The Psychology of Uncertainty Part 1
If you were asked to explain – in as few words as possible, and with the minimum ‘beating around the bush’ – what the most basic and essential observable principle in psychology is, you could make a pretty good stab at it by stating something like this:
The psychology of the everyday mind is predicated upon a hidden (or ‘unconscious enacted’) mechanism of self-deception.
This answer is unconventional enough, by any account, but you could go further and make the claim, even more controversially, that what people call neurotic mental illness isn’t really an illness at all, but rather it is an involuntary ‘laying bare’ of the hidden mechanism which we all use (whether we are mentally ill or not) to effect this ‘unconscious self-deception’ business. In other words, neurosis represents the way in which our hidden psychological games become exposed and painfully visible, either because of the fact that we now have to try so very hard at them (which makes the resulting cognition and behaviour so obviously stilted, so obviously ‘over-done’) or because of the fact that the unconscious manoeuvres that we usually use so successfully to avoid mental pain or fear, no longer fulfil their function – which ‘dumps us right in it’, so to speak.
The first situation is exemplified by conditions like anorexia, addictive behaviour and obsessive compulsive disorder, whilst the second situation is that of a person suffering from anxiety or depression (or, more colloquially, it covers what happens when we experience ‘a nervous breakdown’.) Not to put too fine a point on it then, what we are saying is that if you happen to be suffering from some sort of distressing neurotic condition, what this actually means is that you are one step closer to being mentally healthy (which is to say, honest with yourself) than the rest of us, who blithely assume ourselves to be ‘as right as rain’ in the mental health department, just because our capacity to lie to ourselves remains intact and fully functioning.
Therefore – according to this way of looking at things at least – when neurosis strikes this does not mean that an otherwise perfect copy book has been blotted (which is the message our culture tends to give us), but rather what it means is that the overt pain of the neurosis reveals a problem that was already there under the surface. In other words, what generally passes for ‘mental health’ is not true health at all – actually, we could say that it is more like a person who has some sort of serious physiological disorder that just hasn’t manifested itself yet. In short, neurosis is not an unwarranted disturbance to a way of life that was essentially (i.e. in its basics) ‘perfect the way it was’, but rather it is a revelation of the need to change, a revelation of the need for me to wake up out of the bland ‘socially adapted dream’ and discover my true self – the inner self which has become imperceptibly buried under layer after layer of extraneous, extrinsically-originated material.
1.1 THE RATIONAL MODALITY
You could answer the question given above in this sort of a way, but in all probability you wouldn’t – even if you happened to be a well known and highly respected professor of clinical psychology you wouldn’t – for the simple if rather poignant reason that professors of clinical psychology tend to be just as unconsciously self-deceiving (i.e. just as asleep) as everyone else when it comes right down to it. Therefore, since being a trained and qualified psychologist confers no more immunity to the tendency to be deluded than being a butcher or a pop-star or an insurance underwriter does, we cannot look for the ‘key’ to self-understanding in the British Journal of Psychology, or indeed in any text book on psychology ever written. Poignantly enough, many people do go to university and college to study what we call ‘psychology’ in the vain hope that they will learn something profound as a result. Yet who would be foolhardy enough to argue that modern psychology, in all decades since its inception, has ever come up with anything even remotely profound or interesting? Freud’s notion of the subconscious is a radical and challenging idea (as is Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious) but neither of these ideas is of any real interest to the modern rational psychologist. The theory of the unconsciousness mind is not seen as being the least bit important these days – we know that there are unconscious or semi-conscious processes, but what of it? To the mainstream psychologist, that just means that the processes involved are to be found in the realm of the physiological, and so saying that they are ‘unconscious’ is no more significant than saying that the regulatory influence of the brain on the heart rate is ‘unconscious’. It is undoubtedly true to say this, but it is obviously not a particularly profound or challenging concept.
It could in fact be said that there are no challenging concepts to be found in rational psychology, unless you count the theory that ‘everything comes down to genetics’, which isn’t challenging at all but merely banal – an example of lazy (or ‘tautological’) thinking. Now it cannot be said that there is anyone to blame for this unfortunate state of affairs since this business of ‘making tautological inferences’ is the key defining property of rationality; to put it in anthropomorphic terms – the rational faculty is like a mad professor who has made a whopping great assumption which he then proceeds (in the most surreal way) to ignore in his inordinate keenness for pursuing and elucidating all the logical consequences of this ‘taken for granted’ standpoint. Our mad professor is – in true stereotypical fashion – incredibly pedantic and absurdly over-cautious; yet despite delighting in the most extreme form of hair-splitting and nit-picking, he bizarrely pays no attention whatsoever to the colossal assumption that all this pedantry depends upon. That rational psychology should be banal is inevitable – rationality is unfailingly banal, since it is in the nature of rational enquiry never to reveal anything that might contradict its own premises. Jung (P 45-50) makes a similar point in this passage taken from The Undiscovered Self:
A scientifically orientated psychology is bound to proceed abstractly; that is, it removes itself just sufficiently far from its object not to lose sight of it altogether. That is why the findings of laboratory psychology are, for all practical purposes, often so remarkably unenlightening and devoid of interest. The more the individual object dominates the field of vision, the more practical, detailed and alive will be the knowledge derived from it. This means that the objects of investigation, too, become more and more complicated and the uncertainty of individual factors increases proportionately to their number, thus increasing the possibility of error. Understandably enough, academic psychology is scared of this risk and prefers to avoid complex impunity.
In her book Psychology with a Soul Jean Hardy (1987, P169) comes out with the same point:
Clearly measurement, order, the deduction of laws from empirical material is useful and very effective. The problem about it as a method, however, is that it is limited, and, what is infinitely more serious, not always perceived to be so. It is a well-known experience for students of the social sciences that the more accurately you can measure a thing, the less interesting, humanly speaking, it is likely to be.
Hardy is hardly condemning the scientific paradigm here but what she is doing is drawing attention to the idea that the rational modality of investigation has a domain of applicability that is strictly limited. The radical suggestion here is that ‘not everything real can be measured’, i.e. it is not legitimate to reduce the realm of human ‘values’ (which is to say, the ingredients of our lives which make our lives feel meaningful) to the level of quantitative analysis. This is a ‘radical’ assertion because it is so out of step with the current emphasis in psychology. As a profoundly rational culture, we are only interested in propositions that can be logically explained – to suggest that there might be a reality which we cannot ever hope to explain or prove (i.e. which we cannot bring down to the level of our rational understanding) is anathema to us. We disqualify it straight away. And yet we are caught on the horns of a dilemma here because if we do leave out that ‘inexplicable something’ then we find that everything we have to say is banal and ‘totally devoid of interest’. So what exactly have we gained by ‘playing it safe’?
LOSING PERSPECTIVE BY THINKING
Rationality is – from a psychological point of view at least – a ‘non-risky’ business since it focuses entirely on a field of contents that match the assumptions which it starts off with. In other words, when I look at the world in rational way (a way that is mediated and governed by logical constructs) then I only take notice of those elements which appear relevant to me. The world shrinks, in effect, and this phenomenon can be easily observed every time I engage myself in some demanding technical challenge. If the task is difficult enough, then the field of my awareness narrows down so that it doesn’t include anything that isn’t related to the problem in hand. This is ‘directed thinking’ in a nutshell – this is the way in which the ‘tool’ of rationality works. A shovel works by displacing earth and the rational mind works by excluding irrelevant details. The one thing that doesn’t happen when I am concentrating on solving a problem is that I start to become aware of radically irrelevant details. If this does happen, then I simply cannot be in the rational mode, which functions as we have said by ‘excluding the irrelevant’. It is in this sense therefore that we can describe rationality as ‘an exercise in avoiding risk’, since my mind is definitely not going to go anywhere radically new or different. I will never learn, for example, that the task or problem which I am engaged in is ‘not worth the effort in trying to solve’. I simply don’t have the perspective to see this – I am too ‘caught up’, too ‘hooked’ on the problem. This is something that is familiar to us all – who has not had the experience of getting ‘wound up’ over something that we can clearly see – later on – to be completely unimportant?
In one way this inability to accurately gauge the true importance of what I am doing is horrifyingly huge disadvantage because I can get stressed out over nothing, time and time again. Even more disturbing, I can easily spend a large amount of my life worrying about stuff that is utterly and perfectly meaningless – what would be worse than realizing on your deathbed that you have wasted your live being preoccupied with unimportant or meaningless issues? But there is a highly significant ‘illicit advantage’ to be had from this property of rationality too. Suppose that I am for whatever reason driven by unacknowledged fear (i.e. denial) and I seriously don’t want to allow my mind to range freely through ‘possibility space’? In that case, what could be handier than this ability to get fixated on unimportant (i.e. ‘safe’) problems? The rational mode of awareness, therefore, is the perfect ‘retreat’ – the perfect ‘non-threatening environment’. The type of psychological denial that we are talking about basically comes down to ‘fear of the new’ (which Abraham Maslow calls ‘fear of novelty’) – we feel safe and secure with what we know, and we fear what we don’t know. The radically different we fear above all else, and it is for this reason that there is no category for ‘radically different’ within the set of evaluative categories that make up the rational mind (well, actually there is such a category because we have just used it, but inasmuch as ‘the radically unlike’ is only a conceptual category then it is not radically unlike at all, but rather it is simply ‘like’ – it is ‘like’ because it is just another category, just another concept, like everything else in the rational mind).
If something is a mental category, then I can be comfortable with it – it cannot threaten to overturn the apple-cart of ‘the way in which I understand the world’. If something is a category, then it is part of the continuum of rationality, it is ‘understandable in terms of everything else within that continuum’. If something is a category then it is safe, it is part of the system, and the system – being ‘like’ rather than ‘unlike’ (known rather than unknown) – is our friend – or at least, it seems to be our friend just as long as we are in the business of psychological denial. Rationality is the way in which we hop from one category of the known to another, in a logical and controlled way. Now this is a valid enough thing to do in one way – if rationality is understood to be what it is, which is to say, if it is understood as being ‘only rationality’, then everything is fine and dandy. But when rationality is understood to be the ‘be all and the end all’ – when it is seen as something final and unquestionable – then we have passed over into the territory of self-deception (or denial).
When this happens then rationality stops being a useful tool and becomes instead a dark and terrible master – it becomes in effect a ‘False God’, it becomes equivalent what the ancient Gnostics called the demiurge. It might seem like a rather strange thing for us to leap lead first from psychology into the obscure doctrines of an ancient heretical religion in this way but there is a reason for doing this. The view of psychology that we are looking at here turns out to look more and more like Gnostic theology the more we get into it, and the reason for this parallel, far from being accidental or coincidental, is – so we will argue – because the Gnostics (along with the Dualists in general) were actually describing a principle that is every bit as much psychological as it is cosmological. In other words, the myth that is used by the Gnostics and by the other Dualist faiths to talk about the creation and nature of the external universe, also works perfectly as a metaphor for discussing the creation and nature of the internal (i.e. ‘mental’) world that we live in, (which is a world that we live in without realizing the fact). For this reason it is important for us to get a basic handle on the Gnostics’ view of the world, and the role played in that world by the Demiurge.
The demiurge was the embodiment of the principle of deception and evil who – for the Gnostics as for other Dualist sects – was inextricably associated with the material world. For the Demiurge evil and deception go hand in hand, in fact without deception he would hardly be likely to get very far – if for example corruption marches around announcing itself to be corrupt, then it would hardly be a very good example of corruption, since the whole point about corruption is that it declares itself to be honest. In a similar way, therefore, the demiurge did not go around announcing himself to be false, but rather he took upon himself the trappings of righteousness (the principle here being that evil will get a lot further if it disguises itself as good). The demiurge rules therefore by falsely assuming an authority (or validity) that he does not have. He says – or rather he subtly implies – that he is the Creator of all, and that the physical, tangible world which we see around us (which is his dominion) is the only world there is. According to the Gnostics we are thus imprisoned within a world that is fundamentally inimical to our true nature, a world of shadows and falsehood. Furthermore, we are not imprisoned by brute force, but by subtle trickery and clever deception – we actually imprison ourselves by our own gullibility, by our willingness to accept his lies, which promise us some type of benefit.
