Keywords: Evolution, Harris, Consciousness, Dawkins, Hierarch, Christ, Abel, Hero, Paradise, Games, Drama, Deterministic, Tribal
I could not be more excited to speak with Jordan Peterson—well, as Jordan knows. Before the show, we talked for an hour about interesting things. We should have caught that on tape. But now we’re actually going to get the chance to do it live. Jordan’s new book, if you haven’t bought it yet—everybody on the planet has bought this book. I was walking through the office today; we didn’t have a copy in the office; the person at the front desk had a copy of your book just sitting on her desk. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos
. A fantastic book, obviously topping all the bestseller lists, all over the world. Jordan, thanks so much for joining the show. I really appreciate it. Dr. Jordan Peterson:
Thanks for the invitation. BS:
Obviously your prominence has just blown up in the last year and a half. We were talking before the show about why that is and why there are so many people suddenly very angry about you. I noticed there was an article in Politico suggesting that young, angry white males—you are now their leader. So congratulations. JP:
Oh, yes. BS:
I wanted to ask about that: why do you think that, number one, your profile’s become so big of late? and number two, why do you think it is that so many members of the left are so angry about that? Why are they characterizing people who listen to you as "angry" and "enraged young white men"? JP:
Well, we can look at the characterization to begin with. I think it speaks to the pathology of the radical left, instantly. They’re absolutely incapable of viewing the world except through group identity terms. If someone comes out and disagrees with them, then they have to characterize them by their fundamental group attribute, whatever that happens to be. Maybe it’s gender, because that’s a favourite, or maybe it’s race. So "angry young white man"—there we go: sexist, ageist, and racist all at once. They’re angry, young, white, men. Well, it has to be that way, if you’re going to play the leftist game, because that’s the only way that you can look at the world. It’s strange that they would attempt to make them reprehensible on the grounds of race, age, and sex, since that’s precisely what they stand against, hypothetically. But if you can’t make your enemy reprehensible along some dimension, then you have to contend with them seriously. And so if I’m not an alt-right fascist like Hitler or Milo Yiannopoulos, which was how I was characterized in Canada—because the radical leftists can’t even get their bloody interests straight: "he’s like Hitler or Milo Yiannopoulos." There’s no obvious difference between them, right? It’s just another attempt to pillory, as far as I can tell. I think that it’s dreadful. I really think it is.
There was an article written by, I believe, The New York Review of Books, which was just republished in The Globe and Mail, talking about the emergence of hyper-masculinity, and how I was somehow responsible for that or contributing to it, like Mussolini. I read that and I thought, "ok, so what are you doing? I see: you’re conflating masculinity and hyper-masculinity at the same time. Then you’re virtue signally by being against hyper-masculinity. But really, what you’re trying to do is bring down whatever it is that’s masculinity. And what masculinity is, in this frame, is something like competence." And so it’s part of the radical leftists’ general war on competence as well, which I think is one of the most pernicious elements of the culture wars—the dissolution of hierarchies; the assuming that every hierarchy has to be based on power and serve the needs of your group, whatever that happens to be; that there’s no such thing as competence. And then the other thing that’s reprehensible about it—because that’s not enough—is that it’s just wrong.
I’ve got tens of thousands of letters from people, and people come up to me all the time on the street. I’ll give you an example. This is a great story. This is really touching. So I was in L.A. about a month and a half ago. I was downtown L.A, and downtown L.A. is kind of rough. I was wandering around with my wife, and this young guy pulled a car up beside me and hopped out. He was kind of a stylish looking twenty-one-year-old Latino guy. He was all excited. He asked me who I was, and I told him. That’s what he had presumed, so he was kind of excited about that. He said, "I’ve watched all your lectures, and it’s really helped me. I’ve been straightening out my life and trying to get my room clean"—he laughed about that—"developing some aims and trying to tell the truth. I’ve really fixed up my relationship with my father." Then he said, "wait, wait. Just wait a minute." I thought, "sure." So he went back in the car, and he got his father out of his car, and he came over with his dad. They had their arms around each other. He said, "look, we’ve really improved our relationship," and they’re both smiling away. That’s… Man, if you’re going to target me for that, just go right ahead. BS:
Yeah. It sounds real "white supremacist." JP:
Wherever I go now—and this is the thing that’s so wonderful about all of this, as far as I’m concerned. People come up to me all the time, and that’s exactly what they say: they say, "look, I was lost, aimless, depressed, nihilistic, anxious, drug-addicted, alcoholic, wasting my time, masturbating too much"—although they don’t generally use that particular example. "Lost," essentially, and "hopeless," in some sense. "I’ve been watching your lectures, and they’ve really helped, and I’ve really been putting my life together, and I’ve been trying to say what I believe to be true and develop a vision, and it’s really helped." It’s so overwhelming. If I’m doing book signings after a talk, then there’ll be a dozen people or more who—and I can only talk to people for about fifteen seconds, but you can have a very intense conversation in fifteen seconds. They’ll say, "look, I was suicidal, man. I was really hanging on to the edge of the earth by my fingernails, and I’m better," and they have tears in their eyes. BS:
That’s amazing. JP:
A little of that goes a long way, man. BS:
I think that, when I look at your rise—I talk to people who love what you do. Every time I go on the road, and I’m speaking at a campus, you’re the number one name that gets mentioned by people who come to my lectures. I think the reason for that, that I’ve seen, is really twofold. One of the things that you really talk a lot about is the notion of self-discipline and purpose in your life, and the idea that you are in control of your decision making, and your decision making matters. That’s one. The other is that you have a unique capacity to say "no." When somebody says something to you that’s illogical but popular, you have the capacity to say "no." That’s what happened in the Cathy Newman interview
: somebody said something to you that made no sense, and you just said, "no," and then you stood on that "no;" and when you stand on that no, I think it gives people a lot of courage. JP:
Yeah. Well, the gender issue is really an interesting one. One of my professional domains of expertise is individual differences. I’m a personality psychologist, so I know the gender difference literature. It’s a very solid literature. It has a thirty-year history. Once psychologists got the personality model down—so that would be the Big Five model
—all empirically derived, straight statistics. Brute force empiricism. Nobody had a theoretical axe to grind with the Big Five, except to say, "maybe there are human traits. Maybe they’re encapsulated in language. We can use statistical techniques to find out what they are." That was it. That was the whole ideology. It’s very neutral, as far as ideologies go.
