If you were to bust into a psychiatric conference, attract everyone’ attention by some means, and then object loudly that both psychiatry (and medicine in general) are deeply flawed because they treat people as if they were physical or material entities, you would undoubtedly provoke a fair amount of laughter before you were escorted unceremoniously to the door. The response of most of us to such an objection would be incredulity: “What else would we be? We aren’t ghosts, we are physical beings”. This answer is so manifestly true that it is hard to stand up to it. It is like the philosopher who came to the conclusion that nothing exists really, only to painfully stub his toe on the way out of the door. If the body isn’t real, then how come it hurts so much when I sit on a thumbtack?
It is manifestly true that we are physical entities, but that is only part of it! That’s just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. If we get hung up on the obvious then we miss an awful lot which is not obvious, but which is no less real for not being obvious. This, put in rather more technical language, is the message of the Belgian Chemist Ilya Prigogine, who was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work on self-organising systems. Prigogine found as the result of his investigations that it is impossible to derive a fundamental level of description from which to explain the behaviour of self-organising systems. This means that what we are able to predict about the system on the basis of our models is always subject to radical revision because there are always levels of organisation that we don’t know about but which are, potentially, just as important to the functioning of the system as the level that we do know about. Prigogine and others such as Erich Jantsch have been quick to point out that people are self-organising systems too (as is the human mind), which means that there can be no ‘officially correct’ level of organisation upon which to predicate understanding. Linear (i.e. ‘one-level’) interactions between molecules and cells and chemical neurotransmitters in the brain provide us with one perspective, but there is absolutely no justification in assuming this physical perspective to be in anyway ‘primary’ in terms of causation – which is what we generally (and very naively) do. It is possible to demonstrate another level of description quite easily – all we need to do in order to radically switch perspectives is to try looking at people, and their mental functioning, in terms of patterns of information.
We can get away more easily with treating people as material structures in physical medicine, when a broken bone or an infected ear is plainly asking to be looked at in a physical way. But when the distressing complaint is anxiety, phobia, depression, repetitive ‘negative thinking’ or compulsive behaviour, it would seem that another mode of perception is being called for. Even though mental illness manifests itself in the realm of perception, thought, feeling and behaviour, psychiatry looks for a solution exclusively on the physical level, which is something that psychiatrists themselves have been heard to question quite frequently. In the following discussion we are going to look at an alternative way of conceptualising ‘mental illness’: instead of thinking in terms of a linear chain of cause-and-effect which is rooted in a bio-chemical substrate, we will explore the idea that neurotic disturbances occur due to glitches (i.e. invisible and therefore recurrent self-contradictions) in thinking which are manifestations of something that we will call psychological entropy.
Psychological entropy is a kind of ‘information sickness’ rather that a physical sickness. It is not a physical problem – it is not locatable in any particular level of functioning g, and it is therefore not treatable by physical means. What psychological entropy is, in essence, is ‘ignorance’ – a sort of mental blind spot that we do not know is there. All of our purposeful activity, without exception, carries this ‘ignorance’ with it and se we (both collectively and individually) cannot think or act our way out of this particular type of problem. This is why neurosis is so hard to work with – as Alan Watts says, it is hare dot ‘beat neurosis’ because the attempt to beat neurosis is itself neurosis. This brings us to a key part of the theory. We are not saying that a person suffering from neurosis is suffering because of his or her mental blind spot, which the rest of us do not have because we are not sick. What we are saying is that the neurotic person is the carrier of our collective blind spot, and that our attempts to fix them (either by drug-therapy or corrective behavioural therapy) actually make them worse.