The Gnostic myth is couched in ‘cosmic’ (or ‘cosmogenic’) terms, but what is of interest to us is its profound psychological applicability – its power to say something about the ‘real life’ situation within which each one of us finds ourselves. Whereas in the Gnostic myth the demiurge is one of the Two Contenders in the universal battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, in terms of individual psychology we could just say that he is our rational mind, our way of understanding things. When the conclusions of the rational process are seen as ‘final’, then this means that the world which rationality shows us is also ‘final’ – what would have been fine and dandy as ‘one way to look at things’ becomes ‘the only possible way’? Although we do not realize it, everything is backward now since reality has to ‘play second fiddle’ to our understanding, rather than vice versa. Thus, rationality becomes the False Master – it stops being legitimate (which is to say ‘above board’) and becomes the Father of Lies, the Spinner of Illusions, the Deceiving, Imprisoning Imitator of the True Creator. This naturally brings us to the question “Who then is the True Creator?” which sounds like distinctly religious question. Within the psychological terms which we are using, we can attempt to answer this as follows:
If the dark rule of the demiurge is based upon ‘limitation that falsely represents itself as being ‘not limitation’, then the liberating law of Truth may be said to arise when ‘the unlimited state of affairs’ reveals itself to be what it truly is, which is ‘the complete lack of limitation’ (i.e. ‘boundlessness’).
We may equally well have couched this answer in terms of definition instead of limitation, and although this approach may appear obscure at this early stage of our discussion, the result turns out to be a very straightforward mathematical approach:
The False World is the result of positive definition since it impossible to define without excluding (and simultaneously forgetting that one has excluded) everything that doesn’t have any relevance to the given definition. The True World, on the other hand, can only be approached in negative fashion since truth can never be stated or defined. Definition is always involves the principle of deception since what I define as being true is never actually true, whereas non-definition, since it does not exclude-without-admitting-that-it-is-excluding, involves no deception.
1.2 UNIVERSAL UNCONSCIOUSNESS
Amongst the ranks of the self-deceiving it has to be the case that ideas that suggest we have got everything totally wrong will be strictly taboo – for obvious reasons. After all, if I am willing to let go of my assumptions that easily (or let go of them at all) then how could I possibly be harbouring the sort of desperate motivation that would cause me to resort to self-deception? And contrariwise, if my perceived state of need is so great that it induces me to take the extreme measure of lying to myself (and at the same time deny to myself that I am so lying) then where in this is the freedom necessary to whole-heartedly question anything? In this ‘control-based’ world that we live in radical self-doubt is not seen as a virtue, but an illness. Brash, superficial confidence is everything, and true self awareness is strictly ‘off the menu’, since even the smallest amount of it would quickly start to play havoc with the game of bluff that we are engaged in. The false or shallow confidence that we obtain as a result of playing this game of bluff is the easy, short-term gain that granted to us by the state of psychological unconsciousness, which may be thought of as the default mode of mental functioning that we all find ourselves in, unless some unlikely event or series of events causes us to start questioning ourselves (which is to say, ‘looking inwards’ rather than ‘looking-outwards-on-the-basis-of-our-assumptions’).
Thus, when we talk about ‘the ranks of the self-deceiving’ we are not being disparaging, any more than we are picking on any particular group of people. By ‘the ranks of the self-deceiving’ we mean everybody who is in the state of psychological unconsciousness, and that class of people is practically universal – it includes me and you, and just about anybody you might care to name irrespective of whether they happen to be educated or uneducated, successful or unsuccessful, heroic or villainous, famous or not famous. In fact, all such ‘labels’ are no more than illusory designations created in abundance by the game of psychological unconsciousness, which is a game in which we are all – although we don’t know it – fully committed players. Any possible ‘socially constructed category’ is bound to come down, in the end, to a role within a game: within the game such roles have meaning, but outside of the game they have none. For example, if we play cops and robbers, and I assign you the role of ‘robber’ that has a very definite meaning within the terms of our game, but outside of the game any possible game-roles all come down to the same thing, i.e. it comes down to the game. Similarly, everything we ‘are’ and ‘do’ when we are playing the unacknowledged game that is psychological unconsciousness equals ‘the game’, and nothing more. The metaphor of ‘being asleep’ or dreaming’ is also often used in this context: for example, when I am dreaming I may dream that I am climbing a mountain or walking down a tree-lined avenue, I may dream that I am driving a BMW or that I am being chased by a serial killer. Within the terms of the dream all these possibilities are different, but actually of course it all comes down to the same thing – in reality I am just dreaming. I am dreaming of different things, but all these ‘different things’ are just the dream. Everything that happens is ‘just the dream’.
CYNICISM AS A ‘PSYCHOLOGICAL DEFENCE’
This way of looking at ourselves is, as we have already acknowledged, more than just a little bit hard to swallow and for this reason it needs backing up in order to make the idea that ‘everything we know is completely false’ more palatable (which is to say less insane) than it inevitably tends to be. Once we get over the hump which is the initial automatic over-riding and over-whelming reaction of our cynical ‘know-it-all-ism’, then these ideas aren’t so hard at all. It helps a lot to spot the irony implicit in all cynicism – on the face of it cynicism looks like healthy scepticism because we are saying “Yeah right – you expect me to believe that…” and this seems like a strong attitude. Closer examination however reveals that cynicism hasn’t actually got to courage or integrity to genuinely question everything because it never questions the invisible framework from which it itself arises. Cynicism questions everything apart from itself in other words – it doubts everything apart from its own right to doubt anything that it doesn’t already know; it maintains itself and validates itself by casting doubt on everything else. For this reason, we can see that cynicism is actually the sneaky and scurrilous way in which our way of understanding the world (our system of thinking) has of protecting itself.
We could equally well speak in terms of belief and say that belief attacks in order to distract attention from its own weakness, which is its ‘arbitrary basis’. In order that we do not run the risk of noticing just how shaky is the structure that lies right at the heart of everything we think and everything we do, it is necessary for us to aggressively direct our attention outwards, and this is why belief relies for its stability on the unreflective pursuit of goals. Just as ‘belief’ tends to sound positive to us, so too do ‘goals’, and the gung-ho pursuit of goals, yet the truth of the matter is that both belief and the goals that stem from the belief are the very ‘bread-and-butter’ of unconsciousness. The rule is “Assert what you are going to assert strongly, but do not under any circumstances reflect on what exactly it is that you are asserting, and why…” We have said that the strength of cynicism is the way in which it can discount anything at all, with no effort at all, at the drop of a hat. Its weakness therefore lies in the fact that we cannot afford to see how cheaply obtained this psychological comfort is. Similarly – and more generally – we can say that the strength of self-deception (i.e. our capacity to believe what we want to believe) lies in the way in which we can instantly and all-too easily convince ourselves of anything we want. The ‘Achilles heel’ of self-deception, on the other hand, lies in the fact that we cannot allow ourselves to see where its so-called ‘strength’ actually comes from. In both cases the desired outcome – which is the sense of comfort we obtain as a result of unreflective doubt or unreflective assent – is completely and utterly worthless precisely because it is created so easily. It follows from this that the only way in which we can ‘benefit’ from cynicism or belief is by having a level of insight that is set firmly at zero.
1.3 THE POWER OF BELIEF
Belief is a good place to start in our exploration of self-deception. Belief is the same thing as ‘assumed knowledge’ – it is what we ‘know’, or rather, it is ‘what we have accepted by default as being true’. Beliefs equal mental constraint inasmuch as they represent a very strict limitation in our willingness to entertain different ways of looking at the world; there are very many – perhaps infinitely many – possible perspectives out there, but subscribing to a particular belief means that I am not going to consider them seriously even for a second. Curiously, despite the fact that a man or woman in the grip of a belief (or opinion) is plainly suffering from a rigidified and restricted – if not to say constricted – mental attitude, we tend to see beliefs and the whole dismal business of ‘forming a belief’ in a distinctly favourable way. In others, we like it because we know where they stand, and it allows us to label them either as friend or foe, good guy or bad guy. In ourselves we like it because it gives us a solid basis from which to face the world, and make definite plans about what we want from that world.
Of course, we don’t go around saying “I believe therefore I am restricted…”, and the reason we don’t see it like this is because` I take it for granted that the internal set of constraints which is my belief structure corresponds to a stable set of constraints in the outside world. In other words, it isn’t just my ‘belief’, it’s the objective truth – it’s ‘the way things are’. The only trouble (as we all know) is that every Tom, Dick and Harry has a different belief, a different opinion, and so they can’t all be true. If every joker in the pack has a different take on the matter (and in this case the pack is entirely made up of jokers), then this undermines the value of any particular take. To quote a line ascribed to Hassan I Sahba in one of Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus novels, “If everything is permissible, then nothing is true”.
The objection that ‘everyone can’t be right’ is an old argument, but it doesn’t seem to spoil the general vigour and vitality of the ‘belief business’. The question is, if we all have different and contradictory beliefs, then how come each one of us (or each group of us) manages to be convinced that we, and we alone, are right? How can every single person on the planet be so infuriatingly sure that their version of reality is the correct one? What this perplexing fact demonstrates is the existence of a near-miraculous ‘facility’ or ‘ability’ which we all possess, a facility that has the power to transform – in the twinkling of an eye, with no effort needed – a personal and necessarily prejudiced set of impressions into ‘the one and only true way of looking at things’. Somehow, the meanest, crudest and most obnoxiously biased account of reality can appear to me – if it is the account I subscribe to – as the most immaculate, self-evident truth. Furthermore, I can conduct myself in the most repugnantly selfish and vicious manner, and yet remain sublimely convinced the whole time that I am a man of the utmost honour and goodness, and that my actions are smiled upon fondly by God in His heaven and all the angels to boot. This ‘capacity to see evil as good’ is not a rare, pathological condition either, but the usual way of things – people have been effortlessly validating their own squalidly self-serving actions for as far back in history as you want to go, and the most remarkable (and potentially infuriating) thing of all is that we manage to do it without it even the merest flicker of awareness regarding what we are doing. We do not even have the grace to be uncomfortable or embarrassed – on the contrary, we clap ourselves on the back every step of the way.
What this indicates is that each one of us is in possession of an awesomely powerful mechanism for both slanting reality to suit ourselves, and rendering the sordid business of the slanting invisible to us, so we can carry on as innocent as little children. This stage-managed perception of oneself as being ‘innocent’ or ‘justified’ or ‘one of the good guys’ is of course crucial to the whole process because without it our efforts come to nothing. We can see why this is just as soon as we cotton on the fact that all self-deception, without exception, is about pain (or fear) avoidance. So, let us say that I am avoiding some task or other because it is difficult, because it is going to be a serious challenge for me – it is not enough for me simply to avoid the task, since the awareness of the ignominious decision that I have made would be too bitter for me to stomach. To approach this the other way: if I have the willingness to take on board the fact that I have made an ignominious decision then this means that I do not have an attitude of pain-avoidance, and if I do not have an attitude of pain-avoidance then I wouldn’t have made the ‘easy choice’ in the first place. Of course, it can sometimes happen that I spontaneously manifest the readiness to see the truth about myself and my actions, in which case I make the easy choice to avoid in the first place, but then refrain from avoiding seeing that I have made the easy choice, which is in itself not easy but hard. As a general rule though –
It is not enough simply for me to avoid psychological work, but – following through with the logic of pain avoidance – I must also avoid seeing that I am avoiding. This double-avoidance is what we are calling ‘self-deception’.
