If I say “The world is an illusion” this is the everyday mind speaking and since the everyday mind is itself part of the world then it too must be an illusion, along with everything it says. If I say “This everyday mind is an illusion” then this is no good either since everything the everyday mind says must then also be hollow, vacant, illusory, and empty of meaning, including this statement.
If I say “Everything my everyday mind creates is unreal and non-existent” then I am trying to say something real – I am trying as hard as I can to say something meaningful with my rational mind. But this attempt, born out of desperation, is doomed from the onset – all my statements are self-contradictory, self-denying, self-cancelling and no matter what way I twist and turn I am caught. I’m am caught in a self-contradicting loop that I cannot escape from.
If I state that “Everything I say is meaningless” then so too is this statement, so why do I bother saying it? Why bother saying something that immediately cancels itself out? If I say “This statement is unreal” then I am trying to say something that is real even though it is impossible for an unreal statement to say anything real about itself. I am trying to cheat the bank – I am trying to redeem myself from my unreality by the tactic of admitting my weakness but I cannot. I cannot rid myself of the taint by accusing myself of harbouring it!
If the everyday mind says that the world is an illusion it is denying what it implicitly believes in since it itself is part of the world that it denies. When it says that the world is an illusion it necessarily agrees with what it seeks to disagree with. In order to deny itself it first needs to agree with its own basis; in order to reject itself it first needs to accept its own ‘basis for rejecting and accepting’; in order to conclusively refute its own legitimacy it must necessarily take for granted the legitimacy of its basis for making this or any other refutation.
The everyday mind is well and truly caught here and nothing it does can ever get it out of this particular hole. By casting itself down it exalts itself, by denying itself it promotes itself, by destroying itself it creates itself. By trying to put an end to itself it perpetuates itself, by trying to go beyond itself it brings itself along, and by trying to point at something outside itself it points at itself.
Of course, the everyday mind does not usually try to deny itself, it does not usually make the attempt to logically refute itself. I do not generally go around saying that the world is an illusion. On the contrary – I generally go around saying (usually implicitly rather than explicitly) that the world is real, not unreal. I go around saying (again, more often implicitly than explicitly) that the statements I make are true and meaningful. Most of the time I go around positively promoting the world as it is conceived by my rational mind and heaping affirmations upon it. This is the same thing as positively promoting and affirming myself since the rational mind is what I perceive as myself.
The attempt to promote or affirm myself is however no less self-contradictory than the attempt to negate myself. When the everyday mind tries to affirm itself this is as inherently meaningless as when it tries to deny itself. We can illustrate this by reference to the famous liar paradox. If I say “Everything I say is a lie” then straightaway I have made obvious an absurdity since if this were true then it would have to be a lie, and if it were a lie then it would of course have to be true. Thus, the statement chases itself around and around in a closed circle forever – if it is true then it is false and if it is false then it is true and if it is true then it if false and if it is false then it is true and so on and so forth. The statement never gets anywhere; it never says anything because it is perfectly self-contradicting. It cancels itself out.
The fact that the statement “Everything I say is a lie” is self-contradicting means that it is empty or meaningless. When I utter this statement I am saying nothing, even though on the face of it I appear to be saying something. Paradoxicality irrefutably demonstrates zero information content. We don’t usually go around denying the truth of what we say, however. It is more normal for me to say (or at least imply) the opposite, i.e. it is more normal for me to start from the position that everything I say is the truth.
The statement “Everything I say is true” is every bit as absurd as the statement “Everything I say is false’ even though this might not be quite so easy to see. In order to make the statement that everything I say is true I first have to make the assumption that my basis for saying anything is true, for only then can I say “Everything I say is true” and be sure that this statement itself is true.
It is no good me coming out with the proud assertion that what I am saying is true (or meaningful) unless I have the capacity to say true or meaningful things in the first place. Unless I know this to be the case, I might as well save my breath. If on the other hand I blindly assume that the proposition that I have a basis for making true statements is true, then I can of course go ahead and make the statement that everything I say is true. But as we have said this statement rests upon a premise that is no more than pure unfounded supposition – I just went ahead and assumed it, when I could just as well have assumed the opposite. Nothing can be built on the basis of a mere arbitrary assumption and so no matter what statements I come out with they are all equally hollow.
