OPEN, when it is closed, becomes ‘the definite picture’. The definite picture is what we deal in, it is what we know, it is what we do business with – anything that is not part of the definite picture we don’t have time for. How can anything that is not stated in a clear and unambiguous way have any value? How can a statement that does not have its meaning strictly defined so that it means ‘this but nothing else’ be any use to us?
Mathematician Rudy Rucker puts this distaste of the undefined and the indefinite in historical perspective, and makes the point that the ancient Greeks were quite explicit in their distaste for the unbounded –
It is possible to regard the history of the foundation of mathematics as a progressive enlarging of the mathematical universe to include more and more infinities. The Greek word for infinity was apeiron, which literally means unbounded, but can also mean infinite, indefinite, or undefined. Apeiron was a negative, even pejorative word. The original chaos out of which the world was formed was apeiron. An arbitrary crooked line was apeiron. A dirty crumpled handkerchief was apeiron. Thus, apeiron need not only mean infinitely large, but can also mean totally disordered, infinitely complex, subject to no finite determination. In Aristotle’s words, “being infinite is a privation, not a perfection but the absence of limit. . .
CLOSED is a funny sort of thing though – on the face of it CLOSED has the virtue of ‘perfection’ (in Aristotle’s sense of the word) but behind this ‘perfection of form’ is a very serious – if not to say actually fatal – flaw that we are very rarely able to see, a flaw that we are culturally indisposed to seeing. The flaw that we are talking about here has to do with the loss of actual meaningful content that takes place when we strive to maximize the degree of definition we are able to obtain. As John G. Bennett (1956) says, ‘precision and generality are to be achieved only if one is sacrificed to the other’. There is in other words a trade-off between how exact (or how ‘specific’) we can be in stating something, and the actual meaningfulness of what it is that we have managed to say. This trade-off, strangely enough, happens to be something that we have very little – if any at all – insight into.
CLOSED is a funny sort of thing because there is actually nothing in it! Once the circle of definition is closed (i.e. once the all-determining context is in place), then the information ‘contained’ by that definition is invariably reduced to zero. There is no way that this can be otherwise – once everything is defined in relation to a prior context (so that nothing can exist unless it is granted existence by that context) then we have obtained for ourselves the tautological situation where ‘stuff can only mean something to me when I have previously decided that it shall have a meaning’. CLOSED is a tautology – how can this be otherwise? Nothing can ever happen to surprise me in the closed situation, and this is in fact a very good definition of what it means to be closed, i.e. CLOSED is where nothing can happen unless it agrees with my defined set of possibilities regarding what can happen.
It seems very strange to say that all closed systems are empty in content, to say that just because a system is CLOSED there can’t be anything in it. This is counterintuitive – after all, just because my fist is tightly closed this plainly doesn’t mean there won’t be anything in, a handful of loose change, for example. Just because a fence surrounding a field full of sheep is closed with no gaps in it anywhere this doesn’t mean that no sheep will be contained in that field – quite the contrary is true because if there are any gaps (even just one) then the sheep will definitely get out. Reality is peculiar to itself however in that it doesn’t behave like a handful of loose change or a field full of sheep in this respect. We could say that reality is an ‘all or nothing’ type of thing in that it has to be taken as it is, in its entirety, or not at all. The essential point that we are making here is that what we are calling ‘reality’ (for the want of any better word) cannot be sub-divided in any meaningful way. Or to express this in a slightly different way, we can say that all boundaries are in the ultimate analysis only convenient fictions.
This goes totally against our normal way of thinking about things. This is hardly surprising however – saying that reality cannot be meaningfully broken down or sub-divided goes against our normal way of thinking because breaking reality into distinct classes or partitions is precisely how our thinking operates. The rational-conceptual mind works by dividing, by splitting, by ‘drawing boundaries’ – this is the means by which it rationalizes, the means by which it conceptualizes. When we perceive the world the first thing we do is to break it down into understandable parts; the world, as far as most of us are concerned, is made up of untold millions upon millions of units or parts – it is a multiplicity not a unity. It is, in our perception, a collection or assembly of very many individual separate bits, or ‘things’. These things can interact together, have effects on each other, and can even work together in large-scale systems but as far as we are concerned the ultimate nature of the universe is that it is multitudinous rather than being singular. And yet what we see is not real. As Erwin Schrodinger says –
The plurality that we perceive is only an appearance; it is not real. Vedantic philosophy… has sought to clarify it by a number of analogies, one of the most attractive being the many-faceted crystal which, while showing hundreds of little pictures of what is in reality a single existent object, does not really multiply that object…
Unlike the mystics (or Schrodinger) when we perceive the world we don’t perceive a unity but a confusingly diverse plurality – we perceive the world as being made up of such things as chairs and tables and houses and streets and cars and buses and trees and lawns. We perceive it as being made up of door-knobs and fence-posts and paving stones and biros and owls and strawberries and spider-mites and barnacles and tennis balls and teapots and cabbages and clouds and rivers and oceans and mountains and continents. All of these things – needless to say – seem very different in character to us, they seems quintessentially distinct from each other. In no way do we perceive this distinctness as being due to our apparatus of conceptualization, our information-processing biases, our categories of thought – plurality is seen as existing out there, as being inherent in the nature of reality itself.
