YouTube Video
Audio published on May 5th, 2017

Keywords: Atheist, Harris, Postmodern, PTSD, Logos, Dogma, Enlightenment, Consciousness, Kant, Divine, Freud, Malevolent, Evolution, Men Going Their Own Way, Western

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Ideology, Logos & Belief

A Discussion with Transliminal Media

Jordan Levine: It’s been a few years since we last had our first interview, and a number of things have happened in your life, both personally and in terms of your career—and probably your intellectual development, as well. So, maybe just to start things off, if you could summarize in your own words what that experience has been like for you, just to catch up our viewers on what’s been happening.

Dr. Jordan Peterson: Well, the most significant event was the fallout from a series of videos that I made. In late September of 2016, I made one video critiquing the policy framework within which federal bill C-16 was likely to be interpreted, taking particular issue with its provisions for compelled speech in relationship to pronouns, but more fundamentally, I would say, by criticizing the theoretical framework regarding human identity that had been instantiated into the law. The legal claim—and this is mostly stemming from legislation and policies that were developed in Ontario, but will have a significant influence on the federal level—insisting that biological sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual proclivity varied independently, which is more extreme than a radical social constructionist view; because the radical social constructionist view is that all of those tiers, including to some degree biological sex, even, are socioculturally determined.

JP: Of course, human beings are highly cultural animals, so there is pronounced sociocultural determination of virtually everything that we do, but that doesn’t mean that those levels of identity vary independently, which is the claim that’s being made. In fact, they’re very, very, very, very tightly correlated. It would exceed .95. They are virtually perfectly correlated. And so I believe that that’s an unwarranted intrusion of a certain kind of postmodern ideology, fundamentally, with its roots in a kind of Marxist identity politics. I think that it was completely inappropriate for that to be transformed into legislation. Anyways, there’s been all sorts of consequences of that. My household was an absolute media tornado. I guess it still is, really. For months after that, there were journalists lining up outside the house.

JL: Outside your own home?

JP: Oh, yeah.

JL: Oh, I had no idea.

JP: There were journalists in the house all the time, and one after the other.

JL: You don’t have to answer on camera if you don’t feel comfortable, but what was this like for your family? It was all very unexpected, from my understanding.

JP: Oh, it was completely unexpected. The reason I made the videos was because I had something to say. I was trying to—sometimes, I can’t sleep at night, because I’m thinking about something. Usually what I’ll do is go write it down. I have some writing to do, so I get up, and I go write down what I’m thinking, and that usually does the trick. But because I had been playing with YouTube, I thought, "well, I’ll try making a YouTube video, and telling people what I’m thinking about, and see if that performs the same function as writing." To me, the function of writing—well, it’s twofold. One is, conceivably, to communicate with people. Although, the fundamental purpose for me is to clarify my thoughts, so that I know—because if something is disturbing you, what that means is that it needs to be articulated. It’s the emergence of unexplored territory: something that disturbs you.

That’s the right way to think about it: it’s unmapped territory that’s manifesting itself. It’s like a vista of threat and possibility, and you need to articulate a path through it, and so that’s what I was doing. I was thinking, "well, this is bothering me, and this seems to be why, and here’s what I think is going on." So I made the videos, and, in some sense, I didn’t think anything more of it. What happened, I think—and I’ve been thinking about this in retrospect. It’s never obvious what’s going on, because things go on at multiple levels. I think they go on at a theological level. That’s the most fundamental level of, let’s call it, epistemological reality. It might even be ontological reality, but it’s certainly epistemological reality.

JL: If I can interject for a moment, what do you mean by theological in this sense? What does it mean to you?

JP: Well, it’s been my experience as a clinician that, the more serious the events that you’re discussing with people, the more the language shifts towards what you might describe as the religious. So, for example, post-traumatic stress disorder—that’s a good example—or cases of serious child abuse or truly reprehensible interactions between people. They’re best conceptualized with regards to a dialog about the nature of good and evil. In fact, with post-traumatic stress disorder, that’s actually necessary, I believe. And I should say, in keeping with that, I’ve had a number of war vets come up to me after my recent talks and tell me that watching my lectures has cured their post-traumatic stress disorder, because I provided—and I’ve provided my clients with the same thing. Most people who develop PTSD and other catastrophic psychological reactions—not so much when something terrible happens to them, but when something terrible happens to them because of someone malevolent. Sometimes that malevolent person can be themselves. Soldiers, for example, often develop PTSD if they observe themselves doing something on the battlefield they did not believe was within their realm of action. It’s as if the archetypal adversary leapt forward out of their soul and seized them, and acted for them on the battlefield. And then they’re shattered by that; they can’t believe they were capable of that. That destroys their sense of what it means to be human, and what being human means.

