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False Curiosity

If we are not at all curious about reality itself but at the same time we don’t want ourselves to know that we aren’t curious about it (because we can’t help realizing that there is something very strange going on if we do allow ourselves to know this fact) then there is a very handy trick that we can play to safely avoid this disconcerting awareness. If on a fundamental level we are ‘switched-off’, ‘closed down’, ‘not interested’ and simply ‘don’t want to know’ – but at the same time if we really do not want to acknowledge that this is the case  – then we can solve this tricky dilemma very easily by playing a type of a game. What we can do in this case is to construct a surrogate reality for ourselves, a ‘safe simulation of reality,’ a ‘simplified version’ of the real thing which is lacking in the elements we don’t like, the aspects we find threatening.


A good practical way to do this is to react to specific cues that arise out of that reality (i.e. to react to those regular and recognizable elements which can be abstracted from the wider reality) but to do so without ever taking any notice of the wider reality itself. This kind of thing is very well illustrated by relationships: if every time you say something to me I fail on a profound level to muster any interest at all in what you are actually trying to say and only take notice of what your words mean to me in terms of the very personal associations that arise when I hear them then I am very effectively closed off to you whilst at the same time superficially appearing to be listening (and responding) to you. It is entirely possible that you will not realize that I’m not listening or responding to you (but only reacting to my own ‘automatically-arising associations’) and in this case there will be some kind of a ‘semblance’ of actual communication. It may also be the case – of course! – that both parties will be exhibiting exactly the same lack of genuine interest in what the other is trying to say and so then what happens is that there is ‘pseudo-communication’ on both sides. On the face of it we are talking to each other, but really we are not.


That this type of pseudo-communication is far from being an aberration ought to come as no surprise to any one who has taken the trouble to pay attention to human interactions – communication is generally only skin-deep since most of us have very little capacity to hear anything that conflicts with our own ingrained assumptions. It is undoubtedly true to say that most of the time we just aren’t listening! This is particular obvious in arguments when even the pretence that we are actually listening to the other person breaks down.


Pseudo-communication means that I am not really interested in what you have to say, anymore than you are interested in what I have to say. Instead, we are both in the business of reacting to our own automatic associations, reacting to our own ‘unacknowledged projections’, as Jung might say. But, as Jung points out, when I react to or relate to my own projections as if they were a genuinely independent reality then what I am doing is isolating myself from my environment. I am cutting myself off. I am in this way creating my own private world for myself, a world that has no one else in it, a world that has no actual reality in it. I am using you to project on, and you are using me to project on and so although there is the appearance of two-interaction there is actually no such thing – there is only a closed system reacting in a fundamentally sterile fashion to itself.  There is only the illusion of connection to reality; there is only the illusion that I am relating to something outside of my own reference system.


There is another reason why this pseudo-communication is generally not spotted for what it is. If the nature of our ‘automatically-arising associations’ more-or-less tally with each other – which is of course the usual situation since the people we know tend exist in the same ‘reality tunnel’ – then this very much adds to the illusion that honest-to-goodness bona fide communication is taking place. We are still in our private, sterile, non-communicating worlds but since both worlds (which are made up of a self-consistent system of fixed associations) are governed by the very same rules-of-association the impression is given that I am not in a world of my own. On the contrary, the impression is given that I am reaching out beyond this world. The impression is given that I am engaging in a genuine two-way interaction. But actually this is not at all the case because if your private world is organized along exactly the same lines as my own then I am not ‘reaching out’ beyond anything. We are both playing the same game and so neither of us is reaching out beyond that game.


The definition of communication (or interaction) is that something changes as a result. If you and I communicate, and neither of us are changed by that interaction, then there is no communication, there is no interaction. We both remain untouched, isolated within the tombs of our closed minds, and the appearance that we are communicating is false. The same principle holds true when I interact with (or perceive) the world around me on the basis of my closed and therefore unchanging mind. This is really only a more sophisticated version of what we’ve just been talking about; the truth of the matter is that in my normal mode of ‘consciousness’ I am not genuinely interested in the world around me ‘as it is in itself’ (which is a kind of philosophical interest) but rather I am only interested in the world in a pragmatic or utilitarian way, which is to say, in terms of ‘what I can get out of it’. This pragmatic or utilitarian modality is necessarily a closed one because if I am to identify something or other as ‘being of use to me’ this must mean that it has a direct correspondence with one of my pre-existing mental categories. If the thing in question had no relation to my pre-existing conceptual mind then there is absolutely no way in which I could consider it as being useful. If I wasn’t wholly preoccupied with how I can make use of things then I might be curious about the phenomenon in question, but then that would be a different matter entirely. Curiosity is not about labelling.


