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 the fifth episode of my conversation with John Vervaeke. Fifth and last. We’re going to wrap it up here today. This has been an amazing ride, and those of you are joining us here, it’ll be interesting on a standalone basis, but if you want to really get the whole story, go back and listen to episodes one, two, three, and four before.
Jim: We’ll be continuing to explore John’s legendary YouTube series Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. And to remind folks, John is an associate professor of psychology and cognitive science at the University of Toronto, and he creates a seemingly endless stream of very interesting videos on YouTube on all kinds of interesting topics. So check them out. Welcome back, John
John: Jim, it’s great to be back. I’ve so thoroughly enjoyed our previous times together. I’m looking forward to today.
Jim: Yeah, I am too. It has certainly been quite an interesting exercise. All right, how do we prune this amazing bush to something we can get through in two hours or so.
Jim: But before we jump into it, we have to do a little bit of shameless commerce here. Want to remind people my new mobile game, Network Wars, is now out for Android, as well as for Apple. You can search for network (space) wars. That’s two words on the Apple app store and on Google play, or go to networkwars.com. Only 99 cents for many hours worth of fun and cognitive exercise.
Jim: All right, so we’re done with our shameless commerce part here. Let’s dig back into Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. We finished up last time talking about symbols, sacredness, and relevance realization. We’re going to pick back up there a bit with that discussion, and as you moved on in the series. So let’s start with one we talked about before, but let’s, I think, use this as a warmup that relevance doesn’t have an essence.
Jim: It’s really about a process.
John: Yes. The notion of essence, of course, is tremendously contentious right now in our culture. And that’s because an important idea made explicit by Wittgenstein has been a overemphasized. Wittgenstein pointed out that many of the categories that we form don’t have an essence in the Aristotelian sense. There isn’t a set of necessary and sufficient conditions shared by all members.
John: Wittgenstein’s famous example was the example of a game. There’s no set of necessary and sufficient conditions that will pick out all and only games. Now that has been overread, I would argue, in our culture right now where people are claiming no things have essence.
John: I think that’s a mistake because you have to put another great philosopher next to Wittgenstein and that’s Quine. And what Quine argued is, and I think this is a brilliant insight, that one way of describing the job of science is the job of science is to discover those categories that have an essence. And what we mean by in essence isn’t something that’s a priori definable usually. Perhaps in math, but I’m going to leave math aside because math is weird, right?
Jim: Yeah. Math is not science and that’s very important.
John: Yeah. Yeah.
Jim: Math is a closed system of axioms and mechanical ways of manipulating statements. So it’s very important to keep clear in your head that science and math are two different things. Oddly enough, Kant did a really good job of distinguishing math from other ways of knowing.
John: Yes. It was part of the genius of the Critique of Pure Reason yeah. So what Quine argued is that what science does is it studies which categories have the following properties that we can… Sorry, I’ll say what those properties are in a second… have properties of the category such that we can generalize.
John: So the idea is in science we take a sample, and we find properties in the sample and we see if it generalizes to the world at large. And the more it generalizes, the more we are zeroing in on important properties about the nature of reality. So for example, to make it concrete, gold has an atomic weight, et cetera, density, blah, blah, blah, all these properties. And it will have those properties no matter where we find the gold, no matter when we find the gold, no matter how we find the gold.
John: Now of course there’s probably some variations at the edges of black holes and stuff like that, but I’ll put that aside for now. And so what Quine said you’re basically doing, the essences are those categories that support the broadest possible explanatory generalizations. Now this is where you have to bring in JS Mill, because JS mill noted that there are generalization that we can make that are non-explanatory because they don’t give us any depth of understanding. And he called that extra feature of a generalization systematic import.
John: So let’s compare, this is JS Mill’s example, horses and white things. So if I learn a lot about this particular horse that transfer, most of that will transfer to the next horse I meet and the next horse and so on and so on, which is why I can have medicine for horses and train horses, et cetera. Now notice white things. Now white things is a true generalization. It is true that there are white things and it is true that I can keep discovering more and more white things. So there’s nothing false about that. But when I learn one white thing, it will not tell me anything about the next white thing I meet, except that it’s white. So it’s absolutely of no explanatory value. So essences are those properties that generalize with systematic import.
John: Now, what is it? If you look at the classes of horses, well, what is it? All the members share the properties. Properties they’re homogeneous, right? And no pun intended, they’re stable, which is the properties aren’t constantly shifting or changing. And we think they are intrinsic. They belong to the thing regardless of whether or not we’re conceiving of it or thinking about it. So horses would be horses, even if we aren’t around. Unlike money, money wouldn’t be money if we’re not around.
John: So if you look at the set of things we find relevant, you don’t find a systematic import within generalizations. So other than I’m finding them relevant, which is like white things, they don’t share anything in common. So the things I find relevant, they might be relevant, because they’re big. They might be relevant because they’re small, fast, low, near me, far from me. Right? So there is no homogeneous set of properties that have systematic import.
John: Same thing with stability. Something is relevant one second and completely irrelevant the next. Is it intrinsic? Are things relevant when there’s no organisms in the environment? That makes no sense. Okay. So given all of that, there is no essence in the scientific sense of essence, which I would argue with Quine is the only sense of essence that makes any sense anymore, right?
John: There is no essence to relevance, which means this is not what we do. We don’t discover, the brain does not discover the essence of relevance and then go out and find essence in the world. That’s not how it works. Essence isn’t discovered in that fashion. Now that can lead you to, I mean, when I sort came upon this when I was doing my PhD thesis, it was like, “Oh, well maybe I should get into another profession.” Because I thought that meant, well, this is it. We’re done.
John: And this intersects, like we’ve talked before, with all kinds of important problems, like the frame problem and issues around general intelligence. So this is a deep thing. But then I realized something. I realized that relevance was very, very similar to Darwinian fitness or I sometimes say fittedness. Because there’s one sense in which there’s a definition, a set of properties that allows an organism to survive long enough to reproduce. But that’s pretty much like white things. Right? Because when I ask, “Yeah, but what are those properties that allow this organism to survive?” It might be because the organism is big, because it’s small, because it’s fast, because it’s slow, because it’s complex, because it’s simple.
John: There is no essence to fittedness and that makes sense, because the environment, right, is itself not stable. It’s dynamically complex and constantly changing. And so what Darwin didn’t do, unlike the naturalists of his time, who were trying to find a definition of the perfection of organisms and thereby know the mind of God, Darwin didn’t propose a definition. What he proposed was that fittedness was constantly being redefined and redesigned from previous instances of fittedness by a process that we have come to call evolution by natural selection, right, which Darwin proposed.
John: He proposed a universal process by which this nonhomogeneous set of products was continually being produced in a continually redefining and redesigning manner. And that is what I propose exactly how relevance realization occurs. We can have a theory of how relevance is constantly evolving without being able to specify any perfection or final definition of what constitutes relevance.
Jim: And as you say, like Darwinian evolution, it’s essentially a lens for maneuvering in a highly complex and co-evolutionary world, right?
Jim: Not only does relevance, big, small, far away close. But I’m hungry now the cupcake is relevant. It wasn’t before.
John: Yes, exactly.
Jim: So it’s a key tool in our cognition for making sense of a combinatorically explosive and constantly changing world. And the hence it is analogous to evolution. It’s very, very useful.
Jim: Let’s move on to the next topic which will build to where we’re headed, and that is your somewhat idiosyncratic definition of sacredness. You know, I think of sacredness and I think of somebody looking up at the Virgin Mary on a stained glass window as an example. One of the phrases you use is sacredness as the inexhaustibility of our reality. That’s kind of interesting. Run with that a little bit.
John: Sure. Okay. And you’re right. It builds on the previous point. So I won’t review everything we said last time, but I was building an argument about deep connection between relevance realization and spirituality. And then what was missing from that was, we started to talk about the difference between sacredness as an experiential event and the sacred as the metaphysical proposal for what is behind that.
John: And what I was trying to get at was the notion of these spiritual experiences, what we’re experiencing as sacredness within them is this profound kind of enhancement of our relevance realization connectedness. How we’re connected to ourselves, each other, and the world. And then given what we just said, and this and this lines up with the meaning in life literature, that meaning in life is all about this realization, in both senses of the word, awareness and actualization of connectedness.
John: Now, if that connectedness is fundamentally our cognitive fittedness, if you’ll allow me to use the analogy, then given what we’ve just said, there is no perfection to this. There is no finality to this. There is no definition. There is nothing that we can hold up and say, “This is and always shall be that which will give us these experiences of transcendence, primordial connectedness,” et cetera.
John: So instead, what I proposed was to go back to the phenomenology and take a look at some alternatives to classical ideas of sacredness. And one of these is from actually the Neoplatonic Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, which is this notion of [inaudible 00:00:11:24]. The idea is that we experience the sacredness of God, not in coming to a kind of final rest, but in that God is the ongoing affordance of our continual self transcendence, which is a very different notion. It’s that God is like the ongoing affordance of the evolution of our relevance realization, which is a very different proposal than standard models, which are models drawn from a part of the Platonic tradition maybe.
John: I mean, you know that I’m a big fan of this, but this is a part of the tradition that I don’t like, which is the notion of perfection and immobility. And so what you see is instead this, and this, for example, lines up with what we talked about with the flow experience. In the flow experience, I experience not a coming to end, but this ongoing sense of discovery, of ever deepening connectedness. So there’s an inexhaustibleness in the way in which more and more sense can be made. And when I’m in relationship to something, and notice I’m not saying it’s a property of that thing, although the thing does contribute, just the same way the environment contributes to fittedness. Right?
John: When I’m in relationship to something and it affords that ongoing fount of new intelligibility, then I will tend to find it more and more meaningful. And I will tend to experience it as more and more transformative. And I will tend to find it therefore more and more spiritually deep. I’m proposing that’s what sacredness is.
John: Now to say something positive of Plato. That’s how Plato is for me. I will read Plato. I will go out and that will transform me and it will inform me and my life will be improved. I will transform in my life and I’ll go back and read the same passages in Plato and see something that I hadn’t seen before, or read a commentary on Plato and I’ll see something I hadn’t seen before. And then I go back out. It affords this reciprocal opening. It’s inexhaustible for me. It’s inexhaustible for me in a way that a Friend’s episode is not inexhaustible for me. I can pretty much finish out that quite easily, and get everything I’m going to get from it.
John: Whereas, a lot of things that people find give them the experience of sacredness are ones that have this inexhaustibility. And that’s important because I’m trying to distinguish between that experience, which I think is undeniable, and then as I said, metaphysical proposals as to what it is that causes that sacredness.
Jim: Yeah. That’s very important. And that gets on to our next point, which is we talked a bit about symbols and it’s very important for people to keep in mind that John uses symbols in a rich way, not in the [inaudible 00:14:07] sense of icon, index, and symbol, but more like the literary idea of a symbol. The two examples we looked into are the Christian cross, which has lots of nuance, and a person that’s a Christian looks at the world and thinks through the cross and what it means. Another good example is the American flag and all the baggage around that. Those are rich, I call heavy symbols. And as we’re moving forward in the the series, John talks about symbols as culturally indispensable.
Jim: But not having metaphysical necessity. So this is really, really getting to the sharp edge, I think, of what you’re trying to say.
