The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Jonathan Rowson. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Jonathan Rowson, a most interesting fellow. Welcome, Jonathan.
Jim: Yeah, great to have you here. He was a child chess prodigy, I guess. I don’t know where the fine line is between a goddamn good chess player and a prodigy, but he was in there somewhere. At a fairly young age, he achieved the top level rank of Grandmaster, and he’s the former British chess champion. Yay! But then, he changed trajectories and got a PhD and he picked a very modest topic, the philosophy of wisdom. I love that. I actually did track down that rather bland précis on Integral Review that described it. Now I want to read the whole damn thing.
Jonathan: Well, it’s coming out. It’s going to be a book at some point. So, watch the space.
Jim: Yeah, that’d be good. And one of the things I’ll just quote, to give people a flavor for it, is in this little short review, kind of stodgy, I must say. But he says, “He perceives that the main challenge is that wisdom is a pre-modern idea relying on the tools of modernity to fit a postmodern world.” That doesn’t sound bad. That’s why I say, “I’d like to read that.”
Jim: Man. Yeah, he tried academia, not really for him. We’ll talk a little bit about that probably as we get into his book. And he changed directions again. He started working for something, the website is thersa.com. And I go, “What the fuck? Who the hell calls their website, The RSA? And what the hell is an RSA?” So I dug in a little deeper and found out it was an old and hoary organization. It’s the Royal Society for Arts, Manufacturers, and Commerce. Its buzz line is, or tagline is, “We’re committed to a future that works for everyone.”
Jim: Damn good idea if you could do it. “A future where we can all participate in its creation.” So he worked there in the Social Brain Centre as a director. These days, he’s the co-founder and executive director of Perspectiva. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about Perspectiva, a very interesting organization?
Jonathan: Thanks, Jim. So yeah, I have a new day job, I guess, after many years. I’m director of, we call ourselves a research collective. I think, to some people’s mind, we’re sometimes abbreviated as a think tank, but we never really identified with that term. We’re a research collective, which means that a lot of our work is intellectual leadership. But unlike universities, we also put on events and we are quite interested in practice, so we’re developing various different approaches to understanding that are not just about argumentation.
Jonathan: So, to give a brief overview, we do publish books. We have five books coming out. We also have a practice strand that focuses on things like metaphor inquiry and improvisation and the anti-debate process. And then we have a big festival coming up in July called The Realisation Festival, which is inspired by the idea of Bildung, which I think some of your listeners may know about. And then we will also have the Emerge side of Perspectiva, which is our social movement arm. And that’s concerned really with bringing people together, trying to get a more viable we for the world where we can be different, but be different together somehow. So across all of that work, it’s a mixture of intellectual endeavor, quite a lot of social networking, and a fair amount of fun along the way as well.
Jim: Yeah. They have an interesting website. I used to read it pretty regularly and it’s at whatisemerging.com, this Emerge social movement thing. Preparatory for the show here today, I browsed around a little bit and said “Holy shit, I wish I was reading this more.” There was at least 10 essays that I’m going to go back and take a look at. That’s worth checking out too.
Jim: What struck the Bildung, those of you watch the show may remember that we had Jonathan’s co-founder at Perspectiva, Tomas Björkman, appear on the show back in EP 67, where he talked about his book, which he was the co-author of, called The Nordic Secret, along with his co-author Lene Andersen, who he later had on talking about her book on Metamoderna. So, it’s all a small little world of people that we know here that are talking about these very interesting things. Today, we’re mostly going to talk about Jonathan’s 2019 book. Although, of course, as regular listeners know, God knows where we’ll wander to, but at least we’ll start with that. The book’s called The Moves That Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life.
Jim: If we have time, probably won’t, if we do, we’ll talk a little bit about a really cool essay Jonathan recently published, which if we don’t talk about it, go read it. It’s called Tasting the Pickle: Ten flavours of meta-crisis and the appetite for a new civilisation. Anyway, let’s hop into the book. So, one of the themes that runs throughout the book is chess as a metaphor for life. What do you mean?
Jonathan: Well, I would even go further than that, Jim. Given the people on your show often use meta- prefix for lots of words, metaphor literally means the [barer 00:05:11] of meta. To be a metaphor is to carry that process of going meta. So what does it mean in the context of chess? Well, chess is not merely one metaphor of several. It is the prismatic preeminent metaphor. When people think of what a metaphor is, they very often wield chess. Chess is used to describe everything from political stalemates to strategic business maneuvers, to pawns in a larger game, to someone being a queen. There was lines about couples being opposite-colored bishops. There’s all sorts of metaphors wielded that to make sense of life situations through chess. But so much so, in fact, that chess is not just, as I say, one of many metaphors. It is means by which we understand how metaphor operates.
Jim: A meta-metaphor.
Jonathan: That’s what I said in the book. I slightly regret that now because it’s a bit overdone, but yeah.
Jim: I try to avoid the meta- thing a little bit. It’s, to my mind, a little bit of a bullshit indicator, but on the other hand, sometimes it’s useful, and I will confess to talking about the meta-crisis from time to time.
Jonathan: Well, I think it’s both. And as you know, in the pickle paper, I have a whole section on meta, where I say basically, we’re going straight into it, but basically, there are three things about meta. One is that it’s easy to go meta in a way that’s not helpful, that just aborts conversations, that’s pseudo-intelligent, that’s a waste of time. There’s a lot of epistemic skill, however, in going metaphor in the right way. Sometimes it’s necessary for broader perspective to look inside something or beyond it or between it in some way. Then finally, there’s a sense in which we’re already meta. People get far too excited about it, but the world is… To give a speech about giving a speech is meta. To write about the process of writing is meta. It’s not that exciting. People get far too worked up about it.
Jim: Yeah. In fact, that was actually a fun little play on meta-dash, meta-slash, meta-space. And the pickle thing is actually fun to read. Now, let’s talk about compare chess to other games that are also often used as metaphors. One that’s often used in the business world, perhaps more than chess even, is poker. Back on EP 112, we had Annie Duke on, who is a really top professional poker player at one point. And we talked about her book, Thinking in Bets, and we explored the nature of poker, why it’s such an interesting metaphor, and some of those are quite diametrically opposed to chess.
Jim: For instance, there’s a stochastic component to poker, quite a large one. What cards did you get on this particular hand? Perhaps even more importantly from a strategic perspective, it’s a game of limited information. In fact, the essence of chess is limited information. I know what cards I have for playing Texas Hold ‘Em. I know what the cards are in the middle of the table, but I don’t know what the cards the other player’s having. So that’s kind of interesting. Why don’t you address the difference between partial information stochasticity and full information, and I guess you’d say non-stochasticity in chess?
Jonathan: Right. Well, there’s a lot to unpack there, but before to come to poker, one of the reasons chess works as a metaphor for life so well, is that it sublimate so many themes of human existence. So, one of them is death. Most of the game is an attempt to kill the pawn’s king, but at the same time, not to be killed yourself. So there’s a great deal of sublimated warfare going on. It’s basically violence, but it’s a peaceful violence because nobody actually gets physically hurt. But nonetheless, you’re mobilizing those martial spirits. At the same time, it’s very beautiful. The ideas in chess have an almost platonic order to them, such that when an idea clicks or a pattern connects in some way, it’s a reverie. It’s a beautiful experience.
Jonathan: And in that sense, like life, there are moments of getting it, of insight, of clarity. In every chess game, you get scores of them, sometimes hundreds. So that’s one of the reasons it’s so compelling to play. In terms of how it functions as a metaphor, there’s also the opponent, of course, but there is that in many other games too. But in chess, the absence of luck, Jim, is actually quite a big part of the story. I don’t know if you’d distinguish this in context between stochasticity, as you put it, and luck, but the randomness-
Jim: Let’s use randomness as a more reasonable word.
Jonathan: Yeah. So, chess is not particularly random, although there was a pool for this ethical debate on whether there is luck in chess, because a great deal depends on where you draw the boundary of the chess board. There is the kind of 64 squares, 32 pieces, and certain rules, but then you have two physiological psychological creatures. Is that part of the game too? If it is, what they ate for breakfast is relevant, as well. And that goes to the supermarket, which goes all the way out to the street, and so forth. So basically, it depends where you draw the line.
Jonathan: I think the fact that you have to take full responsibility for your decisions in chess and that the outcome is very much entirely your responsibility, is one of the things that marks the game and sets it apart from others. So you can’t blame a dodgy pitch. You can’t blame bad cards. That’s one of the reasons why the existential aspect of the game is fight to stay alive, is so viscerally felt by the players, because they know that their life is on the line and they’re the one to save it.
Jim: Nowhere to hide in chess. And as you say, in poker, any given hand, you can say, “Oh, shit, got bad cards, or a bad burn,” where you lose. Even though if you’re on a statistical basis, we did that play a hundred times. You’d make lots of money. So yeah, chess is a little different in that respect. On the other hand, life itself is quite random and certainly way less than full information.
