Posts

Why Tell the Truth:
On the Curious Notions of Jordan B. Peterson

Introduction to Jordan B. PetersonIntroduction to Jordan B. Peterson

“It has been almost twelve years since I first grasped the essence of the paradox that lies at the bottom of human motivation for evil: People need their group identification, because that identification protects them, literally, from the terrible forces of the unknown. It is for this reason that every individual who is not decadent will strive to protect his territory, actual and psychological. But the tendency to protect means hatred of the other, and the inevitability of war—and we are now too technologically powerful to engage in war. To allow victory to the other, however—or even continued existence, on his terms—means subjugation, dissolution of protective structures, and exposure to that which is most feared. For me, this meant ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’: belief systems regulate affect, but conflict between belief systems is inevitable.

Formulation and understanding of this terrible paradox devastated me. I had always been convinced that sufficient understanding of a problem—any problem—would lead to its resolution. Here I was, however, possessed of understanding that seemed not only sufficient but complete, caught nonetheless between the devil and the deep blue sea. I could not see how there could be any alternative to either having a belief system or to not having a belief system—and could see little but the disadvantage of both positions. This truly shook my faith.”
Jordan Peterson, Maps of Meaning[1]

 

“To the extent that the Academe remembers its ancient origins, it must know that it was founded by the polis’s most determined and most influential opponent.”
Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics”[2]

 

The consequences of Neil Postman’s 1986 prophecy-turned-truth has caused more chaos than he could have imagined: “People will come to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”[3] Although it was television that was the target of this particular criticism—fearing the growing ubiquity of images, the constant 2-second camera angle flashes of the television screen—what would he have thought of Twitter culture which, more dangerously, makes no pretense of trading with linguistic complexity for imagistic simplicity, and has, as a result, flattened our words and our ability to make sense of ourselves and the world? As the online culture selects for bombast over nuance, transactions of epigrams over meaningful discourse, this may just be the logical extreme Postman envisioned over three decades ago: “Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself. Therefore—and this is the critical point—how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged. It is not merely that on the television screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse. It is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails.”[4] We are amusing ourselves to death, which makes the appearance and pursuit of truth a threat to be neutralized.

Creators of our major communication tools are only now beginning to understand the pernicious consequences of these powerful platforms. Just as greed is a great instigator of the profit motive, compulsive entertainment propels social media engagement. This is true not only with the images and videos on our televisions and newsfeeds, but it has become true for the use of words. Channel 4 recently tried to capitalize on this,[5] using a gotcha-journalism tactic to confer intentions to and put words in the mouth of a thinker not bound to our age. There is an anomaly in our midst, holding a mirror to us in the form of questions. Why, indeed, tell the truth, in our age of fake news?

The famous pragmatist philosopher Donald Davidson suggested we approach interpretive dilemmas by following what has been called the principle of charity. Back in 1974 he wrote, “We make maximum sense of the words and thoughts of others when we interpret in a way that optimizes agreement (this includes room, as we said, for explicable error, i.e. differences of opinion).”[6] This in part means that we assume, at least at the outset, that every person seeks truth and not error, and this truth is concerned with good and not evil, making the world more beautiful rather than unpleasant. As a student of philosophy, this notion has been invaluable. As a member of society at large, this principle could not, at this moment, be more unavailable to everyday discourse.

Articles abound on the University of Toronto’s clinical psychologist Jordan B. Peterson. Most attempt to construct a myth of the man, a compelling simplification that deems him either a savior or a demon. Others recently are more overt reflections on the failure of traditional media to report his views coherently or accurately. It is no accident that a person like Donald Trump became president in our time: a distiller of white nationalist cliches and an expert of misdirection, he enthralled, energized, and disheartened disparate segments of the American population simply by riding the wave of unparalleled media coverage during the election season. Compare Trump, arguably the embodiment of the dangers of our time de jure, to the general outrage over Peterson, a man coming to public consciousness first by releasing a somewhat philosophical series of YouTube videos reflecting on the imminent passing of bill C-16, then exploding in popularity after a 3 hour long interview on The Joe Rogan Experience back in 2016. Many who rely on traditional media, and from it receive most of the information with which they orient themselves toward the world, are repelled by Peterson, believing he is some kind of self-help guru,[7] popular only because he is an alt-right prophet and a popularizer of dubious positive-thinking psychology. They have only heard of him because of his recent book, 12 Rules for Life, and believe they know all there is to know about his work simply because they read a few hit pieces that intentionally misquote, misinterpret, and generally misrepresent the views of a man that cannot be contained in a five-minute video clip or 500-word article.

I discovered Peterson through his initial interview with Rogan, and I was immediately captured by his application of Darwinian mechanisms of selection to religious myths and his fascinating take on everything from politics to philosophy, from psychology to religion. Now that perhaps the man has been properly situated in our cultural moment, defending him against common misconceptions, by others more interested in that narrative than myself, I would like to outline the basic concepts that ground Peterson’s thought, manifesting themselves in one way or another in any particular interview or lecture. Having more than 300 hours worth of lectures online makes Peterson’s work a mountain so large that the climb seems impossible, if not, at least, only for the fervent. Why listen to a man many have already labelled a charlatan, a self-help guru, or worse, an alt-right prophet? One reason is because most have not placed his ideas in the context of his own work. My goal is to introduce his ideas to the average person without requiring that they spend a few months of their life figuring out his basic premises. What judgment they may pass on him is no concern of mine; I simply aim to provide an introduction that allow these judgments to be informed.

Our Maps of Meaning: Myth, Science, and Hierarchy

“Man is an animal, from the objective viewpoint, worthy of no more consideration than the opinion and opportunities of the moment dictate. From the mythic viewpoint, however, every individual is unique—is a new set of experiences, a new universe; has been granted the ability to bring something new into being; is capable of participating in the act of creation itself. It is the expression of this capacity for creative action that makes the tragic conditions of life tolerable, bearable—remarkable, miraculous.”[8]

How we map meaning onto the world and ourselves is not entirely self-evident, Peterson says. He refers us, here, to a problem Daniel Dennett has written eloquently about: The Frame Problem in AI. In short, the problem is that there are an infinite number of ways to interpret everything. How do we go about perceiving any thing as a thing? What constraints constitute the structures by which perception itself becomes possible?

Peterson posits that one way we do this is our bodies: we do not primarily view the world as a field of objects, but rather as a forum for action. And what is primary in our conception of the world is not things or objects, but rather tools and obstacles. To know the meaning of a thing is to know how it relates to us and our aims: to know its functional significance. Consequently, the ways in which things affect us tend to be identified with the things themselves. Consider how nonsensical it is to feel fear about encountering a wolf in nature and not also identify the wolf as a thing to be feared. The function of the wolf, here, is predator. One reason for the framing problem is that AI (at this point) is something like a brain in a vat (though this is changing): it is disembodied. Precisely the ostensible strength of common conceptions of AI—its lack of physical limitation—is perhaps its undermining weakness at this point. Peterson wants to bring us back to the relevance of our physical circumstances as embodied persons and how our ideas and ideals evolved from this fact.

And, yet, the great feat of science is that it has stripped affect from objects.[9] Since the Enlightenment, as it dispensed with religious doctrine as necessary for understanding the world of objects, western civilization amassed commodities and propelled innovation to previously unimaginable heights. This also has had some unintended consequences. Whereas the unconscious is about the nervous system that connects everything together, the conscious deals with separation and surface qualities of the external,[10] and the scientism that pervades secular critiques of religion has resurfaced a perennial problem in a particularly intense way: when consciousness looks upon itself as an object of experience, it is susceptible to separating itself from the unconscious. When this occurs, we fall prey to lurking pathologies. Archetypes are conceived of by Jung as something like “patterns of instinctual behavior;”[11] and repressing or suppressing these drives leads to rationalizing behavior that, on a deep level, are motivated by these unknown, instinctual forces. “There is no lunacy people under the domination of an archetype will not fall prey to.”[12] This leads to one of Peterson’s central notions: “Ideas are embodied before they’re abstract, and abstracted as a drama first.”[13] We cannot be directly led by the concept of good to a good world, however good the world is conceived, because we are motivated by more than merely rational forces.

The automatic attribution of meaning to things is codified in myth and narrative, which are instantiated in religion, integrating the functional significance of things in the world with cultural hierarchies. The structures of religious myth is the grammar of this world and these hierarchies: “A religion is a set of stories that comes very close to the grammar of stories. They aren’t stories you can dispense with.”[14]

Carl Jung thought that myths did not aim to explain the world, as in how the rain falls or how the position of the stars relate to the earth, but rather operated within the affective identification of objects with the self: myths are projections of the “inner unconscious drama.”[15] This, on the face of it, draws a line between the world of myth and the world of science.

The problem of the relation between myth and science is unbelievably complex, and, as indicated by Peterson when he recognized it, seemingly inescapable. Science and religion appear to be in conflict, and as science increases its knowledge, the mythic structures of religion must be necessarily left behind. Yet, “If the religious realm and the scientific realm exist, they have to be unifiable at some point.”[16] For Peterson, this connection consists in the grounding of the archetypes of the collective unconscious in Darwinian evolution.

If it is true that the world is conceived best as primarily a forum for action, then what counts as our environment, in terms of Darwinian structures of adaptation, does not entirely, or even necessarily, associate adaptive traits to the objects of the world, but at least also to the tools that enable us to live and thrive in multiple environments among multiple groups of people. Our environment, in evolutionary terms, is not only natural, adhering to processes of cause and effect in nature, but also social, providing aims that achieve sustainable social relations with other people.

Grounding these social aims is a non-negotiable motivator of action: one very important thing that separates us from chimps is that the females of our species select for sexual reproduction and are not consistently obtained by the brute dominance of males.[17] The selective mechanisms of females qualify what counts as good aims and bad aims, and therefore the beliefs and character traits that are functionally relevant or good and increase the probability of reproduction and functionally useless or bad that decrease the probability of reproduction. These aims and traits form into hierarchies of competence,[18] which act as “a distributive computational device,”[19] allowing females to “externalize the cognitive problem [of deciding male worth for reproduction] to the structure itself.”[20] Dominance hierarchies, which are a more basic form of this, have been around for over 300 million years, dating back to at least lobsters.[21] In other words, the competence hierarchy is established by the pressures of sexual selection to sort-out whose genes are “worthy” of reproduction by valuing some character traits over others, and rewarding the attainment of the good traits over the bad. This selective mechanism creates a multilayered instability to our environment. Indeed, because we are not just reactive beings, and operant conditioners merely make certain actions more or less probable, group size is correlated to brain size. We must stand within multiple frames to act in and understand the world. What makes a man evolutionarily fit, as a result, is not merely physical strength, but, as we will see presently, moral strength.

The competence hierarchy is optimized for two functions: (1) scalability, it must be possible to make it to the top; and (2) status payoff, climbing the hierarchy improves social status and falling diminishes it. Men, adapting to the hierarchy, have become better at climbing it, thereby improving the probability of leaving behind genetic material. One way men have done this is by paying attention to men who have rose to the top and by telling stories about them. These men who scale the hierarchies are the heroes of our stories and myths. The competence hierarchy selects for heroes and breeds them: men imitate the heroes of myths, and this enables them to climb competence hierarchies.

