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Moving Out of Equilibrium

All sorts of possibilities are dangled in front of our noses the whole time, but none of them will lead us out of the equilibrium state. The only possibilities that can lead us of the equilibrium state are the ones that aren’t dangled in front of our noses, the ones that we don’t get to know about. Moving out of equilibrium is not a possibility that is ever mentioned to us – it’s not an option, it’s not on the menu. Moving out of equilibrium is something that is never talked about, never mentioned in polite conversation. Lots of other things are mentioned, but never this. There is we might say a conspiracy of silence around this possibility of there being a type of movement that takes us out of the equilibrium state – it is denied by never being mentioned…

 

 

This conspiracy is a remarkably successful one – like all the best conspiracies, no one ever suspects that it is there. We’re always looking for some other, more obvious conspiracy – if we’re looking at all, that is. So even those of us who do harbour suspicions of ‘something dodgy going on’, those of us do detect a ‘rodent-like odour’ (which is to say, those of us who aren’t completely asleep) end up being lead astray by ‘lesser’ conspiracies, ‘diversionary’ conspiracies, ‘red-herring’-type conspiracies. The conspiracy that we’re talking about – just to get back on track here – is the age-old conspiracy to prevent us from ever being aware of the possibility of moving out of equilibrium.

 

 

There is a very good reason for this conspiracy being there but in order to appreciate this reason we have to understand what exactly the equilibrium state is, what exactly it is all about. In one way this is very easy to explain because the equilibrium state is a very straightforward kind of a thing (things don’t get any more straightforward than this, actually), but on the other hand it’s not at all easy because we’re so used to not seeing it. One way to start explaining what the equilibrium state is is to say that in the equilibrium state there is the possibility of making statements that are definitely true. Or we could look at this slightly differently and say that the equilibrium state is a self-consistent world that is made up of mutually-agreeing statements, all of which fit together to create a seamless whole. The flip-side of this explanation regarding what the equilibrium state is would therefore be to say that it is a world in which there is no space, no leeway, no tolerance for things not to be as they are defined as being – everything ‘is what it is said to be’ and that it all there is to it. There is no uncertainty, no ‘fuzziness’, no ambiguity in this regard because if there was any uncertainty, fuzziness or ambiguity then things might develop and nothing ever develops in the equilibrium world. In the equilibrium world we are not moving, we are already there. We’ve reached our final destination…

 

 

In the equilibrium state the description of the thing equals the thing. Things are what they are said to be, what they are expected to be. ‘Actual’ equals ‘expected’, in other words. This is where the word ‘equi-librium’ comes from! From a more mathematical perspective we can say that there exists an ‘attractor’ and all variables tend to move inexorably towards the values set by this attractor. According to the Wikipedia entry on the subject,

 

In the mathematical field of dynamical systems, an attractor is a set of numerical values towards which a system tends to evolve, for a wide variety of starting conditions of the system.

 

The ‘equilibrium’ is therefore where all measured values in the real world equal the values that correspond to the attractor values, which exist in the formal world of descriptions, the abstract world of mathematical equations. To give a more ‘down-to-earth’ physical example, the equilibrium state for a system could be for example the lowest energy value that is possible for that system – it is where the boulder rolls down to the bottom of the hill, or where the apple falls from the tree and end up on the ground. Or it is where two reactive elements combine chemically with each other and form a stable compound of some type. There is a burst of movement, but when the equilibrium state is reached then that movement ends for ever (in the absence of something new coming into the system, that is). The key point here is therefore – as we have said – that the E State represents a terminal destination.  The final goal has been reached and so this is ‘the end of the story’! The ball has stopped rolling and so now it’s just going to sit there. It has ‘reached its future state’. The movement toward equilibrium is – as all students of thermodynamics know – a one-way street; change occurs until the E state has been reached, and then – after this – nothing happens. Another thing we can say is that in that hypothetical situation when the real world values come into final agreement with the values corresponding to some kind of ‘formal description’ (which is the situation of maximized entropy, maximized predictability) then the real world has ceased to be the real world. It has become the description of itself, which means that it has disappeared into a tautological loop of logic…

 

 

If we look at the equilibrium state from an informational point of view therefore then we learn something very interesting about it – something that constitutes a real eye-opener! What we learn is that what we are calling ‘the E-state’ is really just another way of talking about ‘the zero information state’! That this should be the case is inherent in the definition of information – as Gregory Bateson puts it, information is ‘the difference that makes a difference’ and so when there is no difference, then there’s no information. When ‘actual’ equals ‘expected’ (i.e. when what we anticipate seeing is the same thing as what we actually do see) then there is no information there at all. And the E-state is precisely this – it is that state in which ‘actual equals expected’, the state of ‘100% predictability’. This is therefore a state of infinite redundancy since there is in this case no need for reality to happen at all since it’s only ever going to confirm our expectations of it…

