Biblical Series VI: The Psychology of the Flood by Dr. Jordan Peterson
So I’m going to launch right into it. I like this story, as well. This is the story of Noah and the Flood and the Tower of Babel, which I think are juxtaposed very interestingly. The Tower of Babel was one of those stories, like Cain and Abel, that was only a few lines long. It’s like a fragment, although the story of Noah is quite a well-developed narrative. But like the other stories that we’ve covered, it is relevant at multiple levels of analysis simultaneously.
I’m going to start with some psychological background information so that the story makes sense. The first thing that I’d like to make a case for is that you bring to bear on the world an a priori perceptual structure. That’s really an embodied structure, and it’s a consequence of the 3.5 billion years that you’ve spent putting your body together, which is a tremendous amount of time—not only your body, but your mind, of course. The mind is part of the body and very much embedded within it. You tend to think that you have your brain in your head, and it’s sort of floating separate from the rest of your body. That’s not really true. You have a tremendous, massive system of neurons running through your entire body. There’s more neurons in the autonomic nervous system than there are in the central nervous system. That’s a lot of neurons. Your central nervous system, of course, enables you to exercise voluntary control over your musculature, and also to receive information from it. Your brain is distributed through your body. One of the things you may not know is that people who are paraplegic can walk if you suspend them above a treadmill. Their legs will walk by themselves with no voluntary control. Your spine is capable of quite complex activity. In fact, when you walk, it’s controlled fall, and mostly your spine is doing it.
So anyways, the point of all that is that you don’t have a blank slate consciousness that’s interpreting a world that manifests itself as segregated objects in some straightforward sense. You have a built-in interpretative system that’s extraordinarily, deeply embedded and invisible. You might think about it as the implicit structure of your unconscious. It’s what gives rise to your conscious experience. It presents you with the world. That’s one way of thinking about it. It’s a good way of thinking about it. It’s the psychoanalytic way of thinking about it as well as the neuroscientific way of thinking about it.
One of the things that’s pretty interesting about modern neuroscientists—especially the top rate ones, and those are usually the ones who are working on emotions, as far as I’ve been able to tell—is that they are often quite enamoured of the psychoanalysts. Jaak Panksepp was a good example of that. They came to understand the psychoanalyst’s insistence on underlying, unconscious, personified motivations as an accurate reflection of how the brain worked. So you can think of yourself as a loose collection of autonomous spirits that’s governed by some overarching identity. That’s a reasonable way of thinking about it. A question that arises from that is, what is the nature of this a priori structure that you use to interpret the world? I think the clearest answer to that is that it’s a story, and that you live inside the story.
That’s very, very interesting to me. I believe—I have a couple of videos that lay this out—that Darwinian presuppositions are, at least, as fundamental as Newtonian presuppositions. I actually think that they’re more fundamental. The fact that we’ve evolved story-like structures through which to interpret the world indicates to me that there’s something deeply true about story-like structures. They’re true, at least, insofar as the fact that we’ve developed them means that here we are, living, and that it’s taken 3.5 billion years to develop them. They’re highly functional. We don’t have a much better definition of truth than highly functional. That’s about as good as it gets, partly because we’re limited creatures and we don’t have omniscient knowledge.
The best we can do with our knowledge, generally speaking, is to note its functionality and improve it when it fails to work properly. I think the scientific method actually does that. The fact that we’ve evolved a story-like structure through which to interpret the world is pretty damn interesting. It says something fundamental about stories. It’s strange in the same way that the fact that we have hemispheric specialization for the known and the unknown—or for order and chaos, respectively—also says something fundamental about the nature of the world—if you assume that we’ve evolved to reflect the structure of the world, broadly speaking. That’s obviously not just the physical structure—the atoms and the molecules—but all of the pattern manifestations of the physical molecules as they build structures of increasing complexity across time. That would include human interactions, political interactions, economic interactions, familial interactions—all of those things that are a very important part of our reality, but perhaps, in some sense, are not as fundamental as the physical attributes that the physicists concentrate on.
So we live in stories. I want to talk to you a little bit about stories and their structure. When you understand a little bit about the structure of stories, then a whole array of things about mythology all of a sudden make overwhelming sense. It’s so useful. What you see is that many of the things that are standard occurrences in everyone’s life are portrayed universally in mythology. It’s very helpful. First of all, it deisolates you. One of the things you learn as a clinical psychologist—contra the anti-psychiatrists, let’s say—is that diagnosis is often a relief to people. There’s a problem with being diagnosed: you might be labelled, and the label can follow you for the rest of your life. Once you’re labelled as a something, then strange things happen around you that often reinforce that label. Maybe you start acting it out more, or you adopt it as an identity. There’s a flip side of that, which is that the last thing you ever want to hear when you go see a physician or a psychologist is, you know, I’ve never seen a case like yours before. Right. That is not a relief, man. If the message is, I’ve never heard anything like what you’re telling me, the outcome is going to be either not so good for you or you’re not going to get listened to at all. You’re such an anomaly that your existence is annoying to the integrated knowledge structure of the medical profession that you’re attempting to receive advice from. It’s definitely the case because, you know, if you can be put in a box, then the box tells the doctor what to do with you.
That’s actually a relief to the doctor, but also a relief to you, right? You come and say, look, I can’t go out of my house much anymore. I’m afraid on elevators. I have heart palpitations, and I sometimes end up in the emergency room. My interactions in the world are increasingly restricted. I find myself staying at home. I’m afraid I’m going to die of a heart attack. The psychologist says, well, you have agrophobia. It’s like, lots of people have that. Here’s usually how it developed, and here’s the treatment course. We can probably do something about that. Well, you’re not going to die of a heart attack now, probably. That’s a real relief. You’re not crazy in a completely unique way, and you’re crazy in a way that might be treatable. And so it’s such a relief. People come in there with a pile of snakes of indeterminate magnitude, and they walk out with one manageable snake. It’s still a snake, but one manageable snake beats a hydra.
Back to stories. The stories that we tell and that we live in are fundamentally ways that we deal with the complexity of the world. The fundamental problem with the world, as far as I can tell, is that not only is it complex beyond your comprehension, but the complexity shifts in unpredictable ways. That’s the Darwinian conundrum, actually. That’s why Darwinism seems to be a practical necessity with regards to the continuation of life. The complexity changes unpredictably, and you can’t necessarily tell what’s going to work in the future. The Darwinian process solves that by generating quasi-random variations and letting whichever one by happenstance happens to work in that environment survive. It’s not random, precisely, because the underlying structure is conserved. It’s very rare that a child would be born with an extra arm, or something like that. The skeletal structure that you inhabit is shared by animals going way, way back in evolutionary history. There’s a lot of conservation in the evolutionary process. There’s variation within conservation—like music. It’s a good way of thinking about it. The stories that we tell have exactly the same structure. They have this core element with variations.
All right. I’ll turn to the stories. The first problem, as I mentioned, is the complexity problem. Things are just too complicated to get a handle on. That actually has serious consequences. What happens to everyone, eventually, is that their lives become so complicated that they die. Many terrible things can happen to you on the way to dying, as well. You can develop a serious illness that you can’t get a handle on. You can hit an impasse in your relationship that you see no way out of. That happens to people quite frequently. People who are suicidal, for example, often feel like they’ve been backed into a corner—that they have no good options. There’s something terrible to face no matter which way they turn, and they can’t see any way out of it. Sometimes, that’s more true than you’d like to think.
We also tend to like to think that people’s problems are primarily psychological, but they’re not. One thing that you learn quite rapidly as a clinician is that most of the time people don’t come to you because they have a mental illness: they come to you because they have a complexity management problem. Their lives have got out of hand on them. They don’t know how to get them back under control. All sorts of things can do that. And then, of course, that can make you anxious or depressed. It can trigger all sorts of illnesses. But the fundamental problem is still that things have got beyond you. That actually has a psychophysiological cost that isn’t merely psychological. You have a limited amount of capacity—from a resource perspective—to deal with emergent complexity. There’s just not enough of you. You’ll exhaust your psychophysiological resources if you get into a situation that’s too complex. Well, that’s what the idea of chaos represents. It represents that underlying complexity that can manifest itself at any time. For example, you wake up in the morning and feel an ache of some sort. Perhaps it’s nothing, and you ignore it. It gets worse, and you end up going to the hospital. You find out, perhaps, that you have pancreatic cancer, and that you’re going to live for six months, and that’s the end of that. It’s at that moment that you break through the thin ice that everyone walks on and you see what’s underneath. What’s underneath is the ineradicable complexity of life. That’s chaos.
It’s taken people a long, long time to get a grip on this conceptual schema. Human beings have done it mostly with image and story before they’ve been able to do it in any articulated manner. There are a set of images that represent this underlying chaos. One of them is the dragon of chaos—precisely that. That’s the dragon that the hero goes out to confront; the symbol of the unknown; the thing that lurks underneath. It’s the thing that also guards treasure. In the unknown, there’s the possibility for treasure. Also, the water that was there at the beginning—that we talked about in the Mesopotamian creation myth—both the salt and the fresh water, is often a symbol of pre-cosmogonic chaos. Some of you have had this dream, I suspect. You’ll dream that you’re in a house that you know well. All of a sudden you discover a new room or a set of new rooms, or maybe a set of rooms in the basement. Often the rooms are not well organized, and they’re full of water. Those are very common things. What that means is that you’ve broken through the constraints of your conscious self-understanding to a new domain of possibility, but a new domain that needs a tremendous amount of work. It says, well, here’s a new part of you, but it’s not well developed. It’s flooded with chaos, essentially. It’s water, I think, because chaos is not only what you fall into when you’re not expecting it, but it’s also the unknown that you confront forthrightly and generate new things out of. Water is a symbol of life, especially in a desert. Of course, life is dependent of water. Water’s a natural symbol to utilize when you’re talking about something that’s life-giving but also potentially deadly. A little bit of water, that’s a drink. But a lot of water, that’s a shipwreck. Those are the extremes.
There are accounts that are sort of subtexts in Genesis, and elsewhere in the Old Testament, of God conquering a great monster, leviathan, or behemoth that has serpentile elements, and making the world as a consequence of that conflict. There’s this idea that the world-creating force—which we’ve talked about as the logos—is the thing that continually confronts chaos, and that one way of thinking about chaos is as a predatory, reptilian monster, and often one that lives in the depths or, perhaps, underwater. Part of that, I think, is because we actually use our predator detection circuit to do this sort of pre-cognitive process. The notion, fundamentally, is that anything that threatens instantaneously is something that your predatory detection circuit should be working with. It’s fast, low resolution, and it doesn’t have a lot of ideas—but it’s really, really fast. That also accounts for our capability and tendency to very rapidly treat people who upset our conceptual structures as enemies of the predatory variety. We can fall into that in no time flat. It’s the archetype. If something comes along to knock you for a loop, it’s a shark; it’s something that lurks under the water; it’s something that will pull you down; it’s an enemy. Usually you get prepared. That’s a reasonable defensive strategy, even though it also has its dangers and could sometimes be wrong.
The landscape within which we have to erect our stories is fundamentally one of an overarching chaos—a chaos that exceeds our capacity to comprehend, in any sense: individually, familial, socially, economically. We’re constantly threatened by the collapse of the structures that we inhabit. You own a house. How much time do you spend maintaining a house? Well, a lot. Why is that? It’s because the house falls apart, and that’s because you’re stupid. The house falls apart because you do repairs wrong, or you ignore things, right? I’m saying this, actually, for technical reasons. The house falls apart because you’re incompetent. But even if you’re competent, the house falls apart. It’s just entropy. Things have a proclivity to fall apart on their own, so you have to run like mad just to keep them doing what they’re supposed to be doing. And then, of course, that’s complicated by your own willful blindness and inadequacy as a repair person, refusal to attend, and all those other things. That’s a very classic idea, which we’ll return to.
