Just as we can’t control anything without first taking certain rules for granted and then operating on the basis of these rules, so too we can’t obtain definite knowledge about the world without first assuming certain evaluative criteria for granted, and then operating on the basis of these criteria. Essentially, we have to take it for granted that we know something ‘for sure’, and then – only when we have assumed this – can we go forward and, by comparing what we don’t yet know to what we think we already do know, can we heroically go ahead and extend the frontiers of our positive knowledge. Assuming that we know something for sure is the key to the whole endeavour of ‘obtaining positive knowledge’, and it is also – at one and the same time – the weakest link in that endeavour.
Obtaining positive or definite knowledge about ourselves and the world works just fine therefore just as long as we ignore the weakest link in the procedure of obtaining it and this of course puts us in the unenviable position of being dependent upon something which really doesn’t warrant being dependent upon. The whole business of logic and logical procedures is quintessentially rigorous in nature, which is another way of saying that it is very strong – so strong in fact that if the rules of logic are correctly adhered to there is absolutely no way of criticizing or questioning the structure that has been thus produced. But all of this rigour is revealed as a joke just as soon as we see that it all rests upon an assumption, a starting-off point, that is wholly arbitrary and wholly unfounded. All the rigour in the world can’t make up for such a fundamental flaw!
We can therefore say that the whole business of positive knowledge (i.e. the business of creating rational constructs) relies upon a very weak link indeed, but more than this we can say that it makes us dependent on the ‘need not to see that what everything hangs on is so very weak’. So it is not just that we have a weak link at the core of things but that we have a weak link at the core of things that we have to protect ourselves from seeing as such – at the same time as protecting ourselves from seeing that we are protecting ourselves from seeing anything. This is a most peculiar situation to get ourselves into – what we have done is to put ourselves in a situation where such-and-such a thing is vitally important to us but where – simultaneously – it is also vitally important that we do not see that this thing is important at all. We are totally and utterly dependent on it, but at the same time we have to take the implicit position that this ‘thing’ that we are dependent on (this mechanism of denial and what it protects us from) doesn’t actually exist at all.
It is this very peculiar situation that underpins the operation of the rational mind – along of course with everything that the rational mind has created for us, which is no more than our entire conception of ourselves, the universe, and everything! This is where the nullity comes in. It is the fact that we have made ourselves wholly dependent upon a mechanism the existence of which we cannot admit to ourselves which creates the nullity because the result of this situation is that absolutely everything we think and do on the basis of our rational mind is guaranteed always to be perfectly null in all respects.
What creates the nullity is the basis which we are operating on, which is quite unreal. It is as if I start a business on the basis of an illegal act – perhaps I embezzle a million pounds and then use that money to capitalize some sort of legitimate operation. The operation itself may be totally legit and above board but because of the illegal way in which I kicked it all off the whole business is also illegal and so as soon as I get found out all my assets are going to be seized and I am going to be thrown in jail. It will be no good at all me arguing in court that all of the profits that I made once the business was up and running were honestly obtained, with taxes being paid and all the rest! Because the basis is illegitimate everything that follows on from it is also illegitimate and there is no way out of this.
We can also look at the nullity in terms of the indefinite expansion of a central tautological ‘meaning loop’. Suppose that I want to construct a semantic system, a language, but that in order to do so I have to ‘create my own meaning’ so as to use this as a jumping-off point or foundation. The way that I do this is to cleverly come up with some kind of circular definition. For example I could invent the word ‘frobbage’ and then explain this peculiar word by saying that it is the end product of the process of ‘frobbing,’ which is carried out by trained ‘frobbers’ who have access to the basic raw material which consists of untreated, naturally-occurring ‘frobullon’. ‘Frobullon’ can then be defined (to anyone who persists in asking awkward questions) as the raw material from which ‘frobbage’ is obtained and so the circular explanation is complete. I am now good to go.
I could then use the same method to produce a dozen or so similar tautologically-defined concepts and then proceed on this basis to create an entire language of derivative terms, which is very rigorously defined in connection to the original key axiomatic (or ‘given’) units of meaning. Having created the majestic illusion of an entire self-consistent logical system in this way (which like all illusions evaporates very quickly indeed as soon as anyone can be gets curious enough to actually look at it) I am all set to do great things. I can now conduct all manner of profound philosophical inquires into the meaning of existence, engage in heaps of witty, provocative and extraordinarily dazzling intellectual discussions, write innumerable learned works on this, that and the other, and generally do all sorts of great stuff. The only problem is that it is all going to be profoundly and sublimely null because the linguistic currency that I am using is in itself quite worthless. My achievements are hollow.
