The main counterargument to the argument that self is an arbitrary and therefore essentially meaningless (or illusory) construct is probably the idea that the motivation of having a particular self to defend and look after is a biological necessity. From this perspective, the unquestionable necessity to put oneself (or one’s gene-carriers) first is so obvious as to be hardly worth dwelling on; any argument about whether the self as a unit is or is not illusory seems downright silly given the fact that the Darwinian paradigm which informs our understanding of biological systems and their behaviour is based solely on the idea of the competition of genotypes. According to this currently popular perspective, everything in the living world comes down to the need that the fundamental – if somewhat abstract – entities of life, the genotypes, have to maintain their integrity and successfully replicate themselves at the expense of all other competing genotypes. This ‘need’ is explicitly understood, for example by evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins, as a game rule pure and simple; as Dawkins has demonstrated, such a rule can be encoded into a computer program governing the behaviour of ‘software genes’ (or ‘software organisms’) to produce a form of simulated evolution in which certain successful packages of information out-replicate other unsuccessful packages, after a suitably tooth-and-claw struggle over many millions of computer-generated life-cycles. When we see life in this way, it is obviously a moot point whether the particular genetic identities are arbitrary or absolute – they are of course arbitrary but from the point of view of the game they are pragmatically absolute, and so we might ask, since we are living organisms when all is said and done, how can it possibly help us to quibble over the apparent prime directive of life, which seems to be ‘you (i.e. as an implicitly assumed absolute or unquestionable entity) will do everything you can to survive and reproduce yourself’.
This law of survival is indirectly a law of the supremacy of the self since the directive to survive and replicate oneself automatically assumes that the ‘self’ which one strives to perpetuate is worth all the effort. It is not just that this is an assumption that we have carelessly made and then forgotten about; the actual integrity of the game depends on this assumption being forgotten – unless certain information is hidden from us then the game simply cannot work. The information in question may be explained by saying that it is the information which lets us know that it is NOT absolutely important that the self be clung on to at all costs, in other words what has been hidden is the perspective to see things as they really are. When this perspective is there, then the compulsive motivation that arises in connection with the self and its wishes vanish, as does the conditioned world that we see when we look with the ‘eyes of attachment’ (i.e. with the eyes that see only those details that have relevance to the needs that lie behind its looking). This is another way of approaching the concept of the organizationally closed system since what we are basically saying is that the conditioned world that we perceive as a result of our conditioning is simply a tautological development of that conditioning. In other words –
When I have a ‘use’ for the universe, then I do not see the universe as it is, I simply see those aspects of the universe which can be of use to me in terms of my agenda; thus, inasmuch as I am driven by ‘purpose’, I only ever see my own agenda reflected back to me in terms of those elements of the ‘whole picture’ which happen to correspond to my preconceived intentions.
SEEING THE FUNNY SIDE OF LIFE
Having a use for the universe is pretty much a full time occupation if my game is survival, since striving to survive automatically tunes me in to those aspects of my environment that might either help or hinder me in relation to my agenda. My agenda is simply ‘me’, and the aspects of my environment that I pay attention to are those aspects which relate to my ‘needs’. Our overall argument up to this point has been however that the ‘me’ and its concerns only have the overwhelming pragmatic reality that they do have for us because of an essential lack of perspective on the matter. But where are we going with such an argument – if I am at root a biological organism subject as the Neo-Darwinians says to the dictates of the need to uphold the integrity of my genetically conditioned identity, then what exactly does this so-called ‘perspective’ constitute, other than apathy, nihilism, and a tendency towards passive suicide? One way to answer such questions is to say that the perspective which we assiduously avoid in order that we might continue undisturbed with our self-obsessed games is essentially the same thing as a sense of humour about ourselves. The sense of perspective that we have so thoroughly banished is banished specifically because if we were not to banish it, we would not be able to take ourselves as seriously as we do – the values we solemnly regard as being of great importance would become revealed as being small-minded and ridiculous, and this is why there is a tendency to link the freedom of awareness that we are talking about with nihilism, with ‘nothing-ism’. The implication is that something-ism is always better than nothing-ism, even if the ‘something’ in question is banal, petty and ultimately meaningless. We can get by quite easily without focussing on the appalling pettiness of our cherished assertions and beliefs, and we obtain the much-prized bonus of not having to gaze into the vertigo-inducing maw of infinite relativity. To put this more succinctly –
The awareness that we have so carefully repressed has been repressed precisely because if it wasn’t repressed we would have to see that the goals which we spend all our time striving for and hoping for have been created for ourselves by ourselves in order to spuriously validate ourselves (i.e. our particular way of looking at the world) and so we would have to see that any sense of significance that we have about ourselves is a mere conceit – a banal and self-serving act of vanity.
THE ULTIMATE LAW IS NO (PARTICULAR) LAW
When we say that the ultimate law is the law of biological survival (or something to that general effect) what we are doing – whether we realize it or not – is claiming an undisputable authority for a specific game-rule. This however is simply what we always do, under all circumstances – it is classic unconscious behaviour. A rule can never be the primary reality for reasons that we covered already. If the biological ground-rules were the only reality (which is very much the contemporary view on the matter) then we would be no more than humourless robots, pursuing our goals because we are programmed by evolution to pursue them. The fact that this is a highly unedifying proposition does not means that it is not true of course; furthermore, it has to be admitted that this dismal picture appears to be perfectly and utterly true for at least 99% of the time – if we are not mechanical reflex-machines, then we do a damn good job of imitating them. But even given the unavoidable fact that we are for the most part unrelentingly obsessed with our own meaningless games, our self-referential concerns, this is not at all the same as saying that the determinate world of rules is the only world. The existence of unconditioned, untainted freedom, no matter how infrequently experienced or lived, transforms everything. In the light of unconditioned freedom, even the cruellest and most frighteningly oppressive state of servitude to some fiendishly unchanging pattern of hideously banal rules becomes curiously imbued with some sort of grace – after all, such a terrible lack of freedom points to the inconceivable value of freedom from determinism more eloquently than anything else could. As Meher Baba says, the more freedom is taken away from us, the more we learn to appreciate it.
According to the established view of things (which is to say, the view of deterministic so-called ‘science’) we are living organisms and therefore ultimately beholden to the rules which govern such organisms, and whether these rules make any sense in the bigger picture of things has nothing to do with anything, since this is our situation and the mature thing to do is simply to learn to live with it – without indulging in escapist bullshit about there being any higher ‘meaning’ to life. This is the basic message of what passes for science in this not-so-very-enlightened age. This, according to our cherished experts, is the ‘objective view of reality’. Evolutionary psychology, for instance (which is currently all the rage) solemnly informs us that everything about us is there only because it has now or has had in the past some sort of fitness value’ with regard to the evolutionary game. Presumable therefore, our proclivity as a species to produce evolutionary psychologists who tell us that we create art and have religious experiences simply because it helps us in the struggle to replicate our genes also has some sort of fitness value – although it is hard to see quite what this might be. To learn that one is a mere ‘survival machine’ which strives to survive for purely the sake of surviving and nothing else does not do much to help – what would help (in the terms of evolutionary psychology) would be some convenient fiction like ‘Art’ or ‘Love’ or ‘God’, which the evolutionary psychologists delight in debunking. This presents a paradox since if our highly valued evolutionary psychologists have the function of debunking the so-called ‘myths’ that we need in order to carry on, what exactly is the evolutionary value in this? And if there is no fitness value in what they are saying, then that would mean that this highly esteemed branch of contemporary pseudo-science is talking nonsense, in which case there would be no point at all to this discussion…
A point that we can make here is that rational argument, when left to its own devices – so to speak – always paints itself into a corner. The reason for this is simply because rationality functions by making everything understandable within its own framework, which is very satisfying in the short-term, but an absolute disaster in the long-term. The rational mind delights in what Jung refers to as ‘nothing but-ism’, in other words, it loves to debunk mysteries and show that everything is entirely explicable within the narrow terms which it assumes. The pioneering American psychologist William James (1902, P 14-15) noted the ruthless predilection that medical ‘science’ has for nothing but-ism over a century ago:
We are all surely familiar in a general way with this method of discrediting states of mind for which we have an antipathy. We all use it to some degree in criticizing persons whose states of mind we regard as over-strained. But when other people criticize our own more exalted soul-flights by calling them ‘nothing but’ expressions of our organic disposition, we feel outraged and hurt, for we know that, whatever be our organism’s peculiarities, our mental states have their substantive value as revelations of the living truth; and we wish that all this medical materialism could be made to hold its tongue.
Medical materialism seems indeed a good appellation for the too simple-minded system of thought which we are considering. Medical science finishes up Saint Paul by calling his vision on the road to Damascus a discharging lesion at the occipital cortex, he being an epileptic. It snuffs out Saint Theresa as an hysteric, Saint Francis of Assisi as an hereditary degenerate. George Fox’s discontent with the shams of his age, and his pining for spiritual veracity, it treats as a symptom of a disordered colon. Carlyle’s organ tones of misery it accounts for by a gastro-duodenal catarrh. All such mental overtensions, it says, are, when you come to the bottom of the matter, merely affairs of diathesis (auto-intoxications, most probably), due to the perverted action of various glands which physiology will yet discover.
These days we are rather more sophisticated in the way that we reduce everything to a fundamental level of description, so that everything is understandable (or at least potentially understandable) in terms of this level of description. This process of making things understandable is of course nothing-butism, since all those apparently mysterious phenomena which inspired superstitious awe (or romantic imaginings) in our forefathers is shown to be capable of being totally explained quite straightforwardly in terms of mechanisms, which although they may be extremely complicated, are inherently ‘non-mysterious’. An excellent example of plain old-fashioned rational explaining – in a thoroughly modern and up-to-date idiom – can be found in evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker’s How The Mind Works. In the following passage, Pinker (1997, P 4) argues that the fact that our own minds are mysterious to us does not mean that we should assume the existence of some wondrous or divine principle:
In a well-designed system, the components are black boxes that perform their functions as if by magic. That is no less true of the mind. The faculty with which we ponder the world has no ability to peer inside itself or our other faculties to see what makes them tick. That makes us the victims of an illusion: that our own psychology comes from some divine force or mysterious essence or almighty principle. In the Jewish legend of the Golem, a clay figure was animated when it was fed an inscription of the name of God. The archetype is echoed in many robot stories. The statue of Galatea was brought to life by Venus’s answer to Pygmalion’s prayers; Pinocchio was vivified by the blue fairy. Modern versions of the Golem archetype appear in some of the less fanciful stories of science. All of human psychology is said to be explained by a single omnipotent cause: a large brain, culture, language, socialization, learning, complexity, self-organization, neural-network dynamics.
I want to convince you that our minds are not animated by some godly vapor or single wonder-principle. The mind, like the Apollo spacecraft, is designed to solve many engineering problems, and thus is packed with high-tech systems each contrived to overcome its own obstacles. I begin by laying out these problems, which are both design specs for a robot and the subject matter of psychology. For I believe that the discovery by cognitive science and artificial intelligence of the technical challenges overcome by our mundane mental activity is one of the great revelations of science, an awakening of the imagination comparable to learning that the universe is made up of billions of galaxies or that a drop of pond water teems with microscopic life.
