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PYSCHOLOGICAL UNCONSCIOUSNESS

It is possible to define the state of ‘psychological unconsciousness’ by saying that it is the capacity to lie to oneself. Alternatively, we could say that it is the capacity to distract ourselves from seeing the truth – which is obviously pretty much the same thing. This type of definition tends to sound distinctly naïve and simplistic however, at least when one first meets it. From the ‘classical’ point of view it seems oversimplified, and from the point of view of contemporary psychological thinking it seems unnecessary to look for such a definition in the first place, given that the whole notion of an ‘unconscious’ is completely out of fashion (beyond a reference to subconscious autonomic activity, which is not the same thing at all). Nevertheless, if we take the trouble to look a little deeper we will find this central idea of a ‘capacity to self-deceive’ (or ‘self-distract’) can be set out in a highly precise and technically satisfying manner; when we work out the definition fully we find that we have arrived at something surprising – a formal and rather elegant derivation of an idea that experimental psychology has always tended to dismiss as vague, metaphysical, and ‘unscientific’. Moreover, we will find that through the expedient of examining ‘unconsciousness’, we come as close as we can to understanding consciousness, which is something we find relegated by mainstream psychology to the status of a mere side-effect of mechanical interaction, and taken completely for granted in classic psychology (with the notable exception of Jung). In order to make good this claim we are first going to look at two different examples of this approach to the notion of psychological unconsciousness, and derive from them an essential principle.

 

[1] THE ‘INFINITE EVIDENCE’ MODEL

 

This model can be readily explained in terms of a classical ‘whodunit’– type scenario. Let us say that a murder has been committed and there are a number of people around who definitely had the opportunity to have had a hand in the crime.  The traditional course of events is for the evidence to be carefully uncovered and sifted, for the false trails to be shown to be false, and the true murderer(s) to be identified. But suppose that we change just one thing about this scenario, and make the novel suggestion that for any person who you (the detective) might try to investigate, there will always be sufficient evidence to point to their guilt. This being so, how does the familiar process get altered? Well, clearly there are two basic possibilities:

 

[A] You pick someone more or less at random and find out that they had both the motive and the means. You then go in to discover that there are stacks of convincing circumstantial evidence – more than enough to convince any court of law. Having successfully identified the murderer in this way, you are justifiably content to rest on your laurels! We will suggest that this is the overwhelmingly probable way for the situation to develop, given that the feeling of satisfaction associated with a successful resolution makes it unlikely for the detective to put his/her self out by looking any further. This is the ‘sticking scenario’:  the investigator uncovers enough evidence to make an overwhelming case against his or her suspect, and having done so, drops the investigation. Your initial theory is abundantly confirmed, and so the matter is closed. The principle here is “Why question success?”

 

[B] You go through all the steps outlined above and then, by some fluke chance – despite the fact that you already ‘know’ who did it – you investigate somebody else, and discover that they too ‘did it’! At this stage, it becomes much more likely that you will take this further and see what happens if you investigate a third person. What happens then is that you make the startling discovery that everybody did it: no matter whom you choose to put under the spotlight, you invariably find that your implicit suspicions are well founded. You investigate yourself, and confirm your own guilt into the bargain!  At this point, the logic of the whole thing turns around and becomes paradoxical – if everybody you choose to subject to the methodology of investigation comes up as being guilty, this throws suspicion on the investigative method itself.  Eventually, you will have to come to the conclusion that your findings are meaningless, and so there can be no question of obtaining the satisfaction that comes with a successful resolution of the problem. This is the ‘non-sticking scenario’: instead of confirming my hypothesis by giving me back a nice, clear-cut YES or NO answer to my questions, what happens is that the universe answers me with a resounding [?], which doesn’t tell me anything positive. The [?] answer does tell me something though, it tells me that my question was meaningless; it falsifies my entire approach, in other words.

 

 SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECIES IN PHYSICS AND PSYCHOLOGY

 

The example of the ‘infinite-evidence model’ is straightforward enough, but how does it relate to reality? After all, we know that real murder-mystery cases don’t in fact turn out this way. There are two ways in which we can show this model to be relevant. Firstly, we can argue from the basis of relativism, which is the principle that says ‘what we see in a thing depends upon how we chose to look at it’. This idea, that through the act of measuring we take a participatory role in creating what we measure, is well known from quantum theory but it finds wider application in complexity theory, which asserts there is no fundamental level of description from which to view reality, although whatever level of description we hit upon ends up looking ‘special’ or ‘absolute’ to us.  The second argument comes not from physics but psychology, where the idea of the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ has been around a long time. A self-fulfilling prophecy is where we act in accordance with our beliefs about ourselves and the world, and the resulting feedback tends to confirm our assumptions which means in turn that we never go beyond what we thought in the first place. A crude example of this sort of thing would be where I start off with the idea that everyone is against me. Because I have this belief, I act accordingly in my interactions with people, and this has the effect of polarizing others’ attitudes against me. This of course serves to confirm my initial ideas, which causes me to further strengthen my stance, and so on ad infinitum.

 

It can be seen that this type of tautological (or cyclical) ‘self-humouring’ is the exact opposite of ‘learning’, which is where we are forced to drop our old theories by the ‘falsifying’ impact of [?] – type information. We may note here that ‘falsifying information’ is what Ernst and Christine von Weiszacker (1972) refer to as novelty. ‘Humouring’ information (which is feedback that echoes our preconceptions) is termed confirmation in this model.

 

THE COMPLEX PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT

 

In order to successfully apply this model to ‘the real world’ what we would require would be an environment that is sufficiently complex to be able to confirm any assumption that we might care to make about that environment. By ‘complex,’ as we have said, what we mean is that there are many aspects of the environment that it is possible to look at, the aspects (or ‘levels of description’) being properly different from each other in that one cannot be logically derived from another. This stipulation means that for each new perspective we take on the matter, there is new, hitherto unexpected, information available to us.

 

Having an unlimited wealth of information like this, which only reveals a finite portion of itself in accordance with whatever evaluative rules we happen to be using for the purposes of investigating the situation, means that whatever ‘model’ we decide to try out, unfailingly gets confirmed, or validated, by the information that comes back to us. In other words, whatever angle we take is proved to be a relevant angle – my cognitive bias seems to correlate with a bias that is actually built into my environment.  Needless to say, if I was aware of all the unlimited number of different ‘biases’ that go together to constitute the complex whole, then I would not be able to take any particular stance seriously, but because I only receive information that is logically connected with the data-processing bias that I am using, I don’t have to face this conundrum and can continue to believe in the ‘positive’ (i.e. objectively true) nature of the world that I see.

