The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show, John Vervaeke, or Jordan Hall. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today, we have two really interesting guests talking about what sure seems to me to be a really important project. We’ve got John Vervaeke and Jordan Hall. They and I will be discussing the religion that is not a religion. Both are returning guests and you can find their previous episodes at jimruttshow.com. John is a professor of psychology and cognitive science at the University of Toronto, and he is an internet video phenomenon probably most well known for his Awakening from the Meaning Crisis series, 50 hours worth of really interesting video, but also lots of other interesting things online too. And he is the co-author of the book, Zombies in Western Culture A 21st Century Crisis. About a year ago, John and I did a five episode podcast arc on his Awakening from the Meaning Crisis video series, and despite their really high intellectual density, they rank in popularity at the very top of my podcast episodes.
Jordan Hall is a successful tech exec and entrepreneur, but perhaps is better known for his work on upgrading human capacity and working towards a new social operating system for humanity. He’s also got lots of juicy stuff out there. Just search for Jordan Hall on YouTube. His Deep Code series on Medium remains a classic. Worth noting back in 2013, Jordan and I were both part of the original startup team for the social movement now known as Game B, and we’ve remained friends ever since. Jordan and John have worked in collaboration for some time on various things, but especially on today’s topic. Welcome Jordan and John.
John: Thank you so much, Jim. Great pleasure.
Jordan: Thanks, Jim. This is going to be very interesting to have this conversation at this point in time. John and I have been talking about it a bit in some sense sort of just between the two of us, although oftentimes we record it and publish it. But I think this is the first time we’ve talked about it together in a, I’d say, more structured or formal way.
Jim: And as people who listen to the show know, it’s not going to be all that structured and all that formal. But yeah, we will try to get into it in some detail. But before we drill down into the details, why don’t we start with you, John. The religion that is not a religion is your creation. Maybe start off with a 30,480 meter view. For those Yanks out there, that would be 100,000 foot.
John: Okay, I’ll try my best from that vantage point. What I would say is the reason why I proposed this is that we need something that does the following things. Provides a home and a community for ecologies of practices, and it needs to do that in a way that is integratable with our non-avoidable scientific technological worldview. The reason why we need this functionality, you and I, Jim, went into this in more depth when we talked about Awakening from the Meaning Crisis, but I think it’s necessary in order to afford people the set of practices in order to deal with self deception and enhance their connectedness, their meaning in life. Why I call it a religion that’s not a religion is that we need this to work at an individual level, a community level, a cultural level, and bring about significant transformation while homing ecologies of practices.
The only things that have done it very reliably in the past, not without criticism of course, are religions. Unfortunately for many of us, the legacy religions, those that are born in the Axial Age, are no longer viable to us for a host of reasons. We could go into more detail later. I think for most people, when I say religion, the paradigmatic meaning of that is one of the Axial Age world religions as we know them. And the problem with those religions is they have a mythology that I call the two worlds mythology, that is no longer viable in my mind and reconcilable with our best scientific evidence, our best philosophical argumentation. And therefore, we are often using language to engage in practices that doesn’t really sit well with our scientific worldview. So we need something that exacts the functionality that was present in the religions without buying into their worldview and some of their organizational and other historical problems. So a religion that’s not a religion.
Jim: Great. Good summary. We’ll get into considerably more detail on many of those topics. Jordan, tell us about your discovery of John’s work and how it’s influenced your own.
Jordan: Interesting. Well actually, in point of fact, I was chatting with a young man who had come to participate in collaboration with me and Daniel Schmachtenberger in San Diego, and he mentioned that John’s stuff was going to be the next big thing. And I said, “All right, fair enough.” So I watched episode one of the Meaning Crisis series, and then I guess three days later I’d caught up. I think I was 24 episodes behind, so I watched 24 hours of John talking in about three days, which was pretty potent. And prior to that, and maybe this is why it popped up or I’m not quite sure why, you may recall, Jim, that I’ve written a couple of essays in this milieu. Specifically, I wrote one on science and religion and spirituality for that matter, and trying to focus on disambiguating the meaning of these concepts and what roles they play properly.
And in fact, I’ve been spending some time thinking about the, I guess at this point, long forgotten, but there was a moment in time where there was a discussion between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson on the question of truth. And noticing, I think I created a video or an essay on this recently, that there’s ambiguity about different modalities or modes of truth, and these questions are very closely related. And so when I got on the John train and started watching his series, what I was taken with, as I imagine many people were, was the… How do I say this right? It’s five or six elements. Sorry, John, I’m just going to have to be complimenting. I don’t think we’ve ever talked about this. One is the depth. Two is the breadth. So we’re talking about a series that covered everything from cognitive science, neuroscience, all the way into the origins of the shamanic typology, paleontology. Specific is the evolution or the development of the various sort of stages of Western and other civilizations.
And it was an opus. And what I kept noticing was the degree to which… You mentioned this I think before we recorded. That John defines words extremely precisely and then holds them and uses them. The way my mind feels it is it’s like a spiderweb being woven out of a very, very profound fabric. And so the structure as it [inaudible 00:07:05] out, I can just hold all of it. And just so many things started becoming clarified that had been in my own mind. So it just happened to arrive at a point where I was contemplating these questions and lo and behold, here comes somebody who has covered things at the embodied level. He has a practice in Tai Chi and he has a practice in meditation. He has a practice in stoicism and deeply in the cognitive level. And it was very quickly a good thing. Now, it must have been Peter Limberg who introduced us. Is that correct, John? Or was it somebody else?
John: Yeah, I think Peter introduced us, but I think we first spoke on Rebel Wisdom.
John: That’s how we first connected.
Jordan: Very interesting. Yeah, that’s right. And so we had a recorded conversation and we’ve been chatting pretty consistently, pretty much every two weeks now for years. Covering a lot of territory.
Jim: Very good. So John, you both talked about the religion’s not a religion is essentially a response… That’s not words I would use. To an attempt to awaken the world from the meaning crisis. So let’s spend a little bit of time… Let’s not recap 50 hours, but let’s briefly let people know who don’t know, what is your concept of the meaning crisis and why do we need to awaken from it?
John: Right. And I would also recommend people check out our five episodes together which I thought was one of the best succinct investigations of the entire series. And I thank you for that, Jim. The meaning crisis has two components to it, the perennial and then the pertinently present. The perennial is the idea that the various processes that make us adaptively intelligent, make us perennially susceptible to self deceptive, self-destructive behavior. That cognition is very complex. It is very dynamical, very self organizing, very recursive, very embodied and enacted, and one shot kind of interventions to try and ameliorate that self deception are pretty doomed to fail. As I’ve talked about it before, you need complex ecologies of practices that can ameliorate that self deception and then enhance that fundamental adaptive connectedness that’s at our core of cognition that people experience as meaning in life, which is a very high value item for them.
And when you are doing those two together in a coordinated fashion, I think that’s a good understanding of what wisdom is. And one way of talking about the meaning crisis is that while we have plenty places to go for information and knowledge… They’re all contested but they’re readily available. It’s unclear to people where they should go to cultivate wisdom. And wisdom is not optional. And so either they try to somehow make the legacy religions work or they try to cobble something together in order to ameliorate these things. You can see this in one of the largest and growing demographic groups, the nuns, who have no official religious belief, but they largely describe themselves as spiritual but not religious, which means to my mind, they’re seeking something like wisdom and meaning, but they’re doing it autodidactically, which has all of the perennial threats and risks of autodidactic education.
And so you have a wisdom famine. These ecologies of practices, as I mentioned earlier, they have to be homed. They have to be situated and lived by a community of people that will support you as you try to engage in them and correct you and challenge you when it’s needed, the way we always have when we’ve engaged in cultural education. And so the present problem is the thing that used to home the ecologies of practices are the legacy religions. And for a lot of historical and other reasons, they’re now non-viable for many people. And so you have a wisdom famine. People are looking, but they can’t really find what they’re looking for by and large in the world religions. We’ve tried political alternatives that have drenched the world in blood so we’re sort of traumatized about that. And so we’re stuck.
Jim: Yeah. Let me stick in just a question there before we go on. You often refer to these as pseudo-religious ideologies as response to the meaning crisis.
Jim: And that’s a bad attractor on the road forward at least so I think it appears to all three of us.
John: Yes, very much. And this is what I’ve often said to put on my tombstone. Neither nostalgia nor utopia. We can orient pseudo-religiously backwards, and you can get fundamentalisms and you can do that forward looking the proposals for utopia. And then of course, we get totalitarians. And of course, you can mix and match those together in wonderfully blood thirsty ways. And so what we’re trying to do, Jordan, I and other people, is we’re trying to say, “How can we help people address the perennial problems of self-destructive behavior, the sense of absurdity, alienation, pervasive anxiety, all the other symptoms that are showing up? How can we properly give that a home and situate it within our current worldview?” And then an extra dimension that has come out in my conversations with Jordan is how can we orient that so it can deal with the incredible accelerating rate of the complexification of our sort of technological milieu? And so that’s the meaning crisis as briefly as I can make it.
Jim: Yeah. One last distinction, and I find this to be a very useful hook for people to hang on when they’re first starting to make sense of this, the distinction between meaning of life versus meaning in life.
John: Yes. And this is probably one of the ways I would distinguish religion from the religion that’s not a religion. The meaning of life is some metaphysical proposal about something that is a plan or a destiny for you and that you must find it in some fashion. It’s been pre-authored, preordained and there’s various ways in which that can roll out. It can be preordained by an agent. It can be preordained by cosmic force like karma or something like that. The idea is the meaning of life is defined. That, and to figure out how to orient yourself properly to it.
Meaning in life is at best agnostic. I tend to be rejective of meaning in life because it presupposes a teleology to the universe that I find absent. But let’s put that aside. Meaning in life is agnostic. It says, “No, no. What we’re talking about isn’t that metaphysical plan. We’re talking about the enacted senses of connection you have to yourself, to other people and reality that make life worth living, given the inevitable futility, failure, frustrations and loss that set human life.” What is it, right? What is it that you’re connected to that makes it worth living. That’s meaning in life.
Jim: Jordan, in your work and thinking about how humans can increase their capacity and what a future social operating system for humanity might look like, where does the concept of the meaning crisis fit into your work? As I recall, some of our discussions long before either of us knew John Vervaeke, you were talking about things that were kind of like this. How is your thinking related to something like the meaning crisis?
Jordan: Well, let’s take the distinction that you guys were just making. I’ll go up one level higher actually. So all of the different variations on the theme of pseudo-religion, for example, or meaning of life, are of the category error, specifically, that prioritizes propositional [inaudible 00:15:04] to use the way that John describes it. To make it more plain, prioritizes the narrative of the words. So this is from my point of view, a category error. And the only way to respond properly to life is to actually recognize that’s an error and then find out how to actually do the right thing, which is not to operate in the propositional mode as the highest level, but actually to recognize that the, for example, participatory mode or the mode of embeddedness in the complex flow of life itself is the thing. And so for example, we run into this sort of dichotomy all the time.
You remember Dave Snowden’s Cynefin structure, which makes a distinction between the complicated and the complex. These are very similar in relationship. Actually, it’s in taking epistemology and ontology and getting them confused, although those words may [inaudible 00:15:56] upset. And one of the things that I think we’re struggling with in the West these days is the newest version of the… How do I say this right? The thing that takes itself to be exactly the opposite of a religion and yet nonetheless very much is one in the worst possible way, which is the technocracy. So the technocracy operates precisely in a mode that endeavors to make choices in life, in relationship with complexity by means of the complicated and in relationship with the participatory by means of the propositional. And these are the ideological frameworks. And I think there’s a fundamental mistake. It’s very difficult. Our civilization has kind of lost sight.