John: Yes. And thank you for bringing that up. Yeah. Culturally and cognitively indispensable, because I do think it is possible for people also to have what you might call personal symbols that are nevertheless very rich symbols. I want to hold this open because people make these claims for things that happen to them in union analysis and things like that.
John: So what’s the idea? Let me first use an analogy. I’m monolingual. I mean I studied enough French and German so I could pass my PhD requirements, but that was a long time ago. So I do not consider myself bilingual in any way, which means all of my cognition that’s communicated… Well, that’s a little too much. A lot of my cognition that’s communicating either to myself and to others completely depends on English. So my cognitive agency really depends on English. English is indispensable to my cognitive agency.
John: You take away English, make me completely non-linguistic completely illiterate, and my capacities as a cognitive agent are going to be seriously truncated. Of course, some people suffer this kind of brain damage, and it’s tragic and it’s deeply debilitating. So it’s indispensable to me. But it would be for me to then claim, “And you know what? All cognitive agents must be able to speak English. It’s a metaphysical necessity. There is no possible world in which there are cognitive agents that don’t speak only English.”
John: That’s ridiculous because there are bonafide cognitive agents who speak French, who speak Russian, who speak Hawaiian, right? So while it’s cognitively indispensable to me, it’s not the thing is saying it’s metaphysically necessary. And I think given people’s characteristics, their particular set of virtues and vices, their personality traits, their own idiosyncratic cognitive and psychodynamic development, that there stands to reasons that a lot of symbols are going to be cognitively indispensable to them.
John: And when those symbols are shared in groups, those symbols are going to be culturally indispensable. And we have to acknowledge that. We have to acknowledge that people are pointing to something real when they say things like, “I can’t live without this.” They’re saying something that we should take seriously. However, we should challenge them when they conclude, “Therefore everybody needs this,” because that doesn’t follow from the first even though we have conflated those two together. The fact that something is cognitively indispensable is worthy of respect and being taken seriously. What it doesn’t license is the conclusion that therefore it is metaphysically necessary for all people.
John: And so this would allow me to say I think that there’s ways in which different traditions of religion like Taoism, for example versus Christianity, not in competition but in comparison each could be particularly culturally and cognitively indispensable to its community, given its environment, its history, the shared set of symbols, et cetera. And this is not to advance any kind of cultural relativism, because cultural relativism concludes from that a metaphysical necessity, which is not the case.
Jim: Yeah. That’s really interesting and important. And also I would point out that the culture has evolved around these symbols. Right? So the two are constantly interwoven, but it does seem to be, and I would argue, an unfortunate tendency for people to attach to their mythos as you would call it claims of metaphysical indispensability. One of my favorite examples is if you look at the original Buddhism, the Buddhism of Gautama, especially the writings in the Pali canon, the original language that he spoke. He very specifically disavows metaphysical speculation, warns his followers not to engage in it, et cetera.
Jim: And then as soon as he’s dead, they start inventing stuff like divas, and celestial spheres, and loading karma up way beyond the very subtle accounting system that he had in mind. And essentially it’s now full of the usual metaphysical claptrap of other religions. It seems to be something that humans just want to do. And maybe part of our evolution is how do we get past that stage of falling into the trap of not distinguishing between culturally useful, or I wouldn’t say indispensable, I’d say culturally useful versus metaphysically true.
John: Well, I think part of what we need to do is to recapture and maybe even exact the Greek idea of pursuing metaphysics independently. I do think there is a proper way to pursue metaphysics. As I’ve argued, we have to pay attention not only to that which is derivable from the sciences, but also that which is presupposed by the sciences. And I think a lot of our metaphysics, for example, goes under the name of the philosophy of science, et cetera. And I think the degree to which we can do that more properly oriented towards our knowledge claims and our wisdom practices, independent from our particular mythos, is the degree to which we will avoid that confusion.
John: I think once they are independently running, it is a good idea for them to properly talk to each other a lot. But dialogue requires that you first don’t conflate two things together. And we have an example of how we can resist the conflation without leading to alienation or isolation of these two things from each other.
Jim: All right, let’s move on to, in some sense we’re getting now towards the real meat of the whole series in my mind. We talked about it last time and its relationship with relevance realization. But why don’t you take a shot at giving us a practical and useful definition religio?
John: So practical and useful is religio is the realization in both senses of the word, [inaudible 00:20:24] into awareness with the possibility of reflection, and the actualizing of a potential. Religio is the realization of the fundamental connectedness, fittedness that is at the core of our cognitive agency.
John: And one of the things that relevance realization is constituted to frequently find relevant is itself. That’s a defining feature, because relevance realization is an inherently self-correcting process. I’m speaking anthropomorphically so you’ve got to give me a little bit of liberty here. I don’t mean language forces us in this way. But relevance realization recursively functions upon itself in a process of self-correction.
John: So one of the perennial objects of relevance realization is itself, and therefore that which corrects and improves, enhances our relevance realization, our realization of connectedness, is very positive for us, both motivationally and functionally. And religio is the realization of that, of that positivity of the connectedness that is at the core of our cognitive agency. Connectedness to ourselves as auto poetic beings, to each other as sociocultural beings, and to the world as dynamical evolving cognitive systems.
Jim: Good. Well said. Now you also position religio as a significant part of the answer to what you’ve called the perennial problems. So maybe a quick review on the perennial problems and how you see religio, and using the definition that you just gave, of being a mechanism by which we can escape at least in part the perennial problems.
John: So the perennial problems, and we talked about this repeatedly through the series. The very processes that make us adaptively dynamically fitted to our environment also make us perpetually vulnerable to self-deceptive self-destructive behavior. So there’s a lot of perennial problems that we face.
John: What I mean by a perennial problem is that you’ll see that across time and across cultures these issues arise. So let’s take an example, modal confusion. We’ve talked about this already in this series. That’s a perennial problem. We can confuse and conflate these two fundamental existential modes, the being mode and the having mode.
John: Absurdity is a perennial problem. We can take multiple perspectives, first person and third perspectives. And we can find clash between these two perspectives such that usually the more cosmic perspective undermines the local personal perspective. And we experience absurdity. We can experience alienation because we’re constantly being pulled between individuation and participation in groups. And that can go awry in a horrible fashion. We talked about parasitic processing, how we’re always prone to that.
John: So we have a whole bunch of perennial problems that constantly put religio under threat and threaten to undermine us. We are always… Well, I’ll be a little bit hyperbolic here to be provocative, Jim. So we are always two steps from despair in a way that we don’t find other organisms. I mean, we’ll find we can find higher organisms mourning, genuine mourning. But I don’t think there’s any good evidence for even a chimpanzee sort of sitting around wondering “Is this life worth it? Am I good chimpanzee? Have I become the chimpanzee I should be?” All these issues.
John: But we do. And we know that this is a very powerful thing for human beings. And one of the things that’s happening right now. For example, just pick one country. Australia. Doing really well by many measures, but they have youth suicide problem that the government is taking seriously and the government’s doing all this mental health stuff. But the suicide problem is going up and going up.
John: They don’t seem to understand that there is a deeper cultural cognitive aspect to this problem, I would argue. That what’s happening is people are feeling fundamentally disconnected from reality. That reality is becoming thin and vaporous for them. And this is driving them to kinds of despair and self-destruction. And so what we need to do is we need to cultivate ecologies of practices that address and ameliorate these perennial problems, and also afford an enhancement of the connectedness that’s at the core of meaning in life.
Jim: That’s good. And you make the point that relevance realization by itself can easily run amuck, right?
John: Yes, exactly.
Jim: I’m going to put some words in your mouth, feel free to push back. And that religio is essentially like a cultural super structure that helps guide, constrain, seduce relevance realization into ways that lead us towards a better life.
John: Yes, yes. As I said, I mentioned the words possible etymological basis for the word religion. Religio is one of the etymological, proposed etymological origins for religion. Because as Clifford [inaudible 00:25:25], I don’t see religion as itself a meaningful system. I see it as a meta meaningful system. We’ve talked about that.
John: So I think religion is a meta meaning system that tries to, as you said, sort of steer religio in the right directions away from foolishness and towards flourishing, often in a kind of dead reckoning fashion while claiming to have the true compass to the true north. And that goes back to the previous point we just made, right? Often what it does is it has a kind of dead reckoning way of moving us away from foolishness and towards flourishing. Now, when that’s all you have, that’s indispensable to you. Right? But that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved, which is one of the things that’s available to us right now, I would argue, with the advent of sophisticated cognitive science.
Jim: And then as you also point out various psycho technologies that we can now intentionally use to develop a community of practice. The first half, maybe, of the series was essentially a step-by-step description of how the two worlds model was first built and then undermined, right?
John: Yes, yes.
Jim: And we talked about it earlier, lots of Canadians, Americans, Australians, Western Europeans still sort of believe in the two worlds model. But the decay of it is probably leading to some of these examples you give of high suicide rates, feeling of meaningless, et cetera. But, and here I’m going to go on a Ruttian rampage a little bit.
Jim: You know we did talk about this. I pointed out that one of the things that I found missing was the enlightenment in your series, and we talked about that a fair bit.
Jim: So I’m going to actually make the Ruttian point that one can take an enlightenment perspective and find a place to stand in the world. And I’m going to frame it in a Vervaekean way. Right?
John: Okay. This is very intriguing to me.
Jim: And feel free to punch back. Right? You know, I like to say I have beliefs which I strongly state but weakly hold, which I believe to be the correct way to be in the world.
Jim: So let’s start with nomological order, how we fit in the world. Well, I believe the universe exists. So I’m a realist and even somewhat of a naive realist. And I believe it’s lawful, though we only know a bit of the law, and we may likely never know it all. And this universe of ours is inherently complex and getting more complex, which puts both theoretical and practical limits to our knowledge.
Jim: Okay? So this is my enlightenment plus plus where you add in things like relativity, both special and general quantum mechanics and complexity, right? You have a richer view of this universe we live in. We are a form of life. Life is a remarkably open-ended complex system, and a system for generating more complexity. And it’s based on biochemistry. And at least here on our earth, we’re all descendants of one last universal common ancestor, which is really fucking amazing, right?
John: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
Jim: There’s something somewhere in the space right before bacteria and archaea, and that dude is us through a series of complex unfolding. And again, where do we stand? How do we fit in the world? Nomological order? The universe is moderately old, about 13.6 billion years, probably not infinitely old. 13.6 billion. It’s kind of old. And it’s fucking big, a hundred billion galaxies, a hundred billion. Each of which has a hundred billion stars. And to the best we know on average, each star has at least one planet.
Jim: So multiply those numbers together, a shitload of planets, right? And we humans are tiny and new. We are very thin skinned on one small out of this ridiculously large number. Humans as a species is only 200,000 years older, more or less. But I like to argue that as actual thinking creatures who have a clear view of reality, we’re only 300 years old. Right? A little more. Start with Newton. Before that it was all confusion to a greater or lesser degree. Right?
