When we see objects in the world around us we’re not seeing the presence of something we’re seeing the absence of it. We’re seeing an absence that’s been turned around to look like a presence. We’re interpreting this absence as the actual presence of something and so – for us – it functions as ‘a presence’. For us there really IS something there – not just the lack of something that we have turned around with our perceptual system and turned into a solid, positive object…
This is what we might call a ‘necessary illusion’. What we’re seeing – when we see some feature or other of what we might call ‘the positively-defined environment’ – is the absence of information. If you wanted to know that the absence of information looked like then all you’d need to do is to take a look around you at all the positively-defined objects in your environment. That’s what ‘the absence of information’ looks like – it looks just like the everyday world! It looks like the world we interact with every day of our lives; it looks like houses and streets and cars and buses and coffee tables and refrigerators and shoes and socks and trousers and skirts and clouds in the sky and distant mountains on the horizon. All of these ‘positive features’ are a lack of information; after all, they could hardly be positive features otherwise! Anything that is defined, and therefore recognizable by our perceptual/cognitive apparatus, is a lack of information which we turn around with the ‘inverting mechanism’ of the conceptual mind and see as actual information.
Information itself (the real thing that is, not the inverted version of it) is newness. Information is the unexpected, the unprecedented, the unique and the unfamiliar, and so how – by using the established ‘information-processing’ routines that make up the everyday mind – are we ever going to see this? Information-processing turns information into regularity, into ‘non-uniqueness’ (what type of processing could do otherwise) and so there simply isn’t any way that we could perceive information by using the conceptual mind. There simply isn’t a concept for information – all concepts are empty of information, by definition! All categories are empty of information – how could we devise a category (or an ‘information-processing rule’) and then be surprised at what comes out at the other end? How can anything we do ourselves surprise us?
E.F. Schumacher (1977) makes a similar point in his A Guide to the Perplexed when he says that maps can never show us anything truly interesting because they only show us what we already know about –
On a visit to Leningrad some years ago I consulted a map to find out where I was, but I could not make it out. I could see several enormous churches, yet there was no trace of them on my map. When finally an interpreter came to help me, he said “We don’t show churches on our maps.” Contradicting him, I pointed to one that was very clearly marked. “This is a museum,” he said, “not what we call a ‘living church.’ It is only the ‘living churches’ we don’t show.”
It then occurred to me that this was not the first time I had been given a map that failed to show many of the things I could see right in front of my eyes. All through school and university I had been given maps of life and knowledge on which there was hardly a trace of many of the things that I most cared about and that seemed to me to be of the greatest possible importance for the conduct of my life. I remembered that for many years my perplexity was complete; and no interpreter came along to help me. It remained complete until I ceased to suspect the sanity of my perceptions and began, instead, to suspect the soundness of the maps.
The maps of real knowledge, designed for real life, showed nothing except things which allegedly could be proved to exist. The first principle of the philosophical mapmakers seemed to be “If in doubt, leave it out,” or put it into a museum. It occurred to me, however, that the question of what constitutes proof was a very subtle and difficult one. Would it not be wiser to turn the principle into its opposite and say: “If in doubt, show it prominently“? After all, matters that are beyond doubt are, in a sense, dead; they do not constitute a challenge to the living.
To accept anything as true means to incur the risk of error. If I limit myself to knowledge that I consider true beyond doubt, I minimize the risk of error but I maximize, at the same time, the risk of missing out on what may be the subtlest, most important and most rewarding things in life.
As Schumacher says, what is really interesting is the stuff that we don’t know, the stuff that everyone isn’t already in agreement about. If everybody is already in agreement about it, then it’s a dead field of knowledge – there’s no actual life in it anymore. ‘Old news’ isn’t news at all, in other words. And if we try to remedy the situation by trying to put ‘new stuff’ in our map – and leaving out all the details that we already know about – then this isn’t going to work either because as soon as we put anything in our map (which is the thinking mind) it straightaway becomes old. Thought is always old, as Krishnamurti says.