It’s slipped. And our toolkit. Even our habits have become almost [inaudible 00:16:47] that when we encounter some kind of problem in complexity, we instantaneously without thinking about it, so say unconsciously, reach into a certain toolkit to solve the problem. That toolkit is going to be something on the order of let’s just say a technology. And by that I mean it could be a software technology, but it could also be a process or a series of mathematical constructs, algorithms, stories, which are a version of a very old technology. And as it turns out, that toolkit is the problem. This is something I’ve been saying for a long time. So that we can tap back and say, “All right, if that toolkit is the core problem, if the habit of unconsciously going to that toolkit exacerbates the problems that we’re dealing with”… And we can talk about a big fork. One is the fork of expanding complexity that is actually outstripping technocracy’s ability to even pretend to respond.
And then the second is the feedback loop that every time we accelerate technology, we actually accelerate that expanding complexity. Those are two slightly different but related things. What’s the alternative toolkit? And this is when we get back into the notion of the religion. It’s not a religion, which in some sense in a very weird way is like a spiral because it returns, I would say, to the basis of what religion sort of is in its most fundamental sense, but now is conscious of the fact that mistaking the story for the practices or mistaking the story for the actual lived reality is a category or it needs to be avoided at all costs.
Jim: Okay. John, you said earlier that the traditional Axial Age religions, and for our audience, you might just quickly list what those are, no longer works for lots of people. Let’s dig into that a little bit.
John: Yeah. The Axial Age is you get the collapse of the Bronze Age around 1200 BCE or around 1100 BC, sort of in between. 1176 or 1177 BC was the title of, I think, Cline’s book on it. I don’t know if it’s exactly that precise, but the Bronze Age had gone on for three millennia literally, and it collapsed and it was the biggest collapse in civilization. There’s a Dark Age. And then what happens is you get a lot of experimentation, social and cognitive experimentation. You get the invention of a bunch of new psycho-technologies like alphabetic literacy, numeracy, money, things like that. I won’t go into that in great detail. What happens is they sort of percolate through cognition in society and people discover they have new reflective capacities that they didn’t have before, and they start to take responsibility for the world in terms of this new interesting idea that the way human beings are framing the world, the meaning they’re making about the world is the source of a lot of suffering and violence.
And so the Axial Age religions are born out of this idea that we can transcend out of that sort of depravity and you get things, of course, like Daoism and Buddhism and Confucianism and you get the birth of the prophets in ancient Israel. And then of course you get echoes of that, important echoes in Christianity and Islam. And then of course you also have the Axial revolution coming into Greece, especially around the pivotal figure of Socrates and Plato. And what unites them is an attempt to try and explain this new discovery of responsibility and transcendence with a two world’s mythology. The everyday world is a world that’s largely illusory or decadent or misshapen and it’s the world of violence and suffering. But through various wisdom practices, we can transcend to a real world in which we see things as they really are, we are realized as we should properly be, suffering in violence are reduced. And that’s the two world’s mythology. The two world’s mythology is an attempt to articulate sort of a profound cognitive experiential change. I and many other people propose it was occurring during the Axial revolution.
Jim: And as you say, the two world’s mythology was the emergent antidote, which interestingly appeared throughout the world. And what it was the antidote for was the previous system of living in this world where power was everything. Maybe that’s the way to say it. The age of empires where the Assyrians were very happy to slaughter the Sumerians and the Egyptians came and slaughtered the Assyrians and nobody thought there was anything wrong with that. That was just the way the world works. At least that’s my read of the Axial revolution. That these were put forth interestingly and around the same time by different people all around the world who probably did not know of each other’s existence to address this same set of problems.
But I think you and I, I don’t know about Jordan, but probably, agree that there are no two worlds probably, right? And that is one of the key issues that needs to be resolved here as we move into the future. This two world mythology had a very long and vivid life probably reaching its pinnacle and most absurd solution with Descartes, for instance, where here he was extremely sharp thinker about the nature of being in consciousness, et cetera, and yet he was forced to these absurd contortions by still adhering to the two world model. So to be clear here, the religion that’s not a religion is explicitly non-supernatural. Is that correct?
John: Yes, if the supernatural means exactly the way you articulated it. Of course, one of the problems with that word is it’s used quite equivocally in our culture. But Jim, I just want to note something you said that I think is a real gem. The way the two world’s mythology is not just out there. Through a historical progression, it’s in us. We have all these divisions between mind and matter and between us and the world and then between the world and the natural world and the supernatural. So yeah, it ramifies out. And that’s very, very important to the meaning crisis because all of those divisions have had noxious consequences for our understanding. We get trapped with the mind body thing. We get trapped inside our subjectivity and we can feel very alienated from the world because of the gap between the natural world and the supernatural world.
This is Nietzsche’s great critique. If the point of this world is to get to the upper world and then you come to regard the upper world as absurd or non-viable, this world now seems empty of meaning because it was always understood to be instrumental in value. What you said was a very important point to really take to heart. The two world’s mythology doesn’t just sit out there in sort of the background. It insinuates itself into the very guts of your identity, your sense of self, even these categories of subjectivity and objectivity that we take them to be exhaustive. That’s the two world’s mythology so deeply impregnated into us.
Jordan: I hate to do work while we’re kind of talking about laying frames, but I just had an idea and I thought I’d throw it in. Does that sound okay?
Jim: Go for it.
Jim: We’re not building a piano here, we’re just having a podcast.
Jordan: And you’ll have to remind me, John, with this name. And so there was a moment in time as we tell the story, I’m in paleontology right now, where the development of tools like hand axes… Like a line, went from a very slow and I would say sort of evolutionary, meaning trial by error, well, we’ll get to the point, process. So hundreds of thousands or millions of years between innovations and then some transition occurred where shit got real very fast. What was that called?
John: The Upper Paleolithic transition.
Jordan: Great. Okay. So take that, right? And the premise that I want to make for the moment is that there’s an involution or a moving into consciousness of the underlying process of the thing that had otherwise been happening in an externalized combinatorial fashion, right? Somebody’s like, wait a minute, hold the fuck on. If I do this, this and this, then I actually make this work as opposed to just doing it. And you get the idea? You actually are rendering it into a conceptual model that is able to reify the principles that actually produce a viable tool. And suddenly, obviously, you get a massive shift in the nature of the ability to innovate this particular line. So let’s hold that as a frame. And then I want to accelerate forward to the Axial Age because riffing off of what Jim was saying, the cultivation of, let’s just say, virtue or the cultivation of really good ways for people to behave vis-a-vis one another was like hand axes until the Axial Age.
So I’m actually laying these on top of each other. I have a pyramidal structure for very oddly symbolic reasons. So as an infolding. You take something and you fold it and then you fold it again and you get something that’s four layers deep. So the first fold is the Upper Paleolithic, which is sort of a mechanical involution and a recognition. Probably by the way, not a distinctly self-aware recognition, but a recognition of a capacity or the recognition the emergence of a capacity to operate in this model of, let’s call it the mental for the moment, that has the ability to operate in principles and to reify processes down to their, let’s just say essence. We’re stuck with some words from the Axial Age to do this work. And then things like virtue, things like ethics, things like cultural behavior, we’re operating in the modality of trial and error, evolutionary process.
And whatever cultures happen to hang together a certain way, they worked and they kicked the shit out of the guys next to them until somebody else evolved a different way of doing their stuff. In the Axial Age, that move, the Upper Paleolithic move happened. But in this case, the content was, let’s say for example, virtue or ethics or how human beings can behave properly. So it was sort of another move of involution. That’s what came to my mind as an interesting process and what I notice in describing it is I can’t help but actually notice that there is something distinctly bimodal which is to say too worldly, about that way of describing it.
It’s a difference in kind between the hand ax and the idea of the hand ax or between the combinatorial algorithmic evolutionary process and a conscious process, which has a intent in mind and has some sort of way of using principles to accelerate the ability to move through the search base to get to that actual end result. So in any event, I’m going to throw that into the middle because I think maybe if that is a useful set of ideas, there may be something in that that actually talks to us about what the religion that’s not a religion has as a bit of a through-line, which is to say another involution, another infolding or perhaps actually a toroidal structure that closes the loop and actually shows us this. I can take a two dimensional object… What is this called? A Mobius strip?
Jordan: A Mobius strip has the characteristic of being simultaneously one dimensional and two-dimensional. There we go.
John: Can I quickly respond to that, Jim? Because-
Jim: Take it away.
John: What usually happens, Jordan and I start sparking up each other. First of all, for both of those involutions, they both carry with it tremendous… I don’t know. I like to use the Latin word inventio, which means discovery and making at the same time. The inventio of the sacred. The Upper Paleolithic transition where you get all these new technologies, projectile weapons, calendrics, is also where you get the first clearly symbolic art, clearly religious behavior that happens. And the same thing with the Axial revolution. You get this reinterpretation of what the sacred is. Now what’s interesting in what Jordan said in the Axial revolution, you get immediately something coupled to that which follows immediately upon what Jordan said. You get the project of social engineering arising. You get the proposal of not this king going to battle or doing this. No, no. Let’s change the fundamental grammar or structure of society because you have this Promethean project of trying to get from this world to the upper world.
That carries with it some things we don’t want to lose. It carries with it a sense of moral responsibility, that the future is open, that we can make a difference to the future, et cetera. But also the Axial revolution birthed within us this tremendous temptation of social engineering. Now it has tended to be, to some degree, significantly constrained by a commitment to something that supersedes it, the sacred. But another way of understanding the meaning crisis is the project of social engineering is running rampant, Promethean spirit unbound, because it has lost its sense of service to something greater than itself. And this is another way of understanding what I think Jordan was proposing about this sort of technocracy is that we’ve adopted one of the children of the Axial revolution as it’s in our blood, in the sinews of our cognition. We should be engineering society and we can make it better.
This is of course the utopic dream or the nostalgic dream, but it has been uncoupled from a sense of in service of something greater than itself. And again, I’m not here advocating for the legacy religions. I think that’s clear. I don’t think either one of you are either. But what happens when we secularize the social engineering project is it becomes the bearer of the sacredness rather than the servant of the sacred. And then what you have is you can do whatever you want to human beings because the ends justifies the means, because the completion of the social engineering project is the ultimate good for humanity. And so I just wanted to tie that into what we’ve been saying about the pseudo-religions, what Jordan’s been saying about the technocracy and about these involutions. I hope that was helpful.
Jim: Yeah, that actually is great. Both of your comments actually establish a foreshadowing of talk later about psycho-technologies because you think about what is the root change that happened in the Upper Paleolithic? It’s thought that it was… And we don’t know which one came first, multi-part tools or recursive language. And it turns out the two are very closely related. When you have a multi multi-part tool, you have to make things in a certain order or they don’t work. And it’s very, very similar to the way even a simple, slightly recursive sentence works that if you don’t put together a right way, it doesn’t make any sense. And there’s one school of thought. The main school of thought was that recursion and language came first, and then multi-part tool making came second. But there is another school which says the multi-part tools came first. So it was a new way of literally thinking, new sets of psycho-technologies.
In the Axial Age, there was a new way of thinking. And I suspect actually it had to do with an up-regulation of empathy, right? The difference between, let’s say, Buddhism and a Syrian empire slaughtering people and thinking that it’s good and righteous to do so is perhaps something to do with letting empathy play a larger… I don’t know. Just a thought. But some set of new psycho-technology tools had to arise. And once we’re talking about later in quite some detail, that focusing on psycho-technologies is probably a good move when thinking about how to bring into being a new phase, change that’s on par with the actual revolution.