Five traits emerge. Ok. Are there differences between the sexes? Turns out there are. All right. They’re not massive, although if you sum them across all the traits, you can separate men and women with about seventy-five per cent accuracy, so it’s not trivial, but you have to sum across all the traits. Then another question comes up: "well, are those differences sociocultural or biological?" "Ok. We can test that. We’ll go around the world; we’ll look at cultures; we’ll rank order them in terms of the gender equality of their sociological policies. We can do that with broad agreement from the right and the left. Then the hypothesis would be, ‘if gender differences decrease among more egalitarian societies, then the gender differences are sociocultural—or at least more sociocultural.’" That’s exactly the opposite of what was found, repeatedly. "That’s pseudoscience." "No. That’s mainstream psychology." Those papers have thousands of citations. The average humanities paper has zero citations, right? And then the next most common one has one. Three thousand? That’s an unbelievable classic.
Here’s the other bit of proof. You say, "well, how do you know you can trust someone’s judgement about a fact?" "The fact emerges despite their ideological presuppositions." It’s well known that the social sciences and the humanities have a left tilt. A lot of that’s temperamental. The tilt has become more pronounced. But as Jonathan Haidt
has pointed out, there are no conservatives among social personality psychologists, or none to speak of. Very few—vanishingly few. And if the field has a bias, it is definitely and indisputably a left-wing bias. Ok, so you have to fight that, if you’re a scientists. Even if you’re a left-wing scientist, you have to fight that, because you want to get to the facts. It was these social scientists who generated the data that suggested that the gender differences not only were real, but that they were bigger in egalitarian societies. They didn’t do that to grind their ideological axe, because their ideological presupposition was, "you make the society; men and women get more the same? No, they get more different. Oh! Isn’t that something."
So there’s a corollary there—and they’re still pushing in this direction in Scandinavia. They say, "boys and girls are different. Men and women are different. It looks biological. But, because people are malleable, you could push the sociocultural structure harder and harder to minimize the biological differences." Ok, well, first of all, "maybe, and maybe not. Maybe you get a rebound, and the kids would rebel. That could easily happen." But let’s say, "Ok, you could." The problem with that is that, if you cede that much power to the state—you’re basically giving the state the right to socialize your kids. It's like, really? Really? You really want to do that? I mean, people in Israel couldn’t do that with the kibbutz
, right? It didn't work. So people aren’t going to give up their children to the state, and thank God for that. BS:
This was one of the questions we were discussing earlier. We were talking about the polarization in politics between right and left. Obviously, you’re a psychologist; you’re a philosopher. But you’ve been dragged—almost kicking and screaming—into this political sphere, because everything has been so politicized. And so when you cite social science statistics, and they’re scientifically based, you’re called a racist; you’re called a sexist; you’re called a homophobe. JP:
I’m called Milo Yiannopoulos. BS:
Exactly. So why do you think it is that so many folks on the left purport to be all about reason and science and objective fact but are so willing to throw those out the window the minute that it becomes politically inconvenient for them? JP:
Well, imagine that cognitive systems—an interpretation of the world—has levels. There are axiomatic levels. Some fundamental presuppositions are more fundamental than others. You could say, "well, the leftists, historically—maybe because of their atheistic rationality—are more on the side of science than, say, the fundamentalists of any sort." But when push comes to shove, you find out how the axioms are nested. There’s deeper axioms underneath that, which is that all hierarchies are based on power, and all power plays are based on group identity—tribal identity, essentially—and that the entire history of the world is nothing but a power play between these different identity groups. It’s like, "ok, well, if the science indicates that some of that’s wrong, then you alter those beliefs? or do you alter the science?" The answer to that question is, "well, it depends on how you’ve hierarchically arranged those." If the scientific facts are the axiomatic substructure, then you alter your beliefs. If your beliefs are the axiomatic substructure, then you alter the science. Well, we’ve seen how that plays out.
