The world, we might say, is made up entirely of strangeness, but it is covered up by a very thin layer of normality. The fact that we don’t generally go around seeing the world as being ‘strange’ has nothing to do with the nature of reality, but everything to do with our way of seeing, which is extraordinarily hasty and superficial. It is not particularly contentious to suggest that we do not usually perceive the world as being strange. We know this to be so from our own daily experience – the days go by, one pretty much like another, and the flavour that we get from them, so to speak, is not that of their oddness (i.e. their ‘uniqueness’), but of their regularity. It might be said that – in theory at least – every day is a new day, and unlike any that came before it, but in practice today seems very much like yesterday, and I can be sure that tomorrow will be pretty much like today. The details might differ, but overall feel, the ‘taste’ of each day, is pretty much the same in all cases. They all seem to merge together somehow, like meals in an institution, a hospital or prison, which over a long period of time all end up tasting the same, whether it is breakfast, dinner or tea. They all just taste of the institution and the institution has only the one – distinctly drab – taste. The overall impression – whether its an institution or just life in general we’re talking about – as the days, the weeks, the months, the years, fly by, is one of consistency, uniformity, repetition, ‘more of the same,’ as if we hadn’t already had enough. The normal cumulatively outweighs the strange, eventually burying it without a trace remaining anywhere to be seen.
My attitude to life, if I were to be scrupulously honest, is dulled and jaundiced, as befits one who has been ceaselessly bombarded with an apparently endless series of wretchedly repeating regularities. In the face of relentless regularity we turn off, we lose interest, we tune out; the spark goes out and we slowly but surely fall deep into spiritual sleep. This is true for just about everyone – it doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor, socially esteemed or an outcast, whether you are highly intelligent or just of average intelligence. The only people who don’t seem to be so roundly afflicted by the endless ennui of daily life are those blessed with some degree or other of creativity, or those who have somehow retained the innocence and sweet naivety of childhood. This gives a clue that it is not life itself that is regular and repetitive, but that it is us ourselves who manage to fill life up with our patterns, our routines, our cyclical structures. Any day of the week will serve as an example of this – all we need to do is to just spend a minute or two considering how much of the day is genuinely unprogrammed, genuinely free of pre-existing, predetermined structure. How much of our time is genuinely free of purposefulness, free of plans, aims, goals, intentions and agendas (all of which are ‘the past imported wholesale into the present’)?
Of course there are plenty of gaps between the major routines of the day, times when we have nothing that is particularly important to do, when we find ourselves at a bit of a lose end. If I am a busy person then I don’t have so much of this slack time, and if I am not a busy person then I will have lots and lots of it. But this sort of ‘free time’ isn’t really free at all, it’s taken up with a different type of purposefulness: instead of working towards achieving a ‘serious’ or ‘important’ goal this time I am working towards the goal of ‘successfully entertaining myself’, or ‘successfully passing the time’. Actually, of course, the goal of successfully passing the time is a very serious goal in its own right – grimly serious in fact. But even if I can’t manage to successfully entertain myself, this still doesn’t mean that I am free from purposefulness, free from the desire or intention to entertain myself – I still have the agenda to be entertained, it just hasn’t been satisfactorily fulfilled. Actually, even the thought “I am not being entertained” (i.e. “I am bored”) is entertainment – it just isn’t very good entertainment!
