Alan Watts said, “Nothing so eludes conscious inspection such as consciousness itself,” (Watts).The importance of thought spans beyond the fact that it is inherently valuable for its infinite nature; it is important because your thoughts are the only things that actually belong to you. This may, at first, sound untrue, as it is the case that we live in a world focused around possession and consumption, but first, let us consider the concept of possession. Possession of any object is first and foremost, a trick, and the result of a vast social construct that depends on people having things and needing more things. We need not follow the convoluted origin of this concept to understand a reality prior to its conception: there was a time when nothing belonged to anyone in the sense that we use the word now, but instead, all things were things, and things were to be used as necessary. There was no sense of ownership, or entitlement. This predates the era of modern man, who walked upon newly discovered land, and its inhabitants, and declared, “This is the flag of my king, and this, his land.” One need not ponder ownership of land for long before realizing it is a nonsensical notion. If I were to trace back the history of my yard, and its purchase, I would inevitably arrive at a time when it belonged to no one. The implication is that at some point, someone stood upon the earth upon which I live, and declared it to be his, and it became his, because he said it was.
I am not, in any way, saying that your things are not your things; I am saying that how your things came to be your things is strange. If you were to ask a person, under the assumption that our idea of ownership is entirely made up, what truly belongs to him, if anything, he may be inclined to answer his body. This is not an uncommon notion, as many people consider their body to be a possession, but falsely so. Alan Watts says of this:
The root of the matter is the way in which we feel and conceive ourselves as human beings, our sensation of being alive, of individual existence and identity. We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of our own existence as living organisms. Most of us have the sensation that “I myself” is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body—a center which “confronts” an “external” world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange (Watts).
If you are not satisfied thoroughly by that brief excerpt, I highly encourage you to read The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are in its entirety, especially if you have an affinity for world-shattering self-realizations. The disparate sense of consciousness you feel inside is not your soul; it’s an elaborate illusion. You are one being, subject to one complete experience, and one inseparable sense of knowing. I cannot deny having been host to the inexplicable sense of some ingrained disconnect between two uncooperative and opposing entities, but what I have come to realize is this: the internal rift one feels between two halves is actually one whole, longing for a completeness through inherently unattainable means.
It is not necessary, however, that you agree entirely, or to any extent, at that, in order for us to pursue an inquiry as to the importance of thought. Firstly, it is important to make concrete the abstract focus of discussion: thought. When I say thought, I am not merely referring to the process of deriving a simple idea, but complex and in-depth consideration of the idea, and the process through which it comes to fruition. I am talking about metacognition, the process of thinking about thinking. Given our capacity for such levels of cognition, we have an obligation to utilize such faculties, but I am not foolish enough to expect that to encourage the general populace to do so, in the same way that I am not foolish enough to expect each individual to exercise and eat well, or aspire to achieve incredible feats of physical fitness solely because the human body is capable, and arguably designed to do so.
It is important to differentiate the difference between passive acceptance of an idea, and actual contemplation. Take, for instance, the concept of infinity, derived from the Latin word Infinitas, meaning “the sate of being without end.” When we contemplate this abstract concept that represents what cannot be represented, that which spans far beyond the confines of one’s ability to imagine, there are two methods for processing such a vast idea. The first, which most people take, is to accept, without contemplation of the profound and overwhelming implication of what infinity means in reference to all that we have ever known, that some stuff is endless, or goes on forever, or whatever. The second, and far more unsettling option, is to fully entertain the idea, to try, as a single, finite being, to understand what it means to be infinite. I stand by the notion that unless you have almost lost your mind in the process, unless your sanity, and very sense of reality, has almost crumbled into ash, you have not truly contemplated infinity.