Jim: And so as actual thinking creatures, we’re very, very new. So it’s our job, our nomological perspective is that we’re in this fucking vast and ancient universe, we’re this tiny little new thing, and we can start to figure it out. And we are now starting to figure it out. And so that’s sort of how we fit in the world. Now normatively, the normative order, I would argue that the enlightenment perspective is it’s up to us to figure it out. There is no a priori norms. Right? Does it work? Is it you useful? And I think that’s a key part of the enlightenment project that-
Jim: Is it useful? I think that’s a key part of the enlightenment project that people often miss. I happen to be reading right now a really good book called The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution. It’s this incredibly rich dive into the processes around the Constitutional Convention, and it become very clear to me using the [provacian 00:30:23] lens, actually, that these guys, most of them were deists or the halfway house away from traditional Christianity. They absolutely believed that norms were something we had to figure out, that there was no way to get from is to ought, and that it was perfectly reasonable to figure it out. And the American founders did a fairly decent job. Our society has lasted, the constitutional moments lasted now 235 years or something like that. And of course, it doesn’t mean to figure out our norms always goes right.
Jim: The French revolution tried to do the same damn thing, but they made some errors; too romantic, too declarative, too radical. Also, and this is the [Rutian 00:31:09] view on norms, the American Revolution took humans more or less as they are, while the French and then later the Russians and the Nazis were convinced they could create a new man in one generation. Maybe it’s possible, but the track record of new men is generally not so good, at least, especially not trying to jam it down in one generation. Basically, the American norms, things that have evolved and came up, that we can raise our families, nurture our vocations and our avocations, don’t bother each other too much.
Jim: There are formulations that are more collective than individualists, and those could work too, but I think the key takeaway is the normative order is something we make up. And if people get that clear, it strikes me that they have much better chance of creating a world in which they can stand, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We don’t need to have Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with 10 tablets, right? We can establish our own set of norms. And then finally, the narrative, the narrative order, and I agree with you that humans feel ill at ease if they don’t have a story. Right?
John: Yeah. Yes. Yeah.
Jim: Nick Chater, the very interesting cognitive scientist-
John: Yes. Very cool. Yeah.
Jim: I had him on my show, actually. The Mind is Flat. He claims all this depth psychology, pure bullshit, and that all we have is episodic memories plus the ability to make up stories, and that’s it. It’s really an amazing book. The Mind is Flat. Read that book if you… Now, I don’t say I 100 percent believe it, but it will really destabilize your thinking about things like depth psychology.
John: Sure, sure.
Jim: It’s really pretty cool. Anyway, the Rutian narrative order is that, “Hey, we are this tiny little thing on this tiny little planet in this gigantic, ancient universe, and the first thing we have to do is reach equilibrium between our planet and its ecosystem and the human population and our impact on the natural world.” Seems perfectly a reasonable story, and if we don’t do it, we’re going to fuck up in a major way. And if we can do that, we can exist for a very long time at ever-increasing levels of capacity and complexity on this one little planet. But what comes next? First, we have to achieve that, and that would be hard work for the next 100 years or so. But then we could have a bigger mission for humanity, which is to ask that question, which I think is the second biggest question in science, which is are we alone in the universe as general intelligences?
Jim: We’re on the verge of starting to get some real information on this. The study of exoplanet atmospheres, for instance, will very soon tell us whether life sort of like ours may well exist on other planets. We won’t talk about complex life, but it will at least say that is something like photosynthesis going on below the atmospheres of planets? And that will be a start. And of course, we’re doing studies that search for extraterrestrial intelligence, listening to signals, and one of the things I think is perhaps even more likely to be fruitful is looking for the techno signatures of advanced technologies. For instance, Dyson spheres around stars, which make the stars more infrared than they’d otherwise be. Think of it as a fleet of solar collectors around the sun blocking out a lot of the sunlight.
Jim: Anyway, are we alone, yes or no? And if the answer is yes, then we have a very interesting and high-risk decision. Do we raise our hand and let people know we’re here? The counter argument is so called the silent forest model. Why is the forest silent at night? Because the people don’t want to be eaten by the predators. That’s one fork on this mission for humanity, but the second one is the one that I think is so interesting. As a nerdy 14-year-old, of course I thought there were 100,000 societies out there in our galaxy. Heinlein and Asimov couldn’t have been that wrong. But now that I’ve actually studied the Fermi Paradox a lot over the last 30 years, I’m less sure. I think it’s a damn good chance, there is a significant chance that we are indeed alone.
Jim: When I think about that, the hair on the back of my neck stands up and I go, “Whoa. We better not fuck up.” Because if we’re the first and maybe only general intelligence in the universe, we have an unbelievable opportunity and obligation, and I would argue that that obligation is to bring the universe to life. Life and the complexity that’s open-ended, self-generating complexity of life is inherently more interesting than static matter. Perfectly reasonable that if we can survive 10,000 years, we can begin a mission to bring the universe to life. We started with the galaxy. You can run some numbers. In a million or two billion years, we could actually seed the galaxy with life if we were so inclined. Now, getting to other galaxies is a bigger job, but universal time is deep and we could probably bring many, many galaxies to life over time.
Jim: So anyway, there is my nomological, my normative and my narrative orders, to use Vervaeke speak, from a, I would call them, 18th century enlightenment plus plus, updated for what we know about the actual nature of reality, et cetera. For me, for me, just speaking for me, perfectly reasonable place to stand. I do not feel any angst. I’m not going to go out and commit suicide tomorrow. I enjoy my life and it strikes me as just a wonderful place to stand.
John: Okay. Well, that was very comprehensive, and I don’t mean this as an insult. I like the sort of science fiction utopia vision at the end. It reminds me of some of my favorite science fiction series that I’ve read. Dune has that in it, but Dune does a really anti-hero twist on it, but it’s popular right now and it’s out right now, so yeah.
Jim: A good movie, by the way. I just [crosstalk 00:37:04].
John: Apparently, I’ve heard it, so no spoilers, please. I haven’t seen it yet. Okay, the nomological order and the enlightenment. As I said, the enlightenment project has given us a nomological order that is ontologically incomplete. I don’t mean epistemically incomplete, because it will always be epistemically incomplete. It ontologically incomplete in that we have an explanation, as I said, of many things, but we have no good explanation yet of how we generate explanations.
John: Now, what that means is that I think the most… I hope that this is not driven just by my academic egocentrism, but I think the most important science right now for the nomological order, as a nomological order for the living of human lives, is cognitive science, precisely because it promises to extend scientific explanation into the very processes of science and scientific explanation itself. If that doesn’t occur, then our nomological order has a hole in it.
John: I have hope, and I argue for it in the series that cognitive science can address that hole. But what that means is how that cognitive science succeeds in addressing that hole should be taken very seriously and central to our understanding of the nomological order. So unlike the way physics was the core for the nomological order in enlightenment 1.0 or something, enlightenment 2.0, I think cognitive science is going to be the cognitive science in continuity with biology.
Jim: And complexity. I think complexity is the over-wrapper that includes biology, cognitive science, and things like economics and sociology.
John: Granted, granted, and you and I agree that complexity theory, dynamical systems, theory models are the way to go. I didn’t want to speak presumptively, because it might turn out that… I think the degree to which that is being integrated, not shall be, but is being integrated within 4E cognitive science is something that is going to be centrally important. What that nomological order will give us is it will give us a sense of not only what reality is, but how we fundamentally belong in reality, because we don’t have that in our current nomological order.
John: What I think I would say about the normative order is as you said, and it’s interesting how you brought up the desire of the Nazis to change and make the new man, which of course is taken from Paul’s Christianity in one generation. And this even shows up in Nietzsche, right? I teach you the Superman. What is man? Man is something that should be overcome. What I mean by that is I think at the core of the normative order is something that’s at the core of our cognitive agency, which is as we’ve just mentioned.
John: Let’s say that what we said for the nomological order is profoundly true. We are inherently dynamical. That means we develop by function. We function by developing. We’re inherently self-organizing beings, which means self-transcendence, and self-correction is a form of self-transcendence, is central to our cognitive agency. We are inherently dynamical, developmental beings, and that we need a mythos, a set of symbols that help us hold in mind and actualize our capacity for self-transcendence. We currently have defunct symbols, to my mind, and I’m not trying to be insulting here.
John: Most of our symbols of self-transcendence, even the word, even the word is bound up with two worlds mythology. We need a different set of symbols, in the rich sense that I’m talking about, that are scientifically legitimate. They do not contravene our best science, but nevertheless fit us as human agents such that we can pursue ecologies of practices and psycho-technologies that afford self-transcendence. Also, what that means is something we don’t yet currently have, which is a well-worked-out model of what wellbeing looks like. We should self-transcend towards wellbeing. Greg [Enriquez 00:41:11] makes this point and I concur with him on it. For medicine, we have something like health. For meaning in life, we don’t have the equivalent theory of wellbeing. We need this to develop. And that, again, fits in with the nomological order.
John: Now, that brings me to an important criticism I still have of the old enlightenment, and I mentioned this before, was that it didn’t hold. It too radically reduced wisdom to the generation of propositional knowledge. We need other kinds of knowing and we need other ways of transforming those kinds of knowing, integrating and aligning them together, and that’s also a proper function of a living and legitimate, a living and legitimate mythos. And I think one of the things that the enlightenment gave us, it was too much the idea of method as opposed to transformation. We need to bring back transformation. We need to bring back the other kinds of knowing, and we need to take seriously that there’s a difference between ignorance and foolishness. And so that’s how I would say it needs to go into our normative order.
John: Our narrative order. As you probably could tell from the series, I’m very suspicious of the narrative order. That’s the one that I’m most suspicious of for two reasons. One is epistemological metaphysical. The old models of narrative were built on an old model of teleology and final causality that is no longer viable. So attempts to bring those back without any serious revision is, I think… Sorry. I find it ridiculous. I find that that if you don’t solve the problem of grounding final causation, then I think all of your attempts to bring back a narrative order, I think are fundamentally flawed.
John: I do think there is good work that my colleague and friend at UFT, Dennis Walsh, and others within biology, they’re trying to come up with what you might call a complexity theoretic understanding of teleology or teleological explanation that I think is viable and can be found scientifically legitimate. This has to do with things we’ve talked about before, the difference between causes and constraints and things like that, and I think this is all important. Whether or not that will link, I suspect people will try. I’m suspicious of claims that it will. Whether or not that will lead to a proposal for how we should pursue utopia, I don’t know. I’m very worried about the frame problem with utopia. The history of utopias is that the side effects have turned out to be much worse than the intended effects, and so I am deeply suspicious and cautious around eutopic proposals because of their track record.
John: If you take just an inductive approach to utopias, you should be really, really wary of them. They border on the horizon of bullshit, because they inevitably sound great or they wouldn’t be utopias, and they have up until now almost always turned out badly. And so I think they are rich cavities for bullshit, and so we have to be very wary around them. And so I am very wary around them. I do like something you said about your utopia because there was a recognition in there that I share, and this goes back to a point about the nomological order.
John: In one sense, in sort of a spatial, temporal sense, we are insignificant. But notice what your utopia was proposing, which is life is, you said, inherently interesting. There’s an intrinsic value to it, in that although we may be insignificant in terms of our causal impact, we represent a kind of existence that has a kind of intrinsic value to perhaps all sentient and Sapient beings. I think that can be the source of our sense of how we are not insignificant in the universe. If that does motivate us, and Plato said, “When you realize the beauty of something, you try to generate more beauty,” that’s what you’re doing. If you’ll allow me to put some Plato in your mouth, which you wouldn’t generally like, Jim. But you see, if you’ll allow me, you see the ontological beauty of life and therefore you are called, and I think you’re called to let’s generate more.
