“Bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” —Harry Frankfurt
We are drowning in bullshit and meaninglessness, according to John Vervaeke, creator of the brilliant fifty-part YouTube series Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. Vervaeke is a cognitive scientist, psychologist, philosopher, and professor at the University of Toronto. On his channel, he describes our modern predicament and outlines a path toward the recovery of wisdom and meaning-making. I will use the term “bullshit” here as Vervaeke does, not profanely, but technically, as it appears in Harry Frankfurt’s essay “On Bullshit” (more on that later).
Humans have always struggled with the “perennial problems” of bullshit and meaninglessness, but we have collectively lost touch with our ability to cope with these problems, for a host of historical and philosophical reasons Vervaeke lays out. With the decline of the religious, sacramental worldview, and its replacement with the scientific worldview’s “tyranny of the propositional,” we have become disconnected from practices that cultivate wisdom and provide us with a profound sense of meaning in life. Bullshit, self-deception, futility, and absurdity are proliferating as always, but we have collectively forgotten how to treat and heal them, and we are all suffering for it.
Vervaeke says of himself that, “by inclination, vocation, and now training, I’m a person who works on the boundaries, on the connections. That is where I’m at home.”1 He is camped out between the atheist enlightenment thinkers and religious folk, both of whom may be tempted to raise a skeptical eyebrow toward his projects that bridge science and religion. But he desires to help people cope with the loss of meaning in their lives and to find a way to flourish individually and collectively. He is particularly attentive to the experience of spiritual “nones” (like himself), those who feel that they cannot identify fully with any organized religion. He wants to discover “what can we salvage, transplant and regrow from these [ancient] wisdom traditions so that we can cultivate a new ecology of practices that are directly engineered to be responsive to the meaning crisis.”2
While I highly encourage Christians and non-Christians alike to delve into Vervaeke’s entire series, my purpose here is necessarily narrow. From his substantial work I’ve found a few points of interest to Christians in particular: why truth-loving Christians still have a bullshit problem, how to heal this bullshit problem by reconnecting with our four means of knowing reality, and how to counteract bullshit through spiritual practices and the savoring of Christian symbols.
Let’s Start with the Bullshit
According to Harry Frankfurt, bullshitters are trying to get away with something, and whatever it is they care about, truth is definitely not on the list. In this context, bullshit refers to words spoken or actions taken toward a desired end coupled with utter indifference to truth and no effort to correspond to what’s real. Bullshit is distinct from lying: a liar actually cares about the truth (cares enough to work in direct opposition to it, thereby affirming it exists). A bullshitter just doesn’t care. “Hot air” expresses something similar: speech empty of substance, lacking meaningful content just like an exhalation does. And the image of excrement captures the feeling too—something humans produce, but that lacks nutritive value; it’s worthless.A Christian can consider themselves to be a person who values the truth, and yet be drowning in a sea of bullshit, distracted by the hyper-salience of false, pointless, or harmful things.
Of course there’s bullshit speech: politicians and advertisers traffic in it. But there are also bullshit experiences: porn is bullshit sex, video games are bullshit adventure, internet surfing is a bullshit flow state, drugs and alcohol can be abused as bullshit consolation. There are bullshit jobs in which people pretend to work and even look busy, but they secretly know that if their position disappeared, it wouldn’t matter. There are even bullshit objects: the “planned obsolescence” built into products, or the simple fact that Doritos and Twinkies exist. And there is, perhaps most dangerously, bullshit attention, the fact that we can allow ourselves to be captivated by irrelevant things and oblivious to (or bored by) what is real, and we can’t seem to stay present to the moment. We can choose to make irrelevant things salient to us, kicking up enough dust that we can’t see through it.
But why is bullshit endemic to the human experience? And why is it not just something we can accuse those people over there of participating in, but must admit we each produce our own fair share?