Jonathan: Well, to be honest, as you know from the book, this is one of the reasons why chess became a source of therapy for me. It was a escape from adolescent growing pains of parents separating and family members becoming mentally ill and all this kind of thing. Chess was an ordered place. It was a place where it made sense. I could take responsibility for my actions. I could feel that I wasn’t doing any harm. The absence of the randomness was a great blessing, but I agree with you that it does suggest a certain amount of limitation on how far the metaphor carries into life. Because a lot of the thing about life is it’s not just two players. There’s multiple players and then the rules change sometimes. You have long games and short games. It’s not perfect, but the question is, how much of life can one game encapsulate? And I would say that chess encapsulates more than most.
Jim: Yeah, it’s quite interesting. We’ll talk a little bit about the idea of evolving patterns and such. Before we go there, though, I’m going to just muse a little bit on the idea of professional chess player. I will confess, I have played chess since I was six or seven and was a pretty good kid chess player, summer rec leagues and what have you. But I felt a revulsion against the idea of studying chess. I bought one little book or I think I took it out of the libraries on general theories of chess, to try to capture the four squares. And then all of your knights before your bishops, don’t pull your queen out too early, just the basic stuff.
Jonathan: You aid, “I’m good.” I’m scared already. These are all good heuristics.
Jim: That may be kind of a pretty good chess player. In fact, as I would describe it to people, I will generally beat anybody in a bar room chess game. I can usually make money against chess hustlers on the street, but against any tournament chess player, I looked like a complete buffoon. So it’s right at that level. And somehow, I enjoy chess that way. And the idea of studying chess, I just found off-putting. I had the same feeling about sports, by the way. I just find it ludicrous that adult men in short pants are played millions of dollars to kick a ball around. I go, “What the fuck?”
Jim: And it just seems to me, utterly absurd. And I will confess, the last time I played chess, unfortunately, was in 2012. Right after that, we moved back from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Virginia. And I had myself and a good friend, Jeff B we’ll call him. Hey, Jeff, I know you listen to the podcast sometimes. He and I would play chess every Thursday at the El Farol Bar and drank coffee only, left a nice $20 tip for the waitress. So, they were always happy to see us.
Jim: He studied chess. He had chess books. He even had a chess tutor that he talked to on Skype and all that stuff. And I said, “Well, I better get myself a little bit of ammo.” So I went and learned an opening. I got a book on something called the Colle System, C-O-L-L-E. I have no idea how to pronounce that. But anyway, I did read that book and I did teach myself the Colle System. I picked it because it was sufficiently curious that most people didn’t know about it, most random players. It worked pretty good against them for quite a while. And it definitely works great in bar rooms and against street level chess hustlers.
Jonathan: Yeah. It’s pretty direct. I can see why you’d go for the Colle system, actually. It’s very much like bang, bang, bang, and knowing what you’re doing, clarity of purpose, get it done kind of opening. It reaches its limits after a while though.
Jim: Yeah, no doubt. Again, my meta-strategy at chess, which I discovered, I don’t know, when I was 14 or 15, is to make the mid-game as complicated as possible. I’m pretty good at keeping track of shit. I was really good at designing very complex computer systems, for instance, or debugging somebody’s movie script. And they’re both very oddly, very similar skills. So, make the mid-game as complicated as possible. So there’s lots of different that could go wrong or right.
Jim: And a lot of people just break under that level of complication. But anyway, so that’s always been my approach to chess, but it was also my approach to sport. I wrestled as a freshmen and our freshmen wrestling team was mostly just for fun and learning the logic of the moves and all. But if you moved up beyond that, it became this five-hour a day, intensive, relentless thing. We had a very good wrestling team at our high school and I go, “That’s just not for me.” So, I’m going to put it back to a guy who obviously made the decision that becoming a professional chess player was a reasonable thing to do.
Jonathan: Well, it’s interesting you say decision because it didn’t quite work that way. It was more that while I was younger, from the ages of about 10 to 13 or so, before schoolwork really kicked in, first of all, I got lucky. So, back to the stochastic elements of life, randomness, I entered a prize draw, a chess puzzle, and I happened to win 200 pounds worth of chess books. And since they came through the door and at that time there was no internet, no Twitter, nothing to distract me. I thought, “Well, I’d better read these guys.” So I spent virtually every day, I’d come home from school, half past three or so, and until dinner at five or 5:30, I was there at the board reading through these books and that’s how I got good.
Jonathan: Those were the foundations. And at that point, I wasn’t thinking of making money. I wasn’t thinking of how good I was going to be. I could just feel myself getting stronger. And it meant that whenever I played at the local club or at school, I thought, “My goodness, suddenly everyone’s making mistakes all the time.” And, of course, that’s because I was getting better. And then there was a few periods of that in my life, moments of intense concentration. I had one after university. I had a few years later, I invested a bit more time in my chest, but somehow chess was always plan B. So, why not? Even though I was professional, what that really means is I was good enough to make some money from it, enough to pay the rent, enough to not to be poor, but never enough to really retire on it or anything like that.
Jim: Interesting. Which that gets us to the first topic out of the book, you title it, Concentration is Freedom. And you riff on this quite a bit. Why don’t you riff on that theme a little bit?
Jonathan: Okay, riff, riff, riff, here we go. So, concentration and chess, obviously, naturally go together, but we don’t think that much about what concentration is and what it feels like and why it might matter. And so, I started to think of myself playing chess, and I realized that, when I look back now, and chess is booming by the way, online. And I see all these people playing chess, I think, “What are they getting out of it, exactly?” And what most people are getting from chess is the experience of concentration, sometimes for many hours at a time. And that has an enormous intrinsic value. It is rewarding, fulfilling, satisfying. If you can concentrate uninterrupted, you’re either too busy to be unhappy or you’re just happy. There’s a sense in which wellbeing and fulfillment comes through the experience of being concentrated.
Jonathan: And what sense is that freedom? Well, as you may know, in political theory, political philosophy, there are many different kinds of freedom. Classically, you have a negative freedom, which is something like don’t tell me… I’m allowed to do anything that I can, as long as it’s not expressly prohibited. So, negative freedom is basically a question of freedom as a freedom from constraint. But whether you want to spend that time playing poker or idling, doing nothing in particular, and wasting your life, you’re still quote unquote free. So negative freedom has that value limitation. It’s not clear how good a thing it is. It prevents a certain amount of harm. It prevents coercion, but in and of itself, it’s not necessarily the good life.
Jonathan: There’s also stories of positive freedom, which is a bit richer, more substansive conception of freedom. That’s freedom to live in a certain way, freedom as a fulfilled life of certain value and certain kinds of directionality and purpose. And that kind of freedom requires certain habits of mind and virtue to make it happen. And so what I’m getting at in this chapter is the experience of concentration. The valuing of concentration is absolutely essential for that quality of positive freedom. And I believe, to expand the conversation slightly, that any alternative future beyond consumerism, any sort of post-capitalist, Game B, meta-modern, whatever you want to call it, any viable world that doesn’t rely on us getting basic dopamine hits from simple addictive pleasures will require a reappraisal of concentration. And it will be granted in a different conception of freedom through that.
Jim: Yeah. I love the fact that you hit on, I actually have it down in my topic notes a bit. I’m currently doing some research on freedom for some writing that I’m doing, and I’ve recently revisited Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay, the Two Concepts of Liberty, where he actually argues against positive freedom as the road to totalitarianism. However, I’m with you, that perhaps near the root cause of our meta-crisis, particularly our crisis of meaning, if that means anything, the idea that we’re just negatively free to watch porn and jerk off and smoke reefer, these are bad attractors. I would argue for life lived grandly or well. Certainly neither Aristotle nor Plato, as much as they disagreed with each other, would have blessed the life of pornography and marijuana as the good life. And so, perhaps, the road that we’re on here to find what comes next, but I often talk about Game B as the way forward or what comes next, meta-modernism, another one, may well be, how do we team positive freedom and yet save it from the Rousseaun general will?
Jonathan: Exactly. Yeah. So, that for me is the problem space. And I even argued that in the book. I remember being a student at Oxford when the lecturer said that, as Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay, and it really is famous, almost every undergraduate studying philosophy or political theory of any kind comes across it, but it’s a terrible piece of analytical philosophy. It’s really not very well argued. He totally overstates the case against positive freedom. He assumes that if you have a substansive conception of the good life, you will inevitably be coercive and force it upon everyone.
Jonathan: Or that if the states has some kind of sense of what it means to live well, that it will inevitably interfere in people’s forms of life and force them to live in ways they don’t want to. He is however, right. There’s a risk there. And whenever you get into a planning mode, you’re not that far from a mode that’s telling people how to live. So, there is a delicate balance between painting a picture of a fuller life, based on concentration, in which we grow in a certain way, and a viewpoint that says, “This is how you have to live and that’s the only way to be free,” which is a risky and coercive way.
Jim: Yeah, it was quite interesting that, in our Game B world, one of the known and bad attractors adjacent to what we’re doing is cults, the idea of cult leaders. And in fact, I consult from time to time with a guy named Jamie Wheal, who has got some really good thinking about cults, their dangers, how to detect them. And then, he even has what he calls, how to do an honorable cult, which actually isn’t a cult, but has some of the positive attributes of a cult without the bad attractors.
