Life In The Formal Realm


The only type of action that isn’t paradoxical is purposeless action. Here in the West, as Alan Watts says, we see purposeful or goal-orientated action as the only type of action that’s worth anything. We are oddly incapable of seeing that purposeful action is always ridiculously limited, always ludicrously petty in scope. The goal is always as petty as the one to whom the goal matters – it cannot be any less petty! So – because of our ‘odd’ way of seeing things – we are trapped without knowing that we are trapped in a paradoxical world that we cannot see to be paradoxical…


What kind of a life is this, we might wonder? What kind of a life is it where we’re trapped without knowing that we’re trapped in a paradoxical world that we don’t know to be paradoxical? What kind of life is it that takes place in a very limited reality that we can’t understand to be limited? Can reality be limited and yet sat the same time till remain reality? This is going to be a type of a life that is both very small in scope and ‘against itself’ (or ‘self-conflicted’) in a very fundamental way. It isn’t life at all therefore  (we could say) but rather some bizarre kind of a ‘pseudo-life’.


We could – for the sake of the argument that we are about to make – call this invisibly paradoxical or self-contradictory pseudo-reality the Purposeful Domain (or Purposeful World). The Purposeful World is loaded with paradoxicality – it is in fact one big fat paradox! The most essential way of talking about the paradoxicality of the Purposeful Domain, the Purposeful World is to say that ‘we can’t get into it and we can’t get out of it’. The Purposeful World is a ‘formal realm’ – everything in it has to be defined, has to be specified, otherwise it won’t be there. If it hasn’t been specified, it won’t be there. This means that the Purposeful World represents an information collapse –if the only stuff that gets to be there is stuff that has been specified as being there (stuff that I have made to be there) then this means that there is going to be an awful lot of stuff that won’t be there (in the Purposeful World). The stuff that won’t be there is stuff that I haven’t mentioned because I don’t know to mention it – this ‘left-out’ or ‘unmentioned’ stuff is the information that has been lost from the system.


The loss of information (a loss that we do not know about since if we knew about it then it wouldn’t be lost) that we suffer from when we are in the PW lies at the very root of the ‘paradoxicality’ that we are talking about. The information collapse equals ‘invisible restriction’ and the invisible restriction is another way of talking about the invisible paradoxicality which the PW is made up of. The easiest thing to talk about with regard to the ‘invisible paradox’ is how we can’t get out of this formal realm. We can’t exit the PW because we don’t know that there is any other word to exit to; we can’t exit the PW because we don’t know that we’re in it!  We have no way of appreciating or apprehending any type of reality other than the type we have been conditioned to register  – the Non-Purposeful World is one that is profoundly incomprehensible to us. We won’t ever look to be free from the limited (and self-conflicted) domain that we’re trapped in because we don’t know anything else; we don’t know what it is and we don’t know that we’re trapped in it. As Goethe says, ‘None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free’.


Attempts to exit the PW (if we were to try to make any such attempts, that is) meet with an infinite regression. If my purpose is to leave the Purposeful World, then clearly I am going to bring that world with me wherever I go! I am impaled on the paradox of ‘intending to stop intending’, ‘planning not to plan’, ‘controlling myself so as to no longer control myself’, ‘make a goal of no longer having any goals’, ‘wanting to stop wanting’…


The PW is the realm of thought – I can think about what it would be like to be no longer thinking about anything but this too is only a thought. This extends and perpetuates my thinking, it does not end it. I can dream about what it would be like to wake up but that would still be the dream. Dreaming of waking up isn’t anything like waking up and never could be – it’s the dream disguising itself as ‘waking up’, it’s the dream pretending to not be the dream! It’s the simulation simulating non-simulation. The simulation of non-simulation is no closer to reality than the original simulation was – all that’s happening is that we are creating another level of the simulation that claims to be different from the preceding level…


We know come to the other side of the Grand Paradox, which is the impossibility of entering the formal realm (or realm of thought) which we are calling the Purposeful World. We can’t intend to enter the world of intending because that would straightaway mean that we must already be in that world. If I’m intending to enter the intentional world then I must already be in it and if I’m already in it then I can’t very well enter it! First I have to be outside of it. If my purpose is to enter the Purposeful World then clearly I’m already there – since I have a purpose in mind – and so I can’t enter it and this is simply the same paradox that we have just been talking about only seen the other way around.


