From the Show Notes:
On this episode, I am joined by Tylor Lovins to discuss the work of Jordan B. Peterson, the controversial clinical psychologist who has in the last two years become something of an academic rockstar. Our discussion mainly focuses on Peterson’s theological and philosophical claims as we try to unpack the complicated and often controversial ideas and concepts Peterson presents in his writings and online lectures and interviews. I have many criticisms of Peterson’s worldview in general, as well as many of his specific ideas and claims, but what I’m primarily interested in doing in this episode is trying to understand Peterson’s ideas and claims both on their own merits and in the context of Peterson’s wider thought so that those of us who are skeptical of his ideas can be in an informed position from which to critique his worldview without strawmanning or misrepresenting him.
My guest Tylor Lovins studied philosophy at Anderson University in Indiana and is one of the founders and contributors to ReasonRevolution.org, where he has written several articles having to do with philosophy, humanism, and the place of religion and theology within those domains. According to his bio on the website, Tylor “has been working on a theory of theological language that will express the meanings of religious statements to secular people.”
Note: If you are or become a patron, you get access to an additional 20 minutes of content for this episode that I’ve cut out of this wide release version. If you want to subject yourself to the torture of hearing me, Nathan Dickey, talk on and on for 20 minutes by myself overanalyzing some of the issues my guest and I covered, then please consider becoming a patron for as little as $1 per month. You can find me at http://www.patreon.com/aleapofdoubt.
Tylor Lovins, “Why Tell the Truth: On the Curious Notions of Jordan B. Peterson,” https://reasonrevolution.org/introduction-to-jordan-peterson/
Tylor Lovins, “My Disappointment with the Matt Dillahunty and Jordan Peterson Discussion,” https://reasonrevolution.org/my-disappointment-with-the-matt-dillahunty-and-jordan-peterson-discussion/
The opening Jordan Peterson clip is taken from this lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6V1eMvGGcXQ
The Sam Harris/Jordan Peterson discussion on truth: https://samharris.org/podcasts/what-is-true/
The Matt Dillahunty/Jordan Peterson discussion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FmH7JUeVQb8
Nathan’s discussion about cultural narratives with Dr. Valerie Tarico on A Leap of Doubt Ep. #014: https://aleapofdoubt.podbean.com/e/014-cultural-narratives-political-tribes-humanity%E2%80%99s-death-star-feat-dr-valerie-tarico/
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The opening clip is an excerpt from the audiobook “God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens, courtesy of Hachette Audio. Text Copyright 2007 by Christopher Hitchens. Audio production copyright 2007, Hachette Audio. Used with permission.
The opening and ending music is “Jade” by Esther Nicholson and is used under license. The editing was done by Rich Lyons of the “Living After Faith” podcast.
I was trying to sort out the metaphysics in some sense of the Cold War. The question was, was this just a battleground between two hypothetically, equally appropriate belief systems, which could be a moral relativistic perspective, right? Belief systems are arbitrary and so combat between them is in some sense inevitable. And even more to the point, there isn’t any other way around the discontinuity in some sense other than combat or subordination because there’s no way of adjudicating a victor because there’s no such thing as victory if there’s no way of ranking value systems. It’s arbitrary. That’s a frightening prospect because it means that if you have a value system and I have a value system and they’re different, I mean, we can talk, or you can subordinate yourself or I could do the same, but there’s also no reason why we shouldn’t just engage in conflict.
Now, it’s complicated in the modern world, obviously, by the fact that conflict can become so untrammeled that it risks destroying everything and that doesn’t seem necessarily to be in anyone’s best interest, unless your interest happens to be in destroying everything and certainly, there are no shortage of people whose interests tilt in that direction.
–– Jordan Peterson
Nathan Dickey: Hello and welcome to A Leap of Doubt, the podcast hosted by myself, Nathan Dickey, that celebrates questioning, curiosity and free inquiry because the only thing anyone should not doubt is one’s own capacity and ability to doubt, to change one’s mind in light of the new evidence or knowledge newly heard.
The voice you heard at the beginning of this recording belongs to Jordan B. Peterson, clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto and who is the subject of the discussion on this episode.
I’ve titled this episode “Unpacking Jordan Peterson,” and my aim is to do just that, to try to unpack the complicated and often controversial and provocative ideas and concepts Peterson presents in his writings and online lectures and interviews.
I have many criticisms of Peterson’s worldview in general, as well as several of his specific ideas and claims, but what I’m primarily interested in doing in this episode is trying to unpack the ideas of Peterson and get to understand them both on their own merits and in the context of Peterson’s wider thoughts, so that those of us who are skeptical of his ideas can be in an informed positions from which to critic his worldview or learn something from it without strawmanning or misrepresenting him.
Joining me on this unpacking endeavor is Tylor Lovins of ReasonRevolution.org, where he has written several articles having to do with philosophy, humanism and the place of religion and theology within those domains. Welcome to the show, Tylor, and it’s good to have you on.
Tylor Lovins: Thanks, Nathan. Looking forward to it.
Nathan Dickey: As our listeners have heard in the opening clip, Jordan Peterson, I think, is someone who has shown himself to be just as vulnerable to existential fear and angst and dread as any of us are in life. In his days as a young student of political science at the peak of the cold war in the early to mid ’80s, he was so distraught and afraid of the prospect of nuclear war to the point where he experienced vivid and frequent nightmares, to the point that he made it his mission to, basically, construct a worldview that provides for him and everyone else a non-arbitrary accounting of and validation for his and, I guess, everyone, although that might be a broad generalization, the need for meaning and purpose to life.
