It is really a very unorthodox and unacademic thing to do to start a discussion with a group of psychologists on the subject of metaphysics, but we have to do that because a lot of people say that their approach to life is scientific, as distinct from metaphysical, and that metaphysics is bosh anyway. But everybody, by virtue of being a human being, is willy-nilly a metaphysician. That is to say, everybody starts from certain fundamental assumptions as to what is the good life, what he wants, [or] what are his, shall we say, axioms for living. And I find that psychologists generally tend to be blind to these fundamental assumptions. Maybe it is truer of psychiatrists than of psychologists, but they tend to feel that they are scientists. They’re rather bending over backwards to have a scientific status because that is fashionable in our age. But, you know, it’s so amusing that when, say – let’s take psychoanalysis for example – as pointed out to many philosophers that their philosophical ideas are capable of being shown to have a psychoanalytic reference. For example, John Wisdom wrote a book about the philosophy of Berkeley, in which he attributed a great deal of his point of view to his experiences at toilet training as a child. The philosopher is very grateful to the psychoanalyst for revealing to him his unconscious and its emotional contents, but the psychoanalyst must in turn await a revelation from the philosopher as to his philosophical unconscious and the unexamined assumptions which lie in it.
So if I may start by insulting your intelligence with what is called the most elementary lesson – the thing that we should have learned before we learned “1 – 2 – 3” and “A – B – C,” but somehow was overlooked. Now, this lesson is quite simply this, that any experience that we have through our senses, whether of sound, or of light, or of touch, is a vibration. And a vibration has two aspects: one called “on,” and the other called “off.” Vibration seems to be propagated in waves, and every wave system has crests and it has troughs.
And so life is a system of now you see it, now you don’t, and these two aspects always go together. For example, sound is not pure sound; it is a rapid alternation of sound and silence, and that is simply the way things are. Only, you must remember that the crest and the trough of a wave are inseparable. Nobody ever saw crests without troughs or troughs without crests. Just as you do not encounter in life people with fronts but no backs, just as you do not encounter a coin that has heads but no tails. And although the heads and the tails, the fronts and the backs, the positives and the negatives are different, they are at the same time one. And one has to get used, fundamentally, to the notion that different things can be inseparable, and that what is explicitly two can at the same time be implicitly one. If you forget that, very funny things happen. If therefore we forget, you see, that black and white are inseparable, and that existence is constituted equivalently by being and non-being, then we get scared, and we have to play a game called “Uh-oh, Black Might Win.” And once we get into the fear that black – the negative side – might win, we are compelled to play the game, “But White Must Win,” and from that start all our troubles.
Because, you see, the human awareness is a very odd mechanism. I do not think “mechanism” is quite the right word, but it will do for the moment. That is to say, we have as a species specialized in a certain kind of awareness which we call conscious attention, and by this we have the faculty of examining the details of life very closely. We can restrict our gaze, and it corresponds somewhat to [peripheral field] – the central field of vision in the eyes. We have central vision and we have peripheral vision. Central vision is that which we use for reading and for all sorts of close work, and it’s like using a spotlight. Whereas peripheral vision is more like using a floodlight. Now, civilization and civilized human beings, for maybe 5,000 years, maybe much longer, have learned to specialize in concentrated attention. Even if a person’s attention span is short, he is, as it were, wavering his spotlight over many fields. The price which we pay for specialization in conscious attention is ignorance of everything outside its field. I would rather say “ignore-ance,” than ignorance, because if you concentrate on a figure, you tend to ignore the background and you tend, therefore, to see the world in a disintegrated aspect. You take separate things and events seriously, imagining that these really do exist, when actually they have the same kind of existence as an individual’s interpretation of a Rorschach blot; they are what you make out of it.
