The Inconceivable Catastrophe

Unus Mundus

George Ivanovich Gurdjieff is not taught on any psychology course, yet his basic model of psychology is not only far more interesting and ‘to the point’ than any that we do learn about in schools and colleges and universities, it is hugely more productive in terms of what we can take away from it. According to Gurdjieff, there are two basic ingredients to human psychological make-up – essence and personality. Personality is the easiest to explain: if you repeat an action so many times that you no longer pay any real attention to it and it becomes a mere habit that just ‘happens by itself’, then this is personality. Personality is automatism in other words – it is a bundle of reflexes just waiting to be kicked off. This corresponds to the Buddhist idea that the self is made up of what they call ‘habit energy’. We can also think of personality as a set of routines that are validated by a specific framework of reference, a particular context or viewpoint. If I see the routine within this framework then it seems meaningful, or ‘purposeful’, and if I don’t then it is seen for what it is – a perfectly meaningless re-iteration of empty nonsense, pure mechanical repetition and nothing more. Informationally speaking, a routine or statement that makes sense only within the particular terms which it itself takes for granted is a redundancy and personality is exactly this, a redundancy. Or, to borrow Shakespeare’s line, it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.


Once created, personality is very hard to eradicate. It specializes in justifying itself, validating itself, vindicating itself, making itself seem indispensable when the truth is that, far from being indispensable, personality is a wholly unnecessary nuisance or pest. Once in place, personality takes root, entrenches itself and spreads like a virulent type of super-weed. Like a weed, it is nutritionally and medicinally worthless, and because of its aggressive and competitive nature, it quickly takes up all the available space so nothing else may grow. Once in place, personality – like a weed or a virus – knows no other law other than the law of self-perpetuation. It is a self-replicator like Richard Dawkins’ memes and perpetually replicating itself is its one and only agenda. Copying itself ad infinitum, regardless of whether this ‘makes sense’ or not, is all it cares about. The only difference between the idea of memes and Gurdjieff’s use of the term personality is that no one has yet been bold enough to suggest that the over-all logical structure which is the rational mind is entirely made up of memes or ‘viral-type self-replicating units’.


Once in place, personality can’t help but perpetuate itself. The reason for this is very straightforward – every purposeful thought or action, every purposeful operation that you might possibly carry out, is necessarily carried out on the basis of the framework of understanding which underlies the personality-system. Once the system of personality gets to be there in the first place it inevitably proceeds on the basis of its own logic and completely ‘takes over’. It has no freedom to do otherwise – even if it wanted to reverse this taking over process it couldn’t because its attempt to reverse the process would be part of the process of taking over. If the system tries to eliminate or remove itself it just entrenches itself all the more because in deliberately attempting to eliminate itself it necessarily utilizes itself. Anything the system tries to do entrenches itself further because in carrying out any purposeful action it evaluates, calculates, plans, acts, etc, and all of these operations utilize the framework of understanding which is itself. If the system conceives the goal of it ‘not being there’, works out a method for realizing this goal, and then enacts the plan that it has just made then it will simply go round in circles since all of its goals, including the goal of its own non-existence, are itself. The system of personality embodies a type of irreversibility therefore – the irreversibility of itself.


As we have indicated already, as well as embodying irreversibility, the system of personality also embodies runaway expansionism – it automatically creates an empire of itself, a tyrannical kingdom within which no other principality, no other power, is permitted. Once it starts off in the first place then it has no choice other than to ‘take over’ completely because it has no way of acknowledging or valuing anything that isn’t itself. Personality knows only the selfish logic of the virus – whatever the pattern it is that it starts of with (whatever the DNA or RNA code happens to be) it has no choice but to treat that template as god and strive the paint the whole universe over with the ‘pattern that is itself’. It does in the least matter what the pattern is – the point is not to question the pattern, but to copy it out, to reproduce it over and over again until there is nothing else but it. What all viral replicators are ultimately seeking to do is to replace the infinite diversity of the complex universe with a tremendously oversimplified version of that complexity – themselves.


Reality as it was before the prejudiced, self-promoting replicator came along on the scene might be said to be consist of an endless array of possibilities, none of which are set above any other. Another way of putting this is to say that reality is, in itself, essentially symmetrical, which is to say, there is no UP and no DOWN, no RIGHT and no WRONG. We might call this ‘all-inclusive logic’ to distinguish it from normal ‘exclusive’ logic, which operates on the basis of rules – a rule is quintessentially dissymmetrical since it automatically specifies one outcome as being ‘correct’ and automatically (i.e. unquestioningly) excludes all other outcomes as being ‘not correct’. It can be seen from this discussion that in talking about exclusive logic, rules, viral replicators, and the system of personality we are actually talking about the same thing. Another point that might start to become clear at this point is that in talking about all these things we are in some way talking about that peculiar parameter known as entropy.