And yet if we stop to reflect we can of course easily see that some of these divisions, at least, are entirely arbitrary in nature. After all, the supposedly distinct continents are all joined up under the sea, the different oceans are all really the same body of water when it comes down to it, and mountains aren’t separate entities either but simply bumps on an underlying stratum of the earth’s crust. Other objects on our list appear to lack this underlying connectivity however and show every indication of being entirely separate from each other – it is very hard to see how all owls are joined up together behind the scenes or how all tea-pots are simply extrusions of some supposedly universal, underlying stratum. The ways in which these ‘things’ are unconnected seem far more significant than the ways in which they are connected – the ways in which owls and teapots (or human beings, for that matter) appear to be separate, discrete and independently existing entities appear to be more fundamental then the ways in which they are not. And yet we know at the same time that the atomic and subatomic particles which all physical objects are made of are not technically understandable as being ‘things’ at all – inasmuch as the laws of classical mechanics break down at the atomic and subatomic level it also has to be the case that the concept of there being ‘such a thing as a thing’ breaks down. As Fritjof Capra (1982) says,
…neither the electron nor any other atomic ‘object’ has any intrinsic properties independent of its environment.
The notion of a ‘thing’ is just a handy way of thinking about the world of our everyday experience and it simply doesn’t carry over to the world of the very small at all. For a start, the idea of a ‘thing’ very much implies the existence of sort of basic substance that the things are made up of (just as the whole idea of the material universe implies the existence of some sort of material) but no physicist would ever come anywhere close to talking in terms of any kind of actual ‘substance’ from which the universe is created. The idea of substance is a mere convention, a naïve philosophical notion or proposition that doesn’t have any practical application in the real world. ‘Substance’ comes down to the assumption that when a system is closed, it can actually contain something, have some sort of genuine ‘content’ – though what that content could possibly be is another question altogether.
Along with the notion that there exists some sort of intrinsic irreducible ‘substance’ to things comes the idea of ‘definite boundaries’: ‘thing-hood’ as a concept relies completely on the presence of a clear-cut, self-existent boundary – an actual edge that makes the thing into a thing in itself and not merely part of something else. Yet like the idea of substance, the notion of there being an actual ‘edge’ to anything is one that is completely irrelevant within the realm of the subatomic. The best that can be done is to map the chances that the particle we are looking for might be found in any specific location so as to generate a completely fuzzy (or edgeless) cloud of probabilities. The probability of finding the subatomic particle never actually reaches zero, any more than the gravitational field surrounding a mass ever reaches zero, no matter how drastically it tails off.
All scientific views of the phenomenal universe essentially involve the device of ‘bringing in’ more dimensions into understanding than we usually utilize. This ‘opens up’ the universe. According to David Bohm what we consider to be 3-dimensional objects may be more completely envisaged as the extrusions of an n-dimensional reality into the 3-dimensional space that our senses are generally confined to. This ‘trick’ generates creates an illusion of there being multitudinous separate objects just as a hand partially projecting through the surface of a body of water can produce the illusion that the five digits of the hand are separate, unrelated entities. Our everyday, ‘short-hand’ way of understanding the world is in terms of 1, 2 or 3 dimensions and this ‘poverty of dimensionality’ is what is responsible for our perception of that world as being fragmented into very many different parts or compartments. As we become more curious about what we are looking at we bring in more dimensions into the modelling process and the result of this enrichment of dimensionality is that the world starts to look more like a unity and less like a collection of fragmented units.
