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: This is part three out of four of my conversation with John Vervaeke about his video series, Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. Just to repeat, John is a professor of psychology and cognitive science at the University of Toronto. Welcome back, John.
John: It’s great to be back, Jim. I’ve enjoyed our two previous episodes a lot.
Jim: It’s been a lot of fun. I’ll tell you, I was a little trepidacious about doing this series. There’s just so much in it, but, So far, we’ve been having a rocking-and-rolling good times, so hopefully we can continue that today.
John: I foresee that we will.
Jim: Last time we finished up talking about theories of consciousness, a topic we talk a lot about here on the Jim Rut show. Here’s a coming attraction for our listeners. The next episode, after John’s four piece episodes, is going to be Antonio Damasio on his new book, Feeling and Knowing, those who are regular listeners know, I quite often reference Damasio’s theories of consciousness. I was going to have him on last fall when we did a whole series of consciousness episodes, but he had a new book coming so I said, “Let’s wait for your new book”, so that’ll be coming up probably about mid-November it’ll be published.
John: [crosstalk 00:01:14] His book on Descartes’ Error and his book on Spinoza, I recommend them both very highly.
Jim: I’ve never read his Spinoza. The one I always reference is, the feeling of what’s happening or something like that.
Jim: That was one of his earlier books where he laid out the core of his theory. He claims he nails it in the new book we shall see.
John: Well, I’ll definitely get it since I teach courses on consciousness.
Jim: Let’s get back to awakening from the meaning crisis. One of the things you say is that, this is paraphrasing you, this isn’t your exact words, but I think I got the sense right, is that the heart of the Axial Revolution is the view that higher states of consciousness are more real than everyday reality. Is that an accurate paraphrase? If, you want to expand on that a little bit.
John: I think the heart of the Axial Revolution insofar as it went into the great world religions, insofar as the Axial revolution was carried into what we call nowadays, the world religion, Buddhism, and Daoism, and things like that, I think yes. At the heart of those religions. And they often straddle the boundaries between being religions and being philosophies. So, it’s best to describe them as religious philosophies or philosophical religions, but at the heart of them is this idea of a higher state of consciousness that can afford a profound transformation of the individual.
Jim: Very interesting. And you, you make a point, many people think of these higher states of consciousness as more real and you position this versus dreams. Which in some sense are strange and weird just like some HSCs can be strange and weird, but we don’t seem to… well, some people do, but in general, we don’t think of dreams as more real than reality.
John: Yes, that’s exactly the thing. And that’s because… I mean, sort of the philosophical consensus around this is because what we find in our dreams can’t be coherently integrated with the world view we’ve formed from our everyday experience. So we have this general model of the world and the dream experience just does not fit into it. For example, the dreams’ experiences will break our ideas of causation, etc. And what’s odd about these higher states of consciousness is they have exactly the reverse. They are very unique. They are not like any everyday experience. They’re ineffable so they don’t actually fit in in any coherent manner; yet, instead of rejecting them people say, “No, no, those are experiences are of the what’s really real. And my everyday experience is less real.” And that’s what’s really intriguing about these experiences, why people make these judgments and asking if they are justified in doing so.
Jim: And I do wonder about that, right? When you say higher states of consciousness, one almost senses one’s making a value judgment of that sort. I prefer to use the word altered states of consciousness as a more neutral terminology. And I recently had such a thing and I sent you some of the details. And while very interesting, in some ways it decentered me in a way that was constructive and creative. It’s not clear to me that the actual experience of hyper-vividness and sort of pretentious about certain things in my field of you, etc., was actually a more accurate modeling of reality. In fact, I would say probably quite the opposite that if I were to try to navigate in everyday life in that state, I would make more errors than I do in my normal state. But I did find the decentering, the shaking up of the box, turned out to be very helpful. In fact, I had a conceptual breakthrough on a major project I’m working on. So I think that’s a really hugely important distinction to make between the actual experience versus the epiphenomenal side effects of the experience.
John: That’s to the core of the argument I wish to make as well, Jim. I think a lot of the discussion around mystical experiences and higher states of consciousness has been sort of bedeviled by a fascination… And it’s understandable why it’s fascinating, a fascination with the altered phenomenology. However, I think what we should be paying attention to, what really matters in these states, is the underlying functionality which I argue… and your description points to exactly, is an increased capacity for insight. And that what is doing most of the heavy lifting ran an experiment in my lab, provided some evidence for this. What’s doing most of the heavy lifting in these experiences is not the phenomenology, but the profound kind of insights that people get. They often describe these as breakthroughs like you just did, but you can get those kinds of insights we’ve been talking before that are like developmental, they’re systemic, they’re profound across whole areas of endeavor people’s lives.
John: And so that’s what I think we should be paying much more attention to. I think the phenomenology gives us some scientific clues towards the underlying machinery of insight, but I don’t think it is in of itself what we should be focusing on.
Jim: It’s kind of like going to the gym, lifting weights is not of the essence of why you go to the gym, it’s the muscles that you develop, right?
John: And I often quote Deikman on this… And I keep doing it because I think it’s really powerful. It’s not altered states of consciousness that matters it’s altered traits of character. That’s what we’re actually looking for you in this. And the problem with the fixation on the phenomenology is it tends to enhance spiritual narcissism, “Look at my wonderful experiences”, and also spiritual bypassing, escaping from reality into this wonderful phenomenology. So the Buddha always warned people against getting attached to the wonderful states as much as he did to anger and greed, etc.
Jim: Very good. We’ll get back to the Buddha in a minute before we do that, let’s go on to an important part of your model around insight and altered states of consciousness, which is fluency. You use it in a quite specific way. Could you give us your definition of fluency?
John: This is use that is growing within psychology. You’re correct, it has a technical meaning that is only analogous to the everyday meaning of fluency. Fluency is used to describe this following effect and I’ll have to state it intuitively and then revise it. Initially, was thought of it was the ease by which you can process information is used by the brain to make all kinds of judgements about the content of the information that is processed in that way. To give a very easy example, if I give you two passages of exactly the same text and one has better contrast between the lettering and the foreground, so it’s easier to read, and if I ask you to make judgments about it, you’re more likely to say, it’s true.
John: You’re more likely to say it’s trustworthy, because your brain takes this fluency as a measure of how much trust it can place in the content. Now I won’t go into it, but it turns out that’s a very good heuristic. It turns out that’s a good strategy. It’s not a dumb thing the brain is doing, especially when you get beyond the idea that what fluency is marking is ease because fluency isn’t really the case. If I were to just give you something really easy to process, like just say the same word over and again, “Cow, cow, cow, cow.” In fact, you start to lose interest, the processing drops, etc.
John: I would argue not everybody would agree with me. I argue that what’s going on in fluency is your brain is getting a sense of getting an optimal grip on this particular situation and for all kinds of good reasons, that is something that is a very good heuristic for information being trustworthy, being valuable, etc. And I think that when we get into insight, we’re getting what Topolinski and Reber call a fluency spike. We’re getting a sudden increase. We’re getting a better grip on a problem a more optimal grip. And when we chain those together we get the flow state, fluency becomes flow and I like the way those work together. And then I think when you flow at the level of your optimal gripping, not of an object, but of the world, you can get these higher states of consciousness.
Jim: I really love that. In fact, you had a name for it, there’s so many working pieces of your model, which I found useful when you deconstruct them down just one level and you call it the continuity hypothesis. Or essentially you go from fluency to insight, to flow, to mystical experiences, to transformative experiences and you hypothesize, it all uses the same machinery, which we’re not going to talk about this episode, but is going to be the main focus of the next episode.
John: I want to give a proper precedence, independent for me because I came across it after I proposed this, but Andrew Newberg has made a very similar proposal.
Jim: And then we talked about this a little bit in the last episode, but because it’s so central to this continuity hypothesis, maybe you could revisit the idea of a mystical experience being a flow state in which the capacity that is being exercised is optimal grip. This is a really deep idea.
John: As I said, I think what fluency is doing is indicating that the brain is getting an optimal grip. This idea goes back to the great phenomenologist Marlo Ponti. And this is a clear exam example of how the phenomenology if properly used, can give you clue to the underlying functionality. Cause Ponti’s idea of optimal grip is exactly a functional idea. And we talked about this last time you can even see it at work in just visual perception. You’re constantly trying to balance between seeing the whole thing, zooming out to see the whole thing or zooming out to see the thing in its context or zooming in to see its parts, zooming in to see its details or, looking at it from the front or looking at it from the side.
John: There’s no one view that will serve all the tasks you want to perform. And what you want to do is get the balance between all those trade-offs that most appropriately fits you to the task at hand. So I think fluency is when you get an optimal grip that fits you well to the task at hand. And then as I said, I think what happens in insight is you go from a non-optimal grip to an optimal grip on the problem. You see, “Ah, you get it”, and notice how that carries with it a little flash of vividness, a sense of more realness we even represent that with light bulbs going on over people’s heads and metaphors of enlightenment are tied to that flash of insight. And then when you chain a bunch of those together, when you if you think about somebody playing jazz, they’re trying to get one insight that affords another insight that affords another insight, etc., you get the flow state, which is that extended aha experience.
John: Now, we have optimal grips, not only, and this is sort of an idea taken ultimately from Dreyfus who got it from his reading of Heidegger, we have known optimal grip on particular objects or situations. We have an optimal grip on this thing we call the world and I’m going to leave that nebulous precisely because it is a polyvalent term. But, the idea is in mystical experience, we basically get into a flow state where what we’re doing is getting an optimal grip on the world, on realness, on reality, those kinds of world encompassing properties, rather than the properties specific to a specific object or situation. And this is very, very valuable. Not because it does anything in and of itself. I think the meaning you’re getting in those situations is an indication of a possibility of a better fit between the agent and arena in a comprehensive manner that goes into ideas about religion being a meta-meaning system etc.
John: What I’m saying is you’re getting this optimal grip. I like to compare it to the Martial Arts stance. When you take before you start to fight, you don’t actually use that stance in anything at any point. You use it because it is the best stance to be in, in order to get into any other of the optimal stances that will help you get the optimal grip on defecting a blow, or finding a space for a strike, etc. So, if you’ll allow me the metaphor, which of course is enacted in Daoism, which I practice, a Tai Chiwan, the mystical experience is your meta-stance towards the world.
Jim: I just thought you guys did that because it looked cool. Now I know. All right, let’s move on. Now, if we take the idea that the phenomena of the mystical experience is less important than some of the effects, one of the big effects, and this is something I personally have found to be very useful for myself and I’ve advised it for other people, is what you call decentering.
