The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Jeremy Lent. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Jeremy Lent. Jeremy is an author and a speaker whose work investigates the underlying causes of our civilization’s existential crisis and explores pathways towards a life affirming future. He previously wrote The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, which I read about three years ago. Very interesting, I can highly recommend it. Today, we’re going to talk about his newest book, The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find our Place in the Universe, which came out sometime this summer, summer of 2021. Is that right?
Jeremy: That’s right.
Jim: I think I read it in September, maybe, something like that. I reached out to and said, “Yeah, let’s chat.” And you said, “Sure, let’s do it.” So yeah, I think people will find this to be quite interesting. I’m going to start off with a story you tell in the introduction about the story, actually it’s Uncle Bob’s story, right?
Jim: Yeah. What does Uncle Bob have to say about the world?
Jeremy: Yeah. Yeah. Well, Uncle Bob, Jim, is somebody I think we all kind of know, in one way or another. In fact, in some ways it’s somebody who exists in all of our minds, even if we don’t necessarily associate with him. Well, the way I write the story is just based on my own experience. Because I grew up in England, and so my particular Uncle Bob is there in a suburban London tea party kind of thing with the family all getting together, but Uncle Bob could be anywhere around the world. But in my particular story, people are just hanging around together and they’re saying, “We need to do this and that to change the world, to make it a better place.”
Jeremy: They’re talking about some of the exciting things that could be done and Uncle Bob comes along and he says, “Let me tell you what, when you’ve been around the block a few times, like I have, you get to know all these ideas about trying to make the world a better place. You’re missing what human nature is about, because fundamentally, I’ll tell you, we’re all selfish. In fact, even our genes are selfish. That’s how nature evolved. That’s just how it is.
Jeremy: And because of that, the system that works the best is capitalism, because it just harnesses that selfishness. It’s this invisible hand. It makes everything the best possible way it can be. Sure we have problems, but capitalism, along with the market solutions, they’re going to solve them all, so don’t worry about it.” The sort of conversation sort of dissipates. Everyone goes, “Oh, how’s little Julie doing with her dancing lessons?” And that’s over. Basically, what this book in a way is doing is it looks at each of the assumptions that Uncle Bob makes about the world, because he’s basically the mouthpiece for what I call a dominant worldview.
Jeremy: It shows that every one of those statements that Uncle Bob makes about human nature, about nature itself, about how humans work with each other are all wrong. They’re not just dangerous and leading us to potential destruction of our civilization, but we think, most of us think they’re scientifically factually based and we just have to live according to them, but modern science shows us that actually they are all misguided based on old preconceptions.
Jim: Yeah. It’s interesting. I’m going to skip ahead a little bit, because you mentioned worldviews, you use the term 87 times in the book.
Jeremy: Is that right?
Jim: Well, I have a little tool that lets me do these little quick and dirty searches. I find it interesting to find out what are some of the dominant words? Worldviews is one of yours. It’s obviously a key concept. What do you mean by worldview and why do you consider it such a central concept?
Jeremy: Yeah, and I do see that as a fundamentally central concept. Because basically, a worldview, we can think of really as the lens through which we see the world, which is kind of what the word itself means. The important thing about a lens is that oftentimes we’re not even aware that we are seeing through a lens. I mean our eyes itself are a lens, and the world out there, we just assume is the way it is. But of course scientists explain that actually our lens is creating an image of the world based on how that works. The thing about that is when you are not aware that you’re actually seeing the world in a particular way, that has a very powerful impact on you because you believe reality is certain. When, in fact, there could be other ways of perceiving reality.
Jeremy: What a worldview does is it gives a sense of norms to people. A sense of, “This is how the world works. This is how we’re meant to live. This is what happens when you do this and that.” We actually basically build our lives around that. A lot of work I did is, that earlier book you mentioned, The Patterning Instinct looked at different worldviews all the way through history, from when humans first evolved to our current day. It shows that those worldviews themselves actually shape the direction of history, because they form the value system that a culture just takes for granted, which affects how actually history has unfolded. By the same token, the worldview that we have today, the values we have today are what will shape the future.
Jim: Yeah. For instance, in the middle ages in Europe, dark ages in particular, 1000 AD, the worldview was all about getting to heaven. That’s what everybody optimized for, except the people that exploited people trying to get to heaven for their own purposes, which is, of course, is what always happens. Strategies within strategies. Those worldviews really are very, very powerful. How would you describe the worldview, the dominant world worldview? Because, of course, there’s lots of worldviews in our society, the dominant worldview in the advanced economies of the world.
Jeremy: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.
Jim: How would you describe that?
Jeremy: Thank you for focusing that, on a particular area, it’s a really valuable thing to do. I think the dominant worldview, basically, is one of separation. It basically says that humans are separate from each other. It says that, actually, we’re even separate from ourselves. We have a mind and body that are separate from each other. It says that humans are separate from nature. In fact, that nature itself is really no more than a machine, and as such, it’s there for us to exploit in the best possible way.
Jeremy: It also is based on that sense of selfishness arising from this separation, the sense that everything can be reduced to these particular parts, and nature itself is just basically the story of selfish genes evolving, that humans themselves are selfish. Just to Uncle Bob’s points there, it’s that selfishness that leads to capitalism where people just basically maximize for their own benefit that leads to the most efficient society. That, in a nutshell, is what our dominant worldview is saying.
Jim: It’s funny. It may be the official normative worldview of say rich neoliberals, but in reality, we don’t live that way. Right?
Jeremy: Well, and that’s the thing, we as human beings, we actually don’t live that way at all. Yet we hear this worldview repeated so many times in so many different places that most of us don’t even realize that there is another way of looking at things, which I think is one of the fundamental drivers of the sense of alienation that people have, and loss of meaning. Because basically, we kind of feel that life is different from that, but we don’t know where to turn. We don’t know why we feel so dissatisfied with the lives that we lead, and we are told that that’s the way it has to be. There’s no other alternative.
Jim: Yet, to the point, my point is that we don’t actually live that way. We just had a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner with our extended family. That it was all about togetherness, and sharing, and we all cooked, every one of us has a one or two dishes that we do, et cetera. It doesn’t fit into the neoliberal paradigm at all. The way we live our lives day to day on the ground contradicts this worldview, but unfortunately this worldview informs how we’ve created our institutions.
Jeremy: Right. That’s true. I think that’s absolutely right. To be fair, to even to these people who subscribe to this dominant worldview and they oftentimes they’ll say, “Well, what you’re just scribing looks on the surface like it’s everyone just having an enjoyable time with each other, but really, we’re all just selfish. It’s just scratching…” There’s this famous statement, “Scratch an altruist, and you’ll see a hypocrite bleed,” is I think about how it goes.
Jeremy: Because ultimately, even if we look like we’re just having fun, we’re doing it for our own benefit. Fundamentally, we’re by selfishness, even if it pretends like at some superficial level to be this sense of reciprocal generosity or whatever. But those are some of the things that have been shown by so much science to be basically wrong, based on wrong misconceptions.
Jim: Yeah. Now back to your earlier point, there is certainly a growing sense amongst many people, and many of the people listening to this podcast or part of that community, that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the road that we’re on.
Jeremy: Yeah. Yes. That’s really one of the things that we see. If you look at nature as nothing other than a resource to exploit, and if you look at other people as nothing other than resources to exploit for your own benefit, then that will naturally lead to these self reinforcing feedback effects that is driving our global civilization to, I think, at a faster and faster rate, towards a precipice. I mean, there’s obviously multiple crises, but in my mind, you can probably distill three fundamental ones that are all interrelated, but also separate.