The chances are that to most people this is not going to sound very believable – how could an entirely made-up or synthetic system of meaning ever work? How could anyone ever take such a set-up seriously when it is so plainly pointless? This incredulity would be quite understandable because getting involved in such a synthetic system of meaning is of course utterly pointless – everything about it is pointless and so there is no point in getting caught up in it. The system in question is however not necessarily plainly pointless because it is entirely possible for the essential nullity of the system to be very effectively concealed. In practice, this sort of effective concealment takes place all the time and it is no exaggeration to say that we spend most of our time being taken in by it. It is in fact a peculiarity of a null system that the more we engage in it (i.e. the more preoccupied with it we get) the less able we are to see how pointless it is since the more intensely we engage in it the more narrow our focus becomes. It is only the ‘wide view’ that shows the truth, not the circumscribed or limited view.
What we are looking about when we talk about ‘arbitrarily constructed systems of meaning’ is of course nothing other than games and we all play games pretty much all the time. The whole point of a game is that we decide ourselves what is going to be what. We might decide that every time someone says a word beginning with D then they are ‘out’ of the game and that the last person remaining at the end of the game (the person who hasn’t yet used any words beginning with D) is the winner. Or instead of this rule we could pick another rule – we could in fact pick any rule at all and this is why games are essentially arbitrary. We are totally free to construct a game in any way we want to, but once we have done so – if we are to actually play the game – then we are no longer free. Once we play the game then we have to obey the rules that have been chosen and there is no more freedom to pick and choose. It is this lack of freedom that makes the game – games are constrained situations, situations that are characterized by their inherent lack of freedom.
This is what James Carse calls ‘self-veiling’ – we veil from ourselves the intrinsic freedom that we have not to play the game and it is precisely through this self-veiling that we get to play the game. Playing the game means that we simply never think in terms of whether we want to obey the game-rules or not, or whether we might want to choose other rules; we take the given rules totally for granted and put all of our attention into what Carl Jung calls ‘the task of adaptation’ – learning to work within the given framework skilfully enough to win on this basis, within these fixed terms. When we do this the game becomes meaningful to us on its own terms, even though – in the bigger picture of things – the game is not meaningful at all because it could so easily have been otherwise, because it is as we have said so quintessentially arbitrary. A game is always ‘meaningful in its own terms but quite meaningless outside of these terms’ and this is precisely because those terms are ‘freely chosen’ or arbitrary; no matter what rules we choose to take seriously the resultant game is always going to be equally meaningful to us and so really it is all perfectly redundant.
This is like our example of the ‘made-up linguistic system’ – if I can say that any word I make up means whatever I want it to mean then really, outside of this game, nothing I say means anything. If I can invent truth so that whatever I say is true automatically gets to be true (simply because I have said that it is true) then the word ‘true’ loses all its meaning. If anything can be true, then nothing is true…This principle seems admirably clear when we discuss it in this way but when we are actually playing the game it is not clear at all – when we are caught up in playing the game whatever we have said shall be true actually seems to be true and so what we have here is a situation where the essential nullity of the game is effectively concealed. This being the case we can say with perfectly good justification that we are enslaved to the nullity – we are enslaved to the nullity because we can’t see it to be a nullity and so are instead taking it as a solid and legitimate and reliable basis to obtain the prize as it is defined in the game. We are in simple terms addicted to obtaining this prize – for us it is ‘all that matters’ and yet it only seems so crucially important because the system of logic that we take for granted says that it is. This is after all what games are all about – stuff matters because only we have said that it shall matter.
