All approaches contain certain invisible assumptions, stuff that is automatically ‘taken for granted’. This is how approaches work, this is how they get to be approaches in the first place. An ‘approach’ is by its very nature a simplification of reality and if an approach is a simplification then this necessarily means that something has been left out of the picture.
The advantage or benefit of having an approach is precisely that it simplifies everything down, and as a consequence makes reality easier to understand, easier to grasp, easier to ‘put into words or thoughts’. Having an approach makes it possible to obtain crisp, clearly defined answers to our questions about the world and so what is essentially happening in this ‘simplification process’ is that a rich source of information (which is ‘unsimplified reality’) is being squeezed through a kind of a filter so that what comes out on the other end is a very ‘thinned out’ (or ‘attenuated’) type of information, the type of information that is termed in Ernst and Christine von Weizsacker’s Model of Pragmatic Information confirmation.
Confirmation is information that ‘agrees’ with a particular position, a particular basis for looking at it. We could also say that it is information that answers specific questions with either a crisp clear YES or an equally crisp clear NO. So confirmation is made up entirely of positive and negative statements (positive and negative, that is, with regard to a particular position that is kept constant throughout the information-processing operation.) It is interesting to see what happens if we stop taking the validity of our position totally for granted – when we make the unconscious assumptions inherent in our viewpoint conscious so that we no longer simply ‘take them for granted’ then the ‘matter-of-fact’ or concrete nature of the YES and NO answers that we are using to orientate ourselves to vanishes immediately and we end up instead with what Robert Anton Wilson (in his three-term system of logic) calls MAYBE. MAYBE we can also symbolize by the symbol [?] since it doesn’t ‘tell us anything’.
Not only does the relativized (or ‘non-concrete’) type of information that we end up with when we stop taking stuff for granted not ‘tell us anything’, it actually challenges our underlying position – it ‘questions our questions’, so to speak. By questioning our questions – or, more accurately, by questioning the basis from which our questions arise – this unrelativized information falsifies our basis. The reason it falsifies our basis is because the basis is only ‘a basis’ when we don’t question it! Our basis only functions as such when we don’t question it because questioning it makes it become very uncertain and it becomes uncertain simply because we have no more reason for choosing this basis as being ‘the right one’ than we would have for choosing any other, and so the assumed premise that we do have the right basis vanishes into thin air like a puff of smoke.
In Ernst and Christine von Weizsacker’s Model of Pragmatic Information this type of non-agreeing’ information is termed novelty. Novelty – which is essentially ‘unprocessed or unfiltered information’ – has the key property of destabilizing established structures and therefore allowing change. Thus, confirmation is the type of information that pushes structures towards greater stability, and novelty is the type that pushes them in the direction of increasing instability and, ultimately, complete dissolution. The former is thus all about stasis and the latter all about change.
What we are saying here then is that the simplification process that happens when we use a particular approach takes novelty in at one end, processes (or filters) it, and then squeezes out conformation out of the other end, just like steak mince coming out of an old-fashioned mincer. [?] goes in, and [+] / [-] comes out. Or in more metaphysical terms, non-polarity is transformed into polarity, non-duality into duality.
It isn’t necessarily clear to us why this should represent a ‘stepping down’ or ‘de-complexifying’ process; it isn’t clear why [?] (uncertainty) should be ‘rich’ information and [+] / [-] (certainty) is poor, or ‘attenuated’. This tends to sound back-to-front to us since, as we have said, uncertainty doesn’t actually tell us anything, and not only does it not tell us anything it actually tears down the knowledge-structures that we (think) we do have. If confirmation builds structures and novelty disintegrates structures then how can we say that the former is a poor type of information and the latter is a rich one?