That’s more likely to happen to people who are somewhat naive, I would say—certainly that’s the case with the PTSD literature. So, to treat someone in a situation like that, you have to help them develop a philosophy, I would say, but probably a theology of good and evil, because you have to investigate the structure of the motivation for malevolence. You can’t do that outside the confines of religious language, partly because—this is a difficult thing to understand, and I think you have to have had contact with true evil in order to understand it: the fundamental motivation for the most malevolent actions is actually revenge against God. That’s even the case if the people who are malevolent are atheist. It doesn’t matter. In some sense, it doesn’t even matter if God exists. The people who are acting malevolently act as if there is a sapient creator, who is responsible for this horrible mess, against whom revenge must be promulgated. The earliest literary example of that is in the Cain and Abel story, because Cain kills Abel—who is also his ideal—clearly to spite God, because his sacrifices were rejected. It’s an unbelievably profound story, because that is exactly how people react when their sacrifices are rejected by God, for all intents and purposes. They become bitter and resentful, and look for revenge. The more vengeful they are, the more they enter the territory of absolute good and evil, rather than proximal good and evil.

It’s very helpful for people who have post-traumatic stress disorder to start to understand that sort of thing, because otherwise, they can’t find a way out. So things have these levels of existence, theological at the bottom. That’s where the battle for good and evil takes place, and where the power of the truthful word is most evident. Above that is philosophical, and, perhaps, above that is political, economical and sociological, and then familial, and then individual. Complicated things manifest themselves at all those level simultaneously, and you have to pick a level of analysis that's most suitable to formulate the problem.

The proximal cause of my video production was the promotion of legislation to make compelled speech of a certain form mandatory. That produces two responses. One was a proximal response that the transgender activist community—a community which, by my estimation, in no way speaks legitimately for the transgender community. Many transgender people have told me precisely that, a substantial number of them, in well-written and well-formulated letters to me. I’ve received at least—I think it’s up to about 35 letters like that, now. They went after me, along with the coterie of expected suspects: the LGBT activists and the radical leftists and so forth. They called me a transphobe and a racist, which is really something—I think it was because I made some disparaging comments about the leaders of Black Lives Matter in Toronto, who, believe me, deserve all the disparaging comments you could heap on them. That's a completely independent of the potential validity of the Black Lives Matters movement. I have said virtually nothing about that. So then the argument started, really, I suppose, in the media and online: Well, what the hell was going on? Was I just this bigoted, transphobic, fossil-dinosaur? or was something else happening?

I believe, when I made the videos, that the legislation itself and the policies were signifying a crisis, a disjunction in Western society, of which the gender pronoun argument was only a tiny tendril. The fact that the videos received so much attention—and the aftermath of it, also—continues to reverberate with no decrease whatsoever in intensity, I would say… And this is like, what, six months later, seven months later? It’s a long time. It’s no 15 minutes. It’s a long time. It’s because I put my finger on a nerve. I’ve been thinking about why that was, because many people have decried political correctness, but they did it in generic ways. So here’s a strange sequence of thoughts: There’s this idea in Christianity that the word—that’s associated with consciousness, I would say—is the mechanism by which chaotic potential is transformed into habitable order, and also the mechanism by which order that has become too rigid is dissolved and reconstituted. That’s the basic element of the hero myth. The word, the logos, is a universally distributed eternal phenomena. But, in the Christian context, it’s also been given a localization, so it’s as if this universal principle—well, that's the word made flesh—was also instantiated in the local. There’s a deep idea, there, which is that the universal lacks something. What it lacks is specificity. So in order to make the universal even more universal, you make it specific.

JL: In what sense do you think this is—I find this fascinating, as a cognitive anthropologist, because it seems to speak to the level of cognitive processing that we find most workable as human beings. We’ve evolved to live in small social units and be attentive to minds that are out there. We have a consciousness of other consciousness, essentially—a heightened one. It seems to be that, in order to make things tangible for people, it has to be brought down to the level of a regular human cognitive…

JP: Exactly, exactly. Well, the linguists have noticed that, as well. They’ve identified—I don’t remember what they call them, but the natural level of semantic formulation, so words like "cat", "dog". They’re often short words, and they seem to signify the typical, automatic, untrained level of perception. So things manifest themselves to us at a certain level of resolution, and that’s the level of resolution at which conscious reality exists.

JL: Right.

JP: And there is something about that. The movement, the encapsulation of the universal into the particular, is what produces reality. The idea’s also expressed in the image of the genie, which is, of course, "genius". The genie is tremendous power encapsulated in a tiny space. The Christian idea of that—because one of the things that Christians were trying to figure out was, "how was the entire majesty of God able to instantiated itself into a human frame?" They had this idea they called "kenosis", which was the emptying of God. I think a modern person would think about that as the difference between a high resolution photo and a low resolution photo. So human beings are low resolution representations of God. That’s one way of thinking about it. There’s a profound idea lurking behind that, that we are not capable of formulating properly. It has something to do with the nature of consciousness, which is something we do not understand in the least. So, anyways, I think that what happened in my case, with the videos, was that I took this general problem, which is this philosophical and theological schism that’s developed in Western culture, that’s really destabilizing it in many ways.