1.4 ACTING OUT THE PAIN
Double-avoidance is big business. Our usual conception of the mechanism of psychological pain-avoidance is that it is something that crops up every now and again when things get too hard to handle. This is a ‘convenient’ way of looking at the matter however, and it detracts nicely from the far grimmer proposition, which is the proposition that just about everything we do comes under the remit of ‘unacknowledged pain-avoidance’. If we take a closer look at the subject it will become easier to see how this could be so. Psychological pain-avoidance has been said to come in two basic varieties –  Acting out, and  Repression. Acting out, as the name implies, can be distinguished from repression by virtue of its ‘outwardly directed’ nature. A simple way to explain it is by saying that it involves displacing negativity, i.e. –
Acting out is when we turn around (or re-route) the blame for pain or discomfort so that it falls on someone or something else.
This is hardly an unfamiliar sort of an idea, but the actual mechanism of what goes on is worth taking a look at. A good way to get a handle on ‘negativity displacement’ is to say that it has to do with selective attention – somehow, we distort the truth not by an outright lie but by being selective in what we pay attention to. A very simple example could be as follows. I do something that causes you to be angry with me, and an unpleasant scene ensues. I then displace the blame onto you and accuse you of creating a scene, conveniently forgetting my role in the affair. What I have done here is to avoid responsibility by paying selective attention to the fact that you got angry with me, you caused a scene, etc. Although I am not actually lying outright, I am definitely distorting the truth so that you get to be the one who takes the blame and not me.
Generalizing this a bit, we can say that whenever there is a tit-for-tat exchange of insults or offences, both parties will polarize their thinking so that the other guy seems to be the culpable one, despite the fact that both sides are in fact equally responsible. “Now look what you made me do…” I say, echoing Oliver Hardy, and by saying this I have deftly focussed attention away from my part in the exchange, onto your part. This shows us that what is actually happening, from a technical point of view, is that there is a causal sequence of events where all the events are ‘equal’, only for the purposes of having allocating blame one particular point in the chain is arbitrarily selected as being ‘the cause’ of what follows. This is an interesting way to look at it because the process of ‘arbitrarily choosing an origin and then refusing to pay attention to the arbitrary nature of the choice that we have made’ is of course the basic mechanism of unconsciousness (so to speak) that we have been alluding throughout this chapter. Professor of theoretical physics David Bohm says that the system of thought operates by ‘participating in creating a reality and then concealing the role that it has in creating that reality’, whereas sociologists Berger and Luckman – talking about the social reality-creating process which they call reification – say that we arbitrarily make up a rule, and then say that it wasn’t us who made it up, but rather the rule was already there. In this way, we create an unquestionable (i.e. given) structural basis to adapt ourselves to, and in the loss of freedom inherent in adapting oneself to an unquestionable external authority we find the psychological security that we seem to need so badly.
In mathematical terms, what we are looking corresponds to the process whereby a positive set is created by the arbitrary selection of a rule taking the familiar form “let M = …..” The rule is basically an exhaustive criterion for determining the inclusion of elements into a predefined class and the reason we say that the selection of the rule is arbitrary is because there is no rule or criterion governing the selection. This action is ‘rule-less’ (or ‘free’) and we can see very easily just why the choice has to be free by considering what would happened if we had to have a rule to determine what rule we chose. A moment’s thought is all that is needed to show that if this were true, then it would also be the case that we would need to have a rule to determine what rule which choose to determine the rule for determining the set. This instantly embroils us in an infinite regress, and an infinite regress is simply ‘nature’s way of telling us that we can’t do whatever it is that we want to do’. However, once we have chosen the rule (or criterion) then the story changes because from this point on there is no more freedom – the whole point of a rule, after all, is that it is a rule and not a free choice. Thus, in the creation of a set the selection of the rule is perfectly free (it is not ‘necessary’ at all) but once I have hit upon a particular rule then I am committed, and there is no such thing – mathematically speaking – as ‘having second thoughts’, or being ‘half-hearted’ in what I am doing. Essentially, I make a free choice to do things a certain way, but once I have made this choice, then I have to carry on as if there had been no choice involved. Or as Professor James Carse says Finite and Infinite Games, we freely chose to play a Finite Game, but then place ourselves under constraint by veiling from ourselves the freedom that we have ‘to play or not to play’.
The mechanism of self-veiling can be most clearly explained in terms of a ‘double-concealment’ (or ‘double-deception’):
In the process of reification it is not just the case that that there is a transition from ‘free’ to unfree’, but rather it is the case that once the transition has been made, then any reference to the transition itself is expunged from the picture. The possibility of ‘freedom’ is eradicated and this eradication also includes the ‘eradication of the eradication’.
Explaining the reification (or ‘thing-making’) process in this way is useful because it shows us that what we are basically looking at is an information collapse. In an information collapse a major chunk of information is amputated, and we are left both without the information and any way of knowing about what we have lost. This is because, in informational terms –
If I have the information at hand to tell me about the information I have lost then I still have the information and so nothing is actually lost.
We are now in a position to move from the purely abstract idea of the information collapse to very practical application in psychology. The point is that information-collapsing (or ‘decomplexification’) is how the rationality works – this is the actual mechanism of the rational-conceptual mind. A familiar notion in psychology is that of figure-ground differentiation: in order to make out a figure, we have to make a decision to look at the picture in a certain way. As soon as we make this perceptual decision we have in effect become trapped in this way of looking at things and the figure (whatever it is) becomes real – it becomes ‘a thing’. This is a manifestation of the ‘lobster-pot principle of information loss’ because whilst we can get into seeing the figure easily enough, once we have ‘got into it’ it is a lot harder to get out of it again – once we have learned to see the figure in question it is difficult to ‘unlearn’ it. Of course, in perceptual puzzles where a face or figure is hidden it is evidently possible to flip in and out of seeing whatever it is that we are seeing, and this means that we still have access to the information that we have momentarily exclude in order to be able resolve the shape, but in cognitive versions of the figure-ground transformation it is clearly not so easy to ‘get out again from seeing whatever it is that we are seeing’.
In the sort of perceptual puzzle that we have been talking about we learn to see various figures, which then take on solidity. The ‘cognitive’ equivalent of this is where we learn to think in such a way that certain ideas take on solidity – or ‘believability’ – for us. The figures that we obtain as a result of learning to mentally look at things in the ‘right’ way are therefore what we call beliefs, and it is readily apparent that once I fasten upon a particular arbitrary belief, then it is actually very hard for my to unfasten myself. A belief is therefore a type of mental trap (a ‘hole in the ground’) that we heedlessly fall into, and then spend an awful lot of time in. The trap is all the more complete because we do not actually see it as such – once in the hole (so that all we can see is a small disc of light way above us) we do not appreciate the fact that we are at the bottom of a deep hole, but rather we take it for granted that the hole the whole universe.
It is an extraordinarily significant to understand this point; in fact saying that it is extraordinarily significant is completely understating the matter – if we don’t realize that all beliefs are arbitrary, then no matter what else we know, we know nothing, and if we do realize this all-important fact, then we know the only thing that we need to know! Understanding the principle of cognitive relativity is profoundly liberating, but not seeing the relativity of all knowledge delivers us into bondage that we cannot see as such. This invisible bondage creates what can be quite rightly called an ‘absurd’ situation –
We can say that the basic human situation is tremendously, incredibly, awe-inspiringly absurd because on the one hand we spend our entire lives in thrall to our beliefs – being as deadly serious as ever we can be about them – and on the other hand, it is indubitably, irrevocably the case that every single belief that has ever been believed in throughout the whole of human history (recorded or otherwise) is completely and utterly false.
BELIEF AS DATA-LOSS
Just as the figure high-lighted in the type of perceptual puzzle that we were talking about is more of a ‘trick’ or ‘artifact’ than a final reality, so too are the beliefs that seem real to me when I think about the world in a certain, narrow way. A belief isn’t a final reality, its just one of many ‘mental shapes’ that swims convincingly into focus when I adopt a special viewpoint on matters. The final reality is not the figure, but rather the background from which the figure is abstracted, and this ‘background’ isn’t a defined thing – it can’t be, because ‘the ground’ has nothing to be defined against! For this reason we can say that the only thing which isn’t ‘a trick’ or ‘an artefact’ is the unbounded field of unstated possibilities from which all possible ‘statements’ are abstracted. When we start looking at the creation of a mental picture of the world in this way we are basically seeing belief as a collapsed state, which is to say, we are looking at the process of ‘forming a belief’ as being the same thing as the process of information collapse. The undefined field of unstated possibilities may be said to contain ‘unlimited information’ since we can pull any number of configurations out of it, but any one configuration contains only limited information, so to speak, since its information content is limited to itself. Oddly enough, therefore, the process of reification (i.e. thing-creation) is concomitant with a large-scale loss of information.
This is obvious enough if we give the matter a bit of attention. Reality – as everyone knows – is not black & white, but rather it is a confused spectrum of various murky grey areas. Beliefs however cannot be composed out of shades of grey – they have to be delineated strictly in YES – NO type of logic. Either God exists or He doesn’t. Either abortion is morally right or it is morally wrong. And so on. It feels good to know for sure what the ‘right’ position is on these things, but the only way we can get to have this nice feeling of ‘closure’ is by taking a limited view of the subject and refusing to admit that our way of looking at things is limited (or ‘’prejudiced’). We may not like to admit it, but the only way to obtain a secure belief is via hidden prejudices, prejudices that we are not aware of. In general terms, the way this works is that there is a field of ‘evidence’ (or ‘data’) from which we can use to obtain to back-up our theories. This universal data-field however does not does not exist in order to support any particular conjecture that we might be advancing – it consists of what Ernst and Christine von Weizsacker, refer to in their Model of Pragmatic Information as novelty, which means that it is information that exists to challenge our preconceptions rather than confirm them. The way that we get around this is to place limits on how and where we look for our evidence, so that we only get the type of evidence that we want to get. This we do in an ‘innocent way’, so to speak – we remain blissfully unaware of the role that we have taken in engineering the reality that we are perceiving. The ‘unconscious selection of evidence’ happens all the time, it even happens to scientists who are supposed to be on the look out for this sort of thing. Information collapse happens as easily and invisibly as it does because when it happens it removes all references to the fact that it has happened! When we narrow down the field of evidence without recognizing that a ‘narrowing down’ is taking place then this is an information collapse pure and simple; using the terms of the Model of Pragmatic Information, we can say that whenever there is a conversion of novelty to confirmation then this means that unacknowledged data-loss has taken place. To put this another way –
There is no such thing as a positively defined (i.e. ‘black & white’) view of reality without there having been a necessarily invisible information collapse at some prior point.
SCIENCE AND SCIENTISM
This is of course a maximally challenging proposition since it basically says that all our theories are false. If someone tells you that everything you think you know is actually wrong, that you have merely been hypnotizing yourself into believing whatever it was that you believed, then this is going to get your goat. People have been tortured and killed for saying less provocative things. The chances are these days you won’t actually get burnt at the stake, but people will look at you in a funny way – they will be convinced of your idiocy very shortly after you open your mouth. In the scientific era in which we live the impression that we all have is that science has uncovered many ‘factual truths’ about the universe – we understand it to be the case that science has provided us with a description of the universe in which we live that is absolutely and definitely true. This makes us feel good about ourselves, and bizarrely incurious into the bargain, since we assume that everything that needs to be known is known, or will shortly be known, to some expert scientist somewhere or other. This effectively puts us to sleep – which is not really what we would expect from science; science ought to increase our sense of wonder at the world whereas it actually seems to do the exact opposite. But does science really tell us that we know nothing, or does it tell us that we know lots? One way to approach this is to say, as E.R. Schumacher did, that there are two things – science and scientism.
