Paradox and the Origins of Civilisation

This is a guest post by Darren Allen, joining us from his home turf at

The famous duck-rabbit optical illusion is a paradox, meaning that it is both one thing, and another, at the same time. The interpreting mind can never experience it this way. To the mind the image is either a duck or a rabbit, one after the other, but not both at the same time. The abstract thinking mind may know it is both, but this knowledge is itself a non-paradoxical either-or idea. The thinking mind cannot experience something that is simultaneously itself and something else; it can only comprehend one thing after another. Every time you try to directly experience the image as it fully, paradoxically, is, as both things at once, it is immediately reduced to what it partially, non-paradoxically is; to one thing or another. For a split second you think you’ve got both the full, direct, primary duck and rabbit simultaneously—perhaps because you can successfully label it a paradox—but really you are just flashing rapidly between partial, indirect, secondary mental interpretations.

Duck-Rabbit Duality

Duck-Rabbit Duality

You can only experience the image as it completely actually, primarily is—as both things at once (or as neither things at once)—by not interpreting it at all. This means letting go of the interpreting mind and, like a kind of vegetable, dumbly witnessing, or just seeing; directly experiencing as your consciousness (rather than through the interpretative mind). The image then becomes impossible and pure, like the weird sound-blobs of foreign words, or like the pure strange form of an object before your mind interprets what it ‘is’, or before your emotions move towards or away from what you want or don’t want.

In the mysterious-to-mind of direct experience (or first impression) you experience two different things at once; not binary either-or, but analogue both-and. This paradox is the source of all great art. My non-interpreting paradoxical unself recognises itself in paradoxical metaphors (‘Juliet is the sun’), melodies, puns, tragi-comedy and mind-stilling masterpieces. Paradox also creates the strange meaning that science moves towards (but can never grasp) in fractal forms, perennial philosophical problems  and the fundamental wave-particles of quantum physics1; each of which, like the true nature of the image, is a paradoxical pre-interpretative drabbit, or thing in itself.

The thing-in-itself is Immanuel Kant’s term for the inaccessible nature of reality. Kant demonstrated that time and space exist in the mind (although this does not mean they are invented by the mind) and so we can never really know what anything really is ‘in itself’. All we can know is what our minds report to us of what seems to be ‘out there’. This is now a common belief—not to mention a depressing existential reality—that we are all trapped in body-shaped capsules orbiting empty, empty rooms, unintelligible to anyone else, except through faith and only ever able to apprehend the world indirectly, through little more than meter-readings.

Despair still reigns in the scientific mind, and it reigned in Arthur Schopenhauer’s mind too—yet, soon after Kant, Schopenhauer pointed out that there is a solution to this atomised misery. There is one ‘thing in itself’ we can know, for certain; and that is our consciousness of our mind’s meter readings2. I am a thing in itself, even if my own ideas about me aren’t. This—the mute, pre-thought, animal experience of just experiencing—the objective scientist (or objective religionist) can never understand; because it is not an idea, nor an objective fact, nor even an emotional state, and never can be. It precedes the objective time and space of the mind and emotions. Consciousness cannot be understood—as length, breadth and height can be understood, or dictionary definitions, or the news, or ‘what bothers me’—because conscious experience is that which the mind’s meter readings can only ever be of. Consciousness can only be experienced, and when I experience it, I experience the reality of who I am which precedes the comprehensible knowledge I have of being a self in the world.

Self Takes Charge

By self I mean the thinking-wanting-not-wanting entity which isolates timespace objects and knits them into the either subjective or objective world of things, names, memories, ideas, desires, moodies and so on that I point to when I attempt to explain the world or define myself. This world, however, is not absolutely real, nor is the self which generates and apprehends it. The selfworld is a tool which my consciousness uses and, just as with any other tool or system, when it grows beyond a certain size, or when its momentum builds beyond a certain speed and mass, it begins to demand more energy or awareness than it provides. It begins to take over the user.

Ivan Illich exhaustively detailed how this happens with tools and systems in the objective world. Excessive quanta of energy, excessive speeds, groups that are larger than certain sizes and tools that are so complex they cannot be fixed by ordinary people in ordinary communities cripple men and women and reduce them to a state of infantile dependency. But the same thing happens with the subjective tool, or mechanism, of the self. There was a moment in history (and a moment in each of our individual lives) when this tool of self took over consciousness and began to be understood as ‘me’, generating fear of not me and hostility towards anything which mind or emotions cannot grasp—such as nature, love, darkness, death, loss, paradox, the innocence of children, the difference of outsiders and the thoughtless presence of the wild, all of which became a threat. The extraordinary, paradoxical life that I once perceived in and behind all matter (which I gave fluid name to) became ordinary, non-paradoxical supernatural ‘gods’ (with fixed and superstitiously venerated names), which ‘I’ had to appease through gifts and sacrifices; and all the threats ‘I’ now found itself surrounded with had to be manipulated, controlled or vanquished.

