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Jim: Today’s guest is Brendan Graham Dempsey Brendan’s a writer whose work focuses on the Meaning Crisis and the nature of spirituality in metamodernity. Welcome.
Brendan: Thank you very much, Jim. It’s an honor to be here. I appreciate it. Thanks for having me.
Jim: Yeah, this should be fun. I just finished last night Brendan’s relatively recent book called Emergentism: A Religion of Complexity for the Metamodern World, and lots and lots of interesting things to dig in here. Let’s start with the Meaning Crisis. What is it?
Brendan: Well, if you have the time and have 50 hours and want to go check out John Vervaeke’s very popular YouTube series on that topic, by all means, check it out. It’s definitely worth your time. The Meaning Crisis though, is, I think, a nice shorthand phrase to refer to a cultural situation that we find ourselves in where the more familiar kinds of meaning-making structures that used to exist in society are no longer functioning adequately. So Jamie Wheal does a good job talking about this in terms of Meaning 1.0 and 2.0. Meaning 1.0 was traditional religion. Meaning 2.0 was the secular liberalism of modernity. Both of those seem to not really be satisfactorily holding up to the complexity of our current situation anymore, and so we find ourselves adrift.
The Meaning Crisis, again, is just a term that, I think, very succinctly names that and allows people to be able to orient themselves towards this cultural existential gap that we’re experiencing where our sense-making capacities and our sense of meaning and purpose in the world doesn’t really seem to have any place to be grounded and that we also exist in a very fragmented society as well, so that people are making meaning in different ways, if at all. So the Meaning Crisis refers to that and it’s good and welcome and helpful that people like Vervaeke and Wheal and others have already laid the groundwork for that idea so that now we can do what I’m interested in, which is try to tend to this cultural issue and speak to it and come up with solutions and reconstruct things.
Jim: Cool. Yeah, I watched the 50 hours video. It is very good. I also condensed it down to 10 hours of interviews with Vervaeke himself. It’s five two-hour episodes, and amazingly, they are amongst my most popular episodes of all time, despite the fact that they’re pretty intense. So if people want to get the 50 hours in 10, 80% savings, 80% off today, check out the John Vervaeke Meaning Crisis Series meeting crisis series on the Jim Rutt Show at jimrutt.com or your favorite podcasting app. You point out that despite the fact we’re living in this amazingly physically rich time where a welfare mother, in many ways, lives better than Louis the XIV, nonetheless, there’s some very disturbing statistics, particularly amongst the younger folks. Needless to say, I’m an old fart, but you’re a medium fart there I’d say. But if you look at the statistics people like Jonathan Hate are putting out and lots of other people, particularly, mental health really seems like it’s suffering amongst people today, especially younger people.
Brendan: Yeah, definitely.
Jim: How would you tie that back?
Brendan: Well, there are multiple symptoms as I think about it, that are natural offshoots of this inner crisis. So I think that those are directly correlated and I talk about that briefly in the introduction to the book. You look at the statistics and suicide rates are at epidemic levels. A statistic actually I got from Wheal’s book was that more people today are dying from basically the disease of despair than war conflict, starvation, that sort of a thing that, all combined. So we do have unprecedented material comfort, but we also have a seemingly unprecedented existential malaise and maybe worse than a malaise, let’s say, ’cause clearly, it’s having well, existential impacts on people. So I think that those two things are directly related, and I go further than that. It’s not too far of a leap, let’s say, to relate people, say, committing suicide or living with depression and a sense of meaninglessness. That seems fairly straightforward.
But I go further and I also see systemic issues like climate change, global wealth inequality, things like that as also being symptomatic of a deeper internal lack in the sense that the way that we interact with each other and the way that we relate to the world is informed by some deep psychological structuring mechanisms. If we don’t have a sense of purpose, if we think that nothing matters, if we think that really we’re all just a cosmic accident around for a little bit to get hours and then check out, it’s clear how that mentality leads to a world where we slash and burn. Where we’re just rapacious consumers. As you point too, our material comforts exist and have been exponentially increasing, but that, as it’s also been academically shown, doesn’t correlate with deeper senses of happiness, at least at a certain point.
You get past your Maslow’s hierarchy, your physiological needs met, and that sort of a thing, and that sense of happiness tapers off until you find deeper, more spiritually fulfilling ways to ground yourself in the world. So I think that people, unfortunately though, might not be aware of that as we’re always chasing the next ephemeral high, that next pleasure. So we fall into these consumeristic mentalities as a result of that deep chasm that where there should be something more enduring and valuable and meaningful. It might sound trite and maybe a trope, but I do think that there’s a deep truth to it. We’re trying to fill that hole in various ways, and we’re shoveling resources from off the planet to fill this insatiable hole in ourselves. So I think it has broader implications than just the mental health crisis. It goes further than that.
Jim: In fact, I would argue we do in the Game B world, that there’s a cyclical phenomenon here, which is, the things like existential angst about climate reduce mental health, and while reducing mental health reduces your ability to do anything about climate.
Brendan: Yeah, John Vervaeke would call that reciprocal narrowing. You have these processes that cycle in on themselves and you get a downward spiral.
Jim: Yep, exactly. Let’s put a little bit of historical context here. There’s a long line of cultural evolution theories, et cetera, but let’s just take a look at, from your perspective too, the pre-modern and the modern. Tell us what those are approximately and how they relate to people’s senses of meaning.
Brendan: Yeah, so I think in many ways this is the easiest cultural division to intuitively grasp, and I do think it’s, in some ways, the most profound division. We tend to divide the way we think about time into A.D. And B.C., but really, I think the advent of modernity marks its own real epoch in terms of looking in the past and clearly dividing this profound new sensibility that emerges. But I would say pre-modernity is, you can roughly think about as before around, oh, I don’t know, 1500 or around the Renaissance period. It’s basically, we tend to equate it with the medieval world, but it reaches obviously further back than that. It’s a worldview system, though, that’s held together by a certain holistic thinking about reality. It’s, in that context, full of meaning, it’s rich with significance. You look back to the way people used to think about the world and their relationship to it, anywhere from, again, the medieval period to further back into antiquity.
They would see all these correspondences and resonances and things meant things. You could read your fate in the stars and cure, say, the illness of your lungs with a plant that looked like a lung. So there are all these sorts of rich correspondences in the world that you related to that seem to suggest that reality was this really rich tapestry, full of symbols, full of meaningful relationships. It was this process of decoding that seemed to be never able to be fully plumbed because everything was so intricately caught up with everything else. So in that context, in the pre-modern context, everything we would say is religious, everything was spiritual.
But of course, those ideas don’t really even exist until you get to modernity and you begin to appreciate that there’s a differentiation that then happens. So we’ll probably touch on this at some point, but you can also very, I think, crucially interpret what happens in a developmental way as it relates to the disembedding that occurs. Charles Taylor wrote a book called The Secular Age. It’s all about the transition from the pre-modern to the modern and the associated shift in the rise of secularity, and he talks about the great disembedding. He named some of these phenomena really well, but you can understand it psychologically. The relationship between cultural evolution and individual psychological development is something I touch on in the book a bit, but it’s something I’m very interested in.
Jim: Yeah. We’ll get to that later.
Brendan: Okay, great. So if that’s pre-modernity defined by, characterized by religion, piety meaning, and a sense of being embedded in a infinitely rich tapestry of associations, correspondences and relations that all had meaning to individual life, then you get to modernity, which starts to emerge in full force with the Renaissance, and then of course, in the enlightenment and the scientific revolutions. That’s marked by a very different worldview. It’s marked by a notion in which the subject fully embeds themselves from that rich tapestry and starts to see meaning as something that’s basically in your head. It’s something that only exists subjectively with the advent of scientific reductionism and mechanistic and deterministic thought that happens with Galileo and Newton, the early scientific revolution. There isn’t meaning.
You can’t go outside and see meaning. You can’t go outside and look at the relationship of things and find anything that in the pre-modern world would’ve been God’s creation or the divine plan or whatnot. There you start seeing reality as particles in motion and forces acting on each other. So this starts to generate a whole new worldview and a whole new way of being in the world and that leads all the way from the scientific revolution through industrialization and, of course, into our modern now digital infrastructures. But that profound bifurcation point between pre-modernity and modernity is really, it’s the crux, I think, of where I locate the Meaning Crisis beginning.
Jim: Yeah, that was great. John Vervaeke makes a big deal out of the fact that the Axial Age was really the foundation for what you were calling earlier epochs before that. The distinguishing characteristics of at least the winners of the Axial Age were a two world’s view, that there is the mundane world of the physical, and then there’s some other world. Imagine, let’s say, in a Christian mythology that’s well known in the West, there’s heaven and there’s earth. The Norse mythology had a much more complicated one than that, in fact, and so did the Greeks. But there was a separation between here on earth and somewhere else and that that was foundational to that pre-modern worldview. While the modernist worldview, we could call modest, that there’s a single reality, the world that we know. It may be more complicated than we know or even can know, as some people say, but it’s still one substance. That longing for the second world is perhaps part of this Meaning Crisis because we were so conditioned culturally and so much of that still is embedded in our language.
It’s amazing how much of our language, for instance, comes from Shakespeare, a 16th century guy. So I think that’s certainly another really big part of it. Then there’s something else you said, I was surprised and I’d love to hear your thoughts about it. It’s an aside, but that’s all right. You wrote, “Surprising as it may sound, the categories of subjective and objective only come to full prominence with modernity, meaning people tend to blur these categories much more in the past than we do today. In the modern world, people separate their experience of reality from reality itself. In the pre-modern world, this was not done in the same way or to the same degree.” I looked that up and I typed in some things like, what were the ancient Greek views on subjectivity? I did find some support for your conjecture there, but also, some pointed at the other direction, epic, Thetis and some of the later Romans, Seneca, Lucretia, others seem to have views of the subjective that were not dissimilar to our modern ones, but it does seem to be something to that. Maybe you want to talk about that a little bit.
Brendan: Sure. That’s a really rich and important topic, so it’s actually definitely more than tangential or an aside. So there’s a couple of things I guess I could say about that. One is, I think it’s important to disentangle cultural evolution from psychological development. You have to disentangle those two things that are intricately related and have all sorts of feedback loops involved. So individuals at various times in prior cultural epochs might have achieved a certain level of disembeddedness from their environment in a greater sense of the subject-object split. But if you’re looking at what characterizes the nature of broad cultural epochs, then you’re dealing with vast aggregates of people who might all be at different psychological developmental stages. So you’re looking then at the aggregate of that experience and the aggregate of that culture. So, you can go back to the Athenian Renaissance and see people like Socrates and Alcibiades and Plato all talking with a subjective appreciation that we can recognize today.
But in many ways, they were certainly in the minority at that point, just given their ability to access levels of education and the privileged capacity to engage in deeper psychological development, let’s say, which certainly in ancient Athenian society was not broadly distributed. So if you move into an industrial context where you have things like mass education and that sort of a thing, then you can see what I think about as a Flynn effect that occurs through psychological development over time. That leads to a deepening of the subject and the sense of the subject-object split over time. So one of the ways you can even think about modernity itself and the split from pre-modernity to modernity is that culture reached a tipping point where through various reasons and mechanisms, the majority of the population, let’s say, reached certain modes of psychological depth where that bifurcation of subject and object was more pronounced than in the past.
That was a huge factor for propelling, for being the vehicle for the sorts of thinking that would emerge in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Jean Piaget, a developmental psychologist, talks about that way of thinking as formal operational thinking. If you go back in time, you basically don’t see formal operational thinking except in little fits and starts amongst the elite like Plato and Epictus or whoever. But it’s only in the last 500 years that you get the cultural institutions that allow for formal operational thought to be inculcated and enculturated in people in a mass scale, and so that starts to change the culture. So that would be one way of thinking about it. But if you’re looking for more evidence along these lines, my next work is about this topic in many ways.
