Making A Wish…

When we’re patient then (in time!) everything will be revealed to us but when we’re impatient then nothing is revealed to us – not ever. The thing about this is that patience is strictly ‘an old-fashioned virtue’ and it’s not considered to be ‘a thing’ anymore; instead, we believe in instant gratification (as is often pointed out). In one way we believe in instant gratification because it’s in our nature to do so; it’s also true to say – however – that we believe in it because we have been sold the idea by our culture, because we have been educated to be that way. Acting on our impulses is highly beneficial for the economy whilst the ability to not act would spell financial ruin. ‘Greed is good’, as the line in the film goes.

Alan Watts observes that everything about our technologically orientated culture has to do with ‘shortening the gap between where we are and where we’d like to be’. Transport is a literal example of this sort of thing – in order to get from one town to another we once had to either walk, or travel by horse and cart, which was of course a very slow business. Now, we can travel by high-speed train. Within a decade or so (if we continue uninterrupted on our present course) then hypersonic stratospheric shuttles will be the thing. The development of information technology is probably the most dramatic example of this tendency to keep on shortening the gap (the gap in question being the one between ‘asking the question’ and ‘getting the answer’). We used to do computations in our fingers, then we moved onto the abacus, and now we have vast arrays of computer cores and the so-called ‘evolution’ of artificial intelligence. Our number-crunching ability is increasing logarithmically, and the reason this is so important to us is because it helps us to get what we want more quickly and more effectively, and that is where all the money is.  Giving people what they want faster than anyone else can is an unfailing recipe for success.

This isn’t to say that technology is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, that it is either beneficial to us or detrimental, simply that it can be used to facilitate the demand that we have within us to make things happen quicker. It’s not so much that we value technology because it can improve the quality of our lives therefore but because it enables us to dramatically shorten the interval between ‘the wish’ and ‘the fulfilment of this wish’. It seems quite reasonable to imagine that – as some point in the future – the ‘uncomfortable interval’ (during which we have to wait and drum our fingers on the table) will be eliminated altogether and that our wishes will be instantaneously fulfilled…

We might (naively) think that this would constitute a tremendous achievement for humankind and that a world where our desires are instantly manifested for us via super-advanced technology would be as close to utopia as we would ever want to get. It’s not as quite as simple as this, of course – all we need to do is think of all those fairy stories where somebody is granted three wishes by a powerful genie or spirit to realise that this can also easily turn into a recipe for hell on earth rather than being a recipe for utopia (or we could think of the classic science fiction film Forbidden Planet). It’s only when we’re young and foolish that we think this sort of thing would be the answer to everything; as we get older and wiser (if we do get older and wiser, that is, because there is of course no guarantee of that) we realise that ‘getting what we want’ could actually be the worst possible thing that could ever happen to us…

Psychologically speaking, getting our wishes manifested for us straightaway is hazardous in the extreme and one way in which we can understand why this should be so is to look at it in terms of ‘learning’ versus ‘non-learning’. All the emphasis in this technologically orientated world of ours is on ‘the efficacious obtaining of our goals’ and it is no exaggeration to say that our self-esteem (along with the esteem of others, which is of course a closely related commodity) depends upon how effective we are at realising our goals. If we are demonstrably effective in this we get to be called ‘a winner’, we get to be called ‘a success’. We don’t tend to express this quite so bluntly (because it sounds crude and unsophisticated) but this is nevertheless what it comes down to – we obtain our self-esteem (our so-called ‘confidence’) by being very good at controlling. Our confidence is entirely dependent upon our ability to control, in other words, so this is ‘confidence’ which can very easily turn into pure anxiety. ‘Conditional confidence’ and ‘anxiety’ are the same thing.

