts as a secondary source of light, a point source or filter through which all the light on the far side of the occluding sheet of cardboard (the side not facing the original source) must have passed. This point-source of light – we may say – is genuine information just as the infinity of other possible point-sources (the ones that are not allowed by the sheet of cardboard) would have been genuine information, if they had been allowed. The single, isolated point of light is information, just as the cone of light that emerges from it is information, just as the disc of light that is projected onto a surface facing the point-source is information. It’s all information. The point-source is the same thing as the cone of light, which is the same thing as the two-dimensional disc of light that has been projected on the surface facing the point-source.
All of this is very straightforward. So in exactly the same way, we can say that the ‘designations and definitions’ derived from the ‘assumed framework of interpretation’ are information, just as the assumed framework itself is information, and that both ‘context’ and ‘the stuff that makes sense within the context’ are the same thing. Or – equally straightforwardly – we can say that the concepts and categories of the rational mind are that rational mind. All this is perfectly ‘fair and square’ and ‘above board’. What is not perfectly fair and square and above board is what the filter of rational mind does next, which is to represent its own projections as being different from itself, as being independent of itself.
This is the key to understanding what confirmation-type information is all about, i.e. – confirmation can be perceived as information just so long as it is something new, something different, something unexpected; something that is not a product of (or projection of) the framework or context that is being used to interpret it.
And contrariwise, once we see that what we are reading as information is only a projection or extrapolation of the very same system that is reading (or interpreting) the information, then we will straightaway perceive that so-called ‘information’ not to be information at all, but the absence of information masquerading as information…
This is ‘seeing through intentionality’. Intentionality means we can see something there if we want to, if we choose to look in the particular constrained sort of a way that makes whatever it is we want to see appear to be there, and if we choose something then clearly we must be able to unchoose it. Unchoosing however is not a positive or deliberate act so it would be better to say that we refrain from looking at things in the way that makes them seem to be a certain way. We refrain from ‘playing the game’ – which is not the result of making any particular move (it is not a move in the game) but the result of no longer making the effort that we have been making to take the game seriously. We ‘relax’, in other words, and when we relax the intentional reality that we have created for ourselves dissolves, since it needs constant maintenance to persist. It is thus not what we do, but what we don’t do…
We can now reformulate the idea that certainty – of whatever type – is the result of a decompression wave that is being propagated within a medium which is an ‘n-dimensional hypervolume’ by saying that certainty (or ‘definition’) is due to an attenuation of the medium which is pure information. Decompressed or rarefied information is ‘disguised redundancy’ – which is what we have been referring to as confirmation.
This ‘reformulation’ is really just another way of saying the same thing – if the underlying medium possesses an infinitely high degree of dimensionality then clearly to define (or ‘pinpoint’) any element within this medium would be impossible since in order to do this we would have to reference this element with regard to n dimensions, where n is a non-finite number. We would have to have parameters. Straightaway we can see that this is a non-starter – or at least, if it isn’t a non-starter it is definitely a non-finisher since this is a job with no end to it. From the point of view of algorithmic complexity theory, we can say that the computing power of any information-processing system would have to be infinite in order to simulate the element in question, since the element that we are trying to simulate (or model) exists within an unbounded number of separate dimensions, i.e. aspects that we have to consider as being logically discontinuous. In short, the element in question is non-computable, non-simulatable – it is ‘apeiron’. The only way we could simulate it would be to drastically simplify the picture, to turn the real-world system into a formal system – which is a system in which we control all of the parameters, so that what we don’t define it has having (parameter-wise, or dimension-wise) it doesn’t have.
