The world we live in is not run for the benefit of actual human beings, but – rather – it’s run for the benefit of who we mistakenly think we are. We think that it is ‘designed for our benefit’, but it isn’t. If we could understand this then we’d be fine, we would finally be waking up – we run around in our day-to-day lives fondly imagining that all of this is for the benefit of actual people when it absolutely isn’t. As we’ve said, that isn’t the case at all – that is very far indeed from being the case.
This world is run for the benefit of the idea that we have about ourselves and the one thing we can say for sure is that what might benefit an idea is not going to have any helpful ramifications when it comes to the actual reality of the situation. The two things just aren’t the same. When our ideas or models don’t properly match reality then this is called incoherence and incoherence has the inevitable effect of causing unwanted and unforeseen consequences – unwanted and unforeseen consequences that are the exact opposite of beneficial. When the theories that we act on don’t match reality then that spells trouble with a capital ‘T’ and our theories can never match up with reality.
This is the great lesson that we have yet to learn – the lesson that the purely rational approach to life will always have unforeseen and unwanted consequences. Our ideas about what’s going on are over simplistic and as such they’re guaranteed to miss out a lot of stuff; they miss out stuff that’s going to come back and bite us when we least expect it. We take one or two steps forward, which we will congratulate ourselves for ad nauseam, and then we’ll take six steps back. We’ll get one stop closer to creating a perfect system, and then some gremlin or other will appear to wreck our precious rational dreams.
What we’re looking at here – seen from a mythological POV – is the motif of the Trickster; often personage, often appearing in animal form, who delights in causing our best laid plans to come unstuck. From the perspective rationality there is of course nothing more infuriating than this – nothing annoys us more than having our best laid plans overturned. We don’t have any sense of humour about this at all. Were we to take a wider perspective however we’d be able to see that there is no harm in this and that – actually – the danger is more that we would actually succeed in our rational plans since, as Alan Watts has said, ‘Nothing fails like success’.
The rational approach to life doesn’t work and this – as we noted earlier – is a lesson that we haven’t even started to learn, for all our pretensions to scientific omniscience. On a superficial level, the level of appearances, we can point to all our scientific and technological achievements, which would seem to be very impressive. These achievements of ours don’t seem so impressive however when we look beneath the surface of what’s going on the technology might be amazing for the quality of our lives as human beings is most definitely not. The type of world we’ve created for ourselves with our exclusively rational approach might look good from the outside, but it doesn’t support our mental or psychological well-being. The technology doesn’t exist that can support our mental and psychological well-being, however odd this statement might sound to us.
Machines – no matter how sophisticated – can only ever function ‘on the one level’. They are linear, in other words. What makes a machine ‘a machine’ is its logical consistency from beginning to end; without this consistency a machine cannot deliver what we want it to deliver, what it’s supposed to deliver, and a machine that can’t deliver what it’s supposed to deliver is of no use, no interest to us at all. What’s the point of a pencil sharpener that can’t sharpen pencils, after all? There’s no market for machines that can’t do what they’re supposed to do because – very obviously – this one very specific function is the only reason we have any time for them in the first place, the only reason we place any value in them. A machine is its function, we could say. There’s nothing to a machine other than its stated function and this is odd because it means that machines always have this curious blank ‘literality’ to them.
This argument might seem somewhat obscure since it sounds very much like stating the obvious; stating that ‘a toaster is a toaster only because it toasts’ sounds like stating the obvious but there is nevertheless something we can’t for the life of us see in this obviousness, which is that the premise that the machine is built on is being acted out in everything it does. The structure of the machine is faithfully reproduced in its output, and this is a blatant tautology. We don’t see the fact that all mechanical processes are tautological as being ‘a problem’; on the contrary, the fact that what it says on the label is exactly the same as what’s in the tin is very much what we want to hear. We wouldn’t be in the least bit interested otherwise – it’s not ‘surprises’ that we’re looking for when it comes to machines but the concrete realisation of our goals, of our desires.