The world is too big and too complex for us; it’s “combinatorially explosive” as Vervaeke puts it. If we’re going to solve problems, make choices, and take action, then we’ve got to narrow down our framing of reality to the point where it’s manageable. No one can algorithmically scan the entire field of possibilities and choose the best one. We survive by successfully ignoring and leaping over the vast majority of available facts and choosing from a few decent options left in our framing. This intuitive heuristic leaping, our ability to immediately realize what is relevant to us and what isn’t, forms the bedrock of our intelligence as a species. But our intelligence is only one side of the coin: the other side is confirmation bias and motivated reasoning. In fact, the more intelligent we are, the higher our capacity for self-deception because, as Vervaeke explains, intelligence and bullshit both arise from the same cognitive heuristic processes. When this heuristic leaping works, it’s intuitive brilliance. When it fails, it’s simply bias, jumping to pre-selected favored conclusions. There is a deep moral ambiguity at the core of our consciousness: we can’t live without leaping and we will always do it all the time, but the consequences of faulty leaps are disastrous. Every time we use our intelligence, we are risking self-deception, unless we take active, conscious steps to avoid it.
While we can’t actually lie to ourselves, Vervaeke claims, we can bullshit ourselves: we can mis-frame the world in selfish ways at the deep, pre-reasoning level of what we allow to grab our attention. After all, “the heart wants what it wants,” and to hell with reality! But Vervaeke makes us take our intelligence seriously, which includes admitting to its dark self-deceptive underbelly. If we care about the truth, then we should care about whether we can even see it: a small and static frame hides just as much as (or more than) it reveals, especially if we get caught by the “sticky” nature of bullshit’s hyper-salience. We should be a little nervous about the possibility, even the likelihood, that our sense of the obvious can be out of tune with reality. We can bullshit ourselves into seeing as “obviously true” something that is either false or irrelevant. Our common sense can get hijacked.
Being a Christian doesn’t give us a pass. Our attention must be taught to find certain things more salient than others, or our attention will inevitably be caught by forces stronger and smarter than we are. We will participate in bullshitting ourselves if we do not train our attention with practice. Passivity is, by default, participation in bullshit. Wisdom requires a conscious and continuous practice of opting-out of bullshit by disrupting your own framing of the world. This is not about doctrine or what beliefs you ascribe to. It’s about what you pay attention to, what you find salient: this is what primarily motivates your actions. A Christian can consider themselves to be a person who values the truth, and yet be drowning in a sea of bullshit, distracted by the hyper-salience of false, pointless, or harmful things.
Vervaeke explains that the way we realize what is relevant to us—the process by which things stand out to our attention as salient—occurs at a deep biological level. We can’t heal this problem by thinking about it. Vervaeke describes how our cognition is embodied, embedded, extended, and enactive: in other words, our minds are interwoven with our bodies, our environments, other minds, and our own actions. We are so much more a part of this physical world than our Cartesian hangover will let us admit. The healing of bullshit must be an embodied, context-embedded, participatory practice. If we don’t reconnect with our bodies to afford the transformation of what we find relevant, we will spiritually die of bullshit, starved for something real.
Healing Bullshit Through Realigning and Reconnecting Our Four Ways of Knowing
In Vervaeke’s description, there are four different ways that we know what’s real, and thankfully for us and our memories, they all start with a P: propositional knowing, procedural knowing, perspectival knowing, and participatory knowing. These four ways of knowing stack up and feed into each other, dynamically aligning to reinforce our sense of realness. When they’re connected, we experience a deep sense of contact with reality and profound meaning in life. Life becomes intelligible and viable to us; we know who we are and what to do.Some people may identify themselves as Christians because their beliefs are Christian beliefs, but their other means of knowing remain untouched, unaligned, and untransformed by the doctrines they ascribe to.
The form of knowing most familiar to us, and which is placed at the top of the stack since it’s the most developmentally recent, is propositional knowing, or knowing that: beliefs expressed in words, realness through articulated, abstract truth. Propositions are common in science, history, and theology. One step lower down the stack is procedural knowing, or knowing how: practical skill and technique, realness through power. The third level of the stack is perspectival knowing, or knowing what it’s like to be you right-here-right-now. This is situational awareness of your “salience landscape” (what jumps out at you as relevant). It is realness through presence. At the bottom of the stack is participatory knowing. This emerges from the “agent-arena relationship,” the way in which a person and their environment are fitted together and mutually assign identities (e.g., an actor on a stage, a student in a classroom). Participation is realness through embodied attunement with the context in which you’re embedded. Participatory knowing of one’s identity emerges like the shoreline: it’s not the sand or the sea—it’s the dynamic relation between them.
Propositional knowing is the easiest to pass on from one person to another because it’s abstract and can be widely shared in speech and text. This means it’s easy to acquire beliefs quickly and place them “on top of the stack” of knowing, without those propositions having worked their way up through the stack in a personally experienced, embodied manner. The beliefs can and do make their way back downward and influence the other levels of knowing, if we work at it intentionally.
