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Awakening From The Meaning Crisis: Episode 3

Updated: May 1, 2021

Previous lecture: People understand the double-edged sword of their own cognition. This leads to some fundamental changes in the way people view concepts of morality and responsibility. They start to become more aware of their capacity for self-transcendence and self-destruction, and realize how transcending their own mind could alleviate suffering. Read my posts on Professor Vervaeke's previous lecture here --- part one and part two

In this lecture, Professor Vervaeke talks about the importance of myth, the perception of time in the Bronze Age and Axial Age, and how concepts of wisdom changed between the Bronze Age and the Axial Age. He introduces some psychotechnologies that were introduced by Ancient Israel and Greece during the Axial age. He also addresses the importance of Biblical literacy and how deeply it’s ingrained in our cognition.


Although myths are often considered to be false stories about the past, that is not their actual meaning. They are symbolic stories that reveal archetypes and perennial patterns that are always with us. A myth is formed when an intuitively learned pattern takes the shape of a story that is shareable with people, across time.

The Myth of the Continuous Cosmos

Man and Animals in the Bronze Age

Charles Taylor proposed that people who lived in the Bronze Age experienced the world as a continuous cosmos. Human beings experienced the world and themselves with a kind of connectedness that existed in the Shamanic world. There was a deep connection between the natural and the cultural world, and the cultural world and the world of the Gods. The differences between animals, humans and God were differences in power rather than differences in kind --- it was not odd to perceive animals as having deep societies; kings and queens were seen as Gods, and God was seen as supremely glorious and powerful. It was a reality experienced through power dynamics. For example Greek Gods are not exactly moral exemplars, but they are glorious and powerful.

The continuous cosmos was also considered to move in cycles, just like the cycles of the seasons and day and night. Time was considered to be cyclic and the cycles were perceived to repeat throughout eternity.

During the Bronze Age, when people experienced the world as a continuous cosmos, being wise largely involved being in harmony with the way things were. And so people aimed to ‘fit’ into these cycles of the continuous cosmos There was no sense of changing things and wanting to alter the future because that meant undermining the past.

However, in the Axial Age this way of thinking changed -

The Myth of the ‘everyday world’ and the ‘real world'

In the Axial Age, people started to perceive a different narrative/myth for understanding the relationship of the ‘self’ to the world. Charles Taylor describes this as the ‘great dis-embedding’. The new mythological world-view used a mythology of two worlds --- the everyday world and the real world. The everyday world is the one we live in, it’s the world of the untrained mind. It is a world in which we are beset by self-deception, self-destruction, illusion, violence, chaos. In the everyday world, we are out of touch with reality. On the other hand, the ‘real world’ is how the trained, wise mind sees the world. It’s how the world looks when we are in touch with reality, when we see things for what they are.The real world is a world of reduced suffering and foolishness.

In the continuous cosmos (during the Bronze Age), wisdom was power-oriented. Being a wise individual meant learning how to acquire the power that was used in creating these cycles in the first place. Wisdom involved having the ability to tap into that power in the cycles. What most people aimed for was a long life, people wanted to prosper, be free of conflict and provide security for their offspring. Being wise was often synonymous with being prudent, it was about knowing how to fit into the power structures of society,

But with the introduction of the concept of the ‘everyday’ and the ‘real’ world in the Axial Age, the idea of wisdom changed. People didn’t want to fit into a world beset by deception, suffering and violence. People wanted to be in touch with reality. And so the point was not to conform to this world but to be transformed out of it, and into the real world.

This is reminiscent of the old Shamanic myth of soul flight (concept introduced in my previous post) . ‘Soul flight’ here means this sense of transcendence out of the everyday world into the real world. Wisdom involves knowing how to make that transformation happen.

When human beings perceive the world as a continuous cosmos, wisdom and meaning was defined more by what it meant to fit into the way things were, and to harmonize with the order of things. However in the Axial Age wisdom refers more to the ability to self-transcend , the process of self transformation, and how one can grow as a person. Think of how this is relevant in our lives right now --- how we might not be able to fully connect with or get very close to people who (in some way or the other) are not also interested in growth, maturity and getting more in touch with reality.

