This is the transcription of a talk given by Alan Watts at his home in Marin County, California in the 1960s, re-published from deoxy.org.
I find it a little difficult to say what the subject matter of this seminar is going to be, because it’s too fundamental to give it a title. I’m going to talk about what there is. Now, the first thing, though, that we have to do is to get our perspectives with some background about the basic ideas that, as Westerners living today in the United States, influence our everyday common sense, our fundamental notions about what life is about. And there are historical origins for this, which influence us more strongly than most people realize. Ideas of the world which are built into the very nature of the language we use, and of our ideas of logic, and of what makes sense altogether.
And these basic ideas I call myth, not using the word ‘myth’ to mean simply something untrue, but to use the word ‘myth’ in a more powerful sense. A myth is an image in terms of which we try to make sense of the world. Now, for example, a myth in a way is a metaphor. If you want to explain electricity to someone who doesn’t know anything about electricity, you say, well, you talk about an electric current. Now, the word ‘current’ is borrowed from rivers. It’s borrowed from hydrolics, and so you explain electricity in terms of water. Now, electricity is not water, it behaves actually in a different way, but there are some ways in which the behavior of water is like the behavior of electricty, and so you explain it in terms of water. Or if you’re an astronomer, and you want to explain to people what you mean by an expanding universe and curved space, you say, ‘well, it’s as if you have a black balloon, and there are white dots on the black balloon, and those dots represent galaxies, and as you blow the balloon up, uniformly all of them grow farther and farther apart. But you’re using an analogy–the universe is not actually a black balloon with white dots on it.
So in the same way, we use these sort of images to try and make sense of the world, and we at present are living under the influence of two very powerful images, which are, in the present state of scientific knowledge, inadequate, and one of the major problems today are to find an adequate, satisfying image of the world. Well that’s what I’m going to talk about. And I’m going to go further than that, not only what image of the world to have, but how we can get our sensations and our feelings in accordance with the most sensible image of the world that we can manage to conceive.
All right, now–the two images which we have been working under for 2000 years and maybe more are what I would call two models of the universe, and the first is called the ceramic model, and the second the fully automatic model. The ceramic model of the universe is based on the book of Genesis, from which Judaism, Islam, and Christianity derive their basic picture of the world. And the image of the world in the book of Genesis is that the world is an artifact. It is made, as a potter takes clay and forms pots out of it, or as a carpenter takes wood and makes tables and chairs out of it. Don’t forget Jesus is the son of a carpenter. And also the son of God. So the image of God and of the world is based on the idea of God as a technician, potter, carpenter, architect, who has in mind a plan, and who fashions the universe in accordance with that plan.
So basic to this image of the world is the notion, you see, that the world consists of stuff, basically. Primoridial matter, substance, stuff. As parts are made of clay. Now clay by itself has no intelligence. Clay does not of itself become a pot, although a good potter may think otherwise. Because if you were a really good potter, you don’t impose your will on the clay, you ask any given lump of clay what it wants to become, and you help it to do that. And then you become a genious. But the ordinary idea I’m talking about is that simply clay is unintelligent; it’s just stuff, and the potter imposes his will on it, and makes it become whatever he wants.
And so in the book of Genesis, the lord God creates Adam out of the dust of the Earth. In other words, he makes a clay figurine, and then he breathes into it, and it becomes alive. And because the clay become informed. By itself it is formless, it has no intelligence, and therefore it requires an external intelligence and an external energy to bring it to life and to bring some sense to it. And so in this way, we inherit a conception of ourselves as being artifacts, as being made, and it is perfectly natural in our culture for a child to ask its mother ‘How was I made?’ or ‘Who made me?’ And this is a very, very powerful idea, but for example, it is not shared by the Chinese, or by the Hindus. A Chinese child would not ask its mother ‘How was I made?’ A Chinese child might ask its mother ‘How did I grow?’ which is an entirely different procedure form making. You see, when you make something, you put it together, you arrange parts, or you work from the outside in, as a sculpture works on stone, or as a potter works on clay. But when you watch something growing, it works in exactly the opposite direction. It works from the inside to the outside. It expands. It burgeons. It blossoms. And it happens all of itself at once. In other words, the original simple form, say of a living cell in the womb, progressively complicates itself, and that’s the growing process, and it’s quite different from the making process.