Although Pinker talks glowingly about the marvellous nature of the revelations that afforded us by the modern disciplines of cognitive science and artificial intelligence, the whole point of his book is as he says to demonstrate that we do not need to invoke the existence of some mysterious essence or almighty principle (i.e. anything that cannot in theory be rationally explained). This is not to say that Pinker tries to answer classic philosophical questions such as “Is there free will?”, “What is consciousness?”, or “Why are we here?”; some questions, he suggests will always be unanswerable due to what he calls ‘cognitive closure’. Basically, there is no evolutionary advantage, no ‘fitness value’, in being able to work them out; it doesn’t help us pass our genes on to know the answer to these particular questions. Towards the end of How The Mind Works Pinker (P 562-3) is at pains to point out that cognitive closure has nothing at all to do with any sort of absolute limitation on knowledge (such as would be produced by as a universal principle or law), but rather that it is a conditioned impossibility or limitation that arises out a sort of evolutionary ‘need-to-know’ principle:
It is easy to draw extravagant and unwarranted conclusions from the suggestion that our minds lack the equipment to solve the major problems of philosophy. It does not say that there is some paradox of self-reference or infinite regress in a mind’s trying to understand itself. Psychologists and neuroscientists don’t study their own minds; they study someone else’s. Nor does it imply some principled limitation on the possibility of knowledge by any knower, like the Uncertainty Principle or Gödel’s theorem. It is an observation about one organ of one species, equivalent to observing that cats are color-blind or that monkeys cannot learn long division. It does not justify religious or mystical beliefs but explains why they are futile. Philosophers would not be out of a job, because they clarify these problems, chip off chunks that can be solved, and solve them or hand them over to science to solve. The hypothesis does not imply that we have sighted the end of science or bumped into a barrier on how much we can ever learn about how the mind works. The computational aspects of consciousness (what information is available to which processes), the neurological aspect (what in the brain correlates with consciousness), and the evolutionary aspect (when and why did the neurocomputational aspects emerge) are perfectly tractable, and I see no reason why we should not have decades of progress and eventually a complete understanding – even if we never solve residual brain-teasers like whether your red is the same as my red or what it is like to be a bat.
In mathematics, one says that the integers are closed under addition: adding two integers produces another integer; it can never produce a fraction. But that does not mean that the set of integers is finite. Humanly thinkable thoughts are closed under the workings of our cognitive faculties, and may never embrace the solutions to the mysteries of philosophy. But the set of thinkable thoughts may be infinite nonetheless.
Is cognitive closure a pessimistic conclusion? Not at all! I find it exhilarating, a sign of great progress in our understanding of the mind. And it is my last opportunity to pursue the goal of this book: to get you to step outside your own mind for a moment and see your thoughts and feelings as magnificent contrivances of the natural world rather than as the only way that things could be.
Cognitive closure means therefore that whilst everything in the universe is capable of rational explanation, our specialized cognitive apparatus just doesn’t happen to have been engineered with universal understanding in mind, only understanding of those issues which have a practical relevance to the business of gene-propagation, or survival. Of course, the fact that I can rationally understand the fact that the universe is rationally explicable in theory but not in practice means that I understand that the universe is understandable even if I can’t understand it personally, and so in a sense I could be said to understand everything anyway. In this there is undoubtedly a type of satisfaction to be had, but it is hard to imagine how I could continue to be exhilarated, day after day, year after year, by the knowledge that everything understandable. This is like the situation of a person who is afraid of the devil, and who manages to convince himself – to his own satisfaction – that there is no such thing as the devil. There is a good feeling to be had by doing this, but it is quite easy to see why the fundamental safety (or lack of challenge) in this certainty should appear somewhat ghastly when subjected to closer scrutiny. In fact the more we reflect on the matter, the more pathologically sterile the whole business appears – what kind of insecurity is it that we have, that we wish to convince ourselves that we can never ever be radically surprised? From a psychological point of view, the ability to derive a feeling of exhilaration from the absolute certainty of the idea that everything can be rationally explained is distinctly suspect because it implies, quite unmistakably, that fear is at the root of it.
Of course, the other type of certainty – which is the certainty that arises out of unreflective religious belief – is exactly the same in terms of its hidden psychological function, which is to say, its capacity to grant us the boon of ontological security. If I hold that everything is capable of rational explanation, then it is the unshakeable, utterly dependable edifice of rationality that provides this boon, and if I answer all questions with dogmatic religious answers, then it is the unshakeable edifice of my religious convictions that supplies me with what I want in the line of ontological security. Both represent what Carse calls a ‘finite game’ – there is a closed system to which all possible queries are referred, and which provides answers that are absolutely final. Whether I say that everything is capable of rational explanation or whether I say that everything exists because God wanted it to exist makes not the slightest bit of difference really because in both cases the ‘answer’ is no answer at all, but rather it is a ‘question-killer’ disguised as an answer. In both cases my unstated aim is to put an end to all reflective mental activity, and return the trouble-maker who asked the question to the terminal state of unconsciousness, where the only questions that get asked are questions that reaffirm the eternal validity of the central unexamined assumptions. We can also define finite games by saying that they are the type of games that the closed mind delights in; the closed mind delights in finite games because they enable it to remain closed, whilst generating the illusion that something is actually going on – they allow the closed mind to perceive itself as not being closed. Just a thoroughly bigoted person needs to perceive himself as being fair-minded in order to carry on being happily bigoted, so too does the closed mind need to perceive itself as being open in order that it might tolerate the unremitting sterility that is its own legacy to itself.
This idea gives us a way of looking at organizational closure since we can say that the sterility of a closed mind has to be invisible to it in order for that mind to have the motivation carry on functioning, to carry on doing the sort of things that it characteristically does. The most important aspect of a closed system of mentation (actually, the only important aspect) is the fact that it never goes anywhere, that nothing new ever happens within its remit. However, this is the one aspect of itself which the closed mind must never see if it is to carry on being itself, and so the closure that we are talking about here is the closure that exists of the closed mind in relation to the true significance of its activities. To put this another way –
The crucial ability possessed by the rational mind is its ability not to see the sublimely absurd (i.e. null) nature of all of its statements.
Organizational closure is thus a necessary blindness, it is the guaranteed unavailability of information that a closed system needs in order that it can carry on being a closed system. If a closed system possessed the information that allowed it to see that it was closed, then it wouldn’t be closed, because this would mean that it has access to a viewpoint that had not been created by itself, by its own inbuilt and unquestionable logic, by the logic which is itself. This brings us back to the notion that a rule has an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’ – when we are within the rightful domain of the rule then the rule is indeed a rule because it absolutely determines (with no question about it at all) what happens and what does not happen, what exists and what does not exist. Furthermore, not only are we not allowed to question why that which is not allowed is not allowed, we are not even permitted to know that the operation of ‘disallowing’ ever happened in the first place since the information relating to it has been ‘dumped’ (i.e. made unavailable by the very operation of the rule). When we are outside the domain of the rule however we see that it was not absolutely irrevocably necessary that there should have been this rule – we can see quite clearly that there didn’t need to have been such a rule at all (we can see that there is ‘no rule saying that there has to be a rule’). The type of closure that we are talking about is therefore the type of closure that allows the categorical mind to categorize, and the rational mind to rationalize, it is the ‘exclusive either/or logic’ that underpins the operation of the conceptualizing machinery with which we create the world that we so steadfastly believe in. This radical type of mental closure is – needless to say – infinitely more threatening to the everyday mind than is the idea of mere ‘cognitive’ closure which actually doesn’t threaten us at all, but rather makes us feel very cosy and safe since we prove to ourselves thereby that it is impossible for there to be anything ‘out there’ that is of a radically different order to all the stuff that we already know and feel ok about.
Cognitive closure is ‘safe’ because although we can’t know what is in there (in the black box as Pinker puts it) the one thing we do know for sure is that there is nothing there that is at variance to the rules of rationality that we have placed all our faith in. The stuff in the black box is out of our reach, cognitively speaking, but what we do know is that there is nothing truly new in it, which is to say, we are sure that there is nothing in it that will upset the applecart. Thus, even though we don’t know, we know that what we don’t know is knowable and so the over-arching context of our understanding remains triumphantly intact throughout, supremely unchallengeable as always. What we have been calling organizational closure is not like this at all however because we can’t know anything about the stuff that we don’t know about – we cannot assume anything at all, we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of thinking that what we would find there (if we could) would conform to our expectations in any way at all. This sort of closure is therefore – from the psychological point of view – dangerous in the extreme, it is pure dynamite as far as ontological security goes.
The existence of a radical rather than a trivial type of mental closure means that there is an absolute limitation on the ability of rationality to understand itself – the rational psychologist has zero chance of ever saying anything genuinely insightful or meaningful on the subject in hand, which means that it would be he who would be out of a job, rather than the old-fashioned philosopher with his timelessly imponderable questions. The idea that the paradoxes of self-reference do not arise when a psychologist studies the mind of another human being doesn’t cut much ice either because it is not a case of one mind objectively studying another, separate mind, but the logic behind mind A studying the very same logic behind mind B. As David Bohm says, the system of thought is all of one piece – it’s the exact same thing wherever we meet it, it is the very same system of logic in all cases. This is of course a remarkably bizarre notion because what it basically means is that when you talk to me, and I talk to you, all that is really happening is that the system of thought (as Bohm calls it) is having a conversation with itself, through us, whilst we fondly imagine ourselves to be inputting our genuine individuality into the proceedings. This is such a deeply abhorrent idea that we may be excused for not wanting to look at it; on the other hand, the very fact that we find it disturbing and generally ‘unacceptable’ is a sure fire indicator that there is something there worth investigation.
David Bohm is not the only person ever to come up with the idea of the commonality, ubiquity, and general non-individuality of the rational mind. Jung spoke of the ‘everyman’ which is who I am – by default, so to speak – when the only factor in my life is my automatic willingness to obey the ‘passions’ that govern my behaviour and thinking. In such a case the theatrical performance which is my life is guaranteed to unfold in a very clichéd or stereotyped way, and so any notion of individuality that I might have with regard to myself is illusion pure and simple. Sociologist Stuart Hall speaks of something called false spontaneity which is where opinions, ideas, and prejudices in general erupt from within us in response to some external trigger in a manner that mimics genuine spontaneity; when this happens I perceive myself to be giving voice to my very own ideas and opinions – I experience these ideas and opinions as being uniquely mine and therefore wholly original rather than being completely ubiquitous and therefore utterly ‘non-original’. This source of the clichéd opinions that I come out with is the common mind of rationality, which Hall refers to in terms of the ideology which invisibly informs our understanding of the world. The curious thing about ideology – according to sociology – is that is imprisons and controls us in an extraordinarily subtle and elegant way; instead of controlling us from without, like a crudely totalitarian government that forces us to submit to its rule by threatening us with its police apparatus, ideology inserts itself inside us so that we experience it as being us, and then obey it unthinkingly on this basis. If I am prejudiced against someone, and behave unpleasantly towards them, I feel this to be an expression of my own free will rather than an expression of some arbitrary bias that I have unwittingly absorbed from my social milieu, and which controls me just as a super-sophisticated parasite in a science fiction film might infiltrate my brain and control my behaviour to its benefit. Another, closer, analogy for the sociological concept of ideology is to say that it is like a piece of rogue, viral software that was swimming around in the internet one minute, and which invades my laptop the next, secretly subverting the computer’s legitimate operations to its own ends.
