The societal domain is one of unremitting superficiality. This is inevitably the case given that it is made up of a type of meaning that is entirely nominal (or entirely ‘extrinsic’), which is to say, the type of meaning where ‘things can only ever be what we say they are’.
This is a domain where ‘the definition is the thing’, the domain in which everything, absolutely everything, hangs upon the purely arbitrary choices that we have made with regard to ‘where to draw the line’. This isn’t to say that ‘meaning is negotiable in society’ – this of course isn’t so because once the meaning has been nominated it is set in stone, just like a body of legislation that has been translated irrevocably into law. This is the well-known principle of irreversibility, therefore.
Chemical processes are often – but not always – irreversible, as we know. A lump of coal burns, the process running all by itself, without the need for anyone to manage or direct it, and it produces a quantity of inert ash when it’s finished. This ash cannot be prevailed upon turn back into coal – that just isn’t going to happen, not even if we were to wait around for 100 million years. The process only wants to go the one way.
This is something that we rarely stop to ponder upon – it’s just ‘the way things are’. We find it entirely unremarkable that cups of tea grow cold when left, rather than getting progressively hotter. This isn’t just ‘the way things are’ however, there is a deep principle behind this. To stop and see something interesting in this is something no one ever went on record as having done until the advent of the science of thermodynamics, which is credited to the French engineer Sadi Carnot at the beginning of the 19th century who is on this account sometimes referred to as ‘the father of thermodynamics’.
The principle of irreversibility applies across the board in the physical universe – we cannot consider the behaviour of matter or energy without thinking in thermodynamic terms. The same also applies to human behaviour and cognition, although this is not something that tends to occur to us. There is very little talk of entropy in psychology, sociology or social psychology – it just isn’t a fashionable notion in academic circles. When Berger and Luckmann wrote their classic work in sociology The Social Construction of Reality however it is exactly this principle they refer to, although they are clearly coming at it from a direction that is not rooted in the physical sciences.
The notion of reification, which is fundamental in Berger and Luckmann’s description of the process by which social reality is constructed, is spoken of here in a language that doesn’t sound much like that of thermodynamics. Reification, say the authors, takes place in two phases: the first phase is the one in which we get to ‘make the rules’, and then the second phase is where we deny that the first phase ever happened! Firstly we make the rule and then secondly we say that we didn’t make it, and that the rule was there all along, completely independent of our wishes in the matter. This is essentially a type of conjuror’s trick, a trick in which we falsely represent the opus proprium as being the opus alienum, say Berger and Luckmann.
When we ‘make the rule’ then we have the freedom to say anything we want – there are no constraints upon us in this regard. We have perfect freedom to say anything we want, but at the same time whatever we say is clearly empty because we could equally well have said anything else. It is this perfect freedom that makes our statements empty. ‘When everything is permitted then nothing is true’, in other words. But then comes the second phase of the operation where we forget about the unrestricted freedom that we had to say anything at all and (implicitly) we say that there was no freedom in the situation and that things had to be like that.
Reification isn’t just something that happens in society however – we could equally well apply it to psychology. We have a particular thought that comes to us out of the symmetrical mindscape of ‘All possible thoughts’, or ‘All possible ways were looking at the world’ (it is ‘symmetrical’ because there is no right versus wrong, which means that no one viewpoint is any different to any other) but then when we buy into it – when we nibble at the bait – the trap snaps shut and this becomes the only way that we have to see things. The thought becomes real, the description becomes the thing, the map becomes the territory. Reification here means that we get trapped in a concrete world way of looking at the world therefore, a way that we can’t ever question. We get trapped in our own ‘symbolic games’.
In mystical terms, this can be straightforwardly equated to the very well-known motif of ‘falling asleep’ – Odysseus’s crew have snacked on the fruit of the Lotus flower and so cannot be talked into carrying on with their journey, Snow White has eaten of the poisoned apple and cannot be roused from the magical slumber that ensues. This too is reification. As Robert Anton Wilson puts it,
Out of the Infinity of possible programmes existing as possible software, the imprint establishes the limits, parameters, perimeters within which all subsequent conditioning and learning occurs.
Possibly the clearest, most essential way of expressing the principle that we’re talking about here, the Principle of Irreversibility, the Principle of Reification, is to be found in James Carse’s self-veiling – freedom is the basic nature of everything and so if we want to play games then we have to veil from ourselves the inherent freedom that we have not to play it!
