The Tao of Philosophy 4: Seeing Through The Net
1969


In a talk given to the IBM Systems Group, Alan Watts describes the wiggly world of nature and the net we cast over it.
00:03

What I want to do is have a mutual brain-picking session, and I’m going to start the ball rolling by saying why I, as a philosopher, am interested in many things that 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?

00:51

Now, we know that we’re living in an age when 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’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 everybody complains 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.

01:59

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 paperwork that you can hardly do the business. That you’re trying to run a hospital, but that 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, the endless red tape of the registrar’s office and the administration building is such 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.

02:53

Now, to explain myself, first of all—because most of you are strangers to me—I am a philosopher who has for many years been interested 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.”

03:33

Everybody operates on certain basic assumptions, but very few people know what they are. You can, say, very often encounter the sort 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 highfalutin 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 because he’s never thought it through.

04:13

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 of finding 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—a; 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 only have one single line of sight. And therefore this has been my interest and my background.

05:43

And arising out of this there has come 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 anymore 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. Then, simply: what do you want to do with it?

07:17

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 happen, if you could make it happen? And that’s the first thing that starts people really thinking, because you soon realize that a lot of the things you think you would want are not things you want at all.

07:51

Supposing, just for the sake of illustration, 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 75 years of subjective 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 all the most magnificent food, and 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 you’d soon find yourself involved in adventures, and 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 shocked.” And when you woke up from that one you’d say, “Whoo, wasn’t that an adventure!”

09:15

Then you’d 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.

09:53

But here’s the difficulty, you see: 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 un-influenced 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.

10:49

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. But all Western thought is based on the idea that the universe is a construct. And even when we got rid of the idea of the constructor, the personal God, you continue 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.

12:00

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 bit-ed the cosmos and see everything going on in terms of bits—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 bit-ing.

12:45

Let’s suppose 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 all this; it may go 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. We, who live in cities, are not really used to this because we build everything in straight lines and rectangles and so on. Wherever 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, is water, is the outlines of continents, is mountains, is biological existences—and all of them wiggle.

13:55

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. He said, “My, just think of that! There I can see the view, and 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 looking at things through graph paper printed on cellophane—is the basic idea of measurement. This is the way we calculate. We break down the wiggliness of the world into 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.

15:49

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 advocates of intellectual porcupineism. They want a rigor, they want precise statistics, 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’re 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 so it goes. But we know very well that this natural universe is neither prickles nor goo exclusively; it’s gooey prickles and prickly goo. 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. When you’re a little out of focus it’s gone bleeagh, and you’ve got goo. But we’re always playing with the two.

17:40

Is the world basically stuff, like matter, or is it basically structure? Well, we find out, of course—today, in science—we don’t consider the idea of matter, of there being 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 as a pattern. So we never get to any basic stuff. But for all that we go back and find out: what are we doing when we do this? 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 a physical facility which corresponds to sweeping a radar beam, or a spotlight, over the environment. The advantage of the spotlight is [that] 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 the 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 that this is something in which civilized man, both in the East and in the West, has specialized. In a method of paying attention to things 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, say, as algebra or music. So that we notice those things—only those things—for which we have notation.

20:23

When a child—very often, a child will point at something and 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, 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, as a thing. 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? 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 instance and apply the calculus. 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 “Tcha, tcha, tcha, tcha, tcha, tcha, tcha, tcha,” 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 the 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 through which the view was showing. And this has been the immensely, and apparently successful, enterprise of all technological culture, superbly emphasized by ourselves.

23:04

But the problem that arises is this: First of all, very obviously, everybody knows—I hardly need to mention it—go to the science of medicine. You get a specialist who really understands the function of the gall bladder, and he studied 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 [a] gall bladder. And so, if he operates on the gall bladder he may do so very knowledgably about that particular area of the organism, but he does not foresee the unpredictable effects of this operation in other connective areas, because the human being’s gall bladder is not a thing in the same way as a spark plug in a car can be extracted and a new one replaced. Because the system isn’t the same. There is a fundamental difference between a mechanism and an organism which can be described operationally. A 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 as 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 when you watch a photographic plate developing. Suddenly, 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.