All the problems of civilisation—violence towards women and children, massively over-expanded population centres, private property, endemic aggression toward out-groups and towards the working mass of one’s own group, preposterous architectural vanity projects, exploitation and over-use of the wild, addiction to narcotics, superstition and the species of confused misery we know as ‘the human condition’—began at the same time, in the same place and for the same reason. Around 12,000 years ago, in the Middle East / West Asia, the tool of self grew beyond a critical limit, took charge of consciousness and began calling itself I, leading to the creation of stratified, warlike tribes (proto-Aryans and Semites) which began overrunning the world, overturning its primal cultures (introducing into local myths heroic abstract sky gods, or the monotheist God, which defeated and vanquished female ‘devils’3), corrupting and subjugating its people, forming class-based cults and, eventually, technologically-advanced civilisations which slowly spread over the surface of the earth.

After several thousand years of the growth of self-in-charge, or ego, direct conscious experience of paradoxical reality was so rare4 and attenuated that a group of unconscious abstract philosophers in ancient Greece (e.g. the nature-, art-, body-, society and children-hating Socrates, Plato and Aristotle) began to wonder what reality really was.5 Unable to comprehend anything but their own mentations they based their speculations on the abstract ideas of disembodied, egoic thought; such as ‘matter’, ‘truth’, ‘beauty’, and the ultimately illusory divisions which thought creates; such as ‘time and space’, ‘subject and object’, ‘nature and culture’ and other duck-rabbits. Confusion, absurdity and an intense resistance to reality 6 have prevailed in professional philosophic thought ever since.

Take, for example, Zeno’s arrow paradox—one of the earliest philosophical mind-benders on record—which concludes that because at any moment in time an arrow is neither moving to where it is not (because it is not there) nor moving to where it is (because it is already there) it is, therefore, not moving at all. This absurd—but rationally correct—conclusion, only occurs because the mind abstracts a thinkable idea (the arrow and it’s isolated position in time and space) from what is ultimately an unthinkable still-moving or temporal-timeless paradoxical state. The mind does not invent the position of the arrow, or its existence in time and space, but isolates that aspect of it from an ultimately paradoxical reality—in the same way that mind isolates particles from an ultimately wave-particle monism in the double-slit experiment, or isolates graspable ideas, such as ‘good’ or ‘being’ or ‘truth’ from an ultimately elusive reality (and then fusses over what those words might mean), or, most subtly and perniciously, isolates ‘me’ from an ultimately mysterious selfless experience.

None of this of course is to deny the utility—indeed the indispensable good sense—of picking ducks and rabbits out of the paradoxical thing-in-itself and knitting them together into duck-rabbit systems. Without this ability we’d hardly be human. The point is that if you are incapable of pulling away from yourself, of being conscious of your either-or mentations and emotions, you can, firstly, do nothing but treat ducks and rabbits as real—for there is no other standard by which the word ‘reality’ can be judged. And secondly, you are committed to over-extending into your mind or into yourself—for there is no way to fundamentally comprehend less-than-self or other-than-self. The inevitable result is catastrophic fraudulence.

The Fraud Builds The World

Who am I? Such a simple question; and yet I keep getting it wrong—because self is asking the question and providing the answer. The mechanism of my self is an organic apparatus (comprised of interrelated parts and animated by calorific power) which is capable of a) manifesting reality as sensations and feelings b) structuring reality into isolated spacetime things and either-or ideas and c) manipulating these things and ideas. When I ask this mechanism ‘who I am’, or ‘what is the truth’, the answer I get is an idea or an emotion, which, sooner or later, turns out to be wrong, ridiculous, contradictory or horrifying. Self tells me (and asserts to others) that I am a definable thing, and therefore isolated, mortal, trapped in a me-shaped prison and alone in enemy territory—in a word, selfish—a conclusion which, to pre-historic people, children and great artists, is as ludicrous and bizarre as ‘the arrow is not moving’ but which, nevertheless, has driven so-called ‘culture’ for millennia.7

Self has no way of knowing what is unselfish, and so what anything or anyone primarily is. It therefore has no way of knowing why I am here, what death is, what I should do, if there is a god, how I can create beauty, who you are, what consciousness is, what distinguishes humans from animals or how the universe began. Self can never understand what time is, how I can be more creative, less addicted, more spontaneous, less anxious or any other meaningful (which is to say ultimately unscientific) question about what self is not. If the self-machine is questioning itself about what is beyond itself, or where self comes from, no answer it finds, ultimately, is ever going to make sense; and if the self-machine is operating itself, no solution, ultimately, is ever going to work; because everything that self-in-charge says, sees, feels and does is, ultimately, motivated by an inapt, selfish [genetic–mental–emotional8] impulse. Ultimately, the only message a machine can give itself—that can make sense to a machine that creates its own programming, or that attempts to understand itself with itself—is ‘expand, defend and avoid death’.9Forever.