On a small enough scale the game genuinely is meaningful – if we are playing a game of closing our eyes and picking coloured buttons out of a hat and seeing who is the first to pick a blue button, then when I put my hand in the hat and pull out a blue button I will feel good. We say that such-and-such means this, and such-and-such means that, and then straightaway it does, and so straightaway our emotions are entrained by this manufactured system of meaning. It doesn’t matter how ‘winning’ has been defined – once any type of movement in the direction of winning (and away from the direction of losing) occurs, then I feel good, I get a corresponding boost of euphoria. Euphoria (along with its counterpart, dysphoria) is the actual currency of the game, it is what makes the game real. Once the system of meaning has been set up then the euphoria or dysphoria follows in accordance with ‘how well we are going in regard to this system’ and at this point the whole thing becomes pretty much unquestionable. After all, who is going to question pleasure or pain?
This is just a way of talking about conditioning: we unreflectively chase pleasure just as we unreflectively run away from pain and it is this unreflective motivation that drives the game as well as shaping the game. The structure of the game and the motivation to play it are one and the same thing – both come down to ‘the meaning of the game’, which is of course conditioned meaning. Anything at all that I do or think that increases my chances of winning brings an exciting thrill of euphoria just as anything that I do or think that increases my chances of losing brings an instant ‘negative thrill’ of anxiety or fear and the resulting pattern of ‘positive versus negative anticipation’ makes up a whole pragmatic world for me – quite regardless of what the actual ‘content’ of winning or losing is, quite regardless of how empty or tautological the actual game is. On the superficial (or unreflective) level the currency is absolutely real and as a result has to be taken absolutely seriously.
The pragmatically real and serious world that is created in this way is complete in itself, and can easily contain more than enough intrigue to keep us hooked in on a full time basis. Such worlds can be astonishingly convoluted and multileveled and full of all sorts of (apparently) diverse elements and situations, but at the same time every single ‘game-world’ always comes down to exactly the same thing – the arbitrary assignation of a basic set of rules, the arbitrary assignation of what constitutes ‘winning’, and what constitutes ‘losing’. Every single possible game-world is constitutionally bound to be null, when considered in its entirety. Considered altogether nothing ever happens in a game and nothing is ever attained but on a moment-by-moment basis that does not usually register with us because we are only concerned – at any one point in time – with the micro-scale details and the micro-scale details are, as we have said, pragmatically meaningful.
Another way of making this point this is to say that the two opposites of POSITIVE and NEGATIVE have become ‘pragmatically separate’ – if we move a step closer towards the overall goal of winning then this is a positive step, it is a little plus, and if we lose ground and move a step away from that goal then that constitutes a minus, a negative. Every little [+] has a jolt of euphoria associated with it, and every little [-] induces an equal-and-opposite jolt of dysphoria. Within the context of the game, therefore, I can treat the opposites as if they are separate things. This is in fact the key ‘necessary belief’ in any game – that we can obtain one opposite without the other, UP without DOWN, winning without losing. After all, what possible attraction could there be in winning the game if winning were not a totally separate thing from losing? It is the belief that we can obtain the isolated opposite of winning (‘winning with no losing’) that sucks us into the game in the first place, and keeps us hooked so firmly into it, no matter how many knocks or set-backs we sustain during the course of playing it. The one central truth that we are blind to when we are playing a game is that PLUS and MINUS, UP and DOWN, winning and losing, are actually not different things. In practice, what the hidden principle of the ‘identity of the opposites’ means is that every single gain is always going to be compensated for by an equal and opposite loss, and – correspondingly – that every delicious little jolt of euphoria is always going to be cancelled out sometime later on by an equal and opposite dose of unwelcome dysphoria.
This is the scenario painted here by John G. Bennett (The Dramatic Universe. 1961, P 167-8), to whom we owe the term ‘the nullity’ –
The Reactional Self is dominated by external forces that have a dualistic character by reason of the two kinds of laws, positive and negative, that determine the state of the Will in World XCVI. It is, however, not a true dyad, for it can only transmit one Cosmic Impulse at a time. This is the chief characteristic of the Reactional Self and it accounts for the role it plays in the economy of the total Self-hood. It is the source of the basic dualism of human reactions, with their dyads of pleasure-pain, like-dislike, activity and repose, affirmation and negation, attraction and repulsion. All these reactions are automatic – that is, null operations of the Will. For this reason, the Reactional Self could also be called the ‘Nullity in Man’.
