Biblical Series I: Introduction to the Idea of God by Dr. Jordan Peterson
Thank you all very much for coming. It’s really shocking to me that you don’t have anything better to do on a Tuesday night. Seriously though, it’s very strange, in some sense, that so many of you are here to listen to a sequence of lectures on the psychological significance of the Bible stories. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but it still does surprise me that there’s a ready audience for it. That’s good. We’ll see how it goes.
I’ll start with this, because it’s the right question: why bother doing this? And I don’t mean why should I bother—I have my own reasons for doing it—but you might think, ‘why bother with this strange old book at all?’ That’s a good question. It’s a contradictory document that’s been cobbled together over thousands of years. It’s outlasted many, many kingdoms. It’s really interesting that it turns out a book is more durable than stone. It’s more durable than a castle. It’s more durable than an empire. It’s really interesting that something so evanescent can be so long-living. So there’s that; that’s kind of a mystery.
I’m approaching this whole scenario, the Biblical stories, as if they’re a mystery, fundamentally because they are. There’s a lot we don’t understand about them. We don’t understand how they came about. We don't really understand how they were put together. We don’t understand why they had such an unbelievable impact on civilization. We don’t understand how people could have believed them. We don't understand what it means that we don’t believe them now, or even what it would mean if we did believe them. On top of all that, there’s the additional problem—which isn’t specific to me, but is certainly relevant to me—that, no matter how educated you are, you’re not educated enough to discuss the psychological significance of the Biblical stories. But I’m going to do my best, partly because I want to learn more about them. One of the things I've learned is that one of the best ways to learn about something is to talk about it. When I'm lecturing, I’m thinking. I’m not trying to tell you what I know for sure to be the case, because there’s lots of things that I don’t know for sure to be the case. I’m trying to make sense out of this, and I have been doing this for a long time.
You may know, you may not, that I’m an admirer of Nietzsche. Nietzsche was a devastating critic of dogmatic Christianity—Christianity as it was instantiated in institutions. Although, he is a very paradoxical thinker. One of the things Nietzsche said was that he didn’t believe the scientific revolution would have ever got off the ground if it hadn’t been for Christianity—and, more specifically, for Catholicism. He believed that, over the course of a thousand years, the European mind had to train itself to interpret everything that was known within a single coherent framework—coherent if you accept the initial axioms. Nietzsche believed that the Catholicization of the phenomena of life and history produced the kind of mind that was then capable of transcending its dogmatic foundations, and concentrating on something else. In this particular case, it happened to be the natural world.
Nietzsche believed that Christianity died of its own hand, and that it spent a very long time trying to attune people to the necessity of the truth, absent the corruption, and all that—that’s always part of any human endeavour. The truth—the spirit of truth—that was developed by Christianity turned on the roots of Christianity. Everyone woke up and said, or thought, something like, ‘how is it that we came to believe any of this?’ It’s like waking up one day and noting that you really don’t know why you put a Christmas tree up, but you’ve been doing it for a long time, and that’s what people do. There are reasons Christmas trees came about. The ritual lasts long after the reasons have been forgotten.
Nietzsche was a critic of Christianity, and also a champion of its disciplinary capacity. The other thing that Nietzsche believed was that it was not possible to be free unless you had been a slave. By that, he meant that you don’t go from childhood to full-fledged adult individuality: you go from child to a state of discipline, which you might think is akin to self-imposed slavery. That would be the best scenario, where you have to discipline yourself to become something specific, before you might be able to reattain the generality you had as a child. He believed that Christianity had played that role for Western civilization. But, in the late 1800s, he announced that God was dead.
You often hear of that as something triumphant, but, for Nietzsche, it wasn’t. He was too nuanced a thinker to be that simpleminded. Nietzsche understood—and this is something I’m going to try to make clear—that there’s a very large amount that we don’t know about the structure of experience—that we don’t know about reality—and we have our articulated representations of the world. Outside of that, there are things we know absolutely nothing about. There’s a buffer between them, and those are things we sort of know something about. But we don’t know them in an articulated way.
Here's an example: You’re arguing with someone close to you, and they’re in a bad mood. They’re being touchy and unreasonable. You keep the conversation up, and maybe, all of a sudden, they get angry, or maybe they cry. When they cry, they figure out what they’re angry about. It has nothing to do with you, even though you might have been what precipitated the argument. That’s an interesting phenomena, as far as I’m concerned, because it means that people can know things at one level, without being able to speak what they know at another. In some sense, the thoughts rise up from the body. They do that in moods, images, and actions. We have all sorts of ways that we understand, before we understand in a fully articulated manner.