Jim: And I suspect that in all of our work in what comes next, this is going to be a very important scene to work. How can we help people, scaffold people, towards a richer and deeper life? This is where I like some of the Hanzi Freinacht version of meta-modernism. He focuses quite a bit on what he calls state, and we’ll get back to state versus mood later, and how that is fundamental in the next big step, going forward. On the other hand, he acknowledges the risk and danger of being too prescriptive and it being a bad attractor. I’ll take your word for it that Isaiah Berlin’s essay is not a solid analytical philosophy, not an area that I have any knowledge on, but certainly the Rousseaun general will concept has taken us to Nazi-ism and Marx’s Leninism, both, quite remarkable that both have the same philosophical basis.
Jonathan: Yeah, well, I accept that. And I think there’s a degree of prophetic warning that’s right about what Berlin says about positive freedom. I also think because it’s overstated, a great deal is lost. And likewise, you could say that surveillance capitalism or climate collapse or existential risk are also functions of an overemphasis on positive liberty as a way of organizing societies. So, it’s somehow finding the best of these things without them.
Jonathan: So it’s somehow finding the best of these things without them collapsing to the extremes.
Jim: Yeah, that is interesting, actually, the danger of taking a tendency and making it a law. Another one that comes up a lot in our work is [Garrett Hardin’s 00:24:15] famous tragedy of the commons. In a very narrow sense, it’s correct, but unfortunately, it’s taken way too much to heart, and people like Elinor Ostrom, through her research and her formalization, have shown that traditional people, indigenous people for ever, millennia, longer than millennia, have managed commons, a whole series of specific techniques that don’t collapse to the tragedy of the commons. And so when you hear people talk about commoning, they say, “Aw, Garrett Hardin, tragedy of the commons.” Well, you have to look more deeply and realize that he’s talking about only a very specific, sterile, actually, case of commonin.
Jonathan: Yeah, that’s another good example. So Elinor Ostrom says that the key to building a better world is to design institutions that bring out the best in human beings and that the commons problems are often problems of temperament and communication and presumed conflict that’s not actually there inherently, that arises because of certain cultural assumptions about what happens when values clash and interests clash. I think in many of these cases what’s going on is people who are thinking across society, they’re often tweeting human beings as constants, rather than variables, and one of the elements of human beings being variables is that they can grow for the better. And that’s part of the story of concentration, part of the story of positive freedom, which is why I emphasize it in the book.
Jim: Yeah, very good. Now, back to concentration, and we talked quite a bit in places all over about the threats of the concentration that every serious chess player has, right? Oh shit, I had a fight with my girlfriend, or I had some bad fish last night, I might have to go have a little diarrhea or something. Talk a little bit about the struggle to maintain concentration.
Jonathan: Well, there’s so much going on there. My experience of concentration is that you can encourage the right state of mind for a game. You can do certain things that make it more likely that you’ll be optimally focused, but there is no formula, and in a weird way, effort gets in the way. So somehow, you have to have this undoing process whereby you allow yourself to relax, but you’re not so relaxed that you don’t have that tension to compete. And one of the techniques I used to joke about with my students when I was teaching chess was that, as you may know, probably you do with your tech background, that one of the first things sold on eBay, I believe, was an air guitar. A kind of joke product that was marketed as being a wonderful instrument or a magnificent instrument, but of course it’s just absolutely nothing.
Jonathan: But I used to joke about tuning your air guitar as a way of getting people ready for the game. And the idea was that just the strings on a guitar have to be neither too tight or too loose in order to give the right tune. Concentration’s a bit like that, too. You have to somehow get your nervous system into an equilibrium that’s not too relaxed and subdued, but nor is it overexcited. And if you achieve that, when you come to the board, I find that you can often maintain it, as long as you get the right kind of attitude. It’s not easy, though. Concentration, it’s a kind of life’s work in some ways. You really have to strive hard to achieve it.
Jim: Let’s go from that pivot to something closely related, which is flow states. How relevant is the idea of classic flow states to this modulating, getting in and out of this concentration in chess?
Jonathan: Okay. So I think flow is an extremely important concept, but also maybe one that needs to be critically appraised, as well. So I read most of [inaudible 00:28:05] work as a graduate student, and I’ve also been recently working at the Center for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity, which is led by a guy called Tim Jackson. And the reason I mention that is that, in their work on post-growth economics, they believe that to design society in a way that doesn’t rely on perpetual or indefinitely economic growth requires a reappraisal of flow as something that we’re trying to create across society. In other words, you’re designing society to create a certain subjective state. Just as at the moment, in principle, consumerism is grounded in that sense of reward, but it’s a reward based on material acquisition. In principle, designing a society based on flow, which requires significantly less material throughput, is a way of organizing a post-growth world where people are being rewarded from their support and challenge environment, the extent to which they’re learning and growing and experiencing flow.
Jonathan: So I say that only as a beginning to say, I totally value flow as a concept and I think it’s a necessary ingredient in thinking of how we renew the world. But I also think there’s a very useful distinction to be made between flow and concentration, and I write about this in an essay for Eon magazine, where I argue that if you think about flow, the problem with it is it’s basically value neutral. I mean, you can can achieve flow on a slot machine. You get aspects of flow when you’re doing social media. You get flow sometimes when you’re driving a car. In and of itself, it’s not value-generating, it doesn’t cultivate great habits in human beings. It doesn’t allow us to really become the better version of ourselves.
Jonathan: Whereas I think if we master the art of concentration, in which we can actually redirect our focus on things that are good and right and true, and somehow manage to master that, which is a sort of lifelong art, as I said, that’s a somewhat different story. Then, flow will come by itself. But it’s like, concentration is almost the precondition, the gateway to flow, and that’s the real challenge. It’s not so much what is flow like, it’s how do we concentrate in a way that allows us to experience flow?
Jim: Yeah, interesting, and I wasn’t aware of the people that were arguing for flow as the alternative to consumerism, but it sort of makes sense. In the game B world we often will talk about, at least some of us will talk about, one of the biggest transitions we need to make is away from status as stuff. You know, my shiny material possessions is my status, which I really hate, I do not like that, to maybe self-actualization as you know who we are and what we’re about, but even that’s probably not complete enough. You need to go something like, “Self-actualization, which helps nurture a community of co-evolutionary practitioners that results in more self-actualization for everybody,” something like that. About as far as I’ve gotten down that rabbit hole. But certainly I think this is an area we all need to be probing on, because shiny possessions as defining my status is part of the generator function for existential risks for the preservation of humanity, I think, in our view.
Jonathan: I mean, I think one way of thinking about it is that humans have very clear emotional needs. One of them is status, but there’s also belonging and security and so forth. And the issue is what kind of forms of life will allow these needs to be met, so human, species-specific needs. But among them, I think the mental need to be engaged in a kind of focal activity, what Matthew Crawford calls a focal activity, really has been forgotten. I think the need for that kind of skill challenge environment whereby, as our skill level increases, so does our challenge level, is a societal design challenge and therefore a policy issue and an educational issue. But because we don’t think of it as the being the thing we’re trying to cultivate, we don’t get there. Flow arises and concentration arises almost by accident, haphazardly, rather tahn seeing that as some kind of axiomatic foundation for the good life, which I think it is.
Jim: Very interesting. Talk about status, it’s a good transition to my next topic. Talk about status, being explicit, chess grandmasters, everybody knows your Elos. How do you pronounce that, Elos? Tell us what that is and explain how it’s calculated, approximately, at least. Vigorous hand-waving, and maybe a little bit about your own history and where you topped out, which I thought was a very interesting story.
Jonathan: Okay, good. Well, almost every chess player has a rating, and as you get better, you have an international rating, which is called an Elo rating, named after Professor Arpad Elo, and he designed a kind of algorithm, which is based on a player having an existing rating that then goes up or down when they play an opponent of the same rating. If they win, it goes up, if they lose, it goes down, and they have an expected score, depending on how far ahead that they are of the other player. Anyway, there’s a formula that allows you to gauge, on any given game, if I win, I go up this much, if I lose, I go down this much, if I draw, I go up or down, depending on if the opponent’s higher or lower rated. And this applies across the board, every chess player knows it.
Jonathan: And it’s basically a status measuring device. That’s very explicit. No one calls it that, but that’s in effect what it is. When someone asks you, “What’s your rating,” they’re really asking, “How much status do you have in the chess world.?” Now, the ratings vary, depending on which metric you’re using, from about 500, from an adjunct beginner, to about 2850, being Magnus Carlsen or Garry Kasparov, sometimes even slightly higher than that. Now personally, I think my highest ever rating off the list was slightly over 2600, and then I dropped back down several times. So my published rating was highest at 2599. What that meant was that I was just narrowly outside of the world top 100. And it’s quite an interesting place to be, I think 139 was my official highest world ranking.
Jonathan: Now, that’s quite an interesting level to be at, right? Because on the one hand, it’s really, really high. I was pretty damn good, to be frank. On the other hand, compared to someone like Magnus or Kasparov, I was sort of target practice. I mean, quite good target practice, and on a very good day, I might hold them to a draw or whatever, but in general, very significant gap in ability. But the Grandmaster is still the highest title and there are about 1500 or so, slightly more now I think, Grandmasters in the world, and it’s a good door opener. Frankly, saying I’m a chess Grandmaster buys me a certain amount of time. It allows me to… As you know, I have various, somewhat more imaginative interests, creative interests, whereby being a chess Grandmaster, people are a bit more inclined to trust me.