Science pushes in the direction of ever-increasing relativity, showing us that what we know is dependent on the assumptions we make in the process of acquiring this knowledge. The meta-science of limitology (which deals with the limits to knowledge) becomes crucially important – it becomes apparent that we can only ever know anything by taking a narrow or restricted viewpoint, and acting as if that viewpoint is sufficient basis for proceeding with our investigations (which ultimately, of course, it isn’t). The whole manifest universe becomes understandable in terms of a series of information collapses – matter itself becomes understandable as a collapsed state. Scientism on the other hand is little more than a mere accumulation of encyclopaedia-type facts and figure, which are all presently blithely as absolute data, without any recognition of their inherent relativity. How fast a cheetah can run is an absolute data-type fact, and knowing this tends make us feel that we have it all wrapped up. But if I memorize the fact that cheetahs run at such and such a speed, all this does is hypnotize me with banalities – it effectively prevents me from appreciating the infinitely imponderable nature of the fact that there are such things as cheetahs in the first place, or that there ever was a world in which cheetahs could evolve, or that there ever was a universe in which worlds could evolve (or that there ever was anything).
Facts and figures are not science – they are just thing that seem to make sense when we don’t look at them too deeply. When we do look deeply – when we wake up out of the trance of assumed knowledge that we are all stuck in – then we realize that nothing ‘makes sense’. Once we actually look at what’s in front of us, with full undistracted attention, then we see it for what it is – an incomprehensible mystery. The whole thing is one big, mind-blowing mystery, and so is every little part of it; after all, if the whole thing is mysterious, then how can any part of that whole be any less mysterious? Another way to say ‘mysterious’ is to say ‘without precedent’, in other words, there is no precedent that there should ever have been anything. No matter how far we chase it back, we can never come to the point where we say “Oh yeah, now I see – of course there is a universe”. On the other hand, out of what basically constitutes mental laziness, what almost always happens is that we take a certain standpoint for granted, and then, looking out on the world from this assumed basis, everything does look very much ‘as we would naturally expect it to’. If we rigorously examined that taken-for-granted logical basis, then we would discover that there is no basis for that basis, we discover that there is no basis for calling it a basis.
When we look at the universe as a whole, undistractedly, we can see that there is no logical framework outside of it which compels it to exist, which makes it deterministically necessary for it to exist. There is only the whole of everything, there can be no ‘outside’ to everything because that would mean that it wasn’t everything after all – there is no ‘the whole of everything’ plus some ‘extraneous logical framework which somehow has an independent existence’, there is just ‘the Whole as a singular, idiosyncratic and quite unprecedented phenomenon’.
If we come back now to the topic of information-collapse in relation to the process of forming beliefs (or ‘reified mental maps’), we can immediately see that the situation where we perceive reality to be mind-bogglingly mysterious is the situation prior to the collapse. After the information has been lost, and the information pertaining to the information loss has also been lost, then the world looks very matter of fact to us –it looks very much as we would have expected it to look. This – needless to say – is the world as we usually see it, and the reason the world as we usually see it looks this way is because we are seeing it through our beliefs. Our beliefs make everything banal and matter of fact; naturally they do because what I see is what I had already decided to see:
The reason the world looks as we would have expected it to look is because what I see is what my mental map predisposes (or conditions) me to see. It is therefore no wonder that there is no radical surprise in store for me every time I open my eyes; what I call ‘seeing’ isn’t actually seeing at all, it is simply ‘jumping to conclusions’. I see what I have trained myself to see, and so all I see is my own training (my own beliefs, my own conditioning) projected outwards onto the world.
What we are particularly focussing on in this section is the type of pain-avoidance that we have called acting out. So what exactly is the connection between ‘acting out’ and the reified mental maps that we carry around in our heads as a result of the process of information collapse? This is the crucial question and the answer that seems to jump out when we reflect on the matter is that ‘pain avoidance’ and ‘data collapse’ go hand in hand; in other words, there is some kind of comfort to be had in believing in our over-simplified and misrepresentative mental maps. It feels good to us, basically – there is security and self-validation in it. This in itself is not too hard to accept – we have already made the link between beliefs and pain-avoidance and most of us would probably have no difficulty in seeing the connection. We can go further than this however to say the following:
Whenever we act on the basis of our reified mental maps (our beliefs that we do not know to be merely beliefs) then this purposeful behaviour, this controlling, is acting out.
Acting out, it will be remembered, is where we displace pain to somewhere ‘external’ to ourselves – we allocate blame onto ‘blame-carriers’. This appears to be something different to the process of decomplexification (or data-loss) which takes place when we see the world through a belief or theory, and thereby end up with an oversimplified, black & white picture of reality. In practise, however, we can see that decomplexification and acting out go hand-in-hand – a good example would be when a politician presents an oversimplified theory to the populace of ‘why things are going wrong in society’. This is a sure-fire winner in politics because the discontent that everyone feels with their lot in life can now be accounted for in terms of the reprehensible behaviour of certain elements within society. The great thing about this is that  we get to see that the pain which we are suffering is unjustly visited upon us, and  we get to have a convenient scapegoat to blame for it all. All that is left if for us to do something about it, which is to say, act on the basis of the theory-of-blame that we are utilizing.
The classic example of this is of course the persecution of the Jews in Hitler’s Germany, but the same thing happened – albeit to a lesser extent – when Mrs Thatcher identified certain elements in society as being ‘ne’er do wells’ in need of a ‘short sharp shock’. In the case of Nazi Germany, the populace acted out their pain by smashing shop windows, informing on people who they identified as Jews or lesbians, and so on. In Thatcher’s Britain, the acting out was vicarious in the sense that we all thoroughly approved of the thought of young hooligans receiving a short-sharp shock in the boot camps (or drug pushers being given stiff sentences for practicing their evil trade). The satisfaction obtained from thinking of bad people getting ‘righteously punished’ is the same as the satisfaction I would obtain from actually doing something about it myself. This shows that ‘acting out’ doesn’t necessarily involve action as we would normally think about it, it can be done in the privacy of my own thoughts, or it can be through speech – through complaining in other words.
The theory that says crime is due to certain individuals who take it upon themselves to commit crimes as a result of their own free choice to do so (the ‘agency model’) is custom made for facilitating blame. The theory ignores all sorts of other factors – such as the general meaningless inherent in modern society, the material competitiveness that means a large percentage of the population will always feel themselves to be losers in the social game, and the huge pressure that is put on us to buy our way to happiness – and as a result it becomes easy to point the finger at the individual, and forget about the problems inherent in the system itself. Of course we could try to separate ourselves from the system, and blame the system in order too displace some of our pain, but the fact is that the system is us and we are the system, and this ‘blaming’ is simply the attempt to distance ourselves from pain that is legitimately our own. In general, we can say that blaming becomes possible when complex causal webs are simplified down so that you end up with a causal chain that actually starts somewhere. Thus, crime on the streets can be traced back to the agents of crime, which means that if we hammer them good and proper, the problem is being dealt with. In actuality it isn’t being dealt with, but we get to believe that it is being dealt with, and so we get what we really wanted anyway, which is ‘the illusion of getting somewhere’.
The same principle can be seen behind our approach to mental illness, where the culprit is identified as being in the synapses of the brain – we know that the causal chain leading to depression, or OCD, or schizophrenia lies in the brain chemistry of those effected, and we hammer the brain with pharmaceutical missiles. Of course it doesn’t really work because the theory of mental illness that identifies the cause as being in being in the biological substrate of the brain tissue, or in faulty DNA is absurdly oversimplified. The notion that what we call mental illness arises as a result of a simple linear causal is ridiculously behind the times since chemists and physicists stopped seeing the world in terms of linear processes way back in the nineteen eighties, but who really cares?
What goes on in the society at large also goes on with a vengeance within the privacy of our own heads. We refuse to see the bad feelings that we have where they belong. As we said right back when we first started talking about pain-avoidance, we all possess within us (like a sort of magical gift, or magical ‘super-power’) the most superlatively powerful and effective mechanism for ‘both slanting reality to suit ourselves, and rendering the sordid business of the slanting invisible to us’. The mechanism ensures that the awareness of our compliance in this sneaky process is painlessly removed from us, and the effectiveness of the process can be shown in the bewilderment and frank incomprehension that we feel when it is suggested that such a thing is going on. “But I’m not doing anything like that!” I protest, in what seems to me to be ‘all honesty’. “I’m a plain, ‘up-front’ sort of a guy, not the sort of wretched, treacherous weasel you are describing…”
The truth however is that I am like the ‘Teflon man’ – nothing sticks to me, all my sins are carted away before I get to know about them! Of course, all the unpleasantness that I am evicting has to go somewhere; the mechanism ensures that the original pain is spirited magically away, and it also ensures that the secondary pain (or ‘shame’) of being so dishonest is also spirited away, and what happens in ‘acting out’ is that the combined dose of pain and shame is visited elsewhere – it is visited upon the heads of others, hapless scapegoats who will have to bear the brunt of our misplaced wrath and righteous indignation.
What we are talking about here therefore is basically a form of ‘mental hygiene’ – any unpleasantly painful awarenessess found lying around are scooped up by the ‘automatic sanitation’ mechanism, and projected instantly on convenient carriers in the outside world. The benefits of this house-keeping process are two-fold – not only do I get to evict all that nasty personal negativity that was going to give me a horrible time, I also get to have the great satisfaction of striking out, in full-throated, full-blooded moral indignation at that very same negativity, only in someone else, not me. I don’t have to accept the pain at all – in fact I am fully justified in forcefully allocating that pain some where else, in whatever way I can. Acting out as we said still works as pain avoidance even if I can’t ‘pass it on’ because I still know that I oughtn’t to have the pain, and this means that I can complain about it – either to myself or to whoever happens to be around. The feeling that I have been unfairly visited by inconvenience or discomfort or pain naturally leads to some sort of action, and the action in question is some sort of mental or verbal protestation. When I feel bad, I moan about it, in other words, and this moaning or complaining is my way of finding temporary relief. Needless to say, the satisfaction obtained by complaining is both very short-lived and highly unsatisfactory in view of the fact that it leaves me feeling worse than ever, and in more need than ever to keep on complaining. It also completely fails to solve the problem. However, despite these massive disadvantages, we still rely on complaining – not because we think it is going to help us in the long-run, but because it affords a momentary relief or satisfaction in the short-term!
Complaining is therefore something we do automatically, by force of habit more than anything else – we all know deep down that it is a degrading and self-sabotaging sort of thing but such is the force of our automatic desire to avoid pain that we can’t seem to stop doing it. What is worse, the process is subject to inexorable escalation – the more we feed the habit the stronger it gets and the stronger the habit gets the more powerful the compulsion to act it out gets. The more powerful the compulsion gets the more we obey it, and the more we obey it the more powerful it gets. This is a self-reinforcing process which automatically creates the unquestionable pragmatic reality of the ‘reified rule’. In other words:
The tendency to avoid mental pain results in the creation of a completely deterministic ‘virtual world’ which seems completely real to us, a world in which our only option is to continue obeying the logic of pain-avoidance, whilst deluding ourselves the whole time that this is not our motivation, and that we are actually free to ‘do as we will’. This world is our ‘escape from reality’, but it is also a prison.
1.6 THE POWER OF INATTENTION
If acting out is when we allow ourselves to be taken over by a compulsion to displace pain outside of us, without admitting the illegitimate nature of what we are actually doing, then the other basic way of keeping our everyday consciousness clean or ‘sanitized’ is by repressing painful awareness, which is a process that is commonly, and very aptly, spoken of in terms of ‘sweeping it under the carpet’. The mechanism involved in repression can be seen in terms of ‘the supreme power of inattention’ – I exercise this power by neglecting to pay attention to what is right under my nose. This too is an illegitimate operation that I do not acknowledge as such: I fail to notice the painful content, and neither do I notice my lack of noticing it. I ignore the pain, and at the same time I ignore the fact that I am ignoring anything…
The awesome power of our capacity to be deliberately (and self-deceivingly) inattentive is evoked well by the image of Winnie in Beckett’s play Happy Days who is buried up to her waist in sand in the first act, and up to her neck in the second act. Despite the brute fact of her partial entombment Winnie manages – heroically if bizarrely – to be cheerful, never referring at all to the severe limitations of her situation. She contrives to be pleasantly diverted by this and by that, and declares everything to be just fine:
Ah well, what matter, that’s what I always say, it will have been another happy day after all, another happy day.
