Intimations of a New Worldview
Re-establishing the nomological, narrative, and normative orders through the reconciliation of science and religion.
This is going to be a long one. It is also pretty technical in places, although I have tried to keep the jargon to a minimum. In this case I think the length and technicality are worth it. The title of both this essay and the substack I’m publishing it on is “Intimations of a New Worldview.” This post is an outline of what I believe that worldview will look like.
In this essay I am going to make eight claims, listed below. Most of these claims are supported by mainstream scientific research, which I will briefly review in the sections about them. The others require a little more interpretation, but you can be the judge of their plausibility. These claims are:
There is a general process involved in the ongoing creation and complexification of everything.
In biology this process manifests as an increase in the scope of non-zero-sum games over the course of evolution.
The large brain size in human beings was socially and sexually selected based on our ability and propensity to participate in the process of discovering and facilitating non-zero-sum games (which is equivalent to the process of complexification).
John Vervaeke’s relevance realization is how this process of complexification manifests in cognitive development.
Ever since human beings evolved the ability to talk we have been telling stories about people who were best able to participate in this process. Over time, the general pattern underlying these stories was abstracted out and encoded into the hero mythologies found cross-culturally.
Our participation in this process is biologically and psychologically optimal.
Our participation in this process (which is equivalent to relevance realization) is equally our participation in the process of creation/complexification itself.
The pattern of behavior that characterizes optimal participation in that process is best understood as a personality. That personality is in large part what our ancestors implicitly meant by “God”.
Each of these claims will be accompanied by its own numbered section. I will conclude the essay by showing how these claims can serve as a response to the meaning crisis.
1. The Process of Complexification
Complexity is not just another property of the world. In his 1997 book The Life of the Cosmos, physicist Lee Smolin argued that the new-found understanding of complexity in physics would forever change the way we understand the world and our place in it. The old Newtonian physics, which led to an understanding of life as an accidental occurrence in an otherwise uninteresting universe, gave way to a new understanding in which life and other complex phenomena were understood as necessary conditions of existence. As Smolin put it:
From the point of view of the old, Newtonian-style physics, the structure of the world is accidental…. But… from the point of view of the new physics, complexity must be an essential aspect of the organization of the world. Indeed, it is not only that a world with life must necessarily be complex… in the twentieth century our very understanding of space and time, of what it means to say where something is or when something happened, requires a complex world. This means that the picture of the universe in which life, variety and structure are improbable accidents must be an outmoded relic of nineteenth-century science. Twentieth-century physics must lead instead towards the understanding that the universe is hospitable to life because, if the world is to exist at all, then it must be full of structure and variety. (p. 16)
Complexity — including life — is not an accident or byproduct because complexity is a precondition for any existence at all. What this means is that an explanation of the emergence of complexity is in some sense an explanation of how anything exists at all.
In a previous post I discussed the physicist Per Bak’s quest to understand the emergence of complexity in nature. Working mainly in the late 1980s and 90s, Bak reasoned that complexity must emerge at the narrow window between order and chaos. He also reasoned that systems in nature must self-organize to this narrow window from the bottom-up, through the interactions of the parts of the system in relation to their environment. This is the origin of the term self-organized criticality, which is an important aspect of the story of how complexity emerges in nature (see my previous post for a more detailed account of self-organized criticality).
Complexity science has made a great deal of progress since Bak discovered self-organized criticality. A 2022 book by Bobby Azarian entitled The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity brings much of this research together into a coherent narrative. From basic particles to atoms, molecules, stars, galaxies, life, and culture, the universe has clearly become more complex over time. Azarian argues that this process of complexification is not accidental. It is inevitable. As Azarian puts it:
Through a series of hierarchical emergences—a nested sequence of parts coming together to form ever-greater wholes—the universe is undergoing a grand and majestic self-organizing process, and at this moment in time, in this corner of the universe, we are the stars of the show. As cosmic evolution proceeds, the world is becoming increasingly organized, increasingly functional, and, because life and consciousness emerge from sufficient complexity and information integration, increasingly sentient. (p. 5)
On the surface, this idea may seem as if it somehow violates the second law of thermodynamics. Isn’t the universe becoming increasingly disordered through the inevitable increase in entropy? This seeming contradiction involves a misunderstanding of the relationship between entropy and complexity. Increasing entropy is not opposed to complexity — it is necessary for it. How so?
Imagine that you have a cup of coffee with milk in it such that the milk and coffee are totally separated with milk on the bottom and coffee on top. This is a state of perfect order. There is no entropy in this state. It is also not complex because the location of the coffee and milk is perfectly predictable. Now you begin to stir the coffee. This stirring is equivalent to an increase in entropy. As you stir, fractal patterns of swirls appear and it becomes impossible to predict where you will find coffee or milk at any point in time. In other words, the coffee/milk mixture becomes complex. Complexity emerges only while entropy is increasing. Once the mixture is completely stirred, however, there is now a state of perfect disorder (i.e., perfect entropy) and there is no longer any complexity. The position of milk and coffee becomes completely predictable again because they are now evenly distributed through the cup. See the figure below for a representation of this process.
As you can see, the increasing entropy does not contradict the emergence of complexity. To the contrary, increasing entropy is necessary for the emergence of complexity (see Sean Carrol’s book The Big Picture for an extended discussion of this idea).
Complexity requires both order and chaos. Too much of either and we are left with bland predictability. This idea, however, does not tell the whole story, since our universe doesn’t look very much like stirred coffee. We will need to know more in order to understand the emergence of hierarchical complexity, i.e., the fact that different patterns emerge at different levels of analysis (e.g., the atomic, molecular, organic, etc.)
A 2018 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences puts forward a unified theory for the emergence of hierarchical complexity in nature. This paper by Yuri Wolf and colleagues, entitled “The Physical Foundations of Biological Complexity”, argues that there is a general process underlying the emergence of all complexity in nature, biological or otherwise. As Wolf and colleagues argue, self-organized criticality is an important concept for understanding the emergence of complexity, but it does not tell the whole story because it cannot explain the emergence of hierarchical complexity. For that, another puzzle piece is needed.
Wolf and colleagues argue that the emergence of hierarchical complexity is driven by competing interactions. These competing interactions can be as simple as the competition between short- and long-range interactions in a molecular structure or as complex as the competing interaction between the interests of an individual and the interests of the group he is embedded in. At all levels of analysis, they argue, competing interactions lead to what they call “frustrated states”, which then lead to self-organized criticality (i.e., an avalanche event or phase change), which then leads to a new integrated state that is equivalent to an increase in complexity.
As we will see in more detail in the section on biology, an increase in complexity often manifests as an increase in the scope of cooperation (e.g., single-celled organisms coming together to form a multi-cellular organism). Thus, Wolf and colleagues argue that a general principle driving the increase of complexity in nature is that “competition begets cooperation” at all levels of analysis. The figure below is meant to represent this process.
To sum it up, in this process competing interactions (e.g., between the interests of a parasite and the interests of its host) lead to a “frustrated state”, which can be thought of as a state of tension or disequilibrium. That frustrated state cashes out in self-organized criticality, which is associated with an “avalanche” event. This is thought to be the mechanism underlying the punctuated equilibrium pattern in evolutionary change. This avalanche event involves a descent into chaos (i.e., a temporary increase in entropy) and a re-emergence into a new form of integration, which is equivalent to an increase in complexity.
If Yuri Wolf and colleagues are correct, this is a basic outline of the general process underlying the emergence of all complexity in nature, both within and outside of biology.
