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Spirituality and responding to the Meaning Crisis, Part 1: The Meaning that was lost

Acknowledgement:   This article is based on Science and the Sage which is written by myself and Christopher Mastropeitro, as well as work on the nature of wisdom by myself and Leo Ferraro.


When people discuss spirituality they often refer to how spiritual practices contribute to making their lives more meaningful in a way that is very important, even vital to them and their happiness.  They also often indicate that there is something problematic about many of these spiritual practices because they are often associated with religious beliefs or claims that are no longer plausible for the person undertaking the practices.  These observations immediately raise some important questions:  what is this “meaning” that people are talking about, what does it have to do with spirituality and/or religion, and why has its pursuit become both so difficult yet nevertheless important?

For spiritual naturalism these questions are particularly relevant since it places itself right at the nexus of this problem, viz., it wants to address the deep need for meaning in a way that nevertheless does not depend on contravening rational or scientific principles and conclusions. I would also suggest that the recent emergence of spiritual naturalism is in part due to the fact that this meaning problem is becoming very pronounced in many people’s lives, i.e., it is becoming a meaning crisis both for individuals and for the culture at large. How can we understand this?

One way to begin to understand the meaning crisis is to trace its historical emergence. Another way is to use cognitive science to try to understand what “meaning” is and how it might be lost. I want to pursue both of these strategies and then show how to integrate the two answers together. I then want to indicate how this answer can deepen our understanding of spirituality and how spirituality enables a response to the meaning crisis. The problem is that since the two strategies of understanding the meaning crisis ultimately are interdependent, one has to begin pursuing one strategy by first giving a preliminary intuitive answer to the other strategy. To say how meaning came into crisis one has to start with some preliminary sense of meaning. So let us say that (in a preliminary fashion) that “meaning” has to do with sensing connections to the world, to others, to oneself such that one has a sense of place and purpose, i.e. one belongs and is in touch in some way.  Given that, we can ask when were these types of connections very strong for people, why were the connections so strong, and what caused them to weaken or break down?

A good place to look for a turning point from strong connections to weaker connections is the Middle Ages. At this time western culture had worked out the tight integration of three very powerful ways of making sense of the world.  The first of these was the Aristotlean worldview. A worldview has two components to it: an account of how the mind views the world, and an account of how the world is structured. In a worldview these two components mutually support each other. For Aristotle the mind’s relationship to the world was a very intimate one. To know something was to grasp its form, but “form” doesn’t primarily mean its shape. It means something more like the structural organization of a thing. Consider a bird. If you ask people what a bird is they will say it has wings, feather, a beak, and it flies. However if I just placed in front of you two wings, feathers, and beak in a pile and then flung them into the air, then we wouldn’t have a bird but a bloody mess. What is missing is how these various features are structured together so that they function together as a causal whole. A lot of what it is to be a bird is carried in this structural-functional organization, i.e. in the form.  Aristotle thought we really knew something when we possessed this form in our mind. We tend to think that someone really knows what a chair is if they can describe it well to you. As we will see, we have a very representational view of knowing. But for Aristotle simply being able to describe a chair well would be insufficient. A person really knows what a chair is if they can make it, i.e., if they can actually impose the form (structural-functional organization) onto some stuff like wood. So when we really know something there is a deep conformity (sharing of form) between mind and world.  Just as your hand conforms to the spatial organization of a thing when it grasps an object your mind conforms to the structural organization of a thing when it mentally grasps that thing. This means that for Aristotle the mind and the world are strongly connected because they are in intimate contact with each other and share the same form when we know something.

Of course, we often make mistakes, and Aristotle had an account of how we determine when we are mistaken or not. He explicated a checklist we still use when we try to determine if something is real or not. One of the things we do is to make sure that the relevant organ is not malfunction or malformed. So, when I take off my glasses I don’t think the world is melting because I know my unaided eyes do not function properly. Another thing we do is to make sure the intervening medium is not distorting in some manner. If I tell you I saw someone on a foggy night you are unsure about my claim, whereas if I tell you I saw that person on a clear day you are more confident. Finally, we seek agreement with others, e.g. I’ll ask if you also see something I see. We do this even within ourselves. If we see something we also want to touch it (kids initially reach out in 3D movies to try and touch what they see coming out of the screen) etc.  So for Aristotle if something passes these tests then we can trust our information (notice the word “form” inside “information”), and if that information is the form of something then we know what that something is.

So, once the three tests are rationally passed then the structural organization of my experience will be the same as the world’s structural organization. So, how is that experience structured?  We are at the still center and everything circles around us.  Things are moving for the same reason that we move, i.e. they move because they have some purpose – they have some place they properly belong or should be. Everything is moving on purpose just like we do.  So things that are primarily filled with earth seek to get back to the earth at the centre, and that is why things fall. While in contrast, fire seeks to go upwards because that is where fire belongs. So, the earth is at the centre of a purposeful cosmos. In fact, to call it a cosmos is to indicate how the Greeks saw it. The word “cosmos” is related to our word “cosmetics.”  The cosmos was an inherently beautiful and ordered place that made sense to us and was tightly connected to our experience. There was no significant difference between our meaningful experience of the world and the real structure of the world.  This theory about the structure of the world seemed to work well and thereby provided supporting evidence for the interdependent theory of how we view the world. The theory of how we view and know the world supported the interdependent theory of how the world is structured. The two fit together in mutual support and thereby created a very strong worldview.  We can call this the nomological order since it has to do with the basic rules or principles  (“nomos” means law or rule) by which knowledge and reality co-operate.

