Jordan Peterson as Ontological Argument

Putting the World Together

My project of continuing to try to digest Jordan Peterson has continued. Let’s assume the modern psychological premise that we are not fully conscious of ourselves, in fact we are only marginally conscious of ourselves which can help explain why we do things, are fascinated by things, or obsess over things that the rational, conscious parts of ourselves don’t fully comprehend. I feel this way a bit with some of this Jordan Peterson stuff. I think this is part of the reason why he’s skyrocketing in terms of attention and demand. He’s scratching where we’ve got a cultural itch and we know it for reasons we don’t know. We’ll see where it leads. If you’re a Christian you might attribute this to the Holy Spirit. If you’re an atheist, you might blame the subconscious. Read it like you want, something is happening.

This particular video I think nicely helps Peterson get into a lot of the stuff that is making him tick. It’s more a gold mine than a pile of gold because you’ve got to go dark underground and work through some hard rock to get the gold, and even after that you might have to smash the rock and use cyanide to leach is out. Or maybe we’re going to get it out of pile of old green circuit boards. In any case there is some dangerous work to do here.

Dealing with Post-Christian Skeptics

Let’s use some Peterson to mine Peterson. What is going on? Why are there now groups of young men that consider themselves “Christian Atheists” as a result of his videos? Why is he the most requested conversation partner for Sam Harris by far? We can guess what kinds of people follow Sam Harris.

It’s clear that the atheists have a monster they fear, and that monster is some strange combination of Christian belief, a way to read the Bible, a way to interpret common human experience and the history of Christianity in the West. Harris famously sees Christianity, and other religions as a sort of a failed science. Back in the day such superstition might have offered some Darwinian survival advantage but since the twilight of modern science we now should know better and it should therefore be dismissed. It’s something like leachcraft or bloodletting. We know what causes plague and as Harari noted greatly diminished humanity’s three great adversaries of plague, hunger and war. It’s time to keep moving forward, not look back at obsolete stories. We need to school religious people to keep the leaches in the swamp and join the bright daylight of our enlightenment.

The monster of obsolete belief is accompanied by a variety of beliefs and identifiable by a variety of shibboleths. A public profession of faith in Darwinian evolution is perhaps the most important starting point for many in this tribe. This makes the nearly half of the American population that likes to believe that “God created the heavens and earth” pre-Darwinists waiting for conversion. Safe people tend to be academics, scientists and the kinds of educated respectable people who get the elite jobs. There are always some characters in the gray areas that embrace some sort of evolutionary narrative but still cling to the vestiges of archaic religious belief.

Now there is a lot of low-resolution belief about the history of human origins. I’ve been reading The Metaphysical Club about the rise of American pragmatism and there are some interesting passages about the strange ways this story arose.

The purpose of On the Origin of Species was not to introduce the concept of evolution; it was to debunk the concept of supernatural intelligence—the idea that the universe is the result of an idea.

For a belief that species evolve is not incompatible with a belief in divine creation, or with a belief in intelligent design. Progressive adaptation might simply be the mechanism God has selected to realize his intentions. What was radical about On the Origin of Species was not its evolutionism, but its materialism. Darwin wanted to establish something even his most loyal disciples were reluctant to admit, which is that the species—including human beings—were created by, and evolve according to, processes that are entirely natural, chance-generated, and blind. In order to do this, he had to do more than come up with a new set of scientific arguments. He had to develop what amounted to a new way of thinking.

Menand, Louis. The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (p. 121). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

I find Menard’s line of demarcation to be as clear today as it was in the 19th century. This IS the line and the reason Peterson is drawing so much attention from young atheists. Is he a Trojan horse? They very much want to know and are struggling to figure out.

This is exactly where Bret Weinstein wanted to engage Peterson with his idea of literal vs. metaphorical truth.

What Modernists Fear

On one hand the fear of the atheists can be easily understood. They understand the history of the last 500 years as a great march of progress where we have, though the tools offered us by a material perspective on the world indeed greatly bound the three great enemies of humanity of plague, hunger and warfare.

Many thinkers and prophets concluded that famine, plague and war must be an integral part of God’s cosmic plan or of our imperfect nature, and nothing short of the end of time would free us from them. Yet at the dawn of the third millennium, humanity wakes up to an amazing realisation. Most people rarely think about it, but in the last few decades we have managed to rein in famine, plague and war. Of course, these problems have not been completely solved, but they have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. We don’t need to pray to any god or saint to rescue us from them. We know quite well what needs to be done in order to prevent famine, plague and war – and we usually succeed in doing it.

True, there are still notable failures; but when faced with such failures we no longer shrug our shoulders and say, ‘Well, that’s the way things work in our imperfect world’ or ‘God’s will be done’. Rather, when famine, plague or war break out of our control, we feel that somebody must have screwed up, we set up a commission of inquiry, and promise ourselves that next time we’ll do better. And it actually works. Such calamities indeed happen less and less often. For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (pp. 1-2). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The great fear is regression and the great threat of regression comes from regressive people who don’t share the modern project. The modernists are used to fighting the religious and in their minds beating them time and time again. Religion was supposed to recede and become as obsolete as the leach jar in the doctor’s office.