John: The difference would be, and this is towards Jordan’s point, what’s happened before is the psycho-technologies are invented and then they percolate and permeate cognition and bring about changes. Now we can be aware of this capacity of psychotechnologies and actually appropriate it, rather than just undergoing it.
Jim: Got it. One last thing, just because the quote is so good, before we move on from this piece. We all agree that the religion’s not a religion, is explicitly non-supernatural, at least in the everyday sense. And I was chatting with a friend of mine about this episode a couple of days ago, and he said, non-supernatural religion? That sounds like alcohol-free beer. What’s the point? Joking, but there was a serious line in there and he’s a smart guy and he said, more seriously, maybe religion requires some feature, personally, I’d call it a bug, but hey, bug feature, it’s in the eye of the beholder, in the human psyche that needs to appeal to the supernatural. What are your thoughts about that?
John: I would want to challenge that, very strongly. I don’t want to challenge the person because they’re speaking honestly in a different context, but I want to challenge the proposition because it is a proposal of an implicit identification that has been drilled into us by several centuries of history, which is the sacred is the supernatural, the supernatural is the sacred. And I think you can take apart that identity relation from either direction. I think sacredness does not have to inhere in the supernatural. I think we have abundant evidence for that. And one of the things we should talk about is re-understanding what we mean by sacredness. And I think there can be the supernatural without being sacred. You can already see this happening in the plays of Shakespeare in which the supernatural is still there, but it has become absurd and threatening and weird. And it, in no way guides any of the characters well within the plays.
Because the problem with the supernatural is, when you make its principles of governance and how it’s ordered and how it runs fundamentally different from this world, then there is no cognitive access to that world. It becomes literally absurd to you.
Jordan: But you’ve-
John: Go ahead Jordan, please interject.
Jordan: You’ve got the distinction already between the imaginal and the imaginary.
John: Yes, yes, yes.
Jordan: Right. Exactly the point. It’s the difference between the faculty of being able to operate in a mode that is clearly not exactly the same as being here.
Jordan: I can imagine myself going down to the coffee shop and getting, or more specific. I can imagine myself going into my kitchen and getting a coffee, very specific. That is imaginal act. And that’s not the same as me walking into the kitchen and physically getting it with my body. That’s a real distinction. But it’s not the same as me having the fantasy of being able to fly to getting my coffee or being able to walk into the living room and having my coffee be something that has completely powers that are no longer constrained by reality at all. And so distinction’s a very clean distinction. We have the distinction between the imaginary and the imaginal and this maps, I think, quite nicely to the distinction between the supernatural, let’s say this negative sense or the demoralized sense, and the sacred or the supernatural in this most positive sense. There’s a separation there that happens. Sorry John, I interrupted you.
John: No, I think that was helpful. And I’d like to talk about the imaginal and the imaginary at some point too, because I think it’s relevant to reinterpreting the sacred, reinterpreting a notion of ritual. But yes-
Jordan: Let me throw in four concepts that I’ve been teasing apart now for quite some time, that responds to this question. There’s at least four, there’s probably many more, but there’s at least four that seem to need to be disambiguated. And they all, by the way, are bind to questions of truth, which is interesting. The word true is a very old fucking word. This is a Proto-Indo-European root that goes way back. And it’s tied to all kinds of cool other words like truce. So we have something like science, and science has a certain truth, which is pretty simple, in some sense. Science has to do with the relationship between a set of propositions and then some ability to measure a state of affairs in reality. Why that’s, true. If your set of propositions accords with the state of affairs that is measured in some measurable way, you have a scientific truth. That’s a very good functional thing, but it’s not the only meaning of truth.
We have at least three more, or at least three modalities to be thinking about. Another one that we’ll be talking about a lot would be the category that is properly assigned to religion, which has a very different sense of what true would be. Say like, true friend, is a very different kind of thing, to the word steadfast, is the deeper etymological meaning of the word true. It’s anchored in life, anchored in a life that works. The true is in the sense of it actually successfully navigates the challenges of being and being in the world. That’s a very different kind of thing, a different domain. I’ll skip over spirituality for the moment. I wrote an essay on that, but it’s a different kind of thing. And then we have this other category over here that’s very important and that’s mystery. So I’ll just use the word mystery instead of the word supernatural.
Mystery refers to that which is very poorly addressed through speaking. The stuff where propositions don’t map at all, to endeavor, to engage in a propositional mapping to mystery is a epistemological error. And it represents the fact that complex reality is always going to be larger than our lives and our conceptions of it. And we have to afford a certain style of relationship with that. That is very different than the style of relationship that we have with say, for example, navigating the trials of life, particularly, how we deal with having kids and wives and food. And also how do we navigate trying to figure out how to create propositional structures that accord to the state of affairs that we’ll find ourselves in. These are distinct kinds of things, and I think this is a big part of the confusion that has led people to a lot of these concepts. Modalities have been glued together.
And I actually want to use the visual image of what happens when you exercise really hard and your muscles start to bind as you get a sore muscle all bound up. It’s actually a result of breaking and healing in the wrong way. And it’s sore and it’s bound and it’s tight. And this is a big piece of the constipation of the modern world, is a lot of these pieces are stuck together. So the concept of supernatural that is used, I think in the phrase of that quote, is importing into something like the scientific modality, stuff that actually should be properly living very well and necessarily in the mystery modality or perhaps in the religion modality or the spiritual modality, which are all distinct. And if you have all of them, you can actually navigate life properly and well. And if you try to cross the streams, as I said in that essay, then you get all kinds of confusion. Sadly enough, often, bullshit.
Jim: John, you want to respond to that?
John: I think that’s excellent. I think, although I want to hear a little bit more about the distinctions between mystery and religion and spirituality.
Jim: Well, let’s save that for a different day. If we go down that rabbit hole, we’ll be here all day.
Jim: Between the two of you guys, we got two powered steam shovels for digging rabbit holes, so I’ll try to pull you guys back out of it. Let’s see, where do we want to go next? Oh, I’ll skip some of the second level things here and let’s hop to what John referenced, which is the sacred. I must confess, I remain, I don’t know if skeptical’s the right word, not fully understanding what radically non-supernatural people mean when they say the sacred. So one don’t the two of you, John first, then Jordan, take as deep a dive as you can get. Take as much time as you need. Not you, Jordan, because that could be infinite, but fair bit on the meaning of the sacred, within a rigorously non-supernatural context.
John: So first of all, I make a distinction between sacredness, which is a phenomenological experience and process people can undergo and then thus sacred is whatever they claim to be the cause of that. And so for me, the sacred is just the ontological placeholder for what we are relating to when we are engaged in an experience that we find filled with sacredness. So sacredness, this is, it very much captures a significant aspect, I think of what Jordan was talking about. An experience is sacred if it is one that is liberating, clarifying for us. We feel as if we are getting an insight out of patterns of self-deceptive, self-destructive behavior. Not here or there, but very comprehensively, systemically. This is why we use comprehensive metaphors like, being born again, being enlightened, being awakened, waking up. We’re trying to get this sense and it’s very much the stages that children’s cognition go through.
And so a sacred experience has got that opening, but it’s also that opening is a reciprocal opening. You feel that the world is opening up and you are in a reciprocal and responsive fashion opening up to it. So you’re getting liberated from systemic self-deception. This is why we have all these illumination metaphors. And then you have an intensification of the sense of connectedness, why we have all these depth metaphors and touch metaphors and more in touch with it. I realized it in depth. And this is like the reciprocal opening that happens when you fall in love with somebody, but now it’s between you and reality. And you have a sense that, that connectedness is that what I religio, is ratio religio, it’s properly proportioned, it’s running well, it’s optimal. It has a lot of the features that people have when they’re in the flow state, such that they believe, that’s not even the right word. They realize, that’s the better word.
They realize that they are in right relationship to the trajectory that points towards what’s ultimately real. And in that sense, properly mysterious. Because of course the ultimately real is not something that we could comprehend. It is that in virtue of which comprehension is possible. And so I think everything I just said is completely possible within a scientific worldview, without requiring any invocation of a sacredness or a super agent or a destiny for humanity. But nevertheless, and I’ve read these reports, you can read reports of people having the experiences that I’ve just described, they still remain atheist after the experience. In fact, some of them become profound atheist because of these experiences. But nevertheless, they said that experience was profound. It was sacred, it was life changing, it was world changing. My understanding of myself and reality is fundamentally transformed in a way that’s going to be long-standing for me.
Jim: Of course, that definition pretty congruent with the classic mystical experiences of often supernatural religions.
John: Yes. But the interesting thing is you also get, and this is part of the argument, there’s conceptual arguments for a one-world like Spinoza’s and there’s the scientific arguments around closures of intelligibility and things like that. But you also have mystical arguments for the non-supernatural because many people in these traditions, and then they’re often on the edge of heresy. I get your point, Jim, but they’re [inaudible 00:45:13] they’ll say things like they realize non-duality or they realize the nothingness beyond God. So Eckhart famously said, I pray to God to free me from God. This the God beyond God. And that also shows up. And the one that is no kind of supernatural entity. So the mystical traditions also, especially some of the titans of these traditions across history and across cultures, also argue for a very powerful and strict monism which rules out a two- worlds mythology very, very deeply and profoundly. For me, that’s the convincing argument. The fact that you can get conceptual philosophical arguments, scientific arguments and mystical arguments all converging on, let’s not consider reality as fundamentally divided.
That for me lends a tremendous plausibility and legitimizes the idea of a non-supernatural sense of the sacred.
Jim: Yeah, I’d say I’m a reasonable example. I’ve dabbled in heavy psychedelics in my day, not in the last 40 years, and I’ve had some mystical experiences and I still know how to trigger a mystical experience in myself, a little food deprivation for me, it takes a little bit more than it used to alas, but a hike through the woods to the edge of a lake and then stay 15 feet back from the lake as the sun sets and it gets dark in the woods. That will trigger a mystical experience in me every time. And I also know how to put myself into ego death for about 10 seconds, more or less it will. And yet I’m about the most hard-nosed, modest anybody ever met, right? And so I see those as entirely compatible, but many other people don’t. They speak to mysticism as the portal to the supernatural. So let’s move over to Jordan, see what he has to say about the sacred.
Jordan: That was awesome. What I’d love to try to do, and I wish I was in fine form, I doubt I’ll pull it off, but I’d love to try to do is actually do something which would be better understood if you actually could imagine it being simultaneous with what John did, because harmony typically is simultaneous. It’s very difficult to do harmony serially. But I was feeling a lot of really good vibe as John was saying what he was saying. And I was trying to hold it and see if I could articulate it. And in some sense, I’ll also be playing with the framework that I just laid out. So let’s talk about the notion of, I’m going to build sacred, and maybe even developmentally build it. So just speak of something very simple. There’s a classic distinction that holds the sacred in the taboo as being very closely related, of the same order.
And what I would say is something like, a discovery, that there are some things that are very important and there are some things that are very dangerous. And there’s a new category that emerges, which I’ll now just call the sacred, which contains both of those categories, which is to say, hey everybody, we need to have a way of being in relationship with things that are really fucking important or really fucking dangerous. And we’re going to build a lot of important or a lot of potent practices around making sure that we take a lot of care of the really important stuff and we take a lot of care with the really dangerous stuff. Because otherwise we die. So it’s like a nice beginning. This is landing at that part of religio that very distinctly has nothing to do with narrative or story, and has everything to do with making sure that raising babies delivers on adults and you don’t get eaten by animals. Very old fashioned, simple stuff.