The point that we don’t usually see about uncertainty (which is the ‘undefined situation’) is that it is rich in possibilities. Uncertainty doesn’t exclude anything, it doesn’t rule anything out. A definite statement on the other hand rules out an awful lot of stuff – it rules out anything that hasn’t been specifically ‘ruled in’. It excludes everything apart from the one possibility that has been specifically defined and for this reason the type of information that is made up entirely of affirming and denying statements (i.e. YES and NO answers) is very impoverished in possibilities. It is so very impoverished that it is like a homeopathic solution – it is like a crude half-hearted sketch or cartoon in compassion to a van Gogh masterpiece, it is like a Big Mac compared to a five course dinner in the finest restaurant in Paris. It is like a tiny trickle of water coming out of a rusty old tap in comparison to the Zambezi River.
The undefined situation is the OPEN situation and so the essential transformation that we are talking about is the process in which OPEN is converted into CLOSED. ‘CLOSED’ is the situation in which the rule is “What is allowed is this, but not anything else.” ‘OPEN’ is the situation where we say “What is allowed is anything at all, without any limit or qualification whatsoever.” The first statement is a rule because it defines but the second is not a rule because nothing has been specified. A rule ‘rules out’ at the same time that it ‘rules in’, whilst the all-inclusive statement where everything is permitted neither rules out nor rules in – it doesn’t ‘rule’ at all.
Put like this the OPEN situation still doesn’t sound that great to us – our whole way of thinking leads us to believe that only what we have a firm and definite grip on is worth anything. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush!” we say. The OPEN situation is where there are infinitely many birds, all sorts of birds, of all shapes and sizes, but all of them are in the bush and none of them are in the hand. So that whilst we might admit that the bush is rich in birdlife (which is like admitting that the Universal Set, U is rich in elements!) I am nonetheless stuck on the uncompromising fact that I am not, and when it comes right down to it I don’t really give a damn about whether the bush is rich or not. The birds in the bush are not the slightest good to me, after all – no matter how many millions upon millions of them out there they might be.
But this is precisely the point – if I insist that only what I have firmly in my hand counts as ‘riches’ then OPEN is always going to be meaningless to me. The reason for this is that I am relating to OPEN in a CLOSED way. CLOSED can only appreciate OPEN when OPEN presents itself on its terms, which are – needless to say – closed terms. But OPEN is no longer OPEN in this case. Similarly, we can say that CLOSED can’t relate to anything except on its own very narrow (or ‘judgemental’) terms because if it did then it would no longer be CLOSED.
CLOSED operates on a very narrow basis indeed. When I am operating in CLOSED MODE then I am saying that stuff can only be taken seriously when it exactly matches my preconceptions (or ‘judgements’) regarding what is to be taken seriously, (i.e. what is significant, meaningful, important, worthwhile, and so on). There is zero flexibility or leeway in this – if it matches my pre-existing categories then I take it seriously and if it doesn’t then I haven’t any time for it at all. The degree of inflexibility or lack of leeway in the system is a measure of how narrow it is and the degree of inflexibility that we are talking about here is total.
CLOSED MODE is when I only see stuff as being significant when it matches the parameters that I have arbitrarily adopted regarding what shall be seen as significant. CLOSED is when I only pay attention to those aspects of reality that agree with the specific way of apprehending reality that I happen to be operating out of. CLOSED is just another way of talking about ‘an approach’, which is as we have said ‘a simplified way of looking at the world’.
Obviously an approach can only take seriously those aspects of the world that match its expectations, its preconceptions or assumptions – that is after all exactly what makes an approach an approach in the first place. That’s the whole idea of it. The key point about an approach is therefore that it is what we might call ‘deliberately or gratuitously self-limiting’ – an approach is ‘an arbitrary limitation that is taken seriously’, or ‘an arbitrary limitation that is not seen as being an arbitrary limitation’. All limits are arbitrary really. All limits are simply lines that have been drawn in the sand just for the sake of having a line there. They are all tautological exercises. The only thing that is not arbitrary (and not tautological) is the lack of limits, the situation where no line is drawn in the sand. For this reason we can say that the only situation that is not ‘only arbitrarily true’ is the situation where there are no limitations, i.e. the OPEN situation.
