Keywords: Atheist, Harris, Postmodern, PTSD, Logos, Dogma, Enlightenment, Consciousness, Kant, Divine, Freud, Malevolent, Evolution, Men Going Their Own Way, Western
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:
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
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
Many people have been talking to me about René Girard
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
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:
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
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 enforce it, and that’s costly, and you can be killed; you can be overthrown. Even the most effective tyrannies suffer during times of power transition. It’s unstable. That’s the problem: a hierarchy built on power is unstable. It isn’t operating as a consequence of the will of the masses.
Piaget, the developmental psychologist, thought about this in depth. He believed, from a biological perspective, that you could think about it as two importantly different categories of games. One is the set of games that I make you play, and then, the other is the category of games that you and I play voluntarily. And then you might say, "let’s have a competition between those two sets of games. We’ll orient both of them towards the production of a certain goal. Let’s say a stable civilized society, for the sake of argument—including one in which some people can be very, very wealthy and powerful, because, of course, that’s what the tyrant wants. We’re going to put them head-to-head." Piaget said, "look, the voluntary game society will win, because it doesn’t accrue enforcement costs." It’s brilliant. That was part of how he formulated the equilibrated state, as something like… You might describe it as a particularization of the kingdom of God. That’s one way of thinking about it. I think that’s fair, when talking about Piaget, because what motivated Piaget throughout his entire life—and people don’t know this about Piaget, generally speaking—was the reconciliation of science and religion. That’s what drove him. JL:
Most people—just for the audience that might not recognize this name—I’m making an assumption here, recognize him largely as a childhood developmental psychologist. JP:
Yes, which is not how he conceptualized himself. He thought that he was something like a developmental epistemologist. JL:
Can you refresh my mind and, perhaps, those of viewers as to what the equilibrated state meant in Piaget’s knowledge structure, and how that relates to what we were discussing? JP:
Sure: peekaboo with an infant. The infant can play peekaboo, and what happens when you play peekaboo with an infant is that, very rapidly, by gesturing, you and the infant settle on the rules of the game. What you want to do is engage the infant in play, because you find that intrinsically rewarding. So the infant will look at you, and then if you smile, he’ll smile, generally speaking. You can tell if the infant’s in a playful mood, and then you can hide your face, and you calibrate that so you don’t startle the infant. You want to put the infant on the border of order and chaos, because that’s where the fun is. And so you play with hiding and re-manifesting yourself, and it produces delight in the infant. So what you’ve done, there, is spontaneously organized a tiny societal microcosm.
That’s the sort of thing that Piaget was interested in: he was interested in how children organize games. The games are tiny societies: everyone agrees on the rules, and they play them out. They’re microcosms of society, and, as the children transform, the confines of the game expand until the game and the social world are indistinguishable. It’s like the life of a pro football player. Is that real life, or is that a game? Well, at some point, the game is life. Then the question is, "well, what should the game be?" Piaget’s answer was, "well, the game should be one that everyone agrees to play." There’s more to it than that, and some of my development of Piaget’s ideas is that there’s a bunch of rules of the games—and this is why the postmodernists, by the way, are wrong about the infinity of interpretations. They’re wrong. There is an infinity of potential interpretations, but there isn’t an infinity of viable interpretations, and that's the critical issue. So what constrains the range of interpretations? Well, let’s say there’s an infinite number of ways of construing the world. Well, there are, and that’s a game the postmodernists take: not only can you interpret texts in an infinite number of ways, but the world is a text, and it can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways, and so you can’t define any particular mode of interpretation as canonical. That’s the fundamental claim.
OK, let’s take that apart. Wrong. First of all, my interpretations have to keep me going—also shouldn’t result in an excess of agony, because those are games I’m not going to play. So if I extract out an interpretation like a hot stove is something upon which I can rest my hand, my agony will tell me that that’s a nonviable solution. It isn’t just agony: it’s the whole panoply of things that produce suffering: hunger, thirst, temperature regulation, the necessity of illumination, sexual desire—all these built-in biological modules that are part and parcel of our evolutionary history, which postmodernists are forced to deny, partly because it undermines their theory and partly because it interferes with their sociocultural determinism and their Marxism. But the biological evidence is quite clear. This is why our concordance with animals is so tight that you can use antidepressants on lobsters, and we diverged from lobsters about 300 million years ago: there’s conservation like you wouldn’t believe. So we’re made up of biological modules, and they have their own worldview. The hunger system has a worldview; the pain system has a worldview, and the pain system is a dominating system. You mess with that thing, it’ll flatten you. JL:
Is there not a tension here… I’m with you completely on this. I follow you because this is sort of my bread and butter as an academic. I hope the audience is able to keep up, as well, because it’s incredibly important, I think. But is there a tension in your mind between what you’re describing, the fact that we’re nested in a biological reality that inherently constrains our viable options for interpretation… Is there a tension between that and the notion of optimizing for Being, as opposed to material reality? Because, I think, when some people hear you talking about the realm of Being versus the realm of the material, they assume or conflate the realm of Being with what you’re describing the postmodernists to indulge in, in a sense of, "well, anything is open to the realm of imagination." JP:
Oh, no. Being is radically constrained. Radically. Let me outline the other constraints. JL:
If I understand correctly, this is precisely the difference between our versions of pragmatism and the postmodernist position, of which there has been significant confusion… JP:
Well, that’s because Harris had me talk about the person from whom… JL: Rorty
Rorty. Rorty wasn’t part of my pragmatism. I made that clear. It’s the William James
and C.S. Pierce
But there’s a conflation, I think, in some people’s minds. So what you’re describing is precisely… You’re differentiating. JP:
Precisely. So, first, we’ll say that we’re subject to biological constraints. And then, we’re subject to temporal biological constraints, which is that not only are we hungry today, but we’re going to be hungry tomorrow, and we’re going to be hungry in a year. So the biological constraints are now and later. The solution has to solve both those sets of problems, but that’s only the beginning, because I have those problems, but I also have the problem that there you are, and you have those problems. And so then we either fight, which is a problem, or we mutually negotiate such that we generate a solution, such that you get to solve your problems at the same time that I get to solve my problems—or maybe we even do it better: you get to solve your problems in a manner that helps me solve my problems, and I do the same for you.
That’s not easy. That’s narrow, and you know that, because if you live with someone, you’re constantly arguing with them, and the argument is, "which interpretation will suffice?" Right. And so, no, there’s not an infinite number of interpretations. There’s hardly any. But then it isn’t just me and the person I live with: it’s me and the person I live with, and the family, and the family and the community, and the community and polity, and the economic system, and the biological system. All of that has to be stacked up, one on top of the other. So the game is played at every level, simultaneously, the same way. In my estimation, that’s what a symphony expresses. That’s what it’s telling you. It’s stacked the level of Being so that every level operates harmoniously with every other level. I would also say that, because we’re evolved for that, we can tell when it’s happening, and that’s what the sense of meaning is. The sense of meaning is our third eye, you could say. Your eyes blind you, because they only see what’s here right in front of you now. They blind you.
