with Spencer Greenberg
the podcast about ideas that matter

Episode 200: Spencer's takeaways after 200 episodes (with Spencer Greenberg)

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March 7, 2024

It's our 200th episode! 🥳 What important things has Spencer gleaned from these 200 episodes? What has he learned about how to have better conversations? On what topics has he updated his views? What makes for a great question?

Thank you, listeners, for listening, following, rating, reviewing, supporting, and communicating with us! You've helped the show continue to grow, improve, and thrive!

JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you joined us today because today is our 200th episode. In this episode, Spencer and I chat about what he has learned over the course of the show. Before we get started, though, I wanted to say thanks to our production team: Ryan Kessler is our editor, WeAmplify is our transcriptionist, Uri Bram is the podcast factotum, and Miles Kestran handled marketing for us in the past, though now that baton has been passed to Alexandria Riley. Thank you all for the hard work you've put in to make this show a success. And thank you too, listeners, for continuing to listen, support, rate, review and communicate with us. You all have helped our show to grow and improve, and we really appreciate it. And now here's the conversation between Spencer and myself.

SPENCER: Josh, welcome.

JOSH: Hey, thanks for having me.

SPENCER: So today's a role reversal to celebrate our 200th episode. So let's switch roles here, and I'll let you do the interview.

JOSH: All right. So we've now done 200 episodes, which is crazy. It seems like we've learned so much. You've talked to people who are doers and thinkers in so many fields. What do you feel like you've learned?

SPENCER: You know what, when I think about what I've learned from doing all these conversations, what really stands out is kind of a funny thing, that is not the sort of thing that I thought I would learn. And it has to do with the nature of conversations. Because now that I'm doing all these interviews, I start to realize that there are many branching points in a conversation, where it can go two ways: it can go that easy kind of expected path that's the socially normal thing to do; or it can go the more interesting, often more real but more challenging path. One way to think about it is to imagine you're at a party and you're having a conversation. And the person says something that you disagree with, or you think is strange, or that makes no sense to you. The easy thing to do is to nod or let the comment go, or kind of acknowledge it but in a fluid way. But the sort of more real, more interesting thing to do a lot of the time is to kind of directly address what's going on: What's actually happening right now? Or, why did the person say that thing? Or, what do they really mean by that? And doing these interviews, I start seeing this in real time where my brain is like, "Well, the comfortable thing is this, but I can't do the comfortable thing. I need to do the thing that is more interesting, because it's going to make a better show for our audience. So yeah, that strikes me more and more as I do this. And then I start to see this in my everyday life too, where I'm starting to pick this up, and it started to change the way I have conversations outside of the podcast.

JOSH: Yeah, that's interesting. Do you have some specific examples you can give of this happening in everyday life?

SPENCER: Yeah. One example that comes to mind immediately: I was at a party and someone who's really into astrology started telling me about her astrology practice. I don't believe that astrology works for predicting things about people or about the future. What I first started doing in that conversation is just kind of nodding along in a polite way, as she told me about astrology. But then what I realized is that it was one of these branching paths, where what I was doing was not interesting. It was not authentic. And then I had this moment that I now have on the podcast of like, "Wait, this is not the real conversation we should be having." So then I switched tracks and I said to her, "Hey, I have a question for you. If it turns out astrology doesn't work, would you want to know that? Or would you want to believe that it works even if it doesn't?" She could have reacted negatively. — And that's kind of what, I think, makes these kinds of branching points tricky is that there's always a little bit of danger in the other branch or a little bit of discomfort in the other branch. But if you're skillful about it, it reduces the chance that someone reacts negatively. So there's ways you can mitigate that. — But she reacted positively. She thought about it and she said, "No, you know, if it doesn't work, I really do want to know that." And we had a really nice conversation about how might you know whether astrology works, which I think was a much more interesting, more real conversation than what we had been having.

JOSH: That makes sense. I want to ask you about that skill of taking the harder paths. Something I've noticed, both before we started the podcast and then after listening to you interviewing people in the podcast, is your ability to say things that challenge people, but to do it in a way that, at least to me, doesn't come across as offensive or antagonistic or anything like that. What's going through your mind as you take those new paths? And how are you structuring what you're going to say to avoid setting people off?

SPENCER: One thing I think about is, it's really different to challenge what someone said than it is to challenge them as a person. So there's a way of challenging the thing that they just said to you, but making it clear that it's not a threat to your view of them or to them as a researcher or to their sense of identity. And so something I try to do is to make the challenge about that piece of information. Here's another example. Someone on the podcast brought up the result of a study, and they just seemed too good to be true. The comfortable thing is to be like, "Oh, wow, that's really impressive." But the real thing is to say, "Wow, that's really impressive. But could it really be that effective?" It actually makes me trust it less because it's such a high effect. I believe that I said something like that in the episode. But I think the key there is to not make it seem like you're judging their integrity or whether their other work is valid, etc. But just kind of clearly showing them that you're expressing the feeling that you had when they said that thing. Like, "When you said that, it made me have this feeling like that seems too good to be true. And now let's have a conversation about that."