Jeremy: One is, of course, the climate emergency that now people are becoming increasingly aware of. But even that is really a symptom of this deeper underlying problem of the ecological devastation that we are causing to the earth, right now. Then, within human society, of course, there’s this crisis of increasing inequality that is leading to this massive disconnect between different parts of our human species.
Jim: Yeah. The language I tend to use is that our system has no brakes. I tend to argue that game A, the game we’re playing today started to coalesce around 1700 with the glorious revolution in England, which gave us some of the early semblance of democracy, the founding of the Bank of England in 1694, which gave us the template for modern finance and science, modern science had come into being at that point. We were just about to end the industrial revolution and the fossil fuel epoch. Those three things actually brought humanity a long way. Humanity was not necessarily in a very good state in 1700, in terms of quality of life. In some ways we’d accumulated most of the bad things from civilization, not too many of the good things.
Jim: But game A started to spin up very with first the water powered industrial revolution in England, and to some degree the Netherlands, and then fossil fuels, and Watt changed everything, and vroom, up it goes. For much of the, especially the West, standard of living’s increased, health increased, science, medicine finally stopped killing people. Probably around 1890, for the first time in history, medicine was probably saving more people than it was killing. Cities, for the first time in a long time, became net generators of humanity. Before that, they were net killers, because public health was so bad. All this good stuff seemingly keeps going. In some sense, the impact it had on the earth was relatively limited, because there weren’t that many of us.
Jim: It’s hard to believe there was only about 600 million humans in 1700.
Jim: Less than 1/10th of the number we have today. It’s just a few hundred years ago, it’s hard to believe. In 1700, we didn’t even have fossil fuels to any significant degree. The harm we could do to the world, or the impact, I guess is a better word, more neutral, was relatively small, but the thing started scaling up and started growing exponentially. I sometimes describe wisdom in the current world as being able to think in exponentials and understand then the concept of fat-tailed distributions. If you think exponentially about the impact of humanity on the earth, it just has gotten greater and greater.
Jim: Probably sometime around 1975 or thereabouts, we probably actually passed the sustainable carrying capacity for the earth, at least within current technological capabilities. In the future, we may be able to do more. But for right now, if we can even continue at the current rate, we’d eventually crash the ecosystem, seems to me. Why is that? Because this game, which brilliantly took us out of dirt floors, and disease, and ignorance, had no breaks. There’s nothing built into it that says stop. In fact, the inner engine, I generally point to, being money on money return, has escaped its purpose, and has a life of its own, and is driving all of us to do things that in some sense we know is wrong.
Jeremy: Yeah. Beautiful summary of, yes, so much that I explore in my two books, both The Web of Meaning and The Patterning Instinct. To your point, I agree with you that really we can look around at that point in Europe, around that sort of 17th century time frame, as something that shifted in a profound way. Because of my focus on worldviews, I tend to look at like, in fact, one of the biggest questions that I explore over the years is, “What was it in the way of thinking, what was it that led to that shift to happen?” It’s so interesting, because, as you really explain it really well, there’s two, it’s a double edge. There’s all this amazing material progress that happened from that time and there’s all this destructive that happened from that time.
Jeremy: I think it’s not surprising to see that it’s right around that time that we have the development of things like capitalism, the first sort of for-profit corporations that are with a limited liability. We also have things like imperialism and colonialism happening around that time, because a lot of this new way of thinking, which saw nature as a machine, was very much about this concept of exploitation and extraction, that everything is there to exploit and extract as much as we can from. I think that that is what has led us to this, like you say, it’s this exponentially increasing process, that basically, it’s a little bit a sort of AI that’s run amuck, if you will.
Jeremy: I find it interesting, sometimes, how people raise a very real concern, looking at what we think of conventionally as AI, and say, “What would happen if we created an AI that just optimized for just one thing, like manufacturing paper clips or whatever, and it was so powerful and so smart, it turned the whole of the earth into nothing other than a paper clip manufacturing facility? So basically, it was the end of all life, just because it was doing this one objective so powerfully.” But what I think people fail to note is, it’s as though we, as a society, created an AI back in the 17th century, which is basically an extraction optimizer.
Jeremy: It’s really, we can go back to that notion of the sort of fundamentals of the capitalist approach to the world. Very much related to this notion of, in a way, it’s like the limited liability corporation is the AI, is the sort of the actual operating system that’s led to this, because it’s all about increasing shareholder profit as much as possible as quickly as possible.
Jim: Yeah. I would push back a little bit on that, because I, yeah, so I’m also a critic of limited liability corporations, but other business forms, partnerships, et cetera, could have the same effect. In fact, most business still was partnerships in that epoch, including the great colonial expeditions, you know?
Jim: Et cetera. They weren’t limited liability. Some were limited liability companies, but most of them weren’t. It’s actually the inter-loop, money on money return as the value that transcends all others. When you worship money on money return, it matters a bit, in terms of limited liability corporations are a little bit more virulent, but it’s one level down, I would argue.
Jeremy: Yes. I agree with that. Well said, Jim.
Jim: The other one I’d like to push back on, this one of my favorite things to push back on. Don’t mind, I’ll push back a little bit. It doesn’t mean I fundamentally disagree.
Jeremy: Yeah. Right.
Jim: I don’t believe that imperialism and colonialism were an invention of this epoch. You look at human history, anyone who could be an imperialist and a colonialist was, in most cases. Right?
Jim: Certainly the Persians were, the Moguls were in India, the Romans, of course, the Vikings.
Jim: The main difference was we had more capacity. We had the stronger material base to power our imperialism and colonialism. That’s the main distinction. Most of the game A empires had at least a phase, before they became decadent, when they were imperialistic and colonial, so I don’t blame that one on us. Right?
Jeremy: I hear what you’re saying. There’s absolutely no doubt, of course, that empires really arose from these great agrarian civilizations all around the world. Some of them were even more destructive given their technology than even what we saw in the West, such as the whole Mongol empire, for example, through Eurasia, stuff like that. But here’s what I find so interesting. Actually, I kick off my book, The Patterning Instinct, with this story, and it’s a story of Admiral Zheng He of China, which is kind of a counterpoint to this point you just raised, because of what people don’t realize.
Jeremy: I mean, everyone of course has heard of Columbus who sold the ocean blue in 1492. And that’s the beginning of modern history and everything like that. Oftentimes, people say the reason the West ends up ruling rather than China is because they were closer to the new world, so they discovered this new set of resources sooner. But back almost a century before Columbus, actually the beginning of the 15th century, was this Chinese Admiral Zheng He, who had this massive armada. He had about 30,000 people in about 300 of these massive boats. You could have fit 10 of Columbus’s boats into just one of Zheng He’s boats.
Jeremy: Their technology, their power was greater than anything history had ever seen. For decades, he dominated the Indian Ocean. He could go all the way to the Middle East. He went to East Africa, Southern India. In many places, his whole armada was greater in people than even the cities he stopped at. Some places worshiped him as a god, he seemed to be so powerful. But when he went to these places, he didn’t go like, “Oh great. We can enslave the population. We can find where the silver mines are and do all this stuff.” He actually kind of, basically, he’d go to a community. He would find out who was in charge.
Jeremy: He’d invite them, or one of their leading people back on the boat to be emissaries, to go back to China, to kowtow to the emperor. It was all about setting up trade routes and actually policing the whole Indian Ocean to keep pirates at bay, so there was a very different mindset. Columbus, on the other hand, when he landed in the East Indies, in his journal, he wrote to the king and queen of Spain, almost one of the first things he said was, “They’re so naive and innocent and they don’t even know what metal is.”
