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: Welcome back to the continuation of my conversation with John Vervaeke and the fourth of five episodes. Yep. We’ve decided to add yet another episode, so we’re adding a fifth one and that will be the last, as I look forward to us wrapping this thing up in the next one. We will continue exploring John’s legendary YouTube series, Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. To remind folks, John is an associate professor of psychology and cognitive science at the University of Toronto and creates a regular stream of very interesting videos on YouTube. Check it out.
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Jim: So now, back to the main line of our conversation. Last time we almost got through what I call the historical part of your series. Where we left off was with actually a pretty important figure, Nietzsche.
John: Yes. Yes.
Jim: And it’s odd; somebody sent me an E-book on how Nietzsche influenced, in part but not in total the Nazis, and it was actually very carefully delineated. Nietzsche would’ve hated the Nazis actually, but parts of Nietzsche, the radical romanticism, was right in the middle of the field for the Nazis. It was actually quite interesting. So, why don’t you give us your take on Nietzsche and how he, in some sense, ends, nearly ends the evolution of the Axial Age until he actually comes out, puts the flag down, and says, “God is dead.”
John: Yeah. I mean, I think starting where you started is a very good place to start, Nietzsche’s relationship with the Nazis. I agree with you totally, it is completely inappropriate to call Nietzsche a Nazi or to try to say he’s a proto-Nazi or something like that. In a very real sense, Nietzsche influences the existentialists or some of the deepest philosophical opponents of Nazism, so it’s inappropriate to identify Nietzsche with Nazism.
John: Nevertheless, it’s also appropriate to note that the Nazis found things within Nietzsche that resonated with them profoundly, as you said, a kind of already beginning to be decadent romanticism, the veneration of the will, of expression, the will to power. So, we should not identify Nietzsche with Nazism, but we should properly note that there are influences that did flow from Nietzsche to the Nazis. So, the relationship between Nietzsche and the Nazis is complex, but what it points to is something that’s very, very central about understanding Nietzsche that I would argue the Nazis are also responding to, which is, as you said, you might call it the focalization of the meaning crisis, the person who is announcing that.
John: Nietzsche very much sees himself as a prophet in the Old Testament sense, and he has the madman go into the marketplace. And by the way, he’s not talking to the Christians when he pronounces that God is dead. He’s talking to the atheists, and that tells you something very important about how Nietzsche saw his mission. He writes also sprach Zarathustra, basically to write something that’s going to compete with the Bible, especially with the prophetic books of the Bible. So, Nietzsche, I think a good way of understanding him is as a prophet of the meaning crisis, and the Nazis are very much a pseudo-religious response to the meaning crisis. And I think that’s the deadly core of the connection.
John: What does Nietzsche mean when he says, “God is dead?” He doesn’t mean just atheism. That is precisely why Nietzsche has the madman pronounce, “gott ist tot,” to the atheists in the marketplace. What he means is our ability to make intelligible and viable to us the worldview given to us by the Axial Revolution and the experience of sacredness and directedness they’re in is over. We can’t do it anymore; it doesn’t work for us anymore. And then he goes on to try and articulate. He says to the atheists, “You don’t realize what you have done in killing God.” He’s like, “You have cut the earth free from the sun. We are forever falling. You have taken a sponge and wiped away the sky.”
John: And he says, “We have to become worthy of this. We have to go through some fundamental transformation in order to properly relate to this kairos of an event. And that’s what Nietzsche’s trying to get at. He’s trying to get us to see we’re in a profound kairos where we have lost the functionality given to us by the Axial Age and mythology, the two-worlds mythology and everything we’ve been talking about. And we have not yet come up with something worthy as a replacement of it. And then, Nietzsche [inaudible 00:03:55] of course, tries to develop a response to it. Now, I tend to find Heidegger’s critic of Nietzsche very apropos. I think Nietzsche basically just inverts what he’s criticizing; he doesn’t break past it in an important way.
Jim: Yeah, you make that point that one of the big shortcomings in Nietzsche from the Vervaekean perspective is he doesn’t really address the machinery for dealing with self-deception and essentially raising the capacity of the human so as to be able to deal more strongly with rationality and overcoming self-deception.
John: Exactly. And so, this is the deep influence of romanticism in him, a kind of expressionism. It’s very profound in Nietzsche. Nietzsche, of course, and this is a way… He says this about Socrates. He said, “You know, I hate Socrates. He’s so close to me, I’m always fighting him.” And it’s the same of Christianity. His thinking is so permeating with Christianity. He’s proposing the transvaluation of all values, and we’ll overthrow slave morality and master morality, and we’ll have a clean slate, and we’ll transcend. Man is a bridge. Man is a rope between the ape and the superman. What have you done to overcome men?
John: But this is Paul. This is St. Paul, right? This is the idea that the old way of the law is being replaced with the new way of love, and we will have a blank slate. We’ll have a new birth. We’ll be a new man. It’ll be a new world, the apocalypse. And in this new way, there will be no master, no slave, no Jew, no Gentile, no male, no female. And of course, all of these categories are, as Nietzsche foresaw. They’re being criticized and critiqued by the post-modernism that came out of Nietzsche, but that is St. Paul. And let’s remember that his father’s a Lutheran pastor and he’s growing up in a very Pauline version, a religious version of Christianity. And he’s taking all of that, and he’s just, if I can put it, and I mean this deeply, he’s secularizing it, and replacing the way of love with the romantic notion of the will to power.
John: And instead of us conforming to God, we try to make the world conform to us in our will to power, and we will be the Übermensch, we will transvalue our values. And we will be the epicenter from which a new way of being and finding things sacred… because the sacred matters a lot to Nietzsche. But in general, I see Nietzsche just as he’s bound within the cognitive cultural grammar of Christianity, and he’s simply inverting it by replacing agape with the romantic notion of a will.
Jim: Yeah, the will to power, particularly. And then that reaches its culmination. You call it the clash, where the two great pseudo-religious movements of the 20th century, Marxism and Nazism, meet in the tremendous war. And from an American or Canadian perspective, we read a lot about the Western Front. The truth of the matter is the Western Front was a little thing compared to the unbelievable scale of the Eastern Front, where millions of people died, more texts that have ever been brought together since. And so, this clash was essentially two pseudo-religions, and you describe them as exemplars… I hope I’m not putting words in your mouth… of the complete politicization of the quest for meaning-
John: Yes. Great.
Jim: Rather than some other road to meaning, both Marxism and Nazism said politics is the road to meaning.
John: Yes. So, you got the proposal that the political arena is the arena in which the ultimate meaning of life and history… Let’s remember that it’s both, the individual and the collective… will be resolved and that what happens in the political arena is the clash of ideologies, where ideologies are the culmination of the exaltation of the propositional, that if we just get people to commit to a particular ideology, that a set of propositions can carry all of the machinery that was previously carried by worldview attunement and religion and culture and ritual and transformative practices and meditation and contemplation. All of that transformative machinery can be captured simply by adopting a particular ideology.
John: And I think this is, by the way, a deep meaning of what Nietzsche meant when he talked about the death of God, and Nietzsche does not see the solution to be a political solution at all, and I tend to agree with him on that. But we have this idea that you can take basically… I like the claim, I forget who made it, that Hegel was basically the Thomas Aquinas of Protestantism. And by the way, Hegel before Nietzsche actually uttered the sentence, “God is dead,” in his work, because he saw that what he was doing was slightly in his attempt to translate all of religion into philosophy, and then all of philosophy into historical movements as something that was bringing about death of God.
John: God was no longer, let’s put it, the author and the lord of history. God was being identified with the process of history. And then, what you have is that that taken into Marxism, it’s a pseudo-religious ideology, and then you have, of course, you have a very decadent romanticism and other things that we’ve talked about in Nazism in there, especially Gnosticism. Nazism is a response to the advent of domicide in the heart of Europe, and it’s a Gnostic response, and [inaudible 00:08:19] Gnosticism and decadent romanticism together. And they go together very well in some ways. And you get the idea that you have a true self that you’re born with, that you have to be true to, and that there’s a race.
John: By the way, the Gnostics used the phrase “master race” on some of their language, “Those of us who discovered that there’s a spark of divine within us, that’s a true self, we have to express this. We have to deal with the overarching conspiracy and break through to our true heritage, our Lebensraum, the place where we properly should live and belong.” This is so freaking Gnostic, it just drips with it, and it’s decadent romanticism, that will to power, the ultimate combination of expressing your true self. And of course, that will lead you into a racist worldview because you’re born with it. You are born with it; it’s in your blood and you have to be true to it. This language we throw around today about your true self and authenticity and being true to it, be careful about it, because it’s dangerous language.
John: And these two pseudo-religious ideologies that clash in a kairos, one of the most titanic battles and struggle in all of history, and they drench the world in blood and they traumatize us. They traumatize the West in a profound way. World War I was traumatic because it sort of undermined the idea of perpetual technological progress. World War II is traumatic in that it really undermines these sort of world-encompassing pseudo-religious ideologies and political movements. But I fear we are starting to forget that lesson today. I fear we are starting to forget that lesson.
Jim: Indeed. In fact, we’re returning to a world, at least especially in the United States but elsewhere in the West as well, where politicization is now getting to the point where there’s no overlap. You have, once again, two mutually incompatible politicized views of world history, and that’s been known to be dangerous. So, let’s wrap up the Axial Age, and let’s say that Nietzsche put down the flags that God is dead, well that has been going on for a long while, as you pointed out. All the way back to Aquinas, you could say that the foundation was getting a little shaky. And so, one of the attempts to fill that void has been pseudo-religious movements like Nazism, Marxism, I would add Woke-ism too, for that matter, and they probably are bad. They probably don’t work.
Jim: On the other hand, it’s also important to note that the Axial Age way of thinking still perseveres. I did some research; I was kind of surprised that 65% of Canadians say they believe in God and 49% say their religion is important to them.