To be aware of the tautology inherent in the actions of machines is the same thing as having an awareness of the tautological nature of purposeful activity therefore, and to have an acute awareness of the tautological nature of our purposeful activity is – in turn – to be aware of the redundancy (or ‘hollowness’) of the Purposeful Self, which is the one thing we definitely don’t want to know anything about. Knowing this would spoil everything for us; after all, we define ourselves in terms of how effective we are in obtaining our goals, which means that the act of obtaining a goal has to be meaningful to us, not meaningless. The highest accolade of all belongs to the one who is supremely effective in achieving their purposes, obtaining their goals. That’s why we admire billionaires and hang devotedly on their every word in the way that we do – we think that becoming a billionaire is a meaningful accomplishment! This is also the reason we find technology to be so exciting and so glamorous – because of the promise of having our goals met quickly and in a highly efficient way. What could be better than this, after all? No one is going to question the meaningfulness of having our goals met…
Technology induces a state of out-and-out euphoria in us, it induces euphoria because of the implicit promise that if our technology is advanced enough then all our dreams, no matter how wild, no matter how fanciful or far-fetched, can finally be turned into reality. There is as we know an excitement that comes with technology and this is an excitement that we all share in, but the thing about it is that it is entirely misguided. Our perception is that we are progressing, that we are, with a type of glorious inevitability, drawing close to our overall goal, a goal that is going to prove marvellously beneficial for us all; our cherished dreams are finally going to come true and the perception that all of our dreams are finally going to come true is the most potent intoxicant there is! The result of this intoxication – unsurprisingly – is that we lose every last bit of sense that we have and get completely carried away. We embark upon disastrously stupid projects. This is what ‘being intoxicated’ is all about, of course – we all know that!
Tech doesn’t to know ennoble us, however and it certainly doesn’t make us any wiser – all it does is give us greater and greater powers of control, and that isn’t a good thing. We might naively believe it to be a good thing but of course it absolutely isn’t – all it does is ‘magnify our dumbness’, so to speak. Technology gives us greater scope and greater capacity to do foolish or harmful things. The progression of our technology comes down to one thing, as Alan Watts has pointed out ‘It comes down to eliminating, to a greater and greater extent, the gap between the conception of our goal and its realisation. If the two things (our wish and the fulfilment of our wish) could be made to happen instantly that then then that would be the ultimate – we would be in heaven then (or so we think). From a psychological or philosophical point of view, what’s valuable to us is not how quickly (or how easily) we can obtain our goals, but the degree of difficulty we experience along the way, which is to say, the severity of the obstacles that lie in our path. We only need to think about how it is with children – to give children what they want as soon as they want it is hardly an approach that’s going to result in making them happy! We all know this very well – we all know very well that this isn’t the way it works when we are children, so what makes us think the same principle doesn’t apply when we’re adults?
This comes down to the familiar adage about the journey being the thing rather than reaching the destination. The value of the destination doesn’t lie in the destination, but in the fact that it facilitates us in undertaking the journey. What happens in the journey is that we meet unsuspected difficulties and challenges, and it is these difficulties and challenges that change us, that allow us to grow, not ‘the fulfilment of the goal which was only attractive to us in the first place because of our naive way of looking at things’. The goal was a projection of our foolishness, nothing more! Or as we could also say, the value of the goal isn’t ‘the goal’ but the fact that when we finally obtain it, we discover that it’s no longer meaning for us. As Israel Regardie says, ‘the magician who attains to the summit is not the same magician who started off on the journey’. But if the journey is instantaneous (i.e., if there is no journey) then this isn’t going to be true; in this case the one who sets off on the journey is that same one who arrives. It’s all too easy, in other words, so no growth occurs. This is precisely what technology does, therefore – and it’s only the fact that we make a huge amount of money out of technology that prevents us from seeing this. It would be very inconvenient for us to see this, to say the least.
When the one who arrives at the destination is the same one who sets off in the first place then this is what is meant by ‘tautology’. In our culture we are all about identity, not personal growth – personal growth means ‘letting go of that identity’ (or seeing that it isn’t who we are) and this is exactly what we don’t want. We have an idea of ‘who we are’ and we make our plans on the strength of this idea, which means that we have to do our best to keep that idea intact. That’s the crucial thing. If we were to drop this idea then who would realise the all-important plans? Who would obtain the goals? Technology thus becomes a means of ‘safeguarding the image or idea of who we are’, and so the more advanced the tech the more neurotic we are going to become (as we are in the process of collectively discovering).
It goes further than this, however – our idea of who we are is encoded into the systems and institutions that make up society, such that any deviations from the established pattern are going to be penalised. Those who grow will be punished for it, in other words. The defining characteristic of a system is of course that it regulates – which is to say, that it continually acts so as to bring everything back to the baseline or equilibrium level of ‘how things should be’ (according to the system, that is). In the case of society what is being regulated is us and so we can say that the essential function of the systems and structures that we have created is to ‘preserve the tautology’. Linear change is the only type of change that is allowed by our systems, and the thing about linear change is that it isn’t really change at all.