2. Biological Complexity
Complexity is notoriously difficult to define and there are a variety of definitions floating around, many of which are specific to a particular scientific discipline. A general definition of complexity that is used across multiple disciplines is Giulio Tononi’s 1994 definition, which states that a system is more complex to the degree that it is simultaneously differentiated and integrated. For example, a multi-cellular organism is both more differentiated than a single-celled organism (i.e., has more functionally segregated parts) and more integrated (i.e., brings those parts together into a larger functional whole). Thus, a multi-cellular organism is more complex than a single-celled organism. It is that definition of complexity that I will generally use in this essay.
Complexification in biology often manifests as individual entities coming together into groups, which eventually evolve into their own separate entities (e.g., single-celled organisms evolving into multi-cellular organisms), as depicted in the figure below.
In the year 2000 two books were published about the increase in complexity over the course of biological and cultural evolution. These were Evolution’s Arrow by biologist John Stewart and Nonzero by the journalist Robert Wright. Stewart focused on biological evolution and Wright focused on cultural evolution, but both were making a very similar argument. Over the course of biological evolution we have gone from RNA to single-celled organisms to multi-cellular organisms to complex nervous systems, societies, etc. Complexity has clearly increased. Similarly, the last 10,000 years of cultural evolution has seen a massive increase in the complexity of human civilization, from small groups of hunter-gatherers without much division of labor to much larger groups with massive specialization and division of labor.
Both Stewart and Wright claim that biological and cultural evolution have a direction and that direction is towards the increasing scope of non-zero-sum games or cooperation. The term non-zero-sum comes from game theory and refers to an interaction in which all parties involved have the opportunity to benefit (or experience loss) together. For example, a team of big game hunters in a pre-agricultural group is engaged in a non-zero-sum game. They will either bring down some game for their group or they won’t. And if one of them wins (by having a successful hunt) they all win by receiving meat from that hunt.
Zero-sum games, on the other hand, have a clear winner and a clear loser. If two groups go to war with each other this is a zero-sum game. The winner-takes-all, so to speak, while the losing group may be completely wiped out.
Some interactions have both zero-sum and non-zero-sum components. A pick up basketball game is zero-sum because there will be a clear winner and a clear loser. It is also non-zero-sum because everybody potentially benefits from playing, whether through improving their game, getting more in shape, making friends, etc.
As Robert Wright argues in Nonzero, an increase in the scale of a non-zero-sum game is equivalent to an increase in complexity. Why? Because a non-zero-sum game brings entities together (integrates them) and also causes them to specialize (differentiates them). Consider what happens when single-celled organisms come together in the non-zero-sum game that consists of being a multicellular organism. Not only are they more integrated, but over time the different cells of the organism inevitably become more specialized by becoming different kinds of tissues and organs (e.g., muscle cells, nerve cells, etc.). The same thing happens when people come together into larger groups. They inevitably become more specialized (e.g., farmers, blacksmiths, soldiers, etc.). And so an increase in the scope of a non-zero-sum game is equally an increase in both integration and differentiation, i.e., complexity.
John Stewart refers to the increase in complexity over the course of evolution as an increase in “cooperation”. That is generally true, but it is less precise than “non-zero-sum game” because not all increases in complexity are purely cooperative. A global market, for example, is both cooperative and competitive but it is clearly a non-zero-sum game (as all non-coercive trade is non-zero-sum) and constitutes an increase in complexity over more local interactions.
The term non-zero-sum also helps make clear that the increase in cooperation doesn’t necessarily mean that organisms stop being self-interested. The increasing scope of cooperation over cultural evolution, for example, does not require that individual humans put aside their own selfish interests for status, sex, wealth, etc., in order to selflessly behave in their groups best interest. This was the pipe dream of communism (and other Rousseauean ideologies) and the results were a disaster. Rather, the scale of cooperation increases when groups find ways to put the selfish interests of individuals in alignment with the interests of the group. This can involve, for example, conferring status benefits onto people who display group beneficial behavior and/or punishing people who display behaviors that harm the group.
In both John Stewart and Robert Wright’s books the overall increase in cooperation over time is attributed to the same basic force — competition. Competition between entities breeds cooperation within those entities. For example, during the last 10,000 years of cultural evolution the most cohesive and cooperative human groups outcompeted those that were less cooperative. This was the main thesis of Peter Turchin’s 2016 book Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. Turchin argues that a process of “destructive creation”, in which less cooperative cultures were replaced by more cooperative cultures via warfare led to a rapid and massive increase in the scale of human cooperation over the last 10,000 years. This is very similar to the argument made by Robert Wright in Nonzero 16 years earlier.
As we can see, Yuri Wolf and colleagues’ idea that “competition begets cooperation” at all levels of analysis holds up well in the biological and cultural realms. The figure below is a representation of how the process described by Yuri Wolf and colleagues plays out at the cultural level, in accordance with Robert Wright’s thesis from Nonzero and Peter Turchin’s thesis from Ultrasociety.
And so in both biological and cultural evolution, we see an increase in the scale and scope of non-zero-sum games over the course of evolution, which is equivalent to an increase in complexity. As we will see in the next section, there is good reason to believe that the reason human beings have such big brains is largely because we have been sexually and socially selected for our ability and propensity to participate in this process of complexification.
3. Encephalization, Complexity, and Non-Zero-Sumness
Human encephalization refers to the massive expansion in human brain size that occurred over the last two million years or so.
What caused this massive and rapid (in evolutionary terms) expansion of the human brain? Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, in his 2000 book The Mating Mind, makes a strong case that sexual selection played a role in this process. Interestingly, sexual selection is an example of a “competing interaction” given by Yuri Wolf and colleagues in the paper discussed in section 1. Sexual selection involves competing interactions between members of a species of the same sex competing for mates.
Natural selection is often thought of as “survival of the fittest”. In fact, however, the propensity to survive is not nearly enough in a sexually reproducing species. You must also be capable of finding and attracting a mate. As such, organisms are selected for their ability to successfully reproduce, which may include physical competition with fellow species-members (e.g., when male elephant seals engage in bloody battles for control over a harem of females), competition for the attention of the opposite sex (e.g., the plumage of male peacocks), or the capacity to choose healthy and fit members of the opposite sex to reproduce with (e.g., the capacity of female peacocks to judge the symmetry and beauty of a male peacock’s plumage). Humans also compete for the attention of potential mates, of course, a fact that the existence of Tinder ought to make clear enough.
Sexual selection is capable of resulting in a positive feedback loop called “runaway selection” that can cause extremely rapid evolutionary change. This occurs when the trait that is under sexual selection (e.g., the male peacock’s tail) becomes genetically correlated with the propensity to choose that trait in the opposite sex. In this situation, selection for the trait entails selection for the preference for the trait. A stronger preference leads to stronger selection for the trait itself, which necessarily leads to more selection for the preference. This dynamic can create a runaway positive feedback loop leading to rapid evolutionary change.
Geoffrey Miller argued that runaway sexual selection likely played a role in human encephalization, but does not by itself completely explain encephalization for multiple reasons. One is that runaway selection is too rapid to take two million years. Two million years is pretty fast in evolutionary terms for a change of this size, but it’s not that fast. Runaway selection can happen extremely rapidly, so we wouldn’t expect it to take two million years to produce a change like the one we see in human encephalization.
There also isn’t a large sex difference in brain size or intelligence, which would be expected under runaway sexual selection. Runaway selection usually creates large sex differences in the trait under selection (e.g., the peacock’s tail) since it is only one sex (usually the male) that is being chosen while the other sex is doing the choosing. If runaway sexual selection played a large role in human encephalization, we would expect men to be much smarter than women, but they are not.
