The Cartesian Paradigm In Mental Health (Part 2)

Now that we have established that the world-of-form is essentially related to exclusive (or ‘polar’) logic and that exclusive logic is essentially related to confirmation-type information, we can make a curious observation about the paradigm of certainty which manifests itself so forthrightly in the state of materiality. We know that materiality (or locality) relies on the existence of clear cut YES/NO answers (or more accurately, that locality relies on these +/- answers having a strictly lawful correspondence to everything that goes on in ‘reality’) but we also know that when we push the system far enough to ‘explain itself’, as it were, the information we get out of the system turns into a series of paradoxical statements. These paradoxical statements all have the form “YES EQUALS NO” and the point about this particular type of statement is that it renders all information that was apparently being carried by the two terms ‘YES’ and ‘NO’ null and void. Or to put it another way, confirmation ceases being confirmation and turns into novelty. This shocking transformation of confirmation into novelty represents the addition of ‘transparency’ (or ‘honesty’) to the proceedings, since confirmation – as we have said – can only have meaning for us when we ignore the arbitrary nature of the conditions that are necessary in order for it to have meaning. The point we are making here is therefore that confirmation is really novelty in disguise, which is another way of saying that certainty is uncertainty is disguise, or that form is formlessness in disguise.


James Carse draws attention to this very same principle when he says that all finite games contain within them a hidden contradiction, a contradiction that it is necessary for us to ignore if we want to carry on playing the game. Carl Jung seems to getting at the same thing when he says that the rational faculty operates by ‘separating the opposites’, and that the psychological (or philosophical) work of the alchemists essentially involved the coniunctio, the ‘marriage of the opposites’.  When the opposites are kept apart – which is to say, when we do not see them as inseparable (or complementary) aspects of the same thing then the contradiction is veiled from us and the information that is trafficked in by the rational mind appears perfectly legitimate. As long as the condition ‘YES DOES NOT EQUAL NO’ remains safely in place, the neatly self-consistent world which is created by our thoughts seems to us like a perfectly sane and realistic place to inhabit. However, when we conjoin the opposites, as the alchemists strove to do, we replace the ‘DOES NOT EQUAL’ with an ‘EQUALS’ and end up with a term that fully expresses in itself both polar opposites at the same time. This sounds at first like a contradiction but it is not because when we synthesize the opposites we end up with something which partakes in a higher degree of order (or reality) than the propositions that we started off with (in other words, the inequalities or asymmetries with which we are so much more familiar seem fundamental to us only because we are not seeing the whole picture).


We can try to make this clearer by looking at the ‘basic’ property of length (or distance). Length is a classic construct of exclusive logic (which is to say, rationality) because it relies on the idea that the designations UP and DOWN (or LEFT and RIGHT) can convey genuine information, i.e. that there is an absolute difference between the one and the other. Therefore, if we have an object which consists entirely of ‘length’, then what we are saying is that there exists a dimension which has points on it that can be meaningfully differentiated in terms of LEFT and RIGHT. A line segment XY can thus be treated as an entity and the reason we can treat it as an entity is because the dimension upon which it exists contains an essential asymmetry between LEFT and RIGHT. The fact that the left hand of the line segment is different from the right hand is what makes the line into a ‘thing’ that we can think about, in other words, and the converse of this is that if the line segment XY was such that there was no asymmetry between one end and the other then we would no longer be able to think of it, and so it would no longer be a ‘thing’.  We can equivalently say that polarity creates the ‘framework-of-reference’ within which there arises the possibility of confirmation-type information, i.e. –


When there is polarity there comes into being a basic possibility of orientation, and the information we use to communicate with each other (or ourselves) with regard to this basic orientation is confirmation.




