The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Jonathan Rowson. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Jonathan Rowson. Jonathan is the cofounder and director for Perspectiva. He was previously director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA, where he authored a range of influential research reports on behavior change, climate change, and spirituality. Jonathan’s an applied philosopher, with degrees from Oxford, Harvard and Bristol universities.
Jim: In a former life, he was chess grandmaster and British Champion, 2004 to 2006. He views the game of chess as a continuing source of insight and inspiration. His book, The Moves That Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life, was the subject of a previous Jim Rutt Show episode, kind of a good one. A fun one. One that I really enjoyed. Episode EP127. So if you want to hear more about Jonathan and his views of the world through the lens of chess, check it out.
Jim: Today we’re going to chat about his recent essay, titled, Tasting the Pickle: Ten flavours of meta-crisis and the appetite for a new civilisation. As always, a link will be available on the episode page at JimRuttShow.com. Welcome, Jonathan.
Jonathan: Hello, Jim. How are you?
Jim: I’m doing pretty good. And if I complain, nobody gives me any sympathy anyway, so why bother?
Jim: As my father said… My father who dropped out of high school in ninth grade, but nonetheless was a wise fella. He’d always say, “Boy, if you want sympathy, look in a dictionary between shit and syphilis.”
Jim: So, hey. We carry on.
Jim: So welcome back. Let’s start off with, you talk a lot, it’s in the title, of the meta crisis. We’re going to get into a whole bunch of detail, but at the very highest level, what is the sense that you’re trying to communicate when you use that compound word, slash, phrase, meta crisis?
Jonathan: Well, Jim, in some ways would say in the essay, Tasting the Pickle, is an attempt not to foreground the meta crisis. It was actually, the whole essay arose from a frustration with that language.
Jonathan: But nonetheless, as the subtitle says, I go into some depth what the meta crisis might mean, and already here we’re confounded a little bit by the definite article. Because I don’t really think there is the meta crisis. I think that’s a mistake. I think it’s much better to understand several different kinds of meta crisis. And the way to contextualize that is to look more deeply at things that are more commonsensical, first of all. The climate emergency, the governance crisis. And when you look at them in some depth and look at why we’re struggling to deal with them, why we haven’t mobilized a commensurate response to the ecological challenge we face, why we struggle to significantly change our political systems. Then you get into the interesting matter of, what is inside the crisis? What is beyond the crisis? What might be after the crisis? And that’s where the meta crisis idea comes in.
Jonathan: But if you want a neat definition… I don’t know. Do you? Do you want a neat definition?
Jim: If you have one, I probably won’t believe it. But if you’ve got one, shoot it out anyway.
Jonathan: I don’t really. And that’s quite important for the listeners to understand, I think.
Jonathan: I give 10 kinds of meta crisis as a way of showing how ridiculous it is to try and pin it down to one thing. Because once you really understand what we’re talking about here, we’re talking about what’s inside of the crisis, what’s in some ways between different aspects of the crisis, all of these different meanings of meta, what might lie beyond the crisis that we haven’t quite seen. All of the crises come together, it means all of these things, and therefore there’s a sense in which the way to approach the meta crisis is as a living, dynamic experience of being human in this historical moment.
Jonathan: But if you want a really quick one, you could say the meta crisis is the crisis of perception and understanding that lies within the range of crises humanity faces.
Jim: There’s some truth in that.
Jim: The other point that you made after you gave a hand wave-y list of some of the attributes of the meta crisis, you said these different features of our world are obscured by their entanglement with each other, and I think that is really the important part here.
Jim: The thing that makes this an unprecedentedly fucked up situation is there’s so many different things going on at the same time, and they are not linearly impacting each other. And we’re not used to dealing with that, which is actually a theme I’m going to come back to a few times, is I believe, and that’s funny because I was rereading the essay. I read it first before I had our essay on the chess book, and I’d like to include it [inaudible 00:04:30] and get both of them in the same episode. Reread it yesterday. And I said, “This reinforces, in my view, that many of these problems, including particularly this entanglement amongst the various aspects, really come up to the fact that we are in a cognitive mismatch.”
Jim: Good old homo sapiens is the first degree the stupidest possible general intelligence. Ma nature is seldom [inaudible 00:04:55] getting her gifts, and we’re almost certainly just over the line. We know things from cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience. The famous seven plus or minus two working memory size, the fact that our memories are very malleable. Every time you pull up a memory, you actually accidentally modify it almost at random, which is bizarre. And we know, at least I know, being an old fucker, that our memories start to decay over time. And all these things are not attributes of a high power, general intelligence that an engineer might come up with. So we’re not all that smart, truthfully.
Jim: And of course we were evolved for a much simpler… Simpler isn’t exactly the right word. I mean the life of a forager is complex and difficult, and you need lots of skills. And in fact it’s kind of interesting that it’s thought that our brain size has probably actually reduced 10 percent since our forager days, because the cognitive challenge in one level is in some ways easier. You’re not likely to starve to death, at least in the West, in the modern world, very often. But, what we aren’t used to is so many messages coming at us and things evolving so quickly, and entities evolving at scales grossly out of our scale.
Jim: In our forager days, there was us and our little nuclear family, and then maybe a band of maybe 30 or 40 and a handful of bands together at maybe 150, and that was our social environment. Now we’re interconnected at the scale of billions of people. You turn on goddamn Twitter, you’re just bombarded by stuff. And truthfully, we don’t have the brainpower to deal with all this stuff, and I think we’ll come back to that theme again and again.
Jim: But before we get down to some of the weeds, I was quite tickled, quite literally, quite tickled by the pickle. The pickle in the title. You start off with a nice little ditty about the pickle and the nature of tasting, and things of that sort. Why don’t you tell us some about what you mean when you use the pickle? Because you’re, I think, quite serious about it.
Jonathan: I am. Those of us who are working in some sense on, let’s say, social change, to put it very generically, or to put it more grandly, helping save humanity from itself, or helping to redesign civilization, or however you want to frame it, those of us working in that space are using language as our main tool of influence and impact. And it’s incumbent upon us to take great care in the words we use when it comes to describing what’s going on.