And this, of course, is what self and the groups it has huddled in for illusory security and power, has been doing ever since it took over conscious awareness and began passing it through its isolating, abstracting, fearing and desiring filters to create our plausible world of struggle, contention and anxiety. Expand, defend and avoid death forever has been the modus operandi of every civilised group of people since what we call civilised history began. It led to agriculture (and to the deforestation of the entire planet and exhaustion of its soils), to the vast inhuman megacults of the Middle East and classical era, to the unquenchable power-craving mania of the world’s celebrated empires, kingdoms and democracies and to, in the modern age, the development of a global institutional system which makes men and women self-conscious, self-referential, self-absorbed, self-believing and self-assertive components in an endlessly proliferating virtual nightmare.

The individual differences and brutal antagonisms of all these various groups—their peripheral styles, marvellous achievements and enormously complex histories—tend to mask their shared motivating and modernising intelligence; the ego of their members. Ego has not only had the same ends since the dawn of history—expand (through conflict and subjugation), experience self (through addictive stimulation10) and control or annihilate unselfish reality—but it has used the same means to achieve them; a body of virtual-technical knowledge which has been passed on, appropriated, refined and developed by each succeeding (or concurrent) cult.

These techniques—used to eradicate or control unself (nature, innocence, pain, etc.) and to expand self (through unlimited access to stimulation)—are scientific. Science begins with making reality manageably virtual through the isolation of duck-rabbit ideas and objects from the originating, paradoxical context, which can then be converted into abstractions, such as slaves from communities, natural resources from forests, scientific facts from ‘noise’, and bureaucratic facts, laws and economic money-units from society. These abstractions are predictable, immune to decay and uncertainty, can be stored indefinitely, reproduced perfectly, controlled at will and, most importantly, possessed.

The conversion of the universe into an abstract body of controllable, possessable data further requires the interdependent techniques of mechanisation, social-control, coercion, emotional management, urban-planning, opinion-shaping and the threat of violence, which were all refined into their modern form at the same time as philosophy was: around the 17th century, when institutions, serving a totalitarian system, began to take over the role of reality-management from crude, overtly violent and inefficient priestly or royal authority.

The new methods of social-control focused not on disciplining the body, on hiding criminals away or on physically forcing populations to submit, but on controlling the psyche through propaganda, through bureaucratic surveillance, through the threat of deprivation and through powerful appeals to egoic fears and addictions. This was not achieved through the efforts of Machiavellian princes, but through schools, prisons, hospitals, barracks, factories and organs of mass-media which a) were unconsciously structured to select for obedience and submission b) separated individuals from society c) exposed them to perpetual bureaucratic scrutiny, d) demanded an intense degree of abstraction and rational planning e) divided institutional identity from inner consciousness (and made them mutually antagonistic) f) placed enormous constraints on speech, thought, movement and feeling g) continually stimulated ego through (positive and negative) addictive pornography h) disciplined members to a life of permanent work and never-ending institutional-slavery and i) through taboo and the degradation of words which refer to selfless reality, made it impossible to understand what was happening or directly express dissent without sounding like a nutcase.

This did not happen consciously any more than the invention of superstitious gods, agriculture, classical civilisation or capitalism happened consciously. There was no conscious conspiracy to reduce humanity to a mutually-antagonistic hive of virtual fragments; because ego is unconsciousness: consciousness is a threat.

Consciousness is the threat.

Which means, of course, that consciousness is the cure.

This is an extract from Darren Allen’s Apocalypedia, a Comic-Philosophic Handbook of Radical Self-Knowledge which explains consciousness, genius, art, ritual, science, the history of self, the nature of the world-system (and effective means to subvert it), ego (and effective means to master it) the relationship between virtual reality and schizophrenia, how sane societies work, what a sane world looks like, the thorny matters of gender, sex and human partnership and transdimensional eruptions of hilarious ecstasy in more, and less, detail.


1. Adherents of scientism (scientismists) violently object to any non-specialist use of the terms quantum, reality, paradox, consciousness and so on, stridently asserting the right to determine the ‘correct’ definition of these words, thereby rendering language meaningless to ordinary non-specialists who increasingly find themselves inhabiting a colourless uniquack which they are not specialised enough to be able to fully understand. For the scientismist reality is not paradoxical—because his technical non-paradoxical descriptions of reality make technical, non-paradoxical sense. He is unable to grasp that being able to rationally describe the extraordinarily strange behaviour of quantum reality (in, for example, the famous double-slit experiment, which demonstrates that the most basic elements of reality are both waves and particles) does not make reality unparadoxical, any more than being able to think about consciousness makes consciousness, ultimately, thinkable. When pressed on the reality of what Schrödinger’s equations and so on are pointing to, or what consciousness actually is, scientists unwilling to accept the limits of science, or of thought, will rapidly exit the discussion. Or get very rude.Back.

