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The Map Crisis
A problem of phrases - "The Mental Health Crisis," "The Legitimization Crisis," "The Meaning Crisis," "The Courage Crisis," "The Hope Crisis," "The Meta-Crisis," "The Demographic Crisis"…
“The Meaning Crisis” is a phrase coined by Dr. John Vervaeke that suggests a deep problem regarding the world today, mainly the great difficulty countless people have finding meaning in life. Religion has collapsed; family is unreliable; the universe feels cold. “The Meaning Crisis” is a phrase I have used, and I am extremely sympathetic to efforts which highlight the importance of meaning, all the way back to my Eunoia days speaking with Bernard Hankins. A life without meaning is a life that is hard to live, and no doubt the lack of it leads to great suffering, as the great Victor Frankl also warned.
Over the years, I have been increasingly convinced that meaning is not something we can directly seek but must come secondarily from acts of courage, leaps of faith, and learning to navigate “The Real” of relationships. Alex Ebert has claimed that the meaning of life is courage, and Mr. Ebert has also made the point that many of the conspiracies, extreme political movements, etc. today are not a result of a lack of meaning but from an abundance of meaning. People find meaning in QAnon, in Popularism, in racism, and worse, and these “meaning-making practices” are common. Each contains an “ecology of practices.” Each contains direction and purpose.
“The Meaning Crisis” is a phrase that I think accurately describes a large portion of the population, and I actually think it can be framed as resulting from a portion of the population “holding itself to a higher standard” (as elaborated on in “The Meaning Crisis as a Sign of Hope” by O.G. Rose). Indeed, we have a “Meaning Crisis” insomuch as we lack new sources of meaning, but we should not be mistaken to think that we lack sources of meaning at all. We have plenty of those, and that’s a problem: people are finding meaning in all the wrong places.
It’s hard to name or title a sociological reality, for if we call it “The Hope Crisis,” doesn’t a loss of hope entail a loss of meaning? I am increasingly fond of “The Mental Health Crisis,” but does a decline in mental health describe the hopelessness in West Virginia or those stuck in “the internal consistency” of conspiracies? We could say there is a lack of “mental health” in that there is despair or “magical thinking,” but is that overstretching the meaning of the phrase “mental health?” Alluding back to Mr. Ebert, what about “The Courage Crisis?” I like that phrase as well, but don’t people in conspiracies have courage? They are rejected by the world and yet don’t backdown from their beliefs, so much so that they are willing to storm the Capitol. We could argue that this isn’t real courage, just groupthink, but are we so sure? Perhaps we are suffering from a “Reality Crisis,” because we are just not sure what is real and/or we’re all stuck in our own “reality tunnels.” Does any language suffice?
Language is always difficult, and I’m aware that if I don’t use the phrase “The Meaning Crisis” I will fail to fit into the wider conversation currently underway. I will no doubt continue to use the phrase, and it does indeed point to a real problem. The phrase I might like most of all is “The Map Crisis,” but this is not a phrase I could use and be readily understood. It is in regard to “the map is not the territory” problem, which is to say that no map, regardless its coherence or accuracy, is equivalent to the territory it represents. We are all stuck with models and simulations, and if we are forced to acknowledge this because societal “givens” have collapsed, we are existentially overwhelmed. We all must believe our “map” is not just a map, and if we are forced to realize it is, we suffer existentially to a profound degree. In this way, “The Map Crisis” entails in it “The Meaning Crisis” (which can be tied to an “Existential Crisis as well).
When we suffer mentally, we often feel trapped within a certain understanding of ourselves and the world. Mental illness is not necessarily a result of a lack of rationality, but a result of us ascribing to “an idea of the truth” which locks us inside of it. “An idea of the truth” is a map, and we can suffer greatly when our map guides us into thoughts, situations, and ideas that destroy our mental health. Thus, “The Map Crisis” can entail “The Mental Health Crisis,” as well as “The Hope Crisis.”