But we have thought, historically, you see, of the world as something made, and the idea of being–trees, for example– constructions, just as tables and houses are constructions. And so there is for that reason a fundamental difference between the made and the maker. And this image, this ceramic model of the universe, originated in cultures where the form of government was monarchial, and where, therefore, the maker of the universe was conceived also at the same time in the image of the king of the universe. ‘King of kings, lords of lords, the only ruler of princes, who thus from thy throne behold all dwellers upon Earth.’ I’m quoting the Book of Common Prayer. And so, all those people who are oriented to the universe in that way feel related to basic reality as a subject to a king. And so they are on very, very humble terms in relation to whatever it is that works all this thing. I find it odd, in the United States, that people who are citizens of a republic have a monarchial theory of the universe. That you can talk about the president of the United States as LBJ, or Ike, or Harry, but you can’t talk about the lord of the universe in such familiar terms. Because we are carrying over from very ancient near-Eastern cultures, the notion that the lord of the universe must be respected in a certain way. Poeple kneel, people bow, people prostrate themselves, and you know what the reason for that is: that nobody is more frightened of anybody else than a tyrant. He sits with his back to the wall, and his guards on either side of him, and he has you face downwards on the ground because you can’t use weapons that way. When you come into his presence, you don’t stand up and face him, because you might attack, and he has reason to fear that you might because he’s ruling you all. And the man who rules you all is the biggest crook in the bunch. Because he’s the one who succeeded in crime. The other people are pushed aside because they–the criminals, the people we lock up in jail–are simply the people who didn’t make it.
So naturally, the real boss sits with his back to the wall and his henchmen on either side of him. And so when you design a church, what does it look like? Catholic church, with the alter where it used to be–it’s changing now, because the Catholic religion is changing. But the Catholic church has the alter with it’s back to the wall at the east end of the church. And the alter is the throne and the priest is the chief vizier of the court, and he is making abeyance to the throne, but there is the throne of God, the alter. And all the people are facing it, and kneeling down. And a great Catholic cathederal is called a basilica, from the Greek ‘basilikos,’ which means ‘king.’ So a basilica is the house of a king, and the ritual of the church is based on the court rituals of Byzantium.
A Protestant church is a little different. Basically the same. The furniture of a Protestant church is based on a judicial courthouse. The pulpit, the judge in an American court wears a black robe, he wears exactly the same dress as a Protestant minister. And everybody sits in these boxes, there’s a box for the jury, there’s a box for the judge, there’s a box for this, there’s a box for that, and those are the pews in an ordinary colonial- type Protestant church. So both these kinds of churches which have an autocratic view of the nature of the universe decorate themselves, are architecturally constructed in accordance with politcal images of the universe. One is the king, and the other is the judge. Your honor. There’s sense in this. When in court, you have to refer to the judge as ‘your honor.’ It stops the people engaged in litigation from losing their tempers and getting rude. There’s a certain sense to that.
But when you want to apply that image to the universe itself, to the very nature of life, it has limitations. For one thing, the idea of a difference between matter and spirit. This idea doesn’t work anymore. Long, long ago, physicists stopped asking the question ‘What is matter?’ They began that way. They wanted to know, what is the fundamental substance of the world? And the more they asked that question, the more they realized the couldn’t answer it, because if you’re going to say what matter is, you’ve got to describe it in terms of behavior, that is to say in terms of form, in terms of pattern. You tell what it does, you describe the smallest shapes of it which you can see. Do you see what happens? You look, say, at a piece of stone, and you want to say, ‘Well, what is this piece of stone made of?’ You take your microscope and you look at it, and instead of just this block of stuff, you see ever so many tinier shapes. Little crystals. So you say, ‘Fine, so far so good. Now what are these crystals made of?’ And you take a more powerful instrument, and you find that they’re made of molocules, and then you take a still more powerful instrument to find out what the molocules are made of, and you begin to describe atoms, electrons, protons, mesons, all sorts of sub-nuclear particles. But you never, never arrive at the basic stuff. Because there isn’t any.