2. Actually Schopenhauer called consciousness ‘will’—which he confused with emotion—and called thinking ‘consciousness’, a mistake which I believe led to his famous misogyny and pessimism, but that’s beyond the bounds of this essay.Back.

3. e.g. Marduk vs Tiamat in Babylon, Indra vs Vritra in Vedic India, Jahweh vs Satan in Judaism, Zeus vs Typhon in classical Greece. These ego-honouring male-worshipping myths all superseded earlier cosmologies in which the femi-snake had been a benevolent, mysterious creatrix.
The mono-religion also erased the creative, amoral, paradoxical, boundary-crossing trickster god from original myth and replaced him with a blandly immoral devil.

4. In most religious traditions there were and are strands of original non-egoic pre-superstitious apperception and genius that persisted. The non-dualist Hinduism of the Upanishads (later Advaita), the Bhagavata and early schools of Tantric Yoga, The Tao Te Ching, some mystic strands of Buddhism (esp. Zen), the teachings of Jesus (without their Paulist-Christian distortions) and [later] a few elements of Sufism all expressed timeless, original pre-egoic experience. Because of this they were usually labelled heresy and persecuted, often brutally. Or they were taken up by selves which enjoy being different.Back.

5. Only a few hundred years previous to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, so-called ‘irrational’ contemplative philosophers, such as Parmenides and Empedocles, had provided the answer—through something like zen meditation—but by the time of the rationalists, this, along with the illiterate magic of Homer, was now literally inconceivable.
See Peter Kingsley, Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic and Reality.Back.

6. Professional philosophers never refer to reality, to what something *is*, or how it might be perceived. Their output focuses entirely on abstractions (such as why things came to be, or how they can be described) and so is intensely abstract and of very little interest to ordinary people.Back.

7. Implicitly at least—ego is quite happy to use *ideas* of immortality, togetherness, mystery and whatnot.Back.

8. The emotional component of ego is the one most frequently ignored; it is possible to be friendly, generous, non-intellectual—even ‘spiritual’—and yet emotionally egotistical. Similarly, it is possible to talk often of oneself, to vaunt one’s own excellence, to be fascinated in oneself and to take (temporary / flamingly flamboyant) charge of a group, while being humble and selfless.Back.

9. A self-informed machine is inherently incapable of self-sacrifice (aka **altruism**) unless that sacrifice is either not fundamental (i.e. superficial, such as mere charity), or, as self-informed evolutionists and economists repeatedly stress, for the benefit of similar selves (who share the same genes), those who might reciprocate at a later date or (as a virtuoso display of mating fitness) future partners.Back.

10. There is a convincing case to be made for drug-addiction being the cause or at least (in my view) the self-reinforcing concomitant payoff of agriculture. See Greg Wadley’s, Pharmacological Influences on the Neolithic Transition and How psychoactive drugs shape human culture: A multi-disciplinary perspective.Back.

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  1. I’ve spent a lot of time on this “paradox” and concluded that I do not see a rabbit or a duck. I see see lines and shading. And depending on where my focus is on the picture I interpret it as a representation of a rabbit or of a duck. What causes the switch, is the flick of my eyes to focus on different points in the picture – the point of focus causes the gestalt to flip. This is partly because where I choose to focus orients the image and the features that relate to the focus. If I focus on the “beak” the picture is interpreted as a duck. If I focus on the “nose” it becomes a rabbit.

    I don’t see the paradox here. It’s not that *exactly* the same data is interpreted in two different ways, because the data is subtly different dependent on where in the picture I focus. I cannot control the change in gestalt if I shift my focus.

    Also what is paradoxical about a metaphor? To say that “Juliet is the sun” is certainly an aspect of the metaphor; especially when seen in the context of the whole line: “But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” But there’s only a paradox if we interpret Romeo as not understanding that he is using a metaphor. Certainly if Romeo (or us) believe that Juliet is the sun, then it would be paradoxical, because Juliet is a girl. But that one can map the source domain (the sun rising in the east) with the target domain (Juliet emerging into the balcony) is far from paradoxical. The mapping is possible because the events have a common topology – an object emerging into view.

    By this point I’m finding so much to disagree with that I find I cannot continue. The premises that are being set up for discussion strike me as demonstrably false.

    • The self cannot experience both interpretations at once; this is what makes the image, and a metaphor, paradoxical (and pleasurable). It is impossible for the self to actually see duckness and rabbitness at the same time. Likewise it is impossible for the self to imagine a non-sun woman who is simultaneously the sun; regardless of belief, or ‘topological origin’.