One thing that people can point to for example, is if you read Homer, and I was a classicist originally, that’s what I’d studied in college, so I have great love for the classics and especially for Homer. But if you read Homer, there’s not a lot of internal world there. You get Achilles’ rage and you get this and that, but for the most part, it’s very superficial, let’s say, but in a very pleasant and profound way, even as well the same time. But that psychological depth and inner reflection just was not, you could say normative at the time. You’re not going to find a Søren Kierkegaard guard back in 800 B.C., let’s say, or if you are, they’re just going to be, I don’t know, some wild, crazy shaman who no one knows how to make sense of ’cause they don’t fit into the cultural code at all. The relationship of individual psychological development, which is tied to the deepening of the subjectivity versus the objective world, that plays out in really fascinating and complex ways with cultural evolution. One of the things that’s most fascinating is to chart that progress, which I’m only able to do very briefly in this book, but want to do more in later works.
Jim: Well, that’d be cool. I’d love to read that, which now then gets us to one of the next big ideas you have in the book is that these are all probably interrelated. I’d love to hear how you think these things tie together, which is that reductionism really became one of the great tools of modernity where, as you described some fairly eloquent language the world was, all these things are interrelated. We know from the scientific method, if you think about the world that way, it’s really hard to make any progress. I made 10 changes, which one mattered? If you’re going to have a controlled experiment and reduce it to a single variable with a control where we don’t make the change, then you can make some progress, but that comes at a cost. So talk about, let’s call it, the emergence of reductionism.
Brendan: Yeah. So that’s exactly it, right? It is all related because before you’re able to differentiate parts from the whole you live in an undifferentiated confused holism, and that is very much the mentality that characterized the pre-modern world and mass and large. It’s only with the advent of very intentional mechanisms and approaches, methodologies to separate, to differentiate individual parts from the vast whole that gets the whole scientific enterprise going. Then again, leads to that ultimate break between the pre-modern and the modern worlds. As you say too, it comes with a cost, but at first, it’s a huge boon. If you are living in a state of total embeddedness, a word like holism sounds maybe attractive to many people, again, especially in our fragmented … a fragmented age that’s driven by a Meaning Crisis is, “Oh, that sounds very full of meaning.”
It is in the way we’ve been talking about, but not in the way that ultimately leads to a deeper understanding of reality because you haven’t even begun to make that initial differentiation process that can allow you to understand how all the parts then relate to the whole. So a confused whole is very different from an integrated whole. So you need to do a differentiation process first before you can start identifying the parts of reality. That’s crucial, ’cause only when you have the parts can you begin to see how parts interrelate, interact, and then form emergent holes. Thus, you can start to trace that evolution from a confused holism to a very atomistic, mechanistic, reductionistic, early modernity. Then that leads to the kind of complexity sciences that have emerged in the past a hundred years or so. Because once you have the parts, then you can think about the holes and how they integrate and relate to each other. Does that answer that question? I could try to-
Jim: Yeah. Perfect. Perfect. Perfect. That was perfect, just what I was looking for. Yeah, that’s the point I make all the time because we do find in the world of people that both of us travel around and about and people have this reflex reductionism, bad, holism good. I go, “Well sorry, you got to have both,” right? The idea of a series of whole-ons, for instance, that build up makes a lot more sense to me. When I’m trying to explain complexity science to people, one of the ways I do it sometimes is to say that complexity science is the study of the dance. But to understand the dance, you also have to understand the capacity of the dancers, and to separate one from the other makes no sense. So this move from the initial low-hanging fruit of reductionism, which did produce an unbelievable takeoff in human knowledge and a new way of seeing the world that was far more accurate, ’cause even somebody as bright as Aristotle, one of the smartest guys that ever lived, when you read as stuff carefully, you see that it’s a mélange of critical thinking, empiricism, religion, superstition, all blended together.
He treats them all essentially, as evidentiary equal, which to a modern scientific mind just seems like a weird thing to do. But that’s how minds were in those days and was kind of interesting. To be able to accomplish as much intellectually as Aristotle without the modern tool of reductionism is amazingly impressive. But as we know from our study of the medieval world, they never reached that level again. You had Aquinas, which was Aristotle plus even more bullshit, very acutely reasoned, but nonetheless, didn’t go past Aristotle in any way. It wasn’t until Galileo finally said, “Let’s check and see if Aristotle was right,” and then they go, “Whoops. He wasn’t at all, as it turns out, about some fairly fundamental things,” and when that point reductionism and empiricism grew and when that gave us modernity. But we do live in a disenchanted world on the other side of that.
Brendan: Yeah, I would totally agree with all of that. I guess I would pick up where you left off there, which is, as incredibly insightful and world opening, horizon opening as the modern project and the scientific revolution were, they did engender a disenchantment, a loss of a sense of meaning and a loss of a sense of relatedness of things and a relation of the self to the world and a sense of the self to the whole. This is the main, I guess you could call it, the thesis really of the book, is that with the advent now of complexity science, we are finally getting to a place where we can regain a sense of holistic appreciation and understanding of the world while also having our sense of meaning and profundity and spiritual connection with it restored as well.
To communicate that message is really what the book is trying to do, not just in a, look at all the stuff that complexity science has to say, but actually to go further than that and say, “All right, now the complexity science has revealed this vision of the world for us, how do we frame that in a way that really starts to connect to our souls again in the way that pre-modern religion did, but now informed by modern insights?”
Jim: Perfect set up. My next question was going to be the note that your proposed solution is emergentism: a religion of complexity. But let’s start with what do you mean when you say complexity?
Brendan: I say a good working definition of complexity is parts in relationship to other parts that form greater holes. So something becomes more complex if it has one, more parts and two, more connections or relationships between those parts. And so that’s basically the working definition of complexity. It’s parts coming together in webs of relation to form wholes with new properties that aren’t found at the level of the parts and hence, emergent.
Jim: Yep, that’s the idea of emergence. Yeah. I’d like to add another distinction that’s becoming more popular in the complexity science arena and that is the distinction between complicated and complex. For instance, you might say that a 787 aircraft is very complicated. There’s lots of parts, they’re intricately interacted, there’s many systems that interact, et cetera. But here’s my own definition, which I probably stole from somebody. So whoever I stole it from, sorry about that, which is in a complicated domain, you can take the thing apart and put it back together again and it still works because the information is essentially in the structure. While if you look at something like the market or life within a cell or within an animal, you can’t take it apart and put it back together again because a lot of the information is actually in the dynamics as opposed to the actual material structure.
As it turns out, reductionism can only tell you a certain amount. It can tell you less about complex systems than it can about complicated systems. We start looking at where is the frontier of knowledge today? A lot of it’s in the domain of the complex ’cause anything that has to do with the economy, with society, how does society react to the invention of social media? That’s a classically complex problem, and so I would add that as well. You mentioned right before we took off, when I took off, concept of emergence, obviously a critical component in this whole view. Talk a little bit about how people should think about, what is emergence?
Brendan: I use the word in ways that I’d say form a cluster of connotations and relationships. I have a background in poetry as well, so there are denotative descriptions or definitions of emergence that you might find in a textbook, but I’m also trying to go work also with some of the etymological significations and whatnot. So I’ll just throw that in upfront because I don’t want to suggest that there’s just one sense to emergence in emergentism. But in the more basic, say, textbook account of emergence, it is, as I was referring to, you get emergent properties when there is an irreducible aspect or parameter of the system that comes online with a level of interaction of parts that you can’t find lower down. So there are different ways of thinking about this. There are different ways of theorizing it, and in fact, I would even argue that there are different ideas about emergence itself.
I think that as complexity science develops, we’ll start to realize that there are more kinds of emergence than we initially thought when we lumped all that stuff together in one term. But as a catchall category, I would say that basically does it is, when things come together, they create novel properties that if you just look down to their parts the way a reductionist would, you won’t find them there. So there’s a level related to all this of scale and the idea of levels itself that things emerge at different levels of complexity and therefore, you actually have a tiered nature of reality that starts to get introduced through emergence, that as you zoom in on things, certain things might disappear, but as you zoom out, they’ll emerge.
So there’s a notion in which, and this was a part of the movement of what was called the British Emergentist Movement, who were some of the folks who were pioneering this line of thought philosophically in the late 19th century and early 20th century. This becomes really important, the tiered hierarchical nature of reality when we appreciate that parts coming together to form new wholes, have novel properties that then can only be assessed at that level. Then we have to consider those properties on their own terms, so to speak. So that’s the basic idea of emergence; however, as I say, I expand upon that. The etymological meaning of emerge is actually the opposite of submerge, so we can all have our sense of what that means. You put something into the water, but to emerge means to come out of the water.
So there’s this, I think, very profound just concept lying in the background of emergence, that is something emerging out of the wave, something emerging out of what’s been covering it, something that had been latent is coming out and is gaining expression, seeing the light of day. Poetically, you can think about that as the way Michelangelo talks about freeing from the marble, the face that in there, or this or that. But that idea of emergence is important too, because when zooming back at the larger scale and thinking about this cosmically, emergence is really what characterizes the nature of cosmic evolution as a whole. Something is coming out of cosmic evolution and that something is inherently related to some really profound ideas like consciousness, free will, goodness, things like that. So that starts to get into some of the spiritual implications of an emergentist paradigm.
Jim: One of the examples I like to give because it’s more homey and tangible on emergence is to think about the fact that at some point, there was a bunch of chemicals and somehow if you looked at just the chemicals, you would not be able to predict life unless maybe you were, well, nobody at the time could have. Then we get life, it’s very, very simple thump thing, something like a bacteria. But from that, would you ever predict eukaryotic cells? Probably not. Once those existed, would you predict the kind of multicellularity that led to us? Probably not. Would you have projected tissues and organs and systems, and then would you have predicted ecosystems? So these are classically new classes of phenomena that have their own lawfulness that’s distinct from the lawfulness of the level below. A full human never violates the laws of physics, but the life of a human is much more than just the rules of physics.
Brendan: I think that framing it that way is great. It’s perfect because it really then starts to tie the insights of emergence to the meeting crisis. I think that a lot of people go through their whole life after they reach a certain educational phase or what have you, after which they look at themselves as just a bunch of particles. They’re a meat suit. I’ve known many doctors, for example, who unfortunately, get rather depressed. I can understand why if you’re dealing with bodies as though, well, they’re just meat and you’ve got to think that way to some degree in order to do advanced surgery and whatnot. But the mentality that carries with you that I think is increasingly pervasive or has become increasingly pervasive is that-
Brendan: Or has become increasingly pervasive is that we are just physics. We are just matter particles bumping into each other. And so to learn that actually, human behavior and activity is more than matter, is more than physics is actually kind of revolutionary. It can be very transformative for people who are stuck in that despairing malaise of, “Gosh, is that all this is about?” And so not only is there sort of two levels of matter and then let’s say life, there are multiple levels, each with their own law like behavior and appreciating phenomena in the universe as behaving at its own level. It becomes crucial for understanding it more fully and to relating to it more accurately.
And then last thing I guess I’ll say about that for now is that to appreciate those different levels operating within us as well is important so that we understand what we’re made out of and the different levels to our own being. It can be very, again, I think life-changing and transformative at the level of meaning.
Jim: And it’s very rich because not only do we have matter going to life, but before that we had, again, if we assume that the Big Bang is at least an approximately accurate story of this particular universe we find ourself in or this neighborhood of the universe or however the cosmologists ever figure it out. There was a period before the concept of energy and matter even made any sense. There was a unification when there was no difference between the forces. They were all this undifferentiated thing. And then first the strong force broke away and then the weak force and then electromagnetism. We still don’t understand how gravity fits into that story.
