Factor X

It’s 2018. Traditionally, this is the day I should wish you all a “happy and prosperous New Year”, which I’m not going to do. Instead, I’ll borrow a theme from The Game of Thrones which I think is more appropriate: “I wish you good fortune in the wars to come”. You’ll need to develop some measure of resilience — a warrior’s spirit, if you will — if you’re not going to fold under the increasing stresses and pressures of the double-movement.

Today, I want to continue with the discussion of “Factor X” that I raised in the previous post — the mysterious “something unknown” doing we know not what, as Sir Arthur Eddington once phrased it. It’s the uneasiness about Factor X that underlies the quantum physicist’s motto “Shut up and calculate!”. Factor X is in play today, and I want to show in what way it is in play.

Factor X might also be considered the “irruption” of the latent future into the present. You could just as well call it “the return of the repressed”. Factor X goes by many different names. Factor X is also implied in Gödel’s famous Incompleteness Theorem, which is largely the topic of today’s post, and how Gödel’s theorem connects with Gebser’s “law of the Earth”, or what is meant when people say “Nature bats last”. Factor X is implied in what Gebser also describes as “the double-movement” of our time, which we might as well describe as “creative destruction”. It’s this dynamic, also represented as “enantiodromia“, that accounts for the many ironies and paradoxes of our present turbulent times. It’s easiest to think of enantiodromia as ironic reversal, or like a switch in polarity, and to think of that in terms of “unintended consequence”, “perverse outcome”, “revenge effect”, “blowback”. When some say, for example, that “the future ain’t what it used ta’ be”, ironic reversal is implied in that.  And in many ways, too, the irruption of Factor X is implied in what Gebser calls our “guilt about time” and what we call “bad conscience”. Factor X is, in other words, very disruptive and is implied in what we are calling “chaotic transition”, or in what Nietzsche once anticipated as “two centuries of nihilism” also.

So, naturally, there is a great deal of anxiety and paranoia about Factor X, responses to which run all the way from denialism to something akin to mass hysteria. Such is what Gebser also referred to as “the maelstrom of blind anxiety”, or what some today describe as a “vortex”.

Let’s examine all this in terms of Gödel’s theorem, and how Gödel’s theorem is implicated in the belief that “Nature bat’s last” (or “the law of the Earth”) — the sense that there is something “in Nature” that forever eludes our efforts to possess it, control it, and dominate it, and that the assumption of the Enlightenment that men could become “masters and possessors of nature” is therefore doomed to backfire — that backfire taking the form of Nemesis, who is enantiodromia personified as reversal of fortune, or who is punishment for sin, for transgression, for hubris.

If you aren’t familiar with Gödel’s theorem, there’s an attempt to describe it and its implications in Scientific American (“What is Gödel’s Theorem?). It’s really quite mind-blowing in its implications, which I’ll attempt to make explicit here. But it does point to Factor X as well.

Crane Brinton once defined the Modern Era as “the invention of a system for creating systems”, which is a pretty good definition of modernity. And if you have been following The Chrysalis for a while, or have become familiar with Jean Gebser’s cultural philosophy, you will know that this generative “master system” has its roots in the invention of perspective by the Renaissance artists and its subsequent development as a structure or mode of consciousness and perception, which Gebser calls “perspective consciousness” or “mental-rational consciousness”. The shape of that consciousness is the triangle or the pyramid, which is represented also on the Great Seal of the United States and also as the same of dialectical rationality — thesis-antithesis-synthesis.

The rationale for the master system is, of course, for the purpose of becoming “masters and possessors of nature” (and also human nature). Nature, human or otherwise, is a very big and complex matter, so you also have to grow the system in order to master it for technological or utilitarian purposes (to have and to hold). Since you don’t really know really what Nature or human nature are, you must begin by making a few assumptions to begin with, upon which the master system can grow. Those assumptions are called “the metaphysical foundations”, and they are pretty wobbly things upon which to erect a solid superstructure or system. They represent vulnerabilities or the proverbial “Achilles heel” of the whole master system.

