Information is all there is! Everything is information… We live in an ‘information universe’ – a universe that is made up of pure information and absolutely nothing else. This is however not information in the way that we normally understand the word, it isn’t mere ‘data’ we’re talking about here but rather it is sheer unadulterated newness. It corresponds to what Ernst and Christine von Weizsacker refer to as novelty in their (1972) Model of Pragmatic Information. Novelty is information that doesn’t fit into any format; its information that doesn’t agree with any template. We could also say that it is information that doesn’t reflect any given determinate structure, information that isn’t a mere echo of some ‘fixed statement’ somewhere. Novelty is information that can’t be interpreted, information that we can’t make any sense of whatsoever…
Data we can read – when we can interpret it within the appropriate framework it readily makes sense. We can straightaway see that it means this, that or the other. Data is what is referred to in the Model of Pragmatic Information as confirmation. Confirmation is information that confirms a structure, information that agrees with the assumptions that lie behind the structures, the rules that determine the structure. Confirmation is really nothing more than the direct transposition of a ‘logical pattern of relationships’ therefore. Actually, confirmation is structure – it is a description of some logical structure or other but it’s also the same thing as the logical structure that’s being described. It is a logic-loop, in other words. Confirmation is the type of information that makes sense to the thinking and evaluating mind – it’s what we think of the world, it’s what we ‘make’ of the world. Because confirmation ‘agrees’ with the structures it describes it is not essentially different from these structures, and so what we’re describing and our description is all of one piece. As we’ve said, it’s a closed system.
So what does it means we say that the universe is made up of novelty rather than confirmation? What are the implications of this statement? The most obvious implication is that the universe must be (in its essence) irreducibly strange, rather than being some mere obedient ‘datum’ that makes sense to some framework somewhere, some thinking, evaluating mind somewhere. It’s ‘strange’ rather than ‘normal’. If the universe is made up of pure undiluted novelty then this means that no one can ever hope to make sense of it! Alan Watts often says that the universe doesn’t mean anything. It’s not an advert for something or other and it isn’t a sign-post telling us how to get somewhere or other. It isn’t a description of something else. There’s no ‘message’ in it and there’s nothing ‘behind’ it…
Tim Lott says in his article Off-beat Zen that what he learned from reading Alan Watts was that life doesn’t really have any intrinsic meaning, any ‘point’, so to speak, but that it is what is called in Zen Buddhism Yugen, which is ‘a kind of elevated purposelessness’. The notion of ‘elevated purposelessness’ is therefore another way to explain novelty – just as novelty doesn’t serve some finite end, some kind of a purpose, neither does the universe… All serious purposes are the result of what we might call ‘fragmentation in our world-view’, after all, and no such fragmentation exists outside of our own minds.
Another way of talking about novelty is to say that it is irreducibly unpredictable. This is actually the Shannon-Weaver definition of information, which in essence says that the information content of a message is directly proportional to the unpredictability of that message. So if a message is wholly predictable (i.e. we know what it is going to say before we hear it) then it has no information in it at all! The message, in this case, suffers from 100% redundancy – it’s only a repeat of what we already know, it’s an old thing said in a superficially new way. It is mutton dressed up as lamb. Given that we only say something because what we’re saying is new (because it hasn’t been said before) confirmation can also be seen as a kind of trick or scam, as an attempt to hoodwink, con or defraud the audience. When we receive information that has a high novelty content then, according to the Model of Pragmatic Information, this profoundly changes our way of looking at things as a result – novelty means radical change, in other words. Confirmation, on the other hand, confirms the validity of the viewpoint of the one who receives the message, and as a result the viewpoint in question gets reinforced or consolidated rather than challenged. Confirmation can therefore be seen as ‘safe information’ in that it satisfies our need to be hearing about something, but at the same time we know very well that we’re not risking the danger of ever hearing anything that is going to ‘change our minds’ as a result!
Clearly, almost all of the information we come across every day is confirmation. The only information I know is the predictable, repetitive version: when I look in the mirror in the morning it’s generally the same old face that looks back at me; when I walk down the street I see the same old recognizable shops and houses. When the sun rises in the morning it’s recognizably the same old sun and when clouds blow across the sky – even though they’re different shapes every time – they’re still instantly recognizable as clouds and not something else. Similarly, when people talk to me I understand what they are saying to me because they always use the same old words – albeit in different combinations! Inasmuch as this is the case therefore when I perceive the world I am not generally challenged in any fundamental way to find a new way of seeing it, and so my existing viewpoint is corroborated rather than undermined, reinforced rather than eroded.
