Jordan Peterson

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.

Links:

Maps of Meaning Course

Jordan Petersons’ Website

How Jordan Peterson and Bret Weinstein have changed the way that I think about human behavior

Jordan Peterson and Bret Weinstein are two renegade college professors who are making a splash in larger discussions of interest to many modern, Western societies, from challenges to free speech to what evolutionary biology can teach us about human behavior.

This latter point is of direct consequences to the topics that I’d like to explore on this platform: as I’m interested in interdisciplinary approaches to learning that can help people better understand themselves. I enjoy drawing on methods from a range of disciplines, from techniques that touch on the esoteric and the exoteric, and that focus on the individual as well as the role of the individual in relation to the group.

My training is in the Humanities, specifically History. Over the last eight years, since I’ve moved to Asia, I’ve become increasingly fascinated with the study of religion: both practical techniques such as meditation and yoga that allow me to cultivate more self awareness, as well as the study of myths from cultures around the world.

What both Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist, and Brett Weinstein, an evolutionary biologist, have helped me to appreciate is how evolutionary biology can provide us with tremendous insight into some of the questions raised by the study of the Humanities. Listening to Jordan Peterson and Bret Weinstein has helped me to realize how viewing many topics strictly through the lens of the social sciences–without any informed view from science–can be very limiting, and even deeply misleading.

One prominent example would be the concept of “dominance hierarchies,” which Jordan Peterson has become well known for popularizing. This idea refers to the universal biological fact that animals that have to compete for territorial space tend to organize themselves into fairly predictable hierarchies. This is true not simply of our primate ancestors but of all animals, extending all the way back to lobsters, 300 million years ago.

The behavior of male chimpanzees within a dominance hierarchy most closely mirrors the behavior of human males in several key respects, according to primatologist Frans De Wall.

Image Source: http://www.evoanth.net/2014/11/23/nice-chimps-finish-last-aggression-correlated-with-reproductive-success-in-chimpanzees/

Some of us mistakenly assume, Jordan Peterson argues, that the assembly of these hierarchies are due to socio-cultural-political forces, when in fact the hierarchies we find in society are the result of deeper biological forces. It’s a fascinating point worthy of deeper consideration.

It seems that we can debate the degree to which our specific cultural hierarchies are the result of socio-cultural-political forces or not–a combination of both seems undeniable in my view–but Peterson has made two basic points which should be beyond controversy:

  1. The organization of human beings along hierarchical lines is inevitable. An appreciation for this irrefutable biological fact helps us to appreciate that political ideologicies that seek to eliminate hierarchies in human societies, such as Marxism, are completely antithetical to human nature and thus destined to fail.

     2. A closer study of our evolutionary ancestors could provide us with much insight into human             behavior at the level of the individual and the group

On The Joe Rogan Experience, Brett Weinstein stated Peterson’s great contribution to the public discourse has been to encourage others to take the implications of evolutionary biology seriously: to really consider what evolution can teach us about human psychology.

As someone who has trained in the Humanities at the undergraduate and the graduate level (specifically, History and the teaching of History), I’m fascinated by many of the points that Peterson has been making. The Humanities always raised certain big questions for me, for which they were unable to provide satisfactory answers. For someone who likes to learn in an interdisciplinary way I have found Jordan Peterson to be a tremendous resource.

Rather than attempt to give some overview of what I’ve learned from Peterson, and Weinstein, I’d like to start by focusing on one big idea and developing it in depth over a series of blog posts.

My first series will be to take up Peterson’s challenge to seriously consider the implications of evolutionary biology for understanding human behavior–a journey that will touch on topics from psychology to sociology to politics.

I’ve started reading the work of Frans de Waal, a professor at Emory University who has dedicated his career to the study of our primate ancestors. De Wall has written a number of books on the behavior of chimpanzees and bonobos, and what they can teach us about ourselves and the way that we interact with each other.

In my next post I’m going to share some of the big ideas that I’m learning from reading de Waal’s work The Bonobo and The Atheist. I’m totally blown away by how fascinating our primate ancestors are and how much they can teach us about ourselves. I look forward to sharing what I learn with you.

If there any big questions on this topic that interest you please feel free to share them. I also enjoy hearing your comments.

Links:

Dr. Jordan B. Peterson’s Website

Dr. Peterson’s YouTube Channel

Bret Weinstein’s Website

Joe Rogan Experience Podcast

#023: Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson & Contrasting Approaches to the Study of Religion with Erik Davis

In this episode author and religious studies scholar Erik Davis and I consider the arguments of the New Atheists, particularly the work of Sam Harris. We contrast Harris’ approach to religion with that of Jordan Peterson, as well as Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. Topics we touch on include:
  • Erik’s background and personal religious views
  • Religion as myth & metaphor vs revelation
  • Religion as a set of practices, rather than a set of beliefs
  • Problems with tribalism, including & beyond religion
Guest bio:
Erik Davis is an author, podcaster, award winning journalist and popular speaker based in San Francisco. Davis was born during the Summer of Love within a stone’s throw of San Francisco. He grew up in North County, Southern California, and spent a decade on the East Coast, where he studied literature and philosophy at Yale and spent six years in the freelance trenches of Brooklyn and Manhattan before moving to San Francisco, where he currently resides. 
He is the author of four books: Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica (Yeti, 2010), The Visionary State: A Journey through California’s Spiritual Landscape (Chronicle, 2006), with photographs by Michael Rauner, and the 33 1/3 volume Led Zeppelin IV (Continuum, 2005). His first and best-known book remains TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information (Crown, 1998), a cult classic of visionary media studies that has been translated into five languages and recently republished by North Atlantic Press. 
Erik has a PhD in Religious Studies from Rice University. He is the host of the Expanding Mind Podcast. 
Links:
Mentions:
Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Richard Dawkins, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell
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