Contextual Containment [1]

Thinking always has a pragmatically decomplexifying effect on reality. This is another way of saying that thought makes us see things in a simplified way, even though nothing is simple in the way that thought assumes. We can also express this idea in terms of radical versus trivial uncertainty by saying that mind (which is to say, exclusive or Aristotelian Logic) cannot function where there is radical uncertainty. This means that we have to veil our own intrinsic freedom from ourselves, and operate solely in the realm of extrinsic freedom, which is ‘freedom’ within strictly defined limits. A less wordy approach would be to say that our thinking contains us, and it is this idea of ‘mental containment’ that we are now going to look at. As Colin Wilson says, we see the world via our concepts and so these concepts of ours (marvellous though they may seem) constitute the bars of our cage.




If I think about something, then this is the overt action. Accompanying this overt or visible action is the covert action of ‘perspective reduction’ that always happens when I look at the world in a particular way. That’s what ‘looking at the world in a particular way’ means. On the face of it there is a ‘plus,’ an increase in knowledge; and accompanying this apparent gain there is a hidden debit, an unnoticed loss of freedom. John Horgan (1996, p 228) quotes Stuart Kauffman as saying the following at a workshop on ‘limitology’: “To be is to classify is to act, all of which means throwing away information. So just the act of knowing requires ignorance.” This comment, Horgan noted, had the effect of ‘simultaneously impressing and annoying Kauffman’s audience,’ and one might expect a similar response from anyone who is rudely confronted with the idea that you can’t know something without incurring a corresponding debt of ignorance. All the same, the principle is sound. In order to know something I have to slot incoming information into my mental categories, I have to match my concepts to the world.  I can’t do this, however, without disregarding all the information that doesn’t happen to correlate with my categories – this is what happens when one classifies stuff, there is an inevitable loss of information at the end of the process because the information obtained reflects the ‘rules of classification’ used to order it. If there was any other form of order hidden in the raw information it has now been lost forever, since there is no way to ‘reverse-deduce’ it from the processed information.


Looking at the world in a particular way means operating within a specific context. We can think about this in terms of ‘sliding down the information gradient’ – as soon as I assume a context for viewing the world, then a break in cognitive symmetry takes place. This sounds a bit technical but it is perfectly straightforward: beforehand there was no RIGHT WAY and no WRONG WAY to look at stuff, there were no ‘rules for reality interpretation.’  This ‘rule-less’ state is the state of perfect symmetry, where all directions are the same. Because all directions are the same, this actually does away with the idea of directionality altogether, since ONE WAY only makes sense in comparison the ANOTHER WAY.  Where there is a state of unbroken symmetry like this, the information content of the system is said to be infinite, and the entropy content zero. A symmetry break is always associated with a jump in the entropy content, since there is now a basic ‘context’ in place and so all statements about the world have to make sense within that context. If we ask a question about the universe, then we assume that we know in advance the context within which the answer to that question is going to be framed. I may not know the specific form which the answer will take, but I know the framework of meaning that will inform it. This is ‘trivial uncertainty’.




Now, this business of ‘formatting all information in advance’ is exactly what mental entropy is all about. Suppose I am carrying out a political survey. I have a room full of people who I am to interview so that I can find out who they want to vote for – which party is going to be most popular, which second-most popular, and so on.  There is a degree of unpredictability here, obviously (otherwise I would not need to conduct the survey in the first place!) and this means that there is information out there for me to obtain. The presence of information that cannot be guessed in advance is a ‘reverse measure’ of the entropy content of the system under investigation – if I could predict the results in advance, then this would mean that there is infinite entropy. Although I cannot predict the details, there is something that I can predict – the categories of meaning! The categories of meaning are a given; the categories of meaning will always remain the same. I know in advance that some people will be supporters of party X, some will be supporters of party Y, and so on. In this respect there is complete predictability: there is absolutely no way on earth that my original context for understanding my results is going to be in any way altered by the data that I obtain. The idea that my agenda for carrying out the survey is going to be changed by the information obtained is absurd, it couldn’t happen. In this sense, the so-called ‘information’ that I have derived is not information at all, since information ought to imply change. In other words, the information received will be the purest confirmation. Therefore, ‘having an agenda’ (agenda equals ‘symmetry break’) always results in a jump in entropy: before the agenda was in place, we could have gone anywhere or nowhere, afterwards the range of possible places to end up is strictly limited. This property of ‘limiting where I can end up’ is what we are calling ‘containment’ in a nutshell.



