The philosophical premise which says that the tangible world of matter and energy is the only world there is inevitably gives rise to an attitude which says (or rather implies) that control is the only thing that matters. Control is therefore what we have to put all our money on. Control in turn comes down to ‘the enforcement of wishes arising out of desire or fear’, and so what we arrive at is a description of a way of relating to the world which is based on obtaining (or materializing) our ideas about what we do or do not want, based upon our feelings of greed and fear respectively. These feelings are based upon the assumptions that we have made about the material world, which we never question. This constitutes the essential character of what schools of esoteric psychology call mechanical existence, and what we might – in what is probably a more familiar idiom – refer to as the unconscious (which is to say unreflective) mode of mental functioning.
1.1 TWO TYPES OF MOTIVATION
We can get to the heart of what is meant by ‘mechanical existence’ by considering fear and greed. Fear and greed are compulsive motivations, which is to say, they take away our freedom to question our goals (or explore new ways of looking at whatever it is that we are afraid of, or greedy for, which is the same thing). This begs the question, “Is there any sort of motivation that is not compulsive given that the state of being ‘motivated’ and being ‘compelled’ might at first glance seem to be identical?” This question answers itself if we think about it long enough because when we say that a person is motivated, we usually mean that they are genuinely keen. Of course, the word can be used in a different way to imply that there is an external compulsion in the form of a threat or a bribe, but this ‘external’ motivation is obviously a very different sort of a thing to ‘internal’ motivation, and the difference between the two provides the answer to our question.
The idea that we are putting across here is that it is the type of motivation that is based on fear/greed which results in the mechanical mode of living. The reason for this is simple – because what we shall henceforth refer to as extrinsic motivation involves ‘zero reflectiveness’ (as we said just a minute ago) this means that the information content of a fear or greed driven behaviour pattern is exactly the same as the information content of the mental ‘map’ which we used to make sense of our situation. This ‘closure’ ensures that all subsequent activity is merely a reflection of whatever assumptions we jumped to when we got scared or got greedy – it is a cause-and-effect process that plays itself out in a strictly deterministic fashion.
We can understand why this should be so by considering that an idea (or a goal) is inseparable from the system of logic within which it makes sense, so that if I accept the initial idea (i.e. that such-and-such is good, or such-and-such is bad), then by default I accept all the hidden assumptions that the initial idea rests upon. This is the way rationality works: without certain ‘self-evident’ axioms there can be no system of logic, and so I have to buy into these hidden assumptions every time I operate within that system. The system of logic that we have just started talking about can be directed related to the idea of extrinsic motivation: logic contains two terms, YES and NO, both of which must specifically refer to elements which make sense within the system. The whole thing is clearly ‘self-referential’ since neither YES nor NO can ever point outside of the system. Although YES and NO seem to us (from the inside of the system) to have a different meaning, different information content, actually they are both the same really – both have the same information content because both agree perfectly with the underlying set of assumptions.
THE CASE OF ‘EXTREME ATTRACTION’
The two faces of extrinsic motivation are of course ‘aversion’ and ‘attraction’, which correspond exactly with YES and NO. Extrinsic motivation is also completely closed, completely self-referential, which means that no new information can ever come out of it. Normally, the ‘invisible assumptions’ that we talked about never really come to the surface, but when extrinsic motivation is pushed to an extreme it becomes possible (if we take the time to reflect on what is going on) to detect their presence. Intense greed is one example: if I am craving to obtain something (some goal), then all I know is that if I get what I want then that will be GOOD and if I don’t then it will be BAD; basically, I assume that I know everything about the situation I am in. What will actually happen if I do manage to obtain the much-desired goal is of course a different story because (as time shows) what I think is going to happen is always different to what actually does happen, since my narrowly goal-orientated view of the world does not accurately correspond to the world as it is.
This idea can be simplified a bit by looking at addictive behaviour. In a sense, we can say that the gap between reality and the assumptions that I have made about it shows up clearly when desire is pushed to its limits because I obviously think that I am going to obtain a ‘good’ outcome, when what I inevitably end up with is a complete disaster. This happens because being in a state of extreme desire (or craving) is synonymous with being extremely short-sighted, which is to say, in the state of craving we are interested only in what we think is going to happen when we obtain the goal that we are fixated upon. In reality this goal is really just a transient moment, which leads on to other sorts of consequences that we hadn’t thought about, and which are (in the case of addictive behaviour) not at all advantageous to us. The pattern of addictive behaviour is essentially self-frustrating and painful precisely because we are only looking at things in a shortsighted way. Short-term planning always spells trouble later on, and of course when this trouble comes we ignore it in our blind passion to find fulfilment. The point that we are trying to make is that acting on intense desire automatically means total identification with our ideas, which are shown up to be ‘incongruent’ with reality as it actually is by the resultant disastrous consequences.
THE CASE OF ‘EXTREME AVERSION’
A particularly clear illustration of the mismatch between ‘expected’ and ‘actual’ is provided by anxiety, which is where we react to fear by trying to run away from it. When I become extremely (or clinically) anxious what generally happens is that I become convinced that something BAD is about to happen, which provokes me to try to avoid this projected eventuality. But if you ask me what exactly it is that I am afraid of, very often I simply cannot say what it is. Somehow, I get so caught up in ‘aversion-type’ behaviour that I never stop to reflect on this, even though it seems a bit strange to be scared by the prospect of something happening without knowing what that something is. All I have is this ‘overpowering assumption’ that keeps me running, and because I keep running I never stop to consider the possibility that the assumed disaster doesn’t actually correspond to anything in the real world.
Therefore, in the narrow goal-orientatedness of acute anxiety there is no genuine connection with reality; there is only the system reacting to its own projections, its own assumptions. The same is true for runaway greed – the system of logic reacts only to its own assumptions and totally ignores any ‘irrelevant’ information (irrelevant with respect to its own narrow framework of reference, that is). Characteristic of both states of mind is the obvious counterproductivity of what I am doing. From inside of the system (i.e. my definite way of thinking) I cannot see what is going wrong, I only know that something is going wrong, and try desperately and short-sightedly to do something about it. Counterproductive neurotic activity such as this is therefore a disaster pure and simple, but from the point of view of mean, self-interested conservatism, it makes sense all the same because the narrow frame of reference gets to survive.
Another way to put this is to say (as we did earlier) that the ‘idea’ (or the ‘assumption’) is the motivation. The two are intimately connected – we cannot have one without the other. The system of logic is the motivation because if we didn’t look at the world in that particular way (and ascribe the meaning that we do to our situation) then we would not feel compelled to react in the way that we do. It might sound strange to suggest that a framework of thinking ‘wants’ to survive; it might perhaps be more accurate to say that it acts as if it wants to survive because of the nature of the system of logic, which always has to tautologically promote itself by virtue of its own narrow rationality. It operates in the way that it does because it cannot see any other way to operate, the system has no choice but to follow its own logic, so to speak, and there is no ‘free intelligence’ in this, only the law of cause-and-effect.
We can also try to show why this has to be so by looking at the motivation of the self to serve the self: From a purely rational perspective, my ‘self’ is the ultimate seat of all my motivation, it is the reason for everything I do and if I don’t benefit by a particular action then I do not perform that action. Preserving the integrity of my particular type of thinking makes very good sense from the point of view of the extrinsic (or conditioned) self because without this framework I don’t get to exist. Confusing though it may seem, we are automatically beholden to our own system of logic because we use this framework of thinking to construct our idea of who we are; the fact of the matter is that as soon as we react with goal-orientated behaviour to some trigger we inevitably identify with the system of logic that lies behind the goals we have created. After all, the meaning that the goal has for us only holds good for as long as the integrity of the system remains intact, and in exactly the same way our ability to believe in the ‘wanter’ who seeks to achieve these goals depends entirely upon the system of meaning within which it itself makes sense. We may say, therefore, that the system of logic equals extrinsic meaning, which equals the extrinsic self. This gives us a radically new way of looking at the counterproductivity of the essential neurotic endeavour: the neurotic struggle is counterproductive (or self-destructive) because, at heart, the neurotic activity is geared towards protecting the ‘false self’, and what acts for the false self, necessarily acts against the true (or intrinsic) self.
MECHANICAL REACTING IS CLOSED.
The basic idea that we are looking at is that mechanical reacting (which is the type of behaviour that results from external motivation) can never go beyond its own logical premises; it cannot learn anything new – it can only perfect its game, according to a basic set of rules which it takes completely for granted. Extrinsically motivated behaviour can only explore ‘what it already knows to be important’, which means that it is not really free to explore at all. The sort of business that goes on here is akin to a rigidly rule-based ‘search program’ being run on a computer: all possibilities of obtaining advantage with regard to the underlying goal are worked through in a very thorough but mechanical manner, which gives good results if the problem is capable of being accurately and comprehensively understood in terms of the program, but which is utterly useless (or worse than useless) otherwise.
Clearly, when we apply the idea outlined above to everyday human psychology, we have to say that this modality of behaviour embodies a very fundamental conservatism; the mind-set behind it does not want any dramatic changes, only ‘safe’ developments of the situation and in order to obtain this secure and predictable state of trivial uncertainty it has to pay the price of being a number of stages removed from real life. Life (or the universe) is essentially an open situation because it doesn’t stick to a rigid plan; as John Bennett says, the universe is dramatic – it is not ‘safe’, the overall process is not unfolding according to a script. The conclusion that we can draw from this, then, it that extrinsic motivation (the motivation that seeks to realize a finite, defined plan or agenda) is at war with the intrinsic nature of the universe itself (which always trumps any finite card that we might play with a new and unexpected depth of meaning). This is why, as Professor Carse says, the nature of closed thinking is such that it always seeks to restrict the infinite play of the universe and make everything conform to its own narrow goals and its own narrow understanding. Whilst the overt motivation of rational thinking is to successfully realize its goals, its covert motivation is to justify its own operation by denying that there is any other way to look at things. Thus, the unlimited and the wonderful is forced to became limited and banal, all for the sake of maintaining the illusion that there is no other way to look at things.
If extrinsic motivation is ‘closed’ (i.e. essentially unfree), then intrinsic motivation can be explained by saying that it is motivation that is ‘open’, which means that it is free to explore anything at all. Extrinsic motivation is unfree because it is fear-driven (greed is fear too, because we are afraid of not getting what we are greedy for), and so, because it does not care where it explores, intrinsic motivation can be said to be genuinely curious about what is going on in the world. Curiosity sometimes sounds idle (or whimsical) to us, but if we were to think this then we would be seriously underestimating it: when curiosity is sincere, it has no agenda about what it might find out about, which means that it is totally courageous and ‘risk-taking’; it is also completely and utterly illogical since logic neither takes risks nor cares about what may or may not exist outside its remit of understanding. Psychologically speaking, this produces a non-terminating state of ‘non-learning’, which is why purely rational behaviour is synonymous with what we have called the mechanical mode of consciousness.
It is easy to see (with a bit of self-observation) that extrinsic motivation is not in the least bit curious – in the genuine sense in which we have been setting out here. It is not curious, and neither is it curious about why it is so lacking in curiosity, and this fact shows us the connection with rationality and logic. Rather than talking about a ‘connection’, which misses the point, it would be better to come right out with it and say that extrinsic motivation and ‘logic’ are one and the same thing. Both are all about YES and NO, RIGHT and WRONG, BLACK and WHITE. So what does this insight tell us about intrinsic motivation – can we surmise that it must be a highly illogical sort of a thing? Actually, from a strictly mathematical point of view, it turns out that this suggestion is pretty much spot on, because if extrinsic motivation gives rise to action that is akin to rule-based (i.e. algorithmic) searching of possibilities, then intrinsic motivation engenders a sort of ‘playful’, or random, searching. If you were to ask me “Why are you doing that?” (or “why are you looking here?”) I would have to reply that I don’t really know, because intrinsic motivation never does anything for a reason. It is ‘beyond purposefulness’. Mathematically speaking, randomness is strictly non-logical – there can never be any such thing as ‘a rule for random behaviour’ since the definition of random is ‘rule-less’. Because randomness cannot be based on rules, it also cannot be based on ‘a map’, and so straight away we see that there has to be freedom from all theories and ideas. Our prejudice is to think that random searching can only result in randomness (i.e. a disorganized mess) but the point is that this type of searching is truly open, which means that it is ‘sensitive-in-all-directions’. Because it is sensitive in all directions, it can connect with higher levels of order, levels that are invisible from the starting-off position. Algorithmic (or logical) searching, on the other hand, is restricted to only one sort of order – its own.