This was made clear in the final chapter of his 1999 textbook, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, a chapter I found to be incredibly and surprisingly candid and personal for an academic text. What do you think about this so far?
Tylor Lovins: I think that’s spot on. As we begin here, I just want to say I’m, of course, not a scholar of Peterson’s work. I haven’t studied his work formally in an academic setting, but I have found his work very insightful as I place it within, for instance, the study of the history of religion and existentialism and philosophy of language.
So I think it’s, obviously, definitely true that Peterson has been motivated by this angst that he had from the Cold War and this idea that we could all die any minute and it’s for no good reason. So I think that goes really deep in terms of sometimes the drivers of society are just completely irrational, that what, in some instances, constitutes group violence is just completely irrational behavior. So one way to get beyond that is to question the origins of our behavior in terms of evolution, psychology and things like that.
Nathan Dickey: To get beyond the standard economic explanation for war and conflict, which I know Peterson, also is very concerned with getting beyond. He spent 15 years, basically, developing what to me is a rather curious and somewhat, although not fully, idiosyncratic synthesis of ideas he accumulated from young Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and, of course, ancient mythology and theology, especially the Bible.
What makes his worldview curious and different is not just the way he has thrown together a range of different ideas from different thinkers and traditions together, but the way he has married that amalgam to conservative philosophies that are rooted in tradition and stability and self-interest and hierarchy and sacred principles. He believes we criticize at our peril. So it’s a strange bringing together of this conservative tradition of order and stability with a chaotic throwing together of different veins of thought in way that at least on a surface level seemed incoherent to a lot of people. And, of course, the terms chaos and order will become very important in this discussion.
This is a manifestation of one way in which Peterson has been seeking a sense of security and stability in his world is going back to the ancient stories, the ancient traditions and mythologies that humanity has grown up with and have stuck around and also trying to get down to the level of the individual instead of merely stopping at humanity as a collective.
Tylor Lovins: One thing I was thinking about in terms of what you just said is that I think Peterson looks back on the development of the west on religious mythology and things like that because his notion of truth is connected to both that which serves life and he gets that from Nietzsche. His notion that the true is that which endures through time, so that there are things that are true only for this moment, there are things that are true across a few minutes, a few hours, a few days, and then there are things that are true across centuries.
So part of his project is to uncover those things that haven’t heard the most throughout time because he thinks empirically, those are going to be the structures to which we’ve adapted in a Darwinian sense. So I think he’s got an interesting take there on the notion of truth. He gets just beyond mere correspondence, which, of course, that’s how we use the word truth in ordinary language, but it broadens what the correspondence is, too, I think in an interesting way, in a more Darwinian way because it’s about selection and time and reproduction.
Nathan Dickey: Yeah. This is essentially the way in which he’s running his project of fusing or finding a unity between science and religion. He thinks the answer to finding that unity is in Darwinism, basically a scientific accounting of religion by way of Darwinism as understood by pragmatist philosophy: that which is true enough for the moment is true in some metaphysical sense.
Tylor Lovins: Yeah, and that notion of pragmatist truth, I guess I would just say from my reading of William James’ essay on truth, he talks about pragmatism as a way to get beyond metaphysics, so that we can have different rationalist notion of truth. For instance, Descartes, we can start with the problem of our own existence and trying to ground it in some kind of metaphysical groundwork of my doubting or my thinking. We could also say, for instance, that everything that I experience is just a projection from my ego and you have solipsism.
So each of these starting points bring with them their own problems in their own conceptions of reality, and what pragmatism I think did in its moment in history was to say, “If the consequences of your beliefs aren’t different in the real world, then there’s really no metaphysical difference between them. There’s no reason that we should be making these distinctions.”
So the whole question for I think the pragmatist is, “Why are we talking about this? Our groundwork should be in empirical reality. It shouldn’t be in some weird thought experiments that can’t be verified, don’t really have meaning for the everyday person,” things like that. I think maybe part of the draw of Peterson in this vein is his pragmatic functionalist interpretation of religious language. I think a lot of people find that massively helpful, especially people who are formally religious and aren’t anymore and don’t have a vendetta against religion.
For instance, Peterson talks about the concept of God as functionally being the human community projected into the future. I think that’s a fascinating idea. A friend of mine, who’s a PhD candidate at Emory, he’s going for theology over there, told me he had received an award of something recently and when he went to accept it, he caught himself thinking to himself, “Great job. You did it.”
So that’s obviously like the superego, for instance, but there’s a sense that we really do have an internal dialog with our self, where we’re not this homogenous whole. We’re not a unified self, but we do have conversation partners. You get this notion somewhat, too, in that HBO series Westworld. In the first season, they bring in that notion where early people thought their thoughts were just God talking to them.
Nathan Dickey: Because we evolved to be social creatures and that manifests itself in interesting ways even when we’re alone because we have internal dialogs with ourselves and we can conceptualize ourselves as two different people almost in keeping with our need to be part of a social group.
Tylor Lovins: … and even understand our self as part of the world. It makes our world more intelligible to ourselves when we can carry on dialogs in confident ways with people we know.
Nathan Dickey: So if I’m understanding Peterson correctly, we evolved to perceive a very narrow set of phenomena that our brains and our nervous systems can take in very little bits of reality at a time that don’t even begin to touch the complexity underneath. That’s the high-resolution direct experience of the world. Underneath that, there are increasingly lower and lower resolution realities and truths, to use his framing of it, that underlie our direct experience and that touch back to ancient roots in evolution, which he takes far back beyond even our origins on the savanna to-
Tylor Lovins: Lobsters.
Nathan Dickey: Lobsters, yes. These lower-resolution images that underpin our experience basically constitute the grammar of meaning and this grammar is, basically, the stories that humanity has told each other and grown up with over many thousands of years.
