the machine

The social system really just another face of the system of thought, which is itself no more than a particular and essentially arbitrary way of looking at the world that does not see itself as one out of many possible angles that might be taken, but as the one and only viewpoint, the alpha and the omega. It does not actually say this to itself since to say it would be to imply that there might theoretically be other points of view, and this is a possibility that the system of thought is constitutionally unable to entertain. It is as if I am convinced that I am right, so very solidly convinced that it would make me self-righteously angry if anyone came along and suggested that there might be other, equally legitimate ways of looking at things. We all have experience of such tremendously certain states of mind every time – for example – we lose our temper and become inflated with righteous rage. This is because the system-of-anger is like a specially narrow and compulsive ‘mini-version’ of the system of thought; it is a thoroughly biased viewpoint that is incapable of seeing that it is biased. This incapacity constitutes for us a highly valued commodity that we can refer to ‘psychological security’.




There is another way to understand the system of anger (or the system of thought) and that is to say that such a system

Is a self-consistent viewpoint which is 100% logical in its own terms and which has both an overt and a covert level of justification.


The overt reason that the system has for existing is to provide us with some benefit or pay-off, and this can be seen as the ‘lure’. The lure attracts us in, and once we bite we find out that there is a ‘snag’ hidden beneath the surface – a hook that sinks deep into our flesh and holds us fast. The snag has to do with the system’s covert reason for being there, which is to endlessly promote itself. We are very easily distracted from the covert level of meaning because we are so interested in the pay-off, and as result we do not spot what is going on behind the scenes. We rush in like fools and – far too late – we realize that we are caught up in a thoroughly unpleasant, constrictive and unproductive state of mind. We are stuck with our anger, which is like a badly-behaved guest who we invited in to our house but cannot evict. This is of course also true for any ‘negative emotion’; this is how negative emotions work – like vampires they have to be invited in past the threshold but once they gain entrance they are not so easily shifted!


In anger the pay-off is that we get to have a feeling of relief or satisfaction when we utilize a handy ‘way out’ from a difficult or stressful situation. The pay-off is the release that comes when I find a resolution to my difficulties; the prospect of this release is incredibly attractive to me at the time and I feel no need whatsoever to question its legitimacy. In other words, when I feel bad I just want to do whatever it takes to not feel bad and the fact that the sense of relief I obtain is highly transient and ultimately unsatisfactory since it actually makes me feel worse in the long run is not something that I stop to consider at that particular point in time. The snag is not simply that the sense of relief that I get when I ‘lose it’ is transient (and therefore deceptive), the snag is that I cannot free myself from the painful and distinctly odious way of thinking that is associated with anger – I turn into a complete and utter jerk and there is nothing I can do about this other than twisting things in my head sufficiently to produce the illusion that I am actually justified in my position. Anger is another, cruder level of self-deception that is superimposed on the ones that we are already subject to. We can therefore explain ‘the lure and the snag’ by saying that transient feeling of escape that we experience when we successfully lie to ourselves is the lure, whilst the onerous necessity to go on twisting reality in order to maintain the integrity of our lie in the face of contrary evidence is the snag that we stupidly didn’t realize we were buying into.


As we have sad, this is the scenario with all negative emotions, not just anger. Every negative emotion offers a false promise that we are only too glad to believe, even though we know well enough (or we ought to know well enough) that the moment of relief gives way to a prolonged period of misery. The prolonged period of misery comes because I have identified with the negative emotion in question, and am well and truly stuck in it long after the initial euphoric hit has worn off. I wanted to be ‘one-up’ but I have ended up committed to a struggle that can never be successfully concluded. I am not the winner at all – the truth of the matter is that the self-consistent system of thinking that is associated with the negative emotion has won, because it gets to perpetuate itself at my expense. The system acts as a ‘false self’, which substitutes itself for our true individuality; the bias which is characteristic of the emotional state in question conditions our understanding of our situation, and the result of this is that we end up with an unconscious (or ‘unexamined’) allegiance to that bias, since we are now totally dependent on it. I have solved my original difficulty through illegitimate means, I avoided the painful reality that I was faced with by buying into a slanted version of the truth, and so from that point on I have no choice but to keep propping up the lie, no matter how much I secretly hate what I am doing. I am crossing the ocean in leaky boat that is doomed to sink, and because I cannot bear to see my predicament I completely absorb myself in the futile struggle to stay afloat. Since I am now identified with the false self of the negative emotion in question, this conditions me to see the world in this false way and because of this ‘upside-down viewpoint’ I can’t help believing that I have no choice but to keep fighting, no matter what my better judgement might be telling me.




The social system is in essence no different to a bad mood or a sulk in this respect – it offers us a sort of relief or satisfaction from our insoluble existential discomfort, and once we take a bite at this bait we find ourselves trapped indefinitely in the particular mixture of satisfaction/comfort and boredom/anxiety/despair that is associated with the socially adapted life. The pay-off can either be seen negatively in terms of a relief from the distress of not knowing what life requires from us (since it is easy enough to know what society requires from us) or positively in terms of the enjoyable feeling of being ‘right’ or ‘validated’ in what one thinks and does. The cost of being validated in this way can be looked at in a number of different ways, but the bottom line is that I am now addicted to the system of logic that validates me – a need has been created and so now I have to ensure that I will always be able to meet this need.


This is of course no different to the idea of being addicted to the system of thought. The argument here is very straightforward: If I need to take a particular viewpoint in order to obtain the security of having positive (or objective) knowledge of the world, then clearly that positive knowledge is not unconditionally true. On the contrary, it is conditionally true – it is true only when we stay within the particular framework of thinking that allows it to be true. Furthermore, it is of course essential for the continuing integrity of the illusion that I do not see that there is any such qualification – I have to be oblivious to the fact that I am in fact using a particular framework of thinking, I must not know that I am dependent upon ‘the system of thought’.