Jim: Back in my hard charge and business dude, da days, I used to intentionally engage in the use of THC products once every six weeks. And I found if you did it more than that it made you stupid and lazy, but doing it every six weeks kind of shook the box up a little bit and let you think outside the box, like the nine dot problem. But when you’re a hard-charging, game A motherfucker business-dude, you’re constantly confronting things that thinking outside the box is a good thing. And I suspect that a goodly part of the good that comes from mystical experiences, altered states of consciousness in general is decentering. And you gave a… I’m surprised I’d never heard of this before you gave a very practical example so anybody can use any time for another kind of decentering, which is the Solomon effect. So if you could talk a little bit about decentering in general and the Solomon effect in specifics.
John: Decentering comes from McNamara, but it’s been taken up as a general term because of its value. And we talked about this last time as the child is to the adult, the adult is to the Sage. You can think, the adult is to the Sage. And this is a point that PIJ made. Although the extreme version he gave, it has been questioned, but in general, children are more egocentric than we are. It’s harder for them to get outside their perspective. It’s harder for them to see things from other people’s perspectives, etc. And that’s because they need to internalize more adult perspectives before they can do so. Now the idea is we are like children compared to the Sage in that we are terrifically egocentric in a lot of ways. In fact, I would argue that egocentrism drives a lot of, it’s a unifying factor.
John: It’s not the sole factor. I’m not being a reductionist, but it’s a unifying factor for many of the cognitive biases. Like the confirmation bias, myside bias, etc. Egocentrism plays a fundamental role in them. And we all know this. We all know this when you’re in the middle of making that same romantic mistake that you’ve made three times before the same damn pattern again, you can’t see it, your friends can see it, and then they’re telling you, “You’re doing it again, John, you’re doing it again. ‘No, I’m not. This is so different.” And then after it’s over you go, “Oh yeah, I did it.” And the idea about these mystical experiences and even the flow state is they weaken that egocentrism. They make us more world-centric. I sometimes say we go from being egocentric to being onto-centric reality.
John: And our connection to the world becomes more salient than our precious ego and our connections to ourself. And my friend and colleague [inaudible 00:16:44] Grossman has shown that simply getting people to redescribe a problem, let’s take one of those, describe a really messy interpersonal problem, you’re in right now. And they inevitably describe it from the first person perspective. And then he’ll say now redescribe it from the third person perspective as if one of your friends was talking about it. And when people do this, they get the Solomon effect. They often get an insight into the problem that they wouldn’t get while they stayed within the first person perspective. So mystical experience is by radically recentering us, making realness super salient to us that really weakens the blinding glare of the ego.
Jim: And I think truthfully, that’s one of the best benefits from doing psychedelics, particularly strong doses, is to realize, okay, the ego is just a thing, right? And the universe and a person can exist without the ego. You can actually be in an ego death state and still function. Now you are acting pretty fucking peculiar, but the ego nest is not an essential part of who you are it’s just a thing which is a quite powerful thing once you learn that
John: I think that’s one of the great thing because the flow state is universal and even the flow state, because you lose the noting nanny-manager ego in the flow state, and you become very centered on the tasks. It shows the lie inherent in the idea that our agency is dependent on that overseeing ego, because your agency is actually enhanced in the flow state. And that’s one of the great longstanding existential lessons that is learnable from a flow state. Not everybody learns it, but it is there to be learned.
Jim: Ah, very good. Now something that you say at least four times in the series, maybe more, is you make arguments for people doing mystical things, alter states of consciousness within a tradition. And, I wonder about that. We know a hell of a lot more about the Mayan works these days than we did. We know a lot more about physical reality and even the weird shit about physical reality. Like one of my hobbies is studying quantum interpretation, the at least 12 different ways that physicists try to interpret quantum mechanics. And of course the weird thing about it, there are no experiments yet that can distinguish between the 12. And they represent rather different fundamental realities. But nonetheless, we know a lot more than we did, and so I say tradition, why should I be interested in what some fusty 15th century Tibetan had to say about what’s going on inside my head? Just as, I’m not all that interested in what Thomas Aquinas’s view of physics was despite him being one of the smartest guys in world history. So why traditions?
John: That’s fair enough. And I want to qualify this by saying, I mean something more than just something that goes back in the past. So I put an emphasis on these mystical experiences should be embedded in an ecology of practices that should be embedded in a community that has some kind of tradition. And what I mean by that is all of the evidence that we increasingly have that we, and this is worked done by Burber and Meier and my friend, Greg Enus and others, we generally are better in collective cognition than we are in individual cognition. And this is an idea that goes back to Plato and now there’s increasing evidence for, so if you get a bunch of people and they play, then they, and this is what science relies on. They each are using their confirmation bias and they are right.
John: They have to coordinate between them. It tends to overcome the individual confirmation bias doesn’t mean that groups can’t get messed up, they can, but this is, again, it increases the plausibility of the proposals that are made. And I think that the danger of doing things on your own is the danger of autodidacticism and that what we need are groups of people that are also practicing and so that their biases can play off against ours. And we can mutually correct each other in an important way. And we can gain access to the collective intelligence of distributed cognition to help to curate that. Now this doesn’t mean that we have to belong to existing traditions, it doesn’t preclude it, but it doesn’t require it. I’m very interested, in fact, of all the new emerging communities that are establishing what you might call a tradition. And that’s actually where I put a lot of my interests.
John: My concern is when you start messing around, this is particularly the case with psychedelics. And even with these mystical experiences, when you start messing around with your salience landscaping, you are opening yourself up to bullshit in a really, really powerful way. And one of the best correctives and it’s perennial, for good reason, for that is to be regularly and reliably committed to subjecting your personal revelations to the witnessing and the critiquing of others.
Jim: That’s what I call the intersubjective collective verification of the inter-objective.
Jim: A mouthful, but as you point out, that’s how science and, and truthfully it’s how face to face communities work. If you’re plowing in a stupid ass way your neighbor says, “That’s going to cause erosion of your land if you plow up and down the hill rather than across the hill.” And then you say, “Well, let me ask my third neighbor, see what he thinks.” If you’re a brand new farmer, he goes, “Yeah, Jim, you’re full of shit don’t do that. You may think you have a good reason for doing that, but you’re wrong.” And it’s very, very important. So as long as we consider tradition in the sense of something, we may have chosen to bake together, like our game B movement, we work in a lot of these areas.
John: Yeah. I would call that [inaudible 00:22:22]
Jim: Yeah. You’ve talked to my good friend, Jordan Hall quite a bit. And if there’s an auto died act in the world, that’s him, right. He’s invented amazing amount of shit from deep thought and deep introspection. And where I think we’re sort of creating a new tradition. We don’t have to deal with necessarily what a 15th century Tibetan had to say that it’s useful to read him because they’re smart people. Thomas Aquinas, mostly wrong about most of what he had to say at the level of physics, but a really subtle thinker. Who’s well-worth reading just to see the exercise of a mind of that power, which is way beyond the likes of me to be sure.
John: I recommend that by the way, I recommend reading people almost as like going into the dojo or going into the gymnasium. That the skills you can acquire from interacting with these people in a committed and profound ways are way more valuable to you. I would propose, long term, than any particular set of propositions that you might hold for a few years.
Jim: Exactly. Which is why it’s still so good to read Socrates. And again, I’ve expressed some of my opposition to some of a Plato’s ideas and particularly his Republic, which is the root of much evil in the world, but to go back and watch Plato through Socrates wrestle with the deepest problems of human being and doing so in a way that is fairly fresh is just still awe inspired, makes the back of your neck this hair actually stand up. How the hell could they have gotten so far so early.
John: So I read Plato, Socrates on a daily basis and I often read it both philosophically in a practice called [inaudible 00:24:07] in which you’re trying to do something like what [inaudible 00:24:09] talks about. You’re trying to imaginably create the perspective of Socrates and do a kind of profound version of the Solomon effect through that imaginal perspective.
Jim: One of the things I do whenever I start a long writing project, I go back and re read Aristotle’s poetics.
John: Ah, that’s good.
Jim: Which again is just so good. It’s better than almost anything that’s been written since on the topic of how to actually communicate.
John: It’s quite a miracle. I don’t mean that in religious sense, but maybe some of the depth to that meaning, to have Socrates, Plato an Aristotle all in one place and overlapping the way they did. Like that is just, wow.
Jim: We’re talking a minute about throwing Alexander too. The arc of the four of them.
John: Yeah. The four of them. Yes.
Jim: It’s amazing. All right. Let’s go on to the next topic, which you talk about in a couple of different contexts, but including alter states of consciousness. And that’s the idea, and this is very interesting idea, complexification
John: Yes. So as you know, the term complexity is a contentious term and trying to come up with a consensus definition has been well, it’s ongoing, it’s controversial. I have found, and I elsewhere, I give arguments as to why I’ve found the idea of a complex system being the one that is sort of has the highest pro of integration and differentiation to be the best, my best understanding of complexity, because I like that idea because it helps to, for me explain something that complexity needs to explain, which is the relationship between complexity and emergence. And the idea of complexification is a system that is simultaneously differentiating and integrating. And why that should produce emergence is it can do many more things in a more and more coordinated manner. And I think that’s ultimately what we’re trying to get at, at the core of the idea of emergence that somehow the coordination of so many things produces new results above, beyond you get emergent functions.
John: And so I think you can see the brain and a lot of people are saying, this, this is not my idea by any means, but nor is it a consensus idea, but many people are seeing the brain as at many levels of analysis, you can see it simultaneously integrating and differentiating, and this makes it continuous. Again, Thompson’s idea with biology, you take a zygote and a zygote complexifies, the cells differentiate, but they also organize literally into organs, etc. And that’s why you can do things that no zygote can do, because you can do many more things without falling apart because you can do many different things while them being highly integrated together, coordinated together. So I take complexification to be the driving force, and I think it implements what I call relevance realization, but here’s the idea what can happen is the process of complexification can be coupled to the complexity of the world so that you can more and more fit to the complexity of the world by appropriately complexifying. And I think for me, that’s an update of Plato’s notion of anagogy. And so I think complexification is very important.