MATTER EQUALS CERTAINTY
Having looked at the two contrasting types of motivation (greed/fear versus curiosity) we can now make the following point:
Just because we totally believe in matter, that doesn’t mean that we are in any way interested in what exactly matter ‘is’.
Matter is an assumption that we have made and then forgotten about, and as such it serves the function of supporting our extrinsically-motivated behaviour. In other words, matter – as we relate to it – exists purely to support our fundamental lack of curiosity about ourselves and the world we live in, and so it stands to reason that we are not concerned about what the stuff is just as long as we can be absolutely sure of it. This is also true of a strongly held opinion: the actual content of the opinion doesn’t really matter, what matters is that there is an opinion there to hold on to. If I am a person given to having rigid opinions then the particular opinions I uphold are accidentally acquired – if it wasn’t this one then it would be another.
Psychologically speaking, then, matter represents certainty. Alternatively, we can say (as the Gnostics did) that matter represents unconsciousness. It sounds a bit odd at first to link unconsciousness with certainty in this way, but we can see the sense of it if we consider that certainty means that we don’t have to keep questioning something; we do not have to keep questioning it, and we don’t have to keep looking at it. Actually, we don’t have to look at it at all – we can just ‘take it for granted’. Unconsciousness therefore means that we can safely take life for granted; we are ‘safe’ because we know that it is not going to spring any radical surprises on us. Going back to what we said in the introduction, the state of psychological unconsciousness can be linked with trivial uncertainty, which means that the complementary concept of ‘consciousness’ must have something to do with radical uncertainty. So here we have gone beyond talking about two types of motivation to speak about the actual source of that motivation
THE HIDDEN COST OF ‘PLAYING IT SAFE’
The point that we have been making about matter, then, is that it is (psychologically speaking at least) safe. It is absolutely reliable in its ability to carry on being what we think it is. We do not think of matter as being either fascinating or worthy of respect because it is the root of everything – in fact the opposite is true, we treat matter almost with contempt, or at the best, indifference. The reason for this is of course its very reliability: matter is utterly ubiquitous and as such how can we not look down on it? As it is said, familiarity breeds contempt and the material world is nothing if not familiar. This is not to say that we do not value certain exotic or precious forms of matter because of course we do, but the more we elevate these certain categories of matter, the further down in our esteem we thrust the vast majority of the stuff. Essentially, matter represents to us the ‘known’, and when something is perfectly known we inevitably tend to see it as banal. In fact, the sense of banality (which is to say, the inherent tediousness of our day-to-day lives) can be said to be the inevitable consequence of our unconscious decision to ‘play it safe’ and restrict ourselves to the closed realm of trivial uncertainty.
The question is, if our positive (i.e. certain) knowledge of the material world is due only to the unreflectiveness which is the defining property of the mental modality which we spend most of our time in, then, what exactly does that say about our so-called knowledge? This would mean that our knowledge system itself – on the face of it a veritable tower of strength – is actually a species of hallucination. Surprisingly, discovering that our knowledge system is an hallucination (that everything we think we knew, we don’t) can actually be a marvellously liberating experience, as any mystic will testify. On the other hand, it can also be singularly terrifying if we are not ready to let go of our existential ‘support system’, and this explains why the suggestion that our knowledge has to be regarded, ultimately, as being hallucinatory in nature is usually met with immense resistance. This resistance should in itself tell us something, but it comes disguised in various forms (such as cynicism) so that we do not really see how absolutely important it is for us not to doubt our daily fare of banal certitudes. We do not see the ‘psychological gain’ involved. Our primary task in this chapter, then, is to continue debunking our matter-of-fact view of the state of materiality, and try as best we can to show that the reassurance we obtain from our great knowledge about the physical world is only as solid as it seems to be because it is based on an equally great ignorance.
1.2 BOTTOM-UP OR TOP-DOWN?
The first thing that we will note is that just because our materialist culture is based on the belief that matter and material processes represent the fundamental ‘level of description’ this doesn’t necessarily mean that this is the way that all scientists would see it; many do, but on the other hand there are also those who do not. It is well known (in fact it has become something of a cliché) that there are two possible ways of doing science: one is to assume that there is a one basic level or viewpoint from which all phenomena can be understood and the other, in contradiction of the first approach, is to say that there are many levels of understanding (or ‘organization’) and the mechanical cause-and-effect level, far from being the fundamental one, actually represents the crudest possible way to see things.
We can summarize the difference between the two types of science by saying the first approach is a ‘bottom-up’, and the second a ‘top-down’ approach. ‘Bottom-up’ simply means the bottom level is seen as more important – it defines everything that comes out of it. In this view, ‘fancy’ stuff like consciousness can be boiled down to a few basic mechanical laws. ‘Top down,’ on the other hand, means that new levels of understanding keep appearing, new ways of seeing our situation which cause us to radically revise our previous models. In this view, each new or ‘higher’ (i.e. more complex) level is both invisible and inconceivable to the level(s) that preceded it. The ‘bottom’ level contains the least amount of information (which is to say, it is the crudest simulation of reality) whilst the ‘top’ level contains the maximum amount of information (i.e. it doesn’t exclude any aspects of the total picture). The question we all want to ask here is “What is the top level?” but unfortunately this question cannot be answered because our attempt to understand the top level is in fact no more than the attempt to reduce it to a lower level, which is by definition completely impossible. If you have to ask, then you’ll never know. There is actually a scientific way to describe the top level and that is to say that it is a state of ‘unbroken symmetry’, but what this means (when you get right down to it) is that there is absolutely no way whatsoever of saying anything meaningful about the state in question.
This might seem pretty stupid because if I can assert that there is such and such a state, and then cover myself immediately afterwards by saying that there is absolutely no way to talk about it (and therefore no way to prove it) then just what is the value of such an assertion? On the face of it, this is utter nonsense, but with a bit of patience it is possible to see that it is absurd to suppose that there is not always a symmetrical state standing prior to each dissymmetrical state, a state which has no defining characteristics itself, but from which all characterizable phenomena arise. The point is that unbroken symmetry has to be invisible by its very nature, whereas broken symmetry stands out. In order to draw attention to the invisible symmetrical state, therefore, all we need to do is to take a careful look at what a dissymmetry is, and why it should be visible.
BREAKING ORIGINAL SYMMETRY
There are many ways of explaining what is meant by broken symmetry, in the sense that we are using the term. We could take the example of a flat sheet of metal (which has two-dimensional symmetry) and say that a break in symmetry happens when someone hits the sheet with a lump hammer and puts a dent in it. If we pretend for the sake of the example that the metal sheet really is two-dimensional it is easy to see that when I look at the surface edge on, I cannot see anything. When you give it a hefty belt with the hammer, however, a visible ‘disturbance’ is immediately created. The dent (or the lump) is a break from the previous symmetrical situation, which is where ‘both sides are the same’.
A more satisfactory explanation of the process of symmetry breaking can be provided by simple set theory. The symmetrical situation, in this example, is when there is no rule. Nothing has been specified, and so what we have is the Universal Set, which can be defined in a very open-ended way as ‘the sum total of all possible possibilities’ (this has to be an open-ended affair because we don’t actually know the extent of ‘what is possible’.) Strictly speaking, therefore, the Universal Set isn’t a set at all because it hasn’t got any parameters – we can’t define its limits, we can’t specify where it begins and ends, and so we can’t specify what is in it.
A good way to explain this lack of demarcation is by thinking in terms of information content. A simple definition of information is to say the more information there is in something, the longer it will take us to describe it (or specify it). Now it follows from this that the information content of any set must always be finite, since we must have had to define it or else we wouldn’t have been able to create the set in the first place. Even sets with an infinite number of elements in them (like ‘the set of all odd numbers’) only have a finite information content because no matter how many ‘new’ odd numbers you look at they are not going to tell you anything different. It sounds like a terrible thing to say, but if you know one odd number, then you know them all!
In total contrast to this, the Universal Set genuinely does have an infinite information content, because not only are the number of elements (and sets) within it unlimited in terms of number, they are also unlimited in terms of ‘type’. This means (as our definition of information tells us) that we cannot specify, or describe, the Universal Set, no matter how long and hard we work at it. This sounds like a problem but it isn’t at all because the Universal Set is already there – it is there ‘by default’ so to speak and so we don’t have to create it. In an important sense, then, we have to say that the Universal Set isn’t a set; it isn’t actually anything at all because there is no external framework of understanding which we can bring to bear on it (which is to say, we can only name the sets, we can’t name where the sets come from). One thing that we can say to reassure ourselves however is that this lack of a properly defined status does not do the Universal Set the slightest bit of harm, and so there is no need for us to worry on its behalf.
A RULE IS ALWAYS ASYMMETRICAL
The fact of the matter is that we don’t tend to be interested in the Universal Set so much as what we can pull out of it. The type of operation we perform in order to pull something which is defined, out of something which is undefined, is to say something like “Let Q be the set of all three digit numbers”. This operation is a mathematical version of the fiat whereby God creates the universe: as soon as we utter the mathematical fiat “Let Q be the set of all three digital number” we draw a line around all the specified numbers so as to unambiguously separate them. Not only are we separating these numbers, we are highlighting them – we are making them special, we are raising them up above the rest. ‘Special’ means that we are interested in the numbers that are in the set, but not at all interested in the numbers that aren’t in the set. The whole point about a set then, is that there is a basic fundamental difference between the elements that are included, and those that are excluded. This ‘difference’ (or split) is the dissymmetry that we have been talking about, and from this we can see that symmetry breaking is all about creating boundaries (or limits).
The initial statement “Let Q be the set of all three digit numbers” contains all the information that is needed to construct the set – it specifies what elements are to be included in the set, and anything not so specified simply gets left out. This statement is ‘the rule’, and the dissymmetry that proceeds from the rule is actually contained in the rule itself, as we can see quite easily if we consider that the thing about a rule is that it specifies what should be in the set, but it does not specify what should be kept out. Another way to approach this idea is to say that the essential dissymmetry that is implicit in all rules is the division between RIGHT and WRONG and therefore as soon as I enact a rule the universe is split into two.
Suppose for example that I have turned the radio on and I am searching for the Today FM station. I want to listen to Today FM and so the rule in this case is “Let the station be Today FM”. This is a definite decision that I have made, and having made the decision all that remains is for me to enact it. As I search through the airwaves I hit upon other stations along with lots of static and fragments of this and that, but because I have made up my mind that I want Today FM, I don’t give them a second thought – as soon as I realize that what I am hearing isn’t the right thing I move on and continue the search. The whole of the radio wave band has been spilt into RIGHT and WRONG, SIGNAL and ERROR, and if what I am hearing isn’t SIGNAL then it is simply ERROR and that means that I have no more time for it. ‘Error’ means that the sound coming out of the radio is ‘meaningless within the terms of reference that I am using’ –it is no more than useless garbage to be thrown away. Stuff that is ‘RIGHT’ is right therefore because it has been specified by the rule, and stuff that is ‘WRONG’ is wrong because it has not been specified by the rule. We can go one stage further than this and say that, in a deeper sense, stuff that is RIGHT is the rule.
To sum up, what we are basically saying is that sets are created by the exercise of one-sided (or asymmetrical) attention. It is not just that I don’t need to concern myself with ‘the remainder’ when creating a set; actually it is essential that I don’t consider the remaining elements – the set is created precisely by my state of willed ignorance regarding everything that is not in the set.
THE ILLUSORY FREEDOM OF ‘SELFISH LOGIC’
The reason we can say that ‘the set equals the rule’ is because of agreement: the elements selected by the rule are selected because they agree with the structural bias of the rule, they reflect its structure, and what this really means is that both the rule and the selected elements share the same identity. For this reason we can say that a rule (or a system of logic) is always self-referential (or ‘selfish’). This is a crucially important, although not very well understood, principle. Logic is inescapably selfish; it has no way of not being selfish, and what is more, it has no way of detecting its own selfishness. This might sound like an absurdly anthropomorphic way of talking about such an abstract thing as logic, but the point is that our rational minds run on logic and they reflect that logic in everything they think and do. For this reason the limitation (and blindness) of logic is our own limitation and blindness, just so long as we are thinking and acting logically.