The reason we pack in so much of the purposeful stuff – the plans and the schemes and the goals and the routines – is because we want to make the most of our lives. We want to make something of ourselves, we want to make a go of it; we don’t want to be left sitting on the shelf, twiddling our thumbs, letting life ‘pass us by’. This is, or very quickly becomes, a serious duty with us – the duty of doing something with our lives. “Carpe diem”, we say. Seize the day. To the victor the spoils. And so on and so forth. The problem that none of us see, however, is that life isn’t something that we can set out to ‘do’. We can do things in life, but life itself can’t be done – not deliberately, at any rate. This really should be obvious. After all, we don’t actually know what life is for a start, and if we don’t know what it is then how the hell are we supposed to ‘do’ it, or make a goal of it? When we try too hard, when we get too serious about making sure we get the most out of life, then what we find is that we end up spending an awful lot of time doing lots of things that we do know about and can make goals of (i.e. the routine stuff) but far from enabling us somehow to ‘seize hold of life’ all that actually happens is that we miss the point big time. Life isn’t something that we can deliberately ‘do’, and it most certainly isn’t – as Alan Watts points out – something that we can do as a duty, because we think we have to, or ought to, because we think that it’s the ‘right thing to do’. Life can happen through us when we are ‘light’ (or ‘playful’) enough, but we can’t make it happen with the usual dire mixture of goals and seriousness and a heavy sense of duty, no matter how hard we try, no matter how much guilt we feel. Being deadly serious, wretchedly humourless, and woefully heavy-handed (as we are all brought up to believe proper adults should be) ruins everything – it makes a mockery of life. It’s okay to have goals in life, but when life itself becomes a goal then we are screwed big-time, we are well-and-truly banjaxed, scuppered entirely, hoisted up high and dry on our own petard. When we make a goal out of living then that mysterious thing we call ‘life’ eludes us at every turn and the joke is well and truly on us.
It’s hard for us to see to just what extent we have converted life into a set of standardized routines (which is to say, into ‘logical procedures’ or ‘systems’). We love systems so much that we have invested just about everything we’ve got in them. We like them so much we bought the company. We have, to the extent that we can, turned everything into one colossal world-mimicking system, complete with an intricate series of subsystems within subsystems within subsystems. In short, if we can’t systematize it then whatever it is obviously can’t be worth bothering about. Everything important is in there; everything important is part of the system. We like systems so much because they represent efficiency and control and these twin gods of efficiency and control make so much sense to us that it is hard for us to see how anyone would not see the value of going down this road. It baffles us and even angers us that anyone could be wrongheaded enough to say a word against this trend. Systematization seems so logical – what’s not to like about it? It is however the logic that is the problem. Logic is an overwhelmingly persuasive sort of a thing – it is so very persuasive that it doesn’t allow us any space not to be persuaded. It doesn’t really give us any option! Logic is a remarkably persuasive thing but it only gets to be so extremely persuasive by making whopping great assumptions and then sweeping these assumptions under the carpet before anyone notices what has happened. This is what logic is, this is how logic works. This is the only way it can work. Essentially, what logic does is to drastically simplify the universe by ‘missing out’ all non-agreeing content; it simplifies reality down until all that is left is a set of regularities, i.e. the tautological expansion of a single fixed viewpoint.
Logic – we might say – functions by reducing the world to a logically coherent system. It functions by discarding everything that doesn’t agree with its starting-off assumptions, and so at the end of this ‘sorting’ process all we have left is those assumptions ‘writ large’ – making it look as if they weren’t assumptions at all, but an immutable fact of reality. And because all the ‘non-matching’ information has been lost in the process, because it has been unceremoniously thrown away, irreversibly dumped, we have no way of knowing that the picture we see at the end of it all is arbitrary and limited. Far from seeing this systematized version of reality as being arbitrary, we think that it is ‘the one and only right way for things to be’. Far from seeing it as being limited, we imagine that it is the Whole of Everything. After all, as far as we are concerned it is The Whole of Everything. It is the box that we can’t think outside of, and because we can’t think outside of it, we can’t see that it is only a box… To our normal way of thinking, reducing the universe to a set of well-behaved regularities, reducing it to a logically-consistent system, seems like a marvellous thing – a triumph of the intellect. We are always on the look out for a new and improved logical over-view, for a ‘catch-all’ system that can be used to describe all the diverse elements that make up the world we live in. Every theory has a latent (or not-so-latent) tendency to go beyond its proper station and over-inflate so that it can become a ‘theory of everything’ – no matter whether I am a Freudian or a Marxist or a Christian Scientist or a Catholic or Neo-Darwinian or a New Ager I tend to think that my system explains everything that is important. This is no accident. There is clearly a great psychological pay-off for having such a ‘catch-all theory’ – the advantage being that life is simplified thereby for me in a very satisfying way. Life has been reduced to a system that I know about and understand (and thus hopefully bring under control) and so rather than suffer the pangs of irreducible existential angst that derives from that fact that I don’t actually know what life is about, the only sort of ‘angst’ I will suffer from is the pseudo-angst of ‘not being able to get the world (or other people) to behave in accordance with my arbitrary scheme’. The suffering that arises as a result of us ‘not having things be the way we think they ought to be’ may seem serious enough to us at the time, but it is really no more than an anaemic and ultimately ridiculous parody of honest-to-goodness existential angst, which is the suffering of an authentic human being coming to terms with the difficulties of being in a world that cannot be handily reduced to a formula (rather than the petty, if not to say sublimely meaningless, suffering of a game-player who cannot get his or her absurdly pointless game to work out).
