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Keywords: Child, Lobster, Wolf, Pangsepp, Rat, Dragon, Chaos, Select, Hierarch, Chimp, Hippocampus, Moses, Hobbit, Pyramid, Darwin, Dao, Piaget, George, Marduk

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Biblical Series III: God and the Hierarchy of Authority

by Dr. Jordan Peterson

I'm really looking forward to this lecture. One of the things that just absolutely staggers me about these stories—especially the story of Cain and Abel, which I hope to get to— is that it’s so short. It’s like 10, 11 lines. There’s nothing to it at all, and I’ve found that it’s essentially inexhaustible in its capacity to reveal meaning. I don’t exactly know what to make of that. I think it has something to do with this intense process of condensation across a very long period of time. That’s the simplest explanation. The information in there is so densely packed, and it’s not that easy to come up with a fully compelling explanation for that. One of the things that you can be virtually certain about is that everything about the archaic Biblical stories that was memorable was remembered.

This is kinda like Richard Dawkins’ idea of memes. I often thought that Richard Dawkins, if he was a little bit more mystically inclined, would have become Carl Jung. Their theories are unbelievable similar. The idea of meme and the idea of archetype of the collective unconscious are very, very similar ideas. The Jungian idea’s far more profound, in my estimation—well, and it just is. He thought it through so much better. Dawkins tended to think of meme as a sort of like a mind-worm that would infest the mind, and maybe multiple minds. But I don't think he ever really took the idea with the seriousness it deserved. I did hear him, actually, make a joke with Sam Harris, the last time they talked, about the fact that there was some possibility that the production of memes—say, religious memes—could alter evolutionary history. They both avoided that topic instantly. They had a big laugh about it, and then decided they weren't going down that road. That was quite interesting, to me.

I do really think that the density of these stories is a mystery. It certainly has something to do with their absolute impossibility to be forgotten. That’s actually something that could be tested empirically. I don’t know if anybody has ever done that. You could tell naive people two stories of equal length: one that had an archetypical theme, and the other that didn’t, and then wait three months and see which ones people remembered better. It would be a relatively straightforward thing to test. I haven’t tested it, but maybe I will at some point. But, anyways, that’s all to say that I’m very excited about this lecture. I get an opportunity to go over the story of Adam and Eve, and the story of Cain and Abel. I hope we manage both of those stories today. Maybe we’ll get to the story of Noah, and the Tower of Babel, as well, but I wouldn’t count on it, not at the rate we’ve been progressing. But that’s ok. That’s no problem. There’s no sense rushing this.

All right, I want to finish my discussion of the idea of the psychological significance of the idea of God. I’ve been thinking about this a lot more. This lecture series gives me the opportunity, and the necessity, to continue to think about the hypothesis that I’ve been developing. The Trinitarian idea is the earliest emergence, in image, of the idea that there has to be an underlying cognitive structure that gives rise to consciousness, as well as consciousness itself. What I was suggesting was that the idea of God the Father is something akin to the idea of the a priori structure that gives rise to consciousness. That’s an in-built part of us, so that’s our structure. You can think about that as something that’s been produced over a vast evolutionary time span. I don't think that’s completely out of keeping with the ideas that are laid forth in Genesis 1—at least if you think about them from a metaphorical perspective. It’s hard to read them literally. There’s an emphasis on day and night, but the idea of day and night as twenty-four-hour diurnal daytime and nighttime interchanges, that are based on the earthly clock, seems to be a bit absurd when you first start to think about the construction of the cosmos. It just doesn’t seem to me that a literal interpretation is appropriate.

You might not know it, but many of the early Church FathersOrigen, in particular—stated very clearly that these ancient stories were to be taken as wise metaphors, and not to be taken literally. The idea that the people who established Christianity were all the sort of the people who were Biblical literalists is just absolutely, historically wrong. Some of them were, and some of them still are. That’s not the point. The point is that many of them weren’t. It’s not like people who lived two thousand years ago were stupid, by any stretch of the imagination. They were perfectly capable of understanding what constituted something approximately a metaphor, and also knew that fiction, considered as an abstraction, would tell you truths that nonfiction wasn’t able to get at—unless you think that fiction is only for entertainment, and I think it’s a very big mistake to think that.

