The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by John Vervaeke. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is John Vervaeke. John is an associate professor of psychology and cognitive science at the University of Toronto. And one of the most interesting thinkers regarding our place in the world at the intersection of cognitive science and philosophy. He releases a lot of interesting videos on YouTube and he’s the coauthor of a book with an interesting title, which I must confess I haven’t read called Zombies in Western Culture: A Twenty-First Century Crisis. Welcome John.
John: Hi Jim. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Jim: Yeah. I really looking forward to this. I Spent 50… Well, actually I just calculated my approximate prep hours and I think I’m up at 96 hours getting ready for these podcasts probably spent 70 hours watching the 50 hours of video be like branch, read Wikipedia, who the hell was this guy? When was he born? All that sort of stuff. And then probably 20 hours of prep, getting ready for it. But yeah, so I’m really looking forward to it.
Jim: And I will say that John’s Awakening from the Meaning Crisis, which is what we’re going to be talking about, which is a 50 hour video series covers a tremendous amount of material. And so we’re going to have to move quickly and not touch on many of the fascinating points John covers. So if you want to get it all, you’ll need to watch the whole thing yourself.
Jim: And as usual, we’ll have a link to the video series and anything else we referenced on the episode page at jimromeshow.com but we will do our best to cover the most important points. So here we go to my eye and ear John’s as much of a philosopher as he is a cognitive scientist and he uses language precisely. And sometimes at least from my perspective, a bit idiosyncratically. That’s why we’ll be pausing along the way to have John define some of the most important terminology and would ask the audience to listen carefully to these definitions. What would come after will make more sense if you understand how John is using various words and phrases.
John: Great. I’ve been turning the series into a book with [Matthew 00:01:58] Abrahim, and we’ve been creating a glossary of all of these terms, an extended glossary. So this project that you and I are going to engage in will be very helpful to me. So thank you for that.
Jim: Yeah, as I was doing my prep, I realized that there are just so many landing points that are built around definitions. I normally don’t do this, but I decided that for this episode, I’m going to have many, many definitional anchor points that will lead to some interesting conversations and will also help what comes later clearer to the audience.
John: Great. That sounds like an excellent plan of action.
Jim: So anyway, the first one comes from the series title, meaning it’s one of those words with several senses. For instance, when I see the sky is getting light in the east in the morning, it means that the sun will be coming up in an hour or so. Presumably that’s not the sense that you’re using it here. So when you say meaning in Awakening from the Meaning Crisis, what do you mean?
John: So as you said, there several senses and we often do metaphorical mappings from one sense to the other. What I’m talking about is what people are invoking when they say things like my life is very meaningful or my life is meaningless. And I take it that what they’re doing is something like the following. They’re using the analogy of how a sentence can have meaning. There’s something about the way the sentence is organized that imports to them some relevant information and allows them to connect to the world in some relevant manner. And so what I think people are doing is they’re talking about, there’s a way in which they’re living their life. Their life is organized. That makes certain information relevant to them in a way that allows them to connect to the world. And then to make this more specific, that connectedness is what studied in psychology as meaning in life, not the meaning of life. The meaning of life is a phrase we use to point to some divine plan and we’re supposed to figure it out.
John: Meaning in life is exactly that sense of how connected you are to yourself, to each other in the world. And it turns out that people find those connections intrinsically valuable and even fundamental to their happiness. And so when I’m talking about meaning in Awakening for the Meaning Crisis, I’m talking about how are those connections made? How is it that people feel that the world is relevant to them? They’re relevant to the world. They’re relevant to other people in some significant manner. That’s how I mean it.
Jim: Very good. That’s very good. And I liked the distinction between meaning in life and meaning of life. When I first heard about your series from one of my good friends by the name Jordan Hall, I know you and he have chatted a bit.
Jim: I said, “Oh, fuck. The last thing I want to listen is somebody telling me about the meaning of life.” And he said, “Don’t worry, he ain’t one of those.” And I say, “Okay” which case that’d be good. And which brings me to my second introductory part four, we really get into the meat of it. You say in episode one, “I’m a scientist. I don’t believe in any supernatural abilities or spirits or things like that.” And even though you use some language that has semi, quasi religious smell to it from time to time, do you stand by that statement?
John: Yes, I do. I am ultimately committed to naturalism broadly construed. And the basic definition is a rejection of any kind of fundamental to worlds mythology, where there is another world that operates according to other principles. And in that sense is a supernatural world. I do think there are ways in which we can reinterpret terms like spirit and point to phenomenological and functional things happening within human beings that are important to us. But when people want to give it a supernatural meaning, I want to challenge that.
John: So I want to be clear though, I’m a non-reductive naturalist and I’m committed to the proposition, not only of what is derivable from the existing sciences, the natural sciences, but also what is presupposed by them. So I do think it is very proper to talk about metaphysical and ontological issues. But I recommend very strongly not confusing them with supernatural issues.
Jim: Very good. And I appreciate you calling out non-reductive as a complexity science guy myself affiliated with the Santa Fe Institute. You hear a lot of objections to science. What they really mean is reductive science, or we’re actually reductive science only. We need reductive science. Obviously it’s very useful, very important. But if you stop with reductive science, you actually miss almost everything that’s actually interesting in the universe.
John: Yes. And I take it. This is a longer argument, we could make it more detailed. But I take it that the phenomena of science itself is such a complex system operating at a higher level than the quantum level or some such thing. And therefore I want an ontology that actually has a proper place for the scientific enterprise that is supposed to provide us with that ontology. I think there’s an important consistency issue there that needs to be addressed.
Jim: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s a very good point. So now let’s hop into the meat of things. You start off in episode one, talking about some signs that we as a society and many of us as individuals in our society are suffering from a [meeting 00:07:22] crisis. What do you take as some of those signs?
John: So I go beyond that with the work I did with Chris and Phillip in the book, and we’ve also released a specific video and we’ve published on what we call the Symptomology of the Meaning Crisis. So there’s a more extended answer to that question now than there was in the series.
Jim: Bring it on us.
John: Okay. We posit a sort of continuum between very reactive to more what you might call a responsible responses to the meaning crisis. The very reactive ones are things like an increase in suicide, especially perplexingly in quite affluent areas, increasing with degeneration. The most recent generation child suicide for example, is going up in the United States. And what’s interesting is the work of Tatjana Schnell. She has work showing that people don’t have to go first into clinical depression. They can go directly from just sort of a perception of meaninglessness into suicide. And I think that’s a very important marker.
John: We do have increased diagnosis of anxiety and depression. We have increased concerns about loneliness. We have increased concerns about addiction, which I think is properly understood as a meaning issue and not just a chemical substance issue. We have, what’s called the “Virtual Exodus” that people are preferring living in the virtual world rather than the real world. But you also have… Well, I think I would also add this is of course much more controversial in some ways. I think the replacement of a lot of religious behavior with political behavior that has a lot of religious overtones to it, the politicalization of everything while people are simultaneously disenfranchising from sort of official politics, I think that’s a very telling sign and other people have noted that.
John: But I think there are more positive responses, I think. Although I have criticisms of it published criticisms of it, I think the Mindfulness Revolution is an attempt to respond to it. I think the revival of ancient forms of philosophy that were much more about cultivating wisdom, like the current and growing revival of interest in stoicism in the attempt to import Buddhism into North America and Europe. I think these are all more positive signs.
John: I think what’s happening on the internet, a set of community and people that I… One of the things as a series got me to [meat 00:09:49], I’m talking to who are taking up sense-making, and meaning-making, and connectedness, and wisdom, and virtue. I think all of these of course do have their own idiosyncratic explanations. But if I want to do an inference to the best explanation for all of them, they can all be seen as symptoms of an underlying problem around meaning in life.
Jim: Interesting. And I think that’s very true. I mean, you get the sense that there’s a wider pattern here.
John: Yes, yes.
Jim: Bits of evidence that are all pointing in the same direction. All right. Well, that’s why this conversation is potentially very important. So the series has a different structural themes in it. The first half has a lot of history. And so we’re going to very briefly start at the beginning with the upper paleolithic transition. Something that people talk about quite a bit. 50,000 years ago, though. The [root 00:10:41] theory, it wasn’t 50,000 years ago. It had to be a little earlier. I say 65,000. Here’s why we believe, the out of Africa moment occurred in 65,000 years ago for homosapians and humans that came out of Africa seem to have the same cognitive ability and language ability in particular as the African people who stayed in Africa.
Jim: So that leads me to believe that the upper paleolithic transition occurred no earlier than 65,000 years ago. And we developed some new psycho technologies, probably like fully symbolic and recursive language.
John: And there’s the non ambiguous existence of representational art, not just ornamentation or adornment. We have clear evidence for music and we have… I have to be careful when I say clear evidence. All of this evidence from these periods is very underdetermined. And so there’s a significant degree of speculation. But within that arena, plausible evidence for music, plausible evidence for the invention of calendars, things like this. And what seemed to be very clear evidence for long range projectile weapons. And so there’s a whole constellation things that seem to come online during this period of the upper paleolithic transition.
Jim: And one of those things which you call out is very important is shamanism.
John: Yeah. So this is a theory by people like Matt Rossano and David Lewis-Williams, and his book Mind in the Cave that the best interpretation we should give to the cave paintings is that they are religious in nature and they’re attempting to induce some kind of altered state of consciousness.
John: And the argument goes roughly because of the location of the caves. You have to go through this very torturous journey into the cave often through very narrow passage, you’re deep underground, and you’re in darkness. And then the figures that are carved onto the rock they make use of the morphology of the rock and the flickering of the claim. So they’re very much almost like a film. They’re are live for you in a very powerful way.
John: And the proposal is that this is inducing a change in consciousness, some kind of altered state of consciousness. And this is purported to be an explanation for why we see such enhanced cognitive flexibility in these people. So that they are getting some of the first practices to deliberately alter the state of consciousness, connect areas of cognition that are not typically connected and this leads to art and music and et cetera, et cetera.
Jim: You say that one of the outcomes of the Shaman’s practice at least is that it perhaps alters his or her attention.
John: Yes, very much.
Jim: My work, it’s sort of the intersection of cognitive science and AI. Attention is my thing. In fact, I say that attention is the cursor of consciousness and it’s probably slightly overstated, but I say it anyway. So let’s hear your take, your definition of attention.
John: So my definition of attention is influenced by Waltz and others. And it’s the basic idea that what attention is it’s a prioritization function. And what attention is doing is by prioritizing things, it’s creating a salient landscape where salients means how things stand out for us, how much they’re foregrounded or backgrounded. And what that does is that opens up, brings into awareness, various affordances for action that are available to us.