 

It is hard to appreciate the complex view of the world not just because we get trapped in the perspective we started out in, but, more importantly, because physical systems tend to be already ‘informationally collapsed’ into one level of organization. The simplest way to understand this is by considering that physical laws and constants (along with purely mathematical constants such as pi and e) embody dissymmetries (or biases) such that one level of description really does become more fundamental than all the others. As cosmologists such as Hawkins have pointed out, if this were not so then we would not have ended up with a universe that is visible, tangible, and ‘definite,’ as ours obviously is. However, as the paradoxes of quantum theory remind us, although determinism may be the order of the day on the macroscopic level, indeterminism rules supreme on the ‘micro-scale.’  Determinism means that we take for granted the existence of an ‘absolutely’ reliable framework of reference within which we can know stuff for sure, whilst indeterminism can be neatly defined in terms of the lack of such a framework.

 

Chaos and complexity theory show that irresolvable uncertainty still lurks – usually safely out of sight – on macro-scale systems, and for this reason, whilst we can get away with ignoring relativity (or ‘groundlessness’) most of the time, it cannot be dismissed completely, no matter how convenient that might be.  If we dismiss it completely, which is what we are very much tempted to do, we make the universe a simpler place. This is easier on our heads because we don’t have to encounter its underlying paradoxical nature, and we don’t get the vertiginous feelings that come to trouble us when we catch a glimpse of the mind-boggling ungroundedness of infinite relativity. However, the downside of this oversimplification is that we end up not dealing with reality, but with a ‘made up’ pseudo-reality – a totally defined formal reality that branches off at a tangent (so to speak) to the reality of the undefined real world. The inevitable consequence of this is that our goal-orientated behaviour rebounds on us at some future point; it comes back to us and hits us in the face in the manner of what might be called an ‘ecological blunder’. Therefore, what we are talking about is the situation of a short-term gain followed by a long-term cost that negates the value of the original action. This familiar notion brings us to the psychological side of the story.

 

THE COMPLEX PSYCHOLOGICAL ENVIRONMENT 

 

Our psychological situation is once removed from our physical situation. Although the psychological has to be structurally coupled to physical in order for us to function effectively in it, there is now the possibility of ‘freedom of interpretation’. Although the degree of this freedom varies from person to person, it is always there to some extent. After all, it is a matter of common experience that two apparently reliable witnesses can report the same event in different ways. What we see is relative to our agenda in seeing it, in other words. It is a familiar enough idea in mainstream psychology that we all routinely, during the course of the normal processes of perception, thinking, and memory, engage in what is termed ‘selective abstraction’. In plain language, this means that we only hear what we want to hear.  We are able to find evidence that supports our bias, and, at the same time, remain blissfully unaware of the way in which we are selecting data that supports our position, and disregard all the rest.  This is a curious development. It appears, on the face of it, to benefit me because it represents freedom from those awkward facts that I don’t wish to be brought face to face with. On the other hand, I now find myself in the situation of the detective who has inadvertently ‘tricked’ himself into thinking he has solved the case, when the truth of the matter is that he has not.  There is a gain, which can be explained either positively in terms of the satisfaction that comes when we successfully obtain the desired goal, or negatively in terms of a relief or escape from perceived ‘unsatisfactoriness’, and there is a cost, which can be explained in terms of a failure to properly address reality. When taken to an extreme, this counterproductive ‘shooting oneself in the foot’ type of tactic becomes what is generally known as ‘neurotic mental illness’.

 

[2] THE SUPERMARKET MODEL

 

Our next approach revolves around the idea that we can become motivated to do things, which we otherwise would not be motivated to do by means of simultaneously concentrating on the short-term gain and taking our attention away from the inevitable long-term cost. We will refer to this as a game. We can illustrate this with the example of basic ‘supermarket psychology’. When we walk down the aisle of a busy, modern supermarket looking on the shelves for the items that we need, our attention is drawn to reduced prices, discounts, special offers, boxes of cereal or washing powder which contain ‘33% extra free’, and so on. When we spot a bargain and throw it in the trolley we feel good straightaway – there is an instantly rewarding flush of euphoria, an ‘uplift’ which is the same sort of thing as the kick that you get when you find a twenty Euro note unattended on the floor, waiting to be picked up. We know that the supermarket is making money out of us, and so when we take advantage of a bargain it is a small personal victory for us. Needless to say, this is exactly why supermarkets use this ploy of dropping their prices on certain products – they want to tap into this wonderfully powerful motivation. Also needless to say, the people who run supermarkets are not fools, and they are not about to give stuff away for free. They know that what they lose on the swings they are going to win back on the roundabouts, and so they are not worried at all.

 

What the supermarket is taking advantage of is a psychological quirk that exists (usually fairly inconspicuously) in all of us. This quirk involves the tendency to trick ourselves into thinking that we can get something for nothing. In this specific example our attention is easily captured by highlighted gains, by ‘something-for-nothing’ offers that are waving at us from the shelves, and, at the same time, we easily manage not to spot the losses – losses that are (naturally) not advertised. If we thought about it, it would not take us long to work out that if the supermarket is taking a reduced profit (or a loss) on one product, they must be making it back on another, but somehow we don’t tend to reflect on that truth. It is as if we don’t want to ‘spoil the buzz’ by acknowledging that, further down the line, all the gains we made are going to be exactly counterbalanced. And even if we are consciously aware of the marketing trick that is being played on us, we persist hanging on to a belief in our cleverness – the belief that somehow we can beat the odds and walk out of the supermarket ‘ahead in the game’. This is the secret belief, that we all have somewhere, that there is a shortcut somewhere, a quick-fix, an easy way out. Somewhere deep inside, we are convinced of our ability to ‘beat the system’.

 

In order to have this belief we have to foster a dissymmetry in perception; like Admiral Nelson, we have to develop a convenient blindness in one eye. Because of this selective blindness, there springs into existence a strong, propelling force which entices us into the supermarket, and entices us to buy. In theatrical terms, we do come out the winner because we believe that we have beaten the system; that is what our ‘high’ is telling us. In the end, however, the accounts always get balanced and so further down the line we must inevitably suffer the ‘low’ that comes from paying the invisible costs. This is not to say that we will make the connection however, because in order to preserve the integrity of the game we need to keep the two things separate. If I actually got it into my head that the MINUS always follows the PLUS, then I would no longer be able to put my heart into it – I would no longer be able to take pleasure in my apparent victories. The theatre is spoiled when we see what goes on behind the scenes.       

 

THE ‘DOUBLE MANOEUVRE’

 

The question arises: “How can we possibly elevate the quirk of ‘focusing on the short-term pay-off and ignoring the long-term cost’ to the level of a grand (or, as we said ‘essential’) principle?” This tendency is a well-known human weakness, to be sure, but, as tendencies go, it is hardly on a par with the great universal laws that govern the behaviour of matter and energy in our universe. And yet, this is exactly what we are going to argue. We are going to demonstrate that what we are actually dealing with here is a disguised version of the second law of thermodynamics, which by any reckoning is the great granddad of natural laws. In order to show how this might be, we will first take a look at Professor James Carse’s ideas of self-veiling.

