The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Zak Stein. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Zak Stein, writer, educator, and futurist. He’s working to bring a greater sense of sanity and justice to education.
Zak: Hey, Jim. It’s good to be back.
Jim: Hey, it’s great to have you back Zak, for this part three of Zak Stein. Zak has a doctorate in educational neuroscience, human development and philosophy, the philosophy of education that is, at Harvard. He’s a co-founder of Lectica, a non-profit dedicated to the research-based, justice-oriented reform of large-scale standardized testing in K-12, higher-ed, and business.
Jim: We’re going to continue working through Zak’s very interesting book, Education in a Time Between Worlds. This is part three of us working through that book. For those who want to get some context, you might want to go back and listen to part one and part two. Though, we’re going to try to keep the conversation such, that it makes some sense for those who haven’t. As always, any resources we discuss, there’ll be links to on the episode page at jimruttshow.com.
Jim: Let’s start with talking a little bit about technology and education. We talked about it a fair amount in the first two episodes, but a lot of it was sort of conceptual and almost philosophical. I wonder if you could get down to some specific examples of how technology is used in education, or could be used in education? Maybe, an example or two about not so good use. And, what would be really interesting, is some examples or at least possibilities of good, productive use of technology in education.
Zak: Totally, yeah. I mean, it’s important because we’ve actually accelerated the trend towards digitally delivered education probably by five to 10 years, just as a result of the pandemic kind of closing down of the schools. A couple examples, right? So, when you think of educational technology, a few things come to mind, right? One is computers and laptops in every child’s hand, right? The other is resources like Khan Academy or YouTube, which are incredible actually from a variety of perspectives.
Zak: There’s this notion that if you just simply put a laptop in every kid’s hand and show them basically how to use Khan Academy well and step back, it’ll all just basically work out. What’s interesting when you look at that scenario, is that it’s not a bad idea. It’s not wrong. It’s just not a comprehensive approach that could be used to handle every child. It could be useful for a small number of children, in a certain amount of, kind of like well-constrained contexts. But, in general, an informational environment like YouTube… an informational environment, it’s not an educational environment.
Zak: An educational environment is structured in an extremely specific way and involves this dynamic of joint attention and teacherly authority, which we’ve discussed in the previous episodes. So, the way to think about this is that, and YouTube is probably the best example because if you simply place a kid in front of YouTube, YouTube will capture the kid and basically suggest the next video for the kid to watch based on what the kid has watched. Everybody kind of knows this as an algorithm.
Zak: So, the question of education, in terms of curriculum, it’s all about the sequencing. Like, what’s the sequence of videos that the kid watches on YouTube? Why is he watching this sequence of videos, as opposed to say some other? The answer is that if you just think simply place the kid in front of YouTube, the sequence of videos will be given based on an incentive to capture attention, to sell advertisements. I wish it was more complicated than that, but it’s not.
Zak: So, of all the possible sequences that the kid could have, let’s say beginning a video about some historical topic like the American Revolution, right? There’s any number of actually really rigorous, kind of very informative, and nuanced sequences that the kid could watch from the simple introductory to the more complex. So, the focus on a specific historical incident to then some specific historical characters, right, like in the revolution. Those sequences exist within YouTube, but they need to be curated by educators, not by algorithms that are mining attention for profit.
Zak: This is just to say that left alone, YouTube is not an educational technology. But, with the right structure and a lot of discipline around screen usage, you can curate resources in some of these types of environments to craft a really rich sequences of exposure to a variety of media, coming from places that even five, let alone 10 years ago, just simply wouldn’t have been available generally.
Zak: That’s the kind of amazing thing at this moment, is that so much of it’s there. So much of what we need for a completely decentralized and technologically robust and completely individualized education for every child, is a lot of it’s just sitting there at our fingertips. But, the intermediaries, the content delivery systems, the kind of media and form in which these things are held and presented, obscures that possibility greatly.
Zak: That’s the example of like the negative side. The positive side, I already was mentioning, which is that if you create a container in which educational technology is used, and these containers are relationships, right, that are characterized by actual legitimate teacherly authority… For more on that, you can see, I think it’s episode one, right, that we spoke about teacherly authority at length. But, the idea here is that, technology is a tool and you can have a relationship with a piece of technology. But, it’s different than the relationship you have with a teacher, right? Like, I have a relationship with a hammer. I have relationship with my car, but I would never confuse that relationship with a relationship I have with my wife or my dissertation advisor.
Zak: So, that’s an important thing, is that you have to position the technology in a conversation between teacher and student, as opposed to basically having the technology be the center of attention. That means repurposing things like YouTube and repurposing things like Khan Academy and even repurposing things like Wikipedia and all of the articles available for free through things like JSTOR now. So, what you get there, is basically a empowerment of the teacher as curator, but this also requires a lot of discipline.
Zak: Again, there’s a tendency to confuse looking at a screen and watching content, with something like education or educational technology. So, that’s a little bit on specifics, because it’s actually not solving specific technical problems in the field of educational technology. It’s solving the kind of human machine interface problem. What is that problem actually, in the field of educational technology? It’s much more complex than student looks at screen. It ends up having to be this dynamic of teacherly authority, in which the educational technology is placed.
Zak: So, a YouTube rabbit hole, right, catalyzed by a kind of extractive algorithmic sequence through a set of videos that captures the kid attention, it’s extremely different than one or two videos placed before the kid, followed with conversation amongst himself, teacher and other kid. Maybe, the conversation takes place on video conference, maybe not. So, I’m actually kind of taking a perspective of dialing back the ambitiousness of what people would like to achieve with the digital, and repositioning the situation between the human, the machine and nature. So, I’ll pause there.
Jim: Yeah. That’s very clear. Actually, as I’m thinking it through listening to you talk, as we talked about in the last episode, I’m an online product development guy at heart, product manager. If I ever had to actually have an honest job, that’s probably what I’d have to do. I’m thinking about it, doesn’t sound all that hard. Imagine an interface where the teacher can set a curriculum for an individual student personalized. That’s essentially a series of exposures well-curated by the teacher for the student, probably starting with a template for a kid of that age. Let’s say, it’s the unit on the American Revolution. It’s, as you say, within a container, think of it as a web application that the kid goes and looks at a couple things. And then, gets engaged perhaps in a forum discussion with their classmates, with the teacher monitoring, and maybe jumping in where necessary.
Jim: Then, the piece you didn’t mention, and I know this is of great interest of yours professionally, is typically the teacherly role also includes some assessment, right? Did the kid actually watch the video and did they extract something at least semi-reasonable from it? Let’s say there’s a good video on The Federalist Papers, right, it’s role, the content in it, who the personalities were, et cetera. And then, at the end, there could be a little quiz that checks to see that the kid actually did watch the video and took away some, at least, plausible perspective from it. That could be a resource that exists out in the world as well. It could be reused. The teacher could modify it perhaps a little bit, but could start with a well-crafted assessment for that video.
Jim: Thinking of a system of that sort, doesn’t seem very hard at all. I mean, frankly, I don’t know a damn thing about the current state of play in educational technology. Do such things exist today, to allow a teacher to create a custom set of online experiences with discussion, intermezzo, and assessment, et cetera?
Zak: Absolutely, Jim. That’s actually like it’s a growth market in the educational technology space, are these very complex kind of curriculum housing, content delivery systems that also have ways of managing student assessment administration, student assessment scoring, grading. So, there’s a lot of these. I’m not going to speak to specific ones, because I don’t know actually the current state. But, I do know that the vision you laid out is one that was hit upon fairly early by, for example Khan Academy, who has a system of basic tests and quizzes that follow sequences of mathematic videos and other things like that.
Zak: It’s also worth noting that those same curriculum housing and content delivery systems that track student grading and assessment and et cetera, many of them are wedded to actually very complex psychometric and user data backends, right? So, it’s not even that we want to assess kids. It’s that we want to completely surveil them and the use of the technology. The school mandated computer use gets tracked down to the mouse click. Same thing happens in corporate environments. You’re starting to hear some of this, because everyone’s working from home now. But, it’s capable to have, more or less, almost total transparency through to someone’s keyboard usage, mouse usage, how long are they staying on different videos, things of that nature.
Zak: So, one thing we need to look at when we’re looking at what you’re speaking about these types of apps, that kind of capture the entirety of the educational experience supposedly, is that they are yes, subject to over metrification and big data saturation. It’s kind of like one of these things that tech does in general, is that every affordance that might be, [inaudible 00:12:23] it will be used. Any affordance of the technology that could be used, like the surveillance of students, there’ll be a push to do that.
Zak: So yeah, it’s just worth noting that there’s a flip side to all of these profound possibilities within education, as a result of the digital. That flip side is that we run the risk of actually creating a more kind of invasive and unjust, but digitally-enhanced educational system, right? That we, in a sense, don’t make the right decision at this turning point in history of education and educational technology, because this is as big a transition as a transition that followed from the printing press, which I spoke about before, right, which Comenius was involved in. Like, “How do we restructure schools, now that the availability of books is almost trivial by comparison to the handcopied manuscripts that were used in the monastic education systems?”
Zak: So, that profoundly changed the face of society and the possibilities within education. The textbook became possible, which John Amos Comenius really was one of the key players in seeing that if you could precisely mass produce through the use of the printing press, something like a very powerful textbook, then you can use that to organize a whole complex new kind of schooling system. Similarly, the digital is as fundamental a transformation in the technological underpinnings of education as the printing press. But so far, I don’t think we’ve fully realized the possibility of the digital in the education space. That’s some of what my book is about, is like redirecting this social imagination way from thinking that the digital futures for education are kind of like we’ve got them already or similar to what we’ve already seen.
Zak: I was like, “Hmm, incorrect.” Like, we’ve kind of had a false start here with the nature of the digital. That’s applies across a whole bunch of realms in the internet. So, I think, yeah, in the near future, we may see people pivoting away from the screen-based delivery system, kind of like didactic videos and quizzes administered by Skinnerian learning boxes model and actually moved to the model of no human teacherly authority is, and always will be, the key around which educational configurations kind of pivot.