The New York Times had an op-ed yesterday about how the West has lost faith in its central mission. That was the New York Times, you know? But what I did was take that general problem and make it specific, because what I said was, "well, here’s a law. It’s a little law. It doesn’t seem to effect many people, but it has an implication, and I’m not going to do it." And so it made—every global thing manifests itself in tiny, real places. People have asked me, "well, why did you pick that hill to die on?" Well, you have to pick a hill to die on. That’s why—because reality manifests itself in the particulars. So, anyways… You asked about my family. Well, the most stressful period, I would say, was the first two months, because, as a unit, we’ve had some media experience. Not a tremendous amount, but enough so that we were reasonably familiar with it. But this was a clamorous onslaught, and, at the same time, the university, in its wisdom, decided to send me, first, one letter, telling me to stop doing what I was doing, which was actually, perversely, helpful; because I had made the claim, while making the video, that making the video was probably illegal under the pending legislation.

Of course, people instantly accused me of overreacting—and then the university helpfully delivered me a letter, certainly informed by legal advice, stating that what I had feared about what I was doing was actually the case: that I was violating the university’s principles of inclusion and diversity and also, likely, violating the provincial guidelines. I thought, "well, thank you very much. You proved my point." They also said that they’d been receiving many letters, from people claiming that I had transformed the campus into an unsafe space, without mentioning the fact that they were receiving hundreds and then thousands of letters and signatures supporting me, which I found… Once I got the letter, I mentioned it to the university administrators, and said, "you should take this letter back and rewrite it, so that you take both sides of the argument into the account. Present both sides, and then say that you’ve decided that you mean to discipline me. But don’t omit half the story." No. There was no movement on that.

JL: That’s really interesting. If I can just pause the conversation there. This may be a tangent, this may be the next avenue of discussion, but what do you think it is on campuses—my understanding is that it’s even worse in the States than it is here in Canada, because of just the profit model of the university. Why do you think it is that some administrations seem to have been—if not possessed by, in your terminology, the ideology of the radical left or some aspects of the radical left—pushed more aggressively and, essentially, give way to those kinds of ideas, as opposed to other ideas. Is that part of that crisis of Western civilization that you were mentioning, that you feel we may be experiencing now? Is there something more substantial underlying why it is that administrations seem willing to go in that direction?

JP: Well, I think there are profound causes, and they do have to do with a crisis in our belief system—the sort of crisis that Nietzsche and Dostoevsky both predicted. That is a crisis in the faith in logos, and logos is the spirit that, you could say, imbues matter with life. That’s one way of thinking about it.

JL: For viewers who haven’t seen some of your previous material, let’s instantiate that for a moment. The concept of logos… How would the everyday person experience that in their day-to-day life? and how is that a focus of the crisis?

JP: You could think about it as the power of speech to transform reality. But even more importantly, more fundamentally, it’s the power of truthful speech to transform reality in a positive direction. We have this magical ability to change the future, and we do that through action, obviously. But action is oriented by thought, and thought is mediated by dialog. And so it’s speech, in particular, that’s of critical importance to this logos process. The logos is symbolically represented in the figure of Christ, who’s the word that was there at the beginning of time. So that’s a very complicated topic, but what it essentially means is that the West has formulated a symbolic representation of the ideal human being, and that ideal human being is the person who speaks the truth to change the world.

JL: I’m really curious about this. In your opinion, is this an especially Western concept? or is it just simply a matter of you having studied mainly Western mythology?

JP: No, I think it’s—I mean, there is emphasis in other belief systems. I think it’s more explicit in Christianity. I would say Christianity has done two things: it’s developed the most explicit doctrine of good versus evil, and it’s developed the most explicit and articulated doctrine of the logos. And so I would say, in many traditions, it’s implicit. It’s implicit in hero mythology, for example. I think what happens is that, if you aggregate enough hero myths and extract out the central theme, you end up with the logos. It’s the thing that’s common to all heroes. That’s a good way of thinking about it.

JL: This reminds me of—I don’t know if you’re familiar with the story of René Girard.

JP: Many people have been talking to me about René Girard.

JL: OK, just to challenge the ideas, here. So in our previous interview, I sometimes played devil’s advocate, and viewers, apparently, appreciated that tact. So when I say these things…

JP: That’s fine.

JL: Just take that with a grain of salt. So René Girard has a fascinating theory about the role of the scapegoat, which we won’t get into in depth here. But, coincidentally, in scare quotes, he winds up at a state where the answer to all his problems is Catholicism. He has this very roundabout and really intriguing theory about the nature of the role of envy and human society, and how the resolution of that creates bonds. But then, somehow, he decides that Catholicism, the particular religion that he was born into, is the solution. So in what sense… If you were to look at this self-critically, do you think this may be an instance of the same thing? in terms of what’s available to you, as a Western researcher, is the Western mythology. So, of course, that’s salient, and you’re able to make meaning out of that. But is it really any more or less profound in terms of its exploration of these ideas as, let’s say, Buddhist mythology or Islamic Sufi mythology? How would you answer that question?

