Sam Harris

#40: The Unraveling of the American Left with Carol Horton PhD

This week I sit down with Carol Horton, PhD to discuss the reactivity and outrage defining our current cultural moment and the unraveling of the American Left in the Age of Trump. Carol specializes in the intersection of yoga, politics and culture. We discuss some of the trends in American politics and culture and consider what contemplative practices have to offer us in this particular historical moment of outrage and reactivity.
Guest Bio:
Carol Horton, Ph.D., is a writer, educator, and activist working at the intersection of mindful yoga, social science, and healing justice. Carol is the author or editor of five books:
  • Yoga PhD: Integrating the Life of the Mind & the Wisdom of the Body (author)
  • 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, & Practice (co-editor, with Roseanne Harvey)
  • Best Practices for Yoga with Veterans (editor)
  • Best Practices for Yoga in the Criminal Justice System (editor)
  • Race and the Making of American Liberalism (author)
Carol is vice-president of the Yoga Service Council and a co-founder of Chicago’s Socially Engaged Yoga Network. She is a member of the Ethics & Conduct Committee for the Yoga Alliance Standards Review Project. Carol serves as an associate editor of the scholarly journal Asian Medicine: Tradition and Modernity and as a peer reviewer for Race and Yoga. 
Carol has taught yoga in Chicago’s Cook County Jail, a drop-in center for homeless women, a residential foster care facility, a community health center, and several independent studios. An ex-political science professor and policy researcher, she holds a doctorate from the University of Chicago.
Topics that Carol and I cover:

Making sense of ancient teachings through a contemporary lens

The Rise of Jordan Peterson

Reactivity & outrage defining current US cultural moment

Growing Intolerance on the Left

Me Too Movement and Gender Politics

Erosion of nuance and complexity in our political discourse

Role that contemplative practices can play in creating a better climate

How to Follow Carol:
Recommended written work from Carol:

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

#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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#007: Thinking Out Loud: Finding the Courage to Talk Candidly about Religion

In “Thinking Out Loud” sessions I’ll share my own views in podcast format. In this first one my main goal is to provide information about my evolving views toward religion and my intentions for starting this show. The purpose of this podcast is, in part, to excavate the many valuable aspects of wisdom traditions from the dogma of organized religion.

In particular, I’m referring to contemplative practices such as meditation and yoga and pranayama, which still present us with some of the most powerful tools for understanding consciousness. I’m also a big proponent of the fact that myths have an important role to play in society, and religious metaphors are a legitimate and valuable source of meaning and identity for many people.

But in order to honestly acknowledge the positive aspects of religion for many people we have to be candid about the serious problems that religious beliefs continue to present to free societies, from terrorism to impeding scientific progress to attacks on basic human rights of individuals.

In having honest conversations about the positive and negative aspects of religion I hope to find common ground between those who find themselves on different sides of the fence. In a world that’s increasingly divided–in which we choose to curate content online that conforms only to our points of view and to ignore dissenting opinions–I think it’s essential to find some common ground.

Even more fundamentally, we have to commit to the project of trying to find common ground, of having constructive dialogue. Collectively, we’re doing very poorly at listening to people with opinions different from our own. We can only reason with those who are willing to submit to the basic rules of rational discourse: of using evidence to support arguments and basing conclusions off of evidence. But to those people who are willing to have the conversation we have to try to reach out.

I don’t intend for this show to be a “political” show, but occasionally and inevitably the issues at the heart of this show will intersect with politics and culture. After all, if we’re going to talk about the benefits of psychedelics on this show we’re implicitly saying that we should have the right to take these substances, even when we don’t always make this point explicitly. And I absolutely will make this point explicitly as well!

In having honest, candid conversations about religion we’re going to bump into political issues. In my view an honest discussion about the benefits and problems of organized religion is inevitably going to lead to positions that will offend conventional thinking across the political spectrum.

Way too many of us are stuck in “group think,” in identity politics, in points of view that not so coincidentally mirror those with whom we surround ourselves, both in person and online. I deliberately seek experiences that take me outside of my comfort zone. Psychedelics are a powerful tool for shattering one’s paradigm. Traveling to a different culture is one of the most effective. We can also harness the power of social media to engage with those with different viewpoints, in addition to connecting with others who share similar interests.

We have to “break the spell,” to use Dan Dennett’s phrase, but not only of religious literalism but in adherence to any ideology that demonizes those who dare to dissent. We have to reaffirm the fundamental value of freedom of speech in our willingness to engage in difficult conversations. We want to preserve the best of our traditions, and to discard that which is no longer useful, when we create the brighter, more hopeful future of tomorrow.