John: I think that’s a viable proposal. I would say, again, that that’s going to be bound up with a model of what wellbeing for life looks like, so the normative and the narrative orders have to all properly speak. And then this will bring me to my final point and then I’ll shut up. This is my sort of, I don’t know if it was much of a counter rant. I’m just modifying a lot of what you said in significant ways. But what is needed is what was also had. Not just to have the three orders, but to have them properly, mutually supporting and interconnected, should be given a strong priority as we attempt to go forward.
Jim: That makes good sense. I will say, just to be very clear, I am an anti-utopian for exactly the reasons that you said. In our [game D 00:46:05] movement, the word utopian is an insult.
John: Okay, okay, okay.
Jim: When someone proposes something that says, “This is way it would be,” and that we strongly believe that we have to have a closed loop of theory, practice theory, and that it’s an empirical and experimental journey on a direction. Further, I would mention that I think the thing that links my view of the normative and the narrative is that it’s just stuff we make up. We use our knowledge of the universe to try to aim for things like wellbeing, at least for humans, maybe for other beings as well. But in terms of the mission to bring the universe to life, I don’t claim there’s any teleology there-
John: No, no, no, no.
Jim: – that there’s any requirement, but it’s a choice. It’s something I find interesting, and maybe I can convince other people that it’s interesting as well. And that’s, I think a very enlightenment perspective that is a marketplace of ideas, and ideas cohere or they don’t, and those that cohere lead to action, which lead to a future. The future is open and it’s up to us to define what it is. And so I think that’s my take on the narrative side of things, that there is no true narrative about the future. We make the future. That’s the key part of at least the Rutian perspective.
John: And that was at the core of the original narrative, whether the Israelite discovery or eutopic. It’s both a discovery and an invention of the possibility of the open future.
Jim: That was something I did not know, and I did find that very interesting in the show, that distinction that the Israelite tribes had this non-cyclical, more open-ended view of reality. All right, let’s get back to the John Vervaeke show, since we’ve had enough of the Rutian rant here, which is you have a big section, as we were moving forward here in the series, on what you proposed as reverse engineering enlightenment.
Jim: And that we have to be careful here, because we just talked about the enlightenment.
John: Yeah, yeah.
Jim: You are very clear to distinguish your idea of enlightenment and say, “It’s not necessarily the enlightenment.”
John: No, no, no.
Jim: So, dig deep here. There’s a lot of pieces in your thinking about reverse engineering enlightenment.
John: The proposal is we have varying accounts. There was a platonic account of enlightenment. That’s what coming out of the cave is. It’s literally a myth of enlightenment. Be careful about that language. It’s literally a myth of enlightenment. And of course, you have the Buddhist notion of enlightenment, et cetera. Now, what we’ve typically done, and you can understand why people have done this, is we’ve taken this self-description of people who we believe are justified, and we can get into the problems around that, but nevertheless, we’ve come to believe are justified and claiming to be enlightened. And then we’ve tried to say, “This is what enlightenment is,” given that.
John: This has led to perplexing complexity and mystique around enlightenment. It leads to the weird thing that if you look at the Buddhist time, hundreds and thousands of people are achieving enlightenment on a fairly regular basis, and if you ask a Buddhist, “How many people in the world are enlightened today?”, you’ll frequently get an answer, “Well, probably no one.” And it’s like, really? Then this points to something has gone wrong, like there’s been monkeying with the plumbing in such a way to lead to that unacceptable result, I would think. “Why are you a Buddhist?” To achieve enlightenment.” “How many people achieve enlightenment?” “No one does.” Well, really? That seems problematic. And we have to remember that enlightenment is a radical discontinuous change from your previous state.
John: So when I looked at that, I thought, trying to figure out the knots in the plumbing and try to, by a historical argument and some sort of cross-cultural analysis come to what’s the best account of enlightenment, I think that’s a project that’s doomed to fail because of the complexity and the self-interest and all kinds of stuff that’s going on. And so I tried with Chris’ help, Christopher Mastropietro, just break out of that frame and say, “Look, what’s something we want that has traditionally been associated very deeply with claims of enlightenment cross-historically and cross-culturally?” And what that is, is I think something like overcoming the perennial problems and enhancing religio in a way that’s wise and transformatively effective for people’s lives.
John: And so what we should do is let’s set that as the goal. Let’s call that enlightenment, and then let’s reverse engineer, given our best cognitive science, what things can we do that will reliably and systematically ameliorate the perennial problems and afford the enhancement of flourishing. If you don’t want to call that enlightenment because enlightenment means the achievement of some kind of omniscient or it requires the remembrance of your past lives or something, then fine, I’ll call it [shmen 00:50:53] enlightenment or something else. I’ll give it a different name, but I would put to you that I can make a good, clean argument that that is profoundly needed and perenially needed by human beings. Sorry, I’m getting a little bit hot here, because I don’t like when things are made… How do I want to put it?
Jim: Here’s how you put it. You said mysterious and nostalgic.
John: Yes, yes. Yeah, and that there’s a mystique that is woven around that borders and frequently travels into a kind of deeply cryptic but nevertheless profound and pervasive narcissism, that we have the secret sauce of life. Our tradition has the secret sauce. And that, of course, frequently goes against the very claim of these traditions to offer a universal solution. There’s just so much I could say here, Jim, like you foreshadowed.
John: Part of the problem is these notes of enlightenment are bound up with certain claims that some one thing is absolutely metaphysically necessary. There’s confusion of cognitive cultural indispensability, metaphysical necessity. There’s the idea of a kind of perfection of sacredness, that there’s a final vision, final solution. And I use that term deliberately to the proposal as to what sacredness is and how we should self-transcend. I find all of these seriously questionable, and I would like to also remove that detritus from the notion of enlightenment and give us something that’s ultimately realizable by human beings in a lifetime, in a human lifetime.
Jim: Again, sort of this engineering perspective, you talk about specific aspects of the perennial problems, and you have at least short-form answers, things like parasitic processing, verbal confusion, the reflectiveness gap, absurdity, anxiety, alienation, and existential entrapment. Maybe you could do a quick little wrap on those things.
John: Oh, all of them? Okay.
Jim: Well, three that you think are the most interesting, and that maybe that we have some leverage to actually do something about.
John: I think we have leverage to have something to do with all of them, like for example, parasitic processing. You and I have talked about this, the idea of a counteractive dynamical system that you can cultivate, which will counteract the adaptive, in scare quotes, adaptive for itself, but not for us, complex dynamical system that is parasitic processing, and we can cultivate a counteractive dynamical system. This is an ecology of practices. I took, as an example, and only as an example, the Eightfold Path of Buddhism as such an ecology of practices that is creating a counteractive dynamical system. We can do that, I think, and I mean no insult to Buddhism, but we could probably do it better now, given the cognitive scientific knowledge we have about how to address this and the therapeutic advances.
John: For all of the problems with therapy, and Greg Enriquez is great about those, there is nevertheless, there is success and there is things we’ve learned. It hasn’t been just throwing darts at a board. And so there’s lots we can bring to bear on this, and we can create counteractive dynamical systems, ecologies of practices that have the real possibility of reliably ameliorating the self-deceptive, self-destructive foolishness that is parasitic processing. Modal confusion, we can engage in practices that help us deeply remember the being mode as distinct from the having mode. One of the functions of some mindfulness practices is exactly to awaken us both meditatively and contemplative to the being mode as distinct from the having mode.
John: The reflectiveness gap, this is the problem that our reflection initially… If we have no reflection, we bring no reflection to bear on our behavior. Then we are impulsive. We are what Frankfurt calls wantons. We are acting on one impulse just knocking another one over and we are incoherent. We are acting at a cross-purposes from ourself, and we lose agency and impulsivity. One of the ways we overcome that is we step back and reflect, and we identify with some of our impulses disidentified with others. We start to give shape, call it character. We start to virtually engineer our behavior ala Aristotle, and that starts to ameliorate the loss of agency that we have in impulsivity.
John: But we can turn into Hamlet, and this is Velleman’s point. We can reflect too much. Hamlet’s not the only instance of literature of individuals who reflect too much, keep stepping back and looking at their formulations. And so you can lose agency, because you can become too uncoupled to your environment. By the way, reflection gets you to basically detach from the world. And then Velleman proposes a state that gets both the flexibility of reflection and the involvement of impulsivity together, and he says it’s the flow state. He proposes that what Daoism did was cultivate the flow state, not just the way we do, which is ad hoc and idiosyncratic and very limited, but cultivated in a way that permeated throughout one’s life and percolated through the levels of one’s psyche, so that one approached more and more a comprehensive state of something like at least cool flow with appropriate moments of hot flow, and this is how you address the reflectiveness gap.
John: Absurdity. Absurdity is perspectival clash. You can see both in the Western tradition, somebody like Spinoza, Eastern tradition, Buddhism, that there are ways of using meditation and contemplation to come to a state. [Prashna 00:56:37], non-duality in which these perspectives are no longer clashing with each other, but interpenetrate each other in a very powerful and viable way, and this is how we can address absurdity. I can go on, but the point is we have both historical and cognitive scientific resources that can tell us how to understand these perennial problems and how to address them, how to create an ecology of practices, and we’re beginning to understand religio and meaning in life so that we can align those practices that ameliorate foolishness with those that afford flourishing, enhance the connectedness, enhance religio.
John: This is all viable. This is all doable, and it’s doable individually. It’s doable collectively. It can be done within communities, cultivating wisdom and meaning, but it can be done in conjunction with scientific communities studying all the underlying mechanisms and functions.
Jim: Very good. I had a very interesting conversation with a fellow yesterday. We’ve been having 90-minute video chats about monthly for the last eight or nine months. He came up with something that I said, “I’d love to hear what Vervaeke has to say about this,” which is we were comparing and contrasting mindfulness and playfulness. I took the pseudo Vervaeke in perspective that playfulness was participatory and mindfulness was perspectival, and that both are sort of in the being mode as opposed to the having mode, but that there is some perhaps useful distinction between mindfulness and playfulness, and that for your average Schmo, it may be easier to inculcate playfulness than meaningfulness.
John: That’s an excellent question. This is really juicy. Serious play, by the way, just addresses another perrenial problem, which is the problem of overcoming existential entrapment, where we’re existential inertia, existential ignorance. That goes back to the problems we talked about, L.A. Paul’s work and the problem of transformation and you can’t infer your way through it, and how rationality is itself aspirational. So these are perennial problems, and part of what I argued is the way we do that, and we have a lot of empirical evidence that this is the developmental way we do this is serious play, and serious play involves the imaginal as distinct from the imaginary.
John: Remember, the imaginary is making pictures in your mind, whatever that metaphor ultimately means. Whereas the imaginal is when you’re play acting, when the child picks up a stick and makes a paper hat and pretends to be a pirate, that kind of thing. They’re acting out in the world, and not just human beings. Lion cubs play fight, and they play stock and they do all kinds of things. Serious play, and I won’t review the argument it’s in, we’ve discussed it, but serious play is the way in which we drive transformation. So I think of serious play as a much more generic thing. I think you’re right. I think serious play is ultimately participatory, because it’s about changing the agent arena relationship.
John: I do think it does involve perspectival knowing, because the child has to know. The child is pretending, what’s it like to be a pirate? How would they salience landscape their world? I think you put the emphasis in the right place. I think mindfulness is also very perspectival.