The implication is always that if we did manage to discover a Theory of Everything (a TOE) then we would be in possession of a truly tremendous advantage. But the only reason we think this is because we are looking at the world in controlling way, in a risk-minimizing way, and very powerful theory or model always brings along with it the seductive promise of maximized control. What we don’t stop to look at is the motivation that lies behind control, which is to say, the ‘need to control,’ and that ‘need’ always comes down to the twin motivation of greed and fear. Either I am fearful of risk, which automatically necessitates control, or I am desirous of obtaining some benefit, which also necessitates control. Ultimately fear and greed are indistinguishable since the desire to obtain a benefit is identical to the fear of the risk of not obtaining it. If we weren’t greedy or fearful then we wouldn’t regard life as a problem to be solved, and so we wouldn’t be perennially on the look out for a new and better method of solving problems. Instead of looking at the universe as a problem to be solved, which inevitably brings it down to my level (since it is my problem and not the universe’s that I am concerned with!) I look at it with the eyes of an artist or poet, and allow it to elevate me to its level. The satisfaction or sense of triumph that is obtained as a result of thinking that one has got the advantage on life, as a result of one’s theory or system, is a dreadfully inferior echo of the ecstasy that arises when one is privileged to see reality as it is in itself, free from one’s own petty projections. This is like being in a relationship – in the first case I feel a sense of power and security because I have established total control over my partner, and in the second case I am moved with love and a profound sense of wonder because I see my partner as he or she is in themselves, rather than in terms of what they mean to me. Most of us, most of the time, are – needless to say – egocentric users rather than pure-hearted lovers and our obsession with systems is the proof of this.
Life, we might say, cannot be ‘solved’ (as attractive as that word sounds to us) because its solution would necessarily reduce everything to the single level of description implied by our narrow perception of the problem. If we were to find ‘an answer’ then the answer that we find would presuppose the meaningfulness of our question. In other words, trying to solve ‘the problem’ is just another way of taking our unexamined assumptions seriously, and taking our unexamined assumptions seriously is what unconscious living – where security is more important than truth – is all about. Finding the TOE (or the ATE, the ‘Answer to Everything’) might seem enormously significant to us but if it does then the one thing we can be sure of is that this apparent significance is only due to the fact that we are taking our unexamined assumptions so very seriously. Needless to say, we are perfectly entitled to take our assumptions seriously if we want to but the whole thing about taking our assumptions seriously is that the ‘act’ of taking my position seriously always involves ignoring all the other possible positions that I could have taken on the matter. Not to ignore these other possible positions makes ‘seriousness’ a total impossibility.
