Alan Watts On Why Our Minds And Technology Can’t Grasp Reality

The world is a marvelous system of wiggles,” says Alan Watts in a series of lectures I keep on my iPod at all times. He means that the world, as it really exists, does not comprise all the lines, angles, and hard edges that our various systems of words, symbols, and numbers do. Were I to distill a single overarching argument from all I’ve read and heard of the body of work Watts produced on Zen Buddhist thought, I would do so as follows: humanity has made astounding progress by creating and reading “maps” of reality out of language, numbers, and images, but we run an ever more dangerous risk of mistaking these maps for the land. In this 1971 National Educational Television program, A Conversation With Myself (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4), Watts claims that our comparatively simple minds and the simple technologies they’ve produced have proven desperately inadequate to handle reality’s actual complexity. But what to do about it?

Using an aesthetic now rarely seen on television, A Conversation With Myself captures, in only two unbroken shots, an informal “lecture” delivered by Watts straight to the viewer. Speaking first amid the abundant greenery surrounding his Mount Tamalpais cabin and then over a cup of ceremonial Japanese green tea (“good on a cold day”), he explains why he thinks we have thus far failed to comprehend the world and our interference with it. In part, we’ve failed because our “one-track” minds operating in this “multi-track” world insist on calling it interference at all, not realizing that the boundaries between us, one another, our technology, and nature don’t actually exist. They’re only artifacts of the methods we’ve used to look at the world, just like the distortions you get when digitizing a piece of analog sight or sound. Like early digitization systems, the crude tools we’ve been thinking with have, in Watts’ view, forced all of reality’s “wiggles” into unhelpful “lines and rows.” He sums up the problem with a memorable dash of Buddha-by-way-of-Britain wit: “You’re trying to straighten out a wiggly world, and now you’re really in trouble.”

(If you’d like a side of irony, ponder for a moment the implications of absorbing all this not only through human language, but through technology like iPods and Google Video!)

Related Content:

Alan Watts Introduces America to Meditation & Eastern Philosophy (1960)

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

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Comments (18)
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  • jld says:

    Well, sure, but mysticism doesn’t offer any better grasp of reality, only a different kind of delusion.
    We cannot do more than being wary about our opinions and keep in mind the Box and Draper quote:
    “All models are wrong, but some are useful”.

  • tien says:

    If he really wants to return to nature, he should go into the woods with david attenborough and not just remain in this artificially cleared fields.

  • Irv Beiman says:

    It’s fascinating that Watts’ message from 40+ years ago has powerful implications for what’s happening today. His use of the term “biosphere” and observation that by grasping for “progress” we are making a worse mess of things.

    It’s worrisome that Watts believes there is little we can do about it, as long as we remain driven by ego [and associated belief].

    I am reminded of what an architect from a sustainable community in India said to me: “The only solution is a change in human consciousness.”

    The grief, suffering and tragedy that is increasing [and seems more than likely to accelerate] may bring about a massive major perturbation in human consciousness, with the evolutionary possibilities….

    Thanks to OPENCULTURE for making this video available!

  • Wayne says:

    I have begun to dwell increasingly in the comfortable space behind my thoughts.

  • Roshan Dasari says:

    Profoundly Simple.

  • Alfonso says:

    Some models are useful… We can assimilate half truths trough language, and technology but to digest and grow with these ideas requires just an open, and aware mind.

  • John Smallberries says:

    You might want to find a copy of “Alan Watts The Future of Communications” and read/listen to what he has to say about the open society.

  • Art M. says:

    I have always found his talks wise and fascinating. Recently I read that he died an unhappy alcoholic, and now I don’t know what to make of the whole situation.

    • siomystic says:

      …when he died I don’t think he was trapped in and exclusively identified with being ‘someone’ who was going through the experience of being an ‘unhappy alcoholic’ …he was the unhappy alcoholic and also the rest of the unified field of life that ‘unhappy alcoholic’ went with… he realized the experiencer is the experience…also he realized that the description isn’t the described. To one who was only noticing the surface appearance he would seem an unhappy alcoholic, but along with being the surface he was also that which goes far deeper and way beyond the surface.

  • Zola says:

    Watts is being polite when saying “we’re simple-minded”. Humans are greedy, vicious and reckless. Not all, but 1% is leading the way for the rest of dimwits. Misanthropic comment? – yes indeed. People are a disease and they don’t even care.

  • Naz says:

    I find this man really shallow with everything that comes out of his simple brain. He rejects human abstraction and prefers the aesthetic form of nature yet the simpleton doesn’t realise that the very forest he was standing and wiggling about in was recreated by man. His choice of words and linked sentences are concocted for him to express a point of view which is counter to the human experience at this moment in time. The very dense language that he uses to express his opinions would not have existed had we still been part of the forest/nature, not that we are not part of it now anyway. Innately we are stuck with our conciousness and our ego. Nothing we can do will change that. As a specie we are both extremely creative and destructive. We are both the God and the Devil of this planet. In our schizophrenia we have managed so far to create some sort of a ‘balance’in our competition with our environment. All living things compete on this planet. Where all that will leads us we have yet to experience. We live only in today. Tomorrow? That’s the future.