So in the same way when we look at the world we only see the stuff that we already know about, the stuff that everyone has already agreed to be real or important. The known elements might be arranged in new ways it is true, but it’s always the same basic elements. We can’t go beyond the basic elements because the basic elements are the only thing we’re allowed to believe in! The other side of the argument – which is of course the side we usually think about – would say that maps showing what we already know are very useful indeed! From the point of view of the adaptive mind (i.e. from the POV of actually surviving in the world, from the POV of adaptation to a given positive reality, having a map is indispensible. The ‘front end’ of the universe, if we may speak in these terms, is as we all know made up of stable configurations of matter and predictable (which is to say, equilibrium-seeking) energetic processes, which are continuously being ‘topped up’ by finite energy sources. If we look at the universe in terms of information content (or algorithmic complexity, which is the same thing) then what we see is that the areas of attenuated information content or reduced algorithmic complexity are the aspects of the universe that we pay selective attention to, just as we would pay selective attention to the shaded areas in a sketch. So if we say that ‘unobstructed information’ is the white page then the dark lines which the artist uses to create a figure highlighted against the back-ground of the white page are made up of the lack of information. Black is the lack of any colour, after all, not a colour in itself! This analogy makes is easy to see how a lack of information (information being uncreated or non-locally ‘ambient’) can be interpreted or read as an indication of an actual genuine ‘thing’, whilst information itself does not show up as anything at all.
This is therefore entirely a matter of convention – it doesn’t matter which way we choose to look at the world because once we have chosen to look at things this way it will straightaway end up looking like the only possible viewpoint on the matter. On an intellectual level, this is a very straightforward thing to understand – we can easily grasp it completely ‘all in the one go’. What we’re looking at here is the suggestion that our senses, as filtered through the brain’s information processing systems, tune into the absence of information rather than its presence, which is too subtle (or ‘slippery’) a thing to register using any kind of a device, any kind of an instrument or mechanism, any kind of a rule-based process. The further suggestion that the physical universe, by its very nature, is orientated around the absence of information rather than information itself is also not unduly hard to understand – it may sound strange at first but we can understand it without any major problem (for a quantum physicist, the notion that a determinate physical configuration contains less information (or has a lower level of algorithmic complexity) than the indeterminate situation that preceded it would pose no problem at all.) These two suggestions go hand in hand – the first follows on from the second. After all, if that is the way that the physical universe is organized then naturally our means of registering this physical universe is going to fall in with this mode of organization, this convention. It follows that the senses will be in line with the way the universe is put together; which is to say, anything that we can interact with in a physical way, via our physical bodies, must also be ‘physical’ – which is to say, it must have a high entropy content (entropy being the reciprocal measure of information).
Intellectually, then, we can grasp the principle of inversion that is being propounded here quickly enough, and add it to the list of idea or theories that we already have stored away in our heads, but the indigestion that follows this is right off the scale (if – that is – we move on to the next stage of taking on board what we have already intellectually understood). Essentially, what we’re getting to grips with (if indeed we are getting to grips with anything) is the awareness of absolutely everything being ‘the other way around’ to the way we had previously understood it to be (which is also the way that everyone else understands it to be). Our whole world is turned on its head, in other words. The thing about this is that all of our attention, all of our energy, all of our time, all of our resources and ingenuity have been ‘dedicated to the unreal at the expense of the real’ – the unreal inverted information (or entropy) and the real being actual information. We sweat blood over the unreal and at the same time we pass over the real without even noticing that we have done so…
The familiar story of Cinderella illustrates what we’re talking about here perfectly – the ugly sisters (who as we all know are completely selfish, lazy and vain) have all the attention lavished on them whilst Cinderella herself (who is goodhearted and hardworking) gets completely disregarded and taken for granted, if not to say totally disrespected. She is regarded as being a person of no account whatsoever and her only possible worth or value lies in her function as a slave to her step mother and the ugly sisters. According to the Wikipedia entry on Cinderella there is also a Chinese version of the story, Ye Xian, an Indonesian / Malaysian version, a Philippine and Vietnamese, a version in the Arabian Nights and so on. We might see Cinderella and being only a story for reading to small children but in reality it is a profound psychological teaching, disguised as a children’s fairy tale. It’s a story, but it also has deep meaning. All myths, legends, fairy tales have this ‘deep meaning’ as Joseph Campbell has pointed out. We are as a culture indisposed to seeing this because it doesn’t make sense to us that wisdom should come to us through such sources as fairy tales or dreams – we look to the rational mind to guide us, even though rationality isn’t actually a guide at all in these matters. The rational mind has nothing to do with wisdom, and yet the rational mind is all we care about. The modern world we live in exemplifies the principle of inversion in a very obvious way, if only we were interested enough to see it – we worship the crass, the crude and the downright ugly, whilst paying no more than lip-service to the values that really matter. We compete feverishly for worthless prizes, worthless status symbols, whilst completely disregarding the treasures that lie within us. We’re like the ugly sisters, forever trying to outdo each other!
