The View from Above: A Transformation of Perspectival and Participatory Knowing by John Vervaeke

Each year, the Modern Stoicism organization organizes the main Stoicon conference, and helps to promote local Stoicon-X events. Over the last several years, we have developed a tradition here at Stoicism Today of publishing as many of the talks and workshops from Stoicon and Stoicon-Xs as blog posts, in order to allow our readership who were unable to attend these conferences the benefit of those speakers’ expertise. We’re happy to start off this year’s sequence of posts with an excellent talk from Stoicon-X Toronto, provided by Professor John Vervaeke, which follows below – Greg Sadler, editor, Stoicism Today

I want to talk to you about a particular exercise. I’ll briefly describe it, and I’ll be doing a lot of the theory and some of the cognitive science. What I’m particularly interested in is how this exercise contributes to rationality, but I’m going to have to try to broaden your notion of what rationality is as that is part of the project. The view from above is the imaginative exercise where you imagine rising above the Earth and seeing it from extended elevations. You can also extend it in time and into a broader historical scope. Imagine that you have been alive for a thousand years as opposed to (for me) 56. One of the things you can immediately think about is that this action, this spiritual exercise of imaginatively rising above the Earth in this way and getting a view from above, is opening up that space between impression and response.

Here’s what I want to do. I want to reverse engineer the exercise with you. That’s what I do as a cognitive scientist. I try to figure out cognition by reverse engineering it. What does that mean? Find a problem that your cognition needs to solve and then try to engineer what a solution would look like and then figure out if your cognition is approximating that solution. That’s what it is to reverse engineer. That’s how we’re going about making the terrifying artificial intelligence that is soon going to make all of us completely irrelevant. A bit of a joke.

So what I want to do is set the problem with you. As I’m setting the problem, I’m going to try to introduce the ideas to you that in order to broaden the notion of rationality, we need to broaden the kinds of knowing we’re going to talk about. We’re very familiar with propositional knowing but I want to talk about procedural and especially perspectival and participatory knowing. You don’t know what that means right now, and that’s why I’m here. I want to talk about a kind of rationality that Agnes Callard calls proleptic rationality and how it’s actually instantiated in the view from above as a practice. Then I want to talk to you about the cognitive science of the view from above.

What’s cognitive science saying about this practice? It’s actually telling us a lot about what it’s doing to our cognition and our consciousness. Then I want to confront a problem because the view from above can look an awful lot like “the view from nowhere” that Thomas Nagel famously talked about. The thing about the “view from nowhere” is it provokes cosmic absurdity and a sense of meaninglessness which is going to take away any joy in life away from you. So how do we make sure the view from above doesn’t become the “view from nowhere”? I’m going to try and propose a solution to that making use of some ideas from Spinoza and some current philosophy.

Stoicism is trying to bring about a radical transformation. You are trying to get into perhaps a new mode of being (that’s how Erich Fromm thought about it when he talked about the “having mode” and the “being mode”), as you’re trying to get into a new way of life. That’s the way Pierre Hadot famously talked about Stoicism. It’s not just about changing your beliefs, this is a much more comprehensive transformation that is being pointed to because we’re trying to change who we are, the lives we are living and the kind of arena in which we are performing our actions. This is what’s known as qualitative development. That is a term taken from psychology, from the founder of Developmental Psychology, because we’re talking about development here.

We’re talking about changing ourselves, transforming ourselves.Piaget distinguished between two kinds of change. Quantitative changes are when I just get more, I acquire more knowledge and more information. But there’s qualitative change. Qualitative change is not changing how much you know, it’s changing what you’re capable of knowing. Those are two different things. Let me give you an example. You have a five-year-old child and that child is just a sponge (I’ve raised two sons and like I know what this is like). That’s quantitative development because although they can take in tons of information, they will fall prey to a bunch of errors repeatedly. They lack a certain confidence. So, you can do this with them (although it must be horrible growing up with a dad as a cognitive scientist, right?) You can count out five candies space them like this:

O  O  O  O  O

The four-year-old can count and they know that 6 is more than 5 and 5 is more than 4. You then count out and place 5 more candies like this:

O      O      O      O      O

You ask them which row of candies they would like? They all reliably pick the bottom row. Now how many of you would fall prey to that? Because I’ve got some investments for you! You don’t fall prey for that, but they all systematically do, because they are over fixated on one feature. It is super salient as they are fixated on the space taken up by the candies. They don’t pay attention to another variable which is how much of that space is candy space, which presumably you do.