JOSH: Are there things that you've changed about your conversational style since you started the podcast?

SPENCER: Yeah, I think one of the really big challenges I have is, when I'm talking to people who are very knowledgeable about a topic, which I often am, they have a lot of kind of cached thoughts about that topic, where they've said the thing so many times or thought of things so many time, or written about the thing so many times. So they get into this groove. And it's actually not good to have them in the groove. It's fine for a little while; yes, they need to explain the basic project or the basic concept. And that's fine. They have their kind of spiel, and it's often a very good and effective spiel. But the problem is, if we stay in that mode, I think the conversation is way less interesting, partly because you could get that conversation by listening to them on anything where they're talking. But I think also partly, it's less interesting because they're not actually thinking during the conversation. They're not really genuinely interacting with me. We're not having a dialogue; we're having a one sided I question then they monologue. So I think, to me, a really big challenge is how do you break them out of that spiel. And part of it, I think, is that I tried to communicate with them at the beginning of episodes before we start, like, "Hey, I'm really going for a conversational format. This is what my audience has told me they really prefer is that back and forth. Like, imagine we're at a coffee shop, that's kind of the dynamic of this conversation that I try to achieve. And I think the audience, based on listener feedback, really prefers that to the kind of one-sided monologue kind of conversation. But then the other thing is not letting things go if they seem like the crux of the matter, by which I mean, they might have said 10 points. But maybe point number two was really the thing we should be talking about. And so finding a smooth way to bring it back to point number two, even though they just made 10 points and say, "Let's talk about that. That's really the heart of this." And then trying to ask a question in a way that maybe they haven't been asked before, that gets sort of to something deeper and more fundamental about that topic that they are used to talking about it and kind of monologue about it.

JOSH: You mentioned our listeners. Do you think the podcast, demographically speaking, is reaching the kind of listeners you want to reach?

SPENCER: When I look back at the listener survey that we ran quite a while ago, the number one identity category people said that they identify with is lifelong learner. And that, to me, feels very much the kind of person that I think I want to listen to this podcast. People are just really, really curious to learn. That, I'm really happy with. Some of the other categories that people often chose were things like being a rationalist or aspiring rationalist, being self-improvement enthusiast, being effective altruists, or aspiring effective altruists, and being science enthusiasts. To me, all of those categories make sense. They fit what I'm shooting for for the vibe of the show. I think one thing that I'd like to do more of is episodes that are about psychology but in a really practical way, that helps you understand some topic that you can apply in your life. Obviously we do a lot of different types of episodes, a lot of different types of topics. But that is one that I would like to do more of.

JOSH: Some of the topics we've covered have been a little controversial. Not that I think we covered them in a controversial way necessarily, but have you received any pushback on episodes through social media or email or in person?

SPENCER: You know, it's really interesting, because I haven't received much pushback on the topics or the way we discuss them. I have received some pushback on guests. I've had people say, "You shouldn't have had that person as a guest." And it's led me to think about, "Well, what are the right criteria for someone coming on as a guest?" Because the criteria that I've mainly applied are: 1) what do I think this person has ideas that matter that are worth discussing? It doesn't mean those ideas are correct. It doesn't mean they're correct, but it means that they seem worth discussing. And that's been my number one criteria; 2) I would also say importantly, that the person has to be good at articulating their ideas. If they have trouble explaining them, then that's not going to make for good podcast episodes or audio format. So that's an important criteria; 3) And then I would also say, if I think that person is an unethical or evil person, I'm not going to invite them on the podcast. But that last criteria, for someone you don't know, I think it's very, very hard to conclude that they're an evil person. And so I'm not going to disqualify people too quickly. Obviously, if someone was a Nazi supporter and spreading Nazi propaganda, that's going to be disqualifying. But if someone has ideas that some people find objectionable, to me, that's not gonna be disqualifying unless I think it really goes way beyond the pale to the point where it really indicates to me that this might be just a genuinely bad human being. What do you think about that? What do you think about in terms of where to draw the line of when someone shouldn't be invited on a podcast episode?

JOSH: I guess, broadly, I tend to be of the perspective that I'd rather know what people have to say, than to not bring them on, just because they have controversial views about something. But with that said, I think I agree with you that if someone has clearly demonstrated bigoted behavior, bigoted views, doing immoral things, that's not the kind of person we want to give a platform to. But just controversy in and of itself doesn't scare me. I like hearing diverse perspectives on things, so I enjoy having a variety of guests on. You can talk about different sides of topics.

