Game Theory of Ethics

Alan Watts asks whether playing the game of life is worth the effort required. But by turning the argument around and investigating the alternative, he instills within the audience an appreciation for the gamble with fate that every life ultimately takes on.

00:00

I was putting forward, so as to have all my cogs on the table, what my metaphysics are—that is to say: what are the basic assumptions from which I approach this question? And I stress two points in particular. Number one: that, as I feel this universe, I think we are under an illusion with regard to the nature of ourselves. This arises from the superstition that there are really separate things and events. And I pointed out that that is actually a way of thinking rather than a state of affairs in the physical universe. In order to think, one must thing—that is to say, divide this astonishing cosmic Rorschach blot into bits, and give the bits names. This is a kind of calculus. And we break the world down into these separate things and separate events—they’re really thing-events, you might call them—in order to calculate about it, in order to describe its behavior, in order to think.

01:49

But just as something that costs five dollars—if you buy a loaf of bread or… let’s say it wouldn’t be five dollars, let’s say fifty cents—it isn’t fifty separate things that you buy, although you pay fifty cents for it. And so, in the same way, when we talk about the multiplicity of things in this universe, this is just a way of measuring it. Measuring it with words as you measure the value of something with money or the length of something with inches. But we are so accustomed to, so (I would say) hypnotized, by the usefulness of thought that we come to imagine that the way the world is thinked is the way it’s thinged, is the way it really is. But I rather see it as a continuous process, a single vast field of activity, a single pattern, of which every single one of us is an expression.

03:10

But when you think about, say, a series of events as being separate events, it’s the result of a kind of myopia. If you watch something going on through a narrow slit, you see the event broken down into bits and you see bit following bit, whereas if the crack were enlarged you would see that the separate bits were all one event. So in much the same way our custom of attending to our experience with concentrated attention cuts it down into things we call separate events.

04:03

The other basis of my metaphysics was that we tend to ignore the polarity of the world. That is to say, to use a simpler word, the gowithness of things and events. That, just as in a series of waves, to have a complete wave you must have both a crest and a trough, you can’t have a half wave. Half waves are never manifested in this cosmos. Just as you must have the crest and the trough, so also there is a gowithness of subject and object, self and other, and of course those great fundamental physical polarities being and nonbeing, solid and space, light and darkness, life and death.

05:09

But when this is not perceived—when we are not aware of the total unity of the world, of the fact that one’s actual self is not something in the world, separate from it, but the whole works, and when you’re not aware that self and other go together, inside and outside, in such a way as to constitute one total body—then, because of this feeling of separation, of not really belonging, we feel alienated from our total environment and from other people, and so act towards it in a predominantly hostile way.

06:06

Now, during the question period there arose some discussion of the purpose of this universe, and I think I stirred up a little bit of trouble by suggesting that I didn’t think it had a purpose—in the ordinary sense of the word “purpose,” that is to say: action directed towards a future, striving for a goal. I felt rather that the design of the world was playful as distinct from purposive. And furthermore, therefore, that being itself, existence, is not fundamentally and finally serious. Of course, you see, if you think, if you really believe that you are this lonely little separate being confronted by a world that doesn’t give a damn about you and is mostly hostile, then it is pretty serious. You’re in a trap, man! But one might ask in conventional Christian terms: if there is a god, is god serious? And one would say: I hope not.

07:34

Because let’s look at this word, “serious.” If some attractive woman says to me, “I love you,” ought I to come back to her and say, “Are you serious or are you just playing with me?” I don’t think I should ask that because I hope she isn’t serious and that she will play with me. I don’t really go for serious girls. So I should ask instead, “Are you sincere, or are you just toying with me?” And, you see, that gives an entirely different meaning.

08:30

Because seriousness is a kind of gravity, and a gravity is a kind of weight. And that which is heavy is a drag; it sinks. And G. K. Chesterton once very rightly said not only that there was more affinity between “cosmic” and “comic” than the mere similarity of the words, but also that angels fly because they take themselves lightly. And if this were true of the angels, how much more would it be true of the lord of the angels? In other words, you could say in mythological language that the most serious being in the world would be the devil, inflamed with hatred and malice against the cosmos, whereas the most non-serious being would be god, because he would be supreme lightness, spirit, levity. And indeed, Dante intimates this when he describes the song of the angels as the laughter of the universe. You know what those angels do, singing Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia? What do you think that is? That’s nonsense!

