The fruit of our collective human endeavour is not quite what we think it is – the impression we have of ourselves is very much that we have been steadily improving our situation over the centuries and that we have – at this point in time – achieved something that is pretty much unprecedented. What we have achieved is unprecedented to be sure, but not in quite the way that we like to imagine it is!
What we have actually achieved is to have created an unreal world for ourselves and this kind of thing always comes with certain disadvantages, naturally enough! It is perfectly straightforward to explain how we have achieved this remarkable feat of ‘creating an unreal world’ – it’s very straightforward indeed, as it happens. We have created an unreal world by assiduously adapting ourselves to a system of meanings that we ourselves have created. We have become the victims of our own constructs, therefore. We have been ‘trapped by our own device’!
It’s not so much the physical environment that we’re talking about here – although that of course comes into it – but the system of meanings that we have overlaid the physical environment with. We don’t live in the physical environment after all but rather we live in a hyperreal world of ascribed meanings that we have superimposed upon that environment. We have in other words adapted not to the world as it is in itself but to the world that is made up of meanings that we ourselves have arbritrarily come up with. This is what Jung is saying in this passage taken from CW Vol 10, Civilization In Transition –
The danger that faces us today is that the whole of reality will be replaced by words. This accounts for that terrible lack of instinct in modern man, particularly the city-dweller. He lacks all contact with life and the breath of nature. He knows a rabbit or a cow only from the illustrated paper, the dictionary, or the movies, and thinks he knows what it is really like – and is then amazed that cowsheds “smell,” because the dictionary didn’t say so.
When Jung talks about the whole of reality being replaced by words this is the same thing as talking about reality being replaced by thoughts or ideas and there is – needless to say – is very significant difference between the world itself and the two-dimensional ‘rational overlay’ that we replace it with. The problem here is that no matter how successful we are at the task of adapting ourselves to the system that we have collectively constructed, this does not in the least bit translate (or ‘transfer’) to the world that we did not create, which is ‘the world of reality’. And not only does it not ‘transfer,’ there is actually an ‘inverse law’ operating here such that the more we optimise our performance within the terms of the game that we are playing the more removed (and therefore alienated) we are from reality itself. This isn’t a particularly hard thing to see – if we were to spend years in front of an X-box then this clearly isn’t going to help us out there in the real world; quite the reverse is going to be true, as we all know.
Skills learned in games can transfer to other aspects of life that are also purely ‘rule-based’, but this is beside the point since other aspects of life that also rule-based’ are also games, they’re just different games. The key difference between games and ‘unconstructed reality’ is precisely that unconstructed reality can’t be understood in terms of rules. If we think that everything that life can be mastered by merely by ‘grasping the underlying rules’ then we are in for a very big surprise, as experience always shows. Life (or reality) is never as simple as we take it to be and this is the only ‘rule’ (although it is more of a principle than a rule) that we need to learn! As long as we remember this then we won’t go too far wrong…
Saying that life is never as simple or straightforward as we understand it to be as just another way of saying that there’s more to it than our theories or models allow for there to be; or as Shakespeare puts it, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. There is more to the world than ideas our about the world (which is to say, the world is not the same thing as our idea of it). In mathematics this principle is expressed very precisely by Gödel’s two incompleteness theorems, which – according to the Wikipedia entry – is widely if not universally thought to show that the attempt “to find a complete and consistent set of axioms for all mathematics is impossible.”
In the physical sciences this principle finds expression in chaos and complexity theory. According to Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers (1985) therefore:
No single theoretical language articulating the variables to which a well-defined value can be attributed can exhaust the physical content of a system. Various possible languages and points of view about the system may be complementary. They all deal with the same reality, but it is impossible to reduce them to a single description. The irreducible plurality of perspectives on the same reality expresses the impossibility of a divine point of view from which the whole of reality is visible.
In more down-to-earth language, we could simply say that there is always going to be something that is going to surprise us, no matter how smart we might think that we are.
The process of ‘gaining wisdom’ in life might be explained therefore in terms of us learning – through first-hand experience – about this principle of incompleteness; gaining wisdom comes down to the process of discovering that our theories, models and ideas about the world are always incomplete, therefore. Gaining wisdom is a negative process, in other words. We might (if we were naïve enough) think that gaining wisdom means ‘knowing more and more about the world’, but that is not it at all, as many philosophers have of course pointed out. Having said this, whilst it is very clear that the process of learning about the world is the same thing as ‘learning that there is more to reality than our ideas or beliefs about it’ it is also crucially important to acknowledge that this process very often doesn’t happen, or at least is indefinitely delayed. We resist genuinely learning about the world, and content ourselves with accumulating ‘positive knowledge’ instead – ‘positive knowledge’ being a mass of dead facts and figures that never contradict our core assumptions.