All right, so here we go. The idea of God the Father is that, in order to make sense out of the world, you have to have an a priori cognitive structure. That was something that Immanuel Kant—as I said last time—put forward as an argument against the idea that all of the information that we acquire during our lifetime is a consequence of incoming sense data. The reason Kant objected to that—and he was absolutely right about this—is that you can’t make sense of sense data without an a priori structure. You can't extract from sense data the structure that enables you to make sense of sense data. It’s not possible. That’s really been demonstrated, beyond a shadow of a doubt, since the 1960s. The best demonstration of that was actually the initial failure of artificial intelligence. When the AI people started promising that we would have fully functional and autonomous robots and artificial intelligence back in the 1960s, what they didn't understand—and what stalled them terribly until about the early 1990s—was that it was almost that the problem of perception was a much deeper problem than anyone recognized.

When you look out at the world, you just see that there’s objects out there—and, by the way, you don't see objects: you see tools, just so you know. The neurobiology of that is quite clear. You don't see objects and infer utility: you see useful things and infer object. It’s actually the reverse of what people think. But, the point is, regardless of whether you see objects or useful things, when you look at the world, you just see it. You think seeing is easy, because there the things are. All you have to do is turn your head and they appear. That’s just so wrong that it’s almost impossible to overstate. The problem of perception is staggeringly difficult. One of the primary reasons that we still don't really have autonomous robots—although, we’re a lot closer to it than we were in the 1960s—is because it turned out that you actually have to have a body before you can think. Even more importantly, you have to have a body before you can see, because the act of seeing is actually the act of mapping the patterns of the world onto the patterns of the body. It’s not things are out there, you see them, then you think about them, then you reevaluate them, then you decide to act on them, and then you act. You could call that a folk idea of psychological processing and perception. That is not how it works.

Your eyes, for example, map right onto your spinal cord. They mark right onto your emotional system, so it’s actually possible for people to be blind and still be able to detect facial expressions, which is to say, someone who's cortically blind—so they’ve had their visual cortex destroyed, often by a stroke—will tell you they can’t see anything, but they can guess which hand you’ve put up if you ask them to. If you flash them pictures of angry or fearful faces, they show skin conductance responses to the more emotional laden faces.

Imagine that the world is made out of patterns, which it is, and then imagine that those patterns are transmitted to you electromagnetically, through light, and then imagine that the pattern is duplicated on the retina, and then that pattern is propagated along the optic nerve, and then the pattern is distributed throughout your brain. Some of that pattern makes up what you call conscious vision, but other parts of it just activate your body. For example, when I look at this…whatever it is…Bottle! That’s the word. I look at it, especially with intent in mind, and as soon as I look at it, the pattern of the bottle activates the gripping mechanism of my hand. Part of the act of perception is to adjust my bodily posture, including my hand grip, to be of the optimal size to pick that up. It’s not that I see the bottle then think about how to move my hand. That’s too slow. It’s that I use my motor cortexto perceive the bottle, and that’s actually somewhat independent of actually seeing the bottle as a conscious experience.

There's much more that can be told about that. Rodney Brooks is someone to know. He’s a robotics engineer who worked in the 1990s. He invented the Roomba, among many other things. He’s a real genius, that guy. Brooks was one of the first people to really point out that, to be able to have a machine that perceives well enough to work in the world, you had to give it a body, and that the perception would actually be built from the body up, rather than from the abstract, cognitive perceptions down. That turned out to be the case, and Brooks built all sorts of weird little machines in the 1990s that didn't even really have any central brain, but they could do things like run away from light. They could perceive light, but their perception was the act of running away from light. Perception is very, very, very tightly tied to action in ways that people don’t normally perceive. Anyways, that’s all to say that you cannot perceive the world without being embodied, and you’re embodied in a manner that's taken you roughly 3.5 billion years to pull off.

There's been a lot of death as a prerequisite to the embodied form that you take. It’s taken all that trial and error to produce something, like you, that can interact with the complexity of the world well enough to last the relatively paltry 80 or so years that you can last. This may be wrong, but I think, at least, it’s a useful hypothesis: I think the idea of God the Father is something like the birth of the idea that there has to be an internal structure, out of which consciousness itself rises, that gives form to things. If that's the case—and perhaps it’s not—it’s certainly a reflection of the kind of factual truth that I’ve been describing. I also mentioned that I see the idea of both the Holy Spirit, and most specifically of Christ, in the form of the word, as the active consciousness that that structure produces and uses, not only to formulate the world—because we formulate the world, at least the world that we experience—but also to change and modify that world. There’s absolutely no doubt that we do that. We do that partly with our bodies, which are optimally evolved to do that, and that is why we have hands, unlike dolphins, that have very large brains, like us, but can't really change the world.

