We degrade life by thinking about it – it’s a ‘bigger event’ than we perceive it to be, in other words. It somehow becomes commonplace, unremarkable, only-to-be-expected, and so on. We might try to tell ourselves that life a big event, and sometimes we will believe this, but that is still just thinking about it. That’s still just ‘us degrading life by thinking about it’. It’s also just the ego trying to validate itself by saying to itself that it is the big event. ‘The figure’ hogs the glory at the expense of ‘the ground’.
This is a version of the Zen story (or allegory) about a bunch of bandits who steal the gold that is meant for the emperor and claim it for themselves. They have seized it by force, and have declared arrogantly that it is now theirs and no one else’s. The idea we have about who we are exists at the expense of what’s really going on; the bigger an event the ego counts itself to be the more we need to deny the real event (which will put our pet project in the shade). Were the ‘idea we have about who we are’ (the self-concept) to witness the event that is really going on then it would have no more credible existence.
The thinking process is itself a process of degradation. Thought can only function as thought when we pay attention to what it’s saying at the expense of everything else, at the expense of the wider picture. The figure can only be the figure when we ignore the ground – it is created by our ignorance, therefore. A figure couldn’t exist if the whole hadn’t been blanked out because the whole doesn’t contain any figures; the whole really is a whole, not merely a collection of mind-created parts, not merely the sum of all our ideas about it. It is a ‘transcendent reality’, in other words – it’s something completely other. When information is lost then there can be form (which is like saying that when the light is blocked or occluded, then there can be a shadow). The form cannot tell us anything about formlessness, however, any more than a shadow can tell us about the light.
When Stuart Kaufman says that ‘thinking requires ignorance’, this is what he means. We can only know ‘the part’, we can only say what the fraction is and what it is not, but the part or fraction – as we have just said – is only an appearance that is created by our ‘ignoring of the whole’. Our much prized ‘knowing’ isn’t worth what we think it’s worth therefore; it has been obtained at the expense of our awareness of the Whole, and the Whole is the only thing that’s real. The Whole is ‘real’ because we haven’t created it – it is what is revealed when we stop interfering, not what comes about because of it. The Unus Mundus isn’t the result of some celebrated ’cause’ that has been applied somewhere along the line. As Jung says (CW14, para 767) –
In the final analysis the idea of an unus mundus [one world] is founded, on the assumption that the multiplicity of the empirical world rests on an underlying unity. Everything divided in different belongs to one in the same world.
It is in this sense therefore that we can say that the thinking process operates by degrading reality – it degrades reality without us being able to know that any degradation has taken place. This of course makes thinking a very dangerous thing – it’s a tool, an instrument, it’s true, but it’s also a very dangerous instrument, a very dangerous tool. We might say that a nuclear power plant can be a ‘dangerous tool’ because it can go critical and enter a state of melt-down, whereupon there is nothing to stop it – so the legend has it – sinking down into the earth’s crust and ending up (so it is said) in the earth’s core. That would be something to watch out for, clearly. When utilizing this tool we have to be aware of the possibility of the ‘China Syndrome’ setting in, therefore – thought has the potential of translating us into hyperreality, into a cartoon world that seems real…
The instrument of thought has the possibility of doing something very similar – because it operates by degrading reality without us being able to see the process happening, it will – if left to ‘do its own thing’ – design progressively more degraded worlds for us to live in, crude prison worlds from which we will be quite unable to escape. Our expectations will be so low that we won’t even know we’re in prison, and so in our blindness will speak of our trajectory as ‘progress’. We might tell ourselves that our trajectory is taking us to a good place, that it is somehow ‘progressive’, but that doesn’t change a thing. It’s merely a convenient fiction. We talk of progress but what’s really going on is that thought is taking us on a ‘downwards journey’ – we’re on a trip to the ‘underworld’, so to speak. We’re on our way to the bargain basement level of reality. We’re on a one-way journey to Dismaland…
This then is the Great Catastrophe, this is the Cosmic Fall, this is the descent that results in us having to live in a world that is made-up of our ‘ignorance of which we are ignorant’, a world in which we are guided in all things by an instrument which functions on the basis of ignorance (which is to say on the basis of information that has been irreversibly lost, or entropy). We’re very happy talking about entropy (ever since the term was coined by Rudolf Clausius in 1865) but we absolutely don’t understand the crucial role it plays in constructing both the physical universe and our mental map of that universe (along with our mental map of ourselves of course). We don’t get the full picture and that is hardly surprising; given our starting-off point this is the very last thing we are ever going to see. How can we spot ignorance when our way of understanding everything is founded upon that very same ignorance? How can a blind spot become aware of itself? How can a system that is made up of logic ever be in a position to appreciate that it itself is ‘an error’?
Thought is our guide to the physical world – the physical tangible material universe only gets to be ‘the physical tangible material universe’ because of the irreversible information loss (or ‘collapse’) that has taken place. Physicality is the result of rules being imposed upon the universe; if there were no rules there would be no forms, no structures. ‘Entropy is the price of structure’, as Ilya Prigogine says. We need only think of a sculpture working upon a statue – the statue is created by taking material away, by throwing it away, in fact. This material that we had discarded is worthless to us (as a sculptor with a particular image in mind) and exactly the same is true when it comes to the formation of the physical universe – only in this case the ‘material’ isn’t stone but information. It is information that has been chipped away and discarded, information that has been ‘taken out of the picture’.