JP: Well, I thought—again, it’s a matter of its articulation and dissemination into society, as a whole. So you imagine that these ideas are implicit. There’s an idea in Christianity, for example, that Christ is implicit in the Old Testament, which actually happens to be true—depending, of course, on what you mean by "true".

JL: In the sense of the messianic figure?

JP: Yeah, well, there’s this dawning awareness that, out of a plethora of heroes, the ultimate hero will emerge. Think about this psychologically. Just think about it psychologically. Imagine that what human beings are trying to do is abstract out the ultimate patterns for modes of Being. So what they do is they look for admirable people, and then they make a story about an amalgam of admirable people—that would be a hero—and then the heroes’ stories get amalgamated, so you get a meta-hero. Christ is a meta-hero. This is completely independent of any historical reality. That’s a whole different issue. And I’m not denying any historical reality. That’s a different issue.

The Western imagination has been at work for a very long time, constructing up a meta-hero—and also his adversary—and clarifying the nature of those. That has been done in a sufficiently delineated way, so that it’s produced a major impact on the manner in which our societies are constructed. The cornerstone of our society is respect for logos, and that’s instantiated in the doctrine of respect for free speech. It’s also instantiated in the doctrine that every individual has transcendent value, which I do believe is something that the West has developed to a far greater degree than any other culture that currently exists and probably ever existed. It’s just such an unlikely concept. In the West, even if you’re a murderer—even if people know you're a murderer—you still have intrinsic value. You have to be treated as if you have a spark of divinity within you.

JL: Would you say that this was the case even during, let’s say, the Middle Ages? And I know—in terms of my meagre understanding of medieval historiography—that its previous characterization as the Dark Ages is actually quite unfounded. But could you not argue that what you’re describing is actually a product—and maybe they’re related—of what arose out of particular sociopolitical processes that actually distance society from religion itself? They may or may not have been a product of that religious heritage, but in the height of the West or Christendom’s possession by Christianity in an ideological sense, as an all-encompassing explanation of the universe, witches were burned, people’s thumbs were cut off for challenging non-heliocentric positions. So how do you reconcile that historical trend, I suppose, away from religion and towards the sorts of respect for the individual that you’re describing?

JP: Well, when you asked that question, I had a vision. The vision was of a plane of barren earth with a gigantic crystalline structure underneath, forcing itself upward and breaking up the dirt. That’s exactly how I would answer that question: there’s this great idea attempting to manifest itself. It manifested itself, for example, in the decimation of slavery. There was an idea, and the idea was, "all men are created equal." That’s the idea. That idea is rooted in a much deeper idea, which is that there’s a spark of divinity in everyone, and that’s this logos capacity that enables people to name things and give form to the world, and that we’re not to violate that. You could say, "well, that emerged tremendously slowly," but it didn’t emerge slowly at all, man. The idea’s only, in its thoroughly formulated sense, about 2,000 years old. It emerged with incredible rapidity and demolished everything in its path, essentially.

Now, the people who like to trace the development of the Western mind back to the Enlightenment and stop there would say that it was actually the Enlightenment, and that that ran counter to the overwhelmingly oppressive Christian dogma that was standing in its way. Of course, there’s a certain truth to that, in that religious ideas, when formulated, can become restricted and dogmatic. There’s a spirit and a dogma that are always in conflict, and both are necessary, because the dogma provides structure and the spirit provides transformation. But my reading of—see, I think I take a much longer time view than the typical Western Enlightenment philosopher, who tends to think—like Charles Taylor, when he went back to look at the sources of modern self, basically went back 500 years. But I think in evolutionary terms; that’s a scratch on the surface. What we’re talking about, here, is something that’s indescribably deeper than merely what happened in the Enlightenment. I just see that, in some sense, as a sideshow of this crystalline process that’s emerging.

Nietzsche said that Christianity developed the sense of truth to such a degree that it died at the hands of its own construction. I think that’s brilliant. I think it’s absolutely the case. And so you can see the Enlightenment as part of that: the spirit of truth was highly developed, and that led people to start to criticize the very structure that had given rise to that desire for truth. And some of it’s also philosophical confusion, in my estimation. It’s like, once the rationalists and the empiricists got going, we started to formulate a very powerful doctrine of the objective world. That doctrine appeared to stand in opposition to the doctrine that was put forth by the Christian church—the mythological doctrine, let's say—if you assume that the mythological doctrine was a variant of that kind of empirical truth, which it wasn’t. It was something completely different than that.

JL: Right, and this is a really important point, because I think some people construe—I don’t want to say misconstrue, because it could be correct—that your description of what, let’s say, early modern or early humans understood their religious mythology to represent was, in fact, material reality. If I understand correctly, you’ve been arguing that they didn’t see it that way.