As argued in Book II of The True Isn’t the Rational, robust ideologies are “internally consistent,” which means they entail no necessary contradiction within themselves. Thus, rationality cannot force the ideology to unveil itself as incomplete or in need of deconstruction. There will always be “good reason” to stay in the ideology, worldview, religion, etc., and never must a person leave it. This is “the problem of internally consistent systems,” and hints at what I mean when I claim, “The map is indestructible.” Unless completely absurd or falsifiable, rationality almost always can justify itself, even if the rationality is in service of an error or a mistake. This is why conspiracies are so problematic: once they form, it isn’t the case that they must ever necessarily fail; they can always keep “moving around the variables” to maintain their possibility. So it goes with private beliefs or convictions: it is not the case that my rationality must force me to change my views. And when everyone is stuck in their own “internally consistent map,” rather as an individual or as part of a collective in a conspiracy, society fragments, and thus “The Map Crisis” can also point to “The Fragmentation Crisis.”
If I do not ascribe to a map that guides me into being courageous, I likely won’t be, and if I never must abandon my map which teaches me that I don’t need to face my fears, then I will likely never have reason to be courageous, nor will I ever have reason to believe I am avoiding courage. There is always good reason not to face my fears, and if there are not sociological “givens” which confront me with my fears or teaches me that it is good to face my fears, then I probably won’t. Thus “The Map Crisis” can contribute to “The Fear/Courage Crisis,” which is to say we can both be led by our maps to believe there is always something to fear, and/or that there is always “good reason” not to face fears (which means we can avoid fears without having to see ourselves as lacking courage).
To return to the most popular phrase again, a reason “The Meaning Crisis” phraseology could be problematic is because we might create for ourselves “an ecology of practices” from which we derive meaning, but this meaning could close us off from the wider world and society, leading to atomization. Perhaps the majority of young adults in Japan have found enough meaning and enjoyment in their lives to be comfortable staying in their apartments and not seeking marriage. Perhaps they aren’t entirely happy with their situation, but can we really say that the marriage crisis in Japan would vanish if everyone found meaning? They may all find meaning through new practices involving the internet or detachment — would those not count? Why not?
Also, a world where everyone prioritizes meaning over say “sacrifice” or “doing what needs to be done” could be a world where we lack people who will fix fallen electrical wires during a snowstorm, people who can manage the infrastructure needed for the internet, plumbers, truck drivers, and so on. Sure, there will be some percentage of people who find meaning in these positions, but will tens of thousands of people, as is needed so that problems can be addressed across the country adequately? Perhaps, but the point is that we cannot assume that a world where everyone has meaning is a world where the societal infrastructure is maintained in the same way. Perhaps this is a trade-off we are willing to make (hard to say) but the point is that there is a trade-off.
If everyone found meaning, social fragmentation would not necessarily be improved, nor would necessarily improve our political and economic realities. Arguably, our sociopolitical and economic situation must be fixed first, and then matters of meaning can follow, but I’m also very sympathetic to the view that they all must be fixed at the same time. Fair enough, but that still means there is something out of “The Meaning Crisis” which needs to be addressed if we are to avoid further societal decline. Worse yet, if people find meaning in a manner that keeps them from having children, our demographic crisis could worsen profoundly.
“The Demographic Crisis” is something else I would include under “The Map Crisis,” for we simply don’t know how to navigate modern dating or modern relationships to bring about healthy and sustainable environments in which to support families. The economic restraints only make the matter worse, and no one can agree on “the map” according to which we might escape our situation. It seems doomed to worsen, and something similar could be said about “The Environmental Crisis,” which too is lacking a map.