 

Our initial definition of the state of psychological unconsciousness was to say that it is ‘our capacity to deceive ourselves’. Carse approaches this in terms of games. In order to be able to play a game, he says, we need to lose the freedom that we initially had in the situation, which was the freedom not to play the game. We enter the game freely, but in order to play the game we have to relinquish this freedom of choice because if we were aware the whole time of our freedom to drop the game, we would experience no sense of necessity about what we were doing. In other words, in order to play a game we have to focus in on a narrow perspective, within which the aims of the game matter, and withdraw awareness from the wider perspective, from which we would be bound to see that winning or losing within the terms of the game don’t matter. The ‘double procedure’ of choosing freely to play, and then ignoring the way in which this was actually our free choice, Carse refers to as ‘self-veiling’.

 

We can find reference to this same double-manoeuvre in a number of different fields. Writing within sociology, Berger and Luckman (1966) identify this tricky two-step movement as reification and state that this constitutes an essential process within human social organization. Firstly, we create a set of rules, a precedent, and then, immediately following this step, we disown our authorship in the matter, so that we are saying (in effect) “This structure is not arbitrary, but part of the natural law of things”. As Berger and Luckman say, we twist things around so that the opus proprium becomes an opus alienum. Why it should be necessary for us to do this is obvious enough – we have a need for a sense of externally originated necessity in our lives, a set of rules that we can hand over responsibility to. It is as if too much freedom is a curse for us, a curse from which we wish to be delivered.

 

Professor David Bohm, turning his attention from the field of quantum physics in which he made his name to theoretical psychology, drew attention to what he saw as a fundamental operational principle in the workings of the rational mind, or the ‘system of thought’, as he called it. He elucidated this principle in terms of two simultaneous actions, or properties, of thought, which run as follows:

 

[1] Thought participates in creating the reality that it shows us

[2] Thought effectively conceals from us its own participation in this process

 

BREAKING SYMMETRY

 

Here again, then, we come across the very same mechanism. How exactly, though, do we infer the connection with entropy and the second law of thermodynamics? The first step we need to take in order to make this more obvious is to look at symmetry breaks. Richard Wilhelm (1951, p 280) provides a good introduction to this idea in his commentary to the classic Chinese text the I Ching (or Book of Changes):

 

   …For regard to any change there must be some fixed point to which the change can be referred, otherwise there can be no definite order and everything is dissolved into chaotic movement. This point of reference must be established, and this always requires a choice and a decision. It makes possible a system of co-ordinates into which everything else can be fitted. Consequently at the beginning of the world, as at the beginning of thought, there is the decision, the fixing of the point of reference.

 

The ‘decision’ that heralds the beginning of the world is known, in modern cosmological terminology, as a symmetry break. Before the symmetry breaks takes place there is no polarity (e.g. up/down; left/right; right/wrong; plus/minus) and afterwards, there is. Without the symmetry break we have the perfectly symmetrical situation of ‘no up and no down, no right and no wrong’. This situation of unbroken symmetry can be seen as the ultimate definition of reality. Bohm, for example, in his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order (1980), defines the universe as a ‘single, unbroken movement’.  Because the movement is ‘unbroken’ (or all of one piece) there is no external point of reference and no possibility of comparison with anything ‘known’ (or ‘fixed’) – it corresponds, therefore, to Wilhelm’s state of ‘chaotic movement’.

 

 

It goes without saying that we don’t usually see chaotic flux very favourably, and the other (equally unfavourable) possibility of envisaging this non-polarized state is to see it as being a kind of featureless blankness, devoid of information – a bland ‘nothing’. In fact, the opposite is true: the state of unbroken symmetry can be shown to contain infinite information. There are several ways to approach this counter-intuitive assertion. Firstly, we can try to get a handle on it by thinking in terms of complexity. When a symmetry break has taken place, it becomes possible to totally describe events in a way that makes sense within that framework. Events (or phenomena) can be exhaustively defined, and this means that they have a finite information content. Having a specific way of seeing the world means ‘sticking’, in other words, and when we ‘stick’ we don’t have to go on and on listing alternative descriptions. Without the symmetry-break, there is no sticking and so we are bound to go on and on describing the universe forever, which means that what we are trying to describe has an infinite information content. Saying that it is a ‘non-sticking situation’ means that what we are talking about is infinitely complex. Our prejudice is to think that when we can’t exhaustively describe something, then there is nothing there. When we reflect on it, this is clearly an absurd position to take: just because we can’t totally define something, or completely specify it, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there, it just means that we can’t pin it down; it means that we can’t ‘fix’ it with our thinking. ‘Non-sticking’ means that we can’t freeze-frame the object of our awareness with the false certainty that comes from arbitrarily selecting a perspective on the matter and then saying that it wasn’t arbitrary.

 

 

The other way of trying to overthrow our automatic prejudices on the matter is to see the state of unbroken symmetry as a delocalised (or globally coherent) system, like a super-conducting electric circuit. When a conducting substance becomes superconducting all the electrons start to act as if they are part of one unbroken system, which means information that is ‘known’ to any one electron, is instantaneously known to every other electron in the system. Because of this pool of information regarding ‘what is going on’ which is available to each electron, there is zero electrical resistance and this is what makes the system superconducting. Each electron in the system partakes in the whole; this means that the electrons lose their ‘isolatedness’ which in turn means that we are no longer to define them as separate, localized entities. We tend to see this ‘loss of localized existence’ in negative terms, but actually it marks a jump in the unity of the system as a whole, which makes a whole range of things possible that were not possible before. Loss of artificial separateness is a gain! When a system becomes delocalised, this is not an information collapse, but an information explosion. Partition gives way to unification, and so all that is lost are the barriers that existed to an unimpeded flow of information.

 

 

The next step in our argument is to equate unimpeded information flow (W max) to mental (or perceptual) freedom, by which we mean something like ‘the freedom to see the universe from all possible angles’.  Another way to put it would be to say that mental freedom means the ‘freedom not to stick’.  This brings us neatly back to Professor Carse’s dictum which says that ‘in order to play a game we need to veil from ourselves the freedom that we originally had, which was the freedom not to play the game’. This involves, as we have said, the double-manoeuvre of ignoring the fact that we don’t have to stick, and then ignoring the fact that we deliberately choose to ignore it. We choose not to have freedom, and then we ignore the fact that we freely chose to have no freedom. We can also see this manoeuvre in terms of breaking perceptual symmetry. Firstly we chose to take up an arbitrary viewpoint on the world, and in doing this we become subject to the information collapse that comes with it. This means that we no longer have the information available to ‘work backwards’ (so to speak), and see that we don’t have to see the world in the way that we now do. We have gone down a one-way road, the process of information loss is irreversible. This business of a system undergoing irreversible information loss (i.e. losing the information, and simultaneously losing the capacity to know that you have lost it) is entropy in a nutshell, which means that we have now related self-veiling to the second law of thermodynamics. It can readily be seen that both the ‘infinite evidence’ and the ‘supermarket’ models rely on information loss, i.e. one-sidedness of perception.