We’re adapted and evolved to change the world. Our speech is really an extension of our ability to use our hands. The speech systems that we use are a very well-developed motor skill and, generally speaking, your dominant linguistic hemisphere is the same as your dominant hand. People talk with their hands—like me, as you may have noticed—and we use sign language. There’s a tight relationship between the use of the hand and the use of language. That’s partly because language is a productive force, and the hand is part of what changes the world. All those things are tied together in a very, very complex way with this a priori structure, and also with the embodied structure. I also think that's part of the reason why classical Christianity put such an emphasis not only on the divinity of the spirit, but also on the divinity of the body, which is a harder thing to grapple with. It’s easier for people to think—if you think in religious terms, at all—that you have some sort of transcendent spirit that is somehow detached from the body, and that it might have some life after death. But Christianity, in particular, really insists on the divinity of the body.

The idea is that there’s an underlying structure that’s got this quasi-patriarchal nature. It’s for complex reasons, but partly because it’s a reflection of the social structure, as well as other things, and then that uses consciousness in the form—particularly of language, but most particularly in the form of truthful language—in order to produce the world in a manner that’s good. I think that’s a walloping, powerful, powerful idea, especially the relationship between the idea that it’s truthful speech that gives rise to the good. That’s a really fundamental, moral claim. I think that’s a tough one to beat. One of the things that I’ve really noticed—and this isn’t just me, that's for sure—is that there’s a lot of tragedy in life. There’s no doubt about that, and lots of people that I see in my clinical practice, for example, are laid low by the tragedy of life. But I also see very, very frequently that people get tangled up in webs of deceit that are often multiple generations long, and that just takes them out.

Deceit can produce extraordinary levels of suffering that last for very, very long periods of time. That’s really a clinical truism. Freud, of course, identified one of the problems that contributed to the suffering we might associate with mental illness, with repression, which is kind of like a lie of omission. That’s a perfectly reasonable way of thinking about it. Jung stated, straight out, that there was no difference between the psychotherapeutic effort and supreme moral effort, including truth. Those were the same thing, as far as he was concerned. Carl Rogers, another great clinician, who was at one point a Christian missionary before he became more strictly scientific, believed that it was in truthful dialog that clinical transformation took place. Of course, one of the prerequisites for genuine transformation in the clinical setting is that the therapist tells the truth and the client tells the truth. Otherwise, how in the world do you know what’s going on? How can you solve the problem when you don't even know what the problem is? And you don't know what the problem is unless the person tells you the truth. That's something to really think about in light of your own relationships. If you don't tell the people around you the truth, then they don't know who you are. Maybe that's a good thing. Well, seriously. People have reasons to lie, right? I mean, they aren’t trivial. But it’s really worth knowing that you can't even get your hands on the problem unless you formulate it truthfully, and if you can't get your hands on the problem, the probability that you're going to solve it is just so low.

This idea has become more credible to me the longer I’ve developed it: The idea that there’s…It’s partly the idea that…Let me figure out how to start this properly. A friend of mine, business partner, and a guy that I’ve written scientific papers with—very smart guy—took me to task about using the word "dominance hierarchy," which might be fine for chimpanzees, lobsters, and for creatures like that, but not even for chimpanzees, so much. He thought that the idea of dominance hierarchy was actually a projection of an early 20th century quasi-Marxist hypothesis onto the animal kingdom that was being observed. The notion that the hierarchical structure that you see—that characterizes mating hierarchies in chimps, for example, that was predicated on power—was actually a projection of a kind of political ideology. That really bugged me for a long time when he said that, because I’ve really been used to using the word dominance hierarchy. He told me all that and I thought, argh, that’s so annoying! It’s so annoying because it might be right.
It took me months to think about it. I was reading Frans de Waal at the same time—he’s a primatologist—and also Jaak Panksepp, a brilliant, brilliant affective neuroscientist who, unfortunately, just died. He wrote a great book called Affective Neuroscience. For rats to play, they have to play fair, or they won’t play with each other. That's a staggering discovery, because anything that helps instantiate the emergence of ethical behaviour in animals—and that associates it with an evolutionary process, which is essentially what Panksepp was doing—gives credence to the notion that the ethics that guide us are not mere sociological, epiphenomenological constructs. They’re deeply rooted. And rats…They’re rats, for God’s sake! You can't trust them, and they still play fair. De Waal noticed that, in the chimp troops that he studied, it wasn’t the barbaric chimp that ruled with an iron fist that was the successful ruler. He kept getting torn to shreds by the compatriots that he ignored and stomped on. As soon as he showed some weakness, they’d just tear him into pieces. The chimp leaders that were stable—that had a stable kingdom, let’s say—were very reciprocal in terms of their interactions with their friends. Chimps have friends, and chimp friendships actually last for a very long time. They’re also very reciprocal in their interactions with females and infants.