Jim: And in fact, I would argue that many of the problems we have in our world is that we’re trying to deal with complex phenomena with complicated solutions. We add another box to the flow chart rather than stepping back and say, wait a minute, these aren’t flowchart mechanistic things. These are emergent complex things. And the lack of that insight, I think is partly what the meta-crisis is all about, but that’s a discussion for another day. We got to keep moving on here. We’re going to drop back and talk about the Buddha Gautama, just two items out of the many that you talk about. One, which again, I found very interesting and useful is the idea of Buddhism and related practices as a way to deal with parasitic processing. Maybe you can start by telling us what.
Jim: Parasitic processing.
Jim: If you can start by telling us what parasitic processing is and how Buddha-like practices, help us fight that?
John: This is an idea I developed with my good friend, Leo Ferraro and I’m happy to say we made this proposal in 2013 and then by 2016 models of depression and anxiety spiraling were coming out from various labs that look very much like this. I think I feel to some degree appropriately vindicated by this proposal. It’s gaining increasing plausibility. So, the idea is, we have a lot of things that are individually adaptive for us, although we only tend to note it when it’s screwing us up. Things like the confirmation bias and the availability heuristic and the representative bias. These are all ways of judging probability of things, of judging the truth of things. They’re all very adaptive and to go into this, I’d have to go back to Herbert Simon’s notion of bounded rationality, but I’ll just put it basically overly simplistic right now.
John: You can’t pay attention to all the information and all the patterns that you can make out of the information and all the ways you could interact with it. You have thought… you have shortcuts that make you adaptively capable of connecting to the world and these are individually adaptive. And then you have sort of this meta adaptive trait, not only can you evolve heuristics, you can evolve your evolvability as we just talked about. The brain is a complex system. It’s self-organizing, it’s fundamentally self-organizing and the idea is, these two important features of your adaptivity can work in the following way. You see an event and it’s uncomfortable to you and it makes you sad and then you try to judge what’s the future probability of such an event, because memory is actually prospective not retrospective, and so you try to remember other events like that.
John: Yeah. I’ll come back to that point in a minute. So you try to predict that this is the predictive processing model. What’s the probability of another event like that. And when you try to imagine events in your past, you get something like the confirmation bias. You’ll only look for other sad events. You’ll get encoding specificity. When you’re sad, it’s hard to remember happy events. It’s much easier to prevent sad events. Those come easily to mind. That’s the accessibility heuristic. So you judge them as highly probable and then they start to become their very salient. And that tends to trigger what’s called the representative heuristics.
John: All these heuristics start running in a self-organizing fashion and mutually reinforcing each other, convincing you that it’s highly probable that there’s going to be another negative event. That of course causes a kind of anxiety. That anxiety threat tends to focus you into narrow current framing, makes you inflexible. It reduces your insight capacities, reduces your capacities for flow, increases the chances that you’re actually going to mess up, especially with ill-defined problems, which makes them look even more ill-defined. The world now gets scarier, because you’re screwing up and ill-defined problems look really messy now to you. And so you start to become even more rigid and desperate in your thinking and you get an anxiety spiral happening out of control, or it can go in slightly different ways and you get a depression spiral and we call it a spiral because we’re trying to pick up on the metaphor of the self-organizing process that is feeding on itself. We call it parasitic processing because it’s very much like a parasite. It runs off of your adaptive machinery, but it takes on a life of its own and it sucks life from you.
John: And the main idea is the attempt… when we attempt to intervene on these complex patterns of self-deceptive self-destructive behavior, they’re adaptive. They’re built out of adaptive machinery in a highly adaptive manner. So they adapt to our attempt to get rid of themselves. They’re very self-preserving and self-protecting and self-promoting. We all know this. This is why we… this is my argument for aclasia. This is why we keep doing things we know we shouldn’t do because our attempts to intervene are inadequate. And what I propose is, one of the things that’s the genius of Siddhartha, Buddha, is to make explicit this idea of… well, what I do with such a maladaptive dynamical system is create a counteractive dynamical system of processes that intervene in it at multiple points at multiple levels in a parallel fashion, because that’s how you take apart a dynamical system. And I propose that that’s what the eightfold path is basically designed to do.
Jim: You preempted me. That’s was my next topic, that this idea… and this may have been the most profound idea I got out of your series actually. The idea of… the way I wrote it down, set counteractive dynamical systems as a way to fight bad dynamical systems, right?
John: Yeah. Yes.
Jim: And as you say, you created quite an impression on this. We now have a lot of research about the nature of depression, in particular, being highly complex patterns of morbid rumination that appear to be hosted in the default mode network for instance, right?
John: Yeah. Yes.
Jim: And the idea of building a counteractive dynamical system… I mean, I’m going to put that on a chart on the wall. In some sense that’s a lot of what our GameB work is, is thinking about… even though we didn’t quite describe it that way, that was very, very, very interesting. So I commend you on coming up with that and specifically with respect to parasitic processing going on in the brain.
John: Yeah. That’s our model of what foolishness is, as opposed to just being ignorant of information. And therefore you can come up with an idea of what wisdom is, as opposed to knowledge. Knowledge of is overcoming ignorance. Whereas wisdom, of course, requires knowledge… I’m not denying that, but wisdom is more about coming up with an ecology of practices that will deal with parasitic processing. I’m glad you found that idea profound, Jim. Thank you for saying that because that’s the ontological basis for my proposal of cultivating ecologies of practices, because ecologies of practices are exactly these counteractive dynamical systems.
Jim: Indeed. Now let’s go on to the second point, which I found illuminating. One of my historical objections to Buddhism has been, everything is suffering, right?
John: Right. Yes.
Jim: I got… yeah. Wait a minute. I look at my life… at least 95% of my day is not suffering. It’s either positive or neutral or sort of something ill- defined, but it’s not suffering. The so-called Dukkha. So you had a very interesting and probably heretical view on Dukkha from the perspective of Canonical Buddhism. So lay it on us. Do you think that they’re not really talking about suffering in the sense I got a toothache or an annoying girlfriend, I won’t shut the fuck up, but, what’s your take on this suffering business?
John: So when I look… if you look at the parables that the Buddha uses to describe Dukkha and you can also look at the entomology. So if you look at these two… let’s look at the parables. Very few of the parables are disease parables or pain parables. They’re parables of a loss of agency. Here’s a very famous one. And where the Buddha is trying to explain what Dukkha is like. There’s a monkey and it sees this ball of pitch and it looks so succulent and beautiful and it touches it and it gets trapped with its right hand. So it tries to free itself with its left hand and it gets trapped and it tries to free itself with his right foot. And that gets stuck. And with its left foot, it gets stuck and it puts his mouth to try and liberate it and then it gets stuck and then it’s screaming and screaming. And then the hunter and kills it.
John: Now, that’s not really… there’s some distress there, but that’s not what the Buddha’s really emphasizing with that parable… is emphasizing again, this self-organizing way of self-entrapment. He talks a lot about freedom. He doesn’t talk a lot about that state of relief that we associate with overcoming suffering understood as pain and distress. The Buddha said no matter where you dip into it and taste it, the ocean is salty. No matter where you dip into my teaching, you find the taste of freedom. Now freedom is an agency word. It’s about agency. It’s about the recovery and the restoration of agency. And if you go back to what suffering originally meant… you can even catch this in king James version of the Bible, Jesus says, suffer the little children to come unto me, which is, allow them, give up your control over the situation. Suffering is a loss of agency.
John: So at one time it was proper to say he suffered great joy, where suffering means to undergo something that overwhelms your agency. And I think we’ve done with suffering what we did with the word mad. Mad meant to be insane. One of the ways in which we often go insane is by excessive anger. And what happened is mad came to me being angry. And I think one of the ways we can lose agency, and it is a loss of agency, is through pain. So we’ve reduced suffering to pain. I think suffering refers to the loss of agency. Now the loss of agency is often accompanied by distress, but you can lose your agency in overwhelming pleasure, which is also a point of Buddhism, right? Which is, again… this is also a point that people… in fact, Siddhartha leaves the palace before he pursues asceticism, although I often remember Marcus Aurelius’ a great line from the meditation. It is possible to be happy, even in a palace.
Jim: Yeah. I love that. That is a very good line. So again, I think the Buddhists could do themselves a better marketing job if they rebranded Dukkha, for the west at least, as loss of agency. I like that a lot. The whole thing makes a hell of a lot more sense to me than when people talk about everything is suffering.
John: Right. And it helps you to explain why ignorance is one of the primary marks of Dukkha because you’re losing… with ignorance you are profoundly often losing agency. And like I said, that goes to the etymology of the word Dukkha. It originally meant when something was off center, out of joint, and it gets… it’s like a wheel turning off center on its axle destroying itself. And for me, that’s very much what’s going on in things like parasitic processing.
Jim: Interesting. Alright, well, let’s move from the east back to the west. And we talked about Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Then comes the fourth, Alexander the Great, and with my evolutionary lens, I’m always thinking of the world as a series of frozen accidents. And I was thinking about this while I was preparing my show notes. And I said we may never have heard of Socrates if it wasn’t for Alexander the Great.
Jim: An awful lot of how Plato and Socrates and Aristotle was preserved was through the Babylonians and the people in what’s now, Syria, et cetera. In fact, Plato’s academy ended up eventually in southern Syria. This is not very well known.
Jim: But when they were driven out of-
John: I just… yeah. Yeah.
Jim: And ended up there. And so this frozen accident of Alexander… ka-boom. Unexpected, not even a Greek, but a near Greek, a Macedonian, who had Aristotle as his teacher… now wouldn’t that be the coolest thing to have Aristotle teaching your son, and basically spreads the Hellenistic, if not quite exactly Greek thing, throughout the world, which allowed, I would argue, or at least I would say is plausible, to use a Vervaekean term.
Jim: That the frozen accident of Socrates and Plato and Aristotle being so amazingly important in Western history had a lot to do with Alexander.
John: I think that’s totally right. And you’re right to group the four of them together. Alexander I… so my partner she’s Persian. So Alexander is the villain for the Persians, of course. So I have to speak a little bit more carefully about Alexander, but Alexander very much…. I think without Alexander, it’s hard to see the legacy that we have from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle being the legacy that it is and the way Alexander drew together so many things.
John: I mean, we have to remember that Alexander actually is tutored by two geniuses. One, of course, is Aristotle, which is the culminating genius of the trilogy, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, it’s just astonishing. But of course, Alexander is trained by another genius… a very, very difficult relationship, with his father, Phillip of Macedon. He’s a military genius. He’s a military genius, strategic genius. He basically invents the phalanx and he does something which had never been done before, even by the Spartans or the Athenians. He defeats all of the Greek City-States and unifies them and then he creates the first sort of holistic weapons. So you get this individual whose mind is shaped on one hand by Aristotle and that whole great tradition and then is also shaped militarily by his father and given this war machine of unparalleled excellence. And so that combination just allows him to conquer most, as it’s often said, of the known world, at least most of the civilized known world.
