"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Friday, August 12, 2011

Einstein to Alan Watts and Beyond: Who Are We?

"You cannot teach an ego to be anything but egotistic, even though egos have the subtlest ways of pretending to be reformed. The basic thing is therefore to dispel, by experiments and experience, the illusion of oneself as a separate ego. The consequences (however) may not be behavior along the lines of conventional morality."
The illusory way of seeing the world from the perspective of the individual "self" of the human ego is a problem recognized by deep-thinking scientists and philosophers alike. Whether Einstein's view on the illusory nature of the ego informed or was informed by his paradigm-rattling theory of relativity, one cannot but help think that it may have helped him in framing his famous thought-experiment of "the twins paradox." (In this paradox, one identical twin remains on earth while another travels the stars in a space ship that is going at nearly the speed of light. When the second twin arrives back on Earth, to their amazement the Earth-bound twin will have aged appreciably more than the space-faring twin due to the effects of relativity.)

Irrespective of what came first, his "twins paradox" or his views on the illusory nature of the human ego, it is clear that the latter informed both Einstein's work as a humanitarian and as a pacifist. In one of his many quasi-scientific/quasi-philosophic observations, he famously remarked:
"A human being is part of the whole called by us the universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness."

"This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."

"The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive."
The polymath philosopher, Alan Watts, a dozen-or-so years after Einstein's comments (which were made in 1954, at the height of the Cold War), came to much the same conclusion. After presciently warning against the arms race, overpopulation and environmental degradation - issues that have only become more acute in the intervening decades - Watts observed:

". . . (T)he problem of man and technics is almost always stated in the wrong way. It is said that humanity has evolved one-sidedly, growing in technical power without any comparable growth in moral integrity, or, as some would prefer to say, without comparable progress in education and rational thinking."

"Yet," he observed, "the problem is more basic. The root of the matter is the way in which we feel and conceive ourselves as human beings, our sensation of being alive, of individual existence and identity. We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of our own existence as living organisms. Most of us have the sensation that "I myself" is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body - a center which "confronts" an "external" world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange. Everyday figures of speech reflect this illusion. "I came into this world." "You must face reality." "The conquest of nature.""

"This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe," he notes, "is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not "come into" this world, we come out of it, like leaves from a tree. As the ocean "waves," the universe "peoples." Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely if ever experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated "egos" in bags of skin."
This stark delusionary "reality," Watts points out, results in two distinct, but interrelated problems; problems that have only grown more acute as man's technology and his increasing sense of isolation from the whole have spiked in recent years. Together, these factors lead (a) to an ever increasing exploitation of our environment and (b) to the inability of individuals, let alone nations, to act with a common sense of purpose, even in the face of the glaring existential threats that we have created.
"The first result of this illusion," Watts notes, is that our attitude to the world "outside" us is largely hostile. We are forever "conquering" nature, space, mountains, deserts, bacteria, and insects instead of learning to cooperate with them in a harmonious order. . . . The hostile attitude of conquering nature ignores the basic interdependence of all things and events - that the world beyond the skin is actually an extension of our own bodies - and will end in destroying the very environment from which we emerge and upon which our whole life depends."

"The second result of feeling that we are separate minds in an alien and mostly stupid universe is that we have no common sense, no way of making sense of the world upon which we are agreed in common. It's just my opinion against yours, and therefore the most aggressive and violent (and thus insensitive) propagandist makes the decisions. A muddle of conflicting opinions united by force of propaganda is the worst possible source of control for a powerful technology." 

"We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive," Einstein warned. Such a new way of thinking must, as Watts points out, originate from a much deeper place in our consciousness (both personal and collective), from a state of consciousness and being where we do not conceive of ourselves and others as merely separate "egos" encased in "bags of skin."

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