Are we self-transcendent by nature?

When John Vervaeke shared the ideas that humans are naturally self-transcendent in many ways in episode 31 of his Awakening from the Meaning Crisis series, it gave me goosebumps. I don’t know that I can do the idea justice, but I wanted to write at least a bit about it while it’s fresh in my mind.

This blog post, to be perfectly clear, contains none of my own ideas—they’re all Vervaeke’s. Some of it is directly quoted from his lecture, the rest is, to the the best of my ability, either paraphrased or restated.

He says that “when a system, [a human for example], is self-organizing, there’s no deep distinction between its function and its development. It develops by functioning. By functioning it develops.” So development is both a result of functioning as well as an input to functioning. In a way, it feels to me like it’s our brief but bright stand against the second law of thermodynamics. As long as we’re alive, by definition we’re constantly self-organizing and transcending. Is that not anti-entropic too?

As we’ve evolved, we’ve moved from single cells to becoming a zygotes. Later, some cells began to differentiate—they specialized into organs. They self-organized. This biological complexification gives us emergent abilities. As these abilities emerge, we transcend ourselves as a system. As Vervaeke says, he couldn’t vote when he was a zygote. It’s interesting on a purely biological level, but the implications for our social and spiritual development are even more exciting.

The processes that determine how this development takes place are key to his research. He’s developing a theory of “relevance realization.” I’ll have to write about that in another blog post, but in a nutshell, for something to be relevant in this context is for the thing to be fit for our survival and growth. He theorizes that there is no possible scientific definition for something that’s relevant since relevance is entirely context dependent. He says that what we can determine scientifically is a theory for how we realize something is relevant to fitness. Again, I can’t do justice to it yet, but it’s basically through a sort of functional feedback loop…

The obvious next question is where does this self-transcendence end? As far as I know, there’s no reason to believe that it does end—we should be capable of essentially endless self-transcendence. It’s exciting to think about! What forms can we take through intentional self-complexification? What will happen through evolutionary processes?

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