A short commentary on John Vervaeke’s Awakening from The Meaning Crisis (Episodes 28, 29, and 30)
My task and goal here, in writing about John Vervaeke’s ‘Awakening to The Meaning Crisis’, is to zero in on what I find relevant in the series and hopefully to make it relevant to others. Relevance realisation—one of Vervaeke’s most important terms—is the whole point. And Vervaeke’s embarrassment of riches makes it necessary to do a work of compression: to zero in on what is most important.
Buyer beware: Admittedly, I am stumbling around in the dark here as a beginner to cognitive science—especially in these more technical episodes. Also I am omitting many of Vervaeke’s terms for a few reasons: firstly, to trying to make this narrative salient; secondly, because I am woefully ignorant of some of the fields of study in which Vervaeke is schooled; and finally because of time and space constraints.
However, this project still feels relevant to me and hopefully will be relevant to some of my readers. Actually, I wonder if my ignorance may have some value—what we don’t know creates the discomfort that impels us to learn! Knowing that we don’t know, is what made Socrates wise after all. Curiosity and the desire to know depends on ignorance in this sense. Our limitations help us avoid a combinatorial explosion in Vervaekese, or in the vernacular too much information. We can’t read every book or know everything and we are mostly blissfully ignorant of most things.
Still we need to know how to solve problems, which requires relevance realization. The problem is that everybody has a different idea of what is relevant. A Christian fundamentalist might think that only Jesus is relevant, while an atheist rationalist might claim that only logic and empirical facts matter: however, a wiser perspective acknowledges that both the religious, existential, and rational modes don’t have to be in conflict even when they appear to contradict each other. Intelligence, among other things, is to be able to take multiple perspectives simultaneously. Scientific observation has its great value and limits, just as religious activity has its depth, its benefits and supernatural nonsense: how to find the wheat in all the chaff—to know what to accept and what to reject?
Rationality and Logic
Vervaeke tries to widen the meaning of rationality and renew Aristotle’s original sense of the word, which had an existential, developmental dimension. Rationality for Aristotle was deeply bound up with meaning cultivation and the realisation of one's potential. It would be irrational to say that logic is the only tool at our disposal for personal growth, although it might be one invaluable tool, and rationality is a lot more than logic.
Actually logic can be a hindrance to rationality at times—you also need heuristics, leaps of insight, and wisdom to be rational. And some problems cannot be solved through logic because there are different kinds of problems; discovering the kind of problem you are working on is key to knowing what the solutions might be. If our problem is finding the chemical constituents of water, we can call water H20; if our problem is learning to swim, however, or using holy water in a religious ritual, water becomes something else entirely.
Logic and intelligence do not equal rationality, contrary to what we commonly assume. You can very easily be an intelligent idiot, or a deeply wise and rational person with limited cognitive abilities. Rationality, in Vervaeke’s sense, is learned, and real rationality must lead to wisdom rather than the mere exploitation of facts and figures.
Logic can only help us with some things. We do not logically think through making love for instance. Of course, we could study the Karma sutra or employ various tantric techniques, but they will more than often get in the way of the real movement and flow of eros. In reality something complex happens when we engage with our intimate partner, and more like a dance. Being a skilled dancer may require some logic, but that is not the whole story. There is something else involved. That ‘something else’ might be called wisdom, grace, soulfulness or any combination of those.
Intelligence is defined by some as the ability to be a ‘general problem solver’, and necessitates the ability to ‘read between the lines’. In fact we are always doing this in everyday situations. The two words ‘excuse me’, to cite Vervaeke’s example, don’t say much logically, but in the right context, such as looking for directions, they imply a lot. And the person who hears the words needs to understand all the implicit information of what is being asked for.
Why does all this matter? Because if we are going to learn to heal the various problems of the meaning crisis with the help of our ‘intelligent machines’ we are going to have to know the difference between logic, general intelligence and wisdom. AI Machines may indeed be able to develop general intelligence, but can they develop wisdom or learn how to be ethical? I doubt it.
Vervaeke’s tells us that science cannot tell us what is relevant. This reminds me of Martin Heidegger’s famous provocation: that ‘science cannot think’. We need to know the difference between science and philosophy or thinking, between facts and wisdom. Science is about making ‘inductive generalizations’, limiting biases, and zeroing in on the observable world—but it cannot deal in realms that don’t support such generalization.
Science works with things that have essences, which means it can describe stuff that supports generalizations: like horses, triangles, and water. Horses are a kind of mammal, triangles have 3 corners, and water is wet and made of H20. All three have certain essential qualities—all water is wet for example. The same is not true, for instance, of poetry.
A scientific category has to have homogenous, inherent, and stable characteristics, as Vervaeke points out. You can’t have a science of Astrology for instance—contrary to new age belief. However, even if the truth of astrology is questionable, ‘whiteness’ or ‘Tuesday’ are not, and these cannot be understood through scientific description. We know that whiteness exists, just as Tuesday exists, and that these are true categories—even if they are not the categories of science. Games, for example, have no essence in particular, no fixed characteristics, as Wittgenstein has told us. Nor does Tuesday, nor does whiteness.
For a long time natural philosophers tried to find intrinsic relevance or biological essentialism in nature—which lead to a lot of pseudo-scientific crazy race theories including phrenology. But then Darwin came along and pointed out that nature evolves and may have no fixed and intelligent design or designer. Nature is dynamic and organisms are constantly adapting to an environment that is changing, and working toward fitness in an endlessly shifting world.
Vervaeke tells us that the human body, for example, is a complex and autopoietic, a self-organizing ‘bio-economy’, which contains seemingly contradictory forces. For example, the sympathetic nervous system arouses you, whereas the parasympathetic nervous system lowers your level of arousal. Although these two heuristic modes are contradictory, they are at the same time interdependent. Your level arousal adjusts to your environment depending on whether the context is of danger, or of safety, or any number of different factors.
This, as Vervaeke points out, is analogous to a business. If you make a business too efficient, it will fail, because there will be not enough slack, or extra staff if something goes wrong. And obviously, a business that is too slack or inefficient will not work at all. The trick is to design a virtual engine within the business that will find the correct balance of not too tight and not too lose, as the Buddha had it.
Salience tagging of here-nowness
How do we chose meaning in a series of endless possible combinations of meanings? Another of Veraveke’s interesting phrases is: ‘salience tagging of here-nowness’. This means that are constantly tagging or making note of what matters to us in the here and now, scanning a world of endlessly changing information, and noticing what is salient and seems relevant to us.
What is salient and relevant depends on time, container, and context. Vervaeke cites Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous analogy: if Lions did know the English language, we still wouldn’t understand them. Science and religion, like lions and humans, play different games. They can inform but not replace each other.
Scientific discoveries can provide insight for philosophy and other classical domains of knowledge, but can’t replace them, contrary to Stephen Hawking’s view. Science has immeasurable value; but, as Vervaeke argues, you can’t really describe relevance in scientific terms at all, only bare facts and measurable functions. We can’t really teach robots to be kind, even if we can teach them to play Go. But this is no reason for despair. Science and machines can help us. But they must be used with great intelligence and immeasurable wisdom.
Others essay in this series:
The Man, The Lion, and The Monster
Higher States of Consciousness
Christ and Gnosis
Science and the Death of the Universe
Metanoia — A change of heart
Understanding the Meta-Crisis
Religion and Horror
The Religion of No Religion
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