John: You put the emphasis in the right place. I think mindfulness is also very perspectival, but it is also trying to bring about a change in the nature of the self, which would ultimately be participatory. The difference is that I see mindfulness practices as a species of serious play. I see serious play as a much more comprehensive category. I think most of spiritual and religious behavior, when it’s functioning well, and that’s an important caveat, but when it’s functioning well there’s serious play, it’s imaginably augmenting our interaction with the world in some way to bring about transformation.
John: And I think people also do that to a significant degree in mindfulness and contemplative practices. Let me give you an example from contemplation, from the Buddhist tradition, just to give a concrete example. See all of the world is interconnected and impermanent. Well, I can’t really do that with my everyday perception, I have to do that imaginally. I sort of act as if, right? I do that weird thing like the child’s doing when they’re pretending [inaudible 01:00:58].
John: What would it be like to realize the world is interconnected and impermanent? So I do this imaginal augmentation. And now it turns out the world really is interconnected and impermanent, so it’s good imaginal practice. I’m imaginably augmented, so I’m getting into right relationship and that’s serious play. That’s serious play and it’s a mindfulness practice. So I think I would argue that mindfulness practices are a species of the more generic, serious play category. [inaudible 01:01:23]
Jim: I can hear what you’re saying. I’m not sure I buy it. If I say, “Ah, it’s play time.” I generally don’t think about pulling out my Waking Up app and doing 10 minutes of meditation. Maybe that’s a mistake on my part, but like I think of that as more introspective, more personal, individual. And it’s more like personal cultivation than it is like play, where I’m just changing my perspective in some radical way. I play a video game where I’m running around shooting zombies, or I go out and play soccer, or I go out, go deer hunting, which I would call a form of play. Being outwardly engaged is somehow qualitatively different than looking at the stuff that’s showing up in my conscious frame.
John: Well, see, first of all, I’m going to ask you to be fair to me. I say serious play, not all forms of play. And so for me, for example, and this is the Chinese, you play Tai Chi, right? And for me that’s serious play. And now it’s very clearly a powerful mindfulness practice, it’s a flow induction practice. It does all those things. It’s very introspective, very personally transformative, but it’s very much, and the noun is the same, sorry, the verb is the same verb for playing music.
John: And that’s what I mean by serious play, and so that’s what I mean. And I think for me when I’m engaging in my meditative and contemplative practices, it feels very much like what I’m doing in Tai Chi Chuan, I’m doing that kind of serious play with the machinery. I mean, music is just serious play with the, well, it can be frivolous, let’s say good music is serious play with the machinery of, of salience landscaping. Right? And I’m doing the same thing in a lot of ways when I’m meditating and contemplating.
Jim: I think there’s something to that. I’m going to have to give that one some more thought. I’m going to, my guy and I are going to have another conversation in about four weeks and I’m going to have, have him listen to your comment and we’re going to talk about it.
John: Good. Well, that’s good. I hope that’s, what’s happening a lot from all of these, these episodes we’re doing together, Jim. What I most want is to generate, you know, really good, reflective rational discussion about everything we’re talking about.
Jim: Yeah. That’s what makes this series so cool is there’s so many things that one can discuss and think about and drive oneself crazy contemplating at three o’clock in the morning. So for that alone, this awakening from the meaning crisis artifact is hugely valuable. It’s a contribution to, to humanity, frankly.
John: Well, thank you.
Jim: Yeah. I mean, it really is. People should everyone out there, you know, if you have 50 spare hours. Here’s a little trick, you can run it at 1.25 speed. John talks fairly slow most of the time. So you can actually get through it in about 37 hours. So not so bad. So now let’s take the next step to what I would call the actual center of your presentation, which is the religion of no religion.
Jim: Would you agree that that’s the center of your project here?
John: Yes. Religion that’s not a religion. Yep. I think that’s fair. I mean, I, I, the hesitancy in my voice is not epistemic. I think you’re correct to say it’s the center. The hesitancy is personal ethical. I am not, and I do not strive to be the founder of a new religion. This is not my task. This is not what I’m trying to do. I am not the founder. I’m not the prophet. I will do my best work as a cognitive scientist on it. I will do everything I can to help emerging communities, and communities of communities, but I am not. And do not look to me to be in any way a founder. So while it is the center, I am not at that center if I can put it that way.
Jim: Yeah. Perfectly reasonable. So we’re not saying we’re going to crown the prophet Vervaeke here, but rather Vervaeke is the student of, and explicator of, along with other people. And you do make the point that you’re not the first person to come up with this.
John: Oh no.
Jim: James Carse, for instance. Very Interesting, right?
John: Very much. Yeah. And I, I, I, I revered James’ work and I, I’m glad I got to talk to him a couple times in depth.
Jim: Yeah. So why don’t you dive into it? What is the religion that is not your religion? Funny, I, all throughout my notes, I thereafter I have abbreviated R T I N A R, RTINAR, as the religion that is not a religion.
John: So the, the proposal is the following and, and it’s an exaptive proposal. It’s the, the proposal that we need to set up a proper theoretical integration between our best cognitive science and our best reverse engineering of enlightenment, individually and collectively, with the past. The past ecologies of practices, they’re a rich resource that we need to exapt what we can from in the best possible way. Very much like what I tried to do with the series itself, right? There’s the historical argument, there’s a structural argument, and you try to integrate them together. And here’s the, the idea that we can afford the individual and collective ecologies of practices properly honed within communities, properly honed within a worldview that can sit within the scientific account of things that can [inaudible 01:06:23] foolishness and afford flourishing. And that will take what it can with respect and love, and exapt from the existing philosophical and religious traditions.
John: While leaving behind, if I can put it that way without sounding condescending, leaving behind the now decadent two worlds, mythologies and metaphysics. In which those practices, ecologies of practices and community formations had been ensconced. That I, I do not think we can revive the two world’s mythology because of the success of the scientific revolution and the secular revolution at flattening our ontology in that way. I don’t think our ontology is ultimately flat. You and I agree that reality is multi-level, complexity, emergence, et cetera. So when I mean that, I mean that we have a one world, we, we we’re, we have a one world worldview now in a profound way. And because of that, we can’t simply … I’m, I’m hesitating here because I don’t want to deny because I know, as well as I know most things, there are individuals within the existing world religions who can find a way within those world religions to cultivate wisdom and religio.
John: I’m not denying that. And if people can do that, do it. Here’s what I’m claiming. We have more increasing demographic evidence that most people cannot do that anymore. They cannot, increasingly so, they cannot. Then that is who I’m speaking to then, right now. And what I say is that there’s a way in which it, as a real alternative to your auto didactic and fragmented way of trying to cobble together a response to foolishness, and to cultivate wisdom and self transcendence, that there is a way we could do it coherently and collectively the way like analogous to science, right? Only analogous to science, right? That doesn’t bind us anymore to the two worlds mythology. That doesn’t bind us to any one of the existing religions that for many … many people reject these religions, not because they think them primarily false, they think them primarily irrelevant, nonviable.
John: The mythos doesn’t grab them. The two world’s mythology is otiose to them in an important way. The religion that’s not a religion is basically saying, right? It’s responding to the madman in from Nietzsche who walked into the marketplace and said, you don’t know what you’ve done when you’ve killed God. You have to become worthy of it. There’s a way of becoming worthy of it. And I mean, and I don’t mean just Nietzscheanly worthy. I mean like a way that’s becoming worthy that is deeply philosophically, scientifically respectable, but also deeply existentially transformative and significant for people. We can do that. We have the resources. We have, right? We have the willingness. This is already happening. These communities of practice are of ecologies of practices are springing up all over the place, and talking to each other, increasingly so. We can do it. It is a real, it is, you know, it is already happening. So the religion that’s not a religion is a way in which we could say this without snickering. We could say enlightenment is possible for us individually and collectively, and we can pursue it now individually and collectively in a way, because that’s how I reverse engineered enlightenment, that deeply awakens us from the meaning crisis.
Jim: Very well. Good. And you also say in these words, that religio is central to this idea.
John: Yes. Yes.
Jim: And maybe you could … actually let’s, let’s, let’s stitch two things together. Religio versus, and with, credo and with mythos.
John: Yes. Yeah.
Jim: That triple, some of the most interesting ideas that you present in the series.
John: Okay. That, yeah. Thank you for saying that, Jim, so … well, we’ve already talked about religio, right? And what it is and how, how centrally important it is to you. Credo is the use of propositions in pictures to try and basically do something that you have to do. Even in signal detection theory, you have to set the criterion. I won’t go into signal detection theory in detail. All I want to, all I want to claim is that I do argue in the series that this notion of credo can be grounded in a, well, in a bonafide scientific theory of how information transmission occurs, signal detection theory. So setting the criterion, let’s give a practical example. One of the things you have to do, you know, your job description, if you’re a good religion is give people a way of distinguishing transformation from madness, for example, insanity.
John: How do you do that? And think about, let me give you a specific example. I am not proselytizing here. I’m just trying to give a concrete example, right? The Roman Catholic church has this very arduous process, by which somebody comes, becomes a Saint. And they, they even have the devil’s advocate. That’s where the phrase comes from. I’m not saying this isn’t subject to corruption and politics, but when it works, it’s this, it’s a, it’s a very complex process, right? That you have to go through before somebody becomes efficiently sort of a sacred person for you. Now, whether or not that works metaphysically, that’s not my point. My point is what the function of creeds are, is to try and distinguish the signal from the noise. To try and say, who’s on the path from who’s not on the path and you need that.
John: This is what signal detection theory says. You always have to set the criterion and you’re always gambling. There is no algorithm that can tell you how to set the criteria, because it’s dependent on which risk, type of risk is more relevant, and that’s constantly shifting, giving the shifting of the dynamic environment. So there is no final solution. Again, chosen deliberately to the problem of setting the criterion. Religions frequently claim there is, and they claim their creeds are good for all time. This is one of the problems. So one of the problems is you get creedal tyranny, which is a species of propositional tyranny. And the two have supported each other in the, in, in our culture, the Protestant reformation, right? It’s taking place at the same time that propositional tyranny is coming to the fore, for example. Credo should always be completely in the service of religio.
John: Setting the criterion is not the same thing as being able to create and cultivate the connections. Credo, I argue, should always be in service of that. What has happened is, and for lots of reasons I go over in the series, and some of it we’ve touched on on our series, Jim, is we’ve inverted that, right? The I believe is now central to participating, belonging, to being involved in the religion in a way that’s I think very … This is what turns off most of the nuns, the NONESes. Like they, it feels to them like they have to set up and say things, and they don’t even … it’s not that they dis … it’s not that they think it’s false. They don’t know what it would mean to say I believe, you know, reciting the Nicene creed, like, it’s, I want to be really clear on this.
John: It’s not like, it’s not, I’m not saying there’s none, but for most of them, it’s not like, no, here’s my atheist to counter arguments to all of this. It’s they, I don’t know what I’m doing to do this. It just, it doesn’t touch me in a profound way. I know watching the Lord of the Rings might, right? And so credo should, let me use our distinction we crafted earlier together. Credo is cognitively indispensable because of the requirements of signal detection, but any particular credo is not metaphysically necessary. And so credo should always be evolving and shifting around because it constantly sees itself in service to religio. So that’s, a religion that’s not a religion would constantly be prioritizing understanding and cultivating religio and constantly, and collectively and self-correctively. So it’s kind of like the best of democracy and science for being self-corrective, right? Constantly self-correcting the credo to be better and better in service of the religio.