Jim: Of course, in the United States, those numbers are higher; 56% profess faith in God as described in the Bible, another 33% say they believe in another type of higher power. Only one in 10 Americans say they don’t believe in God or a higher power of any sort. So, we still have this residuum of Axial Age thinking in the popular culture that’s always on tap for somebody to reach into and use as a way to stir people up.
John: Yeah, and while I think all the critiques, and Nietzsche’s critique, although I also have a critique of a critique as I’ve just mentioned, are important, to me, that’s part of the meaning crisis, that there’s a functionality there that people are still seeking. I think, in many ways, it is beset by a kind of [zealoterious 00:11:01] nostalgia as opposed to what is actually needed. If we’re in a kairos, turning back to the past is not what we need to do. We need to go forward in some important way, but we need… Part of my argument is, we need to properly… And this is a Nietzschean argument, even though I have this critique of Nietzsche… It’s not sufficient to be atheists. We have to understand what it is that’s happening; we have to understand the functionality of religion, and we have to be able to replace it and renovate it and go beyond, recreate it in both senses of the word. And that’s part of what I’m proposing.
Jim: All right. That’s a perfect setup for my next question. You do point out that the Augustinian sense of stability was very powerful, and I call it the three N’s, nomological order, normative order, and narrative order.
John: Yes, yeah.
Jim: And while anti-Christian-type atheists like myself would say it was all horseshit, but nonetheless, it did provide an extraordinarily rich sense of stability. Maybe if you could briefly run through the three N’s and maybe tie them briefly back to that very long period of Christian stability in the last 1500 years of the Axial Age.
John: So, I mean, I share with you, Jim, a lot of the criticisms of the specific metaphysical claims. Perhaps we’ll talk about that later with the proposal of non-theism. But what I think, with Christianity there, it gave us a narrative order, like integrating Aristotle and Christianity. I won’t go over that again. We talked about this. A narrative order is the sense that your story, because you experience yourself as an autobiography… Thank Augustine for that, by the way. You experience yourself as an autobiography, and that story fits within a larger story. Notice the connection between authority and authorship. They have a core shared etymology. So, there’s an authority and authorship to your life and to the world, and they fit together.
John: And we get one of the pillars of meaning in life from that, which is a sense of purpose. We’ve tended to reduce meaning in life to purpose, and that’s a mistake, but one of the dimensions that contributes to a sense of meaning in life is a sense of purpose. The normative order is that there is an account; it’s not a story, although sometimes like within the Gnostics, they turn it into a story. It’s an account of how self-transcendence makes sense to us, how we can understand it and afford it, how we can get better, how we can become more real, et cetera. And of course, the two-worlds mythology gave an account of that.
John: And this goes towards all the stuff we’ve talked about with the enhancement of meaning, the sense of realness, the cultivation of wisdom. And so that gives another dimension of meaning in life. That gives a sense of depth or significance to existence, and that’s another factor for meaning in life. And then there’s the nomological order. That’s the sense of an account of the relationship between the agent and the arena, how we view and interact with the world, and how the world is structured, that meta-meaning system, all of that that makes the world make sense to us, to have, what’s call in the literature, coherence. That’s another important factor in meaning in life
John: And then all of those afford the fourth factor, which is actually the most important of all of the factors, at least that’s what some of the research is saying, which is called mattering, which is a good use of that word, because mattering is how connected you are but even the way life literally imports matter in order to make itself. This is that. So, the three orders fundamentally connect you to yourself, to the world, and other people. So, you get all of the factors that current research into meaning in life say are important, and Christianity has this integrated account and story of all of them, and that account and story is bound up with rituals of transformation, cultivation of wisdom. It’s a great deal. And again, I am not dismissing. I think you know that. I’m not dismissing the criticisms that I think you have of Christianity. I’m trying to say what that deep functionality is.
Jim: There’s a reason it worked for so long, right?
John: Yes, yes.
Jim: It basically was a well-architected memeplex that provided value to a society for a very long time. But as you said, we can’t go back. So, we have to go forward, and the first thing you proposed as what might be part of going forward is meaning cultivation.
Jim: We ought not to impose or just find meaning, and hence a practice, I guess you can call it, of meaning cultivation. What do you mean by that?
John: Well, what I mean by that is I’m trying to get out of the empiricist Lockean model, that we are a blank slate that the world writes its meaning on, and the romantic model that the world is an empty canvass that we just express our meaning on. I’m trying to get out of both of those, and I’m using the cultivation metaphor, because in the cultivation metaphor, like cultivating a plant, you’re doing stuff, but you’re also responsible in responding to processes outside of you that are contributing to the growth of the plant. So, I’m using the cultivation metaphor to try and get beyond empiricism and romanticism, because I think our culture is locked into decadent versions of both of those.
John: And part of escaping from the meaning crisis is to get a framework for reengaging us with meaning that doesn’t bind us into these non-functioning forms of trying to, I guess… I’m trying to use a more neutral term… actualize meaning, or something like that. So, that’s why I use the cultivation metaphor, and I line that up also with the way we cultivate insight. We can’t make an insight. You can’t just wait [inaudible 00:15:32] happen. You have to do all this stuff that increases the chances of it taking on a life of its own. That’s where it lines up with the plant metaphor.
John: You do all this stuff, but the plant has to take on a life of its own. And so, all of these processes that are like insights and flow, they have to be cultivated. You can’t make them or receive them, but they have to be cultivated. And then there’s a deeper argument behind that, which is the idea that meaning is ultimately, and relevance especially, is ultimately transjective in nature.
Jim: And you referred to intelligence as one of the things that is useful around meaning cultivation, and let’s do a very brief dive into Newell and Simon and their erroneous thought that all problems are the same.
John: Yes. So, first of all, I mean, again, their mistakes are for me like Descartes’s mistakes. I mean, I wish I made their mistakes. And one of the things I’ve tried to do… bringing it again, I’m releasing a video with Anna Riedl on Friday about the seminal influence, and it keeps coming back, of Simon’s work, especially on the notion of bounded rationality. But Newell and Simon were of the opinion that all problems are basically the same kind, same kind of problem. And typically, many people interpret that, and I do too, is them thinking that all problems are basically well-defined problems, problems in which are representation of the initial state, the goal state, the operators, the path constraints, is very helpful for us. And so, processes of insight and problem reformulation are not that important.
John: And what they were looking for is they were looking for a properly general method, a single heuristic. They knew it couldn’t be an algorithm, and you have to give them great credit for that. That’s a very important insight. But they were looking for a general heuristic that would apply to the essence of all problems, and the means-ends heuristic is supposed to be an example of that. It failed for a whole bunch of important reasons I won’t go into, even though we still use versions of it today. And there’s an irony here, because I would argue that they fell prey to a heuristic that we use, which is the essentialism heuristic. The essentialism heuristic is if we have a category name, all the members must share an essence.
John: And Wittgenstein just destroys that. He destroys that proposal. That’s why we call it the essentialism heuristic. No, the problem we have today is we swung too far the other way, “There’s no such things as essence.” No, no. The essentialism heuristic exists, adaptively, because there are categories for which it works. In fact, I would propose to you, and this is Quine’s idea, that one of the things science does is discover the categories that have an essence and distinguish them from the categories from which we can’t have an essence. This, by the way, is a proper place for the philosophical criticism of scientism. Scientism is the claim that we can… No, all knowledge is scientific and everything is acquired scientifically.
John: But if this argument is right, and the [inaudible 00:17:52] argument, I think it’s really profound, there are many categories for which we can’t have a science, because they are not categories bound together by an essence but by family and resemblance. But nevertheless, I still have knowledge of games, even though there’s no essence to games. To say I don’t know what a game is and I don’t have knowledge of games is false. But there can’t be a science of that. I’m not talking about Game Theory; that’s a different thing. I’m talking about the way Wittgenstein uses the word here. So, what this means is that Newell and Simon were falling prey to a heuristic. They thought all problems were essentially the same.
John: But many people, and this is a big deal, both for second generation, and especially third generation for a cognitive science, many of our problems are not well-defined; they’re ill-defined problems.
Jim: Yeah, I give a good example of that, which is, “How do you educate a child to be a useful and happy adult.” That’s not a well-defined problem, but it’s of central importance to designing a civilization.
John: Exactly. Thank you, Jim. I mean, that’s, again, Plato writes all of the Republic and other things, trying to wrestle with that problem. Whether or not we would agree with his solution, he saw that it is not a problem, and you can see that he tries to propose various things. He tries to make it an algorithm and it keeps not working. He failed repeatedly. He fails with [inaudible 00:18:52], he fails with Dionysus, and towards the end he comes to realize, no, especially in the seventh [inaudible 00:18:57], “I can’t turn this into a well-defined problem. I can’t make education a well-defined problem.” And when a mind profound as that realizes something like that, we should pay attention to it.
John: So, that’s prototypical example, but your everyday life is filled with it, going on a successful first date, participating in a good conversation, all of these things. And so, Newell and Simon missed that a big part of our intelligence, and I would argue a bigger part of our intelligence, is exactly our capacity for problem formulation, for finding and formulating problems, in an insightful way, whether or not that insight is conscious or not, such that we can achieve our goals in a reliable fashion.
Jim: Yeah, and we both know that one of the things, at least I have found and I think you would agree, that great scientists are more distinguished by their ability to ask the right, well-formed question than they are to actually do the research work.
John: Yes, I totally agree with you. I was teaching yesterday about Piaget’s genius. I have disagreements and criticisms of Piaget’s model of child development, but he has this profound insight. Intelligence testing, and this is relevant to our topic, have been going on for a long time, and people had been just looking at the pattern of successes, of the correct answers that kids have been giving. And Piaget said, “But wait. Maybe there’s a pattern in the error. Maybe the errors are systematic, and that points to systematic constraints in how children are trying to make sense of the world.” And this is just a brilliant, brilliant formulation of a problem.