This sort of thing is of course deeply reminiscent of the mythical British attribute of ‘maintaining a stiff upper lip’ under all circumstances; as in the scene from Carry on up the Khyber where the house is being shelled whilst tea is being taken, but everyone contrives to ignore the fact. Good form demands that we carry on making comments about the lateness of the monsoon, enquiring after one another’s health, and drinking cups of tea while all around us the whole world is falling to pieces on an epic scale. Half the house gets taken out by an artillery shell, but rather than mention this rather uncompromising fact I offer you another scone; whatever else happens, one makes sure that one doesn’t mention the war. This is all very funny of course, but for those trapped within the charade the aspect of humour is likely to be occluded by the aspect of horror – it is obviously the case that for those involved, repression is an infinitely humourless sort of a thing.
ABSURDITY AND HORROR
Our power not to pay attention to the most obvious facts create situations that are thoroughly, profoundly absurd and yet it is impossible to know whether we ought to laugh of cry, since the profoundly absurd tends to go hand-in-hand with the profoundly horrific. In order to bring the horrific aspect of the power of inattention into focus all we need to do is consider the fact that the reason for me not paying attention to some major datum of experience is pain avoidance. Inattention to pain is a stock response, if for some reason I find myself (for example) to be very sad, I simply refuse to attend to that sadness. Sadness in itself cannot be said to be ‘horrific’ – if I am being sad then I am honestly relating to my own experience, and such honesty is always ‘healthy’ since as it always leads to an increase in wisdom and compassion. But if something difficult happens to me, and rather than face the difficulty I pretend to myself that it isn’t happening then I am locked into an escalating ‘no win’ situation – the sadness will not have gone anywhere, but rather it will be festering away inside me, and I will then be bound to try to ignore the festering sadness in exactly the same way that I tried to ignore the original sadness. Basically, I am locked into a dysfunctional (or counterproductive) way of the dealing with my difficulties. All repression can do at best is to buy me a bit of time, a bit of short-term relief, but the legitimate pain that I am avoiding hasn’t really gone anywhere – the day of reckoning has not been cancelled, only postponed.
Psychological repression inevitably creates ‘horrific’ situations. The general idea (or hope) is that after having surgically amputated whatever area of experience it is that I do not want to know about, I will then be free to get on with my life. Needless to say, this cannot happen – for two main reasons. Firstly, it is clear that the restriction of awareness that I have instigated cannot be limited merely to the area which was causing me problems, but rather it must be a ‘global shut-down’. This has to be the case since as we have already argued if I remained unconditionally aware and unconditionally curious, then I am going become aware that something has happened, and I am going to be curious about what that ‘something’ involves. As a ‘shut-down person’, I will carry on in a sort of down-graded (i.e. robotic or incurious) semblance of conscious life, but I do not directly see that anything is amiss since my underlying agenda is not to notice that anything is wrong. The first drawback is therefore that I well suffer a generalized loss of ‘perspective’ in my life that I am going to be unable to perceive.
Secondly, it has to be the case that the problems which I am seeking to contain will not lie dormant but will escalate beyond the point of me being able to keep a lid on them. Once a policy of repression is taken up this is not a one-off event but the start of a journey in a particular direction – once I start ignoring then I am bound to continue, and this inevitably means that I will be steadily accumulating ‘unacknowledged legitimate pain’. To change my direction I would have to start by facing whatever original difficulty it was that caused me to head off down the road of repression, and because I am by definition unwilling to do that (so unwilling in fact that I know longer know that I am unwilling) I have no choice but to take the same approach with every other difficulty that comes my way. In other words, the more I ignore how sad I am, the sadder I will become. In answer to the question “How far can I go down this most evil of roads?” we can only reply “Very far indeed”. In very blunt terms therefore, the drawback of repression is that as soon as I start with this business then I am ‘on the road to hell’.
TWO TERMINAL DESTINATIONS
We are not saying here that the repression of unwanted awareness’ is a rare and exotic affair, affecting only certain mentally unwell or disturbed persons –rather, we are saying that it is the lynchpin of our everyday psychology. In fact, if it weren’t for our superlative ability to ignore what we don’t want to see, it would not be possible for us to carry on with our lives as they are, and this is true for virtually everybody (excepting small children). Everything would come to a halt instantly if we had to face reality the way it actually is; the sedate and self-justifying business of me conducting my daily affairs in the time-honoured fashion would come to an awful, juddering halt like a derailed passenger train ploughing into a platform. We can use the idea of ‘the power of inattention’ to make a fairly obvious – but nonetheless useful – definition of the state of psychological unconsciousness:
Unconsciousness is the state of being that I am plunged into when I use the ability that I innately have to not pay attention to some overwhelmingly important datum of awareness.
Of course, we could have equally well defined unconsciousness in terms of the ‘power to act-out’ (rather than ‘the power to repress’), in which case we would have said something like this:
Unconsciousness is the state wherein I automatically project pain onto the external world, which I do by simultaneously justifying my own right not to have the pain and allocating blame for the pain elsewhere. The ‘ability’ that I make use of here is a form of not paying attention which we can refer to as ‘paying selective attention’ (or ‘spin-doctoring’).
Spin-doctoring in its crudest and most flagrant form involves the time-honoured procedure of finding a scapegoat and allocating to this unfortunate recipient the blame for absolutely everything that is wrong in the world. Aside from its manifest unfairness this is (in strictly short-sighted terms) an amazingly clever and effective dodge – as we said earlier, not only do I get to escape from seeing my own negativity (and escape therefore from having to take responsibility for it), I also get to feel good about myself for identifying this negativity in someone else, and giving them a good righteous blast of condemnation. In other words, I do not simply get to abdicate my responsibility in this matter, I get to abdicate responsibility without seeing that this is what I am doing.
In fact as far as I am concerned far from abdicating responsibly I am behaving in a commendably responsible fashion – as we have said already, not only have I been clever enough to locate evil roaming at large in the world, I have also proved my worth by rising instantly to the occasion and giving the afore-mentioned evil a good hard smiting! The drawbacks associated with ‘acting out’ is the same as the drawbacks which we have already outlined in relation to repression – utilizing this ‘power’ forces us to live lives of unacknowledged poverty, lives that are sadly stilted and distorted, but which we are bound to protect and justify no matter what. Furthermore, when we resort to the strategy of projecting or displacing pain outwards this means that we are ‘on the road to hell’ – we are irrevocably committed to a path that ends up in a singularly terrible destination.
At the end of the road marked ‘repression’ we come to that place where we discover ourselves to be totally utterly hollow; the bland and superficial reality which I clung to is now in tatters, and I discover that there is a tremendous debt to be paid – a debt which I can no longer duck out of despite the fact that I have the greatest difficulty in coming around to actually owning it. I do not have the strength to bear see what I have to see – and yet I must. At the end of the road marked ‘acting out’ I have become similarly hollow – I am a mechanical ‘slave to the lie’, committed to refusing the pain that is self-evidently mine and irrevocably given over therefore to negative emotions such as bitterness, self-pity, envy, and malice. I end up hating anyone who does not seem to share my fate, and the most poignant thing about this hatred is that it is at root nothing other than pure undiluted hatred at myself for having made myself into the unwholesome and unlovely creature that I now am. Therefore, at the end of the road of pain displacement what happens is that I find all the negativity which I had outwardly directed (and wrongly allocated) finally coming back home to roost where it belongs. When this happens I find that I can no longer bear to live with myself – and yet neither can I escape myself.
1.8 THE RULE
Curiously enough, we can make the claim that the legitimate and proper functioning of the faculty of logic (or rationality) becomes the way in which we practice the illegitimate operation whereby we deliberately fail to pay attention without owning up to the fact that this is what we are doing. Just as we said that the procedure of ‘arbitrarily choosing where to lay the blame whilst ignoring the arbitrary nature of the choice involved’ is really a form of selective attention, so too is inattention – obviously enough. This sort of selective attention is however intrinsic to the function of the rational mode, since the mechanism of the rational mind involves deciding in advance what is important (or relevant) and thereafter only taking notice of data that comes under this category. So for example if am watching a rabbit hole waiting specifically for a rabbit to come out, anything else that pops out of the rabbit hole is just ‘rubbish’. The process is a form of closed interrogation –
Question – “Is it a rabbit?”
Answer – “No”
Response – “Then I am not interested…”
The point here is that even if an army of leprechauns or a dodo reciting the sonnets of Shakespeare comes out of the rabbit hole, I still am not interested, since I have already decided what is (and by implication, what is not) interesting. Although this might seem very stupid indeed, all rule-based forms of interrogating reality boils down to this basic YES/NO evaluation – my ‘rule’ (or criterion) specifies what is ‘signal’, and everything else has to be ‘noise’. Of course in practice if you were waiting by a rabbit hole hoping to catch a rabbit and something completely unexpected came out you would of course take note, but that is because you are not entirely rational. If you were a purely rational mechanism, and you were programmed to spot rabbits, then that is all you would take notice of because you can only ‘see’ what you have been programmed to see.
This form of blindness is attendant upon all rational operations, since I cannot say that something is special without automatically discarding everything else as being ‘non-special’. When I say that something is special this is a specific identification, but when I discard something as being non-special this is not a specific identification (since no correlation between the features of the object and the criteria in my check list is made, or needs to be made. In other words, anything that doesn’t ‘fit’ is automatically excluded.
It follows that if being highly rational makes us subject to the particular type of blindness that comes with rationality, then we can make ourselves to be ‘extra blind’ if it suits us to do so. If for some reason I want to not pay attention to life in its undefined entirety then all I have to do is to crank up my index of rationality – which is the same thing as my degree of ‘goal-orientatedness’ – and the result is instantly, miraculously procured. One way of looking at this is to say (as we have just suggested) that the more important I my make goal, the more I get exclusively sucked up in them, and the more oblivious I become to anything else that does not relate to me goals. This sort of thing is what we generally call ‘obsessiveness’, or ‘addictiveness’. More generally speaking, we can say that the mode of mentality wherein we are exclusively concerned with goals that do not matter really is the game playing mode. The principle here can be illustrated very well by reference to an overt game such as football, although the majority of game that we distract ourselves with are not overt. It is obviously the case that if I have decided in advance that certain specified outcomes constitute ‘winning’ and the failure to obtain these outcomes constitutes ‘losing’, and since it goes without saying that in a game the outcome of ‘winning’ is of paramount importance, then my attention is going to be focussed only on the details that have a bearing on my successful performance within the terms of the game. If you imagine yourself – in a kind of footballing fantasy – as the striker for Manchester United who is trying for a difficult goal that will settle an important match in favour of his team, you can well appreciate the fact that you will have no time for pondering irrelevant details at this point in time. You will not be noticing an interestingly shaped cloud, or wondering if there is life after death. All else apart from the game is suppressed, excluded, invisible to you.
If you were paying attention to irrelevant details, then this would necessarily mean that the importance of the goal of ‘winning’ had severely dwindled – after all, if you stand out under the stars on a particular clear night, and get absorbed for a while in the impersonal vastness of the cosmos, how important do the league tables seem then, in the bigger scheme of things? How important indeed do any of my day-to-day concerns seem in the overall scheme of things? This shows that in order for my concerns to seem as important to me as they do, I have to drastically narrow down my perspective. Only then can my goals carry meaning for me, and only then can I find the motivation to put all my energy into pursuing them. Maximum perspective means that all my games are revealed for what they are – games – and so in order for me to be able to forget that my games are only games, I have to shrink my world right down.