Carlos Castaneda (1998, P 147) is saying something very similar to this in The Active Side of Infinity when he introduces the idea that we have not one mind but two, one being our own true mind and the other being what he calls a ‘foreign installation’. That the foreign installation mind is common to us all is clear enough from the following account by Castaneda (P 167-8) of a discussion between himself and his teacher don Juan:
After another long silence, don Juan explained that the sorcerers of ancient Mexico believed that, as he had told me already, we had two minds and only one of them was truly ours. …
…“The haunting memory of your recollections,” he went on, “could come only from your true mind. The other mind that we all have and share is, I would say, a cheap model: economy strength, one size fits all. but this is a subject that we will discuss later. What is at stake now is the advent of a disintegrating force. But not a force that is disintegrating you – I don’t mean it that way. It is disintegrating what the sorcerers call the foreign installation, which exists in you and in every other human being. The effect of the force that is descending on you, which is disintegrating the foreign installation, is that it pulls sorcerers out of their syntax.
Our syntax is our language, our way of describing the world to ourselves, and this necessarily means that it has a hidden or inaccessible quality. After all, if I want to understand my syntax then I do so by describing it to myself in terms that I can understand, which is to say, I use my syntax in order to make sense of my syntax and so the invisible assumptions that I want to know about remains flawlessly invisible. Our syntax (which clearly corresponds to the ideology of sociological theory) is therefore both common to us all, and thoroughly invisible at the same time, and in addition to these two key features there is a third, which is that it controls us. As Frank Herbert (1984, P 5) says, “Systems, following the unconscious pattern of their human creators, always take over.” This highly sinister (and for that reason highly unpalatable) suggestion is also made by don Juan in the course of his conversations with Castaneda (P 147):
“Classifications have a world of their own,” he continued. “After you begin to classify anything, the classification becomes alive and it rules you. But since classifications never started as energy-giving affairs, they always remain like dead logs. They are not trees, they are merely logs.”
The implications of this statement are of course quite outrageous (from our normal, which is to say, classificatory, point of view) since what it is basically saying is that we – as supposedly conscious and self-determining beings – are actually ruled by the system of evaluation, classification and description that is the logical mind. This mind – despite the fact that it is itself no more than dead wood – subsumes everything to its own cause, without us being any the wiser about this appalling state of affairs. G. I. Gurdjieff is extremely forthright and unambiguous on this point, for example in Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson (Book 3, P 409) he says:
Such is the ordinary man – an unconscious slave entirely at the service of all-universal Purposes, which are alien to his own personal individuality.
One of Gurdjieff’s students relates a rather more obscure remark made to him by Gurdjieff, in which he was told that whilst at the moment he has to travel around in a public bus, a collective mode of transport, eventually the time will come when he will get his own, private motor car to go around in. This in a way is actually the reverse of how we usually understand spiritual development (if we think in those terms at all, that is) because we think of the normal estate of a person as being one of private or insular self-hood, which exists in contrast what Aldous Huxley called ‘mind at large’, and what in Buddhism tends to be referred to as ‘self-lessness,’ or ‘voidness’. However, the point that we are making here is that the private, insular self has no individuality at all, but rather it is a mass-produced, utterly non-unique sort of a thing – ‘one size fits all’ as Castaneda recounts. The transformation of a person from ‘everyman’ to a true unique individual occurs, as Jung states, when the person in question ceases to be the obedient puppet of the crude mechanical desires that are common to us all, and engages wholeheartedly in what the alchemists called the ‘work against nature’, the opus contra naturam. Gurdjieff tended to put this in terms of ‘voluntary suffering’ and ‘conscious work’, the basic principle being that when we consistently and automatically obey the all-determining rule or motivation to seek pleasure and avoid pain then the true self never gets to be crystallized. If we always conform to mechanical (i.e. rule-based) motivation, a motivation that conditions everyone identically, then we will inevitably end up as mechanical creatures – we will end up being essentially predictable in our nature, which is not a property pertaining to individuality. Of course if out of some half-assed comprehension of the principle that says ‘seeking pleasure causes us to end up in unhappy states of being’ we either seek pain or shun pleasure we are no better off at all since the reason we seek pain or shun pleasure is because we want to gain some benefit as a result, and since the ‘desire to gain or make profit’ is itself the key mechanical motivation of the false self, the only possible result of such a deliberate manoeuvre is for the false self to be re-affirmed, and made stronger than ever. In order for this non-unique self to be dissolved, and for the true or unique self to arise, it is necessary to abandon what Oscar Wilde called ‘the shrewd calculation of ways and means’ (which belongs to the head) and follow what one knows in one’s heart to be one’s true calling (which can be related to intuition rather than rationality). Rationality, after all, never strives after anything that it does not already understand, and since the nature of the true self is always beyond our understanding, it is never going to strive in this direction. Rather than reach for something bigger than itself – which would necessarily entail its own ultimate dissolution – the all-subsuming ‘map of reality’ which is the everyday mind reaches only for little things, things that can be correlated with its own scheme of things. The fact that this inescapably leads into a ghastly morass of pettiness and time-wasting does not matter to it since chasing its own goals (and thereby sneakily re-affirming the validity of its own basic assumptions) is the be all and end all of rational behaviour.
The common or everyday mind might be said to abhor perspective, inasmuch as perspective on itself is the last thing it wants, since if it had perspective on itself it would no longer be able to take itself seriously – it would no longer be able to covertly worship itself as the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end of everything, i.e. ‘the most important thing’. The peculiar null-property of ‘having no perspective on the fact that we have no perspective’ means that the rational mind causes us – if we allow it – to waste all our time obsessing both positively and negatively about what ultimately have to be seen as infinitely trivial concerns. Not only do my petty concerns seem highly important to me, but so to do I seem highly important to myself, validated to myself as I am by my own frame of reference, which greedily fills up all the available space despite the fact that it doesn’t actually warrant it. This lack of perspective, according to Castaneda (1998, P 119), was seen by the sorcerers of ancient Mexico as our major defect as human beings:
…Sorcerers throughout the ages have said that the view of our death is the most sobering view that exists. What is wrong with us human beings, and has been wrong since time immemorial, is that without stating it in so many words, we believe that we have entered the realm of immortality. We behave as if we were never going to die – an infantile arrogance. But even more injurious than this sense of immortality is what comes with it: the sense that we can engulf this inconceivable universe with our minds.
THE ‘FINALITY’ OF THE MATERIAL WORLD
The notion of there being a level of organization which represents ‘the bottom line’, a description or syntax which represents ‘the way things actually are’, is of course what makes the state of materiality possible – without a bottom-line in descriptions material is not ‘material’ at all, but something else entirely. As Alan Watts says somewhere, it is our framework of understanding which tells us if something is ‘material’ or ‘immaterial’. If we take it that our way of understanding or describing the world is the only way there is, then the notion that there must be some sort of ‘absolutely definable’ substance or material which is the building block for everything becomes unquestionable. We would lose the ability to wonder whether this proposition is actually so or not – it would be too ‘obviously true’ for us ever to go so far as to even think about it. That is the quintessential nature of the ‘material’ which makes up our world – it is basically dead to us in terms of conscious interest because it is so well proven, so well established. The belief that the ground of our existence, the fundamental substrate of our lives, is made up of units or entities that are completely definable – i.e. completely knowable – is the grand assumption upon which our existential security rests. Erigena, on the other hand, put forward the other side to the argument when he said that
Matter itself (apart from the forms it receives) is likewise invisible and even indefinable.
This assertion is of course total and utter dynamite with regard to its effect on our blasé, ‘know-it-all’ attitude to our physical environment – if our way of understanding or describing the world is just a particular take on an underlying reality that is not capable of being exhaustively explained, then what we see as material ceases to be literally material, and becomes metaphorical instead. As we have said, the whole point about material (from a psychological perspective) is that it is literally understood as being ‘literally itself’, which means that it is effectively dead since it does not and cannot ever take us anywhere else apart from itself. And ‘itself’ is actually nothing at all subjectively speaking since it is fully understood and therefore completely exhausted in terms of any spark of interest that it might hold for us. The ironic twist in all this therefore is that rational explanation – which is the type of explanation that takes itself completely seriously – claims to engaged in an essentially ‘noble’ cause whilst what it really does is to convert everything it encounters into the dregs of utter banality – a kind of inert waste-product that is no good to anybody. Seen this way, there is something unutterable ghastly about the way in which rationality devours everything that still has a hint of freshness and mystery and excretes in its wake a thoroughly worthless effluence that is somehow supposed to be nutritious or valuable to us. Rationality does not of course admit that its end-product is banal (which is to say, only superficially meaningful) on the contrary, it professes to be inspired and suffused with wonder with the vision that it has created. The truth is however that all things that are completely understood are all exactly the same in flavour or interest – which is to say, they have none. Everything becomes the same thing, and that ‘thing’ is a pernicious form of meaninglessness that does not declare itself as such. If we follow the false god of rationality to the bitter end we find ourselves stranded in an all-encompassing entropic desert; absolutely everything in our lives becomes ‘known’ in the same dreadful dead way and so everything partakes in the same terrible tastelessness, the same lack of ‘inner substance’. It is at this entropic end-point that we might – if we allowed ourselves the insight, that is – marvel at the magnificent irony of our situation.
SCIENCE AS A FINITE GAME
With regard to the existence of life on this planet, the rational voice of contemporary science condescendingly (and humourlessly) informs us that it is all just the result of blind mechanical forces, and with regard to the mystery of consciousness, it tells us that it is nothing but electro-chemical activity in the brain, and so on. At the moment of successful explanation there is a very pleasing feeling, but once this has passed we find that we have been too clever for our own good – we have been so clever at explaining everything that there no longer seems to be any point in anything. As James Carse puts it, the aim of every finite game is to bring play to a final conclusion, and so the moment of triumph is synonymous with the curtain coming down. The fun lies in trying to reach the successful conclusion, but once this has actually happened we discover that the fun is all over, and there is nothing else for us to do but wallow in our past glory, telling the story over and over again to anyone who will listen. Reiterating the story of how everything was solved once and for all seems to provide the possibility of replaying the moment of satisfaction, and thus enjoying it more than once, but as it turns out the satisfaction involved quickly diminishes until it becomes a pain in the ass for everyone concerned.