That the hero has reached the top means he is admirable, and has noble principles, which introduces the possibility of reprehensible or disgraceful principles: those traits of men at the bottom of the competence hierarchy. Daniel Dennett has briefly articulated a similar evolutionary grounding of our notions of right or wrong, so this direction of thought is not entirely foreign to Darwinism, as novel and suggestive as it may seem, whether Peterson beat Dennett to this conclusion (and has taken it further) or not. From the traits of nobility and reprehensibility we ground the ideas of good and evil, and we can abstract from ten heroes a metahero: the saviors or enlightened ones of the major religious traditions across the world. Imitating the savior produces skills that give one the greatest probability of climbing the set of all competence hierarchies. This is why Jordan Peterson believes we cannot get rid of myth: it distills not just information about sexual selection, but has developed to such a complexity that it grounds our conceptions of what it is to be good and, consequently, how to live a meaningful life.

Peterson sets the religious symbols of myth within Darwinian evolution, thereby laying the groundwork for a unifying theory of science and religion. The main contribution of this theory is that it enables us to abstract the functional significance of religious myths, and, thereby, provides a way in which to understand how religion has given rise to the modern world. To extrapolate more specifically how this is so, we turn presently to an explication of the good and meaningful life in Peterson’s demythologization of religious symbols of myth.

The Life that Justifies Suffering

“There is something irreducible about suffering.”[22]

“That which you most need will be found where you least want to look.”[23]

The world is best conceived as a forum for action, where its basic constituents are tools or obstacles, kin or predator: when we encounter strangers, our predator circuitry processes their appearance, and when we hear familiar words or see friends and family, a completely different physiological process frames the world and our situation in it.[24] Two fundamental categories, then, delineate our basic situation in the world. The fight, flight, or freeze response, abstracted, situates us in the category of chaos, whereas the world of order and family, where our intentions cause expected consequences, brings us to the category of order. Chaos and order phenomenologically structure our worlds (this, perhaps, first discovered by Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane).

Chaos is not the place you want to be. It is where you are when all the skills you’ve learned from tradition or competence hierarchies, where everything you believed to be good and true, and where all that has worked well in the past, no longer work or make sense of where you find yourself. In chaos, your brain stops thinking about the future, initiates emergency preparation mode, shifts cortisol levels, activates left and right cortices, disinhibits limbic and motivational systems, causing you to sweat and lose sleep.[25] Chaos is the underworld of mythology: the dragon’s lair, or the belly of the whale.

Order is the place you are when everything works exactly as you expect, within the ordering of the competence hierarchy, and in turn your beliefs about what is true and good provide sufficient aims for action. You can glide in this place, as your amygdala rests and your pattern recognition takes over. People will protect their competence hierarchies, even as they don’t benefit, because it’s better to be a slave and know what is going on than it is to be thrown naked into the jungle in the middle of the night.[26]

These fundamental categories set the stage for our bodily, intuitive understanding of the world (which Peterson believes is primary to all thought); our brains are adapted to these metarealities—hierarchies and archetypes—as opposed to simple realities of objects and things. What sets our environment, at any given time, is not necessarily the objects or beings that surround us, but whether we are positioned in chaos or order.

These metarealities introduce an irresolvable tension at the center of human experience. Chaos is a terrible place to be, and order, by simplifying the complexity of the world, can also render us vulnerable to the shock of novelty. The constant back and forth between order and chaos is the bedrock of the problem of evil: is existence worth the suffering? Peterson, here, distinguishes between tragedies, like natural disasters of nature, and suffering, caused both by our disposition toward the world as a whole and the reality of malevolence (the fact that sometimes people pursue the suffering of others for no reason). Responses to tragedy are not necessitated by the tragic events themselves, despair is not compulsory, for sometimes we face tragedies heroically. The true problem of evil is the problem of suffering.

The possibility of suffering presents itself in different forms in both order and chaos. When in order, it’s archetypally represented symbolically as the tyrant father. Sometimes what is true today isn’t true enough to serve life: to allow for genuine human flourishing as the potentialities of the future are actualized, changing the present. When this is the case, the realm of order is tyrannical. Another problem with order is it tends to simplify the world into shallow categories that don’t adequately account for the reality that confronts us. This simplifying relates to the evil figure in myth as the one who is hyperrational, like Lucifer, or the snake in the garden, who falls in love with his own creations and pushes out the possibility of the transcendent. Here, Peterson places the origins of ideology. The very idea of the transcendent is operative in our everyday lives when we act in the world as if it’s full of potentials rather than final realities; and when these realities are reduced and simplified into basic, unchanging objects, the possibility of change, and therefore growth, development, and progress, is excluded at the outset. Opposed to this, a correct conception of order is more like the Garden of Eden: no matter how perfectly society is set up, there will be something you don’t want that comes in—the serpent. As an agent of chaos, the serpent essentially undermines lasting stability. Order can become chaos in an instant.

Mythology has figured out, especially Christianity, that the worst snake isn’t a real snake, but rather the internal “snake” of malevolence: the snake inside a person. And this, he thinks, partially explains the origin of our idea of evil: First the snake was external, then internal to people, then the snake inside person A and B became identical, then we had the idea of Lucifer, and finally the concept of evil. When we are confronted with chaos, there’s a way of acting that is better or worse: simply imagine the worst possible thing, then act so that will not happen, and you are acting to create a better world. Yet people who find themselves in chaos, if they have gotten there by choosing what is expedient over what is worthwhile, by lying to themselves and projecting their inadequacies onto the world and others rather than being honest with themselves and paying attention to how their beliefs might not account for reality or how their actions might be making things worse, will despair in times of suffering.[27]

We are inclined to cling to order, or close our eyes in chaos: we all know of men who never grew up, who have the emotional intelligence of a twelve-year-old but the musculature of a brute in its prime. Clinging to order makes us resentful, for who we thought we were, and the values that grounded our perception of reality, no longer provide anything to orient ourselves with. We do all the “right” things but we never reach the promised land: the land of achieved aims. It remains convenient for people to divide the world into the righteous and the damned so that whatever resentment and bitterness and hatred is in their hearts can be ignored, and so too can every way in which they participate in the problem they’re trying to overcome. Despair says: “It is better if it never existed at all.” People who act out this belief make suffering worse: despair ignites the flames of revenge, to strike back at being for the crime of existence. This disposition is an embodiment of Lucifer who says all that I know is all that is necessary to know, a counterfactual to the exploratory world-creating hero of myth.

Caught within the contradiction of believing one knows everything there is to know and a dawning chaos, we act to project this inner battle onto the world: to turn against being all around us and seek to destroy it. When we suffer, we delight in the suffering of others; the origin of suffering is the awareness of our own vulnerabilities, where malevolence is the intentional exploitation of the vulnerabilities of others. “Evil is the production of suffering for its own sake.”[28] Chaos is an ocean of darkness, and the deeper we descend, the more primal the monsters we discover.

When in chaos, Peterson calls us to pay attention, because sometimes the thing that we most value is the problem, because the world is systematized and viewed by reference to our values. Under these circumstances, to sacrifice the thing most valuable to us, as a religious principle, is the idea that a complete conversion is sometimes what it takes to live well, to be a good person. In this way, life demands the best of us, which sometimes means sacrificing who we are for who we may become.[29] Is nothing better than something: would it have been better had being never existed at all? The God of myth says no, which is another way of saying our myths have answered this question of suffering for us, and shows us the kind of life that overcomes suffering. This is the meta-hero archetype, or the notion of the savior.[30] The battle between good and evil isn’t between states or between individuals but it’s an internal and moral battle: between malevolence and benevolence.

The idea of the sacred itself is functionally, for Peterson, about the essential nature of existence. What we believe about the divine throughout the centuries has been a projection of what we take the meaning of existence to be. One of the conclusions of Christianity is that if we act towards the divine as if it’s nothing but good, then it is more likely to be true in the world. This takes both courage and faith: courage because it is not self-evident that suffering is ever overcome, and faith because it is possible that suffering may never, indeed, be overcome. But the idea of faith is that you make the case that being is good by acting that way, and to act as if being is good and play that out until the end.

This inner battle of the psyche, borne out in myth, provides the profound problem of life with a profound language. Peterson believes that we can’t create our own values because values have evolved with us, implicit in competence hierarchies, then articulated in our myths and, now, abstract concepts. He finds Plato’s idea that all knowledge is remembrance true in a deep, even Darwinian, sense. We weren’t born just thirty years ago, but we’re also the product of human language and history, and over 12 billion years of evolution. We are descendents of the great heroes of the past. So Jung’s idea is we have to go back to the myths and extract the archetypes. Peterson’s claims essentially boil down to making Jung’s ideas more rational and articulate: “I’m trying to resurrect the dormant logos.”

What is this logos? It’s one of the oldest ideas and Peterson thinks its use in Christianity is particularly significant today. Though his characterization of logos is somewhat idiosyncratic, he has good reasons for believing the logos should be articulated this way: speaking the truth, ordering the world by the manifestation of truth in speech.[31] When you enter a dark, familiar room, with no light, what do you do? You grope in the dark until you find an object by which to orient yourself. Kant thought that this notion of orientation could be abstracted to thinking in general,[32] that thinking was an orientation. Peterson thinks telling the truth is how we orient ourselves in the world when we are confronted by chaos, or “the unknown,” the domain where the consequences of our actions are not self-evident and the situation in which we find ourselves has no obvious cause. Telling the truth situates us. “Chaos is transformed into order by the word…. If you want chaos to be turned into hell, then lie. If you want chaos to be transformed into heaven, then tell the truth.”[33]

The role of truth is, in terms of value, fundamental for overcoming the problem of suffering. We have noted, already, that Peterson tells us to pay attention, because the very things we value the most might be the very things that cause us suffering (this, indeed, is the notion of idolatry in Christianity). “The truth is something that burns. It burns off deadwood, and people don’t like having their deadwood burnt off; often because they’re like 95% deadwood. Believe me, I’m not being snide about that. It’s no joke. When you start to realize how much of what you’ve constructed of yourself is based on deception and lies, that is a horrifying realization, and it can easily be 95% of you.”[34]

On another note, truth, Peterson believes, is the progenitor of the good. “The reality you bring out of potentiality with truth is good. That’s one of the most profound discoveries of humanity.[35] How can this be so? Peterson believes he derived his understanding of truth from Nietzsche: “Truth is that which serves life.”[36] The things that are most true are those which, over the years, have produced, sustained, and amplified life. This makes sense, as well, of Peterson’s position that there is nothing truer than these archetypal ideas of religion: they’re some of the oldest ideas we have. Peterson’s question of truth is not merely whether a thing or proposition corresponds to reality, but whether the thing or proposition is true enough to serve life. We speak the truth in words, and thereby actualize potentiality by the truth, and it is necessarily good, because it will serve life rather than death, good over evil.

