Review of The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe by Jeremy Lent (New Society, 2021).
We were given a fractal glimpse of Jeremy Lent’s new book The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe, in his previous book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning. In Part 5 of that book, also called “The Web of Meaning?” Lent examined our “cognitive history“ and concluded that some humans have engineered a series of disconnections from nature, other humans, and their own essential humanity. Old forms of meaning based on the meta-theme of disconnection have become not only a social-evolutionary dead-end, but they are also argued to be at the core of why the current form of global civilization is inherently self-destructive and non-sustainable.
At the conclusion of The Patterning Instinct, Lent presented the case that a new meta-theme based on connectedness in all life can generate a coherent framework of meaning arising out of fractals of the older cosmologies, spiritual beliefs, world philosophy, and science. Lent concluded that seeing humanity and the cosmos as a “web of meaning” enables “Great Transformation values that emphasize quality of life, our shared humanity, and the flourishing of nature.”
That fractal theme continues into his new magnum opus, where the disparate elements of an emergent cosmology are magnified beyond their nascent forms at the conclusion of The Patterning Instinct to reveal the unity-in-diversity needed to achieve the much-needed Great Transformation to the Symbiocene, or the era of re-unification with life in nature.
In an echo of G.W.F. Hegel’s encyclopaedic attempt to “think life” in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Lent—in six major parts and thirteen chapters—takes the reader along on what could initially be seen as a chaotic meandering through “wisdom traditions” such as Buddhism, Taoism, Indigenous knowledge, Western spirituality, and contemporary science. In all these parts, Lent asks a series of key questions relevant to understanding the essence of life, starting with “Who am I?” and concluding with the big one, “Where are we going?” These and other key questions generate much hard work for the reader who navigates the five hundred pages of text in this dense, complex book.
We get an early insight to what drove the man, Jeremy Lent, to ask such profound questions and undertake an intellectual odyssey to answer them. After a conventional education at the University of Chicago in preparation for a career in the commercial world then a successful career in the dotcom industry, a “white swan event” (predictable) occurred: the dotcom bubble of the early 2000s burst. At the same time, Jeremy endured the illness and tragic death of his wife. In terms of complexity theory, the attractors within Lent’s world had conspired to negate his past structures of meaning.
Out of chaos, there is potential for new order, and Lent has taken on the task of finding a coherent world view among all the past history of ideas that are relevant to his life mission. In undertaking this Herculean effort, we are reminded of the composer Phillip Glass when he symbolically re-started music after the chaos of atonalism and discordant composition after the second World War. The effort to reintegrate rhythm, harmony, and melody undertaken in Einstein on the Beach (1976) is the musical equivalent of Lent’s effort to restart the harmony of civilization out of the profound discordance of the Anthropocene.
Unlike Glass and his use of a limited number of simple musical notes, Lent had to restart his symphony of ideas using the huge variety and types of conceptual and material foundations available in past and present human cultural and scientific history. The themes he focuses on within the six parts include the foundations of human identity, cosmology, ontology, ethics, spirituality, and directionality. The weaving of a new meaning from such diverse domains deserves our utmost attention and praise for its sheer audacity. Students of complexity theory and those willing to see the pattern he creates will find much to help in the assembling of a coherence theory of truth. That is the great strength of this book.
Lent starts his conceptual composition with the fundamentals of life by carefully selecting from past cultural fractals that saw unity between humans and the cosmos, humans and other humans, humans and other animals, and humans and life in general. He is able to compare and contrast these integrative and associative strands in human and non-human life to those that have arisen in what he calls the modern “dominant world view.” To boost his case that the dominant world view has derailed what were diverse but shared holistic belief systems, he enlists help from modern neuroscience, plant ecology, symbiotic science, and numerous other leading-edge aspects of science to critique both the persistence and dominance of this world view.
In addition to the scientific critique of the mechanistic structure of the dominant world view, Lent is able to reference the work of previous scholars in the field, such as Carolyn Merchant’s pioneering The Death of Nature. As argued by Merchant, the patriarchal and despotic characteristics of Baconian and Cartesian science are revealed as core to the destructiveness and alienation from life of the dominant world view. In rebuilding an organic view of consciousness, culture, and the practical necessities of politics and society, Lent takes the reader onto a “path of integration” where there is symbiotic unity between humans and the rest of the planet.
The most obvious weakness of the book is that many other permutations are possible from the variables Lent has chosen from his own biography and intellectual milieu. Plus, despite its size and scope, there is much that this book does not even consider, such as potentially supportive associative thinkers and traditions in Anarchist thought like Peter Kropotkin (mutual aid) and Murray Bookchin (social ecology). Complexity theory and its strange attractors and tipping points also applies to the conceptual world, where instead of a comforting coherence, disassociation rules; instead of producing a Bach fugue, we get the free atonality of Arnold Schoenberg or the noisy “silence” of John Cage. In the case of Cage, it all depends on what sounds the listener hears while the musicians remain silent. The reader’s response to The Web of Meaning just might sit within their reaction to what Lent writes about, rather than the intentions of his written manuscript.
There is another possibility, as well. Lent, as explained at the very start of this review, sees fractal patterns in the signals and noise of life. The central theme of ecology as epistemology is interconnectedness, and because of this, there is the possibility of repetition of fractal design and patterns from the small to the large, from the inner to the outer. For example, personal coherence and harmony can be fused with the emergence of a civilization that has the same symbiotic fractal qualities.
Yet true fractal patterning in nature and life is an impossibility, as there is both reduction where further subdivision is not possible (cells, atoms) and variation (mutation) that breaks repetitive form in the creation of the shock of the new. Fractals are mathematical representations; they are Mandelbrot approximations of the shape of life and the contents of consciousness, perhaps not its fuzzy and blooming reality. There is also a nagging worry that even the metaphor of the web might be a sticky conceptual trap that readers could fall into, only to be devoured.
Push the idea of fractals too hard and we return to the mathematically defined and mechanically ordered Galilean and Newtonian view of life that Lent steers us away from. Allow their complexity too much freedom, and they become as protean as life itself. It is possible that Indigenous cultures had already incorporated this tension into their versions of the dialectic of life. Order and disorder are present in all aspects of their cultural expression, and the emphasis on elemental order in Lent’s work could be judged as a one-sided reading of human anthropology and history.
This reviewer desperately wants Lent’s conclusion—a symbiotic reunification between humans and the rest of life—as much as he does. Indeed, my own conception of the meme of the Symbiocene is ultimately defended and promoted in this monumental book. The question for readers will be the path or direction that one can or must take to get there. For those who have already thought about the potential for harmony between humans and the rest of life, Lent’s own path might seem tortuous and quixotic. For those who have not entered the radical anticipation of forecasting and future studies, The Web of Meaning just might be the most important book they will ever read. Between those two poles lies a spectrum of possibilities that may freely feed from Lent’s sheer hard work and generosity of ideas.