The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Iain McGilchrist. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: This is another in our series of explorations of the human mind in its relationship to the world. Previous episodes include those with Bernard Baars, Antonio Damasio, Christof Koch, Emery Brown, Nick Chater, John Vervaeke, Joscha Bach and others. Today’s guest is Iain McGilchrist. Iain’s an associate fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford, a fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He’s a former research fellow in neuroimaging at Johns Hopkins University Medical School, and was for many years a practicing clinical psychiatrist. You can learn more about Iain and his background at channelmcgilchrist.com. He now lives on the Isle of Skye, off the coast of Northwest Scotland, where he continues to write and lectures. Ah, Skye, home of Talisker, one of my least favorite scotches.
Iain: We’re not all born gifted with a taste for whiskey, you know.
Jim: I know. That’s the way it goes. Takes a lot of different folks to make a world. Me, I’m an Oban man. So I don’t know how many single malts I’ve tried in my life, but it’s a bunch and Oban 18 to my mind is the nectar of the gods.
Jim: To each his own. Though, after this chat, I’m going to have to go back and try a dram or two or three, usually of Talisker tonight. We do have a Talisker 10 year old in our Scott’s closet.
Iain: Good, good.
Jim: And kind of going on telling a little bit more about Iain, he has committed the idea that mind and brain can be understood only by seeing them in the broadest possible context. That is of the whole, of our physical and spiritual existence and that of the wider human culture in which they arise. The culture which helps to mold and in turn is molded by, and this cycle is important. Our minds and brains. Welcome, Iain.
Iain: Thanks very much, Jim.
Jim: Yeah, it’s great to have you here. Today, we’re mostly going to talk about Iain’s recent book, The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World. It’s two volumes, 2000 pages of primary text, plus another 1000 pages of appendices notes and plates. I’ll confess to have not read the appendices. I’ll leave those for another time, but I did read the 2000 pages. Some of them skimming fairly rapidly, but it was quite interesting. I’ll also occasionally allude to his previous book, The Master and His Emissary, which I read last year.
Jim: In terms of the overall structure, his book basically is in three parts and I’m going to try hard to allocate our time more or less equally to the three parts. And you can imagine going through 2000 pages going to require some skipping around and hitting in the high points, but think of them basically as neuropsychology, epistemology and metaphysics. Yes, metaphysics. As regular listeners know, I often say when I hear the word metaphysics, I reach for my pistol and indeed I will have reached for my pistol a few times as we’ll hear, when we get to part three.
Iain: I’m glad to hear somebody emulating Goebbels. Not many people of our age who do emulate Goebbels these days.
Jim: It was actually not Goebbels. It was an earlier guy who was also a fairly nasty character. It’s a misattribution of, “When I hear the word culture, reach for my pistol.” It wasn’t Goebbels. It was somebody else. You can Google it and see. One preliminary point, and I sometimes will do this with respect to terminology. You note that it’s in the spirit of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that English almost uniquely has just one word for know. And that leads to some specific difficulties in the Anglosphere in dealing with these issues. Probably 75% of my audience is in the Anglosphere. And of course, since were in English, the other 25% speak English. So could you maybe talk a little bit about the fact that there is this one word for know in English? And how that might contrast with other languages and then try to keep it relatively short so that we can hop into the details.
Iain: Yeah, sure. I mean, those listeners who speak either French or German will know that in French, there’s a distinction between savoir, to know the facts about something, and connaître which I have an acquaintance with them. And a similar distinction that’s made in German, between wissen as we are to know, technically, you know that Paris is the capital of France. Whereas I only know Paris in the sense of kennen, when I’ve been there, perhaps lived there a little while. So there’s quite a distinction between knowing something in the abstract as a matter of rapport and knowing something through embodied experience in the way that you know your friends, the great works of arts and so on. That’s the distinction. And the fact that we don’t make that distinction in English rather oddly means that I find quite often that philosophers waste a bit of time on getting to the point about what knowing really means.
Jim: Ah, thanks. That’s a good, good introduction. So let’s hop into what’s Iain’s signature perspective, which is the differing ways our brain hemispheres give us access to the world. And again, keep in mind, our audience are not experts in this stuff. So maybe if you start off with a brief introduction of what brain hemispheres are, describe the corpus callosum in a gross quick kind of way.
Iain: Yes. Yes. Well, for those of you who don’t spend your time gazing at brains, they look rather like a walnut. They’re kind of wrinkly and they’re in two parts with a divide in between the hemispheres. And in fact, only 2% of neurons actually cross the structure at the base of the hemispheres called corpus callosum, which is the principal band of communication, not the only one, but by very long way, the principal band of communication. What’s intriguing is that these hemispheres are separate at all. I mean, if the computing power is a function of connections and the brain is full of these connections, why have a whopping great divide down the middle, which has been accentuated, not diminished by evolution? Why the hemisphere is asymmetrical? The brain is, but the skull isn’t and the world that they’re looking at doesn’t have any kind of regular asymmetry of that kind.
Iain: And this question arises. Why is quite a lot of the traffic between the hemispheres inhibitory? Saying, you keep out of this, I’m dealing with it. And when I first got interested in all these, hemispheres were a very dodgy topic for any serious scientist to get involved with because it had gone into popular psychology and into the popular mind that there was something bogus about this. And that’s simply based on the fact that it was a great deal of excitement in the sixties and seventies of the last century, when people began doing something called a split brain operation for the treatment of intractable epilepsy. And this divides that band of fibers I mentioned called the corpus callosum. And it then became possible for the first time to test, interview and find out more about one hemisphere at a time. And from that came certain very large and gross generalizations, almost all of which are wrong.
Iain: I sometimes, when I’m lecturing, put up a slide from the internet, which has got about 20 of these, and there’s only one that is correct, and I offer a free pizza to anyone who can spot it. But anyway, the point is most of what you’ve heard up till now, unless you’ve read my work, you might as well put out of your mind because most of the stuff about hemispheres is wrong, but just because we got it wrong, doesn’t mean to say that the problem goes away. Why is that this structure and what are the differences? And maybe that’s the point at which I hand back to you, Jim, would you want me to carry on and talk about what those differences are?
Jim: No, that’s a good place to hand back. I’ll hand back to you here in just a second. It’s very important that people deprogram themselves from the naive pop cultural right brain, left brain, because as Iain says, it’s mostly, but not quite entirely wrong, but Iain has assembled a totally staggering amount of actual research, laboratory results, clinical result, et cetera, to support these distinctions, which he is now going to make for us. If you could maybe talk about first the things that let’s think about how the best to do this. Let’s start off with an overview of the categories, at least that you see as the right brain being differentiated with respect to, and then the left brain, and then you maybe pass it back to me and then we’ll talk about how they interact, et cetera.
Iain: Yes. It’s possibly worth just mentioning briefly that I have an answer to the question why there are these two hemispheres that operate, can operate and sustain a complete picture of the world separately. And that’s because all living creatures we’ve looked at will have anything like a brain, even just a neural network. And the most ancient is a sea creature called nematostella vectensis. It’s 700 million years old and it already has an asymmetrical neural network, which is described as the origin of the brain of higher animals.
Iain: So what is this about? I think in brief, it’s about needing to pay two kinds of attention to the world at the same time. One is this very highly focused attention to a detail, very precise already kind of conceived as important because I want to get that seed. I want to catch that rabbit. I want to pick up that twig to build a nest, whatever it is. It’s in the service of manipulating the world, using it, utilizing it, but not necessarily any good for understanding it. At the same time, the right hemisphere is keeping a completely different kind of attention open, which is sustained, vigilant to the whole picture. And these compliment one another. And if you only had the narrow focused attention, you wouldn’t survive because while you were getting your lunch, you become somebody else’s. You’ve got to have a picture of the whole scene.
Iain: Now this leads in a logical way to a whole host of differences. For instance, the left hemisphere tends to see isolated elements, isolated fragments, whereas the right hemisphere tends to see a picture in which everything ultimately is connected and nothing is seen out of its context, whereas the left hemisphere of you being very narrow sheers off the context. And that’s terribly important because of context is what makes a thing, what it is. And then there are some differences in the sense that the left hemisphere is aiming to catch something, to capture it. It takes like a snapshot that is kind of very, very thin in space and time.
Iain: Whereas the right hemisphere is seeing a flowing picture, which is moving all the time and changing. Then there is the fact that the right hemisphere understands implicit information. Implicit, meaning body language, reading the face, metaphors, sense of humor, puns, irony, all the kind of stuff that a computer wouldn’t get. Whereas the left hemisphere is like a very efficient computer that has a good lexicon and some rules of grammar for creating sentences. Broadly speaking, if something is complex, the right hemisphere needs to be called in to take a look at it. And there’s another difference, which is that the right hemisphere tends to see things that are animate as animate. And indeed we think that it can see things as animate, even if we wouldn’t normally class them as animate. Whereas the left hemisphere seems to prefer machines, tools and things that are inanimate. And even if they’re not in our experience, they will become so in the left hemisphere’s view.
Iain: And I’ll just say one more, there are a number of others, but just say one more because this is so, so important. And at first glance or the first hearing, it may not strike the listener as such. It’s that there’s a difference between the map and the world that is mapped. There’s a difference between a theory about reality and what you actually learn about it from the full panoply of experience.
Iain: And this is a distinction that is sustained here between the hemispheres. The right hemisphere, presences the world to use a term of Heidegger’s. But what it means is basically that the world, the phenomenological world, that we know, that we experience comes into being for us first in the take of the right hemisphere, the left hemisphere almost immediately starts to categorize it, to abstract it, to take it in, put it into a box, put it into a pigeon hole, and it’s already become not what it was, but a representative of something much smaller. It’s become diagrammatic. And this business about having a map is terribly important. I mean, maps are very, very useful. Don’t get me wrong, but you would be a bit of an idiot if you mistook the map for the place that is mapped and tried to live in the map. To cut a long story short, I believe that’s where we’re at.
