In reflecting on the conversation between John Vervaeke and Sohrab Ahmari, Erik Strandness shares why he thinks the answer to the meaning crisis is to be found in wisdom, and that wisdom is to be found a from source that we might not first expect.
Crisis of Meaning
The West is experiencing a crisis of meaning characterized by increasing levels of anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicide. Yet, while the world goes on despairing, optimists such as philosopher Stephen Pinker, make the case that the world is becoming safer, kinder, and smarter. If our civilization is getting healthier then why is our mental health on life support? What’s going on?
Psychology professor John Vervaeke and Sohrab Ahmari, author of The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the wisdom of tradition in an age of chaos, met to discuss this crisis and offer ancient wisdom as the antidote. While both men agree that wisdom is valuable, they approach it from two different directions. Vervaeke is interested in the primal roots of wisdom and offers a psychological theory that he believes can be therapeutic, while Ahmari is more interested in cultivating the lived-out wisdom of influential believers and non-believers from the past and holding them up as role models. Vervaeke is more interested in dissecting the vine while Ahmari wants to harvest the fruit.
Shacking Up with Reality
Dr. Alex Pattakos, in the July, 2017 edition of Psychology Today, explained the crisis of meaning by appealing to the work of renowned psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Victor Frankl, who observed that culture had been afflicted by a “mass neurotic triad” of aggression, addiction, and depression. An unholy trinity, Pattakos labeled a “psychological axis of evil,” that has occupied the “existential vacuum” left behind when meaning was sucked out of our lives.
I, therefore, think an accurate definition of meaning would be the subjective satisfaction one experiences when he or she has successfully navigated the objective, or in Vervaeke’s words, meaning is experienced when one “falls in love with reality.” I would, however, add that in order to properly love reality we must love her for who she is and not who we want her to be and must be committed to her through sickness and health and not treat her as a one-night stand.
If our loss of meaning is the result of a divorce between thought and reality then how do we repair this marriage of meaning? Vervaeke explained our ongoing relationship with reality as a type of courting where we discover her likes and dislikes in order to forge a stronger bond but in the process discover more about ourselves.
“There is a loop between you and the world and what you are doing is you’re shaping that loop in various ways in order to zero in on the relevant information and ignore the irrelevant information…this is the core of our general intelligence…cognitive agency is shaping you so that you can be what you are.”
I would argue that this courting process is what we call “wisdom.” Thankfully, humans have been wooing reality for centuries and left us with a magnificent corpus of ancient dating wisdom, which can be summarized as, wisdom loves reality for who she is while foolishness is thinking we can change her.
I think part of the problem is that people confuse meaning with happiness and reduce love of reality to nothing but an adolescent crush. Scott Barry Kaufman, in a 2016 Scientific American article, points out that happiness is experienced when desires such as pleasure, comfort, financial well-being, and health are met, while meaning is found in things that require work such as forging relationships, extending a helping hand to others, and contemplating life’s great mysteries.
“It seems that happiness has more to do with having your needs satisfied, getting what you want, and feeling good, whereas meaning is more related to uniquely human activities such as developing a personal identity, expressing the self, and consciously integrating one’s past, present, and future experiences…Happiness was related more to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaning was related more to being a giver than a taker.” (Scott Barry Kaufman)
Obsessed with instant gratification our culture encourages us to pursue the sugar high of happiness and neglect the truly nutritive value of meaning. I’m reminded of the movie Super Size Me where the film maker subsisted on nothing but fast food for an entire month and then chronicled his health-related problems. Happiness is gorging on fries and a shake in the moment while meaning is counting the calories of past, present and future. Sadly, our postmodern culture has encouraged happy meals for far too long and we are now experiencing the mental health consequences.
Ships Passing in the Night
In the process of falling in love with reality we sometimes fall in love with the sound of our own voices. Vervaeke noted how easily we can fall prey to self-deception and how we must counter this by developing an “ecology of practices” situated within a “valorizing worldview.” He believes that our current crisis of meaning is the result of a culture that doesn’t have an adequate worldview in which to embed an effective ecology of practices.
“What has happened is that we have lost a worldview that has a proper place and valorizes an ecology of practices for the cultivation of wisdom and the enhancement of meaning.”
The postmodern worldview is inadequate because it suggests that we create our own reality while the modernist worldview is deficient because it states that we merely dance to the tune of our selfish genes. In both cases, thoughts, and reality, subjective and objective, remain ships passing in the night and meaning gets lost at sea. If meaning is citizenship in the space between subject and object, then meaninglessness is the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land. Meaning is navigating, despair is wandering, and it appears that our young people are lost in the wilderness.
Vervaeke understands the mind as the place where the person and reality meet.
“The mind isn’t in your head, it’s between your full person and the world…The mind is more of a conformity theory of knowing rather than a representational theory of knowing.”
He recognizes that meaning is only found when one embraces the connection between the immaterial intelligibility of the universe and the emergent properties of the physical world.
“You have a bottom up causal emergence and a top down real constraint…You have emergence and emanation and they are completely interdependent and interdefining…My ontology has to go up into what is presupposed in the intelligibility of the universe and it also has to reach down to the fundamentals from which things emerge.”
Interestingly, if you strip the academic lingo from Vervaeke’s statement it sounds eerily like St. Paul’s observation that, in him we live and move and have our being. While Vervaeke is an agnostic, he is willing to concede that this space has a religious feng shui.
“Sacredness is an inexhaustible fount of intelligibility…a profound connectedness to reality.”
The only creatures on the planet who contemplate wisdom are humans. Why do we ruminate about our place in the universe when every other creature is content to graze? It seems that courting wisdom is far less evolutionarily efficient than kowtowing to instinct, so what explains our obsession with understanding the connection between thought and reality?
I would argue that the wisdom that we pursue is not only primal but proverbial. In a fascinating passage in the eighth chapter of Proverbs, Wisdom explains its role in God’s larger creative endeavor.
“The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of old.
Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth,
before he had made the earth with its fields,
or the first of the dust of the world.
When he established the heavens, I was there;
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master workman,
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the children of man. (Proverbs 8:22-31, my emphasis)
Wisdom is described as a master workman who was involved in the planning stages of creation. Wisdom, therefore, is infused in the things that have been made and can be easily found when one explores reality in the circles drawn on the deep, the limits assigned to the sea, and the measurements of the foundations of the earth. Perhaps even more surprising are the final verses which describe how God delights in Wisdom and how Wisdom delights in humans. Could it be that this represents the beginning of our love affair with reality?
Ancient of Days
Wisdom is frequently acquired at a higher life price than any college tuition. We seek out wise people to help us see things our limited experience can’t comprehend. Our search for sage advice usually leads us to the elderly because they have already spent a lifetime trying to match reality to their own thoughts and concluded that life only makes sense when they surrender their pride and love reality for who she is and not who they want her to be. Wise people have a glow about them not because they are the brightest bulbs but because of the shimmering purity they achieve once they have passed through the refiner’s fire of reality testing.
Ahmari finds wisdom in the lives and writings of many great women and men of the past while Vervaeke more generically attributes it to the collective consciousness of humans over time. However, what if wisdom had less to do with the accumulation of past human experiences and more to do with the Ancient of Days? If we just honor the wisdom of mere mortals then our foundation remains temporal and mortal, but if we look to God’s wisdom it becomes foundational and eternal.
A Wise Son
What if the space between subject and object, immaterial and material, was a Person? What if the wisdom Vervaeke seeks isn’t human insight but divine revelation? What if the love affair he wants to start with reality was already begun by a God who first loved us?
Thankfully, we have a living God who not only infused His creation with wisdom but passed it on in the the form of His Son. A Son who not only created all things in heaven and on earth but in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
Vervaeke appeals to the four E’s of cognition – embodied, embedded, enacted, and extended as an effective way of understanding how we make sense of the world. Interestingly, Jesus fulfills them all because He was embodied (incarnate), embedded (human), enacted (crucifixion), and extended (resurrection). Our crisis of meaning therefore has a solution and it is secured when we trust in the only One who perfectly navigated that space by reconciling all things unto Himself.
I’m on board with Vervaeke’s appeal to fall in love with reality but I think he misses the point when he treats it like an object and not a person. The crisis of meaning isn’t the result of our inability to fall in love with reality but our failure to believe that it loves us in return with no greater love.
Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.