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Reflections On Alan Watts Philosophy

March 18, 2010

Yesterday I was watching a video by a famous philosopher, Alan Watts.  He was big in the 1960s and 1970s.   Here’s the video:


Watch Alan Watts – A Conversation with Myself in Lifestyle |  View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

I think he’s an interesting guy.  I’m not sure if I agree with the things he says in this video or not.  I’m a bit undecided.  I think whether or not I agree with him will depend on very detailed neuroscience studies.  Until I’m able to finish those studies, I’ll have to remain undecided.

He’s the type of guy who has serious doubts about technology.  Nature has a set direction it’s on and instead of cooperating with nature, we instead have tried to control it and change it.   We’ve tried to dominate it.  This in turn has made us feel alienated from the Earth and the universe and ultimately will lead to a dead end.  Well, in his opinion, we’re already at a dead end.

I think his strongest point is when he talks about how we want to make things straight, whereas the world always wiggles.  He looks out onto the landscape around him and everything is curvy and almost chaotic.   We feel we don’t understand something unless we break it down into simple geometric shapes.  We represent space in terms of lines and distances from an origin point with three extended lines at right angles to each other.  But why do that?  He even goes so far as to say Euclid had a rather weak intellect.

Later we come to Einstein and relativity, and we find that reality isn’t quite as simple as we thought.  Space curves and bends and is even related to time in the strangest ways.  It’s insanely complicated.   Space and time wiggle, yet our theories are square-like, trying to squeeze reality into a mold it was never made to fit into.

He feels we far too often leave the outside world outside, and get lost in our personality.  Lost in various areas of our brains.  We’ve lost ourselves when we think all the time instead of experiencing reality, talking to ourselves and bouncing language and symbols around in our heads.  Other times we attribute our “selves” to illusory perceptions, such as bodily tension, etc., and come to think of that as “us”.

He attributes very little substance to the thoughts which take place in our heads.  In other videos and materials made by him, he’s all about shutting up the “chattering” in our heads.  Words and thought are akin to ripples in a pond, and we need to settle down and remember that those things are illusory, and for us to get out of our heads and back into reality.  To him, that’s what meditation entails.

How to respond to these things.  Well, I won’t go into great detail.  I’ve been studying physics all day long and am a bit tired.  I’ll try to quickly make some points though.

Early in the video he looks out onto the landscape and says that it all makes an impression on him, all at once.  The world simply impresses itself on him.  The world, when looked at in this regard, is ultimately very simple.  The same applies to moving his bodily limbs, or clasping something in his hand.

Take love for instance.  A lot of couples simply fall in love.  They don’t think any complex philosophy, and they don’t have to justify anything in their heads.  They just like each other and go with their feelings.  But then there’s other people who try to define everything out, but is that even necessary?

Love is very complicated to describe, yet when you’re in love and with someone who reciprocates that love, it’s all very simple.   To Mr. Watts, all that language and talk in your head is an illusion.  Just words bouncing around, and you’re making it all complicated, wasting your psychic energy.  Just feel and go with your feelings.

Oftentimes with education, we just lose ourselves in our minds, and become disconnected from reality.  Talk about love all day long, when you’ve never had a fulfilling love life of your own.

To Mr. Watts, we’ve taken science too far, or at least, have gotten lost in our equations and techniques, and have lost the big picture.   It’s all so complicated that we create all this technology which then destroys the Earth and all life around us, and will eventually destroy ourselves as well.   The world is wiggly and subtle, yet we apply theories which are square-like and rigid, and it’s not working.  We need to sit back and say, “Nature, you’re much smarter than us.   Trying to control you, we’ve only destroyed ourselves.”

I think this same concept applies to economics.  When I read these Keynesian textbooks, advocating government intervention in this, intervention in that, controlling this, controlling that, these are the same sorts of arguments that come up.  When you have an economy which consists of over 300,000,000 individual actors, and millions of businesses all interrelated in complex ways, trying to plan such large scale concepts as “aggregate supply” and “aggregate demand”, and screwing around with the money supply by manipulating interest rates, etc., can only lead to disaster.  The economy wiggles, but our theories are square-like and too rigid.

Thinking about it, I guess I am a bit of a contradiction.  When it comes to markets, I say set them free in order to succeed.  They’re too complicated to plan.  Then we come to nature and the universe and I grit my teeth and say, “Let’s go guys!  We need to control these forces and build a better world!”

But do we go back to foraging around for food, chasing buffalo around the plains?  Here’s how I see it.  For now, the artificial world we’ve constructed is one in which nature will not upkeep itself in that state without us having to do work.  We build homes, yet natural processes tend to erode them away.  The homes rot, their foundations sink and crack, pipes rust and bust, etc.

So instead of doing that, should we instead try to find some way to live more in line with nature?  Well, when I study biology, I find it all to be an arbitrary process of matter congealing on itself into cells and slowly evolving over billions of years.  When I examine it closely, sure it’s complicated, and we may well make mistakes trying to intervene in various life systems, but I don’t hold nature up as some holy grail either.

