Jordan Peterson's Epistemology

I.

At the root of most modern human ills is an utter lack of self-understanding. So often, we tell ourselves one thing, and blithely do another. We break our moral codes, we invent a quick justification to conceal our misdeeds, primarily from ourselves, and go on about our lives. No muss, no fuss. It only becomes a problem when other people confront us with evidence of our misdeeds. Our excuses tend to fall apart on examination from someone without any skin in the game. Cognitive dissonance can be a bitch, but you should probably thank whoever gave it to you. They're forcing you, at least in the instants of clarity between the shouts of "NO!" from your ego, to see yourself as you really are.

A less pugnacious way to tell if you're lying to yourself is to check yourself for statements you strongly identify with that only relate to yourself. "I'm intelligent and popular," "I'm gonna change the world some day," "I'm a good parent." Basically, if your internal monologue has the word "I" in it, it's usually a lie1. A more honest internal dialog might take the form of "those people sure seem to like me," or "It sure felt nice when I won that contest or solved that intractable problem at work etc..." And if you were really gonna change the world, you wouldn't spend so much time fantasizing about it in a narcissistic haze.

II.

This shit doesn't stop with harmless delusions of grandeur. No sir. Think about this... How do you think the Nazis were able to convince vast numbers of people to be complicit in their plans? How is it that the gulag prison guards didn't turn around and point their weapons at the power structures that would capriciously destroy them? Not a single conscientious objector? Are there just nations of sociopaths waiting in the wings to become an army of monsters?

Well, doubtless there were pathological cases among them, and they must've found their place quickly in the hierarchy, but there had to be a something else at play... Some more pernicious and subtle force: Self-delusion. "I'm just following orders." "Nobody would blame me in this situation. I'm not culpable." Even: "I'm sure the state has good reason to piss in these peoples' faces, dunk them in sewage, and burn them alive...." And the machinery of the state keeps running.

It seems like a persecutory totalitarian ban on speech has a dual purpose. Yes, it prevents resistance from organizing, but it also means that nobody's ever going to confront you with the truth of yourself.

III.

Listen:

We are a broken and messy species, nadir-bound, on a death-march to oblivion. Not even science really gives me any hope. Even at peak efficiency-- which I assure you it is not operating at right now-- it gives a whole lot of answers to "what," "where," and "how," but not "who" or "why." We defeated religion, we placed ourselves at the top of all existence, wholly assured that there were no demons lurking in the depths of our personalities. The ego says "My theory is unquestionable! My ethics unimpeachable!" Mephistopheles says, with a voice you can't refuse because you don't even care to acknowledge he's there, "Go to sleep." See, the ego only has to explain, it doesn't have to feel... So when it wakes up, it invents a totally and completely rational explanation for why what you did wasn't wrong, and it makes for damn sure that it and your sense of justice and empathy are never together in the same room.

Psychology is probably the single most important thing we should be learning about as a species, especially as a single flick of the wrist by some hyped up meathead, caused by some unaddressed trauma when his mommy neglected him could end the world.

We have to understand ourselves. It's imperative.

IV. Science

Science as an institution has completely failed us in this regard. I don't think it's the scientific method's fault-- I think it's the scientists'. Science seems to attract people who are really really invested in systems. People who want to be right-- or at least never want to be wrong. They want hard data to back up any claims they make, things that are irrefutable2.

So you get people saying that Freud and Jung have absolutely no value, that we should wait for god neuroscience to catch up so we can watch individual neurons in transit before we even attempt to understand anything, because nothing would embarrass us more than having to draw conclusions with unreliable evidence.

We are campers in a tent, and there's a big snarling animal outside, sniffing around the entrance. Whatever it is is hungry. Do you A. Draw your rifle and fire? Or B. Impetuously refuse to do anything, because you can't see the predator yet, you don't know if it's a bear, a wolf, or maybe some demon from the nethers beyond, and repairing this hole in the canvas is something you're definitely sure you can do. Way to go science! You got us all killed! (or enslaved by some hideous ideology lol)

Oh, and on top of that let's add that we've been hearing the painful death screams of campers in other tents being eaten by the thing for the past six consecutive nights. Oh, yeah, whatever it is, it eats you alive-- you can tell by the grunts, the cracking of bones and ripping of flesh and "Oh my god! It's eating me! Aiee!"