But that notion of the things that work in that space and are dealing with stuff that is really fundamental along those two vectors is one piece of that orienting basis. And you can notice if you want to have a feeling of the sacred, be a grandparent peering at the face of your newly born grandchild. Oh, feeling of the sacred. By the way, you want to have the feeling of the sacred, go outside during an absolutely tremendous thunderstorm where you really do feel the smallness of your tiny self in the context of the much larger and highly indifferent world. Very similar sense of relationship, different tone. Sacred and taboo. Very different tone. All right, so let’s take it up a notch. So I’m going to slide a little bit into the directionality of the spiritual without defining it precisely that we’ll just have to model through, which has to do with that feeling of oneness or feeling of wholeness or feeling of being part of something that is greater than, this is of the same kind as the previous, but a slightly more rarefied version of it.
There are certain kinds of moments in life where your relationship with experience, your relationship with reality as you just said, Jim, you walk into a particular context and you have a mystical experience. And that mystical experience has oftentimes all three of those characteristics simultaneously. On the one hand, you feel yourself expansive, you expand out of the particularities of yourself. On the other hand you feel yourself connected, you feel connected to the world that’s around you. And then finally you feel like you are part of, there’s something that is larger than you that you’re a part of. And that feeling which arises in context, which I would say by the way, are tied to the previous, itself is an awareness of a higher tone of this notion of sacred. So now we’re moving to that involution story. We’re moving from making hand access by chopping at them to suddenly having an awareness of what it is to be in the business of making hand acts.
Now we’re actually being aware of the sacred as sacred and noticing the characteristics that this particular phenomenon tends to have. And still, by the way, bound to its importance, to life itself. And increasingly so as we become more powerful, we become more necessary. As we become beings that create and control fire, it becomes very important that we become skillful at noticing how to be whole in ourselves. Or beings that have destructive capacity, how do you heal the fights between each other, like a moment of [inaudible 00:51:23] where there’s tremendous animosity and suddenly the parts are able to come back into a wholeness that is no longer resolved through violence. That’s a moment of the sacred, expressed in the life and by the way, will be felt by the individuals as such, whole healing is a holiness. These terms have a relationship with each other.
And then the last tone is just to bring that notion of mystery. And here, by the way, John, I’m really feeling your conversation with Jonathan Peggio and the notion of, I think the altar right. Here, we are actually beginning to be aware of, let’s say, I’ll make it a banal for a second and come back up. I’m invoking the notion of the transcendent. So the to transcend, is to break out of, to escape from, or to be moved away from. So I’m in some sort of binding, I’m in some sort of frame. I’m just a very supplemental model that I can’t solve a problem and I have an epiphany. I have something that comes in many ways, feels very much like it comes from outside, and it changes my relationship with the entire category of the problem that I’m dealing with. I have transcended the thing that it had been holding me back, but of course I can recourse.
I can now begin to think about the notion of to transcend in and of itself, which of course becomes very congruent with the notion of mystery. And I can begin to contemplate what is it? What is that which is in essence, the transcendent, which is to say that obviously cannot be framed. I cannot describe it. I cannot narrate it in any fashion. I cannot box it in, in its very essence, it transcends. And you can see there’s a bit of an arc. There’s a reifying arc, there’s a reifying arc, there’s a movement from something that is in some sense, very, very simple.
How do we take care of food and water and children and marriages and self and wholeness of self and relationship with the traumas of life and the feeling of smallness and the feeling of loss and the feeling of grief, and then awareness of the fact that there’s something going on here that seems to be always present, always the possibility of that kind of mood, that kind of being in more and more intimately, careful, deep, nuanced, subtle relationship, that more and more precise move of coming into a greater and deeper wholeness of self and with the external world, and also being part of and more fully in contact with and part of something that is larger than self.
And then of course, we step into the space of the mystery, which we can then name as the point of sacred that is closest to the story that would maybe be characterized by the supernatural. But now we’re recognizing as being something that, to name it at all is again, a category error. And there upon lies the problem. The Problem is that the supernatural endeavors to clothe the mystery in story. And that’s the problem. As soon as you recognize that its isness transcends the nature of language and story and thinking and consideration, fundamentally then the characteristic of the supernatural that gets us in so much trouble, either a surrender to a different location or evaporate completely and good riddance.
Jim: Yeah, I wonder about that. This idea of the mystery. I think of the epiphany, I’ve had a few in my day, I’ve talked about them on the show from time to time. And the mystical, which I’ve experienced lots of times, and as Jordan knows, to the degree I have a day job, it’s the study of consciousness that the boundaries between computer science, cognitive science, and neuroscience and my own view on things like say mysticism in particular, but may well apply to epiphanies as well, is they’re essentially additional attractor states in the brain that are relatively hard to get to. In network cognitive neuroscience, we talk about the default network, which is the brain and the daydreaming state, very characteristic. You can read it right out on an FMRI and it’s what your brain will tend to go to if you’re not doing anything else.
And there’s task mode networks, they differ a little bit, but they’re similar. They’re activation patterns, and you’re actually trying to do something. The canonical example I like to give is you’re changing the tire on a new bicycle that you’ve never messed with before. So you have to think through each move and remember how to reverse the move and make sure you put the parts in a cup so they don’t get lost. And so you’re really into a task. And those are two classes of brain wide attractor networks, very characteristic. You could see them in the firings of the brain. And that things like mysticism in particular, and having read a little bit about the hierarchies of mysticism, I’ve just roughly posited, there’s about three additional attractors that we don’t normally get into. We don’t get our brain into this resonant pattern very often.
And my little trick of putting myself into a mystical state by walking through the woods, not eating for 12 hours, waiting for the sun to go down, all that stuff, is just a little trick that gets my brain into the lowest level of those attractor states that have the qualia of mysticism. And they’re, as I say, probably two additional ones. And may well be a similar mechanism for epiphany that it’s a non easy to access set of network attractors in the brain that in this case, allow one to break through the restrictions in one’s thinking, and finally do that synthesis that’s eluded one for some time. And an appeal to the mystery doesn’t seem to be required if you take that model of what these things are.
John: Well, can I respond to that, Jim?
Jim: Yeah. You’re the cognitive scientist in the room.
John: First of all, the fact that something is happening in the brain, and you did say this towards the end, doesn’t mean that it’s not disclosing aspects of the world. When I’m seeing a car, things are happening in my brain, and it’s affording me coming into a relationship for something. So the thing I would ask then is, does the fact that those states disclose something new to you, you get the synthesis, as you said, that discloses some depth of reality or some aspect of reality that was hidden to you, the fact that that can keep happening, doesn’t that point to the fact that reality is inexhaustibly available for new insight and for new realization? And where realization doesn’t just mean a belief, it can also mean, you transform who and what you are, your identity. To take an analogy, maturity is for a lot of people, a hard to find attractor state in the brain, but people do find it.
And then that means reality, we even talk about maturity as fate being able to face reality. And it’s also a transformation in who and what you are and your identity. And so for me, and I think maybe this is the key thing, and this is one area where I’m very critical of Plato. I don’t think of the sacred or the mystery as something that’s finished or complete or perfect. I think of it and said as the fact that there’s an aspect of reality and [inaudible 00:58:34] even makes this his definition of reality, it is an inexhaustible fount of intelligibility to me. And no matter how much I expand the framing, I understand that there’s always that which goes beyond the frame. And for me, and to be fair to me, that’s a classical understanding, Gabriel Marcel distinguishes between a problem and a mystery in that a problem is, you put a frame around something and you solve it. A mystery, you put a frame around it and the frame becomes problematic, and you put another frame around it becomes problematic and put another frame around it.
And for me, my own death is a phenomenological mystery to me. There’s no way I can experience that. What’s it like to not be? I can’t do that. I can talk about it, but I can’t experience it. And so I’m asking you to consider the fact that that grammar of your cognition, it’s capacity, it doesn’t seem to be bound, that it’s these epiphanies say, yeah, there’s always more, there’s always more aspects to it. That’s what the science keeps saying. And for me, the mystery is a realization that, that capacity to generate more and more intelligibility is not something that I will ever get a full grasp of. How could I possibly do it? But nevertheless, it must be real because it’s the basis of all of the knowledge and all of the experience I’m having. That’s what I mean.
Jim: Yeah. I don’t disagree at all. I think 100% agreement there. And in fact, a key thing is to understand my perspective on human capacity, which is to the first order, because my nature is seldom profligate with their evolutionary gifts.
John: For sure.
Jim: Humans to the first order are the stupidest possible general intelligence. We’re just barely across the line. And so the things that are easily accessible to our task mode networks are relatively modest. And we don’t know vastly more than what we know and much of it we’re just not any good at. We are just not good at a lot of things. We weren’t evolved to solve Einstein’s theory of general relativity and only a really strange brain in a really strange state could get there and do that. And epiphanies are, I think, of the same class of Einstein’s extraction from his peculiar education and experience of the general theory relativity. And that mystical experience are another way of expanding the power of our brain above the little squeaky box of task mode network thinking. And so I don’t think there’s anything contradictory here, in my view.
And in your view, this unknown is so much bigger than what we know. And as you’ve pointed out in your series, just the math, the combinatorics, we can’t possibly know more than, even if we had the whole Earth was solid computronium, which means it’s one giant computer chip, we still couldn’t figure out the orbits of the nine planets in a stable fashion. A combinatoric world is just so big, there’s no hope of us to understand it in great detail. And I think the mistake people often make is they think way too highly of human cognition and don’t realize how weak it actually is. And I think if you do have that lens, it actually makes what you said and what I said, entirely congruent, or at least there’s no obvious disagreement.
Jordan: Yeah. Let’s take that.
Jim: Go ahead.
Jordan: Go ahead, John.
John: I just wanted to say, and I’ll speak very briefly, Jordan and Jim, I think you’re a part of what comes out is, I don’t claim to know that, because that of course would be a contradiction. What I claim to be is, I claim to try and be in right relationships so that I have wisdom. I live, and this is even coming into the ecological notion of rationality. There’s genuine uncertainty, which is not the same as risk. And there’s genuine complexity, which is not the same thing as just things being complicated. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t improve your orientation and navigation of that. And what I see, these traditions, when they’re working and they can fail to work, I’m not denying that, but when they’re working, they give people those orientation and navigational skills and virtues such that they can be in proper relationship to that fundamental reality about the combinatorial explosive nature of reality.
So when these experiences and these traditions talk to me about wisdom, I listen. When they talk to me about arcane supernatural metaphysics, I tend to turn a deaf ear, because I think like Jordan’s saying, that’s the fundamental category mistake.
Jim: Seems good to me. Jordan.
Jordan: Maybe this is maybe a not entirely certainly right, but just take the frame for the moment, in many ways, we’re living in the train wreck of the collapse of 19th century epistemology and politics. We haven’t recovered from that. We’re actually living in the collapse of that. And one characteristic is that if you take this story that you were just telling, Jim, about the muchness and the combinatorial explosion being vastly more than even the most computronium intensive, the whole solar system, not just the planet Earth and it’s still an infinitesimal in the context of a relatively banal piece of trying to have certainty about reality. Well, if you have moved, as Nietzsche points out, from and I’m going to be very strong here, from religion to science as your ground for everything, then that story can feel very demoralizing. Holy shit, I can’t actually have precise certainty about things.
I can’t make choices in the basis of pure knowing. I can’t know for sure how my actions will result in, it’s the utilitarian demoralization. As a SBF has once again demonstrated, a foolish idea. It’s not the right way to do things. I think that’s trying to do with science what is in fact properly done in, let’s say, religion. If I reverse the polarity and say, okay, the story that you’re telling about the vastly moreness of complex reality than our capacity to know from the point of view of religio, what that says is, oh, we live in an alive world. We live in a rich world. We live in a world of open possibility. We live in a place where meaning is in fact actually not just possible, but as a continuous flow, as opposed to a dead world. A world that is in fact so constrained that we can in fact hope not too long from now, to have simply mapped all of it and be done with the problem and the project altogether.