So his conception of God then, is that a unified humanity in the future or is it … I don’t know if he’s more concerned with individualism in the future or he’s more concerned with a united humanity in the future comes to full potential or realization or whatever.
Tylor Lovins: He’s got a few different functional interpretations of the concept of God. So that’s not the only one he has. I think he also uses God and actually modern theology is trending in this direction, but as talk about God, as talk about the limits of discourse and how we can relate to each other beyond the limits of discourse. So God in some way points to a beyond that we never have actualized, but that is possible, so that God is pure possibility in some sense.
Peterson talks about God as this notion that we can negotiate with the future, that my present circumstances and, for instance, my current suffering isn’t necessitated. For instance, in the Old Testament, in the priestly writings, you get this notion of God as a being that punishes you if you don’t follow the laws God has given us. So that is real, is invaded, is women and children are murdered just because a select few, maybe the kings or something didn’t obey the dictates of God. So the solution is to get back to the dictates of God and follow them more closely.
In the New Testament – and I think this is where Peterson is getting his notion of God from – you get a different notion of faith. A theologian, Gerhard Ebeling, has talked about this. The Old Testament notion of faith was just trusting God. We follow God’s dictates and then the best possible society will come from that.
The New Testament notion of faith is something like a precursor to the notion of responsibility. When Jesus heals a blind man or something in the New Testament, he doesn’t say, “Your love of God has healed you, your obedience to the commandments of God has healed you,” but he uses the word “faith” in a strange way: “Your faith has healed you.” And then the blind man can see again.
It’s this notion that despite my present circumstances, I can choose my comportment for reality. I don’t have to be resentful. I can declare being as good, tell the truth and live with the consequences and say, “Despite what comes, telling the truth is the best possible way to live.” So yeah, that’s an interesting way to look at it.
Another thing you might find interesting is this comparison I’ve been thinking about for a while now. Last year, no, it’s two years ago, my wife and I went skiing in Colorado for the first time. We were both very awful. We had never been before. It took me two hours to get down the first hill because they didn’t have a bunny hill open, so I learned on the go there.
Nathan Dickey: Well, I had the same exact experience when I was 16, only that was on a snowboard. That was probably almost worse in my case.
Tylor Lovins: Yeah, for sure. You don’t have a definite use of your legs. One time, my wife went down the hill and she told me it was starting to get shaky and I was about to crash, but all of a sudden, I just told myself, “Just remember how to ski. Just keep your feet parallel to each other. You can slide to the side if you want to slow down. You’re okay.” She told me she thought this to herself as she was about to crash, and she didn’t crash. That worked for her.
So after that trip, her and I went back up to our hometown in northern Indiana and there was this Christmas Eve service that we attended. It was in this barn and they were singing Christmas carols and stuff. At the end of it, the pastor’s wife started talking about how three years ago she was driving home at night at 2:00 in the morning and she was just getting really tired and the road became blurry and she closed her eyes for a few seconds. When she woke up, she was on the rock side on the road and a semi was coming at her.
She said she heard God tell her, “Don’t touch the steering wheel,” and so she didn’t, and she skidded along the side of the semi and pulled over to the side of the road and she was fine. So she attributes that to God. I wonder what the … Phenomenologically, obviously, there are differences there. The pastor’s wife thinks God saved her from an imminent death or crash, but it seems like my wife had the same experience, but she didn’t attribute it to God.
One thing that’s interesting about that is I bet if I bring that story up to my wife today, she wouldn’t remember it, right? That’s just a piece of nonsense that in the moment doesn’t mean anything to her for the future, but the pastor’s wife, that changed her life.
So I think there’s this notion about the grammar of religious experience that these are orienting experiences toward reality as a whole. When I think about God, when I pray to God, et cetera, what I’m doing is orienting myself toward reality, toward life as a whole, come what may, when people talk about things going according to God’s will.
One philosopher of religion puts it that what they’re doing is saying, “Despite what happens, I need to be okay with this.” So it’s a way of dealing with suffering and tragedy and things like that. Anyway, I think that’s another perspective from which Peterson is working.
Nathan Dickey: From my perspective, it’s the coping mechanism and the concept of God is so embedded in our psyche because it’s been around for so long. We notice it when atheists, such as myself, catch ourselves saying, “Oh, my God!” or “Oh, God!” We use that as an exclamation and we say things like, “Please, God,” fill in the blank when we’re exasperated. I think that on a more trivial level, that’s the same manifestation of whatever it is that God means to us, whether we believe in him or her or not. I’m wondering what the usefulness of the concept of God will be in the future.
Tylor Lovins: Yeah, definitely.
Nathan Dickey: Post-enlightenment. Peterson would call me an Enlightenment rationalist thinker who’s bounded to rationalist thought. He would call me a materialist, realist. It’s similar to what he charged Sam Harris of being in the episode where they went back and forth for two hours trying to agree on truth.
When I think about truth, I’m not sure if I would get as hung up as Harris was, because I’m on Sam Harris’ side when it comes to epistemology. I’m not sure where I stand on ontology because truth to me has a deeper philosophical significance than mere – well, not “mere” because it’s important – but it has philosophical implications that go beyond just the concept of reality or the concept of fact.
Tylor Lovins: Yeah, definitely.
Nathan Dickey: I know Peterson in that dialog was trying to get across that he believes truth is what serves life and truth has to be – and even reality to him has to be – embedded in a moral framework, not the moral framework within a scientific or realist framework. Is there something to this? Do you think about truth the same way that it has philosophical implications beyond just fact or reality? People who use it or have used it seriously means something that gets a little deeper.