09:58

When I was (for a while) a minister, I used to tell the students—I was a university chaplain—and I used to tell the students that we were going to have a celebration of the holy communion on Sunday at eleven o’clock. “And I mean celebration!” I said. “Don’t come here out of a sense of duty. If you do, you’re a skeleton at the feast, and you better stay in bed or go for a swim or something. Because here, in celebrating the divine mysteries, we’re going to join the angels in making celestial whoopie.”

10:48

But, you see, our tradition has in its background the idea that god is really rather grim. And you must—so many of you have picked this up as children. Children are very sensitive to what I call the aesthetics of religion. And the aesthetics of religion is very much overlooked by religious people. In the WASP culture we have a positive genius for spiritual ugliness. I think of: why do we bind our bibles in black? Why do clergymen go around in black? Why do we have that ghastly kind of sickly yellow stained glass in church buildings, especially Protestant ones? There’s something about it. And then, too, in the pulpit, there’s a certain kind of funny solemnity that goes with preaching. And children immediately detect that there’s something phony about it. Why does that man put on a special voice which isn’t like the ordinary voice people talk with? I know, of course, it was the result of the fact long ago that there were no public address systems, and one had to boom to be heard in a large building. But there it is. There is this feeling, this flavor. I would almost call it as they say in Zen Buddhism—you know, a person who has too much Zen and who’s (what we would call) got a kind of religious mania—they say he has Zen stink. And so one can have religious stink. And it is this kind of strange solemnity as if god were always taking the attitude of: this is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you.

12:58

And so, because of the influence of these images upon our thinking—and, you know, images have an extraordinarily powerful influence on us. They are much more powerful than logical ideas. You can firmly believe with Paul Tillich that god is simply the ground of being, or with St. Thomas Aquinas that he is necessary being, or with F. S. C. Northrop that he is the undifferentiated aesthetic continuum. But those images that influenced you in childhood remain, as it were, in the very roots of your thinking at the bottom of your heart, and pull those heartstrings very strongly even though you may have outgrown them intellectually. So I am for serious revision of the image of god. I think that’s very, very important, and that we exorcise this grim lord of the universe who is kind, yes… loving, yes… just, yes… but solemn, serious. And so, of course, the attitude of the minister is so often to, the young: now, boys, quit horsing around! You and I have got to get together for a very serious talk.

14:25

Well, now, as I indicated, we use the word “game,” “play,” in different ways. We can use it to mean what is only trivial: play as distinguished from work. And in our culture we make a very firm differentiation between play and work. If I—you know, I enjoy my work so much that I’m accused very often of not doing any. You know: “You write books, and you give lectures, and you read, and all that kind of thing, and that’s not really work. It would be if you didn’t like it.” But the assumption is, you see: when I want to get away with something and say, “Well, I have some work to do,” that means: “Well, of course. You’re excused. You can go.” Because it is important that you work. But if I said, “Well, I have some very important play to do,” it wouldn’t quite go over, you see.

15:39

But the idea is, you see, that you work, and although that’s the serious part of life, the objective of it is to get enough money so as to be able to play. And nobody really does, because most people I know, they make lots of money, but when they get home they don’t really play. They’re either too tired or they watch television—and that’s not really playing, that’s a kind of non-participative dope addiction. But the other thing is that the reason why we don’t play is that we believe playing… we can do it just so long as it’s good for us. In other words, play is called “recreation”—that is to say: what gets you in a fitter condition to go back to work. See, work is the objective. So we excuse play, and culture, and all that kind of thing, in that it relaxes us and makes us stronger so that we can be more productive.

