The MWS Podcast 133: Jeremy Lent on the Patterning Instinct

Our guest today is the author and integrator Jeremy Lent. Jeremy grew up in the UK but has spent most of his adult life in the US, where earlier in his career, he was the founder, chairman and CEO of the internet company NextCard. His writings investigate the patterns of thought that have led civilization to its current crisis of sustainability. He is the founder of the non-profit Liology Institute, which is dedicated to a worldview that enables humanity to thrive sustainably. He is the author of Requiem of the ‘Human Soul’ and ‘The Patterning Instinct’ the latter of which will be the topic of our discussion.

About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

6 thoughts on “The MWS Podcast 133: Jeremy Lent on the Patterning Instinct

  1. A very interesting discussion. I now have the book here in front of me and intend to read it soon. From this conversation I’ve gathered that what seems to be new about Jeremy’s ideas is his emphasis on the effects of metaphors embedded in cultures, which indeed seems a fascinating area of investigation. I will need to read his book to get more idea of what he has to say about this. Much of the rest of what he was saying later on, however, was already familiar to me from reading about systems theory, which I’ve been doing more of recently. There’s a huge amount of interesting stuff in systems theory, much of which I have yet to investigate closely or write about, that can illuminate the Middle Way in my view.

    However, I think I should also mention the chief danger that I also started seeing from time to time in Jeremy’s approach, as I have in systems theory, which is that it becomes a new theory of the universe and that balanced scepticism is lost sight of. Carefully interpreted, I think systems theory is fully sceptical, because it recognises human cognition as part of a wider system, and thus it becomes clear both that the meaning on which cognition relies is embodied and that our representations of the world are always uncertain. Systems theory also constantly challenges the current dogmas and urges us to look at wider contexts, patterns and relationships. But it is also very easy for its enthusiastic exponents to lose sight of the fact that systems theory itself is also subject to that uncertainty, needs to be treated provisionally and is subject to constant revision, otherwise it could very easily just become a new dogma, provoking polarised opposition and being subsumed into the dualistic pattern it is trying to challenge. For that reason, talk of systems theory as any kind of essential truth or natural law needs to be carefully avoided.

    1. Thanks for your perspective, Robert, which I agree with wholeheartedly.
      Since the reductionist paradigm is currently so dominant in Western thought, I believe it’s important rebalance this by emphasizing systems theory as an alternative way to understand the cosmos. However, I could foresee a time (in the distant future!) when, as you say, systems theory itself could become a new dogma (if interpreted incorrectly).
      One of my core themes in The Patterning Instinct is that we humans use this instinct to pattern meaning into the world. Patterns are, by definition, incomplete representations of the universe, linking some things together and ignoring others.
      There is a chapter in my book on the emergence of scientific cognition, where I critique the very notion of an “essential truth” of the universe, and indeed show that the very concept of “natural law” is a construction of dualistic Western thought.
      I look forward to hearing your further thoughts after you’ve had a chance to take a read of the book.

  2. Another terrific podcast Barry – I thought Jeremy summed it up really well at the end – a “tremendously enjoyable interview”. There’s a lot of course that I agree with – the comments on capitalism and corporations; the myth of human selfishness; the dreadful Gnostic split in Platonic thinking and the Enlightenment (you can imagine how happy I was when Jeremy said that modern science and orthodox Xty are in some ways similar belief systems, on a deeper pattern of thought – both leading to materialism, through the devaluation of the body – which was also William Blake’s view). 

    So perhaps I’ll just mention a couple of things that I disagreed with or wasn’t sure about – which would therefore be good to explore and develop. One was this idea of human uniqueness – I realise quite a tricky and vexed subject (and emotional, because it goes down so deep, in terms of our deepest cognitive belief systems). I noted that Jeremy said near the start something about us being “unique as humans”, which obviously made my ears prick up. (I think he was saying this in relation to our instinct for patterns). I would love to hear more about that.

    Just to get the ball rolling, and in relation to the podcast, I was thinking of this in terms of our simultaneous connection to and disconnection from nature – and all those terrific comments near the end of the interview, about not demonising dualism – that it’s not about replacing one with the other, but integrating or balancing them. I would reframe that perhaps as: how can we balance our uniqueness (our ability to stand back from being), with our embeddedness in it – without denying either – not to ‘replace’ the idea of our disconnection (a left brain skill, tremendously useful – and also as McGilchrist notes, a right brain skill, allowing empathy) with a re-emergence ‘in’ nature – but to integrate them. For me, perhaps, we are outside nature – but as a gardener, not a warrior. To be a gardener, you have to be separate from the garden – and also, I suppose, willing to believe that you have a ‘right’ to garden – that it is for the mutual improvement of both.

    Linked to that is my Blakean scepticism at such comments as “we’re not separate from nature, we are nature”. I find this at best rather vacuous – the terms are so nebulous, and the meanings therefore so unclear – if we and nature are the same, then you could sure say that everything we do – destroying the planet, eating meat etc – is natural. Or you could say vice-versa – that if all the abilities and intuitions we have  – consciousness, imagination, sense of beauty, wonder, civilisation, poetry, music mathematics – are part of the world, then they must be considered as really part of it – that human imagination, for example, must be part of the deep pattern of existence. Blake put this, provocatively, as “every thing that exists is an attempt to be human” –  i.e. everything out there is potentially human (which is partly why evolution happened, or could happen – it was there already, in some form – and we are a realisation of it – what the mythos of esoteric Christianity calls “incarnation” – we are what nature is when it becomes conscious of itself – or vice-versa nature is unconscious humanity. In Buddhism isn’t there a saying, “Lift up a stone, and Buddha is there” – and in Hinduism, what we call ‘Nature’ seems similar to what they call ‘Māyā’ – the world of appearances – a seductive but illusory construct. “Maya is unconscious, Atman is conscious” etc).