Rational explanation is a classic finite game in that it is all about explaining things away – all mystery or uncertainty is zealously abolished and the final and utterly definitive enactment of the abolishment is the ‘climax’ which we strain for, with no thought whatsoever with what lies beyond. Moreover, there is an all-important ‘concealment of the true motive’ since we pretend to be interested in other things, whilst actually we are pressing only for the final victory and we don’t care at all about anything else except inasmuch as it helps us to achieve that victory. In this, the search for the ultimate rational explanation is very much the same as James Carse’s (1986, P 82-3) idea of ‘finite’ (or ‘veiled’) sexuality:
Because finite, or veiled, sexuality is one or other struggle which its participants mean to win, it is oriented toward moments, outcomes, final scenes. Like all finite play it proceeds largely by deception. Sexual desires are usually not directly announced but concealed under a series of feints, gestures, styles of dress, and showy behaviour. Seductions are staged, scripted, costumed. Certain responses are sought, plots are developed. In skilful seductions delays are employed, special circumstances and setting are arranged.
Seductions are designed to come to an end. Time runs out. The play is finished. All that remains is recollection, the memory of a moment, and perhaps a longing for its repetition. Seductions cannot be repeated. Once one has won or lost in a particular finite game, the game cannot be played over. Moments once reached cannot be reached again. Lovers often sustain vivid reminders of extraordinary moments, but they are reminded at the same time of their impotence in recreating them. The appetite for novelty in lovemaking – new positions, the use of drugs, exotic surroundings, additional partners – is only a search for new moments that can live only in recollection.
As with all finite play, the goal of veiled sexuality is to bring itself to an end.
THE ‘STERILE ROTATION’ OF THE FINITE MIND
Sexuality, when turned into a finite game, makes for a thoroughly hollow experience. At the end of it there is the distinct awareness that one has been taken for a ride, in more than just the obvious sense. But sex is just one particular – albeit very poignant – example of a finite game, and the feeling of disillusionment that attends finite sex attends practically everything else we do in life. Everything we do that is oriented towards a final goal (which is to say, a goal which is not ever questioned, but only unreflectively strived towards) is finite play, and as such it is inevitably ‘circular’ or ‘self-frustrating’. A good way of illustrating this self-frustrating circularity is by using the example of the routine. Routines are predictable and therefore essentially tedious patterns of behaviour or activity that we like and dislike at the same time. This is classic love/hate relationship: we love routines because we know where we are with them, and we hate them for much the same reason – because they are basically a prison that we cannot ever really escape from. What gets us through a routine is the knowledge that if we get through the bit that we don’t like – the drudgery bit, so to speak – then we will get to the ‘good’ bit, the bit that gives us pleasure, the bit that we look forward to. This pleasure may be due simply to the temporarily relief of the drudgery, or it may be due to recreational activities that we engage in during this time. A typical example of this sort of thing is the weekly routine of working for five days, then having the weekend off. During the working week we look forward more and more to Friday, since Friday is of course the precursor to the weekend, but the weekend is itself the precursor to Monday, and the start of the next working week. So if it’s Friday that’s great and we get the ‘thank God it’s Friday feeling’, but since the week is a rotating circle, when we get closer to the weekend we are also getting closer to Monday. Now on a purely local level that doesn’t matter a damn because I don’t think about the fact that the approach of the weekend means the approach of the next working week. I don’t look that far ahead, because if I did then I obviously wouldn’t get the buzz that comes with the anticipation of the ‘good’ bit of the cycle. Most people would probably say that it is just wilful pessimism to say that when its Friday that just means we’re getting close to Monday again, but it would be more true to say that it is wilful optimism to have a ‘cut off point’ in how far we are willing to see into the future. Short-sightedness is actually a necessary precondition for the enjoyment of any of our pleasures since every ‘up’ incurs a ‘down’ a bit later on, and if we allowed ourselves to be aware of this the motivation that we experience with regard to availing ourselves of the ‘up’ would severely dwindle.
Arbitrarily choosing a cut-off point in what we are willing to consider whilst making sure that we don’t pay attention to what we are doing is nothing other than the basic mechanism of unconsciousness – it is how the ‘exclusive either/or logic’ of the rational faculty operates. So when we are talking about an endlessly repeating and therefore endlessly predictable routine – which, we will suggest, is something that is quintessentially inimical to our intrinsic nature – then the mechanism of unconsciousness steps in to save us from experiencing the torment that we would undoubtedly have to endure were we to see the complete picture. The way we do this is by arbitrarily deciding not to look beyond a certain point on the circle, by focussing on the ‘reward (i.e. euphoric) phase’ of the cycle, in other words. The point that we do not let ourselves see is that no point on the rotating circle of the week is special, or is ‘special by virtue of the fact that it leads onto a day that is special’. On the contrary, any point that we might choose leads on inescapably to every other point in the circle, and then back to itself, which is another way of saying that all the points are equal. All points on the circle are just ‘points on the same circle’ – the points are the circle, anywhere we choose is the same circle. It’s all the same circle; no matter where we are we are on the circle and we are never any closer to escaping from it, despite what we may allow ourselves to think. This is therefore another way of demonstrating the purely ‘local’ validity of making anything special.
‘Locality’ in this context means restricting oneself to a narrow view of matters – when I am travelling in a circle I can get excited or euphoric about the fact that I am approaching a particular point on the circle that I value more than any other points, just so long as I take a local view. It then makes sense to say that the first turn of the wheel where I am heading towards the goal is ‘good (because it is leading towards the goal) and it makes sense to say that the second turn of the wheel is bad because it is taking me away from it. When we take a wider view of the matter though we see that the ‘positive phase’ of the cycle is actually taking me inexorably to the ‘negative phase’ and so it must by direct implication be ‘bad’. Similarly we can see that the negative phase of the cycle is leading unfailingly to the positive phase which means that it must therefore be ‘good’. This of course is a total contradiction because how can good be bad, or bad good? Paradoxical statements such as ‘good means bad’ tell us something – they show that any ‘limited’ (or ‘finite’) statements about the specialness of one part of the cycle are nonsense. In the euphoric phase of the cycle we get excited because we stand to gain that which we desire, whilst in the dysphoric phase we get down because we have lost that which we wanted so much to gain but if we take the longer view we can see that in the euphoric phase we are actually getting excited about the approaching moment of loss since the other side of gain is loss. So if I am fond of smoking free-base cocaine then the motivation that I makes me want to chase the high is what drives me on; if however I could see that I am chasing the low that follows just as much as I am chasing the high – that I am grasping for pain at the same time as I grasp for pleasure, then this would place an entirely different complexion on things.
Being a crack-head or a junky is no different in principle from being a person who looks forward to Friday every week, and neither of these two pursuits are any different from the rational mind’s pursuit of ‘complete understanding’. This is clear enough if we consider that the creation of knowledge (in the literal or ‘humourless’ sense of the word) is at the same time the creation of a corresponding amount of mental entropy (as Stuart Kauffman has said). Mental entropy can be defined as ‘information which we have no information about’, or, alternatively, as a mental blindspot that we don’t know about. Just as we need to take a strictly local view to see the approach of a particular point on a revolving wheel as ‘good’ (as opposed to ‘bad’) so too do we have to take a finite or partial view of the whole picture in order to make any definitely true statements about the world. So by achieving the security and satisfaction that comes with uttering ‘a definitely true pronouncement’ about the world we also achieve the negative satisfaction that comes as a result of trapping ourselves within this partial picture. Or to put this another way, we obtain euphoria by substituting the small picture for the Big Picture, so that the meagre part is mistakenly taken to be the Whole of Everything, but we unfailingly reap the unhappy consequences of this act of self-deception since our world has now become invisibly tautological, or ‘null’. Literal understanding is always a gateway to invisible tautology as we can plainly see by considering the dangerously deceptive little word ‘is’. Whenever I make an ‘is-type’ statement there is some sort of kick that comes with it. So for example is I say that consciousness ‘is’ an electrochemical process, there is scope for euphoria (i.e. the positive or enjoyable aspect of existential security). The tautology arises because all is’s are inevitably supported by, or validated by, other is’s, and all of these is’s ultimately link up to form a closed circle, as Richard Feynman has noted. There is a hidden redundancy in the whole business – there has to be because no ‘is’ can ever take itself beyond itself, any more than a straight line can ever escape from itself. Just as a linear mathematical statement such as X = 2Y + Z is perfectly and endlessly tautological in its unfolding, so too are all verbal ‘is-type’ statements. This means that we are always explaining a thing in terms of itself, which is the cosmic trick of self-referentiality; self-referentiality can never result in the production of genuine honest-to-goodness information since all we are doing is confirming our own unwarranted assertions by the expedient of losing sight of the fact that they are unwarranted.
Ordinarily, is’s appear to serve us perfectly well but that is only because of our local viewpoint. If we imagine a big circle or wheel made up of statements linked by is’s, then just as long as we only see a limited part of this circle, then everything is fine and dandy. We are ‘supported’ by an absolute (i.e. real) foundation, or so it seems to us. When we see the whole circle then the illusion of being supported by some absolute firmament is of course lost to us, and we find ourselves bereft of both the sense of security that our assumed firmament gave us, and the sense of meaning that we previously had about what we say and what we do. Our ability to take our rationally constructed goals seriously is gone completely at this point and since we tend to depend upon these goals, and the activity that is based upon attaining these goals, for maintaining our sense of meaning in life this represents an incalculably potent incentive for the conditioned mind not to admit to the existence of a more spacious view of reality in which the rationally constructed self and its goals are no longer seen as being so all-important. Being identified with the game-playing self requires as a precondition that that game-playing self must take itself and its games with the uttermost seriousness, no matter how absurd both itself and its eternally-repeating games might be.