Tylor Lovins: Yes. This is interesting. Of course, a lot of people use truth in a lot of different ways, right? The question for me in some sense is, “What level of analysis are we coming at it?” Daniel Dennett has this hilarious line in Intuition Pumpsthat, “Nobody can define what a haircut is, but we still go and get them every day.” For some people, will look at you and say, “That’s a haircut?”
One thing I come back to in this discussion is, so if I make the claim my wife is mad at me for not doing the dishes, I’m on the level of intentionality there, right? So the question of epistemology here, “How do I know that my wife is mad at me?” Well, she gives me a certain look. Her face has this certain contortion. She uses a certain tone. Maybe she says my middle name or something. Is that true? That’s one level of analysis.
Another is let’s wait until we have a unified theory of quantum mechanics and general relativity and then I’ll tell you if that’s true. That seems absurd, right? There is a notion of truth operating there, this mechanistic, deterministic, which is great and useful, but I think what needs to happen here is just a general recognition of the complexity of the situations we find ourselves in, right? We use very different notions of truth depending on what we’re talking about.
So I think when Peterson was talking about truth in that discussion with Harris, he’s on the level of intentionality. We’re human beings. We have intentions. We use language for certain purposes. We use truth, therefore, for certain purposes. That just seems on the face of the true, but empirically.
I think what Harris was doing was saving or constraining the notion of truth to be used only within the scientific discourse, which I think is a legitimate move. That’s great, but to say Peterson’s notion of truth is just somehow idiosyncratic or nonsense, I think is just both anachronistic and dishonest in some ways. It’s unobservant, at least. Harris’ notion of truth as fact derived from Locke in the seventeenth century. Before that, teleology was always connected to truth, because the west is a product of Christendom in some senses. But Locke was really the first person to separate teleology from truth.
What Peterson is doing is reconnecting it with teleology. Teleology from Aristotle, this notion that there are aims toward which certain ideas are fulfilled or beings, things like that.
Nathan Dickey: This is one area of strong disagreement I have with Peterson is the alignment of teleology with fact or reality or truth.
Tylor Lovins: What do you think about that in terms of what I just said, in light of the different levels of analysis we function at?
Nathan Dickey: At the level of analysis where we hit a wall at a certain point and can’t get beyond, so the level of the very small, the quantum, or the very large at the cosmic level where we haven’t really penetrated yet, I’m not sure that that touches on whether or not there’s purpose inherent in the universe as a whole.
Tylor Lovins: No, no. Maybe framing it this way would be more helpful. When Daniel Dennett talks about his detractors on his philosophy of consciousness, he says one of the things is that they don’t recognize when we try to explain things, we really have three levels of explanation. So one is the cause and effect, right? We can do the chemical. We can even expound that up to the cosmic level like what you’re talking about. Then we have the intentional stance, where we confer intentions onto other people. We have beliefs about other people’s beliefs and then we act, we say things in light of those beliefs.
Then the third is design, so that we can reverse engineer what has happened and come up with a functional interpretation. For instance, evolution would be on the design level of explanation. How I think about this is Harris was doing the causal explanation or the causal function of the notion of truth, which is great. We need that, right? It brought us the modern world, modern technology. I think what Peterson is doing is talking on the level of design.
Nathan Dickey: So reverse engineering, what exactly?
Tylor Lovins: From what he calls a Darwinian perspective, truth would be that notion that what we have believed in the past has served us in some way as living things.
Nathan Dickey: Because we’re still here and the stories and the narratives have survived, and we still tell those same stories unconsciously in many ways.
Tylor Lovins: Right. So Bret Weinstein has this theory that the function of religious language is that it’s “metaphorically true, literally false.” So there is some Darwinian explanation there to be had, I think.
Nathan Dickey: This ties into, I’ve heard Peterson say several times outside of that Harris discussion, he talks about modernists, critics and disbelief of religious narrative and mythology. He says, “No, they actually are true.” I think when he says things like that, that can potentially confuse a lot of people who come to listen or even watching his lectures for the first time.
Tylor Lovins: Sure.
Nathan Dickey: That looking at or trying to understand what level of analysis he’s working from can illuminate what exactly he means when he says things like that.
Tylor Lovins: I think this is something people just aren’t doing with Peterson for some reason. I’m not sure. He’s like the book nobody has read, but everyone shits on. It’s like … the Twilightseries or something like that. So he’s a book nobody has read.
Nathan Dickey: Is he somebody you think that people should read and should take seriously? I think he needs to be taken seriously and he needs to be read and understood. If for no other reason than that, he has made an impact-
Tylor Lovins: Absolutely.
Nathan Dickey: … a really strong and powerful impact in recent years in a very short time. He spent most of his career being relatively unknown. He came to light because of a relatively obscure piece of Canadian legislation. What do you think is going on in culture and society as a whole that controversy can elevate somebody to that status of an academic superhero, which rarely ever happens to any academics?
Tylor Lovins: Well, this is really interesting, maybe too interesting to talk about that it’s going to take too long.
Nathan Dickey: This is the aspect of his world and his belief that might be worth spending brief time on, but there are definitely more interesting things in this. This is background information.
Tylor Lovins: Oh, yeah. Well, one thing that’s going on, so I think I’ve been getting more plugged in to the online atheist community. One thing that I’m noticing is that people who are … I hate this word, influencers. What an awful word. Or another, here’s another word that should be thrown in the fire, thought leaders. People who are thought leaders or influencers aren’t really reading that much. What they’re doing is creating these subcultures where everyone watches the same YouTube videos, and everything becomes anachronistic because we’re all just responding to the people we only watch on YouTube and nobody’s reading anything past, I don’t know, five years old or something.
