When I say ‘everything is matter’ there is a great finality in my words, and this is just what we like about materialism. Materiality is the bottom line. That is it. Matter (whatever that is) is it. That’s the story. Materiality is the rub – it just doesn’t get any more nitty-gritty than this. The great thing about matter is that it’s so obvious; it’s as obvious as a brick in the face. We all know what matter is, how could we not know? It is the primary datum of our experience with which we are confronted every day of our lives – if we don’t respect the physical world and learn about its rules we don’t live very long. And yet, this ‘knowledge’ that we all have is no more than skin deep really. After all, if someone comes along and presses the point, what exactly am I going to say in order to explain what it means to be physical? I can say that physical objects occupy space, and usually exclude other objects from occupying the same space. I can therefore say is that something is ‘there’, in that space, but I cannot say anything meaningful about what it actually is that is ‘there’.
This is not immediately apparent. I think that I can meaningfully describe and define the physical world and the state of being material. We all think this. If I happen to be technically or scientifically minded I will probably go on about chemical compounds, the elements, the electromagnetic spectrum, atomic and subatomic particles, wave-particle duality, the idea of fields, the various strong and weak forces that act on particles, and stuff like that. But have I thereby defined the physical universe? One of the most brilliant, influential and downright legendary physicists of the latter half of the twentieth century, Richard Feynman, writes of being exasperated if not infuriated by the habit that most of us have of describing something in tautological terms, and then walking away smugly believing that we have said something that actually makes sense.
One example given by Feynman is a science teacher who defines gravity as the force that makes apples fall out of trees. What does this tell me? I see an apple fall, and I name the force that makes it fall ‘gravity’. But naming something does not give me any extra information about it, it just creates the illusion that I now know something that I didn’t before. Feynman was critical of the way we teach science, and he felt that much of it was mere parrot learning of names, formulae, and equations. That might the way to obtain a science degree, but is it really a way to learn more about the world we live in? We may learn to put the numbers into the equations and crank out the right answers, but do we know what we are doing when we do this? Do we have the necessary insight into what this number juggling corresponds to in the real world? According to Feynman the answer is often “no”, even for students on a physics degree course. Techniques and skills can be taught, but curiosity has to be inspired, and before I as a lecturer can inspire others, I need to be inspired myself.
Another point made by Feynman was that even professional physicists can be fooled into thinking they know more then they really do. During the last hundred years physics has made astonishing advances in working out the relationships between particles, energy, fields and forces but it still cannot say anything about what matter or energy (or any of the related fields and forces) ‘are’, in any ultimate sense. In fact, that is a stupid question in the first place because in order to truly know what physicality is, we would have to have a way of defining it in terms of something that is not physicality; we would need an objective context within which to make sense of physical events – a context which exists independently of them. But, we do not have such a context and so, in practice, what happens is that we define one phenomenon in terms of another, which we then relate to another, which we then relate to yet another. In the end, we are bound to close the circle and come back to where we originally started, which means that we have performed the tautological operation of ‘defining a thing in terms of itself’. What this means is that matter, despite looking so obvious, is actually a profound mystery. That sense of familiarity that the world usually has for us is a function of the circular logic which our thinking is based on.
Another way in which we can see matter betraying its true mysterious nature is by considering the ongoing search for primary or fundamental particles. So far, every particle that has been discovered has upon further examination proved to be a blind or façade behind which even more ‘fundamental’ particles exist. Even quarks are not definitely known to be the end of the road, and even if they were, there is one more reason why we still couldn’t claim to have isolated the true ‘essence’ of materiality. The reason we can’t do that is because we can’t actually totally isolate any particle, ever, because the individual ‘self-existent’ nature of a particle is – ultimately – an illusion. There are no airtight compartments in this universe; everything is secretly in communication with everything else and the ultimate description of the universe, according to David Bohm, is ‘one unbroken movement’. It will be noted that Bohm has not tried to say anything about that movement, such as what it is that moves, or where it is moving to, or where the movement originated. Because we are always part of that ‘one unbroken movement’, it is pointless for us to try to find a static external vantage point outside of it, from which we can look down and see what is happening. When we try to do this we are in effect attempting to perform an impossible operation just as if we were striving to lift ourselves off the ground by pulling upon our own bootlaces. Alan Watts uses the metaphor of a tooth that is trying to bite itself, or of an eyeball that wants to see itself, to illustrate the manifest impossibility of such endeavours.
Static external vantage points always suffer from the disadvantage of being unreal, in fact, one could say that a static (or ‘rational’) viewpoint is only real in its own terms, which means that what we are talking here about is our old friend the ‘system of thought’. We can further note that the reason we are able to believe to easily in the idea of materiality as an absolute basis for understanding reality is because we are identified with the static, external (or extrinsic) viewpoint which is the system of thought. By saying ‘identified’ we simply mean that we unquestioningly accept it, we automatically as if there was no way in which it couldn’t be true.
WHAT IS INFORMATION?
Having done our best to show that saying ‘everything is matter’ (or ‘everything is energy’) does not tell us as much as it first seems to tell us, we are now ready to try our luck with a new, hopefully more helpful (i.e. less tautological) paradigm. What we are going to do is to see where we get when we say ‘everything is information’. That has a nice ring to it, but what exactly is ‘information’? When asked this question, our response might be to say that it is an abstract representation of something, or that information ‘tells us something’. This is defining information in terms of some ‘given reality’ – we are implying that the object the information is telling us about is more basic that the information itself. It can be seen that if we define information like this we have not escaped from the physicalist paradigm after all.
We don’t need to go down the road of defining information in terms of something else, though. The way information is scientifically defined is in terms of predictability, which is to say, the more predictable a message is, the less information it has in it. A message could be anything at all – in fact it doesn’t really matter what it is. The whole point of this type of definition is that the actual substrate (the medium which is carrying the information) isn’t what we are concerned with; what we are concerned with is the unpredictability of the message that the medium holds. The message could come via sound waves, light waves, vibrations in the ground, smells or tastes – all of these are commonly used for transmitting information. In essence, we can say that any pattern or arrangement that is somehow different to what we would have expected equals information.
INFORMATION IS THAT WHICH CHANGES US
Intuitively, this makes good sense. Information is ‘newness’, it is the surprise component that catches us off our guard, and makes us wake up a bit. This leads us to another definition of information, which is to say that ‘information is what changes me’. If I learn something new, then I am changed by what I have learned. If, on the other hand, I receive no new input, then I stay the same. Therefore, we can relate information to change and ‘no information’ to staying the same. Even better, we can relate information to radical or spontaneous change, and no information to managed or linear change. We will deal this idea in a bit more detail shortly, when we look at Weiszacker’s Model of Pragmatic Information.The whole thing about information equalling newness is that there is no tautology here, no ‘self-reference’. Strictly speaking, to define information as ‘something new’ is a bit of a cheat – it isn’t really a definition at all. I can define information by saying that it is when something new comes into the picture but I can’t define what ‘something new’ is – if I could define what that ‘something new’ was then it wouldn’t be new, it would be ‘old’. New means new, it means that it comes from outside the system, and so there is nothing we can say about it.