THE ABSURDITY OF NON-IRONIC STATEMENTS
Although a lot of our time is spent taking ourselves and our concerns (our concerns being a tautological development of ourselves) seriously, it is also undeniably true that we also experience moments of humour in which we can catch a glimpse of ourselves and our concerns from a surprisingly different angle, and laugh at them. The fact that we can do this is evidence against the argument that I actually am the self that I ordinarily take myself to be, i.e. that this sense of ‘me’ is the bottom-line, the ultimate vantage point when it comes right down to the nitty-gritty. If I point at you and declare triumphantly “You are a human being!” or “You are a biological organism!” these are examples of humourless (i.e. literal or non-ironic statements. Any bottom-line designation of what we ‘are’ is guaranteed to be non-ironic, since a ‘final designations’ only exist if the viewpoint we are taking on the matter is the one and only correct viewpoint, and irony arises out of the possibility of another level of meaning outside of the one that we are assuming. So if I solemnly declare you to be a ‘this’ or a ‘that’, then I am only able to do this by narrowing down my sense of perspective to a tremendous degree, and remaining ignorant throughout that I am limiting my vision in any way. In other words, literalism is a frame of mind that comes about as a result of my self-imposed inability to laugh at my way of looking at the world – if I am coming out with heavy-duty literal statements this is only because I am disabled in such a way that I am pragmatically unable not to take my own statements seriously. Actually I am being funny and if I were to see myself as I humourlessly say that such-and-such is such-and-such I would have to laugh at myself for being so immaculately absurd, and not realizing it. Only if I was able to laugh at the outrageous absurdity of my position, to chortle at the preposterous self-importance inherent in my taking my own viewpoint seriously, then that would of course be because I had realized it…
What unrepressed (or unlimited) consciousness shows me is that I am not anything. By virtue of the veil of unconsciousness that I pull down around myself, I can enter into the state of passive identification and forget that the game is just a game, but actually I am only this, that or the other because I have freely chosen to look at the world in such a way that I appear to be such, and then chosen to forget that the choice was mine in the first place – that my own choice was needed in order for me to be this, that or the other. Were I to adopt the viewpoint of evolutionary psychology, I would have to say that I only have a sense of humour about myself and my predicament because this ‘capability’ somehow increases my ability to compete successfully in the evolutionary game. In other words, what I would be saying is that my ability not to take myself seriously is only there because it is useful within the terms of deadly serious (i.e. intrinsically humourless) goal of survival or gene-replication. Humour exists because it useful, in some way or other, to the humourless cause of self-perpetuation. This is the same as saying that purposelessness (i.e. spontaneity) actually exists for a purpose, which is a meaningless sentence because the way in which the word ‘spontaneous’ is used contradicts it meaning. We might as well say something like “Accidents have their part to play in the overall design of things”, which is an irredeemably self-contradictory statement, even though it might sound kind of plausible when heard for the first time. The contradiction arises because a design (like a rule) must always exclude a vast chunk of possibilities. This is a principle which we just can’t get around –
There cannot be a design that doesn’t exclude possibilities any more than there can be a wood-carving that never needed to have any wood removed in order for it to have been made.
So if a design gets to be a design because of the fact that it excludes a vast chunk of all possible possibilities (all those possibilities that don’t have anything to do with the functioning of the design) then how on earth can we say that accident are part of the design, or that spontaneity exists for a purpose? Accidents are the enemy of design, because if accidents are allowed to occur freely (which is the only way they can occur) then that it is end of design; similarly, if spontaneity is allowed free expression (which, again, is the only type of expression it can have) then all purposes (all finite games) dissolve into laughter, i.e. into ‘the enjoyment of the unexpected’.
REVERSE ENGINEERING HUMOUR
The above arguments notwithstanding, it is a fact that our present scientific approach to the subject of humour – made within the ruling paradigm of evolutionary psychology – leads us to ponder what the overall purpose for humour is in our species. In what way does it increase our ability to replicate our genes? This is what Pinker calls ‘reverse engineering’ – a behaviour (or a structure) exists, so what does it exist for? Humour has of course been analysed before but there is something particularly poignant about looking at humour in terms of its ability to add something to our evolutionary fitness. Humour, in essence, involves ‘not taking something seriously which previously we did take seriously’ and yet here we have the biological goal of survival being taken with ridiculous seriousness; it is so serious that it even subsumes humour (the ability not to take ideas or goals seriously) within it. All theories of humour suffer from this poignancy – there is something not very funny at all about a serious theory of why something is funny. If I were to sit you down and explain to you why jokes are funny, or why we human beings laugh at certain things, you would almost certainly sense that I had missed the point in a big way. In the end the joke is on the rationalist and the fact that he or she is utterly incapable of understanding this point makes the joke all the better.
It is however perfectly possible to argue that humour serves some pragmatically utilitarian sort of a purpose and it comes quite naturally to the logical mind to try to do so. In a certain way of course, humour can be said to have a function – it is for example often said that humour enables us to ‘break the ice’, or that it allows us to defuse tricky situations – situations that might otherwise turn ugly. If I say something that is funny enough to make a potential aggressor laugh, he may well be diverted from his aggressive tactics, and all will be well. Similarly, a good stand-up comedian can generally turn the tables on a heckler, and get the crowd to laugh at him instead. Pinker (1997, P 551) lists a number of possible purposes for humour, including what he calls ‘dignicide’:
…Dominance and status benefit those who hold them at the expense of those who don’t, so peons always have a motive to mount a challenge to the eminent. In humans, dominance is not just the spoil of victory in fighting but a nebulous aura earned by a recognition of effectiveness in any of the arenas in which humans interact: prowess, expertise, intelligence, skill, wisdom, diplomacy, alliances, beauty or wealth. Many of these claims to stature are partly in the eye of the beholder and would disintegrate if the beholders changed their weightings of the strengths and weaknesses that sum to yield the person’s worth. Humour, then, may be an anti-dominance weapon. A challenger calls attention to one of the many less-than-exalted qualities that any mortal, no matter how high and mighty, is saddled with.
Alan Watts, Another ‘use of humour’ that we can frequently see examples of in social interaction is where I cover up an embarrassing moment with some kind of a joke. This often works well enough, but in this example it is quite easy to see that this is actually a ‘serious’ use of humour – it matters to me rather a lot that people should laugh and that attention should be deflected from whatever it is that has me embarrassed (or potentially embarrassed) and for this reason it can be said that my use of humour in such a situation arises out of a deficiency that I have in my ability to laugh freely at myself. The fact that I am in danger of being embarrassed indicates straightaway that I take myself seriously, and do not actually find my loss of dignity funny. If I did find it funny then I would not need to crack a joke in order to deflect attention away from what had just happened; I would not need any tricks or gimmicks or stratagems at all – the fact that I do experience the need to employ a stratagem shows that I do not have a sense of humour about myself and so, paradoxically, if I need to laugh at myself to avoid feeling embarrassed (as is often the case) then this shows very clearly that the situation is – to me – not funny at all. This same argument applies to all cases where there is a need to employ humour. If I have to use humour in order to achieve some aim, then this means that I am, on a deeper level, being deadly serious about what I am doing. I might be able to laugh at you, but if the joke backfires on me then I am not going to be able to laugh so easily at myself when I discover that it is me who is the butt of the joke and not you. If on the other hand I was able to laugh at myself with perfect freedom when the joke is unexpectedly reversed, then that would prove that I don’t actually have any ulterior motive or agenda in my humour-making, thus demonstrating the fact that I genuinely do have a sense of humour.
We can therefore arrive at a definition of humour which says that humour that humour has to be free of any agenda in order that it might truly be called so. Otherwise, it is not humour at all, but simply seriousness masquerading as humour for its own hidden motives (which are not funny at all). But if humour has to be free from any agenda in order to be truly worthy of being called humour, then this obviously means that any argument which claims humour to be serving a purpose cannot get off the ground. The same can be said for love, which biodeterminism similarly treats as being strictly ‘functional’ – if I love you for a purpose, then in what way exactly can I be said to love you? If I love you for a purpose then I need to love you, but if I need to love you, then this ‘love’ is all about my needs, and not about you at all. This means that love is nothing more than glorified self-concern, which straightaway brings the loftiest of emotions down to the level of pure banality. But of course whilst poets and mystics may enthuse about the ineffably transcendent nature of pure, selfless love, this doesn’t cut a hell of a lot of ice with hard-nosed biologically minded psychologists. From the point of view of evolutionary psychology, it is logical to argue that we need the idea of a lofty, untainted type of love in order to dignify our lives with some order of reality that is wholly beyond mere biologically conditioned selfishness. Perhaps we wouldn’t be able to carry on, if we were to be faced with the fact that there simply is no other level than the determinism of self-concern. A similar idea to this can be found in the second Matrix film: the hero Neo learns at length that the machines which control the human race discovered in the past that their human crop inevitably failed if there was no hope of rebellion, and no myth of the One who would lead them to freedom from their oppressors. For this reason the machines allow a small percentage of humans to live free, outside of the system, and work towards their goal of rebellion. Every so often an individual arises with special powers who fulfils this myth, and at such a time the One who is to lead the human race to freedom plays his part. This part of course is no more than a feint within the game, a clever ploy used by the oppressors to further their aim, and so each rebellion in turn comes to nothing – it never had the slightest chance of succeeding since the whole thing was part of the enemy’s plan all along.
It may be suggested that humour (or love) is also a ‘false release’ – a necessary illusion of being free from the rules of the game. Actually – we may argue – humour is part of the system, and therefore exists to serve the system, but it is necessary for us to experience the periodical illusion of freedom from determinism in order that we don’t go totally insane, and lose the will to carry on with the tedious business of living our lives within the humourless, loveless system. We live in a totalitarian state which is so total that even the anti-establishment clandestine underground movement is secretly controlled by the government, for the purpose of safely deflecting political resistance. The means by which we attempt to overthrow the state are an integral part of that state; even rebels are sponsored by the central authority and therefore converted without their knowledge to the condition of abject, helpless conformity – just like everybody else. This kind of system, where kinks lie within kinks which in turn lie within other kinks, so that the whole thing just seems to go on forever – with zero chance of us coming out finally into the clear light of day – can be taken as a metaphor for the self-system of the rational mind, which seems straightforward until we look into it, but which reveals itself to be a devil’s nest made up of endless layers of insincerity. If I am forced by circumstances to confront my lying ways what happens in practise is that I make a transition from a grosser layer of insincerity to a new, subtler layer. I then say to myself that I have at last ‘come clean’; it appears to me (in my naivety) that I have at last renounced my hypocrisy and am now a better man. To paraphrase a character played by Dustin Hoffman in one of his films: reality consists of layer upon layer of bullshit – the trick is to choose the layer of bullshit that you like, and then call it ‘the truth’.
Most of us of course will refuse point-blank to accept the idea that a good model of psychology is one that shows us as being ‘rotten to the core’ with infinite levels of self-deception and camouflaged insincerity. But, realistically speaking, what chance is there for things to be otherwise? Given that the self is a game, then all it can hope for with regard to its journey into invigorating new levels of self-discovery, openness and sincerity is a non-terminating procession of subtler and subtler states of self-deception, states in which the game is represented as ‘not a game’. Given that the conditioned mind needs to believe in the possibility of its own progress towards greater and greater truthfulness, greater and greater freedom, it has to constantly refine its game. The reason this is the only option open to it is because the direction of genuinely increasing truth and freedom is the same thing as the direction of increasing non-identification with the self, which necessarily involves the progressive erosion of all our comforting illusions. When the self comes in contact with truth, it is revealed as corrupt, which is why the alchemists thought as highly as they did of the ‘putrefaction’ stage of the work – putrefaction is not something that I will for myself, or can create deliberately because I want to improve or redeem myself through the practice of self-mortification. It can only occur as a result of an involuntary surrender to the process whereby truth painfully triumphs over my falsely conceived hopes and wishes. Were the ego to hope or wish that it would putrefy then this would only be another game of the ego, it would be just another way in which it tries to ‘improve’ itself, in the same way that false humility is nothing more than a sophisticated form of self-love. No matter how it tries, the self cannot generate the state of selflessness – it can only create an artificially contrived simulation of unselfishness, but because this simulation of unselfishness is there precisely to suit the self, in reality what we are looking at here is no more than a sophisticated form of selfishness. A talented actor can assume in turn the role of a dreadful villain and a great saint, but despite the huge apparent difference the man or woman playing the part remains the same in each case. The ‘actor’ that we are talking about here might on the one hand be said to be the virtual entity of the ‘me’ which possesses the reality that it does have to itself because of its ability to see itself any way it wants, or it could be understood in terms of the mechanism or system of thinking, which can by selective attention to the evidence to its own satisfaction verify any proposition that it (secretly) wishes to see verified.
