Awakening from the Meaning Crisis with John Vervaeke

Awakening from the Meaning Crisis with John Vervaeke

Picture of Thomas Steininger

Thomas Steininger

Picture of Thomas Steininger

Thomas Steininger

Awakening from the Meaning Crisis with John Vervaeke

Thomas Steininger, publisher of the German magazine, Evolve, introduces John Vervaeke, a professor of cognitive science at the University of Toronto, who has published a 50-part lecture series on Youtube, called “Awakening from the Meaning Crisis.” These quite challenging one-hour lectures attracted up to 150,000 viewers worldwide. And there is a reason for that. Cognitive science is a young, interdisciplinary science, and this professor from Toronto brings an astonishing encyclopedic knowledge from anthropology, cultural history, neuroscience, AI research, linguistics, psychology and philosophy, among others to open up unusual, new perspectives on the meaning crisis of our time. 


This past summer, a colleague from the US sent me a video featuring John Vervaeke in conversation with Nora Bateson. “Do you know him? He seems to be talking about exactly what you are most interested in,” she wrote. I watched, and thanks to the algorithms of Youtube, I found more—a lot more—from this cognitive scientist. Soon, I was hooked. With enormous erudition and expertise, here was someone talking about the roots of our current crises: climate and health, global poverty and the wealth gap, addiction and suicide (that aren’t talked about much), the sense of loss, abandonment, and nihilism amidst a perceived system collapse. All of these, he argued, have to do with a deep crisis of meaning. Vervaeke addressed things of which I had been aware, but much of which I was unaware. During the interview we ultimately did on the subject, he summed up his view this way: “We are suffering from a wisdom famine in the West.”

John Vervaeke

A crisis of wisdom as the defining crisis of our time? This diagnosis, and from a scientist and scholar at that, is unusual. The wisdom traditions of the great religions play an outsider’s role in modern Western culture. They do not determine our culture. Science, psychology and even the multitude of modern and postmodern therapies and social practices, have not been able to fill the vacuum. 

In our secular culture, wisdom is rather a private pleasure. So, the fact that a scientist like John Vervaeke engages the need for wisdom from a contemporary, scientific standpoint allows us to talk about it in a new way. Can we succeed in bringing wisdom back into the mainstream as a core value? To answer this question, I invited Vervaeke, through his interview with me, his book (co-authored with Christopher Maestropietro), and some of his Youtube oeuvre, to share his understanding of the meaning crisis. What have we lost? How can it perhaps be rediscovered in a new way?

The Meaning Crisis

Obviously, something is coming to an end. Western Euro-American culture is deeply unsettled. Before the two world wars, the West’s self-image as the cultural future of the world was still intact. While the world wars, the Holocaust, and the Gulag thoroughly shook this self-image in Europe, the Western project was carried on in the 1950s by America and her promise of a new world of freedom and a golden future. That, too, has changed. 

Our growing awareness of the impact on the Earth of fossil fuels, habitat destruction, and the failure of many capitalist promises and democratic hopes makes us uneasy. We no longer believe in ourselves. We are “strangers” in our own world. In the first centuries of Modernity, Christian values gave us a clear moral context. Today, with the exception of a few fundamentalists, we have moved away from this rigid set of values. Enlightenment values, with their colonial history, are also on trial. Our faith in progress has been shaken. Who are we? And who do we want to be?

But this loss of faith in technology and progress is only the latest of many “domicides”—killing of home—that has shaped the European tradition. Over the course of history, we Westerners have become more and more disconnected from deeper, living sources of meaning. “With the Enlightenment and the move to a secular world, we lost a religious worldview that homed us and gave us access to wisdom,” Vervaeke observes. “We have tried to replace that worldview with political structures and socioeconomic structures that are supposed to do the same thing. In modernity, politics is basically ideological competition. While it claims to be addressing the human pursuit of happiness, whatever that’s supposed to mean, it has degenerated into ideological competition, and it thwarts us and blinds us to the level at which we need to address the issues we’re talking about here. So, the rise of secularism and the secular state with its sociopolitical discourse and ideological competition has accelerated our disconnectedness in a profound way.” 

Connectedness gives us meaning, and is the core of wisdom. “Wisdom doesn’t just mean having discernment,” he explains. “It means dealing with the things that cut us off from connectedness, which is ultimately the meaning in life.” 