SPENCER: Yes, it's a question of what does it mean to have a bad view? Because I think the thing to me that's disqualifying is me thinking that they're genuinely an evil person or a genuinely bad human being. And there are some beliefs that would convince me of that. Like, if someone thought that certain groups of people should be murdered. That, to me, would be disqualified. But most beliefs that people are outraged by, I don't feel indicate strongly that the person is evil. An example would be: I don't think that there's almost any politician someone could support where I'd be like, just by virtue of supporting that person, that person is automatically evil. Okay, if they literally supported Hitler, then it might be an exception. But even with politicians that are, I think, awful people and really bad, I'm just not willing to say that everyone who supports them is a bad human.

JOSH: Yeah, that makes sense to me. I tend to agree that some of the effects that people have, especially if it was not their intentions, tend to get judged too quickly as being immoral. I think of scientists who might be studying something controversial, and they're immediately labeled as eugenicists or racist or whatever it might be, when for the large majority of cases, that's not the case that they had those kinds of intentions. Of course, they should think about the effects of their work, and that's definitely something that should be considered as part of the conversation. But yeah, I agree that it takes quite a lot to probably identify someone as actually evil.

SPENCER: I think maybe I just believe there are way fewer evil people out there than some people believe there are. Some people are willing to say 40% of people are evil, because they support a political party that they hate or something, right? And I'm just like, no. It's like maybe 1% to 2% of people that voted. That being said, I think a lot of people have harmful beliefs. They have beliefs that are wrong, they support policies that would be negative on society. And I'm not going to invite someone on the podcasts whom I think is gonna promote an idea that I think is just a net harmful idea to promote. Obviously, unless my intention was to really debate about it in a way where I thought I could expose what I think the flaws in the argument are. If someone's promoting a really horrible idea for society, I'm not going to be like, "Oh, come tell us about why that's a great idea." It doesn't make sense. But I wouldn't disqualify that person, if they had another topic where I thought they had an idea that's worth considering, an idea that might matter, unless of course I thought it really was indicative of some deep underlying evil characteristic they had.

JOSH: We've had a couple of conversations, a couple of episodes, where we've had opposing views on a topic, sort of have a conversation with each other. And what I had hoped to see and what I think I did see, and what I hope other listeners see in those conversations, is that even if you fall on quite opposite ends of the spectrum on, let's say, political issues, at the end of the day, most of us want health and safety for ourselves and our loved ones. We don't want to harm other people. We want there to be as much freedom as possible, as much autonomy as possible. And what we disagree about is how to get there. And yeah, I guess I'm just echoing what you were saying about how just because you vote a certain way does not mean you're evil, even if the things you're voting for do turn out in the long run to be very problematic for society. You're doing so with good intentions, nevertheless.

SPENCER: Yeah, and if you think about it at the level of belief, I suspect that almost everyone I know has some belief where I think they're wrong. And if that were to be implemented, if someone just made them king for the day and they implemented it, it would have harmful effects. And I'm almost certain I have beliefs like that, too. Obviously, I don't know what they are. But I've almost certainly had beliefs where I'm pretty sure if it actually was implemented, it would just be a disaster. It'd be surprising if I didn't have such beliefs. But I think others are much more quick to disqualify people because they think they have the wrong belief about a topic. And we also get to the question of what it really makes someone evil. And to me, I think there are different forms of evil, but I think it most commonly has to do with willingness to completely dehumanize others, like someone who's like, "Oh, that group is worthless, and let's just kill them," or "Let's enslave them," or whatever. That is, I think, a deeply evil attitude, right? Sometimes it's extreme selfishness. Everyone has at least some selfishness, but such an extreme selfishness where they'd be willing to kill someone just to get a slight benefit to themselves, or harm someone severely. That, I would also put in the evil bucket. Obviously, many people would be willing to harm someone a bit to benefit themselves a lot. But not many people are willing to harm others a tremendous amount to better themselves a small amount, right? Something actually is evil about that, I think, if the amount of harm is large enough.

JOSH: So that's us talking about guests that we would not want to have. On the other end, are there any dream guests that you would like to have on, that we haven't had on yet?

SPENCER: There's two types of dream guests. Dream guests that I've invited on who said no or didn't get back to me. And then there's dream guests who [are] pie in the sky. I've been really happy to get some guests on that, to me, are kind of dream guests, like Daniel Kahneman, whose work I tremendously admire.

JOSH: Right.

SPENCER: I'm not the kind of person that has role models or people I admire in that kind of way. But you know, Daniel Kahneman is the closest I get to that, whatever that thing is. So yeah, that's one. I'd love to have Jonathan Haidt on at some point, if he's willing to come on. I'd love to have Steven Pinker on at some point, if he's willing to come on. So there definitely are some people out there that I would love to get on it, if possible.


JOSH: Maybe we could talk about some of the specific things that you've taken away from episodes, either that have changed your thinking about a thing or that have gone even farther and changed your behavior about a thing. For example, psychology. How has your thinking shifted about how to help people with psychological challenges?

