Recently I wrote on how I was disappointed by the Matt Dillahunty and Jordan Peterson dialogue produced by Pangburn Philosophy. Although I still remain fundamentally disappointed by it, a few things have been clarified for me by Matt Dillahunty’s reflections on the discussion.

The thing that made the discussion so interesting was that Matt Dillahunty was not interested in debating or strawmanning Peterson. His goal, and I take him at his word, was to have a good conversation, be open and honest, seek clarification, and see where they agree and disagree. He wasn’t even the slightest bit disappointed in the dialogue, thinking he succeeded on many fronts. Maybe so. I just want to clarify a few open questions Dillahunty has concerning Peterson’s positions. Although it is quite odd Dillahunty did so little research on Peterson before the discussion, not even aware, in this recent video, of Peterson’s decades-long work as a clinician, the interchange seemed to have happened in good faith, and I have faith that this conversation can now move forward.

Language Use, the True, and the Real

One issue Dillahunty has with Peterson is he thinks people who no longer believe in God but still find religious language useful need to say they’re using religious language idiosyncratically, because they’re not talking about the God people believe in, but the human condition, and the kinds of Gods people invent to cope with that. This point on the face of it appears to be about simply being clear. In Peterson’s view, this is is actually indicative of Dillahunty’s primarily Enlightenment over Darwinian influences.[1] For Peterson, you can’t be a post-Enlightenment rationalist thinker and a Darwinian at the same time because what the latter explicitly conceptualizes the former ignores; that is, you can structure your world according to different presuppositions, and different systems of thought have different purposes. Furthermore, from his Darwinism, Peterson concludes that what is “real” subjectively and objectively, though they may be distinguished for analytical purposes, cannot be ultimately separated in reality. They have amorphous and porous borders, and this point seems lost on the post-Enlightenment thinkers.

Peterson thinks American pragmatists figured this out. The pragmatic concept of truth articulates the meaning of truth as that which works. As a result, the only kind of knowledge we can have about our environment is knowledge that is sufficient: knowledge that allows us to survive. To abstract ideas from survival value and assume that facts as they pertain to belief about morality, the world, and ourselves exist in and of themselves, separate from how they serve or diminish life, is suspect for Peterson. The assumption of post-Enlightenment thinkers is that the knowledge gained by this reduction doesn’t diminish the possibility for genuine human flourishing. Peterson says, “I think it’s dangerous to consider truth independent of its effect upon us.”[2]

This brings us to the question of the real and the true. Peterson takes what he calls a Darwinian position on the question of the real. The real is that which is consistent and endures across time. This is why Peterson is so fixated on religious myths. Dominance and competence hierarchies are some of the oldest evolutionary structures: over 300 million years old, older than trees. The patterns that constituted the competence hierarchy is the place from which ethics derives. What religious myth does is distill the grammar of competence hierarchies. Therefore to know the meaning of religious belief is to understand the millenia long solution to the problem of suffering and chaos, and this, Peterson believes, grounds our ethics.[3]

The question of what is real is actually connected to the question of the true because what is true is what is real, and what is real serves life. This is Peterson’s basic Darwinian position. Some things are only true for one thing, some things are true for ten things. Some are true for thousands of things. And that truth which is more pervasive and most enduring is the most true. Because the true and the real are connected in the notion of that which serves life, and in Peterson’s estimation, when we try to reduce the truth to just facts we have left out the thing that connects truth to reality. It’s not correspondence, and it’s not coherence. It’s life.

Are True Atheists Murderers?

One idea that got online atheist communities in an uproar is a comment Peterson made about nobody being a true atheist. Dillahunty seemed to have taken great offense at this, and perhaps rightfully so, for Dillahunty certainly doesn’t believe in a supernatural being, and he can ground morality in self-interest, of all things. Why do we need a god to be good?

The problem is Peterson isn’t actually taking the typical Christian apologist position on this issue. He’s rather concerned about the consequences of what would happen if the   of our culture is lost.[4] For Peterson, the person who lives after this event is the true atheist. People in the west who call themselves “atheists” do not in fact live after this event, for atheists of the west still live within the metaphysical substrate established by the Christian  myth. Atheists of the west today are different, for instance, from atheists in Athens. Lack of belief is where their commonalities begin and end, for atheists before the west without the Christian mythical substructure did not have a belief in the inherent dignity of individuals, the value of self-interest, natural law (which grounded the first human rights language), and the like. Although, for instance, somebody like Socrates could have argued for natural law, and so it would seem the philosophers of Athens were in effect taking a modern stance on morality, they still believed that the ordering of nature, with its natural inequality, made women and slaves naturally inferior to citizens who could participate in the polity.[5]