The need to control, and the wherewithal to do this, is not what we might call ‘a psychological strength’; on the contrary, when control is what we’re mostly concerned with then this points to an underlying weakness, not a strength. It points to a deficiency within us. Why is the ability to control so very important to us, after all? What’s the big fuss about? If we were truly ‘confident in ourselves’ (as in, ‘at peace with ourselves’) then we wouldn’t care so much about controlling, we would be more laid back than this, we would be more exploratory and playful in ourselves. We would have more of a sense of humour, more of a sense of irony about things. We wouldn’t be so concrete in our outlook – we would be open to the world, rather than being closed and controlling.

If we are successful in our controlling then what happens as a result is that we are able to stay closed, without any interruption to our comfortable closed way of life, and from our regular point of view this is exactly what we want. This is our goal. We can relate this to what James Carse calls finite game playing, the point of which is to ‘successfully resist change’. Just because resisting change seems like the best and most advantageous thing to do when we’re a finite game player that doesn’t mean that it is, however. The reason ‘successfully staying the same’ isn’t good for us isn’t too hard to see – when we resist change then what we’re actually resisting is ‘growth’ and when we resist growth (when we refuse to grow) then we are incurring suffering. We are incurring suffering because we’re going against our own essential nature.

The link between ‘valuing the ability to control’ above everything else and our ‘not growing as a person’ isn’t one that we tend to make! Conveniently enough, we don’t make this connection. To be excellent at attaining our goals sounds like a very dynamic thing to us; a society or culture that is highly advanced technologically also sounds wonderfully dynamic to us. We perceive ourselves as being ‘on a journey to somewhere great’, and we can’t wait to get there. What we don’t see is that realising our goals won’t allow us to move beyond ourselves and ‘moving beyond ourselves’ is what growth is all about. Growth means changing our viewpoint on things, not reinforcing it. Or as we could also say, growth means that we change (in a radical not a superficial way) so that what once seemed to be ‘an all-important goal’ no longer seems so important after all. Growth means outgrowing our ideas, not repeating them forever!

As Israel Regardie says somewhere, ‘The magician who sets off on the journey is not the one who attains to the summit’. Contrariwise – therefore – we can say that ‘the finite game player who sets off on the journey to the goal is exactly the same person as the one who arrives at the specified destination’. This is the whole point of finite play, after all. Between ‘the setting of the goal’ and ‘the obtaining of it’ there is no learning, no growth, no shift in perspective. If anything like that did happen (if there was to be some change happening between ‘conceiving the idea’ and ‘realising it’) then the game would be busted  – immersion in the dream would have been lost, the hypnotic power of the goal would have been broken and when the hypnotic power of the goal (which we ourselves are projecting) is broken then that’s the end of it. That’s ‘game failure’ right there. From the inverted viewpoint of the finite game player this is the ultimate disaster and so we will do everything we can to make sure that this eventuality never happens.

Our impatience is ‘our unseemly haste to realise the goal’. We’re ‘holding our breath’, we ‘can’t wait’ to get there (even though waiting is exactly what we’re going to have to do). Our impatience is what lies behind our controlling, behind our ‘heroic striving towards the goal’; we are – when we’re operating in this this modality – fixated upon ‘what’s happening on the outside’ and our belief (or assumption) is that when the correct type of change takes place ‘on the outside’ then this will transform (or fix) stuff ‘on the inside’. We wouldn’t put it like this of course because that would sound too foolish, but that’s what it comes down to all the same. This is ‘displacement-type activity’, it’s an example of ‘pseudo-solution’, and the whole point of displacement-type activity (or pseudo-solution) is that we must not see it for what it is – if we did see it then (clearly) then there would be no more ‘displacement of attention’ occurring! We’d be ‘seeing through to the heart of the matter’ and so there would be no more need for ‘the theatre of purposeful activity’! As long as we can keep on assuming (without knowing that we are) that the answer to everything lies in our goals, then we keep on doing this forever. Just as long as we remain fixated upon ‘change on the outside’ then we can avoid ‘change on the inside’, which is what we are referring to as growth. In one way, therefore, we can say that being in Goal-Orientated Mode is effective – it’s effective as a tactic by which we can indefinitely postpone actual psychological growth.