SPENCER: It's been really interesting interviewing so many people who work in that area. So some that come to mind: Pia Callesen talked about metacognitive therapy, David Burns talked about cognitive behavioral therapy and TEAM, Daryl Chow talking about super shrinks, and then Scott Miller talking about why therapy works when it works. These conversations have definitely nudged me in different ways. Pia got me thinking about the extent to which our beliefs about what we're experiencing affect whether we heal, or how we heal, or how quickly we heal. And so for example, she talks about this idea that you can have beliefs about the nature of worry that really support worrying. So for example, suppose you believe worrying is just incredibly useful, and if you didn't worry, all these bad things would happen because you wouldn't be prepared. Well, it's very natural to think that that incentivizes you to worry, based on that belief. Whereas I think Pia would say that that belief is completely false, I wouldn't go that far. I would say, I think a lot of worrying is useless. I do think the right amount of worrying is not zero. Worry has some utility in preparation and planning ahead and noticing things that could go wrong. But I do think a lot of people, myself included, worry too much. Too much meaning worrying more than is beneficial. And it's an interesting thing about how our own beliefs about worry can impact worry itself. And I think another one that she points to is the belief that you can't stop worrying. That's an interesting one. Because if you believe you can't stop worrying, that's also maybe going to reduce your incentive to try. Like, "Well, what am I going to do? I can't stop worrying, so I'm just stuck this way." I think that was a thought provoking conversation. I think with methods like that — so metacognitive therapy, being this sort of newer way of therapy with some really promising randomized control trials — this is a pattern you see with many new things where the initial studies tend to have really, really good effects. And then later studies that are larger, more carefully controlled, and usually done by researchers not directly working in that area (like people who are interested but are not proponents of that area) tend to find smaller effects. Often, the effects are still there, it's just the effects are weaker. And I guess that's my prediction of what will happen with metacognitive therapy, I could be completely wrong. It could be that it just blows everything else out of the water. But given I've just seen this happen with so many different treatments, where the initial studies just seem really, really, really promising and then it turns out, they work but just not as well as people thought. That's kind of my prediction for metacognitive therapy as well. But I think there's some interesting insights there that might be really valuable to certain types of people.

JOSH: How have you changed your thinking about how to train therapists or to get therapists to interact with clients in a different way?

SPENCER: So both Daryl Chow and Scott Miller discuss this with me. I'm a huge believer in feedback, that creating feedback loops is really, really valuable. I haven't always done as much as I should, but it's really something that I believe in, and I tried to do a lot of. And I tried to do this with the podcast. When I first released the podcast, I had a whole bunch of people listen to the first three episodes and fill out feedback forms, like critiquing it, telling me how it could be better, telling me what they didn't like about my style, and so on. I just think that thing is just really, really powerful. And both Daryl and Scott talked about the power of feedback and how to bring it into the therapeutic process. If you're a life coach, if you're a therapist, etc., how do you get that feedback? And I think a lot of people have this view that you get the feedback automatically, like just working with the patient, you see if it's working, you see if they're happy with it, et cetera. And I just really don't believe that. I think that people really don't want to tell a therapist that it's not working. I think they don't want to tell their doctor that the medicine failed. Not everyone, though. Some people are fine saying things like that. I see this with my friends who go to therapists, and they'll say to me, "Oh, yeah, what they were giving me wasn't helping me." And I was like, "Oh, did you tell them?" "No." I'm like, "They're your therapists, you're paying them. Tell them." But they're reluctant. It almost touches on what we were talking about at the beginning of this conversation about, there's moments in the conversation that branching paths, where you could say the real thing that's difficult, awkward, and uncomfortable. Or you could say the easy and fall into the social group. And it's not in the social group to be like, "Yeah, that exercise you gave me actually made me feel worse," or "Yeah, I don't think anything we've done has help for the last eight weeks," or even "Hey, you know, when you talk to me in this certain way, it kind of bothers me. Could you try to avoid that?" And even though it's your therapist, you're still following a social script, right?

JOSH: Part of that is like, you feel that if you say to your therapist or your doctor, "What you prescribed isn't working," in a way you're almost saying, "You didn't do a good enough job." So that's one part of the awkwardness. But I think there's this other part — maybe not so much with doctors but especially with therapy — this feeling of like, I have this intuition sometimes when I'm talking to people, "This is not a person who will understand me. Like, no matter what I say, no matter how I try to describe it, this person and I are on two completely different wavelengths." And I suspect that some people get into those kinds of positions with their therapists, where they meet their therapist for the first time, where they do several sessions with their therapist, and then finally, they're sort of realizing or coming to this feeling that, "This therapist doesn't understand me and can't understand me, no matter what I say to them, even if I tell them that this isn't working, and here's why." What do you think about those?