The concept of entropy goes back to the birth of the science of thermodynamics in the early part of the twentieth century. A heat engine works because of the difference in the energy level that exists between the heat that is released – generally by chemical combustion – in the heart of the engine and the ground state of the environment in which the engine works. If these two energy levels were to be in equilibrium, then the heat engine would not function and no work could be done by it. Entropy, in this connection, can be related to the lack of difference; in other words, it is a measure of energetic ‘sameness’. A key property of entropy is that it makes processes irreversible – as the first law of thermodynamics states, heat can flow from a hot body to a colder body but not the other way round. More essentially, entropy can be understood as a reciprocal measure of information. The Shannon-Weaver law states that the information content of a message is inversely proportional to its predictability, and ‘predictability’ is clearly the same sort of thing as ‘sameness’ and so we can say that entropy is a kind of ‘opposite of information’.


The two key points we were just making about ‘personality’ are: [1] that once established it proceeds irreversibly and [2] it is both exclusive and expansionist, like a dogmatic religion that seeks to be the only religion on earth. Whilst the first point needs no further comment, the significance of the second is perhaps slightly less obvious. Point [2] does however become clearer once we look at another definition of information, which is in terms of complexity. Complexity and information go hand in hand – the more complex a system is the more levels of description are requires in order for us to be able to talk about it in a non-reductive way. A complex system is therefore a system that has many levels of organization, each of which requires a new term (or set of terms) to describe it. Each term of description is unpredictable from the basis of the one that precedes it, which is why they are referred to as being ‘levels of description’. From this it can be easily seen that the parameters of complexity and information content are pretty much synonymous. The whole idea of viral-type replication is as we have said that a diverse (or complex) whole, consisting of n levels of descriptions is substituted for by a single, non-complex, infinitely reproduced unit – the unit in question being the ‘virus’. The process taking place here as the repeating unit progressively replaces ‘everything that isn’t it’ is therefore a quintessential example of an information collapse when an open system (which can be non-specifically indicated by saying that it consists of n levels of description, which n is an open-ended number) is converted into a closed system, which can be exhaustively by saying that it is ‘n times the original repeating unit’. The number of times we repeat or copy this known unit does not change the information content because nothing new is actually being added – it’s just the same thing over and over again, which is not information but redundancy (and redundancy is of course the same thing as entropy).


This process comes down to the degradation of quality into mere quantity. Quantity is as everybody knows a ‘poor cousin’ of quality – we make up for the fact that we are getting a crappy product by the fact that we are getting untold zillion copies of it – if we were naïve enough this immensity of the quantity involved might impress us and make us think that we are getting a good deal, but in reality an infinite amount of nothing is still nothing. A unit containing zero information will still contain zero information at the end of it all even if it is copied a hundred billion times over. The life of the personality, in Gurdjieff’s terms, never goes anywhere and never can go anywhere because it never leaves the purely quantitative (linear or mechanical) realm. It is no more than an incessant, meaningless gabble – like a TV soap that only seems worth watching when we are trapped within its fantastically narrow frame of reference and cannot as a result see the clichés screaming at us from every tiresome line of dialogue. This gabble is like the ‘blank tidal wave’ of pseudo-culture which Gurdjieff’s biographer James Moore describes as currently engulfing the planet, relentlessly dumbing everything down to the level of a perfume or car ad.


We said that the set of routines which constitutes personality has to be validated by a specific context or a specific viewpoint in order for it to take itself seriously – and this is obviously very important since if it didn’t take itself seriously no one else would. A corollary of this statement is that any action that we take or any routine that we enact which makes sense within that context must also equal ‘personality’. This sounds strange to us since we always think of our actions (along with the planned outcomes of our actions) as being distinct from the agent that plans and enacts them. If however we define personality as ‘that sequence of steps, and that logical structure, which makes sense in terms of a particular set of assumptions’ then it is obvious that any goal that we make, along with any action that is directed towards that goal, must also count as part of that same personality-system. This directly parallels David Bohm’s idea of ‘the system of thought’ which he said not only comprises the abstract system of logic which is the rational mind, but also the actions performed on the basis of this mind, the structures created by it, and its communication system (which is the way it talks about and stores knowledge about its structures).


We can’t actually escape from the underlying ‘system’ no matter what we chose to do because everything we think is the system – we cannot think outside the system and so there is absolutely nothing we can do as a result of our thinking that can allow us to move outside of it. Both Gurdjieff’s and Bohm’s approach to psychology start off from the outset by completely dismissing the naïve, commonplace view of the purposeful self as a discrete causal agent which operates in the world in an essentially free way. Instead, they see the everyday self as being a kind of a convenient fiction – a nominally autonomous agent which actually has no choice other than continually stating and restating the fixed assumptions that it started off with. The freedom which the fictional self thinks it has to do whatever it pleases is just as fictional as everything else it imagines itself to possess!


This fictional self is like a middle-ranking employee of a big corporation who is granted an apparent sort of autonomy, but only in so far as that ‘autonomy’ suits the interests of the company. He or she is free to make choices within a certain narrow remit, but the ultimate power always lies elsewhere. This employee has, we might say, a ‘nominal individuality’ but if you were to negotiate with them in reality it would always be the company that you were negotiating with. Thus, the nominal self which is the everyday ego imagines itself to have power in its own right, but really it is the unknowing (or unconscious) mouthpiece for a particular set of arbitrary assumptions which it itself cannot choose to go against. There is a curious irony in this because whilst the set of assumptions, the ‘position’, was freely chosen in the first place (i.e. that particular position didn’t have to be adopted at all really) once it has been adopted there is zero freedom to do anything else but continue irreversibly on that basis, and use that basis – no matter how limited and misrepresentative it might be – as the blueprint for apprehending the whole universe. We become, via the inexorable operation of entropic perspective-loss, the victims of our own device.