Therefore, in a situation in which there is polarity, when I say ‘it’s to the right of you’ or ‘it’s to the left of you’ this constitutes genuine information. But the only reason these statements do constitute genuine information is because one direction is different to the other. Thus we can say that it is asymmetry which grants meaning to the notion of ‘distance’ – without the inequality between [+] and [-] there is no such thing as distance, and there is no possibility of being orientated (or located) in space. In fact, to say ‘with asymmetry there is no possibility of being orientated in space’ isn’t expressing the matter correctly because without asymmetry there is no framework within which we can orientated – there is no abstract scale (i.e. linear axis) to which we can refer in order to be orientated, and so there is no ‘confirmation’. Another way of approaching this is to say the following –


Without asymmetry there can be no such thing as quantitative change, which is to say, without the inequality of <YES DOES NOT EQUAL NO> there is no such thing as linear space.


However, this does not mean that in the absence of asymmetry that ‘there isn’t anything’ which is the assumption that we very much tend to jump to. The state of ‘perfect symmetry-of-order’ does not mean that there is a lack of anything, it just means that we can’t abstract anything and say that what we have abstracted is in anyway real or meaningful. One way to get at this is to say that when there is symmetry-of-order then the possibility of qualitative change is perfectly unimpeded. This is a profound type of freedom, but because the change is qualitative rather than quantitative there is no yard-stick that we can retain (or carry with us) in the transformations that follow because quantitative change means that the standard which we use to determine what is going on itself becomes wholly redundant, or wholly inapplicable. What we are looking at here is the difference – which we have already met – between linear and non-linear change: linear change can be defined as change that takes place within a fixed framework, whereas non-linear change may be defined as ‘change that does not proceed according to unchanging rules’. Qualitative change is change that proceeds according to rules which are themselves subject radical change, which means that there are also no rules to regulate the rules that regulate the change; in fact there is as we have said no static (or ‘absolutely true’) framework or context to be had anywhere. It is ‘all change’ so to speak, rather than merely being ‘change seen from the static logical platform of the rational mind’.


Dissymmetry then is when we have an object that can be described in terms of one or more polarities such as negative charge versus positive charge, up versus down, left-handed spin versus right-handed spin, and so on. We automatically ascribe these qualities to the object in question rather than seeing that they are projections of our mental yardstick, which is basically a quantitative scale which is positive in one direction and negative in the other. The way in which the rational mind works is for us to see one end of the mental yardstick as being ‘opposite’ to the other end, which of course it is, but at the same time it is at all times the very same stick that we are talking about. The fact that both [+] and [-] (or YES and NO) both pertain to the very same stick is indicated by the symmetry of the statement YES EQUALS NO, which is the ‘liar paradox’. Once we see the stick from the outside, so to speak, then the paradox is immediately understandable to us, since whatever answer to our logical (i.e. closed) question we get back from the universe, be it YES or be it NO, is no more than a projection or reflection of the mental yardstick that we are basing our question on.  However, from the point of view of the yardstick itself, YES and NO constitute very different answers indeed, and so the paradox of YES EQUALS NO remains utterly baffling to us.


From the point of view of the measuring mental yardstick, the whole universe appears as confirmation-type information (which is to say, the universe which we see agrees with our basic assumptions). Saying that the universe agrees with our basic assumptions means that it fits in with our mental measuring scale; we can also look at this ‘fitting in’ in terms of the process of comparing incoming information with quantitatively defined (i.e. bounded) categories such that –


The information we receive slots either neatly into any given category or it doesn’t, and so there is an ‘answer’ to our rational interrogation of the universe in the form of either YES or NO.


When information neither slots into our mental categories, and neither does it ‘not slot in’, then there is no YES and no NO, and in fact YES is as good as NO, which is to say, both YES and NO are no good at all. We have said that information that has the form [+] = [-] is novelty, or disagreeing information, and we have also said that this type of information can be expressed as [MAYBE]. The MAYBE answer of novelty sounds on the face of it quite reasonable to us because it still sounds as if it is ‘speaking our language’. This however is deceptive because MAYBE isn’t really what we take it for; MAYBE tends to sound like its giving us a little bit of information (albeit not very much) but actually it is not part of our ‘system of understanding’ and as a result it is not giving us any information at all (at least, not in the way that we understand it). The [?] term does not tell us a thing one way or the other and this is the whole point of it – it presents the same face to all of our propositions, favouring none above the other. We might therefore say it exhibits a type of ‘logic’ that is inclusive rather than exclusive, i.e. a type of ‘logic’ that is characterized by its perfect, immaculate symmetry.  The principle we are looking at here can be expressed as follows:


Exclusive or +/- logic (which is another way of talking about a fundamental ‘asymmetry-of-order’) is what creates the world of form, whereas Inclusive or [?] logic is what lies behind the world of formlessness. We can also say that asymmetrical order is extrinsic, being a form of order that it is order that is based on abstract rules (i.e. arbitrary divisions), whereas symmetrical order is intrinsic, being based on wholeness or unity.


