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 a truck hits you and you die.
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 Verweke,
a psychologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Toronto.
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 Verweke.
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?
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 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, yeah, but why is meaning so important?
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 chained 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 a source of meaning for me that maybe I find beautiful
that I would like to continue existing.
If it contributes to your life being meaningful, you are 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?
Is it part of the human condition in general?
That’s an excellent question.
And part of the argument I made in Awakening from 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.
You know, 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 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 cross 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?
You know, Ernest Becker talked about the, in his book Denial 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 sort of providing empirical support for that claim.
Some of the work, not so good.
So which aspects do you find convincing?
Can you steel man that case and then can you argue against it?
So 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 used that word
to describe one’s own mortality as problematic.
Because people sort of 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 and 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.
So your mortality is just a…
We talk about something that causes mortality fatal.
But what we actually mean is it’s full of fate.
And I don’t mean in the sense of things are prewritten.
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 a truck hits you and you die.
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 death is the indifference of nature of the universe to your existence.
And so 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.
Because 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.
It can drive them into despair.
So 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.
And we, 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 or for 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.
So terror management theory is you do things like you give people a list of words to read.
And in those lists are 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
that is 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 steel manned the case because you’re saying that death is always
present with us, yes, but 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 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 if you think about it?
As somebody who produces a lot of ideas, records them, writes them down, is a deep thinker,
admired thinker, and as the years go on, become more and more admired, does it scare you that
the ride ends?
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 duck and things like
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?
Like 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
There’s surely some kind of balance, that fear seems to be a source of an intense appreciation
of the moment, in part, and that’s what the Stoics talked about, sort of the meditate
on one’s mortality.
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 your mortality?
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.
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, 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 more and more move 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.
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.
Doesn’t mean the song wasn’t beautiful.
Doesn’t mean the song wasn’t complex.
Doesn’t mean the song didn’t add to the value of the universe and 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
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
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
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
In fact, it’s often called zombie agency for that reason.
And so 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.
And so 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.
Okay, there’s so many things to mention there.
First of all, distributed cognition, maybe that’s a synonym for collective intelligence.
So that means a bunch of humans individually are able to think, have cognitive machines,
and are somehow able to interact through the process of dialogue, as you talk about, to
morph 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.
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,
tiny ones, 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.
And 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?
Why does it have to stop with us humans?
Are we the only, like, is this the phase transition when it becomes a zombie like giant hierarchical
village that first like, oh, there’s like a singing angels and it’s 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 paramecium 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, this
kind of self awareness, this ability to introspect, et cetera, et cetera, to bacteria.
Now the reason why distributed cognition doesn’t have consciousness, I think is a little bit
And I think there’s no reason in principle why there couldn’t be a consciousness for
distributed cognition, collective intelligence.
In fact, many, you know, philosophers would agree with me on that point.
I think it’s more an issue of certain empirical facts, bandwidth, density of connection, speed
of information transfer, et cetera.
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 nonconscious universe?
And then there’s a function question, which is equally important, which is, what does
The first one is obviously, you know, problematic for most people, like, yeah, consciousness
seems to be so different from the rest of the nonconscious 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?
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 it 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 interesting, that’s useful, that’s important
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 qualia are, how they potentially emerge, without
saying what do they do, what problems do they help to solve, how do they make the organism
And then you’ll have other people who will say, no, no, this is what the function of
consciousness is, but I don’t know, I can’t tell you, I can’t solve the hard problem,
I don’t know how qualia exist.
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.
So the qualia, that it feels like something to experience a thing, that’s what consciousness
And does is more about the functional usefulness of the thing, 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.
Is that obvious to you?
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, that’s doing the…
Oh, I think so, in fact, 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,
one level intelligent or beyond, without building the consciousness.
I mean, ultimately, that’s one of the ways to understand what consciousness is, is to
build the thing.
We can either sort of from the 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.
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 phenomenon?
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 socioeconomic 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.
And so tackling that problem head on, which has now become central, at least to a group
of cognitive scientists, is I think what needs to be done.
And 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.
So right now, compared to even our best machines, you are a general problem solver.
You can solve a wide variety of problems in a wide variety of domains.
And 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 sort of psychometric evidence that we do have some general ability
that’s a significant component of our intelligence, I made an argument as to what I think that
general ability is.
And so it’s happening right now.
The amount of information in this room that you could actually pay attention to is combinatorial
The amount of information you have in your memory, long term memory, and all the ways
you could combine it, combinatorial explosive.
The number of possibilities you can consider, also combinatorial explosive.
The sequences of behavior you can generate, also combinatorial 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.
To filtering out the gigantic waterfall of data.