The inherent paradoxicality of “This is a true statement” arises as a result of its flagrantly tautological nature (just as the paradoxicality of “This is not a true statement” does). The point is that we only have the word of the statement itself that it is true – it relies upon itself for verification, just like a man who assures you that he is most definitely trustworthy. If the man in question was totally trustworthy then we could of course trust his statement to be true, but on the other hand we only have his word for that and if it happens to be the case that he isn’t in the least bit trustworthy then telling us that he is is exactly what he would do. Con men don’t go around admitting that they are liars, and so if someone comes up to you in the street and promises you that they can be trusted, and swears most solemnly on whatever you want that they won’t deceive you, then unless you are a complete fool you will know that this assurance is utterly worthless.
The statement “This is a true statement” is tautological because it relies upon itself being true in order for it to be true. It’s only true if it’s true, which doesn’t tell us anything. If I happen to be telling the truth when I say that I am telling the truth then of course the statement can be trusted, but suppose I was lying when I said I was telling the truth? What then? There is absolutely no way, on the basis of that statement alone, of knowing whether I am telling the truth when I say that I am or whether I am lying. If I assert something and there is no way whatsoever to know from this assertion whether what I have said is true or not, then the statement in question has no information content.
The statement “Everything I say is a lie” seems to carry information, it seems to be a genuine communication, but when I pursue the matter a little more thoroughly I find myself face to face with the cybernetic paradox, which has the form YES = NO, UP = DOWN, RIGHT = LEFT, IN = OUT, WIN = LOSE, [+] = [-],… This paradoxicality tells me nothing about the outside world, the world at large, but what it does demonstrate very clearly is its own redundancy. When I look closely I see that the statement is advertising its own fatuity as plainly as it can.
The statement “Everything I say is true” also seems to be information when we look at it in a superficial way. Upon closer inspection however I find myself caught up in an infinite regress, which is another practical demonstration of implacable impossibility. We have already touched upon the reason for this. If I have the statement there that says “This statement is true” then in addition to its ‘face value information’ I also need to know that its ‘basis’ is reliable. In other words, I need to know that the statement isn’t lying when it says it is telling the truth; I need to know that it is true that the statement is true. So what I really need is another statement to come before the original statement to say that the original statement is in fact telling the truth. But then of course I realize that I have no assurance that my ‘prior’ statement is telling the truth either and so I have to have another statement prior to the original prior statement vouching that the original prior statement is telling the truth when it says that the original statement is telling the truth. I keep having to take one step backwards in other words, so that I can get behind myself in order to ‘verify my verifying’ and this procedure of taking one step backwards each time quite obviously goes on forever.
This is actually a totally ubiquitous problem for all logical structures, for all logical assertions. Logic can only find a basis for itself if it itself provides that basis, and then the terminal error of tautology is incurred. It’s only true because it itself says that it’s true, which is a circular argument. This is also a psycho-sociological problem as Berger and Luckman have noted in The Social Construction of Reality. The authors make the point that we require structure in our lives but structure that is purely arbitrary (i.e. rules that could just as well have been otherwise) offer no security at all. We want rules that could not have been otherwise; in other words we want rules that we ourselves have not made up to suit ourselves. The awareness of the vicious redundancy inherent in intentionality would quite spoil the ontological security that we are looking for, and so we have to have an external authority to hang our structure onto. We want an unimpeachable external authority to verify our rules, to vouch for them, to guarantee them so that we don’t ever run any risk of going down the dangerous road of ‘questioning our basis’.
Instead of talking about logical statements we could equally well talk about rules. It is exactly the same thing. In order to have any kind of a structure we have to have rules, but how do we go about getting these rules? Once we have the rule there’s no problem because the rule is there and all we have to do is to do is to obey it, which is – on the face of things anyway – wonderfully unproblematic. But before we can have the rule in the first place we have to have a prior rule saying that there has to be a rule. We have to have a rule stipulating the original rule or else there is no basis for it and if it has no basis then, by the laws of logic, it is not allowed. Logic is a term for the lawful framework in which propositions are either allowed or not allowed and if a particular proposition or statement has no lawful precedence then it is simply not allowed. So here again we find ourselves up against the same old infinite regress.
This is a manifestation of the starting paradox. As Alan Watts says, in a world where there is nothing but logic, logic can never actually get going: before I can intend to do something I first have to intend to intend it, and before I can intend to intend it, I first have to intend to intend to intend it… What this demonstrates is that all rules are freely chosen, which is clearly paradoxical since rules are by their very nature the antithesis of free choice. As James Carse says, ‘whoever plays, plays freely’, and so in order to play it is necessary that we obscure this essential freedom from ourselves. If we see that we are free not to play, then the game is up. The whole thing is spoiled.