We have this articulated space that we can all discuss. Outside of that, we have something that’s more akin to a dream, that we’re embedded in. It’s an emotional dream, that we’re embedded in, and that’s based, at least in part, on our actions. I’ll describe that later. What’s outside of that is what we don’t know anything about, at all. The dream is where the mystics and artists live. They’re the mediators between the absolutely unknown and the things we know for sure. What that means is that what we know is established on a form of knowledge that we don’t really understand. If those two things are out of sync—if our articulated knowledge is out of sync with our dream—then we become dissociated internally. We think things we don’t act out, and we act out things we don’t dream. That produces a kind of sickness of the spirit. Its cure is something like an integrated system of belief and representation.
People turn to things like ideologies—which I regard as parasites on an underlying religious substructure—to try to organize their thinking. That’s a catastrophe, and what Nietzsche foresaw. He knew that, when we knocked the slats out of the base of Western civilization by destroying this representation—this God ideal—we would destabilize, and move back and forth violently between nihilism and the extremes of ideology. He was particularly concerned about radical left ideology, and believed—and predicted this in the late 1800s, which is really an absolute intellectual tour de force of staggering magnitude—that in the 20th century hundreds of millions of people would die because of the replacement of these underlying dream-like structures with this rational but deeply incorrect representation of the world. We’ve been oscillating back and forth between left and right ever since, with some good sprinkling of nihilism and despair. In some sense, that’s the situation of the modern Western person, and increasingly of people in general.
I think part of the reason that Islam has its back up with regards to the West, to such a degree—there’s many reasons, and not all of them are valid—is that, being still grounded in a dream, they can see that the rootless, questioning mind of the West poses a tremendous danger to the integrity of their culture, and it does. Westerners, us—we undermine ourselves all the time with our searching intellect. I’m not complaining about that. There isn’t anything easy that can be done about it. But it’s still a sort of fruitful catastrophe, and it has real effects on people’s lives. It’s not some abstract thing. Lots of times when I’ve been treating people with depression, for example, or anxiety, they have existential issues. It’s not just some psychiatric condition. It’s not just that they’re tapped off of normal because their brain chemistry is faulty—although, sometimes that happens to be the case. It’s that they are overwhelmed by the suffering and complexity of their life, and they’re not sure why it’s reasonable to continue with it. They can feel the terrible, negative meanings of life, but they are sceptical beyond belief about any of the positive meanings of it.
I had one client who’s a very brilliant artist. As long as he didn’t think, he was fine. He’d go and create, and he was really good at being an artist. He had that personality that was continually creating, and quite brilliant, although he was self-denigrating. But he sawed the branch off that he was sitting on, as soon as he started to think about what he was doing. He’d start to criticize what he was doing—the utility of it—even though it was self-evidently useful. Then it would be very, very hard for him to even motivate himself to create. He always struck me as a good example of the consequences of having your rational intellect divorced, in some way, from your Being—divorced enough so that it actually questions the utility of your Being. It’s not a good thing.
It’s really not a good thing, because it manifests itself not only in individual psychopathologies, but also in social psychopathologies. That’s this proclivity of people to get tangled up in ideologies, and I really do think of them as crippled religions. That’s the right way to think about them. They’re like religion that’s missing an arm and a leg, but can still hobble along. It provides a certain amount of security and group identity, but it’s warped and twisted and demented and bent, and it’s a parasite on something underlying that’s rich and true. That’s how it looks to me, anyways. I think it’s very important that we sort out this problem. I think that there isn’t anything more important that needs to be done than that. I’ve thought that for a long, long time—probably since the early ‘80s, when I started looking at the role that belief systems played in regulating psychological and social health. You can tell that they do that because of how upset people get if you challenge their belief systems. Why the hell do they care, exactly? What difference does it make if all of your ideological axioms are 100 percent correct?
People get unbelievable upset when you poke them in the axioms, so to speak, and it is not by any stretch of the imagination obvious why. There’s a fundamental truth that they’re standing on. It’s like they’re on a raft in the middle of the ocean. You’re starting to pull out the logs, and they’re afraid they’re going to fall in and drown. Drown in what? What are the logs protecting them from? Why are they so afraid to move beyond the confines of the ideological system? These are not obvious things. I’ve been trying to puzzle that out for a very long time. I’ve done some lectures about that that are on YouTube. Most of you know that. Some of what I’m going to talk about in this series you’ll have heard, if you’ve listened to the YouTube videos, but I’m trying to hit it from different angles.
Nietzsche's idea was that human beings were going to have to create their own values. He understood that we had bodies, motivations, and emotions. He was a romantic thinker, in some sense, but way ahead of his time. He knew that our capacity to think wasn’t some free-floating soul, but was embedded in our physiology, constrained by our emotions, shaped by our motivations, and shaped by our body. He understood that. But he still believed that the only possible way out of the problem would be for human beings themselves to become something akin to God, and to create their own values. He talked about the person who created their own values as the Overman, or the Superman. That was one part of the Nietzschean philosophy that the Nazis took out of context and used to fuel their superior man ideology. We know what happened with that. That didn’t seem to turn out very well. That’s for sure.
