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The Universe is a Surd

The universe is, at root, a surd. Not absurd, but a surd. A surd is a number that stands alone, a number that cannot be simplified any further, a number that cannot be represented in terms of a ratio of any other numbers. A surd is an irregularity, therefore – it is ‘inexplicable in terms of anything else’.


According to Umberto Eco, the universe is ‘a harmless enigma’ –


But now I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.


Saying that the world is a harmless enigma is thus another way of saying the universe is irregular or that it is a surd – although we might perhaps look twice at the word ‘harmless’. Although undoubtedly harmless in the way that Umberto Eco means it (as not causing harm, in the way that our rationalizations or interpretations of the universe do) it is also true that this enigma is actually something very terrifying – at least from the perspective of the everyday mind which seeks to make sense of everything. From the point of view of the everyday mind which is forever classifying and analysing and interpreting everything, a primary irreducible reality – a reality that is by its very nature inexplicable – is frankly terrifying. There is nothing that can strike such terror into the heart if the everyday mind as a fundamentally inexplicable primary reality!



It is not necessarily clear why this should be so – ‘terror’ seems like a rather strong word to use in connection with an enigma that cannot ever be solved, or a ‘surd’ that cannot ever be expressed in terms of something else. Why does the rational mind like explaining things so much, and why would it be frankly terrified to encounter a reality that it cannot account for? Why could it not simply accept it as ‘inexplicable’ (or ‘insoluble’) and move on to something else? This however is just not possible for the thinking mind. Really this is question of ‘explain or die’ and the thinking mind does not want to die! For the everyday mind it very much is a case of ‘classify or die’, analyse or die’, ‘interpret or die’ and there simply are no two ways about this. The rational mind has to do what it does (in an exhaustive rather than a partial or provisional way) in order to carry on being what it is…



Suppose that my job – more than my job, the reason for me actually being here – is to fight a certain enemy, and this enemy no longer exists. This being the case, there is no reason for me to carry on existing. As Robert Wyatt says, “What are soldiers without a foe?” Thought’s only purpose – its sole reason for existing – is explaining things (i.e. ‘organizing data in categories’) and so if there is nothing that can be explained then thought (or the action of thinking) becomes a meaningless thing. It becomes like am orange merchant in a world where there are no such things as oranges, or a hairdresser in a world where everybody is bald. In the same way, thought becomes 100% redundant in a universe where nothing is capable of ever being explained.



In order to see this we need to look more deeply into what is meant by this thing called ‘explaining’ (which we have said to be the characteristic activity of thought). ‘Explaining’ – we might say – comes down to ‘converting the irregular into the regular’. Information arrives at our doorstep disorganized, and it comes out at the other end of the processing machine which is the rational-conceptual mind being organized. It has been put into categories. This isn’t to say that there isn’t any form of order in the incoming information  (clearly there is, since there are many types of clearly-defined patterns and modalities of organization present in the physical universe) but what the mind does is to make final statements about things, which is to say it says what things are, which nature never does. Nature – we might say – doesn’t need to make final statements because it is operating as an artist not a machine. It is not in other words aiming at creating a finished product – it isn’t teleological, it hasn’t got a goal in mind. Nature is not interested in having the ‘final word’ on the subject (and thus ‘closing the book’), unlike the rational mind!



So whilst the universe may be said to organize things (or make arrangements), it is at the same time undoubtedly creative – it is creative precisely because it is not always aiming at having the final word on everything, unlike – as we have said – the rational mind. Nature isn’t an equilibrium-seeking process, in other words, although an equilibrium-seeking process does exist in nature. This is equivalent to saying, as James Carse does, that whilst the Infinite Game can contain finite games, the converse is not true – i.e. a finite game can never contain the Infinite Game. The rational-conceptual mind, in Carse’s terms, is very much a ‘finite game’ and the point or aim of this finite game is to slot everything into one class or another, so that in the end there is nothing that hasn’t been slotted into a class, into a category. Once data has been allocated to the appropriate ‘sorting box’ it then makes sense to us, it then becomes understandable to us. Once something has been processed so that it all comes represented to us in terms of our mental categories, then it may be said to have been ‘explained’. No more mystery, no more enigma!