Jim: Yeah. At least adjacent to the west. He didn’t get to China.
John: No, he didn’t get to China. He stopped at India, even though he wanted to go into it. But you end up with really weird things because of that. You end up with… I’ve often fantasized about living there. This kingdom of Bactria that forms after Alexander’s empire breaks up, sort of in Northern India and Pakistan/Afghanistan area, it’s a combination of Buddhism and Greek philosophers out there in the middle of central Asia. And that’s where the first statues of the Buddha are made. They are not made in India and they are, they are made actually by people of Greek heritage. You basically get sort of statues of Apollo in which a Buddhist monk replaces Apollo. And that’s how you get some of the first statues of the Buddha. At least that’s the current account right now.
Jim: I did not know that. That’s interesting. Now let’s go to the downside of Alexander.
Jim: A word I’d never heard before, but I will no doubt start using it. Domicide. Prior to Philip and Alexander, especially the Greeks, and the Ionians closely related to them, lived in City-States where if you didn’t know everybody, everyone you knew between them knew everybody, right?
John: Yes. Yes.
Jim: So it was a deeply situated way of being, essentially. And at least with respect to the west, though big empires had existed elsewhere… but at least with respect to the west, these were the first mega empires where the capital was far away. And the result of that, you would argue is Domicside. Why don’t you define that term for us and explain its implications, why it’s so important.
John: I live in Canada and there was a time I was living in Whitby and I was taking the GO Train every day to Toronto. And I was sitting on the train, reading an article by a guy named Brian Walsh, about home and the loss of home. And the guy across from me said, are you enjoying that article? And I said, yeah. And he said, I wrote it. It was Brian Walsh so I got to talk to him and so he introduced me… yeah, I got weird stuff like that. So the term was actually coined by Porteous and Smith. But my take on it is very influenced by Brian Walsh’s take. So domicide means the loss of home. Now, there’s two meanings to this. One is the loss of housing, which is a form of domicide. And it also leads to the second or at least it can.
John: The other is, you can have housing, but you lose the sense of being at home. And you know what this is like. You travel somewhere and you feel homesick. You have shelter where you travel. You’re not subject to the elements, but you don’t feel at home. You’re homesick, you’re lonely. You want to go back home. And that’s because home… I bought a book called Home and I want to read it. I read the novel, but this is an academic work. This sense of being at home is very profound for us. Now we’re at home at many different levels. And as you rightly point out, polis, is a sense of being at home. Our word politics comes from polis. Cosmopolitan. Polis is… we say City-State and that’s the best we have. But it’s something… the Greek doesn’t quite translate it.
John: So a better way of thinking about it is the way you feel at home in your community, at home, in your nation. So I feel very at home when I’m in Canada. So for example, when I’m traveling abroad and I meet another Canadian, I feel a little bit more at home when I meet them. Even if I don’t know this person, because we share certain symbol structures and certain ways of talking and we’re sort of ruthlessly polite and, and stuff like that. So what happens with… in domicide, people they may lose their housing, but they can very frequently lose their home. Why this happens is, as you said, when you’re growing up in a polis, you share the same religion with people, the same language, your ancestors grew up in this place. Their ancestors grew up in this place. You are deeply woven together.
John: That’s why ostracizing people in the ancient Greek world was such a punishment. You didn’t kill them. You didn’t take any… you just said, you have to leave Athens and never come back. And that was considered a penalty worse than death, because that’s a form of inflicting domicide on somebody. We do the same thing with solitary confinement. So when Alexander does this, people are being moved around and displaced. And the center of government is now far away in the polis. You knew the… you literally lived near or knew the people… at least knew the people that knew the people that were in charge of the government. Now, after Alexander, the people around you speak different languages, different religions, you may have been displaced. They may have been displaced. The seat of government is thousands of kilometers away. You’re not participating in it in any way.
John: You have no connection to it. You don’t know anything. You don’t know anybody who knows anybody who knows anybody who knows the people in power. And so you get very much a loss of a sense of being at home, of being rooted, of having a polis. And so this is why that period after Alexander is called The Age of Anxiety. And now it’s also exacerbated by the fact that the Alexander’s empire breaks up into four smaller empires that are at war with each other, for like a century, destabilizing things continuously. And so many people have made the comparison that with globalization, we are facing something very similar to what happens in the Hellenistic period. We are also in age of anxiety, a sense of homelessness, of not belonging. And that’s why you see the rise of all the attempts to reinforce home… tribalisms and nationalisms of various forms.
Jim: Yeah, I would argue that not just globalism, but something happened before globalism… is what the real domicide is about, which is, let’s say 100 years ago, 120 years ago, much of our sustenance came from our extended families, right?
John: Yes, yes.
Jim: And from our face to face community and over the last 120 years in the west, those have been replaced… those two, they’re very organic, right? They’re very whole… have been replaced by the government and the market. Two cold and abstract phenomena.
John: Very much.
Jim: And I believe that is really where our sense of Domicide comes from, with globalism, just being frosting on the cake.
John: I agree with you, Eberstadt, in her book, How the West Really Lost God, which is a book I recommend. She argues that the destruction of the extended family is highly correlated with how secular or atheistic a culture is. And then this makes good cognitive sense. Because you lose the Solomon effect as you lose the recursive layering of extended family and you become much more egocentric and isolated and auto didactic and a bunch of other things. I’m not saying that atheism makes you stupid. I’m just saying that it disconnects you from some of the machinery that is at work when people are trying to bind communities together and find that inherently valuable. I totally agree with you about the loss of the extended family and this lines up with Thomas Bjorkman’s work, how the church in which we… and we used family and home metaphors for the church, the church was the homing function of the three great power centers.
John: And then you had the state and you had the market and the church has largely lost its influence. And I’m not saying that’s a necessarily bad thing. I’m just pointing to a function and it’s been replaced, as you said, by the non-family of the state and the market and the state is also… and the market are merging in some new thing. And I agree with all of that. I think that’s all a significant driver to domicide for us. This is why people long for extended… groups of extended intimacy. This is why things circling [inaudible 00:48:46] other practices I would propose are emerging right now.
Jim: Indeed. And of course it’s one of the core ideas around GameB.
Jim: So you note that philosophy took a turn… you point out that previously philosophy had been about wisdom to counter foolishness, and now it took a therapeutic term essentially, to relieve suffering and cure existential suffering in particular.
Jim: And you call forth… you take a whole history of Epicurus and all this stuff. Unfortunately, we’re going to have to skip over that. And you point specifically to Stoicism as a potential form of philosophy as an answer to suffering and anxiety and you point out that Stoicism has some things that are more or less in common with some forms of modern psychotherapies. So tell us a little bit about Stoicism and how it was a response to the Domicide of the Alexandrian age and the Hellenistic Age afterwards.
John: Very much so. Yeah. I mean the heritage is direct. People, like Beck and others, directly cite Epictetus and Stoics as the fore bearers of cognitive therapy, CBT goes to Aristotle, but is deeply influenced by the Stoics. So a lot of the cognitive therapies are directly, explicitly, derived from Stoic practices, all the practices about paying attention to internal dialogue. Antisthenes, who is the disciple of Socrates that becomes… starts the tradition that becomes Stoicism, when he was asked, what did you learn from Socrates? And he said, I learned how to converse with myself. He doesn’t mean the talking to ourselves that we do all day long, that rumination, but he learned how to replace that rumination with internal Socratic dialogue. And I put it to you that’s what CBT largely is. That’s what it largely is. It’s trying to replace rumination and parasitic processing with internal dialogue.
John: So Stoicism is basically the philosophy-religion of internalizing Socrates in that manner. And what it attempts to do is attempts to give you a different way of being at home. The Stoics came up with the term cosmopolitan, finding the cosmos, your polis, your home, and the way to do this was to take a look very briefly at their precursors, the Cynics, also deeply influenced by Socrates. Theogenes famously. The Cynics thought that what made us suffer in the Hellenistic period was, we tried to make a home out of the wrong things. We set our heart on the wrong things. We tried to be at home in the market or in the state. We pursued power and wealth and fame. And all of these things are terribly contingent, to use one of your favorite terms, and terribly conventional in the sense that they are human made and therefore can be made to disappear at human whim.
John: You own $500,000 in the Confederacy and it’s destroyed. And all that money is now worthless, things like that. And so the Cynic said, you had to set yourself… you had to set your heart. You had to try and find a home that wasn’t dependent on this. And they found that home in the laws of morality and the laws of nature. The Stoics picked up on that idea of reconfiguring, how you home yourself, not trying to find the right place, but realizing that home is much more about the meaning you make of any place. And what they proposed is it’s not the place, it’s not even nature or morality that’s the issue. It’s how we do it. And so Stoicism said, pay attention, prosoche, pay very careful attention how in your moment to moment thinking, your moment to moment perception, you are trying to home the world.
John: You’re trying to create agent arena relationships that home the world for you. Take that into awareness so that you can consciously intervene in it so that you can home… that homing process becomes as wise as it possibly can be. Meaning that that homing process becomes as resilient as it possibly can be to the fact of the contingencies and the conventionalities of your world. And stop mistaking them for permanent things. Your life is always going to be subject to fate in a profound manner. That’s the heart of Stoicism. So you get into Milton’s Paradise Lost… oddly, it’s spoken by Satan when he says the mind is its own place and can make a Heaven of Hell and a Hell of Heaven.
Jim: Interesting. Yeah. And very powerful, right? And we’re seeing a revival of interest in Stoicism now.
John: Huge. Huge.
Jim: My friend Peter Limberg in his STOA, for instance, is really good. And Ryan Holiday, another old friend of mine, has made quite a racket out of peddling Stoicism, as it turns out. But yeah, very interesting. You could talk about Stoicism for hours and maybe we will sometime, but not today. The next step forward is the Two Worlds model. Remember in the Axial Age, the Two Worlds Model, is very important, is Jesus, right?
Jim: Talk about the next big step. And you can see some precursors in some ways, in Stoicism, but-
Jim: Jesus… actually I’d use the term Christus Paulism, modeled of course, on Marxist Leninism-
Jim: Labeled this whole phenomena… Jesus himself is an interesting and somewhat peculiar character. But if he came back and looked at the established churches today, he’d say, what the fuck, right?