Jonathan: And that was the context in which I felt meta crisis wasn’t working. Because for the general public, to speak of the meta crisis is a double negative. First of all, crisis is this negative notion, and secondly, meta is a somewhat obscure and fairly scholastic conception. So it doesn’t work as a door opener. It’s not warm, it’s not charming, it’s not inviting.
Jonathan: And yet, what do we do? How do we speak of this conundrum as a whole? Because many of the other ways of describing what’s going on are a little too specific. You could speak about the climate crisis, but it’s not just climate. Once you look at the climate crisis, you realize that’s a political problem as much as an ecological one. You can speak about the political crisis, but then within the politics, there’s the culture, and then there’s the psyche, and so on and so forth.
Jonathan: So what I was looking for was a form of terminology, a way of speaking, that was first of all aesthetically pleasing, conceptually capacious, metaphorically rich, and pleasing to the ear. And I came up with taking the idea of the pickle seriously. We are in a pickle, and we need to learn how to taste it. Now, what do I mean by the pickle? I mean the whole goddamn thing. And the reason that matters is because the meta crisis, I don’t think, is the whole thing. I don’t think it can be. I think it’s too specific and too technical to cover the full range of conundrums we face.
Jonathan: So the way to understand the pickle is that it’s the language form used to describe our human predicament as a whole, including the climate emergency, the governance crisis, the range of meta crises. And our injunction is not just to understand the pickle, but to taste it, to imbibe it, to in some sense, live as though we really were part of it. And that’s what the language of the pickle’s about and what the essay tries to unpack.
Jim: Yeah. I really like that, because actually, getting back to cognitive science a little bit, while in terms of logic and information processing, we ain’t the smartest knives in the draw of possible intelligences. When it comes to the parallel processing of living embodied, in our body and in the world, and dealing with perception and aesthetics, we actually have a hell of a lot of horsepower, right?
Jim: And you make that point that in some sense, at least I read it as, an appeal to use our, not necessarily linear thinking skills or rationalist skills, but let’s open up our aesthetic and bodily senses, and point them at these problems we have.
Jonathan: Very much so. And I’m glad you read it that way.
Jonathan: I mean, look, I love reason and the intellect. I spent several years in higher education. I played chess for a living. I have nothing against the intellect.
Jim: Hey, you’re a nerd’s nerd. We all know it, right?
Jonathan: I don’t know.
Jonathan: But I do also realize that the nature of the world as we find it, those who are thinking about how things are interconnected, different domains of inquiry, different forms of inquiry, different kinds of epistemology, different kinds of expertise, the intellect is outgunned, basically. The world has outpaced the capacity of intellect to keep up with it.
Jonathan: Now, you can understand any given domain with some degree of precision and expertise. But even there, to take chess, for example, any given phone can have an engine on it that’s more powerful than a strong grandmaster. And likewise, now you have AI doing forms of eye exam that are better than the best eye physicians. And so, within the precise areas of inquiry, we’re finding that expertise, yes, it’s important, but also it can be increasingly done by computers, broadly conceived. But what’s difficult is making sense of how it all interconnects, what the meaning of it is, how to understand the connections between things, and above all, what it’s for, like what it means. Like, what does it call upon us to do?
Jonathan: So I do think there’s more to be said for beauty, more to be said for an aesthetic appreciation of life. And actually, you don’t give up on the intellect, you invite more forms of understanding to the party. The intellect needs company.
Jim: Indeed. In fact, I read a quote from the essay. To really taste the pickle, then, you need to taste its ingredients to distinguish between different features of the predicament as a guide to wise perception and constructive action… And here’s the payoff phrase… All the while knowing those features also exist as one thing.
Jim: That’s those of us, and I’ll confess to another science, math, tech background, we kind of want to chop the world up into little pieces. And yet in reality, the thing that we’re in is one thing. It’s this world. And being able to both chop and see the whole seems to be the skill that’s called for at this moment.
Jonathan: That’s a big part of Tasting the Pickle, Jim. And I quote in the essay Owen Barfield, who’s a somewhat neglected philosopher, who says that one of the problems we face in intellectual life is an incapacity to see the difference between dividing and distinguishing. That actually we need to learn to distinguish between things without separating them. So an example he uses is between thinking and perception. Can you have perception without thinking, and vice versa? He says, “No, but does that mean they’re the same thing? No, it doesn’t.”
Jonathan: And so the challenge is somehow to see everything together and yet, realize that there are many things within that.
Jim: Interesting. Yeah.
Jim: Though again, I think I go even a step further, which is you got to do both to keep them in balance. I mean, if you approach the world really naively and aesthetically, truthfully, you’re not going to figure out how to maintain an advanced technological civilization. It requires a bunch of logic chopping and reductionist science, and economic optimization, and driving that yield per acre of your corn up, and all those things. But it doesn’t get, necessarily, or at least within our limited cognitive ability, the ability to, in some sense, make some critical decisions as we navigate from the present to the future.
Jonathan: Yeah. I agree totally.
Jonathan: And I don’t know if I quote him in the essay, but one of my biggest intellectual influences in the last decade or so has been Iain McGilchrist. I don’t know how well you know of his work, but-
Jim: I don’t know him at all, but I just downloaded one of his books. I keep hearing pointers to him. So I don’t know a damn thing about him, but I’m about to jump in.
Jonathan: Well just on this point, he argues very strongly that through a combination of neuroscience and philosophy, you can see that the human organism, like many other organisms, has broadly two patterns of appending. One is broad vigilance, the vigilance of prey, if you like. Checking for predators. And one is narrow focus, which is more like the predator hunting. And actually, these things manifest culturally, and that over time, there’s a process of cultural evolution in which the desire to break things up and to turn them into algorithms and render them into code is in some ways going beyond its remit. And it’s a necessary and valuable, but fundamentally inferior form of intelligence to the capacity to understand perception, uniqueness, context as a whole.
Jonathan: And what makes Iain different is that he grounds it in neuroscience in a way his scholar is quite sound, I think.
Jim: It sounds exactly like the kind of thing I ought to be reading. So I’m glad it’s in my reading stack. And if I like him, I’ll reach out to him to see if he wants to come on our show.