You have to use modes of perception that transcend mere vision in order to conceptualize Being properly. One of those modes is the sense of meaning and engagement. That involves extraordinarily ancient systems. For example, it’s produced in part by the dopaminergic systems, and they’re rooted in the hypothalamus
, which is an extraordinarily old part of the brain, and a very, very—maybe the—most fundamental part of the brain. It’s the one where most of the biological subsystems have their rootings: the hunger systems, and the lust systems, and that sort of thing. And so the sense of meaning is extremely old—old, old, old. But it’s differentiated very finely in human beings. When you’re engaged meaningfully, then what that is, is an intimation that the levels of Being are lining up, at least to some degree. You’ll feel that. You’ll feel that as a sense that life is meaningful. That sense is the thing that enables you to overcome tragedy. JL:
Correct me if I’m wrong, but there can be a tension between what is meaningful for a given individual and what is meaningful on a societal level, or for the most number of individuals. I’m thinking of if there’s a death squad: what’s meaningful for a death squad is when he feels like he’s in completely control of his country, and then he experiences that subjective state of meaning that you’re describing… JP:
Yeah, but I don’t think that is what he experiences. I think he’s driven substantially by terror and malevolence, and that’s not the same thing. It’s not like those things aren’t motivating. I’m not saying that this sense of transcendent meaning is the only motivator. Clearly it’s not. There’s sub-motivational systems that can take control at any time. But I don’t believe that the sense of meaning that I’m describing is akin to what a tyrant feels when he’s tyrannizing. That’s more like jealous rage, or something like that—or resentment. Now, I would say there’s an exception to that, because one of the things we haven’t talked about is the necessity for truth. So let’s allow, for a moment, that the faculty that produces this sense of engagement has the qualities I attributed to it. But I would say that also only works properly under certain conditions, which is, if you are sick—physically, biological, neurological—then it’s certainly possible that that meaning system is going to go astray. It’s going to signify meaning where the alignment isn’t proper. Well, that could happen for any number of reasons. It seems to happen in schizophrenia, for example, at a very, very low level.
I would also say, you risk making that happen to you—which means you can no longer trust your deepest instinct—by lying to yourself. So that could be selective omission of information. That’s the most common form of lie: passive avoidance; willful blindness. That’s the most common form of deception, although, active deceit can also play a role. If you contaminate the structure of your Being with false information, with deceptive practices, and you wilfully blind yourself, then you’re going to be led astray by your sense of meaning. You’re going to pathologize it. Part of the issue, here, is that you don’t want to interfere with your ability to see, because you’ll wander off the road into the ditch. People think, "well, why should I tell the truth?" which is a great question, man. Every smart kid figures that out—the smarter the kid, the younger they figure that out: "well, if I can lie to get what I want, why shouldn’t I, given that I want to get what I want?" That’s a great question. JL:
OK, so here’s a followup, then. Why not engage in a series of white lies? JP:
First of all, sometimes, that’s the best you can do. You could say that, well, you’re morally impelled to come up with the best solution you can under the circumstances. What you want is a statement that serves all levels of Being simultaneously. But, sometimes, you don’t know how to do that. The example that springs to mind for me, always, is the classic kind of joke situation, where wife asks her husband, "does this dress make me look fat?" or "what do you think of this dress?" Maybe the answer is, "I hate that god damn dress," and maybe that’s the answer. But if the question is, "do I look fat in this dress?" maybe the answer is, "I don’t answer questions like that," right? That would be the truth in that situation, and that’s—or there would be the white lie, which is, "oh, you look beautiful." But I don’t believe… White lies are suboptimal solutions to a complex problem. So that’s all. They’re true at some levels of analysis, and they’re false at others. JL:
Are there cases where stating what appears to be the truth, to the best of your ability to articulate it, is inferior to a pragmatically functional white lie? JP:
I would say it depends on your motivations. I can use the truth to hurt you, but then I would say that what I’m doing is like a white lie. It’s like a black truth. Let’s call it that. It also doesn’t serve the ordered structure entirely, because it’s true on three levels of analysis—usually sub levels—and not true on a really profound level. So I can say, "well, I’m just telling you this for your own good, and I told you something true," but I picked a context or state of vulnerability that I know you’re in, in which delivery of that message has an undermining effect, and I know that. I can say, "well, it was true!" It’s like, "no. All things considered, it wasn’t true. Some things considered, it was true." And a white lie is the inverse of that. It’s like, "well, on some levels it’s true. It would be wrong of me to hurt your feelings over such a trivial issue. And so, in order not to violate that higher moral principle, I’m going to violate a subordinate moral principle." JL:
Right, and in your system of thought, that higher moral principle, that higher level, is still part and parcel—in fact, it’s, perhaps, the pinnacle of the notion of truth, whereas for someone… Again, just to make reference to a previous interview you had with Sam Harris, the conflation or the intentional combination of moral truth with factual truth is either bizarre or it just doesn’t occur to people. JP:
Right, but he wants to do that anyways; he just wants to do it in the reverse. I was making the case that, by necessity, factual truth is subordinate to moral truth. He was saying, "no, moral truth can be derived from factual truth." He doesn’t get out of the problem. The problem is the necessary coexistence of both forms of truth. He just inverts the causal order. The problem with Sam’s account is that—and this is the problem that Immanuel Kant
identified so many years ago: "do the facts speak for themselves?" "No, they don’t, because facts say a number of different things." If there’s a field in front of you, it does not tell you which path to take through it. But it’s worse than that: there’s an unlimited number of facts, and the problem is, "how do you select them?" The answer to that is, "the facts themselves cannot tell you that," and that’s why you have an a priori interpretive structure, which is, of course, what Kant was insisting upon. Sam doesn’t take that into account, and that’s mind-boggling to me, because that a priori interpretive structure is the sum total of the effect of our evolutionary history. So what about that? Where does that play into the game? We’re so selective in our attention, it’s unbelievable. There’s been estimates that the bandwidth of our conscious attention is like four bits. We’re like pinpointing the world. Some of that’s conscious, because we can make decisions about what we look at, and a lot of it’s unconscious, because our attention is attracted by, directed by, these fundamental underlying biological subsystems. But we’re making intrinsic value judgements all the time that are not derived from the facts at hand. That’s a blank slate viewpoint. Harris can’t be a blank slate believer if he’s an evolutionary biologist, and the same goes for Dawkins. JL:
What you just said made me think of—in a previous interview, you had mentioned motivated action and motivated speech. I think, for people who are not necessarily familiar with or are more than happy to readily dismiss psychoanalytic approaches, it doesn’t make much sense. It’s an intellectual boogey man, in some sense. But I think, if I understand correctly, when you reference "motivated processes", you’re describing something similar to what you just described, in the sense that we have a whole series of sort of undeniable biological impulses that constrain our cognition, that constraint what we pay attention to and what motivates us. Even when we think on a conscious level that we’re doing something for one reason, we’re very good at creating rational explanations for behaviour that we’re actually engaging in for much deeper, impulsive reasons. JP:
Well, that’s part of the fact that we’re not transparent to ourselves. People like Gazzaniga
have made the claim—and think Dennett
has really been hitting this hard lately—that mostly what our conscious mind does is come up with post hoc rationalization for our behaviours. It’s like, just because something’s partly true some of the time doesn’t mean that it’s absolutely true all of the time. We are trying to understand ourselves continually, and sometimes we come up with partial accounts for why we did what we did. But consciousness is also the builder of our habits. Now, it’s not the only builder, but you consciously attend to some action in a new domain and practice it. The consciousness builds up those habitual structures, and then they run automatically. But that doesn’t mean that consciousness was irrelevant to their production. It was very relevant to their production. It’s not just a mere post hoc add on. It’s not that at all. Consciousness is what—you’re playing a sonata, and you make a mistake. You play it again, you make the same mistake. What do you do? You’re playing it automatically. You’ve built the habit with hours and hours of practice and conscious attention. You’ve rewired yourself, building automatic mechanisms. An automatic mechanism fails, so what do you do? You look more intently at the notes, then you slow down, and you restructure the habit, and then you speed up, you speed up, you speed up. Then you play the segment, then you play the segment again, and then maybe you go back to the beginning and zip through. Then you’ve restructured that automatic system.