I think we’re on the verge of constructing machines with complex artificial intelligence.  I think we’ll have drone machines which repair our homes in the future.  They’ll stock the shelves in our stores, produce the products, work the assembly lines, etc.   And when that happens, how is that any different than nature upkeeping itself?   The machines, running according to the same laws of nature, will simply run themselves if they’re built well enough.

Next we come to aesthetic beauty.  I agree with him that nature is more beautiful than the city.  The city is all squares and simple geometric figures.  I too find it boring.  That’s why I like to spend my time outdoors.  Nature is very subtle and intricate.  I find the sounds of birds singing, and crickets chirping far more peaceful than ambient music in the supermarket.

So as technology advances and we can construct any world we desire, are we only shooting ourselves in the foot?  Are we going to end up with a world that’s boring and box-like, instead of wiggly, subtle, and beautiful like many of the things mother nature produces?   I don’t know.  As the world population increases, there will be less and less space for forests and peaceful surroundings.  People will be everywhere.

That’s a funny point actually.  If you watch the video above, you’ll hear Mr. Watts going into this deep philosophy, drinking Japanese tea, and then some idiot screams something off in the background, like a moron.  You hear him off in the distance.  There’s always some fraternity boys out at the park, drinking alcohol, screaming, “Wwwooohooooooo.  Where’s the girls at!”  Then they turn up their stereos real loud and annoy everyone.

I was reading an article in Discover magazine not too long ago, and it was talking about peace and quiet.  There’s some scientists from an institute who traveled around the world looking for remote locations where you wouldn’t have to put up with people making noise.   They scientifically measured noise levels, and time between disruptions.

The result?  Basically peace and quiet doesn’t exist anymore, anywhere.  I’m too tired now to find the article, but it’s interesting.  I don’t like that trend at all.

One thing I don’t like about a lot of Mr. Watts videos is that he gets into that “peace of mind” stuff.  He’ll ridicule the stress of city life, and then show autumn trees, with their gorgeous colorful arrays of browns, yellows, and orange, and peaceful water streams.   If only all nature in the outside world was like that!

He should show a beetle walking across the ground and then one those nice birds swooping down, scooping it up into its beak, then tearing it to shreds, the beetle writhing in agony, all in slow motion.  Show an owl eating a mouse, or a tiger pouncing on a gazelle.  Show stars exploding and black holes sucking in and crushing everything around it.

Earthquakes level cities to the ground.  Tsunamis hit the beaches and drown everyone.  Tornados destroy all the homes in a city block.

Nature is not peaceful.  It’s yin and yang.  Black and white.  Good and evil.  It has its days.

Even if we’re armed with our simplistic models, which don’t take everything into account, there’s a huge part of me that wants to throw up my middle finger to the universe, and fight back.  Build a peaceful world without all the madness.   Without death and aging and losing our loved ones.  Without all the nasty conflicts, the diseases, and other torments.

If all we do is sit and meditate and lose ourselves in the moment, and don’t plan or even attempt to understand the universe, that stuff is never going to go away.

In another video of Mr. Watts, he talks about “Work As Play.”  He gives an example of washing dishes.  He says to get lost in the moment, and not to think about all the dishes you’ve washed in the past, or all those you’ll have to wash in the future.  Just think to yourself, “I only have to wash this one dish right now.”  And wash it, and make it into a sort of dance.  So there you go, washing and dancing, filled with bliss, making minimum wage, not capable of supporting your family, or able to afford health insurance, and there you go, dancing away.

Are you guys able to do that?  I’m not.  I can’t just turn it off and lose myself in some pointless job I can’t stand.  I’ve tried, and it doesn’t work for me.  He comes across to me as a Zen Buddhist.  He’s very desireless.  He wants to sit and meditate for hours, just feeling the breeze blow on his skin.  I have desires and wish to do things.  I suppose that makes me miserable at times, but it also gives me a joy which meditation could never give me.

So I guess it’s back to desiring to change the world, yet our first attempts at doing so have failed.  We’ve modified crops in order to get higher yields and now our foods are becoming less healthy to eat.  We have pesticides to keep the bugs off, yet we’re polluting our water.  We’re cutting down the rainforests out of greed, and oil spills are ruining our beaches.

This new age we’re entering requires us all understanding our actions, and how they take place in the bigger picture.  Yet people are acting only according to their personal self-interests, and we’re destroying ourselves out of greed.

When you learn Kung Fu, one of the first lessons you learn is how to take a fall and quickly get back up.  I think we need to quickly get back up and get back to swinging because we won’t win this fight on the ground.

Then again, Mr. Watts would argue that the fight is unnecessary.  Fighting is the problem.  There is no conflict, and that is all is rooted in an incorrect assessment of what reality is.   I think he’s just missing various subtle points.

He says computers and most people have one track minds, whereas the world impresses itself all at once, and does everything at once, never in steps.  To him all that exists is the eternal and ever-present now.   But I think the one under an illusion is him, as he’s never studied neuroscience.  We can’t blame him really, as back in the 1970s, they didn’t know as much as we do now.

