There is no freedom in thinking, even though we might think that there is! There’s no freedom in thought because thought is a closed system that we can’t see to be closed. This – as can plainly be seen if we state matters as straightforwardly as this – is no basis for freedom…
Saying that thought is a closed system means that when we are in thinking mode there are only so many possibilities that are available to us, and all we can do is choose between them. This is ‘trivial uncertainty’, a superficial parody of choice. So although we have this limited type of freedom, which is ‘the freedom to choose between given alternatives’, there isn’t any actual freedom involved here because it’s the system that’s doing the choosing, not us. I can only choose what the system allows me to choose, so how is this ‘freedom’? I can only think what the system allows me to think – I can only think in terms of the ready-made categories of thought that I am supplied with to facilitate my thinking, so very clearly there is no freedom in this whatsoever.
The suggestion that when we think we have to do so on the basis of a finite set of mental categories is not something that generally occurs to us, although if we were to reflect on the matter we would probably agree that this pretty much has to be so. When we think about anything the actual thoughts we use in this process aren’t actually novel or unique, it’s just that we somehow imagine that we can get somewhere novel or unique by using our regular old thoughts as stepping stones on our mental journey, as the basic components of our pathway to somewhere new. Any one thought (or idea) that we might look at will of course be a ‘standard unit,’ and as such it will be very familiar to us, but our assumption is that we can use all these basic ‘mental building blocks’ to assemble something worthwhile, something that hasn’t been done before. All we saying here therefore is that our thoughts are a ‘language’ for describing reality, and any given language – no matter how subtle it might be – can only ever be made up of a finite set of defined (and therefore unchanging) words…
The language of our rational thoughts doesn’t actually have to be the same thing as our spoken language – it often will be, but in addition there is also the possibility of using specialized logical terms that have much more precise meanings than the rough-and-ready words that make up the common spoken language. A specialist (for example a computer programmer, a biochemical engineer, a physicist or a mathematician) will have a possibility of thinking in a detailed way without using words. But no matter how immensely technical the language is that I am using, I am still not any ‘freer’ in my thinking than someone who is just thinking using the familiar old words we all use. Whatever the thought, it always comes down a mental category which is defined in such a way that we know precisely what it refers to, and what it doesn’t refer to. No matter what our thoughts might be, the specific categories that we’re thinking in are always going to fundamentally inflexible – our categories of thought are ‘fundamentally inflexible’ because their meaning has been defined in advance, and is not subject to arbitrary or random revision.
In practical down-to-earth terms, the inflexibility of our mental categories means that we experience the meaning that is associated with them as being ‘sure and certain’. It’s the same every time. Having fixed or inflexible categories means that our thoughts are definite, that our thoughts are concrete, and the concreteness of these thoughts reflects the closed nature of the overall ‘system of thought’, the system of thought being the domain of all possible thoughts that we can think, along with all the permissible or lawful ways of moving from one thought to another, one logical category to another. If we say that each one of these logical categories are closed (or final) in terms of what they mean, and that the rules governing how we get from one to another are also closed or final (as rules always are!), then it follows that the over-all system of thought must itself be closed.
Our argument so far has been that because thoughts are logical categories, and because logical categories are by their very nature closed rather than open, then thought itself must be a closed system. It may not necessarily be straightaway obvious exactly why logical categories have to be closed, but it is nevertheless a very easy thing to show that this must be so: if a particular mental category were not closed then this is just another way of saying that it is flexible with regard to the meaning it has (or with regard to what elements it can be associated with). The very idea of a category is that it is ‘black-and-white’ sort of a thing – either an element belongs in the categories, or it doesn’t, either the answer to the question is YES or it is NO, either the cat is in its basket or it is not. What we’re talking about is inherent the very nature of logic itself, and relates to what Aristotle calls ‘The Law of the Excluded Middle’.