 

 

Where’s there’s nothing strange happening, when ‘everything’s as it should be’, where ‘everything is normal’, then this is the equilibrium state! What we’re actually talking about here isn’t some kind of exotic state of affairs therefore – it’s what we know best of all, better than anything. It’s what surrounds us on all sides; it’s that most familiar of all things – its normality. In the world of normality things are what they are said to be, things are what they are expected to be, and that’s the end of the story! What more would you want? There is a crushing redundancy in this – a deeply dispiriting type of ‘ennui’ or ‘pointlessness’ that we all know only too well. There’s no point in carrying on in such a world – it’s all a foregone conclusion. It’s a joke – and not a very funny one, either. It’s a bad joke. And yet we adapt to this redundancy, we get used to it, we ‘make the most of it’. We even make a virtue of it. It’s the only world we know, after all, and so what other choice do we have? ‘Normal’ becomes the world and one doesn’t question the world…

 

 

It’s not that there is such a thing as normal, but there is at the same time some other stuff too (other stuff that isn’t normal) – normal drives out any conception (any possibility even of there being a conception) that there could be anything else other than normal, and what this means is that we don’t see the ‘normality world’ for what it is. We don’t see the equilibrium state for what it is – it’s just ‘the assumed backdrop for everything else’. It’s the base-line that we never look at. We could also say that the equilibrium state is the same thing as consensus reality because the very fact that the consensus reality is the consensus reality means that we have to abide by the official stipulations regarding what is reality and what is not, what is in the world and what is not in it. If we didn’t abide by these rules then there couldn’t be a consensus reality because everybody would be talking about something different! Everyone would be living in a different world. Consensus means that we agree to abide by the rules. So inasmuch as we live in a world that has been collectively agreed upon (and we generally do) the world that we are living in is an equilibrium state.

 

 

The equilibrium world is as we have said characterized by the fact that there is nothing strange about it. It’s as normal as normal can be!  In fact it’s so very normal that if we weren’t distracting ourselves the whole time we would undoubtedly start to suspect that there is something rather fishy going on. And as we have already suggested, there is something fishy going on, there is some kind of underhand trickery going on – some kind of trickery that everyone denies. What’s fishy is the fact that the equilibrium state is always – by definition – devoid of all information. The consensus world that we have made for ourselves is devoid of all information – it’s a blank world…. This is reminiscent of Colin Wilson’s statement about how, in his younger days, he often to used to get the feeling that reality was some kind of ridiculous hoax and that at any moment the screens would be pulled back and the joke revealed. Wilson recalls that this never happened; if reality is a hoax, it is a very persistent one! Equilibrium worlds are by their very nature always like this – they are so ridiculously ‘flat’ that we can’t help getting the feeling that they are phoney, even if we can’t quite put our finger on what it is about it that isn’t right. Or at least, we wouldn’t be able to help getting this feeling if we weren’t fully engaged with the equilibrium world in question – which for the most part we are. When we aren’t fully engaged with the E-world then things start to feel more than just a little bit weird, more than just a little bit strange, and for most of us this is incentive enough to immediately re-engage, immediately pick up with doing whatever it was we were doing before we got to feeling this way. It is undeniably the case that we are all immersed in the E-world (and therefore unaware of what we are immersed in) – if this wasn’t so we would all be going around, like Colin Wilson, questioning the nature of reality and being perplexed by the patently absurd ubiquity of the consensus reality, which gets to be the consensus reality by virtue of the fact that nobody does question it.

 

 

The question might arise therefore, as to how we do engage with the equilibrium world. How do we manage to immerse ourselves in the consensus reality? Possibly the simplest way to approach this is to say that we engage by involving ourselves in activities that make sense within the framework of reference which is ‘the equilibrium state’. Even more simply put, we engage in the E-world by chasing goals! A goal is an equilibrium state, a goal is a ‘terminal destination’. That’s the whole point of a goal – that it is a terminal destination! Essentially, anytime we try to make reality be what we think it ought to be (or what we want it to be) then we are striving to reach an equilibrium state. Naturally we don’t think “I’m trying to reach the equilibrium state” as we chase some goal or other, we just strive to get things to be the way that think that they ought to be, and at the same time we don’t reflect on what it means to be doing this. We just do it automatically. We don’t see the closed or tautological logic of ‘pursuing the goals that we ourselves have created’ as being closed, as being tautological. We take our goals for granted, in other words; if we do think at all about what we’re doing we just think that we’re ‘trying to get things to be the right way’ – which is another way of saying that we take the framework we’re operating within totally for granted. When we do this – when we take our framework of reference completely for granted – then this is what makes the Equilibrium State!