We don’t therefore perceive our essential situation as being ‘unfathomably strange. This is of course because we relate to the world that is made up of ‘recurring regularities’ rather than to the world of pure 100% novelty from which they emerge. Actually, we rarely perceive the underlying novelty at all – we are too preoccupied the whole time with ‘the theatre of the obvious’! Although there are aspects to universe which demonstrate undeniable stability (the proton and the electron are apparently stable for the lifetime of the physical universe, for example, which gives them a very high degree of ‘stability’!) what we don’t routinely see is the way in which all of these relatively stable structures are inextricably embedded in a deeper level of radical instability – this being the primary reality which physicist David Bohm (1980) describes by saying that it is an ‘unbroken wholeness’. David Bohm points out that our current theories draw attention away from this tremendous Wholeness to those fragmentary modalities of the whole which are all we are able to say anything meaningful about:
…in relativity, movement is continuous, causally determinate and well defined, while in quantum mechanics it is discontinuous, not causally determinate and not well-defined. Each theory is committed to its own notions of essentially static and fragmentary modes of existence (relativity to that of separate events connectible by signals, and quantum mechanics to a well-defined quantum state). One thus sees that a new kind of theory is needed which drops these basic commitments and at most recovers some essential features of the older theories as abstract forms derived from a deeper reality in which what prevails is unbroken wholeness.
We can relate these ‘static and fragmentary’ aspects of the universe to the underlying dynamic holomovement quite simply by saying that they do not actually have the formal boundaries that we automatically ascribe to them. They aren’t really ‘things’, therefore! The way we understand everything is of course in terms of boundaries but what we consistently forget is that these boundaries exist only within the formally-defined system which is the rational-conceptual mind, which – when it comes down to it – is entirely made up of them! The mind is drawn – almost inescapably – to the ‘bounded fragment’, just as the eye is drawn to (and trapped within) the outlined figure drawn on a sheet of paper! And yet these boundaries, these dividing lines, are all made up. So if there’s no actual real dividing line or barrier between the relatively stable structures (not even around protons and electrons) which we habitually focus on and the groundless instability that all these structures are embedded in then the former must ‘articulate’ on the latter, just as a wheel articulates on its hub.
There are relatively fixed or stable features to the universe, but despite appearances (and despite our prejudice to the contrary) these static features are not the most significant part of what is going on. They represent – according to David Bohm – four dimensional extrusions of an underlying n-dimensional indeterminate reality. Bohm explains this by saying that it is like a hand reaching up and breaking the surface of a bath full of water – we see the separate digits and so of course it stands to reason that we will see the fingers and thumb in their ‘separate’ aspects as being of prime significance. Really of course, we don’t understand what is going on at all on this basis since we fail to see that all of the digits are part of the same hand. So, using this analogy, we can say that it is the whole hand that is the ‘significant thing’, and that the conceptualization of the fingers and thumb as separate, independent entities is not in any way as important or meaningful as we think it is, since there never were such separate, independent entities in the first place!
Not so very long ago it was believed by physicists that the stable structures that we tend to notice most in the world around us and in the universe at large could indeed be considered as existing independently as separate entities. It was also considered that these structures always obeyed fixed mechanical laws and thus could never surprise us. Furthermore – and very significantly – because the universe itself was implicitly understood as being no more than a collection of such predictable or rule-based things, it was of course felt that the universe could never surprise us either! This was the view of all physicists only a hundred years ago or so (although it wasn’t necessarily the point of view of all philosophers). It was the advent of quantum theory, along with chaos and complexity theory, that shattered this deterministic paradigm. Understanding the pivotal role of chaotic (rather than rule-based) processes in the natural world was particularly significant in this respect since we can more easily ignore quantum uncertainty than chaos theory and complexity theory, which apply directly to the macroscopic world we see all around us. Pioneer of non-equilibrium thermodynamics Ilya Prigogine showed that what we take to be purely determinate (i.e. linear) systems can periodically enter into brief periods of radical instability (which he calls the instability phase) and at this point they depart from their established pattern of organization and become essentially unpredictable.