SPENCER: Yeah, and maybe that'd be very demotivating. If you believe that, then what's the point of being honest with them? It's just awkward and it's not gonna get you anywhere. And I personally have experiences like this, because I like to try different coaches. I'll do five sessions with the coaches to see if they can help me in some way and to explore, and I've done this a bunch of times to different coaches. And I had a coach where — I can't remember if I ever mentioned in this on the podcast — but they were telling me that they think I might feel worried due to generational trauma, which to them didn't mean like a culture of worry or something like that. It meant somehow literally that what my great grandparents were going through is affecting me now, like through some mechanism that I don't understand. And basically the first couple times, I kind of just didn't say anything. I didn't give positive reinforcement, but I didn't say anything. When they brought this up, I just nodded along, whatever. And then again, this goes back to the kind of branching paths thing. The next time they brought it up, it really was like, "Oh, shit, this is a branching path." Clearly the valuable thing to do is to say the real thing I'm feeling, which is I don't believe in this. And so I did that. And the therapists had a really bad reaction. They are a coach, technically, not a therapist. They had a bad reaction. And they then tried to convince me that, in fact, intergenerational trauma is real, and that their studies are proving it based on worms that can have memories that get passed to, I don't know. It was something that I found ridiculous. But it was uncomfortable, right? And so people learn not to say these kinds of things, because they have uncomfortable situations. But what I've learned from doing this podcast is actually that it's such a powerful thing to learn to say the uncomfortable thing, to try to do it in a play and in a gentle way, in a way that doesn't challenge too much, which obviously, I failed out with this coach. But often if I succeed in that, it really makes the conversations deeper and more substantive, and gets you to the more real place that's important. And with a therapist, it's actually really, really important. It could be the difference between improving and improving.

JOSH: So one place where it's really difficult to have conversations outside of therapy (maybe in therapy, but generally outside of therapy) is around political issues. How have your views shifted around political issues or institutional issues as we've had those kinds of conversations?

SPENCER: Good question. So on the meta topic of how to have political discussions, I think I learned quite a bit from the climate change episode with Diana Ürge-Vorsatz and Misha Glouberman. And that was, I think, a difficult conversation because there were three people. I think it's harder than two people first of all. I can control things more and have more structure when it's just two people. But with three people, they're going to be talking to each other, etc. So that already made it difficult. But I think another thing was that we just had different starting points for the conversation. So really, the way that conversation came about was that Misha, who is very much a believer that climate change is happening that's caused by humans and then it's a problem, was reading about it and investigating it and kind of just learning more, and came to the confusing conclusion that all the numbers that he could find — there were concrete estimates of what exactly bad thing is estimated to happen — they just didn't seem that bad. He was kind of surprised at how not bad they seemed. And this confused him a lot. And then Diana, who was involved in writing one of these big international reports, came on to discuss it with him, with me moderating. I think what I could have done better there is I could have given them more precise instructions like, "Okay, let's talk about this very narrow topic. Let's keep on this topic until we're done with that, then we're gonna go to this next topic." And I think I let it be a little too free flowing, which made it difficult. And I also think I didn't create enough understanding of the goals of the conversation. So I think that's something I learned about having difficult political conversations like that. I think in the future, I would want to impose more structure, and also kind of enforce more of like, "We're gonna work through these different topics, and let's really stay on them. Let's not slip to other topics while we're discussing them."

JOSH: And then how have your views shifted at the more concrete non-meta level about political issues?

SPENCER: So on that climate change topic, look, even though I think I could have done better in that conversation, I was happy with that conversation. I feel like I learned from it. And my takeaway from the climate change conversation is that a bunch of the most important things we would want to predict, we don't have good estimates on. I think we do have good climate models on some things. We have good climate models modeling some things related to temperature and things like that. But where it gets really tricky is converting those into estimates about the things we truly fundamentally care about, like how many people are going to die from climate change? That's a really, really hard question. And it's hard because there's so many different paths to it happening. Like, okay, well, it could be deaths from heatstroke. Well, turns out that's probably not that going to be that high. It could be deaths from extreme weather events. It could be deaths from migratory patterns, famine or whatever. So when Misha looks at his research, and he's like, "Well, but I'm confused, you know, based on how scary climate change is and the way people are talking about that, you think that hundreds of millions of people are gonna die. Where are those estimates showing that?" And he couldn't find them anywhere. And Diana was kind of like, "Yeah, we don't have good estimates for things like that. This should be an area of more research and should get more funding, but nobody wants to fund it," which is kind of baffling to me. It's not just about deaths, but any kind of really important outcome that's the kind of thing that you actually care about like, "Well, is this going to cause mass migrations, where people are gonna have to actually flee certain countries? And what's going to happen? Is it going to create these huge humanitarian crises?" And I don't know that we have good models for that either. So, it was really interesting to me that climate change is kind of most precise around these things that are important, but they're not the thing itself. They're not the fundamental thing we most care about.

JOSH: Have you shifted around, specifically, the political orientations in America, or more generally, around the globe? I know we talked, for example, with Tim Urban about the difference between not Left and Right, but Up and Down. What are your thoughts there?