An even better way of explaining this is to say that in order to benefit from the distracting power of the game I have to let the game replace (or subsume) reality. When this happens I am obviously not going to be aware of extraneous points of view, extraneous data – I am not even going to be aware of the possibility of extraneous points of view since for me, the game is the world. There is obviously a covert psychological gain in terms of ‘the pseudosolution of life’s problems’ here since if I win at the game, then I have succeeded in all that matters (even though the truth is that I have succeeded in nothing at all, when it come right down to it). And even if I don’t win – even if I am a lousy player and stand no chance of winning, not in a million years – even then I still get to avail of the covert gain of being distracted from the real world and its unspecified demands.
Observing that the proper functioning of the rational faculty is capable of being used to the end of ‘unacknowledged pain avoidance’ is of course not the same as saying that theories and goals and the behaviour that comes from theories and goals is mentally unhealthy in any way, any more than a bunch or people going out for a game of football on the local green can be said to be a dark manifestation of psychological repression. However, it is at the same time very obvious that adherence to theories and beliefs and the pursuit of goals will become contaminated and falsified by the taint of repression just as soon as my theories and goals are ‘hijacked’ by the ever-present unconscious agenda to hide from pain and fear. Similarly, if I devote a big part of my free time to following the football or the races or whatever, then it is a fair bet that I am preoccupying myself with this comfortable and secure pursuit for the sake of avoiding those aspects of my life that make me uncomfortable and insecure. The mysterious ‘growing edge’ of my life has been relegated to a position so far down in the table that it is no longer visible – my interest is not here, but in the burning question of how well my team is doing in the championship, etc.
THE TWO SIDES OF THE RULE
An alternative way of approaching the matter of how we avail of this thing which we have called ‘rational blindness’ is to say that the more dogmatic and unreflective we become, the more seriously we take our rules, then the more narrow-minded (if not to say blindly mechanical) we become. So if for example I am very dogmatic and rule-orientated in my religion, then this is not because I love God very much, but because I love myself very much. What I really care about is that I should not be challenged, that I should not have to see things in new ways – my love of the orthodox laws and principles by which I live is a function of the desire that I have for the comfort zone of rational ignorance. When we talk about the stern, serious business of dogmatic authority the image that comes up is that of the old-fashioned father figure. Excessive rationality, the pedantic adherence to rules and regulations, an over-valuing of ‘being in control’, the aggressive assertion of ideas and opinions, a preoccupation with theories and concepts, an obsessive interest in technical procedures for their own sake, a love of sport and competition all tend to be pretty well associated with the masculine psyche. The point however is not that these masculine-type traits are undesirable, but rather then when they drive out or repress the corresponding feminine traits then they become pathological.
Furthermore, we can say that in the absence of anything to counter the process, there is a strong tendency for the rational / controlling masculine-authoritative side of the psyche to take over completely, and strangle everything else as it does so. In the metaphorical language of the alchemists, the tendency is for the wise and just King to become an inflexible and insensitive despot – the good King becomes inverted, converted into his opposite, and ends up as The Old King, who is cruel, tyrannical, and ultimately, downright evil. We can relate this tendency for the King to become evil with the tendency of ‘the rule’ to replace the whole of reality with itself, usurping thereby the true ‘Whole of reality’ with its own narrow and inflexible version of things. The rule has an inbuilt tendency, in other words, to exclude all else without acknowledging that anything worthwhile or important has been excluded.
The crucial point that needs to be made about the ‘automatic exclusion principle’ is that the operation of exclusion also excludes any reference to what has been excluded. It does not feel the need to mention or in anyway become aware of what it throws away, for the simple reason that if it felt that what it was throwing away was in any way meaningful (i.e. worth paying attention to) then it would not have been thrown away in the first place. Only rubbish is discarded and rubbish is by definition without interest, without use, without value. A good way to understand the essence of what makes a rule a rule is to say that it has two sides – an outside and inside. However, once we align ourselves with the rule in question (which is to say, once we look at the world via the viewpoint that we have now ‘taken for granted’ and have therefore become swallowed up in its sphere of influence) then we can no longer see the rule as it actually is. Once we have accepted the rule then we no longer see the rule as a rule because that perception necessarily involves an awareness of inherent relativity; instead, the rule becomes a kind of unconscious or ‘taken for granted’ type of a thing, an absolutely solid foundation or ground which we stand on but never think about.
So once we accept a rule, and identify with it, then we become wholly subject to the bias that the rule embodies. From outside of the rule the bias is visible as a bias, from the inside however, the bias becomes perfectly invisible – I am biased, my way of looking at things is biased, everything I see and believe in is biased, and because the whole system is perfectly consistent with itself (i.e. it is all biased in the same way) there is no longer anyway to see that I am biased. From the point of view of the system therefore, there is no bias, and everything is straightforward and above-board – what I see and believe in as a result of my conditioning isn’t ‘what I see or believe in as a result of my conditioning’, it is ‘the plain truth’.
WHAT IS ‘A RULE’?
It is worth at this point trying to become as clear as we can about this whole business of ‘rules’. We said earlier that within the sphere of influence of the rule, which is to say, within that realm which is the rightful and proper domain of the rule, everything is 100% determined by the rule – everything that happens is ‘lawful–with-respect-to-the-rule’. But what exactly is ‘a rule’? On the one hand we all know pretty well what a rule is – it tells you what you can and cannot do. We also know how a rule may be said to apply to a particular domain – for example, if there is a rule that says you are not allowed to talk in the library then that means there is as specific restriction relating to a clearly defined type of behaviour, but outside of the library that restriction does not apply. The type of rule we are looking at is of course the same sort of thing, only it is purely abstract, and restrictions imposed by the rule has to do with what is ‘logical’, and what is ‘not logical’, not with what the authorities who made the law ‘want’ or ‘don’t want’. We can define this abstract type of rule as follows:
By ‘a rule’ we mean a proposition, statement or standpoint which is 100% defined, and which cannot therefore be altered or re-formulated in any way that will change the essential meaning as it was originally stated (i.e. the information content is fixed).
We also talked about the idea that a rule has an outside and an inside, and the inside is the rightful domain of that rule. In the non-abstract example of the ‘No Talking in the Library’ rule the domain is the library but this explanation of ‘domain’ does not carry through into the abstract case – in the abstract case it is rather more hard to envisage how this works. A good way to think about this is in terms of ‘choice’ and the ‘lack of choice’. In fact we have already looked at the notion that a rule has an inside and an outside when we talked about ‘the arbitrary selection of a rule or criterion’: a rule, as we have said, is essentially a defined logical statement but the key thing about this is that the rule itself is not arrived at in a logical manner, but rather it is freely or arbitrarily chosen. Professor James Carse (1986) expresses this principle with regard to games; according to Carse, when we ‘choose to play a game’ what is happening is that we are freely choosing to place ourselves under constraint. In the same way, when we choose to state a particular rule, there is no rule which determines that we should choose that rule; on the contrary, we pluck the rule right out of the air – this is a perfectly free or undetermined action. Once we have chosen the rule however, things are different because the rule doesn’t allow arbitrary choice – this is, after all, the whole point about rules! Therefore, on the outside of the rule there is free choice whilst on the inside there is only ‘that which the rule permits’. This idea can of course be explained in terms of freedom –
Outside the rule there is freedom, but within the domain of the rule the only ‘freedom’ we have is the freedom to obey the rule.
The word freedom is given within quotation marks because this is obviously a distinctly contradictory way to use the word. It is like me saying that you are free to do anything at all, just as long as you do exactly what I tell you and nothing else – you are free to obey my orders! Outside the domain of the rule however there is genuine freedom however because when I am outside of ‘the rule’ I am free not to do what it dictates, but free from its dictates. In order to explain the properties of a rule, then, we have suggested that it can be seen in terms of having an inside and an outside. On the outside, we said, there is ‘genuine freedom’, which basically means ‘freedom from the rule’; we can also call this unconditioned freedom since there are no ‘conditions’ inserted into the deal. On the inside there is an inverted form of genuine freedom, which is what conditioned freedom is – the condition is simply ‘you are free as long as you do what the rule allows you to do’.
Saying that the type of freedom to be found within the domain of the rule has been inverted carries the implication that everything is now upside down, back-to-front, or reversed. The inverted form of freedom is not however (as mathematician John G. Bennett has said) ‘no freedom’ – no freedom is still freedom since we are perfectly free to see that we have no freedom. The real inverse of freedom – its antithesis, so to speak – is false freedom, which is we are unfree but not free to see that we are unfree. Bennett refers to this state of affairs as negative freedom, and negative freedom is a kind of dimension, made up of illusory freedom, where we can imagine that we are doing things and getting places (and generally changing things in accordance with our will) whilst in actually we are doing nothing, going nowhere, and changing nothing. Another way of explaining the idea is to say that negative freedom is ‘the freedom not to be free’ – from a psychological point of view, it is a subjectively effective escape from freedom. Obviously if I wished to escape from freedom, and all that it entails, but I still knew that I ‘was escaping from freedom’, then there would be precious little comfort in this. What sort of a self-deception is it, where I actually know that I am deceiving myself? On the other hand, when I can operate within a deterministic (!) analogue of freedom that implicitly represents itself as being non-deterministic, then the deception is complete (we might also say, then the trap is complete).
THE INVISIBLE TRANSITION FROM ‘FREE’ TO ‘NOT FREE’
We said earlier that when I am identified with the rule in question, and therefore within its sphere of influence, then I am subject to a biasing factor that is quite invisible to me, since both my viewpoint and all the things that I am seeing have exactly the same bias built into them. Thus, the ‘conditioned self’ with its ‘conditioned viewpoint’ sees the ‘conditioned truth’ and so this conditioned truth looks like the unconditioned truth. We can also try to get at this idea by saying that if you are replaced with an oversimplified analogue of yourself at the same time as the world with which you were relating to is replaced with oversimplified analogue of that world, then the ‘analogue of you’ won’t be able to tell the difference. Subjectively, there will be no transition. This might seem like a rather bizarre way of illustrating the principle, but what we have described is exactly what happens when I get eaten up with lust or desire, or fly into a rage, or become twisted with jealousy – all of these are common instances of ‘information collapse’ because I look at the world in a very biased (or narrow) way, without realizing it. The same process of decomplexification occurs every time I get drunk – what basically happens in alcohol intoxication is that I get surreptitiously replaced with a vaster inferior analogue of myself (a caricature or cartoon version) but because my awareness is degraded to exactly the same extent, I don’t notice. I am too stupid to realize how stupid I am, and so everything seems okay.
Even though the inbuilt bias in the system is completely invisible to me at all time, no mater how I might twist and turn to try to ‘catch’ it (since I am subject to the same bias), it does manifest itself in a way that I can sometimes start to be aware of, and this way has to do with the perception of restriction, or repetition. We can try to get a handle on this topologically (which is to say, by thinking in terms of surfaces). A bias, imagined as a surface, translates as a curve and so straightaway we can see that if the conditioned space that we are taking as being the ‘domain of the rule’ is curved, it must either eventually meet up with itself again and form a closed universe, or curve outwards and never close in on itself. This sort of idea is familiar from discussions of positively and negatively curved space with relation to gravity and the future evolution of the universe. We are thinking about an entirely abstract sort of a space, but the idea is the same. From mathematical grounds, we can immediately dismiss the possibility of negatively curved space – we know that a rule can’t curve away from itself, or escape from itself, because that type of behaviour would be non-linear and rules are by definition linear. ‘Linear’ essentially means that no new information is added to the expansion or development of any mathematical expression – I can say Y = MX2 + X + C in innumerable different ways, I can swap X’s and Y’s and C’s from one side of the equation to the other, put in extra factors or add and subtract numbers, and as long as I balance the books (as long as I am a good mathematician) then the equation carries on saying the same thing. The curve that it describes stays exactly the same on the graph, no matter how I play about with the formula. This is what is meant by ‘linear’: if we say that a rule is linear (i.e. unchangeable) then this automatically means that the domain associated with the rule has to be closed – closed means that we can only go where it is already mapped out for us to go, we can’t go anywhere off the map, we can’t go anywhere ‘new’.