Jonathan: I’ll recommend you, certainly.
Jim: That would be great.
Jim: You laugh at yourself and talk about yourself being a bit of a compulsive cartologist, and you create this, what is it, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight by, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, column thingamajiggy. I’m not going to go over it in the interest of time, but give us some sense of… Because, again, people should go read the essay. Give us some sense of what the takeaways from this 54 element chart is.
Jonathan: Well I joke in the essay that this is my last cigarette as a cartological hedonist. I’m not a smoker, but I use that figuratively to mean several things. The sense of enjoying something before you give it up, but also with the slight ironic twist that those who speak of the last cigarette rarely actually give up.
Jonathan: As I say, I’m analytically trained and I like conceptual distinctions and theoretical models, and so forth. But I’ve also, I suppose, lived enough now and experienced different kinds of life through maybe being a parent or just getting older, whatever it is, that I see the limits of conceptual models, too, and have grown a little bit weary of them, no matter how sophisticated the model. One of my favorites would be Robert Kegan’s Model of Adult Development, for example, or even Iain McGilchrist, that I just mentioned. I just realized that it’s somehow not life as such. There’s the vitality lies beyond the framework, and that’s the place to get to.
Jonathan: So if I can explain to your listeners what this was about, this was me trying to render in one image the kind of pickle, writ large. So it’s a scription of all the different elements that are in play in as few elements as possible, but not fewer, hopefully. And it describes everything from, on the top axis, the nature of the emergency, the crisis, four different kinds of meta crisis, and what it would mean to resolve these things, what I call are entelechy, or what we’re trying to get to. What’s the purpose? What’s the direction?
Jonathan: And in the other direction, I have basic descriptions of things like description, experience, image, domain, injunction, what it’s asking us to do, what the path might be to get there, what the obstacles are, what the virtues in play are that we’re called upon to do, and maybe some illustrative examples as well.
Jonathan: And so it’s just it’s a somewhat ridiculous image of humanity’s problems writ large. And it’s playful, but it’s also dead serious.
Jim: Yeah. I found it quite useful, actually. I would recommend people take a look at it. I’ve seen many worse digestions of what’s going on, and what we’re looking at, but as you say, at some level, okay. It’s overwhelming to a cognitive mind of the equivalent of an average human voter. It’s almost making fun of itself at some level.
Jim: Moving onto the next thing, I just can’t pass this by even though it’s not really on the main stream of what we’re going to talk about today. You just threw out there, talking about the fact that we’re emergent minds, et cetera. There may be kindred spirits out there, meaning out in the universe, but there’s a distinct possibility that we are alone, all eight billion of us. Our situation is laughable and heartbreakingly beautiful.
Jim: This is something I talk about on the show all the time, and that it’s so important and yet so few people have focused on it, which is, to my mind, the two biggest questions, the top two… There’s many questions, of course. Knowing about our universe first is, why is there a universe? I don’t believe we’re even close to being able to address that one. But a second one is, are we alone as general intelligences? And actually is hugely profound. And the answer to that question has a probable fork on the destiny of humanity.
Jim: And those listening to the show know I have a big interest in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. We’ve had the top researchers on, talked about it. And the answer is, we don’t know. There’s some reason to believe mathematical arguments by people like Robin Hanson that we may well be alone. On the other hand, the practitioners… I mean, of course, they’re just like us. When I was 12 years old, I was sure there was at least 100,000 intelligent species in the galaxy. But as I’ve gotten older and looked into it more, I just said, “You know? We just don’t fucking know. It could be we’re alone.”
Jim: And if we’re alone… And this, I make this point again and again. It’s so important. If we are alone, and until we know otherwise we should assume we are alone, we have a gigantic burden. It may be that it is our destiny to bring this universe to life.
Jim: And this universe is so big, it’s unfathomable. There are 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone, and there’s 100 billion galaxies which the Milky Way is somewhat above average, but not hugely above average galaxy. And so the staggering size of the universe of this thing to be brought to life is incredible. And if we fuck up advanced technology, technological civilization, and lose this opportunity to bring this gigantic universe to life, that is an unfathomably large thing to miss.
Jonathan: So I’m curious. I mean I know we’re going off tangent here, but when you say, bring it to life, can you just clarify what you mean exactly?
Jim: Well start with the axiom that life is more interesting than non life. There was matter in the universe for, as far as we know, 10 billion years, and three and a half billion years ago, life occurred. Wow. And life is generative and interesting and locally reverses the second law of thermodynamics. There’s all kinds of crazy things. It builds up data in the world. And so I just say, life is more interesting than non life, and we have this huge universe. It’s vast and unbelievable in the scale of matter. And isn’t it better to bring that matter to life?
Jim: And literally, what the hell does that mean? I mean think about things like the Dyson shells. The idea that a civilization might mine the material of its whole solar system and build a shell around its sun to provide an ecosystem for quadrillions of people, of energy fluxes that are unimaginable to us, and that’s just an intermediate level. And then you imagine creating, essentially, computational civilizations of whole solar systems made out of computronium, which is a theoretical material. It’s pure computation.
Jim: The scale of what this life thing is, this passing the line, where it’s not just passive matter, but it’s matter reacting and acting and having goals, et cetera. And to produce that across, at least our galaxy, which, [inaudible 00:21:39] the math is interesting. Once we become even a weak interstellar species, we can colonize the galaxy in a few million years, surprisingly.
Jonathan: Just a few million?
Jim: Just a few million. Which is not that long, on the scale of things. Going across intergalactic space is a bigger question. But, hey, probably in the 100 billion years that we could conceivably survive, there is no reason we couldn’t.
Jim: Well that is an open fork. It seems like the burden upon us to preserve our planet and to preserve our civilization is bigger than we think it is. And people talk about a meaning crisis. I go, “I’ve got no fucking meaning crisis, goddammit. I want to save humanity so that we can go bring the universe to life.”
Jonathan: So there’s that. Oh, that’s interesting. The second part of that, I hadn’t really got to yet, but certainly saving humanity from itself is one.
