Transcript of Episode 144 – John Vervaeke Part 2: Awakening from the Meaning Crisis

The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by John Vervaeke. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.

Jim: Welcome back to the continuation of my conversation with John Vervaeke in the second of four episodes where we explore John’s legendary YouTube course, Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. To remind folks John’s an associate professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at the University of Toronto and creates all kinds of interesting videos on YouTube. Check it out.

Jim: We got a lot of ground to cover today so we’ve got to pick the pace up a little bit compared to last time. So we’re going to skip over some things, but I’ll provide pointers to some of those things where you can get more information about what we skip. Last time we finished up talking about Socrates. At the end of that discussion John said, this is a quote, “I think Socrates is recommending that as your primary existential pursuit, can you cultivate the virtue that will realize the virtues and the metavirtue of wisdom that will realize the meaning in life such that you can reliably say, ‘My life is worth it. My life is worth living.'” Well that’s really interesting, it’s also really dense. Could you unpack that for us just a little bit before we move on from Socrates?

John: Yeah, that was verbose. It’s difficult to capture some things in the linearity of speech. Yeah, what I was recommending is that Socrates was trying to orient us towards what we should care about and how we should care about it. And at the fundamental core of a good life, there’s two components. Good life in the sense of being a virtuous life and a good life in a life that’s worth living. At the core of those is a way of paying attention, caring about things in the right way. And when we do that, when we get that virtuosity that brings together caring in the right way and caring well, we get wisdom. We get the ability to see through self deceptive illusion and to see ourselves and others in a way that puts us in a better relationship for the kinds of connections that make life worth living.

Jim: Yeah, that’s great. Thank you for that. I think that’ll make the important point a little bit clearer for the audience. Now Socrates was extremely fortunate to have had a student with incredible thinking and writing skills.

John: Yeah.

Jim: Plato. If it wasn’t for Plato, it’s a fair chance Socrates would’ve been the world’s smartest corner crank, essentially, with a couple of minor mentions in a couple of the Greek plays. Like The Clouds had some pretty funny stuff about Socrates in there, but probably would not have been remembered. But there was Plato, and it’s hard to overestimate the impact of Plato. Alfred North Whitehead said, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

John: Yeah.

Jim: And then equally impressive, John Vervaeke said approximately, “The west is essentially the Bible plus Plato.”

John: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I agree with Whitehead. And you see that comes across in my quote. I’m actually trying to advocate for reading Whitehead in a more platonic fashion. I think Whitehead’s going through a revival right now, and I think there’s been a bit of forgetting of the deep connections between Whitehead and Neoplatonism and Platonism. And another thing that’s going through a revival right now is a revival of interest in Christian Platonism, the way Christianity and Platonism came together and mutually transformed each other in a very powerful way.

John: So there’s two ways in which Plato is deeply influential for our civilization. One is just for philosophy, and all of the attendant things that came out of Western philosophy. But also for the huge impact that Plato makes upon and within Christianity and of the way Christianity informed our civilization in a powerful way. So two really powerful, related ways in which Plato is just profoundly important. Ignorance of Plato and ignorance of the Bible I would argue, this is a bold statement, would make you fundamentally ignorant of the structures and ligaments by which our culture is built. I’d say that.

Jim: Yeah. I would agree, but I would also say that both of them together bring in some of the worst baggage. But we’ll get into that in a minute. Now one thing that was in your Awakening from the Meaning Crisis video that I had forgotten, I remembered that I had read it back when I was seventeen in freshman humanities course, is that in some sense not only is he one of the great philosophers of all time, but it’s also fair to call him the father of psychology.

John: Yes.

Jim: And you point out the very interesting man, monster, and lion model and how it ties in pretty closely to Freud for instance. Right? Could you run through that a little bit? Because that was really interesting, and I think it’s important actually to the story that we’re trying to tell here.

John: Yeah. So Plato, following up on the pre-Socratics, and we talked about them last time. He takes that nascent scientific way of approaching things and he applies it to the psyche itself. Now other philosophers, the pre-Socratics, had said some really profound things about the psyche, Heraclitus for example, but Plato gives us the first bonafide theory about the nature of the psyche. And his idea is that the psyche is divided up into semi-autonomous components and that those semi-autonomous components can be identified in terms of what their primary motivation is and kind of what their cognitive grasp, cognitive scope is. So there’s a part of us, he represented it mythologically as a monster and it lives kind of in our genitalia and in our stomach, and it motivates us primarily with pleasure and pain and it’s directed to very short term. The superficial features of things, short term goals. So it urges us, we experience it urgently.

John: And then in the thymos, which doesn’t really translate well into English, it’s mistranslated as emotion or spirit. So I try to leave it untranslated. The thymos is basically in your chest and it is where you have that whole constellation of social emotions, pride and esteem and shame and guilt and all that. And he represented that by a lion, because lions are social animals, and the lion is not motivated by pain and pleasure, but by basically honor and shame. And so it’s the ways in which we seek our social identity, the way we’re social cultural beings and so it has middling scope. It can pursue longer term goals, but they’re still fairly concrete. But they’re social cultural in nature.

John: And then above that in the head area, and he represented it by a man, even though Plato was for his time one of the first people that really proposed that women could be equal to men in a profound way. The man is in the head and the man is motivated by truth and falsity, capable of reason. And the man can pursue long term abstract goals. And the point I made in the series was, this maps on in a lot of ways to Freud, it maps on to the proposal that people have made that there’s a reptilian brain, a mammalian brain, and a neomammalian brain. It maps on to Stanovich, system one, system two, the reflective mind. We keep discovering this idea about different centers of motivation and cognitive grasp. It goes into our current theories of hyperbolic discounting. And so Plato was … I think his insights have born fruit and have been rediscovered again and again. And so we could amend Whitehead and say, a lot of psychology is also a footnote to Plato in some important ways.

Jim: Cool. And you set me up perfectly because my next point was going to be that you make the point, as does Plato, that in everyday life, at least if we’re not well conditioned and wise, the monster has more power than the man. Right?

John: Yeah, yes.

Jim: And we know today that at least a big part of that is this concept that you mentioned of hyperbolic discounting, which to my mind is one of the more important discoveries in at least the practical applications of cognitive science. Probably not all of our audience knows about it. So maybe a quick definition of what hyperbolic discounting is, and perhaps a homey example if you got one.

John: Yeah. So the best person for this is Ainslie’s work. He deserves a lot of the credit and he showed that this is not only a feature of human cognition, this is a feature across species. Which is a good argument, and good evidence I would say, for this being deeply adaptive. It keeps getting selected for across species, and so what’s the adaptive function? Hyperbolic discounting is you will tend to find present, I mean in the sense of present tense, you’ll tend to find present stimuli much more salient to you than future stimuli. And that magnification of salience is very significant. The place where most people readily experience this is in procrastination. They know they should pursue some long term goal. My students, “I have an essay due in three weeks. I should start it now. That’s really predictive of doing well, but that’s three weeks away and right now tonight I could go out and party.” And that present stimulus is more salient so you go to the party instead of starting to write your essay.

John: Now that sounds like, “Well, how is that adaptive?” Well, it’s adaptive in that you should calibrate what you pay attention to by the probability of it occurring. Even if you just state that as an abstract principle, you see why that’s the case. The more likely something is of happening, the more attention and resources I should pay to it. When something is occurring, it’s probability is a hundred percent and then as you move into the future, the probability of any specific event drops off very dramatically. And so we are inborn with this calibration. Now the problem with it, like anything that’s adaptive, it has ways in which it’s maladaptive. So it can blind us to abstract features of the future.

John: So what I mean by that is hyperbolic discounting blinds you to a bunch of events. Each one of those events in the future three weeks ago has a low probability of occurring, but if they all share a common goal or a common outcome, that common thing has a high probability of occurring. And so by blinding me to each event, it blinds me to what they have in common. So while it’s adaptive, like everything that’s adaptive, it’s also maladaptive.

Jim: Yeah. And I think it’s also worth pointing out that we can look at our animal ancestors and humans up until maybe 10,000 years ago. And we basically lived hand to mouth, right? Our biggest risk was starving to death in the next two weeks, right?

John: Yes.

Jim: So whether I should study to be able to get good grades in three years so my college application has a probability of getting into a good college so that I can have a good career and make lots of money and find an attractive member of the opposite, or same spouse if that’s what floats your boat, that’s not what we were engineered for by evolution.

John: No.

Jim: Of course we do have some things like that, but mostly the drives, and particularly for pre-human animals but for humans too, don’t starve to death in the next two weeks. Right?

John: Yes. And so it’s very, very adaptive. But we do have the man, Plato says, and maybe it comes into prominence, and you and I talked about this last time, the upper paleolithic transition. Because we start getting projectile weapons, we start getting calendars. So something’s happening around there in which our cognitive scope is opening up, and the man does allow us to represent abstract properties of the future. One of the most abstract things we can represent to ourselves is death, and this of course has a huge impact on us.

Jim: And we’re, people like to point out, probably we’re the only animal that could visualize our own death. There are some ethological studies that say perhaps some animals can understand death to some degree, but they probably don’t worry about it the way we do. And we’ll get into that quite a bit later, we get to Tillich and things of that sort. Also very important about Plato, this is quote from you, “I would go so far to say that Platonism or Neoplatonism is the bedrock of Western spirituality.”

John: Yes.

Jim: Now my regular listeners will know that this is, “A-ha. Jim is going to jump on this one.” Because I famously hate the word spirituality.

John: Yes.

Jim: And in fact, I often refer to it as the S word and I’m not even sure what the hell it means exactly. And you use it a bunch, Tillich used it a huge amount in his book on The Courage To Be. Is that it? Yeah.

John: Yes.

Jim: And yet he didn’t define it at all. And so I’d love, and I’m actually prepared to spend a little time on this, to get your definition of spirituality and see if I can tease it apart from other things which … you know, I’m just not sure what the hell it is. So what is spirituality to your mind?

John: So spirituality … so when we ask about that, there’s a normative definition and there’s a descriptive definition and what I think we’re talking about is also the relationship between those two. So let me give you the normative definition and then the descriptive definition. The normative definition is the wise pursuit of meaning, that’s what I would take spirituality to be. And if it’s properly wise, that is not something that can be best done individually. It should be done both individually and by participating in groups. And when I talk about meaning there, I’m talking about the way I defined it last time. And wisdom, there’s something we’re also unpacking. So the descriptive version of that is what people do when they are implicitly believing that they are wisely pursuing meaning.

John: Now they can mess that up in all kinds of self deceptive, self destructive ways. Spiritual bypassing is a prototypical example of the way in which people can get very deceived about that. So if you allow me to keep the distinction between how people self label and what that label should be pointing to, the normative definition, then that would be my answer to you. That what I mean by spirituality is the wise cultivation of meaning in life.

Jim: Okay, that’s good. Now of course, there’s an awful lot of pop culture around-

John: Exactly.