Jeremy: Like, “If we wanted to, with just a few men, we could enslave them all and bring the… and just do whatever we want with them.” Very different mindset. That is this mindset of extraction and exploitation that I do think actually needs to be identified as part of something that’s uniquely European, that came from that, which we now take as given, because it’s so globalized, but we don’t see that in these earlier ancient empires. They were very much about extending empire for their own sake and then finding a certain self-limiting way of saying, “Okay, now we’ve got what we want. Now we can just sort of indulge in what we have.”
Jim: Well, it’s hard to say, because unfortunately, I don’t have the test.
Jim: One of these empires encountering somebody at such a gigantic different societal level. If He had run into America, I wonder what he would have done. Because if Columbus had landed where he thought he was going to land, which was in Indonesia where there’s already advanced civilizations, the story would probably have been very different. He wouldn’t have been able to conquer and colonize it.
Jeremy: Well, except there is a difference that we can see though, interestingly, because there’s only the next century. Well, really just a few decades later that the Portuguese did arrive in the Indian Ocean. This is what’s so interesting. Because by the time the Portuguese arrived there, there was this very stable situation where you had these big Chinese fleets, and you had these big Arab fleets, and they kind of worked together and there was this trade going on, and things were actually very stable. When the Portuguese arrived there, their technology was still very limited compared to these big fleets.
Jeremy: But yet within a couple of decades, there was a historian called Abu-Lughod, who’s written a really great book about looking at exactly this situation. Within just a few decades, the Portuguese had completely changed the rules of engagement and they had actually devastated some ports basically by kind of cheating, if you will. They came up with a different set of rules, which people weren’t expecting and people didn’t really know how to even respond to them. It was only a few decades before they were actually in control.
Jeremy: They had disrupted the whole trading system. They were sort of putting taxes on people, not allowing them to go to certain ports. That was the beginning of this sort of colonialism. I think what these lead to is this recognition that there is a deeper shift in mindset that needs to be understood, which really leads to this notion that I describe in my books of how culture shapes values and it’s those values that shape history. That’s why it’s so important to look at different worldviews, to understand that what we think is a given is actually just one particular way of looking at things.
Jim: Very Good. Yeah. By the way, if you could send me a link to… give me the title of that book or email it to me?
Jeremy: Yeah. Well, the author, her name is Janet Abu-Lughod, but I don’t remember the title, but I’d be happy to share that. We can put that in the notes.
Jim: Yeah. I’ll find it. Because I’ve always been curious how such a tiny underpowered Portuguese insertion had such a huge effect against, particularly India, which was the leading metalworking society in the world. Right?
Jim: The Portuguese showed up with a couple hundred cannons, why didn’t the Indians just blow the shit out of them, right?
Jeremy: Yeah, no, exactly.
Jim: I’d love to understand that. I have a little hole in my understanding of history. Anyway, let’s move on, otherwise we could talk about this one topic all day. Another term you use a bunch of times, 69 times, as it turns out, is spirituality.
Jim: Now, this is a term that I struggle with, I must admit.
Jim: One of the hallmarks of the Jim Rutt Show is I’ve been known many times to say, “When I hear the word spirituality, I reach for my pistol.”
Jim: I didn’t happen to have a pistol with me today. Sometimes, I’ve been actually known to pull one out. The reason I say that is, I’m not sure what the hell it is people mean when they say spirituality. I generally, when people use it a lot, I start off by saying, “What do you mean when you say spirituality?”
Jeremy: Right. Yes. Well, it is a loaded term. It’s one that if you look at the meaning kind of carefully, you’ll see that it doesn’t really start to enter into the discourse so much until later on in the book, because I wanted to get a few things established first. I think the first thing I wanted to get established in the book. Before I even answer the question, I’ll sort of be clear about it, is the sense that everything I write is based on rigorous science. I am certainly not somebody who goes around trying to put forward some sort of woo-woo conception of the world, or tries to say, “Oh, we need to look at spirituality,” in those kind of scare quotes, “as something in a separate domain or something that.”
Jeremy: In fact, what the book, really, one of the fundamental themes of the book is that actually the split that we have in our modern dominant worldview between science and spirituality or materialist reality and spiritual reality are made up distinctions that are based on preconceptions that turn out to be wrong. The approach to understanding spirituality, in my mind, actually comes from systems thinking. It comes from a deeper analysis of things like complexity science, systems biology, chaos theory, even. Basically, we can look at all those different disciplines as being real sciences that look at the connections between things rather than the things themselves.
Jeremy: The bulk of science is based on, basically, reductionism. So many amazing things have been discovered, and developed, and so much great technology from a reductionist approach that looks at the things themselves, breaks them down into smaller and smaller parts, sees how they work, how we can manipulate them and how we can build the technology we have today. But the thing is, reductionism was incredibly successful that a lot of scientists over the last few hundred years basically got to conflate their success with a sort of a cosmology of basically believing that reductionism is the only thing that actually can be understood. And it’s the only thing that can explain the whole universe.
Jeremy: Whereas, what complexity scientists show is that actually you can understand things looking at the relation between them. If you do that, it leads to levels of understanding that reductionism alone can’t actually get to. What I find so fascinating is that once you start to look at the connections between things as having their own meaning, and trying to understand them, that leads to a whole set of steps that actually leads to a spiritual understanding of the world. We can even understand spirituality itself as really a focus on the connections between things rather than the things themselves.
Jim: That’s interesting. Yeah, that would be the complexity view. My favorite way to describe the complexity view to laymen is the distinction between the dance and the dancer. I like to say reductionism is learning all there is to know about the dancer. How long their legs are, how high they can jump, how quickly they can move, how much they weigh, all these kinds of things. But it doesn’t tell you anything about the dance. The dance is how they interact with each other to produce a path in time and space with multiple dancers typically. That is complexity, in some sense.
Jeremy: Exactly. Yeah.
Jim: I understand the need to remind people that too much reductionism is a bad thing, but I think it’s also that sometimes it gets a little overstated. Because in the modern world, the best scientists are well where that complexity science is the framework, which is the only one we have for exploring the most important problems in science. For instance, biology is basically a complexity science, even though much of the actual working biologists are capturing reductionists, collecting buttons essentially. They all know that the real science of biology is fundamentally a science of complexity, just because of the comment explosion of possibilities when you’re even describing something as simple as the metabolism in a single cell is way beyond the ability of reduction of science to ever make any sense out of it as a pattern.
Jim: We have to bump up a level and think complexity. And you mention other ones as well, chaos theory, which was sort of the predecessor to complexity science. But I also like to throw out kind of naive Newtonian-ism that all of us were struck by when we were 14, if we were nerdy little science geeks, which I’ll hold my hand up, say that I was. I probably a [inaudible 00:28:41]. If you had given me the position and the movements of all particles in the universe, I could have predicted the future for all time. Right?
Jeremy: That’s right.
Jim: Turns out to be utter bullshit, as we know, for many different reasons, just the practical reason of deterministic chaos, but also the other lens that has moved us away from strict reductionism was the development of relativity in the early 20th century. Then a little later in the 20th century, quantum phenomena of all sorts. I would not say that science today is strictly deterministic by any means. There are people doing reductionist science, but most of the top scientists understand that these other domains are really extraordinarily important. And whether their own work day to day is whether they’re always thinking about how the work they do relates to the bigger questions.
