On Nature, via Alan Watts

Recently I've been spouting off a lot of philosophical blarney to those unfortunate enough to share air or electrons with me. You may now count yourself among those poor, unfortunate souls. Luckily for you, today my geyser is all-natural, fully organic—a real humdinger if I do say so myself (though I haven't written it yet and this is only the first paragraph so caveat lector).

One of the blarney yarns I've been spinning repeatedly is a twine of the three discrete theories of nature we homo sapiens have settled upon throughout recorded history—as told by everyone's favorite pseudo-Buddhist, Alan Watts. I've gotten the impression that some of those to whom I've related this yarn have found it edifying, so let's get that spinning wheel spinning.

One theory of nature, Watts tells us, is the one agreed upon by much of the Western world. In it, we envision nature as a mechanism, or an artifact. Nature is something made, constructed, or built. It has pieces that have functions to perform work. Isaac Newton likely espoused this theory of nature.

When conceiving of nature as a mechanism, I picture a bucolic pasture where all trees, grass, ants, cows, manure, corn, and even the field-hands are filled with gears of widely varying sizes, all grinding away, performing their prescribed functions, doing their work. The cow gear-bag chews up the grassy gear-sticks and poops out gear-pies. The field-hand gear-bot collects the gear-pies into big gear-piles. A colony of ants, tiny gear-specks crawl over and through these gear-piles, breaking down the gear-pies into gear-pellets. The gear-bot scoops up the gear-pellets and spreads them at the bases of the apple gear-towers and the walnut gear-towers, and along the rows of corny gear-stalks.

And when I am done picturing nature as made of all these gears, I hate the Western theory of nature. I do not hate many things. Traffic, moldy food (besides some cheeses), obstinance in ignorance, greed, weak coffee, and the mechanical theory of nature. That's about it. It is at once the grind, the sense of life as work, and the hopeless slavery of this mechanical view of nature that really chaps my ideological hide.

The next theory of nature Watts discusses hails from East India: nature as drama. Watts draws extensively from his knowledge of the Hindu religion when explaining this theory. To the Hindus the ultimate reality of the universe is the "self: universal, eternal, boundless, indescribable." Brahman is everything and everyone. Brahman eternally alternates between two phases of existence.

In the one phase Brahman knows itself. But after 4,320,000 years, Brahman has an identity crisis and transitions into the other phase. Brahman gets confused and imagines itself to be everything and everyone in the universe. When the Brahman is in this phase, it feels everything we feel, wants everything we want, and does everything we do. It imagines roles for each us, and for every thing, and then plays them all out. So the nature we observe around us—that we are a part of—is a grand drama, and "all the world's a stage". After another 4,320,000 years, the whole universe is destroyed in fire as Brahman shakes off its identity crisis and awakens to know itself again.

I have no hatred for this theory of nature. But neither do I have love for it. It does not inspire happiness in me. Let's play out a few possibilities within this theory.

If I am figment of nature, and nature is a grand drama imagined by (what my Catholicism-addled mind conceives of as) an omnipotent deity, then what do I have the freedom to change or choose? My role has already been defined by a power far greater than me. In fact, I do not even exist outside this omnipotent mind. My self is just a tiny shard of the deity which is the true and only "self".

Presently I would like to think that my choices and decisions carry weight and hold meaning. I enjoy acting/speaking/writing/giving more when I perceive the probability to be high that my efforts will shape my environment (read: nature) more similarly to the future I envision and prefer for it. So this theory of nature as drama doesn't exactly work for me, although I imagine it could be very palatable to other consciousnesses.

Watts attributes the final theory of nature to the Chinese—that of nature as an organism. They observe organic patterns: the grain in wood, the fibers in muscles, the billows in clouds, or waves in the sea. And in these patterns they perceive natural order, a concept called 'li'. Natural order defies definition, but is intuitively recognizable. Everyone knows what nature is until you ask them. But words cannot capture it; drawings cannot accurately portray it.

The Chinese also describe nature as "purposeless", which Watts extends to define nature as nonsense. It has no purpose, no chief or ruler, no higher order. Nonsensical nature does not follow any definable rules. Rather it is high-mindedly anarchic. If it aspires to anything, it aspires to variety and oddity, guided by this sense of nonsense.

Watts often loves to rattle off a bewildering phrase: "the which than which there is no whicher." Take a minute to unpack that if you like. I take this phrase to refer to a specialized entity, something different than anything else. To my mind, this applies to any element of nature.

Find me two identical pebbles. Catch two identical hummingbirds. Show me identical twins and I'll show you a difference between them. Even at subatomic scales, observe two identical electrons. Identify two identical stars.

Don't sweat it too much: these are rhetorical requests. Any of these doppelgängers would be unnatural. What does not make sense is natural. What should not be, but is—that is nature. Nature, then, is principally anything absurd, improbable, strange, weird, or unusual, and then imitations of those things.

This theory of nature as nonsense warms my cockles. The organic theory of nature offers me an overwhelming opportunity for personal well-being and fulfillment. All I have to be is my full, unique self, and I will be living as naturally as I can. Purposelessness becomes my purpose. The most nonsensical choices become the most sensible. I am freed from the mechanical trappings of the artifact. I am released from my scripted role in the grand drama. All I have to do is be true to myself.

Which theory of nature comforts you? Is it a mechanical? Is it dramatic? Is it an organism? Is it all made of gears, or are we playing out the imagination of everything? Must nature make sense? Or can it just be? Can we just be one with it rather than trying to control it or define it?