Three Models of the Universe

I once heard a recorded lecture by Alan Watts where he explained the two dominant Myths of Western culture involving the nature of the Universe. He then described a Chinese model of the Universe to contrast the other two. Here is a brief summary of each of the models…

1.) The Ceramic Model – The Universe as artifact.

This is the model that has carried over from the Judeo-Christian tradition. In this model, one sees the world as constructed or made- particularly by a supreme God, be it an Intelligent designer or Yahweh himself. The Biblical Narrative in the first few chapters of Genesis describes how the world came in to being. When God made man, he formed him out of the earth and breathed life ‘in’ to him. This idea has left many westerners with the idea that the world was manufactured by God, and our essential being (soul, spirit, atman, etc…) was brought ‘in to’ the world.

2.) The Fully-Automatic Model – The Universe as dumb energy and random cause & effect.

When science began to take precedence over religion, it became harder for people to believe in the God of the Ceramic Model. They saw no evidence of his craftsmanship, because the signs were pointing to natural selection and evolution. Intelligent design became too hard to believe. Charles Darwin, one of the key thinkers for this model of the Universe, had this to say about Intelligent design:

“I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design…. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their [larva] feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.”(The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, 8:224)

The fully-automatic model that Darwin endorsed suggests that the evolutionary process is push along by a dumb energy, not an intelligent designer.

3.) The Organic Model – The Universe as organism.

This is the view that Alan Watts pulled from a Chinese worldview. Watts usually starts his discussion on this model by saying that the Chinese don’t see their lives/souls as coming ‘in to’ the world, but rather ‘out of’ the world. For example, a common question that a western child will ask her parents is, “Mommy, how was I made?” A Chinese child would not ask, “How was I made?” But, she might as her mother, “How was I grown?” This is the view that I believe Alan Watts held for a majority of his later years.

Watts would say that the same way an apple tree “apples” (as a verb), the universe “peoples”. Everything we see, hear, touch and taste has come out of the world – not in to it. It is assumed that when people believe that their ‘self’ was cast in to a human body on this earth, they see the unsatisfactory events in life as being unfair. They didn’t choose this life. Nobody asked them if they wanted to be born. But when if we believe that we are in fact a part of the world, coming forth from it, we are motivated to work with the ways of the world (what the Taoist calls establishing Wu-Wei). Realizing the interdependence of the whole Universe, we are able to see where we fit in it and how to work with it.

Which, if any, of these models makes sense to you?

The above post first appeared on the blog ‘Seeing Through The Net,’ which is my old Alan Watts tribute blog.



Filed under Religion & Philosophy

13 responses to “Three Models of the Universe

  1. ian

    Nice. Actually, I think I agree with all of them, with a few adjustments…

    The problem with #1 is that is posits that the material world just sort of existed, and that god came along and breathed life into it. Instead, if we take the material realm itself as the first result of god’s breathing life outwards from him/her/itself, it works fine for me.

    The problem with #2 is that we’re holding the evolutionary life force up to our current understanding of human intelligence, and then, since it doesn’t match up, claiming that it cannot be intelligent. If we release the force from human limitations, and allow that our idea of intelligence is not necessarily the only way that things can be said to be “planned”, then Darwin’s complaint is kind of a moot point. The wasp exists, perhaps, because the laws that allow for its existence are necessary for some other reason. I hate to use the term collateral damage, because that’s not exactly what I mean, but its close. A plan that allows for chaos needs to allow for unplanned (and unpleasant) results.

    And as for three, I agree with that one with the least reservations, but I think that we don’t ever NOT fit in, and that we are always working with the ways of the world. We’re just kind of doing a crappy job at it at this point (which I’m sure is what you’re saying and I’m just splitting hairs). Humanity is life trying to figure out what to do with humanity.

    Anyway, that’s my 2 cents. : )

    • Jackson

      Thanks for the comment, Ian.

      I find the relationship between #1 and #2 quite fascinating. The early sciences recognized that there are certain “laws” to the way things are, and they believe that these laws were God’s laws. But when God was removed from the equation, we were left with laws without a law-giver.

      You’re right in suggesting that our understanding of Intelligence is based on human intelligence. Human intelligence is (supposedly) the will of an individual agent. Since God was seen as the Agent of all creation, the removal of God from the equation took away our idea that the Universe is intelligent. (I’m using “our” arbitrarily, here.)

      I think that’s the beauty of the third model. It recognizes that organic manifestations have an intelligence of their own. It also makes room for the idea that there really is no such thing as a separate “agent”, and thus no thing as separate human intelligence. Mutual co-arising is the name of the game, as ecological studies reveal. The perennial “which came first…” question is absurd from this point of view, for opposites arise together – not one before the other.

  2. ian

    Since God was seen as the Agent of all creation, the removal of God from the equation took away our idea that the Universe is intelligent.

