John Vervaeke: Meaning Crisis, Atheism, Religion & the Search for Wisdom | Lex Fridman Podcast #317 | Transcription

Transcription for the video titled "John Vervaeke: Meaning Crisis, Atheism, Religion & the Search for Wisdom | Lex Fridman Podcast #317".

1970-01-12T13:45:31.000Z

Note: This transcription is split and grouped by topics and subtopics. You can navigate through the Table of Contents on the left. It's interactive. All paragraphs are timed to the original video. Click on the time (e.g., 01:53) to jump to the specific portion of the video.


Introduction

Intro (00:00)

The universe doesn't care about your personal narrative. You can just have met the person that is going to be the love of your life. It's the culmination of your whole project for happiness, and you step into the street and attract hits you, and you die. That's mortality. Mortality isn't just some far-flung event. It's that every moment we are subject to fate in that way. So you can think of lots of little deaths you experience whenever all the projects and the plans you make come up against the fact that the universe can just roll over them. The following is a conversation with John R. Vakey, a psychologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Toronto.


Exploring The Concept Of Consciousness And Quest For Meaning

Life search crisis (00:48)

I highly recommend his lecture series called Awakening from the Meaning Crisis, which covers the history and future of humanity's search for meaning. This is the Lex Friedman podcast. To support it, please check out our sponsors in the description. And now, dear friends, here's John R. Vakey. You have an excellent 50-part lecture series online on the Meaning Crisis, and I think you describe in the modern times an increase in depression, loneliness, cynicism, and wait for it, bullshit. The term used technically by Harry Frankfurt and adopted by you. So let me ask, what is meaning?


Why the quest (01:34)

What are we looking for when we engage in the search for meaning? So when I'm talking about meaning, I'm talking about what's called meaning in life, not the meaning of life. That's some sort of metaphysical claim. Meaning in life are those factors that make people rate their lives as more meaningful, worth living, worth the suffering that they have to endure. And when you study that, what you see is it's a sense of connectedness, connectedness to yourself, to other people, to the world, and a particular kind of connectedness. You want to be connected to things that have a value and an existence independent of your egocentric sort of preferences and concerns. This is why, for example, having a child is considered very meaningful because you're connecting to something that's going to have a life and a value independent of you. Now the question that comes up for me, well, there's two questions. One is, why is that at risk right now? And then secondly, and I think you have to answer the second question first, which is, well, you have a why is meaning so important.


The meaning crisis is new? (02:41)

Why is this sense of connectedness so important to human beings? Why, when it is lacking, do they typically fall into depression, potentially mental illness, addiction, self-destructive behavior? And so the first answer I give you is, well, it's that sense of connectedness. And people often express it metaphorically. They want to be connected to something larger than themselves. They want to matter. They don't mean it literally. I mean, if I change you to a mountain, you wouldn't thereby say, oh, now my life is so fulfilling, right? So what they're trying to convey, they're using this metaphor to try and say, they want to be connected. They want to be connected to something real. They want to make a difference and matter to it. And one way of asking them, well, you know, what's meaningful is, tell me what you would like to continue to exist even if you weren't around anymore. And how are you connected to it and how do you matter to it? That's one way of trying to get at what is the source of meaning for you is if you were no longer there, you would like it to continue existing. That's not the only part of the definition probably because there's probably many things that aren't source of meaning for me that maybe I find beautiful that I would like to continue existing. Yes. If it contributes to your life being meaningful, you're connected to it in some way and it matters to you and you matter to it in that you make some difference to it. That's when it goes from being just sort of true, good and beautiful to being a source of meaning for you in your life. Is the meaning crisis a new thing or has it always been with us as a part of the human condition in general? That's an excellent question. And part of the argument I made in awakening for the meaning crisis is there's two aspects to it. One is that there are perennial problems, perennial threats to meaning. And in that sense, human beings are always vulnerable to despair. The book of Ecclesiastes is it's all vanity. It's all meaningless. But there's also historical forces that have made those perennial problems more pertinent, more pressing, more difficult for people to deal with. And so the meaning crisis is actually the intersection of perennial problems, finding existing existence absurd, experiencing existential anxiety, feeling alienated, and then pressing historical factors, which have to do with the loss of the resources that human beings have typically crossed historically and cross culturally made use of in order to address these perennial problems. Is there something potentially deeper than just a lack of meaning that speaks to the fact that we're vulnerable to despair?


Tackling despair: the fear of death (05:28)

Ernest Becker talked about in his book, "The Nol of Death," about the fear of death and being an important motivator in our life. As William James said, "Death is the warm at the core of the human condition." Is it possible that this kind of search for meaning is coupled or can be seen from the perspective of trying to escape the reality, the thought of one's own mortality? Yeah, Becker and the terror management theory that have come out of it. There's been some good work around providing empirical support for that claim. Some of the work not so good. Which aspects do you find convincing? Can you steal man that case and then can you argue against it? What aspects I find convincing is that human finitude, being finite, being inherently limited is very problematic for us. Given the extensive use of the word problematic, I like that you use that word to describe one's own mortality as problematic. Because people on Twitter use the word problematic when they disagree with somebody, but this to me seems to be the ultimate problematic aspect of the human condition is that we die. It ends. I think I'm not disagreeing with you, but I'm trying to get you to consider that your mortality is not an event in the future. It's a state you're in right now. That's what I'm trying to shift. Your mortality is just a... We talk about something that causes mortality fatal. What we actually mean is it's full of fate. I don't mean in the sense of things are pre-written. What I mean is the sense of the universe doesn't care about your personal narrative. You can just have met the person that is going to be the love of your life. It's the culmination of your whole project for happiness and you step into the street and attract hits you and you die. That's mortality. Mortality isn't just some far-flung event. It's that every moment we are subject to fate in that way. You can think of lots of little deaths you experience whenever all the projects and the plans you make come up against the fact that the universe can just roll over them. The death is the indifference of nature of the universe to your existence. In that sense, it is always here with us. Yeah, but you're vulnerable in so many ways other than just the ending of your biological life. It's interesting if you rate what people fear most, death is not number one. They often put public speaking as number one because the death of status or reputation can also be a profound loss for human beings. You can drive them into despair. As the terror management folks would say, as Ernest Becker would say, that a self-report on a survey is not an accurate way to capture what is actually at the core of the motivation of a human being that we could be terrified of death. We've from childhood, since we realized the absurdity of the fact that the right ends, we've learned to really try to forget about it, try to construct illusions that allow us to escape momentarily over prolonged periods of time, the realization that we die. Okay, so first I took it seriously, but now I want to say why there's some empirical work that makes me want to reconsider it. But terror management theory is you do things like you give people a list of words to read and in those lists of words associated with death, cough and funeral. And then you see what happens to people and generally they start to become more rigid in their thinking. They tend to identify with their worldview. They lose cognitive flexibility. That's if you present it to them in that third person perspective. But if you get them to go in the first person perspective and imagine that they're dying and that the people that they care about are there with them, they don't show those responses. In fact, they show us an increase in cognitive flexibility, an increase in openness. See, so I'm trying to say we might be putting the cart before the horse. It might not be death per se, but the kind of meaning that is present or absent in death. There's the crucial thing for us. By the way, to push back, I don't think you took it seriously. I don't think you truly steelman the case because you're saying that death is always present for us, yes. But it isn't there a case to be made that it is one of the major motivators. Nietzsche, will to power, Freud wanting to have sex with your mother, all the different explanations of what is truly motivating us human beings. Isn't there a strong case to be made that this death thing is a really damn good, if not anything, a tool to motivate the behavior of humans? I'm not saying that the avoidance of death is not significant for human beings, but I'm proposing to you that human beings have a capacity for considering certain deaths meaningful and certain deaths meaningless and people, and we have lots of evidence that people are willing to sacrifice their biological existence for a death they consider meaningful. Are you personally afraid of your death? Do you think about it? As somebody who produces a lot of ideas, records them, writes them down, is a deep thinker, a admired thinker, and as the years go on, become more and more admired, does it scare you that the right ends? No, I mean, you have to talk to me on all my levels. I'm a biological organism, so if something's thrown at my head, I'll dock and things like that. But if you're asking me, do I long to live forever? No. In the Buddhist tradition, there are practices that are designed to make you aware of simultaneously the horror of mortality and the horror of immortality. The thought of living forever is actually horrific to me. Are those the only two options? When you're sitting with a loved one or watching a movie you just really love or a book you really love, you don't want it to end, you don't necessarily always flip it to the other aspect, the complete opposite of the thought experiment. What happens if the book lasts forever? There's got to be a middle ground, like the snooze button. Sure, you don't want to sleep forever, but maybe press the snooze button and get an extra 15 minutes. There's surely some kind of balance. That fear seems to be a source of an intense appreciation of the moment in part. That's what the Stoics talked about, to meditate on once mortality. Sure.


Living with the snooze button (13:18)

It seems to be a nice wake-up call to that life is full of moments that are beautiful and then you don't get an infinite number of them. Right, and the Stoic response was not the project of trying to extend the duration of your life, but to deepen those moments so they become as satisfying as possible so that when death comes it does not strike you as any kind of calamity. Does that project ring true for your own personal feelings? I think so. Do you think about immortality? I used to. I don't so much anymore. Part of it, as I'm older, and your temporal horizon flips somewhere in your 30s or 40s. You don't live from your birth. You live towards your death. That's such a beautiful phrase. The temporal horizon flips. That's so true. That's so true. At what point is that? The point before which the world of opportunity and possibility is infinite before you. Yeah, it's like Peter Pan. There's all these golden possibilities and you fly around between them. Yes, very much. And then when it flips, you start to look for a different model. The Socratic, the Stoic model of Buddhism has also influenced me, which is more about wait. When I look at my desires, I seem to have two meta desires. In addition to satisfying a particular desire, I want whatever satisfies my desire to be real. And whatever is satisfying my desire to not cause internal conflict, but bring something like peace of mind. And so I'm more and more moved towards how can I live such that those two meta desires are a constant frame within which I'm trying to satisfy my specific desires.


Summoning Leviathan (15:05)

What do you think happens after we die? I think mind and life go away completely when we die. And I think that's actually significantly important for the kind of beings that we are. We are the kinds of beings that can come to that awareness and then we have a responsibility to decide how we're going to comport ourselves towards it. Can you linger on what that means? The mind goes away. Like when you're playing music and the last instrument is put down, the song is over. It doesn't mean the song wasn't beautiful. It doesn't mean the song wasn't complex. It doesn't mean the song like didn't add to the value of the universe in its existence, but it came to an end. Is there some aspect in which some part of mind was there before the human and remains after something like panpsychism or is it too much for us limited cognitive beings to understand? Something like panpsychism, I take it seriously. I don't think it's a ridiculous proposal, but I think it has insoluble problems that make me doubt it. Any idea that the mind is some kind of ultimately immaterial substance also has for me just devastating problems. Those are the two kinds of framework that people usually propose in order to support some kind of idea of immortality. I find both very problematic. The fact that we participate in distributed cognition, that most of our problem solving is not done as individuals, but in groups. This is something I work on. I've published on that. I think that's important. But most of the people who do work on systems of distributed cognition think that while there's such a thing as collective intelligence, there's no good evidence that there's collective consciousness. In fact, it's often called zombie agency for that reason. While I think it's very clear that no one person runs an airline and there's a collective intelligence that solves that problem, I do not think that collective intelligence supports any kind of consciousness. Therefore I don't think the fact that I participate, which I regularly and reliably do in distributed cognition, gives me any reason to believe that that participation grounds some kind of consciousness. There are so many things to mention there. First of all, distributed cognition, maybe that's a synonym for collective intelligence. That means a bunch of humans individually are able to think, have cognitive machines, and are somehow able to interact with the process of dialogue as you talk about to more different ideas together, like this idea landscape together. It's so interesting to think about, okay, well you do have these fascinating distributed cognition systems, but consciousness does not propagate in the same way as intelligence.


More on Distributed Cognition The FriendZone (18:26)

But isn't there a case, if we just look at intelligence, if we look at us humans as a collection of smaller organisms, which we are, and so there's like a hierarchy of organisms. Anyone's work together to form tiny villages that you can then start to see as individual organisms that are then also forming bigger villages and interacting different ways and function becomes more and more complex. Eventually we get to us humans to where we start to think, well we're an individual, but really we're not. There's billions of organisms inside us, both domestic and foreign. So, isn't that building up consciousnesses like turtles all the way up to us, our consciousness?


Levels of Organization Are Emergent (19:27)

Why does it have to stop with us humans? Are we the only, like is this the face transition when it becomes a zombie like giant hierarchical village that first like, oh, there's like a singing angels and its consciousness is born in just us humans. Do bacteria have consciousness? Not bacteria, but maybe you could say bacteria does, but like the interesting complicated organisms that are within us have consciousness. I think it's proper to argue and I have that like a peremysium or bacteria has a kind of agency and even a kind of intelligence, kind of sense making ability. But I do not think that we can attribute consciousness, at least what we mean by consciousness, kind of self-awareness, disability to introspect, etc, etc, to bacteria. Now the reason why distributed cognition doesn't have consciousness, I think is a little bit more tricky and I think there's no reason in principle why there couldn't be a consciousness for distributed cognition, collective intelligence. In fact, many philosophers would agree with me on that point.


Bandwidth, Density, & The Singularity is Nigh (20:37)

I think it's more an issue of certain empirical facts, bandwidth, density of connection, speed of information transfer, etc. It's conceivable that if we got some horrible Frankensteinian neural link and we linked our brains and we had the right density and dynamics and bandwidth and speed that a group consciousness could take shape. I don't have any argument in principle against that. I'm just saying those contingent facts do not yet exist and therefore it is implausible that consciousness exists at the level of collective intelligence. So you talk about consciousness quite a bit, so let's step back and try to sneak up to a definition. What is consciousness? For me, there are two aspects to answering that question. One is what's the nature of consciousness? How does something like consciousness exist in an otherwise apparently non-conscious universe? Then there's a function question which is equally important, which is what does consciousness do? The first one is obviously problematic for most people. Yeah, consciousness seems to be so different from the rest of the non-conscious universe. But I put it to you that the function question is also very hard because you are clearly capable of very sophisticated, intelligent behavior without consciousness. You are turning the noises coming out of my face hole into ideas in your mind and you have no conscious awareness of how that process is occurring. So why do we have consciousness at all?


Russell: Why do we have consciousness? (22:26)

Now here's the thing. There's an extra question you need to ask. Should we attempt to answer those questions separately or should we attempt to answer them in an integrated fashion? I make the case that you actually have to answer them in an integrated fashion. What consciousness does and what it is, we should be able to give a unified answer to both of those. Can you try to elucidate the difference between what consciousness is and what it does, both of which are mysteries, as you say. State versus action. Can you try to explain the difference that's useful, that's important to understand? So that's putting me in a bit of a difficult position because I actually argue that trying to answer them separately is ultimately incoherent. But what I can point to are many published articles in which only one of these problems is addressed and the other is left unaddressed. So people will try and explain what quality are, how they potentially emerge without saying what do they do, what problems do they help to solve, how do they make the organism more adaptive. And you have other people who say, "Oh no, this is what the function of consciousness is." But I can't tell you, I can't solve the hard problem. I don't know how quality exists. So what I'm saying is many people treat these problems separately, although I think that's ultimately an incoherent way to approach the problem. So the hard problem is focusing on what it is. Yes. So the qualia, it feels like something to experience the thing, that's what consciousness is. And does is more about the functional usefulness of the thing. Yes. Yes. To the whole beautiful mix of cognition and just function in everyday life. Okay. You've also said that you can do very intelligent things without consciousness. Yes. Clearly. Is that obvious to you? Yes. I don't know what I'm doing to access my memory. It just comes up and it comes up really intelligently. But the mechanisms that create consciousness could be deeply interlinked with whatever is doing. The memory access is doing the- Oh, I think so. The cognition.