Jonathan: They think, if you’ve managed to think your way through to that level, there must be some kind of reason or intellect going on there. And that buys me some time, not an indefinite amount of time, but it opens the door. Now in terms of what I’ve reached, as you know, Jim, in the book, I speak about successful underachievement as a concept. And I find this quite a useful way of thinking about it, because I was, and still am, I still have days where I’m like, “God, I could have been so much better, I didn’t maximize my talent, I could’ve pushed a bit harder.” I stopped playing competitively when I was about 29, I was still quite young and agile and healthy and ambitious. I could have at least climbed into the world top 100, maybe even world top 50 or whatever, but there were certainly limits and it would have taken many years of effort, and there was no way on Earth.
Jonathan: I was going to get to the top, because I’d worked with the world champion Vishwanathan Anand, who was the world champion before Carlsen, and I played Magnus Carlson and I played Vladimir Kramnik, who was world champion. And I know these guys, the world top 10 players, I’ve played several of them and they’re just much, much better. They’re just in a different league. They see quicker, they come to judgments more effectively, they’re more pragmatic, they’re more focused, they have fewer distractions, they’re not caught up in the big narrative of what it means to be a chess player the way I was, they’re just very, very single-minded about winning. So I got to this point where I thought, “Well, hang on, how do you feel about the fact that on the one hand you achieved a great deal, but on the other hand, you’re clearly not fully fulfilled?”
Jonathan: And I think that’s quite an interesting space to be because frankly, that’s quite a common experience that isn’t, I think, written or spoken about that much. We hear a lot about absolute unimpeachable achievement of the people who go all the way, and we hear quite a lot about the failures who didn’t quite make it, but that sort of state of mind where it’s like, “Yes, I achieved a lot, and yes, I regret not achieving more,” I feel that’s quite an interesting place to be. I think people aren’t honest about the fact that that’s where they often are.
Jim: Yeah. Almost everybody is, in fact, every chess player, except for the person that became a world championship [inaudible 00:37:18]. Think about every boxer who was not the championship in their weight class in the world, which is like 99.999% of them.
Jonathan: Right, but here’s the thing, Jim. I think people are inclined to explain that away. So in my own case, I’ve found that people aren’t very comfortable having this conversation. They want me to either say, “It doesn’t matter, you have a full life, you did other things, you had a family, you created another job, relax, get over it, you’re absolutely fine,” or they want me to say, “Yeah, yeah, it’s really true, you really should regret it, you should’ve gone further when you had the chance.” But this in-between space of… both are true, I find people are a little bit uneasy about, because they don’t quite know how to place it, and I think it implicates their own life in the process.
Jim: That’s interesting. Yeah. I also would say that applies to me as well. I had a very successful business career, not by design. I wasn’t even interested in business, but hey, I needed to do something to put food on the table, right? Turned out I was pretty good at it and I made it up to public company CEO and I sold the company for a shitload of money, but it was a medium-sized company, a billion dollars a year in revenue, something like that, 1500 employees, and I could have, and was actually being recruited to go on and be a CEO of kind of a famous company, right? And I said, I’m fucking tired of this shit. I make more than enough money, I don’t need the money, my kids aren’t going to need the money.
Jim: I don’t live high in the hog anyway, I drive an old beat up pickup truck. What the fuck, right? And I just said, fuck it. But I will say, I’ve occasionally looked back and said, “You know, I could have played in the major leagues instead of the top minor leagues,” right? And was I good enough? I don’t know. You’ve met Magnus and played him, et cetera, I’ve talked to all the big wig tech business dudes of my generation, and a couple of them seemed clearly smarter than I was, but most of them didn’t. A lot of them seemed more ruthless than I was, but some of them didn’t. And so I could’ve probably played, but I just decided not to. And so in terms of being a business dude, I definitely fit in that category, I achieved more than most people will ever do in their business career, but I did not go for the gold ring, and it is kind of liminal, right?
Jim: It’s funny. I was talking about it with my daughter the other day, just as a life example, that you just make a decision and then you live with it and you look back, very occasionally, but I don’t think more than once a year, twice a year about, “Oh yeah, I could have done that, could have been one of these bazillionaires, buy and sell countries for democracy,” but no, glad I didn’t. I shouldn’t say that. I shouldn’t say glad I didn’t. I should say I’m happy to live in the liminal state that I didn’t and took a different road.
Jonathan: Well, that’s good. I think that’s the place to be, and I think it takes a while to get there, but I feel similarly, and one of the ways I made peace with it was understanding exactly what the difference was. And in my case, chess is many things, but it has a sporting element, clearly. And I think these very best players are just extremely single-minded. First of all, about chess, relative to the rest of life. They they focus on the chess. But secondly, even within chess, they’re not so much interested in the cultural or educational aspects. They just want to win.
Jonathan: And they train accordingly, and all of their life goes into that. For me, I had weaknesses for both forms of diversion. I was interested in other features of life, and within chess, I was almost more myself. I felt more true to who I am when I was thinking about what chess meant and what it meant for life and what it meant to learn through the game than I was when I was just trying to win a tournament. The former felt closer to who I was meant to be.
Jim: That’s not far from my own view about business. I was a product guy. I loved my products, I loved my customers, and I loved my employees, and so I enjoyed making a good place for people to work and developing culture and developing people. But nut cutting number one, business dude, kill anybody to get where you want to go, that really wasn’t me. I wasn’t in it for the killing. And that may be similar, right? The way you described, we’ll talk about him later, Magnus Carlsen, he seems like, oh, he’s in it for the kill, yeah. He loves to kill people. I wasn’t in business for the kill, I was in it for the products and the employees and the customers, and it’s kind of a different thing. I enjoyed the hell out of my business career, but maybe that’s the reason I chose not to go for the gold ring because I didn’t really want to have to go for just the kill.
Jim: The idea of a chess Grandmaster, as you say, it’s kind of like a shrunken head. It’s pretty cool. I don’t think I’ve ever talked to a chess Grandmaster before. You talk about concentration as one thing that makes for a Grandmaster, but there were some other things, too. There’s a famous result in cognitive science, an area I do work in, where if you present patterns from actually played games, Grandmasters will remember. Even if you flip them by real fast, right? On the other hand, if you flip patterns of chess pieces, randomly spread over a chess board, chess Grandmaster’s knew better than a random schmo at remembering them. So there’s some kind of… You talk about this, about this evolutionary pattern that a chess game is, and there’s some thing that you all can see about all that. Can you talk to that a little? I know I’m being very vague here, but you know what I’m talking about? Yeah.
Jonathan: No, no, I know exactly what you mean and I’ve been one of those lab rats. As a Grandmaster, I was quite often invited to take part in these studies, and I know the kind of thing you mean. One way of thinking about it is chess is a kind of language. It’s obviously not a natural language in the way that English or French or Spanish or whatever is. But there is a sense in which when you look at the chess position, you’re seeing idiomatic expressions of patterns. So a castle king position is akin to a sentence or maybe a paragraph, a [inaudible 00:43:14] Bishop is a kind of grammar. And as the pieces become sort of intertwined, it’s a bit like a conversation, and there’s many words and many phrases going on, but you’re sort of reading it as if a story was unfolding.
Jonathan: And so when you flash a position at me, if it’s a real position, the way I code it and see it is that I’m seeing characters in a plot, in a sense. They don’t have names, and of course they’re thoroughly abstract, but nonetheless, I’m seeing something like what’s underway. I’m seeing something in motion, a story unfolding. If you give me a random position with lots of pieces together, my brain will be trying desperately to connect the forces.
Jonathan: So if I see a queen, I’ll be seeing which squares the queen controls without even trying to, and therefore wondering such and such a piece is in this square, isn’t that illegal? And before I know it, it’s gone, and my chance of remembering it is not that great, but really what’s going on there is a combination of language of sorts, patterns as kind of idioms. And there’s also something going on about the storytelling, there’s a narrative quality to the game that’s really important.
Jim: You could chunk it, essentially.
Jonathan: Yeah, chunking is what they call it. Although I feel a little bit too much has said about chunking. Chunking happens in any kind of expertise, not just chess. And I think maybe…
Jim: Yeah, language has chunking. Every kind of high-level cognition has it. Let’s move on, then, because you talked about something else, which is very interesting to me. One of my heroes in cognitive neuroscience is a guy named Antonio Demasio, who wrote a very interesting book called The Feeling of What Happens. Based on actual clinical work, et cetera, he makes the point that people without emotions can’t decide what to have for breakfast. And you hit on this perfectly in a piece that I’m going to read from the book. “We await the sense in our bodies that we are ready to take a decision. Moreover, the stronger the player, the more abstract their visual image will be. Just as fluency in language arises, we become less self-conscious about speaking, expertise in chess is about not having to strain to hold the imagery of the position in mind.” Let’s get back to the beginning of that, the sense that our body is ready to take a decision. How does that feel to you? The feeling of what happens, to Demasio’s title?
Jonathan: Yeah. Right, right, right, right. Well, I can try and describe it. I mean, you’re looking at the position and you will often have choices and, quite quickly, the better players narrow it down to one or two or maybe three. And after a bit of rumination, you’ll narrow that down so it’s really only two. And often you are just trying to make your next move, because although you can see further ahead, your primary responsibility is just to make a decision, because you don’t know how the opponent’s going to respond and therefore you can waste a lot of energy. Your job is just to figure out what to do next. And in that context, very often, your intuition will speak to you. Now, what do I mean by intuition? Intuition is primarily based on experience and a kind of pattern recognition that that experience gives rise to.