Jeremy: Yes. I think that is largely true. It still astonishes me though how, say in biology, there is a core group of people who are fervent believers in the whole sort of Richard Dawkins’ selfish gene approach to biology, which has been shown so clearly by different approaches in biology in recent decades to be just much too limited of conception, even a false conception of how evolution works. But I think what is most important is that while science itself has moved from that determinism, for the most part, the dominant worldview has not.
Jeremy: That’s really a part of what I’m trying to do in this book, The Web of Meaning, is actually to show people who are not scientists themselves, but who have taken this dominant worldview as a given, that actually what modern science tells us is very different from that. Then most importantly, then looking at that difference and saying, “What are the implications of it? What are the implications for really how we look at meaning in our lives? What are the implications for how we look at the human relationship with the rest of nature? And what are the implications for how we look at our, at our future and how to co-create that future?”
Jim: Yeah. Well said. In fact, at our Santa Fe Institute, we feel we’re on the same mission, though from the scientific side, where-
Jim: … we’re saying, basically, that all the important and difficult problems that we can confront are problems of complexity. If we don’t spend adequate resources, which we still don’t, to understand the complex nature of reality, we’re going to… The pandemic’s a good example. There wasn’t enough complexity thinking brought to it early enough, just as an example. Let’s get back to the issue of spirituality, and spirituality and science, and to the degree that we call spirituality the thinking about the connectedness of things, sure, it’s part of science.
Jeremy: Right, exactly. I guess a big point in my book is that once we recognize that we can actually come up with sort of quasi-definitions, if you will, of terms spirit or spirituality from systems science thinking, we get to see that, that distinction, that hard distinct the most of us believe there is between science and spirituality is really a false distinction. That it’s possible to feel into the deep interconnectedness of all things in the world. People can have mystical experiences where they get this sense of just oneness and all the separation is kind of blurring and going away. For the most part in our dominant worldview, we’re told, “Oh, well, that’s good for you that you had that experience. I’m glad. That must have felt very meaningful to you. But of course, you know that those things are, they’re just in your head, right? I mean, that’s not actually reality out there, which is very different?”
Jeremy: But what I try to lead people to in the book is this realization that actually when you have those kinds of experiences, what you’re really doing is intuiting a deep sense of what actually modern science itself is pointing to. That sense of deep interconnectedness of all things, how everything is fundamentally related, how we, as individuals, don’t really have separate selves, which are more constructions, but actually our identity itself can then expand to so much bigger. These are all actually scientifically valid intuitions.
Jim: That’s good. I still wish y’all could come up with a better word than spirituality. The reason I don’t it is it embeds the word spirit in it, and basically, ghosts, Gasper the Friendly Ghost.
Jeremy: Let’s actually move on to that, while we’re on this topic, is look at the word spirit itself, because-
Jim: It means breath, basically.
Jeremy: Yeah. I actually really enjoyed coming up with a systems-based definition of the word spirit, because in the book, I talk a lot about attractive. Even though the book goes quite deeply into some of these sort of core concepts of self-organization, but it’s not so much a nerdy book. I try to really bring these ideas, make them really accessible for people, like me, basically, who are not-
Jim: You did a great job, by the way. You go into deep ideas with relatively simple examples, which is always good.
Jeremy: Yeah, thanks. Well, you know what helps is that I myself am not that nerdy scientist. I sort of came into it from not understanding these things at all. I’ve kind of used examples that made sense to me, that if I could explain it to myself, I could explain it to others. But then if we start off by recognizing the importance of what in physics are called strange attractors, these complex resilient patterns of behavior that stay robust, but then sometimes shift into new phase transitions. But where the actual relations between things are far more important than the actual stuff themselves, because you can change all of the actual components of it, but it still stays robust, sometimes for much, much longer. Sometimes even millions of years, if you’re looking at ecosystems or whatever. But if you look at strange attractors, in the book, I call them natural attractors, because I think they’re not strange at all.
Jeremy: Because we realize they apply to vertically every pattern in nature. If you look at these attractors and you look at how they relate to human identity, or just the identity of any self-organized organism that we call an organism in nature, or even a self-organized system, like a river, or an ecosystem, then we can say that natural attractor that forms the central characteristic, the robust resilient characteristic of that system, we can call that it’s spirit. Then, it makes sense. It makes sense that we can look at a picture of say somebody from hundreds of years ago and we can look at that face and go, “Wow, I can feel their spirit.” We, “Oh, how woo-woo. You know, of course, that person’s dead.” Well, absolutely, but the pattern of expression that they lived actually can stay resilient in the patterns of the way that their actual face looked, that we can pick up, and it goes within our own attractors of consciousness and we can actually touch that spirit.
Jim: Well, we’ll take your definition. We’ll move on. In the book, you talk a lot about Taoism and the Tao. In fact, the word Tao, spelled with a T, in this case, occurs 122 times.
Jeremy: Oh, wow.
Jim: There’s a word you really like, and you tell a very good and indeed a moving story about how you came to discover the Tao Te Ching, and where it kind of fit in your life. If you don’t mind, I would like you to tell us that story.
Jeremy: Sure. Absolutely. Yes. Well, I grew up in England, and really, totally only knew this one worldview, and not even having any sense that there were other ways of making sense of things, but I knew I wanted to do something different. As soon as I was old enough, aged 21, I left England and came to the United States. Ironically, I was attracted by the image of the time of things in Woodstock or whatever. But this was 1981, I hadn’t realized that all that was history and I was landing in Reagan’s America. But anyway, one of the first things I did as a 21-year-old in New York, after a few months, was actually a friend gave me some powerful psychedelics.
Jeremy: I had this profound experience of walking around New York and seeing the alienation and just the grimness. And the sense that, “Oh, there must be something more meaningful in the world.” I went back to this place where I was staying. My roommate said, “This book has been really helpful for me at times.” He gave me this book, this beautiful version of the Tao Te Ching, the great classic of Taoism from thousands of years ago. It had these lovely pictures of natural scenes. It seemed the words were kind of glittering, almost sort of jumping out at me.
Jeremy: It had these wise words that at the time I couldn’t explain what they meant, but they gave me the sense there was something so much deeper, so much more meaningful, that I could actually be in contact with the world, deep wisdom that I hadn’t even realized was available. Ironically, in my own life, that whole realization got sort of then sort of folded up and put in the back drawer for a few decades, as I actually went and actually went into business and started an internet company and all that kind of stuff, but it stayed within me. At a certain point in my life, what I’d built had crushed around me. I went back to try to discover where that source of meaning.
Jeremy: One of the first places I went to was to try to understand things like Taoism, these ancient, what seem so powerful insights, where did they come from and how did they relate was my question to what science tells us? Because I didn’t want to just accept some form of meaning that rejected my sense of rationality, my sense of understanding the world in a way that made logical sense. It took me years to try to piece together a more integrated perception of it all.
Jim: Interesting. One of the things you discovered, I don’t know how to pronounce these things, but I’ll give it my best try. I think this is quite central to your argument, wu wei and yu wei.
Jim: How am I supposed to pronounce that?
Jeremy: Well, good try Jim, but it’s generally pronounced similar to woo-way.
Jim: Woo-way. Okay.
Jeremy: We can think of those people disparaging as woo-woo, and take that woo, but then, woo-way, as if it’s the way. Anyway, the word wu wei is a fascinating word. It basically means essentially sort of non purposive action. It’s something that the Taoists felt that you saw in basically all life around them, whether it was animals, or plants, or just the way nature worked. It had this way of sort of acting without trying to achieve something, but just doing what it did. Then it contrasted that with what humans did, which they called yu wei, which means basically, purpose of action.