One of the ideas that Mircea Eliade, a famous historian of religions, extracted from a very large corpus of flood myths was the idea that the earth is periodically flattened for two reasons: One is, things fall apart. Straight entropy. I don’t remember which law of thermodynamics that is, but it’s one of the big laws of thermodynamics. It’s one of the top three, man. Things fall apart of their own accord. That’s one of the things that we have to contend with. The rate at which things fall apart is sped by the sins of man. That’s the other idea. Everyone knows that. Your car breaks down on the highway, and you think, God, that’s so inconvenient. You shake your fist at the sky, and then there’s part of you, in the back of your mind, that goes, I knew that rattle that I wasn’t paying attention to actually signified something. I knew I should have paid attention to it. I didn’t, and now I’m in this situation.
I bet you this happens to people two or three times a week. They do something stupid that they know they shouldn’t have done and that they told themselves not to do mere seconds before. They know the voice says to not do that…Yea, yea. You do it. You get nailed for it exactly the way that you knew you would get nailed for it. Then you’re hurt doubly, because not only did it fall apart, but you’re the idiot that made it fall apart—knowing full well that it was going to fall apart and ignoring it.
That’s the idea behind the notion that there are two reasons that things fall apart: thermodynamic entropy and the proclivity of people not to attend to things they know they should attend to. Partly we do that because if a problem emerges, it always announces itself. Unless it’s a really, really tiny problem and you’re approaching it voluntarily, it always announces itself with negative emotion. That’s part of the predator detection circuit. It announces itself in frustration, disappointment, emotional pain, grief, or the paramount one: anxiety. And no wonder, because it’s a problem, right? One of the logical responses is to sort of freeze in the face of the problem. But, of course, if it’s a problem that has to be addressed and solved, freezing and turning away from it is not a good solution. Since things tend to fall apart on their own accord, just leaving the thing alone is problematic. It’s just going to get worse, and not better. That’s one of the things that’s very annoying about life. So, for example, if you get a warning message from the tax department, the probability that ignoring that will make it go away is zero, right? What will happen, instead, is that the more you ignore it, the larger it will grow. If you ignore it long enough, then it will turn into something large enough to eat you, and that will be the end of you.
I read in Harper’s Magazine, at one point, that people would rather be mugged than audited. I believe that, because the mugging…Man, that’s over. A couple of minutes of sheer terror, loss of your wallet, and away you walk. An audit…That’s like a semi-fatal disease. So that’s chaos. The psychological idea is that that’s also the chaos that whatever is being represented in Genesis as the spirit of God extracts order out of that at the beginning of time. It’s also that which we’re constantly contending with as we struggle in the same manner to construct and maintain a habitable world. It’s brilliant. When I first put together the relationship between what Eliade called the pre-cosmogonic chaos, the predatory landscape that surrounded our ancestors, and the manner in which we’re structured neurologically to respond to all of that, it was like an amazing epiphany.
It’s self-evidently the case that the world’s too complicated for us to deal with. That’s one of the problems that we face on an ongoing basis. And then the question is, well, what do you do about that? If you ignore it, it gets worse, so ignoring it doesn’t work. We know what doesn’t work, so if ignoring it doesn’t work, then attending to it might work. And then I found out with the Egyptians, for example, that Horus was the god of attention. The same thing happened among Mesopotamians with Marduk and his ring of eyes. What’s the way to forestall the catastrophe of things falling apart? The answer to that is by voluntarily attending to them. That slots very nicely into the hero mythology that promotes the idea that if there’s a dragon in the neighbourhood, hiding in the basement just makes it grow larger. It’s time to go out and confront the damn thing.
The general stories are, well, you might get killed—because it’s a dragon—but it’s only might, as opposed to definitely will get killed if it happens to attack you at three in the morning, at home, when you’re hungover, it’s been a bad day, and you don’t have your sword and shield at the ready. That is generally what happens to people who avoid things. It’s not something that should be recommended. You’re screwed both ways. That’s one of the things that’s so nice about being deeply pessimistic: it’s so freeing. Knowing that, sometimes, no matter what you do you’re in trouble is a really useful habit to develop. That’s a relief. Then you can stop scrabbling around for the way out. There’s no way out, man. You can pick wretched death A or slightly less wretched death B. Something like that. I know that’s a terrible way of looking at things, but it is extraordinarily useful to understand that many times your choice boils down to picking the least bad option. If that’s all you can do, if that’s how life is revealing itself to you, it’s like, well, more power to you. The least bad option—that’s the best you can do. It’s good enough, especially compared to the alternative, which is the most bad option.
All right. The fundamental reality of things is complex beyond comprehension. The question is, well, how is it that you manage that? This is where the image of the patriarchal order comes in—in the positive manner, I might point out. In the absence of patriarchal structure, for lack of a better lexicon, there’s nothing but chaos. I wouldn’t recommend chaos. There’s a lot of it, and there isn’t that much of you. If you think you can handle it without an a priori structure, and without a sociological structure surrounding you, then you don’t know anything at all about human beings. One of the things I’ve noticed, for example, is that it’s unbelievable the degree to which our sanity depends on a functioning sociological structure. Here’s why: First of all, you kind of need to know what to do every day. You have to have a routine, because you’re an animal. Dogs are a really good example of this. Dogs like routine. They like to be walked the number of times a day that they’re supposed to be walked. They get quite sick, very rapidly, if you don’t routinize their days. Children are exactly the same way. You can overdo it, but you still need to know approximately when you should get up. It should be approximately the same every day. You need to know approximately when you’re going to eat; you need to know what you’re going to eat; you need to know who you’re going to eat with; you need to know where to buy your food.
Something like 70 percent of your life consists of those things that you do every single day, that you repeat. Those are often the things that people think about as the trivial elements of their life, but one of the things I would like to point out, if you do the mathematics—I did this with a client of mine that was having a hard time putting his child to bed. They were having a fight every night. I knew by that time that the studies indicate that most parents only spend 20 minutes per day of one-on-one time with their child. The reason for that is that people are busy, and it’s actually not that easy to parse out 20 minutes of one-on-one time. It’s a lot bloody more time than you think. But that’s all there is: 20 minutes. He’s spending like 40 minutes per day fighting with his kid, trying to get the kid to go to bed. That’s not very entertaining. You think, well, he’s just having a scrap with the kid about going to bed. No, no—if it happens every day, it’s a catastrophe. So you do the math. We’ll say five hours a week for the sake of argument, just to keep it simple. That’s 20 hours a month and 240 hours a year. That’s six 40-hour work weeks. That guy was basically spending a month and a half of work weeks doing absolutely nothing but having a wretched time fighting with his son, trying to get him to go to bed. Horrible. That’s just way too much time to spend doing something like that if you want to actually have a positive relationship with someone. It’s just too punishing.
So you need structure and predictability, and you need more of it than you think, just to keep you sane. Now if you’re lucky—and maybe a bit odd—you can deviate five percent from the norm, or ten percent from the norm, or something like that—carefully and cautiously, as long as the rest of you is all well ordered in a normative manner. You might be able to get away with that, and you might be able to sustain it across time. People might be able to tolerate you if you do it. Or maybe you’ll get really lucky and happen to be creative but reasonably well put-together, and people will actually be happy that there’s something idiosyncratic and unique about you. But even under those circumstance, mostly what you want is to have a routine that’s disciplined and predictable—and bloody well stick to it. You’re going to be way healthier, happier, and saner if you do that.
The psychoanalysts overestimated the degree to which sanity was a consequence of being properly structured internally. From the psychoanalytic point of view, you’re sort of an ego, and that ego is inside you. Of course, it rests on an unconscious structure, but the purpose of psychoanalysis is to sort out that unconscious structure and the ego on top of it, and to make you a fully-functioning and autonomous individual. But there’s a problem with that. The reason that you’re sane as a fully-functional and autonomous human being isn’t because you’ve organized your psyche—even though that’s important. The reason that you’re sane, if you have a well-organize unconscious and ego, is because other people can tolerate having you around for reasonably extensive periods of time, and will cuff you across the back of the head every time you do something so stupid that people will dislike you permanently if you continue.
So what people are doing to each other all the time is broadcasting sanity signals back and forth. You smile at people if they’re not only behaving properly, but behaving in a way that you would like to see them continue to behave. You frown at them if they’re not; you ignore them if they’re not; you shun them; you roll your eyes at them; you manifest a disgust face; you don’t listen to them; you interrupt them; you won’t cooperate with them; you won’t compete with them. You’re blasting signals at other people about how to regulate their behaviour so frequently—well, it just makes up all of your social interaction. That’s why we face each other, and that’s why we have emotional displays on our face. We’re looking at each other’s eyes, and we know as much as we can about what’s going on with each other given that we don’t have immediate access to the contents of their consciousness.
Partly what you’re doing with your routine is establishing yourself as a credible, reliable, trustworthy, potentially interesting human being who isn’t going to do anything too erratic at any moment. Everyone else is tapping you into shape, making sure that that’s exactly what you are. That’s how you stay sane. People get isolated and start to drift if they don’t have a routine. They drift badly, because the world is too complicated for you to keep it organized all by yourself. You just cannot do it. So we outsource the problem of sanity. It’s very intelligent that we outsource the problem of sanity, because sanity is an impossibly complex problem. The way that we manage the incredibly complex is we have a very large number of brains working simultaneously on the problem, all the time. It’s like a stock market for sanity. I use that definition with purpose. The stock market does the same kind of impossible thing, right? It tries to price things, which is impossible. How many things are there? Like a billion. How in the world do you decide what the price is? You can’t decide what the price is—that’s why you have a stock market. In a stock market, as well as a free market, everyone’s voting on what the price of everything is, all the time. That’s the way we figure it out, because it’s technically impossible. That’s partly why the stock market explodes now and then, and there’s bubbles, and all of that sort of thing.
Anyways, the point is that things are chaotic. In Alice and Wonderland, when Alice goes down the rabbit hole—that’s the underworld. Now she’s gone into the substructure of being. She meets the Red Queen. The Red Queen is mother nature. Mother nature is running around, and she’s yelling "off with their heads! Off with their heads!" Which is, of course, what mother nature does. And she tells Alice, "in my kingdom you have to run as fast as you can just to stay in the same place." That’s exactly right. In fact, evolutionary biologists and psychologists picked up on that phrase. They call it the Red Queen problem. The Red Queen problem is that everything’s after you all the time and you’re not smart enough to do anything about it, or enough about it. That’s a permanent, existential problem. How do you deal with that? You’ve got a biological structure. So your embodiment is part of the solution to the problem. And then you’re inculturated, and because you’re inculturated, you’re taught a lot of things that you need to know. But mostly what you’re taught is how to communicate with other people in an acceptable manner. Once you can communicate with people in an acceptable manner, then you can outsource your problems constantly, which you’re doing constantly.
