Jordan Peterson and God: Truth, Myth, and the Bible

In this post, I am going to write a response/review of Jordan Peteron’s 2017 lecture titled Biblical Series I: Introduction to the Idea of God, which is available to watch on Youtube.

For those who don’t know, Jordan B Peterson is a University of Toronto professor and public intellectual who shot to fame after defending freedom of speech against Canada’s Bill C-16 which states:

The bill is intended to protect individuals from discrimination within the sphere of federal jurisdiction and from being the targets of hate propaganda, as a consequence of their gender identity or their gender expression.2 The bill adds “gender identity or expression” to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act3 and the list of characteristics of identifiable groups protected from hate propaganda in the Criminal Code.4 It also adds that evidence that an offence was motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on a person’s gender identity or expression constitutes an aggravating circumstance for a court to consider when imposing a criminal sentence.

To get some of my own potential biases out of the way, I consider myself an atheist. Philosophically agnostic would be more accurate, but on a day-to-day basis I live my life not thinking that there is a supreme being watching and/or judging me. I agree with a lot of what Jordan Peterson says and I think he is a genuinely good person who argues in good faith and with good intentions. However, I wouldn’t necessarily count myself amongst his disciples, though I have no particular issue with them, either.

So, now that that is out of the way, lets get to the lecture. Jordan Peterson, in this first lecture in a seventeen lecture series (most being over two-and-a-half hours each), is attempting to interpret biblical (The Book of Genesis in particular) stories through the lens of psychology. Peterson says that he is a proponent of Nietzschean philosophy and Jungian psychology, particularly Jungian interpretations of religion.

The first thing Peterson does is draw parallels between the Nietzschean idea of going from child, to ‘slave,’ and then to Übermensch as being the same as turning chaos into order, or potential into actuality. Chaos is like untapped human potential. In this analogy, the church (and he uses the Catholic church in particular) is what brings order to the chaos. In this way, it is adherence to church doctrine and rules that acts as the slave stage (people were ‘slaves’ to the church’s interpretations of what values people ought to adopt – I put ‘slave’ in quotes because Peteron’s interpretation of this isn’t necessarily supposed to be interpreted as bad). The Übermensch, in Nietzschean terms, is one who creates their own values. And so, as people find themselves no longer a ‘slave’ to the church, and yet unable to truly create their own values, we once again seem to be descending into chaos (ie postmodernism).

From the book of Genesis, Peterson draws a parallel with its opening chapter (the creation chapter) to the opening of the Gospel of John.

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
John 1:1-5

Peterson draws a parallel between the Word (logos) and the human mind. The world outside ourselves is like the formless chaos, and our mind, like the Word, turns that chaos into order. He briefly draws another parallel to the Kantian view of the mind’s categories of understanding being that aspect of human consciousness which brings the chaotic noumenon into the orderly phenomenon by which humans understand the world.

One criticism I have here, and that I have with Peterson in general, is his tendency to draw multiple parallels between ideas in this fashion to make something seem more significant than it really is. Unfortunately, I think this actually runs the risk of becoming a stage 3 in Jean Baudrillard’s sign-order from Simulacra and Simulation:

The third stage masks the absence of a profound reality, where the sign pretends to be a faithful copy, but it is a copy with no original. Signs and images claim to represent something real, but no representation is taking place and arbitrary images are merely suggested as things which they have no relationship to. Baudrillard calls this the “order of sorcery”, a regime of semantic algebra where all human meaning is conjured artificially to appear as a reference to the (increasingly) hermetic truth.

By attempting to have these different formulations of human experience point to one another, they cease to point to anything real. If the first five verses of the Gospel of John point to the Genesis myth, and our understanding of the mind parallels the logos in John, then we have simulations of symbols. The idea that humans distill experiences of the world down in order to make it understandable to themselves is interesting, but not revolutionary. Extending this interpretation to the creation myth in the Bible doesn’t add strength to the Bible’s truth claims.

Of course, having slogged through Peteron’s first appearance on Sam Harris’ podcast all the way through, his criteria for truth is a bit strange. He uses a pragmatist criterion, while also drawing parallels to biological evolution. For Peterson, something is true so far as it is helpful. Like in biological evolution, where an adaptation that proves helpful for survival will persist, myths that are helpful to humanity will persist. In this lecture, he makes a point of repeating that the Bible has been around for a very long time. This is because, according to Peterson, it is a helpful way for humans to understand themselves and promote their own well-being. This is, of course, not what most people mean when they talk about truth – a belief that corresponds to reality. One would have to listen to his discussion with Sam Harris to appreciate the absurdity of Peteron’s conception of truth.

I would point out, of course, that a belief being successful doesn’t have anything to do with it being good. Socialism, Islam, Fascism, tribalism, lying, greed, and so on are all successful, despite causing untold misery. But whether the outcome of a belief is good or not has little to do with pragmatism as an epistemological framework for determining the truth of propositional statements. What this does show, however, is that Peterson’s epistemological pragmatism still requires truth statements outside of what can be said to be successful or not. One needs criteria to determine whether something is successful and this requires that one determines if the outcome of a certain belief was better by some metric than the outcome would be without such a belief. This cannot be determined pragmatically. The pragmatist could use only the circular logic that the outcome must have been good because it’s what happened. For instance, the Bible is helpful to human survival and well-being because people followed it and humans are still around.