Human intelligence, however, still shows many of the characteristics of being a sexually selected trait. In the first place, there are large individual differences in it, which is often true of sexually selected traits (e.g., the size of a male deer’s antlers). Furthermore, many characteristics associated with intelligence are sexually attractive, including having a sense of humor, being creative, or being successful in a career or leadership position. These things indicate that human intelligence is a good candidate for being under strong sexual selection.
In sum, Miller makes a convincing case that sexual selection played an important role in human encephalization, but the details are fuzzy. What precisely was being selected for, in terms of behavior? And why isn’t there a large sex difference in brain size or intelligence? Miller puts forward some interesting ideas about these things, but none of them are entirely convincing.
A recent paper by evolutionary anthropologists Ed Hagen and Zachary Garfield sheds some light on these questions.
Sexual and social selection for non-zero-sumness
Hagen and Garfield, in their 2019 paper entitled “Leadership and prestige, mothering, sexual selection, and encephalization: The computational services model” also argue that sexual selection played an important role in human encephalization. They point out that men in hunter-gatherer societies who take on leadership roles are more likely to be chosen by women as sexual partners. Here we have a strange situation. Men choose other men as leaders. The men they choose then go on to have increased reproductive success because they are more attractive to women.
This poses an evolutionary puzzle. Why in the world would men choose for another man to be put in a position where he becomes more attractive to women? Female attention is a zero-sum game, after all. If a man has a child with a woman, that means that every other man has lost out on that opportunity for reproductive success. From an evolutionary perspective, what could explain men’s willingness to voluntarily give other men an advantage on the mating market?
Hagen and Garfield argue that the only way this could happen is if the men chosen for leadership are providing some important benefit to all the other men in the group. They argue that men chosen for leadership positions are capable of providing what they refer to as “joint utility improvement”. I will let them explain:
The ethnographic record of small-scale societies makes clear that prestige-style leaders are generally prosocial and achieve influence only to the extent that others permit. Nevertheless, such leaders are often highly respected and even revered, which we and many others take as evidence that they are providing valuable services to their group. We therefore operationalize a prestige-style leader as an individual that regularly makes decisions that improve outcomes for most members of his or her group, a computational service that we term joint utility improvement (JUI). We will argue that this particular service was so valuable, yet so computationally demanding, that it might help explain encephalization in Homo. (p. 12)
Joint utility improvement is simply another way of talking about non-zero-sum interactions. Hagen and Garfield are suggesting that leaders are chosen based on their propensity and ability to discover and facilitate non-zero-sum games among their group. In other words, leaders discover solutions to problems that benefit the group as a whole. Leaders, then, are chosen based on their pro-social temperament and their intelligence.
Hagen and Garfield argue that joint utility improvement is extremely computationally demanding. This is because most problems that involve joint utility improvement are combinatorially explosive. A combinatorially explosive problem is one that has a potentially infinite number of possible solutions, only a few of which are optimal or close to optimal. This means that it’s impossible to consider all of the possible solutions to the problem. Some kind of heuristic or shortcut must be used to zero in on the best solutions. For example:
…imagine a situation where a group of 10 individuals must decide the order in which to visit six locations. All prefer to minimize travel costs, and all prefer to stay together. The challenge here is identifying the shortest path among the 6! = 720 possible paths. An individual who could rapidly and accurately identify the shortest path would be providing a very valuable computational service to her fellow group members because once the ‘best’ path is found, all group members have an incentive to follow it. (Hagen & Garfield, 2019 p. 14)
Combinatorially explosive problems are extremely computationally demanding and there are large individual differences among people in the ability to solve them. John Vervaeke and Leo Ferraro suggest in a 2013 book chapter that psychometric g, or general intelligence, is largely measuring one’s ability to solve combinatorially explosive problems.
Here we can summarize Hagen and Garfield’s theory as such:
Men in leadership positions are more attractive to women and therefore have greater reproductive success.
Men choose other men for leadership positions largely based on their pro-social temperament and their ability to solve combinatorially explosive problems.
In this way, social and sexual selection combined to select for more intelligent men with large brains, capable of more efficiently solving combinatorially explosive problems.
This seems like a plausible theory to me, but up to this point it leaves something very important out of the equation. What about women? One of the problems with runaway sexual selection theory was that it doesn’t account for the lack of a sex difference in human intelligence. How do Hagen and Garfield address this issue? I will let them speak for themselves:
Mothers are the archetype for our model of prestige-style leadership. We operationalized a prestige-style leader as an individual who develops a reputation for making decisions that benefit most individuals in a group. The nuclear family, or something very much like it, is a human universal. It typically comprises two unrelated parents who cooperate to raise their joint offspring, and can therefore be considered one of the fundamental units of human social organization. Mothers, we propose, were leaders of the family. (p. 17)
Keep in mind that the women who didn’t become mothers were typically evolutionary dead ends (kin altruism notwithstanding). If, therefore, there is a great deal of skill involved in solving the problems that accompany motherhood, that skill would be strongly selected for.
Hagen and Garfield argue that mothers are constantly having to solve joint utility improvement problems that are combinatorially explosive. They essentially make all the important decisions for their children during the crucial first years of their life. They also must navigate the competing interests of themselves, their children, their husbands (and/or fathers from previous relationships), their kin, and other relationships. Finding solutions to problems that satisfy the competing interests of these different groups is combinatorially explosive and evolutionarily important.
Although men are not very sexually choosy for short-term relationships, they are choosy about who they marry. As Hagen and Garfield put it: “men who marry women that are superior decision-makers will have wives that make good decisions for their offspring, avoid family conflicts and otherwise achieve better outcomes, and will thus have higher fitness than other men” (p. 24). In that way, the same basic force that contributed to encephalization in men did so in women, but at the level of the family unit rather than the cultural unit at large. Sexual selection for the ability to discover and facilitate non-zero-sum games has therefore contributed to encephalization in both men and women.
In section 2 I argued that the process of complexification manifests in biology as a continual increase in the size and scope of non-zero-sum games over the course of evolution. What does that mean in light of what has been discussed in this section? It means that men and women have been socially and sexually selected for their propensity and ability to participate in the process of complexification discussed in section 1.
What does that participation look like at the level of the individual? And how do we improve our ability to participate in this process? In the next section I will argue that improvement in our ability to participate in this process looks a lot like what cognitive scientist John Vervaeke calls relevance realization.
4. Relevance Realization and Complexification
Joint utility improvement, or the discovery and facilitation of non-zero-sum games, is largely about the ability to solve combinatorially explosive problems. John Vervaeke has repeatedly argued that the ability to solve combinatorially explosive problems is largely determined by our ability to realize relevance, which is our ability to intelligently ignore the vast number of non-optimal solutions and zero in on the small subset of solutions that are optimal or nearly optimal. As Vervaeke and Leo Ferraro put it in a 2013 chapter on the cognitive science of wisdom:
…our ability to solve problems, to navigate combinatorially dense problem spaces, is contingent upon our ability to constrain that space. This puts the focus on the problem formulation aspect of problem-solving, rather than the execution of the solution – we need to be able to construct problems in a manner that sufficiently constrains the set of options to one that is computationally manageable. Again, this is the role of relevance realization: the ability to ignore vast numbers of options (hopefully poor ones) and focus on a small set of potentially fruitful ones. (pp. 3-4)
Our ability to realize relevance is largely determined by our ability to properly formulate problems and to re-formulate them when necessary. This is the role of insight. We formulate problems by framing them in particular ways. This frame constrains the kind of solutions that seem viable to us. When we have an insight we break our current frame and adopt a new frame. The new frame allows us to reformulate the problem in such a way that better solutions become viable to us.