In a nutshell, because the nullity is a ‘compensated situation’ which represents itself as being ‘uncompensated’, it is inherently deceptive. It is ‘not what it appears to be’. The nullity is ‘meaninglessness that superficially disguises itself as being meaningful’. It is like a ‘friend’ who keeps getting you involved in all sorts of complicated schemes that always come down to nothing in the end. Superficially speaking, the schemes are meaningful because they seem to promise success or advantage; on a deeper level however they are meaningless because nothing ever comes of them. It is just a game that something is going to come of them – it is a thing we pretend. Or we could say that the nullity is like a place of work to which we go every day and where we strive with the greatest of effort to get this or that done by the end of that day. During the night however the night-shift comes in and painstakingly reverses everything that we have achieved and so the clock is always set back to zero. So then we have to come again the next day (which is really the same day recycled) and start all over again in some kind of a version of ‘Groundhog Day’.
In the most general way, we can define the nullity by saying that it is a bipolar situation in which, at any one particular time, one polar opposite temporarily outweighs the other. This can be explained in terms spatial distribution, as J.G. Bennett does in The Dramatic Universe and say that the nullity is a fully compensated situation in which, on a purely local scale of things, some sort of uncompensated ‘dipole movement’ can be observed (as is the case with a polar solvent such as water). Bennett (P 188-9) explains this as follows –
Isolated, the Reactional Self is a nullity. When it is in the state of delusion, it is unaware of its inability to perform any true act of will and, therefore, ‘believes’ in its own world. From this delusion it becomes subject to pleasure and pain as actual facts – being unable to see the compensation that reduces them to null-situations. The idea of nullity in polarity is illustrated in the electrical neutrality of large bodies; however intense may be the local electrostatic fields surrounding the atoms, there is a space-distributed compensation that makes the whole body almost perfectly neutral.
Instead of electrical charge we could also think in terms of movement – if we gather together a collection of randomly moving particles, trillions upon trillions of them, all flying around this way and that like gas molecules in a bell jar, and we add up all the vector units of velocity involved, either positive or negative in direction with respect to the X, Y and Z axes, then the one thing we know for sure is that the calculation is bound to come out as zero – the net velocity of all these frantically jostling particles is always a big fat nothing. Overall, nothing is going anywhere. With the specific example of the gas molecules in the bell-jar this is very obvious – if the bell-jar is sitting there on the laboratory bench then of course the molecules aren’t going anywhere! We could also say that the nullity is like the physical universe, which as Stephen Hawkin says ‘always has a net energy content of precisely zero’. In all these cases we can say that on a local scale there may be an imbalance, but on the larger scale there is never any imbalance whatsoever and this ‘lack of imbalance’ is in the nature of an absolute law, like the law regarding the conservation of energy/mass or the conservation of angular momentum.
Notwithstanding what we have said about it, the nullity is a perfectly honest and straightforward type of a thing. It is what it is and there are no problems with what it is; it is not pretending to be anything other than what it is and it makes no claims to be able to do anything that it can’t do. This being the case, then, we have to say that, of itself, the nullity possesses no intrinsic ‘trapping’ or ‘imprisoning’ quality. So how exactly do we get ‘enslaved’ to it? The point is of course that we only get enslaved to the nullity because we enslave ourselves. The trap is entirely created by ourselves and the way we do this is by stubbornly insisting on obtaining the one opposite without the other. No matter how many times we fail in the attempt, no matter how many times the longed-for result slips though our fingers like quick-silver, we still keep coming back for more. Every time the prize eludes us we come back again, thinking that this time we will be lucky, this time we will finally get there. The prize we keep grasping for in such an incredibly persistent (if not flatly deluded) way is not just the longed-for prize of ‘one opposite without the other’, it is also the prize of ‘not having to keep on grasping’, the prize of ‘at last being able to find rest’. As G. I. Gurdjieff says, we row ceaselessly not for the love of rowing but because we aim to get to that place where we don’t have to row any more…
The lure for us in all this is the perpetual promise of improvement. When we are fixated upon the maddening goal of obtaining a PLUS without a MINUS we are perpetually hypnotized by the prospect of getting closer to this illusory goal. Sometimes we are so close that it seems that we can actually taste it and at this point a terrible fever of desire overcomes us – a fever that is as terrible as it is because it can never find fulfilment. At other times it seems that all is lost and to our despair the goal recedes beyond our grasp. Yet even then it is only a matter of time before the hypnosis fastens its grip on us yet again and we feel that we are once more starting to get closer to our goal. Hope then builds within us, and our appetite, our motivation for the chase returns. When we are thus fixated the nullity entices us over and over again with the intoxicating prospect of improving our situation and every time the nullity entices us in this way we unfailingly fall for it, no matter how many times we have already been taken in. The nullity is therefore like a thoroughly corrupt politician who promises the earth to us every election but never delivers once we vote him in. Again, it has to be said that the fault lies not in the corrupt politician (who is only being what he is, which is to say ‘a corrupt politician’) but in us the voting population for being so incorrigibly, unutterably gullible that we keep voting him back in, time after time! How can we blame the politician for being a politician? What do we expect?