This is not a new idea: Jung has said much the same, and more recently, we come across the principle in Batesonian ‘system theory’ as applied to family therapy. The reason some individuals ‘volunteer’ to manifest social neurosis is simply because they are single-minded enough to push to the extreme the unconscious glitches assumptions (which Bateson called double-binds) that we all have. It is only when we take these assumptions to their logical conclusion that the glitch that is inherent in them comes out and grows teeth and starts to chew us up, so to speak. Examples of such flawed ‘basic assumptions’ may be set out as follows:
|IT IS POSSIBLE TO BE HAPPY ON PURPOSE /|
|IT IS POSSIBLE TO AVOID UNHAPPINESS ON PURPOSE|
|IT IS POSSIBLE TO BE ‘GOOD’ ON PURPOSE|
|IT IS POSSIBLE TO ‘BE YOURSELF’ ON PURPOSE|
All of which comes down to one essential assumption (or one essential double-bind), which is:
IT IS POSSIBLE TO ATTAIN FREEDOM ON PURPOSE
We can explain the paradoxicality inherent in this last, ‘essential’ double-bind quite easily: we cannot make a goal of freedom because a goal is a projection of our thinking, and as such it inevitably carries with it thinking’s ‘blind spot’. True freedom – the genuine article – is not freedom ‘in-the-terms-of-thinking’, it is freedom from thought, i.e. freedom from the systematic errors hidden in thought. And as a Zen teacher has said, thought cannot get rid of thoughts, any more than blood can wash away blood.
Know Your Enemy
We shall now assert that the ‘bad’ thing that happens to us as we get older is not bodily deterioration, sickness and death, even though physical failure seems unequivocally detrimental to us, but the gradual and imperceptible diminution of mental freedom (which is a quality that we never fully appreciated in the first place). This deterioration of mental freedom tends to be thought of, when we think of it at all, as an inevitable consequence of the process of physical aging, and so this encourages us to concentrate on ‘physical fixing’ even more, but if we were to think about it carefully enough we might be inclined more to the view (espoused in Eastern systems such as yoga and tai’chi) that whether we become mentally less flexible as we become older is due to the way in which we live our lives, and is not something that ‘just happens’ as a result of biological factors.
‘Deterioration of mental freedom’ can be explained as a process by which there occurs a increasing rigidity of thinking, an accumulation of habits, opinions and beliefs, and a general loss of curiosity about what life is really about. We can better express this erosion of freedom in terms of an ever-growing preoccupation with (or attachment to) a proliferating mass of insignificant or trivial concerns; in other words as a gradual loss of perspective. Because of this insidious loss of perspective there comes a type of uneasy fussiness that leads on to anxiety, and a constant, exhausting, self-defeating activity directed towards fixing problems that don’t actually need to be fixed. It leads, in short, to an unhappy, neurotic mode of existence. neurosis means that we are no longer concerned about the ‘Big Picture’ (life itself, in all its grandeur and mystery) because our attention is held captive by the ‘small picture’ of our neurotic concerns. The ‘small picture’ can therefore be thought of as a sort of inferior substitute or surrogate for actual living, which is an idea one comes across both in Jung, and in later writers in psychotherapy.
Mental freedom is not an abstract idea but an immediately obvious quality – it shows itself through humour, spontaneity, unselfconscious happiness, unmanipulative love for others, and a child-like curiosity about what is going on. The lack of mental freedom(which is what we are going to explore in terms of psychological entropy) shows itself visibly on our faces as stress, seriousness, worry and self-absorption and it manifests itself in our personalities as an exhausting type of ‘flatness’ that comes as a result of being preoccupied with one’s petty agendas. Lack of mental freedom is when curiosity is substituted for by suspiciousness, which is an inferior or degenerate version of curiosity. In a nutshell, we can define the lack of mental freedom as:
A FIXATION UPON ARBITRARY GOALS, ALONG WITH THE INABILITY TO QUESTION JUST HOW IMPORTANT THESE GOALS REALLY ARE.
If one were inclined to doubt the prevalence of psychological entropy, one need only spend a day wandering around looking the city at the faces of those walking by. Which camp do most faces fall into – are they narrowly goal-fixated, preoccupied with the humdrum tasks of everyday life, or are they unattached and free, conscious of the wonder that comes with seeing the bigger picture of life? This is an easy experiment to perform, and it is one that tends to provide pretty unambiguous data: what we see is that it is only small children who look as if they are genuinely present in the moment, whilst the vast majority of adults look totally preoccupied with their ‘grown-up’ concerns. Now and again we see mature people who look free and happy but these individuals are the exception rather than the rule. As has often been noted, as we get older we seem to lose touch with the most important thing in life – our sense of wonder that we are here at all. Instead of marvelling at this astounding and utterly unaccountable fact, we simply take it for granted, and spend our time complaining about the details. If it is the insidious onset of mental rigidity and an involuntary fixation of attention upon spuriously important issues that is the biggest problem in mental health, and the root cause of all neurotic mental distress, then what exactly are we doing about it? Are we doing anything about it at all?