Vervaeke’s arguments indicate that relevance realization is necessary to solve the combinatorially explosive problems characteristic of joint utility improvement. This means that if Hagen and Garfield are correct then we have largely been socially and sexually selected for an increasing ability to realize relevance. What’s so interesting about this is that relevance realization is (I will argue) a manifestation of the process of complexification described in section 1.
In section 1 I provided an overview of the general process of complexification outlined by Yuri Wolf and colleagues in their 2018 PNAS paper. That process consists of competing interactions which lead to a “frustrated state” or tension, which leads to self-organized criticality, which leads to an increase in complexity. Relevance realization, as described by John Vervaeke and colleagues, follows this pattern exactly.
Relevance Realization is Complexification
In a 2012 paper entitled “Relevance Realization and the Emerging Framework in Cognitive Science”, Vervaeke and colleagues argue that relevance realization is achieved in the brain through a set of opponent processing relationships. Opponent processing is a common design feature of biological systems in which two different parts of the system work against each other in an opposing way that nevertheless leads to a more functional overall outcome.
Consider the roles of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The role of the sympathetic nervous system is mainly to get your body “hyped up” by preparing it for fight-or-flight. The parasympathetic nervous system has the opposite role of calming you down by preparing your body to “rest and digest”. These systems are in an opponent processing relationship with each other, which produces a more functional outcome than if you only had one system that both hyped you up and calmed you down. To give one more example, you have separate motivational systems that influence “approach” and “withdrawal” behaviors. Again, these are two largely independent systems that work better than if you only had one system that mediated both approach and withdrawal.
Relevance realization, Vervaeke and colleagues argue, is also characterized by opponent processing relationships. The main one that we are concerned with is the higher order relationship of the pursuit of efficiency vs. the pursuit of resiliency. To put it simply, you must be as efficient as possible in the current environment while simultaneously being resilient in the face of environmental perturbations. These goals are traded off with each other and therefore constitute an opponent processing relationship. If you want the details of this you can read Vervaeke and colleagues’ 2012 paper.
The point, for our purposes, is that this opponent processing relationship creates tension. You cannot be both maximally efficient and maximally resilient at the same time. The tension caused by that tradeoff leads to self-organized criticality, which Vervaeke and Ferraro argue is the mechanism by which relevance realization is instantiated in the brain. This self-organized criticality leads to an increase in complexity. As they put it:
With its self‐organizing criticality the brain engages in a kind of on‐going opponent processing between integration and differentiation of information processing. This means that the brain is constantly complexifying (simultaneously integrating as a system while [differentiating] its component parts) its processing as a way of continually adapting to a dynamically complex environment[…] The brain is thus constantly transcending itself in its ability to realize relevant information. (Vervaeke & Ferraro, 2013 p. 11)
Thus, we see that the process of relevance realization is a process of complexification that precisely recapitulates the process laid out by Yuri Wolf and colleagues discussed in section 1. The figure below shows the overlap between these processes.
This means that when you are realizing relevance you are participating in the same process that is involved in the ongoing creation and complexification of everything.
In the next section I will argue that throughout human history we have told stories about people who were most capable of participating in this process. We then extracted the general pattern underlying the behavior of these people and encoded that pattern into fictional narratives which came to serve as the hero mythologies that have underpinned the civilizations of the past.
5. Hero Mythologies and the Process of Complexification
In Jordan Peterson’s 1999 book Maps of Meaning he argued that mythological narratives have a general structure, which he calls the meta-mythology. How is it that disparate cultures could have converged on a general structure in their mythological narratives?
Human beings love to tell stories. A 2014 PNAS paper by Polly Weisner entitled “Embers of society: Firelight talk among the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen” found that, while story-telling took up only 6% of day-time communication, it took up 81% of night-time communication among this group of Bushmen. The night-time activity of choice for many pre-agricultural groups is to gather around camp fires and tell stories about people. Presumably, human beings have been doing this ever since we could talk.
Human beings are also very prone to abstraction. We love to extract general patterns from more particular events because doing so improves our grip on the world. There is no reason to think we wouldn’t do this with stories. Over time, enough important stories would accumulate in a group that it would become impossible to tell them all in one lifetime. Those stories may contain important wisdom, however, and so losing them would be detrimental. Instead of losing them completely, we abstract out the general pattern underlying the more particular stories and encode that pattern into a new narrative, which is a fiction.
And so, over the course of thousands of years, the hero story is constructed like this: We observe many particular people engaging in heroic behavior. Maybe that consists of being a great hunter, warrior, leader, or innovator. We tell stories about those people. Over long periods of time, we try to extract the general pattern underlying the behavior of heroic individuals and encode that general pattern into a fictional narrative. This is like trying to find the “line of best fit” underlying noisy data. After much distillation, these fictional narratives may come to serve as the mythologies that have underpinned the civilizations of the past. They provide an ideal that everyone in the society can aim at. A visual representation of this process of distillation is presented below.
Neuroscientist Erik Hoel has argued that fictions like this serve a purpose. They help us to construct more generalizable cognitive models of the world. As Hoel put it in a 2019 blog post, “There is a sense in which something like the hero myth is actually more true than reality, since it offers a generalizability impossible for any true narrative to possess.” As Hoel argues and as I have argued in a previous post, these mythological narratives may serve the same function for groups that dreams serve for the individual.
What does the general pattern underlying heroic behavior look like? Jordan Peterson argued in Maps of Meaning that it looks like the meta-mythology, as represented in the figure below.
As I argued in a previous post, Jordan Peterson’s meta-mythology has substantial overlap with the process of relevance realization as described by John Vervaeke. This overlap consists of the facts that: a) they both emerge at the border between order and chaos, b) the meta-mythology has the same structure as an insight (a key aspect of relevance realization), which is the same as the basic structure of all far-from-equilibrium phase changes, and c) the meta-mythology is described by Jordan Peterson as the process by which we realize relevance. See my previous post about this for the full argument.
What does this overlap mean? It means that our hero stories are primarily about people who are best able to engage in the process of relevance realization. That process (relevance realization and/or the meta-mythology) is the general pattern underlying the more particular hero stories, which we condensed into the mythologies that served to guide the civilizations of the past. Those who are best able to engage in the process of relevance realization will also be those who are best able to discover and facilitate non-zero-sum games among their group (i.e., joint utility improvement), as discussed in section 3.
In Maps of Meaning, Jordan Peterson argued that engaging in this process is the meta-goal of existence. No matter the particulars of your situation, aiming to engage in the process characterized by the mythological hero (which is equivalent to relevance realization) is your best bet. I will let Peterson speak for himself about this:
We use stories to regulate our emotions and govern our behavior; use stories to provide the present we inhabit with a determinate point of reference – the desired future. The optimal “desired future” is not a state, however, but a process – the (intrinsically compelling) process of mediating between order and chaos; the process of the incarnation of Logos – the word – which is the world-creating principle. Identification with this process, rather than with any of its determinate outcomes (that is, with any “idols” or fixed frames of reference or ideologies) ensures that emotion will stay optimally regulated – and action remain possible – no matter how the “environment” shifts, and no matter when. In consequence of such identification, respect for belief comes to take second place to respect for the process by which belief is generated.
