Tag Archives: Alan Watts

Inquiry into Consciousness Part III – The Self

There is the experience of consciousness. On the surface, it carries with it the assumption of individual agency. This assumption assumes that there is a self which experiences consciousness and that this self has some degree of agency or free-will.

In my last post I examined the “internal” experience of consciousness which consists of various kinds of thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations. This examination revealed to me that although the assumptions of self and agency seem obvious they tend to break down under scrutiny.

Say I have a creative idea and act on it (e.g., I write a novel, song or paint a picture). I implicitly want to take credit for this idea even though I do not know the process by which that idea came into being. Nor do I know that I am responsible for this process even on a subconscious level. The implicitness of this desire to take credit stems from the fact that the idea seemed to originate inside my head. My head is a part of my body and seemingly encasing the physical space where consciousness exists (i.e., behind the eyes and between the ears). Concurrent with this assumption of credit is the assumption that there is a “me” who is capable of taking credit. The implicitness of this assumption seems to primarily stem from the fact that I have a body which occupies physical space and that I have memories which form a continuous timeline of my experience. So there is a conflict that exists between my inability to control my internal experience and the assumption that I should nevertheless take credit for it.

I have been exposed to the idea of “no self” for some time but I cannot say that I totally understand it or feel it. The fact that thoughts occur and I want to take credit for them without understanding the process of their creation begins to shed light on this illusive concept. Not only do I not understand the process of thought creation but I cannot predict or control my thought creation. If I don’t understand the process by which something is created, nor can I predict or control that thing, can I really take credit for it? The self is intimately connected to my thoughts and internal experience, none of which I control. As such, can I really claim there is a self?

But still, the feeling of a self seems very strong and real most of the time especially when I do not directly place my attention on it. Perhaps I could say that there is a self but that this self does not control it’s thoughts and internal experience. In this respect, the self is more of a vessel for this experience. But the self I feel myself to be is not the vessel it is the internal experience. And much like my internal experience, I don’t control most of the functions of my body. I can control my breathing to an extent, but I don’t consciously control my pancreas (for example). If there is a self, I cannot define it as that which I control. It is really what I experience. But saying my self is my experience is different than thinking of my self as an autonomous, sovereign being.

Alan Watts talks about the self being an illusion and that there are only experiences without the need for a self to be the the one who experiences the experiences. This is a difficult idea to understand because as I said it feels like I exist and act autonomously. I have memories that connect my experiences into a life. I have a body etc. etc. I guess the best I can do is say that my self is my experience. This includes both internal and external experience (i.e., the world). Alan Watts says as much. If I am my heart beating then I am also the sun shining.

I recently listened to the audio book version of “Free Will” by Sam Harris. His basic premise is that human beings generally exist with the assumption that they have free will. That is, they believe they are to some degree consciously choosing the actions they take in life. Harris argues this assumption is incoherent in that thoughts appear in the human conscience out of nowhere and therefore the humans experiencing these thoughts cannot take credit for them. Moreover, human experience is shaped by external forces that are out of one’s control. For example, humans have no control over the family, social class and geographic location they are born into. To a large degree, the events in life are also out of one’s control and all of these external forces shape the decisions we make as humans. Curiously, Harris is a staunch atheist. But the idea of no self and no free will tends to tilt me more in the theist camp. After all, something is going on. The experience exists even though my self does not. Something has to be the beneficiary of this experience of consciousness.

The idea of no self can be disappointing because it goes against the implicit assumptions regarding the experience of consciousness. But if there is no me, then who is getting disappointed by the fact that there is no me? This is indeed difficult to wrap one’s head around. Perhaps the idea of the self is the wrong way to go about it. I do not claim to know the right way to go about it. Let us say for now, (1) there is consciousness, both internal and external, (2) there is experience of consciousness and (3) there is existence. Perhaps this is the implication of the statement “I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14). There is simply pure “am-ness” and maybe it is only God that has a self and can create thought. I will explore this in the next blog post.