    I wrote an essay on Blake’s view of all this – it may not be of any use or interest (I’m worried it will either infuriate or depress you because of its resistance to ‘nature’), but it’s my attempt to figure out some of these issues. Eg, the symbiosis or necessary connection between “belief in Nature” and all those dualistic, post-Enlightenment ways of thinking that Jeremy talks about – it’s no coincidence that modern sentimental belief in “Nature” really takes off in industrialised 17th century western Europe, and I was fascinated by Jeremy’s observation in the Comments, above – “that the very concept of ‘natural law’ is a construction of dualistic Western thought”.

    “Belief in ‘Nature’ is the product of both: the bastard child of the underlying thought-processes of alienated and indifferent capitalism and of the materialising and mechanising programmes that for many people constitute ‘reality’ in post-Enlightenment societies.”

    And that perhaps leads me to my final point (not to make this post already longer than it is!), which is what was touched on towards the end of the interview – what to do about it all (and by the way I’ll definitely share the podcast on my Political Self Facebook page). Eg the observation that “It’s easier to shift culture that it is to shift the economic structure of global capitalism.” So much of this debate, for me, was actually discussed 150 years ago by Karl Marx – Marx didn’t talk about “embeddedness”, he talked about “historical materialism” but it’s essentially the same thing – not the crude Enlightenment idea of ‘materialism’ but a really dynamic, intersubjective, sensuous critique of that sort of materialism:

    “The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism – that of Feuerbach included – is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism – which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such.” (Marx, Theses on Feuerbach)

    And that’s interesting because, for all of this wonderful sense of embodiment and integration that the podcast communicates, it sometimes feels like quite an “idealistic” position to me – it’s quite a language-centric view of reality and of transformation – that all we need to do is to change our metaphors. I think Marx might say,  – don’t forget that metaphor is itself rooted – in roots – in the terms of the actual, interconnected, world – not in language. Jeremy hints at this right at the end, with his acute comment that “I think our big challenge is to take these [cultural] shifts  … and to translate that into the economic sphere.”  I love that – but then he hardly mentions class, or private property, or the means of production – it’s all about metaphor and language (those kinds of patterns) – and not material, social patterns – and that’s also perhaps linked to the contemporary tendency to see the solution as individualistic and psychological. I’m all for that – but – and in keeping with the theme of integration – it surely has to be objective and material as well – there has to be an actual revolution as well as a cognitive one, there can’t be one with out the other (Marx again was onto all this 150 years ago – he called it “praxis”). I think this is probably implicit in Jeremy’s approach – that people have to organise – and for me it’d dovetail absolutely beautifully with his belief in “systems” and systems-theory – we are connected to our system, so the whole system must shift – us, and it, together. 

    Sorry – this is way too long. But at least it suggests how thought-provoking and generative your podcast was. I hope you’ll be able to have a second one with him.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Rod. Lots of interesting stuff here. Regarding your question about human uniqueness in relation to other species , I got the feeling that Jeremy was mainly talking about our capability for symbolic expression. He points out in the book that other animals are capable of this to a limited degree, for example certain monkeys have sounds that symbolize eagles, leopards and snakes and when other monkeys in the group here these sounds, they respond by avoiding the danger for example by looking up for the eagle call. However, we do appear to be the only species that is capable of such complex symbolic expression such as language or writing, in that sense that does arguably make us unique. As for patterns, one of the drawbacks of being aware that we are aware which the executive function of our pre-frontal cortex gives us, is that makes us reflect on the meaning of our existence and try to make sense of it. I don’t discount the possibility that other animals experience melancholy or a sense of wonder and awe – why do wolves howl at the moon. Nor are we the only creatures that display creativity – bower birds nests are wonderful examples of ingenuity. But again it seems that we’re the only creatures that are able to symbolize what those patterns mean to us in such a complex way. Not only that, we seem pretty unique in being able to ascribe a shared meaning to an otherwise abstract concept or symbol. I think where it gets problematic about uniqueness is such dualistic notions like we have a soul whereas animals don’t and therefore we can exploit them etc. Jeremy very much challenges that in his book and appears to take by and large an incrementatl approach to how we differ from other species. I really liked your question ‘how can we balance our uniqueness (our ability to stand back from being), with our embeddedness in it’ and from reading his book I get the feeling that Jeremy would be very comfortable with that too, especially the idea that we are a gardener as opposed to a warrior, which made a lot of sense to me at least.
      I also agree with your concerns about the term ‘nature’. As you say, I think the word is so vague that it’s often used simply as a term to justify whatever you like or don’t like ie ‘It’s natural to eat meat’ etc.
      As for your final question, a lot of his book is indeed about private property, class and material and social patterns and how much these are dependent on the root metaphors that we share culturally. I’d highly recommend you read the book then us revisiting these questions especially as it has in many ways so much in common with ‘The Master and his Emissary’ as Jeremy points out. They are both attempts to describe a cognitive history of the world. I’ve personally never read Marx and I’m sure you’re a lot more familiar with his thinking than I am but I’m not so sure he was as much on the same wavelength as you suggest. I could be wrong about this, but didn’t he try to apply a rather reductive idea of science on economics and even history? Also, while this might not have been his position, my understanding is, that the countries that embraced communism have by and large being very exploitative when it comes to the material world and the environment.

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