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Thinking about thinking

This is another post inspired by John Vervaeke’s lectures on the Meaning Crisis. Halfway through the 50 lecture series he switches from focusing on how humans have made and found meaning throughout history to looking at how cognitive science can help us address the loss of meaning we face in a post-religious world.

Vervaeke introduces the section on cognitive science by framing it as a broad discipline that encompasses several levels of thinking about thinking:

Cognition levelAcademic discipline
CultureAnthropology
LanguageLinguistics
BehaviorPsychology
Information ProcessingArtificial Intelligence – AGI
The BrainNeuroscience

He then argues that the best way to advance our understanding of cognition it to, rather than approach each academic discipline as a discrete field that sometimes gleans from other cognitive fields, take a more integrated, more philosophical, approach.

For example a linguist might ask herself “what can I see in psychology through the lens of linguistics?”

This description barely touches the surface of his thoughts. The first 15 or 20 minutes of this video are well worth watching and don’t necessarily require the full context of the first 25 lectures:

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Finding Meaning

Here’s a way to think about what constitutes a meaningful life:

  1. Coherence – to feel meaning you should have a cognitive understanding of the world. Without a sense of coherence, the world is chaotic and it’s difficult to see patterns and trends.
  2. Significance – this is the spiritual aspect of meaning. It’s the feeling that life is inherently valuable and worthwhile. This can be a particularly tough topic because it’s where all the big existential questions come into play.
  3. Purpose – this is the realm personal growth. It’s where you feel you can self-transcend and also where you can provide value to others. If you understand the world (coherence) and feel life is valuable (significance), what will you now do with your time?

Breaking down “meaning” into those smaller categories helps me feel that a lofty goal like finding meaning in life is much more approachable.

I discovered this framework in John Vervaeke’s 51 (!) part lecture series on Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. In many ways, it surpasses the Jay Garfield series that I recommended way back in 2016 by quite a bit. Definitely check it out.

By way of credit, I’m not sure who originally came up with the framework, it’s not Vervaeke, but here’s a paper from the Journal of Positive Psychology that goes over the state of the research.

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