Jim: Yeah. I was about to say I found the linguistic distinguishment of presencing to represencing or represents very helpful as I was trying to get my hand around this body of thought. And just thinking presence, represents is very, very helpful. I think in getting at the sense of where you’re pointing. Now, in my own work, I use a deer as my model, animal, white tail deer, the kind we have here in Virginia, and I’ve been hunting those little buggers for 50 years. So I have a good theory of mind about them, and I projected them onto your model. And I looked them up. They do have a corpus callosum and hemispheres and in their life, they have to deal with some narrowly focused things like is this plant in front of my nose something that is good to eat? Nutritious. It’s good for me.
Jim: And is that little ripple in the tall grass over there? Is that the wind or is that a wolf? And so certainly left brain things are important to the deer. They’re also interested in broader things like the weather, right? Not in the sense of, is it raining just a second, but the combination of barometric pressure, wind direction, temperature, cloud cover, et cetera. Is the wind likely to get worse or better? Should I go bed down for the day or should I continue eating, which actually very important. Deer eat very unnutritious food, and they have to eat a lot. Laying off eating for a few hours is a pretty high cost. This is what, you didn’t, I don’t think mention as a distinction, but I’m curious. The other thing about dee r is that they move around during the day and then over multiple days, and so I call that the routing issue.
Jim: And so they have to have a gestalt view of what route should they take, should something like an alarm get set off where one deer gives an alarm cry and you can tell that they all have already thought which way they’re going to run. And it has to do with terrain, it has to do with things that are moving around at the time, et cetera. And somehow those struck me as a possible right brain kinds of things. Do you have any sense on that? Whether routing is a right brain function?
Iain: I would think so on two grounds, one is that it is generally true that orientation in space is much better performed in the right hemisphere, having a sense of where things are in the real world around. And because it requires as you just demonstrated the collation of a whole lot of intuitively perceived information, the only thing I would disagree with, I’m not sure you actually meant to say this or did say it, but the idea that as it were the prey and the predator are all well served by the left hemisphere. They’re not. The left hemisphere is looking for prey. The right hemisphere is looking out for that predator. While the left hemisphere is saying, yes, this stuff is edible get on and eat it. The right hemisphere is saying, but what’s that over there in the grass?
Jim: Ah, yes. That’s a good distinction. Yes. The vigilance versus focus kind of thing.
Jim: Though, I would also say, let’s say the right hemisphere notices the little bit of shimmering in the grass, the deer will then turn his head in attention and will then make a decision. Is that the wind or is that a wolf? And again, an important distinction, because if you run every time the wind blows the grass, you’re not going to eat enough and somebody else is going to outcompete you.
Iain: Exactly. And just while we’re on that, you mentioned that they do this, turn their heads. It’s rather a nice detail that we’ve looked at birds and animals and more often than would happen by chance. They turn so that they’re left hemisphere is engaged with prey and their right hemisphere is engaged with looking at a predator. They’ll sometimes move their heads right round in a way that doesn’t look natural at the time in order to make the hemisphere connection.
Jim: I have to see if I can notice that. That’s interesting. Now some of the other distinctions that I think are worth talking about is ambiguity versus certainty. Let’s hit that one.
Iain: Yes. Well the very simple way of looking at it is the left hemisphere is looking to manipulate something. It needs to have something that it knows, first of all, it’s familiar with and it knows it needs, and it knows that it is an example of that thing that it wants. And in all those respects, it prioritizes certain knowledge as it were non ambiguous knowledge. It doesn’t want both hand. It wants an either-or, whereas the right hemisphere is the one which it first takes in any new experience.
Iain: This has been researched by Elkhonon Goldberg over many, many years. And it doesn’t really matter what that new experience is, whether it’s a new piece of music or a new idea or a new object. It’s first taken in, if you like, by the right hemisphere. And then when the left hemisphere sees, I think I know what that is. Then it puts it into a category.
Iain: And at that moment, the vivid presence and the whole gestalt, as you refer to it, the whole sort of picture that is more than the sum of its parts gets lost. And it gets substituted by a breakdown and analysis and a disembodiment. It’s become an idea of what it was rather than the thing itself. This has certain interesting and important consequences that the left hemisphere would rather jump to a conclusion than be a bit patient because the information is not at all clear. It tends to rush in and make a judgment and then be very, very unwilling to shift. Whereas the right hemisphere is much more able to see, well, yes, it does look like that, but it could be something else. So it’s a much finer, more discriminatory perceiver.
Jim: That’s interesting. It’s the two together that are interesting. Early part of my career, first half, was as a business guy. And I used to describe business as the process of identifying potentially profitable ambiguities and gradually reducing the ambiguity until one can take smart action. And I noticed that a lot of people aren’t good at holding themselves in ambiguity long enough and that they collapse.
Jim: I had a CTO I worked with at four different companies. One of the best technical minds ever. But part of my job was to punch him in the nose and make him back off from his first closure on how we should do something, because it was, he was quite certain and he was almost always wrong. And not that I knew the right answer, but I did know that while truly brilliant, he needed to be pushed back into accepting ambiguity for a while and only gradually reduce ambiguity to certainty. And as you pointed out, particularly, in the other book, The Master and His Emissary, it does seem to be a characteristic of Western modern culture that a lot of us want to leap to certainty prematurely. And I thought that’s worth bringing up. The other one that I did not recall, go ahead.
Iain: In terms of the expiration of knowledge, I mean, I’m essentially an academic. One of the devastating things that’s happened is that people have scored on how much they publish. And this has a number of bad effects as you can imagine. But one of them is that they’re force to jump to conclusion early on in an exploratory process and pressure is put on them to have a result. Whereas actually being able to hold that open and not collapse, the ambiguity will allow a much richer picture to develop. That’s all I wanted to say.
Jim: Yeah. Great. And then the last one, then we’ll move on. We could spend two hours just talking about this, but one more. And this is one I was not aware of, which is the relative pessimism of the right brain and the optimism of the left brain.
Iain: Yes, there are many asymmetries, but that’s an interesting one isn’t it? It’s really extreme optimism. The left hemisphere is way out, whereas the right hemisphere is mildly more pessimistic than it needs to be. There’s a test called the Wada test in which you can isolate one hemisphere for a few minutes at a time by injecting sodium amytal into the carotid artery. And in this circumstance, sometimes people have to undergo in order to have brain surgery. Some enterprising psychologists gave the subject of a personality inventory to fill out about themselves and gave the same one to friends and relatives to fill in and see whether they tallied. And in the case of the right hemisphere, there was a bit of a tally, but it turned out that the person had an unnecessarily kind of poor view of themselves. But the left hemisphere is full of BS.
Iain: It thinks it’s the most gifted thing on the planet. And it has a very great respect for certain intellect and its insight, which is not warranted by the fact. And one little detail just to hammer this one home. When somebody’s had a right hemisphere stroke, they’re just dependent on their left hemisphere. The left side of their body may be paralyzed, but they will actually deny that it’s paralyzed. You ask them if they have any problem using it and you can see that it’s paralyzed. They say, “No, no,” you say “Well, move it then”. And they go, “There,” and nobody sees anything move, but they just don’t shift from that position. Cause that’s unfortunate when you are faced with, as we are now with all sorts of big crises, wicked problems, because if you are just ridiculously optimistic then you won’t take the necessary action in time.
Jim: Yeah. It seemed to explain a lot about Twitter, all these left brains out there, banging away on Twitter. Absolutely certain about the most ridiculous bullshit, right?
Jim: We’re going to have to move on here in the interest of time. I would point people to the book. There’s a vast amount of clinical examples, research examples, split brain experiments, et cetera, to support his assertions there above. But again, we could spend two hours just going onto those. So we’re going to skip over those, go read them in the book, if you’re interested. And to something I found very interesting, which you alluded to briefly earlier, which is there’s a dance between the left and the right brain in cross inhibition. The right brain inhibits certain actions in the left hemisphere, the left hemisphere inhibits certain things in the right hemisphere. I love to see these kinds of things. Guy we’ve had on the show five times, actually, John Vervaeke calls them opponent processing where oppositional cognitive processes kind of work with each other until they reach a useful equilibrium or maybe in some cases, a not so useful equilibrium. If you could talk a little bit about the dynamics of the cross inhibition between the hemispheres.
Iain: Yes. Well, it is fascinating and the term opponent processes belongs to Sir Charles Sherrington, who’s a very distinguished physiologist at the end of the 19th century. And he pointed out that in many cases where you want to have fine discrimination, it’s much better to have the balance of two opposing forces. One way of thinking about this is that you want to paint something that is very, very delicate and get precise movements to the brush, rather than just leave your hand free to do it. It’s probably better to push the hand slightly with the other hand. And there’s a kind of much finer control possible by using the two opposing forces. In any case that we have these, they’ve evolved to compliment one another, but there is a problem in their relationship because the left hemisphere knows very much less. It’s much more limited in its understanding. And like people who know very much less, it thinks it knows everything. Whereas the right hemisphere, knowing far more doubts that it knows everything.
Iain: So there is a dynamic here, which you can imagine in human terms between an arrogant faculty, that is nothing like as good as it thinks it is. And another faculty that is wise that can look after the two of them. And one important difference is that the right hemisphere realizes that it needs what the left hemisphere can offer, but it appears that the left hemisphere has no inkling of what the right hemisphere is up to and is not interested in finding out.
Iain: There is that dynamic and it’s something that’s reflected, as I discovered in writing this last book. Discovered only in the last decade. That across the world in many mythologies, there is a story of two brothers or an emperor and a general and so on. In the story that is told, one of them is good and sees a lot. And as long as the other party is willing to be guided by the one that sees more, then things work well. But when it becomes peremptory, arrogant, thinks it knows everything, then big trouble happens. Most of the mythologies suggest that the kingdom or whatever it is that’s in question will fall apart. That’s just an inkling of that topic that you raise.