I also spent a lot of time reading Carl Jung. It was through Jung—and also Jean Piaget, a developmental psychologist—that I started to understand that our articulated systems of thought are embedded in something like a dream. That dream is informed, in a complex way, by the way we act. We act out things we don’t understand, all the time. If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t need psychology, or sociology, or anthropology, or any of that, because we’d be completely transparent to ourselves, and we’re clearly not. We’re much more complicated than we understand, which means that the way that we behave contains way more information than we know.
Part of the dream that surrounds our articulated knowledge is extracted as a consequence of us watching each other behave, and telling stories about it, for thousands and thousands and thousands of years—extracting out patterns of behaviour that characterize humanity, and trying to represent—partly through imitation, but also drama, mythology, literature, art, and all of that—what we’re like, so that we can understand what we’re like. That process of understanding is what I see unfolding, at least in part, in the Biblical stories. It’s halting, partial, awkward, and contradictory, which is one of things that makes the book so complex. But I see, in that, the struggle of humanity to rise above its animal forebears and become conscious of what it means to be human.
That’s a very difficult thing, because we don’t know who we are, or what we are, or where we came from. Life is an unbroken chain going back 3.5 billion years. It’s an absolutely unbelievable thing. Every single one of your ancestors reproduced successfully for 3.5 billion years. It’s absolutely unbelievable. We rose out of the dirt and the muck, and here we are, conscious but not knowing, and we’re trying to figure out who we are. A set of stories that we’ve been telling for 3,000 years seems, to me, to have something to offer.
When I look at the stories in the Bible, I do it, in some sense, with a beginner’s mind. It’s a mystery, this book: how the hell it was made, why it was made, why we preserved it, why it happened to motivate an entire culture for 2,000 years and transform the world. What’s going on? How did that happen? It’s by no means obvious. One of the things that bothers me about casual critics of religion is that they don’t take the phenomena seriously. It’s a serious phenomena, not least because people have the capacity for religious experience, and no one knows why that is. You can induce it reliably, in all sorts of different ways. You could do it with brain stimulation. You can certainly do it with drugs, especially the psychedelic variety. They produce intimations of the divine extraordinarily regularly. People have been using drugs like that for God only knows how long—50,000 years, maybe more than that—to produce some sort of intimate union with the divine. We don’t understand any of that. When we discovered the psychedelics in the late ‘60s, it shocked everybody so badly that they were instantly made illegal. They were abandoned, in terms of research, for like 50 years, and it’s no wonder, because who the hell expected that? Nobody.
Jung was a student of Nietzsche’s, and he was also a very astute critic of Nietzsche. He was educated by Freud. Freud started to collate the information that we had pertaining to the notion that people lived inside a dream. It was Freud that really popularized the idea of the unconscious mind. We take this for granted to such a degree, today, that we don’t understand how revolutionary the idea was. What’s happened with Freud is that we’ve taken all the marrow out of his bones and left the husk behind. Now, when we think about Freud, we just think about the husk, because that’s everything that’s been discarded. But so much of what he discovered is part of our popular conception, now—including the idea that your perceptions, your actions, and your thoughts are all informed and shaped by unconscious motivations that are not part of your voluntary control.
That’s a very, very strange thing. It’s one of the most unsettling things about the psychoanalytic theories. The psychoanalytic theories are something like, ‘you’re a loose collection of living subpersonalities, each with its own set of motivations, perceptions, emotions, and rationales, and you have limited control over that.’ You’re like a plurality of internal personalities that’s loosely linked into a unity. You know that, because you can’t control yourself very well—which is one of Jung’s objections to Nietzsche's idea that we can create our own values.
Jung didn’t believe that—especially not after interacting with Freud—because he saw that human beings were deeply, deeply affected by things that were beyond their conscious control. No one really knows how to conceptualize those things. The cognitive psychologists think of them as computational machines. The ancient people thought of them as gods, although it’s more complicated than that. Mars would be the God of rage; that’s the thing that possesses you when you’re angry. It has a viewpoint, and it says what it wants to say, and that might have very little to do with what you want to say, when you’re being sensible. It doesn’t just inhabit you: it inhabits everyone, and it lives forever, and it even inhabits animals. It’s this transcendent psychological entity that inhabits the body politic, like a thought inhabiting the brain. That’s one way of thinking about it. It’s a very strange way of thinking, but it certainly has its merits. Those things, in some sense, are deities. But it’s not that simple.
