Grappling at the edges of reality with Joe Rogan

by Bill Benzon

A couple of weeks ago I was making my online rounds. When I checked YouTube I saw a link to a conversation between Steven Pinker and Joe Rogan. I’m quite familiar with Pinker and have correspond with him a bit, though I’ve not read his most recent book. And the name, “Joe Rogan”, set off some resonance that I couldn’t place. OK, I’ll check it out, thought I to myself. See what Steve’s up to these days and find out about this Joe Rogan guy.

It was a long and interesting conversation and, yes, it did cover Steve’s current book, Enlightenment Now, though it took awhile to get around to it. Otherwise the conversation ranged widely: flame wars on Usenet, comedy roasts, altruism, the Flynn effect, mass murderers, spiritual enlightenment, aerobics, online magazines, the long-term course of human history, the post-Trump world, and others.

I liked Rogan’s style.

The good old Wikipedia told me that Rogan had been on News Radio back in the 1990s–OK, now I know who he is–and then hosted Fear Factor earlier in this century–saw that, too, some of them. Early in his life he’d the become interested in the martial arts–karate, taedwondo, kickboxing–and had won some state and national titles. Moreover, he’s put in a lot of time as a commentator with the Ultimate Fighting Championship. AND, he’s been working at stand-up comedy all this time. He’s also into nutrition, hunting, mind expansion–cannabis, psychedelics, sensory deprivation–health and nutrition, and who knows what else.

This guy’s got some range!

All of this goes into his podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, which has racked up over 1100 episodes since it launched at the end of 2009. People seem to be diggin’ it. It’s one of the top 10 in the world and showed up, of all places, in a New York Times op-ed about the (ominous) Intellectual Dark Web–cue opening music for The Twilight Zone.

Thus I’ve been spending a fair amount of time over the last two or three weeks listening to YouTube clips from his podcast. The Pinker podcast is one of the more intellectual ones, and is hardly isolated. I’ve followed him talking evolutionary biology with Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, physics with Sean Carroll, astronomy with Neil deGrasse Tyson, and the resurgence of interest in psychedelics with Michael Pollan.

But martial arts is the center of Rogan’s podcast universe, which makes sense, not only in terms of his interests and time commitments, but also if you think of the podcast as a philosophical journey, as in investigation into the nature of reality. Descartes launched modern philosophy by looking to the mind: I think therefore I am. Rogan’s counter seems to be: When you get hit in the face, you know who you are–recall Mike Tyson’s remark “Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth.” There’s your philosophical agon: Whap!

“You can’t possibly be serious,” you may be thinking. Why not? Are we not physical beings? Does not our experience begin with/in the body? It’s a reasonable premise, a reasonable starting point for wide-ranging exploration.

Bruce Lee

Let’s look at this clip where Rogan and Joey Diaz, a comedian buddy who’s a regular on the podcast, discuss a clip from Way of the Dragon, very important in the history of martial arts cinema:

Bruce Lee, of course, is a now legendary martial arts practitioner-teacher-actor-hero (who also produced and directed this film) and Chuck Norris is a well-known martial artist and actor.

Note the range and types of comments Diaz and Rogan offer. Of course there’s comments on fight technique, on the cheesy sets, cats here and there, the importance of this film to immigrants to America, how a 12-year old feels coming out of the theater after watching the film, and the cinematography. Here’s a snippet (Rogan at 8:44):

Look, he [Lee] got him [Norris] in a guillotine. Oh my god he killed him with a guillotine. First time ever. He’s upset that he hadda kill him. That might’ve been the first guillotine ever in a movie. Back it up a second. I believe it was an arm-in guillotine, which is particularly difficult to pull off. I don’t agree with his technique here….

The fight’s over. Diaz remarks, “Bruce Lee was a fuckin’ soldier. He wrote all these, dawg. Look, watch, watch.” We see Lee putting on his jacket, with soft music in the background.

