The universe is an intelligence test, as Timothy Leary says. Only it isn’t so much ‘intelligence’ is the usual sense of the word that we’re talking about here but intelligence more in the sense of ‘being alert’ or ‘being critically aware of what is going on’. The universe is testing our ability to ‘think for ourselves’ – only we don’t mean ‘think’ in the narrow rational sense here but rather ‘think’ in the sense of ‘having the ability to know when we are being taken for a ride!
If we aren’t alert or critically aware in this way then what happens is very simple and very predictable therefore – we’re going to be conned, we’re going to be hoodwinked, we’re going to be taken for a ride! This is a very familiar law – it is the law of the market place! The ‘law of the market place’ may be stated as follows – If you are willing to buy rubbish then we’ll sell you rubbish. This law is of course otherwise better known in the form of the saying “never give a sucker an even break”.
If you don’t have the good sense needed to tell the genuine article from the shoddy copy then it’s the shoddy copy you will get! If you don’t demonstrate discernment then the person you’re doing business with will take the opportunity to unload some of their inferior stock on you. Either that or they will just plain rip you off and sell you some totally dud stuff. This is how it goes – that’s the law of the market place. It’s not just the law of the market place however – this is how the world itself works. This is how life works…
What essentially happens in life – we might say – is that people will keep on coming up to us (from as soon as we get old enough to be able to understand them) and tell us all sorts of stuff that just plain isn’t true. That’s the name of the game. That’s what human culture is – human culture is the type of a situation where everyone is always trying to infect everyone else with their own particular brand of bullshit. Most living organisms on planet earth compete with each other in the Darwinian sense of trying to outbreed the competition and pass on more of their genes than anyone else (that being the nature of the game) – we human beings (in the artificial environment of our socially-constructed world) compete to ‘out-bullshit’ everybody else so our particular bullshit, our particular version of ‘what life’s all about’ gets passed on rather than some other version. Social life is a ‘competition between memes’ in other words, rather than being ‘a competition between genes’.
We all want to pass on our particular understanding of what reality is, even though we probably wouldn’t be at all aware that this is the case. We all want to promote our own opinions, our own theories, our own beliefs. When we think about it though this is perfectly obvious – why else do we get into arguments if it isn’t about ‘whose version of the truth is the right one’? Why else do we feel annoyed when we overhear someone nearby saying something that we feel isn’t right? Very clearly, we feel annoyed (or get into an argument) because someone is daring to disagree with our own particular brand of bullshit.
It’s not that we’re passing on a reasoned formulation of what we think ‘life, the universe and everything’ is about. It might be that, but usually it isn’t. It’s more general than that. What we’re passing on, in essence, is the assumed framework of understanding that we’re basing all of our positive assertions upon. It doesn’t at all matter what our ‘positive assertions’ are about therefore because no matter what they are about they are all based on the same assumed framework of understanding. The assumed framework is simply our way of looking at things and this ‘way of looking at things’ is taken for granted in everything rational that we think and everything purposeful that we do. All of our ‘purposeful behavioural output’ is – when it comes down to it – just the articulation of our assumed FW and so what we’re really doing when we act or think purposefully is just reiterating this same FW over and over again. We’re obsessively repeating ourselves. We don’t see it like that, but then again – we don’t see a lot of things!
The assumed framework (or context) is the unexamined basis for doing everything we (purposefully) do, and thinking everything we (rationally) think, therefore. There is always an assumed or unexamined basis when there is rational thinking – we have to assume an abstract context in order for our thought (or purpose) to have any meaning and so it is this ‘assumed context’ that we are passing on all the time (whether we mean to be doing so or not). Sometimes of course we do have a well-defined formulation of what life is supposedly all about and we are – in this case – often quite interested in passing this on. Sometimes we’re not just ‘quite interested’, we’re fully fanatical about it! But the point that we’re making here is that even this ‘explicitly defined formulation or theory’ is only ever a cover-story for the ‘assumed context’ which gives rise to the formula and within which it makes sense. We’re not passing on the message therefore – we’re passing on the context within which that message makes sense.
This is an unconscious sort of a thing, as we have indicated. We don’t know anything about the assumed context – that’s why we say that it is ‘assumed’! This unconsciousness has a very curious consequence though: we’re promoting something and yet we don’t even know what it is. We’re pushing a product and we’re not even the least bit curious about what this product might be! If I’m working for some big company and I’m obliged to promote some crappy product or other in order to get paid then it is of course perfectly possible that I won’t really care about the stuff that I’m selling. This is normal. But if it is me personally promoting some particular viewpoint (some particular assumed context of understanding) then surely it is rather strange that  I don’t know what it is that I am trying to sell to you and  I don’t even have any curiosity about it?
And yet this is precisely what is going on with us. This is what we’re all like. We can take the case of the proselytizing religious fundamentalist as an extreme example. The fanatic believer (of whatever religion) provides a very clear and easy-to-understand example of the principle that we’re talking about here because of the highly ‘visible’ nature of his affliction. Being a religion fanatic is a simple business: I have a certain set of religious beliefs which I feel to be my sacred duty to impose upon all non-believers and I regard all other belief systems (or the lack of a belief system) as being a totally unacceptable state of affairs. I have zero tolerance towards what I myself don’t believe. This is therefore a marvellously black-and-white way of looking at things – my viewpoint is right and all other viewpoints are wrong and have to be corrected. So given this very unambiguous and straightforward scenario how can I be said to be either unaware or uncurious about the message that I am so vigorously promoting? Were the crusaders ignorant of the religion they were crusading on behalf of? Were the Spanish Conquistadors lacking in curiosity with regard to the actual nature of the religious belief they were converting everyone to at sword-point?
