Life may be defined as ‘that process in which all our illusions are inevitably and irrevocably destroyed’. This is a process which there is absolutely no getting around at all – it absolutely cannot be circumvented and in this we could say that it is more of a ‘law’ than a process.
Even though there is absolutely no way in which we can win out over this process or law, we do have the possibility of operating a kind of a ‘delaying tactic’ or postponement. This is really the only card we have to play in the match, and play it we do, to the very best of our abilities.
We all show the most phenomenal skill in playing this card, we have turned it into a veritable art form. Superman has the superpowers of flying at remarkably high velocity through the air with no visible means of support (or propulsion), of seeing through solid objects with his X-ray vision, and of setting things on fire with his heat-vision, and we have for our part the superpower of delaying the inevitable falsification of our prized illusions. Although there is no way in which we can avoid having every last one of our illusions destroyed, we can delay and postpone this event to a truly extraordinary extent – we can ‘put off the day’ practically indefinitely.
But what does this ‘endless postponement of the inevitable’ entail? How does it work? Pretty obviously, we can say that this delaying tactic comes down to a persistent (if not to say indefatigable) avoidance of seeing the truth. As soon as we formulate matters in this way then the general idea becomes a lot clearer; after all, we all know very well – from a lifetime’s experience – just how remarkably motivated (not to mention fantastically skilled) us human beings can be at ‘not seeing what we don’t want to see’. And if we claim on the contrary that we aren’t deeply familiar with this fundamental psychological principle regarding our tremendous capacity for denying the truth (a capacity that is arguably exercised more regularly than any other, nobler capacities that we might have) then it must be the case that this is because we have been eminently successful at denying this truth – the truth that we are all fantastically skilled at hanging on to our illusions, even in the face of overwhelming opposition from the Principle of Reality.
Minor instances of denial are not difficult to point to – denial of feelings, denial of fears, denial of memories, denial of certain things we know but don’t want to know. All this sort of thing is very familiar territory indeed. But what we’re talking about here goes far beyond any such petty instances of truth avoidance – what we are looking at here qualifies as the Ultimate Denial, the denial of the truth of impermanence.
Essentially, we put the major portion of our energy into creating what we hope will be ‘permanent constructs’ – constructs (either of a physical or mental nature) that will last forever. The idea of something or other that will last forever is one that is very dear to our hearts and which we cling to with the greatest tenacity. For example, even though we know in theory at least that we ourselves are mortal, we still wish to believe that something about us will last – the memory of something that we have created or achieved maybe, or perhaps some metaphysical essence such as ‘the soul’. Such is our belief in permanent fixtures that if we are unable to leave some kind of permanent mark in the world after we are gone then there is a distinct tendency to believe that our lives have somehow been in vain. In short, if something is not immune to the law of impermanence or change, then we can’t help thinking that it is meaningless.
So in this sense we can say that the primary illusion that we are hanging onto in life is the illusion that there are permanent fixtures in the world, the hopeful belief that some sort of permanence is a genuine possibility and therefore something worth striving for, no matter how hard – or even downright grim – the struggle might be.
It is undeniable that all physical structures must be transient in nature – our defeat in this arena is a forgone conclusion, despite our very best efforts, and so where we choose to fight the battle is in the realm of the mind. Physical attainments come and go, but we play as hard as ever we can for the ultimate prize (the prize of finality) in the abstract domain of thought. We try to create ‘unassailable mental certainty’.
This seems to be a more attainable goal. As has often been said, the philosophical ideas of Aristotle have moulded the way we see the world in the West for over two thousand years Religious ideas too can propagate themselves vigorously down through the millennia, apparently immune to fatigue. A thought is not subject to erosion by the wind or the rain, and so there is no reason why it cannot outlast the Great Wall of China, or the Pyramids of Egypt – perhaps a thought, an idea can be immortal.
It is interesting that thoughts which in the first instance appear to be highly progressive or even revolutionary become the most immune to change of all our mental constructs. Religious ideas are particularly intractable in this regard. It is as if the ideas or concepts in question sell themselves to us as being to do with change whilst secretly their allegiance is to the very opposite of change – unchallengeable stasis. A new way of looking at the world very quickly becomes the old way, and so we are left wondering if this was not some clever trick thought has to gain a foothold in our brains. Jiddu Krishnamurti states that ‘thought is always old’, so that if it appears to be new and glittering and full of revolutionary promise this is merely a clever disguise that it wears, to put us off seeing the unpalatable truth.
All thought has the basic property of being immensely and uncompromisingly conservative – no matter how radical or innovative or fresh-faced it might seem at the outset. This is of course even true of scientific thought. It would be natural for us to naively imagine that scientific thought represents a ‘fearless reaching’ out for the truth, that it does not suffer from the odiously backwards-looking, conservative quality inherent in lesser manifestations of the human thinking process. This too is only thought’s cleverness however. The proof of this is the well-known resistance of great scientists to new ideas, challenges to their own established way of seeing the world. As Max Plank said, “Science progresses funeral by funeral.”
Thomas Kuhn’s idea of the ‘paradigm shift’ refers to the same tendency – the tendency we have to hold on to our models and theories for as long as we possibly can, simply because to do otherwise is a challenge, simply because we don’t like change. Inasmuch as the motivation for doing science is to find a final answer, a model or theory that will NEVER be overturned, scientific thought becomes no more than ‘the latest and most sophisticated way to create a permanent structure or immutable forever unchanging fixture’. It becomes no more than yet another attempt to obtain the terminal comfort of conceptual stasis.