Is it possible to create machines capable of possessing consciousness? (25:02)

Yes. Yes. So I guess what I'm trying to say in this will probably sneak up to this question a few times which is whether we can build machines that are conscious or machines that are intelligent, human level intelligence or beyond without building the consciousness. I mean, ultimately that's one of the ways to understand what consciousness is to build the thing. We can either sort of from a Chomsky way try to construct models like he thinks about language in this way, try to construct models and theories of how the thing works or we can just build the damn thing. Exactly. And that's a methodological principle in cognitive science. In fact, one of the things that sort of distinguishes cognitive science from other disciplines dealing with the nature of cognition in the mind is that cognitive science takes the design stance. It asks, well, could we build a machine that would not only simulate it but serve as a bona fide explanation of the phenomena? Do you find any efforts in cognitive science compelling in this direction? In terms of how far we are, there's on the computational side of things, something called cognitive modeling. There's all these kinds of packages that you can construct simplified models of how the brain does things and see if complex behaviors emerge. Do you find any efforts in cognitive or what efforts in cognitive science do you find most inspiring and productive? I think the project of trying to create AGI, artificial general intelligence, is where I place my hope of artificial intelligence being of scientific significance. This is independent of technological socio-economic significance, which is already well established. But being able to say because of the work in AI, we now have a good theory of cognition, intelligence, perhaps consciousness. I think that's where I place my bets is in the current endeavors around artificial general intelligence. So tackling that problem head on, which is now become central, at least to a group of cognitive scientists, is I think what needs to be done. When you think about AGI, do you think about systems that have consciousness? Let's go back to what I think is at the core of your general intelligence. Right now, compared to even our best machines, you are a general problem solver. You can solve a wide variety of problems and a wide variety of domains. Some of our best machines have a little bit of transfer. They can learn this game and play a few other well-designed rule-bound games. But they couldn't learn how to swim, etc. Things like that. And so what's interesting is what seems to come up, and this is some of my published work, in all these different domains of cognition, across all these different problem types, is a central problem. And since we do have good psychometric evidence that we do have some general ability, that's a significant component of our intelligence, an argument as to what I think that general ability is. And so it's happening right now.


The Ability to Ignore Information (28:35)

The amount of information in this room that you could actually pay attention to is combinatorially explosive. The amount of information you have in your memory, long-term memory, in all the ways you could combine it, combinatorially explosive. The number of possibilities you can consider, also combinatorially explosive. The sequences of behavior you can generate, also combinatorially explosive. And yet somehow you're zeroing in. The right memories are coming up, the right possibilities are opening up, the right sequences of behavior you're paying attention to the right thing. Not infallibly so. But so much so that you reliably find obvious what you should interact with in order to solve the problem at hand. That's an ability that is still not well understood within AGI. So filtering out the gigantic waterfall of data. Right. It's almost like a Zen Cohen. What makes you intelligent is your ability to ignore so much information and do it in such a way that is somewhere between arbitrary guessing and algorithmic search.


Consciousness, Relevance, And Working Memory

Wisdom, Meaning, Truth (29:45)

And to a fault sometimes of course that you, based on the models you construct, you forget you ignore things that you probably not ignore. And that, hopefully we can circle back to it, Lux, is related to the meaning issue. It's the very processes that make us adaptively intelligent, make us perennially susceptible to self-deceptive, self-destructive behavior because of the way we misframe the environment in a fundamental ways. So to you, meaning is also connected to ideas of wisdom and truth and how we interpret and understand and interact intellectually with the environment. Yes. So what is wisdom? Why do we long for it? How do we and where do we find it? What is it? Intelligence is what you use to solve your problems, as I was just describing. Rationality is how you use your intelligence to overcome the problems of self-deception that emerge when you're trying to solve your problems. So it's that matter problem. And then the issue is do you have just one kind of knowing? I think you have multiple ways of knowing and therefore you have multiple rationalities. And so wisdom is to coordinate those rationalities so that they are optimally constraining and affording each other. So in that way, wisdom is rationally self-transcending rationality.


Frames (31:25)

Right, so life is the kind of process where you jump from rationality to rationality and pick up a village of rationalities along the way that then turns into wisdom. Yes, it's properly coordinated. You mentioned framing. Yes. So what is framing? Is that a set of assumptions you bring to the table in how you see the world, how you reason about the world, how you understand the world? So it depends what you mean by assumptions. If by assumption you mean a proposition, representational or rule, I think that's much more downstream from relevance realization. I think relevance realization refers to, again, constraints on how you are paying attention. And so for me, talking about framing is talking about this process you're doing right now of salience landscaping. What's salient to you? And how is what's salient constantly shifting in a sort of a dynamic tapestry? And how are you shaping yourself to the way that salience landscaping is aspectualizing the world shaping it into aspects for interaction? For me, that is a much more primordial process than any sort of belief we have. And here's why. If we mean by beliefs, you know, a representational proposition, then we're in this very problematic position because then we're trying to say that propositions are ultimately responsible for how we do relevance realization. And that's problematic because representations presuppose relevance realization. So I represent this as a cup. The number of properties it actually has and that I even have epistemic access to is combinatorial explosive. I select from those a subset and how they are relevant to each other insofar as they are relevant for me. This doesn't have to be a cup. I could be using it as a hat. I could use it to stand for the letter V, all kinds of different things. I could say this was the 10th billion object made in North America, right? Representations presuppose relevance realization. They are right. They are therefore dependent on it, which means relevance realization isn't bound to our representational structures. It can be influenced by them, but they are ultimately dependent on relevance realization.


Everything is dependent on relevance realization (34:09)

That's defined stuff. Relevance realization. What are the inputs and the outputs of this thing? What is it? What are we talking about? What we're talking about is how you are doing something very analogous to evolution. So if you think about the adaptivity isn't in the organism or in the environment, but in a dynamical relation, and then what does evolution do? It creates variation and then it puts selective pressure. And what that does is that changes the niche constructions that are available to a species. It changes the morphology. You also have a loop. It's your sensory motor loop. And what's constantly happening is there are processes within you that are opening up variation and also processes that are putting selection on it. And you're constantly evolving that sensory motor loop. So you might call your cognitive fittedness, which is how you're framing the world is constantly evolving and changing. I can give you two clear examples of that. One, your autonomic nervous system, parasympathetic and sympathetic. The sympathetic system is biased to trying to interpret as much of reality as threat or opportunity. The parasympathetic is biased to trying to interpret as much of the environment as safe and relaxing. And they are constantly doing opponent processing. There's no little man in you calculating your level of arousal. There's this dynamic coupling of opponent processing between them that is constantly evolving your arousal. Similarly, your attention, you have the default mode network, task network. The default mode network is putting pressure on you right now to mind wander, to go off, to drift. And then the task focus network is selecting out of those possibilities, the ones that will survive and go into. And so you're constantly evolving your attention. Okay. So there's a natural selection of ideas that a bunch of systems within you are generating. And then you use the natural selection. What is the selector, the object that you're interacting with the glass? Relevance realization, once again, you just describe how it happens. Yes. You can describe what the hell it is. So what are we talking about? So relevance realization is how you interact with things in the world to make sense of why they matter, what they mean to you, to your life. Yes. And notice the language you just used. You're starting to use the meaning in life language. Good or bad? That's good. Okay. That's good. So what does that evolution of your sensory motor loop do? It gives you, and here I'll use the term for Marla Ponti. It gives you an optimal grip on the world. So let's use your visual attention again.


Dog or cat? (37:14)

Okay. Here's an object. How close should I be to it? Is there a right? That's what you want to do with it. Exactly. Exactly. So you have to evolve your sensory motor loop in order to get the optimal grip that actually creates the affordance of you getting to a goal that you're trying to get to. Yeah, but you're describing physical goals of manipulating objects. So this applies the task, the process of relevance realization is not just about getting a glass of water and taking a drink. No. It's about falling in love. Yeah, of course. What else is there? Well, there's obvious. Between those two options. I can show you how you're optimally gripping in an abstract cognitive domain. Okay. So a mammal goes by and most people will say there's a dog. Now why don't they say they might, but typically, you know, probabilistically they'll say there's a dog. They could say there's a German shepherd, there's a mammal, there's a living organism, there's a police dog. Why that? Why there? Why do they stop? Eleanor Rush called these basic level. Well, what you find is that's an optimal grip because it's getting you the best overall balance between similarity within your category and difference between the other categories. It's allowing you to properly fit to that object insofar as you're setting yourself up to, well, I'm getting so as many of the similarities and differences I can on balance because they're in a trade off relationship that I need in order to probably interact with this mammal. That's optimal grip, not right. It's at the level of your categorization. You evolve these models of the world around you and I'm top of them. You do stuff like you build representations, like you said.


Salience Landscape (39:15)

Yes. What's the salience landscape? Salience meaning attention landscape. So salience is what grabs your attention or what results from you directing your attention. So I slide my hands, that's salient, it grabs your attention. Your attention is drawn to it as bottom up. But I can also say you left big toe and now it's salient to you because you directed your attention towards it that's top down. And again, opponent processing going on there. So whatever stands out to you, what grabs your attention, what arouses you, what triggers at least momentarily some affect towards it, that's how things are salient. What salience I would argue is is how a lot of unconscious relevance realization makes information relevant to working memory. That's when it now becomes online for direct sensory motor interaction with the world. So you think the salience landscape, the ocean of salience extends into the subconscious mind? I think relevance does. But I think when relevance is recursively processed, relevance realization, such that it passes through sort of this higher filter of working memory and has these properties of being globally accessible and globally broadcast, then it becomes the thing we call salience. Look, that's really good evidence.


Consciousness and Working Memory (40:44)

There's really good evidence for my colleague at UFT, University of Toronto Lynn Hasher, but that's what working memory is. It's a higher order relevance filter. That's why things like chunking will get way more information through working memory because it's basically monitoring how much relevance realization has gone into this information. Usually you have to do an additional kind of recursive processing. And that tells you, by the way, when do you need consciousness?


Truth, Reality, And Objectivity

Relevance Realization (41:13)

When do you need that working memory and that salience landscaping? It's when you're facing situations that are highly novel, highly complex and virial defined that require you to engage working memory. Okay, got it. So relevance realization is in part the thing that constructs that basic level thing of a dog. When you see a dog, you call it a dog, not a German shepherd, not a mammal, not a biological meat bag, it's a dog, wisdom. Yes. So what is wisdom? If we return, I think it's part of that we got to relevance realization. And then wisdom is an accumulation of rationalities. He described a rationality as a kind of starting from intelligence, a bunch of puzzle solving, and then rationalities like the meta problem of puzzle solving. And then what wisdom is the meta-meta problem of puzzle solving? Yes, in the sense that the meta problem you have when you're solving your puzzles is that you can often fall into self-deception. You can misfer. Self-deception, right. Right. So whereas knowledge overcomes ignorance, wisdom is about overcoming foolishness. If what we mean by foolishness is self-deceptive, self-destructive behavior, which I think is a good definition of foolishness. And so what you're doing is you're doing this recursive relevance realization. You're using your intelligence to improve the use of your intelligence. And then you're using your rationality to improve the use of your rationality. That's that recursive relevance realization I was talking about a few minutes ago. Think about a wise person. They come into highly often messy, ill-defined, complex situations, usually where there's some significant novelty and what can they do? They can zero in on what really matters, what's relevant, and then they can shape themselves, salient landscaping to intervene most appropriately to that situation as they have framed it. That's what we mean by a wise person. And that's how it follows out of the model I've been presenting to you. So when we see self-deception, I mean, part of that implies that it's intentional. Under the mechanism of cognition, you're modifying what you should know for some purpose. Is that how you see the word self-deception? No, because I belong to a group of people that think the model of self-deception as lying to oneself ultimately makes no sense. Because in order to lie to you, I have to know something you don't, and I have to depend on your commitment to the truth in order to modify your behavior. I don't think that's what we do to ourselves. I think, and I'm going to use it in the technical term, and thank you for making space for that earlier on, I think we can bullshit ourselves, which is a very different thing than lying. So what is bullshit, and how do we bullshit ourselves, technically speaking? Yeah, Frankfurt, and this is inspired by Frankfurt and other people's work based on Frankfurt's work. On bullshit. Yeah. That's a pretty good title. I think it's one of the best things he wrote. He wrote a lot of good things. The title or the essay? The essay. Title's good too. It's always an icebreaker in certain academic settings. So let's contrast the bullshit artist from the liar. The liar depends on your commitment to the truth. The bullshit artist is actually trying to make you indifferent to the question of truth and modify your behavior by making things salient to you so that they are catchy to you. So a prototypical example of bullshit is a commercial, a television commercial. You watch these people at a bar getting some particular kind of alcohol, and they're gorgeous, and they're laughing and they're smiling and they're clear-died. You know that's not true. And they know you know it's not true. But here's the point. You don't care because there's gorgeous people smiling and they're happy and that's salient to you and that catches your attention. And so you know, go into a bar. You know that won't happen when you drink this alcohol. You know it. Yeah. And that's why the product because it was made salient to you. Now you can't lie to yourself, Lex. Salience can catch attention, but attention can drive salience. So this is what I can do. I can make something salient by paying attention to it. And then that will tend to draw me back to it again, which, and you see what happens? Which means it tends to catch my attention more so that when I go into the store, that bottle of liquor catches my attention and I buy it. And that's why is that bullshit?


Aliens, Simpsons, satire (46:27)

Because what you're doing is being caught up in the salience of things independent from whether or not that salience is tracking reality. Is it independent or is it loosely connected? Because it's not so obvious to me when I see happy people at a bar that I don't in part believe that well, my experience has been maybe different. Logically, I can understand, but maybe there is a bar out there where it's all happy people dancing. In fact, most of the bars I go to these days in Texas, there's lots of happy people. I think you can, I mean, there's probably variation, although I think it's very, the true seeking in there. Let's say the intent is at least to try and shut off your truth seeking. It might not completely succeed, but that's the intent. At times it can completely succeed because I can give you pretty much gibberish and you ever let it will motivate your behavior. There's an episode from the classic Simpsons, not the modern Simpsons, the classic Simpsons, where there's aliens and they're running for office in the United States. I'm a Canadian, so this doesn't quite work for me, and this speech goes like this. My fellow Americans, when I was young, I dreamt of being a baseball, but we must move forward, not backward, upward, not forward, twirling, twirling towards freedom. People go, "There's a rush. There's nothing there." And yet it's great satire because a lot of political speech is exactly like that. There's nothing there. I'm not saying all political speech, I said a lot. There's a fundamental difference between it and the soul there, so I remember that episode. There's a fundamental difference between that absurd, non-secular speech and political speech because one of the things is political speech is grounded in some sense of truth. If that requires you talking about alternative facts and weird, self-destructive oxymoronic phrases, isn't that approaching pure bullshit? No, I think pure bullshit, like the vacuum, is very difficult to get to, but I get the point.


What is truth (48:51)

So what exactly is truth? Is it possible to know? I think Spinoza is right about truth, that truth is only known by its own standard, which sounds circular. There's a way in which he didn't mean that circularly, and I think this is also converges with Plato. These are two huge influences on me. I think we only know the truth retrospectively when we go through some process of self-transcendence. When we move from a frame to a more encompassing frame so that we can see the limitations and the distortions of the earlier frame. You have this when you have a moment of insight. Insight is you doing, you are re-realizing what is relevant. You go, "Oh, oh, I thought she was aggressive and angry. She's actually really afraid. I was misframing this." When you change what you find relevant, you have those aha moments. So do you think it's possible to get a sense of objective reality? So is it possible to get to the ground level of what something that you can call objective truth? Or is it, "Are we always on shaky ground?" I think those moments of transcendence can never get us to an absolute view from nowhere. And so this is Drew Heiland's notion of finite transcendence. We are capable of self-transcendence. And therefore we are creatures who can actually raise the question of truth or goodness or beauty because I think they all share this feature. But that doesn't mean we can transcend to a godhood, to some absolute view from nowhere that takes in all information and organizes it in a comprehensive whole. But that doesn't mean that truth is thereby rendered valueless.


The Objectivist Center (51:10)

I think a better term is real. And real and illusory are comparative terms. You only know that something's an illusion by taking something else to be real. And so we are always in a comparative task. But that doesn't mean that we can somehow jump outside of our framing in some final manner and say, "This is how it is from a God's eye point of view." So what do you think if I may ask of somebody like I'm Rand and her philosophy of objectivism? So where the core principles that reality exists independently of consciousness and that human beings have direct contact with reality through sense perception. So they have that you do have that ability to know reality. There's two things. Knowing that there's an independent reality is not knowing that independent reality. Those are not the same thing. Yeah, but I think objectivism would probably say that our human reason is able to have contact with that. That I would respond and say, "I believe in fact ultimately in a conformity theory of knowing that the deepest kind of knowing is when there's a contact, a conformity between the mind, when the embodied mind and reality." And here's where I guess I'd push back on Rand. I would say you have to acknowledge partial knowledge as real knowledge because if you don't, you're going to fall prey to Minos paradox. Minos paradox is this in Plato, right? To know P. Well, if I don't know P, I'm going to go looking for it. But if I don't know P, how could I possibly recognize it when I found it?


Minos paradox (53:04)

I have no way of recognizing it. I have no way of knowing that I've found it. So I must know P, but if I know P, then I don't need to learn about it. I don't need to go searching. So learning doesn't exist. Knowledge is impossible. The way you break out of that paradox is saying, "No, no, no. It is possible to partially know something. I can know it enough that it will guide me to recognizing it, but that's not the same as having a complete grasp of it because I still have to search and find what I don't yet possess in my knowledge." So partial knowledge has to be real knowledge. Right. Partial knowledge is still knowledge. Yes. What do you think about somebody like Donald Hoffman who thinks the reality is an illusion? So complete illusion. We're given this actually really nice definition or idea that you talked about that there's a tension between the illusory and what is real. He says that basically we've taken that and we ran with the real to the point where the real is not at all connected to some kind of physical reality. I hope to talk to him at some point. We were supposed to talk at one point. And so I have to talk in his absence.


Have we made some of our deep questions of life meaningless? (54:25)

I think that first of all, I think saying that everything in his illusion is like saying everything is tall. It doesn't make any sense. It's a comparative term. Something you have to say against this standard of realness, this is an illusion. And he uses arguments from evolution, which are problematic to me because it's like, well, you seem to be saying that evolution is true, that it really exists. And then some of our cognition and a perception has access to reality, math and presumably some science has access to reality. And then what he seems to be saying is, well, a lot of your everyday experience is illusory. But we do have some contact with reality whereby we can make the arguments as to why most of your experience, most of your everyday experience is an illusion. But to me, that's not a novel thing. That's Descartes. That's the idea that most of our sense experience is untrustworthy, but the math is what connects us to reality. That's how he interpreted the Copernican Revolution. Oh, look, we're all seeing the sun rise and move over and set and it's all an illusion. But the math gets us to the reality. Well, I think he makes a deeper point that most of cognition is just evolved and operates in the illusory world. How does he know that things like cognition and evolution exist? I think there's an important distinction between evolution and cognition. Right? No, no, I'm just saying that's not the point I'm making. I'm making a point that he's claiming that there are two things that really exist. Why are they privileged? He basically says that, look, the process of evolution makes sense. Yes. Right? Like it makes sense that you get complex organisms from simple organisms through the natural selection process. Here's how you get to transfer information from generation to generation. It makes sense. And then he says that there's no requirement for the cognition to evolve in a way that it would actually perceive and have direct contact with the physical reality. Except that cognition evolved in such a way that it could perceive the truth of evolution. And you can't treat evolution like an isolated thing. Evolution depends on Darwinian theory, genetics. It depends on understanding plate tectonics, the way the environment changes. It depends on how chromosomes are structured. Actually, that's an interesting question to him where I don't know if he actually would push back on this, is how do you know evolution is real? Yes. I think he would be open to the idea that it is part of the illusion that we constructed. That there's some, it's in some sense it is connected to reality, but we don't have a clear picture of it. I mean, that's an intellectually honest statement then. If most of our cognition as thinking beings is operating at every level in an illusory world, then it makes sense that this one of the main theories of science that evolution is also a complete part of the illusory world. Right. But then what happens to the premise for his argument leading to the conclusion that cognition is illusory? I think he makes a very specific argument about evolution as an explanation of why the world is of our cognition operating in the illusory world.


Romanticism Versus The Truth

Privileged Access (58:05)

But that's just one of the explanations. I think the deeper question is why do we think we have contact with reality, with physical reality? We could be very well living in a virtual world constructed by our minds in a way that makes that world deeply interesting in some ways, whether it's somebody playing a video game or we're trying to through the process of distributed cognition construct more and more complex objects. Why does it have to be connected to physics and planets and all that kind of stuff? Okay. So if we're going to say, we're now considering it as a possibility rather than it's a conclusion based on arguments. Because the arguments again will always rely on stipulating that there is something that is known. These are the features of cognition. Cognition is capable of illusion. That's a true statement. You're somehow in contact with the mind. Why does the mind have this privileged contact and other aspects like my body do not?


The Illusion of the Sims (59:21)

So that's, but let's put that aside and now let's just consider it. Now when we put it that way, it's not an epistemic question anymore. It's an existential question. And here's my reply to you. Those two possibilities either the illusion is one that I cannot discover sort of, you know, the matrix on steroids or something. There's no way, no matter what I do, I can't find out that it's an illusion or it's an illusion, but I can find out that it's an illusion. Those are the two possibilities. Nothing changes for me if those are the two possibilities because if I could not find, possibly find out it is irrational for me to pay any attention to that possibility. So I could keep doing the sciences. I'm doing it. If there's a way of finding out sciences, my best bet, I believe for finding out if it's what's true and what's an illusion. So I keep doing what I'm doing. So it's an argument.


Getting close to the truth (01:00:23)

If you move it to that, that makes no existential difference to me. Oh man, that is such a deeply philosophical argument. No, no, no, no, no. Nobody's saying science doesn't work. It's an interesting question just like before humans were able to fly, they would ask a question. Can we build a machine that makes us fly in that same way we're asking a question to which we don't know an answer, but we may know in the future how much of this whole thing is an illusion. And I think in a second category, the first category, I forgot which one, yes, science will be able to help us discover this. Otherwise, yes, for sure, it doesn't matter. If we're living in a simulation, we can't find out at all, then it doesn't matter. But yes, the whole point is as we get deeper and deeper understanding of our mind of cognition, we might be able to discover like how much of this is a big charade constructed by our mind to keep us fed or something like that. Some weird, some weird, very simplistic explanation that will ultimately in its simplicity be beautiful. Or as we tried to build robots and instill them, instill them with consciousness, with ability to feel those kinds of things. We'll discover, well, let's just trick them into thinking they feel and have consciousness and they'll believe it. And then they'll have a deeply fulfilling and meaningful lives. And on top of that, they will interact with us in a way they'll make our lives more meaningful. And then all of a sudden, it's like at the Antivulnerable Farm, you look at pigs and humans, you look at robots and humans, you can't tell the difference between either. And in that way, start to understand that much of this existence could be an illusion. Okay, well, I have two responses to that. First is the progress that's being made on AGI is about making whatever the system is that's going to be the source of intelligent more and more dynamically and recursively self-correcting. That's part of what's happening. Extrapolating from that, you get a system that gets better and better at self-correcting. But that's exactly what I was describing before as the transformative theory of truth. The other response to that is people think of science just as sort of end proposition. Let me just use the evolution example again. I need, if I'm gathering the evidence, I need to know a lot of geology, I need to know plate tectonics, I need to know about radioactive decay, I need to know about genetics. And then in order to measure all those things, I need to know how microscrobes work. I need to know how pencils and paperwork. I need to know how rulers work. I need to know how English, you can't isolate knowledge that way. And if you say, well, most of that's an illusion, then you're in a weird position of saying somehow all of these illusions get to this truth claim. I think it goes in reverse. If you think this is the truth claim, the measuring and all the things that scientists were due to gather on all the ways the theories are converging together, that also has to be fundamentally right. Because it's not like Lego. It is an interwoven whole. Yes. It definitely is interwoven, but I love how I played that I'm playing the double advocate for the illusion world. But there's a consistent, I mean, there's an aspect to truth that has to be consistent, deeply consistent across an entire system. But inside a video game, that's some kind of, that's some same kind of consistency evolves. There's rules about interactions and game theoretic patterns about what's good and bad and so on. And there's sources of joy and fear and anger and understanding about a world what happens in different dynamics of a video game, even simple video games. So there's no, even inside an illusion, you could have consistency and develop truths inside that illusion and iteratively evolve your truth with the illusion. Okay. But that comes back. Does that process genuinely self correcting or are you in the simulation in which there is no possible doorway out? Because if my argument is, if you find one or two doorways, that feeds back. In fact, you can't just say, this is the little tiny island where we have the truth. That's the point I'm making. Right. But what if you find that I think there is doorways, if that's the case and what if you find a doorway and you step out, but you're yet in another simulation. I mean, that's the point. That's so self correcting. When you fix the self deception, you don't know if there's other bigger self-deceptions you're operating on. Of course, in one sense, that's right. But again, we're back to when I step into the second simulation, is it, can I get the doorway out of that? Or right? Because if you just make the infinite regress of simulations, you've basically said I have a simulation that I can never get out of. Yeah. So it's always a bigger pile of bullshit is the claim I'm trying to make here. Okay. Let me dance around meaning once more. I often ask people on this podcast or at a bar or to imaginary people I talk to in a room when I'm all by myself, the question of the meaning of life. Do you think this is a useful question?


The meaning of life: existential grips (01:06:22)

You drew a line between meaning in life and meaning of life. Do you think this is a useful question? No, I think it's like the question, what's north of the North Pole or what time is it on the sun? It sounds like a question, but it's actually not really a question because it has a presupposition in it that I think is fundamentally flawed. If I understand what people mean by it, and it's actually often not that clear, but when they talk about the meaning of life, they are talking about there are some feature of the universe in and of itself that I have to discover and enter into a relationship with. And there's in that sense a plan for me or something. And so that's a property of the universe. That's a very deep, serious metaphysical ontological claim. You're claiming to know something fundamental about the structure really. There were times when people thought they had a worldview that legitimated it, like God is running the universe and therefore, and God cares about you and there's a plan, etc. But I think a better way of understanding meaning is not, meaning is like the graspability. Remember I talked about optimal grip? It's like the graspability of that cup. Is that in me? No. Is it in the cup? No, because the fly can't grasp it. Well, graspability is in my hand. Well, I can't grasp Africa. No, no. There is a real relation fittedness between me in this cup. Same thing with the adaptivity of an organism. Is the adaptivity of a great white shark in the great white shark? Drop it in the Sahara. It dies. Okay. Meaning isn't in me. I think that's romantic bullshit. And it isn't in the universe. It is a proper relationship. I've coined the phrase transjective. It is the binding relationship between the subjective and the objective. And therefore, when you're asking the question about the meaning of life, you are, I think, misrepresenting the nature of meaning. Just like when you ask what time is it on the sun, you're misrepresenting how we derive clock time. At the risk of disagreeing with a man who did 50 lectures on the meaning crisis, let me heart disagree. But I think we probably agree, but it's just like a dance, like any dialogue. I think meaning of life gets at the same kind of relationship between you and the glass of water, between whatever the forces of the universe that created the planets, the proteins, the multi-cell organisms, the intelligent early humans, the beautiful human civilizations and the technologies that will overtake them. It's trying to understand the relevance, realization of the Big Bang to the feeling of love you have for another human being.


Romantic BS (01:09:26)

It's reaching for that, even though it's hopeless to understand. The asking of the question is the reaching. Now it is, in fact, romantic bullshit, technically speaking. But it could be that romantic bullshit is actually the essence of life and the source of its deepest meaning. Well, I hope not. But technically speaking, romantic bullshit, meaning romantic. In the philosophical sense, yes. I mean, what is poetry? What is music? What is the magic you feel when you hear a beautiful piece of music? What is that? Oh, but that's exactly to my point. Is music inside you or is it outside you? It's both and neither. And that's precisely why you find it so meaningful. In fact, it can be so meaningful you can regard it as sacred. What you said, I don't think, and you prefaced that we might not be in disagreement, what you said is, no, no, no, there is a way in which reality is realizing itself. And I want my relevance realization to be in the best possible relationship that, the sort of meta-optimal grip to what is most real. I totally agree. I totally think that's one of the things I said this earlier. One of our meta-desires is whatever is satisfying our desires is also real. I do this with my students. I'll say, you know, because romantic relationships sort of take the role of God and religion and history and culture for us right now. We put everything on them and that's why they break. But right? Strong words. Yeah, got it. But I'll say to them, okay. How many of you are in really satisfying romantic relationships to put up your hands? Then I'll say, okay, I'm now only talking to these people, of those people, how many of you would want to know your partner's cheating on you even if it means the destruction of the relationship? 95% of them put up their hands. And I say, but why? And here's my students who are usually all sort of bitten with cynicism and postmodernism and they'll just say spontaneously, well, because it's not real. Because it's not real. Right? So I think what you're pointing to is actually, you're pointing not to an objective or a subjective thing. Romanticism says it's subjective. There's some sort of, I guess, like, positivism or Lockean empiricism says it's objective. But you're saying, no, no, no. There's reality realization. And can I get relevance realization to be optimally gripping in the best right relationship with it? And there's good reason you can because think about it. Your relevance realization isn't just representing properties of the world. It's instantiating it.


Romanticism vs. the truth (01:12:38)

There's something very similar to biological evolution, which is that the guts of life, if I'm right, running your cognition is not just that you all have ideas. You actually instantiate. That's what I mean by conformity. The same principles. They're within and without. They don't belong to you subjectively. They're not just out there. They're both at the same time. And they help to explain how you are actually bound to the evolutionary world. Yeah. So it comes from both inside and from the outside. But there's still the question of the meaning of life. First of all, the big benefit of that question is that it shakes you out of your hamster in a wheel that is daily life, the mundane process of daily life, where you have a schedule, you wake up, you have kids, you have to take them to school. And you go to work and repeat over and over and over and over. And then you get increased salary and then you upgrade the home and that whole process. Meaning asking about the meaning of life is so full of romantic bullshit that if you take it, if you just allow yourself to take it seriously for a second, it forces you to pause and think like what's going on here. And then it ultimately, I think does return to the question of meaning in those mundane things. What gives my life joy? What gives it lasting deliciousness? Where do I notice the magic and how can I have that magic return again and again? Beauty. And that ultimately what it returns to.


The Modern Meaning Crisis And Knowledge Dynamics

The Nature of Meaning Crisis in Modern Times (01:14:20)

But it's the same thing you do when you look up to the sky. You spend most of your day hurrying around looking at things on the surface. But when you look up to the sky and you see the stars, it fills you with the feeling of awe that forces you to pause and think in full context of like what the hell is going on here. But also I think there is a, when you think too much about the meaning of a glass and relevance realization of a glass, you don't necessarily get at the core of what makes music beautiful. So sometimes you have to start at the biggest picture first. And I think meaning of life forces you to really go to the big bang and go to the universe and the whole thing, the origin of life. And I think sometimes you have to start there to discover the meaning in the day to day, I think. But perhaps you would disagree. insofar as the question makes you ask about the whole of your life and how much meaning is in the whole of your life. And insofar as it asks how much that is connected to reality, it's a good question. But it's a bad question in that it also makes you look for the answers in the wrong way. Now you said, and I agree with what you said, how we really answer this question is we come back to the meaning in life and we see how much that meaning in life is connected to reality. We pursue wisdom. And so for me, I don't need that question in order to provoke me into that stance. So let's return to the meaning crisis. Yes. What is the nature of the meaning crisis in modern times? What's its origin? What's its explanation? Well, remember what I said, what I argued that the very processes that make us adaptively intelligent subject us to perennial problems of self-deception, self-destruction, creating bullshit for ourselves, for other people, all of that. And that can cause anxiety, existential anxiety, it can cause despair, it can cause a sense of absurdity. These are perennial problems. And across cultures and across historical periods, human beings have come up with ecologies of practices. There's no one practice, there's no panacea practice. They come up with ecologies of practices for ameliorating that self-deception and enhancing that fittedness, that connectedness that's at the core of meaning in life. That's prototypically what we call wisdom.


Wisdom and Ways of Knowing (01:17:09)

And here's how I can show you one clear instance of the meaning crisis is it's a wisdom famine. I can, I do this regularly with my students. In the classroom, I'll say, where do you go for information? They hold up their phone. Where do you go for knowledge? They're a little bit slower and probably because they're in my class, they'll say, well, science, the university. I'll say, where do you go for wisdom? There's a silence. Wisdom isn't optional. That's why it is perennial, cross-cultural, cross-historical, because of the perennial problems. We do not have homes for ecologies of practices that fit into our scientific technological worldview so that they are considered legitimate. The fastest growing demographic group are the nuns, NO NES's. They have no religious allegiance, but they are not primarily atheistic. They most frequently describe themselves with this very, this has become almost everybody now described. I'm spiritual, but not religious. Which means they are trying to find a way of reducing the bullshit and enhancing the connectedness, but they don't want to turn to any of the legacy established religions by and large. Well, isn't both religion and the nuns, isn't wisdom a process, not a destination? So trying to find if you're deeply faithful religious person, you're also trying to find. Just because you have a place where you're looking, or a set of traditions around which you're constructing the search, it's nevertheless a search. I guess, is there a case to be made that this is just the usual human condition? How do you answer if you asked five centuries ago, where do you look for wisdom? I mean, I suppose people would be more inclined to answer while the Bible or a religious text. Right, and they had a worldview that was considered not just religious, but also rational. So we now have these two things orthogonal or often oppositional spirituality and rationality. But if you go before a particular historical period, you look back in the Neoplatonic tradition like before the scientific revolution, those two are not in opposition. They are deeply interwoven so that you can have a sense of legitimacy and deep realness and grounding in your practices. We don't have that anymore. And I'm not advocating for religion. Neither am I an enemy of religion. I'll strengthen your case, by the way. So one of my RAs did research and you get people who have committed themselves to cultivating wisdom and you can look at people within religious traditions and people who are doing it in a purely secular framework. By many of the measures we use to study wisdom scientifically, the people in the religious paths do better than the secular. But here's the important point. There's no significant difference between the religious paths. So it's not like if you're following the path of Judaism, you're more likely to end up wiser than if you follow Buddhism. By the way, I don't know if that's my case. I was making the case that you don't need to have a religious affiliation to search for wisdom. It's that I thought along to the point you just made, that it doesn't matter which religious affiliation or none. But that's what I'm saying. Okay. So this is the tricky thing we're in. It does matter if you're in one, but it doesn't matter sort of the propositional creeds of that. There's something else at work. There's a, if you allow me this, there's a functionality to religion that we lost when we rejected all the propositional dogma. But there's a functionality there that we don't know how to recreate. Yeah. What is that? Can you try to speak to that? What is that functionality? What is that? Why is that so useful? A bunch of stories, a bunch of myths, a bunch of narratives. I happen to see it. I don't think that I drenched in like deep lessons about morality and all those kinds of things. What is the, what's the, what's the functional thing there that can't be replaced without a religious text by a non-religious text? This is for me the golden question. So thank you. Do you have an answer? Yeah. I have, I think I have a significant answer.


Another Way of Knowing (01:21:58)

I don't think it's complete, but I think it's important. And this is to step before the Cartesian revolution and think about many different kinds of knowing. And this is now something that is prominent within what's called for e-cognitive science, the kind of cognitive science I practice. And there's a lot of converging evidence for, okay, these different ways of knowing. There's propositional knowing. This is what we are most familiar with. In fact, it's almost, it's almost has a tyrannical status, right? So this is knowing that something is the case, like the cats are mammals and it's stored in semantic memory. And we have tests of coherence and correspondence and conviction, right? There's procedural knowing. This is knowing how to do something. This is skills are not theories. They're not beliefs. They're not true or false. They engage the world or they don't. And they are stored in a different kind of memory, procedural memory. Semantic memory can be damaged without any damage to procedural memory. That's why you have the prototypical story of somebody suffering Alzheimer's and they're losing all kinds of facts, but they can still sit down and play the piano flawlessly. Same kind of argument. There's perspectival knowing. This is knowing what it's like to be you here now in this situation, in this state of mind, the whole field of your salient landscaping. What it's like to be you here now and you have a specific kind of memory around that, episodic memory and you have a different sense. You have a different criterion of realness. So you can get this by, well, my friend, Dan Chappie and I, we studied the scientists using moving the rovers around or you can take a look at people who are doing VR. People talk about, you know, they want to really be in the game. That makes it real. They don't mean verisimilitude. You can get that sense of being in the game with something like Tetris, which doesn't look like the real world and you can fail to have it in a video game that has a lot of verisimilitude. It's something else. It's about, again, this kind of connectedness that we're talking about. If I may interrupt, is that connected to the hard problem of consciousness, the subject, the qualia or is that different? That kind of knowing is that different from the qualia of consciousness? I think it has to do with, well, I make a distinction between the adjectival and the adverbial qualia. So I think it has to do with the adverbial qualia much more with the, with, the adjectival. So the adjectival qualia are like the greenness of green and the blueness of blue. The adverbial qualia are the hearness, the nounness, the togetherness. Yeah. And I think the perspectival knowing has a lot to do with the adverbial qualia. Adjectival qualia and adverbial qualia. I'm learning so many new things today. Okay. So that's another way of knowing. Right. The perspectival. And then there's a deeper one. And this is a philosophical point. I don't want to, we can go through the argument, but you don't have to know that you know in order to know because if you start doing that, you get an infinite regress. There has to be kinds of knowing that doesn't mean you know that you know that. Yeah. Okay. Of course. Okay. Great. Okay. So a lot of ink spilled over that over a 40 year period. So five philosophers, they spill this is what they do. They link. Yeah.


Participatory knowledge (01:25:24)

But I want to talk about what I call participatory knowing. This is the idea that you and the world are co participating in things and such that real affordances exist between you. So both me and this environment are shaped by gravity. So the affordance of walking becomes available to me. Both me and a lot of this environment are shaped by my biology. And so affordances for that are here. Look at this cup shared physics, shared sort of biological factors in my hand. I'm bipedal. Yeah. Also culture is shaping me and shaping this. I had to learn how to use that and treat it as a cup. So this is an agent arena relationship, right? Those identities being created in your agency, identities being created in the world as an arena. So you and the world fit together. You know when that's missing when you're really lonely or you're homesick or you're such suffering culture shock. So this is participatory knowing and it's the sense of it comes with a sense of belonging. At every level. So the ability to walk is a kind of knowing. Yes. That there's a dance between the physics that enables this process and just participating in the process is the act of knowing. Right. And there's a really weird form of memory you have for this kind of knowing. It's called yourself. What can you elaborate? Well, so we talked about how all the different, how all the different, other kinds of knowing had specific kinds of memory, semantic memory for propositional procedural, right? Apostolic for perspective. What do you, what's the kind of memory that is the coordinated storehouse of all of your agent arena relationships, all the roles you can take, all the identities you can assume, all the identities you can sign. Yeah. What's the self? Do you mean like consciousness or like? I mean your sense of self. Sense of self in this world. That's not consciousness. That's a, like an agency or something. Right. It's an agent arena relationship. And so in an agent arena relationship is the sense of the agent. Okay. And, and that the agent belongs in that arena. Whatever the agent is, whatever the arena is, because this is probably a bunch of different framings of how you experience that. Yeah. And you, and you do, you have all, within your identity as a self, you have all kinds of roles that are somehow contributing to that identity, but are not equivalent to that identity. Yeah. I wonder if like my two hands have different, because there's a different experience to me picking up something on my right hand and then my left hand. So are those like, that's a really cool question, Lux. I think certainly feel like their own things. And, but that could be just anthropomorphization based on cultural narratives and so on. It could. But I think it's a legitimate empirical question, because it also could be sort of Ian Milgeau Christ stuff. It could be you're using different hemispheres and they sort of have different agent and arena relationships to the environment. This is a really important question in the cognitive science of the self. Does that, does that hemispheric difference mean you're multiple or you actually have a singular self? Oh, so it's important to understand how many cells are there. Yes, I think so. But that's, that's just like a quark of evolution. It's not, it surely can be fundamental to cognition, having multiple cells or a singular self. It depends again, because we're getting far from the answer to the question you originally asked me. Do we want you want to go back to that first or answer that's which question I already forgot everything. What's the functionality of religion? Yes. Okay. That's for turn. Okay. And then we can return to the self. Okay.


Religion as a dynamic system (01:29:34)

So you said, you know, you have all these propositions and et cetera, et cetera. And they differ from the religions and they're not, they don't seem to be considered legitimate by many people. But yet there's something functioning in the religions that is transforming people and making them wiser. And I put it to you that the transformations are largely occurring at those non-propositional levels. The procedural, the perspectival and the participatory. And those are the ones, by the way, that are more fundamentally connected to meaning making. Because remember, the propositions are representational and they're dependent on the non-propositional, non-representational processes of connectedness and relevance realization. So religion goes down deep to the non-propositional and works there. That's the functionality we need to grasp. Well, you talk about tools, essentially, that humans are able to incorporate into their cognition, psychotechnologies, like languages one, I suppose. Isn't religion then a psychotechnology? It would be a, yeah, an ecology of psychotechnologies, yes. And the question is that Nietzsche ruined everything by saying God is dead. Do we have to invent the new thing? Go from the old phone, create the iPhone, invent the new psychotechnology that takes place of religion. And so when the madman in Nietzsche's text goes into the marketplace, who's he talking to? He's not talking to the believers. He's talking to the atheists. And he says, do you not realize what we have done? We have taken a sponge and wiped away the sky. We are now forever falling. We are unchained from the sun. We have to become worthy of this.


Rejecting the Proposition, Nietzsche, Homer (01:31:20)

Yeah. What Nietzsche is full of romantic bullshit as well. No, no, no, but there's a point there. Yes. There is one thing to rejecting the proposition. There's another project of replacing the functionality that we lost when we reject the religion. So his worry that is nihilism takes hold. You don't ever replace the thing, that religion, the role that religion played in our world. Maybe it's hard to tell what he actually, because he's so multi-vocal. I'll speak for me, rather than for Nietzsche. I think it is possible to using the best cognitive science and respectfully, exacting what we can for the best religion and philosophical traditions, because there's things like stoicism that are in the gray line between philosophy and religion. Buddhism is the same. Doing that best cockside, that best exhaptation, we can come up with that functionality without having to buy into the particular propositional sets of the legacy religions. That's my proposal. I call that the religion that's not a religion. So things like stoicism or modern stoicism, don't you think in some sense they naturally emerge? Don't you think there's a longing for meaning? So stoicism arises during the Hellenistic period when there was a significant meaning crisis in the ancient world because of what had happened after the breakup of Alexander the Great's Empire. So if you compare Aristotle to people who are living after Alexander. So Aristotle grows up in a place where everybody speaks the same language, has the same religion, his ancestors have been there for years, he knows everybody. After Alexander the Great's Empire has broken up, people are now thousands of miles away from the government. They're surrounded by people because of the Desporas, the diasporas I should say. They're surrounded by people that don't speak their language, don't share their religion. That's why you get all these mother religions emerging, universal mother religions like ISIS, etc. So there is what's called domicite. There's the killing of home. There's a loss of a sense of home and belonging and fittedness during the Hellenistic period and stoicism arose specifically to address that. And because it was designed to address a meaning crisis, it is no coincidence that it is coming back into prominence right now. Well there could be a lot of other variations. Oh totally. It feels like I think when you speak of the meaning crisis, you're in part describing, not prescribing, you're describing something that is happening, but I would venture to say that if we just leave things be, the meaning crisis dissipates because we long to create institutions, to create collective ideas. So this distributed cognition process that gives us meaning.