Jim: It’s a simple, obvious, but brilliant move that nobody had made in 2,500 years, right?
John: Yeah, yeah.
Jim: Just like I always say that Darwinian evolution had been on the table since the time of Aristotle, but nobody every picked it up, you know?
Jim: It’s quite amazing how some of these big moves, these simple but powerful moves, just sit there for a long time until the right person comes along and does, “Oh, yeah.” They have the insight into problem formulation, as you say. Now let’s move onto… I’m so glad that you put this as in some ways foundational in your thinking, is the idea of the combinatorial explosion. And this is really important. And my high school English teacher, she was quite the character, Mrs. Kinsley in 11th grade, she’d give you these jokingly and said, “Well, you know, if you’re ever taking an American history test and you don’t know the answer, just say Ben Franklin.” If it’s biology and you don’t know the answer, say, “Osmosis.”
Jim: You know, I have found when I’m talking to AI people, I can make them think I’m a lot smarter than I actually am about AI, and I would say, “Well, how does that deal with the combinatorial explosion of inference,” right?
John: Yeah, yeah.
Jim: And they go, “Goddamn, he’s a hell of a lot deeper than I thought that old country bumpkin was.” And it really is fundamental, and in a couple of different ways. And I’d love to make a little bit of a distinction here when it gets to a point that you did not address, which is I think of there’s at least two combinatorial explosions that we have to deal with as agents in the arena. The first is how to divide the world up meaningfully. We have just raw sense data coming in, and with vision, as we know, it’s just a bunch of saccades hopping around, and somehow we take pixels turn them into lines and corners, turn them into shapes, somehow project them into an invariant 3D representation, sort of.
Jim: I mean, there’s an arbitrarily large ways that you could take… Let’s compress vision down in a way that’s not realistic but simple, as just as raster image. Even if it’s only 1,000 by 1,000, there’s two to the millionth ways to parse that, at least. And that’s a number far bigger than the number of primary particles in the universe. So, that’s one combinatoric explosion, and the other is the problem of inference, which is if you actually try to think through most things, you just can’t do it. Even driving a car. If you’ve actually sat there and said, “Okay, I have to think about all these things,” and et cetera, there’s no way you could do it. The number of possibilities explodes.
Jim: And so, I guess one of the things I wanted to push on that I didn’t actually see anything in the series was the first one, that how to divide up the world meaningfully, I would argue is dealt with by advanced organisms, at least say from amphibians up, maybe reptiles, by low-level hard-coded machinery that creates objects. And as we know from work in deep learning, around image identification and now video identification, rather low-level algorithms are actually capable of separating objects from their foreground, background, building them hierarchically, adding a gestalt, et cetera. So, that’s a problem that, in some sense, is solved very deep in the stack, V2, V3, V4, et cetera, while the problem of inference is a higher level problem. How do you see the distinction between those two, and is it meaningful or are both combinatorial explosions equally important in your thinking?
John: So, this goes back to somebody who was deeply influential on me and one of the founding figures of first generation cog science, Jerry Fodor. And in a very famous book, The Modularity of Mind, Fodor made a distinction between these two types of solutions to the combinatorial explosion, the nature of trying to achieve our goals. And he made a distinction between modules, which as you said are sort of hard-coded and operate therefore with an algorithmic fashion, to solve what he called the initial problem of transduction, which is the problem that you’re… He doesn’t just mean what you mean in electricity. He means exactly the thing you’re saying. How do you take the information from the world and translate it into something that is viable and useful for the organism.
John: Now, I do think that there’s problems with that because of the fact that the cognitive revolution on has pointed out… And this was a notion Fodor tried to make use of. He said, “How do you distinguish those modular processes,” from what he called central systems. Central systems aren’t operating in that hard-coded fashion, and he used [inaudible 00:23:43] with it the notion of cognitive penetrability. So, if your upper level inferentially oriented processing can’t change the functionality of something, then it operates in a modular fashion. So, let’s take something that’s non-controversial. I can change my beliefs however I want about…
John: Reality is actually N-dimensional. I can believe this. I can be convinced of it, and yet my perception of three dimensions doesn’t get changed, right? And so, for him, the machinery that you said that does that translation is operating in a module fashion. He then pointed out, of course, that many of our problems can’t be solved that way. We need what he called abduction, and then there’s the problem of abduction, which Cherniak and others, myself, would say is basically the problem of relevance. Now, the problem, though, with Fodor’s proposal is although we have non-controversial examples of what he’s talking about, it’s not clear that that applies to perception, per se. This is part of which we realized in predictive processing.
John: So, for example, I can give you a screen that looks like static, and then I say to you, “Kangaroo,” and you suddenly can see, and there really is, a pattern of a kangaroo in there. Somehow that semantic word with conceptual meaning reaches down into the very, very first moments of your perception. So, while I don’t deny the modularity, trying to specify what it is… You can’t just say perception is modularity. I think that’s a mistake. There’s aspects of perception that are module, and you’re right, I think the issues of… And that’s exactly how Fodor described it.
John: They do not work in terms of relevance realization; they’re just like as you said. But I do think that there are important parts of perception. That are cognitively penetrable and therefore are still prey to that second type of combinatorial explosion. And why I say this is I want to indicate that relevance realization isn’t just a conceptual thing, it reaches into the depths of our experience, it could read into the first moments of our perceptual experience.
Jim: Yeah, I love the fact that you point out that the more we learn, the more we realize that feedback, even to the low levels of perception, is going on, and that-
John: Yes, yes, yes.
Jim: And that’s one of my critiques of deep learning, is most deep learning systems are almost purely feedforward, or at most feed-horizontal, while we know that even the vision stack, which is the closest thing we have to a feedforward system, has immense amounts of feedback from very high levels to very low levels, and that’s usually important. And I also like that you called out one of my favorites, the no free lunch theorem. Wolpert and Macready, I know Dave Wolpert pretty well, he’s a great guy, and that’s essentially one of the bases of both the problem of combinatoric explosion of inference, and the fact that there is no general problem solver, that essentially there is no search algorithm in general for all problems. And in fact, I tend to divide the world up into people who innately get the no free lunch theorems and those are the [crosstalk 00:26:08].
Jim: And it’s amazing that people, AI guys at Google, they’ll say things, and I’ll say, “Wait a minute. This guy doesn’t actually, deeply internalize the no free lunch theorem. So, what he’s saying is probably worthless, right?”
John: Yes, yes. I agree. I agree. And Jim, I hope you see that that’s kind of a foundational argument for my claim of why we need an ecology of practices, and anybody who offers you a single shot intervention panacea for your life is, in a deep sense, lying to you, because such a thing is not possible for you.
Jim: It’s mathematically provable that it’s not possible, right?
John: Yes, exactly, exactly.
Jim: As well as nice, little, homey practical examples. All right. Now, let’s move on to, in some sense, the meat of this episode, relevance realization. For those who want to learn more about it, I read an early paper of John, Timothy Lillicrap, and Blake Richards called Relevance Realization, the Emerging Framework in Cognitive Science. I’m sure your thinking has gone on from then, but I found it a very accessible, very readable introduction to the idea.
John: Right, well thank you for that, and a lot of thanks… I know Tim and Blake were both… And this is a proper word… They’re both protégés of Geoff Hinton, but they were also students of mind, and so they played a very significant role, and then later work that I did with Leo Ferraro and others. And we have a recent paper; it just got published in Phenomenology and the Cognitive Science with Garri Hovhannisyan integrating relevance realization theory and the Big Five personality theory. So, yeah, you’re very right, it’s an ongoing work. And I have criticisms of the 2012 paper. It’s funny when you go back and criticize yourself as if you’re criticizing somebody else.
Jim: It’s healthy that you can do that; and that’s important right?
John: This is one of the things when I give this as a heuristic to people who ask advice on parsing, “Who should I listen to,” is listen to people that have demonstrated in good faith real self-direction. And that’s, I mean, it’s a heuristic. It’s not an algorithm, and even in heuristics, of course, they fell prey to no free lunch theorem. But nevertheless, it’s a very useful thing to pay attention to. It’s a good criterion by which to pick people out to at least [inaudible 00:27:50] seriously.
Jim: Let’s jump into relevance realization, which I thought was a very nice argued piece, where you said that, “One cannot have an algorithm for finding relevance, and that instead, one needs a mechanism by which one can find relevance realization.” And that’s a huge distinction which you laid out very nicely.
John: Yeah. I mean, there’s a lot of argument in there. One of them goes towards the idea that… What part of the argument is… makes use of something I’ve said earlier. I think relevance is… Let’s put it this way. The category of things we find relevant does not have an essence other than we finding them relevant. And this goes to [JS Node’s 00:28:23] notion of systematic import, that in order for us to make conductive generalizations that are the key of core science, we have to find categories that have essences, because basically essences are what allow you to extend your generalization.
John: And so, we can’t get anything like an essence, and I mean this in an Aristotelian sense. There can’t be a definition of it. And I give the analogy there of adaptivity. You can give a teleological criterion of it; adaptive is whatever it is you’re doing that allows you to survive long enough to reproduce. But whatever you’re doing might be you might be big, you might be small, you might be fast, you might be slow, you might be complex, you might be simple, et cetera, et cetera. So, there isn’t a definition of it in that sense. What Darwin did, was he didn’t try to give like the naturalists were trying to do. They were trying to find the definition of adaptation and perfection, because that would give them an insight into the mind of God.
