Alan Watts—in his time a popular lecturer and philosopher of mind, aesthetics, metaphysics, and religion—was a bit of an oddball. I feel fairly confident in saying that Alan Watts’ interpretations and considerations of Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, and Anglicanism, as well as his general attitude and demeanor, have to some degree shaped the popular image of the field of philosophy (and not for the better).
Much like how producers of pop culture almost always put poet characters in the emotional style and darkly colored trappings of the mid-twentieth-century confessional and beat poets, so the string of airy, unintuitive, and completely self-assured claims that constitute Watts’ works give shape to the nebulous and impractical stereotype of the discipline of philosophy possessed by so many modern students of science in the western world.
It is irrelevant that most of the aforementioned producers and students are not consciously picturing such forebears (in fact, I find it unlikely that most of them have even heard of Robert Lowell or Alan Watts); still, to find the source for a society’s image of an academic pursuit, one often need look no further than the best-selling popularizers of that field in the few preceding generations. These days, philosophical characters seem to always be a caricature of either Freud, Marx, or Watts. (Indeed, the 2013 science-fiction film Her featured an artificially intelligent philosopher who was a reconstruction of the consciousness of Alan Watts.)
Now, because I have already, on multiple occasions in this series, concluded that scientists should study philosophy and philosophers should study science, I will let go of these digressions and move on to my main topic for the day: Alan Watts’ discussion of death. I should start by clarifying that, although he and I would have no end of disagreements, I do still respect Alan Watts; he was a sincere thinker and a captivating speaker.
Alan Watts and Death:
Alan Watts’ books and recorded lectures are a substantial legacy. And I do not think that that legacy is much diminished by the fact that most of his recorded lectures are casually uploaded to YouTube with inspiring background music for ‘mind-blowing’ clickbait; I would certainly prefer real engagement with (and honest critique of) his interpretations of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity, but at least he’s still making people think. Contrary to apparently popular belief, Watts was not just a New Age guru peddling spiritual awakenings—or, at least, at times he wasn’t.
Alan Watts is unique among philosophers in the west—of either the analytical or continental school—because his engagement with eastern schools of thought did not end at cursory investigation or perfunctory regard. He truly and deeply investigated the topics, and he did so with enough earnest sincerity that, whether you think his conclusions ultimately misguided, he allowed himself to be convinced by viewpoints radically different from those in his upbringing.
For my purpose here, of showing where I think Watts goes right and where I think he goes wrong, we could work with almost any one of Watts’ favorite topics, from decision-making to ‘the joker’ to balance. But I’ve selected his views on death and reincarnation because I think that they are subjects that most readers will find interesting.
Watts characterizes death as irrelevant to spiritual understanding because something implies nothing just as nothing implies something, and if the universe came from an equilibrium state then a universe may emerge from the future equilibrium state of our universe. I grant that this may be so, but Watts insists that this knowledge is to mitigate the fear of death as a fear of annihilation.
As much as I completely agree with Watts that death is necessary for life to be coherently defined, or for conscious experience to be perceptible, I do not think it follows that the possibility of a universe after the death of our universe implies the possibility of anything resembling eternal recurrence. Not all infinities are inherently equal, as strange as it may sound. Consider: there is an infinitude of divisible quantities between the numbers one and two, but that infinity will nevertheless not contain the number three.
Or consider an infinite repetition that follows a difference. In practice this would be the case where this universe ends, another arises that is populated by entirely different sentient beings (or no sentient beings at all), and then that universe’s death is succeeded by the same identical universe recurring forever. Hypothetically, ours was a cosmic fluke. Infinite possibilities does not imply infinite actualities. And so the fear of death as a deprivation of potential human experiences may regrettably push itself past Watts’ optimism.
Alan Watts and Reincarnation:
Still, part of what makes the philosophy of Alan Watts so compelling is its emphasis on playfulness, irony, performance, and testing. Watts may spend an entire lecture explaining how a person’s interests are formed and defined by the other, only to spend another (equally sincere) lecture explaining how all sentience and matter may be part of one self-deceiving action. Watts may spend a lecture saying how every choice is worthwhile and valuable, only to then spend a lecture decrying culture’s common choices as superficial and self-destructive. (And yes, I’m well aware that there is considerable arguable overlap among such conceptions.)
He moved from topic to topic in a deliberate dance, emblematic of the way that he called existence a dance. And while he does propound the possibility of something like eternal recurrence on some occasions, at other times he speaks of death as a misunderstood annihilation, with reincarnation acting as a misunderstood survival. At such times, his point is that the individual ego, despite its structural and cultural repulsion at the thought, will be annihilated at death; meanwhile, the continued existence of anything whatsoever is the true reincarnation (in his words, a manifestation of karma, properly understood).
Now, as a final aside, if you’re a person who has always had a vague (or even acute) fear of death, do not despair; I think Watts overstates his case, but philosophy is not without recourse to help you. For a rigorous introduction to this topic, you can refer to the entry on death in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. For a more casual introduction, I recommend checking out this freely available Yale course on death, taught by eminent analytical ethicist Shelly Kagan.
I worked with some of Kagan’s ethical ideas a little while ago in my article on contractarian ethics, but Kagan has been teaching this course on death for many years, and thinking rigorously about the nature of death (and its relationship to personal identity) for even longer. Or, if none of that is your style, feel free to give Alan Watts a try (in which case, I recommend, as my favorite Watts lecture, the one linked to the words ‘one self-deceiving action’ above).
Alan Watts rarely referred to himself as a philosopher, preferring to be thought of as merely a thinker or a thoughtful entertainer. Certainly he lacks rigor (which he never claims to possess), and suffers in much of his work from what I like to call ‘the problem of pantheism:’ there is often no practical difference between his belief system and no belief system at all. In effect, he declares with emphasis that all matter and reality is part of one acting divinity without noting that classical philosophical materialism would make the exact same predictions about what will happen to the universe as he does. I can call us luminous beings, but if no one can use the force it’s a meaningless platitude.
It is, even for Alan Watts with his constant elucidations of the value of mysticism, really more of a difference of attitude than of reality. And I am occasionally charmed by his attitude. There are things about Watts’ philosophy that do not seem true to me, such as the full destruction of the ego being possible during life for the sort of consciousness that humans have; and there are things about Watts’ philosophy that do not seem consistent to me, such as his holding fervent ethics-based political ideals simultaneously with the notion that all reality is a game that is playing itself.
But there are also most assuredly things about Watts’ philosophy that seem true and consistent to me, as well as vital and insightful, such as his contention (though not original to him) that all competition and contradiction is harmonious (and is essential to identity) when viewed from a sufficiently impartial perspective. Watts’ advocacy for sober cognizance and acceptance of impending death—like that presentation of intersubjective identity and like the irony with which Watts approaches reality—is one of the many examples of a time when Alan Watts is as good as his reputation: wise, humorous, and, yes, a bit mind-blowing.