So when the CLOSED viewpoint says “a bird in the hand is worth any amount of birds in the bush” this is when it comes down to it only ‘an arbitrarily true’ statement. This sort of statement is laughably ridiculous, laughably devoid of meaning – I am saying that only the bird in my hand counts because I have previously opted to believe that this is the case. I am making this unequivocal statement because I have previously chosen to adopt the framework of seeing the world that makes this statement true. It is as if I agree to play a certain game in which common pebbles are worth a thousand pounds each. Then, when I find a whole heap of pebbles just lying there waiting to be picked up I am delighted, I am as pleased as punch, I am over the moon. But what is this ‘easily obtained sense of satisfaction’ really worth? If some situation is positive only because I have agreed for it to be positive, then the label ‘positive’ doesn’t actually mean anything.
The only way that my labels, my evaluations, are ever going to mean anything is if the angle I have taken in order to obtain a black-and-white picture of the world I have adopted isn’t arbitrary at all. The particular valuations that I have placed upon the world will only mean something if the assumption lying behind my viewpoint isn’t ‘an assumption’ at but something in the nature of an absolute irrevocable immutable truth. But this just isn’t the case. If this were the case then there could only ever be the one viewpoint, the one approach. And if there was only this one viewpoint, this one approach, then what we would be talking about here wouldn’t be a viewpoint, but rather it would be ‘the one and only true way to see the world’.
The thing is of course that every viewpoint, every approach, pretends (for the sake of the exercise) to be the ‘one and only true way to see the world’. Every viewpoint has to ‘take itself seriously’ in this way in order to get started in the first place – it wouldn’t get anywhere at all if it didn’t. This is like saying that every actor in a play has to take his or her role seriously or else there wouldn’t be a play. Yet even though each actor has to take his or her role seriously (i.e. they have to ‘act’ as if they really were that role) there is all the same an underlying principle of freedom in all this. None of the actors ‘has to’ play their part – they could equally well play some other part, or no part at all. As James Carse says in Finite and Infinite Games, “Who must play cannot play”…
The same principle of freedom underlies all viewpoints, all perspectives. Any viewpoint at all can become ‘the one and only right way to see things’ but before it becomes ‘the one and only right way’ we have to choose it, we have to select it out of infinitely many other possible viewpoints, each of which could also have become ‘the right way’. Each viewpoint will show us a different picture of the world, and yet all of these pictures are limited versions of the original, versions that are each in some way distorted as a result of being refracted through whatever particular filter was used in each case. The unfiltered, unrefracted original, however, does not appear anywhere no matter which approach is used.
So when I say (from the limited perspective of any particular approach) that ‘only the bird that I have right here in my hand counts’, this statement arises out of the approach that I have chosen to take. It is only a true statement because I have chosen for it to be true. So in the game that I am playing, only the bird that I have in my hand is real. The other birds don’t come into it at all. They are of no value to me because they have no relevance with regard to the viewpoint I have selected. And saying that if something isn’t relevant to my viewpoint then it is valueless is of course simply an indirect way of saying that I myself am the supreme value; it is an indirect way of saying that that all meaning or value is determined in relation to me. This type of absurdly limited ‘self-centredness’ is thus characteristic of all viewpoints since all viewpoints are based on the limiting principle that if something does not relate to the evaluative criteria it has assumed to be ‘all-important’ then that something simply does not exist.
For any given logical system, only that stuff which matches the system’s own preconceptions matters, which is another way of saying that for any given system, only the system matters. So a logical system only values the type of information that validates the preconceptions or assumptions it itself has had to make in order that it might have the capacity of determining or defining what is valuable, worthwhile, significant, important, meaningful, in the first place. If the system doesn’t automatically validate itself then it disintegrates, it falls apart. This is a painfully tautological loop of logic, but nevertheless it is the type of logic that informs all closed systems.