      ‘Juliet is the sun’ is not just shorthand for ‘Juliet shares certain features with ‘the source domain’ (which tends to be better served by ‘Juliet is like the sun’), it also points to a kind of experience which precedes the ‘mapping’ mind, a kind of experience in which two different things can be experienced as ‘impossibly’ the same.

  2. Where to begin..? This is the most amazing, thrilling, deep and important piece of psychological and philosophical analysis I have seen in quite some time. Thank you for this Darren.

    And thank you again.

    Your diagnosis of the overlapping conflicts in human consciousness and civilizational dysfunction is breathtaking. I’m almost afraid to contemplate the sheer amount of thought and time that you’ve put into this project.

    And yes – you’re right that at it’s most fundamental level nature/reality/the universe is paradoxical. This is because nature/reality/the universe is self-referential. “It is what it is” – or – “I am I am”. Tear off a piece of infinity and that piece is still infinite. This insight along with Godel’s theorem sit at the base of modern mathematics. Our most certain and reliable abstract system of thought acknowledges that it can never be both consistent or complete.

    Thanks again for your intellectual insights.

  3. This was beautifully written. I have heard a similar lines of reasoning before from a certain kind of person (not so well articulated), and while I can resonate strongly with it I am skeptical.

    We tend to see the past as better than it was, and the present as dire; but most of the so called negative effects of the ego have been with us as a species for much longer than institutionalized abstraction. We have merely created these existential brambles for ourselves out of want for adversary and purpose, but historically the alternative has generally consisted of being cold, hungry, and in fear, and tremendously more in the dark about what was happening in fact. There is a desirable primal and animistic quality to that world (we evolved for it), but to say that we are in an endlessly proliferating virtual nightmare seems… a bit dramatic.

    I think your ego wrote this article. If there was a spiritual battle to be had, it’s long since lost.

    • Thanks for the praise.

      As for the criticism it is demonstrably false that the negative effects of ego, at least to the extent we produce and face them today, have always been with us. Anthropological literature is littered with evidence (both direct and indirect) of ego-soft people responding to each other and to the environment with a sensitivity almost unimaginable in modern societies.

      Your comment that ‘historically the alternative has generally consisted of being cold, hungry, and in fear, and tremendously more in the dark about what was happening in fact’ has no basis in fact, unless, of course, you limit your attention to (e.g.) some of the more ghastly early agricultural societies, the megacults I mention above and the more horrific times and places of the medieval world. For all of human pre-history, and interspersed through history, there has been conviviality, freedom from what we understand as work (i.e. drudgery), access to shared commons, sane conceptions of death and madness, fair gender complementarity, true respect for children and experience of a reality which was alive, fecund, not out to get you — all which you’d have to go a long, long, way to find today.

      Finally, the modern world (as opposed to the old-fashioned earth) is almost limitlessly cruel, utterly destructive of beauty and innocence and, day by day, folded more completely into a virtual prison (literally and metaphorically) in which nothing natural or human (radical generosity, conviviality, untouched wilderness, feet, etc) can function or survive.

      • Thanks for your post, Darren.

        Could you mention an example of the anthropological evidence you have in mind?

        Regarding the ego-free societies that have seemed healthy to you, are you primarily referring to small tribal communities or something else? If the former, that seems to make sense to me but alas we have billions of people now and it seems quite difficult to sustain that kind of population on this planet without all of the science and ego. How do we get from here to there?

        And before you suggest that it’s all in your book, I’ll have you know that it’s already in my amazon cart.

        • It’s all in my…

          Oh all right. My secondary sources for hunter-gatherer interpersonal awareness are: Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers, E. Richard Sorenson, Christopher Boehm, R.B. Lee, Stanley Diamond, W.J. Perry, Elman Service, E. Douglas Turnball, Daniel Everett, etc.

          I am primarily referring to my own consciousness and my own relationships. This is the bedrock of all judgement — academic and otherwise, sound and otherwise — on human nature, and the reason for all disagreements about it. Evidence is always secondary.

          As for a large human society not run by ego and its worldly institutions, it’s never been tried of course. Anarcho-syndacalist towns in revolutionary Spain and pre-Bolshevic soviet councils are the closest history has come — which is not very close. I’ve read of indirect evidence that some early cities (Çatalhöyük, Indus Valley civ.) functioned pretty well along the lines I describe, but who knows?

          And your final question is how we get from here to there. The same way that ‘we’ got from feudalism to capitalism. Nobody in 14th century Italy (say) laid out a plan for an massive Industrial society governed by the market, they just headed in a certain direction, which is all we need to do.

          How to make everyone else want that is the responsibility of artists, or the artist in each of us, but, at the end of the day, it’s going to be night that persuades the world.