Jim: Very good. Let’s then move on to attention. As regular listeners know, one of my main interests in my own work, and in fact, I often say we literally are our attention. And I often speak of attention and this in your terminology, this would be left brain attention as the cursor of consciousness, the hopping from focus of attention to focus of attention in some real sense is actually who we are as our brain unfolds, at least in the left brain. And maybe you could put a broader Gilchristian perspective on attention that includes the right brain and the.
Jim: … Christian perspective on attention that includes the right brain and the left brain.
Iain: Well, I like your idea of the curse of attention, because it’s also the curse of attention is that we get distracted to these little points and run around. Well, like you, I think attention is fundamentally important and it is the most profound difference between the two hemispheres from which the rest follows. And I say attention changes the world. If you pay attention in one way, you see a certain kind of world. If you pay attention in a different way, you see a completely different one that has different qualities. So attention changes the world and makes it what it is for us. But it also makes us what we are, the people who are doing the attending. So if you regularly attend in a very cold detached and rather cynical way, you become that kind of a person and insights you’d have had from another attention that come to you.
Iain: So, like all these things, it’s a [inaudible 00:27:59] process. It’s a two-way thing in. You said earlier on, the cyclical relationship, all these things have this kind of cyclical relationship, I believe. And what happens is that it changes things like time and space, which I come to talk about in the last part of the book. But it makes differences to the everyday world, how we see things, whether we see their unique qualities, whether we just see their general qualities and whether we feel we have a relationship with this thing or whether we don’t. We feel we are totally detached observing it, all these changes depend on the nature of attention. And the first big chapter in part one is devoted to this question of differences in attention in space and time as well.
Jim: Yeah. That’s very worth thinking about, I have to go digest it and see how it fits into my own model. I haven’t come to any conclusions yet, but it has certainly opened my mind to thinking about this in a different way.
Iain: Jim, I’d just… I’d like to comment, Jim, if I may. Yeah. One easy sort of way to about it is that depth in space, that three dimensional quality. Depth in time, the sense of something that’s not just instantaneous, but actually has continuity. And depth in emotion, not just superficial irritable reactions, but actually a deep feeling. These are all dependent on the right hemisphere and when the right hemisphere is damaged or not functioning right, then you get shallowness of the sense of space, of the sense of time and of emotion.
Jim: That makes a lot of sense. Then… it’s easy to go down the rat hole of cognition as stuff going inside our heads. But in reality, all that cognition is only for one purpose, which is right action in the world. I will say in a rather Philistine style, which we’ll qualify later, but objects in attention, good old left brain have affordances which get triggered or not. And again, at the basal level of our deer running around the field, trying to eat and not get eaten. Mr. Deer, Mrs. Deer has to make a whole bunch of decisions about what to do and not to do. And you make the point. This is direct quote from the book, what is the frontal cortex for? Largely for stopping things happening, which is actually very interesting. And it’s pretty close to my own view about the nature of free will.
Jim: When we look at things like the [Libet 00:30:24] result, the famous Libet result, where brain scanning shows that the brain, the neurons to move your arm are starting to move your arm before you even make the decision to move your arm. The [inaudible 00:30:35] and interpretation of that is that most of those decisions you’re made unconsciously, deep in the brain, not aware to consciousness and that there’s a narrow window. And the thing first pops into consciousness where you have the ability to veto it. And that may be all that free will is. So with that as a preamble, maybe you could hop in a little bit to where you believe the hemispheres may differ or play a role together in stopping things from happening.
Iain: Yes, well, as I say, the frontal cortex of each hemisphere, has the effect of inhibiting, first of all, its own posterior cortex. So the left frontal lobes inhibit things that are going on in the left posterior cortex and the right has the same pattern. And this is again, a kind of opponent processor. There are a number of these in the brain top versus bottom, left versus right and front versus back. So that the posterior parts of the brain may be driving a certain way. And the frontal lobes are saying, “No, hang on, we need a bit of distance here. Let’s think about this.” So that’s very important for, as you say, right action in the world. What’s intriguing is that the right hemisphere is both better at for example, having useful intuitions, emotional awareness and inhibiting them when required. So people often think of the right hemisphere because all the pop psychologists as a kind of let it all hang out, man hemisphere. But it’s actually not at all.
Iain: It’s the one that is with watching out and saying, “This may not be the case at all. Hang on, we’re going to inhibit this because it’s not that kind of let it all hang out one.” The left hemisphere, interestingly, in terms of emotions, it is sometimes portrayed as, this rather boring hemisphere. I mean, it’s got no personality, but at least it’s reliable. Well, this is completely wrong. First of all, it does have some kind of a personality, as I’ve suggested. It does have emotions and the emotion that lateralizes most strongly is anger. And it lateralizes to the left hemisphere and it’s not reliable. It’s in fact extremely unreliable. So when you are thinking of right action in the world, and I would share that very much, Jim, as you know from reading the book, I side very much with the pragmatist tradition of philosophy, particularly in America, [inaudible 00:32:56] first, William James, John Dew, so forth.
Iain: So yes, getting it right, depends on this ability to inhibit things. And it also allows us to have that distance that I was talking about before, what I call necessary distance. If you’re trying to assess something, say it’s a picture, you can be so close to it or to a book that you can’t read it, or you can be so far away that you don’t really see it. There is a perfect distance that allows you to see enough, to be able to take in the whole picture. And the frontal lobes are what allow us more than pretty much any other creatures of even more than lonely, great apes, but they can do this just stand back and be able to take those broader views.
Jim: Very good. Very interesting. We’re going to skip over some of my notes, but we’re going to close out part one on the discussion of reductionism and complexity. You say reductionism can mean a number of things, but here, I mean, quite simply the outlook that assumes that the only way to understand the nature of anything we experience is by looking at the parts of which it appears to be made and building up from there. And you make some specific claims about the relationship between the right hemisphere and left hemisphere with respect to reductionism. Why don’t we… Give us your thoughts on reductionism and then I’ll give some thoughts about complexity and then we can talk about it.
Iain: Yeah. Well, reductionism is useful for finding out what the parts of something are… And it is modeled on the idea of a machine, we make machines. And so there is an assumption that maybe everything that exists around is put together in that sort of way, but it isn’t. And often when you take the things apart, you lose entirely the sense of what they are. I mean, very obvious example is a piece of music. If you take it apart, you find it’s made of notes. Well, oh, good. We’re getting somewhere. What is a note? Well, it’s a musical sound. Ah, so that sound, what does it mean? Precisely nothing. And if I put another one with it, that also means precisely nothing. Wait a moment. After about 38,000 of these, I’ve got some wonderful symphony. How did that happen? And the answer is that it’s all in the relations that were taken out in order to get to the parts.
Iain: So my view is, and it may sound, I hope it sounds paradoxical, but I do argue for it in the last part of the book. And I’m backed up there by certain physicists, that relations are actually prior to the things that are related. The things that are related only become what they are in and through the relationships that they belong to. In other words, the context makes them what they are. So reductionism is good if you just want to intervene in a mechanism and make a change. And very often that is indeed what we want to do. It is how we have useful impact on the world. But it’s a mistake to go from there to saying that we understand it just because we can intervene in a very, very complex system, which is so manifold and recursive, that it can’t be made into a linear system at all.
Iain: Just because we can freeze a little section of that and see a little chain of causation and go, “Wow, I can intervene in there and bingo, I’ve got a result.” You can do that, but you can’t build from that little success to the idea that tells me how the whole thing has its being. It doesn’t.
Jim: Yeah, very good. Of course the regular listeners know I’m a complexity man affiliated with the Santa Fe Institute, which we like to claim is the home of complexity science, whether it is or isn’t is arguable, but that’s what we do out there. And the complexity view is that much of what is interesting in our world. And frankly, most of the drivers of what we call the meta crisis, I would say not Santa Fe Institute, but some of the people I know in the social change world, the meta crisis, all the various problems that seem to be getting ready to crush our civilization are all complexity based. When we talk about complexity, Ian talks about reducing things down to their parts like a machine complexity. It says that what’s really actually interesting isn’t the parts, but their interaction and the emergences. And people say, “Well, what’s an emergence?” And I say, “Well, let’s start with life.” Which is probably the finest example of complexity.
Jim: At the bottom are near… Not the bottom, which we’ll talk about later. There ain’t no way to find the bottom in my opinion. But deep down in the stack, we have atoms bouncing together, creating molecules, which we create longer molecules, which then turn into organic chemistry, which then turns into cellular metabolisms. So then turn into organs, which then turn into organisms, which then turn into ecosystems. Each of those is emergent. The laws of atoms still apply at the level of ecosystems, but they’re not very relevant actually. And I like to say that the study of complexity is really about studying the dance, not just the dancers. It’s important to know the dancers. How high can your dancers jump if you’re going to be a choreographer but the dance is different than the dance itself. And to my mind, getting our heads around complexity and understanding the complexity lens is going to be indispensable for our civilization to deal with our crises in the years at.
Iain: Yeah. I would definitely agree with that. Not sure about the dancer and the dancer. I’m a follower of process philosophy. The most famous person in that sphere is [inaudible 00:38:27] Whitehead. And I effectively believe that what we see as things which implies somehow that they’re contained and perhaps rather static and forgiven or push is a mistake. If we see it that way, because what they really are all processes. I sometimes give the example of the mountain behind my house, which looks very solid, a very great big lump and a thing. But actually if you had a time lapse camera going back 13 billion years, you would see that it’s part of a wave that still hasn’t finished its motion. So yeah, this business of freezing things, exerting little tiny parts. And yes, it can tell you something about the little bit you’re looking at, but it can’t tell you about the bigger picture. And I sometimes quote Yates saying, “How can we tell the dancer from the dance? Because in a way, we are what we do, we become what our actions and interactions in the world make us”.