Our prejudice is to always see form as being superior to formlessness, the definite being of more value than the indefinite, but the state of Symmetry is primary to all possible states of dissymmetry for reasons that we have already given – symmetry is freedom whilst dissymmetry is conditional freedom, and so if we did not have perfect freedom in the first place then we could never have imposed the particular set of conditions that we did impose. There has to be a profound or radical freedom that can never be revoked in order for there to be anything – if there wasn’t this radical-but-invisible freedom then we would not be free to select the rules that restrict us (and then say that we didn’t select them) and so rationality would not be possible. Rules are only possible if we are free to select them, and this ‘freedom to select’ has nothing to do with rules.




We started off this discussion talking about the way in which the physical world – despite its apparent finality – is not the final reality at all. When we say ‘the physical world’ what we mean is the realm of form – the realm of defined ‘things’ and ‘events’, in other words. This is still a difficult enough point to make clearly however because although we have been arguing that the physical world is synonymous with confirmation, and that confirmation is actually novelty in disguise (which is to say, [+] and [-] are only apparently separate cases) the fact remains that no matter how many times we snap our fingers at the world around us it won’t dissolve back into the ‘undecided’ state of perfect symmetry. So what good does it do us to ‘know’ that materiality is ultimately insubstantial? How does it help us to ‘know’ that its boundaries and limits are – in the end – only arbitrary? The way that we approached this question before was to look at it in terms of ‘mental health’. If we say that the defined world which we see around us represents the extrinsic order of the universe, and this extrinsic order is secondary to (or embedded within) the intrinsic order of the universe, then it is no big step from this to say that the mind with which we perceive and understand extrinsic order (which we have been referring to as the rational or conceptual mind) is similarly secondary to unconditioned consciousness, which is the same thing as ‘the intrinsic order of the universe’. If we live entirely (or almost entirely) within the rational mind then this is the same thing as saying that the only reality we relate to is the cut-and-dried reality of the known world. This world is mechanical (or rule-based) in its essence because although we may not know what the outcome of all processes may be, we know all the ‘categories of outcome’ that are possible. In other words, the framework (or context) of our understanding has already been decided and is not going to be radically challenged by anything that happens. The state of affairs where everything is ‘cut-and-dried’ is obviously not particular unusual, and the reason for this is that there is a very strong tendency towards ‘maximal adaptation to the rules as they are understood’.


When we adapt ourselves to the known world (the world as it is understood by the rational mind) then what happens is that this reality is taken to be ‘the only reality there is’, which obviously means that there is no connection whatsoever with the realm of uncertainty. The ‘realm of uncertainty’ is the more subtle reality which is always present in the external world, just as it is always present in the inner world. If we were in touch with this ‘more subtle reality’ then no matter what happened to us we would be aware that in some profound sense we were ‘free’ from whatever it was that was happening to us and this inner freedom (or non-attachment as it is also called) would mean that we experience what in earlier times would have been called ‘the gift of grace’. However, the more usual situation is that we are not in touch with the subtle reality and so we perceive ourselves to be completely at the mercy of external events and processes – we perceive ourselves to be completely determined by the mechanic world in other words, and as a result instead of grace we experience the torment of anxiety. Of course, I do not go around saying “I perceive myself to be totally determined by events that take place within the mechanical world which I live in” because I cannot truly understand what the mechanical world is unless I have insight into what ‘non-mechanical’ means. If I was aware enough to make a statement such as the one given above then this would represent a profound freedom, but the point is that I do not usually have this freedom, which is to say, I do not have the freedom to see that I am unfree.