There is never a time that we won’t keep falling for the trick that is being played on us. We even make a virtue of our gullibility – we call it hope. What we call ‘hope’ is simply the state of being infinitely gullible with regard to a cheating system, a system which is based upon the time-honoured motto ‘never give a sucker an even break’. The cheating system will happily cheat us from now until the cows come home, it will cheat us and cheat us, it will cheat us until hell freezes over, until pigs sprout wings and start flying around in figures of eight about our heads. Really, however, as we keep saying, it is not the system that is cheating us but us who are cheating ourselves because we are living in unreasonable hope that the cheating system will stop cheating us.
We are busy erecting tents, putting up houses, building splendid cities, founding nations in the fabulous realm of ‘hope’. Hope is Krishnamurti’s psychological time – it is the space between ‘where we are’ and ‘where we would like to be’, the magically stretchy interval between the formulation of the goal and the fulfilment of that goal. Psychological time is the zone in which we do all our living, the precariously narrow remit within which our fevered imagination restricts itself. If something good is to come our way we insist that it comes in this way, in this format; if we are to be happy or fulfilled, we insist that this happiness or fulfilment take place here and only here. If it has to come some other way, outside of the narrow remit of psychological time, then we are simply not interested. We would much rather carry on being thoroughly miserable and unfulfilled.
The importance of psychological time to us cannot be overstated. It means everything to us – it constitutes the totality of what we know about and care about. If any quality (peace of mind, love, happiness, creativity) is not to be found here, then we will simply do without it. If we can’t find something here than we will dismiss whatever it is utterly, we will drop the matter instantly, automatically. We are so very disinterested in it that we aren’t even interested in the fact that we aren’t interested in it. We are so disinterested that we aren’t in the least bit curious about why we have dismissed the matter so utterly, so completely. We don’t care that we don’t care – the whole thing simply doesn’t register for us.
The key to this shockingly profound disinterest in what we ourselves are doing is the highly peculiar fact that the self (or ‘who we perceive ourselves to be’) can only exist within this promissory realm, within Krishnamurti’s ‘psychological time’. It – the self – is not to be found anywhere else, which is to say, it is not to be found within reality. Thus, inasmuch as do not want to discover this salient bit of information (which is to say, inasmuch as we want to believe that we are the ‘me’ we take ourselves to be!) we cannot allow ourselves to be aware of anything outside of psychological time.
Because we are so terribly afraid of discovering that we are not who we automatically take ourselves to be, we are forced into a very rigid and constrained mode of awareness – a closed mode of awareness that is primarily characterized by its shockingly profound indifference to anything that actually matters. This is a thoroughly ‘perverse’ state of being – it is a state of being in which we are profoundly disinterested in finding out who we really are. This is the most pertinent detail of all, and yet we would rather preoccupy ourselves with any nonsense, just such as long as it distracts us from this crucial awareness. The false then crowds out the true, the phoney excludes the genuine, and the nature of the true Self remains hidden behind the game. As Alan Watts says, the rule of the game (the one over-riding taboo) is that we shall not know who we really are.
This rule generously provides us with a perverse form of freedom; it generously provides us with what J.G. Bennett calls negative freedom, or ‘the freedom not to be free’. This rule says that I can do absolutely whatever I want to do, just so long as I never get to know who I really am. I can be anything I want, just so long as I never get to be my true Self.
And what or who – we may ask – is this ‘true Self’? The answer is simple. The true Self is the ‘not-self’. It is what lies outside of psychological time, even though psychological time itself does not exist…
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.