So, they have to go through a qualitative development. They have to acquire a new ability, an ability to manage multiple variables in concert with each other. That’s a change not just in what you know, it’s a change in your competence. It’s a change in what you’re capable of knowing what problems you’re capable of solving.

So Stoicism, I recommend to you, is pushing for such a change in competence. Now an interesting thing about exactly that model of qualitative change is it is the center of an important article written in 1999 by McKee and Barber. McKee and Barber did something very important. They canvassed all the philosophical theories of wisdom then they canvassed all the emerging psychological theories of wisdom. McKee and Barber canvased both of these and they made a convergence argument: what is the central feature that all of these different theories presuppose at the core of wisdom? What it is, is seeing through illusion.

Now, I and Leo Ferraro in 2013 argued that’s a little bit elliptical because real and illusory are comparative terms. You only know something’s illusory in comparison to something that’s more real. So, we broadened it to be seeing through illusion and into reality. Now that’s really important because what they’re talking about here is a comprehensive kind of insight.

What do I mean by comprehensive? Let’s go back to the example of the child. The child isn’t only making a conservation area with error for counting candies. They’ll make a whole family of related errors. That’s what it is to be in a particular stage. So you’ve all had an insight experience. You realize “aha!, I’ve misframed the problem” and you have that “aha!” experience. Notice what the child has to do though. The child can’t just have a single “aha!” here in this problem. The child has to figure out that there’s a whole family of related problems and have a systematic comprehensive insight. That’s why you don’t fall prey to any of these illusions anymore. You’ve had a very systematic comprehensive insight. That’s what it is to see through illusion and into reality, to have a fundamental change so that you gain a competence so that you can now see through a whole family of problems. Your way of seeing doesn’t get distorted.

You might say those are little kids and I’m an adult. Well, first of all, let me remind you of one of Hadot’s formulations of wisdom. In fact, it was shared by all the great schools of antiquity including Stoicism.  “As the child is to the adult, the adult is to the sage”.  Just like you have gone through qualitative development so that you don’t fall prey to the illusions of a child, you as an adult need to go through huge qualitative development to become like a sage and not fall prey to the kinds of systemic Illusions we fall prey to. What are examples of these? Well, this is something I study. I study illusion under the idea of self-deception. Self-deception is the fact that the very machinery that makes us adaptive for solving problems in the world is the same machinery that makes us self-deceptive. Why? Well, you can’t pay attention to all the information available to you. You can’t consider all the options when you’re considering a course of action. You cannot calculate all the probabilities. Even our most powerful computers can’t do that. So what do you have to do? You have to bias your attention to what is salient and relevant to you. In fact, that’s what makes you intelligent. I’ve argued and published that that’s the core ability that makes you intelligent, your ability to zero in on relevant information.

Here’s the problem: that very ability to zero in on relevant information that makes you so adaptive also biases your attention in a maladaptive way. Here’s an example. You can’t check all the evidence, so you tend to check the evidence that’s relevant to you. Relevant to you tends to be serving your interests. So, you know what you tend to look for? Evidence that only confirms your beliefs or what you want to be true. This is called the confirmation bias and what our society has wonderfully done is taken this confirmation bias and put it on methamphetamine in the form of social media.

So, you have many of these kinds of biases, so do I am not free from this. We’re constantly mis-framing our experience and that mis-framing is self-serving in a powerful way. Now I want to use this to introduce to you something that we therefore need to pay attention to. If rationality is going to be fundamentally about affording this transformation, it’s going to require systematic abilities to overcome self-deception. But that means we need to pay attention to how we’re framing and how things are self-serving and relevant to us.

