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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.

 

Fahrenheit 451 Review

“I don’t talk things, sir,” said Faber. “I talk the meaning of things. I sit here and know I’m alive.”

With the gusto and tenderness of a prophet, Ray Bradbury writes about the all-too-human proclivity to passively waste time: the absence of self reflection and awareness in our human fixations with flashes of images on screens, when our ears and eyes obsess over the constant ramblings of social commentators, as we become bodies in motion, moving according to the laws of security, predictability, and monotony of routine. While the famous Fahrenheit 451 was solidified in ink half a century before our pixelated age , it is written for us. He has a message for our engagement-driven, entertainment-filled, networking habits: When anything will suffice to procure attention, it’s impossible to be meaningfully related to things . Bradbury does not offer, as is vogue nowadays, a dystopian future created by the clandestine acts of a few elite, but a future painfully entrenched in the human situation, the inefficient designs of bureaucracies, and, such as it is, the banality of evil. The future is forged not by forces we cannot control, but from the very beating hearts of crying, hugging, talking, average people.

Though recent discourses surrounding the polarizing effects of social media use and the merits of speech that offends have become commonplace and polarizing, the claims and questions of this 1953 masterpiece warrant serious reflection: “We need not be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important? About something real?” Does meaningful discourse require from us a sacrifice? And, if so, are we willing to bear its weight?

Fahrenheit 451 is a book about books, the human experience, and the tension between mere knowledge that absolves conflict and truth that confronts and serves life. As we read, we follow the story of Montag, a fireman whose job it is to burn books, spraying a fire hose full of kerosene rather than water, to create fires in fireproof homes. We observe an awakening—as routines established to ease the burden of consciousness by precluding moments of silence and pensivity, activities that create conflict without pre-made societal answers, and the simple disruption of bare novelty—when Montag undergoes an existential crisis. After a series of important developments, he responds to a call about a woman who has hidden books. Her home was in the ancient part of town, still standing only by the rigidity of the fire-proof plastic sheath applied years ago. After crashing through the door, Montag and the firemen find a stationary woman in some kind of somber state who speaks the words of heretics burned alive in Oxford on October 16, 1555: “We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” The chief fireman, Beatty, attempts to convince her to leave the hopeless books to burn, “Where’s your common sense? None of those books agree with each other. You’ve been locked up her for years with a regular damned Tower of Babel.” With saintly resolve, she remained unmoved, and in a deeply human act of martyrdom,struck the match whose flames swallowed her home, her books, and her body in a blaze of profound light.

There are at least two ways to understand the strange central problem (and how it came to be) of 451: the burning of books. One is from the existential, which we will turn to presently, and the other is the political, which we will analyze next. In a play Bradbury wrote sometime after Fahrenheit 451, Beatty, the main antagonist and chief firefighter of both, is given to a moment of serious biographical reflection. He brings Montag to his house where a massive library of books sit on sturdy, colossal shelves. He reminds Montag the crime is not to own books, but to read them. To collect these books, however, Beatty must have also once loved them in some way, and indeed he had. What made him want to burn them now? Why did he stop reading?

“Why, life happened to me.” The Fire Chief shuts his eyes to remember. “Life. The usual. The same. The love that wasn’t quite right, the dream that went sour, the sex that fell apart, the deaths that came swiftly to friends not deserving, the murder of someone or another, the insanity of someone close, the slow death of a mother, the abrupt suicide of a father—a stampede of elephants, an onslaught of disease. And nowhere, nowhere the right book for the right time to stuff in the crumbling wall of the breaking dam to hold back the deluge, give or take a metaphor, lose or find a simile. And by the far edge of thirty, and the near rim of thirty-one, I picked myself up, every bone broken, every centimeter of flesh abraded, bruised, or scarred. I looked in the mirror and found an old man lost behind the frightened face of a young man, saw a hatred there for everything and anything, you name it, I’d damn it, and opened the pages of my fine library books and found what, what, what!?”