This same argument holds true for our relationship with the social system: it provides me with an illusion that is very important to me, but in order for this illusion to be convincing I cannot see the true nature of my relationship with this source of ‘external authority’ (which is to say, the source of extrinsic meaning). In general, the way that this blindness works is that I uphold certain values that I see as having universal validity, I say that these values or beliefs are very important to me and by focusing on the beliefs I make myself blind to the fact that what I am really doing is cherishing the framework of meaning within which those beliefs make sense. The more self-evident the beliefs, the more invisible is the trickery; to take a very crude example, if I say something like “I uphold the value of human dignity and the freedom of each individual to live in a state of happiness and health and reach their full potential as human beings” then it is very hard to see what could be wrong with this because it sounds so ‘life affirming’. The trick is that I am not really talking about anything apart from my own ideas – I am at all times secretly affirming the validity of my own assumptions concerning what a ‘human being’ is or should be, and what ‘happiness’ and ‘health’ actually mean.


To paraphrase Sogyal Rinpoche, we pay lip service to our love of life, but actually we love only our thoughts about life. Or as Krishnamurti says, we pay reverence to all sorts of lofty ideals, whilst the whole time we only revere only our thinking – which basically means that we are revering ourselves. The voice of society, in all its various forms, never tires of coming out with fine-sounding sentiments but what is really going on is that the system is praising itself, albeit in an indirect or disguised way. This might sound a bit peculiar – if not downright perverse – but there oughtn’t to be anything too surprising about the idea; after all we have repeatedly said that the motivation behind the extrinsic self is ‘self-maintenance’ or ‘self-promotion’ and both of these come down in the end to self-praise (i.e. self-worship).


So what else can we say about the benefits that we obtain from the social system? One answer is to say that society is so important to us because we rely on it to make our lives seem meaningful to us. All of the goals that we have attained (or live in hope of attaining), all of our beliefs, all of the notions that we hold dear, all of these depend on our unquestioning acceptance of the system. The extent to which my life makes sense within the social matrix is the extent to which I am depending upon this matrix for my life to make sense! James Carse puts forward a similar sort of argument when he says that society ensures our support by granting us prizes (or titles) that we can only enjoy when the society that upholds and validates these titles continues to exist. Therefore, the net result is that we react very strongly to defend and preserve the set of values that constitute the established order. What is more, far from seeing that there is anything underhand about this, we make a positive virtue of it. Because we are dependent upon the system without allowing ourselves to see that we are dependent, we will defend it to the bitter end without actually realizing what it is we are protecting and why we feel driven to do this protecting. On the one hand it could be said that our public spiritedness, our patriotism, our ‘collective zeal’ is disguised self-interest, but we could equally well say that it is our conditioning that motivates our zealotry, since conditioning, by its very nature, is self-promoting. So our conditioning protects and promotes itself, through us, and no matter how much inconvenience we might suffer in the process it is still extraordinarily unlikely that we will gain insight into the fact that we are mere puppets. We never see the reality of the situation, which is that we are the unconscious tools of the system of thought, unconscious human ‘units’ who have been pressed into the service of meaningless ideas and values, sadly bereft of our natural human dignity.




We can also answer the question of “What do we get out of the deal?’ by saying that the pay-off is the gift of virtual individuality. Our first answer was to say that I do a deal with society in order for my actions (or behaviour) to be validated, and the other way of looking at it is to say that I do the deal in order that my socially constructed sense-of-self might be validated. In other words, the reason I like having an unquestionable belief system is of course that this belief system grants me the boon of an unquestionable idea about who I am. I get to be this definite, solid, reified person, and everyone I interact with will support me in this fiction. Equally, of course, I will do the same for everyone else and so we all get firmly entrenched in our fictitious mind-created identities. The only casualty in all of this is the truth because all the feelings and intuitions relating to who I really am are ignored or repressed; the true self becomes the unwanted visitor who no one wants to know. In fact the true self, and all intimations originating from the true self, become the enemy because even to admit for a second that I am not who I think I am, and not who everyone else thinks I am is to upset a very important applecart. The fiction has to be total, it cannot be a part-time hobby.


It is highly instructive to examine the relationship between the socially adapted person, and the social environment to which he or she is adapted. In the optimising process by which I become adapted to the social environment it is inevitable that all attributes of myself that do not correspond to this set-up will become lost or disregarded. Adaptation means agreement and when self and environment totally agree with each other there is nothing else, just the system. The system and those who are successfully adapted to the system constitute one and the same thing, each being a reflection of the other. What this means is that there can be no such thing as genuine individuality within the system, only the virtual individuality that is provided gratis by the system. My virtual individuality is therefore no more than a disguise which is worn by the ubiquitous system of thought in order to facilitate its game. The game being that the system is not the system…




Luckman and Berger put forward an alternate version of this principle way back in the golden era of sociology, in the nineteen seventies. To put it crudely, what they said was that society is our way of collectively handing over responsibility. The way that this works is that we make a rule, and then turn around the next minute and say that we didn’t make it; actually, we say, the rule was there already – we didn’t have anything to do with it. This manoeuvre ought to be pretty familiar to us by now because it is of course the very same sneaky trick that we looked at in our discussion of set theory and the creation of positive structure. The insight behind Berger and Luckman’s formulation of the ‘reification principle’ (as they called it) is essentially a psychological one – we fear freedom, and our over-riding but unacknowledged aim is to be fundamentally unfree. We fear the symmetrical state where all possibilities are equally good, and we seek refuge in the asymmetrical state where there is only one right way, and we do not even consider the possibility that there is any other way. Not only that, but we do not even stop to notice ourselves ‘not considering the possibility that there are any other ways’, and so the double-seal of ignorance is complete.