Furthermore, this type of containment, which is to say, mental containment, comes with a double edge to it – that is how it is different from a physical container such a jar of marmalade. Because establishing a context to operate within means moving downwards on the information gradient, this means that once the W-collapse occurs I am left without the slightest clue that it has actually happened. The slate is wiped clean.  This business of ‘losing ground without knowing that we have lost anything’ means that when I move downwards on the vertical W axis of the ‘paradoxical framework’ (i.e. the framework that contains itself) my world shrinks; therefore, when we refer to this variable called   ‘information content’ what we are talking about is the parameter of ‘how big my (pragmatic) world is’. The bigger it is, the more possibilities I am in touch with. Now, when W decreases, my world shrinks, and this means that my capacity to know that it has shrunk decreases exactly in step with how much it has shrunk. In other words, I limit myself, and immediately become oblivious of the limits, because my ability to perceive the limits is limited. I forget, and I also forget that I have forgotten. This is the sinister amoeba-like‘ property of David Bohm’s ‘system,’ the property which we have referred to as organizational closure, and it is also the prime manifestation of mental entropy. What we are saying, then, is that the vertical W axis that we are talking about here means is simply decreasing versus increasing mental entropy.




Because we do not see them, mental barriers are therefore particularly hard to transcend. This is of course a rather obvious statement. The invisibility of our mental boundaries actually makes it totally impossible for us to deliberately challenge them – I can heroically struggle against a restriction that I can see, but what chance have I got if I don’t believe that I am restricted in the first place? It is as if I have a weird type of a mental blindspot that causes me to go around all day on my hands and knees, whilst remaining totally convinced that I am still standing. You can tell me that I am not standing upright, that I am not utilizing my true stature, but I will just laugh at you for being a fool. The existence of such barriers are beyond question, this is what neurosis is – getting caught up within self- imposed limitations, limitations which everyone apart from me can see through apart. If believe that I can’t leave the house without performing hundreds of special rituals to make sure that nothing bad happens, then I will probably be diagnosed as suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder. Everyone can see that it isn’t really necessary to do this, that it is an unnecessary limitation on my life. If I have a phobia about public transport and have to walk everywhere, this too is readily seen to be an example of neurotic containment. These two examples are easy to spot because they are ‘incongruous’ – they are not congruent with how everyone else sees the world – but there are stacks of other mental barriers which we do not see because we have all agreed that they are real. This is social neurosis, a form of containment that exists in the social or group mind that we all subscribe to. Social neurosis is when one or more people collectively agree upon something, and it is usually referred to as ‘culture.’  Being in a little clique of like-minded friends is social neurosis; being a member of a political party is social neurosis; believing in the theory of evolution is social neurosis; being a ‘European’ is social neurosis, and so is any form of collusion or agreement that you might care to think of.  All are examples of ‘group-mind-limitation,’ arbitrary lines that we draw in the sand, and then say “You can’t go beyond this point…”


The idea of ‘decomplexification due to thinking’ is notoriously difficult to get across. If you keep at it, with the right person at the right time, then they might eventually understand what you are saying, but more often than not you will seriously annoy the person you are talking to. Either that or they will laugh at you, and then get bored, and go off somewhere else where they don’t have to listen to you any more. Much easier to explain is the idea of ‘decomplexification due to mood,’ since we all have first hand experience of how this works; in addition, the phenomenon is usually quite dramatic and utterly ‘non-mysterious’ at the same time. It doesn’t seem philosophical, in other words. In short, it is very well known that my world will shrink if I get annoyed, or jealous, or sulky, or covetous, or bitter. Straightaway, I become a littler, meaner, pettier person – my concerns have contracted sharply so that the only things I am interested in are those that have relevance to the agenda of my mood. If you are fidgeting with your pen and it is annoying me, then my world collapses until this is all I can think about; it might seem, on reflection, totally absurd that the whole universe could shrink to nothing but a little bubble encompassing only me and you fidgeting with your pen, but this is exactly what happens. You are as small as the least thing that annoys you, as Robert Anton Wilson says. All of these types of ‘moods’ have as their result the transformation of a relatively spacious domain of awareness (in which there might be any number of unrelated elements) to a painfully contracted bubble of petty-mindedness, in which there is simply no room for anything that hasn’t got a direct bearing on the thing that is bugging me. Consider the state of acute jealousy – the only information that a jealous person has any interest in is information that relates to their jealousy, there is no chance whatsoever that their jealousy will permit unrelated speculation, such as “Who won the European Song Contest in 1986?” or “Are there other inhabited planets in the universe?”, or “Do newts have a sense of humour?” We just don’t care about questions like this. When I am caught in the gravitational pull of a decomplexifying emotion I do not spend my time contemplating the eternal mysteries, my horizons are far too narrow for that; banality has captured me and eaten me up, and there is nothing left of the person I was. This is the phenomenon of ‘emotional containment’: I can be in one place, but not any others, and the place where I am allowed to be is a very meagre little cell, with barely room to move about at all.