The ‘double impossibility’ of  having no way of being not selfish, and  having no way of perceiving this inescapable selfishness results in a closed system of logic, the consequence of which is that we end up in a closed system of thought. This is the state of being bounded without having any way of knowing that we are bounded; what basically happens here is that we exist in a limited mental world without seeing that this world is limited. Because we don’t see that we are limited, when we are in such a closed system we perceive ourselves to have genuine freedom, even though we do not. We shall refer to this type of deceptive (or ‘false’) freedom as extrinsic freedom. Extrinsic freedom is the freedom we seem to have to get somewhere new in the closed system of logic; alternatively (and slightly more obscurely), we could say that it is the freedom that the extrinsic self seems to have to be ‘unselfish’.
CREATING POSITIVE STRUCTURE
Dissymmetry has to come from somewhere, and where it comes from is the rule (or command) that we choose to issue. As we have said, this rule – the rule that we enact to create a set – is itself non-symmetrical. It embodies a fundamental unevenness: it presents one face to the elements which it has a logical relationship to, and quite another face (a blind or uninterested face) to all the rest. As soon as we pass the rule, the unevenness of the rule automatically gives rise to the unevenness of what follows, which as we have already said, is a situation consisting of a basic ‘split’ between that which is allowed, and that which is not allowed. This, as we also said, is a way of talking about boundaries, and boundaries are a way of talking about figures (i.e. the shape that is contained within the boundaries). Topologically speaking, then, symmetry breaking can be said to create figures (or structures), which are seen in positive relief against the general (i.e. non-special background). A positively defined structure is therefore visible at the expense of everything that isn’t defined.
The point we are trying to get at here is that there is some sort of funny business going on, that the positively defined structure only gets to be defined so positively because of our ‘uneven attention’. It is important to stress this because it is something that we have difficulty in grasping. For example, when I take a pen and draw the figure of a person on a sheet of paper I am sure that this is an unambiguous creative act – a figure stands out boldly where before there was only a blank page. What I don’t see is the way that the boldness of the representation only comes into effect because I treat the area inside the figure differently from the area outside of it. As Alan Watts says, the figure’s outline is also the universe’s inline, but if I saw this (i.e. if I saw that the inside area is the same as the outside area) then I would no longer be able to see any positive structure. The ‘funny business’ that we are drawing attention to here isn’t restricted just to line drawings on a page, it is inextricably involved in all processes whereby positive knowledge is produced. In terms of our TOP-DOWN model, it could be said that we descend a level in order to understand stuff. All ‘knowing’ requires that a break in original symmetry takes place, and breaking symmetry means (as we have seen) that I focus unevenly on the universe: a single rule (or perspective) is arbitrarily chosen, and then I look at the world with the help of this rule (or perspective) as if this is the only way which the world could be looked at from. The dissymmetry is that I focus on the way in which the perspective is valid at the expense of all other ways; as in the example of the drawing of human figure, I choose one way to look at it and ignore the other, complementary way.
A good practical illustration of this principle is provided by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s reification process. In their classic sociological study The Social Construction of Reality (1966) Berger and Luckman argue that positive social structure (i.e. the rules regulating the way we behave in society) are created in a necessarily ‘sneaky’ way: first we arbitrarily make the rule, and then by some sleight of hand we deny our own involvement in choosing this rule as act as if the order implicit in the rule came from outside us. This gives a sense of security in behaving in the way that we do because we do not have to question what we are doing – we have in fact handed over responsibility to ‘the rule’. This could be said to be a response to the dizzying confusion and responsibility of having ‘too much freedom’, or ‘too many ways to do things’; it is easier for me just to make up my mind one way or another and then stick to it (i.e. refuse to see that I don’t have to do it that way).
The gain in psychological security that comes from being ‘let off the hook’ in this way is easy to see and there are countless minor examples of it in everyday life. One such example would be a situation where I am working at a Post Office Counter and a customer comes in at 5.00 PM to post an important parcel: I say that I am sorry but the post office closes at Five and there is nothing I can do. If the person appeals to me to make an exception I shrug my shoulders and say, “I’m sorry but that’s the rules – my hands are tied”. We all know instinctively that this is a cop-out because the fact of the matter is that I am freely choosing to follow the rule, and so it is my responsibility after all even though I am saying that it isn’t; the rule is only a rule because I want it to be. My hands are tied because it suits me that they should be.
LOSS OF FREEDOM AS A ‘BONUS’
From this we can see that the process we are discussing is a movement or transition from the state of being ‘free’ (i.e. unconstrained) to the state of being unfree, or ‘externally determined in my actions’. Once the symmetry break has taken place I can put up my hands and quite justifiably claim to have no responsibility for the course that I am following. It is not ‘up to me’, it has ‘already been decided’. As we have said, psychologically speaking, this appears as a bonus and so we can speak of this ‘handing-over process’ as the process whereby we gain the freedom not to be free.
Another way to explain this is to say that the type of freedom thus obtained is the freedom to operate within a given logical system, (or ‘set up’); this is exactly the same thing that happens when I load a high-powered new game onto my PC and settle down to play it – it is as if I have been granted access into an amazing new world in which I am empowered to exercise judgement, make decisions and act upon them. The feeling of empowerment is very powerful, yet it masks a loss of freedom (or loss of autonomy) because the structure which I am operating within has been defined for me and there is actually no genuine creativity involved. As long as I am happy to choose between the options that have been provided for me, however, any curtailment of autonomy is invisible to me; it is only when I try to do something that isn’t allowed within the terms of the game that I start realize the degree to which my actions are predetermined, and this only happens when I get bored with the central imperative of the game, which is to win at all costs. What we are saying, then, is that when we avail ourselves of what we shall call extrinsic freedom (which is the freedom to ‘follow the rules’) then this so-called freedom replaces intrinsic freedom (which is freedom from rules), in such a way that we do not notice any loss in autonomy.
The basic principle that we have looking at in this section may be explained by saying that any sort of structure is always the result of a prior loss of symmetry. This is standard stuff as far as modern physics is concerned. One particular version of symmetry breaking is known in the language of quantum mechanics as ‘the collapse of the state vector’ or ‘the collapse of the wave function’. A simple example would be to do with the location of an electron following some sort of experiment. According to quantum theory, the moment we use our instruments to detect the position of the electron the electron in question makes an abrupt transition from a prior indefinite state (where it is totally undecided about where it is going to be), to a definite state where it has actually ‘made up its mind’. Beforehand, there is a situation where all the various possibilities are given an equal look in, and all the different possible ways exist together superimposed on each other, afterwards one possibility rules supreme and all the others are thrust out of the picture.
This is exactly the same sort of thing that we were talking about in connection with Berger and Luckman’s reification process. The non-reified state corresponds with the state of ‘non-locality’, whereas the reified state is purely local. Reification is the process whereby that which is ‘not a thing’, becomes ‘a thing’, and so what we are talking about is the creation of matter. The state of materiality, therefore, is based up on a clear-cut “YES” or “NO” answer with regard to any question about location, and so it is obviously tied up with ‘loss of symmetry’. The state of immateriality (or ‘non-locality’), on the other hand, is based upon an open-ended “MAYBE” answer with regard to any question about location, and this sublimely uncommitted mode of being can be related to the state of Original Symmetry. Original Symmetry is, therefore, the state of being ‘nowhere and everywhere’ at one and the same time.
Everything that we have just said about the creation of physical structure can be applied equally well to the process whereby mental structure is produced. By ‘mental structure’ we mean not the world as it is ‘in itself’, but the world as I perceive it to be, which is clearly not the same thing at all. The key process here is judging: information is being received and at some point I commit to a particular judgement (or guess, as Robert Anton Wilson says) about what that information actually means. The act of judging splits the world into TRUE and UNTRUE (or REAL and UNREAL); this is of course exactly analogous with the process of enacting the rule which we discussed just a minute ago. When I have yet to make up my mind about what is true (or real), then I am still in a state of cognitive symmetry – I am in the state of ‘not knowing’. The moment of making up my mind is synonymous with the act of breaking symmetry, and irreversible information loss (a ‘collapse’) occurs at this point. Before the collapse, anything could have been true; after, only this one thing is true. The product of this psychological reification process are our thoughts, opinions, beliefs, memories, etc; alternatively, we could simply say that the information collapse which is the cognitive symmetry break produces our theory (or ‘map’) of ourselves and our place in the universe.
There is a tendency for our commonsense mind to rebel at this point and insist that something must be true, that there must be a positive reality out there somewhere for us to hang on to, along with a ‘correct way’ of understanding (or looking at) that positive reality. In order for us to proceed, however, it is necessary to ignore these protestations and think back to what we were saying about set theory: saying that there must be a correct way to look at the world is equivalent to saying that there must be ‘a rule’ that is special, which pulls a set out of the hat which is also special. Yet the whole point is that ‘specialness’ has to be engineered – it doesn’t exist in itself. Before a set can spring ready-made into existence, we have to be there with our ‘criteria for establishing importance’ and so any order that we see is actually externally imposed; it is extrinsic rather than intrinsic order. Extrinsic order has a way of passing itself off as intrinsic order, however, and so we can say that a ‘switch-over’ occurs at the moment of passing the rule which causes us to see the extrinsic as being intrinsic (i.e. as being inherently true rather than constructed).
It is true that in the physical world there is, practically speaking, a ‘right way’ to look at things (as long as conditions are kept within a certain range) but this is because the physical universe is itself the result of a break in symmetry, and so what we are doing when we derive laws and theories about the world is adapting ourselves to the conditions that have been produced by the break. The positive assertions which we are able to make about the world are only conditionally true – they are true with respect to the frame of reference which arises out of the primordial symmetry break. Beyond this limited reality lies the unlimited reality out of which all finite worlds arise. This unconditioned state (which is the context of everything) may be unknowable, but that does not mean that we can afford to forget about it. In practise it is obviously true that we do ignore radical uncertainty but the argument we are putting forward here is that the refusal to face our fear of the unknowable and the infinite means that the ‘difficulty’ we are avoiding will come at us from a different angle, in an altered guise, and this ‘surrogate difficulty’ causes us to experience what Gurdjieff calls unconscious suffering, which is suffering the true nature of which we dare not admit to ourselves. In standard psychological terms, this is the same thing as neurotic suffering.
SUBSTITUTION AND REVERSAL
There is another aspect to this business of creating a positively defined set of elements which we have not brought out sufficiently yet, and this has to do with the idea of ‘substitution and reversal’. Clearly, the key operation in creating a set is the action of defining that set, which is the same thing as selecting the set. Nothing new is being produced, it is just a question of what we choose to bring into focus. And yet despite this, the situation that follows the symmetry break seems to be a positive progression from the situation that preceded it. The reason we see a positive progression is because there has been a turnaround in our thinking; as we have indicated already, the thing about this turnaround is that it involves some sort of deception, i.e. we don’t see that it is our thinking that has changed but rather we see a positive development around us when in fact there is no such development.
One way to get at this idea is to go back to what we said in the introduction about the principle of ‘hijacking’. We said that when I engage myself in a legitimate task for a secondary, more important, and unacknowledged purpose, then the legitimacy of that task is lost, since my concern is not really with the task itself, but with my hidden agenda in carrying out the task. The fact of the matter is that I am only pretending to care about the task – I am only fooling myself that I give a damn about it, as I would find out in a second if this task started to compromise the integrity of what I really care about. Basically, I cannot serve two masters at the same time, and if I allow myself the luxury of appearing to care about the surrogate task, that is only because my real interests are at present not under threat and I do not have to show my true colours.
Another variation of the hijacking principle is to say that when I use some sort of ‘truth’ for an unacknowledged reason, then the value (or ‘usefulness’) of the thing that I am asserting to be true is no longer there. Actually, from a psychological point of view, the more ‘true’ the truth was to start off with, the more harmful it will be once I hijack it, once I press it into the service of my system of denial. Just to give a simple example, suppose that I am very much given to saying that “We can’t survive without money!” This is obviously true, but if I am making this assertion for the secret reason of avoiding thinking about any other demand that life might be placing on me, then the ‘value’ of that truth is reversed and is now acting against me. The more self-evidently true the statement is, the more strength it lends to my denial, and so (in psychological terms) what I am saying is true, is now false – even though it remains true in a certain, limited, sense.