To secure itself, and to grow, the master system must make those otherwise “occult” or “hidden assumptions” explicit within the system itself and in its terms. If you have begun with the metaphysical assumption that Nature is a machine, and everything it is a machine, and thus a complete mechanical description of reality is possible and desirable, then any anomaly that can’t be explained in mechanical terms, and thus incorporated or assimilated into the master system, is a threat to the stability and security of the master system itself. You expand the circumference of the master system by assimilating and incorporating the anomalies until you have, in Lewis Mumford’s phrase, grown the “Megamachine”. William Blake’s “dark Satanic Mill” actually refers to the mind that could conceive the Megamachine rather than the Megamachine itself which, for Blake, hardly physically existed yet in his day.

The Megamachine is the realised and manifested form of the master system which began as a very simple idea, one suggested by Renaissance art itself, that the mind could become progressively the “master and possessor of nature”, and of human nature, and that there would eventually be “an end of history” and a “final form of society”, in which everything about life and the universe would finally be known, and everything predictable and under control.

Those foundational assumptions began to fall apart about a century ago, and have continued to erode despite continuing and ever-more desperate measures to shore them up (which is called “confidence building” and is connected with the emergence of a technology of propaganda and “technocratic shamanism” in Algis Mikunas’s phrase). It’s around this time that Gebser describes the mental-rational consciousness entering into its “deficient mode” of functioning. What we call “future shock” largely began with Nietzsche.

Gödel’s theorem (1931) also belongs to that shock, and one might say with confidence that it also is implicated in Iain McGilchrist’s description of the two modes of perception and consciousness he described as “master” and “emissary” in his notable book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Factor X has something to do with McGilchrist’s “Master” mode of perception, and we are persuaded by McGilchrist’s research into neurodynamics that there is a significant difference between the Whole and the mere Totality (the ideal of the master system). The irruption of Factor X highlights  this dissonance and discord that present exists between the modes of perception of the divided brain — the master and the emissary.

So, here’s the essential paradox. We don’t really know whether Factor X is irrupting within us, or in the world “out there”, and so many people feel quite bewildered and confused about matters like “truth” or “reality” for, in truth, the irruption of Factor X is apocalyptic in that sense.

Gödel’s theorem demonstrates the same paradox. No matter how many anomalies you assimilate and massage so they fit the master system, the system always relies upon unknown factors or anomalous cases external to the system itself. In other words, Factor X can never be reduced to a system or assimilated to a system. To put that another way “Nature bats last” and “uneasy lies the head”. Factor X is infinite.

Fractal geometry represents something of the meaning of Gödel’s theorem. Let’s say that the boundary conditions of reality can be represented as 0 and 1, where 0 represents non-being (or what is not) and 1 represents being (or what is). In Gebser’s terms, 0 and 1 would correspond to the “latent” and the “manifest”. 0 and 1 could be said to correspond to the Aristotelian notion of the potential and the actual. 0 and 1 could also be said to correspond to what Gebser calls the “death-pole” and “life-pole” of psychic energy (or what Freud also called “thanatos” and “eros“).

What lies between 0 and 1 is the fractal domain, and it is infinite. Take any fraction lying between 0 and 1 and let it represent its own world system. Each fraction lying between 0 and 1 represents a probable universe, so this helps us visualise the meaning of infinite worlds theory and, in those terms, there would be literally no “bottom” to it. There would be no end of worlds, and yet they are also all related, all sharing the same boundary conditions. In fact, fractal geometers have a particular fondness for quoting William Blake — “eternity in the hour” or “the world in a grain of sand”, and so on.

It would not be inappropriate, too, to think of yourselves as sharing the same essential fractal nature. There are some interpretations of quantum reality that do, in fact, give you complete licence to do so. There are not only potentially infinite probable worlds, put also potentially infinite versions of “you”. (And you do, indeed, encounter some of those versions of “you” in your dreaming).