If I had to face the fact that there are no ‘real’ (or ‘preordained’) rules governing my life, then I would have to take personal responsibility for everything I do. The thought of this is overwhelmingly daunting – which course of action do I take, and if I do choose a direction, then how do I cope with the knowledge that I could equally well have chosen any other direction? This knowledge seems to spell meaninglessness, and it is this of course that Kierkegaard was getting at with his idea of angst. Our only refuge – or so it seems – is to choose a direction, and then say that we didn’t choose it. We stubbornly maintain that it was chosen for us by a higher authority; the more stubborn and ‘pig-ignorant’ we are, the more secure we get to feel! We can also look at this in terms of the meaning that I perceive my activities to have for me – what I am basically doing is choosing for something to be meaningful to me, and then choosing to ignore the fact that I chose it. This way, the meaning looks as if it is ‘outside’ of me; it looks like the natural order of things rather than being a mere artificial construct, and this in turn means that I am now supremely justified in believing in it. My belief is validated for me.


The irony is that what I have actually done by handing over my freedom in this way is the exact opposite of what I wanted to do. The meaning that my life now holds for me is contrived meaning – my goals are only meaningful to me because I have secretly decided in advance that they should be meaningful, and so I am conspiring against myself. Because the awareness of this conspiracy can only be repressed in a periodically successful way (in accordance with the principle of compensation), I am now subject to the ‘unacknowledged horror’ of repressed meaninglessness (which corresponds perhaps more accurately to Kierkegaard’s notion of ‘angst’ than an unrepressed sense of meaninglessness). This situation is a curious one because the necessity to repress a sense of meaninglessness constitutes, as we have noted before, a type or species of motivation: if I am motivated to do something then we can say that the action that I am undertaking must be meaningful to me (i.e. the meaning that the action has for me and the motivation that drives me to do it are the same thing). But what we are saying here is that I engage in activities in order to distract myself from seeing that my activity is only there for the sake of distraction. The true meaning of my actions is that I carry them out in order to hide from myself the knowledge that what I am doing is ultimately meaningless.


This does not of course mean that we are agreeing with the statement that ‘everything is meaningless’. On the contrary, what we are saying is that ‘everything is meaningless when I personally have to arrange for it to be meaningful’! Meaning is meaningless when it is the result of choice, in other words. But the unavoidable implication here is that any meaning which is not the result of choice on my or anyone else’s part, which I have not arranged in advance for myself, must necessarily be genuine. If we say that this genuine sense of meaning is the same thing as the unconditional freedom which we already possess, then we can also say the false meaning of my psychological games is the spurious advantage that I obtain as a result of ‘handing over my own freedom’ (along with the equally spurious advantage of my generically-constructed virtual identity).




There is another way to look at the price that we pay in order to exist in the state of psychological unconsciousness, and that is to say that we become slaves to the necessity to ‘pass the time’. The ‘abstracted controller’ which is the extrinsic self is always in a hurry for time to pass, so that its plans can come to fruition; all it cares about is that its agendas and goals must be met and the consequence of this attitude is that time itself becomes the enemy. Time – and everything that it might bring – stands between me and the realization of my goals, and so time must be eradicated. This is the idea that Paulo Coelho alludes to in Veronica Decides to Die – when we are busy we look forward to the time when we have nothing to do, but when that time comes we find it unbearably tedious and we can’t wait for it to be over. This is the curse of the goal-orientated mind – we always think that we are going to be happy when we get what we want, but when we get there what actually happens is that we immediately feel the need to search for another juicy goal to distract us. It is ‘goals, goals, goals’ all the way, and the real point about goals has nothing whatsoever to do with their avowed meaning; the truth is that we just want to be distracted with thoughts of something better. I only really feel good when I am in the state of ‘positive anticipation’. I am addicted to positive (i.e. hopeful) wanting, and in a curious sort of a way I am also addicted to the state of negative wanting. The fact of the matter is that without a goal or agenda to validate my existence I feel hollow – I feel like a fraud – and so even a negative goal (a thing to avoid) is better than no goal at all. I define myself with what I like just as I define myself with what I hate, and when we get right down to brass tacks the only thing that really matters to me is that I should be defined. It is not just that I exist through my attachments – I actually am my attachments!




If anyone were to object to this dire portrayal of the basic human condition all we would need to do in order to set them right would be to get them to sit in a room with nothing going on for an hour or two. When we find ourselves in a place where ‘nothing is happening’ we are reminded very quickly about a particular feeling that we do not at all like – boredom. When we hand over responsibility to an external authority (i.e. to an external motivation) we become dependent upon this external motivating factor in order not to feel bad. All the ‘good stuff’ comes from outside and this – by implication – means that there is no good stuff inside. When I look for happiness or peace of mind in external values and external contingencies I condition myself to believe that my happiness is dependent rather than independent. If my happiness is independent then so am I, but if my happiness is dependent then this means that I can only stand a chance of feeling good when I am able to successfully manipulate my environment. If my mental state is dependent on what happens outside of me then this makes me a slave to materiality; I am a ‘thing’ in a world of ‘things’, which is a profoundly unsatisfactory (if not down-right horrific) state of affairs.


Without the external flow of ‘good stuff’, I am nothing, without something interesting happening outside me, I start to lose the ability to kid myself that I am ‘okay’. It is the constant stream of distractions that allows me to repress the unpleasant awareness of how hollow it is to have to be distracted all the time. Stop the conveyor belt for a while and an uncomfortable awareness of tedious ‘staleness’ starts to build and my only concern is how I can exit this state. If I could never encounter that feeling again then that would suit me down to the ground. But why – we might ask- am I so very uninterested in this particular feeling? When you get to think about it, it is interesting that we find boredom so uninteresting. What exactly is it that I don’t like about it? No one is drilling a hole on my head with a Black & Decker power tool, no one is cutting my fingers off with a pair of heavy-duty bolt-cutters – there is no actual pain, so what is all the complaining about? To a person who has to work hard for most of their waking hours, the ‘boredom’ of having to do nothing for an hour or so would undoubtedly seem like pure luxury, so what is my issue about it?