Jim: In reality, Paul had probably more influence on the Christianity we see today. So I just write… put them together, call it Christus Paulism.
Jim: But anyway, the claim is that Jesus was the ultimate Kairos.
Jim: I think you used that term.
Jim: In the beginning was the Logos, right? So talk to us a little bit about the step from the other post Alexandrian philosophies to the Jesus cult.
John: Huh. So speaking about Jesus of Nazareth is the most pretentious thing I could do. And it’s one I have to take great care of, because I have a deeply ambivalent relationship to Christianity being brought up in a Fundamentalist Christian family, and then coming, through a lot of work, some of it therapeutic, into a more appropriate adult relationship, coming to re-appreciate Christianity. So I want to put that all out as heavily caveating what I’m going to say.
John: For me, there is one deep line of continuity between Jesus and Paul. I agree with you. Paul is like Alexander. He’s the person that spreads Christianity into the Gentile world. He’s the person who really creates this cosmological vision for Christianity that… I’m rereading the gospels right now, David Bentley Hart’s excellent translation. And I don’t see that in Jesus, but what I do see as a continuity between Jesus and Paul. Very clear is this notion of Agape and Paul’s great hymn to Agape in Corinthians is evidence that it is ultimately central to him. And if you read the Gospels, Agape comes through again and again. Now you quote the Gospel of John, which is unlike the other Gospels in that you can see elements of Stoicism, the Logos being brought together and integrated, I think, to good effect with Agape.
John: And integrated, I think to good effect with agape. So let’s first talk about Jesus and agape. Agape is a kind of love. Eros is the love that in which you want to be unified with something, either you consume it or it consumes you. It’s very proper to have eros us towards a cookie. Eros does not just mean sexual union. You become literally one with your food. That’s why we use food metaphors for sex and vice versa. You get some really good visual humor around the eating of food and in sexual connotations, things like that. So eros. Philia, which is in philia sophia. Philo sophia, the brotherly love of wisdom and the non-sexist language. It’s the love that is born out of reciprocity of coordinating and communicating together within a community. Philosophy by the way, was always, even in its name intended to be done by a community, not by an individuals.
John: That’s another big point I want to harp on later. You get the idea of agape is not the love of consummation or cooperation, it’s the love of creation. The prototypical example, and Jesus often enacts this metaphor and embodies it, which is the love that a parent has for a child. You don’t love a child erotically. You don’t want to become more and more one with a child. In fact, the project is exactly the opposite. The project is to have this child eventually be independent from you, autonomous from you. Your children are not initially your friends. When you bring a child home from the hospital, you can’t have any kind of friendship with it. That doesn’t make any sense. There’s no capacity for reciprocity. In fact, not in a moral sense, I want to be very careful here, but in a cognitive psychological sense, the entity you bring home from the hospital is not a person. It’s not capable of self-directed agency, self-reflection.
John: You do this amazing thing, and I’ve done it with two kids. My own kids and with four other children as step kids is like, you love them in a particular way, and they go from being non persons into persons. You love doing that, and we love the process. It’s part of our adaptivity that we’re cultural and we’re dependent in attachment. I won’t go into all of that. We love turning non persons into persons. We love it for its own sake. We think it’s… I can say, and I don’t think there’s need to justify, the greatest thing I’ve done is raise my children. It’s the most important thing I’ve done out of all the tasks in my life. Perhaps, perhaps, I don’t know. Probably not, but perhaps some of my theories go on to be important, maybe. Yeah, and do I care about them? Yes. But are they anywhere near the importance of making my children? No, not at all.
John: So agape is the love that creates, and Jesus seems to have done this brilliant thing. There’s precursors in the Judaic tradition, strong precursors in the Pharisee tradition. But Jesus seems to have done this brilliant thing of seeing the creativity of God as agape. You how God creates? He creates like we create. He creates agapically and therefore we are more godlike. The more agapic we are, the more compassionate we are. Remember that the Hebrew word for compassion means uterus. Womb-like. We’re more womb-like. A womb is where you’re making another person, right, and giving it a home. And so Jesus sees himself as some kind of Kairotic figure. Other people agree with him in that, this revelation of God, creativity as agape, is the revelation of a new way of being in the world; the kingdom of God.
John: This is profound. Then what John is doing is, John is saying, Jesus, that agape, that Kairos agape that was embodied in Jesus, it’s one with the logos. This whole thing that came out of Greek philosophy about understanding the intelligibility of things, of making sense. Here’s why they link. I mean, it’s sort of brilliant in its contingency, but once it’s made it seems like necessity as you look back. Logos means to gather together so that the things belong together. That’s logic, the creating of order of patterning. Agape is this creative thing. You’re bringing people together where “Two or three are gathered in my name there I am also.” Jesus famously says. The logos and the agape are seen as interpenetrating different aspects of each other. And then I put it to you, Jim.
John: We are all, we are all always dependent children on logos and agape. If we hadn’t had people that extended logos to us and extended agape to us, we would not be here. If we were not participating in agape and logos, we would not continue to be here. We find ourselves as vehicles expressing and sharing and creating more logos and agape for those around us. This is the great insight of Christianity. It offers that to the Roman Empire and the Roman Empire could not come up with an ideology other than power for doing that. The Christians basically say, “take all your non people that can’t make sense of things. Come to us and we’ll turn them into people that can make sense of things and of each other.” And nothing can beat that. Nothing can beat that.
Jim: It was amazing, and of course that insight that we are all in some sense equal children of God, whether you believe in God or not, has turned out to be fundamental to a lot of the good things that the west created.
John: Yeah, think about what it does. I mean, so the Stoics have this idea of cosmopolitan and the brotherhood of mankind. But Christianity turns it into an ecology of practices and they create a new way of homing ecclesia, the gathering. The churches were originally in homes. This is a new way of homing yourself in the world in a place in which many people within the Roman Empire fundamentally did not feel at home. What it does is it… Think about how it empowers Paul. He can go anywhere and make a home, and that’s what he does as a missionary.
Jim: Indeed. Unfortunately we got to have to move on. I’m going to skip over some interesting stuff around Neoplatonism and go right to Augustine. You talk a lot about his a biography. I point people… Read his confessions, actually a remarkably good piece of literature and mildly salacious in play.
John: Yeah. Yes, yes.
Jim: Let’s briefly touch on how Augustine creates pretty much the model that lived throughout the middle ages of a synthesis of Christianity with Neoplatonism. You described the components of the meaning making that Augustine does as around coherence, significance and purpose.
Jim: Talk briefly about Augustine and how he formed the meaning for Western Civilization for 1500 years or more.
John: He’s a titeric individual, just titanic. He’s the last great philosopher of antiquity. Neoplatonism is basically the grand unified field theory of the entire spiritual, philosophical, spiritual tradition up to that point. He basically integrates Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics together, Plotinus. Then Augustine takes that whole development of logos that comes to terrific fruition. Neoplatonism is, hopefully we’ll talk about it again at some point. It’s just terrifically important. It’s going through a significant revival right now. He takes all of that unification then he unifies it with the agape from Christianity. Then through that Christianity the whole idea of a moral history that we get from ancient Israel. All of that is drawn together and then he has the genius, which is a double-edged sword, of personalizing that. Of taking the Kairos of Jesus and identifying it with a turning point in his life. The confessions is about his particular metanoia, his particular turning point.
John: So he basically gives a template for everybody via something that many people say he created. The sense of the autobiographical self of how you can have your own personal Kairos. I sound like a salesman. How you can have your own personal Kairos and in that personal Kairos you will draw together all of Greek philosophy and wisdom in the logos, all of Christianity in agape and all of the idea of moral history, and you’ll bring it all together. You’ll get the massive coherence that logos gives you. You’ll get the massive sense of purpose that immoral history gives you, and you’ll get the sense of significance and connection in depth to what’s most real through agape. You’re going to have all of those put together. It is a, I would say given his context, it would be equivalent to somebody who did the following; unified relativity, quantum mechanics, and our best understanding of human happiness and meaning in life together in a coherent worldview, and presented it to the world and everybody went, “yeah, that works.” That’s basically what he did.
Jim: And so the people who understand the timeline, this was very, very late when the Roman Empire was becoming decadent. Rome had been sacked at least before he wrote City of God.
Jim: And so the end was near for the Roman Empire but the synthesis that Augustine created basically was the meaning for the people in the west for a very long period of time. He may have been the single greatest mimedic architect in human history, at least in the traditions of the west. And a damn good writer, a really good writer.
John: Very good writer. He creates autobiography. He literally creates a genre.
Jim: Yeah. So anyway, we’re going to go from Augustine, fall of Rome, the Great Schism, all kinds of cool things. But then the world starts to the me… In fact, this may be what we really mean when we talk about the meaning crisis. Starting 1250 something around that time, new ideas start to come in that start to produce cracks in the architecture that Augustine created. Augustine and some of the other church fathers, but let’s use Augustine as the [inaudible 01:06:11].
John: Yeah, yeah.
Jim: Some of it came from the rediscovery of Aristotle in particular.
Jim: As you point out, in some sense Aristotle is not 100% compatible with Christianity in the way Platonism is, right? Platonism is more compatible.
Jim: As the knowledge with the humanists revival in Northern Italy, where some of these books were… Was this great race to find these books, right? They found dusty old copies in modest areas in Switzerland and all kinds of crazy things. Turned out to be Lucretius, very important. That almost book, was almost lost., right? Hugely important. So there’s some quivering going on in the structure that Augustine and the church fathers created and Thomas Aquinas, another one of smartest mother fuckers in human history.
Jim: You describe how he in some sense, puts at least a temporary patch on the challenge to the deep Christian world view with its encounter with Aristotle, but produces some longer term implications, which may lead to our current meaning crisis. So briefly the story of Aquinas and his collision with Aristotle.
John: Yeah. Aristotle can’t be ignored because he’s woven into the synthesis that was bestowed by Augustine. You’re very right, Augustine is much more platonic. I have to say that in the two years since I released the series, I’ve been reading a lot more about how platonic Aquinas is. I just bought a book about that. Nevertheless, I think the argument holds, but I guess what I would want to do is shift a little bit more of the responsibility onto the followers of Aquinas and off of Aquinas himself. But, what Aquinas does is deal with the threat that Aristotle poses. Aristotle represents a scientific worldview. A view of this world, the world that we have access through our senses and our reason, as fundamentally real. As fundamentally real. Now, he’s a Platonist and I think [Gearson 01:08:18] has argued that, in that he thinks there’s a deeper reality than the reality disclosed to us by our sense experience.