Words are very important to Peterson, for we’ve evolved so that our ideas can die rather than ourselves or other people. We had to act out killing as will of God for millennia before we could abstractly derive this idea. “Myths of the fall and redemption portray the emergence of human dissatisfaction with present conditions—no matter how comfortable—and the tendency or desire for movement toward ‘a better future.’”[37] Rather than being merely a tyrannical father, the realm of order, and the prevalence of tradition, can also be something like a wise king. You can bargain with being (with reality) because what you encounter is partly the world and partly the abstract social system (when you make a promise, sacrifice, exchange money). This idea is a rational articulation of the deeper concept that the sacred is personal. One of the best comportments we can have toward tradition is therefore to view it as something to be negotiated with, rather than as something that predetermines the future. “Through fire all things are renewed. And one of the deepest ideas of Christianity is that you should burn everything off that’s part of you that isn’t part of that thing that can die and be reborn.”

The message of Jordan B. Peterson is no mere self-help guide: he does not think that life is simply good, nor does he think the journey to the good entails avoiding all which is evil or destroying something outside ourselves called “evil.” Rather, the path to completion is the embodiment of the monster, which means to recognize your capacity for evil and control it. “If you understand who you are, then you understand Nazis. And who wants to understand nazis?“ It’s a dreadful thing to realize that you’re human, which comes with it the tremendous potential to be good and a soul-snatching capacity to be evil.

One way out of the burden of consciousness it to return to unconsciousness (anesthetize, refuse to grow up). Another way to go is to become more conscious. Heighten your consciousness so that everything becomes integrated enough so that this integration is its own medication.[38] You have to get people to stop avoiding the terrible things, this is the goal of psychotherapy: “Voluntary confrontation with what you’re afraid of.”[39] Pay attention, and it’ll lead you to places you don’t want to go, but they will be places that make you better and wiser.[40]

Wisdom allows us to deal honorably with the tragedy of life. A good aim is to look back and see if there’s less suffering because you existed. “The purpose of life, as far as I can tell from studying mythology and from studying psychology for decades, is to find a mode of being that’s so meaningful that the fact that life is suffering is no longer relevant; or maybe that it’s even acceptable. I would say as well that people know when they’re doing that. You know when you’re doing that in part because you’re no longer resentful. You say, ‘Geez, I could do this forever.’ There’s a timelessness that’s associated with that state of being. From a mythological perspective, that’s equivalent to brief habitation of the Kingdom of God. It’s the place so meaningful that it enables you to bear the harsh preconditions of life without becoming resentful, bitter, or cruel. And there’s nothing that you can pursue in your life that will be half as useful as that.[41]

Humanity is torn between order and chaos, between the known and unknown, between the past and future. This is the basic situation to which we have adapted. And the fundamental framework for thinking about what it means to be human and for overcoming the basic problems of human existence is to look at how we have acted these meanings and solutions out and articulate them as lucidly and truthfully as we can. Peterson’s call to do so by situating religion and myth within a Darwinian framework is as novel as it is important. You can ask what perspective toward religion is the most scientific, and Peterson answers that it is the Darwinian rather than the post-Enlightenment: whereas the Darwinian views religion as another systematic means of contending with our own subjectivity (as serving life), the post-Enlightenment, Peterson thinks, merely looks to taxonomize facts about religion.[42] This exploration of the subjectivizing influences on our systems of thought has shed some new light on the meaning of religious symbols and their bearing on our day-to-day lives. In fact, the conclusions Jordan Peterson derives from the explication of myth amount to something like the ultimate balancing of subjective meaning with objective truth, selfishness and selflessness, facts and norms. “Personal interest – subjective meaning – reveals itself at the juncture of explored and unexplored territory, healthy individual and societal adaptation.”[43] “Loyalty to personal interest is equivalent to identification with the archetypal hero.”[44] The hero always has one foot in chaos and one foot in order.

“Telling the truth is a gamble on the benevolence of being. So the idea is you tell the truth, you don’t manipulate the world to make it give you what you want, you try to articulate yourself—and articulate the manner of your being, as clearly and as comprehensively as possible—and then you see what happens.

And you decide—this is the act of faith—you decide that no matter what happens, if you tell the truth, that that’s the best possible outcome.”[45]

Situating the Controversies of Peterson: Postmodernism, Marxism, and Speech Laws

“There is something else going on. If there wasn’t something else going on a relatively obscure professor’s amateurish youtube videos, on a relatively obscure piece of canadian legislation, wouldn’t have had any effect. It would have just disappeared. But it didn’t. And that’s because there’s more going on than the straightforward issue surrounding the pronoun use.”[46]

Lastly, I want to turn to Peterson’s political positions. Now that liberals (a group I have, until recent years, felt at home within) who have never read Peterson yet feel compelled to take a disparaging public stance against him, and academics who, with an air of elitism (and perhaps jealousy), ridicule and dismiss him for his success as a New York Times Bestseller, have both come out of the woodwork, it is time to place Peterson’s politics within the development of his own thought, rather than a pseudo-contextualizing purgatory that places him in company he has never considered and within a conception of history to which he stands diametrically opposed.

In his fourth podcast episode, “Religion, Myth, Science, Truth,” Peterson walks us through the development of his political perspective. His first degree was in political science because the causes of social conflict interested him. Every explanation for social conflict was grounded in some kind of economic theory, placing resources (whether resource scarcity, resource production, etc.) as the central motivator for conflict. Peterson found these theories dubious, because they didn’t take into account the relation between belief and the individual.

Around this time (the second peak of the Cold War), he was obsessed with and terrified about the possibility of nuclear destruction. It all had just seemed gratuitous: that groups of people would inch closer to the potential annihilation of the human race for no apparent reason.[47] Peterson believed the cause of this had to, as a result, be deeper than the empirical level: it had to be metaphysical. To make people as miserable as possible and to be counterproductive concerning your own ends, individually and politically, is just inconceivable without some kind of malevolent or irrational intent.

One of Peterson’s heroes, the novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, made a connection between the lies individuals tell and the pathologies of the state.[48] Psychologist Sigmund Freud, another hero, theorized that pathologies in individuals were caused by repressions, which are, for Peterson, forms of lying. It’s not just rational elements that drive people to war, as a result. There is something deeper, and perhaps irrational.

One of Peterson’s diagnosis of the social ills of society is that they derive from stripping subjectivity from the world. This erasure causes us to lie about what we’re actually doing, what we’re actually aiming at, and the repression (and absence) of truthful speech which orders our intentions is replaced with a hiding of intentions, and a grabbing-onto objective group goods that confer hierarchy status and ostensible intentionality. What follows from this, which is our present situation, is either nihilism or totalitarianism. All meaning is objective. In a “perfect” society, to acquire the social status desired and all material goods that are good to have is to live a good life. But then to suffer is to be illegitimate. Is there a suffering that goes beyond material possession and social group identity? Yes, and we repress it, lie to ourselves about it, in our pursuit of social aims and material possessions. This is the problem Peterson confronts and aims to, if not cure, provide an antidote that might help some.

Peterson’s fame came with his criticism of Bill C-16, in a series of protracted YouTube videos. His main contentions circled around (1) the idea that the law required the recognition of nonscientific positions as factual truth, effectively legislating truth by political power, and (2) compelled speech.[49][50] On the first issue, Peterson has said the bill rests on the claim that there is no biological basis for gender identity, gender expression, and sex: that they vary independently, though these three are correlated upwards of .95.[51] The second issue of compelled speech is important to Peterson for a few reasons: (1) he’s not “willing to cede linguistic territory to postmodern radicals;” (2) he doesn’t accept that those who have spoken on behalf of LGBTQI people politically represent them, since there have been no elections; and (3) he doesn’t believe legislating compelled speech is democratic. None of this means, however, that he’s unwilling to accept the reality that some people are in fact LGBTQI, or that he’d refuse to use the proper pronoun for these people.[52] Ultimately, because Peterson’s reservations and critiques follow from his understanding of postmodernity, and its connection to Marxism, it will be instructive to briefly explore this relationship presently.

Although Peterson receives a lot of flack for his use of the term “postmodernism,” what he means by it actually coheres with the definition in Encyclopedia Britannica: “a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power.” This is what he means by postmodernism, and he has said as much.[53] Many friends I have, and many commentators I see online, disparage Peterson for not adequately engaging with Postmodern thinkers in writing such as Derrida or Foucault. Whereas I agree with their basic point, and think Peterson is not as far away from these thinkers as he believes he is, the fact still remains that people he engages with, who show up to protest his speeches and events, hold the positions he calls “postmodern,” and this fact perhaps outweighs, though does not exonerate, Peterson’s lack of academic critique of serious postmodern thinkers. He doesn’t need to be a scholar of Derrida or Foucault or Deleuze to use “postmodernism” descriptively and to say something meaningful about it.

But he has not kept silent on thinkers like Foucault, although his most in-depth exposition of postmodernism comes by way of Derrida in his discussion with Joe Rogan.[54] The basic narrative Peterson tells is this: Jacques Derrida is the central villain of postmodernism. A Marxist to begin with, as Marxism fell out of favor in the 1970s, when no intellectual could deny its evil deeds, he shifted his Marxism and began playing identity politics, grounding the Marxist oppressor/oppressed conflict on identity rather than on economic grounds. The way Derrida did this was to focus his philosophical project on the framing problem: the recognition that there are an infinite number of ways to interpret a finite set of objects, which means there are an infinite number of ways to interpret a text, which means the world is subject to an infinite number of interpretations as well. What follows is the claim that there is no right or correct way to interpret the world. From this claim, Derrida (as the paragon postmodernist) derives that those who have interpreted the world do so in a way that facilitates acquisition of power. Thus, we get identity politics: All people do is play power games based on their identities.

As we can see, Peterson’s equation for marrying postmodernism with Marxism is relatively simple. On the empirical level, people who show up at his protests carrying the clean, commodified hammer and sickle flag.[55] On the theoretical level, Peterson believes people who make claims of group identity do so under the influence of a latent, ideological Marxism. He cannot be faulted for this kind of conclusion, given the role of ideology in protests against him.[56] According to Peterson, those who have fallen prey to the postmodern ethos do not believe in dialogue with those they oppose because dialogue, like all else, is grounded in power. Claims of truth are, as a result, claims to power: to control the narrative about what truth is.

Peterson thinks they’re wrong because what you extract from the world is a game you can play. From the things we encounter in the world and the values we contend with in the social sphere we extract a set of tools so that we we don’t suffer too much and people will cooperate with us in a sustainable and reciprocal way. The best functional aim is to live and thrive in multiple environments among multiple people. And Peterson thinks these are actual constraints on interpretations.