If we take it that the conceptual world maps directly onto reality, so that the thought is identical to whatever the thought is about, then as Colin Wilson has said we become no more than ‘a thing within a world of things’. However, we rarely experience the stark horror which these words evoke because we don’t understand how any given phenomenon could be other than a ‘thing’; this lack of appreciation of any alternative to the state of ‘thing-dom’ means that we don’t see how appalling that state really is. Another way to approach this idea is to say that we fail to appreciate how irredeemably grim the conceptually mediated life is because we cherish a particular illusion regarding the possibility and desirability of ‘being in control’.  The belief that we can be successfully in control is what ameliorates the inherent dreadfulness of being ‘a thing in a world of things’ because when we hold this belief it seems to us that if only we could reach the position of successful control then all the things that make up our world would no longer be able to oppress us, but rather we would ‘oppress’ them, which is to say, we would be able to use or exploit them to suit our own purposes. In fact it doesn’t even matter if we aren’t actually in control because as long as we can hope to be in control (or scheme to be in control) we find it very easy indeed to overlook the basic inhospitality of our situation. The ability to believe that it might be possible to achieve control, and the assumption that goes with this belief, which is that ‘being in control is going to make everything OK’ is another variant of the capacity which we all have to carry on deceiving ourselves indefinitely.


If we could clearly see that we are every bit as much determined by ‘success’ as we are by ‘failure’ (i.e. if we could see that there is no more freedom in the one than there is in the other) then the comfort which we were deriving from our assumption would of course evaporate in  an instant. Mechanical existence, without the comfort zone which is provided by our belief in the advantageousness of ‘being in control’, is a thoroughly unappealing affair – it denies us the essential freedom to be what we are (which is necessarily ‘undefined’, (or non-local’)­, and instead of allowing us this essential freedom it forces us to adapt to defined modes of existence, which are ‘what we aren’t’. Thus, through our utterly naïve and utterly unreflective acceptance of the world that is shown to us by our rational minds we are trapped in the nightmarish situation of being a ‘thing in a world of things’, when ‘things’ aren’t actually real at all, but only convincing illusions that bully us through fear and greed into believing in them. When we talk about the basic inhospitality that mechanical existence has with regard to the unconditioned consciousness, this is another way of saying that linear or causal space is not really space at all, but the complete antithesis of space.


We take it for totally for granted that we can reach vastness via the causal space of our minds; that we can get to the latter from the former. Basically, we automatically assume that we can arrive at a more spacious situation from where we are at the moment, not realizing that true space and the ‘space’ that is perceived (and in fact produced) by the rational mind are incommensurable, as Krishnamurti (1970, P 38) here clearly indicates:


Thought cannot conceive or formulate to itself the nature of space. Whatever it formulates has within it the limitation of its own boundaries. This is not the space which meditation comes upon. Thought always has a horizon. The meditative mind has no horizon. The mind cannot go from the limited to the immense, nor can it transform the limited into the limitless. The one has to cease for the other to be. Meditation is opening the door into spaciousness which cannot be imagined or speculated upon.  …



…The immensity of silence is the immensity of the mind in which a centre does not exist. The perception of this space and silence is not thought. Thought can perceive only its own projection, and the recognition of its own frontier.