But it’s common for abstract propositional knowing to operate independently from the deeper sub-propositional levels of knowing. This can lead to all sorts of problems: cognitive dissonance, hypocrisy, nominalism, a sense of meaninglessness or absurdity. And bullshit. The scientific consensus is that our sub-articulate, implicit, and unconscious mode of being in the world is older than our articulate, conscious thought. Consciousness, with its explicit language, is the recent tip of an enormous and ancient iceberg of biology of which we are often forgetful and dismissive. Some people may identify themselves as Christians because their beliefs are Christian beliefs, but their other means of knowing remain untouched, unaligned, and untransformed by the doctrines they ascribe to.
Vervaeke claims that our neglect of perspectival and participatory knowing increases the likelihood we will routinely fall prey to illusion, self-deception, and bullshit. He encourages us to engage in “psycho-technologies” (embodied cognitive habits and techniques) that will help us gain access to these foundational and forgotten ways of knowing. His hope is that by practicing strategies that increase our capacity for relevance realization and honest framing of the world, we will adaptively grow more insightful. According to Vervaeke, wisdom is the ability to rationally correct for bias across all four domains of knowing (the four Ps), with a bedrock commitment to contacting reality (in contrast to the bullshitter’s carelessness). To develop wisdom we require an ecology of practices to enable the four ways of knowing to “talk to each other” and coordinate.
According to Vervaeke, cognitive science demonstrates that our cognition is embodied: we cannot think without our bodies, we think through and with our whole bodies. This doesn’t reduce us to our atoms, but rather insists on our fundamental unity as creatures rather than a Cartesian mind-body dualism. I think it aligns brilliantly with a tradition that insists on the resurrection of the body (the re-gifting of our agency) and the restoration of the whole physical cosmos (the renewal of our arena). This is a much grander vision of salvation than merely spiritual deliverance from a world and a body viewed as prisons. A Christianity with a robust theology of renewal and resurrection should welcome such evidence of our psychosomatic wholeness.
Vervaeke explains that “your cognition is ultimately dependent on (grounded in) the relevance realization, and the relevance realization is ultimately grounded in your bio-economy. Your body is not some clay that you drag around in a Cartesian fashion…. There is deep continuity between cognition and biology. And of course, the biology is deeply embedded. You are engaging in what biologists talk about as continual “niche construction”3—the modifications organisms make to their environments, which they in turn adapt to in a continuous feedback loop. Humans make their “niche” environments, and then those environments make them into certain kinds of people. This is directly applicable to our churches and homes as “niches” that we create and participate in: we adapt to what we’ve made. If our embodied liturgies and practices (both collectively and individually) have been thinned out, if we’ve pared them down to bare bones, then a “propositions only” faith (with its susceptibility to bullshit) is perfectly adapted to that body-neglecting environment.
Healing Bullshit Through Spiritual Practices and Savoring the Symbols
Here is Vervaeke’s argument thus far: to become wise, to “re-mean” our lives, and to compensate for our endemic self-deception, we need to engage in embodied practices (psycho-technologies, in Vervaeke’s coinage) that re-frame what we find salient, and we should do so in community with other wisdom-seekers. Christians can take his words to heart by drawing on “the ancient Christian sacramental wisdom carried in the historic practices of Christian worship and the embodied legacies of spiritual and monastic disciplines” (James K. A. Smith). We have ways of training attention and participating in truth that are “indigenous to the Christian tradition.” Thankfully, we don’t have to start from scratch: the church has her own history of psycho-technologies that have grown organically out of her desire to know and worship God.We encouraged a sacred/secular divide that left our foundational ways of knowing bereft of God’s formative presence.
Can evangelicals recover the embodied, mystical, and transformative tradition that we unfortunately lost through the excesses of the Protestant Reformation? I do believe the Reformation was necessary, but in its zeal it didn’t just slough off the dead skin of indulgences, superstition, and other abuses, but at times it cut straight to the bone and gouged out necessary moral muscle (personal transformation) as well as physical muscle (embodied practice). We’re in a strange situation now, centuries later, where our sub-propositional means of knowing are cultivated all the time by the “cultural liturgies” (in Smith’s language) of social media, the shopping mall, the stadium, the academy, celebrity culture, and civil religion. The evangelical church has ceded all of that rich, formative, meaning-making ground to advertisers, political tribes, activism, and consumerism, out of fear of being “too Catholic.” We haven’t ceased to know sub-propositionally, but we have unwittingly acted as if we could. By extracting God from those lower levels and limiting truth to the upper propositional sphere of our statements of faith, we encouraged a sacred/secular divide that left our foundational ways of knowing bereft of God’s formative presence. We also left ourselves highly vulnerable to bullshit and to anything that’s better at apprenticing humans than the church is.