If we exist in a three-dimensional universe, for example, then if an object is bounded in all three dimensions these can be said to be absolute boundaries. The object in question – because it is exhaustively defined – can therefore be said to be a thing, an actual independent, isolated, self-existent entity. But if on the other hand the universe in which we find ourselves has a higher degree of dimensionality than three, then an object bounded in three dimensions is still unbounded with regard to all the higher dimensions and so we cannot say that it is ‘absolutely bounded’. Because it is not exhaustively defined the object is not ‘a thing’ at all. The only way it would get to be a genuine ‘thing’ would be if we lived in a universe in which three dimensions is the absolute ceiling in terms of dimensionality. Otherwise it is the case that the defining characteristics that we perceive to belong to the object under investigation are actually only a reflection (bouncing back at us, as it were) of our own limiting assumptions. It is our minds that are closed, not the universe.
The notion of ‘inherent substance’ follows logically from the notion of an exhaustively defined object since if there is ‘such a thing as a thing,’ we think, then surely that thing must be made up of something substantial. If it wasn’t then what we would be looking at would be more of a hollow ghost then anything else since it would consist only of its own outline, its own limiting boundaries. We can’t help ‘filling in the space’ with our over-active imaginations, in other words. If the object is bounded in all possible dimensions then the assumption that follows this – we could say – is that some sort of ‘essence’ must be effectively trapped in that closed-off region of space. Because we have ‘shut the door’ so effectively it seems reasonable to assume that there must be some portion of reality (whatever that it is) sealed off in the partition that we have created. [This is exactly the same as saying that when we exhaustively describe something we are left with the persistent illusion that there is actually something real in our closed description!] In conclusion, both the idea of ‘thing-hood’ and the idea of ‘substance’ derive from a view of the universe which is arbitrarily limited and it is our own minds which are responsible for this limitation.
So we can say that the simplified or short-hand view of the world renders reality as being differentiated, whilst a more complete view shows us an underlying unity, which of course does make perfect ‘intuitive sense’ even if it doesn’t make ‘rational sense’ to our analyzing and compartmentalizing minds. The point is however that when we relate to the world we do so almost entirely via the agency of the rational mind, which has the function of ‘splitting reality up’. If we were able to bear in mind that this is only a pragmatically useful convention – i.e. that it is useful only within a very limited domain – then there would be no problem, so to speak. Far from bearing this point in mind however we do the very opposite: we completely forget that the convention is only a convention. We lose sight of this point entirely. So we could say that this is like the situation where there are certain rules or stipulations regarding how one is to behave in a formal situation – when being introduced to a member of the royal family, for example. These formal rules do not of course apply outside of this very limited domain of applicability (they do not for example apply whilst we are relaxing at home with friends or family). The analogy would then be that I somehow forget that the rules of formal conduct only apply when meeting the Queen or the Duchess of York or Prince of Wales and proceed to behave in this highly constrained fashion the whole time, even when I’m talking to my closest friend.
This analogy doesn’t on the face of it seem at all plausible. It is hard work to remain highly formal the whole time and it would seem much more likely that this would happen the other way around; being informal is a lot less effort and so the ‘default’ situation would surely be where we forget to follow the special rules or conventions and act casually when we ought not to. This however is counterintuitive – in psychological terms a formal situation is always easier than an informal one since all we need to do is follow the rules that are already there. All we have to do is hand over to the automatic pilot, hand over to what Colin Wilson calls ‘the internal robot’. Rules are like grooves or gradients that are engraved into a hard surface – once the groove or gradient is there the system will naturally follow it. A river that has over time eroded a channel for itself is going to continue to follow that same channel; unless there is a flood or it is dammed, a river is simply not going to jump out of its established groove one day and take some other route to the sea. It is just not going to happen, and in exactly same way once we get to thinking and behaving in a particular way we are not – unless there is some kind of major upset – going to suddenly wake up one morning and start thinking and behaving in a different way. The only way I am going to start perceiving reality differently is if there is if my consciousness is not entirely conditioned, if the internal robot is not completely in charge – which would constitute the informal situation.
The informal situation is therefore equivalent to a perfectly flat surface, a surface with absolutely no grooves or gradients in it at all. Because this surface is flat it is the case that no direction of travel is any easier than any other. The situation in which ‘all directions are the same” is technically known as symmetrical and the point about symmetry – from a psychological point of view – is that it contains far too much freedom entirely. If no direction is indicated as the ‘right’ one then what direction do I go in, when there are infinitely many to choose from? This is what Soren Kierkegaard referred to as ‘dizzying freedom’ – the freedom that lies at the very heart of everything and from which we are constantly attempting to flee. Any existential psychotherapist would tell you straightaway that freedom is what we fear the most: we pay lip-service to the concept ad nauseam of course but when it comes down to and we actually get what we have asked for then we run a mile. What we really want is not freedom but a framework, a system of reference, a logically-consistent set of handy rules and guidelines to follow. What we really want is a closed (and therefore unquestionable) belief structure to tell us what reality is and who we are and what exactly we should be doing with ourselves.