Creating Meaning In A Seemingly Meaningless World

Agents of change (01:34:18)

So if religion loses power, we'll find other institutions that are sources of meaning. I don't. Is that your intuition as well? I think we are already doing that. I do, I'm involved with and do participant observation of many of these emerging communities that are creating a colleges of practice that are specifically about trying to address the meaning crisis. I just, in late July, went to Washington State and did Ralph Kelly's Evolve Move Play, returned to the source and wow, one of the most challenging things I've ever done. That guy is awesome by the way. I've gotten to interact with him a long, long time ago. He said to say hi to you by the way. Yeah, it's from another world. It feels like a different world because I interacted with him not directly, but so this is somebody that maybe you can speak to what he works on, but he makes movement and play. He encourages people to make that a part of their life. Like how you move about the world, whether that's as part of athletic endeavors or actually just like walking around a city. And I think the reason I ran into him is because there was a lot of interest in that in the athletic world, in the grappling world, in the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu world, people who study movement, who make movement part of their lives to see how can we integrate play and fun and just the basic humaneness that's natural to our movement. How do we integrate that into our daily practice? So, this is yet another way to find meaning. I think it's actually an exemplar of what I was talking about because what's going on with Rafe's integration of parkour in nature, right? And martial arts and mindfulness practices and dialogical practices is exactly, and explicitly so by the way, he will tell you he's been very influenced by my work. He's trying to get at the non-propositional kinds of knowing that make meaning by evolving our sensory motor loop and enhancing our relevance realization because that gives people profound improved sense of connectedness to themselves, to each other and the world. And I'll tell you, Lex, I don't want to say too specifically the final thing that people did because it's part of his secret sauce, right? But what I can say is when it was done, I said to them all, I said, "As far as I can tell, none of you are religious," right? And they go, "Yeah, yeah." But what you just did was a religious act, wasn't it? And they all went, "Yeah, it was." Yeah. So, that same magic was there. Yes. So, Bathumbrecht, what's your take on atheism in general? Is a closer truth than a, maybe is an atheist closer truth than a person who believes in God?


Sam Harris and Bathumbrecht: Can we create meaning in an increasingly meaningless World? (01:37:38)

So I'm an on-theist, which means I think the shared set of presuppositions between the theist and the atheist are actually what needs to be rejected. Can you explain that further? Yes, I can. And I want to point out, by the way, that there are lots of non-theistic religious traditions. So I'm not coming up with a sort of airy-fairy category. Yeah, and what's the difference in non-theism, agnosticism, and atheism? So non-theist think that the theist and the atheist share a bunch of presuppositions. For example, it's that sacredness is to be understood in terms of a personal being that is in some sense the supreme being, and that the right relationship to that being is to have a correct set of beliefs. I reject all of those claims. So both the theists and the atheists? In their modern version, yes. In which do you reject it in the sense that you don't know, or do you reject it in the sense that you believe that each one of those presuppositions is likely to be not true? Which one is the most troublesome to you? The personal being, the kind of accumulation of everything into one being that ultimately created stuff? So for me, there's two, and they're interlocked together. I'm not trying to dodge a question. It's that the idea that the ground of being is some kind of being, I think, is a fundamental mistake. It's void of being? No, no, no, like the ground of being is some kind of being. No, no, no, no, the ground of being is not itself any kind of being. Being is not a being. It is the ability for things to be, which is not the same thing as a being. We are humans beings. We are beings. This glass is a being. This table is a being. But when I ask you, how are they all in being? You don't say by being a glass, or by being a table, or by being a human. You want to say, no, no, there's something underneath it all. And then you realize it can't be any thing. This is why many mystical traditions converge on the idea that the ground of being is no thingness, which is, you know, which you use normally pronounced as nothingness. But if you put the hyphen back in, you get the original intent, no thingness. And that is bound up with, okay, what I need to do in order to be in relationship with... So it's a misconstruing of ultimate reality as a supreme being, which is a category of mistake to my mind. And then that my relationship to it, that sacredness is a function of belief. And I have been presenting you an argument through most of our discussion that meaning is at a deeper level than beliefs and propositions. And so that is a misunderstanding of sacredness because I take sacredness to be that which is most meaningful and connected to what is most real. And theists think of what... Of sacredness is what? They think of sacredness as a property of a particular being, God, and that the way that is meaningful to them is by asserting a set of propositions or beliefs. Now, I want to point out that this is what I would now call modern or common theism. You go back into the classical periods of Christianity. You get a view that's really radically different from how most people understand theism today. Okay, so let me... This is an interesting question that I usually think about in the form of mathematics. But so in that case, if meaning is sacred in your non-theist view, is meaning created or is it discovered? There's a Latin word that doesn't separate them called inventio. And I would say that and before you say, "Oh, well, give me a chance," because you participate in it. You've experienced an insight, yes? Did you make it happen? The insight. Did you make it happen? Or did you do... Like, can you do that? I needed insight. This is what I do to make an insight. Oh, I see. Yeah, in some sense, it came from elsewhere. Right. But you didn't just passively receive it either. You're engaged and involved in it. That's why you get right? So that's what I mean by you participate in it. You participate in meaning. So you do think that is both? Yes. You do think it's both. I mean, that's not a trivial thing to understand. Because a lot of the time we think... When you think about a search for meaning, you think it's like you're going through a big house and you open each door and look if it's there and so on, as if there is going to be a glowing orb that you discover. But at the same time, I'm somebody that, based on the chemistry of my brain, have been extremely fortunate to be able to discover beauty in everything. In the most mundane and boring of things. I am, as David Foster Wallace said, "Unborrible." I could just sit in a room just like playing with the tennis ball or something and be excited. Basically, they could dog, I think, endlessly. So to me, meaning is created. Because I could create meaning out of everything. But of course, it doesn't require a partner, it does require dance partners, whatever... It does require the tennis ball.


Sin God? (01:44:13)

But honestly, that's what a lot of people that I don't necessarily... We'll talk about it. I don't practice meditation, but people who meditate very seriously, the entire days for months kind of thing. They talk about being able to discover meaning in just the wind or something. They just... The breath and everything, just subtle sensory experiences give you deep fulfillment. So that's, again, it's interaction between... Actually I do want to say because the interesting difference that you've drawn between non-theism and atheism, where's the agreement of disagreement between you and Jordan Peterson on this? I just talked to Jordan about this. Because you're very clear. It's kind of beautiful in the clarity in which you lay this out. I wonder if Jordan has arrived at a similar kind of clarity. Have you been able to draw any kind of lies between the way the two of you see religion? Yeah, so there was a video released, I think, like two or three weeks ago with Jordan and myself and Jonathan Peugeot. Oh, I haven't watched that one yet. And it's around this question, Lux. He's basically sort of making... He's putting together an argument for God. I mean, I think that's a fair way. I don't think he would object to me saying that. And Jonathan Peugeot is also a... Well, Jonathan is a Christian. It's unclear what Jordan is. And Jonathan's work is on symbolism and different mythologies and Christianity. Yeah, especially Neoplatonic Christianity, which is very important. I have a lot of respect for both of them, but I have a lot of respect for Jonathan. But in my participation in that dialogue, you can see me well repeatedly, but I think everybody, including Jordan, thought constructively challenging sort of the attempt to build a theistic model and I was challenging it from a non-theistic perspective. So I think we don't agree on certain sets of propositions, but there was also a lot of acknowledgement and I think genuine appreciation on his part and Jonathan's part of the arguments I was making. So they believe in maybe the presupposition of like a Supreme Being. Not believe, but they see the power of that particular presupposition in being a source of meaning. I think that's relatively clear for me with Jordan. It turns out really complex guys. So it's very hard to just like pin to my best sort of understanding. Yes, I think that's clearly the case for Jordan. It's not the case for Jonathan. Jonathan is... Remember I said I was talking about modern atheism and atheism? Jonathan is a guy who somehow went into icon carving and maximized the confessor and East Northadoxie and has come out of it the other end as a fifth century church father that is nevertheless being rightfully so found to be increasingly relevant to many people. So he's deeply old school? Yeah, I think he and I, especially because Neoplatonism is a non-theistic philosophical spirituality and it's a big part of Eastern Orthodoxy. He and I, I think he would say things like God doesn't exist.


What about myth? (01:47:50)

That's your Christian. And then he's being quite, but he'll say, well, God doesn't exist the way the cup exists or the table exists, the same kind of move I was making a few minutes ago. He'll say things like that. He will emphasize the no-thingness of ultimate reality, the no-thingness of God because he's from that version of Christianity, what you might call classical theism. The classical theism looks a lot more like non-theism than it looks like modern theism. That's so interesting. Yeah, that's really interesting. What about is there a line to be drawn between myth and religion in terms of its usefulness in man's search for meaning? So here's where Jordan and I are much more, actually all three of us are in significant agreement. I said this in my series, but I want to say it again here. Mists aren't stories about things that happened in the deep past that are largely irrelevant. Mists are stories about perennial or pertinent patterns that need to be brought into awareness. And they need to be brought into an awareness not just or primarily at the propositional level, but at those non-propositional levels. And I think that is what good mythos does.


Extended Cognition. (01:49:17)

I prefer to use the Greek word because we've now turned the English word into a synonym for a widely believed falsehood. And I don't think, again, if you go back even to the church fathers, I'm not a Christian, I'm not advocating for Christianity. But neither am I here to attack it.


The Gap Between the Meaning Sent And The Actual Text (01:49:36)

But when they talk about reading these stories, they think the literal interpretation is the weakest and the least important. You move to the allegorical or the symbolic, to the moral, to the spiritual, the mystical, and that's where. So they would say to you, "But how is the story of Adam and Eve true for you now?" And they don't mean true for you in that relativistic sense. I mean, how is it pointing to a pattern in your life right now? So there is some sense in which the telling of the mythos becomes real in connecting to the patterns that kind of captivate the public today. Sure. So you just keep telling the story.


Mindfulness And Its Development

The myths and flow states Roman and Christian Myths (01:50:26)

I mean, there's something about some of these stories that are just really good at being sticky to the patterns of each generation. Yes. And they'll stick to different patterns throughout time. They're just sticky in powerful ways. Yes. And so we keep returning back to them again and again and again. And it's important to see that some of these stories are recursive. They're myths about one particular set of patterns. They're myths about not just the important pattern. You get the Jordan stuff about there's heroes and myths are trying to make us understand the need for being heroic in our own lives. One of the things I'd like to put in counterbalance to that is the Greek also have myths of hubris. The counterbalance, the heroic. But then there are myths that are not about those deeply important patterns. But they're myths about religio itself that the way where religion means to bind to connect, the way relevance realization connects us. And so the point of the myth is not notice that pattern or notice that pattern and notice that pattern. It's notice how all of these patterns are emerging. And what does that say about us and reality? And those myths, I think are genuinely profound. And how much of the myths, how much of the power of those myths is about the dialogues. You talk about this quite a bit. I think in the first conversation with Jordan, you guys, I'm not sure you got really into it. You scratch the surface a little bit. But the role of, as you say, dialogue in distributed cognition. Yes. What is that? Right now, talking with our mouth holes. What is that? And actually, can I ask you this question? Yep. If aliens came to earth and were observing humans, would they notice our distributed cognition first or our individual cognition first? What is the most notable thing about us humans? Is it our ability to individually do well in IQ tests or whatever or puzzle solve or is it this thing we're doing together? I think most of our problem solving is done in distributed cognition. Look around. You didn't make this equipment. You didn't build this place. You didn't invent this language that we're both sharing, et cetera, et cetera. And now there's more specific and precise experimental evidence coming out. Let's take a standard task that people reasoning task. I wanted to do the details. It's called the waste and selection task. And you give it to people, highly educated psychology students, primary universities across the world. You've been, we've been doing it since the 60s. It's replicates and replicates. And only 10% of the people get it right. You put them in a group of four and you allow them to talk to each other. The success rate goes to 80%. That's just one example of a phenomenon that's coming to the fore. By the way, do you know if a similar experiment has been done on a group of engineering students or psychology students? Is there a major group difference in an IQ between those two? Just kidding. Let's move on. All right. So there is a lot of evidence that there's power to this distributed cognition. Now what about this mechanism, this fascinating mechanism of the ants interacting with each other, the dialogue? Yeah. I use the word discourse or dialogue for just people having a conversation. But and this is deeply inspired by Socrates and Plato, especially the platonic dialogues. And I'm sure we've all had this. And so give me a moment because I want to build on to something here. We've participated in conversations that took on a life of their own and took us both in directions we did not anticipate afforded us insights that we could not have had on our own. And we don't have to have come to an agreement, but we were both moved and we were both drawn into insight and we feel like, wow, that was one of the best moments of my life because we feel how that and introduced us to a capacity for tapping into a flow state with in distributed cognition that puts us into a deeper relationship with ourselves, with another person and potentially with the world. That's what I mean by deal logos. And so for me, I think deal logos is more important. Oh boy, I could just hear, I'm sorry, I can hear Jordan and Jonathan in my head right now. But I think it's more I hear them all the time. I just wish they would shut up in my head sometimes. So what are they saying to you in your head? What they're saying it well, see, that's what the most recent conversation was about. I was trying to say that I don't think mythos is, I think mythos is really important. I think these kinds of narratives are really important. But I think this ability to connect together in distributed cognition, collective intelligence and cultivate a shared flow state within that collective intelligence. So it starts to ramp up perhaps towards collective wisdom. I think that's more important because I think that's the basin within which the myths and the rituals are ultimately created and when they function. Like a myth is like a public dream. It depends on distributed cognition and it depends on people in acting it and getting into mutual flow states. So the highest form of dialogues of conversation is this flow state and that it forms the foundation for myth building. I think so. I think so. So that communitos that's Victor Turner's phrase and he specifically linked it to flow and I study flow scientifically that within distributed cognition as the home, as the generator of mythos and ritual and those are bound together as well. I think that's fundamentally correct. You know what's the cool thing here? Because I'm a huge fan of podcasts and audiobooks but podcasts in particular is relevant here is there's a third person in this room listening now. And they're also in the flow state.


Creating a vehicle and medium for distributed cognition (01:57:23)

Yes, yes. Like I'm close friends with a lot of podcasts. They don't know I exist. I just listen to them because I've been in so many flow states with them. I was like, yes, yes. Yes, this is good. But they don't know I exist but they are in conversation with me ultimately. And think of what that's doing. You've got like you've got dialogues and then you've got this meta dialogue like you're describing. And think about how things like podcasts and YouTube, they break down old boundaries between the private and the public, between writing and oral speech. So we have the dynamics of living oral speech but it has the permanency of writing. Like we're in the midst of creating a vehicle and a medium for distributed cognition that breaks down a lot of the categories by which we organized our cognition. I mean, because of the tools of YouTube and so on, just the network, the graph of how quickly the distributed cognition can spread is really powerful. And you just a huge amount of people have listened to your lectures. I listened to your lectures but I've experienced them at least in your style. There's something about your style. It felt like a conversation. It felt like at any moment I could interrupt you and say something. And I was just listening. Thank you for saying that because I aspire to being genuinely as socratic as I can when I'm doing this. Yeah, there was that sounds actually as I'm saying it now. Why was that? It didn't feel like sometimes lectures that kind of you came, you come down with the commandments and you just want to listen. But there was a sense like, I mean, I think it was the excitement that you have to understand. And also the fact that you were kind of, I think, thinking off the top of your head sometimes, there was a, you were interrupting yourself with thoughts. You're playing with thoughts. Like you're reasoning through things often. Like you had, you referenced a lot of books. So surely you were extremely well prepared and you're referencing a lot of ideas. But then you're also struggling in the way to present those ideas. Yes. And so the jazz, like the jazz and getting into the flow state. And, and trying to share in a participatory and perspectival fashion, the learning with the people rather than just pronouncing at them. Yes.


What is mindfulness? (01:59:50)

What's mindfulness? So published on that as well. And I practice, I've been practicing many forms of mindfulness and ecology of practices since 1991. So I both have practitioners knowledge and I also study it scientifically. I think, I'm pretty sure I was the first person to academically talk about mindfulness at the University of Toronto within a classroom setting, like lecturing on it. So this is a topic that a lot of people have recently become very interested in, think about. So from that, from the early days, how do you think about what it is? I've critiqued the sort of standard definitions being, you know, aware of the present moment without judgment, because I think they're, they're, they're flawed. And if you want to get into the detail of why we can, but this is how I want to explain it to you. And it also points to the fact of why you need an ecology of mindfulness practices. You shouldn't equate mindfulness with meditation. I think that's a primary mistake. When you say ecology, what do you mean, by the way, like, so lots of many different variants? No. So what I mean by ecology is exactly what you have in an ecology. You have a dynamical system in which there are chucks and balances on each other. And right. And I'll get to that with this about mindfulness. So I'll make that connection if you allow me. So we're always framing. We've been talking about that, right?


Awareness is the first fit (02:01:11)

And for those of you who are not on YouTube, this podcast, I wear glasses and I'm now sort of putting my, my, my, my fingers and thumb around the, the, the frames of my glasses. So this is my frame. And I, and my lens is right. And that frame, the frame holds a lens and I'm seeing through it in both senses, beyond and by means of it. So right now my glasses are transparent to me. I want to use that as a strong analogy for my mental framing. Okay. Now some, this is what you do in meditation, I would argue. You step back from looking through your frame and you look at it. I'm taking my glasses off right now and I'm looking at them. Why might I do that? To see if there's something in the lenses that is distorting, right, causing me to, right? Now, if I just did that, that could be helpful. But how do I know if I've actually corrected the change I made to my lenses? What do I need to do?


Mindfulness (02:02:09)

I need to put my glasses on and see if I can now see more clearly and deeply than I could before. Meditation is this stepping back and looking at. Contemplation is that looking through and there are different kinds of practices. The fact that we treat them as synonyms is a deep mistake. The word contemplation has temple in it in Latin, contemplatio means to look up to the sky. It's a translation of the Greek word theoria, which we get our word theory from. It's to look deeply into things. Meditation is more about having to do with reflecting upon, standing back and looking at. Mindfulness includes both. It includes your ability to break away from an inappropriate frame and the ability to make a new frame. That's what actually happens in insight. You have to both break an inappropriate frame and make, see, realize a new frame. This is why mindfulness enhances insight. Both ways, by the way, meditative practices and also contemplative practices. So mindfulness is frame awareness that can be appropriated in order to improve your capacities for insight and self-regulation. Now, I am inexperienced with meditation, the rigorous practice and the science of meditation. But I've talked to people who seriously as a science study psychedelics and they often talk about the really important thing is the integration back, so the contemplation step. It's not just the actual things you see on psychedelics or the actual journey of where your mind goes on psychedelics. It's also the integrating that into the new perspective that you take on life. Exactly. You're really nicely described. Meditation in that metaphor is the psychedelic journey to a different mind state and then contemplation is the return back to reality, how you integrate that into a new world view. And mindfulness is the whole process.


Steps to develop mindfulness (02:04:23)

Right. So if you just had contemplation, you could suffer from inflation and projective fantasy. If you just do meditation, you can suffer from withdrawal, spiritual bypassing, avoiding reality. They act, they need each other. You have to cycle between them. It's like when I talked about earlier, when I talked about the opponent processing within the autonomic nervous system or the opponent processing at work and attention. And that's what I mean by an ecology of practices. You need both. Neither one is a panacea. You need them in this opponent processing, acting as checks and balance on each other. Is there sort of practical advice you can give to people on how to meditate or how to be mindful in this full way? Yes.


Meditation And The Concept Of Flow

Should you meditate? (02:05:10)

I would tell them to do at least three things. And I was, I, I, I, I lucked into this. When I started meditation, I went down the street and there was a place that taught the past the meditation, meta contemplation and Tai Chi Quan for flow induction. And you should get, you should have a meditative practice. You should find a contemplative practice and you should find a moving mindfulness practice, especially one that is conducive to the flow state and practice them in an integrated fashion. Can you elaborate what those practices might look like? So generally speaking, meditative practice like a pastna. So what, what, what's the primary thing I look through rather than look at? It's my sensations. So what I'm going to do is I'm going to focus on my sensations rather than focusing on the world through my sensations. So I'm going to follow, for example, the sensations in this area of my, of my abdomen, where my, where my breathing is so I can feel as my abdomen is expanding, I can feel those sensations and then I can feel the sensations as it's contracting.


Contemplation. (02:06:11)

Now what will happen is my mind will leap back to try to look through and look at the world again. I'll start thinking about, I need to do my laundry or what was that noise? And so what do I do? I don't get involved with the content. I step back and label the process with an ING word, listening, imagining, planning, and then I return my attention to the breath and I have to return my attention in the correct way. Though part of your mind that jumps around in the Buddhist tradition, this is called your monkey mind. It's like a monkey leaping for branches and chattering. Right? If I was trying to train that monkey mind to stay or as Jack Cornfield said, train a puppy dog and you know, stay puppy dog. And if it goes and I get really angry, ah, ah, and I bring it back and I'm yelling at it, I'm going to train it to fight and fear me. But if I just indulge it, if I just feed its whims, oh, well look, the puppy dog went there. Oh, no, it's there. Puppy dog never learns to stay. What do I need to do? I have to neither fight it nor feed it. I have to have this centered attitude. I have to befriend it. So you, you step back and look at your sensations.


Good meditative practice (02:07:33)

You step back and look at your distracting processes. You return your attention to the breath and you do it with the right attitude. That's the core of a good meditative practice. Okay. Then what's a good contemplated practice? The contemplative practice is to try and meta, it's actually apropos because we talked about that participatory knowing the way you're situated in the world. So what, this is a long thing because there's different interpretations of meta and I go for what's called an existential interpretation over an emotional one. But so what I'm doing in meta, right, is I'm trying to become a, I'm trying to awaken in two ways. I'm trying to awaken to the fact that I am constantly assuming an identity and assigning an identity. So I'm looking at that. I'm trying to awaken to that. And then I'm trying to awake from the modal confusion that I can get into around that. And so I'm looking out onto the world and I'm trying to see you in a fundamentally different way that I have before. You know, like you go to the gym and you do bicep curls. Yeah, yes. Yes. Is it possible to reduce it to those things that, I mean, you don't need to speak to the specifics, but is there actual practice you can do or is it really personal? No, I teach people how to do the meta practice. I also teach them how to do a neoplatonic contemplated practice, how to do a stoic. One, another one you can do is the view from above, this is classic stoicism. I get you to imagine that you're in this room and then imagine that you're floating above the room, then above Austin, then above Texas, then above the United States, then the earth. And you like, and you have to really imagine it. Don't just think it, but really imagine. And then what you notice is as you're pulling out to a wider and wider, like contemplation of reality, your sense of self and what you find relevant and important also changes. No, for all of these, there is a specific step by step methodology. So you can, so like in that one, you could just literally imagine yourself floating farther and farther out. But you have to go through the steps. Yeah. Because the stepping matters. Because if you just jump, it doesn't work. Do you have any of the stuff online, by the way? I do because during COVID, I decided at the advice of a good friend to do a daily course. I taught meditating with John Vravakie. I did all the way through meditation, contemplation, even some of the movement practices. That's all there. It's all available. That was largely inspired by Buddhism and Taoism. And then I went into the Western tradition and went through things like Stoicism and Neoplatanism, cultivating wisdom with John Vravakie. That's all there, all free. On your website. Yeah. It's on my YouTube channel. On your YouTube channel. Okay. That's exciting. I mean, your meaning, meaning crisis lectures is just incredible. Everything around it, including the notes and the notes that people took. It's just created this tree of conversations. It's really, really, really well done. What about flow induction? You want to flow wisely. And first of all, you need to understand what flow is. Yeah. And then you need to confront a particular issue around a practical problem around flow. Let's go there because a lot of those words seem like synonyms to people sometimes. So the state of flow. What is it? All right. And he just died last year to accept my high. I admire him very much. We've exchanged a bunch of messages over the past few years. He wanted to do the podcast several times. Oh, that would have been wonderful. But he said he struggled with his health. Yeah. And I never knew in those situations, I deeply regret several cases like this.


Different sets of these flow conditions (02:11:33)

That I had with Conway that I should have pushed him on it. Because yeah, as you get later in life, the simple things become more difficult. But a voice, especially one that hasn't been really heard, is important to hear. I apologize. But no, I share that. I mean, I can tell you that within my area, he is important and he's famous in an academics. Yes. So the flow state, two important sets of conditions. And very often people only talk about one. And that's a little bit of a misrepresentation. So the flow state is in situations in which the demand of the situation is slightly beyond your skills. So you both have to apply all the skills you can with as much sort of attention and concentration as you possibly can. And you have to actually be stretching your skills. Now, in this circumstance, people report optimal experience, optimal in two ways, optimal in that this is one of the best experiences I've had in my life.


Closest thing to what youll experience when you find your (02:12:43)

It's distinct from pleasure. And yet it explains why people do very bizarre things like rock climbing, because it's a good flow induction. Right? But they also mean optimal in a second sense, my best performance. So it's both the best experience and the best performance. So, Chicksap Maha'i also talked about the information flow conditions you need, right, in order for there to be this state of flow. And then I'll talk about what it's like to be in flow in a sec. What you need is three things. You need the information that you're getting to be clear. It can't be ambiguous or vague. Think about a rock climber. It's ambiguous and vague. You're in trouble, right? There has to be tightly coupled feedback between what you do and how the environment responds. So when you act, there's an immediate response. There isn't a big time lag between your action and your ability to detect the response from the environment. Third, failure has to matter. Error really matters. So there should be some anxiety about failure. And failure matters. So that, like, yeah, because- Back to you, the person that persists. Yes, yes, yes. Now, when you're in the flow state, and notice how this sits on the boundary between the secular and the sacred. When you're in the flow state, people report a tremendous sense of at one minute with the environment. They report a loss of a particular kind of self-consciousness, that narrative, nattering nanny in your head that, "How do I look? Do people like me? How do I look? How's my hair? Do people like me? Should I have said that? That all goes away." You're free from that. You're free from the most sadistic, super ego self-critic you could possibly have, at least for a while. The world is vivid. It's super salient to you. There's an ongoing sense of discovery. Although, often you know you're exerting a lot of metabolic- metabolic effort, it feels effortless. In the flow state, when you're sparring, your hand just goes up for the block, and your strike just goes through the empty space. Or if you're a goalie in hockey, I've got to mention hockey once I'm a Canadian. You put out your glove hand in the pucks there. So there's this tremendous sense of grace, at one mint, super salient discovery, and realness. People don't, when they're in the flow state, they don't go, "I bet this is an illusion." The interesting question for me and my co-authors in the article we published in the Hanver, the Oxford Handbook, is spontaneous thought with Ariane, Herobenna, and Leo Ferraro. Is that's a descriptive account of flow.


What is flow? (02:15:39)

We wanted an explanatory account. What are the causal mechanisms at work in flow? And so we actually proposed two interlocking cognitive processes. The first thing we said is, "Well, what's going on in flow?" Well, think about it. Think about the rock climber. The rock climber, and I talked about this earlier, they're constantly restructuring how they're seeing the rock face. They're constantly doing something like insight. And if they fail to do it, they impasse, and that starts to get dangerous. So they got to do it in insight, that primes an insight, that primes an insight. So imagine the aha experience, that flash, and that moment, and imagine it cascading. So you're getting the extended aha. That's why things are super salient. There's a sense of discovery. There's a sense of at one mint, of deep participation, of grace. But there's something else going on too. So there's a phenomena called implicit learning. Also very well replicated. Starts way back in the 60s with Reber. You can give people complex patterns, like number and letter strings.


Flow, Intuition, And Psychedelics

The adaptive quality of flow (02:16:50)

And they can learn about those patterns outside of deliberate focal awareness. That's what's called implicit learning. And what's interesting is if you try and change that task into, tell me the pattern, but explicitly try to figure it out, the performance degrades. So here's the idea. You have this adaptive capacity for implicit learning. And what it does is it results in you being able to track complex variables in a way, but you don't know how you came up with that knowledge. So you get, and this is Hogarth's proposal in educating intuition. Intuition is actually the result of implicit learning. So an example I use is how far do you stand away from somebody at a funeral? There's a lot of complex variables. There's status, closeness to the person. You are a relationship to them, past history, all kinds of stuff. And yet you know how to do it. And you didn't have to go to funeral school. I'm just using that as an example. So you have these powerful intuitions. Now here's Hogarth's great point. Implicit learning, remember I said before, the things that make an adaptive, make a subject to self-deception? Here's another example. Implicit learning is powerful at picking up on complex patterns, but it doesn't care what kind of pattern it is. It doesn't distinguish causal patterns from merely correlational patterns.


The prejudice of the unconscious mind (02:18:15)

So implicit, when we like it, it's intuition. When it's picking up on stuff that's bogus, we call it prejudice, or all kinds of other names. For intuition that's going wrong. Now, he said, okay, what do we do? What do we do about this? And this will get back to flow. What do we do about this? Well, we can't try to replace implicit learning with explicit learning, because we'll lose all the adaptiveness to it. So what can we do explicitly? What we can do is take care of the environment in which we're doing the implicit learning. How do we do that? We try to make sure the environment has features that help us distinguish causation from correlation. What kind of environments have we created that are good at distinguishing causation of correlation? Experimental environments. What do you do in an experiment? You make sure that the variables are clear. No confound, no ambiguity, no vagueness. You make sure there's a tight coupling between the independent and the dependent variable, and your hypothesis can be falsified. Error matters. Now, look at those three legs. Those are exactly the three conditions that you need for flow. Clear information, tightly coupled feedback, and error matters. So flow is not only an insight cascade, improving your insight capacity. It's also a marker that you're cultivating the best kind of intuitions, the ones that fit you best to the causal patterns in your environment. But it's hard to achieve that kind of environment, where there's a clear distinction between causality and correlation, and it has the rigor of a scientific experiment. Fair enough.


Flow's power in cultivating intuition (02:20:01)

And I don't think Hogarth was saying it's going to be epistemically as rigorous as a scientific experiment. But he's saying, if you structure that, it will tend to do what that scientific method does, which is find causal. Think of the rock climber. All of those things are the case. They need clear information. It's tightly coupled, and error matters. And they think what they're doing is very real, because if they're not conforming to the real causal patterns of the rock face and the physiology of their body, they will fall. Is there something to be said about the power of discovering meaning and having this deep relationship with the moment? There's something about flow that really forgets the past and the future, and it's really focused on the moment. I think that's part of the phenomenology.