John: But we even see this in science. We have a lot of things that are non sensual that we take in some sense to be more real. Equals MC squared is not anything you have essential experience of. But nevertheless, what does that mean? Well, it means that this world can be known in a profound sense. During the, what have been called the middle ages, a more extreme kind of Platonism became prevalent in Christianity because the world that people were living in it was in many ways a harsh world, civilization had degraded. We didn’t re achieve the standard of living that was in Rome until 1750 London, England. So there’s a huge loss socioeconomically. You can see why people would start to reify the other world, the real world, the upper world, and make it beautiful and glorious as compared to the filth of a muck of the world that they found themselves in.
John: Aristotle comes, and don’t forget, Aristotle comes back to Europe through the Islamic Civilizations that are doing amazing things. They don’t think of this world as horrible, right? Because things are going really well. That comes in and that really challenges the two world’s mythology. Aristotle doesn’t seem to have the grand vision of the fall and the redemption that are so central to the Christianare. I can point out to a lot of ways. Those are two fundamental ways, challenging sort of a very extreme version of the two worlds and challenging the idea of a moral history of overarching cosmic narrative. This comes in and it slams into Christianity and Aquinas has to respond. What he does is he makes a division. I want to say something like he makes it much more meta physically rarified and reified, the two worlds mythology.
John: He solidifies it and ossifies it in a particular way. That the upper world is real and the lower world is real. The lower world can be realized by science, by reason and observation. The upper world has to be realized by faith that is given by grace. Grace means gift. God gives you a special faculty and infuses you, inspires you, listen to these language… these words, with a special capacity, we’re realizing the truths of this upper world. Here he’s picking up on an Augustinian theme that we can’t ascend, we have to be drawn by Jesus or by love or by God. The two worlds become properly what we would now mean natural and supernatural.
John: The word supernatural exists for a long time in the Neoplatonic tradition, but it doesn’t mean what we now mean by supernatural. We mean another world operating according to other principles, other laws, not continuous with this world in any important way, in many senses, a magical world. And that world is completely inaccessible to reason and observation. It is only accessible to those who have been gifted. The special faculty or vision that is called faith. And that view sort of saves everybody’s job. The church people get to do their job and the new philosophers and scientists get to do theirs, and everybody gets to live happily.
John: I would point out that Descartes basically takes that idea and does the same thing again, when he separates mind and body. He’s doing exactly the same move. He gets that move from, I think, from Aquinas in a powerful way. Now, what that does, unfortunately, is it destroys the whole anagage that was within Platonism. It destroys wisdom as the relationship, the ascent from the lower world to the upper world in many important ways. Importantly, it makes the possibility of the self sufficiency of the natural world possible. So very shortly after Aquinas, people start talking about the natural world as real in and of itself. Eventually people start to find the supernatural less and less plausible and very soon, even in a certain way, absurd.
Jim: Yeah. So in some sense, this is where the crack in the meaning that had been so fundamental to west, and by the way, that meaning has continued to the present day.
Jim: As I mentioned before, my father’s family, fair number of them were very devout Irish Catholics, right? Would go to mass every single day. And they really believed, and their meaning in life came from this stuff, right? Which was the Augustine synthesis plus the Aquinas polish on it and then all the various evolutions. This is the… Even those of us who are nonbelievers, we were inculcated culturally with the residue, essentially of the two worlds model. In some sense, I would argue that the meaning crisis you talk about is finally people realizing this ain’t true, right?
Jim: And what comes, what comes next? So let’s go to the next principle player in this, and one of my great heroes, Galileo.
John: Okay, okay.
Jim: A miserable guy apparently, but a truly brilliant character who said, “you know what, we’ve all been believing Aristotle’s physics for all these centuries, but nobody’s ever tried the experiment.” Right? And it turned out that some of his basic laws of motion were just flat wrong, easily demonstrable. In an hour you could prove that his laws of moving bodies were just wrong. He’s the one that actually verified the… Made the argument that Copernican system had to be true, which also-
Jim: Overthrew a lot of-
John: Titanic figures.
Jim: Oh yeah gigantic stuff. But you said, I think you said that he killed the universe. What do you mean by that?
John: Okay. So, in between, and I’m not doing this to go off on our thing, I just have to make one move. In between Aquinas and Galileo are people like Duns Scotus of Ockham, and you get the rise of nominalism. Nominalism is the view that most of the patterns we think are in the world are not there. All that’s in the world are raw individuals and it’s the mind that for… All the patterns are actually in the mind and that’s why you only care about how all your propositions go here together. And so that nominalism is profound. Now, Galileo is actually a part of the revival of Platonism because, I said this before, there’s no math in Aristotle’s science. But Plato had over the academy, if you can’t do math, you can’t come in. And if you’ve read any Plato, you know how deeply informed, now it’s a Pythagorean informing, but how deeply informed Plato is by mathematics.
John: Galileo picks this up. And what he does is he responds to the nominalism of his time and he says, right. All of our spoken language and our everyday experience, the nominalists are right about that. That’s all an illusion. Because to believe Copernicus is to believe that most of your experience is illusory in nature, right? Galileo agrees with this, but he says, but “mathematics is the language of the universe.” This is the weird thing we have. All of the languages and all of our experience is nominalistic except for math. Math somehow cuts through to reality. People of course have found this terribly thought provoking. Einstein wondered about it. Why does math… Did I do this? And nothing else does… I think those are actually malformed questions. I think nominalism itself should be deeply challenged, but we could do that another time.
John: So with this, right? With this, Galileo starts to do things that literally would’ve been unthinkable before these other moves. Think about what it takes to get you to believe that you shouldn’t take your phenomenological experience to be an accurate disclosure of reality. That is so natural to us. We live that way. You have to step aside from that and you have to take the math as being more real than your sense experience or the way your language carves up the world. The reason why people… It’s not that people were stupid and Aristotle was stupid, it’s because Aristotle’s metaphysics, the whole idea of subjects and properties is based on the structure of our language, right? The structure of the world is based on the structure of our experience. That’s why it takes so long. You need a fundamental move and it’s so natural to us now we forget how radical it was of breaking away from that and saying, “no, no, I’m going to trust the math rather than the structure of my spoken language and rather than the structure of my experience.”
John: And when you use the math and you run experiments, you discover inertial motion, right? You discover that things are not happening on purpose. You discover that things don’t have an inner life, an inner drive to them. In Aristotle’s world everything moves on purpose. It’s trying to get to where it belongs. Everything that happens is in that sense, purposeful, meaningful, coherent. Christianity hung a narrative on that. There’s the, everything is moving on purpose because God has a grand plan. This all held together and then Galileo comes in and says, “no things, aren’t moving on purpose. They’re moving inertly.” And think of the word inert, what that means matter is inert, in a profound way. Therefore, there is no grand purpose. There can’t be any grand narrative. The universe isn’t a living thing at all. And there’s no story of it, it doesn’t have a biography. It’s just a bunch of stuff slamming into each other. He kills the universe.
Jim: Interesting, yeah. So of course the universe comes back to life when we think about emergence, right?
John: Oh, totally, totally true.
Jim: Yeah. My version of the universe… The story of the universe is, a big bang occurs. 10 billion years go by. Life happens. Right? And then step three is symbolic language emerges. So the history of the universe in three steps and Galileo really focused on that second step. It was only later we got to the third step.
John: We’ve given up the idea that matter is inert. I mean, our fundamental ontology is not of inert matter.
Jim: Yeah. You call it naive Newtonism for instance.
Jim: We’ll talk about that a little bit later. So yeah. So Galileo really is the father of modern science. And I had Michael Strevens on recently. A really good thinker on the philosophy of science. In his book he just pounds on the idea that Aristotle was not a scientist because he blended together a whole bunch of things. Some of which we would think of religion, et cetera. In fact, Strevens calls his book, the irrational history of science. And why he says it’s irrational is that, why would you give up on some of your tools like theology and teleology, et cetera, to explain the world. But then he makes the very interesting and detailed argument, how Newton in particular, even though he was deeply devout and interested in that stuff, segregated, rigidly his science from his theology. When you, only when you made that move could real science come into being. Galileo partially made that move. Strevens’ book is well worth reading, but anyway, just a little bit outside of the scope of what we’re talking about.
John: Although at some point I would like to talk to him about that proposal.
Jim: Yeah. I’m happy to introduce you if you’d like. He’s a very interesting character and he was a great guest. One of my classic episodes, actually.
Jim: So one of the things that you say is that with Galileo in the rise of the scientifically measurable and the objective as such a… We somehow lost our perspectival and participatory knowing.
Jim: Why would you say that?
John: When I say we lost it, I don’t mean we lost it in terms of our cognitive agency and the way we’re interacting with the world, or functioning. Of course, we still have our skills and our procedural knowledge and of course we still have our perspectives, our states of mind and situational awareness. And of course, we still carry around a process of assuming [inaudible 01:20:34] of a self and assigning of various arenas for our roles of ourself. We still do all of that. That is how we still function. What I mean is, and this is how I might challenge what Strevens was saying, we reduce the notion. Scancia means knowing, right? It doesn’t… Science. So I think it’s unfair. It’s anachronistic to say that Aristotle isn’t a scientist. He was very much about trying to figure out what knowing was.
John: I think that what happens because of nominalism and then because of mathematization, don’t get me wrong, I think the ability to offer mathematical explanations is a profoundly important thing. I don’t want to say it was any kind of mistake for Galileo to do what he did, but the problem we get is we reduce all of our ontology. Descartes plays a pivotal role in this. Our ontology becomes completely dependent on our epistemology and our epistemology is completely understood as being contained in our propositions. All of our knowing is in our propositions that, cats are mammals, I believe that the earth orbits the sun, right? So this is knowing that something is the case and our knowledge is therefore built on an idea of justification, which is a proper sense of conviction. So we are convinced that our beliefs are true and when that’s done properly, that’s justified.
John: So justified true beliefs in our propositions, that’s what knowledge is. Then we get an ontology of the world that is similarly reduced because we fail to pick up on other normative ways in which reality is judged and sensed by us. My skills aren’t truer faults, they’re powerful or weak. My perspectives aren’t truer faults, they either give me a sense of presence and connectiveness or they don’t. My identities aren’t truer faults, they either open up affordances or they don’t. They give me belonging, that homing function we were talking about. And I would put it to you that your sense of realness is not just your sense of conviction. It’s also your sense of power, your sense of presence and your sense of belonging. Losing those sense of, those other senses of realness. When we lose the other sense of knowing, is disastrous.