We can also use the example of the Weinberg-Salaam theory of symmetry breaking, explained here by Stephen Hawking (1988) –
The Weinberg- Salaam theory exhibits a property known as spontaneous symmetry breaking. This means that what appear to be a number of completely different particles at low energies are in fact found to be all the same type of particle, only in different states. At high energies all these particles behave similarly. The effect is rather like the behaviour of a roulette ball on a roulette wheel. At high energies (when the wheel is spun quickly) the ball behaves in essentially only one way, – it rolls round and round. But as the wheel slows, the energy of the ball decreases, and eventually the ball drops into one of the thirty-seven slots in the wheel. In other words, at low energies there are thirty-seven different states in which the ball can exist. If, for some reason, we could only observe the ball at low energies, we would then think that there were thirty-seven different types of ball!
We can say that in the situation where the roulette wheel is spinning at top speed there is no loss of information, therefore. This is a ‘symmetrical situation’ because there is no illusion of there being many different types of ball. When the wheel slows down then – as Hawkins says – the ball will fall into any one of thirty seven different slots and we will therefore perceive it to be the case that there are ‘thirty seven different types of ball’, which is on this account an asymmetrical situation. What causes us to see a multitude of balls when there is in reality only the one is therefore the result of our lack of perspective on the matter. The information is no longer available to us and this unavailable information is what causes the endless proliferation of illusions that makes up our usual perception of the world. ‘Maya’ might sound like an unscientific type of concept, but when we look into this a bit more we discover that it’s not ‘unscientific’ after all…
Erwin Schrödinger, famous to all scientifically minded folk for his cat, makes this very point here –
The plurality that we perceive is only an appearance; it is not real. Vedantic philosophy… has sought to clarify it by a number of analogies, one of the most attractive being the many-faceted crystal which, while showing hundreds of little pictures of what is in reality a single existent object, does not really multiply that object…
This is an example of Western physics and Eastern metaphysics coming together; what we have here are two different ways to arrive at the same point – the point at which we can see the appearance of multiplicity in the world is due entirely to ‘unavailable information’ (or we might also say, ‘ignorance’). Just as long as we fail to see through the veil of appearances – and remain in the state of thrall to the ‘multiplicity of things’ – then no matter what we say it is only our ignorance speaking. We are ‘in thrall to the shadows’, just like Plato’s prisoners in the cave, and this means that ‘the light’ has now become our enemy.
Thought turns everything into a bureaucracy – the only thing it cares about are its rules, its categories, its classifications. It uses the importance of the matters which it is dealing with as the justification for all the emphasis on obeying its rules correctly, dotting all the ‘i’s and crossing all the ‘t’s. We have to automatically accept whatever atrocious bureaucracy is placed in our path because of the importance of the task at hand – the Sheriff of Nottingham does everything in Richard the Lionheart’s name, in other words . If anyone dares to say anything, or object to anything, thought straightaway reminds us of the Great Cause that is being served and chastises us for not being committed fully to the cause. The only cause thought cares about is itself however – the truth is that the sheriff of Nottingham is out for himself, and couldn’t care less about his absent liege lord.
So it is therefore that we focus exclusively on what thought says we should focus on – the ‘nuts and bolts of mechanical existence’, so to speak, and never look beyond this. The implication is that if we dot all the i’s and cross all the ‘t’s then somehow everything will come out OK. Everything will come out OK because we’re ‘doing the right thing’, because we are ‘going about things in the right way’. The implicit understanding is that if we obey thought’s bureaucracy – and live as a consequence entirely within the artificial terms of its categories or concepts – then this will one day allow us to live in a genuine way (since on some deep level we know that life under the bureaucracy of thought is not life). Life in the mechanical realm is direly repetitive and lacking in any poetry, creativity or humour, but if we stick at it we will rewarded with the prize of ‘an authentic life’. As James Carse says in Finite and Infinite Games –
If the prize for winning finite play is life, then the players are not properly alive. They are competing for life. Life, then, is not play, but the outcome of play. Finite players play to live; they do not live their playing. Life is therefore deserved, bestowed, possessed, won. It is not lived.
We’re playing the waiting game, therefore. We are playing the waiting game but what we’re waiting for will never come to pass. Obeying the dictates of our rational overlord means one thing and one thing only – it means that we live out the course of our lives entirely within the abstract domain that thought has mapped out for us. We’re play a game without knowing that we are; we’re living in a degraded version of reality without knowing it. This is the story of the Mad King, as related here by Robert de Ropp (1968) –
This old myth, in its essence, compares man to a king with a sumptuous palace at his command. But the king went mad and insisted in living in a cellar surrounded by rags and bones and other worthless objects which he called his possessions. If any of his ministers reproached him for this behavior and tried to remind him of the palace and its splendours, he indignantly replied that he had never left that place. Such was the nature of his illusions that he saw the wretched cellar as a palace and the rags and bones he had collected as precious jewels.
This is ‘downwards transformation’, this is Hesiod’s ‘Principle of Deterioration’. It is also a version of the story of Adam and Eve being expelled from paradise of course, only it’s a distorted version. It’s distorted – we might say – because in the official version of what happened the progenitors of the human race were expelled for ‘breaking the rules’, i.e., going against the bureaucracy, going against the correct policies and procedures. God is acting as the Great Bureaucrat in this story. In Gnostic terms – of course – the God of the Old Testament is the Demiurge, the Spinner of Webs, the Lord of Illusion, the Maker of False Worlds. The reason for the Fall was not ‘rule-breaking’ therefore but ‘rule-obeying’. Our error was to serve the Demiurge, not to disobey him. Or as we could also say, our error lay in ‘believing the thoughts that came into our heads’….
Image – goodfon.com