Introduction to Symbolism
The following is a translated and transcribed version of a french podcast recorded in February 2021 by Jonathan Pageau and Jean-Philippe Marceau.
Thanks to Norm Grondin for the translation, transcription and edition.
JP: Welcome everyone to this first podcast of The Symbolic Life with Jonathan Pageau and Jean-Philippe Marceau. This podcast is a continuation of what Jonathan started a few years ago on his YouTube channel, The Symbolic World, which is also a website that hosts blog, where I am the chief editor. There are a lot of people who follow Jonathan in English, so we wanted to create something in French too, and explore these ideas locally, in Quebec. This will be our first podcast on The Symbolic Life. We are going to start by introducing the idea of symbolism, what it is, and a little of where we’d like to be headed with all of this. So, without delay, Jonathan, can you please introduce yourself for this first podcast?
Jonathan: Hello everybody. My name is Jonathan Pageau. I am an artist. I make liturgical art for churches and individuals, but people know me mostly as someone who speaks about traditional symbolism, specifically the way in which symbolism applies to daily life. Like JP said, I have been doing this on my channel for a handful of years in English with different people, with different intellectuals, on many topics touching on traditional ideas that we find in religion, in the Bible, all the way to film interpretations.
We’re living in a meaning crisis not just in Quebec, but let’s say in the whole world, or especially in the West. People no longer know where to turn to find meaning in their lives. People sense it as a despair, a personal vice, but at the social level, it manifests itself as a physical fragmentation, like the suburbs where people live next to their neighbours and don’t even know them. The fact that we no longer have a centre where we meet or succeed in finding a shared identity. It’s all of these questions that we are looking to answer in our podcast on The Symbolic Life.
We often see ancient stories, ancient images, fairy tales, and Bible stories as mythologies that should be abandoned. Our aim here though is to show that in these ancient stories are keys, ways of seeing that can help us find a sense of meaning in our lives today. So that’s what we want to explore in the following months, maybe in the following years on this podcast in French, for the Quebecois especially.
JP: In English, you really began in an unexpected way with your friend, Jordan Peterson, who became popular and brought you into all this, so you’ve found yourself doing a lot of videos, a lot of conversations about traditional symbolism. To get us started, maybe you can define what we mean by symbolism?
Jonathan: It’s a pretty interesting moment right now because we’ve passed through a phase where atheism or nihilism was the foundational point of view; that the world was arbitrary or random, and we, as human beings, placed meaning on top of this random and arbitrary world. But with new developments in cognitive science, we realize in fact that the world is too complex. There is as much complexity in a drop of water that falls on my window as there is in a person or in a phenomenon more complex, like a city. That is to say, that complexity is practically infinite in each thing that we can perceive. So that brought scientists or philosophers to ask: how is it possible that we can see phenomena as one? How can we identify things? Why don’t we just see the pieces of things that multiply infinitely in the complexity?
The Symbolic Life or the symbolic view is an answer we offer to this problem. That is to say, the world manifests itself through human intelligence, through structures that are not subjective in the sense of being different for each person, but that are rather objective. These structures inform our stories, how we interact with others and they manifest themselves at every level of reality; in how a city is formed, in how a person is formed or even in how your everyday experience, at every moment, is formed.
Symbolism is trying to see the structures through which the world presents itself to us, the patterns we could say, and to see that these patterns are repeated. We can recognize them and participate in them. Once we do this, we start to recognize or understand the purpose of some things that we abandoned in the past, like ritual and ancient stories, because they are methods to reinforce, to help us participate in these universal structures. The way that reality presents itself to us.
JP: One example you mentioned is a person, and you spoke earlier about cognitive science. It’s a great place to see the failure of materialism. It simply doesn’t seem plausible to say that I am just a complex assemblage of a multiplicity of mathematical properties. You know, I see colours, sounds, emotions, things that are not obviously reducible to mathematical, material quantities.
When scientists first tried to describe the world mathematically, like Galileo for example, they were explicit about putting qualities outside of the mathematical world of multiplicity, but they didn’t want to deny their existence. Galileo said that qualities did exist, but they were just in our heads. And with that move, he could then do math to describe the external world. He could try to explain everything that happens outside without referring to qualities and consciousness. Scientists did that for a long time and they made continued progress without asking themselves too many questions. With that, it was easy to focus on matter and multiplicity, and to forget about the qualities and consciousness that Galileo had set aside. It was easy to become naive materialists.
But consciousness has really come back with a vengeance in the last three or four decades in philosophy of mind and in cognitive science. Materialism was all good to understand simple physical systems. It worked great at the level of multiplicity. But it really stopped us in our tracks when we tried to understand the human mind. It actually made us pretty bad at it. Where do qualities come from? Why is consciousness united? How does it act on the world? Materialists really had no good answers. So now there’s a flip as we bring the human mind back into the equation and try to understand consciousness, emotions, rationality, things like that, things that don’t seem to be material and mathematical.
In other words, we’ve now reopened the door to the fact that I am not just matter, that I am not just a multiplicity of mathematical quantities. Rather than define ourselves by material equations, we can now look behind them. We can try to find the reasons for them. We can bring back the qualitative units that Galileo had set aside. There is not just matter in a void. There is something animating that material multiplicity, there are qualitative essences that explain how things behave. When I speak to Jonathan, say, it’s my conscious desire to speak that explains my physical behaviour, not the reverse. My invisible, united mind is what explains what happens in my material body, and not the reverse. The unity of my consciousness explains what happens at the level of the multiplicity of my neurons, not the reverse.
And this doesn’t stop at oneself. When I recognize, in myself, that I am a united consciousness, and not just a multiplicity of material properties, I can recognize the same fact outside of myself. I can recognize that others have united minds too, and not only material bodies. And not only that, with practice, we can come to perceive fairly precisely other people’s minds.
When we are newborns, we are unable to perceive other people’s minds, unable even to perceive other people’s emotions. A newborn is unable to perceive a person as a whole. It isn’t even clear to a newborn where the newborn begins and the world ends. Those boundaries aren’t clear. They develop over time as they learn to see.
We become good enough at it that when I look at Jonathan right now, I don’t just see a collection of members, cells or photons. I am capable of seeing one body that is defined. It stops at a specific point in space and starts in other places. There are emotions behind it, there is a whole story and motivations, and we have to learn to see these things. With time, we become better at perceiving the emotions of others, better at perceiving their narratives and their motivations. We learn to see through different levels of reality, let’s say. We learn to see behind the material multiplicity of Jonathan. He has a unity, a story.
You have none of the same particles that you had when you were a child at the age of three, but regardless, you’re the same Jonathan, the same invisible story behind all that.
Jonathan: Yes, that’s it. The example you used, the idea of recognizing someone, when you see a face, and you recognize the person in that face. There is something that transcends the parts of the face — you can have this experience, it’s happened to me a few times — where I meet someone and in the beginning, I don’t remember who it is. I look at his face and I just see a face. It’s neutral and all of a sudden, I recognize it. When I recognize the person, the person appears. Even the form of the face changes in front of my eyes and I come to see the quality, to see something more than just the phenomena.
This experience is real. That is, to deny that experience or to say that it’s superficial is exactly the type of philosophical move that goes nowhere. At a certain moment we come back to the problem that we are a person in a body that has an experience. And it is only through that human experience that all mathematics, and the whole reduction through physics that we can do with science, comes. All our abstractions and all manifested phenomena come to be through our human experience, our first experience of the world.
We can’t reduce this human experience. You know people will often say things like, “oh, yeah, you’re happy or unhappy because of this or that chemical compound going on in your brain,” but this move doesn’t explain my experience. I don’t feel this chemical compound. I have the experience of joy or sadness. I don’t have an experience of endorphins. It’s not really an experience that I have.
JP: You don’t experience a multiplicity of different hormones and chemical substances, like a billion molecules moving within you. You experience a unity, the emotion that is going on behind that.
We have both had many conversations with John Vervaeke, a cognitive scientist from the University of Toronto about that. This is a good example of a flip happening in science right now. The idea is that once we’ve studied the multiplicity of phenomena, we become keenly aware of how difficult it is to explain the units that gather these multiplicities together. For example, we have just spoken about an emotion. Behind a whole pack of chemical substances moving about our bodies, why do we feel an emotion as a qualitative unit?
This is a philosophical problem, but even in these sciences they bump up against an internal, technical problem. The goal of science is to find causal explanatory patterns, but it doesn’t seem possible to do if you stay at the low-level of neurons. It’s too complex and chaotic. If you want to stay in a materialistic world, you can’t explain where it’s headed. There’s too much potential. And the solution, even within the hard-nosed scientific frame, is to talk about phenomena at a higher level; about how higher-level emergent phenomena act as constraints against what happens at lower levels.
A multiplicity of neurons doesn’t afford explanations because it changes too much. You can’t make out a pattern. By itself, it’s lost in multiplicity. But if you look at the brain in the environment as a whole, not as a multiplicity but as a cohesive unit, you can find human level patterns. You can see how these patterns constrain the multiplicity of ways that neurons can behave. And because of those united constraints, instead of having just an indeterminate flux of neuronal possibility, you’ll have precise behaviours.
That’s why, in the newer generation of cognitive science, there are more levels that appear in the world, and at each level you have potentialities and irreducible, emergent patterns. The human mind, for example, is a pattern that influences the potentialities of our cells, of our subsystems or subpersonalities you could say. We can even feel this in our consciousness. When I see things in front of me, I feel potentialities offering themselves to me. I can zoom in on things and I have actions that I can or cannot take. I can constrain these possibilities to effectively look to those things that I am headed towards.
So we can see an interesting flip where, through certain sciences, we have to make an appeal to more symbolic language to explain how multiplicities can become units.
Jonathan: Yes, that’s it. The word “emergence” is used to try to talk about this jump from one level to another. From the level of molecules, you have a multiplicity of molecules but above that you have a qualitative experience, say of water. You know, water is wet, that’s a quality that we explain through experience, that cannot be reduced to a molecular or atomic level. There are these qualitative jumps, which is interesting because it brings us squarely back to Aristotle or Plato. It’s as if these ancient thoughts are coming back because we realize the problem of, as you say, the higher patterns that inform or constrain lower potentialities.
We want to bring people to understand that the way this manifests itself has a structure. It’s not random, these structures are connected with the idea of identity, or with the thing that brings multiplicity together toward the one. This identity manifests itself amidst the multiplicity.
The image that you have is a bit like that of a mountain. In fact, it’s not just the image of a mountain, but you can see it as a wheel for example, with a centre and with radii. Now, think of a mountain that goes up toward a central peak, which is the reason for any phenomenon. And after this, if you go down towards multiplicity, you move toward these exceptions, to these secondary things that aren’t the main identity. This is true as much for a chair as for a person, as for a city and as for anything that you can identify as having an identity. They will participate in this type of symbolism.
In seeing this, we start to recognize it in ancient stories, like Moses going up the mountain and meeting God. On top of the mountain, he receives the Law that is now going to constrain the potentialities of people who are below. These stories aren’t just talking about something that happened however many thousand years ago, that we don’t understand because they look so weird. But the very structure of these stories show us the pattern of reality. This story of Moses going up the mountain, who receives the Law, well, that’s the same thing as a higher identity that gathers in the potentialities below it.
An example that everyone can have as an experience is, if you’re attentive to yourself, you’ll realize that you have a bunch of thoughts that pass through your head. These thoughts seem to come from nowhere; weird things, sensations and feelings, and you can’t pay attention to all them. You have to constrain them into some unity to stop yourself from becoming schizophrenic, to stop yourself from bursting in all sorts of different directions. This is an experience we all have, and we have also all seen the results in people who have difficulty doing this. Some people have a tendency to jump from one thing to another and are fragmented or seem to be affected by anything. They aren’t capable of constraining their experience. So we can have this experience personally. It can be the experience of a chair or of a city or the experience of your own unity of being unable to constrain the multiplicity beneath it and the challenges of its tendency to rise.
JP: You gave the example of a chair and a city. It could be good to go through those a bit. Putting the chair example aside, I think you’re better starting off with the city because ironically, it’s easier to understand than the chair. As citizens of a city, or even as citizens of the province of Quebec, we are potential for Quebec. We are constrained by this province’s laws. Premier Legault can put something up on social media regarding rules about COVID, and we are constrained by them. We will be informed by that in the way, for example, that I can inform my fingers to move. But we can also send signals above, just like if I touch something with my hand, it sends a signal to my head. And as the head will respond in my body, so too will the government respond to me if I write to them. There are principles, all sorts of laws that regulate Quebec, there is a whole apparatus that permits me to advance things toward the government and in turn, the government constrains me with laws, with responses to my messages, etc.
Jonathan: Exactly. The connection of the city or nation to a body is really a good one because even our language uses terms like the body politic or the idea of the nation as a big family. This everyday language shows how these realities exist at multiple levels. For example, individuals give the capacity for action to the State by working as police, as judges, as municipal employees, and even citizens in paying taxes. We give up a part of our potentiality to the State and it in turn offers us unity in exchange. This unity is important because it offers us a defence against the things outside that could come in. This is the same thing for a person. Your unity of mind is what gives you a defence against the influence of all the foolishness that can present itself to you. You know, when whatever thought pops up or when whomever says something, you don’t necessarily believe that right away, you don’t blindly follow, because you have this unity of mind holding you together.
It’s the same thing for a nation. A nation gives unity to the people and protects them against corruption, and against all the internal things that can go badly. It offers a type of blanket to the body, a little like you, your head or yourself as a unity will do the same thing. If you hit and hurt your finger, then your desire to care for yourself will take over and you will put on a Band-Aid. You’ll do the necessary things to take care of your finger, because your finger takes care of you, too. You need it to do these things, and the State works the same way, when it goes well. But it can also become corrupt, it can also come apart. So the end of a State, or the end of a city, or the end of a civilization resemble or are analogous to the end of a human life. It happens in the same way. Just as illnesses manifest themselves in the body, they can take control and infect authority. It can become corrupt and all of a sudden, it doesn’t act like it should and it creates a break in the confidence existing between levels. At that point, things start to go badly. If you have a sore arm, but you ignore it, you eventually end up with gangrene. If your body begins to behave differently from your head or if your head ignores your body, and you do nothing, it’s going to kill you.
JP: In the same way that a revolution can destroy a state, gangrene can kill your body.
With that insight, you can start to mine gold from stories that previously seemed uninteresting. You can study how an aristocratic vampire sucks blood (potential) from people to see how the relationship between the head and the body can break down. And conversely, by studying the story of Moses leading the Israelites, you can see a head that correctly holds a body together. In comparing these types of stories, you can see that they say things that apply to every organization where you have a head and a body, where you have a hierarchy. It applies to your body, it applies to the government, to a church, to a family. It applies even to smaller things, like the example given earlier of the chair. When you come to these simple things the pattern is more condensed. You won’t have such a rich story as with a human or a city, but even in a chair you can still see the pattern of meaning and potentiality.
Jonathan: Yes, because a chair is made up of many parts, of a multiplicity, and I have the capacity to see the chair as one instead of seeing multiple pieces of wood and colours and pieces of fabric. I see the unity of the chair, and the reason I can perceive it is in its quality, in its purpose. It exists so that I can sit on it — that’s the goal of a chair. I can recognize when the chair accomplishes its identity, when it accomplishes its function. If the chair doesn’t do this, then at that moment it will appear as a broken chair. Eventually, if I break it completely, I am no longer able to see the unity holding it together as a “chair,” and it exists only as pieces, as fragments.
This is the same structure as the mountain. When we say a mountain, it’s important. The reason it’s a mountain in the Bible and in other traditions is because it’s a pyramid. It goes from one to the many, to potentiality. You have the purpose of the chair that comes from above — that you can sit on it — and then lower, as parts of the chair, you have the pieces of wood and its more conceptual elements: it has to have four legs and a seat. The more you descend, the more you get to details and multiplicity; that it can be made out of plastic or wood, but it has to be made of something, otherwise we can’t use it. So from the single idea of chair, you move down into potentiality. Hierarchical identity works like this, going from the one to the multiple. A society does the same thing. In a traditional society, you have the king, a kind of aristocracy, you have knights, functionaries, the people, and after that you have those who labour — who provide their hands — to make the whole system work.
JP: Something that is fun, to explain this to more materialist readers who might be skeptical about the existence of patterns, is to remind them of the human mind. It’s easier to deny the existence of the pattern of the chair than it is to deny the pattern of the human mind. It’s too hard to deny our own consciousness, as I said earlier. And so patterns exist, at least in the case of humans, and it’s therefore not such a step to say that lower patterns exist, even in chairs for example.
And there’s also another kind of argument that has appeared in the sciences, this one in physics. If we try to reduce the chair just to its multiplicity and say, “no, there is no essence, there is no finality to the chair,” you come to Ned Block’s cruncher argument. Contra materialism, there are in fact no particles at the bottom layer of physics. It’s just probability waves. In the 19th century, it was plausible to say there were these little constitutions, these little atoms, at the bottom of things and that reality bottoms out there, but today we are at a point where at the bottom of things, you get a kind of flux …
Jonathan: … to potentiality, even at the scientific level, the lowest level is the possibility of existence. It isn’t even particles that we can identify, it’s just the possibility of the manifestation of particles … so we come back to Aristotle, it’s incredible.
JP: Yes, Aristotle would be super happy, he wouldn’t be surprised. There is an American Thomist, Edward Feser, who recently wrote a book titled Aristotle’s Revenge. It explains that there are many levels of reality where you have this very kind of problem between unity and multiplicity in science today. So even with the chair, we have to admit there is a real pattern that informs it , that makes it so that it doesn’t dissolve into potential. There are a bunch of things being exchanged between the chair and things surrounding it, like electrons and molecules that change all the time …
Jonathan: People use to think that we see the chair as a thing simply because it physically holds together. People once believed in the idea that matter was solid, and we can still think that to some extent, but that is just a certain level of reality. When you descend into lower levels, there is an incredible porousness and space that appears. There is as much space between the particles of a chair as there is between people in a city. The idea that something physically holds together isn’t enough anymore to explain its unity. In the end, as much as you can perceive the unity of a chair, you can also perceive the unity of a city or a family.
JP: Yes. After using the example of the chair, I am inclined to return to another aspect of the chair and symbolism, namely that it takes practice to develop our perception of these patterns. For example, we might ask why the example of the mountain is useful? Why is the mountain traditionally used as a symbol of ascension towards God? While there are many analogies that can be made, quite simply when someone climbs a mountain, when you rise, you get to a point where you can see everything below you. You are able to see more potentiality. While you have this view of the whole and you can better analyze what is going on, you are equally more abstracted, more disconnected from the earth. You don’t have the immediate power to build things like when you are on the earth. In many traditions, this is a place of powerful spiritual experience. The experience of physically climbing the mountain, of leaving the bottom where there is just the ground and the trees, just confused multiplicity, where you are unable to see very much. But as you climb progressively higher, you achieve greater and greater unity, you come into one conscious unitive experience.
It is not only visual but a physical practice of passing from multiplicity to unity. Going up the mountain will then translate into other capacities in your life. In doing so, you will be better placed to manage your family in understanding its unity. And with this understanding, you can sometimes descend with a law like Moses and try to implement some principle so things go more smoothly in your family, for example.
Jonathan: Yes, because one of the problems of the revolution of Galileo and Copernicus is that the verticality of experience was relativised. Now we say: “it’s all an illusion. The earth spins around the sun. The earth is round. There is no above and no below.” But despite your capacity to conceptualize this, it isn’t your experience of reality and it will never be. There are few people who will have this experience of the world. It’s an extremely marginal one. The majority of people’s experiences of reality is this verticality which isn’t subjective, but an objective experience. Everybody who climbs a mountain has the same experience of seeing the fragmented or particular aspects of reality transform into a more unified and complete vision of what is beneath.
This experience is universal and translates into our speech every time we talk of quality, of something as better than something else. We conceive of it as a hierarchy, so even in an organization, we’ll say this person is higher than that person. We’ll describe a goal as being “higher” or “superior.” The word superior is perfect because when we say that, verticality is implied and shows the inevitability of this experience as constituting the nature of reality. We can’t escape it. This climbing from a view of multiplicity to unity is analogous to looking at a puzzle and seeing, as if all of a sudden, the solution rising out of the particularities, how the many pieces fit into each other to form one image.
JP: A good way to show people how these things aren’t subjective or a sort of illusion is in the things we’ve had to learn. We have a tendency to take for granted the fact that we can see objects in front of us, such as a desk, as if it were evident. But that’s something we have to learn. It’s not just virtues and vices that we learn to see as we climb the mountain. We need to learn to see even just the concrete objects in front of us. It’s good to keep in mind that newborns can’t see objects. It takes weeks or even months before they can start to clearly distinguish objects from one another, and from themselves; before they can grasp, see and interact with what is around them.
There are experiments that help us understand this. You put on a helmet that hides your eyes and that has a camera on it. It’s connected to little electrodes on your tongue that give electric shocks depending on what the camera sees. Of course, when you first put this thing on, you see nothing, and you run into everything. But after about 15 minutes, you start to be able to see crude shapes, and with time you see things more and more clearly. After a few hours, people are able to get by, to walk, to see and even sometimes catch objects. But it is something that takes practice, to be capable of seeing objects. This is an experiment that we can replicate, and it’s similar to the experience of newborns. And so, we don’t remember it, but when we were infants we had to learn to see even concrete objects. It takes effort and time to learn to perceive unity in multiplicity, even in simple objects.
Now, keeping this experiment in mind, we can start to notice similar experiences in all sorts of more familiar situations. You gave the example before of coming to recognize someone as you speak to them, coming to see the unity in the person. Another example that I really like is watching a sport that you don’t understand. For example, say you don’t know the sport of Brazilian jiu jitsu, and you go and watch a match. In the beginning, you really don’t see what’s going on. Someone can try to explain: he’s doing this thing, and this or that, but you still don’t really see what’s happening. It’s just un-patterned multiplicity to you. And while you don’t see what’s happening, that isn’t to say that the sport is subjective. After all, there is someone getting choked out and someone who isn’t. It’s just that it takes practice to be able to see the patterns.
And with time, if you practice, if you listen to people or a commentator talk about it, then it can click and all of a sudden you see what’s going on. Over time, you develop a perception you didn’t have before. You start to see patterns that have always existed, but to which you were previously blind. Where in the beginning you watched a match and you just saw two people standing, and in the end one who taps out, after a certain point, you begin to see all the little details: okay, this person is doing this thing with this hand and this foot to make this move.
We have to learn to perceive patterns. It’s true for mere objects, for faces, for sports, etc. And it is true for more abstract patterns too, like stories. We come to recognize stories in books, in movies and in the world. We also learn to recognize virtues and vices in people. We learn to notice laws and other principles that are more abstract. Etc.
That certain people are capable or incapable of seeing these things doesn’t change the fact that they are real. It’s just that it’s not so easy to see patterns, we have to learn about them over time. So even if there are only certain people who notice certain patterns, this doesn’t impede the fact that these patterns are objectively real. They are real even if, for example, I am personally unable to perceive them.
Jonathan: Yes, and the virtues and vices are a way to help people to see that. Avarice or the desire for money, is something that we have the experience of personally, but we also recognize it in others. When we see someone who is subject to avarice, we can recognize what it looks like. That we can recognize what it looks like means that it’s a pattern that exists in reality, and we are able to see these elements manifest themselves at different places in the world, to recognize that this thing has an existence. The ancients would say something like: there is a demon of avarice, a being that unites all these phenomena together, it’s invisible, you know it’s …
JP: You know, Jonathan, your mind is invisible …
Jonathan: Yes, that’s it, you see my body but not me. The union of my past, my thoughts and my relations, aren’t in my body, and yet, they constitute my being. The people that love me, the love I have for others, the time I helped that old lady, all these things constitute my being, so you can’t just reduce it to what is materially there. It’s not possible.
JP: It’s the same thing for avarice.
Jonathan: Yes, it’s the same thing for avarice as for virtues like generosity. They are things that manifest patterns in the world, and we can recognize these patterns as having a nameable unity. We give them a name, and we can see that they are real. A good way for people to understand all this is in relation to stories, because stories are maybe the way that most people tend to see symbolism.
We started this episode speaking about some of the most difficult aspects of symbolism haha! Stories are easier. I mentioned earlier that the complexity of a water droplet is infinite, and so are events. In this room, there are an infinite number of things going on. For example, my hair moving, my clothes sitting a certain way on my body, etc. There are a lot of things going on, but there is just a certain amount of them upon which I am able to bring my attention. Not just able, but that I want to, that I desire to bring my attention to. There is just a certain amount of things that I will remember going on in the world at that moment. This capacity of attention and memory will organize events into a certain sequence so that later, if I go upstairs and speak to my wife, I can say: “ah, I did a podcast with JP, we spoke about this, this, this and this.” In saying that, I succeeded in constraining an event that lasted an hour and a half and that has a million variables down to a little story that lasts a few minutes.
This is a way in which symbolism works. We take events and we compress them to show in what way certain events attracted our attention, and how they’re causally related. Not necessarily their mechanical causality but their causality of meaning. Certain stories have a tendency to be remembered. In contrast, consider recording this podcast. It would surprise me if in a century or two there were people that remember this story. But there are certain stories, because they attract the attention of many people over a longer timeline, that are more symbolic. Stories that are better able to constrain more of the pattern of reality. They constrain this pattern in a way that more people recognize over a longer timeline. So, due to this process, the stories we remember throughout the centuries will naturally become like small revelations of how reality works. If you take ancient stories, such as religious stories, myths, fairy tales, stories that have endured, you can use them like a map to interpret the events of your life. It’s akin to reverse engineering reality.
There are people in the past who thought about this on a psychological level. Freud and Jung did psychological interpretations to show the way that fairy tales, myths or ancient stories manifest the human psyche in their structure. We are in total agreement with that idea. The only difference is that we want to bring that analysis one level further. Because of the relation between attention, how intelligence and consciousness constrain phenomena, and the way that reality manifests itself, these symbolic patterns are not just the structures of the human psyche, but the very structures of reality. That is the reality that we can perceive and there is no other reality. There are some people who try to speak about another reality that we cannot perceive, but even when they do that, they always do it through the lens of intelligence and perception in which they are embodied.
JP: When you see a multiplicity of stories in which you don’t see a hierarchy, it’s tempting to say: if I was born in a different civilization with different stories then I wouldn’t perceive things in the same way. It’s tempting to say that there are no superior stories, that there is no ultimate pure pattern behind all these stories that gather them together. But this is an error of thinking akin to someone who doesn’t understand Brazilian jiu jitsu and thinks that the sport is subjective, that it isn’t real. In the same way that if you go to this or that jiu jitsu gym you’ll start to see the patterns differently, you’ll learn to see narrative patterns differently depending on where you’re born. People disagree on morality like they disagree on the efficacy of jiu jitsu moves, but there’s a limit to the disagreements. There is a hierarchy in these moves. It is possible to learn to perceive some as better than others. There are real patterns in jiu jitsu. Some athletes are better than others and win everything.
Jonathan: Hierarchy really manifests itself in something like jiu jitsu and combat sports in general.There are a variety of ways in approaching combat, but some will succeed more than others. We will bring our attention to these varieties more than others. It’s the same thing in stories. Throughout humanity, there are a variety of stories that exist, but there are also real constraints to their success, just like in combat. If I go to fight and I take out a bowl, some flour and water and I start to stir, I am not going to win the fight. However, to stir water and flour is totally useful in other contexts. There are constraints to the reality of combat, so that certain moves are never made and others will be. Stories are constrained by human attention. There are universal realities that direct human attention, in every culture, so that patterns will manifest themselves universally.
While there is variety, depending on where the story comes from and in what context it manifests itself, this explains the resemblance between stories. The variety does not impede the pattern but rather serves only to fill it out. It’s the same pattern of reality we have been talking about since the beginning. It’s the relation between unity and multiplicity, that is, the capacity for the multiplicity to exist is still part of patterns that can transcend it. From time to time we can have intuitions that will unite a story from say, China and a fairy tale from Africa. You realize “oh, that’s the same structure in both stories”. Despite them being separated by centuries and thousands of kilometres, it is sometimes possible to see, as from above, how they are united in the same pattern of organizing facts together to create a story.
JP: The analogy with jiu-jitsu is also good to understand the way that stories spread and seek the pattern of reality. When different cultures meet, they share stories. When different individuals meet, they talk and share stories and amidst all that multiplicity, the stories that best explain the pattern of reality are more remembered. Stories that can assimilate more multiplicity, that better grab people’s attention are closer to reality and will emerge and continue to grow. This is how we can have a multiplicity of stories merge together. This is how stories evolve.
When we learn stories that are really old, even if they come from a people that is really far away, there are still patterns in them that are really similar, that we can recognize. It’s like jiu jitsu. There exist some people who wrestle in a completely different part of the world but who are still constrained by the same reality of the human body. You’ll have two different kinds of systems that are really less different than what you might think. The variety will gather toward unity. In the same way, we can look at the psychological impact of certain stories and see that different cultures have different stories, but this multiplicity doesn’t impact the existence of a real unity above them. These stories describe not only psychological realities but the very nature of reality itself.
Jonathan: While we kept to more abstract concepts today, our goal remains to explain and to show how there is coherence in all these things that many modern people have ridiculed. All these things that we’ve been told were just superstitions, that it was necessary to disassociate ourselves from. Our goal is to surprise you with meaning, to show that there is coherence in those stories.
If we try to see the world on a materialist level, then its coherence manifests itself as such, at the merely material level. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t coherence at a higher level. Sometimes even strange rumours or urban legends will — despite being at times totally absurd in their facticity — still manifest the pattern of reality. So, even in listening to an urban legend that is absolutely false or a conspiracy theory that is totally crazy, if you pay attention to that story in the right way you will be able to distill patterns, keys to understand what is happening that you wouldn’t be able to reach if you just attended to the facticity of it. That isn’t to say that factual things or factual stories don’t also participate in this pattern. Even factual things or stories that we tell must have a symbolic structure because we place a causality between different facts, relating them together in a story. That these real events are described with a beginning, a middle and an end, makes it so that they participate in the same structure as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves or any other myth or story in the Bible.
So this is what we want to explore with you over the next weeks and months. We want to establish the basics a bit, explaining how what we say is based in the most recent scientific developments, in relation to the study of consciousness, to the wall that has been hit by physicists and others who are trying to understand the place of consciousness or intelligence in reality. But we will also discuss Sleeping Beauty, Homer, other ancient stories, the most recent Marvel film or anything else that you want us to discuss. And in so doing, you will come to have the keys to find what is hidden behind phenomena that can too often seem meaningless to us.