John: If I were to shorten that, attention is prioritization for the disclosure of potential interaction. You don’t necessarily have to act, but attention discloses those affordances for interaction.
John: I think we need to get past the spotlight metaphor of attention, which makes salient the fact that attention increases salience, but it leaves out a lot of important other functions that go into attention. So there’s been a huge… I don’t know if you’re aware of this, there’s a huge revival in cognitive science about attention. It’s a very hot topic because people are trying to bring out the complexity that is actually found within the process of attention.
Jim: Yeah. We’ll talk a lot about that as we go through the series.
Jim: Another thing you say about Shamans and shamanism is that it’s a set of psycho technology. So that’s our next definition. Again, something that’s very important people out there listening to what is a psycho technology.
John: It turns out that I did not coin the term. I thought I had, but the term was previously used by some people in the 1990s. They were as well inspired as I am by the [inaudible 00:15:32] and the [inaudible 00:15:33] idea of a cultural tool, which is not a physical tool, but a tool that is altering how people are making meaning both in the semantic sense, and in the sense that we’re talking about when we’re talking about meaning in life.
John: So for me, a psycho technology is analogous to a physical tool. A physical tool is a physical item that is designed to fit your physiology, the structure of your body and how it functions in order to in some way enhance that. So I think of my hand is not very good for example, driving a nail into a piece of wood, but a hammer fits my hand and it has a particular structure that goes well with the kind of leverage that I can wield in order to give me the ability to put a nail into a piece of wood.
John: In a similar way, a psycho technology is an externally generated, socially generated way of organizing and communicating information processing. So it’s standardization in such a way that it’s easily internalizable. That means it fits cognition in a powerful way. You can widely disseminate it and it enhances cognition across multiple domains.
John: So a prototypical example, a non-controversial example, I believe is literacy. Literacy satisfies that definition and it massively empowers our cognition. And the idea is shamanism is a set of socially transmissible practices for altering attention, altering how your salients landscaping in a way that has an impact on many different problem domains for the individuals who wants to takes it.
John: A strong analogy for that in our current world, I think there’s an actual historical relationship between them are mindfulness practices. Mindfulness practices satisfy that definition. And you can think of what the Shaman was doing as very analogous to that.
Jim: Yeah. Another definition here, but it’s also part of the flow of the story of shamanism is the idea of ritual. And I must say personally, someone who was raised a Catholic and then violently disassociated themselves from it when I was 11, basically an awakening moment where I said, “This is fucking bullshit.” And not in the Frank Verdean sense, more in a traditional working class sense, I think of ritual is sort of dreary stupid activity disconnected from anything at all interesting. But that’s not what the Shaman was doing. And it’s not what you mean when you say ritual. So lay on us, your take on ritual.
John: This is actually a layer definition because I give a preliminary account one on discussing Shamans, but later on in the series, I come back to it and it’s actually something I’ve been doing more recent work on. And this has to do with the idea that there are kinds of knowing other than propositional and we’ll get into it. But I’ll try and give at least a preliminary account here. And I hope as we get further on, you will allow me to return back to ritual and deepen.
Jim: We will definitely talk about it quite a bit later.
John: Okay, good. So for me, part of the way of thinking about this is to point to one of the fundamental ways in which children develop, and this is through play. And we have to dissociate play from our associations of it. Where it’s just something that’s done for fun and leisure. We know that other mammals play. And so it’s clearly a hugely developmental thing. And so I will often say serious play in order to make clear that that’s what I’m referring to. I’m referring to play as an important activity for development.
John: And what play does is play is… And this is going to get me into another distinction and we’ll have to come back to. Play is imaginal, rather than imaginary. You’re not necessarily picturing things in your head. An example I give is imaginary is you can picture a sailboat in your mind, and I can ask you how many sales [inaudible 00:19:29] that have, and you can answer questions like that.
John: But when you compare that to a child who ties a blanket around their neck, picks up a stick and “I’m Zorro,” and they’re assuming an identity, they’re pretending in that sense and that’s imaginable. You enact it. The child does not in fact have to be necessarily picturing anything in their mind. Instead, they’re interacting with the world under an assumed identity, and they’re assigning at least metaphorically identities to other things. Why are they doing that? Because what they’re doing is they’re trying to get a taste, they’re trying to get, what’s it like to be Zorro? What would it be like to be in Zorro’s state of mind? What would it be like to move around in the world like Zorro? What parts of the world would be disclosed to me if I had Zorro’s mindset? If I had Zorro’s perspective? If I had Zorro’s identity?
John: And of course, by doing that, they are cultivating various skills, various states of mind, various potential identities and gluing them together with attention. And as that’s one of the things that attention does. And what that allows them to do is, and I’m going to use a metaphor here right now, because we can talk about it more deeply when we unpack this more deeply. And allows them to get a taste of what that other self could be, living in that other kind of world. Unless you think that’s very bizarre for adults, of course, adults do very similar things. A prevalent example is therapy. You do exactly this kind of serious play in therapy to try and get a taste of what it would be like to be a different you with a different perspective and a different identity living in a different world. And you have to play with the therapist and play as often unpleasant, by the way. You have to play with the therapist until that’s possible.
John: Rituals are that. I think rituals are imaginal ways of augmenting a potential way of being in the world and seeing in the world so that it becomes what James would call a live option for us. It goes from being just something we think to something we might potentially be, and that opens up the possibility of real transformation. And so that’s how I understand ritual, as the serious play that affords the development of new ways of being and seeing through genuine transformation, being opened up to people, made possible to them.
Jim: Very good. One of the examples you give… This is going to be a hard to do audio only, but we’ll give it a shot, is the idea that things like ritual or altered states that cause parts of the brain to be wide early connected than they might otherwise be. Gives us the power of what you call changing frame.
Jim: How we’re going to do this with words. I don’t know. But you give the very famous example of the nine-dots problem as a very simple contained example. I’m going to see how good you are at drawing pictures with words here. Why don’t you tell our audience about the nine-dots problem and how that’s a manifestation of frame changing that turns out to be efficacious.
John: Thank you for doing this, Jim, by the way, I am writing a book chapter for an anthology for Rutledge, and they’ve asked me to replace the figure with word descriptions, to avoid having to seek permission and having to build in audio descriptions and stuff like that for the visually impaired.
John: So here’s my best attempt. The nine-dots problem is you give people nine dots. And so think of it as three rows of three dots. And you tell people, you have to connect all nine dots with four straight lines. And the beginning of the next line has to come from the terminus of the previous line. Now, when people look at the nine dots, they are arranged in such a way that they will see the dots as forming a square, even though there is no square there because there’s no continuous line between the dots.
John: And what happens when you tell people to join all nine dots, it’s inevitably they draw the square and then they realize that the center dot hasn’t been connected but they stay within the boundaries of that square. They try to align a diagonal line that goes through the middle dot and connects the upper left and the upper right corner. And they keep trying and trying, and they can’t get all nine dots to-
Jim: With four lines.
John: With four lines. Yes, with four lines.
Jim: That’s the constraint. That’s what makes it difficult.
John: Yes. But the four lines are also in a sense… It’s a constraint not in the sense just of a limitation, but when people hear four lines that strengthens the association with a square, because a square is made up of four lines.
John: And so what you have to do is you have to draw a line that goes outside of the square and makes a change of direction where there is no dot. And once you do that, it’s very easy to connect all nine dots with four straight lines. It becomes a very easy problem.
John: Now what’s interesting about this is why the problem was hard. And here is the best sort of just summary of what a lot of people think about this. There’s a cottage [inaudible 00:24:28] around the nine-dots problem as you can imagine. Psychologists love a fact more than anything else. And it goes like this. So people form the square and they only find the space within the projected square salient. And that lines up with, as I mentioned, four straight lines, because four straight lines are also strongly associated with square. And people treat this as a normal connect the dots problem, and then connect the dots. You only change direction where there’s a dot. If you do one of those, as I said in the series, if you’re a kid and you have those books with the connect the dots and you start changing direction where there’s no dots, you don’t get a picture of a bear or a picnic table, you get a Jackson Point painting. It just goes all.
John: And so you implicitly build in all of this framing of the problem, all of these sets of constraints that limit what you find salient, what you consider relevant. And what’s allowable to you. What are the affordances for you. And what you have to do is you have to break that frame. You have to realize that none of those constraints are actually germaned to the problem as it was given to you. You have to go outside of the box and make a non-dot turn, and when you break frame and make a new frame, that changes what you consider salient and relevant, it opens up new affordances for you and you thereby solve the problem.
John: And here’s a crucial piece that goes with this. It comes right out of the original experiment about this from 1981, with Weissberg and Alba saying to people, think outside the box or go beyond the box, doesn’t help them to solve this problem. That’s very odd that think outside the box [crosstalk 00:26:09].
Jim: That would be the clue that you needed.
John: Yeah. And so part of this is part of a much larger argument that what we’re doing is giving people propositional information that they should go outside of the box. That’s not the same thing as directing them to knowing how to go outside the box, how to use their skills of attention to alter the framing and redistribute what they’re finding salient. And that also involves their perspectival knowing about being able to generate a new perspective on the situation. And the propositional cue does not do that. In fact, there are some experiments in which such propositional cues actually interfere with people’s attempts at these more procedural and perspectival transformations.
Jim: Very good. Well done. I think you’re 85% of the way there. Just make sure you emphasize the four lines as a constraint.
John: Yeah, that’s right. That was a good point. Thank you for correcting that. Yeah.
Jim: Very, very important. And you set me up for my next point. As I talked about the intro John’s use of language and structures and blocks of related terms is really important. And I wish I’d spent more time investing and internalizing the four Ps as I call them, which are John’s four ways of knowing. Participatory, perspectival. He just talked about perspectival, procedural and propositional. He just talked about that one recently.
Jim: At this point, I’d like you to give your definitions of participatory and perspectival. We’ll hold off the other two to later, but listen, carefully people. These are terms that get used a whole bunch in this series. And if you don’t have your shit straight on the different stream, participatory and perspectival in particular, you’re going to go, “The fuck.” So one or two-
Jim: You’re going to go the fuck, right. So, why don’t you take a whack and let’s try to keep it short because we are, got a lot of ground to cover here this morning.
