A short commentary on John Vervaeke’s Awakening from The Meaning Crisis (Episodes 31, 32, and 33)
Much philosophy over the past couple of centuries has been an attempt to overcome the trauma of Cartesian dualism, which is still the ‘standard grammar’ of our modern worldview. Despite René Descartes importance in the creation of the the modern world, the subject/object divide has to be understood as a radical illusion. It is therefore urgent to invent new terms which better correspond to today’s understanding.
This is one of the great values of John Vervaeke’s ‘Awakening to the Meaning crisis’: the introduction of fresh new language. Vervaeke has invented a word which is very useful here: transjective. This means that ‘relationship’ transcends—or is much more real than—the subject and object in itself. This term helps go beyond the endless culture war between the romantic and the empiricist, or the radical romantic who privileges the muddy pond of his own narcissistic subjectivity, and the radical empiricist who sees only dead mechanical processes.
To put it in Martin Buber’s formulation: the I/thou relationship transcends the I/it transaction. That is: the transjective space transcends both the ‘person’ and the ‘thing’. We need to understand that objects and persons are part of a living, breathing ecology of relationships, and that everything affects everything else. A transjective state allows us then to enter ‘the transcendent’ or even ‘the sacred’ world of relationship.
Our body, for instance, is neither a subjective experience nor a mere object or thing: it is, in Vervaeke’s words, a transjective emergence in an autopoietic bio economy. If this is too much of a Vervaekean mouthful, we can think of evolution: we develop fitness and evolve through natural selection and feedback loops in our environment. This means we cannot grow as an isolated individual—in fact the isolated individual doesn’t really exist. We are instead a transjective ecology of radical self-organizing complexity.
Navigating this tranjective space requires the both the elegance of general intelligence—the ability to think and act in multiple domains simultaneously—and the right use of our specialized tools. We are tool making and tool dependent creatures who by nature oscillate between general and specialized intelligence. To illustrate, Vervaeke points out the difference between a hand and a knife. A hand can be used for many things; however, a hand needs a knife to become powerful and effective at cutting—it would be hard to cut bread elegantly with your hand alone.
Vervaeke also makes references here to developmental psychologist Jean Piaget and his idea of constraints vs assimilation. Piaget described learning as a process where we toggle between compressing information and assimilating a larger field when those constraints become too limiting. A child is constrained to a limited set of purposes that become more complicated as he or she matures. As we grow, we learn to use more sophisticated and complex tools in a vastly larger field of experience and knowledge. To use those tools with the proper wisdom and constraints means to practice transjective ‘relevance realization’— or find the proper balance between the biology and tools.
Vervaeke tells us ‘The body is not Cartesian clay’ or a subject that can be moulded into any form we like; nor is a body a ‘vehicle’ or some kind of container for the soul. The body is transjective, and only exists in a state of co-creation with its environment, and in a furious dance and oscillation between matter and spirit, subject and object, inner and outer, chaos and order, Et Cetera.
Bio-economy, networks and an optimal grip
To avoid a dystopian scenario where technology becomes the master of us instead of a servant, we need to work on the necessary trade-offs between general and specialized intelligence and create robust systems of optimization. The machine must fit the human, not override him or her. The dangers of artificial intelligence are so great that managing its power might take a miracle. Specialized machine intelligence need to be an aid to general human intelligence, just as a knife is a tool that we can use with our hands. And the very powerful knife of machine intelligence can be either very useful or omnicidal.
Vervaeke talks about this optimization process in terms of a good organizational structure. If, for instance, an institution is too efficient — if you lose one valuable employee for instance—then the whole structure falls apart. You therefore need some randomness, a bit of chaos, and some inefficiencies which allow for growth, transformation, and resilience. We need to have some room to explore, in other words, but also have maps to guide us.
All of this, John Vervaeke argues, can be described in naturalistic terms. For instance, consciousness oscillates between feature and gestalt, it assembles various constructs and then creates what has been called a ‘neural avalanche’. Nature is engaged in this constant process of creation and destruction, reification and static. The more flexible a person is in navigating the chaos and order—the rapid configuration and re-configuration of being—the more intelligent he or she becomes.
Vervaeke discusses networks as an analogy. Regular networks are easy to map but inefficient because their communication pathways are too long and slow. Random networks are faster and more efficient because there are shorter pathways between nodes; they are chaotic rather than resilient. A small world network, Vervaeke tells us, is the optimal balance between tradition and freedom, order and chaos. Therefore, a good network should be small, intimate, but not closed—having an optimal amount of chaos and order and to oscillate back and forth.
The brain is always playing this game of trade offs, which Vervaeke calls ‘bio-economics’. In other words, there is constant cost/benefit analysis being done in consciousness all the time. We come back again to the constant theme of Veraeke’s videos: ‘relevance realization’. In a sea of networks we need to realize relevant ways to deal with complexity and to know how to get an ‘optimal grip’ on the world. The optimal grip can be described in the Buddhist analogy as ‘not too tight and not too loose’.
Religion and the transjective flow state
Vervaeke is always trying to link phenomenological experience to naturalistic explanation. This is one theme and the purpose of his ‘relevance realization’ or ‘the transjective’—to include but also go beyond the subject/object split. This is also related to one part of the etymology of the word religion, called religio. Religio is related a sense of the numinous, which doesn’t have much to do with any purported claim from any sect or prophet.
Vervaeke separates religio from the other meaning of religion, religare? Why?Because we are too equivocal when we use the term religion. When we speak casually about religion, we usually mean something like ‘a set of dogmas or beliefs’. But religio means something different that is prior to any dogma or interpretation. Religio is the communal ‘ being mode’, which is profoundly different from the ‘‘belief mode’ or ‘religare’.
Here we return to some ideas which Vervaeke introduced in the beginning of the series: that is the idea of flow. Certain religions such as Taoism and Buddhism—while there may be certain beliefs associated with them—do not emphasise beliefs or laws, but on achieving a certain kind of coherence, flow, and radically embodied insight. Religare, the other root of the word religion, is more about the laws and dogmas that constitute religious faith. The latter are not unimportant; however, Vervaeke would like to privilege religio as an experience which is prior to dogmas and is something more like ‘a ground of being’.
Religio, according to Vervaeke, leads to a ‘transjective flow state’; in other words, a state beyond or prior to language and ideology that transcends subject and object. This sounds very good, but as Vervaeke points out there are dangers associated with the experience of religio. The numinous is not only about ‘the good, the true, and the beautiful’ but also ‘the horror’ in the words of Captain Kurtz in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’. The horror and the sacred have always been linked (I wonder if Vervaeke has read Rene Girard’s book ‘Violence and the Sacred’).
Before we go any further we must get a basic idea of what we mean by sacred here. Again Vervaeke wants to avoid equivocation by showing two, often contradictory meanings: ‘the sacred’ means a metaphysical, perhaps narrative, structure—certain religious texts are considered sacred for instance. ‘Sacredness’, on the other hand, Vervaeke says is the source of whatever we might call the sacred. Again, this has something to do with the numinous ground which is prior to whatever religious system a person may or may not adhere to.
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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