We’re in this continual dynamic exchange of problem solving. So if you’re a socialized person, that’s what you get access to, and that’s something to know if you’re going to have kids. I mentioned this, I think, in a previous lecture. The purpose of being a parent for very young children is to make your children exceptionally socially desirable by the age of four. If you can do that, they’re set. Everyone wants them around. As soon as everybody wants them around, they want to play with them; they want to cooperate with them; they want to compete with them. The doors open, and they stay sane because they’ve got all sorts of people who actually like them, who are helping them out. So your goal is to make them as socially acceptable and desirable as you possibly can. That doesn’t mean you render them obedient without spirit. That’s a tyrant’s mode of enforcing social acceptability. It’s like, never do anything wrong. Well, that’s not any way to—I mean, that’s a good piece of advice, but it’s missing the other half, which is to do a bunch of things that are right so that people are thrilled to have you around. That’s what you want to do as a parent, as well as inculcating the order.
In this little diagram I indicated that there’s God the Father with the sun behind him, and he’s ruling over this walled city. He’s like the meta-spirit of the walled city. It’s a brilliant image. It’s the collective spirit of the city. That’s another way of thinking about it. It’s the collective spirit of the city across time, or the collective spirit of the force that built and maintained the city across time—even better. That’s associated with the sun, because it’s associated with enlightenment, illumination, and all of those things that we associate with higher consciousness and vision. It’s a brilliant image. And then I overlaid this. Of course, the patriarchal aspect of existence can become tyrannical, and it does that quite regularly. It’s one of the existential dangers of human civilization: civilization is a medication for chaos, but it can spin out of control in and of itself and become its own sort of problem, which is like a hyper-order problem, generally, which then produces a chaos problem.
Every solution carries within it certain problems, because no solution is perfect. You have to keep things in balance. It’s one of the reasons that I’m really…Let’s call it irritated about the postmodernists. They keep yammering about the patriarchy, and it’s very, very annoying. It’s self-evident that social structures are tyrannical. It’s like, that’s not news, folks. That’s obvious. But that’s not all they are. It’s a reduction of the entire complex solution, let’s say, to a unidimensional problem. It’s just tyranny. It’s like, no. Actually, it’s not just tyranny. If you spent six months somewhere that was just tyranny, you’d know the difference very, very rapidly. That doesn’t mean that everyone doesn’t give up a pound or two—or ten, or twenty—of flesh to participate even in a society that’s as free as a Western society is. We all get crushed and moulded by the tyrannical force of social convention. But, at least in principle, the benefit is worth the cost. It’s also up to you to make sure you don’t sacrifice more to the group than you should. You can start to tell if you’re sacrificing more to the group than you should because you start to become resentful of other people. That’s part of the psychological mechanism that’s informing you of that. So it’s up to you to fight against the overarching pressure for conformity and to retain your individual logos, but that’s sort of your problem. The group wants you to behave. Now if you could behave and be creatively productive, so much the better, but that’s pretty damn rare. The group generally tends to settle just for behave. There’s a tyrannical element of that, but what the hell’s the alternative? Our society is based on consensus, and the consensus is based on a certain sacrifice of individuality, even though individuality is absolutely necessary as a revitalizing force for the society. It’s a very tough thing to manage properly.
Anyways, you have your physiological structure as your first line of ordering in relationship to chaos. Your body presents you with the world in a certain way. And then the second line of defense is something like the sociological structures that you inhabit. We could call those the competency hierarchy. Something like that—and thank God for them. Maybe you’re going to be able to specialize in one or two things in your life, but there’s 300 things you need to know. If it’s just you, you’ll be doing your genius level mathematics while your bathtub is leaking all over your bathroom floor. That’s not so good, so you can call a plumber. Hooray for that. We tend to cooperate to keep chaos under control. We tend to cooperate to keep order under control. That’s the political dialog, right? We maintain the culture to keep chaos under control, and we balance the culture properly to keep the culture under control. That way we get to live reasonably peacefully, reasonably productively, for a reasonable amount of time, and that’s the best that we can do. We should have gratitude when that’s working. The default condition of things is that not only do they not work very well, they work worse and worse over time, all by themselves. Any time anything is working you should just be amazed by it.
So what does the frame look like? Well, I think it looks something like this. As far as I can tell, this is the barebones of a variety of things. It’s a barebone story; it’s a barebone conceptual framework; it’s a barebone dasein, to speak in Heideggerian terms. It’s the barebones world that you live in. You’re always in one of these worlds. There’s no getting out of them. You can move from one to another, but you’re always in a world like this. This is the world that you’re in. You’re somewhere, because you have to be somewhere. Now you might not know where that is, which means that the somewhere that you are is chaotic, in which case you need to go over your past in great detail and figure out where you are. You’re lost, and the problem with being lost is that you don’t know where to go. The problem with not knowing where to go is there’s a million places you could go, and a million places is too many places for you to go without dying. So being lost is not good. You need to know where you are.
One of the things that my partners and I built online is this program called Past Authoring that helps people lay out the narrative of their past, break their life down into six stages—we call them epochs—and then to identify the emotionally significant moments in each epoch and write out what happened negatively, what happened positively, what the consequences were, what you derive from it, perhaps what you could have done differently, and perhaps what you learned from it—all of that so that you can zero in on determining precisely where it is that you are right now. People are often loathe to do that, because they actually don’t want to know. They’d rather be spread out in a sort of half blind manner, in a fog, hoping that the place they’re at is better than it really is and deluding themselves by remaining vague. They’d rather do that than figure out that they are right here, right now with these specific problems. But it’s actually better to do that, because if you have a set of specific problems, and you’ve really narrowed them down and specified them, then you can probably start fixing them.
You can start fixing them in micro ways, bit by bit, but there’s no way you can do that without knowing where you are. It’s impossible. You can kind of tell if you don’t know where you are. It’s quite straightforward. If you are haunted by reveries of the past, for events that are older than approximately 18 months, if they continue to come up in your mind, over and over—in your dreams, over and over—you haven’t extracted the world out from your past experiences. The potential is still trapped in the past. To confront the potential means to confront the dragon of the past. Of course, that’s terrifying. It can seriously be terrifying. For example, maybe you’re vague, ill-formed, and ill-defined because you were abused very badly when you were a child. Maybe you were abused by a family member when you were four years old. Something like that. That’s generally who does the abusing. That just makes it worse. And then what that means is that you’ve had a direct encounter with malevolent evil, but you have an implicit hypothesis of malevolent evil that’s plaguing you. It’s still there, trapped in representational structure. As an adult, you’re now faced with the necessity of articulating that fully before you have any chance whatsoever of freeing yourself from it.
So that’s no joke. Lots of times people have to go into the past—that’s what the psychoanalysts do—and say, look, here’s something that came along and just bloody well knocked me over. It isn’t even that I repressed it…We won’t talk about Freud’s errors. Freud was a genius, so we’ll just leave him alone. But sometimes it’s not repression. It’s just that terrible things happen to people at such a young age that there isn’t a bloody chance in hell that they can figure out why they happened, or what to do with them, or what they mean. And then you can carry that with you.
It’s like your body encounters the world in stages. It happens very rapidly. It can extend over years, but the initial stages happen very rapidly. For example, if you’re walking down a road and you hear a loud noise behind you, you go like this. That’s a predator defense response, by the way. You crouch down. That’s to stop something from jumping on your back and getting at your neck easily. That’s like a few hundred milliseconds. It’s really fast, or even faster than that—and it better be, because something like a snake, we’ll say, can nail you just right now, so you better be fast. But it’s low resolution. It’s like, danger-snake, or danger-predatory-cat. It’s that fast. And then you can unravel that and categorize it, but that takes time.
You do that with emotion, and then you do it with cognition. You can do that with longterm thinking. Maybe you’ve encounter someone specifically malevolent and predatory at work—that happens to people a lot—operating as a destructive bully who seems to have no positive function whatsoever, and who is only living that out. And then you don’t know what to do about it. You’re in prey mode…I don’t mean this kind of mode, although that would help, too. I mean that you’re acting like a prey animal, and then you have this terribly complex thing to decompose, which is, what the hell’s up with this person? Why are they making my life miserable? What is it about me that allows them to make my life miserable? That’s a nasty little road to walk down. You’re stuck with having to decompose it. Maybe you can’t—maybe formulating an explicit philosophy of good and evil to deal with something malevolent in your environment actually just happens to be beyond you. That could easily be it. It’s certainly the case for people who are young, and it’s the case for plenty of adults, as well. It’s no simple thing to manage. Soldiers who have post-traumatic stress disorder often have to do it. They’ve encountered terrible things. Maybe they’ve done them, or ran into them. They need to update their moral model of the world, or they end up in something closely approximating hell.
So you need to know where you are. That’s what this is: where are you. So you’re navigating. You’re a sailor on the ocean. That’s what you are: you’re a mobile creature. You’re going from point A to point B all the time. You’re not sitting there glued to a rock like some brainless sea creature. There’s a funny little creature called a hydra—a very simple little creature. It has a brain and swims around in its juvenile stage. But then, when it turns into an adult, it latches itself to a rock and promptly digests its brain. If you’re just siting on a rock, and you’re not moving, you don’t need a brain. But that’s not our issue.
We’re zipping around in the world. We’re navigating agents. To navigate, there are two things you need to know. The first is where the hell are you—exactly, precisely, razor-sharp. What’s good about you and what’s bad about you, by your own reckoning. You can ask other people, but this is a game you play yourself. I’m taking stock. What is it that’s ok about me? And what needs some work? You gotta watch to not be too self-critical when you’re doing that, because that can just be another kind of flaw. Next is, ok, where are you going? What’s your destination? That’s what the frame is. You can do that in a very sophisticated way. You do that by thinking consciously about who it is that you are in an articulated manner, where you want to go, why, and how you’re going to get there. People hardly ever do that. That’s come as such an absolute shock to me, as an educator.
One of the other programs in this suite of programs is the Future Authoring program. I started developing it in my Maps of Meaning class, which is where some of this material is from. I got students to write about their past. It’s like, ok, we’re talking about stories, so let’s tell your story. Who are you? How did you get here? And what are you now? That usually helps people put things to rest, although it’s quite stressful while you’re doing it. Stress goes up when you’re doing it, and maybe you feel miserable for a couple of weeks, and then stress goes down, and it stays down. That’s also why people don’t do it, because who the hell wants to have their stress go up. But if it’s temporary, it’s a sacrifice.
So then the next issue is, well, where are you going? Students that have been in the education system for 14 years—high-end students, most of them—not once in their whole bloody life did anyone ever get them to sit down for like a day and say, all right, justify your existence. Well, seriously. It’s like, here you are in university; you’re taking a bunch of courses; you’ve got some sort of vague career plan. Defend the damn thing, since you’re going to go live it, and everything. You’re staking everything on it. What’s your damn plan? Why are you so convinced that it’s not the plan of a babbling fool? Because if you haven’t thought about it, then it is. And if you really want to go out there and live that out…
One of the things that Carl Jung said was that you’re in a story whether you know it or not. And then he made two nice comments about that: If it’s someone else’s story, you’re probably going to get a bit part, and it might not be the one you want. And if it’s a story that you don’t know, it might be one with a really bad ending—or maybe it’s just bad, period, with a worse ending. If you don’t know what the story you’re living out is, maybe that’s the one. Maybe you got that from your mother; you got it from your grandmother; you got it from your aunt, or God only knows where you picked it up, because you pick up things like mad. That’s what human beings are like. Maybe you’re living a malevolent tragedy unconsciously. And then one thing you might ask yourself is, well, how wretched, miserable, and futile is your life? And you might say, yea, 70 percent on each count. Well, then you’re probably unconsciously living out a malevolent tragedy—it’s either that or 70 percent of the whole universe hates you.
Anyways, we got students to start writing in detail about—not what they wanted. It’s not a career thing, because that’s the closest people usually get. They have a career plan. It’s like, no, no; it’s not a career plan. That’s peripheral—important but peripheral. It’s like, all right, you got three years, man. You’re going to live them, anyways. Devote those three years to setting the world up around you so that it’s the best it could possibly be for you—as if you cared for yourself. Well, what would that look like? Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, if you figured out where you were, that you could have what would be best for you. Well, what is that? I bet you never asked. People don’t ask, so life comes at them like random snakes, and they sort of fend them off. And life goes by, and things don’t work out the way people expected them to.
A huge part of that is that you didn’t know where they were, because they wouldn’t look, or didn’t know that they should look. Ignorance and willful blindness, right? Two great catastrophes. And they never figured out where they wanted to go, or why. Now there’s a problem with figuring out where you want to go. The problem is that you make your conditions for failure clear to yourself. People don’t like that. If you keep yourself in the fog, then you can’t tell when you screwed up. That isn’t so good because you’re still screwing up; you’re just too self-blind to notice. Although, in the short term that’s less painful. If you make your criteria for success razor-sharp, then you know every time you screw up. But that’s great, because then you could fix it. You could repair either the behavioural inadequacy or the conceptual inadequacy that you’re using as a tool in that situation. Or maybe you could adjust your damn plan. Either way, you can fix it.
Ok, so you’re living in one of these bloody things. It seems to me that you might as well make it the best one you could live in, because you don’t have anything better to do. If you don’t do that, if you don’t do it consciously—and this is what the psychoanalysts pointed out—you’ll just act out the stories that the innumerable, quasi-autonomous subsystems that make you up generate impulsively. You know that because you watch yourself over two weeks and you think, Jesus—I did a lot of stupid things over the last two weeks. And you think, why? And it’s because you’re a collection of somewhat random, quasi-autonomous personality units. Lacking a leader, they’re just going to fire off whenever they want. First you’re hungry, then you’re thirsty, then you want to go to bed with your wife, then you want to sleep in, then you want to tell your boss off, then you want to curse at the guy that cuts you off in traffic. You’re kinda like a two year old. It’s one emotional frame after another, vying for dominance. There’s no overarching hierarchy, and there’s no king at the top.
We already talked about pyramids of competence. What’s supposed to be at the top is something to bring all those things together. We understand this neurologically. I’ll show you some of that in a little bit. We understand this neurologically—how this maps, in some sense, right onto the neural structure of your being. You want to put something in control. The thing that you should put in control is the bloody thing that pays attention and learns. Everything else in the hierarchy should be subordinate to the thing that pays attention and learns. You could think, well, that’s the message of the idea of logos. That’s for sure, because logos is partly attention and partly communication. You learn a lot by communicating with others.
Ok, so you need to know where you are—just like your GPS, which is about the closest thing we have to an intelligent cybernetic system. Those bloody things are pretty smart. They know where you are; they know where you’re going, and if you go off course, they recalculate your route. Those things are damn near alive. That’s so close to intelligence. You can tell that because they act intelligently. They solve problems, continually. This is a cybernetic model, by the way. Cybernetic models were the models on which the GPS systems were based. It’s not accidental. You need to know where you are, and you need to know where you’re going. And then the next thing you need to know is how it is that you’re going to act, move your body, propel yourself through time and space to transform this into that. And then we can make that a little bit more complex, because it’s a bit too simple. So it isn’t exactly that you live in one of these: it’s that you live in a nested hierarchy of these. You can think of this as your own internal patriarchy. That’s a good way of thinking about it. Maybe it could be a tyrant, or maybe it could be something that gives you security and functional autonomy, and hopefully that’s the one you go for, but it’s a battle. A little bit of tyranny exists in everyone.
So at the very highest level of analysis—that would be the overarching story—maybe you think, I’d like to be a good person, or a successful person, or a famous person. I think good’s probably better, because you can come up with the definition of good as long as it doesn’t annoy other people too badly. Otherwise they would just get in your way, and that won’t be helpful. So you have to negotiate it. But let’s say you’re a good person. That’s sort of the story at the top of hierarchy. And then you could decompose that into your primary roles. Maybe you’re a good parent; maybe you’re a good employer; maybe you’re a good employee; maybe you’re a good sibling; maybe you’re a good child. Those are major roles that you have in your life. And so you’d say that a good person is what’s good about you across all of those roles. It’s a higher-order abstraction from something more concrete.
You can take the good parent role and say, well, what is it that constitutes a good parent? And you might say, well, a good parent—this isn’t exhaustive, obviously—has a good job and takes care of his or her family. And then you might say, well, what does it mean to take care of your family? And then you might say that means that you can cook the odd meal—not too odd, hopefully—and you can play with a baby. Well, how do you play with a baby? Well, you play peekaboo with a baby, or you tickle a baby. There’s a cool shift, there, because this is all articulated and conceptual, right? Right down to this level. Then, all of a sudden, it’s your body. Because how do you play peekaboo with your baby? You don’t have like a chat about how you play peekaboo with a baby, right? You go like this. It’s quite fun.
You could even do it with older people. They even smile about it, right? Dad’s gone, and the baby’s all shocked to death about that. Where’d he go? Oh, look—he’s back. The baby is playing with the reliability of the world, so it’s a real intense game for a baby. It’s like, oh no, Dad’s gone. Oh, look, he showed up again! Oh no, he’s gone. And then dad’s smiling to indicate that those brief flashes into nonexistence aren’t existentially terrifying beyond capacity. The point is, if you’re playing peekaboo with a baby, you’re not thinking anymore. It’s not in the realm of articulation or abstraction. It’s actually something that you’re doing with your body. So to me, this is a nice multi-stage solution to the mind-body problem. What happens is that it’s articulated and conceptual at the higher-order of abstraction, but if you decompose it sufficiently, you end up with an actual action. The action involves the movement of musculature. It’s not something conceptual. One of the things that’s really cool about this hierarchy is that it has educational lessons. One of the things you want to do if you’re trying to teach someone something, even yourself, is to specify the thing that needs doing at the highest resolution possible. So I’ll give you just a brief example. I may be repeating this, but it doesn't matter.
Say you’ve got a three year old kid, and their room is chaos. Monsters are going to be coming out from under the bed in no time flat unless that room gets some order in it. You tell the kid, clean up the room. It’s a mess. You leave and come back, and the kid’s like throwing legos everywhere. They’re not cleaning up. And then you think, that’s a bad kid. That’s a bad theory, because you’re going right from here to here. If you want to have a good fight with someone and destroy them, then that’s what you do. You don’t bother with the subtleties down here. You just go right for the jugular: you’re a bad, stupid kid; you’ve always been that way, and there’s not a chance of teaching you anything. That way you can nail the past, present, and the future with the same insult. You’ve always been a terrible person; there’s no teaching you, and your future’s going to be exactly the same way. The only thing the person can do if you do that to them is hit you, because that’s it; there’s no coming back from that. You’ve boxed them completely in. So if you want to have a really unproductive argument, you go right for this: past, present, and future. You’re not a good person. Demolish their entire conceptual structure and expose them completely naked to chaos. It’s like, great; you won the argument. It’s not a good thing to do to your longterm partner, let’s say, unless you want them terrified out of their skull and their attitude towards you characterized by nonstop, extreme resentment. It’s probably not going to do your love life a hell of a lot of good, for example.
So with the three year old, you pick the level of analysis at which they’re actually functioning. This is something you can do if you pay attention to a kid. Lots of adults won’t pay attention to children because they’re terrified of them—they’re terrified that they’ll do something wrong with them, or that the kid won’t like them, or some damn thing. All you have to do to get a kid to like you is pay attention to the kid for like two seconds and the kid will instantly like you. Attention is the ultimate currency for children. They need adult attention, because adults know way more than kids. They love attention. All you have to do is pay attention to them, and they will like you instantly. So you tell the kid, you see that teddy bear? The kids goes yes. Then you’ve established that the child has mastered the art of perceiving a teddy bear. They can say yes. It’s a complicated thing, man. A six month old isn’t going to do that. A three year old has got the whole teddy bear identification subroutine automatized. Teddy bear—yes. Can you pick it up? Yes. Pat, pat, pat. Good work. Do you see the hole on that shelf? Yes. Can you put the teddy bear in that hole? Yes. Go over and do that. Pat, pat, pat. Great! Ok, now we’ll do thing number two, thing number three.
You’re building up the micro routines of cleaning up the room from the bottom up. You’re building it into their body, because you’re starting with the things they’ve already automatized and building upwards towards abstraction. How many micro routines are there to clean up your room? 200? A lot, but not an infinite number. So you teach them all the micro routines, and then you can say, run set of micro routines, which means clean up your room. And then they can do it; they know what it means. But you do the building from the bottom up. When you’re arguing with someone that you live with and hypothetically love, what you want to do is assume stupidity before you assume total malevolence. That’s a good rule of thumb for establishing peace. So maybe if your partner won’t do something, well, maybe there’s something going on up here, but you might want to assume to begin with that they actually just don’t know how to do it. You need to decompose it.
Maybe there’s a way you want to be greeted when you come home. You’re going to come home every day, probably, and maybe that’s a five-minute interaction, or a ten-minute interaction. That’s an hour a week, four hours a month, 50 hours a year, or one solid work week of coming home interactions. All you have to do is get 50 interactions like that right and you’ve got your relationship sorted out. That’s something that’s really worth thinking about. You just don’t have that much time, right? Get the meals sorted out. That’s about five hours a day. Get your sleeping time arrangement sorted out. Get the fundamental interactions that you repeat with your partner worked out voluntarily and negotiated. You’re going to cover 80 percent of your life that way, and then it can just run as a routine. That’s really helpful. If you don’t do that consciously—especially because our roles have fragmented and most of the traditional roles have disappeared. Nobody knows who the hell’s supposed to do what. In the kitchen, for example, nobody does anything except bitch, fight, and make wretched meals, or buy fast food, or something like that. The alternative to that catastrophic failure or continual resentment and fighting is to rebuild the structures from the bottom up using consensus and negotiation.
You could think of that as the patriarchal structure. That’s a good one. It’s partly psychological, because these are things you do as a person, but it’s also partly political, economic, and sociological. While you’re doing each of these things, you’re also doing them in a way that’s, hopefully, not just socially acceptable but actually socially desirable. That’s the decomposition. It’s not that your belief systems keep chaos as bay. It’s not that abstract. It’s that if you do things right, then terrible things happen to you with less frequency. It’s partly psychological, because maybe you don’t fight as much; maybe you’re not anxious as much; maybe you’re not as depressed. But a lot of it is just practical. If your kid doesn’t leave his skateboard on the stairs, then you don’t break your neck as often, and that’s not just psychological. That’s a good thing, to not break your neck so often. This structure isn’t merely something that keeps things as bay psychologically.
Here’s another look at a hierarchy of narrative—the structure that keeps chaos at bay. This is, maybe, the hierarchy that I engage in when I’m writing. I’m doing all of these things at the same time. That’s what’s cool. What are you doing when you write an essay? That’s a hard question, right? It’s a vast and important question. That’s the first thing you should do if you’re writing an essay. You’re paying attention to the words, phrases, sentences, and to the relationship of the sentences within the paragraphs, the relationship between paragraphs within the essay, then the essay’s relevance to the class, and the class’s relevance to your life. The essay bleeds out across your entire life. So if I’m writing something…Well, obviously, at the highest resolution level of analysis, I’m actually moving my fingers on the keyboard and moving my eyes back and forth on the screen. That’s where the mind meets the body.
But then I’m trying to formulate a sentence, and so I try to think up a good sentence that’s nailing what I am trying to formulate, and then I try to pick that apart. I do that in a bunch of ways. I take the sentence, and I put it on another page, and then I write like 10 different variants of the sentence, seeing if I can get a better variant. Then I try to think of ways that it’s a stupid sentence, to see if I can put a pry bar underneath it and loosen it up. If I can’t manage that, then I keep the sentence that I’ve got. Then I do that with 10 sentences in a paragraph, and I make sure the sentences are all arranged properly in the paragraph, the same way, by rewriting a bunch of different variants of it, trying to get the word right, and the phrase right, and the sentence right, and the sentence order right, and the paragraph order right. I can tell when it’s right enough because I can’t make it any better. That doesn’t mean it’s right. It just means that I can’t improve it.
So I get to the point that, if I’m writing a paragraph and I can’t tell if the variant is any better—and it might be worse—then I’m done. I’ve hit the limit of my intellectual capacity; and it’s time to move on. But that isn’t like the essay that I’m writing. There is a boundary that’s tightly drawn around the essay, because there’s a reason that I’m writing the damn essay, and that would be, well, I’m trying to write a whole manuscript—hopefully I’m trying to address an important problem. Why would I be doing it, otherwise? That would be kind of pointless. Maybe that’s part of my role as a scientist, and that’s a subset of my role as a professor, and then that’s a subset of my role as a productive citizen, and then that’s a subset of my role of someone who confronts the unknown.
That’s why the logos is the thing that’s at the top of the hierarchy. That’s how the hierarchy should be structured for everything else. You have a structure, and you think, what should the structure be subordinate to? The answer should be something like, the structure should be subordinate to the process that generates the structure, or the structure should be subordinate to the process that generates and maintains the structure. Obviously. How could it be any other way, unless the structure’s perfect? In which case you dispense with the thing that generates it and improves it, but then you’re a totalitarian. It’s like, hey, we got the answer. No. You don’t. People are still suffering, and they’re still dying. You don’t have the damn answer. Maybe you have an answer that means there isn’t quite as much suffering and dying as there could be, but there’s plenty of road to be travelled, yet. So it all makes perfect sense that all of this should be nested within this. I think of it as the highest order of moral striving. And then that also gives you a moral hierarchy. That’s the most important thing. You do that with attention and honest speech. That’s how you do that. You don’t sacrifice that to any of this, because if you do, then you’re hurting your soul.
There’s this idea in the New Testament that the sin against the Holy Ghost is the one sin that can’t be forgiven. No one knows what the hell that means. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything. But I think this is what it means: because this process generates all this, if you violate that process, then there’s no hope for you, because that’s the process by which you improve yourself and everything else, too. So if you decide you’re not going to engage in that, it’s like, well, there’s no fixing that. You’ve blown apart your relationship with the thing that does the fixing.
That’s how you keep chaos at bay. Part of that is structural. You know how to do these things, more or less. It’s part of your skill set if you happen to be a writer. You could build one of these for a plumber. It doesn’t make any difference, really, although the outside thing should be the same, which is, I think, partly why there is the assumption in the Judeo-Christian tradition that people are fundamentally equal before God. What that means is that everyone, regardless of their particularities as individuals, has that as their highest order of function. They do it in whatever manner they can manage. That’s, maybe, the most extraordinarily valuable sociological, political, and economic function. That’s why people are valuable. We have this faculty to continually generate improvements to the structure that we jointly inhabit. Great! That gives us a fundamental unity at the highest order of analysis with the room for as much diversity as you could possibly manage. It actually turns out that the more the substructure’s different, the better, because then you can be doing something different than me. That would be good, because if we’re doing the same thing, then it’s just duplication of labor. If we could agree on the higher-order principle and then specialize at the lower order levels, it’s like…That’s…You get to have your cake and eat it, too. That doesn’t happen very often.
Another rule of thumb is, if you’re trying to solve a problem, solve it at the highest resolution level possible before you dare move up the hierarchy. As you move up the abstraction hierarchy, the probability that you’ll make a catastrophic error while attempting to fix the problem radically increases. Abstraction is very, very powerful, so you want to be very careful. We saw that when the mortgage market crashed. The reason it crashed was because of a strange use of derivatives. Derivates are like higher-order abstractions in the financial world. Derivatives give you tremendous financial leverage and power with huge risk. The upside is massive, absolutely massive, because you can multiply your earnings, but the downside is complete bloody catastrophe. I would say that an intelligent, conservative ethos solves the problem at the highest and most local level of resolution. It’s safer, and it’s more likely to actually produce a solution.
Now you’re in your plan. We’re simplifying again to one little map, but all those other things are nested in there. You encounter things as you’re moving from point A to point B. People think that what they encounter are objects, but that’s not the case. First of all, most of the things that you encounter are actually other people, and they’re not objects; they’re too damn complex. Even apart from the social world, the things that you encounter aren’t objects. They seem to be something more like tools or obstacles. I don’t mean that we see objects and turn them into tools or obstacles. I mean that we see tools and obstacles. The world transforms itself into three things when you array yourself towards a goal: things that get in the way of the goal—those are the things you don’t like—things that facilitate your movement towards the goal—those are things that you like—and irrelevant things. Mostly you want irrelevant things, because there’s just too damn many things.
The category of irrelevant is one you really like. Most of everything is irrelevant if you have a good plan. A few things are good—because they move you forward—and some other things are not so good. You want to go around the not so good things, if you can manage that—unless you like to run head forth into brick walls, which is not particularly…It’s a learning experience, but I wouldn’t repeat it too many times. You want the world to array itself as a set of tools. What happens is that you have this perceptual system that’s mediated by dopamine. It’s the same system that cocaine activates, or methamphetamine, or the drugs that people really like to take. It’s the dopaminergic system that responds with positive emotion to indications that you’ve encountered something that will facilitated your movement towards a goal. That’s really important to know. People tend to think they’re happy because they achieve goals. That’s not true, because as soon as you achieve a goal then you have a problem, which is, what’s the next goal? That’s actually a big problem. You encounter that as soon as you graduate from university, for example. I made this joke before. On graduation day, you’re like king of the undergraduate hierarchy. On the day after, you’re an unemployed, potential Starbucks employee. So obviously the accomplishment, per se, as a source of reward is problematic.
When you accomplish, you run the frame to its end, and then you have the problem of needing a new frame. That’s a problem. But if you’re encountering things that will move you along your way, then that’s great. That’s where you get your positive motivation. That’s so much worth thinking about. You could think about that for a year, and that wouldn’t even be enough to think about it. Here’s what it means: It means, in some sense, that the Buddhists are right with their claim about maya, which means that people live in an illusion. What they mean by that is, well, you have goal—whatever your goal is—and that goal gives relevance to the world. You could change the relevance of the world in a snap just by changing your goal. You can do that. Then you think, well, it’s sort of an illusion, because you can just change it. Now, you don’t want to push that line of argumentation too far, because even if the specific point can be changed, the fact that you’re in one of these frames cannot be changed.
So you have to be in a frame, although you get to pick the frame. There’s still an absolute there, which is that you have to be in a frame. That is not a trivial absolute. It’s a very major absolute. Then you think, ok, all of your positive emotion is going to be experienced in relationship to the goal. Then we think, well, we could use some positive emotion. It’s a good thing. Positive emotion inhibits anxiety, disappointment, frustration, and pain. It does all that. Technically it does that. That’s why a football player with a broken thumb who wants to score a touchdown can go out there and play the football game, even though it’s kind of an arbitrary goal. It’s like, really? You’re going to go out there and risk your hand to fire a pig skin through some poles? Well you could say the same sort of cynical thing about most of the things that people do, but you can’t say the cynical thing about the fact that they have to do things. So you have a point; you have your aim; you have your ambition. That’s what turns the world into a potentially positive place. Here’s the kicker—this is so cool—the higher the aim, the more the positive emotion. You think, why should I bother? Why should I bother doing something lofty and difficult? Because it’s worth it.
The alternative is stupid suffering. Really. You don’t need a framework in order to suffer. You can just lay there day after day and suffer, right? That’s easy! That’s the default condition. If you don’t have a lofty ambition, then you suffer miserably. The reason for that is that life is really complex, short, finite, full of suffering, and beyond you. You can just lay there and think about that, and it’s horrible. That’s not helpful. It’s just not useful. People often say life is meaningless. It’s like, no. It’s not. That’s wrong. If it was meaningless, that’d be easy. You could just sit there and do nothing, and it wouldn’t matter. It would be like you’re a lobotomized sheep. It’s just irrelevant. But that isn’t what happens. That isn’t what people mean when they say that life has no meaning. What they mean is, I’m suffering stupidly and intensely, and I don’t know what to do about it. Well, the suffering is meaningful. It’s just not the kind of meaning you want. So how do you get out of that? You note the baseline of suffering, which is very, very, very, very high. And then you say to yourself, ok, I need to do something that justifies that. That’s not so easy. The baseline for suffering is high. If you’re going to make something of yourself, so that it’s worthwhile to exist in the world, then you have to aim at something that’s so well structured that you can say, yea, earthquakes, cancer, death of my family, disillusion of my goals, ultimate futility of life, and the heat death of the universe—hey, it doesn’t matter. It’s worth it.
Here’s another complicating factor. So I said, well, there’s three things that you can run into when you’re going about your goal. I would say that if you’re going to form a goal, or you’re going to form a plan, look about three to five years out into the future. Beyond that you get something called combinatorial explosion, and it means that there’s so many variables that you just can’t predict. So there’s not that much point looking out 20 years, because what the hell do you know what’s going to happen in 20 years? Nothing. Maybe you can chart a course to three years, five years, something like that. That’s not a bad segment of time to consider. And then consider what your life would have to be like in order for it to be worthwhile for you—knowing, also, what you’re going to be like if it isn’t worthwhile for you. What you’re going to be like if it isn’t worthwhile for you is Cain. That’s what you’re like, because that’s what that story’s about. Abel’s the guy who has a goal and is making the proper sacrifices. Cain is the person for whom, by his own fault, things aren’t working out for him. The default for not doing this is something like building resentment, bitterness, with an underlying…what would you call it…flavour-enhancer of murderous resentment. Something like that—which you will act out in the world, and which people act out in the world all the time. And it’s no wonder, because without something lofty pulling you along, then the baseline is stupid suffering. If you take a dog, chain it in the backyard, put a collar on it that’s too tight so it chafes all the time, and it can’t even bark, there’s just dirt around it, and it’s too goddamn hot out in the sun, and maybe you don’t get it enough water, it’s not going to be a very happy dog. Its basic condition is misery. Well, the same applies to people.
All right. You’ve all probably watched Pinocchio or know about it. One of the things that happens in Pinocchio is when Geppetto decides that he wants his puppet to be a genuine, autonomous being, he wishes upon a star. It’s a very strange thing, but everybody just swallows it, because we don’t notice when we’re swallowing things that are completely preposterous. An animated puppeteer wishes on a star and his puppet is going to become real. Everyone nods their heads and goes, yea, that makes sense. It’s like, no. It doesn’t make any sense at all, and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make the sort of sense that we normally associate with sense. It makes a kind of meta-sense, and everybody understands it. This is what Geppetto's doing. He’s elevating his eyes above the horizon—out of the realm of the worldly, let’s say, to the transcendent. You can see the transcendent spread above you in the heaven that arches over us. It’s close enough for our purposes. There’s a star, there. The star is something that’s eternal and shines in the darkness. Geppetto makes an agreement with the transcendent. He says, look, I’m willing to do whatever it takes for my creation to become autonomous. That’s exactly the situation that you want to set up for yourself.
You have to figure out what star you’re going to orient yourself by. You have to ask yourself, if you had the choice to make your life worth living, what’s your price? What do you need? Find out, first of all! You just ask. You’ll tell yourself. You’ll be afraid, because you’ll think, ah, I’ll never get that. Well, lower your sights a little bit, then. Don’t ask for an 80 foot super yacht in like six months. That just means you’re stupid. First of all, it’s not going to make you happy. It’s just not. It’s not wise. You’re supposed to be asking yourself this question like you’re someone you care about. So imagine you’re talking to some 12 year old kid that you kind of like. It wouldn’t be so bad if this 12 year old kid had a decent life. The universe wouldn’t mind if you had a decent life—if there was a little less suffering on your part, especially if you didn’t foist it off on other people. If there’s a little less suffering on your part and you made things a little better everywhere you went, the universe would probably be ok with that. I think you could get away with it if you were sort of quiet about it. So ask yourself.
Once you’ve established your target, you know where you are, and then you know what’s good for you, because that moves you along. That happens at a perceptual level. You don’t have to think about it anymore. The experimental literature on that is already quite clear. For example, if I specify that podium as the target for my action, then I’m happy when I’m walking towards it, because there it is, and everything is cooperating really nicely. And if I specify going to the exit sign—that you guys can’t see—that this is an obstacle in the front of, then as soon as I specify that, then that’s an annoying obstacle. That’s precognitive. It happens instantaneously. It really is the case that your being manifests itself inside these frames. What’s so cool about that is you can change the frame. That doesn’t mean you can like juggle planets or anything like that, but it does give you quite a scope of…Untrammelled action within the world. If the frame isn’t working out, then you can tweak it. Sometimes you have to make a major adjustment in it. Whatever. You don’t have to stick to the damn thing like it’s the ideology that you’re going to die for. It’s a tentative plan; it’s a work in progress. With the Future Authoring Program, one of the things I recommend for people is that they should do it badly. You’re not going to get it right, anyways. But a reasonable plan is way better than no plan. Plus, a reasonable plan is a plan that has built into it the processes that will enable the plan to get better as you implement it. So you just start with a reasonable plan. You don’t have to worry about whether it’s correct. It’s not correct. That doesn’t matter. It’s better than nothing, and that’s the issue.
Ok, so you’ve got the world parsed up into things that are making you happy when you look at them, things that get in the way that produce negative emotion, and then a whole host of irrelevant things. Almost everything’s irrelevant. That’s where all the chaos is hiding: the chaos is hiding in what’s irrelevant. That’s a very interesting observation. Since the chaos is virtually infinite, it’s a real question: where the hell do you put it? Well, you put it in what you ignore. And you can ignore it as long as it isn’t actively interfering with your movement forward, and you can assume that it doesn’t matter—that it isn’t matter. Same thing.
All right, so here’s the kicker. There’s one more class of things that you can run into along the way. This is where the chaos breaks through. So let’s say you’re moving from point A to point B, and something that you don’t expect occurs. It gets in the way. Let’s say that you’re living with someone, and maybe you kind of like them. You’re not married, so you don’t like them that much, because otherwise you’d ask them to marry you. And so a quarter of you is looking for something better, and three quarters of you is half satisfied. Something like that. Because we’re ambivalent about such things. And then you discover, or the person announces, that they’ve been having an affair. How are you supposed to respond emotionally to that? Well, the part of you that wasn’t all that committed to the relationship is kind of exhilarated by that, and then the three quarters of you that’s half satisfied is hurt. You’re going to exploit the hurt part, for sure, in the ensuing discussions, and not mention the, oh, that’s kind of exciting that you’ve betrayed me that way. But the point is that that’s a hole.
You have a structure of thin ice that you’re skating on. Now, there’s a hole in it. We don’t even know how deep the hole is, but you know there’s a hole. You’re anxious about it—although maybe also a little bit excited, because God only knows what’s down there. But you don’t know what to do with that hole. It could be that the whole relationship was a facade, and that all your relationships have been facades, and that the reason for that is because you’re so damn shallow that it’s impossible for you to have a relationship that isn’t just a facade. That’s partly because you don’t pay any attention to other people, and it’s also partly because you’re malevolent and selfish. That’s a nasty thing to discover—or maybe that’s the sort of person that you’re attracting, which would make sense, actually, if that’s the sort of person that you are.
There are certain things that you could encounter that basically unglue you. What happens is that those moments of being unglued travel up that entire hierarchy of presuppositions. One of the logical conclusions to being betrayed in a relationship is that you’re truly a bad person. Now, another equally logical conclusion is that the person that you’re with is really a bad person. Another logical conclusion is that all people are truly bad people—in both macro and micro ways. You can’t trust anyone. You can’t trust women; you can’t trust men; you can’t trust human beings; you can’t trust yourself. The whole place is a catastrophe. It’s a nightmare. Well, then you can fall through into chaos.
Maybe you’re supposed to be getting a promotion at work. That’s good. You’re all chipper about the promotion at work. You walk into your boss’s office because he or she wants to see you, and they say, well, you know, we’ve reviewed your performance over the last few years. Your performance has been somewhere between mediocre and decent. We’re downsizing and…See ya later. That’s not a raise or a promotion. That’s a hole that you fall into. The question is, what do you make of that? How do you frame that? How do you take that emerging chaos and make habitable order out of it? You don’t know. Is the whole capitalist system rotten to the core? I mean, that’s a convenient explanation under those circumstances. Were you working for a psychopathic son of a bitch? Did you make the wrong choice in university? And was that your father’s fault, because you never did what you wanted? Or was it your fault for not standing up to him? Or is it a dying industry? Or maybe this is a wakeup call that you should go do something else that you’ve actually wanted to do your whole life, and that’s why you’re doing such a miserable job at your current occupation, because you’re bitter and resentful about the fact that you never did what you want. You don’t know! It’s all of those things at once. That’s very stressful, because all of those things at once is too many things.
That’s the reemergence of chaos. That’s the flood. That’s the return to the beginning of the cosmos. That’s another way that it’s been represented mythologically. You voyage all the way back to the beginning of the cosmos when there’s nothing but undifferentiated chaos. That’s what you’re confronting, and maybe it’s too much for you—and often it is. That can be traumatizing. It can hurt your brain. It’s just too much for you to bear. It doesn’t matter; you’re stuck with it. How do you respond to that? Well, some of it is catastrophic negative emotion. You freeze, and that’s protective. Maybe you don’t even want to move. You don’t want to bloody well get out of bed for a week, and that’s because your body’s reacting as if the bedroom floor’s covered with snakes, and the best thing for you to do is just not move. Freeze. Not a pleasant situation to be in, because you’re hyper-aroused. It is very, very physiologically demanding, and there’s zero about it that’s productive except that, maybe, the snakes won’t see you. But they’ve already seen you, so that isn’t helping very well.
So you’ve got all this undifferentiated negative emotion, anxiety, fear, hurt, anger, guilt, shame, emotional pain, the whole plethora of catastrophes, and then maybe, on the other side, lurking down there, is thank God I’m done with that job. I just bloody well hated it. I dragged myself off to work every day, and there’s a little part of my soul that’s so goddamn happy I finally got fired that I can hardly stand it. Maybe you don’t even admit that to yourself, because, well, that would mean that all that time you spent at the job was just sunk cost. You were deluding yourself the whole time. It is an interesting thing to consider, though, if you’re in the unpleasant circumstance of having to fire someone. Sometimes, firing someone is the best thing that can happen to them, which doesn’t mean that you should go out and enjoy it—I have met very disagreeable people who actually enjoyed firing people. I’ll tell you a story about that at some point. It’s quite interesting. But, sometimes, if someone’s just limping along in their job and doing it as miserably and wretchedly as they possibly can imagine, the best thing you can do to for them is to say, you know, you’re failing at this—and that doesn’t necessarily mean that you would have to be failing at absolutely everything else in the entire world. Maybe you should just accept the damn failure, go off, and try something new. That’s terrifying for people, and I know they hate it and all that, but sometimes it’s better than the alternative, which is just slow, torturous death.
Here’s a funny way of looking at it: Let’s say you fall right into the hole that’s underneath everything. You’ve hit an anomaly that you don’t understand. You say, what’s the anomaly made out of, exactly? I know that’s a strange way of thinking about it. It’s a metaphor. What’s that anomaly made out of? Well, here’s a way of thinking about it: it’s made out of spirited matter. This is something I learned, in part, from Piaget. Well, the anomaly is made of matter because, of course, that’s the world: matter. The world is also what matters, and so that’s kind of a nice duality, there. But it’s also made out of spirit, because when you encounter something anomalous and go down the rabbit hole, when you go into the underworld that’s underneath everything that you’ve relied on, you learn things down there. What’s down there is information. It may be way more information than you want, but it is information. What can you do with the information? You can inform yourself with the information, right? You can put yourself in formation with the information. That’s helpful, too.
Maybe you’re a psyche instead of a spirit. It depends on whether you’re a materialist or not, but at least we can say that you’re a psyche. The question is, what’s your psyche made of? It’s obviously got a material substrate, but the matter happens to be arrayed in a particular order, and that’s an information order. And so you encounter that latent information when you fall into the underworld that’s underneath everything. Then what you can do is enhance your psyche. You can grow your spirit. What you do is you take the new information and incorporate it. That’s like eating the apple that Adam and Eve ate. You incorporate that, and that makes more of you. That’s not a metaphorical or a metaphysical proposition. It’s to say nothing other than, oh, that’s what happens when children learn.
Think of what happens: A child’s three, has a pretty low resolution representation of the world, and is a fairly low resolution human being. They have all of the constituent elements, but they are not differentiated in any tremendous manner. That’s all still to come in the future. So what does the child do? Explore. What do they explore? Things they don’t understand. That’s where the information is, because you already understand what you understand. There’s no information there. You go where you don’t understand. That’s where the information is. Out of that information, you generate a higher resolution world, and you generate a higher resolution self. You generate spirit and matter out of the combat with the underlying dragon of chaos. That’s what you do when you go down into the underworld—if it doesn’t kill you, or if it doesn’t make you wish you were dead, which you probably will wish. But there’s a bunch of you that has to die down there anyways, so maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
If you had this relationship that ended in betrayal, then there’s something that’s just not exactly right, right? You think, well, that’s kind of moralistic. Well, actually, I don’t mind being moralistic, in case you haven’t noticed. But it’s not a fair comment, because you’re playing the stupid game. It’s like, you live with someone in fidelity. That’s the game, right? You’ve decided the rules. With the game comes a morality. The morality are the rules of the game. Then the thing collapses into infidelity. It’s like, well, you played the game wrong, or it was the wrong game. It’s one of those two. You picked the damn game, and having picked the game, you can’t all of a sudden say, no, those aren’t the rules. It’s like, yea, yea. If you picked the game, you’ve picked the rules. And if you fail at complying with the rules, then you’ve failed. Now you could say that you could pick a different game. I don’t care how you solve the problem. You’re still stuck with the problem. It’s a moral problem, fundamentally, and it might take some major league retooling to fix it.
So you’re at point A, trying to get to point B. That’s not working out. You hit an anomaly. You’re not getting to point B. You’re a medical school student. You write your MCAT, which is this test you have to write to go to medical school. You get 25th percentile. I don’t know who you are, but you’re not a premed student—and maybe you never were, right? And that’s the rub, man. So who the hell are you? You don’t know. Collapse, down here, into this place of motivational and emotional uncertainty and tremendous information. It’s a place of transformation. It’s the phoenix that burns. It’s the journey to the underworld. It’s the journey to hell. It can really be a journey to hell, because you may find out that the reason that your partner betrayed you, or that you didn’t get your damn promotion, is that there’s seriously something wrong with you, and you know it—and I don’t just mean that you don’t know what you’re doing. I mean that there’s 25 percent of you that is seriously aiming at things not being good.