Peterson goes on to discuss the idea of our subconscious mind. He says that this is a revolutionary idea brought forth by Sigmund Freud and further developed by Jung. He says that it is difficult for people now days to appreciate how revolutionary this idea was, since concepts like the subconscious are now part of our everyday conversation. This is true, but I think ideas of the subconscious can have the detrimental effect of veering conversations off into the field of homonculi, whereby conceptual tools like the Id and Ego and so on take on a sort of ‘little person’ controlling people’s subconscious.

In the lecture, Peterson claims that dreams are the way our subconscious attempts to communicate with our conscious minds. Dreams, like the Word in the Bible, take our seemingly inexplicable actions – how we and others live in the world – and distill it into abstract concepts that we can consciously understand. This already hints at a sort of homonculus, with the subconscious as a ‘little person’ unable to speak in the symbolic language of the conscious mind, yet wanting to communicate with it. Later on the lecture, Peterson even admits that his psychoanalytic way of thinking about the subconscious is that he thinks people are literally collections of subpersonalities that are “…alive, not machines, that have their viewpoints, that have their wants, they have their perceptions, they have their arguments, they have their emotions, they’re like low resolution representations of you…” These conceptions may be helpful heuristics for thinking about how our minds work, but once again I think it risks falling into the realm of representations of things that don’t actually exist – a copy with no original a la Jean Baudrillard. And if we get bogged down thinking about the homonculi ‘controlling’ us, we’re no longer looking at reality – we’ll be chasing after homonculi while the real issues  of our subconscious minds fester. Such is the problem with the pragmatic epistemology employed by Dr. Peterson.

Peterson then draws a parallel between dreams and the stories in the Bible – both are attempting to communicate some deeper truth about ourselves by distilling chaos through narrative into abstract concepts we can consciously understand.

Peterson employs two straw men in his argument: that materialists think dreams are just neurons firing randomly and that atheists want to stop interpreting dreams so that we are left with only the rational (conscious) mind. He knocks down the first straw man by pointing out that our dreams appear to us as narratives, not like static on a television. However, this is not actually believed by anyone – during sleep, neural activity is definitely not random. The second straw man he intimates is to blame for the acceptance of postmodernism along with secularism. I would argue, though, that atheists aren’t necessarily attempting to dispel the ‘dream’ – the Bible – but instead are saying that humanity can perhaps move past the Bible. Or at least to not accept the stories as literal truth (which may then bog us back down in what it means for something to be true).

Peterson conceives as the world being enormous, chaotic, and unknown. This is represented by the area outside the concentric circles in his diagram below. The way we act in the world is also beyond our understanding. These are our patterns of behavior that we didn’t choose for ourselves – they came from our biology, our upbringing, our culture. He then says that these actions are aiming us somewhere and that the path we’re on can be best understood through not only our dreams, but from myths and hero archetypes.

Peterson1
Human actions (our own and others) encompass only some of all the possibilities in the world. Humans, in our attempt to understand why people do the things they do, make art and come up with stories, but that covers only a portion of our actions. Our conscious understanding can then only articulate a yet smaller portion of that understanding.

He says in this lecture that everyone’s life can be interpreted through the lens of a mythical hero and that we ought to know which hero our own lives take after in case we are a tragic hero. Seeing ourselves in fictional characters is, of course, one of the purposes of engaging with fiction. However, people also see themselves in various personality and astrological archetypes, but that doesn’t necessarily make them useful. In many cases, I would argue, they become self-fulfilling. Recognizing one’s situations and motivations in that of a mythical hero could certainly be helpful – even just knowing that one’s predicament isn’t terminally unique – but I don’t know if I would put the same stock in fictional characters that Peterson often seems to.

Peterson draws a parallel between his conception of our actions being abstracted into articulated concepts to the creation of laws, with the Tend Commandments used to illustrate this. Laws, he says, are general principles abstracted from particular instances of mediation between disputes. He then says that this is similar to our conception of God, which comes from principles of power people have abstracted from the concrete patterns of behavior of powerful humans. For instance, if over multiple generations the leaders of a tribe are all people that display wisdom in their decision making, then wisdom can be abstracted from those people and held as a conception separate from people. This abstraction can then be done with other principles – perhaps justice, mercy, kindness, sovereignty, etc. – and then grouped together into some ideal ‘powerful leader’ that we would call God. As a just-so historical illustration, he uses the Mesopotamian god Marduk, who may be an amalgamation of all the tribes that came together over several millennia to make civilized Mesopotamia.

I don’t know if this is what the Bible or the vast majority of its adherents believe. It also takes a side on Euthyphro’s dilemma that I’m not sure all Christians would accept. Peterson states explicitly that in his conception of God, it’s the principle that is supreme, not God. God is subservient to sovereignty, for instance; sovereignty is not defined by what God is.

Conclusions…For Now?

This review only goes up through the first hour or so of the video, but my post is long enough as it is. Although I’ve made criticisms here, I think the lecture is still worth watching and taking in as food for thought. Much of my criticism of Jordan Peterson comes from A) his pragmatist epistemology and B) his penchent for making parallels in order to add a bloated sense of significance to things. These aren’t criticisms I have of just this lecture in particular, but of Peterson’s philosophy and pedagogy in general. I agree with him on a lot of things – principally his criticisms of postmodernism, but I think he makes good points about the usefulness of myth and even the Bible as well. I also think that Peterson is an authentic person – I think he really does want to help people and make the world a better place. It’s for these reasons that I like Dr. Peterson and will continue to follow him, even if I have disagreements and criticisms. In the end, though, I think he is a valuable public intellectual to have in the conversation. I recommend checking out this series on the Bible.

I may post a review for the rest of this video in the future, though I don’t know if I’ll do so for all seventeen videos in this series.

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