We can apply this argument to set theory and say that the deceptiveness of the positively defined set arises because of the way in which the relative truth of the selected elements has been hijacked. Within the Universal Set, no possibilities are in any way ‘untrue’ – they are all equally possible, equally valid. In this unconditioned state of affairs ‘all rules are equally true’ which means that there is in actuality no particular rule. Alternatively, we could say that the rule behind the Universal Set is in fact a symmetrical rule, which is to say, it is totally unprejudiced and presents the same face to all possibilities. Of course, this means that what we are talking about isn’t a rule at all in the normal (logical or exclusive) sense; actually it is an inclusive or illogical ‘rule’, which is something else entirely. If everything is real, then we might as well say that everything is unreal, because ‘real’ only makes sense if there is something else that is unreal with which we can contrast it. In other words, you cannot have a winner unless you also have losers.
When I outline a set, as we have said, what I am doing is saying that the elements within the defining boundary are ‘true’ and the elements outside the boundary are ‘untrue’. By choosing a specific set of possibilities I am automatically making them special; I have to make them special, I have to elevate them at the expense of the other possibilities or else I would not obtain a visible set. In a strictly defined sense, we can say that the elements (or statement) contained within the set are ‘true’ – they are true with regard to the criteria which I am using to establish truthfulness. This is where the deceptiveness comes in however because once I start using the particular rule that I am using to separate the wheat from the chaff, then the arbitrariness of the rule that I have chosen becomes totally invisible to me (due to the famous ‘switch-over’ principle that we have been discussing) and this means that the relative validity of the assertions contained in the set gets replaced by absolute validity, which is a different kettle of fish entirely.
‘GROUNDED’ AND ‘UNGROUNDED’
The transition here is from OPEN to CLOSED: these are not opposites in the sense that UP and DOWN are opposites, but rather they are different in kind. OPEN means that there are no limits; speaking cognitively rather than mathematically, it means that radically new information can come along that will cause us to totally revise our previous understanding of things, and after that happens there is nothing to say that it will not happen all over again – more upsetting information may come along and we will then have to revise our revised picture. This process of ongoing revolution is itself unlimited, since there is no ‘final word’ on the matter. Because the new information that comes along is radically different to anything we have come across before, this means that we cannot just add it to the pile of stored knowledge that we have and still keep hold of that old knowledge; we cannot do this because we now have a new way of looking at things and that means that the ‘things’ we thought we knew have themselves become new and different. This obviously corresponds to the TOP-DOWN approach that we mentioned at the beginning of this section. From this we can see that the TOP-DOWN universe is an ungrounded universe – it is not grounded (or ‘fixed’) to any stable structure at all.
CLOSED is the complementary state of affairs and when our world is closed this means that nothing is ever going to come along that is going to challenge our basic way of understanding things. Stuff that is new in a trivial sense can still enter the picture, and we can add it to our stock of knowledge and experience, but because it still makes sense within the same framework, it will not alter our understanding of the old stuff one bit. Actually, it will do the opposite, it will confirm that the way we see things is the right way. In the CLOSED mind-set the meaning of the contents of that set are forever fixed and unreviseable; this is a grounded situation and it can be seen to correspond to the BOTTOM-UP approach where everything is built upon a basic unchanging structure.
THE INVISIBLE LOSS OF FREEDOM
The process we are talking about is therefore the process whereby an ungrounded state of affairs is replaced by a grounded one. There is more to it than this however, because – subjectively speaking – when I move from the unlimited state to the limited state, I do not feel that I have lost anything even though I have. This is because the closed state of mind does not perceive itself to be ‘closed’ – it sees the possibility which it has of continually accumulating more information of the same kind as being a genuine type of freedom. Essentially, it perceives itself to have the possibility of a real kind of ‘development’ or change.
Another way of putting this is to say that the limited rational mind cannot see its own limits, for its limits are built into its very nature and it cannot see them anymore than it can ‘be what it is not’. The system of rational thought implicitly believes that what it cannot conceive of does not exist; it does not think this explicitly because that would of course be the cause of it doubting itself. Therefore, the system of thought takes it for granted that it is ‘the whole of everything’, and so naturally it sees no limits, since to see limits would be to see that it is not the whole of everything. What we are saying therefore (once again) is that when intrinsic freedom is replaced by extrinsic freedom, the operation goes unnoticed because the extrinsic effectively substitutes itself for the intrinsic.
Going back to the idea of sets for a minute, we can try clarify this business of ‘sneaky substitution’ a bit more by saying that the creation of a set equals an invisible loss of freedom. The freedom that is lost is the freedom to see the elements within the set in more than one way. We have to see these elements from the narrow, partisan viewpoint of the rule in order for the set to exist; if we had maximum perspective on the matter – which is to say, if we could walk all round the block and look at the elements in lots of different ways – then the ‘specialness’ of the elements would evaporate and there would be nothing to differentiate them from any other elements. Now, this argument doesn’t really hold water in a strictly mathematical sense because in the formal world of mathematical objects, things can quite easily have only the one aspect. For example, a triangle is easily defined and there simply are no other ways to look at it. With regard to the process of cognition this is not the case though because ‘real world’ objects are always complex, which is to say, there are many different ways which we can see or describe them. Therefore, when we concentrate upon one level of description in order to create a consistent class (or category) of elements, then we have done this at the price of being able to see those elements in any other ways, even though those ‘ways’ exist and are valid. This means that when we create a reliable system of positive knowledge for ourselves, we inevitably lose perceptual freedom (i.e. perspective) in the process – we lose the freedom to see why the positive knowledge we obtain isn’t really the final word, even though it looks so very much like it.
The final point that we can make about this process is to say that not only is it an invisible (or sneaky) substitution, it also involves a reversal. As we have said, the substitution is a reversal not because CLOSED is the literal opposite of OPEN, in the same way that UP is the opposite of DOWN. UP and DOWN are actually interchangeable: what is UP on one occasion may well be DOWN on another. I can travel consistently upwards so that today’s HIGH will be tomorrow’s LOW, but I cannot ever (deliberately) travel from CLOSED to OPEN no matter how I persist at it. This is because HIGH and LOW occupy positions within the same continuum of logic, they both exist within the same framework of understanding, whereas CLOSED and OPEN are not to be found within a common framework. The two are opposed in ‘spirit’, so to speak, and this is why we can say that there is a reversal involved when the one replaces the other. This invisible reversal of values has profound and far-reaching consequences for us because we spend almost of our time in a grounded state of mind, whilst our ‘roots’ (unbeknownst to us) are in the ungrounded state. These consequences can be explained in terms of an unwanted ‘backlash’ which follows hard on the tail of our everyday rational behaviour.
With regard to the psychological consequences of the BOTTOM-UP versus the TOP-DOWN approaches, then, what we are saying is that the former provides us with the possibility of gaining ‘positive’ knowledge about ourselves and our world, whilst the latter does away with any possibility of being positive about anything; instead of being able to say that some fact or other is positively true, all we can say is that the fact is relatively true – it is true relative to the limitations of our way of seeing things (i.e. relative to our level of understanding).
We made the point that the transition from relativistic (or ungrounded) awareness to literal-minded absolutism (which sticks to its own assumptions like glue) goes by unnoticed since extrinsic freedom – which can be defined as ‘the freedom to operate within the closed world that is generated by our assumptions’ – occupies the space hitherto taken by intrinsic freedom, and substitutes for its function. This process may be characterized as ‘the substitution of the genuine article by an inferior product’, and it can also be seen as a ‘reversal of values’.
There is another reason (which we have not stressed so far) why we do not question this substitution and that has to do with the idea that there is a psychological payoff – there is a deal going down which is, in some way, to our advantage. The advantage was discussed briefly in the introduction, where we said that the limited (or trivial) uncertainty of the ‘little picture’ acts as an attractive substitute for the unlimited (or radical) uncertainty of the ‘Big Picture’. The reason that trivial uncertainty (which is the type of uncertainty associated with extrinsic freedom) is attractive is because it represents a ‘safe alternative’. At some point we have put all our money on the bet that ‘such and such’ is true, and because we have invested so very much in it, we do not ever want to find out otherwise. We very seriously do not want to see this particular boat rocked. Another (and on the face of it somewhat different) way to explain why trivial uncertainty works as a safe substitute is to say that operating within the realm of extrinsic freedom allows us to effectively repress our fear of ungroundedness.
The second explanation is not so different really though. The reason why we tend to have a fear of ungroundedness (which is a fear of intrinsic freedom) is because of the investment that we have made in positive structure, as we have just said. By investing in the finite and the limited, we have necessarily made the infinite and the unlimited our enemy. We are bound to fear what we have repressed, not because it is so terrible, but simply because we have repressed it, and so the unconscious implication, inevitably, is that it must be terrible. This is tautological logic – we repress awareness of our intrinsic freedom because we fear it, and we fear it because we have repressed it – but far from being an unsatisfactory explanation this comes as close as we can get to the root of the problem. From the self-interested point of view of the extrinsic self (which we have also referred to as the virtual self), ungroundedness is the ultimate enemy because without a grounded situation to support it, the extrinsic self has no existence. In other words, the conditioned sense of ‘me’ needs a conditioned environment within which to pursue its business, otherwise nothing it does makes the slightest bit of sense, and – what is worse – neither will the extrinsic self itself.
What we are talking about here is ‘tautological defending’ – I defend because I defend, or rather, because (for some reason) I started defending a position, I am now driven by the need to continue defending that position, even though it is unreal, and therefore ultimately indefensible. This doomed motivation, along with the counterproductivity it engenders, provides us with a succinct explanation of what is called ‘neurotic mental illness’. The ‘doomed neurotic motivation’, which can only ever be successful on the short-term and at a terrible price, arises naturally out of the inverted mental state which is produced by the ‘switch-over’. In the next section we are going to look in greater detail at the inverted mental state which is fondly known as ‘common sense’.
1.3 THE INVERTED MIND
It follows that if we usually operate from the basis of the conditioned mind, then the idea that we (as George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff said) see everything back-to-front is hardly going to make much sense. This is a basic principle – the conditioned (or inverted) mind cannot see that it is inverted, otherwise it would be seeing things straight, i.e. it would be seeing things in a non-inverted way. This means that it is utterly pointless telling someone in this state of mind that their understanding is in fact inverted, because they just won’t have it. They can see as plain as day that it isn’t; what is more, they can also see as plain as day that you are completely off your head! This infuriating principle also has its positive side though because if I can get to see that my understanding is backwards, then this means that it is no longer backwards, which would obviously be a great help to me. Therefore, if we could give an example of the ‘back-to-frontness’ of our thinking that would be a very good first step. A dramatic way to demonstrate this principle is by looking at the sort of unconscious assumptions that we make when thinking about the creation of the universe.
We will start off our discussion by looking at the standard ‘bottom-up’ paradigm as applied to cosmogenesis (which is to say the process of universe creation). Our normal way of looking at the process of creation is to say that first there is nothing, and then there is something, and that this represents a positive change (i.e. the process involves a jump in information). What could be more unarguable than to say this? First there is zilch, and then all of a sudden there are protons and neutrons and electrons and neutrinos and gravity and stars and spiral nebulae and planets and oceans and mountains and trees and cabbages and kings, and telephones and photocopiers and coffee tables and all the rest of it.
This transition from nothing to the bewildering profusion and diversity of everything is enough to make anyone’s head spin. From the point of view of the bottom-up paradigm, a positive progression has taken place – we find ourselves the recipients of a bonus-payment with no strings attached. From the point of view of the top-down paradigm, however, the tremendously visible ‘bonus payment’ is seen as coming hand-in-hand with a hidden clause, a clause that we as the receivers of the payment do not bother to read. Because of the virtual invisibility of the attached clause, a top-down proponent would have to say that there is a sneaky sort of a trick going on here; essentially, the nature of the trick is that in order for this gloriously rich diversity of elements to come into existence there has to occur a cosmic ‘loss of perspective’. We only get to have a positive universe to latch onto because we have suffered a collapse in the number of ways in which it is possible to look at things. This collapse is the breaking of the original state of immaculate symmetry and the idea here is of course exactly parallel to the mathematical process of ‘set creation’ that we looked at in the previous section.
