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Alan Watts, Does It Matter?

The idea that man has an instinct for violence must be questioned. Instincts, whether for violence, survival, reproduction, or food, would seem to be causes or explanations of the same type as humors, demons, or “acts of God” – that is to say, mythical agents or starters for processes that we do not fully understand, like the mysterious “it” in “it is raining.” It is of great interest that many behavioral scientists now prefer to speak of drives rather than instincts, implying that when people feel angry, hungry, or lusty they feel like passive puppets, driven by forces beyond themselves. But this implies that “myself” is something less than my whole body and all its processes – a notion that I find absurd, however much it may correspond to our normal, but socially conditioned, ways of thinking and feeling.

Almost all civilized peoples have been brought up to think of themselves as ghosts in machines, as Arthur Koestler put it: as souls or spirits in alien bodies, as skin-encapsulated egos, or as psychic chauffeurs in mechanical vehicles of flesh and bone. We have learned to identify ourselves exclusively with a part-function of the brain, a sort of radar or scanning function that is the apparent center of conscious attention and voluntary action. Although this center feels responsible for deliberate thinking, walking, talking, and handling, it knows next to nothing of how it manages to accomplish these actions. Furthermore, it experiences all the so-called involuntary functions of the body as events that simply happen to it. Thus it feels driven and passive with respect to strong emotions, to the circulation of the blood, and to the secretion of adrenalin.

However, there are those who feel that this separation of ego from body is the distinctively human achievement. It enables us, within certain limits, to subject nature to reason and to control what “merely happens” by the disciplines of art and science. It enables us to stand aside from ourselves and be critical of our own behavior, in short, to be self-conscious. Above all, it is supposed to be that unique function that “raises us above the animals,” a boast that is beginning to sound increasingly hollow, since no mere animal seems to be preparing to destroy the planet as a by-product of war against its own species.

My home is at present a large boat in a quiet harbor where we are surrounded by birds – wild duck, grebes, pelicans, terns, and gulls galore – and the latter are so ravenously hungry that they sometimes appear to me as winged tubes with internal organs like a vacuum-cleaner. Why do I feel that this world of birds is in some way more sane than the world of people? It must be hard work to be a bird, having to process enormous quantities of food through those short intestines. From the way in which gulls scramble and jostle each other for bits of bread, you would imagine that a single gull would be most happy to eat alone. But if you throw a crust to a lonely gull, it calls in a way that brings every other gull within hearing to the spot. Perhaps it doesn’t know how to calculate, or just doesn’t know how to restrain its squawks of delight. Maybe it isn’t really an individual, but simply the subordinate organ of a gull-group (something like a communist). Men have an envy of animals so deep that they will use any and every reason (the contradictions be damned) for proving their inferiority.

The root of this envy is the belief that animals, and especially free-flying birds, have no sense of responsibility. They hunt, nest, and breed without calculation, just as we breathe, hear, and grow hair. They “take no thought for the morrow,” whereas self-conscious and self-critical man, with his sense of being in at least partial control of his actions, lies awake at night trying to make up his mind about important decisions or chiding himself for past mistakes. The individual human being is perpetually at odds with himself for not being sufficiently thoughtful, decisive, and self-controlled, regarding himself as civilized to the degree in which he manages to press this inner conflict to victory for the rational ego. Civilization is therefore attained through man’s violence against himself – reflected in the flogging of his children, dogs, and horses, and in the brutal or subtle tortures inflicted upon those less successful and cunning groups of bandits known as criminals. More and more, the scientists are saying that man must now take his future evolution into his own (i.e., the ego’s) hands and rely no longer upon the caprices of “natural selection.” Yet those who speak thus do not seem to realize that this is going to require increasing violence against “deviant” forces within the individual and within society. The aspiration to direct evolution is also the aspiration to be “as God,” and thus – as God is generally conceived in the West – to be dictator of the world.

But, as the psalm says, “Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.” This is really the same as the saying that “there is no peace for the wicked,” for those who, like the tyrant-image of God, take the law into their own hands. For our traditional model of the universe is basically military.

God, the all-terrible King,
Who ordainest
Great winds Thy clarion
And lightnings Thy sword.

The imperious violence of intelligent spirit against intractable and mindless matter is man’s projection upon the universe of his own internal split, which is what keeps him awake at night worrying about his decisions – along with “he that keepeth Israel.”

The basic problem is, of course, that law and reason are linear systems expressed in verbal, mathematical, or other forms of notation, or symbols strung out in a line to represent “bits” of information selected by the narrow spotlight of conscious attention. The physical world, by contrast, is at any moment a manifestation of innumerable and simultaneous energy-patterns that, when we try to translate them into our clumsy linear symbols, seem impossibly complex. Actually, the world is not complex. Complexity is in the task of trying to figure it out with words or numbers, which is like trying to keep count of all the leaves in a constantly changing forest, or measuring the Atlantic with a hypodermic needle.