"President Obama ran, and he carried the hopes and dreams of young Americans with him. I would tell him, should I meet with him face to face, is to be a man, take control of this situation, ‘cuz this is totally out of control," Louisiana Shrimp Assoc. Pres. Clint Gidry said on this morning’s broadcast of Democracy Now!.
Dear brother, who says it was in control to begin with? And who controls the controllers? Do we dominate, or dance with, Mother Nature? Alan Watts provides an illuminating perspective in his 1970s talk, Seeing Through The Net.
(For some reason, I’m unable to bring up the audio downloads site at this time. Seeing Through The Net is also available as part of a set of CDs titled The Tao of Philosopy. In the meantime, free weekly podcasts are available of Alan Watts on iTunes. For more information on Alan Watts, visit allanwatts.net.)
The transcription of the complete talk (below the video) is my own. Note that this video is part one of four.
Alan Watts: Seeing Through the Net
Well now, what I want to do is have a mutual brain-picking session, and uh I’m going to start the ball rolling by saying why I, as a philosopher, am interested in many things you are all probably interested in professionally. Basically, what we’re going to talk about, I suppose, is the problem of control, as exemplified in the ancient Latin question, Quis custodiet custodies ipsos? Who guards the guards?
[VIDEO BEGINS HERE] Now, we know that we’re living in an age when uh there’s been an enormous proliferation of techniques for subjecting every kind of natural process outside the human skin and now increasingly inside the human skin to some form of rational control. And, as we succeed in doing this, it also becomes apparent that we’ve—we’re failing, that the process becomes of such a high degree of complexity that we begin to feel that we are standing in our own way; that uh everybody complains that the state of affairs in the modern world, in the technological world, is so complicated that nobody can understand it, and nobody really knows what to do.
That, for example, you want to run a small business, and you find you run into such enormous legal hassles that you need so-many secretaries to do the work that you can hardly do the business. That you’re trying to run a hospital, but you have to spend so much time making records and writing things down on paper that you don’t have much time to practice medicine. That you’re trying to run a university, and the requirements, the recording, and the endless red tape of the registrar’s office and the administration building that the actual work, of research and teaching, is seriously hampered.
So the individual increasingly feels himself obstructed by his own cautiousness. This is basically what it is.
Now, to explain myself, because most of you are strangers to me, I am a philosopher who has been interested for many years in the mutual fructification of Eastern cultures and Western cultures, studying Oriental ideas not in the spirit of saying, to the West, ‘You ought to be converted to Oriental ideas,’ but in the spirit of saying, ‘You don’t understand the basic assumptions of your own culture if your own culture is the only culture you know.
Everybody operates on certain basic assumptions, but very few people know what they are. You can, say, very often encounter the kind of character who is an American business man, and he says, ‘Well, I’m a practical business man, I believe in getting results and things done and all this thinking and high-falutin’ logic and nonsense is of no concern to me. Now, I know that the practical basic assumptions—the metaphysics of that man, can be defined as pragmatism, as a school of philosophy, but it’s bad pragmatism ‘cuz he’s never thought it through.
And so it’s very difficult, you see, to get down to what are your basic assumptions—what do you mean by The Good Life, what do you mean by consistency, what do mean by rationality? The only way to find out what you mean by these things is by contrasting the way you look at something by the way it’s looked at in another culture, and therefore we have to find cultures which are in some ways as sophisticated as our own, but as different from our own as possible, and of course, for this purpose, I always thought that the Chinese were optimal, and the Indians, the East Indians, and that, by studying the ideas of these people, by studying their life goals, we can become more aware of our own. It’s the old principle of triangulation.
You don’t establish the situation of a particular object unless you observe it from two different points of view, and thereby calculate its actual distance from you. So by looking at what we are pleased to call reality, the physical world, from the basic standpoints of different cultures, I think we’re in a better position to know where we are, than if we have one single line of sight. And therefore this has been my interest and my background.
And arising out of this there is a further question, which I would call the problems of human ecology: how is man to be best related to his environment? Especially in circumstances where we are in possession of an extremely powerful technology and have, therefore, the capacity to change our environment far more than anyone else has ever been able to do so. Are we going to end up not by civilizing the world, but by Los-Angelizing it? In other words, are we going to foul our own nest as a result of technology?
But all this gets down to—the basic question is, really, what are you going to do if you’re god?
If, in other words, you find yourself in charge of the world, through technological powers, and instead of leaving evolution to what we used to call, in the 19th century, the blind processes of nature—that was begging the question, to call them blind—but at any rate, we say, we’re not going to leave evolution to the blind forces of nature but now we’re going to direct it ourselves.
Because we are increasingly developing, say, control over genetic systems, control over the nervous system, control over all kinds of systems; uh then, simply, what do you want to do with it?