As is the case with the Universal Set, we start off from a situation where all possible ways of looking at (and therefore describing) the world are perfectly equal. As we noted, this is a clever way of saying that there is no way to describe anything because when every way of describing reality is correct, this means that there is no correct way to describe reality since the term correct cannot have any meaning unless there are also ways which are ‘incorrect’. If there is no ‘wrong’ how can there be a ‘right’? The lack of symmetry (or equality) that exists between right and wrong creates positive objects, and when there is unbroken symmetry there are no such objects.
TWO TYPES OF NOTHING
Whilst a bottom-up adherent (which is most of us, since this is the way in which rationality causes us to see the world) will say that the prior state of the universe is ‘nothing’, a person of the top-down persuasion will deny this and say that the prior state is a state of perfect and unutterable symmetry. It is not that it is nothing, but that there is nothing we can know about it until we impose our categories and limited way of thinking upon it. Our commonsense idea of ‘nothing’ (i.e. ‘zilch’) is therefore a completely different kettle of fish to non-commonsensical nothing because it is knowable – nothing is a state that we know all about in fact, and that shows that it comes after, rather than prior to, a symmetry break. This known type of nothing is a very dull sort of a creature indeed, being no more than the sterile product of our rational mental processes; it might afford us a moment’s satisfaction (of the book-keeping variety) as we note it and file it away neatly under the correct heading, but after this brief mechanical joy there is no further interest to be had, hence the universal lack of regard for ‘nothing’.
One way to envisage this type of nothing (i.e. nothing as a complete lack of anything) is to subtract the universe from the universe, and try to imagine what would be left. This is the approach that Bill Bryson (2003, p 2) takes in his A Short History of Nearly Everything:
Whether or not atoms make life in other corners of the universe, they make plenty else; indeed, they make everything else. Without them there would be no water or air or rocks, no stars and planets, no distant gassy clouds or swirling nebulae or any of the other things that make the universe so agreeably material. Atoms are so numerous and necessary that we easily overlook that they needn’t actually exist at all. There is no law that requires the universe to fill itself with small particles of matter or to produce light and gravity and the other properties on which our existence hinges. There needn’t actually be a universe at all. For a very long time there wasn’t. There were no atoms and no universe for them to float about in. There was nothing – nothing at all anywhere.
Bryson provides us here with an excellent example of type of usage of the word ‘nothing’ that we are talking about. To say that this sort of ‘nothing’ is of no use or interest to anyone is a redundant statement; this is a basic assumption – in fact it is the same basic assumption that we talked about at the beginning of this chapter, only turned around the other way. The basic assumption that we talked about at the beginning of this chapter was that we know what matter (matter being something) ‘is’ and the reversed form of this assumption is that we know what nothing ‘is’. The argument is not hard to follow: if I know what something is then nothing is the absence of what I know something to be, and because I take it for granted that my understanding of the nature of something is comprehensive (i.e. I assume that what I don’t know about it isn’t worth knowing) then when this something is taken away, what is left over ‘isn’t worth knowing’. Put this way, we can see that our lack of interest in nothing an indication of a very thorough-going ‘mental arrogance’. Our disinterest does not tell us about what it is we are disinterested in, so much as it tells us about our own attitude of mind. This is a basic principle:
Facts that we ‘know’ to be true (i.e. our beliefs) do not inform us about reality so much as they inform us about the limitations inherent in our way of looking at reality (i.e. our assumptions).
If we forgo our usual attitude of mental arrogance, and carry out the subtraction exercise “the universe minus the universe equals what?” again, in a more reflective way this time, then we get a rather different answer. The thing is, what I am really doing is subtracting ‘my idea of the universe’ from ‘my idea of the universe’, which gives me ‘my idea of nothing’. My idea of the universe and my idea of nothing are both positive objects – they have to be in order to be ideas in the first place (an idea is simply a mental description, and if a thing can be described it is by definition positive). Now a positive object is what it is described as being and nothing more – fairly obviously – which basically means that no matter what mathematical operation we perform (addition, subtraction, division, whatever) we are never going to go beyond our descriptions. In other words, mental operations are null, in that they never change the invisible (or inaccessible) basis upon which they are founded. Our basic assumption that there is nothing important outside of our descriptions (i.e. that what we don’t know about isn’t worth knowing about), and as long as this is true then our discussion here is pure sophistry and nothing more.
But if our descriptions (our thoughts) are actually modulations in an underlying medium that is necessarily unknowable to us, as we suggested in the Introduction, and if these descriptions are – when it comes right down to it – only real within their own narrow terms of reference, and not real at all in any absolute way, then whether we talk about the mental category of ‘something’ or the mental category of ‘nothing’ it all comes down to the same thing, i.e. the system of thought. The system of thought only ever talks about its own categories (i.e. itself), and the thing is that it has actually doesn’t have – and can’t ever have – the necessary perspective to talk meaningfully about its own categories (i.e. itself). With perspective, we can see that what is left over when we subtract the universe from itself, is the same negative entity that we started off with, which is the underlying medium upon which all positive objects are written. It just so happens that this universal medium upon which everything is written is completely and irrevocably ‘other’ to our descriptions – it exists at ‘right angles to our rational mind’, so to speak, and so it is forever inaccessible to rationality.
When someone talks about ‘an unknown and unknowable sort of nothing’ or ‘a medium that is always and irrevocably ‘other’ to our descriptions’ that sounds very final, and we also tend excluded by it all, as if a vault door had just been shut in our faces. “What’s the point, then?” we might ask. But this is looking at things the wrong way. There is more to us than our rationality – in fact, the unknowableness of which we speak is also us, and the great silence that is in us is not separate from the great silence that is anything else. For this reason it is possible to intuitively understand the medium upon which the known world is inscribed, and certain modes of communication can invoke this intuition more than others. The following few paragraphs by James Carse (1986, p 102-3), for example, makes the whole thing admirably clear:
We are speaking now of no ordinary ignorance. It is not what we could have known but do not; it is unintelligibility itself: that which no mind can ever comprehend.
Unveiled, aware of the insuperable limitation placed against all of our looking, we come back to nature’s perfect silence. Now we can see that it is a silence so complete there is no way of knowing what it is silent about – if anything. What we learn from this silence is the unlikeness between nature and whatever we could think or say about it. But this silence has an irony of its own: Far from stupefying us, it provides an indispensable condition to the mind’s own originality. By confronting us with radical unlikeness, nature becomes the source of all metaphor.
Metaphor is the joining of like to unlike such that one can never become the other. Metaphor requires an irreducibility, an imperturbable indifference of its terms for one another. The falcon can be the “kingdom of daylight’s dauphin” only if the daylight could have no dauphin, could indeed have nothing to do with dauphins.
At its root all language has the character of metaphor, because no matter what it intends to be about it remains language, and remains absolutely unlike whatever it is about. This means we can never have the falcon, only the word “falcon”. To say that we have the falcon, and not the “falcon,” is to presume again that we know precisely what it is we have, that we can see it in its entirety, and that we can speak as nature itself.
The unspeakability of nature is the very possibility of language.
What we are saying here therefore is that the other type of nothing (i.e. the ‘unknown nothing’) is an original quality pertaining to the unconditioned reality, and as such it has nothing to do with our limited categories of thinking. It is nothing only because there is nothing there that we can appropriate into our system of thinking, nothing we can hold onto for support. In the first usage of the word ‘nothing’ we are oblivious to the limitations inherent in the rules which govern our information processing and we say that the state of affairs which we are directing our attention to is limited (limited to the point of being non-existent). In the second usage of the word, it is precisely our own internal limitations that we are referring to when we say ‘nothing’ – ‘nothing’ here relates to the impossibility of obtaining unconditionally positive knowledge. Seeing these limitations in their proper place (i.e. in our thinking) results in a vastly increased appreciation of reality.
THE IDEA OF ‘INVERTED PERCEPTION’
In the normal run of things – which is when we are ruled by common sense – we make the implicit claim that we respect the world as it is (all knowledge systems must make this claim because without the outside world they have no worth at all), but what we really value and respect is our own understanding, our own mental categories. The truth of the matter is that we respect the world conditionally; we respect it on the condition that it supports our inbuilt prejudices. In other words, what we actually value is ‘the meaning which we ourselves have given the world’ rather than the meaning which is inherent in the world itself. This is the way the rational mind works; it is founded up an inversion of perception; it works – as it has to – on the basis of trickery. When we gain insight into the relativity of our knowledge, however, we have a respect for reality itself, which is clearly a far healthier state of affairs. The paradox is that by seeing the limitations inherent in our thinking, we know a lot more about what we are thinking about than we would know if we did not see these limitations. The discovery that we cannot know stuff ‘for sure’ always strikes the rational (or inverted) intellect as being evidence of a fatal weakness, whereas the truth of the matter is that it is a saving grace.
Normally, we are so ludicrously arrogant (or lazy) in our thinking that we completely fail to see that the statement ‘prior to the universe there was nothing’ says nothing about that prior state at all, but a hell of a lot about our frame of mind in composing such a idea. This is like a man who comes home in a foul mood and speaks pejoratively about all the people he has had dealings with during the day – his assertions tell us very little about the people he is talking about, but what they do tell us a lot about is his own state of mind. This is because all the stuff that the angry man is saying only makes sense within the defining context of his anger. Anger may seem like an odd way to illustrate what we are talking about but in fact it is very apt. This is because anger can be seen in terms of breaking symmetry: before the anger there was no strong polarity of good versus bad, right versus wrong, justification versus blame, and after it has taken over any information that is obtained only has meaning within the framework of that symmetry break. After I become angry, the world gets divided into stuff which is relevant to my state of mind (and which is therefore emphasized or highlighted) and stuff which is irrelevant (and which becomes invisible). This dualistic split is of course not seen as being dual because I don’t have any awareness of the irrelevant, and therefore discarded, portion of the ‘complete picture’. The result of this is that my world becomes much smaller without me realizing it since I am now mentally constrained to exist only within the ‘set of perceptions’ that have been called into being by the polarizing effect of my anger. Anger doesn’t make me irrational (although it may seem like that), it makes me ‘very rational with respect to the framework of anger within which I am operating’.
Similarly, then, our ideas about ‘nothing’ are born out of the broken symmetry of our commonsense, which permits us to live out our lives only within the set of elements with are relevant to the assumptions that it is founded upon. The more ‘rational’ we get, the smaller our lived world gets, and the more petty-minded we become as a result. As we have said, there is a sort of satisfaction to be had from ‘tidying up’ the world in this way, but there is also a problem in this since the neatness we have obtained comes at the price of losing our relationship to the irrelevant portion of the total picture, which, although it does not fit in with our thoughts, still has the unalienable virtue of being real.
What we are saying is that the ‘nothing’ of our conceptual minds is (like any defined concept) a banal little thing with zero possibilities other than the ones that have been previously specified. Because the point about ‘conceptual nothing’ is that it has no possibilities, we can be very sure that this is an ultimately impoverished state, a state with no surprises up its sleeve whatsoever. ‘Conceptual nothing’ is a defined set – a set with no contents – and it has no real information content (outside of the symmetry break of our common sense) because it doesn’t relate us to anything outside of our little mental bubble. The ‘nothing of unbroken symmetry’, however, has infinite information content precisely because it has not been defined or limited. This ‘nothing’ is none other than the Universal Set itself, and they don’t come any bigger than that. This ‘nothing’ is too stupendous for us to get our heads around, but the merest glimpse of it is enough to give anyone goose-bumps; vast beyond measurement, it dwarfs all our ideas about it. This voidness is the very breath of the absolute; to say that it is eerie or uncanny is an understatement – there simply isn’t anything stranger and more marvellous and more full of possibilities that this so-called nothing.
Mystical accounts are full of praise for the ‘unremitting realms of nothingness’ which lie unsuspected behind the everyday world of entities, objects and things. One such account is provided by John Bennett, esoteric teacher and director of industrial research for the coal board, in the post-war Britain of the 1950’s:
…Looked at from the side of Being it appears to be empty nothingness – just as from our side silence simply appears as the absence of sound, but silence in itself is far more than sound. Silence only appears empty when you are looking for sound, and if you don’t find sound, you say that there is no sound there. But if you enter into silence, you become aware that sound is an intrusion. You realize how much greater silence is than sound, the same way that you realize that the emptiness that has no attributes is very much greater than any attribute.
