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What is Information?

It is said that we live in the ‘information age’. Everything these days is about information – the transmission of information, the processing of information, the packaging of information, the storage of information, the availability and accessibility of information, and so on. This seems to us to be a particularly modern development, and on the whole we are pretty proud of it. We feel privileged to live at such a time. But everything has ALWAYS been all about information – in fact the whole universe is entirely made up of information, information is all there is! This is not the way we usually think about things however – we think of information as a kind of special case, as something which exists in contrast to everything else in the universe, all the stuff that isn’t information. We generally think that information is something that is sent and received, and implicit in this idea is the notion of ‘a sender’ and ‘a receiver’ which are essentially independent of the information flow that moves between them, being composed of something or other that is not itself information (although it is of course possible to obtain information about the sender and the receiver). The important word here is ‘about’. This word shows us how we understand information – we understand information as being secondary to some sort of concrete reality,  a reality which just ‘is’, and which possesses characteristics or properties that we codify in the form of information. This information therefore allows us to know about (i.e. significantly recreate in our heads or in a computer system) the concrete reality that the information is about.

 

 

This is a definition which we all tend to buy into, but the odd thing about it is that although we might talk about information as if it were a great thing, really what we mean by information isn’t anything different from the systems that we are obtaining information about. What we call ‘information’ is simply a kind of reflections, an echo, a copy or simulation of a concrete reality which is itself not information. So with this definition information inevitably becomes a very second rate sort of a thing. It serves only to flatter or glorify something that is ‘greater than itself’. After all, without a ‘self-evident’ independent concrete reality which exists in an a priori fashion, there couldn’t be any such thing as information. But the technical definition of information defines information not in terms of some assumed a priori concrete reality but in terms of unpredictability, i.e. information is defined in terms of an inverse square relationship to the predictability of the message being considered. This de-couples information from any sort of fixed or concrete reality since ‘predictability’ does not particularly refer to anything at all, any more than any other mathematical terms such as ‘the sum of’, or ‘the set of’ refers to something in particular. It is the relationships that matter, not what the relationships are between. I can add up marbles or cauliflowers or shoes or combine harvesters or whatever I want and it doesn’t – of course make the slightest difference to the actual process of adding up. What I happen to be adding up is actually irrelevant. So when we are talking about information the important thing not what the information is ‘about’ but rather the degree to which the message which are receiving is not logically deducible from whatever set of  presuppositions that I might have about what that message will turn out to be. Or to put this in a simpler way – the crucially important thing is how different the message I am receiving is from all the other messages that I have ever received. Thus,

 

The information content of a message is a measure of the degree to which it is not simply a duplication of previous messages.

 

 

THE UNIVERSE IS UNEXPECTED

 

 

But even if information isn’t something that has to be defined in relation to a concrete or material reality, and this therefore something that has the status of ‘existing in its own right’, so to speak, this is still a far cry from saying that everything is information, and that there isn’t anything which isn’t information. How can we possibly make the jump to saying something as extravagant as this? The answer to this question is pretty straightforward, and we can approach it in a number of ways. One way is to take the definition of information as ‘something unexpected’ and try to think about whether the physical universe which we live in is fundamentally ‘expected’ or ‘unexpected’. In other words, if the universe had never come into being, could we (assuming for the moment that we have some sort of independent existence from the universe) reasonably expect for it to do so? If we saw the universe suddenly come into existence would we be surprised at this event, or would we not be surprised? Now if the arrival of the universe was something that could be predicted on the basis of pre-existent laws, then we could argue that the universe isn’t ‘information’ at all, but simply the inevitable working out of what was already there – a duplication in effect. But this argument is a flawed because when we talk about the coming into being of the universe we don’t just mean all the physical stuff, hydrogen atoms and quanta of energy, or whatever, we mean the whole shebang. We mean all the physical constants and laws that go with the universe – in fact when we talk about the universe coming into existence what we are really talking about is the entire space-time continuum coming into existence, so in this case talking about a pre-existent basis, i.e. a logical ‘cause’ or predisposing factor, is clearly nonsense. Thus there is no way that the universe can’t be information – pure unadulterated information with no extra ingredients, with no ‘non-informational’ additives whatsoever to dilute or corrupt the message. Put this way, it doesn’t seem so strange at all to say that ‘everything is information’. All we are saying is that the universe is unexpected. We are saying that the universe isn’t merely a ‘duplication of something else’ – which is a reasonable enough supposition by any standards, even if you don’t actually wish to agree with it.

 

 

REPETITION AS REDUNDANCY

 

 

Suppose for the moment that the universe really is pure information, that it really is ‘a surprise,’ and that there is no other ingredient of a ‘non-informational nature’ in the mix at all, not even a little bit. We might wonder in this case why it is that the idea seems so foreign to us. We might wonder why the majority of the universe doesn’t seem like information to us, why it often seems so very predictable, so extremely ‘unsurprising’. One answer that comes to mind straightaway is that the universe seems so predictable to us because we have taken it all very much for granted. Another answer is to say that although the universe taken as a whole is a singular (and therefore unprecedented) within this singular event it is perfectly possible for there to be untold duplications taking basis on a very regular basis. An example of this is the earth orbiting around the sun, or a spiral galaxy rotating around its centre. Another – somewhat less cosmic – example might be a hospital where fish is unfailingly on the menu every Friday. Where a pattern is repeated (as in an oscillation) information is transformed into ‘non-information’, or redundancy. Oscillations are the universe stuttering, the universe saying the same thing over and over again. But we can always trace back this repetition to the original unique event, and so we can see that redundancy is a special case of information, rather than it being the other way around, rather information being a ‘special case’ arising somehow out of a universe that is itself not information, which is how we usually see it. This is a crucially significant reversal of perspective on the matter because the view that information is a fluke, a freakishly accidental and entirely ‘unsupported’ state of affairs leads us to adopt an unnecessarily dismal view of things, since we see life – which is the quintessential example of ‘negative entropy’ (which is another way of talking about information) as being threatened on every side by its nemesis of ‘non-information’, ‘entropy,’ or ‘blankness’, which we understand to be the default setting, the base-line, the natural order of things. Having this irredeemably grim viewpoint – as we do – it is hardly surprising that we spend so much of our time as a culture either being anxious or depressed, or being frantically in denial of our underlying anxiety and depression. As Alan Watts says, we see life (or consciousness) as being an accidental and highly temporary interloper in a fundamentally dead, senselessly mechanical universe, and this viewpoint is something less than inspirational.

 

 

THE FOREGROUND VERSUS THE BACKGROUND

 

 

Watts says something else that has a bearing on our discussion of the universe as information, and that is that we only really see something if it is unexpected. If a car is parked in the same old spot day after day, week after week, year after year, I stop noticing it. If I drive into work via the same route every day, I stop paying attention. If I have been married to you for thirty years and I keep coming out with the same old opinions, the same old viewpoints, then you will stop hearing me. You will take it for granted that I will say whatever it is that I say, in whatever situation it is that I invariably say it, and so there is simply no need for you to be actively listening. You already know what I am going to say before I say it. Since a large part of the environment with which we interact every day is composed either of static features or regularities, we take it for granted in the same way we might take a predictable friend or partner for granted – we know it so well that there is no point in actually checking up the whole time to see that it is what we think it is, what we assume it is. All of this ‘expected stuff’ is therefore relegated to the background. It isn’t what we focus on. The way that our vision usually works is that everything in the visual field gets divided into foreground and background – the figure and the ground against which that figure ‘stands out’. The figure depends upon the ground in order to stand out in the same way that an embossed letter on a brass plate depends on the recessed (or de-emphasized) area around it in order to be emphasized, but even though the un-emphasized ground is absolutely necessary, this necessity needs to be something that we are unconscious of, or else our attention is drawn to the ground, and the whole point of what we are doing collapses. This is a curious situation because it means that for our ‘discriminative vision’ to work we need for there to be an ignored or taken-for-granted background, but the act of ignoring of the background has to be something that is itself ignored, in order that the integrity of the game be preserved. Thus, the figure becomes everything as far as we know or are concerned – it becomes the whole universe, and the ignored or taken-for-granted background (upon which the figure relies upon in order that it may be there at all) gets treated as if it simply doesn’t exist.