The hero is narrative representation of the individual eternally willing to take creative action, endlessly capable of originating new behavioral patterns, eternally specialized to render harmless or positively beneficial something previously threatening or unknown. It is declarative representation of the pattern of behavior characteristic of the hero that eventually comes to approximate the story of the savior. Behind every particular (that is, historical) adventurer, explorer, creator, revolutionary and peacemaker lurks the image of the “son of god,” who sets his impeccable character against tyranny and the unknown. (Peterson, 1999 pp. 152-153)
Engaging in the process characterized by the hero figure, which manifests psychologically as relevance realization, is “optimal”, as Peterson puts it. In the next section I will review evidence that Peterson’s claim about optimality is correct, both from a biological and psychological perspective.
6. Optimality at the Border Between Order and Chaos
In Maps of Meaning Peterson said that the mythological hero “stands at the border between order and chaos”. In section 1 I briefly discussed self-organized criticality, which is the idea that complex systems in nature show a tendency to self-organize to the narrow window between order and chaos. Self-organized criticality has become an important concept in biology for a couple reasons. In the first place, empirical evidence has accumulated that biological systems such as genetic regulatory systems, flocks of birds, and brains exhibit signatures of criticality (e.g., power-law distributions of avalanches). Second, theoretical arguments have been repeatedly made that biological systems function optimally at criticality.
For example, in a 2018 paper entitled “Dynamical Criticality: Overview and Open Questions”, Roli and colleagues argue that systems poised at the narrow window between order and chaos attain the highest level of computational capability. A system with too much order is rigid while one with too much chaos is unreliable. As they put it:
The peculiar properties of critical systems enlightened in thermodynamics and statistical physics are at the roots of a conjecture stating that systems at the phase transition achieve the highest level of computational capability. The rationale behind this hypothesis is that ordered regimes are too rigid to be able to compute complex tasks, as changes are rapidly erased and the flow of information among the units of the system is rather low. Conversely, disordered regimes are too erratic to provide a reliable response to inputs, as perturbations and noise spread unboundedly, preventing effective information transmission and storage. Critical regimes may indeed provide the optimal trade-off between reliability and flexibility, i.e., they make the system able to react consistently with the inputs and, at the same time, capable to provide a sufficiently large number of possible outcomes. (Roli et al., 2018 p. 650)
Brains have been argued to function optimally at the border between order and chaos. In a 2013 paper entitled “The Functional Benefits of Criticality in the Cortex”, Shew and Plenz argue that criticality in the cortex facilitates optimal information transmission and capacity. Importantly, however, there is evidence that most people’s brains are actually slightly sub-critical most of the time. This is probably due to the fact that criticality, though optimal, is difficult to achieve. In discussing why brains tend to be slightly sub-critical, Hesse and Grosse said in a 2014 paper that:
Any finite real world system, subject to noise and inputs, can only self-organize to critical states with given accuracy. Due to limitations in the sensing of the global state, systems spend in average more time in the subcritical phase. (Hesse & Grosse, 2014 p. 11)
This means that most people are not in a state of criticality most of the time. Achieving criticality requires effort. What might it look like, from a psychological perspective, to achieve this kind of dynamic criticality at the border between order and chaos? A 2021 paper by my collaborator Mark Miller and his colleagues entitled “The Predictive Dynamics of Happiness and Well-Being” may shed some light on this question.
The psychology of criticality
Miller and colleagues’ paper details out what psychological well-being looks like from a predictive processing perspective. Predictive processing is an emerging framework within cognitive science, although the details of that framework aren’t important for our purposes here. I will quote them at length here and then unpack some of the jargon in their claim:
Agents like us that live in complex dynamic environments will benefit from remaining at the edge of criticality between order and disorder, between what is well known (and reliable) and the unknown (and potentially more optimal). Frequenting this edge of criticality requires that predictive organisms are prepared to disrupt their own fixed-point attractors (habitual policies and homeostatic setpoints) in order to explore just-uncertain-enough environments that are ripe for learning about their engagements. When things are going well, and they are on good slopes of error reduction, they should continue on the same path. When, however, a niche is so well predicted that there ceases to be good slopes of error reduction available, agents should begin to explore for opportunities to do better. Rate of error reduction is continuously changing. We will argue that if an agent uses error dynamics to set precision on action policies this will have the consequence that they avoid getting stuck in any attractor state. We will refer to this dynamical state of remaining metastably poised as a state of “metastable attunement”. By tracking the changing rate of error reduction, such an agent will be attuned to opportunities to continually improve in error reduction. (p. 8)
What does it mean for an agent to “disrupt their own fixed-point attractors”? And what does it mean for an agent to use error dynamics to “set precision on action policies” such that “they avoid getting stuck in any attractor state”? I will argue that understanding these lines is key to understanding how it is that we, as agents, achieve criticality (i.e., stand at the border between order and chaos).
The first line about being prepared to disrupt our own fixed-point attractors is essentially saying that we must become comfortable with uncertainty and chaos. Much of psychopathology consists of people getting stuck in ruts (i.e., fixed patterns of behavior) of one kind or another. This can refer to addictions, bad relationships, or a variety of bad habits.
Changing one’s way of life is always accompanied by uncertainty and anxiety. It is all-too-often the avoidance of this anxiety that causes people to get stuck in these various ruts. The way forward requires the voluntary acceptance, and therefore transcendence, of the suffering that accompanies necessary changes. This voluntary acceptance of suffering is the implicit ideal represented by the mythological hero figure (e.g., Marduk’s voluntary confrontation of the dragon Tiamat, Horus’ voluntary descent into the underworld, the Buddha’s voluntary journey towards enlightenment, and Jesus Christ’s voluntary acceptance of crucifixion). Jordan Peterson put it this way:
What question do you need answered about the pyramid of value? What’s at the top? Because that’s the ideal. That’s the eye at the top of the pyramid, the golden Buddha in the lotus. It’s the same thing. It’s the same thing as the crucifix. And that has to do with something like the voluntary acceptance, and therefore transcendence, of suffering. (Jordan Peterson & Akira the Don).
By voluntarily accepting the anxiety and uncertainty that comes from attending to our own errors, we will be willing to ‘disrupt our own fixed-point attractors’ and implement necessary changes.
Moving on to the other line, what might it mean to use error dynamics to “set precision on action policies” in order to avoid getting stuck in these various ruts? Within the predictive processing framework, setting precision usually refers to how we allocate our attention. In a recent paper, Mark Miller, John Vervaeke, and I argued that precision-weighting is really the same thing as relevance realization. Here it is useful to talk about it in terms of attention.
One of the most common sources of psychopathology is the refusal to pay attention to one’s own accumulating errors. It hurts to recognize that we have made a mistake. It means that we must let go of the part of ourselves that caused us to make that mistake. I have often witnessed people go to great lengths to avoid the pain of admitting to themselves that they made a mistake. This refusal to pay attention to errors can, of course, allow us to avoid suffering in the short term. But in the long term it only allows the problem to grow into something much worse.
Miller and colleagues argue that attaining criticality requires us to use error dynamics to set precision on action policies in such a way that we avoid getting stuck in any attractor state. This is simply another way of saying that we must pay attention to our own errors (and equally our successes) so that we can adjust our behavior accordingly. Paying attention to errors, and adjusting ourselves in response to them, is painful. Again, it requires us to voluntarily accept the suffering that accompanies this kind of correction. Jordan Peterson regards the (often-times painful) process by which we adjust ourselves in relation to our own errors as equivalent to the divine Logos. As he put it:
Now I believe that the Logos is divine if, by divine, you mean of ultimate transcendent value. Yes, it’s divine. It’s associated with death and rebirth, clearly, because the Logos dismantles you and rebuilds you. That’s what happens when you make an error. When you make an error some part of you has to go. That’s a sacrifice. You have to let it go and sometimes it’s a big part of you. (Jordan Peterson & Akira the Don)
Miller and colleagues say that agents must be willing to “destroy their own fixed-point attractors” when those attractors have stopped yielding productive error slopes. This is another way of talking about the kind of sacrifice Jordan Peterson is discussing above. We must be willing to sacrifice our deep-seated habits and ways of life when they cease to be productive.