If – just for the sake of the argument – we say that a category happened to be open instead of closed with regard to the meaning that it has (i.e. with regard to what it properly refers to, or with regard to ‘what elements belong in it and what ones don’t’) then it wouldn’t say YES or NO in answer to a straightforward question, it would say MAYBE. This is what Robert Anton Wilson calls MAYBE LOGIC! But this kind of noncommittal MAYBE never happens with logical categories, for the simple reason that logic can’t deal with MAYBE! If there is a defined or specified boundary then all possible elements within the Universal Set have to fall either on one side of the boundary or the other – this is what boundaries do, this is the whole idea of a boundary. Saying that boundaries create definite YES or NO answers with regard to the question of whether any particular element happens to be on the ‘inside’ of a boundary or not is tautological – of course boundaries create a definite YES and NO split, that’s precisely what a boundary is, it’s a YES/NO split…
So because all categories are created by boundaries (the boundary being the thing that determines whether any particular element, any particular datum, belongs in the category or not) all categories must necessarily be closed. An ‘open category’ – if we can imagine for a moment that there could be such a thing – would be a category which didn’t have any hard-and-fast boundaries, it would be a category that – because of its boundaryless-ness – includes every single possible possibility that there is. But this isn’t a category at all – this is the Universal Set, this is the Totality, this is the Whole of Everything!
The rational or categorical mind has no truck with MAYBE. We do use the word of course, and without any major upsets occurring as a result, but this is because we’re using it in a strictly trivial way. We might mean for example that we don’t know if the cat is in its basket or not. This isn’t a major challenge to our conceptual apparatus because we know very well that it’s either one possibility or the other – we know that the cat either is or isn’t in its basket. This type of uncertainty is perfectly safe, it’s not too challenging at all. We deal with trivial uncertainty all the time – we’re watching a horse race on TV and the race hasn’t ended yet. I have voted in the general election but the votes haven’t been counted yet. Or we’re waiting to learn how we did in our exams, but the results aren’t out yet. There are a range of possibilities, like a spinning roulette wheel, and the system hasn’t settled down yet, but we know at some point it will do and at this point everything will be decided. At this point there will be no more uncertainty, no more ‘MAYBE factor’…
The type of MAYBE we’re talking about (the type of MAYBE that comes about as a result of the system being open rather than closed) is a very different sort of a beast, however. This is ‘the Big Maybe’ – the ‘wide-open’ MAYBE, the kind of MAYBE that doesn’t have any kind of limits to it at all. With the trivial uncertainty that is associated with a closed system there are a finite number of boxes, a finite number of compartments, a finite number of categories, and we know that the element we’re interested in is going to end up in one box or another, sooner or later. There just aren’t any other possibilities in the system! The MAYBE associated with a closed system is as big as that system, and no bigger therefore, whereas the MAYBE associated with an open system is as big as the whole universe, is as big as the Whole of Everything, and who knows how big that is?
“How big is the Whole of Everything?” isn’t a question we can even begin to answer. It doesn’t actually make any sense to ask it. ‘Big’ and ‘small’ are relative terms – something is ‘big’ or ‘small’ in relation to something else, in relation to some fixed and unquestionable ‘external standard’, and what ‘external standard’ are we supposed to compare ‘the Whole of Everything’ with? Anything that registers for the thinking mind registers because it has relative meaning – pretty obviously, it has meaning in relation to the framework of reference assumed by this mind. Any other sort of meaning (other than the relative sort) simply doesn’t register at all. The thinking mind doesn’t have the capacity to deal with anything else – it deals with what can be related to its framework and nothing else. Asking it anything else would be going to the accountant to see what he can do about your in-growing toenails, or going to see your bank manager because you want something to spray on the aphids that are infesting your climbing roses. To say that you’re ‘not going to get anywhere’ in these cases is not making the point strongly enough!
The comparison-making (or ratio-using) mind has no jurisdiction over any questions relating to the Whole of Everything. It doesn’t have the slightest interest in the Whole of Everything either! In one way the fact that the logical mind (which we have such high regard for) doesn’t have the slightest interest in the Overall Story of what’s going on, but only in the trivial subplots, only in the trivial details, is completely amazing. How can we take seriously a mind that simply doesn’t care about the Bigger Picture? At the same time, it ought also to be very obvious that it can’t have an interest in the Bigger Picture. That’s not its department. The Whole of Everything isn’t actually a department at all, of course, and that’s why it doesn’t fall under the remit of the ratio-using mind. The rational mind only deals in ratios, and the Whole of Everything isn’t a ‘ratio’ of anything to anything! The fractional mind only deals in fractions, and the Whole isn’t a fraction. The categorical mind only deals in categories and the Universal Set isn’t actually a set, isn’t actually a category….
