A short conversation with a wisdom expert
[John Vervaeke, PhD, is an award-winning associate professor and director of cognitive science at the University of Toronto and a tenured professor.]
I’ve spent the last few years fully immersed in the topic of wisdom. Although talking about it can make you sound pretentious, my basic stance is that the freedom to pursue wisdom is one of the primary benefits of wealth. It’s also an inheritance that can’t be squandered.
This was my second interview with him and it’s a tight 45 minutes. As a result this was the interview I personally wanted to have with him, rather than a broader introduction to his work. But I hope many of the concepts are clear, and I’ve added links and references for curious readers where perhaps the terminology or theory isn’t obvious. You can listen above, or click below to watch.
Audio and Video Available Here (45 minute listen)
[If this interview stokes your curiosity, John recently participated in a remarkable three hour conversation “The Psychological Drivers of the Metacrisis” with Dr. Iain McGilchrist and Daniel Schmachtenberger. Obviously Dr. McGilchrist’s hemisphere thesis is a revelation, and Daniel is impressively articulate when it comes to diagnosing our collective problems.]
Tom: We first spoke, it must have been about 18 months ago. I’ve spent the time since immersed both in your work and the work of other visionaries who are all focused on wisdom, a word that we struggle to define and a word that makes you sound a bit pretentious.
But I’ve come to the view that it’s an intrinsic good and that, when it comes to the point of the acquisition of wealth, leisure is probably not enough for most people. And actually I’ve always phrased it that “wisdom is the ability to pursue what you love and ignore what you don’t.” And that strikes me as an intrinsically desirable way to live your life. But I think we are so impoverished in our culture as to having bad definitions of these words and not really being able to articulate it without sounding a bit pretentious.
I am lucky to have an audience that I think is considerably wealthier than others. And if you had a blank sheet of paper, and unlimited resources, and either for yourself or for your children, you wanted to pursue wisdom, where would you even start?
John: So what I would do is I would look to emerging communities that are already creating what I call ecologies of practices and that have certain design features in it. I would look for how they were concerned about how we view the world, how we care about the world and how we act in the world, those three dimensions. I would be concerned that they had practices that covered sort of four domains. They are doing dialogical practices, they’re doing imaginal practices, mindfulness practices, embodied practices, actually all four E, but we’ll just use embodiment as the central one. I would look for design features of that ecology to practice. How much are the practices bedded by good cognitive science, good sports psychology, good martial arts stuff?
How much has it been vetted through good science? How much is the ecology self-correcting? How much this practice and that practice have a complementary relationship, complementary strengths and weaknesses, so they can compensate for each other, correct each other, constrain each other. And then I would look for what’s the community like in that, that’s homing that ecology of practices. Do I see a community that is oriented towards overcoming self-deception and enhancing flourishing and now a little bit more abstractly but, and this is a lesson from Plato, are they getting people to deeply, and I don’t mean just intellectually, but like deeply inhabit holding this very creative tension between the fact that we are finite beings, we are subject to a lot of fate that is beyond our control, one of the guiding messages of stoicism and Buddhism and Taoism, right? But at the same time, we’re not just like the other animals, finite creatures, we also, we are called to transcendence. And so we also seek relationships to things that are greater than ourselves, connectedness to that. And you see, the easy thing for human beings to do with this tension is to collapse one pole and just snap off into the other. And you get people who just pursue, you have these communities that just pursue transcendence and they’re the wonderful sort of airy, fairy, spiritual, and that’s bypassing and it’s not really doing anything but reality. And then you have the other people that give up on transcendence and you get sort of burnt, the burnt nihilists were just animals, were doomed, there’s nothing we can do about it. And they make people prone to servitude and manipulation. And so, if we go too far this way, too far in the transcendence, and there’s inflation and hubris, too far this way in the finitude, and we lose our dignity, and we fall prey to tyranny and servitude.
And so I would want a community that is clearly addressing self-deception, clearly pursuing enhanced meaning in life, and gets that they have to hold this creative tension, the Greeks had a great word for it, the tonos, like the tonos of a lyre or the tonos of a bow, the tonos between finitude and transcendence. Because I happen to think that not only the scientific evidence but long-standing philosophical argument from the likes of Plato indicates that is the stance you have to cultivate deeply down to every cell of your body within you and between us so that human beings can achieve the best kind of life they can achieve.
So that would be my answer. I would look for the communities that met all of those criteria and then pump as much money into the individual communities. And then I would seek to, and I’ve been trying this a couple of times with the resources of the foundation, how can we get these communities to network together so they start to form a viable subculture or culture?
Tom: Yeah, that’s an incredible answer. And it leads me in quite a strange direction straight off the bat, but I’ve been immersed in Peter Kingsley and Bill Plotkin’s work recently. And I don’t know if you’re familiar with either of them, but this theme has been emerging from a lot of work I’ve been reading recently, which is that prior cultures had some variety of wisdom school, which I think to our modern ears sounds a touch elitist, where only the wealthy or the richest or the leaders would be invited. But they would go and they would have some sort of death and rebirth experience and that would bring them forth back into society able to govern and to rule and to lead without ego. And it strikes me that like, you know, you have Brian Muraresku’s work that’s exploring whether everyone went into a room and did a bunch of psychedelics. Like maybe, maybe not. That’s certainly been a feature of this movement. But I guess the thing I really struggle with is, does everyone have to go through some sort of transcendent death and rebirth experience to come back in service? Or is this something we can just incept into society over a very long period of time at a mass scale?
John: So I have to tell you, Tom, this is one of the perennial debates within, across cultures, within cultures, across history, about the cultivation of wisdom. You can see it classically showing up in opposition between more, more procedural step-by-step forms of Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism and the direct transmission, sudden transformation of Zen. And like many cognitive scientists, I’m coming to the opinion that we should start trying to answer that question because we’re probably talking about different kinds of populations. I don’t mean, I mean, you know, in terms of their basic biological, psychological makeup and constitution, and that some people would benefit from a much more step-by-step rigorous pursuit, and other people have to go through something like the dramatic death and rebirth in order for them to get the kind of realization needed. So historically, I get that argument. My friend and colleague, Evan Thompson, recently made it. Rick Repetti and I are doing a series for my channel on the book, the philosophy, the handbook of the philosophy of meditation that Rick edited and I configured it to him. Evan was on the show and he was making that argument. And I think at least historically, he’s got a good case. And I would venture, given how much individual differences show up in psychology, that unless we have evidence to the contrary, it’s very plausible that it’s both. And then the more tricky question becomes a pedagogical question, like how do we assess people so that we can best recommend whether they should pursue the gradual incremental or the much more sudden, you know, satori kind of model?
Tom: Yeah, I guess the risk is that you have people stuck in stasis who are afraid to do the first thing or in complete chaos once they’ve experienced the second one outside of a societal container.
John: And I think that’s an excellent connection you just made, Tom, because it goes back to the previous point I made. If you don’t situate people right, oh, “you have to have this sudden enlightenment” you can push them too far into the transcendence and they lose touch with their humanity. But on the other one, like if you don’t give them enough of that, it’s just an incremental plodding. They might get locked into a kind of finitude, despair. And so, like I said, this is a perennial problem. You read across the literature. You know, I’m not talking about the scientific literature, I’m talking about the historical literature of people writing within these various communities. And you see them wrestling with this all the time.
Tom: Well, one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is the concept of common knowledge. That, you know, you have the viral spread of ideas that typically goes through one or two massive hubs, and you have these weird historical anomalies, like the Axial Age or the spread of Christianity. And in the COVID era, you had this incredible global viral spread of social movements that were effectively instantaneous. And so part of me is thinking maybe you square the circle in terms of the elitism. It’s like you only have to incept a certain number of people before a more wisdom friendly, a more consciousness-friendly message can be propagated.
John: Yeah, I think that’s totally right. I mean, and so, and there’s very, there’s different models about that. I mean, so you can compare in the West, you can compare Christianity, which was for a very long time bottom up, and even being resisted by the top down elite structures, compared to stoicism, which was adopted by the elites, and then disseminated largely into the army and the culture at large. And I think you’re right. And I think we could, like, you only need a certain, like, I’ve heard claims around 10%, but it’s got to be the right 10%. And I have a sort of a hunch, I can’t make a stronger epistemic claim for that, but that it’s some combination of bottom-up and top-down that allows you to get the optimal inception, and that we might now have the kind of tools that can track the dynamics of that and the complexity that we’re in, in order to get us, it’s probably with some A.I. help, at what would be the optimal, you know, 10% of people that we could influence in order to flip the society towards wisdom. I would love if that project was also something that was being funded by somebody. I’d love to be involved in that project.
So that would also be something, now that we’ve done it, I would go back and add to what I would do with the unlimited cash of I had it at hand, was to try and get, can we actually come up with that kind of modeling that would give us the most incisive way in which we could bring about societal transformation? It’s dangerous power. So it would have to be done by people who were committed to the cultivation of wisdom.
Tom: Well, this therefore is the hardest possible question I think I could ever ask anyone, so good luck. But we’ve had this problem in these communities where they invent their own languages, people will get very up in their abstract lingo, it’s either dead philosophers or cognitive science terms. What for you would be the “minimum viable woo” and message that if you could, not exactly tweet format, but if you could get Taylor Swift or Elon Musk or any of these people to start moving towards an idea that you think could create that kind of ideological tipping point?
John: The very processes that make you adaptive make you subject to self-deception, so wisdom, meaning the overcoming of self-deception, is not optional.
Tom: I like that. I’ll see if I can get Taylor to tweet it tomorrow (if I knew her). The link to this question hopefully will become clear in a minute, but I must have spent hundreds of hours last year on the concept of relevance realisation and…
John: Hahaha! Well, you’re still a long way from the amount of time I’ve spent on it, but I admire you for doing that.
Tom: I may ask you to give a 30 second definition as a part of the answer. But if I had a core of my work that I could get to, it would be that we are not in full control of our curiosity. I think Jordan Peterson calls it the “divinity of interest” and that having more faith in the ability of our environment to signal to us where we should be focused is probably the most powerful idea I’ve ever encountered. And it seems to me that it’s tied into relevance realization in that there is something in your environment that calls to you that indicates an optimal path. But that seems like such a bonkers idea that I wonder whether you even credit it with a discussion.
John: I do credit within a discussion. I mean, and I’m supposed to be talking to Jordan again soon in a public format. I agree with it if, well, I’ll give an interpretation of what I think that can mean, and that’s the one I agree with. And I would like to ask Jordan if that’s actually what he said. Jordan has a knack of saying things in a somewhat vague way without making them unclear to people, which is a knack I don’t have but I’ll try my best.
So the idea is that the way I would rephrase that is it’s not a matter of you sort of determining what’s relevant or not. And it’s not a matter of you just sitting there in the environment telling you what’s relevant. Relevance is actually something co-created by you and the environment. And this is one of the main claims of what’s called “4 E cog-sci.” So in order for something to be relevant, it is neither just that you are subjectively interested in it, because you can be interested in the wrong things, the things that are actually not relevant to you solving your problems or getting your goal. And that’s why you have moments of insight because you were originally considering the wrong things as relevant that didn’t turn out to be relevant. And so if you’ve had an experience of insight, and I assume everybody has, that’s that process saying, “you know what you thought was salient and relevant? Turned out that it wasn’t.” Okay. So it’s not just subjectivity, is anything objectively relevant? I don’t know. Is this relevant (indicates a wooden toy)? What will you do? You’ll tell me, well, it depends. It depends on the context, which just is things that are relevant, the problems that are at hand. It’s that you have to stop thinking about it either as something we impose or something we receive. So the way I like to try and give people an analogy is think about something like adaptivity from Darwinian theory. If an organism is adaptive, is that a property of the organism? Is the great white shark adaptive? What you should say to me is what, well, it depends. If I put it in the Sahara Desert, it’s dead. But if I put it in the ocean, then it’s adaptive. Because what we’re talking about is a relation of being properly fitted to the environment.
Relevance is like biological fittedness. It is cognitive fittedness. And it’s the way in which the environment and you together co-create a bond of connection. And then of course, as I argue in other work, that goes into your sense of feeling connected when people are talking about how meaningful their lives are.
Tom: Well, this plays into one of the more interesting ideas I’ve encountered in the last 12 months, which is complexity theory. This is where essentially we’re being driven towards being individually differentiated; the most John and the most Tom that we can be. We probably experience that by what puts us in flow and what feels meaningful to us. That at the same time, and the bit that I think we have the most trouble with conceptually, is that you need to be integrated. You need to be integrated into the system. I’ve always felt that perhaps the way that you experience that integration aside from things just going very well for you, might be synchronicities from your environment. But there’s some sort of interplay and relationship with your environment that like, are you being the best great white shark that you can be right now? Because you’re more than just a great white shark, you’re John the great white shark. And that kind of increasing occupation of your niche is what we’re being pushed towards. And that’s what relevance realization is talking about.
John: I think that’s right. I think, building on that, I think relevance realization is a very sped up version of what’s called niche construction. The organism shapes the environment as the environment is shaping the organism so that the organism has a home range, it has a place where it belongs. And by the way, your sense of belonging, which really matters to your psychological well-being, your physical well-being, even your financial well-being, look at Karen Allen’s work on belonging. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. That’s the meaning in life stuff. So we’re not just talking about calculations here. We’re talking about how, you know, existentially important this is. And I think that niche construction, I mean, first of all, you have culture. And what culture does is it speeds up that niche. Look around you. Your culture is shaping the environment to you and shaping you to your environment. Culture speeds that up. And then within culture, and I don’t mean separate, but within it, cognition is speeding that up even faster. And so if that’s what you were saying, I think that’s exactly what relevance realization is doing. It’s a process in which we’re basically, the way culture has accelerated the niche construction of biological evolution, we in cognition can accelerate the niche construction that’s going on in cultural evolution.
Tom: Speaking of someone that’s had this conversation 50 to 100 times with people who I’m trying to introduce it to from scratch and doing a terrible job, the thing where almost everyone gets caught out or is really hung up on is the idea that your environment signals back to you when you’re pursuing the correct niche, however it does that through synchronicity or any other ways. People just believe, I think with a lot of justification, that it’s kind of a cold dead box outside of us. And there is no indication that when you’re pursuing the correct niche by doing whatever it is you’re enjoying, that there’s any indication coming back to you that is the correct niche. And that requires so much faith for people to follow their curiosity or to pursue that niche that often they won’t do it. Because I can’t say to people with any kind of certainty, should you be able to follow, if you are able to follow your niche in a safe and responsible way, things will work out well for you. I believe that the Taoists kind of realized that things would work out well for you, but it’s very difficult to get people to take that leap of faith, unless they believe that somehow their environment is interested in this pursuit of this. Does that make sense?
John: It does. I mean, I wouldn’t use the word interested because that may get into a kind of anthropomorphism that might be problematic. But I get the intent of the question. And I like the intent of the question. Yeah, I don’t think you should be thinking of the world as a cold, dead or empty canvas upon which you just sort of press yourself.
I mean think about think about how we do science depends on the fact that the word we if we get the conditions right, and we’re well fitted to the situation reality gives us feedback on to whether or not we’re on track with things right
Tom: Yeah, but I don’t think people understand whether that’s true. And in my dark moments, I’m not even sure it’s true either. That, you know, what is that feedback from reality? Is it just, I’m going to get more money in my checking account? In what form do you think it comes?
John: Ah, well that I have a better answer for. The feedback from reality comes in the form of you feeling like you’re connected to what is more real for you. In fact, let me try and make this argument from another angle and I promise you, I think it’ll converge. The idea that it’s all kind of an illusion or a fraud or something like that, that’s the hermeneutics of suspicion. That’s the idea that appearances are misleading, et cetera, all that sort of stuff.
Now the problem with that is it doesn’t make sense to make that kind of judgment. Illusion and real are comparative terms. Something is only, you can only point to A being an illusion if you can point to B as being real. You can only point, right? “Real” is like “tall.” I can’t say everything’s tall. It doesn’t make any sense.
Right? You’re not thinking about things correctly. It’s a comparative term. Now, if you’re tracking reality, the reward you get is you come into, you get a stronger sense that you are connected to what is more real. And the problem you’re getting, I think from some of your people, is they’re not getting a clear education as to what are the signals that come to you when you’re more in contact with something more real than less real because there’s not a lot of time spent on reflecting on the process of realization. There’s so much emphasis on the results and the product. It’s like in the end that’s self-defeating. You have to say what’s it like? Slow down. Slow down. What’s it like when I had an insight and I realized “oh I thought she was angry but she was actually afraid.” And notice that actually, and now I’m more connected to what’s real, and I have insight, I see into reality, I see through illusion, and I like that. I find that a powerful experience because I’m actually strongly motivated to be more connected to reality. What does that taste like when you are more connected to reality rather than less connected? Now, if you have not cultivated that sense of taste, you’re not a connoisseur of your own experience, it’s going to be very hard for you to notice the signals coming back to you saying “wow, that was, I felt like I was really connected to what’s, to reality. I was really connected to that person. I was really seeing into them. I was really connected to what really was central about that situation.” That’s what matters. And the problem is people are often given things that only sometimes correlate with that.
Tom: Well, that makes me really think back to what we said at the top of the discussion about you have this dynamic set of actual practices and somewhat inspired by you, I’ve taken up Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and have a crappy meditation practice, I know you’re a big fan of metta. And so you have these non-abstract, thinky ways of connecting with the world and understanding what’s real. And I find that idea of a dynamic set of practices incredibly appealing, because I’m guessing for you that gives you more of a somatic engagement with the world.
John: And totally, and that’s ultimately what matters. That embodied, it’s not mindless, but that embodied somatic sense, sensory motor sense. I mean, look at the metaphors we use. We talk about getting a grip on reality, being in touch with things, right? Or do you feel that that’s true? Our metaphors are ways in which people have had realizations and we still use the language because we’re groping to, groping towards trying to get this sense of connectedness. But when you do these practices, the reward, it’s like you’re looking into the face of your beloved and you suddenly get a sense that isn’t driven by romantic impulse or anything, it’s just a very clear, very calm, settled sense of the tremendous depth of this person.
And then it feeds back into you and you realize, oh, I shouldn’t ever come to the conclusion that I totally get this person. I really, no, there’s a depth to them beyond how I’ve understood them. I’m open now to that depth and I’m oriented to it. That’s the kind of reward you get when you’re tracking reality, when you’re cultivating wisdom. And you can’t buy that.
I’m sorry, like you can plop down as much money as you want to, to intensify or increase the duration of some experience, but that’s not the same thing as being able to get the depth of an experience.
Tom: I think I heard it from you first, the line, “love is mutually accelerating disclosure.” And that has stuck with me. That’s one of those ideas that just lodges in your head. But it makes me think, you know, one of my other huge influences is Iain McGilchrist, for me has been the thin end of the wedge in helping people understand that there could be a neurological reason why they can’t get access to all the best parts of wisdom. That, you know, the right hemisphere that is more connected to the world and connected to all of these dynamics that are so intrinsically valuable to us is kind of overwhelmed by the logical, linear and highly verbal left hemisphere. And that, because it’s a 1,600 page book with 5,000 footnotes, that’s a good way in for people because we don’t need to talk about egos and souls. We can just talk about left and right hemisphere and be, actually, one of the things you’re going to have to deal with in order to get wiser is finding a way to see through the delusions that are presented by the left hemisphere. I don’t know how that plays into your thinking.
John: I mean, I like it in one sense, but this is something that he and I disagree on. Insight actually isn’t in the right hemisphere. It’s between the left and the right hemisphere. So an insight is when the left hemisphere treats the problem as a well-defined problem and then impasses can’t solve it. And then activity switches to the right. The right looks for a new way to formulate the problem, passes the new formulation back, and if it takes, because it doesn’t always take. Then you have an insight. And so this is what I talk about when I talk about opponent processing. And there’s all kinds of opponent processing going on. And so I think that’s right. And I think there’s ways, I think there’s reasons why we have both hemispheres and they are organized this way, because I think the right hemisphere is also capable of its own kinds of illusion. This is the kind of work I do. Right? You know, this paper I released with, Andersen, Miller and Vervaeke at the end of 2020.
You can have people who are on one end and they’re just locked into being very left hemispheric and they’re all detailed and they overfit to the features. And then you have people who are too right hemispheric and then they’re seeing patterns everywhere and that’s not good either. You know, that could get you psychotic. And so what you want, and you don’t want to just be in the middle. You want to be able to toggle back and forth between them. And so that’s why I said you want an ecology of practices.
You want practices that are designed to understand, don’t just boost the right, don’t just boost the left. This practice boosts the right, this practice boosts the left, but they have complimentary strengths and weaknesses because what I actually want, I would argue, is this toggling back and forth, this tonos, this creative tension between the left and the right hemisphere because that actually optimizes my ability to get a good grip on the world.
Tom: That’s fascinating. Another way I’ve thought about it before, that it’s sort of the back and forth that matters rather than necessarily the overall balance. What have you found? What do you believe is effective for people actually looking to implement this in their lives? What do you think would be effective for that?
John: So I think one of the things that Leo Ferraro and I published when we did the chapter on the cognitive science of wisdom was that, I’ll give an example of it. I think these two processes, and they have to do with where they’re, like, I don’t think about locations, I think about vectors. Where’s the vector, right? Is it left, right or right, left vector kind of thing. But these two processes, the process of inference and the process of insight, I think are optimized in opponent processing, because I think the relationship is that way. Let me try and give you what I mean. So very often, if you’re, well, think back to my example, you’re trying to figure out why you’re not getting along with this person and you framed it as “she’s angry.”
Now all of your inferences are taking place in that frame. And so if that frame is wrong, you can move the inferences around as much as you want. And you’re not going to realize, oh, no, wait, I’m reframing. She’s afraid. She’s not angry. You have to break that and then reframe. That’s an insight process. And if you get stuck in inference, you actually limit your capacity for insight. Now what you might leap to, and I’m doing this deliberately. What you might leap to is the conclusion, oh, just enhance the insight processes. No, the problem is, if you just enhance the insight processes, you leap to conclusions when you’re trying to make careful inferential steps. So what you want, I would argue, is you want a process that dampens down the inference to enhance the insight. That’s what mindfulness practices do. And then you want a practice that constrains the insights so you don’t leap to conclusions when you’re making inferences. And that’s what Stanovic and Baron and a whole bunch of other people talk about when they talk about active open-mindedness, which is very much like what you do in stoicism. And then what you do is you cultivate these two together, right? And then you cultivate things for cognitive flexibility, like getting into the flow state, so that you can flexibly toggle between these. This is what I do.
Tom: How has it changed your life? How has it improved your lived experience?
John: I am more capable of self-correction than I was before I was doing these practices. I’m more aware that I need self-correction not only in my beliefs, but in my skills, in my perspectives, and in my character traits. And I’m also more connected to a mutually accelerating disclosure with reality that inspires me to keep going along that pathway and that has empowered me After making lots of mistakes and I continue to make mistakes I’m definitely not claiming to be a saint or a sage or anything ridiculous like that. But that has definitely empowered me to help other people more than I could have 40 years ago.
