Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 34 — Sacredness: Horror, Music, and the Symbol (Summary & Notes)

Mark Mulvey
7 min readFeb 14, 2022

“I think why many people still are so deeply dependent on music, especially when they’re going through any transformative period in their life, is precisely because of the way it puts them back in touch and helps them remember — at least intuitively — some of this machinery of seriously playing with the higher order relevance realization machinery of sacredness.”

(In case you missed it: Summary & Notes for Ep. 33:

Ep. 34 — Awakening from the Meaning Crisis — Sacredness: Horror, Music, and the Symbol [58:40]

  • We talked last time about the numinous. Otto describes the experience of the numinous has having 3 central aspects: mystery, which then has the two poles of being fascinating (supersalient) and horror
  • Quick aside: modern horror movies play on our ancestral fear of predation. Involves hidden monsters and the surprising nature in which they suddenly appear and prey upon its victims, etc. We’re startled, scared… but this is not the horror we’re talking about here. Instead, we’re talking about horror as the sense in which your contact with reality is being challenged or undermined. This sense is less associated with fear and more with insanity or madness. (Though of course there is also the primordial fear of becoming insane)
  • The monster side of horror points to something interesting that goes back tot he work of Mary Douglas: we often find creatures that are inter-categorical for us monstrous. Things that don’t fall into our ready-made categories. (Mary Douglas argues after exploring all of the “unclean” animals in Leviticus (owls, crocodiles…) represent examples that broke the pattern of categorical understanding people had regarding different animal types. These types of things essentially challenged our grip on the world.
  • Before we jump to judgment it’s important to remember that we have similar “purity codes” today. e.g. pitting into a bottle of water and swirling it around and then drinking it seen as gross (even though it’s essentially the same thing as just drinking the water) because different structural-functional distinctions and boundaries have been crossed. “When the spit comes out of me it becomes inter-categorical.” (It’s me, but it’s not me because it’s not inside me…)
  • Mostly we see intercategorical things as “yucky” but when they are really central things and represented as threatening to us then it originally invoked horror for us. e.g. Wolfman is intercategorical between man & wolf, ghosts between living & dead, vampires between living & dead but also being alive as in consuming & being alive as as in generative (they consume but do not produce), etc.
  • (We will eventually get to the zombie as being an intergenerational example of our struggle with the meaning crisis…)
  • All of these aspects of horror point to losing a grip on reality.
  • “Horror is the spaces in our grip on reality through which things can slip.”
  • Returning to the numinous: it’s supersalient and exists as a kind of flow state we’re drawn into, but also has aspects of horror because it shakes at the structure of our worldview.
  • e.g. when there’s an accident on the highway and people people feel compelled to start slowing down. they are fascinated by the accident because they hope to see something horrifying. To maybe see death. Of course they won’t be able to actually see death itself, so it won’t give them a grip on the mystery of death.
  • If you read parts of the Bible there are passages in the Old Testament where God is like this re: the fascinating →”flow” →horror →mystery loop. Weird, strange, horrifying aspects of God. (it’s often translated as having to “fear” God)
  • Too much awe can pass from wonder to horror. (Notice too that awe is the basis for “awesome” but also “awful”)
  • “There‘s a sense of the experience of sacredness that is supposed to take us to the very horizon of our intelligibility, the very precipice of our ability to make sense and make meaning of the world.” The aspect of horror is the realization that we are finally, ultimately, limited.
  • It is (in a technical sense) supposed to humiliate you. Of course the problem for us is we can only hear that word negatively, but humility — a deep appreciation of one’s inescapable limitation — is part of the function of horror.
  • from sacredness we get worldview attunement which homes us against horror, but also the numinous which is designed to do the opposite: to expose/fascinate us with horror. These two things are opponent processes of sacredness. Meta-assimilation vs. meta-accommodation. So sacredness is actually doing higher order relevance realization.
  • This would explain why music is so deeply associated with sacredness. “Music isn’t ‘about’ anything, not in the traditional referential sense. Nevertheless, as Nietzsche said, ‘life would be a mistake without music’ because with music we are playing just with the machinery of salience landscaping for no other reason than its own sake.” “We don’t just think about music, it insinuates its way into our perspectival salience landscape and we embody it — the rhythms, and what’s happening in the music gets sown into our processes of co-identification.”
  • “I think why many people still are so deeply dependent on music, especially when they’re going through any transformative period in their life, is precisely because of the way it puts them back in touch and helps them remember — at least intuitively — some of this machinery of seriously playing with the higher order relevance realization machinery of sacredness.”
  • Shifting now to the role that symbols have in our experience of sacredness. The word “symbol” literally means “to put two things together.” It’s easy to conflate “symbol” with the word “sign” and notions of semiotics, but a sign simply refers while a symbol refers but also exemplifies and invites you to participate in the thing to which it refers. (e.g. a sign for love is a heart design, a symbol of love is actually kissing someone). Symbols do this through metaphor.
  • Metaphors are like a lens through which you look at things and can help certain things become more salient to you about the thing you’re looking at and lead you to an insight.
  • Metaphors are very pervasive and profound, and our current culture has a habit of trivializing them as merely ornamental (much as it does with music, too).
  • We don’t understand how much of our thinking and cognition of the world is being structured by metaphor. (a lot of this references the work of Lakoff & Johnson) e.g. “I’m halfway through this lecture” as if I’m moving through a space. “We’re often much more naturally poetic than we realize”
  • “Attack” the castle and “attack” my argument aren’t the same, but we may actually not notice that we’re using them differently. Alternately you can “criticize” an argument but it wouldn’t sound right to “criticize” a castle. So one meaning isn’t simply being projected up onto another meaning.
  • Consider phrases like “Do you see my point? Do you grasp what I’m saying? Do you understand it? Do you get it.” These are all very different interactions, and yet they all independently converge on “the act of making something intelligible.” What drew these 4 things up to this common, converged meaning? It’s something more than simply projection, there is a constraining element back down from the meaning being projected onto as well.
  • Symbols tap into deeper, more profound metaphors that structure our cognition. “I’m arguing that they not only have a bottom-up emergence but also a top-down emanation.” There is a sense in which both sides are interacting in a powerful way — a much more dynamic account of what’s going on with metaphor.
  • One of the jobs of metaphors are to hold things in mind. To contemplate, say, justice, people often invoke the symbol of the blindfolded woman holding the scales. (We use notions of balance throughout our discussions around justice.)
  • This returns us to something we talked about before: exaptation. (see Michael L. Anderson’s book “After Phrenology”) The idea that your brain is a self-exaptation machine. (recall, as an example, that your tongue has been exapted for speech.) Anderson argues that a lot of what we see in our cognition is circuit reuse: circuits that have been used for one thing get reused — exapted — by reconfiguring their structural-functional organization so that side effects become central effects, and you get a new capacity created that way.
  • e.g. the cerebellum evolved to help you keep your physical balance, but it has since been exapted to balance other deeper aspects of what’s going on in your brain, such as integrating your vision with your working memory so that you can do visual imagery.
  • Think about this idea of balance. “You know what you have to do to be a just person? You have to know how to balance. You have to pick up on and coordinate and smooth out the complex interactions between multiple variables. That’s justice. You know what you can do when you invoke balance — don’t just talk about it but try and participate in it? You can actually do the reverse of exaptation.”
  • With a symbol, you can be deeply participatory. “You are trying to participate in this activation of the very cognitive machinery that is used in both participating in balance and then taking that machinery into being just. Having your perspectival and participatory machinery aligned in a certain way.”

Next up: Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 35 — The Symbol, Sacredness, and the Sacred (Summary & Notes)

List of Books in the Video:

  • Michael Anderson — After Phrenology: Neural Reuse and the Interactive Brain



Mark Mulvey

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