For centuries the church cultivated means of honing our attention and shaping our loves. It did so through its liturgical worship and music, through its fasts and feasts, architecture, icons, and art; through its monasteries and retreats, Lectio Divina and prayer, confession, pilgrimages, and the rhythms of the church calendar. We are already blessed by our forebears with a rich ecology of practices meant to train our attention on God, if we will only participate in them. Embodied spiritual practices can help us perceive, prefer, and participate in reality. They have the potential to disrupt bullshit-susceptible framing of the world, and thus trigger insight.
All of these practices help us savor Christian symbols, such as the cross, the bread and wine, the waters of baptism, and the light of the world. Protestant suspicion of participatory symbols (whether in the form of sacraments, liturgical art, or physical ritual) has diminished our access to the necessary, “serious play” of our deepest relevance realization. We seem to need symbols the most as we draw near the limits of our understanding. Vervaeke says that symbols are necessary to approach and participate in the sacred, because they are so rich with meaning that they, in a sense, know more than we do. Bullshit is the anti-symbol, the thinning out of reality, because it holds not even the known world (much less anything transcendent), but a reduced parody of the world. The anti-symbol of bullshit has power to narrow and distort your perception, just as the symbol has power to widen and clarify it.
Vervaeke’s insights have analogues within evangelicalism: the work of philosopher James K. A. Smith on “cultural liturgies” and the spiritual power of habit, Robert Webber’s Ancient-Future series, Dallas Willard’s work on spiritual disciplines and the renovation of the heart, Kevin Vanhoozer’s work on “performing the drama of doctrine,” and Hans Boersma’s work on sacramental and participatory ontology are all examples. This practice-oriented and participatory approach to Christianity is trickling down to the popular level in books like The Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices for Everyday Life (Warren), The Eternal Current: How a Practice-Based Faith Can Save Us from Drowning (Niequist), and The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction (Early).
So if evangelicals are already waking up to their need for a Renaissance of embodied spiritual practices, why listen to a non-theist, tai chi practicing scientist? Because he’s made it his life’s work to understand human cognition and transformation, and his scientific insights add plausibility and urgency to the practice-based spirituality movement within evangelicalism. His perspective as a scientist adds rigor, precision, curiosity, and a thoughtful outside voice to what has so far been an in-house discussion. He provides fresh and potent language to describe human consciousness and experience, language that can reinvigorate conversations overgrown with the weeds of Christianese. To his credit, Vervaeke has formed collegial friendships with Christians who enjoy meaningful dialogue on these topics, and their many hour-long YouTube conversations of mutual exploration are just as rich as his lectures. Over the course of Awakening from the Meaning Crisis4, he introduces an extremely broad, unruly gathering of philosophers, religious figures, and scientists into dialogue with each other, steel-manning each one’s contribution first before respectfully critiquing them. These voices exist within Vervaeke himself: he has “internalized the sage” (dozens of them, in fact). So not only does his content have great value, but his manner of teaching epitomizes the humility and hospitality required for genuine dialogue between diverse worldviews.
Christians will disagree with some of his content, including his ultimate trajectory: a post-Christian non-religious “religion” with its vital doctrinal organs removed. He seems to be seeking personal transformation without a personal God. It appears to me to be the flip-side of a thinned-out Christianity that wants a personal God without the need for personal transformation. But even so, Vervaeke’s desire to contact reality is admirable. We can learn from him the mechanics of relevance realization: how to cut through the bullshit and un-deceive ourselves daily, and hopefully gain a clearer vision of both God and the world. In doing so, we can cultivate a wiser, embodied faith that is up to the challenge of the meaning crisis.
1. Conversation with pastor Paul Vanderklay
2. Project Mindfulness Podcast, episode 22
3. Awakening from the Meaning Crisis, episode 38 at 32:00 min, “Agape and 4E Cognitive Science”
4. Available on both YouTube and Spotify