Everything’s a message of one sort or another, even if we think it’s not. It’s all just messages. Even if we think that something or other is ‘the real thing’ and not a message, it’s still only a message – it’s a message that claims to be the real thing. It’s a message that fools us into thinking that it’s not a message.
The reason everything is a message of one sort or another, including stuff that we implicitly understand as ‘not being a message’, is because everything is part of the simulation and everything in the simulation has to be a message. Everything in the simulation is a designation for this, that or the other and anything that has not been designated as being this, that or the other doesn’t get to be in the simulation. Nothing gets to be in the simulation by accident – if it isn’t in the coding then it won’t be there.
So if there is a chair, it is a chair because it’s message is “This is a chair”, and if there is a table then it is a table because it’s message is “This is a table”, and so on. Whatever particular element we come across, it is really just a message claiming to be that element, and because we are so very used to taking the message at face value we just read the message as being what it says it is. Because we are habitually inclined to read the messages we receive uncritically (or unreflectively) the message becomes the thing. This is how the simulation works, by us being uncritical, by us accepting it at face value.
When we meet a person in the simulation the person is not a person but a message saying “This is Tom” or “This is Jane” or “This is Peter”, and so straightaway we know that this is Tom, that this is Jane, that this is Peter, and so on. Once we know this, then we don’t need to know any more – we’ve got the picture. We can respond (or react) on this basis – once we know ‘who it is’, then what more is there to know? And yet despite what we think it’s not the real person we are recognizing, but the message of the person, the designator of the person, the signifier of the person.
And in the same way in the simulation I am the message of myself, I am the designator of myself, the signifier of myself. I am not me, I am a message saying that I am me. I am a short-hand version of me. I am a two-dimensional image, I am a sound bite…
Everything’s a message. It’s all messages. It has to be ‘all messages’ because everything’s the simulation and a simulation is entirely made up of messages. The fact that everything in the simulation is a message (which is undeniable) has an odd consequence – if there is nothing in the simulation that is not a message then when there is a particular message such as “This is a chair” then there is no chair in that message, there is only the assertion or statement that “This is a chair”. There isn’t a real chair in the simulation but merely a message which claims that it is a chair, and the fact therefore that the message claims that it itself is a chair (rather than saying that it stands for a chair, or signifies a chair) means that the sign masks the reality. Or as Baudrillard puts it in The Perfect Crime,
We live in a world where the highest function of the sign is to make reality disappear and, at the same time, to mask that disappearance.
In the simulation therefore there are only messages claiming that they are what they are not and because of this act of dissimulation we have no way of knowing that there is anything missing from the picture that we have been given – we have no way of knowing that reality itself is missing. There is only a strange kind of a phantom image of ‘a chair’, but no actual chair, and yet so effective is the simulation that we never notice that a semantic ghost has taken the place of the genuine article. The dissimulation goes further than we might think – it is not just the case that the genuine, honest-to-goodness chair (which is presumably located out there in the world somewhere or other) has been masked by the message which brazenly claims that it itself is ‘a chair’, but rather it is the case that there isn’t any such thing as ‘a chair’ at all, not in my head nor anywhere else either…
Of course we can object at this point and say that there is a chair there and that if someone were to be foolish enough to deny the fact we could smartly hit them over then head with it and get them therefore to reconsider and retract their asinine philosophical tom-foolery, but this wouldn’t prove anything. It doesn’t prove that what hit them in the head was ‘a chair’ because ‘a chair’ is just a semantic ghost – a chair isn’t a chair anymore than Rene Magritte’s famous pipe is a pipe. What we call ‘a chair’ isn’t anything really because names are just made-up things that we have got in the habit of taking seriously, thereby confusing our thoughts with a reality that is – and always was – quintessentially nameless. The names are always our own, along with the ‘sectioned-off’ portions of reality that they represent, and which we understand to be separately existing elements or ‘things’. What we forget so quickly as a result of talking about the world in a compartmentalized way is that there’s actual no such thing as ‘things’.
This again tends sounds like a pointless philosophical quibble but it isn’t – it is a very practical and down to earth statement of empirical fact. If we desisted from going through our habitual ongoing ‘conceptualization-process’ for even just a moment or two we would very quickly see that the cut-and-dried unremarkable world with which we are so very familiar isn’t there at all – we invent it for ourselves on a daily basis with our categorizations, with our conceptualizations, with our rationalizations. There are no chairs or tables or hats or trees or cabbages or newspapers or televisions or anything comfortably familiar like that in unconditioned reality (i.e. reality as it is before it is conceptually processed) and that is why what we call ‘losing one’s mind’ tends to be such a deeply terrifying experience. The world that we make up for ourselves with our image-producing minds is neither terrifying nor awe-inspiring (which as J.G. Bennett says is the other side of the coin) but rather it is at all times tame and well-behaved.