Now this means we get into two aspects of our knowing that we don’t typically pay very much attention to which I study a lot as a cognitive scientist and cognitive psychologist. So you’re all aware of propositional knowing. Propositional knowing is to know that something is the case and it’s about asserting a proposition. A cat is a mammal – that’s a proposition, and what I get from propositional knowing is beliefs. Our culture is just addicted to beliefs. We think of truth as some correspondence between the semantic content of the proposition and the world.

But your knowing that something is the case is dependent on knowing how to do things, knowing how to select what’s relevant, knowing how to pay attention, knowing how to ignore what’s irrelevant, knowing how to apply this rule how not to apply that. What does it mean to be kind? It means one thing with my younger son Spencer, another thing with my wonderful partner Sara, another thing with my students, another thing with a stranger. If I treat them all the same that’s a disaster. All of your propositions depend on your procedural knowing you’re knowing how to do things. Knowing how is not in beliefs but in skills.

If you’re going to cultivate a skill you need to have what you have right here, right now. You need to have a situational awareness, what’s going on here and now. This is your perspectival knowing, knowing what it’s like to be here right now. It’s to have a salience landscape. I’m standing out for you. You left big toe was not very salient to you, until I said that. That which is salient and standing out and what you’re focusing on is relevant and what you’re ignoring is irrelevant. That’s all happening in a highly textured, dynamic fashion right now. This perspectival knowing really matters because we’re having to study it when people are going into virtual reality because it only feels real when things are present to them, when that perspectival landscaping is working properly. It really matters, for example, when you’re doing work like remote scientific work on Mars with rovers. So, this perspectival knowing is ultimately is dependent on your participatory knowing. All the time, and Stoicism really gets at the heart of this, you are doing this in a coordinated fashion. You’re assuming an identity and assigning identities. I am the lecturer you are the audience. There’s an agent-arena relationship that is constantly going on in the basement, the foundations of your cognition. This process of co-identification, that’s your participatory knowing. Who am I? Who are you? What is that? All of these questions are co-defining. For example, this glass is graspable to me but the fact that is graspable is not a property of it. It’s not graspable by a snail. It’s not a feature just of my hand, it’s how my hand and the glass co-identify and fit together that makes me aware of it in a situational awareness, and then I can cultivate skills of how to use it. Once I can use it, then I can make propositions about it.

We tend to stick at the level of our propositions, and exercises like the view from above are designed to drive you down into these deeper levels of knowing. The perspectival and the participatory knowing, where the guts of your identity and the texture of your world is being shaped and made on a moment-to-moment basis. You’re doing it right now.

So, we’re trying to bring about a fundamental transformation at that level. What’s the problem then? Well, here’s the problem: transformation doesn’t make any sense, at least initially and philosophically. So here I’m going to draw a convergence argument from three really important thinkers: L.A. Paul and her book entitled “Transformative Experience” from 2014, Jerry Fodor, a founding figure of cognitive science from 1980 and his work on fixation of belief and conceptual analysis and Agnes Callard and her book entitled “Aspiration: the Agency of Becoming” from 2018.

L.A. Paul starts with a thought experiment to get you aware of the issue, designed to be outlandish so it will trigger your intuitions appropriately. Your friends come to you and they give you incontrovertible evidence that they can reliably, without fail, turn you into a vampire. Should you do it? How would you decide? Here’s the problem. I don’t know what the perspective of a vampire is until I become one. I don’t know what it’s going to be like to have the salience landscape of a vampire.