"Ugh... seriously? You want to shoot at some vague shadow we can barely see? What if we miss? How do we even know bullets will work? Hang on, I'll figure out how to get the flashlight working by next week, and THEN we'll know what we're dealing with!"

V. The point

All this is why Jordan Peterson was, up until I saw the video I'll link at the end of this section, almost a messianic figure to me. Here's a guy, a scientist of some repute, able to talk stats and critique studies with the best of them, but he also talks about the really important stuff. Stuff like how people manage their lives, what kind of creatures we really are, and the danger of ignoring our true natures. Jungian psychology, the multiplicity of our identities and consciousnesses, Right-brain stuff, in light of science's relentless left-brain bias. (also, this understanding of brain lateralization is EXTREMELY outdated)

His most important statements are things I already knew3, but had seen no mention of in any scientific circle I read the output from. Things like, the importance of myth as a guide for how to live your life, the importance of having a story that gives you context, how the story we've told ourselves now is mutated beyond all saving and will only lead us all to misery. Jordan Peterson and his lectures and videos are like the answer to a prayer, if you want to get religious about it.

But in this video, he just goes around and around in circles with the Sam Harris. He gets caught up on a different understanding of the meaning of the word "truth," and he's definitely smart enough to know that the host had a different understanding of the word than he did, but he just kept on hammering on it.

I was so disappointed to witness this. I think maybe he was trying to induce in the host the mental state that is conducive to accepting things like myth as true, the receptive state in which new ideas can be implanted. Sort of like a dialectical LSD trip. But the host just wasn't biting.

The lack of flexibility it takes to just go on like that when your ideas just aren't landing... What does it speak to? I'm not sure. While I think there's a lot of truth-- in both senses of the word, -- to what Peterson is trying to convey, the inability to adapt, or even ask for a theoretical concession, when Harris is obviously just not accepting his method of looking at things just speaks to something. I don't know what.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B9eKURpdFM8

VI. Damn

Why couldn't he have just said "what you say is factually true, but the kind of truth I'm talking about has additional... metatruth to it, that makes it an overall more complete understanding of whatever issue you want to discuss." And things could have just rocked along.

Maybe it's less an ideological failing than it is an arrogance in his debate tactics. He's used to being the smartest guy in the room, so he can get people to temporarily accept a slightly illogical claim in order to get at a deeper truth. He does say, after all, (and I definitely agree) that pure objective materialism, the type that Sam Harris adheres to, is what he wants to try and dissuade people from following.

VII. Salvage

Not saying he isn't still an extremely intelligent person, a very worthy champion drawing attention to what likely are the most important issues facing our species, but, I guess, if anything is to be learned from this it's that you can't have heroes and expect your thinking to remain consistent.

There are a lot of ways in which I disagree with Peterson anyway, so getting too wrapped up in his ideas would have been bad.

For example, Peterson is very supportive of the Christian tradition. He believes its depth is such that it only gets more morally pure the more you study it. While I have no problem with Christianity, and if we're going to have a cultural religion, there are certainly much worse options (croissant), there are a lot of doctrines that it espouses that really don't jive well with my ideals. While the belief in kindness to your fellows is great, Christianity sees the world is seen as an impure place that we want to leave ASAP, and neither it, nor anything in it should ever be worthy of your love. But some of my most awe-inspiring, sublime experiences have been in reverence of places that were shaped by the history that took place there. A direct line of causality, connecting me to the past. Many cultures seem to understand that much better than we do-- a forest in the western tradition should just be cut down. Old buildings, where families lived for generations... Well, we can do better. Knock it all down. Replace it with Ikea. There is not a bit of old growth in the woods around where I live. No tree over 60 feet. It's just scrubland, skinny, stunted pines in a climate that should raise up magnificent huge oaks and maybe maples. Creeks and waterfalls are culverted and directed. We don't love the world-- it's just there to serve our basest desires until we get to die and go to heaven.