The normal everyday mode of consciousness is therefore one in which I am not in the least bit interested in what reality is in itself, but only interested in the private ‘meaning-system’ which I have projected upon it by way of my ‘automatically-arising associations’. I have no curiosity with regard to the world, I only have ‘curiosity’ with regard to the crude evaluations I make of it as my rational-conceptual mind reacts to those cues which it is mechanically predisposed to react to. Only when the precedent-based (or ‘rule-based’) mind has processed reality and spat some data out for me to consider am I interested. Only then do I ‘have any use’ for the information that I am receiving. But this sort of interest, where I am interested only in the processed information, cannot be called curiosity. That is like a person who watches news programs on TV and reads the newspapers every day but has no interest in thinking for himself. Some other word is needed – a word that does not spuriously imply any actual breadth or depth of interest, a word that accurately denotes the very specific and very narrow focus which is the hall-mark of the everyday mind. This mind is made up of a self-consistent set of evaluative categories, along with a set of rules or protocols about how these categories are to be used, and this logical system (or ‘language’) has the pragmatic capacity to code for all the possible variations thrown up by the corresponding ‘regularities’ in the outside world. Via this straightforward cognitive process I obtain the misleading impression that I am understanding the world that I live in. This impression is so strong that I go around, most of the time, complacency convinced that I totally understand everything that is needful or important for me to understand. The perception that I understand nothing at all really outside of the game that I am playing is one that is profoundly alien to me, alien to us as a culture. I understand nothing – I am merely comfortable in my habitual static pattern of ‘interaction’ with my environment.

When I interact with the world on the basis of my conceptual map I am only ever interacting with my own cognitive projections and as we have already said an interaction with oneself is not an interaction at all. It is not an interaction because there is no chance of anything changing as a result – I have my picture of the world and when I interact on the basis of this picture all that happens is that this picture gets confirmed. Because I have a particular utilitarian interest in what is around me I treat all the elements that I come across in terms of their use to me, one way or another. As William James says, “Every way of classifying a thing is but a way of handling it for some particular purpose” and so just so long as I am in the business of classifying the world I am not interested in what things are in themselves, only in what they represent or signify to me from the point of view of my narrow utilitarian interest. No matter what I come across in the course of my day-to-day experience, my categories and my purposes remain the same – my system of interpretation, my langauge, my habitual mind remains the same. This creates a system in which a closed system is interacting with its own evaluations, its own projections, which constitutes a reflective self-validation or self-confirmation. Put in the most direct way, the system is ‘agreeing with itself’ and closed self-agreement is the furthest thing from ‘curiosity’ that there ever could be. It is a profoundly meaningless act, creating a ‘null situation’ as a result.

I go around, it is true, under the perfectly honest impression that I am interested in the world, but really I am ‘interested’ only in my own automatic reactions to the world (my own ‘conditioned responses’) and the world that is created for me in this way is a finite world, a closed world, and therefore an endlessly repeating or re-cycling world. It is limited and therefore endlessly rehashed mental production that I am interested in and so to use the word ‘curiosity’ in this connection would constitute a wildly inaccurate use of the word. We could of course be deeply curious about the process whereby a closed system gets to replace the original open system and how it is that we manage to carry on with any degree of interest at all. We could be curious about how or why such a very strange thing would happen; we could be curious about what the attraction is, about what the motivation is. Why would we be content to settle for such a meagrely impoverished, wretchedly limited and tortuously repetitive ‘version’ of reality when there is the genuine article out there – infinitely rich, endlessly diverse, and forever new and exciting? That we would choose the punishingly banal productions of the stagnant everyday mind over this is a profound and deeply mysterious marvel.


