The Real You

One of my first encounters with philosophy came when I was about 15 years old and was watching a PBS video featuring Alan Watts (1915 – 1973). I wasn’t philosophically sophisticated enough then to understand much of what he was saying, but I do remembering thinking he was cool. He had a beard, drank tea and seemed so … philosophical.

Alan Watts was a British born philosopher, and one of the first writers to popularize Eastern thought, particularly Zen Buddhism, for a Western audience. One of the first philosophy books I ever read as a teenager was, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Watts. It asked one of the most fundamental questions we can ask: who am I?

Now we may think we know the answer to this question. For example, we may believe that our individuality ends with our bodies. But Watts asked, why do we end where our bodies do? After all, our skin is porous and interacts with the environment. We can’t survive for more than a few minutes without the air, so why isn’t the air as much a part of us as our legs or arms?   And there is no breathable air without plants, so why aren’t they a part of us? In fact, our existence depends on the earth’s ecosystem and the sun. Following this line of thinking, we ultimately depend on the entire universe for our existence.

So perhaps we aren’t egos inside bags of skin or even separate egos at all. Maybe we are like windows or apertures or vortexes through which the universe is conscious of itself for a brief moment. While we are fond of saying things like “I came into this world,” isn’t it more accurate to say, “I came out of the universe?” Don’t people come out of the universe like leaves come out of trees or waves come out of oceans? Or as Watts asks, doesn’t the universe just “people?”

Such questions are not merely academic. If we think we are separate from the world, then it is more likely to feel like something alien to us that we must confront. But if we see that we came out of the universe, then we are more likely to treat the universe as our home. We will see that the environment that surrounds our bodies is as much a part of us as our heart or lungs. If we despoil the environment, we despoil ourselves; if we destroy the environment, we destroy ourselves. So perhaps we are the universe looking at itself from billions of perspectives.

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7 thoughts on “The Real You

  1. “In fact, couldn’t we say that, in some sense, we are the universe?”
    We could say this but I can’t imagine what “sense” it would make to say it. Nor can I imagine what sense it would make to say “I am the air around me.” If I did say these things in public, I would run the risk of being branded as a candidate for a mental hospital.

  2. Fair enough. I was never convinced by this argument although it made quite an impression on an adolescent. Still, the Buddhist doctrine of “no-self” suggests something similar. Perhaps the least we could say is that we are all interconnected (or something like that.) Maybe that would be somewhat of an improvement over the Western atomist view of the self.

  3. After I wrote my response (above), it occurred to me that Watts is borrowing from Spinoza.
    In Ethics, Spinoza claims that there is only one substance and that substance is God . If God is the only substance, and (by axiom 1 of Ethics) whatever is, is either a substance or in a substance, then everything else must be in God. “Whatever is, is in God, and nothing can be or be conceived without God” (Ip15).
    But God is not an anthropomorphic being. God is Nature. God is “all that there is.” Everything else is either an attribute or a mode of God. Humans are modes possessing the attributes of thought and extension. Hence, the only answer to the question “Who am I?” is “I am a mode of God.”
    But such words can only be spoken in a philosophy classroom. Don’t say such things in public.
    (There is an excellent account of Spinoza’s ethics in the Stanford Encyclopedia

  4. One of the most liberating and conscious statements I recall was when Carl Sagan told us that “We’re (all) made of star stuff.” This simple statement tied all of us to a universal origin. I’ve have pursued philosophy since attempting to understand why some of us have more dangerous elements in us than others. The quest continues…

  5. Gosh, I should have thought of Spinoza on this. Yes, I think there are parallels here between Buddhism and Spinoza on this (as well as the Hindu idea that all is Brahman.) Thanks for bringing up Spinoza here. Ernest Renan, at the dedication of the Spinoza statue in the Hague, said that he hoped those passing by would say of Spinoza “The truest vision ever of God came, perhaps,here.”

    I would also recommend the Stanford entry on Spinoza referenced by Professor Houlgate.

  6. Yes, ‘evidence’ for monism is that most of the cosmos—last we heard—is hydrogen.
    Could also be that all philosophers are made of the same intellectual material. We differentiate between the great philosophers; however isn’t it about hominids arguing re how many philosophical memes can dance on the head of a pin? One might write that Watts provided an antidote to such.
    Naturally, this comment is yet more memes dancing on the head of a pin.

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