10 pieces of wisdom from Alan Watts

With his collected letters recently being published, it's time to revisit this extraordinary thinker.

  • Though the British philosopher died in 1973, his work continues to make an impact.
  • A recently published collection, The Collected Letters Alan Watts, is a deep dive into his personal correspondences.
  • Watts was an early proponent for spreading Eastern philosophy to Western culture.

Shortly after Alan Watts's death in 1973, his eldest daughters, Joan and Anne, began collecting boxes of his letters and correspondences. Though it took decades to publish, The Collected Letters of Alan Watts adds yet another piece to the vibrant extant literature of the great British philosopher and orator. Having recently met Joan at a conference and picking up this latest book, I decided it was time to thumb through the rest of my collection.

Watts's bibliography is extensive, with as many volumes published posthumously as during life, most based off his exhaustive catalog of talks. He was an early interpreter of Eastern texts for Western audiences, not only in offering simple translations. Watts captured the essence of mythologies and scriptural narratives, retelling them in a language rapt audiences could easily digest (and sometimes not so easily; he wasn't a mere popularizer).

As interesting and penetrating as his books are, he truly shone on stage (often, incredibly, after enjoying a bottle of whiskey). Since I discovered his work a quarter-century ago I've constantly turned back to him when I need a bit of insight, especially the type that arrives with a touch of humor. The below list are a few I picked out during a recent afternoon reminiscing on the man and his extraordinary life.

All our efforts at a spiritual life are prompted by self-interest. — Behold the Spirit (1947)

If we are citizens of this world, and if there can be no final satisfaction of the soul's discontent, has not nature, in bringing forth man, made a serious mistake? — The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951)

The transience from which we seek liberation is the very liberator. — Nature, Man and Woman (1958)

Psychotherapy and liberation are completed in the moment when shame and guilt collapse, when the organism is no longer compelled to defend itself for being an organism, and when the individual is ready to own his unconscious behavior. — Psychotherapy East & West (1961)

We do not want to survive merely, or to survive so as to be tormented forever in hell. We want to survive interestingly, even elegantly. — Beyond Theology (1964)

Mark Watts browsing the Alan Watts Archives (2017). c/o Alan Watts Organization

To idolize scriptures is like eating paper currency. — The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (1966)

Human life—and all life—does not work harmoniously when we try to force it to be other than what it is, for the very simple reason that this is based on the assumption that I, who would control things, am something apart from what I would control. — Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown (1968)

The world of myth is past, is "once upon a time," in a symbolic sense only—in the sense that it is behind us, not as time past is behind us, but as the brain which cannot be seen is behind the eyes which see, as behind memory is that which remembers and cannot be remembered. — Myth and Ritual in Christianity (1968)

The supposition that knowing requires a knower is based on a linguistic and not existential rule, as becomes obvious when we consider that raining needs no rainer and clouding no clouder. — Tao: The Watercourse Way (1975)

Very often it seems to me that faith and belief could be opposed. Belief comes from the Anglo-Saxon root lief, which means to "wish." Belief is the fervent hope that certain things are true. Whereas I rather feel that faith is an openness of attitude, a readiness to accept the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. It is a commitment of oneself to life, to the universe, to one's own nature as it is, in the realization that we really have no alternative. — Zen and the Beat Way (1997)

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
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