What happens is this: ‘Stuff’ is a word for the world as it looks when our eyes are out of focus. Fuzzy. Stuff–the idea of stuff is that it is undifferentiated, like some kind of goo. And when your eyes are not in sharp focus, everything looks fuzzy. When you get your eyes into focus, you see a form, you see a pattern. But when you want to change the level of magnification, and go in closer and closer and closer, you get fuzzy again before you get clear. So everytime you get fuzzy, you go through thinking there’s some kind of stuff there. But when you get clear, you see a shape. So all that we can talk about is patterns. We never, never can talk about the ‘stuff’ of which these patterns are supposed to be made, because you don’t really have to suppose that there is any. It’s enough to talk about the world in terms of patterns. It describes anything that can be described, and you don’t really have to suppose that there is some stuff that constitutes the essence of the pattern in the same way that clay constitutes the essence of pots. And so for this reason, you don’t really have to suppose that the world is some kind of helpless, passive, unintelligent junk which an outside agency has to inform and make into intelligent shapes. So the picture of the world in the most sophisticated physics of today is not formed stuff–potted clay–but pattern. A self-moving, self-designing pattern. A dance. And our common sense as individuals hasn’t yet caught up with this.
Well now, in the course of time, in the evolution of Western thought. The ceramic image of the world ran into trouble. And changed into what I call the fully automatic image of the world. In other words, Western science was based on the idea that there are laws of nature, and got that idea from Judaism and Christianity and Islam. That in other words, the potter, the maker of the world in the beginning of things laid down the laws, and the law of God, which is also the law of nature, is called the ‘loggos.?,.’ And in Christianity, the loggos is the second person of the trinity, incarnate as Jesus Christ, who thereby is the perfect exemplar of the divine law. So we have tended to think of all natural phenomena as responding to laws, as if, in other words, the laws of the world were like the rails on which a streetcar or a tram or a train runs, and these things exist in a certain way, and all events respond to these laws. You know that limerick,
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.’
So here’s this idea that there’s kind of a plan, and everything responds and obeys that plan. Well, in the 18th century, Western intellectuals began to suspect this idea. And what they suspected was whether there is a lawmaker, whether there is an architect of the universe, and they found out, or they reasoned, that you don’t have to suppose that there is. Why? Because the hypothesis of God does not help us to make any predictions. Nor does it– In other words, let’s put it this way: if the business of science is to make predictions about what’s going to happen, science is essentially prophecy. What’s going to happen? By examining the behavior of the past and describing it carefully, we can make predictions about what’s going to happen in the future. That’s really the whole of science. And to do this, and to make successful predictions, you do not need God as a hypothesis. Because it makes no difference to anything. If you say ‘Everything is controlled by God, everything is governed by God,’ that doesn’t make any difference to your prediction of what’s going to happen. And so what they did was drop that hypothesis. But they kept the hypothesis of law. Because if you can predict, if you can study the past and describe how things have behaved, and you’ve got some regularities in the behavior of the universe, you call that law. Although it may not be law in the ordinary sense of the word, it’s simply regularity.
And so what they did was got rid of the lawmaker and kept the law. And so the conceived the universe in terms of a mechanism. Something, in other words, that is functioning according to regular, clocklike mechanical principles. Newton’s whole image of the world is based on billiards. The atoms are billiard balls, and they bang each other around. And so your behavior, every individual around, is defined as a very, very complex arrangement of billiard balls being banged around by everything else. And so behind the fully automatic model of the universe is the notion that reality itself is, to use the favorite term of 19th century scientists, blind energy. In say the metaphysics of Ernst Hegel, and T.H. Huxley, the world is basically nothing but energy–blind, unintelligent force. And likewise and parallel to this, in the philosophy of Freud, the basic psychological energy is libido, which is blind lust. And it is only a fluke, it is only as a result of pure chances that resulting from the exuberance of this energy there are people. With values, with reason, with languages, with cultures, and with love. Just a fluke. Like, you know, 1000 monkeys typing on 1000 typewriters for a million years will eventually type the Encyclopedia Britannica. And of course the moment they stop typing the Encyclopedia Britannica, they will relapse into nonsense.