And so you fall into the underworld, and you find out that, uh oh…God, I just got exactly what I was aiming for. Or, I got exactly what the worst part of me was aiming for. That worst part is something to clean up. That’s not going to be easy, because it’s got its hooks in me like something seriously ferocious. I’ve been toying with it for a very long time, and maybe I can’t even detach it anymore. That’s not so fun. You see people like that in therapy very frequently, or you see them wandering around on the streets like catastrophic former shells of themselves. They’ve hit the underworld; and they ended up in hell, and there’s no getting out of it. Those are the people you tend to give a wide berth to when you walk down the street. So there you are, down in the underworld, right back where the latent information exists, and there’s just too much of it. That’s this. It’s the same thing, and that’s why the Adam and Eve story is archetypal. We’re always ingesting something new that knocks us into a new state of self-consciousness. It’s always a catastrophic demolition of our previous paradise—insufficient as that paradise was. Something comes along to destroy it, and it knocks the slats out of our life. That’s a voyage to the underworld: out of the walled garden and into chaos.
What is all of that? Well, there’s lots of ways of construing it. It’s a frame transformation. There’s a walled city. It’s got a hole in it, because all walled cities have holes in them, right? Everything’s imperfect, and that’s where the chaos comes up. Maybe you go out there like a hero to fight the chaos and to reestablish the frame. That’s what you’re supposed to do, and maybe you free some information while you’re doing that. Or maybe you establish a relationship. And so that’s the journey: frame, damage, chaos, voluntary confrontation, reconstitution of the world. That’s human existence. Hopefully it’s not just linear. It’s stepwise.
The you that emerges as a consequence of your latest catastrophe is everything that you were before plus something more. That actually constitutes what you might describe as measurable progress, right? That’s another argument against moral relativism. If you can do everything that you could do before, and you can do some more things? We can just define that as better. It’s not a bad definition. And then we have an up. What you’re trying to do is differentiate the world and differentiate yourself. Every time you undergo one of these revolutions, hopefully both of those things happen. And then there’s a moral to that story, too, which is to do it voluntarily, and maybe don’t wait for it to happen catastrophically. Keep your eyes open, and when something goes a little bit wrong that you could fix, fix it. Don’t say, no, that doesn’t matter. Maybe it does matter—maybe it is matter. Maybe it’s exactly the matter out of which you should be built. Maybe it’s the matter out of which the world should be built. If part of you is telling you it matters, what it means is that there’s something there that you need to engage with. That’s what it means for something to matter.
I really get a kick out of the word matter. It’s got these two weird meanings, right? There’s the matter that materialists think everything is made out of, and that’s just dead matter. And then there’s the matter which life is made out of, which is what matters. Now and then you’re moving through life and something matters. It’s calling to you. That’s the unrevealed world trying to reveal itself to you. All you have to do is allow it to reveal itself to you, and then, maybe, a minor shift in shape is all that has to happen to you. You don’t have to burn right down to the bloody egg and hatch out as a newborn. Maybe you can just repair a little bit of something that’s gone wrong with you, so you can undergo a sequence of continual micro deaths instead of waiting for the bloody catastrophe that might send you so far down that you’ll never recover.
All you have to do is attend to what matters. Your whole nervous system is doing this for you. You’ve got a goal; something happens; it matters. So what are you supposed to do with that? You’re supposed to fix it. You’re supposed to engage with it. That’s why it’s calling out to you as if it matters. It’s saying that there’s an indeterminate part of the world, here, that wants to manifest itself into fully articulated being, and it’s called to you to do that. If you ignore it, then it accumulates. If it accumulates, it turns into the dragon of chaos. It waits until you’re not at your best, and then it eats you. That’s the alternative. So that seems like a bad plan unless you like being lunchmeat.
So that’s a long introduction to Noah. Well, you need it, because you can’t understand the story otherwise. That’s what the story’s about. Now we can go through the story relatively rapidly, although it doesn’t look like we will go through all of it tonight. Ok, so we’ll start with the next section of Genesis. This is immediately after Cain and Abel. There’s a short story to begin with—just a fragment. I called it "Giants of the Earth."
"And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth"—so this is after Cain and Abel—"and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and took them wives of all which they chose. And the Lord said, My spirit shall always strive with man, for that he is also flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years. There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown."
Now there’s been all sorts of attempts to interpret those few rather jumbled lines. But I see it as a reflection of a classic development of hero mythology. This is sort of nostalgia for the past. One of the things Mircea Eliade pointed out was that what happens to human memory in preliterate cultures—because nothing is written down—is that what needs to be preserved gets amalgamated. Imagine that you have a culture that’s based on fishing. You have to be a good fisherman. Human beings who use simple tools to fish are unbelievably good fishermen. They know every bloody thing you can possibly imagine about fish, otherwise they’d die. So it’s really important that they learn everything about fish. Maybe they’ve been fishing for like 13,000 years, or something like that. There’s a lot of accumulated knowledge. So then the question is, well, who taught mankind how to fish? The answer is, fragments of individuals across history. But you’re not going to remember the damn fragments. You put them all together into the amalgam of the heroic fisherman—the guy who established the pattern for proper fishing, whatever that pattern happens to be. One of the patterns might be to not take all the damn fish, because then there won’t be any for the next year. But all of those fragments of discovery get amalgamated into heroes of the past. Then what you do, if you’re a fisherman, is you act out the heroic fisherman of the past. The idea that there were men of renown, or heroes, in the past is just a fragment of that sequence of ideas—back in the past, there were mighty human beings who established the proper patterns of being. They were the sons of God, who took the daughters of men to wife. It’s interesting, too, because we do know that the more competent men are disproportionally likely to leave offspring. It’s a perfectly reasonable way of formulating the circumstance.
Onto the flood. This is from Mircea Eliade, who wrote a book called The History of Religious Ideas, which I strongly recommend. It’s a three-volume set. It’s quite readable. It’s brilliant. I really like it. This is what Mircea Eliade had to say about flood myths: "As has been well known since the compilations made by R. Andree, H. Usener, and J.G. Frazer, the deluge myth is almost universally disseminated; it is documented in all the continents (although very rarely in Africa) and on various cultural levels. A certain number of variants seem to be the result of dissemination,"—rather than spontaneous regeneration, let’s say—"First from Mesopotamia and then from India. It is equally possible that one or several diluvial catastrophes gave rise to fabulous narratives. But it would be risky to explain so widespread a myth by a phenomena of which no geological traces has been found."
Well, Eliade wrote this quite a while ago. I think he wrote that book in the 80s, maybe in the 70s. But, since then, there actually has been quite a bit of evidence advanced in various circles for the existence of catastrophic floods that occurred within the relative human civilization memory, let’s say. So the West Coast Indians, for example—I suppose that’s the wrong word. I don’t know what to say. I know a Kwakwaka’wakwcarver, who told me a flood story. They have a story that’s almost identical to the story of Noah, except, of course, it involves giant canoes, But it’s the same story. If I remember correctly, they release a raven. Noah releases a raven first and then a dove once the flood comes to an end. And it has a Tower of Babel issue, too: The canoes are all put together. It’s not one giant canoe; it’s a bunch of canoes all together. They ride out the flood. And then the canoes separate and go all over the world. That’s why there are people all over the world.
Anyways, the story is very widely disseminated. But there were floods in North America, and not that long ago. You can look up the Missoula Floods. They happened 13 to 15 thousand years ago. The Kwakwaka'wakw people have probably been on the West Coast for something like 13 to 14 thousand years. You can maintain an oral tradition for a very, very long time. You think, no, but traditional societies don’t change. That’s why they’re traditional. So they have the same stories over a generation. They remember the same stories.
The Missoula Floods were a consequence of melting glacial ice. They figured there were 55 of them between 15 thousand and 13 thousand years ago, and that they discharged volumes up to 15 times the volume of the Amazon River. These were major league floods. SMBE published a paper in 2008 called Climate Change and Postglacial Human Dispersal in Southeast Asia, claiming that there were multiple floods, particularly effecting Southeast Asia between 15 thousand and 7 thousand years ago. So Eliade might be a bit wrong about the notion that there were no geological traces of such catastrophic flooding. But, anyways, it doesn’t matter, because we’re still looking at this from a psychological perspective, and that’s fine.
"The majority of the flood myths seem in some sense to form part of the cosmic rhythm: the old world, peopled by a fallen humanity, is submerged under the waters, and some time later a new world emerges from the aquatic "chaos." In a large number of variants, the flood is the result of the sins (or ritual faults) of human beings: sometimes it results simply from the wish of a divine being to put an end to mankind…the chief causes lie at once in the sins of men and the decrepitude of the world."
It’s a brilliant analysis, partly because it draws this lovely parallel—which I mentioned a bit earlier—between the fact that things go wrong all by themselves and the fact that you can speed that along by not paying any attention. So if you’re in a relationship—you know, a relationship takes an awful lot of maintenance, and you know when it needs to be maintained because you start developing some distance from the person that you have the relationship with. Then that starts to become tinged with a little bit of dislike—hopefully not contempt but a little bit of dislike, and maybe some emotional distance. You feel that, and you think…Well, it’s hard to tell what you think. But you feel that, anyways. You know that that’s emerged. Then you have a chance, at that point, to repair whatever’s gone wrong. That would require some retooling on both of your parts. Maybe one person more than the other, but whatever. It requires serious discussion: I’ve noticed that this has been happening; and maybe it’s you and maybe it’s me. We should probably figure it out, because it would be convenient if it was you, but if it was me, then I’d like to fix it, because then it would be fixed. That’s why you listen to your partner. They might tell you that there’s something stupid about you that you don’t know. If you could fix that, then you wouldn’t have to be stupid in that way anymore. It’s actually one of the genuinely useful features of having a partner. Do you really want to be stupid and continue to repeat your mistakes, ad nauseam, for the rest of your life? I know it’s more convenient to do that than it is to have a knock down, drag ‘em out argument about just exactly why you’re stupid and how you could fix it. But it’s better to have the argument.
So the chief causes lie at once in the sins of men and the decrepitude of the world. The sins are generally either acts of omission where people do things that they know to be wrong, or failures to do things that they know would be right. It doesn’t really matter. Sins of omission are usually judged more harshly, say within the Judeo-Christian tradition. But I think there might be a bit of an error in that. Sins of omission can be a real catastrophe. So here’s a flood idea. Tell me what you think about this. So there’s this idea that a judgemental being will flood you out if you continue on your wayward ways. That seems like a little bit of…It’s one of the examples of Jehovah being a little on the harsh side in the Old Testament—not something that modern people really approve of, so much. We like our God sort of domesticated. Unfortunately, that isn’t how it tends to work.
I’ve often thought about the reaction in North America to the hurricane in New Orleans. There’s two ways of reading that, right? One is that mother nature has a little fit and sends a hurricane into New Orleans, and wipes everyone out. Isn’t that a catastrophe, and isn’t that an example of our fragility in the face of natural power. There is another way of reading it. Maybe this is unfair, but it’ll do for the purpose of illustration. The Dutch build dikes to keep the ocean back. They’re actually pretty effective at that, because their country is mostly underwater. It turns out that if you go to Holland, it’s actually not underwater. And so their dikes are working. The Dutch were very organized people, and they better be, because their country’s supposed to be underwater. You better be organized if your country’s supposed to be underwater. And so they are very organized, and they have a rule for their dikes. They try to estimate the worst possible oceanic storm that will come in 10,000 years, and then they make sure that the dikes will withstand that.
Well, from my reading, the army corp of engineers in New Orleans built the dikes for a storm every 100 years. That’s not so good, because we live about 80 years. That means the probability that one of those storms is going to come whipping by in a lifespan is pretty damn high. So that, perhaps, wasn’t the wisest of planning, especially because some of New Orleans is actually supposed to be underwater. And then, worse, Mississippi is a state that’s quite well known for its corruption. And so you might also say that a tremendous amount of the time, money, and resources that could have, should have, and was planned to go towards fixing the problem didn’t. And so the hurricane came along and, oh my God, wasn’t it a natural disaster! The question is, what bloody well makes you so sure that it was a natural disaster? If the infrastructure wasn’t maintained and built to the specifications that were technically possible, and would have actually been less expensive in the long run to build, and everyone knew it, and the hurricane came along and wiped out the city, why do you think that’s a natural disaster? To me, that’s a natural example—if you think about it from a metaphorical perspective—of a judgemental God deciding to use a flood to teach a moral lesson.
You might say that that’s pretty harsh. What about all those flood survivors? It’s like, yea, well, the whole flood thing was kind of harsh. Pointing out that there were steps that could have been taken, that I doubt in the aftermath have been taken, even though everyone knows now exactly what happened…You might consider it a diagnosis. But it’s irrelevant. What I’m really trying to tell you is how the mythological stories would line up on this. You could tell a story about mother nature manifesting her catastrophe and potential for tragedy, or you could tell another story, of an absolute failure of the human social structure and the human individual to address a problem that everyone knew was there. That’s a good example of how the flood comes when you’re not behaving properly.
One of the things that’s quite interesting about the Old Testament and the people who wrote it is that they always assumed that if the flood comes, that meant that you weren’t prepared. It’s like the a priori axiom. You got flooded out? Hey, you weren’t prepared enough. How can you tell? Well, you got flooded out. That’s the evidence. And you might say, well, that’s not very fair. Fair isn’t the point. The point is, do you want to get flooded out again, or not? Fair would be, well, you better figure out why you got flooded out, and you better fix it so that it doesn’t happen again. That’s the moral thing to do when you’re thinking about morality as walking the path that’s most appropriate to get to the destination that you think would be the best possible destination.
"By the mere fact that it exists, that is it lives and produces, the cosmos gradually deteriorates, and it ends by falling into decay. That is the reason why it has to be recreated. In other words, the flood realizes on the macro cosmic scale what is symbolically effected during the New Year festival: the end of the world, and the end of a sinful humanity in order to make a new creation possible."
There’s a lot of information packed into those few lines that Eliade wrote. In the Mesopotamian rituals, the Mesopotamians would act out the collapse of the kingdom into chaos—at the New Year’s festival, essentially. It’s kind of what you do when you make resolutions. It’s a degenerate. What you’d say is, our proclivity to make New Year’s resolutions is sort of a degenerate ritual. I don’t mean that it’s bad. I mean that it’s the remnants of something much grander. The Mesopotamians would take their emperor outside the walled city once a year. They would make him kneel, and they’d take off all his kingly clothes, and then they’d whack him with a glove if I remember correctly. The priest would do that. Then they’d make him recount all the ways he wasn’t being a good emperor that year—that he wasn’t being a good Marduk. That was who he was supposed to be on earth, and that’s the guy with eyes all the way around his head, who speaks magic words, and who transforms chaos into order. That’s what the emperor’s supposed to do.
The emperor should have a little humility, here, because you’re not God incarnate. You’ve probably made some mistakes. Can you think of any ways in the last year that you didn’t take advantage of every opportunity that you possibly could have to take some spare chaos and transform it into habitable order? That’s a good thing to think about. Well, that’s what you’re thinking about when you make a New Year’s resolution, even though you don’t know it. Could you be a better person in the upcoming year?
You can imagine the flood, and then you can set yourself straight, and then you can prepare for it. That means that maybe you can stave it off. It also means that, maybe, even if you don’t stave it off, you can ride it out. That’s actually the story of Noah. What happens with Noah is that he can see that things are not good, and that there’s a flood coming. God is letting him know. It says in the story that Noah walked with God. Remember—that’s what Adam did before he got all self-conscious about the whole thing. He walked with God. We’ll talk about that more next time. But what that would mean, maybe, is that because Noah was straight, and he put himself together, and his familial relationships were good, he could see a little farther into the future than someone whose vision was completely obscured by fog and chaos. He could tell that things were not going to go well, and so he prepared for it. And because he prepared for it, well, things actually went pretty well for Noah, even though the flood came.
That’s a pretty interesting thing. That’s an indeterminate issue in human existence. How big a hurricane would it take to wipe out New Orleans if everyone was prepared? Well, you’re not going to wipe out the Dutch. That’s going to be a tough one, man. You’re going to have to conjure up a pretty damn big storm to take out their dikes. How thoroughly defended could New Orleans be if nobody in the municipal and state government was corrupt? Well, it would be the end of the hurricane problem, because that’s something that we could clearly deal with. We know how to do it. The same applies in your own life. There are floods coming. You can bloody well be sure of that. That’s absolutely, 100 percent certain. Some of them are going to be personal; some of them are going to be familial; some of them are going to be social, political, and economic. Are they going to be catastrophes for you, or are you going to ride them out? Are you going to prepare?
The first issue might be, do you have your act together well enough to see them coming with enough advance warning so that you can take proper measures? Maybe just to sidestep it—maybe to just not go where the flood is going to be. That’s a simple thing. But maybe you don’t have that luxury. It is going to be a catastrophe. Maybe someone in your family is going to get really, really sick. Maybe there’s just a tiny pathway through that so that everything doesn’t fall apart: it doesn’t end in divorce; it doesn’t end in death; it doesn’t end in sorrow; it doesn’t end in catastrophe. But the margin of error is like slimmed down to virtually zero. Every imperfection that you bring to that situation is going to increase the probability that that tragedy’s going to turn into something indistinguishable from hell. And that’s coming. It’s coming your way, absolutely. So then you might think, well, since it’s coming your way, maybe the best thing to do is to put yourself together, so that it can be the least amount of awful possible when it comes.
I’ll close with a story. This was a very affecting story for me. My mother-in-law had frontotemporal dementia. She developed it quite young. She’s about 55. Her husband, who was a very extraverted, man-about-town guy—I grew up in a small town, and everybody knew him. He was charismatic, drank too much, a good businessman, and quite a remarkable person. A real character. But not exactly a family man, even though he provided for his family very well. When his wife got sick, he really took care of her, man. It was something to see. Dealing with someone who has Alzheimer's, for all intents and purposes, is no joke. They get taken away from you piece by piece, and that is not pretty. It’s also hard. Not only is it catastrophic but it’s hard. Jesus—he just stepped into that perfectly. It was way less awful than it could have been. It was just a tragedy; it wasn’t hell.
I was there when she died. My wife’s family are actually pretty good at dealing with death, as it turns out. My wife’s sister is a palliative care nurse. You have to be a pretty tough cookie to be a palliative care nurse, but you can do it, which is pretty interesting. It means that you can go make relationships with people at the last stages of their life that are genuine relationships, and people just die on you nonstop. Yet she’s a competent, alive, alert, fun person. Two thumbs up for her, man. That’s someone you can rely on in a tragedy. Her other sister is a pharmacist. My wife has volunteered in palliative care wards, and she is also very good at taking care of people who are genuinely not in good health.
So we were there when my mother-in-law died. Here’s a deathbed situation for you: your mother-in-law is dying, and everyone’s at each other’s throats. If you think that’s uncommon, then your eyes aren’t open. It’s plenty bloody common. And then it’s not just a tragedy: it’s hell. Maybe you can stand the tragedy, but you can’t stand the hell. In this situation, that isn’t what happened. Everybody pulled together. She died, but what was so interesting was that the family actually came together more tightly as a consequence. So although there was something taken away on the one hand, there was something gained on the other that wasn’t trivial.
I’m not trying to be all optimistic and isn’t the universe a wonderful place about all of this. Someone died in an ugly way, and it was harsh. But, God, it was a hell of a lot better than it could have been, and maybe it was good enough. That’s the thing. This is something that I constantly wonder: if people did what they could to speak the truth and pay attention, then maybe the tragedy that’s part of life wouldn’t have to deteriorate into the unbearable hell that doesn’t have to be part of life. Maybe we could actually tolerate the tragedy. Maybe we could even rise above it—or maybe we could even mitigate it, because we can. We do that sort of thing all the time. It’s always an open question.
Eliade put it very well. Are the floods the consequence of the fact that things fall apart? Or are the floods a consequence of the fact that people make mistakes that they know they shouldn’t make and make anyways? They sin, right? And that’s to miss the mark. That’s an archery term, to sin. They don’t even specify the damn target, which is really…You’re not going to hit it unless your specify it. Or, having specified it, they just say, oh, to hell with it; it’s not that important. You’ve got to be careful when you say something like to hell with it; it’s not that important. One of the things that might happen to you is that you might actually end up in hell for a pretty prolonged period of time—or maybe for the remainder of your miserable existence. It’s certainly the case that people do exist there. I’ve seen them exist there. Once you’re there, it’s no simple matter to get the hell out. And so it might matter that the things that matter get addressed. It might matter that you do what you can to walk with God. As I said, we’ll talk more about that next time. And it might be that that is how you build an ark and are protected from the flood, even if the damn thing comes. The thing is, it will.
This is a funny thing that I’ve noticed about our education system and the way we teach students. There are trigger warnings and all of that—absolutely rubbish. In most of my lectures, I’d have to have a trigger warning every 15 seconds. I tell my students when they’re young, look, don’t fool yourself; you’re going to develop a serious illness—at least one, maybe two or three, and one of them is likely to be chronic. And if it isn’t you, it’s going to be someone you love. It’s going to be your husband; it’s going to be your parent; it’s going to be your kids. That’s coming, and so is a lot of death and pain. Just exactly what sort of person are you going to be when that shows up? That’s the right question. It isn’t, how are you going to be happy in your life? It’s like, good luck with that. It’s a stupid ambition, anyways, as far as I’m concerned, because it’s too shallow. Happiness comes and goes like the sun coming out from behind a cloud. If you’re happy, more power to you. Enjoy it. It’s a gift from the cosmos to be happy. But a pursuit? No. The pursuit is, when the damn flood comes, you want to be the person who built the ark. And that’s what the story of Noah is about.
The flood is always coming. That’s another thing that’s worth commenting on with regards to this story. There’s an apocalyptic element to the Judeo-Christian tradition. There’s an idea that the end of the world is always at hand, and that you should be prepared to be judged. The thing about that is, it’s true. The reason it’s true is because the end of your world is at hand. It will certainly come, and you will be judged when it comes. It will be up to you to figure out what to do with the fact that your world just collapsed. That will be a moral problem of ultimate severity. It’ll push you right to your limits, and you’ll find out where exactly your unaddressed weaknesses lie, because that’s what happens in a crisis. The reason that's an archetypal reality, and the reason that it lurks underneath the entire Judeo-Christian structure—the impending apocalypse—is that we always live in apocalyptic times. Your world is always, in small ways and large ways, coming to an end. So what do you do? You prepare for it. You prepare for your world to come to an end. And then, maybe, when the end comes, you get another world. That’d be a good deal. So we’re ready for this next week.