So what we are saying here – yet again – is that reducing the world to a logically consistent system is an unwarranted simplification, an over-simplification, which essentially means that it is a ‘false version of the truth’ (or in other words, a lie). Thus, all definite assertions are ultimately lies, which is a most peculiar thing to contemplate since in our day-to-day lives we are stuck fast to a seamlessly conjoined and endlessly cycling series (or system) of positive assertions / descriptions and have a tremendous aversion to anything that isn’t reassuringly defined and comfortably explained. When we oversimplify the ‘Irrational Whole’ – which is necessarily irrational because it is not a ratio of anything else – we end up with what we might call the ‘rational fragment’. The Irrational Whole is complex and it cannot therefore be subjected to logical questioning; it cannot be made the subject of questioning for the very good reason that it is bigger than any question that we could possibly ask about it! We can only ask meaningful questions (and come up with meaningful answers) if we reduce that Whole to a fragment, and not only ‘reduce it to a fragment’ but ‘reduce it to a fragment which is implicitly represented as being not a fragment, but the entirety of everything that is possible’. The rational fragment is thus a ‘false whole’ – a term which neatly describes both the rational mind and the eminently understandable world which it perceives and lives in. However, the sting in the tail is that whilst we can now ask meaningful questions of the rational picture of the world that the system of logic has created for us (and obtain meaningful answers into the bargain) it turns out that both the question and the answer are both no more than tautological restatements of that very same system of logic, and so any apparent gain or improvement to our situation is quite illusory. Our questions seem to be meaningful only because they illegitimately subsume the world within the closed framework of understanding that they take for granted but the inevitable consequence of this illegitimate act is that the answer we obtain is no more than a tautological restatement of the original question. And that original question was itself quite meaningless in the larger context of things since it was no more than an unwarranted simplification of what actually is real. The strange thing is, therefore, that the world only seems reassuringly normal to us because we can’t see that there actually isn’t any such thing as ‘normal,’ which is to say, normality is an illusion caused by the incredible narrowness (i.e. closed-ness) of our rational minds.
Even in the pure, ‘Platonic’ realm of mathematics is not a system, and cannot be treated as one. The realm of mathematics is shot through with non-systematic propositions, statements that cannot be shown to be true or not true on the basis of a particular logical view point – this is the gist of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, that mathematical space is not a continuum. In his book The Mind of God (1992, P 107) Paul Davies quotes Douglas Hofstadter as saying,
Undecidable propositions run through mathematics like threads of gristle that criss-cross a steak in such a dense way that they cannot be cut out without the entire steak’s being destroyed.
Taking advantage of this versatile and picturesque simile, we may say that what we are left with on our dinner plates after the onslaught of unfettered global rationalization surgically removes all the ‘non-systematic elements’ from our lives is not a steak but a cut-price generic beef-burger. And yet, in the complete absence of any source of unprocessed food, we never realize that we have been swindled, and proceed to eat up the rubbish that we have been given like good girls and boys.
Just to sum up, then, systems (theories, models, routines, methods, procedures, etc) are quintessentially regular in nature. That’s what makes them systems, after all – saying that systems and the logical substructures that make them up are regular is to say that every bit of them can be relied upon to obey the rules. Because systems always follow the rules they are fundamentally non-strange; anything that comes out of my rational-conceptual mind (by design, in other words) is guaranteed to be explicable, definable, describable, predictable, knowable, etc. There is no ‘strangeness-factor’ in these mental productions whatsoever and that is what I like about them. By diligently filling all the available space of my days with logical patterns and routines therefore I render life effectively ‘non-strange’. I have tamed it, sanitized it, managed it and organized it and regulated it until there are no untidy bits and pieces or awkward corners left anywhere in sight to upset my neat little scheme of things.
