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The Great Disaster

The greatest, and at the same time the most ubiquitous, disaster that can befall a human being is that he or she will turn into a machine, into a mere robotic mechanism.



When we get turned into a machine, when our consciousness gets robotized, the transition is invisible to us, imperceptible to us. It goes quite unnoticed. This is what makes it into a disaster – our utter lack of appreciation as to what has just happened to us. The simplest way to explain why we don’t have any appreciation of the fate that has befallen us (and why we wouldn’t have any real curiosity even if some benevolent teacher were to come along and tell us that we are mechanisms, that we have been robotized) is because our conditioning (or programming) doesn’t allow us to have any appreciation of such an idea. Robots just do what they are programmed to do – they don’t have any curiosity about anything, they don’t have any interest in pursuing any sort of philosophical speculation or enquiry about their own essential nature. There is nothing of that sort…



When the disaster of ‘being turned into a machine’ befalls us we don’t have any appreciation that this has in fact happened to us; we don’t at the time sense any sort of transition taking place and the reason we don’t have any sense of a transition is because the universe that isn’t made up of rules (i.e. the ‘real world’!) is seamlessly replaced by a universe which is made up of rules. At the same time this substitution takes place our consciousness gets conditioned by the rules that go to make up this substitute world, which is to say, the limitations associated with the rules of that surrogate world become our limitations so that we can now only see (or be aware of) whatever it is that the rules allow us to see or be aware of…



The result of this imposed restriction is therefore that we cannot know that we have been restricted. We cannot know that we have been restricted because the rules which are now conditioning us do not allow us to be aware that our awareness is being conditioned. Or we could say that the rules that govern our reality do not allow us to know that they are governing our reality. This is because the rules do not permit us to be aware of themselves any more than a skilful puppet master or conjuror allows his audience to become aware of his behind-the-scenes manipulation. Just like the puppet-master or conjuror the rules only permit us to be aware of whatever it is they show us, i.e. they only show us what they’re ‘pointing at’.



The rules behind the simulation define what reality is, in other words, and what they do not define reality as being we do not get to be aware of. This is the phenomenon referred in systems theory and cybernetics as organizational closure. states that the term ‘organizational closure’ originates with systems theorists Maturana and Varela and defines it as –


The degree of self-containment a system has with respect to its pattern of organization.


A system that has the property of being organizationally closed has no way of knowing anything that isn’t in it, no way of knowing any pattern of organization other than its own. A system that is organizationally closed has no way of knowing that it is closed to anything; it implicitly believes itself to be open, therefore. It takes it for granted that it is open because it has no way of knowing otherwise…



Another term for this state of affairs is ‘model blindness’ – if my model or theory of the universe allows me to see something then I will see it, and if it doesn’t specifically facilitate me to see it (because it does not have any referents for it) then I won’t. I’m only as broad-minded as my theory or model of the universe allows me to be, in other words. A model will therefore be useful for allowing me to deal with rule-based phenomena that match the rules in the model, but not useful for anything else. It certainly won’t be useful in terms of allowing me to have any appreciation of phenomena that aren’t rule-based; in fact just so long as I am looking at the world from the point of view of a model (any model) I will not be able to appreciate any sort of process other than one which is governed by rules.



So what other disadvantage might there be in living in a rule-based universe (other than not being able to be aware of or interact with anything that isn’t permitted by the particular rules that govern or determine that universe, that is)? Is this state of affairs disadvantageous in any other significant ways? Aside from this being a totally ridiculous question, we can go on to explore a bit more fully what it means to be ‘limited without knowing that we are limited’. What are the ramifications of this situation? If I am limited in terms of what I can perceive and think and do without knowing that I am then another way of putting this is to say that I am unfree without knowing that I am unfree, and the reason I don’t know that I am unfree is because I have some substitute for freedom, some replacement for it, some analogue of it. Thus, I don’t miss my freedom because I have ‘false’ (or ‘replacement’) freedom instead.



The false freedom that I have is the freedom to follow the route that is mapped out for me and so the reason I don’t miss the genuine article (which is absent from the equation) is because I interpret the freedom that I have to follow the route or pathway that has been laid out for me to follow as being actual freedom itself. This is like walking down a street – the street is a mapped out route that some one else has provided for me so if I want to go somewhere else, other than where I am at the moment, then I have to walk down the street. My movement is constrained by the street, but within the terms of this constraint I am free to act – I can either stay where I am, go backwards, or go forwards. This range of options is what we could call ‘conditioned freedom’ and just so long as I focus my attention on what choices I am going to make within the terms of the positively defined options that are provided for me, I will experience my subsequent actions as being ‘free’ ones. All I have to do in order for the conditioned freedom to feel real to me, in other words, is to ‘think exclusively within the box’, and thinking exclusively within the box necessarily involves not noticing the fact that the box itself is the very antithesis of freedom.