So I think part of the backlash against Peterson is that people aren’t really acquainted with philosophy. If they were, they would see every philosopher, things … Well, what makes a first-time philosopher in some sense is that they think from first principles. That’s what Peterson is trying to do with Darwinism and the problem with suffering.
I think one way that Peterson has really blown up is this is a guy that’s really well-read and he’s bringing it to YouTube. He’s blowing up that culture where everything is just a response to a current event or something. Peterson is a response to a current event, but from a 400-year-old perspective.
Nathan Dickey: It’s actually interesting that you talk about the current event angle because to Peterson, he conceives of or he views the Enlightenment as a current event almost. He views it as such a baby, such a baby or such a toddler in comparison to everything that’s done before to the point, I think, where he’s a little bit too dismissive of the Enlightenment, in my opinion, but I can see his point that the Enlightenment is a very new thing and we’re just getting accustomed to doing something we didn’t evolve to do, which is just think rationally and logically about the world.
I’m not sure if Peterson would say this, but maybe a charitable interpretation on my part of him would be that we’re so new at this that it remains to be seen where the Enlightenment will take us and what its relationship will be to religion and whether it can supersede the grammar of meaning, which he thinks religion is.
Tylor Lovins: That’s great. Yeah, that’s a great commentary. One thing that just plugs in with this very well, in terms of the Enlightenment being relatively new, in terms of human evolution and things like that, is this book Thinking Fast and Slow. I don’t know if you’ve heard of this.
Nathan Dickey: Is this Daniel Kahneman?
Tylor Lovins: Yeah. He talks about we have fast thinking and slow thinking parts of our brain. We generally operate on a level of fast thinking, which is just intuition. We accomplish tasks by not thinking about them. Our slow thinking, our rational side comes into play, basically, only when our automated part of our brain can’t deal with the problem at hand.
One of the things I took away from Kahneman’s book is that we think rationally usually either only so that we don’t have to think rationally again, that we can get back to the automated processes, or to rationalize our behavior, which isn’t to say to ground our behavior in reason, but from the perspective of the present looking back to make it reasonable to ourselves, which I think that’s a fascinating insight. That’s something Peterson is playing with, I think.
Nathan Dickey: The automated orientation we have I think can be to our detriment, which is why I think the Enlightenment is important. I don’t necessarily see the utility going forward of religious mythology and storytelling in the face of our technological power. Peterson sees it the opposite way, that we need this underlying mythological morality that we grew up with to ground ourselves in wisdom when it comes to technology that can destroy us all.
I think it gets a little bit too close to concepts that are useful in the face of technology and science. I think there’s a point where we will be able to grow up and grow beyond the stories, but that we won’t necessarily lose them, that it will still be around.
Tylor Lovins: I’m curious why you think about this in the light of perspective. So Peterson doesn’t go to church, right? He doesn’t appear to be a Bible thumper. He’s using religious texts to not use them anymore, but to abstract a rationalist perspective that we can put at the center of our discourse. I’m not sure that he’s calling us all to be religious again.
Nathan Dickey: Right. I wouldn’t say that either. I think he places a lot of emphasis on religion and mythology that won’t necessarily prove to be useful in the future. Maybe it’s useful now and maybe we can learn something from it, but-
Tylor Lovins: There’s an interesting opener for B. F. Skinner’s book Beyond Freedom and Human Dignity and he says the sciences no longer refer back to Plato and Aristotle when they want to understand the world. Those are not standard texts. If somebody wanted to know what science was, you would give them a book by Carl Sagan or something, right?
If we want to think about the human situation or the human condition or what it means to be human, all three of these topics I think are about the same thing, then we go back to Aristotle or Plato. We go back to guys who have been dead for thousands of years. There’s something very interesting about that, I think. I’m just not sure … Yeah, obviously, we don’t have a theory of consciousness or anything like that.
Nathan Dickey: I completely agree with Peterson when he says that everything we know about consciousness can fit inside a thimble.
Tylor Lovins: We have next to no idea about what it means to be human. It seems to be something like if we take modern philosophy as a signpost, something like we aren’t determined in some ways and from the sciences something like, “Well, we actually do have cognitive biases. We have emotions. We are socially conditioned,” so there’s some interplay that we don’t have a unified theory of yet.
Nathan Dickey: I guess what I maybe mainly objecting to is that, for example, Peterson writes in his book Maps of Meaningthat the mythic universe is a place to act, not a place to perceive. So the ancient storytellers who formulated these stories – Jung considered it this way, too – that they weren’t trying to construct a scientific cosmology of the universe. They were writing what could be called a moral cosmology. I’m not sure if that was always the case. I know the Old Testament writers for example … if you read, for example, Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God, he traces the evolution of God throughout history. And in the Jewish and Hebrew traditions specifically, not necessarily universally, God was originally conceived as a very human-like anthropomorphic being, who had a direct and physical influence on the physical world. I don’t necessarily think that it’s always applicable to say that mythology derives from something that’s intangible or beyond the capacity of humans to scrutinize and take apart and critique.
Tylor Lovins: No, definitely not. I think what Jung and Peterson are talking about there is something Feuerbach that said, for instance: God is a projection of our human capacities writ large, so that we can think about them and deal with them in some ways without making it personal.
Nathan Dickey: So this goes back to the very beginning of our discussion, where we talked about the conception of God as human potential.
Tylor Lovins: Yes.
Nathan Dickey: Where does the individual fit into that? Is the individual God or is humanity …? What is the role of the collective play? It’s something that Peterson is not very friendly towards, or at least he’s very wary of putting an emphasis on humanity as a collective group and very concerned about emphasizing the individual. Where is the transition point between individual and society and how should we build a society that can cooperate and work together while also respecting the individual?