This all tends to sound very far-fetched (if not worse than far-fetched) since we don’t really believe either in ‘n-dimensional hypervolumes’ or elements that might exist within such hypervolumes that as a result possess an infinite level of algorithmic complexity. The mind rebels against such extravagance, the same way it rebels against any sort of ‘unboundedness’, no matter how we try to sneak it into the picture, no matter what fine-sounding words and fancy, high-powered terminology we use. But really what we are saying is both straightforward and easy to demonstrate. If we say, for the sake of the argument, that ‘Reality-as-a-Whole’ is equivalent to the idea in set theory of the Universal Set, then straightaway it is not such a strange suggestion that ‘the Whole of Everything’ will possess the property of infinite algorithmic complexity. Just as we cannot determine how many different elements there might be within the Universal Set (which we can’t for the simple reason that it has no limits or no boundaries, this being the unalienable nature of the Universal Set) neither can we say how many elements there are in ‘Reality taken as a Whole’.
The idea that we can do this is ridiculous – in order to be able to make definite statements about the Universal Set (other than saying that it is ‘all-inclusive’, which would be going around in circles, and therefore not saying anything at all) would be to make it into a specific or bounded set, since it is only possible make definite statements about specific bounded sets. We would have to turn it into a formal system. But bounded sets exist within the unbounded or universal set, not the other way around. Formal systems exist within ‘the real world system’ and not vice versa, and so what we are trying to do is patently absurd. Similarly, then, if we want to make some sort of definite statement about Reality-as-a-Whole, we are trying to do a ridiculous or absurd sort of a thing. It not simply an ‘impossible thing’ – it is pure undiluted lunacy. It just doesn’t make sense to even think about trying to do such a bizarre thing as ‘defining reality’.
The reason we don’t tend to see the bizarre nature of this endeavour is because we are so very used to defining everything we come across that we have, by default, drifted into the lazy mode of thinking that says “Everything can be defined” – the unreflective mode of thinking that says “Defining things is the way to go”. And yet even those elements which we think we can legitimately define, we can’t. If I were to mathematically ‘create’ a set by specifying it exactly – which is the only way to create a set – then because of this it must be the case that it is legitimate to define a set exhaustively. But this is because mathematics or logic is a formal realm in which everything is exactly what it is defined as being and nothing else. In the informal realm of reality nothing is ever ‘what it is defined as being’, and the reason nothing is ever merely ‘what it is defined as being’ is because no element of reality can ever be legitimately considered separately from every other element of reality, or from ‘Reality as a Whole’.
No matter what specific real-world phenomenon we look at, if we look at it in enough depth we will find that we are not looking at some isolated element, but the whole thing, the whole shebang, the whole story. So if we want to exhaustively define whatever it is that we are looking at, then we find that we are back in this absurd situation of trying to define reality itself. Wanting to define reality means wanting to wrap it all up in one big logical continuity – a continuous all-embracing, all-devouring ‘positive knowledge structure’ with no loose ends, no gaps and no cracks. Wanting to define reality means eradicating all those paradoxes and anomalies that would otherwise defy the power of the rule-based framework that we use to define everything. But then if we were to succeed in doing this then what we would have done would be to create a grand tautology, a ‘structure that explains itself’, a definite statement that stoutly and resolutely ‘agrees with itself’. We would have accomplished the marvellous feat of reducing the uncharted and unchartable infinitude of reality to an empty, blank nullity – a ‘handful of dust’.
We can say, therefore, that the material world actually is the medium, when it comes right down to it. We can say that the phenomenal universe is not something that is qualitatively different from the n-dimensional hypervolume which we have pictured as facilitating the specifically defined patterns we relate to as being ‘real’ and ‘tangible’. The phenomenal world is the message which is transmitted by the medium, but at the same time it is that medium because there is nothing else other than the medium. Information is all that there is. What else could there be?
There is only the medium (there is only information) but because there is the possibility of the medium becoming attenuated, rarefied or watered down so that the number of alternative states it can facilitate becomes limited (going down to the base-level of ‘only one state at a time’) this means that there is a contrast between the infinite mobility of the medium as it is in itself and the immobility of the determinate world as it is when it is considered on its own terms. Or – to put it more simply – the absence of information pragmatically appears as an actual ‘thing in itself’.