One of the things I’ve tried to do, so to speak, is to diagnose the axiomatic structure. It’s like, "ok, what’s the metaphysical presumption structure of the radical left?" Well, what it is, is that you’re basically your group; your groups are basically engaged in warfare; and the warfare is arbitrary, except insofar as it serves your group. I don’t buy any of that. I think that’s a route to certain disaster. I think it’s a degeneration into tribalism, and that we will seriously pay for it. Not only because it returns us to tribalism, and tribes fight. The anthropological evidence for that is overwhelming. Tribes fight. It doesn’t even matter if they’re chimpanzee tribes: even chimpanzee tribes fight. So not only do you regress to a tribalism, but you also invalidate the one proposition that’s been able to help us arise above the tribal, which is the idea that the individual should be sovereign. And so I think the culture war is about "what’s the proper framework within which to view human identity?" and "what’s the relationship between the individual and the group, in relationship to that identity?" The leftist answer is, "it’s all group, and it’s all power." It’s like, "ok…." BS:
One of the things that we’ve been talking about, obviously, is the big gap—that I think we certainly agree on—between the collectivists identity politics and the sublimation of science in favor of politics that favours a power group. But I want to talk a little about the division that is also now breaking out among those of us who I think would consider ourselves friends of the enlightenment. So you consider yourself a friend of enlightenment-style thinking, at least in the essence that individuality matters, and that the individual is sovereign. JP:
And the scientific method is useful, and that facts are useful and real. BS:
I consider myself as part of this group. People have started to call it the "Intellectual Dark Web." Sam Harris is part of this group. There are a wide variety of folks with a lot of broad political differences that are part of this group. But there are some real differences that have broken out, even among people who consider themselves part of this group. Steven Pinker has a different perspective on the world than you do. I have a different perspective as Sam Harris. You and I have our differences, probably, on some matters of philosophy. So where do you think the vulnerability lies in the possibility of revivifying enlightenment mentality? It seems, to me, that one of the big problems that’s popping its head up above the water now is the rejection of the enlightenment in favor of this old-style tribalism that you’ve been talking about—that we’re now going to repeat history, because we benefitted so much from the enlightenment that we’ve forgotten that things don’t have to be this way. We’ve got so much nice stuff and so much freedom that we forget that, if we just toss those enlightenment ideals out the window, things get really ugly again. I think that’s what unites. JP:
Well, that’s the question: "what do you toss out the window before things get ugly?" BS:
The enlightenment proponents—you could say Harris; you could say Pinker; Charles Taylor, in Canada. They trace back the development of the modern self, let’s say. Taylor wrote a book called Sources of the Self
to the enlightenment. It’s quite interesting, because if you look at the typical academic psychologist, let’s say, their historical knowledge generally runs back about fifteen years, because they’re all concerned with the modern literature. There’s some utility in that, but the downside is that they don’t have any historical context. So you read someone like Taylor, and you think, "wow, he’s stretching it back five hundred years." But there’s reading that goes way beyond that, to look at the sources of the self, and the source of the modern ethos. This is a huge bone of contention between people like me, say, and people like Harris—and I think between people like you and people like Harris.
My sense is that the enlightenment values themselves are grounded in an ethos that’s much deeper and much less articulated. That would be an ethos of metaphor, image, drama, ritual, religion, art, music—all of that. Dance, even, for that matter. The nonverbal; the pattern recognition. Iain McGilchrist has written a book called The Master and His Emissary
, which lays that out quite nicely with regards to hemispheric specialization. It’s kind of predicated on Elkhonon Goldberg’s
observation that the left hemisphere is specialized for what we know, and the right hemisphere is specialized for what we don’t know. So that’s an order-chaos dynamic. The rough idea would be that the left hemisphere generates paradigmatic systems. That would be like the enlightenment system, axiom predicated—even statable axiom predicated. But that entire axiomatic system is based in the nonverbal domain, that’s associate with—well, it would be associated with the right hemisphere, but would also be associate with deep, biological motivations and emotions.
Here’s one way of looking at it: You think, "well, how do you validate an axiomatic system of ethics?" The answer is quite straightforward. Jean Piaget
figured this out: you play it out in the world. Literally, you act it out in the the world, and then you watch each other’s emotional responses. And if the axiomatic system that you’re playing out satisfies the motivations and the emotions of the people who are engaged in that system, then the system is justified. And then you say, "well, it’s not just that their motivations and emotions are satisfied. It’s more complex. It’s that the motivations and emotions of each individual are satisfied. But not only now, but now, next week, next month, and next year. So you have to extend it across time. And not only my emotions and motivations, but yours as well, now, next week, next month, across time." So there’s terribly tight constraints placed on an axiomatic system’s validity. Now, the way Jean Piaget thought of that—he said, "think about it like a child’s game: a bunch of kids get together, and they decide to play pretend." "Pretend" is, "let’s model the world as a place to act," because to "pretend," you act out, right? So the kids get together, and they assign roles, and they say, "you’re going to be mom; you’re going to be dad; you’re going to be the dog; and we’re going to play house." And they act it out.
What they’re doing is seeing if they can regulate the manner in which they’re constructing the game so that everyone’s emotions and motivations are so well satisfied that they want to continue the game. That's so cool. What it shows you is that that’s how an ethical system is tested and justified: you play it out, and you see if everyone wants to keep playing. That’s a whole different methodology than the scientific domain. So the ethical axiomatic system isn’t justified by reference to the scientific method. It’s justified by reference to the emotional and motivational wellbeing of all the players of the game. This is the second part of this, and this is so cool. Then the question is, "well, how does that game emerge?" The answer is, "the same way that children’s games emerge."
What Piaget noted is that kids would get together, and they’d play marbles. If they were young kids—say, six years old—they could all play marbles. And if they were in a group, they were playing marbles, and it all worked out fine—squabbles and all of that, but the kids would keep playing, validating the game. But if you took the kids out of the game, and you said, "what are the rules of the game?" They would give completely disparate accounts. So they knew how to do it—it was like the wisdom was in the group. The wisdom was fragmented enough among the individuals, so that if you pull the individuals out, you get disparate accounts. But if you put them all together, they could play the game. But then if you waited until they were eleven or twelve, and you pulled them out of the game, then they could tell you the rules. Then, at fourteen or fifteen, they would be willing to—this is with more sophisticated games—regard themselves as makers of the rules.
