The simplest ‘test’, the simplest ‘rule of thumb’, is to say that whatever ISN’T the system is consciousness. This is like the spinning totem in Inception – it will tell us whether we’re trapped in a simulation or not! It will tell us whether we’re hallucinating or not! It will tell us whether we’re in the state of ‘waking sleep’ or not! Alternatively, we could say that whatever isn’t the system is genuinely real and not a delusion. Or we could say that whatever isn’t the system is ‘who we really are in ourselves’. If it’s the system then it’s not us – it’s the ‘make-believe’ us, it’s the phony ‘who we are’. If it’s the system then we trapped in ‘someone else’s idea of who we are’, we’re trapped in ‘someone else’s game’ (only it’s not ‘someone else’ really because everyone else is of course in the same boat that we are!).
This is a very simple and straightforward criterion but at the same time it is usually all-but-impossible for us to put it into practice. It is when it comes down to it extremely difficult for us to benefit from applying ‘this rule of thumb’ because we don’t know the system to be the system. This type of talk makes no sense to us. We have no awareness of ‘the system’ – we’ve never heard of it, we don’t know what it is. We deny that there is such a thing. “System?” we say, “what system? There’s no system here!”
So because we don’t know what the system is, we have no chance of distinguishing ourselves from it. Because we don’t know what the system is, we don’t know who we are. Our unconscious of the system is our unconsciousness of ourselves. The obvious question is therefore, “What is the system?”
What is this so-called ‘system’ that we are talking about here? One way to try to throw light on this subject is to say that
The system is a matrix or framework of logically linked-up possibilities.
We could also say that
The system is a self-consistent set of inferences that we make on the basis of a certain standpoint or starting-off point that the ‘rules of the game’ prevent us from examining (the ‘game’ in question being the system itself).
We can examine the contents of the logical matrix, the self-consistent set of inferences very thoroughly indeed, and we can go ahead and make lots and lots of very precise and totally unambiguous statements about the various elements or possibilities that make it up, but we can only do this at the price of not being able to examine (or say anything meaningful about) the key assumptions that the whole edifice rests upon.
This is a bit of an odd thing to consider therefore! It’s extremely odd. What we have here is a totally seamless, logically-coherent system, a system that is made up of possibilities that we can make absolutely definite statements about but we can enjoy the infallible predictability (or certainty) that is provided by the set-up only if we turn a blind eye to the way in which the whole thing hinges upon a fixed point which is itself quite unverifiable. We can be as sure as anything regarding what is ‘true or not true’ within the framework that has been provided for us (the framework is made up of the binary logic of YES versus NO, In versus Out, True versus False) but we can’t apply this same logical rigour to the statement or rule that the framework in question rests upon. The limitation that is built into the system is therefore that we can’t say whether the fundamental assumptions that we have had to make in order to have the system are ‘true or not true’.
So what this means of course is that all our so-called ‘rigour’ is actually nonsensical – it isn’t worth a damn. The system of positive knowledge that we have obtained with our rigour is only worth something if the founding axioms are true, if the fixed standpoint is true, and there is no way to determine this. We have pointed out that there is no way that we can say anything about the basis upon which framework stands from the viewpoint of that same framework. We can try, but we won’t get very far! We can for example try to say that our starting-off point, our basis is ‘true’. We can easily assert this, but our assertion carries no weight. There is an error in the argument and the error is that we can only assert anything to be either true or not true, valid or not valid, when we take it for granted that our basis for making assertions (of whatever kind) is itself valid. If however we are asserting that our basis for making assertions (or our basis for evaluating whether any particular assertion is true or false) ‘is true’ then we have got caught in loop – we are assuming that our base-line assumptions are true in order to logically determine whether these same assumptions are true or not! The only way we can ever be sure of anything is if we first assume that our basis or criterion for determining certainty is valid but when we unwisely try to assert that our criterion for determining truth or falsehood is itself ‘perfectly true’ the whole argument immediately becomes redundant. We can never say anything about the assumptions we have had to make in order to have the ground to make logical statements about the world – that is the necessary blind-spot of the whole system.