From a top-down perspective, the world of attributes that is materiality is actually an incomparably inferior version of the prior, uncharacterised state. The breaking of original symmetry therefore represents a fall (an information-collapse or ‘crash’) of the most tremendous nature. This is testified to by Arthur Guirdham (see A Foot in Both Worlds, 1973) who, curiously, was also a consultant psychiatrist as well as a mystic:
The great cosmic disaster of the fall of man was echoed in our own birth. I have felt it in dreams as I plunge through the darkness. The light reaches behind me until it is no more than the memory of a single star. The fall of man is re-echoed in physics. Matter is the slowing down of aeons congealed and inert in what we call the inanimate. And even as we descend in the Fall and in our birth, so we ascend after what we call death. Without the impediment of flesh we are more sensitive to the magnetic pull of the spirit. It draws us back, through the seven worlds and the seven levels of consciousness, till we are joined not to a personalized God conceived of as a monument to our own littleness, but to a silence which is immense because it is the extension of our own divinity.
By looking at the two types of nothing (the conceptual versus the non-conceptual variety) we can illustrate the ‘turnaround’ in its most dramatic manifestation: the greatest and most glorious ‘thing’ that there is, is turned around by our rational minds and turned into the smallest and most banal thing there is, and we don’t even notice that anything untoward has happened. It isn’t just that our everyday thinking distorts reality; it actually turns it on its head.
LEGITIMATE AND ILLEGITIMATE SIMPLIFICATION
Saying that rationality inverts our perception and thinking is not the same as saying that it is in some way ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’. The rational mode of awareness functions in the way that it functions and it is perfectly natural that it should work the way in which it does. It cannot be blamed for forcing us to see the world ‘through a glass darkly’ because for that our own willing compliance is needed; which is to say, we all have within us the tendency to exploit the reality-changing property of rationality in order to obtain some unacknowledged benefit. One way of approaching this idea is to say that the benefit of inversion is that it projects the problem outside of me, which gives us the illusion that it is possible to fix the problem without having to question my own integrity. Thus, if I am craving a drink and there isn’t any, the problem is constructed in terms of rectifying the deficiency in available alcohol rather than confronting my addiction. An external task is substituted for the internal task. In a broader sense, we can say that the pay-off that comes from abusing the rational function is that we get to see our situation in a greatly oversimplified way, so that it becomes nicely black and white. I am under pressure and don’t know what to do, but when the situation is polarized as a result of a symmetry break, then I find that my problem is now defined, as is the solution. All that remains is for me to take the appropriate action. The ‘pay-off’ is, therefore, that extrinsic freedom is substituted for intrinsic freedom.
There is an important point that we need to understand here. When the oversimplification provided by the rational mind corresponds to the oversimplification provided by the tangible world, then clearly this is a legitimate benefit (at least, it is legitimate within the framework of reference which has been helpfully provided by the ‘original symmetry break’ which created the physical universe). The need to adapt successfully to the given framework corresponds to the idea put forward in the introduction about the pragmatic necessity to take on ‘external tasks’. However, the possibility also exists of exploiting the oversimplifying property of rationality in order to obtain ‘psychologically unhealthy’ goals – which basically means avoiding painful truths that we need to face up to in order to grow. What we are talking about here are the ‘negative emotions’ (such as anger, jealousy, envy, and self-pity) and all neurotic states of mind (such as anxiety, anorexia, obsessive-compulsive disorders, perfectionism, etc). These states are ‘prisons of the mind’; they are prisons of closed logic and the rule is that the more pressure we are under, the more logical we become within the terms of the system. Going back to what we said at the beginning of this chapter about extrinsic motivation, when we are afflicted by powerful negative emotions such as rage, or when we are in the grip of a suffocating neurosis, then our perception and behaviour are almost totally externally determined. What determines us is the system of logic which we have handed over responsibility to, and what this means is that we are that system of logic. We are it and it is us. Therefore, when I am in the ‘handed-over state’ of neurosis or afflictive emotion I am basically a ‘reaction-machine’, a slave to the combination of external triggering stimuli and the closed pattern of logic that determines how I respond to these triggers.
What happens in extreme instances of neurotic ‘over-simplification’ is that we simplify reality so much that it does not correspond to anything outside of our heads, and it is at times like this that the perversely ‘anti-life’ nature of overvalued rationality becomes apparent to everybody concerned. What we do not see however is that this perversity arises naturally out of the inverting function of rationality; instead of realizing that the neurotic person is merely making visible something that exists in every one of us, we see the problem in terms of some vaguely specified ‘brain malfunction’ and start getting excited about the possibility of locating the rogue gene that is behind it. This fixation on the prosaic paradigm of biogenic causality ensures that we fail to see the true nature of the problem, which is that we collectively exploit the rational function in order to avoid the second task of life, which is the task of growing as conscious individuals rather than remaining safely in the unconscious state which is adaptation to the social system.
1.4 SCIENTIFIC UNCERTAINTY
It is a funny thing but even though the dominant culture of the twenty-first century is techno-scientific that doesn’t mean that it accurately reflects any understanding of what science really says. In other words, we think we are embracing science, but actually we are embracing something that rebel economist E. F. Schumacher calls materialistic scientism, which is a decadent or degenerate form of science – an oversimplified interpretation of science that is twisted to suit our unconscious purposes. This is a radical sort of an idea, but it is easy enough to demonstrate nonetheless. The argument goes like this. All over the world people are basking in the idea that science and technology have created a vast objective knowledge about the universe we live in, a knowledge that gives us unprecedented ability to control our environment. Naturally enough, the security implicit in all this positive knowledge makes us feel pretty good. But does science really generate ‘positive’ (i.e. absolutely valid) knowledge? Is this what it does? If we study the history of science with any degree of seriousness, the answer that we get to these questions has to be an emphatic “No” because if one thing stands out from the last hundred years of scientific thinking it is the step-by-step encroachment of relativity upon the bastions of fixed (or absolute) knowledge.
Relativity means that nothing exists as a fact on its own, independent of anything else – what the phenomenon being looked at ‘is’ depends on its context, and this context naturally includes the observer. For this reason the word ‘is’ becomes misleading, if not entirely meaningless. Pre-scientific knowledge (excluding a number of relativitistic-type philosophical traditions which never had much in the way of public currency) was unarguably based on the idea of an absolute framework of reference – a context of meaning which was forever immutable. This framework was in no way chosen by those who use it; on the contrary, it came from above, from an authority that none may question. It can be seen that what we are talking about is once again ‘extrinsic freedom’, the freedom that comes from never having to question the rules.
A good feel for this suffocating, but at the same time reassuring, type of freedom is provided by Jean-Paul Sartre (1938, p 45-6):
…At the entrance to the rue Chamade and the rue Suspedard, some old chains bar the way to vehicles. These ladies in black, taking their dogs for a walk, glide beneath the arcade, hugging the walls. They rarely come right out into the day-light but they cast furtive, satisfied, girlish glances at the statue of Gustave Impetraz. They can’t know the name of that bronze giant, but they can see from his frock coat that he was somebody in high society. He holds his hat in his left hand and rests his right hand on a pile of folio volumes: it is rather as if their grandfather were there on that pedestal, cast in bronze. They don’t need to look at him for long to understand that he thought as they do, exactly as they do, on all subjects. At the service of their narrow, firm little ideas he has placed his authority and the immense erudition drawn from the folio volumes crushed under his heavy hand. The ladies in black feel relieved, they can attend peacefully to their household tasks, take their dogs out: they no longer have the responsibility of defending the sacred ideas, the worthy concepts which they derive from their fathers; a man of bronze has made himself their guardian.
It is obviously true that the development of scientific thinking in the last two hundred years has not served to reinforce the ‘sacred ideas’ of our fathers; on the other hand it would appear, on the face of it, that science has in fact simply taken over this role so that it is now the authority we adapt ourselves to in order to obtain the security of not having to think for themselves, and continue peacefully about our allotted tasks. It would be an oversimplification to say this however because along with the tendency to replace one sort of certainty with another, there is also another, different sort of a process at work – a process whereby certainty (i.e. our capacity to definitely know stuff) has itself been weakened.
The two processes of ‘replacing one certainty with another’ and ‘eroding certainty altogether’ are of course indistinguishable in the initial stages of their operation. In both cases, there is at first huge resistance to the loss of the old framework, a resistance which ensured that the agents of change (men such as Bruno, Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo) had a very difficult time of it. Needless to say, from the point of view of the established order, the new ideas would have seemed like the work of the devil himself, which is why torture and even burning at the stake were some of the ways in which the orthodox knowledge system of the time strove to protect itself
Resistance obviously comes from attachment, and so we can state (again, very obviously) that the difficulty people have in letting go of a familiar paradigm must be proportional to their attachment to that paradigm (or, more accurately, to the security it entails). It can hardly be doubted that we in the twenty-first century have just as much of a ‘tendency to form attachments’ as our ancestors a few hundred years ago did, and so it stands to reason that we must be just as attached to the new ‘scientific’ paradigm as they were to the classical beliefs of their age. It is therefore plain that while we fondly imagine that we are more intellectually enlightened than our forefathers (because we accept the discoveries of the scientific age), actually if we were back in the seventeenth century we would then accept the classic view just as happily, and just as complacently. Clearly, if the need for security is the basic underlying motivation, then there is no more virtue in being attached to one paradigm than there is in being attached another, even though one paradigm might be more ‘objectively accurate’ than the other in terms of explaining the phenomenal universe. From this (psychological) perspective, we can see that any talk of ‘progress’ is simply nonsense: we just keep transferring our attachment in much the same way that a ‘dedicated follower of fashion’ keeps transferring his or her allegiance to particular styles of dress.
It is undoubtedly true that none of this new breed of freethinking scientists had any intention themselves of seeking to erect a new orthodoxy – their motivation was plainly to search for a better explanation of the facts, to get closer to the truth despite the very considerable personal risk that was involved in this. The process for the culture as a whole, however, was one of reluctantly relinquishing the ‘comfort-blanket’ of an entire way of perceiving reality. As Nobel prize-winning physicist/biologist Stuart Kauffman (1995, p 5-6) says, the scientific revolution resulted in our cosy sense of having a divinely sanctioned ‘place in the world’ being stripped away, and there is no way that this could not have been a painful process:
The story of our loss of paradise is familiar but worth retelling. Until Copernicus, we believed ourselves to be at the centre of the universe. Nowadays, in our proclaimed sophistication, we look askance at a church that sought to suppress a heliocentric view. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake, we say. Yes, of course. But was the church’s concern with the disruption of the moral order really no more than a narrow vanity? To pre-Copernican Christian civilization, the geocentric view was no mere matter of science. Rather, it was the cornerstone evidence that the entire universe revolved around us. With God, angels, man, the beasts, and fertile plants made for our benefit, with the sun and stars wheeling overhead, we knew our place at the centre of God’s creation. The church feared rightly that the Copernican views would ultimately dismantle the unity of a thousand-year-old tradition of duty and rights, of obligations and roles, of moral fabric.
Copernicus blew his society open. Galileo and Kepler did not help much either, particularly Kepler, with his demonstration that planets orbit in ellipses rather than in the rational perfect circles envisioned by Aristotle. Kepler is such a wonderful transitional figure, a descendant of the tradition of the magus, or great magi a century earlier. He had not sought ellipses, but rather harmonic orbits corresponding to the five perfect solids, from which Plato himself tried to build the world.
Then Newton, hero to us all, escaped the plague and wrenched Everyman into a universe even further from paradise. What a giant step he took. Just imagine what it must have felt like to Newton as his new laws of mechanics took form in his mind. What wonder he must have felt. With a mere three laws of motion and a universal law of gravitation in hand, Newton not only derived tides and orbits, but unleashed on the Western mind a clockwork universe. Before Newton, a scholastic philosopher, certain that an arrow arced toward its target because, as Aristotle taught, it was constantly acted upon by a mysterious force, or impetus, could easily believe in a God who also moved things along by according them his sustained attention. Such a God might look after one if properly addressed. Such a God might return one to paradise. But after Newton, the laws alone sufficed. The universe could be wound up by God and released, thereafter left to tick inevitably towards eternity under the unfolding of his law, without further intervention. If the stars and tides moved without divine intervention, thinking people began to find it more difficult to hope for such intervention in their own affairs.