Putting Our Money On The Wrong Horse
Medical science concentrates its efforts upon ameliorating or reversing physical deterioration by returning the biological functions to within their normatively defined limits. Similarly, psychiatry has its aim the reinstatement (as far as is possible) of normal psychological functioning. What psychiatry is not concerned with is anything that is not connected to its goal of intervening on the level of the physical substrate – the idea that neurosis is only ever ‘solved’ by the unqualified abandonment of all our narrow goal-orientated thinking, and all of our narrow goal-orientated behaviour is one that is just too bizarre to countenance for most of us. The problem isn’t that we aren’t good enough at ‘fixing’, the problem is our over-powering tendency to want to fix everything that upsets us – the problem is our obsessive, anxiety-driven, goal-orientated fixing. Psychotherapist P. Scott Peck has said (as has Jung) that the problem is our unacknowledged lack of courage, our refusal to experience legitimate pain. Somehow, we have made a virtue out of avoiding the issue.
Physical medicine is arguably reasonably successful in what it seeks to do, although high-tech interventions seem to have run into problems with the ‘law of diminishing returns’. Psychiatry – to most of us – also appears to be making headway. Although still unable to convincingly explain the roots of mental illness, it seems at least to be heading in the right direction and doing a pretty good job of managing the most distressing symptoms in the meantime, almost exclusively by the use of psychotherapeutic drugs. But does psychiatry really know what it is doing? Or is it a case of ‘the Emperor’s New Clothes’, with none of us brave enough to be first to say something? There is a view point which says that by assuming that mental illness can, we have made a very grave error. Suppose mental illness is not merely the equivalent of a ‘functional’ disturbance to the operation of an organ or an organ-system? If mental illness is not at all analogous to physical illness, then by putting all our money on that particular horse, we have committed ourselves to a road that goes nowhere. There is not really any doubt that we have committed ourselves to a model of mental illness that is based on strict linear causality. This fact has been remarked upon within psychiatry. Popular science writer James Gleick (1987, p298) reports on psychiatrist Arnold Mandell’s comments, delivered at the 1986 Conference on Chaos in Medicine and Biology:
To Mandell, the discoveries of chaos dictate a shift in clinical approaches to treating psychiatric disorders. By any objective measure, the modern business of ‘psychopharmacology’ – the use of drugs to treat everything from anxiety and insomnia to schizophrenia – has to be judged a failure. Few patients, if any, are cured. The most violent manifestations of mental illness can be controlled, but with what long-term consequences, no one knows. Mandell offered his colleagues a chilling assessment of the most commonly used drugs. Phenthiazines, prescribed for schizophrenics, make the fundamental disorder worse. Tricyclic antidepressants “increase the rate of mood cycling, leading to long-term increases in numbers of relapsing psychopathologic episodes”, and so on. Only lithium has an real medical success, Mandell said, and only for some disorders.
Gleick goes on to explain why traditional approaches must inevitably seem inadequate to psychiatrists, who, like Mandell, are able to think in non-linear terms:
As he saw it, the problem was conceptual. Traditional methods for treating this “most unstable, dynamic, infinite-dimensional machine” were linear and reductionist. “The underlying paradigm remains: one gene [maps onto] one peptide [maps onto] one enzyme [maps onto] one neurotransmitter [maps onto] one receptor [maps onto] one animal behaviour [maps onto] one clinical syndrome [maps onto] one drug [maps onto] one clinical rating scale. It dominates almost all research and treatment in psychopharmacology. More than 50 transmitters, thousands of cell types, complex electromagnetic phenomenology, and continuous instability based autonomous activity at all levels – and still the brain is thought of as a chemical point-to-point switchboard. To someone exposed to the world of non-linear dynamics the response could only be: how naive.
The point is that we cannot model mental functioning without taking into account non-linear processes, i.e. without taking into account emergence as well as linear causality. If change is linear then there is ‘preservation of the original proportionalities’, which means that there is no new information coming into the system. If change is non-linear, then the original ratios are lost – this is not just a ‘reshuffling’ but radical reorientation. new stuff comes into the picture, which means that what we are talking about is emergence. Emergence comes about through ungrounded instability, which is when a system doesn’t merely change its output according to perceived changes in its environment, but when the change in output feeds back into the blueprint of the system itself and alters that blueprint beyond recognition. Linear systems work on the principle of negative feedback, which means that errors in the output are identified and corrected. Non-linear systems do what they do because of the operation of positive feedback, which means that errors in the output get fed back into the system and repeatedly amplified so that they change the basic organisation of that system in a radical (or unpredictable) way.