From the viewpoint of the closed context of understanding that I have been given this analogue of freedom works perfectly well and I will not have any perception that there is anything missing. I will not feel that I have been cheated or diddled in some way – I can do whatever I want within the system, just so long as I abide by the system’s rules. And of course, because the system doesn’t admit to there being anything outside of itself – to there being any way of thinking or looking at the world other than the one that it itself provides – I don’t see this limited form of freedom as being a ‘limited’. This raises the question as to what kind of thing exactly ‘limited freedom’ might be? Is it still what we might call ‘partial freedom’? Can freedom be cut in half, quartered, eighthed, sixteenthed, fragmented into tiny little pieces and yet still be called ‘freedom’? Or – if we were to ask the question that we should really be asking here, given the nature of organizational closure – can freedom be infinitesimally subdivided without us having the slightest clue that it has been infinitesimally subdivided, and yet still be called freedom?



The most essential answer to this question is to say that the conditional (or ‘qualified’) form of freedom is only ‘freedom’ if the conditions that are being taken for granted are actually true. So if it is true that the context that is being provided by the set of rules as being ‘the only context there is’ really is ‘the only context there is’ then the freedom that exists within this context is real freedom! The proviso here being of course that if the claim that is being implicitly made by the system is false rather than true, then the type of freedom that is on offer is not freedom at all, but a disguised form of slavery.



Having to follow the paths that are laid out for you to follow, the paths that have been ‘positively defined’, is of course the same thing as ‘being mechanical’ – this is how machines work. Following the paths or routes that have been laid out for you is ‘being a machine’. Machines follow the parameters that have been laid out for them to the letter – that is what makes them machines – if a machine didn’t do this then it would be a very bad machine, it wouldn’t in fact be much of a machine at all! For example if my car engine didn’t exactly follow the parameters that are laid out for it then it would turn over, it wouldn’t function, and if my computer didn’t exactly follow the parameters that are laid out for it then it wouldn’t compute, and so what would be the use of it? What can I do with a motor-car that doesn’t motor, or a computer that doesn’t compute?



Similarly, if my heart or kidneys or liver don’t exactly follow the parameters that are laid out for them then I will be ill, and if this illness persists beyond a certain point then I will die. The parameters for ‘working’ are very narrow. But saying that machines always follow the parameters that are laid out for them has an interesting consequence – if the machine in question always adheres to its functional parameters, always follows the rules that have been laid down for it, then this is the same thing a saying that the machine is the set of rules that define its operational parameters. There is no deviance from the rules, and so what is the difference between the machine that faithfully obeys the rules and the rules themselves?   



The lack of difference between the rules and the machine that obeys the rules means that the appearance that the machine has of being an independent or self-existing entity is a trick, and that actually the machine or mechanical being has only a virtual or phantom existence as ‘a thing in itself’. Because there is nothing about it that is truly ‘its own’ (i.e. anything that it decides for itself rather than having decided for it) it cannot be said to have any genuine independent existence of its own. Thus, the conditioned self is its conditioning, and the apparent independence of this self is therefore entirely false, entirely illusory, even though it may fool everybody (including myself!) perfectly well. We can therefore say that another disadvantage of being ‘mechanized’ in the way that we inevitably are mechanized is that not only do we become ‘unfree without knowing we are unfree’, we also cease to have any genuine independent existence or reality of our own. We borrow everything from the system that simulates us – not just our ideas, our beliefs, our goals and our motivations, but our very reality.



Another way of putting this is simply to say that when we become mechanized, when we get ‘imperceptibly translated into a rule-based reality’ (which is what the rule-based mind inevitably causes to happen to us) everything becomes virtual. Everything becomes nominal, everything becomes ‘in name only’. One might wonder how it is possible to live in a world where everything is ‘in name only’ but it is clearly not only perfectly possible to do so, but it is also ridiculously easy. We do it every day!



As we have said, an organizationally closed system (and all rule-based simulations are organizationally closed systems) isn’t just ‘a blinkered viewpoint’, it is ‘a blinkered viewpoint that doesn’t know it is blinkered’. It isn’t just ‘an over-simplified version or copy of reality’; it is ‘an oversimplified version or copy of reality that doesn’t know it is oversimplified’. Instead of genuine perspective, therefore (which comes about as a result of having no artificial horizons, no invisible limitations) what we have is a surrogate for perspective – a supposedly expansive dimension which is not actually ‘expansive’ at all.