Zak: So, technology needs to slot into that better and richer conversation and interaction between teacher and student, rather than technology running interference between a richer conversation between teacher and student, which is what’s happening now. That would also require curating the rest of the informational environment, that especially young people, but all people, are exposed to. Which is, and I spoke to this the last time we spoke, I think, that’s kind of one of the main effects now in socialization beyond what the school would like to do, and even what we’d like to do around the dinner table, there’s what’s happening for those six hours a day when they had a lesson staring at the screen.
Zak: There’s a need to think about educational technology, not just about those technologies you used in school or used in formal educational contexts. But, to realize that a lot of this technology is actually educational technology, except we’re using it as if it’s technology just to make money. So, we’re miseducating systematically, because we don’t realize this thing we’re messing around with, it’s actually educational technology. Facebook, for example, Twitter, for example, even Wikipedia.
Zak: So, yeah, I think there’s a lot of failure of imagination in the space of digital education. Yeah, I’ll pause there. It’s almost an endless conversation. I’m specifically avoiding speaking about specific platforms or apps or things of that nature, because I prefer to work at this level of design principle thinking rather than get down into the specifics.
Jim: Yeah. It sounds like that one could describe what’s being done, as essentially just grinding finer on the same old shitty model, right? We now have a sausage factory that’s more fully automated. “Oh, we bought an IBM 360 and hook it up to our sausage factory in 1967,” right? Without changing the metaphor and without changing the intent, as we’re listening to you speak very eloquently, but again, putting my online product dude hat on, I go, “It wouldn’t be that hard to build something like that.” I mean, it’s not trivial. It’s 20 man-years of work maybe, a hundred man-years of work, something in that range. But even if it’s a hundred man-years of work, that’s, call it $20 million, not a lot of money on the scale of things.
Jim: It seems like a useful thing for somebody to do, is to get yourself and some other experts on the future of education, to specify in a little bit more detail, what you think is the right way to go get some consultation from teachers of both the formal and the new variety, i.e, parents serving as teachers, community leaders serving as teachers and actually build something. Build it open source, so that it’s free to everybody and that everyone can inspect and make sure that it’s not capturing fine grain, dopamine button-pushing kinds of stuff for either exploitative or surveillance type purposes. On the scale of things, it’s a very doable project.
Zak: I agree. I mean, the thing to remember is that the project is actually not just a technological project, because it’s also one about reconfiguring teacherly authority, right? So, you can build the technology. But, the one I’m specifying requires skillful teaching too, and contexts in which teacherly authority are held and possible as opposed to contexts where teacherly authority is questioned.
Jim: Yeah. I see that as being a specific part of the design, right, to build the hooks for teacherly authority deeply into it. I can see where that would actually come in the product flow and just sort of whiteboarding it in my head as we talk, which is something I do all the time, unfortunately. So yeah, designing with that intent from the beginning, of course, that still has the problem of then teaching people how to teach in this new paradigm. It’s probably not sending them to the Harvard School of Education to learn how to teach. But, again, that’s a different problem for a different day, but one that would also have to be addressed to make this really be the foundation for a new level of teaching.
Jim: The last comment I wanted to make, was you talked about, we think about all of our online networks at some level as teaching tools, Facebook, Twitter, et cetera. I was just going to point out that people used to say the same thing about television, right? “Damn television should be used for educational purposes, not for The Three Stooges.” I can still remember when I was about in third or fourth grade and all the parents, all teachers were horrified that fourth grade boys’ favorite idea of a good time after school was to sit and watch with his buddies, sit in somebody’s basement, watch The Three Stooges, right?
Jim: Of course, there was supposedly educational TV on the public channel, but the stuff sucked, nobody watched it et cetera. It kind of became a dead end except for a little bit of successful early childhood stuff, like what’s the one with the muppets with the help… Was that thing called Sesame Street. A little quixotic, to think that Facebook and Twitter are going to really become educational platforms as opposed to whatever the hell they are.
Zak: Oh no, I think they’ve become the TV of our era. It’s funny when you look at the history of education appropriately, it ends up being in part a history of technology. This guy, Lawrence Cremin, who wrote this three volume history of American education, which is called American Education, won a Pulitzer prize or something like that. An amazing book. He looks at television, the birth of television, and looking at the rhetoric around TV as it was rolling out and it kind of democratized the way across America. The rhetoric around it, was that it was the thing that would accomplish democracy through education and kind of the mass delivery of high level information and culture.
Zak: When I was reading that, you could have actually just taken out the word TV and put in the word the internet, and it would have been almost exactly identical rhetoric today. Well, not so much today, but more like in the late ’90s, before everything kind of changed a little bit. So, you had this sense that the internet was a thing that would accomplish democracy through the kind of dispersal of high-quality information across the board. But, what happened in television is the same thing that happened incidentally with the internet, was that advertising intervened and was like, “Well, you’re not just going to give this stuff away,” right? You want to use this to make money somehow.
Zak: So, the whole notion that, brought to you by our sponsors, right, which began with radio, but then amplified up and through television. Again, it’s, you don’t want to ever reduce one trend in technology, one way to one consult factor. But, the case in both the internet and television was that deep potential educational use was seen immediately. And then, all of a sudden did not materialize in the way we thought it would. In fact, then the arguments became that this is making us stupider. The thing that we thought was going to liberate us, vis-a-vis new educational frontiers actually ended up somehow closing off access to education. Now, we’re stupider because of the television and the internet. So, that’s interesting.
Jim: [inaudible 00:22:31]. Again, in both cases, you’re right, particularly on the internet. As I mentioned before on other episodes… I don’t remember if I mentioned it in the first two episode or not, I was involved in building some of the very earliest consumer online services back in 1980, a company called The Source, where we had most of what’s on the web today. Literally, we had newswires, we had chat, we had bulletin boards, we had email, we had home shopping and it was actually quite remarkable. But, because of the cost of the technology at the time, it costs a hundred dollars initiation fee and $10 an hour, right? And go, “Damn, who’d help pay that?” Well, the reason tens of thousand, and soon hundreds of thousands of people spent that kind of money because there was no other way to do it. If you wanted to participate in the earliest days of the online world, that’s what it costs.
Jim: At that time, we were quite sure that we were doing work for goodness toward citizenship by, just as you said, “Damn, we had a copy of the constitution online.” We had access to all the bills in Congress. We actually went to considerable difficulty to gather that data actually through a third party and put it on our platform. And, because of the fact that we were charging a fairly hefty fee, we paid those information providers, actual royalties. It seemed like we’re doing the right thing.
Jim: Of course, because people were paying serious money from a design perspective, it was not our job to hold people online forever because they’d quit. They’d get a bill for 800 bucks, and if they don’t quit, their wife pulls the plug on them, right? That used to happen from time to time, people who got addicted to the games. So, we specifically engineered the platform to get you the most valuable for the least amount of time possible. So, you could get what you wanted and get the hell off. Their interests and our interests were aligned at some level.
Jim: But, when you get to the world of advertising, it’s quite the opposite. The game becomes very perverse. The game is to reel you in and keep you sitting there, drooling for as long as possible, irrespective of whether you’re getting any benefit or not. So, as I’ve said before, if I were a dictator, goddamnit I would just flat outlaw online advertising period, because online advertising is way more pernicious even than TV advertising, which is bad enough. The reason for that, is because of what you’ve alluded to in passing, and then in more detail in an earlier episode, is because they track every micro behavior. And then, even better, people don’t know this, they also blend it with demographic data they bought from people like Acxiom, which has all your magazine subscriptions, when you vote, do you have a hunting license or not, what car you own, et cetera. They’re micro manipulating you at an unbelievably low level. I frankly think it’s goddamn immoral, and that if the citizenry really thought long and hard about it, they’d just flat outlaw online advertising.
Zak: Totally. You have to see advertising as a form of education. I mean, it’s like, again, back to Comenius, he said, you have to see society sub-specie educationist, right? So, you see all social phenomenon under the sign of education and advertising is education. It’s actually one of the main educational forces within our current civilization, which is one of the reasons we’re in a self-terminating civilization.
Jim: Yeah. It’s in the business of convincing you that status comes through possessions or positional goods, right?
Zak: Yeah. It’s in the business of teaching you basically about things, about products and teaching you about lifestyles, teaching you about value and about the nature of relationships and what’s normal, what’s healthy, what’s unhealthy. It’s teaching you about what is disease and what’s not a disease. YI mean, it’s remarkable, the number of things that advertising actually teaches. And then, there’s a hidden curriculum in advertising deeper, which is the layer that you’re getting at, which is that it’s teaching you something about who you are, what the identity is.
Zak: At a certain point with television advertisement, became an important effect in adolescent identity formation. But, when everyone had in the palm of their hand, an endless stream of customized advertisements, then I believe that we started to see advertising step into more fundamentally dysregulate identity formation than at any point prior. Some of what we’re seeing now in the adolescents kind of mental health crisis, it’s that the main effect of their educational experience has in fact not been in schools from teachers or mom and dad. But, it has been something like this total saturation of their informational environment by advertisements or proxies of advertisements. Which is to say things, that the advertisements work parasitically around and things that are indistinguishable from real life and advertising. So, get that that’s happening, right? That there are in the world of social media and actually in the real world, almost gorilla hidden advertisements thought of by brilliant advertising executives that blur the distinction.
Jim: Yeah. Product placement is famous, right? These goddamn influencers, right, with their product placements. It’s just corrupt, goddamnit. Anyway, let’s go on to our next topic. We could probably both vent about the evils of online advertising for three hours. But, let’s go on to the next item, which is you have a chapter in your book on spiritual teachers and the postmodern marketplace for religious education.
Jim: As I mentioned in passing, but I’ll hit again in this episode, when I was an elementary school kid in the first half of the 1960s, we still had to say the Lord’s prayer every day at the start of school in the public schools. Being at the time a good Catholic, not anymore… I was a good Catholic, would not say the last verse, which was the goddamn Protestant version, but it was still state mandated that you say the Lord’s prayer. If you went 50 miles further South than we all were, we were right on the North South borderline, there was mandatory Bible study and not as literature, as part of the public school curriculum.