 

 

Taking our FOR completely for granted – so that it becomes invisible to us – brings a basic ‘deceptiveness’ into play. All we can see are the goals that we want to obtain, the standards we want to reach, the targets we want to reach, etc, and it is very easy to slip into thinking (more unconsciously than consciously) that if we can do this then the whole world will somehow be ‘set to rights’. The movement from ‘being where we are now’ to ‘where we want to be’ very easily gets to seem of overwhelming importance, and we become correspondingly eager (or correspondingly impatient) for this movement, this change, to have taken place. Success with regard to achieving this goal becomes an ever-more attractive prospect – the goal itself seems to promise more and more. Adapting to the FOR is the same thing as ‘losing perspective’ since ‘perspective’ essentially means looking at the world from outside of our adopted framework – the more perspective we lose the more important the goal appears and the more serious the ‘need’ that we experience to obtain it. And yet the goal only ever is important in relation to our frame of reference, which means that no matter what promise it may seem to hold for us, the astonishingly powerful hypnotic attractiveness that our goals have for us is only ever going to be a function of our abysmal lack of perspective on the matter!

 

 

Believing that ‘reaching the goal is somehow going to solve everything’ is equilibrium thinking in a nutshell. ‘Equilibrium thinking’, we might say, is the type of thinking associated with the unconscious mode of being, which is when we function on the level of mere mechanical reflex. We imagine that by engaging in whatever the task at hand is – and thereby adapting ourselves maximally to the frame of reference associated with it – we are going make some real difference to our situation. Everything hangs on the successful resolution of the task – it’s not just relatively important, it’s absolutely important! This is the reason why we get more and more driven the less perspective we have (which is to say, the more psychologically unconscious we get). To be driven in this way (i.e. flatly or literally motivated) might naively be seen to be a good thing – I putting tremendous energy into solving a problem, into achieving a goal, so surely this is highly commendable state of affairs? People who are driven are busy and it is generally seen to be good to be busy. Industry and industriousness is something to be desired, something to be cultivated. It’s like having a strong economy – if there’s lots and lots of activity, if the wheels are all going around and around at full speed, then this is good news!  What we don’t see however – when we are stuck in the mire of equilibrium thinking – is that the whole endeavour is quite empty, quite hollow. It is ‘empty’ because what we’re saying is so important is only important because we’ve said it is (i.e. it’s only important because we’ve arranged to look at the world in the particular narrow way that makes it important).

 

 

All we’re really doing when we put all this effort and energy into ‘achieving the goal’ is keeping ourselves unconscious. We’re maintaining the illusion that what we say matters really does matter – if we disengaged from the task (and moved out of the equilibrium world) then before very long we’d start to see that it doesn’t really matter so much after all and other (previous invisible) possibilities would start to become interesting to us instead. Our world would expand (our consciousness would expand) and we would become creative rather than driven, playful rather than serious. At the same time as being a lot of fun and far more interesting than playing deadly dull ‘equilibrium games’ this expansion of consciousness involves a tremendous existential challenge – the challenge of engaging with reality rather than our tame and predictable games. Equilibrium games involve no existential challenge at all; there are after all only TWO possibilities in it – either we obtain the goal or we don’t! This absolute impoverishment with regard to the scope of ‘the possibilities that are open to us’ is compensated for by hyping up the two possibilities that are there – winning is said to be the best thing in the world and losing the worst, with the result that we are consumed with greed for the one and eaten up with fear about the other, so that we don’t actually get to see how appallingly constrained our attention is. Free from this awareness (free from this insight), we get to play the game, play the game, play the game, until the proverbial cows come home…

 

 

Every time we approach the goal (which equals ‘the successful resolution of the problem’) we get the feeling that something very important is going to change. As Carse says, a finite game is played in order to bring itself to an end, and so this is the change that we are looking forward to so excitedly. And yet the game never does end, it just keeps on going around and around and around, which is where the basic ‘deceptiveness’ comes in that we were talking about earlier. The basic deceptiveness has to do with the way that ‘winning’ (or reaching the goal’) looks like a genuine change to our situation, when in reality it is nothing of the sort. What James Carse calls a ‘finite game’ is another way of talking about the ubiquitous equilibrium state; the deceptiveness (or illusion) inherent in all finite games is what keeps from seeing the E-world for what it is – instead of seeing that there is no way out from an equilibrium state, we are continuously hypnotized and entranced by the prospect of winning, the prospect of achieving the goal, which is an outcome that promises to change everything in the most magical way.

 

 

‘Engaging with the E-state’ means chasing after the goals that are being dangled so enticingly in front of our noses and this engagement may be said to have two ‘beneficial’ effects (beneficial from the point of view of the game, that is!) –

 

[1] is that it effectively maintains the illusion we are caught up in

 

[2] is that it keeps us too busy and too narrowly focussed to ever notice that we aren’t actually getting anywhere…

 

 

 

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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