Jonathan: But the meaning crisis, I agree. It’s never been self evident to me that the crisis is one of too little meaning. If anything, it’s too much. But I know that it varies across people, and there are those like John Vervaeke and so forth, who define it quite precisely.
Jim: Yeah, in fact, I’m about to jump into watching all 50 hours of his Awakening From the Meaning Crisis, and I booked him for three episodes of the show in October, one week apart. And it’s all going to be focused on the meaning crisis. I’m coming into it as a skeptic, but I’m going to be an open minded skeptic and see if he can convince me. Or end up in some Hegelian dialectic and end up somewhere else, which is, I suspect, quite possible.
Jim: So anyway, let’s move on from that interesting, very important aside, and move back to this. And this is one of the real questions in the space that we both operate in. Social change people trying to bring on the next civilization without it being disastrous, which is, to what degree can we and should be optimistic versus pessimistic? You quote Meg Wheatley, American writer, and I don’t know if you quote her, but you paraphrased her. Then you basically say, “She is one of the few with the resolve to contend that we simply cannot affect systems change at scale in the way that we keep saying we have to. There is simply too much cultural inertia, economic and political interest inside our figurative ship to turn it around in time.”
Jim: What do you think about this? This really fundamental question of optimism, pessimism, is it too late? Should we be preparing the lifeboats, or can we actually have a renaissance and build ourselves a sustainable civilization?
Jonathan: Well I have mixed feelings about it, of course. I think I said in another podcast where I was asked about this part of it, that intellectually, when I look at this dispassionately and see the data and the converging problems, I don’t see commensurate response to climate change keeping us ecologically intact this century. I don’t see the technological breakthroughs that will help us get there. I don’t see the political resolve. I don’t see the economic imagination. I see people who are addicted and distracted, and I see hegemonic forces that get in the way and prevent humanity finding itself as a collective agent to deal with collective action problems at scale.
Jonathan: However, when I put the intellect to one side and bring in his buddies, as it were, I feel differently. I feel quite in love with humanity and believe that we can do better. And at some intuitive and emotional, aesthetic level, I’m compelled to believe that we have to mobilize our best responses to the problems that beset us. And in that sense, the old saying, I think, was it Gramsci? I’ve forgotten. He said, “Pessimism of the intellect, but optimism of the will.” It’s something like that.
Jim: Yeah. I think I understand that. That feels about right.
Jim: I will say that I’ve looked in a fair amount into the technology and economics of climate change, and it is definitely dual. Even with today’s technology, my best guess is it’s about the equivalent, as a percentage of GDP, that was expended in about two acts of World War II. Which, okay, World War II was the biggest fucking thing humanity ever did, probably, in terms of just consumption of GDP on a worldwide basis for an extended period of time, and it was all negative, or essentially all negative. If you take that same level of intensity, but stretch it out over about 80 years, it’s not that bad, actually. That’s only using technologies that exist today, or very obvious extrapolations of learning curve, which are quantifiably predictable.
Jim: So, no magic necessary. We could do it.
Jonathan: Yeah. I think I know what you’re about to say. Sorry to cut you off. But just when you said magic, I was triggered. Because it’s not magic, it’s politics, right? But that’s a kind of magic. Really, that’s where the problem lies.
Jim: And that’s where the problem lies. Because you had mentioned that maybe the technology doesn’t lie. We do have the technology. What we lack is what you describe as the collective action problem. And one of my very favorite political science books, like I always say, if you’re only ever going to read one political science book, read Mancur Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action. And you read just that one book, and political science suddenly makes sense.
Jim: Essentially his argument is that small but economically intense vested interests always have an ability to outmaneuver large, diffuse interests. Think of your cable TV network versus the people who watch cable TV. They have a huge interest in bribing and seducing the town council to grant them a price increase, while with the two dollars a month fee that all the citizens of the town have to pay aren’t quite enough to rise people up to pull the guillotines out and start lopping heads, even though maybe they should. And that, writ large, is our collective action problem.
Jim: And you can think of it fractal at every level, oil companies, the Koch brothers, everybody who has an intense economic interest in the status quo has the short term economic incentive, and because they’re a smaller mass, the ability to outmaneuver the diffuse interests. And how do we solve that is kind of the fundamental question of the hour.
Jonathan: So in the context of the essay, that would be the crisis as such. And the reason we struggle to solve it is because we’re not grappling sufficiently with the meta crises, which are to do with how we’re mobilizing our view of the world, how we see ourselves and each other, how we work with our maps to create better representations of what’s going on, but don’t get lost in them, how we find the imagination to think of different forms of life. But ultimately, those, or the resources we have to generate to fight the political battle to create a different kind of world, because those vested interests are so very powerful, merely having good ideas is not enough. You need to mobilize political will at an unprecedented scale with unprecedented speed.
Jonathan: Some would say you have to wait for the full emergency to take hold such that people are being inundated with water or starving or parched because of climate impact. But arguably, by then, they’re already at that way, to some extent. But by the time that really takes hold, it’s already too late to prevent cascading effects.
Jonathan: So although I agree with you also that even if we have what it takes, what it takes is rather extraordinary. But the gap between… This is a line of Alastair McIntosh, a Scottish philosopher. The gap between the physics and the politics is really where the work has to be done, and that’s why we speak of meta crises, plural, because it calls upon us to look deeply within ourselves to how we’re understanding this, what are we assuming, what are our root metaphors? What are the ends of life? How are our habits getting in the way? These are all features of grappling with the meta crisis.
Jim: And in fact, then you point out, which again, this is very important and makes it even more difficult for humans to deal with, when we talk about the meta crisis, people will often say, “Wait a minute. Everything is getting better at a very rapid rate.” Famously, Stephen Pinker. And he’s right. The decline in really deep poverty in the last 20 years is completely ridiculously unprecedented. It’s astounding, the human wellbeing that has happened from essentially the elimination of deep poverty in China and the cutting of it maybe in half in India, and progress beginning, at least, in Sub Saharan Africa has bought two billion people across the line in 20 years. Totally astounding.
Jim: And you look at the rivers of England and the US. Way cleaner than they were when I was a kid. If you jumped in the Potomac River when I was 10 years old, they recommended you get a typhoid shot. Now there’s people sailboarding out there and rafting around, all that kind of stuff.