CIRCULAR AND NON-CIRCULAR DEFINITIONS
We said earlier that when we try to define the state of being material (or substantial) we always end up trapped in a circular argument. The simplest, most essential way to explain why this should be so is as follows. Substantiality means opposition – if there were no opposition (such as the opposition between my hand and the table I am banging on), then I wouldn’t gain the impression that there is any ‘substance’ there (either in my hand, or the table). But here is the trick: in order to oppose each other, both sides must secretly agree. There has to be a consensus, a common playing field – if you and I do not take the same things as being important, then how can we disagree? What we have here is the principle behind the Chinese yin/yang symbol which has to do with the agreement of the opposites. The symbol shows in a graphic way how YES and NO complement each other, it shows how YES and NO are the two ends of the same stick. Therefore, we can see that the phenomenon of substantiality is a function of both sides secretly agreeing to take the same issues seriously; the two opposing forces (my hand and the table) are always in perfect agreement with each other – they couldn’t agree more in fact.
The ‘trick’ of substantiality, then, is that all players are defined with respect to the same frame of reference, which is why they all appear ‘solid’ (or ‘real’) to each other; this real-ness however is only there because of the self-referentiality of the set-up, it is in no way an independently arising property. To put this another way, the hidden ‘self’ of the self-referentiality in question is the framework of meaning within which self, other, and everything else are constructed – the ‘self’ is in fact Bohm’s system of thought, a definition of which might be ‘a perfectly circular argument that cannot actually see that it is circular’.
We have defined information, on the other hand, in a ‘non self-referential way’, which is to say, in terms of something that is outside the ‘self of the system’. For this reason, we can say that information is what relates ‘me’ to what lies ‘beyond me’ (or, alternatively, we could simply say that it is the bridge between the known and the unknown). Between the known and the unknown there can be no consensus, no common playing field, and so this gives us another definition of information, which is some component of a message that ‘disagrees’ with my current way of understanding the world. From this we can see that information cannot be explained tautologically in terms of itself, but rather it is a measure of the ‘non self-referentiality’ (or ‘non-circularity’) of a message.
THE FEAR OF THE NEW
We have an ambiguous relationship with newness and change. On the one hand, we find it exciting, refreshing and inspiring – it is a breath of fresh air, it is what life is all about. Where would we be without it? Suppose I woke up one day and nothing new happened at all? Or suppose I walk over to the window and looked out and saw nothing new at all, suppose there was zero information content to my perceptions. What would that be like? Intuition tells us that without some sort of newness I would not see anything at all – surely there must be some sort of contrast between what I expect to see, and what I actually do see? Even when I stare at the same object, such as a tree, there is the sense that what I am seeing is constantly new, constantly fresh. It is there anew, in each moment of the present.
On the other hand, as psychologist Abraham Maslow has pointed out, we consistently act as if newness or change is our greatest enemy. This is a curious observation because, on the face of it, most people seem always looking for ‘interest’, whether it is the latest gossip or news in the morning paper, or a new fashion to follow. Generally speaking, when we are not under pressure from major security-threats, we are on the run from boredom, seeking new and different stimuli in our environments. Of course, we all know the opposite tendency, which is the love of routine and ‘normality’, and distaste for any unplanned occurrence. We recognize this conservative urge in ourselves and in others but it hardly seems to be the dominant motivation in human affairs. Our culture celebrates progress – it is dynamic and embraces challenges (or at least, so it may seem to the naïve observer). When we look a little deeper into what is going on, it is a different story, though. The history of science provides a good illustration of what we are talking about here. As Thomas Kuhn argues, scientific progress occurs in jumps: for the most part all the activity that takes place within the academic sphere comes down to ‘the consolidation of the dominant paradigm’- filling in the details rather than questioning the overall scheme of things. Every now and again a radical new idea comes along, often from more than one source at the same time (as in the example of chaos theory), but rather than being welcomed, such ideas are fiercely resisted at every turn. Eventually, the power of the new paradigm wins out against the dead weight of conservationism, and there is a qualitative jump in our collective world-picture, a so-called ‘paradigm shift’. The point is though, that we only like change if that change is in line with our expectations and assumptions about what ‘change’ or ‘progress’ ought to be.
TWO TYPES OF CHANGE
What this means is that there are two types of change – quantitative change (which confirms our general expectations), and qualitative change, which always throws our expectations into disarray. The suggestion we are putting forward is that the modern world embraces change, but only the sort of change that occurs on its terms. After all, we already know where we are going: we live in a goal-orientated culture: we know what we want; we know what is important, we know that we haven’t left anything important out of our calculations. Therefore, the only type of change that you will see is the ‘optimization’ type of change, which is that peculiar thing static change – changing in order to stay the same. Because this is true for the social system as a whole, it is also true for the majority of individuals – we might appear to lead busy lives, but in reality we are busy going nowhere. We are conditioned to believe in a certain view of ourselves and the world, and we go to the grave never having moved beyond this limiting set of ideas. All our busy-ness never does any more than further entrench us in our banal assumptions – the more goal-orientated behaviour we engage in, the more meaningful the goals seem to be! The two different types of change have been referred to in many different ways, for example:
Fritjof Capra – self-maintenance v self-transcendence
James Carse – finite games v the infinite game
Carl Jung – adaptation v individuation
Stanislav Grof – hylotropism v holotropism
Ilya Prigogine – optimization v spontaneous (radical) change
Goethe – diastole v systole
Johannes Fabricius – progressive v regressive individuation
(which he sees as corresponding to the cosmic
principle of exhalation/inhalation)
Alchemy – coagulating v dissolving
John G. Bennett – evolution v involution
Mathematical – linear v non-linear
Thermodynamic – equilibrium v non-equilibrium processes
Having taken a look at the idea that we have very mixed feelings about change and newness, we are now going to return our noses to the grindstone of information theory. So far we have said that information can be defined in reverse proportion to ‘predictability’, and we have also defined information by saying that it is something that has the potential to change the receiver. This brings us to a not-very-well-known but nevertheless interesting theory of information put forward by Ernst and Christine von Weiszacker in 1974. This theory, the Model of Pragmatic Information, was based on the idea that in order or us to be able to assimilate information that information has to contain a proportion (or mix) of both the known and the unknown. Too much of the unknown and we are thrown into chaos, too much of the known and we stagnate or go around in circles. We have already touched upon this notion when we talked about information that agrees with our assumptions (i.e. our rules for processing it), and information that does not agree. In the Model of Pragmatic Information, agreeing information is called confirmation, and disagreeing information is called novelty.
Now, there is something rather peculiar about this because what this means is that there is a type of information (confirmation) that contains nothing new, and yet we have defined information as essentially being ‘newness’. What is this all about? One way to think about it is by imagining a person who is trying to improve his ability to play golf. All games are of course about trying to win, and trying not to lose (both of which obviously come down to the same thing). For our golfer, improving efficiency at ‘winning’ is what it is all about, and this means that he is only going to be taking notice of a very narrow range of information – information that helps him with his game. If he gets it right he wants to now why, and if he goes wrong he also wants to know why, but other than this (if he is really serious about his golf) he doesn’t care.
The information our man is obtaining is all ‘relevant’ to his goals, and so it is by definition pure confirmation; this confirmation-type information allows him to change, but only in the sense of ‘getting better at what he is already doing’. For this reason confirmation can be defined as ‘optimising’ information. In a limited or trivial sense it is ‘new’, because if our golfer already knew it then he would already have been super-efficient, and he wasn’t! But at the same time we have to say that the information contains nothing radically new, which is to say, it doesn’t contain anything that could take us beyond the game of golf. Novelty, then, can be explained as information that tells us about something that we didn’t even want to know about (we didn’t want to know about it because we didn’t know it was there in the first place.) Therefore, confirmation is the information utilized in self-maintenance, and novelty is the information which triggers (but does not specify) self-transcendence.