So there’s actually a connection between the meaning crisis and the grounding of all choices in the scientific modality or the modality of knowing and the modality of propositions and a remoralization of life by actually allowing the religious modality to have a footing and to recognize that for the most part life, which is to say the kinds of meaningful choices that actually matter in life, have to be grounded in this new modality, religion. Okay, so let’s begin to dust it off.
Jordan: … religion. Okay. Let’s begin to dust it off and bring that thing back into full flower so that we can live in a world where the dauntingness of the vastness of what we could never possibly hope to truly know, actually invigorates us to live more fully, and more richly, and more meaningfully. And is not the least bit demoralizing.
Jim: Or at least a way to do it. I would push back. And push back isn’t the right word. Make a distinction. Something that I’ve been hanging out with philosophers, again. I’m not sure that’s a good thing for me personally to do, but it’s been interesting. Galens at that. Oh my God.
And one of the things I continue to come up with with philosophers, and to this issue you talk about, Jordan, and John alluded to it too, I call it the philosopher’s disease, the search for firm foundations. It strikes me, 20th century philosophy was basically about refuting the fact that there are any firm foundations. Wittgenstein, basically, my read on Wittgenstein is philosophy is a long journey to know where it’s language games all the way down, folks. Deal with it. And seems fine to me. Plenty of room to have fun in the universe, if that’s true.
One of my hobbies is the study of quantum foundations. As it turns out, quantum mechanics, the 14 decimal point precise, nobody actually understands what’s going on. And there’s at least a dozen quite detailed models of quantum foundations that, weirdly, they’re all compatible with every known experimental bit of data. But they describe a metaphysics that are radically different.
And hold that in your head for a little bit. And it’s not entirely clear we’ll ever resolve it. And I suppose I’ve just gotten to a point where I don’t need no stinking foundations. And that the need for solid foundation strikes me as infantile actually. And that just face it up to the fact, we’re not going to know everything. Why should we? And back to the beginning, meaning of life, meaning in life.
Why in the world would you expect a species that’s only 300 years old in clear thinking, to have any rip at all on meaning of life? We’re a teeny little spot, et cetera. I guess I’d like to make the distinction that this angst, the angst, however the hell you pronounce it, of not having firm foundations. And maybe it’s easy enough to get over with saying, “Who needs any stinking foundations, or if any?”
John: I agree by the way, with the success of 20th century philosophy, even latter half 19th century philosophy, because I can think of James and the pragmatists as also making this argument. And you get tremendous convergence from otherwise very different starting points. Pragmatism and phenomenology. You get Heidegger and then analytic philosophy. They all converge on this. Again, giving tremendous plausibility to the conclusion. I think that’s right.
Now the problem though, I would say with that history is that these philosophers stopped doing the other half of philosophy, which is the love of wisdom. They stopped doing what is clearly present in Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, who also wrestled with these issues. And so, while it is all well and good epistemically, hygienically to come to that conclusion, I think what you then need to do is to say to people, “Actually what you didn’t really need in order to deal with anxiety and absurdity, et cetera, was the Cartesian promise of certainty.”
Because that’s why Descartes proposes it. He’s trying to deal with the tremendous anxiety that the Copernican revolution is generating. And he’s trying to say, “You know how we can alleviate anxiety? With certainty. You know how we can alleviate the sense of disconnected? With math and it’s certainty.”
And so again, we’ve enculturated ourselves to belief that the only way we can remove these kinds of anxieties and absurdities is with certain knowledge. And then we get told there is no such thing and that can just exacerbate it. But if you go before Descartes, there’s a whole other series of answers on how people can respond to anxiety and absurdity, et cetera, without the proposal of Cartesian certainty. That’s the project of cultivating wisdom. That’s the project of cultivating wisdom.
And so I think, again, not to belabor something, but I think that’s another way, another facet of the meaning crisis. We got philosophy undermining the proposal that given to us of from the enlightenment of how to deal with the anxiety from the scientific revolution. Without going back and recovering and exempting and innovating and repurposing other alternative strategies for dealing with anxiety, for dealing with absurdity, with dealing with alienation.
And when we don’t do it, pseudo religious ideologies swoop in and try to fill that vacuum. Oh, you know why you’re alienated? Because of class, here’s the whole history.
Jim: Class struggle.
Jim: Or the Jews did it, or whatever. Whatever nonsense or bullshit people come up with.
John: Yes. Exactly. Exactly. That’s what I mean. Both positively and negatively. You can’t leave that vacuum. If you just leave it, that bullshit, that pseudo religious bullshit will come in and kill people. And also, you need to give people an alternative so that they can realize, “Oh no, no. What I’m really looking for is wisdom.”
I want to, if I pursue certainty with my partner, I’m doomed. I want to pursue wise loving of her and faithfulness. Which is a totally different thing than, if I claim to have certainty about her, I’ve destroyed the relationship in a fundamental way because that has refused to acknowledge the kind of being she fundamentally is. And I think we should take the same attitude towards reality. Reality is ultimately not the kind of thing for which you should seek a ultimate finished, completed certainty.
Jordan: You did it, you did the perfect move, John, by actually putting it in our first person experience of actually philosophia. And then say my actual, real live wife.
Jordan: Yeah. Obviously if you pursue firm foundations in the Contient sense, you are doing something categorically stupid. And then you say, “Oh, shit. Of course, it’s exactly the same in relationship with this other character, Sophia.” I love that way of feeling. It’s like it’s just a raw category error. It’s just not the right way of being in relationship with that aspect of reality, which is the rich aspect of reality that we actually want to be in relationship with. The other part’s a nice to have, and this is the must have.
Jim: Great. Let’s move on. Or we could get our 6,000 horsepower power shovels here on this topic all day, but let’s move on. That’s my job. Now, is it religiō or religiō? How do you pronounce that?
John: I have moved to pronouncing it religiō because more people pronounce it religiō. We don’t know how Latin was actually originally pronounced, which is part of the problem.
Jim: All right. Let’s go with religiō, John Vervaeke is the closest thing we have to an authority. Religiō, I looked it up, the definition of it on Wikipedia said that, “In classic antiquity, it meant conscientiousness, sense of right, moral obligation or duty towards anything. And we use mostly in secular or mundane contexts.” Starting with that, let’s give your flavor of what religiō means in your system.
John: Are you referring to me, Jim?
Jim: Yes, John.
John: Yeah. And then the etymology goes back to bind, like ligament, religiō, ligament. And it’s one of the etymological origins, one of the two candidates for religion. And so, I pick it to try and pick up on all three of those things that you just said. And I want to try and say them all together. And I’m not equivocating because I’m stating what they are and I’m trying to invoke an integration of them. I’m not shifting between them.
Jim: Let’s do a stop right there. We’ll have to make sure we keep our context. I have it two lines down in my notes. It’s time to define equivocation.
John: Oh. Equivocation is when you make an invalid argument because you’re trading between two different meanings of the same term. I’ll give you one of my favorite examples. Nothing is better than long life and happiness. Nothing is better than long life and happiness. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is better than nothing. And therefore, peanut butter and jelly sandwich is better than long life and happiness. You should eat one and then kill yourself.
And so, what I’m doing is, and you need… If you just stick with verbal utterance, you don’t know what’s going on. You have to break it up and you have to use a bit of set theoretical notion. When I say nothing is better than long life and happiness, I mean nothing from the candidates of what makes life worth living is as good at… No thing from that set.
And then when I go from a peanut butter, jelly sandwich is better than nothing. I mean nothing from the set of foods that you can eat. And those are two different sets. But if I just use the word nothing, you don’t realize I’m moving between the sets and that’s where the equivocation comes in.
And so, when one is doing what I was just trying to do a few minutes ago, and one is trying to invoke multiple meanings of the same term, the danger of equivocation is very, very close. The way to obviate that is to state what those meanings are, explicate them, make it explicit. And then indicate how you are integrating them together rather than shifting in an unjustifiable manner between them.
That’s why it’s very, very careful, especially when we’re trying to build new conceptual vocabulary by repurposing old, that we have to do this kind of thing. And I know for some listeners it might be a little bit tiresome. But the alternative is to be really, really prey to a lot of invalid and fallacious reasoning.
Jim: We run into this at the Santa Fe Institute all the time, where we do a lot of cross-disciplinary, transdisciplinary working groups. Where people come from sociology and astrobiology and particle physics to talk about free will. All right. And if we have a three day workshop, we’ll often literally spend the first day getting agreement on definitions. And we found if we don’t do that, the rest is a complete muddle.
John: It’s a complete waste. And this is where Wittgenstein is tremendously helpful. I would say another reason why we’re in the meaning crisis is the word mind is now properly equivocal for us because it means one thing to the neuroscientist, another thing to the artificial intelligence person, another thing to a psychologist, another thing to a linguist, another thing to a cultural anthropologist. And we need a way of properly reintegrating them back together. But could I go back to religiō now?
Jim: Yeah, I was going to say. Now’s time to pop back up the step. Religiō, right where we left off.
John: All right. I want to pick up on those three domains. One is this sense of binding and connectedness. The other is that it is the etymological root of religion, which is at least strongly associated with relationship to sacredness and the sacred.
And then the other thing you said is it’s also within a secular domain of conscientiousness and being rightly ordered towards reality. I will sometimes use the double Latin phrase ratio religiō, where ratio means properly proportioned. At the basis of our word rationing or ratio, but also of our word rationality.
And so, what I’m trying to convey with religiō, is religiō is part of your, let’s call it secular intelligence. It’s that relevance realization process. And I won’t go into that in great detail again., but what it does is it gives you, when things are relevant to you, it’s not cold calculation. They’re grabbing your attention. Listen to the language. They’re raising, your level of arousal. You’re caring about that information and not caring about this information.
And so, I use religiō for that fundamental sense of connectedness that you’re doing even as you go to get a glass of water from the kitchen. All right. And this is the key ability behind general intelligence. Now you take it up one notch. And here I’m doing the same kind of thing that Jordan does. That sense of connectedness, and I’ve argued it before and there’s evidence to support it, that’s fundamentally what meaning in life is.
And I think the reason why we evolved the evaluation, the normative pursuit of meaning in life is precisely because getting ratio religiō is so fundamental to our cognitive agency. But then, taking it up another notch the way Jordan does, we can become aware of that and we can create practices for trying to deliberately enhance that meaning in life religiō. And that gets us into religion. That’s how I try to, in a principled manner, integrate those three poles together in the notion of religiō.
Jim: Yeah, that gets us to the next step in your building here. And that’s religiō as ecologies of practice.
John: And then the idea there is… Let me use something you invoked earlier. You have task focus networks and they get moderated by the salience network, but I’ll just keep things simple. You have the task focus network and you have the default vote network, whatever the task focus… And there’s a debate over if there’s one or one or… And that’s not relevant for the argument I want to make.
They’re basically in an opponent processing relationship. And my former student and colleague, Zach Irving, does work on this. You task focus, you mind wander, you introduce variation of default mode network. You introduce variation. Then you kill most of that off in a selective function with the task focus, but not all of it. Because you typically bring in a few things so you can make a move within your task and then you vary it out and you select. You basically, you’re enacting the evolutionary process of variation and selection. You’re doing opponent processing.
Now, you can say in the same thing within the autonomic nervous system for how your arousal arises. You have the parasympathetic and the sympathetic system in opponent processing. You can make a good case for left and right hemispheres. The left is for well defined, the right is for ill-defined and they’re doing opponent processing.