The major issue Peterson has with postmodernism, then, is that it aims to destroy what he believes we have gained from millenia of trial and error: the ethical substructure that grounds our social values that derived from myths. Whereas the ethical substructure based on myth aims at, for the most part, solving the problem of suffering by presenting a turning inward as its solution,[57] political ideologies that interpret every ethic as a power game relegate the problem of suffering, and therefore its solution, to an outward phenomenon: the state. If we lose the concept of truth to its reduction by power, or discussion to its reduction by identity, then we lose what we gained from the distillation of the Enlightenment: rationality, empiricism, science, clarity of mind, dialogue, and the individual. Why speak the truth if it might offend: why not proceed by a lie and construct the perfect state with ends that will justify the means? Why tell the truth if a lie will make the masses feel better momentarily while we work on the perfect organization of society? Hannah Arendt’s answer is very close to Peterson’s:

“The more people’s standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, and the better I can imagine how I would feel and think if I were in their place, the stronger will be my capacity for representative thinking and the more valid my final conclusions, my opinion. (It is this capacity for an ‘enlarged mentality’ that enables [hu]man[s] to judge…. The very process of opinion formation is determined by those in whose places somebody thinks and uses his own mind, and the only condition for this exertion of the imagination is disinterestedness, the liberation from one’s own private interests.”[58]

The only way to obtain this “impartiality,” which means the liberation from one’s private interests alone, is to tell the truth, to be honest with oneself: “truth and truthfulness have always constituted the highest criterion of speech and endeavor.”[59] Lying, on the other hand, simplifies the world into basic images, as in political propaganda which says there is one simple solution and one simple problem and if you don’t stand on the side of the good you are evil. This inhibits us from both empathy and thinking. This is precisely Peterson’s point, and, he believes, the rejection of science and myth amounts to the victory of the lie and of the state over the truth and the individual.

If you think this is too far, Peterson has debated with a professor of Transgender Studies who claimed “it’s not correct that there is such a thing as biological sex.”[60] Many think Peterson uses hyperbole to heighten the stakes of his claims unrealistically. But for those who have followed a least a small percentage of his interactions with his critics, what’s at stake does indeed appear to be the values of the Enlightenment itself.[61]

Peterson is infamous for his love-affair with the Christian myth. One reason for this is that he thinks the story on which western civilization is founded in the Christian myth. This claim bears some explanation, as its importance is not entirely apparent today. Jacques Ellul has noted[62] that Christianity differs from religions that came before it because it did not rise with a culture, but came to fruition within well developed cultures (Roman and Jewish). Christianity was used in turn to explicitly shape and order the empires that followed it. It was a reversal of the historical marrying of culture and religion, placing the latter before the former chronologically.

So what does it mean, other than the chronological note we have made, that Christianity is the story on which western civilization is founded? This is a primary claim of Peterson’s, following in part from his conception of the origin of religion and his awareness of history. He means this quite literally. The story of the Old Testament, he thinks, which he gets from Northrop Frye, is that the solution to suffering is the construction of the perfect state. But the New Testament answers differently, placing the individual as the site of salvation: the individual that tells the truth, the incarnation of the Logos. And it is this Christian insight on which the west stands.

This is, in effect, the summation of Peterson’s politics: How are you going to change the world when you can’t even keep your room clean? I actually found his interview with Jonathan Ryerson to be most interesting and useful for getting at the fundamental motivating factors for Peterson’s politics. Fundamentally, his challenge is to not perpetuate your pathologies socially by participating in politics as a means to overcome your suffering, but first get yourself in order. He believes with Jung that “…if the individual is not truly regenerated in spirit, society cannot be either, for society is the sum total of individuals in need of redemption.”[63] And he doesn’t think postmodernism allows for this kind of ordering and, rather, subjects the individual to the tyranny of ideology. Why tell the truth, anyway, if by the truth we offend another, or discover physical limitations to idealized harmonies we aim for in our utopian visions of the state? Why tell the truth when truthful speech can be violent?

I recommend everyone who wants a basic understanding of the thrust of Peterson’s politics to read C. G. Jung’s very accessible and very brief work The Undiscovered Self: The Dilemma of the Individual in Modern Society. There one will find the beating heart of Peterson’s political faith and the monsters he hopes to fend against:

“In order to free the fiction of the sovereign state—in other words, the whims of those who manipulate it—from every wholesome restriction, all socio-political movements tending in this direction invariably try to cut the ground from under the religions. For, in order to turn the individual into a function of the State, his dependence on anything beside the State must be taken from him. But religion means dependence on and submission to the irrational facts of experience. These do not refer directly to social and physical conditions; they concern far more the individual’s psychic attitude.”[64]

We can immediately see the parallel in this indictment with Peterson’s. Religion for Jung does not mean institutionalized rituals or holy sites, but it means the individual’s relationship to a superordinate principle that sits outside everyday contingencies and orders life and its circumstances by its compelling force. This is the same for Peterson, especially the notion of “God.” Whereas if when religion (in this technical sense) wanes, political fanaticism intensifies, it follows that a regrounding in religion protects against the onslaught of totalitarianism or nihilism which institutes the state as the superordinate principle. Many more people than Peterson have arrived at this conclusion, and it bears some serious reflection. It is not a stretch to think that when he spoke out against Bill C-16, effectively standing up for “free speech,” Peterson understood himself to be in the circumstances Jung described some half-century ago:

“The State has taken the place of God….But the religious function cannot be dislocated and falsified in this way without giving rise to secret doubts, which are immediately repressed so as to avoid conflict with the prevailing trends towards mass-mindedness. The result, as always in such cases, is overcompensation in the form of fanaticism, which in its turn is used as a weapon for stamping out the least flicker of opposition. Free opinion is stifled and moral decision ruthlessly suppressed, on the plea that the end justifies the means, even the vilest. The policy of the State is exalted to a creed, the leader or party boss becomes a demigod beyond good and evil, and his votaries are honored as heroes, martyrs, apostles, missionaries. There is only one truth and beside it no other. It is sacrosanct and above criticism. Anyone who thinks differently is a heretic, who, as we know from history, is threatened with all manner of unpleasant things. Only the party boss, who holds the political power in his hands, can interpret the State doctrine authentically, and he does so just as suits him.”

Final Remarks and an Attempt at Responding to Peterson’s Detractors

Jordan Peterson is now somewhat infamous, regarded from an elitist (and ignorant) point-of-view as “the stupid man’s smart person,” and from a political stance as an alt-right prophet. To begin with, I think to get beyond most criticisms of Peterson (which for the most part have nothing to do with the substance of his ideas but rather with a conferral of intentions onto him based on either his audience or, at times, deliberate misinterpretations of his words), one just has to simply accept this proposition: If Peterson says something true, it doesn’t follow that Peterson has said it in the best way, nor that Peterson is the only authorized person to make that point. Accepting this proposition has improved my appreciation for his ideas, despite my disagreement with the ways in which he frames things and, at times, the way he behaves.

On another level of analysis, there is a large swath of detractors who level criticisms at Peterson based on some kind of constructed history, placing him in a narrative of masculinity promulgation.[65] More specifically, these commentators don’t make a distinction between dominance and competence. In turn they interpret Peterson’s influence on men to be fundamentally pernicious as opposed to edifying.[66] They simply ignore his work, I claim, and the way in which the ideas he promotes today fit into the context of his work as a whole, especially Maps of Meaning. I hope to have answered some of these concerns in this brief essay and provide a somewhat (though bare) adequate schema to understand Peterson’s claims.

Yet another common criticism is that Peterson is some kind of self-help guru, unplaceable in any strict academic discipline. If compared to Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Erich Fromm’s Psychoanalysis and Religion, Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, or C. G. Jung’s Man and His Symbols, one would find in Peterson a similar line of argumentation: the diagnosis of social ills by personal pathologies and meaning-making behavior. This is where Peterson’s work fits.

And so, we end where we began. The technologies that diminish our capacities to think can be manipulated for other ends: Jordan Peterson’s popularity has skyrocketed, and his videos and interviews are noticed by more and more people. Indeed, we might call this “The Jordan Peterson Moment.” As a thinker, he sits firmly within the philosophical traditions spurred by Nietzsche, William James, and Jung. And as an influence, he’s a cultural force that we will not soon forget. Why tell the truth in our age of group-think and Twitter epigrams? Well, it’s our only hope for survival, and the only way for the hero, who speaks a freeing word that organizes chaos into novel order, to emerge. As Peterson concludes in Maps of Meaning:

“The point of our limitations is not suffering; it is existence itself. We have been granted the capacity to voluntarily bear the terrible weight of our mortality. We turn from that capacity and degrade ourselves because we are afraid of responsibility. In this manner, the necessarily tragic preconditions of existence are made intolerable.

It seems to me that it is not the earthquake, the flood or the cancer that makes life unbearable, horrible as those events appear. We seem capable of withstanding natural disaster, even of responding to that disaster in an honorable and decent manner. It is rather the pointless suffering that we inflict upon each other—our evil—that makes life appear corrupt beyond acceptability; that undermines our ability to manifest faith in our central natures. So why should the capacity for evil exist?. . . But how can we put an end to our errors? What path can we follow to eliminate our blindness and stupidity, to bring us closer to the light? Christ said, Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect. But how? We seem stymied, as always, by Pontius Pilate’s ironic query: What is truth? (John 18:38)

Well, even if we don’t know precisely what the truth is, we can certainly tell, each of us, what it isn’t. It isn’t greed, and the desire, above all else, for constant material gain; it isn’t denial of experience we know full well to be real, and the infliction of suffering for the purpose of suffering. Perhaps it is possible to stop doing those things which we know, beyond doubt, to be wrong—to become self-disciplined and honest—and to therefore become ever more able to perceive the nature of the positive good.

The truth seems painfully simple—so simple that it is a miracle, of sorts, that it can ever be forgotten. Love God, with all thy mind, and all thy acts, and all thy heart. This means, serve truth above all else, and treat your fellow man as if he were yourself—not with the pity that undermines his self-respect, and not with the justice that elevates you above him, but as a divinity, heavily burdened, who could yet see the light.

It is said that it is more difficult to rule oneself than a city, and this is no metaphor. This is the truth, as literal as it can be made. It is precisely for this reason that we keep trying to rule the city.”[67]

 


 

[1] Maps of Meaning, 460.

[2] Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics.”

[3] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death.

[4] Ibid., 92.

[5] See commentary here: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/01/putting-monsterpaint-onjordan-peterson/550859/

[6] Donald Davidson, “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme,” 19: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3129898.

[7] This is true but not in the way normally intended. See Christian Chensvold’s article for more: https://www.nationalreview.com/2017/06/jordan-p-peterson-self-help-guru-father-figure/

[8] Maps of Meaning, 467.

[9] Ibid., 4.

[10] Jung, “Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious,” 19.

[11] Jung,”The Concept of the Collective Unconscious,” 44.

[12] Ibid., 48.

[13] Joe Rogan Experience #958 – Jordan Peterson

[14] Russell Brand & Jordan Peterson – Kindness VS Power | Under The Skin #46

[15] Jung, “Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious.”

[16] Russell Brand & Jordan Peterson – Kindness VS Power | Under The Skin #46

[17] Yet even in chimps, it’s not the brute that gets sexual dominance, Peterson has said, because if the brute has an off day, then two beta males will tear him from limb to limb: it is better, at least, even in chimp communities, to be tolerant and cooperative than to merely be a brute.

[18] Recently Peterson has been using this phraseology instead of “dominance hierarchy,” which you will hear in most of his lectures and interviews. He means the same thing by these, but he no longer uses the word “dominance” (at least not consistently) because what he wants to indicate by these hierarchies is that you climb them with skill rather than with force.

