How could there be an analogue of consciousness? What kind of a thing would that be, exactly? We can imagine well enough the antithesis (or negation) of consciousness because this happens to be – according to psychotherapist Irving Yalom – everyone’s darkest and most terrible fear, albeit a fear that is usually repressed with great success. We imagine that we have somehow ‘got’ consciousness and that because we possess it we run the risk of losing it. How true this projection of ‘the negation of consciousness’ actually might be in reality is another story but we are certainly very familiar with it as a concept; it corresponds of course to what we think of as ‘death’. The idea of an ‘analogue of consciousness’ (something which is like consciousness but which at the same time is not consciousness) tends to sound somewhat peculiar. We can however demonstrate that there is such a thing and – moreover – that it is a great deal more commonly encountered than the actual genuine article!
We can try to define the ubiquitous analogue of consciousness by saying that it consists of (or involves) a sort of fascination with a domain of uncertainty with regard to which ‘option’ out of a set of known alternatives is going to turn out to be ‘the case’ once that uncertainty has settled down. The simplest example of this sort of thing is flipping a coin to see whether it comes down heads or tails. Or maybe I am watching a spinning roulette wheel, waiting to find out where the ball finally comes to rest. Or perhaps I am playing a ‘fruit machine’ to see what combination of symbols comes up for me. Watching a soap opera on TV to see how the drama pans out is the exact same thing – what I am looking for is not the radically new (that is never going to happen on a soap because that’s not what soaps are about!) but some variation or other on a theme that I already know very well.
Listening to the latest gossip or news from a friend is another example – I am not expecting to have my mind totally blown away, just to hear news that fits perfectly well into my pre-existent schema of reality. And this is almost certainly what I will get – no one ever hears news that challenges their basic understanding of life, the universe and everything because ‘the news’ is never new…
Perhaps surprisingly, all operations of the rational mind come down to this same thing – it all comes down to ‘waiting to see what combination of cards is drawn out of the pack’. My pre-existent evaluative categories are the cards, and what I am interested in, or fascinated with, or ‘captivated by’, is the combination of categories that get struck, like so many church bells by the sensory data that is being received by my perceptual/cognitive system. I do not think of my cognitive categories, my ‘range of concepts’, as being finite in the same way that a pack of playing cards is finite, but of course it is. I don’t have any endless supply of concepts to draw on, I don’t keep inventing new basic mental categories for interpreting reality– I make do with the ones that I’ve already got. After all, its not as if radically unexpected stuff keeps happening to me and I need to update my belief-system the whole time to keep pace with my constantly expanding and deepening experience of the world. We might like to think that this is the case but honest self-reflection will pretty much always show that it isn’t. Once we become adults our conceptual minds tend to set like concrete and we become extraordinarily resistant to entertaining radically new ideas about ourselves or the world we live in. This – generally speaking – is what becoming a ‘grown-up’ is all about…
So, coming back to the point of this discussion, we can say that the analogue of consciousness is where my attention is fascinated (or captivated) by the trivial uncertainty of waiting to see what combination of cards is going to be dealt out of the pack. This uncertainty hooks us in, it holds our attention in thrall, it absorbs our awareness like a thick wad of super-absorbent kitchen towel, leaving none at all left over to wonder about such profound philosophical questions as “Is there anything else going on anywhere apart from this closed, and therefore repetitive, drama of the rational mind?”
Uncertainty can be spoken of in terms of openness – the field of possibilities is wide open, everything is undecided, it’s all ‘up in the air’ and nothing has yet been finally determined. This openness, this ‘freedom for possibilities to work out in any way at all’ is the mental space that we live in; in a very real sense, it is what makes our mental life viable, or even possible. If there wasn’t such a space, and if everything that happened was somehow known in advance, then this would be unbearably claustrophobic. This state of affairs would be – by any way of reckoning things – pure torture. We can also look at this in terms of newness. If nothing new ever happens, then there is no interest in life. There is nothing there to ‘keep us going’, so to speak. ‘Newness’ and ‘openness’ are of course really just two ways of talking about the same thing – if my situation is closed then there is no possibility for anything new to ever happen, but if it is open then by definition it is open to ‘newness’. What else would it be open to after all? And contrary-wise, if my mind is only open to ‘stuff that is not new’, ‘stuff that is not radically different to what I already know about’, then it isn’t open at all but closed!