The ‘n-dimensional hypervolume’ is really just a fancy way of talking about freedom, since if there are an unbounded number of different or logically discontinuous directions to move in then this is the same thing as ‘maximum freedom’. There are no obstructions anywhere. The so-called ‘maximum level of freedom’ is not really something we can put a ceiling on, or in any way measure, because if there was any sort of ceiling then what we would be talking about would be ‘limited freedom’ and limited freedom is not freedom at all but constraint. The term ‘freedom’ necessarily designates a state without any constraint, which is to say – freedom means that there are no boundaries or limits at all, of any kind whatsoever.
Thus, in order to describe or simulate this unbounded or infinite degree of freedom it would be necessary to have ‘unlimited computational power’ – which means that we are equating freedom with a system that has infinite information content, and which is not – on this account – a system at all. We can also make the point that ‘infinite information content’ is really just ‘information’ since something is either information or it isn’t – there are no shades or degrees of it. If something is unique then it is unique – there is no halfway house. Information is ‘new every time’ – unlike the ‘logically consistent’ world that we’re familiar with which is constrained to be ‘the same every time’. This means that the everyday world (inasmuch as it is predictable and regular) is not made up of information at all but redundancy and so we can say that the structures making up the phenomenal universe – just like the structures that make up our rational-conceptual minds – are composed of the ‘limited analogue’ of information which is confirmation. [Confirmation, it will be remembered, is predictable information, information that is no longer fresh, information that has ‘gone stale’, so to speak.]
So the ‘n-dimensional hypervolume’ is really just unconditional freedom and unconditional freedom is really just another way of talking about intrinsic space. Intrinsic space is ‘space that facilitates any determinate form, but which is itself not a determinate form’. We could also say that intrinsic space is ‘space that does not exist within a logical framework’. Space that does exist within a logical framework (i.e. space that only has a finite number of axes or dimensions in it) is what we might call extrinsic space, and so we can say that extrinsic space is the degenerate or lower) analogue of intrinsic space. Extrinsic space is space that ‘only permits one possibility at a time’. This is of course readily demonstrable since if I exist somewhere in extrinsic space then because my location must be definable in terms of the framework defining that space, then if I am in one place I can’t at the same time be in any other place. This is Aristotle’s ‘Law of the Excluded Middle’.
This is not just true for physical location – anything we have ‘certain knowledge’ about is been pinned down (or limited) in exactly the same way. This is what certainty is all about – certainty means that the number of possible solutions to the puzzle has been reduced to ‘one’. This is therefore where the ‘information collapse’ comes in: when the possibilities have been reduced to one then this means that the information content of the answer has gone down to zero – there is no more unpredictability, no further surprise factors to be revealed, nothing more to be learned. It is ‘the end of the story’. Our usual way of thinking about things is to say that once we know all the information there is to know then our ‘knowing’ is complete. We have the full story, the full package. But this is nothing more than a convention we are used to – in reality the information content of what we are trying to find out about has plummeted to zero and so what we have left in our grasping hands is a merely a dry, hollow abstraction.
The constriction of possibilities regarding whatever element we are looking at from infinity down to one – so that it coagulates out of a generously unbounded plurality of possibilities into a meagre condensate is the decompression that we have been talking about. It is this ‘restriction of possibilities’ that comprises the decompression wave that gets transmitted through the medium of the n-dimensional hypervolume. We can therefore say that the former is equivalent to a solid phase of matter, in which the mobility of the molecules concerned is hugely limited – the latter to the gaseous phase, where the molecules can move about freely. Extrinsic space is thus a ‘frozen’ (or ‘crystalline’) form of intrinsic space.