Jim: Indeed, though, I’m going to push back here. I have this in, I think my section three, but it just sounds like a good time to push it into it, which is these distinctions between objects and processes and relations. They have one meaning I would argue in the microcosm down at the level of fundamental particles. But at the level of human existence, there are scale issues. Humans live in the scale, animals live in the scale between millimeters and kilometers essentially. And the aggregate behavior of matter is around objects. And I would argue that there’s a tremendous amount of evidence that our brains have hardware for identifying objects. And that much of our cognition is in the term of objects. And that we can allow ourselves to be confused by the fact act that when you drill down in a reduction as fashion to the very smallest level of matter. We end up in a domain where the distinction between processes and objects becomes indistinct, or at least one that our feeble brains have not yet figured out.
Jim: But to turn loose of objects as a core object in cognition for useful action in the world, I think is very dangerous. And I often run into people trying to sell too much quantum mechanics with respect to its relevance higher up in the world. We’ll talk about that in section three. And I think we have fairly different view on that one.
Iain: Yeah. I mean, that’s absolutely right. And of course my point is not that thinking of things as objects in daily life is necessarily wrong from a pragmatic point of view. I’m really making a philosophical point that actually when you come to look at them, that they’re better understood as processes, some very slow processes, some much more rapid processes. But it stops one from making elementary mistakes, like seeing them as sharply defined and distinct from the environment that they thrive in. So I think we don’t really disagree about that.
Jim: Yeah. I’m going to also pull another item forward here. So I think this is the appropriate place to talk about it. One of the most eloquent, I would say, and there’s a lot of good eloquence in this book, but one of them I found most eloquent pieces was your riff on how we are not machines and how the idea of thinking that we are, or that nature is, or reality is built from machines is both wrong and dangerous. Why don’t you go on that riff? I think that’s actually very appropriate to talk about right here.
Iain: Well, yes, it is a big topic. Chapter 12 of the book is about biology and the ways in which the machine model doesn’t reflect the nature of what we’re looking at. And there I look at about eight different ways in which an organism is not really like a machine and we are of course, very complex organisms. So yeah, it’s… What would you like me to say about it? I don’t really.
Jim: Oh, well, that’s you had some just interesting things to say, the clear evidence that we are not machines. Or that the machine model is inappropriately and often dangerously applied to things where it’s not appropriate.
Jim: Maybe that’s all you need to say. I don’t know. But you wrote some great words.
Iain: Yeah. But it is… No I’ve written about it quite a lot. Yeah. I mean, machines are essentially far simpler than we are. Aren’t any machines that are nearly as complex as we are. They tend to be closed systems. They tend to be close to the point of equilibrium. Whereas things in nature don’t have defined borders. They’re in complex interrelationship with the environment, with everything around them. They are usually maintained far from a point of equilibrium. They can’t be switched on and switched off in the way a machine can and hope to still exist. If I switch off anybody, that’s it. They’re dead. They’re finished. They can’t come back again, but the machine can be started up again and so forth. So there’s a lot of these differences and they don’t come into being in the way the machine… A machine is put together for a purpose by us.
Iain: We are not as far as we know for a specific purpose of some other being, which doesn’t mean that we don’t have purpose. That’s a separate argument. We’d have to talk about that at some point. But so we are different in that respect. And yeah, we’re not put together like that. And we can’t be treated like that. When a human being or an organism of any kind is growing, it’s not sort of first made by a force that puts bits together. The whole thing is differentiating all the time that is growing as an organism is developing things like the heart, the liver, the spleen or whatever are not sort of put together. They emerge seamlessly out of the hole that is growing all the time. And a machine, it doesn’t write its own code at the same time that it’s being made.
Iain: Whereas organisms appear to do this, which is really a very remarkable fact. The often quoted idea that somehow [inaudible 00:44:49] idea, basically, that we are the lumbering robots controlled by these machines that are genes for their own purpose, but molecular boil, she doesn’t show that at all. As I report in that book. In fact, it shows that the cell tends to use and draw on the genome as a supply, a store of supplies as it can call on… In circumstances. It may never have been as a program to understand, but nonetheless reacts to intelligently.
Jim: Very good. In fact, yeah. That was the point I was going to inject. You got it. Which is the DNA is not a recipe. DNA is some code that does some things. But it operates with the preexisting cellular metabolism in an epigenetic fashion. And if you don’t think about that correctly, you don’t understand the complexity of something like life. In my part of the complexity space, we also make a distinction which is very supportive. I think of these same views of the difference between the complicated, like a jet engine or your car, which was designed by somebody, the parts can be replaced with another part. They stand still, when you turn them off to your point, et cetera, versus the complex, which are not like that at all. If the human body was complex, DNA would be a recipe, but it’s not. And so we find that as a useful shorthand between the two.
Jim: So that’s going to wrap up part one, let’s move on to part two about the nature of truth of epistemology, all that good stuff. And let’s start off by your ideas, which you elaborate on correspondence theory versus coherence theory.
Iain: Yes. The purpose of the whole book is to arrive at some understanding of who we are. And because I think nowadays we have no clue. We image ourselves as these strange, machine [inaudible 00:46:47], which we’re not. So we have to have some idea about how we come towards ideas that are truer than others. And I’m not suggesting that there is one simple truth, but we wouldn’t be able to do anything or say anything unless we believe that certain things were truer than others. So how do we get that? You are referring to two important strands in the thinking about what is truth. The purpose of the chapter in which I discuss them is to suggest that there’s a difference between the left hemisphere’s idea of truth and the right hemisphere idea of truth. But in any case to come to your question, correspondence truth is the idea that the propositions that we make or have the thoughts, beliefs that we have a kind of version of the world, they reflect the world so that we’ve got a model to be able to work on.
Iain: Whereas, coherence theory says it’s not about correspondence in a one to one way. It’s more about do these various aspects of what we believe to be true, make a coherent whole? And I don’t think that either of these is right and I quote Anthony Quinton saying that probably truth will turn out to be an amalgam of these points of view. But I think we can also, using the hemisphere approach, see a certain difference, which is that the left hemisphere is again viewing the world, the cosmos as made of things of stuff, bits here and there. Whereas the right hemisphere is likely to prioritize relationships. This is what it is always seeing in both the human and the non human world. And so it’s interested in the relationships that come and go between the observer and the thing that’s observed. And the idea of this is not truth as a thing or correctness, which is lies in a way behind all the left hemisphere versions of how we get it truth, including the coherence theory and the correspondence theory.
Iain: It’s not so much like that as a clearing a way of error. So it’s working [inaudible 00:49:00] or it’s working in the way that science actually works, which is to clear a way mistakes. Science never says this is true. It just says, this doesn’t look true on the basis of what we know now. And that leaves you with something else that you can work with. So that chapter’s really designed to show that the idea of truth as a process. It’s a never ending journey of a [inaudible 00:49:25] kind in which our consciousness and the consciousness of what is around us come into alignment. And this doesn’t really have the same features as a world of things that are in principle knowable, even if we can’t actually know them too well.
Jim: Yeah, I like that. And in fact, you describe the error of truth as correctness. I think this is actually huge. One of the plagues of our time, and I call this the philosopher’s disease. Now, not just philosophers that are guilty on it, but I see it in some branches of philosophy and it’s purest form. And I call it the lust for firm foundations, absolute truths and quibbling about things like, for instance, and this is all through the philosophical record. That there isn’t a crisp millisecond difference between a large animal being, living and being dead, leads some fools to claim there’s no difference between the being, living and being dead. And yet you look at the, let’s say a horse or a deer 24 hours apart, between it dying and it being previously running around eating. There’s an obvious difference, even though you can’t find the exact millisecond where life disappears.
Jim: And in fact it turns out that’s a ridiculous thing to even say the quest for such things is I would argue very much about your idea of truth as correctness and that in reality, there is no formal correctness outside of axiomatic systems like mathematics and formal logic.
Iain: That’s right. And I oppose to that, the idea of truth is [unconcealing 00:51:05] in other words, clearing away so that we see the picture ever more clearly, rather as a sculptor makes a statue, not by putting together an arm, a leg ahead, and a torso, but by actually clearing away the stone, that makes the thing stand out. And as you remember, I talk in one of the chapters about logical paradox, which again, we could talk for two hours about those. They’re so fascinating. But the paradox that you can’t find the right moment when something that is static begins to move means that motion must be an illusion. This was a conclusion arrived at by [inaudible 00:51:45]. And to some extent, believed by Plato. We don’t know, but I mean, he sometimes talks like that. Because it’s moving now, but it was completely static before.
Iain: There must be a moment where it suddenly started to be moving. And there must… Because a tadpole doesn’t look like a frog. And at the beginning of the protest tadpole at the end of it’s a frog. There must be a moment which before that it was a tadpole. And after that it was a frog, but of course there is no such. That’s a left hemisphere demand for clean cut boundaries and absolute and certain knowledge.
Jim: Yeah. Which just doesn’t exist, right? In the real world. Moving on to a practical domain. And then this reminds me much of my business career. Judgment used to be the foundation of the idea of reasonableness, a concept you may remember, but which we are in danger of losing. We’ve not already done so in a mechanized, bureaucratic society. Those are your words. And indeed, I agree 1000%, in fact of all the changes in my lifetime and turns out, Ian and I are exactly this same age, six months apart. This is one I hate the most is the replacement of judgment with bureaucracy.
Iain: Yes, yes. And how incredibly inefficient it is, how [inaudible 00:52:59] and angry baking it is. How it wastes time and resources, things that used to be done so quickly and cheaply on the say so of somebody now involves the waste of my time, your time, a bureaucrat’s time while they work through all these forms and box ticking and all the rest. And at the end of the day, you come up with an answer that’s less good than it would’ve been. If you’d allowed a human being to use their judgments. So there we go.