Ok, so here’s how it happens in an evolutionary sense. People, going all the way back to our primate forebears, organized themselves into functional hierarchies. The hierarchies are complex, and they’re not just based on power, despite what the idiot Marxists say. Even de Waal
has noted that chimpanzee hierarchies are unstable, if they’re only based on power. They don’t last. They degenerate into violence. So you have a hierarchy that works, but it’s acted out. No one knows why it works. It works because everyone seems to be happy with it. Ok, and so those hierarchies get more complex and more sophisticated, and then people start to observe them and talk about: "well, we’ve got this hierarchy here. What’s it like?" Then they spin off dramas about the hierarchy: "here’s a hero who climbed up the hierarchy, and here’s what a hero looks like."
Ok, so then you get the idea of hierarchy, and then you get the idea of the hero as the person who moves up the hierarchy and generates. Then, out of that, you get the extraction of the idea of the hero, and then you get development of that idea. Out of that you get the monotheistic religions. So the procedure and the hierarchy come first. No one knows what the rules are. It’s all played out the same way wolves play it out in a pack, or chimpanzees play it out in a troop. Then we wake up and think, "oh, we live in a structure. Here’s the structure." That would be Osiris in the Egyptian mythologies. "Here’s the structure; here’s how the structure goes wrong; here’s what the structure does; here’s its tyrannical aspect; here’s what you have to do to generate the structure and to thrive in it." Ok, that’s even more important. The hierarchy’s important enough, but what we want to know is how to master the hierarchy. That’s where you get the mythologies of the hero. So then it generates all sorts of different heroes, because there are different ways of being successful. Then you have a panoply of heroes. Then you think, "ok, now we’ve got all these heroes. That’s a set. We can pull back and say, ‘ok, something about all these heroes is what makes them heroes.’"
That’s when you extract out the monotheistic saviour. That’s why, in Christianity, Christ is the king of kings. You can think about it as a liberal statement. Forget about the religious overlay. It’s like, "ok, you’ve got a bunch of people. Some of them are kind of [Abel]-like." Ok, so you admire them, for whatever reason that is. It’s not easy to figure out why you admire someone. That’s complicated. But let’s say you’ve got admirable people. You start telling stories about them. That’s why you go to a movie. Do you want to go watch someone you don’t care about, you’re bored by? No, you want to go watch someone admirable and interesting, or maybe the opposite of that. It doesn’t matter; it’s the same thing. And then you think, "ok, we’ve got all these admirable people. They’re generating the world properly. That’s what makes them admirable. There's a principle they embody, and that principle is ‘the process by which the admirable world is generated.’" That's the logos. That's the thing that’s operative at the beginning of time. BS:
So here’s my question about all this—because now we’re really not talking about 12 Rules for Life as much as Maps of Meaning, which is your first book. You’re doing the audio recording of it now. It’s definitely a harder book than 12 Rules for Life, and a much more complex book in a lot of ways. So how universal are these systems? Meaning, why is it that the enlightenment only arrived at one time and one place in human history, as opposed to—if human biology is essentially consistent across humanity, then why is it that, if at the apex of the levels you have the enlightenment idea, which started this particular question, then why is it that it only arrives in one place at one time, as opposed to arriving in variety of places and a variety of different times and cultures? JP:
Ok, that’s a great question. The first thing we would say is, the process by which the hierarchy itself and success within the hierarchy is generated is to be accounted over millions of years; at least hundreds of thousands of years. But I would push it back, because you can see analogs in the chimps. So twenty million years, let’s say. That’s a long time. On that time timescale, the fact that the enlightenment values arose in Europe five hundred years ago, before anyone else—well, who cares? It’s five old men long, right? If you put five one-hundred-year-old men in line, it’s like, it’s yesterday. It’s this morning. So we’ve evolved these hierarchical structures. That’s our culture. We’ve evolved ways of maneuvering within the hierarchical structures that are successful. And now we’ve started to evolve ways of mapping our adaptation. Not just adapting, but mapping it. So how does the mapping occur? First, admiration. Second, imitation of admiration, and that would be drama.
Shakespeare extracts out what’s admirable and interesting and plays it out. So that’s the use of the body as a representational structure of the body. So we act out what’s admirable. You think, "ok, now we’ve got the drama down. We’re all captured by the drama." Well, then the literary critics come along, the philosophers. They say, "oh, what are the principles by which the admirable people operate?" It’s like chimps woke up and said, "oh, some chimps are more successful than others. What are the rules of success?" It’s like, "well, there were no rules, because they weren’t running by rules." There aren’t rules until you describe the patterns. Then you have a rule. That’s what happens with Moses, by the way. Moses has a revelation: "here’s the rules! We’ve been living out those rules forever, but we didn't know what they were, because they weren’t rules; they were customs."