‘Patience’ means dropping our fixation on the outside. This isn’t to say that we don’t carry on doing whatever we’re doing (if that happens to be a helpful thing to do) but we’re doing it in a different way. We’re more conscious in what we’re doing – we can see that we are engaged in the ‘perennial game of displacement-type activity’ and as soon as we see this that takes the blind fanaticism out of what we’re doing. It takes the bleak humourlessness out of what we’re doing, it takes the brute aggression out of it. We can clearly see that obtaining some arbitrary goal not going to solve anything (in any magical, ‘wish fulfullment-type’ way) and so we stop putting all our money on it. We become graceful and sensitive rather than strained and utterly insensitive; we become peaceful rather than violent. It is of course true that learning patience is harder than anything else we might have to do in life but the biggest difficulty here is that we don’t want to learn it. We don’t want to learn it because we know on some level that this means ‘letting go of who we thought we were’. When we learn patience then everything is revealed to us, but the crucial point here is that we don’t actually want  for it to be revealed…

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Simulated Mental Health

Would living in a simulation be a safe or an unsafe thing? Could it be bad for our mental health, for example? Are there any hidden glitches that we ought to know about? One way to reply to questions like this is to say that life in the simulation of life is the reverse of mental health – we could say that this state of being (the simulated state of being) is the perfect antithesis of mental health. It’s a great disaster, it’s the way not to do things…

Why this should be the case (why living a second-hand version life isn’t a healthy thing to be doing) might be considered too obvious to need pointing out, but we will make the argument all the same (if only for the sake of the exercise). The only reason we would want to live in a simulation of reality would be if we imagined – for some reason – that there was some kind of advantage to it, clearly, and so we can start by asking what exactly that advantage could be. Why would we imagine that ‘living a simulated life’ could be an improvement on the real thing?

One reason could be if the simulation were to contain more possibilities (or perhaps more interesting possibilities) than what is being simulated; it might – in other words – represent an upgrade. Maybe we could even be immortal and live as gods! Maybe we could cheat death… If we are prone to optimistic, utopian-type thinking then we might well have ideas like this in our heads. Instead of being used to somehow liberate humankind from the sorrows and limitations of our present existence the technology of simulation could of course be turned to the opposite purpose and used to oppress humanity even more than it is being oppressed already. There is an undeniable tendency for new technology to be used for malign rather than benign purposes, as has often been pointed out, and so this is definitely a possibility worth considering. If we’re not careful then we could end up in a ‘Matrix-style scenario’ where reality is being controlled in order to control us; this is after all exactly what’s happening now, even with the relatively low level of technology that we currently possess.

The higher the technology the greater the potential it has for abuse; when the technology to create super-realistic simulations comes on stream, then what exotic possibilities for abuse will this engender, we might ask? And as we were suggesting earlier, we don’t actually have to wait around too long to get an answer to this question – even in the absence of any super-advanced technology the potential for simulations of the world to be ‘used for ill’ has come into play. This kind of thing has been around for a long, long time – it’s been around for many centuries before the advent of the first printed circuit board. What we’re talking about here is better known as ideology (or belief) – the ideology or belief we adhere to defines the world for us just as effectively as any coding would. Ideology is coding – it is a comprehensive set of instructions telling us how to see the world (and which we then internalise and experience intense irrational loyalty towards).

Our beliefs condition our perceptions – we see what we’re supposed to see and we’re blind to anything else. We only see what our beliefs allow us to see and so then this proves to us that our belief system – whatever that might be – must be ‘the right one’. Beliefs tautologically prove themselves – any viewpoint that we adopt will tautologically ‘prove itself to be true’. Ideologies are simulations, therefore; belief structures are simulations and so if we want to look at the question as to whether simulations are harmful to our mental health or not then all we have to do is consider how we have got on with our beliefs, our ‘compulsory social conditioning’ over the centuries. All we need to do is consider therefore is whether this ongoing business of ‘having beliefs’ has been good for our mental health or whether it has been to our detriment.