Tylor Lovins: Yeah. Gees! There’s a lot of directions there. Maybe one way to really start this I think is to say you can see the development or the permanence of the individual in the New Testament mainly because Paul has this conception where you’re not righteous, you’re not declared righteous by God because you follow the law, but because you have faith. Faith is something that is mine and nobody can see in some senses for Paul.
Nathan Dickey: Peterson uses it in the Kierkegaardian sense of, “Well, we’re here, we exist, we have this existential angst in the face of this apparently uncaring universe and so we might as well try to act as if something out there cared and just play the game of ‘as if,’ if I’m understanding Kierkegaard correctly.
Tylor Lovins: I’m not sure if I’d agree with that, but it is an interesting take. One thing I think both Peterson and Kierkegaard do is they have this return to Stoicism, where Kierkegaard talks about the knight of faith where one of the moves of faith, being a move of reservation or a separation between the self and everything around a self. He talks about in this present age, for instance, of the development of an internal life or an internal dialog.
I think that’s what Paul was trying to get out in talking about faith is being suffered from the law, but also fulfillment of the law. We have these abstract codes and rules that we grow up with, for instance, our parents give us or society or schools, that try to mold us into a competent actor in the social world when we’re older, right?
It does that because we internalize the rules and the language, and those rules and that language become part of our internal monologue, like what we were talking about earlier. I think the transition from the Old to New Testament is this recognition. Paul talks about the law being written on the heart, so that’s interesting.
Where the individual comes in, I think, especially in the New Testament, is at that moment of faith as opposed to obedience to the law. You get this marrying of stoic logos, which is this notion that the universe is ordered and has a teleology like we were talking about earlier. You get that with this notion that God has a will and God can’t be controlled and is arbitrary. That marriage makes Christianity sets the philosophical groundwork. What that does is say, “Well, if we only just have the Greeks, we would think that, ‘Well, the logos is in me, but the logos has prepared a place for me in civilization.’” For instance, Aristotle thought women and slaves weren’t endowed by the logos with reason, so they have their appropriate places in society. Very bad philosophy.
Greeks stopped that, though. That’s what the logos was. The important thing is the marrying of the logos with the arbitrary will because then when it’s internalized, we get this notion that, “Oh, I have a unique standpoint in world history, where I can bring together disparate ideas. I can make unique choices toward ends that are good for everyone, good for myself, for instance, and this wasn’t preordained by the social collective or by nature.” So you get the fundamental philosophy for individualism right there, I think.
Nathan Dickey: The logos, as conceived of as a spoken word or a spoken word of truth that’s clarity and truth, is a projection of purpose and order onto the external universe from within the individual. That’s the sense I get when Peterson talks about logos.
Tylor Lovins: I think that’s the Christian interpretation of logos, for sure. The logos pre-Christianity, this is something I was trying to get out, was it was identified as synonymous with nature. For instance, whereas the structuring of society and Christendom attempted to reflect the will of God, not just the cosmos or not just what we thought was natural at its best at least. The structuring of society for the Greeks was in accordance with nature. You get this in all of Hellenistic philosophy. The good is that which is in-tune with nature.
Nathan Dickey: How does that Greek notion differ from, say, Peterson’s concept of the competence hierarchy, which he understands to be ancient and immovable and cannot be eradicated?
Tylor Lovins: At least at this point.
Nathan Dickey: This is something I fundamentally question Peterson on is the permanence and immovability of this notion of a competence hierarchy.
Tylor Lovins: I think one of the places he’s coming from there is, again, that notion of truth. The things that are most true are the things that have endured the longest. So he traces those hierarchies back 300 million years with the lobsters, which he says pre-dates trees. You can see the hierarchy play out because when a lobster loses in a battle, it lacks the substance, I think serotonin maybe. When it loses a battle, its brain literally shrivels, and it grows a new one. When it wins a battle, it gets the same substance release that we do when we win games, when we achieve things in sports and things like that. So there’s an interesting at least surface level of connection there. I think his notion of competence hierarchies is just a real estate-articulation that we are socially conditioned, but it’s actually bringing the social conditioned-ness down to the Darwinian level, and that move in itself I think is interesting and needs to happen to progress, for instance, social, psychology and sociology and anthropology in general.
If we don’t make that move, then what we say is what Peterson always rails against, that actually, there are an infinite number of interpretations we can make on reality, we can make on social relations. So there’s no reason that we have any of these interpretations. Therefore, we have these interpretations so that we can have power. Truth claims are actually claims to power. So to dialog with someone who disagrees with you about the truth is actually to exceed to their game of power and their notion of truth.
Nathan Dickey: This is the postmodern dogma.
Tylor Lovins: As he perceives it, yeah.
Nathan Dickey: I would agree in this antipathy towards postmodernism and the way it can potentially destroy rational discourse and scientific endeavor. I’m not so sure about the permanence aspect of dominance hierarchies because I think that one thing, for instance, that I’m really interested and fascinated by is transhumanism and its relation with cultural evolution in working side by side with that process to the point where we can … Because we’ve developed consciousness, regardless of whether we understand why or how, we are able to, in effect with our technology, take evolution into our own hands and guide it artificially.
I think that enables us to, with the help of philosophy and enlightenment values, it allows us to question and doubt the usefulness or the value of social conditioning, however old and ancient it is. Peterson might say, “We touch it and we tear down at our peril and we better watch out if we try to interfere with it.” I would call that a fundamentally flawed way of and potentially, not necessarily dangerous, but a stagnant way of looking at our own potential as species or a defeatist way of understanding our potential as species.