When we look at things this way around we can see something very peculiar – we can see that our normal viewpoint is one in which we focus on the miserly restriction of possibilities as being ‘what exists’ and the generously unbounded plurality of possibilities as ‘what doesn’t exist’. We regard, in other words, the absence of information as real, and information itself as unreal. This is of course as we have said a convention that we are quite free to adopt, and once we do adopt it we find that it makes perfect sense to us – so much so that we can’t understand how we could possibly look at things any other way. We get trapped in the convention so that it doesn’t look like a convention at all. We have forgotten that it is a convention; in fact we have forgetten so thoroughly that the idea of our viewpoint being ‘only a convention’ is just about the most alien idea we could ever have…
This convention means that we even view the cosmic collapse of symmetry which we call ‘the Big Bang’ (i.e. the production of the physical universe) as the creation of a ‘positive thing’. Matter itself is seen as actual substance rather than ‘a deficiency of possibilities’; which is to say, it is seen to be (or to contain) some actual essence of something or other, something which possesses the magical property of ‘being real’. This is so very obvious to us that we never bother remarking on the fact: of course matter is real, of course ‘something’ is a tremendous step forward from ‘nothing’. Even to say that something is ‘a step forward from nothing’ sounds bizarre because to us it is so much more than a step forward. What we are talking about here is creatio ex nihilo, the creation of the universe from nothing, and – needless to say – it doesn’t get any bigger than this. This is the biggy, the whopper, the ‘ace up God’s sleeve’.
Whilst it might be true than – after the miracle of creation – matter (or ‘physical existence’) is now so ubiquitous we tend to take it totally for granted, almost to the point of looking down on it, at the same time it is also true that our familiarity with the material universe now that it has been created does not detract from our intellectual attitude towards the matter of cosmogenesis, which is to see it as a progression – the addition of something that was not there before, and for which no precedent existed.
And the much acclaimed creatio ex nihilo is not really ‘creation’ at all (in the sense that something without precedent been produced) but the very opposite. It is not a gain but a loss and what has been ‘lost’ is the infinite richness, profundity and mystery of the Undifferentiated Source. What has been ‘gained’ on the other hand is the crudest of copies, a single note taken out of a symphony and turned into world of itself, without any reference being made to its transcendental origin. The thankless child disowns the parent – the untrustworthy viceroy usurps the King. Or in the Gnostic myth, Yaldaboath the chief Archon (in line from the Hypostasis of the Archons) declares himself to be God –
Their chief is blind; because of his power and his ignorance and his arrogance he said, with his power, “It is I who am God; there is none apart from me.”
The regular way of looking at cosmogenesis – as the creation of something new – is of course associated with exoteric or orthodox schools of religion, whilst the ‘alternative view’ is one that we find in esoteric schools and traditions. Here the creation of the material universe is seen as a fall, a ‘falling away’ from the Divine Source – the world we know and see all around is a very faint echo or remnant of something incomparably greater, rather than being the end result of a miraculous work of creation. The first is the obvious view, the second the subtler understanding; needless to say history has shown that we have very little taste for philosophical or religious subtlety – or any sort of subtlety, for that matter.
In this scientific era we all know very well (or at least if we don’t we should) that matter doesn’t contain any special ‘essence’. We know this intellectually, even if it hasn’t impacted upon our actual attitude to the physical world, which is to see it as a brute fact that we have to bow down to, and accept unreservedly on its own terms. Particle physics has yet to uncover any ‘essence’, any ‘essential substance’ behind matter and no one working in the field has the slightest expectation of such a discovery being made. Matter is made up of vibrations, but there is no actual ‘thing’ there to vibrate. Or as Sir Arthur Eddington puts it, “Something unknown is doing we don’t know what.” And what is a vibration other than ‘a predictable pattern of movement,’ a form of motion that is constrained within strict parameters so that it can be measured and defined?
The tangible or phenomenal universe (which Buddhism call ‘the realm of form’) always comes down to predictability – that’s what makes physicality physical. If it wasn’t predictable then we wouldn’t be able to detect it; neither our sense organs nor our minds would be able to register it. If we can’t grab hold of it with either our hands or our concepts then it just isn’t real. If it doesn’t fit in with our rules – the ‘cognitive protocols’ we use for apprehending information – then it is just too subtle for us. If it doesn’t match our crude ‘tricks’ (for getting ‘one-up’ on reality) then we don’t have any interest in it. If it doesn’t conform to our expectations – and these expectations are based solely on the tricks or methods or models that we have learned to use to simulate what is going on in the world – then we dismiss it as being irrelevant.