There is another tack we can take here. We can say that confirmation is ‘phoney information’, and this takes us back to what we were talking about at the beginning of this section when we said that it is possible to define something in a circular way, and then think that we have actually said something new. A specific example of this was ‘naming something and then thinking we know something as a result of naming it’. We can set this out in two simple statements:
 Confirmation is a type of ‘circular information.
 This circular information has the property of actually looking as if it is non-circular.
To anyone who has read David Bohm’s (1992) Thought as a System this will sound familiar. Bohm uses a similar formula to explain the deceptive nature of the world which thought shows us – what he says is  Thought participates in creating the world we see, and  Thought, by the way it works, automatically conceals its own participatory role. This might seem like a simple enough idea but if you think that, then you haven’t really taken it on board properly yet! What it means is that the entire thought-created world (that being the only world we know) has in truth zero information content, being based entirely on circular (or ‘self-referential’) logic. All the information passed about by the system of thought is confirmation-type information, which essentially means that the world we believe in is a trick. As we saw earlier, John Bennett was saying the same thing with his notion of the Nullity. The Nullity is a self-deceiving state of mind where we fail to see that every gain is compensated for by a corresponding loss – seeing ‘only the gain’ is false information because it seems as if we are getting something, when in reality we are not. Nevertheless (as we keep saying), we are quite able to proceed on the basis that the information we have obtained is real information, just as long as we ignore any deeper insights that we might have along the way.
NOMINAL MEANING AND THEATRICAL CHOICES
It is possible to set out the idea of false information in several different (but equivalent) ways. The first way has to do with the self-referentiality of ‘naming’. Suppose (to give a somewhat artificial example) a group of people agree as part of a game that one of their number shall be called ‘Bozo’. From then on, if I (as a member of the group) asks “What is this guy’s name?” everyone will reply “His name is Bozo”. Now, when I ask a question and someone gives me an appropriate-sounding reply, then naturally the impression is that I have received some information. When you tell me that the guy’s name is Bozo it appears that you are telling me something. But the point is that the information we are obtaining is information that we ourselves have put in there, and so we are really not learning anything new.
Another (slightly less obvious) version of this has to do with classification: when I investigate the world on the basis of a model or theory, then this means that I am evaluating incoming data within the context of an ‘agreed upon’ framework of meaning. That is to say, I process the data using evaluative criteria that I have decided upon in advance. During this process I am under the impression that I am obtaining information – it certainly feels this way – but in a deeper sense I am not learning anything ‘new’ because the only stuff that I am ‘learning’ is stuff that conforms with the ideas I had in the first place about what is important and worth noticing, and what is not important and not worth noticing. I am learning about the world on a conditional basis, which means that I am learning about stuff only on the condition that what I learn agrees with the implicit assumptions I have already made concerning what is worth learning. When we put it like that, it can be seen that the whole process is inescapably tautological – I am trapped in a closed system of thinking.
That is one approach to the concept of false information. Another approach would be to think in terms of ‘false choices’, or ‘false freedom’. When a category has only nominal meaning (i.e. when it only has the meaning that we have agreed that it should have) then obviously the freedom that I perceive myself to have with regard to making meaningful choices between these categories is also nominal, or true-in-name-only. If I am willing only to look at surface level appearances, then I experience myself as having ‘the power to choose’, but because this only holds good for appearances the choosing is in fact theatrical (i.e. it exists for effect only).
As general rule, theatrical choosing takes place when all of the options that I am choosing from are ‘disguised versions of the same thing’. A simple example of this would be the child’s ‘sweet-shop’ game where the sweetshop owner has on display a number of small stones wrapped up in different coloured wrappers. It is possible to have fun choosing what sweets you want to buy, but it is of course necessary to ignore the fact that in reality there is no choice because all the ‘choices’ are exactly the same. There are countless adult versions of this sort of thing which are very much harder to see through. Voting for the political party of your choice is one specific example: all the various parties noisily disagree over how they intend to run the country and over the sort of values they especially wish to protect and promote, but underlying this surface level disagreement there is generally no difference at all – all of the candidates tend to be equally unable to question the invisible assumptions that their society is founded upon. This is the inevitable trap of democracy really because for a politician to be taken seriously by the voting population they would have to be socially adapted (i.e. they would have to believe in the same stuff as everyone else), but if a politician is socially adapted then there is no way they can offer anything new. As we have said, political parties go out of their way to make it look as if they are offering you choices, but the fact of the matter is that ‘you can choose whatever you want as long as it is belongs to the social game that we are (unconsciously) playing’. As the car dealer thinks (but does not say), “You can buy any colour or any model car as long as you buy a car…”
It is not just political choices that we are talking about here therefore but any kind of socially validated choice that we might make whatsoever. All the choices that society offers us are ‘trick choices’ because – like the car dealer – the meaning-system that is society does not give a damn what we choose, just so long as we choose something that has meaning within its game. And before anyone jumps to the conclusion that society is the con man here, we ought to point out that it is not society (i.e. the external or manifest structure) that is stealing our freedom, but the rational-conceptual mind which lies behind that structure. Why this has to be is easy enough to argue: the conceptual mind consists of a finite set of known categories, it is as Robert Anton Wilson says a ‘map’. When we ‘choose’, we necessarily choose between known alternatives, which means that we remain within the bounds of our map. Every choice that I make has to make sense within the context of my map (i.e. ‘within my frame-of-reference’), and so the whole business is a closed shop. For me to choose to leave my map, I would have to choose some possibility that I do not know about, and how I can select what I do not know? There can be no choosing of the unknown because in order to chose it I would have to specify it, and there is no way I can specify what I do not already know about. I can choose from alternatives that are represented on my mental map because they are visible’ to me, but everything outside this map is ‘invisible’ and so in my purposeful activity I act exactly as if there is nothing there.
From this argument it is particularly easy to see that all goals (and all goal-orientated behaviours) are tautological. Of course, if I were to be clearly aware of the inbuilt tautology in practise rather than in theory, then I would obtain zero satisfaction in my goal-driven behaviour, zero perception of having ‘got somewhere’. Needless to say, this would seem very strange to us and we would not find it a very pleasant experience because it is by obtaining goals that we usually derive our sense of meaning about life. The falsification of this type of meaning tends therefore to be perceived as wholly negative and pathological, although the truth of the matter is that when this happens to me I am making a valuable discovery –I am discovering the redundancy (in an informational sense) of my mental map, which up to now I had lazily taken to be the same thing as ‘everything that there is’. So, although the initial discovery is painful (not to say downright horrific), it is actually a blessing in disguise because I am now redeemed from the sterility of my games and returned to an authentic reality which I did not even know I had lost contact with.
From the notions of nominal meaning and theatrical choices it is only a short step to the idea of virtual change, which is yet another way of talking about circular (or ‘self-referential’) information. If we look at the relationship between the sort of uncertainty that is associated with a closed set of elements and the sort of uncertainty that comes into play with an open set (i.e. the Universal Set), we can say that trivial uncertainty acts is a safe analogue of radical uncertainty, even though it is not at all the same thing. Just now we defined ‘theatrical choosing’ by saying that it is when we choose between elements in a closed set without realizing that our choice is in fact limited by our preconceptions about ‘what is possible’, and so in a similar way we can define virtual change as the deceptive appearance that is generated by the constant succession of those elements, i.e. the situation where one is followed by another and another until we get right back to the first element again. Clearly, this is not genuine change because we do not get anywhere as a result of it, but if our perspective is limited enough, then we will not spot the trick that is being played upon us and it will seem very much as if change is occurring.