 

 

We may say therefore that the foreground constitutes information for us, whereas the background equals ‘non-information’, where non-information isn’t something that gets labelled as ‘not-information’ (which would actually make it information, since it would then be something worthy of being noticed) but rather it is something that is so profoundly uninteresting to us that we don’t bother to register it at all. We dismiss it without even noticing ourselves do so. The background is not information to us therefore precisely because we don’t notice it, not because it is of itself lacking in information content. The ‘lack of information content’ has nothing to do with any inherent ‘blank’ quality that the background itself may possess, but rather it is just a way of talking about our profoundly uninterested attitude – the blankness is in us, not in the universe, in other words.

 

 

THE UNEXAMINED SELF

 

 

My fundamental point of reference in the universe is of myself as a fixed receiver of information, which carries the implication that I myself am not information. This is a very curious sort of an implication indeed because – as we have just pointed out – what I am actually saying when I say that ‘I myself am not information’ is that I am profoundly disinterested in myself. What I call ‘information’ is what I am looking at, scrutinizing, examining, sorting through, evaluating, and so on; the fact that I do not see myself as information the same way as whatever it is that I am paying attention to simply means that I am not to be held up for scrutinizing, examining, etc, in the same way that the object of my focus is. I am like the high court judge in all his finery – he judges those who come before him in court, to be sure, but he himself is not judged. He asks as many questions as he seeds fit, but he himself is never questioned. This again means that the self which is receiving the information is a sort of a central blind-spot – it is the one place we never think to look, it is the one thing we are not interested in. The self therefore constitutes a central unsuspected core of blankness or ‘neglect’. I have lots of ideas, lots of beliefs, lots of assumptions about this supremely important central self to be sure, but they are all just this – they are all just assumptions. They are all just ideas that I am very much in the business of ‘taking totally for granted’. If I wasn’t in the business of taking who or what I am for granted, then I would turn around from my habitual pre-occupations and examine the examiner. I would take an interest in myself – I would see myself as information just as everything else in the universe is information. I would realize that it is all information, every last little bit of it. After all, stuff is only not information when I stubbornly refuse to look at it…

 

 

The idea that we are the receivers of information, but that we ourselves are not information, is a sort of a game that we are all playing. It is a tremendous over-simplification which we make for the sake of convenience, for the sake of ‘ease of expression’. If I were to see both sender and receiver as part and parcel of the same over-all information flow then this would drastically change my way of understanding what is going on. It would change it so much that I wouldn’t be able to recognize it at all – it would bear no relationship at all to what I normally think of as being ‘the world’. Furthermore, if I gave up this business of drastically over-simplifying everything, I wouldn’t be able to recognize myself either. I would perceive myself in a completely different way, a way that bears no relationship at all to how I normally perceive myself.

 

 

THE RIVER OF INFORMATION

 

 

One way to approach this ‘unrecognizable’ way of perceiving the universe so that we can say something relatively intelligible about it is to say that different regions of the information flow move at different rates, just as different regions of a large river will flow at different speeds. There is the central region of the river where the water flows strongly and rapidly, and there are the peripheral, shallower regions where the water flows less strongly and less rapidly. There are even regions which are so shallow, so silted up, that the water takes to going around and around in little eddies, rather than flowing along with the main body of the river. ‘Movement’, in terms of our river analogy, represents information. This is fitting since information – as we have defined it – represents the unfolding off the new, the unexpected. We give rivers fixed names, such as the Thames or the Liffey, but the river itself is not a fixed thing. After all, as it is said, you can’t step into the same river twice. The only time this isn’t true is when we step into an eddy – in this case we are stepping into the same river twice, or three times, or fours times, or as many times as we want, really. In an eddy – pretty obviously – there is no continuous unfolding of the new going on, but, on the contrary, there is a continuous unfolding of the old, only this isn’t an ‘unfolding’ so much as a recycling. The same message is being replayed over and over again, which is a way of saying that the predictability of the message in question has reached a maximum level, that it has reached 100%. By the standard definition of information that we have been looking at, this clearly indicates that the message has zero information content, which seems on the face of it to contradict what we have been saying about the impossibility of there being anything that isn’t information. If everything is information then how could there be such a thing as a region of zero information?

 

 

We could however answer this by saying that there is no contradiction at all because a region (or an event) that possesses zero information content doesn’t actually exist. Saying that a message has no information content simply means that there is no message and saying that an event has no information content is simply a fancy way of saying that it didn’t happen. The whole thing about an event is that it is ‘an event’ – that it is a genuine unfolding of something new and not just a lot of cleverly-produced hype followed by ‘more of the same’. If nothing new happened, then nothing happened – there was no happening. So if we say that the non-event which didn’t actually happen possesses zero information content this isn’t saying very much at all really. What can happen however is that there can be the superficial appearance of something new which isn’t really new at all, but just the old carry-on that has been somehow dressed up or tweaked so that it looks like something we haven’t seen before. Maybe the even has been heralded as new, labelled as being new, hyped up to be new and then because we are so habituated to believing what we are told, believing what it says on the label rather than looking for ourselves to see what is going on, we assume that it is new when it isn’t. Or maybe there has been some trivial sort of tinkering or manipulation going on – what de Ropp calls ‘a tedious ringing of changes’ – so that we have the situation of mutton being dressed up as lamb. Possibly our memory isn’t very good, so we don’t remember that we have already seen the show, or the basic formula behind the show, hundreds of times already. Finally, it could be that we are projecting our own unconscious content on the repeated formula, so that it reflects our unconscious hopes and fears back at us, and keeps us interested that way. Whichever way it works, what we have in this case is the phenomenon of false information, which is where there is the outward appearance of an actual event without there being any content to it. Talking about ‘false information’ is therefore just a fancy way of talking about illusion.

 

 

GOING AROUND IN CIRCLES

 

 

Going back to our analogy of a river, we could say that false information is when we think we are moving forward, but actually we are only going around and around in circles. This corresponds to the shallow regions of the river where lots of little eddies are prone to forming because the main current has been ‘diverted’, as it were. Clearly if I am short-sighted enough, and never look beyond the nose on my face, then circular motion will seem indistinguishable from the genuine article. After all, at any particular time I can look around me and I will see that I am definitely moving, the scenery is definitely changing, and so as long as I don’t pay too much attention I will be perfectly satisfied. When I am caught up in an eddy therefore I will not experience my world as having ‘zero information content’. If I did experience the phenomenon of zero information content this would be very unpalatable for me, it would in fact be extremely disagreeable. It would be like listening to someone who over the years keeps on repeating the same old stories to me, time after time. Or like being kept tied up in room so you couldn’t run away and couldn’t even stick your fingers in your ears, and being forced by some cruel person (perhaps an insane DJ) to hear the same track played over and over again on a sound system. Endless repetition of the same old thing is really just torture, as we all know very well, and so it has to be the case that when we are trapped in an eddy we don’t catch on to what is happening. If we did see what was going on the discomfort would be so unbearable that we would have to do something about our situation – we wouldn’t be happy just to carry on with it year in year out. That would not happen because we would feel as if we were going mad and we would not be able to stick it.