It’s almost like a Zen Koan.
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.
And to a fault sometimes of course that you, based on the models you construct, you forget,
you ignore things that you should probably not ignore.
And that, hopefully we can circle back to it Lux, is related to the meaning issue.
Because 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 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.
So what is wisdom?
Why do we long for it?
How do we and where do we find it?
What is it?
This 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 meta 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.
So life is a 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, if properly coordinated.
You mentioned framing.
So what is framing?
Is it 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 salient 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 salient landscaping is aspectualizing
the world, shaping it into aspects for interaction?
For me, that is a much more primordial process than any sort of beliefs we have.
And here’s why.
If we mean by beliefs 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
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
I could say this was the 10th billion object made in North America.
Representations presuppose relevance realization.
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.
Let’s define stuff.
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 that 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
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 opponent processing between them that is constantly evolving your
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, right, and then the task focus network is selecting out of those possibilities the
ones that will survive and go into and so you are 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.
You didn’t describe what the hell it is.
So what’s the goal?
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
Good or bad?
So what does that evolution of your sensory motor loop do?
It gives you, and here I’ll use a term from Marlon Ponti, it gives you an optimal grip
on the world.
So let’s use your visual attention again.
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.
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.
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.
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
They could say there’s a German Shepherd, there’s a mammal, there’s a living organism,
there’s a police dog.
Why did 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 in so far 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 on top of them, you do stuff like
you build representations, like you said, yes.
What’s the salience landscape?
Salience meaning attention landscape.
Salience is what grabs your attention or what results from you directing your attention.
I clap my hands, that’s salient, it grabs your attention.
Your attention is drawn to it, that’s 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.
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
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
And that’s, that’s, that’s really good evidence.
There’s really good evidence from my colleague at UFT, University of Toronto, Lynn Hasher,
that 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 making, it’s basically monitoring how much relevance realization has gone into
Usually you have to do an additional kind of recursive processing.
And that tells you, by the way, when do you need consciousness?
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 very ill
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
When you see it, 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.
So what is wisdom?
If we return, I think as part of that, we got to relevance realization and then wisdom
is accumulation of rationalities.
You described the rationality as a kind of starting from intelligence, much 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 misprint.
Self deception, right.
So 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
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,
salience 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 say self deception, I mean part of that implies that it’s intentional.
Part of 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?
Frankfurt and this is inspired by Frankfurt and other people’s work based on Frankfurt’s
It’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 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
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 eyed.
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.
But you buy 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?
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
In fact, most of the bars I go to these days in Texas, there’s pretty lots of happy people.
I think you can, I mean, there’s probably variation, although I think it’s very the
truth 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 never
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.
Now I’m a Canadian, so this doesn’t quite work for me, but right.
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 and people go, and 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.
Well, I’m not saying all political speech, I said a lot.
There’s a fundamental difference between, and it’s so hilarious, I remember that episode.
There’s a fundamental difference between that absurd sort of non secular speech and political
speech because one of the things is political speech is grounded in some sense of truth.
And so 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
So what exactly is truth?
Is it possible to know?
I think Spinoza’s right about truth, that truth is only known by its own standard, which
There’s a way in which he didn’t mean that circularly, and I think this is also converges
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 and 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 something that you can call objective truth?
Or 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 Hyland’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
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.
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’re 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 Ayn Rand and her philosophy of objectivism?
So where the core principle is 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.
Then 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, 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 Meno’s paradox.
Meno’s paradox is, you know, it’s 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?
I have no way of recognizing it.
I have no way of knowing that I 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
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.
Partial knowledge is still knowledge.
What do you think about somebody like Donald Hoffman, who thinks the reality is an illusion,
so complete illusion, that 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’ve 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.
You were supposed to talk at one point, and so I have to talk in his absence.
I think that, first of all, I think saying that everything is an illusion is like saying
everything is tall.
It doesn’t make any sense.
It’s a comparative term.
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 our 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 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, 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, right?
Like it makes sense that you get complex organisms from simple organisms through the natural
Whereas 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?
I think he would be open to the idea that it is part of the illusion that we constructed,
that there’s some, in some sense, it is connected to reality, but we don’t have a clear picture
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’s evolution, is also a complete part of this illusory world.
But then what happens to the premise for his argument leading to the conclusion that cognition
I think he makes a very specific argument about evolution as an explanation of why the
world is, of our cognition operating in an illusory world.
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
It’s, 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.
Like why do we have to, why does it have to be connected to like physics and planets and
all that kind of stuff?
So if we’re going to say like 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?
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.
There’s two possibilities.
Either the illusion is one that I cannot discover, sort of, you know, the matrix on steroids
There’s no way.
Because 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 science as I’m doing it.
If there’s a way of finding out, science is 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 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, 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 the 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, I forgot which one, yes, science will be able
to help us discover this.
Otherwise, yes, for sure, that 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 it will ultimately in its simplicity
be beautiful, or as we try 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 that will make our lives more
And then all of a sudden, it’s like at the end of Animal Farm, you look at pigs and humans
and you look at robots and humans and you can’t tell the difference between either.
And we 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 like AGI is about making whatever the system
is that’s going to be the source of intelligent more and more dynamically and recursively
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 evolutionary example again, right?
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 microscopes work, I need to know how pencils
and paper work, 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
would do 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’m playing the devil advocate for the
But there’s an aspect to truth that has to be consistent, deeply consistent across an
But inside a video game, that same kind of consistency evolves.
There’s rules about interactions, there’s game theoretic patterns about what’s good
and bad and so on, and there’s sources of joy and fear and anger, and then 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 can have consistency and develop truths inside
that illusion and iteratively evolve your truth with the illusion.
Okay, but that comes back.
Is 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.
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.
That makes sense.
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 regressive simulations, you basically said, I have a
simulation that I can never get out of.
I think there’s always a bigger pile of bullshit is the claim I’m trying to make here.
Let me dance around meaning once more.
I 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?
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 of reality.
There were times when people thought they had a worldview that legitimated it, like
God is running the universe and God cares about you and there’s a plan, et cetera.
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?
Is it in the cup?
No, because a 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 and 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, 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 hard 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.
It’s reaching for that, even though it’s hopeless to understand.
It’s the question, 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,
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 preface that we might not be in disagreement, right?
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, 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, right?
But I’ll say to them, okay, how many of you are in really satisfying romantic relationships?
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.
So I think what you’re pointing to is actually, you’re pointing not to an objective or a
Empiricism 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.
There’s something very similar to biological evolution, which is that the guts of life,
if I’m right, running your cognition, it’s not just that you 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.
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, then you go to work and the da da da da da and repeats
over and over and over and over and then you get increased salary and then you upgrade
to home and that whole process.
Asking about the meaning of life is so full of romantic bullshit that if you just allow
yourself to take it seriously for a second, it forces you to pause and think, what’s going
And then it ultimately, I think, does return to the question of meaning in those mundane
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?
And that ultimately what it returns to.
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?
That, 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.
In so far as the question makes you ask about the whole of your life and how much meaning
is in the whole of your life.
And in so far 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
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.
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
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’ve 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.
And here’s how I can show you one clear instance of the meaning crisis, is it’s a wisdom famine.
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,
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.
But 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 nones, N O N E 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 describes, 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 nones, isn’t wisdom a process, not a destination?
So trying to find, if you’re a deeply faithful religious person, you’re also trying to find,
So 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.
So 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, well, the Bible or a religious
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
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
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
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
There’s something else at work.
If you’ll 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.
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 that are drenched in deep lessons
about morality and all those kinds of things.
What’s the functional thing there that can’t be replaced without a religious text by a
This is, for me, the golden question.
So thank you.
Do you have an answer?
I think I have a significant answer.
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 4E cognitive science,
the kind of cognitive science I practice.
And there’s a lot of converging evidence for these different ways of knowing.
There’s propositional knowing.
This is what we are most familiar with.
In fact, it almost has a tyrannical status, right?
This is knowing that something is the case, like that 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.
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 salience 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
criterion of realness.
So you can get this by my friend Dan Schiappi 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 they want to really be in the game, and 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
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 a different, that kind of knowing, is that different from the quality
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 than with
So the adjectival qualia are like the greenness of green and the blueness of blue.
The adverbial qualia are the hereness, the nowness, the togetherness.
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, and 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.
Well, there was a lot of ink spilled over that over a 40 year period, so.
My philosophers, they spill, this is what they do, they spill ink to get paid for ink
So 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, my hand, I’m bipedal,
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?
Use 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
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.
That there’s a dance between the physics that enables this process and just participating
in the process is the act of knowing.
And there’s a really weird form of memory you have for this kind of knowing, it’s called
Can you elaborate?
Well, you do, so we talked about how all the different other kinds of knowing had specific
kinds of memory, semantic memory for propositional, procedural, episodic for perspectival.
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
Yeah, what’s the self?
Do you mean like consciousness?
No, I mean your sense of self.
Sense of self in this world that’s not consciousness.
It’s like an agency or something.
Right, it’s an agent arena relationship.
And so in an agent arena relationship, it’s the sense of the agent.
And that the agent belongs in that arena.
Whatever the agent is, whatever the arena is, because it’s probably a bunch of different
framings of how you experience that.
Yeah, and you do.
In 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.
I wonder if like my two hands have different, because there’s a different experience of
me picking up something with my right hand and then my left hand.
Are those like…
That’s a really cool question, Lex.
They certainly feel like their own things, 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 McGilchrist stuff.
It could be you’re using different hemispheres and they sort of have different agent arena
relationships to the environment.
This is a really important question in the cognitive science of the self.
Does that hemispheric difference mean you’re multiple or you actually have a singular self?
So it’s important to understand how many cells are there.
Yes, I think so.
But that’s just like a quirk of evolution.
Surely it 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
Do you want me to go back to that first or answer this one?
I already forgot everything.
What’s the functionality of religion?
Let us return.
And then we can return to the self.
So you said you have all these propositions and et cetera, et cetera, and they differ
from the religions and 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 nonpropositional
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 nonpropositional,
nonrepresentational processes of connectedness and relevance realization.
So religion goes down deep to the nonpropositional 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
Psychotechnologies, like language is one, I suppose.
Isn’t religion then a psychotechnology?
It would be, 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
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.
But Nietzsche is full of romantic bullshit, as we know.
No, no, no.
No, but there’s a point there.
The point is, right, there’s 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 as nihilism takes hold, you don’t ever replace the thing that religion,
the role that religion played in our world.
It’s hard to tell what he actually, because he’s so multivocal.
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 from the best religion and philosophical traditions, because there’s things like stoicism
that are in the grey line between philosophy and religion, Buddhism is the same.
Using that best cocci, that best exaptation, 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, those things, 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 is broken up, people are now thousands of miles away
from the government, they’re surrounded by people because of the diasporas, 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 domicile, 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 and 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 give us meaning.
So if religion loses power, we’ll find other institutions that are sources of meaning.
Is that your intuition as well?
I think we are already doing that.
I am 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
I just, in late July, went to Washington State and did Rafe Kelly’s Evolve Move Play, Return
to the Source, and wow, one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done.
That guy is awesome, by the way.
I got to interact with him a long, long time ago.
He said to say hi to you, by the way.
It’s from another world.
It feels like a different world because I interacted with him, not directly, but…
This is somebody…
He 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 sort of athletic endeavors or actual just like walking around
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 humanness 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 Raif’s integration of parkour in nature 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 nonpropositional 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, and I said, but what you just did was a religious act, wasn’t it?
And they all went, yeah, it was.
So that same magic was there.
What’s your take on atheism in general?
Is it closer to truth than, maybe is an atheist closer to truth than a person who believes
So I’m a nontheist, 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 nontheistic religious traditions.
So I’m not coming up with a sort of airy fairy category.
And what’s the difference in nontheism, agnosticism and atheism?
So nontheists 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 theist and the atheist see God.
In their modern version, yes, yes.
In which, do you reject it in the sense that you don’t know, or do you reject it in a sense
that you believe that each one of those presuppositions is likely to be not true?
Both on reflection, argument, and personal experimentation and experience, I’ve come
to the conclusion that those shared propositions are probably not true.
Which one is the most troublesome to you?
The personal being, the kind of accumulation of everything into one being that ultimately
So for me, there’s two, and they’re interlocked together.
I’m not trying to dodge your question.
It’s that the idea that the ground of being is some kind of being, I think, is a fundamental
It’s void of being?
No, no, no.
The ground of being is some kind of being, so it’s turtles all the way down.
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.
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 normally pronounced as nothingness.
But if you put the hyphen back in, you get the original intent, no thingness.
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 mistake
to my mind, and then 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 sacredness as 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 nontheist 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 … Did you do … Like, can you do that?
I’m going to have … I need an 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 it’s both?
You do think it’s both?
I mean, that’s not a trivial thing to understand, because a lot of 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, unboreable.
I could just sit in a room, just like playing with a tennis ball or something and be excited,
basically like a 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.
But honestly, that’s what a lot of people that I don’t necessarily … We’ll talk
I don’t practice meditation, but people who meditate very seriously, like the entire
days for months kind of thing, they talk about being able to discover meaning in just the
wind or something, like they just … The breath and everything, just subtle sensory
experiences give you deep fulfillment.
So that’s, again, it’s interaction.
Actually, I do want to say, because the interesting difference that you’ve drawn between nontheism,
theism and atheism, where’s the agreement or disagreement between you and Jordan Peterson
I want to say 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 lines between the way the two of you see religion?
So there was a video released, I think, like two or three weeks ago with Jordan and myself
and Jonathan Paget.
Oh, I haven’t watched that one yet, yeah.
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 Paget is also a, well, Jonathan is a Christian, it’s unclear what Jordan
And Jonathan’s work is on symbolism and different mythologies and Christianity.
Yes, especially Neoplatonic Christianity, which is very important.
I have a lot of respect, well, 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 could 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 nontheistic perspective.
So I think we don’t agree on certain sets of propositions.
But there was a lot of, 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
I think that’s relatively clear for me with Jordan.
Jordan’s a really complex guy, 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 theism?
Jonathan is a guy who somehow went into icon carving and Maximus the Confessor and Eastern
Orthodoxy and has come out of it at 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 has, he and I, especially because Neoplatonism is a nontheistic 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.
You’re a Christian, right?
And then he’s being coy, 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, but classical
theism looks a lot more like nontheism 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 in much more, actually all three of us are in significant
I said this in my series, but I want to say it again here.
Myths aren’t stories about things that happened in the deep past that are largely irrelevant.
Myths 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 nonpropositional levels.
And I think that is what good mythos does.
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.
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 I 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 this mythos becomes real in connecting
to the patterns that kind of captivate the public today.
So you just keep telling the story.
I mean, there’s something about some of these stories that are just really good at being
sticky to the patterns of each generation.
And they’ll stick to different patterns throughout time, they’re just sticky in powerful ways.
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 like to put in counterbalance to that is the Greek also have myths of hubris,
that 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 we’re—religio 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 or 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, 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’ve gotten really into it, you scratched the surface a little bit.
But the role of, as you say, dialogue in distributed cognition.
What is that?
The thing we’re doing right now, talking with our mouth holes, what is that?
And actually, can I ask you this question?
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 on 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 won’t need to do the details, it’s
called the waste and selection task.
And you give it to people, highly educated psychology students, premier universities
across the world, we’ve been doing it since the 60s, it 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
versus psychology students?
Is there a major group differences in IQ between those two?
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
I use the word discourse or dialogue for just people having a conversation, 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 onto something
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
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 introduced us to a capacity for tapping into a flow state within 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 dialogos.
And so for me, I think dialogos is more important… Boy, I could just… 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… 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
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.
A myth is like a public dream.
It depends on distributed cognition, and it depends on people enacting it and getting
into mutual flow states.
So the highest form of dialogos of conversation is this flow state, and that it forms the
foundation for myth building.
I think so.
So that communitas, 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
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.
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, and I was like,
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 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.
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.
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.
Just a huge amount of people have listened to your lectures, I’ve 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 sentence, actually, as I’m saying it now, why was that?
It didn’t feel like sometimes lectures are kind of, you know, 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, like, 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 were 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 were referencing a lot of ideas, but then you were
also struggling in the way to present those ideas.
Yes, there was, and so the jazz, like the jazz and getting into the flow state and trying
to share in a participatory and perspectival fashion the learning with the people rather
than just pronouncing at them, yes.
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 practitioner’s 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 aware of the present moment without
judgment and because I think 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?
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 checks and balances on each other, right?
And I’ll get to that with this about mindfulness, so I’ll make that connection if you allow
So we’re always framing, we’ve been talking about that, right?
And for those of you who are not on YouTube, this podcast, I wear glasses and I’m now sort
of putting my fingers and thumb around the frames of my glasses.
So this is my frame, 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 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, 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?
I need to put my glasses on and see if I can now see more clearly and deeply than I could
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
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
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 sort of the integration back.
So the contemplation step.
So if you, 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.
You really nicely described.
So meditation is the, in that metaphors 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.
So if you just did contemplation, you could suffer from inflation and projective fantasy.
If you just do meditation, you can suffer from withdrawal, spiritual bypassing, avoiding
They act, they need each other.
You have to cycle between them.
It’s like what 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?
I would tell them to do at least three things.
And I was, I lucked into this.
When I started meditation, I went down the street and there was a place that taught Vipassana
meditation, Metta contemplation and Tai Chi Chuan 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 Vipassana.
So 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 abdomen where my breathing
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.
Now what will happen is my mind will leap back to try to look through and look at the
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
So part of your mind that jumps around in the Buddhist tradition, this is called your
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 Kornfield said, train
a puppy dog, stay puppy dog, and if it goes and I get really angry 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, look, the puppy dog went there.
Oh, now 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 step back and look at your sensations.
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.
Then what’s a good contemplative practice?
A good 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 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.
So what I’m doing in meta is 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
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 could 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 than I have before.
You know, like you go to the gym and you do bicep curls.
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 contemplative practice, how to do a Stoic.
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 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.
