Alan Watts on Buddhism and Science

So, long story short, I’ve been really getting into Buddhism lately. And as a philosophy major, I’m quite intrigued by the Eastern approach to philosophy rather than the Western approach, which I’m predominantly inundated with. I watched Alan Watts’ video on the subject here, which I thought I’d summarize and go over, if you don’t have 28 minutes to spare.

Science is about putting things in boxes, i.e., classification and doing such with complex forms into simpler forms we can better understand and measure.

“In this way, we get a well-controlled description of physical reality. Science is the art of definition, of getting things down, as we say, in black and white, of assimilating the unknown, the irregular and the wayward to patterns that are known, regular and controlled,” Watts says.

This is the human activity we call thought, which thought (and therefore science) is classification.

“The question is always, is we is or is we ain’t.”

Watts uses the example of drawing a figure, which he then says, suppose I said that’s a tree with lobbed off tree branches. Our brains immediately relate to that because we know of something familiar (a tree). Then he says, suppose that figure of lines is actually a bear climbing up a tree. Again, our brain relates it to something familiar we know (a bear). It’s quite extraordinary the way our minds work.

The question arises, then, why do we want to do this? If we can put things into these boxes, i.e., assimilate them to patterns, then we can predict what will happen next. As from patterns, we derive rhythm, which we derive time out of.

So why predict future events? “It enables us to control what will happen,” Watts says. So, we can control our physical environment.

Ultimately, then, the purpose of science is to “control both our own nature and our physical nature in order so that the human race may survive as comfortably as possible in its natural surroundings.”

In essence, it’s human-imposed order on the disorder of the natural world. The whole task of applied science is to assimilate human knowledge to order.

Watts describes this process as a metaphorical mental eating up of the universe — a conquest of nature.

He further goes on to say that this is a clash, a warfare of order versus disorder and life versus death; it’s a game and it’s a deeper, bitter game.

The difference, then, between Buddhism and science as a form of knowledge, it would be said in Buddhism that this task of making order triumph over disorder leaves something out.

Avidyā, an important word in Buddhism, meaning non-knowing or ignorance, helps to further illustrate this point. Watts looks at an optical illusion, wherein we can’t see both figures at the same time, but they are nevertheless mutually needed to see the full picture.

When we see the world around us, we identify ourselves with the subject, the knower, not with what we see. But if there’s nothing seen, there is no seer. If there is no seer, there is nothing seen. Both need each other.

In Buddhism, this going together is called sūnyatā, i.e., the inside of the square can’t exist without the outside of the square. Or more commonly thought of, the yin and the yang need each other.

The question, then is, Watts says, are the yin and the yang in conflict? What happens, however, if yin eats up yang? They both disappear, as yin is only there in relation to yang.

Yin and yang are one and inseparable. This is “awakening” in Buddhism. Life is not a conquest of order over disorder.

When one sees that, Watts says, instead of looking upon life as a contest, it is instead more of a dance.

“Must we have fixed in our minds the idea that all the forms and patterns in nature are methods of attack or defense? Or can we see them a dance, a joyous cosmology?”

That seems a more beautiful approach to me.

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