We have a number of stock answers to this sort of question, such as “I have to have to something for my brain to be working on” or “I like to be doing something”, or “Well, its pretty pointless and stupid just sitting there doing nothing, isn’t it?” but these responses are only superficially satisfactory. The key to seeing through this sort of answer can be found by reflecting for a minute on the difference between the closed (i.e. goal-orientated) and open modalities of mental functioning. My usual mode is the goal-orientated mode (G.O. mode for short) and the way this works can be understood in terms of a basic 4-stage cycle. This cycle may be said to involve:

[1] The formulation (or construction) of the goal
[2] The period of time in which I am applying myself to the attainment of this goal
[3] The brief moment of triumph when the goal is reached
[4] The search for a new goal


It is fairly obvious that at no time during this cycle is there any need to go beyond our rational understanding of the world (we don’t need to go beyond our theory, in other words). Quite the reverse is true – the whole operation involves me exploiting the universe in order to get it to fit in to my plan. If something is not relevant to the plan, then I ‘throw it away’, I don’t give it any more thought. The point is that once I have a destination in mind, then from then on everything revolves around the question “How can I get there?” This focus on “How?” means that there is no time spent at all on reflecting upon the legitimacy (or ‘meaningfulness’) of the destination and it is of course in this ‘automatic exclusion principle’ that the covert gain of purposefulness can be found. “How? drives out “Why?” Or to put this in a bit more long-windedly:

The compulsivity of the external authority that defines our goals for us inhibits the spontaneously ‘reflective’ (or questioning) quality that consciousness naturally manifests when it is left to itself.




In G.O. mode I am not interested in anything else other than the actualisation of my ideas, and this means that there is an ‘outwards movement’ taking place (a purposeful output) but no genuine input. There is a type of an input, but the type of information I am sensitive to is purely confirmation, which is to say,

I am only listening to the type of information that confirms the validity of my initial assumptions.


What we have here therefore is a disconnected state of being, a modality in which I act ignorantly (i.e. blindly) upon the universe, without it being able to act upon me. This statement isn’t entirely right, it would be more accurate to say that the universe can and does act upon me, but it is unable to change the way I think about it because I am always able to interpret everything that happens to me in terms of my original model or theory.


When I am successful in GO mode (i.e. when I am able to get things to work out the way I want them to) then I obtain as a result of this success a sort of ‘false confidence’. I know all the angles and I am therefore a master of the game (I am what James Carse calls a master player). This confidence is only legitimate within the context of the game and does not count for a damn outside of it, but because the closed mode is ‘closed to the awareness of its own closure’ I tend to get arrogant and cocky and act as if there is nothing that can get the better of me. Basically, I am ‘too stupid to be scared’. When I am unsuccessful in the GO mode I am obviously not going to be so confident anymore, and I am definitely going to manifest a tendency to get scared. I experience an aversive reaction to the possibility of an unsuccessful outcome, but even now, in the ‘loser phase’ of GO mode, I am still too stupid to be scared. I am running scared it is true, but the fact of the matter is that I am scared of the wrong thing: I am still running away from ‘failure-within-the-terms of-the-game’ and I am still pursuing ‘success-within-the-terms-of-the-game’, which means that I am still as stupid as ever. When we say ‘stupid’ what we are talking about is of course the ‘deliberate stupidity’ of denial, which Chogyam Trungpa calls intelligent stupidity.




In ‘reflection mode’ I am actually in communication with the ‘bigger picture’, i.e. I am open to being radically changed by it. All information is allowed, not just the information that pertains to my game, and so we could say that this is a ‘listening mode’ or ‘seeing mode’ because I am allowing what is out there to reach me. In this mode I am accessible to reality, which is to say I do not insist on having the last word. We can also explain reflection mode by saying that it is when I am open to uncertainty, which means in practice that I am ‘connected’ to a level of organization that is higher than that of my conceptual mind, and therefore invisible to it. However, this is not to say that the open modality is purely about passive input, as opposed to the active G.O. mode, because there is now the possibility of behavioural output that is creative and new rather than being coldly logical and premeditated (i.e. old). Because our understanding of the world is subject to continual radical revision there can be no such thing as hard-and-fast goals – our output comes from a dynamic rather than a static regime, it is ‘sensitive’ and unique and cannot be said to originate from a specific place (or particular stance).


We said that when I am in the closed mode I am a ‘big fish in a small pond’ and as a consequence I tend to become falsely confident, and the converse is true in open mode: in the open mode the veil of organizational closure is torn down and so there is nothing to prevent me from seeing my true place which is analogous to the fish being suddenly transplanted into the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Needless to say my spurious sense of confidence will then evaporate in a moment leaving me very much chastened for my previous hubris. There are, as John Bennett says, two ways in which I can relate to the shoreless vastness that is the unconditioned reality – either I experience terrible fear, or I experience an indescribable feeling of awe. The unrestricted spaciousness of unconditioned reality is absolutely inimical from the point of view of the ‘me’, but it is at one and the same time – from an unprejudiced (or ‘unselfish’) perspective – the source of all blessings, the ‘All-Good’.