He believes that all there is to neurons is a firing on and off.  That’s hardly the case.  There are all kinds of neurotransmitter chemicals, reuptake systems, processes that take place within the clefts of the synapses, dendrite arms and their attachments to stubs, inhibitions and amplifications of signals, and much more.   There are many many different types of neurons with all kinds of shapes and patterns, some with long arms and some with short.  Some with many arms and some with few.  It’s very intricate and complicated.

That oneness of the world’s impressions that he experienced is only that way because of various systems inside his brain.  Specific regions of his neocortex, lateral genitculate nucleus, and more are automatically performing various operations for him, step by step, but doing multiple operations at once, similar to a computer which multi-threads.  He sees that entire landscape at once, and all of its geometric forms, because his brain processes all that information automatically.   It analyzes the changes in contrast, pixel by pixel, from the cells in the back of his eyes, and forms conscious thought of an environment and space.

The reason he doesn’t have to consciously think about various actions, such as moving his limbs, or processing the spatial orientation of his environment, is because it’s all hardware accelerated, and done automatically by his brain, whereas traditional learning, like what we learn in books and school, is done through association and is much slower and more complicated.  In association our brain’s neurons grow additional dendrite arms and link various things together.  It takes energy, resources, and time to do all that, which is why it requires 20 years worth of education, not to mention being very tiring.  In other brain areas, you’re already born with processing and proper links in place.

If I recall correctly, Broddmann area 17 is for raw sight perception, and 18 and 19 analyze the changes in colors and form representations of objects, and I believe form a conception of space.   The words which bounce around in his brain, which for some reason he seems to frown upon,  originate in areas such as Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas.  Those areas are linked by nerve axons to other areas of the brain, which is how we can link words to objects.   I don’t get what’s wrong with that.  I see no reason to consider thought and the words in our heads as worthless noise and “chatter”.

The objects he experiences with his eyes are just as illusory as the words which bounce around in his head.  The objects he sees have set shapes and forms, and his brain tells him that they’re a certain distance away from him, but that’s not true at all.  What he really sees are electromagnetic waves traveling to him from those objects, which originate in the surface atoms of that object, which follow quantum mechanical laws.  The atoms become excited absorbing sun-light and moonlight photons, and then release photons back into space, which then travel to your eyes, and that energy creates the signals which your brain processes.  Sure the atoms wiggle and do strange things, but they’re not entirely incomprehensible.

If you start moving at speeds near that of light, you’ll watch distances change, masses will change, objects will start to bend and curve and change colors.  As Immanuel Kant argued, “When do we know things as they are in and of themselves?”  The answer is we don’t.

I think if we learn how our brains work to a large extent, we can increase their capacity, and we’ll be able to more easily harmonize with nature and understand its processes.  If we can increase our methods of communication from audible speech to something much faster, we can teach each other what we learn much more quickly, instead of having to read books for 20 years, and even then only learn a small fraction of what’s to know, not to mention forgetting half of it.

I think the world is so confusing because it’s old and complicated, whereas we’re so young compared to it.  The universe is purported to be 13.9 billion years old.  At least, so they think.  I’m not even 30 years old!  It’s not surprising that we can’t figure it out.

But I think if our lifespans were 100,000 years, and our brains were thousands of times more powerful, we could easily harmonize with nature, and I believe we’d think in wiggles, not in squares and rigid boxes.

I think the ultimate reality is the laws which govern this universe, not individual people’s perception of it.  I say this simply because from those laws we can assume that other people are having various experiences, even if we ourselves are not experiencing those things directly.  We all experience the world as individuals, but the laws which govern the world are universal.  Amazingly, our brains, as primitive as they are, can discover those laws, and even start to use them to our benefit.  I think nature wants us to take that thread and run with it.  Where it all goes, I don’t know.

This allows us to move beyond ourselves and see the world as one.  His philosophy confines you to your personal inner world, and you never can see beyond it.  Take depression for instance.  You may be happy and easy going, and wonder why that Zen philosophy stuff isn’t working for someone else.  Well, when you study the limbic system, and how it can be damaged, causing things like bipolar disorders, you can, at least in in a way, experience the world of another person, even if you’re not yourself experiencing it subjectively.

He talks so much about experiencing the world in its entirety.  I don’t think that’s possible without dedicated instruction and education.

He’d call me a “prickly” person.  Very analytical and precise.  He calls others “goo”.  Emotional and feeling driven.  I honestly don’t think I’m either.  I use my “prickly” logic to understand the goo, which originates in the limbic system.  It all can be explained scientifically, even though it’s rather laborious at times.  I also have a goo part of me, which can be very loving and warm, though I reserve those things for special people in my life.

But let’s not be too hard on Mr. Watts.  Sometimes when I’m stressed out, just sitting down, quieting my mind, and just hearing the subtleties around me can bring a lot of peace.  Alan Watts is a smart guy, and has a lot of teach.  When it comes to loving and enjoying a lot of aspects of life, he’s a better teacher to go to than me.  I’m sure if he was still alive, and we met, we’d talk for hours and be great friends.

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