The Web of Meaning
Author: Jeremy Lent
Publisher: New Society Publishers,
Our current view of the world is based on separation. We talk of community and living closer to nature, and we talk about change. We are concerned about the future of the planet and about the many social problems we face today. But we perceive ourselves as individuals. We look at nature as something separated from us, something we need to overcome and use for our gain. The dynamic of our societies is based around these ideas, and the values we internalise and the exigencies of our daily lives are also based on these ideas. So our prevailing worldview contradicts our longings. And we find ourselves in a lonely and disempowered struggle to understand how we can contribute meaningfully. We together face some of the biggest challenges we see today, the biggest one being the climate crisis.
We internalised the current stories so implicit in most of what we think and do that we can’t even see them. Nature is a machine. Humans are separated from nature and each other. And human progress is the reason to conquest nature. We also internalised the neoliberal view that competition is good for us. The pervasive notion of a successful life is one in which we get wealthy and powerful. In The Web of Meaning, Jeremy Lent explores these underlying stories that are echoed in the reality we created and how we live our lives to show that all these stories are not just dangerous but plainly false.
Our current view of the world is based on separation.
The search for meaning
According to Lent, the climate breakdown is just a symptom of a much larger pathology. In asking how we got to this point, a good reference is his previous book – The Patterning Instinct, a cultural history of humanity’s search for meaning. In it, Lent looks at how different cultures – all the way from hunter-gatherer times to the present day – made sense of the universe. And by doing that, one fundamental thing he sees is that at all times, culture shapes values, and then those values shape history. And so, the values we hold on to now will shape the future. And it is high time we reconsidered them. The Web of Meaning, is an eye-opening guide to doing that.
Weaving together findings from modern systems thinking, evolutionary biology, complexity science and cognitive neuroscience, with insights from Taoism, Buddhism and indigenous wisdom, Lent offers a coherent and integrated worldview that could replace the current one. He finds that what sciences show these days points to the same kind of wisdom we had around for millennia from indigenous thought, Daoism and Buddhism. And what it all comes down to is the notion of our intrinsic interconnectedness.
According to Lent, the climate breakdown is just a symptom of a much larger pathology.
The book is organised around some deep fundamental questions that each of us asked ourselves at a point in our lives. Who am I? Where am I? What am I? How Should I live? And why am I? He looks into how our current worldview answers these questions and then offers an alternative answer to each. The sum of these answers is a holistic understanding that can open new possibilities.
The book is dense in examples and stories, and Lent elegantly walks the paths of Eastern religious wisdom and modern science, not to create but to point at what’s already there and waive these understandings into a coherent story. For example, linking Daoist insight into the nature of the world and the nature of all living things with studies on evolution and the development of our prefrontal cortex (responsible for cognition, symbolic thought, conceptualising, and planning), he points to our dual nature, which is both conceptual and animate, intuitive, emotional and effortless, linked to living in tune with nature, recognising that our challenge is to integrate both systems in harmony. The tendency to live more into our conceptual nature creates disbalance and illusion on how we relate to the world – forgetting our animate side, the one that lives in the same tune with other living things.
Neo-Confucianism is also echoed in modern sciences today – systems biology, complexity science, chaos theory – both pointing to a connected universe and the fact that everything is interconnected in non-linear ways. One illustration of this is Lent’s example of how the interaction between things can tell us more about them than the things themselves, from banks of fishes to sand piles and galaxies. Looking at these, some principles apply, one of them recognised as being fractals. A fractal is a pattern that repeats itself at different scales and indicates self-organised activity. It is seen everywhere in the natural world, and nature itself can be seen as a fractally connected system, where the same principles organise every cell as the organism they’re part of. Then the organism is connected to the species of which it is part. And these species are fractally connected to the ecosystem of which they’re part. And all ecosystems are part of the living earth.
Further in the book, Lent shows how Dawkins’s idea of us being machines created by our genes in a highly competitive world and the supposed ruthless selfishness that derives from that is flawed. Genes are part of an iterative process with the cell, and its vibrant, dynamic circular flow of interactivity creates the organism. Lent suggests we see the genotype more like an artists’ pallet, a repertoire of capabilities that the cell can select based on its needs as determined by the environment.
And we can understand each step of evolution not through competition but increases in cooperation. As biologist and evolutionary theorist Lynn Margulis said – “Life did not take over the world by combat but by networking”. As a species, we evolved to be cooperative, and it is this ability (and, as an addition, to pass on knowledge) differentiates us from other primates. Besides this, we feel compassion, guilt, shame, gratitude and embarrassment embedded in us; we feel them in our gut. We don’t act morally because we think we should, but because it feels right.
The book is organised around some deep fundamental questions that each of us asked ourselves at a point in our lives.
From the beginning until today
Though parts of the ideas and knowledge Lent dives in might be familiar to many of us, the power of his book is in diving deep, to find the relevant links, travelling back and forth in time since the beginnings of the human species until today; exploring different scientific fields and Eastern and indigenous wisdom and by that, to let surface a big picture: of connectedness as the fundamental nature of everything that is, offering insights into our place and role within the web. The experience of oneness is what Eastern religions have always been looking for and is a great insight into what science shows as the reality of our universe. Seeing this true nature of reality has to be a fundamental step in our search for meaning. And Lent sees meaning as a function of connectedness: as the number of connections increases in any system, they lead to a phase transition and the emergence of new meaning. In a sense, that is precisely what his book does, aiming to lead to a phase transition and the possibility to re-imagine our worldview, and by that, to change history.