The point I want to make is you’ve got this complex dynamic of opponent processing systems that are also pulling in and pushing on each other. If you try to correct that by just pushing on one point with a one shot intervention, it’s complex and sophisticated and dynamic enough, it can just reconfigure itself. Now if that happens to be a very complex… Leo and I, in a paper we published on wisdom, we call it parasitic processing. If that happens to be a whole bunch of things that are individually adapted, self-organized to be maladaptive, like an anxiety spiral, for example, just saying to yourself, “Don’t be afraid anymore,” doesn’t do anything.
Instead, typically what you need is you need to intervene in it in parallel. You need something that intervenes in many different places, but you don’t want that set of things to just be out there, static. It needs to also be self-organizing and self-correcting and dynamic so it can best fit for intervention in the complex dynamics of your cognition and your consciousness.
That’s why I used the metaphor of an ecology. The way in an ecology you have all these checks and balances and levels of organization with organisms that it becomes a self-sustaining, self-regulating thing.
Jim: Jordan, I’d love to get your reaction to the idea of ecologies of practice and this idea of having to intervene essentially or as tools for manipulating a high dimensional complex system.
Jordan: Yeah. Well, what I was brought to mind was actually some of the conversations you and I had back in 2013 about, very specifically, the ability to say, “Hey, we’ve been operating for a very long time, endeavoring to govern complex systems using complicated systems.” And that we now know and one of our big insights is a big part of the problem at the meta crisis level. And the challenge, the inquiry is, okay, how do we begin the process of doing something that is different?
And for the moment, I’ll just say it like this. Govern complex systems using complex systems, which is an ecology, metaphor, ecology of practices. And it’s an interesting thing because there’s an inter-penetration. The notion is something like a fluid relationship, not a particular hierarchical, hardwired relationship. There’s all kinds of interesting cross flows and breakdowns and shifts that have to be part of what that looks like.
What I would say is something like, yes, we can say and I think with some precision that this is how it must be. Now the challenge is how do we actually do it, if that makes any sense. There’s a design space and the complicated is outside of that design space. The complex is inside the design space. The ecology of practices is inside that design space.
Okay. Fucking hell. We’re finally beginning to actually be able to wrestle this thing down to something that might actually have a chance of working. Now what? What’s the next? We have to get now we’re really playing it. I would say we’re actually finally playing the game that we talked about quite a while back.
Jim: Yeah, very good. And let’s now try to ground it in some specific examples. What are some of these practices that might be the ingredients in a specific formulation of an ecology of practice?
John: Well, I tend to talk about domains of practice and I tend to talk about design principles rather than saying, “This practice and this practice and this practice.”
Jim: Okay. Let’s do that.
John: Okay. One of them is you want this opponent processing design feature in. I think one domain that that should be applied to is some domain of self-knowledge, self-awareness. One example of that, and this term is of now expanding to mean this. There might be some unintended equivocation here. But this is the idea of mindfulness. And what kind of opponent processing?
Well, you have broadly meditative practices, which are designed. It is, I’m taking off my glasses and looking at them, that it’s become a meme I’ve been told. Which is the idea that what I’m doing in meditation is I’m stepping back and looking at the mental framing that I’m normally looking through to see if it’s distorting, to see if it’s misrepresenting, misframing a situation.
Contemplative practices are when I put my corrected lenses on and see if I can see more broadly or more clearly. And you can see in many traditions, you’ll have meditative practices and contemplative practices because they act in opponent fashion. If you just do contemplative practices, there’s a great danger you will just project your fantasies. If you just do…
Bertrand Russell, in fact, made this criticism at analytic philosophy, of all people. He said the problem, “It’s like these people are continually cleaning their glasses and never putting them on.” And the Buddha worried about the same thing, about people that meditate so they become contented like a cabbage. But if you break frame with meditation and then explore new possible frames with contemplation, then you make yourself insight prone in a very powerful way.
I made this argument extensively elsewhere. You can see this opponent attentional process at work in insight problem solving. You can optimize for making yourself insight prone. You can’t make an insight, but you can make yourself insight prone by doing this opponent processing. Now you layer it because I can have that opponent processing within a still mindfulness practice. And then I put that into an opponent relationship with a moving mindfulness practice.
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, like Tai chi ch’üan. Exactly. And now, and then that gets the cerebellar cortex loop engaged. And you see, and then so I can layer them, I want a point of processing, I want layering in. And then I also want a pedagogical program. What’s the correct order of operations pedagogically for onboarding people properly into such a complex system? Those are some of the design features and some specific examples.
But one more thing. I’ve got all this mindfulness stuff going here and what it largely does is it suppresses my inferential capacity so to afford insight. Now that’s, when we like that in leaping, we call it an insight. When we don’t like it, we call it leaping to a conclusion. You need other practices, active open mindedness practices, that dampen down the insight machinery so you can more carefully do the influential.
You have all of this stuff I did on the mindfulness side. And then now that gets layered and put into a set of practices around active open mindedness so you get that opponent processing going. There’s much more of it. I’m just trying to give the flavor.
Jim: Love it, love it. Now I’m starting to remember it from our other conversation. We talked about opponent processing a lot. That was actually a mini epiphany for me to start thinking about these things in terms of opponent processes. Extremely helpful.
Well, I’m going to ask you something about much more prosaic things that people normally think about religion. For instance, singing together. There’s now results in the psychological literature about the beneficial results of people singing together and dancing together and ecstatic dance, especially drums around the campfire, et cetera. Where do those kinds of, let’s call them folk psycho technologies, stand in your ecology of practices?
John: I mean, I think there are three proper polls and they’re not completely distinct. They’re polls on continuums. There’s a sapiential training, sapient having to do with wisdom, Homo sapiens. It’s not man the knower, it’s man the wise, but anyways. All right. There’s sapiential training, we’ve been talking a lot about that.
And there’s also, there’s dialogical communing. There’s doing things that are specifically designed to give you access to the collective intelligence of distributed cognition. And that’s this whole, Theologos project I’ve been engaging with. And Jordan’s been a part of it and Guy Sengstock and Christopher Masterpietro and Peter Lindberg, and a whole bunch of us.
And then there’s ritual enactment. And what we need to do is we need to step back and again, try to recover what that means because you just invoked it. That’s what singing together is. I need two minutes for this. I’m sorry, I can’t just do this.
Jim: Do it.
John: Okay. First of all, let’s invoke the distinction Jordan mentioned earlier between the imaginary and the imaginal. It’s actually Henry Corbin’s distinction. The imaginary is when you’re forming mental pictures in your mind that disconnect you from the world. If I ask you right now, imagine a sailboat. Are the sails up or not? And you can tell me yes or no. Stuff like that. And that has a value to it.
The imaginal is imagination for the sake of perception. And so, let me give you an example from when I’m teaching Tai chi ch’üan. I tell people, “Okay.” And when they’re taking the opening stance is when I say, “Imagine that from your knees down to your feet are sinking into the mud of the river. You’re standing in a river, a shallow river. And from your knees down is sinking into the mud. And from your knees to your abdomen. This is like the flowing water. You want it to feel very flexible, very open to change, but it has force and energy in it. And then from here up, this is like the air. It’s very rarefied. It’s almost empty.”
Now when people do this, they’re not necessarily forming any pictures in their head. What they’re doing is they are using their imagination to pick up, to sensitize themselves to otherwise subtle sensory motor patterns, balance patterns, mind-body integration patterns. And it actually affords them being able to do, this is why it’s survived. Because it actually affords people, they go, “Oh.” And they’ll have a procedural perspectile insight. They go, “Oh, now I get it.”
You can do the same thing with the immovable arm. Try not to hold your arm stiff. Loosen it a little. But imagine if a tremendous water was flowing through it. And then you get the sense of, how can I keep my arm not stiff, but nevertheless strong? That’s the imaginal.
Now, if you can think about the imaginal being used in order to deal with the aspirational. Remember this is, we talked about this. This is, and Jordan even did it sort of very easily about imagining himself going to get a drink of water. The aspirational is your relationship between your current self and your future self.
And we have all kinds of work. And I won’t repeat these arguments by LA Paul and Agnes Callard. You can’t infer your way through that. But I want to use an imaginable example. I think I used it before, but just quickly. You go into a bunch of academics and you give them all the arguments and evidence that they should start saving for their retirement right now. You go out to make all the challenges, you respond them, you get them all to agree that they should. You come back in six months and none of them are saving.
Then you do the following. You say, “I want you to imagine your future self as a beloved family member that you love and you care of and it’s your responsibility to take care of them.” You come back in six months and you have two reliable findings. The people who do that start to save. And the people who do it more vividly, save more. That’s the imaginal in service of the aspirational.
Now, when that is been cultivated, and this goes into what’s called ritual knowing. When that use of the imaginal aspirational has been cultivated, so what you’re doing in the practice can transfer to many domains of your life and to many levels of your psyche in order to afford a profound reciprocal opening with reality. That’s a ritual. That’s what a ritual properly is.
That’s why there’s a normativity of ritual. Some rituals are not very good because they don’t transfer broadly, they don’t percolate deeply, they don’t afford reciprocal opening. There’s a normativity in ritual. A good ritual is imaginal aspirational, that transfers broadly and effectively, transfers deeply and profoundly. And I can give you a clear example of that in my own life. And it was noticed by other people rather than me, which was Tai chi ch’üan. I was doing Tai chi and I was all enamored by all the weird phenomenology. And I should have read the traditional sources which say, “Don’t pay attention to all of that. That’s irrelevant.” But it’s so cool and wonderful. You’re as hot as fire and you’re as cold as ice and all that stuff.
But then people in graduate school, which is a very nice, barely concealed environment, they were saying things. They said two things to me like, “What are you doing differently? What’s different? There’s something different about you.” And I’d say, “What do you mean?” And they’d say, “You’re much more balanced in your argumentation. You’re much more flexible and then adaptive to sudden shifts in conception or theorization. You just seem to be much more fluid and flowing than you used to be.”
And I didn’t notice that. They pointed it out to me. And that for me is, wow. Somehow the flow state that I’m getting into in Tai chi ch’üan, there’s a structure around it that allows it to transfer to many different domains and to percolate through my psyche.
I now have realized that in many situations I’m always doing Tai chi. When I’m talking to Jordan, I’m always doing Tai chi. It’s the only way I can keep up with him. Because he has just tremendous flexibility of cognition and conception and perspective taking. I have to fall back into my Tai chi ch’üan. Obviously I’m not doing, but I’m falling back into it in order to follow him.
That’s what I mean by a ritual. A ritual is imaginal, aspirational, transfers broadly. It transfers deeply and thereby, affords profound reciprocal opening with reality.
Jim: Beautiful, beautiful theoretical model. Let’s move to Jordan now. Jordan has been spending some fair bit of the last few years thinking about building on the ground communities, which he calls Civiums. For game B folks, that’s very similar, more or less the same thing as proto Bs. Both of them have network connectivities that make greater things and membranes and particles. Very similar conceptually.
In your deep dive into thinking about your Civium project, what have you come up with as more tangible examples of ecologies of practice that you think might be useful in the successful operation of a mini society at the level of a Dunbar number times one and a half or two?
Jordan: Well, I’m going to do the same thing that John did when you responded to your question. Which is to say the way that I think about it first is have a categorical way of trying to divvy up the space, which then allows me to focus on those kinds of questions with hopefully a bit more precision.
And so, the category of questions, in substance it’s actually not that large. It’s nice. It’s actually, it’s relatively well bounded. I’ll just do it in no particular order because they’re all interconnected. One has to do with the category of let’s just start with the smallest possible instancios, which is me or you, a given individual human being.