Jung got very interested in dreams, and he started to understand the relationship between dreams and myths. He was deeply read in mythology, and he would see, in his client’s dreams, echoes of stories that he knew. He started to believe that the dream was the birthplace of the myth and that there was a continual interaction between the two processes: the dream and the story, and storytelling. You can tell your dreams as stories, when you remember them, and some people remember dreams all the time—two or three, at night. I’ve had clients like that. They often have archetypal dreams that have very clear mythological structures. I think that’s more the case with people who are creative—especially if they’re a bit unstable at the time—because the dream tends to occupy the space of uncertainty, and to concentrate on fleshing out the unknown reality, before you get a real grip on it. So the dream is the birthplace of thinking. That’s a good way of thinking about it, because it’s not that clear. It’s doing its best to formulate something. That was Jung’s notion, as of post-Freud, who believed that there were internal censors that were hiding the dream’s true message. That’s not what Jung believed. He believed the dream was doing its best to express a reality that was still outside of fully articulated, conscious comprehension.
A thought appears in your head, right? That’s obvious. Bang—it’s nothing you ever asked about. What the hell does that mean? A thought appears in your head. What kind of ridiculous explanation is that? It just doesn't help with anything. ‘Where does it come from?’ ‘Well, nowhere. It just appears in my head.’ That’s not a very sophisticated explanation, as it turns out. You might think that those thoughts that you think...Well, where do they come from? They’re often someone else’s thoughts—someone long dead. That might be part of it—just like the words you use to think are utterances of people who have been long dead. You’re informed by the spirit of your ancestors. That’s one way of looking at it.
Your motivations speak to; your emotions speak to you; your body speaks to you, and it does all that, at least in part, through the dream. The dream is the birthplace of the fully articulated idea. They don’t just come from nowhere fully-fledged. They have a developmental origin, and God only knows how lengthy that origin is. Even to say, ‘I am conscious…’ Chimpanzees don’t say that. It’s been something like 3 million years since we broke from chimpanzees—from the common ancestor. They have no articulated knowledge, very little self-representation, and very little self-consciousness. That’s not the case with us, at all. We had to painstakingly figure all of this out during that 7 million year voyage. I think some of that’s represented and captured in these ancient stories—especially the oldest stories, in Genesis, which are the stories we’re going to start with. Some of the archaic nature of the human being is encapsulated in those stories. It’s very, very instructive, as far as I can tell.
I’ll give you just a quick example. There’s an idea of sacrifice in the Old Testament, and it’s pretty barbaric. The story of Abraham and Isaac is a good example. Abraham was called on to actually sacrifice his own son, which doesn’t really seem like something that a reasonable God would ask you to do. God, in the Old Testament, is frequently cruel, arbitrary, demanding, and paradoxical, which is one of the things that really gives the book life. It wasn’t edited by a committee that was concerned with not offending anyone. That’s for sure.
So Jung believed that the dream was the birthplace of thought. I’ve been extending that idea, because one of the things I wondered about deeply—you have a dream, and then someone interprets it. You can argue about whether or not an interpretation is valid, just like you can argue about whether your interpretation of a novel or a movie is valid. It’s a very difficult thing to determine with any degree of accuracy—which accounts, in part, for the postmodern critique. But my observation has been that people will present a dream and, sometimes, we can extract out real, useful information from it that the person didn’t appear to know, and they get a flash of insight. That’s a marker that we stumbled on something that unites part of that person that wasn’t united before. It pulls things together, which is often what a good story will do, or, sometimes, a good theory. Things snap together for you, and a little light goes on. That’s one of the markers that I’ve used for accuracy and dreams, in my own family.
When I was first married, I’d have fights with my wife—arguments about this and that. I’m fairly hot-headed, and I’d get all puffed up and agitated about whatever we were arguing about. She’d go to sleep, which was really annoying. It was so annoying, because I couldn’t sleep. I’d be chewing off my fingernails, and she’d be sleeping peacefully beside me. Maddening. But, often, she’d have a dream, and she’d discuss it with me the next morning. We’d unravel what was at the bottom of our argument. That was unbelievably useful, even though it was extraordinary aggravating. I was convinced by Jung. His ideas about the relationship between dreams, mythology, drama, and literature made sense to me, and his ideas about the relationship between man and art.
I know this Native carver. He’s a Kwakwaka’wakw guy. He’s carved a bunch of wooden sculptures, totem poles, and masks that I have in my house. He’s a very interesting person—not particularly literate, and really still steep in this ancient, 13,000-year-old tradition. He’s an original language speaker, and the fact that he isn’t literate has sort of left him with the mind of someone who is pre-literature. Pre-literature people aren’t stupid; they just aren’t literate. Their brains are organized differently, in many ways.