I don’t know what kind of self I’m going to be, because once I become a vampire, my preferences and my values will all change. So I am completely ignorant prospectively and participatory. The only way I can get that perspectival and participatory knowing is if I go through the change, but it’s an irreversible change. What do I do? Well, I don’t do it. Here’s the problem. The ignorance is symmetrical. If I don’t do it, I don’t know what I’m missing. I have all kinds of propositions about vampires, but I’ve just shown you propositional knowledge isn’t the same thing as perspectival and participatory knowledge. I don’t know what it’s going to be like to be a vampire. But if I do do it, I don’t know what I’m going to lose. So what do I do? So, you say that’s ridiculous, I don’t care about being a vampire. Well, L.A. Paul is a philosopher, so she says you face these decisions all the time. Here’s one: have a child. I’ve been through it. You don’t know what you’re losing until you get there, but you don’t know what you’re missing if you never have a child.

Here’s another one: fall in love with this person. You’re going to be a different person, living in a different world with different perspectival and different participatory knowing. Should you do it? You don’t know what you’re missing, and you don’t know what you’re going to lose. The key point that L.A. Paul makes is that you can’t infer your way through this because you don’t know the probabilities and you don’t have a stable set of values. Our standard model of how we make decisions is to weigh the probabilities and assign the values, but it doesn’t apply because we don’t know the probabilities because we’re deeply ignorant and we know that the values are not stable across the transformation. So, you can’t infer your way through it. You can’t use propositional inference to navigate your way through this. Now that tells us something because the word rationality has been invoked a lot but has been reduced to propositional argumentation. That’s a fundamental mistake because if that’s all rationality is, it doesn’t touch perspectival and participatory knowing and it doesn’t help you go through transformation.

Jerry Fodor gives a similar argument. He thought that all of cognition is computation, just inferentially manipulating propositions and altering beliefs, that that’s all it is to think. Then he famously said if we take Piaget at his word people are going through a change in competence. What does that mean? Well, that means a change from a weaker logic to a stronger logic. That’s what it is. If I’m changing my competence in all I am is computational, I have to be making a stronger logic from a weaker logic. But you know what you can’t do? You can’t infer a stronger logic from a weaker logic. I can’t do that because I have to step outside my axioms and my functions and introduce new axioms and functions. So he came to this bizarre conclusion. He said therefore Piaget’s wrong, there’s no such thing as development and it’s all innate from the beginning. Everything a child is capable of doing they have there from the beginning, which seems ridiculous. But you can turn it around, it’s a modus tollens. The way of getting out of that ridiculousness is to say that’s because most of your cognition, contrary to what we believe, is not computational in nature. I say this because we have machines that can do exactly what Fodor said we couldn’t do. They are neural networks that use dynamical systems and use self-organization to get you through this change.

So, how can you be rational – how can you aspire to rationality – if rationality can’t make use of reasoning? That takes me to a final note by Agnes Callard. In her book she talks about this process where you genuinely undertake the goal of acquiring a value. Notice how a value combines your skill, what you would find salient and a change in your identity, procedural perspectival and propositional knowing. She gives the example of somebody who does not currently like classical music, but they want to like classical music. Now what can motivate them? Not a love of classical music because you know what they don’t have right now? A love of classical music. So,  what do they do? Well, they take a music appreciation class and they go through these exercises that are designed to transform them. Notice what this word appreciation brings with it. It brings with it the notion almost of a sensibility transformation, transforming your salience landscape, what you find salient what you find relevant. But also transforming your identity, who and what you are. Appreciation also carries with it a change in your understanding.

The difference between understanding and knowing is that to know is to be able to assert a proposition with evidence. Understanding is to grasp its significance or relevance.

Now why is all this important to Callard? Well, she says, notice what we have to say here. People are going through these processes of gaining an appreciation and transforming themselves and they can’t infer their way through it for all the reasons I’ve already articulated. So what do they do? Well they are doing all these practices and they’re sort of playing with their salience landscape and playing with their identity. Now if we say because that’s not an argumentative process it’s not rational, we’re in deep trouble. Because one of the things I’m doing as a Stoic is aspiring to be more rational. If the process of aspiration is itself not a rational process because it’s not an argumentative process, then I can’t justify cultivating rationality to you. If the process of aspiration is not a rational process because it’s not argumentation, then you know what’s not rational? The aspiration to become rational is not rational. I can’t ever justify or persuade you to become rational and that’s the disaster for rationality. So we have to include this aspirational process in our model of rationality. Callard calls this proleptic rationality.

