Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 3 — Continuous Cosmos and Modern World Grammar (Summary & Notes)

“A lot of what you think is natural to you — just part of how your mind works — is actually culturally internalized. It has been generated historically and you have internalized it culturally”

(In case you missed it: Summary & Notes for Ep. 2:

Ep. 3— Awakening from the Meaning Crisis — Continuous Cosmos and Modern World Grammar [55:59]

  • The mythological framework created by people starts to change, the myths they use to frame their world (myth not in the modern sense of ‘a falsehood that is widely believed’ but rather symbolic stories about perennial patterns that are always with us.)
  • Creation of myth is an attempt to take intuitive, implicitly learned patterns and put them in some form that is shareable
  • “Continuous Cosmos” — coined by Charles Taylor. The idea that humans experience themselves in radical continuity, a sense of connectedness. People feel there’s a deep connection between the natural world and the cultural world, and the world of the gods. This allows for notions of talking animals or humans that are divine, etc. (e.g. pharaohs in ancient Egypt, god-kings) Differences between things are a matter of degree not of kind. These were not metaphors.
  • Differences come down to the amount of power things have. Gods have more power than humans, but otherwise all part of the same “thing.” (This is also why you see morally flawed gods in Greek myth, for example. Still ‘glorious’ and powerful though)
  • It’s continuous in another way — it moves in cycles that repeat through time for eternity. This continuous cycle is the power of creation, which humans try to tap into. There’s a constant nostalgia for ‘getting back’ to the harmony of these fundamental cycles.
  • In the Axial Age, this way of looking at things is largely shattered. A new worldview comes into play. “The Great Dis-Embedding.” It’s replaced by a mythology of two worlds. Every Day World (Of the untrained mind — self-deception, illusion, violence, chaos… out of touch with reality) and Real World (How the trained mind sees the world. The sense of how things ‘really’ are, with reduced suffering and violence because the mind is not out of touch with reality.)
  • Tapping into the Real World is a type of wisdom captured in our word ‘prudence’: to know how to fit into the power structures of society, how to make things work for you, to get the most power and prosperity you can. Wanting to be in touch with Reality is one of our most powerful drives.
  • The old shamanic enacted myth of ‘soul flight’ is being exapted into this sense of self-transendence. Wisdom now means: knowing how to make that transformative leap. Meaning isn’t about unified connectedness anymore, but rather a connection to the Real World as opposed to a detrimental connectedness to a meaningless world.
  • The notion of your ‘self’ is changing too, defined more by how you can self-transcend. How you can grow as a person. This has become pervasive in our modern self-understanding. (We don’t like to be around people who aren’t growing. Growing UP. Being more ‘in touch’ with themselves. ‘Maturing’. etc.)
  • The old shamanic ability has been exapted into this new mythological framework.
  • This Axial Revolution took place in Greece and Israel (also China, which will be touched on later esp. in regard to Taoism) — homes of some of our most enduring foundational myths, deeply constituent of how we are. India is also the source of the mindfulness revolution.
  • “A lot of what you think is natural to you — just part of how your mind works — is actually culturally internalized. It has been generated historically and you have internalized it culturally” e.g. it’s difficult for you to remember thinking in non-literate terms. Literacy has completely pervaded your sense of what it is to think. So many psychotechnologies have become second nature to us.
  • A foreshadowing of the Meaning Crisis we’ll get to: this new mythology is failing for us now. The scientific worldview is destroying the possibility for us. It’s returning us to a Continuous Cosmos. There is no radical difference between you and the primates you evolved from, for example. Mind and body. Science is leveling the world.
  • Mythologies need to be livable. “Don’t tell me what you believe, tell me what you can practice.” For most of us we can’t live in this new leveled world. We are going through a Re-embedding. Copernicus, Darwin, Einstein… all re-embed us back into the physical world but we don’t want to lose all that we gained through the Great Dis-Embedding. How do we reconcile those? That’s part of the problem.
  • Ancient Israel. The degree to which you don’t grasp the grammar of the Bible is the degree to which you don’t grasp the grammar of your own cognition. (This isn’t to say you need to be Christian or Jewish, this is re: the mythology. Irrelevant to atheism, etc.) Grammar is how you put thoughts together.
  • This is what Nietzsche meant when he said “I fear we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in grammar.” e.g. you go to a movie. Someone falls in some way, and then they have an insight, and they are redeemed, and they find their way back… That’s Biblical grammar. (What matters here is how it shapes our sense and world, not about what you believe or don’t believe.)
  • Ancient Israel brought an important psychotechnology: understanding time as a cosmic narrative — as a story. This is a big deal, and not inevitable or obvious. Beginning, climax/turning point, resolution. There’s a direction and purpose to it. You get a sense of a “cosmic history” of how the cosmos is extending through time. A radical idea. No more repeating cycles, in fact the cycles now feel purposeless and terrifying. Here the future is open. Your actions now, if you figure out how to participate in the story, can change the future.
  • Stories operate in terms of meaning and morality. “The moral content of your actions decide how things are going to go.”
  • We have now moved from a mythology where gods were of a place or a thing (god of weaving, god of war, god of Thebes, etc.) to a god not bound to time and place. (e.g. Old Testament God, the the God of Exodus, comes down and liberates the people with a vision of the future — a Promised Land. This is why he had no name for a long time, because that would tie it down. The eventual name in Hebrew really means ‘I will be what I will be.’)
  • As you read through the Old Testament God becomes more and more Axial. A deity of Progress. And we still feel this deeply. (“Is your life progressing, or is it stuck? Are you moving forward?” Etc.
  • Turning Points. These are where The Course turns, where something is learned or solved and there is a resolution. But even we know this isn’t really how life works, even though we love watching movies that play out this way. The technical turn for these turning points is called Kairos. (Created by theologian Paul Tillich)
  • Da’aath. People note that in the Bible when people have sex it’s with the word ‘knowing.’ “Adam knew his wife Eve.” You are participating in them, identifying with them, empathizing, resonating… changing them while they change you, which rises to a climax and a resolution.
  • Faith didn’t used to mean ‘believing in things for which there is no evidence’. That’s a recent idea. Faith was your sense of Da’aath, the sense that you’re on course and involved and evolving with things. Knowing what to do at turning points, who you need to change into. We think this way in terms of relationships still — how it’s going, is this relationship on course, is it progressing, is this the kind of person I want to be, is it going well, etc. That’s Da’aath.
  • Sin in the original meaning is the sense that you’re off the path (not the modern sense of just doing something immoral.) If I become self-deluded I can become off course without realizing it. In this new Biblical paradigm, it means God must intervene. So in the Old Testament you have the creation of the prophetic tradition. The prophet.
  • Prophecy isn’t about telling you what’s going to happen, but rather a telling forth. The job of the prophet is to wake you up right now to how you are off course. Not a fortune teller, a closer analogy might be a therapist who wakes you up to something you needed to see and be made aware of. To get back on track.
  • There is increasing emphasis on the morality of human decision-making. The importance of waking up to your moral responsibility of helping everybody to get back on track and turn things back toward the Promised Land. Justice. Righteousness. Again, this aligns to how we naturally think about ourselves and how our lives are progressing. (And how our society is progressing) Do you feel like you’re “living up to your promise”? That very way of thinking is part of the grammar we have inherited from the Hebrews.
  • Christianity then came and claimed this Kairos (turning point/change-agent) was found in a particularly person. A radical claim that personalizes this whole concept in a dramatic way.
  • Ancient Greece. The Greeks in their Axial Revolution added vowels to the alphabet. When you add vowels you increase how easy it is to process information. This gives the human brain an enhanced sense that you are in-touch with things, with reality.
  • Fluency, a concept from cognitive science. With increased ease of information processing (regardless of what that information is) people tend to regard it as more real and have more trust in it. Font contrast, color contrast for instance, helps here. (study found that the easier to read a piece of text is based on how much it contrasts with the background, that person when asked will judge what they read as being more true than the person who had a tougher time making out the letters. More confidence in it.) You can increase cognitive fluency in a number of ways. (Lots of fluency = the flow state.)
  • The Greeks also standardized reading from left to right, which we now take for granted (Hebrews read the other way, and Egyptian Hieroglyphics could be read a number of directions). Standardization here increased fluency further.
  • Greek city-states, which compete with one another, eventually leads (in Athens in particular) to the rise of democracy, which among other things puts a premium on argumentation and debate. Greeks speed up the Axial Revolution of their own cognition, enhancing the abilities of reason and reflection. Greeks invent mathematics, geometry, abstract symbol systems for their own sake. New psychotechnology created: the capacity for rational argumentation. This explicit training of this as a core psychotechnology in Ancient Greece has important consequences.
  • Pythagoras and Socrates were both pivotal here. Pythagoras belongs to a group called The Divine Men. They seem to represent a rediscovery of shamanic psychotechniques. He seems to have gone through something called ‘the thunderstone ceremony’ that involved isolation and radical transformation. He talked about the psyche being able to be liberated from the body. He discovers the octave — that there are mathematical proportions to the world, which give us access to abstract patterns that were are not otherwise aware of. He links these to the shamanic ability to engage in self-transcendence, that we can learn to fly free from this world we seem to be trapped in.
  • Pythagoras also gave us the word “cosmos,” which he uses to describe the universe. (“Cosmetics” comes from “cosmos” — cosmetics reveal the beauty of things, how beautiful and ordered they are) So we can transcend and see the universe as a “cosmos.”
  • Socrates. Epitomizes the Greek form of the Axial Revolution. Plato later combines Socrates and Pythagoras — our modern thinking, the grammar of our thinking, is very socratic & platonic.

Next up: Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 4 (Summary & Notes)

List of Books in the Video:

  • Carl Jung — Man and His Symbols
  • Friedrich Nietzsche — Twilight of Idols and Anti-Christ
  • Paul Tillich — Systematic Theology

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