Psychology And The Tao
Consciousness isn’t a limited kind of thing. It isn’t actually any kind of thing at all because all things are limited. That’s what it means to be a thing – it means that you are limited! We can say that ‘consciousness is unlimited’ because its nature is negative rather than positive; ‘negative’ meaning that it is not a definite statement or defined thing of any sort, not a particular form but a capacity for receptivity (or ‘sensitivity’, we could perhaps also say). Consciousness is space-like in this regard because space has a capacity to accommodate all things without itself being a thing. Space can accommodate all possible shapes or forms without itself being a shape or form. If space were a particular shape or form then it couldn’t accommodate all shapes or forms, clearly. Or as we could also say, if space were limited in any way then it couldn’t accommodate (or accept) all possible shapes or forms.
There is no argument about space (how could anyone argue that space is ‘limited’ or that it has ‘a form’) but are we prepared to entertain the suggestion that consciousness is like space? How do we go from saying that ‘space is unlimited’ to saying that ‘consciousness is unlimited’? To our usual way of thinking, this does seem like rather a jump. What our argument does show however is that there is such a thing as a ‘negative reality’ that is an undefined capacity rather than being some kind of ‘stated reality or ‘thing’. Clearly there is this sort of thing (even though it is not a ‘thing’) and so if we agree that space can be a negative reality or principle then why not consciousness? At least we now have the possibility of talking about consciousness in this way, rather than automatically assuming that it must – in some way or other – be resolvable to a sequence of definable or measureable events (which is most certainly how we would normally be thinking on this subject). We will almost certainly be assuming that consciousness has a machine-like quality because that’s how we think about everything.
When we do start talking about consciousness as an essentially ‘negative’ phenomena becomes apparent that this sort of approach does seem to make an intuitive type of sense. When we are being conscious, it does seem that we can be conscious of all sorts of different things, after all. Does consciousness care what it is conscious of? Does it come with any inbuilt prejudices or biases or filters with regard to what it can acknowledge? Without trying to prove this by any sort of logical argument (which isn’t a good idea since the one thing that we do know about logic is that it is a mode of enquiry is that it always does come with its own inbuilt prejudice, filter, or biases, this being fundamental to the nature of logic) we could simply consider all the varied things that we can be aware of and how remarkably diverse they are. There appears to be a very great flexibility here, the type of apparently infinite flexibility that is not associated with mechanical systems, which are always limited by the rules that they are based upon (or, as we could also say, which always limited by their own forms). A mechanical system can never register what it has not been specifically ‘set up’ to register, or ‘programmed’ to register, and this impossibility constitutes a profound constitutional limitation.
We have already touched upon this when we said that there is no such a thing as a particular form or shape that can accommodate all shapes and forms. The limitations (or ‘specificity’) that makes a particular form into the particular form it is mean that it has no capacity to accommodate (or accept) anything that does not matter match the ‘choices’ that have been made in order to make that form be the form it is. Mechanical systems (or mechanical setups) only get to be the systems or setups that they are by virtue of their specificity, and this specificity means that they are no longer open and receptive to any other (unspecified) possibilities. Mechanical systems are closed to anything ‘new’, in other words; they are close to anything that isn’t already ‘them’, so to speak. There are closed to anything that does not reflect the choices that have originally been made in their construction. What we are saying here however is that in our experience of being ‘conscious’ there does – on a subjective level at least – seem to be this all-important capacity to be ‘open to the new’.
This doesn’t necessarily sound like a very scientific way of conducting an enquiry, of course. What does it prove to say that in our necessarily subjective experience of being conscious we ‘seem’ to have the capacity to register new stuff, stuff that isn’t like anything we’ve ever been aware of before? Our subjective impression of being ‘open to the new’ could be quite false after all, and what’s to say that it isn’t? This isn’t a logical argument on the subject of consciousness however, as we’ve already said – logic proceeds by eliminating possibilities, by ‘writing them off’, and we don’t want to do that. Logic ‘generates entropy’, in other words. The very idea of logic or rationality ‘proving’ that consciousness is this or that or the other (or that it is not a ‘negative reality’ but a positive one) is itself quite ludicrous since a negative reality, by its very nature, can neither be proved nor disproved. How could the rational mind disprove the proposition that consciousness is a negative phenomenon when only things that have been definitely asserted can be proven or disproven? When it comes down to it – for the reason we have already gone into – logic has no way of acknowledging or appreciating negative phenomena. Thought can only acknowledge (i.e. treat as real) something that it can either assert or deny and openness can neither be asserted nor denied. It cannot be subsumed within the territory of the thinking mind; it isn’t ‘a thing’ and so the thinking mind simply has no means of achieving ‘purchase’ on it.