Jeremy: Like, “I’m goal oriented. I’m going to do this or that.” They used examples. Their example of yu wei were things using a pump to pump water uphill, or using fire to dry out a well. Of course, that’s what civilization is all about, is doing that kind of yu wei activities. The Taoists said, “Exactly.” They had a sort of theory of civilization, if you will, which was that humans, as they developed this purpose of action, or yu wei, they lost the Tao, they kind of lost the connection of that wu wei way of being, that kind of harmonious way of being with the rest of life around them.
Jeremy: Now what’s so fascinating, and I know that you just recently heard Antonio Damasio on your show, who I think is one of the leading thinkers in understanding sort of cognitive neuroscience and how it works, is the way that he describes the kind of split version of human consciousness, which I use the terms in my book, like conceptual consciousness and animate consciousness. I think he refers to it as primary and secondary consciousness. I’m not quite-
Jim: That was Edelman.
Jeremy: Yeah, right. That was Edelman who said primary and secondary. I think Damasio has a similar distinction, but uses slightly different terms. I like to use the word conceptual and animate consciousness, because I think it sort of captures the same notion, that the conceptual consciousness we humans have is prefrontal cortex mediated. It allows us to think symbolically, to become aware of yourself, to be self-aware and to have goal orientation. And that primary consciousness or animate consciousness is very much akin to what the Taoists looked at when they looked at wu wei.
Jeremy: Really, a lot of what my book is about is to go, we don’t have to take that Taoist position and reject civilization, and reject this yu wei thinking, conceptual consciousness as being bad. But instead we can recognize that it did lead us to be separate from the rest of nature, but we could also use that same conceptual consciousness to allow us to develop what I call an integrated consciousness, one that recognizes and embraces our animate consciousness within us, our animate intelligence, our deep connection with all of life and all of nature. But actually, use our conceptual ability to integrate the two into a whole rather than see them as necessarily separate.
Jim: Yeah, very well said. In fact, our whole game B movement is to do just that. How do we get the balance? We can’t go back. We have to go forward.
Jim: But we do need to recover the ability to live in our bodies, and in true conviviality with each other, in the right relationship with nature, and with a light footprint on nature.
Jim: As opposed to jumping up and down on nature’s neck, like we’re doing today. It sounds these Tao folks had at least a sense of it. Of course, one of the problems. I would love to hear your thoughts about this. I know you’ve talked about it a little bit. One of the key things we identify in our game B work is the so-called multipolar trap, also known as the race to the bottom dynamic. Which is if one actor does X that gives it an advantage in the short term, even if it’s the destructive of the ecosystem, say, or bad for human nutrition, let’s give a simple example, three soft drink companies competing with each other, all using natural sugar.
Jim: One of them switches to high fructose corn syrup, because it’s half the price. Well, it turns out it’s worse for you, probably, but it’s half the price and it’s more profitable and most consumers can’t tell the difference. One person does it, they’re all forced to do it, or the other guy will gain market share on them. I might argue that yu wei, is that, yeah, yu wei is an attractor for the multipolar trap that players that play yu wei, will at least in the short term, beat the players that play more wu wei in their social operating system. How do we get out of that jam?
Jeremy: Well, I think you asked one of the most important questions there is to ask right now. I do believe that the answer goes back to that original conversation we were having at the beginning today, looking at where this modern worldview actually began. Because this process that you’ve described, again, we think, because all we see around us is the results of the dominant worldview now and sort of neoliberal ideology spread around the world. We think that that is just a problem of reality and there’s a problem of human nature, and then we have to deal with that. But actually, I think it may be more accurate to recognize that it’s a problem of the dominant worldview that is based on the sense of separation and based on a sense of exploitation and extraction.
Jeremy: We see, in different cultures in history, that we don’t see that same kind of dynamic happening. I’ll give an example of traditional China, for example. Even though I do hasten to add that I’m not trying to put up traditional Chinese culture as a paragon that we need to go back to. It was an imperialist, it was terribly patriarchal, and had all kinds of problems with it. Let’s just be clear about that, but it shows that there are different ways of making sense of things. There’s this fabulous quotation, it just is so wonderful, from a Jesuit missionary who was out there. I think it was the 17th century in China. He discovered where he was living there that the mountains in the hinterland had tons and tons of silver.
Jeremy: He took his Western mindsets and he was trying to persuade the emperor and the people there, “Why don’t you mine all this silver at a faster and faster rate? Look how much wealthier you can get.” He wrote back a letter or I think he wrote in his journal basically saying something this, saying, “What they’ve told me is that they don’t want to encourage too much mining of this silver, because if they did so, the people would lose their focus on their families and doing their work properly. There would be all kinds of instability put in the system and it would be bad for everybody. The silver should only be mined at a certain rate in order to keep things harmonious and stable.”
Jeremy: He was going, “These people are crazy,” because he’s coming from that Western mindset. It was the same time that the Spanish and Portuguese were discovering Potosi, this silver mountain in Bolivia, which basically, over the centuries, it was the greatest silver cash anywhere in the whole world. They basically mined every last piece of dust of silver from that mountain over centuries, enslaving, and basically, ultimately, leading to the untimely deaths of maybe eight million indigenous people over those generations from mercury poisoning. But this is, again, it shows that it’s not necessary to view the world in this extractive way that you just described, with the three suffering producing companies. But within the global capitalist system, the system itself drives us to that behavior whether we like it or not.
Jim: Yep. Then, often, unanticipated, bad consequences. Even the Spaniards ended up destroying their Imperial power through inflation, as it turned out. Right?
Jim: All that silver didn’t have any wealth. One of the key distinctions that people get so confused about, money is not wealth. Silver doesn’t have farms, or factories, or learnings, or professions. Silver is a signaling modality. You have all the silver you want and it doesn’t change the actual wealth of your society. All it does is inflate your prices. It turned out it was bad for the Spaniards too, in addition to being disastrous for the indigenous people of Bolivia. Yeah, getting caught in these multipolar traps does come with this.
Jim: You put money on money return as the metric of all value and it’s really difficult to get out. And establishing social operating systems that have the wisdom of the example that you gave, which is to say, “Hey, we need a certain amount of silver and circulation as a medium of exchange and a store of value to operate our economy, but it’s the economy that matters, not the nominal money.” That’s a kind of wisdom, which we don’t have in the West today.
Jeremy: Yeah. I really like how you take that example of this silver inflation and how that ruined the Spanish economy. Really, we can look at our current version of that is GDP. The fact that politician success and country success are measured by our increase in GDP, when all that basically measures is the rate at which we are consuming the resources of the earth or turning human activities into the monetized economy and essentially increasing your money over money returns that you’re describing. That’s all that’s measuring, regardless of whether it actually leads to human wellbeing or a sustainable way of humans relating with the earth. That isn’t even included in the measure of success.
Jim: Yeah. It’s a show that the ridiculousness of GDP is a measure of anything meaningful. There are a few things better for the GDP than a good cancer case. Right?
Jim: “Yeah, let’s grow GDP. Let’s give everybody cancer. That’ll grow GDP.” It’s like, “What the fuck?” It’s another variable.
Jeremy: [inaudible 00:48:56], one reason why we need to look at the disconnect between, say the breakdown for climate breakdown and GDP, because people may go, “Well, as all these climate disasters happen, that’s going to really show up in the stock market,” or whatever. But there’s this way in which these two disconnect, you have a massive hurricane, and then a year later, you find that the GDP actually goes up, because people have got to rebuild. So many of the destructive things that happen in the world can increase GDP even while civilization itself is unraveling.