 

KNOWING REQUIRES IGNORANCE

 

What we have been saying is that through the very process of knowing stuff for sure, we have to give away freedom of perception, i.e. the freedom not to ‘stick’ at any one point of view. Stuart Kauffman was expressing this idea when he said “the act of knowing requires ignorance” (quoted in Horgan (1996, p 228). Although the idea that knowing always involves a loss of available information (i.e. an increase in the entropy content of the system) seems, on the face of it, to be self-contradictory, it makes sense when we think about it a bit more deeply. We can see how obtaining what is called ‘objective knowledge’ necessarily involves an increase in unusable information by examining the process of classification. Classification is the process whereby we find out what is going on by scrutinizing raw data and checking out it’s meaning by comparing it with what we might call ‘predetermined criteria of meaningfulness’. The essential action here consists of comparing two things: [1] the incoming information (which doesn’t yet make sense to us) and [2] a set of rules (or criteria) which are used for determining what meaning that information has for us. If the incoming information matches my criteria then I file it accordingly, and if there is no match, then I dismiss it as being irrelevant. When no match is found then this means that the information is ‘noise’ rather than ‘signal’, i.e. from the point of view of my criteria it is random (or ‘accidental’) rather than meaningful.

 

 

Once information has been processed in this way the ‘random’ portion of it has of course been lost along the way. Not only this, but it has been irreversibly lost – we cannot retrieve it even if we want to. An example of this sort of thing would be where a person is examined by a psychiatrist to see if they are suffering from ‘mental illness’. Let us say that you are checking out my mental state using standard psychiatric diagnostic criteria. You will take notice of any behaviour on my part that correlates with the symptoms that are listed, such as ‘ideas of reference’, ‘knight’s move thinking’, ‘pressure of speech’ and so on, and if I demonstrate enough of them I will be diagnosed as suffering from such and such a condition. However, behaviour not matching the classic symptoms does not contribute to a diagnosis and – generally speaking – will not be recorded. This means that the information gets lost. Because it carries no meaning within the context of the particular frame of reference being used, it is filtered out without anyone actually registering that it has been filtered out. If you did notice filtering it out, then that would mean that you took notice of it, but the point about random information is that we just don’t notice it at all; we are blind to it.

 

 

This ‘blindness’ is an essential element of the classification process: we take notice of the way in which our diagnostic criteria are relevant to the whole picture, and we ignore the way in which they are irrelevant.  Another way to put this would be to say that we fail to take account of the essential relativity of our knowledge, i.e. the way in which the information we get is only meaningful (or ‘relevant’) with respect to the criteria that we have chosen in order to be able to obtain it in the first place.  What this comes down to is of course the same ‘one-sidedness’ (or ‘dissymmetry of perception’) that we keep coming back to.  Another way to characterize this one-sidedness is by saying that we question the meaningfulness of the incoming (raw) data, but we do not question the meaningfulness of our evaluative criteria.  The judging only works one way, in other words. The judge himself is necessarily exempt from judgement; were this not so his authority would fatally compromised.

‘IGNORING’ CREATES BOUNDARIES

 

This, then, is the fundamental reason why we have to be one-sided. If I was as free to question the meaningfulness of my evaluative criteria as I am to question the incoming information, then everything would promptly dissolve into the chaotic flux referred to by Richard Wilhelm earlier. ‘Turning a blind eye’ is the trick whereby we create stability (or certainty) within the greater context of groundless flux (or radical uncertainty), which, according to the relativistic approach in science, is the ultimate nature of everything. The trick, therefore, equals Carse’s ‘self-veiling’, Berger and Luckman’s ‘reification’, and Bohm’s essential ‘two-step process’ of participation and denial of participation. The philosopher Alan Watts’ approach to this principle is particularly clear. In essence, Watts said that we ignore the way in which the outline of a figure is, at one and the same time, the ‘in-line’ of the exactly complementary figure. The figure described by the inline can be said to be complementary to the figure described by the outline because when the two are put together (like two halves of a jigsaw) the result is that there is no figure at all. In other words, the result of taking figure and anti-figure together is that they both cancel each other out.

 

 

In order to have an unambiguously defined figure I need to focus on the outline and ignore the inline. In order to have a positive (i.e. independently existing) ‘me’ I have to ignore the way in which my outline is the universe’s inline. This all comes down to boundaries: boundaries (or lines) have two sides, but we choose only to focus on what lies on the inside of the line. This means that we concentrate on the way in which stuff that lies on the outside of the line is different to stuff contained on the inside of the line, and ignore the way in which it is not different. Alternatively, we could simply say that the relevance of a boundary is always dependent upon the assumptions we make in order to arrive at it. This is the same point that we have made with regard to criteria behind the classification process – when we apply a set of criteria we end up with a bounded set of elements which basically equals all the stuff that ‘belongs’. Everything else we disregard without giving it a second thought; if we didn’t disregard it we wouldn’t have a positively defined set.  We can tie this to Bohm’s principle of the two steps of thinking, Carse’s self-veiling, and Berger and Luckman’s reification by putting it in terms of drawing a line: step one is when we freely choose to draw a line, and step two is when we ignore the fact that we freely

UNCONSCIOUSNESS AS ‘FALSE FREEDOM’

 

We can recap where we have got to in our discussion by relating the one-sidedness principle to the two models which we started off with. With regard to the ‘infinite evidence model’, we can say that the way we engineer a ‘final picture’ (i.e. a view of the world which we no longer have to question) for ourselves is by [1] selecting the evidence that agrees with our initial prejudice, and [2] ignoring the fact that we ignored evidence that didn’t agree with our bias. This is, therefore, ‘double ignoring’ – we ignore something and then ignore the fact that we are ignoring it. We slant the picture, and then say that we aren’t slanting it, which means that the picture must be objectively (or ‘independently’) true. This ability, we will suggest, is made use of to varying degrees. Most of us live with some level of what we might call ‘subjectivity’ in our lives, but we still have a healthy ability to accept responsibility for when things go wrong – we can still face difficulties, in other words. At times, however, this subjectivity clearly shades into the pathological – a person exhibiting this degree of false freedom is a person who never has to see anything that he or she does not want to see. I always get to be in the right and I never have to take the blame. Here, the mechanism of unconsciousness is like the supremely able barrister, able to argue any position equally convincingly, able to prove any point. The phenomenon of being able to convince oneself of one’s ‘rightness’ without realizing that one is convincing oneself is, of course, readily observable in everyday life. A person utilizing this mechanism of self-deception is utterly unbeatable in an argument.