[19] 04 – Religion, Science, Myth, Truth

[20] Ibid.

[21] Peterson’s fixation on lobsters is famously idiosyncratic, and this claim is everywhere in his work.

[22]   Joe Rogan Experience #958 – Jordan Peterson

[23] Russell Brand & Jordan Peterson – Kindness VS Power | Under The Skin #46

[24] Joe Rogan Experience #958 – Jordan Peterson. Peterson repeats this claim and similar ones, with different examples, in nearly every presentation I’ve heard. For an extensive, academic treatment, see Maps of Meaning.

[25] #1. Reality and the Sacred

[26] Dragons, Divine Parents, Heroes and Adversaries: A complete cosmology of being

[27] Of course, there are older conceptions of evil than what Christianity presents, however Peterson thinks Christianity has the most robust conception of evil because it combines older conceptions with the notion that the solution to evil is to confront it, as an individual, and choose against it: to not simply recognize its objective reality in events or groups or others, but its subjective reality within the self, and then to choose whatever leads us away from suffering and evil.

[28] Jordan Peterson on what matters.

[29] #13 – Maps of Meaning 10 – 13

[30] See below for further exposition.

[31] Peterson traces a genealogy of the logos in his biblical lectures.

[32] What Does It Mean To Orient Oneself In Thinking?

[33] The Productivity of War | The Forum | Stratford Festival 2014

[34] Joe Rogan Experience #958 – Jordan Peterson

[35] Russell Brand & Jordan Peterson – Kindness VS Power | Under The Skin #46

[36] Joe Rogan Experience #958 – Jordan Peterson

[37] Maps of Meaning, 465.

[38] #1. Reality and the Sacred

[39] Ibid.

[40] One difference between this heightened consciousness and, for instance, the kind of consciousness Buddhism advocates is that this kind of heightened consciousness isn’t to show how everything is illusory, but to show that everything is in fact really real: the most basic reality is suffering, and to overcome suffering isn’t to show how to become detached from everything, but to become really attached to them, and choose them, and say that no matter what happens this is good. It’s more of a Albert Camus thing than a Sam Harris thing.

[41] Jordan Peterson on the purpose of life.

[42] #4 – Religion, Myth, Science, Truth

[43] Maps of Meaning, 447.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Jordan Peterson, on what he learned from Kierkegaard

[46] Joe Rogan Experience #958 – Jordan Peterson

[47] There was a public demonstration of this phenomenon in the political science literature. It was described as “Mutually-Assured Destruction.” The concept itself developed out of classical, realist foreign policy ideas. The basic concept was that if two countries had the capacity to destroy themselves and the world, and that capacity continued to grow, that the two countries wouldn’t actually do it, for fear of destroying the human race. This is exactly what happened between the United States and the Soviet Union. While it seems irrational on the surface, there was deeply logical reasoning behind doing this, for if each country made the use of nuclear weapons impossible, the potential for peace was inevitable. Peterson’s point would, I think, be that what is questionable is not, then, a realist-stand-off about the possibility of launching the nukes, but the creation of the nukes in the first place. What kind of drive would cause humans to create a weapon that could destroy everything, if even by accident? He has, in some places, pointed to our loss of the notion of truth as that which serves life to be part of the problem.

[48] “We shall be told: what can literature possibly do against the ruthless onslaught of open violence? But let us not forget that violence does not live alone and is not capable of living alone: it is necessarily interwoven with falsehood. Between them lies the most intimate, the deepest of natural bonds. Violence finds its only refuge in falsehood, falsehood its only support in violence. Any man who has once acclaimed violence as his METHOD must inexorably choose falsehood as his PRINCIPLE. At its birth violence acts openly and even with pride. But no sooner does it become strong, firmly established, than it senses the rarefaction of the air around it and it cannot continue to exist without descending into a fog of lies, clothing them in sweet talk. It does not always, not necessarily, openly throttle the throat, more often it demands from its subjects only an oath of allegiance to falsehood, only complicity in falsehood.”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Nobel Prize Speech 1970

[49] See Peterson’s Senate hearing regarding these issues here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KnIAAkSNtqo.

[50] See https://torontoist.com/2016/12/are-jordan-petersons-claims-about-bill-c-16-correct/ for a commentary on Peterson’s views of C-16 in particular. My aim here is to simply outline how these views are simply instantiations of his overall philosophical project about the problem of suffering and its solution.

[51] He makes this claim in Joe Rogan Experience #958 – Jordan Peterson.

[52] Although he has said this many times over, he has said it recently on the Rubin Report: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRPDGEgaATU

[53] See Joe Rogan Experience #958 – Jordan Peterson in particular.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid.

[56] See my article on this issue: http://reasonrevolution.org/rise-identity-politics-indicates-decline-religion/.

[57] See Kierkegaard, who presents the very same solution, in The Present Age: On the Death of Rebellion.

[58] Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” from The Portable Hannah Arendt, 556.

[59]Ibid., 571.

[60] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kasiov0ytEc

[61] See the case of Evergreen College for an example. Jonathan Haidt has written on this topic as well.

[62] Jacques Ellul, The New Demons.

[63] C. G. Jung, The Undiscovered Self: The Dilemma of the Individual in Modern Society, 56.

[64] Ibid.,19.

[65] For one of the best representatives of this tactic, see: http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/03/19/jordan-peterson-and-fascist-mysticism/

[66] This is a fairly good article drawing the distinction: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/03/05/jordan-petersons-gospel-of-masculinity

[67] Maps of Meaning, 454-455

 

Rationalism as a Humanism: Grounding the Secular

Rationalism as a Humanism: Grounding the Secular by Tylor Lovins

What is the defining quality of the secular movement, if there is a center at all? Merriam-Webster defines secularism as “indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations.” This aspect is self-evident to everyone in the movement. Many prominent secularists have at one point or another declared war on religion, typically by reducing all religious traditions to their fundamentalist, literalist manifestations. Motivated by the theory that religion was a primitive form of science, the mystifying beliefs of divine inspiration, holy-book-inerrancy, and divine-human relations have been shown for what they truly are: linguistic and ritualistic artifacts of a world now left behind by the progress of science.

The movement of secularism isn’t itself contained within this definition of secularism, however. The definition for humanism, which stands today as a largely non-negotiable feature for many in the secular movement, describes the contexture more precisely: “a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values; especially: a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason.” Reason and science, coupled with anti-supernaturalism and displacing religion, appear to be the primary drivers of secularism. This warrants some critical reflection. Although reason can be understood as an intellectual endeavor that utilizes principles of logic, it’s not self-evident whose reason, and which rationality, should undergird the secularist movement. The de facto rationality motivating the secularist movement at present is rationalism.

The rationalist tradition for our purposes can be understood as the tradition of thought that makes truth the outcome of an equation: it proceeds from premises to conclusions that are warranted by logic. This is, in Aristotle’s term, “dialectic.” More broadly, a compelling yet underdeveloped strain of rationalism that creates the framework for secularism subsumes empiricism. Here, the premises of thought do not rely entirely on abstract, a priori conditions but take into account scientific findings and experiential knowledge. Another strain has developed, unfortunately, deducing that our motivated action is grounded by the rationalist equation. Let’s call this “naive rationalism.” The naive rationalist asserts we’re basically rational animals and with our handy reason, we are guided by rationalist equations. The yield of these equations are the truth in the realm of thought, and the good in the realm of action. Proposed as the successor to religious traditions that make claims based on authority, the rationalist tradition appears poised to further the cause of humanism and the advancement of knowledge by the force of reason, in a way that is historically unrivaled and unparalleled.

This ambiguity in the rationalist tradition should be interrogated. For centralizing the naive rationalist tradition in the secularism project devalues the fundamental, constitutive role valence frameworks play in any kind of rationality in the first place. Reasons, as modern philosophy and psychology have shown, do not originate from value-neutral systems, but rather are products of systems of value. The point can be made more explicitly: this rationalist tradition favors facts and reason as the highest goods, virtually diminishing the explicit roles of fitness, creativity, virtue, and meaning in the scheme of human motivations. Secularism could benefit from reintroducing these roles back into the pantheon of humanism.

Situating Rationalism

What I am suggesting is not entirely novel, but it remains sufficiently foreign to many projects sympathetic to secularism that it bears repeating and amplifying here. I am not, after all, calling for a devaluation of reason. Reason is a grand achievement of humankind, and rightfully remains as the symbol of not only progress but of a future world without mass population manipulation by appeal to fantastical claims. I simply want to bring reason back from the clouds of the Enlightenment to the real world,  where values, emotions, and unconscious biological mechanisms propel us to action and thought.

In an episode of The Sopranos, Tony’s therapist explains that rage is the psyche’s way of creating a massive distraction, enabling one to not account for potentially punishing or threatening stimuli (whether in memory or experience), but rather displace them, so as to shut one’s eyes to these stimuli as meaningful or real. The picture of rage here is like the child who hides her head under blankets after seeing a scene from a horror film. The way in which we use arguments to reduce others’ positions to ludicrous strawmen is precisely a type of security blanket, but in linguistic form. Let’s remove this blanket, and confront the ambiguity in the function of rational beliefs that emerges when we ground them in the creaturely realm.  Our beliefs themselves, whether true or not (in the sense that they adequately take into account our place in the world in the present), may be what obstructs us from ascertaining truth in the future. Truth, in this way, returns to the motivational level, and doesn’t remain in the realm of articulate conscious thought. Our knowledge of the present may not be true enough to enable us to thrive or acquire truth in the future. Whether reason itself is (1) a method for finding truth or (2) a claim about the authority of an assertion is a tension for many int he secular movement. Just take a look at all the anti-religious memes and rhetoric flourishing in online secular communities to see just how much reason has been misunderstood as a position or claim and not as a method.

Truth as motivational, as operating in the realm of meaning, is important when the secularism project encounters religious thought, and especially as it invokes science. Humanism’s anti-supernaturalist bent is understandable and significant. With Bacon’s critique of Aristotle’s final cause, the method of science was significantly brought into focus and under these conditions prospered without religious conceptions of the world. We don’t need to know the metaphysical constitution or nature of a thing to determine its efficient or material causes. That there may have been a being that created the material world does not weigh in on the question of why the sky is blue or how bacteria cause disease, or even, now, where humans came from. With Bacon, the weight of supernaturalism no longer grounded science, and it could finally fly freely toward the light of truth.

This is not where the story ends, however. Science appears positioned as Icarus. Important modern figures of secularism and champions of science like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have taken their cue from James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, claiming religion is a primitive form of science, and that with the progress of science, it will be left behind. Although Frazer rightly positions the basis of myth and religion in psychology, the view was unfortunately colored by a naive rationalism. Frazer, among others even today, do not account for the importance religion has for the inward life and the psychological mechanisms that motivate religion in the first place. Seen as an institution that delivers a guide to right action and right thinking based on authority, religion becomes cosmology + ethics, undermined by its supernaturalism.