  4. Hey Darren,
    I’m with you man, as much as is possible while I blow off the minutes here in my drudge-cube.
    But never mind that, I want to talk about tango. Why don’t white people dance? Your answer is as good as any: too strong a link to Babylon.
    So, the way I experience it on a good day, tango is a conversation between two people using body language. It takes two to tango, it is not possible to do it by yourself. It is however almost possible to do it while driven by your ego, and many people who I have danced with have a lot of trouble getting beyond that ego point. Maybe because it might be impossible to tango without your ego. The ego is important, if not necessary, but tango is much better – transcendent – if the ego is left as just a minor ingredient, spice. The amazing thing that happens, and what relates to your fine essay here, has to do with the fact that body language is nonverbal. Unconscious even. We can experience it and describe it, but doing so makes body language stilted and brittle. The joy of dancing is mysterious and sensational and only becomes a conscious thing after the fact. This is true of all body movement, surfing especially, but the remarkable thing about tango is that your body is communicating directly with another human body. Directly, at a muscular level, such that I have often felt the dancing become more difficult simply because either I or my partner has started thinking. Thinking makes dancing much more difficult. Though thinking is required to achieve a certain level of physical skill, and to develop good habits, it must then be set aside to dance well.
    And the best part? We – every human that I have danced with – find this direct contact with other humans incredibly pleasurable.
    Tell me again why so many of we moderns don’t ever get around to dancing? Why so many of our institutions discourage dancing? I think that this activity that Western Civ treats as frivolous is actually really really important. So important that I need to make an effort to not try to convince anybody of it. I haven’t had much luck with that anyway.

    • Hi Eric,

      You’re right, if you don’t dance, something is terribly wrong — and, as you say, dance means á-deux.

      What interests me about bad dancing, or a poor partner, or lack of connection, is that ego here, actually, and very, very obviously, goes far deeper than thought.

      I recall watching a very good dancer at a Lindy Hop evening once with a female friend of mine. I was admiring his moves and I said ‘he’s good isn’t he?’ and she replied (having danced with him) ‘he is, but curiously unadventurous’. And I looked again, and behold! Yes, some stiffness, some muscular tension, some hyper-hyper subtle (to me) level of ego.

      Are you familiar with Wilhelm Reich? He went off his trolley, but before that said some fascinating things about what I would call ‘bodily ego’ or perhaps the emotional component of ego. That tiny sense of ‘holding on’ that everyone is doing everywhere, all the time.

      Which brings us on to why we don’t get round to it. You’re right, it is (like death) a massive conspiracy, a dirty secret, an unconsciously shameful truth, shunted under the carpet of the so-called sensible (what a terribly misused word that is).

      Why are all we not dancing? All the time? It’s beyond shameful! You’re right it is vitally important, this.

      The next question is why we do not dance together, why the quickstep is not readily known to all, and why men and women have such problems dancing together. This alas I don’t have time to go into right now. It’s a huge subject. (Please forgive the plug, but it’s all in my book).

      Thanks for writing Eric.

  5. Most of this I’m 100% on board with, but the bracketing together of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle I will quibble with.

    Socrates [taught by a woman, as it happens] we only have a distorted picture of via Plato, who was a flawed student [Socrates: “Don’t write things down! It encourages the concretising function of the ego-mind.” Plato: “Ooh, that’s a really good point, hang on while I just write that down…”].

    Nevertheless, much of the Socratic dialogues can be read as an exercise in showing people the limitations of their own discursive reasoning, rather than merely as an attempt to use verbal reasoning in place of direct apprehension of reality.

    [Similarly, Zeno’s paradox can be seen as quite a profound commentary on the distortion of fluid reality that occurs when we chop it up into stable conceptual tokens like words and things.]

    Aristotle, on the other hand, was just a moron as far as I can work out.

    • I’ve not read much in Socrates-as-filtered-through-Plato that strikes at the marrow although I think you’re probably right, his discursion-inversions are good and he clearly wasn’t as much of nob as Plato and Aristotle.

      As for Zeno, you are suggesting that he knew the solution to his problem? That he was basically saying the same as me? This is news to me, but I’ll check it out.

  6. Thanks for this post Darren. Your mention of the historical transformation of societies from a pre-egoic state into a conscious (and perhaps hyper-conscious) state really reminded me of Julian Jaynes’s “Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.” Have you read it? If not, the fact that you came upon a historicity of the ego so startlingly similar to Jaynes’s would be a testament to its merits (at least in my eyes). It seems that most of academia still discounts Jaynes’s hypothesis as blasphemous.

    • I fundamentally disagree with Jaynes on just about everything he says! For me the process is the exact opposite of his — we started off conscious, which broke down into schizoid ‘bicamerality’ (if you could call it that — I don’t agree with Jayne’s portrayal of the division either or his very limited definition of ‘consciousness’; for Ian McGilchrist is much closer to the reality of the situation).