Jim: Yeah. When really, we should be measuring human wellbeing.
Jim: The [inaudible 00:49:34] have started some interesting work on that. I haven’t really looked into it deeply, but I know they are trying to get a human wellbeing measure as a better replacement than GDP. Let’s move on a little bit to something, we could talk about again all day too, which is you do talk a little bit about the, maybe go back a little bit more into it, the neuroscience. You give the famous example of Phineas Gage-
Jim: … and the prefrontal cortices, and Gazzaniga and the split brain, and all that. Why don’t you tell that part of your story?
Jeremy: Yeah. Well, that’s also so fascinating, because it comes back to that sort of trail we were looking at before about the Taoist notion of you yu wei and wu wei thinking, and that recognition by people Damasio and Edelman of this kind of split consciousness that humans have. We see that split very much in that left and right brain ways in which our brains actually work. Where the left brain is pedantic and described like the left brain interpreter, where we sort of try to make sense of things. The right brain is really just more that sort of way of looking that wu wei way of being, sensing a oneness. It’s something that Jill Bolte Taylor did such a great job of describing with her book, My Stroke of Insight, where you actually had a very well respected neuroscientist actually having a stroke where only her right brain was left operating for a while.
Jeremy: From a neuroscientist perspective, she could describe this kind of subjective experience of what it was when your left brain interpreter just got turned off. Even as she was looking at the fact that she might be dead within a few hours, she was having this incredible, almost mystical sense of oneness and opening from what was happening. I actually have a chapter in my book where I talk about this as really like the relationship between the I and the self, which is another incredibly profound understanding that actually the cognitive linguist, George Lakoff first wrote about a few decades back in a book called Metaphors We Live By.
Jim: Lakoff and Johnson. Yeah. Famous book.
Jeremy: Yeah, exactly. Lakoff and Johnson, really excellent book I’d recommend. But we realize, even in our normal language, we all acknowledge the split between I and myself. I can say to you like, “Oh, I was, I was working this job and I was tearing myself apart. I’m really upset with myself that I was doing this. In fact, I was hating myself that I did this, but then I feel so much better. I feel at one with myself now, because I left that job.”
Jeremy: You know what I’m talking about, even though it’s as if I got this kind of split, there’s these two different parts within me, because we all have that. We all have an I, which is really an emergent attractor, if you will, coming from our left hemisphere, conceptual consciousness that identifies us as something a little more fixed that relates to this kind of embodied moment to moment consciousness of the self.
Jim: Yeah. One of the other things I’d add too, I don’t know if it was in your book or not. I don’t frankly recall. That this I self is a biographical self, right?
Jim: It may be a, this is one we don’t yet know for sure, whether animals have the same kind of episodic memories that we do such that they can have a biography.
Jim: We know they have memories and that memories of specific events, including episodes impact their future behavior, but whether they can stitch those together into a biography is not at all clear. When I was reading about your I, I said, “Ah, that’s the string of episodic memories that we call our biography to a substantial degree.”
Jeremy: Yeah. And I agree, of course, there’s no way we can know for sure. But I think, I mean, of course, it relates somewhat to the mirror test, which is this test of whether a mammal is able to recognize itself in mirror and kind of see itself as a separate self, which some more sort of the advanced primates, and elephants, and I think cetaceans have been seen to pass the mirror test. And given, by what we see in elephant behavior, and cetacean behavior, and the sophistication of what seems to be something very akin to language, I think it’s probably a reasonable presumption that there is some kind of biographical self that some of those very high functioning mammals have.
Jim: Yeah. Interesting. Yeah. Anyway, back to your story about the I and the self and how getting that straight to actually us do better.
Jeremy: Yes. It leads to this recognition that, I call it the most important relationship in your life. It’s not the relationship with your spouse, or your parents, or your children, it’s actually the relationship that you have with yourself. It’s one that, even if you’re not getting along, you can’t just agree to divorce, you’re kind of stuck with it as long as that organism is alive, it’s you. It’s one that you really want to get right. It helps, for starters, to recognize there is an I in the self, and they have different drivers, because the eye is often driven by our cultural inputs. If I’m a devout Christian, I want to live a very righteous life.
Jeremy: The I, my soul, will end up being an eternity in Heaven, and I’ll do things to sort of stop myself from doing things that I might otherwise want to do. Or if I’m a young girl living in this culture, I might want to be seen as attractive, so I’ll starve myself, just so I look thin enough, then, my friends will find me popular or whatever. The I in the self can have kind of tough relationships, at times. One of the things that’s possible is this notion of a democracy of consciousness, that I think was Kristoff Coates, if I’m not mistaken, who was one of the people who came up with this notion of what they call transient coalitions of neurons, that actually lead, from moment to moment shifts within our whole cognitive network.
Jim: Edelman too. Edelman was actually bigger on that.
Jeremy: Yeah, Exactly. I think it was-
Jim: His neural Darwin is a model.
Jeremy: Exactly. You got it. Thank you. If we recognize this notion of these transient dominant coalitions of neurons as being the way our consciousness works, we can begin to see that this relationship with the I and the self can actually become more harmonious, if we think of our consciousness as what I call a democracy of consciousness. Once we realize that we can think of ourselves in this more democracy kind of way, we realize that we can move away from tyranny. It’s not the I is saying to the self, “You do what the hell I say,” because that actually leads to a rebellion.
Jeremy: Oftentimes, we’ll end up doing things in our lives that seem to be where we kind of sabotage ourselves, if you will, because there’s parts within us that don’t want to do what we kind of force ourselves to do. But in a true democracy of consciousness, we can bring in a tonal quality of kindness, curiosity within all the different parts of ourselves and lead to a place that actually can feel like our own consciousness is a place that we want to be in, a place of harmony and generosity within ourselves.
Jim: We could also, and you mentioned it earlier, you gave an example. We can also tune these attractors in our neural networks. I think one of the things we now know is that there are big brain-wide networks that represent some of our bigger mental states. Two of the most well known are the default mode network, which is when you’re more or less daydreaming. But also when you’re depressed, interestingly, your brain is organized in the default mode network. Then there’s the task mode network. I’ll give an example of that. If you’re changing the tire on a new bicycle that you’ve never taken apart before, you have to pay tremendous attention. “If I take this part off, what happens? Oh, how do I put it back together?”
Jim: Your brain is totally into the task, but it’s not a well learned task. It’s a task that you’re learning as you’re doing it. That’s so called task mode network, but there are also other modes which are available and they require some effort. I’m convinced that this is where contemplative practices, meditation, psychedelics, breath work, et cetera, are actually very useful in that they can move the whole brain network to other attractors. Now, they’re relatively hard to maintain for people until they’ve been doing it for a long time, but these other attractors are actually probably more, some of them at least, are more accessible to these other states. Being more in Damasio’s world of feelings, for instance, rather than more in the world of symbols that so many of us ended up being. I think there’s another way of thinking about neural complexity and attractor states at the whole brain level, and that we can actually do some things about this, and that doing these things may actually be part of what we have to do to get to this new world. Because unless we, if we live only in the default mode network and the task mode network, then we’re particularly susceptible to game A ways of thinking, multipolar traps, et cetera.