This is not a question we ever stop to ask ourselves however – we most emphatically do believe that the blinkered way of looking at things that we have adopted is good for us. We most emphatically believe that the worldview to which we are adhering to is the right one, which automatically implies that it must be beneficial to us. In the case of a fundamentalist type of religion, our understanding is invariably that we will obtain our reward for choosing the right path in heaven whilst all those people who have not made the right choice (for whatever reason) will suffer eternal damnation as a consequence of their disbelief. This is – needless to say – very from being what we might call ‘an objective viewpoint’ – it’s actually the most biassed viewpoint we could ever have possibly have! It’s ridiculously biased… The fact that we have been inducted into whatever belief system it is that now has the claim on our loyalty means that we’re obliged to take the position that ‘our belief is the correct one’ – anything we might have to say on this subject automatically becomes quite meaningless therefore. All we are – in this case – is ‘a mouthpiece for a bias’, ‘a spokesperson for a prejudice’.

When we are inducted into the particular ‘simulation of reality’ that is created by our system of belief then we lose any chance of having an autonomous viewpoint – a viewpoint that is actually ours. Instead of autonomy we now have heteronomy (which is where everyone adheres to the very same way of looking at things). On the one hand, therefore, this shows how ideologies can be used (by those who are in a position to take advantage of such an opportunity) to control or exploit people, whilst on the other hand, the mechanism by which autonomy is replaced by the situation where masses of people are utterly dependent upon an unquestionable external authority can clearly be seen as a crisis in the mental health of everyone concerned. There is no greater crisis in mental health than the situation in which personal autonomy is subsumed within collectivism – this is ‘the loss of who we really are’, which is no small thing! It is treated as a small thing, to be sure, but that is of course no more than ‘societal whitewashing’. As Kierkegaard writes in The Sickness unto Death,

A self is the last thing the world cares about and the most dangerous thing of all for a person to show signs of having. The greatest hazard of all, losing the self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc.

This consideration – the consideration of ‘losing who we are without realising it’ – brings us to the very crux of the matter. The detrimental thing about living in a simulation is simply that there is no freedom whatsoever in it. As drawbacks go, this isn’t just punitive, it is total, it is ‘all-encompassing’ and as a result we’re cut off from everything that really matters. We’re alienated both from ourselves and the natural world. This is the ‘sickness’ that Kierkegaard is referring to, the sickness that befalls us when we live only ‘on the outside’, only in the ‘consensus reality’.  

Most men live without ever becoming conscious of being destined as spirit… There is so much talk about wasting a life, that only that person’s life was wasted who went on living so deceived by life’s joys or in sorrows that he never became decisively and eternally conscious as spirit, as self.

Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death

By ‘self’ Kierkegaard doesn’t mean the ‘socially constructed ego’ (or ‘identity’) therefore, but rather ‘the essence of who we are’, which is something entirely independent of any artificial societal context (which is what Kierkegaard calls ‘spirit’ in the quote given above). A simulation isn’t (needless to say) ‘an independently existing reality’ – there is of course nothing in it apart from what the designer, the artificer, has put into it. It can be regarded as being nothing more than an extension of the designer’s agenda or will. Although we tend to be favourably inclined towards the idea of ‘simulating our own reality’ and are intellectually excited by the notion (even to the point of seeing it as a way in which humankind can escape the eventual heat death of the universe, or ‘escape from the limitations of our physical mortality’, which is another well-known trope in modern science fiction) this is only because we don’t really get what simulations are. We don’t get it at all! Psychologically speaking, we might say, a simulation is an act of pure aggression. ‘Aggression’ – in this sense of the word – means that we are wholly subject to some extrinsic will, some extrinsic source of order. To control another person is an act of aggression, to tell someone else ‘who they are’ or (‘what the world is’) is aggression. All judgement is aggression (because we’re imposing our thoughts on someone else).