A logical structure or system can never acknowledge its roots in rule-lessness (i.e. indeterminacy) and so what it does to get around this problem is to create axioms for itself – statements that are ‘self-evidently true’. There is however something highly suspect about the notion of a self-evident truth. Once we start looking at a statement in a particular context, the context that is taken for granted by the statement itself, then that statement is ‘self-evidently true’. But this is blatant self-referentiality – if I look at a statement within the context of the framework which that statement itself takes for granted then of course the statement in question appears to be self-evidently true! This is redundancy pure and simple.
There can be no such thing as a statement which makes sense (or tells the truth) without the viewpoint that it assumes any more than there can be ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ outside of the game to which these terms apply. In order for a statement to make sense (rather than being a bit of meaningless noise) it has to be looked at in a certain specific way and this certain specific viewpoint is invariably assumed rather than explicitly stated. If I did explicitly come out with it and say “Statement A is true when looked at in the way that makes it true’ then it is obvious that I am not saying anything at all!
A statement is like a particle of sand that rests upon the meniscus on top of a body of water in a glass. The grain of sand, as everyone knows, causes a slight hollow or dip in the meniscus that conforms precisely to its shape. The distortion of the flat plane surface of the water which was the original meniscus into an indentation (i.e. a local dissymmetry) can therefore be said to be due to the conditioning effect of the particle. In other words, the distortion or bending of the flat surface of the water is a faithful reflection of the particle – it is ‘itself coming back at itself’.
The unconditioned situation in which there are no rules (no local disymmetries) can only be described as ‘a state of perfect symmetry,’ the state of ‘no rules’, and regarding this state of perfect symmetry nothing meaningful can be said. No statement that I may make, however clever, can have any relevance or relationship whatsoever to this state. This point is easy to grasp once we see that all statements are rules, and all rules are disymmetries. A local dissymmetry cannot be used to model the non-local state of unbroken symmetry – that would be like trying to explain chalk with cheese, or chickens with tadpoles. Disymmetries are non-analogous and all they can ever explain is themselves. The grain of sand can never comprehend the endless flat surface of the water in which it sits – all it can understand is the local indentation that corresponds to itself, and so it takes this local self-refection as being ‘the world’. In the same way, our logical statements, our rational thinking, can never tell us about the endless expanse of unconditioned reality, they can only tell us about the closed viewpoint (‘the hollow’) which they themselves take for granted. All rational understanding is a tautological in other words; all of our descriptions and models and theories and thoughts and ideas are prefigured, predetermined and entirely circumscribed by the limiting set of assumptions that we had to make in order to have them.
The basis for any logical system is the ‘self-agreeing statement’, the ‘rule which allows itself’, the ‘man who shakes himself by the hand’. No matter what we do within the confines of the system, no matter what sophisticated games we play, it always comes down to the same thing – disguised tautology, camouflaged redundancy. No matter how magnificently tall a tower we construct, it is only ever of ‘imaginary magnitude’. Within this system we can say nothing meaningful at all – even when we say that we can say nothing meaningful this is not meaningful. Every statement that we could possibly make must always come down to the same thing – a self-cancelling nullity. It is like a dreamer. A dreamer can dream of many things – he can dream of eating a fine meal or of meeting a beautiful woman, he can dream of travelling to distant lands, of succeeding in business, or of being chased by a tiger. He can even dream of waking up, but no matter what he dreams of it always comes down to the same thing. It’s all just the dream!
The discovery that the everyday mind is a vacuous bubble of nonsensical chatter comes as a devastating shock. We base just about everything we do on this mind, and so to learn that it is bankrupt, that it is an over-inflated bogus economy on a roller-coaster ride to total collapse, that it is rotten to the core with thinly veiled redundancy, is quite unthinkable to us. If you go around saying that the everyday mind is exactly like a Shakespeare’s tale that is told by an idiot, ‘full of sound and fury but signifying nothing’, you will unfailingly be met with expressions of either great disapproval or worried concern, depending on who you talk to. When it is suggested by the proponents of scientific relativism that there are things about the universe which we just can’t know this is generally seen as dreadful bad news, it is like being told that we have an incurable disease. We feel let down and disempowered because we need the sense of security that comes with absolute knowledge. We want to be in control, and we can’t truly be in control if there are limits to our rational knowledge. We will always be threatened and disturbed by the unnerving awareness that we have a blindspot. To hear that the everyday mind is an illusion pure and simple amplifies that disgruntled feeling of being let down to the nth degree – it blows away our precious (if spurious) sense of security like a hurricane blows out a candle.