If activity isn’t bound (or contained) in a predictable pattern then it goes unnoticed by us, so what we are relating to in a phenomenon is the it’s predictability, it’s regularity. But ‘predictability’ is a straight-jacket – it doesn’t really tell us anything, in any deep way, about the nature of reality. It is not subtle enough to do that. Predictability is simply ‘the absence of information’, it is just redundancy, yet because we have adopted the convention of seeing the ‘just the one possibility’ as being real and the ‘superimposed plurality of unbounded possibilities’ as unreal, we read the absence of information as genuine information. The genuine article, on the other hand, is so very uninteresting to us that it simply doesn’t enter our percept system. It is less than nothing to us, because at least we acknowledge nothing.
This idea that we perceive the absence of information as its presence, and it’s the presence not at all means that we are seeing reality in negative, which works well enough – after a fashion. It works as a game that we can play, and – moreover – we can get a lot of mileage out of this game. Furthermore, we must not lose sight of the fact there is an adaptive value in this convention of treating the constriction of possibilities as being ‘a thing in itself’ and the free play of possibilities as being unreal, irrelevant, discountable, and so on. There is a definite adaptive value in this convention given that matter itself – and the physical universe – is composed or structured out of the constriction of possibilities.
If we are to relate to the physical universe on its own terms then it is of course essential that we go along this inverted modality of perception in which the ‘rarefaction wave’ that is made up of finite dimensionality that is being facilitated by the infinite dimensional density of the medium is ‘the only world there is’. Given the pragmatic fact that we are living in this physical universe (i.e. within the limiting or finite remit of the space-time continuum) we have to acknowledge it – just as we have to acknowledge the rules of any game we are playing, just so long as we are playing it. But on the other hand if I ‘fall under the spell’ of the imposed restriction and end up flatly and incuriously believing that there isn’t any reality other than the one that is so brutally obvious all around me, then this means that I am playing a game without knowing that I am playing a game. It means I am limited without knowing that I am limited.
If I do elect to see only what it definite and tangible as being real then this narrow view consigns me to a particular modality of existence – the modality which the Gnostics referred to as the life of the hyletic man, the ‘purely physical’ man. The other two types of men are the psychic, and the pneumatic – the psychic man being the man with a foot in both camps, and the pneumatic man being the man who is orientated solely towards the life of the spirit (the symbol of which is the pneuma, meaning breath or wind or ‘air in motion’) The hyletic man – according to the Gnostics – is bound to the unchanging material universe; he is wholly defined by it and therefore there is no way in which he can escape it. He is thus a captive of this defined and definite ‘material world’ and because the material world is extraordinarily limited in possibilities so is he.
Saying that the life of hyletic man is merely ‘limited in possibilities’ is not making the point properly – if it were the case that I were able to actualize at least some of the possibilities inherent in the Universal Set then this makes it sound as if I am – to some small degree at least – participating in the whole. It sounds as if I am orientated towards a greater reality, albeit in a very humble way. But the point we have been making all along is that the defined world that is created by our rational minds is not merely an oversimplification (or limited version) of reality but an actual inversion of it. It’s not just that we are only seeing a very small portion of reality – we are seeing only a very small portion of reality and the vanishingly small portion that we are seeing we have backwards. Or as Philip K Dick puts it in A Scanner Darkly (1977) –
Any given man sees only a tiny portion of the total truth, and very often, in fact almost perpetually, he deliberately deceives himself about that little precious fragment as well. A portion of him turns against him and acts like another person, defeating him from inside. A man inside a man. Which is no man at all.
Because we are seeing everything backwards we search for riches where we will never find them, and at the same time we resolutely turn our backs on the wealth that is there. We search for the meaning of our lives in the shadow realms and neglect the light, as if it were a thing of no importance – rather than being the very source of our being. The inversion of our thinking means that we mistake absence for presence, poverty for wealth, and confuse a wretched ‘dead end’ for the main thoroughfare; thus, no matter how hard or diligently we work we are only ever going to make things worse for ourselves. Because our viewpoint is inverted, so too are all our actions and as a result we succeed in ‘becoming our own enemies’. By fixating our attention upon abstract goals we turn our backs what truly nurtures us – which is the gap between our goals, the pause between our thoughts, the space between our definite statements about reality. By trying always to ‘seize the abstract’ we struggle with a vengeance against life and the fruit we eventually obtain as a result of this perverse struggle is necessarily a bitter one.
