Now, what I want to do is have a mutual brain-picking session and I’m going to start the ball rolling by saying why I, as a philosopher, am interested in many things that you are all probably interested in professionally. Basically, what we are going to talk about I suppose, is the problem of control, as exemplified in the ancient Latin question Quis custodiet custodies ipsos? – “Who guards the guards?”
Now, we know that we are living in an age when there has been an enormous proliferation of techniques for subjecting every kind of natural process outside the human skin, and now increasingly inside the human skin, to some form of rational control. And as we succeed in doing this, it also becomes apparent that we are failing, that the process becomes of such a high degree of complexity that we begin to feel that we are standing in our own way. That everybody complains, the state of affairs in the modern world, in the technological world is so complicated that nobody can understand it, and nobody really knows what to do. That for example, you want to run a small business and you find you run in to such enormous legal hassles that you need so many secretaries to do the paperwork that you can hardly do the business. That you’re trying to run a hospital, but that you have to spend so much time making records and writing things down on paper that you don’t have much time to practice medicine. That you’re trying to run a university and the requirements, the recording, the endless red tape of the registrar’s office in the administration building is such that the actual work of research and teaching is seriously hampered.
So individuals increasingly feel themselves obstructed by their own cautiousness. This is basically what it is. Now, to explain myself first of all, because most of you are strangers to me, I am a philosopher who has for many years been interested in the mutual fructification of Eastern cultures and Western cultures, studying Oriental ideas, not in the spirit of saying to the West, “You ought to be converted to Oriental ideas,” but in the spirit of saying, “You don’t understand the basic assumptions of your own culture if your own culture is the only culture you know.” Everybody operates on certain basic assumptions, but very few people know what they are. You can say, very often encounter the sort of character who is an American businessman, and he says, “Well, I’m a practical businessman. I believe in getting results and getting things done, and all this high-falutin’ logic and nonsense is of no concern to me.” Now I know that the practical basic assumptions, the metaphysics of that man, can be defined as pragmatism, as a school of philosophy. But it’s bad pragmatism because he has never thought it through. And so, it is very difficult, you see, to get down to what are your basic assumptions? What do you mean by the good life? What do you mean by consistency? What do you mean by rationality?The only way of finding out what you mean by these things is by contrasting the way you look at something to the way it is looked at in another culture.
Therefore, we have to find cultures which are in some ways as sophisticated as our own but as different from our own as possible. And of course for this purpose I always thought that the Chinese were optimal, and the Indians, the East Indians and that, by studying the ideas of these people, and by studying their life goals, we could become more aware of our own. It’s the old principle of triangulation, you don’t establish the situation of a particular object unless you observe it from two different points of view, and thereby calculate its actual distance from you.
So, by looking at what we are pleased to call the reality of the physical world from this basic standpoints of different cultures, I think we are in a better position to know where we are than if we only have one single line of sight. Therefore, this has been my interest and my background, and arising out of this there has come a further question which I would call “the problems of human ecology.” How is man to be best related to his environment, especially in circumstances where we are in possession of an extremely powerful technology and have therefore the capacity to change our environment far more than anyone else has ever been able to do so? Are we going to end up not by civilizing the world but by Los-Angelezing it? In other words, are we going to foul our own nest as a result of technology? But all of this gets down to the basic question is, really: “What are you going to do if you are God?” If, in other words, you find yourself in charge of the world through technological powers, and instead of leaving evolution to what we used to call in the nineteenth century “the blind processes of nature” – that was begging the question, to call them blind – but at any rate, we say we are not going to leave evolution anymore to the blind forces of nature. But now we are going to direct it ourselves, because we are increasingly developing, to say, control over genetic systems, control over the nervous system, control over all kinds of systems. Then, simply, “What do you want to do with it?” But most people do not know what they want, and they have never even seriously confronted the question of what they want. You ask a group of students to sit down and write a solid paper of twenty pages on “What is Your Idea of Heaven”, what would you really like to happen, if you could make it happen. And that’s the first thing that starts people really thinking because you soon realize that a lot of the things you think you would want are not things they want at all. Supposing, just for the sake of illustration, you had the power to dream every night any dream you wanted to dream. And you could, of course, arrange for one night of dreams to be seventy-five years of subjective time, or any number of years of subjective time. What would you do? Well, of course you would start out by fulfilling every wish. You would have routs and orgies, and all the most magnificent food and sexual partners and everything you could possibly imagine in that direction. When you got tired of that after several nights, you would switch a bit and you would soon find yourself involved in adventures, and contemplating great works of art, fantastic mathematical conceptions, you would soon be rescuing princesses from a dragons and all sorts of things like that, and now you would say, “Now, tonight what we are going to do is we are going to forget this dream is a dream, and we are going to be really shocked.” And when you woke up from that one you would say, “uuu, wasn’t that an adventure!” Then you would think more and more far of ways to get involved and let go of control, knowing that you would always come back to “center” in the end. But while you were involved in the dream you would not know you were going to come back to center, be in control, and so eventually you would be dreaming a dream in which you found yourselves sitting around in this room listening to me talking or involved with the particular life problems which you have. And maybe that’s what you are doing.
But there is a difficulty, you see, the difficulty of control. Are you wise enough to play at being God? And to understand what that question means. We’ve to go back to metaphysical assumptions underlying Western common sense. And whether you are a Jew, or a Christian, or an agnostic, or an atheist you are not uninfluenced by the whole tradition of Western culture. The models of the universe, which it is employed, which influence our very language, the structure of our thought, the very constitution of logic, which are going into, say computers. The Western model of the universe is political, and engineering or architectural. It’s natural for child to ask his mother “How was I made?” It would be inconceivable for a Chinese child to ask, “How was I made?” It might ask “How was I grown?” or “How did I grow?” but not “How was I made?” as if I were an artifact, something put together, something which is a construct.
But all Western thought is based on the idea that the universe is a construct, and even when we got rid of the idea of the constructor, the personal God we continue to think of the world in terms of a machine, in terms of Newtonian mechanics, and later in terms of what we call quantum mechanics, although I find it rather difficult to understand how quantum theory is in any sense “mechanics.” It is much more like “organics,” which is to me a different concept. However that may be, it is percolated, you see, into the roots of our common sense. That the world is a construct, it is an artifact. And therefore as one understands the operations of a machine by analysis of its parts, by separating them into their original bits, we have “bitted” the cosmos, and see everything going on in terms of bits, bits of information. And I have found that this is an extremely fruitful enabling us to control what is happening. After all, the whole of Western technology is the result of “bitting.” That’s suppose, you know, you want to eat a chicken you cannot eat the whole chicken at once. You have to bite it, you have to reduce it to bits, which you do not get a cut-up fryer out of an egg, it does not come that way. So what is happen is this, that we don’t know the origins of all this, it may be go back a thousands of years. The way we develop the art of thinking, which is essentially calculus is this: the universe as it comes in nature, the physical universe, is something like a Rorschach blot; it’s all wiggles. We who live in cities are not really used to this because we build everything in straight lines, and rectangles, and so on. Wherever you see this sort of things, you know human beings have been around because they are always trying to straighten things out.
But nature itself is clouds, is water, is the outlines of continents, is mountains, is a biological existences, and all of them wiggle. And wiggly things are to human consciousness a little bit of a nuisance because we want to figure them out. And it is as if therefore, some ancient fisherman one day held up his net and looked at the world through the net, he said: “My, just think of that. There I can see the view, and the peak of that mountain is one – two – three – four – five – six holes across, and the base is one – two – three – four – five holes down. I’ve got its number.” See? So the lines of latitude and longitude, lines of celestial and terrestrial, latitude and longitude, the whole idea of a matrix – of looking at things through graph paper printed on cellophane – is the basic idea of measurement. This is the way we calculate. We break down the wiggliness of the world into comprehensible, countable, geometrical units, and thereby figure it and construct it in those terms. And this is so successful up to a point that we can of course come to imagine that this is the way the physical world really is – discreet, discontinuous, full of points, and in fact a mechanism.
But I want to just put into your mind the notion that this may the prejudice of a certain personality type. You see, in the history of philosophy, and poetry, and art we always find the interchanges of two personality types which I call “prickles” and “goo.” The prickly people are advocates of intellectual porcupinism. They want a rigor, they want precise statistics and they have a certain clipped attitude in their voices, and you know, very well known in academic circles where there are the people who are always edgy like that. And they accuse other people of being disgustingly vague, miasmic, and mystical. But the vague, miasmic, and mystical people accuse the prickly people of being mere skeletons with no flesh on their bones. They say, “You just rattle. You are not really a human being. You know the words but you don’t know the music.”So therefore, if you belong to the prickly type, you hope that the ultimate constituent of matter is particles. If you belong to the gooey type you hope it is waves. If you are prickly you are a classicist; and if you are gooey you are a romanticist. Going back into medieval philosophy, if you are prickly you are a nominalist; if you are gooey you are a realist, and so it goes.
But we know very well that this natural universe is neither prickles nor goo exclusively. It is gooey prickles and prickly goo. You see, all depends on your level of magnification. If you have got your magnification on something so that the focus is clear, you have got a prickly point of view, you’ve got structure and shape clearly outlined and sharply defined. You go a little out of focus and it goes blaa, and you’ve got goo. But we are always playing with the two because, it’s like the question is “Is the world basically stuff, like matter, or is it basically structure?” We find out, of course today that in science we don’t consider the idea of matter of being some sort of stuff because, supposing you wanted to describe “stuff”, what terms would you use to describe it? You always have to describe it in terms of structure, something countable, something that can be designated as a pattern. So we never get to any basic stuff. It seems to me that this way of thinking is based on a form of consciousness which we could best call “scanning.” The capacity to divide experiences into bits is somehow related to a physical facility which corresponds to the sweeping of a radar beam, or a spotlight, over the environment. The advantage of the spotlight is it gives you intensely concentrated light on restricted areas. A floodlight, by comparison, has less intensity. But if you examine, say this room were in total darkness, and you used the spotlight with a very thin beam and you scanned the room with it, you would have to retain in memory all the areas over which it passed and then, by an additive process, you would make out the contours of the room.
Now it seems to me that this is something in which civilized man, both in the East and in the West, has specialized. In a method of paying attention to things which we call “noticing,” and therefore it is highly selective. It picks out, features in the environment which we say are noteworthy and which we therefore register with a notation, be it the notation of words, the notation of numbers, or such a notation as algebra or music. We notice those things, only those things, for which we have notation. When very often child will point at something and say to its parents, “What is that?” and they are not clear what the child is pointing, the child has pointed to something which we consider that is not a “thing.” The child has pointed to, say an areas of funny pattern on a dirty wall, and has noticed a figure on it. But the child does not have a word for it and says, “What’s that?” The adult says, “Oh, that’s just a mess,” because that does not count for us as a thing. When you come through this understanding: “What do you mean by a thing?”, it is very fascinating to ask children: “What do you mean by the thing?” and they do not know because it is one of the unexamined suppositions of the culture. “What do you mean by an event?” Well, everybody knows what an event is but nobody can say, because a thing is a “think.” It is a unit of thought, like an inch is a unit of measurement. So we “thing” the world, which is to say that in order to measure a curve you have to reduce it to point instance, and apply the calculus, so in exactly the same way, in order to discuss or talk about the universe you have to reduce it to things. But each thing, or “think,” is, as it were, one grasp of that spotlight, going yeh-yeh-yeh, like this, you see. So, we reduce the infinite wiggliness of the world to grasps, or bits, we are getting back to biting, you see, the idea of teeth, to grasp of thoughts. So we thereby describe the world in terms of things, just as that fisherman could describe his view by the number of net-hole over and through which the view was showing, and this has been the immensely and apparently successful enterprise of all technological culture, superbly emphasized by ourselves.