Of course life is still very strange really – it is perfectly and irreducibly strange, it is as strange as strange could be, stranger by far than the strangest thing you could possibly think of even if you tried thinking strange things non-stop for a whole year, but by concentrating on the regular elements, the elements that are part of the logical system, we avoid knowing about it. We run a tight ship, we keep everything as buttoned-down as we can with no gaps and no visible joins (not if we can at all help it) and we do this by not paying attention to anything that is not part of our pattern, even though our pattern is only a miniscule part of all that is out there. It could be said that we make up for the insufficiency of our pattern by the aggression and determination with which we enact it, and by our willingness to compensate for the dismally poor quality of our product with sheer relentless quantity. Never mind if what I am saying is dreadful nonsense, just listen to how loudly and forcefully I say it, and how often I repeat it! It’s not just that we plot our days so that one well-worn routine follows another, which is then followed by another and another and another without any awkward gaps in-between, its not just that we love systems so much that we make them wherever we go, and enslave ourselves to them willy-nilly, but rather it is that our very way of perceiving, understanding, and remembering the world (along with our associated purposeful activity in the world) is itself a closed and seamless logic-system. This closed system – which Professor David Bohm has called the ‘system of thought’ – is none other than the everyday mind and it is this mind that constitutes ‘the box which we cannot think outside of’. The tyranny of the everyday rational mind is something that quite unsuspected by us and it is perfectly possible to live one’s life without feeling hemmed in or curtailed by it. It is rather like a console game in this respect – as long as we are content to play by the rules and try to obtain the goals that are programmed into the system for us then we will not be aware of any restriction. On the contrary, we will enjoy the game, we will throw ourselves enthusiastically into the task of winning within the given framework and because we have thrown ourselves so wholeheartedly into it we will not ever stop to wonder what would happen if we tried to go beyond the authorized guidelines. If we were to get bored with the game we would discover that we cannot go beyond the guidelines that we have been provided with – we can never leave the territory that has been programmed into the game for the simple reason that there is no other territory. The game is both closed and seamless and all we can do is go around and around in circles inside it forever, or until we get tired of it and switch of the console.
With the system of thought the situation is a good deal worse – the game is actually compulsory and even if we were to decide that we weren’t going to play the game and that we were going to do something else instead, that rebellious decision and the course of action that follows the decision are also predetermined by the system of thought and are also ‘compulsory’. In short, the system of thought is a set of rules and as long as we are content to follow these rules and believe that these rules constitute ‘the one and only way to live life’ then there will be no conflict, no awareness of limitation or ‘imposed deficiency’. As long as we are happy to spend our lives pursuing the goals given to us by the system then we will never be aware of the fundamental restriction that is placed upon us, which can be neatly expressed by two rules, one which comes in the form of a compulsion, and the other in the form of a prohibition:
We can only perceive, envisage and do what the system allows us to perceive, envisage, and do
We are not allowed to know that we are only allowed to perceive, envisage and do what the system allows us to perceive, envisage and do
There is an old Irish folk saying, “What’s strange is wonderful.” Edgar Allen Poe says, “There is no beauty without some strangeness.” But somehow we have become prey to a perverse attitude of mind that sees strangeness as an enemy to be ruthlessly stamped out wherever it appears. This attitude is even wrongly identified with science – it is felt that science ought to have to function of wiping out all strangeness in the universe so that we can live securely (and tediously) in a mystery-free zone where all is safely mapped out for us. It is not just on a cultural level that this occurs, as we have said, it is also the case (whether we see it or not) that in our personal lives we are also working flat out, day in and day out, to obliterate or steam-roller any trace of strangeness – we obliterate it before we see it even, by long-standing reflex. This is like a man who is so good at scratching his itches that he never realizes he has any. We dislike the unknown so much that we never allow ourselves to see it, even though it is all around us. We are ceaselessly accumulating structures of knowledge and routines, amassing them as if the sheer volume of all this ‘stuff’ is actually going to enhance our lives. But it only ‘enhances’ our lives in a very narrow sense of the word – it only enhances our lives if by ‘enhancing’ we mean maximizing the amount of ‘surface-level security’. Possessed and driven by the terminally unwise urge to endlessly maximize our security, we spend our days spinning a cocoon of blandness around us, until – in the end – the ‘blandness’ is all there is. It never dawned on us that the war against strangeness is a war against life.
Tipperary-born Wei Wu Wei expresses this idea nicely in Ask the Awakened – The Negative Way (1963, P 4) –
As busy little bees, gathering honey here and there, and adding it to their stock in their hive, we are wasting our time, and worse, for we are building up that very persona whose illusory existence stands between our phenomenal selves and the truth of what we are, and which the urge in us is seeking.