16:57

But, you see, if you play in order to do better work, you’re not really playing. Because play is the kind of activity which does not have an ulterior motive. It is the kind of activity that is done for its own sake. And according to St. Thomas Aquinas, this is peculiarly characteristic of god. Because he says, quoting the Book of Proverbs, where the wisdom of god is personalized and speaks and says that her function is always to play in the presence of the most high. Unfortunately, the King James—which is a very dignified translation of the bible—says, “rejoice,” but the Hebrew says “play.” And so he said that this was a divine activity because, whereas work is done to serve some purpose, he who is all perfection has no purpose. There is nothing he needs. He doesn’t need to do any work. And therefore, the activity of god is supremely playful.

18:18

So, in this way, one might say that the most important thing in human life for one’s sanity is to be able to be playful or to be able to do things which are sublimely useless. Where, you see, there is no room in our lives for the useless and for the purposeless (in this sense of the word), we are in serious danger of going completely crazy. That was the original idea of Sunday: the useless day, the day that was timeout, the day when you weren’t supposed to do anything serious. It was holiday: holy day. But instead, Sunday has been perverted, and instead of being really timeout it becomes time instead for recreation so that you go back stronger Monday morning, and for laying it on thick in the way of rationality and lectures on the good life.

19:37

So, you see, there’s a little paradox here. It is absolutely necessary for our sanity that we should play and that we should be useless and be preoccupied with useless things from time to time. But we don’t do it if we do it because it’s good for us. So in the mood of play one has to get one’s mind completely away from the future and the purposes of the future, and get into what I would call a musical mood. Because music is supremely playful—in that it doesn’t strive for goals, it fulfills itself at every moment of its unfolding, even though it has a design, it has patterns, it has movements; as with a symphony, it has progressments, as with the working out of the pattern of a fugue. But always the point of music is to be with it as it unfolds. Because if you aren’t, you miss the melody; you don’t hear it at all.

20:50

And so, then, I would look upon this world as a musical phenomenon, as a game which is a kind of sublime nonsense. Just as when Bach writes a line of melody, it doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t try to imitate the thundering of horses’ hooves, or the sound of streams, or factory whistles and the uprising of the workers, or anything like that. It has no social message. It’s pure playing with sound and (for this reason, among others) sublime.

21:50

So then, it would appear that our whole cosmos is a colossal effusion of splendid nonsense. And you can see every form of life—insects, rabbits, giraffes, elephants, people, bees, flowers, everything—as different kinds of music. In the same way as you get waltzes, mazurkas, charlestons, swing—every kind of musical form or dance form—so in the way those dances differ, so in the same way all species of life differ. They are different tunes, different dances. And the importance of them is not to get somewhere, because the only place you can get (if you’re going to go somewhere in time) is a kind of reproductive vicious circle.

22:56

We live to have children who all get put in boxes and come out just the same, and they’re going to put their children in boxes, and so on, and so on, and so on. Well, we are just nothing but a lot of tubes, swallowing food which goes in at one end and out the other, and that wears the tube out. But the whole thing is to keep it going by manufacturing new tubes by reproduction, and they’ll do the same thing, and so on, and so on. But so long, you see, as they’re all thinking that the point of doing this is that sometime, somehow, something’s going to turn up, they’ll always miss the point! They will always be there rather than here. It’s very funny to come to California—you know, when you’ve lived elsewhere and it’s been an ideal—and suddenly you wake up and you realize you’re there! You know? You’re on vacation, you’ve got there, and everybody else envies you. And so we have to learn how to be there—or rather, to be here.

24:17

Of course, it is always possible to construe the thing in another way and to say: yes, it may be a game, but it’s a ghastly game; it’s a grim game. It’s like a child who’s caught a fly alive and is picking the wings off it. The universe is that sort of scheme. It’s a trap. It’s a thing that gives you hope, is always dangling possibilities in front of you to keep you going, but then it grinds you up. And then it revives you a little, like a master torturer keeping a person alive in order to experience pain. There is a kind of inverted mystical experience that people occasionally have where they see the whole universe as this sort of trap, and everything looks crummy. People look as if they’re made of plastic, and aren’t really people but only make-believe people. They’re mechanisms which are going “yakety yak” and pretending that they are really there and alive. And everything looks as if it were made of patent leather or enameled tin, and just a nasty, dead scene. That’s the inverted mystical experience. And one might ask: “Well, you could take that view, too.” And here you come to what Albert Camus said: the fundamentally important philosophical question is whether or not to commit suicide.