  • Ross says:

    To Naz,

    Finding this presentation as shallow is a reflection of your own type of thinking my friend. You have not at all grasped how Watts was using the landscape as an example of the ‘wiggly’ substratum of the cosmos. Think about the concave-convex motion of a wiggle, the opposite shapes define each other and are not at all separate, they are integral parts of a single movement. When he mentioned the city and the wilderness being close to each other and when he spoke about the contrast in artistic ‘styles’ and indeed throughout the whole piece, he was speaking about that. All is defined by it’s opposite, and two opposites are always ends of a single movement; a wiggle.

    When he spoke about man’s tendency to try and ‘straighten-out’ the world, he was saying that if we view the universe only in terms of our linear thinking(no matter how relatively complex it is) then that would be comparable to taking out a ruler and concluding that the universe is comprised of inches.

  • Bobby-z Lambert says:

    Can we not look appon each of us commenting here as the action of a self constructing hive mind. I think the Internet is the latest substrate for the human hive mind and it’s growing every day. In a way perhaps each of us, our individual life experience is akin to a neron? Self construction and fractalization continues. Where it’s going and what it is doing, who can know? Not religion nor science. Not yet that’s for sure. UNTILL YOU CAN HOLD THE UNIVERSE AND ALL THINGS IN YOUR MIND IT REMAINS A MYSTERY. Our brains don’t sit easy with the unknown. Our brains crave labels and certainty. Perhaps we can take heart in the knowledge we as a species are young. Given time and luck we might grow a brain or combined hive mind capable of accepting the self constructing necessity of not accepting ahahhaha.

    UNTILL then carry on my friends as the millions before us did to get us this fare. Warm thoughts to all of you free thinkers.

  • Bobby-z Lambert says:

    Oh I forgot, I could not recommend more highly the late Donella Meads book Thinking In Systems A Primer. Extremely useful to anyone pondering the questions posed here by all. Ps forgive my spelling it remains far from perfect.

  • Charles Sanson says:

    What is cool about nature is that it don’t give a shit who you are, too bad we don’t we don’t do the same. Wee might try to level a mountain or clear a forest but drown in an ocean.

  • JL Fraz says:

    I want to share this with friends who listened to him on the radio when his lectures were broadcast on FM station.q

  • GORDON F BROWN says:

    I am looking for the source:
    “The wiggles of human experience are just too complex to use” (Alan Watts)

  • Rey DG says:

    When I first heard about him years ago, I thought that he was a gibberish conman using mysticism as a way of earning his bread. But years of my autodidactism only prove his philosophical holisms or systems thinking to be more tangible, resonating, and empathizing with the very same principles that I’ve rediscovered during my freethinking interdisciplinary scientific studies.

    Perhaps, humanity’s purpose is to thrive with our ineptitude or the fraction of the “fractal”, or else, we could’ve at any time become second-class omnipotent, sowing distortions capable of implanting faux-order towards the greater order of the entropy-negentropy universe — greater order filled with interregulating feedback loops that allowed and still allowing it to create the various amount of greater order impersonal to humanity’s egotism and spearheaded movements that are predetermined to thrive yet to be erased by the impending filters that we won’t ever go above.

    We may still at any time choose to scientifically reduce & systemize, but at the very end of the day, we won’t ever have the technology that would allow us to study & understand the systems running outside of the comprehensible universe which is connected and manipulating the comprehensible reality. And even if we understand the ebb & flow of the microcosm, macrocosm, and the supra-reality; the only thing that we will ever have are systemized snapshots that are delayed from the current & actual holisms of the great piece filled with interregulating parts that make up its dynamical whole. Since if you are the origin of a self-regulating reality, then it would be careless to have your complex simulation usurped by the very entities that you directly or indirectly created, especially when you are unable to create outside back-ups, if the simulation is a part of you that could taint you if you are not careful with what you toy with, and you are avoiding to corrupt the whole mathematically discernable self-regulating simulation that will be messed up once a snapshot of the interregulating pieces of the whole is cherry-picked.

    The alcoholic history that deteriorated him is just a complementary piece of the coffin since a system thinking truth-finder delving in the anthropomorphically tainted platforms is almost definite to become corrupted, full of burden and conflicting dualisms since one shall fully immerse itself to its autodidactism to ensure the systemized grasping of it. Without the immersion, simulation, or what I call as self-sacrifice in the name of the truth, then the truth-finding is futile because we can’t ever half-a$$ly nor ascetically discern the tangible holisms or the systems science of this reality. This is what also makes a truth-finder a rarity or else, the virtuoso holistics would be as generic & somewhat pointless as pieces of mass-produced chicken nuggets diluting this possibly cyclical human experience.

    He could’ve saved himself with asceticism while having the capability to redesign his platforms, lifestyle, and environment that would design a better life for him, but I suppose it became more & more difficult as he is stuck in the truth-finding loop that is full of traps despite the rewarding realizations that make up such a dualistic lifestyle. He could’ve also tapped the greater truth but in return, he shall greatly compensate or self-sacrifice or else, his realizations will furtherly taint the collective human experience; imprisoned, constrained, and immersed in the various tension of this reality until we either give up, give in or continue deluding ourself that we are capable proprietors of this reality. We can’t even fully understand the actual & current complete dynamics of the human body as of this moment just by testing the reduced amount of our cells and organs. So how dare we assume that we can out game the supra reality with this limited type of being, even if we integrate it with posthumanism and too much engineering when it is all but a speck of the “fractal”?

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