What we call conditioning is nothing else but rules, and rules are nothing else but the absence of freedom. Just so long as we have our conditioning, our closed belief structures in place, we are happy. A formal or rule-based system is therefore infinitely easier than the informal situation which is where there are no rules, no grooves, no guidelines, no precedents whatsoever. Once we have adapted to the prevailing conditioning, the established modality of things, the defined system, then there really is nothing more to do. The whole thing runs itself and all we have to do is go along with it, like a child being whizzed here and there on a frenetic fair-ground ride. The system knows what it wants to do – more than just knowing what to do, it absolutely insists on doing what it wants to do, it absolutely prohibits all other possibilities, and so nothing could be easier than ‘going along with it’!
Going along with our conditioning is like having a very opinionated, strong-willed and bossy/controlling friend. What could be easier than leaving all the important decisions to such a friend, and just going along for the ride? For this reason there is an absolutely massive tendency to drift permanently into a formally defined (or ‘over-simplified’) version of reality and forget that there is any other way, that there is any other possibility. The everyday mind is the bossy and controlling friend and we are content take up the role of the stooge, the compliant side-kick who doesn’t have an opinion of his own.
Another term for a ‘formally defined version or analogue of reality’ is a game and we are all very familiar with games – or at least we think we are. Going back to our example of the formal behaviour that is required when one is being introduced to the Queen or the Duchess of York or Prince of Wales or anyone of similar social standing the fact that the behaviour which is required of us is entirely ‘defined in advance’ means that it is technically a game. A game is nothing if not straightforward once we have learned the rules because then all that we need to do is obey these rules. The game tells us what matters and also – just to be even more helpful – it tells us precisely what we need to do and how we need to do it with regard to obtaining the outcomes that it has defined as being supremely important. All we need to do is put our energy and abilities at the service of the game, just as an ox has only to put its strength into whatever jobs its master has given it to do. Psychologically speaking, the undifferentiated consciousness is the ox, and the master that it is serving is the formal or rule-based version of reality that is the rational-conceptual mind.
There is a special kind of illusion that comes free with the package, so to speak and that is the illusion of free will. This particular illusion is very easy to demonstrate within the context of games because we all understand, on some level at least, that this is what games are all about. The point about a game is that all the rules have been defined in advance so that when we play the game we can’t be reinterpreting them or changing them or making new ones as we see fit. This is another way of saying that in order to play a game we have to agree to follow the rules – we have to agree to take them seriously. We have to agree that winning – in whatever way it has been defined – is the all-important thing. We agree upon this every time we play a game, and we are moreover quite happy to do so since without this key agreement there would be no game.
In a game we voluntarily give away our freedom to ‘see things differently’ – or as James Carse says, we voluntarily ‘veil our own freedom from ourselves’ so even though it is always there we can no longer see it, or avail of it. But then what happens then is that we become utterly convinced that ‘what the game wants us to do is in fact what we ourselves want to do’. I don’t have the perception that I am simply agreeing to see winning at the game as being the all-important thing, but rather I flatly perceive that it actually is all-important. I don’t feel that I have agreed to the motivation of wanting to win, but I feel that I actually genuinely do want to win. I perceive this ‘desire to win’ to be my own most emphatically heart-felt and sincere volition. I feel, in other words, that the desperate struggle to win is a manifestation of my own free will.
The rational-conceptual mind is a game just like any other – it is a game because it is based on a set of rules that have been defined in advance, and which we are on this account obliged to go along with. When we do go along with ‘the game of the mind’ then the consequences are the same as any game – we lose the capacity to see that it is a game, we take it seriously, we treat it as if it were not a game. The reason for this is – as always – because we have ‘lost the freedom to see things otherwise’, and because we have lost this freedom then as far as we are concerned there is no other way. As far as we are concerned the way we now see things is the only way to see things. Because we have agreed to play the game of the rational-conceptual mind the world that it shows us – the differentiated (or thingified) world – is not seen as a construct or artefact but as a self evident fact. Similarly, our motivation in relation to this differentiated world is not seen as something that is imposed upon us from without (as if clearly must be since the goals I am seeking to obtain are only meaningful in relation to the system of reference that I have bought into) I experience this externally-determined ‘game motivation’ as being the very same thing as ‘my own free will’.