25:46

Now, this is the real question: is the game worth the candle? If you think no, then you’d better commit suicide. That’s the logical thing to do. If, on the other hand, you’re not sure, then you’d better make up your mind. Because if you’re going to go on with the game of life and not be sure as to whether it’s really worth going on, you’ll make a mess of it. That’s quite certain. It’s like doing something evil, like telling a lie: if you’re going to tell a lie at all, you have to make it stick. And so: make it good. Don’t wobble when you lie, because someone will find you out and it’ll all fall apart, and it’ll be worse than if you never did it. So if you make up your mind that you’re going to do something evil, you have to have—like a golf swing—follow-through. And so, in the same way, with going on living at all: if you’re going to gamble, gamble! And so, either suicide or gamble seem to me to be the great alternatives of this life.

27:07

And what will the gamble be? The gamble—or the gaming—has to rest on the assumption that this game is superb. No other assumption will work. If I may put it in another way: the game is to be trusted. The universe—you, yourself—it is fundamentally to be trusted. And this is the act of faith which underlies all gambling. Because if you don’t make that assumption as absolutely basic, the game will not work. Now, this is where one must consider game theory in relation to ethics. What are the characteristics of a workable game? A viable game, as biologists would call it; a game that is worth the candle?

28:21

First of all, the game must involve an optimal combination of skill and chance—or we might say order and randomness. Where a game is pure chance, it loses interest. Let’s just think of tossing coins: the chances are fifty-fifty, always, that it will be either heads or tails. And this becomes very boring. One wants to cheat a little to liven it up, and so introduce a bit of skill. But where a game depends on pure skill, and especially a very complex kind of skill, it becomes too tiresome. So you could put at opposite ends of a spectrum of games, say, tossing coins or tic-tac-toe—or something very simple which is mostly chance (because tic-tac-toe, when you know how to play it, reduces itself to that you either win or draw if you get the first move)—at the other end of the scale, a highly complex game like… well, I’ve suggested three-dimensional chess, but just imagine three-dimensional go, where you would play on eight boards to give yourself a cube to play in, or whatever number of boards—go would be more than that, wouldn’t it? But you would be in such a complex thing that you’d just lose track of it. Eventually, the game would just become totally confused for most people.

30:07

So we get optimal games in the middle—like bridge, or poker, or checkers, or chess—where there is this interplay of skill and chance. So we look for this optimal point where there is a risk—there must be a risk, there must be chance, it mustn’t all be predetermined—because any game where the result is known is not worth playing. That’s to say, when, in chess, the players suddenly realize that white is going to mate in five moves, they abandon the game and say, “Let’s begin again.” And so in life. That’s why a lot of people don’t like going to fortune tellers. They don’t want to know the future. If I know exactly what’s going to happen to me, in a very real sense I’ve had it. So let’s finish it up and begin again; turn in the check. You see, the whole fun of the situation of a game is that you don’t know the outcome, and that’s why it’s worth playing. This is one characteristic of a viable game: a certain combination of skill and chance.

31:29

Now, there’s another, which is of a much more ethical type, and that is: I will call it trusting the game. Because if you don’t do this—in other words, if you won’t gamble—you won’t play. And here is the point of the necessity of the gamble that corresponds a little bit to the necessity of having chance as well as skill in any game that really works. But the necessity of gambling is very much overlooked, I think, in our contemporary culture. Because this is a culture where we are trying as much as possible to take the risk out of things. And when the risk is taken out of human relationships they become impossible. We have, I think, in the United States, a very naïve faith in law and in law enforcement. We’re always saying, “There ought to be a law against it,” as if law could solve things. And we don’t realize the extent to which law makes life increasingly more difficult. Because law is simply a process of trying to define what may be done and what may not be done. But the moment you start talking, the definitions become increasingly complicated. And lawyers love this; they live on it. So, it’s always an interminable discussion of, “What did they mean when they said that? What was the intent of this law?” And as laws multiply with the avowed object of protecting us from each other, they do not so much succeed in protecting us as they do in making it impossible for us to act. And so the ultimate police state is, of course, the safe state: the security state where everybody is checked.