Rogan: By the way, how many black guys dressed like that in the 1970s and 80s.
Diaz: I dressed like that. I had the full outfit. My mom was going to send me back to Cuba. They sent me to the Santaria priest; didn’t know what was wrong with me.

The movie clip ends at that point so Diaz has to explain that Lee then covered Norris with his gi and “made it look nice.” Lee gave respect to his vanquished foe.

If that isn’t philosophical, I don’t know what it is. No, not in the sense of academic analysis and discussion. But what are these guys doing? They’re sharing an experience and determining what’s real about it. That may not be the explicit declared intent–what’s explicit is two guys shooting the shit & having a good time–but it’s what happens. Reality is enacted in the course of their conversation.

Moon Landing

Here’s a very different clip, one worlds away from martial arts. This one is in conspiracy-theory-land, one of the recurring topics of the podcast. In this clip we’re dealing with the moon landings were a hoax. Rogan is talking with Neil deGrasse Tyson:

There’s a fair amount of discussion of specific evidence, a lot of it centering on photographic and video footage from one landing or another. About a quarter of the way in Tyson makes a remark that speaks to the social construction of reality (9:22):

The government has to lie as well as 10,000 scientists and engineers. Think about this, just think about this. If there were ever a state secret that the government wanted to keep it would be the behavior of President Clinton’s genitals. OK. But that got out. That got out. And only three people knew this. Three. Alright. You’re gonna’ hoax a landing by telling 10,000 scientists and engineers to keep it secret for 40 years? That’s not how humans behave.

Actually, Tyson’s got it a little off. If the moon landings were hoaxed, then of course those 10,000 scientists and engineers weren’t involved in a moon landing. But they were involved in something and they’ve been lying about what it was they were up to. There’s extensive ground facilities in Florida where the launches took place; you can go there even now and see them. If those facilities weren’t involved in moon landings, what were they for?

Tyson’s point is that a moon landing is not just a handful of men and a bunch of images. It’s a considerable enterprise involving many people. All those people have to communicate and talk with one another. Each of those people, in turn, is involved in their own social network having nothing to go with NASA or with space science and technology. However obvious this may be, my point is that this is worth thinking about in explicit terms. THAT’s what we talking about, an extensive social network of people and their mutual understandings.

And so it goes across the wide range of topics that Rogan brings up day after week after month: What’s real? What should we believe? Why?

A lot of conversation is like that, of course. But the range of topics Rogan covers makes it quite obvious the he’s trying to work out a general worldview. Thus Rogan has said that he isn’t conducting interviews; he’s having conversations. Interviews have a “Chinese wall”–to borrow a term from business–between the interviewer and their subject. The relationship between conversational partners is much more fluid. In the case of Joey Diaz, he’s a long term friend of Rogan’s. But he’s no more buddies with Neil deGrasse Tyson than I am. They obviously respect one another and they understand each other’s strengths and limitations. Tyson is an expert in astronomy and astrophysics. Rogan is not, but he’s an intelligent man trying to make sense of the world afloat in bad information about complex and important subjects. So they work through things together and arrive at mutual understanding.

And that, I suspect, is one reason his podcast is so popular. He’s trying to make sense of the world and we’re invited along.

More Reading

I’ve got a couple of Joe Rogan posts at New Savanna:

Matt Gioia, It’s Time to end the Joe Rogan Experience, Mediafile, April 12, 2018

Erik Hedegaard, How Joe Rogan Went From UFC Announcer to 21st-Century Timothy Leary, Rolling Stone, October 22, 2015

Theodore Kupfer, Joe Rogan’s Boundary-Free Arena, National Review, April 13, 2018

Rogan maintains a site that lists all the books mentioned in the podcast. Here’s a list of topics:

most mentioned, ancient civilizations, anthropology, biography, business, comedians, conspiracy, cooking, crime, cryptocurrency, drugs, economics, fiction, finance, fitness. health, history, hunting, joe’s favorites, literature, meditation, mental health, military, motivation, music, natural history, philosophy, politics, psychology, religion, sex, science, space, sports, technology