25:07

So then: if we are trying to control and understand the world through conscious attention—which is a scanning system which takes in everything 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—let’s take 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. And 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 in 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.

26:46

So you see? This is a problem of the sort of competition of consciousness, of its “how fast can you go?”—“Doo-dee-doo-dee-doo-dee-doo-dee, doo-dee-doo-dee-doo-dee-doo-dee, doo-dee-doo-dee-doo-dee-doo-dee,” and keep track of it, you see? And say, “I’ve got a good memory, I can keep track of that.” And you say to you, “I bet you you can’t. I’ll go more complicated than you.” See? Musicians do this. Drummers, you know? And they get things going, and they start, and so long as they 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, “Okay, if I can’t retain it we’ve got this gadget here that can.” And we’ve got these marvelous mechanical memories, and they will retain it. They’ll go much more fast. They’ll go this “Doo-dee-doo-dee-doo-dee-doo-dee” at a colossal speed, zzhwit, like that, you see? It’s the same old problem. Because you get something that can out-do that. So we end up asking… yeah.

28:08

But supposing there were some other way of understanding things. 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 by that; it’s clear. We do do that. We have this curious ability of pattern recognition which the mechanical systems have only in a very primitive way. Xerox have put out a machine which recognizes figures written in almost anyone’s handwriting—provided their handwriting is fairly grade-school and normal—but a computer has a terrible time of recognizing the letter ‘a’ when it’s printed in, say, sans-serif, gothic, long hand, 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 “dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot,” like a newspaper photograph, you know? Which, when you look at it under a microscope, is all dots.

29:49

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 by even the most competent neurologists; it puzzles them. They can’t give a model of the brain in numerical or verbal language. Now, you are that, you see? You are this thing. You yourself are this thing which 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, and by the sheer complexity of my structure, far more evolved than any system which I can imagine, this is in a way slightly akin to the Gödel theorem: that you can’t have a system of, say, logic, which defines its own axioms. The axioms of any given system must always be defined in terms of a higher system.

31:28

Alright, so you are the most complex thing that has yet been encountered in the cosmos. And you can’t figure you out. Now, suppose we’re going to try to do that and become, as it were, completely transparent to ourselves so that we entirely understand the organization, or the mechanics, of our own brains. What happens when we do that? Well, 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 to yourself, “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. But on the other hand, a person, I would say, who is really functioning completely is basically a person who trusts his own brains, and permits his brain to operate at a more optimal level. In other words, he knows how to think things out, but he makes his best discoveries without thinking.

32:59

In other words, you all know very well the processes of creative invention: you’ve got a problem, you think it over, and you can’t find out any answer to it because the digital system of thinking is too simple, too clumsy, to deal with it. It’s more complex, there are more variables than can be kept in mind at one time. So you say, “I’ll sleep on it.” Or you go to the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton or Behavioral Sciences at Stanford where they pay you to goof off. Which is a highly excellent idea. And you moon around, and you’ve got a blackboard, and you look out of the window and pick your nose and so on, and your brain eventually hands you the solution to the problem. And you immediately—because you have technical knowledge—you recognize that’s the solution. But then, naturally, you go back and check it. And you work the bit-by-bit form of thinking on it and say, “Now, does it come out in those terms?” And if it does, everybody will agree with you: “Yes, that’s the answer.” But if it doesn’t come out in those terms they won’t agree with you because you haven’t subjected it to the socially acceptable, traditional form of analyzing knowledge.

34:25

But here’s the problem: it takes an awful long time to check these things out. It takes an awful long time to arrive at the solution which you got, phht, like that, by a purely calculated process. Most of the situations of life are such that they don’t wait for us to make up our minds. So that an enormous amount of carefully worked out scientific knowledge is trivial. They’re all very well, very finely worked out, but much too late because life presents you—life comes at you from all sides; all over, everywhere at once. And the only thing you’ve got to deal with that is the thing inside here, in the skull.