The idea that the everyday self isn’t a free or autonomous agent in the way that it naively takes itself to be but that it is – on the contrary – the helpless puppet of an underlying set of very limited mechanical rules or precedents which it does not, and cannot, know about is basic to Gurdjieff’s view of ‘man as he ordinarily is’. The true master isn’t me but the system of rules which informs both my thinking and the actions that deterministically derive from this thinking, but because I am allowed a very superficial freedom (a kind of ‘Hobson’s Choice’) within this system I experience the comforting illusion that I am a free agent. This is the freedom of a man in prison who avoids being aware of his imprisonment by treating the prison as if it were the whole world, or of a man constrained from childhood in a very narrow ideological straight-jacket who avoids awareness of the mental constraints under which he suffers by assuming that the stereotyped prejudicial opinions that he constantly comes out with are genuinely his own, or of a man who escapes the pain of helplessly witnessing his dreadful vice by perversely seeing it as a wonderful virtue. What we are looking at here is an inversion whereby the servant (which is the rule-based mind) becomes the master, or where – as John G. Bennett says – the instrument switches places with the one who by rights should be using the instrument.


The way that this inversion operates in run-of-the-mill, day-to-day matters is very easy to explain. If we take as a base-line a relatively tranquil, unattached state of mind then the inversion takes place when we identify with some sort of compulsion or impulse. So, just to run through this in a blow-by-blow fashion, one moment I am at peace and unconcerned with any issues, and the next – we will say – some impulse or other is triggered by an external or internal event and causes me discomfort. The way that impulses work is, as observation readily discloses, exactly similar to the way in which bodily itches cause scratching – I experience discomfort and this goads me to react in a way that will alleviate the discomfort. If I honestly observe this process I cannot help seeing that I am being mechanically manipulated by the need to avoid pain and thus this observation necessarily involves a perception of ‘loss of freedom’. On the other hand, if I identify with the impulse and say that it – rather than being a motivation that is imposed upon me from outside of me – is actually my own true will, then I do not experience any loss of freedom or autonomy (even though it is of course taking place just the same).


Suppose for example you do something that annoys me and I snap at you, or I get fed up with having to wait for the bus and I complain. I can either honestly perceive the fact that these impulses are ‘non volitional’ in nature, or I can align myself with them and say that you deserved to be told off and that I was right to do so, and similarly, I can go ‘along with myself’ in complaining about the late bus, and distract myself from noticing my lack of freedom in my ‘compulsive complaining reaction’ by displacing my attention onto the fact of how wrong and reprehensible it is for the bus company not to be able to run their buses on time. In essence, what I am doing in both cases is to validate the routine, so that I don’t have to pay attention to my lack of freedom in enacting it. The same principle is even easier to see when we look at classic ‘addiction-type’ impulses – I say that I want to have a drink or a cigarette (and implicitly validate the whole business of drinking or smoking) when then allowing myself to see that it isn’t me who wants a drink or a fag, but that it is a compulsion that is visited upon me without my consent. This isn’t free choice – it is slavery to the addiction.


Whilst it isn’t too much of a challenge to understand what we have called the ‘inversion principle’ with regard to addictions, it is highly challenging to take on board the idea that all of our purposeful behaviour, and all of our purposeful (i.e. non-spontaneous) thinking is just as much an example of inversion as addiction usually is. In fact it is far more likely for a classically addicted person – for example an alcoholic or a heroin addict – to be aware of the unfree nature of their thinking and behaviour than it is for an apparently ‘unaddicted’ person, who is almost certainly convinced of their autonomy. What we are looking at here is the idea – familiar to any student of esoteric psychology – that most of what we do is as a result of the process of automatically (or unconsciously) identifying with whatever extraneously originated impulse comes our way.


The result of the continuous process of unconscious identification with a stream of extraneously originated impulses is what we call our ‘self’ or our ‘personality’. Loosely speaking, we could say that the impulses in question are our addictions and that the behaviour we engage in as a result of obeying them is addictive behaviour – we have to think this way and act this way, even though we imagine that we are perfectly free to think or act in any way we please. However, when we think of addictions we generally think of specific pleasures which we are compelled to seek out over and over again, no matter what the cost to our health, our well-being, our relationships, etc. But what exactly is the ‘specific pleasure’ that we are seeking in what we are talking about? What is it that we are all addicted to, without knowing that we are addicted?


