“The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are”, Alan Watts

Alan Watts (1915-73) was a British-born writer and philosopher who is now most remembered as a popularizer of Eastern philosophy and religion. However, as a survey of his career and prodigious writings reveal, he was much more than that. His early interest in Buddhism led him to become a secretary of the London Buddhist Lodge at the precocious age of 16, and, at 21, to publish his first book, The Spirit of Zen. However, he shortly after moved to America, where his interests developed in numerous directions – Christianity, philosophy, physics, cybernetics, psychology, anthropology, ecology, and any other field that piqued his restless curiosity. But such wide-ranging studies were not the flighty fads of a shallow intellectual dabbler or spiritual tourist – he obtained post-graduate degrees in theology and divinity, and for 5 years held the position of a Christian priest; rather, it suggests the questing spirit of a man unhappy with existing dogmas and traditions, and keen to draw new parallels and connections between different cultures and outlooks, between science and religion, between the old world and the new.

It is this desire for synthesis which has upset some purists. Especially in his later writings, Watts is often not content merely to elucidate a certain position or outlook (Vedanta, Buddhism), but instead wants to reveal what different perspectives have in common, or how they may be combined to suit different needs or suggest solutions to different problems. If, in the course of doing so, he glosses over fine distinctions or ignores controversies, then it is generally in the interest of practical application. It is of secondary interest to him to be technically correct or doctrinally accurate, for his main concern is with how we might apply these ideas and attitudes within our own lives, and in this he is passionate, persuasive, insightful and entertaining.

It is in this spirit, then, that we should approach The book – On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (to give it its full, rather unwieldy title – hereafter, simply The Book). It is a polemic against a single idea: the modern, Western notion that human beings are ultimately separate individual egos divorced from the physical word in which they live – that each of us is, in Watts’ words, an ‘ego in a bag of skin’. In attacking this view, which can be found in both religious and secular guises, Watts draws on numerous fields: the Vedantic philosophy of Hinduism, which pictures the underlying nature of reality as a single, universal self, or Brahman; the modern discipline of cybernetics, which sees things in terms not of individuals, but overall processes and systems; and quantum physics, which undermines the ‘mechanism’ of Newton and Descartes (the ‘billiard ball’ view of the universe), and the idea that reality ultimately consists of separate individual objects. The common theme of these and the other approaches that Watts calls upon is to dispute the idea that reality/the world is ‘out there’ and the self is ‘in here’. As such, it attacks the standard position of philosophical realism and the dualist picture of mind and body associated with Descartes. So, we are not ‘ghosts’ in the ‘machines’ of our bodies (as Descartes’s view implies), but nor must we be tied to one or other of the alternatives that dualism represents: spiritual idealism (only the mind or soul is real) is as false as mechanistic materialism (the universe is merely one soulless machine working like a giant clock). Rather, as Vedanta proposes, we should seek to overcome this false duality, and to realize that, ultimately, there is no distinction to be drawn between ‘individuals’ and the universe of which we are a part: we are everything, and everything is us.

This may sound like some vague hippie mantra, but Watts’ arguments do not involve any appeal to otherworldly substances or supernatural entities. In fact, he identifies traditional religious notions (as they are often misunderstood) as responsible for our failure to realize this fundamental truth. For instance, if we were not so caught up with seeing God as a father figure whom we must obey, or else be judged and punished by, then we might be open to a deeper understanding of this concept. In a sense, he argues, we are ‘God’, could we but realize it, yet the theological baggage attached to such terms does little more than obscure this realization, which should be within the grasp of any one of us at any time. If we could let go of the false idea that our body is physically separate from the matter of the universe (such as physics denies), and that we possess a unique and distinct personality or self (which both psychology and philosophy call into question), then we would gain a truer sense of who we are, and of what ancient sages meant by such concepts as ‘Buddha nature’ and ‘God’.

Central to Watts’ position is what he calls ‘the game of black and white’, whereby God – the universe, “IT”, whatever you want to call it – plays a cosmic game of hide and seek with itself. In that game, whilst each individual thing might seem like a separate piece, in reality each of us is just a means of manifesting the same thing, finger puppets of the same universal hand. ‘Self’ and ‘world’, ‘me’ and ‘you’, ‘mind’ and ‘matter’, are therefore simply different aspects of the game, but each of which ultimately has no independent reality.

Some people may find such a view either preposterous or disquieting. How can we all be part of the same thing? And even if we are, doesn’t this make everything meaningless? A mere game? Watts argues that we may play this game sincerely whilst not taking it too seriously: we can fight for goodness and justice, engage in love and work, and so on, whilst realizing that, as the old saying has it, ‘at the end of the game, king and pawn go back in the same box’ – we all return to the state we had before we were born. ‘Life’ and ‘death’ are mere labels that we place upon aspects of reality. Such terms – like ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘self’ and ‘other’ – mutually define and depend upon each other, but ultimately – once we realize that these opposites are merely the terms of the ‘game’ – they have no independent meaning. However, to take them literally is to court misery and delusion. For instance, in philosophy the basis for personal identity has long been a controversial problem. But if we could succeed in solving it – in establishing necessary and sufficient criteria for the continued existence of a unified self or ‘I’ (our ego) – then it would be a disaster. As Watts’ puts it, ‘nothing fails like success’. The victory of fixed literalness over shifting uncertainty and ambiguity may actually be a bad thing. Death, failure, disruption, dissolution – these are necessary things too, and from the universal perspective may fulfill important and positive roles.