  7. I’m enormously sympathetic to your views, Darren. However, it seems to me that every lifeform has the mission of “expand, defend, and avoid death”–otherwise, they wouldn’t have survived. Also, tool use and the will to dominate the environment have apparently been part of our DNA for millions of years. Even corvids use tools. The tragedy of consciousness seems inevitable. Do you not think so?

    • Ego is not a ‘life form’ in the sense you mean here, any more than a hammer is — ego’s mission to expand, defend and avoid death therefore corrupts and overtakes the lifeform — you — that it is here to serve.

      There is nothing wrong with tool use in itself. It is blindness or insensitivity to the limits of tool-development, employment and refinement that leads to them taking over human affairs and the intelligence of consciousness. Certainly not inevitable.

      • Er, but even life forms with no ego have those three aims, too. Like bacteria, or plants.

        Do you have any links you recommend on distinguishing between life forms and ego?

        • Yes, correct, lifeforms with no ego (which is all non-human life, not just bacteria and plants) have those three aims… but ego is not a lifeform in that sense. For ego to have those aims is as pathological as for a cell to have them (which, of course, leads to cancer).

          Plants and animals are held in check by the natural limits of growth imposed by the natural environment. Put ego into the mix and you have the capacity to exceed those limits. Human consciousness, sensitive to the environment or the context, naturally keeps ego in check. Ego allowed to run rampant oversteps natural limits and the ego-restraining intelligence of consciousness and creates a reality-obliterating civilisation.

          • That is much clearer, thank you! However, the real problem, then, seems to be not the existence of ego, so much as our powers exceed our perceptions. I.e. it took a while to realize that we were destroying our own microbiomes. (“Powers exceeding perceptions” is obviously not the case for things like slavery, patriarchy, abusing children…I’m still not totally sure where we went wrong there.)

          • No, the problem is ego. Ego and self are different. Ego is the self informing itself, overtaking consciousness (that which perceives) and calling itself ’I’. This inevitably leads to hostility towards that which ‘I’ am not, and to attempt to control, enslave or eradicate it. I go into every corner of this in my book—take a look, if you are interested, and email me (via my website) any questions.

  8. Awesome piece Darren, thank you for taking the time to write it (and think it!). As a concise but deep summary of a deep driving force behind how we came to be where we are at this point in history, across multiple levels of analysis from personal to societal, it surpasses anything else i’ve read on the subject from a content density to insightfulness ratio perspective. I will certainly return again to mine the rich vein you excavated for us here.

    Your description of the Ego reminds me of David Hawkins’ notion that the ego is the ‘sum of all positionalities’, that is, a position taken up on something, with regards to either a moral eg ‘one ‘should’ do X’ or epistemological eg ‘reality is X’. Robert Anton Wilsons idea of ‘maybe logic’ and Korzybski’s schema of general semantics are attempts to systematically reintroduce into human thought and language the unconcealment of the reality of the innate ambiguity and uncertainty of cognition with respect to the deep reality that lies eternally beyond the cognitively formalisable.

    I notice an interesting relationship between action tendencies (which I believe are either neurologically primed actions, micro-exertion actions, and/or chronic muscular tensions which keep the motor cortex habitually engaged), stress, and the dynamic flow of consciousness. In the state of Wu-Wei, that is the mode of non-doing during deep meditative states, when all the energy of consciousness is stabilised within perception, without impulse to action, the capacity to automatically tolerate and even embrace perceptual ambiguity and discomfort arrives naturally. In this state insights may also arise if there have been recent ruminations on unresolved problematics or otherwise patterns of recent experience that can provide useful insight that transforms cognitive schema. In this state, consciousness becomes a perfect peaceful flow and nothing is either held on to or resisted, thus the scope of attention becomes opened out and the expereintial field becomes regularised in its distribution of energy.

    I believe that somehow the prior typical/habitual state of experiential/attentional contraction has as a cognitive correlate the stabilisation of specific assumptions that in turn structure our perceptions, emotions and actions with respect to interpreted reality, and so the natural creative-destruction (as a seamless unity of transformation) of the flow of the Tao is broken since the destruction of certain interpretative axioms structuring large-scale cognitive phenomena becomes rendered temporarily impossible. The general dichotomy between the process of creative-destructive gestalt based insightful development of knowledge, and the process of axiomatic assertion inferences or contrained insight development of knowledge, mirrors both a general pattern of consciousness as disruptive/uncomfortable at some level of being vs flowing/innately joyful, and Piaget’s model of the process of development of cognitive frameworks in his theory of genetic epistemology, specifically the processes of assimilation and accomodation respectively [if you’re not familiar with these terms/ideas I can highly recommend this video on the subject, its more of an overview of piaget’s theory of genetic epistemology but if I remember correctly it has some bits on those two processes.. regardless an excellent lecture to watch anyway..

