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Spirituality and the Meaning Crisis Part 3: The Cognitive Science of meaning and why that meaning is spiritual

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


(cc) J. Michel

(cc) J. Michel,

In Part 2 I discussed how the meaning system of the West has been seriously damaged, but we may ask, “ How does this impact on my life in particular?” In order to answer that question properly we need to turn to the second question introduced in part one, viz., the question as to the nature of meaning. Obviously the word “meaning” is being used metaphorically. We are saying that something analogous to the way a sentence makes sense to us is occurring with respect to the quality of our lives. Our lives make sense to us in a way that matters or is important to us. We’ve also seen in Parts 1 and 2 that this “meaning” has a lot to do with our sense of connection to ourselves, to each other, and to the world. A good answer to the question of what is “meaning” would be one that addressed all these aspects in a unified answer. Cognitive science is entering a position where it has the theoretical resources to do so.

Paolo Costa in his article “A Secular Wonder” points us to the following important realization:

the very ordinary fact that things always “matter” to some way or other to us, and that we cannot help but be affected by things as if we were immersed in a sort of bubble of meaningfulness, or better, in an atmosphere of significance and import that we do not create from scratch but are absorbed by. The metaphor of the atmosphere should suggest not only the image of a global container, but also that of a rhythm of breathing and of a light refraction to which a living being must attune or adjust herself.

He then goes on to point that there is a central consequence of what he calls a “bubble of significance”:

the experience of having-a-world has its roots not in a head-on and focused relationship with a clear-cut object, but in the emergence of a bubble of significance that, for a sentient being, plays the same role that is played by the atmosphere with regard to the earth: it creates, that is, special conditions of life where existentially crucial distinctions between inside and outside are drawn.

What is Costa talking about when it talks about this bubble, why is it rhythmic in nature like breathing, why it is analogous to the diffraction of light, and why is it both non-specific yet so important to us? In order to answer these questions from a cognitive science perspective we need to become clear about the central role of framing in both our cognition and agency. Framing refers to the fact that there is simply way too much information available to us, and way too many options available to us, and so we must put a frame around what we consider and what we ignore. Say you are playing a game of chess. Each turn you have an average 30 legal moves you can make, and you take about 60 turns to play a game. That means possible combinations of moves you would need to consider is 3060 or 4.239 x 1088. That is an incredible amount. It is very much larger than the number of neurons in your brain 1010, or the number of connections, 5 x 1014. It is bigger than the number of atoms in the universe, 1082. So you cannot consider all these possibilities. In fact, you have to really constrain how you search through the possibilities. You have to ignore a vast amount of this information, and zero in on the crucial or relevant information. You have to put a frame around your search. This ability to ignore irrelevant information and zero in on the relevant information is central to what it is for you to be an intelligent being. Most tests for intelligence are precisely tests of your ability to zero in on relevant information. Every single moment your brain is doing this. The fact that so many things are salient and obvious to you is the result of this framing ability.

Framing is central to being an agent in the world. An agent is a being that is capable of actions as opposed to just emitting behaviour. A chair does a lot of things, like hold up a person, take up space, or fit under a table, but these are not actions because the chair does not pay attention to the consequences of its own behaviour. In contrast an agent pays attention to the consequences of her own behaviour. She finds the effect of her behaviour salient as a goal of her behaviour. So I pick up the glass because it will bring the water it contains closer to my mouth so I can drink it. That, in itself, requires that I find the glass out of all the things around me relevant in a way that grabs my attention. So that already is framing. However, in addition more framing is needed in action. I light a match for the intended effect that it will make light, but in addition it produces a side effect of generating heat. If I don’t pay attention to this side effect, then I get killed if there is gas in the air. So an intelligent agent has to pay attention to side effects as well as intended effects. The problem is that the number of side effects for any action is uncountablely large. When I light the match I am also producing a patch of yellow colour, producing some sulfur oxidation, I am also producing carbon dioxide and water from the wood burning, I am also producing air currents as I move my arm to strike the match, I am also burning up glucose inside my body, etc. etc. Most people say that all of this is silly or irrelevant, but that is exactly the point. Their brain is making all of these true side effects irrelevant, but it does have to notice the relevant ones. That is what it is to be intelligent. This is a fundamental way in which one senses a connection to the world, i.e., one senses all the things that stand out as relevant against a background of ignored irrelevance. One experiences a salience landscape.

It is important to realize that this process of relevance realization is constantly evolving. Consider the following classic problem.

Join all nine dots with four straight lines without taking your pencil off the page.