Ok, so you start by mapping your customs in drama and story, and that way you can represent them and you can transmit them. Then, once you have them in your grip, say, they’re represented now, not just acted out. Well, then you can move one step backward from them, and you can say, "well, what's the commonalities among these? What are the general principles?" That would be something like the development of the Code of Hammurabi. It’s like, "well, we’ve got all these customs. What are they?" Revelation. It’s like, "oh, here’s how you map the customs." That’s the Decalogue. It’s the same idea. So it took human beings a very long time to evolve their hierarchies, to evolve their structures of success, and then to have enough people around with enough spare time to engage in the artistic cultural process of mapping the adaptive structure. That all emerges in mythology and drama. Then, that lays the groundwork for philosophy. Then the philosophers can come in—especially once it’s written, like in the Judeo-Christian pantheon. It’s like, "oh, now we’ve got it written down. Oh, well, we don’t have to remember it. We can read it. And while we’re reading, we can think about it." And so then, out of that, starts to come the semantic codes. Well, then you get the enlightenment. "Oh, here’s a bunch of semantic codes." It’s like, "yeah, yeah. That’s great." BS:
This is really interesting because, if you read Pinker or Goldberg’s new book, essentially, they attribute the enlightenment to—Goldberg calls it a "miracle." It’s almost as though it accidentally occurred in a certain place at a certain time. Goldberg doesn’t quite go that far, I think, to be fair to him. But I think that philosophy that sprang up randomly here is very much embedded in a lot of Sam Harris’ thinking, a lot of atheist thinking. You’re taking it further back, but I do wonder if this—this may be an area of actual disagreement between us, which would be fun. Are you attributing the growth of the Judeo-Christian ethic that emerges into the enlightenment as accidentally, or just pushing the timeline further back? JP:
No, I don’t think it’s accidental. BS:
I’m not making a reductionist argument. The first thing I’m going to say is, "this is how religion evolved." But I’m not saying that this explanation exhausts the phenomena, because it’s a very strange phenomena. It’s very, very strange. But that doesn’t mean we can’t generate a plausible evolutionary count. If you have a bunch of motivated emotional, limited beings occupying the same territory and competing and cooperating for the same resources, including the resource of cooperation, which can generate more resources—it’s not a zero-sum game—there are going to be patterns of adaptation that emerge from that, that are similar. So here’s a way of thinking about it: if you put a bunch of kids together, they’re going to evolve games. "Well, which games?" "Well, a bunch of different games." "Yeah, but they’re all games, right?" So that’s the moral relativist element. A bunch of different games. But the moral absolutist element is, "yeah, yeah, but they’re all games, and the games have to be playable, which means they have to continue in an iterated way."
That’s a big constraint. People have to want to play them. So not only do they have to be games—and comprehensible to everybody and enjoyable—but they have to be self-maintaining, and everyone has to want to play them. Ok, that’s the answer to the postmodern conundrum: A plethora of potential ethical implications of the world; an infinite variety. Fine. Not an infinite variety of pragmatically applicable interpretations. You instantly constrain the universe to… Well, to what? This is why there’s commonalities in mythologies. If you put enough people together in enough different places, the commonality of the groups of people—because of the grounding in common motivation and emotion and embodiment, because we’re embodied—means that they’re going to generate hierarchies that are broadly similar with strategies of success within those hierarchies that are broadly similar with descriptions of the strategies that are broadly similar. And so you could say, in some sense, "the ethic that gave rise to the enlightenment is in place more or less everywhere." Now it’s tricky, because not every hierarchical system is as functional as every other hierarchical system. Some of them can be generated to tyranny. We’re talking about the set of all voluntarily playable games. BS:
Something like that, and that can degenerate. Out of that, you’re going to get common hero myths. You have to. And then that lays the groundwork for even our ability to communicate. BS:
The enlightenment guys are not getting that. BS:
This is getting to the broader question. I know you and Sam went on for three hours about the nature of truth, particularly truth in the moral sphere. Would it be fair to say that you guys agree on the idea of truth in the scientific sphere? that there is such a thing as subjective truth? JP:
I would say we agree on a lot of that. The question is, to some degree, "why do scientists accept the idea that objective truth is true?" And then I would say, we probably don’t agree about that, because I would ground that in pragmatism, and Sam would ground that in the idea of an independently existing objective world. BS:
Right, which is a leap of faith more like my own, actually, than the pragmatist view. And if you believe there’s a God who’s out in the universe, who created the structures in a particular certain way, then what he created is the truth, and it is apart from you. If human beings didn’t exist and they weren’t able to utilize the truth, that truth would still exist out there. The pragmatists might say, "truth is in the use that it has for human beings." JP:
Well, that’s the thing. I don’t know if we would consider scientific truth "true" unless we are also simultaneously accepting the idea that scientific truth is good for people. There’s one other thing I wanted to bring up that’s relevant, because you brought up the idea of God. So here’s a way of thinking about it. And I don’t know what to make of this, because this is stretching my thoughts out beyond where I’ve been able to develop them. So this is the intuition that I have, based on a variety of things; experiences I’ve had. Imagine that there’s a very wide range of human behaviours. Some subset of those are both admirable and not admirable, so let’s call them "good" and "evil" at the extremes. Then we might say, "well, there’s a pattern that characterizes all the actions that are good and a pattern that characterizes all the actions that are evil. And that’s a transpersonal pattern, because it’s not just about you or me. It’s about everyone."
Ok, so then that gets personified. That’s Christ and Satan, let’s say, or Cain and Abel. That’s a bad guy and a good guy in a movie. It’s personified all the time. It’s Thor and Loki in the Marvel movies. You take the idea of Christ, and you think, "ok, so that’s the abstraction of everything that’s admirably good about the set of all human behaviours." Ok, then you think, "what sort of reality does that have?" This pulls back into the reality of the idea of the logos, and the idea that it was the logos that God used at the beginning of time to extract order out of chaos. It’s transpersonal, the goodness. It’s not just characteristic of any one person. It’s more like something that inhabits a person, rather than that a person is. You can really see this, for example, on the other end, too—on the Satanic end. If you read the writings of people who do absolutely horrific things, like the shooters, you can see that possession extraordinarily clear, if your eyes are open. It’s shocking, so people don’t usually look at it. They even say that themselves. The Columbine kids, man… Their writings are hair raising. They were clearly possessed by an evil that you only encounter if you sit in a dark place and brood on your hatred for months and years. You go places where all the dark people go. BS:
And then that takes you over. The good can take you over, as well. Ok, so there’s this spirit of good, let’s say. What the spirit of good does is act in the world, on the potential of the world, to generate the actuality of the world. The Judeo-Christian proposition is, "if you confront the potential of the world with good in mind, using truthful communication, then the order that you extract is good." And then that’s echoed in Genesis, when God is using the Word; and he creates cosmos out of potential, and every time he does that he says, "and it was good." I think it’s so interesting. There’s a proposition, there. The proposition is that, if you encounter potential with truth, the cosmos you create is actually good. Well, that’s just an absolutely overwhelming idea. If it’s true, it’s the greatest idea there ever was. BS:
Your thoughts on this actually, from Maps of Meaning, helped generate what we in Judaism call [inaudible] in Hebrew, believing that a thought about the Bible—but this, merged with a little bit of Aristotelean thought, led me to the idea that, when it comes to the mystical notion of the tree of good and evil in Eden—what is that supposed to be? What did people do wrong? Like eating from the tree of good and evil. My feeling is that, what they did wrong was that God created a universe in which the value was embedded in the object. In the same way that you, in your book, talk about: if you’re teaching a child about the object, the rules of the object are embedded in the teaching about the object. So you use the example of a vase, where you teach a child, "don’t touch the vase, because the vase will break." So the rules are embedded in the object. In the same way, in Aristotelian thought, the rules of behaviour are embedded in the nature of the universe, meaning, what makes a man good is what makes a man unique, which is reason.