The truth is that the oh-so-familiar world that we relate to (in a kind of a bored or listless way) every single day of our lives is a construct, a fiction – reality itself is and always was nothing like our conceptualization of it, and if we don’t appreciate this extraordinarily pertinent fact it is simply because we are we are fast asleep, lost in our own private rule-based (and therefore infinitely repetitive) simulation of the world…
If there is no actual ‘table’ in the message, only the message saying that there is (and if there is no actual ‘table’ anywhere else either!) then this means that all that is left is ‘a message agreeing with itself’. This is the bare bones of the situation, shorn of all the illusion. It isn’t a question of a message agreeing with ‘something else’, a message agreeing with something outside of itself (which is what we think) but simply the ‘closed loop’ of a statement that agrees with itself. It is a question of a statement that gains validity or credence by virtue of the fact that it concurs with itself that it is in fact ‘right’. The unashamed self-referentiality that is going on here tells us something very important about the information content of the message – and hence of the simulation which is made up of all the various messages. It tells us that the information content of the message – and the simulation – is at all times strictly zero.
This discussion allows us to look at the messages that make up the simulation in a more ‘in-depth’ sort of a way. We can say that there are two levels of meaning involved in the messages: the overt level (which is the nominal level of meaning, or the meaning which the message itself says it has) and there is the covert level, which is the meaning that the message actually has, but does not admit to. The meaning that the message actually has (but does not say that it has) is no meaning at all since it is as we have said emptily self-referential like all positive (or literal) assertions are. They try to be true by ‘holding onto themselves’ (or by ‘pushing themselves forward’) and so what we end up with as a result of this ‘straining to be true’ is a message that isn’t actually any sort of a message at all. We end up with a kind of ‘meaning parcel’ which is composed of a hidden core of zero information that is covered up with some kind of brightly-coloured wrapping paper to make it look like there’s genuine content in it. It’s a virtual content. This is like someone telling you something that sounds pertinent but which is actually completely random. Or it is like an apparently witty or clever comment that – after a moment’s reflection – reveals itself to be utterly inane, utterly banal. The key therefore to staying in the overt level of meaning (the nominal level) is not to indulge in any sort of reflection or questioning but just carry on a very blasé way just superficially accepting everything we hear at face value…
The simulation possesses complete unimpeded freedom on the nominal level; it can, in other words, simulate anything it wants with equal facility. The messages that make it up can say anything they want – they can say that they are this, or they can say that they are that, and this type of leeway is how the simulation gets to simulate stuff. But at the same time as having unimpeded freedom on the nominal level the simulation possesses zero freedom on the actual level; it has (obviously enough!) no leeway at all on the level of meaning that has not been decided by itself. As the inhabitor of the simulation – which is to say, as ‘the player of the game’ – we only have access to the nominal level of things, we only have access to the name of things. We don’t have a back-stage pass. This is after all how a simulation functions – by our assiduous avoidance of seeing the ‘null level of meaning’ that exists under the apparently names. The simulation can only simulate when we have no awareness regarding the fact that it is a simulation. As Baudrillard says, “The secret of theory is that truth does not exist.”
Having looked at finite messages, we can now move onto the infinite message. The infinite message, we might say, occurs naturally in everything – it occurs without having to be put there. It is akin therefore what the alchemists called the lumen naturae (‘the light of nature’) as opposed to the ‘light of reason’, which is the deceptive light of the rational mind. Just as James Carse says that ‘there is only one Infinite Game’, there is only one infinite message – necessarily so, since the nature of the infinite message is to exclude nothing.
Inasmuch as we are usually only aware of the world that we have made for ourselves, which is composed of finite messages, the nature of the infinite message is necessarily obscure to us – it is impenetrably obscure to us because we ourselves have not made it, because we ourselves have not said that it can be there. In practice, this turns out to be the biggest obstacle to our understanding that there could ever be – it is such an absolute barrier to our comprehension that we say that it doesn’t exist (or rather we don’t actually bother to say that ‘it doesn’t exist’ because we believe on a deeply unconscious level that there could never be any such thing as something that is not a finite message).
Just as finite messages are closed – i.e. they mean what they say they mean and nothing else – the infinite message is open – which is to say, it doesn’t mean anything specific. This of course doesn’t make any sense at all with regard to our normal way of thinking about things – if a message doesn’t mean anything specific then it doesn’t mean anything at all as far as the everyday mind is concerned. A message that means everything can’t tell us anything, from a logical perspective, and so the very idea must be meaningless.