Jim: I must say, I still have a very strong suspicion of the mixing of religion and education, and continue to believe that the enlightenment separation of church and state was one of the great achievements of the human race. I love to point out to people, I do believe this is the purest enlightenment document that came from the 18th century, which is the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was first proposed like 1779, was finally passed in 1786. The co-authors were Madison and Jefferson. One, the author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson. The other, the principle author, though not the sole author, of the US Constitution, James Madison.
Jim: It was a remarkable document. Not only did it include religious freedom for various denominations of Protestant Christians, à la John Locke, but it explicitly called out religious freedom for Jews, Muslims and Hindus. It’s, of course, interesting that Jefferson was a deist and Madison was an outright atheist. Yet, this became the law of the land in the biggest and richest state in what would become the United States-
Jim: …the land in the biggest and richest state in what would become the United States. So I still put my card down pretty strongly for that enlightenment view. Now, in your book, you say that the decline of religious hypothesis has not panned out, leading some to suggest that we have entered a post-secular era. Religion is a key node in the emerging transnational constellations that will radically shape the future of global civilization. So I’d love to get your thought on where religion appropriately fits in education.
Zak: Absolutely. And that’s a great framing because I, off the bat, would agree that one of the great steps forward in terms of Western civilization was this move that ushered in the modernity of separating church and state. Completely agree. But it’s interesting that some of the ethos for that, and you mentioned Jefferson was a deist and you think about how many of that generation, the revolutionary generation, we’re deep into the Masonic order and involved in certain forms of deism and other forms of actual overt mysticism. And you look at the move from the Renaissance to the enlightenment, which I discussed last time, which was a period filled with the sentiment that would result eventually in the separation of church and state. But it was a religious sentiment. The move to create modernity arose from a certain kind of transformation in the nature of religiosity itself, which included those atheists who were more religious than the most religious in their atheism in terms of its radicalism and its ability to get them out of their given social context and give themselves over to a transcendental signifier, as you might say.
Zak: So there was this emerging move, not to squash religion, but actually to let many religions flourish. This is the sentiment. It’s not the sentiment that, “Oh right now we’re going to separate church and state so that by the time we get to year 2000, all religions will have disappeared and everyone will be an atheist and believe in scientific materialism.” That wasn’t the sentiment of the founding fathers. It was in fact that we need to allow religion to be an open and exploratory frontier of human experience, not constrained by dogma and certainly not captured by political interest and vice versa. That politics and governance, the things that allow the land and the people to be safe and to have meaning, we can’t port that in from some specific religion and confuse political sovereignty with the places where religious authority are sovereign, like in the realms of morality, for example.
Zak: So it gets interesting, I think, when you revisit the conversation now in the context where we’re late postmodern, early meta-modern, right? When we still beat this dead horse of pre-modern religion, and this is that emergence of the post-secular age, right? Which is a book that Charles Taylor wrote and then Habermas has written a lot about this. Habermas in his later years returned to reading Kierkegaard and reflecting on this question of what is the role of religion now in the public sphere, when all the sociologists thought it was going to burn out and then modernity would basically eat religion up and spit out some kind of pure nationalism and deficiency-oriented economic philosophy. But instead it didn’t. We’ve seen actually a resurgence of certain forms of religiosity and it remains the case globally that the vast, vast majority of humans who live now and who have ever lived would describe themselves as believers of or members in a religion.
Zak: And yeah, so the question then becomes, all right, separation of church and state is in the interest, not of squashing religion, but in the interest of allowing religion to actually be an independent area of human interest. And you’ve seen that in America. America has pioneered the religion of no religion, right, especially with the human potential movement in the sixties. And so you’re looking at two ways to think about the question. One is that, well, there’s no place for religion at all. And education? Education is just about science, right, and just about facts. But now you’ve just made science a religion. So there’s a way that we need to think about the curriculum of educational configurations as about capacitating individuals to consider the questions of religion and to consider the questions of science, rather than the educational configurations being the delivery of certain scientific truths of the delivery of certain religious beliefs.
Zak: This is a key distinction. It’s deeper than the question of is religion in school or not because it’s at the level of epistemological orientation of the curriculum. And so you can do the thing where you compare the worst forms of religion to the best forms of science, right? Where it’s like, “Haha, stupid religious people. Look how smart the scientists are.” But you can also do the thing where you compare the worst forms of science, right, captured by industry interest and simplified causal mechanisms and really bad manipulative statistics and iatrogenic harm and all the worst kind of science. You compare the worst science to the best, most sophisticated religious worldviews, right? And then you can be like, “Oh, you silly simplistic scientists. There’s of course a bigger story.” And so either of those approaches are wrong, right? But that’s what you see in the so-called science religion debate, which is not really a debate.
Zak: It’s mostly, well, I’m not going to get to it, but it’s… This is, again, when you’re talking about religion in schools now in the United States, you’re often even given the question, someone’s asking the question, they’re asking it from the presumption of, as you began with the worst of religion compared to the best of what’s rational and scientific. I’m saying that’s a little unfair. That in fact, were we to begin to reimagine having religious discussions within educational context on a broad scale, it would precisely have to be the most sophisticated religious views. Just like if we were going to bring science into the schools, we wouldn’t bring in science from the 1890s, right? We’d bring in the best science we could. So we’d want to bring in the best, most sophisticated, articulate religious and theological and metaphysical forms of conversation.
Zak: And it’s just worth noting that as someone who studies human development and looks at the way the mind changes and transforms over the course of the lifespan, you see that religious questions about ultimate concern, and this is Paul Tillich’s phrase to think about what’s the subject matter of religion, it’s the things of ultimate concern. That these are perennial questions emerging within the human mind and especially at certain ages, adolescence for example. And so the need to have a place to resolve those forms and address those forms of inevitable questioning, that’s I think a responsibility as part of intergenerational transmission. And so there’s, I think, a need, and this is what I speak to in my book, a need to rekindle those spaces where we can discuss what is of ultimate concern, that we can have incredibly reasonable and articulate, complex, nuanced, scientifically-informed conversations about those things that are of ultimate concern, right?
Zak: Because if we don’t do that, then we’ll only get irrational, fundamentalistic, simple discussions about things of ultimate concern, right? Because it’s as if speaking about those things at all is spooky and the scientists aren’t allowed to talk about them or if they do, they need to explain them away or do some hand-waving. And at the very least say the religions had nothing to do with explaining a good answer in that theoretical physics scan or something like that, right? So we need to actually resuscitate and revive and as Habermas says, explore the untapped semantic potentials that are still latent within religious language. And he believed that those untapped semantic potentials still laid within religious language, that they provided resources precisely, quote, “to protect vulnerable forms of community life.” And so when you think about that, it’s interesting. Death and dying, classically the provence of religion. For better and for worse, right?
Zak: So much death and dying goes on in hospitals now. So much death and dying is hidden. So much of death and dying is not for discussion, for display. And so this has become a vulnerable form of community life that would make any sense together about death, dying. And so that would be an example of where it’s like, “Yeah, what do we say to kids about death?” Like, “Hmm. Uh-oh.” And then if a kid’s watching the television and he sees people talk about war and he knows that there’s nuclear weapons, let’s say as a 10 year old or a 13 year old, and he’s smart and he’s like, “Hey, what happens when we all blow ourselves up and everything’s over?” Right? And now the kid’s just mentioned the apocalypse at the dinner table. And so these conversations happen and cultures need to have the resources to enculturate the next generation into reasonable ways of responding to these inevitable developmental thresholds of sense-making as part of human development [inaudible 00:00:40:35].
Zak: We want adolescents to grapple with the full complexity of their experience, right? And that includes deep exploration of who am I? What is the universe? Right? What is the ultimate goal of being human, of all of this we’re doing, all of this collaboration we’re doing? Why are we doing it? So, yeah. So that’s… I’ll pause there. I’ve been just talking.
Jim: Yeah, let me hop in a little bit, right? First I’m going to push back a little bit. People who listen to the show know that I push back on religion a fair amount and so I’m going to do that. First, I’m not sure I buy that comparing science and religion as two different peas in the same pod is very meaningful. And the reason for that is that science is a bright line in history, it strikes me, in that it actually has built into its own operating system a self-corrective mechanism. You talk about bad science and yes, there has been plenty of bad science, perhaps most famously Lysenkoism in Russia where Stalin just decided he didn’t like the Darwinian style of evolution because it’s somehow contradicted some Marxist idea. And he mandated the Lamarckian idea that if you pull on a mouse’s tail the offspring will have longer tails or some such shit, and he had a sycophant named Lysenko in charge of that.
Jim: But over time, the intersubjective verification of science ratchets away bad science and ratchets up good science and religion is nothing like that. I mean, that’s why when I had… And we talk about adolescence, it’s quite interesting. Perhaps the most important day of my life was when I was 11 years old. I was always a sucker for a good, complicated story, right? It’s one of the reasons I’ve read Lord of the Rings 39 times. And I was a good [inaudible 00:42:26] young Catholic and read the Bible probably more than the priests thought was healthy for me and really thought it was quite amazing. The intricate tales of the old Testament, the much simpler stories but bigger moral messages of the New Testament, I thought they were kind of cool. But as I started learning more about science at age nine and 10, and by the time I was two and I’d read every book on science in the school library and half the books in the County library, I started thinking, “You know, there’s something wrong with this stuff.”
Jim: I then went and did some research on Islam, then called Muslims, and then Hinduism and read two encyclopedia articles on each one. And then I had an epiphany, literally. Almost a religious experience. The light came on screaming, “Religion is a human construct developed to control people.” And it just was like the curtain parted in front of my eyes and to this day, I hold to that. Though I will say I have a more nuanced view, which is initially the religious inspiration of religious thinkers may not have been purposely to control people. Frankly, I think a fair number of them were people with serious mental illnesses. But over time they inevitably got captured by people who use those systems to control people quite explicitly. And because there is no inner subjective verification on religion, the ability to mold them for pernicious purposes that are not subject to amendment is extraordinarily large.