Another way to conceptualize Peterson’s idea is in the way Joseph Campbell did in the popular Myths To Live By. In chapter four, “The Separation of East and West,” he begins

“It is not easy for Westerners to realize that the ideas recently developed in the West of the individual, his self-hood, his rights, and his freedom, have no meaning whatsoever in the Orient. They had no meaning for primitive man. They would have meant nothing to the peoples of the early Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Chinese, or Indian civilizations. They are, in fact, repugnant to the ideals, the aims and orders of life, of most of the peoples of this earth. And yet—and here is my second point—they are the truly great ‘new thing’ that we do indeed represent to the world and that constitutes our Occidental revelation of a properly human spiritual ideal, true to the highest potentiality of our species.”[6]

He goes on to trace the history of cultures, to show that archaic civilizations operated according to a belief in a great cosmic law which left no room for the individual, and where one’s birth determined who one is, what one is to be, and what one can think. Indeed, strikingly Campbell points out that the “Sanskrit verb ‘to be’ is sati…and refers to the character of the devout Hindu wife immolating herself on her deceased husband’s funeral pyre.”

But the west (what he calls the “occident”) is different from the orient, and it is because of the myths it told. The God who judged an entire world for their sins and sent a flood to destroy them as a consequence implies that humans are not just cogs in a predestined universal machine. Especially in the Old Testament, as we see in Job,

“the focus of concern is the individual, who is born but once, lives but once, and is distinct in his willing, his thinking, and his doing from every other; in the whole great Orient of India, Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan the living entity is [rather] understood to be an immaterial transmigrant that puts on bodies and puts them off. You are not your body. You are not your ego. You are to think of these as delusory.”[7]

So what does this have to do with atheism in the west and, particularly, Dillahunty’s argument that from self interest he can establish a moral system that isn’t contingent on religion? Well, rationality is a recent invention, and Peterson thinks our concepts are abstractions from the myths we’ve told for millenia. This is why, for instance, the west is individualistic, democratic, tending to understanding justice in terms of liberty, whereas the east is susceptible to collectivism, communism, tending to understand justice in terms of social expectations. Our very sense that self interest is a viable candidate for moral belief in the first place is an outgrowth of the Christian myth.

This leads us back to the previous section: as Peterson said in the discussion, it is difficult to draw a bright line between what is real and what is useful. When you strip subjectivity from the world at the beginning of the analysis of the human condition or the world, Peterson thinks it creates two possible pathologies: totalitarianism and nihilism; neither of which fundamentally value life because they’ve separated vitality from mechanism, breath from logic.

The strange thing about Dillahunty’s reflections is that he’s actually much closer to Peterson than it appears in Pangburn’s video. As I have written, Peterson thinks religion has evolved by Darwinian mechanisms, religious myths provide for us the grammar of stories, and, because they rely on competence hierarchies, these stories set the background evolutionary setting to which we’ve adapted as a species, and the conceptual grounds from which our concepts of the individual derived. There is nothing supernaturalist about this position and, in fact, it’s a denial of special revelation, miracles, and divine inspiration altogether, at least, if these concepts are employed at all, they’re stripped of their traditional content. I would like to see Dillahunty and Peterson discuss these issues more fully, and I think for this to happen we have to get beyond, as I’ve said, the full stop question as to the existence of God. With or without God, how does religion affect our modern landscape? With or without God, what does the language of myth provide that, say, pure-hard logic can’t (if anything at all)? I’m hopeful the conversation might turn more interesting on these points, given that it appears both Dillahunty and Peterson had a good faith dialogue last time. Next time we might be in for something special.

 


 

[1] See Peterson’s discussion on this difference in “04 – Religion, Myth, Science, Truth.”

[2] Ibid.

[3] See much more in “Why Tell the Truth: On the Curious Notions of Jordan B. Peterson.”

[4] See much more in the article above. The logic of “mythical substrate” is basically that our ideas and rationalities derive from our behaviors which are abstracted into myths which are further abstracted into concepts. The loss of the mythical substrate is essentially the loss of the behaviors that give rise to it.

[5] See Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism for a much fuller picture of what the claim that the west was founded on both Jerusalem and Athens (i.e., Christianity) means. Note that this is not a normative judgment, entailing that now all our values must revert back to some Christian theology to be grounded. It’s simply a description of history, and the acceptance of value derived from Christian thought doesn’t entail the acceptance of Christianity to be intelligible today.

[6] Joseph Campbell, Myths To Live By, 61.

[7] Ibid., 69.