The infinite message is not logical however. Communication relies on exclusive meaning, on the stipulation of ‘this but not that’, rather than the generous spirited but entirely impractical (or so it would seem) principle of all-inclusiveness, which doesn’t ever rule anything out. But if we think everything should be logical then we‘re missing the point big time – whilst logic governs the ratios between known parts the infinite message is neither ‘known’, nor is it ‘a part’, and so logic has no dominion here, nothing useful to say.
Whilst finite messages describe the world, the infinite message is the world, and so this is the ‘difference’ between the two. This is such a big difference that we can’t even really call it ‘a difference’ – it is a veritable chasm, it is a bottomless abyss. There is no comparison. A finite message describes or defines because it says “this but not that”; the infinite message however doesn’t say anything – it doesn’t try to say the world (which would be a totally crazy thing to try to do, in any event), it is the world…
Finite messages operate by covering up their true nature, they work by only showing us what they want us to see, by only showing us ‘what we are supposed to see’. The infinite message on the other hand isn’t a trick’ – it isn’t covering anything up and it has no agenda with regard to how we see it. That’s up to us. The only reason we can’t generally perceive the infinite message – even though it isn’t hidden – is because we’re so tuned in to receiving finite messages that we don’t notice the infinite one. We’re so focused on the small that we can’t see the big. This is like a specialist who knows such a vast amount much about his chosen speciality, about his ‘specialist subject’, that he has quite lost sight of the big picture – all sorts of amazing stuff might be going on around him but he’ll never pay any attention to it because all he has time for is his own subject.
Finite messages as we have said come in the form of either/or logic, YES/NO formatting. This is the language of particularity, the language of specificity. Either the thing falls into the category or it doesn’t. Either it’s a hit or a miss – there is nothing in-between, no other possibility. This is Aristotle’s Principle of the Excluded Middle. The infinite message on the other hand doesn’t particularize, it doesn’t specify. It neither falls into a category, nor does it not fall into the category. It is nether YES or NO because both YES and NO, hit or miss, affirm or deny both miss the point to the same extent. It’s something else entirely.
So in the same way that can’t understand any message that isn’t founded upon the Principle of the Excluded Middle we also can’t understand the infinite message. We can’t get our teeth into it, we can’t digest it, we can’t assimilate it. We could say that the infinite message is something like the famous ‘elephant standing there in the living room’ that we somehow contrive not to see because we only see the everyday petty details that we’re so very used to seeing. It isn’t a problem however because ‘a problem’ is a particular configuration of details that we find completely unacceptable and so have to do something about, and the infinite message isn’t a ‘particular configuration of details that we have to do something about’, it is the Whole of Everything…
The infinite message which is reality itself is more like the Himalayan mountain range in our living room than an elephant, if it is possible to imagine such a thing. It is more like the whole world, the whole galaxy, the whole cosmos in our living room. And yet despite its cosmic magnitude, which goes beyond mere size (since ‘size’ is always related to ‘the ratios between known or measurable parts’) it is completely invisible to us, completely incomprehensible to us. We have no way – with our everyday minds – of getting to grips with it, of engaging with it. It is not amenable to our perceptual system since our perceptual system is formatted in terms of YES or NO, one opposite versus the other complementary opposite, where the one necessarily excludes the other. The infinite message is neither YES nor NO, it is neither right nor wrong, true nor false. As Huang Po says, it neither exists nor does it ‘not exist’ –
If only you will avoid concepts of existence and non-existence in regard to absolutely everything, you will then perceive the Dharma.
But more than this, we can also say that it is not just that the infinite message ‘neither exists, nor not-exists’, but rather that it “neither exists nor not-exists, nor anything else that we might think of either’. This is the beginning of the Mahayana super-negation, which (as Alan Watts says somewhere) is ‘a negation that negates even the concept of negation’, ‘a negation that negates itself’. What is left after this negation of the very concept of negation is what we are calling the infinite message, which does not rely on petty categories or props – on any dime-a-dozen mind-created excuses or qualifications – for it to be what it is.