And then there was an epoch where the universe was only energy and then the energy… particles formed, and then there was a period when the particles were basically blocking the energy because they were moving so fast, they reflected all the photons. And so there was no transparency. About 300, I think it was 300 million years after the Big Bang approximately, the temperature and size of the universe grew to be big enough that now the photons could move past the particles and the universe became transparent. Each one of those was an emergence. Then of course, the ones along the way that gravity plus the fundamental laws of physics took the random distributions or maybe pseudo random distributions, we’re not sure which, of matter. They were unevenly spread around the universe. And so gravity started pulling them together.
And guess what? Another emergence. If you’d just seen clouds of helium and hydrogen floating around in space, it’d be pretty hard to predict a star. But as it turns out, as gravity pulled them together, you reached the point where the force of general relativity interacted with the fundamental laws of physics to produce fusion. And then suddenly, everything changed again. The amazing flush of flux of energy and truthfully, we’re in some sense a little side cycle from that pattern of emergence, which has happened of course again and again in the history of the universe.
Brendan: Well, gosh, there’s so much there. And yes, so you’re starting to kind of narrate the full big picture, big history story that emergentism is trying to sort of sacralize the creation myth that science has given us by understanding the sequence is truly awe-inspiring and beautiful. And it’s not just one of sort of meaningless meandering. It is this series of… I call it the flowering of the emergences that unfolds. And Harold Morowitz wrote a great book on this topic. It does a good job. It’s called The Emergence of Everything. And he goes through these different stages or at least as he was conceptualizing them.
And one of the things though, there are a couple things I’d Zoom in on there. One is if we appreciate that as you were noting, things used to be more undifferentiated and you go all the way back to the singularity of the Big Bang and then you get all the fundamental forces before they’d kind of frozen out and broken symmetry, it’s easy to think about that as a state of perfection of like, “Oh wow, radical wholeness and oneness of everything.” What’s been really interesting though is to consider that actually it’s the opposite. That was the kind of state of least integration and because you have the least amount of differentiation. So it was the least complex that the universe had ever been.
Now, this is important though, I think because there’s a deep tendency for lots of reasons, psychologically, culturally, to always want to look back and romanticize some prior past condition that was perfect and sublime. It’s a very romantic sensibility of looking to childhood and seeing the innocence and the joy and whatnot. And we ultimately all become reactionaries. We want to be living in a prior age and we usually tend to look to the past as being that golden age. But what the whole narrative of emergentism is about is that actually, that golden age is where we’re headed towards, not where we’ve been.
And as we understand the big history story of reality better, we realize that this complexity, this complexification that’s been occurring has been the story. It’s been what’s been going on. And so one of the things I wanted to zoom in on, or maybe even push back on is yes, we’re also tempted to see ourselves as being a sort of offshoot as part of this process. We’re kind of, “Oh, we’re just sort of on a side arm of a galaxy amongst billions of galaxies and none of this really matters.”
Now, if you look at it from a complexity lens, that’s no longer the case. The human mind is the most complex thing that we know of in existence, and we actually have metrics for this sort of thing. Like Eric Shazan, is a complexity scientist, has free energy rate density and he can chart the trajectory of complexification that the universe has undergone. And so if you look at a whole galaxy, yes, it’s vast and huge and maybe when you look out at the night sky, it seems to be what’s most important, “In the sky,” because that’s what makes everything up.
But at the level of complexity, it’s really at the bottom of the rung from galaxies to planets and then to life. You’re seeing this exponential increase in complexification of the increasing density of energy and structural organization and, and maybe we’ll get into this, I don’t know, consciousness, and you get sort of the relationship between complexification and consciousness that things like integrated information theory starts to help us understand better.
And so in that framing, human beings aren’t just some off… It’s just some kind of one-off. Some kind of accidental blip in the cosmic story. We’re actually at the vanguard of the complexification narrative of the entire universe as far as we know. We could meet aliens tomorrow and they could be billions of… Yeah, let’s say millions of years more complex than we are and whatever. But at the very least, we can situate ourselves in a complexification narrative. And in that narrative we’re actually really, I dare to say, important in the cosmos.
Jim: Yeah, indeed. I’m really glad you mentioned my good friend Harold Morowitz. He was actually my original mentor in the whole school of complexity back in 2002 and we remained close friends and sometimes collaborators up to his death. I was a resource to him in the book he wrote with Eric Smith on the Origins of Life, for instance, and things of that sort. A truly wonderful human being. Not just one of the smartest people I ever met, but one of the best. Everything about him was good. And interestingly, he was a Jewish atheist, but he was also the advisor on science to the American College of Catholic Bishops. And he got along with them famously, they loved him and he loved them. He’s just that kind of guy and big red cheeks, big red Santa Claus type cheeks, tremendous human being.
Before we move on, and you actually foreshadowed some of the things we’re going to talk about, talk a little bit about the trap that this despair of modernism can cause? And I sometimes call it naive Newtonianism. Famously, Laplace said, “Give me the position and the movements of all the particles in the universe, and I can predict all of history.” And Napoleon asked him, “Well, where’s God in your story?” And he said, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” One of the famous snappy answers. Good thing for him, Napoleon was an enlightenment guy and not an imperial ruler in the pre-Axial age, or it would’ve been off with his head, I’m sure.
And in our education… I was one of these. I would say I was 14 or 15, I was a science nerd and I was a naive Newtonian. And it would be really a good thing for people to start learning much earlier about things like deterministic chaos, which is the idea that even if the world is entirely deterministic and we don’t know the answer, whether it is or it isn’t, as a practical matter, the unfolding of complex systems are entirely impossible to predict with any precision.
In fact, the average naive Newtonian never learns this. And if they do learn it, they don’t learn until college. While you can calculate with Newtonian mechanics, the orbital dynamics of two bodies, it doesn’t work for three, right? It’s crazy that the nature of complexity is such that the initial conditions have to be specified with infinite certainty, essentially infinite certainty. Even if you assume the universe is entirely deterministic, which we don’t know the answer to that, the evidence is still unresolved on whether the universe is deterministic or not. But from a perspective of how the world actually works, it’s clearly not deterministic anywhere near ours or any even conceivable ability to predict the unfolding of systems. And in some sense, we have educated our people with this naive Newtonianism so strongly, that that then becomes an attractor for this kind of despair. Okay, what’s it all mean? Doesn’t mean anything, it’s just jiggling around.
Then the last thing I’ll do before we move on to the next level and about the topics you were just talking about is that we think about the very beginning, the Big Bang, or I don’t know if it was actually a singularity or a near singularity, but sometimes way back yonder in the billions of a second after the origin, as you said, complexity was approximately zero, but also entropy was approximately zero. And since that time, both have increased, which is very, very interesting. And I think you mentioned it, the second law of thermodynamics at first seems kind of grim, right? Oops. The world is winding down, the universe ends up as heat, death, et cetera. Oh dear Obi Eor, right? Well, might be the case, but if it is, it’s a trillion years in the future, and frankly, I’m not going to worry too much about what happens in a trillion years.
And as you point out, there’s some possibility that what we call dark energy, though that’s just a name for something we don’t understand, might save the day. I have my doubts, but I don’t give a shit. I got trillion years to do interesting things. That’s plenty of time, dude. And during that time, complexity has been increasing and up to as far as we know, the pinnacle of human complexity is either the human brain or human culture, depending on how you choose to measure it. And by many of the measures of complexity, the human brain is more complex than say the sun, which is so much bigger and which consumes so much more energy, et cetera. And that has been this gradual ratchet of complexity over time through a whole series of emergences, which as far as we know, can’t happen at the very high temperatures in the sun. The fact that the earth had certain temperatures and certain chemical constituents had metals, very important in Harold Morowitz’ work on The Origins of Life, for instance, allowed these various ratchets of emergence to occur, which somehow led to the human brain.
So I guess one last thing on the science side before we move on to the higher stack. You mentioned this one as well, Prigozhin and his theory of dissipated systems, the fact that second law thermodynamics is true within a closed system, but take it away.
Brendan: Yeah. That’s the crucial bridge I think, and many others think between just the matter level and the life level because when you go back and you look at the origins of the various scientific paradigms as they emerged in the early scientific revolution, as you say, and as we’ve been talking about, it was reductionistic and it was about particles in motion and that sort of a thing. And there was that naive Newtonianism that we could predict everything and everything through its initial conditions could be mapped, and then you’d have an understanding of everything that ever has been or will be. And that is now recognized to not be the case at all. And so we’ve been disillusioned of that presumption, and maybe I would argue for the better because it’s a rather gloomy one ultimately.
But one of the things that as we… not that I was there, as we collectively in the… Not the royal we but the scientific we, as we discovered thermodynamics that showed up in the reductionistic worldview as a consequence of that worldview, as a consequence of people trying to do, for example, what Galileo did with motion. But trying to do that with energy, which even at that time wasn’t really a full concept, but trying to isolate things and understand how they work on their own terms. And so the initial study of thermodynamics was all about isolation in closed systems and in enclosed systems, the energy dissipates and you reach equilibrium and the party’s over.
And so unfortunately, a lot of people took this and extrapolated it to believe that, well, if energy isn’t created or destroyed, and if the nature of energy universally is to just dissipate and to form equilibrium, well, then eventually, although you energy in the universe will just do that and everything will reach a bland state of homogeneity. And that’s not true. It turns out that an isolated system is a very artificial context to study something like energy. And this is what Prigozhin really pioneered with non-equilibrium thermodynamics in the 60s and 70s, earlier even actually, and found that when you open the system and you’re not doing the reductionist isolation thing, but you’re actually connecting the system to its environment, you see something entirely different operate. You see the emergence of order, you see the emergence of structure, and this happens spontaneously, naturally.
And I think the beautiful insight, the profound thing that to me starts to become philosophical and even metaphysical is that happens precisely because of the second law of thermodynamics trying to always even things out and homogenize them. So it turns out that, for example, the whirlpool and your bathtub will form to dissipate that gradient, and you get that order precisely because it’s more efficient at creating entropy than just sheer chaotic turbulence would be.
So as we learned in the mid-20th century, and I think as has not caught on yet to the rest of the general population and made its way into the general zeitgeist in worldview, actually the world, the universe is inherently creative. It’s inherently leading to structure the very law of thermodynamics. The second law that people thought was leading to the just homogeneity, boredom, equilibrium, heat death is actually the very driver of this complexification process and the work of Bobby Azarian, for example, what he’s done to articulate some of these ideas. I know you had them on the show not too long ago. He protege actually, or studied with Morowitz as well, but he does a great job explaining these mechanisms in his book, the Romance of Reality, and of course Prigozhin does as well.
But this leads to a very different conception of what the universe is up to and where it’s headed. So if the universe is naturally complexifying, and I guess I’ll touch briefly on this issue about the heat death too, because I think it’s also important. One of the other conclusions that was drawn in the latter end of the 20th century was that because the universe is expanding, it can be expanding at a rate and seems to be expanding at a rate where there will always be enough free energy in the system. Basically, yes, there is an increase in energy… I’m sorry, entropy in the system, but there’s also an increase in the whole system which allows for a fundamental gradient to exist.
And because of that, you can continue to have sort of endless complexification theoretically. People like Stuart Kaufman talked about that. Shazan talks about that at some length in his book, Cosmic Evolution. So this thermodynamic narrative that people were sort of adopting as, “Oh, everything is bleak and pessimistic and ultimately going to run out of energy and everything’s going to die. So nothing matters again,” is actually not true. And that we are part of a system that is inherently complexifying by the very laws of its nature. And that to me is a very compelling, fascinating, interesting facet of reality.
