Understanding the Meta-Crisis

A short commentary on John Vervaeke’s Awakening from The Meaning Crisis (Episodes 25, 26, and 27)


Hegel’s dictum that ‘the rational alone is real’ and his dialectics of progress towards a historical absolute are hard to swallow after the collapse of all the utopian grand narratives of the 20th Century. The idea that we could build a rational utopia under the banner of either socialism or capitalism is rightly greeted with cynicism. And we are equally right to be suspicious of the romantic and irrational ‘mystic participation’ that has animated the fascist and nationalist movements of the twentieth century.

And yet our justified fear of grand narratives have left us in a postmodern cul de sac. What to believe in and how to act in the present meaning void? John Vervaeke attempts to address this: on one hand, by emphasising the importance of rationality and trying to enlarge its meaning, and on the other hand, by trying to rediscover the ‘self-transcendence’ and ‘participatory knowing’ that have traditionally been the domain of religion. To solve the various problems of the meaning crisis, we need to be both careful and rational, but also to re-orient ourselves towards ‘religio’, or the ethical and spiritual practices which bind us and create authentic community (incidentally the term religio was first used in a general, secular context.)

According to Vervaeke, the twentieth century was the age of ‘pseudo religious ideologies’, which were created in what he calls an ‘autodidactic void’. It’s hard for us to imagine the brutality and intensity—but also the religiosity—of this face-off between the armies of Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. This ‘titanic struggle’ between communism and fascism culminated in the biggest battles in world history on the Eastern front: the battles of Kursk and Stalingrad.

The murderous death cult of Nazi Germany had its roots in the humiliation of the First World War, in nationalism, romanticism, and quasi-gnostic theology. Furthermore, the protestant reformer Martin Luther foreshadowed Adolf Hitler in some ways; many people aren’t aware that Martin Luther advocated a genocide against the Jews and told Christians to set fire to synagogues, burn and raze Jewish houses and sacred writing. Luther was partly responsible, not only for protestantism, but the brutal autodidactic and Jew-hating spirit of Hitler’s Germany.

In Russia, the Kulak’s or land owning farmers, like the Jews, were similarly scapegoated and slaughtered en masse, victims of Bolshevik working-class romanticism. Romanticism, blank slate ideology, and Utopianism seem to have caused untold suffering. By trying to re-make the world through so-called ‘triumph of the will’ and with sheer violence egged on by the hypnotised mobs, the tyrants of the 20th Century nearly succeeded in ‘drowning the world in blood’. How do we save our self from the same death spiral in 21st Century?

Since the fall of the Soviet Union we have no grand romantic project. We now live in a dangerous void but also have great possibilities of learning from our errors. And, according to Vervaeke, we can neither return to a nostalgic version of religion, nor fall prey to pseudo-religious ideologies. We have be very careful in constructing the new paradigm. The revolutionary utopianism of both Marx and Luther, the desire to create a new ‘kingdom of heaven’, whether it be secular or religious, actually created mountains of corpses and a veritable hell on earth.

The Meta-Crisis and equivocation

Human beings are remarkably creative and resilient in both the positive and negative sense: the same heuristics which constitute our adaptive brilliance are ones we use to deceive ourselves. We only have to think of the contradictions of religion, but also of science and technology, to understand this paradoxical nature of humanity. Our capacity for totalitarian bullshit of extraordinary malevolence and sophistication, is matched only by our ability to build cathedrals, write sonnets, and maybe even solve the climate crisis.

Today, in order to avoid further hell—if not the total extinction of the human race—it is urgent to engage in a deep study of all the underlying causes of the meaning crisis, or what Tomas Bjorkman calls the meta-crisis. This means we need to dive deep: to work on cognition, character, technology, religion, society and culture — to examine all levels of our experience and knowledge, not just the superficial economic or political remedies.

According to Vervaeke, cognitive science is vitally important here, especially with the encroaching possibility of ‘general intelligence’ in machines: it is vitally important today to distinguish between machine intelligence and human intelligence, to avoid making fall equivalencies between computational power and biological adaptivity. The machine metaphor is an insufficient metaphor for a human being and could be misleading, even if we do have some machine-like qualities.

Equivocation is a major issue. For example, it is easy to equivocate ‘mind’, ‘intelligence’ or ‘consciousness’—because these words have wildly different meanings in different contexts. A neuroscientist might mean something entirely different from a buddhist monk when he talks about ‘consciousness’—even if there is some overlap. Similarly, an atheist materialist might have a very different definition of God than a Sufi mystic.

