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Falling in love with reality
How to learn the world, intimately
Last week I interviewed John Vervaeke, cognitive scientist at the University of Toronto and world renowned thinker, bridging science and spirituality in order to understand the experience of meaningfulness: how to cultivate it and why it’s crucial for human beings. John also has a 50 part lecture series on the topic, Awakening From the Meaning Crisis.
We discussed the intersection of the meaning crisis and the metacrisis, and the historical traditions which are the root of our global energy, economic and climate crisis. Critically, John says we cannot solve the climate crisis without addressing the cultural forces driving the meaning crisis
To my mind, this conversation was an example of the fervent need to infuse the world and our practices with values, and an exploration of the depths of the human condition—how humankind can destroy its environment, its neighbour, its potentiality, its own future and, even when faced with that knowledge, continue seemingly blindly over the edge of a cliff.
This is what John calls self-deception, and and it seems to be characteristic of the human condition, of existentialism; the fact that we exist, that we know that we exist, but don’t know what to do with that existence. How does one cope with being conscious of one’s own life and the finitude of that very life?
Perhaps it is the very fact of being aware of one’s own existence, of one’s own consciousness, that encourages one to seek out meaning; what is the point in experiencing a thing if there is no meaning in it? What is the point of experiencing a life if there is no value to it? The devastating irony of the age we live in is that so much of our time is spent meaninglessly nowadays, whether it is generating profits for companies or being stuck in traffic jams; the complexity of our day and age undermines meaning. One would perhaps think increased complexity would increase meaning but this harks back to John Gowdy’s work that increasingly complex societies demand increasingly simple individuals. The mechanisms of our self-deception facilitate our self-destruction.
Our unwillingness, or inability, to change course seemingly goes against evolution, whatever force has been driving life since the big bang. It is quite extraordinary. And the extraordinary nature of this situation that we find ourselves leads it also to be a potentiality of huge transformation. The metacrisis—the global economic, energy, political, ecological crises—is so complicated that the solution simply cannot lie with one person. There isn’t a brain on the planet which can synthesise all of the requisite information and provide a solution. We are going to have to think collectively to get through this, which may also be why we don't get through it.
But thinking and imagining collectively on a previously unimaginable scale could render humankind infinite, in a sense; it could force a shift in evolution, at least social evolution. In that, there is much to be excited about amongst the collapsology.
Planet: Critical investigated why the world is in crisis—and what to do about it.
John discusses religion at length during the episode, explaining how people who have this sense of relationship to something else more readily find meaning in life. It doesn’t matter what religion one belongs to as long as one cultivates a relationship to something bigger than oneself, and the very nature of that relationship can also provide you with wisdom.
I think we’re seeing his research in the zeitgeist—that secular Westerners are flooding towards a Pic’n’Mix spirituality, a mishmash of many traditions that have come before. Unfortunately, however, the market has its grip even on the spiritual realm, making it difficult for people to find parse the meaningful from the profit-maximising; in seeking meaning where it has been traditionally found for thousands of years, people instead find the invisible hand of the market. No wonder people are unwell, no wonder we are struggling to find solutions.
What is critical in John’s message is the focus on relationships: it is our relationship to things which define meaning. He mentions a fascinating statistic that people willingly sacrifice subjective wellness in order to have meaning every time they have a child. A child negatively impacts health, finances, sleep, even life-span, but people choose to do so anyway. Now, is that a purely evolutionary drive? Or is it, conversely, evidence of drives which exist beyond biological determinism?
In quantum mechanics, electrons are neither here nor there; they are here and there. Their relationship to other things affects their behaviour; their state isn’t fixed. Fascinating experiments show that these electrons, in the quantum realm, are there only when we observe them. When unobserved, these particles behave like waves, and are both here and there.
This raises questions about objective reality, and whether or not things exist in and of themselves; this question is often put to bed with the gentle reminder a human being will die relatively quickly without oxygen. Things exist in and due to relationships with other things. From thousands of years under the reign of religious zeal and its universal “truths” culture swung towards the atomisation of all things. Whilst it is critical to understand each individual thing as much as possible, we cannot know all of it without engaging with how it interacts with the rest of the world.
This is why a politics of relationships, of philosophy, art, poetry are so important. To pretend that we could exist as anything other than related beings, and that anything in an ecosystem and a biological ecosystem on planet earth could exist as anything other than a related being, is just nonsensical.
This is the myth we must dispel, and replace with a new story: What we can do with life, with as in con, together.
Towards the end of the episode John says, “We must learn to fall in love with reality again.” To fall in love with a thing, we need to know it. To know a thing, we need to place it within its greater context. Meaning is found at the confluence.
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