And so in order that that shall not happen, for you and I are flukes in this cosmos, and we like our way of life–we like being human–if we want to keep it, say these people, we’ve got to fight nature, because it will turn us back into nonsense the moment we let it. So we’ve got to impose our will upon this world as if we were something completely alien to it. From outside. And so we get a culture based on the idea of the war between man and nature. And we talk about the conquest of space. The conquest of Everest. And the great symbols of our culture are the rocket and the bulldozer. The rocket–you know, compensation for the sexually inadequate male. So we’re going to conquer space. You know we’re in space already, way out. If anybody cared to be sensitive and let outside space come to you, you can, if your eyes are clear enough. Aided by telescopes, aided by radio astronomy, aided by all the kinds of sensitive instruments we can devise. We’re as far out in space as we’re ever going to get. But, y’know, sensitivity isn’t the pitch. Especially in the WASP culture of the United States. We define manliness in terms of agression, you see, because we’re a little bit frightened as to whether or not we’re really men. And so we put on this great show of being a tough guy. It’s completely unneccesary. If you have what it takes, you don’t need to put on that show. And you don’t need to beat nature into submission. Why be hostile to nature? Because after all, you ARE a symptom of nature. You, as a human being, you grow out of this physical universe in exactly the same way an apple grows off an apple tree.
So let’s say the tree which grows apples is a tree which apples, using ‘apple’ as a verb. And a world in which human beings arrive is a world that peoples. And so the existence of people is symptomatic of the kind of universe we live in. Just as spots on somebody’s skin is symptomatic of chicken pox. Just as hair on a head is symptomatic of what’s going on in the organism. But we have been brought up by reason of our two great myths–the ceramic and the automatic–not to feel that we belong in the world. So our popular speech reflects it. You say ‘I came into this world.’ You didn’t. You came out of it. You say ‘Face facts.’ We talk about ‘encounters’ with reality, as if it was a head-on meeting of completely alien agencies. And the average person has the sensation that he is a someone that exists inside a bag of skin. The center of consciousness that looks out at this thing, and what the hell’s it going to do to me? You see? ‘I recognize you, you kind of look like me, and I’ve seen myself in a mirror, and you look like you might be people.’ So maybe you’re intelligent and maybe you can love, too. Perhaps you’re all right, some of you are, anyway. You’ve got the right color of skin, or you have the right religion, or whatever it is, you’re OK. But there are all those people over in Asia, and Africa, and they may not really be people. When you want to destroy someone, you always define them as ‘unpeople.’ Not really human. Monkeys, maybe. Idiots, maybe. Machines, maybe, but not people.
So we have this hostility to the external world because of the superstition, the myth, the absolutely unfounded theory that you, yourself, exist only inside your skin. Now I want to propose another idea altogether. There are two great theories in astronomy going on right now about the origination of the universe. One is called the explosion theory, and the other is called the steady state theory. The steady state people say there never was a time when the world began, it’s always expanding, yes, but as a result of free hydrogen in space, the free hydrogen coagulates and makes new galaxies. But the other people say there was a primoridial explosion, an enormous bang billions of years ago which flung all the galazies into space. Well let’s take that just for the sake of argument and say that was the way it happened.
It’s like you took a bottle of ink and you threw it at a wall. Smash! And all that ink spread. And in the middle, it’s dense, isn’t it? And as it gets out on the edge, the little droplets get finer and finer and make more complicated patterns, see? So in the same way, there was a big bang at the beginning of things and it spread. And you and I, sitting here in this room, as complicated human beings, are way, way out on the fringe of that bang. We are the complicated little patterns on the end of it. Very interesting. But so we define ourselves as being only that. If you think that you are only inside your skin, you define yourself as one very complicated little curlique, way out on the edge of that explosion. Way out in space, and way out in time. Billions of years ago, you were a big bang, but now you’re a complicated human being. And then we cut ourselves off, and don’t feel that we’re still the big bang. But you are. Depends how you define yourself. You are actually–if this is the way things started, if there was a big bang in the beginning– you’re not something that’s a result of the big bang. You’re not something that is a sort of puppet on the end of the process. You are still the process. You are the big bang, the original force of the universe, coming on as whoever you are. When I meet you, I see not just what you define yourself as–Mr so-and- so, Ms so-and-so, Mrs so-and-so–I see every one of you as the primordial energy of the universe coming on at me in this particular way. I know I’m that, too. But we’ve learned to define ourselves as separate from it.