Fear and awe are the two complementary ways that we have of relating to the boundless: in the case of fear I am looking out from an attached standpoint, which is to say from a position that I have invested in and cannot consider losing. The problem here is that the state of maximum perspective (which is where I see ‘the full picture’) does not support my position – in fact it falsifies it and cruelly cuts the ground from under my feet. Fear is the reaction of the conditioned self when confronted with unconditioned reality but this is not to say that fear is a ‘bad’ thing, because the fear is in fact my connection to the truth. I am afraid because I am glimpsing the truth, and for a long time I have been in denial of this truth. The truth is that the conditioned self only gets to exist because of its ‘conditions’ (i.e. because of the rules that support it) and when there are no more conditions then the illusion of the self is laid bare for me to see. If I am able to take this on board then fear will give way to awe, which is what I feel when I face the infinite without any attachments, i.e. without any defined self that I feel I have to hang on to. Awe, we might say, represents our journey into reality, and fear that is acted upon represents our infinite reluctance to confront the truth; in the latter case self-deception is the only answer we have as we fight desperately to return into the comforting (if banal) illusion that the small world of the conditioned self is the only world there is.




Now that we have made the distinction between the two modalities it is a lot easier to see the flaw in the argument that says avoiding boredom is a very natural and entirely legitimate thing to do. Boredom is when we are addicted to playing our game of self-distraction (which is of course an unacknowledged addiction), but for some reason we are unable to get the upper hand. To say that not doing anything (which generally comes down to not playing our game) is sterile or meaningless or a waste of time is of course absurd, because it is the game (by definition) that is sterile, meaningless, etc. The sole function of a ‘psychological game’ is that it enables us to self-distract; to put it another way, the only point to a game is that it distracts ourselves from seeing that what we are doing is actually quite pointless.


Boredom is the front line of our resistance to ‘not-doing’ and the paradox here is that by constantly striving not to be bored the only thing we succeed at is in endlessly perpetuating the appalling sterility of our games – scratching the itch that is boredom merely exacerbates the underlying problem. ‘Doing’ comes down to maintaining the charade of unconsciousness, and ‘not-doing’ represents our only chance to see through the façade of the superficial (or ‘tautological’) activities of our purposeful existence. We actually have it all backwards, as ever; it is the G.O. mode that is disconnected and therefore sterile – we could hang about here for a billion years and still never get anywhere. In fact ‘never getting anywhere’ (never changing) is the whole point of G.O. mode because radical change means the death of the extrinsic self; just as long as the extrinsic self is managing the show it is going to do its utmost to make sure that nothing ever happens to threaten it, without ever letting on that this is what it is doing.


Reflect Mode represents the chance of our reconnection with reality, no matter how interminably arduous this process might seem to be. Because of our identification with the extrinsic self the reflective mode tends to be a hard place to be in – it seems particularly hateful and inimical to us and from the point of view of the entrenched ‘me’ there is no sustenance to be had at all. The one thing that is absolutely for sure however is that the unforgiving nature of this experience (the ‘dark night of the soul’) will give way in due course to true life, as opposed to the virtual (or counterfeit) life of the false self. When we are in the depths of depression we naturally jump to the conclusion that ‘the torture never stops’ but this is not quite right – the truth is that the torture never stops until the identification with the system of thought stops, and that is another thing entirely.




The extrinsic self, we might say, can be seen as an analogous form of the intrinsic self. It is often said that the soul is fed upon such things as love, poetry, music, and the observation of breathtaking vistas of natural beauty. We come away from these experiences recharged, momentarily reconnected to what is truly important in life. Generally speaking, it could be said that the soul is fed by contact with reality, and in terms of information this means novelty. Novelty is information that comes as a radical surprise to us; like a breath of fresh air it sweeps away all the cobwebs, like a tonic it revives us from the stupor of unconsciousness that we spend most of our time in.


In an analogous way the extrinsic self (which is not the soul but the rational mind) is sustained by a carefully regulated diet of confirmation. In a way, confirmation is an analogue of novelty because it mimics it in a superficial manner, despite being a different kettle of fish entirely. We have already met this idea when we said that the basic switch-over that occurs in the state of psychological unconsciousness is that radical uncertainty is replaced by trivial uncertainty in such a way that the substitution is never noticed (since the latter takes over the function of the former). The important thing about trivial uncertainty is that it is not really ‘uncertain’ at all since the only uncertainty lies in the fact that we don’t know which element will succeed the other. All possible elements are known in advance, but what is not known in advance is the order in which we will meet them. We can also think about this in terms of freedom: there can be no genuine freedom within the world of confirmation because I can never choose to go beyond what is already laid out for me.


Despite being strictly limited to within this finite set of possibilities I still have a superficial type of freedom – I can choose the elements I like and exclude the ones that I don’t like. To put it another way, superficial freedom also means that I can see things the way I want to see them, and not see things the way I don’t want to see them. It can be seen that superficial freedom is empowering for the extrinsic self because it allows me to express my bias, and its bias is who I am. As we have already argued however, there is problem in this snug little set-up and that problem has to do with the principle of compensation: the life of the extrinsic self has two distinct phases which we might call the success phase and the failure phase; in the success phase I have the possibility of obtaining what I like and avoiding what I don’t like, but the satisfaction inherent in this is cancelled out in the subsequent failure phase which is where I gain what I don’t like and lose what I do like. Therefore, superficial freedom is not just superficial but downright illusory.


Along with my need to get things to happen the way I want them to happen I also have the need to be kept intrigued in some harmless way. I still want for there to be some sort of uncertainty in my life and this is where trivial uncertainty comes in. We can look at trivial uncertainty in two ways. Firstly, it is true that I could try to pass the time by conceiving desires and then gratifying them, but an extra bit of spice is provided by an element of risk – i.e. will my tactics prove successful or not? The uncertainty here is restricted to YES or NO, which are both equally confirming since both success and failure reaffirm the meaningfulness of the game. If I where to try something out which gave me an answer that falsified the meaning of my game then this would be exactly the sort of a risk that I don’t want to take – I don’t want radical uncertainty (which is novelty). Secondly, we can approach the idea of trivial uncertainty by saying that it represents a way in which my environment can be varied unpredictably, so as to provide me with a source of interest. This is like watching a soap on TV. I want what happens to be ‘outside of my control’ because that way I get to escape the horribly claustrophobic solipsistic sensation that the extrinsic self is prone to (naturally enough, since the way it operates is by controlling the parameters of its own existence). But at the same time I do not want to risk seeing anything that might threaten the integrity of my basic game, the integrity of my viewpoint, and so what I do in order to get out of this trap is to substitute trivial uncertainty for radical uncertainty. This way, I get a sort of watered down simulation of the real thing and (for some of the time at least) I get to feel as if my life isn’t an exercise in self-referentiality.