Given the well-known time lag between physics and other sciences such as biology (and medicine), and the great resistance that there was to chaos theory in physics in the 1980’s when it first started to make itself known, it is not surprising that we are so slow to take in the implications of this new paradigm in the fields of psychology and psychiatry. Non-linear dynamics challenges our pre-conceptions to the very core – in fact it reverses our basic expectations about the world. If we did not know better, we would naturally assume that positive feedback (amplification of errors) can lead to nothing but meaningless static, zero information in other words, but what the study of non-linear systems shows us is that the reverse can happen- instability can lead to the system regrouping on a more highly organised level, not the other way around. There is an information jump, not a drop. The classic example of this is the Mandelbrot set which has been described as ‘the most complex object in existence’. The Mandelbrot set is not specified (i.e. described) by the equation Z maps onto Z 2 + C, this equation merely ‘facilitates’ a particular line in emergence by instigating ungrounded instability. We think of linear systems, on the other hand, as being progressive in the sense that they are continually moving in the direction of increased information content. The reverse of this is true – no new information ever comes into a system exhibiting linear change, they are utterly tautological and never say anything new. The psychological implications of this are immense -we are forced to confront David Bohm’s spooky vision of the rational (i.e. linear) mind as a dealer in illusions, forever offering up visions of progress, new ways of looking at the world which are actually only ‘reshuffled’ versions of the same old thing. The ‘no win situation’ that is neurosis arises precisely out of this disguised tautology because all the ‘solutions’ that our rational mind offers up are in fact reshuffled versions of the original problem. The (purely rational) attempt to come up with and apply a solution is the very root of the problem that the neurotic mind seeks to eradicate: the attempt to fix the problem is the problem, not the problem itself. The problem isn’t actually fixable at all in the end anyway, and, what is more, if I didn’t keep trying to fix it then it wouldn’t keep aggravating me. If I left it alone it would stop demanding a solution. As long as I keep driving myself mad trying to fix the problem then I don’t ever get enough perspective to see that – I don’t ever get enough perspective to see that ‘the problem’ isn’t the problem.
Entropy As ‘Unavailable Information’
In the pages that follow we will argue that the concept of entropy, seen in a psychological rather than the physical sense, can generate a whole new way of looking at mental illness and mental health. To talk in terms of entropy is to talk in terms of information, and so instead of looking at disturbances from normal parameters of mental functioning, which is the hallmark of the physical (or ‘linear’) approach, what we will be looking at is the way in which the system of thought (to use physicist David Bohm’s phrase) creates a simplified and ultimately erroneous version of reality within which it can function, in order to obtain certain psychological ‘pay-offs’. The basic idea is (as expressed by Bohm) is that the organisationally closed virtual reality world which is operated by the system of thought embodies certain systematic errors that cannot be corrected by the system itself. When the system does try to correct them (as it will of course do when it runs into difficulties), it produces worse problems for itself which cause it to correct ever more, which in turn create even more severe problems, and so on. This, as Alan Watts has noted, constitutes the essential ‘vicious circle’ that lies behind all neurotic mental disorders. Such an explanation, it will be noted, does not rely on neurochemical explanations, although naturally one would expect to find changes occurring on this level of organisation. [Non-linear dynamics can also be used as a model to throw light on schizophrenia or what is called ‘psychotic mental illness’, although we do not have space to go into this here]
By taking the linear approach that we as a culture do (i.e. by trying to use the system of thought to fix itself, when it itself and its ‘fixing’ is the problem, we only make matters worse in the long term. The criticism of psychiatry quoted above echoes this view: what we are doing is akin to fixing a bump in a carpet by determinedly squashing it with pieces of furniture. of course, this method doesn’t really work because the bump has not actually been eliminated, it has just been displaced to some other area of the carpet. The analogy is nothing if not straight forward: the bumps in the carpet are the symptoms, and the pieces of furniture are the drugs which are used to suppress them. Just as long as we stay short-sighted, so that we can’t see the way in which a new bump appears for every old one that we squash down, then we can continue to believe in the efficacy of our approach. This criticism of contemporary medical illness-management was also levelled by Ivan Illich, who drew attention to a ‘medical nemesis’ which he called specific counter-productivity. David Bohm speaks of incoherence, by which he means exactly the same thing. Someone who immediately springs to mind in this connection is cybernetics pioneer Gregory Bateson. in the following passage taken from Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Bateson (1972, p 118-119) provides a classic account of something that we all tend to assume we understand, i.e. the ecological blunder:
What the unaided consciousness (unaided by art, dreams and the like ) can never appreciate is the systemic nature of mind.