‘Explaining’ simply means putting everything in mental boxes, therefore – we encounter stuff as it is comes, not in boxes, and then we put it in boxes (which we ourselves have made up) and then we feel that we have satisfactorily explained the stuff.  We have sorted the raw information, we have processed the raw data – we have imposed our own brand of order on it. We might of course (if we were at all curious) wonder what the unsorted information looks like. What does the world look like before we slap our own arbitrary brand of order on it? What would it be like if we were to perceive the ‘raw information’ of the universe? One thing that we can say about this unsorted or unprocessed information is that it is of no practical use to us. It’s not so much that we can’t perceive this unsorted information as it is that we just have no use for it, and because we have no use for it we don’t bother to take any notice of it! We pass it by, we ignore it.  We throw it in the trash can. Our approach in this regard is wholly utilitarian therefore in that if a thing (in this case the unprocessed primary data of reality) has no pragmatic use to us then it is of absolutely no interest to us. It really couldn’t be of less interest. It might as well not exist. Actually, it’s the same for us as if it didn’t exist…



We could think of a man whose job it is to sell insurance to anyone he meets – if he is correctly focussed on his job then any details that help him in this goal are automatically of interest, and anything that does not help in this regard (anything that is irrelevant to the overall goal) is simply not picked up on. He won’t be a good insurance salesman if he keeps getting side-tracked! We might also think of a psychiatrist who is carrying out an initial interview with a new patient – anything that the patient says which corresponds with one of the diagnostic criteria in the manual is duly taken note of, everything else is passed over. The diagnosis is valuable information because it guides treatment, whilst anything else that has no bearing on whether a particular medication may help isn’t useful information as far as treatment goes (even though it may possibly be quite interesting otherwise) and so it doesn’t go down in the notes.



When we talk of information being ‘of use to us’ this goes beyond mere practical applications, however. It’s not just a matter of what will help us to complete this or that task, but rather it’s that the information – because it fits into our world-view – supports that world view. It performs a service this way. Anything that slots into the picture that we have of the world supports that picture, and so given that we are all very attached to the way that we have of understanding the world (whether we see this attachment or not) this becomes the most important thing of all! It ‘shores us up’, it consolidates our position, it provides us with invaluable existential security. Another way of putting this is to say that ‘processed’ (or ‘sorted’) has the function of validating our starting-off point and by validating our starting-off point it validates us. This has to do with what we might call ‘logical relevance’ – given that our starting-off point is logical (which it must be if it is to be any sort of a standpoint at all!) then anything that has some sort of logical correspondence to our position, to our starting-off point, is automatically going to validate that position, validate that starting-off point. This is like asking questions – if I ask a question and you reply with an answer that is in any way relevant then this validates the meaningfulness of my question. It doesn’t matter whether you answer YES or NO, whether you affirm or deny what I have just said – both the affirmative and negative answers validate the question equally well. If I don’t get any answer, or if the answer you given doesn’t make any sense at all from the perspective of my question, then this is not validating and I will feel distinctly uncomfortable as a result… This is like a Zen master who answers his student’s question regarding the Buddha nature or the essence of Zen by saying “Three pounds of flax!”



So the point is that processed information always validates our position. Of course it does, because it was us that processed it! The processed information is a logical extension of our starting-off position so it can hardly help validating that position. Any information that has been processed by the machine of the rational mind always agrees with the assumptions that have been made by that mind – it has been ‘arranged in advance’ that it should do! Actually, the processed information and the mind that processed it are one and the same thing so there never was any question of the one not validating the other. And by the same token, information that has not been sorted by the rational mind into the appropriate piles (and does not agree with its underlying assumptions) is not going to validate its starting-off position. Unprocessed information is thus going to be de-validating. This is a strange state of affairs because what we are calling ‘unprocessed information’ is actually nothing other than reality itself!