John: Sure, I’ll try and keep it as short as I can. The perspective of knowing is knowing what it’s like to be in your particular situation, there’s two directions to that. There’s knowing your state of mind, “What’s it like to be me here now” in a sober state of mind, which is different, for example, “What is it like to be me here now?” In a drunk state of mind, for example. So what that means is my salience landscaping. What is foregrounding? What is back grounding and how that’s shifting around and how that’s motivating me, giving me states of affect and arousal. And then the other side of it is the situational awareness. So a perspective is a perspective on a situation and your situational awareness is turning a physical environment into a situation, the way things are situated, what are the important relations between things and your situational awareness is very crucial.
John: We’re finding this out in a lot of research because your situational awareness tells you which skills you need to activate coordinate, or perhaps even acquire. I, for example, given my situational awareness, I know that my swimming skill is not particularly relevant right now. I shouldn’t be trying to activate it and bring it online. But I do know that my language skill and my science skills are relevant in a kind of interesting way. My Tai Chi skills are relevant, not directly, but some of the more meta skills within Tai Chi are useful to me right now. That’s my perspective of knowing what it’s like to be me here, now, my here now in this situated ness and the situated nature of cognition, of course, is becoming a very big issue within cognitive science. Now, the participatory knowing points to what you might call the ontological founding of that.
John: And what that means is there are ways in which you are shaped by your biology, and your culture, and your history, and the way the environment is shaped by history, your culture, so that they fit each other. In fact, one good way of understanding a significant function of culture is that it fits the world to you and fits you to the world in some coordinated fashion. This mutual shaping is a pattern of co identification, identities of things, and identities of you are being coordinated together in a certain way. So that affordances open up affordances, I take in the Gibsonia and sense are real relations, real relationship between an organism and the world that make action possible. And you can see participatory knowing even in animals and things like niche construction, they alter, shaping the environment as the environment is shaping them.
John: And this means certain affordances become available to them. And so what participatory knowing is, Chris and Phillip and I talk about the agent and re-enter relationship. I have a capacity to configure myself into a particular agency that I’m participating in and to configure the world. At least aspectually into a particular arena that I participate in. And those two are co-identifying co-determining they fit together and they present to me an affordances landscape. Now most of those affordances are not useful to me right now. They are not salient to me, but my perspective of knowing selects from all of the affordances given by participatory knowing and when it selects those affordances and makes them salient, that’s when I start to get my situational awareness. So that’s how the two fit together, how they’re distinct, but how they’re related.
Jim: Great. That’s actually very helpful! Let me throw out a homie example and tell me where it kind of fits between the two, because sort of feels to me like a bit of both, but this will help me clarify my own sense of these terms. I live on a very remote mountain farm, long way from anywhere, and one of my recreations is going for walks in the woods and often off the trails, just through the woods, right? And when you’re doing that, you have to have your shit together. You’re going to trip over a rock, or you’re going to get into poison ivy, or you’re going to walk into a creek that’s too deep, etc. So there’s a whole bunch, I’ve been doing it now for shit, close to my whole life call it 64 years. And so I have a way of walking in the woods and I’m pretty good at it. So place Jim’s skill at walking in the woods, in the framing of participatory and or perspectival knowing.
John: So while your skills would be your procedural knowledge, and we said, we put those aside for now, but let’s say your identity as somebody who is now a walker in the woods, right? And this is a role. So let’s talk about, we have this term role for a specified identity we’re assuming. Now notice that the ground being walkable is a real relationship between you and the environment, there’re certain gradients in the environment that are not walkable to you. And what’s walkable to, you might not be walkable to an ant and things that are walkable to other species might not be walkable to you. If you’ve ever tried to trace a quadruped you know, that they can move around on the terrain in a way that bipedal entities like us just can’t, try to catch a dog if it doesn’t want to be caught and you’ll know what I mean immediately.
John: And so your body shape and the way you shaped it with your skills and the way the environment is shaped and way evolution has shaped you as a bipedal organism that opens up a whole network, right? You are presented to the woods, if you’ll allow me that language in a certain way, and the woods present themselves to you in a certain way. Affordances open up. But you also like you, you had to keep your shit together. You have to maintain a state of mind, a situational awareness and a perspective. You have to be tracking your salients machinery has to be picking out the appropriate affordances for you growing through the woods without falling, hurting yourself, getting lost, etc.
Jim: All right. Yeah. That’s something I do a lot and it’s something real important to me actually, who I am some sense. So it’s good to get that. All right. Let’s move on now. And let’s talk about flows states.
Jim: It’s funny. I just published a mobile game, which I’ve been working on for a while. And I designed it around the idea of making flow states achievable, once you have a little bit of mastery on it called network wars folks available on the apple app store network wars, that’s two words, product placement. And so talk a little bit about the sort of the fundamentals of flow, and then give some examples.
John: So the fundamentals of flow, flow is a phenomenon that was brought into prominence and made available to theoretical and empirical investigation by Csikszentmihalyi Mihaly. And the most famous book is eponymously titled Flow, but he often talks about it as optimal experience. And it’s optimal in two ways. It’s an optimal experience in that it’s one of the best experiences people say they have, so they will seek it out, they will seek it out often in ways that are perplexing. My partner’s son has taken up a rock climbing, a rock climbing sounds like some kind of torture from Greek mythology. You will climb up that rock surface, it will be physically demanding, you will hurt yourself, you will get nicked and cut and strain, you’ll experience fear, even though, you know you’re safe, you’ll, you’ll be experience fear, and you’ll go through all of this. And then once you get to the top, you’ll come back down.
John: And it sounds like the most useless activity. When you talk to people who do this, they do it because they get into the flow state. The flow state is highly motivating. People in fact, will judge their wellbeing, how good their life is by how frequently they get into the flow state. So it’s optimal in that sense, in the sense of rewarding and highly motivated. It’s also optimal. In the other sense, people often are functioning at their very best with respect to some particular task while they’re in the flow state. This is why, of course the flow state is a very hot topic in sports psychology, because athletes are trying to find out what’s the best way of reliably getting into the flow state so they can engage in optimal performance. So optimal performance, optimal reward. That’s one way of understanding it. Csikszentmihalyi Mihaly specified the conditions that bring about the flow state.
John: The conditions are that you’re in a situation that is demanding on you and demanding such that, he says it matches your skill level. I think that’s a little bit off because that would be a purely static relationship. So in a recent publication I did with Leo Ferraro and [inaudible 00:36:52] Perry Bennett. We say the demands of the situations just slightly exceed your skill level. You have to sort of put everything in and have an insight, a reframing. You have to really get creatively interactive with the situation in order to meet the demand. So you have to put all of yourself in it and push yourself beyond into what’s called the zone of proximal development where you’re just beyond, so a metaphor we use is you’re doing skill stretching, you’re stretching your skills. And when you’re in that state, you feel at one with your environment, often a very powerful sense of at one-ment.
John: And I’m using that term rather than the usual pronunciation atonement, because atonement carries with it, a lot of Christian baggage that isn’t needed right now. So the sense of being at one with the environment. So if you’re a martial artist, there’s a blow coming at your face that which normally would be surprising, but somehow your hand just goes right there perfectly and blocks it. And your other hand finds the opening that was made. So there’s a sense of grace. There’s a sense of, although you can in one sense, know you’re putting in a lot of effort. In another sense, the behavior feels effortless. There’s an ongoing sense of discovery. Things are super salient that nattering, nanny, narrative ego in your head, that’s always asking, “How do I look?”, and “What’s my status?”, and “Do people love me?” And all that false silent, and you escape the prison house of that normal egocentric framing.
John: You get immersed in this sense of time passing in a different way and I’m trying to convey that without conveying any sense of horror, the sense of time passing in a different way is also experienced as a relief and improvement, etc. So that’s the phenomenology of the flow state and the circumstances that bring it about. And then the more recent work I did was trying to figure out, why is it optimal and why is it universal? This is Csikszentmiahalyi Mihaly’s other point. And this is very important in psychology, across cultures, socioeconomic status, linguistic groups, gender, all kinds of variables that normally skew results. People describe being able to get into the flow state and they describe its phenomenology at the level of detail that is nearly identical. So it’s a really good candidate for a universal and that strongly suggests it has some kind of adaptive function.
Jim: Yeah. It’s very interesting. And those folks who are interested in learning more about the flow state. I’ve had Jamie Wheal on the show twice.
John: Yes, yes.
Jim: EP 27, where we talk mostly about flow and culture and EP 123. Where we talked about a whole bunch of things from his new book, which flow was one of them. So if you want to learn more about the flow state, there’s a good spot to it on the Jim Rutt show. And yeah, you give some examples, as you said, rock climbing, jazz, one that comes to mind for me I used to do a lot with skiing. At first, you’re inapt, but then you learn how to do some things and you get better. For a while, not adding too much to your skill, but you’re just pushing your skills to the limit. And then you pick up another little trick, right. You go to a new mountain, that’s a little harder and you say, oh shit, I need to develop a little bit more skill or I’m going to go ass over elbow here. you master that, it’s like you don’t think. I remember doing skiing when I was a real busy corporate dude or entrepreneur. And your brain is just full of tedious details in that life when you’re skiing, you don’t think about any of that stuff.
John: Yes. Yes. It’s very much a change, not just at the level of your skills, like you said, using our language you’re in a different perspectival knowing very different. And that’s really caught by the fact that people know how super salient it is, the ongoing sense of discovery this at one-ment , there’s a deep connectedness, there’s also a change at the participatory level people where they often, and perhaps this was your case in skiing. They remember a new way, a new kind of identity that might get lost in a professional persona, by the way, I’m not just the businessman. I’m not just the entrepreneur. There’s a deeper me. And so Csikszentmihalyi Mihaly even talks about the relationship between flow and evolving or developing the self.
Jim: Definitely another one for me was during my busy business career, I also had a farm and I’d go down on the weekends and do hard farm work. Right, and oddly enough, you get into a flow state. You think of nothing because you better not and get your fingers chopped off by the machinery. Right. And so you’re in this very deep state and I’d come back and people say, what the hell are you doing to have the farm? I’d say what like about the farm is I can fix any problem with the machinery, with a sledgehammer or a big wrench. Right, I wish I could do that here in business. But it did at least make me think about, finding the simpler solutions. And sometimes that’s something that you lose track of in the every day of complicated.