Open means that we that there is the possibility of genuine change, and closed means that there is not. The point of all this therefore is to argue that the space belonging to a rule is a closed universe, a universe which contains no doors to anywhere else, and which doesn’t even contain any references to anything outside itself. As we said right at the beginning of this discussion, a rule – when we look at things its way – has the property of excluding everything outside of itself without drawing attention to the fact that this is what it is doing. In the language of the Model of Pragmatic Information, what we are talking about is an organizationally closed system.
The idea that a rule bends reality positively so that it joins up with itself and thereby excludes any reference to anything else is another way of saying that a world that is strictly limited falsely represents itself as being unlimited – it has to deny its own limitation because otherwise it admits that there is ‘something’ else outside of it. This is like a tape-loop which recycles the same section of footage over and over again – if we paid attention we would of course see the ‘finite and recurring’ nature of the film that we are watching; if however we were distracted and not paying proper attention we might not ‘spot the trick’ and in this case – because the tape loop doesn’t actually contain any information regarding the fact that it is a loop – it is possible to say that a finite subsection of the whole has surreptitiously the whole. In a similar fashion an organizationally closed system may be thought of as an inferior analogue of the Universal ‘Set of All Possibilities’ which automatically substitutes itself in place of the Universal Set without telling us that this is what it is doing.
THE TRANSITION FROM REAL SPACE TO KINKED VIRTUAL SPACE
Now it has to be admitted that when we said that a rule positively distorts or bend space so as to create a closed world around itself this way of envisaging things has its limitations. The problem is the word ‘space’ because space implies leeway, the possibility of free movement whereas this is the one thing that we do not have within the domain of the rule. To talk in terms of space implies that it is possible to move some distance away from the rule, as if ‘the rule’ were some sort of centrally localized entity which we can walk away from. The point about a rule however is that you simply can’t put any distance between yourself and it; there is no getting away from the rule at all – there is no nearer and no further, its all the same. The word ‘space’ means lack of restriction, the possibility of change or free movement in all directions and this is not at all the case in the deterministic realm of the rule. Actually, the whole closed universe of the rule has no space in it at all, not even the teensiest little bit of it, and for this reason we will introduce the idea of virtual space to better describe the type of apparent leeway that we find within any particular self-consistent logical continuum, such as is associated with any particular self-consistent logical statement (or rule).
If we go back for a moment to our statement Y = MX2 + X + C it can be seen that we can if want reformulate the formula to obtain X on the left hand side instead of Y. we have the freedom to do this just as long as we abide by the laws of logic, and ‘keep it lawful’. We have the freedom to develop the expression anyway we want just so long as we keep it lawful, and this is precisely the type of ‘freedom’ that exists within an organizationally closed system. But this sort of manipulation can never by definition change the essential set of proportionalities that is expressed by the original statement and thus all we are doing is finding new ways of saying the same old thing. Everything always has to echo the underlying ‘rule’. We can play around with the superficial details, but in terms of really getting somewhere new, it can be seen that we just don’t – we always stay in exactly the same spot, and so the ‘change’ is only virtual. It is ‘apparent but not real’ (or apparently real). Later on we will refine the idea that an organisationally closed exists in a bubble of virtual space, and say that the bubble is not just a loop but a strange loop (which is to say, there is a kink or twist in it so that what starts off its travels as a positive expression such as X = +1 ends up as the negative version of this expression, X = -1). To put this in a less formal way:
I start off on my walk declaring most positively that “God exists”, and by the time I get back from my circular jaunt I am asserting, just as fervently, “God doesn’t exist.”
The obvious question here is “Why on earth should this replacement of one opposite by the other take place?” To express this question more technically, “Why should a self-consistent logical continuum contain a strange loop in it?” It might seem peculiar (and indeed from the perspective of the rational mind it is incomprehensibly peculiar) that this should be the case but in fact all that we are doing when we insist that any particular logical continuum must always have a polarity-reversing kink in it is translating the well known liar paradox into a straightforward topological representation that is nice and easy to visualize (in contrast with the liar paradox in its abstract form, which for most of us tends to be very hard to get a handle on). The theory behind the liar paradox states the following:
Any statement or logical inference made by an organizationally closed system (a self-consistent or ‘self-referential’ logical continuum), if examined scrupulously enough, will always be found to take the form YES = NO.
From a logical point of view (which is of course the point of view of the system producing the statement) YES = NO is the worst and most disagreeable type of nonsense. Nevertheless, any mathematician of logician worth his or her salt can show with no great difficulty at all that a self-referential system (which is another way of saying a closed system) will always contradict itself in this way, no matter how hard it tries not to. The reason this is called the liar paradox because it is what inescapably happens when I declare “Everything I say is a lie”. If everything I say is a lie, then when I say that I am lying I must be lying, and so I must be telling the truth. But if I am telling the truth when I am saying that I am lying then I must really be lying after all, which must in turn mean that when I say I am lying, I am really telling the truth… As Alan Watts says, ‘to the extent that I am lying, then I am telling the truth, and to the extent that I am telling the truth, then I am lying’.
The handiest way to approach a paradox is to remember that a paradox is the universe’s way of telling us that we can’t do something, that what we are trying to do is impossible. The paradox isn’t directly telling us that what we are doing is impossible, but it is showing us in such a way that – eventually – we really ought to get the message! The impossibility that the liar paradox is trying to show us is the impossibility of a closed or self-referential system ever saying anything meaningful (or anything that actually contains genuine, honest-to-goodness information). Any statement made on the basis of the self-consistent logic of the closed system is ‘meaningful’ only with regard to its own specific way of looking at things; outside of this closed context there is no meaning at all because its context applies only to itself. What we are saying here then is actually something rather amazingly mind-boggling:
Any logical statement (i.e. any description of the world) made by a self-consistent logical system is ‘true’ only when we look at the world in a biased way, without acknowledging to ourselves the factthat our way of looking at the world is in fact biased.
As soon as we see that what we are saying is true only with respect to the bias that we have freely chosen (or arbitrarily selected) without allowing ourselves to see that there was free choice (or arbitrary selection) then we are seeing that what we are saying is completely untrue, completely ‘without foundation’. In terms of belief, we can say the following:
As soon as I see that what I believe to be true only appears true to me because I am choosing to look at the world in the particular biased way that makes that belief seem true, then I see that what I believe in is completely empty of reality, completely ‘lacking in basis’.
I can arrange for my belief to be ‘true’, and ignore the fact that I am doing any arranging, and then it will be pragmatically true for me, but obviously what we are talking about here is self-deception, which is the principle that we have said all our normal, everyday psychology is based on. Just as the mental space which I perceive myself to have available for my (mental) activities when I am operating within a self-consistent logical continuum, i.e. my rational mind, is really only virtual space, so to it is the case that all the information around which I organize my life -when I am ‘in’ my rational mind – is really only virtual information.
Virtual space and virtual information go hand-in-hand, and both derive from then intrinsic nature of self-referential systems, systems that are ‘only real with respect to themselves’. In short, if someone were to ask, with regard to our rational thinking and the conceptual world which this thinking is all about, what exactly it is that we are supposed to be deceiving ourselves about, the answer would have to be everything!
1.9 THE ‘PARADIGM OF DECEPTION
Our foray into the topic of selective attention has ended up by becoming somewhat abstract, but there is a point behind all this discussion of rules, self-referential systems, strange-loops and virtual space/information as we can now see: the point has to do with the ‘deceptiveness’ inherent in the rule – a rule is inherently deceptive because whilst it has two sides, according to itself it has only the one.
This, we might say, is selective attention on a fundamental level. The rule doesn’t actually tell a barefaced lie since it never says that it doesn’t have two sides. If it said that then it would be admitting to the possibility that it might be two sides to the story but the way that the rule (necessarily) works is by just taking it totally for granted that there is only one side. It never occurs to the rule to even think of speculating that there might be ‘anything else’ than what it already knows about. It never thinks about that, and this is how come the rule gets to be a rule.
This is what Jung meant when he said that rationality is one-sided, and the extent to which we are identified with the rational faculty is the extent to which we too are one-sided. It is of course eminently ok for a rule to be one-sided (since it wouldn’t be a rule if it weren’t) but when we become one-sided in the same way then this is not ‘ok’ at all. When I am one-sided that this means that I am existing in a world that makes sense only to me because I never think that there might be something else. This state of affairs (which we have called the state of psychological unconsciousness) is clearly not ok because it involves self-deception on a global scale, and such a thorough commitment to self-deception is hardly likely to result in happiness, fulfilment, and peace of mind. Quite the contrary is going to be the case – I am inevitably going to be subject to the unremitting ravages of deep-rooted unhappiness, frustration, and anxiety.
One-sided attention results in a world that implicitly lays claim to be everything whilst in fact it is not. This invisible exclusion of a vast chunk of reality results in an informationally impoverished state of being that has no (direct) way of knowing that it is impoverished or depleted. This capacity of being ‘disconnected from the whole without knowing that you are disconnected’ is very useful indeed from the back-to-front point of view of the fear-driven self which wishes to hide from reality – it can be exploited in the cause of pain or fear avoidance. Thus, the ‘innocent’ one-sidedness of rules is hijacked for the purposes of aiding and abetting our escape from a ‘wider reality’ that we do not wish to know about.
The principle that a rule gets to be a rule by excluding a huge chunk of stuff without knowing or caring what it is excluding, and without knowing that it doesn’t now nor caring that it doesn’t care, is a remarkably potent one. It seems to have ramifications beyond the bloodless realms of mathematics and logic, ramifications that echo in all sorts of directions. The psychological is one direction, as we have just suggested, since in place of this abstract entity ‘the rule’ most of us could probably insert the name of someone we know! One-sidedness is a familiar trait both in individuals and in the systems which they make up – ‘rational ignorance’ is the name of the game both in the private life of each of us and in society as a whole.
Another direction in which we can find echoes of this basic principle is in classic philosophy: Heraclitus says that ‘nature loves to conceal herself’, which Bennett has expressed in the form ‘it is in the nature of things to appear to be what they are not’. This is a tremendously significant point to take on board simply because if we don’t, then we will proceed to sail through like naively taking things to be what they appear to be. That would be okay if things were what they appear, but if it is true – as Heraclitus declared – that they are most definitely not what they appear, then where exactly does this leave us? Given the fact that the odds are so greatly against us stopping to reflect deeply on what we think we know, and so overwhelmingly for us charging on ahead in our hurry to actualize our ideas and obtain our goals, then the consequence can only be that our lives will become lost in utter absurdity, since only what is real can grant us the dignity (if we may use that word) that is inherently ours.
Suggesting that it is the nature of things to have a damn good go at deceiving us has got to be the key idea in any practical system of philosophy – after all, if you fall at this hurdle then everything else you do is wasted effort, since from then on all you will be doing is engaging in a dialogue with your own fantasies. The idea of deceptiveness can be found in Western philosophy, but it is not of course stressed anything like as much as it is in Eastern philosophy, where the first thing any student learns is that ‘everything is samsara’. Samsara has become a familiar Sanskrit term in the West at this stage, even perfumes are named after it, but at the same time it seems very much the case that we are all too blasé about the concept – “Blah, blah, samsara, blah, blah, meditation, blah blah, enlightenment…” we go, in an uninterrupted stream of similarly unreflective samsaric utterances. We comfortably slot the concept into our rational minds along with all the other conceptual categories that we have there such as refrigerators, income tax, colonic irrigation, ice-cream, door-handles, home insurance, Britney Spears, cellotape, the European Union, cat food, yoga, tantric sex, and so on – the list is obviously rather too long to go into at any detail!