Frans de Waal is a very smart guy. I thought that was also foundational science, because it’s really something to know that the attributes that give rise to dominance in a male dominance hierarchy…Let’s call it authority, that might be better. Or even, shudder, competence, which I think is a better way of thinking about it. The attributes that give rise to dominance in a male competence hierarchy are not predicated on purely anything that’s as simple as brute power. I think, too, that the idea—and this is a deeply devious and dangerous political idea, in my estimation—that male hierarchies are fundamentally predicated on power in a law-abiding society is absurd. I think all you have to do is think about that for like a month, say, which isn’t that long, to understand how absurd that is.

Most people who are in positions of authority are just as hemmed in by ethical responsibly, or even more so, as people at the other levels of the hierarchy. We know this, even in the managerial literature, because we know, generally speaking, that managers are more stressed by their subordinates than the subordinates are stressed by their managers. That's not surprising. You want to be responsible for 200 people? You really want that? That's hard work, man. I mean, I know it’s a pain to have a boss, because you have to care about what the boss thinks. Maybe the person is arbitrary, in which case they’re not going to be particularly successful, but it’s no joke to be responsible for 200 people. You have to be very careful when you’re in a position of responsibility and authority like that, because you’ll get called out if you make mistakes, constantly. It’s not like, because you have a position that's higher up in the hierarchy, you're less constrained by ethical necessity. Well, if you’re a psychopath, that's a different story, but psychopaths have to move pretty rapidly from hierarchy to hierarchy, because they get found out quite quickly. As soon as their reputation is shattered, they can't get away with their shenanigans anymore. All of this is to say that there is something very interesting about the pattern of behaviour.

We know that sexual selection is a very, very, very, very powerful biological force—even though biologists ignored it for almost 100 years after Charles Darwin originally wrote about it, thinking mostly about natural selection. They didn't like the idea of sexual selection, because it tended to introduce the notion of mind into the process of evolution. It deals with choice. Imagine that you have a male hierarchy. We know that the men at the top of the hierarchy are much more likely to be reproductively successful than the men at the bottom. It’s particularly true of men. You have twice as many female ancestors as you have male ancestors. I’m not going to do the math, and I know it doesn’t sound plausible, but you can look it up and figure it out. It’s a perfectly reasonable fact that actually happens to be true.

So there’s twice as many female ancestors, because females, on average, leave twice as many offspring as men do. Any man who does reproduce tends to reproduce more than once, but a bunch of men reproduce zero. The average man who reproduces has two children, and the average man who doesn’t reproduce has zero. The average woman who reproduces has one child. That means that there’s twice as many females in your line as there is males. That’s a big deal. Imagine that it works something like this: the men elect the competent men, who are admired, and who are given positions of authority and respect. It’s like an election. It could be an actual, democratic election, but it’s, at least, an election of consensus—or it’s an election of, well, we’re not going to kill him, for now, which is also a form of election. It’s a form of tolerance.

Women, for their part, peel from the top of the male hierarchy. So you’ve got two factors that are driving human sexual selection across vast stretches of evolutionary time. One is the election of men, by men, to positions where they’re much more likely to reproduce. The second is the tendency of women to peel off the top of the male dominance hierarchies, which is extraordinarily well-established—cross-culturally, even, if you flattened out the socioeconomic disparity, say, between men and women, like they’ve done in Scandinavia. You don't reduce the tendency of women to peel off the top of the male hierarchy, by much. Why would you? Women are smart. Why in the world wouldn’t they strive to make relationships with men who are relatively successful? And why wouldn't they let the men themselves define how that constitutes success? It makes sense. If you want to figure out who the best man is, why not let the men compete? The man who wins—whatever the competition is—is the best man, by definition. How else would you define it?

