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"Girls in Typing Class" (1945)

Meaning at Risk in the Age of Automated Information Processing

Life: Issue Three

John Vervaeke

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

—T.S. Eliot, “The Rock”

Even more so than in Eliot’s time, we are in an age in which information processing has become dominant as both an overarching technological framework and medium, as well as a primary metaphorical framework through which we try to interpret and understand ourselves both individually and collectively. This is perhaps most prominent in the advent of artificial general intelligence (AGI) which threatens to challenge and change humanity in a profound and pervasive manner. Such AGI is already radically transforming how we communicate, do our work and live our lives. It is also radically calling into question some of our customary notions of who we are, what our intelligence is, and what our resulting place in the world is. We seem to need knowledge to orient ourselves in all of this and wisdom to cut through all the noise and distraction to find the pathway for the flourishing of our humanity.

However, Eliot was writing before AGI which suggests that AGI only represents a stage—perhaps a worryingly late one—of a process of development already at work in our culture. In my work, I have called this historical process “the meaning crisis.” The meaning crisis is the progressive loss of practices for ameliorating the perennial problems facing human beings at the level of meaning and an accompanying loss of a shared interpretative framework for those practices and a community that homes those practices and framework. Human beings are perennially prone to self-deception and despair in interlocking ways that can rob of us of agency in the world. Across time and cultural contexts, groups of people have cultivated ecologies of practices that address self-deception and despair in order to afford flourishing. These groups legitimated and interpreted their practices within a shared framework, and they homed those practices within a framework in a community. This nesting of an ecology of practices within a framework within a community organized for the amelioration of self-deception and despair and the affordance of flourishing has been called the cultivation of wisdom.

I sometimes ask my students a series of questions that tracks the quote from Eliot. I ask them where they go for information, and they quickly hold up their smartphones showing how much we have all become cyborgs vis-à-vis artificial intelligence. I then ask them where they go for knowledge. They are more hesitant, and they usually say science. However, they are not quite satisfied, for they are aware, to varying degrees of clarity, that the scientific worldview, which claims to explain everything, really cannot explain how human beings generate scientific explanations. How do we find a place in that worldview for the meaning-making and truth-seeking so central to science? How would such knowledge, if we realized it, serve to guide us in our lives that also radically presuppose meaning-making and truth-seeking? The scientific worldview does not seem to model the world so that we fit into it nor guide us in how we should model ourselves to fit into it. This bi-directional modeling, so central to a worldview, seems to be missing. Finally, I ask my students where they go for wisdom. Here I am usually witness to an anxious silence. Sometimes someone will propose a religious institution, but they do so very hesitantly and with considerable self-doubt. Behind the silence I sense a largely semi-conscious sense of how this lack of wisdom cultivation leaves them prone to self-deception and despair.

When our existential life is beset by deception, distraction, and destruction, we fall into a particular kind of despair that can be called spiritual. We live on in a merely biological, and potentially bestial, way in which the core of our personhood is at risk.

One problem we face when we talk about meaning is that we may lose track of the metaphor. We are saying something along the following lines: there is some order to our lives and experience that is like the way a sentence is ordered, and that ordering makes it possible to connect the sentence to reality in a way that we find true and therefore good. Similarly, there is an order to our experience and thereby our lives that connects us to the world in a way that is real and good. This takes us to the psychology work on meaning in life. Meaning in life is not the same as the meaning of life, which is a proposal about a metaphysical plan or scheme for one’s life which one must discover. I am agnostic about this proposal, and it is beyond my purview as a cognitive scientist. Work on meaning in life gives us some understanding of the order we find in our experience and life. Martela and Steger[1] in their theoretical review talked about three dimensions of meaning in life: coherence, purpose and significance. Coherence is that your experience, and at a more long-term scale, your life has a clear intelligibility. This is the cognitive dimension of meaning in life. The opposite would be to feel that life and our experience of reality are absurd. Purpose is when there is an overarching goal to one’s life that is intrinsically motivating and that orders all other goals. Without purpose one would lack motivation and experience the world as a place of futility, and in which one had no orientation. The third is significance. The third dimension was not initially as clearly explicated, and we shall see that it has been appropriately revised. However, it initially meant that one was connected to something real and important. This was the normative dimension to meaning by which one could evaluate if one’s life is good.

One symptom of the meaning crisis has been called the “virtual exodus”[2] in which people prefer the virtual world to the real world. Consider a typical video game. Its virtual world is intelligible with clear rules and a nomological structure. There is an overarching goal, giving a narrative orientation and motivation for everything one does. As one progresses through the game, one can level up. There is a form of self-transcendence that discloses a normative order of significance. One is clearly evaluated as to how one is getting better. The deep, even addictive, attraction of these games tells us what is missing in the real world for the game player. For them the real-world lacks nomological coherence, narrative purpose, and normative significance.