Is it possible, we might wonder, to have some sort of definitive statement that is just true ‘regardless’, true in an unconditional way, a way that is completely independent of any frame of reference that we might either choose or not choose? This is (we might say) ‘the Great Philosophical Question’ – we are asking whether there is an underlying orientation, an underlying ‘positive structure’ to the universe. Are there such things as ‘absolutely true rules’, rules that no one has chosen, rules that are inherent in the very nature of reality? This might seem like an intractable sort of a question to have to contend with but it isn’t. It is actually a spurious question – a question that we wouldn’t even ask in the first place if we were seeing things clearly. No Daoist would ever ask such a question! If we go back to what we said a while ago when we defined ‘the system’ as being a matrix of predetermined possibilities that can be inferred from the basis of certain assumptions that we need to make but cannot ever hope to prove, then we can clarify things a bit by saying that the matrix of possibilities (or framework) that we infer on the basis of certain key assumptions equals these assumptions. We never depart from these assumptions; we never depart from our ‘starting-off point’. The FW is simply an extension of these assumptions within a type of ‘imaginary space’, a space which is no more than a tautological ‘pseudo-development’ of our fixed basis. We’re expanding outwards on the terms of the rules that we are taking for granted in order to perform the imaginary exercise, but since these rules aren’t really true expansion is purely virtual in nature. The world that we have created is in other words ‘real only on the basis of its own taken-for-granted rules’, and this means that it isn’t actually real at all…
One thing we can say about the underlying, taken-for-granted rules (the assumptions that underpin the whole exercise) is that they possess the peculiar property of taking up no space. The underlying rules or assumptions occupy no space, and neither does the framework or matrix of possibilities that we construct on this basis. This is easy to show. We know that a definite (i.e. ‘black-and-white’) statement contains no space – if it did then it wouldn’t be definite. Since every position in the defined matrix of possibilities that is the logical framework is capable of being exhaustively definable in terms of black-and-white statements, this means that the matrix as a whole (i.e. the logical system) also contains zero space in it. The same argument applies for rules – if a rule contained any space at all, any ‘leeway’ at all, then of course it couldn’t be a rule. The whole thing about a rule is that it specifies exactly and whatever is specified exactly always contains zero space. So both the basis (which is a set of rules) and the structure which is built upon (or extrapolated from) the rules that constitute the basis occupy zero space, contain zero space. The logical system is predicated upon zero space, and so of course no space can ever come out of it. Positive reality is (of course) by its very nature quintessentially ‘spaceless’. ‘Negative reality’ – on the other hand – is the same thing as ‘intrinsic space’.
Another way of getting at this is to say that our underlying assumptions – whatever they are – have to be static. If they weren’t then they wouldn’t be assumptions! We can’t have such a thing as ‘open-ended assumptions’ – if we were going to make open-ended assumptions then we might as well not bother assuming anything in the first place since open-ended assumptions are the same thing as ‘no assumptions’! Anything that is closed (anything that contains only a fixed or predetermined number of possibilities) occupies no space, as we have already argued. Space is openness, space is when we don’t decide in advance what is going to happen, what is going to be there. When we decide in advance what’s going to happen, what’s going to be there is the absence of any space. In positive reality things have to be what they have been concretely nominated as being and that is the end of the matter. It’s final, it’s conclusive, it’s definitive, and that’s why we say that there is no space in positive reality.
All of this clarifies our understanding of what ‘the system’ is. So far we have said that the system is a virtual development of a starting-off point that contains no space and this means that there’s no space in the ‘virtual development’ either. A rough and ready analogy of this is to say that our starting-off point is like a single playing card that we go on to develop into a whole pack of cards, which we can then use to play all sorts of games. But the rub here is that the full pack of cards doesn’t contain any more possibilities than the original card did. A pack of cards isn’t an open space, it’s a closed set of possibilities and as such the only type of uncertainty that it contains is the trivial sort. Trivial uncertainty means that we can never actually get anywhere new – we can only ever have the illusion of new stuff happening, not the reality of it. To get somewhere new we need radical uncertainty and radical uncertainty isn’t to be found in the logical system (which is equivalent to what David Bohm calls the system of thought) any more than it is to be found in a pack of playing cards.
We have been looking at the philosophical question as to whether reality is positive or negative, whether we live in a universe that is capable of being exhaustively defined and explained, or whether we aren’t. We’re asking if the universe resolvable to a set of rules or laws, in other words? Is there a TOE, is there a ‘Theory of Everything’? At this point in the discussion however we can see that this is a question which is entirely ridiculous – of course there is no such thing as a ‘positive reality; of course the universe isn’t reducible to a set of mechanical rules. If there was a ‘positive reality’ (a reality that can be fitted neatly into an array of boxes or logical categories without losing any essence quality or essence that it might have had before being boxed or categorized) then this so-called ‘reality’ would have no actual space in it. How can there be such a thing as ‘reality with no space in it’? That would be a reality in which nothing new could ever happen, a ‘static’ reality, a reality that never actually goes anywhere and this isn’t a reality at all but a simulation of reality, an over-simplified copy or version of reality which is actually missing what we might call ‘the key ingredient’ – the ingredient that can’t be modelled…
Our next question might be, however, how do we know that the universe isn’t a simulation? In some quarters this is regarded as a perfectly respectable theory. It has even been argued that the universe is much more like to be a simulation than a non-simulation since its life-span, however lengthy, is still only a finite quantity. It’s just a blip, so to speak (according to some theories anyway) and so there is much more chance than not that we’re actually living in a time that is ‘post-blip’ in a ‘re-run simulation of the original event’, run perhaps on a planet-sized computer. [See for example the YouTube video on the ideas of Elong Musk.]