This brings us to the crux of this argument – uncertainty with regard to the question of ‘which card is it that is going to be drawn out of the pack’ is not really uncertainty at all but ‘disguised certainty’. After all, no matter what card gets drawn I know that it is going to be one that I already know about, whether it turns out to be the Three of Clubs or the Jack of Diamonds makes no difference in this regard, and so there is no real uncertainty in what is happening. This is most obvious of all when a coin is thrown – the uncertainty whether the coin is going to come down heads or tails is entirely superficial, entirely trivial. I can tell you in advance what the result is going to be when you throw a coin – the result is going to be that the coin is going to fall onto the surface below it and wherever it has been thrown it will land either on the one side or on the other. Even if the coin is thrown twenty trillion times it’s still going to be either the one thing or the other and so where is the uncertainty in this?
How the disguised certainty enters the picture in this closed situation is because I have subdivided the closed domain of ‘what will definitely happen’ (i.e. the result of throwing the coin is that the coin will inevitably land somewhere) into arbitrary categories. If I treat these categories as independent unrelated possibilities, so to speak, then the illusion of uncertainty is created. If we were playing cards with only the one card in the pack so every time you picked a card it was the Jack of Diamonds and every time a card was dealt to you it was the Jack of Diamonds and every time either you or I played a card it was still the Jack of Diamonds then this would be an example of 100% certainty. It is also an example of a closed situation because there is no gap, no leeway, no space through which anything new might come into the picture to relieve the horrendously terrible tedium (i.e. meaninglessness) of the ‘one-card game’. When I arbitrarily divide up the ‘one card’ into 52 cards (and it is arbitrary because I could have chosen any number of sub-divisions from 2 to n, where n equals a number that is less than infinity) then that tedium is relieved because of the introduction of what we are calling ‘disguised certainty’. But the situation remains changed in any ‘non-trivial’ sense because it is still closed. It is closed because no matter how long we play for – even if we play twenty trillion hands, neither you nor I are ever going to play any card that is not part of the standard 52 card deck.
Something very peculiar indeed happens when my attention is captivated by trivial uncertainty, by the superficial uncertainty of not knowing what possibility out of a closed or finite set of possibilities is going to come up. What happens is that I start – without realizing it – to treat the closed set of possibilities as if it were ‘The Whole of What Is Possible’ (which is of course the Universal Set U of set theory). Because my attention is exclusively engaged with the closed set of possibilities it is as if nothing else exists for me. Again, this is not something I am aware of because to be aware of it I would have to have a bit of ‘left-over’ attention, a bit of ‘free’ or ‘un-captured’ attention, which would be able to notice the fact that all of my attention is captivated by the domain of trivial uncertainty. But there isn’t any ‘left-over’ attention. There isn’t any part of me that isn’t wholly absorbed in the game that is being played. To paraphrase James Carse, you either play a game totally seriously, as if it were ‘all-important’, or you don’t play it at all. So what happens in this case is that as far as I am concerned there isn’t anything else other than the game. The monopolization of my attention means that I am ‘taking the game totally seriously’, which is another way of saying that I don’t see the game as a game.
It is important to make the point one more time that I don’t explicitly acknowledge that I am ignoring any possibilities – if I were actually to say “There is nothing else apart from the finite set of possibilities which I am exclusively engaged with’ then this would straightaway emphasize the possibility that there might be something else. In fact, the very instant I talk about or think about the finite set of possibilities as a finite set of possibilities I have introduced the idea that there has to be something else. So I don’t turn the finite set into what appears to be The Whole of Everything by positively asserting that there is nothing else (i.e. by actively denying everything that is outside of the finite set) but simply by neglecting to think about. This is ‘passive denying’ – I ignore everything on the outside of my artificially-constructed boundaries and then ignore the fact that I am ignoring it; I ‘take it for granted’ that my closed and finite world is ‘The Whole of What Is Possible’ and neglect to notice the fact that I have made such an assumption. This is the secret to turning the finite set of our regular experience into what passes for the Universal Set, and it is also the key to making trivial uncertainty seem non-trivial.