John: Yeah, there’s a liberation to the flow state like I said. And what you said about your fingers getting chopped off, that brings out some of the cognitive aspects, the Csikszentmihalyi Mihaly talks about the ones that I’m most interested in is that activities that will lead to the flow state in those activities, error matters. It’s called diagnostic. Error is costly, it will disrupt your performance in a way that matters to you. It doesn’t have to necessarily be physical danger, like rock climbing or working with farming machinery. It can also be the jazz musician. Who’s just in front of an arena of people, an audience. And it’s the fact that they will lose a social status. They’ll be called out if they, flummox right, the line, if they can’t pick up and do their improv on what the previous player was doing.
John: So error matters. Then we have to attentional factors, which is there has to be a tight coupling between your actions and the response of the environment, which is probably something that is often missing in more abstract, symbolic worlds, like the business world we were talking about. You can do something and it’s not clear what the ramifications are going to be for a while. But when you’re working with the farming equipment, you push this lever that moves, you do this, that happens right. There’s a tight coupling. And then the other one is the information is also clear. It’s not only tightly coupled it’s clear, you get very clear feedback, clear signal. And then the work that I did with Leo and with Arian that we published in 2018 was trying to pick up on what do those cognitive factors tell us about the cognitive functions of flow? What’s going on in flow. That makes it so optimal?
Jim: Very cool. Let’s move from flow. You make a bridge in the video at this point to mindfulness and the flow state, and I’m going to confess something here. I’ve never been much for a meditation, all that shit, right. But anyways, I was watching the video. I said, I’m going to try this stuff out. Somewhere around your episode, 28 or so, I said yeah, I’m going to try some mindful meditation. So I checked around, I asked a couple of friends of mine that were into that stuff. I ended up picking up Sam Harris’s app and took his 28 day beginner course. I now have a fresh person, and I’m continuing it actually now beginner’s course is over. I now have a little bit more hands-on I guess you’d call it participatory knowing about what mindfulness is, but why don’t we get your more complete definition of what mindfulness is when you talk about that?
John: The thing is I’m actually writing a chapter for a book on this right now. So again, I’ve got 8,500 words in my head, and I’m going to try and crunch it down into,
Jim: 60 seconds, give me the 60 second version.
John: For me, mindfulness is a way of directing attention that helps you to do two things. One is when we’ve already, well, both we’ve already mentioned with the nine dot problem. There’s ways of directing your attention, that help you break up inappropriate frames. Remember that was with the nine dot. And then there’s ways of directing your attention. That helps you make new frames. And both of those moves are actually needed for insight. I use a metaphor and it’s become something of a meme to try and describe this. I’m going to play on the fact that a mental frame and my glasses have a frame, right. You can think of it this way, normally you’re not aware of your mental framing, the way like you’re doing that’s in fact, why people get blocked in the nine dot problem.
John: They’re not aware of their mental framing. They’re aware through their mental framing, just like right now, I’m looking through my glasses. I’m not aware of my glasses. I’m not looking at them. I’m aware through them in both senses of beyond them and by means of them. But I might want to check and see if there’s gunk on my glasses, that’s distorting how I’m seeing the world. And then what do I do? I step back and I look at my glasses and you can do this with your mind. You can step back and look at it rather than automatically unconsciously looking through it. And when you step back and look at your mind, you can become aware of your mental framing. And that gives you the capacity to potentially intervene in it, to potentially realize that it might be distorting, how you’re seeing the world.
John: That’s the meditative aspect of mindfulness when you’re stepping back and looking at your mind. But notice if I took off my glasses and I thought there was distortions, perhaps I cleaned them. Would that be enough? Of course not. What do I need to do? I need to put my glasses on and see through them and see, do I now see things differently than I did before I cleaned them? Do I see the world in new, in some helpful fashion? That’s a contemplative use of mindfulness. This is where I’m trying to look into the world. I’m trying to see more deeper patterns in the world. So Sam Harris, for example, uses a framework that’s ultimately based in Buddhism. And one of the contemplative things you can do is to try and not see, not think, see, realize the interconnectedness of all things or the impermanence of all things.
John: And the idea is notice, how I need both of these, because each corrects the other. If my meditation is not leading me to see things differently in contemplation, then chances are my meditation isn’t doing much for me. And if my contemplation isn’t helping me right to step back and more adequately sense, what’s real in my framing. We have to do both just like I have to clean my glasses, look through them, look through the world. Hey, maybe my way of seeing the world is distorted step back and look at them. And so for me, mindfulness is that skill of attention that allows me to do this kind of shifting of, am I looking at my mind, am I looking through it? Am I looking at the world? Am I looking through it to deeper patterns?
John: Another dimension of attention is am I creating gestalts with my attention, unified structural holes, or am I breaking things down into the features? And when I meditate, I tend to step back from my gestalts, and break things down into features. We often are doing things like following the sensations on our breath. Notice the two moves in there. If you’re following the sensation of your breath, you’re not sensing through your sensations. You’re stepping back and looking at them and you’re trying to break them up, observational analysis, but then what you also do when you’re contemplating the interconnectedness of all things, you’re now trying to create this great gestalt. And instead of seeing independent things, you’re trying to see a deeper connection between them all. And so you have the zooming out, zooming in movement. Those are exactly the movements of mind, that enhanced insight.
John: And one of the things we’re finding, there’s a lot of sloppy work in the mindfulness literature and I admit this, but some of the better work that tends to get replicated as the more cognitive dimensions of mindfulness and mindfulness practices, even inducing a mindfulness state tends to enhance people’s cognitive flexibility and their capacity for solving insight problems. So mindfulness understood as this dynamic of attention paying that affords frame breaking and frame making drives insight. Now I happened to argue that when you get a bunch of insights that prime and cascade each other, I think that’s what the flow state is. That’s why mindfulness practices and Csikszentmihalyi Mihaly argues, this are also conducive to getting into the flow state.
Jim: And vice versa, actually.
John: Yes, yes, yes.
Jim: In fact, I realize now that I’ve done things like meditation at the end of flow states, right? Particularly if you’re very physically tired, right. You almost even have a mystical experience, but we’ll talk about that later when we get the transformative and mystical experiences. So let’s move on. I’ll have to skip some interesting stuff about Lakoff and metaphor but can’t talk about everything. Let’s get back on the history track here. Something that a lot of people don’t know about is the bronze age collapse, probably a bigger disruption in some ways than the fall of Rome. Right?
John: Very much.
Jim: So, why don’t you tell us a little about the bronze age collapse and what that means to the story?
John: So I invite your listeners just to go on YouTube and type in bronze age collapse, and you’ll get a whole slew of videos. There’s books, Cline’s book was published a couple of years ago iI think, two or three years ago. This is a perennial topic in ancient history. So around 1200 BC, sort of between 1200 and 1100 BCE. And it is a greater collapse in the Roman empire. If what we mean by civilization is what it technically means. The number of cities and the number of connected cities, you have connected by commerce trade, etc, more cities and more trade work networks go out of existence than any other time in at least European history. This was just a fundamental collapse. It’s called the bronze age collapse because it comes at the end of the period in which the dominant metallurgy was centered around bronze.
John: You have to understand that bronze was much more than a metal that was used. Bronze was like plastic, it was like money, just think art, everything, it’s like the whole civilization is founded on it. And what you had is these huge by this time well-developed civilizations, literally millennia old and in Babylon and the Hittite empire, especially ancient Egypt. And these are huge. I like an analogy that’s used about them. These are like dinosaur kingdoms. They’re huge. And they’re ancient and they’ve been around for a long time. And then you get something analogous to the asteroid, hitting all of these civilizations. Most of them pass out of existence to survive. The Assyrian empire is reduced to a rump state, the Egyptian empire survives because it has a military genius for a Pharaoh Ramses the third, but it is irreparably harmed and the empire soon lost. So you see this fantastic collapse and there’s a lot of different theories about what caused the collapse. And if you want, we could talk about those.
Jim: Let’s not, let’s just frame it because now there’s this big collapse. And then there’s a dark age for maybe 400 years. And then there’s a hugely important turn. And in fact, at least in my reading of it, this is the foundation which leads us to the meaning crisis, which is the emergence from this dark age into what Karl Jaspers and what, and what you call the axial age. Now let’s dig into the axial age, realize that we have a big, big collapse, dinosaurs hit by an asteroid for a hundred years, at least the dark ages. And then a new flowering. That’s actually quite different.
John: Yes. There’s a lot of controversy around this about whether or not we should call it an axial age or an axial stage because we can see similar things at different periods in other civilizations. If you want to Google search it the axial age is the best phrase for doing that. What happens in the axial age, I think is for some fairly prosaic reasons. There’s a bunch of new psycho technologies that come online and this alters cognition in a way that’s, I think, was not intended by the people that started using these psycho technologies like alphabetic literacy is invented in ancient Canaan and things like that. Numeracy and coinage, and a bunch of these things. And these psycho technologies, they alter cognition in a way that permeates into the psyche in ways that I think were unforeseen and radically starts to change.
John: People’s self-awareness identities they can assume in participatory knowing that states of mind, and the perspectives they can have. And I agree with Bella’s assessment, that what comes online is what he calls second order thinking all human beings, if they’re properly socialized, have a capacity for metacognition, this is the ability to become aware of their own mind. And you can do that procedurally and prepositionally, there’s all kinds of variations here. Second order thinking is when you’ve internalized some of the extra power given to cognitive capacity, by literacy and numeracy as an abstract symbol system, and is something that requires a kind of a logical rigor to it, when you internalize those into your metacognition, your metacognition becomes more. And I mean, a lot by this adjective becomes more critically aware of the mind. It has the capacity to note more pervasive error, more patterns of self-deception.
John: And what emerges is this realization of the meaning making capacity of the mind and how it’s a double-edged sword, how it can be at the source of a lot of our self-deception, but it can also be the source for our capacity, for self-transcendence, for self-correcting and for coming into new and better relationships with the world. In the axial revolution, the second order thinking causes people to promote different identities and roles that people can take up and fundamentally different perspectives on the world. What emerges is a pervasive kind of two worlds mythology where the world in which we are beset by self-deception is a world of self destruction and violence. That’s largely caused by the unattended meaning-making machinery of our mind, and that if we can enlighten that machinery, we can see through the illusion into the real world. And in that real world, we will assume a more full and better identity individual and collectively, and we will live in a way in which suffering and violence are reduced. And now you can understand that metaphysically, like a heaven. You can understand it in a new relationship.
John: Like in Taoism, you can understand it as a utopic future and Judaism, etc, but there’s this, there’s this bifurcation model between the less real, the fallen, the decadent everyday world.
John: The less real, the fallen, the decadent everyday world, and some better, more real, more realizable world where we will be better in it.