Jonathan: So if I see a possible continuation, I will be getting an evaluative feedback that’s quite visceral. It’ll be something like, “Yes, looks good, looks good, looks good.” And when I say looks good or feels good, I’m not necessarily crunching a variation. I’m not doing what we chess players call calculation. It’s not mathematical, really. It’s something more about some artists saying, or a designer saying, “Should the painting go here or here? It looks good there. Okay, stop. That’s where it should be.” It’s more like that kind of feeling, a kind of ripeness or rightness, in which the move announces itself as being better than the others. There’s a kind of a weighting going on, kind of evaluative weighting, in which the two moves are beside each other and you’ll see pros and cons for each, but it’s happening at a very intuitive, unconscious level of perception, with a little bit of actual thinking and calculation. Mostly, it’s perceptual and evaluative, and on the basis of that, your body will tell you a kind of “Yes,” a kind of, “That’s the way to go,” a resolution arises.
Jim: Interesting. Which, of course, very different than the way at least the traditional chess playing programs like Deep Blue played, right? They just calculated the fuck out of things, right? They could calculate faster than Kasparov, right? Now what AlphaGo Zero is doing, I don’t know, right? It’s just…
Jim: … AlphaGo Zero is doing, I don’t know. It’s just creating this very, very, very strange, very large neural net that somehow, almost holographically, presents something like intuition, maybe.
Jonathan: Well, this is what Kasparov was said about the difference between calculation and intuition. A lot of people used to say, back in the day, that a computer would never have something like human intuition, but Kasparov noted, to his credit, that if you can calculate enough, you develop something like a kind of synthetic intuition and that’s what the engines have. However, I must admit when I followed, well, initially Deep Blue but then laterally Alpha Zero, a lot of people asked me how I felt about the games. And as a chess player, I was mesmerized. I mean, I thought these were wonderful games. There were concepts in there of sacrificing material for very long-term compensation. So in every day speak, that’s giving away some of your army to have a better chance of reclaiming it with interest later. But the depth of that was astounding.
Jonathan: And sometimes also the will to attack was quite surprising. The sort of degree of creative flair in the attempt to attack the opponent’s king was mesmerizing. However, as a philosopher and sort of social theorist, I wasn’t that excited. It did look to me very much like something we knew that was already possible. It didn’t look to me like… What really matters is who owns this technology and what do they want for the world? That’s still the fundamental question. It’s not how well can it play chess or how well can it play Go? That’s a matter of time and a matter of bytes and bits. But really politically, what is the view of the world of the people who own this technology and how do we ensure this comes into some kind of safe control before it gets out of hand?
Jim: Yeah. One of the many dimensions to the meta-crisis. And in fact, interestingly right here in this section of the book where you talked about this bodily connection between intuition and calculation, you also talked about that something similar might be what will help us unravel the meta-crisis. Do you remember that? Can you speak to that?
Jonathan: I know what you mean. I think what I’m talking about there is, there’s a quotation by David Bohm, the physicist and philosopher, and he speaks about, Thought as a System, is the title of the book. He’s often saying how we don’t realize when we’re thinking that we think we’re the ones running the thought, but actually David Bohm says, thought runs you. And so it’s more like, again, the brain is not a computer, of course, but still in a programming language, the software is kind of running the physiology at some level. But what’s going on in the chess context is that you become aware at a certain moment that you have to think of multiple things at once. So the pieces move differently. There is an opponent. There are rules. Now a lot of people have begun to think of climate change, for instance, as a chess game with multiple moving parts, in which it’s partly about the governments.
Jonathan: It’s partly about the fossil fuel industry. It’s partly about emerging technologies. It’s partly about whether we can agree on international climate regime at the policy level. These are all moving parts somehow, and that we have to coordinate them. But what we forget is that there’s this opponent, and the opponent, it’s interesting to ask who is that? Is that just hegemonic power? Is that just the fossil fuel industry? Is that just capitalism? How do you describe the opponent? The opponent’s also us. It’s all of our habits. It’s all of the forms of life that we’re attached to, how we live, our complicity in consumerism. So what’s going on with chess as a metaphor in that context is you’ve got a kind of complex system again, where the boundary is drawn affects how complex it is. But in principle, you have multiple moving parts.
Jonathan: You have some underlying rules, which in Schmachtenberger language might be generator functions or whatever. And you have to somehow make sense of making the best move in that context where there’s a lot of risk and a kind of existential risk to your king. And so there is this sense in which thinking through, not so much the chess position as such, but the kind of morphology of the chess game, the sense in which, what a player is about, what they’re trying to do, that frame of mind is kind of something like what we need for the various meta-crises writ large.
Jim: Very good. Let’s return now to chess a little bit. One of the parts of the book I found most interesting is you talked, almost on a meditation, on the three aspects of chess, which you called time, material, and quality. Talk to us about that a little bit.
Jonathan: Well, interestingly, I speak of four and I add in ticking and I’ll tell you why. The three dimensions of chess was actually Kasparov’s idea. He wrote about this back in the day somewhere. He said that he felt his skill as a player was that he didn’t exactly have an extra dimension, but when you learn the game, Jim, you learn material volume of the pieces. So pawns are roughly one. The unit of value is typically the pawn. The pawn is one. And then the rook is five. Knights and bishops are roughly three. The queen is nine. The king is of infinite value because if you lose that, you lose the game. And that’s one of the first things you learn. And then it takes many years, but eventually you kind of unlearn that because although it’s still a good heuristic and guide, really what matters is what the pieces are doing and where, and what’s going on in the position. So it’s a very crude approximation of how good the pieces are.
Jonathan: So that’s material. Now, time is something different. Time in that context is more about how quickly something is happening. So if you were threatening a forced checkmate on the next move, your point can be, a significant amount of material up, like 30 points up or something, but it still can’t stop your checkmate. It doesn’t matter. You win the game. So time is a function of speed, of necessity, of urgency, and so forth. And then quality is something a bit more sophisticated. That’s to do with things like the quality of your pawn structure, whether you have double pawns or weak pawns, and the power of your pieces, whether they’re well-placed, whether they’re well-coordinated, your king safety. Sometimes there are issues about color complexes, like you control the dark squares, but you’re not good in the light squares. These kinds of features of quality matter.
Jonathan: So those are three dimensions. But just as in physics, you have three material dimensions up, down left, right, and bottom-up, or however you want to describe it. And then you have the fourth dimension of time. Likewise, in chess, this factor of what I call ticking, is not a minor factor. Ticking, as a different kind of time, is the sort of defining experience of competitive chess because you’re under this competitive pressure to take decisions against the clock. And that’s what makes it more sport-like than people would typically imagine. Sometimes in movies, chess games take place over many hours, but in a competitive context, it really matters how much time you take for a decision. So the three dimensions might give rise to a real complex predicament, but then if you’re running out of time, you can’t deal with the complexity. So you have to manage the ticking as well as the time, the material, and the quality.
Jim: Why don’t you tell people a little bit, how time is kept in a competitive chess game with the chess clock? Probably most people don’t understand that little simple mechanical piece.
Jonathan: Right. So what I was describing there is ticking is the clock ticking. Now it doesn’t literally tick anymore, which is sad. I grew up in a relatively analog world where you really did have clocks that went tick tock, tick tock. And what that looks like is that there’s a clock face on my side of the board and a clock face on the opponent’s side of the board. And it’s one clock with two little, call them pressers or pushers or whatever you want to call them on the top of the clock, where when you play your move, you press it down. And that means that your opponent’s clock starts and they’re thinking about their move and they make their move and they press it down, then your clock starts.
Jonathan: And so when it’s your move, your clock is running, when you complete your move, your opponent’s clock is running. And that’s now done digitally, so you can see it in seconds and even milliseconds when it gets to the end of the game. And it’s a very important part of chess. It adds a lot of adrenaline. It adds a whole new dimension of time management, which as we know in life really matters. There’s lots of great players out there who are constantly losing on time and winning positions. So yeah, it’s a big feature the game.
Jim: Yeah, it’s quite interesting. Of course, I guess in competitive chess too, they have the blitz games and the rapid games and stuff. I was actually a fairly decent one minute chess player. Where you got one minute on your clock, which means you had to make all your moves in one minute. I was probably better at that than I was that longer form chess.
Jonathan: Well, I’m just interested because, I mean, for me, that’s just barely chess. There’s a point at which it ceases to be chess and becomes how quickly your hand movements are. How fast you can move the pieces and press the clock. One minute, it’s still just about intelligible as a chess game, but once you go down to maybe 30 seconds or so, it literally is just bang, bang, bang until someone’s flag falls.
Jim: Yep. Interesting. And then typically in a term it’s what, two hours and 40 minutes to do how many moves?
Jonathan: So it varies and I’m slightly out of the loop. I haven’t played competitive for a few years as you know, but when I was still playing internationally, it would usually be 40 moves in two hours and you get an additional hour for the rest of the game. Or sometimes it would be an hour for 20 moves more, and then another half hour at the end. So six or seven hour sessions. And these days they have what’s called increments, which means that every move you make, you get a little additional time. And the purpose of that is to stop these slightly crazy moments where you might have to make 10 moves and in five seconds or something like that.