This comes down to the argument that ‘only things are real and that – therefore – the universe must be made up only of things’. This is the thinking mind’s inevitable argument: ‘everything is positive, everything has the nature of the definite assertion’. And if something doesn’t have the possibility of being definitely asserted (or defined) then this automatically means that it has no reality. What we are actually doing here is that we are arguing against the existence of the space within which all things exist (or the space within which all events occur) since space itself cannot be described or defined and so we have to ask why on earth would we want to do this? What would drive us to want to take up such an absurd stance? The answer to this question is easy enough to point out however – what drives us to deny discount and dismiss space is the thinking mind, since the thinking mind – being the limited instrument that it is – cannot acknowledge or register space. It’s not a machine’s job to register space!
There is therefore no way we can rely on rational thought to investigate or meaningfully debate the question as to whether consciousness may be a negative rather than a positive type of a thing; we can’t expect thought to be fair or unbiased in this matter the simple reason that thought is constitutionally unable to grasp the term ‘negative’ actually means. We might as well get a confirmed atheist to chair a debate on the existence of God. As we said earlier, there’s no point in trying to ‘prove’ matters one way or the other; there’s no point in going down this road because if we do then this will lock us into firmly into ‘thinking mode’ (since it is only thought that concerns itself with proof and disproof) and when that happens we won’t be able to see anything anyway. It doesn’t help to identify 100% with the machine! Exploring possibilities or exploring new ways of looking at things is a much more fruitful approach and no one needs to get worked up about it, no one needs to try to disprove stuff. Just to get some sense of what it means to say that there is such a thing as a negative reality (i.e. just to see that there are two sides to the argument and not just the one) is enough to break the impasse. Really, this is a question of aesthetics more than anything else and is why rationality is no use here; to argue (however indirectly) that space is not a reality in its own right in its own right (however undefined or lacking in intrinsic structure it might be) gives rise to the viewpoint gives rise to a viewpoint that is profoundly lacking in any aesthetic appeal! The branch is denying the tree. This is actually an argument against the poetic aspect of life that is being instigated by the heavy-handed ‘machine mind’. This is ‘the War against Strangeness’. To suggest, on the other hand, that we might look at consciousness (not that we can look at consciousness!) as being like space-like rather than form-like gives rise to a way of looking at things that is subtly pleasing and highly ‘poetical’.
Seeing things this way brings to mind a negative philosophy such as Taoism, which is so much more subtle (and aesthetically delightful) then the clumsy Western positive approach to philosophy, which is in comparison quite dire. We could take the following description of the Tao by Huai-nan Tzu as an example:
Now, the Formless is the great forefather of creatures, and the Soundless is the great ancestor of sounds. . . Therefore you look at it and cannot see its form, you listen to it and cannot hear its sound, and you follow it and cannot get to its person. It is formless, but what has form is generated from it; it is soundless, but the five sounds resonate from it; it is tasteless, but the five tastes take form from it; it is colourless, but the five colours are developed from it. Therefore Being is generated from Non-Being, and the actual is generated from the empty.
Similarly, Su Ch’e states:
Emptiness has no form. It takes on the form of the ten thousand things. If emptiness had its own form it could not form anything else. Thus, sages have no mind of their own, they take on the minds of the people and treat every one is the same.
As we have been arguing, consciousness cannot ‘have its own form’ (because if it did then it wouldn’t be consciousness) but the fact that it doesn’t have its own form can hardly be held against it! The thinking mind – which very much does have a form of its own – not only holds this ‘negative attribute’ against consciousness, it also uses it all prove its non-existence as a ‘negative reality’. The TM can only recognise the particular type of positive reality that it itself automatically assumes (by virtue of its inbuilt biases) to be valid, and yet this particular type of positive existence is only ever ‘arbitrarily true’, which is to say, it is only true when we assume it to be true (i.e. when our initial choices with regard to how we view reality cause it to seem true). We are of course taking the liberty here of equating the Tao with what we are calling ‘consciousness’ as if it were the very same principle that we are speaking up in both cases. Whilst the Taoist sages didn’t actually say this in so many words, it fits ‘aesthetically’ if not logically. Did they even need to say it? If we were to ‘try out’ regarding consciousness in this way (being playful here rather than serious) the effect is quite interesting, to say the least – we find that what we have here is a view that eludes us and yet affirms us at the same time, which is in marked contrast to the rational or reductive viewpoint of things which we are much more familiar with and which is perfectly understandable by means of logic, but which inescapably diminishes and belittles us…