Jim: -spirituality. “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” Well, what do you mean by that exactly? “Well, you know, I sit there and sniff incense and blah, blah.” I still don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. I mean, are they just looking at their internal speech? Are they having internal dialogues about particular topics that they consider spirituality? It’s never been very clear to me, but your definition is at least concise and one can get one’s hands around.

John: Well, thank you. And I don’t like the term and people who have heard me in other places will know I don’t like it. There’s a sense in which it’s also used equivocally, especially in the phrase, “Spiritual, but not religious.” I’m very critical of that. I know what people are trying to indicate. They’re trying to indicate that they don’t adhere to a particular organization. The problem is, as many academic people and religious studies have pointed out, that spirituality, but not religious actually just means the religion of me. My own personal idiosyncratic religion, and therefore it’s not making the distinction that people think when they use it. And one of my deep criticisms, in general, of our culture is that it encourages a kind of autodidactic attempt to get the wise cultivation of meaning and it can succeed. There are great autodidacts, but for every great autodidact I can point to you ten disastrous autodidacts. And so I think, in general, that’s a very bad strategy overall.

Jim: Interesting. Let’s move on to our next topic, which is related to the Greeks which is really a bedrock of your thinking here, and that is rationality. A word for which there’s tremendous amount of confusion and different kinds of definition. And you actually, you use rationality a little differently than some of other people. I happened to read recently, for instance, in McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary-

John: Yes.

Jim: -and he bashes rationality.

John: Yeah, and I’ve argued with Ian. Like in video we had a discussion together about it and yeah, he epitomizes a particular … I would argue, a particular historical configuration of the notion of rationality, which we can attribute to a significant degree, not solely, but to a significant degree to Descartes. Which is the reduction of rationality to a logic that obtains between product, and so very much a mathematical logical model of rationality.

John: That is not, and people don’t realize even though Plato thought so highly of mathematics, his math doesn’t perform the same function it does in our science. It’s a model for something else. It’s an instance of something much, much broader for him. Same thing for Aristotle. There’s no math in any of Aristotle science. Many people have pointed that out, and that’s something important to take note of. So their notion of rationality is fundamentally different, and it’s a notion of rationality that is coming back to the fore right now. The work starting with Herbert Simon and then Gerd Gigerenzer and others, Stanovich. A broader model of rationality is that rationality is basically a systematic and systemic and reliable way of overcoming self deception. So any method, practice, sets of skills that allow you in a domain, or perhaps even a domain general way, to overcome self deception, that’s rationality.

Jim: And that concludes logic, but as you keep making the point throughout the series, logic is only one of the tools which you can use.

John: Yes, exactly. And so I’m not a romantic, I’m not rejecting logic. I think logic is very appropriate when you’re in a context, a well defined problem and the coherence between your propositions is optimal for getting your goal. But of course in other situations, ill defined problems, other skill areas where skills have to be applied, et cetera, et cetera, logic is largely going to mislead you. And we had some understanding of that, our culture has some dim understanding of that in the mythological figures of data and spa. We keep, sort of around the fringes, realizing there’s something interesting about this and powerful, something that Descartes was right about, but there’s something profoundly missing. Now it’s often mislabeled as emotion because of romanticism, and I think that’s a mistake too. But there is some recognition that there’s much more going on in rationality than just logic. Rationality is much more about knowing when, where, and to what degree you should use your logic.

Jim: Yeah. And a very nice framework, which you create, which you call the agent and the arena. We touched on it briefly last time, but if one really gets your idea of the agent and the arena one starts to see, in a kind of relatively clear way, what some of the other things are that make one, let’s say, efficacious in the world. Right?

John: Yes.

Jim: Or able to, as you say, to see reality in ways in which formal logic is a useful tool, but by no means the whole thing. So let’s take a run at defining the agent and the arena.

John: Yeah. So credit should be due also to Christopher Mastropietro and Filip Miscevic, they worked with me on the book to develop this. I’ve continued to do work with Chris on this. It’s based on ideas from Garretts and Brian Walsh. And the basic idea is agency is a particular way in which you’re configuring your traits of character, your states of mind, your skills and your propositional inferential processing so that you can undertake certain roles in the environment. Everything behaves, but an agent can determine the consequences of its behavior and redirect its behavior so as to better achieve the goals it has set for itself. And so when you adopt a certain role, a certain identity that is configured around certain kinds of goals you may be pursuing. And when you do that, the affordances that are available to you in the environment out of all the possible affordances, you make apparent to yourself a subset of those, and that’s the arena for action.

John: So for example, I’m in my room right now and I’m assuming a particular identity. Right? And in that identity, I will move around in my room and use my room in a certain way, but if I adopt a different identity … right now, for example, my identity is more of an academic and I’m not relating to my room the same way I did when I was fumbling around this morning and I’m just doing my daily routine to get going on my day. And so the idea is the agent is a way I assume an identity for myself, the arena is the way I’m assigning identities to things in the world, and that process of co-identification is mutually shaping the world and myself to the world. And like I say, this for me is a cognitive continuation of something more pervasive at a biological level, which is the way organisms do niche construction. They shape their environment and then their environment shapes them, and that happens in a reciprocal fashion.

Jim: That’s good. Let’s get back to Plato a little bit and talk about his famous Parable of the Cave.

John: Yeah, yeah. Thank you for putting it that way Jim. It’s often called the allegory, and an allegory misrepresents it in a fundamental way. Because an allegory is like there’s a simple one to one mapping from one story to another, and I think people misrepresent Jesus’ parable also when they call them allegories. The thing about the cave is there’s so much going on there, and that’s Plato’s intent. He’s trying to convey many different things on many different levels, and so in the proper and non-pejorative sense of the word, it’s a parable. It’s mythological. I don’t know if you want me to go through this story, or what would you like me to do here?

Jim: Yeah. Just not the whole tale, just the very big outline. The fact that X, Y, and guess what? We’re wrong. Right?

John: So the idea is people grow up in a cave, there’s a fire in the cave, and there’s shadows being cast on the cave wall, and there’s people carrying objects and speaking so there’s echos and shadows. The people chained in the cave can only look at the wall and they take those to be reality, they take the echoes and the shadows to be real. But a certain individual turns, gets free, and sends out of the cave, has to go step by step because if he tries to do it too rapidly or she tries to do it too rapidly, she gets blinded by the light.

John: But through a process of accommodation, they make their way out and they see the real world, the real objects. And eventually they try to look at the light that is providing the energy and the intelligibility of all the real objects. And they can’t fully look at the sun because it’s too blinding, but they get glimpses of it. And then they go back down into the cave and try and tell people in the cave what they saw. And of course, they’re fumbling around because their eyes are not properly adjusted and the people there don’t believe what they’re being told. This person seems like a fumbling clumsy idiot, and if they could, they would kill that person. That’s the parable of the cave.

Jim: Yeah. So the fact that what we actually see is not reality, but those who do see reality aren’t believed. Right?

John: Yes. Because it’s very hard for them to convey to us what they’re seeing. And this is the core of Plato and this is where he’s fundamentally different from Descartes. There are things that we cannot see unless we are willing to undergo a process of significant and arduous transformation, and that there are truths that we cannot receive unless we have undergone said transformation. This is very opposite to the Bacon Cartesian model of, “No, no. Just give me this method, and with this method all truths are available to me.”

Jim: The world is flat, yeah. You use a Greek term anagoge, if I pronounce that correctly, which you will use repeatedly throughout the series.

John: Yeah. Well let’s put the two together. Let’s put the two, what we talked about earlier with Plato’s psychology and the parable. Plato’s idea is, as you mentioned earlier, if the monster is too much in charge or the lion is even too much in charge, the inner relationship between the three; the man, the lion, and the monster is not properly … there isn’t a proper ratio between them, and that’s a deeper sense of rationality. Then the inner conflict between those parts is an ongoing source of self deception. Right? The monster makes us too impulsive, as one example. But the lion can make us too seeking of glory and so we get self deceived around all of this.

John: Now Plato’s idea is if you can properly, or at least begin to properly, align those you’ll get a sense of inner peace, which is something we all crave. But you’ll also reduce the degree to which you’re self deceived. So that’s like the person turning away from the wall, they’ve realigned themself and now they have … because they’re less self deceived, they have the capacity to see a little bit more deeply into reality and that allows them to undergo transformation. They start to walk up the path, and that exposes them to more light. Right?

John: And so the idea here is, as I can see more into reality, I enter into new relationships with the reality. That starts to transform me, and then that again realigns better, you might call it the inner culture of the psyche, and that allows me to see more deeply. I move further up the path, that aligns me more, and it loops. So I’m seeing more and more deeply into the world and that’s allowing me to see more and more deeply into the psyche. The psyche is getting more and more inwardly optimized and my capacity to realize real patterns is improving and these are mutually reinforcing each other. And that’s the ascent out of the cave. So you can, like I said, you turn, you move. You now see, that changes you, and then you can move again.

John: The classic example for that for me is the relationship I have to Plato’s work. I read Plato, it transforms me, I go out and live my life, I see things I would not otherwise have seen, that changes me. I come back and I read Plato and I see things I hadn’t seen before, and the whole cycle repeats again. It opens me up. That’s anagoge.

Jim: That’s good. Last item on Plato before we move on. So much to talk about with Plato, but time is short. So many books, so little time. Right?

John: Yes. Yeah.

Jim: And I actually learned something here, which made me think a little bit better of it which is the idea of the platonic form. You have a particular formulation, I mean again, sort of the junior high school version of it is, “Oh, there’s an ideal table out there in space somewhere.” But I thought your definition of the platonic form was actually much more interesting.

John: Yeah. So the platonic form is the structural functional organization of the thing that makes it be what it is and also make it understandable what it is. So you can hear a lot of Aristotle in that, and I think Aristotle got something right about Plato, contrary to sort of a Scholastic pitting the one against the other. I’m much more influenced by Gerson who sees deep continuity between the two.

John: And so one way of thinking about it that can make it apparent, and it’s something I’m sort of drawing out right now, is we’re on podcasts so people can’t see it. But pick up an object, put it in front of you, and look at it. This is from Merleau-Ponty. I can never see the whole object, I always see aspects of it. But notice you somehow have a representation of the whole of the object, even though you can never perceive that. Of all of these aspects, there’s a through line. There’s something that unites them all together. Right? That is not itself another aspect, it can’t be. It’s the structural functional organization that runs through all the multi-expectuality and it’s what you are conceiving of when you are conceiving of that thing. And Plato rightly saw that that’s more the identity of the thing than any of its variable and constantly changing aspects. And it’s when you know it, you get deeper and deeper.

John: Now think about how that’s an unfinishable project, because the number of aspects of any object is unlimited. And the more I unpack the aspects, the deeper I understand the form, and I realize that the form is not only beyond all aspects of this. I’m doing my cell phone right now. It’s beyond all aspects of all cell phones in an important way. And so that’s basically what’s going on. It’s the structural functional organization, this through line. It’s within our perception, but it’s always leading us beyond our perception and that is ultimately what we understand when we’re understanding something.