    I believe this also mirrors the general pattern of the limit-case capacities of the psyche in the grip of Ego (where fundamental axioms constitutive of its current mode of being constrain the capacity for insight and generate a structural ignorance whose magnitude varies with the scope of the identified-with axioms) vs free of the Ego, where deep insight can emerge unhindered and the sacred is not held to be within the structure of the ego, but as something beyond the ego, often induced as a quest to manifest ones being in line with some higher value like truth, love, a generalised care for others or the destiny of life on earth etc. The limit case of the cognitive modes correlative with various intensities of ego possession being complete obstinacy and rejection in the face of the novel, particularly the novel that cant be assimilated to existing frameworks, and on the other end, optimal adaptation to the novel and capacity to dissolve all axioms that dont line up with reality. One problem is that as you come to trace this line closer and closer to the epistemological optimum, the demands on cognitive power and ability appear to rise exponentially, and reality becomes harder and harder to decode.

    I think this might be part of the reason why the ego exists – because epistemological optimisation would have you literally thinking forever (because from induction we can never reach certain truth, the leap from probabilistic propositions to absolute propositions is infinite), but the primary impetus of the organism from an evolutionary perspective is towards action that is succesful from a survival and reproduction perspective, whose timeline is relatively constrained compared to the relevant timelines within which our actions as beings within the world have significant consequences. Though we can obviously go beyond this as some human beings have done once they reach some threshold of conscious awareness and begin to realise the prison of ego their awareness has been entrapped within and begin to free themselves from it, simultaneously enabling a freeing of cognition and expansion of the scope of being that enters into moral consideration.

    Anyway I’m interested in your personal take on the mechanisms underlying the generation and maintenence of the ego, and what the primary ways are to free ourselves from this corrupting and destructive force both individually and collectively (if such a thing can even be done in a collective way, which I have my reservations about (though they are probabilistic and not absolute reservations :D)). I am also curious if you have any ideas on the dimensions that might be appropriate to a phenomenological analysis of the spectrum of mind-in-the-grip-of-ego, from completely controlled by it to completely free of it.

    • Thanks for writing Peter, and for the kind words. I’m afraid I can’t respond to your points though, as they are too difficult for my small brain to understand. You’re saying, I believe, that ego catastrophically hardens the flow of unthinkable consciousness? If so, then I agree.

      I’m also not quite sure what you mean by ‘the mechanisms underlying the generation and maintenance of ego’. If you mean ‘objective’ study of neurology and so forth, I have almost no interest in it—very little of use can be learnt this way. If you mean ‘subjective’ study of how ego comes into being, in your own experience, how it usurps straight consciousness and how it cleverly perpetuates itself through justification, emotion, desire, and so on; then I have too much to say! At least for a medium such as this.

      Likewise, ‘ways to free ourselves’, which certainly is possible, both individually and collectively (most crucially in partnership—where the collective start). I’ve peddled my book, The Apocalypedia, three times already on this page, which is tiresome and distasteful, but I have written an enormous amount on the functioning of ego and freedom from it there.

      Last point. This:

      ‘I am also curious if you have any ideas on the dimensions that might be appropriate to a phenomenological analysis of the spectrum of mind-in-the-grip-of-ego, from completely controlled by it to completely free of it.’

      Again, hard for me to understand what you’re asking for. Do you mean ‘Is there a spectrum of consciousness?’ If so, I’d say yes, but it runs from the describable to the indescribable and therefore, as a whole, can only served by art, not by analysis. Thank Christ. Imagine being able to score people for their aliveness!

  9. Darren, why isn’t Network on your list of 100 movies? Go watch it tout de suite.

  10. Víctor Marín says

    I was wondering, since our languages in general fail to represent the fluid paradoxical nature of reality (with the exception of poetry), words setting boundaries where there aren’t, how would a paradoxical language look like? would it be useful to communicate with others? beautyful? truthful?

    • Language isn’t inherently non-paradoxical, and can express the unthinkable. It loses this function through excessive thought (which separates language from the context), excessive literacy (which conditions people to believe that language is made up, or composed of isolated words) and excessive professionalism (which conditions people to believe that there is ONE correct definition of a word, which comes down from on scientific high).

      So a paradoxical language would look just like ours. Some grammatical features would, through intelligent use, becomes modified over time. English, for example, would lose its matrix of rigid tenses, possibly ‘to be’ (as E-prime makes a cart-before-horse case that it should), and the meaning of a huge number of concepts would soften, widen or form distinctions where now there are none (such as ‘character’ and ‘personality’ or ‘abusive’ and ‘offensive’) but the change would occur in meaning, just as it does when I turn from speaking to a hard middle-aged manager, to speaking with a soft toddler. Not a great deal changes in the words I use, but the playfulness, intensity and pre-verbal communion underneath those words is literally in another dimension.