This notion can conveniently be illustrated by an analogy: the living human body is a complex, cybernetically integrated system. This system has been studied by scientists – mostly medical men – for many years. What they now know about the body may aptly be compared with what the unaided consciousness knows about the mind. Being doctors, they had purposes: to cure this and that. Their research efforts were therefore focused (as attention focuses the consciousness) upon those short trains of causality which they could manipulate, by means of drugs or other intervention, to correct more or less specific and identifiable states or symptoms. Whenever they discovered an effective ‘cure’ for something, research in that area ceased and attention was directed elsewhere. We can now prevent polio, but nobody knows much more about the systemic aspects of that fascinating disease. Research on it has ceased, or is, at best, confined to improving the vaccines.
But a bag of tricks for curing or preventing a list of specified diseases provides no overall wisdom. The ecology and population dynamics of the species has been disrupted; parasites have been made immune to antibiotics; the relationship between mother and neonate has been almost destroyed; and so on.
Characteristically, errors occur wherever the altered causal chain is part of some large or small circuit structure of system. And the remainder of our technology (of which medical science is only a part) bids fair to disrupt the rest of our ecology.
The point, however, which I am trying to make in this paper is not an attack on medical science but a demonstration of an inevitable fact: that mere purposive rationality unaided by such phenomena as art, religion, dream and the like, is necessarily pathogenic and destructive of life; and that its virulence springs specifically from the circumstance that life depends upon interlocking circuits of contingency, while consciousness can see only such short arcs of such circuits as human purpose may direct.
In a word, the unaided consciousness must always involve man in the sort of stupidity of which evolution was guilty when she urged upon the dinosaurs the common-sense values of an armaments race. She inevitably realised her mistake a million years later and wiped them out.
Unaided consciousness must always tend towards hate; not only because it is good common sense to exterminate the other fellow, but for the more profound reason that, seeing only arcs of circuits, the individual is continually surprised and necessarily angered when his hard-headed policies return to plague the inventor.
If you use DDT to kill insects, you may succeed in reducing the insect population so far that the insectivores will starve. You will then have to use more DDT than before to kill the insects which the birds no longer eat. More probably, you will kill off the birds in the first round when they eat poisoned insects. If the DDT kills of the dogs, you will have to have more police to keep down the burglars. The burglars will become better armed and more cunning ….and so on.
That is the sort of world we live in – a world of circuit structures – and love can survive only if wisdom (i.e., a sense of recognition of the fact of circuitry) has an effective voice.
A View Of Neurosis As Entropy
What we are talking about in this discussion are the psychological manifestations of the principle of ‘ecological blundering’, by which we mean simply neurotic (counterproductive) activity. Bateson is making the point that when we become involved in intervening through short causal arcs of logic we incur a type of blindness (i.e. entropy) which makes us utterly oblivious to all the other aspects of what is going on – we become ‘vandals’, short-sightedly wrecking a finely tuned complex whole. Neurotic activity is activity which is motivated by extremely compelling short-term goals, goads which totally capture our attention and which cause us to embrace behaviour that greatly exacerbates and perpetuates the original distress.
Neurotic mental illness, then, can be seen in terms of entropy. Basically, what we are going to say is that a closed (i.e. a rational or linear) system involves entropy because that system has a ‘blind spot’ which it does not know it has. therefore, information is irreversibly lost to the system, and the irreversible loss of information is entropy. All knowing incurs entropy, as Stuart Kauffman has noted, and therefore entropy is inevitably involved in any kind of rational activity. What we are going to be looking at is what happens when the entropy increases so that mental activity becomes so narrow and ‘ignore-ant’ that the person concerned begins to exhibit extreme counterproductive behaviour. Essentially, what happens is that by attempting to act in such a way as to be happy (or to avoid unhappiness, which is the same thing) the opposite happens i.e. the person becomes even more unhappy instead of less, which prompts them to try even harder in the doomed attempt to avoid unhappiness.