 

 

But the point is not really that we are caught in the eddy, like a floating twig or leaf, but that we actually are the eddy, and that the eddy which is us can’t see itself for what it is – a constant recycling of the same content, the same pattern – because it doesn’t have enough perspective available to it to be able to do so. ‘Perspective’ is just another way of talking about information – when we only always have the same old way of seeing the world this is the situation of ‘zero perspective’. We are trapped in a particular fixed viewpoint and the reason we are trapped in it is because don’t we see it as a particular fixed viewpoint, we just see it – if we see it at all – as our way of seeing the world, which is of course the only way there could be. This after all is the whole thing about having no perspective – if we knew that we had no perspective then this ‘knowing’ would itself be perspective, and so we would have perspective after all. If we say that the fixed viewpoint is a particular position where I stand, and from which I view the world, then ‘perspective’ would be where I am able to move out of this position and thereby see the world in a different way. Not only would I be able to see the world in a different way, I would also be able to see the position where I used to be standing, which is something that I could not do before. Before moving I would not be able to see my previous position as simply ‘a position’ because I would not know that it was possible to move; the very idea of movement would have been incomprehensible to me – my whole conceptual universe would have revolved around that one same spot, even though the spot in question is nothing special but only one spot, one location, out of an infinity of other possible locations.

 

 

So moving out of the fixed position is what we are calling perspective. The word ‘perspective’ carries therefore the inference that we are moving out of a deceptive (or delusory) way of looking at the world into a more realistic way of looking at it. The fixed way is delusory because I imagine that the way the universe looks from the standpoint of ‘one location out of infinite number of possible standpoints’ is the way the universe actually is, whereas the truth is that what I see and relate to as ‘the universe’ is simply a projection of that same old set of stale assumptions. I don’t see the real world at all – all I see is the fiction of how the world would look if my way of looking at it were the only possible way, which it isn’t. The very basis of my understanding is that my viewpoint isn’t a viewpoint but the only and only way to see things, and so the very basis of my understanding is a delusion. My entire world view is founded upon a deception, a deception which arises out of an omission of crucially important information, so to speak. It exists only because of what we don’t know – it arises out of a deficit.

 

 

FALSE INFORMATION

 

 

Information is movement, in other words, it is the movement out of my fixed or habitual way of seeing things, and – in total contrast – the repetitive circular movement of ‘going round in circles’ is what we have called ‘false information’. When we look at the world from the point of view of the eddy it seems to us that new stuff is happening, it seems that we are receiving fresh input, input that we haven’t received before, but this is only because we don’t have the perspective to see that we aren’t. Old messages look new to us, like a man who reads a third-rate novel with the same basic plot as a hundred other third-rate novels he has read over his life, but who thinks he is reading something for the first time because the superficial details are different, have been rearranged, etc. In order for him to have the enjoyment or excitement of reading something new all he needs to do is to keep his attention operating on a strictly superficial level and he will be ok, the deception will remain intact, he will not have to notice the oldness of everything, as the main character in Jean Paul Sartre’s philosophical novel Nausea does. He will perceive the designed environment within which he lives as a young, fresh-faced, innocent and alluring maiden, rather than an old and very seasoned street-walker, a hardened professional who has been around the block more times than he has had hot dinners. Another analogy is to say that the designed environment is like a video showing wild horses galloping through a field, or birds flying through the sky, or fishes swimming in the ocean, only the video is looped so that unless we actually pay attention we don’t see that its always just the same old thing, that it never ever gets anywhere, even if it looks to the casual eye as if it is doing.

 

 

The loop, the eddy, is therefore a kind of a trick and unless we are wide awake the whole time we will be taken in by it. It is this trick that allows us to believe that the fixed viewpoint which we take for granted, and around which our world constantly rotates, is in fact a sufficient and complete ‘basis for everything,’ when the truth is that it is not sufficient at all, and is in fact the very furthest thing from ‘complete’. When we are taken in by the trick we are content to live our lives on the basis of the fixed viewpoint, as if living one’s life on the basis of whatever fixed viewpoint it is were the one and only true and correct way to do it, when the reality is that – in the river of change which is our universe – there is no such thing as ‘a fixed or unchanging point of reference’ and there never could be. That could only be the case in a universe in which there exists an absolute framework, a framework which always stays the same no matter how everything else changes, but in a relativistic universe such a framework is nowhere to be found – it doesn’t exist and so, in order to create the type of ‘oversimplified’ universe that we wish so much to live in, we are obliged to create that framework, that fixed point of reference, for ourselves, and then assiduously avoid seeing that it was us who created it. The eddy gets to continue existing as a ‘going concern’ only as a result of our own stubborn refusal to look too deeply into our situation, and so this type of stubbornness (which translates into a basic rigidity of the mind) becomes our ally, our strength, our secret weapon in the fight against a relativistic reality. The eddy is our way, in other words, of conveniently oversimplifying the universe for ourselves, of collapsing it into a simplistic – and entirely unrepresentative – format. The ‘eddy’ in the river of change is the rational mind, which bends everything to its own viewpoint. Or we could also say that the eddy is and me, that individual selves or egos are fixed viewpoints in a universe where nothing is fixed.

 

 

On the face of it this business of squeezing the universe through the static filter of the rational mind may not seem like such a big deal. After all, some sort of basic simplification process is needed when dealing with any torrent of raw information or else we get overwhelmed by that torrent and can’t make any use of it. This is what information processing is all about. But turning information into false information isn’t just a simplification it is an over-simplification – the simplification process that we are talking about here is so drastic that the essence of what is being simplified is lost entirely. The rational mind is not representing reality to me so much as it is misrepresenting it. In fact something very strange, something very peculiar indeed happens as a result of this convenient oversimplification, something that we discover to be not so handy, not so convenient after all. Or rather it is something that we don’t discover because once the over-simplification process has occurred we are no longer have the capability of discovering it. We are no longer capable of understanding the nature of the misrepresentation that has taken place when ‘change without a framework’ (i.e. change without any reference point by which we might know something about that change) is replaced by ‘change within a closed context’, which is change that we have a conceptual handle on.

 

 

For us, change that doesn’t take place within a fixed context is frankly incomprehensible – we can’t image how anything could exist unless it exists within a fixed framework which would enable us to evaluate, categorize, and describe it. That fixed context, that framework which we use to allow us evaluate and categorize and describe the world to ourselves is the rational mind, but the problem is that all of the evaluations, all the categorizations, all the descriptions that the rational mind comes up with are tautological extrapolations of itself. In other words, nothing can ever happen within the fixed context of the rational mind unless it happens in a way that rational mind is fitted out in advance to understand. This is like a wiggly line on a sheet of graph paper – no matter how the line wiggles about on the page it is always completely representable in terms of a set of polar coordinates, in terms {x, y}. There is no element or aspect of the line that is not accounted for in terms of X and Y. The two axes of X and Y thus constitute a closed domain of possibilities and so whilst there is a perception of freedom with regard to how the wavy line can wriggle about on the page it is only freedom within the terms that have been laid out by the system, and this is not actually freedom at all but total constraint. It is however a kind of superficial ‘appearance’ or ‘analogue’ of freedom, just as we have said that false information is the superficial appearance of the genuine article.

 

 

False information is regularity that somehow manages to trick the viewer into thinking that ‘every time is the first time’ – a repetition that somehow presents itself as a once off. Linear change, change that is representable in terms of fixed rules, is in the same way the stark lack of freedom that curiously manages to appear as the actual presence of freedom. Linear change is change that moves from one fixed category to another, one grid reference to the other, never leaving the established parameters of the system, never moving out of the seamless continuum of the known. We could also say therefore that linear change is the same thing as trivial choice (or trivial freedom), which is where I choose from different possibilities that are offered to me. In its most basic form, I have the freedom to choose between two categories that have been presented to me: either I do this or I do that, and between these two ‘have to’s’ there is no more freedom than there is in just the one ‘have to’. After all, no matter which rule I choose I am still stuck obeying some rule or other in the end, and any apparent leeway that I might have imagined myself to have soon evaporates away in the hard light of day. If there is zero freedom in the one ‘have to’ (and zero freedom is precisely what makes a rule into a rule), how do I get the idea that there will be more than zero freedom in two ‘have to’s’, two rules? The choice of being able to choose between two brands of slavery is a very trivial type of freedom indeed – trivial freedom is therefore simply bondage in disguise, it is simply the superficial appearance of freedom. Genuine freedom would be where I have the radical choice of not obeying any rules, not following any precedent, and is therefore not something that we can define or describe, since all definitions and descriptions are based on rules, based on precedents. Information may be defined by saying that it is something that gives rise to meaningful (or radical change) in physical systems, it is as Gregory Bateson says ‘the difference that makes a difference’ and so just as linear change is the mere superficial appearance of change, what we have called ‘false information’ is the mere superficial appearance of information since it gives rise only to linear (or surface-level) change.