Jim: In fact, my daughter, who’s a very good, strong atheist, stronger than me actually, likes to relate a story that she had when she was 14. She was debating her best friend who was a Pentecostal about religion. So our daughter says, “Well, what about the fossils of the dinosaurs? Don’t they clearly show that the world’s more than 6,000 years old?” And this was the ultimate religious style answer. “Oh, they were put there to test our faith.” Perfect, right? You use a factual attempt to refute some part of that particular sect’s doctrine, which was young earth. “Oh yeah, well, yeah, there’s fossils, but they were put there to test our faith.” And so a world of stuff that people make up, i.e. religion, that’s not subject to any sort of systematic intersubjective verification, just strikes me as a damn bad idea.
Jim: And with respect to, it seems cooked in to our human nature, it is true that today, some large percentage, over 90% I’m sure of all humans, adhere to religion. However, in the most advanced parts of the world that’s not true. You go to Northern Europe in particular, Great Britain, Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries, and less than half of the people believe in any explicit religion. And in the United States, by far the fastest growing religion is the religion of none. I think it’s 30, 40% of millennials now check the none box when asked. So I’m much less convinced that we need to have this unverifiable system of stories that people made up as part of our operating system of the future. And when we get to ultimate concerns and I’ll say, this is just my personal view and hell I could be wrong, right? My own take on them is that those questions are very premature.
Jim: We know way too little about the universe yet to be thinking we have any standing at all to think about the ultimate concerns. I mean, we don’t know about, do we live in a multi-verse or not? What’s the actual nature of quantum mechanics? We don’t know. What were the early stages of the universe like? We have some details, but there’s a couple of big, old question marks there. And even the standard models of physics have gaping holes in them, two of which are called dark energy and dark matter, which are just statements about, we don’t understand what’s going on here, right? Let alone things like origin of life, whether life is unique to the earth or is ubiquitous in the universe. There’s so much that we don’t know about the universe that we live in, that it strikes me as grossly premature to speculate.
Jim: I mean, you can speculate. I love to speculate. Hey, give me a couple of shots of good scotch and I can spin horseshit stories until the cows come home about the meaning of life and why the universe is here. But the reality is we have no real standing to say anything firm about ultimate concerns. It may well be that the universe has nothing to do with us, right? Or it may turn out that human life in particular is absolutely key to the unfolding of the universe.
Jim: It’s certainly possible that we are the only life in the universe or the only life that’s achieved self consciousness. In which case we may have a very, very important role to play, but we don’t know. So is it intelligent to spend as much energy and angst and just plain old material effort on worrying about these ultimate concerns? And aren’t they a distraction from perhaps the more important road which is to figure out for ourselves what is the right way to organize ourselves as a society and as people to provide a good life and to move humanity forward so it has as many good options as possible?
Zak: Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting. You did exactly what I said people do which shouldn’t be done, which is you compare the least generous possible definition of what religion is and the worst possible examples of religious discourse to the most sophisticated versions of science. And the examples you gave, of course, are terrible. Terrible things happen with religion, obviously. And biblical literalism, as you described it, new earthers who won’t look at any of the paleontological record. I mean, that’s like your stereotypical lowest hanging fruit when wanting to say things that are insulting to religious people. Because there’s this whole field of theology, right? Which for example, Martin Luther King got a PhD in studying under Paul Tillich. And then you look at the wisdom traditions across Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism and the dynamics of discursive progress in the discussion of religious and theological and ethical doctrine across a variety of religious traditions, right? And so Teilhard de Chardin, for example, very interesting character who was a paleontologist.
Zak: And so I think there’s a tendency to stereotype and misunderstand religion and confuse it with its worst instantiations. And it’s understandable because some of them are so appalling, especially to modern people. But simply understanding religion as something that’s a made up bullshit story used to control people, I mean, I have to tell you that sounds like a very simple understanding of something that’s been a rich, rich part of human culture since there’s been human culture. And that the science that you love actually was a refinement of sentiments that began within religious contexts that had to do with a commitment to truth and a commitment to a community trust and a variety of things that were actually at the backbone of modernity. So, yeah, so I would say to really have a conversation here we need to get a sense of a sincere grappling with the inter-subjective components of religious discourse, which Ken Wilber speaks to quite a bit, characterizing progress within religious traditions just like there’s been progress within ethical traditions and progress within scientific traditions.
Zak: And that there are different levels of religious discourse or religious engagement, different degrees of maturation within religious practitioners in terms of their ability to work with religion as a set of practices and beliefs that is always evolving and growing. So yeah, I think, so there’s that. There’s like, okay, this would be me reminding the scientist that, “Oh yeah, hasn’t science actually become the thing that controls more people’s lives than any other control system ever built by humans. Oh yeah, hasn’t science become able to roll out massive and damaging wars and et cetera, et cetera?” Right? And so we could do that. But instead, what I want to think about is what you said about the idea that the founding of religions actually was had by people who had psychological problems, right?
Zak: And so this gets down to brass tacks here because it’s about the nature of religious experience, and this is what I mean by grappling with questions of ultimate concern. What’s the nature of religious experience? By the way, we can talk about all the famous founding scientists who were crazy, but that’s another conversation, right? So to say that the beginning of a tradition is problematized because the founder’s crazy, that’s also a problem. So you have to grapple, again, back to Ken Wilber. There’s a way of actually entering the discourse, again which has been going on for many thousands of years in some cases, entering the discourse of religious practitioners and getting a sense of what are the validity claims raised within the context of religious practice and discourse, right? That’s the technical question, all right? Just like scientists raise claims of truth, facticity, et cetera.
Zak: The nature of the validity claims raised within religious practice and discourse. So until we can have a sense of what that looks like and what a legitimate valid sense of religiosity and religious experiences is compared to a illegitimate, irrational, poorly held religious experience or sense of religiosity, right? And so just like in science, you can just make a distinction between, oh, there’s good science and bad science, right? Which you were doing. In religious worlds, in the world of emerging spirituality, right, you can make a comparable distinction. You can sort the good from the bad in these domains. And so that’s the first step is figuring out how do we do that? Just like with science, right? How do we figure out what’s good and bad science? There’s a way to tell the difference. And just like in religious communities of practice and discourse, there’s a way to tell the difference between those that are pathological and those that are actually healthy.
Zak: And again, protecting vulnerable forms of community life from encroachment by the control system of science, right? You remember we talked about the medicalization of academic underperformance? We can also talk about the medicalization of death. And so that’s an example where, how do we preserve the remnants of the life world from colonization by the largest control apparatus ever built, which is built by science? One way to do that is actually leverage this whole other lineage of human thought and cooperation. And I’m not saying we are all going to the worst parts of religion ever. I’m saying we actually have to find the best, refine it and actually turn it into something that is a growing and vibrant part of the culture instead of something that feels like a pre-modern remnant that’s holding on. And so, yeah, so there’s first you need to even get into the science, religion thing and to even think about what it would mean to move religious and metaphysical and spiritual conversations into some reasonable space within the education field.
Zak: We need to slow down when we’re thinking about, well, what is religion and what is science and come with the best of both of them instead of the best of one and the worst of the other. And again, the spirituality people and religious people do the same thing, dismissing science entirely, right? Moving into some weird post-truth discourse that makes it so that there are no such thing as even physical bodies and crap like that, right? So there’s nutty stuff and there’s no denying it. But I think to have as dismissive a view of it as you did, I feel like it makes the conversation a nonstarter. It makes it so that it’s like, “Oh yeah, Jim must not have ever spent much time actually reading really sophisticated religious texts, let’s say in Tibetan Buddhism, or understanding the development of contemplative prayer by Father Thomas Merton or something like that, let alone done years of religious practice or years of meditative work that would actually be what would be needed to weigh in on these validity claims being made by religious adepts.” Right?
Zak: It’s another [inaudible 00:56:16] reporting that the scientist is like, “Hey, look, there’s an amoeba there.” And you’re like, “No, I’m not going to look through your microscope.” “But there is one there.” “Okay, well, you’re making it up because I refuse to look through the microscope.” And similarly with the most advanced forms of religious practice and discourse, there are injunctions which tend to be meditative or contemplative injunctions which need to be undertaken over time and usually with guidance, which then put forth disclosures, just like you looking through the microscope discloses something you wouldn’t have otherwise seen. And then intersubjective verification of the disclosure, of the contemplative experience, with the guy who is supervising you. And that’s important to get. Now, that’s not church going down in Alabama, right? That’s in the rarefied domains of monasticism and the halls of academic religious studies and things of that nature.
Zak: But that is the most refined strand of religiosity and it still exists and it’s actually larger and more sophisticated now than it’s been in many other civilizational epochs. Some of the post-secular age hasn’t just been a resurgence of fundamentalism. It’s been a new and sophisticated eclecticism. So the demographics you present are actually misleading, you know? Yes, the millennials don’t assign themselves to particular religions, but they’re also not signing up as atheist. They’re saying basically like, “My worldview is complicated. I’m taking a little bit of this and a little bit of that.” And Vervaeke speaks to this quite well, that the none category of religious affiliation actually signals, in many people, worldviews where if you were to hear them described would actually sound like religious worldviews. So that’s just worth noting. And to your point about, “Well, we don’t know anything, therefore we shouldn’t even be thinking about topics of ultimate concern,” well, you just weighed in right there with what you said about a topic of ultimate concern, right?
Zak: And most of the things you mentioned we didn’t know were things in the physical universe, events within the physical universe that we’re not aware of. But there’s a lot that we do know, or maybe we don’t, right? So I know I love my wife. I just know it, right? And I know that love is valuable. I just know it. And so the question of like, “Well, actually Zak, we don’t know if that love is valuable. You’re just a meat machine design by completely indifferent mechanical and causal processes of a self-organizing complex universe and it may be that your love for your wife is completely meaningless.” I’m like, “Hmm. You’re definitely not going to build a civilization on that idea.” Right? You could probably build a civilization on the idea that love is meaningful.
Zak: And so there’s this question of, yeah, when we talk about what we don’t know and we talk about matters of ultimate concern, it’s not even super clear to me that dark matter is a topic of ultimate concern. That seems to me to be an artifact of contemporary physics. And it could end up being a poorly conceived set of basic axiomatic things within physics for all we know. So it’s like, “Hmm, that’s not what I mean.” I’m talking about actually is the love for my wife valuable, right? Is Mother Teresa better than Hitler, right?
Jim: On most days, probably. But I bet there are some days when that’s not true. Apparently she was quite a bitch when she wanted to be, right?