JP: The concept of "material reality" is a post-Enlightenment concept. I mean, if you look, for example, at how the alchemists described things prior to the emergence of the material world, they discuss the nature of the essence of the lemon. Well, a lemon is solar in essence. It partakes of the sun. Well, it needs the sun. It’s yellow, like the sun. It has the same stuff as the sun. The sun is golden. The sun is mercurial. The sun is illuminating. It has all sorts of attributes that we would consider spiritual. There was no distinction between the spiritual and the material.

JL: Right, but if there’s no distinction… It’s not that I… I mean, humans live in… We operate on a material basis, right? If there’s no distinction, is it not, in some sense, sort of a morass of confusion? and it’s that what we would consider spiritual as opposed to material was equally material…

JP: It’s more low resolution than confused. It’s a morass in some sense, in that—you can see a cell through a 10x microscope. It would have to be a fairly big cell. But anyways, you look at a cell through a 10x microscope: Well, now you can tell that the thing is composed of cells. Well, it’s still unclear, right? because the cell that you see is a low resolution cell. And then you zoom in and, "wow! This thing is made out of all these other things!" Then you zoom in more; it’s like, "wow! There’s a bunch more things there!" So part of the progress of human knowledge is the differentiation of the map. Now, you can get quite a long ways with an undifferentiated map. In fact, often an undifferentiated map is actually more useful, because it obscures useless detail.

So we’ve always been making maps of the world. You might say that we were making maps of the objective world, even when we didn’t know it. I would say, "no, we weren’t. I don’t believe that. We were making maps of Being, and that’s not the same thing." Imagine that you exist within a sacred landscape. OK, just for the sake of argument, well, how could a modern person conceive of that? Well, that’s easy: leave home for a while and then come back. Let’s say it’s your parents’ home and you’ve been gone for 15 years, and you come back. Everything in the house is imbued with magical significance. You might say, "well, that’s not inherent to the objects." It’s like, "yeah, sure—depending on how you define the objects." It’s completely inherent to the objects as they manifest themselves in your realm of perception, and you can dissociate the object itself from, let’s call it, the subjective overlay. But that’s not such an easy thing to do, and it’s not so self-evident, and it's not even obvious that what you’re doing when you do that is coming up with a more accurate picture of reality. The picture of reality that represents the item—let’s call it an item of sentimental or sacred importance. How do you know that importance isn’t the most important part of that item? That’s how you act. You won’t throw it away. "Well, why? It’s just a material entity." It’s like, "no, it’s not. It’s an element of Being, and that’s a different thing."

What people prior to the dawn of the materialist age, let’s say, were doing was producing maps of Being. That meant that things had historical significance. The mountain where your grandfather was buried is not the same mountain as another mountain. You might say, "yes, they are. They’re made out of the same clay and silica, and all of that." It’s like, "yeah, man—you’re missing the point." Now, a Westerner would say, "OK"—well, probably not, but a Westerner might object, "yes, but it’s extraordinarily useful to differentiate, and to act as if there’s an objective reality and a subjective reality, because it opens up all sorts of new avenues of pursuit." It’s like, "yes, that’s why we’re technological wizards, but we’ve lost something." What we’ve lost is our capacity to understand the reality of that overlay that we scraped off in order to produce objective reality.

JL: That’s a fascinating point. In what sense do you think that the persistence of religion—and not only in the symbolic, mythological sense that you’ve, it seems, made significant, resurrected, articulated to a wider audience, not only in that form but in the fundamentalist form—in the ISIS manifestation, let’s say, or in the far-right evangelical Christian movement in the States. How much of that do you think is a response to what it is that you’re saying: the fact that we lost certain…

JP: Oh, definitely it’s a response. This is something Nietzsche and Dostoevsky delineated with exceptional clarity: Western people had a hole torn in their soul. Nature abhors a vacuum. Something will rush in to replace it. Now you might ask, "well, why is that?" People like Sam Harris and Dawkins, for example, would think about it as a regression to a form of barbarism, but I think they violate their own principles, because they’re not taking the past seriously enough. This is particularly the case with Dawkins, who I think is actually starting to recognize this. If you take an evolutionary perspective on the development of belief, for example, there’s all sorts of things you discover, quite rapidly, that indicate that the manner in which belief structures are structures is something that evolved, and it evolved for functional reasons. Let me step back. From the perspective of the materialist, there is nothing more real than the atom, let’s say. From the perspective of a philosopher of Being, alternatively, there is nothing more real than suffering. You develop a different metaphysics, starting from those two different perspectives.

JL: What do you mean by "Being", in this sense? Putting myself in the shoes of one of the people you just described a second ago—to them, I think, all of a sudden, when you shift to philosophy of Being, it’s like, "OK, this could mean anything." Let’s try to nail that down. How would you articulate that to people for whom it doesn’t resonate immediately?

JP: Yes, well, of course you’d ask me that, because it’s a very complicated problem. Being is the realm in which suffering is real. Now, people act as if their pain is real.

JL: Why suffering specifically?

JP: Because you can’t argue with it.