33:59

And you see what this is? Mechanically speaking, it’s a system of very elaborate self-consciousness. See, when you get self-conscious and you watch everything you do because you’re anxious about making a mistake, you find: in that you’re all tied up and you can’t act. So, in exactly the same way, a community of people which is always watching itself through its agents, so that—you know, in a Nazi state there are not only the ordinary policemen on the beat, but there’s a block captain for every area, and there’s some kind of a sneak or traitor who’s going to inform the authorities… everywhere, you see; hidden—so this community is watching itself all the time because it’s a community that doesn’t trust itself. And a community which constantly watches itself is like a person who’s always watching himself and holding a club over his head to go CLUNK the minute he might be in danger of doing something wrong. And so this person is like this. If I say, now, my right hand is my main active hand, but I don’t know whether I can trust it. I don’t know what it’s going to do. So I’ve got to keep control on it with my left hand. See? So, always, the left hand is controlling the right hand. If I want to pick something up, the left hand will have to push the right hand down, and squeeze the fingers together, and then lift it up so that it’ll come up. See? I’ve lost a hand by doing that. And so, in exactly the same way, when any community of people is founded on mutual mistrust, it sort of loses half of itself. It becomes clutched up; it becomes paralyzed and unable to move.

36:01

So the basis of any community—and thus the basis of any game—is the act of faith that I will gamble; I will bet my life on this scene. And, you see, that also is fundamentally not only the attitude of faith, but it’s the attitude of love. Love is self-giving. When you love someone—say, you fall in love with a member of your opposite sex, or whatever, and you got mixed up with someone now—you’ve really committed yourself to heaven only knows what! Because love is a letting go of direct control. And you might say—going back again to the Christian images of God—that God creates the world by constantly disappearing; giving himself away. The Hindu would agree with this, too: that insofar as everyone here is God in disguise, but doesn’t know it. This is because you, as God, are constantly giving yourself away to you—and feeling lost, you know? How did I get mixed up in this world? Well, unbeknownst to myself I made a gamble on being this person. And so this giving of one’s self away is what’s called the divine love.

37:42

So then, in playing the game, if you don’t make the assumption that I can let go of myself in the act of faith and in the act of love, you may just as well commit suicide right now—because you can’t play it on any other basis than that. Any attempt to do so will merely make the whole thing clutch up and become insupportable, and will—in any case—be suicide. See, when we get the ultimate weapon with which we know we can be safe because nobody else has it, just because we wanted to get that ultimate safety and get that ultimate weapon to defeat our enemies, it will be suicide. Because life really is not the avoidance of death. Death is the avoidance of death: the constant terror of death, the constant putting it off, the constant vigilance that one will not die—that is death! What we call life is, fundamentally, willingness to die. Constant jumping of being into not-being. So long as you do that, it goes on. So: so long as you shake the dice and you don’t know how they’re going to come out and flip, the game goes on, you see? So long as you take a chance.

39:19

Now then, sensible people say: of course, that’s a very imprudent attitude. Because you can’t be sure. First of all, you can’t trust other people. There are some nice people, but most of them are rascals. It’s not wise. And furthermore, you can’t trust yourself. Underneath the thin veneer of civilization you have an unconscious. And as Freud has told us, this unconscious is libidinous, and it’s a blind urge of pure animal lust and rage and fear. And so watch out for yourself! You’re a dreadful animal, only just barely disciplined and fit to be human.