This isn’t to say that we can’t talk about life as a whole, that we can’t conceptualize it. We can talk about the bigger picture till the cows come home, without any effort at all. That’s no problem at all. We can conceptualize the Whole and bandy the term around freely as if we actually know what we’re on about, but at the same time we can’t really know what the word that we’re using means. When the ratio-using mind uses the term ‘the Whole’ this is of course a construct, a category. It’s just another concept – one concept amongst many, one word amongst all the others. But if this is the case – as it most certainly is! – then we can see that there is something very funny going on because the whole point of the Whole (if we can say that) is that it isn’t a construct or concept of the rational mind!
Constructs and concepts are divisions and no matter how we wangle it we aren’t going to be able to make a division into a whole. That isn’t just flatly impossible, it’s utterly ridiculous! If we were to be aware of this incongruity, of the utter absurdity of what we are trying to do, then this would be another matter entirely, but the point that we’re making here is that we’re not aware. There is precisely zero irony involved when the rational mind talks about things it cannot understand, or uses concepts which have absolutely no bearing on the reality they are supposed to be conceptualizing, and this astonishing ‘complete absence of irony’ with respect to the way in which it functions is absolutely characteristic of that mind. Lack of ironic awareness (i.e. awareness of its own essential relativity) is the hallmark of the everyday mind.
We might perhaps concede at this point in the argument that it is true that the everyday thinking mind can’t understand the Whole of Everything, and we might also agree that it has a way of glibly assuming that it does have a handle on the ‘Bigger Picture’ so as not to upset its precarious equilibrium (or maybe so as not to appear to itself to be not as smart after all as it likes to see itself as being). Even so, we might still hold onto the idea that – considerations of the Unitary State aside – we do know what we’re talking about most of the time! This is in fact very much what we assume. There is a massive problem with the assumption that we know what we’re talking about (or thinking about) most of the time however and this problem can be highlighted by looking at the difference between ‘relative’ and ‘absolute’ truth.
Something that is relatively true is true in relation to something else, something that we have agreed (for the sake of the argument) to be true. It’s true relative to the basis that we’ve assumed, in other words. Absolute truth is a different kettle of fish entirely however – absolute truth is truth which is true not in relation to a particular context of meaning that we are going to take for granted for the sake of the exercise, absolute truth is unconditioned truth, it is truth that ‘stands alone’, truth that stands ‘all by itself’. It is ‘independent of us’ – it is truth that doesn’t depend on us ‘agreeing that it is true’ for it to be true! The short way of putting this is to say that relative truth isn’t actually true at all, whilst absolute truth is the only sort of truth that there ever will be.
All the types of meanings that we normally play about with (within the comfort of our closed rational minds, so to speak) are derived via the process of assuming a fixed framework of reference, and then relating everything that happens to this context. All rational meanings are derived in this way, via this process of ‘automatic or unreflective comparison-making,’ and so all of our meanings are inevitably going to reflect this basic split, this basic fragmentation between the framework of interpretation and the rest of the world (the world that is to be interpreted). All of our meanings are only relative, therefore – they have meaning only in relation to the split that we have assumed. If the split is real, then so are they, but on the other hand if it isn’t real, then they aren’t real either…
We have reached the point now in our discussion where we can say two things: we can say that the Whole is something that the logical mind cannot concern itself with, cannot know about, cannot in any way even have any interest in, and we can also say that the type of meanings which the logical mind can concern itself with, can know about, can have an interest in, are only ‘relative meanings’ (and which are on this account not meaningful at all when it comes down to the crunch). So – just to repeat this point – on the one hand we can’t know anything about (and don’t care about) what happens to be actually real; while on the other hand what we can know about and do care about (often very intensely indeed) isn’t real at all!
It’s not possible to fragment the Whole and obtain as a result some kind of ‘fragmentary meaning’. Or to put this even more simply, it just plain isn’t possible to fragment the Whole! The divide or split that we have assumed (which is the split between ‘subject’ and ‘object’) doesn’t actually exist. It never did exist and it never could. Saying that the universe is split into subject and object, observer and observed, thinker and ‘what is being thought about’ is just a game we play, a game which we are free to play but within which there is no freedom.