HUMOUR AS ‘NON-ATTACHMENT’
Although the ‘me’ is a fundamentally unfree (i.e. closed) system of logic which creates the comforting illusion of freedom (or openness) for itself this does not mean that the system is all there is, which is what we would be assuming if we said that humour always exists for a purpose. Just because all we know is the qualified simulation of freedom, the joke that is a lot more serious than it lets on, this can hardly be said to be evidence that the genuine article does not exist, that there is no such thing as ‘freedom with no strings attached’ or that there can be no such thing as a joke which was not made for a serious reason. Just because we can never find a way out from a system using the logic of that same system does not mean that there is no ‘out’. It is however very easy to become thoroughly cynical when we look deeper into this whole business of unconscious motives and hidden agendas and gain a kind of perverse satisfaction in this knowledge, but we could equally well look at it the other way and say that if there is an inferior copy of something then there must also be the real thing, since the distaste we experience when we find that we have been pawned off with an ersatz version of truth or freedom or love derives from the fact that we now know that we could have known the real thing. Otherwise the particular sting that we experience when we find we have been duped would not be there; we haven’t actually been done out of anything anyway since there was never anything to be done out of. In a universe where conditioned freedom is the only sort of freedom there is we might as well stop calling it ‘conditioned’ since the conditions are not arbitrarily imposed limitations at all, but rather they are the inevitable features or fixtures of the actual underlying reality.
The argument that we are looking at here is the argument that says it is not possible to have a system of thinking which creates vastly inferior copies or analogues of a reality that exists outside of it, without there being an actual ‘independent reality’ in the first place. But this argument doesn’t cut much ice with the unconscious mind since we don’t generally perceive ‘our thinking about the world’ and ‘the world as it is in itself’ to be two wholly incommensurable things. The world we experience is like a reflection of the infinite within the terms a closed system of perception and cognition, a limited system that can only perceive finitudes. As a result, all we know is a ‘finite analogue’ of the infinite, which is in itself an inherently perverse proposition since the bounded can in no way be said to convey the qualities of the unbounded. The arguments of the rational mind always revolve around the proposition that the boundaries (or certainties) which it is built upon are not functions of its own inherent bias, but that they represent real boundaries or real certainties. This naturally means that we do not see boundlessness as being the prior state; in fact we do not concern ourselves with boundlessness at all but rather we give our attention over wholly to the finite world which we have constructed for ourselves and exist in a mental state which is profoundly oblivious to the vastness from which everything finite ultimately derives. This wretchedly self-concerned and heavily shuttered mental state – which we are all intimately familiar with, despite the fact that we hardly ever see it for what it is – can only exist if we are profoundly oblivious to the deeper reality of unconditioned freedom, and so this forever unspoken rule necessarily underlies everything we do and I say. I am free to do or think or perceive anything I want, just as long as I never question my basic assumptions, and never question the fact that I never question…
My wretchedness (whether it is visible to me or invisible) derives from the fact that I have to drag this ‘thing’, this logical system, this framework, around with me wherever I go. The dragging comes in because it has me in a state of servitude – any use that it might have had for me (which is its ostensible reason for being there) is overturned by the unfree nature of my relationship to it. If I realized that I was independent from it, and that I could quite happily do without it if I wished to do without it, then this would be an entirely different matter, but I most definitely do not experience any freedom with regard to the framework of my thinking. If I did then I would be able to laugh at all my own goals – even the goal of personal survival – and this type of radical freedom is as experience shows a very rare and remarkable occurrence indeed. What we are talking about here is what schools of psychology based on meditation and insight (rather than logical thinking) call non-attachment. We can understand non-attachment by defining the contrary state of affairs, which is attachment:
Attachment doesn’t just mean that we like one thing or that we dislike another, it means that there are certain scenarios that are utterly and completely unacceptable to us, it means that there is something that we simply cannot ever bring ourselves to let go of, no matter how much suffering we are going through on its behalf.
This thing that we cannot bear to relinquish, and which we therefore have to drag around with us wherever we go, is generally said in the literature to be the ‘self’ or ‘ego’, but it could equally well be said to be our cognitive framework, which is the rational mind that we use to construct both ourselves and the world we live in. Thus, our attachment is not really to ‘things’ or ‘ideas’ but to the certainty which they typify, and since this certainty is the product of the categorizing, conceptualizing activity of the rational mind, the activity by which we ‘know’ stuff’, it is to this ‘knowing mind’ that we are attached. We insist on ‘knowing’ what is happening to us, even if our so-called knowledge is causing us the most unspeakable misery. Such is our commitment to knowing what is going on that we will grasp hold of the most terrible beliefs; for example, in the case of paranoia we find that we are utterly unable to let go off our paranoid ideation despite the fact that it is torturing us beyond the limits of anything that we would have previously imagined possible. It is not that we would not love to disbelieve the scenario that our mind has created, but disbelieving is attachment just as much as believing is since in both cases we are using the same framework of thinking. On the one hand I am thinking “It is true” and on the other hand I am thinking “It is not true” but the categories <true> and <untrue> are a mutually supporting pair – if a proposition is labelled as ‘untrue’ then the mere fact that we have thought this means that there was a possibility that it could have been ‘true’, and so we are not getting away from the original thought at all. Actually, the proposition is neither true nor untrue, but in order to see this I would have to drop my cognitive framework and this is the one thing I am unable to bring myself to do.
The mental state in which I can plainly see that all my propositions, all my rational descriptions, are neither true nor untrue is an incredibly rare state but it is all the same not a mythological one. We can relate it to humour by saying that it is the state in which I am able to laugh delightedly and whole-heartedly at my own basic assumptions – rather than being forced by my unexamined fear to be ridiculously solemn about them the whole time. In Buddhist literature this is called the state of enlightenment, and we can define enlightenment in a very practical way by saying that it is when we are at last able to cease taking our ‘knowing’ so seriously. We can also define humour in much the same way by saying that humour arises due to an unexpected change in viewpoints, which is a pretty standard definition. A transition occurs so that I am no longer confined to a particular flat picture of reality; there is a sensation of delightful ‘release’ which happens when I find myself looking at what I had previously understood to be the one and only way of perceiving reality from a loftier and unbelievably more expansive viewpoint. To my utter surprise, I suddenly realize that what had so completely determined how I had seen things was ‘just another arbitrary viewpoint’ and so all the things which so oppressed me just a moment ago are now revealed as being utterly inconsequential, utterly absurd. When I cease taking my own ‘knowing’ seriously, the resultant transition from the subjectively all-pervading pseudo-universal leaden oppression, which had been so thoroughly oppressive as to take away from me the capacity to see it as being oppressive, to a release that I had never in my wildest dreams imagined as being possible is the same thing as ‘getting the joke’, only in this case the joke is a very profound and subtle one indeed. In The Dancing Wu Li Masters, Gary Zukav (1979) reproduces a verse written by the medieval Tibetan master Longchenpa which points very clearly to the essentially humorous nature of enlightenment:
Since everything is but an apparition,
Perfect in being what it is,
Having nothing to do with good or bad,
Acceptance or rejection,
One may well burst out in laughter.
QUESTIONING THE ‘OFFICIAL DESCRIPTION’
In the twenty-first century the ‘official syntax’ for describing ourselves and the world we live in is in the highly technical language of science. This precise, unambiguous and highly logical language seems to us like our greatest achievement and we are very proud of it, but the feeling of general satisfaction that we have about our own cleverness is invisibly counterbalanced by a profound disadvantage – by understanding ourselves in such a logically rigorous way we trap ourselves in a box that we didn’t actually have to be trapped in if it wasn’t for our own so-called ‘cleverness’. The most salient feature of the personal narrative is that by trying to do ourselves a favour we screw ourselves up. By trying to help myself I imprison myself indefinitely in a totally sterile cul-de-sac – I tell myself the story that I have made up about myself and – hypnotized by the power which this story has to ‘explain’ everything – I end up taking what could only ever be a metaphor as the God-given literal truth.
A literal description is of course what I am looking for all along because only a literal description can provide me with the ontological security of ‘knowing’; I need the certainty of a black and white, either/or way of looking at the world in order for my definite sense of who or what I am to feel validated, and the long-term cost of this validation is that I become trapped in that definite description. The trouble with literalism as we have been saying all along is that it is a closed system, it is a static and therefore stagnant mental modality and although by signing up to it we obtain the euphoric hit of triumphant self-validation this euphoric hit is in fact nothing other than a thin sugar-coating which temporarily disguises the bitter medicine of utter despair that we encounter once we have sucked all the sweetness away. It is the easiest thing in the world for me to agree with myself and feel good about it, but once I have done this and the heady excitement of triumph has passed away, I find that I have become the unchallenged ruler of a hollow empire; I am the undisputed king of all I survey, and what I survey is a wasteland more bleak and more terrible than anything I could have ever even have begun to imagine back in the days when there was still some mystery to life.
This sounds a bit extreme to say the least – surely if this were the case, then our first experiment with the easy route to satisfaction that is self-validation would be our last, since the pain involved would simply be too prohibitive? In principle, it is undoubtedly the case that all ‘mistakes’ by which we cut ourselves off from our own true nature result in a backlash of existential misery which is so great that we can no longer persist in what we were doing. When the father departs, misfortune falls upon the house of the son. But in practice there is an interminably long time-frame involved before we can work out just why we feel so bad, and terminate our love affair with the ‘quick and easy solution’ which has led us astray so many times. As Gurdjieff has said “Two things in life are infinite: the mercy of God and the foolishness of man”.
Rather than acknowledging the pain that we are in, and accepting the message that it is giving us, we employ the mechanisms of pain-avoidance which allow us to continue believing that our ‘victory’ is a genuine one, and that the estate we have inherited as a result is worth being proud of. In this way, I cherish the cage which restricts me so cruelly, and either repress or act-out the unacknowledged pain of my restricted situation; in other words, I play a delaying game and invest all my intelligence in finding out how to postpone as long as possible the day of reckoning which is when I have to face the fact that the prize I have purchased (at the cost of my soul, metaphorically speaking) is quite worthless.
The personal narrative can therefore be seen as a pain avoidance mechanism that provides us with what looks like a ‘victory’, but which is in reality more in the nature of a grave which we have dug for ourselves and then flung ourselves down into, imagining the whole time that we are helping ourselves. The ongoing idea that I have about myself, and insist upon repairing the whole time, far from being a proud monument to everything that is good and worthy about myself, is actually a dank and dreadful tomb that I perversely drag around with me and encapsulate myself within for pretty much all of my adult life. This is true for the story which each one of us individually tells ourselves, and it is also true for the story which we collectively tell ourselves about who we are and what we are about. Whether it is my official version of the truth or our collective version of ‘the truth’ makes not the slightest bit of difference.