Now that is a lot of nice abstract hand-waving but how do you do it? How do you go through aspiration? How do you engage in proleptic rationality? Well, there’s a couple things you should note. We need to be triggering a capacity for systematic insight. Is there a cognitive style that we have experimental evidence for which will bring about systemic insight? Not just at the propositional level but how my salience landscape is taking shape and how my sense of self is being transformed. Yes, there is such a cognitive style. It’s mindfulness practice. That’s why I  do research on it. You’re worried here, now. He’s sneaking in Buddhism.  I can feel it.

Well, pay attention to the science. We have a lot of good work that all of these principles are efficacious. They are basically put in place by cognitive behavioral therapy, which is probably the most evidence-based effective therapy that we have right now. But its effectiveness is actually declining because we have gotten focused on propositional techniques and the alteration of belief and we’ve lost a lot of the intuitive skill that the originators of CBT had. We’ve lost the contact with the perspectival in the participatory knowing transformation. So what’s the evidence showing? You know what works better than CBT on its own? Giving people CBT and training them in mindfulness. That’s what the evidence is clearly indicating.

So, notice what mindfulness is. It’s not an inference practice, it’s an attentional practice. In fact, you shut off inference. What you’re doing is using attention to alter your salience landscape and alter your sense of self in a profound and engaged manner. So we need that right away. What else? Let’s go back to L.A. Paul’s example. When people want to have a kid, what do they do? I noticed people doing this sort of bizarre thing, they get a dog. They get a dog and they’ll have family pictures of them and the dog. Or, for example, I’m thinking about getting into a romantic relationship with this person, I’ll go on a trip with them. What’s going on there? What’s going on is this really interesting thing and it’s actually the key to development because this is how children primarily go through those changes we were talking about. This is enacted play. In fact, it’s serious play like when we use the word play when we’re talking about playing music. You might say “well adults don’t do that” but you better not say that. For example, in the Norwegian countries that are really facing the bite of kind of a secularism which is successful in many ways and I’m not dissing that but there’s  a bit of a backlash to that success, one of the things that is growing right now is this “Meaning Crisis”, which I discuss in my series.

They have live action role playing, like Dungeons and Dragons, but they are acted out in live-action. They have a thing called Jeepform. So in Jeepform instead of a dungeon master in tolling dice, you’re acting out a scene and the dungeon master’s like a director and the director will set up the scene, cut the scene and get you to switch roles and suddenly give you something and say “This is a gun. What are you gonna do with it?”. Here’s what you’re after when you do this. You’re after the phenomena bleed. What’s happening in the act in the play bleeds over to a real problem in your real life. We are considering going through a huge transformation and you’re trying to play with a new participatory identity. What’s it like to have that perspective? What it’s like to be that person? But I’m not fully committed yet. You engage in an active serious play.

So now I can give you what I think the view from above is doing. We need something that’s attentional that’s altering our sense of salience our sense of self getting into the perspectival and the participatory knowing. It’s going to manipulate perspective and our sense of self. That’s what the view from above is doing. It is going to alter what we consider significant or relevant. That’s what the view from above is doing. It’s a form of serious enacted play. It’s rational even though it doesn’t involve inference, proposition or argumentation.

So, what do we know from cognitive science? There’s a whole theory called construal level theory. So instead of thinking of your problem right here, right now, imagine that your problem is 10 years in the future. That’s a re-construal. It’s imagination. What do we know about construal level theories? As we get people to move to a higher level of construal – as we get them to move to a view from above – it makes challenging tasks seem easier. All of which is supported by experimental evidence. It also generates notice this self-insight, people get insight into their sense of who and what they are. That co-identification process becomes more apparent to them. They become aware of the identity they are assuming and the identities they’re assigning.