(It used to be fashionable to mock the scholastics for their seemingly vain and vapid speculations about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. In light of fractal geometry, that doesn’t seem quite so empty or meaningless any longer).

Gödel’s theorem shares an affinity with the strange worlds of fractal geometry. You can never achieve complete closure. You more you try to achieve a “final form” and “total system”, the more the unrepresented and that which is extraneous to the system will hammer away at the walls of the system, or sap its foundations.

Of course, some have come up with a solution to the implications of fractal geometry or Gödel’s theorem. Ignore them. There’s a strange affinity between “Shut up and calculate” and the joke “Jesus is coming. Look busy” (although I wouldn’t want to suggest that “Factor X” is the “Second Coming”, unless it’s in W.B.Yeats sense).

In a nutshell, the idea that “Nature bats last” (and this applies to ‘human nature’ as well) is just another expression of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, the implication of which is that there can never really be an “end to history” (at least, in Fukuyama’s meaning) or a “final form of society”. Therefore the ideal — or “master plan” — of finally becoming “masters and possessors of nature” is doomed to be disappointed and frustrated. Gödel’s theorem shows the problematic nature of “Factor X” for the master plan.

So, next time someone tells you that everything is under control, and just “leave the driving to us”, just say “Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem”. If they had any sense they would blush.


4 responses to “Factor X”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    i should probably extend this topic of Factor X to include today’s obsession with “walls” — the myth of the “walled enclosure”. Gebser does deal at some length with that in terms of the symbolism of grottos, caves, and caverns. And this is the original meaning of the word “Paradise” — a “walled enclosure”, probably emerging at the time of the emergence of the fortress city states of Mesopotamia. A system is, in a sense, also a “walled enclosure”, a fortress-like construct to keep out “the black tide of mud of the occult” (as Freud once complained to Jung). But, in other terms, perhaps to keep out “Factor X”.

    The idea of walled enclosures comes from the mythical consciousness — the walls of Eden — the feeling of refuge, sanctuary, security, safety against something “outside”. There’s something of that, too, in Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    If you like, you can think of “Factor X” in terms of Jill Bolte-Taylor’s “Life Force Power of the Universe”, as she described that in her TED talk that I’ve frequently linked to in the past. But that won’t really tell you much about Factor X either.

    (For those who haven’t yet seen the lecture…)

  3. Scott Preston says :

    “As academics we have to think: what happened to the values of the Enlightenment and the insights from the scientific revolution? What the hell did we do wrong?”



    Not sure why he thinks it’s such a puzzle, though. It’s quite blatant why it is so.

    But at least everyone is agreed upon one thing. “Malaise”.

  4. Abdulmunem Othman says :

    God is the sound matrix ,the original system that gave shape to the physical and nonphysical formations in which all things thrive including the humans the top creative entity as the door to the understanding of the world but not the originator of the world who is beyond the human capacity to comprehend that is why we read in the Koran that humanity will encompass him not. God is an occasion of worship and respect and not for frivolous analysis and speculative studies. All signs that permeate us or permeate what is around us are proofs of the consequences of the human violation. No wonder all this talks of the reversal, the revenge effect, the blow back the enantiodromia and the fall of the mechanical ethos. When we deny the divine reference point at the start and at the end ( from him we started and to him we return ) the first, the last the visible the invisible, the alone the life giver and sustainer,the beget not, nor he is begotten, the one that has no resemblem nor equal, we throw ourselves in the abyss of nihilism in the dark mill of the demonic and as you said poppy is the chimera of that mill. Knowledge is a divine gift once we deny that, the knowledge will no longer serve its original purpose and become a tool of disarray and destruction as it is well demonstrated by our present civilization which is digging its grave with its own hands. Yes it is the repressed regaining control and the prodigal son is returning home..

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