 

 

There are in fact a myriad ways in which this mechanism can come into play, not just in arguments or ‘blame-games’. When I fly into a rage, or go into a sulk, what I am basically doing is choosing to believe in a certain, narrow view of reality, and then choosing not to see that I have exercised any choice in the matter. If I lose my temper and you suggest that there was a moment of choice involved in this, I will strongly deny it. I have to deny it, because what I am doing is ‘handing over responsibility’ for my state of mind to the emotion; if I were to accept responsibility that would spoil the whole thing.  All neurotic states of mind can be seen in this way: in neurosis we choose (for the sake of some short-term gain) to get stuck in a narrow, misrepresentative view of reality, and then we find ourselves in the position of having to pay the long-term cost of being adapted to a ‘false’ (or ‘over-simplified) version of reality. This idea of short-term gain versus long-term cost brings us to the ‘supermarket model’.

 

 

The one-sidedness in the supermarket scenario was, as we said, precisely this ability to focus on the short-term ‘pay-off’ and ignore the long-term consequence. We also talked about it in terms of a belief that it is possible to ‘beat the system’ and find an ‘easy way out’. In the illustration we gave the system in question was of course the supermarket but in general we may say that the ‘system’ is reality itself, i.e. the truth of the situation that we find ourselves in. In the same way that we talked about varying degrees of ‘self-deception’, so too can we point to degrees of sneakiness with regard to finding an easy way out. At one end of the spectrum, we find what might be called ‘healthy’ sneakiness. What we are talking about here is successful adaptation to a defined environment. It goes without saying that there is a pay-off for successfully adapting oneself to one’s environment and that pay-off is increased efficiency in obtaining those goals which make sense within the terms of that environment. We have already noted that the world which we live in runs on the basis of fixed laws or rules. The fact that the world is determinate in this way means that there is such a thing as legitimate ‘solutions’ to problems. It is possible to hit upon a sneaky short cut to success – for example, I might hit upon the idea of shaking a plum tree to get all the ripe plums to fall to the ground. This is easier than having to climb the tree and venture out on the branches to reach all the hard-to-get-at plums, and yet it is a perfectly valid solution all the same. To say that all successful goal-orientated behaviour comes down to ‘finding a way out’ of the problem is very nearly redundant but the reason we make such a point of it is because within the inner realm of consciousness the automatic attempt to escape or fix problems is not legitimate. In this case, what we find ourselves involved in is denial, i.e. self-deception.

 

 

Why this should be so is not immediately obvious but one way to explain it is in terms of ‘discomfort reduction’. If I pick up a hot object this causes me pain, and so I solve this problem by dropping the object. If I am hungry this too is pain, and I resolve this discomfort by finding food and eating it. Because these tactic are related to a ‘given’ external reality (i.e. a given set of rules) they are legitimate. However, if I am avoiding pain (or seeking satisfaction) through some sort of internal (which is to say, mental) tactic or trick then I am in effect ‘cheating the system’. An example of avoiding discomfort would be ignoring a perception of reality that is making me feel bad, and an example of a ‘cheating way’ of obtaining satisfaction would be focussing on a superficial view of things that allows me to feel good about myself. I might review my memory of a situation that I had just been in and ‘doctor’ it so that I can feel justified or righteous (or otherwise happy) about my role in it. Sentimentality is another example. ‘Finding a solution’ in cases like these comes down to ‘getting my own way in something’ when there is no honest way in which I can do this.

THE TEMPTATIONS OF MAXIMIZING ADAPTATION

 

It should be noted that even in the determinate world of material interactions there is a price to be paid for successful adaptation, which is why organisms have a tendency to stay slightly non-adapted. The long-term cost of adaptation is that when the environment changes, the overly well-adapted organism gets caught out. The principle here is that ‘life is never a closed book’. We may also see this in terms of complexity, which means (as we said at the beginning of our discussion) that there is no ‘fundamentally correct’ way to do things – there is no ‘final word’ here, only a series of approximations, some of which will prove more advantageous than others at any one particular point in time. For this reason, therefore, being tempted to go too far in the direction of adaptation is a dangerous game, even though it is necessary to some extent. In contrast to this, any degree of ‘adaptation’ that I might make to difficult psychological situation is going in the wrong direction. Adaptation, it will be remembered, means altering the way in which one interacts in order to get a pay-off. When I adapt myself to a narrow viewpoint on the world in order to obtain the psychological goal of not having to face a difficult (or ‘uncomfortable’) situation there is no genuine benefit at all, only a postponing of the inevitable. The very notion of trying to come up with a ‘neat solution’ to this sort of difficulty is completely absurd. There are no legitimate short cuts here – one has to bite the bullet and take the slap full on the face. The refusal to see the broader picture because it is too painful for us to do so can be seen, therefore, as illegitimate sneakiness, whereas focussing more-or-less exclusively on a specific viewpoint (or frame of reference) is obviously legitimate inasmuch as we need to survive within the terms of a ‘given’ environment.

 

 

A special case of an arbitrary viewpoint which one adapts oneself to in order to obtain a pay-off is of course society. The legitimacy of adaptation to the social system is questionable. According to Jung, it is only when we gain enough perspective on the social ‘givens’ to see that they are not our own that we start to become a genuine individual, and not an unconscious mouthpiece for society’s spurious certitudes.  We see social adaptation as healthy, but (as Erich Fromm has said) if the society one is adapting to is Hitler’s Germany, where is the health in that? The same basic argument that we used in relation to the value of ‘physical adaptation’ may be applied here on the subject of adaptation to the mental world of society: some degree of adaptation is healthy, but whenever this slides over to ‘playing the game’ in order to get the easy benefits of social approval, status or monetary reward, or in order to distract our attention away from the uncomfortable and unspecified demand that life itself makes on us, then this is not healthy, i.e. it is not beneficial to psychological growth.

