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.