We crave the security of rules but reality itself is no rule. Reality cannot be a rule or else it could never start! A rule is a dissymmetry because it has two sides, two faces. It has two opposed attitudes which it presents to the world – it either accepts or denies, includes or excludes, says YES or says NO. This creates a dissymmetrical world in which stuff is firmly placed either on the inside of the all-important boundary, or on the outside. As Jung says, rationality operates on the basis of this either/or approach. Our everyday mind relies absolutely upon the existence and meaningfulness of the boundaries that rationality creates but reality itself, as we have argued, is not dissymmetrical by symmetrical. The principle behind symmetry is not the rule; this principle does not present two faces to the world but only one and that face is equally accepting to everything that comes its way.
We could express this ‘All-Inclusive Principle’ in a rule-like way with the formula “Everything That Happens Is Allowed...” but this is not a rule; this is the very antithesis of a rule! Rules define or specify the RIGHT WAY and discard everything else as being the WRONG WAY. The All-Inclusive Principle defines nothing and discards nothing – EVERYTHING is the ‘RIGHT WAY’ and since the notion of RIGHT relies on the existence of WRONG to mean anything, saying that everything is right makes quite the idea of right quite meaningless. If everything is accepted then saying that everything is accepted is redundant and so why would we bother mentioning it, or thinking it?
This is where the everyday mind disappears; it disappears because it is not needed. Everything it says is redundant, not worth saying, quite hollow and without substance, and so it doesn’t need to be there. There is no need for a commentator, a designator, a describer, a knower because all these operations involve sorting out data on the basis of YES versus NO. Symmetry doesn’t mean that there is no reality left (which is what the everyday mind in its self-referential panic automatically thinks) it just means that there is nothing to ‘do’ with reality, that there is nothing special to ‘add to it’. This state of affairs only seems such a terrifying disaster to the everyday mind because the everyday mind exists only for itself, not for any greater good, and it does not like to find itself redundant. For this mind, the end of itself is the end of the universe, whereas in reality the end of itself is the end of something that wasn’t actually anything in the first place. The end of the everyday mind is the end of a hoax. As the Mahayana Prajnaparamita sutras point out, the end of the everyday mind isn’t the end of anything because there never was such a thing.
But if the reasoning, conceptualizing mind is a hoax then surely no one can say anything that isn’t also a hoax and so everything we have just said is just more of the same old fraud? This need not be so, however. The everyday mind is a perfectly good tool or instrument and can be very useful when it is in the service of something ‘greater than itself’. After all, the everyday mind isn’t all that there is even if that is what it itself thinks. When the rationalizing, conceptualizing mind is the boss and doesn’t allow anything else into the picture (which is after all what it is good at!) then it produces nothing but disguised tautologies. It does nothing but contribute to the general nullity. When the rational mind is the supreme, undisputed authority, when it alone calls the shots, then it ceaselessly produces lorry-loads of nonsense. This mass-produced, officially authenticated nonsense naturally sounds highly impressive to us because we are all under the sway of that same bogus boss but it is nonsense just the same, no matter how many people believe it. Ten billion fools are no better than a single fool! The validation is spurious.
The system of the rational mind has a gravity to it and when we fall in line with this gravity we lose ourselves. By trying to understand or express ourselves through it we become it. By using it as the unexamined basis of our intention, it intends itself through us. The everyday mind is a system of referents, a language, and this language is as intimate to us as our own internal organs. Like an internal organ that functions quietly and reliably within our bodies we are at all times blissfully oblivious to it – it is the air we breathe or the water a fish swims in. We use this taken-for-granted language to relate to both the world and ourselves – it is our medium for perception, cognition and communication. But it is a tainted instrument because it doesn’t just influence or prejudice our thinking, it totally determines it. We can only work within the terms of the system because these are the only terms it permits, and within these terms there is no freedom. The only freedom we have is the freedom to enact the system, which is not freedom at all but empty slavery. This is like playing a console game – as long as we are content to stay within what is permitted in the game everything is fine, but when we try to move outside the parameters of the game we discover that no such possibility exists. In GTA 4, for example, if you decide to leave the city and keep swimming out to sea, what happens is that you get caught in a loop of programming and you keep swimming through the same recycled stretch of sea forever. This is the game’s infinite regress, built in to disguise its boundaries.