 

ADAPTATION EQUALS ADDICTION

 

Bridging the two poles of adaptation to the outer world and adaptation to the inner (or mental) world is addiction. Addiction may be seen as an ‘unhealthy’ adaptation to one’s physical environment, by which we mean that the short-term gain is illegitimate. Addiction is a sort of problem-solving which involves an unhealthy degree of ignoring – a short cut to satisfaction that only seems to make sense if we take an extremely narrow view of things. Just like neuroticism (or denial) in general, addiction can be seen in terms of a ‘false solution’ to a problem. In an addiction I adapt myself to an oversimplified version of the world – a crude simulation which reduces life to an easily solvable problem. This crude simulation has the drawback of having no real correspondence to the true ‘complex’ situation, but it has the advantage of providing us with a much easier route to satisfaction than real life, which (as psychotherapist M. Scott Peck (1978) says in the first page of The Road Less travelled) requires vastly more from us in the way of work. For example, if I am a heroin addict, then the demand that life makes upon me is reduced to the straightforward task of obtaining the drug. Once I have done this, and have got the drug into my system, I feel that I have achieved all that I need to achieve, and can bask in the resultant feeling of satisfaction. The reason the drug was so named was, in fact, precisely because the chemist who first synthesised it noticed that it made him feel like a ‘hero’. Thus, by resorting to the false solution of addiction, I get to feel like a hero without really earning that feeling. The short-term goal, therefore, is the euphoria of ‘theatrical’ success, and the long-term cost is estrangement from reality, and entrapment in the meaningless cycle of addiction. As Gregory Bateson has observed, addiction is only a special case of adaptation in general, which means that we can see society as having the function of providing us with a ‘short-cut to satisfaction’ – a theatrical victory, a false solution to life’s demand. If, therefore, we content ourselves with the thought that we have ‘made it’ in society’s terms, we have in reality sold ourselves short and denied ourselves the opportunity to become what we really are. In short, the social system strongly encourages us to ‘stick’ and this inevitably translates into a curb on awareness and the process of psychological growth.

 

 

Earlier on, we identified the tendency to go for the illegitimate option of the easy answer as a basic psychological drive, and we illustrated this drive by using the ‘supermarket model’. The one-sidedness involved in the supermarket model comes down to a commitment to seeing life only within the narrow frame of reference that allows us to find our ‘successes’ meaningful, and (conversely) to not allowing ourselves to see the wider picture. At this stage of the argument we can of course see that the one-sidedness involved in the ‘infinite evidence’ model is the same thing as the one-sidedness in the ‘supermarket model’. In the latter, as we have seen, the pay-off can be seen in terms of having a course of action open to us – a framework of meaning within which there is no ambiguity or difficulty regarding what I have to ‘do’ in order to obtain satisfaction. We may refer to this as theatrical motivation or ‘the motivation of the game’. In the former, the pay-off is that I get to believe in a particular ‘positive’ view (or ‘picture’) of reality – I obtain the reassurance of having a handle on things, which comes down to eliminating uncertainty. When pushed to an extreme, this becomes the ‘the ability to always feel that I am right’, no matter what. The one-sidedness is, therefore, a commitment to seeing the universe only within the narrow frame of reference that allows me to see that my view of the world is meaningful, and to not allow ourselves to see the way in which it is not meaningful.

 

 

In both cases, what we are looking at is the tendency to go for a ‘false-solution’ to life’s demands – a tendency to manufacture for ourselves a species of spurious certainty. Spurious certainty is another way of talking about ‘sticking’ and we can develop this idea by utilizing John Bennett’s (1961) deceptively simple formulation REALITY EQUALS WORK. We have already mentioned Scott Peck’s approach, which is to say that LIFE IS DIFFICULT, and these two statements are clearly equivalent. Rather than accept the work, or the difficulty, we all have a tendency to ‘short-circuit’ (or cheat) the system by going for false solutions. In order that the false solution remains believable to us, we have to resort to the condition of psychological unconsciousness. Sticking, we might say, means deciding to look no further for an answer, and doing this in a sneaky way so that we don’t actually admit to ourselves that we ever had the option of looking further (or looking deeper). The implication is, therefore, that this is the ‘easy option’, whereas ‘not sticking’ is the hard thing to do. This makes sense from Scott Peck’s perspective because he sees work as essentially the effort that is needed to go beyond oneself, or ‘extend oneself’ as he says. Abraham Maslow was saying that same thing when he said that neurosis is rooted in ‘fear of novelty’. Basically, we fear going outside the comfort-zone of the known, but because admitting this would involve acknowledging that there is ‘an unknown’ that we are avoiding, we cannot afford to be honest about this fear. We end up living a petty life, whilst convincing ourselves all the time that to do so is in fact a virtue.

 

 

Sticking means covertly deciding that we don’t want to learn anything new, deciding that we don’t to change. The motto here might be “Anything rather than rock the boat”.  Non-sticking means continually going beyond oneself, which is continual learning. This is hard because it is painful – we continually have to relinquish what we achieved. As we all know, to relinquish what used to be a valid understanding of the world is real test of character – the temptation is always to insist that what was once a valid truth, is in fact the one and only truth, to assert defensively that it is ‘true for all time’. The motto for non-sticking might be “To see the truth, at any cost”. We can see, therefore, that in the infinite evidence scenario, the ‘hard thing to do’ is to see that there is no straightforward answer to our question, that the universe is at root an impenetrable enigma. In the supermarket scenario, the ‘hard thing to do’ is to see that there is no short cut out of our predicament, that we can’t get something for nothing. In the first case we see that the possibility of obtaining the reassurance of ‘definitely seeing that the way we are looking at things is the right way’ does not exist, and in the second case we see that the possibility of obtaining the reassurance of ‘definitely knowing that what we are doing is the right thing to do’ does not exist. In other words, awareness of relativity is work, whilst a cosy belief in absolutism is ‘non-work’.

 

HANDING OVER FREEDOM

 

We can summarize what we have been saying in a simple and straight-forward way by saying that unconsciousness is how we get to take the ‘ignoble choice’ whilst believing that we did not chose it, but had to do it. Unconsciousness always involves this duplicity. In essence, we want to be not free, and yet at the same time we don’t want to know that we actually chose to hand over our freedom. The reason we don’t want to know of our complicity in this is obvious – if I knew that I freely chose to be not free, then this would entail knowing that I was free after all because the only reason I am unfree is because I wanted it that way. Therefore, the two-step action here is [1] choosing to be unfree, and [2] choosing not to see that I chose. If I saw that I chose to have no choice then that would mean that I had a choice after all.