A succinct way of answering this question is to say that we are addicted to precedence – that we are addicted to ‘what has been done before’. The way this works is very simple. In the case of an addiction to heroin what drives us and determines our behaviour is our need to obtain the pleasure that the drug brings us. This is really the same as saying that what drives us is our absolute need to avoid the discomfort that is caused by not having the drug – the successful avoidance of pain is functionally equivalent to pleasure. In the case of ‘addiction to precedence,’ we might say, the discomfort that we are avoiding is the discomfort that is caused when reality does not match our internalized rules saying how it should be. Our personality – in the Gurdjieffian sense – can be defined as the complete set of rules that governs the way we perceive the world and interact with it. When we successfully control reality so that it becomes congruent with this of rules we experience euphoria. Euphoria is a more technical word for pleasure and it can be neatly defined by saying that it is the intensely rewarding feeling that we get when our desires are met or, alternatively, when our beliefs / prejudices are confirmed as being true. In short, it is the feeling of being a winner (the chemist who first synthesized heroin hit upon the name because taking the drug made him feel as if he was a hero, the triumphant achiever of some sort of awesomely heroic task). If we put things this way, which is to say if we define ‘success’ as simply being when we get things to be the way we think they ought to be, and add the qualifier onto this that ‘the way we think things ought to be’ is no more and no less than the product of our conditioning (i.e. we think it is right because our conditioning, our ‘system of precedence,’ tells us it is right) then clearly being a winner no longer seems quite so glorious, quite so heroic, after all…


It might be asked why we experience discomfort when reality diverges from our habit-based, rule-based expectation of it. Why are we so averse to the unprecedented? After all, isn’t also the case that human beings enjoy creating something new, that we enjoy moving into uncharted waters? Apart from the heavy, inertial force of conservatism (Robert Anton Wilson’s ‘neophobia’) which would keep us forever in the same place, isn’t there also a ‘divine restlessness’ at work which inspires us to look for new ways, new ideas, new expressions of what it means to be human? We wouldn’t have got very far if this wasn’t so. The point is however not that there isn’t also a creative force that moves us in the direction of the new, but rather that creativity actually involves us willingly taking on the discomfort of the unprecedented – there is still the uncomfortableness inherent in the new but what is different is our attitude towards it, our healthy curiosity and willingness to take a risk. What we are talking about here therefore is simply our ‘willingness to be insecure’ and it is precisely this that makes all the difference between the mechanical and the creative modes of human behaviour. When we just react automatically in accordance to the fear of insecurity, and the attraction towards the safety of the known pattern, then this behaviour is utterly mechanical, which is to say, we behave in accordance with mechanical rules. When we notice the discomfort but treat it with cheerful equanimity then obviously our behaviour is not determined by the need to avoid insecurity and so we are able act creatively and move into the unknown rather than simply copying (or repeating) the known over and over again.


What we are saying therefore is that the mechanism whereby a purely mechanical pattern is enacted in our lives is by our automatic (i.e. unreflective) aversion to the discomfort of insecurity. In short – the system that is the set of internalized rules gets to be actualized through our willing collusion and the factor behind this ‘willingness’ is nothing more noble than good old-fashioned fear. Rather than see this unglamorous truth we make – in time-honoured fashion – a virtue out of our vice by saying by saying that the pattern / routine that we are automatically or helplessly enacting is [1] the right one, and [2] that we actually wanted to enact it. In this way, to use Berger and Luckman’s terminology, we turn what is in reality an opus alienum into an opus proprium and having done this we glibly proceed to live the whole of our lives on the basis of this central act of self-deception, this unacknowledged ‘inversion of values’. The idea that it is through ‘risk-taking’ that we re-establish contact with our authentic selves lies at the heart of all schools of psychotherapy and the corollary of this is that no psychotherapy worthy of the name can be reduced to a mere set of methods or procedures that the aspirant must obediently follow. Similarly, we could say that no psychotherapy worthy of the name can be based on a fixed or absolute model of how the psyche works since accepting models or theories as ‘actually true’ is also a form of slavish obedience to some externally originated idea or structure. ‘Risk’ can be equated to ‘uncertainty,’ and to the extent that we spend our lives avoiding risk, we also shirk uncertainty.


It doesn’t take much insight however into human nature to realize that any approach that requires us to face life on our own, without the spurious security that is provided by the reassuring external authority of religious or political dogmas, pseudo-psychological teachings, pervasive collective beliefs and the like is hardly going to be very popular. Such is our aversion to risk-taking that we would rather play it safe by filling our world with banal mass-manufactured certainties even though ‘playing it safe’ means ‘getting nowhere at all’. Such is our short-sightedness that we almost invariably opt for security, even though, from a psychological point of view, security always spells P-R-I-S-O-N. This sugar-coated prison, this offensively crass conglomeration / proliferation of dismal mass-produced certainties, is what Gurdjieff was referring to as ‘personality’ and it is no more and no less than the tangible manifestation of our desire for security ‘at any price’.


We started off this discussion by saying that personality may be thought of a set of methods or routines or protocols along with the particular framework of reference within which they make sense. A less cumbersome way of expressing this is to use David Bohm’s idea of ‘the system of thought’, which is to say, instead of talking about a conglomeration of rules and the framework that these rules take for granted we can talk in terms of a continuum of logic. The system of thought is an abstraction in that it represents the theoretical set of all possible logical statements that can follow from any particular ‘starting off position’. The system is a continuum because it follows the laws of logic, and logic itself is a continuum (i.e. it consists of a series of statements that are allowed by the laws of logic and that shade continuously into each other. Mathematically speaking, each of these statements is a linear development of any of the others, and is also of the ‘starting off position’ – in short, the continuum is ‘the set of all possible logical transformations of the original statement’.