Furthermore, we can say that our collective official description of ‘life, the universe and everything’ entombs us not despite the fact that it is so logical and apparently scientific, but precisely because of this. The reason our descriptions, our statements about reality, entomb us is because they represent a ‘collapsed’ type of information, a degenerate mode of communication which fails to communicate the most important thing about itself, which is that its validity only really exists in relation to the assumptions that it has to take for granted in order for it to get started in the first place. The failure of the degenerate mode of communication to communicate its own most salient feature is inbuilt, i.e. –
Any closed (or literal) system of communication must necessarily neglect to mention the fact of its own essential relativity because if it didn’t then it would have to admit to a central paradox – it would have to admit that what it is attempting to communicate about is at root utterly indescribable and therefore utterly incommunicable.
To say “all knowledge is relative” sounds harmless enough but when we think about it we realize that this little statement is revolutionary in the extreme because if knowledge is relative then this means that outside of the narrow context which that knowledge blindly takes for granted (as it must if it is to get anywhere) we can actually know nothing at all. Relative knowledge suffers from the same crippling drawback as ‘the qualified truth’ – just as the qualified truth is truth that is not actually true, so too relative knowledge is knowledge that is not actually knowledge. Whilst our systems of knowledge are always relative our central cognitive blind-spot is absolute since it remains just as inscrutable to us no matter how we choose to look at it. Because of this anything we could possibly say about that blindspot is guaranteed, as Alan Watts explains in this passage taken from an essay entitled The Language of Metaphysical Experience (1995, P45-6), to be the purest nonsense:
At this point, modern logical philosophy dismisses the problem [of unanswerable questions] and turns its attention to something else on the assumption that the unknowable need not and cannot concern further. It asserts that questions which have neither the physical nor the logical possibility of an answer are not real questions. But this assertion does not get rid of the common human feeling that such unknowns or unknowables as electrons, energy, existence, consciousness, or “Reality” are in some way queer. The very fact of not being able to know them makes them all the stranger. Only a rather dry kind of mind turns away from them – a mind interested in nothing but logical structures. The more complete kind of mind, which can feel as well as think, remains to “indulge” the odd sense of mystery which comes from contemplating the fact that everything is at base something which cannot be known. Every statement which you make about this “something” turns out to be nonsense. And what is specially strange is that this unknowable something is also the basis of that which otherwise I know so intimately – myself.
There are two ways in we can talk about things: either we communicate with awareness of the limitations inherent in our system of communication, or we communicate without this awareness. This applies to all forms of communication, including the most stringently logical and self-consistent forms. Therefore, with regard to scientific language, we can say that there are also two basic kinds – one is the kind which recognizes that there is a glaringly huge blind-spot at the centre of our knowledge, and the other is the kind that has no such recognition at all. When science recognizes its own limitations it becomes ironic, as science journalist John Horgan says. Horgan (1996, P 3) initially talks about the ironic approach in relation to literary criticism:
…I had not always been so enamoured of science. In college I passed through a phase during which literary criticism struck me as the most thrilling of intellectual endeavours. Late on night, however, after too many cups of coffee, too many hours slogging through yet another interpretation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, I had a crisis of faith. Very smart people had been arguing for decades over the meaning of Ulysses. But one of the messages of modern criticism, and of modern literature, was that all texts are “ironic”: they have multiple meanings, none of them definitive. Oedipus Rex, The Inferno, even the Bible are in a sense “just kidding,” not to be taken too literally. Arguments over meaning can never be resolved, since the only true meaning of a text is the text itself. Of course, this message applied to the critics, too. One was left with an infinite regress of interpretations, none of which represented the final word. But everyone still kept arguing! To what end? For each critic to be more clever, more interesting than the rest? It all began to seem pointless.
Horgan (P 6-7) then goes on to introduce the notion of ironic science:
In trying to understand the mood of modern scientists, I have found that ideas from literary criticism can serve some purpose after all. In his influential 1973 essay, The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom likened the modern poet to Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Just as Satan fought to assert his individuality by defying the perfection of God, so must the modern poet engage in an Oedipal struggle to define himself or herself in relation to Shakespeare, Dante, and other masters. The effort is ultimately futile, Bloom said, because no poet can hope to approach, let alone surpass, the perfection of such forebears. Modern poets are all essentially tragic figures, latecomers.
Modern scientists, too, are latecomers, and their burden is much heavier than that of poets. Scientists must endure not only Shakespeare’s King Lear, but Newton’s laws of motion, Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and Einstein’s theory of general relativity. These theories are not merely beautiful; they are also true, empirically true, in a way that no work of art can be. Most researchers simply concede their inability to supersede what Bloom called “the embarrassments of a tradition grown too rich to need anything more.” They try to solve what philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn has patronizingly called “puzzles”, problems whose solution buttresses the prevailing paradigm. They settle for refining and applying the brilliant, pioneering discoveries of their predecessors. They try to measure the mass of quarks more precisely, or to determine how a given stretch of DNA guides the growth of the embryonic brain. Others become what Bloom derided as a “mere rebel, a childish inverter of conventional moral categories”. The rebels denigrate the dominant theories of science as flimsy social fabrications rather than rigorously tested descriptions of nature.
Bloom’s “strong poets” accept the perfection of their predecessors and yet try to transcend it through various subterfuges, including a subtle misreading of the predecessors’ work; only be so doing can modern poets break free of the stultifying influence of the past. There are strong scientists, too, those who are seeking to misread and therefore to transcend quantum mechanics or the big bang theory or Darwinian evolution. Roger Penrose is a strong scientist. For the most part, he and others of his ilk have only one option: to pursue science in speculative, postempirical mode that I call ironic science. Ironic science resembles literary criticism in that it offers points of view, opinions, which are, at best, interesting, which provoke further comment. But it does not converge on the truth. It cannot achieve empirically verifiable surprises that force scientists to make substantial revisions in their basic description of reality.
Another ‘strong scientist’ is Richard Feynman who made the point that all of our empirically true scientific descriptions (like the law which says that a field falls off in strength at a rate which is reciprocally proportional to the square of the distance from its source) don’t actually explain as much as they seem to, even though they are verifiable as many times as we want to test them, because they all rely on each others contexts to make sense. This means that we end up with a circle (or web) of precisely defined relationships, which all support each other but which cannot be broken down into statements that stand alone. So although we can understand – to a degree of accuracy and predictability which tends towards perfection – one phenomenon in terms of another, related phenomenon, we still don’t know what the hell we are actually talking about. To give a rough sort of an example, we can understand the force of gravity in terms of the concept of mass and the concept of space, but since the measurement of ‘mass’ and ‘space’ and the determination of the gravitational interaction of one mass with another mass across space are all explainable only in terms of each other, we are really left none the wiser. So just how final (or ‘perfect’) are our scientific descriptions of the world? They might be final within the limited context within which they apply, but the entropy debt incurred by the act of ‘knowing’ means that there is always incalculably more information outside of whatever context we chose to look than there is to be had within the context, which is a fact that ought to correct any dangerous tendency towards intellectual pride that we might have in ourselves if we could but remain aware of it.
All science worthy of the name ought to be ironic, and science that is not is no more than unfounded intellectual arrogance, the sort of arrogance that an unlucky fool who fancies himself as a zoologist might demonstrate in pronouncing an unknown animal a harmless herbivore mere seconds before it devours him for breakfast. Our tendency to opt big time for non-ironic descriptions of ourselves and the world can itself be seen to be highly ironic since our motivation for engaging in concrete thinking is to provide a sense of security (i.e. safety) for ourselves, and yet by putting ourselves so very out of touch with reality we are ensuring – rather then merely risking – the danger that we want to be safe from. This ironic courting of the very thing that we are most afraid of is a characteristic trait of unconsciousness, and it is why unconsciousness does not recommend itself as a helpful tactic for dealing with life’s difficulties. Anxiety is a good example of this. Anxiety might be said to be the inevitable result of a systematic resistance to risk – we prefer to avoid the irreducible difficulty posed by the necessity to take risks, and so we completely invest ourselves in the attempt live life without risks. This strategy seems like a good idea (in a short-sighted sort of a way) at the time because risking what is precious to us is the very last thing I want to do, but by constantly trying to avoid risks I heighten my awareness of all the risks that there are in life, and at the same time I reinforce the fear that is driving me to attempt to avoid them. Thus, my attempt to ‘save myself’ from the difficulty of having to take risks puts me in a situation where I am constantly terrorized by the prospect of having to do so, and so – ironically – I make life impossibly hard for myself by my excessive diligence in trying to avoid difficulty. As Scott-Peck notes right at the beginning of The Road Less Travelled, ‘life is difficult’. Our problem is that we try to avoid this difficulty, wherever we can.
The cost of avoiding the difficulty in the short-term is that we end up slowly but surely ‘painting ourselves into a corner’ and when we are in that corner we find to our horror that we are hemmed in from all sides by what seems to us like the most appalling difficulties, difficulties that we just cannot get rid of. Even more generally, we can say that the irony of ‘giving ourselves a hard time by trying to avoid it’ applies to the unconscious state across the board. A good definition of psychological unconsciousness is to say that it involves a tremendous oversimplification of life – this oversimplification, which occurs by way of our thinking, gives us an easy means of ‘solving’ the challenge that it poses us. Instead of responding in an original and therefore creative way, we fall back into a mechanical (i.e. unreflective) mode of being in which we accept the surrogate version of life that is provided for us by the external authority of the system of thought.
This version of life appeals to us immensely because it is represented as a finite game, i.e. a puzzle that can be worked out once and for all by the application of the correct ‘rule-based procedures’. The lure of being able to obtain final closure of everything – of being able to say once and for all that we have ‘cracked it’ – is so tremendous that is sucks us in immediately and once sucked in we generally stay sucked in since any sense of perspective that we might have had beforehand is wrung out of us like the moisture is wrung out of a wet towel by an old fashioned, hand-powered wringer. We are rendered ever more unreflective by the desperation of our need either to escape or fix the ‘problem’ and thus we deliver ourselves ever more into the illusion-machine that promises everything but delivers nothing but frustration, impoverishment and general misery. The con-man’s motto ‘never give a sucker an even break’ applies with a vengeance here – the needier and more desperate I am the easier I am trick, and the easier I am to trick the more I will be tricked, without fail. The system of self-deception that I sell myself to for is absolutely reliable in this respect, if in no other.
THE OSTRICH PRINCIPLE
When we represent reality to ourselves in a tremendously oversimplified form, and successfully adapt ourselves to it on that basis, we experience an extremely rewarding feeling of security as a result, but the euphoria of our triumph is profoundly ironic – all the more so since we cannot see it. Because of our overwhelming fear of not succeeding we ensure that we do succeed by the illegitimate means of reducing everything to a finite game; because however success is a final sort of thing and because believing in its finality necessarily means rendering ourselves blind to our true situation our so-called ‘success’ actually constitutes an awesomely grotesque act of folly, an act of folly such astonishing magnitude that it is very hard to appreciate.