John: That’s why most of the naturalists in Darwin’s time are actually clergymen. And they’re doing exactly what you criticize the Google people, like the people that Google criticizes like, “You don’t get it. You’re looking for it in the wrong ways.” It’s similar to Newell and Simon thinking all problems are well-defined. And what Darwin saw was, “I can’t give an account of this because no such definition is possible. Therefore, there’s no algorithm that could operate on the essence of this.” Instead, what Darwin came up with was an account, and I think Darwin’s theory is properly understood as a dynamical systems theory. It was a virtual engine of constraints on a feedback cycle of the reproductive cycle, et cetera, et cetera, that chose how adaptivity is constantly being remade and redefined from previous instances of adaptivity, precisely because there is no final definition of adaptivity.
John: That’s the core of evolution, that adaptivity is constantly being redefined and recreated constantly because the environment is not stable, and therefore, there is no final solution to the issue of adaptation. And that’s what I mean; there isn’t an algorithm, but there is nevertheless a mechanism by which it is constantly evolving. And I propose, and Tim and Blake with me, what’s emerging in cognitive science, for cognitive science, is the realization that something very strongly analogous to evolution is going on in the brain in order for the brain to solve the problem of making itself cognitively adaptive, cognitively fitted, to its constantly changing environment. That’s the basic proposal of relevance realization, and that you can see a lot of families of solutions basically doing something like this. There’s some aspect of the mechanism that varies that option, and then some aspect that selects it down, and then from that selective remaining, the new variation is generated, and then a new selection.
John: This is at the heart of the wake-sleep algorithm at the core of deep learning. That’s what making it have the success that it has. Like you, I don’t think it’s sufficient. I’m not claiming that. What I’m trying to point is, and what you’re trying to point out is the emerging framework, is that you see adversarial processing. You see all of these things in which biological evolutionary mechanisms are being sort of rediscovered or at least proposed for what’s at the heart of our general intelligence.
Jim: Indeed, and the next move you make, which I think is quite interesting, is that you say that… And it’s pretty much like Darwinian fitness… relevance realization’s got to be grounded in an economic/pragmatic model.
John: Yes. So, this argument, I mean it builds on the argument I just made, but there’s also an independent converging argument, which is the levels at which we have tried to give our generative accounts, not our descriptive but our generative accounts of cognition, how is cognition generated, we’ve typically tried to run them at the representational level or the logical/syntactical level. And I give arguments, not only my own argument, but many arguments from many people, that those levels can’t generate relevance realization, because they properly presuppose it.
John: For example, just to give one example, the semantic level that we work at normally, the level of our representational ideas, I take an argument from John Searle to be very powerful, that all representation is inherently aspectual, that when I’m representing something, I’m not picking up on all of its properties or all of its relation, but some subset that I find relevant that I can fit together to fit me so that I can use that representation to fit the object and fit the world. Aspectuality is a species, an instance, or relevance realization, and therefore representations presuppose relevance realization. And therefore, they cannot be generative of it.
John: Jim, this is the deep reason why the ideological level can’t give us this. The level of ideas and representational beliefs is not the level that generates relevance. It is a level that ultimately, fundamentally presupposes it.
Jim: Yeah, let’s come up and see if we can come up with a little homey example of relevance realization for our listeners. I was sort of playing with that in my head this morning. I said it’s something that anybody 10 years old and above seems to be able to do with very high-level precision, which is to be able to distinguish similar sized dog from a cat, right?
Jim: Somehow we have a relevance realization of the myriad that close to infinite number of possible ways to look at a dog and a cat, and we somehow find what is relevant to distinguish them.
John: Yes. Very much. And Goodman, a very important philosopher, a little bit neglected, I think, and one of the things I want to do is advertise how important he is… Goodman made clear that we paper over this by equivocating our notions of similarity. And I call it the Sesame Street model, “This is how I do it. It’s so obvious. I notice the cats are all similar to each other, and I notice the dogs are all similar to each other, and I notice that cats and dogs are dissimilar from each other, and that’s how I do it. What’s so hard about that?” And then Goodman pointed out, “Well, you’re equivocating. You’re equivocating between two different things. You’re equivocating between a logical meaning of similarity which is two things are similar if they truly share properties. If they shared all properties, they’d be identical. If they share a lot of properties, but not all properties, they’re similar.”
John: Now, the problem with that is, logically, any two objects are, therefore, highly similar, and by the way, also equally highly dissimilar from each other, because any two objects that I can pick, I can give an indefinitely large list of properties that they share, any two objects, a [inaudible 00:33:58] and a lawnmower, a paperclip and battle of [inaudible 00:34:01]. And that’s what Goodman pointed out, so logically, everything is similar and dissimilar to everything else. So, it wouldn’t help you sort the world. Then there’s a psychological sense of similarity which is, “Yes, but most of those true comparisons aren’t relevant. They’re not important. They don’t matter to me.” And that’s when you say, “Well, what I do is, out of all the true things that are logically shared between any two objects, I zero in,” and here’s the aspectualization again, “I zero in on a subset of features that are important to me, that are relevant.”
John: And Goodman pointed out, “That’s a very different problem. That’s a very different sense of similarity from logical, and we equivocate between them and think we [inaudible 00:34:36].” It’s obvious to us, so that generating that obviousness is not something we can use to explain it’s something we have to explain. Like you said, why is it obvious to the 10-year-old that cats and dogs are different, even though there is no logical, in its technical sense, way of accounting for that?”
Jim: Yup it’s very intriguing. And you talk about this as an embodied and embedded dynamical system, and it’s down here at this level below the propositional. And so it’s something that’s going on constantly; it’s part of our underlying machinery.
John: Yeah. And so, the idea is… Well, think about that. Think about this idea of selection and variation, of what it’s doing, and this is one of the proposals that we made in the 2012 paper. But what you can do is you can sort of… You can’t solve the no free lunch theorem, but you can sort of hack it by getting various heuristics to play off against each other in a trade-off relationship. And that, by the way, doesn’t violate the formal proof of the no free lunch theorem. Tim went through and made sure of that very technically and carefully.
John: And so, let me give an example of this important processing in your embodied existence and how it works. And so, one of the things, I’m not reducing, but one of the things that is contributing to your sense of what’s salient and relevant to you is your level of arousal, where arousal means your metabolic expenditure and how alerted your brain is, right? Now, we know, in fact, well I’d say we have pretty old science, that this is handled by your autonomic… notice that that means self-regulating, self-norming, ultimately self-organizing… nervous system, which is divided up into the sympathetic and the parasympathetic system. Each one of these systems is biased.
John: The sympathetic system is biased to try and see as much as it can as an instance that you need to have a higher state of arousal, either because of threat or opportunity. The parasympathetic system is biased, and that’s what heuristics do, they bias you, it is biased to try to interpret as much as the world as an indication that you should reduce your level of arousal, you should relax and you should recuperate and heal. And although they are working… they have opposite biases, they are functionally integrated. They are coupled together. So, they’re constantly pushing and pulling on each other. And what that does is constantly, moment by moment, in a completely embodied fashion, calibrate your level of arousal.
John: Is it perfect? No. But is it damn good? Yes. And that’s the example of what I mean about how embodied these processes are. This is Evan Thompson’s idea of deep continuity, that you can see this kind of opponent processing at the highest levels of our cognition and in the deepest levels of our biology.
Jim: And so, much of it is these opponent processing, where we reach a autopoiesis, essentially, a hysteresis that essentially maintains the dynamic stability through things that are pushing in two directions simultaneously. I’m going to skip some stuff that’s very interesting to me, more formally about dynamical systems, self-organizing criticality, small world networks. They’re very interesting. People interested in it, watch the video, but we’re going to move on. And one of the things that you said, which I’m not sure about, is that you said you’d think that general intelligence, I think you said, is the base of relevance realization. Did I quote you right there?
John: No. The claim is the opposite way around, that I think at the core of general intelligence is relevance realization.
Jim: Yeah, my notes were not too clear on that. So, let’s get that clear. So, yeah, relevance realization is the underlying engine that supports general intelligence.
John: Yes, that’s what I would argue.
Jim: Okay, good. Better. And you also make the point that you said, “G is the single most important thing to know about somebody.”
John: Yeah. That was a bit provocative, but people don’t like G, and they want other things. They want multiple intelligences and they want emotional intelligence. And the problem that… what happens experimentally is when you control for G, a lot of these phenomena disappear. They disappear experimentally, and that keeps happening, by the way. And I know people don’t want to hear that, and there’s part of me that kind of doesn’t want to hear that either, but we have to be responsible to what the experimental data shows. And the other data is G is really powerfully predictive of a lot of important dimensions in your life and, “Oh, well our measures are biased.”
John: Yes, they have been, and they probably continue, but compared to other psychometric measures, we have gone through the most self-correction and self-improvement on the psychometrics for intelligence than we’ve done for anything else. The history of self-correction and self-improvement on this psychometric is greater than that that we do for attachment theory, for the Big Five, et cetera. It doesn’t mean we can’t keep improving. I’m not saying that. In fact, my previous argument says we always have to keep improving this measure. But the point is it is a very good measure.
John: Now, here’s what I want to say to counterbalance that. There’s times of good experimental evidence over a 30-year period by Stanovich and a whole host of other people that measures of G are not predictive of your performance on tasks that involve what we call reasoning or rationality. So, while intelligence is really crucially important… and Stanovich has a book, like What Intelligence Tests Miss. What they miss, what they don’t test for, is they don’t test for rationality. And while your intelligence is largely fixed, your rationality is significantly transformable.
Jim: Interesting. If general intelligence is based on relevance realization, ought there not be some mechanism to improve our relevance realization, which would increase our G?
John: Yeah, there is one sense in which that’s what rationality is. Rationality is a kind of a higher order recursive enhancement of our abilities. Specifically, what we’re typically doing, although I want to challenge this at some point, but in our prototypical meanings of rationality, what we’re doing is a recursive improvement of our relevance realization machinery so that it more closely tracks our attempts to get at the truth. Those can come apart, and what we find relevant isn’t necessarily what is taking us towards the truth. One of the goals of rationality is to tailor and teach our relevance realization so that it more reliably tracks the truth. That’s, for example, what the scientific method itself is designed to do.