One reason the rationalism of science fails to adequately give an account of religion is because the tradition of rationality itself hasn’t taken into account the creature that uses rationality, but rather has reduced this creature to something like a more-or-less competent logic-guided robot. This oversight is a significant one. The public and communal nature of the scientific enterprise meshed with the philosophical underpinnings of secularism’s rationalism and empiricism make for a formidable force not unlike that of Christendom’s mix of magisteria and religion in the life-world of Medieval Europe. Still, the potential has yet to be unlocked. At this point in history, especially in the post-industrial, Christian-inspired nations of Europe and North America, secularism is like the potential energy of two tectonic plates producing some seismic activity in the last two or three centuries but overdue for a massive earthquake.

Motivation and Articulation

The religious wars that gave impetus to a non-religiously grounded framework for truth and political institutions birthed our modern secularism in more and less obvious ways. As deism rose to prominence during this time, true religious beliefs were no longer associated with the authority of church institutions, which had enforced the status of these truths by political force. Rather, truth became an inward reality, an “inner light.”[1] The public became private, the communal individualized. The stakes of this reformation, owing much to the ideas of the Reformers who ignited growing ideas of nationalism and equality already in place, couldn’t be much higher at the time. The political leaders who were endowed with authority by the Church weren’t just making sure, as in our day, the beliefs of one person didn’t intrude on the liberty of another, but were charged with the task of safeguarding the souls of their people.

As human history moved to favor the death of ideas over the death of people, the importance of symbols and narratives as the spaces where truth showed itself were lost within the development of rationalism. The separation of church and state has reversed the roles of what fundamentally grounds us. This is easily seen in populations of both religious and secular stripes, with people in both groups claiming that the minimal requirement a valid belief must meet to be legitimate (or, at least, not disallowable) is that it won’t infringe on the liberty of others. With rationalism sectioning individuals into types and tokens, our beliefs have become hyper-individualist, and what motivates us on the pre-conceptual level has been lost as a category for thinking, in the demand to typify everything for the calculus of our secular rationality.

For the kinetic energy of secularism to support life rather than diminish it, it’ll have to not only capture the minds of the masses, but also the hearts, and not just in the equivocal, ambiguous way by assuming and sublating the good, or motivational truth, with the method of rationality. The disparity between the proselytizers of religion and the advocates of secularism might just be measured by the forms made available to religious people in symbols and rituals that haven’t found a functionally equivalent home in secular movements. These forms enable the appearance of content framed as statements of belief, which illuminate, inspire, and unify the mind and heart. And the reasons are somewhat obvious, for those with eyes to see. Image processing and pattern recognition, as forms of thinking that are innate and unconscious, are more primary to and pervasive in consciousness than articulate thought.[2] That the myths of religion are saturated by images and narratives is, as a result, no accident. Stories grab us on a pre-conceptual level and even appear to ground our conceptual frameworks in the first place. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow depicts this secondary role of articulate thought in consciousness even more acutely: our “fast” system, what in common parlance we name “intuition,” this pattern recognition mechanism that I mentioned before, “makes” choices for us on most occasions. It is only when something unexpected or unknown is encountered that our secondary, “slow” system becomes operative: articulate thought.

If the strictly rationalist perspective of the human were true,[3] whereby the givenness of thought were provided completely in the mediation of sense data from the world, through the eyes, to the vassal of our minds, waiting to be formed by our concepts, then the world would, in a significant way, be value-neutral to our biological systems: there would not be a primitive reaction of fight, flight, or freeze, but an immediate compulsion of reason—articulate thought would be more pervasive than non-linguistic thought. This is, in fact, not what we find and doesn’t account for everyday experience.

A now prevailing theory of perception supports the valence-laden notion of the world. Scientists formerly believed that when we look out at the world and perceive the “givenness” of it, those objects with the most salience attract our attention. The consensus is moving in a different direction. We are, rather, attracted to valence: the most meaningful aspects of our perceptual field. And, on a more general level of analysis, when we don’t know what’s going on, when we find ourselves in situations that are new or unexpected, our amygdala goes to work, and in some degree produces the fight/flight/freeze response.[4] This is true not only for situations in the world when we encounter strangers, animals, natural disasters, or darkness in a foreign place, but also for situations in the mind, when we encounter new ideas and beliefs.

To be fair, the disparity I am outlining, between truth as fact and truth as valence, isn’t irreconcilable. The difference rests merely on two images of humankind conceived in “natural” or “normal” states of affairs. The naive rationalism that grounds some strains of secularism would have us believe it is natural for humans to encounter the world in a value-neutral way, although the methods of science itself, and its empiricism, contradicts this claim. On the other hand, religion, as it encourages literalist interpretations of its mythical symbols, would have us think the world is populated by gods and demons, and that it is natural for humans to encounter a world for or against them. These claims are literaly false, but perhaps metaphorically true. The issues arising from naive rationalism on one hand and religious fundamentalism on the other are not inherent to the secular enterprise itself, but are simply artifacts of the pre-Darwinian philosophy of Descartes. It is my belief that becoming more Darwinian will galvanize secularism to a more synthetic and all-encompassing view of ethics, politics, and especially religion.

Religion and Rationalism

If we take Kahneman’s research and conclusions seriously, rationality appears to be a mechanism motivated by the negation of itself. We can put it conceptually this way, using Hegel as our guide, contrasting the understanding from conceptual thinking: (1) the understanding is an immediate (meaning unmediated) interaction with the environment, bellying most of our thinking most of the time; (2) dialectic, or conceptual thinking, is a mediated form of the immediate, and its goal is to synthesize the mediated with the immediate experience to adapt understanding and return to the world, forgive the religious image, as a new creation, better fit to overcome whatever obstacles stand in one’s way. Rationality, as the conceptual aspect of thinking, arises when we encounter a problem or an unknown in our environment, when our unmediated understanding, our immediate experience of the world, becomes questionable. When the issue appears, we mediate the world, so that we don’t have to die to learn, but can predict, contradict, examine, and evaluate new courses of action to map on our environments. Our mental life returns to immediacy until a new problem or a novelty is encountered again.

This cycle of immediacy and mediation seems to account for a significant difference between rationalism and religion. And I think rationalism could gain from learning about this difference.

A piece of a Darwinian understanding of religion will reside in this framework, I believe,  not limiting religion to either a scheme of morality only or a cosmology only, or simply both together in varying intensities. Wittgenstein once wrote “God” is a term like “object,” and with it, you get an entire conception of the world. The first commandment given to the Jews, that they should have no other god before God, can now be interpreted in the way the Father of Modern Theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher, once spoke of miracles: “Miracle is simply the religious name for event. Every event, even the most natural and usual, becomes a miracle, as soon as the religious view of it can be the dominant….The more religious you are, the more miracle would you see everywhere.”[5] Religion makes a move that rationalism doesn’t necessitate but could, and should, incorporate.[6] The moment of mediation, for religion, is not a moment to figure something out about the objective world, whether that be the causal relations of objects or the laws of nature, and to the extent that these are figured out by religious people, it’s an accidental and not an essential feature of the religious disposition. The moment of mediation is undertaken to correct disposition: mediation is a form of meditation, a reception or correction of behavioral patterns. Immediacy becomes transformed into miracle the very moment God is sought in all things. Consider the words of Deanna A. Thompson, explicating the centrality of faith for the Christian life in light of Martin Luther’s theology:

“…having faith means that your whole life is redirected toward ‘trusting [God] with your whole heart’ and looking to God ‘for all good, grace, and favor,’ honoring God through the orientation of your inner life.”

Rationalism, on the other hand, utilizes mediation in a fundamentally different way, and this is what separates the objectivity of rationalism from the existentiality of religion. The point of mediation for rationality is to understand the causal connections and physical makeup of the world. Yet it doesn’t end there. Mediation becomes saturated with facts, more so than the religious disposition strives to attain, and in such a way sets the mediated move of reason as the primary driver of thought, rather than a certain disposition toward the world as it relates to oneself immediately.

This is a significant difference. It doesn’t mean that religion only operates within the realm of value and rationalism in the realm of truth, but it does indicate a different kind of navigation of the world as it presents itself to human beings, as creatures who not only think and plan but also suffer and love. The platitudes, deriving from metaphors, narratives, and images, used to communicate religion by religious people themselves, inspire a depth of life for many that appears simply, at least in this point in history, inaccessible by other existing avenues. Taken seriously, with a more fully Darwinian conception of religion we may acquire a wisdom and appreciation for not just life itself but the lived experience of life that has been hidden in the cliches of the sages of the past. The fact that so many religious people use platitudes or canonical beliefs, grounded in metaphor and imagery, to communicate deep inward experiences tells us conclusively that these inward experiences need forms to carry them to the public eye, and these forms are patterned and universal. It seems otherwise a miracle, for instance, that the myths of the world have global structures and archetypes, which when abstracted from any individual myth fits within a universal framework common to all myths. To go further, an experience that I can’t mediate to myself doesn’t have meaning, and the way I mediate these to myself is the same way they’re mediated to communities I find myself in: by language and images. There is some sense in which, as a result, the meaning and shape of experiences arise within communal constraints and traditions. And these constraints and traditions, undergirded by patterns of categories seemingly inherited, testify to something all too human.

Rationalism as a Humanism

Rudolf Otto introduced the notion of “awe” as central to the encounter with the divine, as the most salient characteristic of a religious experience. And we might say this “awe” is essential to the propensity to live by inward disposition and motivation rather than external manipulation and control. Joseph Campbell asks in Myths to Live By “what the proper source of awe might be”[7] for us who no longer live in a world of gods and demons? What are the sources and symbols of mystery and inspiration that evoke “the impulse to imitative identification?”[8] He traces these sources in history as beginning with animals and their mystical agency, then to the vegetable world where death changes into life, and then to the cosmos and the seven moving cosmic lights that affected the ordering of societies. He finds in our time the individual stands as the source: “as a Thou, one’s neighbor; not as ‘I’ might wish him to be, or may imagine that I know and relate to him, but in himself, thus come, as a being of mystery and wonder.”[9] Every human is a new beginning, a singularity in the history of humankind, and to diminish this novelty is a kind of blasphemy.

Like Nietzsche, Campbell finds the first explication of the human as a source of awe in the Greek tragedies, already in the period of Homer. From the two classically recognized tragic emotions as indicated by Aristotle, pity and terror, we discover a conceptual framework in which to turn the traditionally religious movements into a humanist project. Campbell uses James Joyce’s exposition to spell these out: “Pity is the feeling that arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer. Terror is the feeling that arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.”[10]

In tragedy, we are compelled to relate to the individual by the shared grave and constant reality between us, and we are inspired by the secret source of this grave and constant which unites us. In our case, it is death which is the grave and constant specter that haunts us, and it is life which is the secret source of death, but also of things greater than these: family, creativity, and meaning. In this recognition, we may return to the Father of Modern Theology but without God: life is received as a gift, that which we share with all our brothers and sisters, which we did not ask for or could not acquire by our own actions, but by the happenstance of evolutionary history, are gifted immeasurably.

For rationalism to motivate secularism properly, it must catch up with the times, and not deliver to us an image of humanity dreamed by the ghost in the machine of Descartes, or in the tabula rasa nothingness of Locke’s children. Being clear about the nature of the creatures who use rationality is one thing. We must also understand the motivations of these creatures. Reducing, disregarding, or criticizing religious beliefs by a way of thinking foreign to it, without first taking genuine steps toward understanding it on its own terms, doesn’t seem to be the most reasonable response to a phenomenon that has enamored most people for most of history. Rationalism, itself, is a tradition, a human tradition. It is imperative that secularism recaptures the human element in the heart of rationalism. The best secularism, in my estimation, is the one that takes into account and integrates the best of all human thought, no matter where it may be found. What images of the human we use in this process will be crucial, for it is our metaphors that “mediate between our procedural wisdom and our explicit knowledge; they constitute the imagistic declarative point of transition between the act and the word.”[11]

The West celebrated the God incarnate for millennia. It’s time we celebrate the fact that life became human, and that now, with the gift of consciousness, we may understand, revere, defend, and serve it. We need not pray that God bless us, for life has. Nor should we pray for God to return, for life is here. No more prayers for miracles of God, for the secret source that connects us all, life, demands of us that we act. The only question is whether we will become worthy of this demand. “The old imagery now carried a new song–of the unique, the unprecedented and induplicable human sufferer; yet equally a sense of the ‘grave and constant’ in our human suffering, as well as a holy intimation of the ungainsayable ‘secret cause,’ without which the rite would have lacked its depth dimension and healing force.”[12]

 


 

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

 

[1] See Christopher Hill’s wonderful book where he tracks this in England from 1400-1580 in The World Turned Upside Down.

[2] This is Freud’s insight and it has turned out to be true in an interesting way: our “fast system” heuristics are such that we have systematically predictable errors that we make in our thinking.

[3] I find this especially in the Objectivist ethic, but this idea has advocates from Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant as well as Ayn Rand.

[4] Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning.

[5] Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers.

[6] And already does to some extent. Listen to lectures and presentations by Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson, and you’ll hear a very similar view.

[7] Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By, 58.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 59.

[11] Peterson, 94. We should note, here, a prime example of our danger. The fact that the trolley problem has been posed as a moral problem, in the sense that it awakens our intuitions enough to perceive it as a moral problem in the first place, is disconcerting, as it assumes the moral choice can be perfectly moral while making life expendable.

[12] Campbell, 59.

How the rise of identity politics indicates the decline of religion

How the rise of identity politics indicates the decline of religion by Tylor Lovins

See my follow-up article here: A Brief Overview of Identity Politics: A Liberal Struggles for Perspective.

 

“…to be a citizen has come to mean something else, it means to be an outsider….the relation itself [between people] is on its last legs inasmuch as they do not essentially relate to each other in the relation, but the relation itself has become a problem in which the parties like rivals in a game watch each other instead of relating to each other, and count, as it is said, each other’s verbal avowals of relation as a substitute for resolute mutual giving in the relation.”

Soren Kierkegaard, “Two Ages: The Age of Revolution and the Present Age – A Literary Review.” March 30, 1864.

 

The rise of the worst kind of identity politics,[1] motivated by group-think, is not a shocking development, given the confluence of Marxist ideology in the social sciences, the pervasion of postmodern philosophy in everything from film to literature, from religion to the concepts of truth and the good, and, finally, the apparent powerlessness of the populace to effect change against known immanent crises like global warming, overpopulation, income inequality, and the like. Most in the electorate feel impotent, considering there seems no route to rouse career politicians to vote on something that doesn’t, in the end, contribute to the lining of their suits or the thickening of party lines. It is the youngest groups that receive the largest blow. So social change must be manufactured. On the most general level of analysis, doesn’t it make intuitive sense that social change can be achieved by sheer numbers, and that the outcomes we desire must be taken, and cannot be given, from the present order?

What may be more surprising to some readers is this development, though with seemingly benevolent intentions,[2] ultimately reflects the direction of history set in motion around the time of the Greeks: nihilism. As an equalizing force, flattening all idiosyncrasies to simple, sanitized ideological order, nihilism is the characteristic movement of thought underlying our age. The list of prophets proclaiming this coming order reaches back to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, though they are by no means the only two. Both attempted to overcome nihilism by appealing to the individual. This last fortress they recovered by reaching backwards in history and deep into the inner workings of language, for the fossils of this concept date to vestigial conceptions of the world as understood by religion.[3]

The nihilism manifested in our secular age finds the Savior not in a God-man incarnate, which signified within Christianity the importance of the individual, but finds the savior of humankind in group power and identification. By replacing the near-infinite complexity of individual personhood with one or two group-based traits, identity politics, in its most extreme forms, aims at both the loss of individual liberty for group directives and the annihilation of individual identity for group belonging. This is a problem. As the religiously affiliated vanish, it is no accident that group-power fills the void religion leaves behind, for the power of suffering is still evident to all. And it is no accident violent protests at universities against free speech, and no-platforming against scientists and conservative speakers, have become commonplace, for the social sciences have told us we can change anything when we work together. The question remains whether by sheer willpower we can change the the realities science reveals in its methods. Although some higher education institutions are stepping up to the challenges these recent developments pose, others have capitulated. It appears even Google has deferred to the ideological order when challenged with scientific viewpoints.[4] Why? Listen to any of the multitude of protests, conducted by so called “Social Justice Warriors,”[5] filmed and uploaded on YouTube typically by the protestors themselves.[6] You’ll find a harrowing reality, where no evidence is given for assertions, virtue-signalling is the only virtue, and logic and reason are received from opposing parties as weapons of violence. In fact, speech itself is understood as violence.[7] This is a strange new world, yet hardly brave. We should be wary of the attempts of identity politics to place our value as persons in the attainment of group traits, in the assertion that mere belonging to a group bestows epistemic or moral superiority. We should be wary, that is to say, of any wisdom we haven’t earned.[8]

The observant viewer might suspect postmodernists are playing an old game, and I think this suspicion is mostly correct. As nihilism flattens the dimensions of selfhood, identity-politics has made us forget our history, while dooming us to repeat it. We must not forget the power of ideology that ruled the centuries before the Enlightenment during which religious violence ravaged Europe, and we must not take for granted the miraculous gift of rationality that followed. The rise of scientific rationality displaced the more primitive strains of religious logic as the speech in which disparate systems of beliefs may come together to debate, change, and compromise.[9] All the same, the gift is never guaranteed. Postmodernists may mean well, but if they cannot dialogue with those who oppose them they simply replay this scene from history, except in reverse. This time it is the abstract language of science that has written the creeds, and the social sciences that play the role of Inquisitors. The language which emerged to save us from the tribalisms of the past has created a new tribe, and this ostensibly uniworld rationality has materialized a new kind of terror. This is the problem secularism, a world without religion, poses. When we forget religion, will we lose our souls? When you watch the videos, you’ll look upon a pseudo-congregation of activists chanting, wailing, gnashing their teeth. They’re like a priestly class exorcising the world of evil.[10] But these priests are of a different order for they haven’t read their Bibles. They don’t understand that just because they believe in God doesn’t mean they’re not demons.[11]

On the Worlds of Science and Religion

 

There is a distinction to be made between the domain in which science works and articulates the world, in which abstract thinking has its efficacy, and the domain in which religion[13] works and articulates the world and mythology has its efficacy. Jordan B. Peterson makes it this way: Science resides in the world of objects, where things that occupy space and time, distinct among each other, establish the domain of the world. Objects occupying space and time are the constitutive reality. Religion operates in the world as the domain of action, the realm of being (not objects), where the most fundamental reality is suffering. The two have different logics, different conceptions of reality, and different ways of interacting with the phenomena they encounter. The problems of science, establishing cause and effect relationships, are not the problems of religion, where the question of perennial importance is the question of what we do with suffering.[14] Whereas theories of science tell us how we’ve gotten here, the culmination of religious teaching seems to be something like this: being (or existence) can be declared good despite suffering. Religious beliefs tell us what we might do to navigate the chaos of the unknown when it manifests itself in forms of suffering or disillusionment. The world of science gives us data; the world of religion gives us meaning. These two categorically distinct ways of living and viewing the world—the scientific and the religious—exist at this point in history in an enigmatic union.

The social science political ideologies are about the closest thing to religion without religion, because they do offer some sort of account for navigating the world as a forum for action where suffering is a fundamental reality. These accounts are altogether insufficient nevertheless because they do not have a theory of good and evil reckoning with the complexity of individuality. They declare evil is a social phenomena and simply the result of propaganda. Change the propaganda and change the world: the mind of the individual is a vessel waiting to be filled.[15] Evil, for political ideologies, is manifest as the opposition, as the opposing group.[16] This appears to explain why postmodernists have an antipathy toward discussing ideas with people they disagree with. You might hear things like, “If they can’t recognize that is racist, I can’t help them.” Evil, both in its origin and manifestation, is entirely a social phenomenon.

What do we lose if we lose religion? We lose one of its fundamental insights: evil doesn’t derive from the public realm, it is only manifested there, and the line between good and evil runs down the middle of every soul. In Christianity this is the teaching of original sin. We’re not entirely rational. This claim is why religion settled the question of whether establishing the perfect state order would bring about the good life for everyone by ultimately deferring the question to the individual. This is the victory of grace over law in the New Testament. A perfect world order won’t heal the blind man, no love or hope or law, but faith will.

And yet another insight dissipates. Kierkegaard prophesied that our present age is one of “leveling,” where the disparities between things and people are not resolved within their relations to each other, and personal, intimate relations are replaced by relations of abstraction. Everything is held as it is, by their appearances, in abstractions: this is the way one should relate to the world and others. We no longer relate to each other as persons, but as white or black, male or female, Jew or Gentile, oppressor or oppressed. The hero of the religious is nearly extinct, the one who, by an inner peace and satisfaction before God, has gained the knowledge of his or herself and attempts to be ruler over carnal desires and passions instead of others, and, with all mustered vitality, embodies the truths discovered within the personal struggle to overcome suffering into the events of the world. The hero of today, when attaining the social aims the monstrous “public”[12] sets before him or her, is to become so educated, to become so consistent in abstracting, that the he or she is flattened to the level of the crowd in complete, brazen equality. To be a hero today is to remain completely within the definitions of a particular group, to have the same history, the same sufferings, the same enemies, and the same thoughts. Another insight of religion that disappears by the leveling of nihilism is the idea that the constitution of the self is not entirely social, but at least partly subjective, and there are things that can constitute the self that are not retrievable in public, and may never be brought to the gradations of abstraction. The religious insight instructs us that the ability to lead a rich inward life requires taking on the sufferings you’ve experienced and declare victory by the way you live. Nobody can achieve this victory for you. And if the battle against inner demons isn’t fought, history has shown us we project these demons to the outside world, onto others.