If anyone were to doubt the power of virtual change to distract us from seeing that nothing new is happening, they need only to consider that most familiar of things, the routine. In a routine there are a number of basic events or occurrences that succeed each other with deadly inevitability. Now, it is true that on the one hand we loathe the tedium and sense of suffocation that routines create, but at the same time we are also very fond of them and rely on them to get us through the day in a safe and non-challenging way. Life within a prison is an excellent example of the ‘power of routine’. Obviously, for the prisoner the job at hand is to get through another day – the enemy is time itself and so whatever helps to chip away at that daunting mass of time becomes a friend. For this reason the inmates generally develop an appreciation for the strict and highly predictable prison routine, which grinds on inexorably from the moment you get out of bed in the morning to the moment you return to bed at night. Although this routine can appear oppressive at first, it soon becomes apparent that if you go along with it, always looking forward to the next ‘event’, the days flash by with uncanny rapidity. Once you really get into the swing of it, years pass by before you know it…
For the time-server, this is of course the best possible news, but from time to time (as Howard Marks notes in his autobiography Mr Nice) there is also the unpleasant insight that I am perversely gaining satisfaction from the fact that I am wasting years of my life. Life in prison is as ‘brisk as a tomb’ – there is an unremitting regime of activity which has no other purpose really than to pass the time. Now, the point about this digression into prison life is that it shows us something that is directly applicable to most of our lives. Social psychologist Eric Berne argues that the covert motivation behind our games is to avoid what he calls ‘unstructured space’ (which is space that our mental map does not give us instructions on how to navigate), and in a parallel fashion we can say that the hidden aim behind the purposeful activity of our ‘finite games’ is to avoid encountering radical uncertainty. Inasmuch as this is true, therefore, we are all time-servers, perversely interested in wasting our days in trivialities. When the game is self-distraction everything becomes false, because no matter what our overt aims might be, all we really want to do is to ‘not be there’.
CIRCULAR CHANGE AND SELF-REFERENTIALITY
We have defined virtual change by saying that it is circular change. Another definition would be to say that it is change from one known to another. Both of these definitions are based on the idea that there is movement within a closed set or system, movement that is therefore fundamentally predictable. If change is predictable it is not really change at all, and so there is a contradiction going on here, just as there is a contradiction in the definition of confirmation as a type of information. Both are example of the same thing – the tautology implicit in self-referentiality. We can demonstrate the self-referentiality behind virtual change in a straightforward mathematical way by looking at the properties of a closed set. The first thing to note is that a closed set gets to be closed because we have decided in advance what it shall contain. We make a statement that specifies which elements shall be included; for example saying, “Let N equal all odd numbers” creates as if by magic the set of all odd numbers. Significantly, we have not had to specify what will not be included in the set; it is enough to include what is to be included, and in fact if we tried to say what we don’t want we will never get to the end of it because we will not ever know for sure if we had left something out of our list of “what shall not be included”. This is important because it shows that we don’t have to know what we are excluding – actually, we don’t give a damn and so what we are talking about here is a sort of mathematical equivalent of psychological denial, which is when we exclude conscious elements without wanting to know what it is that we are excluding (‘not knowing’ being the whole point).
Now, because in a closed set we have already specified in advance what shall be there, any subsequent discovery of some element within that set cannot be said to constitute a surprise, i.e. it is not information. This whole business is ‘self-referential’ because in order for me to decide what is allowed (or ‘real’) I have to refer back to myself (my thoughts about what is real) – at no time do I refer to anything outside myself. Another way to illustrate the idea of self-referentiality is by looking at ‘confirmation-type information’. Confirmation, it will be remembered, is information that agrees with the assumptions concerning what ‘information’ is, or what ‘information’ should be about. When I filter the world through my conceptual categories, I end up with information about the world that echoes my original ideas about what there is in the world that I should take notice of. Therefore, as in the case of mathematical sets, stuff can only be allowed to exist when it agrees with my rule for what is allowed to exist, which is self-referentiality in a nutshell.
We have therefore made a transition from talking about mathematics to talking about the mechanics of the rational-conceptual mind (i.e. the system of thought). The rational-conceptual mind works by comparing all incoming information to its ‘evaluative criteria’, which in turn derive from a model or map of reality; in other words, I am the judge of what is meaningful and not meaningful – it is my ‘law’ that counts, not the Law of reality itself. This means that when we say that we ‘value’ this, or ‘respect’ that, what we really value and respect is our own map of reality rather than the thing itself. As Krishnamurti says (1983, p 25):
What thought creates is not sacred; but we attribute to the created image the qualities that we like that image to have. And all the time we are worshiping, albeit unconsciously, ourselves.
THE LIAR PARADOX
There is a neat way to penetrate right to the very heart of self-referentiality (with absolutely no messing about at all) and that is by considering the liar paradox. The liar paradox has a number of forms, the simplest being the statement “Everything I say is a lie”. If someone tells you this they are apparently providing you with information, but when you think about it a bit more deeply you then see that there isn’t actually any information there, just a paradox, because if the statement is true, then that means the statement itself must be a lie, but if the statement is a lie, then that means it is true after all, and if it is true, then it must be false…
The beauty of this formulation of the paradox is that we can see straight away that the ability of the statement in question to say something meaningful is in fact illusory. The statement tries to reach out beyond itself and say something that is genuinely ‘valid’ but it cannot. A self-referential (i.e. closed) system cannot ever connect with reality, which is open. The ‘problem’ with the liar paradox is that we see it as just a one-off oddity, lacking in any wider significance. It amuses us as a sort of party trick, but then we tire of it and move on in search of further entertainment to something else. What we don’t see is that all the statements which the system of thought (i.e. the rational-conceptual mind) is capable of making have this same property of appearing to reach out and say something meaningful about the world, whilst in fact doing no such thing. The only difference is that the power of the system of thought to appear to be able to say meaningful stuff is much harder to see through. We have to think about it quite hard to spot the tautology.
The tautology is always there however, whether we know it or not, as we can see from the example given earlier of a game in which a person is given the name Bozo. Within the context of the game, if I ask, “What is your name?” and you reply “Bozo!” this answer constitutes information, because we have agreed that it is meaningful, but outside of the game, the categories-which-make-sense-within-the-game have no validity at all. Similarly, with regard to the classification argument, if I as a psychiatrist that you are suffering from schizoaffective disorder, this is meaningful information only if you are consenting to the ‘interpretive framework’ implicit in my diagnosis. If you do not accept the same basic assumptions that I have had to accept in order to be able make such definite and authoritative pronouncements, then my words will be utterly meaningless to you. The principle here applies without exception to all ‘positive knowledge’: any definite statement that I might make about the world only has meaning when I implicitly accept the context of meaning that goes with it, i.e. when I make a set of arbitrary assumptions about reality, and then proceed as if those assumptions are unquestionably true. Basically, all positive knowledge (all ‘knowing’) brings with it a mental blindspot that I cannot be aware of if I want that knowledge to remain ‘positive’ (i.e. not relativistic); as Stuart Kauffman says, “all knowing requires ignorance”.