John: So, in that way, we can enhance our relevance realization, by making it more rational, and then the previous point I made [inaudible 00:39:56] before, what about the core guts of the machinery? There’s some preliminary evidence… I mean, so working memory is highly correlated with measures of G. This makes sense; Hasher’s argument about working memory is relevance realization [inaudible 00:40:07] chunking, et cetera. I won’t go into that whole argument again. And it looks like, you know, like I’m saying this very cautiously, because the evidence is very preliminary… I want that noted… that there’s some preliminary evidence, and it’s properly gone through peer review and it’s been vetted. That doesn’t mean it’s true or anything like that. But it means it can’t be ignored… that longterm mindfulness practice enhances working memory function, and thereby could nudge you a bit in your measures of G.
Jim: Okay. Any evidence on that yet?
John: There’s some. Like I said, there’s some preliminary evidence. And it’s not enough to make the claim, but it’s enough to think the claim should be taken seriously.
Jim: Got it. Next, you make the point that relevance realization is always in a context of caring, affect, salience, et cetera, and that the affect-laden choices come up from essentially our bioeconomy and maybe our hedonistic economy.
John: Yeah, so like I said, we have to drop below the level of the semantic and the syntactic, and that’s the bioeconomic level. I gave you the example of the autonomic nervous system, et cetera. Because what you’re facing, what relevance realization is facing, what Cherniak calls the finitary predicament. You have a limited amount of time, you have a limited amount of processing resources, and there’s also growing opportunity cost when you commit to one thing rather than the other. And so, there’s all this. You’re terrifically constrained. And one thing you do, of course, with your intelligence is try to make use of those constraints. But you’re terrifically constrained.
John: So, your resources and your time and lost opportunity are very, very bioeconomically valuable to you. And so, whenever you are exercising relevance realization, you are in the finitary predicament and you’re in some sense gambling and risking, and you’re committing. And I like the metaphor pay attention, because it captures that in, again, a nice way. You’re always paying attention. Think of attention almost as you’re cognitive coinage, and you’re trying to sort of place your bets in the world, here. And you know when you’re doing that, you care about it a lot, like just going to a casino you’re going to be gambling with money. You care about it. That’s why if you’re playing poker and money’s at stake, it’s a great game, and if money isn’t at stake, it’s a boring, boring game. It’s a really boring game.
John: And so, the idea here is this is always, as I say, not only is relevance realization constantly evolving, it’s constantly involving. It’s affectively-laden. It’s not cold calculation. Read Montague made this point really clearly, the neuroscientist. He said the difference between us and computers is we have to care about the information we’re processing. That’s fundamentally because we’re taking care of ourselves. As you said, we’re autopoietic beings. And so, every act of relevance realization is affective, in both senses of the word.
Jim: I don’t know if I dare go down this rabbit hole, but let’s see if we can do it in a very quick way. Can you compare and contract relevance realization with a very close neighbor? At least it seems to me that’s got a lot of attention in cognitive science these days, and that is attention.
John: So, I have a proposal, and I want it understood that’s the epistemic status of what I’m going to say here, and this is work I’m doing with Brett Andersen and Mark Miller, is that there’s something right within the predictive processing model that predictive processing needs precision waiting. It needs something that prioritizes one stream of error signal over others. And the early attempts to do that with notions of reliability largely sort of collapsed. And then it went to something that made me sort of laugh. Andy Clark said, “Oh, you know what’s controlling precision waiting? Task relevance.” And I thought, “Oh, here we go. Relevance realization.”
John: And then what Mark Miller is doing is saying, “Yeah, but the task relevance is basically being decided by these self-organizing affective processes.” It lines up with exactly what we’re saying. And I take that to line up with a lot of… especially [inaudible 00:43:22] and other people’s work. But what attention is doing is exactly that process of prioritization of signal. And attention is doing it. Think about how attention is simultaneously bottom up and top down and how your attention is doing something evolving. Your attention wants to add variation in addition on return, mind wander, drift away, look at other things, and it also has a task focus. And you’re constantly trading between default and task focus. You’re constantly introducing variation, putting selective pressure on it. And you’re constantly evolving what’s salient to you. And again, salience, you cultivate salience, you participate in it. You can direct it, but you can also be captured by it.
Jim: So, is it fair to say that relevance realization is an underlying process which is organized up to attention?
John: Yes, and I would then extend that to say that we have… One of the things that’s happening is we’re coming to realize how much when we’re saying intelligence, we’re actually pointing to attentional processes.
Jim: And we know there’s a very strong correlation between G attentional measures as well. All right, let’s move on now to the infamous episode 33.
John: I didn’t realize it was infamous.
Jim: Just for me.
Jim: Most of John’s series I found I could watch it and read the transcripts, write up notes, and it all kind of made sense to me, but I still don’t know what the hell he’s talking about, with respect to the phenomenology of relevance realization in terms of meaning-making and how that is closely related to the notion of spirituality.
John: Right, and so I will agree with you at least initially in that I knew when I did 33 that this was a pivot episode. And Paul VanderKlay, who was watching it, he said, “Oh, this is a big episode.”
Jim: Yeah, very big. For me, it’s the episode. I’ve watched it three time, I’ve read the full transcript twice, I’ve gone through my own notes like five times, and I got sort of a sense, but man, you need to explain this damn thing.
John: Yeah. So, first of all, I think your criticism is well-placed, in that I think I tried to pack too much into there, too many moves of argumentation. I should’ve probably split it up over maybe three episodes and gone a lot more slowly. But if you remember, I said that in the episode, “If I unpack this the way I want to, this is going to be 150 episodes, and then I’m going to kill my crew or my crew’s going to kill me.” And so, I was aware at the time. So, I think your criticism lands fairly. What I was trying to show… I was trying to first make a plausibility argument, the idea… And we talked about plausibility. All these things converge, categorization, communication, all this stuff we’ve been talking about converge on this idea of relevance realization and it being this embodied bioeconomic, autopoietic process.
John: And then I was saying, I was trying to use that to say, “But I can use that [inaudible 00:45:43] machinery to describe a lot of the things that people pick out or point to when they talk about this when they use the word spirituality.” Now, first of all, let’s stop there, because part of the problem is that word is inchoate and nebulous in a lot of ways, and I state that in the episode. I say, “Look, I’m going to try and stipulate these factors that I find prototypically come up when people are talking about spirituality. They talk about our capacity for self-transcendence. They talk about our capacity for deep connectedness. They talk about how this is something deep in them, primordial in them.”
John: And so, what I tried to do was sort of reduce, and maybe that’s inappropriate, maybe part of what people want with the term is its vagueness, but I was trying to reduce spirituality to four or five core features, this primordiality, this transjectivity, this connectiveness, this capacity for self-transcendence, that it’s sapiential, it has sapiential dimensions to it, it affords us both cultivating wisdom, but it also drives our self-perception. And so, I was saying all of these capacities that are typically called out when people are trying to point to spirituality are things that are readily explainable, in fact I would say they’re implied by relevance realization.
John: And so, one example, self-transcendence, okay, so relevance realization, who’s driving your complexification because of the way it integrates and differentiates information, the informational structures, processing, in this massively recursive hierarchical nature. That kind of massively recursive complexification is going to give you qualitative development. We’ve talked about this. It’s going to give you self-transcendence. It’s going to give you not only developmentally, it’s going to give you those moments of self-transcendence that we call insight. I’ve tried to explain insight given. And then insight gives us access to what wisdom is, but insight also points to the fact that we are prone to self-deception, and spirituality is something about cultivating wisdom and self-transcendence.
John: The fact that relevance realization is a way in which we’re dynamically coupled to the world, that’s the sense of connectedness that we were talking about, the mattering. Mattering is relevance realization, I would argue, that it makes sense to us. This is problem formulation, the nomological order, that we can lay out a narrative. All of this can, I think, be appropriately explained by relevance realizing. But it’s spiritual because it’s primordial; it’s deeper than the conceptual. It’s deeper even than the normative or the experiential. So, it has this sense of primordial. It’s phenomenologically mysterious to me. I can’t get out. I can’t. And I make a distinction between phenomenological and theoretical mystery. You can generate theory about this, but I can’t experience what it’s like outside of my relevance realization and look at it as a phenomenological object in any way.
John: So, it’s deeply mysterious to me, and so we have these… Relevance realization is mysterious, it’s primordial, it’s binding, it affords both wisdom and can drive foolishness, it affords self-transcendence, insight. So, I used the term for all of this, the way we’re bound in this living way to ourselves, our bodies, and the world, I use the term religio, because that is what religio means. I means that binding. And I picked that because it’s one of the etymological origins of the word religion, and religion is of course where people have until very recently thought we’d find spirituality. That’s what I was trying to get at. I was trying to get at, I was trying to specify, perhaps even operationalize, what is meant by spirituality, and then show that we can give… we can show how these features of our experience and our identity are actually implied by relevance realization machinery.
Jim: Interesting. And the one move I tried to make, and it didn’t quite work, but I’m going to run around you and get your reaction to it, was what would happen if in your diagram that you put on the whiteboard, if you flipped the left side, moved it to the center, and then moved relevance realization to the left, and you said that things like problem-solving, insight, categorization, consciousness, working memory are downstream from relevance realization, and then spirituality is downstream from those? It didn’t quite work for you but I thought it was kind of an interesting hypothetical move.
John: Yeah, and so you’re pointing to another issue there. And so, when I’m giving the plausibility argument, I was giving an epistemic argument, an epistemological argument. I’m trying to say there’s a flow of argumentation. We try to solve these problems without problem-solving and categorization, and that flow or argumentation leads to relevance realization. And then, we can use that to explain. So, I was making an epistemological argument. About how the flow of argumentation can work in a plausible structure. I don’t think, yeah, I wasn’t proposing… Relevance realization is deeper, ontologically, it’s deeper than problem-solving and categorization, et cetera. So, relevance realization generates those things, and then those things go into spirituality. I think you’re right, but that’s an ontological progression, and I was trying to go an epistemic progression.
