When we focus’ (or ‘concentrate’) then what this means is that we direct our attention in one particular direction and exclude everything else. We ‘exclude the irrelevant’, in other words. This is hardly saying anything new but there are – nevertheless – some very remarkable consequences to this observation that we can easily see when we look further into it. For a start, it shows that when we concentrate (and all operations of thoughts are exercises in concentration) we split the world in two. Reality is fragmented! Before we concentrate there is just ‘the world’, afterwards there is a partition and on one side of the partition is ‘relevant,’ whilst on the other side there is ‘irrelevant’. On the one side there is ‘signal’, and on the other side there is ‘error’. There’s more to it than just this however – it is our awareness that is been split in two not the world and so we have ‘the sharply-focussed spotlight of rational awareness’ on the one side and the ‘shadow world which is made up of the information that we never bothered to register’ (because it was ‘irrelevant’) on the other side.
Again, there’s nothing particularly controversial about this. Most of us will be happy to go along with this as a model of how the rational world mind works. It’s all been said many times before. But we do start to see something ‘peculiar’ here when we look a little bit closer and this peculiarity has to do with this notion of ‘relevant’ versus ‘irrelevant’ content. The relevant content is relevant because it has a bearing on what we’re interested in, obviously, and what this means is that ‘it’s only there because we made it to be there.’ What we become aware of is faithful reflection of our interest in looking at the world in the first place. The ‘spotlight’ of the rational-conceptual mind doesn’t simply show up part of the world in great definition therefore, it distorts our understanding of the world to make it look as if the world is ‘more or less what we think it is’, and so we are never going to get any radical surprises coming our way.
What we are talking about here is really ‘lack of perspective’ – when we assume that the world is always going to be pretty much what we expect it to be (and so aren’t in any way surprised by the fact that the universe always ‘confirms our expectations’) then this is ‘lack of perspective’. This deficiency in perspective is always brought into play when we concentrate our attention, when we zoom in on the foreground, when we utilise the instrument of the thinking mind. We see more of what we are looking for, and less and less of everything else. This is like a type of blindness that we bring along with us wherever we go; by dividing the world into ‘relevant’ and ‘irrelevant’ we create a situation where we are unaware of the irrelevant and when we are unaware of the irrelevant (or that there actually is such a thing as ‘the irrelevant’) then the world shrinks until it becomes the size of what we are interested in (or concerned about) and we don’t notice anything strange about this. We don’t notice anything strange about this because we don’t know that anything happened; it seems ‘normal’ that the world should confirm our expectations at every turn.
What this ‘lack of perspective’ is doing is convincing us that the world is ‘all about us’; it is creating a sort of ego-centric system, in other words. This is what ‘having our expectations unfailingly confirmed’ means. This is a very bizarre situation that we talking about here therefore – we’re basically going around thinking (on an unconscious level) that the world is all about us when it clearly isn’t. But not only is it the case that the world isn’t all about us, it’s actually a fantastically absurd, ludicrously laughable notion that the world should be orientated around us, that we are somehow ‘central’ to the grand scheme of things! It’s a truly ludicrous notion, and yet it’s also notion that we all take for granted, remaining for the most part sublimely unaware of the preposterousness of our attitude.
But even observing this, as we have just done, isn’t really getting to the heart of the issue. We could observe that thinking about the world always brings about a lack of perspective that we don’t (and can’t) know about (because the world has shrunk down to the size of our preconceptions without us realising that it has) but this still isn’t really putting our finger on what’s happening here. Very simply put, what happens when we lose perspective as a result of concentrating, as a result of relating to the world via the thinking mind, is that the illusion of the self comes into being. Loss of perspective constitutes their essential condition in within which the self can come into being – there can be no perception of there being a self unless first we have no perspective (which also means having ‘no way of knowing that we have no perspective’). The self can only exist in a world that has been shrunken right down to the size of its own preconceptions, in other words. Or as we could also say – ‘what creates the self is the confirmation of our assumptions’.
An alternative way of putting this would be to say that the self comes into being as a result of entropy. This might sound at first glance to be making very free and easy with the word ‘entropy’, which as we know as a very precise and technical meaning – a precise and technical meaning that normally has nothing at all to do with what we call ‘the self’! We can however go into this at considerable length to show that our use of the word ‘entropy’ (which admittedly is very often used in a vague, poetical sort of way) is a lot more precise than it might at first seem. Entropy is a measure of information that is being irreversibly lost to the system – it is, we might say, ‘information that we don’t have any information about’. Information has been lost but we don’t have the information available to tell us that it’s been lost; we have ‘forgotten something but we can’t remember that we have forgotten it’ in other words! An ‘increase in entropy-content’ is therefore just another way talking about ‘loss of perspective’, which is the process that we have been looking at in relation to the functioning of the rational mind.