They gain self-control because as you change what is salient to you and your sense of self, your ability to alter your behavior significantly improves. If you try to change your behavior and you’re not doing things that give you skills and identities for altering your salience and your sense of self, your ability to change a behavior fails. That’s why 95% of people fail on diets. They have all the right propositions, but they don’t do anything to alter their competence for salience landscaping or their sense of self. That’s why they fail.

You become more capable of being authentic. You’re less easily pushed around by social influences precisely because you’ve lifted yourself out of that usually unchallenged arena of behavior. It makes you more creative, it generates systematic insight. As I said, there’s also research from what’s called the “overview effect”. I’m doing work on this right now. The “overview effect” is when astronauts go up into space and they look back at the Earth and they experience awe and wonder and they say it’s the most life-transforming thing that ever happened to them. Gallagher et.al. have actually set up set up a mixed reality, sort of part of its real and part of it is virtual reality and we can generate the overview effect in people and study this and experimentally generate awe and wonder. in 2016, Yadin et. al. did a nice overview.

What does awe do? Awe forces you to open up. Wonder and awe are different from curiosity. Notice how you want curiosity alleviated, but you would like to perpetuate awe. Because curiosity is about quantitative development, getting more information. Wonder is about qualitative information. It’s about opening up and putting your world in yourself into question. That’s what awe does. It makes you more humble, it changes your sense of self and your sense of perspective. The view from above has all of these measurable effects. Notice three different lines of research and they’re all converging on the efficacy of this spiritual exercise.

So I get to work with my friend and colleague Igor Grossman and he’s been doing a bunch of work. Of importance to our discussion is his work with Kross in 2011. It’s called the “Solomon effect”. Here’s what you do. You ask an individual so describe a horrible problem that they are facing. Then you ask them to re-describe their problem from a third person perspective, of them from above. What reliably happens is people get systematic insight into their problem and they become more capable of “wise reasoning” as referred to by Igor. The view from above allows them to restructure what they find salient and relevant. They alter their identity because they’re doing it from a third person perspective. They get a powerful systematic insight and then their reasoning becomes efficacious. The reasoning comes after the transformation.

Finally, and this goes with the awe and wonder, there’s the work of Frederiksen and the broaden and build model. These kinds of, what are called epistemic emotions, like awe and wonder broaden your attention, they transform your salience landscaping, and they build your skills. That’s why we have these emotions. That’s what they’re there for.

So, four lines of evidence as to why the view from above would be efficacious and, therefore, how it is efficacious and how it addresses the problem of how to go through transformation when we can’t reason our way through it. It is a spiritual exercise, it’s different from discourse. That’s why Epictetus said that philosophy is not just about the discourse. That’s not Stoicism.

But here’s the problem. Thomas Nagel in two places, first in an article in 1971 called “The Absurd” and then later in a book called “The View From Nowhere” brought up this problem. I can do the view from above and I go above the Earth and then maybe the solar system and the Galaxy. Then I can move to a perspective that is isometric with the entire universe and that’s the view from nowhere. You know what people experience when they get to the view from nowhere? They don’t say “Wow! This is great”, they say “It’s all meaninglessness. It’s absurd”. This is called “cosmic absurdity”. Let’s get into what everyday absurdity is so that we can understand cosmic absurdity.

So, Nagel gives us a wonderful example. Notice when he wrote was 1971 and 1980 – the dark time before Star Trek cell phones. When your phone was in a place and you left it there and you had to return to your phone at different times. Here’s the example. Tom has been working himself up all day to call Susan. So he calls Susan and he hears the phone be picked up and he says “ Susan, don’t say anything! I just got to tell you I love you! I love you! I really care about you”. Then he hears “BEEP! Susan is not here right now. Please leave a message”.  He sort of laughs but there is also a sense of pathos. I noticed first of all is there’s humor there, and what’s humor? Humor is about a clash of perspective that gets resolved with play. So, absurdity is when we have a clash of perspectives that we can’t resolve with play.

