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, 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‑

  • 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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