Jim: This way of thinking resulted in two big trends that we still live with today for better and for worse, and we’ll talk about that as we go along. One is many of the world’s religions, and this I think was Jasper’s original insight formed during this period, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and its offsprings then later, Christianity and Islam, and then sort of the invention of philosophy, at least in the Western sense.
John: Yes, very much.
Jim: The pre-Socratic and then moving mainline into Plato, Xenophanes, et cetera. And, these two things were happening at about the same time. And we’re still living in the world of the aftermaths of those two inventions 2500 years ago.
John: Exactly. Very well said.
Jim: So what do you think it was that produced a little bit more detail than, say, second order thinking, what do you think that produced this amazing intellectual innovation over a relatively short period of time, which has really never been surpassed in some sense since?
John: Well, I do think, and like I said, first of all, I would add some depths of complexity to second order thinking. Think about what numeracy gives you. It gives you abstract symbol systems that are bound into a logically rigorous system. And we take it for granted thinking that way, don’t take it for granted, take it as being given at this time, the time when coinage and extensive numeracy is invented, and that’s, of course, why you get the emergence of geometry, the first true math in ancient Greece, for that reason the Greeks invented coinage, you get the alphabetic literacy and how that tremendously empowers us both individually and collectively, but something that you also have to take into account, when the asteroid of the bronze age collapse happened and all the dinosaur kingdoms are eradicated, all the mammals can speciate and fill all the empty niches.
John: And so you have a lot of social experimentation, both in the Levant, you have all these little tiny kingdoms, Israel was one of them, and then Israel itself even breaks up into Israel and Judah. And you have Canaan and the Philistines and Amon and Edom and all this, all these little kingdoms. And in Greece, you never have a unified country until Philip, right? All you have is these little polis and city states, and trying very different styles of government and different ways of organizing their society. Just compare Athens and Sparta. You can see very extreme differences, but nevertheless, they’re bound together by shared religion and shared language. So they’re not isolated from each other. They’re bouncing off against each other, kind of like the way Lennon and McCartney bounce off against each other and drove each other to more creation, more innovation, and also correspondingly greater seeking for deeper underlying forms of stability.
John: You can see that in Plato. Underneath all this change, what’s the underlying stability of things, and those two quests are deeply related to each other. That’s why you can get that paradox even within Plato’s Republic of somebody sort of proposing radical political changes and at the same time justifying it by seeking what is most stable and ultimately permanent in reality. And those two just belong together. Think about just that being able to put those two together in that way. So you have all this social experimentation going on. Israel is, it seems to have been born. This is the growing consensus. It seems to have been born out of a lot of people that were displaced when the Canaanite civilization was destroyed and the Sea People hit Egypt and back-washed into it and they became the Philistines.
John: And so, you have all of these people coming from different backgrounds, and they seem to constellate together and confederate together and make a nation in this new, bizarre, experimental way. And that’s why you get the covenant relationship with a unifying God and all these interesting. So there’s also all this tremendous social experimentation pushing these two extremes of innovation and seeking deeper stability. And it’s being empowered and even super powered by all of the new cognitive capacity given by the complex set of psychotechnologies, driving second order thinking.
Jim: And this is very important, this relationship between new psychotechnologies and new things done, right?
John: Yes, yes, exactly.
Jim: We have new tools. You can build new kinds of structures. In this case, we built the axial age religions and then the axial age philosophies, and what many of them, most of them have in common is, I would describe it as a huge mistake, which is this invention of the idea of the two worlds model.
John: So the two worlds model, I agree with you that it’s a mistake. Perhaps I’m a little bit more appreciative of it. I don’t know, maybe you are too. But it’s hard not to fall into systemic metaphors, shared metaphors, when you’re in a highly innovative stage. Think back again about the shamans in the upper paleolithic transition and all the stuff, all the art and all the symbolic… We know that there were mythological beings being postulated back then. We have the first… We have carved figures that integrate human features and a lion together and things like that, and metaphorical capacity, this is [Mithra 01:01:29] and others, right? This is one of the great gifts given to us by the upper paleolithic transition. It empowers our cognition in just ways that we don’t even typically realize because of how much it permeates our cognition, how transparent it is to us, because we’re relying on it so much.
John: And so I think it’s almost inevitable that people would try to understand this relationship between when the world and their thinking were clouded versus those moments of clarity, what we might call wisdom, and I think one of the defining features of wisdom is the capacity to see through illusion and into reality, that kind of discernment that enhances those moments. And we all have them where we realize that we’ve been caught up in a pattern of self-deception and the way we’ve been seeing the world is a skew. And we get the moments where the world comes into clarity and we also get a kind of self knowledge that we didn’t have before.
John: And it’s hard not to compare those two moments as if you went from one place to another, one world to another. So I have sympathy for why the metaphor becomes pervasive. Like you, though, I criticize it because, while it is good language for training, the ability to get that kind of discernment and to get on the path for the cultivation of wisdom, I think it’s very poor language for ultimately trying to explain reality. And so, the two worlds mythology for me is one of the problematic aspects of the meaning crisis.
John: I would put it this way. We want to preserve the legacy from the axial age revolution. We want to preserve the power of all these psychotechnologies. We want to preserve the capacity for cultivating wisdom and engaging in systemic and long-lasting self-transcendence. But we can’t understand that through the lens of the two worlds mythology, because the scientific worldview has smashed the two worlds mythology, as far as I can tell.
Jim: I’ll go further, actually, as you might guess, right? I might tell you a little… It’s a personal story here. As I said, I was raised a Catholic, and I actually liked Catholicism when I was seven, eight, nine. There’s very intricate stories, these various kinds of angels and devils, and all this shit, very similar to the reason why I so much love Lord of the Rings, which I read 30 times, or Game of Thrones, right? It’s intricate tale, right? But as I was also became very interested in science around age nine, and I started reading lots and lots of real science, and I started getting more and more suspicious of this religious thing slowly. And then somewhere between sixth and seventh grade, I said, I want to make a decision one way or the other, science or religion.
Jim: And I went to the library six times and I read the encyclopedia entries from two different encyclopedias, to make sure I had some parallax on it, of many of the religions, Catholicism, Methodism, which were the two most popular religions where I lived, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and I think that was it. And I literally was an epiphany when I was done. I said, truly, it just came from a synthesis and a blinding light, not quite like Paul on the way to Damascus, but I didn’t fall on the ground, I wasn’t blinded. But I said, this is stuff humans made up to control other people. And I’d say the exemplar of that where it reaches its most pernicious is in that in the dark ages and the first parts of the middle ages, when the powers that be dominate the mass of people by selling them pie in the sky when you die, right? And that that is perhaps the most pernicious aspect of two worldism that we can have any kind of horrors we want here on earth and get people to tolerate it on the grounds you’ll get your reward in heaven.
John: And I agree with you. I do. And that’s why I’m suspicious of modern utopias and things like that because of what you’ve said. When you get a supernatural end, you can justify almost any earthly means, and some of the most egregious acts of the inquisition is when you’re burning people at the stake and things like that precisely because at least you’re saving their soul for the afterlife. That was one of the justifications that was used. You torture the person until they confess their sin and then you burn them, and you burn them as soon as you can, by the way, so they can’t sin again, and that way you save them. And so, I agree with you that all of the religions, to varying degrees, I think it’s also fair to say, have used the two worlds mythology to exploit people, to manipulate people.
John: I agree with that. But I also note that we find it very hard even in our everyday language to escape from up and down metaphors, from rising above things, from transcending them. And because what we’re doing, to my mind, is we’re doing a kind of cognitive exaptation. We’re making news of a sensorimotor pattern, a set of skills for sensorimotor interaction, skills, and states of minds, et cetera, identities, I won’t keep repeating all these. We’re making use of those and we’re exapting them and we’re repurposing them and using them to do other things. We do this all the time, and I know we skip the Lakeoff and Johnson and my critique of it, but we use balance metaphors to talk about justice, because it’s very hard to think about justice in the purely abstract, it’s hard to hold it in your mind, but if you sort of enact balancing, you get the sense of the managing of many contingent variables that are dynamically coupled together.
John: And that gives you a framework by trying to… by which you can parse out the rather messy data we’re trying to parse out when we’re talking about justice. And so, like I said, I agree with you that it has been perniciously used, but I think it also stays, it stays… Let me try and put it this way, it stays as a tool that can be used for exploitation and manipulation precisely because that tool has another functionality that keeps it in existence.
John: And part of what I see my work is trying to do, and I do this respectfully to religious people, because I also have met, and I’m sure you have too, many people who in religious traditions that strike me as exemplars in some ways, and I want to be fair to them, I think I want to understand the functionality of that tool in a more scientific framework that could plausibly separate it from that manipulative use. I think if we had a more clear understanding of the functionality of these enacted metaphors and what’s going on in them, that would dispose us to using them more wisely and perhaps in a more morally justifiable fashion.
Jim: We’re getting to that later in the series where we go into great detail on some ideas on these things, which I found very interesting. So I wanted to talk about was this inevitable, and could the Thales and Pythagoras had taken the world in a different direction? But we’re going to have to skip over that and people can just think about that, and I think it may be as mostly things are more contingent than we think, frozen accidents, and what would happen to Thales’ philosophy
John: Can I just say something about that, Jim, just that point, I’m not going to go into detail, because that’s a very important point and it’s one that requires some conceptual and cognitive finesse, because I do want to… It’s almost a historian’s dilemma or paradox. You want to explain things and so you find an order in them, but you can fall prey to the Hegelian temptation to think that that order was teleologically foreordained or something. And I really want to resist the second while pursuing the first as much as I possibly can. And that’s a very tricky and difficult thing to do. So I’m glad you put your finger on exactly that point.
Jim: Yeah. That’s actually huge. And to think clearly, you need to keep those two intention, because patterns are real, right?. But contingency is real as well.
Jim: And the teleology is, to my mind, a form of failed reasoning that we are exceedingly attracted to as humans for reasons I’m not entirely clear, but we’ll talk about that later. I have a little section where we talk about teleology and some of my critiques of it, I’d love to hear yours. We’re now going to move on to the disembodying myths that you talk about. But before we do that, let’s do another one of our definitions, which is myth. And you have a much richer version of myth. Again, many of us think of myth as just old stories somebody made up, Paul Bunyan and the blue ox, or something, and they’re just not true and it’s just bullshit, but they’re entertaining. But you have a richer definition of myth.