Jim: So in a lot of ways, things seem like they’re getting better. But these are all within GameA itself, essentially, rather than the overwhelming fact that with GameA, the current status quo system has is an engine to move it forward, but it has no brakes. It doesn’t know how to stop. And just in this time period, we’re approaching the limits. In fact, probably have overshot the limits already. Probably you couldn’t continue to do what we’re doing indefinitely. But there’s no signs yet that the new ethos, the GameB ethos, is arising to put the brakes on and say, “No, we can’t live with compound exponential growth in a finite world.” It makes no sense to have a world where he who dies with the most toys wins is the ethos for most ambitious people in the world. It’s just not congruent with the world of limits, and the superhuman power that humans now have.
Jim: Our friend Daniel Schmachtenberger talks about this all the time. He often starts with nuclear weapons. Until the invention of nuclear weapons, we didn’t really have the ability to destroy ourselves, at least not rapidly. And I’d like to go back a little further than that and say, until steam power, which was only 200 years, 220 years ago, which isn’t very long, at least advanced, industrialized steam power, we didn’t really have the indirect means to bring our world into serious trouble through things like climate change.
Jim: So it’s really where we are, which kind of brings to our next point, from your essay. You quote Daniel Schmachtenberger, and basically bring forth his hard fork hypothesis. Tell us what that is and what you think about it.
Jonathan: Okay. So just before I do, the position that people like Stephen Pinker, and you might add Max Roser at Oxford, and maybe Matt Ridley. The rational optimists of the world, they’re really worth paying attention to because they’re very smart people in general and they have a lot of empirical evidence for their claims. And they feed into the eco modernist philosophy, which says that, whatever the solution is, it’s some version of more of the same, but it’s redirecting it to ecological causes.
Jonathan: However, this another reason why I think the meta crisis language isn’t very helpful. Because things are getting so much better in so many ways, to talk of the meta crisis as if everything was going wrong just doesn’t ring true. It’s altogether more complex than that. So many things are going extremely well that we shouldn’t think that somehow everything is inherently flawed. What’s going on is altogether more tragic. It’s that there’s a hidden pattern laced within what’s going on that’s to do with how things are connected, how they’re evolving, and how they’re coming to a tipping point in which the positive effects will turn negative. And some seem to perceive that more keenly than others.
Jonathan: But that’s why I feel that the pickle is a better way of framing that than the meta crisis, because the world is not so bad. A lot of us enjoy our lives. We look outside on a sunny day, it doesn’t feel like a meta crisis. It feels like the world is good.
Jonathan: Anyway, nonetheless, hard fork hypothesis. The hard fork hypothesis, as I understand it, says that things are going to go one of two ways. Now two ways doesn’t mean two very detailed, precise ways. It means two patterns of ways. It means towards higher order of complexity and elegance, and coordination and integration, a maturation that is elegant and emergent. Or, a cascading sequence of micro disasters with compounding effects and cascading negative impacts over time. And the claim is that it will go one of these two ways.
Jonathan: And I think the underlying point that Daniel makes is that intuition would say, look, some things are getting really much better in some ways, but there are these other little problems, ecological problems and some mental health problems. They’ll concede certain things, but say they can be dealt with. Some would say that means the truth is somewhere in between, that life is good and some ways bad, and therefore it’s all right. But actually, what he really means, when we look at it from a complex systems perspective, things going really well in some ways and really badly in others suggest an inherently instability in the whole system.
Jonathan: So this hard fork notion is a way of saying we don’t know for sure, but it looks as though things will either get significantly worse and in a way that it might be inexorable, or we can work hard to improve them, and we’ll shift into a different kind of civilization with different organizing principles for society. And that’s what we’re working towards.
Jim: And I would say I am… In fact I know Daniel read my essay, In Search of the 5th Attractor, in which I lay out the idea of complex society as a high order basin of attraction, and that our current basin will lead to disaster and that we have to get to another basin to succeed over the intermediate term to give us this chance to bring the universe to life.
Jim: But I lay out, as you mentioned, that some of these alternatives aren’t necessarily good. I lay out the fact that there are some other basins out there that we know that could exist, should we leave our current one. Think of neofascism, for instance, in the Chinese model. That looks like a real contender. Or theocracy, that’s always a risk. We know it’s happened before. What I call neofeudalism, which is how I view extreme libertarianism, and the Koch brothers and Peter Thiel and those kind of folks. Then of course there’s good old disorder. Not anarchy in the political sense, but anarchy in the practical sense of the whole stack of systems just collapse, and population probably drops by 90%, et cetera.
Jim: And so, escaping our basin isn’t enough. We have to build a good basin, and that’s really where the roots of our idea for GameB came along, which is, what are the set of appreciations and values and virtues and such that could produce a productive, wonderful world for people, but one that’s got a fundamentally different organizing principle around it than the status quo?
Jim: And I would say I try to have a little bit of epistemic humility, and that maybe I’m wrong, but I’m a believer that the ball is trying to rise out of the salad bowl and is looking for someplace new, and there are a lot bad places where it could land. And so it’s come upon us all to try to build this better attractor.
Jonathan: So here’s where I wonder if we’re making sense. Hear me out, here. Because I speak a similar language, and as you speak there, I resonate with. It makes a lot of sense. But I can hear certain critics in my mind who are saying, “Look, you’re speaking of planet earth as if it were one organism, one system, one paradigm. And it’s never going to be that.”
Jonathan: So even now, it’s not as though there is one pattern. It’s not even clear the claim that we are living in a single planet through civilization. Even that is contentious. It’s not self evident that the form of civilization that exists currently in China and Russia is of a piece with what’s happening in North America and most of Western Europe. We still have different forms of life. And then that’s not to mention India, which is altogether more chaotic, now quasi theocratic, and then Latin America, with all of the different things that are happening there.
Jonathan: So I guess I’m just questioning this idea of a fifth attractor or GameB, or whatever it may be. Some underlying generator function for humanity as a whole. A part of me, and this is what I try and convey in the pickle paper, vis a vis my confusion about these things, I’m just not sure it makes sense to speak of one system in that way, and I wonder how you feel about that. It’s less tidy, but I wonder if part of the problem is imagining you could ever be in control of it as one system. We have to accept with a degree of chaos.