Because there is no room in it for radical uncertainty (or [?]), linear or causal space contains no new possibilities, no chance of change or movement, no chance of ‘getting somewhere better’. And yet ironically it is the promise of ‘getting somewhere better’ that keeps us in thrall to the measured space of the mind – if we saw clearly that measuring gets us nowhere then we would drop our hopes and our goals, and as a result of this dropping of our agendas we would find ourselves in the realm of the immeasurable, the realm of uncertainty. Linear space by definition contains no radical uncertainty and without radical uncertainty – which comes down to ‘freedom from definition’ – it is simply not possible to change. For radical change uncertainty or instability is needed – to jump from one set of rule to another set of rules requires that we pass through what Ilya Prigogine has called ‘the instability phase’, which is where ‘all rules are equally good’. The instability phase offers many new chances in terms of ‘possibility of organization’ to the evolving system, and it offers new chances precisely because of the symmetry which exists with regard to the ‘rules of organization’. When there is a state of asymmetry – which is to say, when one set of rules are unambiguously indicated as being ‘correct’ and all other rule-sets are ‘incorrect’, then the mode of organization in question is stable, and so all we can do is carry on enacting what we know in a repetitive or cyclical manner, unable even to know that there are any other possibilities. In Part 1 we tried to explain this idea by saying that the rational mind is like a tape-loop that contains no reference to its own ‘loop-like’ nature, i.e., that it is a circle that does not know itself to be a circle. The state of affairs where we are ‘constrained without knowing we are constrained’ is inevitably going to be the case whenever the rational mind is allowed to ‘have its own way’, which is to say, when we recognize no higher principle than the principle of linear (or ‘causal’) logic.




We have been using the argument that we simply cannot get away with recognizing no higher principle than rationality since there can be no genuine ‘quality of life’ unless we are in touch with the subtler, irrational world which rationality itself depends on. Without the all-inclusive ‘allowingness’ of the secret or hidden world, we are subject to implacably tyrannical mental rules which require us to fall in line with them no matter what. As a result of these mental rules (or attachments) we find that we keep talking in terms of ‘have to’s and ‘must’s and ‘mustn’t’s and ‘should’s and ‘shouldn’t’s and so on. This sort of rigid thinking is synonymous with anxiety states and neurosis in general and is instantly recognizable as what psychiatrists aptly call a ‘brittle personality’. The whole point about a brittle personality is that the person concerned acts as if he or she is made of fine china, and thus every little upset is seen as an absolute catastrophe and there is no longer any such thing as ‘a small problem’ – everything is a problem, everything spells ‘the end of the world’. In theory if the day proceeded according to my plans for it –  if everything fell in line with my innumerable mental rules – then I would not stress out and I would not therefore be a nervous wreck by noon – however no day ever pans out like this and as a result my rules bring me nothing but distress. The principle here is nothing if not simple –


The stronger my attachments the more I suffer, and the weaker my attachments the more peace I have.


This statement might be simple but it is still a source of confusion because we automatically tend to see the lack of attachments as some sort of reprehensible indifference  to life, a dangerous attitude of ‘anything goes’. As always, our prejudice is to think that without the rules of the rational mind everything will degenerate into chaos and lawlessness. Non-attachment – as it is explained in Buddhist and Hindu scriptures – is not the cowardly indifference of irresponsibility, but on the contrary it implies a ‘noble’ indifference, i.e. an indifference to my own discomfort, pain or fear. Attachments are small concerns, reflecting only the degree of self-interest that I am unfortunately afflicted with, whereas non-attachment is a measure of the degree to which I am willing to go ‘beyond myself’. If I am riddled with attachments, my concern is inevitable with myself because what matters to the rational mind is only ever itself, i.e. what it sees as right or wrong. If I possess a degree of non-attachment, then what this implies is that I am willing to sacrifice my cherished beliefs in favour of what an inscrutable reality might teach me; a willingness to drop my personal agendas is exactly the same thing as a willingness to drop ‘myself’ and so we can see that non-attachment means that I am strong in the face of adversity  – I am strong in the face of adversity because I am able to trust what I cannot understand, whereas when I am driven purely by attachment I can only trust what I myself understand, even though this so-called ‘understanding’ is nothing more than the unreal projection of a limited framework that cannot see its own limitations.


The adverse consequences of a life based purely on rationality go beyond anxiety – in the following quotation taken from The Turning Point Fritjof Capra (1982, p 421) argues that when we restrict ourselves to the ‘Cartesian mode’ our lives become fundamentally hollow and meaningless:


It would seem that the concept of mental health should include a harmonious integration of the Cartesian and the transpersonal modes of perception and experience. To perceive reality exclusively in the transpersonal mode is incompatible with adequate functioning and survival in the everyday world. To experience an incoherent mixture of both modes of perception without being able to integrate them is psychotic. But to be limited to the Cartesian mode of perception alone is also madness; it is the madness of our dominant culture.