You have a series of ecologies of practices, which I’ve oftentimes referred to as the technologies of sovereignty. Which have to do with you living in relationship with yourself in experiencing life. You’ve got a verticality of the wholeness of yourself. And you’ve got the, well, I guess it’d be the Z dimension. The horizontality of that self coming into relationship with experience, and then the temporal dimension of it developing and evolving over time.
And so, there’s a whole shitload of stuff that has to be put in place to enable that to be navigated well. We’ll take that as one category. In some interesting way, a subset of that, but also a completely separate modality has to do with what happens when you add another person into the mix. And so, the technologies of sovereignty was just to make it very practical of me and my wife come into a very particular Venn diagram when the relationship is a unique kind of being.
There’s an ontological primitive. When my wife and I are in relationship, there’s now three people present, me and her and the relationship would need to be tried, taught as taken as its own kind of being. And there’s a whole nother set of practices, ecologies of practice that are associated with this characteristic that we can oftentimes call we. And a lot of questions that are troublesome to the contemporary society, which has to do with how do we bring people into an integratedness of we? But also to how do we have a movement out? The transcendent, the ability to always move away from and break away and create separate from we.
And of course, how do we do it in such a way that the integratedness maintains the specificity of the singularness individuals or the heterogeneity. Those kinds of questions are very particular. And of course, that has a different kind of movement through time as well.
To a degree to which my wife and I are in a relationship, we want to maintain the wholeness and the richness of the relationship in its relationship with experience to be able to have more and more richness of experience. Say to bring a child into the relationship, which adds a whole lot of richness to the experience. And is in time. The same kind of thing. You notice there’s almost like a geometric unfolding. There’s certain characteristics that just are the same. They can serve across different kinds. And then you can add a new kind.
Now, the next characteristic is this very tricky one, which we’ve kind of touched on a few times. And I think John actually, or maybe Jim mentioned it as a problematic very, very early in the beginning. Which has to do with the nature of humanity in relationship with nature itself. And in particular, our problem child, technology. And that-
Jordan: … problem child technology, and that, how do we actually reweave this human capacity to come out of symmetry with nature, which is in some sense the nature of what we are? But it’s funny, John, I love your distinction, man who knows? Gets out of relationship with nature. We have to restore homosapiens, that which is wise, or the wise hominid. And so, that’s another ecology of practices.
How do we actually reintegrate human potential as a novel aspect of nature back into the whole of world? While keeping it alive, this is not an avid negation of saying, “Hey, fuck it. This whole story of civilization was actually a complete wrong turn. Let’s go all the way back to basically just being hominids or minimum viable beings.” How do we actually integrate that into a new, larger possibility? So, that’s the whole space, right? And divided up in this really complex fashion.
So some things that seem to show up, and it’s interesting, because one of the things that I’ve done is I’ve spent some time looking at existing religions. And which by the way, let’s just say cultures, because in some sense those are almost the same idea, if you really… A proper culture has religion as the way we’re discussing it as its essence. And it has not yet been removed out and put into this weird place.
So, let’s just take for example, a set of rituals that seem to be almost certainly necessary, which the Catholic church has done a pretty good job at. There’s a series of singular events in life that will need to be ritualized. Birth, pretty good idea for us to think about how do we actually wrap ritual around birth because it’s a really fucking hard thing to do to raise a child properly.
And the set of characteristics that John was mentioning, the deepening and the broadening and the strengthening, all these characteristics that we want to have, we want to focus on those most potent, sacred, both important and dangerous simultaneously.
Death, another good one to have some ritual around. And it’s funny, it seems insanely banal to mention that. And yet, let’s take a look at this secular world… Let’s see, let me use the right term. Secular shit show in which we live, which seems almost perfectly committed to absolutely vivisecting precisely the most meaningful. All right. Well, great. Let’s not do that. That’s in some sense, let’s just be simple. Let’s not do that.
But there’s a lot, binding of family. How do we maintain the integrity of the fact that the people who you have grown up with are the ones who have a special capacity and relationality for depth of relationship while simultaneously recognizing the necessity of heterogeneity relationship to simultaneously recognize the uniqueness of each individual and the likeliness of your being thrown into a family where your particularity is met perfectly is very low, and the necessity of generativity.
All right. So that’s another category where ecology of practices is going to be called for. Now, if we want to get precise, let’s see, let’s go with a very, very, very particular one, which is funny, again, because it’s controversial. Here’s an ecology of practice or practice that I’ll throw into the mix: breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding is a really good religious practice that I would recommend heartily in a small human group. The reason why I’m bringing it up is because we’re at the other side of it. I discovered only relatively recently, actually, only with my most recent child who’s four, we had a class on breastfeeding, as we need these days, because we have complete discontinuity with ordinary lineage.
The extraordinary level of adaptive sophistication between the breast and the infant, things like temperature differentials, the breast milk changes temperature in relationship with the temperature of the infant, and a capacity to actually modulate different nutrition that’s actually being delivered.
Which is to say, this is a very sophisticated device. Interesting, but let me add more to it, which is that this is notion of synergistic satisfier. Remember that language from so long ago?
Jordan: We want to think in terms of principles. We want to get as much… How do I say, value out of this very difficult, hard to build construct that we’re talking about as we can get. So, breastfeeding has about 13,000 distinct synergistic satisfies. In other words, it does lots of different important things simultaneously, well; well integrated.
But here’s the weird thing, because we now live in a world where the technocracy, through the 20th century, by the time we got to the 50s and 60s and 70s, I think breastfeeding had gotten down to 10% of American mothers were breastfeeding. So we actually shattered what is a very simple gift that we actually have received from a long time ago, which is a high dimensional, very complex synergistic satisfier.
So now we have to actually rewire it consciously. We have to actually choose to bring that back in. And by the way, we have to actually ligature, this is the religio, we have to heal, or bring back, our capacity, which is unfortunate. The phrase you used earlier, the nuns have the unfortunate requirement of having to be autodidactic with regard to wisdom. Holy shit, well that’s true. So many women now have to go through a class and practice how to actually breastfeed because we’ve broken lineage. And so, that’s a point there.
I feel weird that it’s difficult to get to land, but the point is that the elevation into consciousness of what should have always been a very simple, incredibly potent technology, breastfeeding, which is itself a beautiful example in terms of synergistic satisfier and in terms of humility, that yes, it’s nice to be able to actually have a alternative to breastfeeding in very particular cases, but to hubritistically endeavor to actually believe that we could technocratically, and should, replace that is… Well, the point, it’s simple. And there’s an interesting interjection of a certain word, right? We could reify or revivify that word as well probably should if we want to do religion properly.
It’s an example, that I would put it forward as an exemplar of a way of thinking about this category. Let me think. Yeah, I’ll stop. And there’s another one, a whole other category I can bring in. But, we-
Jim: Yeah, that’s a very rich conversation and yeah, you’ve hit on one of… What we’ve done to childbearing and child rearing is just a God damn disgrace and what comes next has got to fix that. So, anyway. Editorial for me. Anyway, moving on. Now there’s so many interesting points I’m going to have to skip over here in my topic because there’s one that’s really important, I’d love to get both of your perspectives on. And that is the scaling of the religion that’s not a religion.
Jim: I pulled up various videos on this topic, and wow, wow! So let’s spend the rest of our time talking about scaling. John referenced somebody named Paul, I guess it was Paul Metropetro, I guess, who said that he had some questions about whether the religion that’s not a religion could scale across social strata and developmental mental stages. I.e., will it appear equally to rich people and poor people, to dumb people and smart people? You think that would be the simplistic way to describe it.
John, react to those kinds of issues. This thing is very heady. I mean, you can imagine how it appealed to people who know both philosophy and cognitive science, but you could fit all of those in one football stadium probably for the whole world, right? So how do you scale this baby?
John: So, the person was Paul Vanderklay.
Jim: Oh, okay.
John: And Jonathan Pageau also made a similar criticism.
Jim: Okay. Okay.
John: And I think it was a completely legitimate criticism, because there were two criticism. One was how does it scale? And if my thinking had come to a conclusion at the end of awakening from the meeting crisis, that was a very individualistic model. I then responded to that, and took that criticism to heart by turning towards this idea of the collective intelligence of distributed cognition. What are the emerging practicologies of practices and rituals whereby people can bring that into conscious awareness, experience the power and the profundity of that we space and use that as a normative touchstone, a phenomenological touchstone for their own individual practice.
And I think that was one of the functions of things like the church, and the temple, and the synagogue, was to do these dialogical things. Singing together, as you mentioned, is one way of doing that. People get a sense of there being something more than just the aggregate sum of all of the individuals when they’re singing together. When you’re doing this with actual dialogical practices, it gets quite profound, and this is the whole theologos thing. So, that has been one response. And then, the idea is how do you make theologos accessible? And then you have this pedagogical program that I’ve already mentioned. We do the workshops that take people through so that they can come to do it, but that still may be insufficient for… By the way, all of that was also sparked by one other person. And he’s here, right here, Jordan Hall, who said, “The ecology of practices needs a meta thing above it that acts as a normative source in order for regulating how the ecologies of practices are created, curated, communicated, et cetera.”
And so, the whole theologos project was also in response to that point. While I think that’s a big piece of the answer, a second piece of the answer is… First of all, the point to the real possibility. Stoicism was a very quite heady philosophy and it grabbed the upper echelons of Roman society. But, Roman soldiers were also not going to war marching with Epictetus’ Enchiridion, the manual for living, in their backpack. And so, there are ways of presenting these philosophical ideas, I mean, philosophical in the good sense of the love of wisdom, that can make them accessible to people who are not called to academic philosophy at all.
So the diologos project, the workshops around it, and then that example. And I’m also working with people that they’re… I’m working with a group of people, they’re putting together a video game that’s all about trying to draw people in, draw young people in to the love of wisdom, the knowledge of the self. I met in Chicago with people from the International Baccalaureate. How can we bring some of these ideas into the International baccalaureate and start onboarding people? I’ve been talking to people from the [inaudible 01:50:26] high school systems both in the Nordic countries and in North America, and they are very interested in it.
There is a possibility of creating a sequence of things people can do, places they can go, whether virtual or brick and mortar that would take them from 30 adolescents or perhaps a little bit younger into these existing communities of practices for adults. And then that’s the final transformer because these ecologies of practices, people like Rafe Kelly and others, they’re taking these ideas and they’re turning them into very concrete things. I did return to the source in the summer and it was totally what Jordan said about the sacred. It was simultaneously terrifying and uplifting because you’re doing hard core and rock climbing and martial arts, and I got to teach some of the practices I did, but people are crafting these ecologies and practices.
So, there is no reason why we can’t have the video games and the [inaudible 01:51:35] high schools and the ecologies of practices and then the more advanced stuff like what we’re doing here. And I think that’s as good as what Christianity had. I really don’t think… This is a partial response, because I’ve also constructively responded to the criticisms of Jonathan and Paul, but I really don’t think that the four year old in Sunday school had the same idea of God as Thomas Aquinas. I really don’t think that. I think claiming that is not being totally fair.
I took the criticism legitimately and I’ve indicated how they’ve responded to it. But I think the religion that’s not a religion should be allowed the same flexibility that the 10 year old playing the video game. It’s not the same as somebody doing what we’re doing here, but is it in a continuity with it, a pedagogical continuity like classical Christianity? I think we can make a good case that that’s possible now.
Jim: Well, what you really need is to find St. Paul, the patron state of aluminum siding salesman. Right?