Jim: And you do make the point that the level of relevance realization is a pre-conceptual, pre-propositional, and it’s prior to our beliefs, which kind of makes it interesting.
John: And that’s another reason why the reduction of religio to credo, to “I believe,” is part of the problem I think we face today. I think a lot of these movements, and perhaps even your Game B movement, is the attempt to recover religio that’s not been identified with a particular credo. And I think that is very important, especially because credo and [inaudible 00:50:22] I believe it originally meant to give your heart to, to care about things in a certain way. And of course, that’s not what we mean anymore when we talk about pseudo-religious ideology.
Jim: Let’s hop into religio. Before we do that, I’m going to ask you a pointed question, which is religio, you know, you’re clearly resonating with the idea of religion, and you talk later… Well, we didn’t do it. Hopefully, before we run out of time in this episode… about sacredness and contracting it with the sacred. You’re intentionally choosing terms that are very close neighbors to traditional religious terminology. Why did you choose to do that?
John: I chose to do that because of Nietzsche and the marketplace and the madman. I want to get something that captures the functionality, and I think that… I have to be really careful here… I think there’s a way of talking about the phenomenology of what was talked about in these religious experiences that points to its underlying functionality. And I think that that’s… This is where I’ll piss off the people who are theistically-oriented. I think that’s what we were ultimately always talking about when we invoke these terms. So, that’s a radical thing I’ve said.
John: While sacredness was ultimately always about the supernatural and God, I’m saying, “Actually, I don’t think so.” I think that sacredness was actually about these things, and then we built a particular credo around it, which is that sacredness is the experience of the supernatural. I doubt that claim even though I accept that people have experiences that reliably correspond to the phenomenological descriptions they give. So, my choice was deliberate, and my choice was also to do what I’ve said I wanted to do. I wanted to try and build between… I wanted to bridge between spirituality and science. And it’s telling that people never just say… Well, sorry, that’s too strong. They often don’t just say they’re spiritual. I’m spiritual, but not religious.
John: And to my mind, they’re trying to do exactly that. They’re trying to get the phenomenology and the functionality separate from a particular set of credo propositions. Now, I have criticisms about a lot of the ways in which people are doing that, but I understand, at least… Sorry, I claim to understand that that’s what I think they’re trying to do.
Jim: Got it. I’m going to jump back to the point I missed, and this is the contrast relevance realization with my favorite terminology in this space. You mentioned that your view, relevance realization is at the base of general intelligence. I think maybe there’s something one higher level up, which is heuristic induction. We go back to Simon, and the one thing I do believe they were right about is because of combinatoric explosion, there is no way we can algorithmically solve the world; it’s just impossible. And perhaps the superpower, which is probably related to relevance realization, that strikes me as a somewhat higher-level concept, is the idea of heuristic induction, that somehow, we create these rules of thumb that allow us to navigate in the world based on the relatively small amount of data that’s coming in through our perceptual systems and is being retrieved from our memories in real time.
John: Yeah, so I think you’re exactly right. Remember, part of what we tried to do in the paper is show that one of the things that relevance realization does is put heuristics into a kind of a [inaudible 00:53:04] processing relationship in order to address the no free lunch theorem. And another thing is that relevance realization gives you the problem formulation that helps pick out the heuristics that will apply in terms of how you shape the problem space. So, I think that’s consonant. The part where I might… I don’t know if we disagree or not, but I tend to think with Fodor that the process by which those heuristics are created is not purely inductive process. I think it’s more properly described as an abductive process, and then that gets us right back into the heart of relevance realization.
Jim: Yeah, and we don’t quite know where a heuristic induction comes from.
John: Yeah, exactly.
Jim: And certainly not, if I should say, it’s not a formally inductive process. Abduction is a curious word in which lots of stuff is put into it, so I tend to avoid that word. But I’m just saying that we don’t know; it’s a mystery. And I suspect that if we figure out heuristic induction, we’ll be pretty damn close to computer-generated artificial general intelligence.
John: I think so. I think if we also have, as I’d argued, if we also have a process that properly coordinates the heuristics to give us the machinery of problem formulation in a powerful way.
Jim: And maybe that’s where RR comes in just downstream, and perhaps it highlights the pieces that one uses for building a heuristic.
John: Yes, sorry, I think that RR goes into whatever we want to call it, the inductive/abductive generation of heuristics, and then their coordination, self-organizing way, a dynamical way.
Jim: All right. Let’s move back to religio here. And one of the items you introduce is Paolo Costa’s idea of secular wonder.
John: Yes. That article, Paolo Costa’s article on secular wonder has had a profound impact on me, because it was an example of plausibility. Here was somebody I had not met before, coming from a very different background, and converging, using very similar kind of language to my language and articulating it better than I had in many ways. But what Costa argues is that our sense of meaningfulness is not really a focal object in our experience. It’s not like, “There’s meaning there.” He uses this metaphor of an atmosphere. It’s more like an atmosphere. We are within it and we breathe it. And I used the breathing metaphor being about to be like the important processing within relevance realization.
John: And it’s not only that we breathe it and we’re within it, it also refracts the light. It shapes how light is patterned for us. And he says that because it’s atmospheric, we do not come into a awareness of religio in focal objects, in focalized states of cognition. We come into awareness of it with those atmospheric states of cognition that we call things like moods or things like wonder. Wonder is, and I contrast it with curiosity, et cetera, using Fuller and other people…
John: What wonder is, it’s the sort of, “How does this all hang together?” It’s this atmospheric attempt to jump outside, which you can’t do, your relevance realization machinery. And it’s like, “How does it all work? How does it all fit together,” but not because you’re expecting an answer. Instead, what you’re doing is you’re trying to bring… no, you’re trying to cultivate an appreciation in the multiple senses of the word, of exactly the process by which things are becoming meaningful to you.
Jim: Cool. Now, I’m going onto the next piece, which may be the first… It may be the only place that I actually push back and say, “I think you’re wrong.” But I’m going to do it respectfully, and I’d like to be educated that I’m wrong, which is quite possible. You know a lot more about this stuff than I do. And that is your idea of the mystery of religio. In fact, you basically say it’s because the frame does not include the framing process, and that relevance realization is recursive process, essentially, that kind of just runs up and down the cognitive stack doing various things, and that that is somehow mysterious.
Jim: Now, I would push back and say I write recursive software from time to time. In fact, the world generation engine in my Network Wars game is one of the most brilliant, if I may say so, bits of recursive software, quite small bit of code, that replaced code that was 25 times longer with a deep understanding of the recursion that could do the same thing. And I don’t find it particularly mysterious that the software of recursion is different than the realized recursion of data and the various stack elements and variable values and such, which are generated by the recursive machinery. So, I don’t see anything very mysterious about the fact that RR is a recursive process. What am I missing?
John: Well, fair enough. Well, part of my reply, and we’ll see if this is adequate for you, is I take time to make a distinction between a phenomenological mystery and a theoretical mystery. And I point out that inferring one from the other is a mistake. And I give what I thought was a [inaudible 00:57:13] example. My death is phenomenologically mysterious to me. I can’t participate perspectively in what it would be like to be dead. I just can’t experience that. I can’t imagine experiencing it. The machinery won’t give that to me. It’s like you ask me to, “What’s it like to be unconscious?” I can’t tell you what it’s like to be unconscious. Have I now proven to you that I’m immortal, that it’s impossible for me to die? No, not at all.
Jim: That’s like the doofy ontological proof of the existence of God.
John: Yeah, it’s like that. It’s the confused phenomenological point. Sorry, it was triggering something I wanted to say about Anselm. But I’ll put that aside because I want to concentrate on this, which is what I’m saying is I don’t think that relevance realization is in any way a theoretical mystery. I think, I hope that the work I’m doing, and the work many other people are doing, is going to generate a theory that explains it to scientific satisfaction, “This is how it works.” And I do think that there’s an emerging framework in cognitive science that is moving successfully and progressively towards that. So, I do not think there’s any theoretical mystery. What I was trying to point out at is that, similar to my death and to my consciousness, I can’t get outside of relevance realization and look at its functionality.
John: And the point about that is, well that’s not just a weird thing. It goes towards their experience of our… And again, that’s why I try to make it into James’s distinction between the I and the me. Whenever I try and say who I am, I come with, “Here’s some object. Here’s a set of properties. I don’t mean an object of thought. Here’s some object.” Hereby I list some features, and what’s not there is the I, the letter I, that is generating that particular me. And it can move from… that can move between mes and generate various mes and coordinate them, but is not itself ever a me. And this goes towards Deikman’s distinction between the observed self and the observing self. And James and Deikman both argue that the I is in that sense a phenomenological mystery.
John: You can’t have it as an object of though, you can only be it. You can only have a subsidiary awareness of it, to use some of the language… We’ve talked about it. I can only be aware… I can’t be aware of my I, I can only be aware through my I, if you’ll allow it.
Jim: Yeah. I’m not sure that I buy that distinction. Again, I often push back against the hard problem, which is closely related to this, and say that once we understand the machinery, then we’ll realize there is no hard problem. It just is what it is. It’s the emergent result of, let’s say in your case, a recursive algorithm which runs up and down the stack that does stuff.
John: See, I don’t know if we’re disagreeing, Jim. I think there will be a theoretical solution to the hard problem of consciousness, but it won’t allow you to get out of your subjectivity as an experiential phenomena. That’s what I mean by your phenomenology. You won’t be able to ever say, “I can see, I can experience the emergence of my consciousness from unconsciousness.” You can’t do that. So, in that sense it will… And that will always give people space for bad arguments about the nature of consciousness. In fact, what I would point to you is some of the arguments for the hard problem of consciousness equivocates in exactly this issue.