The wisdom traditions

The first wisdom traditions were, of course, shamanic traditions. About 40,000 years ago, during the Upper Paleolithic, humans discovered the symbolic world—art, language, rituals, and shamanic trance. Shamans traveled to unknown, meaningful spirit worlds with their magical rites, which for Vervaeke resemble what we know as flow experiences. Returning from these worlds, the shamans would impart meaning and wisdom to their people through their insights. 

With the historical development of the first great empires, many of these small regional societies disintegrated, and with them their indigenous practices for interpreting the world. The final defining event of this transition to a new age was the conquest of much of Eurasia by Alexander the Great. It brought a synthesis of many regional god worlds within a new, Hellenistic world. In this Hellenistic Axis period, an early form of globalization, Vervaeke sees a first case of “domicide,” the murder of home, for these local, small-scale cultures. The old, regional myths struggled to continue to make sense in this new world as they had been able to for thousands of years.

Yet, out of this historical crisis arose the Axial Revolution, which gave birth to the wisdom traditions of the great world religions, including Greek philosophy, Buddha’s path of salvation, prophetic Judaism, and later Christianity or Islam, as well as Confuscianism and Taoism in East Asia. Their paths to wisdom were new. Greek philosophy, in particular, developed a new worldview, that was a double world: ordinary life and a symbolic reality connected to vertical transcendence through which humans could transform and become wise. 

While we might have an intuitive understanding of “worldview,” Vervaeke and Maestropietro bring a cognitive science precision to the term in their book Zombies in Western Culture. “A worldview is two things simultaneously: (1) a model of the world and (2) a model for acting in that world. It turns the individual into an agent who acts, and it turns the world into an arena in which those actions make sense.” The congruence between “agent” and “arena” leads to meaning in life. They “mutually make sense of one another, and ratify each other’s existence and intelligibility.” A worldview has the capacity to configure meaning, to make sense, in both small and significant ways: “a man cuts some flowers and carries them to his dwelling. He gives the flowers to the woman who dwells there with him. [Within] their worldview, an otherwise rudimentary act becomes the prism for a transfiguration that deepens the nature of their relation to one another. With the giving of the flowers, many significations take place: the man is transformed into the lover, she into the beloved, their dwelling into a home, and the flowers into a celebration.” 

Wolrdviews give meaning. They show us the meaning of the world. The worldviews that emerged with the Axial Age allowed humans to express agency in a new way. They afforded a greater complexity and differentiation through the journey of life. Even more than shamanic practices, the new religions were now about personal transformation. They offered us wisdom to open ourselves to a more essential reality so that we could become wiser human beings. In Plato’s world of ideas, we could become one with the idea of Good. Or in the Israelites’ Great History, we could connect to the one God who leads us in the course of time to future salvation. Thus, we could became part of the righteous trajectory of history. The meaning of the world was revealed through our connection with these new essential realities. Rituals, practices and schools of living opened us to this other, deeper or higher world, so that the existential knowledge of its truth could help us be ethical and wise human beings.

“The worldview is the cultural analogue of an ecology,” the two write. “The attunement between the agent and the arena mirrors the Darwinian fittedness between an organism and its ecological niche. A fluid worldview is akin to a healthy and balanced ecology. Just as there is the possibility for an ecological crisis, there is also a possibility for a worldview crisis.” 

Today we are in a period of globalization that dwarfs Alexander’s conquest. Again, we are in the midst of a worldview crisis. Moreover, the world of science, secularism, politics, and economics does not afford us the essential, existential support that the religious traditions did. We have once again lost our home. We are strangers. 

Information replaces wisdom

The tale of how the West killed God and replaced him with a secular culture and a scientific materialistic worldview has been told in many ways—including in the pages of this magazine. From the perspective of cognitive science, the central players in this saga are not just the usual culprits—Descartes, Newton, Kant—but are ways of knowing. The form of knowledge behind our information society is what Vervaeke calls “propositional knowledge.” This knowledge is based on facts and naming: The rock is dolomite. A human fetus takes approximately nine months to gestate before birth. Vitamin D can strengthen the immune system. “We tend to overemphasize propositional knowledge: We have sentences that give us certain beliefs, and then we classify them into theories, etc.” explains Vervaeke. “I am a scientist, so I think propositional knowledge is great. I am not trying to condemn that.” The problem is not with propositional knowledge per se. The problem is that we have lost other forms of knowledge that allow us to experience our connection with ourselves, each other, and the worlds we are embedded in. 

In a remarkable and ironic twist, cognitive science’s failure to create a human-like artificial intelligence that led Vervaeke and his peers in the field to hone in on the limits of the fact-based, propositional thinking that is core to scientific thought. “The worldview within which our wisdom traditions were born has been significantly undermined for complex historical reasons,” he notes. “This has to do with things like the emergence of the scientific worldview and dissolution of the monasteries due to the Protestant Reformation. And the separation of philosophy from a system of transformative practices—in fact, Epicurus still called the philosopher the doctor of the soul.” What is left is information, not wisdom: “People know where to go to find information. But when we ask, Where do you go for wisdom?, the answer is: I don’t know. People grab from here and grab from there in an autodidactic and often fragmentary fashion, which has a tremendous capacity to exacerbate self-deception.” 

He continues: “As we lost the religious worldview, we lost a language of two worlds, which was a mythological way of saying that certain truths are only available through deep transformation, deep transcendence. As we lost the mythology of the supernatural, we lost a way of making transformative truth and the cultivation of wisdom intelligible. This has been massively accelerated with the rise of secularism. The loss of the religious worldview—what Peter L. Berger calls the ‘sacred canopy’—and its replacement with the economic market state is actually incapable of addressing the loss that has occurred. It doesn’t tap into the transformative truths and the cultivation of wisdom that are needed. The last place I would look for wisdom is from politicians or from the market.”

Forms of lost knowledge

Despite this loss, there is no turning back. “In The Plague, Camus wrote: Learning how to be a saint without God was the whole problem he was up against,” Vervaeke mentions with both humor and sincerity. “How can one genuinely become a sage within the scientific worldview? What would that actually mean?” The answer, he believes, lies within the science itself. “Cognitive science is showing us more and more what propositional knowledge is based on. So, we have a new view of ourselves coming out of science that tells us: Yes, we can’t go back to the religious worldview. But could we capture, could we recover, could we reinvent it?”

Thus, Vervaeke expands the possibilities of knowledge. Cutting-edge cognitive science—the Four E’s—reveal the “central features” of human cognition as embodied, embedded, enacted, extended. Meaning, in short, that “the brain and body as an integrated dynamical system as a self-organizing system.” Taking this further, he refers to the work of Francesco Varela and Evan Thompson, who hypothesize that there is “a deep continuity between the biology of the body and the cognition of the brain—that the principles and patterns and processes of biology are foundational to cognition.” In fact, “there’s a deep continuity between the way biological life self-organizes and the way cognition self-organizes, which means there is a deep interconnection and interdependence between the functioning of your brain and the functioning of your body.” 

He explains this another way. In addition to the propositional, i.e., fact statements based on observation and rationality, he points to three other forms of knowledge: procedural, perspectival, and participatory. As he explains, “In propositional knowledge, our memory is a system of facts, like ‘cats are mammals.’ But procedural knowledge is a skill memory. Procedural knowledge is knowing how to catch a baseball, how to ride a bike, knowing how to do something. You have a skill, and it’s not true or false. The question is: how powerful is the skill?  How well does it fit to the world? That’s procedural. Next, your skill knowledge depends on your situational awareness. You have to have a situational awareness that tells you which skills you should apply and which skills you should acquire and to what degree. 

“Situational awareness depends on what we call perspectival knowing. Perspectival knowing is what it’s like to be here now: what’s foregrounded, what’s backgrounded, what’s salient, what’s relevant? Perspectival knowing is your salient landscaping in a particular context from a particular state of mind. That’s your situational awareness. Now that, in turn, is ultimately dependent on how biology, culture, and your fluid intelligence are shaping you in the environment, so they fit each other so that it creates affordances. For example, a cup is graspable to me as a cup that I can use to solve the problem of drinking.”

Here, with the cup, another form of knowledge is at work. “That’s participatory knowing. The world and I are being shaped to each other biologically, culturally, and cognitively. That’s your participatory knowing. This is knowing by conforming to and co-identifying with things, and it generates affordances for you.” Religious practices that bring us into connection, that facilitate our capacity to create and connect to worlds of meaningfulness engage participatory knowledge. Finally, he notes, “All of these forms of knowing are dynamically developmental and constantly evolving in nature.”

How can we become wise?

How can we re-engage in culturally relevant practices that foster wisdom? “I like the Latin word inventio,” says Vervaeke, “which means both to invent and to discover. Could we re-inventio those functions that were present in those religious worldviews without committing to their metaphysics?” What would that mean? He wants to support the emergence of “a religion without religion”—an ecology of communities that are all engaging in ecologies of transformative practices. As he explains: “Can we find bottom-up emergence—new forms of practices, new ecologies of practices, new communities of practitioners—that are trying to train people in the transformation of perspectival and participatory knowing so as to reduce their self-deception ad enhance their sense of connectedness to themselves, to each other in the world?” 

He answers his own question: it’s already happening. The human need for wisdom—to live in creative connection in deep and enlivening ways—is too strong to be left behind. Wisdom is the antidote to the self-deception of separation, division, and disconnection. He points to different arenas where human agency is accessing perspectival and participatory knowledge in the service of transformation: the Mindfulness Revolution, the embodiment and movement scene, new engagement with indigeneity and nature, and dialogue practices. These are all part of what he calls a “cognitive scientific worldview that properly homes this community of wisdom practices.”

Mindfulness, for Vervaeke, is central. In fact, one could say that the mindfulness movement broke the spell of separation, opening us to a space of being beyond mere mental activity. “With mindfulness,” he says, “I can break out of egocentric bias and that will actually afford me overcoming a lot of self-deception and it also enhances my connectedness to the world.” Mindfulness is a “higher order practice” that enables a meta perspective on one’s self and one’s arena of action. “This is why perspectival knowing and the ability to transform it is so central to the cultivation of wisdom,” he notes.  

“People are creating ecologies of practices that engage in transformative participatory knowing,” he tells us. “For example, Rafe Kelly does parkour with people in nature as a way of bringing back the procedural and, especially, the perspectival and the participatory knowing in a lived, engaged manner. Movement for meaning is now one of the biggest things that’s happening. The movement and the mindfulness communities are also now deeply talking to each other.” 

Autopoetically, initiatives are emerging—a movement of complex self-organizing across Western culture—to go beyond the propositional world of information. “There are attempts that are all trying to get back to ways of using language and texts like before the 11th century,” which is when monks read sacred texts aloud together to be touched by the word of God. 

Dialogue or “the emergence of discourse practices” also catches Vervaeke’s attention. “They are using language not for the garnering of information and propositions, but for coupling to others, for transformation, for perspectival and participatory knowing. People feel that they are becoming really present and connected to themselves, to each other, and to something that transcends them, that they can matter to and belong to, that draws them beyond themselves in real transcendence.” He offers examples: “authentic relating, circling, and your emergent dialogue.” 

Stealing the culture

How do we get from these disparate groups developing these new wisdom practices to an actual culture shift? Vervaeke’s answer surprised me. “I call it stealing the culture. What I mean is something analogous to what Christianity did in the ancient world where it stole the culture from the pagan worldview. There was no political revolution and no one was proposing how to reorganize the state. Instead, there were a bunch of communities of practice and transformation that rehomed people, teaching them through agape that they could be persons whereas the existing worldview said that they were not persons. The communities started networking together.”

While at first, I was skeptical, the more I contemplate Vervaeke’s response, the more it makes deep sense to me. He’s inviting us to engage, to do our own work in creating communities of practice, and in networking across communities. But more than that, he’s inviting us to trust and, importantly, to support the autopoetic nature of the life process itself—which seems to be moving us in the direction of connection through mindfulness, movement, nature, and dialogue. The emergence of transformative, participatory processes can be what leads us into deeper living, evolving connection. “Thus, at the birth of Christianity, there was a bottom-up transformation associated with the top-down perspective of Neoplatonic philosophy.” 

This got me thinking: we don’t really know how to create change at the level it is needed to rehome ourselves and protect our home, Earth. But as Vervaeke argues: “The Axial Revolution, the Christian Revolution of late antiquity, and the Renaissance, all show that there are ways of rehoming people in a cultural, cognitive way that is very different from the standard political, socio-economic proposals that we have now.” Right—these grand historical movements that produced new ways of understanding our selves and our world were not won through battle. They were won through the creation of new practices and openings to the sacredness of connection. That is very relevant to us now. Each of us can meaningfully take part in this process—John Vervaeke has just shown us how.  

This article is reproduced with permission from Evolve magazine, where it was originally published.

Artwork by Sunil Sigdel and Kurchi Dasgupta.

Dancer, Kirstie Simson, photograph, Harry Jordan.

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Picture of Thomas Steininger

Thomas Steininger

Picture of Thomas Steininger

Thomas Steininger