My notes on Jeremy Lent’s “The Web of Meaning”

I just finished the book by Jeremy Lent titled “The Web of Meaning”. I found this book extremely engaging and thought as it deals with lots of topics I am deeply interested in.  This book has sort of validated lot of my thinking about the nature of  consciousness, meaning of life and  how everything seems to be interconnected in nature. The book has thirteen chapters spread over six parts namely –

  1. Who Am I?
  2. Where Am I?
  3. What Am I?
  4. How Should I Live?
  5. Why Am I?
  6. Where Are We  Going?

The topics touched by this book has my interest for some time now and that is what got me hooked and then I thought of writing a summary of my understanding of the discussions covered in the book. More as a reflection of my understanding than anything else. If you are interested in how the meaning emerges in our lives and the lives of other creatures and how everything is connected through a shared meaning, I highly suggest this book.

The existing worldviews; especially monotheistic worldview of Abrahamic religions have been dissected in detail and compared with ancient Eastern philosophies such as Taoism and Confucianism. The model of consciousness with left and right hemisphere of brain to do complementary thinking has been explained in great detail in the first chapter. The author prefers to call these two hemispheres as “animate consciousness” (right hemisphere) and “conceptual consciousness” (left hemisphere).  He argues that there is an imbalance in the current battle of hemispheres which characterizes our modern world. The reason of  this imbalance is traced to the western philosophy and mechanistic thought process. The main argument of this book is that instead of left and right brains being in opposition, we must strive to integrate them, make them complement each other and have a right balance which will result in new meaning of life on earth.

To find this right balance, we need to introspect and understand how cognition works how our  thinking has been shaped over millennia. The author relies on systems thinking and Neo-Confucian philosophy and introduces the concept of “metapattern”. 

“What is the pattern which connects all the living creatures?” “pattern which connects is a metapattern”

“What the ancient Greek dismissed as no more than a curious paradox is, it turns out, a fundamental  insight into the nature of life itself. The particular pattern that first emerged on Earth billions of years ago – the autopoietic miracle of life as a coherent whole perpetually regenerating itself – is the defining principle that interpenetrates you, me and all the expressions of evolution that we see around us.”

Quite justifiably, Jeremy has put a lot of focus on the connectivity and network effect because this is how the life has flourished Earth in its enormity and diversity. In complex systems, how things connect are more important than he things itself. Organisms compete as well as collaborate in infinitely many ways to produce such a rich collage of life on Earth. He writes, “one of the most important findings in modern biology has been that cooperation, not selfish competition, has been the foremost driving force in each of life’s major evolutionary transitions since it began on Earth billions of years ago.”

“Life is not a zero-sum game: through symbiosis, species have co-created ecosystems in which the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts”

I also enjoyed the way he has explained how life began on Earth.

“The first step toward life occurred when sets of molecules began to catalyze each other’s reactions – an autocatalytic set – and formed a semipermeable membrane around themselves, using other molecules from outside to maintain the process. This momentous event marked the first time that matter began to reverse entropy on Earth.”

“Though they had no language to express what they were doing, those autocatalytic sets had crossed a threshold of value: they began making judgements about what was around them. The molecules out there held meaning to them: one molecule was harmful, another was beneficial because it permitted them to continue converting entropy into order.”

His treatment of the complex subject of consciousness is well researched and enlightening.

“It is the ability of the nervous system to be both modular and unified at the same time that allows it to  create a moment of consciousness – one of those distinctive subjective qualia”

“Consciousness, therefore, is not a thing, nor does it exist in a fixed location in the brain, but is an ongoing process of  continual linkage and differentiation through billions of interconnecting pathways. The dynamic core is never exactly the same, but from one moment to another there is enough consistency in its repertoire for it to feel like a smooth flow.”

The later chapters deal with how should we live our lives in the light of finding a right balance between left and right hemispheres of the brains, given the latest research on consciousness and its fractal nature. 

“If we consider human consciousness as a series of fractal layers, this becomes easier to understand: while experiencing the moment-to-moment fluctuations of daily life at one level, we can meet all the hubbub at a deeper level with a spacious sense of abiding equanimity.”

Jeremy takes the human supremacy and human centered approach to deal with nature head on; and quite rightly so. Human centered approach has resulted in greed and fight for dominance over natural resources for privileged people and has inflicted havoc on life on Earth including less fortunate human beings.

“Human supremacy is an ideology that sanctions us to devastate the nonhuman world without feeling moral qualms”

The main argument of the book, which has been introduced a bit late because this is a complex topic and a lot of background needed to be covered before putting forward the main thesis, is that meaning is a function of connectedness.

“the more extensively we connect something with other aspects of our lives, the more meaningful it is to us”

“Just as we enact a rainbow by gazing into the rain, we enact meaning by how we attune to the connective rhythms of the universe”

More we feel connected to other lifeforms and the enormous expanse of nature, more meaningful and fulfilling our lives will become and more responsible we will become towards all life on Earth. Book argues that it is urgent that we look into the current direction of mindless growth obsessed human vocation and find ways to live more sustainably and responsibly to avoid irreversible damage on the nature. He has suggested few ideas around universal basic income, changing the nature of corporations, redefining growth and progress before it is too late. He gives a more practical analogy of application software bug-fixes versus changing the entire operating system.

“In human culture, the operating system takes the form of its underlying worldview: the entire set of assumptions about how the world works, how things really are, what’s valuable and what’s possible. A worldview often remains unstated and unquestioned, but is deeply felt and implicitly guides the individual and collective choices we make. In this book we’ve been systematically investigating the dominant worldview – and have found that it is seriously flawed.”

Even amidst concerning statistics and disturbing facts, author is able to provide a sense of hope and inspiration to work towards a more sustainable and equitable future for not only all human being, but also the wonderful varied life forms. This is a must read for anyone interested in the evolution of human thoughts, morality, value system and how it impacts the mother nature.

“Hope, in the resounding words of dissident statesman Vaclav Havel, is ‘a state of mind, not a state of the world’. It is a ‘deep orientation of the human soul that can be held at the darkest times … an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.'”