Tylor Lovins: Maybe we’re understanding him differently there because I even understand that claim of permanence to go back to his notion of the individual as standing like the hero stands on the border between chaos and order and from chaos creates a new organized order, a novel order. So I don’t think he would disagree with you that we can take what has been given to us from the past and make something new with it. I don’t think he’s against that. That seems to be his notion of hero.
Nathan Dickey: Right, because he says that the hero archetype and the optimal place to be as a human being is on the border or on the cusp between chaos and order with a foot in each realm and that too much order can lead to tyranny and totalitarianism. Too much chaos can bring you down and just degrade you as a human being and that you need a balance, an optimal balance of both to be healthy and to thrive and flourish as an individual.
Maybe this is where I still personally am confused or misunderstanding something about Peterson and his devotion to traditional conservative values of the rule of men, the role of women, the role of the nuclear family, that kind of thing. This is getting into volatile territory because this is the area of Peterson’s thought that’s most susceptible and prone to people taking him out of context and assigning views to him that he doesn’t necessarily hold. I think he does have an adherence to traditional values that I think we can grow beyond.
Tylor Lovins: One reason he’s aligned with conservative values, I think, is because as a clinician and as a scientist, he tries to look at why these institutions are set up in the first place, what are the evolutionary truces we’ve made, so that we can in some ways establish equilibrium between reproduction and violence and things like that and his experience from doing therapy with business leaders, who work 80 hours a week. So he knows people personally, who are at these higher-level jobs, for instance, and he understands their drives in some ways.
I’m not sure I would align … I haven’t heard him talk about the nuclear family or anything. So I’m not sure I would align him with traditional conservatism as a starting point.
Nathan Dickey: It’s just a consequence of his larger worldview.
Tylor Lovins: Yeah, I think so.
Nathan Dickey: It follows from the worldview he has constructed over the years rather than being the launching point.
Tylor Lovins: Yes. I guess one more thing I’ll say about that is just because I’m not a psychologist, for instance, I haven’t read a lot of, except for Maps of Meaning, of what he’s written on psychology. I’m just more interested in his philosophical underpinnings, less of his political commitments and more so why he makes up local stances he does.
So in that recent Munk Debate, one of the ways he framed his political commitments is by saying he thinks there are two fundamentally different low-resolution views we’re taking in the west right now about politics and our future as a society. One of those views say that the individual is primary and the other says group identification is.
I think he thinks group identification doesn’t work because of the first principles he has and this notion of the individual coming out of our mythology. I think that’s why he takes it. I don’t think he’s a conservative first and then looks at things. I think he’s reasoned to that position, even though I’m not a conservative in the least.
Nathan Dickey: Yeah, I would agree that his philosophical, historical, theological views are a lot more interesting to grapple with because like I said, his political positions are really surface level, really prone to volatile heated discussions that go nowhere on the Internet.
I was hoping to find a smooth seg into his discussion with Matt Dillahunty, but I don’t think I’ll have an opening for a smooth segue. You have written about your concern with the secular humanist community, not talking about religion in the way they could to make it better, to make the discourse better.
Tylor Lovins: I say this as a secular humanist, by the way. I’m not religious, even though I read religious texts because I’m interested in how people understand themselves and why people do the things they do. So the Dillahunty debate for me symbolized what’s wrong with, in some sense, this online atheism and in another sense, the discourse within secular humanism of our religion. I think that discourse is actually changing and it’s moving in a healthy direction.
In particular, I was disappointed by how Dillahunty was just hung up on the question of the existence of God. One reason is because he assumes he knows what most religious people mean when they talk about the reality of God. So that I think the question of the existence of God is even distinct from the question of the reality of God.
Peterson made this point in that debate where he says you can’t really draw a bright line between what is useful and what is real, at least from a first-person perspective. Another issue I have with Dillahunty in particular, I think he was having that conversation in good faith. Of course, he seems like a genuine guy, but I think his projection of southern Baptist, fundamentalist beliefs about God onto global Christianity, in particular, is absurd. Most people are not southern Baptists and fundamentalism, in particular, is an American phenomenon.
Nathan Dickey: I’m not sure I would go the route of saying that Dillahunty thinks that fundamentalism is a global or even a majority understanding of Christianity and religion worldwide. I think he’s interested in the question of whether or not God exists, not necessarily because he thinks that that’s the way all religious people conceive of God, but just independent of that.
To me, asking and grappling with the question, “Does God exist?” is a more useful starting point before we get to talking about particular conceptions people have, for example, the idea God is wholly other and that we can’t even address it rationally at all. I think it’s more useful if we’re having a discussion between people who have opposing viewpoints to start with a question like, “What does it mean to exist? Can we agree about that?” And then, “What is your idea of God?” And then ask, “Can we do something with that idea of God?” And then maybe then we can ask, “Does that God exist?” I think that’s actually a useful starting point, which doesn’t mean that we don’t also need to talk about religion on the level of phenomenology and what most religious people mean when they talk about God versus the mere existence of God.
Tylor Lovins: Yeah. One philosopher of religion has said – and I wrote about this a little bit – that just because a person is religious doesn’t mean they have anything interesting to say about religion. For instance, I can play guitar on a basic level. I know F, C, D, E, G, so 80% of songs are open to me, but I don’t know anything about music theory. I couldn’t tell you why they play the songs in a certain way they do. I can’t tell you anything about the chords. I know next to nothing about music and the guitar, but I’m competent in playing the guitar to most people because I know the basic chords.
So I think in the discussion, for instance, we should also draw a distinction between people who are competent in the religious rituals and they can say their beliefs, how their community articulates them in a competent way, but I don’t think it follows that they, therefore, comprehend their religious views from other perspective, so that then they could actually have an intelligible and interesting dialog with, for instance, the scientists.