Maybe it's by virtue of the way in which the europeans adapted it, but Christianity was we practice it is very logical. God is all, god is great etc and he created an ordered world. He set down laws that could not be broken, and by his own infinite virtue, he himself lives by them as well. In the Christian tradition (I honestly believe this is more the Greek tradition... or maybe this is just something genetic to the European temperament) there are truths that are inviolable, things that can be understood in a pure, ideal sense.

This gives rise to a very dynamic, novelty seeking, possibility evaluating civilization. For lack of a better word, a masculine civilization. We want to strike out, conquer the world, drive away the darkness of unquestioned ideas. We want to leave an indelliable mark on the world. We are eternally adolescent. This has been great-- we have iPhones! The scientific method! Fuck yeah! But we also had marxism and... yeah. A mixed bag tbh fam.

I really admire eastern cultures. They really seem to have an easy, adaptive approach to their religion. It's not something that dictates how you should feel about things, so much as a tradition that augments it.4 An easterner does not serve their religion, so much as live in symbiosis with it. I'm reminded of a story I was told once, I think it was fictional, but the historical kind of fiction that's based on real experience, where an asian wife to a western husband wanted to make a sacrifice to a sea god for a safe trip. The sacrifice was to be some quantity of gold, thrown into the ocean. It took a lot of cajoling to get him to do it, but finally, and I assume because she was really hot, he gave it up. So, at the appointed place, and the appointed time, she laid out the gold in the appointed way, and made ready to uselessly throw a small fortune into the drink. She drew back, as if to throw it, but at the last instant she substituted a paper talisman, and threw that in instead. She didn't have a change of heart-- she had intended to do that from the start. The whole thing was a gesture, and the fact of whether she threw the gold in or not was irrelevant.

I suppose that transubstantiation is kind of similar to this, but christianity asks you to actually believe the thing in fact. You don't do it because you have the understanding of yourself that carrying out symbolic gestures is vital to your psychological nature, but because, in fact, you're chowing down on Jesus' and that's what he asked all humanity to do before he died and I guess he was into that for some reason5.

Footnotes

  1. "Wait," I hear you say, "what if I actually am intelligent and popular?" Well maybe you're just one of those infuriatingly likable know-it-all douchebags. Like me! FYI, you probably wouldn't need to cling to positive traits as an identity unless you have a huge problem with self esteem. Like me! (wait...)

  2. Fe/Ti axis --discomfort with exposing internally held ideas to scrutiny. And yes, I realize the hypocrisy of this note in light of the previous statement.

  3. My ego takes a lot of joy in that statement, but to be sure it isn't just calculated to inflate my self-concept. This statement, humbly but not-so-humbly explaining it, however, totally is. As was this one, explaining that yes, even though I understand the hypocrisy of it all, I really did come up with most of what follows on my own before Jordan Peterson explained it in a much more clear and cogent way than I ever could have, and no I'm really not that arrogant to assume I in any way equal his intelligence, and even though this whole footnote was an attempt to exemplify my own self-effaced intelligence, and it probably will come off as arrogant no matter what I do and god damn this whole note has only made my ego smaller, but I assure you that it's fine and there's no contradiction in this statement. Or that one. Or that one. Or that one..... turtles all the way down.

  4. The east is Fi/Te--pragmatic, but permissive with internal sentiments, where the west is Ti/Fe, obsessed with appropriateness in social interactions, but allowing free reign to explore systems.

  5. I can't narrow the difference in approach to symbolic actions between the east and west down to a Jungian function axis, but I have a huge prejudice against Ti/Fe so I'll just say that's what Christians are. Factual reality being personal, and physical proof being secondary kind of smells like that to me. Incidentally, I heavily of suspect that Peterson is a Te/Fi-user. INTJ maybe, ENFP a close second possibility.

Postscript

I think I'll do a post on mythology and another one on consciousness some time soon. JP got me thinking about that much more than I already was.