This means of course that everything we deal with and take (in the course of our dealings) to be only a part, only a fragment, only a division, is in fact nothing other than the Whole itself. This has to be so since the Whole is all there is. We routinely think that we have got a good handle on all the various ‘parts’ that we concern ourselves with all the time – we may not be able to comprehend the Whole (since the Whole is necessarily ‘non-dual’) but we imagine that we are able to know about the parts. Since there are no parts however (since the ‘parts’ are really just the Whole in disguise) we are bound to wonder what exactly it is that we know? All the various things we come across and busy ourselves mentally filing and cataloguing and cross-indexing the whole time are really just the One Thing! As the verse in the Bhagavad-Gita says:
The humble sage, by virtue of true knowledge, sees with equal vision a learned and gentle brahman, a cow, an elephant, a dog, and a dog-eater.
Any genuine investigation (i.e. one that is carried out on the basis of genuine curiosity) leads us to this ‘true knowledge’. Interconnectedness means that anything we investigate, no matter how small or apparently insignificant, leads on to, and inescapably involves, many other things – and ultimately all other things. So we start off on our journey thinking that we’ve got some kind of a handle on whatever it is we’re investigating, and as we go further along the path of our investigation we find that our grasp is getting weaker and weaker, looser and looser, all the time. Starting off, we might even have thought that we were something of an expert in the particular ‘fragment’ which we were looking into – before very long however we will discover that we were (and are) no sort of an expert at all, since no one is an expert on the Whole!
The ‘journey’ that we’re talking about here is the negative journey – the journey in which the student knows less and less the further he or she travels, until we reach the happy point at which we realize that we actually know nothing at all. This is the ‘road less travelled’ however. Mostly we travel on the regular road, the approved road, the road which takes us on the ‘positive journey’. If we go far enough down this road we might even end up with a PhD or a Doctorate and the chances are that we will then deludedly imagine ourselves to know an awful lot! On the positive journey we study whatever it is that we’re studying but only in the narrow way that we are supposed to – which is to say, only within the boundaries that has been laid out for us to work within. Whatever we’re looking at remains at all times the ‘defined object’ and we remain at all times the supposedly ‘impartial’ or ‘objective’ observer. We stay in our box and the thing we investigating stays obediently in its box, and this way no apple-carts get tipped over, no noses get put out of joint.
In the positive approach, which is all about respecting definitions, whatever it is we’re studying ‘keeps on being what it is’ and it doesn’t start turning into anything else. It doesn’t lead on to anything else. The boundaries between ‘this’ and ‘that’ don’t get rubbed out with some kind of magic eraser, and as a result we stay within the compartments that have been allotted to us by the system of thought. Our heads fill up, our store of ‘positive knowledge’ grows more every day and any sense that we might have of the relativity of this knowledge shrinks every day, until before very long we don’t have any awareness of its essential relativity at all!
Having zero awareness of the essential relativity of what we know (or think we know) about the world is the normal state of affairs for us – zero awareness of intrinsic relativity is the only type of ‘awareness’ we know, and that of course isn’t any sort of awareness at all. Instead of the ‘dizziness of freedom’ spoken of by Soren Kierkegaard what we experience on a daily basis is the ‘no-nonsense certainty’ and ‘solid-as-a-rock’ security of non-negotiable mental constraint. Things are what they are and that’s all that they are…
So what all this means is that logical (or concrete) thinking is really just like a road that we can’t stray from, a road that we have to follow until it takes us to wherever its going. There’s no going anywhere other than where this road is taking us, and so we just have to see where it leads us to. This ‘total lack of freedom to go anywhere other than where the road of our logical thinking is taking us’ wouldn’t be so bad if we were actually going somewhere, if it actually were a journey, but this thing is that we aren’t and it isn’t. That isn’t happening. We don’t of course realize this – we almost always feel that our thinking is taking us somewhere, which is why we’re generally happy enough to go along with it.
We’re under the impression – which is an impression generated by the thinking process itself – that there is a point to all this thinking, that it is actually taking us somewhere. We are under the (mind-created) impression that there is some kind of freedom in our thinking. The thing is though that there isn’t. There is no freedom in thinking. In thinking we are forever messing around with and restlessly rearranging the basic units of meaning, hoping that by cleverly manipulating a bunch of known categories, we can contrive to get somewhere unknown. We are hoping that by ‘rearranging the old we can obtain the new’! This we can never do, of course; as Krishnamurti says, “Thought is always old.”
We aren’t ever going to get anywhere by thinking. That’s a non-starter. Thinking is like a merry-go-round – it’s frenetically active and it never stops but it doesn’t actually go anywhere. And yet genuine, honest-to-goodness freedom isn’t so hard to find! Freedom is everywhere – except in our thoughts….
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.