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Self-Reflexive Knowledge

From the Western tradition of rational philosophy, pondering the nature of existence seems like a perfectly valid thing to do! To analyze reality is seen as being an entirely legitimate way to proceed – in fact it’s de rigueur. You won’t be taken seriously by anyone as a philosopher if you don’t get down to the important business of subjecting everything you come across to rigorous logical analysis.

 

 

This is all laughably ridiculous, though. The whole Western tradition of philosophy is laughably ridiculous. What’s ridiculous is that we have  made a whopping great assumption right at the beginning of all our efforts and we have never at any point thought it important to acknowledge having done so. We couldn’t actually be further from acknowledging it. The ‘whopping great assumption’ that we have made is that we can meaningfully split reality into parts (and this is of course the assumption that the rational mind has to make if it is to proceed in the way that it needs to proceed if it is ever to do any rationalizing). Or as we could also (and equivalently) say, the whopping great assumption that we have made is that there is such a thing as a ponderer who ponders, an analyzer who analyzes…

 

 

So from the perspective of the unreal ponderer, the unreal analyst, we can go ahead and philosophize to our heart’s content. We can say that existence is such-and-such thing, or that reality follows such-and-such a principle or rule, and that’s all fine as far as it goes. The only thing is, it doesn’t go very far. It doesn’t actually go anywhere. Whatever it is that the ponderer or the analyst comes out with at the end of his deliberations doesn’t count for anything at the end of the day because the ponderer or analyst doesn’t exist. This puts the kybosh on everything, naturally! It doesn’t matter how brilliant the ponderer is at pondering, or how sharp-minded the analyst is, this fundamental flaw of ‘proceeding from an unreal position’ (i.e. the position that the ponderer / analyst in question actually exists) makes all subsequent deliberations quite redundant. They are redundant because they never took place – they only appeared to take place from the false perspective adopted by that ponderer, that analyst!

 

 

A chain is only as strongest as its weakest link, so it is said, and the weakest link in the chain of self-reflexive knowledge is very weak indeed! The weakest link in this particular chain isn’t actually there at all; there is no link – we’re just acting as if there was, we’re just pretending that there is so that we can get on with what we want to do, which is to weave a web of positive knowledge to tie ourselves up in. The link that is missing is the one that connects us with reality, which is a link that we pretty obviously need to have in place if we are to get on with the business of constructing a viable ‘system of knowledge’. The problem that prevents us from establishing this vital link with reality arises just as soon as we try to measure it, or just as soon as we try to say something that is ‘literally true’ about it (which comes to the same thing). Literal (or concrete) statements about reality are measurements – they stand in exactly the same relation to it because they claim to be saying something that is definitely true and not just a guess or hypothesis or something like that. The problem or glitch comes in here then because this type of literal relationship between our statements and reality just doesn’t exist. It can’t exist – the whole thing is a non-starter. What we’re talking about here isn’t just a ‘problem’ therefore – it’s the end of the matter. It’s never going to happen; we’re never going to be able to measure anything real.

 

 

What we have just said here isn’t by any means easy to see, but we can demonstrate that it is true nonetheless. For a phenomenon to be ‘real’ it has to be infinitely complex; it has to have infinite algorithmic complexity – that’s the only possible qualification. One way of looking at why this should be so is to say that if some phenomenon exists in the real world (rather than in the formal realm of our thoughts) then it must necessarily be connected with everything else that exists in the real world. It is a basic physical principle that no ‘hard and fast’ boundaries exist in reality – hard-and-fast rules only apply to the formal world, not the real one. They are only to be found in the domain of logic and ‘logic’ and ‘reality’ couldn’t be further apart. One is the (presumed) map and the other is the territory. An absolute boundary is the same thing as ‘a rule that can never be broken’ and a rule that can never be broken is something that we can find only within the ‘safe and secure’ confines of a formal system, which is a system we can describe both literally and exhaustively (i.e. it is a system that we have total control over).