The opposite of flow (02:20:58)

But I think the functionality has to do with the fact that what's happening in flow is that dynamic, non-propositional connectedness that is so central to meaning, is being optimized. This is why flow is a good predictor of how well you rate your life, how much well-being you think you have, which of course is itself also predictive and interrelated with how meaningful you find your life. One of the things that you can do, but there's an important caveat, to increase your sense of meaning in life is to get into the flow state more frequently. That's why I said you want a moving practice that's conducive to the flow state. But there's one important caveat, which is we of course have figured out, and I'm playing with words here, how to game this and how to hijack it by creating things like video games. I'm not saying this is the case for all video games, or this is the case for all people, but the WHO now acknowledges this as a real thing, that you can get into the flow state within the video game world to the detriment of your ability to get into the flow state in the real world. What's the opposite of flow? Depression. Depression has been called anti-flow. So you get these people that are flowing in this non-real world, and they can't transfer it to the real world, and it's actually costing them flow in the real world. So they tend to suffer depression and all kinds of things. Your ability, your habit, and just skill it, attaining flow in the video game world basically makes you less effective, or maybe shocks you at how difficult it is to achieve flow in the physical world. Yeah, I'm not sure about that. I don't want to push back against the implied challenge of transferability, because there's a lot of friends that play video games, a very large percent of young folks play video games, and hesitant to build up models of how that affects behavior. My intuition is weak there. Oftentimes, people that have PhDs are of a certain age that they came up when video games weren't a deep part of their life development. I would venture to say people who have developed their brain with video games being a large part of that world are in some sense different humans, and it's possible that they can transfer more effectively some of the lessons, some of the ability to attain flow from the virtual world to the physical world. There are also more, I would venture to say, resilient to the negative effects of, for example, social media or video games that have maybe the objectification or the over-sexualized, over-violent aspect of video games. They're able to turn that off when they go to the physical world and turn it back on when they're playing the video games probably more effectively than the old timers. I just want to say that I'm not sure it's a really interesting question how transferable the flow state is. I don't know if you want to comment on that. I do. First of all, I did qualify and I'm saying it's not the case for all video games or for all people.


Mind Games (02:24:36)

I'm holding out the possibility, and I know this possibility because I've had students who actually suffer from this and have done work around it with me. The ability to transfer. They couldn't transfer. Then they were able to step back from that and then take up the cognitive science and write about it and work on it. Also, I'm not so sure about the resiliency claim because there seems to be mounting evidence. It's not consensus, but it's certainly not regarded as fringe that the increase in social media is pretty strongly correlated with increase in depression, self-destructive behavior, things like this. I would like to see that evidence. Sure. No, let me. I'm always hesitant to too eagerly agree with things that I want to agree with. There's a public perception. Everyone seems to hate on social media. Wonder, as always with these things, does it reveal depression or does it create depression? Sure. This is always the question. Whenever you talk about any political or ideological movement, does it create hate or does it reveal hate? That's a good thing to ask. You should always challenge the things that you intuitively want to believe. I agree with that. Like aliens. One of the ways you address this, and it's not sufficient, and I did say the work is preliminary, if I can give you a plausible mechanism that's new, and then that lends credence. Part of what happens is a loserly social comparison. Think of Instagram. People are posting things that are not accurate representation of their life or life events. In fact, they will stage things, but the people that are looking at these, they take it often as real, so they get downward social comparison. Compared to how you and I probably live, we may get one or two of those events a week. They're getting them moment by moment. It's a plausible mechanism that why it might be driving people into a more depressed state. The flip side of that is because there's a greater, greater gap going from real world to Instagram world, you start to be able to laugh at it and realize there's artificial. For example, even just artificial filters, people start to realize it's the same kind of gap as there is between the video game world and the real world. In the video game world, you can do all kinds of wild things. Grant that thought or you can shoot people up, you can do whatever the heck you want, the real world you can't. You start to develop an understanding of how to have fun in the virtual world and in the physical world. I think it's just a pushback. I'm not saying either is true, though. Those are very interesting claims. The more ridiculously out of touch Instagram becomes, the easier you can laugh it off, potentially, in terms of the effect it has on your psyche. I'll respond to that, but at some point, we should get back to flow. As we engage in flow. You laugh at the shampoo commercial and you buy the shampoo. Yeah. There's a capacity for tremendous bullshitting because of the way these machines are designed to trigger salience without triggering reflective truth seeking. I'm thinking of connor examples because sometimes you can laugh all the way to the bank. So you can laugh and not buy the shampoo. There's many cases. I think you have to laugh hard enough. You do have to laugh hard enough, but the advertisers get millions of dollars, precisely because for many, many people, it does make you buy the shampoo. That's the concern. Maybe the machine of social media is such that it optimizes the shampoo buying. Yes. The point I was trying to make is whether or not that particular example is ultimately right, the possibility of transfer failure is a real thing. I want to contrast that to an experience I had when I was in grad school. I've been doing Tai Chi Chuan about three or four years very religiously. In both senses, the word, like three or four hours a day and reading all the literature and I was having all the weird experiences. Cold his eyes, hot his lava, all that stuff. I'm like, "Ooh, right?" But my friends in grad school, they said to me, "What's going on? You're different." And I said, "What do you mean?" And they said, "Well, you're a lot more balanced in your interactions and you're a lot more flowing and you're a lot more flexible and you adjust more." And I realized, "Oh." This was the sort of Taoist claim around Tai Chi Chuan that it actually transfers in ways that you might not expect. You start to be able, and I've now noticed that. I now notice how I'm doing Tai Chi even in this interaction and how it can facilitate and afford. And so there's some powerful transfer. And that's what I met by, you know, flow wisely. Not only flowing away that's right, making sure that you're distinguishing causation from correlation, which flow can do, but find how to situate it, home it, so that it will percolate through your psyche and permeate through many domains of your life. Is there something you could say similar to our discussion about mindfulness and meditation and contemplation about the world that psychedelics take our mind? Where does the mind go when it's on psychedelics? I want to remind you of something you said, which is a gem. It's not so much the experience, but the degree to which it can be integrated back. So here's a proposal. It comes from Woodward and others. A lot of convergence around this. Cara Harris is talking about it similarly in the Entropic Brain, but I'm not going to talk first about psychedelics. I'm going to talk about neural networks. And I'm going to talk about a classic problem in neural networks. So neural networks, like us with intuition and implicit learning, are fantastic at picking up on complex patterns.


Psychadelics (02:31:32)

Which you know, so we're talking about. I'm talking about a general, just general artificial and biological. Yes, yes, yes. I think at this point, there is no relevant difference. So one of the classic problems because of their power is they suffer from overfitting to the data, or for those of you are, you know, statistical orientation, they pick up patterns in this sample that aren't actually present in the population. Right? And so what you do is there's various strategies. You can do dropout, where you do periodically turn off half of the nodes in a network. You can drop noise into the network. And what that does is it prevents overfitting to the data and allows the network to generalize more powerfully to the environment. I proposed to you that that's basically what psychedelics do. They do that. They basically do significant constraint reduction. And so you get areas of the brain talking to each other that don't normally talk to each other. Areas that do talk to each other, not talking to each other, down regulation of areas that are very dominant, like the default mode network, etc. And what that does is exactly something strongly analogous, sorry, to what's happening in dropout or putting noise into the data. It opens up. By the way, if you give people, if you give human beings an insight problem that they're trying to solve and you throw in some noise, like literally static on the screen, you can trigger an insight in them. So like literally very simplistic kind of noise to the perception system. Right. It can break it out of overfitting to the data and open you up. Now, that means though, that just doing that, right, in and of itself is not the answer. Because you also have to make sure that the system can go back to exploring that new space properly. This isn't a problem with neural networks. You turn off dropout and they just go back to being powerful neural networks. And now they explore the state space that they couldn't explore before. Human beings are a little bit more messy around this. And this is where the analogy does get a little bit strained. So they need practices that help them integrate that opening up to the new state space so they can properly integrate it. So beyond Leary's state set and setting, I think you need another S. I think you need sacred. You need psychedelics need to be practiced within a sopiential framework, a framework in which people are independently and beforehand improving their abilities to deal with self deception and afford insight and self-regulate. This is of course the overwhelming way in which psychedelics are used by Indigenous cultures.


Wisdom, Truth And The Clash Of Ideologies

Meaning, Wisdom, and Truth (02:34:32)

And I think if we put them into that context, then they can help the project of people self-transcending, cultivating, meaning, and increasing wisdom. But I think we remove them out of that context and put them in the context of commodities taken just to have certain phenomenological changes. We run certain important risks. So using the term of higher states of consciousness, is consciousness an important part of that word?


Dwelling in a transformative state of consciousness (02:35:10)

Why higher? Is it a higher state? Or is it a detour, a side road, on the main road of consciousness? So where do we go here? I think the psychedelic state is on a continuum. There's insight and then flow is an insight cascade. There's flow. And then you can have psychedelic experiences, mind revealing experiences. And then, but they overlap with mystical experiences and they aren't the same. So for example, in the Griffiths lab, they gave people psilocybin and they taught them ahead of time how like sort of the features of a mystical experience. And only a certain proportion of the people that took the psilocybin went from a psychedelic into a mystical experience. What was interesting is the people that had the mystical experience had measurable and long standing change to one of the big five factors of personality. They had increased openness. Openness is supposed to actually go down over time. And these traits aren't supposed to be that malleable and it was significantly like altered. But imagine if you just created more openness in a person, right? And they're now open to a lot more and they want to explore a lot more, but you don't give them the tools of discernment. That could be problematic for them in important ways. That could be very problematic. Yes, I got it. But you know, so you have to land the plane in a productive way, somehow integrated back into your life and how you see the world and how you frame your perception of that world. And when people do that, that's when I call it a transformative experience. Now, the higher states of consciousness are really interesting because they tend to move people from the mystical experience into a transformative experience. Because what happens in these experiences is something really, really interesting. They get to a state that's ineffable. They can't put it into words. They can't describe it. But they do this. They're in this state, state temporarily, and then they come back and they do this. They say, that was really real. And this in comparison is less real. So I remember that platonic meta desire, I want to change my life myself so that I'm more in conformity with that really real. And that is really odd, Lex, because normally when we go outside of our consensus intelligibility, like a dream state, we come back from it, we say, that doesn't fit into everything. Therefore, it's unreal. They do the exact opposite. They come out of these states and they say, that doesn't fit into this consensus intelligibility. And that means this is less real. They do the exact opposite. And that fascinates me. Why do they flip our normal procedure about evaluating alternative states? And the thing is those higher states of consciousness, precisely because they have that ontonormativity, the realness that demands that you make a change in your life, they serve to bridge between mystical experiences and genuine transformative. So you do think seeing those as more real as productive, because then you reach for them? So Yaden's done work on it. And again, all of this stuff is recent. So we have to take it with a grain of salt. But by a lot of objective measure, people who do this, who have these higher states of consciousness and undertake the transformative process, their lives get better, their relationships, improve their sense of self improves, their anxieties go down, depression, like all of these other measures, the needles are moved on these measures by people undergoing this transformative experience. They're lives by many of the criteria that we judge our lives to be good get better. I have to ask you about this fascinating distributed cognition process that leads to mass formation of ideologies that have had an impact on our world. So you spoke about the clash of the two great pseudo religious ideologies of Marxism and Nazism, especially their clash on the Eastern Front.


The clash of pseudo-religious ideologies (02:39:17)

Can you explain the origin of each of these Marxism and Nazism in a kind of way that we have been talking about the formation of ideas? Hegel is to Protestantism, what Thomas Aquinas is to Catholicism. He was like the philosopher who took German Protestantism and also Kant and Fichte and Schilling. And he built a philosophical system. He explicitly said this, by the way, he wanted to bridge between philosophy and religion. He explicitly said that. I'm not, I'm not voicing that on him. He said it repeatedly in many different places. So he was trying to create a philosophical system that gathered to it, I think the core mythos of Christianity, core mythos of Christianity is this idea of a narrative structure to reality, in which progress is real, in which our actions now can change the future. We can co-participate with God in the creation of the future. And that future can be better. It can reach something like a utopia or the promised land or whatever. He created a philosophical system of brilliance, by the way. He's a genius. But basically what it did was it took that religious vision and gave it the air of philosophical intelligibility and respect. And then Marx takes that and says, you know that process by which the narrative is working itself out that Hegel called dialectic. I don't think it's primarily happening in ideas. I think it's happening primarily in between classes within socioeconomic factors. But it's the same story. Here's this mechanism of history. It's teleological. It's going to move this way. It can move towards a utopia. We can either participate in furthering it, like participating in the work of God, or we can thwart it and be against it. And so you have a pseudo-religious vision. It's all encompassing. Think about how Marxism is not just a philosophical position. It's not just an economic position. It's an entire worldview, an entire account of history and a demanding account of what human excellence is. And it has all these things about participating, belonging, fitting to. But in Marx's case, it's very pragmatic or directly applicable to society, to where it leads to and more naturally leads to political ideologies. It does. But I think Marx, to a very significant degree, inherits one of Hegel's main flaws. Hegel is talking about all this and he's trying to fit it into post-contian philosophy. So for him, it's ultimately propositional conceptual. He, like everybody after Descartes, is very focused on the propositional level. And he's not paying deep attention to the non-propositional. This is why the two great critics of Hegel, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, they're trying to put their finger on the non-propositional, the non-conceptual, the will to power or faith. And they're trying to bring out these other kinds of knowing as being inadequate. That's why Kierkegaard met when he said, Hegel made a system and then he sat down beside it. And so Marxism is very much, it is activists. It's about reorganizing society. But the transformation in individuals is largely ideological, meaning it's largely about these significant propositional changes and adopting a set of beliefs. When it came in contact with the Soviet Union or what became the Soviet Union, why do you think it had such a powerful hold on such a large number of people? Not Marxism, but implementation of Marxism in the name of communism. Because it offered people, I mean, it offered people something that typically only religions had offered. And it offered people the hope of making a new man, a new kind of human being in a new world. And when you've been living in Russia, in which things seem to be locked in a system that is crushing most people, getting the promise in the air of scientific legitimacy, that we can make new human beings and a new world in which happiness will ensue. That's an intoxicating proposal. You get sort of, like I said, you get all of the intoxication of a religious utopia, but you get all the seeming legitimacy of claiming that it's a scientific understanding of history and economics. It's very popular to criticize communism, Marxism, these days. And I often put myself in the place before any of the implementations came to be. I tried to think if I would be able to predict what the implementations of Marxism and communism would result in in the 20th century. And I'm not sure I'm smart enough to make that prediction. Because at the core of the ideas are respecting, and it's with Marx, it's very economics type theory. So it's basically respecting the value of the worker and the regular man in society for making a contribution to that society. And to me, that seems like a powerful idea. And it's not clear to me how it goes wrong. In fact, it's still not clear to me why the hell did this like with Stalin happen or Mao happen. There's something very interesting and complex about human nature in hierarchies about distributed cognition and the results in that. And it's not trivial to understand. No, no. So I mean, I wonder if you can put a finger on it. Why did it go so wrong? So I think, you know, what O'Hanna talks about in the intellectual history of modernity talks about the Promethean spirit, the idea, the really radical proposal, and think about how it's not so radical to us. And in that sense, Marxism has succeeded. The radical proposal that you see, even in the French Revolution, and don't forget the terror comes in the French Revolution too, that we can make ourselves into God-like beings.