John: A lot of therapy is getting people out of their, often true propositions, about their plight and into recovering the skills or often acquiring the skills and perspectives and identities they do not have and that are needed. And I put it to you, this sounds very much like the Stoic. There’s a kind of therapy that we need as a culture because of this kind of propositional tyranny.
Jim: Yeah, we need to regain a fully formed sense of agency and sovereignty in the world.
Jim: And that’s what the domicide that’s going on now is trying to take from us. Learn helplessness, et cetera. But again, that’s another topic for another day, let’s move on. We got to move on. Now, you made a very interesting juxtaposition which I’d never seen before. I don’t know if this is your own creation or if you got this from someone else. That was to put Martin Luther and Descartes in a very similar box, right?
Jim: I said, “wow, that’s kind of interesting.” Right. If I’m putting words in your mouth here, push back, but I think the main argument why it’s part of this series is that neither Martin Luther nor Descartes seemed to need personal tra-
Jim: For Martin Luther, nor Descartes seemed to need personal transformation in their philosophies.
John: So, Luther has transformation, but the point of his version of the transformation is it’s an extreme kind of version of Augustine, right? The transformation is completely heteronomous. It’s completely driven by God. So you lose, and I mean this profoundly, and this is why Luther does not like Plato, you lose the notion of participation given. That goes through the entire Christian tradition, right? That we somehow participate in the process of our transformation. And that has no possibility.
John: So, although there is a kind of transformational Luther, the conversion, it is completely not in his hands. And then you get sort of the reverse in Descartes in which no transformation is needed. All that’s needed is a scientific method. And then both of them, and in Luther, it’s a bit of a paradox, right? You are powerless and also completely responsible. Your salvation is not due to the church or tradition or anything. It’s just like you alone have an unmediated relationship with God. So our individualism is very properly home there.
John: Then you get Calvin coming off of Luther. The pairing of Calvinism in Cartesianism is mine. Many people do that, putting those two together. And so this idea that, well, how can I put it? I mentioned that Aquinas opens up the possibility of God being absurd. I think Luther’s metaphysics where God acts in a completely arbitrary manner is then reified and legalized by Calvin. Paradoxically, I think, while he’s trying to assert the absolute sovereignty of God, he ends up making God completely absurd and irrelevant to my mind. I know my friend, Paul Vander Klay would disagree with me on that.
John: But, and Descartes, it’s really interesting. What Descartes does. He basically says, yeah, I don’t have to do any striving to get to this upper world. He doesn’t disbelieve in it yet. He’s still a Catholic, but he doesn’t feel, he feels very much not at home in the world because of the meaning crisis that’s happening with the scientific revolution. In fact, all of his, all of his philosophies properly trying to address that. But he thinks that if he gets a method, a mathematical method. You can hear Galileo in here. A mathematical method of certainty that will properly connect him to this world. And that’s all he needs to do in order to achieve an alleviation from the meaning crisis.
John: Like I said, he’s still a Catholic. He still believes in the upper world, but God plays no other role other than providing the guarantee of his method. That’s all God does basically in Descartes. God’s the ultimate, “I guarantee that the scientific method will work. That’s my job.”
John: And in all other ways, he’s very much irrelevant. So in a way, neither one of them intended, they make God profoundly irrelevant as a supernatural entity and the whole supernatural world. And I put it to you that the Protestant church has done nothing but fragment ever since, because it has no unifying, ultimate unifying vision.
Jim: Well, now let’s go on to the one thing you left out of your series. I sent you an email on this along the way, which, and this is perfect transition, right? Martin Luther and Descartes, I would argue, were the precursors, along with some other people like John Locke, to the Enlightenment, which you did not mention other than very much in passing.
Jim: My view is the world we live in right now is kind of a tattered and decadent form of the Enlightenment.
John: Very much. Very much.
Jim: And you know, you think about how’s a business work? It runs on perfectly Enlightenment principles, right? Yeah. Perfectly strongly. And these sort of implicit questions about God. Calvin, you know, the clockwork God of predestination. Huh? What the hell’s that right? That’s a reasonable precursor for deism, right?
John: Totally. Totally. Absolutely. Absolutely.
Jim: I have a good friend. Who’s a Presbyterian minister and she’ll argue some very esoteric meanings of predestination, but I don’t buy it. You know, once you’ve bought predestination, you might as well be a deist right? And goddamn atheist while you’re at it, right? And so, in the Enlightenment, we have people like Voltaire. We have Diterot, we have the Scottish Enlightenment of Adam Smith.
Jim: And then to my mind, really exemplary the US founding fathers, right? They are mostly deists or Unitarians or in one of them, James Madison, an absolute atheist stone cold, right? And they believed in a place to stand without two worlds, without superstition. And so talk to me about, even though it’s not in your series, where does the Enlightenment fit in your story?
John: So have, I think most properly, put a critical finger on a lacuna in the series. And I think there are others, by the way, but that’s an important one. I think, I mean, the work I’ve done with Greg Enriquez and what he calls the Enlightenment gap really highlights the importance of what you’re saying.
John: The United States is a strange thing, right? It has two foundings. It has a founding by the Puritans who are basically Protestant fundamentalists fleeing the Enlightenment. And then it has the second founding with the Revolution by these people who are deeply enamored and identify with the Enlightenment. And I put it to you that that is part of the cultural grammar of the United States and is continuing even today. Those two different foundings are continually war with each other. I don’t know if they can ultimately be reconciled.
John: Yeah. I think the Enlightenment, you, you picked it up perfectly given Descartes and given Calvin, you’re going to get the clockwork universe. You’re going to get Newton. You’re going to get deism, which as you rightly said, is we forget how popular deism was, right? Especially amongst the sort of elite of Europe and North America, but deism is, it makes God obsolete.
John: Other than doing that initial act of guaranteeing that the universe is going to run smoothly and it will be scientifically accessible to you. And then you get LaPlace. You know, when Napoleon looks at his system and says, “Well, where’s God?”
John: And he says, “Well, I have no need for that hypothesis.” That’s the death of God. It’s not people running up and down in the streets and screaming.
John: If you look at the nones, N O N E S today, they don’t largely because of sort of atheistic arguments. They believe because they find most of religious doctrine irrelevant. It’s not a truth issue. It’s much more a relevance issue, I would argue. That’s what the demographic evidence shows. And that starts in the Enlightenment. God has become, look at how I irrelevant God is in Shakespeare. God’s almost absent. He’s just, and He’s vaguely off at the very fringes and He’s absurd and weird. The supernaturalism weird stuff like the witches and it’s all, it’s just a bizarre, it’s so bizarre that world and think about how fast that came in existence.
John: So for me, the Enlightenment, I think the prototypical figures of the Enlightenment are, are Locke and Newton and then Kant, because what Kant basically does is put Locke and Descartes and Newton together.
John: But the main ideas of the Enlightenment are that reason now understood as the logical mathematical manipulation of propositions. Reason plus evidence. This is what we get from the empiricists like Locke. Reason plus evidence will give us all of the tools we need in order to alleviate the suffering of mankind, of humanity. And that reason with evidence points towards ultimately science and democracy. And that’s why you get people like Dewey linking these two together so profoundly.
John: The ideas of secularism. Secularism is not atheism. They are not identical. Secularism is the idea of this natural world running independently from the supernatural and that the way we express that is the religious spheres and the political spheres. The political economic, the spheres of our life, the science, the economics, right? The politics that deal with this world, they are to be run independently from religion because the supernatural world is irrelevant to the running of the natural world. This, the Enlightenment takes this as its primary justification, right?
John: You can have a pious sense of the irrelevance of the supernatural world. I think that’s what deism is. Or you can have a non-pious assertion of the irrelevance of the supernatural world. That’s atheism. And those two groups of people actually got along quite well together. You point out they cohere together in the American founders. So in the Enlightenment is evidenced reason, science, which is a self-correcting process and a market, which is a self-correcting process run by reason and evidence. Apparently, at least according to Adam Smith. And a government style democracy, self-organizing run by reason and evidence.
John: These three are all we need in order to properly run this world and to alleviate all of the sources of suffering of mankind. It’s a particular idea of reason, which I think is very truncated. I think it involves propositional tyranny and a lot of the other things I talk about. But I mean, this is still a very powerful vision. Steven Pinker famously just published a book recently on claiming that the Enlightenment is still the best vision we should have. Now, I agree with you, at least in calling what we have now, it’s just like we have decadent romanticism. We have decadent Enlightenment.
John: I also think there are important critiques of modernism. Modernism is the name I would give to those three claims about how to run the world that we got from the Enlightenment. Although modernism is now a wishy-washy term. Insofar as post-modernism can be made sense of. What those authors who have many different philosophies and disagree on a lot of things. What they seem to have a shared vision of is a critique of modernism as that particular set of claims made by the Enlightenment.
Jim: Yeah. When I look at it, look particularly looking at it through your lens, one of the things I noticed that’s missing from the Enlightenment read the autobiography of Ben Franklin. An amazing book, by the way.
Jim: He just assumes, I think all the founders do, that a standard smart adult person has all the tools they need to navigate the world, right? One of your points is that, and of course the rationalists also. They say the west coast rationalists is, “Well, your standard adult human actually is full of all kinds of distortions in their thinking and are actually not, they don’t actually have an optimal grip on reality. And so we perhaps need more that we can go beyond the standard adult in terms of our understanding of rationality fully considered.”
Jim: So I would say that’s one critique of the Enlightenment that would arise from the Vervaekean view. And the other, I call this the Rudyan perspective, is that it reeks of naive Newtonianism.
John: Yes, it does.
Jim: There’s no complexity, there’s no relativity, there’s no systems thinking. And I run into this all the time, even with practicing scientists who should know better, who are naive Newtonists and radical reductionists.
Jim: And those are two, I would say, major flaws that Enlightenment 1.0 don’t have. And, if we came up with an Enlightenment 2.0 Greg Enriquez and I talk about this a fair bit. It would certainly include those two things, plus a fair amount more. Particularly the things we’re going to talk about in the next episode.