 

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The main project Tylor has been working on is formulating an account of meaning that takes into account Heidegger‘s existentialism, Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, Brandom‘s pragmatism, and Jung’s psychology.
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2 replies
  1. amtlpaul
    amtlpaul says:

    I think there’s a lot to unpack here. Sorry if this comment is long. I will comment on some specific passages before making a general assessment of Peterson’s claims in the debate.

    “The pragmatic concept of truth articulates the meaning of truth as that which works. As a result, the only kind of knowledge we can have about our environment is knowledge that is sufficient: knowledge that allows us to survive.”

    Dillahunty surely doesn’t disagree. He is not claiming to have access to Absolute Truth. His stance on how we know things is very pragmatic indeed. Where he may differ from Peterson is in the idea that a belief is more likely to be reliably useful if it corresponds to how things work in the reality in which we live. From his perspective, the trouble with religious beliefs is that since they are taken on faith and on authority they don’t actually work very well on a pragmatic level. There is not very much you can “do” with them in practical terms.

    “Peterson concludes that what is “real” subjectively and objectively, though they may be distinguished for analytical purposes, cannot be ultimately separated in reality.”

    The fact that I have a subjective experience is certainly real. And whatever feelings I have about it are real. Every one of us experiences the world on a subjective level. Only by comparing notes and using our reason to analyze them do we come to something close to resembling an objective understanding of what is actually going on in the world. Any claims we make about what is going on outside of ourselves, whether in nature or in some realm that “transcends” it, are only true to the extent that they actually match the reality of what is going on outside ourselves. We do not, as far as we know, will anything into being by believing it other than the belief itself- and even a belief is not really willed into being, it is a response to what we are experiencing.

    “For Peterson, the person who lives after [the loss of religion from our culture] is the true atheist. People in the west who call themselves “atheists” do not in fact live after this event, for atheists of the west still live within the metaphysical substrate established by the Christian myth. Atheists of the west today are different, for instance, from atheists in Athens.”

    The fact that atheists in one cultural context are different from those in another has absolutely nothing to do whether they are true atheists, unless one believes that to “live within the metaphysical substrate established by the Christian myth” is to believe in a god. If it doesn’t, being a true atheist is compatible with living in the current metaphysical substrate and no claim about the character of “real atheists” was called for. Peterson should have simply answered the question by saying that he makes no generalization about atheists, but is concerned that an atheistic society would not be moral. He would then have to defend that contention, of course.

    In the discussion about how myths facilitated the development of individualism, it is said that “The God who judged an entire world for their sins and sent a flood to destroy them as a consequence implies that humans are not just cogs in a predestined universal machine. ”

    First, in that story God’s punishment was collective, not individual. Are we to assume that every single human on the planet save Noah and his family deserved death by their individual actions? It should also be noted that predestination is an important theological concept in Christianity going back to St. Augustine and embraced by the very sects that venerate individual achievement the most, since such achievement supposedly shows that one is among “the Elect”.

    “Our very sense that self interest is a viable candidate for moral belief in the first place is an outgrowth of the Christian myth.”

    I have to admit, I’m not seeing it. Christianity does appeal to self-interest, but pretty much in the same way that other religions do (“It’s in your own interest to believe and play by the rules”).

    “When you strip subjectivity from the world at the beginning of the analysis of the human condition or the world, Peterson thinks it creates two possible pathologies: totalitarianism and nihilism; neither of which fundamentally value life because they’ve separated vitality from mechanism, breath from logic.”

    I interpret this to mean that the claim that certain people have special access to Objective Truth and denying the possible validity of other perspectives can lead to totalitarianism and other atrocities; whereas a denial that there is such a thing as objective truth needs to nihilism. But it doesn’t follow that myths can be relied on to make reliable claims about the world in which we live. Myths can, read critically, impart insights into what humans have been and are, how they have historically grappled with questions of life and whatever might lie beyond that, and so on, but that is very different.

    Overall, while I resist Dillahunty’s somewhat black and white view of religion versus atheism, I feel Peterson didn’t do a very good of explaining what he was arguing. When you say that you see an atheist as a murderer, that is different from saying that a society that has lost its religion risks losing its morality, let alone defending that claim. When you say that losing religion would mean losing art, that is simply not plausible. It is true that the body of art, literature and music we know today would not exist without Christianity, but that only means that we would have different art, literature and music. And so on. For a subtle, nuanced thinker (so I’ve heard), he made a number of claims that definitely needed a lot more nuance to be credible.

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  1. […] Since writing this article, Matt Dillahunty has released his reflections on the discussion. I’ve revisited the dialogue in light of his comments here. […]

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