Meaning in the 20th century went missing. With the decline of religion, and the rise of science, for many in the modern world nihilism has taken hold. But this is a mistake. We must usher in the return of meaning, for the existential health of our selves and our culture, writes John Vervaeke.
As we move into the real possibility of what is called artificial general intelligence (AGI), i.e., intelligence that is like or surpasses our own, we move into a problem centrally entwined with our intelligence, viz., the problem of meaning. Two questions immediately emerge: what is the nature of this meaning so central to our intelligent cognitive agency, and what relation does this cognitive meaning have to the existential meaning that has been of concern to philosophers perennially but especially since the advent of modernity and secularism? When Pascal talks about the infinite spaces of the scientific worldview and how they terrify him or Nagel talks about the problem of the absurd as we pursue objectivity, they are invoking a sense of meaning that has something to do with psychologist and philosophers are calling meaning in life . This is the sense that one’s life makes sense in a way that has depth or realness because it connects one to something larger than oneself that has a value and a reality beyond one’s egocentric concerns and individual existence. This connection makes life worth living in the face of the frustrations, failures, suffering and sorrows that reliably assail human lives.
I want to argue that the meaning so central to AGI has two interrelated components. One is that our mental states are about something, they are directed beyond themselves to something other than themselves. My thought about a tree is not a tree but is directed at a tree. This is known as intentionality or original meaning, and it is problematic how to get this into the computational states of machines.  The second component is relevance. You are not like a standard computer because it does not care about the information it is processing. Its results may matter to you, but it does not care about the information for itself. However, it turns out that this ability to care about some information rather than other information is central to being an intelligent cognitive agent. The ability to pay attention to some information and ignore other information as irrelevant is crucial to being an intelligent problem solver. Notice that already the problem of cognitive meaning seems to be overlapping with existential meaning because cognitive meaning involves being directed/connected to something beyond oneself, and it involves sensing the relevance or importance of information.
We need wisdom and a capacity for transformative self-correction, i.e. self-transcendence, more than ever before.
I will further argue that as we answer the relevance problem, we begin to get an answer to the intentionality problem, and that as we do this, we will get a good explanation of existential meaning. So, as existential meaning becomes increasingly problematic due to historical factors, we have the potential emergence of an account of meaning-making within cognitive science that can help to explain the nature and function of existential meaning. This will help explain how this meaning-making can go awry, and how it can be afforded and improved. So, meaning is returning because the demands for it in cognitive science and in our lives are both increasing at a time when we may be able to jointly meet these demands.
THE RELEVANCE PROBLEM
There is way too much information in the environment to which you could pay attention. Any of it could be relevant to you meeting your goals. You have so much information in your long-term memory, and you can combine it in a vast number of ways. Which information should you consult, and how should it be combined? You can combine various movements and sequences of actions in uncountably large number of ways. Which sequence should you perform? What is so powerful is that in practice the answer to all these interrelated questions is obvious to you. So here is how we can re-ask our question of relevance: how does your brain make information, memory, and action obvious to you in a way that reliably allows you to solve so very many problems in so many ways? The ability to generate powerful obviousness is central to being a general problem solver, i.e., to have AGI.
The problem is that obviousness is, well, obvious. However, that is precisely the issue. Being obvious is not a property of anything in itself. Focusing on a chair may be completely obvious one moment and completely irrelevant the next. Remembering that your Aunt Agnes loves chocolate ice cream may not be relevant for years at a time. What people will often say at this point is that it all depends on context. However, that just pushes the question down the road. For what is a context? It is a set of things, memories, and actions that are all co-relevant to each other because that set of things is relevant to whatever goals you are trying to achieve. It is the sphere of obviousness that is constantly around you. This just re-asks the question of relevance again: how can we make a machine that has the ability for context sensitivity?
What you or any other machine cannot do is check all the facts in memory, all the available information in the environment or consider all possible courses of action. For very many real-world problems that would take you longer than the rest of the history of the universe. What is amazing, and to date very difficult to replicate even in very powerful computers and neural networks, is how rapidly and reliably you do this.
There is one more wrinkle to this. Consider these nine dots. Here is the problem: connect all nine dots with four straight lines without taking your pencil or pen off the paper.
For many people when they hear “four straight lines” and see the figure it is obvious to them that there is a square whose boundaries they must respect, but that will prevent them from solving this otherwise easy problem. Consider the following diagram.