This concept of the ‘everyday’ world and the ‘real’ world is a mythological representation of the process of self-transcendence and self-transformation. The idea of living in the ‘everyday’ world (a world in which we are beset by self-deception), suggests that we are somehow strangers in our (everyday) world; because although we live in it, we do not belong in it. Instead, people belong to the ‘real’ world. And wisdom in the Axial Age, was more about the process of moving from the ‘everyday’ world to the ‘real’ world.

Biblical Literacy and the Grammar of our Cognition

Although many of us have read the Bible, Biblical illiteracy seems to be rising over time. This is problematic. Not because people should be Chirstian but because the degree to which we don’t have a grasp on the grammar of the Bible is the degree to which we don’t have a grasp of our own cognition. Being an atheist in this case is irrelevant --- it’s not about what we say we are, it’s about how we think, and how our minds string thoughts together. It’s about the grammar of our cognition, not the vocabulary. This is what Nietzsche meant when he said ‘I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.’ Our faith and belief is built in the very way we think and communicate to ourselves and other people. We are filled with the ‘God grammar’ of the Bible without being conscious of it. For example, think of what happens in a movie; a person ‘falls’ in some fashion, they then have an insight and start to find their way back --- that’s biblical grammar. It’s not about the religion itself but rather how it shapes our sense of the world in a cognitive and existential sense. We’ll explore the idea of religion and grammar further in the next few lectures.

For now, let’s look at two places that were especially significant during the time of the Axial Age --- Greece and Ancient Israel.

Ancient Israel

Around The Bronze Age, an important psychotechnology was developed by Israel. This was the psychotechnology of understanding time as a cosmic narrative --- as a story that is cyclical. Stories generally have a beginning, a problem, a crucial turning point and a resolution. Stories also have a purpose to them. People used this understanding of Story and Narrative to explain how the cosmos unfolded throughout time. But the perception that the cosmos as cyclical, meant one would be condemned to repeat the same things over and over again. This is not useful, because there’s no purpose to it. The point is to get release from these cycles --- to get nirvana or moksha.

However in the Axial Age, time was perceived as a linear progression. The future was open. If people figured out how to participate in the story, their actions could actually change the future. How they made meaning and the moral implications of their actions played an important role in what happened after. They could actually participate with God in the ongoing creation of the future, through meaning and morality.

This is why the god of Ancient Israel is such a different God. The Gods of the Preaxial Age were either tied to a particular place or to a function. But this God is different. This God moves through time and space. That's why at first he had no name. Because to name something is to locate it, to specify it and to tie it down. And then when Moses finally challenged him, he revealed his name and said something along the lines of ‘I will be what I will be, I am the god of the open future -- and you can participate with me in this ongoing creation of the future.’ From the viewpoint of the ‘everyday’ world and the ‘real’ world mythology people can shape the future. They can cause things to be revolutionary or make them go off-course. There is a sense of time passing like a course. And what’s important is where the course turns, the turning points of the course. This is what we look for in movies. We know that our lives don’t unfold like movies, yet we love watching them. We love seeing this structure and participating in it. We look for the plot twists; the great turning points where something is learned and there’s a potential resolution for the future.

There is no one place in the Bible where we can detect this shift in the idea of ‘God’. However at the beginning, there are aspects of a Preaxial God and gradually, God becomes more and more Axial. God becomes a deity of a concept we all take for granted now --- the concept of progress.

The concept of ‘progress’

This is not just an idea but something that is deeply ingrained in us. Over time ‘God’ became a representation of the idea of progress. Progress generally happens where there are turning points. Pual Tillich developed the term Kairos, which means a crucial turning point that determines whether things will go back on course, off course, or whether they will be further developed.

To understand this we need to look at the sense of da’ath. A sense of da’ath refers to knowing in a participatory sense. For example, in The Bible there are instances where it says Adam ‘knew’ his wife Eve, which refers to sex. Sex is used as a metaphor for knowledge because it refers to ‘knowing’ in a participatory sense. Knowledge in terms of having beliefs is one kind of knowledge, but knowledge that involves being immersed in something, is knowing in a participatory sense --- it’s da’ath. In Ancient Israel, faith meant a sense of da’ath. It meant being on course. It meant being involved and evolving with things as they unfolded. It meant using kairos, the turning point as a point of discovery and realization. Think of how this plays out in relationships. We often ask ourselves ‘How is the relationship going? Is it on course? Is it growing? What am I becoming in this relationship?.’ All those questions point to the sense of da’ath.