The socially constructed environment in which we live can be understood in terms of its function of providing us with a reliably constant supply of confirmation-type information. This is of course not the usual way to understand the social world – the usual way to understand the social world is in terms of its ‘stated’ or overt purposes, but once we realize that all purposeful activities contain a covert agenda (which is to keep us safely distracted) then it becomes easy enough to see that society itself can be understood on two levels, the obvious and the hidden. On the obvious level the social system is a splendid sort of an affair (or at the very least, it appears to have the potential of being so) – it bedazzles us and overpowers us with the weight and portentousness of its affairs. But if we could only drag our eyes away from the hypnotizing spiral-wheel that rotates alluringly right at the very centre of it, then we would see something genuinely interesting about the social world – it is an illusion-realm that exists in order to spin us on and on for ever and ever for no good reason at all.


We may give the example of a soap on TV to illustrate the basic idea of confirmation (or trivial uncertainty) – a soap show uses the device of various ‘lures’ to hold our attention, one after the other with no real end in sight. The nature of the lure is to provoke us into thinking that something out of the ordinary – something lurid or scandalous – is about to happen, but in actual fact all that ever unfolds is the same tired old crap. The whole thing is an exercise in dressing up mutton as lamb. This isn’t just true for bad TV programs however, it is the rule for all of the information that we are piped via the multiple outlets of the global media networks. Even ‘serious’ newspapers do no more than reconfirm the same wretched assumptions over and over again. The news is never new, and anyway it’s not the ‘news’ that counts but the reinforcement of the viewpoint (i.e. the system of thought) that is absorbing and digesting the so-called ‘news’.


It is of course true that real events in the world may be reported on, but since it is the system of thought that does the reporting, and since the system of thought sees everything backwards, the essential quality of reality (which is its ability to radically change us) has been very thoroughly edited out by the time it reaches us. This is not to say that a genuinely creative use may not be made of the mass media because creativity can make use of anything, but when this does happen it is always a fluke – when authentic creativity passes through the pipeline into our houses and places of work this represents a near-miraculous failure of the system to screen out novelty. Such things only happen on a sporadic basis at best, and for the most part our diet is pure unadulterated confirmation. This is the anaesthetic gas that keeps us under, and the system that regulates our unconsciousness does not make many slip-ups.


The substitution of confirmation for novelty takes place across the board, even reaching what we consider to be the purest and most exalted strata of human activity – religion, the arts, and the sciences. These three constitute what Robert S. de Ropp (himself a professional scientist) calls the ‘High Games’. Regarding the latter two, de Ropp has this to say:


The Art Game ideally is directed toward the expression of an inner awareness loosely defined as beauty. The awareness is purely subjective. One man’s beauty can be another man’s horror. The beautiful of one age can seem ugly to another. But bad players of the art game have no inner awareness at all. They are technically proficient and imitate those who have awareness, conforming to the fashion whatever that fashion may be. The whole Art game, as played today, is heavily tainted with commercialism, the greed of the collector pervades it like a bad smell. It is further complicated by the tendency to show off that afflicts almost all contemporary artists, whether they be painters, sculptures, writers of composers. As all traditional concepts of the beautiful have been abandoned, anything goes, just so long as it is new and startling. This makes it almost impossible to tell whether a given work of art corresponds to some inner awareness of the artist or merely shows that he was trying to be clever.


The Science Game is also rarely played in its pure form. Much of it is mere jugglery, a tiresome ringing of changes on a few basic themes by investigators who are little more than technicians with higher degrees. The Science Game has become so complex, so vast and so expensive that more or less routine exercises are given preference. Anything truly original tends to be excluded by the formidable array of committees that stand between the scientist and the money he needs for research. He must either tailor his research plans to fit the preconceived ideas of the committee or find himself without funds. Moreover, in the Science Game as in the Art Game there is much insincerity and a frenzied quest for status that sparks endless puerile arguments over priority of publication. The game is played not so much for knowledge as to bolster the scientist’s ego.


In general we can say that novelty equals creativity whilst confirmation equals ‘copying’; the former, in other words, is the irruption of the unknown into our world, whilst the latter represents the introduction of elements that are in essence already known to us. A key idea that de Ropp is alluding to is the idea that confirmation mimics novelty, which is to say, technical cleverness (‘mere jugglery’) passes itself off as actual creativity, which is something that cannot be learnt and produced to order on an assembly line. Religion is the classic example of confirmation substituting itself for novelty: the unprecedented ‘bolt from the blue’ which is the original religious experience becomes replaced with the socially sanctioned rituals and ceremonies of organized religion; somehow, the unique and incommunicable mental event that constitutes spiritual insight gets downgraded into something as public and matter-of-factly routine as going to Mass on Sunday morning. The ‘downwards transformation’ of religious experience is discussed here by Carl Jung (CW 9(2), pars 232-4):