The point is that the global system of conceptual illusion that we are all plugged into is so all-consuming that it swallows the idea of ‘samsara’ in a second, makes it part of itself, feels a bit cleverer and a bit more smug as a result, and then carries on as if nothing had happened (which in fact it hasn’t). My idea that ‘everything is samsara’ is itself samsara and samsara can never know itself for what it is, because if it did, then it would no longer be samsara. I might as well have the idea ‘Everything is green cheese’ for all the good it will do me, because all that is happening is that one empty concept is replacing another. Somehow, no matter what happens, my ‘system of thinking’ (like some sinister, all-powerful multinational corporation) always comes out the winner. This is a familiar enough idea – if, for example, a man is rich enough then it can be almost as if he can, with the irresistible power of his wealth buy anything he wants. If he his eye is caught by a beautiful woman he can buy her and make her his, and her beauty will make him look better. If he is attracted to a gifted artist, he can do the same thing and aggrandize himself using that artist’s marvellous creativity.
Or using the example of the all-powerful globally based corporation that we talked about, the immense financial power of such an entity means that if there is any talent out their (talent which by definition may be a threat to it since it may end up as a tool of some other corporation) then that independent talent can be bought out. But once the rich man buys a woman, then that woman is no longer herself, but just a reflection of him. Similarly, whatever talented individuals are bought out by the corporation cease being individuals, and become merely another facet of the corporation that has acquired them. In all such cases the nominal value of the person’s individuality is retained – the rich man celebrates his trophy-wife apparently for the unique and independent person she is in herself, not for her value to him.
In the same way the corporation that signs up a dynamic and charismatic pop star sells that pop star to the public as the individual that the public want to believe him or her to be; really – of course – it is just selling itself to the world, the same as it always has done. In the same way the conceptual-rational mind sells itself to us, by trickery in effect, by claiming to be for the all the amazing concepts and ideas it peddles, whereas in fact all these concepts are being used for its benefit – they are being used for the self-aggrandizement of the system which has absorbed them.
THE CONSPIRACY MYTH
The idea of a ‘pseudo-inclusive’ system that wins out by copying all the good stuff from outside of it, and thereby replacing their independent genius with its own pale and worthless substitutes, is thoroughly chilling once we start working out what that means. If fully appreciated, this simple idea reveals itself to be the ultimate conspiracy theory, an infinitely far-reaching and sinister revelation the full impact of which we are normally far too dozy and complacent even to begin to register. All other conspiracy theories, such as what the Freemasons are really up to, the true reason why JFK was assassinated, and what the government are secretly putting in the tap water (or into the ecstasy tablets if you happen to be an E-head), simply pale into insignificance. They are faint echoes of the ‘real thing’, which is the great conspiracy theory-myth of the Gnostics, who asserted unequivocally that reality as we know it is a manufactured illusion, a persuasive lie created by the force of Evil for the sole purpose of neutralizing our consciousness, making us into its puppets, and then using us as its unknowing (and in some cases knowing) instruments to further the perennial, meaningless aim of evil which is to maintain its dark, restrictive and absolutely sterile rule forever and ever, time without end.
‘A MAN WITHIN A MAN’
The chilling perversity of ‘ignorance for the sake of ignorance’ is brought out well in this quote from Philip K. Dick’s (1997) novel A Scanner Darkly:
Any given man sees only a tiny portion of the total truth, and very often, in fact almost perpetually, he deliberately deceives himself about that little precious fragment as well. A portion of him turns against him and acts like another person, defeating him from inside. A man inside a man. Which is no man at all.
The idea that Dick is touching upon here is the idea that ‘the dark principle of deception’ isn’t an external force or agency, like Satan or the Zoroastrian Ahriman, but rather myself – or rather, it is a part of myself that has somehow turned against myself, thereby ‘defeating me from the inside’. A good way to get at this idea is to say that the principle of self-deception – which is the ‘enemy within’ – is not an entity in itself, but rather it is a reflex which has become disconnected from consciousness, and which therefore acts autonomously, just as if it were an entity in itself. This is a bit like the thriller-type scenario where I – for some reason that seems perfectly sensible to me at the time – take out a contract on myself, and at the same time instruct the hit-man who I have hired not to take any notice if I change my mind and try to get in contact with him to cancel the contract. I fact, a better approximation is to say that what we are talking about is like the situation where I take out a contract on myself, and then sustain an accident that causes me to develop amnesia about the whole thing, so that the operation of the hit-man is now something totally outside of my conscious knowledge. The mechanism has been set in motion, but I don’t know a thing about it…
Now in repression it is not so much the case that I am plotting against myself to kill myself, but that I have set in motion a device that will act against me, and then lost all awareness of what I have done. ‘Losing awareness of what is going on’ is in fact what the mechanism of repression is all about, and so we can say that what this ‘turning against oneself’ business is really all about is creating a device (or reflex-machine) which will in a sense ‘run my life for me’ in such a way that I will not have to see reality as it actually is. part of the deal is that I also don’t have to see that I have set this thing in motion, and so, by the very nature of what I am doing, the machinery gets separated from me, and carries on its work without any more ‘intent’ on my part. I am at this stage ‘innocent’ of what is going on, and no matter how much you may try to wake me up to the true situation, I will not listen to you. Your suggestions will just sound ridiculous to me – they will sound insane.
The ‘dark adversary’ which is leading me to ruin can therefore be characterized as a sort of virtual entity, an entirely autonomous type of ‘machine-intelligence’ which is completely implacable in its aims, as well as being completely hidden in the way which it is achieving these aims. To sum up, we can say that out of some long-buried original decision (an impulse born out of despair) I have created a reflex for repressing awareness. I repress but I do not know that I repress, and so I am ruled by a tendency which is divorced from my consciousness, a tendency the nature of which I am necessarily wholly unaware. Because I cannot allow myself to know I am doing, I am being controlled by an ‘evil’ force, an agency which acts against my own interests, while representing itself to me as ‘a good friend’ whose counsels I must heed for the sake of my well being. This ‘good friend’ masquerades as common sense, in other words, and common sense is by its nature very plausible to us. Furthermore, it actually suits me (on an unacknowledged level) to believe in this deceiving friend, and so I actually collude with his lies without letting on to myself that I am colluding. Thus, I deliver myself to the adversary – I betray myself, I conspire against myself to ensure my own defeat…
Another way of explaining this idea is to say that the ‘man within a man, which is no man at all’ which PK Dick talks about is our own inner weakness which somehow grows and take control, unbeknownst to us. The internal overthrow of our own integrity takes place without our knowledge because it suits us that we don’t see it happening – because we are weak, we don’t actually want to see that our weakness has taken control. This is the nature of weakness, after all! It can therefore be said that it is our weakness (or our unconsciousness) that breeds evil, which means in turn that evil is not a ‘thing in itself’ but – as some theologians have said – a consequence of ‘disconnection from reality’. This disconnection occurs as a result of me abdicating the responsibility of seeing reality for myself, and acting accordingly – because I am unwilling to do this, I project what is actually a spurious authority on some idea, some theory, some device, and then put myself under the power of this ‘false external authority’.
THE EXTERNALIZED MECHANISM OF REPRESSION
The idea that there is a psychological process whereby we unwittingly project ‘god or goddess-like values’ on certain individuals, who are then elected to carry these idealized projections, is of course not an unfamiliar one. Princess Diana would be one example, Elvis Presley might be another. Celebrities in general exert their spell because of the way in which we see them not for who they are, but for who we unconsciously want them to be. The process of unconsciously wanting certain people to embody a greatness or an infallibility or a magic that they do not in reality possess, in order that we might feel safer (or in order that our own lives might feel more magical), is something that we all experience at some time or other. For example as children it is generally true that we all have a need for our parents to appear more competent than they actually are. The unconscious desire that a collective mass of people has for an all-powerful father figure (or leader) is another, potentially much more dangerous example. A classic example of our times is that of the people of pre WW2 Germany, who in their need to obtain the psychological security of feeling good about themselves again, put their trust in a leader who claimed to be able to return them as a nation to their proper place in the world. The rule with this sort of thing is simple – in order to obtain the security that we want from an all-powerful leader, it is necessary for us to turn a blind eye to his shortcomings (or indeed, to turn a blind eye to the fact that he is completely off his head).
Because we so badly want the security of the all-knowing, super-powerful external authority, this is exactly what we do – we project a value on the structure that we have put in place to administer us and guide us that simply isn’t there. The actual real life consequences of what we then proceed to do under the instruction of that spurious external authority may then come to constitute what is rightly call ‘evil’. Strong men and strong women thoughtlessly hand over their strength to some insane and hideously banal mechanism – the precious water of their lives poured wastefully into the arid desert sands of unreflective social conformity. As sociologists have noted, the pertinent factor about society is that we become our own all-too-willing jailors – the system ‘get inside our heads’ and from that invisible position it gets us to use our own strength against ourselves.
The rise to power of Adolph Hitler is an extreme example of what happens all over the world, every day – we are constantly handing over responsibility to external authorities that do not have the slightest clue what they are doing. Why else do we elect presidents and prime ministers? Why else do we listen to the mouth-pieces of organized religion? Why else are we so content to hand over responsibility to an expert body of psychiatrists which has no more collective psychological insight than would an equivalent ‘expert body’ made up of, say, dentists, plastic surgeons or anaesthetists (in fact, we would be a lot better off with dentists or anaesthetists or plastic surgeons since at least they would not spuriously lay claim to psychological knowledge). It is of course unfair to single out any single section of the society – the truth is that the whole system is a vast, supremely ‘authoritative’ machine that chugs on and on, too massive and too spuriously impressive to be questioned, dragging us all to our doom (dentists, anaesthetists, plastic surgeons, and psychiatrists included). The only reason the system is there is because we lack the courage to question it, but this ‘negative’ reason is reason enough for all sorts of insanity to be perpetrated in its name.
We are the victims of our own fantastic passivity – rather than seeing what reality is all about for ourselves, we allow the global media networks to pipe stupifyingly bland outpourings of nonsense into our heads 24 hours a day. All around us are the instruments which we have created to keep ourselves firmly under the anaesthetic gas of ‘not thinking too deeply’, and our idea of ‘progress’ is simply to keep perfecting our pestilential devices, to optimize the operation of the machinery of unconsciousness, to surrender ourselves even more to the mechanism of our undoing. Perversely, we embrace the system which oppresses us because we are simply too afraid to see its true nature, too afraid to question its authority. In fact far from simply ‘not questioning’ the phoney external authority which represses and limits us, we never tire of singing its praises, and glorying in our own cleverness for having created such a marvellous, ‘progressive’ system.
Collectively, we think that we are the bee’s knees! We think we’re great. We think that we represent the pinnacle of evolution on this planet. The more pathetically and vacuously self-obsessed our lives become, the greater we think we are; the more awe-inspiringly trivial our concerns become the more seriously we take ourselves. We limit ourselves and stunt ourselves, making of ourselves pitiful caricatures of what we could be, caricatures of what we would otherwise be, and at the same time we get to feel virtuous about what we doing. We never tire of throwing parties and award-ceremonies to congratulate ourselves, to commend ourselves on our tremendous accomplishments! Such after all is the nature of self-deception, that it must always deceive itself about its own true nature….
SUMMARY – THE PRINCIPLE OF UNCONSCIOUSNESS
We cannot expect a belief to see itself as a belief, we cannot expect a pattern of thinking to see itself as a pattern of thinking, we cannot expect a closed system to see itself as closed, nor can we expect a system of conditioned knowledge to perceive itself as such. If I have lost perspective on things, and as a result end up worrying myself to death over trivial details that actually don’t matter at all, then I cannot be expected to have a clear understanding of the fact that I have lost perspective. (If I did have a clear understanding that I had lost perspective, then I would have ‘perspective on my lack of perspective’, and so I would have perspective after all, and so I would not be worrying). In essence:
We cannot expect the ‘post information-collapse situation’ to contain built-in references to the fact that there has been an information collapse.
All this is perfectly as it should be, and as long as we clearly understand the principle involved then there is absolutely no problem at all. When we lack that understanding however, then that is a different matter entirely – in fact the point at which we lose the understanding of the ‘principle of unconsciousness’ is the exact point at which all our troubles begin…