 

 

A situation that can be exhaustively described in terms of hard-and-fast rules is what we might call ‘an over-simplification of reality’ – it is an over-simplification simply because it ignores all cases or instances in which the rule in question is broken!  It ignores all irregularities, in other words, and so we end up with a situation in which all ‘oddness’ (or ‘idiosyncrasy’) has been ironed out, a situation which is made up entirely of ‘the regular’. The thing about rules is that they can never be only ‘relatively true’ (or relatively valid’) because if this is the case (if the rule in question isn’t always a rule, under all circumstances) then it isn’t a rule at all. We might hear talk of ‘fuzzy logic’ but there isn’t any such thing, not really; there’s no such thing as genuine fuzzy logic because there’s no such thing a ‘fuzzy rule’. What would a ‘fuzzy rule’ look like, after all? In a real world system however all possible statements are only ever relatively true because what we state necessarily depends upon what viewpoint we choose to take on the matter. Our ‘truths’ depend on what assumptions we started out with – actually our so-called ‘truths’ are never any more than disguised restatements of these assumptions. We can’t EVER depart from them, no matter how much we twist and turn. Another way of putting this is to say that the literal descriptions we come out with depend upon what we have decided to ignore, what we have decided to leave out of our calculations. The thing about this however is that what we call ‘reality’ isn’t reality if we have arrived at it by leaving something out (whilst at the same time not knowing what it was that we have left out).

 

 

A picture of reality which is produced by tacitly agreeing to ignore stuff or leave stuff out is an over-simplification and an over-simplification is nothing more than a mental construct, an extension of our own thinking process. The glitch is therefore (as we have already mentioned) that when we measure the world what are actually doing here is measuring our own mental construction of reality. As soon as the system starts measuring itself (and making statements about the world on this basis) then we know we’re in trouble! What kind of insanity is this – the system is measuring itself. We can of course produce reams and reams of positive knowledge by analyzing the data that is produced by investigating the world though the filter of our models and theories about what reality is and is not, and we can then also proceed to drown in it, become totally submerged in it, but all of the so-called ‘information’ we are generating via the self-reflexive loop of ‘measuring our own over-simplification of reality’ is hallucinatory not real. When the system measures itself the result is hyperreality, and the hyperreal contains no clue as to where it begins and where it ends. Self-reference unleashes the full force of hyperreality upon us therefore, which is a danger we have not even the slightest understanding of. We too foolish to fear it, which is what the Buddhist teachers say about samsara – the Eastern word for hyperreality.

 

 

It really does seem to us that we can measure reality, however. It really does seem to us that we can measure the world without ending up in the reflexive trap of measuring only our own theories about it. Isn’t the basic division of night and day a naturally occurring measure, we might ask? How is the diurnal rhythm of night and day only a construct? But of course it is a construct – it’s a construct of our viewpoint, which is the planet Earth rotating around its axis. We might naively imagine that the night followed by day cycle is part of the natural order of things, that it is not just our way of seeing things that has created it (as a type of artefact), but this is just not the case. This is a simple example to understand and we can concede the point quite happily but still remain unconvinced of the overall argument – the overall argument being that all measurements – without exception – are constructs (or ‘projections’) rather than being intrinsic characteristics of reality itself. What about the spin or charge of a subatomic particle, we might ask? What about electromagnetic radiation, which can be quantified as every physics student knows in terms of wavelength / frequency and amplitude / energy content? What about the universal physical constants such as the gravitational constant G, the speed of light C, Planck’s constant h, or the Planck length? Surely the Planck distance (10-35 M) can be taken as a universally valid measurement?

 

 

The biggest difficulty in seeing through the apparently ‘hard’ nature of measurements such as these comes from our mind-conditioned inability to see that cyclical (or sinusoidal) movement is not actually movement at all. Why is this? Simply because all cyclical / sinusoidal movement is made of two parts, one being movement in a PLUS direction and the other being movement in the complementary MINUS direction. Taken together – as of course they must be – the net result is always precisely zero. The whole point about cyclical motion is that in reality nothing is happening, despite there being the appearance that there is if we only look at on the partial scale of things. There seems to be progress in the first phase of the activity, but then the ‘progress’ that appeared to have been made is neatly erased again in the second phase of events. To cross twice is not to cross’, as George Spencer-Brown says in his Laws of Form.  Any measurements that are made of cyclical movement are always going to be null therefore (if we assume that the full movement or cycle is taken into consideration, which they have to be if they are to represent that movement correctly). All activity that is cyclical in nature (and any inferences that may be made from it is always going to be ‘null’. The domain of possibilities that is made up of cyclical movements (or ‘vibrations) is a null domainit is a domain that doesn’t really exist!

 

 

Following on from this statement, we can also say that regular movement – of whatever kind – isn’t real. It’s not real movement, it’s not real anything. Regular information isn’t information – it’s the superficial appearance of information disguised as the real thing. This ought to be as plain as the nose on one’s face, but it isn’t. If it’s regular then it’s redundant because it’s a repeat of the same thing; if it’s a repeat of the same thing then there’s zero information content to it – there’s nothing new to say so why bother saying it? Reality (whatever that is) throws out these regularities, these cyclical manifestations, but actually it throws out nothing because they aren’t there. The manifestations aren’t real – they only seem real when we’re caught up in them and when as a result of being caught up in them (as a result of being trapped in the conditioned mind) we can only see one half of the picture at a time. the trap is therefore that we can only see a POSITIVE or a NEGATIVE but not the two together; if we could see the two together that it isn’t really anything but this we cannot do. As far as we are concerned YES and NO are completely different things and most emphatically not the two aspects of the very same cyclical movement!