To solve this problem one must “think outside the box”. So, while the ability to generate obviousness enables our general intelligence, it also blinds us. Two points come from this simple example. Our ability to zero in on relevance and render it obvious is inherently self-correcting and we experience that self-correction in moments of insight, the aha experience. The second is that telling people to think outside the box does not actually help them to solve the problem! It is not a matter of changing their beliefs.  They need to know how to go outside the box, they need to be able to generate the perspective that foregrounds the right things, backgrounds the right things in the right way, and ignores the right things. For example, the blank space around the box should not be backgrounded in your awareness; instead, it should be central. Finally, they may need to challenge roles that they have stored. Very many of us learned how to do connect the dots and be good dot connectors. Solving the nine-dot problem requires that you make a change of direction where there is no dot, but that is not what a good dot connector does. One needs to believe that one should go outside the box. One also needs the right attentional skills and directions to do so, i.e., one needs to know how. One further needs to be able to realize that state of awareness that casts the right perspective on the problem. One finally needs to be able to give up a role in which one easily participates and inhabits. Solving the problem requires changing one’s propositional knowing (beliefs), one’s procedural knowing (skills), ones perspectival knowing (one’s perspective) and one’s participatory knowing (what roles one assumes). One must change all of these in a parallel and dynamically interlocking fashion.
That sense of caring connectedness to yourself, to others and the world, that is so important to meaning in life, is not some existential add on. It is the lifeblood of your cognitive agency.
Yet, the aha! moment of insight when you realize (in both sense of the word) the solution is not really something that you do. It is something that you participate in and that occurs between you and the problem. It has a life of its own. This gives us a clue for a plausible account as to how you are always zeroing in on relevant information. It is a dynamically self-correcting process unfolding between you and the world that is dynamically and constantly reconfiguring what you find relevant so that you dwell in a field of obviousness. Notice what your attention does, even right now. Part of it wants to drift away into mind-wandering or daydreaming while another part is bringing you back and focusing on this article. Notice that you direct your attention, and yet it can also be caught away by a distracting thought or sound. Attention is both something you do and something that happens to you. You participate in it. As your attention drifts away, it is introducing variation into your awareness and there are more things you can think about, but the opponent process of focusing selects from all the variations which things you are going to engage. Notice how your attention is a self-correcting process in which opposing constraints of variation and selection are always at work. You attention is very much like a living thing that is evolving. Just as biological evolution uses variation (due to mutation etc.) and natural selection (due to scarcity) to evolve how species are fitted to their environment your attention is always evolving your cognitive fittedness to your environment. When the process is working smoothly, and you are dynamically fitted to your environment, then you have obviousness within context sensitivity.
Notice how much of this going on outside of your propositional knowing and within your procedural, perspectival, and especially participatory knowing. Notice how it connects you to your environment and that this connection is an evolving salience landscape of what you care about and how much you care about it. Many researchers, including this author, propose that the non-propositional connectedness and caring is how the propositions get directed onto the world. You are connected and caring about the situation in which the cat is on the mat, so the proposition “the cat is on the mat” is meaningful to you. Both the relevance realization (both senses of the word) processes and the intentionality generation process are more complex than I have presented them, but what I have presented allows you see why meaning, i.e., relevance realization and directedness, are so central to your intelligent cognitive agency. That sense of caring connectedness to yourself, to others and the world, that is so important to meaning in life, is not some existential add on. It is the lifeblood of your cognitive agency. You find it inherently valuable because it is in inherently needed for your general intelligence. If you do not continually solve, re-solve and resolve meaning you will not solve any of your other problems or achieve any of your other goals. In a very real sense, you are this capacity to participate in such meaning making.
Our intelligence flows between us and the world like music. This is both poetic and hard-core cutting-edge cognitive science.
THE MEANING CRISIS
Most of this meaning making is taking place below your beliefs and the obviousness of your everyday experience. However, for many historical reasons that I explored and explained in my Awakening from the Meaning Crisis video series, our culture has become excessively, perhaps obsessively, focused on this level of belief and everyday obviousness. We suffer propositional-ideological tyranny. We have lost cultural frameworks and evolving systems of practice that allow us to access, activate, accentuate, and celebrate our meaning-making. We know in our bones that such serious play with how we find things salient (relevance that grabs attention) is important because of our experience of music, but we find a hard time articulating why music can be so important even sacred to us. We fall into tired tropes about emotion and feeling without being able to explain why they should matter so much. However, given what I have argued we can see that all our experience is like music. It is an on-going evolution of our salience landscape that connects us to our world and makes us care about it in a way that fits us to a melody of situations rendering them intelligible for action. Our intelligence flows between us and the world like music. This is both poetic and hard-core cutting-edge cognitive science. Lyricism meets AGI.