In fact our physical world is a system of inseparable differences. Everything exists with everything else, but we contrive not to notice that because what we notice is
what is noteworthy, and we notice it in terms of notations: numbers, words, images. What is notable, noteworthy, notated, and noticed is what appears to us to be significant, and the rest is ignored as insignificant. And as a result of that we select from the total input that goes to our senses only a very small fraction, and this causes us to believe that we are separate beings, isolated by the boundary of the epidermis from the rest of the world. You see, this is also the mechanism involved in not noticing that black and white go together – not noticing that every inside has an outside. That the inside, what’s inside – what goes on inside your skin, is inseparable from what goes on outside your skin. You see that, for example, in the science of ecology one learns that a human being is not an organism in an environment, but is an organism-environment, that is to say, a unified field of behavior. If you describe carefully the behavior of any organism you cannot do so without at the same time describing the behavior of the environment, and by that you know that you’ve got a new entity of study: you are describing the behavior of a unified field. But you must be very careful indeed not to fall into old Newtonian assumptions about the billiard ball nature of the universe. The organism is not the puppet of the environment being pushed around by it, nor on the other hand is the environment the puppet of the organism being pushed around by the organism. The relationship between them is, to use John Dewey’s word, “transactional,” a transaction being a situation like buying and selling in which there is no buying unless somebody sells, and no selling unless somebody buys. So that fundamental relationship between ourselves and the world, which is, in an old-fashioned way, by people such as [B. F.] Skinner, who has not updated his philosophy – interpreted in terms of Newtonian mechanics – he interprets the organism as something determined by the total environment. He doesn’t see that in a more modern way of talking about it we’re simply describing a unified field of behavior, which is nothing more than what any mystic ever said. That’s a dirty word in the modern, academic scientific environment, but if a mystic is one who is sensibly or even sensuously aware of his inseparability as an individual from the total existing universe, he is simply a person who has become sensible – aware through his senses – of the way ecologists see the world. So when I am in academic circles I do not talk about mystical experiences, I talk about ecological awareness. Same thing.
And so the next aspect of our metaphysical introduction must be about games. You know, I think there are really four questions that all philosophers have discussed from the beginning of recorded time. The first is: Who started it? The second is: Are we going to make it? The third is: Where are we going to put it? And the fourth is: Who is going to clean up?
When you think these over it poses a fifth question: Is it serious? And that is the one I want to discuss. Is existence serious, like you say, “Doctor,” after he has looked at your X-ray picture, “is it serious?” What does that mean? It means, “Am I in danger of not continuing to survive?” The question is “Ought I to continue to survive?” In other words, “Must I survive?” If life is serious, then of course I must survive. If it is not serious, it really does not matter whether I do or I don’t. Now, in Western culture it is practically a basic assumption that existence is serious, and this is particularly true among people who call themselves existentialists. When they talk about a person who exists authentically they mean that he takes his life seriously and other people’s lives seriously. But the poet and essayist, G. K. Chesterton, once observed that the “angels fly because they take themselves lightly.” And if I may venture into mythology, if the angels take themselves lightly, how much more so the lord of the angels? But you see, we have been brought up in a mythological context where the Lord God definitely does take Himself seriously and is indeed, the serious person. So, that when we go into church, laughter is discouraged in the same way as it is discouraged in court. This is a serious matter and everybody has to have the right expression on their faces because this is the great, great authority figure. This is Grandpa, [imitates old man] and we do not realize that he has a twinkle in his eye. But the basis of it all is this: If we say, “You must survive” or “I must survive,” and “Life is earnest and I have got to go on,” then your life is a drag and not a game.
Now it is my contention and my personal opinion – this is my basic metaphysical axiom, shall we put it that way – that existence – the physical universe – is basically playful.
There is no necessity for it whatsoever. It is not going anywhere; that is to say, it does not have some destination that it ought to arrive at. But it is best understood by analogy with music because music as an art form is essentially playful. We say, “You play the piano.” You do not work the piano. Why? Music differs from, say, travel: when you travel you are trying to get somewhere and, of course, we, because of being a compulsive and purposive culture, are busy getting everywhere faster and faster till we eliminate the distance between places. I mean, with modern jet travel you can arrive almost instantaneously, and what happens as a result of that is that the two ends of your journey become the same place. So you eliminate the distance and you eliminate the journey. Because the fun of the journey is to travel, not to obliterate travel. So the, in music, though, one does not make the end of a composition the point of the composition. If that were so, the best conductors would be those who played fastest, and there would be composers who wrote only finales. People would go to a concert just to hear one crashing chord because that is the end. Say you went dancing – you don’t aim at a particular spot in the room – that’s where you should arrive –the point of dancing is the dance.