Jim: Yeah. I think control is the problem. Because we don’t want to be in control. We want it to evolve from the bottom up.
Jim: But your first question, are China and Russia and India part of GameA? And I’d say the answer is undoubtedly yes. They are all linked into the financial capitalism engine, which is the center in the organizing principle of modern society, at least in my view. In fact, as I point out many times, the ultimate generator function is the relentless pursuit, by itself, no humans are necessarily dictating this, of money on money return, where institutions are put together. That engine alone drives the behavior across the world, to a greater or lesser degree. To a mostly subsistence agriculture community in the Eastern Congo, less so. But even in a place like India, if they were cut off from the money on money return economy, they would crash very, very quickly. So they’re all part of it.
Jim: They all build rectangular buildings with glass in the windows and copper in the walls. And so, in that sense at least, they’ve been captured by the GameA attractor.
Jonathan: So I hear you on that, and it’s not as though I fundamentally disagree. But there is some risk there of something like economic determinism of saying that really macroeconomics is the underlying driver of the world.
Jonathan: So what I’m pointing towards is, if you think of what’s happening in India at the moment, yes, there are capitalistic drives. There’s even oligarchy. There’s a kind of plutocracy. But there is also something like incipient theocracy and populism, and multiple things happening at once that are India specific.
Jim: Very true. Of course. And that will be true in a GameB world as well. And one of the things we try to emphasize very strongly that GameB is not utopianism. This is not a formula or a rule book on how to run your society. It’s a sense of deep principles that can apply to local situations, what we’d call coherent pluralism. And I think very important that one not be arrogant and think that there is one answer for everybody.
Jim: Let me give an example. At any given level of technology, there’s a reasonable level of per capita energy used that’s within the carrying capacity of the earth and the capital capacity of our economies. And it’s probably not a bad general rule to say all societies on earth ought to consume X amount of energy per capita until we have better technologies that allow us to do more without destroying the earth. And how societies choose to use that energy might vary tremendously. Some of it might put it into big houses and heating systems, where others would have small houses but zippy little cars, or something. So I think it’s the parameters and the sense of limits and the sense of personal values, perhaps, at least to some degree, that will be pervasive, but not how societies choose to organize themselves.
Jim: In the GameB world, we’re really thinking about bottoms up, talking about Dunbar’s, groups of about 150 and groups of a couple thousand that will design their own local, social norms as long as they honor these outer constraints. Whether they want to be a polyamorous sex cult, or if they want to be neopuritans, doesn’t really matter. So I think it’s important to distinguish between the cultural superstructure and the economic, productive, rules of the road production investment consumption structure.
Jonathan: Right. I guess all I was trying to do is put a word in for what we said spoke about earlier, to do with distinguishing and dividing, that even when we speak of a fifth attractor or a new underlying generator function, or a new civilization, or ontological design, or whatever your favorite conceptual framework for thinking of the world as a whole is, that it will almost always be patterned and plural and variegated, rather than singular and prescriptive.
Jim: Absolutely. And it’s a strong GameB view that network centric, fractacally structured, decentralized, self organizing. So I think that we share that view. Now whether we can actually beat Goliath at its own game with this strategy, time will tell. And can we do it in time?
Jim: You actually laid out a nice list of, frankly, it seemed to me, very GameB ideas. Look for the sentence, a relatively balanced picture of self in the society.
Jonathan: Oh, yeah. This was me further developing a smaller number that were listed once in a talk given by my cofounder Perspectiva Tomas Björkman. I added a few and I embellished the ones he had, but basically I find, as you may also, that it’s quite hard sometimes to articulate what we’re looking for. Like, what kind of a world we want, and how do you describe it? And so, what are the underlying principles you would hope to move towards? And the ones that I give are just a way of painting that picture, without being too prescriptive about what the world would be.
Jonathan: So I say, a relatively balanced picture of self in society, free from the alienation of excessive individualism and the coercion of collectivism, with autonomy grounded in commons resources and ecological interdependence, so a vision of the individual in a social and ecological context. A more refined perception of the nature of the world in which discrete things are seen for what they have always been, evolving processes. I am some kind of process philosopher I think, although what kind, I’m still figuring out. And then a dynamic appreciation of our minds, which are not blank slates that magically become rational, but more like constantly evolving living systems that are embodied in culture, extended and deep. And an experience of society that is not merely given to us, but willingly received or coconstructed through the interplay of evolving imaginative capacity.
Jonathan: A perspective on the purpose of life that is less about status through material success, and more about the intrinsic rewards of learning, beauty and meaning. An understanding of our relationship with nature that is less about extraction of resources for short term profit and more about wise ecological stewardship. Patterns of governance that are less about power being centralized, corrupt and unaccountable and more glocal, global and local, polycentric, transparent and responsive. A relationship to technology in which we are not beholden to addictive gadgets and platforms, but truly sovereign over our behavior, and properly compensated for the use of our data and where, in Harry Frankfurt’s terms, we want what we want to want.
Jonathan: And then two more. An economy designed not to create aggregate profit for the riches, but the requisite health and education required if we ever want to live meaningful lives, free of coercion, on an ecologically sound planet. And finally, a world with a rebalancing of power and resources from developed to developing worlds, and men to women, and present to future generations.
Jim: Hey, sign me up. That’s very much like, at least, a bigly part of the GameB vision and ignores one area, which we might want to talk about, which is the nature of individual change.
Jim: Long term discussion in the GameB world has been where should the relative balance be between personal change and institution building? I’ll confess, I’ve been on the institution building side more than not. Other people push more the individual change. I’ve come, in my old age, to realize the two have to coevolve. If we’re going to build institutions of this sort that would support these wonderful ends and means, we frankly have to become somewhat, at least, different people than we are today. You can’t be a person whose dick gets all hard when they drive home in their new Mercedes if we’re going to live in a world like this. We’re going to have to be people that laugh at such a person and say, that’s a ridiculous, asinine thing to do. And that’s going to require some fairly significant change.