In the midst of tragedies, failed dreams, and extinguished desires, books offered “no help, no solace, no peace, no harbor, no true love, no bed, no light.” Bradbury argues that both antipathy and apathy toward reading derive from an antipathy and apathy toward life. The “regular damned Tower of Babel” is an image of the conflicts inherent in thinking itself—as they’re piled on one another, they reach toward the heavens—and the recognition of the inevitability of these conflicts cause some to lose faith in existence. They begin to resent people who not only abide by the laws of nature and experience, but somehow, despite the inherent tragedies of existence, by the laws of freedom, and overcome suffering. The misology—which arises when cultivated reason applies itself with deliberate purpose to the enjoyment of life and happiness—that Beatty uses to rationalize his disposition towards books is, coincidentally, the very hatred of reason Kant rejects in his famous Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals. For Kant, reason has one aim: the creation of a goodwill. Yet, when cultivated reason, which is aimed at happiness and satisfaction, attempts to achieve its ends, those who live and die by it find it brings more troubles than its worth. Reason is, as a result, sworn off altogether and so is the laws of freedom that move us beyond treating ourselves, others, and time as means to ends. When we lose reason, the laws of freedom lose to the laws of nature.

Another way to understand this problem is the analogous monologue Beatty gives in Fahrenheit 451 about how books were banned as a matter of politics. It all boils down to a simple equation: Force = Mass x Velocity. As mass media steamrolled the production of everything for the average consumer, and the velocity at which this production of products increased, the force of mass culture both simplified language and amplified differences. It is a prosaic matter to discern the disparity between two simple propositions, it is another thing, perhaps a matter of the problems of life in general, to discern the fundamental differences between two complex phenomena. When the former acquires unstoppable force, the possibility of the latter is bludgeoned to oblivion, forgotten and ignored. Today to know one political position of a person, say whether they are pro-life, entails, for many, many other positions: pro-gun, anti-immigration, pro-war, pro-corporate welfare. The simplification of language amplifies our differences, for every difference appears to be a difference of essentials: antitheses. If you’re not pro-life, you’re pro-choice, for instance. The opposite of Republican is Democrat, or so we’re told. This mass production of ideologies, language, and products for mass audiences that creates and instantiates differences calls for, perhaps just by inertia, a further, yet ironic, simplification: of thought, of populations, of differences. Why are you pro-life? The Bible says so. That’s where the buck stops, for most. Our essential differences come to have no content but the affirmation of the differences, and the anathema of the other, of the really different, of that which cannot be contained within simple dichotomies, of life itself.

Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of dog lovers, the cat lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico….The Bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that!…There you have it, Montag, it didn’t come from the Government down to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God! Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time….With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar. . . .We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So a book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?. . . You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred.

Who is easier to offend than the person who cannot hold two conflicting ideas without accepting them, who cannot understand the other side of the dichotomy, or that every either/or is too abstract to accurately represent the infinite potentiality and actuality of everything real? And, yet, as the old dictum goes, who is more blissful?

If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, topheavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag.

Indeed, this monologue provides a social view of the individual pathology outlined before, and what can happen when society is shaped and molded by people like Beatty. In 451, as people moved faster in their cars and between appointments, the time to reflect and relate intimately with others became equally fleeting, until it disappeared, along with the ability to discern between what makes one happy and what makes one fulfilled. Suffering is displaced by speed; meaning is displaced by distraction. The denizens of Bradbury’s world (and many in our own) are more interested in knowing what things are than why they are.

Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies to melancholy. Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can, nowadays, is happier than any man who tries to slide-rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won’t be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely.

The why-question, so often now seen as improper, primitive, and religious nonsense, is a question one can only pose to another human being and to oneself, not to things, but to the meaning of things. When the why-question is lost, so 451 argues, so is history, so is personhood. For history is a story of ourselves: we read history to know who we are, why we are.