Many people try answers like this:

Some attempted answers to the problem

However, this is one answer:

A solutions to the above problem

Most people get annoyed when you first show them the answer, and they say that the answer is cheating because it involves going outside the square or the box. However, neither a box nor a square were mentioned in the problem. Instead, your brain frames the dots as a square, the space inside the square stands out as relevant, and you ignore the space outside the square. You have a salience landscape for the problem. In order to solve the problem you need to think outside the box (this is the experiment where that phrase originated.) Yet you can realize that your framing is inappropriate, you can break that frame and alter your attention so that you can make a new frame. You can have an insight. Those “aha!” moments indicate how your framing is capable of self-correction and evolving new more appropriate framing from itself. It is truly an amazing ability. So your framing, which is so central to you being an intelligent agent, is constantly evolving. As Costa argues, it is rhythmic in nature. You project a salience landscape of how things stand out for you, like the square shape, and then you bind your actions to it, you constrain yourself to only working in the square, but then you break out of that loop, re-project and re-bind yourself to the new salience landscape. It is like breathing, and it is like an atmosphere in that it surrounds and sustains your experience, and it alters the salience of things like how an atmosphere refracts light, as Costa says. It does not constitute any particular object of your awareness; instead, the evolving framing creates an atmospheric sense of significance that is constantly shifting its texture and tone.

As Russon argues in his book, Bearing Witness to Epiphany, framing has a musicality about it. As we have already noted, there is a rhythm to it. There is also a harmony as various parts of experience make sense together, and there is a melody to it as the framing is constantly evolving. This is perhaps why we find music so atmospherically meaningful although it does not refer specifically to any particular object or things. The fact that we often find music so spiritual, or that music is so associated with spirituality, probably has to do with the fact that it makes us more directly participate in the process of framing. This in turn, strongly suggests that the experience of framing and its bubble of significance are extremely important to us in a very atmospheric and intuitive way. Such framing makes us intelligence cognitive agents, it makes us the centre of a perspective of experience, it makes sense of the world, and it affords our reaching our goals. Of course, it is centrally important to us although it is no particular object in our experience. It is the spiritual “meaning” of our experience. It is our fundamental way of connecting to a world that makes sense to us, and in which we are agents and centres of experience, i.e., in which we are selves.

This last point is very important. We do not make our framing so much as it makes us. Such framing is pre-rational in that we need to frame before we can begin to reason. Our reasoning can feedback and effect our framing but it is ultimately dependent on it. Our framing is pre-experiential in that it is what makes meaningful experience possible. It is pre-egoic in that it is what makes our cognitive agency and perspectival being possible. Of course our experience and our perspectival roles feedback into it, but they are ultimately dependent on this framing. There is a level of this framing that is fundamental, i.e. the level the makes our cognition, experience, and selfhood possible. This fundamental framing is spiritual in that it is deeper than our minds, experiences or selves, and yet it is deeply generative of our minds, experience, selfhood, and our deep connection to a world that makes sense to us and in which we can intelligently act. In this sense it has to do with our very human way of being. Anything that impacts on our fundamental framing affects us in a profound way at the core of our being.

That is why this fundamental framing is not only evolving it is also deeply involving. Relevance realization is not some cold calculation. It is an act of commitment. Our brain has to decide to commit its precious resources of attention and time to only a very small fraction of the information available to it, and these decisions are fraught with risk. So relevance realization is filled with affect, emotion, and motivation. In produces salience that arouses us and motivates us. It makes us care about some information and not care about other information. As Costa says, it is about how we are attuned (a musical metaphor again) to the world. We participate in our relevance realization because it is generative of our being and sense of belonging. It is not something made directly by us or by the world, but by how our brains and the world are coupled together in this looping rhythmic process. That is why Costa says we do not make it from scratch but are absorbed by it. It is fundamentally how we are connected to ourselves and to our world.

It is also about how we are connected to each other. Every time you communicate with someone else you are relying on shared relevance realization. You cannot put into words everything you want to communicate. You have to rely on people to fill in the blanks and read between the lines. Your listener has to follow where your words are pointing. We cannot put that all into the standards meanings of words because there are just too many different contexts into which the words must fit.

Consider the word “kind.” What does it mean to be kind? Note that you are not kind to a friend the way you are to your spouse, and both of those are different from how you are kind to your child or your pet. And if you try to specify what you mean by “kind” with other words, then each one of those words needs further specification and so on to infinity. Once again we can only communicate because of relevance realization. It is how we connect to each other, and much of communication is therefore going on below our conscious awareness or deliberate effort.

So “meaning” is relevance realization. Relevance realization is an inherently spiritual process because it is so “musical” in nature, it is so fundamental to our agency and identity, it is something in which we participate, and it is foundational to how we connect to ourselves, each other, and the world. Threats to such relevance realization would produce a spiritual crisis, i.e. a meaning crisis. We’ve seen that there has been a historical process that has put all of our senses of connection at risk. Yet why should our individual relevance realization be put at risk but the historical processes discussed in Part 2? That is something we shall explore in part 4.


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


Previous Posts in this Series

  1. Part 1: The Meaning that was lost
  2. The Emergence of the crisis

One Comment

  1. And yet how unsettling to think that the meaning (and hence purpose) that we prize is actually the result of subtracting (rather than adding) to the world? Masking instead of framing? Instead of adding more and more 'epicycles of meaning' (another unkind definition of spirituality?) to make the world understandable and salient, how liberating to only change the mask on a naturalistic reality?

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