Why am I telling you all of that? The reason is because it seems, to me, that there’s been this complex interplay across human evolution between the election of the male dominance hierarchy and sexual success. That’s a big deal, if it’s true. What would happen is that men would evolve to be better and better at climbing up the male hierarchy. The ones who weren’t good at that wouldn’t reproduce. But then it wouldn’t just be a hierarchy, because there's a whole bunch of different hierarchies. You might say, well, are there commonalities across hierarchies? That's a reasonable thing to propose. They're not completely opposed to one another, at least. If you’re relatively more successful in one hierarchy, it’s more probable that you’ll be successful in another. That's actually a really good definition of general intelligence, or IQ, and that's actually one of the things that women select men for. Men also select women for that, but the selection pressure is even higher from women to men.

General IQ is one of the things that propels you up and across dominance hierarchies. It’s a general problem-solving mechanism. The other thing that it seems to do that, to some degree, is conscientiousness. There’s also some evidence that women prefer conscientious men, and of course. Why wouldn't they? You can trust them, and they work, and so those are both good things. Then you think, so men have adapted to start to climb the male dominance hierarchy, but it’s the set of all possible hierarchies that they're adapted to climb. Then you think, there’s a set of attributes that can be acted out, and that can be embodied, that will increase the probability that you're going to rise to the top of any given hierarchy. And then you could say, well, as you adapt to that fact, then you start to develop an understanding of what that pattern constitutes. That starts to become the abstract representation of something like multidimensional competence, and that's like the abstraction of virtue, itself. None of that’s arbitrary. That’s as bloody well grounded in biology as anything could be. I think that’s a really hard argument to refute.

One of the things I should tell you about how I think is that, when I think something, I spend a long time trying to figure out if it’s wrong. I like to hack at it from every possible direction to see if it's a weak idea. If it’s a weak idea, then I’d rather just dispense with it and find something better. I’ve had a real hard time trying to figure out what’s wrong with that idea. It seems to me that it’s pretty damn solid. The idea is that, if you watch what people do in movies, and so on, and when they're reading fiction, it’s obvious that they're very good at identifying both the hero and the antihero. You could say the antihero—the bad guy—is someone who strives for authority and position—generally speaking, not always—but fails. So he’s a good, bad example.

If you take a kid to a good guy, bad guy movie, the kid figures out pretty fast that he’s not supposed to be the bad guy. He figures out very quickly to zero in on the good guy. That means that there’s an affinity between the pattern of good guy that's been played out in the fiction, and the perceptual capacity of the child. When my son was a kid, I used to take him to movies that were sometimes more frightening than they should have been. I never said, don't be afraid. I think that's bad advice for kids. What I said was, keep your eye on the hero. Keep your eye on the hero. And he was gripped by the movie, and often quite afraid of them—because movies can be very frightening—so he’d just zero in on that guy, hoping. You know what it’s like in a movie. You hope that the good guy wins, generally speaking. Why do you do that? Where’s that come from? Do you see how deeply rooted that is inside you? You bloody well go line up and pay to watch that happen. That’s not an easy thing to understand, and it’s so self-evident to people that we don't even notice that it’s a tremendous mystery.