John: Yeah. I think myths are ways in which we express and we try to come into right relationship to patterns that are pertinent to us either because they are perennial or because they’re pressing. So one of the things in the book, we examine the emergence of a new myth, the zombie. And Deleuze and others have said, the zombie is the myth of the 20th century and perhaps Frankenstein is another invented myth from the 19th century. And one of the things we were arguing is, well, why is the zombie emerging and why did the zombie sort of magnetically get attracted to the other mythology that’s very pervasive right now, the apocalypse? So that it’s almost natural for people to say the zombie apocalypse, like what is going on there? What is going on? And one of the arguments we made is the zombie is a way in which the culture is trying to express it to itself, and notice people do this in even a participatory fashion. They will dress up as zombies. They’ll go on zombie walks by the thousands in a ritual, by the way, it’s a ritual behavior. Why are they doing this?
John: Because they are trying to bring into awareness, hold in mind, and potentially articulate something like the meaning crisis, which is a pressing issue about a perennial problem that human beings face, which is the fact that we can despair of meaning in our lives. And so what I think is happening there are people claiming that there really are zombies. Most of them aren’t, they don’t even need to, in order for this to be functioning, are they making a claim about themselves? They are. But in an enacted symbolism. They’re doing a kind of serious play, because they’re trying to come into a place where they can get some understanding.
John: And I think the zombie is a failed myth, and we can talk about why myths fail, and we talk about this in the book, because while it expresses the meaning crisis and allows people to get a mental grasp on it, it doesn’t actually make the meaning crisis intelligible. It gives no clear advice on how to get into right relationship to our current situation so that we could alleviate the meaning crisis. So it’s a powerful myth, but it’s also a failed myth. And that’s why it’s sort of drifting away from cultural prominence. Now there are myths that are successful, not in the sense that the entities they purport exists, but in the sense that they do help give people good advice on how to get into right relationship to perennial problems and/or pressing problems.
Jim: Yep. And we’ll get to that later with the story of the cave, et cetera, right?
John: Yes. Plato was one of the great and initial critics of myth, but that does not preclude him from making use of myth in very powerful and famous ways, rightfully famous I would argue.
Jim: And another definition before we move on, faith. Some of us tend to think of the word faith as, I think these are actually your words, believing ridiculous things for which there is no evidence, but you use faith in a richer sense.
John: Yeah. So I’m trying to get back to faith that is still recoverable for us if you think of an everyday example of being faithful to someone. When I’m being faithful to someone, that doesn’t mean that I get up every day and assert ridiculous, unbelievable things about them. It doesn’t even mean that I have beliefs about them that are absolutely certain. In fact, that’s kind of a dangerous thing if you want to be in a long-term relationship with somebody. If you claim I’m done, I got you, here it is, you probably are actually about to destroy that relationship. So what does it mean to be in a faithful relationship? It means to endeavor to go through an ongoing process of cognitive development, and I mean it especially at the perspectival and participatory level, so you maintain a continuity of cognitive contact with this person such that you are in right relationship with them, namely, that you and that other person find the relationships mutually beneficial, mutually affording.
John: Now of course you can come into right relationship to other people, to yourself, and to the world, the three dimensions of meaning in life, the three pillars of connectedness. And so I think people find things, find patterns, find people, find ways of framing the world to which they are faithful precisely because those things maintain and enhance their sense of connectedness to themselves, to each other in the world. And that goes back to a lot of the ancient metaphors for what we typically translate as faith or we often translate as belief, which are metaphors of sexual intercourse, of being married, of being wedded. And I even point to the origins of the word belief itself, belabored, which originally meant to love, to give your heart to something, not to assert beliefs.
Jim: And you also talk about the sense of its meaning that you’re on course.
John: Yes. Very much, on course. And notice, again, and this is why these relationship metaphors, I mean like wedded relationships or married relationship, when you’re on course in your relationship, that doesn’t mean you’ve got some teleological goal that you’re shooting towards, it doesn’t mean that you’ve got an algorithmic plan about what we’re going to do next. What it means is, and this is why we use these metaphors, like we use the metaphor of dance, you’ve both built a flexibility, even down to the rudiments of your identity so that you are staying coupled together and you are going through a relationship in which you are affording each other’s growth, each other’s ability to connect to the world, et cetera. And so that for me also brings up the deeper connection that’s lost when we think of faith as belief. There used to be a deep connection between faith and love.
John: And love, it’s this mutually accelerating disclosure, this reciprocal opening between yourself and another person or between yourself in a situation. You of course can fall in love with the city. You can fall in love with your… I imagine one of the reasons you live where you do is because you have fallen in love with the wilderness or the forest in which you walk and all of that. So we want a notion of faith that also reconnects it to love in an important way. And I think the notion of believing ridiculous things is very, very far from love, especially when we get free from an overly decadent, romantic understanding of love as a kind of overwhelming stupidity that people engage in.
Jim: I think I’ll just insert this here, just because I enjoyed it so much, two or three times you bashed the idea of romantic comedies. I can’t say I’ve ever heard anybody bash romantic comedies. Why do you not like, or why do you think romantic comedies are bad? I mean, you don’t just find them boring, you think they’re actively bad.
John: Yeah. A couple of times I even said I think they’re evil.
Jim: Yeah, yeah.
John: Because they promote, they promote a couple things that are actually pernicious. First of all, we have, and I think this is a symptom of the meaning crisis, and I think you can properly see romanticism as a philosophical movement as trying to fill the vacuum that is being left by a receding Christianity. Take a look at Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, and you’ll see it in that poem beautifully expressed. The sea of faith is receding and romanticism is trying to fill that gap. So I don’t think that’s a historical stretch by any means. And what do I mean by that for us, we’re trying to make our romantic relationships carry the burden that God and religion and tradition and the cultivation of wisdom and virtue carried for us. This person is going to do all of that for us.
John: That is, to my mind, a ridiculous proposition, no human being can meet that. And so we get this, we get this right now. These two facts. You can go into a room, hold up your hand. How many of you think your romantic relationships are the most important for giving you meaning in life? People. “Oh yes, of course.” How many of you have suffered tremendously because of your romantic relationships? “Oh yeah…”. Right, because you’re trying to make this thing, right? The epitome of human happiness, and then we build a mythology around it in a way that’s harmful because we tell people that somehow the universe recognizes this and is going to cooperate, because people are going to find each other. There’s the one, the language is from Neoplatonism, the one is out there and you’re going to find them and they’re going to find you and things will get Rocky, but it will be resolved. And all of this, that’s bullshit.
John: That’s not how it works. And in the process, we are reducing love to a feeling. Love is not a feeling. Love isn’t even an emotion. Love is, it’s an existential mode. My being in love with my partner means at times I’ll feel happy, I’ll feel sad, or I might feel jealous, I might feel angry. All of those are expressions of love. And so romantic comedies have simultaneously elevated these relationships, told us bullshit about the universe cooperating with them, and then reduced the phenomenon to an almost trivial sentimentality. That means it can’t possibly satisfy the demands we’re placing on it.
Jim: Yeah. That’s when I heard you say that, I stopped and thought about it a little bit. At first I just thought that’s kind of a strange thing to say, but then I internalized it a little bit. I said, Hmm, I wonder if the pervasiveness of this model underscores some of the problems that younger folks, in particular millennials, seem to have at establishing romantic relationships that last, right? ’cause you have this image somehow of the one, all right? What’s the probability, there’s 8 billion humans. You can do a little bit of simple probabilistic analysis and say, what’s the chance of finding the one? Almost none, right? While in reality, people found love from the ages when they were 16, right?
Jim: Certainly, my grandparents and great-grandparents were married by the time they were 16, 17, and these things worked out. You can have love anywhere, it’s work. It’s not this magical thing. So, anyway, while it’s seemingly curious point, I think it’s actually a good point. So I’m glad you brought it up. We got a chance to air it. So people don’t fall off for romantic comedy. It’s not right. It’s bullshit. Quite literally. Another definition here, before we move on, Kairos, K-A-I-R-O-S, a word that I really never even heard until three or four years ago, people started using it a little bit in the spaces I hang out in. It’s a word you use a lot. Tell us what it is.
John: I’ve always heard it pronounced Kairos, but-
Jim: Kairos, okay. I’ve never even heard it pronounced. I don’t think so. I guessed it might be Kairos.
John: So I got the term initially from somebody who has had a huge impact on me, the philosopher theologian Paul Tillich, and Tillich, it’s a Greek term, but it became especially important within Christianity. A Kairos means a turning point. I don’t want to draw an identity relation, but there’s a proper mapping relationship between Kairos and bifurcation points within complex systems where you get a constellation of factors, such that the possibility of steering the whole system becomes available. So think about it. I’m just going to say under sort of normal circumstances, there’s all these factors and they’re bound into causal relationships that put tremendous constraint on you and your actions, your ability for your actions to be a significant intervention and sort of the course of things is basically dampened down by this very inertial structure. And that’s largely a good thing, right? I’m not saying that’s a bad thing because that inertial stability, it gives people a sense of security, it allows, it makes the world predictable, et cetera.
John: But Tillich pointed out that there are times when there has probably been a slower accumulating of changes in this configuration of constraints such that there’s a point of criticality, there’s an instability in the system, such that the potential for intervention in the whole system becomes much more available to individuals or groups of individuals. And so they have the capacity to massively shift or redirect the society.
John: I take an example would be the Socratic revolution. That Socrates is at this particular, and it’s fortuitous he has Plato as his disciple, right? So there’s all this fortuitous, and to use your language properly, there’s a lot of contingencies that happened to have just configured around him and what’s happening in Athens and Sparta and the place of the Greeks in the world, et cetera, that there is a pivot point that is available and Socrates drops into it. Not to take any credit away from him. He’s an extraordinary individual. But there’s a Kairos there that allowed for the changing of course of, not too grandiosely, the history of Western civilization. That’s why it’s called the Socratic revolution. And so there was a Kairos there and Socrates stepped into it.
John: Some people are suggesting that we are facing a similar kind of situation right now. I think it’s plausible that the meaning crisis is indicate
John: It’s plausible that the meaning crisis is indicating a kind of criticality and an instability at the cultural level, at the cognitive cultural level for us, and that might actually be a kairos for us. An opportunity in which we can change the course of our future history in fairly significant way. Of course, that puts a tremendous moral obligation on us to try and understand the situation as deeply as possible. Hence, the series and try to set up the practices of transformation to get as much wisdom as possible for intervening, if such an affordance is available to us.