 

451 opens with an encounter between Montag and a vibrant, youthful girl who is passionate about observing and listening to people. She considers outlandish things, like the differences between viewing grass and flowers while moving and while at rest. “I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly.” Clarisse McClellan even, fantastically, notes that billboards used to be twenty feet wide instead of two hundred. In this world, where the minimum speed is 55 mph without a maximum speed anywhere, Clarisse is attuned to what can only be considered disposable to the standards of efficiency and goal completion. Her uncle, the picture of a pure heretic and outcast, was once arrested for being a pedestrian.

It is on this chance encounter with Clarisse that Montag first becomes aware of a possible world he had never considered, a world in which he might recognize the thoughts of people, the differences between himself and others, the complete alterity of history before his own present. Upon seeing himself in Clarisse’s eyes, he no longer simply conflates the past with the present, others with himself, genuine human flourishing with the recurring completion of social and ritual demands. “He saw himself in her eyes, suspended in two shining drops of bright water, himself dark and tiny, in fine detail, the lines about his mouth, everything there, as if her eyes were two miraculous bits of violet amber that might capture and hold him intact.” When they part and continue to their separate homes, Montag is confronted by the emptiness and shallowness of his life, the silent familiarity of the blank walls of his home:

He glanced back at the wall. How like a mirror, too, her face. Impossible; for how many people did you know who refracted your own light to you? People were more often—he searched for a simile, found one in his work,—torches, blazing away until they whiffed out. How rarely did other people’s faces take of you and throw back to you your own expression, your own innermost trembling thought?

In fact, Montag had no thought of himself until the questioning attentiveness of Clarisse’s careful eyes had made him see himself, in all his detail, being cared for by another person. Attachment theory tells us we become selves by imitating the reactions of our mothers to our pain and distress and internalizing them. Bradbury seems to suggest if we are not attentive to our place in the world of other persons, we have yet to understand what it means to be a person in the first place.

Throughout the novel, Bradbury’s prose grows from general descriptions of “the whole world” to the particularity of “the alley,” paralleling the development of Montag’s awareness. Many scenes, fires, and conversations after Clarisse, Montag tries to remember an important detail and can only recall an entertainment slogan that blared on a public transit vehicle he used once before.  Through such juxtapositions of things that develop, things that endure, and things that emerge, 451 is not a naïve projection of a future that the reader cannot recognize herself in, but a mirror, summoning from the silence of the reader’s solitude the hidden elements of life that seduce, control, widen, narrow, deepen, shallow, and compel. He finds these elements disclosed in the encouraging hand of another person and the stillness that a moment of time cared for provides for the development of inwardness.

Fahrenheit 451 is not a novel to encourage a pretentious bibliophilia. Indeed, when Montag finally meets outcast professors and readers in the final scenes, books are not seen as objects of beauty in and of themselves, as specialized, commodified, functional products created by a division of labor, but as spaces for acts of remembering: reflecting a theme persistent throughout the novel. “The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are.”

The language we use to think and talk about life and its inherent tragedies comes to shape and make real the kind of reality we think life is: one to be resented, one to be avoided, or one to be overcome. As social media continues to shape our discourses by selecting for epigrams over nuanced discussion, Bradbury asks us if we will become like Mildred, whose words are like those “heard once in a nursery at a friend’s house, a two-year-old child building word patterns, talking jargon, making pretty sounds in the air,” or whether we will become like the talking, depthless faces of anchors operating distraction machines like Fox News or CNN: “the gibbering pack of tree apes that said nothing, nothing, nothing and said it loud, loud, loud.” May we find the words that wrestle and struggle with the challenges of life, without strangling or flattening them, and, consequently, diminishing the possibility for genuine human flourishing.

Themes of the book capture insight about humanity in general and can therefore speak to 2018, despite its 1953 publication. One message is that reading is an act of paying attention to persons and remembering the intricacies of life in the solitude and solicitude of the written word. All words are written by persons. And so literature can be defined as a generous act of hospitality of a person from the past, inviting us to make intelligible and bearable the human experience by contending with and overcoming the tragedies and suffering inherent in the life well-lived by learning from the wisdom of those who came before us. And such an idea makes Fahrenheit 451 a book that should not just be owned. But a book that should be read.

Telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.”