Jim: Right. That’s a much richer definition than the usual one that’s given in junior high school. Now to tie us back to our through line here, the axial age is about the two worlds model becoming very prominent. Where-

Jim: About the two worlds model becoming very prominent, where’s Plato on this? Where does Plato come down on the two-worlds model?

Speaker 1: And this is what I meant by Plato’s spirituality in that anagoge, in which we are simultaneously satisfying our two deepest meta-desires of inner peace and being in touch with reality… And we’re doing this in this living fashion, in which they’re mutually affording each other. The anagoge, right? And for Plato, when we’re seeing more deeply into reality, what we’re doing is what I just talked about. We’re seeing the form of the thing, the eidos of things, and we’re also realizing the eidos of ourselves. And so we’re coming into greater and greater realization in both senses of the word.

Speaker 1: And this is his model for happiness. But how that fits in the two worlds is… It’s the world you’re living in before anagogic transformation, that’s the world of the cave; and the world you’re living in after or better, as you are ongoingly doing anagoge… Going through that transformation that that world in which your mutual realization of agent and arena is taking place profoundly. That’s the real world, the world of such realization. And of course, that’s going to get warped into all kinds of crazy ideas, but the two worlds… What Plato does is he transforms the two worlds mythology into this spiritual project of anagoge.

Jim: But then he also literally posits an additional world that the Platonic forms live out in some other world, not in our world and that we always have only an approximation of them. And he also talks about the One, I believe, which is his idea of something kind of like the Judeo-Christian God that lives outside of our physical universe.

John: So here’s where I want to… if you’ll allow me… and this is a bit of a fine distinction, but I hope it’s not just splitting hairs. I think that has been a standard reading that has become known as Platonism, but even in Platonists I think there’s some important changes we need to make. The new scholarship that’s come out of what’s called the Third Wave tries to resist that partitioning model. So there’s no… and I mean this very profoundly, Jim. There’s no separation between the One and all of the visible things. There’s no separation, right? Everything is in the One, but not in space. That’s a bit of myth there.

John: So that’s what I was trying to do with my example. I was trying to get you to see the form in the perception. And one of the best… maybe the best book I read on Plato, at least on Plato’s Republic… Schindler’s book, Plato’s Critique of Impure Reason. He makes it clear that they’re not to be separated, and he’s got a very good… like there’s a lot of text to go into that. But think of the cave. The philosopher doesn’t stay up, looking at the sun. The full path is also to return back into the cave. And only by doing both, do you get the full picture of the relationship between the two worlds?

Jim: So it’s a different kind of two world model than that which we inherited from say Christianity in particular, but it has some aspects. So we’ll talk later about Neoplatonism and how the two kind of merge back together again.

Jim: So now let’s move on to Aristotle. Again, one of my themes is frozen accidents, right? The evolutionary lens, and one wonders how different the world would’ve been without the progression… Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Alexander, right? It’s like … what are the chances of those four dudes having such a strong, personal relationship… Some of the greatest minds and abilities in human history from a tiny little country. Really, you know, the population of Athens was like 40,000 people or something. Macedonia maybe a little bigger, not much, but it was like from a corner of Kentucky or something, came in fairly short order, these four amazing in characters who mutually kept concentrating and reinforcing in some ways the ideas. So Aristotle was a student of Plato and much more so than Plato with respect to Socrates, Aristotle went his own way. And well, I love Plato’s writing and Aristotle was kind of dry as dust. I must say that once I got exposed to enough Aristotle and enough Plato, to be able to tell the difference, I very much considered myself an Aristotelian rather than a Platonist. Could you maybe just draw the distinctions for the audience?

John: Yeah, so the distinctions are important and I will address them, but we have to remember that we lost 20 years of Aristotle’s work. And so that’s another accident, right? And for 20 years, Aristotle wrote Platonic dialogue. So we don’t know any of that Aristotle. So we have to be a little bit careful about not exaggerating the distinctions, but for Aristotle there’s a much more pronounced interest that… it looks much more in line with what we now call science. For Plato… Plato is still enough of a disciple of Socrates that all of the theories, including the theory of the psyche, all of those proto-scientific theories are still ultimately in the service of the cultivation of wisdom and personal transformation. Now that goal does not disappear from Aristotle, but he begins The Metaphysics, one of his greatest books, with “all men desire by nature to know”.

John: And in Aristotle, there is much more a satisfaction or a drive to satisfy the desire to know for its own sake. So one… and this is a little bit overly simplistic, so please allow me some wiggle room here. Both philosophers think that philosophy begins in wonder. Plato ultimately wants to transform wonder into awe. Aristotle reconfigures wonder in a lot of ways into curiosity that is alleviated by the gathering of scientific knowledge. And so there’s a fundamental difference there. And you can feel it in their writing. And that’s why there’s so much aspiration in everything that Plato writes. And the parts where Aristotle aspires are much more limited and you have much more specific locations.

Jim: Okay. And what about the continuity? What would you say is the continuity between the two?

John: The deep continuity is still the centrality of wisdom and the idea going back through Plato and Socrates, and back into the pre-Socratics, that realness and intelligibility are inter-defining and therefore the notion of the form as a pattern, a real pattern of intelligibility, is still central in Aristotle. He gives it a different ontological place than Plato does, but that is a point of deep continuity between them.

John: Many people… my colleague, who I think is one of… maybe the greatest scholar right now on ancient philosophy, Lloyd Gerson at UFT… Aristotle, and other Platonists… He argues for the deep continuity between Plato and Aristotle.

Jim: As you point out, and this is one of the things I always liked about Aristotle. The Platonists view is in some ways kind of static, right? Aristotle is all about developments, exchange, and dynamics. And I think he provides us a much more powerful toolkit for understanding the world, because ours is a world in motion and a world undergoing change.

John: I think that that is very well said, Jim. One of my criticisms of Plato is his notion of reality and sacredness, because they’re inter defining for Plato as perfection, as a static, complete, unchanging. Now Aristotle thought there was aspects of reality like that. And science does too. Science looks for invariance, so that’s appropriate. But like modern scientists, Aristotle looked for “how does that invariance constrain, change and how do the two relate together so we get what we call development”? And Aristotle was very interested in the process of development… biological development, and also the development of your character. So this is something there… it’s continuous from Plato, but he really brings it out, Aristotle… that the role that character cultivation plays in the cultivation of wisdom. And that’s an inherently developmental notion. Aristotle is very clear that you have to be properly educated in order to develop your character.

Jim: Okay, let’s talk about that. Because again, that’s such an important aspect of Aristotle… is… talks about character and virtue et cetera. You actually gave a quite nice definition of character and distinguished it from personality in the series. Why don’t you give us your definition of character.

John: Yeah. And I want to note that there are people, my good friend and colleague Greg Enriquez are arguing that our present notion of personality theory is actually lobotomized, because it doesn’t include things like character. What we’re talking about in personality are basically traits. I just published a paper recently with Gary Hova [inaudible 00:38:09] about how there’s a deep relationship between the personality variables and how all organisms are trying to trade off between stability and plasticity in an important way. That’s what your personality’s basically doing. It’s your set of traits for how… the degree to which you’re going to emphasize plasticity or stability in all the domains of your life. Your character is not a set of traits. It’s a set of virtues and those set of virtues, you have to be properly educated into them. And those set of virtues are basically… well, they are the form, the eidos, the constraining pattern that facilitates and affords you becoming a wiser individual. That’s basically what your character is.

John: And in fact, there’s a deep connection between each virtue and wisdom. I happen to think that every virtue… So virtues are ways we describe aspects of character. Bill is honest. What does that mean? Well, what we mean is he’s got a set of constraints, habits and skills within him, ways of paying attention, ways of feeling, ways of orienting himself in a world in which he will reliably perform in this way. And generally when we’re saying he’s honest, as opposed to gullible or other things like that, we mean that in many circumstances, that honesty is appropriate and ways for him to be wise. Aristotle saw all of the virtues as helping us to steer between extremes of excess and deficit. So the honest person doesn’t lie, but the honest person is also… isn’t a bore, doesn’t tell you everything they’re thinking. Isn’t cruel by telling you the truth, “Oh, you’re looking less ugly this morning,” or something like that. So you can think about a virtue as a way of keeping you between these two extremes so that you’re much more likely to act appropriately in situations.

Jim: And to tease the distinction, personality and character… you know, our modern society somehow gets the too confused fairly often.

John: Yes, and equivocates between them. So one way of thinking about it, that’s very Aristotelian and I think very helpful, is character are the sets of virtues and a virtue is a combination of skill and sensibility and states of mind, right? Virtue means a power, in virtue of. Character are the virtues you cultivate to compensate for the deficits of your personality.

Jim: Or to augment them, right?

John: Or to augment them. Yes.

Jim: You know, because your personality is, I think as our modern science is discovering, is relatively fixed. I mean you can adjust it around the edges and probably genetic or epigenetic and then probably both, right?

John: Yep.

Jim: It’s funny, I recently about nine months ago took the OCEAN personality test. And it was actually kind of fun and it came up with results, which were mostly, I would say, confirmatory of my own self image, which was kind of interesting. Like for instance, I scored 100th percentile on anti-neurotic.

John: Oh [Laughs 00:41:10]

Jim: And 100% on… a 99th percentile on disagreeable. And I’d say that’s both fit. And 99 or 98 on openness. And the only one that was a little surprise… only 70% on conscientious. And I looked at the co-factors and I discovered one of the big co-factors is orderliness. And I go “Oops, that’s me”. You take a look at my office and it looks like a bomb went off. And you know, I’m a stacker, not a filer. So okay, they got me on that one. But those have been, you know, pretty much consistent personalities, right? Since I was a little kid, well, character and virtue we can work on and Aristotle lays out the four… what does he call them? The noble virtues?

John: The Cardinal virtues.

Jim: Cardinal virtues?

John: Yeah. He inherits those from the Platonic tradition as a psychotic Platonic tradition. Yeah, so wisdom, justice, sophrosyne and courage. Courage is not the same thing as bravery. I don’t try… I don’t translate sophrosyne because it’s… all the English translations are terrifically misleading. It’s often mistranslated, I would argue, as continence or temperament or temperance I should say, or moderation. All of those really miss what sophrosyne is as a virtue.

John: I want to say one thing, Jim. Character is to personality as rationality is to intelligence. You can’t do much about your intelligence, but intelligence is only 0.3 correlated with rationality… measure the rationality. Rationality you can do a lot about and rationality are ways in which you can cultivate virtues that compensate, and like you say, augment for ways in which your intelligence, left unconstrained, can mislead you in a self-deceptive fashion. And character therefore is to personality as rationality is to intelligence. And this is a deep… this connection between rationality and character development is deep and profound in Aristotle.

Jim: Indeed. And we’ll get back and talk about virtue later. We’re going to have to jump ahead a little bit. The difference between the having mode and the being mode.

John: Right.

Jim: This was one of the first books I read that was a pointer from your course. And that was Eric Fromm, To Have or To Be. And this is… turns out to be deeply important to your argument. So let’s take some time here.