What happens after the system emerges out of the instability phase cannot be guessed at – many possible pathways exist, not just the one. The instability phase is the fulcrum about which the universe turns – without it there would be no possibility of meaningful change, everything would just be so many billiard balls bouncing deterministically off each other on a cosmic billiard table! Without the instability phase (in which no grooves are cut, no deterministic pathways are ordained) the only type of information in the universe would be information of the ‘confirmation’ variety. Since confirmation is information that exists only in relation to its own assumed ‘framework of reference’ it isn’t actually information at all so what we’d end up with in this (purely hypothetical) case would be an utterly sterile universe. What we’d have in this case would be a closed universe, a universe which is made up entirely of redundancy, a recycled universe, a universe which repeats itself ad nauseam…
From a cosmogenic point of view, we can say that the instability phase corresponds to the state of affairs that prevailed prior to the creation of the physical universe. This is the state of affairs in which ‘no one possibility is emphasized over any other’ – which is of course another way of talking about the state of Original Symmetry. There are no grooves in symmetry, no predetermined pathways – no pathways at all, in fact. Symmetry is a pathless land, just as Krishnamurti says that ‘truth is a pathless land’. To say that Original Symmetry is an incomprehensible state of affairs is merely to restate this point since to comprehend something is to find a path to it. Even to say that the symmetrical state ‘precedes’ the creation of the physical universe is missing the point since Original Symmetry does not exist within time, time being an asymmetrical state of affairs (i.e. a state of affairs in which ‘before’ is most definitely not the same as ‘after’). What happened with the cosmic ‘break in symmetry’ is that an excursion occurred, so to speak, into a domain which is ‘only real in relation to the rule or organizing principles which it itself assumes’. This – in more familiar language – is exactly the same thing as what we usually call ‘a game’.
When we try to work out where our journey began from therefore (from the standpoint of our assumed framework of meaning) there simply isn’t any possibility that we could ever do this since ‘beginnings’ and ‘endings’ only exist within the purely arbitrary terms of our game. When we dip into the instability therefore (when we articulate with it) we’re not saying that we somehow ‘travel back in time’ to the very Beginning of All Things, but rather that we re-connect with a Reality that exists outside of the limitations of time and space. The ‘Beginning’ corresponds to what we have been calling ‘pure information’ – really, we can’t ever be anywhere else than at this Beginning because the Beginning is always happening (i.e. because the universe is always new!) and yet inasmuch as we are sewn into the universe of confirmation, we exist in an unreal position that is irreversibly removed from this Eternal Beginning. Novelty is uniqueness, whilst confirmation is the illusion of ‘serial existence,’ in other words.
Being sewn into ‘the universe of confirmation’ is another way of saying that we are constrained or limited to relating exclusively to the universe in its ‘known’ aspect, its familiar aspect, its predictable or repetitive aspect. The deeper unknowable aspect, the unique aspect, as far as we are concerned, doesn’t even exist. Because there’s no cognitive path to it it doesn’t get to be on our map, and because it isn’t on our map we can neither relate to it, nor in any way notice the fact that we’re missing out on relating it. So far in this discussion we’ve been saying something to the effect that reality has two sides to it, two parts to it – the one side being the knowable and the other the unknowable. This is over-simplistic however since the unknowable side of reality isn’t ‘a side’ at all but the Whole of it, whereas the knowable side is an infinitely thin (i.e. abstract) transect shaved away from the Whole, so to speak, and then treated as if it were the Whole. So we can paint a better picture by saying that on the one hand we have ‘an abstract transect which implicitly takes itself to be all that there is’, and on the other hand we have the ‘non-abstract Whole’ from which the transect has been taken. So talking about two sides, or two aspects, isn’t doing justice to the situation at all…
There is no parity between the conceptualized, routine world with which we are so familiar and the unknown world that lies forever beyond the reach of our concept-making mind. We can no more say that there is than we can make the claim that there is parity between the name and the thing that is being named! And yet, as we’ve already indicated, it’s not that we assume a parity that doesn’t exist so much as we elevate the name, the thought, and dismiss out of hand the unnameable, the non-representable, the immeasurable. We give all the glory to the naming process, and none to the ineffable reality that is being so arbitrarily labelled or categorized. And why wouldn’t the category-wielding mind do this? Why wouldn’t the evaluating mind, the naming mind worship itself? It doesn’t know any better. As Krishnamurti says, “When you worship God you are worshipping yourself…” and the reason for this is that the ‘God’ we worship is not something separate to us, but rather it’s a construct (or projection) of the rational process. Our whole world is a construct of the rational process – as we’ve said, both it and ourselves are all part of the same closed loop of logic.