John: Some of them, I’m not saying all the arguments, but some of the arguments is, “I just can’t imagine how X will generate consciousness,” but that’s right. You’ll never be able to imagine that. But that is theoretically irrelevant. So, the fact that it will always be an imaginal or at least an imaginary mystery to you doesn’t mean that there will be no theoretical explanation. I really am sort of trying to rely on that distinction quite a bit.
Jim: Okay, I sort of get that. All right, let’s move on now. The definition of a term, which I don’t believe I’ve ever heard before, transjective.
John: Yeah, so that’s my term. So, that’s me trying to pick up on the idea that meaning isn’t subjectively… It’s not received from objectivity nor is it projective from subjectivity. In fact, meaning, if meaning grounds truth, meaning has to be precisely that which relates subjectivity to objectivity and makes them both possible. And this was one of Heidegger’s great arguments, that our notion of truth, Vom Wesen der Wahrheit, On the Essence of Truth, is that… and he picked up on the Greek notion of aletheia… there has to be a notion of the connection between subjectivity and objectivity that makes truth possible. I take one of the meanings of meaning to be that which makes truth possible for us.
John: And that is, therefore, not properly subjective or objective but what relates them together, hence transjective. I was trying to pick up that it’s between and also that it’s an inherently transformative process. It’s an ongoing thing.
Jim: Yeah, I use the term, I feel like I used in an earlier episode, the intersubjective verification of the interobjective, which is I think somewhat similar, similar concept.
John: Yeah, I think it’s similar. And there’s similar moves made by Harmon and his object-oriented ontology, in which he’s trying to get at something that bridges between them. But like I say, I think this was one of Heidegger’s profound and great insights that’s not properly appreciated by many people who invoke Heidegger. Now, what I would argue is that that notion does make a deep impression on both Dreyfuses but especially Hubert Dreyfus. And then that comes deeply into… I mean, Dreyfus is the person who came up with the frame problem and came up with these issues around relevance, and he’s a deep leader of Heidegger. And so, all of this, that’s the connection that I’m trying to make.
Jim: Okay. Let’s move on. You say that religio is, in some sense, very much like a transjective trajectory flow state in which we are basically celebrating, in flow, our participation in religio. Could you unpack that for me?
John: Yeah. So, it was the idea that it was a trajectory of transframing. Transframing is another neologism that’s trying to pick up on what John Wright called sensibility transcendence based on the work of Iris Murdoch. I know we’ve talked about that already. And we’ve talked about her seminal work of Sovereignty of the Good. And this idea of not just an insight that goes out into the problem but that refracts back, it reflects back too, an insight into a whole family of problems, into your whole way of framing problems. So, it’s not just an insight, it’s a transformation at the level of the agent-arena relationship, and that what you can get in religio is you can get that this transformative process, this transframing process can…
John: Let’s go back. Wonder, in wonder what I do is I do this transframing and I open up the agent-arena relationship. I could be more, and the world could be more, and then we could fit together in ways I haven’t yet realized. And then you step further back from that and you open it up, and wonder can very readily become awe in which you get this sense of flowing, and going back to [inaudible 01:03:09], you get the sense of your mind flowing in this trajectory of ongoing transframing. And you’re not coming to a conclusion. In fact, you’re sort of opening up what Marcel would call a mystery. You’re opening up the fact that this has sort of an aspect of non-completability to it.
Jim: Okay. Let’s move onto another thing. Then we’ll move on from religio, or at least we’ll say what needed to be added. And that is how in your mind does the changes that come from psychotechnologies towards self-transcendence impact this flow state?
Jim: That’s the meat of the matter right there now.
John: Yeah. I mean, the degree to which these psychotechnologies can percolate through levels of our cognition and permeate through domains of our experience, like literacy, is the degree to which they can just fundamentally reset the parameters by which relevance realization happen. And I think literacy’s a non-controversial example, just how dramatically it affects your ability to categorize and problem-solve and remember and call to mind what is needed, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. It’s massively internalized. The Stroop effect, the most studied effect in all of psychology is how deeply you’ve internalized literacy.
John: So, the psychotechnologies have a tremendous capacity to alter the parameters of relevance realization and therefore impact religio. And I’m going to use the example I just used. Literacy became an important enacted symbol of sacredness. That sacred text was one of the… whatever you want to call it, good or real, it’s one of the great innovations in our understanding of where the sacred is to be found.
Jim: Yeah. That makes sense, and other ones, like mystical experiences, psychedelics, probably also have impacts that change this flow state, this transjective trajectory flow state. I can see that. Now, one of the things you say that’s missing from your model of religio, as compared to, let’s say, the Augustinian model, is the idea of the sacred. And you then make a careful distinction between the sacred and sacredness.
John: Yeah, I make that careful distinction, and then I make a mistake a few times and fail to use the distinction.
Jim: Yeah, I realized that. So, I said, “Nah, he’s too smart to actually be changing his mind right in the middle.” So, I assumed it was just a slip of the tongue.
John: Yeah, there’s one point where I selected… I do this a couple of times. I catch myself, but then there’s another point where I slipped. Yeah.
Jim: I caught those and I just fixed them in my notes.
John: Thank you for that, by the way. That was very charitable of you, and I point out that this distinction, I think, is made originally by Schleiermacher, who’s one of the really important figures in 19th century theology, which is the discourse around what we consider sacred or divine, et cetera. And so, sacredness has to do with what I call a psychoexistential aspect of this, like what’s happening, what are we experiencing, how are we making sense? It’s all of this machinery of sense-making and transcendence. That’s what I’m trying to point to with sacredness, whereas the sacred is the metaphysical proposal as to what is causing this type of experience, this type of realization, this type of transformation.
John: We don’t have a single word for experience, realization, transformation. So, I’m trying to use sacredness to cover that when you see my hand are waving, in fact, very rapidly here. And Schleiermacher, he tried to separate those because he was… He was doing that because he… and let’s remember he’s one of the great leaders of Platonic dialogues too… He’s doing that because he realizes the standard proposal for the cause of sacredness, the standard proposal of what the sacred is, had, like Nietzsche, had fallen into disrepute. It was no longer viable. And so, he wanted to separate religion from specific metaphysical proposals as to what the underlying cause of sacredness was, and I do the same thing.
John: I want to talk about the… I think we should do the reverse of what we typically do when we go to church or temple or synagogue. We get the metaphysical proposal of what the sacred is, and we take that to be the explanation of the experience, the realization, the transformation that we call sacredness. I think we should go the other way around. I think we should get very clear on the phenomenology and the functionality of sacredness, and then, once that is really set [inaudible 01:06:44] as clearly as possible, in a very constrained fashion, try to make new proposals about what the sacred might be.
Jim: Hmm, could you maybe give an experiential example of what a sense of sacredness might be to a person participating in religio?
John: So, one of the things might be you have a state of awe that becomes something like what we were talking about when we were talking about higher states of consciousness, a sense of the really real that is ontonormative for you, that calls to you to undergo transformation, that you are effectively aroused and alerted towards it. It becomes super salient to you such that you are willing to transform your identity and your life to come into greater conformity. That would be, for example, very often prototypically described as a spiritual experience.
John: Now, and then what you’ll have is proposals as to, “Well, what is generating that?” And one typical proposal is, “Well, God. God is generating that.” The problem I’ve mentioned with that proposal, for me, is that people come out of these higher states of consciousness and they will say things like, “I now know there’s a God,” but they will often say, “I now know there’s no God,” or, “I know that it isn’t God, it’s the Dao.” So, the metaphysical proposals vary in a way that’s very different from the constancy within the experience of sacredness.
Jim: Okay, yeah. So, sacredness is the experience of something numinous, essentially, without necessarily trying to put a metaphysical handle on it.
John: Right, I mean, in the next episode, in 34, I try to say that I think the sacred is an experience, again, an experience of realization, of transformation that does two things for us. It puts us into the numinous, like that. The other, of which another example is [Gierkes’s 01:08:13] proposal that what sacredness does for us is it homes us, it protects us from domicide. And that’s why you have this bivalent nature of a lot of our sacred imagery. It takes us in one way towards the horizon of horror, and in another direction, it takes us into the heart of home. It’s homing us in the world, but it’s also somehow exposing us to the horizon of horror.
John: And sacredness, I argue, sacredness is the experience of a kind of higher order relevance realization. We’re moving between a profound assimilation process in homing and a profound accommodation process in the numinous. And we’re doing this higher order relevance realization between these two processes. It’s very Piagetian kind of argument. Now, what in the world makes that possible I think is a different question.
Jim: Interesting. You pull out another one of Gierkes objects which you call meta-meaning.
John: Yes. And so that goes to towards what I was just saying. So, Gierkes has a proposal that religion is not itself meaningful. Now, people immediately get their hackles up, and they stop reading, and they shouldn’t, because he’s actually not about to… He’s not trying to dissolve religion. He’s like Mark Anthony. He’s the opposite; he’s not coming to bury [inaudible 01:09:17], he’s coming to appraise it. But the thing here is a meta-meaning system is this idea that needs something that coordinates the agent-arena relationship so that specific meaning systems are possible, like the meaning of a legal system, or a moral system, or an aesthetic system, or a ritual system, et cetera, et cetera, economic meaning.
John: We have all of these places in which we have systems of meaning, ways of making sense. But Gierkes’s point is they all presuppose… and this goes back to Heidegger too… they all presuppose that the agent-arena relationship has been established. So, I give the example of culture shock. I suddenly drop you in some culture you’re unfamiliar with, and you can’t make sense of the legal system, or the economic system, or any of the other systems, because you don’t get the agent-arena relationship. You don’t know how to get and activate and actualize the correct [perspectable 01:10:07] and participatory and ultimately procedural abilities that are needed to tap into the legal system or the economic system, et cetera.
