The Head-Tailed Cat

I was reading today in a book of philosophy (yeah I know, what else?) and I want to share some of it with you.

The philosopher was saying about cause and effect, and it was part of this entire big discussion about whether it's true that we humans are separate from the rest of the universe or if the same energy is flowing through us as is flowing through everything else. He was saying that it is the illusion of separateness that makes us feel so depressed a lot, and so cut-off from the world and alienated by it all.

So anyway, he is talking about all this, and then he mentions this cat, and I like cats so I start to pay attention a bit more. And he says:

We believe that every thing and every event must have a cause, that is, some other thing(s) or events(s), and that it will in its turn be the cause of other effects. So how does a cause lead to an effect? To make it much worse, if all that I think or do is a set of effects, there must be causes for all of them going back to an indefinite past. If so, I can't help what I do. I am simply a puppet pulled by strings that go back into times far beyond my vision.

Again, this is a problem which comes from asking the wrong question. Here is someone who has never seen a cat. He is looking through a narrow slit in a fence, and, on the other side, a cat walks by. He sees first the head, then the less distinctly shaped furry trunk, and then the tail. Extraordinary! The cat turns round and walks back, and again he sees the head, and a little later the tail. This sequence begins to look like something regular and reliable. Yet again, the cat turns round, and he witnesses the same regular sequence: first the head, later the tail. Thereupon he reasons that the event head is the invariable and necessary cause of the event tail, which is the head's effect. This absurd and confusing gobbledygook comes from his failure to see that head and tail go together; they are all one cat.

The philosopher says that this is a bit like how we see the world, as a collection of bits. He says we have the type of conciousness that is narrow, that can focus on one thing at a time, and blank out everything else. It's a bit like when you are in a darkened room and you look at things using a very narrow beam flashlight.

The philosopher says: The truth is that in looking at the world bit by bit we convince ourselves that it consists of separate things, and so give ourselves the problem of how these things are connected and how they cause and effect each other.... We do not see that the world is all of a piece like the head-tailed cat.

This comes from The Book On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts


Maddie said...

A very interesting post, I love your example of the cat. :)
Oh, and I was just using it as an example, I don't really believe in unicorns, though that would be pretty amazing :P

Susanna-Cole said...

Mm, I always love philosophy, even if it does make my head hurt sometimes. ;) Very interesting thoughts and ideas... it is always interesting how everything has a cause and effect... or at least I think everything does. Often when I begin to think hard about such things, thingis get murkier than they were before... :P