Oh, 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 because the stepping matters because if you just jump,
it doesn’t work.
Do you have any of this 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 Vervecki.
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
Neoplatonism, cultivating wisdom with John Vervecki.
That’s all there, all free.
On your website?
It’s on my YouTube channel.
On your YouTube channel.
I mean, your Meaning Crisis lectures is just incredible.
Everything around it, including the notes and the notes that people took, it’s just,
it 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, 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?
So, and he just died last year, Csikszentmihalyi.
I admire him very much.
We’ve exchanged a bunch of messages over the past few years, and he wanted to do the podcast
Oh, that would have been wonderful.
But he said he struggled with his health, and I never knew in those situations, I deeply
regret several cases like this that I had with Conway, that I should have pushed him
on it because, yeah, as you get later in life, things, the simple things become more difficult,
but a voice, especially one that hasn’t been really heard, is important to hear.
So anyway, I apologize, but yeah.
I share that.
I mean, I can tell you that within my area, he is important and he’s famous in an academics
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
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.
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.
But they also mean optimal in a second sense, my best performance.
So it’s both the best experience and the best performance.
So Csikszentmihalyi 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.
If 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
Third, failure has to matter.
Error really matters.
So there should be some anxiety about failure.
And failure matters.
So that, yeah, because…
Like to you, the person that participates.
Yes, yes, yes.
Now when you’re in the flow state, 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 atonement with the environment.
They report a loss of a particular kind of self consciousness, that narrative, nurturing
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, superego 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 effort, it feels effortless.
So 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, right?
You put out your glove hand and the puck’s there, right?
So there’s this tremendous sense of grace, atonement, super salience, 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 coauthors in the article we published in the Oxford
Handbook of Spontaneous Thought with Arianne Harabennett and Leo Ferraro is that’s a descriptive
account of flow.
We wanted an explanatory account, one of the causal mechanisms at work in flow.
And so we actually proposed to 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’ve got to do an 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 atonement, of deep participation, of grace, but there’s something else going
So there’s a phenomenon called implicit learning, also very well replicated.
It’s way back in the 60s with Rieber.
You can give people complex patterns, like number and letter strings, 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.
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, your 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 it adaptive make us 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.
So implicit learning, 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 Flo.
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
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.
Now look at those three, Lex.
Those are exactly the three conditions that you need for Flo.
Clear information, tightly coupled feedback and error matters.
So Flo 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 and I don’t think Hogarth was saying it’s gonna 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 is really focused
on the moment.
I think that’s part of the phenomenology, but I think the functionality has to do with
the fact that what’s happening in flow is that dynamic nonpropositional 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?
In fact, 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 get, they tend to suffer depression and all kinds of things.
Your ability, your habit and just skill at 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.
I’m not sure about that.
I just, I don’t want to push back against the implied challenge of transferability because
there’s a lot of, I have a lot of friends that play video games, a very large percent
of young folks play video games and I’m hesitant to build up models of how that affects behavior.
My intuition is weak there.
Sometimes 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 part,
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, they’re 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 or 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.
So I just want to say this sort of, 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, I do.
First of all, I did qualify and I’m saying it’s not the case for all video games or for
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 achieve.
They couldn’t transfer, yeah.
And 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.
I can find it.
No, no, no.
Let me, I’m always hesitant to too eagerly kind of agree with things that I want to agree
There’s a public perception everyone seems to hate on social media.
I wonder, as always with these things, does it reveal depression or does it create depression?
This is always the question.
It’s like whenever you talk about any political or ideological movement, does it create hate
or does it reveal hate?
And that’s a good thing to ask and you should always challenge the things that you intuitively
want to believe.
I agree with that.
So one of the ways you address this, and it’s not sufficient and I did say the work is preliminary,
but if I can give you a plausible mechanism that’s new and then that lends credence.
And part of what happens is illusory 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 and so they get downward social comparison and this is like compared to how you and I
probably live where we may get one or two of those events a week, they’re getting them
moment by moment.
And so it’s a plausible mechanism that why it might be driving people into a more depressed
Okay, 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 that it’s artificial.
So for example, even just artificial filters, people start to realize like, there’s like,
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.
Grand theft auto, you can shoot people up, you can do whatever the heck you want.
In the real world, you can’t and you start to develop an understanding of how to have
fun in the virtual world and in the physical world.
And I think it’s just as a pushback, I’m not saying either is true though, those are very
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 Flo.
As we engage in Flo.
You laugh at the shampoo commercial and you buy the shampoo.
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 common examples because sometimes you can laugh all the way to the bank.
You can laugh and not buy the shampoo.