Jim: I think that’s really hugely important. And one of the things I, that’s actually very close to Game B World thinking, which is that we have to acknowledge that this credo is something that we invent, and that we learn as we go, right? We, we practice religio. We say, well, we’re applying this credo, but what about this case? That doesn’t seem too good. So we tweak the credo. Right?
Jim: We can continuously engineer credo as a dynamical system that results in emergent religio, right?
John: Yes, well said. Oh, I liked the way you just said that. That was beautiful. That was beautiful.
Jim: Yeah. That’s I think that’s, you know, very similar to how we think that things like virtues, values, norms, and principles can, you know, emerge to be a social operating system. They’re almost like the identical idea just in slightly different domains. You know, our Game B World, we include, you know, economics, things of that sort, but in terms of this area, the, the idea of the two feeding back on each other. And that religio is an experiment in applied credo, and then provides the mechanism for adjusting credo to make religio better.
John: That’s excellent. First of all, it’s encouraging to hear that because that generates plausibility. Independent, you know, convergence on a shared conclusion raises the plausibility of the conclusion. Secondly, it’s clear evidence for what I just claimed a few minutes ago. Communities of practices are already emerging pursuing this in very similar ways. And that says something that should be paid attention to.
Jim: All right. Let’s add the third part here, which is mythos.
John: So the mythos is the use of symbol, and story, and souvenirs and, and celebrations, right? I’s all this inactive imaginal stuff that, remember I used, talked about, like something like the heads up display, the imaginal augmentation of our realization of religio. That’s … right? That’s what mythos is. It’s, it’s the use of like all of these symbolic, again in the way you talked about it, with the way we talked about it together, the way you reviewed today, this very rich sense of what a symbol is. It’s, it’s the use of all of these to make us aware of religio, enhance our realization of it. So that we come to say, and again, a way that should no longer cause snickering that we’re experiencing sacredness. That we’re experiencing a profound enhancement of religio where the enhancement doesn’t just mean experiential feeling. No, no crypto romanticism here, decadent romanticism, it also means sapiential.
John: There’s been a significant uptick in the wisdom by which you appreciate and activate your religio. That’s what mythos is. And we need mythos. It’s, right? Again, trying to … let’s use one example. Trying to align the different kinds of knowing, right? Is something that typically has to involve mythos. It has to involve the multidimensionality of mythos in order to address and align all the four kinds of knowing, so that we can enhance religio. That’s just one example of why mythos is so central. Now the thing about credo and religio is what credo … if, if credo dominates religio, credo often turns mythos into a unchallengeable unquestionable. Notice how the word sacred has become synonymous with you can’t question it. That’s a bad meaning of sacred, right? But what happens is the, the, the credo becomes an unquestionable metaphysics. We should do metaphysics again. I think we should, but our metaphysics should be done in the way we’ve been talking about here. It should be something that constantly evolves. And so mythos should, again, also be centrally, always in service of religio. And it should be wary about merging with credo.
Jim: Interesting. Now, do you have any, this, this may put you on the spot. Do you have a story? Do you have a mythos that you feel, at least as a candidate, to be in corporate as part of the culture of the religion that’s not a religion?
John: I don’t know if I would, again, because I’m not a founder. I’m very careful about answering this question. I don’t know if I propose it as the, I, I want to, I want to …
Jim: A, just a, a story. If I said the, I didn’t mean it. I meant a story, and it doesn’t even have to be necessarily a good one, but just that people get a sense of what a, the mythos is in the context of the religion that’s not a religion.
John: Well, part of what I want to do in the next series after Socrates is to make a very deep proposal of the Socratic story, and stoicism did this. Although, I think we can improve upon stoicism. The story of, of Socratic enlightenment. And, and there’s, there’s an exemplary figure. Doesn’t mean we should all try to, you know, in some kind of simplistic fashion, imitate Socrates, but for me …
Jim: That’d be annoying as fuck if everybody was just like Socrates. I mean, it’s, it’s indispensable to have a Socratic figure in your village, but if everybody was a Socrates, holy shit.
John: No. And so that, that goes towards part of what the project is. Let me qualify that because your criticism is, is well placed. And I definitely don’t set myself up as to be anything like Socrates. Part of the religion that’s not a religion is what Thich Nhat Hanh said, and Jordan Hall frequently quotes, which is the next Buddha is the Sangha. And part of what I’m trying to do with this whole project that I’ve been working on about dialectic into dialogos, is how can we collect be Socrates to each other? Rather than picking this person as Socrates and we all gather around him and basically say, yes, Socrates, as some of the dialogues degenerate into. What I want to do is how can you and I, you know, in a dynamic fashion, in a fluid fashion, be Socrates to each other? And how can we do that in a way that I can take individually into my life, you can take individually into yours, but we can also take together into greater collectivities? You can see a lot of people’s work, like Nora Bateson’s work on the Warm Data Lab in which she’s trying to create, I would argue, and I don’t think Nora would object to this, basically a collective dynamic version of Socrates. You know, you have these, I don’t know if you know about the Warm Data Labs. I don’t know.
Jim: Oh, absolutely. I know her well, she’s been on my podcast.
Jim: And she’s a part of the Game B adjacent space.
John: Yeah. And so the, the thing she does with the warm data, right, where you have the small groups and they talk, and then people get up and they, and they, and they drop in on other groups, and they disrupt and they challenge, and they question. Like that is dynamic collective Socrates. If you’ll allow me.
Jim: In the Game B World, where you have a term, I think Jordan Hall may have actually come up with this, collective sense making.
John: Yes. Very much. And so the story, if you want, is this story. And it’s an aspirational story. How do we access and activate the machinery of collective distributed cognition, this the collective sense making, how do we access? Let me just use a short term for that. How do we access and activate the intelligence of distributed cognition so as to aspire reliably, to transform it into collective wisdom? That’s the story I want to propose for people. That takes a lot of work to my mind. There’s a lot we need to learn. There’s a lot we need to bring to bear. There’s a lot we need to engineer. I’ve committed myself to that story.
Jim: I’d love to see this next phase. Let’s now hop on something you mentioned, which actually happens to be in one of the areas that I do work in, which is this, you call indispensable function of signal detection, right? And even, maybe even have mentioned a deer. In my own work I use a deer as my model in my simulations, et cetera. And so the deer eats grass, let’s say, and the more vigilant it is to looking for danger, the less grass it eats, and the less fit it is when the running season comes around. The big bucks have to butt heads to see who gets to, cause you only one buck impregnates all the does in the area. So it’s high genetic stakes. So if you’re too vigilant, you don’t get strong enough to win the fight because you’re always jerking and running off into of the woods every time there’s a noise. If you’re not vigilant enough, guess what? The hunter gets you.
Jim: And of course there’s an optimality around that. Cause at least in the United States, we have hunting seasons. So the optimal deer is less vigilant during non-hunting season and more vigilant during hunting season. And you actually see some deer that exemplify that behavior, most don’t. But I suspect the most successful ones have this highly nuanced signal detection theory, you know? All right, if it’s in the fall, and you hear a diesel sound, run like hell right? If it’s in the summer, don’t, as an example. And that’s hugely important actually, and is driven by evolution in the case of deer. And there’s many analogies in our own lives. Right? You know, think about the commercial sphere that we are inundated with 30,000 messages a week, right?
Jim: And, and even worse. These are 30,000 messages that are designed by people with fairly good cognitive science knowledge.
Jim: To try to drive something into your head. And you know, how important is it for us to learn how to understand what signals to react to and which ones to ignore?
John: Yes. Yes. And, and, and that goes directly towards what we were talking about before. I use the example of the gazelle and I point to the other, the other end. So you’re you, you were pointing about how hyper vigilance can be non-adaptive. I was pointing out to that if the gazelle treats all the noises in the bush, as if caused by the wind, then it’s going to get eaten by the leopard. Right?
Jim: And it’s exactly the same story.
John: Yeah, yeah.
Jim: It’s just different for, it has to be tuned, has to be fitted, as you would say.
John: Yeah. It’s constantly fitted. It’s constantly evolving. It’s evolving attunement. Yes. And that’s what, and that’s what I meant about our credo has to be one of evolving attunement. Cause that’s exactly what our credos are supposed to do. Our credos are supposed to help us distinguish the signals of religio from all the noise. And some of that noise, as you rightly put out, as you rightly pointed out is being generated by a lot of bad faith actors in our environment. They are very much sending out noise. They’re bullshitting us. Cause bullshitting is a powerful kind of noise.
Jim: Yeah. We live in a world satur … as we talked about earlier, saturated in bull shit. If, you know, if I was a historian of the year 2525, I might put this epoch say from 1922 to, you know, I don’t know when it all ends, as the age of bull shit.
John: Yeah. Very much, very much. And the fact that we have to … let’s try and choose something that’s a close analogy. So we said that one of the things you’re trying to do with your credo, right, is you’re trying to distinguish madness from the cultivation of wisdom. Right? But, so I’m going to use something that’s analogous, which is a, a mental disorder. This has not been established as a consensus, but it’s definitely an intellectually respectable position, which is ADHD is only a disorder because of the environment we try to put these kids in. If they were in a kind of environment in which hunter gathering was our main mode of survival, these would be high status individuals. The kind of opportunistic shifting round of attention that is characteristic of at least one significant subgroup of ADHD individuals, would actually be highly adaptive in that environment.
John: But we now treat it as a disorder that has to be treated and immediarated. And that shows you how we can shift around what we consider sane and mad, what we consider healthy and unhealthy. And we have to be a lot more reflective about this than we have been in the past. I mean, I have criticisms of Foucault, but Foucault, you know, one of the things he does is talk about, you know, that we’ve basically invented inventio. We both discovered and invented this category of madness and insanity. And he asks us to … and this is where I do agree with him. Like I say, I have criticisms of his work significant, but I do agree with him that he’s trying to get us to remember that that those creeds of sanity and madness, they’re historically generated. And we have to pay attention to the fact that they may no longer be properly attuned to where we are at.
Jim: Yeah. And the institutions evolve under their own pressure. So for instance, the sausage …
Jim: … factory public school, right?
Jim: Is horribly misattuned to the nature of young males.
John: Yes. Very, very, very much so. And, and we have law. I mean, I take David Fuller’s argument to be good. And, and he’s not recommending a return. He’s not nostalgic, but when, when the mainstream media lost, for probably legitimate reasons, its role as the gatekeeper. So it was the signal detection machine for our culture.
Jim: Yeah. Walter Cronkite …
John: Yeah, yeah.
Jim: … for all you young folks out there, there was a time, let’s call it 1966, where most people believed what Walter Cronkite said, who was a news reader on the American CBS network. That what Walter said was true.
Jim: It was quite remarkable. We don’t have that anymore.
John: No, we don’t.
Jim: It’s probably a good thing.