Jim: Very much so, very much so. And yeah, for those who want to look it up, Bobby Azarian’s podcast was last summer, EP 159, very, very interesting. Bobby’s work is really huge actually, as it turns out. One of the things that he makes a point of, and as do you, is that one of the things that has come from the complexification of the world, and particularly once we had life, you can make some arguments, weak arguments prior to life, but especially since life is that complexity has been driven forward by its ability to learn. And much of its evolutions has been towards learning better, with learning, being sort of very roughly having a model of local reality, sufficiently accurate that you can use it for taking action that’s useful for some end, usually in a Darwinian sense, the end of surviving to the point where you can reproduce. Would you buy that?
Brendan: Yeah, I think that that’s a crucial part of the whole story, actually. And one of the things I liked most about Bobby’s book is that that’s sort of the essence of his narrative, of his integrated evolutionary synthesis is that the complexification of the universe is fundamentally a learning process. And I think that gets the whole… Well, let’s just say it gets something very crucial about this whole process so that if you kind of chart that unfolding and you move from, okay, dissipative adaptation occurs and you get life and you get sort of primitive cells and that sort of a thing, well yeah, those things are going to need some basic model of their world to interact with in order to fulfill their biological necessity of reproducing and in Darwinian sense.
So one of the things that’s really crucial is the way that this all ties thermodynamics to Darwinian evolution. There had always been this sort of catch 22 of well, survival of the fittest. Well, what’s the most fit? Well, the thing that survives. Well, okay, how does that work? But by grounding Darwinian evolution in thermodynamics and recognizing that organisms seek to stay far from equilibrium, which is all built on originally an insight of Schrodinger in his very now famous book, What is Life? Who talks about basically organisms are always seeking to extract free energy from their environment in order to stay ordered and organized. They call that neg entropy, but we can just basically refer to that as complexity and relates directly also to the free energy density rate.
So if there’s this thermodynamic process going on where organisms are taking in energy from their environment in order to stay far from equilibrium and that that’s happening, or at least gets off the ground in a spontaneous way, then once those organisms are around, they need to be able to navigate their environment. And the best way to do that ultimately is forming certain kinds of models of the environment so that the organism has a kind of representation of where they are. And from that point on, you’ve got something like a subject in an object relationship that’s been set up. You have an organism that is the subject moving around, it’s the agent, and you have the objective environment that it’s operating in.
And then you can see how the whole complexification process is one in which the internal mental modeling of reality… Well, and it doesn’t begin with mental, so let’s just say the internal modeling of reality complexifies through these emergent levels so that when mine comes online, and maybe because mine comes online, it’s about a representation of reality that’s going on. So one of the things I do in the book too is I kind of marry Bobby’s integrated evolutionary synthesis framework, which he calls The Unifying Theory of Reality with Gregg Henrique’s work, which is called The Unified Theory of Knowledge. Because Gregg’s work focuses in a big history model using specific emergent levels and thinking about them as specific information processing systems.
And so when you marry these two ideas, you get this story in which starting from the Big Bang, you move out… you get dissipate of adaptation that leads to the emergence of life models, its environment and slowly evolves increasingly more complex and successful information processing systems, which are DNA essentially in encoded reality of the organism at the level of life. But then nervous systems and the ability to have genuine mental modeling of your environment, which you get the level of Henrique’s mind. And then ultimately we get symbolic information processing, which is the culture level that emerges. So then all these things start to tie together and we see that they’re all part of the same story.
Jim: Yeah, indeed. In fact, Gregg Henriques has been on twice EP59 and currents 009, and he’ll be back on at the end of the month to talk about his new book. So that’ll be fun. Now, this is where I do want to push back. I push back with Bobby a little bit, I’ll push back some with Gregg, not that much. Push back more with you, which is this road from learning and knowledge. And again, keep in mind that the intelligence goes way, way, way back. The bacteria that can follow a glucose gradient for instance, turns right if there’s sugar to the right, turns left if it’s sugar to the left, that is knowledge. That is knowledge that’s typically embodied through evolution rather than online learning. But it’s knowledge and there’s many, many ways that… I should say knowledge, it’s intelligence, it’s knowledge that can be put to work.
And while our tree, you and me came up, and this probably comes up through the bilateral evolutionary tree, you think of it as fish and then amphibians and then reptiles and then mammals and birds happen to use the hack of consciousness. Consciousness, I would argue. And I think many people who think about consciousness and to a degree, I have a day job, following the science of consciousness is it. It is not the only way to have intelligence and I think that as an awful lot of the writing and thinking in this space gets over anchored on consciousness from essentially an anthropomorphic, anthropocentric perspective. “Hey, that’s us. Therefore, it must be the most important thing.”
And I can give you a couple of nice examples that there is definitely alternatives. I did some research yesterday on this to make sure my numbers were approximately right. Termites and ants. When you think about a termite, you think about the colony as the unit of intelligence. It’s not the individual ant, in the same way you are not your cell. So it’s kind of metaphorically equivalent that an ant is equivalent of a cell at a body sort of roughly.
And the things that a community of ants can do are quite amazing. The same is true for termites. Now, if you were to look at them objectively, you’d say a colony of ants or termites, it’s probably smarter than a mouse. The kinds of problems they solve, the structures they can build, some of them do farming, some of them fight wars. It’s like whoa, and they do so with zero consciousness at all. They do it with smells and chemical signals and dancing and it’s really amazing. So I say, hey, you can get up at least as smart as a mouse, without any consciousness whatsoever.
And further, there’s examples in AI where we can have extremely high intelligence. Think of the AlphaZero that learned how to play Go from nothing other than the rules in a few days to be better than the best Go player on earth. Exceedingly intelligence in what is thought to be a difficult domain and no consciousness whatsoever, or at least I will stipulate, there’s no consciousness. IT guys would argue about that a little, but even they would say that the level of consciousness in AlphaGo is exceedingly low.
And then another one that seems more like human intelligence, the self-driving car, the one that we were supposed to have two years ago but still don’t, right? But we’ll probably have it, my estimate would be seven or eight years. That will be quite amazing. All the hallmarks of intelligence is dealing with a complex environment, which is crazy ass argentic humans and their bad decisions and weather and random shit blowing across the road. And we will deal with it more confidently than a human.
And again, even if you use the IIT formalism, the consciousness in a self-driving car is minuscule, much less than a mouse, much, much less than a mouse, but vastly more capable. So always when I get to have these discussions with people, particularly in this kind of liminal web world that a lot of us live in, people I believe get over anchored on consciousness. And that consciousness is neat and it is us, but it is just one of multiple strategies for bringing intelligence to the universe.
And of course, this becomes even more significant when we start thinking about advanced AIs. I work with one of the leading AGI projects and follow the literature pretty closely, and there’s no reason to believe that we actually need to have consciousness to create an AGI that can do anything a human can do and more. And no, I do believe it may be a shortcut and oddly my own work is partially on artificial consciousness, but I think it’s a very clever hack and I could go into it. We don’t have time today on why it’s such a good hack. And it’s probably why mother nature discovered it in just this one line. It may have actually discovered it twice. There’s some thinking that consciousness was evolved twice in two different forms. Once in the bilaterals the fish threw us and then the second in the large cephalopods, the squid basically, and octopuses.
Brendan: Well, first, I’d have to know what you mean. How are you defining consciousness? I think that’s really key. So I know we’re on the same page here.
Jim: Yeah. Yeah, of course. If you go to a consciousness conference, you find that people are all over the place on this. I would say quite simply that there’s a subjective state phenomenology, as Thomas Nagle famously wrote one of the most influential papers in the science of consciousness. What does it feel like to be a bat? Right? Does it feel like something to be X? In which case then you have consciousness.
Brendan: Got you. Yeah.
Jim: And if I were to put my sources flag down, I’m a John Cerillian pretty much, which is that it is a biological thing that serves a purpose, that has a considerable energetic and informational cost, and it exists in some biological chains and not in others.
Brendan: Got you. Yeah. So I’d say we’re in agreement on the notion of what we’re talking about, which is good because I think there’s a lot of equivocation that goes on around all these words, consciousness, intelligence, cognition, et cetera. And it’s very easy to speak past one another if we’re not kind of sharing the same terms. So I would disagree… Well, let me start where I do agree. I would agree that self-driving car is not conscious. I would agree that Alpha is not conscious, but I would disagree that an ant is not conscious. And my reasoning for that is ultimately informed by IIT integrated information theory, which to my mind is so far the best explanatory model for this though we’re, we’ll probably start getting into some philosophical weeds if we probe rather deeply there. But my sense would be as people like Christof Koch and Tononi talk about that consciousness in the way that we’re talking about it is just that flip side of structural complexity provided that there’s integrated information that’s creating an irreducible hole, et cetera, et cetera.
And so if that is the case, and there are also various ways of modifying IIT in certain ways, so it doesn’t have all of its pan psychic implications, but if something like that is the case, you can explain why Alpha doesn’t have consciousness and why a Tesla or auto self-driving car doesn’t have consciousness. And it’s that difference between a kind of feed forward network versus that kind of complexity network. And they’d point to example the cerebellum in the brain, which just has more neurons I think, than any part of the brain, but it’s an entirely feed forward system, and that it’s not a conscious part of the brain.
So you need a certain kind of structure to generate consciousness. And I would say with an ant for example, you’ve actually got something like a primitive nervous system going on there. And so you’ve got a fairly high level of integrated information. And now, is an individual ant integrating more information than the colony? That’s an interesting question actually that could be illuminating. But I think that that’s kind of the key here. And if that’s your framework, which it is my provisional framework for the time being until I find something better, then I think you can really talk about consciousness going down, certainly past humans into animals.
And this is one of the things that Gregg’s model helps kind of flesh out a little bit because we can appreciate that there are intelligences at different levels of complexity with life has intelligence in its DNA structure and in that level of complexity. But is a bacterium conscious? Well, I would say to the degree that it’s integrating information slightly. There’s something that it feels like to be a bacterium. And then of course, that’s just operating at a programmatic code level of DNA operating in its environment. But then once you get to nervous systems with a worm or an insect, then you’ve really got something that you’ve got a network of neurons that are interacting with an environment and that’s integrating information and that’s going to be conscious.
And the last thing I’ll say, I guess for now is that I do totally agree that there’s a lot of slippery usage of the word consciousness. And oftentimes it sounds like what people are saying is that human-like consciousness goes very far down. And I would be in agreement with you on that. That’s not the case. What it feels like to be a bacterium, and we can use a word like consciousness, but it’s almost a misnomer. It’s certainly a misnomer at that point because what we equate with that word is going to be phenomenologically very different.
And so I think there should be a greater emphasis placed on that. But that being said, appreciating the continuity between all these different kinds of consciousness and appreciating that this complexification that occurs has as its flip side deepening consciousness if we take the IIT framework seriously, then I think it’s entirely justified to say that the complexification of the universe leads to the emergence of consciousness, certainly of human consciousness of our level, but indeed a whole graded…
Brendan: … certainly of human consciousness, of our level, but indeed a whole graded stack of consciousness. So I don’t know if there are points in there that you would specifically take issue with.
Jim: Oh yeah, plenty. I had a great discussion on the show with Christof Koch back a ways, EP 105, where I’d say we fought each other to a draw, and I consider that pretty good. Little old me against Christof Cook. He is a strong IIT guy. He actually does believe a light switch is conscious. And we had a quite interesting conversation. As I mentioned, I’m more from the John Searle biological functionalist perspective. And I think more specifically from a little bit more modern people, you could look to the work of Antonio Damasio and Anil Seth as two interesting people. And they make some, I think, pretty convincing arguments that it has almost nothing to do with integrated information. It has more to do with introception, essentially the signals that come from the body that go to the central nervous system.
