Spirituality and Responding to the Meaning Crisis Part 4: Why Meaning Can Be Put at Risk

Acknowledgement: This article is based on Science and the Sage which is written by myself and Christopher Mastropeitro, as well as work on the nature of wisdom by myself and Leo Ferraro.
(cc) Maciej Lewandowski

In Part 3 we explored how meaning can be understood as relevance realization that is spiritual in nature because it constitutes a fundamental framing that musically and atmospherically affords our agency and identity in a world that makes sense to us. We need a word that captures all of this in a succinct yet perspicacious manner. I propose the Latin word religio since it means to bind or connect, and therefore captures the deep sense of connectedness we have been discussing. It also resonates with the word religion and yet it is distinct from it thereby capturing the sense of spirituality that we have also been discussing. Finally, it also affords a discussion of the role that religion played in the creation and maintenance of fundamental framing. The crucial issue for us now is how religio can be threatened, and why our particular historical situation is so threatening to it.

In order to answer this question it is important to make a distinction between perennial pathologies of religio and our particular historical threats to it, and then to see how they are presently interacting. Perennial pathologies are the vulnerabilities that beset religio because of its very nature while the historical forces, I will argue, are cultural forces that prevent us from marshalling the psycho-technologies that can address religio breakdown.

There are three basic types of pathologies of religio: there is absurdity, with its attendant problems of alienation and horror, futility, and foolishness. In order to understand the nature of the experience of absurdity it is important to note that our religio binds us to ourselves, each other and the world through creating a network of nested patterns within which we find ourselves.

There are three types of patterns that constitute three types of knowing. We can find patterns in conditions and facts. This is our propositional knowing. It is the knowing that can be expressed in propositions. It is our knowing that something is the case. For example, we know that a cat is a mammal. When we organize this knowledge rationally with evidence it is the theoretical knowledge that gives structure to our beliefs.

We also find patterns in courses of events so that we can intervene in them. This is our procedural knowledge. It is our knowing how to do something. For example, I know how to catch a baseball, which is very different from beliefs about baseballs. In fact, it is very hard to put our procedural knowledge into words. It is often ineffable. What do you really do to ride a bicycle effectively? Other than saying vague things such as keeping one’s balance and speed etc it is very hard to really capture it in words. That is why it is hard to mentally access this knowledge without imagining yourself involved in the activity. When we organize such procedural knowledge we have expertise that gives structure to our skills.

Finally, one finds patterns that triangulate between patterns of fact and events and oneself. One realizes how facts and courses of events are relevant to each other and relevant to oneself so that one has a perspective on a situation. This is knowing what it is like to be something, i.e. to take a particular identity and role. Compare you knowing that a baseball is round and hard, and you knowing how to catch a baseball, but you also can imagine what would be like to be baseball. You can take the perspectival role of a baseball. This ability to take a perspective and realize a role is one’s perspectival knowledge. When we organize such perspectival knowledge we have the wisdom that structures our development as persons. Both absurdity and futility threaten this perspectival knowing and thereby cripple our religio.

Thomas Nagel has written a very important essay on the nature of the absurd. He first argues that our experience of absurdity is not the logical result of reasoning. He points out that the various “arguments” for absurdity are not good ones. For example, people sometimes argue that our lives are absurd because what we do won’t matter a millions years from now. However, as Nagel points out that means that what happens a million years from now should not matter to us, and therefore cannot cause us to rate our current lives as absurd. Other times people argue that we are small or don’t last long, but it is quite clear that one could be as large as a galaxy and last as long as one and still find one’s existence meaningless. In fact, it is likely that such a state could cause a profound sense of absurd existence. It is true that people need to be connected to something “bigger” than themselves, but as Susan Wolfe argues this is a best a metaphor for wanting to be connected to something that has a value independent of our desiring it (we will return to this point). So the “arguments” do not produce the experience of existential absurdity; they express it.

So if absurdity is not inferentially produced how is it produced? Nagel proposes investigating everyday experiences of absurdity. He asks us to imagine someone, let’s say Bob, who is calling Susan to finally reveal that he is deeply in love with her. As Bob calls he begins to pour out is his heart saying “ Susan I have loved you for such a long time, I need to know…” and then he hears a beep, and the message “ Hi, this is Susan’s voicemail please leave a message.” This situation is both a little sad and humourous. The sadness points to a loss of meaning. The humour points to an incongruity between perspectives. The first is Bob’s perspective in which he is deeply emotionally involved, and the second is the cold impersonal perspective of the answering machine to which his confession is deeply irrelevant. What we see is that absurdity is produced by a perspectival incoherence that empties the involving perspective of its sense of relevant connection.

Nagel then argues that a sense of cosmic absurdity about our lives comes from our capacity for self-transcendence. We can mentally rise above whatever perspective in which we are involved to take a perspective on that first perspective. In turn, we can rise above that perspective to an even more encompassing one and so on until we move towards what Nagel has famously called the view from nowhere. It is a God’s eye perspective on everything. That perspective is a third person completely impersonal perspective that is deeply incongruous with our deeply involving first person perspective, and so we experience a very profound form of absurdity. Debilitating perspectival clash is the source of cosmic absurdity.

The experience of cosmic absurdity can cause a sense of alienation, viz. that there is no important connection between oneself and reality so that one fundamentally does not belong. One is suddenly “watching the days go by” and it feels both vapid and unreal. One has lost a sense of being at home anywhere. Absurdity and alienation are dangerous in that they can interact with depression in a mutually reinforcing fashion and lead to despair which is often fatal. However, the condition can get even worse. Our capacity for self-transcendence can also lead to an experience of mystery. We have lost the sense of the word mystery and treat it as a synonym for a hard problem, and that is why we have lost the sense of its connection to words like mystical, and that word has therefore also degenerated into meaning magical or irrationally intuitive. However, as we’ve seen (see Part 1) mystical experience was not always understood as magical and irrational.

As Gabriel Marcel argues in his essay “Ontological Mystery,” a mystery is not a problem. According to Marcel, a mystery occurs when we try to frame (see Part 3 about the nature of framing) a situation as a problem, but then we realize that our framing is part of the problem, much like the projected square in the nine dot problem of Part 3. So we move to a more encompassing frame to try and solve the problem caused by the first framing of the situation only to discover that this higher order frame is also problematic. So we move yet higher in perspective only to find our framing continually collapsing into the situation we are trying to turn into a workable problem. At some point we fall into silence, and that is the original meaning of mystery. So, for example, I try to realize what it is like (note the perspectival knowing) to be dead. So I imagine darkness, but then I realize that I am aware of the darkness. So I try to step back and end that awareness only to realize that although I am no longer paying attention to the blackness I am still aware, and so on. My death is a perspectival mystery to me. That is not the same thing as propositional knowledge, i.e., I know that I am going to die. One constant error often found in religion has been to leap from perspectival mystery to propositional claims. The fact that my own death is a mystery to me does not in any way whatsoever prove or even imply that I am immortal. I also cannot imagine what the past was like without me because I have to place myself mentally in the past in order to imagine it. However, that does not mean I have always existed.

As Rudolph Otto argued, mystery can be both fascinating and terrifying. Fascinating because our minds are caught up in this runaway expansion of perspective. Terrifying because our minds seem to lose a hold on reality. It is also relevant to note that the cognitive machinery of mystery overlaps with that of absurdity in that both run off our capacities for perspectival knowing and self-transcendence.

This overlap implies that absurdity and mystery can trigger and reinforce each other. So for example, as our minds overleap themselves trying to frame a perspectival knowing of death we can be drawn into an impersonal perspective that clashes in a chilling manner with our first person perspectival concern with our death. In fascination we become deeply involved with a state of being that completely undermines any sense of genuine involvement. We seem to be caught in an experience that is a self-consuming black hole drawing everything into it. The terror of losing our grip on reality is exacerbated by absurdity and alienation as well as our minds falling into silence. This is horror. Horror is not simply great fear. Horror is a powerful and compelling assault on our sense of meaning and our grip on reality. It shreds our religio.

Futility is also a threat to religio. Futility is when our sense of being an effective agent in the world is undermined, and this in turn fragments our religio. There are two possible ways in which our sense of agency can be disrupted. The first is to become what Harry Frankfurt has called a wanton. A wanton is a hypothetical human being that behaves in a completely impulsive manner. There is no reflective re-direction or self-control. Such a human being fails as an agent because there is no coherence to their behaviour as each impulse undermines those other impulses with which it is competing. There is no higher order in terms of which such conflicts and incoherence can be worked out. In a very real sense this being is therefore not an agent. Although intensely interacting with the world, the wanton cannot build up the continuity necessary for deep involvement. However, as Vellman points out in his essay “The Way of the Wanton,” there is an opposite problem. In order to overcome impulsivity one must self-transcend, i.e. one must step back and look at the impulse. So for example, instead of being driven by thirst, one steps back and looks at one’s thirst and how it is shaping one’s perspective on the world. One takes a higher perspective on one’s thirst perspective. Notice that when one is thirsty one can be very unaware of their thirst. Instead one is aware through their thirst of the world, i.e., it is how one frames the world. Things associated with water or liquids or drinking become very salient to one. Thirst is a lens that magnifies those aspects of the world that alleviate it. Yet when one steps back to look at one’s thirst and notice its features (like I just did in the previous couple sentences) one’s motivation has changed. My perspective on thirst is not driven by thirst but perhaps by curiosity or a desire for control. This tends to reduce the impulsive pressure of the thirst. This is part of the way in which mindfulness aids self-control. Of course, I can step back and look at the higher order perspective that I took on my thirst perspective. I can notice features of curiosity etc. As I do this I become more and more disengaged from the world and its ability to call action forth from me. I become like Hamlet caught in endless self-reflection and robbed of effective agency in the world. This reflectiveness gap also dissolves involvement. In both of these ways one can fall into futility because one’s behaviour actually undermines agency. It is also clear that although we can analytically distinguish between absurdity and futility it is often the case that they co-occur and reinforce each other strongly.

Stephen Rowe in his recent book Living Philosophy talks about how our culture is beset by an apathy that springs from a largely unconscious sense of futility. The apathy takes two forms. One is what he calls easylifeism in which people try not to reflect on their lives or set significant goals. They try to keep their life as “chill” as possible, and the main activity is to party. From this perspective it is believed that problems really cannot be solved, and so people pursue a life that approaches that of being a wanton in order to bring about a state of psychological numbness. The other form of numbness is often seen as an alternative to easylifeism and that is what Rowe calls machinism. It is the strategy of trying to turn oneself into a non-reflective machine driven by work. Although this leads to very coherent behaviour, it also has the main goal of avoiding real life problems and numbing one’s psyche. Both of these ways of life are capitulations to futility, and attempts to avoid the loss of religio through distraction and numbing.

The perennial threats of absurdity and futility are driven by the very nature of our religio and perspectival knowing. As I will argue next time, one of the main functions of religion and/or spirituality is to create and support psycho-technologies that protect people from those pathologies of religio and re-appropriate self-transcendence as a positive force of development. This internalization of psycho-technolgies and the marshalling perspective self-transcendence within development are the hallmarks of wisdom. However, such wisdom must also address the third perennial threat to religio, namely foolishness, and it must do this while taking into account the historical factors driving the meaning crisis. That will be the topic for part 5.


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john-vervaekeJohn Vervaeke is an award-winning instructor at the University of Toronto. He is an engaging speaker and available for lectures and media appearances. He is knowledgeable about a wide range of topics including wisdom, mindfulness meditation, psychology, cognitive science, foolishness, artificial intelligence, general intelligence, rationality, popular media, and Buddhism & its interaction with Western society and psychology. His website is www.johnvervaeke.com.


Previous Posts in this Series

  1. Part 1: The Meaning That Was Lost
  2. Part 2: The Emergence of the Crisis
  3. Part 3: The Cognitive Science of Meaning and Why That Meaning is Spiritual

7 thoughts on “Spirituality and Responding to the Meaning Crisis Part 4: Why Meaning Can Be Put at Risk”

  1. John,
    I’m really enjoin this series and can’t wait for the book! Are you aware of Thomas Alexander’s recent book The Human Eros? He develops some similar points and it’s worth a look.

    • Hi Matt,

      Thank you. No I am not aware of his work, but I will definitely check it out. The book should be out next year. The first draft is going to Yale University Press at the end of the summer.

  2. Good.Problem is if I read that an average American I’d be explaining a lot of terms and concepts and probably have to make a few analogies in the process. Personally I try to boil everything like this down to so that I can explain it to a five year old. Because as Einstein said,”If you can’t explain it to a five year old you don’t understand it very well yourself.”.

    • Hi Erik,

      Yes that is true. Chris and I do try to put more examples and illustrations into the book. But more are definitely needed.

  3. I was continually surprised at what is said to “shred” religio. It seems to me the sense of absurdity and futility, while surely destructive if left unresolved, are exactly the catalysts that typically precipitate profound spiritual experiences that create/reaffirm a sense of meaning. But I suspect you will be getting to that in installments to come. 🙂

    • Hi B.T.

      You anticipation is bang on. That is why the whole series is about responding to the meaning crisis.


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