But most people don’t know what they want. And have never even seriously confronted the question of what they want. You ask a group of students to sit down and write a solid paper of 20 pages on, What is your idea of heaven? What would you really like to have happen, if you could make it happen? And that’s the first thing that really starts people thinking because you soon realize that a lot of the things you think you would want are not things you want at all.
Supposing, just for the sake of illustration, that you had the power to dream every night any dream you wanted to dream. And you could, of course, arrange for one night of dreams to be seventy-five years of objective time, or any number of years of subjective time, what would you do? Well, of course, you’d start out by fulfilling every wish. You would have routs and orgies and uh uh all the most magnificent food and uh sexual partners and everything you could possibly imagine in that direction. When you got tired of that, after several nights, you’d switch a bit, and find yourself involved in adventures, and uh contemplating great works of art, fantastic mathematical conceptions; you would soon be rescuing princesses from dragons, and all sorts of things like that. And then one night you’d say, now look, Tonight what we’re gonna do is, we’re going to forget this dream is a dream. And we’re going to be really uh shocked, and when you woke up from that one you’d say, ‘Oooh, wasn’t that an adventure!’
Then you would think more and more far out ways to get involved, and let go of control, knowing that you’d always come back to center in the end. But while you were involved in the dream you wouldn’t know you were going to come back to center and be in control. And so, eventually, you’d be dreaming a dream in which you found yourselves all sitting around in this room listening to me talking, all involved with the particular life problems which you have. And maybe that’s what you’re doing. [Laughs.]
The difficulty of control: are you wise enough, to play at being god? And to understand what that question means, we’ve got to go back to metaphysical assumptions underlying Western common sense. And whether you are a Jew, or a Christian, or an agnostic, or an atheist, you are not uninfluenced by the whole tradition of Western culture: the models of the universe which it has employed, which influence our very language, the structure of our thought, the very constitution of logic, which are going into, say, computers.
The Western model of the universe is political. And engineering or architectural. It’s natural for a child to ask its mother, How was I made? It would be inconceivable for a Chinese child to ask, How was I made; it might ask, How was I grown? Or how did I grow, but not how was I made, as if I were an artifact. Something put together, something which is a construct. All Western thought is based on the thought that the universe is a construct. And even when we got rid of the idea of the constructor, the personal god, uh we continued to think of the world in terms of a machine, in terms say of Newtonian mechanics, and later in terms of what we call quantum mechanics, although I find it rather difficult to understand how quantum theory is, in any sense, mechanics. It’s much more like organics, which is, to me, a different concept. However that may be, it has percolated, you see, into the roots of our common sense: that the world is a construct, is an artifact.
And therefore, as one understands the operations of a machine, by analysis of its parts, by separating them into their original bits, we have bitted the cosmos and see everything going on in terms of bits of information, and have found that this is extremely fruitful in enabling us to control what’s happening. After all, the whole of Western technology is the result of bitting.
Let’s suppose, you know, you want to eat a chicken: you can’t eat the whole chicken at once, you have to bite it, you have to reduce it to bits. But you don’t get a cut-up fryer out of an egg. It doesn’t come that way. So what has happened is this.
That, we don’t know the origins of this, it maybe goes back thousands of years, the way we develop the art of thinking, which is essentially calculus, is this: the universe, as it comes, in nature, the physical universe, is something like a Rorschach blot: it’s all wiggles. Uh, we, who live in cities, are not really used to this, because we build everything in straight lines and rectangles and so on. Where ever you see this sort of thing, you know human beings have been around, because they’re always trying to straighten things out.
But nature itself is clouds, it’s water, it’s the outline of continents, it’s mountains, it’s uh biological existences, and all of them wiggle, and wiggly things are, to human consciousness, a little bit of a nuisance. Because we want to figure it out. And it is as if, therefore, some ancient fisherman one day held up his net, and looked at the world through the net. And he said, My, just think of that: there, I can see the view; and that is one—that peak of that mountain is one two three four five six holes across; and the base is one two three four five holes down. Now I’ve got its number! See?
And so, the lines of latitude and longitude, the lines of celestial and terrestrial latitude and longitude, the whole idea of a matrix, of a uh looking at things through graph paper painted or printed on cellophane, is the basic idea of measurement. This is the way we calculate. We break down the wiggly-ness of the world comprehensible, countable, geometrical units, and thereby figure it and construct it in those terms.
And this is so successful—up to a point—that we can, of course, come to imagine that this is the way the physical world really is. Discrete, discontinuous, full of points, in fact a mechanism. But I want to just put into your mind the notion that this may be the prejudice of a certain personality type.