John: Yeah. That’s probably a good thing. And, and like I said, David is not nostalgic. He’s not arguing for that. But his problem is we have swung the other way, in which we have no signal detection and we are seeing the consequences of that. So we don’t believe anybody, right? Generally, or you can’t get consensus around almost anything right now. So we’ve lost the signal detection. And so we are basically accusing each other of being mad, being stupid. Right? And, and, and you get the polarization and the, and basically the breakdown of the capacities for mutual self-correction that are at the core of democracy. Right? So democracy require … democracy is better, I mean, remember Churchill’s thing, democracy is the, it’s the worst system next to all the rest, right? Democracy has tremendous flaws in it, but what gives it a great advantage is precisely its capacity for self-correction.
Jim: Yeah. Open ended. You know, Karl Popper, his book, The Open Society and Its Enemies. It’s the only philosophy book I keep in my working office. And he makes this point and he, frankly, it’s an attack on Plato’s Republic, and it’s somewhat, not direct, but it’s, you know, an indirect attack on Plato’s Republic. And that rather than having this canned set of rules, the open society can self-correct over time. And democracy is so far the best implementation we know of self-correcting societies. But we can, you know, truthfully democracy is not indispensable to self-correction, and in fact …
John: No, no.
Jim: … democracy has all kinds of problems, and there may be some improved ways to go. Anyway, time is getting short here. Let’s move on.
John: Okay, yeah.
Jim: Let’s take a step down to the religion that’s not a religion, and particularly the idea of cultivating an ecology of psycho technologies to make it coherent and make it function.
John: Yes. So the idea is the idea of an ecology and we’ve already talked about it, is that, you know, it’s a dynamical system where you have relationships of mutual affordance and constraint. So the whole process is massively, recursively self-correcting. And then the, the reason for this is that various psycho technologies often have complimentary sets of strength and weaknesses. And we should capitalize on this. Where they have complimentary sets of strength and weaknesses, we can set up a very powerful mechanism of self-correction, which is opponent processing. I gave an example earlier about sort of when we were talking about mindfulness, how meditation and contemplated practices have complimentary sets of strengths and weaknesses, and we can set them into a point of.
John: Have complementary sets of strength and weaknesses, and we can set them into opponent processing relationships with each other. Mindfulness practices have complementary sets of strength and weaknesses with active open-mindedness and we can set them in opponent processing relationship and be self-correcting with each other sitted practices and moving practices We can do this. We can say, how are these processes related to each other? Where could we find complementary sets of strengths and weaknesses, and then deliberately put them together in opponent processing in a complex, dynamically, recursive manner. So we could get the best possible self-correction for our ecologies of practices that would bring about the Awakening from the Meaning crisis. Now, the idea is that psychologies practices would ultimately be set into the communities that properly home them that are oriented towards religio as their primary focus, et cetera.
Jim: Yeah. Interesting. And to give some examples, in a paper I wrote called A Journey to Game B, we talk about psychotechnologies by name, amazingly enough. Let me see if I can find where it is. Oh, psychotechnologies. Just to give a sense of some of the ones that we think about, I’d love get your reaction to that, and include meditation and contemplative practices, yoga and Tai Chi and other mind body practices, medical cell therapy, for some people, psychedelic drugs, neutropics transcranial and magnetic and electrical stimulation, brain implants, neuro and biofeedback. There’s lots of things, including group singing and chanting, ecstatic dancing, et cetera. So the palette of psychotechnologies is damn broad.
John: Yes. And I proposed that, and some of this work has been made public in conversations I’ve had with Jordan Hall, that something like there’s meta practices around the cultivation of collective wisdom. We talked about this earlier, when you asked me about my story and that self-evolving, self-correcting collective wisdom should be sort of our best sage. And that’s not the same thing as a God. The best sage for helping us curate and create these ecologies of practices, because nobody’s going to practice all of these psychotechnologies and no community’s going to practice all of them, but can we really seriously help people to craft better ones rather than worse ones? And can we properly encourage and coordinate, even though we might have different…between communities, even though those communities might have different sets. You might have set A, I might have set B, but we can say, but look, we, we both share higher order principles of organization, a bridging between practices layering between practices, getting pedagogical programs for practices.
John: And so that’s very much a central part of what the religion that’s not a religion would do. I gave a Ted X talk about neuro enlightenment about the coordination of psychotechnologies and cybertechnologies. And this gives us a very important opportunity for which I think we have a moral obligation. We can use the psychotechnologies and the cybertechnologies to perhaps individually and collectively improve the wisdom for how to use the psychotechnologies and the cybertechnologies so that we could get a positive feedback cycle going. And I think there’s a moral obligation to do this because there’s a lot of bad faith actors out there already trying to coordinate psychotechnologies and cybertechnologies in ways that are not necessarily going to be towards a future of reduction in foolishness and an enhancement of flourishing.
John: I’m particularly worried, for example, of some of the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation to shut off parts of the brain, to turn people temporarily into psychopaths, so we can make them better soldiers on the field. I guess in sort of economic efficiencies that would make somebody a better soldier, but shutting off somebody’s capacity for genuine empathy and ethical behavior, is that something we want to create a large group of armed, trained people to be able to do? This seems to be like a ridiculously foolish idea, but you can see why an arms race around that is already beginning. We have to intervene on these kinds of proposals and we have to intervene by making popular in both senses of the word, right? The coordination of psychotechnologies and cybertechnologies for the cultivation of wisdom.
Jim: Yeah. And that’s the perfect transition, cause we’re now going to finish up this episode. Well, we’ll wrap up at the end, which as you point out, just because we say the words, meta-psychotechnology doesn’t mean the result of that engineering practice will be good. Right? As you say, look at what the Chinese are doing. They are very smart about meta-psychotechnologies and from my money, they’re building a fucking nightmare, right?
Jim: 1984 done right. Right? And that’s not so good. And you know, you specifically call out that if we’re going to address meta-psychotechnologies, the safest way to do it is to basically develop wisdom and meta virtue. And so you have a whole section in three episodes, where you talk about the relationship between wisdom, rationality, insight and virtue.
John: Yes. Yes.
Jim: And that if we don’t have these things, then yeah, we may have a religio and a credo and meta-psychotechnologies, but they could all be used for bad purposes.
John: Yes. I totally agree with that. That’s why I argue strongly for the deep interpenetration. And this is not against a lot of the traditions. It’s consonant with them, even though some of them have fallen into kind of decadence on this point, a deep interpenetration of our notions of wisdom and enlightenment. We should couple these together and make them mutually dependent on each other.
Jim: Yeah. And we talked about this before, but I think it’s, again, very important to revisit this. Some of the precursors to wisdom and things are related to wisdom, insight and rationality.
John: Yeah, very much. And part of what we need in an ecology of practices is a complementary relationship between practices like AOM Active Open-Mindedness that enhance inferential rationality and mindfulness practices that enhance insight and a kind of intentional rationality. As I’ve argued before, and this is one of my criticisms of Enlightenment 1.0 is the notion of rationality was reduced to inferential propositional rationality. And I think that’s inadequate. I think that there are many ways in which we can deceive ourselves that has nothing to do with our inferential practices. It can be intentional practices, et cetera. And so part of what wisdom should do is should make us, if you’ll allow me, because we talked about both of these at length, so this isn’t just coy. Wisdom should make us more insightfully rational, and more rationally insightful, in a systematic and systemic way, and both individually and collectively.
John: And if we can get to that point where that is, we have good evidence and reason to believe that’s growing, what else do we want? I don’t mean this insultingly. I really don’t, but okay. I want to say this very carefully. A lot of the parts that I’m very critical of in the existing religions, trying to refute them, I think is largely inept. I want to create something that makes them obsolete and that’s a different project. Let’s give people the very best possible tools individually and collectively for wise, enlightenment, for insightfully being rational and rationally being insightful in a way that’s profoundly developmental and transformative for them, again individually and collectively. What else do you want?
Jim: Yeah, and the fact, the way you define insight for instance. The systematic seeing through illusion and into reality.
John: Yes, yes!
Jim: What could be better than that? Now, of course begs a question, what is reality?
John: Yeah, well, but then again, that’s where our wisdom and our knowledge, and Nicholas Maxwell has talked about this, right? We need to get them talking together again. And it’s like, we need to realize that there’s a kind of thing, between wisdom and knowl… We should have the wisest possible scientists. The idea that all you need to do to be a good scientist is to be, have sort of technical training and statistics in the scientific method. I think what we’re seeing is no, and in a lot of the work that’s being done in virtue epistemology and virtue ethics and the deep interpenetrating of those is no, no, we also require a lot of intellectual virtues in our scientists.
Jim: Give me an example where wisdom and virtue would have relevance to a scientific undertaking.
John: So a scientist needs to balance humility off against courage in how long and how well she defends her particular theory, right? There’s no algorithm for that. You can just be a stubborn asshole, and still be doing your stats and still be doing your scientific stuff.
Jim: Like Einstein in his later years, who absolutely refused to accept quantum mechanics.
John: Exactly. Right. And so getting the golden mean between courage, right, between perseverance, I should say, and humility is a virtue, and the great scientists exemplify that. Being open to self-correction, being open to the correction of other people while also being courageous. You cited Popper, right? Popper said we should falsify bold hypotheses, not trivial or truistic ones. You need to have a courage to put out the bold hypothesis. Right? But you need to have… You need to recognize…You need humility when people criticize it. How do you balance that? How do you balance that? Right? So that you get the falsification, or I would say the disconfirmation, at least, of bold hypotheses. That’s what science needs. There’s two examples of how virtue is important to our sci… So our scientists need to be cultivating wisdom in virtue, and then we should be prepared to listen to them more carefully.
John: Them and the good philosophers. Sorry, I don’t mean there’s a lot of bad philosophers out there. There probably are. But what I mean by that is there’s an important role, as I said, doing the reflection on our scientific projects and our political projects, that it cannot be satisfied by doing science or doing politics. To my mind, that’s one of the roles of philosophy. The other role of philosophy is the cultivation of wisdom. So philosophers should be helping us reflect on science, reflect on politics and also guiding us in wisdom. When we have the wisest philosophers and scientists working together in this somewhat, I guess I’m cultivating utopia here, the very thing I disdain, right? But I think that then we should listen to that collective community when it tells us the nature of reality.
Jim: As long as they don’t suffer from the philosopher’s disease. This is something I talk about a lot, where there’s a whole class of philosophers, in the old days moreso even than today, that are looking for solid ground. And truth is there ain’t no solid ground. It’s turtles all the way down.
John: Yeah, I agree. But I mean, philosophy is self-correcting too, not at the speed of science, but that’s also because the problems it tries to address are more perennial. You know, there’s been a significant criticism from within philosophy of any attempt at such foundationalism.
Jim: Weinstein, as far as I’m concerned, just drilled it. Right? And he just said, just stop. Right? But people haven’t just stopped, unfortunately.
John: Yeah. And that’s why there’s a properly existential therapeutic aspect of Wittgenstein. Heidegger does the same thing. The two great philosophers and the two traditions, the analytic tradition, Wittgenstein, the continental tradition from Heidegger, that they generated were about trying to give up that sort of Cartesian foundationalism, the pursuit of certainty, et cetera. And so we need to take that seriously to heart.
Jim: All right. Let’s move on. We’ve got so much to cover. A very, I think important point that you made is that while our intelligence, G, may be more or less fixed, rationality is highly malleable.
