Sunday, April 5, 2015

Alan Watts On Ontology

Alan Watts, a favorite philosopher of mine, had a very interesting spiritual way of looking at the universe, that as far as I can tell, can be perfectly compatible with naturalism.

Watts rejected what he called the "two models." One is what he called the ceramic model, and the other is what he called the fully automatic model. The ceramic model of the world is the traditional theistic view that the world was something created by god, just as a potter creates a pot, and a carpenter creates a table. It is the idea that the world is made as an artifact through some sort of an act of supernatural will. And this creator god is the ruler of this universe and resides as a king. The fully automatic model, is the traditional atheistic or naturalistic view of the world where the universe exists almost as some kind of blind, unintelligent machine, and that humans are just a chance fluke in its history.

Watts didn't think either two models made sense. So instead, he held to a view that the universe was something musical. The universe was a symphony, it was a piece of music. And just like how when making music, the goal isn't to get to the end of the piece as quick as possible — that would make it so that the shortest songs are the best. No. Rather the point of the music is the music itself. It isn't necessarily going anywhere. The unfolding of the universe is the purpose, beauty, and audacity of this symphony.

This is a very interesting view of the world, and one that at first I found hard to imagine. I've recently been thinking about it again and am willing to consider it plausible. There is nothing I see completely absurd about the idea of the universe as a piece of music, so long as one doesn't imagine a musician playing it, like it was the musical piece of some deity. I'm not sure if Watts saw this idea of a musical universe as a metaphor or something literal. If only seen as a metaphor it can be construed with naturalism. And although I'm still a metaphysical naturalist in the traditional sense of the term, this idea that the universe is naturally musical, I don't suddenly object to. Watts called this the organic model.

There are dozens of lectures Watts gave on a myriad of topic ranging from ethics, to religion, to spirituality, to meditation, to society, culture, philosophy, and metaphysics. I highly recommend you listen to some of them. Interestingly, on metaphysics he echoed some of the very ideas contemporary physicists like Sean Carroll describe when explaining our place in the universe, and I was amazed to see the similarities. In the lecture above, Watts describes how we're all the "complicated little patterns" in the big bang.

Astronomers say there was a primordial explosion. Enormous bang millions of years ago — billions of years ago, which flung all the galaxies into space. We'll let's take that just for the sake of argument and say that was the way it happened. And you and I sitting here in this room as complicated human beings are way, way out on the fringe of that bang. We're the complicated little patterns on the end of it. Very interesting. But so, we define our selves as being only that. If you think that you're only inside your skin, you define yourself as one very complicated little curly cue, way out on the edge of that explosion. Way out in space and way out in time. And with that we cut ourselves off and don't feel that we are still the big bang. But you are. You are actually, if this is the way that things start, if there was a big bang in the beginning, you're not something that is a result of the big bang, 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. But we've learned to define ourselves as separate from it. You and I are all as much continuous with the physical universe as a wave is continuous with the ocean. 

I'm not sure of the date of this lecture but it was probably the mid-late 60s or early 70s, when the big bang theory was a lot more speculative than it is today. What's really interesting is that Watt's explanation for our place in the universe is backed up by modern cosmology. According to modern cosmology, we are the "complicated little patterns on the end of" the big bang. Just listen to Sean Carroll's lecture last year at the Freedom From Religion Foundation where he explains the role of the second law of thermodynamics in the universe:

The reason why complex structures like living beings arose here on earth is because of the second law of thermodynamics. We are parasitic upon the increase of entropy of the universe. We are little surfers riding a wave of entropy, until we eventually scuttle up on shore and it will just be empty space forever. And again, the universe is not special, you can see this in a cup of coffee....If you take a cup of coffee with the cream and the coffee separate, that's low entropy, highly organized but also very simple. If you mix them together, it is high entropy, everything's mixed together, but also very simple. It's in between, when you see the tendrils of the cream reaching into the coffee and swirling in little complex patterns, that's when you get the complexity of the universe. And these little swirls, these little ephemeral little bits of complexity that are caught in between the simple beginning and the simple end — that is us. That is what we are. We are these temporary eruptions of structure and organization as the universe goes from simplicity to simplicity.

Carroll and Watts are essentially saying the same thing, based on the same basic science, but they both have different interpretations of what's going on here in terms of our role in this process. While Carroll is a materialist who subscribes to the "fully automatic" model, he probably wouldn't think we are the big bang, like Watts does. Watts sees no fundamental distinction between us and the universe. “You are an aperture through which the universe is looking at and exploring itself,” he says. On Watts' organic model ontology, man is the universe becoming conscious of itself. And after thinking about this, there really isn't that much of a distinction between the fully automatic model and the model Watts is offering. Unless you interpret Watts as making a case for pantheism (which I think is possible but not necessary), under the naturalistic automatic model, we are the big bang. We are the universe. The atoms that make up our bodies are part of the universe, and they've existed for billions of years before we were born. It's just a matter of how you want to interpret the atoms that make up your body as something ontologically distinct from the universe, or one with the universe. And you know what? I think I could go either way. That's why I say there are aspects of Watts' philosophy that I think is fully compatible with the naturalistic "fully automatic" model that I hold to, and that Watts tried to distinguish himself from.

Carroll's Lecture:

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...