We can summarize the above in terms of rules. A context means that you have a set of rules for understanding what happens. Therefore, something that happens in one context will be understood in a different way if it happens in another context. Once I truly understand about contexts, then I can never say the absolute is, I can only say ‘is in such and such a context’. Is must always be qualified! In practice, of course, we forget to qualify the deadly is-word and our context, our ‘agenda for understanding stuff,’ becomes totally invisible to us. What this means is that we don’t recognize our mental horizon as being a horizon at all, we don’t see that our limits are a function of the way we are looking at things, and that they are dependent upon us. Instead, we get stuck in a finite universe and stay strictly within its confines without ever knowing that we are restricted, without ever thinking that there might be somewhere else to go. If anyone tells us that there are worlds beyond the one we know, we dismiss them as gullible fools and woolly-minded escapists – refugees from reality!


The thinking mind is therefore a mental container. By allowing only a particular set of rules to be expressed, we create a sectioned off portion of ‘mental space’ which we can run around in, happily (or unhappily) assuming the closed domain to be all that there is. We can’t see that it isn’t, because we have cut ourselves off from the information that would need to see otherwise, since the ‘rules’ that we are talking about are the very rules which determine what is ‘real’ and what is ‘not real’ (what is to be allowed in, and what is to be disregarded) without us even realizing that we are disregarding it. There is no way in which the ‘Whole Picture’ can be viewed using the rational mind therefore; as Prigogine and Stengers (1980) say in their book Order from Chaos, there is no divine vantage point from which we can survey the totality of everything. And yet, it is also true to say, as the philosopher Anaxogorus did, that there is no part (or partition) of the whole which does not, at the same time, contain within it everything outside of it. As the well-known alchemical saying from the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistos expresses it: “That which above is like unto that which is below….” To say that the part contains the whole sounds contradictory, but, if we accept that all limits are merely functions of the arbitrary self-restrictions inherent in our thinking, then the difficulty evaporates: the part only has provisional existence, it is only finite (or closed) because we choose to ignore the way in which it is also infinite (or open).




We suggested that ‘restriction due to a compulsive emotion’ is an easier idea to swallow than ‘restriction due to thinking’. At the same time, however, it is also true that it is much easier to see that thinking has an agenda than it is to see that the compulsive emotions have an agenda. It is obvious enough to us that thinking is ‘goal-orientated,’ but it is perhaps not quite so obvious that anger or self-pity have their goals, that there is a secret agenda behind what we usually assume to be a totally ‘irrational’ (i.e. non-agenda based) state of mind. The generally accepted idea about ‘moods’ is that they are ‘irrational’, that they are pointless; and that, generally speaking, emotions are the opposite or counterpoint to rational thought. And yet this isn’t really so, emotion and thought go hand in hand – they work as a team towards the very same end. The agenda behind the emotion may be pointlessly and ridiculously short-sighted, but then so to is the agenda behind most of our thinking.  Naturally, the agenda of the emotion is hard to see, because it is veiled behind a smokescreen. In fact, the whole point is that it should be hard to see, at least as far as the person having the emotion is concerned!



We said that the idea that rationality has an agenda is self-evident, that it gives us no problems. This understanding is actually facile – it is so easy that it should not be trusted. Really, we are accepting the idea for the wrong reason since the plausibility of thought is precisely due to the fact that we automatically accept the explicit goals as being ‘real’. It is helpful here to recollect David Bohm’s ‘two laws of thought’:

[1] Thought always participates in creating the world that it shows us, and which it operates within.


[2] Thought convinces us that the reality it shows us is real, objective, and independently existent.