 

 

This brings us back to the ‘strange thing’ that we were saying happens as a result of conveniently oversimplifying the universe. What happens as a result of collapsing the information content of the universe into ‘the mere appearance of information’ is that everything gets turned on its head without us ever noticing. Information is seen – as we were saying at the beginning of this discussion – as something that is passed on between ‘sender’ and ‘receiver’, and which is, potentially at least, of use to both sender and receiver. What this means is that the information that is being conveyed is secondary in terms of importance with regard to sender and receiver. The information is after all only there to serve my ends, it is only important insofar as it is useful or interesting to me ,‘me’ being – it will be remembered – the fixed viewpoint.

 

 

But the fixed viewpoint which is me is by the various definitions of information that we have been looking at a region of ‘disguised zero information content’ and so what we have here – or so it would appear – is the situation of genuine information being utilized in accordance to the aims of a system that is itself devoid of information content, a hollow system, a system that has ‘an outside but no inside’, an appearance without any content. It sounds peculiar to talk about the fixed viewpoint which is the rational mind as being a hollow or content-less system but that is only because when we consider the idea we automatically consider it from the standpoint of that same rational mind, and the rational mind is – naturally enough – constitutionally incapable of seeing itself as it actually is. Whenever I use anything to serve my own ends I am making the universe subservient to the aims and purposes of a system that is in essence a tautological bubble made up of pure appearance with no content. After all, my ‘ends’, my aims and purposes, are nothing more than the fixed viewpoint which is my rational mind being endlessly recycled. However dynamic or progressive these aims and purposes might seem to be on the surface, they only ever represent the interests of the fixed viewpoint of which they are an extension, and so what we are looking at in reality is the phenomenon of ‘change in the service of non-change’, or in other words, ‘changing in order to stay the same’. My goals are really only ever about me consolidating my position, my value-system, my framework for interpreting the universe. So if I am interested in some bit of information that has come my way, this can only be because that information can be used to prove that I was right all along with regard to my way of seeing the world. This constitutes the essential tautology (or essential redundancy) of the rational mind – I only value what I have already decided is worth valuing, and thus everything I see proves that I am right to see the world in the way that I do.

 

 

It sounds so obvious as to be not even worth mentioning, but our point of reference for understanding the universe is always ourselves. This sounds very obvious, but the point is that if my way of looking at the world is based on ignoring everything that doesn’t correspond to what I have already decided to be important and worthy of interest, then what I see when I look out at the world is only what I have already decided to see. If the incoming information doesn’t fit into my categories I can’t register it since the process of ‘registering’ is simply the process of categorizing (or classifying) the information that I am receiving. But this turns everything on its head because the essential defining characteristic of information is that it surprises me, which is to say, that it doesn’t fit into my pre-established categories. If the message I am receiving makes sense to me, if it doesn’t challenge my categories, then it isn’t information at all – on the contrary, it is confirmation, it is redundancy. This means that I am not so much a receiver of information, as I am a blocker of information, an ignorer of information. I am not just a blocker or ignorer of information, I am a very stubborn blocker and ignorer because I insist the whole time that I am not blocking or ignoring, that I am in fact open to information, and that I am actually receiving it on an ongoing basis.

 

 

False information (i.e. confirmation) has therefore the key role of stabilizing my perceptual and cognitive structures – a stability that most definitely wouldn’t be there without sustained and massive ‘propping-up’ operations which I myself am completely and necessarily unaware of. The idea that we are looking at here is the idea that a type of ‘spurious stability’ in our perceptual/cognitive information-processing structures is created and maintained by the device of replacing genuine information (which would unfailingly challenge those structures) with ‘tamed’ or ‘stage-managed’ information – the type of information known as confirmation in Ernst and Christine von Weiszacker’s Model of Pragmatic Information. Confirmation – is as the name implies – information that agrees with the categories we are using to make sense of it, as opposed to information that doesn’t match these categories (which is known as novelty in the Model of Pragmatic Information).  This basic idea is not unfamiliar – we can think of a government which can only stay in power because the population is constantly fed with propaganda instead of honest news about what is going on, or a foolish and self-deluding man who contrives to feel good about himself in the complete absence of any actual reason for so doing, by the very simple and straightforward device of ‘inventing’ evidence to support this fantasy and ignoring everything else.

 

 

So, on the one hand we can say that the ‘model of reality’ – so to speak – which I adhere to as being the best and most accurate guide to the world we live in remains remarkably stable only because I restrict myself to a diet of pure conformation, and on the other hand we can say that the picture of myself which I entertain as being the true story of ‘who I really am’ (which Krishnamurti calls ‘the self-image’) is as invulnerable to revision or change as it is for exactly the same reason – because I only see what I want to see. Confirmation therefore makes up the entire economy of the everyday mind and the image or understanding I have of myself – novelty doesn’t come into the picture at all, it has no role within the economy of the self-system. This leads us to the idea of the organizationally closed system, which is a system that is completely sealed off from everything else, without acknowledging that it is sealed off, or – indeed – that there is anything else out there to be sealed off from. This is a necessary device if confirmation is to be taken as being as being a real thing in itself, a going concern, and not a mere sham. Confirmation is only meaningful and vital to us when the true currency of meaning – which is novelty – is thoroughly excluded from the picture. This corresponds to Jean Baudrillard’s notion of the hyperreal, which he describes as a map which gets carried away with its own importance (so to speak) and does away with the territory, a description which over-reaches itself and sneakily gets rid of what is actually being described so that it becomes ‘the thing itself’. In mythological terms, this is the motif of the viceroy who usurps the true King whilst the King is away and takes the throne unlawfully – as in the story of Robin Hood where the good King Richard is away on the crusades, and his corrupt brother John has taken over the throne.

 

 

FALSE EDGES AND THEATRICAL RISKS

 

 

Confirmation is a kind of a ‘false edge’ – I think I have an actual edge in my life, I think that stuff is actually happening, but really nothing is happening and I am stuck in the middle of a stagnant pool. There is no edge in an organizationally closed system – there cannot be because since it implicitly claims to be ‘the whole of everything’ it cannot allow for there to be a real edge. That would give the game away. Instead, it manufactures false edges, which serve an analogous function to real edges, only in a very superficial way. Another way to look at this is in terms of trivial uncertainty versus radical uncertainty – in trivial uncertainty we cannot know which element out of a set of known elements is going to come up next. This is ‘edgy’ in a very limited or tame sort of a way, but it is obviously not that edgy because there are clearly not ever going to be any real surprises, any real upsets, on the menu. If however my whole way of apprehending the world has been so scaled down, so down-sized, that the very concept of radical uncertainty is not profoundly incomprehensible to me, since I cannot comprehend of anything that is not part of a known set of elements, then the false edge of trivial uncertainty thrills me and generally keeps my interest just as much the real thing would have done, if I hadn’t down-sized myself. An actual edge is edgy is because it has the potential of causing profound and unpredictable change in the system; in other words there is a very real risk of the old set up, the old arrangement, the old pattern, being lost forever, lost in such a way that it can never be retrieved or recreated. Whilst we want excitement, some bit of interest in life to distract ourselves from the tedium of everything always staying the same, when we are in what J.G. Bennett calls the ‘psycho-static’ mode of being we are by definition far too frightened of losing ourselves to take any genuine risks and so we have to settle for theatrical risks – managed risks in which there is no real chance of any radical change happening. Confirmation is therefore our means of distracting or entertaining ourselves whilst making sure at the same time that we never take any real risks.

