Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Tao of Philosophy by Alan Watts

Every society operates on very deeply rooted assumptions that are worth understanding. Watts thinks we can seek wisdom from Chinese and Indian culture to better understand our own.

Watts is for a holistic view of self without boundaries. We humans have a clear distinction between the natural (eg. our bodies) and artificial (eg. our houses). But what about bees? Are bees natural and bee hives artificial? Clearly not. Watts runs with the boundary-less way of thinking about self and extends it to limits of our understanding. Watts points to a certain fundamental law of symmetry. Every coin has heads and tails, every inside has an outside. Waves, the fundamental unit of animal perception is composed from crests and troughs. You cannot have one without the other. His ultimate aim here is to try to eliminate the illusion of self. In this view, there’s no barrier between yourself and the rest, just a unified whole.

Watts is a big fan of gerunds, and does a good job of taking an outside view:

The Apple tree “apples”, meaning it produces apples, and in the same way earth “peoples”, producing intelligent humans.

He breaks down various kinds of “why?” Which reminds me of Alex’s post that in Russian there are at least two words for why: зачем (instrumental: what is it for?) and почему (epistemic: how is it so?). Watts scoffs at the instrumental and gravitates towards the epistemic question.

Relatedly, Watts preaches the need for purposelessness as an end in itself. If you play because it is good for you, you aren’t really playing. Playing has to be purposeless, like daydreaming or dancing for its own sake. Significance must be in itself, not for the sake of something else. Great example of Bach and baroque composers that are satisfying as is without having explicit meaning. Watts calls for us to embrace nonsense, pointing at Lewis Carroll’s whimsical “twas brillig...”, babbling choruses in English folk songs (eg. The Corries) and bopping to Jazz.

He quotes G. K. Chesterton quite a bit, and I enjoyed the quotes he selected:

It is one thing to look with amazement at gorgon or griffin, a creature that does not exist, but it is quite another thing to look at a hippopotamus, a creature who does exist, but looks like he does not. – G. K. Chesterton

Watts ends with a question: Is human nature flawed as in western conception? Or is it fundamentally trustworthy and essentially good as in the Chinese conception? The sentiment “I do not trust nature, it has to be watched” quickly leads to totalitarianism since you assume the worst in people.