35:15

Now I’m not saying this to put down all this marvelous work of calculation, brought to immense sophistication electronically and so on. Not at all—because actually, you people are the first people to understand the limitations of your own kind of knowledge. And you’re going to have to tell the politicians about this. They don’t understand it. They think that this kind of knowledge is the answer to everything, and I think most of you know it isn’t. Which is not something—I repeat—against technology. It’s only saying that when you walk, you put your right foot forward, and that’s fine, but then you must put your left foot forward. So let’s say that the great technological enterprise has been putting the right foot forward. But you must bring up the left foot; that is to say, bring up revaluation—a new respect—for the organic kind of organization, which is incomprehensible to technological thinking, but which always underlies it. That, by itself, doesn’t work, because after you bring the left foot up, you begin to bring up the right foot, the analytic; after goo comes prickles, after prickles comes goo. You have to keep this thing up, and I think our danger at the present time is that we are so heady, so delighted with the results of prickles that we’ve got to let back a little bit of goo into the system.

37:13

Well now, what we’ve got to try and do is, I think, to work out a way of making the brain itself more efficient. And this is the thing that civilized education has neglected. Lynn White—I have to quote him again—he used to say that “the academic world today only values three kinds of intelligence: verbal intelligence, mnemonic intelligence”—in other words, remembering—“and computational intelligence.” He said it entirely neglects kinesthetic intelligence, social intelligence; and he had at least seven kinds of intelligence, I forget what they all were. But it is this extraordinary capacity of the neural organization, say, to engage in pattern recognition and in solving, instantly, certain complex problems without knowing how it does it. But the trouble is when you do something you don’t know how to do, you’ve got a non-repeatable experiment in a certain sense. In other words, you can’t explain to someone else how to put it together. But you can do it like you can open and close your hand without any knowledge of physiology. Do it every time. Whoops! I don’t know how I do it. I just do it, you see?

39:05

So we have an enormous potential of intelligence, of knowing how to do all sorts of things which—to the extent that we are academically minded people—we won’t allow ourselves to do because we can’t explain it. You know there are, for example—there’s a way of cooling a brazing furnace. Very simple. But engineers say it’s theoretically impossible, it can’t happen; it’s like bees can’t fly by the laws of aerodynamics, but they do.

39:46

So the rather practical issue I come to is this: that technology, if it relies exclusively on linear thinking, is going to destroy the environment. It’s going to become too complicated to handle, man is going to be like the dinosaur—which had to have a brain in its head and a brain in its rump because it was so big. You know, the cave man kept a dinosaur, and when he went to bed at night he’d clump it on the tail with a club, and it’d scream at eight o’clock in the morning; wake him up. It seems to me we’re getting into that kind of saurian situation with our technology, which is going to lead us to extinction. So the question is: are we going to foul things up by insisting on using linear input information and controlling it as the dominant tool of controlling the world, or can we master all that as we have done—and still use the linear input and analysis—but with a fundamental trust in our power to assimilate multiple input, although we really don’t know how we do it?

41:38

My point is that you can’t find an absolute which you can pin down, you see? So there always remains, in any human operation, the basic central thing which you can’t pin down because it’s you! Just as the teeth can’t bite themselves. Now, the assumption of Judeo-Christian culture is that man, in his nature, is sinful and therefore can’t be trusted. The assumption of—at least ancient—Chinese culture is that man in his essential nature is good, and therefore has to be trusted. Because they say to us, “If you can’t trust your own basic nature, you can’t really rely on the idea that you’re untrustworthy. Therefore, you’re hopelessly fouled up.” So this has amazing political and other consequences, this different assumption. If we say, “No, we human beings are fallible, and basically selfish, and really, really, fundamentally evil. Therefore, we need law and order. We need a control system to put us in order.” We thereby project these control systems into the church, or into the police, or into somebody—who are really ourselves, disguised. See, it’s like Daylight Saving Time: everybody could simply get up an hour earlier, but instead of doing that we alter the clock. Because a clock is a kind of authority, and we say, “Well, the clock says it’s time for you to get up.” And the Amerindians laughed at the pale-faces because they say, “Pale-face; he doesn’t know when he’s hungry until he looks at his watch.” And so, in this way, we become clock-dominated. And the abstract system takes over from the physical, organic situation. And this is my big pitch—if I’m going to make a big pitch—is that we’ve run into a cultural situation where we’ve confused the symbol with the physical reality, the money with the wealth, and the menu with the dinner. And we’re starving on eating menus.



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