Is it so unreasonable to think that we would have actually, over the millennia, come to some sort of collective conclusion about what the best of the good guys are, and what the worst of the bad guys are? To me, archetypically speaking, that's the hostile brothers: Christ and Satan, or Cain and Abel. The hostile brothers is a very common mythological motif. Those are archetypes. Satan, for example, is, by definition, the worst that a person can be. Christ, by definition—this is independent of anything but conceptualization—is, by definition, the best that a man can be. As I’ve said, I’m speaking psychologically and conceptually. Given our capacity for imagination, and our ability to engage in fiction—and our love for fiction, and our capacity to dramatize, and our love for stories of heroism, catastrophe, and good and evil—I can't see how it could be any other way. That’s part of the idea that’s driving the notion of the evolution of the idea of God. Even more specifically, driving the evolution of the idea, at least in part, of the Trinity.
God is an abstracted ideal, formulated, in large part, to dissociate the ideal from any particular incarnation, or man, or any ruler. There’s another rule in the Biblical stories, which is that, when the actual ruler—I mentioned this before—becomes confused with the abstracted ideal, then the state immediately turns into a tyranny, and the whole bloody thing collapses. It’s so sophisticated. One of the things that we’ve figured out—and this was a hard thing to figure out—was that you had to take the abstraction, divorce it from any particular power structure, and then think about it as something that existed as an abstraction, but also as a real thing. It was real in that it governed your behaviour, everyone’s behaviour, including the damn king. The king was responsible to the abstracted ideal. Man, that’s such an impossible idea. Why would they have agreed to that five thousand years ago? One of the things that you see continually happening in the Old Testament is, as soon as the Israelites—for example, the Israelite kings—become almighty, the real God comes along and just cuts them into pieces. Then the whole bloody state falls apart for like hundreds of years. I think that's a lesson that we have not thoroughly, consciously yet learned. It’s still implicit in the narratives, and we still haven’t figured out why that’s the case. Again, I think that’s a hard argument to dispense with.
We looked at this a little bit. The Trinitarian idea is that there’s a Father—that’s, maybe, the dramatic representation of the structures that underlie consciousness, or the embodied structure that underlies consciousness—and then there’s the Son, and that's conscious in its particular, historical form. That’s the thing that’s so interesting about the figure of the Son. And then there’s consciousness as such, and that seems to be something like the indwelling spirit. These psychological ideas came from somewhere. They have a history. They didn't just spring out of nowhere. They emerged from dreams and hypothesis and artistic vision, and all of that, over a long time, and maybe they got clarified into something like consciousness. But it takes a damn long time to get from two chimpanzees watching each other to a human being saying, well, we all exhibit this faculty called consciousness. I mean, that’s a long journey. That’s a really long journey, and there's gonna be plenty of stages in between.

One of the things I really like about Jean Piaget, the development psychologist, was that he was so insistent that children act out and dramatize ideas before they understand them. Merlin Donald, who is a psychologist at Queen’s University, wrote a couple of interesting books along those lines, as well, looking at the importance of imitation for the development of higher cognition in human beings. The notion that we embody ideas before we abstract them out, and then represent them in an articulated way, is an extraordinarily solid idea. I really can't see how it could be any other way. If you watch children, you see that.

Think about what a child is doing when he plays house, or she plays house. The child acts out the father or the mother. You think, isn’t that cute. She’s imitating her mother. It’s like, no. She’s not. That's not what happens. It’s very annoying when your child imitates you. You move your arm, and then they move their arm, and you move your head—they copy you. No one likes direct imitation. That's not what a child’s doing when the child is playing. What the child is doing is watching the mother over multiple instantiations and then extracting out the spirit called mother, and that’s what whatever’s mother-like across all those multiple manifestations. Then the child lays out that pattern internally and manifests it in an abstract world. It’s so sophisticated. That’s what you’re doing when you’re playing house, or having a tea party, or taking care of a doll. It’s not like you’ve seen your mother take care of a doll. You haven’t seen that. It’s that you’re smart enough to pull out the abstraction and then embody it. Certainly, the child is attempting to strive towards an ideal, at that point. She’s not lighting her doll on fire—well, with certain exceptions; generally ones that we try to not encourage.

We also know that if children don’t engage in that sort of dramatic and pretend play to a tremendous degree, they don’t get properly socialized. It’s really a critic element of developing self-understanding, and then also developing the capability of being with others. What you do when you’re a child, especially around the age of four, is you jointly construct a shared fictional world. We’ll play house together, let’s say, and then you act out your joint roles within that shared, fictional world. That’s a form of very advanced cognition. It’s very sophisticated. I see in that—and Piaget did as well, and so did Jung, and so did Freud, and also Merlin Donald, these brilliant observers—the manner in which cognition came to be. They know very clearly that embodied imitation and dramatic abstraction constituted the ground out of which higher abstract cognition emerged. How could it not be? We were mostly bodies before we were minds, clearly, and so we were acting out things way before we understood them—just like the chimpanzees act out the idea that you have to act sensibly if you’re head chimpanzee, or you’re going to get yourself ripped apart.

You see that in wolves, too. When wolves have a dominance dispute, they puff up their hair at each other. They’ll look big, and they growl and bark, and they are very menacing. One wolf chickens out and rolls over, puts up its neck, and basically what he’s saying is, yea, I’m pretty useless. You can kill me, if you want to. And the other wolf says, yea, you know you’re pretty useless, and I could tear out your throat, but tomorrow we might need you to help bring down a moose, so I’ll keep you around. It’s not like they think that; they act it out as a behavioural pattern. If you’re an anthropologist, or an ethologist, and you went and watched the wolves, you’d say it’s as if they were acting according to a rule. That often confused me, because I thought, do wolves act out rules? And I thought, no, no, no. A rule is what we construct when we articulate a behavioural pattern. We observe a stable behavioural pattern and, when we articulate it, we can call it a rule. But for the wolves it’s not a rule; it’s just a stable behavioural pattern. We acted like wolf troops, or chimpanzee troops, for untold tens, and perhaps hundreds, of millions of years before we were able to formulate that pattern of behaviour in anything approximating a story or an image. It was even longer before we could articulate it as a set of ethical rules.