 

 

Everything that has form comes out of a circle. A circle is made up of the movement from PLUS to MINUS and back again, which is no movement. That’s what a circle is – no movement disguised as movement. Everything that has form is made up of UP and DOWN, PLUS and MINUS, LEFT and RIGHT, YES and NO. How could it be otherwise? The universe of form is thus self-cancelling or null – we just can’t see it to be so. We can see how this is so easily enough for circles and also for circles mapped out in time (i.e. sinusoidal oscillations of YES/NO/YES/NO/YES/NO) but it is also true for all definite statements, of whatever nature they might be. This too is very clear to see once we do see it – if I say that such-and-such a proposition is definitely true then the definite truth that I am making such a big deal of, such a song-and-a-dance about, only gets to be such by contrasting it with the opposite (or complementary) proposition, which is “Such-and-and such is definitely untrue”. We have the two opposing positions equally involved here therefore; take either position away and the whole thing collapses back into uncertainty. This too is a circle therefore. If we take ‘a partial view’ and look only at Phase 1 or Phase 2 then we think something significant has been said (or thought) – if however we take the holistic view’ and see the two phases of the movement together (as they are together) then we see that nothing was said. The statement (or thought) is then revealed as being quite null…

 

 

Form cannot come into (conditional) existence except via self-cancelling, self-nullifying circles, therefore. This can be seen with great clarity just as long as we aren’t understanding everything through the filter of the perennially blinkered rational mind. Saying that form cannot come into being except via self-cancelling circles is the same thing as saying that form (or structure) can’t come into existence unless it does within the implicitly self-contradictory terms of the continuum of logic. A logical continuum is what we create when we pull [+] and [-] apart to produce a virtual type of ‘space’ between them. We CAN’T pull PLUS and MINUS apart and there IS no space between them but this is – nevertheless – how we create the continuum of logic, which is the same thing as ‘the continuum of thought’. In a logical continuum logic is the boss and things are the way the logic says they are; within the terms of the continuum there is space between the two poles of POSITIVE and NEGATIVE and as a result we can move in either the one direction or the other. We can occupy different locations on the continuum and each position can be precisely defined in terms of two sets of readings – the position with regard to the X-axis and the position with regard to the Y-axis. We can add extra axes at right angles to this plane if we so wish, but the principle remains the same – all that happens is that we get extra dimensions in our continuum and so more measurements need to be provided to define the location of a point in it. The definition of ‘where we are in the continuum’ is both literal and exhaustive – it is literal and exhaustive because there is nothing else to the continuum other than the information provided by the defining axes. The description is equal to the content, in other words.

 

 

Objects can have extension in the formal world which is the logical continuum and what this ‘extension’ comes down to is a basic logical predictability – the same thing is repeated ‘frame after frame’, so to speak. What we are describing here is of course a very normal idea and no one is going to have any problems with it. Extension in ‘logic space’ is the same thing as what we earlier referred to as regularity – all that is happening is that a law is being enacted and the enactment (or obeying) of law always results in ‘regularities’. Another way of talking about the regular pattern that comes about as a result of following the rule is to say that it is a tautology. All rules are tautological; rules can’t not be tautological otherwise they would ‘disagree with themselves’, and this is another way of saying that regular patterns are ‘extensions in an unreal direction’, which for this reason is not an ‘extension’ at all. Nothing is being said in a tautology, and nothing is being extended (or developed) in the logical expansion of a definite statement.

 

 

This gives us a neat way of looking at the physical, tangible or ‘measurable’ universe: the physical universe, we may say, is the extension of an immeasurable and intangible reality in an unreal dimension. Within this ‘extension’ there can be such a thing as measurement, there can be definite statements and positive data, but because the whole thing is taking place in an unreal (or tautological) dimension these measurements, these definite statements don’t actually count for anything. The fact that we inhabit this unreal dimension, this continuum of logic, and steadfastly refuse to acknowledge our source – which is not logical (or quantitative) in nature – does not make the measurements which constitute our mind-created world any more real. The world we name and measure and are familiar with on this basis isn’t real – that is just our ‘treatment’ of an unknowable reality, which creates a kind of ‘quantitative shell’ that we relate to in place of (or in preference to) the immeasurable ‘real world’. So if we come back to Planck’s length and the question as to whether this basic metric constitutes an intrinsic characteristic or feature of reality or not. Clearly, it doesn’t. It can’t constitute an intrinsic characteristic of reality because it is a distance, the same as any other distance and all distances or lengths are as we have said ‘excursions in an unreal dimension’. All distances represent the tautological expansion of a point within a logical framework – the logical framework itself isn’t real (because it’s an abstraction) and the geometrical point that we started off from isn’t real either because it’s an artefact of the logical framework or continuum. Planck’s length is no different to any other length in this regard, apart from being very small…