In its pure (or uncorrupted) form, science is not at all about the search for the final answer, but rather it is the ultimate form of questioning – a questioning that never relaxes, even when the answers it has discovered seem entirely water-tight. If science didn’t have this profoundly ‘untrusting’ attitude towards the products of the rational process then it would have ceased being science a long time ago. It would – for example – have turned the Newtonian world-view into an unassailable dogma, and punished anyone who dared to think ‘outside of the box’. The idea of science being a form of rigorously and unsparingly applied doubt is set out by philosopher of science Karl Popper’s well-known principle that true science operates by trying its very best to falsify its own hypothesis and then – if it can’t do this – grudgingly accepting the hypothesis in question as being ‘provisionally true’.
There is however a significant (if not actually dominant) movement in science that still understands scientific thought as a process that is leading inexorably to a final answer, a final formulation, a Theory Of Everything. If a TOE is discovered then – paradoxically – science will bring itself to an end. There will be no more need for science after this point – all that will remain of it will be a quintessentially dull exercise in accounting, a dry and dreary exercise in ‘filling in the details’. After this seminal event there will be no more paradigm shifts.
Science that strives to end itself is what James Carse calls a finite game – which is to say, a game that is played in order to prevent the arising of any unpredictable outcomes (any ‘surprises’) in the future. Finite science longs to be in that situation where it will never again be subject to any major surprises – which was, when it comes down to it, the only thing that made science interesting in the first place! This is what James Carse calls ‘the paradoxicality of finite play’ – ‘paradoxical’ because of the fact that it seeks to end itself. The fact that most of us understand science to be as finite game is clearly demonstrated by the tendency we have to treat ‘new discoveries’ as evidence that science finally understands ‘what it’s all about’. The reason we are excited in the particular way that we are is because we feel that scientists are – at long last – close to ‘clearing up the mystery’. That’s why we admire scientists – because we don’t actually like mysteries, because we want them to be all tidied up, once and for all. We aren’t thrilled by science because it asks questions – we are thrilled by the possibility of being provided with a cast-iron, unquestionable ‘Answer To Everything’, so that we never have to think again. This is the end game.
This is what the paradoxicality of finite play is all about – we are thinking so we never have to think again. We are searching so we never having to search any more. We are looking for that ultimate state of final unassailable stasis, we are yearning for the moment when change itself will come to an end and reality turns into a closed book, a done deal. We don’t want to travel, we want to arrive.
Thought has always had this stasis-loving nature however. Whether we are talking about thought of an exalted philosophical or religious nature, or the thought of the most humble run-of-the-mill, common-or-garden variety, it has always been ‘finite play’. Thought is our way of bringing stasis to the world, of holding everything still, of ‘locking it down’ so that it can never surprise us again. Thought is our way of attempting to freeze-dry reality – our way of trying to turn reality – which is an endless stream of change – into a stone statue.
Thought is more than merely ‘a conservative force’ however – thought is stasis itself. Thought is a frozen picture of reality. Thought is a defined simulation of the quintessentially indefinable. Thought is our trump card in the fight against change.
Although thought is stasis (which is to say, ‘a fixed picture or representation of reality’) it is at the same time an illusion. This is a curious thing to consider – thought is our trump card, it is our ‘ultimate strategy’, and at the same time it is an illusion.
What happens in practice – once we orientate ourselves to the static world of our thoughts – is that anything which does not belong to this defined world is perceived as being radically dangerous, something to be afraid of and repressed at all costs. The unknown only exists to be converted to the known. As a result of our adaptation to rational thought we relate to the static web of thoughts as being ‘good’ whilst the principle that these thoughts are implicitly opposing (the principle of change) is seen as ‘bad’. So our basic orientation is such that we look for everything helpful and interesting and worthwhile and valuable within the web of thought and resolutely turn our backs on all other avenues. The ‘system’ is All-Good, All-Providing, and what is not part of the system is by definition a threat, an enemy to be kept out at all costs.
The irony is that the static (or abstract) realm of thought is not an avenue at all, but the mother of all dead-ends. It is the cul-de-sac to end all cul-de-sacs, the ultimate ‘road to nowhere’. The realm of thought is more arid, more barren, more sterile than any desert – even the Gobi desert has some life in it, thought has none. We imagine that endlessly playing about without our thoughts and concepts we can somehow get some kind of moisture, some kind of nourishment for ourselves. The more starved of genuine meaning we are, the more we believe that thought will be our salvation, if only we can find the right combination, and so to this end we persist with tremendous stubbornness in endlessly shuffling and reshuffling our concepts. Our perennial hope is that we will at last obtain the winning hand.
We seek to conjure our liberation out of sterile literal symbols, and the dead rules which govern how we may arrange them. There is a story that the Indian saint Adi Shankara once came across an old Brahmin pundit, evidently near to death, busy reciting the rules of grammar to himself. Moved by this sight it is said, Adi Shankara composed the well-known hymn Bhaja Govindam (also known as the Moha Mudgara or ‘ Destroyer of Illusions’) on the spot , the first verse of which goes as follows:
Worship Govinda, Worship Govinda
O deluded man.
When the appointed time comes,
The rules of grammar will not save you.
What will save us from the lifeless prison we have created for ourselves is not the mechanical recitation of names, and the obsessive-compulsive observance of the rules by which these names may be used (which actually constitutes the very prison itself!) but the nameless, the rule-less, the uncreated. The names (i.e. our thoughts) are the illusions we cling on to so very stubbornly, and the clinging is our tried and trusted way of ‘postponing the inevitable’. The nameless is what destroys these illusions.
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.