Information-wise, because each transformation is logically predictable on the basis of the original state of the system, there is never any change in the information content of the system. Linear change is all about perfect fidelity to the original message and this simply means that nothing new is ever permitted to enter the picture (i.e. nothing new is ever acknowledged as being part of the picture). The system of thought, therefore, is a state of affairs in which entropy has replaced information – it is a situation that is 100% mechanical, a situation that exclusively obedient to certain fixed (or inviolable) rules. Another way of putting this is to say that the system of thought is essentially closed and saying that the system of thought is closed is another way that nothing can ever actually happen in it! Saying that nothing can ever actually happen in the system of thought is another way of saying that nothing that seems to happen is real…


We can also try to explain the system of thought topologically (which is to say, in terms of shapes and surfaces) in which case we can say that the system of thought is a sort of an abstract two-dimensional surface. This can be illustrated by thinking of an infinitely long solid cylinder (which, we will say, is the ‘non-abstract situation’) and then arbitrarily deciding upon a cut-off point somewhere along the length of that cylinder. Taking a very sharp imaginary knife we then slice through the cylinder at this point, creating as we do so a perfect 2D ‘abstraction’ of the cylinder. The abstraction of the 3D cylinder is simply a 2D circle – the circle is perfectly true to the original in one sense but in another sense it is not at all true because a whole dimension (i.e. length) is now missing. Not only is there a whole dimension missing, but any reference to the ‘extra missing dimension’ is also missing – there is no reference whatsoever in the flat plane circle to any such thing as ‘cylindricality’. There is no reference in a flat plane to a solid (any more than there is a reference to a Euclidean line in a one-dimensional point). The circle appears to be very much complete in itself and if we didn’t happen to already know that there was a missing third dimension then there would be no way to deduce its existence by studying the circle.


Within the closed terms of the circle there appears to be no need for any high-faluting, fancy-ancy extra-normal dimensionality and if anyone suggested such a thing we would sneer and scoff at them in our ‘2D materialism’ for being some sort of fluffy-headed airy-fairy mystic. Because we now perceive everything in terms of a 2D surface this means that an information collapse has taken place – the 2D surface collapses the whole 3D universe into its meagre two dimensions and, from this point onwards, represents a world that isn’t abstract in a way that is.


What essentially happens in the downwards transformation of 3 dimensions into 2 is that something has been taken away (the ‘something’ which makes the world real and concrete rather than unreal and abstract) and the fact of this all-important subtraction is completely withheld from us. Information-collapse is an event that leaves no record of its own occurrence – after the collapse any information about the collapse is also collapsed and so the whole ‘catastrophe’ becomes both invisible and inconceivable. We have lost even the concept of what it is that we have lost. What we have here (speaking now in psychological rather than mathematical terms) is a cripplingly cataclysmic disaster than no one ever mentions – global denial on a level we cannot even begin to understand. The collapse of information into something that appears from its own (closed) viewpoint to be information but which is actually a mere vestigial and therefore misrepresentative remnant of the prior situation (a sad ghost of the original event) is of course entropy in a nutshell. Entropy as we have said proceeds one direction only and so when the 2-D surface which is the system of thought greedily sucks everything into itself like a ravenous black-hole (rendering everything in its own flat dreary terms and making itself the whole universe) what we are looking at is the primordial, archetypal disaster of the Fall (which lives on in folk memory, in myth and legend, albeit usually in such vestigial and therefore unrecognizable forms as the story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise).

The important thing to remember about the abstract surface is that it is abstract – which is to say, it exists purely as an abstraction of something which is not a surface, but which actually has ‘depth’. The extra dimension that is the depth factor disappears in the abstraction process, it is ‘conveniently forgotten about’. We should point out here that when we spoke of a concrete reality as having 3 dimensions and the abstract surface of this concrete reality as having only 2, this is only to illustrate the idea of a dimension being lost in the abstraction process – after all, for all we know the solid 3D world that we know as ‘reality’ might in turn be no more than the three-dimensional shaved-off surface of a 4-dimensional hypersolid, and so on.


Reality might be more elusive, or less obvious, than we think. Saying that the system of thought is an abstract surface therefore isn’t to say that it definitely has 2 dimensions and that the reality which it exists to model definitely has 3, but merely that in the modelling process higher dimensionality is lost – this is equivalent to saying that when we think about reality entropy is produced, or to put it the other way around, that entropy is necessary for thinking to take place. Entropy can be understood here as akin to the blindspot in human vision, which is to say, a limitation on what we can see which is quite invisible to us since it does not register at all on our field of vision. The difference is however that whilst our vision would work more efficiently if we didn’t have the blindspot, the system of thought would lose its integrity (in terms of how it implicitly represents itself to itself) if it were not for the existence of entropy. We have already looked at why this should be so – entropy here can be understood in terms of the ability of the abstract to represent the concrete without drawing attention to the fact that it is only representing it, that it is merely a token of something else, the true nature of which it cannot represent.