Besides the use of the rite in the magical sense, there are still other special techniques in which, in addition to the grace inherent in the rite, the personal endeavour of the initiate is needed in order to achieve the intended purpose. It is a transformation experience induced by technical means. The exercises known in the East as yoga and in the West as exercitia spiritualia come into this category. These exercises represent special techniques prescribed in advance and intended to achieve a definite psychic effect, or at least to promote it. This is true of both Eastern yoga and of the methods practiced in the West. They are, therefore, technical procedures in the fullest sense of the word; elaborations of the originally natural processes of transformation. The natural or spontaneous transformations that occurred earlier, before there were any historical examples to follow, were thus replaced by techniques designed to induce the transformation by imitating the same sequence of events. I will try to give an idea of the way such techniques may have originated by relating a fairy story:


There was once a queer old man who lived in a cave, where he had sought refuge from the noise of the villages. He was reputed to be a sorcerer, and therefore he had disciples who hoped to learn the art of sorcery from him. But he himself was not thinking of any such thing. He was only seeking to know what it was that he did not know, but which, he felt certain, was always happening. After meditating for a very long time on that which is beyond meditation, he saw no other way to escape from his predicament than to take a piece of red chalk and draw all kinds of diagrams on the walls of his cave, in order to find out what that which he did not know might look like. After many attempts he hit upon the circle. “that’s right,” he felt, “and now for a quadrangle inside it!” – which made it better still. His disciples were curious; but all they could make out was that the old man was up to something, and they would have given anything to know what he was doing. But when they asked him: “What are you doing there?” he made no reply. Then they discovered the diagrams on the wall and said: “That’s it!”- and they all imitated the diagrams. But in so doing they turned the whole process upside down, without noticing it: they anticipated the result in the hope of making the process repeat itself which had led to that result. This is how it happened then and how it still happens today.


We can understand the basic mechanism behind the conversion of N into C in terms of a theatrical triumph – I make a grab at the prize but it turns into ‘fool’s gold’ the instant my hands close around it. The only way I can get to feel that I have gained anything is by becoming the sort of fool who is fooled by fool’s gold, and so this is what I do. An example of this process in action would be where a counterculture band from the sixties jumps over the divide and becomes popular within the mainstream culture. A big part of the band’s charm is their defiantly rebellious image; everybody wants to be a rebel and so everybody buys the music, but the problem here is that if everyone listens to the band then it is no longer a non-conformist act. Far from being ‘an original’, I am just another sad idiot trying to jump onto a bandwagon. The fact that I have failed to register is that copying an original doesn’t make me an original – it just makes me like everyone else, a punter perusing the shelves of the global hypermarket, looking for a new image to wear.


The snag that I have failed to spot is that what I am actually grabbing at is in fact ‘un-grabbable’. What makes the genuine article a real prize rather than a theatrical prize is the fact that it is not a garment for me to wear – it exists for itself, not to serve the squalid ends of the false self. The prize stays real only if it is not pressed into the service of the ‘me’ because when the ‘me’ acquires the prize it becomes diminished, it becomes a means to an end, it becomes a tool in the hands of a villain and so it has the same stature or value as the goals of that villain. So if I do not import myself into the equation then the treasure is unsullied, but the problem is that this solution is completely unacceptable to me. If the manager, the executor is not there to relish the triumph (if it is not my triumph) then what possible interest could I have in the proceedings?




A typical kind of a story which might be used to illustrate this principle is the story of the man who imprisons a songbird. According to this story there was a songbird that often used to come and perch in a tree in a man’s garden, which it would grace with its uniquely beautiful song. The man was enchanted by this song and would make a point of sitting out in the garden in the morning so that he could enjoy it fully. Then one day it occurred to him that the bird may choose to go and visit some other garden instead, so he employs his skill as a trapper to catch the songbird in a net. He puts the little creature in a cage in his bedroom and congratulates himself on a job well done. The bird soon ceases to sing however and day-by-day it gets to look drabber and drabber, becoming in time a mere shadow of its former self. Funnily enough the man does not particularly seem to notice this. It is as if the satisfaction of possessing the bird somehow compensates for its poor performance since becoming captive; the sense of security which he obtains as a result of controlling the source of the joy outweighs the fact that the joy is no more. In fact the man, being a creature of habit, soon gets used to the way things are and forgets completely the incomparable beauty of the song that had moved him so much in the old days.




The key observation that we can make about the process whereby N is transformed into C is that it is all about ‘exploiting the good stuff’: I see that there is something precious there, and I move in on it, and before very long the very thing that I valued is ruined, which is no good to it and also no good to me. Needless to say, this is a story that we have all heard repeated in a hundred and one different variations – it could in fact be said to be the central motif of our modern era, the era of unlimited economic and technological expansion. In its psychological manifestation, the process usually tends to be disguised and therefore not so easy to spot: we destructively exploit our mental resources (and the resources of those around us), whilst covering up what we are doing under the name of morality, civilization, progress or simply ‘having some fun’. What we are talking about here is the process whereby the extrinsic self becomes disconnected from any higher meaning than its own, and ends up serving itself in the name of serving some external value.

This, as we have repeatedly said, is a ‘slippery slope phenomenon’ in that there is

[1] A strong biasing factor that works in the direction of disconnection.
[2] A concealing factor that operates by making the transition from ‘connected’ to ‘disconnected’ imperceptible.


The extrinsic self is essentially a manager (or controller) and it justifies its controlling by pointing to the value of what is being controlled. The argument is simple – the more valuable it is, the more important it if for us to manage it. Now there is certainly sense in this from one point of view – for example because the year’s supply of grain is valuable (if not essential) to a small, isolated agricultural community, it is important to store the grain harvest securely, to make sure it is not eaten by mice or infected by mould, and it is also important to regulate how quickly it is used. In very general terms, we can say that the regulation of material processes is important because we have a pragmatic existence as material beings.