The idea is that reason is what makes man unique, so acting in according to right reason is what makes an action good. So if you believe that God created the universe along these lines, and that natural law is just a human attempt to understand the lines along which God created the universe, then where human beings went wrong is when they decided to separate values from the universe—when we decided to take values and say, "this is a completely separate thing. This vase has no rules attached to it anymore. It’s just a vase. We can construct the rules arbitrarily about what to do with this vase." So eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil changes the nature of good and evil from "universe comes along with a set of rules" to "human beings think they can use their own intuition to supplant God’s rules and supplant universal rules with their own particular vision of what the universe ought to be." And, at that point, they have to be expelled from Eden. JP:
That’s all associated—to some degree, I would say—with Milton’s warning in Paradise Lost
. Milton basically portrays Lucifer—who’s the bringer of light, weirdly enough—as the spirit of unbridled rationality, which accounts for, say, the Catholic church’s antagonism towards rationality. The same idea is in the Tower of Babel, that human beings have a proclivity to erect their own dogmatic, ethical systems, and then to expand them into a grandiosity that challenges the transcendent, and that that’s a totalitarian catastrophe. For Milton, Satan was the spirit that eternally does that, who says, "everything I know is enough; and that supplants what I don’t know. That supplants the transcendent." That’s a catastrophe.
How that’s tangled up with the knowledge of good and evil, well, you’re making some headways towards sorting that out. I mean, there is a cataclysm that’s explained in the story of Adam and Eve, right? The cataclysm is coming to wakefulness. It’s associated partly with recognition of nakedness, which is recognition of vulnerability and mortality and the discovery of death, and also the discovery of good and evil that goes along with that. So you said, "well, that’s partly the cognitive division of ethics from the facts of the object," so I have to think that through. I would also recommend to people—I think I mentioned this before—Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and his Emissary, because he looks at this neuropsychologically, and looks at the left hemisphere as the hemisphere that’s dealing with the explicitly axiomatic systems, and the right hemisphere, that’s dealing with what those systems are embodied in. Ok, so part of what happens with the emergence of good and evil, as far as I can tell—it took me a long time to think about this, and this is different than the hypothesis that you laid forward, which is why I can’t reconcile it, exactly. BS:
You recognize you’re naked. You know you can be hurt. You know you’re vulnerable and insufficient. You hide from God, because that’s what happens next. God is your destiny, or you’re walking with God is a manifestation of your ultimate proper destiny. You doubt whether you’re capable of that, because now you realize your embodied finitude: your nakedness and insufficiency. So you hide, and you’re ashamed. So there’s that. You also realize that you can be hurt and suffer. That kind of goes along with God’s command that you’re going to work in the sweat of your brow, and you’re going to die, and that women are going to be subjugated to men, which is put on as a curse, not as a moral imperative. But then what emerges out of that is that, as soon as you know that you can be hurt—this is what differentiates us from animals—and you really think that through: "here’s all the myriad ways I can be hurt." Then you’re angry about that, because you could be hurt. But even worse, you could figure out how to hurt other people. So that’s part of that knowledge of good and evil. You associated it with this disassociation of the object from its ethical container. BS:
Right. The universe as it was created by God, from our interpretation of the universe. That there is a gap between the two, and that once human beings begin to supplant their own rationality for a telos, a teleology, what we do is end up creating all these awful systems that end up destroying us in the end. JP:
There’s something about that that’s right. I mean, part of what happens in the New Testament, as far as I can tell, is that what Christ says—he’s trying to transcend the rule structure, right? Not because there’s anything wrong with the rules. They’re a necessary precondition for discipline, which is actually why I wrote "12 Rules." You need rules, but rules conflict, and they don’t always apply, and so there has to be an ethic underlying the rules, and you should have more respect for the ethic than for the rules. Christ’s idea—and this is part of the idea of the reestablishment of the paradise—is that you should orient yourself towards the good, and that’s something like an alliance with God, and then that you should tell the truth. That’s the ethic that generated the rules to begin with. Then we can be serious. We can say, "how do you adjudicate the reality of that claim?" All right, so then we might think—well, we already walked through the fact that the heroes of the past acted on potential to extract out the world of actuality, and if they did that properly, then the world they extracted was good, and that is a divine principle. Then we might say, "well, is it a divine principle?" And you might say, "well, what is it that’s acting through people in the good?"