We might indeed be curious about this ‘simulation process’, the process by which reality itself is progressively degraded, progressively simplified, turned into progressively (or regressively) inferior versions of itself, inferior versions which are themselves duly replaced by even more inferior copies, but we cannot be curious about the actual literal content of the product. We cannot be genuinely interested in the world which is created by the conditioned mind because this world has no depth in it – it can’t have any depth in it because it is made up entirely of flat definitions. This impossibility is inherent in the very nature of logic itself. Logic by its very nature can only exist on one level, it can only have meaning on the level which it itself takes for granted. The logical mind is a purely concrete thinking device, concrete because it says only what it means, and it means only what is says. There is absolutely no way in which the logical mind can make a statement and yet not mean what that statement specifically indicates – irony is unknown to logic because irony would falsify logic. Thus, the defined elements that make up the world as it is portrayed by the logical mind are only what they are defined as being; if some element of my experience is registered as being meaningful in some specific way via the automatic evaluation process then that (and that alone) is the meaning which it shall forever have. Categorical knowing can never go beyond its categories and it is in the nature of categories to be strictly limited. After all, a category that is not limited (that is not strictly defined) is not a category at all.


If we cannot legitimately speak of being ‘curious’ in the simulated world (simulations are by their very nature devoid of any intrinsic interest) then what term could we use? What is our relationship to this world? What keeps us stuck to it in the way that we are, as if there were really was something interesting in it? One way to approach this question is to talk in terms of lower analogues. If curiosity is the ‘open’ motivation, the free or spontaneous motivation, the motivation that does not have any hidden agenda to it, then the lower analogue that we are looking at here must be closed motivation; it must be unfree or directed motivation, motivation that does operate on the basis of a hidden motivation. We can think of this lower analogue of curiosity as being the situation in which our attention is pulled along this way and that ‘by the nose’ in a distinctly undignified fashion. Our attention is not free, in other words, but rather it is ‘puppeted’ by some extrinsic factor. We may therefore speak of this ‘lower analogue of the original thing’ as being extrinsic motivation, as opposed to intrinsic motivation (intrinsic motivation being where there is no external determining factor at work). Needless to say, as soon as we talk in terms of our attention being pulled this way and that by magnetizing factors that we don’t have any choice over the general idea of a lower analogue of curiosity no longer seems so unfamiliar after all. This sort of thing is after all constantly happening to our minds – this is arguably the major portion of the experience of ‘being human’!


Extrinsic motivation is also known as attachment. In the Eastern metaphysical sense of the word, attachment doesn’t mean that we ‘like’ something or other (or that we ‘can’t do without it’) but rather that we are involuntarily pulled this way and that by it. We are driven by it to act this way and that, to think this way and that, to perceive this way and that. Attachment can only occur in relation to ‘the products of the mentational process’, which is to say, it can only occur in relation to stuff that we know for sure, stuff that is not mysterious or uncertain to us. This is not an immediately obvious point – I may for example say that “I fear the unknown” or that “I dislike uncertainty” which clearly sounds like negative attachment (or ‘aversion’). But this commonly stated aversion to the unknown and the uncertain still comes down to labelling or evaluation. Without the mental operation of labelling the ‘reaction’ cannot take place; a reaction cannot take place without the evaluation being there to guide it. Otherwise, how would we know how to react, or even if we should react at all? The way this evaluation business takes place is simplicity itself and can be seen in terms of basic utility: when something or other arises my initial response is to ascertain what it means to me, whether it is a potential advantage or a potential disadvantage. Either its ‘good’ or its ‘bad’.