Another disguise is the substitution of trivial for radical choice. We are presented with certain options, all of which fall strictly within the remit of the game (the game of the rational mind, that is), and we are given the freedom to determine which of these options we want to choose. When we exercise our power to select between these ‘options that are different only in a trivial way’ (trivial since they are all just ‘the game’) we experience the illusion of freedom. We also experience the illusion of individuality, since we are able to adopt a particular style which will be trivially different from the styles adopted by other players. The radical option of ‘not playing the game’ is not permitted to us however; we are not permitted to know that there is such a thing as ‘not playing the game’ because the game surreptitiously (i.e. indirectly) presents itself to us as ‘the totality of all possibilities’. We are kept prisoners by the illusion of freedom – we have no chance of ever escaping the trap because we think we are already free.
When we use the instrument as it itself wants to be used then everything we think and say and do is necessarily prefigured by the closed logic of that instrument – nothing new can ever emerge. All of our ‘purposeful output’ is the system and the system is at all times utterly null, utterly tautological. To truly use the system (as opposed to being used by it without us realizing that we are being used by it) it is necessary for us to go against it. This does not mean becoming a rebel in the stereotypical teenage way (i.e. saying NO I WON’T DO WHAT YOU SAY the whole time instead of YES I WILL DO WHAT YOU SAY) because that too is a permitted move within the game of the rational mind. What it means is being an authentic rebel rather than a laughable, hollow caricature of a rebel, i.e. someone who does not express him or herself within the sadly stereotypical and crassly clichéd terms allowed him or her by the system. This doesn’t mean ‘dropping out’ of the system so much as not forgetting your own true self whilst working within it.
This is of course a formidably hard task since ‘your own true self’ is disallowed by the game – knowing who you really are is as Alan Watts says Strictly Taboo. The Number One Rule Of The Game is that you will not remember who you are. Whenever your true self starts to show itself it will attacked by the system as an alien intruder, it will be suppressed by peer pressure and introjected social values. The mechanism for this suppression is generally shame and fear – we are made to feel ashamed of being ourselves and afraid of being rejected and so we pretend to be who we think we ought to be, until one day the mask actually takes over. Remembering your true self requires on the one hand the courage not to be intimidated by these forces and on the other hand the sensitivity to know what is genuinely going on inside you. This subtle awareness cannot be expressed or communicated using the terms given to us by the language of logic which is the system, but it can be expressed when we learn to use this language in a non-literal way.
This process is not guided by what I ‘know’ because what I know or logically understand is merely the system. It is not guided at all but allowed to emerge spontaneously through what Keats called ‘negative capability’ – the capacity to abide in the state of not-knowing without any agendas and without automatically grasping for comforting certainties. By paying unprejudiced attention to the subtle intangibilities of irrational inspiration the creative urge is allowed entrance into the dead world of the everyday mind and it finds expression by using the old, shop-worn language of this mind in a new, which is to say unprecedented, way.
Where there is nothing but precedence and strict observance of the time-honoured rules there is no life, no genuine voice, only the bogus voice of the system. Genuine individuality can be seen at work when the system is tweaked to convey a communication that is foreign to its own logic, a communication that is not literal, a statement that does not mean what it seems to mean. At the same time, however, if it were not for the framework of orthodox or standardized usage there would be no shared context and no possibility of communication. Creativity means evoking something new rather than describing (or copying) the old: I describe, but at the same time I evoke as well as describing so that there is now the new dimension of evocation which exists at right angles to the flatness of mere description.
Another way of explaining this is to say that the potentially overpowering deadness of the system can be escaped by using words and ideas in a metaphorical or ironical way, rather than unreflectively or concretely. Language that is ironical laughs at itself – it draws attention to its own falsity and thereby escapes the trap that is itself. Metaphorical language uses what is given in order to ingeniously point at what is not ‘given’. It has been said that a metaphor is a bridge between the known and the unknown; like a bridge it provides us with passage from the dead certainty of the everyday rational mind to the luminescent uncertainty that lies beyond it.
By being made to ‘disagree with itself,’ the language provided for us by the system of thought escapes tautology and as a result information is born into the world. Information is when a tree is not a tree, a mountain is not a mountain, and a pipe is not a pipe. Information is when we see that things are not what everyone says they are, when the world shows itself to be deeper and richer than we thought it to be. When we are not complacently content to accept either our own banal beliefs or the empty assertions of others as being the unquestionable truth then the everyday mind becomes the bridge from the known – which is actually nothing more than useless, pointless redundancy – to the Radical Unknown, which is reality itself.
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.