SPENCER: I feel like Tim is a real genius at taking an idea that people are kind of confused about and bringing in a framework to help them think more clearly about that idea. And I think he did that here as well. And so, often, when I read his work, I find it insightful not because it leads to me thinking totally differently about the topic, but because it kind of helps me structure my thinking in a clearer way around the topic. And so his idea of like, "Okay, you've got the Left and Right, which is progressivism and conservativism. And there's this kind of spectrum in a country like the US and in many other countries. But then he introduces this idea of up and down, sort of this ladder with the top being really around rational discourse, around where people are saying, "Okay, well, let's figure out what is best for society, or let's have a debate and try to get to the bottom of what are we trying to achieve in society, and what really works, and how do we get there." And then at the bottom of the ladder, you have people who are just reacting on a very kind of primitive, lower brain level where they're like, "This makes me angry. This makes me afraid. Build that wall so we could keep those people out." But not thinking about, "Okay, well, who are you trying to keep out? And does a wall work? And are you sure this is actually better for society to keep those people out, etc, etc? If someone is against immigration, there's many questions that arise like, "Okay, well, why are you against immigration? What are the ways? Who do you want to immigrate into the country? Who do you not want to emigrate? How would you make that decision? What do you think the effects of immigration are?" But then the low level primitive thing is just "Build a wall," as though a wall is almost like a symbol, right? It's like a fear-based symbol of keeping people out, and that gets the emphasis. So I thought his idea of not just Left and Right, but Up and Down, is really clarifying, because he basically argues, "Look, there's Up and Down for both the Left and the Right. Both sides have this. Like, have some people that are just kind of reacting based on fear or anger, and their policy positions are born out of that. And then there's some people that might extremely disagree with each other on the policy questions, but they're agreeing with each other on the way that we answer policy questions that we think about what we're trying to achieve, that we gather evidence, we have debates, etc. And so yeah, I think that was quite insightful.

JOSH: Another sort of large topic we've covered a lot is enlightenment and meditation. We've had a lot of different guests talk about those things. How have your views changed about those?

SPENCER: Yeah, it has been really interesting for me, because we've had at least three different people, maybe four different people, who claim to be enlightened. And I think some people reflexively are just like, "BS. What does it mean? They're lying. That's bullshit." I start with the assumption that they're telling the truth about their experience. And then I'm just curious about what that experience is. What do they mean when they say they're enlightened? Or what is their experience now that is different from how it used to be before this event? And here's some examples. Michael Taft. I don't know if he actually uses the word enlightened, but he described, I think, what an experience or change in himself that is enlightenment-like. Daniel Ingram, who claims to be enlightened. Jeffrey Martin, who claims to be enlightened. And then we also have Jeremy Stevenson, who's more of like someone who's on the path. He's exploring enlightenment and is not claiming to be enlightened, but he is exploring how it might become that way. And he kind of has done experiments in that direction. So one thing that has really become clear to me in these conversations is that people mean things by enlightenment. So if we take them fully at face value, we fully trust that their experience is what they say it is, which I think it very likely is. For my recollection, Michael Taft described the change in his experience being around identifying with a sense of self. Like, instead of thinking like he's a self, that there's a self that things happen to, the sense of self to him is, I think, more like a sensation. The way you might experience a redness and your vision when you're looking at a red apple, he experiences the sense of self over here and redness over there, and the feeling of wind on his neck over there. But the sense of self does not feel like this distinct thing. It just feels like another sensation, along with everything else. And that that was a profound change, that by no longer identifying with that sense of self, no longer having that sense that things are happening to him, they've actually created profound and, in his view, very positive effects. So that, if I'm remembering properly, seems to be sort of one version of enlightenment. Daniel Ingram, I think, was related but quite a bit different. I recall, in the episode with him, he describes having a kidney stone, which is famously painful, famously so painful that people cannot function during them. He's a doctor, and he was working at the time treating patients while having this kidney stone, and he couldn't leave, because I think there was no one to take his place at the time. So he had to just deal with it. If I recall correctly, the way he describes his kind of enlightenment is that, whereas normally, we're very focused on what's happening in front of us — maybe we're focused on 70% of the conversation that you're having, maybe 20% on what's happening in the room, maybe 10% focused on what you have to do tomorrow, or work or something like that, in the back of your mind. — He describes it as his focus has broadened tremendously. Whereas normally, you wouldn't be at all aware, let's say, of how your big toe feels right now. His awareness is so broadened that he's aware simultaneously of all of his sensory experience. He's aware of what his big toe feels like, he's aware of the red apple over there, he's aware of the conversation, he's aware of what he has to do tomorrow. And all this stuff is being processed simultaneously. And so, then, when he's having this kidney stone, it's not that he doesn't experience the pain, it's just the pain makes up 2% of his whole experience, because he's experiencing all the things simultaneously. Whereas for other people, all of their attention would be brought to the excruciating pain of the kidney stone, and they wouldn't be able to think about anything else. It would just be the totality of their experience. For him, it's like 2% of his experience. And so you can continue to function.