Alan Watts talks about the Starting Paradox – if I have to decide to decide then clearly before I can do this (before I can decide to decide) I first have to decide to decide to decide, and so on and so forth and this means that I’m never actually going to get started. We can’t get into it because of the starting paradox and we can’t get out of it because of the stopping paradox – I can’t decide not to decide, I can’t intend to stop intending and I can’t plan to stop planning; if I have the thought that I’m going to stop thinking then this is still thinking.


It could be argued that we must be able to get into the PW no matter what the starting paradox may seem to be saying. We must be able to enter the PW because we’re already there! The fact that we’re here is the proof. So how does this work? How did we do it – how did we get past the starting paradox? This is the obvious objection to what we have just been saying. It’s like a philosopher saying “Nothing exists’ when plainly it does. If reality didn’t exist then why would we need to say that it doesn’t? We’re plainly all here in the formal realm – as large as life and twice as awkward – so why waste time arguing that we couldn’t possibly be?


This is where things get a little bit tricky. Suppose we were to ask the question – “What type of world is it that is made up of paradoxicality that we can’t see to be paradoxical?” What – we might quite legitimately wonder – is ‘paradoxicality that we can’t see to be paradoxicality? Just what the hell kind of thing is that, anyway? How then could this question be answered?


The simple answer is that it isn’t anything. It’s like a tautology that we can’t see to be tautological – just because we can’t see that the statement in question is tautological doesn’t mean that it isn’t. We’re imagining that there’s something there when there isn’t; we are fondly imagining that there is a statement there that isn’t tautological, a statement that ‘stands on its own two feet’, so to speak. We imagine that there’s actually something there when there isn’t. In the same way, therefore, the invisibly paradoxical world that we imagine to be there isn’t there at all – there’s no such world, that’s just an illusion…


So the solution to the question is “We can’t enter the Purposeful World because there’s no such world to enter.” We can’t enter an unreal world because there’s no world there to enter! There’s no such world to enter and there’s no such world to leave. As we read in the Diamond Sutra (said to be the first book ever printed on a printing press) –


“Subhuti, do not say that the Tathagata has the idea, ‘I will bring living beings to the shore of liberation.’ Do not think that way, Subhuti. Why? In truth there is not one single being for the Tathagata to bring to the other shore. If the Tathagata were to think there was, he would be caught in the idea of a self, a person, a living being, or a life span. Subhuti, what the Tathagata calls a self essentially has no self in the way that ordinary persons think there is a self. Subhuti, the Tathagata does not regard anyone as an ordinary person. That is why he can call them ordinary persons.


This solution to the paradox  – that there is no such thing as the self which has the purposes, which has the intentions, which has the plans, etc – naturally tends to be one that we shy away from. It’s not really up our street. It’s not our cup of tea. We’re rather attached to the notion that there is such a thing as ‘a self’! How are we to take the suggestion that there isn’t such a thing as either the self or its supposedly important purposes / goals? How do we process that bit of information? What do we do with it?


One way to look at this is in terms of freedom (which is a kind of parallel approach to looking at things in terms of information, as we have been doing). A situation where the lack of freedom is presented positively, as actual freedom, is called a game. In a game we feel that we free but clearly – as James Carse argues in Finite and Infinite Games – we can’t play a game if the whole time we know that we free not to play it! That would spoil the whole thing. We have to veil our own freedom from ourselves if we are to play, Carse says.


This giving away of our freedom is itself a free thing. That is a free action on our part. There’s no rule saying that we have to play – there’s only a rule when we do play! If we said that there was a rule saying that there has to be a rule then we would be caught up in the same infinite regress that we were talking about before with the starting paradox. The only way to start is from freedom; this could be said to be the solution to the paradox, therefore, that we don’t intend or decide or plan to enter into the Purposeful World, but rather that is a spontaneous, playful action on our part, akin to what in Sanskrit is called Lila or Divine Play. “It is an invariable principle of all play, finite and infinite, that whoever plays, plays freely.” says James Carse.


And this statement – as we have just indicated – has the corollary that as we play, as we voluntarily suspend our freedom and enter into the Purposeful World, all that we’re doing is veiling the freedom that is always there from ourselves. But as we have also indicated, if there is freedom there all the time then this means that there isn’t actually any ‘Purposeful World’! If intrinsic freedom is there the whole time then this means that there is no such thing as ‘the Purposeful World’ since this world can only exist in the absence of intrinsic freedom. There’s no PW and there’s separate self there to have the purposes. That was just the game. So we never entered the Purposeful World in the first place, and this is the solution to the paradox that we have been considering here. As the verse has it in the Diamond Sutra –


Thus shall you think of all this fleeting world:

A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream;

A flash of lightening in a summer cloud,

A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.














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