Kauffman goes on to add Darwin to his list of people who ‘devastated’ the accepted order of his day. In the account given above what is being stressed is the idea of the threat of damage to the moral fabric of the pre-scientific society – the fear that with belief in the divine order gone, there would be nothing to hold society together. But there is another, slightly different, function of the ‘divine order’, and that is to provide validation for each individual, so that everyone who adheres to the guidelines as they are laid down, knows that they are living life as it is supposed to be lived. Such a person need not agonize over whether they are ‘doing the right thing’, they need not question themselves because the answer has already been laid out for them by their society – all that is needed is to follow the code as it is given. It cannot be over-emphasized just how important this sort of security is to us. To reiterate the basic idea that we mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, the actual content of the divine order is (in a sense) perfectly irrelevant – what does matter is that there should be a set of guidelines, a framework to check ourselves against to see if we are doing it the right way or not. For this reason we might expect to see the ‘paradigm vacuum’ quickly filled by something else, and this is of course exactly what happened: with the church fatally weakened as a provider of this framework, it fell to Newton’s mechanical paradigm to fill in the gap. The story is taken up by Fritjof Capra (1982, 52-3):
…In the Newtonian view, God created in the beginning the material particles, the forces between them, and the fundamental laws of motion. In this way the whole universe was set in motion, and it has continued to run ever since, like a machine, governed by immutable laws. The mechanistic view of nature is thus closely related to a rigorous determinism, with the giant cosmic machine completely causal and determinate. All that happened had a definite cause and gave rise to a definite effect, and the future of any part of the system could – in principle – be predicted with absolute certainty if its state at any time was known in all details.
This picture of a perfect world-machine implied an external creator; a monarchical god who ruled the world from above by imposing his divine law on it. The physical phenomena themselves were not thought to be divine in any sense, and when science made it more and more difficult to believe in such a god, the divine disappeared completely from the scientific world view, leaving behind the spiritual vacuum that has become characteristic of the mainstream of our culture. The philosophical basis of this secularisation of nature was the Cartesian division between spirit and matter. As a consequence of this division, the world was believed to be a mechanical system that could be described objectively, without ever mentioning the human observer, and such an objective description of nature became the ideal of all science.
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries used Newtonian mechanics with tremendous success. The Newtonian theory was able to explain the motion of the planets, moons and comets down to the smallest details, as well as the flow of the tides and various other phenomena related to gravity. Newton’s mathematical system of the world established itself quickly as the correct theory of reality and generated enormous enthusiasm among scientists and the lay public alike. The picture of the world as a perfect machine, which had been introduced by Descartes, was now considered a proven fact and Newton became its symbol. During the last twenty years of his life Sir Isaac Newton reigned in eighteenth century London as the most famous man of his time, and the great white-haired sage of the Scientific Revolution. Accounts of this period of Newton’s life sound quite familiar to us because of our memories and photographs of Albert Einstein, who played a very similar role in our century.
It might be wondered exactly how what Capra calls the Cartesian-Newtonian paradigm, in its ultimate ‘Godless’ form, could fulfil the security-providing role of the old church-based order. How can the statement ‘everything is just a meaningless mechanical process’ give us any sort of comfort at all? The answer is, of course, than any definite picture (or knowledge) of the world brings with it some sort of relief from the general angst. The mechanical world-view may appear bleak in terms of what it is actually saying, but we can find refuge in the fact that it is saying what it does say with enormous authority and crisp black and white certainty. The basic principle remains the same: once we have a map that we can rely on, then we can orientate ourselves towards that map, which means handing over responsibility to an extrinsic source of order. And as Jung says in The Undiscovered Self (1958, p80-1), we can then satisfy our desire to obtain knowledge by engrossing ourselves in the demanding business of adaptation. This, Jung says, is a process that pays immediate dividends, but which also comes at a price, the price being that modern man, as a direct result of exercising his learning faculty, ‘slips imperceptibly into a purely conceptual world where the products of his conscious activity progressively replace reality.’
TEMPLATES FOR BELIEF
A paradigm may be thought of as a sort of ‘template for belief’. Therefore, the paradigm of the medieval church provides us with the certainty that God exists, and the rock-like reassurance that He will save us if we follow the guidelines that are given by the ministers of the church. This is another way of saying that ‘there is a correct way of living life, a way that can be spelled out in black and white for the benefit of the faithful’. With regard to the existence (and the implicit meaningfulness) of the Divine Plan, then, this template for belief is saying a big YES. The rational-mechanical view, on the other had, evolved to the point where it spelled out an equally big NO with regard to any Divine Plan. Equally, of course, we could just as well say that the mechanical paradigm spells a very big YES with regard to the ability of logic (or rationality) to explain the universe which we live in. Either way, it is all about definite answers – whether a particular proposition is unquestionably affirmed or unquestionably denied makes no difference at all really as far as the psychological security-content goes. We can adapt ourselves just as well to either.
THE NEW SCIENCE
So far it would appear that we have put forward an argument against the ability of science to relativize (i.e. undermine) our positive knowledge. Newton’s clockwork universe replaces the necessity of continuous Divine Intervention, and Darwin’s randomly-driven process of evolution replaces the principle of the ‘immutability of species’ – the idea that God created each species of living thing in the way that He intended it to stay. This is a big change, but then again it is only one definite picture being replaced by another definite picture. There is no challenge whatsoever to the role of positive knowledge in this development. There is a second act to the story of the scientific revolution however, as Fritjof Capra goes on to explain. Having moved on to cover the theoretical contribution of Albert Einstein (and his radical revision of our understanding of space and time), along with the continuing experimental investigation into the atomic and subatomic realms in the first half of the twentieth century, Capra (p 64-5) comes to the paradoxical reality of quantum mechanics:
This exploration of the atomic and subatomic world brought scientists in contact with a strange and unexpected reality that shattered the foundations of their world view and forced them to think in entirely new ways. Nothing like that had ever happened before in science. Revolutions like those of Copernicus and Darwin had introduced profound changes in the general conception of the universe, changes that were shocking to many people, but the new concepts themselves were not difficult to grasp. In the twentieth century, however, physics faced, for the first time, a serious challenge to their ability to understand the universe. Every time they asked nature a question in an atomic experiment, nature answered with a paradox, and the more they tried to clarify the situation, the sharper the paradoxes became. In their struggle to grasp this new reality, scientists became painfully aware that their basic concepts, their language, and their whole way of thinking were inadequate to describe atomic phenomena. Their problem was not only intellectual but involved an intense emotional and existential experience, as vividly described by Werner Heisenberg: ‘I remember discussions with Bohr which went through many hours till very late at night and ended almost in despair; and when at the end of the discussion I went alone for a walk in the neighbouring park I repeated to myself again and again the question: can nature possibly be so absurd as it seemed to us in these atomic experiments?’
It took these scientists a long time to accept the fact that the paradoxes they encountered are an essential aspect of atomic physics, and to realize that they arise whenever one tries to describe atomic phenomena in terms of classical concepts. Once this was perceived, the physicists began to learn to ask the right questions and to avoid contradictions. As Heisenberg says, ‘they somehow got into the spirit of the quantum theory,’ and finally they found the precise and consistent mathematical formulation of that theory. Quantum theory, or quantum mechanics as it is also called, was formulated during the first three decades of the century by an international group of physicists including Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Louis de Broglie, Erwin Schrodinger, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, and Paul Dirac. …
Capra later goes on to put his finger on what is perhaps the key to understanding ‘quantum weirdness’, the idea that there is no independently existing (separate) physical ‘entity’ to be found anywhere, in anything. In his words (p 67-8): ‘neither the electron nor any other atomic ‘object’ has any intrinsic properties independent of its environment. The properties it shows – particle-like or wave-like – will depend on the experimental situation, that is, on the apparatus it is forced to interact with.’
What we are essentially looking at, then, is a radical loss of certainty right in the place where we would be most expecting to find it – in the actual constituent particles of this stuff called ‘matter’ that comprises our physical world. Looking at it another way, we can say that quantum theory caused a loss of certainty in terms of our overall framework because the overall principle of indeterminacy means that ‘knowing the hard facts’ is simply impossible. Even this is not putting it strongly enough because the truth is that there just aren’t any hard facts any way; those facts that we do obtain are arbitrary constructs and nothing more. As we said, both the geocentric-anthropocentric theological paradigm and the paradigm of classical mechanics provide us with somewhere to hang our hat, whereas the principle of irreducible uncertainty gives us nothing. The former two paradigms are positive frameworks because any question asked within them is (in theory) capable of being affirmed or denied; this is basic Aristotelian logic – either a proposition is true or it is not, and if it is one then it cannot be the other. The way of understanding reality which arose out of contemplating quantum paradoxes is not a positive framework; in fact the way in which the quantum physicists solved the problem of the paradoxes is by realizing that Aristotelian logic has to be thrown out of the window, that a proposition can be true and untrue at the same time.
To put it even more clearly, we could say that any absurdity in the answer(s) we elicit from nature is our own responsibility because of the absurdity of the questions that we insist on asking. If the answer is meaningless then that means that the question is meaningless, and the reason both question and answer are ‘meaningless’ is precisely because of the lack of any independently existing (i.e. ‘positive’) framework within which to frame questions and answers. At this point in the proceedings I might feel the urge to put forward the question ‘What is left when the framework is taken away?’ but this would be unwise of me since a moment’s reflection would tell me that this question, too, needs a framework before it can make sense, and so – struggle as I may – I cannot wriggle free from the ‘logic-trap’.
EXTRINSIC AND INTRINSIC MEANING
Of course, we have already come to this point when we discussed the state of ‘unbroken symmetry’. What we get when we lose all our frameworks, all our paradigms, is perfect symmetry. We can, as we indicated before, look at this from the point of view of freedom. A positive framework, we said, gives us a basic orientation, a solid, reliable RIGHT versus WRONG that we can adapt ourselves to. This is like the laws and rules of society, which create order within that society. The type of freedom that we are talking about here is obviously extrinsic freedom, i.e. the freedom to operate within the given rules. Stuff that we do within this context is automatically validated as being meaningful, which is where the psychological pay-off comes in, because we have a need for our lives to feel meaningful.
The type of meaning is, however, extrinsic in nature, which means that it only holds good just as long as we don’t question the framework. ‘Not questioning the framework’ actually means not seeing the framework as being ‘a framework’ – we have to taken it totally, utterly for granted the same way that we take the ground upon which we walk for granted. Our ‘mental mobility’ is therefore extremely limited by this necessity; we simply cannot afford to obtain too much perspective on the situation and so we have to lead lives that are characterised by mental constraint. Basically, we have to be very literal and logical and just go by the rules of the narrow rationality that we are following. What this means is that extrinsic freedom is actually the reverse of freedom, when it comes right down to it. Similarly, extrinsic meaning may be said to be ‘false meaning’ since it is not actually meaningful (in any real sense) at all.
Coming back to the state of perfect symmetry, we can therefore say that it is a state of totally unimpeded freedom, intrinsic freedom, which is not freedom within limits, but freedom from limits, which is what we (think we) mean anyway when we say the word. When we put it this way, uncertainty or indeterminacy sounds wonderfully positive, even though it is defined in a negative way. Experientially, there can be no doubt that it is wonderful –so wonderful that there exist no verbal or conceptual signposts which can really tell us anything about it, or in any way direct our thinking towards it. Pragmatically, however, it has to be said that we almost always react to such total freedom with an equally total terror, because the truth of the matter is that (contrary to our protestations) we never wanted genuine freedom at all, only the limited freedom of our games. Somehow, we prefer made-up (or conditioned) meaning to the genuine article, even though conditioned meaning is by its very nature going to let us down in the end.
1.5 THE ‘SECRET ADDICTION’
We started out trying to give a reasonably balanced account of the way in which the change from the classical to the scientific paradigm has affected our thinking, how it has changed the way we see the world, and so we ought to acknowledge the fact there is still a movement within science to ‘tie everything up’ in some kind of unified theory. This entails having an absolute framework since a Unified Theory only packs a punch if it is universally meaningful and applicable, and it can only be universally meaningful and applicable if its framework of reference is absolutely true (i.e. if it doesn’t depend on choices we have made about how to approach things). Therefore, we have to say that although the principle of irreducible uncertainty is now an essential part of the modern scientific world-view, it does share the stage (however uneasily) with a dogged belief that it will one day be possible to reduce everything to one fundamentally true level of description. To use the terminology we introduced earlier, there still exists the division between two radically opposed camps – the Top-Downers and the Bottom-Uppers.