JL: It’s the least deniable aspect of subjective experience.

JP: That’s it. Descartes’ great investigation into doubt led him to the conclusion that "I think, therefore I am." I don’t think by "think" he meant "think" the way we think. He meant more like, "the fact that I’m consciously aware is something that I cannot deny." That’s good. That’s fine. More power to Descartes for taking it to that extreme, and then producing what he produced out of that. But for me, when I investigated the structure of doubt, the conclusion that I drew was that there’s nothing more real than suffering. I would say you can tell what people experience as real and believe, let’s say, because their actions indicate that. People’s actions indicate that they believe in their own pain. That’s undeniable. You can’t argue yourself out of it. It transcends rationality, and so it’s real. And then, of course, it’s an axiomatic tenant of religious systems, generally speaking, that life is suffering, which is a restatement of exactly the same thing. And so Being is the domain in which pain announces itself as real. That’s not the material world. It’s not the material world. Pain is not a material phenomena. You can say, "well, it’s associated with material phenomena." It’s like, "well, yes." I would like to point out that that is hardly a brilliant observation. Everything is associated with the material world, because here we are in this world. So it’s a qualia, let’s say, if you want to think about it from a philosophical perspective.

JL: So by "pain", here—because I immediately leaped to the devil’s advocate position: well, yes, but pain is certainly a neurological process that can be treated with certain medications, and those have metabolic and chemical interactions that can actually limit pain or decrease pain. It’s treatable, in some sense. But by "pain", I believe what you mean is the experience of suffering generally. It’s unavoidable. You can tinker at the edges with medication or whatnot…

JP: Well, and quite nicely—and thank God for that.

JL: Exactly.

JP: You can tinker with it in all sorts of ways, which is exactly what we’re doing all the time. People say they’re striving for happiness. Actually, if you look at the empirical investigations into that, that’s wrong. When people talk about happiness, that isn’t what they mean. Happiness is extroversion, and, in its extreme, it’s like mania. It’s enthusiasm and joy, and it’s impulsive and expressive. That isn’t what people want. What they want is the cessation of negative emotion. So, actually, the scales that measure wellbeing, for example, technically—which is something Sam Harris is very concerned about—measure the same thing that neuroticism measures: sensitively to anxiety and emotional pain. People want very little of that, and then they say they’re happy because they're not differentiating. There’s the positive emotion end of being happy and there’s the not-suffering end of being happy, and what people mean when they say that they want to be happy is that they don’t want to be suffering. That’s what they mean.

JL: Do you think there’s an aspect of our current civilization or society, whether it’s the West or, at this point, just globally, where we have elevated a confused notion of the former with the latter? Because those are undifferentiated in our minds… we use this word "happy" or "happiness"… What pops into my mind are people’s Instagram accounts, Facebook, and other social media things, where people are trying to show everyone else how joyous and enthusiastic and wonderful their life is, because this seems to be our new ideal, in a society that lacks any other ideal.

JP: And, as Solzhenitsyn said, the philosophy that life is for happiness is destroyed the second the jackboots kick down your door at three in the morning. It can’t withstand tragedy, and that’s the critical issue, because life is tragedy. So you need a philosophy that can withstand tragedy. That’s what everyone needs; that’s what everyone wants. I would say that the philosophy that can withstand the ultimate tragedy of Being is as close to the ultimate truth as we can strive for, and that’s what religious systems are attempting to delineate. So, for example, in Christianity, there’s an idea that people are Fallen, and they’ve fallen into the terrible realm of history and self-consciousness, with its knowledge of suffering and finitude and its necessity for work. If you know that there’s you, and you know that you can suffer—because you are limited—and that you can die, then you are cursed with work, because even if you’re OK right now, you’re not like a lion who’s going to go to sleep and be happy, or like the zebra beside it, who won’t run away when the lion is sleeping. We know about the future, so we’re cursed to work and make sacrifices constantly. That’s our destiny, let’s say.

JL: In your estimation, is that a function of our… I assume what was an evolutionary process, from which we arrived at consciousness of time, future…

JP: We began to see the future. I think it was, a large part, a consequence of the development of our hyper-alert visual systems.

JL: This ties back to questions we received from previous viewers: in the sense that you are articulating—and some people would construe it as defending—the validity of the Christian position, per se… It’s not in a literal sense that the, let’s say, people who are conflating the material and the spiritual may be assuming. But it’s in the sense that it reflects something that we have evolved with us and we have begun to experience, and the religious symbology is how we make sense of that properly.

JP: Definitely, definitely. That’s why it’s mostly encapsulated in story and image. The reason for that is it’s too complicated for us to articulate. So it’s bottom-up development. The iconography of Christianity is an attempt to express something that we’re not yet smart enough to understand.

JL: This is a fascinating concept. Again, coming from a cognitive anthropological position, this is like, "yes, obviously." But I think, for many people, the idea that religious systems, belief systems in general, and, very probably, a lot of what we’re living out in our day-to-day life now, in 2017, is the outgrowth of something that we aren’t fully conscious of, that we can’t yet articulate, but is nonetheless a fundamental nature of our experience.