There are many other interesting and important features of Watts’ arguments, but I’ve provided enough of a taste here to give you a flavor of his approach – I’ll leave the rest to Watts, who puts it much better than I could. However, to finish, I would like to highlight a few points that I think are interesting and important.

Firstly, the emphasis of The Book is not simply philosophical, but experiential. Watts believes that, as interesting as the ideas he presents are, they are empty and meaningless if they do not result in a change in our actual experience and patterns of thought and behaviour. We must learn a new way of seeing, which in turn must lead us to a richer, more positive outlook on life, where we are more fully alive in the present. So, for Watts, dogma and belief are always second to experience and practical realization, and it is in this specific sense that his approach is ‘mystical’, thus linking him directly to the goals and methods of Zen Buddhism and other approaches that emphasize practical insight over theoretical knowledge.

Secondly, whilst The Book is aimed at a general readership, it is no lightweight popularization, but – within the limits of its purpose – engages meaningfully with fundamental debates in philosophy, science and religion. It is obvious that Watts has read widely and thought deeply about the issues he raises, and, whilst we may not always agree with him – and there is plenty in The Book to challenge common assumptions – his ideas are always substantial and interesting.

Finally, there is the question of the book’s continued relevance. Aside from the fact that the philosophical and religious issues with which The Book deals never really go away, many of Watts’ views on technology and society now seem remarkably prescient. The following passage is a notable example (p.44):

increasing efficiency of communication and of controlling human behavior can, instead of liberating us into the air like birds, fix us to the ground like toadstools. All information will come in by super-realistic television and other electronic devices as yet in the planning stage or barely imagined. In one way this will enable the individual to extend himself anywhere without moving his body – even to distant regions of space. But this will be a new kind of individual – an individual with a colossal external nervous system reaching out and out into infinity. And this electronic nervous system will be so interconnected that all individuals plugged in will tend to share the same thoughts, the same feelings, and the same experiences. There may be specialized types, just as there are specialized cells and organs in our bodies. For the tendency will be for all individuals to coalesce into a single bio-electronic body.

Written in 1966, it is clear that – like his contemporary Marshall McLuhan – Watts recognized that technology did not just enable us to interact differently with our environment, but actually represented an extension of our nervous systems: technology actually changes who we are. We may talk of being glued to the TV, or joke of someone who treats their phone as if it were a vital organ, but there is a seed of literal truth in these metaphorical ways of speaking. Just as, in evolutionary terms, our sense organs represented extensions of our primitive nervous systems, so technological means of perception and communication extend sense-perception. So, whilst it’s tempting to draw the limits of ‘self’ at the body’s borders with the external world, the potential for amputation or artificial augmentation actually reveals that our notion of self is fluid and culturally defined. ‘Me’ is not a fixed concept, but a practical consideration: I could lose all my limbs and still retain it, so why not gain new ‘limbs’ and extend it?

Watts’ key contribution here is to show that such considerations are not merely the stuff of science fiction, but have their roots in ancient religious and philosophical notions of selfhood. But in pointing this out, he also highlights an important difference. The religious and mystical extension of self was organic and life affirming; in identifying with everything, we become more than an ‘ego in a bag of skin’, but part of the active processes of life itself. In contrast, the technological extensions of self make us more and more passive. We become consumers, dependent on a mechanical system that treats individuals as mere cogs in the overall machine. In the former view, we become more than we thought we were; in the latter, we become, in a sense, less. For most people, such technological ‘transhumanism’ seems as implausible and remote as the religious variety, but this is because they hold to the naive notion of the individual ego that is Watt’s main target. Thus, they sleepwalk into technological extensions of self, blithely accepting the unread terms and conditions of a system that introduces greater and greater uniformity of thought and experience through the illusion of greater freedom of choice and expression. Social networks connect us to people we may never meet in person, but they also restrict our expression of what is distinctive about us: we become a set of ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’, a tick-list of preferences and hobbies, where who we are is reduced to a profile picture and our views on life must fit within a 140 character limit (or whatever it is now…).

Watts’ views are therefore more relevant than ever. Faced with the problems and challenges of globalization and digitization, with increasing multiculturalism and secularization on the one hand and the backlash of nationalism and fundamentalism on the other, this last great taboo – the question of who or what we are – could never be more pressing.

[Disclaimer: The above review was based on a complimentary review copy supplied by Souvenir Press.]

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