To put this simply, the everyday mind creates a world made up exclusively of ‘things’ which I am entirely trapped in. What is more, in this world I myself am also ‘a thing’, by definition, since there is nothing else allowed in this world but things. This – although we very rarely focus on the fact – is a truly horrific prospect. I am, as Colin Wilson says, ‘a thing trapped in a world of things’, a world in which freedom has been wholly excluded. The only way I can remain unaware of the appalling lack of freedom in this situation is to keep throwing myself into the game, and imagining that the attainment of goals that have been define for me by the game represents the fulfilment of my own true volition. The feeling of satisfaction that I get from successfully doing ‘what the game wants me to do’ substitutes for the enjoyment in spontaneously (or freely) doing what ‘I want to do’ such that I confuse one for the other. This means, of course, that in the game of the rational-purposeful mind the joy of true spontaneity is completely lost to me, and I don’t even miss it.
The only type of freedom in a game is freedom is extrinsic freedom and this – paradoxically – may be defined as ‘freedom that has been given to us’. Extrinsic freedom is therefore the substitute for true volition and as such it is convincing only if we don’t examine it too carefully. As a substitute for intrinsic freedom it is – when we actually look at it –not just inferior or inadequate, it is contrary (or antithetical) in its nature, being ‘an externally-originated mechanical compulsion’ rather than what we might call ‘an internally-inspiration’. In what way exactly, we might ask, can a compulsion be a substitute for freedom? Extrinsic freedom is another way of talking about compulsive motivation and just as long as we are able to conform to compulsive motivation it can superficially pass itself off as genuine volition. This is only going to be possible for some of the time however, and whilst we might be superficially happy when we are able to play the game successfully this state of affairs is only ‘half the story’ – the other half being when we losing instead of winning, and feeling correspondingly bad instead of good.
Extrinsic motivation comes with a punishing drawback. This drawback is that it will turn against us in a flash the moment we are unable to successfully conform to it. If I ‘obey’ successfully I am rewarded with a pleasant euphoric feeling and if I am not able to do what the extrinsic motivation wants me to do then I experience the reverse side of the deal – I feel the lash of dysphoria instead of the warm rewarding feeling (the pat on the head) which is euphoria. I set out to do something or other and either I can’t for whatever reason do it (or I do it but I don’t do it well enough) and the result is that I feel very down about it. If my motivation in this had been intrinsic rather than extrinsic – which is to say, if it had been a spontaneous action – then all these bad feelings (and the associated self-recrimination) would simply not arise.
The fact that we are all so familiar with feeling bad when things don’t work out to plan, and recriminating against ourselves on these occasions, unmistakably demonstrates the extent to which we are living our lives on the basis of extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivation. In extreme cases – in the case for example of obsessive compulsive disorder or perfectionism – we are constantly driven to do whatever it is that the external motivation wants us to do, and are frankly tormented when we are not able to do this. The fact that the tasks which we are struggling to succeed at are not of our own choosing does not alleviate the pain we feel when we fail even by one iota.
The situation of feeling good when we succeed at an arbitrary task and feeling bad when we can’t is actually a very familiar one – this is after all what games are all about! What we don’t see is that the rational-purposeful mind itself is a game and all of the goals that we feel bad about when we fail to obtain them are not expressions of our true will at all, but mere ‘attachments’. We don’t see that the outcomes which we strive for are the manifestations of the way in which we are being controlled by our minds, rather than vice versa. Every time I feel bad about not getting my own way, not ‘getting what I want,’ this is dysphoria due to the fact that I am an ‘unsuccessful slave of the mind’. This is a way of looking at things that we very rarely encounter; on the contrary, our culture reinforces for us at every step the idea that fulfilling our goals (or ‘getting what we want’) is the ultimately empowering thing. And of course it is empowering, only not for us! It is empowering for the machine-mind that rules us, and controls the way in which we see the world. It is empowering for the game that I play but do not know that I am playing – the game of the mind.
Being wracked with remorse/guilt/anger/frustration/depression and general feelings of being of no worth, of being a failure (and so on) when one is an ‘unsuccessful robot’ is only one aspect of what we might call ‘the disadvantage of being a conditioned entity’ – it goes deeper than this. The deeper aspect of the ‘disadvantage’ (if we may use such a mild word in this connection) that comes with conditioned life is its inherent meaninglessness – its intrinsic ‘hollowness’. The world of definitions which we inhabit is content-less – it contains only the meaning we have put in it, which means that it is at root only a game we play for the sake of diversion. This is the point that we have been making all along, that the mind-mediated world which is made up of separate things or parts is only meaningful because we say it is, which means that it is actually ‘null’ (or ‘blank’). Games are always null, but when we throw ourselves into playing them we don’t experience this nullity directly (i.e. where it belongs) but rather we encounter it indirectly, reflected unpleasantly in this or in that – which we still imagine we can avoid or turn around. It is of course inherent in the very essence of all game that we imagine we can ‘avoid the parts we do not like’, this being the type of imaginary freedom that games provide us with. We can also experience the nullity of the game in the most indirect (or unconscious) way of all, where it manifests as a gradual attenuation of our ability to enjoy or appreciate life.