JP: Let me give you an example. A while back I was in New York—and, unfortunately, I don’t remember in which museum. But in this room in this museum, there was a spectacular collection of mid- to late Renaissance art. Staggering room. The value of the paintings in that room… They’re priceless. So there was billions of dollars worth of art in that room, and then there were people from all the world looking at it. So one of the pieces was of the Assumption of Mary. Beautiful. Not in that iconic manner that was characteristic of medieval art, that’s very abstract; but the forms are personified, so that Mary and Christ, in these sorts of representations, are identifiable individual human beings. There were a lot of people standing in front of that. I thought, "well, let’s be a cultural anthropologist about this. That museum is on some of the most expensive real estate in the world. There’s a tremendous amount of time and effort spent on producing the museum and fortifying it and guarding it. And then, people from all over the world make pilgrimages to stand in front of it—and, what they are looking at, they do not understand. So what the hell are they doing there? Why are they looking at those pictures?" Well, the answer is, "the pictures speak to their soul, but not in the language that they understand." But that’s ok, because we don’t understand ourselves. That’s obvious. We’re more than we can understand, by a tremendous margin. We’re trying to understand ourselves, and the artists and the mystics are at the vanguard of the development of that understanding, and they come up with ideas that are clearer than mere feelings, but are not yet clear. Imagine that there’s a…

JL: Is this analogous to the dream?

JP: It’s analogous to the dream. It’s the cultural dream. The dream is the vanguard of idea. There’s the body, and the dream emerges from the body. And then, the idea emerges from the dream. The social body is the body politic: it’s the communal body that’s extended over millennia—far longer than that. It extended forever, and the dream is the mythology that emerges from that, and the idea is our attempt to articulate that mythology.

JL: Would it be fair to say that some of the—not to get you off track, but this just popped into my head—frustration that you and other people who are interested in the same material as you feel in respect to, let’s say, the new atheist movement is that there’s a failure to realize that what they’re critiquing is precisely the equivalent of the dream? that there’s value in not-yet-precisely articulated experience of being human?

JP: They’re also not taking their evolutionary argument seriously. These ideas are old, like really, really, old. They disappear back into the far reaches of time. I mean, if you look at Frans de Waal’s work, for example, on dominance hierarchies in chimpanzees, there’s this old idea that the dominant chimp—because chimps are quite patriarchal, as opposed to bonobos, but we won’t bother with that for the time being. Chimps are quite patriarchal, and you might think, "well, the biggest, meanest, ugliest chimp wins. He’s the king chimp. He’s the one that gets to father all the baby chimps." Yes and no. Yes because sometimes it is the tyrant that rules the troop, but the problem with the tyrant is that two semi-tyrants can rip him into shreds, and they do, and with incredible brutality, and it disturbs the entire troop, when that happens. They’ll tear off his genitals with their teeth. They’ll rip off his skin. Chimpanzees are super strong. They’re about six times as strong as the most well-conditioned man. They can break 300-pound test steel cable with their bare hands. They are super strong, and they have absolutely no restraint whatsoever on their aggression, except the reactions of their conspecifics. So don’t mess with chimpanzees.

Brute rule is unstable among chimpanzees. What’s more stable? Well, the more stable rulers are—they pay attention to the females; they facilitate social interactions; they reciprocate; they have friends and allies; they maintain their friendships and their formations of alliances. And so, their rule stabilizes, and it’s because they're acting out what you might describe as the beginnings of an archetypal pattern. They’re acting as culture heroes for the chimps. That means that they have to be acting in a manner that’s commensurate with the interest of the group, as well as acting in a manner that’s commensurate with their own interest. The chimps are starting to act that out. The wolves act that out. The rats act it out. Like, when two rats engage in rough-and-tumble play, two juvenile rats—which they will work to do—if one rat is bigger than the other by about 10 per cent, that gives him the kind of weight advantage that makes him able to pin the other rat in the wrestling match pretty much about 100 per cent of the time. But if you pair those rats repeatedly, if the big rat doesn’t let the little rat win, at least about 30 per cent of the time, the little rat will stop asking him to play.

There’s a morality that emerges out of the necessity of social interaction. OK, so let’s say a morality emerges out of the necessity of social interaction. OK, that’s not a particularly contentious statement. But let’s say that’s been true for hundreds of millions of years, ever since the dominance hierarchy emerged. That’s about 350 million years ago. There’s ways of comporting yourself within the dominance hierarchy that allow for your survival and the possibility of your victory. OK, so that’s the beginnings of morality. Because the dominance hierarchy is so ancient, it actually acts as a selection mechanism. You see that in human beings. You see that in all mammals. The females use the dominance hierarchy—not in every mammalian species, but in most—to peel off the top. The successful climbers are the ones that leave the most offspring. So we’ve been shaped immensely by the necessity of acting morally within the social space. And so there’s an optimal manner of interacting with a dominance hierarchy, and then that becomes the environment, that selection mechanism. And then, the organisms are selected by that. That morality becomes structurally part of us, as well. Then there’s this concordance between our felt sense of moral obligation and the demands of the social world, and that’s real. It’s as real as anything, especially if you’re a Darwinian, because what’s most real from the Darwinian perspective is that which selections. That is what’s most real. That is the definition of real. It’s not the material world. It’s not. It’s that which selects, and that’s far broader than the mere material world.