This type of basic labelling process is sometimes known as ‘black and white thinking’ and black and white thinking (of various degrees of sophistication) is the only type of thinking that the logical mind goes in for. A man who is very drunk is a good example of this, even if we don’t usually think of alcohol as an aid to logical thinking. For a man who is very drunk everything reduces down to very simple categories – either you are his best friend or his most deadly enemy. Similarly, if I happen to have a strongly polarized viewpoint – perhaps I am a religious fundamentalist of some sort or maybe I hold strong political beliefs – then everyone I meet has to be painted with one brush or the other – either you are with me or you are against me. As the well-known slogan has it, “Either you are part of the solution or you’re part of the problem.” This slogan is nonsensical for the same reason that all black-and-white thinking is nonsensical – it is nonsensical because Reality itself (which is necessarily a whole) is neither the problem nor the solution to the problem. If it appears to be either a problem or a solution then this is simply because we have chosen to look at the world entirely in terms of ‘what it means to me and my particular agenda’. Black-and-white thinking is a symptom of the self, in other words. The process of ‘evaluation’ is the inevitable consequence of the self, it is the self extending (or projecting) itself out into the world. The reaction is the same thing as the evaluation and the evaluation ion is the same thing as the self which does the evaluating and the reacting. It’s all the same thing – it is all a continuum, it’s all the system of thought.


The logical development – the structure – that follows on from that initial act of evaluation appears to be very solid; it appears to be most definite and authoritative, but really the entire development is never any more than that original evaluation and that act is itself entirely arbitrary. It didn’t have to be what it was – it might just as well have been anything. Certainty itself, for all the stock we place in it, is entirely arbitrary – which radically detracts from the implication of solidity that goes with the concept of ‘certain’. It is certain, but only conditionally so. It is certain, but only within that particular narrow context or framework which it assumes in order that it might be so. The apparent certainty of the rational mind’s productions is therefore more of an exercise in ‘virtual reality’ than anything else – it holds good in all the ways that we require or expect it to hold good, but only if we stay strictly within the framework which it itself takes for granted. On the surface of things we have the appearance of certainty or solidity, but beneath (as well as above) this surface there is a boundless ocean of radical uncertainty. This two-dimensional world, this ‘flat-land’, seems expansive to us but only because ‘we don’t know what we’re missing’, so to speak. We can’t conceive of there being any possibility of anything else, and when we do start to get some sort of apprehension of that ‘something else,’ that ‘radical uncertainty,’ we promptly slap a label on it and so it gets to be part of flat-land after all. To sum up, the price we pay for certainty (i.e. being able to live ‘safely’ in a world that can be literally known to us) is the loss of our own natural open-ended curiosity about things. That part of us has to go, like a supposedly vestigial and non-essential organ, like our tonsils or appendix.


The act of identifying (or evaluating) precludes curiosity. If I have made the definite identification of some element of my experience then there can be no question of me being curious about that element. What’s left to wonder about? We need another word to use here, a word that more accurately describes the relationship of the cataloguer with the objects that he has catalogued. We might of course ask if curiosity comes in at an earlier stage of the game; perhaps our natural curiosity comes in just before the moment at which I make the definite identification. Could it not be the case that I am genuinely curious in the gap between ‘noticing’ and ‘evaluation’, no matter how brief that gap might be?  But we can show that this is not the case. After all there never was a time when there was even the remotest of chances that the object-to-be-identified would turn out to be something outside of my repertory of ‘possible identifications’ (or ‘possible designations’). A gap – if it is to be really a gap – must be open in nature but the interval between ‘noticing’ and ‘evaluating’ is not open at all since the repertory of ‘all possible evaluations’ is a closed set. I only have so many mental categories that are ‘open’ to me and if the momentarily unidentified object is not going to end up in one then it is definitely going to end up in another. There are no exceptions whatsover this since if it doesn’t fit in any of the regular, work-a-day categories then we will have a category for this eventuality and so we will slot it into that one instead. We will assign the element of experience in question to the category marked ‘nonsensical’ or ‘erroneous’ or ‘irrelevant’ or ‘insane’ and so on.


This closed set-up means that there is no danger at any time of any real uncertainty ever being allowed into the system and so the possibility of genuine curiosity arising is always going to be zero. There is nothing there to be curious about. It was certain from the very beginning that the element being investigated would turn out to be something from a set of pre-defined alternatives and so in the absence of any real uncertainty in this regard everything that happens is bound to be mere routine. It is all a purely mechanical affair and can therefore be ‘taken care’ of by what we might call a ‘mechanical consciousness’, the robot mind, the mind that is made up entirely of conditioned reflexes. The robot mind (if it is working correctly) can do an excellent job just so long as the situations it is called upon to deal with are of the type that it is used to dealing with, the type that it is programmed to deal with. When however it is confronted with novelty such a mind simply carries on as if the situation were not novel at all, but just another one that it is used to responding to. This is the robot mind’s default coping strategy. And when this strategy of acting as if nothing ever happens that it doesn’t have categories for throws up anomalous results, difficulties that cannot be adequately resolved, then these difficulties are dismissed and disregarded, i.e. the robot mind does not get curious about why things are not working out they way they should do.