40:12

Now, it’s true, of course, that a lot of people can’t be trusted, and that so far as one’s self is concerned, every one of us has in us what the Hebrews call the yetzer hara. They say that god made it and put it there. The yetzer hara is the perverse spirit—I call it the element of irreducible rascality. We all have that. But in the wisdom of that great moral philosopher, Confucius, he included this element of rascality in his definition of human-heartedness. That he put as the crown of all the virtues. It isn’t—the word in Chinese is often translated “humaneness,” but it means a good deal more than that. It means being like a human being; that is to say, a complete man or woman, which includes the angel as well as the animal, reason and the passions, and all those aspects of us. Indeed, the great triumph of humanity is to be able to be both angel and devil, both reasonable and passionate, both mystic and sensualist. For he felt, you see, that this peculiar combination was the whole beauty of human beings. And he would trust that humaneness, or that human-heartedness, he would put more reliance on that than he would on virtues, righteousness, programmed behavior.

42:08

And this is a very wise attitude. It isn’t, you see, only the goodness in human beings that is to be trusted. They are also to be trusted to be a little bad. They are trusted to be selfish. Because, you know, a person who is not frank about selfishness is a big troublemaker. You may go into a situation with high ideals and say, “I promise this,” “I promise that,” “I promise the other thing,” “I will be true,” “I will knock myself out to achieve this,” but the reason you said it was to put on a good front at the moment, and also to square yourself with your own conscience. You think: “Well, I really ought to be that kind of person, and I’m going to commit myself to being that.” And in that moment you have grossly deceived those who depend on you.

43:03

Why? Because even if you keep your word, and you are reliable to the extent that you said you would be, they are going to absorb from you by a kind of emotional osmosis the fact that you hate doing it. And that’s the condition, you see, that many an ageing parent gets in when some faithful son or daughter surrenders their own life to look after the invalid. Very nice and noble to be selfish to a certain extent, and you should for yourself be selfish to a certain extent, and make it very plain to others what your wishes are. One of my best friends is a woman who is invariably outspoken, and nobody ever treads on her, nobody ever presumes on her. Because she doesn’t let them. She says, “It’s inconvenient for me to have you for dinner,” or to stay, or whatever, “I’ve got something else to do.” But the result of this is: I’m very fond of her, because you know exactly where you are with her. You don’t worry about: am I imposing or anything like that. You can’t impose on her. And it’s very refreshing. I like that sort of person.

44:25

And we have a certain duty, you might say, to be like that to others. Because there is in our nature a selfish thing as well as an other-regarding tendency. And it’s the two of them together that constitute our nature. And it is this nature that’s to be trusted. Therefore, righteous people who ignore that they have this element of irreducible rascality—or the yetzer hara—are great troublemakers. In fact, they’ve probably made more trouble in the world than deliberately wicked people. Because they are the people who wage, for example, ideological wars—which are not nice wars waged in order to capture the property and the personnel of the enemy (in which case, you know, one always takes care to preserve them), but they are wars waged as a matter of principle. Not really between people, but wars between utterly irreconcilable ideas. And in such a fight there can be no quarter. There can be no quarter between good and evil because, as defined, they’re mutually exclusive. But when people fight each other, they are not good, they are not evil, they are people.

46:00

And that is why wisdom in settling quarrels is always a matter of compromise. That’s why a good Confucian always settles disputes out of court. Because somebody eventually says, “Oh, come off it! Look, we are both rascals,” and they’ll let be honor among thieves. And that’s the real spirit, you know, of repentance. Not that you say some idiot notion that you’re going to turn over a new leaf, and kid yourself into the idea that you’ll never do a thing like that again. You know very well you will. True repentance is to admit in all humility, you see, that you are not a saint. And therefore, you better not go fooling people that you are, because they will rely on you and then be disappointed. So then, this is basic trust in yourself—not as an integrated, mature person, not as a responsible citizen, but as a human being; with your light side and your dark side, with your outgoing affection as well as your ingoing self-affection. Both must be there.