John: Yeah. And so as Fromm admits, this comes out of the Stoics, and the Stoics are kind of the inheritors of the Platonic-Aristotelian tradition. Stoicism is basically a philosophy, almost a religion, in which you’re just internalizing Socrates as much as possible. And what Fromm notes is that we have two existential modes and I can very quickly say what an existential mode is. An existential mode is a certain configuration of the agent-arena relationship. You’re assuming a certain kind of identity, you’re assigning a certain kind of identity. So one existential mode we have according to Fromm drawn from the Stoics, is the having mode. This is a mode, an existential mode that is oriented around meeting our having needs. These are needs that are met by having things like oxygen, water, food. We have to control them and in very many ways, either literally, or at least metaphorically, consume them.

John: And so we relate to things in terms of how we can manipulate and control them. But we understand them not as individuals, we understand things as.. in terms of their categorical identity. This is a cell phone, this is a TV remote, this is a couch… because that allows me to consume it, to use it, to manipulate it in order to solve my problems. The motivation in this mode is largely what I would call curiosity. We want to know for the sake of filling in the holes in our knowledge network so that we can better have power over the world.

John: And so I often use also a related notion from Buber. We have an I-it relationship. That’s the fundamental agent-arena relationship. So this couch for me is an it. I’m relating to it as a member of a category so I can consume it, and I do consume it. I use it until it breaks down, right? And I’m using it and making use of it and I assume a particular relationship to it. It’s a very manipulative, controlling identity and there’s nothing wrong with that, because it’s a couch. And I need to have that relationship with air, and I need to have a relationship with water and with shelter and medicine and also with sex. And I know sex… You might say, “Well, no. Let’s not confuse sex and love,” right? And so we have for a long time had an understanding of that aspect of sexuality. We talk about consummation… sexual consummation.

John: Now the other mode we have is built around another set of needs. I think –

Jim: That’s just the being mode, right? So let’s put the name on it so people can have having the mode and being mode.

John: Right. I don’t like the name being mode. I think it should be called the becoming mode. It’s a little bit too Arist.. er, Platonic. It should have a Aristotelian title. But nevertheless, this is what Fromm said. So the being mode, these are needs that are met by being something or becoming something they’re developmental needs. So I need to become mature. I need to be a mature person. I need to be in love, I need to be an honest person. I need to be wise. So these needs are met by going through a process of transformation and therefore they are not primarily about manipulating things and satisfying our curiosity. They’re much more about reflecting on things and opening ourselves up to wonder… Wondering what they are. Because we can only wonder who we are by wondering what things are. Think about Plato. And those two are bound together. And so that’s how Fromm makes a distinction between the intelligence of the having mode and the reason of the being mode.

John: Reasoning is this reflecting and wondering and trying to open up. What’s the identity of things? What’s the identity of me? Because that’s how I go through fundamental transformation. To put it in a sentence, I can’t transform myself unless I’m willing to allow the world to transform, and to transform me. Those are all bound up together. So it’s an existential mode. And so the relationship I have to things is not, I-it, it’s I-thou. It’s the relationship you have when you are binding yourself to someone or something perhaps, but usually it’s someone, in which the primary goal is developmental, transformational.

John: So when you are in love with someone or you love them… Ya, there’s a variation there, I get it, right? But what you’re doing is you are having an I-thou relationship with them. You would not say to your beloved I’m with you because you remind me of all the other partners I’ve been with. I can easily manipulate it, can control you and use you as I wish. So while that’s an appropriate relationship to water on your couch, if you take that relationship to your partner, you’ve destroyed the relationship. Because you know that what the point of being in love as opposed to… listen to the language… being in love versus having sex, is that what you’re doing is you’re putting the sexual relationship into this anagogic relationship where you and your partner are mutually opening each other up and affording each other’s development. So if love goes well, and love doesn’t always go well, I’m not… I’m not stupid. But when love goes well, it does mature us. It does help us to become more honest, et cetera.

Jim: Let’s try to get some ex… a couple of examples. One that I was scratching my head about, and I think I came up with at least a plausible division between the two, is our social being as part of community. I was thinking that in some sense, it could have both attributes. Let’s have living in a small scale agricultural village someplace.

Jim: There’s definitely having needs about… We need a blacksmith, we need somebody to make some clothes, you know, et cetera. Plus we need some farmers, et cetera. So that there’s a bunch of having needs about the social organization, but there’s also the conviviality and the really alive interpersonal relationships one has in a faith-based community. Am I getting that distinction right? So I would put those in the being mode level and let’s kind of call it the functional, practical economic organization of the small farming villages being in the having mode.

John: That’s a beautiful example. And it brings out the great danger, the great foolishness that Fromm is articulating, which is modal confusion. Modal confusion is when you try to satisfy one set of needs from the wrong mode. The one that’s most prevalent for Fromm, is we try to satisfy the being needs from within a having mode. So I need to be in love, so I have lots of sex. I need to be mature, so I have a car, et cetera. And our culture really capitalizes on that confusion. And so your example is really, really important.

John: One of the things that morality and religion is supposed to do is to remind us to not only have a having mode relationship. Think of Kant’s categorical imperative, right? You always treat other people as ends in themselves, never only as means. He didn’t say you never treat people as means. Of course, you need the blacksmith to make your horseshoes, right? You need the farmer to sell you some corn, but you never treat them only as means. You have to remember constantly, remember they are also ends in themselves. You have to remember the being mode you know, and I make the argument that you can see at least one aspect of many religions as a set of practices to help us… call us back and remind us of the being mode, lift us out of modal confusion.

Jim: Yeah. And certainly our current world, which some of us call Game A, is a whole series of signals and manipulations trying to drive us so deeply into the having mode that it’s really hard to remember that there even is a being mode. I mean, imagine someone working in New York City in some totally obscure job. They can’t… I use the example “The administrative assistant to the assistant vice-president for HR at the American Marketing Association,” right?

Jim: So many levels deep into what-the-fuckness, and you’re living in a 300 square foot apartment and you’re just listening to pop culture all the time. What the fuck is that, right? And they’re just so into the structural component and the idea of community and conviviality. And if we read the statistics, even love is going away, right? So many people are staying unconnected, unattached. And so Game A seems all about just relentlessly pounding us into the having mode.

John: I agree and maintaining modal confusion, trying to get us to meet all of our needs within the having mode, because that is how we can best be manipulated. It’s much easier to sell things to you and sell ideas to you if you are always in modal confusion. And your example there brings out… I mean, when you were saying it, Kafka comes to mind. And so this modal confusion can go from being frustrating and absurd to being genuinely horrific… a certain kind of horror in which we are lost. Yeah, I think the degree to which I understand it, Game B is all about an inherently developmental mode, a deep remembrance. So it’s livable, viable for you again. The being mode in an important way –

Jim: Yeah, without, of course throwing the having mode away, because we have to do that, but we have to do it in a way that’s in balance. It’s an… there has to be a balance, and Fromm actually was pretty good at making that distinction.

John: Yes, the problem is not either one of the modes, the problem is modal confusion and there’s confusion the other way. So spiritual bypassing is when people should be pursuing having modes, but they’re trying to do it within the being needs. So they need to have a job and instead, “No, I’m exploring,” right? And they keep avoiding the realities of the having mode by being spiritual and floating around. We used to, when I grew up… we had an expression, “Too heavenly minded to be any earthly good”. And that danger is also growing. There’s modal confusion both ways, and we have to be… part of wisdom is discerning, seeing through such confusions. And so we have to be… we have to keep an eye on it, an eye out for it.

Jim: Interesting. I’m going to toss in a personal privileged question here, because I’m just interested in the answer. When I was reading Fromm and listening to your course, and I was thinking about the having mode and the being mode, I was wondering how does the having mode and the being mode relate to doing?

Jim: Doing in some sense, seems like it’s orthogonal to having and being, but it also, in some sense, feels like it might be a third way of being. And if we think about the idea of cognition linked to affordances, in some sense, our actual main driver in the universe is our doing. So how would you talk… think about it? I know it’s not something you talked about, so I’m just taking advantage of the fact that I get a chance to ask you the question. What do you think about doing with respect to the having and being modes?

John: Okay. So I think this is an excellent question and this is more something that’s at the edge of my thinking because I’m trying to do a theoretical integration. Because I think… now notice the caution, but I think the having and being modes can be mapped onto another distinction that Michael Apter has worked out in his Reversal Theory, which is a meta-motivational theory. The theory is based around the idea that we have two fundamentally different ways of framing our states of arousal… metabolic arousal. One is a telic mode in which we’re pursuing a goal that’s external. And the goal is valuable. The value of our action is in the goal that results from our action. And that’s a telic mode because we’re working towards a telos, a goal, right? There’s another mode, paratelic mode, and in that mode it’s the opposite. We’ll set up goals for the sake of the activity and we’re pursuing the activity for its own sake.

John: Like, we’re playing tennis. The goals are set up, but you don’t want a shortcut, right? You don’t want like, “Boo, now I won, yay!” Right? So you… what you’re trying to do is, you set up the goals and notice the two verbs I use. I have work in the telic mode and I have play in the paratelic mode. And I think the paratelic mode, because it’s playful and because play is so central to development, I think the paratelic mode, it’s the meta-motivational mode that helps us pursue the being needs, whereas the telic mode, the work mode, is the mode in which we pursue our having needs. So I think if doing can be seen as either working or playing, there’s a potential to theoretically map them onto the two modes in that manner.

Jim: All righty. Well, let’s move on to the, kind of the next big personage in our story here, which is the Buddha. Now you relate a bunch of interesting biography, but there’s lots of places you can pick up the biography of Gautama, if that’s how you pronounce it, and your list is quite grounded back to what the Buddha brings to meaning. And one of the things you say is that the Buddha’s view of meaning is that it’s deeper than morality. It has to include something else.

John: Yes. So I’m deeply influenced by Stephen Batchelor and a lot of… and his Sati. But there’s this really golden little book by Stephen Batchelor along with others and an existential interpretation. And I can use what we just talked about. Coming out of modal confusion is, I think, how you can fundamentally understand what the Buddha is on about and his… the core trait is Sati, which is translated as mindfulness. But this is remembering. This is remembering what you and I were talking about just a few minutes ago, but really remembering the being mode, really being called to it, not to disparage the having mode.

John: The Buddha finds the middle path that’s supposed to be appropriate for addressing the having needs and the being needs and alleviating modal confusion. And that for the Buddha, if you don’t alleviate… Speaking on behalf of the Buddha is so pretentious. But if you don’t alleviate the modal confusion, if you don’t have that deep remembrance, that reconnects you fundamentally, puts you in the right… keeps you in the right existential mode so the connection between you and the world and you and others and you and yourself is fundamentally not confused, if you don’t do that then all of your morality projects are going to be twisted by this modal confusion in a profound way. So if you don’t pursue… I’ll use a word that now… it’s got too much baggage, but it’s… If you think of Plato and the coming out of the cave into the light, if you don’t pursue enlightenment, the kind of enlightenment that alleviates and helps modal confusion, then all of your attempts to be moral…

John: … modal confusion, then all of your attempts to be moral are going to be significantly warped and perverted and undermined by that modal confusion.