Jim: Yes, interesting. Well, let’s go back and revisit slightly time, because time in chess, as you point out, we’re not talking about the clicking tick tock of the time clock, but we’re talking about what we used to call when I was a kid tempo, that you gain a tempo or lose a tempo, which you’re trying to move your knight across quick enough to, get the king in trouble before he could move his bishop out. And that kind of stuff. Talk about that distinction of tempo a little bit.
Jonathan: Well, what to say, I mean, timing is really important in everything in life and on the chess board it’s no different. It matters that you get there first. In essence, chess is a kind of zero sum game. If I give checkmate one move before you, I win the game and it matters more generally because I think there’s something in chess called initiative, which is players who are good at taking the initiative are those who in effect set the tempo of the game. They’re the ones who can put the opponent under pressure. They don’t necessarily have an objective advantage, but they’re somehow shaping the game and putting the opponent under pressure. And the way they do that is by quickening the game in some way, because you’re going to have slow strategic maneuvering. But when you take the initiative, what you do is you put your report in under a certain amount of immediate pressure. A lot of chess is about this moving between slow and fast kind of forms of decision-making.
Jim: Yeah, interesting. In my business career, I had kind of an innate sense of that. In fact, I used to give a talk each year to the senior management of this big multinational corporation at some fancy resort each year. And one of the things I’d always say, and I kind of had a little shtick with our CFO, because I was the guy in charge of trying to get the company to move faster, I’d always say, you can always get more money, but you can never get more time. And the CFO would make a face, that was part of our prearranged shtick. And I always thought that the game of business, the tempo was really important. If you could move faster than your opponent, like the old hiker’s joke, you don’t have to be faster than the bear, you just got to be faster than the other hiker.
Jonathan: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, what this made me think of though, interestingly, is when I was at the RSA, which you were joking about earlier, the Royal Society of Arts, I used to chair quite a lot of public events. And around the time I was there, Malcolm Gladwell’s book came out, Blink, which was very much about this sort of fast cognition, thin slicing as he called it. And it was all the rage and everyone was saying that expertise was about making quick judgements. Obviously the entrepreneurial spirit is often about moving faster than the opponents. I believe move fast and break things might have been the Facebook motto at one point or whatever.
Jonathan: So, yeah, I hear you. On the other hand, I had the privilege of chairing, I think his name is Frank Partnoy, I might have got that wrong, but he wrote a book which was basically the opposite. He was in praise of slow. He was about take your time, slow down. Most of the time people move fast, they’re making mistakes. And to be honest, my colleagues know I’m quite slow and I’m quite often late. I don’t want to keep people waiting needlessly, but equally, I do think things take time. And there’s a case for speeding up, but there’s also a case for slowing that.
Jim: Yep, that’s interesting. Yeah. I kind of have a meta-view on that. Which is, it depends on the nature of the co-evolutionary fitness landscape where you are in.
Jonathan: Oh, do tell. Do tell.
Jim: Yeah, yeah. This is actually call it high-level business strategy. And I actually applied it in real-world business situations. If the current context is changing slowly, let’s say you’re in the steel industry in 1930, then you should take as much time as necessary to make a good decision because things aren’t happening so fast, that time is highly valuable relative to the right decision. On the other hand, if you’re an internet dude in 1999, 2000, kind of at the peak of my career, the whole goddamn world is being reinvented every two or three years. So if you take a year to study what to do right, dude, you’re going to be looking at the guy coming by you while you’re sitting there deciding what gear to put the car in. Co-evolutionary fitness landscapes is like, to my mind, the magic lens, to understand business from a complexity science perspective, which is that the interaction of all these various firms is producing a rugged landscape of success and failure.
Jim: And, Oh, by the way, the mountains are growing and shrinking and new ones are coming up and ridges are going out and understanding what is the nature of your co-evolutionary fitness landscape helps you answer the question of fast or slow. There is no absolute answer.
Jonathan: So that may well be right in business. It certainly sounds accurate, but I’m thinking in terms of complex systems more generally, globally, politically, economically, and when it comes to something like climate change, I spend quite a lot of time in talks or panels where I’m trying to get people to think a bit more long term about, not just the climate emergency, but the governance crisis and various kinds of meta-crisis relating to understanding and meaning and purpose and so forth. And very often I’ll get people saying we just don’t have time. The climate collapse is such that we have to act immediately to stop fossil fuel subsidies.
Jonathan: And we have to scale up renewable energy in various ways. Anyway, I quite often hear this. But my view is that obviously both are right. This is the problem. It’s true that there is an emergency. It’s true we have to act fast. But as equally true we have to act wisely and to figure out what wise action looks like, you often have to slow down. So there’s this lovely line by Bayo Akomolafe, I don’t know if he’s been on your program yet, but he has this lovely line, “Time’s are urgent. We have to slow down.” And I think that’s kind of the heart of the matter for me. It’s sort of both and approach to it.
Jim: Yeah. And climate change is a very interesting example because I have dug in quite deeply into climate change. I know some of the top climate change scientists and the technologists working on breakthrough technologies, people who study learning curves, which turns out to be hugely important. And so I’m also kind of in the middle. People say, “Oh, well, if we don’t fully solve climate change by 2030, the world will end.” Highly unlikely, asshole. Now there is a slight chance that we’ll get into one of these tipping point things, but we don’t see any in the next 20 or 30 years realistically. On the flip side, learning curves are hugely important. Every time we make more solar cells, it gets cheaper to make the next one. It’s like Moore’s law, that it’d have the same exponential, but it’s a similar dynamic. Same is true for wind, though at a slower rate, different rate than solar.
Jim: And of course there’s always the optionality of the breakthrough technology that we don’t see. And so you don’t want to go too fast because the cost to solve climate at the fastest possible speed is enormous. On the other hand, you don’t want to go too slow and expose yourself to too many tipping effects. I was a Bernie Sanders supporter in 2016. I chose not to support him in 2020 partially because his climate platform was ridiculous. He said, “Oh yeah, we’re going to get to 100% renewable energy in transportation and electrical generation by 2030.” At first I said, only Stalin could do that. And then I actually talked to one of the world’s leading authorities on it, and he said, “Nope, even Stalin couldn’t do it. Maybe Pol Pot, if you’re killed off half the population and cut the GDP by 80%.”
Jim: So why don’t we call nuance on timing with respect to climate is so important. Yet it’s so hard for people to visualize. Back to your PhD in the philosophy of wisdom, which just drives me crazy to even think about. I have to read your dissertation. I kind of somewhat cynically react to people talking about wisdom. I say there’s really two things in the modern world that constitute wisdom. One is thinking in exponentials. And the other is understanding the idea of fat tail distributions. The two are loosely connected mathematically, but they’re not the same thing. And so the thing about climate change, learning curve is an exponential, and if you can’t see in exponentials, you can’t have wisdom about how to attack climate change.
Jonathan: Right. That sounds wise, dare I say it. But I mean, obviously it’s not the whole story. I mean, wisdom, I wouldn’t reduce it to those two things, but I could see that in terms of perception, what one has to perceive in the context of complexity, those are minimal conditions, certainly.
Jim: Yep. A good Philistine’s minimal wisdom set, right? I’d love to have you back sometime after I’ve read your dissertation. You say it could be published as a book. We can just talk about wisdom. And I’ll play the devil’s advocate. There ain’t no fucking such thing as wisdom goddamn it. And you can convince me that I’m completely full of shit. That will be kind of fun.
Jonathan: Well, just to say it came about because I wasn’t sure. I heard a lot of talk about wisdom and people being wise. And I was just curious, like what is this concept? What does it mean? Why do we hear much about intelligence and creativity, but relatively little about wisdom. And what I realized that with hindsight, I didn’t call it that at the time, but I was in effect doing a meta-theory of wisdom. Again, that word meta, but I was in effect looking at why is it that psychology struggles to study it? Why is that philosophy doesn’t really want to look at it? What’s happening in the academy such that wisdom isn’t really being properly studied. That changed a bit after I did it. But generally, because it was so normative, because it was about the good life and value judgments, and it required non empirical judgment calls. It didn’t sit naturally in many departments. So it got interesting by studying wisdom, you learn a lot about the nature of universities.
Jim: That’s kind of a dreary topic, the nature of universities [inaudible 01:08:16].
Jonathan: Well, I mean, not really. I mean, because frankly universities are supposed to be the fountains of cultural renewal.
Jim: Supposed to be.
Jonathan: Right exactly. But if it’s the case that they can’t really say anything intelligent about a concept that’s on the street like wisdom, then there’s a problem. There’s a mismatch. And that’s kind of revealing.
Jim: That’s quite interesting. Yeah. The one little excerpt I pulled out of the short form description of your dissertation that appeared in Integral Review was this has seemed to be close to the bottom line, “The notion of transformative learning as the essence of wisdom.”