I’m dwelling on this. I know I’ve repeated some of this before, but it’s so important. There’s this tremendous push, especially from the social constructionists, to make the case that ethics is arbitrary, morality is relative, and there's no fundamental biological grounding in relationship to human behaviour, especially in the category of ethics. I think, first of all, that it’s dangerous, because that means that people are anything you want to turn them into, and you bloody well be careful of people who think that. And second, I just think that the evidence that that's wrong is so overwhelming that we should just stop thinking that way. That’s partly why I’m also attacking this from an evolutionary perspective. There’s lots of converging lines of evidence that ethical standards, at least of the most crucial sort, not only evolved, but also spontaneously reemerged, for example, in the dramatic play of children. We need to take that seriously. Part of what we’re doing here is trying to take that seriously.

Ok, so the idea there, at least in part, was that the Father employed the Son to generate habitable order out of chaos. I also think there might be something more proximally true about that, as well. Here's something that's cool about men: men are much more criminal than women—and that, by the way, does not look like it’s sociocultural—partly because it peaks when testosterone kicks in around 14. It just spikes the hell up, and then it stays pretty high until about 27. For those of you who don’t know this, standard penological theory holds that, if you have a repeat offender, guy just won’t stop getting into trouble, just throw him in prison until he’s 28. It’s not like you’re rehabilitating him, or anything. By 28, he’s done with his criminal career, because the crime curve peaks at 15 and then falls down. Around 27, or so, it burns out. That's often when men get married, settle down, and stabilize.
One of the things that’s cool about that is that the creativity curve for men is almost exactly the same. It ramps up when testosterone kicks in and then it starts to flatten out around 27. The curves match very, very closely, so that’s quite cool. It’s the creativity element of it that I'm particularly interested in, because creativity is, in many ways, an attribute of youth. I mean, if you look at that sentence, and you stripped it of its religious context, what you would say is that the older people use the younger people to generate creative ideas and renew the world. It’s like, yea, that’s what happens. We also have no idea how many of the things that we discovered or invented as human beings were stumbled across by children and adolescents. They’re much more exploratory, less constrained by their extant knowledge structures, and they’re less conservative. That seems just right to me—right in an extraordinarily important way. It also means that, if you’re an actual father, part of what you should be doing is encouraging your son. That is clearly the role. To encourage is to say, well, go out there, confront the chaos of the unknown and the chaos that underlies everything. Grapple with it, because you can do it. You’re as big as the chaos itself, and do something useful as a consequence. Make your life better and make everyone else’s life better. You can do it. Man, that’s the right thing to tell young men. Talking to young women is more complicated, because they have more, let’s say, issues to deal with. Their lives are more complicated in some ways, but that’s definitely the right thing to be telling your son.

One of the things that I’ve really noticed recently, especially in the last 7 or 8 months, is that most of my audience has been young men. I’ve talked a lot to them about both truth and responsibility, and I think those are the two things that underlie this capacity. There seems, to me, to be a tremendous hunger for that idea. It’s not the same idea as rights. It’s a very different idea. It’s the counterpart to rights. Life is hard, chaotic, and difficult. It’s definitely a challenge. You can either shrink from that—and no bloody wonder, because it’s gonna kill you, and it’s no joke—or you can forthrightly confront it and try to do something about it. Well, what's better? And then you say to the person, look, you can do it. That's what a human being is like. If you just stood up and got yourself together, you’d find out by trying that you can, in fact, do that. I do think that’s a great, core religious message. I think that’s deeply embedded in this sort of idea.