I’ve asked him about his intuition for his carvings, and he’s told me that he dreams. You’ve seen the Haida masks; you know what they look like. His people are closely related to the Haida. It’s the same kind of style. He dreams in those animals, and he can remember his dreams. He also talks to his grandparents, who taught him how to carve, in his dreams. Quite often, if he runs into a problem with carving, his grandparents will come, and he’ll talk to them. He sees the creatures that he’s going to carve, living, in an animated sense, in his imagination. I have no reason to disbelieve him. He’s a very, very straightforward person, and he doesn’t have the motivation—or the guile, I would say—to invent a story like that. There’s just no reason he would possibly do it. I don’t think he’s told that many people about it. He thinks it’s kind of crazy. When he was a kid, he thought he was insane, because he’d had those dreams, all the time, about these creatures, and so forth. It wasn’t something he was trumpeting.
I’ve found it fascinating, because I can see in him part of the manifestation of this unbroken tradition. We have no idea how traditions like that are really passed on for thousands and thousands of years. Part of it is oral and memory, part of it’s acted out and dramatized, and part of it’s going to be imaginative. People who aren’t literate store information quite differently than we do. We don’t remember anything; it’s all written down in books. But if you’re from an oral culture—especially if you’re trained in that way—you have all of that information at hand. It’s so that you can speak it. You can tell the stories, and you really know them. Modern people really don’t know what that’s like, anymore. I doubt there’s more than maybe two of you, in the audience, that could spout from memory a 30-line poem. Poetry was written so that people could do that. That’s why we have that form—so that people could remember it and have it with them. But we don’t do any of that, anymore.
Anyways, back to Jung. Jung was a great believer in the dream. I know that dreams will tell you things that you don’t know. Well, how the hell can that be? How in the world can something you think up tell you something you don’t know? How does that make any sense? First of all, why don’t you understand it? Why does it have to come forth in the form of the dream? It’s like something’s going on inside you that you don’t control. The dream happens to you, just like life happens to you. There is the odd lucid dreamer who can apply a certain amount of conscious control, but most of the time you’re laying there, asleep, and this crazy, complicated world manifests itself inside you, and you don’t know how. You can’t do it when you’re awake, and you don’t know what it means. It’s like, what the hell’s going on?
That’s one of the things that’s so damn frightening about the psychoanalysts—you get this both from Freud and Jung. You really start to understand that there are things inside you that control you, instead of the other way around. You can use a bit of reciprocal control, but there’s manifestations of spirits, so to speak, inside you, that determine the manner in which you walk through life, and you don’t control it. And what does? Is it random? There are people who have claimed that dreams are merely the consequence of random neural firing. I think that theory is absolutely absurd, because there’s nothing random about dreams. They are very, very structured, and very, very complex. They’re not like snow on a television screen or static on a radio. I’ve also seen, so often, that people have very coherent dreams, that have a perfect narrative structure. They’re fully developed, in some sense. So that theory doesn’t go anywhere, with me. I just can’t see that as useful, at all. I’m more likely to take the phenomena seriously.
There’s something to dreams. You dream of the future, then you try to make it into reality. That seems to be an important thing. Or maybe you dream up a nightmare, and try to make that into a reality. People do that, too, if they’re hellbent on revenge, for example, and full of hatred and resentment. That manifests itself in terrible fantasies. Those are dreams, then people go act them out. These things are powerful, and whole nations can get caught up in collective dreams. That’s what happened to Nazi Germany in the 1930s. It was an absolutely remarkable, amazing, horrific, destructive spectacle. The same thing happened in the Soviet Union, and the same thing happened in China. You have to take these things seriously—you try to understand what’s going on.
Jung believed that the dream could contain more information than was yet articulated. I think artists do the same thing. People go to museums and look at paintings—renaissance paintings or modern paintings—and they don’t exactly know why they are there. I was in this room in New York that was full of renaissance art—great painters, the greatest painters. I thought that, maybe, that room was worth a billion dollars, or something outrageous, because there was like 20 paintings in there, priceless. The first thing is, why are those painting worth so much? Why is there a museum, in the biggest city in the world, devoted to them? Why do people from all over the world come and look at them? What the hell are those people doing? One of them was of the Assumption of Mary—a beautifully painted, absolutely glowing work of art. There were like 20 people standing in front of it, and looking at it. What are those people up to? They don’t know. Why did they make a pilgrimage to New York to come and look at that painting? It’s not like they know. Why is it worth so much? I know there’s a status element to it, but that begs the question: why do those items become such high-status items? What is it about them that’s so absolutely remarkable? We’re strange creatures.
