Discover more from Infinite Loops
Complexity, Mythology and the Meaning Crisis
This week’s research note is on Brett Andersen, an evolutionary psychology PhD student at the University of New Mexico who has written extensively on psychology, evolution, complexity, mythology, and the meaning crisis over at his Substack Intimations of a New Worldview.
Brett recently joined us at Infinite Loops together with friend-of-the-show Tom Morgan to discuss the implications of the ideas presented in Brett’s fantastic essay ‘Intimations of a New Worldview’.
Ahead of the release of the episode tomorrow (28 December), here’s the deep dive into Brett’s ideas that we prepared prior to speaking with Brett.
The Optimal Path
Nihilism and the Meaning Crisis
Theme 1: Complexity
A complex system is one where many specialised parts are functionally correlated.
Complexity is a precondition for existence. An explanation of the emergence of complexity is an explanation of how anything exists at all.
Complexity emerges as a result of non-zero-sum interactions. Increases in the scope of non-zero-sum games are equivalent to increases in complexity. Non-zero-sum interactions emerge as a result of zero-sum interactions. Competition therefore breeds cooperation. This is because a non-zero-sum game brings entities together and also causes them to specialise.
One could make the argument that humans have socially and sexually selected each other for our ability to discover and facilitate non-zero-sum games.
Complexity requires both order and chaos. It emerges at the border between order and chaos- this is the critical state. There is no external agent fine-tuning systems in nature, so natural systems achieve criticality from the bottom-up – self organised criticality.
Is it possible to gain an understanding of complex systems by reducing them into constituent parts / components?
Is the world continually becoming more complex? Are we living in a scientifically ‘more complex’ society today than our neolithic ancestors were?
Is there a distinction between self-organisation and evolution?
Can complexity be simulated?
What impact does complexity science have on traditional models of cause and effect? Can complexity be explained via cause and effect?
Brett states that it is possible that “humans have socially and sexually selected each other for our ability to discover and facilitate non-zero-sum games.” This seems to run contrary to the mainstream view that the main goal of natural selection is to enhance replication. How does he square these against one another?
The basic thesis in both Robert Wright and John Stewart’s books is that complexity increases in biology by taking advantage of non-zero-sum interactions. Increases in the scope of non-zero-sum games are equivalent to increases in complexity.
Paradoxically, however, increases in non-zero-sum interactions often come about because of zero-sum interactions. To put it simply, competition often breeds cooperation.
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.
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.
If Hagen & Garfield are right, and if Robert Wright is right, this leads to a very strange yet potentially hopeful conclusion. Over millions of years of evolution, human beings have socially and sexually selected each other for the propensity and ability to discover and facilitate non-zero-sum games.
Theme 2: Relevance Realisation
“Relevance realization” (a theory which originates from John Vervaeke) is the means by which “organisms solve the problem of intelligently ignoring irrelevant aspects of the world and zeroing in on the relevant aspects”. It is connected to complexity because it is equivalent to the process by which we become more cognitively differentiated and integrated.
Self-organized criticality (see preceding section) is the mechanism by which relevance realization is instantiated in the brain. It occurs at the narrow window between order and chaos, between regular networks and random networks in the brain.
Relevance realization is connected to insight. An ‘insight’ involves a frame-shift, i.e. it features us discarding our previous way of framing a problem and adapting a new frame which brings in information that our previous frame discarded as irrelevant.
Like relevance realization, insight occurs at the border between order and chaos. (1) person has a stable frame, (2) they realise their frame is incorrect, (3) the frame is broken, (4) a new frame is adopted which integrates the new information.
Consciousness is another key element of relevance realization. It involves “extracting relevant information and dispatching it”. A number of different strands of scientific evidence support the idea that consciousness emerges at the border between order and chaos.
Relevance realisation can be conceived as a theory about the development of consciousness.
Relevance realisation also maps precisely onto the process of complexification. “When you are realizing relevance you are participating in the same process that is involved in the ongoing creation and complexification of everything.”