The Christian theological answer to that would be "the logos." That’s the idea. That’s the idea of the Holy Spirit, roughly speaking. You might think, "well, is that a real thing?" Well, to me, it’s real the same way that consciousness is real. We don’t know the role of consciousness in determining reality. But even if you’re an evolutionary biologist… And this is so interesting, because the evolutionary biologists actually discriminated, differentiated themselves from Darwin on this point. Darwin was very, very forthright in his claim that sexual selection was as powerful as natural selection, or even more so. Because that brought consciousness into the world as an active player, the materialistic evolutionary biologists ignored that for like 150 years and only concentrated on natural selection, where they could play, "well, this is all chance." Sexual selection is not chance. Here’s a hypothesis: Human beings separated themselves from chimpanzees. One of the reasons they did that was because human females are sexually selective. Chimps aren’t. Female chimps in estrus will mate with any chimp. The main chimps, the dominant ones, chase the subordinate ones away. So they’re more likely to have offspring, but it’s not because of female choice. BS:
Now, human females have done this whole different thing. They have hidden fertility, and they’re much more likely to go after guys who have climbed up the hierarchy, so let’s say "heroes." We’ll give the women some credit for intelligence, right? and say that that’s what they’re after, even if they’re using wealth and status and so forth as a marker. They’re actually using those as a marker for competence, and I think the evidence for that is clear. Ok, so you might say, "oh, well, it was human female conscious choice that selected us." And you think, "ok, that’s not random at all. It’s the farthest thing from random that there is. That means that consciousness is making its choices in regards to what propagates." But then it’s even more complex than that. So here’s what happens among men. The men all get together in their hierarchy; they posit a valued goal; they all accept that as the goal, because otherwise they wouldn’t be cooperating. Then they arrange themselves into a hierarchy, and they let the most competent guys lead, because they want to get to the promised land; they want to get the most competent leaders leading. "Competent" defined by that value.
Ok, so here’s what happens, essentially: the men all get together and vote on the good men, and the good men are then chosen by the women, and those are the people who propagate. And so it’s like men are voting on which men get to reproduce, and women are going along with the vote, and being even more stringent in their choices. Then what you get is the consciousness that, through its acted expression, transforms the potential of the world into actuality and also selects the direction of evolution. Right. And that’s where the meme—Dawkin’s term—turns into the biological reality. This is something that’s so cool about Dawkins. I’ve often thought this about Dawkins. If he would push his thinking to its limits, he would fall right into Jung. Well, and then he’s lost, of course, because that’s a whole other universe. But if you take that meme seriously, and I mean really seriously, you think, "yeah, there’s some ways of conceptualizing that become so all encompassing-" BS:
Powerful. They hardwire themselves. JP:
That’s right. They start to become an actual force of evolution itself. All right, so here’s the case you could make: consciousness extracts the proper world of being from potential through truth, and then it’s good. That’s a hard one, man. That manifests itself in human beings at the level of individual consciousness. That’s the logos within. That’s the metaphysical foundation of the idea of natural right and responsibility. That’s a bloody killer idea. That’s expressed in the hero of heroes, that idea. That hero of heroes is the driving force behind human evolution. So not only do you get the action of the logos metaphysically as the process that extracts order out of chaos at the beginning of time, you also get it as the major driver of evolution. And so then you ask, "ok, then what kind of reality does that have?" Because you chase consciousness back, and it disappears into the mystery of the past. We have no idea what its relationship is with matter. But it’s the force that gives rise to the cosmos and drives evolution. It’s like, you’re getting pretty close to God, there, even just pragmatically speaking. BS:
And you’re certainly not close to, but in the midst of, an argument about free will. Obviously, if you make the hard deterministic argument that free will doesn’t exist and consciousness is merely a trick that your brain is playing on itself, then how exactly does culture propagate? how do these memes propagate? how are people choosing? Sexual selection and natural selection become one and the same, as soon as you boil sexual selection down to natural selection. JP:
Also, I think the free will argument—I see why Harris gets tangled up in that. Well, first of all, deterministic arguments are unbelievably powerful. When we use deterministic models for many things, they really work. So you could say, "well, we’re going to use that by default." It’s like, "fair enough." We’re going to deviant from that with care, but I don’t see people as driven like clocks winding down. First of all, we don’t wind down in any simple way. We’re dissipative structures, to use Schrodinger
. What is life? A human being is a dissipative structure. We’re not an entropic structure like a clock running down. We are in some sense, but as living beings we pull energy in. And so we’re not winding down like a deterministic structure. We’re something other than that. The way we treat each other is as logos, as far as I can tell. The way I treat myself, if I’m going to be good to myself, in the proper sense, is that I’m an active agent of choice confronting an infinite landscape of potential, and casting that potential into a reality for good or for evil. And if I treat myself that way, then I have proper respect for myself and proper fear of myself, because I can make bad decisions and warp the structure of reality.