Perspective loss (or ‘information loss’) occurs every time we concentrate, every time we think about the world, which is of course what we started off talking about right at the very start of this discussion. The very process of thinking is ‘information loss’, and this can easily be demonstrated. Thinking is the process in which a set of criteria or rules are held up to the universe as ‘a standard’, and the results of this is therefore that the universe immediately gets divided up into ‘match’ or ‘no match’, ‘yes’ or ‘no’, ‘relevant’ or ‘irrelevant’. This is what rules always do! We take no interest at all in that aspect of the world which fails to match our evaluative criteria – we don’t register it, we ‘throw away’ this information is being anomalous / erroneous / worthless. We discard it without even registering that we have discarded it, and this is why we can talk in terms of ‘irreversible information loss’ (or ‘increase in entropy content’).
The next step in our argument is to turn to the mental construct known as ‘the self’ and look at the role ‘information-dumping’ (or ‘increasing entropy content’) plays here. Where is the ‘cut-off point’ the point for the self; where is the point at which the self ‘loses interest’ in what it is looking at? What is the all important criterion’ here? This turns out to be a remarkably easy and straightforward question to answer – ‘the self’ is its own criterion, is its own rule, is its own standard! The self measures the world by ‘comparing it to itself’, in other words. If something is irrelevant to the self’s purposes (and ‘the self’ and ‘its purposes’ are fundamentally inseparable!) then it is immediately dropped, it is immediately discarded. We ‘drop it’ without even registering that we are dropping it. This isn’t some kind of ‘incidental aspect’ of the self’s behaviour either – the self can only be the self as if it observes this all-important mechanical ‘cut-off’ point in its interest. The self can’t ‘bring perspective into the picture’ without compromising its own existence, in other words.
What would happen if the self did allow a bit of perspective into the picture (always assuming that it actually could do this, that is)? The first thing we would notice would be that the world ‘no longer confirms our unconscious expectations’. This sort of thing feels very strange of course – it’s as if we have to do a ‘double take’ on everything we see! This ‘strangeness’ comes about because of the fact that our assumptions are no longer being confirmed. What is it that happens when our assumptions are no longer being confirmed, we might ask? Well, quite simply, our assumptions start to lose their integrity; they start to become insubstantial, they start to lose their potency. They become ghostly, unreal entities and eventually fade away entirely. They were never real things anyway of course – they were only ‘assumptions’, after all! The only way we can keep our assumptions from fading away in the light of day and drifting off and blowing off like a pile of dead leaves on a windy day is to never question them, never to expose them to the merest possibility of falsification. The only way we can keep our assumptions potent is in other words to make sure that we always see the world in terms of them (rather than letting the world ‘turn the tables on us’ and cause us to see our assumptions in terms of the world).
When we investigate the world on the basis of our criteria, on the basis of our rules, on the basis of our ‘assumed standards’, and clearly our assumptions will never be challenged, will never be shown up to be ‘entirely insubstantial’. The nature of the game we are playing will never be compromised and as a result we going to be living slap-bang in the middle of ‘a World of Confirmation’ and nothing is ever going to rock this boat. The world has shrunk down without us realising it, it has been shrunk down to the size of our expectations about it since all we ever see are our own expectations reflected faithfully back at us. We’ve labelled all the information that would disagree with our assumptions (i.e. show them up for what they are) as ‘error’ or ‘irrelevant’ so we are now ever going to experience the falsification of our core assumptions? When we operate on the basis of a particular set of rules then these rules can never be challenged and this is what gives us our security. There is a ‘constant’ there and this constant equals ‘our rules’ or ‘our assumptions’.
Operating on the basis of our ‘assumed criteria’ is therefore the very same thing as operating in the world on ‘the basis of the self we automatically assume we are’ – we’re never going to see anything that’s going to contradict ‘the core assumption of the self’, we’re never going to expose this ‘arbitrarily chosen criterion or rule’ to the light of day. Therefore, all we need to do in order to ‘keep this assumption valid’ is to keep on ignoring all information that doesn’t match our beliefs, and it just so happens that we are very good indeed at doing this. This is ‘our superpower’ – even if we are rubbish at everything else, we’re superbly accomplished and skilful at this! Entropy is our friend when it comes to creating the illusion of ontological security for ourselves – it may not be ‘our friend’ in other ways, but it does support us in this…
When we always concentrate our attention on what is pragmatically important to us (and never relax enough to allow ourselves to glimpse the Bigger Picture) then the central assumption which is ‘the self’ remains safe and secure therefore, and seeing that we are flatly convinced that we are this ‘self’ we aren’t in any hurry at all to put down our petty preoccupations and take in the Bigger Picture, no matter how spectacular that Bigger Picture might be! The mystics might tell us about it, or write beautiful poetry about it, but we just don’t want to know! We’re going to keep our noses to the wearisome grindstone of our mundane rational ‘short-sighted’ pursuits because we know that this way we’re never going to see anything that might cause us to start thinking outside the tiresome empty box which is ‘the banal rational ego’…
Image – Zombie Formalism, performance art Hamburg 2005