So someone who is rational, for instance, I think they should really be careful with how they look at religious language because you could just impose whatever your preconceptions are about religion onto them. For instance, I had an interchange with Dillahunty on Twitter. I brought up this notion of existence versus reality.
I had said, “If you ask religious people if you can get closer to God by climbing a mountain, they’ll say, ‘No.’ If you ask them, ‘If we can’t see God because we don’t have the strongest microscopes or telescopes,’ they’ll say, ‘No.’ If we say, ‘Why can’t we hear God? Is it because our ears just aren’t attuned to God’s voice?’ Then they’ll say, ‘No,’ because even though they see God, they hear God, they get close to God, they’re not talking in a physical sense.”
So the notion of the existence of God, and theologians have pointed this out, isn’t about physical reality. I brought this up to Dillahunty and he said, “I don’t think you’ve done any time engaging with fundamentalists and evangelicals or you would have been told that your question is absurd because God is everywhere.”
Unfortunately, that’s precisely my point. They’re using the notion of the existence of God in a way Dillahunty isn’t. God’s not a being somewhere that can be located, right? God is everywhere. So what does that mean? What does that mean that God is everywhere?
Nathan Dickey: Even the fundamentalists will say, “God is everywhere and that he can’t be seen through mortal means.” I think this hasn’t always been the case. There was an ancient conception of God as a more or less physical being, who may not be spiritual, but at least can manifest physically, who did have a specific location in heaven, who had a throne. That conception has evolved as we’ve learned more about the natural world to where we’ve exaggerated or projected outward and maximized in our minds all the best attributes that we have.
So we know things, we see things, we have some strength. We maximized those to the greatest imaginable degree and called that God and called that omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence. The concept of God, again, has evolved, but it did start out as a very anthropomorphic conception, if I’m understanding the history of religion correctly.
Tylor Lovins: Yes. Eliade, who writes The Sacred and the Profaneand one of the founders of religious studies had said the notion of the physical manifestation of the sacred, he called that a theophany, but it wasn’t that the physical and the sacred were always one and the same, that actually, the sacred was equivalent to the physical, but just that the sacred could appear anywhere in the physical at any time, but they were still distinct. The existence of a physical object was still separate from the sacred, but the sacred could still become incarnate or however you want to talk about it in the physical object. So I think it’s a still a little different from just a simple equivocation there.
Nathan Dickey: I’m going to chew on that a while because these are complex topics that I was hoping to be challenged by and I’m not disappointed. In closing, is there any closing thoughts you want to leave viewers with in regard to either Peterson himself or beyond Peterson that you want to leave my viewers with, who are predominantly skeptic, rationalist-oriented?
Tylor Lovins: One of the criticisms I see with Peterson a lot, which really just does not make sense to me, is that he uses language idiosyncratically. That, to me, just indicates that you haven’t tried to understand them. Yeah, idiosyncrasy is a trait to anyone who has an internal dialog with themselves. The point is to come at a dialog with them, right? Just because you don’t understand something on the first day doesn’t mean there isn’t something there to be understood.
Nathan Dickey: This goes back to what you were saying about, not in a literal sense, but in a metaphor sense that people haven’t read things past five years ago or-
Tylor Lovins: That’s concerning to me. Another thing is that most of the information I see people share about Peterson is second source information like that awful, disgusting New York Times article on him recently about enforced monogamy.
Nathan Dickey: Was that the one with the headline that he’s a custodian of the patriarch?
Tylor Lovins: Yeah, that was insane. He wrote a response to that, by the way. I would say to be true to the spirit of skepticism and rationalism, we have to be skeptical of our first reactions to things and people. We have to be skeptical of our own motivations for either knocking on someone we haven’t really put in the effort to understand or even knocking on them after we have understood them. What’s the point of that? What kind of dialog are you trying to have? What kind of person are you trying to be? There’s a lot of things with Peterson I don’t agree with.
Nathan Dickey: I’m the same way. I probably disagree with Peterson more strongly than you, maybe. I’m not sure, because that’s not the point of our discussion is to disagree with him, it’s to understand him. I would also say that outrage isn’t the answer to moving forward as a society and realizing what we want to make happen.
Tylor Lovins: It seems like social media engagement is more so about separating ourselves from others, but at the same time becoming more like other people than it is about trading with concepts and making the world more intelligible to ourselves, which is unfortunate. So the notion that we should understand what a person means before we project our own understandings onto them, we should take that to be central, I think, to any kind of first steps to understanding another person.
Nathan Dickey: On that note, I want to recommend one of my own podcasts that has a direct bearing on this one and that’s Episode #14, where I talked with psychologist Valerie Tarico. We talked about political narratives and why some progressives are tearing each other apart, which is the name of her article. We talked about what she calls the Ancestral Story, which is the conservative tradition and its origins and history, which I would place Peterson into, the Ancestral Story as she describes in her article.
Also, there are two emerging liberal stories, the Social Liberal story, which the classical liberals would fall into for the most part, and then one that’s emerged in the past few years, the Structural Oppression story, which is more interested in tearing down everything because of the injustice they perceive instead of merely revising it and making it better as the social liberals want to do. That’s an insight into why there’s such a divisive and hostile environment online. So I want to recommend that discussion I had in relation to this. This might shed some light on why I’m talking about Peterson specifically.
So thank you, Tylor Lovins, for joining me for this discussion.
Tylor Lovins: Yeah. Thanks.
Nathan Dickey: I really enjoyed it. I think we got somewhere interesting. I hope we did. I hope the listeners are still here. So thank you.