If we avoid equivocation and get our terms strait, we might learn something from each other. In the best case scenario, the atheist might discover that the Sufi mystic is far more empirically minded than he had imagined, and the Sufi might discover some miraculous science behind, for instance, the spinning ecstasy of his whirling dervish activity. True humility, and an empirical spirit for that matter, consists of understanding that we can learn from those who are radically different than us.

Furthermore, it is important to remember that scientific pursuits—or the proto-sciences like astronomy, and alchemy—were once religious or spiritual pursuits of meaning. We certainly don’t want to return to a pre-scientific age; however we need to develop a similar holistic approach. Good cognitive science could help us create a seamless dialogue between metaphysics, psychology, science, and all the other diverse cognitive disciplines, while mindfully preserving their distinctions.

Furthermore, good cognitive science, Vervaeke tells us, is dependent on good philosophy. Clarity of concept and the reduction of bullshit have never been more important in the internet age: to build bridges of inquiry we need to get our language strait, or risk falling into all kinds of equivocation or circular reasoning—if not ideological possession.

Metaphor, combinatory explosion, and Essentialism

According to Vervaeke, cognitive science can help us understand the mind by doing something similar to metaphor. For instance, by looking at neuroscience from the perspective of psychology and visa versa, without conflating these two domains, we can enrich both.

People often say that they never understood their own culture until they had lived in exile. In the same way, we have to step outside of familiar axioms to get to know reality more clearly or deeply. This is the truth-function of metaphor. In metaphor we look outside one domain and into another to give us insight.

If you say Joe is a rat this helps us to understand the character of Joe. Joe has to have enough ‘rat-like’ qualities to draw the comparison, but at the same time Joe needs to be different enough from an actual rat for this to be an apt metaphor. If the similarity is too close or literal (Joe is an arm) or too far-fetched (Joe is a washing machine) the metaphor doesn’t work.

Besides a concern with good metaphor, the scientific and philosophical endeavour should strive to avoid circular reasoning, and reduce bias. Our explanations must be ‘plausible’, but also ‘elegant’. Plausible in Vervakese (my word for Vervaeke’s special lexicon of terms) means reasonable, logical, believable; elegant means powerful and salient. If our ideas are elegant but implausible, they fall into bullshit conspiracy theories; if they are plausible but inelegant, they may have a certain factual accuracy, but don’t have the power to move or inspire us to any real world action.

Another problem is the paralysis we sometime feel as a result of what Vervaeke calls ‘combinatory explosion’. How to make one decision when there are so many possible ones? If there is ‘too much information’ we get paralysed. Poor decision making, according to Vervaeke, can be the result of confusing algorithmic solutions with heuristic ones. For instance, it doesn’t make sense to use algorithms to calculate all the possible ways to walk down a street. It would be better to use heuristics and take the most direct route.

Solving problem with algorithms is what our computational devices excel at. Computers are millions of times faster at algorithmic computations than humans, but they have a hard time walking and talking because they aren’t as good at heuristics—at least not yet. Humans, on the other hand, are great at making judgments dynamically and quickly, based on adaptation.

The downside of heuristics is their potential for bias and self-deception, and for cutting corners. In other words, our ability to quickly organise and adapt, is the same mechanism that makes us prone to elaborate and complex forms self-deception.

Essentialism and relativism

How do we avoid the common traps of essentialism on one hand and extreme relativism on the other. As Vervaeke points out, some things do indeed share essences: for example all squares have four corners. However, as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein showed us, we can’t treat all categories as if they have one essence. There are no essentially defined algorithmic formulae for taking notes, riding a bicycle, or kissing somebody. Everybody does these things differently, and in their own idiosyncratic way.

We too often apply algorithmic strategies to what could be solved through heuristics and visa versa. Today, as Vervaeke points out, the problems of the world are complex and not well defined. A danger is ‘combinatory explosion’ or over-complexity on one hand, and being stuck in narrow spaces of understanding on the other. The big question is: how do we ‘collapse the problem space’ and discover real insight to solve the world’s major existential problems?

To sum up: we need bridge-building narratives for a world that has lost its grand narratives — a term which Vervaeke is far too modest to use, but which I have argued characterises his overall endeavour.

John Vervaek’s Awakening From The Meaning Crisis playlist

Others essay in this series:

The Man, The Lion, and The Monster
Higher States of Consciousness
Noble Provocations
Christ and Gnosis
Science and the Death of the Universe
Metanoia — A change of heart
Understanding the Meta-Crisis
Relevance Realization
Religion and Horror
The Religion of No Religion

Podcasts and other writing:
Sweeny vs Bard
Sweeny Verses
Rebel Wisdom Articles by Andrew Sweeny

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Thanks to Stephen Lewis for edits (hide).

Compressed scraps of angel melody, stories, essays, rants against reductionism, commands from the deep.