You see, in the history of philosophy and poetry and art, we always find the interchange of two personality types which I call “prickles” and “goo.” The prickly people are uh advocates of intellectual porcupinism, uh they want rigor, they want p-r-r-ecise sta-tis-tics, and they have a certain clipped attitude in their voices, and you know this very well in academic circles, where there are people who are always edgy like that. And they accuse other people of being disgustingly vague, and miasmic, and mystical. But the vague, miasmic and mystical people accuse the prickly people of being mere skeletons with no flesh on their bones. And they say to you, ‘You just rattle! You’re not really a human being. You know the words, but you don’t know the music.’
And so, therefore, if you belong to the prickly type, you hope that the ultimate constituent of matter is particles; if you belong to the gooey type, you hope it’s waves; if you are prickly, you’re a classicist; and if you’re gooey, you’re a romanticist; and, going back into Medieval philosophy: if you’re prickly, you’re a nominalist; if you’re gooey, you’re a realist. And uh so it goes.
But we know very well this universe is neither prickles nor goo exclusively: it’s gooey prickles and prickly goo. And uh [laughs] you see, it all depends on your level of magnification. If you’ve got your magnification on something so that the focus is clear, you’ve got a prickly point of view; you’ve got structure, shape, clearly outlined, sharply defined. You go a little out of focus and it goes blaa, and you’ve got goo. But we’re always playing with the two. Because, it’s like the question is um: is the world basically stuff, like matter; or is it basically structure? Well, we find out of course today in that, in science, we don’t consider the idea of matter, of there being just some sort of stuff, because supposing you wanted to describe ‘stuff:’ in what terms would you describe it? You always have to describe it in terms of structure, something countable, something that can be designated in a pattern. So we never get to any basic stuff.
It seems to me that this way of thinking is based on a form of consciousness which we could best call ‘scanning:’ the capacity to divide experiences into bits is somehow related to a physical facility which corresponds to sweeping a radar beam, or a spotlight, over the environment.
The value of the spotlight, is it gives you intensely concentrated light on restricted areas. A floodlight, by comparison, has less intensity but if you examine, say this room were in total darkness, and you used a spotlight, very thin beam, and you scanned the room with it, you would have to retain in memory all the areas over which it passed, and then, by an additive process, you would make out the contours of the room.
And it seems to me this is something in which civilized man, both in the East and in the West, has specialized, in a method of paying attention which we call ‘noticing.’ And therefore it’s highly selective, it picks out, it’s punctive. It picks out features in the environment which we say are ‘noteworthy,’ and which we therefore register with a notation, be it the notation of words, the notation of numbers, or such a notation as say algebra or music. So that we notice those things—only those things—for which we have notation.
When a child very often a child will point at something, say to its parents, ‘What’s that?’ And they’re not clear what the child is pointing to. The child has pointed to something which we consider is not a thing. The child has pointed to an area of say of funny pattern on a dirty wall, and has noticed a figure on it. But the child doesn’t have a word for it, and says, ‘What’s that?’ And the adult says, ‘Oh, that’s just a mess.’ Because that doesn’t count for us a thing.
So you come, through this, to the understanding: what do you mean by ‘a thing.’ It’s very fascinating, to ask children, ‘What do you mean by a thing?’ And they don’t know. Because it’s one of the unexamined suppositions of the culture.
What do you mean by ‘an event?’ Well, everybody knows what an event is but nobody can say. Because a thing is a think: it’s a unit of thought, like an inch is a unit of measurement. And so we thing the world, that is to say, in order to measure a curve, you have to reduce it to point-instants, and apply the calculus; and so, in exactly the same way, in order to discuss or talk about the universe, you have to reduce it to things, but each thing or think, is as it were one grasp of that spotlight, going jeh-jeh-jeh-jeh like this, you see?
So we reduce the infinite wiggliness of the world, to grasps, or bits. We’re getting back to biting, you see, the idea of teeth, to grasps of thought, and so we thereby describe the world in terms of things, just as that fisherman could describe his view by the number of net hole over—through which the view was showing. And this has been the immensely, and apparently, successful enterprise of all technological culture, as superbly emphasized by ourselves.
But the problem that arises is this. First of all, very obviously, everybody knows, I hardly need to mention it, uh go to the science of medicine. You get a specialist, who really understands the function of the gall bladder. And he studies gall bladders gall bladders gall bladders ad infinitum, and he really thinks he knows all about it. But whenever he looks at a human being he sees him in terms of gall bladders. And so, if he operates on the gall bladder, he may do so very knowledgeably about that particular area of the organism, but he does not foresee the unpredictable effects of this operation, in other connected areas, because a human being’s gall bladder is not a thing, in the same way as um a spark plug in a car can be extracted, and a new one replaced. ‘Cuz the system isn’t the same.
There is a fundamental difference, between a mechanism and an organism, which can be described operationally: mechanism is assembled; you add this bit to that bit to that bit to that bit; but an organism grows. That is to say, when you watch, in a microscope, a solution in which crystals are forming, you don’t see this thing of little bits coming and coming and coming and joining each other and finally making up a shape. You see a solution where—well it’s like watching a photographic plate develop. Suddenly all the whole area which you’re watching seems to organize itself; to develop; to make sense, moving from the relatively simple and gooey to the relatively structured and prickly. But not by addition.