And they, for instance, both give the examples of people who not only have no cerebellum, which is interesting that it doesn’t have seem to have any function on consciousness, but also people have had most of their cerebrum removed, their cerebral cortex removed, and they’re still conscious. And in fact some of them walk around and navigate in the world, go to the store. And consciousness is actually fairly low on the stack of mental capacity. In fact, the usual stack goes something like consciousness is the opposite of being asleep, or particularly in deep anesthesia or a coma. So there’s enough there so that you are inside this movie of yourself, so there is some sense of what it is to be you, but you might not be intelligent at all or very, very unintelligent and still be fully conscious.
And then the next level is sentience. The other aspect about consciousness is it doesn’t necessitate feelings or valences. Let’s say a fish, for instance, may have a root consciousness that it’s in its own movie, but doesn’t give any feedback in the form of emotion or valences, while sentience is typically a term used for that next level up where there are feelings and emotions, and then a little bit later those get tagged to our memories. That was a big deal. Probably happened either late in the reptiles or happened both in the mammals and the birds, where our episodic memories are tagged with emotional valences, which have all kinds of implications.
So as you can see, I’m using consciousness in a very biological sense. And it’s not the be all, end all. With respect to IIT and the phi calculation, when you do the math around IIT, you get a number called five, which according to the hardcore IIT is itself proof of a level of consciousness. Now you can look at the work of Scott Aaronson, who has developed some mathematical formalisms that will generate high phi but are clearly not conscious. So my take is that phi is probably a measure of relative consciousness, but it is a necessary but not sufficient attribute of our particular exact kind of biologically embedded and embodied consciousness.
And of course, this is a big fork. This is a philosophical fork. If I’m right, consciousness is really interesting, but not cosmologically so, other than on the effect that it has downstream. If IIT is right, then consciousness is much more cosmologically significant. But I would say that the evidence is not in on it at all. In fact, if anything, the evidence points in my direction and away from IIT.
Brendan: So we could keep going down this one for a while, but just a few things real quick. I would say a couple of things. One would be I think that we can still, in either case, as you say, appreciate a cosmological significance to consciousness, even if it’s not fundamental, in the sense that life shows up relatively late, but if life has some causal significance in the cosmos, then that’s going to be significant. And so what happens later on downstream? Galaxies weren’t at the beginning, but now they dominate the universe. So to suggest, oh, well, at the beginning there weren’t galaxies, so they’re just a blip.
So either way, and of course, obviously as you say yes, if it is fundamental, then it’s baked into the very fabric of reality. One of the things I do think that can be helpful about taking the IIT approach and a pan-psychic approach more generally, obviously and one of the strongest arguments for it is as a resolution of the famous hard problem of consciousness, which if you take even a small emergentist account of consciousness, it’s still a sticky one.
And so people like Philip Goff and those who articulate ideas about naturalistic dualisms, that fundamentally there is an interior and exterior of reality and that goes all the way down, I think that that’s a very promising field, and I think that it resolves some questions very satisfactorily. Of course, it raises other questions. But I would say, again, though that you don’t have to take that approach in this emergentism that I’m articulating. I think either one of these models about how we articulate consciousness and its origins, they’re telling the same story. And wherever that data leads in terms of whether consciousness is fully emergent or whether it goes all the way down, it’s certainly being amplified by complexification to the degree that a human organism and its complexity is required to have the really complex form of consciousness that we experience, and that there seems to be certainly a profound correlation between the structure of the organism and the kind of, let’s just say, cognition or intelligence or potentially consciousness that it has.
So these things still overlap and relate, and I think the basic narrative is there. Just for the sake of wrapping up all loose ends there, I would also push back on the idea that a fish isn’t sentient. A fish is an organism that has a nervous system, and the idea that it wouldn’t therefore have valence is very stark. Or I would just push back on that because I think you can understand valence fundamentally as being the for-ness or the against-ness of the well-being of the organism. And that you can be an organism that has a very minimal sense of consciousness, but it’s going to have a strong sense of, is this good for me? Is it bad for me?
And if what is good for me we’re calling pleasure and what’s bad for me we’re calling pain, then I don’t see how an organism like a fish. Or even, again, an ant that’s going to have some form of a nervous system at play, doesn’t have some kind of valence, some kind of pleasure-pain access, some kind of value really structure, which is, again, the way that I think about this because with the emergence of nervous systems, you start to see the crude form of value emerge in the universe. Something is good or bad. You move to it or away from it. You’re attracted. You’re repulsed. And again, these things complexify into higher order values. But just for bookkeeping purposes, that would be an interesting thing to explore, consciousness versus sentience, certainly at the level of a fish or a nervous system organism.
Jim: A lot of work going on there. And we could go down this rabbit hole for days, but a final thought is that a fish may well react to another fish biting its tail off in a way that it does not involve consciousness. In the same way, as it turns out, that if a ball is thrown right at your face from short range, you will actually react in an unconscious way because your consciousness is actually fairly slow. It’s designed to operate at about 250 milliseconds cycle time, and there is a cutoff that goes right through the thalamus from the V1 levels. It’s quite amazing. And your hand will come up and knock the ball away, and you’ll have no idea why. And so I think you have to be really careful about thinking about what are conscious contents. One can have pain signals, for instance, without having emotions or valences associated with them. Your body could just react.
But anyway, it’s another question for another day and well above either of our pay grade. But to get on to the next step where I think we’d love to have a good discussion here. And again, this is metaphysical. Listeners know I hate the word metaphysics. And I often say when I hear the word metaphysics, I pull out my pistol. Well, I don’t have a pistol today, but as Brendan can see, I got my big Randall M1 fighting knife, which has got a seven-inch blade on it. It’s a really scary-looking thing. It’s quite excellent actually. But anyway, and that is life. What is the nature of life to the universe and emergence? And this goes back to the regular listeners know I talk about all the time, which is the Fermi paradox, Fermi, the famous physicist went by some young physicists having lunch at Los Alamos, who were talking about, is there 10,000 sentients or intelligent or conscious civilizations in the galaxy, or is it 100,000?
And he famously said, “Well, where are they?” And that’s been the Fermi paradox that if you run some numbers and make some assumptions about various things, you can get all kinds of numbers about how many technologically capable civilizations there are in the galaxy, let’s say, let alone the universe. And unfortunately, it’s totally dependent on about eight numbers being multiplied together. And when I was 14 and a naive Newtonian, I said, “Oh sure, got to be 100,000 in the galaxy. Otherwise, what about all those Asimov and Highland stories? They couldn’t happen without all this other intelligent life.”
But as I got to learn much more about this, and this is one of my most intense hobbies is trying to think about the Fermi paradox of talking to people about it. I am now completely agnostic. In fact, I just had Bruce Damer on for two episodes recently, one of the leading thinkers on origins of life. And I’ve had Eric Smith on as well, another leading thinker about origins of life. You all have a different story. He’s closer to you. He believes that life is very likely in planets like Earth. Bruce is somewhere between agnostic and pessimistic. And then when I really pushed him, he said, “Maybe just once in our galaxy.” And this gets back to emergence, and this is where it ties it all back together again.
For instance, the machinery that does error correction on the DNA, even of a bacteria, is a remarkably complicated and complex system. It’s certainly complicated. And in the mathematics of evolution, there’s something called the error catastrophe. When you go from one generation to another, if the error rate between generations of the informational substrate’s above X, you can’t build very high with evolution. And I had probably the most intense conversation I ever had in my life with Stuart Kauffman about this exact question, which is we both got to this point.
How in the world did we cross this amazingly thin ridge from the pre-DNA world to the DNA world with all of this machinery for error erection when we had a high error rate informational substrate? It seems impossible. And after several hours, we just said, “We’re just going to have to leave it there. Maybe a miracle occurred. Who the fuck knows?” And it may be that it’s just such a very low probability event that it only happened once in the universe. And the other one I point to a lot when we get down and dirty on this is the move from prokaryotic to eukaryotic, bacteria, classic prokaryotic, small, relatively simple, still complex as shit compared to a rock, but compared to you or me, not that complex.
And then the eukaryotic cells are 100 times bigger, and apparently it happened only once than an archaea, which is like a bacteria but different, ate one or two bacteria instead of digesting them, somehow captured them. And at the same time, this is so crazy, it developed a nucleus around the DNA so that it was more well-defined. And then we got something closer to the standard model of myosis. And you look at that possibility. How did that happen, and why did it only happen once? It’s really quite amazing.
And so those filters could be emergences to Harold Morowitz’s idea that an emergence is a pruning rule, and it rules out other things from happening. And it’s, to my mind, entirely possible that we are alone, not only in the galaxy, but in the universe, and that this has huge moral implications. If we are alone, we have an unbelievable obligation to the future not to fuck it up. And this is actually what drives my passion for Game B and radical social change is that we’ll be able to kill off life, but we could at least kill off advanced life relatively easily. We could knock ourselves back to single cell animals.
I could easily see us doing that. But if we do, we’re fucking up the trajectory of the future of the universe for a trillion years if we’re the only people out there. And until we know, it’s our moral obligation to be extremely careful about our life system. And then the other, this is why people say, what’s your meaning in life? I go, it is this, until we know, we preserve all the complexity that we can. Let’s use your language. We want to preserve all the complexity, but at the same time, we want to safely figure out if we’re alone or not. And of course, we may not want to be shouting about it because maybe there’s a lot of predators out there. We don’t know.
But we do want to listen carefully, want to send some probes to other stars. And over the next 10,000 years, we ought to be able to figure out if we’re alone or not. And if we are not alone and they’re not predators, then we can join the galactic civilization. Who knows what kind of emergences come from that? Or if we are alone, if we are alone, there is an amazing question. What do we do? And I would argue it’s our destiny to bring the universe to life, that life is more interesting than not life. And interesting, Harold, when pushed hard on the question of the DNA and the ridge and how hard it was, he would sometimes say, “I don’t rule out panspermia, the idea that the basic machinery of life came from other stars and maybe even seeded intentionally by some other civilization.
And I’ve amended that to say, maybe it happened twice. Maybe first they seeded us with the equivalent of bacteria in archaea, and then later they seeded us with the equivalent of eukaryotics. So it could be that our destiny could be the panspermians, to seed the universe with life maybe multiple times and just watch the experiment unfold over billions of years and then go play with our offspring later. But we just don’t know. Don’t know. Fortunately, there’s some empirical evidence that’ll be turning up soon. We’ll learn about Mars. Does Mars have no life? Never did. Does it have life that’s the same as earth’s life? Which is very interesting. Probably it evolved on Mars because it cooled off first and then was knocked to earth by a meteor. And then soon, as in 100 years, we’ll be able to explore Enceladus and Europa, the moons of Jupiter that have water oceans. And do they have life? Is it the same life or is it different life? We’re about to be able to study the gases in extraterrestrial planets. So we’re about to get some data, but right now I would posit agnosticism.
Brendan: Gosh, there’s a lot there. I’ll dive into a little bit of that in my perspective, I guess. I would say a couple of things. One, I think that this framework that I’m articulating in the emergentist book, for example, is amenable to either of these answers. And I am myself agnostic to the degree that, well, if we don’t have empirical evidence, what are we going off of? What is our evidentiary base? Until we have proof, then I think the most responsible thing to do is you have your best theories, but ultimately you’re doing informed speculation. Now, that informed speculation does lead me to agree with other people like Carl Sagan who suggested that life is common, and where the conditions arise, up it pops. I could also be very easily persuaded otherwise, depending on if some really solid mathematical argumentation were presented, et cetera, et cetera.