Jim: Iain McGilchrist gives a slightly different spin on that. He basically argues that we’ve allowed the left brain to overtake and suppress the right brain. I think he’s probably, my view, overstates it a little bit, but there are brain states, which lead one to be more susceptible to multipolar trap, game A dynamics. Some of these other states that you can get to through contemplative practices, psychedelics, conviviality, singing together, singing and dancing, actually changes your brain state, I believe we’re actually part and parcel of getting ourselves to value things that we wouldn’t value if we stayed in the more mundane brain states.
Jeremy: I agree with you wholeheartedly. That’s really what I describe a lot in the book as this notion of integrative consciousness, where again, if we take McGilchrist’s point of view of left brain versus right brain, I think there’s a lot of validity in this recognition that… I mean, if we think of it more in terms of not even left and right brain, but this conceptual consciousness versus our animate consciousness.
Jim: I like that much better, by the way.
Jeremy: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Because it includes the notion of the prefrontal cortex mediated, symbolic thinking, and there is a sense in which that has been taking over our society. Even if we look at something like IQ measurement, which basically, it doesn’t actually measure intelligence, all the different aspects of intelligence, it measures a certain aspect of intelligence, that conceptual intelligence. We see how over the last century, the normal IQ average around the world has been increasing steadily. That doesn’t mean that humans have gotten smarter.
Jeremy: It means that we’ve shifted our focus of our attractors towards our conceptual intelligence at the expense of other ways of being in the world. I do think that what is so hopeful arising from that is another great finding of neurosciences, like Hebbian learning, this recognition that in simple terms, neurons that fire together wire together. That basically, the way that self-organized learning works in our neuronal consciousness, as well as all through nature, is that exactly the definition that when successful behaviors work for an organism, those neuronal collections get tighter and you’ll be more likely to go back to that place again. That’s where meditation, or rather embodied practices.
Jeremy: For me personally, for example, in addition to meditation, I do a lot of qi gong, which is this traditional Chinese practice of using movement to really be more connected with those neuronal connections within your own body. But as you spend a lot of time in those practices, not surprisingly, you get better and better at actually strengthening those neuronal connections, so that when you are not doing the practices itself, it becomes just more part of your daily life. In just the same way, if somebody works out in the gym every day, we’re not surprised if six months later they got ripped muscles. We go, “Right. They spent the time doing that.” The same thing is true of things like meditation or other embodied practices.
Jim: Yeah. Very good. Well, let’s move back now to talking about some of the false ideas or dubious ideas about evolution and how there are better ways to think about it.
Jeremy: Yes. Well, that is one of those sort of Uncle Bob viewpoints that we talked about at the very beginning of our conversation. If you ask most people today about how does evolution work, at least the ones who feel that they’re part of the scientific worldview and are sort of with it, in their minds, they’ll say, “Oh right, well, it’s all about the selfish gene. The genes, we’re actually driven by. We’re just kind of machines that the gene uses to optimize for itself. The genes are basically selfish and genes that discover ways, or just have some mutations, so they lead to certain more adaptive behavior. They’re the ones that out-compete other organisms in their species and that’s how evolution works. That’s what it’s all about.” That seems a very believable theory. It’s one that seems scientifically valid, until we actually look at what biology has now told us in the last few decades.
Jim: Yeah. One of things I would say is that it’s also a matter of level of abstraction, because at one level the selfish gene view is probably correct. But what it fails to get at, is that these selfish genes are coupled in this vastly complex co-evolutionary context.
Jim: That’s where the story is, I would say not wrong, but grossly incomplete.
Jeremy: Well, it’s also, to some degree, it’s even wrong. Because ultimately, the selfish gene concept is based on the sort of unique directionality of gene expression. I mean, the sort of standard approach is that, well, the gene drives the organism and gene expression leads the organism to do what it does. A lot of modern biology looks exactly at this kind of complex feedback loop, where in fact, the organism itself or the cell that has a gene within it actually is in this ongoing feedback with a gene, and determines itself, which elements of the gene should be expressed.
Jim: Yeah. Gene expression’s highly complex and it’s part of this co-evolutionary context, right?
Jim: Which is that the genes and the cells will react to what’s around their surfaces and they’ll express, their metabolisms will actually change, et cetera. Then of course there’s the whole issue of epigenetics, which is that you can actually have some changes to your genetic material that happen after reproduction. The story is much more complex.
Jeremy: Basically, I’d say it’s a qualitative error to actually look at the genes as a sort of building block of evolution, because it’s not actually, it’s one of a complex set of patterns, just your point. But then even more of a mistake is this notion of our competing, because you could look at this first thing we just said, and you can say, “Okay, so if it’s not the gene, it’s the organism, but it’s still about competition. One organism out-competes the other and that’s what drives evolution.” But what is so fascinating is that now that as people look at evolutionary biology and look at the way in which evolution worked from when life first emerged on earth, billions of years ago, there’s only been really four or five major stages in the increased complexity of life on earth.
Jeremy: From basically prokaryote cells to eukaryote cells. And then, to multicellular organisms. And then, to mammals. There’s just been a few steps. Every one of those steps actually took place as a lot of different organisms, different species learning how to work together in mutually beneficial symbiosis rather than how to out-compete each other. Even though, of course, nature can be characterized by both competition and cooperation, and one is not necessarily dominant over the other, the major steps in evolutionists that have led to the abundance and richness of life on earth today have all been steps in the increase in cooperation between different species.
Jim: Yeah. Definitely. And then, even a little bit more subtly, probably the biggest step of all was to large scale multicellularity, right?
Jim: Where the cells, which not too long before, had been independent competing in some cases, frankly, all cases, competing organisms, they somehow decided to form a cooperative coalition.
Jeremy: Exactly. It’s amazing. It actually took about a billion years for that event to take place, which gives you a sense of how complex the shift needed to be for evolution to actually make that move. Because essentially in a multicellular organism, of course, many of the cells have to give up their ability to reproduce in order to be part of something bigger than themselves. That’s the very thing that if we can learn as humans right now, that we can be part of something bigger than ourselves and our identity can expand beyond our separate identity, that gives us the ability, potentially, to evolve culturally to a more advanced place.
Jim: That’s a very nice metaphor. Even though it took, actually, took more like two and a half billion years, three billion years to get our kind of multicellularity.
Jim: But once it occurred, the so-called Cambrian explosion just went nuts. Essentially, all the phyla of multicellular life that exists on earth today came into being in maybe 10 million years, which is a ridiculously short time on the evolutionary clock. In fact, we had an episode here on Jim Rutt Show, where we had Doug Erwin on, who’s one of the leading scholars of the Cambrian explosion. Anyone who’s interested in following up on that, I would recommend they look up the Doug Erwin episode. Yeah, absolutely. The ratcheting up of capacity has been competition at one level and cooperation at another. It’s very, very interesting.
Jim: Now, we don’t have a lot of time left. Let’s make sure we leave enough time for where we go from here? How do we take your ideas as you lay them out in the books and how do we get to be flourishing integrated organisms and cultivating integrated values and all those kinds of things?
Jeremy: Yeah. Well, of course, the answer can be looked at from our own individual development or just our own basically sociocultural development as a human species. I think that’s the one that maybe is the most pressing of all. Because as we’ve talked about earlier, we really seem to be in this ever increasing ratchet towards what sober minded, serious scientists are really beginning to call out the potential threats to civilization itself this century, if we keep relating to ourselves and the rest of life in this way. I think we are facing a real dire existential emergency.