And so what I would call a basic problem we’ve got to go through first, is to understand that there are no such things as things. That is to say separate things, or separate events. That that is only a way of talking. If you can understand this, you’re going to have no further problems. I once asked a group of high school children ‘What do you mean by a thing?’ First of all, they gave me all sorts of synonyms. They said ‘It’s an object,’ which is simply another word for a thing; it doesn’t tell you anything about what you mean by a thing. Finally, a very smart girl from Italy, who was in the group, said a thing is a noun. And she was quite right. A noun isn’t a part of nature, it’s a part of speech. There are no nouns in the physical world. There are no separate things in the physical world, either. The physical world is wiggly. Clouds, mountains, trees, people, are all wiggly. And only when human beings get to working on things–they build buildings in straight lines, and try to make out that the world isn’t really wiggly. But here we are, sitting in this room all built out of straight lines, but each one of us is as wiggly as all get-out.
Now then, when you want to get control of something that wiggles, it’s pretty difficult, isn’t it? You try and pick up a fish in your hands, and the fish is wiggly and it slips out. What do you do to get hold of the fish? You use a net. And so the net is the basic thing we have for getting hold of the wiggly world. So if you want to get hold of this wiggle, you’ve got to put a net over it. A net is something regular. And I can number the holes in a net. So many holes up, so many holes across. And if I can number these holes, I can count exactly where each wiggle is, in terms of a hole in that net. And that’s the beginning of calculus, the art of measuring the world. But in order to do that, I’ve got to break up the wiggle into bits. I’ve got to call this a specific bit, and this the next bit of the wiggle, and this the next bit, and this the next bit of the wiggle. And so these bits are things or events. Bit of wiggles. Which I mark out in order to talk about the wiggle. In order to measure and therfore in order to control it. But in nature, in fact, in the physical world, the wiggle isn’t bitted. Like you don’t get a cut-up fryer out of an egg. But you have to cut the chicken up in order to eat it. You bite it. But it doesn’t come bitten.
So the world doesn’t come thinged; it doesn’t come evented. You and I are all as much continuous with the physical universe as a wave is continuous with the ocean. The ocean waves, and the universe peoples. And as I wave and say to you ‘Yoo-hoo!’ the world is waving with me at you and saying ‘Hi! I’m here!’ But we are consciousness of the way we feel and sense our existence. Being based on a myth that we are made, that we are parts, that we are things, our consciousness has been influenced, so that each one of us does not feel that. We have been hypnotized, literally hypnotized by social convention into feeling and sensing that we exist only inside our skins. That we are not the original bang, just something out on the end of it. And therefore we are scared stiff. My wave is going to disappear, and I’m going to die! And that would be awful. We’ve got a mythology going now which is, as Father Maskell.?, put it, we are something that happens between the maternity ward and the crematorium. And that’s it. And therefore everybody feels unhappy and miserable.
This is what people really believe today. You may go to church, you may say you believe in this, that, and the other, but you don’t. Even Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are the most fundamental of fundamentalists, they are polite when they come around and knock on the door. But if you REALLY believed in Christianity, you would be screaming in the streets. But nobody does. You would be taking full- page ads in the paper every day. You would be the most terrifying television programs. The churches would be going out of their minds if they really believed what they teach. But they don’t. They think they ought to believe what they teach. They believe they should believe, but they don’t really believe it, because what we REALLY believe is the fully automatic model. And that is our basic, plausible common sense. You are a fluke. You are a separate event. And you run from the maternity ward to the crematorium, and that’s it, baby. That’s it.