The Theory Of Games
Entropy, as we have said, can be defined by saying that it is unusable (or unavailable) information and this means that we can equivalently define it in terms of games. In order to play a game, as Professor Carse says, I need to feel a sense of necessity, but that feeling of necessity is only there because I have decided that it should be there. There is a contradiction in this because if the necessity is only there because I have agreed that it shall be there, then it isn’t really ‘a necessity’ at all. Therefore, says Carse, we can only play a game when we veil our own freedom from ourselves, i.e. when we hide from ourselves the freedom that we have not to play the game. This ‘self-veiling’ means making information unavailable to us. We can add to Carse’s definition a further refinement by saying the following.
The ability to be engaged (i.e. to feel motivated) by the game is the short-term gain, whilst the irreversible loss of freedom (which would be ‘the freedom not to play the game’) is the long-term cost.
Going Down a Hill
Another commonly used definition of entropy is ‘unusable energy’, which comes down to the idea of being energetically identical to (or in balance with) one’s environment. We can also bring the definition given above in the box into this ‘entropy equals equilibrium’ explanation, as the following example will show. Let us say that you are on a bicycle that is freewheeling down a road into a valley. Initially it seems as if you are getting something for nothing, it seems as if you are getting a free ride because you get to travel all the way down to the bottom of the valley without having to put any energy into it. This apparent ‘free ride’ is the short-term gain of the game. It soon becomes apparent, however, that the ride wasn’t free at all because when you come to a rest at the bottom of the valley there is nowhere to go that isn’t up a steep hill, which means that you have to invest a lot of hard work in getting out of the valley. Exactly the same amount of energy is needed as was provided, seemingly for free, when you came down the hill, and this cancels out any idea of a gain. This is the long-term cost.
What has essentially happened is that you have got ‘stuck’ because by being short-sighted in thinking that you were getting something for nothing you have ended up in a place that you can’t get out of without importing extra energy into the situation. The gain was only a gain because you chose to descend to a lower energy level than the one you occupied originally, but once your came into equilibrium with that new level the gain is no more, and a long-term cost has been occurred because you now have to get out of the hole you chose to fall into. This terminal ‘stuckness’ is caused by an increase in the entropy of the situation, i.e. by an increase in the unusable energy of the situation. As we shall see, the above ‘physical’ analogy of the bicycle going down into a valley lends itself very well to psychological situations, i.e. psychological ways of ‘being stuck’.
We have defined a game by saying that it is when you focus on the short-term gain and ignore the long-term cost, which is another way of saying that a game is a way of getting to believe (for a short period of time at least) that it is possible to ‘get something for nothing’. Both this definition of games, and Carse’s ‘self-veiling’ definition (which is of course much the same thing) are important from a psychological point of view because we can look at rational and emotional behaviour in terms of ‘games’, and when we do so we find that a lot of diverse neurotic conditions become understandable in a very straightforward way. Sulking is one example – the ST gain might be said to consist of the pleasantly unambiguous (i.e. clearly justifiable) feeling of being the innocent victim of unfair forces or circumstances, whilst the LT cost is that I get stuck in my misery indefinitely. Sulking is a trap because I am doing it myself, but I am refusing to see that I am doing it.
Anger can be treated similarly – I get to displace all blame and responsibility away from myself by clearly identifying ‘the bad guy’, I also create a very clear cut way of dealing with the problem that will help me feel better about it even if this particular problem-solving behaviour doesn’t actually work. The downside is of course that my behaviour creates additional problems both for myself and everyone around me. The common trait of perfectionism can also be seen as a game: the ST gain is that I get to have the satisfaction of ‘getting things exactly right’, and the downside is that I stress out both myself and everyone else because, in practice, we can never make things come out exactly as we want them to. Anorexia is another classic example – the ST gain is the feeling of being in control, whilst the LT cost is that my life and happiness are forfeit. I have ‘won’ in terms of the game that I am playing, but winning in a game (when the game is there as a ‘decoy’ or ‘surrogate issue’) inevitably causes huge problems in the real world.