This worldview is so strong that when Christian thinkers encountered it in the Middle Ages they could not resist it. Instead, thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas worked hard to integrate it with important features of the Christian worldview.  One of the most important features of the Christian worldview was that it provided a narrative structure to time.  In the Greek world time was largely experienced and understood as moving in a cycle, just as the heavens seemed to cycle eternally about the earth. So, to go far enough into the future meant that one would begin to repeat what had occurred in the past.  In this worldview one’s actions should be in harmony with the eternally repeating cycle. To try and change things too profoundly would be a disaster. However, for the Christians, via the Jews and perhaps Zoroastrians before them, time is a line with a beginning, a middle part, and a definite end. More that that, time is the unfolding of a story. It is the story of the creation, fall, and redemption of the world, and like a story it has a climax, which was understood to be Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, around which the whole story turns.  In this view of time events, such as Jesus’ life, can have a profound impact on changing the course of history and making the future better.  In a similar way, our actions matter because they too can change the course of events and contribute to the future being better of worse than the past.  Just as we understand our day to day lives in terms of the stories we tell and share, so this Christian worldview gave an overarching story into which all of our individual stories fit and to which they all mattered.  Christianity supplied a story for all the purposeful movement that Aristotle’s worldview claimed was the case. Everything was moving on purpose because it was helping to enact the story of the cosmos. The nomological order of Aristotle fit very well together with this Christian narrative order, and Thomas Aquinas was very successful in putting them together.

However Aquinas was successful also in integrating a third order that had profound spiritual significance. This third order was itself also born from integrating Greek and Christian spirituality together. Greek spirituality had its origins in Plato and Aristotle. It was a spirituality of rational self-transcendence through rational self-realization. As we’ve seen, for Aristotle everything was the kind of thing it was because of its “form.”  Of course, there had to be some stuff that was organized by the structural organization. So for example, a chair is made out of wood by having a certain form put into the wood. A carpenter has the form in her mind and she imposes that onto the wood to make a chair.  The wood is the potential for a chair, but it is also the potential for a table, a desk, a house, a ship, etc.  Wood is the potential for many different things. So the form actualizes the potential in order to make a particular kind of actual thing.  Aristotle then reasoned that there had to be a pure potential that was behind even stuff like wood or metal.  Just as we make things out of wood or metal, wood and metal were made out of this more pure potential.  For Aristotle this was matter. Unlike for us, where “matter” means actual stuff, for Aristotle it is pure potential, which means it has no form, and is therefore unknowable in nature. It is the pure chaos of pure formless potential.  It is through form that it becomes something actual and knowable.  It is form that makes it into something real.  Aristotle argued that form turned chaos into inanimate stuff, which was further actualized by more ordered forms into living things (think of how we argue that the in-formation of DNA turns inanimate matter into life).  Living things were further actualized by another structural organization so that they became self-moving things, and finally a further form actualized some self-moving things so that some of their self-movement was the self-movement of thought.  These are the rational beings such as us. For Aristotle the world was organized into a hierarchy where there were levels of how realized and also how rational something is.  As rational beings we are more realized than merely self-moving things, which are more real than merely living things and so on down the scale.  Of course, the more real something is the better and more valuable a thing it is.  The more we reason the more we make ourselves more real.

In this way we can transcend ourselves. For Plato this drive to become more fully real and to be in contact with what is most real was one of our fundamental needs.  This is a powerful insight. In addition to whatever we want, we want it to be real.  We seem also to deeply need to actualize our potential, to not waste it.  We need to realize ourselves as well.  These two needs seem to be also deeply connected in our need for fulfillment and flourishing. If my potential is underdeveloped there is an emptiness to my life, but if I develop that potential in a way that radically disconnects me from reality then there is an illusory unrealness to my life.  The more rational we are the more we structurally organize ourselves and become more real, more capable of being in touch with what is real, and therefore more fulfilled.

For Christian thinkers in the ancient world, such as Augustine, this pursuit of rational self-realization and self-transcendence, i.e. this pursuit of wisdom, was motivated, as Plato had said, by a deep love for what is real. This deep love drives us deeply to grow beyond ourselves.  For Augustine reason’s capacity for self-transcendence was dependent on this Platonic love for what is most real, and for Augustine that love had to be triggered by what was most real, i.e. by ultimate reality.  Eventually in our development our reason is in-formed by this ultimate love so that we transcend even our reason and conform to ultimate reality, i.e. we are mystically united to God in love.  For Augustine love was an extension of the rational process by which we ascend the levels of reality. Love was within reason, and helped us to grow beyond reason to what reason had always sought. Love was the driver and fulfiller of reason. In this way reason, love, and wisdom were tightly bound together in a Platonic-Christian spirituality that Aquinas was able to integrate into the Aristotlean worldview. The best science of the time and a profound spirituality were integrated together.  Spirituality was the rational-mystical process of ascending to God through increasing realization. So there was also a normative order, i.e., an order for how good things are and how we should act.  Some things were naturally and inherently better than other things, and our job was to realize this and thereby move upwards through the levels of reality to God.

These three orders, the nomological order, the narrative order, and the normative order mutually supported each other.  So for example, the story of God’s love (the narrative order) could inspire us to ascend rationally-mystically to God (the normative order) via the tight connection between the rational mind and the structure of the cosmos (the nomological order.)  The world was inherently meaningful, beautiful, rational, valuable, and spiritual.  We were tightly connected to this cosmos, we had a proper place and purpose within it, and we had a clear guide to our fulfillment within it. And then it all began to fall apart.


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john-vervaekeJohn Vervaeke is an award-winning instructor at the University of Toronto. He is an engaging speaker and available for lectures and media appearances. He is knowledgeable about a wide range of topics including wisdom, mindfulness meditation, psychology, cognitive science, foolishness, artificial intelligence, general intelligence, rationality, popular media, and Buddhism & its interaction with Western society and psychology. His website is

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