Consciousness did that. It’s not just a post hoc rationalizer—although, it can be that—and it’s often not a rationalization, either: sometimes it’s an investigation into the actual causal structure. It’s like, "I did that. Why’d I do it? Well, sometimes I want to come up with a story that sounds good to other people," let’s say, which seems to be Gazzaniga's theory about why we consciously utter post hoc rationalizations to justify our behaviours to ourself. Jesus, that’s pretty cynical. Often, it’s a deep attempt to identify the likely causal contributors. You could say, "we just don’t have that capacity." It’s like, "yes, we do, because otherwise we would continually repeat the same mistakes." If we learn from our experience, what we do is reconstrue our maps of value, so that we don’t replicate the error in the future. And because we are capable of not replicating past errors, obviously we’re capable of consciously altering our pathway, and also of performing a pragmatically useful causal analysis of the cause of our error.
Now, if you do psychotherapy with people and they have a traumatic memory, it won’t go away. Well, what do you do with it? You go back into the memory, and you assess the sequence of events in detail until they have an account that is sufficiently plausible, so that they believe that, if the same circumstances arose in the future, they would no longer fall prey to that error. So, for example, if it’s a naive person who was manipulated badly by a potential romantic partner, then what you do is, you say, "what was it about your viewpoint that put you at risk?" That isn’t blaming the victim. It’s helping the victim not be a victim again. It’s like, "yeah, it was 95 per cent the other person’s fault—whatever. They're not in the room with you. All you can do is try not to fall into the same pit. That didn’t mean someone else didn’t dig the pit." "OK, I was too trusting." "So let's take that apart. What do you mean, ‘too trusting?’" "Well, I always assume the good in people." "Well, what about these instances of people acting in a bad way?" "Well, I don’t really understand that." See, they need to differentiate up their worldview, to take into account the existence of predatory people. They also, generally, have to differentiate their view of themselves, to stop thinking of themselves as nice and harmless, because it's the nice and harmless naive person that’s exploitable by the malevolent psychopath, and that’s not moral virtue. That’s just weakness. That’s all it is. It’s naivety. It’s the maintenance of a childlike view of the world, far past its expiry date.
So you go back and take that apart. You formulate a more differentiated and sophisticated view of the world. The person finds that plausible, then you have them practice it, so they can see that it has applicability in the real world. And then, the emotion from the traumatic memory will go away. What’s happening is the anxiety system is saying, "unexplored territory! Unexplored territory! Unexplored territory!" What that system wants is to know, A, that someone is trying to map that territory instead of just avoiding the problem, and B, that there is a plan. Now, it’s not cognitively sophisticated enough, in some way, to know if the plan works. It wants to know that someone’s in charge, and that it’s being taken care of. That’s what you do in psychotherapy. You say, "look, you can face this. Even though you think you can’t, you can. We’ll break it into pieces. I’ll discuss with you a plethora of potential solutions. We can do it slowly. You can bite off as much as you can chew and no more. And we’re going to come up with something that isn't a post hoc rationalization for your behaviour: it’s a set of new tools, so that when you see that hole in the road, you walk around it. First of all, you’ll see it. Second, you’ll walk around it." People are massively encouraged by that process. They’re not made less afraid. In fact, they might be made more afraid. But the fear is much more focused, and they know how to deal with it. It’s like, "I didn't think there were dangerous people in the world!" "Well, there are." "Oh, my God! The world’s much more dangerous!" It’s like, "yes, it is." "Well, what am I going to do about that?" "You’re going to get smarter and sharper, because that's the cure. It’s not, ’we’re going to make the world less dangerous.’ The world is plenty dangerous, but it turns out you're a lot more capable than you thought." JL:
So in what sense is this corrective mechanism that you’re describing, that is epitomized in this case in psychotherapy… In what sense is that only accomplishable within a social context, where you have feedback from other agents? JP:
Well, that’s a good question. First of all, I would say, to tie this back to our earlier conversation, that curative process is the action of the logos in dialog. That’s what it is. I would also say that the degree to which you can manifest the logos is going to be radically associated with your functionality in human hierarchies. It’s the primary determinant of that. It’s the essence of genuine charisma. Now, that can be parasitized upon. Hitler did that. That can be parasitized upon. But just because a mechanism has value doesn’t mean that it can’t be parasitized. That happens all the time. It happens constantly. JL:
The mechanism you’re referring to, here, as genuine charisma is a clear ability to be able to effectively navigate a hierarchy? JP:
Yes, yes—well, and the world. It’s like, the dominance hierarchy is kind of a mediator between you and the world. So when you’re negotiating the social world, you are simultaneously negotiating the actual world, unless the social world has become so corrupt that it no longer bears any relationship to the real world, in which case everyone is in serious, serious trouble. JL:
Yes, I can think of parts of the world where… JP:
Oh, yes. It happens quite frequently. That’s the emergence of the tyrannical and senile king. The society is no longer adapted to the real world. So then, if you adapt to the society… Well, it’s like you’re the captain of a sinking ship. You’re going to drown along with everyone else, so it’s not that great. It’s not that useful. JL:
We were talking about how someone who exhibits those qualities—those qualities can be used for good or evil, let’s say, but someone who exhibits those qualities… JP:
It’s the simulacrum of those qualities that’s used for evil. JL:
Right. And then, to relate this to whether people are able to gauge proper behaviour, meaningful behaviour, on their own… or is there a necessity for social… JP:
Yes, yes. Well, they can do it, to some degree, on their own, but that only works until they have a problem they can’t solve. JL:
Right. Is that not sort of an opening for self-deception? JP:
Of course. Of course it is, and self-deception in all sorts of ways: self-deception as a consequence of implicit biases, temperamental biases. Your capacity to think—let’s say that’s your self-reflective logos—is limited by your ability. So it’s limited by your motivations and their purity, let’s say. It’s limited by your knowledge. It’s limited by your localization in this particular period of time and place. And so it’s insufficient, and you can tell it’s insufficient because problems arise in your life that you can’t solve. Well, so then what you do is engage very frequently in joint problem solving. And then you might say, "well, what makes a person particularly, let’s say, powerful, influential, able to function well in the social hierarchy?" "That’s easy: they solve problems." That’s what they do. If you come to someone with a problem, and they say, "well, here’s how you deal with that," you’re pretty happy about that. You’ll come back and see them again. It doesn’t matter what the avenue is. That’s what a mechanic does: "This doesn’t work." "I’ll fix it." It’s like, "hey! Right on, man. I’m bringing my car back there." So we’re pretty good at evaluating whether or not a problem has been addressed, because the problem goes away, so then we’re happy about that, because we don’t want the problem. JL:
Then how do we account for all the various flavours of self-deception that we perceived, and the mystification of our own hidden motivations that we observe in ourselves, in some cases, and certainly in others? When you talk about… Not to pick on him unnecessarily, but just because it popped into my mind: you mentioned in a previous interview that the new atheists… it seems that a lot of that thinking is motivated, to a degree. But they certainly wouldn’t recognize it as motivated. They see it as rational. JP:
Well, it is rational. It’s just rationality that’s bounded to too great a degree, in my estimation. Some of the motivations are… They pick a hill to die on. That’s one way of looking at it. Dawkins' idea of meme is so close to the idea of archetype—in fact, the last time that Harris and Dawkins spoke, they actually made a joke about that. Dawkins said, "well, if I admitted that, then everything would just fall apart," and they both laughed and went on. It’s like, "yeah, guys, you got it, but you backed away." As soon as you get the idea of "meme", it’s like, "OK, are there functional memes and nonfunctional memes? and how functional is a functional meme? how about if it’s super functional?" Of course—what, a meme is just a parasite? It’s only a parasite? I don’t think so. Why would you make that presumption? JL:
It certainly seems possible that there are parasitic-like memes. JP:
There are. Absolutely. There’s no doubt about that. Ideologies are parasitical memes. JL:
There are multiple ways we can take this. The battery is running low, so I’m just going to switch that out. JP:
OK, I’m going to get a glass of water. What time is it? JL:
There are multiple ways we can take this discussion, because it’s so relevant to so much of what we experience, both on an individual and a societal level. But I think, to be timely and respectful of some of the questions that people posed in their responses, maybe we can relate what we were just discussing to two areas, in particular. One is the degree to which we should take our religious or mythological formulations—that are the product of dozens of years of evolution, both biological and cultural, seriously and or literally. JP:
Sure. You would ask that question. JL:
That ties back to the question, I think, of the white lie that we were discussing earlier: the white lie or the black truth, in the sense of, if something is pragmatically true but literally appears to be untrue, how does one reconcile that, if it’s serving the ultimate good? JP:
OK, let’s start with the first one. That question pushes me… JL:
Just for my own memory—and the second point I want to get to is the risk of ideological possession in today’s political climate, and what your own research and what we discussed brings to bear on how to avoid what seems to be an increasingly problematic issue at this particular point in Western history. JP:
OK, so the first one is with regards to the relationship between the metaphorical and the literal, let’s say. JL:
Yes. To concretize it, we’ve had questions from orthodox Christians who view you, for instance, as a defender of Christianity, because of what they’ve read online. And then they listen to what you say, and they’re like, "well, OK. So he’s on my side"—so to speak—"but does he really believe in the divinity of Christ? Does he believe in the transformation of bread into flesh, and these sorts of things?" JP:
Of course, that depends on what you mean by "believe" and what you mean by "divinity". JL:
And the third issue, just to go from there: and, if so—or if not—what, in Peterson’s estimation, is the role or importance of ritual and acting out certain religious… JP:
Good. We’ll start with that. People often ask me, "do you believe in God?" I don’t like that question. First of all, it’s an attempt to box me in, in a sense. The reason that it’s an attempt to box me in is because the question is asked so that I can be firmly placed on one side of a binary argument. The reason I don’t like to answer it is because, A, I don’t like to be boxed in, and B, because I don’t know what the person means by "believe" or "God", and they think they know. The probability that they construe "belief" and construe "God" the same way I do is virtually zero. So it’s a question that doesn’t work for me on multiple levels of analysis, but, strangely enough, just as we were talking, the answer to that question popped into my head: I act as if God exists.