We can argue that – in the absence of radical uncertainty (which is to say, honest-to-goodness openness) there cannot be any such thing as consciousness. Consciousness after all is a way of relating to world in a way that essentially involves perspective. In a closed world the one thing there can never be is perspective, since there is never any other way to see things other than the way which we have been given. Perspective, we may say, is when we are able (to some extent anyway) to see the world it is in itself, rather than merely relating to our own projections, our own evaluations, our own literal descriptions. In this case there is a kind of aliveness or dynamism to the situation – an aliveness or dynamism that is wholly lacking in the closed mechanical mind. Without this aliveness, this potential for uncharted change, we cannot meaningfully talk about ‘consciousness’ or ‘awareness’. Without curiosity we cannot meaningfully talk about consciousness or awareness. When there no possibility of uncharted change then of course we have to make do with the categories of the robot mind, in whatever combinations or patterns or sequences it can arrange them in so as to make the experience seem new or exciting to us. In this case it is not curiosity we experience with regard to ‘what combination of categories’ is going to come up for us next but something which would be more accurately described as ‘flat need’ – the need to be effectively distracted from the appalling sterility of the mental prison that we are trapped in. What we are interested in – therefore – is not anything more significant than mere superficial entertainment.

Instead of talking about ‘entertainment’ we could alternatively speak in terms of trivial uncertainty. In a closed or mechanical system there is no such thing as radical uncertainty but there can exist a very superficial type of uncertainty with regard to which out of a preordained set of possibilities is going to pop up next. This trivial (or closed) form of uncertainty is a lower or degenerate analogue of the real thing, which is where there is an absolutely open field with regard to what might happen next. So in the same way that trivial uncertainty is a lower analogue of radical uncertainty, ‘the need to be entertained or distracted’ is the lower analogue of curiosity. Whilst the idea of ‘being curious’ is easy to understand (i.e. we want to know what is ‘out there’, whatever it is) the lower analogue of curiosity is not so straightforwardly comprehensible to us. In this case I do not want to know what is out there. I only want to know about it if it matches my predetermined categories…

So we could say that there is some kind of vestigial remnant of our natural curiosity, the only thing being that this residuum has departed a long, long way from that original, unconstrained state of affairs. It has, we might say, become artificial or ‘over-regulated’ – it is a theatrical or scripted version of a dramatic or unregulated process. In the case of the lower analogue we are only interested in whatever it is that we have been scripted to be interested in. So maybe I am a member of a social group in which one is supposed to have an interest in such-and-such a sport or such-and-such a hobby, and so I make the effort to cultivate the appropriate interest. It is of course perfectly possible for me to develop a real interest in this prescribed sport or hobby and even get to the point where I would say (and totally believe) that I am very keen on it, a complete fan or addict even, but at the same time the key point is that it is all deliberate. I am in control all the way.

The fact that what I am doing is intentional has a very important consequence, albeit a consequence that we might not initially understand. The consequence is that via this business of ‘being interested in a controlled way’ two levels of meaning are created – one overt and one covert. On the overt level of meaning I am interested in whatever pursuit it is that I have created for myself to be interested in whilst on the covert level (the real level) I am interested in finding something to be interested in… We can express this in terms of motivation and say that whilst I might appear on the face of it to be very motivated to attain whatever goal it is that I am involved in chasing after, this motivation is only for show. In reality it is fickle, superficial, arbitrary, theatrical, fundamentally insincere.  It has to be insincere exactly because there are two levels of meaning. After all whilst I might on the one hand say that I am interested in such-and-such a sport, such-and-such a pursuit, the truth of the matter is that I am more interested in being interested than I am in anything else. Since therefore the covert level of meaning always comes first, the overt level can only ever be a posture or pretense. It suits me at the moment to be interested in whatever it is, but when it ceases to suit me then the interest can be unceremoniously withdrawn. It can withdrawn without prior notice, it can be withdrawn regardless. With this undisclosed clause in place therefore, nothing can be what it seems. In terms of motivation – my overt aim is to attain the specified goal, but my covert aim is to have a goal. Any sort of a goal at all. We could also look at this in terms of belief – whilst any belief that I might hold dear ostensibly appears to matter a great deal (indeed, I might say that it constitutes the ‘supreme value’ of my life) the truth of the matter is that what really matters to me is to have a belief about which I can make such statements. This of course renders my belief insincere.