So then, if we are trying to understand and control the world through conscious attention, which is a scanning system, which takes in everything bit bit bit bit bit bit bit bit bit bit bit, what we’re going to run into is that if that’s the only method we rely on, everything is going to appear increasingly too complicated to manage. So that you get, for example, uh let’s take um the problem of the electronic industry.
The catalogs of products, that are being produced over the world by the electronic industry: who has read all the catalogs? How do you know, where you’ve got something you’re working on, whether it’s patented or not? Who else has taken out a patent? Has anybody had time to read all the catalogs? Nobody has, they’re just voluminous! It’s exactly the same in almost any other field: there’s an information explosion like a population explosion. How on earth are you going to scan all that information? Yes, of course, you can get computers to help you with this direction, but by Parkinson’s law, the sooner you become more efficient in doing this, the more the thing is going to develop so that you will have to have more efficient computers still to assimilate all the information. You’ll be ahead, but only for a short time. [Laughs.]
So you see there’s this problem of the uh sort of competition of consciousness, of it’s—how fast can you go doo-te-doo doo-te-doo de doo-te-doo de doo-te-doo de doo-te-doo and keep track of it, you see? You say, ‘I’ve got a good memory, I can keep track of that.’ And you say to you, ‘I’ll bet you you can’t, I’ll go more complicated than you.’ Musicians do this, drummers you know? And they get things going, and they start—so long as they can count, and lots of musicians do count, it’s crazy, but they do—and they count count count and they out-complicate each other to the point where, you can’t retain it any longer in memory. So you say, ‘OK, if I can’t retain it we’ve got this gadget here that can,’ and we’ve got these um marvelous mechanical memories and they’ll retain it. They’ll go much more fancy, they’ll go de doo-te-doo at a colossal speed zwwiiip like that, you see?
But it’s the same old problem. Because you’ll get something that can outdo that. So we end up asking uh—yeah, but supposing there were some other way of understanding it. Let’s go back, from the spotlight, to the floodlight, to the extraordinary capacity of the human nervous system to comprehend situations instantaneously, without analysis, that is to say, without verbal or numerical symbolism of the situation in order to understand it. I hope you understand what I mean.
We—we do do that. We have this curious ability of pattern recognition, which uh the mechanical systems have only in a primitive way. Xerox have put out a machine which recognizes figures written in almost anyone’s handwriting, provided their handwriting is fairly grade-school normal. But a computer has a terrible time trying to recognize the letter ‘a’ when it’s printed in, say, sans serif, Gothic, uh longhand, or whatever kind of ‘a’ you may write, the human recognizes instantly this pattern, but the computer is still at a disadvantage here. It seems to lack a kind of capacity I would call field organization, because it’s all punctive, it’s digital, it’s uh dut-dut-dut-dut-dut-dut-dut-dut- like a newspaper photograph, you know which, when you look at it under a microscope is all dots.
Now—so the problem is this. In developing technology, are we leaving out of consideration our strongest suit, which is the brain itself? See, we are at a situation where the brain is still not really worked out even by the most competent neurologists—this puzzles me. They can’t uh give a model of the brain, numeric or verbal language. Now you are that, you see, you are this thing: you yourself are this thing that you yourself can’t figure out. In the same way that I cannot touch the tip of this finger with the tip of this finger, I can’t bite my own teeth. But I, who is attempting to touch the tip of this finger with this finger, by the sheer complexity of my system, far more evolved than any system which I can imagine.
This is, in a way, slightly akin to the girdle theorem. That um you can’t have a system of uh, say of logic, which defines its own axioms. The axioms of any given system must always be defined in terms of a higher system. All right. So you are the most complex thing that has yet been encountered in the cosmos. And you can’t figure you out. Now you—suppose we’re going to try to do that, and become, as it were, completely transparent to ourselves, so that we could entirely understand the organization or the mechanics of our own brains. What happens when we do that?
Well you’re in the—you’re back in the situation of god. When you’re god, what are you going to do? When you’re god, you know what you’re going to do? You’re going to say, ‘Man, get lost!’ Because what you’ll want is a surprise, and when you’ve figured everything out, there won’t be any surprises, you’ll be completely bored.
The success of Fully Mechanized, Industrial-Strength, Oil-Fueled, Nuclear-Powered Control Man is the death of Mother Nature, and us along with Her. Bolivian President Evo Morales said, Mother Earth has suffered a death wound, and that was two long years ago, long before BP’s well began bleeding crude oil and gases into the Gulf of Mexico at the rate of 12,000-19,000 bbl/day.
The more the full-spectrum dominance fanatics succeed, the worse it will get.