 

 

STASIS

 

 

Whilst novelty can be defined by saying that it is information that has the potentiality of resulting in radical (i.e. unpredictable) change, confirmation may be defined by saying that it is information that results in superficial or linear change. Linear change is change in which all the proportionalities that go to make up the message are preserved – which is another way of saying that the original pattern (or set of relationships) is always retrievable. Linear change is thus the appearance of risk, when in actual fact nothing is being risked at all, and never will be. This brings us to the crux of the whole thing – if we swap novelty for confirmation in such a way that the substitution is never acknowledged then the utter irredeemable sterility which is ‘the lack of risk’ is glossed over and avoided and we neatly manage to both have our cake and eat it. Thus, in the world we see around us every day there is no shortage of bustling activity, no shortage of industrious striving for this and that, and all of this gives the impression of great dynamism – everything feels wonderfully progressive and we really do get this nice satisfying feeling that we are actually getting somewhere new. But what we don’t see is that all of the goals which this dynamic activity is geared towards achieving represent a false edge – they represent a false edge because achieving them never actually brings about anything new, any more than winning at a game of cards or football brings about anything news. We are living on the ‘false edge’ of trivial uncertainty the whole time and that makes us feel that we are living dynamically, whereas the truth of the matter is that we are committed to stasis in a big way. Stasis is what it is all about, stasis is the name of the game, and all of our supposedly progressive activity is secretly geared towards making sure that everything stays the same.

 

 

The clearest example of a false edge is in a game – the only important information in a game is information that tells us about how well we are doing within the terms of the game, in other words, whether we are winning or losing. This domain – which is the foreground – is where all the attention goes and the only action that we are interested in is action which is meaningful within the very narrow parameters pertaining to this domain. If we win within the terms of these parameters then this is the most interesting information we could possibly receive – winning is the most ‘progress’ it is possible to have. But although we think of winning as progress it is clearly no such thing because we never progress out of the game – if we did then this action, this movement, would not be meaningful within the terms of the game and it simply wouldn’t be registered. The only type of ‘movement’ that is registered, that is allowed, is movement within the two poles of winning and losing and everything that takes place within these two poles is – very obviously – the game, and nothing but the game. Therefore, the only type of movement that is comprehensible to us when we are playing a game is movement that never moves out of the closed and finite domain which is the game, whilst genuine movement remains incomprehensible (or ‘invisible’) to us because we simply don’t have any referents for it.

 

 

Winning, like losing, is a false edge, an illusory boundary, precisely because crossing it doesn’t get us anywhere different. It is like trying to exit a room through a rapidly revolving door only to discover – after a brief flurry of activity, that we are right back where we started. False edges are a device, in other words, to ensure that we keep going around in circles whilst remaining under the hopeful impression that we are actually getting somewhere.

 

 

THE REALM OF PURPOSEFULNESS

 

 

We may agree that games are indeed like this in that they contain within them the false impression of movement or progress whilst in reality there is none, but then point out that games only constitute a very small part of life – a mere recreation or pastime – and as such represent only a very special case of human activity. It is true that formal games usually, although not always, make up a minor if not totally negligible part of the domain of everyday life, but we can expand the territory under consideration to cover all of our purposeful (or goal-orientated) activity, which increases the remit of our discussion very considerably. The argument goes as follows: inasmuch as goals are always know, they cannot be said to constitute information. Where the ‘information’ comes in therefore, as far as the purposeful modality is concerned, is whether or not the goal in question has been achieved.  This of course brings us right back to games since it is apparent here that genuine information (i.e. novelty) has been substituted for by false information (or confirmation) without anyone noticing the difference. All of a sudden genuine information is simply not part of the picture – it just doesn’t come into it at all. We aren’t interested in genuine information, it is completely and profoundly irrelevant to our concerns, which have to do with how well we are doing, or not doing, in achieving our goals. Actual honest-to-goodness information has absolutely nothing to do at all with this – in fact it isn’t just harmlessly irrelevant but something to be actively shunned and excluded since if any of it gets into the mix, so to speak, then it can be relied upon to totally ruin the game. Why novelty can be relied upon to ‘ruin the game’ is fairly obvious – since its nature is to induce radical change by introducing new and hitherto unsuspected perspectives, all of the fixed concepts that go to make up the game now get to be radically re-evaluated, and once they are radically re-evaluated, they are of course no longer fixed.  This is not just a matter of moving the goal-posts but mutating them into something completely unexpected, along with the pitch, the ball, and the players…

 

 

So within the realm of the purposeful mind we look at everything that happens from the basis of our purposes, which is to say, we relate everything to our purposes so that if some element in our environment has no relationship to our purposes then we automatically disregard it – we disregard it without noticing that we are doing so. To say this is of course exactly the same thing as saying that within the realm of the theory-making mind, the mind that has to have a picture, an idea or a map of what is going on, we only notice those elements that relate to our established perceptual and cognitive categories. So as soon as something ‘swims into view’ of our narrow cognitive-perceptual portholes then it exists, and when it swims out of view, or doesn’t swim into view in the first place, then it doesn’t exist. So the only universe we know about is that very limited portion of the universe that corresponds to our narrow and immovable mental ‘portholes’. The game that we are playing here then is obvious – what we are saying is that for something to be real it has to play by our rules, it has to fit into our preconceptions of ‘how things ought to be’. Perception has thus become an issue of control in that how I see reality is the result of how I have controlled (or constrained) it to be, which is what the existential philosophers call intentionality. The reason we can call this a game is because all the action has to take place within a closed remit and any action that occurs outside of this closed remit is deemed of no significance whatsoever. Any information relating to anything ‘outside of the box’ is instantly and unceremoniously dumped, and this unceremonious data-dumping business is precisely how the rational-conceptual mind works. There is hardly any need for any fancy science of psychology to explain things because there is nothing else to explain about it – it is a formal system, a closed domain of interaction. As G.I. Gurdjieff says, for the everyday mind there is no need for psychology – mechanics is all that is needed!

 

 

PLAYING THE GAME

 

 

The game of the everyday mind is therefore to narrowly concentrate on that portion of reality that corresponds to the view that is promoted by our rational portholes and act as if this is all there is. So what is happening is that we are projecting the static picture of things which is our assumed basis out onto the world, so as to create a concrete externalization of our assumptions, which is all that we allow ourselves to know about, because if we did allow ourselves to know about anything else, then our assumptions would be shown up to be questionable, and if they are shown to be questionable then they would of course no longer be ‘concrete’ and so then, in the absence of a world made up concretized assumptions (assumptions that have been rendered unquestionable), where would we be? We would be all at sea without a map, and such a proposition is so deeply unacceptable to us that we will fight against it with everything we’ve got. The whole point of a game – if we had to define what a ‘game’ means – is that the underlying rules are unquestionable, more than this, the whole point of a game is that we don’t even think about the question as to whether the rules of the game are questionable or unquestionable. We never come close to thinking along those lines because that is what a game is – being unreflective. We just ‘get on with it’ – in the way that we are supposed to get on with it – and try our very hardest to do well within the terms that w have been provided with. If we do well then that is good and if we don’t do well then that is bad, and these two poles make up the entire realm of what is possible, and what is conceivable, to us. There is an immense sense of security in this set-up and that is of course why we like games so much – we unthinkingly accept the authority of the game and ‘get on with it’ on this basis, and by this device we have sneakily managed to avoid the central challenge of life, the challenge of actually having to reflect on what is going on. We don’t have to ask ourselves this question because the game has told us what is going on, the game has taken care of that, so the need to ask the question never ever arises.