2 Comments

Filed under Psychology, Religion

Inquiry into Consciousness

Leo Gura of Actualized.org recently dropped a podcast entitled “How to Discover What’s True” wherein he suggests that the Truth of existence can be discovered by thinking and asking questions about existence methodically. He asserts it is possible to arrive at Truth in this way and that he has done this himself. It seems logical to first question the veracity of this assertion. I don’t know that it is true that I can discover Truth simply by thinking and asking about it. So then, the next step would be to test the assertion in some way. The most obvious method to me of testing his assertion is to assume it is true and then to follow it where it takes me. This is the inquiry.

Truth is a rather broad concept. As such, it would be helpful to break it down into more specific areas of inquiry. The truth of consciousness seems like a good starting point. After all, I have direct access to consciousness that I am experiencing it right now. I have been experiencing consciousness as far back as I can remember. But what is consciousness?

According to wikipedia, “Consciousness at its simplest refers to … awareness of internal or external existence”. I can say it is true that I am aware of internal and external experience because I am directly experiencing my internal and external experience. I don’t think I have to question whether I am actually experiencing these experiences because if I can’t trust that I am actually experiencing my experience then I cannot trust this inquiry in the first place. And really, what would it mean to say that I am not really experiencing my experiences? Even if they are hallucinations, I am still (on some level) experiencing the hallucinations. Certainly, my interpretations of these experiences could be untrue but the experience is still there as far as I can tell.

The definition of consciousness refers to two types of awareness: (1) internal existence and (2) external existence. On its face, my experience seems to accord with this bifurcation. But I have listened to enough Alan Watts lectures to question the veracity of this bifurcation. I can conceive of a reality where what I perceive to be external experience to be an extension of my internal experience. This is not solipsism per say. In the Watts explained conception of reality (which corresponds to Hindu and Buddhist thought as far as I know) there is a omnipotent and omnipresent deity that has decided to experience limitation (the one thing it lacks). It did this because it is impossible to have an adventure if one is omnipotent and omnipresent. Nothing could surprise such a being. Nor could it learn and grow from experience. And so it experiences this limitation by experiencing our lives individually. As such, my consciousness is really God pretending to be me. Likewise the experience of other people are God pretending to be them. It’s a big, elaborate hallucination that only God Himself could pull off because He is omnipotent and omnipresent.

Of course, this conception of consciousness is inconsistent with the Christian tradition (specifically Roman Catholic) which is the tradition in which I grew up and with which I am the most familiar. In this tradition there are individual consciousnesses which were brought into being by God and are therefore separate and distinct from God. There is also a real external reality in which these consciousnesses exist and interact.

If I am being honest, I cannot say (at this point in the inquiry) with authority that I know which model is true. It is interesting that Christianity requires belief in its model for salvation. I have explored this odd requirement in a previous blog post. A belief is something a person holds to be true. But how can a person believe something that he does not know with authority to be true? He could pretend to believe it but the belief system seems to require actual belief. And why would God require this belief from a person who is not in a position to know its veracity with authority? Two ideas come to mind to address this question. The first is the concept of faith which is a trusting attitude in the teachings of a higher authority. The second is that belief is akin to the placebo effect. That is, belief in a particular idea, in some real sense creates the reality of that idea. We see this most clearly when a placebo actually heals a person who believes it to work. But belief from a position of faith and as a placebo are not in the spirit of this inquiry which is to see if Truth can be discovered wholly through self-inquiry. I cannot speak for other Christian traditions, but Roman Catholicism is not wholly against the concept of self-inquiry or self-reflection. In fact it encourages it to an extent. But there is definitely a sense within Roman Catholicism that self-inquiry cannot take one all the way across the finish line. Anyway, the point here is that for the purpose of this inquiry, I will need to suspend any Christian requirement of belief. If it ultimately turns out that belief or faith is required then I would like to think that I would arrive at that point on my own through this process of inquiry.

At this point, I can say a few things with authority based upon this inquiry. (1) The experience of my individual consciousness (both internal and external) is transpiring at this moment. (2) On the surface, it appears that there is an external world inhabited by myself and other people who appear to have the experience of individual consciousness. (3) I do not know with authority how the experience of my individual consciousness came into being or to what extent it is separate from the external things it experiences. As I am approaching 1,000 words I will leave it at that for now.

