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January 16, 2022


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"You never die. What you are just appears in different forms."

This seems a tried and tested formula. Spout loads of trite clliches and some half-truths, and end it up by uttering some wild non sequitur that has nothing to do with what went before, and there you are: You've proved some deep knowledge thus far unknown, or at least unproven, to man.

Thus here.

No, "You never die" does not follow from anything said here.

"You" are your sense of self. No matter how many times people repeat tangential cliches about connectedness, the fact remains that "you" is one's small sense of self, that encapsulates one's individual body-mind complex, and that inevitably dies when that body-mind gives way. And that's all there is to it.


Sure, whether or not that small individuated self can be "expanded" to arrive at a larger sense of self, and whether doing that, if at all it can be consciously done, is something beneficient, that's a fascinating discussion, but a different discussion. Conceivably such a measure --- if at all it is actually doable, and provided doing it turns out, in sum, to be beneficient --- might offer a way out of cessation of one's small individuated sense of self. Let's not conflate these two discussions, the one about an expanded self and therefore a possible workaround to death and the one about general inter-connectedness, as some of these "wise men" seem to do all the time, deliberately or otherwise.

"We need to realize that the real self is not just the conscious ego."

We do need to realize that, but listening to the pronouncements of wise men who base their words on some alleged intuitive understanding is not how one should be going around doing it. How to do it is to base one's understanding on real science.

It's like this. You've got a real-life whodunnit going, in the form of newspaper and TV reports, et cetera. You've got a thousand people coming out with a thousand random "answers". Entirely by happenstance it is entirely possible that one or two of those thousands might hit on the real answer. So those people, or their acolytes, start crowing, saying, "See, this wise man (which is me, or maybe someone I've come to admire) had been saying all along that it is the next-door neighbor who'd basically bludgeoned that woman to death."

Well, no, but bull shit. Those random unsupported pronouncements don't mean squat. If you can make a pronouncement, and back it up with solid reasons, then sure, go for it. But otherwise, it means nothing.

Thus with these wise words about "no self" or whatever.

It is science that is telling that our sense of self is a chimera. And the only reason we're listening, is because it is science that is proving it to us. Some random wise man latching in to that scientific conclusion and lacing it with woo-ridden nonsense, or some random ancient culture that said lots of random nonsensical things that also happened, entirely by happenstance, to also include one or two items of truth, that means nothing at all.

Let's just stick to the science and the scientific. Let's not get seduced by woo, and the wise-sounding peddlers of woo.

I think, therefore, I am not.
I feel, therefore, I am not.
I speak, therefore I am not.
I act, therefore, I am not.
I have sensations constantly,
Therefore, I am not.
"I' remains when all falls away and disappears.

This "I" that has been dropped into the many levels of matter and mind is really a mystery. I believe it is the only mystery worth pursuing. All other knowledge will end; all forms (including our own body and brain) will end. Even western science admits to dissolution of galaxies, etc. Eastern wisdom states that the whole MANIFEST CREATION will undergo dissolution - POOF! GONE!

And will again be recreated...anew...and in the fullness of time, be destroyed.

But I believe this "I" is immortal. Even Krishna said the Self cannot be harmed, killed or modified in any way. The "I" is subject to countless experiences within the covers of mind and matter, in countless life forms, according to Eastern wisdom.

What purpose could possibly come from this saga of experiences? The answer lies in the intensity of one's inward search.

For what reason does a baby move into adulthood? As above, so below.

“This talk focuses on the fascinating subject of who the "I" is. Most of us believe that this refers to someone inside our head that we consider to be Me. But Watts disagrees, viewing us as basically being the same as the cosmos”

Yes, it’s surprising that in spite of all the studies and evidence showing the role of the brain in producing our mental states, people still cling to the myth that we posses a separate ‘I’, a separate ‘me’ or self. Maybe this is because the myth has religious origins (an overriding soul etc.) but also our everyday common sense is of having an ‘I’, a ‘me’ or ‘self’ etc. which does feel like an autonomous, distinct somebody, separate from everything and everybody else.

Of course, there is also and always the fear of death, of annihilation and to desire the continuation of ‘me’ is very natural. Some would maintain, that realising the ‘self’ to be a mental construct places the body/brain organism back into the environment as an interrelated and unified aspect of the whole – or the same as the cosmos as Watts states.

A little honest self-study shows the mind as being an ad hoc accumulation of information gathered since birth through the senses and ‘stored’ throughout the brain – retrieved via memory as thought. Realising this, it’s not difficult to see that from this store of information (gender, name, nationality, social position, religion and so on) it is easily assumed that this collection of data is ‘me’, is my ‘self’.

Although having a sense of self is necessary and valuable for our survival, it is philosophically and scientifically appropriate to investigate and study the mental constructs of self, memory, and consciousness to further the treatment of various illnesses.

David Eagleman’s book and TV series on the brain showed just how much goes on with us without any controller. That is without any type of separate entity that ‘runs the show. And Dick Swaab, the Dutch neuroscience researcher in his book ‘We Are Our Brains’ talks of how the brain produces mind, consciousness, free will and other mental constructs.

Appreciative Reader, in your second comment above you indicate an aversion to higher-order models of reality. Meaning, those that don't directly focus on facts and scientific research, yet are based on a person's best understanding of the facts and scientific research of their time.

So you appear to be discounting not only the philosophy of Alan Watts, but also the philosophical musings of the many neuroscientists who have written books about the nature of the self that I've read, or the many physicists who have written books about the nature of quantum reality that I've read, or the writers on ecology, systems approach, and such that I've read.

I don't understand why you can be critical of Watts for presenting a view of human nature and the world that is in line with modern science, yet put in language that is that's easily understood. What, exactly, do you disagree with in the philosophy of Alan Watts? You seem to be critical of his speaking style more than his message.

Watts had a talent for summarizing rather complex ideas in a simple fashion. I consider this to be a plus, not a minus. He was well informed about the science of his time, though naturally that science has progressed in the almost fifty years since Watts died.

He reminds us that the boundary of ourselves extends beyond our physical skin. If you doubt this, just watch young people, or anyone, fixated on their smart phones, which are an extension of their physical senses. Hillary Clinton once said "It takes a village to raise a child." We are as much a product of our environment as of our genes, and maybe more so. I've read a book about human knowledge that makes the same point. We aren't isolated islands of consciousness.

Let me clarify exactly what I meant, Brian, and what my criticism was about.

Does Alan Watts draw his conclusions about the absence of a separate self from his understanding of science, and is it that he's merely presenting that "higher-order understanding" without directly, and at that point, quoting science? If so, he's only doing what all of us do, and I've nothing to criticize.

My problem is this. Basis what you've quoted from Alan Watts elsewhere, he seems to be drawing his conclusions about no-self from, inter alia, (a) an intuitive understanding, a realization if you will, of no-self, and (b) a direct intuitive realization of an expanded sense of self. (Correct me, please, if I'm wrong in concluding this. I'm drawing this conclusion from his writings that you've quoted here, not my independent reading of his thoughts and ideas, so I'm open to correction on this from you.)

In as much as he's doing this, he's basically arriving at the right answer, but via wrong steps. To that extent his "teachings" are meaningless.


If I may further elaborate, using an example that resonates closely with me personally.

As you may remember from our past interactions and my past comments, I'm something of a fan of, and a humble practitioner of, Buddhist (Theravadin) meditation myself. And, as you know, no-self is a basic tenet of the Buddha's teachings, that modern science has validated.

So Buddhist types often jump up and point to the deep abiding truth within Buddhism. Which tends to generally leave me cold, because, and like I said, Buddhism has said a great deal of stuff that's wrong, it just happens to have got this one thing right. Besides, it did not provide a rigorous "proof" of that conclusion that it had reached, other than its own intuitive understanding.

So that, should we take this "revelation" of Buddhism seriously, then the one thing that jumps up here is not so much the conclusion it arrived at, but the means of arriving at that conclusion. Is it that the Buddha's methods point to some means of arriving at truth, that is different than the methods of science? That becomes the all-important question, then.

Sorry, that was something of a diversion, that I introduced only to clarify my meaning, and the nature of my objection to Alan Watts. I hope I did not end up making my meaning even more confusing in the process!


To cut to the chase, what is Alan Watts basing his understanding of "no-self" on? If he's basing it on what neuroscience tells us, then that's fine and good, obviously, even if he doesn't go around directly quoting that science at every step. But if he's basing that understanding on some intuitive understanding, and/or some basis in some traditional wisdom from somewhere, then, in both cases, that basis of his understanding needs to be closely examined, rather than glossed over as merely "wisdom". Otherwise this is no more than woo dressed up as science, that is, pseudo-science parading as science and as some kind of holistic wisdom.

That was my point.

If this criticism of mine, as I've tried to explain it here, is based on an erroneous understanding of Alan Watts's message, then I'm open to correction on that count.

Appreciative Reader, it doesn't take a Ph.D. in modern neuroscience to grasp the truth of no-self. The Buddhists did that many centuries ago, purely from careful observation of human experience. Watts has the benefit of having been exposed to almost modern science, since he died in 1973.

It's a lot like grasping the truth of no giant Mickey Mouse statue orbiting the Earth. There's no evidence of that. Case closed. Likewise, where is the evidence for a separate enduring unchanging self? Nowhere. Case closed.

The only reason most people believe in an enduring self is the same reason most people believe in religion. It is comforting, and cultures encourage a belief in both the self and religion. Well, most cultures. As Watts points out, traditional Chinese culture has a quite different view of these subjects,

Good philosophy doesn't have to be based, like a mathematical proof, on rigorous logic and reference to journal articles in scientific journals. Sound reasoning often is good enough. I've just ordered a book about Occam's Razor, "Life is Simple." Often, or usually, the simplest explanation best fits reality.

The notion of no-self is simple. Those who want complex answers have to explain how a soul, say, enters the body through some mystical process invisible to normal human perception, then becomes the seat of our consciousness through some other mystical process unrelated to findings of modern neuroscience. By contrast, when I read or listen to Watts, it feels like I'm being exposed to a popular exposition of those findings.

Hope this helps explain why I enjoy Watts so much.

"when I read or listen to Watts, it feels like I'm being exposed to a popular exposition of those findings.

Hope this helps explain why I enjoy Watts so much."

..........It does. As far as that much, and limited to that much, I'm in full agreement.


"it doesn't take a Ph.D. in modern neuroscience to grasp the truth of no-self. The Buddhists did that many centuries ago, purely from careful observation of human experience."

..........Pardon me, Brian, I don't mean to beat this thing to death, but I'm afraid I can't see my way to agreeing with this.

Yes, I'm afraid it does take a great deal of research in neurobiology, and in science in general, to realize that the appearance of a separate self is no more than just that, an appearance. Just like it takes a great deal of real bona fide science to understand that the earth is spheroidal not flat, and that the earth goes around the sun and not the sun around the earth. Purely intuitively based proncouncements on these "obvious" things are at best wild speculations, that by happenstance have turned out right.

So that ancient Buddhism, or for that ancient Daoism, getting no-self right, is pure happenstance, unless they can clearly show their work, so to say.


Circling back to Alan Watts, does he base what he's saying directly on an understanding of science? If so, cool. If all he's doing is popularizing the findings of science, then more power to him.

But is it that he's based this off of some kind of intuitive apprehension of the state of no-self, as his writings (that you've quoted) seem to indicate? And/or on the experience of an expanded self? And/or on what musty old Zen philosophers and mystics wrote in times past on this?

If one ore more of these last three, then, even if the answer he's arrived at is correct, that still means nothing. Or at least, that shines the spotlight on his means of having arrived at those answers. It throws that method open to close scrutiny, is what it does. (And if and when it passes the test of that scrutiny, I suspect by far the most dramatic result will be what that has to say about that method. And until such time as it passes the test of that scrutiny, it is ...not a very convincing thing to listen to, even if the answer, copied from the end of the textbook, happens to have been correct.)

To add in one last attempt at explanation of what I'm on about here, take something entirely obvious, like how storms and rain et cetera are caused by natural forces and not some angry God throwing tantrums and flinging stuff at us.

If we'd lived three thousand years ago, we'd really not have any sound basis of claiming there aren't Gods throwing things at us. While it is true that burden of proof demands that claims (like claims of Gods) need to be backed up, the fact is that we do need plausible explanations. When the only explanation going around is the God explanation, then while we can be skeptical of it, we can't really dismiss it out of hand.

It is when we have this deeper understanding of how things work --- in other words, of science, as applied to this particular thing --- only then can be say, clearly, that no, you don't have one-eyed Wotan hurling lightning at you.

So that, even such an entirely obvious understanding does require a sound basis in science, a PhD in weather science if you would, not so much for you and I to apprehend that fact, but certainly for folks to have arrived at that understanding in the first place (folks from whom we're directly copying/lifting our second-hand understanding from).

So the question, is that what Alan Watts is doing? Taking his understanding from science, and only popularizing it using his idiosyncratic language? If so, it's all good.

But is he claiming some other basis of his having arrived at that understanding of no-self, for instance some kind of intuitive experience he's had about no-self, and/or about an expanded self, or maybe Zen writings on this subject? If one or more of these latter reasons is the case, then instead of lauding his apparent agreement with science, what we need to do is turn the searchlight on these means of how he's arrived at the understanding he's discussing here. We mustn't simply take him at face value merely because the answer itself happens to agree with science.

Because that way lies pseudoscience parading as science, and all kinds of woo piggy-backing their way on science.

What if death wasn't the death we expected?


Alan Watts was a British philosopher, writer and speaker who interpreted and popularized Eastern philosophy for Western audiences.

The author of 20 books, Watts espoused a view of life that helped me let go of many anxiety-causing beliefs, none so upsetting as the finality of death.

Who knows for sure what happens when we die?

Link to article :


The fact that the self is an illusion has been known in some cultures for some two to three thousand years or so. It probably did not become an accepted philosophy due to many, more attractive models of thinking, generally where they supported the ‘self’ maintaining view that we are special and even God like creatures.

There has always been an unwritten assumption that we should accept we are special and should not need or not explore or entertain any questions as to who/what we are. Alan watts also wrote about this in a book: - ‘The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are’. It opens in the preface with: - “This book explores an unrecognized but mighty taboo—our tacit conspiracy to ignore who, or what, we really are.” He does admit though that his work: - ‘Is rather a cross-fertilization of Western science with an Eastern intuition’.

Generally, perhaps society has always been too occupied with day-to-day issues and problems to even consider who we are. But, science or not, it doesn’t take a particularly wise person to see what the self structure is – and how it is maintained. Admittedly, it is supportive that science has helped to highlight this issue.

As I commented earlier – and my view: - A little honest self-study shows the mind as being an ad hoc accumulation of information gathered since birth through the senses and ‘stored’ throughout the brain – retrieved via memory as thought. Realising this, it’s not difficult to see that from this store of information (gender, name, nationality, social position, religion and so on) it is easily assumed that this collection of data is ‘me’, is my ‘self’.

@ Ron E. [ ... it’s not difficult to see that from this store of information (gender, name, nationality, social position, religion and so on) it is easily assumed that this collection of data is ‘me’, is my ‘self’. ]

For the mystic and others, the more compelling question is what
powers this storehouse, who or what reflects on it, thinks day
and night about it, suddenly becomes aware of being aware, in
frustration assembles comforting narratives of a self... or just as
comforting denials of it.

Was it just chance... a fortuitous arrangement of atoms in the
primordial soup? A dude behind the scenes, hiding carefully out
of sight, yanking levers of power? The mystic turns to science
for answers -- both inside and outside. Both become part of the
search he's driven to make.

"The only reason most people believe in an enduring self is the same reason most people believe in religion. It is comforting, and cultures encourage a belief in both the self and religion. Well, most cultures. As Watts points out, traditional Chinese culture has a quite different view of these subjects,"

I think you have it exactly backward Brian. The only reason people believe in the no-self concept is because they're operating on faith that it's true.

Actually, modern science—and meditative introspection—have merely discovered that the self is an emergent phenomenon, difficult to explain in terms of its parts. The world abounds in emergent phenomena. For example, the place where you work can't be defined in strictly reductionist terms either. You can’t point to a person or classroom or lab and say, "Here is Stevens Institute." But does that mean my school doesn't exist?

Then there is the claim that contemplative practice of no self will make us gentler, more humble and compassionate. In Zen and the Brain (MIT Press, 1998), the neurologist and Buddhist James Austin proposes that meditation and mindfulness erode neural regions underpinning our innate self-centeredness. But given the repulsive behavior over the past few decades of so many gurus—including Chogyam Trungpa, who was an alcoholic womanizer and bully—you could conclude that mystical knowledge leads to pathological narcissism rather than selflessness. Instead of shrinking to a point and vanishing, the mystic's ego may expand to infinity. Did Buddhism deflate the ego of Steve Job?

And more to the point, what Alan Watts is preaching CLEARLY DIDN'T WORK FOR ALAN WATTS.

Watts says
"You never die. What you are just appears in different forms."

Well, I'm sorry to say this but death is very real. News flash. Just look around. Plants, Animals, insects and people are born, live for a while, and die.

Or as dear old U. G. Krishnamurti said - "There is no death, just a reshuffllng of atoms."

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