Costin and Vignoles[3] argued that there was an additional factor they called mattering. This was the feeling that one’s actions make a difference in the world. As Wolf[4] argues, meaning in life is when one feels that one is connected to something larger than oneself, i.e., when one senses a connection to something that has a value that is not just subjective. She then wrestles with the fact that we consider value to be a subjective phenomenon. She argues that we seek to be subjectively attracted to something that has objective value, but she concludes there is no such thing as objective value. So, there are now two issues: what is the relation between mattering and the other three dimensions, and what is the nature of this connection between subjectivity and objectivity for which Wolf searched.

The first issue has been addressed recently by Martela and Steger.[5] They argue that significance is how things are important to the individual, while mattering is about how the individual is important to the world. Martela and Steger obtained evidence that significance and mattering are distinct but overlapping phenomena, suggesting that they are different directions of the same fundamental relation of connectedness. The second issue points to a consideration of the nature of this fundamental connectedness and how it addresses Wolf’s problem. Let us turn to another line of research that may help to address this.

In an independent but converging line of research, the psychology of belonging points to the need people have to belong.[6] This articulation of meaning points to a different set of metaphors about being at home in the world. Where this is lacking, one feels lonely, homeless, and alienated. Without this sense of belonging, one is in trouble physiologically, psychologically, and socially.[7] To belong is to sense that one fits in. The connection is one of fittedness. A home is a place that one shapes but that also shapes one so that one and the place fit together. Clifford Geertz has argued that religion is a meta-meaning system that models one to fit the world and models the world so that one’s actions fit that world. [8] Vervaeke et al. talk about how a worldview mutually shapes the individual (or group) and the world so that there is an agent-arena relationship.[9] An agent can direct its actions by taking on a particular role or identity, e.g., a teacher. An arena is a shaping of the world so that it affords a context within which roles can be realized, e.g. a classroom for a teacher. Both identities emerge together in a process of co-identification. Geertz calls religion a “meta-meaning system” because it makes all specific meaning systems, such as law or art, possible. It would be a fundamental kind of connectedness that affords and co-ordinates processes of co-identification.

Why is this connection fundamental, and how does it bind subjectivity to objectivity? I have argued that this connection is based on the process of relevance realization. Explaining it has been the core of my cognitive scientific work over the past twenty years.[10] I call it the problem of “relevance realization” (RR) to make use of both senses of the word realize, i.e., to become aware and to actualize. It is the problem of how a system homes in on relevant information and uses it to solve its problems and achieve its goals and thereby maintain itself. This is also the problem of how it adaptively ignores most of the information without checking that vast amount of information in a time-consuming, life-threatening manner. One central argument related to relevance realization concerns the level at which it occurs. RR operates at neither the level of mental representation nor the level of mental computation. As Searle argues, every representation is aspectual.[11] To mentally represent an object as a cup is to only grasp some of all its uncountably large number of properties. Those properties are the ones that are relevant to me within whichever task I am performing. Mental representation presupposes RR and therefore cannot ultimately explain it.

Mental computation involves manipulating the logical implications of a proposition according to rules. Fodor, one of the fathers of the computational theory of mind, argued that the relevance of a proposition cannot be captured by all of its logical implications.[12] The set of all implications is both constant and uncountably large, and so from that set we must select some subset that is currently relevant. For instance, we make different inferences from the proposition Today will be windy depending on whether we anticipate sailing, flying a kite, or staying inside to watch movies. We do this depending on the relevance of the implication for our goals. The logical identity is constant while its relevance continually changes, and we have to home in on that relevance in a context-dependent manner. Inference presupposes RR and therefore cannot explain it.

As Brown argued, rules cannot specify their own conditions of application.[13] If one wants to apply the rule to be kind, it means one thing to be kind to one’s child, another to one’s spouse, another to one’s friend, another to one’s student, another to a stranger, and so on. If one tries to specify these conditions with further rules, one gets an expanding infinite regress of rules. As Brown argues, rules must terminate in a skill of judgment that is not the application of a rule but involves knowing how to fit the rule to the situation in a relevant manner. Since both components of mental computation presuppose RR, the level of computation cannot be the level at which it is explained.