 

 

The genuine edge is to be found at the boundary of what we know and are familiar with – it is our conceptual horizon, the very limit of the rational mind. In the language of the Model of Pragmatic Information the edge might perhaps be said to lie at the interface of confirmation with novelty, even though the point of view of confirmation is that there is no such interface, because there is no such thing as novelty. Confirmation allows us to make up such an idea, to entertain it as an exotic concept if we want to, but the thing itself doesn’t get a look in. The false edge is made up of the falsely new, the falsely novel, and there is usually no shortage of this. The exotic idea of novelty is itself confirmation, the exotic idea of the ‘genuine edge’ is itself a false edge. We can also say that the false edge is generated by the trivial uncertainty of ‘Will I win or will I lose?”  Apon this question our attention is fixated – we are all agog, waiting to see whether the coin comes down heads or tails. It is only going to come down one way or the other, there are no other possibilities available, and so clearly what we are talking about here is uncertainty of a very superficial nature, but all the same we contrive to be totally fascinated by it. This fascination is of course the basis of gambling, that perennial obsession of mankind’s – because of the way in which our attention gets so effectively sucked-up and held, gambling works as a superlative form of distraction, and even though we might deny it distraction is what we are mainly after. Because of the fact that our attention is hoovered up so effectively by trivial uncertainty of whether the coin comes down heads or tails this zone of revelation substitutes itself for an actual edge to life; we become profoundly oblivious to the fact that our area of concern is exclusively superficial because we have no awareness of anything other than the limited and the superficial and so the substitution of the trivial for the profound, the shallow for the deep, is effectively accomplished. If all I know is trivial uncertainty, then this uncertainty for me is no longer trivial but quite the opposite – it is non-trivial, it is urgent.

 

 

The point about false edges is that they are manufactured by the system itself, and so they are part of the system the same as everything else is, whereas the whole idea of ‘an edge’ is that it is not part of the system – on the contrary, the edge is exactly where the system ends. The edge isn’t a product of the system, it is what happens when the system stops producing stuff, when it gives up on producing stuff. It’s the one thing that can’t be created by the system, and yet the system absurdly claims to be able to do just this. The interest in an edge is that once we discover it then this event relativizes everything that preceded this discovery; in other words a previously unknown and unsuspected perspective is brought into play that throws a new light onto everything so that all the ‘facts’ that we used to think we knew are all of a sudden shown up to be not facts at all but artifacts of our limited point of view. No longer are the statements that go to make up our world absolute truths, but only relative truths – they are ‘true’ only relative to the strictly limited viewpoint that we are assuming, they are ‘true’ only within a very narrow context. Getting in touch with our edge is exciting therefore because of the way it throws a new light on everything, and opens up new horizons for us, but on the other hand it is extremely threatening for the very same reason – the reliable if restrictive truths that go to make up our nice secure world are shown up to be not true at all (or only true because we want them to be true) and this pulls the rug out from under our feet in a big way. Saying that the relativization of our viewpoint pulls the rug out from under us doesn’t do justice to the enormity of the transformation in question because when this ‘shift’ takes place everything changes. Nothing stays constant, nothing stays the same. We are used to linear change which is where the framework, the context of meaning which allows us to measure and define the motion that us taking place, remains the same no matter what, but when the context itself shifts and changes we lose the basis to know what is happening. Even more to the point, we lose that most taken-for-granted reference point of all – our idea or concept of ourselves.

 

 

In a fundamental sense, we could also say that having a genuine edge to one’s world (or to one’s self) is essential if one is to be actually sane, which is to say, orientated to some reality that is bigger than oneself. To live in a world without an edge is to be confined to a very mediocre and very stale version of reality, whilst having no sense that things don’t have to be this way, that it is actually extremely bizarre for things to be like this. This is not by any means an unfamiliar kind of idea – we can think of being born into a family where nit-picking pettiness is the norm, or where constant criticizing is the norm, or where extreme controlling behaviour is the norm, and not realizing until perhaps later that families are always like this. In the film The Truman Show, when asked why Truman never questions his artificial world the director and scriptwriter of the show of which Truman is the unwitting star replies “We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.” But even given this undoubted psychological truth, when the world in question only contains a very limited number of possibilities within it, so that the same inevitable scenarios, the same inevitable dramas, keep playing out deterministically over and over again, how is it possible to still keep taking it seriously? Or enjoying it, even? When the coin still keeps coming down either heads or tails, month after month, year after year, how do we manage to stay interested? The fact of whether the result of the toss is the one way or the other is in itself quite banal, the situation is not really that different from having a coin with ‘heads’ on both sides, repeatedly throwing it, and noting with avid interest how it lands each time: “Heads, heads, heads, heads…”  It sounds quite different but in what way is having two predetermined outcomes any less predetermined than just having one?

 

 

LOOKING FOR THE MAGIC IN THE WRONG PLACE

 

 

The answer is that in the first case there is at least a tiny bit of uncertainty there – even if it is entirely superficial. There is at least something that isn’t fixed, in a world where absolutely everything is fixed, was fixed, and will continue to be fixed into the infinite future. So given this appalling backdrop of unremitting determinism, the humble little arena of uncertainty as to whether the coin comes down the one way or the other becomes like a drink of life-giving water in a burning desert. It may not be much, but it’s all we’ve got! The very limited zone of uncertainty becomes a means of life to us, a means to live life; it becomes a hook upon which we can hang everything. The same principle can be seen at work in gambling – in the case of gambling it is of course not the outcome itself that matters to us but the meaning we ascribe to it. So if I am betting fifty euros that the coin will come down heads then this lends a bit of interest to the proceedings. This point is easy to understand but what is perhaps slightly less easy to see is that the fifty euros itself only has the meaning we give to it. A ‘win’ represents something to us, it stands for something without actually being what it stands for. It doesn’t mean anything specific, of course – it stands for ‘the good thing’. It symbolizes something great, something wonderful, something tremendous but also something essentially indefinable that we couldn’t actually articulate or express otherwise, without having a convenient hook to hang it on. We could say that the idea of winning is like a big, all-inclusive lasso that gathers together all the good stuff that there is and brings it together under the same label, the same brand name. And yet the goal-orientated activity of trying to win won’t ever bring us any closer to the indefinable quality of peace or happiness or completion or transcendence or whatever it is because we are being so very literal-minded about what we are doing – we really do think that the concrete outcome we are trying to bring about will bring me this kind of happiness or peace. We really do think that the magic is to be found in the product, the label, the brand name, and so on, and because we do think this the activity of ‘chasing the token’ preoccupies and obsesses us so much that we never give ourselves a chance to realize or even get the slightest intimation of the fact that the magic isn’t in the ‘defined outcome’ at all. The idea, the goal, the image isn’t where it’s at, and it never was.

 

 

Thus, the arena of trivial uncertainty which constitutes the ‘foreground’ of our attention is as fascinating as it is to us not because it is of any actual interest in itself but because it has been glamorized for us, because it has taken upon itself something, some content, that does not rightly belong to it. That little bit of uncertainty is a gap in the unremitting wall of determinism which is the psychostatic universe and this gap, this superficial and temporary lack of definition can symbolize something for us – it can symbolize what is actually missing for us in our over-determined lives. What is missing is – quite obviously – any sort of a connection with the dynamic flow which is the spontaneous or ‘undefined’ universe. If we want to live in the sort of over-simplified static version of reality that agrees with our conceptual portholes then it is of course an absolute requirement that we have no connection with the vast unbroken movement that is genuine reality and so there is no way to avoid that particular ‘drawback’ – if that isn’t too ridiculously mild and inoffensive a word for what we are talking about here. This lack of connection with reality would involve an unbearable degree of suffering if we didn’t find something to replace it with, no matter how inadequate or shoddy that substitute might be, and the replacement is the mechanism by which we unconsciously project what we are missing onto the ever-unfolding drama of trivial uncertainty.