But the point being, I think either one of these scenarios still is very much in line with and accords very well with still a broad emergentist frame. It’s just the difference of are we late to the party or are we starting it? And I think that either one of these still doesn’t change the fact that the universe has been complexifying and led to the emergence of life. And then life has this incredible capacity to keep reproducing. And I agree. I do think that the future does lie in spreading that. I like the framing of bringing the universe to life. I would agree with that meaning, a sense of meaning or a telos to our existence of trying to do that. And that’s going to require obviously a cultural project to do that level of complex activity. And so I think that we do well to start naming that and moving towards that end.
So just wanted to say upfront that either one of these, whether we are currently alone or not, I think either way the narrative still pans out. There are reasons, again, why I’ve been persuaded on this. I used to think that we were alone. And then as over, I would say the last, what, 40 years, the thinking around this in the cosmological astrophysics community seems to have really shifted pretty profoundly. So that now it seems to be the case that, more or less, the default consensus is that there is likely life out there. I think when you look at the numbers, and again, when it becomes a numbers game, you can always find all sorts of new numbers to bring in that can counter that. But as I say in the book, astrophysicists estimate there could be anywhere from 300 million to over 40 billion Earth-like planets in the Milky Way galaxy alone.
And then when you consider the whole universe is billions, if not trillions of galaxies, just on those metrics, it seems, well, when you put it that way. But there are other lines of argumentation. Just after the earth formed, basically, was when we see life. We keep finding life further and further back on the planet, and that’s surprising. It would seem to be the case that if it was just a total fluke, why does it basically appear when it was possible for it to appear? That’s a line of argumentation that’s interesting. It’s obviously incredibly durable. I think that though the whole panspermia idea, while compelling, doesn’t really answer this, it actually just pushes back the issue because that life had to evolve at some point.
Jim: It’s a classic turtles all the way down argument.
Brendan: Right. So it’s sort of though … It does at least suggest that well, then life evolved more than once, but clearly it had to have gotten started. So whether that’s on earth or whether that’s in a planet however many billions of light years away and however many billions of years ago, again, the basic emergentist narrative is still the same. But however, I would say in these agnostic situations, and maybe this is even particularly a meta modern approach, whatever answer brings you more meaning, I’d say the roll with that one. I find it always interesting how one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. For some people, oh, if we’re entirely alone on the planet, then life is meaningless. And for other people, oh, we’re entirely alone on this planet and in the universe, and that means that life is inherently meaningful because we’ve got to bring the earth to life, or that brings the universe to life, rather.
Jim: That is interesting. I’ve had people be quite surprised by that when I tell them that’s my meaning. And they say, “Wow, but I would be so depressed if we were the only ones here.” And I go, “I’m not. I’m just saying be careful, mother fuckers.” That’s what I take away from it. Not to be depressed, quite the opposite. If I knew there was 100,000 advanced civilizations in the galaxy, then frankly I’d be willing to take more risk. It’s quite the opposite. If there’s 100,000 of us and one of us goes away, big deal. It’s not that big a deal. But anyway, that’s just a different way of perspective. We’ve burned up lots of time on lots of interesting topics. You have about another 20 minutes or so maybe?
Brendan: Sure. Yeah.
Jim: All right. Because I do want to get to the punchline of your book, where I can push back even more. This will be fun. And this is where we take what we’ve seen so far in our discussion, and then you start to call it God. And that’s when I go, what? Why? To my mind, God is a very moth-eaten old concept, conceptually similar to Santa Claus, to your point of does it make you feel good? Well, Santa Claus makes four-year-olds feel good and act good for two months each year. But I don’t consider that proof of the existence of Santa Claus. So let’s accept everything. Let’s accept IIT. Let’s accept life is relatively easy. What does any of that have to do with God?
Brendan: So again, I think it’s important to get into the definitions. Because God, and this is the point actually, God means different things to different people. So now my background is in religious studies, and I’ve done a fair amount of reading in the field of religion and reading across large time spans as well. And when you do that, you see very clearly that over the course of time, religious traditions evolve. So that even if you’re a devout person today, let’s say, and you adhere to a particular existing religious tradition, your conception of God is likely very different than the people’s conception of it was when that religion was founded, let’s say. And there might have been multiple God concepts that emerged in between there.
What I try to do in the book is to tie this complexification narrative of big history that leads from matter, life, mind to culture, to cultural evolution, which obviously is a part of that narrative, and to the evolution of the God concept within culture. And so by doing that, we’re able to use a word like God. Not just like God, we’re able to use the word God and the idea of a God concept to talk about a religion of complexity precisely by intentionally engaging in cultural evolution, consciously evolving culture. And consciously evolving culture means shifting cultural ideas, cultural paradigms, adding new cultural production into the mix, so that things change and develop.
I think that one of the things that I find very compelling about this narrative and bringing together these various strands is that when you look at cultural evolution, and this helps tie back into what we were getting at at the beginning of our conversation, there is a really fascinating connection between psychological development and cultural evolution. So that you can, in some ways, map the changing of cultural epochs to the development of the human individual psyche in certain ways that can be very helpful and explanatory.
And so what that allows you to do then is think about how a word like God has been interpreted or is interpreted. We can look around and see people doing this in different ways according to different developmental psychological stages. And people like James Fowler have done this in terms of stages of faith. In some ways, integral theory gets at this, at least from a more Eastern perspective lens. And when you do that, you notice that there are distinctive God concepts that come online at different developmentally appropriate periods. And that is true of both the individual life and the collective life.
Now, you mentioned Santa Claus. So Santa Claus is a developmentally appropriate idea for, let’s say, a four-year-old. If you’re believing in Santa Claus when you’re 30, then we might have a problem here. So what does that mean? Now, I would say that all of our ideas go through a transformation of like character. Now, you could even think about this. So actually I think there’s even a meme out there where it’s like when you’re a kid, you’re excited, you’re waiting for Santa Claus to come. When you’re an adult, you are Santa Claus. You are the person who comes downstairs and does the presents and everything. And without being flippant, this just occurs to me, but I’m suggesting something similar to that. I’m not describing a God that is supernatural that’s part of a two worlds mythology. I’m not describing a God that is somehow utterly transcendent and divorced from the imminent world. I’m describing a God that is part of the imminent world, and we are the self-consciousness of that entity.
And you can think about that developmentally. In the sense of unions, we call this withdrawing the projection, where we were projecting something out there, and then we realize that actually it was in here. And this all accords very well actually with what we know about that differentiation that we were talking about earlier. Because as we differentiate and the subject-object relationship becomes clearer, we lose our magical thinking, we stop confusing ourselves with our environment, and we learn to withdraw those projections.
And so the God concept that I’m articulating is a God concept that’s in here and is a God concept that is the notion of human subjectivity and consciousness as the vanguard of the complexification process. And that’s how I’m meaning it. And for me, it’s also tied up with the notion that this is something that we can shape. This is something we participate in shaping. That is what culture has been doing with the evolution of religion. And if religions really are deeply and profoundly important, necessary, meaning giving, I think it’s incumbent upon us to try to articulate religious frameworks that fulfill those psychological and social roles while being true to reality. And so I’m using the word God in that context to try to facilitate that as an aim and to do that religious construction project that people like Vervaeke and others we have been discussing. So there’s a lot there.
Jim: Let’s compare and contrast your take and Vervaeke’s. I did a search on the book, and you used the phrase that religion is not a religion five times. So this is clearly part of how you’re thinking about this thing. And yet Vervaeke would not use the G word. That’s why he calls it the religion that’s not a religion. He talks about his ecology of practices. He talks about psycho technologies. He talks about ceremonials. He talks about all kinds of things, but he doesn’t use the God word.
And we talk about the parallels between psychological development and sociological development. And this is me speaking, not Vervaeke. I think I did, I probably said this when I had him on my show, and he probably recoiled in horror because it was a little too hard-nosed, which is, to my mind, the enlightenment was childhood’s end. We should stop believing in Santa Claus. And let’s just think about the worlds. I like Vervaeke’s work a lot. I love your last chapter, by the way. Don’t think I’m just going to beat you up constantly. I think your last chapter is great, but I still don’t see the need, why one would would want to call it God. Vervaeke doesn’t, explicitly doesn’t.
Brendan: No, that’s a great question. So it is, yes, very intentionally within this shared … I would say it’s a shared project that especially folks in this liminal web space, the meta modern space, are preoccupied with and find interesting when. Gosh, so Vervaeke and Layman Pascal and I have had a series briefly over the course of some months where we were talking about scaling the religion that’s not a religion. So I’ve been in dialogue with Vervaeke. And in many ways I consider this a project that is engaging multiple people in this community simultaneously. So it’s not in any way … I’m certainly not trying to appropriate Vervaeke’s work. In fact, I see it as collaborative. But there are differences, and I think that part of it is trying different things in order to see what might work best. And I think that you need a healthy diversity if you’re going to have an effective project that can speak effectively to multiple demographics.
And anytime you might have a particular bias in one area or orientation, it’s very helpful to bring other people into that, so that you’re able to cover more ground, as it were, and help realize this transformational project that we’re, I think, collectively engaged in. So just saying that. But there are very big differences too, I think, in how we’re going about this. And I think that talking about the G word is one way of getting into those differences.
A couple things. One, Vervaeke and others in this space, who so far have largely been preoccupied with this issue, have focused on practice. And I think that that reflects some of where this community is coming from culturally and the ideas that already are in the mix. You’ve got a lot of people in this scene who are coming to this question from a Buddhist lens, or at least with a background in Buddhist practice, certainly a kind of Eastern emphasis. There’s a big integral theory contingent in the scene coming from all this. And again, deeply steeped in meditation practice, et cetera. However, if you look at the population of America and the West more broadly, you don’t find a great deal of Buddhists among us.
We are Christian or culturally Christian. And so that tradition works differently, has different orientations, has a different just whole sensibility and theological bent. And one of the crucial differences there is the emphasis of narrative and mythology. Now again, if you’re coming from a tradition that emphasizes practice, you might see the story element as tangential or supplemental or superfluous. But in the Western tradition, narrative and story and myth are crucial to the understanding of what religion is about.
I also think that it’s important developmentally to appreciate that as well. There are different developmental stages at which narrative is more important. Formal operations level and into that, you can start dealing with practices and thinking rationally and stuff. But mostly we come from a narrative basis, and we make sense of the world through story. It would be hard to understand, if you don’t agree with that, the success of people like Jordan Peterson or Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell, who have been out there advocating for the power of myth and the role that storytelling plays in meaning making.
And so in some ways, I’m coming at it somewhat from that background. I’m coming at it from just a strategic regard for this project, for trying to think about how this would effectively scale and what sort of components are important for a religion, even if it’s a religion that’s not a religion. So there’s all that involved, and I could say a lot more about all that. One more thing I’ll say though is that I think John is very right, that a word like God suffers from a lot of equivocation. He’s talked to many people about this, that Augustine’s use of the word God and someone in Sunday school, they’re using the same word, but they mean radically different things.
Now I think that makes him hesitant or reticent to then engage in such equivocation, whereas I look at it somewhat differently. I think it’s a potential power for incredible cohesion. It’s a way that we can use shared terminology-
Brendan: It’s a way that we can use shared terminology that slowly reveals deeper elements of itself. As a person develops and as a culture develops, we use a word, we use all sorts of words that their meanings have shifted. And we don’t say, oh, we need a new word for this, or we’ve got to throw this word out. We accept that culture evolves, and then we can kind of fold in previous meanings into this new meaning. And the more depth, more richness of your own complexity of thought, the complexity of culture, et cetera, affords you the ability to find deeper meanings in these words through time without throwing them out. And so you allow a, well a religio, a tying back, you allow a tradition such that these things are really tied together and you allow for the cohesion of a community, such that not everyone has to be at the same level of depth and complexity of their thinking about everything.