We can take the second question first. Actually, the second question practically answers itself – of course the Spanish Conquistadors had no curiosity with regard to the nature of the religion they were converting everyone to! Naturally they didn’t – they already held a strong belief in Catholicism so why would they need to be curious about it? We’re not curious about the things we think we know. The whole point about a religious dogma is that we have to believe in it unquestioningly in order for it to be a dogma; any theologian could tell you that – to doubt is to depart from perfect belief. Perfect belief means not being in the least bit curious about the dogma which you believe in. ‘Belief’ and ‘lack of curiosity’ are one and the same thing! So that is Question  dealt with, but what about the apparently trickier Question  – how can a religious zealot (or any believer, for that matter) not know anything about the actual product that they are promoting (or believing in)? We might be excused for thinking that they know all about it. Does a fundamentalist Christian (for example) who spends hours every day reading the Bible and thinking about its content really not know anything about the religion they are studying so energetically?
This question turns out to be the same as the first one that we answered, however. Can we really know something by being totally incurious about it? Can we really know something by taking it totally literally, taking it at face value? If we are restricted to accepting the message at face value and never questioning it then this necessarily reduces us to the status of being merely a passive instrument, a passive instrument whose job is the faithful copying of the and transmitting original imprint. Does ‘copying’ or ‘transmitting’ something faithfully mean that we know it? Any teacher worth their salt would agree that this type of rote-repetition has nothing at all to do with actually knowing your subject. ‘Belief is the death of intelligence,’ as Robert Anton Wilson says. Or as RAW also says,
The totally convinced and the totally stupid have too much in common for the resemblance to be accidental.
When we learn something by rote we haven’t engaged with what we are supposedly learning – we are merely passively absorbing it like a sheet of blotting paper absorbing ink. Anyone could do this job – the important thing about ‘passive learning’ is that we don’t bring ourselves into the picture, that we are merely the ‘empty servants’ of the literal description. What we think doesn’t matter in other words – it’s the literal description that matters… In her book Beyond Belief (2001, p 177) Bible Scholar Elaine Pagels refers to this shallow type of ‘knowing’ by the ancient Greek word dianoia –
Although Athanasius intended the “canon of truth,” now enshrined in the Nicene Creed, to safeguard “orthodox” interpretation of Scripture, his experience of Christians who disagreed with him showed that these “heretics” could still read the “canonical Scriptures” in ways he considered unorthodox. To prevent such readings, he insists that anyone who reads the Scriptures must do so through dianoia – the capacity to discern the meaning or intention implicit in each text. Above all, he warns believers to shun epinoia. What others revere as spiritual intuition Athanasius declares is a deceptive, all-too-human capacity to think subjectively, according to one’s preconceptions. Epinoia leads only to error – a view that the “catholic church” endorsed then and holds to this day.
This devaluing of the ‘unique individual’ by the ‘generic prescription’ is what dianoia (i.e. literal belief) is all about. There is nothing empowering about belief at all; quite the reverse is true – belief reduces us to the level of the generic! Literal belief is insisted upon by all the systems that have power over us: only then (when we literally believe) can we be saved, say the early Church Fathers. Only then can we be trusted, say the corporations, the institutions. Only then are we patriotic, says the state. So when – under coercion – we go down the road of literal acceptance all that is left is the organization, the institution, the state, the system. The unique has been converted into the regular – the individual no longer exists. The generic wins out, the generic subsumes all – and the sting in the tail (the final insult, so to speak) is that the generic isn’t actually real…
Going back to the question we were asking therefore (i.e. “Can we know what a message means by unquestioningly believing it?”) the answer comes back as a resounding “No”! How can we know something when all we are doing is passively allowing it to shape us? How can we know a system when that same system is defining us and telling us what to think? How can we know anything when we have been subsumed within the collective, the generic? How can we know something – in other words – when we no longer exist? How can we know something when what we are supposedly knowing also doesn’t exist?
Very clearly, we don’t know anything – we have simply been taken in. We’ve been suckered big time. We’ve been taken for a ride. We’ve been hoodwinked by the oldest trick in the book! The point is that we can only ‘truly be ourselves’ by being curious, by questioning, by ‘not taking everything at face value’ in the way that we are so prone to doing. We can only be ourselves by actually engaging in life, in other words. When we do take stuff at face value then we are automatically crushed, subsumed, subverted, converted, taken over by a generic reality that looks real but which isn’t. ‘Not blankly taking stuff at face value’ is the intelligence that we started off talking about at the beginning of this discussion – it isn’t the sort of intelligence that we use to solve puzzles (which is a very superficial type of a thing) but the intelligence to see if we have been hoodwinked or not.
What good is solving puzzles (or getting good grades at college) if we have been sold a dud reality? What sort of ‘intelligence’ is it if we have been subsumed into a bland generic system and lost our true original nature? What sort of ‘intelligence’ is it if we have been persuaded by our peers to exchange individuality and creativity for conformity and the prizes that come with successful conformity?
The answer to this question is of course that it’s the type of ‘intelligence’ that we all seem to have in unending supply! That’s the only sort of intelligence we recognize…
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.