 

 

This two-step movement also means doing something, and then saying that we did not do it. It is of course not very flattering to hear that we are guilty of such dishonesty, and for the most part it is easy to deny. There are however times when the duplicity rises close to the surface and becomes easier to spot. Losing one’s temper or going into a sulk are two such instances. A typical example would be when I discover that a friend has borrowed a shirt that I wanted to wear. Careful self-observation will unfailingly show that there is an initial moment of freedom in which I don’t have to get angry.  It is as if I am balanced on a knife-edge – either I can forget about it and chose another shirt or I can experiment with feeling ‘hard done by’. In this second case I discover that there is a very satisfying feeling associated with seeing the unjustifiable unfairness of what my friend has done, and before I know it I will have forgotten that I deliberately flirted with this feeling, and it will seem to me that the anger or the sulk just came upon me without any complicity on my part. Needless to say, I cannot take my anger or my sulking seriously if I know that I deliberately chose it. And yet, I cannot obtain the satisfaction associated with the emotional reaction without making the first move myself. The way out of this dilemma (as with so many others) is provided for me by the mechanism of unconsciousness.

 

 UNCONSCIOUSNESS AS ‘NEGATIVE FREDOM’

 

From the point of view of classical (psychodynamic) psychology, our formulation of the ‘state of unconsciousness’ might appear somewhat bare. After all, it might be said that we have reduced the concept to a mere technicality – it becomes no more than a ‘blind-spot’. In David Bohm’s terms this is exactly correct – the ‘unconsciousness’ of the system of thought is the built-in systematic error, the unfounded assumptions that the system is not free to see.  This corresponds with Jung’s idea of the duplex nature of rational thought, i.e. the way in which it denies its shadow-side. Clearly, when Jung talks about the collective unconscious he is referring to something very different. In terms of the personal unconscious, we can draw a rudimentary connection in that the function of the unconscious here is simply to facilitate our ignorance   – it is a way in which we can contrive to not be aware of stuff that we do not want to know about. Our definition of the state of unconsciousness goes far beyond this, however. We are not talking about the good old-fashioned idea of a mental ‘basement’ in which we can throw contents that we prefer not to know about, but rather of the possibility of creating a complete and highly convincing false-reality which we can absorb ourselves in to the exclusion of everything else. The notion that people can sometimes retreat into fantasy world when the pressure of real life becomes too much is a well-established one, but it is assumed that this is a rather exotic psychiatric phenomenon. What we are saying is that it is not the exception but the rule, i.e. we all subscribe to a false version of reality. Using Bohm’s approach, we may say that we live in a world created by our thinking, and take our ‘thoughts about reality’ to be the same thing as reality itself. To put it bluntly, thought creates a virtual reality world that is so self-consistent (or ‘seamless’) that we don’t see that it is in fact a simulation and not reality at all.

 

This idea has also been put forward by psychiatrist Stanislav Grof. Grof suggests in his book The Cosmic Game that consciousness has the power to lose itself in its own creations. This property of creating believable illusions is so efficient that it is the easiest thing in the world to get lost in such make-believe worlds. As Grof (1998, p 197) says:

 

Since by our true nature we are unlimited spiritual beings, we enter the cosmic game on the basis of a free decision and get trapped by the perfection with which it is executed.

 

At this point, it becomes clear that this way of thinking about the unconscious state has far more in common with the Eastern concept of samsara than it does with any idea found in convention Western psychology. Samsara is generally defined in terms of an ‘ocean of self-deception’ within which it is possible to wander virtually for ever, with practically zero chance of discerning the true nature of what is going on. In samsara, we operate on the basis of a totally false notion of self, and so no matter where we go, we carry the illusion-realm with us because that ‘self’ never existed in the first place.

 

 

There are also strong links with Western esoteric traditions, the clearest of which would be John Bennett’s idea of negative freedom. Negative freedom basically equals the ‘freedom not to be free’; Bennett (1961) also brings in to play the related concept of negative order, which he defines as follows:

 

Negative order is not disorder, but order in the wrong place. It is characteristic of the Nullity that it believes in its own world. In place of the universal determining-conditions which alone can distinguish between possible and impossible situations, the Nullity substitutes its own accidentally formed views and convictions as the criteria of truth. ‘Man the measure’ is interpreted by the Nullity to mean that its own subjective attitudes are the realities with which all experience can be tested.

 

The ‘Nullity’ that Bennett speaks of is the false or ‘thought-created’ self. It is designated as null because all of its actions are effectively compensated so that, over-all, every gain is annulled by a corresponding loss, and so there is no real change at all, only the appearance of change. This is, therefore, another way of saying that the world created by rational thought is a game. In Mahayana Buddhism we find this idea expressed in terms of the ‘cyclic mind’, i.e. the mind that gets nowhere because it is forever going around in circles. What lies outside the tautological circle of rational thought can obviously never be described in terms that our conceptual minds can understand, but it can nevertheless be described in a purely negative fashion.

 

 

We said in the introductory section that understanding the state of unconsciousness would tell us something about the state of consciousness. Unconsciousness we approached in terms of sticking, and so, from this, it is clear that we must understand consciousness as the state of non-sticking. In Buddhism the term ‘non-abiding’ is often used, the meaning of which can be clearly seen from this quotation from Section 14 of the Diamond Sutra (a work which has the distinction of probably being the world’s oldest extant printed book):

 

   …Therefore, Subhuti, bodhisattvas should leave behind all phenomenal distinctions and awaken the thought of the consummation of incomparable enlightenment by not allowing the mind to depend upon notions evoked by the sensible world – by not allowing the mind to depend upon notions evoked by sounds, odors, flavours, touch contacts, or any qualities. The mind should be kept independent of any thoughts that arise within it. If the mind depends upon anything, it has no safe haven.

 

The state which is described as ‘the consummation of incomparable enlightenment’ is therefore the state of being absolutely independent of (and irrelevant to) any means of rationally apprehending it. This means that any idea we might have of it is utterly and completely wrong. This sounds negative and frustrating when we come from the standpoint of thinking, but it seems perfectly as it should be when approached from the standpoint of consciousness itself. This is not to lose sight of the fact that consciousness actually has no standpoint, that it is the complete absence of any standpoint whatsoever. The finite always runs into problems when it tries to imagine the infinite, as Alan Watts (1950, p 53-4) explains:

 

Beginning, then, with the infinite, we have to understand as clearly as may be what the word means. Inevitably man’s imagination tries to grasp the infinite in terms of size and space, as that which expands outwards forever, or perhaps as that which contracts inwards forever. Similarly, the imagination has to think of the eternal as an unending time series, or perhaps as that ever-diminishing point of time called the moment. If the imagination tries to conceive the infinite in terms of knowledge or consciousness, it must perforce think of an indefinitely vast mass of sentiency, reaching out from its centre to know every detail of the finite universe and beyond. Here, as it were, is a mind without the material or spatial bounds of the five senses. Its sight reaches in all directions; the rocks and stars are transparent, and no conceivable telescope could outdistance the penetration of its vision into interminable space. So, too, in terms of power, imagination pictures the infinite as force multiplied without end to make the simultaneous explosion of every atom in the universe a mere firecracker. But expand, prolong, magnify, and multiply as we may, we are not one fraction nearer to the true infinite than when we began, for the terms of time and space are not applicable to the infinite.