Saying this is the same as saying that the universe – at root – is a surd. At the very heart of the universe is something that ‘does not compute’, something that cannot be processed, something that cannot be swept into neat piles and thus ‘understood’. This is not a very convivial truth for the everyday mind – to put it mildly! Reality – as it is in itself- does not validate the thinking mind and this is – needless to say – something of a big deal. Reality does not validate any position that the thinking mind might take; there is no ‘right position’ to take and what this means to the everyday thinking mind (which we rely so very much on) is that it has no grounds to continue. If there is no ‘correct position’ then there can be no thinking mind; the thinking mind has to start off from ‘a definite’ – it cannot ever start off from a ‘question mark’, from a ‘maybe’. As we have said, it is like an orange merchant in a world in which there are no oranges; a world in which the very idea or concept of ‘an orange’ has not and never will arise. The universe is – at core – utterly inexplicable and thinking can only continue to exist if it can explain things…



If the thinking mind wants to continue existing, therefore (which it clearly does) then it only has one option left open to it and this option is overlay the actual universe with its own processed (or ‘pre-formatted’) version of it. That way we don’t ever have to encounter the real thing, the genuine actual reality of the situation, which is just as well (from the mind’s point of view at least) because we would get a very nasty shock if we did! As a result of this manoeuvre we end up living in an ‘explicable’ universe rather than an inexplicable one. We end up living in a universe which is not in any way ‘an irreducible enigma’. There might still of course be bits and pieces of this preformatted universe that will temporarily have the status of being ‘enigmatic’ to us, but we know nevertheless that they will be sooner or later sorted out. Our knowledge will then be complete – which is what we are aiming at. This then is a universe (or rather a ‘pseudo-universe’) in which all uncertainty is of the trivial variety.



The big question is now this however: “What does it mean to say that our knowledge is ‘complete’?” Our endeavour to rationally understand the universe that we live in is represented in the most heroic of terms, and yet what is so heroic in pretending that reality is fundamentally ‘non-enigmatic’ so that we can permanently manage to avoid the ‘surd-like nature’ of everything? Creating a fundamentally non-challenging pseudo-reality so that we can pretend to ourselves that reality as it actually is in itself doesn’t exist hardly sounds like the most heroic of endeavours. And yet it would very much seem that this is all we care about. The thrust of everything we do is all about proving to ourselves that the pseudo-reality which we have created with our thinking minds is in fact ‘the real deal’ and that there is no other. The thrust of everything we do is to prove – in other words – that there is ‘no such thing’ as a genuine reality which we have sneakily over-laid (and thereby concealed) with our own infinitely inferior copy! And we will never in a million years admit that it is what we are doing, that this is what we have done.



There is a penalty for this dodge, however. We don’t get away with it! On the face of it it’s a very clever trick, but that’s only on the face of it. That’s only when we don’t look into it at all. When we do look into then of course we see that the whole thing is quite ridiculous. It’s ourselves that we are tricking, that’s all. We’re only fooling ourselves. Tricking ourselves means that we need to make ourselves ‘stupid’ – clearly we need to or else we won’t fall for the trick. So we make ourselves stupid (in a particular sort of a way) and then we are absolutely guaranteed to fall for it – there’s no way that we can’t. The only problem about this however is that this particular type of ‘stupidity’ is a one-way street! Once we get stupid in this way then the thing is that we’re ‘too stupid to know that we’re stupid’ and so our stupidity is invisible. No one can point it out. We’re ignorant but our ignorance is so complete, so total, so all-encompassing that we’re ignorant of our ignorance. We’ve lost an awful lot (reality itself, in fact!), but we don’t know we’ve lost anything…



It’s being ‘ignorant of our own ignorance’ that puts us in the situation of believing – in a quite matter of fact way – that it is possible to have ‘complete certainty’ about things, that it is possible for us to have ‘complete knowledge’ about this, that and the other. The only way this could ever be the case would be if we didn’t live in an open-ended reality and so this is where the ignorance comes in – we have arranged for ourselves to be profoundly ignorant of the fact that there is a whole big mysterious world out there, an unexplained and inexplicable world just on the other side of our encapsulating mental boundaries, and because of this ignorance we are subject to the ‘relativization effect’ that would otherwise come about as a result of living in a big mysterious universe. ‘Relativization’ – we could say – means that everything looks odd (instead of regular, instead of normal, instead of ‘run of the mill’). There’s nothing ‘regular’, there’s nothing ‘normal’, there’s nothing ‘run of the mill’ in an open-ended universe – how could there be? So the only we can get stuff to look ‘normal’ and ‘matter of fact’ and ‘run of the mill’ to us is to live in a closed-down universe, a truncated universe, a stage-managed version of reality that we have put opaque boundaries around without admitting to ourselves that we have done so.