Jonathan: Yeah. I still believe that. And this comes back to, we briefly touched on [inaudible 01:08:55] earlier, but when I grew up in Aberdeen, I had quotations on my wall and I’ve never really lost this love of quotations, which I tried to use them less now, but I used to always begin a chapter with a quotation or whatever, just because I had a fondness for the vignette. I mentioned that now because one of my favorite quotations at the moment is by Thomas Metzinger, he’s written an essay in 2014 I think it was, called Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty. Now leave aside the definition of spirituality for another day. But, but the essay is brilliant because at one point he says that in his view, the climate crisis is the first sort of global problem in which the human species will observe itself failing over a period of time.
Jonathan: And it will come to see itself as facing a problem that is beyond their current cognitive and emotional abilities. And therefore will ourselves as failing beings. But what that gets me thinking, the way he frames it in that quotation, and the reason I use that quotation a lot in my writing, is that he speaks about our present cognitive and emotional abilities. And that begs the question, what are they? And what do we need to do to increase them substantially in a way that’s befitting for the crisis of our time. And that’s not an easy policy solution. That’s something more about what do we need to know? How do we need to know it? What patterns of legitimacy will allow us to come to know it? How will people make decisions on the basis of knowledge? How do you deal with epistemic cognizance problems, such that Daniel Schmachtenberger is now dealing with through consilience. It’s a deep, deep problem. Transformative learning, yes. How do you do it institutionally and culturally? Big question. We don’t know yet.
Jim: That’s the big question of our times. And I’ve been a long time advisor to the consilience project. The beta is out. So if you want to see what Daniel’s been and his team, it’s very important, it’s a team concept. ConsilienceProject.org, check it out. It’s a beta. So it is far from perfect, but it’s a very interesting pointer to maybe how we can learn to think at a high enough level of skill to navigate through a problem that homo sapiens was not evolved to deal with. Climate change, it’s kind of the fucked up bad problem. Humans basically evolved to avoid starving in the next few months, or once we moved to the Northern climbs, the next year or so. We don’t really have good intuitions. We don’t have good emotions. We don’t have good institutions to teach us how to think about a problem that’s going to make us or break us over the next 80 years.
Jim: For instance, just something as simple as the financial discount rate, the fact that money is worth more in the future than it is today. Kind of a equilibrium discount rate in businesses. It’s down from 12 or 15% when I was doing it. Call it 8% now. 80 years from now, nobody gives a fuck about the world at an 8% discount rate. It’s not quite true, but it’s a small fraction of today, and yet at some level that’s grossly immoral. So the institutions we have and our intuitions and just our cognition are a very bad set for something like climate change.
Jim: So just our cognition are a very bad fit for something like climate change.
Jonathan: They are. Which is why it’s transformative learning as the essence of wisdom is pertinent today because, you’re right, we’re not evolutionarily equipped to deal with global collective action problems. It’s not really what our human kit was built for, but we are fundamentally built for learning. The challenge is somehow to collectively design learning systems at scale, inspired by people like Zach Stein. But there are ways of looking at this problem in which the educational imperative becomes our preeminent societal work. Through that issues like climate change come into view is not solvable, because I think it’s not a discrete problem. It’s more like a predicament, but there’s something that we might begin to become better suited to better equipped for.
Jim: Yeah. Now though, I will add that I’m a strong believer that personal change is important, but institution building is also critical. That we can be as educated as you want, but if we don’t have the right institutions that ain’t going to do anything. So I look at again, co-evolution of individual capacity and institutions.
Jonathan: But for me, they’re co-arising, they’re completely co-arising, basically.
Jim: Or co-evolutionary. That was a great insight I had in the early Game B world, we had two factions institutionalist and personal change people. It actually destroyed the early Game B. Then those of us who survived and came back to revive Game B realized, “Oops, we were both wrong.” The two are co-evolutionary. You need to increase capacity of people to be able to evolve suitable institutions. Suitable institutions will help draw people forward in ways of being. So the attempt to distinguish between institution building and improving capacity of humans turns out to be a false distinction. You can’t have one without the other painful learning experience, but a God damn important one.
Jonathan: Definitely. Definitely.
Jim: All right, let’s go back to the book here. We don’t have a hell of a lot of time, but this was a couple of very interesting stories here. There was a section that was titled How the Strong Weaken the Weaker. Of course, the first thing that came to mind is the famous Matthew effect from the Bible, from the parable of talents, where Matthew quotes, JC as saying “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he with have abundance from him who has not, even what he has, will be taken.” One of the more dire things that old Jesus had to say. Basically, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, “Oh, well.” Right? Why the hell did he say that? I’m not quite sure. But anyway, you talk a little bit about the fact you use this as a starting point to spin this very interesting story about Magnus Carlsen. So say what you will about both the topic and Magnus.
Jonathan: Well, the strong weakening the weaker comes about because after years of playing chess competitively, you realize that the will is a key active ingredient in chess, willpower, and volition in general. That often players of a similar strength mentally, intellectually, in terms of understanding and knowledge, there might not be much between them. But the player with the kind of stronger or more versatile will, will often grind down on the other player. You experienced this over time sometimes you’re at the board. Sometimes I’m that guy and sometimes I’m the guy being it’s being done too. But basically you find a way to impose your will on the opponent. What does that mean? It’s subtle, it’s almost as if you just decide at some point that you’re going to win and, and your opponent feels it. Inexorably, somehow they play that role and you play the role.
Jonathan: You start playing better, they start playing worse. It doesn’t happen every time. It’s not automatic. Sometimes they resist it and fight back, but it does happen that something goes on with the level of willpower that is decisive. Now in the context of Magnus, the differences that for several years now, he is clearly being the best player. Even when I played him back in 2008, he wasn’t yet world champion, but he was already, I think, in the top five in the world.
Jonathan: What you get with Magnus in many of his games is he doesn’t stop. He keeps going. So he wears the opponent down. I last them in a sense, he keeps avoiding mistakes. I mean, chess has been described as the struggle against error and basically expertise in a way is a kind of, you understand it as people who have exhausted the most conventional forms of error in any given domain.
Jonathan: So for top chess player… and I mean here are really strong grandmasters, like people who really know the game inside out Magnus will nonetheless wear them dying in such a way that sooner or later, they make an unforced error. They make the unforced error, not because of any intellectual misunderstanding, but because their willpower has been eroded by the success of attempt of Magnus to pose them problems. “I go there, you know the right move. I go there, you have to make the right move again. I go here slightly trickier. You have to make the right move again.” Keep doing that for 10, 20 moves and sooner or later they break. It just so happens that Magnus has that capacity through physical fitness, sheer bloody mindedness, and enormous skill. He wears people down.
Jim: Oh, very interesting. Yeah. Business, similar way. I found that being relentless was its own reward, because relatively few people could just be relentless, right? A series of business plays might run over a year or two. If you could just keep fucking on it for two years, relatively few organizations have the capacity to do that. It’s great. Well, I would sometimes warn people, “Hey, you want to fuck with us? you could kill me, but you can’t stop me.” Right? That was the sense. “So if you don’t feel you can kill me, you probably don’t want to pick this fight”, was what I was trying to get at this. I will fight you to the fucking death. So that kind of unstoppability intimidates the out of people in the business world. I can report as well.
Jonathan: It’s very visceral over the chess board because it can happen in a glance. They often say with boxing matches, it’s the site of the moment that the boxers make eye contact and the same way with chess, certain positions… Okay, objectively there’s only so much you can do sometimes. So you can’t always impose your will. But if there is scope in the position to outplay the opponent very often, it’s decided something subtle takes place between the players where one takes on the role of the predator and the other, the prey. It’s a very mysterious phenomenon. I’ve been on both sides of it, but it does happen.
Jim: Yep. Yeah. Yeah. I think you talk about the lion. Two lions come up, sniff each other, and one of them rolls over. Right? That’s kind of the extreme variety of that.
Jonathan: Right? Right. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Jim: We got a whole bunch of other topics we could talk about, but let’s jump ahead and this’ll be our exit piece. Unfortunately. We’re not going to have any time at all to talk about the pickle essay, go read it. There’s a link to it on the website on the episode page, jimruttshow.com, read the pickle episode Jim Ruttt told you to. But now let’s go to the exit discussion topic, a section that you titled The Existence of God, a little modest little topic. He deals with the big questions on the philosophy of wisdom. The existence of God, all that good stuff. Right? Anyway, you start off and talk about a discussion/debate that happened between Richard Dawkins, probably the most famous of the Neo atheists and Rowan Williams who, I’m not sure isn’t an atheist himself. But he was also the Archbishop of Canterbury and a very nice man by all accounts. And they had quite an interesting discussion. Tell us a little bit about that.
Jonathan: So, yeah. This is going back some years now. I remember watching this live debate online. So a bit of context, I was an undergraduate at Oxford from ’96 to ’99. That was when Richard Dawkins was really sort of reaching his kind of ascent. He was becoming very famous and more and more zealous in his anti-religious diatribes. I remember being at a debate with Dawkins and a few others and feeling that I wasn’t with him at some level. Warren Williams is a somewhat different character. A few years later, again at Oxford, I attended a series of lectures. He gave very simple subjects, something like God, the Bible, church and something else. God, Jesus, church and the Bible. So the absolute basics of Christian doctrine.