Jim: And we talked about this earlier, but you get into it deeper here when you were talking about the Buddha and his program, is that mindfulness can be an attempt to solve some of these problems.

John: Yeah. The thing about mindfulness, I have a lot about this, I’ve just written another book chapter for it. I’m deeply ambivalent about the West’s attitude towards mindfulness. I think I was the first person to teach academically at the University of Toronto about mindfulness. I think the West’s interest in it, both scientifically and popular culturally, is important. I think it’s a response to the meaning crisis, but I think the West is also fundamentally misframing mindfulness in a very significant degree.

John: I talk about mindfulness in terms of ways of cultivating skills and virtues of attention that allow us to get a fundamental kind, not a singular insight, but a systemic insight. The kind of insight that is not just into one problem, but an entire set of problems, makes new affordances, new arenas possible. It drives you developmentally, right? The way children have those insights that aren’t just into this problem, but all ways of being, and they take a step forward in their stage of development.

John: And so, mindfulness is about breaking inappropriate ways of framing the world and cultivating better ways of making better frames so that you can see through the illusions of modal confusion. You can you turn around from the cave wall and develop a more optimal way of being as a human being. Sorry. I used to use that word and I’m now hesitant about it, because it’s being appropriated largely where optimization means completely within the having mode. I mean optimization that’s within the having mode, within the being mode, and also more importantly, between the having mode and the being mode. That’s what I mean.

Jim: Now it’s interesting, like I mentioned last time, I actually started doing mindfulness meditation. It’s been about two months now. And I must confess, I haven’t noticed any such gigantic changes in my cognitive process. It’s a few small useful things. One I find most useful is, occasionally you get these, lifelong Battle of the Bulge, I will confess. The only thing I really find kind of off about my mental processing. Normally, I’m pretty happy with my mental and emotional processing. I find the Battle of the Bulge my whole life. And you get this urge, oh yeah. Pick up the cupcake, stuff it in your face. Right.

Jim: And one of the things I’ve picked up from Sam Harris and some of the other ones I’ve listened to is, ah, just pause and say, that’s just a thought. And when you put your finger on it, say, that’s just a thought. Poof, it disappears. And that’s the frame of mindfulness of watching the thoughts come in and out of the conscious frame allows oneself to have the perspective that all this stuff is just thoughts.

John: Yes. So Sam Harris is coming out of the Buddhist tradition, but there were very similar… If you read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditation, the same thing is going on there. And that goes into CBT. Getting people to stand back, like we talked about. Stand back and look at their mental framing, rather than automatically, unconsciously looking through it.

John: Now I get what you mean about, you haven’t noticed grand changes. But that has the potential to be a very systemic and systematic difference for you. Right. Because, think about what you’ve got there, as you know, I don’t think there is a single practice. I don’t think there’s any kind of panacea, but that moment, that space, right. That’s you being able to intervene in hyperbolic discounting. And that’s a pretty powerful thing to be able to do. And if that starts to generalize, outside of the cupcake, to other areas where you might not have intended to go, that’s when it to feel like a developmental change.

John: Now, for most people, that takes a long time. I was doing these practices for about two to three years before people started noticing changes in me. And that’s my mark, by the way. My self observations count for 1/10th of other people noting changes in my behavior to me. And that for me, yeah that takes a long time. And like I said, I think you have to, and I argue you have to integrate meditative practices with contemplative practices, with movement practices, with ethical practices, if you want that generalization. If you want it to percolate through your psyche and permeate through your life.

Jim: Yeah. This is very important. I’ll jump ahead here to a topic that I was going to do later, which is, the kind of change even this new technique that I have discovered, as you say, it can be used for things other than cupcakes. It could be used for anger. It could be used for even tiredness, interestingly.

John: Yes, yes, yes.

Jim: Oddly enough. Is that it is more or less similar to the Piaget-ian stages of cognitive development that children go through. You gave a couple of really good examples of things that, hard to believe that we were so dumb when we were that young. Things that every child goes through. And we was talking about pregame, I’ve got a new granddaughter, 15 months old. It’s been great to watch her go through these stages very rapidly. And so maybe very briefly talk about these idea of Piaget-ian other similar kinds of natural human development and cognition. And how the average adult still has more steps they can go.

John: Yes. That’s beautiful. Thank you for that, Jim. A great example is a four year old failing in conservation tasks. So they like candies. The two gods of all children are candies and play. Everything else is just vectors towards those two attractor states. It’s really important that the four-year-old can count and the four-year-old understands that five is more than four, et cetera. And what you do is, you count out five candies in one row and then below it, right, you count out five candies, but spaced further apart. And you ask the four-year-old, which one they want, and they’ll tell you they want the lower row. Right. Even though there’s no difference in the number, both are five candies. What are they doing? Well, here’s Piaget’s explanation. They’re doing what’s called centration.

John: They are finding the amount, the overall space taken up as super salient to them. Just like you find the chocolate cake super salient when you’re trying to lose weight. Right? And they don’t note the other variable, that all of the additional space is non-candy space. And that’s why they keep falling prey to this.

John: Now the point that Piaget make is it’s not just a local problem. It’s systemic. They’re failing to conserve. It’s one instance of a whole family, a whole network of problems that they’re facing. And what happens when they go through a stage of development, is they get an insight, not just into the candy problem, but into many different other, and all of these failures to conserve go away at about the same time. This is happening over months. It’s not happening like in a day. But what’s happening is, you’re getting a systemic insight and it’s happening systematically for the child. And that’s how you go through a stage of development.

John: And this is again, as the child is to the adult, the adult is to the sage. We still suffer from not just this problem or that problem, but we don’t see, we don’t see, maybe because of modal confusion that these problems belong to families and networks and systems. And we can get interventions that will not just solve this problem or that problem, but entire families of problems like modal confusion.

Jim: Yep. I would also suggest there’re other kinds of development as well. I had Zach Stein on our show. I’ve had him on lots of times, like five times. I think the second, most recent episode was on hierarchical complexity. Which is that, we also just developed the ability to deal with bigger chunks of stuff.

Jim: When you and I talk about consciousness, for instance, it means all kinds of ramifications that it might not have to a seven year old, or even to your average adult who watches Fox news. Right. And that’s also important. But anyway, that’s kind of an aside, let’s go back to the main line here, because we’ve got so much to cover.

Jim: One of your I thought more interesting pieces of work in the course, is your quite detailed development of the concept of insight.

John: Yes, yes. Insight is very important, and although insight is so important to both Descartes and Spinoza, we have focused on a rationality of inference, how can we make our influential processes more reliable? And again, I’m not saying we should stop doing that at all. I’m not saying that at all. But we have neglected practices that can reliably improve our insight. And those are also overlapped with our developmental abilities. We just talked about it. They also are central to our overcoming self-deception. Because, when you realize how you are deceiving yourself, mis-framing things and breaking out to a different frame, that’s insight.

John: Now I think that insight has two main, attentional drivers to it. One is a meditative move in which we’re stepping back and looking at our mental framing. So like you, you can realize that there’s a confusion, con-fusion, fusing together of your thought of the cupcake and the cupcake. And when you can step back and pull those two apart, you’re breaking a framing that allows you to do something different. That’s that’s one move, that’s breaking an inappropriate frame. That’s the meditative aspect of mindfulness. And it drives the breaking frame part of insight.

John: There’s also the making, which is, you learn to see the world in a new way. You open up pathways of development. So for example, when you can resist hyperbolic discounting for a bit, and that starts to perhaps pervade through your life and generalize, your foreign landscape is going to change for you in fundamental ways. You’re going to start seeing new possibilities and in both senses of the word, you’re going to realize those possibilities in ways you couldn’t do before.

John: That’s the making frame part of it. And we have insights at various scales, as you said, at different scales of hierarchical complexity. We can have very sudden ones, which are like the prototypical aha moment, and we can have these more systemic ones like we were just talking about.

John: And so for me… if I were to just say this on the street, this would strike many people as paradoxical, mindfulness properly understood is a powerful form of rationality because it more reliably affords insight development and the overcoming of self-deception.

Jim: And then particularly with respect to insight. And again, I think it’s very deeply to some of the things we’re talking about later, is that you also build this model, the fact that we have Gestalt and we have features, right, and that, in some sense, insight is feeling your way to the appropriate level of construction and deconstruction of features and gestalts. That’s really a very powerful idea.

John: Yeah. This is me, and with the help of other people like Dan Chappy, trying to make a theoretical integration between insight and what Merleau-Ponty and others called optimal grip, in which, you’re always trying to move… You’re moving in these two dimensions. The one I just talked about, between stepping back in meditation and seeing deeply in and contemplation. So there’s that movement. And as you just said, there’s also the movement you’re constantly making between features and gestalt. Merleau-Ponty talks about, you pick up an object, for example, I’m holding my Jack knife right now. Right. And we were talking about this before, we were talking about Plato. Do I want to see the whole thing? Do I want to zero in on the detail? How should I see it?

John: Well, there is no final answer, because it depends on what I’m trying to do. Am I trying to fix my Jack knife? Am I trying to open it? Am I trying to use it to stand for the letter, I? what is it I’m doing with it? And what we’re doing is we’re constantly moving between the features and the Gestalt. Right. And we’re trying to constantly move between stepping back and looking at it and also stepping through it to see beyond it, like when the blind person is tapping the ground with their cane. Right.

John: And so there’s this very huge dynamic. And often, that’s happening in the background. It’s a lot of what I would argue is going on and what psychologists call fluency. But sometimes we get sudden shifts and that comes into consciousness, a flash of change of salients and that’s insight.

John: But yeah, there’s a deep continuity between those moments of insight and the more pervasive action of constantly trying to in an evolving manner, reconfigure our optimal grip on the world.

Jim: And your suggestion is that, mindfulness training can help us get that closer to right, and because, of course it’s always contextual, right? There’s never the right level of decomposition and Gestalts.

John: No. Never.

Jim: Every situation is different. So the argument is that mindfulness training helps one feel one’s way to the right level of high hierarchy of analysis.

John: Yeah, exactly. What I’m proposing, like in the eightfold path, like right mindfulness, right concentration. All the rights are not moral rights. A closer translation is like right handedness, and you can not connect the two metaphors. The eightfold path is about how you can get an optimal grip, how we can use mindfulness and ethical practices and reflective practices to really enhance our optimal grip.

John: I would propose to you and I do in the series, that one way of understanding that enlightenment, how it plays out when we’re alleviated for modal confusion is, it’s a meta optimal grip. When I’m enlightened, I have this meta-state that allows me to… I’m better at evolving my optimal grip. It’s like the distinction biologists make between, the evolution of a trait, And then the evolution of evolvability, right. And those are two different things.