Now, you can decide for yourself whether that means that I believe in him, so to speak, but I act as if he exists. That’s a good enough answer for that. Then, with regards to these other issues, the divinity of Christ, I would say the same problems with the question formulation obtain. What do you mean by "divine"? and what do you mean by "Christ"? These are very, very difficult questions. Now, for all intents and purposes, I believe the logos is divine. If by "divine" you mean of ultimate value, of ultimate transcendent value: yes, it’s divine. It’s associated with death and rebirth, clearly, because the logos dismantles you and rebuilds you. That’s what happens when you make an error.
When you make an error, some part of you has to go. That’s a sacrifice. You have to let it go. Sometimes it’s a big part of you. Sometimes it can be such a big part of you that you actually die, instead of dying and being reborn. "Is there something more than merely metaphorical about the idea of dying and being reborn?" "Yes, there is, because those are associated with physiological transformations." "What’s the ultimate extent of that?" That’s a good question. The question is, "what happens to the world around you, as you increasingly embody the logos?" The answer to that is, "we don’t know." We don’t know the ultimate level of this. Now, the hypothesis is—and it’s a hypothesis that extends, to some degree, to Buddha, as well. The hypothesis is that there has been one or two individuals who managed that, and that in their management of that, they transcended death itself. Well, then you might ask yourself, "what do you mean by ‘transcended death?’’" Well, in the case of Christ, let’s assume he was a historical figure for the time being—which, I think, is the simplest thing to assume.mI think there is sufficient evidence to conclude that. You could conclude otherwise, but, personally, I feel that there is sufficient evidence to conclude that. Is his resurrection real? Well, his spirit lives on. That’s certainly the case. JL:
In what sense do you mean "spirit"? Just to qualify that. JP:
Well, let’s imagine that a spirit is a pattern of Being. We know that patterns can be transmitted across multiple substrates, right? Vinyl, electronic, impulses, air, vibrations in your ear, neurological patterns, dance: it’s all the translation of what you might describe as a spirit. It’s that pattern. It’s independent of its material substrate. Well, Christ’s spirit lives on. It’s had a massive effect across time. Well, is that an answer to the question, "did his body resurrect?" I don’t know. I don’t know. The accounts aren’t clear, for one thing. What the accounts mean isn’t clear. I don’t know what happens to a person if they bring themselves completely into alignment. I’ve had intimations of what that might mean. We don’t understand the world very well. We don’t understand how the world could be mastered, if it was mastered completely. We don’t know how an individual might be able to manage that. We don’t know what transformations that might make possible.
I’m going to do a series on the Bible. That’s one of the things I want to investigate more thoroughly and formulate my thoughts about more thoroughly, because it is a crucial issue. A friend of mine said—and I wouldn’t describe him… He’s certainly not the sort of person that you would describe as a classic Catholic. He’s an extraordinarily well-educated individual. He’s come back to Christianity with the most vicious of internal battles. This is the same person who made the comments earlier about the dominance hierarchy, so he’s very insightful. He said, "it falls apart unless you believe in the divinity of Christ, and in the resurrection of Christ." He meant that in a very fundamental way. There’s a way in which that’s true, but I don’t know exactly what it means yet. The metaphorical element of that, to me, is quite clear: the death and rebirth idea? Yeah. You see that echoed all over. One of the most recent popular manifestations of that idea is in the Harry Potter series, because it’s full of deaths and rebirths of the central hero. JL:
Is it not a manifestation of hope, or something beyond the finality of which we’ve become inescapably conscious? JP:
Well, yes, and that’s the Freudian critique, right? He just thought of it as a wish fulfillment. Although, the problem with that theory is, well, people also generated up the idea of hell. You could say, "that’s a convenient place to put your enemies," and still put it in the wish fulfillment framework, but I think that’s absurdly cynical. People who believe in hell are terrified about hell for themselves, and, in my estimation, they should be, because I also believe in hell. Although, what that means, again, is subject to interpretation. Lots of people live in hell, and lots of people create it. JL:
But beyond the basic Freudian, snide interpretation, is it not a belief in the identification with something that transcends your limited existence? JP:
Yes, definitely. But it’s funny, too, because, in the more Christian formulations, there’s an insistence on the resurrection of the body, which I find extremely interesting. Even the more, say, sophisticated deist types are kind of willing to go along with the idea that there might be something eternal, transcendent about consciousness, or about the spirit or the soul. Something like that. But they’re certainly not willing to go beyond that. But there’s this very peculiar emphasis in Christianity on the resurrection of the body, which is a glorification of the body, which is quite interesting. It’s not something you want to dismiss so rapidly, because it is a glorification of the body and an indication of the necessity of the body, of that limitation. JL:
Could that not be an instance of what we were describing earlier, in terms of a specific instantiation of a general [inaudible] and it’s the instantiation itself that makes it real? The body is the most real thing that we experience… JP:
Well, yeah, and it’s real in part because it’s limited. It has limitations. JL:
So the focus on the mythological representation of the body as resurrected is saying, "this is more real. This is just as real as you can imagine." JP:
Yes, yes. It’s an elevation of the material, interestingly enough—not a denial of the material; an elevation of the material. It’s a very interesting idea. As I said, I want to explore that more, because I’m not fully comfortable with my ability to bridge the gap between the metaphorical and the real—although, I think that the way that I described it is as close as I can come right now. Magical things happen as the logos manifests itself. Now, that’s self-evidently true. JL:
And, when you say "magical", you mean "magical", for all intents and purposes, in terms of our perception as relatively naive human consciousness? or magical in like, you know, rabbits out of hats? JP:
Well, certainly the former, and God only knows about the latter. That takes us afield, into strange areas—Jung’s observations of synchronist events, for example. We don’t understand the world. I do think the world is more like a musical masterpiece than it is like anything else. Things are oddly connected. I know that sounds New Age-y, and it sounds metaphysical. I’m saying bluntly that this is speculative. I’m feeling out beyond the limits of my knowledge. But I’m not willing to dismiss the mysterious, because I’ve experienced the mysterious in a variety of different ways. It’s very mysterious. Very. JL:
From a cognitive perspective, is that not the most rational position to take, in any case? Because we know our cognition is inherently bounded by a whole range of constraints. JP:
Well, we certainly know we’re bounded by ignorance, and there’s far more going on than we know or can know. The problem is that, when you start to speculate, it’s a projection of your imagination. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because knowledge advances through projection of imagination. The problem is you can see yourself reflected back at you, and then it’s self-fulfilling, and so you can see what you want to see. JL:
That’s right, and what you’re describing reminds me both of what I’ve read, and, through my experience, understood in terms of the Buddhist tradition, as well as the Islamic Sufi tradition. They use almost identical metaphors, as we were just using to describe this experience—in the sense that, to experience the mysterious in its most pristine form, you precisely have to rid yourself of your self, to avoid those projections. You want a clean mirror, so to speak—is the symbology that’s often used in Islamic mysticism—so that it best reflects what’s actually mysterious, and you’re not merely projecting your vain imagination. JP:
That would also be akin to the idea that I presented earlier, that you want to speak and live the truth, so that you don’t muddy your vision, because then you’re blind, and you will walk into things. That’s why you tell the truth. The problem is, if you lie, you believe the lies. The problem with not telling the truth is you falsify your map, and you will wander off the pathway. How could it possibly be any other way? JL:
That’s also what precisely—according to the scripture—Buddha said. He said, "false beliefs are the problem. You have to rid yourself of these false beliefs." If you follow that all the way through, then you have the soteriological goal, which may or may not be an achievable reality. JP:
Right, right. It’s an ever-receding horizon. JL:
That’s right, but it’s nonetheless… That’s what we’re aiming for. JP:
Yeah, and it seems like the right aim. JL:
In Islamic Sufi mysticism, you can speculate as to the aetiology of Islamic Sufi mysticism and its relationship to other forms of mysticism that predate Islam. The goals are precisely the same. The metaphors that are used are "polishing the mirror", so you best reflect what is divine, and, in this sense, "divine" in terms of the logos, the ultimate truth. You’re not muddying it with your own… JP:
Precisely—or inaccuracies. There seems to be something fundamental that… JP:
Yeah, well, the fundamental issue is that you should get your map right, right? The problem is that, even if you try, it isn’t clear how good a map you can make. But that’s OK, because, try as hard as you can; you’ll find out. But it’s certainly the case—and maybe it’ll be a good enough map. Maybe it’ll even be an accurate map. You don’t know. Independent of your inevitable ignorance, you can certainly stop being wilfully ignorant, and see what happens. My sense, too, is that you don’t get to complain about the structure of the world until you stop falsifying your relationship with it, because you don’t know to what degree the pathology of your Being is associated with the falsification. JL:
Because it’s inherently bound up with your subjective experience. We could even subtract "subjective": it’s essentially bound up with one’s experience. JP:
Right, right—because what you’re doing is you’re twisting and bending your value structure, and that’s what determines the focus of your perception, and your emotional responses. All of that. So get your aim right. "Well, what’s the aim?" "Truth," and I think it has to be nested in love. "Love" is something like the notion that, despite its suffering, Being is good, and you should serve Being. That’s a decision you have to make, because you can easily say, "well, Being is corrupt and evil," and there’s plenty of evidence for that. So it’s a decision: "Being is good. I’m going to serve good Being, and to do so means to tell the truth," and then you play that out, and then the magic happens. And that, I believe to be the case. I do believe, in some sense, that’s self-evident. JL:
But what you described to me… You’re most familiar with the Christian theological tradition. I’m more familiar with Islamic Sufi and Buddhist theological tradition. What you just described is incredible, and it, from my understanding of Sufism and other mystical traditions—in the sense that the twin principles that the polishing of one’s mirror, so to speak, are the principle of truth, ultimate truth, which is synonymous in the Arabic and the Persian languages with "God". It’s one and the same—and "love". And not "love" in the sense of "I love my puppy," but "love" in an all-consuming sense; one that motivates your entire being. JP:
Right, and the way that I interpret that—and I try to do this in my therapeutic practice. I try to do this all the time: I want the best for what wants the best in you. I’m that part’s friend. When my clients come in, it’s like—and this is different than the unconditional positive regard that the Rogerians talked about, which, I think, was an oversimplification. I don’t have unconditional positive regard. I am not on the side of you that’s aiming at your defeat. I’m not at all on that side. I’m on the side of you that’s struggling towards the light, and I’m on the side of that part of me—at least, I’m trying to be on the side of that; and that’s the definition of "love", I believe, because what it means is… Well, I said it: "I truly want the best for what wants the best in you."
People love that. They love that, man. If you’re interacting with people, with that ethos in mind, they find that… Well, I think that’s partly why people are responding so positively to my videos, because that ethos informs the videos. I’m trying to figure out what’s the best for us—really, the best. Not the best for me, although, that’s part of it, because here I am, and I’m in the game, too. But I’m so greedy, let’s say, I don’t just want the best for me. That’s not enough for me. I’m too greedy for that. Maybe I’m too selfish for that. I want the best for me in a way that’s the best for everyone else, too, because that’s even better. That’s another interesting thing about being bounded by death, is that you have nothing to lose. You might as well aim for the highest goal, because what have you got to lose that you aren’t already going to lose? Nothing—and you have everything, hypothetically, to gain. JL:
On the last point, then, to direct us to the second question. I think it flows quite nicely: what motivates people to cling to their particular ideological map of reality, in spite of what you just described? It seems like, to me and to other observers—and this could be an issue of confirmation bias—but it seems like, as you said, we’re at a sort of turning point in Western—I would say global civilization, at this point. JP:
I think so. JL:
The Western-Eastern distinction, I don’t think is any longer that helpful, where people seem to be reacting to what they’re experiencing with an usual degree of ideological fervor. JP:
Again, it’s only been about 60 years, 67 years since we saw a major conflagration premised on that issue. JP:
You bet. JL:
How do we avoid this? How do we learn from that? Based on your understanding and your in-depth study of this, what’s the solution, there? JP:
Well, I think the solution is an individual one, because the other solutions are collective, and the collective solutions are, in some sense, the problem. Now, why do people become ideologically possessed? Well, some of it’s just confirmation bias, temperamental bias. Then you can add ignorance to that; then you can add wilful blindness to that. And, with the ignorance issue, you can, more specifically, diagnose historical ignorance. That’s why I recommend that people read The Gulag Archipelago
, for example. There’s things that we need to know in order to set ourselves right, and the people that I’ve found that have been most useful in that regard have been Dostoevsky
and Carl Jung
, and a smattering of others. I think they had their finger on the pulse, fundamentally. It’s not like they’re the only people. I’m not claiming that at all. But there’s deeper issues, too.