This is of course exactly what we have been getting at when we were talking about being ‘trapped in a context’: the symmetry break that is a ‘context of description’ necessarily involves a drop in the information content of the system, and it is this drop in the information content that makes it impossible for us to see what we have lost. This is the ‘apparent gain’ that is actually a loss, the essential trick of thought. In Hindu and Buddhist metaphysical systems this is known as Maya, the illusion that is produced by the measuring (or thinking) mind. Both David Bohm and Alan Watts have made the point that the words ‘maya’ and ‘measure’ both come from the same Sanskrit root.




We can now see that the explicit goal of thinking is nothing other than a tautological expression of the assumptions that lie behind the system of thinking in the first place. We confuse ‘goals’ with reality, whereas they reflect only the way we have of conceptualising reality. Therefore, the overt agenda is the supposedly independent and objectively existing goal, whilst the covert agenda is to confirm the assumptions that the whole edifice of thought is based upon; it is to maintain the particular illusion that is being spun, in other words.  We can see many examples of this type of ‘duplicity’:  For example, a politician may pioneer an initiative to reduce the number of people on the unemployment register – this is the overt aim, but the covert aim is to win political points. A multinational corporation exists to produce and sell pharmaceutical drugs that can ‘combat’ mental illnesses such as depression. That is one level, the ‘theatrical’ level. The fundamental agenda is, however, to make money, to increase the value of the shares and protect the interests of the stockholders. As far as the fundamental naked logic of the system goes, it doesn’t matter a damn whether the drug cures depression or not, as long as it is seen to do so; if it sells and the operation of the company is seen to be ethical, then that is all that matters. Of course, it would be nice for everyone concerned if the drug actually did help people, but, as far as the mechanics of the business organization is concerned, that is completely and utterly irrelevant. Advertising agencies sometimes say that such and such a company ‘cares’, but this is – needless to say – total nonsense, since a company is a machine whose key rationale is to look after itself. A company is an self-maintaining system – self-maintenance is the bottom line, the ‘be all and end all,’ and so if you ask it why it has to maintain itself it can only answer tautologically “Because I must...”



The point about ‘pseudo-’ (or theatrical) caring can be made perfectly easily. If I as the chief executive instigate a ‘policy of caring’ then I have made I rule saying “You, the employee, must care about the customer”….   Now, either I care about you or I don’t, since caring is a spontaneous expression from the heart, and not a shrewdly calculated agenda from the mind – if I don’t care then no amount of coercion can make me, and if I do then I will ignore the directive as being irrelevant. In practice what will happen is that if I don’t care then I will make reasonably sure to act as if I do, and if I do care then I will carry on caring. The company’s interests are served equally well either way.  It has to look as if it cares in order to succeed, but it doesn’t have to really care. Theatrical caring will do. What we are saying, then, is that only people can care, not organizations. This is an important point to make because our rational, calculating mind is just as much an ‘organization’ as any of the big multi-nationals are.  Both equal ‘the system’ and because the system always has an overt and a covert agenda it is always insincere, nowhere more so than when it is trying to be sincere. In one way, perhaps we can admit that the system possesses a type of sincerity – it possesses a type of ‘sincerity’ with regard to its own covert agenda, the core-level self-referential rule which says “I must always prove to myself the validity of my core assumptions”.



This impenetrable and indefatigable logic-loop constitutes the essential tautology of self-maintaining systems, in fact of all rules. This is way it is so frustrating arguing with someone who has already ‘made up their mind’ – the person concerned isn’t really arguing with you at all because there never was a chance that they would change their mind. It’s a foregone conclusion that they will come out of the discussion with exactly the same viewpoint they had when they came into it – that was the agenda all along. But – we might ask – what is the reason for having such a stubborn agenda? Where does this agenda come from? The problem we run into here is the lack of honesty that is going on with regard to having the agenda – because we don’t admit that there is such an agenda (which is the agenda never to be proven wrong) we can’t be asked these questions. We can’t ask ourselves these questions. We can’t question our allegiance to perpetuating our arbitrarily acquired viewpoint anymore than a company can review its own reasons for wanting to perpetuate itself. This fundamental inability to examine oneself may be said to be the essential feature of what we might call ‘mechanical existence’ – we can do what the rule tells us to do but we can’t ask why. We can’t ‘question the rules’. We can’t question the rules because we can’t see them – the rule is the basis of the world we take for granted, the world that we have unreflectively adapted to. ‘The rule’ is what contains us, therefore…






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