YES EQUALS NO
The liar paradox draws our attention to the null nature of circular information, and it can also show how tremendously easy it is to come under the sway of the illusion of circular information, which is to say, how easy it is to fail to spot the self-referentiality involved. There is an irreversibility at work here, an irreversibility which arises due to the fact that when we lose perspective, we simultaneously lose the perspective we would have needed to know that we have lost perspective. In a sense, we could say that the trap is sprung as soon as I start to use logic. It doesn’t make any difference at all what train of logic I use because whatever purposeful (i.e. logical) response I take to an issue thrown up by the particular angle I have taken will confirm the validity of that angle.
If I ask a question then whether you respond by saying either YES or NO makes not the least bit of difference because by answering positively or negatively you have implicitly accepted the framework of meaning inherent in my question (‘implicit’ means that you have accepted the package without realizing that you have accepted anything). Another way of putting this is to say that saying YES about something doesn’t tell me any more about that thing than saying NO about that thing. Both specify the same thing; both are logically connected to the same thing – one positively and one negatively. From inside the game, however, there is a world of difference between YES and NO. If you and I are both operating within the same frame of reference then the difference between a YES answer and a NO answer constitutes real information. The (hidden) tautology comes in because in order for the difference between YES and No to constitute genuine information we both have to take the same set of assumptions for granted.
What this tells us is that the information in question is information only if we agree to look at things from an arbitrary angle, and then conveniently forget that the fact that we have done such a deal. Within a game, therefore, YES does not equal NO, and upon this inequality rests the integrity of the virtual meaning system which is the game. Push this assumption hard enough however, and we run slap-bang into the liar paradox, which tells us that YES equals NO. Awareness (or lack of awareness) of the liar paradox gives us a handy definition of two contrasting states of awareness, one in which we see as plain as day that YES does not equal NO, and the other in which we see perfectly clearly that YES does equal NO. This observation leads us on to our next section.
THE CAPACITY TO NOT SEE THE TAUTOLOGY…
If there is such a thing as false information (or ‘virtual meaning’) then there must be such a thing as the capacity to believe in this virtual meaning as if it were the real thing. It might seem redundant to say this, but there is a point to this line of reasoning that will become apparent shortly. This ‘capacity’ can be defined in a number of equivalent ways. We could say that it is the capacity to think that you know something when you don’t, which is the same thing as the capacity to think that you are saying something meaningful when you aren’t. What this is referring to is the tendency to name (or categorize) phenomena and then assume that the resulting ‘positive knowledge’ contains real information. To speak in terms of a mere ‘tendency’ is to understate the matter because this naming and categorizing (i.e. the allocation of meaning according to unquestionable rules-of-interpretation) is in fact the essential action of the rational-conceptual mind. What we are actually talking about here is the entire domain of rational thought, the world of thoughts and ideas in which we spend by far the largest portion of our waking hours. Our everyday thoughts are precisely the sort of virtual meaning candyfloss that we have been talking about – they only make sense to us because of the capacity we have ‘not to see the tautology’.
Due to this capacity we are able to think we are doing something real when we are not; we are able to think we are changing when in fact we are staying the same. In other words we are able to see optimization (i.e. linear or information-free change) as being the same thing as qualitative or radical change. Here we have the key to understanding this so-called ‘capacity’. What is actually happening is that a switch has been made – radical uncertainty (which is an open set of possibilities) has been substituted for by trivial uncertainty (which is a closed set of possibilities), and we have not spotted the difference. The reason we haven’t spotted the difference is because our perception has simultaneously undergone a loss of perspective, which means that the capacity in question is essentially the capacity to see things with reduced perspective. This way I can absorb myself in known details so completely that I become oblivious to the context of the all-encompassing Unknown. This unknown is an utter abyss – it is a conceptual chasm in relation to which all of our so-called knowledge must be seen as quite empty (or irrelevant).
A good way to illustrate what we are talking about is by means of the following analogy. Imagine that I am an extremely rich and famous pop star who has passed the creative zenith of my career and am now leading a relatively quiet and secluded life, basking in the warmth of my former glory. I am to a large extent surrounded by ‘yes men’ – hangers-on who have no motivation to contradict my cosy view of myself, even though the harsh truth is that I nothing more than a has-been, getting by on my memories and nothing more. Having achieved the hard-to-attain prizes of money and fame, I have tacitly assumed that I do not need to do anything else to ‘prove’ myself, and as a result my existence is devoid of any real challenges.
The fact of the matter is that everyone can see my situation perfectly well, but rather than be honest there is a universal but unstated agreement not to say anything to me that might hurt my over-inflated view of myself. Basically, everyone is humouring me. Now, I may occupy one of two distinctly different states of awareness regarding this: state  is where I do not see that I am being humoured, and state  is where I do see that I am being humoured. Straightaway we can say that, psychologically speaking, State 1 is by far the easier state to be in, and for this reason alone we can predict with uncanny accuracy that this is where I will be hanging out. We can say something else as well, we can say the comfortable mode of awareness which is ‘not seeing that I am being humoured’ cannot persist forever, i.e. it is only a temporary respite from the uncomfortable mode of awareness where I see that I was living in a fool’s paradise.
This second statement needs a bit of justification. After all, do we know for sure that it is impossible for me to go to the grave without once glimpsing the truth of my situation, without once gaining an unpleasant flash of ‘what is really happening’? In other words, what we are asking is “Is it possible to have a comfort zone (or ‘game’) which is so effective that I need never leave it?” This is hard to answer to everyone’s satisfaction, because most of us have a huge amount of faith in our comfort zones, but we can make several points. The first point we would have to make would be that State 1 suffers from one huge and ultimately irreparable drawback, i.e. it is in conflict with the truth. This is an unequal contest by any reckoning. On the other hand, given that I have a capacity for not seeing the truth, what is to say that I cannot just go on exercising this capacity, and never have to face reality? With regard to the situation given in our analogy, what is to say that I cannot go to my grave without ever seeing that I am being humoured?
What we need to show in order to answer this question is that there is such thing as ‘meaning exhaustion’ which afflicts all games, and which means that the game’s power to distract us eventually becomes depleted. One easy way to demonstrate this progressive diminishment of meaning is simply to pick a noise that convention deems meaningful (i.e. a word) and repeat it over and over again until it becomes a mere noise. I could use my name as a particular instance of this effect. A name usually appears to convey information, so that as we hear it the noise sounds meaningful to us. The information contained in my name is however circular – i.e. the meaning is only there because we have agreed that it shall be – and so when I repeat my name over and over the apparent (or virtual) meaning quickly wears thin until all I hear is a peculiar, meaningless sort of noise.
This ‘trick’ is well known but we do not seem to appreciate the significance it holds. Names are just one example of virtual meaning – the same principle holds good for the whole of our designed environment, and the conditioned life that we lead within it. Anything that is designed to be heard, or read (or otherwise ‘used’) is by definition circular information because unless we look at it in the ‘right’ way it will not be meaningful to us. In other words, before we can find the message meaningful we have to adapt ourselves to the perspective within which it is constructed. Once we have internalised the set of rules which is necessary to read the message then there is the appearance of information, but the ‘trip’ we are being taken on cannot go beyond those rules which we have internalised, which is to say, we can never go beyond the limits of what we have (implicitly) decided is possible. This is another way of saying that the only change going on is ‘trivial change’. When we repeat a word over and over again it gets to sound meaningless, and when we repeat an adapted pattern of living over and over again, it eventually gets to feel meaningless. This periodic loss of meaning in life is undoubtedly much more prevalent than is generally acknowledged – which is to say, we are very good at not getting the message that the comfort zone which is virtual meaning ‘runs out’ of juice like a battery, and eventually goes flat on us.
