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Alan Watts: What is the self?

Self defined not as individual ego, but the whole universe.

  • Alan Watts believed that we can comprehend a greater sense of the self.
  • The self is not alienated from the universe, but a part of the whole process.
  • Scientists have conceptualized a similar idea that sounds like it's straight out of the Indian Vedanta.

Western cultures rooted in scientific thinking and reductionist philosophies have always flirted with the tempting holism of the East. It was during the 1950s and '60s that these philosophies finally burst through the dividing cultural membrane and finally became a permanent fixture in our culture. Alan Watts was one such philosopher and lecturer of the time that is largely responsible for this popularization of Eastern spiritual ideas.

Whether it was on the way we view education or money — Watts masterfully weaved a synthesis of ancient Eastern philosophy to contend with and understand our chaotic mode of modern life.

One such topic that he touched upon at length was the idea of the self. Many great philosophers have pondered on this great question — what is the self? It is within this sphere of questioning that Watts proposed that all roads of inquiry lead to one central idea, even if they're not aware of it. That the self is an illusion, all is inseparable and part of a continuous wave of existence from beginning to end and back again.

... the prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin is a hallucination which accords neither with Western science nor with the experimental philosophy-religions of the East.

Alan Watts and the self

Alan Watts touched upon this subject at length in a talk titled "Self and Other." Watts believed that we could shed the illusion of self and other through simple comprehension. No need for any difficult yoga meditations or even mind-shattering psychedelics.

It is plain to see that in our modern civilization many people lack meaning. As the scientific method has unraveled old mysteries and religions have lost their hold on ontological truth, there is no longer a binding authority to look toward for guidance on the nature of reality.

Great existentialist thinkers heralded this onslaught of meaning in the past two centuries. Science offers us no solace with its nihilistic undertones of blind chance and our supposed infinitesimal place in an infinite and indifferent universe. But the very act of our being is testament to the fact that we are more than a separate entity that is a stranger to this universe, but the whole meaning and process of it. As Watts once mused about the future, "It's going to become basic common sense that you are not some alien being who confronts an external world that is not you, but that almost every intelligent person will have the feeling of being an activity of the entire universe."

There is a prevailing concept endemic to modern cosmology that proposes that life is some kind of cosmic accident. That it's a rarity, an aberration or seen in a sometimes more positive light — a miracle.

Now in the Eastern view and especially in the view that Watts espouses, everything has led up to this point, but not in some kind of planned monarchical clockwork godlike guidance. It simply has come to be. All of the universal processes — from gravitational pulls from one galaxy to the next down to the starlight of our sun to the multiplicitous iterations of conscious life — are one interconnected process and, in a sense, one being.

"You see, if you become aware of the fact that you are all of your own body, and that the beating of your heart is not just something that happens to you, but something you're doing, then you become aware also in the same moment and at the same time that you're not only beating your heart, but that you are shining the sun."

We come to realize then that self cannot be defined. That we are interdependent on others to define ourselves socially, physically, and spiritually just as we are also the sum total of our environment, genetic makeup, and all matter-bound activities in the universe right down to the beginning of existence.

"In other words, let's suppose that those cosmologists and astronomers are right who believe that this universe started out with an original Big Bang, which flung all those galaxies out into space. It's a continuous energy system. The energy which is now manifested as your body is the same energy which was there in the beginning. If anything at all is old, this hand is as old as anything there is. Incredibly ancient. I mean, the energy keeps changing shapes, doing all sorts of things, but there it all is."

Watts philosophical argument is compelling when integrated into our current understanding of the universe. Some modern day scientists are even conceding the point that was made thousands of years ago by early Hindu and Buddhist philosophies.

Scientific theory on universal consciousness

For instance, the late scientist and philosopher John Archibald Wheeler remarked that every single piece of matter contained consciousness, which he believed made up a proto-consciousness field. The theory eventually was called "participatory anthropic principle," which explains how the human observer is a fundamental part of the process. He stated, "We are participators in bringing into being not only the near and here but the far away and long ago."

Some modern day scientists are taking this one step forward in the only way they know how and thinking about testing for observational evidence of consciousness transmitted through a quantum vacuum. Another name for this phenomenon is called panpsychism.

Perhaps we are the Brahmin who has forget itself. As the ancient Hindu scriptures once believed that we are the soul breath of Atman. The self as the cosmos and the cosmos as the self to experience itself.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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