    Yup, that’s the big modernist/post-modernist problem right there. Our idea of God dies, and the rug gets pulled out from under us. As Joseph Campbell said, we’ve lost our myth…

    I agree that the organic model allows for a much better understanding of the world and our place in it. However in regards to:

    The perennial “which came first…” question is absurd from this point of view, for opposites arise together – not one before the other.

    From where do they arise? That’s what I want to know…

    • Jackson

      From where do they arise? That’s what I want to know…

      Hmmm… well, if we take the same premise that reality is mutually co-arising, we will end up with the same conclusion at a macro level. We are wondering where particulars come from, so what is the flip-side of particularity? Unity. What is the flip-side of conditional arisings? The Unconditioned.


      And the knot unravels itself…

      • ian

        we will end up with the same conclusion at a macro level

        Yeah, fractal-like. So we end up with the unconditioned at zero, so to speak, and the conditioned rippling outward into the positive and negative.

        Yet is change only a swinging back and forth between opposites, or does the the Unity, that Unconditioned, move?

        I would guess not, since it’s the “absolute”, but then, that means all movement is only partial which would be why no conditioned thing is permanent. It’s all away from that Unity.

        All well and good, but that very statement is also a conditioned thing. After all, those pairs you list are also opposites. Do they arise from something else?

        Then again, maybe I’m just over-thinking things. You can’t grasp non-grasping…

        Perhaps those pairs aren’t opposites, but a series of three:
        Compounded+Broken Apart/Uncompounded.
        Made+Destroyed/(never) made.
        Linear Forward + Backward/Non-linear.
        Becoming + Unbecoming/Being.

        In each case, it’s a polarity + a unity that includes and transcends both. Very “middle path”!

        Maybe, when the conditioned movement toward either pole comes to rest at that empty center point, that movement is recharged?

        Or moving into the conditioned polarities while being at rest within the empty center is the key? An ability to hold both simultaneously? That’d be the wu-wei you mentioned originally, I suppose.

        I’m really enjoying this conversation, thank you. It helps to liven the day…

      • Jackson

        Perhaps those pairs aren’t opposites, but a series of three…

        What an excellent way to look at it!

        Joshu Saskai Roshi, who I believe is the oldest living Zen master/teacher, describes the Absolute as “Zero.” But this Zero, he says, is unstable, in that it breaks off into the activity of expansion and contraction (Impermanence). All is Zero, even in the expansion and contraction. It is as though what appears to be conditioned is the movement of Zero, even though Zero never loses its Zero-ness, so to speak. It’s heavy stuff, for sure. I can’t say that I fully understand it, yet who does?

        In a nut shell, what we’ve come to is that the Aboslute Reality lies in the Non-duality of opposites (not one, not two). Does that sound about right?

        I can’t really add to anything else that you wrote. It sounds good to me!

      • ian

        I’ve heard this theory before, can’t remember where, that everything moves through space-time at the speed of light.

        And that any movement through 3 dimensional space actually slows our movement through spacetime. That we move the fastest when we don’t move at all…

        Metaphorically, I like how that works in regards to emptiness existing within movement or, I suppose, “movement springing from emptiness” would work just as well…

  3. ian

    In a nut shell, what we’ve come to is that the Aboslute Reality lies in the Non-duality of opposites (not one, not two). Does that sound about right?

    Yes indeed. And I love that Joshu Saskai Roshi quote, will have to research him a bit…

    I look at it like a magnet. Try to make the two ends meet, and you’re spinning round and round. They already meet perfectly in the center between the poles, but this is no individual section of the magnet that doesn’t flow one way or the other.

    And breaking the magnet into parts just makes more magnets.

    That sort of came to me after watching this video a few years ago. Blew my mind…

    • ian

      Heh, sorry. These threaded “reply” comments seem to have confused me a bit…

      And hey, there I go messing up the html tags as well… 🙂

    • Jackson

      Yes indeed. And I love that Joshu Saskai Roshi quote, will have to research him a bit…

      Sasaki Roshi is Shinzen Young’s teacher, and he talks about him a lot in his The Science of Enlightenment audio program. He also talks about him on his YouTube videos (I think I posted links to both in a comment on your blog – good stuff).

      The magnet analogy is nice, too, particularly the part about them breaking up.

      • ian

        Ah! Another Shinzen connection…

        And it seems he’s Leonard Cohen’s teacher as well:

        (can’t actually listen to it at work though, no speakers…)

  4. Pingback: Contemplating suicide once again

  5. Rodas Ghirmai Ghidei

    You also have to put into consideration, that it’s impossible for life to be a coincidence. It’s too perfect for it to be a coincidence. There could have been so many things to stop life on earth. There is one part that science has never been able to understand, i guess i would describe that as the spiritual side. The side where you get your gut instincts, that side that produces “miracles,” the side that answers all the questions science cannot. We are here for a reason, we all chose the path that we are on and most importantly, we know all the answers, its just deep inside us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s