There are four hundred billion stars in our galaxy. There are one hundred billion galaxies. When trying to ponder the number of existing stars based on those numbers, one is tempted to call it infinity, but the provided numbers are numbers, and therefore, finite. What hope is there in imagining infinity when one cannot even process the countlessly finite number of stars? One must focus not on the stars, but the space around them, on the darkness into which they emit light. Stars are drops of paint on an endless black canvas. Space, is infinite. It cannot be confined by a cage of numbers, or a convoluted equation. It is so vast and unfathomable, that we are unable to imagine an arbitrary measurement to which we can assign it. It is literally more endless than the most limitless aspect of the human mind: one’s imagination. This contemplation may seem nonsensical or pointless if one expects to come out the other side with a refined gem of knowledge, or with an unequivocal truth, for he or she is bound to come out the other side feeling unsettled, and disappointed. Of this, Alan Watts says, “You do not ask what is the value, or what is the use, of this feeling. Of what use is the universe? What is the practical application of a million galaxies?” (Watts).
It is unfortunately the case that many persons are determined to avoid this kind of thought, and for a variety of reasons. Some people are dissuaded from taking part in complex forms of contemplation simply because it is difficult, though I can think of few worthwhile endeavors which are those of ease. Some seek to avoid the discomfort that comes with closely examining oneself, and the world of which he or she is a part, for one may not choose to un-see society’s true face once it has been unmasked, nor may he or she revert to a conscious state of existence before potentially unsavory realizations. Choosing to see the world, and examine it closely, is to welcome the inevitability of seeing its problems, a rabbit hole from which there is no coming back. Introspection, especially, is often an uncomfortable process, for the hardest judgment to pass is that of oneself. Lastly, not thinking, or not having an opinion, is easy. One may avoid the terrifying possibility of being wrong, and the effort of having to support oneself through any kind of logical reasoning. The process of constantly adjusting and reassessing your beliefs based on new information is, at times, inconvenient, discomforting, and arduous, but to not do so is, simply put, a means of intellectual stagnation that serves only to worsen oneself, and all with whom one interacts.
Furthermore, we are accountable because of this advanced cognitive capacity in a way that no other species of this planet is. Make no mistake; forfeiting the opportunity to think in the way previously discussed thus far does not serve to absolve one of such accountability. I once read this concept refined into a simple analogy, by whom I cannot for the life of me remember, nor find through countless and frivolous Google searches. He explained that our cognitive capacity separates us from other species in a way that we cannot ignore. Our inherent abilities automatically place us in a higher class, one that has a full awareness of the consequences of its species’ actions as a whole. He stated, for instance, that if a tiger were to rip a man’s head off, we would not hold it accountable for such an action, as it is the case that the tiger lacks an inherent ability to perceive the wrongness of such an action. If anything, it seems an oddly normal thing for such a creature to do. However, if a man were to rip off the head of another man, he would be held fully accountable, as it is the case he did so with a full understanding of what the physical ramifications of such an action would be, such as instantaneous death of the formerly head-having man. He also has an understanding that the fellow members of he species would deem such an action unacceptable.
No mind is exactly identical to another. Just like snowflakes. But less cliché. That means that there are more than seven billion unique humanoid lenses through which the universe is observing itself. Each lens provides a different perspective, however, your obligation is not to the universe, and its endeavor to perceive itself. Your obligation is, and should be, without question, to yourself. Aristotle said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” You have the opportunity to thoroughly know something complex and unique in a way that no one else ever will, which is not to be taken lightly, for humanity is derived from knowledge of oneself.
Now lastly, you may ask what the point is of my writing this, to which the answer is simple: to catalyze thought. If you agree with what I have written, if our thoughts align, that is lovely. If you do not agree with what I have written, if our thoughts do not align, that is even better. Opposition is, after all, a useful tool in helping define oneself, and in determining and refining one’s beliefs. My only objective in writing this, and in tentatively writing about other topics in the future, is to provoke meaningful thought. As I began with the words of Alan Watts, so I shall end. “However much we may now disagree with Aristotle’s logic and his metaphors, he must still be respected for reminding us that the goal of action is always contemplation—knowing and being rather than seeking and becoming,” (Watts).
—William C. Hannan
Watts, Alan. The Book on the Taboo against Knowing Who You Are. New York: Pantheon, 1966.