All this suggests that RR takes place at a level below propositional processing, i.e., inferences with propositional representations. It involves the procedural level of knowing how to home in on the needed information and make use of it in solving problems, giving one a nomological home. It involves the perspectival level at which one notices what is relevant and thereby formulates one’s problems in a solvable manner. So, it involves the state of mind that orients attention and fits one’s sensory-motor behavior for successfully navigating one’s environment. This perspectival knowing what it is like to be you in a particular situation, i.e., knowing what it is like to notice things the way you do, creates what Merleau-Ponty calls an “optimal grip.”[14] It is how one sizes up part of the environment as a situation, and how one takes a mental set appropriate to it. It involves realizing there are trade-off relationships and then appropriating them in a way that is contextually sensitive. When one looks at an object, sometimes the details are more relevant and so one zooms in, but sometimes the overall gestalt is more relevant and so one zooms out. This process is multi-dimensional, as there are trade-off relations between a perspective from above, below, to one side, or the other, etc. One’s optimal grip is always evolving. This optimal gripping is about being really present to the world and experiencing the world as really present to one. What we see is that calling this optimal grip semantic meaning is misleading because this meaning is not generated at the level of propositional knowing that, but at the procedural level of knowing how, and the perspectival level of knowing what it is like to be in a state of mind coupled to a situation in optimal grip. This perspectival knowing orients one so that narrative navigation is made possible.

Finally, RR shapes one’s skills, sensibility, and traits, i.e., one’s role, and it shapes the world into particular aspects and affordances for action. It is a level of knowing the world by one’s identity and the world’s identity conforming to each other. It is knowing by co-identification. This is a participatory process in which the agent is always assuming an identity in response to the world specifying its identity as a particular arena. This is participatory knowing by belonging.

I can now make a proposal. Let’s reserve the phrase semantic meaning for meaning at the propositional level and call the meaning at the remaining non-propositional level meaning in life. It is that connectedness which gives a sense of skillful presence and optimal belonging[15] within a situation, and such connectedness is what people are conveying with the metaphor of meaning in life. It would be a connectedness fundamental to cognitive agency. Losing it would be as dramatic as the loss of biological life. This connectedness is a different kind of life. This non-propositional connection of RR is neither subjective nor objective. It is precisely how the subjective and objective find and fit to each other. Adaptivity, one central feature of life, is neither in the organism nor its environment. It is between them as a real relation of real consequence. RR is evolving cognitive, motivational, and evaluative adaptivity. This is the existential dimension of meaning in life.

However, this process of RR that is crucial to our adaptive agency is always at risk because the very processes that make us adaptive make us perpetually prone to self-deceptive, self-distractive, and self-destructive behavior.[16] RR depends on ignoring information, biasing attention, and not caring about some features of the world. There is no judgment of relevance that is not also a judgment of irrelevance, and just as we can be wrong about the truth of information, we can wrong about its relevance. The experience of insight is a realization that information we deemed irrelevant is actually relevant and that we were paying attention to various aspects and assuming roles that actually do not fit the world to us or us to the world. The opposite of insight is when we are carried off by the salience of information that thereby disconnects us from a concern about its reality. Social media exemplifies our proneness to being captured by salience that is not well connected to reality. When our existential life is beset by deception, distraction, and destruction, we fall into a particular kind of despair that can be called spiritual. We live on in a merely biological, and potentially bestial, way in which the core of our personhood is at risk.

Meaning in life is always under threat because the very processes that make us intelligently adaptive make us prone to self-deceptive foolishness. We must constantly ignore enormous amounts of information to be adaptive, but that means adaptivity is also highly biasing in nature. When those biases are intelligent adaptations, we are fine, but when they mistune us to our environment, we fall into self-deception. We cannot remove the biasing mechanism because that would destroy our adaptivity. We have to ameliorate it without destroying it. We cannot pursue certainty or complete bias destruction, nor can we simply passively acquiesce in self-deception because both will sever the necessary connectedness to the world. We need something that seeks to constantly tune how we balance the optimal gripping so central to RR. We need sets of practices that work with both the propositional and the non-propositional and thereby align the four kinds of knowing (propositional, procedural, perspectival and participatory) and co-ordinate them to coherently fit us to the world and the world to us. This is wisdom cultivation. We need to cultivate wisdom. It is not optional. Wisdom is not just about overcoming ignorance: that is knowledge. Wisdom is about ameliorating the foolishness of self-deception and enhancing connectedness created by RR that is central to the flourishing of all cognitive agents.

Wisdom cultivation needs an ecology of practices that are homed within a supporting community that is legitimated and supported by a shared worldview that shapes us to the world and the world to us. Across context and culture people have realized that need to ameliorate this proneness to self-deception while enhancing their proneness to insight so as to enhance their fundamental connectedness and belonging, i.e. meaning in life. They have created ecologies of practices that can address the dynamic complexity of RR and many levels, in many arenas, coordinating the four kinds of knowing into living systems of beliefs, skills, sensibilities, and roles. They have created and curated virtues that are interlocked and mutually supporting for the sake of ameliorating self-deceptive, self-destructive foolishness and affording enhanced connectedness. They have pursued wisdom and homed that pursuit within an interlocking nomological-narrative-normative worldview, i.e., a meta-meaning system of religion.