And of course, no one will be on the same level with everyone else. We’re all different. We all have our own strengths and weaknesses, et cetera. But by having certain core concepts that can cohere communities, it opens up a possibility for the kind of diversity of a community to exist. And this goes all the way back to the religions forever, that there’s the kind of exoteric and esoteric qualities and the deeper you kind of sink into the tradition, the more of the esotericism comes out and the more practice and the more kind of experiential elements unfold. But that’s a process. It’s a developmental process, it’s an evolutionary process, it’s a cultural process. And so I think that it’s important to maintain these ideas in the field so that we can have that connection, both to the past and also to others.
So that’s again, one idea, and I hesitate, but there’s more I could say about this. Maybe just real quick, the last thing I’ll say is that I find that maybe along all these same lines, certain words contain certain associations. They’re evocative in very profound ways. I mean, you think about archetypes and kind of Jungian thinking in that vein, certain things are going to generate a sort of energetic response and a kind of feeling that’s associated with them. And I think that one thing that we need, and that’s sort of missing from a purely practice based element is aesthetics. It’s art. When John and Layman and I talked about the scaling, it was called the artful scaling of the religion that’s not a religion. We need, and I know Game B has been interested in this element too, you need a cultural aesthetic component as well. And so for me, that’s the stuff of religion, the myths and the stories and the culture and the architecture, et cetera, et cetera. And so using a word like God is one of those things that ties that together, brings out certain evocative feelings and sensations and ethical relationships, aesthetic relationships. So yeah, I feel like we shouldn’t throw it out however much baggage it has.
Jim: Cool. I’m going to, as a former, as a retired business guy, I’m going to put it in a really crude business analogy. John and Jordan Hall, let’s say, are the Duesenbergs of the early auto world for the fancy folk. And you’re the Henry Ford, you’re building the mass market product.
Brendan: Well, so I would disagree, obviously. But I would say this, I don’t think that this distinction per se, breaks down along elite, common or high complexity, low complexity axes. I think it breaks down along certain cultural axes and what tends to be associated with something like spirituality. If I go to most parts of America and I say, hey, I’m really into spirituality, and they say, yeah, what does that look like? I say, oh, well, I meditate and I circle and I have conversations and we do dialogos. They’ll be like, that’s not religion. And maybe there’s a degree in which that is willingly owned up to in the notion of religion that’s not a religion. But I would say that a lot of that also comes from a notion where if your kind of concept that you’re coming to the discussion with already includes certain elements or doesn’t include certain elements, then that connection isn’t going to occur for people.
And so, I would say that what I’m trying to do is adjacent, certainly, to what they’re trying to do. And I certainly don’t devalue practice, as you mentioned in the last chapter of the book, and that’s what that’s all about. But I do think that if we’re going to individually psychologically deal with the meaning crisis and collectively culturally deal with the meaning crisis, we need to engage in cultural production through mythopoeia and symbol making and storytelling, both because I think that that’s something crucial to what I think of as the category of religion. But also, again, from a kind of design level, let’s say, perspective, I think that those are essential components, let’s say, for the broader demographic. And I count myself in that demographic so it’s not dismissive.
Jim: So you’re not only, you’re actually Henry Ford’s marketing guy, even better. I like it. Now, and I know John and I know Jordan Hall really well, we’ve been close collaborators for more than 10 years, and neither of them have got an aesthetic bone in their body when it comes to how to tell a story to 11 year old kids, for instance. And so I absolutely agree that whatever this thing is needs aesthetics, narratology, branding, color schemes, all that stuff. And so I feel better about the G word so long as I know that it’s from Henry Ford’s marketing guy and not from the Vatican. Man, we’ve had a great, I love this conversation. It’s been great. What I want to do, one last thing, and then I’m going to give you a chance to talk about practice and ethics. And that is, I do want to piss on the Omega Point a little bit.
Jim: Which is that this is the sort of God-ish thing that you bring into it. What’s his name? Pierre Jardine or these guys, been talked about for quite a while, but it’s got some just basic scientific problems with it. Let’s take IIT for instance, let’s actually hang it with its own petard. So TonY in his book famously proves that a community of people can’t have a collective consciousness because the bandwidth isn’t sufficient, for instance. And so this idea of the Omega Point would require to even get a little bit of Omega Point, to get beta point, you’d have to wire the brains together very, very, very, very deeply. And even Tony, he can even tell you how much you have to wire them before it flips to being a collective consciousness, and that don’t scale too well. And then, oh, by the way, we have our good friend, the speed of light. So if we want to have a universal consciousness, it becomes fairly incoherent when we realize that we have to get fi high enough for the collective to be higher than the sub-components, and do so within the constraint of the speed of light. So I ain’t buying the Omega Point.
Brendan: Okay. Yeah. So let’s take that in turn. I should definitely clarify then. I do not in any way mean to imply that the Omega Point is necessarily some collective consciousness hive mind. And I think it’s actually very important to be explicit that, at least for me, I don’t really want that. I mean, one doesn’t always know what is in one’s best interest. So it could be that, hey, hive minds are great and don’t knock it until you try it. But I’m generally of the mind, that we do this best when we retain our individuality. And that precisely maintaining individuation is crucial for this. So yeah, I don’t want people to equate the Omega Point with, oh, well plug our brains in and all this and that. Because actually I think that that would be sort of tragic.
I wasn’t familiar with the actual mathematical limitations of a kind of tenonian IIT hive mind. I’m glad I guess to learn that there are some, because I don’t think that that would be a positive outcome. So when I talk about Omega, it is very much, well, okay, so that being said, then it’s like, well, what am I talking about with Omega? By the way, just as an aside too, and something I think very valuable that the integral folks bring in to this conversation that’s really important, is that there’s a lot of confusion around individuals and collectives. And the Ken Wilber kind of quadrants does a good job at making that distinction so that you can be an individual with integrated information, having a conscious experience, but then you can be in a big group of those sorts of individuals. And it doesn’t mean that you all just sync up and form one hive mind. And in that sense, IIT and integral theory kind of overlap very well.
And I think it’s important to appreciate that. So I think for me, Omega is largely, I’ll say two things, it’s a hypothetical kind of placeholder at least. So let’s deal with that first. No, let’s come back to that. The first thing I’ll say, I guess, is that one way of thinking about the Omega Point is that it is simply whatever is the most complex entity in the universe. At any point in the universal complexification process, there’s going to be something that is the most complex. It could be some organism on some planet that is just super high fi, it could be maybe some vast collection of things that somehow has managed to create a kind of really grand conscious entity by integrating various smaller individuals together, whatever. But there’s something that’s going on there that is maxim. And here’s I guess what I’m getting at, is we could be that. I mean that actually accords very well with your idea that if we’re the first to the show, we could be the Omega Point. We’re carrying the flag, we’re carrying the torch. So that’s one way to think about it.
Jim: Currently the smartest guy on earth is the Omega Point, right?
Brendan: Well, currently, let’s say the most, let’s just say the most developed, I guess. Though that becomes dangerous. And then it’s like-
Jim: Yeah, whatever that.
Brendan: Oh, let’s-
Jim: Oh, let’s just be gross about it. The person with the highest fi, right? We’ll give them the high five and that’s a current-
Brendan: Well, you know what, one of the things that I think is important though too, is that we, there’s no one metric that I think we should just fall back on and emphasize. In the book I talk about at least free energy rate density, I talk about fi, but there are others, the model of hierarchical complexity is another model. There are multiple models for thinking about complexity. And there are also, what I find fascinating about this process is that there are multiple domains all mutually informed by and being transformed by the complexification process. So that it’s not just that you become more conscious and get more fi, you also become more free. You have higher degrees of freedom and agency. You are more powerful. There’s more energy coursing through my body than there is in, well anyway, you can make these comparisons. And so it’s not just fi, right, we become more complex, more conscious, more free, but also more moral. Like the moral sensibility widens, the expanding scope of moral regard occurs through this process as well.
So I think if you’re going to talk about an Omega Point, you have to consider all those things. And who’s to say that that’s all of them? Maybe, and I haven’t gone down this route yet, but maybe beauty is another part of it, maybe really thinking about these transcendentials like truth, goodness, and beauty. Maybe we’ll get to a point where we can understand beauty through a complexity angle. I don’t know. But I’m just saying that whatever is going on with the complexification process unfolds across various axes. And hypothetically there both is something right now that is sort of maximally that, I would argue. And two, this is the placeholder idea, it’s just an extrapolation in the same way that Hubble and others looked at the Redshift and then later with the cosmic microwave background, that we were able to extrapolate backwards, all right, if things are expanding, then follow it back. Where did it go? Okay, singularity. This is sort of the same idea. It’s like, all right, but in the other direction. If the universe is complexifying and all these things are undergoing these transformational changes and we’re 13.8 billion years out, well there’s tomorrow, there’s next year, there’s another billion years. And so it’s just the hypothetical sort of placeholder variable for whatever it is that we’re going in this process.
And I also make the point too, though it can sometimes be lost, that I don’t think of this as a static thing. This Omega Point isn’t a point, it doesn’t just, you arrived, hey, you’re done. It continues. It’s a continually, infinitely kind of unfolding thing. So I use the metaphor of an asymptote or a limit. And we don’t know where in this process we are, but when you look at one of these graphs of an asymptote or a limit, there’s a kind of more horizontal part and there’s a kind of vertical part. And as you approach the vertical part, you’re basically just there. What’s the difference between 0.99999, right? But these sorts of things do keep going on and they do keep developing and complexifying. And so even the Omega Point that I’m talking about is not some ultimate culmination with total finality and ceases to be dynamic and complexifying. So those are a couple points I would make. And I don’t know if clarifying it that way does anything to alleviate some of your concerns?
Jim: It makes it much more sensible to my perspective, but also much less like God. It’s just like, okay, the world is complexifying. There’s always a most complex element, okay both, if we’re lucky, if we’re lucky, true statements. Great. Nothing to do with God. Anyway, I will leave it to-
Jim: Go ahead. Okay. You can say something to that.
Brendan: Yeah, just do a quick thing. I would say, I mean, think about it this way. I would say that you, Jim Rutt are much more like God than an ameba. And that an ameba is much more like God than a rock. And so that there is, in this process of complexification, even in the middle parts of it’s unfolding, an apotheosis in time, that I think does a lot to transubstantiate the world that we live in and to imbue it with a kind of divine value. Because if that is the case, then we really do see the sacred and the divine around us and in the people that we interact with. So I would say, yeah, I think of the most complex things that I’m naming and these sorts of things as attaining more to that God-like quality than if I look in the past and see things. And so again, I follow that trajectory out and say, well that’s a good extrapolation.
Jim: Yeah, I’m fine with that. But, a thought just struck me, an evil thought, right. If I take it seriously that we want to move towards the Omega Point, then that might say that we should be pushing for techno singularity as quickly as possible and driving towards transhumanism as quickly as possible. And I’ll put my flag on the table. I don’t think we should be driving at maximum rate towards either of those things. That we should be very, very, very careful as we approach both of them. But rushing to the Omega Point or moving forward to the Omega Point might say pedal to the metal guys.
Brendan: Yeah, no, I think that’s a really good, important thing to clarify. And I hope people get this from the book too, because I’m pretty explicit about this. I do not identify as a transhumanist. I do not. Well, I guess maybe the most I’ll say is I think that there might be some points of commonality and that I could definitely see some kind of working together across these different memetic communities. But as I’ve heard transhumanism described, and as I’ve seen its kind of chief articulators and torch carriers, I am very wary to say the least. And I think ultimately what transhumanism is missing though is the spiritual component. I think that that’s the fundamental difference between the kind of purely technological transhumanism that gets espoused and what I’m calling emergentism, because, but you see this also with even integral theory, and I think it’s crucial to have a spiritual component and a wisdom component.