Jim: Yeah. Now let’s turn into what is judgment. Actually, my opinion is it’s essentially a collection of well tuned heuristics. And in fact, I’ve gone on the record of saying that a lot of the work in looking to reach artificial general intelligence through specifically deep learning is misconstrued. Those are trying to extract detailed statistical models of things. And the reality is our world is way too complex for even us, which is actually smarter than a biggest computer. But even if we were a thousand times…
Jim: Smarter than a biggest computer. But even if we were a thousand times smarter, the world was way too complex to actually calculate it based on data and make good decisions. And so, instead, we create heuristics, which are rules of thumb. And people who have good judgment are people who have well tuned heuristics. You talk a fair bit about heuristics. So, back to you.
Iain: Yes. Well, as you say, they are obviously an important part of how we come to decisions, and they get better as you get older, as you might expect, since they’re derived from experience. But they’re only one aspect of what I would call intuition. I think I rather arbitrarily talk about, I don’t know, oh, half a dozen, or seven or eight types of intuition, of which one is heuristics.
Iain: And the thing that amuses me is that there’s an economist called Markovich, I think, who probably got a Nobel Prize for whatever it was he worked out, which was a massively complex formula for how to make a right decision about investing. But when he retired and came to invest his money, he followed an ancient Judaic principle of putting a third in property, a third in possessions and a third in the bank, which is a heuristic.
Iain: What I want to emphasize is that there’s more to intuition than that. And there’s some marvelous, I think, information that came to me, unbidden, from people who read my book. One is a person who looks after cross country motorcyclists, who are doing 200 miles an hour, not in a stadium.
Jim: Yeah. That was a great story about the Mance Island Motorcycle Race. Yeah, that was great.
Iain: And a man who’s a tipster for horses who roped me after reading The Master and His Emissary, and we had a very interesting conversation. I won’t go into all of that. But what I’m really saying is there are lots of different strands to the way in which we come to find judgment. And in a way, an explicit judgment that’s worked out in serial sentences narrows down that range of perhaps eight or a dozen different things that we are weighing up, quite subtly, out the glare of consciousness, and reduces to some one thing that we’re going to say in this sentence. So, it’s been argued by some very distinguished theorists and others that we would be well advised to ask people who have important decisions to make, not to use the sort of procedures that are now enjoined on them. But in fact, to use their intuition.
Jim: Or they’re semi-structured intuition, which is essentially heuristics, right? So, let’s jump ahead, because you have a lot to talk about with respect to intuition, and that’s what I have at the end, or near the end of part two. But let’s jump into that now. Why don’t you lay out your complete thoughts about intuition?
Iain: Well, I can’t do that. Partly because my memory is terrible and I can’t remember at all. But it’s worth saying to readers who won’t have seen my book that I talk about four different ways in which most people would say, we get some sort of handle on what’s true and it’s opposite. And one is obviously science and another is reason. And then there’s intuition and imagination.
Iain: And what I suggest, to cut a very long story short, is that we need each of these, not just one, as is often, or perhaps two. We need to bring as many as possible into play in answering any question. Not all of them will always be appropriate to every topic, but mostly we can bring together at least three of these to produce better decisions. And I try to show that is the case, that when we do, as you say, there’s a lot of experimental data there. That when people simply follow algorithms and logical procedures, they make poorer decisions.
Iain: So, perhaps I ought to say a little bit about the imagination, because that is something that most people, I think, misunderstand because of the way it’s talked about in our culture. Imagination has been reduced to the level of pure fantasy, and so the idea that imagination helps us to get nearer the truth, to most people, would seem paradoxical. Probably, imagination is how we escape from truth, but it isn’t at all. That’s what fantasy is.
Iain: But imagination is the faculty whereby we can actually see the world afresh, without the veil of all the thoughts and accretions that we have added to it by our abstract thinking getting in the way. And so, we have to reimagine things in order for them to be alive again, for them to understand their true nature.
Iain: This is a point, really, which is absolutely central to the thought of Colleridge and Wordsworth. And it’s the difference between as, as it were, knowing there’s a picturesque scene here. Yes, it’s a mountain. It’s a lake. It’s a waterfall. And actually being in the presence of it and suddenly, for the first time, realizing the powerful nature. There’s an encounter.
Iain: And very important to my whole philosophy is the idea of encounters. The special kinds of encounters that we have with reality. They’re not propositions. What makes them different is dispositions, how we dispose our attention. And I claim that belief is, in fact, a matter, not of propositions that we have to sign up to, absurd ideas that we have to think are probably right six times before breakfast. But instead, a matter of a disposition that we hold towards the world. So, yeah, that’s probably as much as I can say about that at the moment.
Jim: Well, that’s good. I’d like to tie it back to science a little bit. One of my favorite episodes on the podcast was with Michael Strebens, a philosophy professor, philosophy of science, at NYU, where he puts out a theory of what is science, actually. He calls it the iron law, and makes it very small. Which he says the actual hard stuff of science are the written, and he specifically says written, empirical statements that are issued by scientists.
Jim: However, and this is the part that ties back to intuition, the popular view that scientists are sitting there logically figuring out their hypothesis and logically designing their experiments, he says, is entirely bullshit. And he says, “And has nothing to do with the definition of science that most great scientists have giant leaps of intuition.” And he lists some examples. “Oh, some of them do psychedelics. Some go bicycle riding. Some stand on their head.” And famously, and I’m one of these, some of them go for a walk.
Jim: And one of the famous philosopher schools was the paripatetics, which was the walkers, right? And so Strebens makes the clear point that you have to distinguish the formal communication of empirical intersubjectively, interobjective verification for the ideas and where they come from. And that, in reality, the practice of science is totally interwoven with the leaps of creativity. And I’ve had the privilege to have dealt with many very senior scientist. Like, I know eight Nobel prize winners, yo wonderful. But the truth is these are very intuitive people. And the more powerful they are as scientists, the more intuitive they are, rather than the less.
Iain: No, no, completely right. That’s an administration of my point that the most important thing in science is the intuition that is better served by the right hemisphere. It doesn’t mean to say that all that work a day plotting doesn’t have to be done. Somebody’s got to do it, and that is part of the process. But it must always be in service to something greater than itself.
Iain: This is really the point I was making earlier about, as long as the right hemisphere is, as it were, superintending the process and the left hemisphere is serving its goals, its ends, that’s fine. But when the left hemisphere thinks it knows it all, then things start going wrong. And George Gaylord Simpson, who you know is a very important figure in the genesis of what’s called a modern synthesis, said, in fact, very few discoveries in science, and I can think of hardly any were made by the scientific method at all. And that scientists don’t mainly use the scientific method. A point was also made by Conrad Lawrence.
Iain: In fact, it is a largely intuitive thing in which one’s testing out one’s intuitions against empirical evidence. But I take a lot of examples from above all mathematicians and also from scientists. I mean, Einstein being one extremely famous example of how the discoveries are made in this intuitive way. And they often can’t explain why they’re right until months later, when they’ve done a lot of pencil and paperwork.
Jim: Yeah, so, it’s very important. And this is the counter story, but both are important, is that you make the leap, but you then have to do the paperwork to prove that it’s true. If you talk to a top scientist, they will tell you that a good percentage that are intuitions turn out to be wrong. And I will say, in the more prosaic views of my business career, I was a product guy and I would envision these very complex products, or complicated, at least, products. And here’s how we might be able to do it, then I’d do the work.
Jim: Get, “Oops, that won’t work. Let’s try something else.” And so, I would argue, it’s really the intuitive leap and doing the backtracking paperwork to see if it’s actually true. If it’s not, throw it out. Take another intuitive leap. And then, you often will find out, “Well, it’s probably true, but we have this little X in the middle that we don’t know. And that’s the essence of really brilliant science, is to say, “It’s probably true. I took the intellectual leap. I backtracked. I couldn’t get past this little X. So, let’s do the experiment and see if X is true or not.” So, you got to have both. You have the leap, but the tying it back to reality is also important.
Iain: You’re basically making the central point of my philosophy, which is a both and, not an either or. The left hemisphere thinks, “Well, which is it then? Is it intuition or is it this serial analysis?” And the answer is that we need both, but we need them to be in a certain sort of relationship, one to the other. And it’s not a matter of doing away with either, but the trouble is that the way we think nowadays, we tend to downplay the importance of whatever can’t be followed by an algorithm or a computer, or whatever it might be.
Iain: In fact, intuitions can be mistaken. Of course they can. So can arriving at a solution simply by pure logic. There is a name for people who use only logic to arrive at their conclusions. It’s schizophrenia. And those are people who haven’t lost their reason, but they have lost thing but their reason and have to arrive at the strangest conclusions from evidence that puzzles them, without any counterbalance from intuitive understanding, which the rest of us have from experience. So, each way, as I say, has its strengths and its weaknesses, science reason, intuition and imagination. It’s just determining what they are. That’s what I try to lay out in that part two of the book.
Jim: Yep. That’s very good. So, let’s move on. There’s a lot more in part two, so go read it, folks. But now we’re going to move on to part three, and I will say this is where I am a lot less sure, and will be probably doing a little bit of pushing back here and I wish you had put a little statement, which I’m going to read, that appeared on page 1700. I wish it had appeared around 1260, where you started part three. I would’ve probably written less acerbic notes as I went, which is, and I think that’s very important for a reader of part three to keep this in mind. I really wish it was right there on the first page.
Jim: “I am not claiming to prove anything at all. In this area, the very idea of proof is inappropriate, and I cannot expect to convince the reluctant. I want merely to offer an alternative gestalt, or world picture, that, to me at least, accommodate some of these questions better than any other world picture I have explored.” And I go, “Yeah.”
Jim: So, let’s use that as our grounding here, as we move into part three. But let’s start on something we probably can agree on, which is you talk a bit here and there, not in a unified place, about the differences and similarities, but particularly the differences, between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.