One of the deeper issues is, "what do you do with the responsibility?" If you’re an ideolog, then the bad people are those who don’t think like you. That’s really convenient. Not only do you not have to do anything about it—because you’re already on the side of the good, so it’s alleviated you of any moral responsibility. Yet, you can still act as if you’re the exemplar of morality itself. Plus, you have a target, now, for all the unexamined vengefulness and hate and corruption in your own heart. So that’s a tempting plethora of temptations. It’s easy; it’s quick; it’s handed to you. It means that you don’t have to adopt any responsibility. It means you can camouflage yourself as a moral agent. It means that you have a target for your hatred, and it’s a justifiable target. But I think, of all of those issues, the avoidance of responsibility is the cardinal issue. It’s the most important issue. What I see at the universities is that the students are taught to go out and protest: "there’s the people who are messing up the planet. Go tell them that they’re bad." You don’t offer a solution, even; you just tell them that they’re bad. It’s like, "that’s the pathway to achievement." "No, it’s not." JL:
One can do both, and we see evidence of that in very recent Western political history, right? The civil rights movement… JP:
I think that you can’t do the latter until you earn the right to. JL:
In what sense is it a case that people on both sides… I hate to bifurcate it this way, but it’s perceived this way: two sides of the divide, the left and the right. In what sense is it that people are mistaking the form for the content, in that they may be looking back in history and looking up to movements that involved either speaking truth to power, which I think is part of what motivates a lot of the right, and even the so-called alt-right—just saying things that they should be able to say, regardless of whether it serves the higher moral truth or not. The inclination to protest and speak truth to the power of dominance hierarchy, the power structure, is often what motivates much of what’s on the left. To what degree do you think the conflagration of the coming to the head that we’re experiencing is when people mistake the form of that expression, the form of that protest, for the importance of the content, in the sense of the purity… JP:
Yeah, fine. That’s, again, why I would say it heads back towards the individual. JL:
OK, so how do we collectively solve the individual problem? Or is that not solvable? JP:
I think that we collectively solve the individual problem by noting that the collective is subordinate to the individual, which is really the fundamental Western claim. What’s at the pinnacle of the collective is the piece of the pyramid that detaches itself. That’s the eye. It’s the individual logos, fundamentally, that the collective has to serve; because the logos is the thing that rejuvenates the collective. JL:
Is there a conflation, there, between the individual, as in the individual human being versus or as well as that which is able to speak truth as precisely and clearly as possible? In your mind, are those two melded? JP:
Well, that would be the ideal, that they’re melded: the individual is the truth-bearing vessel, not the collective. The collective is the dead remnants of the past. Now, you need it. It’s a container; it’s necessary; but it’s always out of date. Always. It’s always out of date and, at least, semi-tyrannical, partly because it’s out of date, partly because it’s partly corrupt. But it’s the soul of the individual, the spirit of the individual, we could say, motivated by love, attempting to manifest itself in truth, that’s the cure for that malaise. That’s an ancient, ancient idea. It’s the most ancient written idea that we have. You see it in the Enuma Elish
, the Mesopotamian creation myth. That’s Marduk
Again, from a devil’s advocate perspective, could one not argue that what’s motivating some of the things that have concerned you with respect to the left is advocating precisely for that? The rights for individuals who have thus far been maligned in our society, who were not given the proper space because of stigma. JP:
I do think that, to the degree that the left is motivated by love and the desire for truth, the left does serve that. I think the left has been very effective, in many ways, in holding the concerns of the less fortunate up, so that others can see it. I believe that that’s a valid role the left can play. I believe that they have abandoned that role, because they’re serving a particular ideology. I believe that’s why Hillary Clinton lost the last election: they abandoned the working class. That’s a bad idea, because the working class needs a voice, and the working class is in rough shape, and there’s a variety of reasons for that that are complex. The working class needs a voice. The oppressed need a voice. They need a genuine voice. I think that genuine voice is lacking. I think the left has been hijacked by people who are neither motivated by love nor by truth. JL:
So to concretize this, then—in terms of people’s… at least here in Vancouver, for instance, instinctive reaction to protect otherwise marginalized individuals such as transgender people… JP:
Yes, we are definitely not talking about instinctive reactions. The instinctive reaction is nothing but an impulse. It is not a moral virtue. That’s just maternal instinct, and maternal instinct is just as dangerous as it is benevolent. That was, I suppose, Freud’s major contribution. The Oedipal Mother is the devouring mother. That’s the witch who lives inside the castle or the gingerbread house. She’s just too damn good to be true. The problem with over mothering creatures is that they stay infantile. So the fact that you feel sorry for someone and want to help them is just the bare beginning of what you need to do to actually do something that’s useful; and to confuse that with solving the problem is… "Well, I’m caring!" "Well, yeah. Who cares if you’re caring? Fine! A sparrow is caring. That’s not the issue." JL:
Again, to concretize this, because I think this exercise is extremely useful, based on what we started the conversation with… To take this from the more general to the specific, in terms of, let’s say, protecting transgender people who have been really maligned in society—there’s an incredibly high suicide rate in transgenders. They have difficulty finding work. They have difficulty maintaining normal relationships. JP:
Well, of course they have difficulty maintaining normal relationships. They are not going to maintain a normal relationship. That’s not possible. They’re in an abnormal situation. Now, that doesn’t mean they don’t get to have relationships, but it certainly means they’re not going to be normal. There’s a price to be paid for being different. Now, you could say, "well, that price should be minimized to the degree that that’s possible." Fair enough. JL:
Right, that is the articulated argument of people on the left, even amongst those on the radical left, who you say are motivated by more nefarious… JP:
Yeah, I don’t believe it. In fact, I don’t think the transgender people believe it, because I’ve got letters from about 35 transgender people now, and every single one of them except one said they agreed with me. They do not regard these activists as their legitimate representatives. They are not happy with the fact that this pronoun issue has made them more salient to the community. They don’t trust the people who purport to represent them. Representation requires legitimacy, and just because you’re an activist who says that you care for people, or even if you happen to be a member of that community—which, by the way, is not a community in any sense of the word: it’s a range of people that are just as diverse as any other range of people. None of that gives you legitimacy as a representative. This brings us right back to the beginning. I do not believe that legislation like Bill C-16 is, in the least, in the interest of these people who are marginalized. Quite the contrary: I believe they’re sacrificial victims to the onslaught of a continuing postmodern neo-Marxist ideology. JL:
Right, and I think many people don’t see what you say you see. They don’t see the historical context in which you are observing the phenomenon. As a message to people who are watching this and trying to work through—a lot of young people who are trying to navigate this increasingly perilous minefield of divisive politics in today’s day and age, how do they know… What are the heuristics they use? What are the sign posts they use to understand, "am I on the right path? Is what I’m being taught or attracted to, politically, motivated from a sense of what’s actually best for the community that I am nominally caring for?" JP:
You might say, "well, that requires careful meditation and prayer." If you wanted to be traditional about it, I would say you have to determine… This is a process of soul searching. "What are you oriented towards?" The answer could easily be, "nothing." This is why I produced the Future Authoring Program
. You gotta be oriented towards something, because otherwise you’re disoriented. You just spin around in circles, and then you suffer, and so do people around you. It’s not a good solution. Orient yourself towards something. You have to figure out what it is: "what will work for you? What goal would justify the suffering of your life? Start trying to piece that together." You’re going to get better at it, but it’s a personal process, and you should use your education to inform that, so you need a personal place to stand, because otherwise you’re going to be handed a place to stand on a plate, and it may be one that makes you a puppet of someone else’s goals. What are the processes? Well, what I’ve recommended to people is, "clean up your room." That’s a good start. Organize your local landscape. Schedule your time. Start taking control of yourself. See if you can stop saying things you know to be lies. That’s not the same as telling the truth. You don’t get to do that, to begin with, because you’re not good enough at it to even attempt it, in some sense. But everyone can stop saying things they know to be falsehoods. They can use their own damn definition of falsehood. JL:
Right, but in your definition—importantly, I think—falsehood includes the higher-level moral truth. JP:
Yes, it’s living wrong. JL:
You can say something that’s literally true, but, of course, like you said earlier, it’s a black truth, in the sense that, at a moral level, you’re saying something to cause a social effect that is actually negative. JP:
Yes. I would say, "stop saying things that violate your conscience," instead of, "stop saying things that you know to be untrue," because we run into the truth problem. Here’s another idea: stop saying and doing things that make you feel weak. All you have to do is pay attention to that. Some things that you do will make you feel disintegrated. It’s a physiological sensation: disintegrated and weak. It’s something that Carl Rogers
commented on. He thought about that as part of… Well, I can’t remember the word. Something like "integrity", but that isn’t the word he used. But some things improve your integrity and some things disintegrate you. Now, the things that disintegrate you, you often do to impress other people, or because you’re taking a shortcut, or you’re escaping what you know to be your moral obligation, and your moral obligation stems naturally from your aims.