John: Enlightenment is more like the evolution of your meta optimal gripping ability. And a metaphor I use is like this, when I’m in martial arts, I take a stance. I don’t fight with that stance. That’s ridiculous. The stance is… it’s meta because what it does is, it puts me in a place where I’m sort of set to get into various optimal grips that I need, no pun intended, but maybe intended right, when I’m grappling or fighting. And we use that metaphor. I have this stance towards the world. If you dig into these, you can start to unpack what’s going on in my proposal.

Jim: That’s great. Now let’s do this one as briefly as we can, even though it’s a complex concept. Very important. It’s one I never had heard described quite this way. All these things are closely related. The idea of opponent processing.

John: Right. Everything we’ve been talking about like insight, attention, they’re self-organizing processes. The problem with self-organization is it could be like a magic wand, a vague term. I try to specify it in terms of opponent processing, which is the idea of two processes that are biased to work at opposing goals, but are functionally integrated together so that they are mutually constraining and correcting each other all the time. And that allows for a process to be not only self-organizing, but to be continually self-correcting.

Jim: Gotcha. And of course, we’re finding in AI, this is a very important concept. Some of the most interesting new developments in artificial intelligence are around what are called generative adversarial networks, right? GANs where essentially you say, all right, let’s try to generate an identifier of pictures. Find all the dogs in the picture. Then you have to find an opponent to try to create things that will trick the AI that’s trying to identify the dogs, and that makes the dog identifier smarter and smarter, because it has to fight this opponent. And there’s a definite flavor of this idea of opponent processing and this idea of balance. Strings not too tight, not too loose, right?

John: Yep. Yeah. The middle path, I think, is exactly that. And the thing is, you find that in AI, you find that all through our nervous system, our biology.

Jim: I’d also add here, in my complexity science field, one of the big breakthrough ideas from Stuart Kauffman. The idea that interesting things often occur at the boundary between order and chaos.

John: Yeah. Very much. And Jordan Peterson picks up on that, too, that idea. Very much. And there’s increasing evidence, I think it’s plausible now, although there’s not consensus, that the brain is constantly at many levels, trying to get at that point. That point of near to criticality, so that, self-organizing criticality is always available to it.

Jim: Yeah. One of the advantages of that, which Kauffman lays out the math on it, is it becomes much quicker to be able to switch states in a large, but still coherent way. And that’s something the brain does. Like for instance, we had Emery Brown on the show, who’s a cognitive scientist and an anesthesiologist.

Jim: All of his work is about the transition between consciousness and the anesthesia state, and he has studied this to a fair the well. It’s quite amazing how the brain is able to switch, in dramatic fashions in a few seconds, and yet, still stay alive and then recover back to where it was. When especially, he uses propanol, which is a short-acting anesthesia in a lot of the work he does, both his medical work and his cognitive science work. And it’s just amazing.

John: Yeah. I’ve read some that work. Yeah. It’s great. But notice how that’s that meta optimal grip. It’s like my martial arts stance. I can make very sudden changes very quickly and easily get to other states I need to be in. Now here’s the thing, you can do practices that enhance that capacity. That’s one of the main claims of the axial age religions and philosophies.

Jim: Yeah. How the hell sitting in a Catholic church, listening to somebody going on about hocus pocus. How does that help that?

John: Well, framing it that way, I doubt that it can, but if we go back to the idea of play and serious play and development, there are ways in which you can understand ritual as getting people to imaginally engage in serious play, so that they can take themselves to that cusp point.

John: I’ll take it out of the Catholic framework, which I’m willing to admit, for many people, is exactly the way you described it, although not for all. And I’ll take it into my practice where I’m doing Tai Chi Chuan, which is a ritual. But when I do that, man, does that enhance my capacity for getting into that meta optimal grip for fighting. But, and this is what other people noticed in me, it enhances my ability to do that in many domains of my life, other than fighting. And so that’s how it can. The serious playing. And by the way, the verb in Chinese, you don’t do Tai Chi, you play Tai Chi, right? Like playing music. That really works in a profound way. And there’s increasing evidence that it does.

Jim: Yeah. We’ll get into this a lot more later in the series, when we start getting into your ideas around Religio, et cetera. Let’s now move on to what probably a lot of people have been waiting for, and wanting to think about awakening from the meaning crisis, mystical experiences.

Jim: I’ll confess to have had quite a few mystical experiences in my day, right? Some of them powered by psychedelics in my substantially misspent youth. Some of them through ritual processes in secret societies that actually produce a mystical experience. I’ve gotten the point now where I know some ways that I can put myself through combination of tiredness and food deprivation and certain physical locations, like on the edge of a woods as the sun is setting that produce a mystical experience. And they’re cool, but they’re more than just cool.

John: Yeah. So everything we’ve said gives me a framework for talking about that because I’m proposing basically a cognitive continuum. Other people have Newberg, a former student of mine and Daniel Craig. That you can see insight, very local insight. And then you can have a more ongoing, extended, in the flow experience, which already has a lot of mystical aspects to it. And then you can think of the flow experience, but happening, not at your expertise of tennis, or your expertise for martial art fighting, but what about if you can get into a flow state for your expertise of meta optimal gripping? That’s what I’m proposing a mystical experience is.

John: When that opens people up the way Plato talked about, where they get a profound sense of inner peace and a sense of coming into relationship with what’s more real, the really real, there’s a lot of research showing that that has a huge impact on them, it calls them to transformation. It calls to development. It helps them remember and reawaken the being mod, it lifts them out of modal confusion, and they transform their lives in ways that by many objective measures get better. And so I think when mystical experiences become awakening experiences, when they call people to transforming their existential modes, their agent arena relationship in profound ways that are noticeable and measurable by others, then I think that we can talk about the mystical experience being an awakening experience.

John: And then I’m interested in, can we rationally justify recommending people pursuing these? And given a broader notion of rational that we’ve been and talking about. And given that we sort of constrain people to teaching us about wisdom and not about knowledge when they’re coming out of these states, I think we can talk about them as rationally advisable, as rational, and helping to reliably and systemically overcome self-deception like modal confusion and help us to cultivate wisdom.

John: Now, when people come out of these and they propose certain metaphysics, there’s some metaphysics that I get, because I felt that one. When the metaphysics is a description of the experience, that’s fine that there’s a sort of oneness. I get that. This is my problem, people will come out of these experiences and they’ll say dramatically opposite things. I’ve read lots of these reports. People will go into that report and they’ll come out of it and say, now that I know there’s a God. And people will go in and say, now I know there’s no God. Right. And they’re both equally relieved. And they both feel that they’re… Or I know God isn’t a person. Or I know that there is no person, and it’s all over the place.

John: And so we’ve focused too much on the metaphysical pronouncements that come after the mystical experience and not enough on the sapiential having to do with wisdom, transformations, and practices that are occurring within it. And so I recommend we reframe how we try to appropriate and understand these experiences.

Jim: Yeah. I think that’s really good advice. And you repeated that at least four times, I think, in the series the idea that, don’t give any extra privilege to the contents people bring back. Remember smoking weed in college, if you smoked a bunch then you write poetry. Man, that was the best poetry ever. Well, guess what? In the morning it sucked but it’s methodic, right. And I think the same is true. And of course, Buddha famously warned his followers against metaphysical speculation. People forget that actually. Then the original Pali Canon documents of Buddhism, very clear warning against metaphysical speculation.

John: Yes. And he also famously said this, I think I quote this in the series, “This is how you’ll know that someone is not my disciple, if he offers to perform a miracle.” Right. And so, because what’s going on there, is a profound modal confusion, right? You’re taking wisdom, which is supposed to be about transformation in the being mode, and you’re trying to translate it into a special power of manipulating the world. The having mode. It’s profound modal confusion. It’s profound modal confusion.

Jim: No, it’s funny. I joke with a guy who’s an advisor to me on meditation and he always asks, “Well, what do you want to be able to do?” And I say, “I want to be able to fly, and I want to be able to point my finger at people and have them die.” That would be an example of exactly what one should not look to be getting out of these things. Of course, he and I good friends, so he knows I’m just fucking with him, right. And then we get down and have a more serious conversation. So that’s a perfect example of what one should not think about.

Jim: Now, here’s going to be one of my, I think, strongest pushbacks against this whole concept.

John: Please.

Jim: Which is, societies that have really invested heavily in mystical experiences. Let’s say Tibet, and let’s say Vietnam, particularly southern part of Vietnam, which were both Buddhist for very, very long periods of time and had very strong traditions of some percentage of the population and a small one, usually working at developing really powerful, mystical experiences.

Jim: You put the Tibetan monks in the brain scanner and man, their brains are really different than Joe Blow’s brain. But as somebody in the New Testament said, I forget who, maybe it was Paul. Maybe it was Jesus. “By your fruits you will know them.” Right. And Tibet was famously a nasty feudal state with fat and jolly monks and skinny starving peasants. 95% or 98% of the population die young. Vietnam, not much better. So here we have two examples of societies that had thousand year plus traditions of deep use of mystical experience, and yet, at least from our perspective, fairly nightmarish outcomes.

John: Yeah. And I don’t back away from that criticism at all. I think it’s well made. And part of what I don’t like is the importation of mindfulness practices into the west as a crypto form of Buddhist apologetics. I’ve been very critical of that. The idea that Buddhism is somehow the right, almost scientifically right account of things. I think that’s terrifically misplaced.

John: I want to point out the two people that had a huge impact on me. Steven Bachelor is now famously, you know why he’s no longer a Buddhist. Evan Thompson, Why I’m Not a Buddhist, right? Because, they don’t like the way in which a lot of the discussion around Buddhism has turned into this crypto apologetics.

John: And I think that any attempt to set up a society in which there is the university without the monastery is a problem, and I’ve made that point. But, I equally think that any attempt to set up a society with the monastery without the university is a problem. And so I think there is a kind of profound, societal, modal confusion going on in the instances you pointed. You had similar things in the West. You had the monastic tradition in the West. But one of the things that emerged, was the university as a corrective to that. And I think if a society is set up such that universities can’t emerge, then there’s something fundamentally wrong.

John: To put it in a nutshell, I think the cultivation of wisdom and the acquisition of knowledge should not be separate. They should be pursued in basically something like an opponent processing fashion.

Jim: Good. I think it was the first time, actually my friend Jordan Hall has been using the term for a long time and I think he picked it up from you, was the concept of psycho technologies. I think to make sense of this seeming addiction. Right? If we think about let’s say meditation and mystical experiences and learning how to do calculus and learning how to change the alternator on a car as all examples of psycho technologies, then one can make sense of them. Right. We’re trying to assemble an ensemble of psycho technologies to maximize our efficaciousness in the world and oh, by the way, give us meaning in life.

John: Yes. The proposal I’m making, and it’s basically based on, like we’ve talked about, some cutting edge ideas from AI and a lot of profound ideas within biology. So there’s a deep continuity there, about getting as much opponent processing in as much hierarchical, complexity as possible. That’s why I talk about an ecology of practices as what we should be pursuing. Yeah. So I am hesitant, very…

John: Yeah. So I am hesitant, very hesitant. As hesitant as I am when somebody pronounces their particular metaphysic. I’m also hesitant when somebody offers one or two practices as the universal panacea. I’m very, very suspicious that that’s going wrong.