Iain: Hm. Hm. That’s much more of a theme from The Master and His Emissary, isn’t it? Yes. Well, what can I say? There’s a chapter on each in The The Master and His Emissary. The Renaissance was an era in which I see the best of what the left hemisphere contribute and the best of what the right hemisphere can contribute, working together, in the way that I’ve described. We need both of these. And it produced amazing riches in art, in music, in literature, in philosophy, in the sciences, all the sciences. In law making, across the board.
Iain: If I’d been alive at the time of the Enlightenment, I would undoubtedly have been entirely a paid up supporter of it. I think, in retrospect, what has happened is that the idea that certain things can be more or less ruled out because we can see something different. We can see something more logical has taken over our understanding too great an extent, so that everything that doesn’t really fit with a reductionist logic is not given the time of day.
Iain: That is the problem with it. And in retrospect, one can see problems with the Enlightenment, the hubris of it, essentially. The, “We know it all and we can make it all right,” which I think is very worrying. And I imagine one of the things we will disagree about is the optimism and enthusiasm of people who think they can create a new, better world. I think there are great dangers to that. And most of the absolutely atrocious crimes on humanity have been carried out by people who wanted to create a different society that they said would be better and fairer and all the rest. So, it’s Stalin and it’s Mao and it’s Pol Pot, and so on. But we don’t need to go there at all.
Jim: I’ll engage that a little bit. Because, in my other parts of my life, I’m working with a bunch of other people in so called Game B Movement, which people who want to know more about, go to game-b.org. But we take a complexity view, which indeed, the prescriptive, top down utopians are a nightmare and never works. But if you take a complexity view, which is that we’re in empirical short loops, doing probes on complex systems, making little changes, see what happens, and guiding them towards what we believe to be good values, but the good values themselves are held loosely and tentatively and subject to revision. We’ll talk about values a little bit. It’s one of the sections of chapter three coming up here in a few minutes. And so, our Game B idea of a new social operating system is the exact antithesis of the top down, Brave New World, here’s how we’re going to do it. It’s a process of exploring, to get a little nerdy here. A high dimensional design space of how we can increase human wellbeing while living in balance with a finite planet.
Iain: Wonderful. Jim, what’s happening? I hope to find something on which we disagree, but it doesn’t seem we do cause I’m completely in support of what you’ve just said.
Jim: I figured you would be. One of the reasons I invited you on the show.
Iain: Well, let’s have [crosstalk 01:10:00]
Jim: And I also very much am, Peirce is my hero. I mean, Pierce, the stuff that he anticipated. He anticipated nuclear fission, for instance, right? The guy might have been the smartest guy no one’s ever heard of. Very few people even know anything about him. The only thing he’s known for now is his part model of information, of icon index and symbol. People even know that.
Iain: Oh, but he was a polymath wasn’t he? I mean, he contributed to so many things. Did you know, one fun thing about CS Pierce is that he must have had relatively independent use of his hemispheres because he’s, reportedly, was able to write a problem with his left hand and the same time, right the answer to it with his right hand.
Jim: And yet he ended up starving to death on a beat ass farm in Pennsylvania. So, he didn’t know how to put his stuff to practical use, but brilliant, brilliant guy. CS Pierce. If you don’t know his work, look it up. Let’s see, whatever else.
Jim: Let’s move ahead to some things where we can, maybe, disagree. Well, I think we’ll agree about the balance needs to constantly be disturbed and restored. I think we agree on that one, for sure. One thing that I don’t think you quite explicitly called out, but I certainly smelled it in the work, is Stuart Kaufman’s ideas about interesting things happen at the edge of chaos. His so-called NK theory. That systems that are too static are uninteresting and things that are too chaotic, static on your TV screen, aren’t so interesting. So, things in between are where fluid movement happens, and that’s interesting.
Iain: Yeah. No, I profoundly believe that. And it ties up with Nassim Nicholas Talib’s concept of anti-fragility. This edge of what is ordered and disordered. And it comes out, many times, in physics and in other places. But it seems to me a truth about living, that if a society sticks too much to the same and what is known, it fossilizes. But if it doesn’t have an active and working tradition, which is the only way in which you can innovate. Traditions don’t fossilize things. They are the current in which you can go on to produce new things, which are coherent with what you know from the past. Not just random ideas that have no context. So, we need both the shift and we need movement, and we need a degree of break on that movement. And it’s there, that I think is the creative part. Yeah.
Jim: Be in full agreement there. Now, let’s move on. Here’s a little bit to disagree with, at least a bit. Everything is part of one hole, connected to every other part by a matter of degree. Now, there, I would say, “Yes, but,” rather than, “Both, and.” Which is, but very, very minimally, in many cases. You are gravitationally in relationship with Alpha Centuri, not very relevantly so.
Jim: Some of your electrons are spending a very tiny amount of time over at my office. Probably not very relevant of practical irrelevance. And I guess I get annoyed by people who get sucked into this. It’s all one. Of course, you do talk about this. In fact, here’s another quote. When people say to me, “All is one,” I readily agree. “And all is many,” I add. Now what? So, maybe we do agree that, in some big, big, big sense, we’re all one. But as a practical matter, it’s less significant than a lot of these woo woo people make it out to be, I guess, to cut to the chase. What’s say you to that?
Iain: Well, I’m no fan of woo woo, as you say. My view is that the best position on this was adopted by Heroclitus, where I quote at the beginning of a chapter call, the one and the many, I think. And that follows a chapter called The Coincidence of Opposites. So, you can see, I’m not a great fan of just block-like unity thinking.
Iain: The drive of the cosmos seems, to me, to be differentiation, the kind of multiplying of differences, which is fabulous, but within a unity that is not destroyed by that process. So, you can have the one and the other, and that’s exactly the point I make when I say, “And one as many. So now what?”
Iain: Yeah, I think there’s a different, isn’t there, in what one’s doing, as to what is important information. For example, if I’m building a garage, I don’t need to take into account the curvature of the earth, but if I’m going on a voyage by sea, I do need to take into account the curvature of the earth. Now, I would say that, if your aim is to make a decision about a business in the boardroom, or what you’re going to have for dinner, then the fact that, as it were, some of my atoms are joy riding in your workshop, it really doesn’t come into it. But if your purpose is, instead, to come at some understanding of what, ultimately, is, then it becomes interesting again.
Jim: Yep. I agree. John Vervaeke has a wonderful term. I would argue, I don’t think he would argue this, but I would argue that the core of his ideas are around something called relevance realization, which is tuning our brain to figure out what’s important in any given context. Got to have the context. And so, if I’m sawing a board in my workshop, worrying about the details of the poly exclusion principle’s not number one on my list of things to do.
Jim: On the other hand, if I am dealing, which I have done in the past, with software to design computer chips down at the nanometer scale, then yeah, I got to start worrying about the poly exclusion principle and the weak force, and all that sort of stuff. And so, knowing where you are, relevance realization, and it’s dynamic. You’re moving around all the time, and the mental skill of being able to figure out what’s important and what’s not in every moment, is one of the most important cognitive skills. And one that’s not taught anywhere, as far as I know, except by Vervaeke in his lectures.
Iain: Well, I’d say it’s a new name for common sense, but common sense is very rare nowadays. It’s not encouraged at all for people to have common sense.
Jim: As we talked about before, judgment, et cetera. Okay. Let’s move on here. A little bit of disagreement, mostly agreement on that one. The next one, kind of surprised you put it in here, until I got to the end of the book, then I saw why you did, which is a quite long bit on time. And it’s interesting that you quote, a fair bit, one of my favorites, which is Lee Smollen.
Iain: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.
Jim: He was on the show, way back at the very beginning. EP five, my fifth guest, was Lee Smollen. We talked about a lot of interesting things, and I’m having him back on this summer to talk about one of his recent papers. But I’ll just put the negative view out. You can use that to make the positive. But again, this is the scale issue. You talk about the difference between discreet and continuous time. Is time cut up into little pieces, or does it flow?
Jim: Well, the current best thinking in physics is, put it this way. There’s been no discretization found at any scale that we have access to, including deep into the subatomic. And the best theory says that either time is discreet down at the so-called plank length, which is dozens of orders of magnitude smaller than a proton. Or, this is what I would say, is that the concept of continuity, discontinuity literally stops making sense at that scale.
Jim: But those things are, I would argue, irrelevant to how we experience time at the scale of humans. The neurons, for instance, fire at millisecond times. Once a millisecond, once a second on average. But no more often than once a millisecond. And so, our internal processes are running around the millisecond time. Well, what’s happening 42 orders of magnitude lower is totally irrelevant. So, whether time is discreet or continuous in the physics sense, I don’t see having anything to do with our everyday life.
Jim: And on the flip side, our subjective sense of time could easily be discontinuous, and it wouldn’t matter. In fact, in my own work, I actually do assume that our subjective sense of time is discontinuous, at about the 25 millisecond click rate, 40 Hertz, the gamma frequency, approximately, and that if it was, we couldn’t tell. And as an example of that, the fact that video makes sense to us is at least a soft hint in the direction that, for us, time could be discreet, and it wouldn’t really matter. So, with that, I’ll hand it back to you.
Iain: Yes, I think when has to distinguish between, again, the limitations of auditory apparatus and cortex, and what we think is actually the case. Of course, it’s a very difficult thing to talk about, and one can’t be adamant, and I have no desire to be adamant about any of these things. But my reading of the physicists, and I quote a number there, but particularly David Tong, who’s professor of physics at Cambridge, that there is no evidence for discontinuity. All the evidences for continuity. And the idea of discontinuity comes from the left hemisphere’s way of putting things together from the parts.