On this very same subject, Carl Jung quotes from the alchemical text, Speculum de mysteriis ecclesiae, attributed to Honorius of Autun, which resonates with the highly symbolic (if somewhat obscure) language of the ancient alchemists –
The seven-headed dragon, the prince of darkness, drew down from heaven with his tail a part of the stars, and covered them over with a cloud of sins, and drew over them the shadow of death.
For our age, perhaps the most powerful metaphor is that of quantum theory – our (charmingly naïve) pre-QT understanding of things is that our way of investigating the world simply shows us ‘the world’, now – post QT – we are forced to come to terms with the observer effect, which switches things around in a big way so that we now see that our chosen way of investigating the universe, however scientifically rigorous it might be, only ever shows us what the world looks like when we investigate it on the basis of this particular set of assumptions. We don’t ever see ‘the world’, we only see our own information-processing biases reflected faithfully back at us and this is the realm of ‘relative truth’ that Buddhism speaks of. What we see is ‘true’, but only in relation to the viewpoint we have chosen.
When we don’t see this, then the way we see the world becomes absolutely true – as far as we’re concerned, anyway. Reification has taken place, which means that we have become ‘the unwitting victims of our own device’. Reification is the process that lies behind all of our cherished (or feared) delusions therefore – it is what gives rise to the Great Playground of Illusion known in the East as Samsara. We might object to calling quantum theory ‘a myth’ but when all truths are ‘relative truths’ what else can we have apart from myths or metaphors? When a description passes itself off as not being a myth, not being a metaphor, but an actual bone fide account of what’s going on, then this means that it is an entrapping illusion.
We started off this discussion by stating that the societal domain (which is the only world most of us will ever know) is one of unremitting superficiality – which is something very few are prepared to accept. Reification always produces a superficial world – it can’t not do. What we’re talking about is the world where everything is understood literally, which is to say, the world of surface-level appearances, and there is a huge trade-off that has been made here. On the plus side – if we may call it that – there is the satisfaction we obtain from living out the course of our lives in a defined or concrete environment, where everything is always exactly what it is said to be, whilst on the minus side we have to put up with the fact that the only type of ‘meaning’ we can encounter is meaning of the vanishingly superficial variety. Meaning of a superficial variety isn’t meaning at all however – as we keep saying, it’s just illusion…
When things only ever are ‘what they are defined as being’ – which is, needless to say, a purely artificial situation – then this means that we can’t afford (at any time) to actually look into the true nature of things. Philosophy becomes – in practical terms – a banned practise. We just can’t get into anything profound – if we were to look deeper than we’re supposed to look then what we will immediately discover is that our symbols for the world are only symbols and have ‘no reality of their own’. We would learn that our literal signifiers are only just that, and that’s the reality which they supposedly signify isn’t literal at all. It isn’t literal and so we can’t legitimately represent it as such.
What this means is simply that there is no way to say anything (or know anything) about what is really out there. We can only talk about what we say is out there, or what we think is out there, and that isn’t quite the same thing! Were we to suddenly obtain the awareness that the world we know is made up purely of our thoughts, and that our thoughts have no relationship with anything outside of our thoughts, then this would constitute a tremendous ontological shock. We’re simply not up for that – given any chance at all we will go straight back to the normal, regular reality, the scripted reality, the reality which we ourselves have safely defined.
We do have to put up with the ‘consequences’ of this choice, however – this choice we make whilst denying every step of the way that there was any choice to make. The consequences are that we have to live ‘beneath ourselves’, so to speak. We have to turn our backs on all the potentialities of our situation and concern ourselves instead with trivialities that don’t really matter one way or the other, things which – in our hearts – we don’t really care about. We just pretend that we care and then believe our own pretence. Were we to find out that we don’t really care about what we have convinced ourselves we do care about people will tell us that we are depressed. The individual is blamed (accused of being ‘mentally unwell’) in order to preserve the illusion that the nominal world of our literal descriptions is actually real and wholesome when this is the very last thing that it is. The literal world isn’t ‘wholesome’ at all!
We are obliged to turn our backs on all the possibilities that are really open to us (but which are at the same time ontologically dangerous, and therefore banned) and concentrate instead on possibilities that aren’t actually possibilities at all, since they are only ‘possibilities in a game’ – the game in question being the not-very-interesting game of what life would be like if the concrete reality actually were real, which it isn’t. There’s nothing to stop us playing this game however, and play it we do – as if our very lives depended upon it…
Image – peakpx.com