What we are really talking about here is entropy. Entropy – when it is in its ‘disguised’ or ‘invisible’ form – manifests itself as an intensity of goal-orientated motivation, it manifests itself in the form of sharply defined goals and the very plausible, clear-cut sense of meaning that is attached to these goals, either of a negative or positive nature. Entropy appears in its ‘active form’, in other words, in what we have called extrinsic meaning. This is really just another way of saying that the everyday rational-conceptual mind is a manifestation of entropy, or that entropy is what lies behind the categorical mind. Entropy is the loss of perspective, which creates a situation in which we are compelled to see the world in terms of superficial categories of meaning, which we are constitutionally unable to see as being ‘superficial’. This superficial view is the view of the everyday mind, which is the only view we know. It is the ‘orthodox’ or ‘official’ view.
We don’t see our view of things as being trivial or limited or superficial because we are so caught up in trying to achieve this highly-important outcome or that highly-important outcome, and avoid the corresponding highly important antithetical outcomes. When things go well in this endeavour, then as we have said ‘all appears well’. All appears rosy in the garden and we feel that we are happy, content, fulfilled, and all the rest of it. When the endeavour doesn’t go well then we discover that we are heir to the entire spectrum of what we generally call ‘negativity’ – disappointment, frustration, anger, bitterness, resentment, despair, self-blaming and self-punishing, anxiety, stress, and depression. We discover that we are heir to a whole world of unnecessary (i.e. neurotic) suffering – we are troubled by threats and insults and crises that aren’t really serious but which we can’t help seeing as such. Neurosis is the dysphoric ‘flip-side’ of the euphoria that we obtain as the ‘initial payment’ for handing over our freedom to the conditioned mind, to the game. When the game was going well we not only believed that it was possible to ‘win without losing’, we actually believed ourselves to be ‘winners’ – as opposed to other unlucky players who unlike us were obviously destined to be ‘losers’. When the game stopped going well, then we still believed in principle that it was possible to be a winner rather than a loser, but we start to doubt if it is going to work out for us. We still strive to win, but we have now lost our confidence. We suspect that we are losers, and this perception, along with our counterproductive attempt to fight against it, constitutes neurotic suffering.
Eventually entropy no longer manifests in its disguised form, but starts to show itself ‘in its true colours’, as it were. It manifests itself in the form of existential meaninglessness – which Jung spoke of in terms of ‘soul-sickness’. At this stage our heart is no longer in the game at all, for we no longer believe that we have any chance whatsoever in winning. Not only that, but the game seems meaningless to us, it is ‘without flavour’. Inasmuch as the entropy of the system is no longer disguised, we can now see it plainly for what it is – pure redundancy. We no longer believe in the game, we are now thoroughly disillusioned with it. We see it for what it is. This is a blessing rather than a curse, the only trouble being that to the extent that we have identified ourselves with the game – which is a very large extent – we experience this disillusionment in relation to ourselves, and experience ourselves to be hollow, false, worthless, redundant, rotten, and so on. This is the final passive stage on the neurotic spectrum, which when fully experienced has the potential to lead us out of the trap which is conditioned existence.
What we are describing in all this is the journey from OPEN to CLOSED, the transformation of OPEN into CLOSED. It is in the nature of this transition that in the first instance we seem to have obtained some sort of positive goal, some kind of worthwhile step. There appears to be a type of advantage in it in that we perceive the possibility of genuine movement, a genuine ‘possibility’ of something or other. There is leeway for our dreams, there is the illusion that we can progress within the terms that the closed mind envisions progression. We have the leeway of imagining that we can meaningfully separate the two opposites, YES and NO, UP and DOWN, WIN and LOSE, SELF and NOT-SELF. The potent illusion gives rise to the whole edifice of rationality – it gives rise to extrinsic order, and all the goal-orientated activity that proceeds out of it.