What’s happening with Tom? Tom has this one perspective, this one salience landscape and this particular agency. He is Susan’s future lover and this identity is taking shape and the salience landscape is there. Then this other perspective, a third person in personal perspective, slams into his perspective, the perspective of the machine. Those two perspectives don’t jive, there’s perspectival clash. When you go to the view from nowhere and then you compare it to your life right here right now you experience the greatest perspectival clash you’ll ever experienced. That’s cosmic absurdity.

Notice something that Nagel points out. Many of the arguments people use for absurdity are technically invalid arguments. You don’t reason your way into absurdity. I can’t do all of it. I’ll just give you one example of an argument. People say well what I do won’t matter 10,000 years from now, it’s all meaningless. Nagel points out. Well, be logical – that’s a symmetrical thing. If what you do doesn’t matter to people 10,000 years from now, then what’s equally true is what they think 10,000 years from now shouldn’t matter to you now. It’s equally symmetrical. It’s not a valid argument, but you don’t then say “Oh okay now I feel better!”. The point is the arguments do not generate the absurdity. They are after the fact expressions of it. What’s generating the absurdity is a perspectival clash. How do we deal with the perspective of clash? Because if we know how to deal with the perspectival clash we know what to do to keep the view from above from becoming the view from nowhere.

Read the following text as quickly as possible:

This is a classic experiment. This is part of the cognitive scientist dog and pony show. So,  first of all notice what you did you read? Notice you interpreted the ambiguous letter first as an H in the and then as an A in cat. So now I’m going to reason this through for you. In order to read the words, I must first read the letters, but in order to disambiguate the letters, I must read the words. Therefore, reading is impossible. What you just did was an illusion. Because you don’t reason your way through this. You make use of a dynamical self-organizing system. You are simultaneously reading from the features, the letters to the word and reading from the word down to the features. You’re doing it in parallel in a dynamically self-organizing fashion. That’s actually how your attention works. Notice that your attention is simultaneously fusing your sense of self and your sense of object together. That’s what your attention is doing right now. When I grasp a cup, I’m attending to the graspability of this cup. My identity and the cup’s identity are being fused together. That’s what your attention is doing right now. Your attention is a dynamically self-organizing process.

Spinoza talks about this in his Ethics. When you read the Ethics, you have to do the ethics, not just read it propositionally or argumentatively. He’s trying to actually give you a spiritual exercise that will transform and bring you into a state He calls blessedness. He talks about a state you can arrive at called “scientia intuitiva”. What it is like is this, and when you study the Ethics you can have this experience – I’ve had it. You keep trying to hold the whole argument in your mind and you have to practice and practice and it’s like stretching, like learning a martial art, but you eventually get to this place where this happens. You see the whole argument at once and you see how it goes into each premise and how each premise fits into the whole argument very much like how the letters go into the words and the words feedback down into the letters at the same time. The whole argument is from under the eye of eternity. It’s a God’s eye point of view. The individual premises are individual thoughts you have. So your individual perspective and the cosmic perspective become completely interpenetrating in a self-organizing manner.

The problem with cosmic absurdity is all we do is juxtapose the two perspectives against each other. But you can go through a transformative self-organizing form of play in which they become interpenetrating with each other, scientia intuitiva. I would argue that’s exactly the goal that’s sought after in duality and Buddhism in which the cosmic perspective and the individual perspective are completely interpenetrating. Because if they’re interpenetrating like this, you don’t suffer absurdity. Then you might say “Oh but absurdity is about the arguments!” but it’s not about the arguments is it? I don’t need an argumentative response to absurdity because the arguments are driving it. This is what I need. So we can practice the view from above but we can move towards scientia intuitiva and thereby always preserve the efficacy of the view from above and never fall into the cosmic absurdity of the view from nowhere.

Thank you very much for your time and attention.

John Vervaeke is an Assistant Professor in Cognitive Psychology and Cognitive Science at the University of Toronto. His research is designed to bridge between science and spirituality in order to understand the experience of meaningfulness and  the cultivation of wisdom so as to afford awakening from the meaning crisis. 

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

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