Zak: Yeah, right. Obviously if we back ourselves into an ideological corner where we’re like, “Yeah, she’s better than Hitler, but not ultimately because ultimately we’re just mechanical meat machines with no…” It’s like…
Zak: …were just mechanical meat machines, but now it’s like, oops. There’s a certain set of anthropologically deep-seated cognitive processes which allow for the life form to function. This is where Habermas ended up going and why he returned to considerations of religion. And so there’s a certain form that scientific argumentation can take where it begins to undermine through its own theorizing, the conditions for the possibility of action orienting self-understanding at the level of the individual person, which is to say, if I argue through neuroscience that you actually don’t make choices and are not responsible for your behavior, that you are purely causal system. And like, you’re going to tell your kid that at the dinner table?
Zak: Like, yeah, well, I can’t really punish you for going out last night because you’re actually not responsible for behavior because you’re just a completely causally determined meat machine that evolved through evolution and a meaningless universe. So I guess you’re not grounded. What are the conditions for the possibility of actually morally binding human relationships? And at what point does the premium put by science on come upon counter intuitive explanations of human experience end up so confusing human experience that we end up being self terminating culture?
Jim: Yeah. The crazy reductionist view. Oh yeah. In some level of thinking you can argue that you are a causal machine is just not useful. Turned out not to be useful. I had Jessica Flack on the show not too long ago from the Santa Fe Institute. And she did a great job of describing how freewill is real, but it operates at a much higher level of emergence than is even visible to the ultra reductionist level and was pretty convincing about it. But frankly, from my perspective, even more to the point, whether we have free will or not, and any given particular scientific lens is relatively immaterial. What is important is that to build a society that works, we have to act as if at least we have free will. We know that. That nihilism is the road to nothingness. Solipsism is no better, for the opposite reason and that my touch word is always, is it useful?
Jim: And it’s interesting you mentioned Vervaeke. Vervaeke is a self stated atheist and his perspective is what we really need is the religion that is not a religion. And this gets back to this concept that we’re talking around here, that it provides a binding energy for us as a society. It’s something we all agree to treasure and to live by these concepts, irrespective of whether they are grounded in a ultimate concern. For instance, the fact that you love your wife. I guarantee marriage is a lot better because you love your wife and more to the point that you believe you love your wife, and that from time to time, you even express that radical thought than if you did the opposite. So that it is useful. Whether that’s in any way tied up with ultimate concerns, I have no idea.
Jim: And I don’t even know how one would tie that level of essentially useful sociological, anthropological behavior to something as potentially distant as the ultimate concerns of why the universe exists and what our point in it is. And I would point back to, there is clearly a need for something that religion in the past has fulfilled, but it’s not at all clear to me that it’s what we need going forward. And Vervaeke’s actually a very articulate spokesman for that perspective.
Jim: I should also add, of course, that I’m not actually as bad a Philistine as I sometimes come across on this topic. I have read a fair amount of Buddhism, went through my Alan Watts phase at one point. I’ve read other thinkers on the topic. Read a reasonable translation of Thomas Aquinas once. And I’m currently, this might shock some people, reading Ken Wilber’s “A Brief History of Everything” and have reached out to Ken to have him on the show. Which should be fun.
Zak: Nice. Good. Yeah. Read “A Sociable God” too, which is my favorite Ken Wilber book, where he talks about these distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate religious and spiritual experiences. And yeah, I mean, it’s interesting. So I mean, my mom was traumatized by Catholic school. And I think there are generational dynamics here as well. The postwar American Christianity seemed to be particularly traumatizing and drove a lot of people, I think, into forms of scientism and materialism that may not have actually become so drastic had they had different contexts of socialization in which to think about these deeper questions. And again, we would end up getting into a philosophical debate here, but the idea that love for my wife is useful. That’s phenomenologically doesn’t land well. That in fact if Megan believes that I love her simply because it mean we fight less, maybe that’s what you mean by effective marriage.
Zak: And so again, we’re postponing the question of what the good is. So it’s like a love is useful for the marriage. Then we’ve undercut the actual meaning of love, which is that I give it freely for its own sake. That I’m not instrumentalizing it and using you through displays of love to make the marriage go efficiently. But even then it’s like, well, what makes a good marriage? Just what, where we don’t fight? I don’t… So there’s this sense of “mmm”.
Jim: Yeah, much deeper than that. Again, we could spend two hours talking about how we are animals who have regulatory systems of oxytocin and other neuromodulators and something like love is imprinted in our neural makeup that causes, when we feel like we’re loved, oxytocin to be released. And that those are binding energies that help our relationships survive ups and downs. So we could go out for out an hour, at least, on that topic alone. But let’s get out here. We’ll agree that, at least at this point, we have a somewhat different perspective on this. Because I do want to get to some of your other interesting ideas about religion, which is that we in the West, in this post secular world as you started to say, have now a whole lot of things that are religion or spiritual. And in fact, you described it as the postmodern spiritual marketplace. Talk a little bit about this marketplace and in particular, you go on it quite eloquently about the role that teacherly authority can serve in this marketplace, both for good and maybe not so good.
Zak: Right. And this is the crux of the matter, really with your concerns about religion. Like with the Protestant Reformation, you had a fragmentation of what used to be a completely centralized dictate of religious teacherly authority from the Pope. And so you get the Protestant revolt against a particular form of what religion’s going to look like. And then you get all of these emergent Christian groups. And a whole bunch of things follow from that. Fast forward to after the end of World War II. You have a country in which that basic ethos of let a bunch of different religious flowers bloom, decentralize religious teacherly authority, and make it so that basically any farm boy who’s got a Bible that he can start thumping can start a church. And you get the beginnings of what is now this new age, spiritual marketplace. After the civil war, there were several great awakenings, one even before that with Jonathan Edwards starting in North Hampton.
Zak: I think, I can’t remember the exact dates, but there were two Great Awakenings in early American history. And then after World War II, you get another Great Awakening, but it had to do with an influx of non-Christian religiosity into mainstream America. But understand it was America that was already fragmented in terms of the way it understood teacherly authority in general, and beginning to fragment all forms of authority. Because of basically the McLuhan-esque shift into these forms of mass media that were occurring at the same time. And so it began in the sixties, move through the eighties, and now we’re seeing in the past two decades, a flowering, I think that’s almost unprecedented, of new religious movements and forms of synthesized and eclectic religious belief and practices where you get some individual from New York City who is doing Buddhist meditation but doing Hindu yoga, who celebrates Christmas with their parents and then claims to not belong to any religion, but who reads the Urantia book and believes in aliens.
Zak: So okay. That’s interesting. That’s pretty common actually.
Jim: I think I know that guy.
Zak: So yeah. So you have this radical eclecticism in the United States for a long time with regards to what counts as a legitimate religious teaching. And then you throw into that in opening a basically an educational marketplace for religious teachings and teachers and religious practices and that thing blooms and blossoms. And so now you can, if you wanted to and had a ton of money, you could spend all your time consuming one form of spiritual practice or religious ceremony or teaching or another. I mean, there’s just so much. And New Age doesn’t even capture it because a lot of this stuff is actually legit religious lineage holders, like from Tibetan Buddhism or [inaudible 01:10:41] and Hinduism. Monks who lead contemplative prayer retreats in the Berkshires.
Zak: I mean, there’s just so much that’s possible. And so when you see a marketplace like this, and any marketplace, was like, well, what the hell is quality control? How do we regulate the goods for sale in this marketplace? Because this is potentially dangerous stuff. This is stuff that you start cults with and by the way, more and more cults are springing up these days. And that’s part of the dynamic of this marketplace of religious idea. So I asked a basic question when I was working with the integral scene with Wilburn, Gaffney, and others. And it was like, yeah, how would we exercise quality control in this spiritual marketplace? And it ends up being an interesting question because you have to put your finger directly on the question that you were already raising when you were critiquing religion so much.
Zak: It’s that well, what the hell? How do they make that argument? That’s a terrible argument. Or on whose authority do you say that? And what about the authority of science, vis-a-vis your so-called authority from the Bible? So it ends up being this basic, how are we judicious with the consumption of religious goods? You propose one really useful criteria of quality control in the marketplace of religious ideas. Are these ideas useful at all? Do they help us do the things we need to do as people? Or are these ideas actually not useful. Distracting. Extractive. They’re obviously just done to make a buck or to confuse us enough that then we can be manipulated and et cetera. So I love your criteria of usefulness, but there are other ones and I speak to it somewhat at length in the book, pulling upon Ken’s work and the work of other people who have thought long and hard about the way, again, communities of religious discourse and practice have worked for millennia.
Zak: And then thinking about the transformations that set in with modernity and looking at the emerging non institutionalized religious forms that are innovating with religious discourse on practice. You have to look across all three of those because all three of those exist. And you have to think about the dynamics of teacherly authority in the context of religious engagements and spiritual engagements. And so that’s some of the way I frame it. So I’m not going to get into the details, but you take a broad brush stroke and you start seeing just how much is out there. And some of the stuff is, as Hopper Moss called it when he reviewed the scene briefly, Californian, Neo-pagan claptrap. That’s what he called it. Which is, I don’t know what that would have been in the original German but it’s a good phrase. And then some of it is actually distillations of thousands of years of wisdom that would have been impossible to have found, let’s say 10 years ago, 20 years ago.
Zak: Such as you have to get it, for the first time in history, all of the teachings from all of the major religions are available to the vast majority of people who are interested enough to find them. That wasn’t the case. This is actually one of the things [inaudible 01:13:58] was arguing for back in the day. We need to get with the printing press and translate all this stuff from the other religions and get everyone up to speed on everyone else’s religion. For the sake of creating some kind of future in which there was a religion of no religion.
Zak: Which is to say the most sophisticated branches of all the religions have always said my religion is just a construct. When you get up into the upper echelons of the most articulate mystics and the people who are most revered in the theological and metaphysical discussions in these religious communities of practice and discourse, you end up getting folks who all appeal to a trans lineage or trans denominational something like universality of religiosity. Beyond their own tradition. And this has been talked about, it’s the perennial philosophy, for example, by Aldous Huxley, but it’s been confirmed more or less repeatedly also in the cognitive developmental research that looks at the development of religious forms of thinking. Faith reasoning it was called by the great psychologist and student of Lawrence Kohlberg’s James Fowler, who wrote this book “Stages of Faith”.