From a psychological point of view, however, what is of most interest is the idea that the Bottom-Up view provides a sense of security whereas the Top-Down doesn’t, which means that there is a huge biasing factor involved in choosing which paradigm we want to go with. It may be objected that there also exists a hidden motivation for wanting to believe in rigorous relativism, and this is of course true if one adheres to a definite belief that this is the ‘right way’ to see the world. In Buddhism, this is called ‘clinging to emptiness’ and it is warned against as a particular insidious mistake. The point is that we can’t hold on to emptiness since there is literally nothing to hold on to, but we can hold on to the idea of emptiness, or the idea of infinite relativity, and in this case all we have is the old situation of ‘one idea replacing another’.
The essential principle that we are looking may be stated simply: if I arrive at a definite viewpoint then there has to be a bias there somewhere, but ‘no viewpoint’ never has any hidden motivation involved. Why this should be so is fairly obvious – no viewpoint supports no fixed or definite conceptions, no goal, and so what on earth could my motivation be for wanting to arrive here?
Leaving the views of professional scientists aside now, we have much less trouble trying to ascertain the views of the so-called ‘man in the street’. If interviewed on the subject, it is almost a foregone conclusion that he (or she) is going to show their true colours as a devout adherent of materialistic scientism, which basically means that – if pushed to think about it – they would say something to the effect that science has created an impregnable bastion of positive knowledge for us to believe in. Of course, there is still a significant minority who adhere primarily some form of religious certainty, but as we have argued, there is no real difference between one type of certainty and any other.
FAITH OR BELIEF?
It is opportune at this point to make an important distinction: when we talk about religious certainty we are not referring to religious faith, which (according to the way in which we will define it) is a totally different thing. What we mean by ‘religious certainty’ is simply belief in the dogmatic sense, i.e. ‘a positive knowledge structure’ that we are attached to. The thing about dogmatic belief is that it is something we assert to be true rather than something that we see to be true. The positive fervour with which we assert it serves the function of distracting ourselves from seeing the fact that, deep-down, we actually doubt it (assertion and doubt being the two sides of the same coin). A belief is therefore a prejudiced state of mind, a state of mind in which we want very much for a thing to be true, but are very afraid at the same time that it might not be true. This mentality generates a particular brand of behaviour – behaviour that heads off in lots of different directions, but which is actually only there in order to distract ourselves from thinking too deeply about what the hell we are really doing and why.
A little bit of reflection is all that is needed to see that this heavily ‘purposeful’, denial-driven mode of mentality is the usual state of affairs, except for small children who are still interested in life for its own sake (rather than for the sake of propping up their sacred belief structures). The other possibility we talked about was faith rather than belief. In the same way that we said materialistic scientism is a degenerate form of true science, so too can we say that religious dogmaticism is a ‘lower analogue’ of religious faith. In both cases, the former serves the same function as the latter, but it performs this function by secretly twisting everything around. The reason for the inversion is because in the lower analogue a different (or ‘false’) master is being served, rather than the master of Truth. So, for example, a proponent of materialistic scientism will say with hand on heart that he is interested purely in getting to the bottom of things, and seeing the world as it really, truly is. This devotion to the truth is the cover story with which he fools himself and others; his true loyalty however is to something far less noble – his own unacknowledged need for his way of looking at the world to be the right way. He will conduct a programme of research, but it will be planned and executed in such a way that it is bound to confirm his original basic assumptions.
The key ingredient that is missing in both scientism and religious dogmaticism is risk-taking; obviously the fact that both of these endeavours have a secret agenda rules (radical) risk taking out entirely. In the first case, I cannot afford to find out that my underlying positive paradigm is unfounded (i.e. I cannot risk losing my bottom-up orientation); and in the second case I cannot risk finding out that God doesn’t exist, and that there isn’t a Divine Plan, and so I rig the whole thing in advance without letting on to myself that this is what I am doing. Both are equally shoddy because both are based on a fundamental lack of courage. We now come to faith. Faith can be defined as an essentially risk-taking sort of an operation because there is absolutely no secret safeguarding (or ‘fixing’) going on at all – either it works or it doesn’t work, and we willingly hand ourselves over to the uncertainty of the process.
It is true that a person who is possessed of great faith will tend to give the impression that they have an absolute, unshakeable certainty in some higher force or power that will ‘take care of everything’, inasmuch as they cannot be provoked to panic and try to save themselves when tested by adversity. This has nothing to do with any rock-solid rational belief structure, however, but rather it stems from a lack of identification with any fixed position (a self or a belief) that needs to be safeguarded at any cost. If I don’t need written reassurance that ‘everything will be okay’, and I am still prepared to go ahead anyway, then this is faith. The ironic thing here is that if we do insist on guarantees, as mostly we do, this means that we are asking for someone to lie to us (or for us to lie to ourselves) since no such absolute guarantees exist in this universe.
When it comes to the crunch (as it does for everybody sooner or later) we will find ourselves in the situation where we have to choose – either go forward without any guarantees that we will be okay, or grimly and desperately try our frantic best to save ourselves, even though this ‘saving ourselves’ business inevitably degenerates into a full-scale retreat from reality since, ultimately, the only way that we can (or think we can) make sure that nothing terrible will happen to us is by writing false guarantees to ourselves, i.e. lying to ourselves. These two courses of action (i.e. the capacity to ‘not react’ and the tendency to ‘react’) correspond to what the alchemists called ‘the Way of Truth’ and ‘the Way of Error’ respectively. In the first case we rely on ‘what is’, and in the second case we rely on ‘what we want it to be’.
THE ‘HIDDEN MASTER’
In this discussion we have looked fairly thoroughly at the equation ‘certainty = security’. The crucial point is that this security is not a convenience but an absolute, non-negotiable need. We can think about it as a type of addiction. The point about an addiction is that there is a basic lack of freedom – the addiction allows us a trivial sort of freedom, but the bottom line is that we have to obey the demand that it makes on us, and for this reason our life revolves around the addiction just like a planet revolves around its sun. If I happen to be an addict to something or other, the chances are that I will avoid seeing just how little freedom I have; it is easier not to focus on the fact that I am being ruled by the need in question, and imagine to myself that I still have self-determination in all the important areas (or at least, that I could do if I really wanted to).
What we are talking about here is ‘the comfort zone of not seeing that I am addicted’, which is quite a familiar idea. When my situation is under control, and my addiction is being serviced adequately, I can afford to forget about it a bit and assume that I am in fact a free person. I can interest myself in this and that, in goals that have no connection with the all-important Goal of the addiction, and in general I can pass myself off as someone in possession of their own autonomy. Of course, the moment my ‘life-line’ to the object of my addiction is threatened, then everything else goes out of the window in a flash, and my true allegiance straightaway manifests itself. At moments like this, I get to see who the boss really is, and it certainly isn’t me! The velvet glove comes off the iron fist and I come face to face with the unpalatable truth, which is that I actually have no integrity as a person. Although I can avow allegiance to any cause I like, I have in reality already sold my soul elsewhere – I can never be your true friend, I can only be ‘the resemblance of a friend’, and this only for as long as the going is good. The thing about being an addict, then, is that you are fundamentally unreliable – both to others and to yourself.
THE NECESSITY FOR NOT SEEING THE COMFORT ZONE
This all sounds dreadfully unfair and downright slanderous towards anyone who happens to be an addict of any kind. In actual fact what we have said is true in principle, but not necessarily true in fact since I can at any time reclaim my integrity and deny the claim that the addiction has on my soul. But we are not really talking about common or garden addictions here like addiction to heroin, cigarettes or unorthodox sexual behaviour. The addiction that we are building up to talking about is of course the addiction which we all have to psychological security, and this is grimmer and more terrible master than any other that we have so far mentioned. Crack cocaine has nothing on this one. Everything we have said about addiction in general is true for security addiction, but there is an additional factor, which is a kind of logical development of the ‘comfort zone of not seeing that we are addicted’ which we talked about earlier.
We have been saying that our basic ‘comfort zone’ is for everything to make sense within the context of our commonsense, i.e. within the framework of our narrow rationality (the system of logic). In order to have a logical system within which to exist I have to turn a blind eye to the way in which the whole thing only works when I take certain arbitrary assumptions as being an ‘absolute given’ – I have to have a blind-spot, in other words. In order that the integrity of the system of logic should not be threatened, it is crucially important that I should not become aware of this blind-spot, since to know that I have forgotten something straightway begins to remind me of what it is that I have forgotten. This blindspot is the ‘Achilles’ heel’ of the whole endeavour and it must be guarded with a special seal of unconsciousness. Because my security is dependent upon the continuing integrity of the system of logic, everything depends on me not seeing this central ‘flaw’ or weakness.
A ‘minor’ example of this sort of thing would be where I insist on entertaining an odd or stilted theory, even when – due to its awkwardness – it is causing me problems in the long run. In such a case I may well be having a hard time as a result of viewing things a bit skew, but I still do not want to see that my view is stilted, because I am obtaining some sort of ‘comfort’ from understanding the world in this way. It is as if I have considered the matter and come to the conclusion that the benefit outweigh the disadvantages (although obviously I could not have consciously worked this out for myself or else I would have had to – at some stage – admit to myself that my theory was stilted.
We said that the example given was ‘minor’ because it only involved a certain idea (or group of ideas). In such cases we can all see what is going on, we can all see the stilted nature of the thinking in question – and we can even try to challenge it, although we are unlikely to get very far. With the ‘stiltedness’ of rationality, however, it is a different story because we are all in the same boat, and so there is no one there to spot the oddness of it, far less try to do anything about it. Just because we cannot see it, though, that doesn’t make it any less stilted, or any less counterproductive. The general principle that we are looking at here is very straightforward:
If I know that I am utilizing a particular narrow way of seeing things as a comfort zone then this completely destroys the ability of the comfort zone to be a comfort zone.
The comfort zone of rationality can only be a comfort zone if I do not see that it is a comfort zone – I have to use it, but not know that I am using it; I must be reliant on it, bit not see that I am reliant on it, and for this reason the need for things to make sense to my rational mind has to be a secret addiction. The results of this secret addiction are as we have already indicated: I can go around, seeing to my business as I please, relaxing and joking as I feel like, taking it as read the whole time that I am a free or autonomous individual, but actually I am not. My freedom is an illusion, my integrity non-existent. Everything I do and say has two levels:  the overt level, which is where I pursue life as a autonomous agent and where I carry out actions for the reasons that I say I do, and  the covert level, which is where I am driven by the all-important need to maintain the integrity of the virtual reality world which is ‘the system’.
THE DOWNSIDE OF THE DEAL
And as if everything we have said were not bad enough, there is still worse to come: not only do we have to live a life of ‘virtual individuality’ where I have autonomy in everything except where it counts, there is a hidden clause in the deal that I have struck, a clause which renders anything that I think that I have gained totally worthless. This is very much like the classic scenario of selling our soul to the Devil, only to discover that we have been cheated in the small print so that we don’t even receive what we thought we would get, i.e. we don’t even get the proper enjoyment of the short-term benefit that would supposedly have made the deal worthwhile in the first place.
WELCOME TO ‘THE UNIVERSE OF AUTHENTIC FAKES’…
In a more ‘Philip K Dick type version’ of the same tale, it is as if I have been tempted into swapping normal life for a glamorous, exciting, and richly promising virtual reality system of some sort. In this simulated (but otherwise perfect) world, which is guaranteed to be a superbly high-quality counterfeit version of reality maintained to the most exacting standards, I can have anything (or anyone) I want, be anyone I want, go anywhere I want. In short, I can live out my dreams and fantasies without any of the kind of things happening that invariably come along (just when I don’t want them to) to spoil things in real life. This is the promise of control’. Once the deal is struck however, I find that it all starts to come apart at the seams; at first the product I have purchased disappoints and dismays me, and then it actually gets nasty, as I start to come across rather sinister snags that seem to be an intrinsic part of the simulation. At this stage it slowly dawns on me that the dream has turned into a nightmare, a nightmare whose proportions I could not even have begun to have guessed.
As we were saying, this wholly unpleasant scenario is not a million miles away from the situation of the ‘virtual individual’, the conditioned self which now has to make sense within the context of the system of logic, and whose life cannot therefore ever go beyond ‘what is allowed by rationality’. And if the question were to be asked “What is allowed by rationality?” the answer would come back “nothing” (the blank or hollow type of nothing, that is, not the mysterious type). Rationality allows nothing – it only pretends to allow…
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.