What I’ve learned from Maps of Meaning: a course by Dr. Jordan Peterson

Over the last month I’ve been watching a series of lectures entitled “Maps of Meaning,” which is the title of both a book and a university course delivered by psychology Professor Jordan Peterson. These lectures were for a course that Peterson taught at the University of Toronto. I’ll share my thoughts on the lecture I watched today, #6, as it provides a useful introduction to some key ideas to understanding the worldview of Jordan Peterson, as well as some of the debates he has had with scientific materialists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.

Two methods for determining truth: A Newtonian Worldview vs. A Darwinian Worldview

For the last 400 years of Western civilisation has become increasingly preoccupied with one approach to the truth: the scientific method. Thinkers like Renee Descartes and Francis Bacon pioneered a method of rigorous inquiry that developed over time into the scientific method. The revolution in physics, often associated with the discoveries of Isaac Newton, displayed the power of the scientific method to reveal essential truths about the world that we occupy. This is what Peterson refers to as a Newtonian worldview: perceiving the world as a place of objects.

Science and the scientific method are an indispensable form of knowledge. However, Peterson argues, this isn’t the only way to arrive at the truth, which is the mistake that scientific materialists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins make.

Seriously considering the implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution gives us a different understanding of how we perceive the world. Given that we’ve evolved to survive, human perception creates a world not of objects, but of tools. Specifically, our minds perceive two things:

  1. tools that facilitate our movement forward towards goals
  2. obstacles that obstruct our progress towards our goals

We perceive the world in relation to us–there is no other, “objective” way to view it. Perception is inseparable from the one perceiving it (an insight that Buddhist philosophy emphasizes as well). Your implicit value structure determines your perceptions. It decides what to focus on, and what to omit, which is the vast majority of things in your field of sight–otherwise you couldn’t function.

Motivation is not a drive or a set of goals. Your underlying motivational system is nested in a value system that literally determine your perceptions.

This is why Jordan Peterson agrees with the philosopher David Hume’s famous assertion that “you can’t derive an “ought: from an “is.” In other words, you can’t derive ethical guidelines from “factual” knowledge because the process of determining these facts is inherently subjective. Which facts are you going to pick? How are you going to select them?

Our attachments to the Newtonian worldview is why secular people struggle to understand religion: they are using a framework to interpret the past which our ancestors did not share. According to Peterson, this is what atheists like Harris and Dawkins ironically share in common with religious fundamentalists: they view these texts as consisting of facts that must be proven or disproven to be correct or false–as we would in a scientific experiment.

The World as a Drama

While this approach to truth is wonderful for understanding physics we need a different way of looking at the world to wrestle with what is arguably the most essential question for a human being to ask: how should I act in the world?

Shakespeare famously captured this worldview in As You Like It:

Image Source: http://izquotes.com/quote/322797

This is how our ancestors viewed themselves: as actors in a drama. The religious narratives they developed reflect the collective wisdom of their culture’s answers to this crucial question: how should I act in the world?

Peterson’s approach to religion–largely inspired by the depth psychologist Carl Jung and the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell–comes directly out of this Darwinian worldview. Our brains have evolved with certain fundamental patterns of behavior that are reflected in our eternal “archetypes” lodged in our “collective unconscious.”

We need to tell stories so that we can understand how to act–and how not to act–in the melodrama that unfolds in our own lives.

We can get rid of The Bible and replace it with Stars Wars or Games of the Thrones but the power of stories continues to serve its function in our lives: as a map for how to act skilfully in a world fraught with chaos and prone to human error. Religious fundamentalists fail to appreciate the message of these stories when they insist on these texts being a literally true set of “facts;” however, so do many atheists.

Peterson’s Maps of Meaning course seeks to explain how stories across all cultures have a basic meta structure that provide useful answers in response to the most pressing question facing the human condition: how should I act in the world?

One crucial idea: make sacrifices. What is sacrifice? It’s the recognition that you can bargain with the future. Don’t give up what you could be tomorrow for who you are today.

Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, is one of the most famous stories from The Bible. Dr. Peterson talked about the significance of this parable, and its lesson about the value of sacrifice, in his series of Biblical Lectures.

Image Source: https://pixabay.com/en/abraham-isaac-bible-sacrifice-1260073/

While I still agree with some important points that atheists like Sam Harris have to make about problems with organized religion, my views on religion have evolved. They had shifted well before I came across Peterson’s work but Peterson has provided me with a renewed appreciation for the Judeo-Christian traditions, which were not religious traditions to which I was naturally drawn.

Myths are tremendously powerful maps of meaning for how to chart one’s journey in life. I’ve come to recognize that just because others make the mistake of taking myths literally doesn’t mean that they have no value to offer. Nor does it preclude me from speaking out against the serious harms that can come from dogmatic interpretations of religion. But I also do not want to smugly, and naively, dismiss the great collective wisdom of the past.

Peterson likes to exhort his listeners to “have some damn respect” for our modern culture, which he emphasizes is the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors. “These people were not stupid. They were seriously not stupid.” He’s right.

We share the same hardware–our brains–as those living in the times when these myths were created. It’s not as if our anatomy is fundamentally different. In many other respects human nature has remained constant: the aspirations that we share for the future and the temptations to which we succumb largely hold true across time and space.

Furthermore, people in the past–even the relatively recent past–lived in conditions that were far more difficult than our own, to put it mildly. They forged their character through enduring hardships that are unimaginable to most people living in the modern world.

For all of these reasons we should listen carefully to, and learn from, the messages and warnings of those who lived before us.

Peterson is also right that we should seriously consider the implications of Darwin’s theory of evolutionary to help us understand knowledge–not just those in the hard sciences, but also in the Humanities. Peterson’s lectures are a portal into what our education system could look like if it could transcend the traditional, rigid boundaries that divide knowledge between disciplines. While this division is not without good reason it has become too limiting to provide insight into some of the most important questions.

What might education look like if we updated it for the 21st century? What if those who were so highly educated, and often secular, developed a deeper appreciation for the wisdom of the past? Perhaps those lessons from the past could provide some clues about how to bring some semblance of order to an age marked by chaos.

Such a discovery would not only yield new knowledge, it might provide us with access to an even more useful artefact: ancient wisdom.


Maps of Meaning Course

Jordan Petersons’ Website

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