 

Promise of Secular Humanism

Reason Revolution founder Justin Clark gives a lecture on secular humanism at the Heartland Unitarian Universalist Church in Carmel, Indiana.

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Music: “Constellations” by Sound Surfer

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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 risen 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 protests against him carry 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? 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: https://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

 

Reason Revolution Episode 34 Website Thumbnail

In this third podcast in our series on free will, Justin sits down with Reason Revolution co-creator Tylor Lovins (@tylorlovins) and author J. R. Becker (@AnnabelleNAiden) to discuss the scientific, philosophical, and linguistic concepts underpinning the age-old philosophical problem.

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This week, Justin sat down with author and activist J. R. Becker (Annabelle & Aiden). They discussed Becker’s newest book in the Annabelle & Aiden series, free will, compatibilism, determinism, the implications of free will, moral agency, human nature, intuition pumps, and other topics.

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Episode 26: The Statement and the Maze

This week, Justin sat down with friend and co-founder of Reason Revolution, Tylor Lovins, to discuss a wide variety of topics, including: the Reformation and its relevance to Secular Humanism, the “truths” of theological statements, Christianity’s relationship to American identity, the discussion on free will between Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, Objectivism’s merits and drawbacks, and the role of luck in moral decision making.

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This week, Justin answers your questions in his second AMA episode. Topics covered include: Bill Nye’s new TV show, religious beliefs of the Presidents, the historical research on freethought, free will, the science of ethics, and other topics.

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In my previous essay, I explored the implications of life without gods and the supernatural. Acknowledging that the abandonment of traditional religion requires a complementary philosophical system, I will present secular humanism as a rigorous and applicable framework for human flourishing. This brief overview will not be exhaustive; it will present an outline for this methodology and present concise arguments in its defense. In sum, a life based on the application of one’s reason, ethical individualism, and democratic participation can facilitate a life of joy, freedom, and achievement.

The Humanist Epistemology

A secular humanist’s epistemology (theory of knowledge) is built upon three essential components: reason, methodological naturalism, and skepticism. First, reason is the foundational pillar that the other components work from. Reason is the capacity of human beings to create abstract thoughts and/or conclusions based on the concretes of reality. It is the emergent faculty of our brains that allows us to conceptualize and systematize the world. The humanist believes that reason, or our ability to perceive and then conceive, is purely natural and without the need for “faith” or “revealed wisdom.”

Philosopher Harry Binswanger has delivered a series of lectures emphasizing this point, basing his conclusions off of the principles of an Objectivist epistemology. In Binswanger’s estimation, perception (taking in information via the senses) is the “given” in our understanding of the world, in that it requires mere physical processes. Abstraction and conceptualization, which turn our perceptions into knowledge, are processes that require discrimination and systemization of the “raw material” of perception. This is where reason comes in. Nearly anyone can perceive a quasi-spherical red object or a vibrational difference in the atmosphere with their senses; it requires reason for the concretizing and systemizing process of conceptualization to understand that it is an apple or a song.

Faith by-passes the entire process of knowledge, by appealing to “revealed” truths that one accepts without the steps of perception, concretization, and abstraction. It treats knowledge as a top-down proposition, akin to Plato’s “forms” or Kant’s “pure reason.” This is a completely inverted understanding of epistemology. As Aristotle, Locke, and others have rightly noted, knowledge is a bottom-up process, requiring ever more complicated levels of thought to arrive at our conclusions. Therefore, it is essential within a humanist understanding to properly acknowledge the importance of perception and reason to epistemological questions.

Second, it is important to base our perception on a solid foundation, which in this case is methodological naturalism (MN). An astute summation of methodological naturalism comes to us from the RationalWiki:

Methodological naturalism is the label for the required assumption of philosophical naturalism when working with the scientific method. Methodological naturalists limit their scientific research to the study of natural causes, because any attempts to define causal relationships with the supernatural are never fruitful, and result in the creation of scientific “dead ends” and God of the gaps-type hypotheses. To avoid these traps scientists assume that all causes are empirical and naturalistic; which means they can be measured, quantified and studied methodically.