The projected world is a paper tiger, whereas the world we can never know is the ‘real deal’. There’s no comparison. What possible choice could there be between a closed world, a world that is made up of ‘recycled standard units of meaning’ and the world which is forever new, forever surprising? How could we possibly promote the former at the expense of the latter? Why would we make such a big song and dance about our sterile description of the world, and neglect the vibrant, life-giving reality that we are supposedly describing?
According to Aldous Huxley (in his forward to Krishnamurti’s First and Last Freedom) we live in two worlds at the same time, and these two worlds are as different as different can be –
Man is an amphibian who lives simultaneously in two worlds – the given and the homemade, the world of matter, life and consciousness and the world of symbols.
The big problem is however – as we have been saying – that when we adapt so thoroughly to the homemade world that we lose sight entirely of the given one, we’re no longer properly amphibious. We’re more like axolotls, which are neotenous amphibians that live their whole lives in the one environment. This also corresponds to the situation that Joseph Campbell refers to in The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949) as preferring to ‘stay in the play-pen’, which is when we ignore or refuse the Call to Adventure –
Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative. Walled in boredom, hard work, or “culture,” the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved. His flowering world becomes a wasteland of dry stones and his life feels meaningless—even though, like King Minos, he may through titanic effort succeed in building an empire of renown. Whatever house he builds, it will be a house of death: a labyrinth of cyclopean walls to hide from him his Minotaur. All he can do is create new problems for himself and await the gradual approach of his disintegration.
We hide from the Call to Adventure (i.e. we shirk the Hero’s Journey) by skulking within the citadel of the everyday mind, and at the same time we make a virtue of our cowardice. In a nutshell therefore, our avoidance of the deeper aspect of reality is due to what Jung speaks of as the ‘over-valuing’ of the rational intellect. The instrument we use to relate to the regular aspect of the universe – the aspect that obeys rules or laws – is the one we call the rational mind and this mind is of course every bit as mechanical or rule-based as the regular phenomena it is apprehending. So it happens that we over-value this instrument, glorifying it as Krishnamurti says, according it a god-like status, simply because we have rushed to the overbearingly obvious conclusion that regular aspect of the universe isn’t merely ‘an aspect’ but the whole story, the beginning and the end. Because this conclusion is so obvious (and because any contradictions to it are subtle rather than crushingly crude) we rush to it so very quickly that it doesn’t seem like a ‘conclusion’ (or an assumption) at all, but the only way we could possibly see things. This is the trap of the mechanical or rule-based mind, which is a trap that very few of us get to escape…
This isn’t just true for the so-called ‘man in the street’, its also true for those we regard as our greatest thinkers. Actually, those with the capacity to think more clearly and logically than the rest of us also have the capacity for building the most inescapable prisons of the mind. “He is stupid who is clever”, as Gurdjieff says. Because we worship rationality we worship intelligence, but intelligence is simply a measure of how well or how efficiently the rational mind is able to do its own thing, play its own game, and so on its own – stuck up there on a pedestal as it is – rational intelligence is a good deal worse than useless!
Until comparatively recently scientific thought was also convinced that we live in a rule-based or machine-like universe. The world we live in – as James Gleick says here in this passage taken from his book Chaos (1987. P 68) – was very much felt to be a linear one:
The solvable systems are the ones shown in textbooks. They behave. Confronted with a non-linear system, scientists would have to substitute linear approximations or find some other uncertain backdoor approach. Textbooks showed students only the rare non-linear systems that would give way to such techniques. They did not display sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Nonlinear systems with real chaos were rarely taught and rarely learned. When people stumbled across such things – and people did – all their training argued for dismissing them as aberrations. Only a few were able to remember that the solvable, orderly, linear systems were the aberrations. Only a few, that is, understood how nonlinear nature is in its soul. Enrico Fermi once exclaimed, “It does not say in the Bible that all laws of nature are expressible linearly!” The mathematical Stanislaw Ulam remarked that to call the study of chaos “nonlinear science” was like calling zoology “the study of nonelephant animals”.