Jordan, when I was reading your stuff about this, two huge ideas hit me that it says if you guys could pull this off, you can be the next Christianity or maybe better. And that is embedding into the design of the thing, increasing returns, the scale, Metcalf’s Law. You’ve talked about that quite specifically on two different occasions. And I go, shit yeah, if I was going to design something like this.
I would want to make sure I thought through how it could scale non exponentially with a exponent greater than one. And then, the second one, and this, I still can’t get my head around it, but I love it nonetheless, it was your riff on, maybe we’d be smarter to think about this thing as holographic rather than photographic. If you want to run with both of those, because they’re sort of related, right?
Jordan: They’re very related.
Jim: So if you want to riff with those two-
Jordan: Yeah, they’re very related.
Jim: And that will basically wrap it up. We’ll have a final exit bit, but let’s do that as the last piece on scaling.
Jordan: Nice. So I suppose in some sense we’re shifting from the question that was asked to what I think is the proper question, which is how not whether? The answer to whether is simple, which is that what we’re talking about is simply a kind of culture. All human beings have a culture, therefore by definition it can scale. So the question is how, and in some sense, whether. From a design perspective, I’d like to put a few principles in place before I get to the two things you brought up, Jim, which are important, very important, and they’re very connected with what I about to say.
Oftentimes when we get to this point of the conversation, we forget most of what we just talked about and what specifically… Remember in the beginning I said that orienting towards a biasing towards propositional knowledge is a category error. And specifically I’ll use a different term now, I’ll call it content. Oftentimes when we get to this point where, well, how are you going to scale the content? How are you going to cause a whole bunch of people to have the propositions in your head that you want them to have?
And the answer is not. Right? That’s a category error. That’s an old fashioned way of doing it. I get it. This is one of the reasons why the axial age religions failed, by the way, is they locked into that approach, the pedagogical approach of the dissemination of proposition knowledge, which is weak sauce to use an old way of describing this sort of thing. You can replicate it, you can cut and paste and copy. You can use rote teaching mechanisms to be reasonably confident that the next generation will be able to repeat the words reliably.
Jim: The Catholic Baltimore Catechism, which us Catholics were raised on as a kid. Just literally a book of the doctrine that’s accessible to a halfway intelligent nine year old.
Jordan: And that’s more than nothing. It is more than nothing, but it’s not better than a peanut butter sandwich. It becomes diluted and then it becomes confused, and then it becomes disconnected with this [inaudible 01:55:51], and then it’s lunch handed to it by science, which is actually able to do that kind of thing a whole lot better. So there’s a story of how that entire approach is a category or, okay, great. So not that. Well, that’s interesting. I mean, what does it even mean to endeavor to propagate something that is not on the order of content, particularly propositional content. Very interesting. Yeah. Now you brought forward two principles. One principle is positive returns to scale, or even better exponential Metcalf’s Law. And we can even be more precise from a design perspective. What we want to do is we actually want to think about that as being at the heart of what we’re trying to actually design for.
And imagine if you’re able to think about a culture where the culture was designed consciously, intentionally to take maximum advantage, to think about putting it in the wind tunnel of Metcalf’s law and actually getting it to have zero turbulence as the velocity of Metcalf’s law takes off. Notice that everything else fails when that happens. It either has to ask them to actually the weakest possible version of itself, like Facebook, or it becomes incredibly thermodynamic. The turbulence kicks off and it breaks. We’re actually trying to figure out how do we design something which is in the pocket of Metcalf’s Law and can maintain that scaling factor as the wind in it’s sails. It’s a design consideration. How do you actually design a culture that has that as its design constraints? Great. Let’s just start from the beginning. We’re designing a culture that has that as part of its intentionality.
Okay, a second piece. I’m going to shift here to a completely different way of thinking about it. Remember, I anchored concepts like the sacred and concepts like religion in simplicity of the most important, and by the way, the most terrifying, but simplicity, raising your child and not let’s go with getting shot by the gun in your house. By the way, as Jim and I both grew up in households that had guns, we had characteristic, it was very present in our lives. This is how you properly relate to a gun. So dangerous and important.
To the degree to which a culture is able to successfully… and I mean this both in terms of it is felt as successful by the individual who’s participating in it and it is objectively successful in the sense of it actually delivers on effective life from an evolutionary fitness sense, is able to successfully upgrade the capacity of individuals and groups of people to navigate the most important and most challenging aspects of life.
Then it will tend to be propagated by those individuals to the ones who they care about most. Now, to the degree to which you are focusing on supporting people’s capacity to create more meaningful relationships with the people who they are most likely to be able to develop strong bond connections with. You’re getting a double loop there. Does that make sense, what I just said?
Jordan: Now one of the most sacred things are the most sacred relationships, like your relationship with your spouse, your relationship with your children. These are things that carry the highest capacity for the most meaningfulness in life. They don’t necessarily but in potential. In potential they do. And to the degree to which those particular relationships aren’t carrying that meaningfulness. You’ll be looking for other relationships that are very close, strong friends, cousins, grandchild, parent, uncle, coworker, collaborator that have the characteristic of holding the potentiality of the most meaningfulness in relationship.
Well, as it turns out, the kind of culture that is most able to deal with the velocity vector of scaling of the Metcalf Law has to be built out of the strongest possible relationship bonds. So these two things fit together quite nicely to the degree to which you’re orienting people towards practices that support their discovering and building the richest, strongest possible relationships in the places where they could build the richest, strongest possible relationships. You’re effective at delivering on that. You’re simultaneously building something that is going to want to be propagated. People will endeavor to reach out individually and give me a moment to talk about the geometry of this.
This is the holographic piece individually to the people who they feel are the most likely able or most attractively, most yearning to achieve connectedness with, to endeavor to actually deploy these practices to achieve greater connectedness with. And the possibility of that is the highest because to the degree which they’re correct, both sides are saying yes to that. So you’ve actually tapping into it. Notice there’s a three dimensional feedback loop going on. Now, the holographic characteristic, not content, something like context, not centralized, distributed. It’s another way of saying, not photograph, but holograph.
This is all done. How do I say this? The air condition of the old religions was on the one hand propositional, and on the other hand, centralized. And I get it right. That’s the easiest way to stamp out scalability. And when you’re in a winner, take all competition for bodies that are part of your particular version of something that has binding, yeah, you got to win that fight. We’re having to win a higher order fight. And remind me in a second meta crisis, if I forget, in this case, we can say, and I don’t have time to do the argument, but I can say categorically that the centralized approach is not the right approach.
It can’t work and it will always produce the wrong results. But there’s a different approach, the approach that I just described, where individuals empowered, becoming sovereign in themselves, choosing for ordinary human reasons and because of the nature of reality itself, which is to say that those relationships that are capable of the most meaningfulness of relationship, relationship are the ones that are most capable of the most meaningful relationship.
That’s the totology, but that’s the point, will seek to operate along those lines. And to the degree they’re simultaneously empowered to do so and are empowered to share with everyone else the capacity to do so. Here’s my learnings, here’s my way of getting wisdom in this case. Here’s the experience I had. Here’s how I got past this problem. It’s a distributed learning environment that is actually pure produced and distributed in a pure fashion using a lot of the technology layers that we’ve actually been developing it over the past 20 years to make it censorship, impregnable, and capture. Impregnable creates the holographic learning environment that allows individuals to be able to grasp where they are, find their way into the highest location for themselves, and then begin to actually live the most meaningful lives for the obvious reason that that’s the best possible life to live.
And then share that because people will always do that, by the way. And to a degree or two, you’ve actually discovered something deeply, deeply meaningful. One of the very first things that you’ll find as a synergistic satisfier is to share that with other people who care to or are able to learn from that, which is something that I’ve been doing for quite some time. So then let’s talk about the last piece. And this is important, critical to the degree to which anybody has dubiety about us engaging in trying to accomplish the thing that we’re describing. Shit’s fucked up. Right? If we were trying to do this in a period of time where shit was not about to come off the rails in the most cataclysmic way that has ever happened, ever, axial age, or call it collapse of the Bronze Age, a little tiny ripple in history, then we probably wouldn’t want to do this.
But fortunately, in a very odd perverse way, that’s where we are. So we have the wind at our backs, or should we say the fire beneath our feet that everything in fact is actually falling apart. And the secular world, which has wreaked havoc across the old world religions is as shitty as anything has ever been. It’s absurdly terrible across all the most meaningful aspects of human life. It only does a very small number of things type per, I call it far too well, right? Way too well. And which gives people in the west diabetes and obesity instead of fulfillment and not being hungry, but almost all the other important things it does catastrophically. So the wheels are falling off. All the old institutions are going to be becoming increasingly obviously terrible. Everybody’s going to be looking for some way to actually satisfy basic means of survival, much less actually living meaningful lives.
If one is able to present something with the characteristics that we just described, it has the energy that it needs to start being uptaken. Once it gets past a certain degree of criticality, Metcalf’s Law, that holographic characteristic begins to actually get a hyper, what do you call it, combinatorial feedback loop. By the way, I learned just today that it’s actually not even Metcalfs Law. It is the positive aspect of a combinatorial explosion. It’s X explanation point or whatever. That is a factorial. So we haven’t… You can get a steeper curve, which is nice. That’s it. I’m done.
Jim: All right. Well, I mean that’s some deep ass thinking right there. And I’ll add a other thing to your how does it work for human motivation perspective? If I can upgrade the quality of my connections to the people I care about most, it’s just like a fax machine. I have an incentive to get them to do it too, right?
Jordan: Yep. And they’re most likely to want to because that’s the place of the highest possible value. Once you get past the hard part. By the way, there’s step functions. The hard part can be hard, as anybody who’s ever tried to figure out how to build a better relationship with their parents, for example, or their kids because of the roughness of development, right? It ain’t easy. But if you get over that step function, you’re like, holy shit-
Jim: You got something.
Jordan: I just earned-
Jim: You got something, right?
Jordan: Massive. Then you got something.
Jim: All right, well, we’ve gone on here well over our allotted time. This has been a damn classic conversation, I got to say, this is one of the best podcasts I’ve had in a while, but let’s give John a chance to wrap it up. Last word.
John: I’ll say something very simple in the spirit of what Jordan said, and this is to put him in good company and not be dismissive. I mean, the way you teach people, you don’t teach people philosophy. You present to them beautiful ways of life. That’s Plato’s answer. People leading good lives that are beautiful and that draw them in and then they might take up the more refined practices.
Jim: Very cool. We’ll wrap it-
John: Hey Jim, can I say one thing?
Jim: Okay. One thing.
Jordan: I’m actually going to do the last thing. I’m going to play your role. I’m going to do the sales pitch.
Jim: All right.
Jordan: You ready? I’m do the… We’re moving into the selling. We’re not doing marketing anymore, selling.
Jim: Okay. St. Paul-
Jordan: So we’ve been doing this for a little while, for say about 10 years, more or less, and with real heaviness for the past five or six years. It’s been out there and I’ve noticed something, I’ve run into now, a number of young men in their early 20s, who they’re listening, right? They’ve listened to our conversations, they’ve thought about it, their minds have gotten around it. By the way, this is impressive as hell. There’s people out there who truly understand what we’re talking about, and they’re in their early 20s. Can you imagine what they’re going to be able to get to by actually just stepping across that threshold? Here’s the best part. They got girlfriends and their girlfriends are damn impressive women. There you go. If you adopt men, young men, the religion that is not a religion, you too will get a very impressive woman as a girlfriend. Guaranteed.
Jim: That’s how the anti-war movement worked when I was a kid. 17 year old guy who was against the war was more likely to get laid by originally high quality lady, so we have proof of the principle. Let’s wrap it right there. Thank both you gentlemen, Jordan Hall and John Vervaeke for an amazing discussion of the religion that’s not a religion.