MN does not rule out the possibility of the supernatural, but rather recognizes the complicated and often problematic investigations of the supernatural. This view is contrasted with philosophical naturalism (PN), which holds that the natural world is all there is and no supernatural exists. While some humanists hold the position of PN, it is more philosophically and intellectually honest to accept MN.

Having said all that, it is important to note that MN does not ignore supernatural claims altogether. When a faith healer says he can cure cancer or a psychic claims to know intimate details of your life, these are specific, testable claims that can be refuted by the scientific method. Even more broadly, when a religion makes specific claims about the natural world (God created the world in six days, God stopped the Sun in the sky, Jesus rose from the dead), these can also be debunked by scientific investigations. What MN cannot do is refute God or supernaturalism all together, seeing as these concepts are too broad and amorphous to be falsified, a key component to the scientific method. Therefore, Humanism’s dedication to MN, and its lack of confidence in supernaturalism and gods, is based on the simple logic of Occam’s Razor. If a phenomenon can be explained by natural means, it is therefore unnecessary to attribute them to supernatural means. Additionally, if a phenomenon we attributed to the supernatural is proven to be true, it is then added to what is natural.

Finally, a humanist epistemology benefits from a healthy dose of skepticism. For this perspective, we turn to the master of skepticism himself, the Scottish philosopher David Hume. In his Treatise on Human Nature, Hume explains the fallibility of the human mind:

The essence and composition of external bodies are so obscure, that we must necessarily, in our reasonings, or rather conjectures concerning them, involve ourselves in contradictions and absurdities. But as the perceptions of the mind are perfectly known, and I have us’d all imaginable caution in forming conclusions concerning them, I have always hop’d to keep clear of those contradictions, which have attended every other system.

In other words, perceptions are not knowledge. They can be twisted and contradicted from what is actually going on in the real world. This is why the process of reason is indispensable to our lives. Reason allows us to peel back the layers of “contradictions and absurdities” and come to a more accurate conceptualization of reality. As I noted in my previous essay, humans are emotional and messy, often led astray by our biases and misperceptions. Skepticism guides our thinking away from our initial perceptions and requires us to investigate deeper to best approximate our understanding of the world.

The Personal Level: Ethical Individualism

Moving from epistemology to ethics, a predominant theological and philosophical worldview focuses on the collective nature of human beings. In more fundamentalist strains, it can be a complete negation of a person’s thoughts, desires, and talents. For example, the ideologies of Islamism (the politicization of certain sects of Islam), fundamentalist evangelical Christianity, and orthodox Marxism require that the individual be subservient to the cause, or the “ideal” of the faith. In a secular lens, this type of view can be summarized by the 19th century philosopher, and founder of the term “altruism,” Auguste Comte: “The individual must subordinate himself to an Existence outside himself in order to find in it the source of his stability.”

This view wholly distorts our human nature. While some scholars quibble over the nature of group level selection (see Haidt), the foundational level of selection concerns the individual. Human beings, much like our primate ancestors and scores of other beings before us, evolved based on mostly individual changes which then added up over time. As Robert Sapolsky noted in his recent masterwork, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst:

Animals don’t behave for the good of the species. They behave to maximize the number of copies of their genes passed into the next generation. . . . Individual selection fares better than group selection in explaining basic behaviors.

This has profound ethical implications. While it would be unwise for us to directly extrapolate a system of ethics from biology, it is helpful to understand these conclusions and their relation to us as social creatures. Humans are inherently social; we desire communication and connection. However, that does not mean we should seek to achieve these connections through collectivistic means.

Building off of that, my personal view of humanism is built on the guiding principle of individual rights. As John D. Rockefeller, Jr. once said, “I believe in the supreme worth of the individual and in his right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This notion is bigger than biology. It is also built on the Enlightenment principle of “self-proprietorship,” beautifully outlined by the English Leveller Richard Overton (as quoted by intellectual historian and philosopher George H. Smith):

To every individual in nature is given an individual property by nature not to be invaded or usurped by any. For every one, as he is himself, so he has a self-propriety, else could he not be himself; and of this no second may presume to deprive any of without manifest violation and affront to the very principles of nature and of the rules of equity and justice between man and man.