When Stuart Kaufmann says that ‘knowing requires ignorance’ this is what he means: in order for the conceptual world which I inhabit to seem real to me (i.e. non-arbitrary) I have to blanket out everything beyond the closed set of possibilities which is my rational-conceptual mind with an impenetrable fog of ignorance. I have to cloak the Universal Set with a very special type of ignorance – ‘ignorance the existence of which I am ignorant’. Thermodynamically speaking, what we are talking about here is entropy. Entropy S, is information which is inaccessible to us, information that it ‘non-retrievable’, information that has in some way been irreversibly lost to me. If I had gotten rid of all this information but still kept some referents to it I wouldn’t have dumped the information at all because I would still have ‘information about the lost information’. Entropy is something that we have forgotten about, and then forgotten that we have forgetten about it. In the language of the mystics, this Great Forgetting is known as the Fall, it is the cataclysmic and irreversible transition from Consciousness to something which is not Consciousness, but which we wrongly assume to be Consciousness – since we haven’t got anything else to compare it with.
So the analogue of consciousness that we started off talking about is the state of having our attention captivated or ‘held in thrall’ by the domain of trivial uncertainty, in whatever way that domain might happen to be manifesting itself. The analogue of consciousness is psychological unconsciousness, which is a type of dream that we don’t know to be a dream. The analogue of consciousness is an illusion that doesn’t know itself to be an illusion, a game that doesn’t know itself to be game. We started off this discussion by defining this ‘analogue’ in a very straightforward way and this definition seems to lead on to a type of a definition of genuine consciousness – only it doesn’t really! Continuing logically from our definition of the analogue of consciousness as being where our attention is captivated by the domain of trivial uncertainty, we can say that the genuine article, consciousness itself, must be where our attention is captivated by radical uncertainty, which is the type of profound uncertainty that is associated with the genuinely open situation.
But this is where the argument falls down because we cannot really say that our attention is ‘captivated by radical uncertainty’ or ‘captivated by openness’. That would be a total paradox – that would be like being held prisoner by freedom! The domain of trivial uncertainty is necessarily a fixed domain, it occupies only one narrow portion of the total ‘possibility space’ – if it didn’t then it wouldn’t be trivial uncertainty. It is because this domain is fixed and narrow in its nature that we can be ‘held captive’ by it. When we are psychologically unconscious therefore we are stuck to this narrow little region of possibility as if by superglue. We adhere to triviality and the consequential ‘lack of perspective’ makes the trivial seem non-trivial to us. In this way – via the global loss of perspective which is ‘unconsciousness’ – we create an unreal world for ourselves, a narrow little unreal world which is made up of ‘the superficial disguised as the non-superficial’, ‘the trivial disguised as the non-trivial’.
The alchemists spoke of this narrowing down or concretization of possibilities as coagulation – the infinitely mobile, vastly expansive nature of our true nature is held fast, grimly imprisoned, in one very limited location. Mercurius plummets down to earth from on high, from his wanderings around infinite space, and ends up entombed under the earth, transformed into a crawling thing, a chthonic dragon or worm. The spirit lies comatose in matter, which is in its essence the ultimate reduction in possibility – the closed state of being. But the idea of being captivated by the totally open or unrestricted domain of radical uncertainty – which is equivalent to the Universal Set in mathematics – does not therefore make sense. Our attention is not held captive by openness, on the contrary it is set free by it.
If what comes out of ‘trivial uncertainty that does not see itself as such’ is the falsely new, ‘mutton dressed as lamb’, the ‘old disguised as the new’ (which is the loathsomely insidious malaise that Jean Paul Sartre was referring to in his novel Nausea) then what comes out of radical uncertainty must be the genuinely new.
This is however where all talk ends, where all descriptions end. After all, what can we possibly say about the radically new? Anything we try to say about it will be the old, it will be our tired old viewpoint trying to accommodate something which is forever beyond its grasp. Our attempts to describe the new will only ever be ‘the old trying to encompass the new’ (or ‘the old trying to simulate the new’), and what good is that? That is simply ‘the denial of the new’, ‘the suppression of the new’ – the same old game as ever.
We can say lots of stuff about the old – we can go on and on about it forever! With regard to the new however there is nothing at all that can be said…
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.