When we live in a simulation then everything about us is determined by that simulation. Our core understanding of what is real has been supplied to us by another, by an external source of authority – we’re ‘taking it all on trust’, in other words, and this core understanding what is real (which we have taken on trust, as we’ve just said) lies behind everything we think, everything we do, everything we hope for or fear. The totality of our existence is determined by this borrowed / unexamined way of understanding things. This picture of reality determines everything about us and yet it is an artificial imposition that has nothing to do with us (and which is – into the bargain – completely untrue, completely fictitious). There is no ‘true picture’ (or ‘true model’) of reality, only thought’s simulations, and thought’s simulations are – when it comes down to it – only ‘thought in disguise’. As the great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna says,

All philosophies are mental fabrications. There’s never been a single doctrine by which one could enter the true essence of things.

In order for there to be freedom in a simulation there would have to be truth, and – by definition – there isn’t any! In order for there to be freedom there would have to be ‘something there that is independent of the simulation’ but there isn’t. There isn’t anything ‘independent’ in a simulation. That’s the whole point of the exercise, after all; anything independent of the system straightaway gets labelled as error (and is promptly gotten rid of on this account). If I have designed a simulation and I find something in it that I haven’t specifically put there, then – by definition – whatever it is that I’ve come across has got to be error. It absolutely has to be a ‘meaningless random fluctuation’ – there’s nothing else it can be! My ‘getting rid of anything that doesn’t fit my plan’ (anything that doesn’t ‘accord with my agenda’) is the quintessential example of what we are referring to as ‘aggression’. Aggression is where I take away ‘the freedom things have to be different to the narrow way that I have defined them as being’. If a simulation isn’t aggressive then there’s simply no way it can get to exist…

When we indoctrinate someone (so that our view of the world becomes their view) then this is an act of pure violence, this is an act of outright aggression. What they might happen to think doesn’t count for anything, whilst what we think is ‘all-important’. We don’t – as a rule – see this as violence; we don’t see it as violence because we know we’re right! It doesn’t really matter what we believe, therefore – it doesn’t matter what we believe because we’re always going to be right. We’re going to be right no matter what. We’re always right and this is the benefit that we are given; this is the ‘incentive’, so to speak, that prompts us to buy into the belief system in the first place – we are provided with this immense sense of validation, this immense feeling of certainty, the iron-clad certainty that ‘we are right and everyone else is wrong’. This is the ‘benefit’, but we pay for it and the price we pay is also immense – we have had to give away all of our freedom. We aren’t even allowed to keep a crumb of it – we have had to give away the freedom that we had to be ‘who we really are’ so that now we are compelled to be ‘something else’ (something else that we’re not, and never could be). We are compelled to be the puppet of some mechanical external authority which – at the same time as compelling us in everything we do and everything we think – is also compelling us to believe that we are free when we absolutely aren’t.

Were we to come back to the question we started off with, then we would have to conclude that ‘living within a simulation’ (as opposed to ‘living freely’, as opposed to ‘living in an unsimulated way’) is most emphatically not beneficial for us, mental-health wise. If we were to define mental health as being ‘a function of our essential independence from thought’ (i.e., independence from our ‘ideas about things’) then since being subsumed within the conditioned or mechanical realm of everyday life means that we have zero independence from thought (means that we are thought!) this shows that we simply don’t have any mental health. Our mental health is completely missing, it’s completely missing since our ‘mental well-being’ and ‘intrinsic freedom’ are two ways of talking about the same thing. Instead of mental health, what we have is abject slavery. Instead of mental health, what we have is what Jung calls ‘Soul Sickness’, we have what Kierkegaard refers to as ‘The Sickness unto Death’. In the absence of the real thing, the very best we can hope for is ‘the two-dimensional appearance of mental well-being’.

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