JOSH: You mentioned the redness of an apple, and I had actually been thinking before we started talking about how there's something about these conversations about enlightenment and meditation, and even some of the conversations around like use of psychedelics where it feels like people...I feel like I've read a lot of different accounts and listened to a lot of different episodes about people trying to describe something that they've experienced, but it's it's it's akin to describing redness to a blind person, where they've had this experience that most of us either don't experience on an everyday basis, and so we don't know what they're talking about. Or it might be the case that some people experience it already on a daily basis, and it's almost too close to see. Like, they don't realize that they're having this experience that the person is talking about. They keep thinking it's a different thing. That kind of thing. Why do you think there's so much difficulty in describing these kinds of experiences?

SPENCER: I think we just don't have vocabulary for subjective internal experience. And even if we try to develop vocabulary for it, it's difficult because how do you know that the way you're using the word corresponds to how I'm using the word? With something like color, we would have this problem, except that we can both look at the same thing. We both look at an apple and be like, what the color of that apple is to you? That's red to me. And then you're like, "That's red to me." And then we kind of sync up. But let's say we're talking about something that's never manifested physically. It's just an internal experience. How do we sync up on it? How do we both look at the same thing or experience the same thing and then sync up? How do we ever know we're talking about the same thing? So I think, one, we lack the vocabulary, and two, it's hard to develop that vocabulary. And I think what successful disciplines of meditation have done, to some extent, is tried to develop this vocabulary. They try to come up with ways of describing this stuff. But the problem is, if you're not steeped in that particular tradition, are you really interpreting what they're saying properly? Like, you're like translating it in your brain, but how do you know it has anything to do with what they're really saying? And I think also this comes up with enlightenment, right? Like, what the heck doesn't enlightenment mean? And I'm increasingly convinced that it's different things for different people in different traditions. And I guess, fundamentally, one way to look at it is: are there things you can do systematically with your mind on purpose, like meditating, that create a permanent alteration to your experience? And if that permanent alteration is profound enough or intense enough or positive enough, we could call that a form of enlightenment. If it's very minor or unprofound or actually doesn't seem better, then maybe we don't call it enlightenment. But I think what Michael Taft and Daniel Ingram both are essentially experiencing is, they did a bunch of things with their mind — like through meditation practice, or for Michael Taft through nondual practice — and it seemed to permanently alter them. And they experienced these permanent alterations as being very profound and very, very good. I think this is a little bit different from Jeffrey Martin. Jeffery Martin started out by interviewing tons and tons of people who claimed to be enlightened and kind of building a categorization system. And then he developed this course trying to teach people to become enlightened. With him, some of the kinds of states that he describes, while they do seem very different from normal life, some also seem horrible to me. So there's something that I find a little bit scary about some of these states that he's described. And they don't seem like the kind of thing you'd want to get to. Others of them do seem like the kind of things you want to get to, like you just feel happier, you feel more love for the world, you feel calmer, you feel a deep sense of okayness. But I think with him, I don't know that he's really talking about enlightenment the same way anyone else is also. He seems to have his own system. Some of his locations for enlightenment, as he describes them, not only feel bad, but others of them feel like maybe not that profound. I remember him telling me in the episode that something like 15% or 20% of people who came into the study already had one of the locations of enlightenment, which blew my mind because it's like, "Well, they were enlightened and they didn't know it? What?" So I think some of the locations may be watered down enough that they don't seem that profound, and others might be scary. And still, others might be really profound and good. And so, it's a little bit of a confusing system, I think.

JOSH: What's your sense at this point of which of these definitions of enlightenment (or whatever) are something that can only be achieved through lots and lots of practice, versus ones that just require some particular mental maneuvers, and then suddenly, you snap your fingers and you're there?

SPENCER: I think this is a debate that rages on, especially between sort of the nondual people and the dual people, where the nondual people are like, "Oh, no, you can get it in a moment. If you just have the right mind state, you can just suddenly do this thing." Whereas the dual people, depends on the tradition, go through potentially years and years of concentration practice to really be able to focus their mind on whatever they choose to focus it on, and control their mind in the ways that they try to control it, or not control it by choice if they want to not control it. So it gives that really fine level of usage, like a really skilled usage, of the mind. And then they use that skill to use their mind to try to do different things with their mind. So then they start applying that concentration in different ways. Yeah, and I guess they both say that theirs is better, or they say the other one's inferior or not the real thing, or maybe some of them say that they're both good, but just different ways to do it, and one's faster while one's slower. So yeah, I feel like it's a really fundamental disagreement. As someone who's not enlightened, I haven't experienced any of this myself. I have meditated a bunch, but I certainly don't have any of those kinds of enlightenment. So there's also people like Richard Lang who I had on, who talks about one kind of particular meditation technique involving this experience of not seeing your face. And I think he's talking about yet another thing, which is sort of like, as you think about meditating and getting deeper into meditation, one of the things I think that happens is there are certain observations that you can have, that can feel profound, that are not this permanent change thing. They're not like you're forever altered and never the same in a profound way. But they may make you look at the world differently or look at yourself differently, or they just give you a perspective you've never had. And I think that's kind of what he's talking about. He's talking about a certain perspective shift, that may be on the way to enlightenment to some of these systems, but also could just be a thing you could observe in itself.