In essence, your life belongs to you, to do with it as you see fit, so long as you do not violate the rights of another. This is a bedrock ideal within the Enlightenment political tradition and one that continues to expand the rights of all people.

In Overton’s time, they attributed individual rights to a sovereign God of nature (similar to Jefferson and the founder’s notion of “Nature’s God.”) While this tradition has historically been built upon that premise, it is equally valid to base these rights upon the virtue of being a thinking, sentient being with the capacity for reason. Philosopher Corliss Lamont described this concept’s classical roots and its modern application:

It is the Humanist view that if the individual pursues activities that are healthy, socially useful, and in accordance with reason, pleasure will generally accompany them; and happiness, the supreme good, will be the eventual result. This ethical doctrine goes all the way back to Aristotle and is called eudaemonism (Greek for happiness). It contrasts with hedonism, which holds that pleasure alone is intrinsically good, by putting primary emphasis on the sorts of activities that a person chooses; at the same time it assigns an important and pervasive role to pleasure. “Pleasure,” as Aristotle said, “perfects the activities,” yet remains secondary. The Humanist ethics, then, “recognizes that the intentional objects of human striving are, in point of fact, not pleasures, but pleasurable things. And by identifying the good with voluntary activities and preferred objects, which are publicly observable, it facilitates discovery, measurement and production of the good.”

Therefore, that which is in accordance with the overall flourishing of the individual, within the context of their own life and their relation to others, undergirds a humanist conception of rights. Supernaturalism and/or god(s) no longer remain necessary.

As mentioned above, a person’s relation to others must also be taken into account. Individualism does not imply a short-sighted selfishness. Rather, it represents a committed recognition to the dignity of each person as well as the need for social cohesion for the flourishing of our species. Lamont, again, elucidates this point perfectly:

Humanism, then, follows the golden mean by recognizing that both self-interest and altruism have their proper place and can be combined in a harmonious pattern. People who try to serve humanity must permit humanity to serve them in turn. Their own welfare is as much a part of the welfare of humankind as that of anyone else.

Our individualism must be grounded on an ethical promise to advance our own interests while seeking to advance the interests of society as a whole. Even though the Devil will be in the details (pun intended), it is the ethical project of humanism that protects individual rights while advancing all of humanity forward.

The Societal Level: The Moral Instinct and the Moral Framework

In the last section, I mentioned the devilish details of the individual’s ethical relation to others, generally known as morality. In my view, our morality breaks down into two major components: the moral instinct and the moral framework. Our moral instincts are the product of natural selection; we are driven by “passing on lots of copies of one’s genes” through “maximizing reproduction.” Base emotions like fear, hunger, dominance, and justice, among others, evolved over millennia so our genes could be passed on from generation to generation. This has not only made us successful biologically; it has made us successful morally. As such, actions which originally evolved to help direct kin began to help non-kin, especially once we developed our social systems.

Here’s a story to illustrate this point. In his book, Life Driven Purpose, Dan Barker recalls a story about saving a baby from being harmed at an airport. He was waiting to board the plane when he noticed that a woman had placed her infant “on top of a luggage cart, about three or four feet off the ground, and the father must have stepped away for a moment.” Out of the corner of his eye, Barker saw the carrier starting to fall to the ground, “made a quick stride to the left,” and his “finger tips caught the edge of the carrier as it was rolling towards the floor.” The mother quickly assisted him in leveling the carrier and thanked him for his action. Now, why would he do something so moral without much intellectual consideration? Barker explains:

We are animals, after all. We come prepackaged with an array of instincts inherited from our ancestors who were able to survive long enough to allow their genes–or closely related genes–to be passed to the next generation because they had those tendencies. An individual who does not care about falling babies is less likely to have his or her genes copied into the future.

The moral instinct compels us to carry out many actions without any logical considerations; we just act in accordance with our human nature. Acknowledging this aspect of who we are goes a long way to improving our ethical systems in the future.