The lower analogue of curiosity is therefore controlled curiosity – it is ‘the self-serving charade of curiosity’. The reason we need to go in for this charade in the first place is because we need for there to be something going on to distract us from the fact that actually nothing is going on. There is ‘nothing going on’ because by the time the closed rational-conceptual mind (the categorical mind, the robot mind) has finished processing the incoming information all that is left are the various combinations and sequences of the finite set of categories that make up the system. This finite set of categories is all we are ever going to provided with; it makes up our world, and so it goes without saying that this is always going to be a very small world.

Not only is the world we are given a very small world but it is also a necessarily parochial world, a closed world, a world that just keeps repeating itself over and over again, in various superficially disguised versions of itself.  Such a situation creates a need for some sort of superficial change to be taking place, it creates the need for some sort of trivial uncertainty regarding what sort of ‘change’ is going to take place. Trivial uncertainty is what feeds us – it is our food, an essential resource, an essential commodity. Our basic need in this situation is thus to find something to attach our attention to, something that will safely divert our attention from noticing the uncompromising nature of our predicament – the predicament of being stuck in what is essentially a crude simulation of reality, a ‘lower analogue’ of reality.

This lower analogue of reality doesn’t cut the mustard at all. It doesn’t ‘do it’. It doesn’t work. The only thing that does work is reality itself, the original article, but for whatever reason we have turned our backs on reality, we have closed our accounts with it, we have shut down. The characteristic thing about this shut down or switched-off mode is that when I am in it, my situation – such as it is – is unbearable to me. I myself, in this mode, am ‘unbearable’ to me. I am intolerable to myself. If I met myself at a dinner party I would immediately make an excuse and leave. If I saw myself coming down the street I would turn around and go the other way.  If you told me that I would have to spend a week stuck in a small room with myself I would run a mile. But these options aren’t available to me – my only realistic option is to keep escaping myself via entertainment or self-distraction. My only option is to ‘do all my living on the outside’, to exist solely in externalities, to live exclusively in the world of my externalized projections. My only option is to live in the world of our shared or consensual projection, like everyone else does.

Stated bluntly, the option of living ‘only in externalities’ sounds like an utterly bizarre, utterly crazy solution; and yet this is of course the default setting. This is what we are all doing, all of the time. This is the everyday mind. This is the ubiquitous state of consciousness – which is actually unconsciousness.

Unconsciousness is where – bizarrely – we aren’t interested or curious in reality itself, but only interested in our own projections. It is where we are only interested in our own ‘safe’ (or ‘unchallenging’) version of reality. Our own beliefs and opinions. Our own thoughts and ideas. Our own theories. Our own habits. Our own comforting games.

As Jung says, ‘Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes’.

Looking outside means ‘only being interested in our projections’, it means ‘only being interested in our games’. Looking outside means that we are not even remotely interested in the one who does the projecting, the one who chooses to play the game. We couldn’t care less. In fact we actively don’t want to know…

If we were curious about the dreamer then we would look inside instead of outside. We would turn our attention within rather than allowing it to be constantly absorbed like ink in blotting paper by the ever-repeating banality of the external drama. If we were interested about ‘the one who projects’ rather than being so extremely absorbed in the projection then, as Jung says, we would wake up. If we were interested in the one who chooses to play the game rather than merely being interested in the dull old game then we would no longer be ‘switched off’.

Author: Nick Williams

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

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