THE CYCLE OF ‘UP AND DOWN’
There is another tack that we can take in order to demonstrate why State 1 has to let us down in the end, and this is to think about things in terms of satisfaction or ‘uplift’. When I am in the state of being humoured but not seeing that I am being humoured the result is of course that I get to feel good about myself. We can refer to this rewarding feeling as euphoria – the implication of this being that the ‘reward’ is not actually deserved. Euphoria is a false type of satisfaction because it has no genuine basis; it is as if we get the bonus payment without actually having to put in the hours. Clearly, there is a link here with the idea that I can obtain ‘virtual success’ within a game, which will feel good to me just as long as I continue to believe in the virtual meaning system of that game. Now, there has to be something wrong with this because how can I get something for nothing? There has to be some snag, some way in which the balance is redressed. The way we have explained this snag has been to say that there is no violation of any universal law because the apparent gain (which is euphoria) is exactly paid for later on in the coin of depression (which is reverse euphoria). This means that I have not ‘cheated the system’ after all, only myself!
This argument is a good one to use because we all have experience of precisely this sort of thing. We all have our repertoire of devices or gimmicks which we use in order to get our daily ‘highs’ and we intuitively know that they are distractions or ‘holidays from reality’ in the sense that they do not in the least change the actual situation that we are in, but only offer a momentary relief from being in that situation. Deep down we know that the euphoria holiday is a bubble that will burst later on, but – needless to say – that knowledge does not put us off at the time because we have the ability to believe in what we are doing at the time. We can quite happily immerse ourselves in superficialities when it suits us, but nevertheless there is a sense in which we know well what we are doing and it is for this reason that we can appeal to experience to back up the argument that the ‘shine’ will wear off all of our comfort zones in time, leaving behind a state of affairs that is far less appealing.
This raises the question: what exactly is it that we find when our nice bouncy comfort zone deflates on us and lets us down with a nasty bump? Well, the first thing that we can say is that there must be a dawning of awareness that our holiday from reality was just that, a holiday, and as everyone knows when the holiday is over we have to pick up where we left off and go back to work. Furthermore, because ‘euphoria holidays’ are not legitimate (i.e. they involve virtual or ‘theatrical’ gains), the discovery that we have in effect conned ourselves is necessarily an unpleasant one. In fact, we can be more precise than this and say that the enjoyment which came out of the self-distracted state of mind has to be paid for with a corresponding amount of negative enjoyment. Therefore, the snag inherent in games is that we get exactly nowhere as a result of them.
The transition from the state of being humoured (or distracted from the truth) to the state of seeing through the humouring (or self-distraction) involves an acute perception of futility and this perception of this unforgiving futility is itself a particularly unpalatable form of pain and suffering. The consequence of this is that, rather than bear the horror that dawns on us when we perceive the ‘unveiled nullity’, we tend to run back into the false comfort of our games as soon as we can. What we have here, then, is a cycle of ups and downs which will continue (if left to itself) indefinitely. The actual nature of this cycle can of course vary greatly but it is safe to say that all of us are caught up more or less constantly in our particular variants of it.
TEMPORARILY ESCAPING BOREDOM
The way in which the ‘rebound effect’ works can be illustrated by thinking about the way we relate to boredom. It is probably fair to say that the way we live life in the technologically advanced twenty first century is by purchasing better and better ‘holidays’ from the underlying base level of experience which is the state of being bored. This is not to say that life itself is boring, but rather that our overly well-managed version of it is boring. It might also be said that the reason we are constantly threatened by boredom because we have become addicted to highly stimulating, highly ‘designed’ environments: because we require something rather special and unusual to give us the lift that we are looking for, this automatically relegates normal life to the status of ‘nothing special’, which inevitably means that it becomes a bit of a drag. In other words, by emphasizing a defined PLUS to life, we create the threatening shadow of the MINUS; by milking life, I create a ‘milked-out’ zone in my immediate future.
The point that we are making is that by having specially valued times we must also have ‘devalued’ times in equal and opposite measure, so that the ‘devalued’ area of experience which is boredom is created by our uneven attitude. Therefore, holidays from boredom have to be temporary by their very nature. I try to escape boredom by obtaining ever more effective distractions, but this only generates even worse boredom for me as a result. To say that stimulation or excitement is the cure for boredom is like saying that heroin is the cure for cold turkey: in a narrow sort of way it is true, but at the same time this is obviously absurdly untrue because heroin is also the cause of cold turkey – if it were not for heroin there would be no need for a cure in the first place. The positive and negative phases of a cycle only appear to oppose each other; in fact ‘up’ and ‘down’ are the alternate manifestations of the same disturbance, the same oscillation. Paradoxically, ‘up’ equals ‘down’. This means that it doesn’t matter whether I say “YES” or “NO” to the issue behind the oscillation because either way I am feeding right back into the circular journey that I am caught in, either way I am still not going anywhere different. [We have of course met this paradox before in the form of the liar paradox; with particular regard to control it may be referred to as the ‘cybernetic paradox’ because saying MORE or LESS – these being the two possibilities of control – both fail equally to solve the problem, and so control cannot be the answer.]
By fearing the null-situation of naked boredom we grant it a ‘fundamental’ status; by basing our strategy on our unreflecting refusal to be there we turn what is only a conditioned reality into an absolute reality. Basically, I am engaged in a tautological struggle – I create the enemy by defending myself against him. All the same, I cannot exit the situation simply by saying that the enemy isn’t real – the energy tied up in the oscillation is real even if there is ‘no real need’ for it. In order to genuinely escape the +/- trap I have to give up trying to escape it; in other words I have to absorb the momentum that has been put into the automatic oscillation, and this means fully accepting the blow that is being aimed at me. I must pay back what I owe to the bank, and do it without taking out another loan – the juggling has to come to an end. In practical terms, paying back the bank translates as ‘calling fear’s bluff’ because it is only by doing this that I can ever get to learn that boredom (or depression) is not the final reality.
The suggestion here is that although we all have to experience boredom in our lives, we never actually penetrate to the heart of it, because if we did we would discover that the sterile goal-lessness of boredom transforms into the profoundly creative goal-lessness which is inner peace. The reason we never hit this unexpected inner reservoir of meaning is because we are unwilling to pay back our debt to the central lending bank; we pay back what we have to, but when we get the chance we take out another loan. Therefore, we spend all our time either enjoying the freshly minted virtual meaning of our games, or reluctantly hanging around in the tedium or despair of depleted virtual meaning – which is when we can no longer successfully distract ourselves. PLUS or MINUS makes up the main part of it, with the tranquillity of equanimity (i.e. freedom from games) putting in only the occasional visit.
THE MOTIVATION OF GAMES
A question we could ask here is “What exactly is the point of the oscillation?” (i.e. “What is the point of the game?”). On the one hand, the point or aim of the game is always well defined within the framework of the game, but on the other hand, that goal only makes sense within that framework anyway, so where does this get us? Clearly it gets us nowhere at all, which is an idea that we keep coming up against. This kind of deceptive pointlessness – i.e. pointlessness that has the appearance of having a point – does serve one purpose, and that is the purpose of keeping us from seeing the truth. The virtual self who plays the game is no more real than the game it plays, and so we can explain the hidden motivation behind games in terms of the preservation of the integrity of that false or virtual self. The ‘value’ of a game lies in its power to distract us from the truth, in other words.