Non-zero-sumness and criticality
In section 2 I argued that the process of complexification manifests in biology as the increasing scope of non-zero-sum games. In section 3 I argued that encephalization occurred in humans largely because we were socially and sexually selected based on our ability and propensity to discover and facilitate non-zero-sum games. Interestingly, Mark Miller and colleagues argue that engaging in non-zero-sum activities is crucial to achieving the “metastable attunement” that accompanies criticality. As they put it:
The development of skills and abilities for engaging in nonzero-sum activities seems to be especially important for creating and sustaining lifelong satisfaction—or what is traditionally referred to as eudaimonia[…] The more one engages with nonzero-sum activities the more opportunities for development emerge—new skills to hone, new qualities to develop, new people to engage and collaborate with. The pursuit of nonzero-sum activities is therefore likely to be conducive to maintaining metastable attunement, and therefore to living a flourishing life. (Miller et al., 2021 p. 10)
We might summarize Miller and colleagues’ suggestions for achieving criticality as such:
Paying attention, and responding appropriately, to our own errors.
Engaging in the discovery and facilitation of non-zero-sum games.
What happens when we achieve criticality, according to Miller and colleagues? In other words, what happens when we appropriately stand at the border between order and chaos?
Being attuned in this way to the edge of criticality makes for a resilient agent, one that can readily adapt to environmental challenges in a way that we have seen is necessary for allostasis. Systems that frequent this edge of criticality have fitness advantages over other more strictly ordered or chaotic systems because they strike an optimal balance between efficiency and degeneracy. Such systems are able to respond efficiently to particular contexts of activity while also remaining open to exploring a wide variety of other possible contexts to bring about their goals. (p. 9)
To put that in other terms, an agent at the border between order and chaos has found the optimal balance between efficiency and resiliency. The agent is ready for anything. When we are at that border we are optimally engaged in the process that John Vervaeke calls relevance realization and Jordan Peterson referred to as the meta-mythology. As Jordan Peterson said: “Identification with this process… ensures that emotion will stay optimally regulated – and action remain possible – no matter how the “environment” shifts, and no matter when” (1999, pp. 152-153). It’s the right place to be. Participating in that process is both biologically and psychologically optimal.
7. Participating In the Process of Creation
In section 1 I laid out a process that is involved in the ongoing creation and complexification of everything. Wolf and colleagues claimed that this process has manifestations at all levels of analysis, from the atomic and molecular all the way up to major evolutionary transitions.
I argued in section 4 that relevance realization is a manifestation of this process. In section 5 I argued that the mythological hero figure from Jordan Peterson’s meta-mythology is a personified representation of it. When Jordan Peterson refers to the mythological hero as “world-creating”, this is more than mere metaphor. There is some very real sense in which engaging in the process characteristic of the mythological hero (i.e., relevance realization) is equivalent to engaging in the process of creation itself.
The worldview emerging from the science of complexity, espoused by Bobby Azarian in his book The Romance of Reality, will forever change how we view the role of human beings in the universe. In the Newtonian-reductionist worldview, human beings are insignificant players in an indifferent universe. We are small, short-lived specks of dust in comparison to the massive size and time-scale of the universe at large. But the new science of complexity has made clear that the Newtonian worldview has inappropriately privileged space and time. Why should size or longevity determine how important something is?
For example, is a lifeless rock 1,000 times the size of Earth, which has been around for a billion years longer, actually more important? Why would it be? It contains no conscious or sentient creatures. Its size and longevity are irrelevant. Complexity is a much more reasonable scale by which to measure the importance of things. Complexity is highly correlated with (and by a certain definition equivalent to) consciousness. Is it not reasonable to suppose that consciousness is more important than size and longevity?
Given that complexity is a more reasonable measure for the relative importance of things, it’s notable that human beings are easily the most complex entities in the known universe. Terence Mckenna noticed the importance of this fact way back in 1994:
Apparently the way the universe works is upon a platform of previously achieved complexity. We could almost say that the universe – nature – is a complexity-conserving engine. It makes complexity and it preserves it and it uses it as the basis for further complexity. This is very profound because if, in fact, the conservation and complexification of novelty is what the universe is striving for, then suddenly our own human enterprise, previously marginalized, takes on an immense new importance. We are, apparently, players in the cosmic drama and in this particular act of the cosmic drama we hold a very central role. We are at the pinnacle of the expression of complexification. (Terence Mckenna, 1994, Eros and Eschaton)
Human beings are at the pinnacle of the expression of complexification in the universe. This means that what we do actually matters in the grand scheme of things. We are not insignificant specks of dust in an indifferent universe. We are, instead, key players at the cutting edge of a participatory universe. To the extent that we enact and embody the process I have described in this essay, we are playing a non-trivial role in the ongoing creation and complexification of everything.
8. Finding God
In a previous post I discussed the recent paper by evolutionary anthropologists Aaron Lightner and Ed Hagen entitled “Supernatural explanations as abstract and useful falsehoods about complex realities”, soon to be published in Human Nature. In a nutshell, they argue that:
…anthropomorphic and other supernatural explanations result as features of a broader toolkit of well-designed cognitive adaptations, which are designed for explaining the abstract and causal structure of complex, unobservable, and uncertain phenomena that have substantial impacts on fitness. (p. 0)
In other words, personification is a cognitive strategy that human beings use to get a grip on complex patterns in the world. I think that’s right. Based on the evidence I have reviewed so far, I would then say that the mythological hero figures found cross culturally are personifications of the process of complexification discussed throughout this essay. This process fits the description of a pattern that Lightner and Hagen argue can be usefully personified. It is highly abstract, it is not directly observable, and it has substantial impacts on fitness because participation in it is biologically optimal (as discussed in section 5).
It is for this reason that these figures have often been regarded as “God” (e.g., Jesus Christ) or at least as the highest god in the pantheon of gods (e.g., Marduk from Babylon). Embodying the pattern represented by these figures represents the meta-goal of existence, meaning that participation in the process they represent is of ultimate value. Considering that this process is also reasonably regarded as the process underlying creation itself, it does not seem unreasonable to call it “God”. I am not the first to make a case like this. For example, Bobby Azarian said something similar in relation to the process of complexification in his book The Romance of Reality:
Now we can ask the question: Is there a god? Yes, there’s an evolutionary process that will inevitably and continually create minds of increasing power that are indistinguishable from gods. Are we the products of such a god? We may be, and we may become one. But all gods emerge as a result of an open-ended evolutionary process that creates functional forms of increasing computational sophistication. So, it seems more accurate to view the process itself as God. (Azarian, 2022 p. 268)
As he indicates, it is not the products of the process that should be viewed as God or gods, but rather the process itself. I will now argue that this view of things is highly concordant with the view of God espoused by Jordan Peterson. In a conversation with Ben Shapiro and Dave Rubin, Peterson described his understanding of God. I will quote him at length here, with intermittent commentary showing how Peterson’s understanding lines up with the understanding I have laid out in this essay. What follows is an edited version of the actual quote, which I lifted from Akira the Don’s music video “That’s God”:
It’s as if there’s a spirit at the bottom of things that is involved in the bringing to being of everything…
In this context, a “spirit” can be regarded as an eternal pattern. He goes on to provide an example.