In essence, the ‘perversity’ that we are speaking of is that ‘just the one possibility’ is celebrated at the expense of an unlimited plurality of possibilities, in the fixed belief that this is going to get us somewhere. Our ‘mistake’ might be said to be our love of goal-states – a goal-state is by its very nature final, and so it is the end of possibilities rather than the beginning of them. And yet ‘the end of possibilities’ sounds good to us; it sounds good of course because to us this means that we only have one possibility left and that ‘one possibility’ happens to be the one that we want – the ‘golden one’. This is the ‘core error’ – so to speak – the notion that there is the one true possibility, which is elevated thus from being just another possibility (like all the rest) to something else entirely – the actual ‘real thing’ which is concrete, tangible and therefore graspable.
Because we have made the truth concrete, tangible and graspable this is of course exactly what we do – we grasp it for all we’re worth, we cling to it for all we’re worth, we hang on to it for all we’re worth. Everything goes into the grasping and the hanging on, as if the brute force and stubborn determination we put into this can outweigh all other considerations and somehow make everything come out right. Subtlety goes out of the window forth and all our money goes on the well-beaten and well-trodden path of ‘embracing the obvious’. It is for this reason, therefore, that we can say this blind grasping process is the core error – otherwise known as ‘the fall’.
As we have said, putting all our money on ‘just the one possibility’ sounds on the face of it like a tactic that surely can’t go ‘too far wrong’ since whatever possibility we choose it necessarily is going to be one of the possibilites in the Universal Set at least – even if we miss out on all the rest. It is like firing an arrow at a target we are bound to hit, since the target we are firing at is nothing other than ‘the Whole of Everything’. At the very least, we might think, we are going to get something for our money. This is however where we get it just as wrong as we possible can get it, however. There are bigger no errors than this! The reason we get it so wrong is because we completely fail to understand what ‘just the one possibility’ actually means. We aim at reality and we end up instead with a nondescript hollow illusion – a worthless piece of crap we ludicrously insist on elevating to the status of ‘the Supreme Value’.
‘Just the one possibility’ is exclusive – it doesn’t allow for any possibilities other than itself and so it loses its relatedness with everything else. It loses its relatedness with the whole and instead of this it has to make do with its relatedness to itself and this collapse into self-referentiality is precisely the reason why ‘just the one possibility’ equals ‘zero information’. ‘Just the one possibility’ is the fall – it is the greatest of all information crashes, the greatest of all collapses. It is the collapse from infinity to ‘infinity-to-the-minus-one’; it is the downwards transformation of the unbounded to the bounded, of intrinsic space into extrinsic space, of radical uncertainty into sterile confirmation, of light into deceptive light, into ‘shadow-that-represents-itself-as light’.
‘Just the one possibility’ is way of talking about a rule. A rule automatically divides the world into what agrees with it and what doesn’t agree with it, with what it permits and what it doesn’t permit. A rule splits everything into IN versus OUT, ALLOWED versus NON-ALLOWED, SIGNAL versus NOISE. The mechanism by which it performs this separation is, as we have just said, the mechanism of self-reference, or ‘self-comparison’. So I compare the incoming information with my standard, my template, my ‘yardstick’, my ‘rule’, and if it matches then it is accepted, it is defined as significant or real.
This procedure tends to sound perfectly straightforward – if not to say eminently reasonable – but if this is what we think then we have missed something very important. What we have missed is the invisible redundancy that creeps in just as soon as we ourselves decide upon the yardstick by which the universe must be assessed, and then rush gaily ahead to treat the ‘information’ thus obtained as if it has a real or objective value outside of our arbitrary choice to use that yardstick. What we are talking about here is the redundancy of intentionality, the redundancy of ‘self-agreement’, the redundancy of things being true because we say they are.