Jonathan: I mentioned earlier Robert Kegan. In 2003, I think it was, I think I was a graduate student at Harvard for one year, and I took Robert Kegan’s class on adult development. And I’ve never seen the world quite the same way again.
Jonathan: I do believe humans do develop, sometimes, naturally and organically and over time. Sometimes a bit more deliberately through practice and training, and even willpower. But I also don’t think we can place all our hope on this vertical development view of… I think it’s something going on with creating environments where the idea that working on oneself, growing in virtue, growing in skill, growing in our capacity to perceive deeply and feel deeply, is part of the primary curriculum of humanity. It’s like what we’re about, it’s what we’re for. It’s fundamentally an educational imperative.
Jim: Yeah. I think that’s right.
Jim: And you’re actually quite eloquent, also, of what the danger you call, and I’d never even heard the term until a couple years ago, spiritual bypass. People think that the game can be entirely won looking inside your head.
Jonathan: Yeah. I’ve grown very weary of that. Well there’s two things. I think there are actually two kinds of spiritual bypassing, and they’re both important.
Jonathan: So the first is… Daniel Gorts puts this very elegantly when he calls it the problem of the yoga bourgeoisie. And what he means by that is a subculture of spiritual bypassing where you don’t talk about macro economy or technology, or Putin or Xi, or any of the real forces of the world that are shaping it. You think about your groovy emotions, and you speak about love, and you believe that the better angels of our nature will somehow prevail through what often looks like wishful thinking. That’s a gross of caricature of lots of people of course, but it gets to the point that there is love and power in the world. They’re equally real, and if we’re going to be serious about changing the world, we have to tend to both of them.
Jonathan: So the first kind of spiritual bypassing, which has been written about in many ways, is simply treating psychological or sociological problems as if they could be entirely viewed spiritually, which is not the case.
Jonathan: But the second thing, and I think this is maybe a somewhat original contribution in the context of the paper, I also think it’s problematic to bypass the need for some spiritual dimension of life as well. I think it’s important that when we’re thinking about the meaning and purpose of a society and the possibility of human growth, that we’re open to different kinds of metaphysics, different forms of contemplative practice, different kinds of rituals, and we learn from religious traditions. And I also think that this is part of the resources we have to bring to bear to create a viable world, and that not doing so is a different kind of spiritual bypassing.
Jonathan: So what you need is somewhere in between, where it’s a spiritual life within the political and material world.
Jim: Yeah. I think that’s a wonderful aspiration to reach for, and I would add, maybe a third piece of that, is the one thing that we have to fight…
Jim: And again, I’ll put my flag in the ground. And I’m pretty much a physical realist. On the other hand, I study cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience, especially the science of consciousness. Consciousness and subjective state’s a very strange thing. But I do take the view that metaphysical programs are essentially speculations. We don’t have any evidence for any of them. So we need to have a discipline of pluralism.
Jim: I think it’s one of the amazing inventions of the Americans. Of course, he got it from John Locke, but Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wrote one of the most amazing enlightenment documents, which is the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which they wrote in 1779. It was enacted into law like 1884. Which lays out extraordinarily eloquently that we must not stipulate what system of metaphysical speculation people should adhere to. And I see this in our space, that little clouds of people say, “You can’t come in here unless you believe this particular metaphysical speculation.”
Jonathan: So my view is I agree with that, but I also think there’s a qualification, which is that metaphysics is there whether you like it or not. It’s just a question of how conscious you are of the impact it’s having on you. There is always some tacit view of the world and how it operates, operating from any given psyche in any given societal context. And what I think we need is a more reflexive and conscious relationship to our world making, to our cosmological vision.
Jonathan: You mentioned earlier that you saw the glory of life, the beauty of life as giving life to the universe, and that this might be our unique responsibility. That for me is a cosmal vision. You clearly have a strong felt sense of the meaning and purpose of life, and that view of things. But for others, it can be very different. It can be awakening from a kind of delusion. It can be cultivating wisdom instead of… It can be many different things. It can be this discovering of a relationship with Jesus Christ. Whatever.
Jonathan: The point I’m making is not that you have to sign up to one of these, but you have to realize that metaphysics is always an active ingredient in the background, shaping our sense of the possible and the probable.
Jim: Yeah. I think that’s absolutely so.
Jim: Well let’s now turn towards the exit ramp here. We probably have another 10 minutes or so. And what I’d like to do is have you talk a little bit about the concept of the meta and your thoughts on that, which we could go on for a whole 10 minutes, but let’s not. And then I would like you to take a quick step through your 10 various forms of the meta crisis. You know, give us a minute on each one.
Jonathan: Well I’ll start by saying that meta means many things. It’s simplest, it means, after. But it’s sometimes used to mean, between. It’s sometimes used to mean, within. It seems to change its meaning slightly, depending on what it’s describing. It has chameleon quality in that way. So the first thing about meta is to realize it means many things.
Jonathan: The second thing about meta is that it’s a skill, in a sense. How we go meta, when we go meta, it can be done badly or well. And it’s an intellectual capacity that one uses. When other avenues have been exhausted, other forms of inquiry have been exhausted, we go meta to get clear perspective in one way or the other. But equally, if we go meta too quickly or too regularly, we’ll often fail to deal with substantive issues. So to go meta on a debate would be to say, “This debate’s going nowhere,” without actually ever really getting into it. So meta can be done well or badly. That’s the second thing.
Jonathan: The third thing is that there’s a sense in which we’re already meta. I mean, giving a speech about how to give a speech is meta. Writing about how to write well is meta. But meta is also the simple forms of language, like instead of describing apples, pears and oranges, you go and talk about fruit. That’s a kind of meta move. So meta is a everywhere if you start to look for it. It’s also in lots of TV shows, like the House of Cards, for example, being notoriously meta, and Seinfeld had lots of meta moments.
Jonathan: But anyway, that’s the backdrop. So the term is useful, but it’s [inaudible 00:54:23] to be handled with care. It should have a health warning on it.
Jonathan: And then in terms of, why unpack so many forms of the meta crisis, because I kept hearing them, as part of this subculture we’re in, people kept speaking about the meta crisis. And I thought, “Do you know what you mean? Do I know what you mean? Can you be a bit more specific?”