 

 

The way this happens is that the as-yet-undefined element of the drama that is about to unfold represents something other than what actually is going to unfold. What actually is going to unfold is of course nothing new, it is just the same old thing yet again, just the same as always. There is no way out of that particular straightjacket because we have opted for the over-simplified closed or static modality of life. But just for that brief ‘undecided’ moment we can allow ourselves to ‘hope’ – so to speak – that the magic ingredient which is so sadly missing from our lives is about to unfold for us.  ‘Hoping’ isn’t really the right word because that implies a conscious formulation of what we are hoping for, whilst our situation is that that we can’t formulate it – the fact that we can’t put our finger precisely on what we are missing is of course the precise nature of our predicament. If we could be aware of what was missing then we wouldn’t be missing it; the whole point of psychostatic existence is that we don’t have any referents for what we are missing – if we did have referents, if we did have the capability of relating to genuine openness, then the infinite perspective that openness brings would relativize all our absolute concepts, which is to say, it would crucially alter the character of the building blocks with which we construct our world from fixed to unfixed, from immutable to mutable, from unquestionable to questionable. Infinite perspective means that that our theories or beliefs about reality are shown up to be not ‘fixed and final’ at all, but simply lines drawn in the sand – arbitrary limits to our curiosity and sensitivity that we have erected to protect ourselves from having to think too deeply about things. We have a particular picture of how things are, a particular pattern of thinking and behaving, a particular game that we are playing, and we want to stick with it. If we were to experiment with genuine openness then this would prove to be a radical experiment indeed since the experience would change our understanding of ourselves and the universe we live in so much that there would be nothing recognizable or familiar left in it, not even a shred.

 

 

SELF-EMPOWERMENT

 

 

The other way of looking at the false edge that we are so exclusively preoccupied with is to say that it represents uncertainty as to whether our goals have been achieved or not. The ‘breaking news’ of whether we have been successful in obtaining the goal or not means a lot more than just the goal itself – it means self-empowerment. Any victory, no matter how small, helps me to feel better about myself, it enables me to feel confident, it allows me to feel hopeful about my chances in general. It makes me feel that I have got what it takes – it restores to some degree or other that all-important feeling of self-belief without which life becomes very daunting. Success is the magic talisman – if I have a success in my endeavours then ‘the force is with me’, I have the edge, the advantage over life. It could be said that the whole essence of the game of self is to have the advantage, to be ‘one up’, it doesn’t matter in what. Any sort of a competition is a valid arena within which a positive sense of self can be obtained. Success in the game and a sense of positive selfhood do more than just ‘go together’ – they are one and the same thing. If I consistently fail to obtain my goals or am out-competed by others then I start to develop a negative sense of self; I identify with my so-called ‘failures’, which is to say, I define my sense of my self through them and feel as a result that I am fundamentally jinxed. The force is no longer with me. Instead of ‘the force’ I have the jinx.

 

 

There are a range of permutations that we could explore here. One tried-and-trusted strategy for repairing or averting a damaged sense of self is to create a new game, a game which is fixed so that I can’t lose at it. If I do this then I have the ‘advantage’ in any eventuality, I always come up as being validated – in my own head at least. No matter what happens I can always devalue other peoples’ efforts and make excuses for myself by saying that ‘it is not my fault’. In the game of blame I am always the winner and everybody else (or the world in general) is always going to be the loser. I can of course turn this around and blame myself the whole time, which creates a negative self image rather than a positive one, but since a negative image is just as much of a image as a positive one, this doesn’t make any real difference as far as the pragmatic of the concrete or literal understanding of the self is concerned – I still have a fixed and defined sense of identity even if it is defined in terms of self-blame and general unworthiness. In other words, the sense of self can be constructed on the basis of disadvantage as much it can on advantage; in the second case the ‘breaking news’ is of how well I am doing, in the former case of how badly, but the fascination and total immersion in the on-going drama remains the same, be it positive or negative.

 

 

THE KINK IN THE SYSTEM

 

 

Suppose that we go along with the idea, as peculiar as it might seem, that the everyday sense of self is actually identical – somehow – with the advantage, the progress, the winning, the net gain, etc, etc. We could then make the logical inference that if I could only keep on being ‘one step ahead’ then I will always have a positive sense of self, a self full of confidence in not only its talismanic ability to obtain whatever it wishes, but also its  inviolable right to have whatever it wishes. This generally sounds great to us but there is a big invisible snag. What we completely fail to appreciate is that ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ are not two separate things, despite the fact that we stubbornly insist on thinking that they are. The advantage that we are constantly seeking is the very same thing as the disadvantage that we are always trying to avoid – just as a mobius strip has only the one surface but appears to have two, advantage and disadvantage too are really only the one continuous surface but with a kink or twist introduced into the loop so that it looks to the casual observer as if there are two separate or distinct surfaces. To the non-casual observer, on the other hand, it becomes apparent that the loop is made up of one surface which is twisted back on itself so that as we travel on the ‘positive’ side of the surface we always end up on the ‘negative’ side without really seeing how we did it. Actually, positive and negative is the same thing – just as when I dent a sheet of thin metal with a lump hammer the indent I make on the one side is the same thing as the ‘out-dent’ on the other. The ancient Chinese yin-yang symbol is a more familiar illustration of this essential irreducible complementarity, even if very few of us understand its true meaning.

 

 

Another way to illustrate this complementarity is to think in terms of information. If my attention is fixated – as it generally is – on the question of whether or not I am doing well in respect of my goals or my agenda then the information that I am tuning into is of course pure undiluted confirmation. ‘Confirmation’ means that what I count as information is only counted as such because it is relevant to my assumed position, and so really this so-called information is just a reflection or a projection (i.e. a reiteration) of my original position. It certainly isn’t anything new, which is to say, anything radically unrelated to my agenda – if it was something new, something radically unrelated, then I would of course instantly and categorically disregard and discount it as being of no interest at all. What is new doesn’t constitute information for me; what constitutes information is confirmation, which isn’t actually information at all but disguised redundancy. It is easy to see that ‘news’ as to whether I am doing well and ‘news’ as to whether I am not doing well are not two different types of information. If we imagine a target that I am trying to hit then it is clear that information regarding how close I have come to hitting the target and information regarding how far I am from hitting it are not in any way different from each other. It is the same information in both cases.

 

 

THE SELF AS A ‘LOGIC LOOP’

 

 

Positive feedback and negative feedback make up the very same surface therefore, and that ‘surface’ represents the set of all possible signals that are relevant to the goal in question. Equally, we could say that the abstract surface that we are talking about here represents the set of all possible signals regarding the whether the interests of the self are being served or not. The question that is of burning interest to me is “Am progressing or am I not progressing?” Or to put this even more simply, “Am I winning or losing?” It is not too much of a leap at this point to make the assertion that the self, by definition, equals no more and no less than the closed, one-sided logical loop which is the set of all the possible answers to this question. This closed set of possibilities represents all the different positions the self can occupy on the logical continuum of WINNING versus LOSING – whatever possible adventures the self may have will be found somewhere here, somehow on this continuum. The self can have no adventures outside of this continuum because anything outside of either winning or losing, doing well or doing badly, is of no interest whatever to it, as we have said. It is therefore not controversial to assert that this closed domain of all the possible situations or positions the self can be in with regard to the key question or key concern of “Am I winning or losing?” constitutes the entirety of what is possible for it. And if we can say this closed domain is the domain of the self, then it is not too much of a jump to assert that the defined or fixed self is a closed, one-sided loop of logic.

 

 

If we were to carry on discussing the properties of a mobius loop we could say that if we were to travel continuously along the surface that is the loop we would spend half the time facing inwards, and half the time facing outwards, but the exact point of transition would be indiscernible since it is all the same surface. If we say that ‘inwards facing’ is winning and ‘outwards facing’ is losing, we would therefore spend half the time feeling euphoric, and the other half dysphoric – again, without there being any actual defined boundary. This is interesting because it shows up straightaway the impossibility of there ever being any net gain in the system – and ‘profit’ or ‘net gain’ is of course the only reason we are in the game. The hope that we will obtain some advantage that does not exist only to be cancelled out again (an ‘unrelieved state of triumph’, as James Carse puts it) is what hooks us into the whole endeavour in the first place, and so if we could plainly see that there is precisely zero chance of this ever happening there would be no incentive to continue going around the track. That there is no net gain, no overall progression is of course more than apparent in the fact that the mobius loop is indeed a loop, that it is a closed rather than an open circuit. Of course there is no net progression in circular motion – that is the whole idea of ‘circular motion’ after all. If there was some kind of genuine honest-to-goodness movement or change involved then that would means that the loop had been ruptured, exploded, broken open, and that would be another story entirely. But the point is – as we have been saying – that the closed or circular domain which is the territory of the self implicitly represents itself as being open, and not circular. That is the illusion which keeps pulling us onwards, the trick that keeps the whole show on the road.