We will give two more examples, although we could go on indefinitely. Addiction is a very poignant illustration of the way in which a person can throw his or her whole life way, just for the sake of a fleeting sensation of euphoria. The gain is the momentary high, and the state of slavery to the conditioned need – and the ongoing misery of that need – is the cost.
Finally, rational thought itself can be seen as a game because in order to have a rational understanding of the world we live in, we have to focus narrowly on a single level of description, a single perspective on things. Focussing on one view-point necessarily excludes all completing viewpoints, just as focussing on the way in which a curved line is a convex curve excludes the perception that the same figure is also a concave curve. The mutual exclusivity of these two views corresponds to Carse’s ‘self-veiling’ because in order to see the one we have to ignore the other. The ST gain is that we have obtained a clear-cut ‘positive’ view of the world, which provides us with a clear-cut and ‘positive’ course of action, action that is indicated by the unambiguous (or non-complex) model that we have adopted. The LT cost is, as we have been saying, incoherence and counter-productivity. In general philosophical terms, we can say that positivism is a game because we can only generate ‘positive objects’ by the ploy of taking one level of description as paramount (or ‘fundamental’). The ST gain of positivism is that we get to relate to a world of positive objects that match our description of them (which provides a feeling of security and orientation); the LT cost is that the feeling of security and ‘being orientated’ thus generated are entirely spurious, and so it will let us down painfully in the end.
We ought to note that the game isn’t that we utilise a single level of description in order to learn something about our environment, the game is that we do this and deny that this is what we are doing. In other words if I choose a particular vantage point from which to survey the terrain, in the knowledge that is only one vantage point out of many other such vantage points, then that is not a game. But if I choose a vantage point and say that it is only vantage point (or the only ‘true’ vantage point) then that is a game.
The ‘Enemy’ Of Life…
The impression given above might be that entropy is a highly abstruse and subtle sort of a thing. In some senses, it is, but in another sense entropy is not abstruse at all, but as basic as you can get, and about as subtle as a brick in the face. In order to appreciate the brutal relevance that entropy has to us we need to define it in a way that ties it in to our day-today experience of ourselves and others. A very basic way to do this is by considering our freedom – our freedom to think in different ways about our situation, or freedom to see our situation in different ways, and our freedom to act in different ways. What we can say therefore is that ‘psychological entropy’ represents an inverse measure of our mental freedom, i.e.
Reverse Entropy, S -1 = ‘Having the Possibility of Genuine Change being Open To You’ = ‘Your Personal Freedom’
So, if I am a heroin addict, my addiction reduces the range of options that I have – it does this because the ‘rule’ of the addiction, which automatically over-rides all other rules, specifies one (and only one) course of action, i.e. taking heroin. Similarly for a sufferer from OCD who ‘has to’ wash his or her hands exactly five hundred time after coming back home from anywhere: the behavioural rule here specifies that this is what the person has do – it does not give any other options at this particular juncture, it insists upon this course of action and no other. In other words, what we are saying is that neurosis (i.e. reacting to arbitrary mental limits as if they were genuine necessities) equals ‘loss of freedom’, which equals ‘psychological entropy’.
It can also be seen that what we are looking at here is the number of (logically consistent) mental rules that a person is subject to in his or her daily life. This time we are talking about a direct rather than an indirect measure of psychological entropy. It is important to note that the rules involved must be consistent (i.e. that they be all part of the same causal arc of logic) because the number of diverse (or logically unconnected) rules is a straight measure of the complexity of the system, which is another way of talking about the information content (S -1). For this reason, rather than trying to ‘count the number of rules’ that the person in question is unconsciously obeying – even though this provides a good rough indicator of the extent of the neurosis – we would be better off saying something like:
The Amount Of Entropy In The System (S) Is Directly Proportional To The Extent To Which A Person Is Governed By Habit Or Precedence In Their Activity.