 

 

To denote the infinite at all in terms of thought we shall have to ‘outline’ it by the limitations of space and time, calling it the sizeless or spaceless and the timeless. We shall have to try to think of the infinite as having no size at all, so that, regarding it from the standpoint of space, we shall be able to say that the infinite exists in its entirety at every point of space. Or, to put it another way, from the standpoint of the infinite every point of space is absolutely here, for there is not a different infinite at every place. In yet another way, we can say that there is no space or distance between the whole infinite and anything at all.

 

 

We can also try to understand the infinite by considering the principle of qualitative change. We have looked at qualitative change already when we said that one way to describe the universe is to call it an ‘unbroken movement’, i.e. a movement which has no fixed context within which to take place. If the universe is just such a movement, then clearly no fixed standpoint can ever be expected to throw any useful light on the process. The only ‘useful’ thing we can do is to do nothing at all – take no position at all – and allow the process to speak for itself, as it were. This means not describing what is going on, but allowing what is going on, to go on. The point about this is that I (as an external viewpoint) am no longer needed, I am not merely redundant – I am a positive obstacle. It can be seen, therefore, that ‘consciousness’ (i.e. the state of having a relationship to the whole movement and not just to a static snapshot of the process) only involves not two things but one thing. There is not the opposition of subject and object which we normally take for granted, but the ‘One Thing’ spoken of by the alchemists. Another way to put this would be simply to say that consciousness itself is the ultimate reality.

 

We have in this concluding discussion related the phenomenon of ‘consciousness’ to both infinity and the ultimate reality. This dual association tends to present difficulties but, according to Alan Watts (1950, p 56-7), these difficulties are due purely to the prejudices inherent in our way of thinking:

 

Now it may seem strange to speak of the infinite as conscious, as a knowing subject. The modern mind suffers from the odd prejudice that consciousness is a purely superficial outgrowth of reality, and that the more fundamental a power, principle or substance becomes, the more blind and unconscious it must be. Others imagine that consciousness is a determination, a finite quality, and therefore inapplicable to the infinite. It is true that conscious as we know it is to a degree finite and determined. But as infinite being is the necessary ground of finite existence, infinite consciousness is the necessary ground of finite knowledge and experience. Pure consciousness is no more a determination than being itself. On the contrary, the two are identical and no determinations, or objects, can exist without them.  …

 

…Things are things, objects are objects, only because they participate in the infinite being and consciousness. Were the infinite unconscious, consciousness would have emerged ex nihilo in a manner far more contradictory than a fig growing from a thistle. If all things are merely special forms of a primal blind force or substance, consciousness is nothing more than a special form of unconsciousness – which is as absurd as saying that heat is a special form of cold, or that energy is a particular mode of inertia.

 

The notion that the ultimate Reality must be less conscious than man is one of the most striking examples of the confusion of the temporal with the eternal. For the idea comes from the observation that things which precede man in time are less conscious and, going back earlier, unconscious. But the supposition that things are fully explainable by what precedes them in time, and that what is earliest in time is closest to the nature of eternity is pure imagination. Things may to some degree be explained by their history, but no amount of history will explain why or how there happens to be any history at all. A principle which will bear considerable thought is that the attempt to explain the present by the past alone is virtually an attempt to derive what exists from what does not. As a sufficient cause of the present, the past has the peculiar disqualification of not existing.

 

Many of the terms for the infinite employed in the various metaphysical traditions signify nothing so much as pure consciousness – the Self, the Light, Universal Mind (alaya-vijnana), and even the void (sunyata), which in Mahayana Buddhism denotes not so much mere emptiness as an absolute clarity and transparency. The truth, however, that the infinite is conscious is, like its very existence, beyond any objective proof. It comes from the metaphysical realization that man’s consciousness, which is the necessary ground of his experience, is a particular mode of the ultimate Reality and is, in essence, identical with the ground of the whole of the universe. That which lies at the foundation of the universe will be immeasurably more – not less – than that which underlies human experience. 

 

 

We can summarize all the above in a simple mathematical fashion, in a way that will be recognized from the infinite evidence model. Consciousness may be defined as the state where all ways of looking at the world are equally good (or equally bad). This is the state of unbroken symmetry. Unconsciousness, on the other hand, can be succinctly defined as the state where there exists a basic right/wrong polarity with regard to descriptions. We can also see this in terms of movement (or ‘change’): qualitative change means that all rules are equally allowed, which means that there is no one rule (which is to say, the only rule is that there is no rule), whilst quantitative change involves a precisely defined set of regulatory rules. From this we can see that unconsciousness is essentially ‘managed change’, whilst consciousness is ‘unmanaged’ (or ‘unmanipulated’) change.

 

 

We can also tie this in with the idea of locality versus non-locality. Where there is a clearly defined right and wrong, yes and no, then this is the state of locality – I am here, but I am not there. This is the state of the conditioned or finite self, which is when consciousness does not (as Grof says) know its own true, unlimited nature. The true, unlimited (or unconditioned) Self is ‘non-local’, which simply means (as Watts says) that ideas of ‘here versus there’ are sublimely irrelevant. The ‘I’ that thinks it is local is the false, relative (or theatrical) ‘I’ which we identify with in the state of unconsciousness, whilst the ‘I’ which does not limit itself in this way is the non-local ‘I’ of absolute consciousness.

 

 

To put this another way, unconsciousness is the state in which there are no profound surprises, the state in which there is no radical uncertainty. There is trivial uncertainty, but everything we encounter is known for sure and definite. Everything is an echo of our assumptions, an unfailing confirmation of our expectations. The combination of the specific things that we are to experience is of course an unknown, but the building blocks themselves are known from the start. The sign of unconsciousness is therefore that everything feels familiar or known – just as something we take totally for granted seems familiar or known. When we awaken from this state, however, we see that nothing is as certain as we had thought, and we look around us with eyes that register hitherto unglimpsed wonders. There is a depth of mystery to everything, including ourselves. We said at the start that psychological unconsciousness can be defined in terms of ‘the capacity to lie to oneself’ or the ‘capacity to distract ourselves’ – we may at the end of this discussion paraphrase John Bennett and say that the basic lie (or deception) which unconsciousness propagates is to say that what doesn’t exist, does, and what does exist, doesn’t! The result of this reversal is that we spend our lives chasing (or running away from) innumerable phantoms, whilst neglecting what really matters, which is reality.

 

 

According to Rumi, ‘God made the illusion look real and the real an illusion’, which very much suggests that God wants us to be unconscious, that this is part of the game-plan. But if it is all part of the game-plan that we lose ourselves in unconsciousness, the other side of this plan is that we must one day find ourselves again…

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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