Zak: And so there’s also good empirical evidence to show that, Oh yeah, we can separate different levels of sophistication in religious experience and discourse. And we can show that those people everyone would agree with the most sophisticated and thinking about religion tend to move up into a trans lineage and symbolic way of talking about the ultimate unity of all religions. So that’s just interesting to throw in the mix there, which is that just like you can distill science into some very universal process, which can be applied to biology and physics and even certain realms in psychology and it gets a universal underlying structure or way of doing justification of legitimacy of validity claims. So with religion, there ends up being some deeper structure. And this is what Vervaeke is trying to get at. Some deeper structure that allows us to discuss and redeem validity claims in the domain of religion, which again is a domain of those things that are of ultimate concern.
Jim: Well, again, we can talk about this one for two hours, but there’s one last topic I’d really like to get to. Well, actually, before we do that, I’m going to steal three minutes from our last topic. You did write about one, I guess he’s religious, I’m not a hundred percent sure, that actually struck me as worth digging into. Somebody named Mark Gaffney and his unique self theory. At least as you described it, it actually sounded like it might be useful. Could you give us a minute or two, keeping in mind that we really do want to get to our 13 miracles, about Mark Gaffney and his unique self theory?
Zak: Totally. Yeah. I’ve been working with Mark for years and he’s worked with Ken and myself and Mark’s a complicated and important figure within the contemporary spiritual marketplace. He had, in Israel for a time, a large religious community and for a time the most popular show on Israeli TV. And he’s also subject to political scandal and smear. And so there’s a lot of controversy about his character. Myself, Clint Foos, and Ken, and a few other people have stuck by Mark despite that, which is to say that the integrity of Mark’s thinking and character shines through and especially in this concept, unique self theory. And so the basic idea here is that if you look at the core of what’s taught in variety of religious traditions, you get this move and this is true in the monotheistic, let’s call it that way, Christianity, Judaism.
Zak: And it’s also true in Buddhism and Hinduism where there’s something like a self with a little S. Which is like Zak with all his petty neurotic concerns. But sometimes if you do a lot of meditation or a tragedy occurs or something else breaks the little Zak out of his comfort, there’s a actual revelation in one’s own experience, which is to say a phenomenologically, it’s just there. An experience of “Whoa. Self with a capital S”. That there is a consciousness that’s larger than little Zak, which is weaves Zak into the fabric of everything. And so this is an experience you might have on a meditation retreat, or sometimes people get it doing a lot of drugs where there’s a sense of “Whoa, my previous experience of self was completely limited and tiny. I am actually something more like all things.”
Zak: So that’s self, capital S. This is your classic sense of what enlightenment is. That’s that notion, the classic Neo in the Matrix, like “Whoa”. And he’s seeing all of the code of everything and his [inaudible 01:19:16] relation with everything and it’s all one. Now the problem is that that’s not a useful idea from your perspective. It’s a relieving idea. Which is to say that it is satiriologically potent. It relieves the self from its suffering and brings the self up into a much larger frame so that Zak could be relieved of fear of death. Zak could be relieved of fear of separateness. A whole bunch of things are overcome by the realization of the so called true self, capital T capital S. This is what you hear in a lot of Buddhism and a lot of New Age discussion and a lot of discussions from Avanti Vedanta and other religious traditions that emphasize leaving the personal behind and moving to the impersonal big S. Unique self theory proposes that there’s actually another turn.
Zak: This is a fully non dual way of thinking about religious experience, which is that, yeah, but even after you’ve had that experience of true self, you are still within a unique position and context with unique proclivities and potentialities and relationships. So that it’s not that all differences are eclipsed in the glory of oneness. No. That’s a temporary state experience. On the other side of that, there’s a return to individuation on the other side of ego. And this is what Maslow sometimes called self transcending. So you see the small Zak, you just transcend the small Zak and touch the big self, and then you returned to the uniqueness of who you are, where you are, when you are. Now. Here. Uniquely. Just this. So that’s the nondual realization where enlightenment doesn’t become something that you can only do on the cushion with your eyes closed.
Zak: That, in fact, it’s a commitment to consistently act from the place that is uniquely yours to act from, but beyond your particular attachments to little Zak. So it’s a way of thinking differently about what is being offered from some of these meditative traditions, which can be misread as a retreat from the world into the big S. The big self. Everyone relieve themselves of responsibility and disappear into a amorphous oneness with all. And that’s the stereotypical view of many Eastern traditions. And what unique self theory says is that you haven’t gone fully through and you’ve ended up checking out when what you need to do is check back in but without the commitment to yogoic concern. So unique self theory would undermine all of those forms of teaching that focus on spirituality and religiosity as being about the homogenization of identity and experience towards a single ideal of the better human or the enlightened human or the wise one.
Zak: So it’s according to unique self theory, you could never have something like a guru in the traditional Hindu sense because when you’re worshiping a guru in the traditional Hindu sense, you are trying to become identical with what the guru is identical to already. Which is to say you’re trying to find the true self. The only one. There’s only one true self you’re trying to find that through the vehicle of the guru. But that maybe have worked in a premodern society, but in a meta modern society, there’s a need to actually have this realization of the potency of each unique individual. This is the burden of our time in a way. And so, yeah. Actualizing uniqueness requires disidentifying from the simple frontal personality, which is actually not unique. That’s the thing that’s captured by advertising. Has been homogenized by the schools.
Zak: That’s been homogenized by traditional religious teachings. So there’s a certain radical core to the unique self teaching that brings certain forms of spiritual and religious practice out of the realm of escapism and into the realm of something like theurgic activism. Theurgic being a term that means basically the actions of God. That my hands are the hands of God, uniquely positioned here. As opposed to the experience of God being one in which now I don’t have to do anything with my hands because I’m saved. It’s the opposite. It’s the experience of being, Whoa, I have these hands. These are the only ones that can do this unique thing that’s mine to do. Yeah.
Jim: Good stuff. I liked it. Going to put a lot on my list after I read some Wilbur, I’m going to go read Mark Gaffney. And what was really interesting as I was reading it, and even more so as you were saying it, is it’s not far at all from my view on what’s going on with religion and why at the end of the day, most religions with their most advanced practitioners are saying pretty much the same thing. Mine is a cognitive neuro argument, which goes as follows: is that the brain is a series of networks and cycles and rhythms, but it falls into some stereotypical attractor networks. Basic configurations that vary in real time, which is how our consciousness is modulating and how our unconscious is modulated behind the scenes, but they fall into some broad classes. The two most well known are the so-called task mode network.
Jim: For instance, if you were doing a very detailed task is the pure example of the task mode network. Particularly the first time you do it. Take for example, when you were eight years old and you changed the tire on your bicycle, when you got a flat tire. Fixed the flat. Dissembled the gears, took the rear wheel off, pulled the tire off the rim patch that you probably had your father show you how to do it, or your older brother, and put it back together again, that’s classic task mode network. The other very well known big network is called the default mode network. And that’s where you’re daydreaming. Just spacing out. We’ll also say it’s the network that you fall into in the earlier or later stages of meditation. But there’s another network which I call the mystical experience network. We talk about having mystical experiences.
Jim: I’ve had plenty of them. I’ve done my share of acid and other hallucinogens, some of which you’ve never heard of. And so I’ve been to the mystical network and I can also do a really cool thing, which freaks people out but I enjoy it, which is I can produce a 10 to 30 second ego death state easily. I could just do it on demand. In fact, I did it on a Zoom call with five other people actually on Monday and they’re going “holy shit!” And I was literally gone for 25 seconds. So they tell me at least.
Jim: And I believe that that is a specific but hard to reach attractor that is of a qualitative equivalence to the task mode attractor and the default mode attractor and that a powerful personality, and this is where I resonated with Mark Gaffney, a personality that is complete has access to all three modes. They have access to the mystical experience mode, the default mode for just musing and cogitating, and has task mode when it’s time to do something. And that that’s why at the end of the day, all the religions look alike because they’re essentially roads to make it easier for at least the adepts to put themselves in the configuration of the mystical experience, neural basin of attraction.
Zak: Totally. I love that theory. And so it’s like, you’re not an atheist. Because what’s the value of the mystical network? What’s the value of what’s revealed within your mystical network? Because that’s the real question about the legitimacy of teacherly authority based upon access to the mystical network. And the religions say that the mystical network reveals something at least as real as what the other networks reveal, you just can’t pretend that what’s revealed in the mystical network can then be actualized or understood in terms set by the other networks. So you see in the mystical network this incredibly precise geometrical temple of light. Now, does that mean you need to actually build that thing in the desert to secure your immortality? This is what the Jungians would call literalization. And the answer’s no.
Zak: There’s a way to relate to the knowledge revealed in the mystical network, but you can’t make that knowledge strictly isomorphic with the forms of knowledge that are revealed from the other networks. And so this becomes about, and this is why it’s good you’re reading Wilbur, because he talks about this at length, what are the different varieties of religious experience? To use William James, who would also agree with your is it useful? He ultimately says well, God is the most useful concept we have. That’s why it’s true. But he also did the first really good. I think, rich social science research on religion, which is that it remains one of the most famous books taught in religion departments, which is the “Varieties of Religious Experience”. I think Principles of Psychology was published in 1890. And so I think “Varieties of Religious Experience” was right around the turn of the century.
Zak: And he just simply interviewed people who had consistent access to your mystical network and just got them to tell their stories of their experience and what that experience did. How it shaped the rest of their lives. And the basic finding was that, and Maslow found the same thing with the people who had consistent access to the self transcendent form of identity, which was that those people who can consistently have these kinds of experience where they plug into the mystical matrix, they consistently had lives that were uniquely dedicated to good ends. And this is James’ final verdict was that some forms of religion end up being tyrannical, but the forms of religions in that are based upon giving people direct access to the mystical system. Those ones actually provide people with lives that are more meaningful, socially beneficial. Compassionate, full of joy.
Zak: … Kind of socially beneficial, compassionate, full of joy and things of that nature.