Power is not a bad thing, but if you don’t have the sense and the moral decency to appropriately wield it, then it becomes a bad thing. And so that’s what remains missing in the current articulations of these ideas. I wouldn’t be worried about giving someone incredible power if they could wield it appropriately and if I knew that it was going to be directed benevolently and thoughtfully, et cetera. I mean, we do that in democracies, we’d do that with our politicians. We do that in a developmentally appropriate way. We don’t give five-year-olds, certainly, nuclear warheads. The concern is that our technological prowess is far outstripping our wisdom to maintain, to wield it. And so that’s why I think that the transhumanists are wrong. And that’s what I think something like emergentism can help bring into that conversation. We need to be talking about wisdom, insight, consciousness, learning, moral expansion, things like that. And until we have that, we are in danger of creating incredible power that will become more tyrannical than liberating or insightful. So that is a huge danger.
Jim: Yeah, I think we’re on the same page there. I mean, if you say, will we move in the direction of integrating with other things, modifying our genetics, I think we will, probably over a long period of time, but we better be fucking careful about it. It’s real easy to run into a bad trap, especially as you say, if we do it before we have the appropriate wisdom and before we have the appropriate governance institutions, right. Today, holy shit, you raise some money from venture capitalists and go out and you’re Elon Musk with Neuralink, God knows what ends up there. And we don’t have the governance structures and we don’t have the wisdom. So proceed cautiously towards these things, we might think.
All right, if you have five more minutes, we can either wrap it here and it has been a great conversation or I could give you five more minutes to talk about ethics and practices. And I do think that would be helpful to bring this down from a fairly esoteric level or at least a quite intellectually sophisticated level down to, okay, what could people actually do?
Brendan: Yeah, definitely. Yeah, I’m happy to go there.
Jim: Okay, do it.
Brendan: Yeah. Okay. So yeah, that does kind of occupy the concluding part of the book, because the book moves from logos, the ideas, to the mythos storytelling symbol, to religio. And religio, as John Vervaeke can tell you, has a couple meanings. It could mean to tie back to tradition. So you want to be grounded in a community, in a moral community and intellectual community. So I focus a little bit on that in terms of some of the heritage and hopefully give credit where it’s due, also as well, for naming some of the people who have been pioneering these thoughts for centuries in some case. But religio is also about observance, it’s about practice. And so that’s the last section.
So as we’ve been talking about this complexification process is one that unfolds according to emergent levels. I use Henry Kisers handy Taxonomy of matter, life, mind and culture. And if you appreciate that, then you can see that basically we are these things. We are material, we are biological, we have nervous systems and we have linguistic ego concepts and ideas and whatnot. And so we have multiple kind of subsystems in our body that make up who we are. Now Layman Pascal’s been great. He really has been very influential in my thinking on this. He talks about a surplus coherence model that that’s what spirituality is really kind of affecting. That we both want to integrate our subsystems to create that surplus of coherence and integration, and we also do that collectively. And that’s kind of what defines spirituality and religion at the individual or collective levels.
But to kind of get down to real brass tax, what does that mean? It means that there is sets of practices that relate to these different levels, that ascend in kind of their profundity. So at the matter level, we’re stuff. We’ve got to keep our stuff together or keep our shit together, I guess you could say. This is in some ways banal, but it’s also necessary, it’s the basis of our being. I make the point that it’s almost shocking that the message from a Canadian psychologist like Jordan Peterson to clean your room could be transformative to millions of people. But if you’ve got something broken at just your lowest level of keeping your shit together, then that really is a spiritive transformative process. So we can relate to our material substrate, I think, through this lens. And we can basically be agents of order and cohesion and integration in a world that according to the second law, is also trying to always take those things apart and reduce things to homogeneity. And that really is an enduring story as well, that you see always reflected in the nature of at least historical religions of order versus chaos.
So there’s that, but there’s also things like relating to sacred space, creating environments that are effective at sort of channeling our approach to things in a way that is towards greater flourishing. Let’s just say increases our general wellbeing. We are also living organisms, biological, so we have a life level. And here I think that it’s important to lean into what that’s about, which for me is about health, it’s about vitality, it’s about vigor, it’s about maintaining yourself. Again, it can be confusing to me, but some people, they just almost have a spiritual relationship to exercise and to working out and that sort of a thing. And while I tend to spend more of my time working out the brain muscle, I also want to, I recognize that as sort of a weakness, that there’s an importance to being able to maintain your health and your vigor.
And that something like what Nietzsche talks about with the will to power is, I think, often construed as something that’s sort of like anti-religion. It’s sort of nihilistic or it’s dark or something. It’s just purely our animalistic nature seeking power. But when you appropriately contextualize it, you can actually see that it’s part of a broader process that is the same thing as the spiritual process unfolding. It’s just a less complex layer to it. So anyway, I talk a little bit about the vitality, the vigor, focusing on things like diet and that’s all to maintain your matter and your life levels. Which again might seem, I don’t know, kind of banal but are important, and I think it’s important to appreciate them as sort of spiritual practices.
Then you get the level of mind, which is about your nervous system and your whole kind of structure related to your animal brain. And then you’re talking about things like embodiment and our emotions, which again come online with that sort of nervous system level. So how do we regulate our emotions? How are we mindful of our reflexive actions? How do we gain greater awareness of ourselves and our bodies? Therapy can be important here as a lot of trauma gets supposedly stored in the body, let’s say. I’ve known people who have found things like yoga and dance very therapeutically and spiritually fulfilling because I think it does something at the kind of neuronal level. As do, actually, entheogens, psychedelics have been shown to increase fi actually, speaking of. And I think that there’s something there. It certainly requires more study and we shouldn’t be flippant about it, but there’s something sacramental about literally the expansion of consciousness through substances like that. And I think that that could be an important part of a religious communal practice in a sacramental sense going forward. So that exists sort of at the mind level.
And then finally there’s the level of culture, which I think about as various cultivation practices. And really these are going to be the most profound, salient things because they connect most with our sense of identity and our idea of just information and ideas and ideals in the world as a cultured person. So one of the things, again that might seem relatively simple, but I’ve come to focus on more and more and more as a spiritual practice is learning, is education, is reading, is continuing to develop the conceptual faculties and capacities of the mind is a profoundly crucial spiritual practice. And the whole idea of Philosophia, of philosophy as being a spiritual practice is I think bound up with that. But it’s also bound up with community. We should be doing this together. What we’re doing right now is part of this process. And I do very much connect with John’s notion of dialogos here, as being a kind of practice in that ecology.
So community. Now, this is maybe one of the more unique things that I am advocating as part of this system. I talk about mythopoeia, which is again, if we’re taking seriously the idea that the God concept evolves through culture, then we can do that intentionally. And that means kind of boldly, well, making symbols and images and religious conceptions and putting our personal mythologies into the world. Or it entails doing seemingly crazy things like starting religions, hopefully with a sincerely ironic bent to them, so you don’t lead people off a cliff like lemmings. Which is for the record not what I’m trying to do. But yeah, engaging in the process of moving the God concept forward is I think a spiritual practice that’s really important.
So those are a few things, just to finish this up real quick, I guess I would add into the mix, we’re aware of complexity. We at this stage of cultural evolution have figured that idea out and all of its profound implications using our ability to think conceptually. And so we, I think, have a responsibility, an ethical, spiritual responsibility to be shepherds of complexity or shepherds of biodiversity. And for me that’s permaculture. We should have gardens. We should, this kind of solar punk utopia that people or protopia that people have in mind. I think is all geared in that direction that we should be harnessing the power of our ability to appreciate complexity and complexification, by creating intentionally, consciously a more flourishing world, to maybe the surprise of people who only tend to think of human beings as a plague on the planet.
Nature does not always create the most robust conditions for living things. You get deserts, you get soils that are not very strong, you get all sorts of things. But human beings can use the same capacities that we have to ravage the earth to create flourishing, dynamic ecosystems that are more potent and more biodiverse and more complex than nature on its own could produce. And I find that, again, a very spiritually profound notion that we could be participatory in that and sort of work with nature.
So the last thing I’ll say is we are aware of complexity that requires applying that to systems change and culture itself and doing things like culture design and civilizational design where we try to make better systems. And so what Hanzi Freinacht and the political meta modernists and Game B and other folks in the liminal web scene are all I think geared towards trying to do, is realize a more just and better world by applying our intelligence and our complexity mindsets to these noughty problems and coming up with solutions.
So yeah, the last thing I talk about in the culture level is we are uniquely able to apply thought to itself. We can do a metacognitive thing, we can use reflection to be aware of ourselves. And as far as I know, no other animal can do that. That’s a symptom, that’s a consequence of our complexity. And that allows us to gain a better sense of ourselves and to do things like various meditative practices and mystical practices that cultivate non-dual states and cultivate ultimately a development towards greater self-awareness, which in my kind of narrative here is what the universe is all about. It’s the universe learning itself and we are that in motion, we are that unfolding. So I think that the spirituality of emergentism ultimately in the wisdom of the delphic oracle of gnothi seauton of know thyself. Because corny as it may sound, or maybe it sounds profound, you’re the universe waking up to itself and complexifying to greater self knowledge. So good for you.
Jim: Great. I love it. Don’t have a single word to disagree with, all good stuff. In fact, the one thing that was new for me, actually, I found it, aha, I like this, was your proposal that learning itself be celebrated as a spiritual practice. And it ties in with some psychology work around the so-called growth mindset. If people believe that they can learn and change, then they can. And if they believe they can’t, they won’t. Which is quite interesting. And sort of building that into a community of practice could be quite profound. Liked it a lot. One thing you left out, I would suggest, is conviviality. The practice of being together and eating and drinking and dancing and telling jokes, et cetera. There’s many a Protestant church that’s held together by the lunch after the service, more so than it is by the service. And it’s one of the things I’ve pushed in the Game B world from the very beginning that every face-to-face Game B event needs to be designed to have a first class conviviality component to it. So I’ll just add that one on to your list. But otherwise a great list.
Brendan: I totally agree actually, yes, now that you mention it, it’s kind of a glaring absence. I was preoccupied with the Dionysian for a while in my life because that was precisely what was missing. So whether you call it that or the conviviality, I think yes, that’s entirely crucial. That is flourishing. That’s the surplus cohesion. That’s the sense that something is good and true and beautiful happening. So yeah, I should build that in. But also I’ll say too, woefully incomplete is all of this. So I both gesture towards my own intention to continue articulating these ideas, building them out, exploring them, but more so what I really want to see happen in a convivial communitarian way is to see other people pick up these ideas, pick up meaning making, pick up mythopoeia and engage this as really the cultural endeavor that it is. And again, obviously metamodern ecosystem and Game B folks are doing that in their various ways. But for me, yeah, I consider it a sort of spiritual practice and we are, the phrase I use is we’re building the cathedral. We’re building something that outlasts us and it’s a communal collective project that hopefully makes the world more complex, more conscious, more moral, more beautiful and just better. So that’s what it’s all about.
Jim: Well keep up the good work. This has been a fascinating, fascinating conversation. Let’s thank Brendan Graham Dempsey. And we covered a fair bit of the book, but there’s a lot more stuff in there so get the book if you like what you heard today. Emergentism: A Religion of Complexity for the Metamodern World, which is available on Amazon I know, and probably other places too. So if you liked what you heard, pick her up. So thanks a whole bunch.
Brendan: Thank you very much, Jim. Really appreciate-