I think if you read Frankl
, for example, or Solzhenitsyn
, and you see how your bad decisions can warp the structure of reality, then that wakes you up. Ok, so there’s that. If you don’t treat yourself like an active agent imbued with the logos, then your life doesn’t go well. But more, if you don’t treat other people that way, they do not want to play with you. If we set up societies that aren’t predicated on the idea that people are like that, then the societies dissolve or become totalitarian, almost instantly. Then I would say, "well, you’ve got the problem of determinism." It’s like, "fair enough, man." How do you reconcile the fact that, if you lay out a society at every level of analysis on strict deterministic grounds, it fails? Doesn’t that mean your hypothesis has a flaw? Maybe not. Maybe you can say, "no, the facts are independent of the ethical consequences." BS:
Exactly. This is where the true pragmatism question comes back into being. Sam would say, "well, it’s true regardless of what what the effect is," and you would say, "well, it’s obviously not true if morals aren’t constructed for pragmatic reason, and if this pragmatism doesn’t work, it falls into nothingness." JP:
It also depends, to some degree, on how you’re willing to test your hypothesis. I might say, "well, if your hypothesis is factually correct, wouldn’t you assume that, if people based their behaviours—individuals and familial and socially—on that set of facts"—which is basically what Sam claims about facts to begin with—"if you based your ethos on those facts, wouldn’t it work?" Well, he claims that that’s a test. I would say, "well, then it fails that test. It doesn’t work." We have to treat each other like divine centres of consciousness in order for society to work. I can’t see any way out of those arguments. BS:
I can’t see it either, obviously, which is why you and I agree so much on this kind of stuff. I think it’s also the reason why people find your work really inspiring. While the left wants to claim that you are an angry person—they also want to claim that I’m an angry person—I don’t think this has been an angry conversation. I’m quite sure it has not been. JP:
I’m horrified by what the radical left is capable of, but that doesn’t make me angry. BS:
Exactly. And I think it’s demonstrative of why so many people find what you’re doing inspiring. Unlike the radical left, which is consumed with the idea of victimhood and victimology and "we’re victims of the system." Marxism makes the claim that people suck. But the only way to cure people of sucking is by changing the entire system, which will, in some magical fashion, transform the nature of humanity. JP:
Yeah, and in the proper direction. BS:
Exactly. The claim that you’re making, and I hope that I’m making as well, is that human beings do suck, unless they decide to stop sucking. And your whole goal is to tell people exactly how it is that they can clean up their rooms, as your famous phrase goes. JP:
Yeah, well they might as well start with what’s right in front of them. It’s a lot harder than it looks, because to clean up your room means to accept that it’s actually necessary for you to take that little bit of chaos that’s in front of you, that chaotic potential, and cast it into habitable order. And then you have to develop the right attitude towards that. It’s like, "ok, I’m going to put my room in order." Well, what do you mean? "Order" is in relationship to something. If your desk is ordered, it means you’ve ordered it because you’re going to work there, and you’re working there on something valuable. So the order is conceived of in relationship to a telos. It’s like , "ok, you’re going to order your room. Ok, well, what are you going to do in it? What’s your room for?" BS:
What’s the purpose. JP:
What’s the purpose? You can’t order your room without falling into purpose. I would say, "well, if you’re going to fall into purpose, try it out on a local scale first, right?" You don’t want to go out there and change the system. It’s like, "what the hell do you know? Leave the system alone. See what you can do locally. See if you can put yourself together. See if you can put your immediate environment together." If you’re in a chaotic household, and a chaotic household would be one where no one has any discipline, no one has any aims, and there’s a terrible battle between Cain and Abel going on all the time. So, "life sucks, and everything’s miserable, and we’re cynical, and that’s what wisdom is. There’s no point in trying anything, because everything’s meaningless, and who the hell’s going to care in a million years, and you’re a fool to move forward in any case." There’s your household. Ok, now you decide, "no, despite all that, I’m going to put that room in order." You will have a war on your hands, because the first thing that people around you who are aiming down will do is think, "oh, you think you’re so much better than we are, do you? you really think that, you and your fancy god damn plans? We’re going to put every psychological obstacle we can think of in your way, because if you succeed, even in something that trivial, you shed a very dim light on our existence. And so we’re going to do everything we can to take you out."
People think, "oh, well, cleaning your room—that’s just a cliche." You just go ahead and try it, and you see just how much of a cliche that is. And if you’ve got your room in order, then put your office in order. As soon as you do that, you step out into the social world. You’re going to encounter the antipathy between men and women; you’re going to encounter the identity politics in the workplace; you’re going to encounter how you regulate your sexual morality while you’re working with people of the opposite sex; you’re going to encounter the ethics that are necessary to move your business forward. It’s a microcosm. It really is. And so to take those microcosms seriously… Well, that’s what I’m asking people to do. I’m saying, "look, it isn’t only about you being happy. There’s a lots of times in your life you’re not going to be happy, and so that’s not going to work. You want to have something meaningful. That’s the boat that will take you through the storm, when you batten down the hatches." But it isn’t even that. Meaningful, engaged life will see you through the catastrophes, even though that’s a big deal, right? That’s a great proposition, and I really believe it’s true, because you can say to yourself, "yeah, it’s worth it." And great, man. The other part of it, too, which is, "don’t be thinking that your errors aren’t linked to hell, because they are."
The brilliant commentators on the 20th century totalitarian states and all of their atrocities said the same thing over and over: "it isn’t ‘top-down evil leader manipulating innocent masses.’ That’s not it. It’s the moral failings of every single individual unwilling to say their truth; unwilling to act out what they know to be right, that accumulate and produce the catastrophic state." And so when you’re fussing about with your life, when you're not manifesting your potential, when you’re falsifying your speech and your actions in the service of short term expedience, you are working to bring about hell on earth, and that’s true. It’s true literally, and then I suspect it’s also true metaphorically. That's a real truth, man. When you get the metaphorical and the literal working at the same time, that’s real. So it isn’t just that you have to fix up yourself so you can have a better life. It’s like, "who cares about you?" for a moment. You have to fix up your life, because if you don’t, every time you make a mistake that you know to be a mistake, you’re leading the world toward hell, and I believe that. I think it’s true. BS:
Well, Jordan Peterson’s book is 12 Rules for Life
. Honestly, we could do this all day long, and we’ll certainly have you back. I really appreciate the time. There’s a reason so many people follow Jordan. There’s a reason so many people are buying his book. The book is fantastic, and his other book, Maps of Meaning, is also fantastic, so I would get a copy of that, as well. Jordan, thanks so much for stopping by. I really appreciate it. JP:
Thanks Ben. This was great.