Jim: Yeah, I would say I’ve been working with a number of people, we loosely call ourselves the Game B movement. [crosstalk 01:24:47] Many of whom the Zach Steins, and [crosstalk 01:24:50] George Halls, Gregg Henriques. He’s now considered himself a Game B dude, [crosstalk 01:24:54] and we believe that we’re at such a critical point course we use complex systems talk, like bifurcations and basins of attraction and things, but they’re the same idea.
John: Yes [crosstalk 01:25:04] very much.
Jim: Which is that in sometimes in history, if you showed up in France in 1758 A.D., you could wail all you want about how unfair it was to be a surf, but you wouldn’t accomplish a God damn thing other than perhaps get your head chopped off, right?
John: Yes, yes. Yes.
Jim: But if you show up and you’re a good glib speaker in Germany in 1923, just one glib speaker can change the world in all kinds of horrible ways.
John: Yes, yes. That’s a very appropriate example and I applaud the ongoing effort. It seems obsessive from the outside, but a lot of historians keep going back to the Weimar Republic and trying to figure out what was the constellation of contingencies that were in place such that there was that kairos, to use that language we’re talking about right now. I think some people, why do you keep going back? They’ll ask that to me. Why do you keep going back to the Axial Age? Why do you keep going back to the Christian revolution within the Roman empire? Because I want to understand this, I really, really want to understand this very deeply. Again, I don’t think there’s a theology and I don’t think history repeats itself, but the only school I have for trying to figure this out is history. I can’t foresee the future. That’s why I keep coming back to trying to understand these cirrhotic moments in history.
Jim: Indeed. It does feel like we may be at one of those cirrhotic or critical turning points or saddle points between two basins of attraction or [crosstalk 01:26:34] whatever metaphor one chooses to use. And they all are metaphors, right?
John: Yes they are.
Jim: Yeah, the reality is something different than any of our metaphors, which is always important to keep in mind.
John: Very much.
Jim: All right. Let’s move on to some of the things you’ve been alluding to, which is the Socratic revolution [crosstalk 01:26:51] and, of course we know that Socrates didn’t emerge out of a vacuum [crosstalk 01:26:55] and that’s very important, and some of the pre-Socratic philosophers are very interesting, right?
John: Yes, they are there. I tend to sort of fixate, it’s a little bit of a personal obsession, on these two figures of Thales and Pythagoras. Thales, because he seems, I grant your point, Jim, he didn’t come out of nowhere. Cornford talks about the tradition of the wise men and the divine man figures that are sort of Shamanic and there’s semi Shamanic, semi Sage figures. Some of them might’ve even been historical, like Solon and people like that. There’s a lot going on there, but Thales in some ways, at least in literature, he just seems to come out of nowhere. He seems to propose this new way of thinking, that’s going to germinate into what we would properly call a scientific way of thinking about the world. He replaces a perennial pattern of explaining the world narratively with ontological analysis.
John: Through observation and reason, he tries to get at an underlying substance and he tries to get at on underlying force. He’s wrong in the proposals, but I don’t care that he was wrong. The method that he’s doing, the mental framing that he’s now innovating is profound. It’s just, impressive. We know that Socrates is influenced by this tradition. We know that he’s influenced by Anaxagoras, one of the so-called pre-Socratic natural philosophers. You can see it, especially in some of Plato’s dialogues where Socrates clearly has been interested. He’s got this ongoing interest at getting at the nature of things in this new way.
John: I totally think Thales is important. Then you have Pythagoras who gives us the word philosophy as far as we can tell, gives us the word cosmos. Who seems to even more apparently bring this Shamanic tradition into the Greek world, but then fuse it with this project of the mathematical understanding of music and the universe. And come up with this new way of trying to think about wisdom. It seems to be the first clear instance of the philosophical generation of a religious community, which is a very innovative and bizarre thing.
John: We also know that that has a huge influence. Whether it’s an influence on Socrates or on Plato is unclear because pulling those two apart is very, very hard to do, but I would definitely agree with you that there’s huge pre-Socratic influences that make possible the Socratic platonic revolution.
Jim: Heraclitus other one, if we could figure out what-
John: Heraclitus and Parmenides are also very important, centrally important for Plato.
Jim: One of the other things that’s interesting, which you do point out, is that in this sea of things that for simplicity’s sake result in Plato/Socrates’ altered states of consciousness, come to bear as well.
Jim: Things like how the Priestess at Delphi [crosstalk 01:30:09] were probably [crosstalk 01:30:10] sniffing ethane gas more or less. Kind of like huffing gasoline, very, very similar physiologically. Then the very famous, I don’t know how you pronounce it, Eleusinian-
John: Eleusinian mysteries, yeah.
Jim: Yeah, mysteries, which I became fascinated with about 15 years ago. And at the time there was very little written about it. And again, this was some kind of deep set of altered states of consciousness that essentially all these characters went through.
John: Yeah. Plato clearly has gone through the mysteries. There’s been a recent book. I purchased a book but I haven’t read it and I can’t remember the title. So we keep coming back to the potential that there were psychedelics involved in the Eleusinian mysteries. It’s possible, maybe even probable now. We have to remember, and this is something that Aidan Lyon talks about, that psychedelic experiences don’t necessarily have to be driven by ingesting substances. You can also do it through sleep deprivation, drumming [inaudible 01:31:02] shamans, do all kinds of things that induce this. Shamans also in some cultures use entheogens, there’s definitely that going on.
John: We know that Pythagoras literally went into a cave for some extended period, doing something called the Thunder Stone ceremony. We have no idea what this is. But going into caves [inaudible 01:31:22] going back to the Shamanic Paleolithic. It really puts this zap on your brain if you spend extended time in a cave. It’s a way of inducing an altered state of consciousness, blurring the distinction between being awake and being asleep. I think it’s reasonable to say that people are experimenting with altered states of consciousness. Socrates, famously, would stand in place for 24 or 48 hours lost in a kind of trance, a kind of internal mindfulness state or something that’s going on. That’s reported happening on more than one occasion. In fact, I think in one book, right before he comes to the Symposium that he’s doing this. It seems to afford him some extraordinary abilities, he seems to be able to drink people under the table.
Jim: That’s one that everybody alludes to that, this boy was a serious lush, right?
John: Yeah. Is it in the Phaedo or in the Sympo- I think it’s in the Symposium, the line is, “towards the end of the evening. And Socrates was still clear-headed and he gave us indisputable proofs of the immortality of the soul, but we were all too drunk and stupid to remember.”
Jim: Talk about your perspectival knowing, right? [crosstalk 01:32:35]
John: Yes, very much [crosstalk 01:32:37] yeah.
Jim: Can you imagine having a drunken conversation with Socrates, that would be something to remember.
John: Yeah, [crosstalk 01:32:44] yeah.
Jim: If you weren’t to drunk, right? So anyway, let’s move to Socrates, the thing I suppose that most people don’t know anything about Socrates know, is that his watch words were “know thyself.”
John: Yeah, I have it tattooed on my back.
Jim: Wow that’s right, you did mention that. You did mention in the videos, that it doesn’t mean, “know your autobiography”. They’re more something like, “understand how you operate”. Think of it as, having access to an owner’s manual for [crosstalk 01:33:13] yourself.
John: Yes, exactly, exactly.
Jim: I like that a lot actually. Talk to us a little bit about Socrates and the sense of “know thyself.”
John: This is, again, going to be a challenge for me, because I’m working on another extended video series called “After Socrates.” So, I have been delving very deeply and broadly, I hope, into a lot of the current scholastic literature around this figure. He is also one of the sages that I internalize, in a stoic fashion. To try and improve my capacity for perspectival knowing, and transformation, and participatory transformation. Socrates means a great deal to me. So Socrates… was very opposite to the romantic notion that you are born with your true self. It’s the meaning of life. You have your true self and it’s a pre-packaged destiny within you, and you have to come into an awareness of this and it unfolds in your autobiography and you can see the influence of Rousseau and others in this notion.
John: Socrates has, and Moar makes a good case for this in his book, and other people, Agnes Callard is actually doing some work on Socrates around this, she literally wrote the book on aspiration. Socrates, in fact, proposes the aspirational self. Socrates proposes that knowing yourself is, not to come into awareness of your pre-packaged identity and autobiography, it’s to become aware of the machinery of the self. In some sense, to turn the self into a verb, you’re “selfing” and to direct and orient that “selfing” towards being a wiser person that is more virtuously, in both the sense of moral and virtuosity, in contact with themselves, with other people, and reality. For Socrates, those three are all bound up together in “know thyself.” You can not properly know yourself if you cannot properly know other people and help them to know themselves. The two of you both together, come to know the world better. You’ll see these three dimensions always interwoven by Socrates if you move through the Socratic dialogues.
Jim: He also contrasts his approach to the more pure natural philosopher [crosstalk 01:35:38] Thales, Pythagoras types, right? He’ll say they provide facts, but they don’t provide the wisdom necessary to transcend ourselves.
John: Yes, exactly. So we know, as I said, that Socrates is deeply impressed by the endeavors of the natural philosophers Anaxagoras. Anaxagoras proposed that mind was behind everything, but when Socrates got to the bottom of this, he didn’t find any guidance in how to become wiser, how to overcome his own capacity for self-deception, self-destructive behavior. He wanted trues that, it’s both senses. Trues that were only disclosed in transformation and that those trues also afford transformation. There’s a reciprocal relationship. You have to go through a kind of transformation for them to be disclosed to you, and that’s part of how we distinguish wisdom from knowledge. Also that those trues have a transformative impact on you. They propel you even into even further transformation. Socrates very much wanted a “know thyself”, I think you put it exactly right, it’s a “know thyself” that is a wisening of oneself. That’s what I mean by it being inherently aspirational.
Jim: We’ll get into a lot of that more when we get up to Plato, but Socrates also distinguished himself and famously bashed the sophists’.
Jim: Tell us about who the sophists’ were and what they were about.
John: So the sophists’ invented a new psycho-technology, rhetoric, and it’s still with us today. The sophist represents sort of the opposite of the natural philosophers, at least to the Socratic turn of mind because, whereas, the natural philosophers are giving us trues, but not giving us the virtues of transformation. The sophists’ are presenting things that are very salient to us, very catchy to us that seemed to promise powerful transformation. Those trues are often, or even explicitly disconnected from any attempt to get at the truth of things, to get a deep and truer understanding. That’s where I make use of Frankfurt’s modern notion of “bullshit”, as the sophists’ at least to the Socratic and platonic turn of mind are guilty of bullshit. They’re guilty of making things deeply salient and the intensity of that salience promises transformation, but it’s actually disconnected from the facts that are needed for the transformation to occur.