The illusion has a certain life-time to it however, it has its own particular mode of ‘decaying’, of losing its power. When this happens the impossibilities which we have up to now been sublimely oblivious to start to manifest themselves in the form of the self-defeating, self-contradictory paradoxes that are revealed – much to our dismay – in the neurotic struggle. What once seemed clear-cut and straightforward then seems murky, fraught with intractable problems and obstacles. The simplest action becomes problematic, and our goal-orientated activity threatens to grind to a halt amidst a profusion of worries and doubts. It is only a matter of time before the nullity which is the ‘hidden face’ of the closed world starts to infiltrate the atmosphere of our world, turning it dark and joyless, pitilessly eroding the appetite we used to have for its trivial games and pastimes. The much coveted baubles of the mind now reveal themselves to be emblems of toxic meaninglessness – they were always empty of meaning but because we have elevated them over life itself they have now become toxic as well.
Other people – who have yet to find themselves in this neurotic territory – have (naturally enough) little patience for us. Even trained and experienced mental health professionals have to disguise their impatience and their utter incomprehension with our situation, as they busy themselves prescribing medicines and therapies which are supposed to ‘fix’ the problem. With this problem – however – there is no ‘fixing.’ There is no fixing because fixing would mean having the smooth without the rough, the up without the down, the yes without the no, the winning without the losing. Of all the things we might try to achieve, this is the most senseless, the most bizarre. We want to live in the CLOSED world, but we DON’T want to consciously experience the drawbacks that are inherent in this world, which are the twin drawbacks of futility and meaninglessness…
The ‘world of separate things’ corresponds with the field of differentiated consciousness that is the product of the thinking mind. This differentiated consciousness is all that we know about in the general run of things – it is the only reality we know. Undifferentiated consciousness (or unity) is something we don’t register at all, and yet at the same time it is the only realm which can be said to be actually real, since it is not something that we have made ourselves. Therefore, we only take notice of the reality that we have made, which clearly cannot be real, for this very reason. We promote the unreal over the real, we value appearance over content, illusion over content. We opt to dine exclusively on candy-floss rather than doing ourselves the favour of eating a proper meal!
It is instructive to consider just what type or brand of meaning it is that is associated with the realm of differentiated consciousness. The type of meaning we are talking about here is as we have said strictly nominal, which is to say, it means exactly what we have said it shall mean and nothing else. Why this should be so is very clear – I am the one who has decided upon the categories, I am the one who says where the boundaries are to be drawn. I am the one who has said that an owl is an owl, that a doorknob is a doorknob, and so on. And even though it is true that I never actually sat down and decided all this myself in person, I have nevertheless tacitly agreed to go along with this nominal system of meanings, and the fact that I have agree to go along with it means that it is intentional. It is a game I have agreed to play.
So when I see the world I don’t see the ‘unity’ of it – this is a very rare occurrence indeed. What I see instead are all the conceptual items that go to make it up (or rather, which go to make it up in terms of the game I have agreed to play). What it is more, all of these constituent parts exist in a closed continuum, which means that I never see anything that is not part of my system of labelling, my system of categories. This is the only way it could possibly be – if I could see something that didn’t belong within my conceptual framework (something that didn’t have a place within my system of reference) then this would relativize that framework, the system. What happens in this case is that the nominal meaning system is immediately shown up as being a nominal meaning system. The simulation is shown up as being a simulation and this of course detracts entirely from the desired effect. The whole point of the game (the whole point of any game) is that it shall not be seen to be a game, since a game that can be seen as a game no longer functions as a game.
When the nominal meaning system is working as it supposed to (when it is ‘intact’) then instead of encountering ‘nominal meaning’ we simply encounter ‘meaning’ and the intentionality behind the set-up is effectively concealed. This is the situation when the rational-conceptual mind is functioning in its normal fashion – the artificially created ‘part’ is perceived as a ‘whole’ (a self-existent unit), the projected evaluation is perceived as an inherent feature of reality itself, and ‘the name’ is perceived as ‘the thing itself’. Thus, when the nominal meaning system is intact then this gives rise to the situation where extrinsic order (i.e. order that is imposed from without) is perceived as intrinsic order (order which belongs in the external world) and extrinsic motivation (i.e. compulsion) is mistaken for intrinsic motivation (or ‘freedom’). This is the modality of functioning known as psychological unconsciousness, which is when we are being wholly manipulated by factors or determinants the existence of which we are completely unaware of (and not only is it the case that we are completely unaware of them, we are completely averse to being aware of them).