Much of what Brett has written around relevance realization, insight and filtering out information maps onto what Tom has been writing about for years. How has Tom’s model of the world changed since discovering Brett’s work? To what extent has it added to his worldview rather than reinforcing it?
Tom has written a lot about the importance of having slack in the system. How does this map onto Brett’s writing? Can ‘slack’ be read as ‘chaos’ due to its open ended and unstructured nature?
To what extent is relevance realisation a prima facie good thing? Often we can have self-deceiving insights, or we can zero in on destructive aspects of the world at the expense of other elements. To what extent would these processes constitute relevance realization?
Is relevance-realisation a feature or a bug of human evolution? Is it a causative or a correlative relationship?
We can therefore say that relevance realization (and the complexification associated with it) occurs at the narrow window between order and chaos. This accords with Vervaeke and Ferraro’s discussion of network theory, in which they argue that relevance realization is best achieved in the brain by small-world networks, which are intermediate to regular networks (too much order) and random networks (too much chaos).
An important aspect of relevance realization is the capacity for insight. An insight is what happens when we have an ‘aha’ moment in relation to a problem we’ve been thinking about. In contrast to methodical, deliberative thinking, insights occur suddenly and often occur when we aren’t even actively thinking about the problem. As John Vervaeke and others have argued, insights involve a frame-shift. In order to deal with combinatorially explosive problems, we must put a frame around them that constrains the kinds of solutions that seem viable to us. An insight involves letting go of a previous way that we were framing the problem (which has been rendered dysfunctional or non-optimal for whatever reason) and adopting a new, more functional frame that allows us to solve whatever problem we are engaged with more effectively.
This means that when somebody breaks frame, there is an increase in behavioral disorder or chaos. When that person establishes a new frame, however, there is a decrease in entropy such that there is even less entropy than there was before the insight. This means that when the insight occurs there is a re-emergence into a higher form of order.
I think Dehaene is right that consciousness is involved in “extracting relevant information and dispatching it”, i.e., relevance realization.
Relevance realization, they argued, is equivalent to the process by which we become more cognitively differentiated and integrated. As we cognitively complexify, so also do we become better at zeroing in on relevant aspects of the world
Theme 3: The Meta-Mythology
Jordan Peterson has previously argued (see his book Maps of Meaning) that mythological narratives have converged on a general pattern – the meta-mythology. This “represents the process that updates individuals and cultures in the face of existential anomalies”. The meta-mythology is the general pattern underlying mythological narratives from different civilisations over the course of history.
The meta-mythology occurs at the border between order and chaos – the mythological hero is said to be one who “stands on the border between order and chaos”.
The meta-mythology has the same structure as an insight. The hero will (a) start in relative stability, (b) be disrupted by an anomaly, (c) descend into chaos, and (d) re-emerge into a higher form of order.
The meta-mythology is a process of exploration and update. It is therefore a form of relevance realization. It also maps on to the development of consciousness (see above).
Peterson argues that engaging in the meta-myth is the meta-goal of existence.
Meta-mythology is about the process. It is not about the stories itself, it is about the process by which we determine value.
The meta-myth strikes me as being so generalisable that it risks losing meaning. Is it falsifiable?
How do Peterson’s and Joseph Campbell’s conceptions of mythology and story-telling differ?
I would argue that the trend of modern storytelling has been the deconstruction of the monomyth. Breaking Bad is the anti-hero’s journey. It is about a man following his attention and unleashing utter devastation. Gus Fring is the archetypal left sided brain character – his cool dispassion is his superpower. It is emotions and feelings that ultimately bring him down. Likewise, Game of Thrones actively seeks to undercut our priors about the evolution of a hero – look what happened to poor Robb Stark. What does the popularity of anti-heroes and of ‘dark’ television tell us about society relative to the meta-mythology?
I’m really interested by how chaos fits into the idea of the meta-myth. Many people will associate Jordan Peterson with a firmly anti-chaotic viewpoint (e.g. ’12 rules for life’ is all about imposing order and discipline etc). But if his meta-myth maps so neatly onto relevance realisation and consciousness as set out in Brett’s writing then this suggests that Peterson’s view of chaos is more nuanced.