Jeremy: I think that, to my mind, what we need to look at is not just try to do little fixes incrementally, but look at this underlying operating system that’s driven us to this place. It’s a little bit like, if we have an operating system that’s faulty, imagine a whole bank of software engineers working on trying to fix the bugs that come from the system and they do a work around here and that leads to three more problems and they have to come across the new workarounds. And then, suddenly somebody comes along and says, “We need to change the operating system itself.” They say, “Oh, we don’t have time for that. We got to do these fixes. It’s so urgent.”
Jeremy: But until you actually look at changing the operating system itself, you’re going to keep moving faster and faster towards this problem. In our case, the operating system itself is the worldview and the values arising from that. Very much to what you’ve been describing is that this kind of way of looking at money making more money and this continual exploitation of everything at a faster and faster rate. What I end the book at, actually, is this possibility of actually… what it would look if we did shift our culture, our civilization’s operating system. We went from one that was really all about wealth accumulation to one that was truly life affirming, one that was actually built on the foundational principle of setting up the civilization that was there to set the conditions for humans to flourish on a regenerated earth.
Jeremy: That might seem so far from our current civilization right now, but what is so amazing to look at is this realization that actually it’s possible. Not only is it possible, but it’s the only way in my view that we will really turn the direction of where we’re headed away from the precipice. It’s been called by many people, and I’ve sort of taken the name myself when I write about it, an ecological civilization. This recognition of changing the very foundation of the basis of our civilization.
Jim: Yeah, that’s what we have to do. We have some really difficult things to re-engineer. One of the ones that I’d like to call out and it’s part of our worldview, is that we’ve allowed ourselves, I mean, humans have always competed for status. Even hunter gatherer societies, the person that could dance better, or hunt better, or do beads better, but fortunately, there were many dimensions in which everybody pretty much had something they were good at. When you reduce it all to status through possessions bought with money, we’re caught in a trap. Or the near surrogates thereof, of the beautiful flat abdomen to put on your Instagram, if you’re a 13-year-old girl playing the beauty game.
Jim: We’re trapped in these status hierarchies. Any ideas on what we can do as both individuals in the societies to escape this primary trap that we seem to be in?
Jeremy: Yeah. Well, I think the first thing we, as individuals, can do, is recognize that it is this trap. It’s been called aptly by some social psychologists, the hedonic treadmill. It’s a hedonic treadmill that the corporations, that are really the manifestations of this exploitative mindset, have done such a great job in manipulating. Essentially, each of those things you described, the desire for status, the desire to be feeling attractive, the desire for our community to feel good about us. These are all very natural, healthy human instincts that we did evolve as nomadic hunter gatherers, but they’ve been manipulated in our society to cause us to feel a sense of being bad about ourselves in order that we essentially turn into consumer zombies, just doing the stuff to pay the money, to make the corporations wealthier.
Jeremy: Once we understand that, it enables us to step off the hedonic treadmill and actually look more towards that integrated consciousness, move towards what Aristotle called eudaimonia rather than hedonia. Eudaimonia being a sense of true wellbeing that arises when we’re actually pursuing our true drive and fulfilling our true purpose as an organism, rather than just doing the moment to moment hedonic stuff that makes the corporations wealthier. I think that’s one of the things we can do in terms of individually stepping off that treadmill. But I think just as important is to recognize that we are part of this greater system that is unraveling, and to recognize something that I call fractal flourishing.
Jeremy: That basically when we want true flourishing for ourselves, we realize that we are actually part of a fractally connected system, where our individual flourishing is part of societal flourishing, which is part of the flourishing of overall humanity and the living earth itself. By recognizing that, we can turn our attention to actually trying to take part of some of the systemic changes needed to move our entire society away from this hedonic treadmill. I think there are some great ideas out there, that people can really get behind and help to move toward that ecological civilization.
Jim: What are some of those ideas?
Jeremy: Well, one of them, for example, is recognizing the elephant in the room, that these massive transnational corporations now dominate essentially our entire life, this kind of out of controlled AI that we don’t even want to talk about for the most part, because people will go, “Oh, we don’t want to get caught in that. You know, these people are against capitalism, communism fails. That’s an old 20th century notion.” No, we need to recognize that this is the problem.
Jeremy: But there are ways to actually fix that, that are not yet, not politically on the table at the moment, but could be quite easily, which is simply to say that these transnational corporations should only be allowed to operate with renewable charters, with a triple bottom line as they’re called, which is basically a bottom line to not just try to maximize shareholder profits, but also to optimize for the planet and for people. The three PS, if you will, profit, planet and people. You see these now in these smaller things, like B corporations or benefit corporations, which are voluntary, and corporations can choose to actually change their charters, so they have this triple bottom line.
Jeremy: People, right now, can say, “Oh, it’s meaningless. It has almost no impact on the actual system itself.” That’s because it’s voluntary. But if corporations were required to have this triple bottom line, and if they could only renew their charters every five years, if a panel of people who are actually affected by these corporations actually they agreed that they met that triple bottom line, it would fundamentally shift the behavior, the DNA of the corporation all the way through. That’s one of these ideas. It’s a relatively simple fix. It doesn’t take great technology, but it would fundamentally alter the direction of where we’re headed.
Jim: Yeah. We also have to realize that we are confronting new, never before confronted issues. A perfect example is how our social media platforms are essentially very deeply tracking every behavior that we take and then using computers stronger than the ones that beat Kasparov in chess, and are then presenting us materials to manipulate us, to turn us into optimal economic buying units. As you know, Tristan Harris has been on the show, and he’s a friend of mine. He and I have talked a lot about these issues. It seems to require a completely new frame of reference to think about just saying no to technologies like this, right?
Jeremy: That’s right.
Jim: The current paradigm does not allow that. “It’s a goddamn communist.” Well, the last thing I am is a goddamn communist, but I still think that the idea of turning a computer smarter than the one that beat Kasparov at chess against a 13-year-old kid taking every emotion and thing that they do and turn them into an optimized economic buying unit is just goddamn wrong. As a society, we should put our foot down and say, “No.”
Jeremy: Yeah, I think that is absolutely right. Tristan Harris, of course, has come up with some wonderful ideas for how we can look at that. I do think that we have to look at it, not just in terms of our individual choices, but again, systemically. My own view is we need to recognize the technologists themselves are not inherently bad, we have to look at the context in which they’re developed. When they’re developed within the context of this kind of global capitalist model, and within this exploitative extractive model, even the best looking technologies will get sucked into exploitation in this way that we’re talking about.
Jeremy: The internet itself is a great example. I know you and I were both in those early days of the internet. It seemed so promising this distributed availability of information and connection all around the world. Of course, we see now how it got sucked into these massive corporations taking over the power of what was possible. This is why I keep coming back to this thing. We have to change the underlying operating system itself. We have to change the rules of how our economics works in order to redirect, so that, for example, imagine if Facebook were actually given over to the commons.
Jeremy: Imagine if the development of this incredible, amazing, powerful global connectivity of billions of people around the world were not optimized to make money out of people’s behavior, but optimized to actually help communities connect with each other. For people to get a sense of our growing kind of global human consciousness, really, our planetary consciousness. The possibilities are tremendous, if we change the system in which they developed.
Jim: Well, Jeremy, I think that that’s the bottom line. I think we’re going to end it right there. This has been an incredibly interesting conversation. I’d strongly recommend people who found this conversation interesting to go out and get Jeremy’s book, The Web of Meaning. I would also say that the earlier book, The Patterning Instinct, was every bit interesting. I’d like to thank you, Jeremy, for being a guest on the Jim Rutt Show and engaging in a really deep and good conversation.
Jeremy: Thank you so much, Jim. I enjoyed it tremendously.