We can also think about this process in terms of language. Language, when used well, is edgy and ‘out there’ and so from the point of view of the attitude which doesn’t like the unexpected and which insists that all meanings be regulated in according with an unquestionable central authority it is potentially dangerous. If we happen to be infected with this attitude it is only natural that we do our best to protect ourselves by churning out bucket-loads of stereotypes and clichés so as to drown out the threat. This is essentially a dumbing-down process whereby we create a buffer zone of drivel that will dilute the concentration of any dangerous messages so much that it can never harm us. Instead of language, James Carse (Finite and Infinite Games, 1980, P 41) talks of ‘culture’, which he sees in terms of an unprogrammed or free mode of interaction between people (as opposed to the ‘constrained relations’ imposed by society) and he argues that society generally functions by substituting stage-managed ‘pseudo-culture’ for the genuine article –
Just as infinite play cannot be contained within finite play, culture cannot be authentic if held within the boundaries of a society. Of course, it is often the strategy of a society to initiate and embrace a culture as exclusively its own. Culture so bounded may even be so lavishly subsidized and encouraged by society that it has the appearance of open-ended activity, but in fact it is designed to serve societal interests in every case – like the socialist realism of Soviet art.
Society and culture are therefore not true opponents of each other. Rather society is a species of culture that persists in contradicting itself, a freely organized attempt to conceal the freedom of the organizers and the organized, an attempt to forget that we have wilfully forgotten our decision to enter this or that contest and to continue in it.
Another example of this same principle (which is of course what we have been discussing all along) can be seen in television, which may be seen as a medium of communication – at least in theory. Communication is actually dangerous because it can become a bit too exciting, a bit too radical, a bit too risky. It could potentially result in the relativization, and thus the destabilization, of the system, and the way to defuse this risk is to manufacture vast quantities of garbage and pump it out non-stop on as many channels as possible. Pseudo-communication then drowns out and replaces the genuine article and no one is ever the wiser. The enemy of stability – which is to say, the establishment – may be seen in terms of genuine creativity or genuine communication, but it may also be seen in terms of silence. Silence allows us the space to withdraw from the ‘given structure’ of thought and dwell instead in the unstructured realm of what Keats called our ‘negative capability’. The cure for this danger is to saturate the world with unremitting noise and mass-produced garbage and this – according to Alan Watts (1971, P 63) – is just what we are doing –
We, who live in a civilization where mental silence is almost non-existent, regard thinking and busy-mindedness as our principle claim to humanity. We believe that a mind without thoughts would surely be a regression to infancy or a descent to pure animality. But, ironically, our consistent confusion of symbols with reality ends up with plastic people, routed from the maternity ward to the crematorium like battery farmed chickens. For unrelieved thinking turns everything, oneself included, into mere objects. If you begin with the principle that what cannot be classified and symbolized does not exist, you arrive at a destination where only symbols are real, and today we have just about arrived. One does not have to be a philosopher to know when bread is no longer bread and beer is no longer beer, yet most Americans are unaware of the difference. When the swift and systematic destruction of the planet is called progress, we have taken leave of our senses.
The down-side of this so-called ‘progress’ is – as Alan Watts says – that we have to make do on a daily basis with the direst of the dire, the drabbest of the drab, the most dreadful of the dreadful. As a result of ‘progress’, we never get to taste the genuine article – we never get to drink the pure cold natural water drawn from the inexhaustible well of life. Instead we live on generic colas, which gradually rot our teeth, destroy our taste-buds and give us early-onset diabetes. But although we will suffer as a result of the runaway proliferation of all this bland and non-nutritious mental cotton-wool (which is the ubiquitous, non-biodegradable ‘Product’ of the system) we are all at least protected from the risk of ever coming across anything that will cause us to change, which is what strangeness unfailingly does.
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.