Jim: Metaphysics. Another one of the things my regular listeners know is one of my sayings. Occasionally when I appear on somebody else’s podcast, that’s in video, I’ll actually whip one out. I’ll say, when I hear the word metaphysics, I reach for my pistol. I do use metaphysics in the original sense. In the sense that Aristotle or Kant would recognize.

Jim: Today people use metaphysics to include all kinds of things, which neither Aristotle nor Kant would recognize as metaphysics. But, in those original sense, I said, “I’ll reach for my pistol, goddammit.” By definition, we wouldn’t call it metaphysics if we knew anything about it, now would we?

John: I think I agree. I think the way metaphysics has been separated from rationality and also via rationality, from the cultivation of virtue. This is one of the great of bullshits of our time.

Jim: Quite literally. Not just of our time, but the last 6,000 years, at least.

John: It can be, like you said, there’s a difference between people like Aristotle and Plotinus. Then there’s the whole tradition that comes to fruition and things like the new age movement, et cetera.

Jim: We won’t get that to that, wait a minute. But we’ll talk about some of the other things in a little bit. All right. We’re going to talk about consciousness, which John goes into considerable detail, as regular listeners know one of my favorite topics. We’ve had a number of consciousness scientists on the show. People like Emery Brown, Christof Koch, Bernard Baars. Then next month we’re having Antonio Damasio on. One of my favorites.

John: Oh wow. Wow and Baars, cool.

Jim: Damasio has a new book out. I got the galleys and we’ll be releasing the episode right about the pub date. That’ll be a lot of fun.

John: Wow. Yeah. Consciousness is a hot topic right now. It’s the holy grail of cognitive science, in many, many ways.

Jim: Yeah, indeed. What does consciousness mean to you? You always have to start off with that, goddamn, definition?

John: I worry about an equivocation in when people answer that. Because there’s two different questions that we could mean by that. We could mean what’s the nature of consciousness? Which is how does something like consciousness exist, within the furniture of the physical universe? Then there’s the function question? What does consciousness do? Confusing or conflating those, or equivocating between them, I would argue there’s a lot of consciousness literature that does that. We have to take much more care, because we’re groping in the dark, in some important ways.

Jim: Let me jump in here. This is one thing I talk about endlessly, with people. I enjoy talking about it. I love John Searle’s distinctions. That there is a biological nature to consciousness. He says, “People will often make the mistake of reifying it.” That it is not a thing you can put your finger on. Let me go touch the consciousness.

Jim: He gives the wonderful parallel, that he says, “It’s much better to think of consciousness as a process like digestion. You can’t point to the digestion in a human. You can say it’s your tongue it’s your lips, it’s your thumb, it’s your liver, it’s your intestines and further on down the road. Consciousness is much like that. It’s a whole series of things going on. Nerves firing all over. Neuromodulators rolling. Rhythms coming and going, et cetera. The result is what we call consciousness. That’s essentially the functional, more or less, model.” He also argues, “Because it’s energetically and genetically very expensive, it must have a purpose. It’s not just epiphenomenal.”

John: I agree and it sounds like you do too. I take it as a highly plausible argument, that consciousness is very functional. That it’s not a by-product, or an epiphenomenon. As you say, it’s very metabolically expensive. If you take a look, now you have to be really careful because finding the neural correlate for consciousness, has been a quixotic quest. Generally there’s an overlap in areas of the brain, that are associated with more conscious states, attention, working memory and fluid intelligence. Those are all bound up together in some ways.

John: There’s an often, a not acknowledged, implicit presupposition, of a deep connection between consciousness and rationality, that is not explored very well. Because people use all these metaphors of reflection and metacognition, as central to rationality. Without noting their reliance on working memory, consciousness and attention, when they’re doing that. There’s a lot of stuff we have to be very careful about. Yes. Not reifying it. Not treating consciousness as the limited spatial temporal object, is something we have to get away from. The problem is, again, from both a religious or heritage, the notion of a soul. At least one notion of a soul, not all the notions. Also Descartes’ notion of the mind and consciousness.

Jim: Goddamn Descartes. Fucking close to the root of all evil.

John: You know what I say, Jim? I said, “I wish I made his kinds of mistakes though.”

Jim: The funny thing is with respect to Cartesian dualism. Of all the huge mistakes we make, on the other hand, one of the most remarkable epiphanies, enlightenments and growths I had, was when I grokked the idea of analytical geometry. That was like, “Holy fuck.” That was one of the five or six most important things I ever learned, in my whole life. Here on one hand, I denounced the fellow, on the other hand, he’s one of my greatest intellectual heroes. Let me make sure I put that in context.

John: Yeah. That’s fair. I would go a little bit further. When I try to set Descartes into his competitors, at his time, his main competitor is Aristotelianism, the Hurley morphic theory of the relationship between mind and body, and that’s collapsing. It’s collapsing under the hammer blows of the scientific revolution.

John: Many people have made this argument. This is not unique to me. Descartes’ dualism, for all of the error, I think that’s the right word, that it set us with. It affords the driving of the scientific revolution, because it just shut off a whole bunch of questions that needed to be backgrounded, so that we could get something like physics going. You can’t get anything like physics going, if you stay, at least at that time, within a risk framework.

John: Back to consciousness. We’ve inherited this model of consciousness as a delimited, spatial, temporal object. I agree with you and I agree with Searle, that we have to break out of that way of thinking, if we’re going to understand, both what consciousness is and what consciousness does.

John: Here’s the one part I want to put in. Not only should we not confuse those and we do confuse them when we reify, we should also remember that they have to be answered together. I’m very critical of something that’s happening a lot, where people will say, “Well, I’m going to answer the function question and I’m not going to really address the hard problem of the nature.” Or people will say, “I’m going to talk about the nature of consciousness, but not really answer the function problem.” I think that is fundamentally misplaced. While they shouldn’t be identified, neither should they be separated. The answer to one, is going to be dependent on the answer to the other. They have to be answered in a coordinated fashion. Which is hardest of all. Which is probably one of my explanations, as to why we’re not really solving this problem yet.

Jim: I have to agree with you. In fact, I have a view on this. Which is, that it will turn out the hard problem isn’t very hard at all. Once we understand the functional side. It will become obvious in the same way. I’m not the first person to say this. The lack of understanding about life, until surprisingly recently. The [inaudible 01:35:18] idea that there were some essence of life that was qualitatively different, than physics. While, as it turns out, there are, in the domain of complexity, there’s a whole level of emerging complexity in life, that we didn’t see in the physical world, prior to life.

Jim: Nonetheless, there is nothing in life that is anything but a whole bunch of physics, a whole bunch of chemistry. Organized in a very interesting set of feedback loops. I’m reasonably confident, that once we have enough knowledge on the functional side, I will say, “Why did we think this problem was hard? The so-called hard problem.”

John: Yeah. I make this argument with people, who propose that consciousness is a special kind of stuff. That’s my somewhat pejorative way of referring to it. Usually these arguments are made, that the special stuffiness of consciousness, is evidence that the naturalistic world view is ultimately inadequate. I point out to them, that they don’t make those arguments like they used to, about life. They don’t make them like they used to, until very recently, about intelligence. Because of the advances we’re making, both within cognitive science and within artificial intelligence on intelligence.

John: Yes. I tend to agree with you. I’ve tried to propose thickening up the functional explanation, to the point where the ontological question becomes more answerable. I’m answering your questions honestly, but I also want to temper that with a lot of humility. That this topic is one for which everybody should exercise great humility. We should, popper set. We should propose bold hypotheses, but we should hold them very lightly. Because this is a very hard topic. Nobody, to my mind, has the right to claim that they have taken the field. There are a lot of positions that, to my mind, are all intellectually respectable. That doesn’t mean I think they’re all true, but I can’t say to that person, here’s my knock down definitive proof, that you’re absolutely wrong. I want to put that caveat. I want to talk about consciousness with you. I want to propose things. But I want people to understand my attitude towards those proposals.

Jim: It’s still very, very early.

John: Yes.

Jim: I’m with you. I’ve read, I wouldn’t say everything, but I’ve read a good percentage of the stuff written by the leading thinkers and I’m with you. Nobody has knocked it down. Not even close. They haven’t even set it up, let alone knocked it down.

John: Yeah. Exactly. That goes towards something, Jim. It goes towards something we were saying earlier. I, therefore, am very hesitant and suspicious, when people try to build comprehensive metaphysics, out of the mystery of consciousness.

Jim: The only way this has been off worse, when people try to do that out of quantum mechanics. Yeah. Very similar. Oh my God. The number of babbling idiots who try to generate metaphysics from quantum mechanics, or from consciousness, there ought to be a law. Goddammit.

John: Or from both.

Jim: Even worse.

John: There’s also, “Wow. Quantum mechanics is really weird. Consciousness is really weird. Therefore, they must be shared. They must somehow be one.” There are careful and important things to be said about the relationship between consciousness, the role of the observer and quantum mechanics. A lot of what’s said about it, is bullshit, it’s garbage. We have to cut through that. I do think, by the way, I think there are important connections between consciousness, intelligence and rationality, that we need work out if we want to understand those other two, intelligence and rationality.

Jim: We’ve had fun ranting here, in general. Waving our hands very vigorously. Which is fun. Now doing it stone sober in the middle of the day, is less fun than it would be over a couple of drams of good single malt.

Jim: Let’s get back to some of the things you cover in the series. Where you review some of the current models. Let’s start with the Baars and the global workspace therein. By the way, people want to hear Baars himself on this, for an hour and a half. Check out EP108.

John: The work of Baars is really important. We have to be selective. Always in the science. I could not possibly read all of the theories of consciousness. Even the published theories that are coming out. I tend to focus on the ones that are gaining the most traction. That’s a good heuristic when you’re doing scientific work.

John: The global workspace is definitely one of the prominent and pervasive theories and, to that degree, persuasive theories. It’s had a huge impact on me, because it helped me make a proposal. I think. Now this is controversial. Like I said, everything we’re going to say is controversial. I think, there’s an emerging consensus as to what the function of consciousness is. I think that Bars, or not Baars. I think he was one of the first people, especially when he did work with Shanahan, to put his finger on what the function of it is. It comes out in the global workspace model. Shanahan and him actually published a paper, that was directly on this, in which they literally state that the function of consciousness, is to solve the frame problem.

John: I believe, that if you pay attention to what Tononi’s talking about with integrated information, we’ll come back to it. We’ve come back with Ward and Seth and their restructuring model. That many of these models converge on this proposal and that overlaps with current models, about what working memory is doing. I argue, that there is convergence towards, it’s not a consensus, but there’s convergence towards a consensus, as to what the function of consciousness is. I want to give Baars credit for being, again with Shanahan, being the person that actually proposed that’s the function of consciousness. His particular explanation is lacking in certain ways. Nevertheless, putting the finger on, that’s the function of consciousness solving the frame problem. All of the really good theories, are converging towards this.