Jim: Seems reasonable to me.
Zak: So, that was good to bring it back to that, because here, I think we’re finding some agreement.
Jim: I wouldn’t call it religion. I would just call it cognitive neuroscience. But, maybe the two meet somewhere deep enough.
Zak: They must.
Jim: It’s possible. I’m open-minded. I am an empiricist, right? When I find the evidence and I’m looking forward to learning more about … I’ve read about 40% of Ken Wilber’s book. What I love about it is how amazingly clear it is. I mean, so many books on these kinds of topics are full of what I’d call hocus pocus, right? But Wilber is clearly attempting to be as clear as fucking possible, which is actually great. So you can actually assess what he’s trying to say without having to decode it.
Jim: But let’s move on finally, to the last topic, which we’ve been trying to get to for the last three episodes! And I think it’s important to spend at least 20 minutes on, if we have that much time, which is that you’ve acknowledged in the book and also through these three episodes that to some degree, the kind of education that you see as necessary for what comes next for humanity for this next big, big step, at least as big as the transition from feudalism to modernism, is essentially impossible to actually bring into existence in our current world for a whole bunch of reasons.
Jim: Or at least would be hard to bring … My own version of that is, be hard to bring it in on a mass scale in the current world. I’m hopeful that it could be brought into existence among some self-selecting people who essentially build their own bubble, social operating system inside the other operating system. The thing we call Game B, and that within people living a true Game B life, even though they’re still embedded in Game A, they ought to be able to build a context in which ideas like your educational ideas are possible, but probably not possible for the masses.
Jim: And you acknowledge that. What you say is what’s needed are 13 social miracles, which are remarkably close to some of the things that we’ve talked about in our Game B world and other people talk about in other areas of what I’d call the good attractor, what comes next in terms of the evolution of the social operating system for humanity. So, if we could spend just a couple of minutes on each one of your 13 social miracles, does that work for you?
Zak: That works great. Sure.
Jim: I don’t know about Zak doing a couple minutes on anything. That boy likes to talk!
Zak: I think the best thing to do is actually, to read them all at once and then go through, so the people get the full gestalt. Because really, it’s not about one in isolation from the rest. They all come together in a kind of constellational unity, as part of this thought experiment, basically. I think the best procedure, if you were to read all 13 and then I can speak about the nature of the social miracles in general, and then get into particular ones that you find most interesting.
Jim: All right, let’s do it. Number one, debt jubilee for students and nations. Number two, basic income guarantee. Number three, integral decentralized social safety net. Number four, democratic governments, workplaces, and schools. Number five, public regulation of investment and finance sectors. Number six, legal and economic systems that value the biosphere for its own sake. Number seven, renewable and inexhaustible energy.
Jim: Number eight, reapportion of the land, agriculture, and geography. Number nine, total planetary demilitarization. Number 10, mutual respect between major religions of the world. Number 11, absence of oppression based on race, gender, sexual orientation, et cetera. Number 12, universal dealienization and rehumanization. And number 13, science and technology in the interest of the human. Goddamn, where do I sign up for that?
Zak: The future, Jim.
Jim: Let’s build it together! We’ve got to build this sucker.
Zak: Right. This is what has been called by people like Roy Bhaskar, concrete utopian theorizing. These came to me actually, it took a while for all of them to finally congeal into 13, but the way they’re put in the book is, what are the conditions for the possibility of a actually humane educational system? Because everyone asks me usually like, “Well, what school should I send my kid to? What’s the best school?” The answer ends up being, “Well, the school’s not the main effect, first of all.” The whole social system surrounding the school ends up determining what takes place in the school, if what the kid got from the school is going to be useful afterwards.
Zak: There’s a whole bunch of things that make the school actually, not the focus of attention when thinking about the educational potentials within a society. So this is about actually, thinking of all of society, again, sub specie educationis. Which means thinking about all of the reforms you could make, including reforms to the finance industries, reforms to healthcare, reforms to geography, and other things. All of those reforms actually have an impact on the process of intergenerational transmission, that everything we’re doing has education at stake.
Zak: And if we want to basically, respect the possibility of the human as revealed, let’s say, by the most sophisticated communities of practice and discourse in religion, right? The true potential of the human. If we want to find a way to get that through, to get that reliably in an educational configuration, then we’re going to actually have to reconfigure society itself. What I was trying to do with this 13 social miracles was just actually, list off those things that need to be part of what we’re concerned about, if we’re really concerned about educating the next generation.
Zak: These are also, kind of, structures and systems that are sometimes seem to be far from education, but that actually get right up and intimate with educational experience. The basic income is one of the greatest examples of that where, so long as schools are preparing you for the wage labor market, then schooling can only be so much, right? That, right now there’s a basic confusion, and it has been for a long time, of schooling as job training. That the goal of the school is to basically, get you into position to be entering the wage labor market at a certain level.
Zak: Now, what that means is that we’re drastically limiting those things that people pursue within schools, because the overarching concern of schooling is the eventual entry into the labor market. But imagine labor markets shifted drastically, like because there was a bunch of automation, right? Or because there was a pandemic that destroyed all of the service industries at once, and only a small percentage of them could reboot. So you end up looking at a much smaller labor market, and a much larger group of people who could understand themselves outside of the context of wage labor.
Zak: And this is, it’s not historically unprecedented because before the capitalist world system emerged at the end of the long 16th century, the category of wage labor didn’t really exist nearly as much, if at all. And if you look back into other, more ancient civilizations, this notion of the wage laborer is a specific thing and it’s going to become less dominant. It already is. People are predicting it. So now, imagine a school system that runs where, the main overarching concern of the school system is actually not preparing you to get a job, but preparing you to make good on something like your basic income, right?
Zak: But that only works if you’ve acted simultaneously, if you’ve also reformed the finance sector, right? Because the basic income guarantee could actually make it so that these people are then preyed upon by the finance sector, or the whole thing couldn’t work because of the needs of what’s happening in the echelons of international banking. So, you have to reform the whole entire monetary system, actually do the basic income guarantee, and the nature of banking needs to change, and the nature of currency needs to change or else that won’t work.
Zak: But then, you also have to make the energy renewable, because if you release a whole bunch of energy, in terms of money, into people and empower a bunch of economic agents with better schooling and the basic income, then you could just drive consumerism and a whole bunch of other dynamics that would tax the energy grid to the point of escalating our already self-terminating mode with energy. So you need different energy, and that’s of course, related to the ecological question, right? The whole point is that there’s this constellation of interrelated, huge systemic things that, at the end of the day, boil right down to that kid in the chair in the school.
Zak: The social miracles is not an attempt to say, “Hey, I’ve figured out how to do each one of these.” It’s not that. It’s not even saying like, “This 13 is the set that is necessary and sufficient for civilization to work for the next 15,000 years.” It’s not that. It’s a thought experiment. And it’s saying, “If you really want to think about education, this is the level at which you need to exercise your imagination.” That, the first place we had uniforms and standardized tests was the military.
Zak: That the military-industrial complex was the main impetus behind some of the largest educational reform policies within the United States, following Sputnik, right? The SAT, the science, technology, engineering, and math, a whole bunch of those things. The growth of places like UC Berkeley and elsewhere, that’s military-industrial money directly influencing educational institutions. So if we don’t demilitarize, then even the best UBI, not UBI because that’s the wrong phrase, but basic income, healthcare, all that’s there. But now the thing’s churning for the interests of military? Oops. That’s another self-terminating bad educational situation.
Zak: So you end up having to deal with, even at that level, the military. And once you’ve done that, then you have to start thinking about the organization of the land itself. The basic identity of place, and the emergence of something like a new way of thinking about urbanization and regionalism. So, weaving together all of the 13 social miracles into, kind of, a single conversation. Of course, the first one’s the debt jubilee. And this one’s actually on people’s minds now, which is what’s interesting. Because, and this is true for a lot of the things in the book itself, which is that when I was writing it, these things were kind of edgy and like, “Oh, okay.”
Zak: Then the pandemic hit, and then a whole bunch of the stuff that’s in the book actually became more relevant and more timely, as a result of the drastic speedup of a bunch of trends. The debt jubilee seems to me to be, almost a necessity at this point, in terms of the economic situation. That the debt, and specifically the debt of individuals. There’s a whole other conversation about debt jubilees for institutions and countries, but if you just look at student loan debt alone, student loan debt is part of that intergenerational warfare we were talking about. Because it’s crippling a generation and it’s demonstrably predatory.
Zak: So this is an example where, if you were to have a non debt-based system of higher education, you would change the possibilities for what happens in colleges and universities. I think we already discussed the education commodity proposition, how that undermines the dynamics of teacherly authority, but this is what’s taking place on college campuses because these kids are taking out mortgages to sit in a classroom for four years. And so, they are consumers rather than learners.
Zak: There’s a whole bunch of things within the social miracles that are in isolation, a bad idea. Like, a basic income’s a bad idea. If you do it, that’s it? You just cut people a bunch of checks and don’t change anything else about society? That’s actually, a terrible idea. You can say that about many of these things. You can’t, for example, demilitarize in one part of the world if you don’t demilitarize everywhere. If America was like, “Oh, we’re all putting our guns down,” then we’d be invaded and destroyed. Right?
Zak: There’s a careful, kind of, sequencing of thinking about changing systems at this scope, and it’s not even something that can be thought of as a political platform or any kind of logistical thing I’m suggesting here. Again, thought experiments. And then, one that I hadn’t mentioned, but which is worth mentioning, the unity of religion we’ve already discussed. How essential that actually is, as a fulcrum in the planetary culture. That, even if we solve these other problems with getting the currency right, getting the income right, and now we’ve got a universal healthcare that actually works and isn’t centralized, over-bureaucratized, and captured by profit-seeking science.
Zak: If we have all that, but the religions still don’t get along, that we’ve still got backward fundamentalists, reactionary religious violence, then we’ve also failed. And so, we need to foster coherence in the depths of human culture, as well as bring efficiency and reasonableness to the infrastructures and economic systems. The final one, the 13th one, which is about science in the interest of human flourishing and exploration, this is the only place in the book that I think that I talk about outer space.