Tom: It’s been very, very interesting to me based on that last point that having kind of tried to achieve this relatively superficial understanding of shamanism and prophets, the point of spiritual growth wasn’t to be more enlightened than you. It was to act as sort of a safety valve and conduit for the community that had gone off track, you know, to gain that oversight on a problem, as you would put it.
And I feel that one thing that maybe we’ve lost sight of as a community is that the point of a lot of this is to work out what you’re in service of, to work out where to integrate yourself. Because that’s been the thing that has changed my life most positively, which is using the skills that I have in service of something that I find incredibly meaningful, which is having conversations like this. I just fall down in my ability to help other people often find what they’re in service of without some sort of catastrophic breakdown, for people to be able to find that in an iterative way without burning their lives down. I know that’s not really a question, but it’s something that bothers me a lot.
John: Well, I have a response, even though it’s not a question because I appreciate the intent. I mean, I wrestle with this too. And to be fair to you and I, Plato wrestled with this. This is what I call Plato’s pivot problem. What do you actually do to get people to turn towards the good, the good life, right? And he was very beset by the fact that the actual sage in his life, Socrates, had a person beside him, Alcibiades, who was beautiful, powerful, intelligent, gifted from the elite and who loved Socrates and nevertheless became one of the most corrupt evil people in Ancient Greece. And Plato was like how can you have all of these gifts and all of these powers and actually be presented by somebody like Socrates and nevertheless fall into absolute depravity? And so, Plato wrestled with this, so I’m asking you not to be too harsh on yourself because this is this is one of these really deep questions and problems and I wrestle with it too and this is why I’m trying all these different media and all these different ways of presenting long video series, like “Awakening from the Meaning Crisis”, because that doesn’t have to shock people don’t have to have their lives break down but that can lead people into it or you know trying to create a community of practices where people might just come in because they want to meditate and then not that they’re being seduced or anything, but they’re suddenly they’d say, oh wait, there’s so much more. And that’s a way of getting people to pivot. Trying to, you know, connect to where people are trying to enrich education and see if we could bring some of this in. And again, you have to walk a fine line there because you don’t want to be into just basically indoctrinating people.
Yeah, you didn’t really ask me a question, so I’m not really giving an answer, but like this is one of the hardest questions. I’m humbled by the fact that Plato couldn’t come to a complete clear answer about it. I try to stay humble about it, but also the transcendence. But nevertheless, I aspire to trying to get a better and better set of answers to how do we turn people without them having to have their lives destroyed? And that’s a tricky one. That’s a really tricky one. That’s like saying, how can you make somebody have an insight? There’s a lot of things you can do to make somebody insight-prone. That’s not the same thing as making them have an insight.
Tom: Yeah, I mean, Bernardo Kastrup wrote something as a response to Peter Kingsley. Kingsley wrote this book, Catafalque, that’s one of the, certainly the best thing I’ve read in several years. And it’s incredibly grim because it’s like Carl Jung said humanity was going to end. And I kind of agree because we can’t get out of our own, you know, prisons of rational thought. And then Bernardo Kastrup wrote what I thought was an incredibly good essay response. The summary, which I took from it was, if you give yourself intellectual permission to have these kind of experiences, the bouncer that is your head opens your heart. And that for me struck me as something that was instantly resonant. If you allow people to think that there is something outside of them that is indicating what is most relevant to them, which I know is appallingly badly phrased, but that’s a, it’s a huge idea when you think about it. Because if you’re faced with some sort of Newtonian box and suddenly you realize there are some things in that box that are signaling to you and perhaps just to you in the occupation of that niche. That just seems like a really powerful idea and I think even getting that idea more, getting people to consider that idea more widely could have genuinely transformative potential.