This power to distract is the ‘capacity not to see the tautology’ which we referred to earlier. This obviously can be related to the general ‘convincingness’ of virtual meaning of the game, and this ‘power to convince’ shows itself in terms of the motivation that the game lends us. An attractive goal generates positive motivation and a frightful or repulsive anti-goal creates negative motivation. There is an important ‘principle of irreversibility’ associated with games that we have already alluded to, and that has to do with the idea that false or virtual meaning becomes pragmatically real to us when we act on it (or ‘react’ to it). So, when we react to a convincing illusion, that illusion becomes real – just like the convincing illusion of the virtual self becomes (pragmatically) real. Just as long as there are strong motivating forces around, everything holds together and the integrity of the game remains intact, but when the power of the virtual meaning starts to wane, and the motivational force inherent in the situation dies down, then I find myself drifting into the ‘motivational null zone’ which is boredom.
There is something particularly ghastly about this, something horrible which I really don’t want to hang around to see – an unpleasant quality like a bad smell. What I am smelling here is the fraudulency of my situation and the experiencing or witnessing of this fraudulency – as we have suggested – is how I straighten my accounts with reality. The fact of my unwillingness to do this allows me to see that even the negative motivations of fear and repulsion can serve a function if they keep me out of the motivational null zone; it is as if I would rather be kept busy by trivial (or ‘virtual’) fears, than face the deeper fear that I have of seeing the nullity in its true colours. From this perspective, anxiety can be seen as a last-ditch defence against depression.
The original scenario that we gave (a while back now) was of a person who is being humoured by the people who make up his immediate social environment. We used this example to demonstrate the existence of two psychological states: State 1, which is where I am comfortably oblivious to the fact that I am being humoured, and State 2, which is where I am uncomfortably (or painfully) aware of it. The first state requires no work (in the sense of facing reality), but it is dependent upon me surreptitiously maintaining it, which means in turn that I am committed to a ‘split awareness’ since preserving the integrity of the game necessitates the loss of my actual integrity. The second state is work, but the good thing is that it does not need defending or supporting, and so my integrity returns to me.
State 1 is a ‘shallow state’ – it is a selective, and therefore superficial, view of things. Essentially, this is a mode of awareness that is based upon controlled (or biased) perception, which is actually a contradiction in terms. State 2, on the other hand, is ‘deep’ because nothing is excluded from it – there is no secret cautiousness about what we are allowed to see, no ‘hidden level’ of information processing. This mode of awareness has nothing to do with control, and so it is not self-contradictory. From this, we argued that State 1 must have a limited lifetime, since it has to be artificially maintained.
We then took a more thorough approach to why the humoured state of mind must always let us down in the end by considering the cybernetic paradox, which may be stated as YES EQUALS NO. If we say that the ‘shallow’ type of perception is a conditioned view that emphasises the positive and ignores the negative, then this means that we can envisage it as a wave phenomenon. Originally, neither the positive or negative was particular stressed, and this corresponds to a body of water (like a lake or the sea) which has not been disturbed. When we disturb the flat surface of the water, we create an on-going oscillation of positive and negative displacements from the neutral (or ‘flat’) position, otherwise known as wave crests and wave troughs. If we say that the crest equals the euphoric uplift (which is caused by selective information processing), then it follows that I have to spend an equal amount of time riding out the reverse-euphoria of the trough, which also has its origin in a slanted perception of reality. Euphoria can therefore be described as a journey to nowhere (a circular trip) because although there is the perception of a gain to start off with, this so-called gain is exactly reversed in the second part of the cycle.
What we are saying is that State 1 is a mode of perception that separates PLUS and MINUS. Therefore, we can technically define it as the state of mind in which YES is seen to be completely independent of NO, i.e. we perceive YES to be NOT EQUAL to NO. State 2 is therefore definable the state of mind in which we have can see that YES EQUALS NO. Basically, when we are in the deep mode of awareness we can perceive the paradoxicality of life, and when we are in the shallow mode we simply cannot. For this reason we can link State 1 with rationality and linear (or ‘exclusive’) logic, and State 2 with intuition or insight, which is an illogical (or ‘inclusive’) way of apprehending the world.
We then took a look at the type of motivation associated with State 1 and we said that there are two very different levels involved – one overt and the other covert. The overt motivation has to do with the goals or ‘anti-goals’ that make sense within the context of the conditioned perception, and the covert motivation is concerned with maintaining the integrity of this way of seeing things. It could also be said – harking back to the ‘rich and famous’ scenario – that the covert motivation is to avoid seeing that we are being humoured.
FREE AND UNFREE MOTIVATION
We hinted somewhat obliquely at the type of motivation associated with State 2 when we suggested that beyond the busy attractive/repulsive world of conditioned goals and conditioned motivation there lies an unsuspected realm of peacefulness and unforced creativity. This idea creates a problem for us because we cannot for the life of us see what motivation we could possibly have when in such a peaceful state of mind. Our prejudice is to see peacefulness as being very passive, if not totally inert. The key to getting around this prejudice is to see that ordinary +/- motivation (the motivation of games) is essentially unfree since it arises out of ‘invisible constraint’ and the compulsion that invisible constraint always produces. Conditioned motivation gives rise to ‘uncreative’ action since it can never be any more than a strictly logical development of (or response to) a structure that is already there. The given structure that we are talking about is composed of two aspects, one being the internal environment of ideas, opinion, beliefs and general ‘tendencies to react’, and the other being the external environment that continually manifests positive and negative ‘triggers’ that mesh with those ‘tendencies to react’.
It goes without saying that when I am adapted to my environment my internal information-processing biases are going to correspond more or less exactly with the certain key features of that environment, and so we can say that, really, there is only the one ‘given structure’ there. We can also talk about the given structure as being a sort of general context of meaning within which all purposeful or goal-orientated behaviour has to make sense. Because my behaviour has to make sense within the context of meaning it is defined by the limitations inherent in that context – or, as David Bohm says, it is all the one system. In State 1, then, perception, motivation and action (behaviour) are all expressions of one and the same thing – the system of thought.
THE DETERMINED SELF
We said that conditioned motivation, which is the motivation that lies behind our purposeful behaviour, is always a faithful reflection or echo of the given structure. Therefore, it contains zero information: nothing new happens here, not ever, and this is why we can say that conditioned motivation is unfree (or determined). It only remains to add one more item to the cycle of conditioned perception, motivation and behaviour, and that is the self that sees, wants, and acts. The last step of our argument must be to say that this self is also completely determined, completely unfree.