John: And he argues that the function of religion is to create that meta-meaning system. Religion models the world and models us, and you can also replace model with molding. Religion molds the world and molds us to they fit together. That’s exactly what culture is. And there’s deep connections between culture and cultivate, cultus, occult. There’s a reason why all those associations are there, because this his argument as to what religion is doing. And for me, what he’s saying is religion protects us from absurdity, alienation, culture shock, domicide. That’s what I mean when I say once of its functions, one of the things we get with the experience of sacredness, is that we feel homed in the world in a very profound way.
Jim: Now, I would say the game B-Move probably follows from Nietzsche, which is all those things are indeed true. We do need an integrated sense of meaning and homeness, but these did not come down from Mount Sinai with Moses. These are all human institutions, human creations, and we probably have the power today to at least begin an evolutionary journey towards creating an ensemble of social institutions and mimetic institutions to capture that exact sense.
John: Yes, and I think that’s where your project overlaps with the project that I call the religion that’s not a religion. Let’s get a profound and deep understanding of what religio is and the kinds of psychotechnologies, the kinds of ecology and practices, that can enhance it. And in that way, it will be very analogous to religion, because religion was about activating and educating and appreciating religio, I think, in a profound and important way. We can do all of that, and there’s the potential that we can do better. I hope we have that potential precisely because I think we face a meta-crisis that is accelerating, and we need to do better than we have in the past in order to address the meaning crisis that is hampering us from properly formulating our response to the meta-crisis.
Jim: I agree. In fact, I would say the mistake of the Enlightenment was not to include that higher level. The Enlightenment said, “All we got to do is figure out the law, economics, production, technology, et cetera. The rest will take care of itself.” As it turns out, it doesn’t.
John: That’s right, exactly. It doesn’t. And that, by the way, is kind of a succinct way of describing the meaning crisis, what you just said.
Jim: Indeed, and people like Gregg Henriques who talks about, and I occasionally do this too, Enlightenment 2.0, which is where we say, “All right. The boys were half right back yonder, three-quarters right, but they missed a really important part.” And [inaudible 01:12:26] the religion is not a religion. That will be our main takeoff for the last episode, that we’re going to go into that in some great detail. So, that will be there.
Jim: Let’s go on to another topic, which at first I was a little perplexed. And this is your idea of symbols and sacredness. And the reason I was initially perplexed is when I hear the word symbol, I usually think of it in the Peircean sense, icon, index, and symbol, where a symbol is essentially about what you say, a sign, something like that. And you have a much richer and bigger meaning of the word symbol. And once I got over that, I could figure out what you were saying. So, why don’t you go into the idea of these rich symbols, what are they, give an example or two… you did a good job with the American flag and the cross… and how they relate to sacredness and generally finding meaning in the world.
John: Yeah, you’re exactly right, trying to use symbol, and I should’ve explicitly mentioned Peirce and the distinction. My friend, Christopher Mastropietro who had a training in symbiotics has pointed that out to me, although we do talk about symbols and we did a video around that. And so, your point is well taken. It’s another case where I wish we had a different word, because this word is used… You know, there’s a Peircean sense and then there’s a sense in cognitive science where it just means a variable within computation, which is what is [inaudible 01:13:29] to the symbolic/connectionist debate. And then there’s how it’s used in anthropology and related studies, which is the use I was trying to make of this.
Jim: Another area where you’re fairly similar is it’s also used in literary theory.
John: Yes, exactly. Yeah, exactly. And there’s overlap there, so yeah. So, it’s a problematic term, and so I should’ve taken more time to be very clear that I was specifying the use I was making. So, what do I mean by a symbol? So, I build it up from a notion of a metaphor, that at the core of a symbol is a metaphor, and I talk about metaphoric theory and I published on metaphor with my colleague [inaudible 01:13:59], and there’s a lot out there and I won’t go into great detail. But metaphor, I think one of the things that we got in the Upper Paleolithic Transition, to go back to people like [Rosano 01:14:08] and Lewis and others, is we developed the capacity for metaphor itself in a really important way.
John: And that’s why you get the first, what’s called, symbolic art, which again, is symbolic in this sense that I’m talking about. At the core of a symbol is a metaphor, and metaphors are linguistic conceptual devices for provoking insight. That’s what I would say the main function is, by getting us to a stereoscopic awareness of important similarities and differences so that we alter the salience landscaping of something. So, when I say Sam is a pig, and I’m speaking it metaphorically, I’m sort of looking at Sam through pig lenses, and different features of Sam become salient to me, and I can get some insight into what Sam is by using them.
John: But that’s an old metaphor, so you don’t get quite the snap. But when you get a new metaphor… And you know it yourself. When you’re speaking and one of these new metaphors comes up for you, you love it. It’s juicy, you awe, and the flash and the insight, and you get almost a little brief moment of flow. And it’s like, okay, so there’s that. But there’s something else going on beyond a metaphor and a symbol. A symbol is a metaphor that allows us to hold something in mind so that we can come into right relationship with it that can’t otherwise be held in one. So, the example I use is justice. We care about justice. It’s a moral obligation on us that we come into right relationship and responsible relationship to justice.
John: But if I was to ask you just to hold justice in mind so that you can train coming into right relationship with it. Well, what do you do? You might say the word, “Justice, justice, justice,” over and over again in your mind. You might think of an instance of where you act justly, but that is, of course, grotesquely inadequate. But what a lot of people do, and I do this anecdotally, is they spontaneously generate the image of the blind woman holding the scales and the sword. And it’s like, “What the hell’s going on there?” How is that doing it? Well, it’s a metaphor, obviously. Nobody literally thinks that justice is a woman with scales and a sword. That’s just a weird religion.
John: What’s going on there? Well, one of the things… I’ll pick up on one aspect. Notice that there’s multiple metaphors in there that allow you to hold this very inchoate and hyper object of justice in your mind. I’ll pick up on one of them, balance, and we use the scales. So, what’s the argument here? The argument here is making use of work of Michael Anderson and others in the notion of circuit reuse and cognitive acceptation. And it’s the idea that when I do that symbol of the metaphor of balance, what I’m actually doing is reengaging the machinery of balance, the loop between the cerebellum and the frontal cortex, which is machinery, cognitive machinery that allows me to dynamically balance and coordinate many different variables so that I appropriately dispose of my resources, my attention and my action.
John: Well, that’s a good piece of machinery to bring to bear when you’re trying to be just. So, that balance machinery is a good enacted… you participate in it… it’s an enacted metaphor that actually triggers machinery. It’s not just verbal. It’s actually triggering machinery that you can exact in order to practice justice and also to reflect upon justice. And so, that’s what a symbol is doing. It’s this metaphor that allows us to hold things in mind and it zaps machinery so that we can come into proper relationship with what we are holding in mind.
Jim: In some ways, it feels like it’s related to Zak Stein and [Hunsy Finack’s 01:17:08] idea of hierarchical complexity. It allows us to compress a whole lot of details into a simpler representation. On the other hand, I suggest that, while very useful, it can also be very dangerous, right?
John: Oh, of course, of course.
Jim: Think about, obviously you mentioned the cross, I said, “Hmm, what about the Crusaders,” a huge amount of horrors enacted under the flag of the cross, and they had the cross on their chests and all that stuff, and they had a huge amount of meaning in that cross. It was not a simple symbol at all. It was a very big symbol. Or the wars that have been fought about the flag, World War I comes to mind, where all these maniacs are out marching across the mud flaps with their flags and getting slaughtered by the millions. And again, their patriotism around the flag has all kinds of valences going all the way back to school and pledge of allegiances and all that sort of stuff. And while they can be exceedingly useful, I would say they’re also exceedingly dangerous and we should really think hard about our symbols when we build them.
John: This is one of my criticisms of a lot of the neo-romanticism that’s around that wants to talk about how symbolic everything is. So, here is where I am very influenced by Paul Tillich. And so, Tillich does some of the best work on symbols and how symbols connect the subjectively objective, do all this work that I’m talking about. But Tillich, he also talks about the idolatry that is always possible with every symbol, the contrast between the idol and the icon, the degree to which you have an awareness of the symbolic nature, put it that way, of the symbol, and the degree to which you are trying to wisely participate in it, as opposed to automatically, reactively, foolishly participate in it.
John: And the degree to which I think we automatically, foolishly, and reactively… We lose the translucency of the symbol. It becomes completely transparent to us in someways, and in other ways becomes completely opaque to us just looking at it. I think when the flag becomes an idol is when it becomes problematic for us, and we lose how it’s an icon, again, not in Peirce’s sense but in the religious sense of an icon, a Tillich sense. We lose the capacity to remember its symbolic nature and that we’re ultimately supposed to look beyond it in an important way while remembering what it is. We shouldn’t look at it, and we shouldn’t just automatically look through it. We should look through it while remembering its actual status.
Jim: Yeah, that would be a good idea, but from history, we know that these symbols are abused all the time.
John: They are, and this is why pseudo-religious ideologies rely on the elevation and the unquestioned devotion and binding to symbols, you know, that the Nazi swastika is prototypical of that.
Jim: So, symbols, very powerful, use with care.
John: Yes, and I would say that of anything. Look, if religio is what I say it is, this is the fundamental machinery of your cognitive agency. And messing with the parameters of that in an uneducated, foolish fashion is a grotesquely stupid thing to do.
Jim: Indeed. All right, John. I think we’re going to wrap it here. Got through most of what I wanted to talk about in this episode. As we alluded to, next time we’re going to do a little bit of wrap up that I didn’t quite get to, and then we’re going to jump into the religion that’s not a religion, and then take it from there.
John: I look forward to this, Jim. Thank you very much for today.
Jim: Yeah, this has been fun, just like the other ones have been.
John: Yeah, it’s been wonderful.