Currently we have a dominant scientific world view that cannot explain the cognition that produces science. The truth generation central to science depends on meaning-making. If I ask you if it is true that gribnaws frequently eekulate. You will probably reply that you first need to know what “gribnaw” and “eekulate” mean. Until we explain the how and why of meaning-making, we really cannot situate ourselves as the producers and consumers of science within that very scientific worldview. We generate a scientific worldview in which do not properly belong. We are cosmically homeless. This is not just sad, it is dangerous. Remember that relevance realization is a process that can also lead to self-deception. Remember the nine-dot problem. The very processes that make us generally intelligent also make us perennially prone to self-deception, i.e., foolishness. We need ecologies of practices that are appropriately culturally homed for addressing our disconnectedness and foolishness, for enhancing our capacities for self-correction, insight, and relevance realization. In short, we need places for the cultivation of wisdom, and wisdom is not optional for us. Another way of seeing the meaning crisis is that we intuitively realize we need to improve our ability to cut through all the noise and BS to what really matters, we need to connect to what is real, and we need to seriously address our capacity for self-deception. However, we do not know how to do this, we do not know which perspectives are the most perspicacious, and we do not know in which processes of identity transformation we should participate. As we drown in information and disinformation, we starve for cultural homes for the cultivation of wisdom. Where do you go for wisdom?
For many of us the traditional religions that homed us for wisdom and the serious play of meaning-making are no longer viable because of the scientific worldview and historical problems and failures that attend these religions. We tried wide-sweeping ideologies that drenched the world in blood in the 20th century, and we have produced enormous affluence that is agonizingly paired with mental health and addiction crises. We have no faith in our political institutions while we increasingly politicize everything and grow polarized from each other. We crave intimacy in our romantic relationships and try to make them take on the role that religion and culture used to, but they often fracture under this strain and produce endemic suffering. We are cut off from the world in a way that is killing it and us. Then COVID just made it all worse.
THE RETURN OF MEANING
We need to understand meaning-making to reduce self-deceptive self-destructiveness both individually and collectively. We need wisdom and a capacity for transformative self-correction, i.e., self-transcendence, more than ever before. For an increasing number of people, the understanding and practice of self-transcendence is no longer viable within traditional religion or within secular politics. Work within AGI and cognitive science is pointing to an emerging understanding of intelligence that connects it deeply with meaning-making in a way that also makes existential sense. What are needed are communities that home ecologies of practices that reconnect people with their meaning-making processes such that the cultivation of wisdom and connectedness becomes more reliably viable for them. Culturally isolating people so that they are forced to attempt to autodidactically cobble together the practices of wisdom and connection by themselves or in their social media echo-chamber only tends to make matters worse. We need dynamically self-correcting ecologies of practices that are tutored and vetted by the best cognitive science and that, in turn, provide on-going rich data and innovation of technique to that science. The people within these communities must be bound together by a commitment to deep exploratory dialogue within the communities and between the communities to give us access to the collective intelligence that can counterbalance our ego-centric and autodidactic tendencies. What is most demonstrative of the return of meaning is the emergence of such ecologies of practices, communities that home such practices, and the proliferation of dialogical practices such as circling, empathy circling, inquiry, authentic relating, insight dialogue, etc., for deeply connecting people and communities. The return of meaning is a scientific, existential, and cultural phenomenon that is gaining momentum. It is in a race with the degradation of lives and environment that is also gaining momentum. It is unknown which will win the race.
 Pascal (1670), Le Pensées; Nagel (1989), The View from Nowhere; Hicks & Routledge, eds. (2013), The Experience of Meaning in Life; Wolf (2010), Meaning in life and why it matters.
 Haugeland (1985), Artificial Intelligence: the very idea.
 Weisberg & Alba (1981), An Examination of the alleged role of “fixation’ in the solution of several “insight” problems.
Join the conversation