John: I think, I mean, there’s ways in which I’m trying to do that and give it more scientific legitimacy. Some of it has to do with, you know, how implicit learning works and how the self is internally dialogical the way Plato saw it. And you can improve that internal dialogue so that aspects of your psyche, and by that I mean also reaching down into your body, can communicate more readily with your consciousness. But also how you participate, and this is why we’re doing all this dialogical work, all these dialogical practices, in the collective intelligence of distributed cognition, long before the internet networked computers together to release the power of distributed cognition, which we’re relying on right now, and everybody who’s watching or listening to this is what we’re relying on, right? Culture networked brains together to release the power of distributed cognition, which is way more powerful still than distributed computation, and a lot of important ways, especially around things like insight. And so there is also that collective intelligence. And there’s a possibility of getting that depth within and that height without to resonate more properly with each other so that we can educate both of them, which originally means to draw out but also transform. We can educate that inner voice and we can educate that collective intelligence into collective wisdom so that we do feel like we are properly caught up in a spirit that is leading us in a wise path. So I have been trying to, with other people, you know, I just released a talk with Jordan Hall about hyperobjects and Jonathan Pageau has been talking about this again. I’ve been trying to make that both more theoretically intelligible and plausible, and also create practices that engage the inner dialogue, the outer dialogue, and to put those two dialogues into dialogue.
Tom: Well, I think we only have about two more minutes, but I want you to use those two minutes to tell us about what you’re doing with the Vervaeke Foundation in case anyone’s intrigued by this conversation and wants to lend you their support.
John: So the Vervaeke Foundation has an inward-facing and an outward-facing function. So very quickly, the inward-facing function is to help John Vervaeke stay virtuous as he comes into the temptations of fame and money. So to keep both of those things at more arm’s length and to have a whole bunch of people who I deeply trust who are highly competent and who have pledged to keep me from either inflating into hubris or dropping into despair, but to hold that tonos with virtuosity and virtue. The outward facing thing is what we’re doing is we are of course supporting the projects. I’m working on my next big series, Walking the Philosophical Silk Road, and the Vervaeke Foundation is supporting that. The Vervaeke Foundation supports Awaken to Meaning which is our online platform where you can go, start dropping in on meditation, start taking courses, weekend workshops, more intensive courses, meet with other people, join reading groups. All that’s there and running that and extending that and developing that, doing more of the science. The Vervaeke Foundation is paired up with my lab here, the Consciousness and Wisdom Studies Lab, to try and further the study of consciousness, wisdom, relevance, realization, et cetera. The Vervaeke Foundation is in constant discussion with other emerging communities about how can we properly help each other, vet each other, defend each other, etc. And the Vervaeke Foundation is trying to… All of this is not just sort of, I don’t know what to call it, it’s not just sort of a cognitive affair. Like I’m working with somebody right now, we’re working on a book together in which this work that I’ve been talking about, you know, the cognitive science, the “4 E cognitive science”, all this stuff, right, can have a huge impact on chronic pain. There’s, and I can’t get into the details right now, so I’m just using this as an example of how this work can, at multiple levels in which people are struggling in their life, it can make a huge impact on them, but it also works at the other end. It gives you not just me, but all these people and all these networks of communities gives you a new vocabulary, a new grammar, so that you can also articulate and understand to yourself the growth art. Just like you were talking about earlier, if you’re going to pick up those signals, you have to cultivate your sensibility and your sensitivity and you have to be able to come to terms, both senses of the word with those signals. You have to be able to articulate it and understand it.
And so the Vervaeke Foundation is also trying to afford that for people. And that finally is about trying to rebuild the torn bridge between spirituality and science. So instead of them being antagonistic, they can return to what they were, you know, in the Platonic Socratic world, mutually supporting, mutually beneficial, like the left and right hemispheres.
Tom: I don’t know if you’ve given that pitch in quite that way before, but I found that incredibly inspiring and I hope other people did too. And if there’s anywhere I can help, let me know. And if there’s anywhere listeners can help, please let John know as well. John Vervaeke, thank you very, very much.