Jonathan: Now I should say I have no particular religious background. I’m not sure how I’d describe myself. Suffice to say that I don’t feel like an atheist. So when I’m, when I’m listening to this talk, I don’t really have a partisan view that I’m looking to hear. I’m just observing it closely. I think what I was getting at in that piece in the book was in debates about fundamental matters, where people disagree about the cosmological framework, their fundamental view of reality, it’s really preciously important that you do your utmost to understand the other person’s point of view from within their point of view and really do your very best to make sense of it from there.
Jonathan: Because I think it matters that we expand our sense of what’s possible. So in the current context, I think, and I mentioned this in the Pickle Paper, just to squeeze it in. I think we don’t have a hegemonic or settled view of fundamental reality. It remains an open question. Ontologically, metaphysically, epistemologically it’s not clear what it means to say, God to exists. It’s not clear what conception of God we might have. Everything from the mathematical goal of Stephen Hawking or Albert Einstein, to the God of the cross of Ron Williams or others.
Jonathan: But t’s still a valid supposition for a conversation that there is something to the subjectivity of the universe. Something to the nature of conscious experience as a subjective phenomenon that might be quite close to the heart of reality. Not merely an epi-phenomenon of matter and the more objective features of it. So I guess I’m just saying that for me, I think the existence of God is a possibility, I don’t know quite what follows, what it means. But I think it’s a good place to start as having it, being open to the possibility. Then discussing what that might mean and what follows from it.
Jim: Yeah. It’s interesting. I would say I’m closer to Dawkins. People say, “Oh, try to put me in a box and I’ll say I’m a very atheistic, really inclined agnostic.” Right? Because I have thought about this stuff long enough to realize we don’t know shit about any of this stuff, right? It’s logically possible the flying spaghetti monster is God. That was the whole point of that ironic jive. I also like to point out just because it freaks people out, it’s entirely logically possible that the universe came into existence five seconds ago in a quantum fluctuation with all of our memories in place, all ballistic objects, ballisticing, and the fossils in the ground. That five seconds from now that will collapse and the universe will disappear. Perfectly logically possible within the laws of physics, even it’s just exceedingly improbable.
Jim: So I try to keep that distance, that our ability to make these judgments is a shit load less than we think it is. I’d also love to point out that we should have much more modesty, lets, call it metaphysical and ontological modesty. Here’s why. Homo sapiens been around at least 200,000, maybe 300,000 years. We seem to have had full recursive language, 40,000 or 50,000 years. So kind of our mind started to emerge from our brain in a way recognizably us maybe 50,000 years ago. But only about 2,500 years ago did humans start to think acutely with the formalization of logic by the Athenian’s and the Alexandrians, and to some degree, the Babylonians.
Jim: It’s only 2,500 years that modern science, where we actually started to disabuse ourselves of superstition. Even Aristotle’s is weird mixture of superstition, weird shit, plus some science. Only with Newton. Did we really start to purify that into pure science. Then even more amazingly it’s only about a hundred years ago that we had any idea how big the universe was. We didn’t know that a drama though was another galaxy until in the 20th century. Now we know that Milkyway is one of a 100 billion galaxies. There’s a hundred billion stars in each galaxy, there’s planets around most of them. So why the hell would we think that we were even close to answering questions like why does the universe exist? Why should we even think that? It seems to me that especially as much as we know now, and also as much as we realize about how new and weak our intellectual tools are, that why should we leap forward and say X, Y, or Z about this kind of class of things? Just strikes me as grossly hubristic?
Jonathan: Well, I can see why you would say that. I certainly agree that the cosmological perspective, the far reaches of space, the sense of just how tiny planet earth is, compared to the rest of the universe gives one pause about any significance we may have. Because it does feel a little bit absurd that we should be asking these questions, given our relative insignificance across the vast reaches of space. Or on the other hand, of course, it’s open to someone to say, it’s precisely why we’re so precious and singular that we should look at the question more closely. What I can say is that I don’t think it’s an entirely rational matter. So this gets back to the feeling of what happens. The Maginot Line.
Jonathan: One of my favorite books over the last few years, some years ago, I began a project because I was uncomfortable with the way public policy discussions stopped. They would still put a certain boundary, which would prevent you going further into the meaning and purpose of life. So they would speak about wellbeing, but never kind of flourishing. They would speak about social isolation, but not loneliness. They would speak about all of the things in technocratic language that were measurable, but never the kind of underlying human value at the heart of it. That intrigued me. And so I created this project and raise funds for it, to speak about spiritual features of life. There’s a whole conversation there about how you define that and what that terms for. But suffice to say that at the time I did that, I was not remotely religious. If anything, I thought religion was completely on the way out. I felt clearly anyone rational, who’s being educated will see through religion and the need for it.
Jonathan: But in the process of doing that project, I got to meet a lot of people whom I admired and identified with and thought they’re living fuller lives. You mentioned earlier, but non-material status of people who are living self-actualized lives. In my experience, many of them are religious people. So it got me thinking what’s going on for them? In that context, I read a book, maybe one of the best books I’ve ever read, actually. It’s simply called Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. It’s a weird subtitle, very carefully worded subtitle. Surprising emotional sense. So this guy is called Francis Sbufford, and he’s a brilliant writer.
Jonathan: But he presents the Christian case. I’m not really sure I’d call myself a Christian. But he presents the Christian case from the insight emotionally explaining what it feels like to, for instance, pray. So when you speak about the far reaches of space, and the hubris, and the improbability of life and so forth, I agree with you. All I can say is that to be human is to feel this cosmological longing for something like home. That home takes the form of something like God. But I can’t make much more sense of that than that.
Jim: Now it’s interesting as people who listen to the show regularly, know one of our topics we dig into a lot is the Fermi paradox, which is are we alone? Is intelligent species in the universe? As I’ve confessed many times as a nerdy 12 year old, I would have said the answer is definitely “Yes, tens of thousands. Just go read Heinlein. They’re flying around in spaceships, fighting battles, seducing women, of course.” But as I’ve been studying it now fairly seriously for 20 years, I am now very agnostic. It is possible that we are alone in the universe, which does give us the most amazing opportunity, or burden or both, that you could imagine. People say, “The meaning crisis.” I go, I don’t have a meaning crisis. I got a perfectly good meaning.
Jim: Which is to resolve the Fermi paradox one way or the other. If they are out there, join the universal civilization, then we’ll worry about what comes next later. But if the Fort goes the other way and we determined that we’re alone, at least in the galaxy, our meaning is to bring the universe to life. It would be a shame if we destroyed intelligent life on this planet before we got the chance to do so. So that meaning provides a very strong vector to do things like let’s make sure we don’t cook ourselves with climate change. So we don’t make ourselves idiots, idiocracy through sense-making destruction through the wrong kinds of social communications infrastructures, et cetera. So it’s interesting, even though I feel no need for this God thing, but I know that lots of people do, I can nonetheless easily envision a world where humanity is so unbelievably precious that we have to do absolutely every single thing we can possibly do to make sure we have the chance to bring the universe to life.
Jonathan: Yeah. That’s what might be called a sort of sublime realization. It’s something a bit beyond mere reason at some sense of awe or wonders of [inaudible 01:30:17] by that. I didn’t expect to be speaking about this. I know that your listeners are not necessarily looking for religious talk.
Jim: A lot of them are.
Jonathan: Well, let me just say this then, because it might be of interest to some it’s kind of parallel here. So as you know in the book, I have a chapter not only on the existence of God, but also on sacrifice, which is something about my own one Easter thinking, “What the hell is this Easter thing with all these Easter eggs and bunnies? And what is the real story that we’re meant to understand” I go into that in some depth in the book. To cut to the chase about that I realized that the Jesus story might make some kind of sense. When I clocked the notion that if there was this slightly absurd idea that some abstract God would take up real forum so as to make a bridge some high between the divine and humanity. If that was somehow coherent, how could it be coherent?
Jonathan: I clocked that it was only here because what it is to be human is to be one particular human at one particular time in place. There’s no other way of doing it. In other words, it can only happen once it has to be unique. That’s what makes sense of it, right? That got me interested at suddenly. I thought, “Oh, this is merely elaborate. It’s not completely incoherent. It’s not necessarily false.” Similarly, Jim, and this is why I mentioned it in the context of the planet. It seems totally absurd to me that we have this blue speck of dust in the far reaches of space, and it might be somehow extraordinarily meaningful or part of some great cosmic plan. It’s very hard for me to accept that.
Jonathan: On the other hand, just as you can only be somehow unique as an individual, by being one particular person in one particular point of time, the same might apply to space. There might be a sense in which planet earth is utterly unique and that the human conundrum of how we keep life going here can only happen if it’s unique, somehow. I don’t quite know how that adds up, but I’m beginning to feel it.
Jim: No, I think that’s absolutely true. Again, it corresponds very much to my view that either we’re alone as intelligent life, which we have a huge burden. Or we’re about to meet all the other intelligent species and then we’ll see what comes next. I don’t know the answer to that. Anyway, let’s wrap it there. This has been a really fun conversation. Didn’t get to all the topics on the topic list we seldom do. Nor did we get to the Pickle Essay, but read it people, God dammit. While you’re at it, if you found these things interesting and want to learn more, read the book, The Moves That Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life, on the Jim Rutt show. Jonathan Rowsen. Thank You.
Jonathan: A pleasure, Jim. Thanks for having me on.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Muller at modernspacemusic.com.