 

 

This same argument holds for all the physical constants – all the physical constants are measureable (they could hardly be otherwise) and because they are measurable, because they are quantities, they are artefacts of the logical continuum. Or as we could also say, they are created by polarity, they are created by the circular movement of POSITIVE turning into NEGATIVE. Take away the +/- axis (take away polarity) and you necessarily take away all quantization of the universe. What isn’t quantifiable is uniqueness (i.e. genuine information or newness) and ‘uniqueness’ is another way of talking about reality. How do we measure uniqueness? In order to do this we would have to have another thing like the thing we are measuring (we’d have to have a ‘known framework’, in other words) but if we did have ‘another thing’ (or a ‘known framework’ that corresponds to it) then the original thing that we are investigating would no longer be unique. The idea of ‘measuring newness’ is of course absurd  – as soon as we measure it (whatever ‘it’ may be) it immediately becomes old. The whole endeavour is like ‘freezing motion in order to study it better’ – this approach is clearly just not going to work, we can’t learn anything about motion this way! As we have said, earlier, the continuum of logic is the same thing as the system of thought, which means that anything we measure or talk about ‘objectively’ in relation to the mind and its domain just isn’t real. This is a curious point to consider , particularly as modern rational psychology has put all its eggs in one basket with regard to proceeding full-tilt in the direction of assuming that everything important about human psychology must be quantifiable, must come in the form of measurements and objective data. An unreal mind is earnestly studying itself!

 

 

Self-reflexive knowledge is then knowledge that we obtain as a result of measuring and evaluating data that has been produced via the mechanism of our own models, via the mechanism of our own over-simplification of reality. Essentially, therefore, the system is measuring itself. If we want to look at this in terms of ‘assumptions’ we can say that our key assumption is that whatever is not addressed by our model or theory is not really relevant, is not really important. We could also say that self-reflexive knowledge (knowledge that ‘feeds off itself’) is a closed system – nothing new can ever come into it. Another way of looking at the ‘basic assumption’ that we are making when we think about the world is to say that what we are assuming is that our abstract mental yardstick has some kind of genuine correspondence with an external or independent reality. We are assuming that there is some kind of match, some kind of fit going on there. Thus, the thinking process of ‘trying out our yardstick’ produces the possibility of two types of message coming back at us re this external reality – either we will get back a YES answer or we will get a NO, either we will obtain a POSITIVE or a NEGATIVE. Once our cognitive apparatus can produce digital / binary information in this way then we are away. There’s no stopping us –we can now proceed to produce a seamless digital (i.e. positive) universe for ourselves to live in!

 

 

‘Positive’ doesn’t mean that the universe that we are creating is made up entirely of YES messages (or ‘pluses’), it just means that it is entirely created out of definites, since NO is every bit as definite an answer as YES. The superlatively definite or certain nature of YES and NO, PLUS and MINUS is however a smokescreen  – and a highly effective one – which prevents us from seeing that our mental yardstick (which is busy working away in the background) doesn’t actually match anything other than itself. The assumption – and there never was a more taken-for-granted assumption – is that there IS a match but there simply isn’t. There’s no match at all –even the supposition that there is a possibility, however remote, of there being a match is completely wide of the mark. We really haven’t a clue if this is the way we are thinking, and this is always the way that we are thinking!

 

 

A standard can always match itself. As soon as we come up with a standard – any standard – we know that it is going to be a perfect fit with itself. It matches itself automatically. As soon as we come out with a definite statement – of any kind – that definite statement is going to agree with itself. Everything that exists within the terms of the logical continuum ‘agrees with itself’ – everything that exists within the FW of logic is a tautological re-statement of that same framework! So all positive or definite statements agree with themselves but this doesn’t prove anything; nothing can be inferred from self-agreement – the domain of self-reflexive knowledge is always a null domain. The domain of all possible rational statements is a null domain – there’s nothing in it, and there is no ‘it’ for anything to be in anyway…

 

 