In Peterson’s representation, there is an initial state of “order” corresponding to our enactment of what he calls a “story”. Peterson’s “story” is functionally equivalent to what the cognitive scientists call a frame. An anomaly occurs which disrupts that story, causing a “descent into chaos”. This is equivalent to the increase in entropy that occurs after breaking frame in the figure above. Finally, a new story is established which corresponds to a higher form of order. It’s a higher form of order because it takes into account everything that the previous story did and it takes into account the anomaly that disrupted the previous story.
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.
Peterson suggests that each manifestation of the mythological hero figure (e.g., Marduk in Babylon, Horus in Egypt, The Buddha, Jesus Christ) is a personified representation of this process of cultural update, which we have abstracted out by observing people who actually updated their cultures in this way
The meta-mythology represents the process that updates individuals and cultures in the face of existential anomalies. The meta-mythology has characteristics indicating it is essentially the same as the process I have described above in this post. These include the facts that: a) the meta-mythology occurs at the border between order and chaos, b) it has the same basic structure as an insight, and c) the meta-mythology is the process by which relevance realization occurs.
Theme 4: The Optimal Path
There is evidence that participating in the process of complexification (which we have seen maps onto the meta-mythology, relevance realisation and consciousness) is optimal for biological creatures. In other words, it is objectively attractive – it is the optimal path. This is the direction of the universe.
The discovery and facilitation of non-zero-sum games is therefore metaphysically valuable.
The prevalence of the meta-myth suggests that we instinctively admire and aspire to those who are best able to participate in the process of complexification (and remember, we have made the point that complexification comes from cooperation).
Morality is a process – it is a product of cultural evolution and is always open to change. It is this process of updating tradition and morality (which of course occurs at the border between order and chaos) that has the ultimate value. Morals are subjective, but the process by which we update them is eternal and objective. It is the same process that underlies all increases in complexity.
Everything written by Brett echoes / embodies / reflects an ‘eternal’ truth, being the process set out repeatedly above – stability, disruption, order/chaos, and emergence into a higher order.
Complexity (which is equivalent to consciousness) is a reasonable scale to measure importance. By this metric, human beings are the pinnacle of the expression of complexification, and therefore what we do matters in the grand scope of the universe.
The meta-goal of existence is to embody the process of complexification embodies by the meta-mythological figures. Participation of this process is of ultimate value. The process in of itself can be viewed as ‘God’ – timeless, universal, eternal. The process is the goal. We are in an infinite game.
To what extent does what Brett has written about the ‘optimal path’ translate to individual action, agency and decision-making? Is it a useful model to maintain at an individual level, and if so, how? Can he make it a bit more tangible for us? How has his approach to life changed as a result of this model?
Why are human beings the pinnacle of complexity? Is this due to consciousness? Could there be forms of complexity that we are not capable of understanding?
Is this theory falsifiable? What would it take for Brett to change his mind?
If the meta-goal of existence is linked to complexification, which haven’t all organisms complexified / developed consciousness? Isn’t the fact that millions of organisms have survived and thrived, but many of these haven’t developed consciousness, evidence that the meta goal of existence is replication rather than complexification?
I’m really interested by the practical implications of this theory. What does it tell Brett about how we should model ourselves on an individual and societal level?
What elements of this theory is Brett sceptical of? Where is further research required? What does he think is missing?
I think we can reasonably regard our participation in the process of complexification to be objectively attractive
In a nutshell, the universe has a direction and we are meant to participate in it. Not because it’s the “right” thing to do from an abstract, moralistic perspective, but because it’s the “optimal” thing to do from an evolutionary and cognitive perspective.
I think a reasonable case can be made that the discovery and facilitation of non-zero-sum games is both objectively (i.e., metaphysically) and subjectively valuable. Furthermore, I think a reasonable case can be made that we have literally evolved to find this process deeply meaningful and to socially reward people who are very good at engaging in it. This seems like a hopeful idea to me.