 

 

Another way of getting this idea across is to say that it is the self which is the illusion, since the whole endeavour of selfhood is guaranteed to get nowhere, even on its own terms. What the self is striving for in all its efforts is to reach that ideal state of ‘consolidated advantage’ – advantage that can never be taken away from it. What this comes down to is one opposite without the other, a separated or ‘isolated’ opposite – a YES without a NO, an UP without a DOWN. In the unconscious mythology of the self this state – the state of unrelieved triumph – exists in a quite unproblematic fashion as a sort of ultimate unquestionable success. This mythological permanent unassailable advantage is not the same as simply being ‘a winner at the game’ because today’s winner can always be tomorrow’s loser – the finite game-player plays, as Carse says, to permanently end the game because only when the theatrically uncertain period of play is over can the ultimate unchallengeable status of winner be obtained. Only when all play is over, and the uncertainty it entails is put to bed – so the mythology goes – can the absolute state of permanent certainty be reached. This absolutely unchanging state can either be good or bad – either I reached the glorious heights of being an immortal winner, or I plummet down to the depths of being an eternal loser. Clearly, therefore, it is of absolutely crucial importance to end up in the right camp.

 

 

WARRING OPPOSITES

 

 

Another way of expressing the basic mythology of the self is to say that after we die we either become winners or losers, which is to say, it will be ordained that we either spend eternity in heaven or in hell. The two absolutized states of heaven v hell reflect in an exteriorized sort of a way our implicit and unquestioned belief in ‘the absolute self’. This absolutized self is seen as having two states open to it – being a winner for ever or being a loser for ever. Each of these states is what we have called an ‘isolated opposite’, akin to the North Pole of a magnet that has been separated forever from the South Pole, or the bottom end of a stick that has been permanently separated from the top end.  The obtaining of the correct outcome constitutes the beginning and the end of the mythology of the self, its alpha and its omega – more than this you will not find. The final stasis, the ultimate stability and certainty we seek, is the isolated opposite. This goal underpins everything the self does. And yet obtaining this outcome is the most fantastically, ludicrously impossible thing anyone could ever think of and the fact that we are seriously trying to bring it about is a particularly preposterous form of insanity. The goal of the ‘positively defined self’ is a non-starter, it is a mirage, a flickering phantom-like image that is always somewhere on the periphery of our vision, never to come any closer to our fevered grasp no matter how much effort we put into chasing it. The actual reality of the self is a very different thing altogether  – the reality of the self is made up of what the alchemists – who were far better psychologists than us – spoke of as permanently ‘warring opposites’.  Another telling image is that of the ‘leaden homunculus’ – in his visions the alchemist Zosimos came across a man who impales himself with a sword, who undergoes ‘unendurable torment’, whose eyes become blood, who spews forth his own flesh and changes into the opposite of himself.

 

 

THE ETERNAL ROUND

 

 

The basic, inescapable reality of the self is, therefore, one of self-contradiction, self-frustration and self-cancellation. This has to be the case since the self’s defining preoccupation is as we have said to struggle again its own nature so as to obtain the YES without the NO, the advantage without the disadvantage, the winning without the losing. And yet the self is composed equally of both opposites – winning is as essential to it as losing is, and its life can never be separated from either. In the game of self – as it really is, not as we unrealistically imagine it to be – the opposites always cancel each other out, just as in a circle ‘going up’ is always perfectly cancelled out be ‘going down’, and ‘going left’ is always cancelled out by ‘going right’. This is of course what makes a circle a circle – if it were otherwise we would be looking at something that isn’t a circle but something else entirely. The key point about both circle and games is that they never really go anywhere, even though they always seem to be. Informationally speaking, we can say that the type of information that corresponds to both circles and games is confirmation – confirmation is information that appears to be telling me something new, such as the state of play at a particular point in time, where about on the circle we are at such and such time, but which actually can never be new since the system that is being described never ever does anything new. The whole point of a game is that this cannot happen, the basic rules can never ever change, because this is what makes a game a game. Because the rules never change what goes on in the game never changes either. The game never changes because the rules determine what can and cannot happen, and so information pertaining to the state of play – however fascinating it may seem to us – is not actually information at all.

 

 

TAKING THE PREMISE FOR GRANTED

 

 

The information relating to the state of play in the game is new and vital in a trivial sense but old and redundant in a deeper sense, and so only for as long as we are living in the most superficial way possible will we be able to function in this modality. The question is, therefore, what does it mean to live in ‘the most superficial way possible’? We can try to get to grips with this by going back to the key point that confirmation is all about loss and gain, winning and losing, and that loss and gain, or winning and losing, are only absolutes when the premise from which we see them is taken absolutely for granted. The premise in question is of course the fixed and separate self – as long as I experience myself as being this extremely limited entity then winning and losing are valid concerns. There are more than valid concerns, they are absolutely consuming concerns – they consume the whole of my attention, leaving no spare or unused attention for anything else. The concrete meaningfulness of the game – the attraction of winning and the aversion towards losing – is therefore the tangible externalization of the premise of the fixed self. I am not able to be aware of the incredible ‘limitedness’ of my viewpoint and so this limitedness’ gets projected outwards and is encountered in the form of the stark and brutal reality of the game. Winning is only so absolutely good and losing so absolutely bad because I am living in such an extraordinarily trivial or superficial way.

 

 

This is very easy to see. If I wander at all out of that narrow domain of the self then the meaningfulness of the goal fades instantly because winning only means something from the extraordinarily superficial standpoint of the self that desires to win. Winning doesn’t mean a damn otherwise – ‘winning’ is a joke, an absurdity, a meaningless concept. It is pure foolishness to be preoccupied by thoughts of ‘winning’ or ‘not winning’ – this is the foolishness of someone who never sees beyond the painfully narrow remit of the self. The domain of the self is more than simply ‘narrow’, in fact, it is infinitely narrow. The reason it is infinitely narrow (like a geometrical line or the surface area obtained by taking a cross-section of a solid) is because it is an abstraction – it doesn’t exist in space at all because to exist ion space is to possess indeterminacy as a key characteristic. The self cannot have any indeterminacy, any irreducible uncertainty, associated with it because then it would not be a self.

 

 

A self is definite, it is defined – it is ‘this but not that’; it is a ‘specific’ location, which is of course the only type of location there is. Just as an indefinite location is not a location, so too is an undefined self not a self. The whole point of a self is that it has to be demarked by a crisply defined boundary, a boundary that excludes everything that has not been specified as being that self. It is as crisply defined as a mathematical set. Just as an undefined set is not a set, an undefined self is not a self. Being a ‘fuzzy self’ would like having a fuzzy goal, it would be like thinking about a fuzzy or formless concept. There are only the two ways here – either the individual sets limits are 100 % defined or they become leaky, permeable to other, ‘undefined’ stuff, and if they become leaky in this way then they are no longer separate or individualized sets but simply the Universal Set, which is not a set at all because it has no limits to it, no boundaries around it.  Thus the integrity of the self as a self (i.e. the very existence of the self) depends upon the exclusion of the Whole Picture, which is the very same thing as the exclusion of reality.

 

 

The truth of the matter is that reality simply cannot be subdivided. It ‘cannot be ‘set against itself’ in the way that the rational mind always has to function by ‘setting the one thing against the other’. So when we no longer do this, when we no longer ‘set one thing against the other’ (i.e. when we no longer ‘set the self against everything else’) then this is the end of the rational mind, and it is also the end of the polar self, which is the ‘self-of-yes-and-no’, the ‘attached’ self, the self which is controlled by its own insatiable need to be in control…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image: salvia_divinorum__saliva_gland_by_sync_o2-d5r4dhk

 

 

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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