Validation that is obtained via a mechanism of self-agreement is – as even the briefest moment of reflection will disclose – quite hollow, quite meaningless. It is a cheat, pure and simple. After all, I can say anything and then proceed straightaway to agree with whatever it is that I have just said. I can take any position and then after the event agree with myself about the decision I have just made. This is like a member of parliament voting on his own salary. Such validation – validation by self-agreement – is so easy, so cheaply obtained as to be perfectly meaningless. There never was any chance that the agreement wouldn’t occur, which means that the ‘validating’ procedure we are talking about here is really only an empty charade.
So if I devise a system of classification made up of very many possible categories such that when the incoming sensory data matches the evaluative criteria associated with these categories it seems to me that I have obtained genuine, bone fide information about the world. But if the categories in question are only there because I have agreed for them to be there then what I have obtained is not real information at all but its poor cousin, confirmation. Confirmation is relative information – it is ‘information relative to the criteria that make it information’, it is ‘information that is only information when looked at from within a specific, agreed-upon framework of interpretation’. This seems like a moot point in one way seeing as how we hardly ever step out of our agreed-upon framework (and if by accident we do step out then we almost certainly don’t take any notice of what we see at the time), but just because we never pay any attention to any competing points of view doesn’t mean that there aren’t any. It just means that we have chosen to be blind to them.
Having said all this, there is of course a rather important sense in which the information generated by the categorical (or ‘conceptual’) mind can be considered valid and that has to do with the degree of agreement that exists between its categories (or concepts) and the differentiations that are to be found in the phenomenal universe. Thus, information which tells me that there is a coral snake in my sock drawer, or that there is a scorpion in my underpants, or that there is a grizzly bear trying to get in through my kitchen window, may be considered to have the most pressing validity. Not to take information like this at face value could very well be the end of me – which is to say, it could very probably prove to be terminally ‘non-adaptive’.
There is on the other hand there is also a very real sense in which the coral snake, the scorpion, and the grizzly bear are not only what they appear – on the face of it – to be. This might seem to be a mere philosophical nicety but it isn’t, and we can take one further example to make the point why it isn’t. The example we will take is that of a particle physicist who is studying the movement of a subatomic particle using a cloud chamber or some other type of ‘particle-detecting’ instrument. The information that the particle physicist’s brain receives concerning the existence of the subatomic particle, the direction of its movement and the energy associated with it and so on is pragmatically valid – if it wasn’t then the whole endeavour would be a waste of time, if it wasn’t then no one would spend hundreds of millions of euros on all the expensive super-high-tech equipment that is needed to conduct the experiments. But at the same time it has to be remembered that the physicist conducting the experiment does not at any point in the proceedings actually believe that there is such a ‘thing’ as a ‘subatomic particle’.
The so-called ‘particle’ is only a resultant of all the forces that are acting in that region of space – the physicist conducting the experiment of course being one of these forces. For the particle in question to be a concrete self-existent entity in its own right it would have to possess the same set of measurable properties independently of whatever was going on around it, but the exact opposite is the case – the reality of any given particle is conditioned by its environment, not independent of it. As the author of The Dancing Wu Li Masters, Gary Zukov puts it –
The world consists not of things, but of interactions. Properties belong to interactions, not to independently existing things.
Or as particle physicist Henry Stapp says –
An elementary particle is not an independently existing unanalyzable entity. It is, in essence, a set of relationships that reach outward to other things.
For a physicist, a particle can never be more than a set of measurable variables and if these variables depend upon what’s going on in the local area then it simply isn’t meaningful to try and work out what the particle ‘is’ in isolation. ‘Is’ doesn’t mean anything. The particle isn’t anything on its own – its existence is a relational one. When we talk about a subatomic ‘particle’ therefore the term is purely a convention and does not indicate the concrete existence of some corresponding entity which is ‘objectively’ out there; there is nothing out there – and yet everything in physical universe (including coral snakes, grizzly bears, scorpions, ourselves and many other things besides) is made up of this very same ‘nothing’.