JOSH: Was his specifically about like the dissolution of the self as being sort of something that's a result of trying to not seeing your face experiment?

SPENCER: I think of it as a little bit less dissolution of the self and more — I don't know if he would agree with this — but more seeing things for the way that they actually are. Because, for example, we have a blind spot in our vision because of the way our eyes are constructed. And you never noticed this blind spot, like very, very few people would ever notice this if they weren't told about it. But you can do kind of little experiments like moving a pencil around, and you can find the blind spot, and then you're like, "Oh, yeah, the top of the pencil actually disappears when I'm moving. Holy shit. That's funny, right? It's actually not there. And yet, I don't perceive there being a gap in my vision. I don't feel like there's a hole there. But somehow there is a hole there that I'm not perceiving." And so, I think his exercise of noticing that you don't have a face is, to me, about seeing things exactly as they are. So, stop processing what's in front of you. You don't mean stop making sense of what's in front of you, try to actually see what's there. And if you try to actually see what's there, you're like, "Well, you kind of have this gaping hole where your face is." If you think about what you're actually seeing, it's almost like there's this gaping hole where your face is. And maybe you can see bits of the side of your face, and maybe you can see part of your nose. And then it sort of seems like the color, the vision, or image is coming into a sort of hole-shaped area. And you start noticing this stuff that you've just ignored your entire life. It's like, "Oh wow!" Now you're actually beginning to process what's actually in your experience, rather than just how you make sense of your experience.

JOSH: So as we wrap up the episode, I'm curious to know, you've had a lot of questions from listeners that you answer at the end of episodes. And I know you're asking a lot of questions to guests. What do you think makes a good question?

SPENCER: I think some of the best questions are ones that through the question itself, you start to see things differently than you did a moment ago. So the question brings in a way of looking at what you're doing. And for me, a lot of the best questions are ones that bring a way of looking at it that you haven't considered before. It gets you into new territory. So I would say that's one type of good question. I think another type of loop question is questions that get you to the root of something that pulls you in towards what really matters about the thing. So maybe I should give examples about those types, because it's hard to talk in the abstract. But if we think about questions that get you to see a problem differently. Earlier, we mentioned immigration, and a lot of people have opinions about immigration. But to me a bad question about immigration is like: should we reduce immigration? It's not a very good question, because it sort of has a yes or no answer. A lot of the way people answer is going to be very reflexive based on their political views. To me, a better question would be something that puts a frame on the topic that gets people thinking about it differently, and hopefully, in a helpful way. So it may be something like: suppose two people wanted to immigrate to the US, and we could only let one of them in. How would you think about who we let in? It is a very difficult question and an uncomfortable question. But it kind of forces you to think about the topic in a way that many people have never even thought about once. Like, let's suppose you didn't get to control how many people can, but you did get some say over who can, how do you think about that? Do you pick them at random? That's one option. Do you pick based on their values and try to pick people with values that match the values of our country? Do you pick based on skills? Based on whether it is a pragmatic thing, how much money they can bring in? So that's an example of the kind of framing how people think to try to generate new thoughts. Then there's the second type of question, which is really about getting to the heart of the matter, getting to the crux of a thing. An example that comes to mind for me is: let's suppose you're talking to someone who works in an area that could potentially be dangerous. Maybe they work doing biological research, and maybe some of that biological research could be used for harmful things. So to get to the heart of the matter there, you might ask a question like: how competent can you be that people aren't going to use your research to harm others? Whereas, there's a lot of questions that kind of dance around, that don't get to the heart of it, that broaches indirectly. Like you could ask, "Well, how do you make sure your research is safe? And to me, that's the worst question. It could still be interesting. But it's the worst question because it doesn't really get to the real heart of the matter. It's very easy to be like, "Oh, we take this precaution. We take that precaution." But the real heart of the matter is like, "Well, how do you know that what you're doing is good enough, that you're actually protecting people, you're protecting the world from using your research in a bad way?" So, maybe those are a couple of examples of what I think are good questions.

JOSH: Well, I've really enjoyed being part of the podcast for 200 episodes. And I hope to continue for many more. So, thanks for having me on.

SPENCER: Yeah, I'm so grateful for all the work you've done, Josh, and for really kickstarting the whole thing by saying to me, "Hey, Spencer, have you thought about starting a podcast?" I said, "Yes, I had thought about it." And then offering to be our first editor, which was sort of what I needed to get over the edge. Because I was like, "Well, I don't want to do that thing. So I'll do that." So thanks so much for your incredible contribution to make this happen.

JOSH: Thanks.





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