The ‘bird in the hand’ which is the closed frame of reference obtaining for itself that outcome which – by its own reckoning – equals the ‘optimal outcome’, the ‘most highly valued situation’, and so on, is actually an entirely meaningless proposition outside of its own ‘taken for granted’ context. When it ‘registers relevant information’ this action is meaningless outside of its assumed context. The only genuinely meaningful proposition is the unqualified one – the one that hasn’t been framed within such a way that is makes sense to the system. Or to put this another way, the only genuine richness is the richness of the ‘birds in the bush’ because the instant we convert this situation into something that we can ‘make sense of’ or ‘grab hold of’ we render it tautological.
Any statement that I make to myself automatically becomes empty the instant I make it because ‘making the statement’ comes down to having reality represented to me on my own terms, which renders the statement null and void outside of these very specific terms. There are two facets of this process of making definite statements about the world, the first being one in which I apparently benefit with regard to obtaining something that I didn’t have before, and the other facet being the instant and irrevocable nullification of this benefit since ‘the thing that I didn’t have before’ turns out to be an imaginary sort of a thing – a gain made in a dream, an advantage obtained in a fantasy. The only way I can get any sort of value out of it at all is if I stay in the dream, stay in the fantasy, and this is of course exactly what I tend to do…
If I want to obtain riches within the simulation then it is absolutely imperative that I never see the simulation as a simulation. Or – to state this in a more familiar sort of language – if I wish to feel good about winning then it is absolutely essential that I don’t see the game that I am playing as a game. The everyday state of consciousness that we exist in – and show extreme resistance to ever leaving – is that game in which all of our rational (or ‘literal’) statements about the world appear to actually make sense instead of showing themselves to be entirely hollow, entirely vacuous, entirely empty. The only possible way in which my understanding of the world would not be tautologically hollow would be if I allowed the world to show itself ‘on its own terms’ rather than on the closed terms of my chosen approach. In this case – were I to allow reality to unfold itself on its own terms rather than running some kind of an over-simplified simulation of reality and then relating to this oversimplified simulation as if it were the real thing – I would be face-to-face with the ‘unsimplified reality’, the genuine article. This possibility however fills us with the most profound ontological terror. We are even averse to the very mention of this possibility, and this is why we prefer to stick to the security of the simulation, no matter what the drawbacks this choice brings with it.
So, in summary, we can say that the benefit of having a particular approach it that it gives us a ‘definite picture’, a clearly defined description or understanding of the world, but it comes with a disadvantage which we scrupulously avoid ever paying any attention to. The ignored disadvantage is that the definite picture (or definite description) we obtain as a result of utilizing the particular approach is entirely tautological.
Of course all definite statements about the world are tautological – all definite statements are the result of ‘self-agreement’, the pre-arranged agreement between a particular context of meaning and a set of statements that have been specially selected on the basis that they will make sense within this context. So it comes as no surprise at all that the pattern of definite statements which my rational mind provides me with makes sense, that it has the nominal meaning which it is supposed to. We obtain the benefit straightaway therefore, and we are so very used to obtaining it that we don’t give the matter any thought. The disadvantage, on the other hand, doesn’t really seem to exist for us since we are not philosophically-minded enough to ever go into it.
We can however spot what the disadvantage could be if we spend a moment or two considering the matter. Clearly in a world made up entirely of nominal meaning there is never ever going to be any depth to what we experience. Everything we experience will on the contrary have exactly the same depth, and that ‘depth’ will actually be no depth at all since ‘what you see on the label is what you get on the jar’. Living in a world which is made up entirely of definite statements (a world which is exclsuively described by literal language) means therefore that once we understand something we have to move on straightaway to the next thing since there is nothing left in ‘the first thing’ for us to discover, nothing in it that is going to remain ‘fresh’ and interesting. The world we live in (the world of nominal meanings) is like a wad of chewing gum in our mouth, we can chew it for a while and extract the flavour out of it, but minutes later we have to spit it out and find some more. So instead of being contemplatives we are forced into the position of being restless ‘thrill seekers’, forever moving on from one shallow experience of life to another, equally shallow but nominally (i.e. trivially) different experience. Philosophers we are not, contemplatives we are not. The very words can have no meaning for us just so long as we are being literal about life.