The action of the everyday thinking mind is to differentiate, to produce a form of knowing that is based on strictly defined (or ‘closed’) categories. We could equivalently say that the activity of the thinking mind results in the production of literal signifiers, literal symbols. Literal signifiers – because they are literal – make the implicit claim to mean something, but they don’t. They only mean something if we ourselves choose to think that they do – they are empty receptacles which can only have meaning when we ourselves put that meaning in them. In themselves they are nothing. Literal symbols make the claim not just that they signify an external reality (which would be a perfectly honest claim) but rather that they themselves somehow partake in the reality that they symbolize. Because they are meant literally, they make the implicit claim that they are the reality itself. A ‘non-literal’ symbol, on the other hand, would not do this – a non-literal symbol is by its very nature quite explicit about the fact that the reality to which it is referring is completely other than itself, that the reality it is talking about is in no way an ‘extension’ of itself. Metaphorical (or ‘ironic’) language, therefore, does not trap our attention in the literal details of what it is saying, whilst this is precisely what literal language does do.
The operation of the everyday thinking mind is to convert OPEN into CLOSED, which is another way of saying that it works by converting metaphor into literalisms. We can therefore say two things about the CLOSED state of mind –
 is that it is a trap because it when it captures our attention it never directs that attention anywhere else other than back to itself
 is that it is a hollow or meaningless trap because it doesn’t actually contain anything of reality
There is of course a case where our rational constructs, our literal signifiers, do have a provisional meaning (a type of pragmatic usefulness) and this is when they have a correlation to a situation in the outside world which is also closed. An example of this sort of thing would be a wiring diagram for a car, an engineer’s schematics for a bridge, a formula for a particular chemical, the instructions for how to find a certain address in a city, the recipe for making a cake, and so on. In these cases the definite description maps onto a corresponding defined situation in the world and so is meaningful (or useful) in a very specific sort of a way. But we still can’t say that the construct in question has genuine ‘content’ in terms of some kind of actual intrinsic reality because all we are doing is correlating one formal system with another. No formal system has any genuine intrinsic content since it only gets to be a formal system by virtue of the fact that we are considering it on one level of description only, when for anything in the real world it has to be the case that there are always other levels of description that we could use. The point is that for a car, or a bridge, or a chemical compound, or a house, or a cake we are generally only interested in the level of description that relates to the use we have for it: we are interested in a car because it gets us from A to B, we are interested in a bridge because we can use it to traverse a ravine, we are interested in a cake because we can eat it, and so on. The uses that we have for these particular aspects of the world are closed, but they themselves are never closed! As we have been saying, stuff is only ever closed in terms of our narrow thinking about it.
What we definitely ‘know’ about reality only holds good in a superficial type of a way – it only holds good within the closed context of the game we are playing. Expand this context and we’re straightaway back where we started, in the realm of the open and the indeterminate. If we want to know about the world in a ‘non-superficial’ way, to go right into the core of it, so to speak, then we inevitably find that our literal signifiers become empty, hollow, and quintessentially redundant. There is no way that this cannot be the case for the simple reason that ‘deep reality’ is not a definite thing!
Reality is open not closed – our closed categories can never map onto it no matter how hard we try. Or rather, we can and do map our mental pictures onto reality but when we do we always leave out what it is we are trying to capture with them. All we can do is to ignore this fact, and carry on with the charade that we actually have captured reality, that there actually is something contained within our tightly clenched conceptual fist. We can never ‘map’ (or categorize) open because to map or categorize open would be to make it closed. This sounds like a disadvantage but it isn’t – OPEN is just fine the way it is! The urge to be definite about what reality is, to literally describe (or ‘know’) reality is not what we might call a healthy one, on the contrary, it is merely the attempt to assuage our inner insecurity, our fear of there being anything at all which we are not in control of, anything that is not pinned down so it cannot move. The urge to ‘say what reality is’, therefore, is a basic manifestation of insanity.
OPEN is what allows us to be, OPEN is our own intrinsic freedom. The CLOSED or categorical world denies this freedom entirely, and so it denies us entirely. The CLOSED world is closed precisely because it excludes all our space, because it takes away all our freedom, and so where is the benefit in this?
Our constant effort to convert OPEN into CLOSED is an effort in the direction of utterly denying our own being, which is a fundamental perversity. Perverse or not however, this is the direction we want to go into because this is the direction we perceive the ‘advantage’ to lie.
In this effort to permanently close off radical uncertainty we are – on the level of our pragmatic experience at least – very successful indeed. We are remarkably successful, fantastically successful, astonishingly successful. We are successful in getting what we want, even if what we want – perversely – is to totally deny ourselves. We are ‘successful’ in creating a world for ourselves which is utterly hollow, utterly sterile, and utterly devoid of genuine meaning or interest, and from which we are quite incapable of escaping. This is what we have done, and this is what we shall continue to do, unless we start to develop some kind of genuine curiosity about ourselves…
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.