The All-Inclusive (or Undivided) reality of the infinite message, which has nothing to do with the categories of ‘existence versus non-existence’ (or even some other category that we haven’t thought of yet!), shows up all finite messages to be unreal. It shows up the world that we know and take for granted every single day of our lives to be utterly phantasmagorical. Thus in the Lankavatara Sutra we read –
Lord of Lankā, beings are appearances, they are like figures painted on the wall, they have no sensibility [or consciousness]. Lord of Lankā, all that is in the world is devoid of work and action because all things have no reality, and there is nothing heard, nothing hearing. Lord of Lankā, all that is in the world is like an image magically transformed. This is not comprehended by the philosophers and the ignorant. Lord of Lankā, he who thus sees things, is the one who sees truthfully. Those who see things otherwise walk in discrimination; as they depend on discrimination, they cling to dualism. It is like seeing one’s own image reflected in a mirror, or one’s own shadow in the water, or in the moonlight, or seeing one’s shadow in the house, or hearing an echo in the valley. People grasping their own shadows of discrimination uphold the discrimination of dharma and adharma and, failing to carry out the abandonment of the dualism, they go on discriminating and never attain tranquillity, By tranquillity is meant oneness (ekāgra), and oneness gives birth to the highest Samādhi, which is gained by entering into the womb of Tathagatahood, which is the realm of noble wisdom realised in one’s inmost self.
One very straightforward way of explaining the difference between finite messages and the infinite message is to say that it is the same sort of thing as the difference between what is written or printed on the page of a book, and the page itself. The difference is that we can read the print but we can’t ‘read’ the page!
The writing on the page is telling us about something – it is telling us about something other than itself, something that supposedly exists ‘out there in the world’. So the word <cat> is telling us about a real cat somewhere out there in the outside world. The word <cat> is not telling is that the word <cat> is only a word, and as such devoid of any meaning ‘in itself’ because if it did this then we would no longer be able to take the overt (or ‘naming’) level of meaning seriously. It is not telling us that the word <cat> is covering up the absence behind itself of what it is supposed to be telling us about or else the trick wouldn’t work. The emptiness of the words (or names) making up the writing is therefore the inaccessible level of meaning; it constitutes the hidden level of meaning which does nevertheless sometimes come out – if for example we keep repeating a particular word (or name) over and over again until the shine of the nominal or intentional level wears off and the word or name becomes frankly ‘meaningless’ to us.
So the conjuring trick only works when we tune exclusively into the nominal level of meaning, which is the level of the writing on the page as it itself presents itself. If we look at it from viewpoint that doesn’t belong to the system then we see the finite message of the words on the page to be mere babble, mere senseless gibberish. This would be like listening to someone talking away to us and then suddenly realizing that they are talking utter nonsense, suddenly seeing that the words they are uttering are merely sounds – sounds that are no different to any other noises that we might hear, such as somebody clapping their hands, a dog barking, a bird flapping its wings, the wind rustling the leaves of a tree. The sound of human speech at this moment becomes indistinguishable from all the other sounds that might be going on at this moment – they all become ‘one’. Everything naturally ‘runs together’ and turns therefore into ‘the one message’. Everything joins up and becomes the message that doesn’t actual mean something, the uncreated infinite message that isn’t actually telling us ‘about’ anything.
This sort of ‘senseless’ or ‘illogical’ experience can happen without any hindrance, if we relax enough, if we relax to the extent that we are able to ‘let go of our minds’. As Alan Watts says, it can easily happen when we are sun-bathing on a beach on a hot summer’s day and – without knowing what we are doing – we enter into that very peaceful state in which we are no longer making sense of all the different sounds that we are hearing. Instead of interpreting them we just hear what they sound like as they naturally are in themselves and when we do this all the various sounds (the waves on the beach, the seagulls crying, children talking and laughing, and so on) all join together to become the one thing, the one sound. After all, the only reason the various sounds were separate (compartmentalized) in our minds in the first place was because we had separated them, because we had put different meaning upon them. Once we relax the compartmentalizing activity of the mind then the various compartments vanish, along with the stress of having to hold them apart, the stress of having to maintain them.
Another major source of stress or tension vanishes at the same time – the stress of having to hold ourselves apart as ‘the separate listener’, ‘the separate viewer’, ‘the separate controller’. So when we stop interpreting everything – and turning the world into a mix of various finite messages – then we enter into the state of Samadhi, which is where we perceive everything to be ‘one’.
At this point everything ‘joins up together’ and stops making sense to us. It stops making sense because we are no longer trying to make it make sense, because we no longer need it to make sense, and once this happens then the world ceases to be what we previously understood it to be and becomes what it actually is.
Once this happens the world ceases to be ‘our own construct’ (made up as all constructs are of an overt layer of nominal meaning covering up a covert layer of redundancy) and it reveals itself not to be finite, regular and repetitive at all, but infinite, illogical and utterly unique.
So when we relax enough in ourselves to see the world as the infinite message rather than the usual motley collection of miscellaneous finite messages, then we realize that we ourselves are that very same infinite message.
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.