A useful way to look at a subatomic particle is therefore to say that it is the visible product of an interplay of local forces which themselves are not so visible. So whilst the local forces themselves go unnoticed, their net result – so to speak – does not. We can thus see the resultant of the local interplay of forces as being an entity in its own right – just as we might see the crest of a wave as ‘a thing in itself’, or the protruding tip of an iceberg as ‘a thing in itself’, or the fruiting body of a mushroom as ‘a thing in itself’. When our attention is on the thing that is claiming our attention (the thing that is ‘jumping right out at us’) then we are distracted from seeing everything else, we are distracted from seeing all the stuff that is going on in the background to produce what we are now focussing on. We see the trick but not the conjuror; we see the puppet but not the operator of the puppet. But if we weren’t so quick to let our attention be captured by the puppet (by the trick, by the decoy) then we could turn this whole entrapment process round so that instead of it working so as to distract us away from what is going on in the background, the actual visible disturbance could act as prompt or reminder to alert us to the part of the story that hasn’t been emphasized. We could then use to trick to indicate the presence of the conjuror, the puppet to show us the puppeteer.
The visible show is the ‘gross’ level of things and the processes that give rise to it constitute the ‘subtle’ level and so if we pay careful attention and don’t allow ourselves to get suckered into going for the bait that is being dangled so temptingly in front of us then the ‘gross level’ of phenomenal appearances will lead us surely to the subtler reality that underlies it. The visible world thus points to the invisible, or – as Anaxagorus says – “The seen provides a glimpse of the unseen”. We could even go so far as to say that the function of the visible is to lead us to the invisible, the seen to remind us of the unseen, but whilst this would be true in one sense it is palpably untrue in another sense since the tangible or visible world is – as the Gnostics have said – a place of ‘not-remembering’, and physicality a tomb for the spirit. The realm of form – quite evidently – does not prompt or remind us to look beyond form (for what gave rise to form) but rather it restrains us with heavy chains – both physical and mental – to stay within its prescribed bounds.
So what we can say is that the visible or tangible world can be taken in one of two ways – either as a potent symbol of what we don’t know (and can’t know) or as a literal fact ‘in itself’. In the first case the physical world acts a springboard or bridge to the unknown, whilst in the second case it isn’t any sort of a springboard or bridge at all but a final destination, a terminus. In the first case the seen tells us about the unseen, in the second case it tells us only about itself. So how we take the physical world – either as a symbol (or metaphor) for the unknowable, or as a literal, concrete fact – depends entirely upon us.
A good way to illustrate this principle (the principle that ‘the seen affords us a glimpse of the unseen’, that ‘the visible reminds us of the invisible’, that ‘the tangible helps us to relate to the intangible’) is to use the example of music. Music – like any other structure – consists of both positive statements and the spaces between these positive statements. We of course tend to focus on the positive statements and ignore the gaps. Any musician will be happy to tell us however that in music the pauses are every bit as important as the notes – without the counterpoint of ‘no notes’ (i.e. silence) music would not be music at all.
It is also true however that relatively few musicians would agree with the suggestion that silence itself is the primary reality, the mother of sound, and that the ‘function’ of music is to draw attention to silence. This seems to be going just a bit too far. Yet if we were to make the experiment of paying attention to the ‘quality’ of the silence that follows a piece of music we would notice that the more powerful the music is, the more it helps us to appreciate the quality of the silence that follows it. The more evocative the piece of music, the greater is our appreciation for the silence it arose from.
The ‘quality’ we’re talking about was there all along, of course – it was just that we never paid it any attention. We never thought it worthwhile paying it any attention because we never thought there was anything in it, we thought silence was just a ‘blank’ waiting for something more important to come along and fill it. But when we listen to a powerful or evocative piece of music what happens when the music comes to a close is that we have a hugely enhanced appreciation of the silence that follows – the silence isn’t ‘blank’, it is rich beyond anything we could ever possibly have imagined. The silence we neglect on a daily basis is the true nature of all tangible phenomena. It is ‘the inexhaustible source of everything’ that we have somehow become quite blind to.
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.