All right, so this is what I’ve been telling you. This is something like how knowledge itself is generated: There's the unknown as such, and that's really what you don’t know anything about. Generally, when encounter that, you don't encounter it with thought. You encounter it with a startled expression. That’s the first representation of the absolutely unknown. It’s something that's beyond your comprehension. It’s terrifying, and because it’s beyond your comprehension, you cannot perceive or understand it, but you still have to deal with it. The way you deal with it is that you freeze. That’s what a basilisk does to, say, the kids in Harry Potter. They take a look at it, and they freeze. That’s the terrible snake of chaos that lives underneath everything. You see it, and that thing freezes you, because you’re a prey animal. But, at the same time, it makes you curious. That’s the first level of contact with the absolutely unknown: the emotional combination of freezing and curiosity.

That’s reflective, I think, in the dragon stories. The dragon is the terrible thing that lives underground that hordes gold or virgins—very strange behavior for a reptile, as we pointed out before. But the idea is that it’s a symbolic representation of the predatory quality of the unknown, combined with the capacity of the unknown to generate nothing but novel information. You can see that as very characteristic of human beings, because we are prey animals, but we are also unbelievable exploratory, and we’re pretty damn good predators. We occupy this weird cognitive niche. One of the things we’ve learned is that, if we forthrightly confront the unknown—terrifying as it is—there’s a massive prize to be gained, continually. That seems to be as true as anything is.

We know that one of the metaphors that underlies God’s extraction of habitable order out of chaos at the beginning of time is an archaic idea. God confronted something like the leviathan, and that’s one of the words for this serpent-like chaos creature that's often used in the Old Testament. There’s this idea—that I think probably came from the Mesopotamians—that God, either in the Son-like aspect or in the Father-like aspect, is the thing that confronts this terrible beast—the chaotic unknown—and cuts it into pieces, and then, sometimes, gives the body parts to the populace to feed them. You can see a hunting metaphor there as well, but it’s deeper than that.
So there’s the absolute unknown, and the unknown is what you do not understand. It’s what’s beyond the campfire—even more anciently, maybe it’s what’s beyond the tree. It’s out there, where you don’t know, and what’s out there? Crocodiles, snakes, birds of prey, cats, and all sorts of things that will eat you. But there’s utility in going out there to find out what’s there. Maybe you go, and you don't kill the snake—you kill the damn nest of snakes, and that makes you pretty popular, just as you should be. That accelerates your reproductive potential, let’s say, and we’re descended from people who did that.

We have this notion about how the world is structured that’s deeply embedded in our psyche—really, really, deeply. Way, way down, way below the surface cognition. Way down in the limbic system, in these ancient parts of the brain that are like 60 million years old, or a hundred million years old, or older than that. Ancient, ancient brain structures. The first thing we do is we act out our encounter with the unknown world, and we act that out in a manner that’s analogous to the manner that’s presented as a description of what it is that God does at the beginning of time to extract habitable order out of chaos. I won’t tell you about the other part of that, for now.

So you act it out first, and then you watch people who act it out, and you start to make representations of that. That’s stories, right, and maybe you admire them. After a long time, you collect a bunch of those stories, and then you can say what that is—you can articulate it as a pattern. This is something Nietzsche also figured out. He did so many things first. It was quite remarkable. There was an idea that you first think, and then you act. It’s completely, bloody rubbish, because you’re as impulsive as you can possibly imagine. You’re always doing things before you think, and sometimes that's a really good idea. So the idea that you see things, and then think, and then act…It’s like, really? I don’t do that. No one I know does that, and they certainly don’t do that when they’re emotional. You act first.

One of the things that Nietzsche said, very clearly, was that our ideas emerged out of the ground of our action over thousands and thousands of years. Philosophers weren’t generating creative ideas when they were putting forward those ideas; they were just telling the story of humanity. It’s already in us. It’s already in our patterns of behaviour. Nietzsche was a genius, and that’s one of his many, many observations of pure genius. There’s the unknown, and then you act in the face of the unknown, and then you dream about the action—that’s what you’re doing in a movie theatre—and then you speak about it. Of course, once you speak about it, that affects how you dream, and how you dream affects how you act. It’s not like all of the causal direction is one way, because it’s not. These things loop. But it’s still from the unknown, through the body, through the imagination, into our articulation. That’s the primary mode of the generation of wisdom, let’s say. You can easily map that onto an evolutionary explanation: the body comes first, right, and then the imagination—which is the body in abstraction—and only then the word. That's exactly how things did evolve, because we could imagine things long before we could speak. At least, that's the theory.
This is an image from my book, Maps of Meaning. The idea is that this is the fundamental representation of the unknown as such. It’s half-spirit, because it partakes of the air like a bird, and it’s half-matter, because it’s on the ground