Thursday, February 9, 2012

Does living in the present go against common sense?

Earlier today, I watched this videoclip of a talk by Alan Watts. Very fascinating. Watts invites us to think of the passage of our lives through time as being akin to the passage of a ship through water. The events created by our lives in time are like the wake created by the ship, and "the wake doesn't drive the ship, any more than the tail wags the dog."

This being the case, the things and events that have happened in the past do not define our lives, even though we often cite these things and events to try to explain why we are doing what we are doing now. So we should define ourselves not in terms of what we did in the past, but in terms of what we are doing now. The idea is to "get rid of the habit of thought whereby you define yourself in terms of what has gone before." And it is only by doing so that we can liberate ourselves from the ridiculous situation of being a dog wagged by its tail.

I really think that there is much wisdom in what Watts is saying here. But there's also a part of me that can't help asking: What about personal responsibility? If it is true that we are but ships endlessly moving through the waters of time, so that what we think of as "the past" is really a fleeting, transient series of waves on the ocean of space-time, would there be any sense in holding people accountable for their actions? I mean, when we hold people accountable for their actions, we hold them accountable for actions that they have done in the past, whether that past is five minutes ago or ten years ago. But if an event is like a wave, and ceases to exist almost as soon as it is created, would it still make sense to hold somebody accountable for something that no longer exists?

Here's a concrete example. Suppose I stole some money from you yesterday. And suppose you try to hold me accountable for my action by confronting me and demanding that I return the money. But if the past has already ceased to exist, and does not define who I am and what you are, then my identity as the thief of your money does not define who I am, and your identity as the victim of said theft does not define who you are either. Indeed, it looks like if Watts is right, the only plausible explanation you can give for confronting me would be that you simply dig confronting me! Any kind of commonsense explanation of your action ("I am confronting you because you stole my money yesterday") would involve appealing to past events which do not really explain anything, and would put you in the ridiculous situation of being a dog wagged by its tail!

I guess the question that I'm trying to get at is this: If attributions of personal responsibility are always for things and actions that have already happened, wouldn't Watts' ideas of living in the present be at odds with our commonsense notions of personal responsibility? So which one wins: Common sense or living in the present?


  1. Dear Nobel,

    I have a very rudimentary yoga practice and have come across your blog because of that. I always find your posts interesting, but am conscious that I have little to contribute on yoga related matters. But your post today did prompt me to comment, because I quite vehemently disagree with the idea that events are like waves. In my view, humans are shaped by their experiences - of all types. What others do to them, what they do to themselves, what fate brings... That doesn't mean that one cannot be open for new ideas, new practices, new discipline and live in the present. But at the same time, we should be conscious that we are shaped by our past and responsible for our deeds. Rather than the fluid ocean, I think it is more like making your way through the jungle. You can still move in all kinds of directions - but the path you have taken so far shapes your options and your character.

    Many thanks for writing such interesting posts! Karen

    1. Thanks for commenting, Karen. I like your jungle analogy, and I think that the same thoughts that motivated your analogy are also the thoughts that led me to question Watt's image of our lives being like boats on waves. It just seems false to say that our lives are absolutely not shaped by the past, as much as I often like to believe that.