Now, another popular phrase which is meant to encompass all these crises at once is “The Meta-Crisis,” as spoken about by Daniel Schmachtenberger. Like “The Meaning Crisis,” I’ve used this phrase and see use in it. It is perhaps a “system’s version” of “The Map Crisis” I’m describing, which I consider more phenomenological and “ground-level.” I’m not sure, and I’ve also heard “The Meta-Crisis” in the framework of many Rationalist Communities, which can stress that we can only address “The Meta-Crisis” by advancing the mental capacities of the average person on the planet. I sympathize with this view, but I’m also weary of us accidentally slipping into “autonomous rationality,” which hopefully The Conflict of Mind has made clear is devastating. I also think that facing fear and developing courage is paramount for increasing not just intelligence but our humanity, and it is more so “full humanity” (in a Nietzschean sense) that we need versus more rationality (rationality can also lead us into A/A-logic versus Hegel’s A/B-logic, which I think is another big problem, as described in The Absolute Choice). I don’t think Schmachtenberger would disagree with any of this though, so I don’t have any strong views on “The Meta-Crisis” language.
Anyway, if we solve “The Meaning Crisis,” we will not necessarily solve “The Demographic Crisis,” “The Social Fragmentation Crisis,” “The Economic Crisis,” or the like, and in my view the feeling that “life is meaningless” often comes from economic and demographic realities, not simply from scientific reductionism or “the death of God.” Sure, a lack of “emergent thinking” and reduction of everything into materiality certainly hurts religions and efforts to regain the sacred, but I believe economic, social, demographic, etc. failures can lead to people turning to thoughts about the emptiness of the universe (when they cannot pay their bills, they then start to wonder what’s the point of even trying if the universe is godless). On the other hand, when people are richer and suffering boredom, which is to say they don’t suffer much economically, then they can search for meaning and long for it. In one situation, an “Economic Crisis” lead to a “Meaning Crisis,” while in another situation an individual “Meaning Crisis” arose from economic success. The order changes between people (for someone else, the inability to find a relationship can lead to nihilism, which means “The Relationship Crisis” and/or “Demographic Crisis” leads to a “Meaning Crisis”), and so that would mean if we address one crisis but not the other, the unaddressed crisis could turn around and bring back the crisis we thought we solved. This is a point stressed by thinkers of “The Meta-Crisis,” which is to say each crisis informs each other crisis, and basically all the crises must be addressed at once or little will change.
We rarely know what we want, and we rarely know what we find meaningful. And what we want today and find meaningful tomorrow could be something we don’t care about at all. “The Focus Crisis” also seems to be a problem, and if we don’t regain the ability to focus and commit, it will be hard for a meaning we realize today to sustain us through time. The struggle to “commit” to something also overlays with “The Courage Crisis,” and yet it can be rational to avoid commitment; after all, what if we are taken advantage of (which suggests a way all of these crises overlap)? It is also not given that meaning is socially relevant until it is translated into action which has social ramifications, as creativity is not necessarily a social good unless something is produced that helps people address their problems (though I don’t deny the primacy of creativity, as discussed in “The Dialectic Between Creativity and Energy” by O.G. Rose). Both meaning and creativity can be individual goods automatically, but “social gains” require more. Now, I don’t mean to say that creativity and meaning must be in service of practicality and productivity, only that addressing “The Meaning Crisis” will not necessarily translate into social benefits. It might, but it also might not. Also, a person may have meaning in x, but lack the economic support to maintain doing x, which I think is a very common problem (and might be the most common barrier to meaning), and thus it is not a new “ecology of practices” that is needed but a new pricing mechanism.