Jim: Of course, Baars is very upfront about the fact that he has no clue, how any of this works. It’s quite high level conceptual theory. He’s always very frank, “How does it work? Oh no. That’s a job for somebody else. I’m old. Somebody else has got to carry the football with the next perspective.” I wanted to give the global workspace theory, in a few words.

John: Okay. The idea of the global workspace theory, is there’s two metaphors he uses. One is the theater. One is your desktop, on your computer. I’ll use the second one.

John: You have your desktop on your computer and what you can think of is, you have all of your files and they correspond to your unconscious processing. Then, when you bring things onto your desktop you activate them and you can co-activate them, so you can manipulate and transform them. Then you can resave them. Notice how you can draw from anywhere, globally. You can draw from any of your files and bring them into your desktop. You can also broadcast back, to as many files as you want.

John: Consciousness is this function of the global workspace. It has to do with how attention is lighting up, making more salient parts of working memory. The consciousness, working memory and attention, are all interwoven and therefore also intelligence. Because the thing that most predicts intelligence, are measures of working memory. That’s why you can’t separate these.

John: There’s a point I keep trying to make. What Baars says that’s functioning to do, is to solve the frame problem. That article that was written with Shanahan, Shanahan basically argues there’s two parts to the frame problem. One’s the technical part I won’t go into, which he basically, I think, solved. I think that’s fair to say that. The other part that remains, is the relevance problem. Which is the profound problem of, “Yes. But how do you, out of all of what’s in your long-term memory, your files, how do you select what’s relevant and how do you put them together? So what you’re putting together is relevant to the problem ahead.” It’s a central problem. This problem, of what I call relevance realization, within artificial intelligence. I would argue, and I’ve published on this, again controversial, that when we’re measuring G, what we’re measuring is an organism’s ability to do this kind of relevance realization.

Jim: Remind our audience about G.

John: People hate G, because they don’t want it to be true. If I want to know three things about you, I want to know G, I want to know your big five and I’d want to know your attachment style. Because these are the things that have the most theory and are the most predictive, of what you’re going to be in.

John: This goes back to Spearman, literally in the twenties. He realized, that there seems to be a general ability that how you solve one set of problems, he discovered for kids, how they’re doing in history and how they’re doing in math, was not uncorrelated. They’re predictive of each other. In fact, all of these different subjects are predictive of each other. There’s, what he called, a positive manifold. Then that generalizes out. That’s why, when you’re doing an IQ test, you’re given all these different kinds of things. This is a general ability. It’s a general ability.

John: I’ve argued with one of my collaborators, Leo Ferraro, work I did with Tim Lillicrap and Blake Richards and a whole bunch of people. That what we’re measuring when we’re measuring G is, I think what Spearman actually was trying to point, we’re measuring the ability to do relevance realization. We’re measuring how well people can go into memory, retrieve relevant information, transform it in a way that makes it more appropriate and fits it to the situation, formulate their problems and do their problem solving. That’s what I think relevance realization is. That’s what G is.

John: How does that line up with working memory? The work of Lynn Hasher, another one of my colleagues at the University of Toronto. That the function of working memory is not just a holding space, which was the Miller model, but that working memory is a higher order relevance filter. That what you’re doing in working memory, is you taking information that’s already been reprocessed unconsciously for relevance and then you’re putting it through another relevance filtering process. That’s why things like chunking, affect working memory so profoundly. All of this is converging on the idea that what consciousness does, is this higher order, recursive relevance realization. That allows you to deal with situations that demand enhanced relevance realizations. Situations of novelty, complexity, and ill-definededness. Those are the situations that seem to need consciousness. When we turn all those problems, those ill-defined messy novel problems, into well-defined problems, we no longer need consciousness. We proceduralize and make those processes automatic.

Jim: For instance, the example you’ve given it’s a well-known one, is that we don’t consciously construct our sentences. Once we become fluent in a language, somehow we present something to the machinery of sentence construction and it does it. If you try to do a sentence, one word at a time, it’s just completely unfluid and unnatural. Driving your car, it’s mostly unconscious.

John: Yeah. Compared to when you first start to drive a car, to where you drive a car now. Or the reverse. Compare your sentence production to somebody who’s had brain damage and is going through rehab for getting that ability back. You realize, “Oh. Right.”

Jim: Very, very interesting. Let’s move on to another theory of consciousness. Which is very controversial, but also extremely interesting and in some ways, deeply relevant to your program. That’s Tononi’s integrated information theory. By the way, those who want to go into this deeper, Christof Koch, EP105.

John: Yeah. The big ones are: the global workspace, Baars; Tononi’s integrated information; Clearman’s radical plasticity; Boron’s self-restructuring. Some of these are the big ones.

Jim: I’d add Demasio, also.

John: Yeah. Demasio too.

Jim: Very different, very focused on body bodily perception and the brain stem.

John: He’s deeply influenced by Spinoza. He even has one book on Spinoza. Going back to Spinoza, as the alternative to Descartes, has really informed Demasio.

John: Let’s do Tononi. Speaking of Tononi’s idea, it’s very hard, because there’s a lot of it that’s mathematical. The basic idea is that consciousness emerges when you have integrated information. One way of understanding this, is by comparing your TV screen to your retina. The TV screen, what’s happening in any one pixel of your TV screen, or your computer screen, is not causally connected to what’s happening to the pixels around it. They are not integrated. While there’s a lot of information there, the information is not integrated. If you look at your retina, the retina is not pixelated like that. Every piece of stimulation is coordinated, often in important processing, with other parts of the retina. For example, when you’re focusing on one part of your visual scene, there’s a point of processing with backgrounding, that’s trying to compete and get into the focus, and the focus part is trying to compete and keep the backgrounding. So your information processing of a visual scene, is highly, highly integrated.

John: Tononi’s idea, is when information becomes more and more integrated, I would actually say complexified. Because if you look at the details of his proposal, it’s not a homogeneous integration, it’s an integration across a lot of differentiation. He makes that clear. When you get this high degree of complexification of information processing, then he proposes that gives you consciousness. I would argue, that he proposes that largely as an explicit theory of the nature of consciousness. He tends to say that he’s somewhat silent on the function of consciousness, but he’s not completely silent, because he proposes Turing tests for consciousness. In which, he is relying on a functionality of consciousness, to make the Turing test work.

John: What are those Turing tests for consciousness like? You give a system, that you’re trying to evaluate for consciousness a picture and you ask it, “Is there anything inappropriate about this picture?” It might be a picture of a man holding a kite string and then there’s a fish at the top of it. Or a plant with its leaves on the keyboard of a computer. What it’s got to do is, it’s got to realize that things have not been put together in the right way. The complexity of the information has not been appropriately realized. I argue, that’s just another instance of a test of intelligence, a test of relevance realization. His proposal and Baar’s proposal, could actually be integrated, because they converge. Whereas Baars is largely about the function, without telling much about the nature. Tononi’s is mostly about the nature, without telling much about the function. I propose that they could actually be put together and integrated theoretically.

Jim: That makes some sense. On the other hand, they’re talking about very different domains, in some sense. Tononi is talking about consciousness in the abstract. He will claim, that anything that has a high five score, which is the mathematics of integrated information, is consciousness. So, a light switch is conscious. A very low level of consciousness, says Tononi. It does fit some intuitions, when you see about how the brain works and the fact that it’s both local and global, and it’s organized in a small world network, et cetera. Then one could see how Phi is related to human consciousness, perhaps. One wonders about some of these other extensions, famously Aronson’s example, that you can create mathematical models that will generate a high five, but are obviously not conscious.

John: Very much.

Jim: It makes one wonder. My take away is, if at first order, again we’re all speculating about this stuff, that I may be necessary, but far from sufficient, for consciousness.

John: Yes. I would say the same thing also, for global workspace. I think it’s a necessary, but not sufficient. I’m a little bit more hesitant, because Baars is a lot more open about areas that he has not explicated. Like, how attention and working memory are working together with consciousness. That needs to be really specified a lot better, for that theory to make any claims of moving towards efficiency. Yeah. I worry about the panpsychism that comes out of some of Tononi’s proposals. I don’t know what to do about that. That again, is where I worry about that we’re equivocating on the nature and the function problem, in important ways. We have to be a lot more careful. I respect people who argue for panpsychism, but I don’t think it solves the fundamental problem. I think it just redescribes it.

Jim: Yeah. I continue to go back to Searle. Searle is very careful here. He says, “Let’s make sure we’re talking about the consciousness we know about.” Which is biological consciousness. Then people think Searle through the Chinese room argument, are saying that machine consciousness is impossible. No, no, no. That’s not what Searle was saying, at all. He’s saying that a naive form of algorithmic consciousness, is not the same as biological consciousness. He then later says, “You can easily imagine a machine thing that’s very similarly conscious.”

Jim: Here’s the analogy I’ve used, as my extension of Searle. Which is that Searle describes consciousness as analogous to digestion, in the food industry and the pharmaceutical industry, the chemical industry. We have a technology called digesters. That use yeast and bacteria and such, to break down complex chemicals, to turn them into simpler chemicals, to recombine them into highly valuable chemicals. We call them digesters and they’re analogous to human digestion, in a very rough sense. But they’re not at all the same in what they do. Their details, or capabilities, or anything else. I expect we’ll find that, yes, we can create machine consciousnesses, which are analogous in some gross sense to biological consciousness, but they’re not identical, for quite important reasons.

John: The digesters that you’re pointing to and this goes towards ECoG sights. It’s not only that the component parts are functioning differently. It’s also how they’re embedded, is different. Your digestion is embedded within metabolism, which is embedded within auto-polices. That’s not the case for that digesters in the food industry. That, I think, is an important thing.

John: One of the things that people don’t pay enough attention to, to Searle’s Chinese room argument. His argument about the virtual machine argument, is deep connections between intelligence and consciousness, that are actually applied in the Chinese room, that is not adequately discussed. There’s something going on there, about awareness of meaning. Which has something to do with consciousness. It’s supposed to overlap with important functions of intelligence. The ability to solve problems, like carry on a conversation. That part of the Chinese room argument, to my mind, has not been properly explicated and explored enough. That within the Chinese room argument, there’s also, and I’m challenged, I don’t mean challenged to refute, I mean challenged to explicate assumption about deep connections between consciousness and intelligence, that are largely not thought of when people are thinking about intelligence. I want to be clear. I’m not saying your intelligence has to be conscious. I’m saying, in so far as your intelligence is a component in other things, like rationality, I think consciousness is presupposed.

Jim: We’re out of time today. Damn, we could go on for another two hours, on just this topic. But we won’t. We’ll come back next time and bring it back more firmly to your series. We’ll talk about, what you alluded to a couple of times in passing, consciousness and the salience landscape.

John: Yes, very much. Why altering consciousness, can alter your salience landscape.

Jim: Exactly. That was quite an interesting aha for me, there. We’ll have a good time talking about that. Thank you again, John, for another classic episode of the Jim Rutt show.

John: Thank you. My pleasure. I look forward to our next conversation.