There is a sort of a switch-over that tends to happen however which has to do with priorities: to start off with it is what is being regulated that is the important thing, not the executive body that does the regulating; afterwards it is really all about the personal needs of the manager (or controller) to be the one who is in charge. After the switch-over everything is inverted because (despite what I might believe) the only value that the thing that is being controlled has is its value in relation to me – it is valuable not in itself, but only through its use to me. We can also see this in terms of beauty. There are, we might say, two ways of appreciating beauty: either I appreciate the beauty of an object for its own sake (which is a ‘poetic’ sort of an appreciation) or I have an agenda behind my appreciation, which is to say, I am thinking about how the beauty may serve me. Beforehand I was a servant of the beauty, now it is a servant to me. This is obviously a ‘backwards’ (or ‘perverted’) way of looking at things because instead of allowing the beauty to raise me to its level, I try to bring it down to my level, and destroy (or degrade) it in the process.


The argument which says ‘since it is precious it is important that we control it’ is a dangerous one because of the ease in which the switch-over can occur, and the ease with which I can deceive myself about the change that takes place. The good feeling which I obtain from controlling becomes more important that the aims which the controlling is supposed to serve, but I can easily attribute the rewarding feeling to the fact that I am engaged in some sort of important task. This is like a person who gets involved in good causes because it makes them feel important. The hidden gain in controlling is that the extrinsic self gets to control stuff, and this validates it. Its unacknowledged need to ‘be in control’ is the real issue – everything else is just so much window dressing. The moment the process gets hijacked by the extrinsic self a sinister shift of values takes place: despite the fact that things appear to continue in much the same way on the surface, a different master is now being served. The beneficiary is now the false self, and since the false self is not real (or true), there actually isn’t a beneficiary at all. Life that is sacrificed for the benefit of the false self is life that is squandered or degraded for no genuine reason at all. We can therefore say that after disconnection reality occurs what follows is essentially a perverse (or ‘malign’) process.


The irony that the false self is totally unable to appreciate is that the precious ‘commodity’ which it is exploiting loses the qualities that made it so precious in the first place. It is like a man who admires the beauty and grace of a wild animal. Not being content with this, he captures the creature and keeps it in an enclosure. The wildness is now gone out of it – the animal is managed, contained, its spirit broken and its gracefulness lost. From the point of view of the false self, managed life will have to do because the other way of it is that it itself has to go, and since its only real concern is itself, this definitely isn’t on the cards. Therefore, we prefer to hang onto our misery, spending half our time hoping for an upturn in our fortunes and the other half despairing of any change. Genuine happiness is simply not an option since the price of happiness is the extinction of the all-important ‘me’, the ‘me’ that is kept alive by hope and fear, attraction and aversion.




We have been using the model of pragmatic information as a basis for understanding what we have called ‘the switch-over’. In addition to the definition of novelty and confirmation that we have already given, we can also put it this way:



In the case of [1] we can see that confirmation must be false meaning since the whole point of meaning is that it exists independently of me. If I can manipulate meaning as I please (if it is tamed so that it cannot disobey my wishes) then the meaning in question has been downgraded into mere ‘virtual meaning’, which is meaninglessness in disguise. Virtual (or managed) meaning is theatrical, it is ‘for effect only’ – it is the meaning that our games have for us, which is to say, it is the meaning that life has for us when we reduce it to a mere game. Because this type of meaning is artificially produced it is subject to the law of compensation, which is another way of saying that theatricality (i.e. ‘game-reality’) is a null state of affairs. Statement [2] stipulates that the meaning in question is unmanaged (i.e. it is completely outside of my control) and so we can see that it cannot in any way be artificial. For this reason, any meaning that is there is genuinely there, and therefore there is no question of the law of compensation operating.




A good way of explaining this point about ‘null’ and ‘non-null’ situations (or managed versus unmanaged meaning) is by defining psychological games in terms of ‘the separation of the opposites’. This is such an obvious definition that we are quite likely to overlook it –

The two opposites that are separated in a psychological game are winning and losing.


It is of course the tension between winning and losing that create the motivation of game (which is the type of motivation that we have been calling compulsion), and so it is not just the case that it is crucially important for the opposites to be separated in a game, rather we would have to say that the separation of opposites is the game. When we are adapted to the compulsive frame of mind which is the game we find it completely impossible to appreciate this point because the difference winning and losing is so self-evident. When we are playing a game ‘winning versus losing’ is an issue, which is to say, the polarity is meaningful to us, but if I am not playing the game, then there is of course no issue at all. ‘Winning’ and ‘losing’ are equally meaningless outside of the game and so there is zero tension between the two, zero compulsivity. Whilst it is true that when we are playing a game the difference between winning the game and losing the game constitutes genuine information, it is also true that this information only constitutes information when we do not see that we are in fact playing a game. This is what James Carse calls the principle of self-veiling – in order to play a game, we have to veil from ourselves the fact that we ‘freely chose to play’ in the first place. Or to put it another way:

In order for us to experience compulsivity, it is necessary that we veil from ourselves the fact that we freely agreed to hand over our freedom to some external authority.


Another way of putting this is to say that the statement [+] does not equal [-] can be taken as meaningful only when we refrain from acknowledging the special conditions under which this is true. It follows that the difference between ‘losing’ and ‘winning’ constitutes virtual not genuine information. On the other hand, if we were to frame the initial statement [+] does not equal [-] by acknowledging that this is so only within the context of the game, then what we would be looking at would be genuine information after all, but when we correctly frame the conditioned statement [+] does not equal [-] by mentioning the conditions under which it makes sense then what we end up with is the statement [+] = [-] which is an unconditionally true (or unconditionally meaningful) statement. It is also, of course, the most basic formulation of the liar paradox. <YES = NO> is a translucent gem hidden amongst a desert of deceptively opaque stones – despite being flawlessly inscrutable, it represents the only nugget of genuine information that we are likely to find in the ‘disguised wasteland’ that is the realm of disconnected rationality….


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