It’s true that we can survive well enough by using the concrete mind as our only point of contact, by assuming that the world we see all around us is a concrete one which – no matter what it does – is always obeying some kind of mechanical rule or other. This is not only true, it also happens to be the way most of us survive! If we’re ‘stuck in our heads’, then this means that we’re treating the world as a machine, as something without any magic or mystery in it. It could be asked, therefore, why we need to go any deeper, why we need to be aware of the underlying ‘irrational’ nature of things? How exactly does this help us in the practical business of ‘getting on with our lives’?
There are a number of ways in which we could try to answer this question, but they all come down to the same thing in the end. Joseph Campbell answers it as we have seen by saying that the refusal of the call necessarily involves us in ‘the negative adventure’. So we get to have an adventure either way, only the negative one isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs…! We could also try to answer this question by pointing out that if we see the universe as being rule-based, as being a machine, then it is inevitable that we will see ourselves as machines too. We will then experience ourselves to be mere ‘things in a world of things’, as Colin Wilson says. This distinctly uninspiring view of ourselves is of course the default view of the rational civilization that we are all part of. Anything that isn’t measurable, demonstrable, categorically-understandable and ‘non-mysterious’ is pooh-poohed out of hand. If anyone talks about this sort of thing we act all superior, we treat them like a fool! Only the defined and the testable counts in our civilization and if we claim that there is an aspect of the world which is neither then this claim isn’t going to get any consideration at all. It is going to be derided, mocked. Rational culture only believes in what it can understand and it only understands what fits into its own patented mechanical view of things, which means that it only believes what it has already decided to believe!
This ‘cult of the rational’ is in no way synonymous with science; for all that it claims to be. What we’re talking about here is disabling dogmatism and science is not dogmatism. Science is essentially an open-ended inquiry, not a foolish worshipping of the obvious! What we have learned through the scientific process in the last hundred years or so is that the more we look into reality the more mysterious it gets, not the less! As we penetrate closer to the heart of things phenomena reveal themselves to be less and less definable, less and less what we expect or assume them to be. What else would honest enquire result in, after all! If our basic assumptions and prejudices were confirmed instead of falsified, then we would have to be very suspicious about what is going on in the name of science!
‘Defining’ becomes a very meaningless word indeed when we look into things more deeply. How do we define groundless flux if defining is precisely the act of bringing some kind of supposed ground into the picture? How do we chart David Bohm’s ‘single unbroken movement’, which he says is the only way of describing the universe? We can only chart anything by breaking everything into two elements – the object of enquiry and the static framework in relation to which the charting is to proceed. But doing this is breaking symmetry, and it is the symmetry that we really wanting to describe, because everything else is merely tedious, because everything else is a mere pointless formality…
When we look at the bigger picture definitions become more and more meaningless, until we get to the stage where we are looking at the universe as a whole, at which point any notion of defining or categorizing what we’re looking at becomes absurdly senseless. The universe is – as the name implies – an unbroken Unity. It always was and it always will be. This being the case, how do we define or categorize a unity? The answer to this of course that we can’t! To define or categorize something means to see it in terms of some fixed pattern or other that we have decided in advance to be ‘true’ – the fixed or regular pattern (the rule) is however something that we have abstracted out of the whole and so when we let it merge back into the whole our cherished game of making definitions comes to an unceremonious end.
Definitions are confirmation, in other words. Ideas are confirmation. Thoughts and beliefs are confirmation. Models and theories are confirmation. Literal or concrete language is confirmation. What isn’t confirmation is the universe itself, which is pure information. This is not as we have said information in the sense that it is describing something or referring us to something, but information in the sense that we don’t know what it is, because it is completely NEW. The universe itself is the Hero’s Journey’ that Joseph Campbell speaks of, therefore. The universe itself is the adventure that we are called upon to undertake…
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.