Being governed by a consistent set of rules corresponds to Carse’s idea of ‘self-veiling’ because in order to be ruled by rules, we first need to ‘ignore’ the way in which the absolute necessity which constitutes the rule is not actually so absolutely necessary at all. Now when we say ‘ignoring’ we have to be clear that this is a sort of irreversible rather than reversible ignoring, which means that it is more like amnesia that anything else. If I have amnesia, then I have forgotten what it was that I had forgotten; in effect, I forget that I have forgotten – the information is well and truly lost to me. If forgetting were not irreversible, i.e. if I knew where to look in order to retrieve the information, then it would not be forgetting at all in the proper sense of the word. The fact of the matter is that I don’t know where to look for what I have lost, because even if I dimly know that I have forgotten something, I cannot remember what sort of a thing it was. if I knew where I’d put it, then it wouldn’t be lost! Likewise, then, when I veil from myself the way in which the ‘rule’ does not actually matter really in the bigger scheme of things, it stays veiled because I no longer have the information which I would need to go back to my original (free) state of mind. This irreversible information loss is entropy pure and simple.
Because of this entropic irreversibility, the passage of life tends to be synonymous with the process by which we accumulate more and more rules – rules for perceiving reality, rules for thinking about reality, and rules for interacting with reality. Needless to say, what we end up receiving, thinking about, and interacting with is not reality at all but merely a projection of the rules that we have internalised. This is the principle of the self-fulfilling prophecy – as Richard Bach says, “Argue hard enough for your limitations and, sure enough, they will be yours“. Put plainly, what this means is that the older we get, the more rigid our thinking and behaviour tends to become. Anxious/compulsive behaviour increases, spontaneity decreases. This is a brutal fact which we generally manage to avoid seeing head-on – somehow we manage to side-track ourselves into believing that other things are the problem, and not this dreadful tendency to become estranged from life, to end up becalmed in a sort of psychological Sargasso Sea, moving around in slow, pointless circles as the heavy seaweed of our neuroses cuts ever deeper into our precious mental mobility.
This is where psychological entropy ceases to be an interesting but abstract piece of theory that we can mentally toy about with when it suits us, and forget about when it comes to the actual business of our lives. Instead it reveals itself as a ghastly predicament, a predicament that each one of us has to either deal with, or ignore (and ignoring it is actually how we create it). The current thrust of our attempt to ‘solve’ mental illness seems to fall into the latter category, inasmuch as what we are trying to do is defeat the problem by manipulating what we see as the ‘relevant variables’ from the point of view of one narrow perspective, whilst ignoring all other perspectives as hard as we can. This is the definition of a game, and success or failure within the terms of a game is only what appears to be important, what really matters is the game’s covert function of allowing us to distract ourselves from the way in which we don’t actually know what we are doing at all. In other words, our system of knowledge and the rule-based action that is based on that system has become a decoy-issue that serves the psychological purpose of allowing us to feel in control.
As a rational culture, we are engaged in the business of ignoring our won mental blind spot. Now, we can’t deliberately focus on our blind spot – even if we wanted to because the information that we would need in order to know where to look is lost to us. Purposeful action is always based upon what we know, and what we think we ‘know’ always has the blind spot hidden in it. What this means is that if we deliberately start looking for what we don’t know, that merely reinforces the assumptions which are preventing us from ever getting anywhere new, and so the blind spot gets bigger and blacker than ever. This is the grim and distinctly sinister shadow side of rationality, which Jung warned us about over fifty year ago.
It is natural enough that we do not wish to look at a view of psychology that confronts us with the limits of what we can know, and what we can (purposefully) do. We do not like the idea of being stripped of our belief in the omnipotence of rational thought and purposeful action, because that seems synonymous with going back to square one and ‘being at the mercy of the big bad world’. It seems synonymous with an ignoble surrender of everything that we have so painfully gained. And yet neither can we afford to carry on the way we are doing at the moment – our shadow is getting bigger and bigger all the time and all the antidepressants in the world won’t get rid of it. The attempt to cure mental illness by deliberate rational action is like trying to join in a dance without surrendering to the dance. If there is no surrender of what (we think) we know, and what (we think) we are, then there is no harmony, only the discord of ongoing neurosis. As professor of nursing Margaret Newman says in her book Health as Expanding Consciousness, what is needed is to come into accord with the new pattern that is emerging out of the chaos, rather than grimly attempting to reinstate the old, and we cannot come into accord with the new without first finding the courage to let go of the old. The ‘cure’ for neurosis, as Krishnamurti has said, is to go beyond the known and the old, and this cannot be done on the basis of the known and the old. It is only if we are willing to confront our collective shadow that we can have something worthwhile to say about mental suffering, and we continue to show no signs of any such willingness.