John: Can I just say one thing about that? Another big lacuna is Spinoza who I’ve been doing a lot of work on. Because in the ethics, you see the realization that Cartesian reason and science, the scientific revolution, is that notion of reason is inadequate for what you just, for the reasons you just gave for giving us wisdom. That notion of reason, the Enlightenment notion of reason is far from wisdom. It’s radically insufficient for wisdom.
Jim: Yeah. I’ve tried to read Spinoza’s ethics a couple times and man, it just, I can’t make any progress. Is there anybody that you’d recommend who does a good gloss on Spinoza’s philosophy?
John: Yeah. Michael Della Rocca has a book, Spinoza. It’s the Rutledge series and it’s a fantastic book on Spinoza.
Jim: Okay. I’ll try to read that because I just can’t make it heads or tails out of The Ethics.
John: The other thing I wanted to say, Jim, and this is part of where your critique in mine come together. The Enlightenment relied on self-organizing processes, market, democracy, science. And self-organizing processes properly need complexity, systems thinking, et cetera. So at the very core, there was a mistake woven into the Enlightenment vision.
Jim: Yeah. The clockwork universe.
John: Exactly. Exactly.
Jim: As we say in the Game B the complicated, rather than the complex.
John: Exactly. And then if you think that all you need are clockwork sets of propositions for tracking the clockwork universe, you’re not going to get the dynamics that you need to deal with parasitic processing. You’re not going to get that counteractive dynamical system for wisdom. You’re not going to get that. You’re going to get a clockwork. You’re going to get what we get. You’re going to get these systems of propositions that don’t give us the capacity for cultivating wisdom.
Jim: Indeed. So we had come up to the Enlightenment, which what I would argue is a meaning crisis in some sense.
John: Very much.
Jim: And these people transcended the meaning crisis and came up with a new place to stand, right?
Jim: Which is very different than Augustine. Augustine would definitely be in favor of burning them all at the stake. Right? No question in my mind that these people need to be burned at the stake to save their souls. And again, in a real sense, the world we live in is still an Enlightenment world that won with distortions and things.
Jim: But it was not that fulfilling in many senses. It’s a rather old steer way of seeing the world and there have been, there was immediately a reaction against it, which you spend a lot of time digging into and that’s romanticism.
Jim: So talk about how this relatively austere place to stand free of the Augustinian and Thomasian synthesis produced a reaction in the form of romanticism.
John: Yeah. So, well, part of it, I mean, and you see this in Spinoza. You get the recognition of what we were talking about. You get the recognition that the metaphysics isn’t going to be able to carry the project of wisdom and the project of meaning, and the epistemology is inadequate for that. And notice that the epistemology goes down a, I don’t want to be insulting, but it goes into this really powerfully sort of cul-de-sac. I’m trying to pick a neutral term. With Kant, in which we get locked.
John: The nominalism becomes profound and even the math, right? Even the math no longer connects us to the world. That’s one way of reading Kant. In Kant, the nominalism finally even consumes the math because for Kant, even the mathematics isn’t describing the way the universe is, it’s just describing the way in which our mind has to shape experience so it becomes rational to us. And we have no knowledge of the thing in itself, famously. And so we get locked inside of our heads.
John: So very, very quickly in Kant, who writes the pivotal essay, What is Enlightenment? You know, the defining treatise on the Enlightenment. He’s the culmination of the Enlightenment in many ways. He’s attempting to integrate the rationalist and empiricists and justify Newtonian science. But you get into this, you get into this world that you can see it as the culmination of Luther being trapped inside his own conscience, and Descartes being trapped inside of his own consciousness. And like you’re trapped inside, right? With Kant.
John: And talk about of worldview that robs you of all of those senses of connection that are central for meaning, and in which it’s not understood how you cultivate wisdom within that. So Kant gives us like a set of rules, the categorical imperatives, very much sort of an attempt to be Cartesian. And he tries to create a religion within the balance of reason alone, which is basically a form of deism, and we’ve already talked about that.
John: So the romantics come out of Kant in a really profound way. So this content idea is that the mind is this tremendous framing filtering device that’s taking reality and the external world, let’s put it that way, and putting it through all these layers of process. And before it finally makes sense to us and how it makes sense to us, how it’s rational to us, has nothing to do with how it is in itself. And so this separation of reason and sort of ultimate reality that we, that sort of is prefigured in Aquinas, comes to fruition. And there’s a lot about how Descartes drives that too, but I’ll go into that.
John: And so the romantics, they see that as the escape hatch. They see, “Ah ha! But you know how I can reconnect to the world. I can go backwards through these layers of processing. I can go into the more and more irrational aspects of the mind, because the less and less processed this is, the more I will come back into connectedness to the world. The more I will discover my true self.”
John: Rousseau takes Augustine’s idea of the autobiography and comes up with the true self before it’s been subject to all the processing and filtering and layering of civilization. You can hear Kant in all this stuff going on in romanticism. And so, “If I can just get, if I can learn, this is what wisdom now is. If I can learn the strategies of going back through the irrationalities, these earlier and earlier layers of processing, I will reconnect to the depths of my true self. I will connect to the world, and that is how I will get wisdom and meaning back into things.”
John: And of course, you can see how this is going to make people like Freud possible in a profound way. And it’s going to make, of course, all kinds of, it leads to the romantic movement, which is first and foremost, a philosophical movement. Then it is an artistic movement. And only later does it become reduced to the locus of our so-called romantic relationships.
Jim: Now, of course, there’s one, at least from my perspective, and I sensed yours as well. There’s one big flaw in this argument, the sense that there is some true self that is an emergent from the work that we do in the world and the things that we encounter.
John: I object to this, and you’re right. I object to this notion and, and I object. And like, I object to how Heidegger’s notion and Adorno makes this argument. Heidegger’s notion of authenticity has been integrated with romanticism where authenticity is to somehow be true to your true self. And this is the ultimate wisdom.
John: I don’t know what that means to tell you. I think of the self as largely an inherently developmental aspirational thing. So my model of the self, and this is a model that, Zachary Stein and Greg Enriquez are completely in line with. Look at our recent series on meta psychology. That’s true to transformation. The self is a very complex recursive dynamical system, I would argue. And it’s aspirational. So it’s a properly Socratic model of the self in a very profound way, even though the romantics like Plato in some fashion.
John: So this idea that you’re born with a true self that is expressed on the world. So you have to remember that romanticism is rejecting reason. It’s rejecting the model of empiricism espoused by Locke, one of the other great figures. Locke’s idea is… I disagree with Locke’s model too, that the mind is a blank slate that experience writes on.
John: The romantics reverse that. The world is a blank slate, and you see how Kant makes this possible. The world is an empty canvas on which I press myself out. I express myself. I express my authenticity by showing and pressing on the world myself. It’s an act of will. It’s an act of imposition on the world. And Rousseau, of course, argues that that’s what all of development is. It’s the child just expressing itself upon the world.
John: I also think that not only is the model of the true self very, very questionable. I think the model of the world as an empty canvas upon which we can project ourselves, which is behind a lot of popular discourse right now. I think this is a very, I’m going to be harsh. I’m very rarely not harsh, but I think this is a genuinely stupid idea. I think this idea that the world is somehow free of properties, and structures, and patterns, and principles. The ultimate culmination of nominalism is the idea of the world of as itself of blank slate. I think this is a stupid idea.
Jim: Yeah. That’s what’s led to the fucked up versions of postmodernism. Right?
John: Exactly. That’s exactly. And I think that’s exactly the point and that, so I think we suffer from a very decadent form of Romanticism.
Jim: Yeah. Now I would point out, you talk about the romantic thinking. They love Plato. Who they reject, I would argue, is Aristotle and his idea of virtue and the whole idea of virtue ethics that really… And I think this is one of the themes that came through from me that you are, I think, a person who believes in virtue ethics and that one of our main reasons of existence is to cultivate our character and our virtues and the romantic reject that.
John: Yes. Exactly. You’re bang on there, Jim. Exactly. Exactly right. I’m a virtue ethics. And I also tend towards virtue epistemology as well. Very much, both of those Aristotelian. Also Platonic. But the idea of the cultivation of character, that’s aspirational. It’s clearly in Socrates, that aspirational project. That’s, to me, is lost.
John: And the romantics, you’re right, are often very critical of individuals who seem to be bound by their character, or cultivating virtue. They’re often, I think, unfairly represented as stultified, rigid, ossified. They don’t have that freedom, that joie de vivre of letting the true self out. And we get really silly versions of that. We make that hemispheres. The right hemisphere is the artist within our authentic self, trying to become free. And it’s imprisoned by the fascist left hemisphere. That’s not how the hemispheres is work. Talk to Iain McGilchrist.
John: But nevertheless, we popularize because we keep wanting to believe that this is true because it is the culminating point of a lot of lines of divergence from our history that have been contingently created, but we take them for being the natural case.
Jim: Well said, well said. Last topic, and we’ll wrap it here for this episode. You mentioned the word in passing the phrase “decadent romanticism” and you point to the fact that it leads to some of the worst nightmares of the 20th century, at least.
Jim: At least I would argue, and I maybe putting words your mouth here, but the, I call it the Rousseau branch of the Enlightenment via ways of romanticism and then decadent romanticism are really the underlying philosophical basis of fascism and Marxism.
John: Yeah. I make that argument and other people have made that. That romanticism is the grandfather of all the pseudo religious ideologies, the idea of the world as a blank canvas on which we express ourselves by our acts of will and meaning making. This of course is one of the main epistemological claims of ideology, and that we can shape the world as we wish.
John: And so you get Robespierre, right? A great fan of Rousseau, and the first politically driven, the reign of terror, 20,000 people. By our standards, not very great, but you know, it’s the first of these. And romanticism, the romantic glorification of the true self found within and the willful expression and imposition of oneself. I mean, that’s going to come out in the will to power and it’s going to come out in the idea of your inborn true self.
John: Think about how close, and people are going to get pissed off when I say this, but think how close to each other notions of your, you have an inborn, true self and racism are to each other. Think about it. They are very, very close to each other in a profound way. Do you really want to believe that you are born with a true self? Like, think about it. Think about it carefully. Right? Think about the consequences, the implications, the entailment, because you know what we’ve done in the great, fucked up time of the 20th century? We have worked out politically, at genocidal levels, all of these implications. That’s what we’ve done.
Jim: Ah! We’re going to wrap it there. We’ll pick up next time with Nietzsche .
Jim: All righty, John. Want to thank you again for just a wonderful run through these ideas.
John: Thank you, Jim. That was fantastic.