Now why does anybody think that way? There’s no reason to, because it isn’t even scientific. It’s just a myth. And it’s invented by people who want to feel a certain way. They want to play a certain game. The game of god got embarrassing. The idea if God as the potter, as the architect of the universe, is good. It makes you feel that life is, after all, important. There is someone who cares. It has meaning, it has sense, and you are valuable in the eyes of the father. But after a while, it gets embarrassing, and you realize that everything you do is being watched by God. He knows your tiniest innermost feelings and thoughts, and you say after a while, ‘Quit bugging me! I don’t want you around.’ So you become an athiest, just to get rid of him. Then you feel terrible after that, because you got rid of God, but that means you got rid of yourself. You’re nothing but a machine. And your idea that you’re a machine is just a machine, too. So if you’re a smart kid, you commit suicide. Camus said there is only one serious philosophical question, which is whether or not to commit suicide. I think there are four or five serious philosophical questions. The first one is ‘Who started it?’ The second is ‘Are we going to make it?’ The third is ‘Where are we going to put it?’ The fourth is ‘Who’s going to clean up?’ And the fifth, ‘Is it serious?’
But still, should you or not commit suicide? This is a good question. Why go on? And you only go on if the game is worth the gamble. Now the universe has been going on for an incredible long time. And so really, a satisfactory theory of the universe has to be one that’s worth betting on. That’s very, it seems to me, elementary common sense. If you make a theory of the universe which isn’t worth betting on, why bother? Just commit suicide. But if you want to go on playing the game, you’ve got to have an optimal theory for playing the game. Otherwise there’s no point in it. But the people who coined the fully automatic theory of the universe were playing a very funny game, for what they wanted to say was this: all you people who believe in religion–old ladies and wishful thinkers– you’ve got a big daddy up there, and you want comfort, but life is rough. Life is tough, as success goes to the most hard- headed people. That was a very convenient theory when the European and American worlds were colonizing the natives everywhere else. They said ‘We’re the end product of evolution, and we’re tough. I’m a big strong guy because I face facts, and life is just a bunch of junk, and I’m going to impose my will on it and turn it into something else. I’m real hard.’ That’s a way of flattering yourself.
And so, it has become academically plausible and fashionable that this is the way the world works. In academic circles, no other theory of the world than the fully automatic model is respectable. Because if you’re an academic person, you’ve got to be an intellectually tough person, you’ve got to be prickly. There are basically two kinds of philosophy. One’s called prickles, the other’s called goo. And prickly people are precise, rigorous, logical. They like everything chopped up and clear. Goo people like it vague. For example, in physics, prickly people believe that the ultimate constituents of matter are particles. Goo people believe it’s waves. And in philosophy, prickly people are logical positivists, and goo people are idealists. And they’re always arguing with each other, but what they don’t realize is neither one can take his position without the other person. Because you wouldn’t know you advocated prickles unless there was someone advocating goo. You wouldn’t know what a prickle was unless you knew what a goo was. Because life isn’t either prickles or goo, it’s either gooey prickles or prickly goo. They go together like back and front, male and female. And that’s the answer to philosophy. You see, I’m a philosopher, and I’m not going to argue very much, because if you don’t argue with me, I don’t know what I think. So if we argue, I say ‘Thank you,’ because owing to the courtesy of your taking a different point of view, I understand what I mean. So I can’t get rid of you.
But however, you see, this whole idea that the universe is nothing at all but unintelligent force playing around and not even enjoying it is a putdown theory of the world. People who had an advantage to make, a game to play by putting it down, and making out that because they put the world down they were a superior kind of people. So that just won’t do. We’ve had it. Because if you seriously go along with this idea of the world, you’re what is technically called alienated. You feel hostile to the world. You feel that the world is a trap. It is a mechanism, it is electronic and neurological mechanisms into which you somehow got caught. And you, poor thing, have to put up with being put into a body that’s falling apart, that gets cancer, that gets the great Siberian itch, and is just terrible. And these mechanics–doctors–are trying to help you out, but they really can’t succeed in the end, and you’re just going to fall apart, and it’s a grim business, and it’s just too bad. So if you think that’s the way things are, you might as well commit suicide right now. Unless you say, ‘Well, I’m damned. Because there might really be after all eternal damnation. Or I identify with my children, and I think of them going on without me and nobody to support them. Because if I do go on in this frame of mind and continue to support them, I shall teach them to be like I am, and they’ll go on, dragging it out to support their children, and they won’t enjoy it. They’ll be afraid to commit suicide, and so will their children. They’ll all learn the same lessons.’
So you see, all I’m trying to say is that the basic common sense about the nature of the world that is