What I think I ‘know’ is only ever true in relation to the goal-posts that I myself have erected – when I take a good look around and see that the universe is open-ended (rather than being a faithful reflection of my limiting assumptions) then everything I thought I knew is immediately and unceremoniously relativized, which is to say, it is revealed as being only ‘relatively true’.  It is true ‘relative to the assumptions that I have made’. It is true ‘relative to the framework that I have imposed upon the world’ (without admitting to myself that I have imposed anything). This puts a different complexion entirely on the solidly reassuring world of facts and figures that had up to this point been the only world that I knew about, the only world I cared about. That ‘literal’ world is no longer there – no matter how enormously convincing and flatly hugely unquestionable it might have been, as soon as we shift out of the artificial focus that makes it real, that makes it final, it is simply no longer there. We can be tremendously sure of ourselves, tremendously confident and it seems as if what we are so confidently asserting to be true is like a rock, like a mountain made out of solid immutable granite that will never ever not be there, but this confidence is pure crazy arrogance, pure foolishness, as we would know if we were brave enough to look inside ourselves. Certainty like this only ever comes out of foolishness – our belief in a rock-solid unquestionable structure is nothing other than a prime manifestation of the particular type of self-willed indefatigable rock-solid ‘stupidity’ that we were talking about earlier. Everything we hold onto will one day be over-turned – how could we possibly have thought otherwise?



The final reality is not certainty but radical uncertainty. The universe is not closed, it is open. This isn’t any type of disaster or catastrophe at all – what is there not to be happy about in seeing that all our fixed beliefs about the world and ourselves are only reflections of a bunch of limiting assumptions that somehow got installed virus-fashion in our minds and took over our thinking process for us? What’s so very terrible about seeing this? Why would this possibility seem so very unacceptable to us?



The answer is of course – as we have already said – that the one who is reacting in this ‘far-from-happy’ way to this suggestion (the suggestion that reality is wonderfully open-ended, and that therefore everything we come across is equally incomprehensible, equally inexplicable) depends on the conditioned or relative reality that comes about as a result of having a ‘closed mind’ in order to carry on existing.  The literal (or concrete) world is a function of the literal (or concrete) ego.



The illusory mind-construct that wants to carry on existing (the mind-created self that doesn’t want to die) is in a bind however. The bind is that it can’t live even though it wants so badly to do so. It can’t live precisely because it desires to do so, precisely because it is attached to doing so. The Mind-Created Self can’t live, it can’t have any sort of life and the reason for this is simply that it isn’t real! The Mind-Created Self can’t live because it is a ‘fixed thing’ in a reality that is not fixed, in a reality that is forever ‘moving on’. To live is to ‘move on’, and this is the very thing the Mind-Created Self doesn’t want to do. This is the one thing the Mind-Created Self can’t do. It has therefore to live in a world made up of static ‘things’ – terribly tedious awfully banal ‘mind-produced things’ – that are actually its own projections.



All this self can do in other words is ‘get by’ by living a kind of ‘surrogate life’  – a surrogate life which is made up of all sorts of various assorted desire-states, either positive or negative. The thing about all these desire-states is however that they can never come to anything. The whole point of a desire state is that it is all about obtaining X, Y or Z and this is the one thing that can never happen!



There never could be a bigger impossibility than the impossibility of obtaining the object of our desire because the object of our desire is a projection. We’re chasing a projection. We’re chasing our own projections. The Mind-Created Self is chasing its own projection like a puppy chasing its tail and the really funny thing about this is that it doesn’t even exist in the first place…





Author: Nick Williams

Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.

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