Once you have aims, you have moral obligations. They come together, because the moral obligation is what you need to do to obtain the aim. And if you don’t have an aim, then you’re aimless. That’s not a solution. So along with the aims come the moral obligations. Then, when you violate the moral obligations, you’ll have a sense of that violation: "well, you have to stop doing that." Or that’s something you could do. You don’t have to. You don’t have to do anything of this, but that’s where, I would say, people should start. You think it’s small, but it’s not small. I had a girl come up to me last night at the end of my talk, and this happens all the time. She said, "I started cleaning up my room last year, and it completely changed my life." She said, "your room is an externalization of your mind," and that’s right. That’s exactly true: to the degree that you’re in your room, the room is you. Now, that isn’t how people think, but that’s OK. It doesn’t matter if they think that way; that’s how it is. So straighten up what you can straighten up and quit saying things that make you feel weak. Then you’ll know what to do next. JL:
One last point on this, because we’re running short on time, but I would like to touch on this. One point that concerns me is that… Is what you’re saying—because I find so much of what you’ve shared with the world, at this point, using the technological means we have available, to be of immense value. The way you articulate what many of us feel to be true but aren’t able to… JP:
That’s another hallmark of truth, is that it snaps things together. People write to me all the time and say that: "it’s as if things were coming together in my mind." It’s like, "well, that’s what archetypes do. Archetypes glue things together." So, yes. The proper expression of unconscious Being teaches people what they already know. It’s kind of like the Platonic idea that all learning was remembering. It’s right. It’s not right exactly the way we would think of learning and remembering now, but you have a nature, and when you feel that nature articulated, it’s… JL:
It’s like the act of snapping the puzzle pieces together. They’re right there. JP:
Yes. That’s bringing the level of Being into synchrony. That’s what you feel. It’s like, "oh, that’s synchronized now. What I think and the way I feel have come together," and you feel that snap. It’s like, "oh, it’s a simpler state"—it’s something like that—"it’s not rife with contradictions anymore." JL:
So just to followthrough on this thought, then—what concerns me, to a degree, is… and maybe it shouldn’t concern me, but I’ll express this anyway. There’s such value in what you’ve been sharing, for the reasons we just discussed a second ago. But because of the context in which this arose recently, some of your ideas have been taken up by people on the right, who may suffer from exactly the same kinda of ideological possession issues that you argue some people on the extreme left suffer from. The degree to which what you’ve been arguing or putting forth or sharing with people becomes conflated with the ideologically possessed arguments on the right, or the alt-right, is deeply concerning for someone who feels and knows that what you have to say is so incredibly valuable, because people, well, they’ll just… JP:
I’ve had many, many people write me from the fringes of the radical right, saying precisely that listening to my lectures stopped them from going all the way. So I would say that, if people listen to what I’m saying, then that isn’t going to happen. Now, has my message been coopted? I would say, to a much lesser degree than people think. All you have to do is go read the YouTube comments, and there’s thousands and thousands of them. YouTube comments… most of them are generated by denizens from the pits of hell. They’re really dismissive, aggressive, rude, vulgar, thoughtless, provocative, prejudicial. You name it, man. JL:
We were discussing—before, off camera—the notion of, I think it’s called Godwin’s law
, where, at a certain point, a YouTube or any internet discussion will degenerate into nasty comparisons. JP:
Right, exactly. Exactly. But that isn’t what characterizes the comments stream on my YouTube videos, with very rare exceptions. So I don’t believe that what I’ve been discussing has been coopted to any significant degree. I think that what has happened is that, at this time and place, for some reason, it isn’t the people on the left who are are particularly open to the message, but that’s because I think that they’re far more gripped by the totalitarian spirit than people aligned along the rest of the spectrum—and they also have more power. They have more institutional power of a certain type, particularly in the universities, but not only. JL:
I was going to say, this sounds like a highly academic context that you’re describing, and I’ve experienced what you’re identifying, so I can relate to that. But in terms of—what concerns me is looking at the wider societal and global context. There is definitely a resurgence of the right, and, as someone whose family, for instance, suffered under the Nazi regime… It’s disturbing. JP:
Well, it’s the polarization, eh? The polarization is disturbing. What I try to recommend to people—and I did in my talk last night, for example—is that they find someone that they don’t agree with and have a conversation with them. Now, it has to be someone that you can have a conversation with, but a lot of that will just involve listening. We have to extend out hands across the gap, because otherwise we’ll polarize. That’s what’s happening. You saw it in Berkley last week. That could be just the beginning, and there’s lots of people who would like that. That’s not a good idea. It’s a very bad idea. It’s still my estimation that, at the moment, it’s the radicals on the left that are primarily responsible for this, and they’re primarily responsible particularly because of their stance on free speech. Like, I can’t go to Linfield College now. Some arbitrary administrator used a specious excuse to say, "no, he can’t come," even though I was invited. I was already invited. I already paid for the air fare. They feel there is a large coterie of people who feel that it’s in their bailiwick to determine who can speak, and that’s a very bad idea. JL:
So, to clarify for people—because I think the way you’re describing this inherently speaks to people on the… And, again, I hesitate to buy into this bifurcation, but people who identity, at the moment, with the right. JP:
Well, put it this way: the campuses have not been infiltrated by right-wing radicals. Not at all. Not in the least. JL:
The campuses. JP:
Yeah. Well, the problem with that is that the campuses, the humanities—let’s lay it out again: theology at the bottom; philosophy after that. Well, that’s where the humanities are. The humanities are nearest to the foundation of our culture, and they’re completely dominated by radical leftists, postmodern neo-Marxists. And that’s not my opinion. That’s well documented. There aren’t even conservatives in those domains, let alone right-wingers. There’s not even any conservatives—I mean, maybe you can call conservatives "right wing". I mean, you’re pushing your luck, when you do that. But there’s not conservatives, even. So the centrists are on the right, as far as the people in the humanities are concerned. Well, that’s not good; and it’s seriously not good, because the humanities have way more effect on our culture than we think. Way more. JL:
In what sense do you think the rise—and, in some sense, frightening—resurgence of popularity in right-wing and even in extreme right-wing political movements, as opposed to what’s on campus, is a semi-conscious reaction to the possession of, as you were saying, the inherent ideological foundations of our society being… JP:
I think it’s exactly that. I mean, it’s more than that, because things get amalgamated. It’s always useful for people to find someone to hate and hit. So that motivation drives radicals on both sides of the political spectrum, right? Obviously you can see that, because it’s starting to happen. But it’s certainly the case that—look, if the democrats wouldn’t have played identity politics, Hillary would have won the election. It’s as simple as that—and people should also know that it wasn’t just the federal Presidency that the Democrats lost. They lost everything, at the state level, too. It’s like they’re pushing people too hard, and they have their ideological reasons for it, and I don’t find them credible. It’s the grounding in postmodernism, and this secret grounding underneath that in neo-Marxism; and people are not going to put with that, and they shouldn’t. JL:
I think we have to wrap up, but would you be willing to say, for the record and to the camera—and if you’re not, that’s fine—but would you be willing to say that you yourself do not identify with the what appear to be, for some of us, more insidious elements of the right? JP:
I’m not political. I’ve made my decision. Many times, I’ve thought about running for political office. And, if I did, in Canada, the most logical place for me to be would be in the Liberal party. Although, I think that it’s also been hijacked by the social justice warrior types, to a very damaging degree. Especially, you see that in Ontario. But I’ve decided at multiple points in my life that I’m not playing at the political level. I’m playing at the philosophical level, or maybe I’m playing at the theological level. What I’m trying to do is to say what I think as clearly as I possible can, and to listen to the feedback and modify my message when that seems to be necessary. Apart from that, I’m willing to let the chips fall where they will, because that’s also part of the decision. The decision is, if you choose to act as if the truth brings Being into existence in the best possible manner, then you speak your truth, you examine your conscience, you listen to feedback, and you allow the events to unfold as they will. I am trying to do that. That’s what I’m attempting to do. JL:
So the very final question, then, on that point: you’ve mentioned how what’s most important to you is having the space, both individually and as a society, to think through the things that you are trying to make sense of in public or with others—to be able to freely articulate what… JP:
To jointly articulate it. Yes. JL:
And we don’t know how to do it right at the beginning. JP:
Right. Definitely not. JL:
We need that space to make mistakes. JP:
Right, absolutely. Yes—and even to make them publicly. JL:
Is there anything personally, now, looking back, that maybe you haven’t said thus far—maybe you have, or maybe something you haven’t—that, knowing what you know now, having gone through what’s happened over the last year or so, that you would reformulate? Is there any correction or corrective measure that you would take, to more clearly articulate things that you articulated back when this… JP:
Well, I would say that I’m trying to do that on an ongoing basis. I mean, right from the beginning, after the first video went roughly viral, I have a group of friends, who span the political spectrum, who stood by me, let’s say, as well as my family, and I’m talking to them constantly about what I’m doing wrong. I have learned, to some degree, how to harness part of the energy of anger, as a source of energy. Now, that has its advantage and disadvantages. Its advantage is a certain kind of forcefulness. It’s also a good suppressor—a good competitor for fear, because anger suppresses fear. The feedback I’ve received is that, the more reasonable I am, the better. That, of course, makes sense. And then, there’s been plethora of small and specific criticisms, and I’ve tried to attend to them as carefully as I can.
I’ve been in this situation, especially for the first four months, where, had I said one thing that was self-evidently non-credible, that would have justified a claim of bigotry or racism or any of those things, I would have been sunk. I wouldn’t say I’m pleased with my performance, because it isn’t a performance, and it isn’t something to be pleased about or displeased about. But I can say that, to the degree that it’s possible, I’ve done my best to do what I said I’m doing, which is to say what I think as clearly as I can. That’s all I’m trying to do. When I go in front of people, I’m not trying to convince them of anything. I’m really not. It’s up to them. I don’t want to convince people of something. They’re responsible for their own suffering. I don’t want to manipulate their destinies. I don’t believe that I know enough about the particularities of their life to dare to do that.
What I do when I speak to people is try to formulate my thoughts on that particular topic more clearly. That’s my lecture style. I’m thinking. I’m not delivering a prepackaged talk. I mean, now and then I’ll write it, but that’s only when I’m developing a really new idea and it has to be a structured argument. I’ve only done that in like three of my YouTube videos. It’s very rare. Most of the time, I have a skeleton: there’s the argument; there’s the skeleton outline. I see where I’m going, to get from point A, to B, to C. And then, when I’m talking, like today, it’s an exploration. It’s not, "here’s what I think. It’s right, and you should believe it." It’s like, "no! I’m trying to rectify my errors and extend what I know, when I’m speaking and when I’m listening." I think that genuinely is what I’m doing, and I genuinely don’t want to give people advice. It’s something I’ve learned, not least by being a psychotherapist. It’s like, "your destiny is not mine to mess with. I don’t want to be responsible for your decisions. What if I’m wrong?" JL:
Nonetheless, as you said, you do have the impulse to want the best [inaudible] individual. JP:
Well, yes. We could have a productive discussion about what might be the best for you, and I do that with my clients all the time. They come and see me, and they’ve got problems, and I say, "OK, well, if we can come up with a solution, what would that solution look like? Let’s lay the cards on the table. We can explore a bunch of different solutions." But I’m really trying—and this partly the influence of Carl Rogers
. I’m really trying to help the person find their own way, because that’s not going to be my way. It’s going to be their way. And if they find their way, that will be best for them, and it will be best for the people around them, so it’ll be best for me, for that matter. So it’s in my interest, in my selfish self-interest, to help the other person find his or her way, and not my way—except insofar as my way is trying to explore and generate more accurate representations of the world. JL:
Right, so is there a concrete example—just to end on this note of concretization that we’ve discussed and the importance of bringing it to a cognitive level that is familiar and embodied for us. Is there a concrete example of something where you said something—and I’m not thinking of anything in particular. I’m being entirely genuine, here. Is there an instance where you feel you said something that appeared to be true to you at the time, and, knowing what you know… JP:
Yes. I think I was a little dismissive of the Men Going Their Own Way, because I think I called them "pathetic weasels." I had my reasons for that. My reasons were, roughly speaking… JL:
Who are the Men Going Their Own Way? JP:
Oh, they’re a group of people, mostly on the net, who’ve been burned in their relationships, or who conceptualize themselves as having been burned in their relationships; and they believe that the legal structure, in particular in Western countries, is so tilted against men, particularly in family dispute situations and divorce settlement, that it’s safer for men to not establish permanent relationships with women, not to cohabit with them, ever. They’re a large movement. Now, how large they are, I don’t know. But they’re large enough, and they have what I regard as an undue influence over relatively bitter and resentful young men, who haven’t had great success in the dating market, and who are looking for a rationale to write off all women, because they’re so hurt by their continual rejection.
That’s not good for those young men. And so the reason I disparaged the Men Going Their Own Way is because I had seen the pernicious effect—these are often older guys—of their world-weary philosophy on young men. Now, these guys think that they’re just warning them, and they are warning them, but they’re not "just" warning them. The reason I regret calling them "pathetic weasels" is because they also have a point. I do believe that the court systems are staggeringly anti-male—absurdly, horribly anti-male. I’ve seen my own clients, some of them who were really, really decent, hardworking, family-oriented people, demolished by the court systems. So the Men Going Their Own Way have a point, and I’m sorry I called them "pathetic weasels," but I outlined my reasons. So, yes, I do regret that. I have to be careful, because I do have a dark, satirical sense of humor, and I can utter epithets, let’s say, for the sake of punctuating a point, while simultaneously forgetting that 150,000 people will listen to it. So I regret that.
Other than that… I’m judging my behaviour on the degree to which my trajectory is upward, and I believe that I have responsibly improved the articulation of my arguments with every iteration of them; and I think that, had that not been happening, I would have been taught a very serious lesson, because there were plenty of people—and still are—who would be perfectly happy to see me be taught a very serious lesson. It’s quite terrifying. I’m on a tightrope. It’s not as much a tightrope as it was, but for a long time, for months, had I said anything erroneous or insufficiently careful, I would have been in trouble—and, had anybody dug up anything I said in the past. That’s worked in my favour, because, of course, when I made these public pronouncements, there was already 500 hours of videos online. And so, had I been a reprehensible individual… Unless I was capable of deceit that far exceeds the average, there would have been some line, somewhere, in one of the videos that I made, when I was having an off day, where I said something that could be taken out of context and used to smear me. but that hasn't happened, and I think the reason that hasn’