I can find meaning in being a Deleuzian, and I can find meaning in being a Hegelian, but I don’t believe the social ramifications are equivalent. I can find meaning in Christianity, and though this might increase the probability I reproduce, I may fall into a theology which doesn’t care to save the environment, because Christ will return with the Apocalypse. I can reduce carbon emissions and do my part to address “The Climate Crisis,” but I might also ascribe to a doctrine of hopelessness regarding the future. Also, I might gain meaning, courage, hope, and prove creative, but I might not be very good at navigating social relations, which the literature of Anton Chekov can be read as an extensive case study on. People constantly misunderstand and misinterpret one another in Chekov, which could be called “The Hermeneutic Crisis” and suggests the difficulty of relationships when we lack “shared intelligibility.” Without this, society is likely to fragment, and in fact a world where everyone finds meaning could worsen the problem of our lack of “shared intelligibility,” for everyone could theoretically live in a world of their own creation which makes them less intelligible to others. This would be to take seriously the lessons of Nietzsche and Deleuze, perhaps, but it also comes with a great risk. Another crisis is “The Institution and Authority Problem,” which is to say we no longer trust our institutions (like the government, colleges, etc.) to provide reliable information, to look after our best interests, and the like, and if everyone simply ascribes to their own “meaning-making processes,” there will be little incentive to work to rebuild and repair institutions and structures through which we can gain “shared intelligibility.” Not necessarily, but this is a risk that must be considered. Everything is a risk, and trade-offs are everywhere.
Please note that I am not claiming Dr. Vervaeke or other thinkers of “The Meaning Crisis” don’t know everything I’ve written here, and I have easily written nothing that isn’t widely understood. This paper is not meant to be a critique of thinkers but an examination of the trouble of phrases, and admittedly it’s likely impossible to find the perfect title or phrase that doesn’t leave more to be desired. No doubt Dr. Vervaeke knows this, but there is also the great tension of needing to find a phrase which resonates with people and can start a conversation. “The Meaning Crisis” is a phrase that clearly succeeds in these ways, and for that the phrase deserves praise. Indeed, I myself have benefited from it.
For me, “The Map Crisis” is a language that can point to many crises at once without creating the impression that, “If everyone had children, the world would be fixed” (“The Demographic Crisis”), or “If meaning was optimized, the world would work” (“The Meaning Crisis”), or “If everyone was brave, society would function” (“The Courage Crisis”), and so on. Courage, robust family structures, meaning — all of these are pieces of the puzzle, but the order of the pieces, and what fits together with what, is paramount (which brings me back to Augustine’s emphasis on “order” in creating goodness). Perhaps part of “The Map Crisis” is precisely that it seems impossible to use a single phrase without leaving too much out? Indeed, language maps…
“The Map Crisis” is a phrase that I think encompasses many of the individual, mental, and social problems we face today, but it is also a phrase that lacks the appeal of “The Meaning Crisis,” and marketing matters. So admittedly, “The Map Crisis” is not a phrase I plan on using often, precisely because its meaning is so embedded. However, I would encourage readers to keep “The Map Crisis” in mind whenever I discuss our current situation, as well as when I discuss “The Meaning Crisis,” which indeed I believe is primarily a “Map Crisis,” both in that we are locked in maps that won’t let us find meaning, maps that drag us into declining mental health, maps which “rationally” convince us that we don’t have to face our fears, and maps that lead us into conspiracies and “bad sources of meaning.” Perhaps “The Meaning Crisis” is closest to what I mean by “The Map Crisis,” though again I think emphasizing “meaning” can suggest people need to focus on finding meaning and corresponding practices, versus say learn to act courageously, to avoid “internally consistent logic,” and so on. Considering this, I don’t mind discussing “The Meaning Crisis,” but I wanted to at least here highlight my views on it more clearly. “The Map Crisis” is more accurately how I see our world today, for we are unable to believe in maps due to the loss of “givens,” or alternatively we find ourselves in maps we cannot escape. And this is our crisis.
However, having just made a case for why I like “The Map Crisis,” I would now like to propose another phrase I like: “The Motivation Crisis.” This topic explores the topics of “risk management,” which I believe is paramount for finding meaning and motivation to live, and ultimately I will suggest that motivation is as fundamental as meaning. However, discussing this topic will open up a whole slew of considerations, ones I believe are best reserved for another time. Still, I wanted to note that the connection between risk, motivation, and meaning is paramount, but since we are suffering “a map crisis,” we lack a guide to navigate these connections.