Complementing the moral instinct is the moral framework, what we commonly call “ethics,” or a system of conceived principles that advance flourishing and limit suffering, not just in humans but in the ever-growing moral universe. One way to conceptualize the moral framework is philosopher Peter Singer’s “expanding circle.” Based on an earlier concept from historian W. E. H. Lecky, Singer’s expanding circle hinges on moral agents rationally defending their actions without prizing their own status over anyone else. In other words, it’s a more elaborate variation on the golden rule, but with a twist: make moral decisions among others as you would have others make moral decisions among your kin. The circle expands, as the metaphor goes, as we socially evolve to include more than just other individual humans. Within time, it will include in-group members, out-group members, communities, states, countries, the entire human race, other mammals, all sentient beings, and eventually the entire spectrum of life. Using the moral framework will challenge our culturally-ingrained notions of moral behavior, as its “principles are not laws written up in heaven. Nor are they absolute truths about the universe, known by intuition. The principles of ethics come from our own nature as social, reasoning beings.”

Using the benchmark of advancing flourishing and limiting suffering, there are ways in which behaviors can actually be assessed as moral and immoral. As neuroscientist Sam Harris argues in The Moral Landscape, “there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind.” While Harris is right about the importance of science in answering moral questions, we must also use ethics when discussing moral values. Both work hand in hand, with science being the investigatory component and ethics being the evaluative component. This is for a reason. Unbridled science (eugenics, atomic weapons) and unbridled utopianism (totalitarian philosophies such as Fascism and Marxism) can lead to immoral actions; it is only through what biologist E. O. Wilson called “consilience,” or a unification of knowledge, that we can make the best moral decisions. In all, the moral instinct and the moral framework serve as two sides of the same ethical coin. The instinctual and conceptual both have a say in how we advance our lives and the lives of others.

The Political Level: Rights as Paramount, Science and Ethics Guide Policy

Finally, the political sphere, which combines individual and social concerns, becomes the normative framework for ensuring the flourishing of each component listed above. Democracy, the most successful and beneficial form of government, is predicated on the protection and/or fulfillment of rights through the “freely given consent of the governed.” These rights can be broken down into two categories: negative and positive. Negative rights are rights that the government cannot take away from you (freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association, etc.) while positive rights are those that are granted by the government, such as a right to food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and a living wage or pension system. The best encapsulation of both types of rights comes from President Franklin Roosevelt, in his “Four Freedoms Speech,” delivered in front of Congress in 1941. The “four freedoms” are freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The first two are negative rights while the latter two are positive rights. Our modern democratic tradition hinges on these ideals, which fit nicely into a humanist framework.

Humanist scholars such as John Dewey, Sidney Hook, and Paul Kurtz all stress the importance of a healthy democratic society based on the bedrock of political rights. Dewey, in his essay, “On Democracy,” wrote of the necessity of negative rights:

While the idea is not always, not often enough, expressed in words, the basic freedom is that of freedom of mind and of whatever degree of freedom of action and experience is necessary to produce freedom of intelligence. The modes of freedom guaranteed in the Bill of Rights are all of this nature: Freedom of belief and conscience, of expression of opinion, of assembly for discussion and conference, of the press as an organ of communication. They are guaranteed because without them individuals are not free to develop and society is deprived of what they might contribute.

Negative rights ensure that individuals are free to follow the dictates of their own conscience and intelligence to fulfill the needs of themselves and others. To implement these values, a democracy requires a strong separation of church and state and a free press, so that all citizens can implement the values they hold dear without violating the negative liberties of others.

On the other hand, Hook notes of the “positive requirements of a democracy” in his essay, “Democracy as a Way of Life.” Among the various requirements, the most important to this discussion is Hook’s notion of “economic democracy.” He explains:

By economic democracy is meant the power of the community, organized as producers and consumers, to determine the basic question of the objectives of economic development. Such economic democracy presupposes some form of social planning, but whether the economy is to be organized in a single unit or several and whether it is to be highly centralized or not are experimental questions. There are two generic criteria to decide such questions. One is the extent to which a specific form of economic organization makes possible an abundance of goods and services for the greatest number, without which formal political democracy is necessarily limited in its functions, if not actually endangered. The other is the extent to which a specific form of economic organization preserves and strengthens the conditions of the democratic process already mentioned.