There’s many cases, so 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 and that’s the concern.
And maybe the machine of social media is such that it optimizes the shampoo buying.
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.
And I want to contrast that to an experience I had when I was in grad school.
I had been doing Tai Chi Chuan about three or four years, very religiously, both senses
of the word, like three or four hours a day and reading all the literature and I was having
all the weird experiences, cold as ice, hot as lava, all that stuff and it’s ooh, right?
But my friends in grad school, they said to me, what’s going on?
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 sort of flexible and you adjust more and I realized, oh, and
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 a powerful transfer
and that’s what I meant by flow wisely, not only flow in a way that’s 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 that comes from Woodward and others, a lot of convergence around this.
Carhartt 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.
Which neural networks are we talking about?
I’m talking about a general, just general…
Both artificial and biological?
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 who are in a statistical orientation, they pick up patterns
in the sample that aren’t actually present in the population.
And so what you do is there’s various strategies.
You can do dropout where you 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, et cetera.
And what that does is exactly something strongly analogous to what’s happening in dropout or
putting noise into the data.
It opens up.
And by the way, 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
So like literally very simplistic kind of noise to the perception system.
It can break it out of overfitting to the data and open you up.
Now, that means, though, that just doing that 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 and setting, I think you need another S. I think you need sacred.
You need, psychedelics need to be practiced within a sapiential 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
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 if 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?
Is it a higher state or is it a detour, a side road on the main road of consciousness?
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 sort of psychedelic experiences, mind revealing experiences,
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 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
longstanding 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, right?
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 a 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’re in this 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?
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 experiences.
So you do think seeing those as more real is productive because then you reach for them.
So Jaden’s done work on it, and again, all of this stuff isn’t 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.
Their 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
Especially their clash on the Eastern Front.
Battle of Kursk.
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 the philosopher who took German Protestantism and also Kant and Fichte and Schelling, 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 foisting that on him.
He said it repeatedly in many different places.
So he’s trying to create a philosophical system that gathered to it, I think, the core mythos
The 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 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
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 it’s very, in Marx’s case, it’s very pragmatic or directly applicable to society, to where
it leads to, it more naturally leads to political ideologies.
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 Kantian 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 nonpropositional.
This is why the two great critics of Hegel, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, they’re trying
to put their finger on the nonpropositional, the nonconceptual, the will to power or faith
in Kierkegaard, and they’re trying to bring out all these other kinds of knowing as being
That’s why Kierkegaard meant when he said, Hegel made a system and then he sat down beside
And so Marxism is very much, it is activist, 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 with 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 and 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, 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 would Stalin happen, or Mao happen.
There’s something very interesting and complex about human nature in hierarchies, about distributed
cognition that results in that, and it’s not trivial to understand.
So, I mean, I wonder if you could put a finger on it.
Why did it go so wrong?
So I think, you know, what Ohana 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 godlike beings.
Think of the hubris in that, and think of the overconfidence to think that we so understand
human nature and all of its complexities and human history, and how religion functioned,
that we can just come in with a plan and make it run.
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.
The ends justify the means really free you to do some of, basically, well, commit atrocities
at any scale.
Ground zero with Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, right, exactly.
And 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 supermen, ubermensch, 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
And don’t forget, the Weimar Republic is like a meaning crisis gone crazy on all levels.
Everybody’s suffering domicile, everybody’s home and way of life and identity and culture
and relationship to religion and science, all of that, right?
So Nazism comes along and offers a kind of Gnosticism, again, twisted, perverted.
I’m not saying that all Gnostics are Nazis, but there is this Gnostic mythology, mythos,
and it comes to the fore.
I remember, and this stuck with me in undergrad, I was taking political science, and the professor
extended lecture on this, and it still rings true for me, 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 Promethean type of…
I think it’s the latter.
I think there’s this vacuum created.
In that context, is Hitler the central religious figure?
And also, did Nazi Germany create Hitler, or did Hitler create Nazi Germany?
So in this distributed cognition where everyone’s having a dialogue, what’s the role of a charismatic
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 Sangha 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, itself 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
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.
And that can tend to constellate these collective agents, I call them hyperagents, within distributed
cognition that have a capacity to wreak havoc on the world that is not just due to a sort
of a sum total of immoral decisions.
This goes to Hannah Arendt’s thing, and the banality of Eichmann.
She was really wrestling with it, and I think she’s close to something, but I think she’s
Eichmann 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.
And 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.
And 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 Paget.
We’ve been talking about this.
So the word sin is interesting.
Are you comfortable using the word sin?
Because it’s so deeply rooted in religious texts.
And in part, and 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.
That you’re slowly escaping.
And trying to come into a proper respectful relationship with Christianity via a detour
through Buddhism, Taoism, and pagan Neoplatonism.
Trying to find a way how to love wisely.
And so 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.
And I think it was Hume.
I may be wrong.
Hume says, you know, people don’t do things because they think it’s wrong.
They do a lesser good in place of a greater good.
And that’s a different thing than being immoral.
Immoral, we’re saying, you’re doing something that’s wrong.
It’s like, well, no, no, you know, I’m loving my wife.
That’s a great thing, isn’t it?
But if you love your wife at the expense of your kids, like, wow, maybe something’s going
Well, I love my country.
But should you love your country at the expense of your commitment to the religion you belong
I mean, people should wrestle with these questions.
And I think sin is a failure to wrestle with these questions properly.
To be content with the choices you’ve made without considering, is there a greater good
that could be done?
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.
For example, Paul Corbin, the man Carl Jung, Tillich, Barfield, is there, can you describe,
this might be challenging, but one powerful idea from each that jumps to mind?
So for Heidegger, 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 4E Cognitive Science.
And this whole idea about the nonpropositional, that was deeply afforded by Heidegger and
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 and we get disconnected from being
because we are overfocused 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 why that gets us into
So, 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 thing.
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 Tillich.
Tillich’s great idea is understanding faith as ultimate concern rather than a set of propositions
that you’re asserting, right?
So what are you ultimately concerned about?
What do you want to be in right relationship to, ratio religio?
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?
Maybe this is Carl 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.
Which aspect of his model of the psyche?
So Freud has a hydraulic model.
The psyche is like a steam engine.
Things are under pressure and there’s a fluid that’s moving around.
It’s like, like this is a record note of 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.
Can you elaborate on the psychodynamic?
They’re talking about the aspects of the unconscious that have to do with your sort of ego development
and how you are understanding and interpreting yourself.
What else is there?
There’s the unconscious that allows you to turn the noise coming out of my face hole
There’s the unconscious that says, yeah, 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
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
But it’s also not the thought that that can be completed.
Part of why you’re extending the reach of the conscious mind is it so it can enter into
a more proper dialogical relationship with the self organizing system of the unconscious
What did they have to say about the motivations of humans?
So for Freud, jokingly, I said, you know, sex, so much of our mind is developed in our
young age, sexual interactions with the world or whatever, hence the thing about the edible
complex and all, you know, I wanted 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 camp are you in there?
What motivates humans?
Sex or power?
I think Plato is right.
And I think there’s a connection for me.
Plato’s my first philosopher, Jung’s my first psychologist, and Jung is very much the Plato
of the psyche.
You never forget your first.
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 find an ecology of practices and a community that supports them without
involving you in believing things that contravene our best understood science so that wisdom
and virtue, 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 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?
That’s an interesting ecology of practice, finding a place where a lot of people are
doing different things that are interesting interplay with each other, but at the same
time is not a cult where ideas can flourish.
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 they’re awash in a culture in which we have ever expanding waves of bullshit.
Try to keep away from the bullshit is the advice.
No, I mean, I take this very seriously and I was with a bunch of people in Vermont at
the respond retreat, people, Rafe Kelly was there, a bunch of people who have set up ecologies
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 dialogos, flow in distributed cognition,
exercise the collective intelligence, and try and address that problem, both in terms
of metachurriculum 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 gurufication.
Gurufication of people or ideas?
Some of us just get unlucky.
Some of us get unlucky and we all at respond, we all had a tremendous sense of urgency around
this, but we were trying to balance it about not being premature, but there was going to,
I mean, we’re going to produce a metachurriculum 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’s going to be projects about how we
can create a self correcting 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, et cetera.
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’ve really struggled?
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 nonpropositional 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.
So I required therapy, it 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 it had… The food it had
given me, food in 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
So the meaning crisis to you is not just the thing you look outside and see many people
You yourself have struggled.
But that’s, in fact, the narrative, is I struggled with it, thinking it was a purely personal,
I started learning the kog sai, I started doing the tai chi and the meditation, I started
doing all this Socratic philosophy.
And when I started to talk about these pieces, I saw my students eyes light up, and I realized,
wait, maybe this isn’t just something I’m going through.
And 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
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?
I mean, it’s even central to reason and rationality.
This is Plato, but Spinoza, the most logical of the rationalists.
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.
A beautiful way to end it.
And 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, Lex.
I really enjoyed it a lot.
Thank you so much.
Thanks for listening to this conversation with Jon Verweke.
To support this podcast, please check out our sponsors in the description.
And now let me leave you with some words from Hermann Hesse in 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.