In other words – ‘entropy’ is another way of talking about the collapsing of n dimensions into some sort of over-simplified ‘lower-dimensional’ analogue thereof, such that the over-simplification does not get noticed. Clearly therefore, if it were not for the entropy, the unavailable information, the abstraction would be seen to be an abstraction, and thus its capability of implicitly representing itself as the actual concrete reality would be fatally impaired. This is precisely what the philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1982, P2) was getting at with his concept of the ‘hyperreal’–

Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory – PRECESSION OF SIMULACRA – it is the map that engenders the territory…

Instead of explaining entropy in terms of a sleight-of hand whereby the simulation ‘does a fast one’ and effectively excludes awareness of the reality which it is simulation, thereby turning itself into an all-pervasive ‘hyperreality’ we could follow the existentialists in saying that is simply another way of looking at intentionality. Intentionality basically means that we see what we see because we want to see it – the world is a complex, multi-facetted situation and so if we look at it in a particular closed way what we will see is simply the limited reality that our closed viewpoint has elicited. A simple example of this, as Colin Wilson says in Mysteries, is when we look at a visual puzzle containing two or more contradictory pictures and learn to look at the puzzle in the particular way which will allow us to see one of those pictures in sharp focus in exclusion to any other interpretation. In this case the true picture is the multi-level ambiguity, and the collapsed or over-simplified picture is the particular black-and-white figure that we end up seeing as a result of the act of intentionality that we have just carried out (albeit quite possibly without knowledge of having done so). The unambiguous or defined figure which excludes all other possible figures is the abstraction that we he pulled out of the undefined (and non-intentional) whole. An act of intentionality is the same thing as a game – a game is where we make the rules, where we select an over-simplified version of reality and proceed as if this over-simplified version of reality were the real thing. According to esoteric psychology, almost all of our interaction with the universe is in the form of games, which, strictly speaking, means that we are not interacting with the universe at all but our own constructs of it, our own ridiculously oversimplified version of it.


As Carl Jung says, we interact with our own unconscious projections as if these projections had some sort of genuine independent existence, whereas the truth of the matter is that we never even see reality since we are far too busy projecting our unconscious fantasies on top of it. The reason we are so fond of games is because there is security in games – even though we might not be totally in control of the details of what happens in our games we feel at least as if we have the possibility of being in control. We have the possibility of ‘winning’ – of achieving our goals. Unconsciously, however, we are at all times in total control of what goes on because we have decided the format. This gives us an immense feeling unconscious (i.e. unacknowledged) safety since nothing can ever happen that we ourselves haven’t already allowed. Our experience is ‘pre-conceptualized’ in outline, even if the working out of the trivial details unknown to us, and this fact – which we never ever focus on since to do so would give the game away – provides us with a bedrock of ontological security that allows us to feel as if we know exactly what is going on and feel pretty much in control the whole time even in the face of the unfathomable mystery that lies all around us.


Our self-assurance is in fact absurd since it is based on ignoring the depth of the universe and treating is as if it were as flat and un-mysterious as our own rule-based conceptual minds. This reduces the scope of our lives to the purely petty – ignoring ‘depth’ ensures in other words that our interactions are essentially redundant. It ensures that our actions and concerns are trivial to the point of meaningless. Certain actions and certain outcomes may be absolutely meaningful within the context of the game we are playing, but outside of this game they naturally have no meaning whatsoever and this is the downside of living life through our games, through our formal systems of meaning.


We hang poised over an unthinkable abyss separated from it by the flimsiest, most insubstantial of films, a virtual membrane that is made up of no more than our unconscious decision to ‘look no further’ and thus insulated from the true grandeur and profundity of the world we live in, we proceed to fret and fume and complain and get bored and generally preoccupy ourselves with an endless amount of staggeringly banal nonsense. Sometimes I might get fed up with all the circular concerns of the ‘same-old same-old’ game reality and allow myself to briefly wonder just what it’s all about, but because my sense of ontological security is so very important to me, I don’t go far down that road. I check myself as soon as I realize what I am doing – I dismiss my feelings as being strange or silly or unproductive or whatever and turn back to the comfortably reassuring if crushingly tedious world of repetitive everyday normality because deep-down I am ‘attached to the game’.


In a nutshell, I have mistaken the superficial, abstract, 2D version of myself that is manufactured for me by the system of thought (i.e. the game-playing ego, or what Krishnamurti calls the ‘self-image’) for who I really am, and as result of my deep and terrible fear of losing this tiresome and ultimately inauthentic game-playing ego I turn my back on reality and thus by default I forsake my true Self, which lies unborn within me like a seed that has fallen on rocky ground. The birth and development of the Self is a highly precarious business – Jung uses the motif of the child abandoned in the forest at the mercy of wolves and bears and other ruthless predators. The danger is always the vulnerable individuality will be subsumed within the massively powerful collective, which is made up of countless others who have been similarly subsumed (who have had their souls ‘cut away’, to use Philip Pullman’s image) and who are therefore driven by their repressed inner pain to do the same to anyone who by their innocence reminds them of what they have lost. The response of the fundamentally miserable conditioned self when it comes face-to-face with that wonderful blank canvass which is a child is to scrawl all over it in the manner that they were scrawled upon and defaced when they were children. This process of compulsive indoctrination we dignify by calling it ‘education’. The urge to ‘pass on the violence,’ to ‘spoil as we have been spoiled,’ (i.e. to ‘condition as we have been conditioned’) is well-nigh irresistible and so we turn what is essentially an act of violence into a virtue.