John: So an example I give is a shampoo, commercial shampoo. You have beautiful, swelling music, bright sunshine, and this person. So the product is being made super salient to you and the promise is being made, that what the salience points to is, you will go through a kind of transformation in which you will come into a happier life. Your life will be this kind of life, if only you use the shampoo. Now, you know, at least I hope at one level, that’s just false. Shampoo is shampoo. It cleans my hair, I look a little better. That’s about it, right? Nevertheless, what’s happening in bullshit, is your concern for, your care for the truth is being diminished. It’s being turned off. You don’t really care that it’s not true because you’re so caught up in the salience and the promise. For Socrates, and this is where I agree with Socrates, that means the sophists were basically teaching people to bullshit themselves and each other.
John: This leads to pervasive kinds of self-deception both individual and group acts of self-deception, and this was to Socrates’ mind, something that had to be seriously challenged. He considered it one of the contributing factors for the rise of demagoguery and some of the other horrors that emerged in the Athenian democracy.
Jim: Yeah. In fact, I put in my show notes, the sophists were the first professional bullshitters, right?
John: Yes, yes!
Jim: Yeah, quite literally, right. I mentioned to John in the pregame, pre-show discussion, but watching his videos led me to read five books that he referenced. The first one we’ve come to wasn’t actually the first one I read, but the first one we’ve come to so far is Harry Frankfurt’s book on bullshit.
John: Yes, yes.
Jim: Actually, I re-read it. I read it when it first came out. How could you not read a book titled “On Bullshit” by a famous philosopher. It’s short and it’s good. It’s actually very apropos to John’s work because John goes on to say that Socrates was telling us, didn’t use the word, but he was telling us nonetheless, that we ourselves all [crosstalk 01:40:31] the time.
Jim: In fact, you make the claim that it’s impossible for us to lie to ourselves [crosstalk 01:40:36] but it’s quite easy for us to bullshit ourselves. Could you unpack that a little bit?
John: Yeah. I mean, if we’re going to use these terms strictly and not metaphorically, I get it. Often people are using the statement, they lie to themselves just as a metaphor and they’re not unpacking it. To speak strictly to lie is to state a proposition that you know is false in order to manipulate somebody else into believing it’s true. The liar, and this is part of Frankfurt’s analysis, the liar is depending on people’s concern for the truth to manipulate their behavior. The liar gets you to believe “not P” when “P” is the case, because he or she knows that if you believe “not P” that will have an impact on your behavior. That’s how the liar works. The liar depends on your commitment to the truth in order to manipulate your behavior. The reason why you can’t lie to yourself is what you’re doing is asserting a proposition that you know isn’t true, in the hopes that you’ll come to believe it’s true, but belief doesn’t work that way.
John: This goes back to Ryle and other philosophers, belief isn’t an act. Try it, try just believing. You can say stuff in your head. You can imagine, you can desire. Think of a belief you’d like to have. I’d like to believe, I would like to really believe that everybody loves me. That would be wonderful. I can’t do it. I can imagine it, I can say it over and over again, but I just can’t make myself do that. I can’t lie to myself in that fashion. What I can do is I can bullshit myself. How could bullshit myself towards that? Well, what I can do is I can notice the fact that attention has a complex relationship with salience. My attention is caught by things that are salient. So if I suddenly yell, right, that’s salient and that catches your attention, but I can also direct my attention and make something salient.
John: If I say to you, your left big toe, it’s now salient to you because you directed your attention there now stands out for you. Notice we can direct our attention and by directing our attention, we can make something salient and by making it salient and attention is affected by its own history, when I make something salient to you, it’s more likely to catch your attention in the future. Then, if I direct my attention, you get this vicious cycle that can build. So what can I do to make myself think that everybody loves me?
John: Well, I can pay a little bit more attention to let’s say, this is what John Vervaeke could do, “He could go onto YouTube and start looking at some of these comments that are under his videos of people saying wonderful things about him and he could start ignoring all of those and he could spend more and more time and he could catch more and more of the comments. He’s even more likely to, you know, that ambiguous one, I bet you, that’s actually one indicating that people really love me.”
John: I could slowly bullshit myself into this belief because of the way attention works. If I disconnect the way attention works with salience from my concern for understanding the truth, then I can bullshit myself and we do it all the time. I think there’s now even empirical evidence, good empirical evidence showing that social media is basically gasoline on the fire of bullshit. It really affords, it has the potential. It has all kinds of other potential, and that’s why I think it’s a kind of a kairos for us, but it has tremendous potential to bullshit, right? Instagram is bad for your mental health.
Jim: I’ve never been on Instagram fortunately [crosstalk 01:44:01].
John: Good for you, good for you.
Jim: Occasionally I’ll look at some of my wife’s photography. She’s a professional photographer and she posts beautiful pictures on Instagram, but no, I don’t do Instagram, but I’ve read enough about it to realize that it seems to be almost the perfect storm for putting voodoo into the heads of, particularly young women, right?
John: Yes, yes. What you’re getting is, you’re getting bullshit. You’re getting the presentation of pseudo perfection. Like here’s my meal and here’s me happy. You do a little bit of research, and first of all, that’s almost never a real event. It’s almost always a staged event, it’s been edited, it’s blah-blah-blah. And so it is, and I mean this in a very important sense, it’s unrealistic. [inaudible 01:44:46] but it’s salient, and this is why the whistleblower’s are coming out right now. It’s designed to grab your attention and hold your attention.
John: If you are constantly paying attention and allowing your attention to be caught by these unrealistic images of what a happy life looks like and what a beautiful woman looks like, for example, you are going to be putting a terrific strain on yourself to try and meet these unrealistic expectations. What we’re seeing is many people, as you said, especially young women, for particular kinds of Instagram patterns, they’re being harmed by this, they’re falling into anxiety, their depression. There’s some indication that might be influencing body dysmorphia. That’s a case of, and way in which social media can let us ourselves into very self deceptive and self-destructive behavior.
Jim: Indeed, I’d like to point out that there’s a well-known cognitive bias that playing with saliency works against that’s the so-called availability bias, right [crosstalk 01:45:52]
John: Very much. Yes, very much.
Jim: [inaudible 01:45:54] Which frankly in plain English is, what’s ever been in your head recently is more likely to be in your head soon, right?.
John: [crosstalk 01:45:59] Yeah, yes.
Jim: That’s why the car salesman babbles, at least the really good ones, sort of babble on in this stream of consciousness about the trivial, but wonderful little features of the cup holders and the [crosstalk 01:46:11] map holders, because if he fills your head full of positive little details about the car, when you go home and think about what car you’re going to buy, oddly enough, the one that had the most trivial little positive things pushed into your head by this babble-y stream of consciousness is the one you’re more likely to think positively about that.
John: That’s excellent, Jim. I think that’s an excellent example. I think actually, it’s an exemplary example in that the intersection of babble and bullshit is also growing in our culture in a very profound way.
Jim: In fact, this is the age of bullshit, right? [crosstalk 01:46:45].
John: Yes yes, yeah.
Jim: It seems like it used to be, you’d hear bullshit when you went to, went to deal with a car salesman or a funeral director or something, but now it’s all day, all the time, it’s pure bullshit. It’s astounding.
John: Yeah. One of the things we did in the zombie book was trace the usage of bullshit, you can do that through Google and other things. The graph does this spike, it’s a nonlinear accelerating graph function. The way bullshit is at least being perceived to being more pervasive. I think it’s a reality, it’s also more pervasive, but there’s clear evidence that it’s perceived as being more pervasive than it ever was.
Jim: All right. Well, let’s do one last section here before we call a wrap on this episode. Socrates was aware of the fact that we were bullshitting ourselves, he used some different language. He seemed to be aware of the idea of availability bias or that salience had an over-sized effect on us, but he did not think that was the right way to be. How did Socrates address ideas of truth and salience?
John: This, is in two famous things that I’ve even seen on T-shirts about Socrates. One is, he claimed to “know that he did not know”, and you have to really nuance that because there’s lots of things Socrates claimed to know. One of the things he claims to know is in the other famous statement that’ll show up on a t-shirt “the unexamined life is not worth living”, and he was prepared to die for that. That indicates the degree of confidence he had in that knowledge. For Socrates, a life in which we do not endeavor to, in which we do not aspire to, use earlier language to keep these two coupled together, that we try to find the best intersection and cooperation between salience for transformation and the truth. We want to try and live a life in which we cultivate the virtues.
John: Remember the original meaning of virtue is a power combines, the ideas of skills states of mind and traits of character. It touches on all those levels of virtue. We want to cultivate virtue, especially the meta-virtue of wisdom, such that we always are seeking transformative trues and the trues that are revealed in transformation, such that we have, I think it’s fair to put this into Socrates’ mouth, such that we have the most meaning in life that is possible for us. That’s what I think he means by the unexamined life is not worth living. It is a life bereft of the depth of connection to oneself, know thyself, other people, the Socratic dialogue, the world, the whole theory of the forums, et cetera, right?
John: We know this from current research. If we do not have those connections and I mean this in both senses of the word, have them properly realized we will find our lives are not worth living. Meaning that we do not have enough meaning in life that pays for, compensates for, the unavoidable suffering and distress and pain and loss that we cover.
John: Those things are inevitable and trying to make a life free from them is, is a foolish piece of bullshit that again, our culture tries to foist on us. “You could get a life free of pain. Well, you’re absolutely safe and you’ll never experience loss”. If there’s one thing other than the romantic relationships, that’s pervasive bullshit that you should challenge, it’s that. What I mean is we’ve got good theoretical argument and evidence to back up the Socratic complaint people can tolerate, they can put up with and they can even judge their lives as worth living, if they’ve got a sufficient amount of meaning in life that has been realized that more than compensates for the suffering and the distress and the pain. I think Socrates is recommending that as your primary existential pursuit, can you cultivate the virtue that will realize the virtues and the meta-virtue of wisdom that will realize the meaning in life such that you can reliably say, my life is worth it. My life is worth living.
Jim: Very good. Let’s wrap this episode here, John. I want to thank you for an extraordinarily fun and interesting dive. I didn’t know how this would turn out, but it turns out this has been a lot of fun. I look forward to the additional episodes and John and I talked offline about the fact that my guess was after finishing my prep, that the original three episodes that I forecast is probably not quite enough, and guess what? I made it through 25% of my topic list. So I think we should go with the theory that we’re going to go to four episodes.
John: It’d be my great pleasure to do all four episodes with you, Jim. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this and I look forward to our next one.