Now, but, we don’t see that as something brought by our education into our everyday conduct. We have got a system of schooling which gives it a completely different impression. It’s all graded, and what we do is we put the child into the corridor of this grade system, with a kind of “Come on, kitty – kitty – kitty.” And you go to kindergarten, and that is a great thing, because when you finish that you will get into first grade; and then “Come on!” First grade leads to second grade, and so on. And then you get out of grade school, you go on to high school, and it’s “revving up,” the thing is coming, and then you go on to college, and by Jove, you get into graduate school, and when you are through with graduate school you go out to join the world. And then you get into some racket where you are selling insurance and they’ve got their quota to make, and you’ve gotta make that. And all the time that thing is coming, it’s coming, it’s coming – that great thing –the success you are working for. Then when you wake up one day, about forty years old, you say, “My God, I have arrived! I am there.” And you do not feel very different from what you always felt, and there is a slight let-down because you feel there’s a hoax. And there was a hoax, a dreadful hoax: they made you miss everything by expectation. Look at the people who live to retire and they put those savings away, and then when they are sixty-five they do not have any energy left, they’re more or less impotent, and they go on and rot in an old people’s – senior citizen’s community.
Because we simply cheated ourselves the whole way down the line. We thought of life by analogy with a journey, with a pilgrimage – which had a serious purpose at the
end. The thing was to get to that end, success, or whatever it is, or maybe Heaven after you are dead, but we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing or dance while the music was being played. But you had to do “that thing” and you did not let it happen. So this is why the human being sometimes becomes an organism for self-frustration. Let’s take – Korzybski called man a “time binder.” That means that he is the animal peculiarly aware of the time sequence. And as a result of this he is able to do some very remarkable things. He can predict: he studies what has happened in the past and he says the chances are so-and-so of that happening again, and so he predicts. Well, it’s very useful, to be able to predict, because that has survival value, but at the same time it creates anxiety. You pay for this increased survivability involved in prediction by knowing that in the end you will not succeed. You’re all going to fall apart by one way or another; it might happen tomorrow, it might happen fifty years from now, but it all comes apart in the end. And people get worried about that – they get anxious, so what they gained on the roundabout, they lost on the swings.
So then, if you see on the other hand, that existence – this is, as I said, my basic metaphysical assumption, which I won’t conceal from you – that existence is musical in nature, that is to say that it is not serious – it is a play of all kinds of patterns and we can look upon different creatures as we look at different games, as we look at chess, checkers, backgammon, tennis. There is the, the tree game, the beetle game, the grass game. Or you can look at them as different styles of music – mazurkas, waltzes, sonata, etc. All down the line there are all these different things doing their stuff. They’re going, “do-do-do-do-do…” in different rhythms. And we’re doing that. If you were in a flying saucer from Mars, or somewhere, and you came and looked, tried to make out what was living on this world from about ten thousand feet late at night, or early morning, you would see these great ganglia with tentacles going out all over the place. And early in the morning you would see little blobs of luminous particles going into the middle of them. Then in the late afternoon or early evening it would spit them all out again. And they’d say, “Well, this thing breathes, and it does it in a special rhythm. It goes in – and – out, in – and – out, and in – and – out, once every twenty – four hours. But then it rests a day and doesn’t spit so much, it just spits in a different way. There is a kind of irregularity, and then it starts spitting all over again the same way. ” They would say, “Well, that is very interesting, but that is just the kind of thing we have. This is something that goes this way, and then goes that way.”
Now, existence, you see is something that is spontaneous. The Chinese word for nature is tzu-jan. It means that which happens of itself. Your hair grows by itself, your heart beats by itself. You breathe –pretty much by itself. Your glands secrete their essences by themselves – you do not have voluntary control over these things, and so we say it happens spontaneously. So, when you go to sleep and you try to go to sleep you interfere with the spontaneous process of going to sleep. If you try to breathe real hard you will find you get balled-up in your breathing. So if you are to – if you gotta be human, you just have to trust yourself to have bowel movements and go to sleep, and digest your food. Of course if something goes seriously wrong and you need a surgeon that is another matter, but by and large the healthy human being does not right from the start of life need surgical interference. And he lets it happen by itself, and so with the whole picture that is fundamental to it. You have to let go and let it happen, because if you don’t, you’re going to be all clutched up.
Then you gotta be constantly trying to do what can happen healthily only if you do not try. And when people – when you think a bit about what people really want to do with their time, what they do when they are not being pushed around and somebody is telling them what to do, they like to go – they like to make rhythms. They listen to music and they dance or they sing, or perhaps they do something of a rhythmic nature like playing cards, bowling, or raising their elbows. Everybody wants to spend their time swinging. That’s the nature of this whole thing we’re in. You see, he likes the swings. That’s why he does it.