Iain: Now, you say it doesn’t make any difference, but philosophically it makes all the difference. Whether you are dealing with a concatenation of discreet objects, like a train and its carriages, or whether you are dealing with something like a river, in which there are no distinct slices at all. It is a seamless flow. This makes an enormous difference because, when we start thinking in this analytic way, we are back to the left hemisphere’s problem, that things start to look mechanical. Can we treat this as, actually, this is a thing. This is a slice, and it’s separate from that. But importantly, I think for its meaning, including its human meaning, it’s just not discontinuous.
Jim: Yeah. And again, that’s my point, is that, from the human perspective, we clearly are seeing continuous time. And that there’s no scientific evidence at all that it’s discontinuous at any scale that we could perceive.
Iain: No, no, that’s fair.
Jim: We take it as a given that it’s continuous. And the fact that it may be discontinuous 40 orders of magnitudes smaller is completely irrelevant to how we experience the universe, I would say.
Iain: There is no evidence for that, I’m not a physicist, but as far as my reading of the physicists go, though. As you know, I am very …
Iain: As my reading of the physicist go though, as you know I am very fond of and admiring of the work of Lee Smolin. I think that it’s an important distinction.
Jim: Let’s move on. I think we could talk for days about this one and it’s not as relevant as the next one. And this is probably where we have the biggest disagreement.
Iain: Come on.
Jim: Consciousness. My day job to degree I’ve had one for the last seven years has been thinking about the science of consciousness and dabbling with my own little models and what have you. And I got some pretty clear views on them. And I would say they’re in many ways, almost the other extreme, I would put my cards on the table first. Then let you put your cards on the table. I’m a searlian, John Searle and Searle’s kind of quite famous for taking a very prosaic view of consciousness. That it’s another biological system that evolved and is maintained for pragmatic reasons, quite pragmatic, quite literally.
Jim: And that it’s not a thing at all. You can’t put your finger on something say, “There’s consciousness.” It’s a process. And he likes to say, it’s like digestion. You can’t put your finger and say, this is digestion. Your tongue is involved. Your esophagus, your liver, your stomach, et cetera. And here’s the [rut corollary 01:22:19] to Searle’s analogy between digestion and consciousness. Rut likes to say, “the final output is often the same in the two of them.” So my perspective is that there’s way too much hoo-ha about consciousness that there ain’t nothing special there. Well, there’s something special there I shouldn’t say that. I mean, there’s something as special there as the distinction between non-living and living matter. It’s on the same order of neatness and interestingness, and that a much of the confused thinking about it is that we just don’t know enough yet about the actual mechanism by which it comes into being.
Jim: And that a lot of this hoo-ha is very similar conceptually to the old idea of Élan vital, with respect to life, we didn’t understand life at all until about 1870. We didn’t even know that it was one lineage. We thought that life spontaneously emerged. At least a lot of people did until 1870. And now the idea of Élan vital, at least in the sign, I know one of your guys, you quote uses it, but uses it in a different sense is now thought of that’s ridiculous. We know we’re all descendant from a single last universal common ancestor, about three and a half billion years ago, which is actually by itself quite remarkable. And so my sense, strong sense, having looked read very deeply. 50 books, hundreds of papers talked a lot of the leading experts is that once we know more, a lot of this will dissipate and we will come to the conclusion that consciousness is much less mysterious that we sometimes think.
Jim: And that is just something that, not just, it is a key part of what animals, at least back as far as amphibians and maybe further go and it’s absolutely essential to how we operate in the world and make good useful decisions about the world’s not epiphenomenal. And it’s certainly not non-existant as you batch that straw man, which unfortunately, some people believe there is no consciousness. Of course there’s a consciousness there. And then the other point I would make about consciousness is again, the searlian model that it’s very biological, very embodied, very practical is that it appears to have emerged at least twice in our life on earth lineages, once in the tetrapods, sort of the lobed fish and forward, which led to us, and then the other in the cephalopods, there’s pretty good amount of evidence that occupy and the larger squids have something damn analogous to consciousness.
Jim: It’s probably not the same. That’s interesting. That is kind of like the eye has evolved 13 times or something. Consciousness has evolved at least twice from parts in the tree that are not related at all. At least that one would think would have any impact on how the neurons happen to be organized, to support the emergence of consciousness. And so I guess that’s where I will leave it, which is kind of the other extreme in some ways, from your views on consciousness. So I will turn it over to you to lay out the [McGill 01:25:28] Christian view on consciousness.
Iain: Well, as you know, I talk about the idea that if consciousness just evolved out of something that was unconscious completely unconscious, it would have to have done so at least three times. I cite that precise evidence you’ve just discussed. But to me, there is a problem about the idea of consciousness arising out of something that has no consciousness at all. It’s not like any other example of evolution that we could name. And it seems to be not susceptible to this black boxing idea that really emerged in how on earth can consciousness emerge out of something that has no consciousness. You can see how consciousness can evolve to different levels and different kinds. But to me, there is a logical problem with the idea that consciousness actually just arose spontaneously out of unconscious matter. I believe as a lot of philosophers now do believe in the West and have always believed in other places, but it’s now hit the mainstream of Anglo-American analytic philosophy, I believe in panpsychism.
Iain: So I believe this is not a peculiar thing it’s, I do think it’s remarkable. I don’t think it’s dull and pedestrian in the way that you sort of implied. I think it’s the most, all inspiring thing about our existence. And it’s also the most certain thing about our existence. The one thing we cannot say we don’t know is consciousness because we each have direct experience of it and we couldn’t even talk about it or deny it without consciousness. So, that’s clear. On the Élan vital, I mean, of course I don’t, I think that’s an idea that’s been misunderstood and I certainly wouldn’t back the idea that something tincture is added in to make life, but you see then I don’t think that there is a hard and fast difference between animacy and inanimacy.
Iain: Very early on in the book, I say that many of the things that we think of as normal, and then there are departures from it should be seen the other way around. So for example, the Newtonian universe, basically things are static unless they’re given a push. Whereas my belief is that things are essentially in motion and that stasis, which can’t actually be completely achieved is the limit case of motion. There are many others, but just to get back to the point about life, I think that inanimacy is the limit case of animacy in which inanimacy is reduced to the completely vestigial, but the same principles that work for life, organization of various kinds and the drives of them, it applied to the inanimate world as well. It’s just that what happens in the animate world happens billions of times faster than it does in the inanimate world and seems to be more responsive so that it doesn’t just plot onwards, it kind of sees something and responds to it.
Iain: Those are the distinctions. I would say that characterize life is that it does what the universe does faster than inanimacy. And it does it in a more seeing way or a more responsive way, so that there’s a kind of proper dialogue as it were between the creature and the rest of whatever there is. So I don’t think we do agree on that, no, but as you know, that’s a long chapter. I mean, it’s length of a short book, so there’s an awful lot in it. I do deal with all the sort of things that you would say, which is, I mean, you are aspirating in a very common position. I’m not least bit surprised, but it involves promissory materialism that things that we can’t actually explain, but will be explained sooner, as long as we do a few more experiments. I don’t hold that one.
Jim: That seems that’s our fundamental disagreement. I’ll just address the evolutionary question. It’s because exactly the same evolutionary question comes up about the eye, which has evolved multiple times,
Iain: Yes, probably 12.
Jim: Which is how in the world do you get to an eye when it’s got all these moving parts, very complicated device and complex, both complicated and complex. The eye has a lot of static components, which you could call complicated, but it also has a complexity to it as well. And well, it turns out that the current leading theory, of course, these are all just so stories. So take them with a grain of salt, just like the introductory text that I read for this section that the mere ability to detect the difference between light and dark was useful at some point, and getting better and better in that led us to our evolutionary pathways, which could then be excerpted in the form of evolutionary theory, which old things get reused in new ways to eventually led to eyes multiple times.
Jim: And I’d say the same is true about consciousness. In the amphibian consciousness, which is the earliest one that I’ve studied seems to be very minimal. It’s essentially visual and the best of what people who study amphibians know, and let’s say the case of a frog that about all it does is it provides the sense of being in a movie, which is what consciousness is I’d argue. Gerald Edelman’s primary consciousness, the same consciousness you and I share with a dog. And it turns out a frog, but in a very rudimentary sense and about the only thing in the consciousness of a frog are very simple, black and white shapes moving around. And when a shape moves as of the right size and the right shape, approximately it triggers the tongue flicking out to try to grab it motion and you can trick it.
Jim: You can take a model of a paper cut out model of a fly, that’s three times the size of a fly and hold three times the distance away from a frog and the frog’s tongue will strike at it. And that may be the only consciousness that a frog has, but obviously the ability to improve your strike with your tongue on a fly is damn important to making a living as a fly. And if we start with that, we can see how a step at a time evolution could have moved towards more and more comprehensive consciousness.
Iain: You’ve talked about how evolution works, but you haven’t in any sense addressed my problem about how consciousness can in any case arise out of something that is utterly unconscious, and you haven’t addressed the idea of how life can arise out or something that doesn’t live. Although that’s a much easier thing to argue than it is to argue how consciousness comes out of something that has no consciousness. I don’t dispute your point about darkness and diet and all that.
Iain: But this still leaves us with the question. These creature has consciousness. It’s able to do these things. And there are plenty of biologists who say single cells are conscious. It makes complete sense to me, single celled organisms. One of the most remarkable things that I quote in the book is slime molds. Slime molds can escape from their petri dishes. If less, the lids are bated down. They can solve mazes. And if you cut the slime mold up, which has absolutely no, it’s just a cellular blob, the parts of the blob will remember how to solve the maze that they solved when they were one single blob. I mean, it’s a very interesting and odd finding.
Jim: And it’s very interesting and, there’s no doubt that single cells have intelligent behavior, but I would argue they do not have consciousness. And there’s a big difference. Consciousness is a specific, of course, a lot of this is just definitial. Consciousness is a specific set of capacities to exist in a movie in which you are the star in some sense that’s Gerald Edelman’s definition of primary consciousness. And it goes back to the frog. The frog is the star of its movie with these little black shapes moving around. And he fires his tongue out periodically while a single cell organism’s very intelligent, for instance, even E.coli, which is really small bacteria can follow a glucose gradient fairly intelligently, and the behavior of other very primitive, small worms and stuff, the sea algae famously can learn things, but they probably don’t have consciousness, I would say certainly sea algae is not conscious in the sense of being in anywhere related to being the star of its own movie.