So, going back to the start of our discussion, the discursive or analytical philosopher can only get to be the discursive or analytical philosopher at the cost of being entirely divorced from reality. A steep price indeed, we might say. It is in fact a price that quite defeats the whole object of the exercise! This being so, we might wonder what the motivation is for us opting to be a rational or analytic philosopher (the guy who gets to be definite about things, sure about things)? The answer to this apparent conundrum turns out to be very straightforward – we don’t want to abandon our self-reflexive knowledge because to do this is to abandon the knower. When we abandon our positive knowledge system (our thoughts about the world) then the sugar-doll dissolves in the lake (to borrow Meher Baba’s analogy) leaving no trace behind. When the sugar-doll dissolves in the lake then there’s simply no more sugar-doll left (obviously) and we are attached to that sugar-doll. The sugar-doll is not just our chief interest, it is our only interest. It is our sole interest.

 

 

When we’re doing something, we want to know that we’re doing it. When I am loving someone, I want to know that I am loving them. When I’m happy, I want to know that I’m happy. When I am enjoying life I want to have it ‘documented by the thinking mind’ that I am doing so. I want to have it validated, I want to have it authenticated. This is like what Alan Watts says about us not believing that an event is wholly real unless we can take a snapshot of it and put it in the photo album (or upload it to our Facebook page, which would be the modern version of this). Similarly, reading about ourselves in the papers or seeing ourselves on TV is the ultimate validation of the fact that we exist – it’s not just that we exist, we know that we do! To paraphrase what Jung says in one of his commentaries on ancient alchemical texts in Mysterium Coniunctionis, the discouraged alchemist “no longer wants to be fruitful, since he realizes that it would only be for God’s sake, and not his own…”

 

 

So in exactly the same way, the analytical philosopher wants to know that he is a philosopher. He wants to be ‘the philosopher’ for his own sake. He (or she) wants the title. This isn’t just the case for philosophers either, it is the case for all of us. We don’t just want to live our lives, we want to know that we are living our lives. We are living our lives ‘for our own sake’, not for that of God, and this is the glitch. It’s a glitch because the self-reflexive knot of ‘knowing’ that always wants to be firmly in the picture (i.e. the ego-self) always gets in the way of us living our lives. It can’t help but get in the way. I CAN’T live life if I insist on knowing that I am living it at the same time. I can’t live life, I can only talk about living. I can only think about living! There’s a meal there but I can’t eat it. It’s the greatest most wonderful meal there ever was but I’m afraid to eat it because I have realized that in the eating the eater is quite lost (just as in the loving the lover is lost). What I do instead therefore is that I just keep thinking about eating the meal. I make plans to eat it; I devise effective methods and procedures for eating it, and so on. I analyze the meal to bits! I create a whole world based upon my ‘thinking about the meal’ and I then proceed to live in that world. I confuse my ‘thinking about the meal’ with the meal itself. I confuse my thoughts with reality. I imagine that the world I am living in is the real world; I lose sight of the fact that there is any other world than the world of my thoughts. Any hint of the real world now becomes something to be mortally afraid of because it destroys at one stroke the whole point of the false world that I have built up around me. Self-reflexive knowledge is the Fall of Man – it’s not the apple of Knowledge that Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden but the apple of self-reflexive knowledge!

 

 

Our predicament, then, is that we are stuck in this false world that we don’t know to be a false world. We think it’s the ‘real deal’. We don’t for this reason know why it just isn’t working for us. Our predicament – to put this another way – is that we are forever planning to live but we never actually do. We want to live, but we’re frightened to; we’re frightened to live in the real world (because it doesn’t validate our cherished illusions) and so we make up a false (‘safe’) version for ourselves out of our thinking, out of our expectations and assumptions, out of our hopes and fears. This ‘version’ of life – which is a perpetual abstraction of life as seen from the POV of the self-reflexive loop – doesn’t work however. It doesn’t cut the mustard. It can’t work because there’s no actual contact or connection with reality. Life  – or what we take to be life – thus becomes a long drawn out exercise in protracted frustration! ‘Frustration’ is a very inadequate word for what we are talking about here of course. ‘Toxic alienation’ might be a better way of putting it – we’re alienated from the world and we’re alienated from ourselves, so where are we going to go from here?

 

 

Things inevitably get more and more tortuous for the self-reflexive knot of tension which is our only way of operating in life, our only way of relating to the world. And as our situation gets more and more restricted, more and more painfully alienated – as it is inevitably bound to do – we find ourselves locked into the mechanical process of ‘trying to fix’ / ‘trying to escape from’ the problem (or ‘glitch’) that is following us wherever we go, and which we cannot for the life of us see or understand. And the problem we are forever trying to fix or escape is 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.

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