JL: This is a meta-process, you’re saying, that is so fundamental to shaping what we view as material reality—and it’s more real than, let’s say, an atom, in the sense that gravity is more real than…

JP: Well, it’s real in that it accounts for emergent properties. It’s not a simple thing to reduce, well, consciousness, to its material substrate. But complex forms of social interactions aren’t easily reduced in a causal manner to the material substrate. I mean, we can’t draw causal links. We just don’t have that level of sophistication, and perhaps never will. So the reality of the processes that make up social interactions among social animals can’t be reduced to the material substrate, but they’re real, and they’re so real that they select. So they’re real. This is the problem I have with the people who are simultaneously reductionist materialists and evolutionary biologists. It’s like, "sorry, guys: you don’t get to be both." That’s the argument I was trying to have with Sam Harris, which augured in very rapidly in the first discussion, and I thought proceeded adequately well in the second discussion. Sam thinks that you can get the facts to speak moral truths for themselves. He also has this theory that we should be attempting to maximize wellbeing. But I’m not going to deal with the second claim at all, because the devil’s in the details, there, with how you measure wellbeing. Our ability to measure wellbeing is catastrophically unsophisticated, to say the least. The wellbeing scales that we have are extroversion minus neuroticism. That’s a big problem for someone who wants to do scientific measurement: it’s like, "OK, we’re going to increase wellbeing." "Hey, no problem. How are you going to measure it? and whose wellbeing? mine? OK, mine now? mine next week? mine next month? mine in a year? how about 10 years? how about 50?"

JL: And who chooses how to measure it?

JP: Well, precisely—"and my wellbeing in relationship to my significant other? in relationship to my family? in relationship to the community? at all those levels of temporal distinction? You’re going to measure that, eh? Good luck. And don’t come and say, ‘we can maximize wellbeing and we can do it scientifically’ until you get your measurement devices in place, and they’re not in place. That’s a fatal flaw."

JL: I assume Sam would disagree with this. In some sense, is that not the fatal flaw of the history of Marxism in the 20th century?

JP: Sure. It’s utopianism: "we can define wellbeing, and then we can collectively work towards it." It’s like, "well, I’m afraid it’s just not that simple." "From each according to his ability, from each according to his need." Sounds great. Devil’s in the details—and, definitely, the devil was in the details of that. So who defines "need"? who defines "ability"? That’s a big problem. It’s a fatal problem—and, literally, it’s a fatal problem. So, anyways, I trace back the development of these religious ideas to their—you can trace them infinitely far back. The issue of hierarchy and hierarchical position is absolutely key. It’s key to evolutionary survival. It’s key to mate selection. It’s key to survival.

JL: On that note—another sidetrack, another potential interesting avenue—we had a very insightful question from a viewer, or statement from a viewer, I should say: that the centrality of the dominance hierarchy in your thinking or understanding of the evolutionary process—in what sense is that not just a re-articulation of the Marxist or postmodernist position that power is everything?

JP: Well, that assumes that the reason that you…

JL: Power relations, I should say.

JP: That assumes that you relate dominance hierarchy mastery to power. Well, you can do that, because you could define it that way: "power is what gets you up the dominance hierarchy." Well, first of all, we should make a couple of things clear: I use "dominance hierarchy" because that’s a shorthand. People understand what that means. It’s not clear that hierarchies are, in fact, dominance hierarchies. One of my insightful colleagues once told me that I shouldn’t use the words "dominance hierarchy", because Marxism is built into that conceptualization—that the reason hierarchies exist is because of power. I thought, "Jesus, that’s probably true." It was quite a devastating criticism, in some sense, because it could easily be that the reason that hierarchical structures were formulated as dominance hierarchies was because the biologists who were doing the investigations, and the people who were formulating the ideas, had already been saturated with a Marxist view of power relations. But the reason that I brought up de Waal…

JL: Marxist or colonialism.

JP: Sure, sure. Absolutely.

JL: I mean, a lot of the recent history of Western civilization has been one of dominance over what were perceived of as inferior cultures: The White Man’s Burden.

JP: There are a variety of things that contribute to success, let’s say, and one of them is force. We won’t talk about power, because "power"… Force: force is when I get you to do something you wouldn’t choose to do. You could say, "the person who’s best at doing that is the winner." I would say, "no, that’s wrong. That isn’t how the evidence stacks up." The problem with being the person who gets the other person to do something by force is you have to e