1 Comment

Filed under Religion

My Experience With Stand Up Comedy – Thoughts on Misdirection

For a long time I have wanted to try stand up comedy. People have consistently told me that I have a good sense of humor and I experience pleasure and satisfaction when I make people laugh. I recognize there is a lot of ego and perhaps insecurity behind this motivation. There is very little that is altruistic about being on stage commanding the focus of the room’s attention, with my voice amplified by the only microphone in the room and speaking the words of my creation in the hopes that the people observing me will not only approve but will also be moved to laugh. I suppose an argument could be made that there is some aspect of altruism in the desire to make people laugh but (if I am being honest) any altruism involved would only account for a minute portion of my motivation. Altruism is there, I suppose, but it is vastly overshadowed by the ego in my estimation.

Anyway, recently I had the opportunity to perform stand up comedy in an actual comedy club. My performance went well enough for a beginner and the experience of facing my fear of standing before an audience, making myself vulnerable to their judgment and then coming out the other side unscathed was exhilarating. Although, the entire experience of developing material and seeing it through to its performance was not exactly how I had envisioned it, the process was satisfying. It was also educational in a lot of ways. One of the most interesting concepts I learned through this process was that laughter often results from a misdirection of the audience or by presenting the audience with an unexpected idea or take on an idea.

Making people laugh is to varying degrees both an art and a science. It is an art because effective comics have the ability to read an audience and react to them intuitively. I notice this both through observing experienced comics but also through my own experience. Indeed, some of the biggest laughs I got were in response to off the cuff remarks I made in the moment which were completely unplanned. On the other hand, making people laugh is also a science in that there are specific techniques used by comedians all the time to elicit laughter from their audience. Misdirection or surprising the audience is one of these techniques. What I mean by this is that a comedian will set an audience up by making them think he or she is going in one direction but will then surprise them by taking them in a completely different direction. The classic example of this is Henny Yongman’s “Take my wife… please!” line. By this line the audience is first led to believe that Mr. Youngman is making a point using a his wife as an example but then he takes the audience by surprise when he says “please” which changes the meaning of his original statement to mean, “please take my wife away from me.”

The question as to why misdirection produces laughter is more complicated to explain. As far as I know, there is no definitive answer to this but I think it has to do with creating a “vacuum of cognitive dissonance” which the mind must fill with something. In other words, the misdirection creates a void of confusion in the mind which compels the mind to come up with an explanation to dispel the confusion. The simple answer the mind comes up with to explain the misdirection is that the comedian is trying to be funny and the realization of this creates laughter which then breaks the tension caused by the confusion. Of course breaking it down like this sort of takes the funny out of the experience. But then again, observing comedians work their craft with this in mind can make their material funny for a different reason.

It is interesting that the pleasurable experience of laughter is elicited through misdirection or surprise. This suggests that there is something pleasurable about not being in control or by not being aware of what will happen next. This reminds me of Alan Watts’ description of human consciousness. As he described it, human consciousness is a divine self-delusion. That is, the omniscient, immortal divinity became bored always knowing what is going to happen next and devised a plan whereby it could be surprised. This surprised state of mind is the predicament in which we currently find ourselves according to Watts. Of course, if this were true that would make humans God with which I assume some people might take issue. However, all this is to say that there is something entertaining about  being surprised especially when contrasted with a regular experience of not being surprised. Just as there would be something comforting about resting in an unsurprising existence if one is constantly being surprised.

Here is a video of my most recent performance. I find it interesting to observe what lines actually elicit laughter in the audience. Some of this is explained by the idea that laughter is elicited when the audience is misdirected. Of course this does not entirely explain it because there are times when the audience is misdirected and they do not laugh.

Of note: The “Matt stole all my ashy skin material” remark in the beginning is an example of an off the cuff remark that got a good reaction from the crowd. This was in reference to a comedian who preceded me named Matt who is African American and talked about how his skin gets “ashy” when the weather turns cold. Anyone familiar with this would know that my being white is part of what makes this remark funny. It can be thought of as a misdirection because it was probably an unexpected thing for me to say.

Perhaps the misdirection has to be clever enough in some way in order to be funny. Perhaps it all depends on the state of mind of the audience and if enough people can relate to what is being said in order for it to be funny. Obviously, there are a lot of variables at play and what will or will not elicit laughter in any particular audience is a bit of a mystery.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized