Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with John Vervaeke (@vervaeke_john), a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto who currently teaches courses on thinking and reasoning with an emphasis on cognitive development, intelligence, rationality, mindfulness, and the psychology of wisdom.
Vervaeke is the director of UToronto’s Consciousness and Wisdom Studies Laboratory and its Cognitive Science program, where he teaches Introduction to Cognitive Science and The Cognitive Science of Consciousness, emphasizing the 4E model, which contends that cognition and consciousness are embodied, embedded, enacted, and extended beyond the brain.
Vervaeke has taught courses on Buddhism and Cognitive Science in the Buddhism, Psychology, and Mental Health program for 15 years. He is the author and presenter of the YouTube series “Awakening from the Meaning Crisis” and his brand new series, “After Socrates.”
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show. I’m going to keep my preamble short because I would like to get into the meat and potatoes of this conversation that I’ve been looking forward to.
My guest today is John Vervaeke on Twitter. You can find him @Vervaeke_John. He is a professor of psychology and cognitive science at the University of Toronto. He currently teaches courses on thinking and reasoning with an emphasis on cognitive development, intelligence, rationality, mindfulness, and the psychology of wisdom.
Vervaeke is the director of UToronto’s Consciousness and Wisdom Studies Laboratory and its Cognitive Science program where he teaches Introduction to Cognitive Science and the Cognitive Science of Consciousness, emphasizing the 4E model, which I’m sure we will get into, which contends that cognition and consciousness are embodied, embedded, enacted, and extended beyond the brain.
Vervaeke has taught courses on Buddhism and cognitive science in the Buddhism, Psychology, and Mental Health program for 15 years. He is the author and presenter of the outstanding — that’s what I’m adding — YouTube series — I highly recommend — Awakening from the Meaning Crisis and his brand new series, After Socrates. You can find all things John Vervaeke at johnvervaeke.com. That is spelled V-E-R-V-A-E-K-E, johnvervaeke.com.
John, thank you so much for taking the time today.
John Vervaeke: Great pleasure to be here, Tim. Great pleasure, indeed.
Tim Ferriss: Could you please elaborate on the four ways of knowing?
John Vervaeke: Sure. The idea about a taxonomy that has to be principled. And so what it is, is every one of these kinds of knowing has a particular vehicle, a particular result, a particular standard, and a particular kind of memory. I’m not going through all of these things to be pedantic. I’m going through to these to show that this is a rigorous taxonomy, that this is like, because you can cut up the world however you want. But in the scientific taxonomy, you want it to be very systematic and rigorous.
The kind of knowing we’re most familiar with, and our culture is very fixated on, is propositional knowing. This is knowing that something is the case. This is knowing that cats are mammals, knowing that two plus two equals four. The standard of realness for that is truth. You’re convinced that something is true and it results in beliefs. You get true beliefs, and perhaps they become true justified beliefs, et cetera.
The kind of memory that’s associated with that is called semantic memory. For example, if I ask you, “Do you remember learning that cats are mammals? Can you tell me the day that that really dropped for you?” And you go, “I don’t know.” So that’s semantic memory. The reason why I’m saying this is all of these memories are distinct from each other, such that it’s possible to damage one without the others being completely damaged.
The next is procedural knowing. This is knowing how, this is knowing how to kiss someone. This is knowing how to kick a ball. This is knowing how to swim. This doesn’t result in beliefs. This results in skills, and skills aren’t true or false. Tim, do you know how to swim?
Tim Ferriss: I do.
John Vervaeke: Right. Now, is swimming true or false right now? No, you’re misunderstanding. Skills aren’t true or false. They apply or they don’t, and they apply powerfully or they don’t. And so it’s standard of realness is powered. Does our know-how empower us? Then prosaically enough, psychologists called a form of memory associated with this procedural memory.
Now each one of these, I’m going in an order of dependence. The propositional depends on the procedural, and we can get into that in a minute, but I’ll just go through the four first. The next is perspectival knowing. This is knowing what it’s like to be. So, you know what it’s like to be you now in your state of mind in this situation. You know what you’re foregrounding, what you’re backgrounding, you know what is salient for you. You can sense how the salience is shifting around. You got a sense of how you’re fitted to this situation.
This doesn’t result in skills or beliefs. It results in perspectives, and you know how to take perspectives and you know what the difference between perspectives are and how valuable it is to have multi perspectives on a situation. Sometimes in order to solve a problem, you shift to a different perspective. And so perspectives aren’t true or false, they’re not powerful or not, their standard of realness is presence. How present are you in this situation?
In fact, when people do VR work, they look for this. How much do people feel like they’re in the game? There’s that. That’s the perspectival knowing, that they’re really situated in it, that they really belong to it, et cetera, et cetera. This has its own kind of memory called episodic memory. So I can ask you perhaps, do you remember what you did on your last birthday?
Tim Ferriss: And the answer’s yes.
John Vervaeke: What you’ll do is you’ll remember a particular perspective you had on a particular situation and your state of mind in that situation. That’s your episodic memory. Now below that, and this gets to what we were talking about earlier, is participatory knowing. This is knowing by being. This is the kind of knowing that results from how you and reality have been co-shaped to fit together to generate those affordances.
For example, the water bottle and I have both been shaped by gravity. We’ve both been shaped by electromagnetism so that we can — there’s an affordance there. We’ve both been shaped by a biological history, which is niche construction. My ancestors evolved. They made tools that shaped the environment that shaped my ancestors. Culture has shaped me in this technology, made this and taught me how to drink out of a water bottle.
There’s been all this co-shaping of me and parts of the environment. So we fit together, we’re niche together, we belong together. Affordances are available to me. The idea, and then that’s carried in this very weird sense of memory that you probably don’t even recognize is it’s your sense of self, the sense of all of the identities you’ve taken up and how they’re somehow historically narratively linked together to certain narrative histories of certain situations.
Here’s the proposal. You have participatory knowing. It’s laying out affordances. When that’s missing, you know it. Culture shock or when you’re homesick or when you’re lonely, that participatory knowing.
Tim Ferriss: John, could you do just define affordances
John Vervaeke: The affordances are real relations for how you can interact with the object and how that object is available to you. This affords graspability, the water bottle is graspable. That’s an affordance, a real relation of fittedness, so me and the water bottle belong together. It makes itself available for certain interactions and I can shape myself to interact with it powerfully and appropriately. Did that work as an explanation?
Tim Ferriss: It did work. Could you perhaps give an example of an affordance that would come into play with culture shock?
John Vervaeke: An affordance would come into play with culture shock is there are certain affordances about how you and other people relate that tell you when conversation is available to you, when there’s an affordance for conversation. Notice that most of this is unconscious for you. Notice even within your own culture. So Tim, how close should you stand to somebody at a funeral?
Tim Ferriss: I was just thinking about the body spacing because I was just in Japan where it’s very, very different. I couldn’t give you a discreet number, but I was probably a feeling associated with it where it goes from comfortable to uncomfortable.
John Vervaeke: Right. You’ve got that sense of — and it wasn’t working in Japan.
Tim Ferriss: Very different.
John Vervaeke: And so that way of connecting to people, by shaping the literal personal space between you and them was not available to you. That affordance wasn’t there.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that makes sense.
John Vervaeke: Okay. The affordances are here, and then the perspectival knowing makes certain affordances salient to me, grabbing my attention, arousing my metabolism. The floor is walkable for me right now, but I don’t need to walk right now. So it’s not something that I’m paying attention to, right? But I bring it into my situational awareness with the perspectival knowing, that situational awareness tells me which skills I should activate, which is procedural knowing.
Then the procedural knowing puts me into the causal relationships with the world that give me the evidence for my beliefs. So that’s all the kinds of knowing. The point is, outside of the propositional, these other kinds of knowing are built on the way you are dynamically coupled to the environment, and therefore, they harken back to that participation, that contact we were talking about.
Tim Ferriss: I suppose it’s this coupling and interaction with the environment on a few different levels in the sense that you have your sort of skin encapsulated ego and its interaction with what we perceive as external elements. Then you have perhaps those who think of mind and body in this Cartesian dualistic way. You have the interaction of the body with the mind, which in some respects is the entire reason for which the brain evolved in some respects.
Let me just come back to semantic memory. Could you give just another example of semantic memory, because I don’t think I grasped that?
John Vervaeke: Oh. So if I ask you, “Are dogs fishes?” and what do you say to me?
Tim Ferriss: I say no.
John Vervaeke: That’s semantic memory. Did anybody ever sit you down, you remember it? Do you have an episodic memory of, “I remember when I learned that dogs weren’t fishes?” It’s not bound up with your particular perspective on a situation or the state of mind you are in. It is this abstracted fact, and that’s what propositions are about. They’re about these abstracted facts.
Tim Ferriss: Got it. I’ve read somewhere, and I can’t believe everything I read on the internet, so I’d love for you to fact check this. Is there some interplay between what people experience as flow states and the activation or use of multiple forms of knowing? Or did I just pull that out of the air?
John Vervaeke: No. I have argued for that thesis. I don’t know if that makes it a fact, but I would definitely argue on its behalf. I think, well, I’ve published and done work on the flow state, and I think the flow state is an example of, in our experience, a prioritization of the procedural, the perspectival, and the participatory over the propositional. In fact, one of the things people reliably report is that whole propositional processing drops out. Even that narrative nanny, the thing in your head that’s like, “How am I doing? How do I look? Do people like me? How am I doing? Maybe I should lose some weight. How am I doing? How’s my hair,” that all falls away.
Because you’re so — well, this goes to what I was saying a few minutes ago. There’s this enlivening, enriching of a sense of contact. One of the defining features of the flow state is people feel at one with their environment. They feel dynamically coupled to it. So that’s participatory. They feel at one with it.
And the perspectival, everything is super salient. There’s an ongoing sense of discovery of even almost like insight in — well, I’ve argued in insight cascade, you’re getting even more like the perspective, you’re getting super present. Then of course the procedurality, is you just know how to do it. Hence the word, it just flows from you.
What’s really important, Tim, is that the flow state is optimal for people. They think they’re at their best with good reason. They’ll say it’s one of the best experiences they had, one of the most rewarding, even more rewarding than pleasure. And so much so that asking people how frequently they get into the flow state is a good predictor of their sense of wellbeing.
And so here’s the point I want to make about that. This is a clear example of that non-propositional connectedness. Flow is about really realizing the transjectivity, that connectedness, and how much it contributes to a sense of agency and meaning for people.
Tim Ferriss: I think we’re going to jump in the deep end of the meaning pool shortly. Let me ask you first though, given what you just said, how highly do you prioritize getting into flow states yourself? And if the answer is reasonably high or higher, how do you personally like to get into flow states?
John Vervaeke: I’ve said this, and I mean this deeply, and I don’t mean it as a trivial commodification. Daoism is the religion, philosophy of flow. I’ve been practicing Daoist practices, Tai Chi Chuan, Zhan Zhuang, Yi Chuan, Qigong. I got professional training and practice for 10 years as a Shiatsu therapist. I’ve done it all. Well, not at all, that’s pretentious. But I’ve done a lot. Okay, that’s fair.
What those things do, and this is something I want to talk to you about at some point, they get me into a flow state, but in a particular way that I think is really important. And this goes to a story I’ve told. I was in grad school and I’d been doing Tai Chi Chuan for about three or four years. I was doing it really religiously, both in the sense of devotedly, and I was doing it two or three hours a day and going to the dojo three or four times a week kind of thing.
Some of my fellow students came up to me and said, “What’s going on with you? What are you doing differently?” I’m like, “Oh, you’re worried in grad school that people are going to find you out.” And so I said, “I’m doing Tai Chi Chuan.” Well, before I said that, and I said, “Well, why are you saying that?” And they said, “Well, because you’re just — in conversations, you’re much more flowing and you’re much more flexible and you’re much more balanced and you’re much more receptive. And you seem to…”
And it was like, “Oh, the flow state that I’m getting into in Tai Chi is permeating many different domains of my life and many different levels of my mind.” I thought, ah, and this is a question that has become a question to me. What are the contexts that generate flow that transfer like that powerfully, versus the context where the flow stays locked into that particular context?
Tim Ferriss: That is a great question. That is such a good question. So where have you gone with that?
John Vervaeke: Well, I’ve gone with that, well, in several different directions, and it’s very much a work in progress. I asked for some charity on the part of listeners. This is something I’m very much working on right now. I’m glad you think it’s a great question because even if you get a good question that then you’re a good scientist, then you’re doing something.
One of the things I think has to do with whether or not the skill or the skillset that’s being trained in the particular practice pick is relatively indispensable in domains other than the situation you’re in. Now, ideas about sensory motor movement and balance and coordination and getting the cerebellum and the frontal cortex to talk better to each other, that transfers broadly.
We’ve already got a lot of evidence about that, especially the cerebellum cortex loop. Even when people are meditating, the cerebellum is firing like crazy because of the cerebellum cortex loop. And so if it does that, then it could even shows up in the metaphors. We talk about balancing equations and justice being the balancing of things and scales. And so you want to find a set of skills that has that inbuilt potential.
Then what I would want to say is the degree to which there has been a framework built around the situation, a ritual philosophical framework that helps to afford the translation. So around the Tai Chi Chuan, you have Daoism, which gives you this way of framing reality as yin and yang that you can see instantiated in the Tai Chi, but you can also see it prevalent in the world. And so you set up the possibility with this framework for the resonance.
And so people who get trapped, and I’m not saying that all video games trap people, but the ones that suffer from video game addiction, they get the problem that they flow in a world that does not have a framework around it, it does not tap into those generally transferrable skills. And so they find the external world depressing because of its absence of flow potential that drives them into the game where they flow. And then you get the vicious cycle that gets you into the addiction.
I think there’s something about what are the kinds of skills that are being brought into the flow state. Do they have this domain general power? Is there a framework around it that helps people set up these patterns of resonance between what they’re doing in the practice and how they’re seeing the world and encountering it?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense to me. If there is some overarching philosophical framework or religious framework for that matter within which you’re practicing a given skill, there’s a broader context that then extends whatever you’re honing in this specific situation to other domains.
It makes me think actually of a friend of mine, his name is Joshua Waitzkin. He was the basis for Searching for Bobby Fischer, the book and the movie, of course, very, very high-level chess player. But he talks a lot. He no longer plays chess. He does a million other things. He was actually world champion in Tai Chi Push Hands. And what I find most, I shouldn’t say most interesting. He’s a lovely, deeply soulful guy. It’s not that I’m looking at him as a sort of instrument of learning mastery, but he is able to take concepts from all these different disciplines and apply them and transfers to all these other things.
For instance, in chess, he talks a lot about practicing the macro in the micro, or learning the macro from the micro. He’ll say, “Yeah, chess people, often novices, will, say, practice openings, but that’s kind of like copying from the teacher’s answer book.” You’re memorizing a lot in terms of declarative knowledge, but you’re not learning principles. So he’ll say, “Why don’t you start with — let’s just say three or four or five pieces on the board and you’re going to practice manipulating empty space or pulling into a vacuum.”
Lo and behold, a lot of those same principles transferred over to Tai Chi, and then he took principles from Tai Chi and moved them over into foil boarding. Is Tai Chi your go-to break-glass-in-case-of-emergency tool in the department of flow states, or do you have other approaches in the quiver?
John Vervaeke: Yeah, and this comes from the Socratic part of my framework, if you want to put it that way. That sounds very pretentious.
Tim Ferriss: I’m into it.
John Vervaeke: I have learned how to get into the flow state when lecturing. And that inevitably affords really good learning. Of course, not for every student, that would be claiming something that’s impossible. No teacher is a great teacher to every student. But I mean I’ve won teaching awards, et cetera, et cetera, and that’s because of this. Very often, students get drawn into it because I encourage a lot of Socratic dialogue in the lecture.
And so it very much often becomes a shared flow state. I become very interested in shared flow states and what they mean for how we can unpack the capacity for insight and reflection. So that’s one of my other go-to areas.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s unpack that a little bit. So in lecturing, did you do that naturally from the outset? Kind of like Usain Bolt having just different tendon attachments and so on, you can just run fast. So did that come out of the box for you or was that shared flow state in the form of lecturing a learned skill? If so, how did you develop that?
John Vervaeke: So very much a cultivated thing, and deliberately so. By nature, I’m almost pathologically shy and so I didn’t realize it was a lesson from Aristotle at the time, but you cultivate your character to compensate for your personality defects. And so I adopted — I’ve read my report cards from grade three, and they were calling me mini teacher. So taking on the role of the teacher, and I was fortunate to have some really wonderful teachers that allowed this, and to have classmates that enjoyed it. Think of all the conditions of how that could have gone wrong. So very fortunate, and that was how I started to manage that situation. So Tim —
Tim Ferriss: And manage that situation, you mean manage your shyness by —
John Vervaeke: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Assuming the role of teacher?
John Vervaeke: Yes. Right. The full persona and the role. So Tim, this is close enough to teaching, and I don’t mean to put you in the role of a student, I’m not saying that, but it’s close enough. It’s in proximity for transfer.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, I’m a student.
John Vervaeke: Yep. Well, anyways, it’s comfortable, but if you were to meet me if at a social party, I’m at times indistinguishable from potted plants, right? Because when I don’t have that role available to me, my natural constitution comes out. So it is very deliberately cultivated from very, very early on. And then as I started doing Tai Chi Chuan, when I started in grad school hearing about the bleed, that’s when I started to teach and lecture and I looked for it and I looked for what broke it and what enhanced it, and I slowly cultivated it more and more over time. Yes, it was very much a deliberate long-term cultivation.
Tim Ferriss: So what enhances it? Because you take, let’s just grab an example out of the year, Harvard Business School. They have these case study methods and there is ostensibly supposed to be a fair amount of interplay between lecture and student, but I would imagine that not all professors or grad students, or whoever is doing the teaching at the time would say they achieve a flow state, even if they’ve experienced it in other places like surfing. So what have you found to be things that enhance that for yourself and for the students?
John Vervaeke: So part of this, I’m going to declare a bias because I have a published theory about what I think the flow state is. I think it’s an insight cascade and the enhancement of implicit learning. So in enhance, we cultivate better insight capacities, we cultivate better intuition in an integrated manner. Now, that ghost, so I’m stating the bias upfront, but I think it’s a good theory and I think it’s well argued and well evidenced, but what I mean by that is more and more I crafted giving priority to the emergence of insight or intuition in me as I was lecturing and not sticking to the script so strongly, but willing to bend.
So I use the jazz analogy. I may have the script of the lecture, but I can riff on it and I look and I hunger and sensitize myself for that. And then when the students start to even demonstrate proto insight, I will really call that out in a positive manner and draw it out and they get — and they start priming each other with insights and they start priming me and I start priming them. And so it’s an easy thing to state and it’s a hard thing to do because when you’re lecturing and when I teach people how to lecture, I actually try to say, I try to get them to make space for the jazz because what you do when you’re anxious, and one of the things that really kills it a lot, it’s PowerPoint, right?
Because what you want is, “I need to say all of these things and I need to be clear and I need to have everything follow.” And so you get really, you try to constrain your anxiety with the tightness of this structure that you built. And what that actually does is that undermines the possibility of flow. And so it’s like Tai Chi Chuan, right? You want to be pung, you don’t want to be too yin, too yang. You want loosen the structure enough so that insight and intuition flow, but not so much that the lecture becomes incoherent and you find the sweet spot.
Tim Ferriss: How did you find Tai Chi, or how did Tai Chi find you?
John Vervaeke: I was brought up in a fundamentalist Christian extended family, not just the nuclear family, extended family. And it’s only later that I’ve come to realize how traumatizing that was for me. And so when I was 15, I read a couple of books, The Lord of Light and Siddhartha, Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny, Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, Fifth Business by Robertson Davies, and it really blew me open. It really blew me open. And so I left the Christianity, and like I said, I’ve done some therapy and other things, but religion, your mother religion is like your mother tongue. It shapes you in a way that nothing else ever can, or your first love. You don’t necessarily stay with that person, but it shapes you in very interesting ways in your relationships.
And so if you’ll allow me a metaphor, it left a taste for the transcendent in my mouth. And then I got to university and I took a first year course in philosophy and I encountered the figure of Socrates and the project of wisdom and it was like, that’s it. And of course, that is still with me now. That’s how profound it hit me, how profoundly. But what happened — and then I went into philosophy. What happened in philosophy, academic philosophy, now it’s changing now, but we’re talking about a long time ago, the ’80s, the topic of wisdom, self-transcendence, all these kinds of things that are rich in the Platonic corpus and the right and the Neoplatonic, it drops off the table and you talk about skepticism and epistemology and these are valuable metascientific and metacultural skills and I value them, but that hunger for the cultivation of wisdom was not being met.
And I happened to live in a place where literally down the road there was the Tai Chi and Meditation Center. So I thought, “You know what? I’m going to give the Eastern philosophies a try and maybe they will give me what I need for satisfying this hunger for the cultivation of wisdom.” And I was very lucky again because first of all, wonderful people. And secondly, this is where I got what I would now call an ecology of practices. They didn’t teach me one thing. They taught me a meditative practice, Vipassana. They taught me a contemplative practice, metta. And then they taught me Tai Chi Chuan to get how to flow between them in a regular and reliable ecology of practices. And that’s how it happened and that has been with me ever since.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. Vipassana, metta and Tai Chi, that is a very potent and uncommon trinity there. That’s a very formidable combination of things and I do want to revisit at some point meditation as contrasted with contemplation.
John Vervaeke: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: But first, I’d like to ask you, how old were you when you decided to leave Christianity and what was that experience like?
John Vervaeke: 15.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
John Vervaeke: And my life became bifurcated and fragmented in a way that I came to deeply find distasteful. And so trying to deal with fragmentation has also become a pervasive theme, whether it’s fragmentation within a person or fragmentation between the different disciplines that study the mind. That’s why I’m in cognitive scientists trying to integrate and solve the fragmentation problem. It was very challenging for me because I couldn’t move out on my own or anything. I’m 15.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, right.
John Vervaeke: I’m still in my family and they knew that something was going on, and there was this weird don’t ask, don’t tell thing. It was very challenging me. There were times when I went to church and the minister would be getting everybody to bow their head and raise their hand as if they agreed with this. And of course, everybody’s looking around surreptitiously and everybody’s raising their hand and I’m the one person not raising my hand. And just very, very, very difficult.
And then of course there was a group of friends, close friends at high school that were — they became very much invested in this project that I was engaged in of wrestling with meaning. And so they became very supportive and that was very happy for me but that was — and it caused things and it caused me to get married too young because marrying was a way of escaping that fundamentalist family and setting up a new one. And I’m on good terms with my ex, and I’m not making any criticisms of her. I’m just saying we got married, I think too young because we were both escaping that and we both — and that’s a good reason for forming a company together for a while, like the fellowship of the ring or something. We’re both going to leave fundamentalism together, we’re going to help — but it’s not the basis for a long-term marriage. It’s not.
And of course, you don’t know this at the time, the ways in which I was foolish around this are significant, but I was wrestling with a lot of stuff. I was wrestling with a profound kind of depression. I used to call it the black burning in my chest because of that hole. Like I said —
Tim Ferriss: I can imagine.
John Vervaeke: But also, like I said, there was trauma. There’s instances from when I was still in it as a kid that were absolutely traumatic to me. I came home one day and I lived within walking distance of the school. And there was always somebody in the home just because of the way it was a small home. We were a poor family. There was kids, my mom was mostly a housewife, and I came home once and there was nobody there. And I was absolutely convinced to my bones that the Rapture had occurred, all my family had been taken away. I was too sinful. I was left behind and the Antichrist and his minions were coming for me. This is, I’m 10.
And then another one, I used to read the Bible every day, and I’m glad I have, by the way. Biblical literacy is really important part of cultural literacy. I don’t begrudge that and the Bible still is deeply meaningful to me, but I read this passage in the New Testament and in multiple places they talk about the unforgivable sin, the sin that can never be forgiven no matter how much you pray about it, and I was terrified. And I thought, “Have I committed…?” Again, I think I was like 12. “Have I committed the unforgivable sin? And is thinking that the unforgivable sin?” And my mother could tell I was getting deeply distressed, and she took me to the minister who was supposed to help me, and he just gave me empty platitudes that even as a 12-year-old I recognized were completely useless, and I realized he doesn’t have an answer to this.
He pretended he had — he spoke with the confidence of some — but there was no answer forthcoming, and it was just like that kind of trauma. And these are just a couple incidences of many. And again, I’m not villianizing my mom or my dad or my family. I love them. My mom and my dad are both dead. I love my extended family but this is when I stepped out of that, that now came to the fore like, “Well, you’ve got to address this. What is the world such that? You shouldn’t have these fears. You shouldn’t have these terrors. What do you do with the way that has made you afraid of things?”
So yeah, it took work, it took therapy, it took meditation, contemplation, Tai Chi Chuan, a lot of good education, especially in the Socratic, Platonic tradition. So that’s what it was like. I wouldn’t recommend it for anybody but the thing I have to tell you, Tim, is I meet a lot of people who are attracted to my work because of something similar like this happening to them. They have left a religious home and they do not find any religious homes viable, yet they still hunger for that deep connectedness, that meaning, that space in which one can cultivate wisdom.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s segue to this word “wisdom,” because this might sound strange, but the self transcendence and the experience of that, I have some, I suppose, experience that lends itself to understanding what that means. Wisdom though, I would love for you to define for us, just so everybody including myself, is on the same page?
John Vervaeke: Knowledge is about overcoming ignorance. Wisdom is about overcoming foolishness. So you understand wisdom by understanding foolishness, and you understand foolishness as not identical to ignorance. These are the moods you have to make to get the chess pieces on the board if you want to play the game we’re going to play. And so foolishness, what is it? What do we mean by this? And this is an idea that’s born in the Axial Revolution, this specific notion of foolishness. But this idea, and I think 4E cogsci bears it out, I argue for it, I publish about it.
The very processes that make us intelligent problem solvers, make us so adaptive, are the very same processes that make us prone to self-deceptive, self-destructive behavior, right? That you don’t get one without the other. So you use your intelligence to solve problems, but you use rationality and wisdom to deal with the self-deception that emerges as you’re trying to solve your problems, and that’s a very different thing.
And the thing about these self deceptions is they don’t come as sort of isolated little things. They can constellate into complex patterns of self-organization. The confirmation bias can strengthen egocentrism, which can strengthen the degree to which you engage in a kind of narrow framing of situations, which can then feed back into the — and we’ve published on this, you get these massively complex. So the dynamical complex self-organization of your cognition is hijacked by self-deceptive processes, and they form these systems that are also complex and adaptive and hard to intervene on. We call it parasitic processing in the work that Leo and I published. Right?
Tim Ferriss: John, would you mind giving an example, because there are people listening, I’m sure a lot of people listening who pride themselves on being good problem solvers, having strong analytical minds, and they’re like, “But I don’t see how that automatically begets — not automatically, but how that would beget delusion, self-deception.” Would you mind giving an example or a hypothetical?
John Vervaeke: Let’s use a chess example.
Tim Ferriss: Okay.
John Vervaeke: Here’s the problem facing you in chess. You can’t actually check all the possible alternative pathways for playing a chess game. The number of alternative pathways is greater than the number of atomic particles in the universe. So even the super fastest chess game can’t check all of the possible alternative sequences of actions. That’s why, by the way, you get a chess game that beats any human being, or let’s do it with go. You get AlphaGo beats any human being, but then you can make a machine that beats AlphaGo because no game is — no AI can algorithmically play and search.
So what we have to do is we have to bias what information we check. This is the paradox. It sounds like a Zen koan, right? You’re intelligent because of your ability to ignore so much information in a way that makes obvious to you the relevant information enough of the time that you’re a very good problem solver in very many, many domains. So you’re playing chess. What’s a good heuristic? Control the center board. I’ve played with somebody who was controlling the center board, I realized that they were biasing their attention that way. And so I played a peripheral game and beat them because they focused on — now, should people not focus on the center board? Well, no, it’s a very good heuristic, but it’s heuristic. It’s not an algorithm.
This is a formal thing. It’s called the No Free Lunch Theorem. There is no problem solving method that will universally solve all your problems. In fact, the area above the line of average problem solving where it’s improving your performance is equal to an area under the line where it degrades your performance. Every bias is just as heuristic, misfiring, and every heuristic is just a bias that happens to be working for us in a lot of context. They’re interchangeable together.
And so even when you’re doing analytic stuff, right? You’re confronting this, you often realize the way you’ve framed the problem is actually what’s preventing you from solving the problem. You have to have that aha moment that breaks you out of it. But when you’re trapped in it, that’s a form of self-deception. You can’t really lie to yourself. What you do is you bias your attention to find the wrong thing salient in a way that binds you to trying to solve it in a particular manner. This shows up in interpersonal context. I’m sure you’ve had something like this as an experience. “Oh, I thought she was angry, but she’s afraid. She’s afraid, not angry. I’ve been going at this all wrong.” Right?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
John Vervaeke: That doesn’t mean that sometimes people aren’t angry at you and you shouldn’t see them as angry at you, right? And so even the most analytic thing you’re doing is dependent on — pure logic, you’re going in to do a logic class. This is from my history, and a lot of people will back me up on this. For a while, what you’re doing is you’re practicing doing all the machinery of the transformations and the logic trees and all the derivations, and you just got to practice that. And then you realize, “But I’m still not getting really — I’m still only getting Bs and lower As, what’s going on?” And you keep getting docked, not on the logic, but how you translated natural language into the logic, for which there is no logical procedure.
And so that translation process is needed in order to get the logical machinery running, but it is not itself governed in a purely logical manner. It requires this flexibility, this reframing, this insight, this kind of stuff.
Tim Ferriss: I wanted to invoke a word you mentioned in passing with respect to flow states in lectures, which was intuition.
John Vervaeke: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: And so I wanted to loop that in to ask — well, you can pick and choose. This is interviewee’s choice. So one would be how do you think about intuition versus logic when it comes to problem solving or searching for meaning or finding meaning? Alternative question would be what kinds of problems is logic poorly suited to solving?
John Vervaeke: Sure. And so we’ll do that and then I’ll tell you what I think intuition is and what the powers and perils of it are.
Tim Ferriss: Great.
John Vervaeke: So the search space, the search space for very, very many problems, like the chess example, is combinatorially explosive. It’s computationally intractable and this is the seminal work of Newell and Simon and then Simon and his notion of bounded rationality, and this is the idea that you can’t be comprehensively logical. Logic and math are algorithmic. They work in terms of certainty. Certainty requires that you search sometimes all or at least most of the space, and if you tried to do that, you would’ve committed cognitive suicide. That would be the last thing you do and that can’t be a rational way to behave.
So bounded rationality is something more like knowing where, when, how, and to what degree? Using all the non-propositional kinds of knowing to tell you where, when, how, and what degree you should be logical? You have to cultivate these virtues for when you use logic. So that’s what rationality is and that’s a much harder problem. “When should I be logical?” And so you have to ask yourself, “If I formulate the problem such that the search space could be searched in a relatively exhaustive fashion, and there are algorithms that work that, how many people are present in this conversation?” There’s an algorithm counting, “Two, one, two, we’re done. There, that worked.” There was nothing wrong with doing that, right?
But if you try to say, “I want to count all the numbers of possible conversations we could have and thereby try to figure out invariant principles through all conversations,” it’s like, well, what’s a conversation? And I’ve been in many ones and there’s good ones and there’s bad ones, but the good ones are aren’t — they’re sort of the same, they’re similar to each other. And the problem with similarity, and this is now the main argument, is if you try to be logical about similarity, you’re doomed because —
Tim Ferriss: What do you mean by that? What do you mean by logical about similarity?
John Vervaeke: Yeah, I do. So this is an argument made by Nelson Goodman, what a great name for a philosopher, Nelson Goodman.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, outstanding.
John Vervaeke: 1972, and the argument goes like this. So identity is to share all properties. Similarity is to share a lot of properties, but not share all properties, kind of the same as Sesame Street used to say. So he said, “Pick up any two objects and you’ll find that there’s an indefinitely large number of properties they share.” So a plum and a lawnmower, they both have curved surfaces, they’re both shiny, they’re both found in North America, both contain carbon, both weigh more than a paperclip. Neither one is a particularly good weapon. How many true things can I say that apply to both?
Tim Ferriss: Those —
John Vervaeke: Indefinitely large.
Tim Ferriss: Indefinitely large.
John Vervaeke: Right. And that’s the case for anything. So if you try to have a logic of similarity, it will not pick out — it won’t help you sort the world at all. So what people rely on is psychological similarity, which is they say to you things like, “But none of those properties…” And here’s the key term, “None of those properties are the relevant properties. Those aren’t the important ones.” And of course, relevance and importance are not features of a proposition. The same proposition can be relevant one minute and irrelevant the next. This is actually a formal argument by Jerry Fodor and others. Relevance is not a logical property. If what we mean by logical properties are syntactic relations within propositions and implication relations between them, you can’t capture relevance with those syntactic relations and therefore you can’t do a logic of similarity.
Tim Ferriss: Maybe this is a good place, you can chastise me if it isn’t, but to bring in and define intuition and the powers and perils thereof. And to the extent that you could maybe share how you harness the powers and avoid the perils personally. I think that would make it easy to grasp for folks, myself included.
John Vervaeke: Excellent, excellent. Oh, wonderful, wonderful. So I’m deeply influenced by two things: Csikszentmihalyi’s work on Flow and Hogarth’s work, Educating Intuition, and he makes a proposal, and I think this is the best proposal I’ve heard. So if we’re doing inferences to the best explanation, it’s the best explanation. So we’ve had a robust research program from the late ’60s, starting with Arthur Reber for what’s called implicit learning. So I’m sorry, I need a minute to describe the experimental paradigm for this because —
Tim Ferriss: Sure.
John Vervaeke: So what you do is you create an artificial grammar for how you’re allowed to string numbers and letters together. The grammar might have the rule, you can’t have two odd numbers beside each other. You can’t have two vowels beside each other. You can’t have more than four consonants in a row or something like this, and you make these by completely arbitrary artificial grammar. You make these number-letter strings that are like nine or 12 long. So you can’t hold them easily in working memory or anything like that.
And so what you do is you give people and you say, “This is one, this is one,” not quite this fast, but I’m just doing it. You hold up these strings and you get people to look at them and there’s various modifications. Sometimes you give feedback, but that’s just the basic paradigm. Now, here’s what you do.
Tim Ferriss: So you’re not giving them the rules in advance. Is that correct?
John Vervaeke: No.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. So this is purely deductive. You’re just giving them examples, since I’m —
John Vervaeke: Well, I’m going to say it’s not deductive but —
Tim Ferriss: Oh, it’s not. Oh, okay.
John Vervaeke: They’re purely just doing — they’re doing this.
Tim Ferriss: Okay.
John Vervaeke: I’ll say what I think it is in a minute. Okay. And I’ll say why it’s not deductive because of an experimental variation.
Tim Ferriss: Okay.
John Vervaeke: So I’m not just going to swipe that aside. I’m going to address your point. Okay, so you do this and you do this, and you do this and you do this. And then what you do is you say, “Now I’m going to give you a bunch of strings.” And what you do is some of those strings are new, they haven’t appeared yet, but they’re generated by the same artificial grammar. And then some are generated by a completely alternative or even randomly generated. And then you present them to people and you say, “Which of these new strings belongs with the old ones?” And people reliably score well above chance on this, well above chance.
Okay. So what people have is the capacity without explicit awareness or deliberate effort, they can pick up on very complex patterns. Now, why isn’t it deduction? Because if you do the following and you say, “I’m going to give you the strings, and I want you to figure out the rules that are generating the strings,” their performance degrades and they actually fall below chance, they get really worse.
Tim Ferriss: They get all tangled up in themselves.
John Vervaeke: Yes. So what Hogarth proposes is that intuition is a result of implicit learning. You’re picking up on very complex patterns without explicit awareness or deliberate effort. You know how close to stand to somebody at a funeral, but it depends on their status, their closeness to the person, their emotional state, how you are feeling. It depends on all of these variables, but it depends on what part of the funeral it is. It depends on potential religious, there’s all these variables and they’re interacting in complex dynamic ways. And you’ve picked that up and you don’t know how you’ve picked it up. You don’t know where and when. So you just get the intuition, “I should stand this close,” and you do it, and you’re right.
Now, what’s the peril of this? So that’s its power. You pick up on complex patterns and you don’t do it deductively. And I gave you the evidence for that, right? So what’s the peril with this? And this is Hogarth’s work, and I think it’s powerful. Implicit learning doesn’t care what patterns it picks up.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
John Vervaeke: It doesn’t distinguish real causal patterns from correlational patterns, and there’s a lot more complex correlational patterns that aren’t real causal patterns. And so we pick up on all kinds of complex patterns that are not real and we form intuitions around them, but when we don’t like our intuition, we don’t call it intuition, we call it bias or prejudice or racism or sexism or a whole bunch of other things. Right?
And so Hogarth says, “Well, what should we do?” We can’t replace implicit learning with explicit learning. What can we do explicitly? And he says, “Well, what we can do is set, we can explicitly set up the situation in which we’re doing implicit learning, that replicates how science distinguishes cause from correlation,” because that’s what science is. It’s a practice for distinguishing cause from correlation. So what are those? Well, you need clear feedback, you need clear information. You need clear and tightly coupled feedback, error has to matter. You can falsify the experiment and you set that up. And if you’re learning in those situations, chances are your implicit learning will track causal patterns rather than correlational.
And then you ask me, “How do you do that, John?” Well, here’s John’s answer. Csikszentmihalyi says, “How do you get into the flow state? What are the informational constraints? The information has to be clear, it has to be tightly coupled, and error has to matter.” The exact three conditions that Hogarth proposes for making sure you’re doing good implicit learning are exactly the conditions that get people reliably into the flow state. And so we’ve published on that what flow state is, it’s an evolutionary marker that you’re getting a lot of insight and you’re getting a lot of insight within implicit learning that is probably tracking real causal relationships.
So whatever you’re doing, keep doing it because chances are you’re really figuring out the environment in a powerful way.
Tim Ferriss: What have you done with this knowledge? How has that informed your behaviors or beliefs as you operate in the world?
John Vervaeke: I try to make sure that we’re setting up the explicit circumstance for flow states that have a lot of those conditions in them. This goes towards work I’m doing on shared flow states when people are getting into dialogically shared flow states, dia-logos, and what are the contexts we can build around that so that we can get people more reliably having insight cascades and tracking real patterns of sense-making as opposed to weird, funky correlational things?
Tim Ferriss: So I am going to double click on dia-logos because I’ve mentioned dialogue and wanting to get into the etymology of that just because I’m a nerd about all that stuff. But before we get there, could you could give a personal example of how you have used this insight and knowledge based on the studies and the work of these various people you’ve mentioned, and of course your own publications, how has that informed how you operate in the world or make decisions?
John Vervaeke: So it’s made me a lot more careful about where I might be. So first of all, it’s given me a way of challenging a certain kind of decadent romanticism in the culture, which says that you should always trust your intuition. There is no panacea faculty, there is no panacea practice, no free lunch theorem. And I have become too — I’ve become — I don’t know what — almost like a preacher or something. I’d be almost evangelical about trying to say stop demonizing any faculty and stop deifying any faculty. Your intuition will lead you as much wrong as your reason, as much wrong as your emotions, as much wrong as whatever, as much wrong as your logic, right? Look, logic does not tell you how to go from a weaker logic to a stronger logic. I can do all the possible manipulations within predicate logic and it won’t get me to motor logic. I have to do something outside of that to actually increase my logical competence. So there’s no panacea. There’s no panacea.
So that has become like I have taken that up as a theme and I do it. I do it for myself. This is why I advocate very strongly for, and I was fortunate to be taught, an ecology of practices. I do not practice. I practice a bunch of practices that have complimentary strengths and weaknesses that are constantly checking each other and calling each other out and constraining each other and pointing out errors in each other like an ecology, how you have the checks and balances in a biological ecosystem. That is how it had a huge impact on how I try to cultivate wisdom and virtue and how I recommend to others how they should do it. I strongly advocate for practicing an ecology of practices that is well-designed and what are some of the design principles for a good ecology of practices. And then I feed that back into my own practices and how I try to teach other people.
Tim Ferriss: All right. So I would love to know how you have improved, maybe let me rephrase that. What questions you have asked yourself to improve your ability to spot spurious or at the very least unhelpful forms of pattern recognition. Right? So the intuition we want to avoid and how you’ve done that, because I’ve observed certainly, and I’m sure you have, and I’m sure I do it in my own way. People who are very methodical about testing in some scientific empirical fashion, causality and, say, engineering. So they’re doing split testing in their job as an engineer, and then as soon as they jump into the world of, say, nutrition or fill in the blank, it all falls apart. And they just seem to founder in spotting all these sort of correlations that they turn into causation in a really kind of sloppy way. And I’m sure I do it as well. So how have you improved your ability to spot that for yourself?
John Vervaeke: Well, I don’t want to in any way try to convey that I don’t fall prey to this. How have I tried to address it is how I’ll frame the question you’ve asked me.
Tim Ferriss: Perfect.
John Vervaeke: Okay. And so first of all, that issue that we were talking about earlier, how pervasively does your practice transfer to multiple domains and to multiple levels of your psyche? How much does it engage the non-propositional kinds of knowing? How much is it engaging the ability to metacognitively shift between perspectives, et cetera? For exactly that reason. Secondly, it’s not the questions you answer, it’s practices you do at length for considerable amount of time. I practiced. First of all, I practiced it very explicitly for two or three years, and this overlaps significantly with Stoicism, right? I practice active open-mindedness like I’m a cognitive scientist, learn about the biases and this is how you get into it.
Learn about the biases and first spot them in other people. You’ll be astonishingly good at that. Oh, confirmation bias, myside bias, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. You’re really good at fundamental attribution error. You’re really good at it with other people and get real and allow yourself to be sort of overconfident a bit. And then practice at the second stage, which is try to note every day a bias in your own and actively counteract it. Oh wait, this is confirmation bias. Where would I look for evidence that could disconfirm this? Or who could I talk to who would challenge me on this? You have to practice it. It’s not about getting a rule or a technique of question. It’s about developing a deeply ingrained habit that helps to work. And in concert with this, and this is also from Stoicism. Stoicism is the philosophy religion of internalizing Socrates and practicing internalizing Socrates.
Tim Ferriss: This is Antisthenes. Am I getting that pronunciation right?
John Vervaeke: Yes. Yeah, exactly, exactly, right.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
John Vervaeke: Now what did you learn from Socrates? I learned how to dialogue with myself, but he didn’t mean the way we all talk to ourselves in our head all day long. And you have to practice that. You have to practice it on your own. I have to practice it with others. And I’ve been doing that, and I’ve been developing ways of honing that. We do these weekend workshops. I do it with Guy Sengstock and Christopher Mastropietro. We take people through a meditation practice, a contemplation practice, then various circling practices, then various paraphrasing practices. And then we get them to do sort of a shared Lectio Divina around a philosophical text where they learn to resonate with each other around —
Tim Ferriss: Lectio Divina. I don’t know what that means, but I like the sound of it.
John Vervaeke: And then we take them into a particular way of engaging in dialectic into dia-logos. And you have to practice this and you have to read the dialogues and you have to internalize, you have to internalize the sage. And this is one of the — just the athlete has to internalize the coach, just like the child has to internalize the parent. And that again is not a magic technique, it’s something you have to practice consistently as a way of life and degree to which I’ve internalized Socrates and the degree to which I’ve cultivated habits of active open-mindedness, the degree to which I’ve sought out the company of people who will challenge me in the right ways because people can be also — criticize you in the wrong ways. So it takes discernment. That’s how I’m trying to address what you’ve asked me.
Tim Ferriss: All right. So I want to attempt to create a bridge between what you just said and do so for the listeners and to do so by giving some examples of the forms of exercises that you mentioned in passing. And this is also a way of delivering on the promise I made earlier to people that we would get into meditation versus contemplation. So could you give an example? And I apologize if this is sort of asking for a heavy lift, but yeah, I think it would be helpful for me and hopefully maybe for listeners.
John Vervaeke: I’ll try my best.
Tim Ferriss: So you mentioned meditation, I’m sure I’m going to miss something, contemplation, circling, I don’t know what that means, paraphrasing, I believe. Lectio Divina, am I getting that right?
John Vervaeke: Well, actually the practice is a variation on it called philosophical fellowship.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, perfect. So could you walk us through these and just give an example of an exercise, what that might look like in each of those?
John Vervaeke: Sure. So I mean, first of all, the distinction between meditation and contemplation. So I know this is audio only, so I wear glasses, right?
Tim Ferriss: Yep.
John Vervaeke: Right, right. And so I’m —
Tim Ferriss: And we’ll probably also use the video, but just for those people who only have the audio, it’s always helpful to tell them what’s going on. Yes.
John Vervaeke: So I’ve been talking throughout about how you frame situations, what you make salient, what you background and what you ignore. So think about that like the lens and the frame of my glasses, right? And I’m not aware of my lenses or my frame because I’m aware through them, beyond them and by means of them. So they’re transparent to me. Now sometimes, and what I’m doing right now, everyone, I’m taking my glasses off because there might be something on my lenses and now they’re not transparent to me. I’m not looking through them, I’m looking at them. That’s what meditation is. It’s about trying to become aware, step back and look at your mental framing. So what you do is, for example, you try to get people to look at something they’re normally looking through, like their sensations. So for example, I teach people how to center, but they’re following their breath.
And you want to follow the whole of your breath going in, and you want to feel the sensations of the breath and of the expansion of your abdomen, and then sensations of your abdomen contracting and the breath coming out. And what happens is, right, you’re paying attention to the sensations and very quickly your mind goes to, “No, I want to look through things. I want to look at the world. Now I should be doing my laundry. Or when is the meditation going to be done? Or I wonder if Susan still likes me.” And then what you do is you step back and look at that distraction. You don’t look at what you’re thinking about. You label the process, thinking, imagining, hoping, wondering, and then you return your attention to your breath. And so what you’re doing is you’re learning to step back and look at your framing. Now think about this, even in the analogy, if I just take my glasses off and look at them and maybe I wipe them and I wipe them and I wipe them and I wipe them, how do I know if I’ve actually cleaned them? What do I need to do?
Tim Ferriss: Got to put them back on.
John Vervaeke: You’ve got to put them back on and see if you now see more clearly and deeply than you used to before. That is contemplation. It comes from the Latin word contemplatio, which is a translation of the Greek word theoria, which is where we get our word theory from, which means to look deeply into reality. So Vipassana is this act of I’m stepping back and looking at, but metta is the contemplative. I’m trying to look, I’m trying to see if — how can I see you better than I used to? So in metta, I’m trying to open up and see if I can see you better, or I may contemplate the impermanence of existence. I’m trying to see, I’m trying, not in — I’m not just thinking or saying, I’m trying to realize the impermanence of things. That’s a contemplative act. It’s a direction outward.
Tim Ferriss: And for folks who are familiar with metta, is it fair to describe that as loving-kindness meditation?
John Vervaeke: Well, it depends what you mean. And this is where there’s controversy, so if you think of loving-kindness as a particular good emotional state you’re going to get into, I would argue you’re confusing a method with a goal. So positive emotions, this is Fredrickson and other work, they open you up, they make you curious, they afford wondering, they allow you to question things. They put you into an explore mode. But it’s the exploration that’s important. What I’m actually trying to do in metta is I’m trying to open myself up so that this overlaps with Stoicism too, right? So the stoics have this idea that whenever we’re going into situations, we’re automatically assuming identities and assigning identities. I’m the professor, you’re the student. Or I’m the scientist, and you’re the famous podcaster or whatever, right? And we’re doing that. And I’m this, and this is a tool, a water bottle, but of course it’s not that in and of itself. And so that co-identification process is happening mostly mindlessly, automatically, and reactively, and the stoics were trying to get us aware of this.
And in metta, what you’re trying to do is get aware of what identity am I assigning to you? What identity am I assuming and how is that locking down the situation and how can I open it up in an exploratory way so that more of your suchness, what you are beyond my assigned categories and identities can start to shape how I see you and who I am and starts to be shaped by resonating with that. And now I’m trying to see more deeply into you. The Buddha warns against positive emotions just as much as he warns against negative emotions. Like the idea, I don’t like the North American interpretation of metta as “I want to really feel really good about people.” I think that confuses it with Christian notions of forgiveness and other things. What it is is “Can I come to a place where your identity and my identity can be born afresh right here and right now? And what that can do for transforming both you and I as a real possibility.”
Tim Ferriss: Okay. Thank you for that clarification. And it makes sense that, I mean, there would be some conflating with what you mentioned, especially with the labeling of loving-kindness by a lot of people in the United States, just given the history.
John Vervaeke: Can I riff on that just one second?
Tim Ferriss: Sure.
John Vervaeke: Because that goes towards a fundamental misunderstanding of love. Love is not a feeling, okay, first of all, right? But love is not even an emotion. When I love somebody, that can make me angry, jealous, sad, happy, joyous. Love is an existential binding. It’s an existential stance. It’s a commitment to this co-identification process and it being something by which each of us can bring out the good and cultivate deeper personhood for each other. Love isn’t an emotion and it isn’t a feeling. So thinking that loving-kindness is cultivating a particular emotion is not only mistaking the Buddhist idea, it’s just misunderstanding what love is. Love isn’t an emotion. It isn’t a feeling. It’s an existential stance of commitment to binding your identity to the identity of something or someone else.
Tim Ferriss: So meditation, contemplation, I’m not sure which came next. Paraphrasing.
John Vervaeke: Circling.
Tim Ferriss: Circling. What would be an example of circling?
John Vervaeke: Oh, so that’s where you’ve got to talk to Guy Sengstock at some point. I mean, circling is this practice, and the best way I could describe it, and it takes — there’s a lot of exercises and skills you have to build to do the practice well. So I don’t want people to misunderstand. I’m just talking for simplicity, right? I’m not giving you the full secret sauce or something like that.
The best way to describe it is how can you and I get into — do you know what stereoscopic vision is? The left and right visual fields and they integrate so you get depth. So I want stereoscopic mindfulness, and what does that mean? I want mindfulness into me and mindfulness into you, and in a way that’s affording you to get mindfulness into you and mindfulness into me. And then we resonate on that. It’s a way of being. Like I noticed that you leaned forward and did this, what’s happening in you right now as you’re doing that? And then you tell me, and then you tell me what you’re noticing in me. And you get this kind of accelerating, mutually disclosing mindfulness enhancement and it’s very, very powerful practice.
And then what you can do is you can use that training to really strengthening the listening skill. So you practice circling with people. They start to pick up on this kind of — it’s interesting, Tim, what people report is they discover a kind of intimacy they didn’t know about. It’s not sexual intimacy, it’s not friendship intimacy, but it’s this other kind of intimacy. And they say paradoxical things like this regularly. They say, “This new kind of intimacy, but I’ve always been looking for it.” They didn’t know it, but they’ve always been looking for it. It’s this really — right?
Tim Ferriss: Sounds like a psychedelic experience in some ways.
John Vervaeke: Well, I don’t think that’s actually off the mark. I’ve got a hypothesis. You’re doing circling with multiple people and you’re having to do this multiple switching up perspectives and inhabiting and indwelling of other people and letting them indwell you. And it’s getting areas of the brain to talk to each other that normally don’t talk to each other. Very, very similar to a psychedelic experience. I’m not going to say when I have done psilocybin, but there was phenomenological overlap from my experience of that and my experience in deep flow.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, absolutely.
John Vervaeke: And then you move people to paraphrasing. So they get the circling ability. They’re into that. And then what you do is I’ll say something and you stop me after, and you have to paraphrase back to me with using as few of my words as possible until they agree that you —
Tim Ferriss: Oh, that’s an interesting constraint.
John Vervaeke: Yes. Right? So you can’t just parrot back from memory, right?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
John Vervaeke: You have to understand and convey, and the person gives you feedback. “No, you didn’t get it.” “Yes, you did.” And you practice doing that.
Tim Ferriss: What is the intent?
John Vervaeke: The intent is —
Tim Ferriss: The objective.
John Vervaeke: The intent is to realize that one half of communication is listening.
Tim Ferriss: Shocker. Yeah. Got it.
John Vervaeke: Which is easy to say, but hard. So you slow down and you make space and you let it impact you more deeply.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. You really have to slow down to operate within that constraint, not using the same language.
John Vervaeke: Yes. Exactly, exactly. And then you move into philosophical fellowship. It’s a thing I’ve derived from Ran Lahav’s philosophical, contemplative companionship, or I forget what he calls it. He and I have emailed. So what I’m doing is not the same, but it was inspired by him. So it goes something like this. You pick a philosophical text and you prime people into this. We’re not going to be reading this text in order to get information from it. We’re going to be reading this text in order to be transformed by it. We’re going use this text as a way of trying to presence a sage. It’s almost like a secular seance, right? You’re going to presence a sage so that —
Remember we talked about earlier internalizing the sage? You really can’t do that unless the presence of the perspectival knowing of the sage is available to you. So what happens is, first of all, you read the text very slowly and then the speaker will pick out a phrase that he or she thinks conveys it, and then everybody chants it in sequence. And they chant it and they’re trying to convey as much and also resonate with what they’re sensing other people are conveying. So it’s like jazz, and you do this and then you move into simple speech. Everybody is allowed to say no more than three sentences about what is being provoked, invoked, and evoked in their interaction with the text. And they have to try it. And the task is I want you to convey as much as you possibly can in as few words as possible.
And so everybody does this, but you can’t just do it atomically. You have to pick up on what other people have said when you do your simple speech. And you do that for several rounds and people — and what happens is people are also asked try to sense how all of these different perspectives converge back to Spinoza or Plato or Buber or whoever it is. And then you’re doing that and then you move into extended speech. Everybody’s now allowed to give three or four sentences or a bit more and open it up, and they can even relate it to some experience that they’ve had in their life. And you can see it’s — and then you move into free speech where people just talk about it. And what happens is people get a sense of the text coming alive and Spinoza being present or Buber being present, obviously not literally, but in this sense of there’s something about the intersection in the we space that gives them a sense of what was the mind that generated or as the origin of all of this, and you resonate with it and you pick it up and it gives you an opportunity to internalize the sage.
Tim Ferriss: I would love to try that. Have any of those experiences been so memorable that to this day you remember a specific phrase from a text that helped to catalyze just an extraordinary experience? Are there any that you’ve seen really light things on fire in an interesting way?
John Vervaeke: I think one in Spinoza was “God is related to the world the way the mind is related to the body.”
Tim Ferriss: Ooh, can you say that one more time? I’ll have to marinate with that one.
John Vervaeke: God is related to the world in the same way the mind is related to the body. I forget where that’s from. I think it might have been from the Emendation of the Intellect. I’m not sure.
Tim Ferriss: I would definitely need more time to ramp up my RPMs to begin to chew on that, but what does that mean to you?
John Vervaeke: That phrase means he’s trying to challenge Descartes within a Cartesian framework, which is part of the brilliance of Spinoza. That’s why his book is called Ethics. But he presents it as like Euclid’s Elements. He presents it as this completely logical argument with theorems and proofs.
Tim Ferriss: So God is to the world as the mind is to the body?
John Vervaeke: Yeah, because what he’s trying to say there, and by the way, he’s not the only person to say — I can find similar things in Maximus the Confessor from the Orthodox Christian tradition. But what he’s trying to say is you have to understand that the order of causes, that’s your body, and the order of intelligibility are actually — they have to fundamentally, well, be in contact. They have to conform to each other or we’re lost. No knowledge is possible for us. And so the mind, which is the tracking of intelligibility, and the body, which is the laying out of causal patterns, have to interpenetrate and map onto each other in this profound way, kind of like the way the software and the hardware mesh together within a computer. And then that is how God is related to the universe. God is related to the cosmos. That God isn’t some other thing. God is the intelligibility that’s non-logically identical with the causal patterns of things.
Tim Ferriss: Okay.
John Vervaeke: I don’t know if that helps.
Tim Ferriss: Well, could you restate that just for a knuckle-dragger like me? Remember, I’m from Long Island, originally. How do you relate to God now? I’d be so curious to know if you use that word at all. If it is a word that you use, what would be a simple way of describing to a five-year-old? Yes, I am comparing myself to a five-year-old. What that means to you.
John Vervaeke: I appreciate the framing. I’m a non-theist. And this is the idea that there are a shared set of presuppositions of modern theism. Ancient theism is a very different form of theism, but modern theism and modern atheism share presuppositions. And they go like this, something like God is the supreme being, the ultimate being, the super thing. And the best way to relate to God is by having beliefs about him/her/it. And that sacredness is to have true beliefs about this super being and to govern your life accordingly. And the theist and the atheist both agree to that definition.
And the theist says yes, and the atheist says no. And the non-theist says, “I reject all of those presuppositions.” I don’t think of ultimate reality as a thing. I don’t think of it as a being. I think of it as the ground of being and being is a no-thingness. It is not a thing. It is that in which all things come to be. Being isn’t a being. This isn’t something you can just get to —
Tim Ferriss: Very Daoist, also. Very Daoist.
John Vervaeke: Very Daoist. The Dao that can be spoken of is not the Dao, and the naming is the myriad way and the emptiness of the cup is what makes the cup function. All of these non-thingness metaphors, it’s like water, right? They’re all trying to get you to understand that being the ground, the really real isn’t a thing. It’s a no-thingness, which is not the same thing as nothingness. And that we can enter into a profound relationship with that no-thingness. Let me give you an analogy. I love my partner. She’s an amazing woman, and I’m fortunate to be with her. I do not think I will ever completely grasp or understand her because there is something about her that always is transcending herself and transcending my understanding of her. There is something in that sense properly mysterious about her. Any frame I put around her, she shines into it, but she also withdraws from it further into the mystery that she is. And that’s why I continue to fall in love with her, right? And so that mystery of no-thingness is something into which we can fall deeply in love.
We can. The no-thingness in me. For example, what’s the no-thingness in you? Every time you step back, remember the glasses, and look at yourself, “There I am.” James makes this move, other people, William James and other people. That’s the observed self, but that’s never the observing self. The observing self can never be brought into view. That is not any thing that can be seen by you. It is that which makes any seeable thing seeable to you, right? There’s a no-thingness in you, and that no-thingness in you can come into deep resonance with the no-thingness of ultimate reality such that you fall in love with it. And this is not about belief. This is about deeply coupling so that it discloses itself more and more to you as you are drawn beyond yourself more and more. It’s like the way you fall in love with another person. And so you can learn to fall in love with the depths of reality. And it’s like —
It is a source of intelligibility that is never exhausted, but it is not itself directly intelligible because if it is, there would have to be a principle behind it that made it intelligible. It is the principle of intelligibility. So it is not itself intelligible. And that is precisely what makes it sacred. I reciprocally love it, open myself up to it. It is an inexhaustible felt of new intelligibility, new insight, new connectedness, new meaning. And I think that’s a proper understanding of sacred that isn’t primarily about believing propositions. So I’m a non-theist, and I understand God to be a way of pointing to that.
Tim Ferriss: Great. Very, very helpful. And as you’re talking about the sacred, and maybe I’m already losing track of the definition that you just provided, but I’m wondering if Tai Chi, or let me put it in some context. If you experience the sacred, if one of the indicators or precursors of experiencing the sacred is a sense of timelessness, and if that’s something that you seek or experience in your sort of ecology practices, including Tai Chi, I’m wondering if that factors in somehow.
John Vervaeke: Yes, it does. I mean, and many traditions sort of do this. Timelessness, and that’s the proper meaning of eternity. Eternity doesn’t mean everlasting-ness. It means not bound by time and space, like two plus two equals four or E equals mc squared for that matter. Where is it? Where is it? When is it? Those questions don’t make any sense, right? Now, that is a way of bringing you into — because eternity is timeless, spaceless, it’s no-thingness. It doesn’t have a space. It doesn’t have a spatial temporal location like a physical thing. Like for example, where is E equals mc squared?
Right? It’s everywhere and nowhere. It doesn’t make any sense. So the realization of eternity, timelessness, you aptly described it, not unending time. That is a way of opening up to how being is distinct from beings. But you have to make the move. This is Plato. You have to ascend out of the cave, but you also have to return back down into the cave, which is you also have to see that being also is and is within and includes the beings. It’s like the sacred is within everything but not enclosed by it. It is beyond everything but not excluded, if that makes any sense. So the timelessness is a move, but then you — it’s dialogical. You come out, and then you come back and you see the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower. You hold infinity in the palm of your hand and spend eternity in an hour. Like that, Blake, that’s how you get to the cultivation of wisdom.
Tim Ferriss: Part of the reason I asked is that, for instance, I have friends who surf. And they self-describe or describe their experiences of flow as time stopping or not existing. And they’ll also say, “The ocean is my church.” I just came back from a trip where a mountain guide said, “The mountains are my church.” And so that to me brings up the question of whether one worthwhile pursuit would be trying to find activities that provoke this sense of timelessness to fill the void that was left when religion vacated the premises for so many people in the modern world. I don’t know if you have any thoughts on that.
John Vervaeke: I have a lot of thoughts on that. That’s a big, big part of what went on in Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. I think you want to — I mean, I think there’s a continuum from insight to flow to mystical experiences to higher states of consciousness. And I think you want to expand your cognitive flexibility, your cognitive competence, so that you can experience the whole continuum and you want to situate it within an ecology of practices that is guarding you against self-deceptive bullshit and all that kind of thing. But those flow, and awe, and profound senses of at-one-ment or a sense of non-duality. So I use the term for this sense of connectedness, religio, which is one of the purported, possible etymological roots of the word religion. And I think what people are saying is, “I got this profound sense of connected to myself and to the depths of reality, when I’m in the mountains or when I’m — the ocean.” Right? And Aquinas called God an ocean of being. Right? And I’m connected to this. Right? And what this does is it gives me a sense of being deeply coupled to what is deeply real, within and without. And I think there are ecologies of practices that can do this for people outside of an explicit religious framework. Now, I would say that dismissing the religious traditions as if there’s nothing we need to learn from them, I think that’s also a mistake. I think we should respect —
Tim Ferriss: Agreed.
John Vervaeke: — and dialogue with them and learn as much as we can. And I’ve said this before. If people take from my work a way of how they can return to a religious home, if they get more out of Islam, they get more out of Buddhism, they get more of Christianity, great. I’m not in dispute with that. But I also want to help afford an ecology of practices for the nones, the N-O-N-E-Ses, the people who say they have no official religious affiliation, for all kinds of reasons. I’ll use the metaphor your friends gave. Is there a way for them to find a church or temple or mosque, by which they mean a set of practices that gives them that profound religio? Yes, there is. And this is important. The solution to the meaning crisis and nihilism is not to brow people with argument or legislation. It’s to enable them to fall in love with the depths of reality within and without and between. Again, that is what we need.
Tim Ferriss: Hmm. Let me ask you. This is going to maybe seem like a non-sequitur, but I imagine you have some thoughts. First, as bit of background, I know many religious people all over the world, and the connective tissue, the pattern that I think I have observed in those who seem to be content, at peace —
John Vervaeke: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: — is, among other things, a strong sense of community.
John Vervaeke: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: And the specific community I’d like to ask you about are Sufis, because one of my most fascinating acquaintances is a — well, I don’t know if he would call himself Sufi, but he certainly studies Sufism and is deeply immersed. He lives in the Middle East. What are your thoughts, observations, if any?
John Vervaeke: Yeah, so a couple of things from my biography. When I went to Shiatsu bootcamp, I learned Shiatsu, as I said, and one of the people teaching was a Sufi master, and huge impact on me. And my partner, her family, her father, his father was within the Sufi tradition. They’re Persian. And so Sufism, right, very, very profound. And a lot of the poetry that they treat — and I mean this as a compliment, not as a insult. They treat the poetry religiously, Hafez and Rumi and other people. Right? And a lot of it is maybe not directly Sufi, but deeply influenced by Sufism.
Tim Ferriss: Deeply influenced.
John Vervaeke: And Corbin, who has influenced me profoundly around the imaginal, also deeply influenced by Sufism.
Tim Ferriss: What was that name?
John Vervaeke: Corbin. Henry Corbin, C-O-R-B-I-N. He’s the guy that sort of coined the difference between the imaginary and the imaginal, and things like that. And then, I do a practice. One of my practices is what I call responsive poiesis. Poiesis is the Greek word for poetry, but it also means “making,” the way we make new sense that we didn’t have before. And what I’ll do is I’ll read in a Lectio Divina fashion, this — not reading for information but reading for transformation. I’ll read a Sufi poem, and then I’ll try and write a poem in response. It’s not trying to parody it or parrot it or repeat it. I’m responding to it. It’s responsive poiesis.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, it’s like the paraphrasing. It’s very interesting.
John Vervaeke: Yes. Yes. Very, very. But not just paraphrasing, but even more. Like, “I’ve really heard you, and now this is how I can respond to what you’ve said.”
Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm.
John Vervaeke: Yeah. And so the Sufism is really important to me in that sense. Now, you have to be really careful. You don’t want to engage in inappropriate cultural appropriation. You don’t want to commodify things. You want to receive things as they’re given and in respect. But for me, Sufism is important because it represents, well, part of a thesis I’ve been arguing for, which is Neoplatonism has this tremendous capacity to enter into reciprocal reconstruction with other powerful worldviews, cultural frameworks. It did that with Christianity. It did that with Judaism, Kabbalah. It does it with Islam and Sufism. Sufism is directly — they will even talk about Plotinus, one of the — right? But Neoplatonism is also capable of entering into reciprocal reconstruction with science. It did it at the late Renaissance and helped give birth to science, by the way. Kepler and Galileo are deeply influenced by Neoplatonism. It did it at the beginning of the 20th century. Lot of the people around the Einsteinian Revolution are deeply influenced by Neoplatonism and things that are somewhat similar like Vedanta and other things like that.
So this is really powerful.
Tim Ferriss: I should’ve asked this earlier, but I was planning on coming back to it. So Neoplatonism, I — oh, I think I understand what “neo” means, and certainly Plato, but Neoplatonism, what is that, for those of us, including myself, who honestly could not give a definition?
John Vervaeke: So it’s the grand unified field theory of ancient philosophy as a way of life. Not academic philosophy, but philosophy as a way of life for the cultivation of wisdom and meaning and virtue, individually and collectively. What it does is, it integrates Socratic, Platonic spirituality with Aristotelian ideas about knowledge as conformity contact with stoic principles of how to properly cultivate virtue and metacognitive abilities. And it integrated them all together, and not just as some LEGO blocks being put together, but organically. So they all came to, I would argue, a greater fruition within that integration. And so it became this grand unified, powerful living framework, so much so that when it encounters major world religions, they typically can’t ignore it or dispense with it. They typically enter into profound integration with it, like in Christianity, like in Judaism, like in Sufism, like in science. And it looks like if Thomas Plant is right, along the Silk Road possibly with Vedanta, possibly with Buddhism.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, so we are going to continue this thread, but I wanted to pause to return to the personal, if you wouldn’t mind.
John Vervaeke: I don’t mind.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. You’ll have to the pardon maybe the way that this question is couched, but I just read Lonesome Dove, which is 950 or 980 pages, and then, now I’m watching the three-part television series with Robert Duvall and so on, which is very good. But I’m noticing things have to get omitted. Many, many, many, many, many things have to get omitted. And so they’re trying to hit the most seminal moments from this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the American West. If one were to make a film about your search for meaning or your creation of meaning over your life, what would those seminal moments be? What would some of those milestones be?
John Vervaeke: Leaving Christianity. Encountering Socrates. Finding the Tai Chi, metta, Vipassana ecology of practices. Reading Pierre Hadot and rediscovering ancient philosophy not as discourse but as a way of life. Discovering 4E cognitive science that gave me a way of talking about wisdom and self-transcendence and flow and embodiment that was consonant with what I was learning from these two wisdom traditions, the Socratic-Neoplatonic tradition and the sort of proto-Zen, Buddhist-Taoist. And then teaching a course at U of T called Buddhism and Cognitive Science. A student then coming to me after taking the course and saying, “You should put this on as a YouTube series.” That became Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. Because of that, meeting people who became very interested in these ideas about ecologies of practices. And we didn’t do the final one, by the way. We didn’t do dialectic Into dia-logos.
Tim Ferriss: Yes. We should do that.
John Vervaeke: Well, maybe another time. But anyways, right, and meeting people like Guy and meeting Christopher Mastropietro. People say this. And again, asking for charity from the audience, right, because this could sound ridiculously pretentious. But people often say if I’m Socrates, and that’s what I aspire to be at least, right, Chris is Plato. I totally agree with that. The natural lyricism, the eloquence, the gift of reflection, the authenticity, the depth. Meeting him, getting to work with him. Meeting, of course, my current partner. That would be, I guess, the arc right now.
Tim Ferriss: Could you say more about, if I’m getting the pronunciation right, Pierre Hadot? Is that right?
John Vervaeke: Yes. Oh, Pierre Hadot. When I was asked — I think it was Jonathan Rowson. Was it? No, it’s Jules Evans on Rebel Wisdom, the book that changed my life. I picked What Is Ancient Philosophy? by Pierre Hadot. That book, and philosophy as a way of life. And this is where Hadot brings out that philosophy is not primarily about the propositional. It’s not primarily about declarative discourse. Philosophy is a way of life in which you’re training skills, states of mind, perspectives, traits of characters, and those are all the components of virtue. That’s what philosophy as a way of life is about. It’s about what Hadot called spiritual exercises, by which people entered into this process of profound aspirational transformation for the cultivation of virtue and the deepening of the love of wisdom. And this just blew me away because it represented what I had actually saw in ancient philosophy, but what had not been provided to me by academic philosophy. And so that just opened up so much for me.
Tim Ferriss: All right. So books. You are, I think fair to say, a connoisseur of books. You’re an avid reader. You also have an extensive reading list on your website. You have the Awakening from the Meaning Crisis book list. If you were only allowed to choose two books that you could personally reread from that — it doesn’t have to be exactly two. It could be one. It could be three. Doesn’t really matter, but you were disallowed from ever rereading other books on the list. You only got to choose two or three. Which one, two, or three would you choose, potentially?
John Vervaeke: Plato’s Dialogues and Plotinus’ Ennead.
Tim Ferriss: What are the reasons for those two?
John Vervaeke: Those books are sacred to me. Remember I talked about sacredness as an inexhaustible, fountain of intelligibility —
Tim Ferriss: Yes.
John Vervaeke: — this reciprocal opening with the world? I read Plato. It transforms me. I go out and see things in the world I hadn’t seen. I live that way, and then that feeds back into me and transforms me. And then I read the text as a transformed person, and I see things I hadn’t seen before. That opens me up. I now go out into — and that just keeps happening. And it’s been happening since I first read The Republic, since I first read The Symposium. I read Plotinus’ Ennead on the nature of beauty or on the nature of One and contemplation, on dialect, any of these great Enneads. And what’s astonishing about Plotinus — and it’s Neoplatonism, so you need to be educated in Platonism, Stoicism, Aristotelianism. So I don’t recommend people just pick up Plotinus. Read some good secondary sources on it first. But imagine you could read a text that was simultaneously a profound philosophical argument and a spiritual exercise that was transforming you the way meditation and contemplation to, and they were woven together with irreplaceable artistry. That’s Plotinus.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. That should be the book blurb on the back of the cover. If you could only choose two poets to —
John Vervaeke: Ah.
Tim Ferriss: — nourish your soul, for lack of a better way to phrase it — ah, could be two to three again. We don’t need to be exact about it, but who would make the short list for you?
John Vervaeke: Rilke is first and foremost for me. I won’t get it perfectly, but the poem that goes something like, “Ah, not to be cut off, even by the slightest partition from the law of the stars. What is it? What is it if not intensified sky, hurled through with birds and filled with the winds of homecoming?” And it’s like, “Yeah, that’s what the experience of the sacred is like.” Or you read “The Archaic Bust of Apollo,” and he does all this thing, and you’re just drawn into this statue, and it’s coming alive. And then he suddenly breaks it and says, “You must change your life.” That’s the deep response to beauty. That’s the most appropriate response to beauty. You must change your life. Right? That. So Rilke, hands down. The second. The second one is a bit of a toss-up for me. Probably Blake. I quoted Blake a few minutes ago. But there’s Gerard Manley Hopkins and Yeats also really, really important for me.
Tim Ferriss: Do you think it’s important to find poetry that resonates for yourself predominantly in your native language?
John Vervaeke: No. Rilke doesn’t. Which is —
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, yeah.
John Vervaeke: Because Rilke’s in German.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
John Vervaeke: And of course, I did enough German way back when in order to get my PhD, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. But yeah, I can’t read German now, certainly not the way you need to be able to read it to pick up on poetry. Rilke still moves me profoundly, even in translation, so yeah.
Tim Ferriss: All right. Fantastic. Thank you. And funny enough, I was listening to Coltrane jazz before this conversation, which maybe was a good warm-up for the conversation. And I have a new collection of translations. I want to get the name of the author correct. So it is a new translation of Rumi poetry.
John Vervaeke: Oh, yes. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: And it is by — I’m not going to pronounce this correctly, but Haleh Liza Gafori. As a Persian or Persian American, I mean, her knowledge of the language so enriches how she is able to convey passages that could be real stumbling blocks for anyone who is basing their translation off of another translation or who is a non-native —
John Vervaeke: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: — speaker. It’s very hard to translate, period. But it’s even harder to translate poetry. It’s like, do you choose the cadence? Do you choose to try to match the alliteration or what the equivalent of alliteration would be? It’s such a formidable task. I was very impressed by the book. I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you, if you’re open to a few more questions —
John Vervaeke: I’m fine with it. I’m enjoying this. Let’s keep going.
Tim Ferriss: All right. Wonderful. 4E. I think this is important for us to discuss. What are the four Es?
John Vervaeke: So I think we should have six Es, but I’ll tell you what the standard four Es are.
Tim Ferriss: And then the bonus two, I’m into it.
John Vervaeke: So this is the idea that cognition is inherently embodied, first E. Embedded, coupled to the environment, second E. Right? Enacted, right? Cognition is something that you are doing. It’s not something you have. Right? It’s between you and the world, not within you. Right? And then extended. Most of our cognition is not done inside of us. It’s done through the world. This includes other people. So for example, you and I are having a conversation right now. We’re solving a problem, and this is depending on people building computers, setting up the Internet, setting up Zoom or Riverside. Neither one of us invented the English language, et cetera. And all of these things, and even literacy. Literacy’s not natural, but we internalize it, but it allows us to link our cognition in profound ways. And so most of our problem-solving is done in extended way.
I guess the classic book by this is Cognition In the Wild by Ed Hutchins, where he talks about the fact that nobody, no person, navigates a ship. There’s a whole bunch of different people doing different roles and a whole bunch of equipment, and they form a dynamical system that is actually responsible for navigating the ship. Myself and one of my dear friends and great co-authors, Dan Chiappe, we published three papers on NASA scientists moving the rovers around on Mars. Right? And how do they form this distributed cognition, especially with that huge time gap, right, the time delay, and how do they make it work? And how does that distributed cognition work? And because they get very powerful sense of an emergent kind of we-agency that’s above and beyond just adding the part. That’s the extended.
So, embodied. You don’t have a body. You are a body. And your mind and your body are not separate things. They’re different aspects of what you are. And people may say, “What do you mean by that?” What do I mean by that? Well, remember I said earlier, you have this problem you’re facing, which is, “What do I pay attention to?” Right? “What do I focus my attention to? What do I ignore?” And this is not cold calculation. It’s also your affect. It means what do you care about, and what do you not care about?
Read Montague, the neuroscientist, put it really well. He said, “The difference between us and computers is we care about information, and they don’t.” Right? And that’s our great strength and our great weakness. Now the thing is, why do you care about information? You care about information because, and this is the work of Evan Thompson, a colleague of mine — well, he was at U of T. I’m still a friend. Right? It is, you are a self-making thing. That’s what a living thing is. You care about information because you are, moment by moment, taking care of yourself. Not that yourself is over here, and you’re taking care of it. You are a self-organizing, self-taking-care-of thing. And because of that, you have to care about this information rather than that information.
And organisms with other bodies presumably have different salience landscapes. Wittgenstein famously well-said, “Even if a lion could speak, we would not understand him.” Because even if they were using English correctly, what they found relevant and salient would be bizarre to us because they have different bodies that are embedded in different environments. And that is not happenstance. That is constitutive of you being a cognitive agent. If you are not embodied, you do not have any reason for caring about this information rather than that information. And then you have faced the fact that the world is [inaudible] explosive in the amount of information available to you.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. This is, very ineptly, what I was trying to convey very early in the conversation, predominantly — and I encourage people to find this. It’s not going to be immediately coming to the tip of my tongue. But Steve Jurvetson, who’s a very technical investor, I think he did electrical engineering and mechanical engineering degree in three years at Stanford or something like that. I’m probably getting some of the specifics wrong, but he’s been on the podcast before. And he had this very long Facebook post discussing why it would be difficult, if not impossible, to experience anything as a human if we were just brains in a jar.
John Vervaeke: Yes. Brains in a vat problem. Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Brain in a vat problem. And I found it very compelling and sort of embarrassing that it wasn’t self-evident to me right off the bat. It’s like without these appendages and this multifaceted organism to interface with an environment, what we experience as consciousness just doesn’t seem, at least offhand to me, possible, which makes it very precious that we have this experience.
John Vervaeke: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: And in —
John Vervaeke: Being embodied is really wonderful, actually.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So what are the two Es that lead to six?
John Vervaeke: Emotional. The idea that our knowing and our emoting are separable things, I think is one of the great mistakes that came out of the Enlightenment Romanticism conflict. Being rational, ratio, proper proportioning. It’s about putting things into perspective, perspectival knowing, and caring about them in the right way, and knowing within that, when and where and how to be logical, et cetera, et cetera. We’ve already talked about that. And I mean, a good place to point people about this is Damásio’s Descartes’ Error. Right? You have people who have a certain kind of brain damage. The frontal cortex is working such that you could give them a standard IQ test, and they could do all the computations quite well in it, but you could drive them insane by saying, “Before you take the test, I want you to choose. Should you write it in red ink or black ink or blue ink?” And then they go crazy because they have no motivation. They have no affect. They have no reason to care about this rather than that. Right?
Emotion and cognition are interweaving and inter-affording. So that’s why emotion should be the next E. Emotions are not irrational. Right? Like I said, there is no one faculty that is infallibly good. Right? Yes, your emotions can lead you astray, but try living without them and see how rational you can be. Right? Your agency will be crippled. And I mean that seriously. Right? So that would be my fifth E.
The sixth has to do with a somewhat technical term, exaptation, which is drawn from evolutionary theory. Let me give you a clear example. So I’m using my tongue to speak, right? But tongues did not evolve for speech. If they did, all the animals with tongues would be talking to us. Right? What you have is you have a very flexible muscle, right, because it’s for mastication, and it has a lot of very fine nerve endings because it’s for poison and sucrose detection and things like that. And it happens to be in the air passageway. So you’ve got something that’s preadapted, already almost perfectly built for being a speaking machine. And so exaptation is you take something, and you repurpose it. And this is the work of Michael Anderson. Like the way that cerebellum has been repurposed from being a sensory motor balance thing to being how we balance and move around in abstract space.
And so that exaptation, the idea of Michael Anderson, more recent work, especially in [inaudible] and others, is the brain is constantly doing that. The brain is constantly exapting things, like machines, that have been built for doing one thing, and then they get repurposed. Or they also use the language of circuit reuse, like from computer science, right, that has been repurposed.
Tim Ferriss: I like the six Es. I’m being very careful with my language here, so I’ll try not to be, because it’ll end up being too clunky if I self-edit too intensely. Do you have any heretical beliefs about consciousness that people in the space would strongly disagree with or think are unfounded, yet you have some degree of conviction in?
John Vervaeke: Yes. And if people are interested in this, I have a more long form presentation of a talk I gave in Thunder Bay at the Conference on Consciousness and Conscience. And I talk about the three questions of consciousness. And so the first question is the question everybody’s really fixated on, which is the nature question, which is, something that seems so non-physical, how does it possibly exist in the otherwise physical universe? And that’s the nature question. And of course, you have Chalmers’ version of the hard problem and qualia and things like that. And I’ll come back to qualia in a second.
Now there’s another question which is as equally important, and people don’t give it enough attention, and they should. And this is the function question, which is, what is consciousness for? What does it do? And before you give me an answer, let me try and make this more problematic to you. You do a lot of very, very sophisticated stuff without consciousness. You are taking the noises coming out of my face hole and translating them into ideas in your mind. And you have no idea how that process works. You have no introspective access to it, right? I make noises. You have ideas. What’s happening in between? Don’t know.
Or think about the complex, sophisticated action you can do, how little attention you have to bring to walking or even, and you’ve had this, I have no doubt, probably, highway hypnotism, where you’ve been driving and you realize “For the past 15, I haven’t been paying attention to the road at all. And yet this sort of zombie inside me has been managing to keep me on the road. And I wouldn’t rely on it or anything,” but you did. So the question is, our unconscious seems to be so powerful. Why do we have consciousness? What’s it do? And why do we love it so much? And then the third question is the meta question. What’s the relationship between these questions?
So here’s my first heresy. Unlike many people, I think these two questions have to be answered in a completely integrated fashion. I think trying to answer the nature question without answering the function question is doomed to fail. And I think trying to answer the function question without trying to answer the nature question is doomed to fail. So there’s the first Vervaeken heresy, and I don’t know who’s going to be Devil’s advocate for me. But anyways, oh no, that’d be the opposite. That would be my person putting me on trial. So that’s the first. Here’s the second. The second is, we can do this. We can find a way of answering this if we pay attention to a convergence that is occurring about what is the function of consciousness? And then I think this gives us a lot of the machinery for explaining a lot of the qualia that are so central to the nature of consciousness.
Tim Ferriss: Qualia being?
John Vervaeke: What is that?
Tim Ferriss: Yes.
John Vervaeke: Qualia means the subjective feel, the redness of red to you. You’re not just unconsciously reacting to wavelengths. You’re having this experience of redness. That’s a qualia. And that seems to be something in consciousness, and it’s subjective in nature. And we don’t even know if your qualia and my qualia are the same.
Tim Ferriss: Well, very often they’re not. I mean, Japan is a good example of that. Their green and blue are not the same green and blue that we see, depending on the crosswalk go signals and so on.
John Vervaeke: And even a person who’s color blind has different qualia. Or as Thomas Nagel famously argued, bats who use echolocation have qualia that we don’t have.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Right.
John Vervaeke: Okay. So that’s what that means. And that’s the hard problem, because there doesn’t seem to be any way of explaining their nature. And this is work I’m doing with a whole bunch of other people, so I don’t want to take sole credit. But I think if you make use of functionality and you make use of the four kinds of knowing and things like this, I think you can give an integrated answer. There is a consensus emerging, and I’ve published on this and talked about this, around what consciousness does, what’s it for. And then I think once you get that and you open up that functionality, you actually get a phenomenology, you get an explanation of the experience out of that.
So the converging thing is that, what consciousness is for and it overlaps with attention and working memory and fluid intelligence. Think about when you’re driving on the highway, when do you come back to it? If something unexpected happens, or there’s a really complex situation suddenly emerging, or there’s an ill-defined problem that you’re not quite sure how to formulate and frame, that’s what you need consciousness for. So what is consciousness? It’s this higher order relevance realization. It’s about re-realizing what’s relevant and important so that you can deal with the added challenge of zeroing in on relevant information that is given to you by novelty, complexity, and ill-defined-ness. That’s what consciousness is for. It’s enhanced relevance realization. And that’s why it overlaps with working memory and things like that.
Tim Ferriss: Now, that does sound like a consciousness that would extend to animals other than humans.
John Vervaeke: Totally. It helps to explain our intuition about this. Generally, when people are willing to extend the attribution of consciousness, they actually do it in a way, without realizing, that tracks how much fluid intelligence do they think that organism has? Because fluid intelligence, working memory, attention, all of these things are about relevance realization and enhancing it. And so you’ve got this consensus.
Okay, now let’s say we get relevance realization, and that consciousness of higher order version. What about qualia? Well, first of all, let’s divide qualia, and this is the second Vervaeke heresy. Let’s divide qualia into two kinds of qualia. There’s the typical qualia that philosophers love to talk about, the adjectival qualia, like blueness and greenness and sweetness. But there are adverbial qualia, there are qualias of here-ness, now-ness, togetherness of my experience. I’m here, I’m now, my experience is together. There’s a unity and a here now presencing of consciousness. The adverbial.
Now here’s the thing, talk to people who have engaged in long-term meditative practice. And this is well documented, read Foreman for the documentation, I’ve been here in this state. And you get into a state called the pure consciousness event. You’re not conscious of anything. You’re definitely not conscious of any qualia, you’re not conscious of any thought, you’re not even conscious of consciousness. You’re just conscious. You don’t black out. You’re just conscious. All you have is a pure perspectival, participatory knowing of consciousness. You’re conscious by being conscious, and there’s nothing else going on.
Now what’s interesting about that is you don’t black out because you can remember being there in that state. There’s no adjectival qualia, but consciousness is still present. So think about that for a second. But what doesn’t go away? You don’t lose the here-ness because people say, in the pure consciousness event, there’s full presence. You don’t lose now-ness. They talk about, “I’m in eternity.” This pure now-ness. And they don’t lose togetherness. They talk about pure oneness and unity. The adverbial qualia are on steroids and the adjectival qualia have gone away.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that’s interesting. It’s a good way to put it.
John Vervaeke: Which means the adjectival qualia are not necessary. And there’s other arguments. They’re not sufficient for consciousness. Consciousness is primarily about adverbial qualia. And adverbial qualia can be explained by relevance realization. It’s how are things relevant to you? That gives you the centeredness to consciousness. The timing of things is an important part of relevance. How things belong together, fit together. Relevance realization gives you the adverbial qualia. So if you understand the functionality of consciousness as heightening relevance realization, it will be present in all of those adverbial qualia. And there will be a sense of those even being heightened when you’re in a pure consciousness state. That’s the third and last Vervaeke heresy. So it’s a completely naturalistic explanation of consciousness.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. I’ve got a number of follow-up questions here. I need to set the table a little bit. So I was overseas, and ended up in conversation with two very smart Russian emigres who had a lot of biophysics background and exposure. And we were having a lot of coffee, or I was having a lot of coffee. Well, at least one of them were only drinking tea. Nonetheless, ended up talking about, and by talking, I mean me listening to them talk, about quantum effects in the brain. It was well above my pay grade, but it led me to really want to have someone on the podcast, at some point, who can credibly speak, because there are a lot of whack-a-doodles into all sorts of new age stuff who would love to try to talk about this, but someone who has credible, scientific bonafides that would allow them to talk about this.
And this leads to my question, which hopefully doesn’t get me too many heckles from the audience. It probably will get a few. Do you have any thoughts on panpsychism? Is it just nonsense, in your view? Is there plausibly something to it? There seem to be very strong feelings on many sides related to this. Do you have any thoughts or opinions on the matter?
John Vervaeke: Yeah. The quantum thing, the best people, I think, would be Penrose or Hameroff, people like that. I think it’s undeniable. We have empirical evidence that there’s quantum stuff going on in smell. I think that’s undeniable. Is there quantum stuff going on in the kind of consciousness that is overlapping with attention and working memory and intelligence? No. Because you show all kinds of limitations that are clear evidence that you are operating like a classical machine, like all the biases I talked about and all the ways you ignore all kinds of information, blah, blah, blah, blah. And you also have problems about temperature.
I think those people give the best representation. I’m giving you why I’m not convinced by that. I think the evidence against it is significantly greater than any evidence for it. And like you, I don’t like the argument that goes consciousness is weird, quantum is weird, therefore consciousness is quantum. That’s just ridiculous. Now, panpsychism is a different thing. And you don’t have to be convinced about quantum stuff to be a panpsychist.
Tim Ferriss: And I should have defined my terms, but would you mind just giving people an overview of what panpsychism is?
John Vervaeke: So panpsychism is a version of what’s called, well, I would argue, it’s a version of what’s called elemental property dualism. And so the idea here is, we have fundamental building blocks of our ontology, space, time, force, matter, energy. And we may move those around, but that that’s not important right now. And we don’t try and explain them. We use them to explain other things because they’re fundamental. And like I say, physics, some people are arguing, we may reject time and space as fundamental and move to something deeper. I don’t know. But that’s not relevant to the core of the argument.
The core of the argument is that consciousness is like that. Consciousness is a fundamental, ontological building block, and therefore the attempt to explain it with any of the other fundamental building blocks is impossible. You can’t do it because they are at the same ontological, ontology, meaning the structure of reality. They’re at the same ontological level. They’re the basement level in terms of which you explain everything else. So the attempt to try and explain them is a misframing of the kind of thing they are. And so that means if consciousness is such a fundamental ontological building block like space, time, energy, force, and energy and matter are convertible, Einstein, there is no part of reality, even empty space has got all of these fundamental ontological building blocks.
And if consciousness is such a fundamental building block, it is also showing up in everything. So my table has consciousness, not my full-blown consciousness, but it has what it’s like to be a table. Like, my consciousness is about perspectival knowing. And so, it has what’s like to be a table, it has an inner subjective experiential aspect. Now not full-blown like mine. Nobody’s ridiculous in claiming there’s some sort of consciousness like mine somehow trapped in this table, unable to speak or something. We have no evidence for that. But the idea is that there are aspects of what it is to be a table that are what it’s like to be a table for the table and not for me or for you. And that would be what the claim of panpsychism is. The person who best makes it plausible, to my mind, well, not necessarily agreeing, is a colleague of mine, Bill Seager. He’s made a very strong case for the plausibility of panpsychism. Now, I reject panpsychism, although I accept things that come close to it in some important ways.
Tim Ferriss: What do you reject and what do you accept?
John Vervaeke: I don’t think that there’s anything like perspectival knowing going on at the level of the table. But I’m confident enough about my ignorance of consciousness and reality to not say I’m sure and slam on the table. I do think, and this is work of Evan Thompson and others in 4E cogsci, and Michael Levin, I think there’s a deep continuity. Meaning, the principles of consciousness have a deep continuity with the principles of cognition, which have a deep continuity with the principles of life, which have a deep continuity with the principles of self-organization, which have a deep continuity with some of the fundamental ways in which reality unfolds for us. And so, they’re not identical. You can’t simply reduce the upper level to the lower levels, but there are shared principles all the way through. And I think the evidence for a deep continuity hypothesis is very good, and the arguments are very important.
So I do think, for example, it’s proper to say that there’s a rudimentary cognition for a perimysium. It’s a cognitive agent, it’s detecting the sugar molecule as food, and this other molecule as poison. It’s a little bit of an aspect, a little bit of a perspective, and it allows it to care about this rather than that. Now, is that what you and I have? No, something like that. Does that extend below living things? I don’t think so, because self-organizing things like the fire don’t seem to direct their behavior to preserve their own existence the way living things do. And I think that’s a fundamental difference in how things are organized and how they function. So I don’t think consciousness and cognition or agency drop below the level of living things.
Tim Ferriss: This is not directly related, but I’m curious. You were mentioning the intimacy, the, let’s call it atypical intimacy that nonetheless seems, I’m paraphrasing, familiar to those who are doing circling. And I’m wondering what are some of the most unusual modes of cognition or relating or perceiving that you have noticed in those types of exercises?
John Vervaeke: In circling and philosophical fellowship and dialectic into dia-logos?
Tim Ferriss: Exactly.
John Vervaeke: All of these. First of all, especially when you take people through this and they start doing a lot of that whole ecology into dialectic into dia-logos, they will discover a nestings of intimacies. They will discover first interpersonal intimacy between you and I. And then they’ll discover intimacy between all of us and what is called the we space, this emergent sort of dynamical system that is sort of linking us and coupling us all together. People will start to get a sense of intimacy to the we space, Chris and I call it the logos, or a German word, the geist. And then there’s a third intimacy that people sometimes get to, which is, they start to get an intimacy through the interpersonal and through the intimacy with the we space to sort of like the ground, the origin, the fount of intelligibility. They get a sense of intimacy that we talked about earlier as a sense of the sacred. And what’s really interesting about this is, people from all kinds of backgrounds, resolutely secular, will start to use spiritual and religious language to talk about these kinds of intimacies.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that’s a curious, I think, indicator. It’s like, when secular language fails, where do you go? Uh-oh. What are you going to do? You, as I understand it, had an office, I believe, directly across the hall or close to Dr. Jordan Peterson. And my question is, with respect to the finding or creation of meaning, or meaning, broadly speaking, where would you say the two of you most strongly agree, and where do you most strongly disagree?
John Vervaeke: Way before Jordan became a god, Jordan and I, we used to regularly show up at conferences. We shared students a lot. We had some public debates, meaning the proper, good sense. And so Jordan shares with me this idea of relevance realization as a core problem to be explained and understood. And the relevance realization gives us that sense of religio, that sense of connectedness because it’s how we’re coupled non-propositionally to the world. We’ve already talked about this. Jordan and I share that a lot. And he’s very, very interested, and often supportive of the work I do. I’m relevance realization, intelligence, consciousness, meaning, and the cultivation of wisdom. And so that’s where we have some very significant agreements.
He places more emphasis on the narrative. On narrative than I do. I think narrative is very important. I want to make that very clear. I don’t think we become temporally extended moral agents without narrative. But I think narrative depends on pre-narrative dialogical capacities, and we can move post narrative, because this is what many people in wisdom traditions, mystical traditions report, they move post narrative. And you see techniques for getting people to go post narrative. Think about the Zen koan, it’s designed to get you into a narrative and then break narrative apart. Or Jesus of Nazareth’s parables, they sound like stories and there’s a narrative. And you read the prodigal son, and then, who am I supposed to identify with? Who’s right? Is it the father? Is it the prodigal son?
And you realize, if you settle on any one of those, you haven’t got it. And it blows the narrative apart. And sorry if this sounds pretentious, I mean it respectfully. Jesus is a master of saying these things that sort of blow people apart, blow the narrative apart. And we have done this publicly, he and I had a discussion with Jonathan Pageau, and I was challenging Jonathan and Jordan about the emphasis on the narrative. And that, of course, comes from Jordan, from his Jungian background, and from Jonathan, from his Eastern Orthodox. Although Jonathan, to give him due credit, came around later and he released a video where he said, “John’s right. The nomological is not reducible to the narrative. There’s ways in which we connect to reality that are non-narrative and are important.” And I thought that was really good of him. So that’d be one area where Jordan and I disagree.
Tim Ferriss: Do you have to get the narrative before you can go post narrative?
John Vervaeke: I think so. And this is where I think the difference is. I think that narrative is indispensable, but I do not think that means it’s metaphysically necessary. Let me give you an analogy. My only language that I’m fluent in is English. English is indispensable to me being a cognitive agent and communicating, but I wouldn’t claim it is metaphysically necessary that every cognitive agent speak in English and only in English or has to know English. That’s ridiculous. So you have to make a distinction between indispensability. And I think narrative is developmentally indispensable, but I don’t think it’s metaphysically necessary to the full development of our cognition.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, so you have that disagreement. You have different weighting of narrative and not the alternative, but then the term that you mentioned, your colleague used —
John Vervaeke: The nomological, having to do with the lawlike structures for reality.
Tim Ferriss: There we go.
John Vervaeke: Laws and theories are powerful and important in a way that’s not reducible to narratives. And that’s one area. And then another area is, I put a lot more emphasis on practices and theorizing and helping to engineer practices and ecology of practices than Jordan does. That’s another major difference.
Tim Ferriss: Why do you think that is? What would his response to that be, would you imagine?
John Vervaeke: Part of it, I think, in fairness to him, is background. And part of it has to do, I think, with, Jordan is a very complex person. I respect Jordan, I consider him a colleague and I consider him a friend. And what I want to say very clearly, and I do this to his face, by the way, and because I do it respectfully and dialogically, Jordan is fine with this. We disagree about things. For example, I think postmodernism and Derrida and Foucault, there’s a lot to be learned there. I have criticisms of them, but there are important arguments that need to be engaged with. I have argued this with Jordan to his face, he disagrees. He thinks that postmodernism is largely crypto-Marxism, et cetera, et cetera. And he rejects it sort of to core.
I’m not denying that postmodernism has been taken by people in this way, but I would also say that many people invoke Derrida and Foucault. They’ve not actually read Derrida and Foucault. Derrida is very interested in Neoplatonism. And Foucault was very interested in Hadot and Stoicism towards the end of his career. And there’s reasons for that. So I think you have to have a much more nuanced understanding of postmodernism. Now, I’ve made that argument to Jordan and we disagree about it. But because I respect him, and we enter into genuine dialogue, that’s fine. Now, the problem is, Jordan also has this other side where, and he doesn’t do this with me, where he’s very confrontational, and he admits this, and he gets very polemical, and it’s usually in the political domain. And that’s an area when he and I don’t agree very much.
But, to his credit, Jordan respects that he and I can have significant different political commitments and nevertheless get into deep and important discussions of philosophical and scientific merit. I have to say that because I’m really tired of people saying that because I talk to Jordan and because I maintain the relationship that pre-existed his godhood that I am somehow advising or advocating for everything he says. That’s ridiculous. I directly criticize him about a lot of things. It’s just I think it should be done in the way that we do it and we’ve always done it. And so that’s a hard thing. My relationship to him is a challenge for me. I’ve considered both options. I’ve considered sort of just sort of throwing in, and I’m part of the Petersonian camp. And it’s like, no, I can’t do that. I can’t do that, in all honesty.
I disagree with Jordan about politics as the main area. I disagree for philosophical reasons with Jordan about politics being the main area in which we can solve the meaning crisis. Politics is at the propositional level, and is at the adversarial level. We need the non-propositional. That’s the main place where the meaning crisis is going to be addressed, I would argue. I disagree with him about that. I disagreed with him about particular philosophical stances, like his stance on postmodernism, et cetera. And so, completely identifying him would be inauthentic. Completely rejecting him would be inauthentic. We share a lot of concerns. I admire many of his ideas. I think he’s done good work, published work. He continues to make good arguments. He’s an insightful person. And I have an ongoing history with him. And he talks to people that I talk to. So I’m damned if I do, damned if I don’t. So I sort of just say, well, okay, what I’m going to do is I’m just going to show up and interact with him as philosophically and scientifically honestly as I can.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I had Jordan on this podcast, and it was incredible to see how strongly binary, not just the responses —
John Vervaeke: He’s a polarizing guy.
Tim Ferriss: But also the expectations of me were all in. Are you all in or are you all out? And there was part of me that wanted to say, this is the kind of identity politics morass that we have as such an issue. To have any kind of reconciliation and civil debate, it can’t be, well, I’m making a strong statement, but it shouldn’t have to be that black or white. I think there are many areas —
John Vervaeke: I want to strengthen your argument for you. I want to strengthen your argument for you.
Tim Ferriss: Please, I need someone to do this with me more regularly.
John Vervaeke: This has to do with adaptivity. This has to do with intelligence. Let’s just give you an example of relevance realization right here right now you have two attentional systems, probably more, but at least these two. You have the task focus that is trying to keep you focused on, what is John saying with his multisyllabic complex sentences? And then there’s a part of you, the default network that’s mind wandering. And I’m not accusing you of anything. It’s drifting away, it’s thinking about other things, and they’re locked together. Like evolution, the mind wandering introduces variation. The task network kills most of it off, but some of it survives and helps reproduce the conversation and keep it going. Opponent processing, your autonomic nervous system about arousal is biased to arousing you. Parasympathetic is biased to getting you to calm down, and they’re locked together in opponent processing. You find this all through adaptive systems.
Opponent processing. Democracy. I argued this when I gave a talk at the international symposium on democracy in Prague in September. Democracy should be opponent processing. The best way for me to correct my perspectival bias is to have you be in opponent processing with me. You take a different bias, but we agree that we are each other’s best means of self-correction. That’s how democracy should work. And we have degenerated it into adversarial, the other side is evil and must be destroyed because we are perfectly right and correct with a sinful, and I use that word advisedly, a sinful self-righteousness on both sides. A pox on both of your houses, I would say to that, because you’re undermining the very opponent processing that is necessary for democracy to be a good means for us to use extended cognition to solve our complex problems. So that’s how I’m strengthening your argument.
Tim Ferriss: That’s what I meant to say. So thank you.
John Vervaeke: It goes something I said earlier, stop trying to demonize or deify any one of your faculties. Stop trying to demonize or deify Jordan. Confront his arguments, argument by argument. Some of them are good, some of them are bad. Even some of his bad arguments need to be taken seriously because they’re well-made and they contain insight. Some of the things you reject, but reject it because of the content of the argument, not because of the side you’re on. What is that accomplishing? That is not accomplishing any overcoming of your or my self-deception. All it’s doing is reinforcing whatever confirmation bias we are already enslaved to.
Tim Ferriss: Talking about opponent processing makes me think about some of my close friendships and how I choose to develop friendships with people who can help with the checks and balances and the constructive pushback when helpful. And that leads me to want to ask you, and this is very self-interested of me, but it’s something that’s on my mind a lot because most of my friends are non-religious, but looking to create meaning or find meaning, as we all are. How would you advise, say, a group of middle-aged friends to support one another in having more meaningful lives or creating meaning? What can people do in a small cohort? Would you have any recommendations?
John Vervaeke: Don’t just swap beliefs. That’s insufficient. That’s just the propositional. Commit to taking up together a living ecology of practices. Commit to doing that together and bring that opponent processing into the non-propositional aspects of your cognition, into the extended aspects of your cognition. Learn how to do some of these practices I’ve been talking about. Take them up together and take up ones that involve you practicing together. Because a big part of what the church and the temple and the mosque did was exactly that. They provided a home, a tradition in which ecologies of practices were properly homed and supported so that people could come together and not just communicate, but commune together by sharing participation, I’m emphasizing all these words because of all the ways we’ve talked about them, in shared ecologies of practices that they mutually conform to and transform themselves to, and thereby, mutually set up a space where they can afford each other’s transformations, where you can cultivate together enhanced religio, enhanced sense of sacredness, enhanced sense of the depths within you, calling to the depths of others and calling to the depths of reality.
Don’t tell me what you believe, tell me what you practice. Tell me how you’re practicing together and how you’re acting as checks and balances and opponent processing on the creation and the running of these ecologies of practices. And commit to it the way you commit to a friendship. Your friend is a complex, dynamical system. An ecology of practice is a complex dynamical system. It takes a time and effort and commitment and a willingness to transform and fail and learn from mistakes in order to make this work. Get into an ecology of practice. Try to make sure that that ecology of practice is in ongoing dialogue and discussion with the best cognitive science out there right now, so you don’t go off in weird rabbit holes that can happen when people do this, so that you stay tied to the best science we have about how cognition and consciousness and intelligence and distributed cognition and flow, et cetera, work.
That is the single most important thing. Now I’ve offered lots. I have a full meditation course and contemplation course, cultivation of wisdom course. I have the whole After Socrates. There’s lots out there. And you don’t have to just pay attention to me. You can pay attention to the ecologies of practices like Rafe Kelley. I went to Return to the Source last summer, blew me apart. Just an amazing ecology of practices. I’ve been doing a lot of participant observation and experiment in other people’s ecologies of practices. You have to become a connoisseur and a creator of ecologies of practices. There’s no other way to enhance the capacity for participating in meaning. That would be the most central advice I would give somebody.
Tim Ferriss: I was meaning, and I will now ask about After Socrates. So you have this very popular YouTube series, Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. Why create After Socrates?
John Vervaeke: I listened to the criticism of other people. Awakening from the Meaning Crisis has a couple of main criticisms that people made. One was, a lot of people asked at the end, “But what do I do now? What do I do now? You’ve convinced me about the meaning crisis and this problem, and blah blah. But what do I do now?” And then secondly, “You did this totally individualistically, but how does this work with other people?” So After Socrates is not extensive, it’s intensive, it’s trying to trace the entire tradition from Socrates, and spending a lot of time there. Reverse engineer. I’m not claiming this is exactly what Socrates did, who could claim that? I’m trying to reverse engineer as best I can this dialectic into dia-logos, these kinds of practices we’ve been talking about, so that people can undertake a pedagogical program.
So Tim, every episode I give an argument, and they build on each other, like Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. But I also give points of reflection that are designed to be taken up in discussion by groups. And then I give instruction in a particular practice that resonates with the content of the lecture. So as the lecture builds the argument, intergroup discussion is being built and a pedagogical program is being built so that you can come to take up the Socratic way of life in community with other people who are taking it up and cultivating an extended and developed ecology of practices. That’s what After Socrates is all about.
Tim Ferriss: Where can people find After Socrates? Where’s the best place for people if they want to learn more?
John Vervaeke: Just go on my YouTube channel. It’s right there for free.
Tim Ferriss: All right, we will certainly link to the YouTube channel, the website, JohnVervaeke.com. On Twitter, @vervaeke_john. John, this has been such a pleasure. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. Thank you for taking so much time and being so patient with my questions. Hopefully it wasn’t too torturous. I do appreciate it.
John Vervaeke: You had it all. I really enjoyed it so much so that I’ll answer your question. If you want me ever to come back, I’d be very happy to do so.
Tim Ferriss: I would love to do it? I would love to do a round two. Is there anything else you would like to say? Any closing comments, any requests you’d like to make of my audience? Anything at all that you’d like to add before we wind to a close?
John Vervaeke: I don’t think so. I would ask people to consider the two series, Awakening from the Meaning Crisis, After Socrates. Take a look at some of the conversations I’m having with other people. Try to give me the benefit of the doubt when I’m talking to people you might not like.
Tim Ferriss: Good advice.
John Vervaeke: I guess that’s all I would have to say right now. And again, I was a little intimidated, and I’m not usually thinking about talking to you. You have quite a powerful, like I said before we turned the recording on, reputation. And yet you were so welcoming and accommodating. You and I, I think, got into a mutual flow state quite a few times. I think it was really wonderful. So thank you very much.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, thank you, John. Thank you for being such a great jazz player on the stage. And I really, really enjoyed it. I took tons of notes, so I have quite a lot of reading and investigating and practicing ahead of me. And to everybody listening, as per usual, we have links to everything. I may need to do some work on my spelling of various names, but we’ll figure it out, in the show notes at tim.blog/podcast. And until next time, please be just a bit kinder than is necessary. That includes to yourself, but certainly to other people. And remember, it’s not just what you believe. It is what you practice. So get to practicing, folks. And as always, thanks for tuning in.
John Vervaeke: Thank you, everyone.
Tim Ferriss: I thought we would start with a sandbox that I like to play in, and I think you are a black belt where I am still a middling white belt, and that’s a discussion of language and words. And specifically, I was hoping you could perhaps give us some examples of words that we use commonly that frame the way we think about life or relate to life in the West, if that is perhaps a container that works for the question.
John Vervaeke: Yeah, I think it is a good container. I think there are words that are signposts, benchmarks for a kind of cultural cognitive grammar, giving us some sort of our basic conceptual vocabulary. Two that come to mind very readily are these two terms, subjective and objective, and people of course forget the original meanings of these words, but what we do is we have taken them to be an exhaustive division of reality.
There’s the interior subjective mind stuff and there’s the exterior objective physical stuff, and we take it that that’s just the way it is and that’s how we’ve always thought. And that’s how everybody has always thought about reality, and that’s not true. The Greeks didn’t have that division, and of course, many Eastern philosophies don’t have that division. And there’s been critiques of that framework which we got from Descartes, the Cartesian framework for both the last 200 years, even in the history of Western philosophy.
The fact that we have these terms, we bandy them about, we think that that’s all there is. It’s complete and exhaustive and they’re divided and they’re really radically incommensurable with each other. It just shows how well this has insinuated itself into the very way we see ourselves, see the world, experience ourselves. It’s very powerful and very interesting.
Part of my work is to try to undermine that dichotomy and try and get us to think more profoundly about that there must be something deeper than the subjective and objective that fundamentally makes it possible for them to be related together. Because if not, we are really doomed in a kind of radical skepticism and solipsism. Solipsism is the idea that the only thing that’s really real is your own mind kind of thing.
So that would be one clear example. Another one along those lines that we haven’t paid attention to how much it’s changed is the word matter. We now take matter as actual stuff, but if you go before the scientific revolution, matter in the Aristotelian framework means exactly the opposite. It means pure potentiality, that which is awaiting to be informed and actualized.
Aristotle’s notion is a piece of wood is potentially a chair or a table, and what makes it act, actuality, what makes it act like a table is its form, its structure and functional organization. What makes it act like a chair is its form, but before that it’s just a potential chair or a potential table. And that’s what matter was. It was sort of this pure potential.
And so the word has actually flipped in meaning radically. Then we of course think that it’s always been this way and we forgot that there’s a dramatically opposite possibility even within our own history. So that would be too easy. Well, not easy to reflect upon, but easy to bring up examples of words that are very powerful in our culture, but so much so that we see so much by means of them that they’re almost completely transparent to us.
Tim Ferriss: How has your relating to, and I apologize if the wording on this is clumsy, but your relating to your experienced reality changed as you’ve studied cognitive science and philosophy and these different labels and frameworks that despite our perhaps underlying subconscious belief that it has always been this way. In the case of say, subjective, objective, how has your own relating to life’s experience changed?
John Vervaeke: I coined a term “the transjective” to mean that which binds the two together, that which binds the inner life of the organism to the outer world of the environment kind of thing. There I was influenced by a teacher of mine, John Kennedy, who is a protege of J.J. Gibson.
And so let me give you an example. I’ve become aware of things. So Gibson had a notion of an affordance. Like so, this water bottle is graspable. Now, the graspability isn’t in my hand, I can’t grasp anything. I can’t grasp Africa or something like that. The graspability isn’t in the bottle because like an ant can’t grasp it and et cetera.
It’s actual, a real relation of fittedness between my hand and this, and the floor is walkable by me. And so this way of experiencing this connectedness as a more profound way of experiencing my mental life has now become increasingly prominent and salient for me.
It goes towards the main work I do on scientific work, about relevance realization and things like that. But it also overlaps. I do Daoist practices. I do Tai Chi Chuan and Qigong and things. And that sense of connectedness that is talked about, that shift helps me get into that sense of connectedness in a more profound and transformative way.
So, nobody’s ever asked me that question. That’s a really good question. It has really changed the configurations of my experience. What is foregrounded? What becomes salient to me? What such that I can actually taste it more in my experience and be transformed more by it? Yes, very much so. That’s a very clear example. And that, sorry, I’ll stop in a sec, but the way that this —
Tim Ferriss: — you can go as long as you like.
John Vervaeke: Well, that translates in that really — how do I say this without sounding like a Hallmark card? But you move to an understanding of love as this connectedness, but not as the idea of connectedness, but as the real reciprocal opening between you and another person. They disclose to you in a way that allows you to disclose to them, and you’re mutually affording that. And that goes from being something that you just think to something that you found yourself deeply being shaped by as you participate in it.
Tim Ferriss: I’m glad I asked, and I hope to ask — Well, I am going to ask many more. We’ve got plenty of time. This is fun. I wanted to come back to something you mentioned, and that is, I’m going to paraphrase here because I can’t recall the exact wording that you used. But effectively, some interwoven fabric that is more fundamental than the subjective-objective dichotomy that we use. I’m curious if that is an older way of knowing if that is — it’s a revisiting of an older way of knowing or relating to reality, or if that is a newer way of thinking about something that could connect and underlie those types of concepts.
I’m asking in part because I had a conversation a few weeks ago with Wade Davis, who’s an ethnographer, and —
John Vervaeke: Yeah, I’ve read one of his books.
Tim Ferriss: And he’s written quite a bit about different ways of knowing, which I certainly want to dive into with you as well. Is what you referred to — something old, is it something new? Is it something that has no temporal fixed point?
John Vervaeke: Well, I mean, the answer is both. That’s not as a cop-out Canadian answer. What I mean by that is there’s definitely important providence, and I’ll talk about it in a sec. But I’m not recommending that we simply think we can return to that in some sort of a historical manner. So that’s what I mean when I’m sort of caveating.
This notion that our relationship to reality is more about this connectedness, this is obviously in the whole Neoplatonic tradition, this idea of participation that — one way the ancients thought about it is, well, this has a structural functional organization to it that allows it to act the way it does. Who best knows this? Somebody who could describe it? Or somebody —
Tim Ferriss: For people who have audio only, this, you’re pointing at the water bottle.
John Vervaeke: Oh, sorry. Yeah, sorry, everybody. Thanks for that. Now, who actually knows this better? Somebody who could describe it or somebody who could make it? Well, generally people say, well, somebody who could actually make it, who actually bring about the structural functional organization. What does the maker have in their head? Well, they have the structural functional organization and they just have to put it into that.
The thing that makes this act the way it does is identical to something in your mind, and you’re both sharing in that. This is called a contact epistemology. You’re actually in — that you’re mutually participating. And so the relatedness and the connectedness is more primordial. That’s sort of an idea running through the whole Neoplatonic tradition, which I would argue following Arthur Versluis is really the spiritual grammar of the west is the Neoplatonic tradition.
In that sense, it’s old. In another sense, it’s very new because what’s coming out of 4E cognitive science is exactly this kind of thing. This has to do with ways of knowing. I talk about, because of the work I do in 4E cogsci, four kinds of knowing, and maybe we can get into that. But the point is that three of those four kinds of knowing are about this kind of connectedness and mutual participation.
And so I find this very interesting, the sort of cutting edge cogsci is arguing that this is a better way of — even to use the metaphor, your mind is not in your head. It’s between your embodied brain and the world. That’s where the mind is, and that’s how you should think of the mind. That’s really cutting edge and important, and there’s a lot of important work being done about it. But in a lot of ways it hearkens back to that ancient Neoplatonic tradition.
It’s both old and new in really, really persuasive ways, I would say.
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One Reply to “The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Professor John Vervaeke — How to Build a Life of Wisdom, Flow, and Contemplation (#657)”
I can’t wait to listen to this one! My only feedback is where are all the lady interviewees Tim? It’s been a while since you’ve had a lady on the podcast, not including re-posts.