Zak: But in fact, for a lot of the book, in part because I had so much science fiction as a kid, a lot of the book I’m thinking about like, “What would be an educational system that could actually get humans to be a species that was involved with more than just the earth?” There’s this possibility that we flee the earth because it’s dying, right? Like Elon Musk, we bug out to Mars, and it’s as if that’s the only motive we could have, is just survival. But I’m imagining a civilizational kind of architecture in which now, it’s actually from the excess of our curiosity and accomplishment that we, quote unquote, take to the stars.
Zak: Because if we take to the stars out of fear, if we take to the stars out of profit-seeking and enslavement and all like, Jesus. That’s not going to last. So yes, some of what the 13 social miracles are getting at should feel like some science fiction, concrete utopia, because that’s in fact what it is. It’s saying, “Where’s the future I was promised?” I remember Jordan Hall told me once when he was invited to the Aspen Institute, he wore a tee-shirt and it said on it, “Where is the future I was promised?”
Jim: The other version of that’s, “Where the hell’s my flying car? All I got’s Zoom,” right?
Zak: That’s what I’m saying. Graeber writes about this, The Utopia of Rules. He writes about these particular trajectories of technological development that we’re on being so parochially tied to profit maximization, and so corrosive of the nobler, if messier elements of human culture that have long been the real resources of innovation. So that’s me moving through all the miracles in a gestalt, which is I think, a better way to hold them. Because when you look at one like basic income, we could do a whole podcast just on that. You could do a whole podcast series on that. And I say in the book, “Each of the social miracles, I could take a book to write about it.” The debt jubilee. So much involved there.
Zak: The ancient history of the jubilee is fascinating. David Graeber gets into that in his wonderful book on debt, and then the actual financial apparatuses and mechanisms that could allow for this kind of massive financial rearrangement, and there’s so much to discuss there. Same with the unity of religions and the new forms of urbanization, regionalism, and agriculture. So by no means, am I covering that stuff comprehensively. What I’m trying to do, in a way, similar to what Ken Wilber does, is just put a bunch of things next to one another in very clear language so that something like an a-ha occurs, where the social imagination is now sparked in a new way.
Zak: That’s the ultimate goal of the social miracles. Now, if some of them are near-term realizable as actual political or technological goals, that’s another story, and I’m not getting into that. But I do think some of them are, and I do think there’s probably a sequence to them. And it’s looking like the debt jubilee and the basic income thing is going to happen sooner rather than later, and for better or for worse. Because remember, if you roll a couple of these out absent the other ones, you could actually end up with a worse situation. So that’s a little bit of a gestalt of the whole thing.
Jim: That’s great. That’s great. That did a good job there of painting it. Let me react, a little bit. I think, again, they’re really interesting and mostly to the good. I’d add a 14th one, and this is one we talk about a lot in our Game B work. That would be to somehow, eliminate bad faith discourse from our shared meme space. One of the things that is just seemingly so wrong in our world, and advertising is one aspect of it. The crazy shit that goes on in social media is another. That somehow, there are no appropriate consequences or social norms against the spreading of bad faith discourse, particularly if it furthers either an economic or political agenda, and that in a good society, that would just be wrong.
Zak: I love that one. I love that one. Something about fixing digital informational ecologies.
Jim: And not just digital, but all information. I mean, think about perverted textbooks in the state of Texas, right? Any kind of bad faith discourse, where people are putting information out into the shared meme space for purposes of manipulating other people with things they know not to be true. Or at least, should know not to be true. So that’s that. Second, talking about the jubilee. I’m a huge believer in that. In fact, people interested in it might be interested in looking at some work the people who later created Game B did, back in 2012.
Jim: We put together an experimental political party called the Emancipation Party, and you can read our platform at emancipationparty.org. The party’s long since been disbanded, but we left our platform up and what was number one on it and the thing we go into the greatest depth? A debt jubilee, both public and private. Everything. Wipe them all clean. We also put out basic income. We called it citizenship wage, even before the name UBI came around. We talked about safety nets, we talked about democratic governance, and we specifically talked about radical reform of the investment financial sector, so that your first five social miracles, we lay out in some considerable detail how you do it, and why.
Jim: So people might find that interesting at emancipationparty.org. Then the last thing I’m going to react to, and then maybe you can have the last word, then we can wrap it up is, I was very taken to heart by your discussion about going out into the universe and how going out into the universe as a lifeboat strategy is, about one of the worst attractors I could possibly imagine, right? A few rich fucks are going to head off to an asteroid. It turns out Mars is probably not the answer. An asteroid’s probably better. Whatever case, a few million people manage to get a lifeboat off earth, fuck everybody else.
Jim: I mean, that’s, goddamn, that’s mortal sin in my book, actually. On the flip side, as you allude to, I think we both read probably, more science fiction than we should have when we were of the impressionable age. Should have been working on our algebra, but man, did it have a big influence on me. And when people ask me, “What is the purpose of human existence at this exact moment?” The answer I give is, “As far as I know,” and again, I don’t claim to know anything about ultimate issues, but in terms of right now I say, “The very reasonable purpose for humanity is to bring the universe to life.”
Jim: If we look at our, the emergence of the universe from the big bang, first we had matter and energy, which bopped around for a long, long time. Then as far as we know, life only exists on earth. And again, there’ll be a little fork here, but on this fork let’s assume life existed on earth and then advanced life. Not that long ago, only about 500 million years ago, multicellular life. The development of neurons soon thereafter, and then general intelligence, something on the order of 50,000, maybe 100,000 years ago.
Jim: And compare the amazing richness that’s occurred here in this sphere of ours to looking out at this goddamn huge universe of, each galaxy has around 100 billion stars. Then there’s about a 100 billion galaxies, and as far as we know, all of it’s still at the pre-life stage. It’s just matter bouncing around in rather uninteresting ways, actually. And suppose if our mission is, to take life out to the universe and let it find its way in many, many different ways and explore all the possibilities that life … Or not all, but a vast, vast number of ways that life can be in this gigantic, gigantic universe.
Jim: So that’s the fork one, and that’s the assumption that we are alone in the universe, which is quite possible. The other fork, of course, is that the universe is full of intelligent life and for various reasons they’re hiding from us, or are just living in a way that make it hard for us to detect. The so-called Fermi Paradox. Which is, “Well, there’s all these intelligent beings in the universe. Where the hell are they?” I would say that we should be agnostic on that issue, but move forward on the, as if we’re alone trajectory until proven otherwise. That’s, I think, very compatible with your view of thinking about moving out into the universe as a huge positive, not as a depraved lifeboat strategy.
Zak: Totally. And moving out into the universe only after we’ve gone fully within to figure out what values, cultural forms, and commitments that human beings are actually bringing to the universe. Because I think the fascination with the exploration of the material world, and of course, space exploration is the pinnacle of what was already been an impulse within the human, to explore. That impulse can also be turned within, basically. I’m suggesting that both of those occur simultaneously.
Zak: That the universal dealienation and rehumanization occur before we get off the planet, because otherwise we’re bringing our shit everywhere, and it would be a terrible idea for us to spread it around the universe if we hadn’t cleaned it up at home first. So there’s that sentiment of like, “Yeah. Let’s figure out how to make it work here before we start worrying about what’s out there.” And then when we do go out and explore, I mean, and interestingly enough, some sophisticated religious mystics who were aware of modern science like Sri Aurobindo, for example.
Zak: The great Indian mystic and sage, he really believed that this was the moment of planetization when the humans went beyond just being responsible for the earth, and began to be part of a larger play in the universe that required us leaving the earth. He believed that this was basically, part of what was revealed by the level of responsibility and maturity that the religious traditions were calling the adepts to. That in fact, prefigured in Christ and Buddha and others, were the kinds of cultural and personality resources necessary to be a species that could actually take on a interplanetary responsibility.
Zak: So that’s a interesting way to bring this together into what I call sometimes, a religious transhumanism. Which is not humanism merely of a technologically optimistic future, but one in which high technology is wedded to basically, high consciousness and high aspirational and radical maturity and sanity. Then it’s a much more reasonable thing to think that humans could actually go and colonize other worlds. Right now, we can barely survive on this one. And so, it’s looking like the near-term space stuff ends up being quite dicey. It ends up being the asteroid mining, the surveillance satellites, and the super expensive billionaire day trips to outer space, and stuff like that.
Zak: But yet, the only way to have one that’s, I think, sustainable in perpetuity is one that comes with the kind of ethos that I’m trying to get at, which I think you’re trying to get at. So there’s incredible potential futures for the human. And this again, I think is part of what is hidden within the semantic potentials of what’s revealed in the mystical network, right? That, the world we’ve known is only the one we’re in now. That there’s a radical transformation and reconfiguration of the human that’s coming, that’s imminent, that will make us as different from modern man as modern man is from cavemen.
Zak: So that intuition’s been articulated across a bunch of religious traditions as the apocalypse, or the Zion, or Shambala and et cetera, et cetera. The utopian visions, which picked up that thread and then the concrete utopian theorizing, which gives us the 13 social miracles, what we’re trying to do is find a way to collectively bear this transition, basically. I certainly wouldn’t get on a space ark with a bunch of crazy billionaires, I like to say, because I work in this field of existential risk, catastrophic risk, and civilizational collapse and stuff. I like to say, “There is no escape hatch.”
Jim: No practical one.
Zak: Well, if you don’t solve the cultural problem, then every escape hatch actually brings you deeper in. Because you escape that island with your guards, but if you haven’t figured out how to actually deal with people outside of a system of currency where renumeration is cured, right? Just people, then there is no … You’ve actually gone deeper in to a problematic situation precisely by trying to escape. So yeah, the only way out is through, together.
Jim: I think that’s a good place to end it. We’ve gone as far as we can go, right? I think, which is that we have to retune what it means to be human in the context of an educational system that can replicate those good values and refine them going forward, so that we can go out into the universe and do good and not harm.
Jim: We’ve come a long way. This has been a wonderful conversation, Zak. I think this is one of the deepest and most interesting series of talks I’ve had on my show, and I am pretty sure the audience will like it.
Zak: Thank you, Jim. It’s been a pleasure. It really has.
Jim: Yeah, it really has been. It’s been an education for me, too.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Mahler at modernspacemusic.com.