 A person functioning exclusively in the Cartesian mode may be free from manifest symptoms but cannot be considered mentally healthy. Such individuals typically lead ego-centered, competitive, goal-orientated lives. Overpreoccupied with their past and their future, they tend to have a limited awareness of the present and thus a limited ability to derive satisfaction from ordinary activities in everyday life. They concentrate on manipulating the external world and measure their living standard by the quantity of material possessions, while they become ever more alienated from their inner world and unable to appreciate the process of life. For people whose existence is dominated by this mode of experience no level of wealth, power, or fame will bring genuine satisfaction, and thus they become infused with a sense of meaninglessness, futility, and even absurdity that no amount of external success can dispel. 




We can go a stage further than Capra does and say that when we are limited to what he calls ‘the Cartesian mode of perception and experience’ then the result is not just a life that is infused with a sense of meaninglessness, futility and absurdity – but rather the ‘life’ that we are left with is utterly and unremittingly sterile (albeit a deceptive type of sterility that periodically presents itself as being full to the brim of burgeoning possibilities). That the Cartesian mode should be utterly lacking in creativity – or utterly lacking freedom of possibilities – is perfectly obvious once we grasp the key difference between the closed logic of YES versus NO and the open logic (if we may call it that) of MAYBE. Closed logic may be said to be causal in nature because every step in it is linked both with the step before it, and after it, by the strict law of necessity. ‘Causal’ means ‘deterministic’ and ‘deterministic’ means that every step in a causal sequence of events is linked to all the other steps by a bridge of certainty. In other words, if I flick the light switch then, all other things being correct, then the light has to come on. It cannot be the case that sometimes when I flick the switch onto the on position the light doesn’t come on, even though there is an unbroken circuit, and there is current in the circuit, and the light-bulb has a filament that is intact, etc. on the contrary, if all the elements are in place, then the light simply has to come on. There are no two ways about it. Saying that there is a ‘bridge of certainty’ means that the logical linkages are all either YES or NO, which is to say, either one event gives rise to a succeeding, causally related event or it doesn’t. This is deterministic logic, or ‘causality’.


If on the other had we had a situation where flicking a light switch sometimes caused the light to come on, and sometimes didn’t, and this happened on a purely random basis, with there being no change at all to the integrity of the circuit or the current, then what we would be looking at would be something totally different. In this case we would be talking about a MAYBE linkage rather than a YES-NO linkage, and this is a totally different kettle of fish altogether. If the world had MAYBE gates in it instead of YES-NO gates, then the whole edifice of ‘rational process’ would fail, and we would be left in a very strange universe indeed – instead of logical methodology we would have to rely on chance, and the thing about chance is of course that you simply can’t rely on it. Under such circumstances you could resort to magic, but then magic isn’t absolutely reliable either – if it were then it would be the same thing as causal logic. Now as it happens the physical or material world within which we exist obeys causal logic, and that is why everything isn’t pure chaos. In fact, when Isaac Newton came up with the laws of motion what he was elucidating was nothing other than the causal relationships that govern all every single mechanical process taking place in the universe – this is the whole idea of ‘universality of law’ without which there could be no such thing as physics (and no such thing as science). The Newtonian-Cartesian paradigm – which is also known as classical mechanics – was so successful at explaining the behaviour of physical and energetic processes that it was very quickly taken for granted that there was nothing that wasn’t governed by causal law, and so scientists believed that, in principle, there was nothing to stop them knowing everything there was to know about future and past states of the universe, if only sufficient information about the present state could be gathered. This naturally inspired a certain type of optimism since the idea that there are no limits to our ability to rationally understand the universe obviously appears to be a supremely empowering sort of thing – there is a great sense of security to be had here because the ability to ‘know’ (or ‘predict’) goes hand-in-hand with the power to control, and the power to control is the ultimate comfort zone of the rational mind. This ‘comfort’ that we are so very attracted to hides a sterility (or ‘lack of freedom’) that is horrifically uncomfortable however, and the highly unwelcome discovery of this sterility occurs in what we call neurotic mental illness.








Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *