Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 6 — Aristotle, Kant, and Evolution (Summary & Notes)

Part of what makes your life meaningful is that you have cultivated character that allows you to actualize your potential. You’ve created a virtual engine that regulates your development in a way in which you grow up.

(In case you missed it: Summary & Notes for Ep. 5:

Ep. 6— Awakening from the Meaning Crisis — Aristotle, Kant, and Evolution [54.38]

  • Aristotle = student of Plato, though eventually breaking away and famously stating ‘While I love Plato, I love the truth more.’
  • Aristotle’s issue: Plato’s philosophy didn’t really adequately account for change. He was more interested in how things grow, how they develop — relevant for people looking to live a meaningful life, since ‘growth’ is a word used to indicate the presence of meaning in one’s life “and in some sense the developing of wisdom.”
  • Aristotle asked: what makes wood behave more like a chair, as opposed to a table or a ship? This is where we get the notion of actuality. (why does a piece of wood act like a chair, or act like a table, etc.) For Aristotle, the answer was: its form. Which doesn’t mean shape (as it does in the modern sense) but the structural-functional organization.
  • Aristotle invents the idea that the wood is potential. When a thing with potential starts acting like something it begins to have a form. This is where we get the notion of in-formation from. when you put a form into something then you actualize its potential.
  • The Newtonian model of [cause → effect] was becoming successful and overtaking Aristotle’s model, and Kant talks about why this was: it gives us a very simple, obvious way of explaining thing. It prevents circular explanations because it’s linear (a circular explanation assumes the very thing you’re trying to explain in your explanation).
  • Kant coined the term “self-organizing” to describe a tree: leaves are part of what make a tree a tree, but a leaf makes a tree, etc. This is because living things make use of feedback cycles. When you try to give an explanation of a feedback cycle you fall into a circular explanation. So Kant came to the conclusion that there could not be a science of living things. So for a long time there was a gap between biology and physics.
  • If we don’t untangle this we can’t get closer to meaning, since it’s so tied up with growth and change in how wand why we are the way we are.
  • So where is the flaw? The Newtonian model of causation (cause → effect). Why? (Alicia Juarrero makes use of an important idea from Aristotle in order to solve this problem: she makes a distinction between causes and constraints.) Causes =events, constraints =conditions. Constraints don’t make things happen, they make things possible.
  • Aristotle considers constraints more important. E.g. Why does a tree have the form it does? Why does it grow in a way that the branches spread their leaves out? Because they’re trying to change the possibility of a photon hitting a chlorophyll molecule. The structure of the tree shapes (constrains) the possibility of the events.
  • This isn’t a circular explanation, because it talks about two different things: actuality and potentiality.
  • This whole distinction is essential to science. (i.e. it’s not just an abstract concept). e.g. kinetic vs. potential energy. Or Newton’s equation F=ma — it’s not an event, it puts a limit on what’s possible in the world.
  • There are actually two types of constraints (as Juarrero points out): enabling constraints and selective constraints. These make outcomes more likely or less likely respectively. This underlies one of the most powerful theories of biology/science: natural selection. Darwin’s theory is probably the first example of dynamical systems theory in all of science.
  • The feedback cycle in evolution is sexual reproduction. Re-production.
  • Early on in life there’s not much evolution because there isn’t much scarcity of resources. Scarcity of resources reduces the amount of options for a system. Selection = reduces options. Variation = increases options. Darwin’s idea depends so much on Aristotelian ideas.
  • Selection = virtual governor (as Juarrero puts it) i.e. a device that limits what you can do in a system (in steam engines, etc.). Reproduction is, then, a virtual generator. Combine them in a system so you’re systematically regulating a feedback cycle, you have a virtual engine. This is a dynamical systems theory.
  • Aristotle adds something to the Socratic definition of wisdom: development. How do growth/meaning develop. What he gets into is the notion of character. Not your personality, but that aspect of you that you can cultivate (if only subconsciously or indirectly).
  • There is a connection between character and virtue (not a coincidence that we have the idea of a virtual engine above!). Not an event, but a set of conditions that have been cultivated systematically in a person. The virtual engine of an individual’s personal development.
  • “Let’s ask a Socratic question: we spend a lot of time on our appearance, on our status… how much time did you spend today on your character?”
  • One of the most trenchant criticisms we can make of someone is that they are not living up to their potential. “Part of what makes your life meaningful is that you have cultivated character that allows you to actualize your potential. You’ve created a virtual engine that regulates your development in a way in which you grow up.” Self-organization has been regulated and shaped into self-improvement.
  • akrasia — a deep form of foolishness that comes from a lack of character. (Often mistranslated into a lack of willpower, though recent research is suggesting the whole post-Protestant idea of willpower is defunct and not real anyway). Akrasia is when you know what the right thing to do is, but you don’t do it anyway. You may have the right beliefs but you don’t have sufficient character.
  • Unlike, say, knives, people aren’t made with a purpose but rather we are self-making (“autopoetic”) things. Eric Perl in his book “Thinking Being” puts forth a brilliant idea: in living things, the purpose of the thing IS its structural-functional organization. It’s a self-making thing. Your purpose is to enhance your structural-functional organization.
  • inorganic thing -> living thing -> self-moving thing -> mental thing -> rational thing (humans are here, we can rationally control our self-actualization).
  • What makes humans distinct, according to Aristotle, is our capacity to: avoid self-deception, develop character, cultivate wisdom, and enhance the structure of our psyche and our contact with reality. Your purpose is to become as fully human (in this sense) as possible.

Next up: Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 7 (Summary & Notes):

List of Books in the Video:

  • Alicia Juarrero — Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System
  • Eric Perl — Thinking Being: Introduction to Metaphysics in the Classical Tradition
  • Francisco Varela, Eleanor Rosch, and Evan Thompson — The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience

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