This isn’t what we are debating here however; we’re not discussing cosmology but psychology. It is irrelevant (as far as our argument is concerned, at least!) whether the universe is a simulation or not because all simulations exist in time and time itself is part and parcel of that very same simulation. We never really depart from ‘base reality’, in other words – we CAN’T depart from ‘base reality’ because there’s nowhere else to go! Our original point was that whatever isn’t the system (or the simulation) is consciousness, that whatever isn’t the system (or the simulation) is ‘who we really are’. These are – as we have said – equivalent statements. Now if everything is the system /simulation and that’s all there is, then this would mean that there’s no such thing as consciousness. This would mean that there is no ‘I’ outside the system, no ‘I’ that is misrepresented or over-simplified within the system. We don’t need psychology in this case – we only need mechanics, as G. I. Gurdjieff says. The there is however a problem with the proposition that ‘there is only the system’ (although it’s one that we can’t usually see). The problem is that there’s no such thing as the system – it’s just a kind of self-validating hallucination. When we say that the system has no space in it, no leeway in it, this is just another way of saying that it doesn’t exist.
The possibility that maybe the universe is founded upon absolute laws, laws that are written into the very structure of reality itself, isn’t really a possibility at all. We can argue why there can’t be such a thing as a positive reality quite easily. ‘Negative reality’ (or space) is really just another way of talking about the possibility of free movement; as we have already said, ‘space’ equals ‘freedom’. Or as we could also say, ‘the absence of bias equals freedom’. That’s what space is – the absence of any biasing factors, the absence of any rules. The argument that we’re making is therefore that for there to be any bias, any rule, any structure or framework, there first has to be the freedom for that bias, that rule, that structure or freedom to be there. We could of course try to argue it the other way – we could say that there has to be a bias for there to be a bias, that there has to be a rule saying that there must be a rule. But this is simply putting the problem off – by doing this all that happens is that we enter into an infinity of tortoises upon tortoises! It’s like saying ‘God created the universe’ as an answer to why there is anything, why there is something rather than nothing. When we do this we’re just trying to give ourselves a reason not to question anything, which is what we always do. That’s what we’re always trying to do – cover up the underlying abyss of uncertainty, the void we are always poised over. No matter how many times we put the problem off its still going to be there waiting for us and the ‘problem’ is how the bias or rule gets to be there?
What we’re saying is that the bias or rule is there because it’s free to be there, not because it has to be there! If the bias has to be there then there’s no freedom in the picture and this lack of freedom leads to an infinite logical regress, whereas if the bias is ‘free to be either there or not there’ then this is the same as saying that there’s no rule saying that it has to be there and so there is no regress. If the bias is free to be either there or not there then there’s no bias in relation to the bias, there is ‘zero bias’ and ‘zero bias’ is simply another way of talking about space. To say that ‘a rule doesn’t have to be there’ seriously undermines the rule however – the whole point of a rule is that there’s no way around it, no leeway for there to be any possibility other than the one that is specified. In order for a rule to function as a rule for us therefore we need to turn a blind eye to the way in which the rule doesn’t actually have to be there. We have to turn a blind eye to the way in which it was freely chosen, the way in which it’s only there because we agree for it to be there. It’s not that there’s no freedom or openness in the equation therefore – it’s just that we are constitutionally blind to it! And it’s not just that we’re constitutionally blind to freedom / openness either; we very much invested (invested to the hilt) in NOT seeing it. If we became aware of freedom and openness then at the same time we’d be aware that we’re not who we’re playing the game of pretending we are, and this happens to be a game that we don’t even know we’re playing!
The point that we have been making is that freedom has to come first. We have to have freedom before we can have the lack of freedom. We have to have freedom before we can have determinate structure, before we can have rules, before we can have the system. First we have to be free to make the rule – then, and only then – we can go ahead and make it. We have to be free in order to give away our freedom, in other words! Or we could say that we have first to be free in order to play the game of pretending that the absence of freedom (or absence of space) actually is freedom, and that true freedom itself doesn’t exist.
Coming at this argument the other way, we can that the positive reality (i.e. the system) can’t be primary because it isn’t real in the first place. The positive reality (which is the same thing as ‘negative freedom’) can’t be real any more than the tail of a dog can be primary because ‘the tail can’t wag the dog’. This analogy isn’t the best however because at least the dog’s tail is real, whilst the system isn’t in the slightest bit. We can very clearly see that the system isn’t real because it is self-referential, because it is built by reference to itself. ‘Self-reference’ means that it is true only because it itself says that it is true and as we have already noted, this is a redundant argument. The system only exists because of the way that it denies anything that is not itself, because of the way in which it keeps on promoting and extending itself to the exclusion of anything that doesn’t agree with its fundamental assumptions. It absolutely insists on self-referentiality in other words, and so of course it isn’t real! At the beginning of this discussion we said that if we knew what the system was (i.e. if we could see the system) then at the same time we’d know ourselves. There’s nothing to know about the system really though – there’s nothing to know about it because it isn’t there! When we see that it isn’t there therefore (and that it never was there and never could be there) then at this point we will’ know ourselves’. Which is to say, when we see that the system is made up entirely of illusions then we will remember who we really are…
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.