Now from all this it does not follow that conditioned perception is the only type of perception, and conditioned motivation the only type of motivation, and so on. If I am not rail-roaded into seeing the world in a particular way (and therefore compelled to act in a particular way) that does not mean that I am no longer able to see and act. On the contrary, it means that I am now free to perceive and free to act; my perception and behaviour will actually contain information, i.e. they will be genuinely new. Instead of copying what is already there, without knowing that this is what I am doing (which is where I exercise my capacity ‘not to see the tautology’), I create something new. Only, it isn’t the unfree virtual self that creates, but the unconditioned self; after all, as we have repeatedly said, the problem with the unfree self is that it can never go anywhere new or do anything new – it is fundamentally incapable of being creative. We tend to have difficulty with this idea though. If it isn’t ‘me’ (i.e. the localized or defined virtual self) who is ‘doing it’, then just who is the author of my actions? Here we come back to the essential problem involved in conceptualising the unconditioned, non-local self, namely, it cannot be defined or in any way ‘known’…
Creativity may be defined as ‘action from a peaceful centre’, which is the same thing as saying that it comes from the unconditioned (or ‘true’) self. The actions of the conditioned self, on the other hand, are simply extensions of the rules which define it, which is to say, of its unconscious assumptions. We have said that conditioned behaviour is unfree, not because it is based on assumptions, but because it is based upon invisible assumptions. Invisible rules are bound to result in compulsive or unfree behaviour since we are doing something not because we genuinely want to, but because our implicit understanding is that this is ‘the only way that there is’. When the unconditional self is described as being peaceful, that means that there is no invisible constraint, i.e. when I act that action is not conditioned by any set of rules that I am unaware of. Action that arises out of peacefulness is thoroughly unpredictable, and so it is incapable of telling us anything about its origin. It is the inherent predictability of conditioned responses that allows us to know about the ‘self’ that produces them; therefore, in defining our goals, we define ourselves.
OUT OF CONFLICT COMES CONSCIOUSNESS
The idea that we (as we usually find ourselves) are completely lacking in any genuine freedom is notoriously difficult to stomach. After all, it feels as if I have freedom because I can make choices. I can go to work, or not go to work. I can stand up, or remain sitting. So how can anyone say that I have no freedom? Now, we must firstly point out that we are not talking about determinism in the sense that everything is already decided by destiny. We are not saying that everything is already written down in the Book of Fate – that would be to argue that there is no such thing as freedom, and we are not saying that. On the contrary, we are saying is that there is freedom, and there is also the false (i.e. deceptive) freedom which comes when we exercise our ‘capacity not to see the tautology’. Therefore, the reason we are not free is not because we are limited, but because we are limited and unable to see that we are limited.
Another way to get at this is by making the point that when I ‘choose’ I make a choice out of a closed set of possibilities. I have a finite repertory of ‘things to do’ and when I select one of these options against any of the others I naturally obtain the feeling that I am ‘free to choose’. However, it goes without saying that I cannot choose something that is not part of my finite repertory – how can I when I implicitly deny that there is anything else out there? I do not know about all the other possibilities that are available, and I also do not know that I do not know, and so the door is well and truly closed to me. But just because stuff is inconceivable to me doesn’t mean that it isn’t out there – all I have done by acting as if it isn’t there is to close myself off in some sort of private, disconnected game. It is because I have (unconsciously) disallowed myself from moving in an ‘inconceivable’ direction that my existence may be said to be ‘determined’.
The everyday mind is a prison – a prison that appears that appears like a spacious palace full of riches and interesting things, bustling with possibilities and meaning. In this it is like a typical cartoon show on TV – the average cartoon works by grabbing our attention, always coming up with some new gag to keep us interested, yet behind all that manic activity there is an information vacuum, an awful sterile ‘nothing’ that we don’t want to know about. Johannes Fabricius says that euphoria is ‘denial of depression’; in the same way, the self-distracting mind that hops ceaselessly from one point of (superficial) interest to another is ‘denial of the meaning vacuum’. And yet the ironic truth is that neither the euphoria of successful distraction nor the depression of failed distraction are real in themselves; both UP and DOWN are no more than the two faces of the nullity – completely self-cancelling, and therefore completely null.
All of the above can be summarized by saying that we spend our lives running along pre-defined tracks – we do not find this a problem because we are not in the least aware of our situation, and we are not aware of our situation because we make the implicit assumptions that  there are no other possibilities, and  this is what we want to do. This is the state of ‘passive identification’, which is when radical uncertainty is substituted for by trivial uncertainty. It is only when (due to intense dissatisfaction or pain) we do try to radically change our pattern, to jump of our tracks as it were, that we discover that we can’t to it. This discovery puts an end to the comfortable state of passive identification because now I know that my will power no longer counts for anything, since I have ‘handed over’ responsibility to the game. In the game, I can have the illusion of ‘personal efficacy’ (i.e. potency of will), but it is of course the very effectiveness of this illusion which prevents me from realizing my situation. The more effective the illusion, the better the trap, and the illusion in this case is very effective; indeed, as psychiatrist and consciousness researcher Stan Grof says, it is just about perfect!
When I finally do see the irrevocable conflict between who I truly am and the beliefs and desires of who I virtually am, then the nature of my predicament becomes appallingly clear to me. In fact, this pain is the price of freedom – I can become free from State 1 (the state of being limited without knowing that we are limited) at any time really – all I need is the willingness to be appalled, the willingness to face the pain that is legitimately mine. As Jung says, “out of conflict comes consciousness”.
It can easily be seen that the ‘state of passive identification’ (as esoteric psychologists call it) is just another way of talking about the state of ‘being humoured without seeing that you are being humoured’. In this state everything is hunky-dory just as long as I do not come into conflict with the hidden rules – I have freedom just as long as I don’t ‘rock the boat’. Of course, when we think about this it becomes apparent that this type of ‘freedom’ contains a deep self-contradiction – there cannot be such a thing as conditional freedom anymore than there can be such a thing as conditional truth. What we are talking about here is conditional freedom which is in fact no more than slavery in disguise – it seems like freedom when we don’t look too deeply into it.
A few concrete examples can be used to drive this point home. Suppose I have a somewhat conventional friend who I get on with just fine, as long as I stay within the bounds of what he is willing to talk (or think) about. If I ‘play the game’ then he will be my friend and hang out with me, but if something happens that causes me to go ‘beyond the bounds’ then I know that this friend will drop me like a stone. In other words, the friendship is conditional on me behaving in a certain way. The question I have to ask here is “What is this friendship really worth?”
Similarly, suppose I am a member of an institution like a hospital or a school or an orphanage or the army. If I abide by the rules, of both the spoken and unspoken varieties, then I am left in peace, and if I excel in abiding by the rules, I will even get rewarded, which means that I will obtain some sort of happiness. As a basic general principle, if I engage myself in pursuing the sort of goals that make sense to the institution, then I am allowed the freedom to do so. Thus, by ‘fitting in’ to the given structure of the establishment, I can have conditional peace, conditional happiness, and conditional freedom. Now the fact of the matter is that we all want peace, happiness and freedom, and so we are usually willing to accept the ‘conditional’ varieties – after all, if I don’t look too closely I can’t really tell the difference.
The only problem is when I start to think about it:
If I were to allow myself to realize that this same benign institution which supports me when I play by its rules, would turn against me in flash were I to transgress, and grind me into the ground as if I didn’t exist, then it would be hard to see the system as being ‘my friend’
If I am doing what I am doing only because I will be severely penalised if I don’t, then plainly there is no freedom here at all. In the light of this realization I can see that the peace which I had found is in fact no more than the ‘uneasy peace of the morally compromised; the rewards I previously felt so good about are now revealed as what they truly are – mocking ‘tributes’ to my cowardice and lack of integrity. It can be seen that the situation here is exactly analogous to the ‘rich and famous’ scenario we looked at earlier: there are two possible modes of awareness, one shallow and ‘easy’, and one deep but ‘hard’. The obvious is easy – believing in the obvious is easy, believing that there is nothing other than the obvious is easy. Accepting everything as it is presented to us is easy, but then we are trapped because this ‘obvious’ (but false) reality doesn’t go anywhere. There is no information in the obvious. Having the integrity and the grit to go beyond this and look deeper than everyone else does into what looks so obvious is hard, but it gets us everywhere…