Where does the information that’s in the dream come from? It has to come from somewhere. You could think of it as a revelation, because it’s like it springs out of the void, and it’s new knowledge. You didn’t produce it; it just appears. I’m scientifically minded, and I’m quite a rational person. I like to have an explanation of things that’s rational and empirical, before I look for any other kind of explanation. I don’t want to say that everything that's associated with divinity can be reduced, in some manner, to biology, an evolutionary history, or anything like that. But, insofar as it’s possible to do that reduction, I’m going to do that. I’m going to leave the other phenomena floating in the air, because they can’t be pinned down. In that category, I would put the category of mystical or religious experience, which we don’t understand, at all.
Artists observe one another, and they observe people. Then they represent what they see, and transmit the message of what they see, to us. That teaches us to see. We don’t necessarily know what it is that we’re learning from them, but we’re learning something—or, at least, we’re acting like we’re learning something. We go to movies; we watch stories; we immerse ourselves in fiction, constantly. That’s an artistic production, and, for many people, the world of the arts is a living world. That’s particularly true if you’re a creative person.
It’s the creative, artistic people that move the knowledge of humanity forward. They do that with their artistic productions, first. They’re on the edge. The dancers, poets, visual artists, and musicians do that, and we’re not sure what they're doing. We’re not sure what musicians are doing. What the hell are they doing? Why do you like music? It gives you deep intimations of the significance of things, and no one questions it. You go to a concert; you’re thrilled. It’s a quasi-religious experience, particularly if the people really get themselves together, and get the crowd moving. There’s something incredibly intense about it, but it makes no sense whatsoever.
It’s not an easy thing to understand. Music is deeply patterned, and patterned in layers. I think that has something to do with it, because reality is deeply patterned in layers. I think music is representing reality in some fundamental way. We get into the sway of that, and participate in Being. That’s part of what makes it such an uplifting experience, but we don’t really know that’s what we’re doing. We just go do it, and it’s nourishing for people—young people, in particular. Lots of them live for music. It’s where they derive all of their meaning—their cultural identity. Everything that’s nourishing comes from their affiliation with their music. That’s an amazing thing.
The question still remains: where does the information in dreams come from? I think where it comes from is that we watch the patterns that everyone acts out. We watch that forever, and we’ve got some representations of those patterns that’s part of our cultural history. That’s what’s embedded in fictional accounts of stories between good and evil, the bad guy and the good guy, and the romance. These are canonical patterns of Being, for people, and they deeply affect us, because they represent what it is that we will act out in the world. We flesh that out with the individual information we have about ourselves and other people. There’s waves of behavioural patterns that manifest themselves in the crowd, across time. Great dramas are played on the crowd, across time. The artists watch that, and they get intimations of what that is. They write it down, tell us, and we’re a little clearer about what we’re up to.
A great dramatist, like Shakespeare—we know that what he wrote is fiction. Then we say, ‘fiction isn’t true.’ But then you think, ‘well, wait a minute. Maybe it’s true like numbers are true.’ Numbers are an abstraction from the underlying reality, but no one in their right mind would really think that numbers aren’t true. You could even make a case that the numbers are more real than the things that they represent, because the abstraction is so insanely powerful.
Once you have mathematics, you’re just deadly. You can move the world with mathematics. It’s not obvious that the abstraction is less real than the more concrete reality. You take a work of fiction, like Hamlet, and you think, ‘well, it’s not true, because it’s fiction.’ But then you think, ‘wait a minute—what kind of explanation is that?’ Maybe it’s more true than nonfiction. It takes the story that needs to be told about you, and the story that needs to be told about you, and you, and you, and you, and you, and it abstracts that out, and says, ‘here’s something that’s a key part of the human experience as such.’ It’s an abstraction from this underlying, noisy substrate. People are affected by it because they see that the thing that’s represented is part of the pattern of their being. That’s the right way to think about it.
With these old stories—these ancient stories—it seems, to me, like that process has been occurring for thousands of years. It’s like we watched ourselves, and we extracted out some stories. We imitated each other, and we represented that in drama, and then we distilled the drama, and we got a representation of the distillation. And then we did it again, and at the end of that process—it took God only knows how long. They’ve traced some fairy tales back 10,000 years, in relatively unchanged form.
It certainly seems, to me, that the archaeological evidence, for example, suggests that the really old stories that the Bible begins with are at least that old, and are likely embedded in prehistory, which is far older than that. You might say, ‘well, how can you be so sure?’ The answer to that, in part, is that the ancient cultures didn't change fast. They stayed the same; that’s the answer. They keep their information moving from generation to generation. That’s how they stay the same, and that’s how we know. There are archaeological records of rituals that have remained relatively unbroken for up to 20,000 years: it was discovered in caves, in Japan, that were set up for a particular kind of bear worship that was also characteristic of Western Europe. So these things can last for very long periods of time.
We’re watching each other act in the world, and then the question is, how long have we been watching each other? The answer to that, in some sense, is as long as there have been creatures with nervous systems, and that’s a long time. That’s some hundreds of millions of years, perhaps longer than that. We’ve been watching each other, trying to figure out what we’re up to, across that entire span of time. Some of that knowledge is built right into your bodies—which is why we can dance with each other, for example. Understanding isn’t just something that you have as an abstraction. It’s something that you act out. That’s what children are doing, when they’re learning to rough-and-tumble play. They’re learning to integrate their body with the body of someone else in a harmonious way—learning to cooperate and compete. That’s all instantiated right into their body. It’s not abstract knowledge, and they don’t know that they’re doing that. They’re just doing it. We can even use our body as a representational platform.
We’ve been studying each other for a long time, abstracting out what is it that we’re up to, and what should we be up to. That’s an even more fundamental question: if you’re going to live in the world, and you’re going to do it properly, what does properly mean? How is it that you might go about that? It’s the right question; it’s what everyone wants to know. How do you live in the world? It’s not what the world is made of; it’s not the same question. How do you live in the world? It’s the eternal question of human beings.
I guess we’re the only species that has ever really asked that question. All the other animals just go and do whatever it is they do. Not us. It’s a question, for us. We have to become aware of it. We have to speak it—God only knows why. But that seems to be the situation. So we act, that acting is shaped by the world and society into something that we don’t understand, but that we can model. We model it in our stories and with our bodies, and that’s where the dream gets its information. The dream is part of the process that’s watching everything, and then trying to formulate it. It’s trying to get the signal out from the noise and portray it in dramatic form, because the dream is a little drama. And then you get the chance to talk about what that dream is. You have something like articulated knowledge, at that point.
I would say the Bible exists in that space that is half into the dream and half into articulated knowledge. Going into it, to find out what the stories are about, can aid our self-understanding. The other issue is that, if Nietzsche was correct, and if Jung was correct, and Dostoevsky, as well…Without the cornerstone provided by that understanding, we’re lost. That’s not good, because then we’re susceptible to psychological pathology. People that are adamant anti-religious thinkers seem to believe that, if we abandoned our immersement in the underlying dream, we’d all, instantly, become rationalists, like Descartes or Bacon—intelligent, clear thinking, rational, scientific people. I don’t believe that for a moment. I don’t think there’s any evidence for it. I think we would become so irrational, so rapidly, that the weirdest mysteries of Catholicism would seem positively rational by contrast—and I think that’s already happening.
You have the unknown world. That’s just what you don’t know, at all. That’s outside the ocean that surrounds the island that you inhabit. Something like that. It’s chaos itself. You act in that world, and you act in ways that you don’t understand. There’s more to your actions than you can understand. One of the things that Jung said—I loved this, when I first understood it. He says that everybody acts out a myth, but very few people know what their myth is. You should know what your myth is, because it might be a tragedy, and maybe you don’t want it to be. That’s really worth thinking about, because you have a pattern of behaviour that characterizes you. God only knows where you got it. It’s partly biological, and it’s partly from your parents; it’s your unconscious assumptions; it’s the way the philosophy of your society has shaped you; and it’s aiming you somewhere. Is it aiming you somewhere you want to go? That’s a good question. That’s part of self-realization.
We know we don’t understand our actions. Almost every argument you have with someone is about that. It’s like, ‘why did you do that?’ You come up with some half-baked reasons why you did it; you’re flailing around in the darkness; you try to give an account for yourself, but you can only do it partially. It’s very, very difficult, because you’re a complicated animal, with the beginnings of an articulated mind, and you’re just way more than you can handle. So you act things out, and that’s a kind of competence. Then you imagine what you act out, and you imagine what everyone else acts out. There’s a tremendous amount of information in your action, and that information is translated up into the dream, and then into art, mythology and literature. There’s a tremendous amount of information in that, and some of that is translated into articulated thought.
I’ll give you a quick example of something like that. I think this is partly what happens in Exodus, when Moses comes up with the law. He’s wandering around with the Israelites in the desert. They’re going left and going right, worshipping idols, having a hell of a time, and getting rebellious. Moses goes up in the mountain, and he has this tremendous revelation in the sight of God. It illuminates him, and he comes down with the law. Moses acted as a judge—I know this is a mythological story—in the desert. He was continually mediating between people who were having problems, and he was constantly trying to keep peace. What are you doing when you’re trying to keep peace? You’re trying to understand what peace is. You have to apply the principles. What are the principles? Well, you don’t know. The principles are whatever satisfied the people enough to make peace.