What we are talking about here is linearity. A linearity (or ‘straight line’) is a rule-based projection of a single arithmetical point, it is the indefinite extension of this ‘fixed or defined’ point into linear infinity. Linearity is therefore a ‘trick’ because the rule-based extrapolation of a fixed point is also going to be fixed – if it wasn’t fixed then it wouldn’t be a rule-based extrapolation. It wouldn’t be linear. So whilst the straight line has a name for itself that it ‘shoots off into infinity’ (i.e. that it actually ‘goes somewhere’) it doesn’t ‘shoot off’ anywhere. It doesn’t go anywhere at all – it can’t do because it is 100% fixed!



In the defined or rule-based world everything is fixed because ‘being fixed’ is a function of rules. Rules define, they fix – there is nothing else they can do. Despite the fact that nothing ever goes anywhere (because there is nowhere different to go, nowhere else to go other than where we already are, which isn’t actually anywhere!) we have a perfectly serviceable illusion of extension, a perfectively serviceable illusion of ‘expansiveness’. This is because, in a nominal sort of a way, the straight line represents change. So the straight line gives us the possibility of ‘moving along the Y axis’, or the X axis, or the Z axis, or whatever. It gives us the possibility of ‘changing our location in the grid’, or moving about in terms of the matrix of axes that the mind produces for us to orientate ourselves with. Movement and change is possible, linear progression and regression is possible, attaining positions in the grid that have been specially nominated as ‘winning positions’ is possible, and so is  ending up in positions that have been nominated as ‘losing positions’. An indefinite number of variations on this theme are possible. All sorts of games of ‘Snakes and Ladders’ are possible. The only thing is about all this business is of course that all these ‘locations’ on the grid are only nominally different.



The expansiveness is therefore only virtual expansiveness. The space is only virtual space. The change is only virtual change. The perspective is only nominal perspective. And this virtual, nominal or ‘rule-based’ world is the only world that we know, the only world that we are capable of perceiving when we are operating solely out of our rational minds.



When we talk about ‘virtual distance’ being the only sort of distance that exists in the rule-based simulation of the world, this is not just ‘distance’ in the usual way that we understand the word. This virtual distance is everything there is in the world, it is what the virtual or mind-created world is all about – without virtual or nominal distance there is nothing left of it. We could say that virtual distance is like the thread upon which all the beads that go to make up a necklace are strung – without this thread the whole thing would instantly fall apart. Everything I think is similarly threaded upon virtual distance – this is what holds my mental categories apart, my various different ideas or cogitations apart, this is what allows the various logical steps of my mental processes to follow on meaningfully from or to each other, instead of being collapsed or superimposed. And the whole thing is all only there because we – in some way – agree with ourselves to see it as being there…



What we are calling ‘virtual distance’ is equivalent to what Krishnamurti calls ‘psychological time’.  Psychological time is the distance between where I am now, and where I’d like to be, it is the distance between me as I am now and me as I will be when my goals are fulfilled. It is therefore, nothing more than a gap to be filled, but it can be a very comfortable gap in the sense that it can be pleasantly filled with my expectation of whatever it is that is to be fulfilled. On the other hand it could equally well be very uncomfortable, it can equally well be filled with a negative or fearful expectation of some outcome which I don’t want to happen. Psychological time is our achievement, as Krishnamurti explains here in this passage from The Flame of Attention (1982) –


We have created time, psychological time. We are masters of that inward time that thought has put together. That is why we must understand the nature of time which man has created psychological time as hope, time as achievement. Why have human beings, psychologically, inwardly, created time – time when one will be good; time when one will be free of violence; time to achieve enlightenment; time to achieve some exalted state of mind; time as meditation? When one functions within the realm of that time one is bringing about a contradiction and hence conflict. Psychological time is conflict.



Psychological time is distance that is in fact no distance at all; it is theatrical distance, it’s all just ‘a game that we play’ – either a pleasant game or an unpleasant one. Psychological time is therefore the space we have created for ourselves in which we can play our games, so that without this space there can be no more games. The thing about psychological time (the thing about theatrical or nominal or virtual distance) is of course that we can spend as long as we like going from one point on the axis to another, one location in the continuum to another, but without actually ever getting anywhere. And not only is the distance virtual, but so too are all the actions, all the operations that take place on this basis – on the basis that moving from point A on the axis to point B actually constitutes meaningful change. This is therefore what being conditioned (or being ‘mechanized’) means – it means that we see virtual distance as being real distance, and that we perceive nominal (or ‘theatrical’) change as being real change.