We could suggest three main reasons why this process of learning might be stifled or indefinitely delayed. One reason would be where there is a belief structure that is particularly strong and where that belief structure is supported (or even enforced) by the culture that we are part of. Organised religion is of course a well-known culprit here – where there is some kind of dogmatic system of religious belief then discovering that ‘there is more to the world than our beliefs about it’ is strictly prohibited! Making a discovery like this immediately puts the person at odds with everyone else and leads to heresy, which is the crime of ‘not seeing the way the world in the way we are supposed to see it’. Heresy is of course the ultimate – most unforgivable – crime in a dogmatic system of religious belief.
Another possibility is where we have a strong belief that is not validated or supported by everyone around us but which we adhere to all the same. This type of belief also ‘holds us captive’ and prevents us from venturing beyond it and discovering that it is not ‘all-explaining’ in the way it seems to. A paranoid worldview would be one example of this; it is extraordinary hard to see that there is more to the world than our paranoid ideas about it – if we could do this then we wouldn’t be paranoid! Chronic anxiety would be another example – if I am acutely anxious then my (unexamined generally) hypothesis is that ‘if I don’t control successfully then things will inevitably go very wrong’. Anxiety – we might say – equals this underlying hypothesis plus a deep down lack of confidence that we can in fact control successfully. Because we are so defensively occupied therefore, we are simply not going to have the time to explore any other alternatives to our unconsciously held hypothesis. It is going to be too frightening for us to take the risk of doing so.
What we looking at here are instances of what we might call ‘chronic non-learning’ and we could go on exploring such instances indefinitely. What we are particularly interested in looking at in this discussion is something quite different however – what we are looking at here is ‘chronic non-learning as a result of being too adapted to the consensus reality that is society’, and this is something that we are almost entirely blind to. As Jung (1958, p 81) argues in The Undiscovered Self, the pressure to adapt to the social world is so great (and in the potential rewards so large) that it is almost inevitable that we are going to forget everything else in pursuit of the goal of ‘100% adaptation’ –
Nothing estranges a man from the ground plan of his instincts more than his learning capacity, which turns out to be a creative drive towards progressive transformation of human modes of behaviour. It, more than anything else, is responsible for the altered conditions of our existence and the need for new adaptations which civilization brings. It is also the source of numerous psychic disturbances and difficulties occasioned by man’s progressive alienation from his instinctual foundation, i.e. by his uprootedness and identification with his conscious knowledge of himself, by his concern with consciousness at the expense of the unconscious. The result is that modern man can know himself only in so far as he can become conscious of himself – a capacity largely dependent on environmental conditions, the drive for knowledge and control of which necessitated or suggested certain modifications of his original instinctual tendencies. His consciousness therefore orientates itself chiefly by observing and investigating the world around him, and it is to its peculiarities that he must adapt his psychic and technical resources. This task is so exacting, and its fulfilment so advantageous, that he forgets himself in the process, losing sight of his instinctual nature and putting his own conception of himself in place of his real being. In this way he slips imperceptibly into a purely conceptual world where the products of his conscious activity progressively replace reality.
When we are 100% adapted to the ‘purely conceptual realm’ then there is of course no chance that we will ever go beyond the system that we are adapted to, which is what we would need to in order to see that the whole thing is only an ‘arbitrary construct’ (and is on this account fundamentally unreal).
The immediate pressure to adapt to the social milieu is all but overwhelming of course – sometimes it actually is overwhelming! The rewards for successful adaptation aren’t just practical (or ‘material’) either; when we can’t ‘fit in’ this is acutely distressing for us in a psychological sense and this can be seen as an even bigger motivation for us to adapt to social world than the fact that we need to be part of it in order to have friends and some means of ‘making out’ in the world in the collectively agreed-upon reality. An important ‘additional factor’ – which would not have been so much in evidence when Jung was writing back in the first half of the Twentieth century – is something that we might perhaps call ‘the Dawn of the Hyperreal Era’ (in honour of Jean Baudrillard). We could also speak in terms of ‘the Advent of the Cybernetic Age’, which is an age in which ‘everything happens in the head’ and nowhere else, as Reggie Ray suggests here in this quote taken from psychologytoday.com –
People are disconnected from their bodies, from their direct experience of life, more and more so as our cybernetic age reaches literally insane intensity; hence people are no longer able to find the depths, the sanity, the health, and the feeling of well-being that only their bodies can offer. We are all talking, thinking heads, more and more cut off from anything actually real.
There is no harm in talking about things, just as there is no harm in thinking about things; when all we do is to talk about things or think about things however then this is another matter entirely! We could equally well say that there is no harm in the Cybernetic Age just as long as we don’t dive headfirst into cyberspace and try to act out the entirety of our lives in this abstract, non-corporeal realm. When this happens – when we jump head first into the purely formal realm that we have created for ourselves (which is as we have said an artificial world that is made up only of meanings that we ourselves have made up) then insoluble problems inevitably start to arise.