John: Yeah. And that argument is deeply influenced and inspired by the work of Keith Stanovich. I think that’s some of the best work in cognitive psychology in the last few decades. I highly recommend his work. I don’t completely agree with his notion of rationality. I think it’s too limited. I think it’s too Cartesian. And I think that the work that’s coming out of Herbert Simon around what’s called ecological rationality, some of the stuff I’m working on right now with people like Reno and others, I think this is a better account. But nevertheless, what Stanovich showed, I think very, very well, with evidence and argumentation over two decades, right? Is intelligence is only a necessary, but nowhere near a sufficient condition for rationality. Very good experimental evidence for this, massively replicated, very robust. And that there is a lot we can do to ameliorate our self-deceptive foolishness, our irrationality, and improve our connectedness to reality. There’s a lot we can do.
John: And so one of the problems is we conflate three things together. We conflate rationality and logicality and intelligence as if they are all the same thing. They are not, they should be pulled apart, and the proper relationship between all three needs to be carefully understood.
John: And we tend… Because of that conflation, we think we can get sort of one measure, and people don’t like that because intelligence is fixed. And that means they’re fixed, and that goes against some of their clear intuitions that they are better than they used to be. And let’s be careful here. A lot of times it’s just bullshit, and they’re not better than they used to be. But at times they are right. They are better than they used to be. They’re better as a 40 year old than they were as a 15 year old. And they know this, right? Even though their IQ is fixed, something else has improved. And you know, what Stanovich puts some science behind is, well, what’s improved is their capacity for rationality. And I would call that, and we’ve talked about this before, the systemic, reliable overcoming of self deception and enhancement of connectedness.
Jim: And, closely related, you talked about, you mentioned it just a couple of minutes ago, the cognitive style idea. And particularly, I’m looking at my notes here and I have these in 24-point type: active open-mindedness. And you say, in some ways it’s a lot like stoicism and it can help us fight the classic cognitive biases. And in terms of things that people can actually take away from this podcast, that struck me as one of the easier ones to start one on the road on. So maybe you could give us a little more of an extended wrap on active open-mindedness.
John: It’s easier… It’s kind of easier than the way chess is. It’s easy to learn, but it’s hard to practice it. So there are many good books out that list and explain cognitive biases. I think I refer to a few in the series and one of the things you can do is you can, and this is very much like a stoic practice. You can pick a bias and look for it throughout that day. And at the end of the day, try to remember instances. What you can do that really speeds up the process, because we’re really good at the first part of this, is notice this bias in other people. Cause you’ll be really good at that. You’ll be really good at noticing this bias in other people, so practice that for part of the day or maybe for a few days in a row, and then do the difficult task of using exactly those skills you’ve been honing and turn them on yourself, and try to catch yourself engaging in that bias.
John: And then actively, this is like the counteractive dynamical system, actively counteract it. I’m just looking for evidence that confirms my proposition. I’m not looking for potential ways in which it could be falsified. Oh, and then I’ll try and look for that. Or, and this is responsible to do, you may say it’s hard for me to generate. I’m going to ask somebody else to give me potential criticisms of this and I’m going to take them seriously. I’m not going to dismiss them ahead of time with prejudice.
John: So, that’s an example of active open-mindedness. You can cultivate that as a daily practice. I did that for a couple years to get a sense about that. And then you can sort of move to higher levels where I try to, what Nicholas Cusa called, Learned Ignorance. I try to do a practice every day where it’s like a meditative practice where I just realize how ignorant I am of objects. I don’t know the chemical composition of this. I don’t know it’s actual weight. I don’t know the name of the person that made it. I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t know actually how long it’s been in existence. And then I realized that when I think I know this and I realized, I don’t know this.
Jim: I know just a little bit. [crosstalk 01:46:55] You have to stomach humility, right? The amount that we can actually know is, we’re approximately the stupidest possible general intelligence. And it’s always important to remember that. Let me know if you feel this practice fits into the idea of active open-mindedness. My good friend, Bret Weinstein talks about this a lot. And that is the benefits of steelmanning the other person’s argument.
John: Oh yes.
Jim: Particularly someone you strongly disagree with. Try to write down or say out loud the strongest possible formulation of an argument that you feel that you disagree with.
John: So I do something very similar like that. Peter Limberg has a thing he calls the anti-debate. Whereas before I could criticize you, I have to be able to summarize back to you your position.
Jim: That’s steelmanning. That’s exactly the same thing.
John: Right. And then there’s an additional thing with steelmanning, which is dialogical movement. This came out for example when I was arguing, and I mean in a good sense, it was beautiful, with Bernardo Castro, right? What I try to do is not just steelman your position. I try to move from my position as much as I can. Right? I try to move towards your position as much as I can with integrity. I don’t lie or be duplicitous. But I try to say, well I’m willing to consider this. And I then move towards your position as much as I can because there’s anecdotal evidence and some experimental evidence that that will encourage you to possibly move from your position as well. So it’s not only steelmanning the person, it’s to set up the possibility of movement between you. And this…
John: So I hope you’ve seen that there’s times when you and I have been doing what, I’ll try to do this. You’ll say something and I’ll get it, but I’ll also try and move towards it and say, here’s how I think I can derive from my position, something that’s closer to yours than the original version of mine. And that’s not again, that has to be done honestly, that’s not duplicitous, that’s not just cosmetic. No, I’m willing to consider transforming my position this much. And we’re capable of that.
Jim: It’s very much like the negotiations that happen in business and diplomacy, frankly, right?
John: They have to be.
Jim: When they’re done in good faith. Now sometimes it’s all gamesmanship, but when it’s done in good faith, I mean I’ve seen business negotiations that were remarkably that way, right? Where each side states their side thinks, about what the other person’s trying to achieve. What about this? I give up a little bit, you give up a little bit, or even better. There are times where you can find win-wins right. That you didn’t realize existed.
John: Exactly, exactly. And there’s an upside to this. So it has its own intrinsic value, as you’ve just said. Right? But the other value is it actually taps into the very machinery that people use when they con us. Right? Cause that’s how a con works. A con gets you to move so much that you don’t feel that you’ve moved and then move and move and move. But if you practice this explicitly and rationally and you’re getting self-corrected, then you actually get some expertise to bring to bear when people are trying to con you, cause you can feel, if you’ve practiced moving and you’ve done it reflectively, you can feel yourself moving. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound sort of sensorial, but you can, ah, I’m moving here. Oh I’m moving. I should pay attention. Is this a good movement? Is it, right? And then I can probe. Right? It’s what’s happening? Why am I moving? Right? Am I moving because this is a derivation or because I’m being bull-shitted? So that’s another value to this kind of practice.
Jim: Ah, it’s almost like meta active open-mindedness. Is the other person practicing open-mindedness as well?
John: Exactly, exactly.
Jim: And if they’re not, that’s a very interesting information signal detection, ah, that used car salesman is probably not using active open-mindedness in his dialogue with me to try to find a middle ground. He’s probably bull-shitting me as much as he can get away with, right?
John: Exactly, exactly. But when I’ve sensed that with other people, you can get into the dance of dialectic. And this brings with it another possibility that’s now two steps beyond the steelmanning, which is both people can start to appreciate the beauty, the aesthetic of the dance of the dialectic and they can move. And this is what Stanovich argued is the central thing you have to do from rationality. Move from focusing on the product, to the process.
Jim: I love that. And I love that. And it also helps us frankly, decide who we want to deal with, right?
Jim: And some of my best collaborators and people I just have the most productive work with are people who I now realize, I didn’t have the term for it before, are practicing active open-mindedness. Our mutual friend Jordan Hall, he makes the distinction between real thinking and simulated thinking.
John: Very much, very much.
Jim: And that real thinking when two people are engaged together in thinking is a dance of active open-mindedness.
John: And what it can do is, you said this with the win-win. So one of the criteria I use for dialectic into Dialogos is both people get to a place where they admit they couldn’t have gotten to on their own. They don’t have to converge on agreement, but both people say I’m now in a place there’s been rational insight. I’m now into a place I couldn’t have got to on my own. And the other person says I am as well. For me, that should be the success criteria rather than we finally agree.
Jim: Absolutely. And I would say this, our conversations over the last [crosstalk 01:52:09] six weeks… Do I absolutely swallow every quart of Vervaekeism? Hell no.
Jim: But has my thinking changed quite a bit and I hope in a good direction? I’d say, Fuck, yes.
John: Yes, exactly. And vice versa. The same is for me. And I seek out instances of this and people who reliably generate instances of this.
Jim: And that’s the key. Our time is the most finite and valuable thing we have. And engaging with people who are engaged in honest, real thinking from a cognitive style, I love that term, which I never heard before. I guess I’ve heard it, but not quite in this context, of active open-mindedness, is another thing that we can practice in our life. Is this person that I’m spending a lot of time with engaged in active open-mindedness or not? And if they’re not, spend less time with them, if they are, spend more time with them.
John: Yes, yes. Very much. And I find, active open-mindedness, also, I find that I like the cognitive flexibility of people who do mindfulness practices. I find that’s helpful. There’s a lot of these things that we can look for. And this is what I mean about trying to generate sort of collective Socrates. That very much, this is very realizable and Plato makes it clear in the dialogue that most people are not going to take this up, right? A lot of people are going to reject this because they want their…They’re in a zero sum game. I want my view to win at all costs. So my attitude towards them is I respectfully try to bypass them as much as I can.
Jim: Yeah, and there’s of course in our modern world, there’s something even worse, which is the Sophists, right?
Jim: They’re just a hired gun. Think of the world of bullshit is all Sophists, right? They’re not necessarily, because they passionately believe they’re right. They are just motivated by extrinsics, like money to convince you of bullshit for their personal aggrandizement.
John: Yes. And part of the sophistry, this goes back to what we said earlier in our episode today, part of the sophistry is being able to convince me that they’re working in my best interest when they’re exactly not doing that at all. And that, to me… For me, when as soon as I get a sense of my teleketer having that, and I’ve tried to… I’m not claiming anything outrageous here, but I’m trying to improve that sensitivity. When I get any sense that that’s going on, then I don’t want to talk to this person anymore.
Jim: Very, very good. Well, there’s a good, actionable takeaway, listeners. And I think we’ve come to the end. Five, two-hour sessions with John Vervaeke, which have given, I think, I hope at least, a solid sense of what his Awakening from the Meaning Crisis video series is. But I would encourage those who have found this to be interesting, would like to learn more, to go check out the series on YouTube. And I’d love to thank John for the huge commitment of time he’s made here in these conversations.
John: Well, first of all, I want to thank you, Jim. I don’t know if this counts as evidence, but there’s a lot of tweets in the Twitterverse that this series is doing exactly what you proposed as one of its goals, which is make Awakening from the Meaning Crisis accessible to people. And so I want to thank you for that. And for you affording all of your time and your expertise at translating that into a more accessible format. I think you’ve succeeded in that goal, and that goal is one that I value. So I wanted to thank you for that. And I wanted to thank you for how you showed up in every one of these episodes. You were enthusiastic, you were engaging and you were properly respectful and properly challenging. It was a great pleasure.
Jim: Thank you very much. I mean, that is indeed what I try to do is to take complicated, hard, but important ideas and translate them so that a reasonably smart, reasonably educated person, but with no expertise in the domain could have at least a sense of what we’re talking about. Do feel good that between us together, this dance has actually painted a picture, which I think will be very helpful for people.
John: I think it is. And again, thank you very much for that, much appreciated.