People talk about evolution as a random process, but that’s not true. The mutations are random but the selection mechanisms are not random. What are the selection mechanisms? Human females are very sexually selective. That’s why you have twice as many female ancestors as male ancestors. How is it that males succeed differentially? Females reject. They reject on the basis of what? And the answer is something like ‘competence’.
Here Jordan Peterson is describing sexual selection, as I discussed in section 3.
How is competence defined? Well, men put themselves in hierarchies and they vote on each other’s competence. Let’s say you decide to follow the best leader in a battle. Well then you don’t die. He might get all the women, but you don’t die so at least you’re still in the game. And it might be the same if you’re following the greatest hunter. And the greatest hunter wouldn’t be the person who’s best at bringing down game, it would be the person who’s best at bringing down the game and sharing it and organizing the next hunt and all of that.
Peterson is addressing the strange fact that men choose each other for leadership positions despite the fact that male leaders become more attractive to women. He is claiming that men select each other for leadership positions based on their ability and propensity to discover and facilitate non-zero-sum games (e.g., somebody who is good at organizing hunts), which is the claim I discussed in section 3.
What that means to some degree is that there’s a spirit of masculinity shaping the entire structure of human evolutionary history... It’s the spirit of positive masculinity that manifests itself across epochal ages, millions of years perhaps. And it actually has shaped our consciousness. Actually.
I argued in section 4 that social and sexual selection for joint utility improvement is the same as social and sexual selection for our ability to realize relevance. In a previous post I discussed the relationship between relevance realization and the scientific study of consciousness. Given the assumptions of integrated information theory, selection for the ability to realize relevance simply is selection for increased consciousness.
It’s like the essential spirit of all the great men who defined what greatness constituted. That’s a spirit. Now that’s a purely biological explanation… Well, that’s God.
Again, a spirit is like an eternal pattern. We have observed great men throughout human history and told stories about them. We then distilled those stories to their general pattern and encoded that pattern into personified representations in the form of mythological narratives. We have called that personified representation God.
But then there’s another possibility too, which is that that’s actually reflective of a deeper metaphysical reality that has to do with the nature of consciousness itself. I think that’s true. I believe the biological case and I believe the biologically reductive case but I don’t think that exhausts it. There’s a metaphysical layer underneath that that the biology is a genuine reflection of. And that’s the macrocosm above and the microcosm below. We are really reflective, including in our consciousness, of something about the structure of reality itself. And that might involve whatever it is that God is. (Jordan Peterson & Akira the Don)
In a previous post I discussed the relation between self-organized criticality and the scientific study of consciousness. Multiple theories of consciousness have converged on the idea that consciousness emerges through the organism’s tendency to self-organize to criticality (i.e., the narrow window between order and chaos). If this is correct, then it seems that there is some intimate relationship between consciousness and the process that is involved in the bringing to being of everything.
Our ancestors represented this “death and rebirth” process in the form of the mythological hero figure, which is hypothesized by Carl Jung and Erich Neumann among others to represent the existence and action of consciousness across time.
If it’s true that criticality (along with the pattern of behavior that occurs at criticality) represents the optimal pattern of behavior for all biological systems, then participating in that process is of ultimate value, and that makes it sacred.
Our participation in this sacred process is our participation in the process of creation itself, which is the metaphysical layer that Jordan Peterson discussed above. It seems eminently appropriate to call that God.
This is a notion of God that is very similar to that which was put forward by the 20th century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. “God”, Whitehead wrote:
… is in the world, or nowhere, creating continually in us and around us. This creative principle is everywhere, in animate and so-called inanimate matter, in the ether, water, earth, human hearts... In so far as man partakes of this creative process does he partake of the divine, of God, and that participation is his immortality, reducing the question of whether his individuality survives death...to...irrelevancy. His true destiny as co-creator in the universe is his dignity and his grandeur. (quote lifted from Segall, 2021)
Whitehead’s God is a creative process that permeates nature which we can participate in. For Whitehead, our participation in that process is of ultimate value and also represents our role as co-creator in the universe. I am in agreement with this conceptualization.
That process can be understood abstractly as a disembodied process of self-organization involved in the complexification of everything (as suggested by Bobby Azarian). It is perhaps more usefully understood, however, as a personality. When we talk about somebody’s personality we are talking about the relatively stable patterns of behavior they display over long periods of time. People who enact and embody this process also share certain patterns of behavior, which have been encoded into our mythological narratives. In Maps of Meaning Jordan Peterson describes this personality as the “revolutionary hero”. As he puts it:
The revolutionary hero is the individual who decides voluntarily, courageously, to face some aspect of the still-unknown and threatening. He may also be the only person who is presently capable of perceiving that social adaptation is incompletely or improperly structured, in a particular way – who presently understands that there still remain unconquered evil spirits, dangerous unknowns and threatening possibilities. In taking creative action, he (re)encounters chaos, generates new myth-predicated behavioral strategies, and extends the boundaries (or transforms the paradigmatic structure) of cultural competence. The well-adapted man identifies with what has been, conserves past wisdom, and is therefore protected from the unknown. The hero, by contrast, author and editor of history, masters the known, exceeds its bounds, and then subjects it to restructuring – exposing chaos once more to view in the process – or pushes back unknown frontiers, establishing defined territory where nothing but fear and hope existed before. (Peterson, 1999 p. 221)
The revolutionary hero’s role in “exposing chaos once more to view” makes him the enemy of those who are totally identified with the current order of things. This is a recurrent pattern throughout human history. Those who find the new path are persecuted by those who are reliant on the old way.
The figure below is meant to represent the journey of the revolutionary hero.
The revolutionary hero’s personal descent into chaos is followed by a re-emergence back into society. He re-emerges with his newly found mode of being, which is necessarily at odds with the current order of things and therefore throws the group into a state of chaos as well. Members of the group who are identified with the current order persecute him because of this. If the process is successful, however, the group re-emerges having incorporated the lessons learned.
This process can be re-described as the process of complexification that has been discussed throughout this essay. The revolutionary hero is exposed to anomalous experience, which induces internal conflict between competing interpretations of that experience. These competing interpretations are associated with a massive increase in psychological entropy or uncertainty, which represents his personal descent into chaos. By voluntarily accepting and confronting this chaos, he finds a new mode of being that incorporates the anomalous experience, allowing him to re-emerge into a higher form of order, which is an increase in complexity.
He then returns to his community with his newly found mode of being. From the community’s perspective, however, the revolutionary hero is himself a form of anomaly.
The individual troubled by anomalous and anxiety-provoking experience is suffering equally from the disintegration, rigidity or senility of the society within. The decision to "mine" such experience for significance — and to destabilize the socially constructed intrapsychic hierarchy of behavior and values, is in consequence equivalent, mythologically speaking, to the "descent to the underworld." If this descent is successful — that is, if the exploring individual does not retreat to his previous personality structure, and wall himself in, and if he does not fall prey to hopelessness, anxiety and despair — then he may "return" to the community, treasure in hand, with information whose incorporation would benefit society. It is very likely, however, that he will be viewed with fear and even hatred, as a consequence of his “contamination with the unknown” – particularly if those “left behind” are “unconscious” of the threat that motivated his original journey. His contamination is nothing to be taken lightly, besides. If the exploratory figure has in fact derived a new mode of adaptation or representation, necessary for the continued success and survival of the group, substantial social change is inevitable. This process of change will throw those completely identified with the group into the realm of chaos, against their will. Such an “involuntary descent into the underworld” is a very dangerous undertaking, as we have seen – particularly in the absence of “identification with the hero.” This means that it is primarily those persons who have “sold their soul to the group” who cannot distinguish between the hero and the dragon of chaos. (Peterson, 1999 p. 223)
The return of the revolutionary hero exposes the insufficiency of the current culturally mediated system of belief and value. His return therefore constitutes an anomaly that throws the group into a state of chaos as well. Although dangerous, this process is necessary for updating culture in the face of radical novelty and uncertainty. In the absence of this process, cultural degeneration is inevitable.