My hopeful idea is that this heroic ideal, implicitly communicated in mythological and religious narratives, is our attempt to artistically and narratively represent the personality that is best able to participate in this process of complexification, which is equivalent to the process by which the scope of non-zero-sum games increases over time. This ideal gives us something to aim at, even if we constantly fall short of it.
It is that process of update, which occurs at the border between order and chaos, that is of ultimate value.
That voluntary confrontation with chaos is one aspect of the process that updates culture and morality. It is that process, and not its products, that we ought to see as being objectively true and valuable. The products of this process are the specific moralities that have been adhered to by different people at different times and places. These specific moralities are transitory. They had a beginning and therefore they have an end. But the process that updates them is eternal. In essence, it is a manifestation of the same process that underlies all increases in complexity in nature
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
Theme 5: Nihilism and the Meaning Crisis
The Judaeo-Christian worldview provided common ground which facilitated cooperative communication. This worldview is no longer prevalent. This makes our lives less meaningful and leaves us in a state of chaos. We are therefore in a ‘meaning crisis’.
The ‘meaning crisis’ is evocative of nihilism. Nietzsche argued that the great Western traditions culminated in a scientific enterprise which undermined those very same traditions. Nihilism (being the radical rejection of all meaning and value) was the only logical conclusion.
It was the tension between our genetically evolved human nature and our culturally evolved social norms and institutions. As these came into conflict with one another our crisis of nihilism emerged.
We therefore have to create new values as a way of elevating from this nihilistic stage. Nihilism released us “from the dogmas and assumptions that had held the Western mind captive”, and thus allows us to try and solve the “problem of value”.
The process outlined above in this research note is the way out of this meaning crisis – the ‘optimal path’ is the solution.
At the margins, should our society be more religious?
What are the symptoms of the meaning crisis?
What are the societal implications of the meaning crisis?
In what ways has society tried to find meaning/ the route out of nihilism? Why have these been unsuccessful? How does technology fit into this equation? What role can humanism and other forms of secular ideology play? How about romanticism? Wokeism?
As John Vervaeke and colleagues suggested in their 2017 book Zombies in Western Culture, Christianity once provided Western people the kind of common ground that facilitates cooperative communication. Religion in general has historically provided cultures with a “sacred canopy” that renders the world meaningful and coherent. The sacred canopy tells us who we are, where we are, and what we are doing here. In the Judeo-Christian model, we are children of God living in a world that is an atonement and preparation for everlasting life in paradise. But the sacred canopy provided by the Judeo-Christian worldview is gone for most people.
Our great traditions in the West, spanning back to our Greek and Jewish origins, culminated in the scientific enterprise which, along with other cultural changes, undermined the presuppositions of those very same traditions. Properly understood, nihilism (i.e., the radical rejection of all meaning and value) was the only logical conclusion.
When Nietzsche claims that we must ‘create new values’, this is sometimes interpreted as if Nietzsche thought we could just make up whatever values we want. But Nietzsche was far more subtle than that. He understood that we have a biological and cultural heritage to contend with and so we cannot simply make up whatever values we want. This is why Nietzsche believed that the creator of new values must be somebody with the capacity to bring many different points of view to bear on the problem.
The Western tradition (in both its Greek and Judeo-Christian origins) culminated in the crisis of nihilism, but that is only a transition:
Nihilism as a transitional stage is necessary because it released us (at least those of us who have experienced it) from the dogmas and assumptions that had held the Western mind captive for thousands of years. Only after we have shaken off our previous assumptions is a revaluation possible.
My goal in this series of essays is to bring Nietzsche’s project to its logical conclusion in light of modern scientific advancements. This means that I am not just attempting to interpret Nietzsche’s views, but rather to integrate his insights with modern scientific advancements in order to advance the project that Nietzsche was working on at the end of his life.
John believes (as do I) that relevance realization is a key idea for responding to the meaning crisis.