Psychological time is, at root, nothing other than the self. Naturally it is the self – the whole structure of psychological time is based upon the fact that it is ‘hanging in there’ with an eye to future gratification, with an eye to future benefit, with an eye to the future realization of whatever it is that it wants to get realized. So wherever we look in this structure what we find is that self, hanging in there, lurking behind everything, biding its time, waiting for the ultimate fulfilment of its goals. Everything that happens in psychological time is measured against this criterion – everything that happens is given meaning, given value, according to whether or not it can help or hinder us in our schemes. This is all the self is interested in after all – all it is interested in is itself. This is quite enough of a basis – limited though it may seem – to create a whole world for ourselves, irrespective of whether our ‘ultimate goals’ are ever realized or not.



We can say therefore that the question as to whether the self’s dreams are unrealistic or not is quite irrelevant. That – after all – isn’t the point. The point is to ‘get the show on the road’, whichever way it works out. My goals, my intentions, my hopes are irrelevant – I say that they matter a lot and I (usually) believe quite fervently that they do but on a deeper level they don’t matter at all. On the deepest level of the game what matters is that I should have attachments, no matter what they are, no matter how realistic or unrealistic they might be, no matter what the chances are that they might ever be realized. It attachments that make the game, and the only important thing – from the point of view of the game – is that the game shall continue.



We can now get to what must surely rank as the ‘major’ disadvantage of this business of ‘living in a simulation’ by thinking about what we will call being and doing. The key thing to understand about a simulation is that there can be nothing in the simulation that is not part of the simulation (i.e. whatever it is that is in the simulation has to be something that has been simulated). This straightaway means that if there is any being in the simulation (‘being’ in the philosophical sense of the word) then it must by necessity be ‘simulated being’, which is of course not any type of being at all.



There is no real being in a simulation therefore – which of course sounds very obvious indeed once we have said it! The simulation itself, rather than having its subsistence in being, is an exercise in ‘doing’. Saying that the simulation is an exercise in ‘doing’ means simply that if there is to be something in the simulation, some detail or other, some element or other, then we have to take care of it ourselves. We have to do it ourselves, or else it will not be there. This then means that the simulation is ‘a doing’ – it is a type of virtual ‘being’ that we somehow ‘do’. If I don’t ‘do the being’ then it won’t be there because as we have said nothing in a simulation is there unless I myself do it.



This however is an entirely ridiculous situation – it’s perfectly crazy. I can’t do being – doing comes out of being and not vice versa! Being precedes everything, so if it isn’t there in the first place then there is nothing I can do to conjure it into existence, nothing I can do to contrive it or invent it. Being that I have made up myself isn’t being at all – it’s only fantasy, it’s just a mental construct, a ‘mind-production’.  As the Buddha says in this well-known passage taken from Walter Evans-Wentz’s (1960) edition of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, without the primary reality of ‘the Unconstructed’ there would be no way out from the mess for anyone:


There is, disciples, an Unbecome, Unborn, Unmade, Unformed; if there were not this Unbecome, Unborn, Unmade, Unformed, there would be no way out for that which is become, born, made, and formed; but since there is an Unbecome, Unborn, Unmade, Unformed, there is escape for that which is become, born, made, and formed.



If we go back on ourselves a bit, it will be remembered that we said that all ‘doing’ in the simulation is only ‘virtual doing’, i.e. doing that is only doing in name only. If this is the case, then how can we say that the simulation is itself an exercise in ‘doing’? The point is of course that whilst the simulation may be said to be our ‘doing’, within the simulation itself there is no doing, only the unfree simulation of it (i.e. I have the perception that I am freely doing when in fact I am ‘unfreely doing’, and ‘unfree doing’ isn’t really doing at all). This is not to say that we don’t put real energy into the simulation however because we do, but all that we end up with as a result of all this investment of real energy are – at best – nominal victories and virtual successes.



The simulation can therefore be seen as a kind of ‘cosmic mincing machine’ or ‘waste-disposal unit’ – something genuinely real goes into it, but all that comes out at the other end is the mere appearance of the real. Reality is thus downgraded (or corrupted) into nominalism, it is transformed into ‘the mere empty husk of the real’ – a cheap and tawdry two-dimensional copy of the original which we nevertheless end up taking absolutely seriously. We become – as a result of this down-grading or corrupting process – so very limited in ourselves that we have no way of appreciating that the two-dimensional mind-created virtual reality is only a two-dimensional mind-created virtual reality – to say (or hear) that just doesn’t make any sense to us at all.



So the type of doing which is the simulation is a type of doing that is – in a very strange way – ‘doing against ourselves’. It is doing that we use to erase ourselves, and then erase all memory of the erasing. Then all that’s left is the simulation.



This is a disaster that no one knows about, therefore. It is a disaster that is perfectly ubiquitous, but at the same time it is a disaster that is perfectly invisible, perfectly concealed. As Jean Baudrillard says, it is ‘the perfect crime’. It is a crime to which there are no witnesses; not even the perpetrator knows about it – he has concealed it from itself. The conspirator conspires against himself…











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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