The Three Promethean Ideas to Explain Collapse (02:46:29)

Think of the hubris in that, right? And think of the overconfidence to think that we so understand human nature and all its complexities and human history, right? And how religion functioned and every that we can just come in with a plan and make it run. It's to my mind that Promethean spirit is part of why it's doomed to fail. And it's doomed to fail in a kind of terrorizing way, because the Promethean spirit really licenses you to do anything, because the ends justify the means.


How to Understand Evil (02:47:12)

This the end justify the means really for you to do some of basically commit atrocities at any scale. Ground Zero with Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, right? Exactly. And you only, you can only believe in an ends that can justify any means if you believe in a utopia, and you can only believe in the utopia if you really buy into the Promethean spirit. So is that what explains Nazism? So Nazism is part of that too, the Promethean spirit that we can make ourselves into Superman, Ubermetch, right? And Nazism is fueled very much by appropriating and twisting sort of Gnostic themes that are very prevalent. Gnosticism tends to come to the fore when people are experiencing increased meaning crisis. And don't forget the Weimar Republic is like a meaning crisis gone crazy on all levels. Everybody's suffering domicide. Everybody's home in way of life and identity and culture and relationship to religion and science is all of that. So Nazism comes along and offers a kind of Gnosticism, again twisted, perverted. I'm not saying all not, not saying that all Gnostics are Nazis, but there is this Gnostic mythology, mythos, and it comes to the fore. I remember this stuck with me, I undergrad, I was taking political science and the professor extended lecture on this, and it still rings true for me. He says, if you understand Nazism as just a political movement, you have misunderstood it. It is much more a religious phenomenon in many ways. Is it religious in that the loss of religion? So is it a meaning crisis? Or is it out of a meaning crisis every discovery of religion in a Permithian type of thing? I think it's the latter. I think there's a there's this vacuum created. In that context is Hitler the the central religious figure? Yes. And also did Nazi Germany create Hitler or did Hitler create Nazi Germany?


Hitler NOT necessary for Nazi Germany to form (02:49:43)

So in this distributed cognition where everyone's having a dialogue, what's the role of a charismatic leader? Is it an emergent phenomena or do you need one of those to kind of guide the populace? I hope it's not a necessary requirement. I hope that the next Buddha can be the Sanga rather than a specific individual. But I think in that situation Hitler's charisma allowed him to take on a mythological in the proper sense archetypal. He became deeply symbolic and he instituted all kinds of rituals, all kinds of rituals and all kinds of mythos. There's all this mythos about the master race and there's all these rituals. The swastika is of course a self a religious symbol. There's all of this going on because he was tapping into the fact that when you put people into deeper and deeper meaning scarcity, they will fall back on more and more mythological ways of thinking in order to try and come up with a generative source to give them new meaning making. I should say meaning participating behavior. What is evil? Is this a word you avoid? No, I don't. Because I think part of what we're wrestling with here is resisting the enlightenment, I mean the historical period in Europe, the idea that evil and sin can just be reduced to immorality, individual human immorality. I think there's something deeper in the idea of sin than just immoral. I think sin is a much more comprehensive category. I think sin is a failure to love wisely so that you ultimately engage in a kind of idolatry. You take something as ultimate which is not. That can tend to constellate these collective agents, I call them hyperagents with indestributed cognition that have a capacity to wreak havoc on the world that is not just due to a sum total of immoral decisions. This goes to Hannah Arendt's thing and the banality of Aikman. She was really wrestling with it. I think she's close to something but I think she's slightly off. Aikman is just making a whole bunch of immoral decisions but it doesn't seem to capture the gravity of what the Nazis did, the genocide and the warfare. She's right because you're not going to get just the summation of a lot of individual rather banal immoral choices adding up to what was going on. You're getting a comprehensive parasitic process within massive distributed cognition that has the power to confront the world and confront aspects of the world that individuals can't. I think when we're talking about evil, that's what we're trying to point to. This is a point of convergence between me and Jonathan Peugeot. We've been talking about this. The word sin is interesting. Are you comfortable using the word sin? I'm comfortable. It's so deeply rooted in religiousness. It is. I struggle around this because I was brought up as a fundamentalist Christian and so that is still there within me. There's trauma associated with that. Probably layers of self-deception mechanisms. No doubt. No doubt. You're slowly escaping. Trying to. I'm trying to come into a proper respectful relationship with Christianity via a detour through Buddhism, Taoism and pagan Neoplatonism.


Unpacking The Concept Of Evil And The Unconscious Mind

What is evil? (02:53:52)

Trying to find a way how to love wisely. Yes, exactly. I think the term sin is good because somebody may not be doing something that we would prototypically call immoral, but if they're failing to love wisely, they are disconnecting themselves in some important way from the structures of reality. I think it was Hume. I may be wrong. He says, "People don't do things because they think it's wrong.


Do you love wisely? (02:54:39)

They do a lesser good in place of a greater good." That's a different thing than being immoral. You're doing something that's wrong. It's like, "No, no. I'm loving my wife. That's a great thing, isn't it?" Yeah. But if you love your wife at the expense of your kids, "Ah, maybe something's going awry here. Well, I love my country. Great. But should you love your country at the expense of your commitment to the religion you belong to?" People should wrestle with these questions. I think sin is a failure to wrestle with these questions properly. Yeah. To be content with the choices you've made without considering, is there a greater good that could be done? Yeah. Your lecture series on the meaning crisis puts us in dialogue in the same way as with the podcast, with a bunch of fascinating thinkers throughout history. Yes. Hidergir Corbin, the man Carl Jung, Tillich Barfield, is there? Can you describe? This might be challenging, but one powerful idea from each that jumps the mind. Yes. Maybe Hidergir. So for Hidergir, one real powerful idea that has had a huge influence on me. He's had a huge influence on me in many ways. He's a big influence on what's called for e-cogonoscience. And this whole idea about the non-propositional, that was deeply afforded by Hidergir and Marluponti. But I guess maybe the one idea, if I had to pick one, is his critique of ontotheology, his critique of the attempt to understand being in terms of a supreme being, something like that, and how that gets us fundamentally messed up.


What is being? (02:56:16)

And we get disconnected from being because we are over focused on particular beings. We're failing to love wisely. We're loving the individual things, and we're not loving the ground from which they spring. Can you explain that a little more? What's the difference between the being and the supreme being and what that gets us into trouble? Okay. So like, well, we talked about this before, the supreme being is a particular being, whereas being is no thing. It's not any particular kind of that. And so if you're thinking of being as a being, you're thinking of it in a thingy way about something that is fundamentally no-thingness. And so then you're disconnecting yourself from presumably ultimate reality. This takes me to Tillic. Tillic's great idea is understanding faith as ultimate concern rather than a set of propositions that you're asserting. So what are you ultimately concerned about? What do you want to have? What do you want to be in right relationship to? Ratioreligio. What? And is that ultimate? Is that the ultimate reality that you conceive of? Are those two things in sync? This has had a profound influence on me. And I think it's a brilliant idea. So some of the others, how do they integrate?


Jung & the Unconscious (02:57:47)

Maybe the psychiatrist or the call Jung and Freud, which team are you on? I'm on Jung. Freud is the better writer, but Jung has, I think, a model of the psyche that is closer to where cognitive science is heading. He's more prescient. So which aspect of his model? Directly. So Freud has a hydraulic model. The psyche is like a steam engine. Things are under pressure. There's a fluid that's moving around. It's like this is a record note at this. Jung has an organic model. The psyche is like a living being. It's doing all this opponent processing. It's doing all of this self-transcending and growing. And I think that's a much better model of the psyche than the sort of steam engine model. What do you think about their view of the subconscious mind? What do you think their view and your own view of what's going on there in the shadow? So all bad stuff, some good stuff. Any stuff at all? Well, I mean, both Freud and Jung are only talking about the psychodynamic unconscious, which is only a small part of the unconscious. How can you elaborate? They're talking about the aspects of the unconscious that have to do with your ego development and how you are understanding and interpreting yourself. Yeah. What else is there? There's the unconscious that allows you to turn the noise coming out of my face hole into ideas. There's the unconscious that's all that stuff, which is huge and powerful. And they didn't think about that. They're focused on the big romantic stuff that you have to deal with through psychotherapy, that kind of stuff. Which is relevant and important. I'm not dismissing, I'm not saying it doesn't exist, but it's certainly not all of the unconscious. A lot of work that's going on, my colleague and deep friend Anderson Todd, is about can we take the Jungian stuff and the cognitive science stuff and can we integrate it together, theoretically? And so he's working on that, exactly that project. But nevertheless, your sense is there is a subconscious. Or at least an unconscious. I like the term unconscious. And Jung continually reminded people that the unconscious is unconscious, that we're not conscious of it. And that's its fundamental property. Yeah. And then isn't the task of therapy then to bring to make the unconscious conscious? Yeah, to a degree, right? But also, I mean, yeah, to bring consciousness where there was unconscious is part of Jung's mythos. But it's also not the thought that that can be completed. Part of the why you're extending the reach of the conscious mind is it so it can enter into more proper, dialogical relationship with the self-organizing system of the unconscious mind. What did they have to say about the motivations of humans? So for Freud, joking, I said, you know, sex, so much of our mind is developing our young age, sexual interactions with the world or whatever. Hence, the thing about the edible complex and all, you know, I want to have sex with your mother. What do you think about their description about what motivates humans? And what do you think about the will to power from Nietzsche? Which can't bring you in there? What motivates humans? Sex or power? I think Plato is right. And I think there's a connection for me. Plato is my first philosopher. Jung is my first psychologist. And Jung is very much the Plato of the psyche. You never forget your first. Yeah, you never do. You never do. And I think we have, I reject the monological mind. I reject the monophasic mind model. I think we are multi-centered. I think we have different centers of motivation that operate according to different principles to satisfy different problems. And that part of the task of our humanity is to get those different centers into some internal culture by which they are optimally cooperating rather than in conflict with each other. What advice would you give to young people? Today, they're in high school, trying to figure out what they're going to do with their life. Maybe they're in college. What advice would you give how to have a career they can be proud of or how to have a life they can be proud of? So the first thing is finding the ecology of practices and a community that supports them without involving you in believing things that contravene are best understood science so that wisdom and virtue, and especially how they show up in relationships are primary to you. This will sound ridiculous. But if you take care of that, the other things you want are more likely to occur because what you most want is what you want at when you're approaching your death is what were the relationships you cultivated to yourself, to other people, to the world. And what did you do to improve the chance of them being deep and profound relationships? Well, that's an interesting so ecology of practice.


Finding a Home for Yourself (03:03:35)

Finding a place where a lot of people are doing different things that are interesting, interplay with each other. But at the same time, it's not a cult. Like where ideas can flourish. Now, how the hell do you know? Because in a place where people are really excited about doing stuff, that's very ripe for cult formation. Especially if there are washes in a culture in which we have ever expanding waves of bullshit. Yes, precisely. So try to keep away from the bullshit as the advice. Yes. I mean, I take this very seriously. And I was with a bunch of people in Vermont at the respond retreat, people, Rave Kelly was there. Bunch of people who have set up colleges of practices and created communities. And I have good reason to find all of these people trustworthy. And so we gathered together to try and generate real deal logos, flow in distributed cognition, exercise, the collective intelligence, and try and address that problem, both in terms of meta curriculum that we can offer emerging communities in terms of practices of vetting, how we will self govern the federation we're forming so that we can resist glorification. Grification of people or ideas? Both. Yeah. Both. Some of us just get unlucky. Some of us get unlucky. And we all had a tremendous sense of urgency around this. But we were trying to balance it about not being premature. But there it was going to, I mean, there's, we're going to produce a meta curriculum that's coming in months. There's going to be a scientific paper about integrating the scientific work on wisdom with this practitioner based ideas about the cultivation of wisdom. There is going to be projects about how we can create a self correcting vetted vetting system. So we can say to people, we think this ecology is legit. It's in good fellowship with all these other legit ecologies. We don't know about that one. We're hesitant about that one. It's not in good fellowship. We have concerns. Here's why we have our concerns, etc. And you may say, well, who are you to do that? It's like nobody, but somebody's got to do it, right? And that's what it comes down to. And so we're going to give it our best effort. It's worth a try. You talked about the meaning crisis in human civilization, but in your own personal life, what has been a dark place you've ever gone in your mind? Has there been difficult times in your life where you really struggled? Yes. So when I left, fundamentalist Christianity, and for a while, I was just sort of a hard-bitten atheist. The problem with leaving the belief structure was that I didn't deal with all the non-propositional things that had gotten into me. All the procedures and habits and all the perspectives and all the identities and the trauma associated with that.


The Dark Burning Period (03:06:48)

So I've acquired therapy, required years of meditation and Tai Chi, and I'm still wrestling with it. But for the first four or five years, I would... I described it like this. I called it the Black Burning. I felt like there was a blackness that was on fire inside of me, precisely because the religion had left a taste for the transcendent in my mouth, but the food it had given me, food and square quotes, had soured in my stomach and made me nauseous. And the juxtaposition of those seemed like an irresolvable problem for me. That was a very, very dark time for me. Did it feel lonely? When it was very bad, it felt extremely lonely. And deeply alienating, the universe seemed absurd. And there was also existential anxiety. I talk about these things for a reason. I don't just talk about them as things I'm pointing to. I'm talking about them as seeing in myself and in people I care, having undergone them. And how they can bring you close to self-destructive. I started engaging in kinds of self-destructive behavior. So the meaning crisis to you is not just the thing you look outside and see many people struggling. You yourself have struggled. That's in fact the narrative is I struggled with it, thinking it was a purely personal, idiosyncratic thing. I started learning the cog-side. I started doing the tai chi and the meditation. I started doing all this, right, socratic philosophy. And when I started to talk about these pieces, I saw my students eyes light up and I realized, "Oh wait, maybe this isn't just something I'm going through." And then talking to them and then doing the research and expanding it out, it's like, "Oh, many people in a shared fashion and also in an individual lonely fashion are going through meaning crisis."


Exploring The Importance Of Love

The Role of Love (03:08:56)

Well, we talked a lot about wisdom and meaning. And you said that the goal is to love wisely. So let me ask about love. What's the role of love in the human condition? It's central. I mean, it's even central to reason and rationality. This is Plato, but Spinoza, the most logical of the rationalist. The ethics is written like Euclid's geometry. But he calls it the ethics for a reason because he wants to talk about the blessed life. And what does he say? He says that ultimately reason needs love because love is what brings reason out of being entrapped in the gravity well of egocentrism. And Murdoch, Iris Murdoch, said, "I think really beautifully, love is when you painfully realize that something other than yourself is real." Escaping the gravity well of egocentrism. Beautifully put a beautiful way to end it, John. You're a beautiful human being. Thank you for struggling in your own mind with the search for meaning and encouraging others to do the same. And ultimately, to learn how to love wisely. Thank you so much for talking today. It's been a great pleasure, Lux. I really enjoyed it a lot. Thank you so much. Thanks for listening to this conversation with John Raveki. To support this podcast, please check out our sponsors in the description. And now, let me leave you with some words from Hermann Hesse and Siddhartha. I've always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way, we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value. Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.


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