And yet the abstract surface is not the enemy of the concrete reality to which it belongs; there is no opposition between the two, any more than there is opposition between ripples and the body of water upon which the ripples move. The ocean has no problem with the waves that travel upon it and for the wave’s part – without the ocean they could hardly be there in the first place. Yet when we have the situation of an abstract surface that plays the game of being itself the actual reality then reality necessarily becomes an enemy to be denied at all costs simply because reality gives the lie to my pretensions. If I am the ambassador for a great Emperor and I am happy to be in this lesser role then all is well but if I take the perverse notion that being a mere ambassador is not enough and in my runaway grandiosity conceive a desire to be Emperor myself, then the existence of the real Emperor is a threat to my pretensions – he spoils everything for me and must therefore be kept out of the picture! This motif is – for example – exemplified in the story of Sherriff of Nottingham and King Richard the Lionheart – the Sherriff of Nottingham wants very much for us all to forget who the true king is…

This is the way it is for all games – as James Carse says in his book Infinite and Finite Games (1986, P12),

Players must intentionally forget the inherently voluntary nature of their play, else all competitive effort will desert them.

The two-dimensional abstract surface which is Bohm’s ‘system of thought’ is not necessarily therefore the enemy of reality any more then the menu is the enemy of the meal – the system of thought is, on the contrary, a useful interface or guide for allowing us to tune into those aspects of the material universe which happen to coincide with its ‘assumptions’. However, when out of the desire to take refuge and hide from the infinity of the universe in its finite forms we implicitly say that ‘what we cannot rationally know does not exist’ then we have made the actual depth or profundity of the universe into an enemy and in so doing we have at the same time made our own depth and profundity into an enemy, and thus have condemned ourselves to a sad and frustrating life of constantly restless – if not to say pointless – superficiality.


The system of thought is 100% superficial – it has to be 100% superficial because it is all pure surface without any depth or substance to it whatsoever. It is pure form with no content, pure image… That is its very nature, just like it is the nature of a soap bubble to be made up of an iridescent film only one molecule thick that can be punctured by the first blade of grass it lands upon. As we have indicated, the system of thought is an abstract communication that has a tendency to collapse in on itself into self-referentiality, thereby becoming a curious sort of ‘world unto itself’. Communication is of course always abstract otherwise it would be ‘the thing itself’ (it would be the thing that is being communicated about rather than a communication about the thing) but it is perfectly possible for communication to be both abstract (i.e. removed from reality) and for it to still genuinely relate to that reality; the only thing is that this is difficult because one has to go beyond the mechanical laws that are implicit within the system of communication. One has to remember at all times that what one is describing cannot actually be described, that a picture of a hat is not a hat… Any loss of attention at all will result at once in a descent into habit or ‘mechanicalness’. When we fail to pay real attention to what we are doing, then this – as we said right at the beginning of this discussion – then the system of self-validating reflexes referred to by Gurdjieff as personality, by Krishnamurti as the self-image, and by Bohm as the system of thought is produced.


Wei Wu Wei speaks of the I-concept, which he says is ‘an outside without an inside’. An outside without an inside is clearly a nonsense, what he is talking about here is a ‘one-sided boundary’ and anyone can plainly see that there just can’t be any such thing as a one-sided boundary. That would be like a stick that only has one end, or an UP without a DOWN. Having said this, there is a ‘kind of a way’ in which this is possible and that is through intentionality, i.e. it is when we choose to look at the boundary in such a way that we simply don’t see one side of it. There are, needless to say, always two sides to every boundary but we are all very much in the habit of seeing only the side we want to see. As Alan Watts says, I studiously ignore the fact the my outline is the universe’s ‘in-line’ – if I didn’t do this then I wouldn’t be able to help confronting a very strange fact, I wouldn’t be able to help myself from seeing that the line separating me from the universe actually joins me to it, which ruins the integrity of the ‘me-game’ that I am playing. If I want to be a separate, isolated ‘me’, then I have to be one-sided in the way I see things.


Pragmatically speaking, then, there is such a thing as a ‘one-sided boundary’ (no matter how bizarre this may sound) and it is the pragmatic existence of such a thing which is responsible for our day-to-day perception of positively defined objects – a positively defined object is an object that stands out a separate, self-existent entity, it is a figure which has been highlighted in order to contrast it with the ground which has not been highlighted. Figure / ground differentiation is entirely arbitrary as Alan Watts says – if I wanted to I could equally well emphasize the background instead, in which case the positively defined object would now become a mere ‘hole’.