Iain: I have no idea how you come to have that certainty. How can you tell from looking at the outside of something amazingly, we thought until the 1970s that neonatal babies had no consciousness and they were operated on widely generally in fact without anesthetics. And it was only in the ’70s that guidance was given that on the whole neonate should be given an anesthetic. So I am … Decisions about what’s going on inside another creature need to be open rather than closed down in that way. And of course, if you define consciousness in a certain rather limited way, then you can deny it, of course, because that’s a definitional problem, as you said, but if it’s the ability for example, to solve a problem in an intelligent way, the organism can’t be sort of programmed for, then there’s a very reasonable chance that it has a kind of consciousness.
Iain: So I don’t think you’re doing justice to the evidence or the… obviously you don’t agree with my arguments, but as I say, I can’t make any… There are no completely knockdown arguments on either side. So we just have to agree to disagree about that one.
Jim: Frankly definitional.
Iain: No, it’s not just definitional
Jim: Because if my definition is that you are maybe not, let me finish off on sea algaes and let’s move on. Sea algaes has 302 neurons, and I would argue a plausibility of being able to create model of being inside a movie and being the star of your own movie is exceedingly remote from being able to be hosted in 302 neurons and-
Jim: … Certain no, but am I highly confident, yes.
Iain: Well, there are two things to say about that. One is that this whole idea, in my view, an absolutely classic left hemisphere misunderstanding that consciousness is something going on inside a self filled sort of hermetically sealed box as sort of how homunculus watching a film. That’s exactly what’s wrong with the left hemisphere is misunderstanding of what consciousness is. As you know, I argue from much earlier in the book that when we perceive things, we do actually perceive something outside of ourselves.
Iain: And that perception exists, we don’t know quite where in the space, but it’s not necessary if you confine it to a kind of sealed room, which we imagine inside the head, so whether sea algae is watching a movie or not, well, I frankly doubt it very much, but Barbara McClintock got a Nobel prize in the 1980s for her work on exactly single celled organisms. And she points out that they can make intelligent decisions that they can’t be programmed for that would never have happened to them in the natural world, but they can be artificially put upon them and inflicted on them in a lab. So this is very extraordinary. And I think anybody who says, well, they just don’t have intelligence is going further than any information warrants.
Jim: No, I would never say they don’t have intelligence. They clearly have lots of intelligence there what we would call in the complexity land, complex adaptive systems. But that is utterly distinct from consciousness.
Iain: Well, intelligence can’t be different from understanding because in fact that’s what the word means in its roots. And intelligence is something that implies an understanding and that’s really all she’s saying is something understands that it needs to do a certain thing. It doesn’t react in the blind way that a programed system would. That is the entire point of it. And I think that if you say, well, they have intelligence but they don’t have consciousness then you are now saying that things can behave intelligently without having any kind of consciousness. And I don’t know how you know that either.
Jim: Can’t know it. And to be fair to the other side, one of the theories that’s getting a lot of attention in the science of consciousness is now called, it’s called the integrative information theory, Christof Koch, who was on the show is one of the main proponents of it. To Tony, the guy at University of Wisconsin at Madison is the original author of it. And their formalism implies that everything is conscious from a light switch on up. If you can process a single bit of information, you’re conscious and we, Christof Koch. And I talked about that for an hour and a half and he didn’t convince me and I didn’t convince him. So, but on the other hand, I understand the math of IIT to a reasonable degree. And if you want to find that to be consciousness and call it consciousness, then a light switch is conscious, but I argue it’s a definitional problem.
Jim: As a searlian, I say it’s a specific and an Edelmonian in some degree though, I don’t agree with part of Edelman’s work that is biologically grounded for a particular purpose, came on the scenes when we had enough neurons to support, a man or a person in a box being part of a movie and not watching a movie by the way, the Cartesian theaters clearly faults. Dan Dennett crushes the Cartesian theater in his work as well, a crushing zombies that we can sort of get rid of both of those ridiculous concepts. But anyway, you want to say a lot final word about consciousness before we move on.
Iain: Well, yes, it’s this. No sane person thinks that we can finally decide whether another entity has consciousness, because we would have to be that entity inside that entity as it were to know. So it’s merely a question of which theory helps explain more and is more consistent with what we know. And I think as we come to understand more and more about the intelligent behavior of plants, of single celled organisms and so on, that the onus is on those who say there is no consciousness here to, I mean, you can’t be finally decided because as I say, unless somebody could get inside of another creature or another organism, we can’t answer this. But for my money, the argument I put forward is more constant with what we know. And there’s a lot in that chapters. I say it’s nearly 100 pages long.
Jim: I enjoyed it. Let’s leave it at that at the end of the day, as we said in the beginning, we don’t know any of this, but I read the evidence differently than you do. So let’s move on now. The next one is one where I think we’ll find some agreement and it’s probably some disagreement, but probably more agreement. And that’s your section on value? Why don’t you say, what do you mean when you say value?
Iain: Well, I don’t mean anything very different from what most people would think of as values, though it might surprise some people that in a kind of attempt to understand what there is in the cosmos, I would include along with space, time consciousness matter and so on. I would include values. But philosophers who have a completely different approach from me have also argued. For example, Derek Parfit who’s very much in the Anglo-American analytic tradition has argued that values must be on some logical primitives. So what we take to be good, what we take to be beautiful, what we take to be true, over time and different places may change. It doesn’t change quite as much as people argue who want to suggest that we make it all up, but they do change. Sure, but it’s not that as it were goodness, beauty and truth can be made to come into existence.
Iain: They have to, as it were exists rather than the where did I suggest that consciousness has to exist. They are elements of our consciousness of our response to the world. And I said that one of the things that distinguishes life is its ability to respond. And perhaps the most important thing is its ability to respond to this value that we call goodness, this value, we call truth, this value we call beauty. And I suggest there is a problem for people who don’t believe that there is any kind of meaning in sense of value in the universe at all, because they still behave as reductionist scientists as though they believe that truth is important.
Iain: They might say, well, yes fairy stories about them being Santa Claus or whatever is very nice and very comforting, but it’s not true. And it’s my much more important to be true, but where do they get this idea of the importance of truth from. If they don’t see it as an intrinsically very important thing that has its own meaning and importance and the same can be said about beauty and goodness.
Jim: With corrective values, I am sort of probably in the middle on this one, which is that yes, at one level they are developed by some form of social process. And we do know that there’s vast differences in views about what’s wrong and what’s good. The famous example is the Aztecs thought it was perfectly reasonable to capture teenagers, cut their hearts out on the top of a pyramid, throw them down the pyramid for their priests to eat. We would think that’s probably not very nice. And so there’s lots of room there.
Jim: On the other hand, humans seem to have some built in values. I point people to the work of Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis in particular, where they’ve done experiments all over the world with different tribes and they have found strong tastes for reciprocity, for justice, for punishing mal factors, et cetera, though it is interesting that the degrees of which have differed. So, my sense is that values aren’t arbitrary, but again, I would suspend judgment on some sense that they’re ontological. It would seem unlikely to me, but truthfully I haven’t thought about it much, but reading your book did give me an opportunity to think about that. It might be my knee jerk reaction would be probably not, but certainly there is some inherent values within humans that we can identify pretty easily.
Iain: Yes. I don’t think, I don’t know what the word was now that you used of a few minutes ago that they were random chosen or sort of…
Jim: I disagree with that. I disagree with the fact that some people, some actually intelligent people claim that values are arbitrary. I would disagree with that.
Iain: I’m glad because I thought you said you agreed with that. That’s great because I certainly don’t think that no.
Jim: I agree that in principle they could be, but because humans are how they are, it would not actually be that way in any actual existing human society.
Iain: Not quite, I mean the moon could be made of cheese, but it isn’t.
Jim: But it isn’t. I think there’s little agreement, some agreement, some disagreement there. I think that’s probably a good place to wrap it up. I got some more notes. We’re coming up on two hours a little bit longer even than we anticipated, but I got to tell you in that this was a fun book. Believe it or not 2000 pages. I actually enjoyed reading it. Occasionally it annoyed me as you could tell. Occasionally it broadened my thinking about things as you could also tell, but I also just think it was an amazing piece of work and thank you for contributing this to human culture.
Iain: Well thank you very much. Perhaps I could just say it may be 2000 pages on Kindle. In fact, I think it’s nearly 3000 on Kindle, but the actual printed book is only about 1600 pages. So it’s big but not so big. And 200 pages of that is the bibliography. Because when you’re saying something new, you have to really chapter and verse everything. So I have.
Jim: I’ve ordered the paper book, but I haven’t… I checked this morning to see if it was in my pile of unopen Amazon boxes and it wasn’t, but I’ve heard through The Grapevine that is actually a quite beautifully produced book. And I look forward to getting my hard copy.
Iain: I was very lucky to have entirely by chance the work of, I guess the leading typographer now in the world, he’s 75 Robert Bringhurst, he’s kind of… I’ve talked to one publisher about my venture and I say that I’ve got this great typographer. And he said, who is he? And I said, Robert Bringhurst. And he went, “Robert Bringhurst!” And he literally fell on his knees on this zoom call. Anyway, he did the typo.
Jim: I’m going to get a note of that cause I’m…
Jim: That’s great.
Iain: But the aesthetic decisions were made. The rest of the aesthetic decisions were made by me and by me with Robert. So I’m glad I’ve contributed something beautiful even if people don’t agree.
Jim: And that’s the point of the work we do. On that, I’m going to wrap it right there.