This could also go the other way. You might reach the turning point of kairos and go completely off track without realizing it. This is the basis of the word sin, which we don’t really use anymore outside of religious arenas because we’ve lost touch with this sense of knowing. Sinning isn’t just doing something immoral. It involves being heavily self-deluded and being off course without realizing it.

The basic idea here is that human beings were thrown into this universe in which they have this option of participating in the creation of the future. But naturally, human beings sin in the sense that they are self-deceptive, and they go off course. Now, in order to redeem them God has to intervene periodically (during these turning points = kairos) and do something so that they can come back on course. In the Old Testament this was signified by the creation of the prophetic tradition. A prophet is not a psychic; prophecy does not mean predictions of the future. Rather, prophecy involves the prophet helping us wake up to show us how we are off course. A good analogy for the prophet would be a therapist who helps us realize how we’ve been off track and helps us get on track again.

In the prophetic tradition there was an increasing emphasis on the process of decision making. There’s an emphasis on a moral responsibility and a social responsibility to help yourself and others get back on track.

So what happened in the Axial Age is not a commitment to belief systems but instead a participation in the ongoing creation of the world that involved shaping the future, helping oneself and helping the society.

Notice that this is how we tend to naturally think of ourselves today. We often think of ourselves as people who are on a journey (we try to be better versions of ourselves, try to steer things a certain way, we want our life and culture to make progress). Try to think about how you would judge yourself if you couldn't make use of this notion of ‘progress.’

Ancient Greece and Cognitive Fluency

The Greeks added vowels and standardized reading (from left to right) to alphabetic literacy. This increased the ease with which people could process information. Several experiments suggest that as the ease with which the mind can process information is increased (regardless of what the information is), people come to believe that the information is more real and reliable --- they have more confidence in it. This can be as simple as changing the font or adjusting the colour contrast of the foreground and background on a page. The more fluent and easier the processing, the more we (on average) are likely to trust the information.

In Athens, particularly, there was also the slow emergence of a democracy. This changed the way debates and arguments took place. Although other cultures were doing arithmetic, the Greeks invented Mathematics and Geometry. All of this started to train people’s capacity for rational argumentation. And so what started to get developed in ancient Greece was the explicit training of rational argumentation as a core psychotechnology of the Axial revolution.


Pythagoras in the Axial Age

Pythagoras along with Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are an a huge way an embodiment of the Axial Revolution.

Pythagoras belonged to a group of individuals called the divine men. These men had a lot of associations with healing and seemed to represent a rediscovery of Shamanic psychotechnologies. Pythagoras often engaged in a thunderstone ceremony where he isolated himself in a cave, and then came out of it having undergone some radical transformation. He seemed to have experienced something akin to soul flight because he talked about the capacity of the psyche to be liberated from the body.

Pythagoras also discovered the octave. He discovered that there are mathematical proportions to the world. He realized that these psycho-technologies of rational reflection and mathematics give us access to abstract patterns that we are not directly aware of.

And so he took this idea about realizing and knowing these abstract patterns through music and math and linked them to the Shamanic ability to engage in self-transcendence. He felt that even though we are somehow trapped in this world, we can learn to fly above it, like the Shaman. He proposed we could use musical and mathematical thinking and practices that engage in altered states of consciousness and engage in self-transcendence.

Pythagoras also invented the word ‘cosmos’ to describe the world, which is where the word ‘cosmetics’ comes from. Cosmetics means revealing the beauty and well orderedness of things. And so he suggested that engaging in these practices and ways would help us see the world as a cosmos. In fact many people who have awakening experiences today see the world as radically beautiful, as a cosmos. Unfortunately, most of us seem to have lost this world view. Most of us do not see the universe as a cosmos or as radically beautiful anymore. In the next lecture Professor Vervaeke takes a look at why.

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. If you liked this post, please share it and subscribe to my blog/add yourself to the mailing list so you get a notification when I post. Thank you for your time.

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