Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 36 — Religio/Perennial Problems/Reverse Eng. Enlightenment (Summary & Notes)

Mark Mulvey
5 min readJun 21, 2022

“Enlightenment is the set of practices that ameliorate the perennial problems and alleviate us from the stress and suffering that they inflict upon us.”

(In case you missed it: Summary & Notes for Ep. 35:

Ep. 36 — Awakening from the Meaning Crisis — Religio/Perennial Problems/Reverse Eng. Enlightenment [56:15]

  • “Symbols are designed to get me into a trajectory of transframing. They’re designed to enwonder — open up the world — and also grow me so that I can be in that larger world.”
  • “We can use mythos to activate, accelerate, articulate, and appreciate religio.”
  • A different way of thinking about sacredness is as ‘the inexhaustible.’ The inexhaustible aspects of our reality. This sort of turns Kant on its head: every thing is combinatorially explosive, which means there is inherently a “no thing-ness” to all things. So there is real potential of “sacredness” in the world of everyday things.
  • Relevance realization isn’t about detecting or finding something that is relevant. Relevance does not have an essence. RR is an intrinsically evolving process — it functions by evolving.
  • So the process of RR is also inexhaustible because it’s ongoing. It can’t stop. Like a shark that if it stops swimming it drowns.
  • “Only through this mythos do I get the access I need to activate, accentuate, appreciate, accelerate, appreciate my religio. I think that is a completely plausible hypothesis.”
  • “We shouldn’t confuse psycho-cultural indispensability with metaphysical necessity.” e.g. English is indispensable to me (practically speaking, given where we are in history and in the world etc.) but that doesn’t mean that English is metaphysically necessary. It’s also still evolving as a language, in part so that it can stay in touch with the world.
  • “There is an inexhaustibleness to life’s capacity for fittedness.”
  • Now we have a more careful way of explaining the meaning crisis: historical factors have un-homed us (and getting back to sacredness is the deep connectedness that affords us the satisfaction of our being in contact with the world), but now let’s talk about the perennial problems which returns us to that idea that the very machinery that makes us adaptive is the machinery that makes us prone to self-deception and self-destructive behavior.
  • Vervaeke argues that in all cultures across time/place, people are prone to perennial problems. “Ways in which the machinery of relevance realization can drive them into meaninglessness and despair.” These vulnerabilities can deeply undermine our religion & agent-arena relationship. They are perennial because they are inherent in our machinery.
  • Cultures have developed sets of psycho-technologies that help alleviate the suffering of these perennial problems (e.g. in India the rise of Buddhism, etc.); practices for cultivating wisdom and pursing enlightenment.
  • Vervaeke then aims to use these ideas of RR and religio and sacredness to address the perennial problems. To “reverse-engineer” enlightenment.
  • “Enlightenment is the set of practices that ameliorate the perennial problems and alleviate us from the stress and suffering that they inflict upon us.”
  • When it comes to RR and religio there is a functional aspect (self-organizing, self-identification, self-reflection), a structural aspect (the meta-meaning relationship), and a developmental aspect (we’ll come back this one, because we need to unpack the other two first)
  • How can the developmental aspect go awry? The self-organizing aspect can fall prey to parasitic processing, the self-identification aspect to modal confusion, and the self-reflection aspect to the self-reflexiveness gap.
  • That last one we haven’t delved into yet, self-reflection problem. It is typified by one of our greatest tragedies: Hamlet. Hamlet is always reflecting, and is always reflecting on his reflection. Always stepping back & looking at, stepping back & looking at… and therefore becomes incapable of acting. He loses agency.
  • As you open up the reflectiveness gap you gain agency, but as you push it too far you lose agency. So how do you optimize this? How do you get the involvement — the immersion — of the wanton, and the flexibility & self-corrective capacity of Hamlet?
  • Much like there is a tradeoff between exploring & exploiting, and between generalizing & specializing, another tradeoff is between stepping back to look at your cognition to monitor it & stepping through and being involved with intervening in the world. There’s a tradeoff relationship between them.
  • For the structural aspect, here’s how the meta-meaning aspect can go awry: absurdity, anxiety, alienation… all of which show up in domicide, i.e. the loss of the agent-arena relationship.
  • Alienation is when the connectedness between you and other people is lost. Absurdity is when the connectedness between you and the world is lost (which, as we saw, can be pushed into horror). Anxiety is when you are disconnected with your self.
  • The developmental aspect can go awry through existential inertia (when you’re trapped in a worldview and you can’t get out of it) or existential ignorance (When you’re indecisive) .these two things together can be thought of as existential entrapment.
  • Absurdity in particular is at the level of participatory knowing (though technically all of the above is, essentially). Nagel talks about this in his piece The Absurd, and the book The View from Nowhere. Nagel says we behave as if the absurd is a result of our inferential processing (“What I’m experiencing now is irrelevant!”) but that argument doesn’t work. If what’s happening now is irrelevant (notice the language. relevance.) to people a million years from now, the symmetry applies. Their opinion of me a million years into the future is irrelevant to me. If I make no difference to them, they should also make no difference to me.
  • “If your smallness in reality makes you feel absurd or insignificant, then would your life be more meaningful to you if I blew you up to the size of the galaxy? Why would that do anything?”
  • Susan Wolf has argued in her book Meaning in Life & Why it Matters that the sense of being bigger is actually a metaphor for being connected to something larger than oneself, which is ultimately a metaphor for being connected to something that has a value independent of my valuing of it.
  • Absurdity is this clash of perspectives, which is why it can become horror. If you look at a smaller view from the perspective of all of time and history, what’s relevant in the smaller perspective is undermined from the larger perspective.
  • Can we use the same machinery of RR and see how we could engineer a comprehensive response to all of these perennial problems? Instead of making enlightenment this unachievable superlative “that only these superhuman beings in the distant past can achieve,” let’s acknowledge the difficulty with the understanding that actually facilitates us with being able to actually respond.

Next up: Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 37 — Reverse Engineering Enlightenment: Part 2 (Summary & Notes)

List of Books in the Video:

  • Thomas Nagel — The View From Nowhere
  • Susan Wolf — Meaning in Life and Why it Matters



Mark Mulvey

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