But all that we see in the man-made world all around us is only what is going on inside us, projected onto an external screen. As it is in the individual psyche, so it is in the world at large – the inversion of values we see going in the world around us is the very same inversion that exists within us. All that is truly of value within us we disregard, whilst what is worthless (worthless because this isn’t who we really are) we cultivate and develop to the best of our ability. In simple psychological terms, we cherish the ego (which is the ‘glossy image’ that reflects societal values) and pay no heed to our ‘inner life’, which is where individuality, love, creativity, curiosity, humour and compassion comes from. We end up robotizing ourselves therefore – we become ‘adults’, we becomes humourless, manipulative, inauthentic, image-driven, incapable of being truly happy. We’re constitutionally incapable of finding true happiness since happiness (naturally enough) is not be found in the fulfilment of the ego, to fulfilment of the image of who we think we are. Happiness cannot be obtained via the fulfilment of who we are not!
The point that we started off by making is however that the process of ‘identifying with who we aren’t’ is actually very natural. Living in the material universe as we do we are obliged to be orientated towards physicality. If we weren’t orientated towards physicality then clearly we would be able to survive for very long! From a purely practical point of view, we have to pay careful attention to the material aspects of reality, we have to tune into the stable structures that make up this physical world. From a purely practical point of view, the subtle, intangible spaces that exist between these structures (and which all determinate systems are imbedded in) don’t really matter so much. They actually don’t seem to matter at all! Nature herself compels us to ‘focus narrowly on the physical’ which is why the alchemists spoke of the opus contra naturam, the ‘work against nature’. The work in alchemy wasn’t the transmutation of lead into gold – which is a crass literal-minded misunderstanding – but the freeing of the spirit from the dungeon of matter in which it is imprisoned, asleep, enchanted by dark forces and unaware of its true nature. This ‘spirit’ they often referred to as Mercurius – the fast moving one, the elusive one, master of many disguises, the one whose comings and goings cannot be foretold. We could also and equivalently say that the gold the alchemists were speaking of was the philosophical gold, not the metal itself – philosophical gold being another way of talking about the pure information that constitutes reality itself.
It is natural that we pay attention only to the ‘obvious’ because this is where all the short-term benefits lie. By doing so however we very quickly ‘box ourselves in’ and this ‘boxing in’ represents a truly monumental long-term disadvantage. The nature of the difficulty that we have created for ourselves by only concerning ourselves with the defined, the obvious, the practical is this – if we ignore the undefined, not-obvious, the not-practical then we have successfully excluded or blocked out the only thing that gives our life meaning. As Carl Jung says,
…the lack of meaning in life is a soul-sickness whose full extent and full import our age has not as yet begun to comprehend.
Science fiction writer Frank Herbert puts it well, “Without new experiences something inside us sleeps. The sleeper must awaken.” Our ingenuity lies precisely in denying ourselves any genuinely new experiences since ‘genuinely new experiences’ represent the challenge which our whole conscious approach is designed to avoid – whether we are prepared to recognize that this is the case or not. The whole point of the inversion that we have been talking about is that anything genuinely new (i.e. information) is shut out. We are perpetually seeking ‘superficial novelty’ and this is why fashions continually change and why new fads become popular; this yearning for novel entertainment is there however only because we are so starved of the genuinely new. The genuinely new can only come from what we don’t know and there is no place for ‘what we don’t know’ in our philosophy, as Schumacher has observed in the passage from The Guide to the Perplexed that we quoted earlier. We hang upon the throw of a dice, the results of the match, but this is ‘inverted analogue of newness’ rather than the thing itself. The ‘inverted analogue’ of newness is really a type of addictive poison, something like refined sugar which we quickly develop a taste for, a craving for, even though it doesn’t do us any good at all. This is an appetite, but not a healthy one because we lose all interest in more wholesome foods, caring only about getting the next fix of sugar into our system. We obtain a brief but intense surge of gratification that quickly gives way to the next wave unbearable craving…
Everything that we have been saying comes out of Plato’s Analogy of the Cave – if we can understand Plato’s analogy then we can understand what it means to say that the matter-of-fact world that we experience every day of our lives is actually an inversion of reality not reality itself. Plato’s prisoners in the cave never actually see reality – they only ever see shadows, which they mistake for the real world. All their interest is in the flickering shadows, as if this interest in illusion is somehow going to be repaid… The Analogy of the Cave is taught in ever philosophy course there is; every ‘educated’ person in the world knows of it and can probably explain the finer details of it to you. The impact of this simple but infinitely profound philosophical teaching might therefore be said to be very impressive, given that Plato lived and died over two thousand years ago. And yet who actually understands it? If we actually did get what Plato was saying here, then surely we wouldn’t be carrying on in the same dull old way? Surely we wouldn’t still be fixated by shadows, and uncaring of the light? We all think we understand Plato’s analogy (we are always very quick to assume that we understand things) but the truth is that we just don’t get it at all. We can’t get it because we’re seeing everything backwards…