When we talk about one-sided boundaries what we are actually talking about are rules, which is of course a concept that is much more familiar to us. A rule specifies, which is to say, it points at something specific. The key thing to understand here is that ‘a pointer’ cannot point in all directions equally – it wouldn’t be a very good pointer if it did (in fact, it wouldn’t be a pointer at all). For example, suppose you come up to me and ask me the direction to Oxford Street and I respond by pointing equally in all possible directions. Clearly this is not going to be in the least bit helpful to you – pointing at everything equally does not distinguish, and in this case it is ‘distinguishing’ that you want, not some sort of mystic gesture of universal affirmation. I may as well say nothing at all because I certainly haven’t added anything to what you know already. The whole point about rules is their dissymmetry – their ‘one-sidedness’ as Jung calls it. Without the one-sidedness of the rational mind there can be no differentiation of the world; without rules, and the boundaries that rules create, the familiar landscape of the everyday mind simply cannot exist.


It is difficult to appreciate just how much we depend on this familiar landscape of the mind, with all its intricate differentiations, with its ‘taken-for-granted’ collection of positively defined objects that seems so right and proper to us, so much a part of the natural world. The natural world however never did have any differentiations in it, it never did contain any ‘positive objects’ – we have to learn to see it that way. If we suddenly lost the power to drastically ‘data-reduce’ the universe so as to make sense of it, then what we would be left with would be the Unus Mundus of the Alchemists.The Unus Mundus an undivided world in which up is down and in is out, a world where there are no categories and no fixed framework to compare our experience with. It is a world where – as Jung says – ‘everything is reversed’ and my ego (which is used to thinking of itself as the unmoving, immutable subject) finds itself the object in an unbounded ocean of delocalized subjectivity. In my automatic arrogance I felt that I was animate and the world was merely the inanimate backdrop for my drama, whereas now I see that everything is aware apart from me. No longer am I the taken-for-granted ‘fixed centre’, the vital unquestionable axis around which the universe turns, I am – insofar as I am uninterested in and oblivious to anything beyond myself and my ego-centric world-view – a wholly and utterly inconsequential scrap of mechanical flotsam in a world where everything is frighteningly and wonderfully alive.


What ‘saves’ us from this tremendous and utterly uncanny experience are our one-sided boundaries, the rules which we slavishly and unquestioningly stick with. We are so familiar with the concept of what a rule is that we never stop to wonder how it is that a rule only points the one way, we never pause to think that there is something arbitrary about this. A rule, in essence, defines what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’, what is ‘allowed’ and what is ‘disallowed’. What is ‘in’ is highlighted, brought out, emphasised and what is ‘out’ is unceremoniously ditched as unimportant. We said earlier that the positively defined figure only exists because of the arbitrary choice that we make to focus on what lies inside the boundary rather than outside the boundary and the same principle holds good for the rule – what the rule points to is quite arbitrary, i.e. there is no rule specifying what the rule must specify. Paradoxically, the rule arises out of ‘rule-lessness’ – the rule is freely chosen!


A rule is an absolute constraint on freedom and yet at the same time I freely chose the rule in the first place, and so really the freedom was and is there all along – I cannot actually give it away. There is a direct parallel here to James Carse’s principle that the finite game player must intentionally forget the inherently voluntary nature of play, and Berger and Luckman’s principle of the opus proprium becoming the opus alienum when I freely make up a rule, and then turn around the very next minute and state that the rule was there before me, that it is written in stone, and that all I am doing is obeying it. Whilst the arbitrary thing about a boundary is which way, so that ‘in’ could just round the boundary is to go, so that ‘in’ might as well be ‘out’ and ‘out’ ‘in’, the arbitrary thing about a rule is that anything at all could be the rule. What this means is that everything is the rule, and if ‘everything is the rule’ then as we have said this simply isn’t a rule at all but unconditional affirmation.


The way we get around the unconditional freedom of universal affirmation is by agreeing with it in one particular case, and then tacitly assuming as soon as we do this that it doesn’t actually apply to anything else – only the particular case that we have chosen. We turn the incomprehensible generosity and open-heartedness of the universal all-inclusive principle around to produce its astonishingly miserly and wretchedly small-minded antithesis – the rule. Our narrow or partisan veneration for our own particular race, tribe, culture, religion, social group, way of thinking about things, etc is the fruit of this perverse inversion of Universal Inclusion. Its ultimate political expression is fascism, which Kurt Vonnegut (1972, P 180) defines in Breakfast of Champions as

…a fairly popular political philosophy which made sacred whatever nation and race the philosopher happened to belong to.

Its ultimate psychological expression is the autocratic ego which absurdly counts itself the most important thing in the entire universe, despite the fact that there are billions of other autocratic egos going around feeling exactly the same way about themselves. The conditioned or game-playing self is inevitably a fascist – it is a fascist and it exists in an unfree world made up entirely of itself….

One thought on “The Inconceivable Catastrophe

  1. Of course the law of attraction is in fill force here. You have exerted a pull on another near by. Thank you for your clarity. Could have a little more umpf! at the end maybe 😉

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