Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 38 — Agape and 4E Cognitive Science (Summary & Notes)

Mark Mulvey
6 min readAug 23, 2022


“Your body is a bioeconomy that enacts logistical norms of efficiency and resiliency that constrain your cognition so that it continually evolves its fittedness to the world.”

(In case you missed it: Summary & Notes for Ep. 37:

Ep. 38 — Awakening from the Meaning Crisis — Agape and 4E Cognitive Science [59:07]

  • Historical Forces: We’ve lost the nomological (which gives us the deep sense of coherence, connectedness), the normative order (which gives us the sense of significance, depth), and the narrative order (which gives us a sense of purpose, direction)
  • The loss of these historical forces interacts with an exacerbates attempts that individuals or groups have in addressing perennial problems. This reciprocating cycle is when the meaning crisis starts to take hold. (It gnaws at you as a person or a community or group.”)
  • This interaction brings up a particular problem (this draws on the seminal work of Susan Wolf, captured in the book Meaning in Life and Why It Matters). She says that meaning in life is ultimately about a deep connectedness that we want. That we want subjective attraction to objective attractiveness. But that because of the 3 historical forces, we know there is no such thing as objective attractiveness.
  • “This issue is an issue in which historical forces prevent the fundamental legitimation of the whole project that we would try to use to address the perennial problems.”
  • Do we need things to be objectively valuable? Instead of thinking of objective value we could think of the set of characteristics that would need to exist in order for meaning to be created. It’s the transjectivity of the relationship between subjective & objective attractiveness that we should be interested in.
  • “When we care to create the conditions of meaning-making because we find them inherently valuable — because that is constitutive of our capacity to be agents and value anything else — when we’re doing that what we’re actually engaging in is agape. Agape is to love for its own sake the process of meaning-making, and the process of meaning-making is the process of being a person.”
  • Meaning-making is not subjective or arbitrary, it’s transjective. It is, in that sense, transcendental.
  • In 2000, a semi-autobiographical article by Francisco Varela (a founding figure of 3rd generation/4E cognitive science) was published where he talks about the key insights of what was then the newly emerging field of 3rd generation cog sci and unpack the 4E’s: embodiment, embeddedness, enactive, and extended. (See Evan Thompson’s book Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind for an overview of the “deep continuity hypothesis”: the continuity between the principles of cognition, biology, and dynamical self-organizing physical systems)
  • From Varela, on one of the 4E’s, embodiment: “Mind is not programmed software or rule-bound manipulation of symbols. Instead, the mind arises through immediate coping with the world.” Use of the word “coping” here suggests that he’s trying to remind us of the other kinds of knowing, and that to be a general problem-solver and a knowing cognitive agent is to have this ongoing, evolving fittedness.
  • cognition → RR → bioeconomy. Vervaeke argues that “your body is a bioeconomy that enacts logistical norms of efficiency and resiliency that constrain your cognition so that it continually evolves its fittedness to the world.” That there is a deep continuity between cognition and biology, and the biology is deeply embedded. Continual niche construction. (for more on this, see Challenging the Modern Synthesis: Adaptation, Development, and Inheritance, edited by Philippe Huneman and Denis Walsh.)
  • organism ⇄ environment. The organism is shaping and selecting the environment and the environment is shaping and selecting the organism. A transjective, evolving loop. Niche construction. RR can be thought of as a species of niche construction, albeit a comprehensive one.
  • (Mark Rowlands argues that embeddedness sort of reduces to embodiment in his book: The New Science of the Mind: From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology)
  • Notice how all this connectedness undermines how Descartes severed everything.
  • The second insight Varela brings up is emergence. The idea that a self-organizing system can produce properties as a system that the component parts can’t possess. Vervaeke has argued that emergence occurs as a result of the complexification inherent in your RR machinery.
  • self-organizing (evolution) → self-making (developmental, autopoetic) → self-identifying (reflective)
  • Varela’s third insight is emotion. (Antonio Damasio talks about some of this in his book Decartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain.) That without emotion — the caring that is integral to RR — you face combinatorial explosion. “There is a deep interconnection between being embodied, being a relevance realizer, and having emotions.”
  • “Emotion is a way in which RR is brought up into the level of your salience landscaping. What emotions do is they shape and sculpt the salience landscaping such that an agent-arena relationship becomes obvious and apparent to you. When you’re angry you assume a particular role, you assign a bunch of identities, and it’s obvious to you what you should be doing.”
  • Within religio you always have caring↔coping. That’s the core of your cognitive agency.
  • Emotion is also how we coordinate the attachment relationships between individuals such that we create persons. Persons who are capable of dwelling within and coordinating their efforts within distributed cognitions. Persons within communities of persons.
  • Varela’s last insight is excellence. This has to do with connections between 3rd Gen/4E cognitive science and an aspect of psychology known as positive psychology.
  • Standard psychology studies the mind by how it breaks down, and this is for two reasons: because then we can analyze it and so understand how its parts work, and that by knowing how they work we could potentially intervene and fix it. (Therapeutic intervention) Positive psychology says that you shouldn’t study the mind only in terms of how it breaks down, but also how it excels beyond the norm. How does it transcend itself. How does it excel. This can reveal properties and powers you don’t see in the norm.
  • Positive psychology studies things like happiness, meaning in life, and wisdom. “Wisdom is the term we give for people who are excellent in their cognitive capacities for coping and caring, and for responding to issues of self-deception, and helping people deal with the perennial problems of human existence.”
  • Ursula Goodenough in her book The Sacred Depths of Nature talks about how, as a scientist, she’s trying to recover sacredness, awe, and wonder in a way that helps her cultivate wisdom. Transcendence is integral to this, and she talks about a new type of transcendence: not transcendence above, but transcendence into. Into the depths of nature and, Vervaeke argues, into the depths of the psyche.
  • The order that remains for us now is the narrative order. This points us toward a cosmic telos, but evolution and RR are non-teleological. They’re open-ended. We should think of the narrative order instead as more to do with gnosis. An open-ended optimization. We may need symbols and stories for this, but we need not think of those symbols and stories as existing independently from the structure of reality.
  • “Is it possible to move to a post-narrative way of being where we are not concerned with our historical narrative — our horizontal identity — but we’re concerned with the depths to which we are capable of living?” (You see this in Stoicism and Buddhism)
  • “Perhaps instead we can move beyond a narrative way of conforming to reality to a post-narrative: the kind of experience people have in high states of consciousness where the narrative drops away and nevertheless they experience themselves as deeply connected, deeply at one with themselves and with reality, and that this seems to have given their life these moments of significance.”
  • fluency → insight → flow → mystical experiences → higher states of consciousness

Next up: Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 39— The Religion of No Religion (Summary & Notes)

List of Books in the Video:

  • Susan Wolf — Meaning in Life and Why It Matters
  • Evan Thompson — Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind
  • Philippe Huneman and Denis Walsh (editors) — Challenging the Modern Synthesis: Adaptation, Development, and Inheritance
  • Mark Rowland — The New Science of the Mind: From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology
  • Antonio Damasio — Decartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain
  • Ursula Goodenough — The Sacred Depths of Nature



Mark Mulvey

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