Like Dewey, he’s leaving options open to the citizens of democratic societies, such as whether to be more capitalist and less socialist or vice versa. In doing so, Hook defends the principle of positive rights in the same fashion that Roosevelt did: to advance human flourishing.

Lastly, we come to Paul Kurtz and his thoughts on democracy from his book, In Defense of Secular Humanism. Kurtz reaffirms the considerations made by Dewey and Hook but also emphasizes the value of discourse and participation to a functioning democracy. “. . . a political democracy,” Kurtz writes, “can be effective only if its citizens are interested in the affairs of government and participate in it by way of constant discussion, letter writing, free association, and publication. In absence of such interest, democracy will become inoperative; an informed electorate is the best guarantee of its survival.” Each of these views on democracy require citizens to use reason, from protecting their liberties and organizing their economies to discussions among others and petitioning the government for a “redress of grievances.” None of these things happen by virtue of a god or how many prayers a person can say. Rather, democracy is a human-centered, action-oriented enterprise that protects rights, builds economies, facilitates discussions, and encourages achievements.

With that in mind, a functioning democratic society relies on both science and ethics to inform our public policy. With such contentious issues as abortion, the death penalty, law enforcement overreach, sex education, vaccines, and stem cell research, it is essential that we apply our best thinking to these social problems. With only science as a guide, a government falls privy to overbureactization and malfeasance, and at worst, enacts policies which violate individual rights (eugenics, forced sterilization, genocide). This is why an ethical component, based on the application of reason as well as the guidepost of human flourishing, should always play a core role in shaping policy. It will not always provide us with easy answers, but it is far better than leaving our democracy to the whims of crackpots, religious fanatics, and overzealous central planners.

Conclusion: Humanity’s Future

Like so many ages before us, our age falls prey to barbarism, mysticism, hero worship, tribalism, superstition, and flat-out nonsense. To avoid these trends, we need a philosophy of life that prizes reason over faith, knowledge over ignorance, freedom over tyranny, and most importantly, humans over dogmas. Secular humanism is exactly that kind of philosophy. It is a way of life that puts human beings at the center of their own destiny, no longer chained to the whims of fundamentalist religion or totalitarianism. Its openness to new ideas and diversity of thought allow for a more enlightened religion, one that is compatible with humanism’s core principles. If one has left gods behind, it gives you the framework to live a moral and fulfilling life. The beauty of humanism is that it isn’t much of an “ism” at all; its essential values allow for a multiplicity of worldviews to coexist together, in something akin to Robert Nozick’s notion of a “utopia of utopias.” By leaving society free, open, and dedicated to human flourishing, all people can live among one another with more peace, prosperity, and progress.

Isaac Asimov said it best when he declared that, “Humanists recognize that it is only when people feel free to think for themselves, using reason as their guide, that they are best capable of developing values that succeed in satisfying human needs and serving human interests.” This is the apotheosis of humanism. Despite our flaws and failures, humanity has achieved so much in its time. We have conquered the heavens and the earth, built civilizations, eradicated diseases, ameliorated poverty and suffering, expanded freedom and opportunity, and created art and literature that will last for ages. All of this occurred because we valued our lives and dedicated ourselves to improving them. Every minute we waste speculating about the afterlife limits the value of our lives right now. We are young in the vast chasm of the universe, grasping for glimpses of truth and wisdom. We have so much to learn, which requires us to leave behind the shadows of our past and walk into the light of the future with an open mind, an open hand, and an open heart. Humanism gives us the path; we just have to take the first step.

 

 

This week, Justin talks with friend and historian Kelsey Gordon. They talk about her questioning of faith, her research on mid-century American popular culture, and the current state of American politics.

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