The essential problem here is that when we adapt to an unreal world then we ourselves inevitably become unreal too. We won’t look unreal or feel unreal, but that doesn’t count for a lot – all that does is to prevent us from seeing the truth about ourselves! If I was unreal but could see that I was then this would in itself be a ‘real thing’ after all. Saying that we ‘become unreal’ sounds outlandish but it isn’t. This shouldn’t be taken as some improvable ‘metaphysical assertion’ – it is on the contrary a very practical type of thing that we are talking about here. When we tell someone (or ourselves) to ‘get real’ this isn’t metaphysics, it simply means that we are being encouraged to come out of our ideas about the world (which is a counter-productive situation) and back to the actual thing itself. It is – in other words – a very basic thing that we’re talking about here! What could be more basic than this?
‘Resilience’ is a buzzword these days and we can very easily see that there must be a link between the notion of ‘being resilient’ and the notion of ‘being real’. Real people are resilient, obviously! There has been a lot of concern voiced in recent years that we are becoming less and less resilient as the generations succeed each other. This is a road that is very clearly not leading us to a good place. Various hypotheses have been put forward and what people generally say that there must be it must have something to do with the modern way of life – which certainly seems to be a pretty fair guess. Through ‘less direct’ contact with the world (and the people) around us – because more and more of life happens via a digital interface – we become more and more fragile, less and less able to deal with ‘direct contact’. Direct, unmediated contact with the world around us can actually become frightening – it easily gets so we’d much rather just stay in our cocoons..
It’s not just that we have difficulty interacting with the world when there is no digital interface involved (if we can allow that this is the problem) – alongside the difficulty in directly interacting with our environment (or aspects of our environment that are unfamiliar to us) there comes a whole gamut of mental health issues that are created by the sense of ‘alienation’ – which is of course what disconnection (or ‘digitally-mediated connection’, which is the same thing) comes down to. Research in the UK has shown seems to show that the percentage of third level students suffering from anxiety, depression, social phobia, eating disorders, self-harming behaviour and suicidal thoughts is increasing; in a research report (2019) published by the Society for Research into Higher Education Dr Yvonne Sweeney and Dr Micheal Fays state that –
In 2015/16, 15,395 UK-domiciled first-year students at HEIs in the UK disclosed a mental health condition – almost five times the number in 2006/07. This equates to 2 per cent of first-year students in 2015/16, up from 0.4 per cent in 2006/07.
The possibility that this is a real trend here is clearly a matter of great concern; it might well be the case that when Jung said that the greatest danger we face in modern times is the danger posed by the insidious onset of hyperreality (although he didn’t use those exact words) he was hitting the nail right on the head. Ironically, social media is now full of speculative reports that excessive absorption in social media is distorting the whole business of ‘what it means to be a human being’ and turning us into self-absorbed ‘snowflakes’.
College authorities across the world have been responding to this situation by offering courses and workshops on resilience training, which on the face of it sounds like an excellent idea. The only problem is that we don’t understand this matter of ‘resilience’ for what it actually is. This is very evident when we consider that our current idea of resilience that it involves the acquisition and implementation of various strategies and skills as an effective countermeasure to the problem. As soon as we see that ‘being resilient’ is just another way of talking about ‘being real’ however, then the idea that we can become real by means of utilizing strategies and skills starts to look a lot less convincing! Can there be such a thing a strategy for being real? Is inner strength really just a matter of having the right skills and knowing how to use them? Is it just a matter of doing X, Y and Z? Therapies such as DBT assume that this is indeed the case but when if we were to reflect at all on the matter (which isn’t something that we aren’t particularly prone to doing in the ultra-conformist world of mental healthcare provision!) we would see that skills and strategies are a substitute for inner strength not a way of attaining it. Carl Jung made this same point over fifty years ago when he said that ‘rules are a substitute for consciousness’.
The point here is of course is that to go down the road of optimizing strategies to compensate for our lack of autonomy, our lack of ‘inner strength’, our absence of ‘consciousness’ we are accentuating the problem rather than solving it! We will no doubt be able to obtain measurable short-terms benefits this way (which will encourage us that we are on the right track) but these short-term benefits are only achieved at the price of a long-term collective ‘mental health disaster’. It’s ‘short-termism’ and we all know where short-termism gets us. We ought to know where it gets us to by now, at any rate. There is no such thing as ‘a strategy for becoming real’! Quite the contrary is true – strategies in mental health exist for the purpose of compensating for our lack of inner strength; they exist for the purpose of covering up this core deficiency. Our approach of assuming that what we call ‘resilience’ can be acquired via training and workshops is making what the deepest aspect of what it means to be a human being into something totally trivial – apparently, there is a recipe for becoming resilient just as there is a recipe for cooking spaghetti bolognese or baking fruit scones. There’s probably a YouTube tutorial on it, just as there is for everything else. This isn’t to knock online tutorials – it’s just that when it comes to the matter of how to go about ‘being a human being’ we’re looking in the wrong place; we should be ‘looking within’, not ‘looking on the outside’ for what someone else might have to say!