Religion tells us evil dwells in the self. It gives us the diametrical separation between the public and private sphere, and in so doing creates an infinitely complex notion of the individual. It tells us there are experiences and choices nobody can touch, that nobody can experience or decide about, except for the individual. This is part of the import of religious expressions such as “hearing God,” “feeling the love of God,” “knowing the will of God,” and the like. For thinkers like Kierkegaard, the movement of faith is entirely individualistic. Secularism, as it’s grounded in empiricism and atheism, forgets this distinction, though not necessarily. The residue of religion is rotting in the carcass of culture, and its remnants, ruined as they might appear, still provide some sustenance to our values for the time being. Empiricism and atheism themselves have been grounded historically in religious values (like the immutable value of the self, free will, moral demands on the self, among others).[17] Only in the void religion leaves behind, which grows by the day, can secularism be possessed by something like the political ideology I am discussing here. And it’s characteristic of our age to, in our forgetting of the religious distinction between self and society, argue that feelings are as valid and public as rational arguments. The mere voicing that one feels oppressed has displaced the requirement for the provision of evidence.

Who’s in Charge?

An old expression that both the philosopher Martin Heidegger and the psychologist Carl Jung used helps us understand the loss of religion more precisely: We don’t think thoughts, rather, thoughts have us, they occur to us. The average person has as much power over what kind of thoughts occur to them as they have the power to summon dreams and determine what happens in them. They are, “Historical and linguistic inevitabilities.”[18] This is a terrifying thought. From Freud onward, it has become clear: pictures and images are something like a precursor to abstract thought. Before humankind could objectify its emotional experiences, it had to project these emotions onto the world. Thus it discovered gods. For much of history gods abstractly symbolized the emotions and values of cultures. The historian of religions Mircea Eliade points out that, as disparate societies met and integrated with one another, over a few decades, a battle of the gods would appear in their mythology. This, of course, on an abstract level, is a merging of values between two societies, something like democratic dialogue before we had the concept of democratic dialogue. So it would happen that the victorious deity would not be one god from one culture, but a combination of gods from both cultures.

As may be clear from the rise and fall of communism in the Soviet Union, and the failure of propaganda to change the basic desires of persons involved in the revolution and the leadership that governed it, it’s not self-evident that, if given the chance, our good intentions to diminish suffering in the world won’t lead to an innocent and accidental opening of the Pandora’s box. As Jung has pointed out, humans are more than rational creatures, and, in fact, our minds might be more accurately construed as a dim candle of reason surrounded by whirlwinds of collective unconscious motivation, perpetually under the threat of eradication by primal forces it can neither articulate nor control. Instead of losing religion to the ether of thoughtlessness, by equivocating religion with fundamentalism (a form of nihilism itself), it might be in our best interest to first understand it and explore whether it has chained up or transformed indomitable beasts not unleashed in the world since the chaos that gave rise to culture.

Religion has given us images to reconcile, especially in the concept of God,[19] our unconscious motivations with our tragically limited abstract understanding of ourselves, others, and the world. Secularism doesn’t appear to be in possession of a functionally equivalent concept to the religious concept of God, and this may spell our doom if we don’t understand the import of the religious concept in the first place. We may be blindly walking into battle with omnipotent dragons, armed with swords of straw. What if religion saves us from ourselves? What if the hundreds of thousands of years humanity survived by telling religious stories is actually the Darwinian solution to the problem of the reconciliation of the collective unconscious to the conscious mind and the solution to the problem of suffering?[20]

I hear often from people who think it’s immoral to have children, that humankind is like a cancer on the world. Jordan B. Peterson reminds us that we better be careful which metaphors we use when we’re talking about ourselves and the world, because it’s not obvious whether we’re in control of them or they control us. If we lose religion then we lose the symbolic grounding for our understandings of ourselves, and the conceptions we’ve inherited from religious traditions will float in the air, without the unifying power of mythical symbols and narrative to unite them with our experiences of suffering. Ironically, as we are seeing now, the movements of religion will appear again, but in a much less sophisticated form. Instead of projecting the unspeakable phenomena of suffering from the collective unconscious onto the gods, we will do so on to other people. To harken to a quote from the television series Fargo, just because dragons aren’t on the map anymore doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

We have seen the power of the collective unconscious in the ideological possession that has become common among the most irreligious section of the population: young people.[21] “We’ve done away with stories of hell so we had to make one on Earth.”[22] It is even suggested by the philosopher Hannah Arendt that our capacity to do evil is limited only to the extent that we think, the ability which makes us individuals. From times long before antiquity, thinking was the meaning and consequence of the divine spark that created the individual in a strike of lightning.[23] Controversially, when Arendt coined the phrase “banality of evil,” reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann and his use of cliches, bureaucratic language, and stock phrases in defense of himself, it was this inability which gave rise to the banality, the effect of leveling, the movement of nihilism. “Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing?”[24] Eichmann’s identity had been swallowed up by propaganda and he had become a mere member of a group. We’re children of history, and we’re not so mature as to have outgrown the collective memories and powers that gave rise to the dark period of WWII.

The sea of secularism hasn’t yet swallowed the world. We still have a somewhat functional concept of God, though the functionality seems to be diminishing by the day. Jung pointed out the concept signified the process of individuation, the process by which individuality is formed. This idea is worth thinking about, should we think about nothing else relating to religion. We may have all the abstract and technological prowess in the universe, but if we lack soul, we’ll lose the spark of divinity, and perhaps ourselves. Religious conceptions just might be the key to resolving the disparities between groups and individuals while safeguarding the distinction between the two.

 


Videos of Protests and Protesters

With Jordan B. Peterson:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZP3mSamRbYA

At Evergreen College:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bO1agIlLlhg

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTnDpoQLNaY

Middlebury College:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a6EASuhefeI

UC Berkeley:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=unnrYfCe4bM

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kku5MX7SFZ8

Endnotes

[1] I want to be clear that I am not talking about feminism in general, or the Black Lives Matter movement in general, or even progressive initiatives in general. I consider myself an adherent to classical liberalism in many ways. I am in fact on the left, and I am pointing out a blind spot to many who I work and agree with on many issues. I am speaking here of a very specific movement that claims the same ends as these just causes-the end of misogyny, racism, sexism, homophobia, inequality, and the like. The movement I am critiquing takes the form of the blind power of herd mentality and the renunciation of reason as the grounds for the general improvement of unjust conditions. Two very specific motives undergird this movement: (1) instead of eliminating inequality by removing obstacles to success people encounter because of their sex, gender, or race, they intend to place obstacles in front of the “privileged,” and, in an ironic bait-and-switch, privilege historically disadvantaged groups; and (2) instead of aiming at equality of opportunity, this movement aims at equality of outcome.

Please see the YouTube links above to witness the kind of groups I am speaking of here.

And see these recent criticisms of identity politics for more perspective:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/12/opinion/sunday/identity-politics-white-men.html

https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-poison-of-identity-politics-1502661521

https://www.vox.com/2017/8/15/16089286/identity-politics-liberalism-republicans-democrats-trump-clinton

And one I highly recommend by Michael Shermer:

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-unfortunate-fallout-of-campus-postmodernism/

 

[2] Jean-Jacques Rousseau distinguished between “good” and “virtuous” in his Reveries of the Solitary Walker, and it’s worth noting here: he thinks humankind exists in a natural state of good, which means that we initially have no desire to harm one another. To be good is to do nothing to anyone, to remain in this “natural state.” But a virtuous person must earn virtue, for it implies a conscious good-will toward others, which is only possible once social relations, language, rationality, and morality have developed. I wonder whether the many who fold-over to the “good intentions” of the postmodernists haven’t yet considered benevolent intentions often are not aligned with benevolent outcomes, and it takes a bit of calculation and compromise, a bit of other-orientation, to conceive of a way of relating to others which isn’t constituted by a master/slave relationship, where one group is always the tyrant and the other the slave.

 

[3] By “religion,” I will be referring to the fundamental conception of the world that is “religious,” and I take as my starting point that each religious tradition is a response to this (namely, the world as constituted by the reality of suffering). My intellectual leanings are with the Christian tradition, however, and you will see the specifically Christian contributions painted in the broad strokes of “religion.” I use the word “religion” instead of “Christianity” because I want to refer to the conception of the world that is specifically religious, albeit instantiated in this article as Christian insights.

 

[4] http://gizmodo.com/exclusive-heres-the-full-10-page-anti-diversity-screed-1797564320

 

[5] To avoid unnecessary animus, I refer to this specific group as “postmodernists” from here on out.

 

[6] See more videos at the end of the article below.

 

[7] See Jonathan Haidt’s wonderful analysis: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/07/why-its-a-bad-idea-to-tell-students-words-are-violence/533970/?utm_content=bufferb0bba&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

[8] “What is my wisdom, if even the fools can dictate to me? What is my freedom, if all creatures, even the botched and the impotent, are my masters? What is my life, if I am but to bow, to agree and to obey?”

 

[9] See Jeffrey Stout’s wonderful book Flight from Authority.

 

[10] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r5_Pv0A-xjE

 

[11] This is the point of James 2.19: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” (NIV). Believing in a single good that solves the problem of suffering (like, for instance, the elimination of economic classes), is the attempt of secular society to establish something like a functionally equivalent concept to the concept of God. But it is not functionally equivalent because it misses another key insight of religion: sometimes you do everything right and you suffer anyway. Suffering is a basic element of life. Just because we aim at the good does not mean we won’t bring Hell on Earth in our attempts to attain it.

 

[12] “…the public is a monstrous nonentity….Only when there is no strong communal life to give substance to the concretion [of individuality] will the press create the abstraction ‘the public,’ made up of unsubstantial individuals who are never united or never can be united in the simultaneity of any situation or organization and yet are claimed to be a whole.” Kierkegaard, “On the Present Age.”

 

[13] By religion I don’t merely mean what is referred to by “organized religion,” in today’s parlance. I am referring to the totality of the religious sphere: the myths, the experiences of the divine, and the social organizations

.

[14] See Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, and, of course, Jordan B. Peterson’s work.

 

[15] I refer you here to The Communist Manifesto written by Karl Marx.

 

[16] George Orwell implored the social party to organize themselves under the labels of “oppressed” and the opposition as ”oppressors” in The Road to Wigan Pier.

 

[17] A glance at the history of ideas proves this true, and because suffering is what essentially establishes subjectivity (we hear this in the popular psychoanalysts today), it’s not a surprise religion posits the notion of the individual. Most notable see Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, or the more recent work of Nick Spencer in The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values.

 

[18] Martin Heidegger’s Poetry, Language, Thought.

 

[19] I’m using “the concept of God” here to also mean the concepts of “the sacred,” “the holy,” “the transcendent,” and/or “the divine.”

 

[20] “How is it that complex and admirable ancient civilizations could have developed and flourished, initially, if they were predicated upon nonsense? (If a culture survives, and grows, does that not indicate in some profound way that the ideas it is based upon are valid? If myths are mere superstitious proto-theories, why did they work? Why were they remembered?….)

Is it not more likely that we just do not know how it could be that traditional notions are right, given their appearance of extreme rationality?

Is it not likely that this indicates modern philosophical ignorance, rather than ancestral philosophical error?

We have made the great mistake of assuming that the ‘world of spirit’ described by those who preceded us was the modern ‘world of matter,’ primitively conceptualized.”

Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, 8.

 

[21] http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/age-distribution/

 

[22] Jordan Peterson in an online lecture.

 

[23] Carl Jung, “A study in the process of individuation,” 1950.

 

[24] Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, 1978.

Portfolio Items