For many the loss of a religious worldview has meant a loss of participation in such ecologies of practices, and an over-emphasis on pursuing certainty within propositional knowing. This has led to ignoring, even at times suppressing, the non-propositional ways of knowing so central to relevance realization and meaning in life. We live in a culture of propositional tyranny, i.e., the understanding of knowledge as only propositional certainty. However, for very many the return to traditional religion is not viable. Like my students, many people are at a loss as they face the loss of participation in wisdom-cultivating ecologies of practice combined with a propositional tyranny that denudes their worldview. Many of my students belong to one of the fastest growing demographics in the world, viz., “the nones”—those who have no religious home and do not feel at home in any religion. They have nowhere to go to cultivate wisdom except their own autodidactic cobbling together of practices without good independent sources of correction and guidance, and with no tradition to guide them. They do not know where to go for the non-propositional knowing that is so central to wisdom and meaning in life, but they do have access to an overwhelming amount of propositional information or data in an age of information processing.

[1] F. Martela and M. F. Steger, "The Three Meanings of Meaning in Life: Distinguishing Coherence, Purpose, and Significance," The Journal of Positive Psychology 11, no. 5 (2016), 531–45.

[2] E. Castronova, Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun Is Changing Reality (MacMillan, 2008).

[3] V. Costin, V. and V. L. Vignoles, "Meaning Is About Mattering: Evaluating Coherence, Purpose, and Existential Mattering as Precursors of Meaning in Life Judgments," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 118, no. 4 (2020), 864.

[4] Susan Wolf, Meaning in Life and Why It Matters, Vol. 35 (Princeton University Press, 2012).

[5] F. Martela and M.F. Steger, "The Role of Significance Relative to the Other Dimensions of Meaning in Life—An Examination Utilizing the Three Dimensional Meaning in Life Scale (3DM)," The Journal of Positive Psychology 18, no. 4 (2023), 606–26.

[6] K.A. Allen, M. L. Kern, C. S. Rozek, D. M. McInerney and G. M. Slavich, “Belonging: A Review of Conceptual Issues, an Integrative Framework, and Directions for Future Research,” Australian Journal of Psychology 73, no. 1 (2021), 87–102.

[7] Ibid.

[8] C. Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, vol. 5019 (Basic Books, 1973).

[9] J. Vervaeke, C. Mastropietro and F. Miscevic, Zombies in Western Culture: A Twenty-first Century Crisis (Open Book Publishers, 2017), 104.

[10] J. Vervaeke, T. P. Lillicrap and B. A. Richards, “Relevance Realization and the Emerging Framework in Cognitive Science,” Journal of Logic and Computation 22, no. 1 (2012), 79–99; J. Vervaeke and L. Ferraro, “Relevance Realization and the Neurodynamics and Neuroconnectivity of General Intelligence,” in SmartData: Privacy Meets Evolutionary Robotics (New York: Springer New York, 2013): 57–68; J. Vervaeke and L. Ferraro, "Relevance, Meaning and the Cognitive Science of Wisdom,” in The Scientific Study of Personal Wisdom: From Contemplative Traditions to Neuroscience (Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, 2013): 21–51; G. Hovhannisyan and J. Vervaeke, “Enactivist Big Five Theory,” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 21, no. 2 (2022), 341–75; B. P. Andersen, M. Miller and J. Vervaeke, “Predictive Processing and Relevance Realization: Exploring Convergent Solutions to the Frame Problem” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences (2022).

[11] J.R. Searle, The Rediscovery of the Mind (MIT Press, 1992).

[12] J.A. Fodor, The Mind Doesn't Work That Way: The Scope and Limits of Computational Psychology (MIT Press, 2000); J. A. Fodor, “How the Mind Works: What We Still Don't Know,” Daedalus 135, no. 3 (2006), 86–94.

[13] H. I. Brown, Rationality (Routledge, 1988).

[14] M. Merleau-Ponty and C. Smith, Phenomenology of Perception, Vol. 26 (London: Routledge, 1962).

[15] K.A. Allen et al., “Belonging: A Review of Conceptual Issues, an Integrative Framework, and Directions for Future Research.”

[16] J. Vervaeke and L. Ferraro, "Relevance, Meaning and the Cognitive Science of Wisdom.”

Additional References

Gibson, J. J., The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception: Classic Edition (Psychology Press, 2014).

Vervaeke, J. and C. Mastropietro, “Gnosis in the Second Person,” in Dispatches from a Time Between Worlds: Crisis and Emergence in Metamodernity (Perspectiva, 2021).

John Vervaeke is an associate professor of psychology and cognitive science at the University of Toronto. He publishes and does research on the nature of intelligence, rationality, wisdom and meaning in life emphasizing relevance realization, non-propositional kinds of knowing and 4E cognitive science. Dr. Vervaeke also serves on the board of the Vervaeke Foundation.

Posted on May 9, 2024

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