Maybe you act as judge 10,000 times, and then you get some sense of the principles that bring peace. One day it blasts into your consciousness, like a revelation: ‘here’s the rules that we’re already acting out.’ That’s the Ten Commandments. They were there to begin with. Moses comes forward, and says, ‘look, this is basically what we’re already doing, but now it’s codified.’ That’s all historical process condensed into a single story, but, obviously, that happened, because we have written law. In good legal systems, that emerges from the bottom up. English common law is exactly like that: it’s single decisions, that are predicated on principles, that are then articulated and made into the body of law.
The body of law is something that you act out. That’s why it’s a body of law. That’s why, if you’re a good citizen, you act out the body of law. The body of law has principles. Ok, so the question is, what are the principles that guide our behaviour? Well, that’s something like what the archaic Israelites meant by ‘God.’ It’s not a good enough explanation, but imagine that you are a chimpanzee, and you have a powerful dominant figure at the pinnacle of your society.
That represents ‘power’—more than that, because it’s not sheer physical prowess that keeps a chimp at the top of the hierarchy. It’s much more complicated than that.
You could say there’s a principle that the dominant person manifests, and then you might say that principle shines forth even more brightly, if you know 10 people who are dominant and powerful. Then you could extract out what ‘dominance’ means from that. You can extract what ‘power’ means from that, and then you can divorce the concept from the people. We had to do that, at some point, because we can say ‘power,’ in the human context, and we can imagine what that means. But it’s divorced from any specific manifestation of power. How the hell did we do that? That’s so complicated. If you’re a chimp, the power is in another chimp. It’s not some damn abstraction.
Think about it. We’re in these hierarchies, many of them across centuries. We’re trying to figure out what the guiding principle is. We’re trying to extract out the core of the guiding principles, and we turn that into a representation of a pattern of being. That’s God. It’s an abstracted ideal, and it manifests itself in personified form. That’s ok, because what we’re trying to get at is, in some sense, the essence of what it means to be a properly functioning, properly social, and properly competent individual. We’re trying to figure out what that means. You need an embodiment. You need an ideal that’s abstracted, that you could act out, that would enable you to understand what that means. That’s what we’ve been driving at. That’s the first hypothesis. I’m going to go over some of the attributes of this abstracted ideal that we’ve formalized as God, but that’s the first hypothesis: a philosophical or moral ideal manifests itself, first, as a concrete pattern of behavior that’s characteristic of a single individual—and then it’s a set of individuals, and then it’s an abstraction from that set, and then you have the abstraction, and it’s so important.
Here’s a political implication: One of the debates, we might say, between early Christianity and the late Roman Empire was whether or not an emperor could be God—literally to be deified and put into a temple. You can see why that might happen, because that’s someone at the pinnacle of a very steep hierarchy, who has a tremendous amount of power and influence. The Christian response to that was, ‘never confuse the specific sovereign with the principle of sovereignty itself.’ It’s brilliant. You can see how difficult it is to come up with an idea like that, so that even the person who has the power is actually subordinate to a divine principle, for lack of a better word. Even the king himself is subordinate to the principle. We still believe that, because we believe our Prime Minister is subordinate to the damn law.
Whatever the body of law, there's a principle inside that even the leader is subordinate to. Without that, you could argue that you can’t even have a civilized society, because your leader immediately turns into something that’s transcendent and all-powerful. That's certainly what happened in the Soviet Union, and what happened in Maoist China, and what happened in Nazi Germany. There was nothing for the powerful to subordinate themselves to. You’re supposed to be subordinate to God. What does that mean? We’re going to tear that idea apart, but partly what that means is that you’re subordinate—even if you’re sovereign—to the principles of sovereignty itself. And then the question is, ‘what the hell is the principles of sovereignty?’ I would say we have been working that out for a very long period of time. That’s one of the things that we’ll talk about.
The ancient Mesopotamians and the ancient Egyptians had some very interesting, dramatic ideas about that. For example—very briefly—there was a deity known as Marduk. Marduk was a Mesopotamian deity, and imagine this is sort of what happened. As an empire grew out of the post-ice age—15,000 years ago, 10,000 years ago—all these tribes came together. These tribes each had their own deity—their own image of the ideal. But then they started to occupy the same territory. One tribe had God A, and one tribe had God B, and one could wipe the other one out, and then it would just be God A, who wins. That’s not so good, because maybe you want to trade with those people, or maybe you don’t want to lose half your population in a war. So then you have to have an argument about whose God is going to take priority—which ideal is going to take priority.
What seems to happen is represented in mythology as a battle of the gods in celestial space. From a practical perspective, it’s more like an ongoing dialog. You believe this; I believe this. You believe that; I believe this. H