47:33

Now, you see, then, because of this, as I said, there will always be the risk that, although you gamble, you may not always win—in fact, you may lose your shirt. But that’s the risk one takes. Life is taking the risk of death. And if you don’t take it, you don’t go anywhere. You don’t even step into your car. So that, although there will be mistakes, although you may lose your shirt, the alternative to making this gamble is total loss of freedom; I would say total gravity, total seriousness, no game. That’s why all kind of extra-square (I would say cubic) personalities are very, very serious. You know, policemen, soldiers, and people like that are always very rough; UGH. Because that role is expected of them. But when you carry seriousness to its full extent, you’ve got a cosmic jail. And who is prisoner? Who is warder? Same fellow—but he doesn’t know it, because he won’t gamble.

49:24

And so, you see, the ultimate prisoner is the guard. Think of Nineteen Eighty-Four, think of the super-big brother sitting in his inner, inner sanctum: all the security systems outside, all the little television things to inspect what people are doing, checks on checks. Who is the prisoner? See, the spider’s caught in its own web. He can’t goof off. Can’t even sleep, because somebody might creep in. He can’t trust the most trusted guard. Always might be poisoned. And in, of course, this great electronic age when every kind of deviltry and snoopery becomes more and more subtle, just think of the possibilities of being the man who controls it all!

50:18

Now, this also implies that, in behaving with each other, in making the gamble, in playing the game of existence, there must also be rules. There is both order and randomness. But, you see, the difficulty is that our attitude to the rules of behavior is rather curious. We tend, always, to derive our game rules from the past. We tend to be uninventive and uncreative in thinking about the rules of the human game, and refer back, say, to such an ancient Bronze-age document as the Ten Commandments. Now here was a set of game rules for a certain kind of society, but there’s somehow the idea, you see, that this set of rules is sacrosanct—or whatever other set of rules; it might be the laws of Manu or something in India. But always the idea that there is a right way to live, which is somehow laid down like tram lines.

There was a young man who said, “Damn,

For it certainly seems that I am

A creature that moves

In determinate grooves.

I’m not even a bus, I’m a tram.”

52:14

And, you see, we have this idea also about the laws of nature. Although this is not the current (I would say) view of a physicist about the laws of nature, it is traditional in our culture to think of certain rules that have been laid down in advance which the universe obeys. We talk about “obeying” natural law. And so human law is very often thought of on the same model—or vice versa, the law of nature on the model of human laws: that there is an authoritative law-giver, who is grandpa, and who says, “This is the way it’s going to be around here!” And you had better follow.

53:02

Now, actually, it doesn’t seem that nature obeys laws, but rather that, when we watch nature behave and study the regularities in its behavior and write those regularities down and make notes of them, we find that those regularities can be gambled on. They’re liable to go on again. And it’s only a kind of figure of speech that one talks, therefore, about the world itself obeying laws. The laws of nature—I mean, it’s like saying: because you’ve devised a clock, and it goes tick-tick regularly, you’re suddenly astounded to find that the Earth, in its rotations, is obeying the clock. You see? It’s actually the clock (which is the law-thing) is obeying the world, if anything. But this is the law. That’s why we alter our clocks for summertime. Instead of being sensible and getting up an hour earlier, we have to alter the law. So that we have authority for getting up earlier.

54:23

But, you see, the rules of human behavior are highly necessary, because we’ve got to agree about how we’re going to communicate with each other and deal with each other for exactly the same reason that we have to agree about the rules of language. Otherwise we just don’t understand each other. But do you suppose that the rules of language are fixed and unalterable? We are changing them all the time. We’re constantly inventing new words, new forms of expression, getting rid of old ones. We’re very creative, especially in this county. People are amazingly creative with language. Where I come from in England they’re not so creative because they’re more traditional, more conservative. But here there is a wonderfully creative language. And so what happens is that the linguists and the people who make dictionaries, they observe how the people are in fact talking, and then they chronicle all that so that everybody is informed through the dictionaries of what rules are being used.

55:27

Now, the same sort of thing must go with morals. Actually, human beings are always changing morals. But there’s a terrific fight [that] constantly goes on between the people who say, “Well, let’s try it another way,” and the people who say, “No, no. Nope, nope. Nope. You can’t get away with that. It’s against the will of god,” or something. But, you see, we have very little—although we change the language quite a bit, do you get—

[ AUDIO END ]



Find out more