We earlier defined the unconscious state by saying something to the effect that it is an oversimplification which recommends itself to us as a legitimate article (i.e. something that has not been oversimplified); it can also be said of unconsciousness that it is a finite (or final) system of communication which we use to communicate both with ourselves and others about ourselves and our place in the world. One way of talking about the drawback with this arrangement – which we cannot see once we have accommodated ourselves to it – is that the limitations inherent in the system of communication become our limitations. We could also mention that pertinent fact that these limitations can never ever be known by us, just as long as we continue subscribing to the system. But even this does not convey the true picture – it is not correct to say that the system which we use to communicate with ourselves and others has limitations, actually this system, inasmuch as it is used in a literal or final way, is the limitation. Just as soon as any word or any idea is taken literally, an act of grotesque folly is committed – an act of folly that we cannot for the life of us appreciate, even to the smallest degree. This bizarre condition, the condition in which we take absurdities seriously, is the state of mind which we spend almost all of our time in.
The basic idea that unconsciousness is a way in which we achieve a state of being spuriously ‘one-up’ on life by oversimplifying our situation without letting ourselves know that we are oversimplifying anything is exactly the same idea behind the time-honoured myth that ostriches are prone to hiding their heads in sand when danger approaches. It is of course highly improbable on Darwinian grounds that any species would ever develop such a tactic since the short-term benefit of momentarily ‘feeling safe’ is heavily outweighed by the long-term disadvantage of being a ludicrously easy meal for any predator (no matter how disabled or decrepit) that happens to be passing by. The moral of the story remains highly relevant however – ‘danger doesn’t get any less dangerous just because I pretend it isn’t there’ (or, alternatively, ‘the danger inherent in ignoring danger is of a far higher order than the danger which we originally ignored’). As a metaphor for unconsciousness ‘burying one’s head in the sand’ is quite peerless – the only point that needs to be added is that instead of sand, what we bury our heads in is our system of thinking about things.
NOT GETTING THE JOKE
Ironic science, through the media (which faithfully serves us what we want to be served with) gets turned into literal or ‘humourless’ degenerate version of what science ought to be. This degenerate, ‘invisibly inverted’ parody of science was termed material scientism by Schumacher and it has the same relationship to genuine science that popular psychology has to true psychology, or that exoteric religion has to its esoteric form. A good way to tell the exoteric apart from the genuinely esoteric is through its self-importance – exoteric religions (religions that are based on belief and dogma rather than intuition) are for example notoriously touchy and unpleasantly aggressive when it comes to defending their core assumptions, whereas there is no record of a mystic ever persecuting, torturing, or murdering people who do not take them seriously. Similarly, material scientism unfailingly generates a suffocating type of ‘pseudo-portentousness’ that stultifies those who fall under its influence, rendering them safely inert and incapable of asking questions that are crying out to be asked.
The theory that humour has a perfectly serious biological survival-type function is a perfect example of the way material scientism cannot laugh at itself. We can imagine what a social scientist of the ‘non-ironic’ variety might possibly think were he to come across a gang of small children laughing and playing in the way that they are prone to doing (if they haven’t had their heads too screwed up by adults, that is). Our non-ironic scientist would inevitably find himself driven to evaluate this playful juvenile behaviour in terms of some theory or other: he might for example say that play serves the function of allowing the proto-adults to develop interpersonal skills, test boundaries, and establish their social identities. Alternatively, he might toy with the idea that play is an important way of investigating the world that we live in. Or he might just say that children have lots and lots of energy and nothing much else to do with it and so playing is a relatively harmless way of releasing that energy.
On one level all these interpretations of what the kids are doing are perfectly valid, but on another level we can see that there is something bizarre about the fact that our imaginary social scientist has to interpret the behaviour in the first place. If our unfortunately non-ironic investigator of human behaviour could side-step his evaluative mind for a moment then he would actually see the children – he would ‘see what they were at’ and then he might well be inclined to laugh with them, and thereby participate in the fun, rather than remaining in the hopelessly sterile mode of aloof rational observer. This example illustrates the principle that ‘participation is the only true mode of communication’, i.e.-
Unless I cease unreflectively clinging to the set of assumptions (or rules) that guides my observation, and which constitute what we can refer to as ‘the conditioned or extrinsic self’ there is no way in which I can genuinely interact or communicate with the universe around me.
The problem here of course – from the point of view of the aloof observer – is that the safe external vantage point of the extrinsic self has to be sacrificed in the cause of authentic interaction, and although it might seem ridiculous that anyone would consider opting for ‘safe but unreal’ communication rather than ‘dangerous but genuine’ communication this is exactly what we do nine hundred and ninety nine times out of a thousand. Why we more or less unfailingly go for the ignoble option is because of our attachment for the self, or rather because of the self’s attachment to itself – inasmuch as the self’s primary, over-riding allegiance is always to the continuing integrity of its game (or to the game which is itself) there can never be any question of it opting for genuine communication. Genuine communication is by its very nature inherently unsafe – which is to say, it is highly dangerous to our cherished assumptions, to the sacred dogma of our self-serving beliefs. In other words, if I communicate with the universe on a free and open basis I may discover something that I don’t like. With regard to humour, and the ironic versus the non-ironic mode of reality-representation, participation comes down to ‘getting the joke’, and non-participation comes down ‘not getting the joke’.
Going back to our story of a non-ironic social scientist studying a gang of children at play, we can say that any observations or interpretations that he might make in relation to the children’s activity are inevitably going to miss the point; whilst the theories that he comes up with have as their ostensible purpose something to do with the impartial search for the truth, what they are really about is nothing more than covert self-validation – as always, the aloof or disconnected extrinsic self has no interest in anything other then perpetuating its game, even though it can never (on pain of death) admit this to itself. Were our social scientist to truly see the children, and see what they were at, he would laugh with them and participate in the greatest freedom of all which is the freedom from the infernal tedium of our own rational minds – the freedom from having to have a reason or purpose for everything.
The remarkable thing about our on-going descriptions of ourselves and the world is the way in which it stops us actually paying attention to anything in a first-hand sort of a way. Such is its authority that we are rarely able to get beyond it, we are rarely able to perceive its ironic character. In this way the personal narrative (what Carlos Castaneda calls our syntax) hypnotizes us, or rather we use it to hypnotize ourselves, because that is what we secretly want. If we pay attention to the way in which our descriptions enslave us what we see is astonishingly poignant – we limit ourselves and consign ourselves to the mental cul-de-sac of our thoughts and beliefs on a day-by-day, minute-by-minute basis and the terrible thing about this self-crucifixion is that it is so completely unnecessary.
This is particularly obvious when we are with someone suffering in the throes of some sort of neurotic torment – which is a state of mind which we all unfailingly gravitate to, one way or another. In such cases it is perfectly obvious that the person is the author of their own misery, that they are creating unnecessary problems for themselves over and over again, hundreds and thousands of times every day, and it is also perfectly obvious that they cannot see what they would need to see in order not to be so afflicted. In this respect our thinking (which is almost always the same thing as our personal narrative) is like an endless length of fly-paper that we ourselves are constantly extruding – we produce it, and then get hopelessly mired down in it the very next millisecond after producing it. It is as if I am out for a walk but cannot proceed any distance at all before I dig a deep pit in front of my feet and hurl myself right down into the bottom of it; and then, no sooner am I out of one wretched pit than I dig myself another.
Conceptual thinking – as it is generally practiced – is a weirdly perverse ‘self-defeating’ sort of a thing, although its earnest practitioners are guaranteed to be oblivious to this fact. This is, as we have said, most obvious when our thinking has become ‘extra-narrow’ due to a neurotic constriction of perspective; all thinking is constricted by its very nature but we are usually more or less unaware of the pain that this constriction causes us, whereas the beauty of what we call ‘neurotic thinking’ is that it makes it all so much more visible. When I go far enough down the road of neurosis it can be seen by anyone (anyone apart from me that is) that I am tying myself up with my own thinking – I am trying to free myself with my thinking but actually I am imprisoning myself with deadly effectiveness. The basic irony is due to the fact that what I perceive as helping me actually hinders me; the mental prison that I am incarcerated in is made of an endlessly turning circle of ‘dead ends’ – each of which unfailingly attracts me, like a moth to a candle, because of the way in which it portrays itself as a potential ‘gateway to freedom’. We could also say that the basic irony lies in the fact that I am creating the very reality that I am complaining about: I say that something is special (i.e. uniquely or exclusively worthy of my concern) and it becomes special. It becomes special because I have said that it is special and I keep on saying that it is special, over and over and over again, and each time getting caught in this ‘specialness’…
The more definite and specific the thinking the more sticky the fly-paper – and conversely, the more ironic the thinking, the more freedom we have from it. Instead of ‘ironic’ we could also say ‘metaphoric’ because a metaphor points away from the literal meaning of a sentence, whereas a literal, dogmatic or non-metaphorical statement points nowhere but right back at itself for its meaning. In his book Aware Anthony de Mello relates the Eastern saying “When the sage points to the moon, all the idiot sees is the finger”; the reason the idiot sees no further than the finger is because he is stuck to it – he is stuck by virtue of his profound literalism, a literalism which does not admit the existence of anything radically different to itself, anything outside its own narrow remit. Actually this provides us with a pretty good definition of literalism (i.e. unreflective or ‘flat’ certainty) –
Literal understanding is the type of understanding which is characterized by its constitutional inability to understand that its own context is narrow to the point of being absolutely absurd.
The peculiar thing about non-ironic narrative is the way in which it is so ‘invisibly ludicrous’: it is like an extremely proficient confidence trickster, or like an audacious impostor who is so polished and so suave and who has such a magnificent air of authority that it is practically impossible to get past their ‘front’ to see the less-than-magnificent creature that hides behind it. Just as bluff relies on confidence rather than content, so too does the ubiquitous mental overlay of our non-ironic descriptions rely on the sheer bravado of its unashamed literalism. It is admittedly usually very hard to see this – basically, we are all so cowed when authority is wielded in a flawlessly expert fashion that it never occurs to us that just because a show is put on with true professionalism that doesn’t mean that it isn’t still just a show. A great actor is great because of the virtuosity of his or her performance, but no matter how brilliant the performance the point will never come at which a good act stops being an act, and a good actor ceases to be an actor. This is directly analogous to the situation with language (or thoughts) –
A description can never become anything other than a description no matter how authoritatively it is used, and when it does seem to become more than ‘just a description’ all that has happened is that we have passed over an invisible threshold into the hollow and endlessly deceptive kingdom of literalism.
This is as true for our ‘official scientific-type descriptions’ as it is for the ongoing description that is the personal narrative that each one of us spins in our head every minute of the day, the only difference being that the official narrative is if anything even harder to question because of the spurious authority we invest it with.