The disadvantage is then that we are forced into the position of being goal-orientated and purposeful the whole time, always moving on from one pattern of mental categories to the next, living in our thoughts, living in our ideas, living in our limited rational expectations of what will or what could happen next. The disadvantage is that we are exiled from a whole world of depth, beauty and profundity – doomed to be forever restlessly searching for the next empty sensation, and the next, and the next and the next. The literal mind lives for distractions, although it is incapable of seeing its situation in this way, and because it lives for distractions it inevitably moves in circles, since no other form of movement is possible in the closed domain within which it has to exist.
The root of the problem is that we are looking for something in the ‘definite statement’ that just isn’t there. It’s not that there is anything at all wrong with definite statements as such but rather that great difficulties arise when we fail to see that what we are looking for is not and never can be found within them, no matter how cleverly we manipulate them, no matter what complex combinations we arrange them in. If we realized that these abstract signifiers don’t actually contain anything at all (since they are at all times perfectly null) but that they are only arbitrary ‘pointers’ – so to speak – to a reality that lies forever outside of their sterile logical remit, and which is on this account quintessentially undefined and indefinable, then the problem of ‘going around in pointless circles forever’ simply never arises.
All approaches result in empty tautology, and as such the benefit or pay-off that they yield – the definite picture or description of the world – are always bound to be absolutely devoid of information content. The only information they can produce is virtual information (or ‘confirmation’) – which is ‘information that only makes sense within a very specific framework’. [Confirmation is real information only if you are very careful to use only this narrow framework, and if you convince yourself that there is no other way to see things than this very narrow way.] This is the way it is with approaches. This is the way of it. It is all just the play of the Infinite, it is all just the way in which the Infinite plays at being finite (plays at hiding itself in the finite) and then ultimately reveals itself for what it is again through the ultimate manifestation of the unreality of the finite. Or we could say that it is the way in which the Divine plays at being mundane, at being ‘non-Divine’. This is known in Hinduism as Lila, the spontaneous play of Brahma. Lila is like waves rising and falling in the ocean, it is not activity that occurs to achieve some specific goal or other, it is simply spontaneous action, activity that occurs freely and for no purpose. The Wikipedia entry on Lila quotes Ram Shanker Misra as follows –
Brahman is full of all perfections. And to say that Brahman has some purpose in creating the world will mean that it wants to attain through the process of creation something which it has not. And that is impossible. Hence, there can be no purpose of Brahman in creating the world. The world is a mere spontaneous creation of Brahman. It is a Lila, or sport, of Brahman. It is created out of Bliss, by Bliss and for Bliss. Lila indicates a spontaneous sportive activity of Brahman as distinguished from a self-conscious volitional effort. The concept of Lila signifies freedom as distinguished from necessity.
So whilst on the one hand we can say that taking a closed approach to the world generates a defined and definite picture of that world which represents itself as being exclusively true, we could also say that the unconditioned world produces fixed, certain or definite images of itself (which we are then free to take seriously, and get endlessly caught up in as a result) as a result of its spontaneous or purposeless play, as a result of the activity of Lila. Our literal thoughts, our literal ideas, our literal statements about reality are the spontaneous play of the Divine, of Brahman, and thus we are not in any way obliged to take them seriously. The rational mind itself is the Divine at play. We can also say therefore that the definite (and therefore vastly oversimplified) idea which I have of myself (and which I am very much caught up in) is merely the spontaneous play of Brahma, and that I am not on this account in any way obliged to take it seriously.
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.