Jonathan: And to be fair, some people are specific. So Terry Patten speaks about the meta crisis in a talk he gave to Google, and he speaks about it as the sum total of all our crises. So meta there is used as a sense of aggregation of the meta that is beyond and after the crisis because it’s all of the crises put together. But I found that, for reasons I’ve mentioned earlier, not a fully adequate description. Some see meta crisis as more like an inward move, to speak about what lies within the crisis in our human interiority. So if there are problems of governance and problems in society, the meta crisis is more spiritual, or psychological or aesthetic.
Jonathan: So that’s where I was coming from, that sense of trying to get more precise about the language. And what I did is a created a list of what seemed to me the main ways in which meta crisis comes up. And due to time, I won’t go into great depth, but just to describe them, I used a bit of punctuation, I suppose, to distinguish between different kinds of meta crisis. But the list of 10 includes what I call the meta crisis of cosmopolitics, which is that we don’t have a viable we. And then that’s a view that we keep on talking about we as human nature when there isn’t really any such thing. The we is something to aspire to, to be fought for. We have to create the global we. It doesn’t exist already. But one of the meta crises is that we think it’s already there, but actually it isn’t. So we talk about we have so many years for climate change, or we have to do X, Y, or Z, it’s not adequate.
Jonathan: Secondly, world crisis and world system dynamics. We’re not very good at joining the dots. We don’t typically see… Notice how I used the we trap there already. It’s baked into our language and we can’t help it, but we’re not very good at joining the dots. We don’t typically see how the economy and psychology and sociology and technology, all of that fits together. And it takes a certain cast of mind to do that.
Jonathan: There’s a meta crisis in history or historiography, which is that the major features of our world, and modernity and post modernity, they’re struggling to procreate, to create something like meta modernity or something that’s a really new kind of civilization is struggling to be born because we’re caught up in the patterns of modernism and post modernism.
Jonathan: There’s a meta crisis in the philosophy of education, and here I owe a debt of gratitude to Zach Stein. But basically, if you look enough at the world’s problems, you begin to see they all have educational aspects. They’re all calling out for some implicit skills and capabilities that are currently lacking, and that there’s a crisis in education which is, as he would put it, autopoetic process of societal renewal in which one generation teaches the next how to live, is arguably breaking down. That’s part of the meta crisis of the philosophy of education.
Jonathan: That’s only four of 10. I’ll go on just briefly.
Jonathan: Meta crisis in ideology is that we have what Rowan Williams calls underlying mechanisms that subvert their own logics. That’s something like, democracy is too democratic. Capitalism has problems knowing what to do with money. Liberalism has been too liberal, is another example.
Jonathan: And then meta crisis and epistemology is about the relationship between territory and maps, and here my friend David Rook put it very elegantly when he said, “The trouble with the expression that the map is not the territory, or rather, the reason the map is not the territory, is that the territory’s already full of maps.” And that speaks to our crisis of meaning making today because we’re trying to describe the world, but we all have different maps, and those maps are somehow already in the world. They’re a part of what we’re referring to.
Jonathan: Meta crisis in design, which is Daniel Schmachtenberger territory and Jordan Hall territory, which we have a suicidal generator function, that the world seems to be designed, or it seems to have an underlying logic that’s leaning towards collapse, and we have to redesign it. A meta crisis in consciousness, which is that basically we’re disabled by dissonance, and dissonance is arising because there’s a challenge in making sense of the world as it is, and an inability to go meta in the right way at the right time for the right reason.
Jonathan: So I noticed this in the context of Brexit when people kept speaking about whether or not Brexit was democratic without ever going meta to say, what is democracy in this context? How well does the public understand what democracy means? Is it just about majority who are voting, or is it something deeper going on about institutions and history that we need to talk about?
Jonathan: And number nine… I hope you’re still with me.
Jim: We’re still going here. Going strong.
Jonathan: Meta crisis in the arts and humanities, which is to do with the crisis in imagination. That we struggle to imagine a future world. That we’re stuck in some way by the existing imaginary. Our vision of society is somehow stifled. We’ve run out of metaphorical resources and visions, and symbols and images that will help us imagine something radically new.
Jonathan: And then finally, a meta crisis in what I call cosmal vision, a Mexican term. And that’s to do with our apparent inability or unwillingness in public life to speak about, vis a vis our previous conversation, Jim, speak about the predicament as a whole, seen cosmologically, seen as this wonderfully unique and anomalous planet that may or not be unique in its life forms and consciousness and meaning making capacity.
Jonathan: And that includes, by the way, some aspects of the spiritual bypassing you mentioned. And so those 10 are described in some depth, but all of them, maybe 800 words or so. And they’re all part of the pickle. And in addition to those challenges, we have the underlying crisis in governance, which includes things like what to do with pervasive inequality, and how do you redesign the economy so that it’s no longer about indefinite economic growth? And then it’s also about the emergency. It’s about, what do you do about incipient climate collapse?
Jonathan: And the point of the pickle is that these things are all happening at the same time. They’re all part of one predicament that we need to somehow feel our way into and grow into so that we can become what we have to become to deal with these challenges of our time.
Jim: Wow. We made it. Thank you, Jonathan. We jammed more in per minute than we usually do, but I think it gives people at least a fair sense of what this important essay is about.
Jim: And I would strongly recommend that you dig into this thing. It’s an enjoyable read. I enjoyed reading it for the second time. It’s called, Tasting the Pickle: Ten flavours of meta-crisis and the appetite for a new civilisation. If you just Google, Tasting the Pickle, and Rowson, R-O-W-S-O-N, it’ll pop up. And it’ll be available on our episode page at JimRuttShow.com.
Jim: So, Jonathan, thank you for an amazingly informative, fast moving conversation.
Jonathan: Thank you very much, Jim. It was a pleasure, as always.
Jim: It was great. We’ll have you back again. When you’ve published that book on the philosophy of wisdom, I definitely want to get you back for that.
Jonathan: Okay. Great.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting, Music by Tom Muller at modernspacemusic.com.