The “tension” between the anomalous experience of the individual and the dogma of the social group is the competing interaction driving social disintegration upon the return of the revolutionary hero. The figure below demonstrates how the journey of the revolutionary hero maps onto the process of complexification discussed throughout this essay.
The movie “Moneyball” is a nice example of how this process can be approximated even in a domain like professional baseball (with Brad Pitt’s character playing the role of the “revolutionary hero”). The first “Matrix” movie is another example, as is “The Lion King”.
In John Vervaeke and colleagues’ 2017 book Zombies in Western Culture: A 21st Century Crisis, they argued that the meaning crisis in Western culture has been accompanied by the loss of three “orders”. These three orders were inherent to the Christian-Aristotelian worldview that dominated Western culture for a thousand years. When we lost these orders, “The universe went from being a beautiful, living cosmos unfolding a great story to a lifeless series of random collisions signifying nothing.” (p. 71)
I want to end this essay by showing how the worldview I have laid out here can help to re-establish the three orders and the meaning they provided. These three orders were the nomological, narrative, and normative orders. I will first go through each of them and briefly explain them in the context of the Christian-Aristotelian worldview.
a. The nomological order
In the Aristotelian worldview, the nomological order established a connection between how the mind worked and the structure of reality. In this view, the mind’s intentionality was reflected in the cosmos at large:
Everything moved with purpose in this worldview, and an intrinsic sense of belonging coordinated the natural direction of all actions and objects (smoke to clouds, objects to earth, etc.). The earth was at the centre of a purposeful cosmos, an inherently beautiful and ordered place that made sense to us, resonated with our experience and gave us the sense of understanding the world and our place within it. (Vervaeke et al., 2017)
Educated people no longer see the earth as being at the center of the cosmos and this kind of teleological view of things is no longer viable to us. As such, we have lost the nomological order.
b. The narrative order
In the Christian worldview:
…time was a line with a narrative, consisting of a beginning, middle, and end. Moreover, it was the unfolding of a story: the creation, fall, and redemption of the world. This metanarrative, applied to Aristotle’s purposeful cosmos, anchored the affinity of person and universe to the symbolic narrative of Christ’s death and resurrection. This singular, intervening event turned the repeating cycle into a single arc, creating a definite telos within a single cosmic story, and a climax for all converging purposes in Aristotle’s perfectly cohered universe. (Vervaeke et al., 2017)
This was a narrative that we could fit into and participate in, providing a sense of purpose and direction. Again, we no longer view history in this way. There is no final “goal” to the evolutionary process. As best we can tell, there is no end point towards which the universe is aiming. As such, we have lost the narrative order.
c. The normative order
The normative order makes reference to an ontological structure that informs us about what is good and lays out a clear hierarchy of values. With the loss of our belief in a Christian-Aristotelian metaphysics, we also lost touch with an ontology (i.e., an account of what is real) that could inform our values. The new ontology provided by the Newtonian-reductionist worldview, in which only dead particles moving about randomly in empty space were considered fully real, had nothing at all to say about value (except, perhaps, to say that value was an illusion). As such, we lost the normative order.
Re-establishing the three orders
I will now go back through these orders and show how the worldview I have espoused in this essay may be able to re-invigorate them.
a. The nomological order
In the worldview I’ve put forward in this essay, there is a different kind of nomological order. Here there is also an affinity, or deep continuity, between how the mind works and the structure of reality. As I argued in section 4, relevance realization, i.e., the process by which we become more behaviorally attuned to the world, is a particular manifestation of the general process by which the universe at large is continually being created and complexified.
In a previous essay I showed that there is a great deal of overlap between relevance realization and the modern science of consciousness. I think Jordan Peterson was right when said that “we are really reflective, including in our consciousness, of something about the structure of reality itself.”
Or, as John Vervaeke and colleagues put it, there really are “fundamental principles by which knowledge and reality co-operate” (Vervaeke et al., 2017), and this constitutes a kind of nomological order.
b. The narrative order
The Christian-Aristotelian narrative order was participatory. We were participating in the process by which the kingdom of heaven would be built on earth.
In the worldview I’ve put forward in this essay, there is no final “goal” towards which the universe is aiming. Rather, the process itself is the goal. This constitutes an infinite game rather than a finite game. Although we are not participating in a narrative that brings about some final state of utopia, we are capable of participating in a process that is of ultimate value, both for ourselves and for the world at large. Vervaeke and colleagues said that the narrative order:
…provided an overarching story into which the minutia of the cosmos―individuals and their own stories―could fit and belong. Further, it introduced the idea that the agency of persons could intervene in the cycle of repetition and meaningfully impact the course of cosmic history.
What I am arguing for is not far off from that. Our individual stories do fit into the overarching story of the cosmos (which is, as Azarian suggested, a never-ending story of continual self-organization and complexification). Our actions — every decision we make — can therefore meaningfully impact the course of cosmic history. That constitutes a kind of narrative order.
c. The normative order
The normative order consisted of a connection between ontology and values. In the worldview I have put forward in this essay, there is also a connection between ontology and values.
In section 6 I argued that our participation in the process of complexification is biologically and psychologically optimal. This process therefore constitutes an ontological structure that simultaneously informs us about the nature of the good. Ontologically speaking, this process underlies reality as we know it. Normatively, our participation in this process is of ultimate value. This constitutes a kind of normative order.
In sum, the worldview put forward in this essay may be able to re-invigorate the three orders, the loss of which precipitated the “meaning crisis” in Western culture.
Brett, thank you for this very interesting article!
I am interested in the work of Vervaeke, Peterson, McGilchrist and others, and I appreciate very much how you have connected the dots between their works for me.
Reflecting on your article, it seems to me that being at the edge of chaos is also much related to Nassim Taleb´s work on antifragility. Taleb suggests, in my own words, that systems that are antifragile should combine and perhaps balance efficiency and resilience. In today´s world we focus, in his view, too much on the efficiency thereby largely ignoring the resilience part. Now I am thinking about it, could it be that the political spectrum (progressive - conservative but also change vs. tradition) reflect the same kind of opponent processing, so that -if we balance these two parts- we do the best relevance realization for society as a whole? This would mean that free speech is indispensible but currently unfortunately under threat. Curious about your thoughts on this.
Similarly, McGilchrist empasizes that, in Western societies, we rely too much on the LHS of the brain and too little on the the RHS. As a consequence, we (again) seem not able to do the best possible relevance realization, given that the RHS is crucial for checking whether our «maps of the world» ultimately make sense in the «real» world.
Finally, I wanted to ask you whether (some) gender differences may reflect opponent processes that are beneficial in, for instance, child rearing. I look forward to hearing from you!
Is the average person able to accept "the process itself is the goal" or does the Death of God break the average person's brain too much? In "democracies" I'd like to believe the former, but I wonder to what extent Noble Lies, however useful, can or cannot be abandoned in the future. There was a Charles Murray tweet a few months ago I can't find about his thinking there can only ever be six religious traditions on which the world can stand, and that all else rests on sand.