The new fear facing these modernists is now the post-modernists who are arising with a new fideism of the secret self now with it’s own shibboleth of gender fluidity and identity, which is the fight that Peterson rose to his current prominence. So modernists like Harris and Peterson and Weinstein and a host of other scientists face a war on two fronts. This is making for some strange alliances between old fideists like Christians and atheists like Harris and Weinstein. Is Peterson an atheist though? He certain is a Darwinist.

Fearing God

So Harris and Weinstein are happy to ally with Peterson and welcome his mission to purge academia of “post-modern neo-Marxists” but they, and the Christians, have questions. “Is he one of us? Can we trust him?” He’s clearly on the other side of the line from the post-modern neo-marxists, but which side of the line is he on with respect to the Christian area/modernist line?

What stalks these modernist atheists is exactly the point made about Darwin. Is there a divine mind behind the world? Does this mind intrude? Does this mind act? Ought we to try to reach out to it? Communicate with it? Relate to it? Peterson chooses his word very, very carefully as you will always see in his videos. This frustrates both sides, but there is something to learn by watching him tip toe through the TULIPs.

What is unnerving Harris and Weinstein about Peterson, and attracting these new “Christian atheists” that they really believe if you start to relate to this God, that needs to die so that the gains of modernity can be preserved, is that people will quickly lapse into the old technology and precious modern humanism will be lost to archaic and cruel forms of discrimination and genocide.

To make matters worse Peterson is reviving interest in that terrifying taproot of that obsolete science, the Bible. It’s like Peterson has tucked a copy of the Bible inside Darwin’s hallowed text and snuck it into the temple of academia. It’s the mirror image of the “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. If you start to fear him, where might it lead?

Taking Peterson at his Word

What frustrates Christians who want to see Peterson take a “firm line” on his belief is his language. He’s using this language not just intentionally to avoid excluding atheist followers (which he says he is doing intentionally on numerous occasions) but also because these are really the best words he can pick to describe where he is at. We should take him at his word.

Listen to a bunch of his phrases

“I don’t know the limits of human possibility” on the question of the resurrection.

“You must live as if people have a divine spark in them” The Logos Capacity

And here we get the summary, that the Christian story is the representation of the truth too complicated for us to articulate.

And here he engages the questions most directly

  • “I act as if God exists”

Peterson’s Ontological Argument

Peterson will make these kinds of statements repeatedly. He acts as if God exists. Sacrifices are bargaining with the future. You act as if human beings have a divine spark which is a working out of the logos principle… This all reminds me of the Ontological argument. Imagine a being the greatest of which can be conceived. That would be God. Now a such a being that exists must be greater than one that is merely imagined, therefore there must be such a being.

Now the rebuttal to the argument is obvious, that just because you can imagine something doesn’t mean it exists, but the power of the argument is essentially behind Peterson’s wager. He basically looks around, as does Harris and Weinstein, at the accomplishments of Western Civilization and fears its demise. Harris and Weinstein basically say that the future of Western Civ. depends on maintaining the disenchantment of the world. If it lapses into Christian re-enchantment our victory of plague, hunger and warfare may very well be lost. Peterson comes around and says “the reason we’re eating ourselves to death, and suicide kills more people than war, is because of the disenchantment.”

Peterson arrives at this by himself being a clinical psychologist and working with students. He’s seeing that in fact Harris’ picture of the world is insufficient and under-developed. Harris falls victim to his own reductionism.

The Lion at the Zoo

The easiest way to illustrate the reductionism of materialism is to go to the zoo and ponder the lion. The lion in the zoo has free health care, free food, has no threats from predators and if the zoo keepers offer him a lioness will not have to worry about younger, stronger males driving him away to breed indiscriminately.  By Harris’ account that lion should have arrived and achieved peak lionhood.

Is that how we see it? No. We pity the creature even though it will long outlive its cousin in the African bush. It is materially better but there is something of lion-ness that is lost.

Now, as the beginning of The Life of Pi points out

A house is a compressed territory where our basic needs can be fulfilled close by and safely. A sound zoo enclosure is the equivalent for an animal (with the noteworthy absence of a fireplace or the like, present in every human habitation). Finding within it all the places it needs—a lookout, a place for resting, for eating and drinking, for bathing, for grooming, etc.—and finding that there is no need to go hunting, food appearing six days a week, an animal will take possession of its zoo space in the same way it would lay claim to a new space in the wild, exploring it and marking it out in the normal ways of its species, with sprays of urine perhaps. Once this moving-in ritual is done and the animal has settled, it will not feel like a nervous tenant, and even less like a prisoner, but rather like a landholder, and it will behave in the same way within its enclosure as it would in its territory in the wild, including defending it tooth and nail should it be invaded. Such an enclosure is subjectively neither better nor worse for an animal than its condition in the wild; so long as it fulfills the animal’s needs, a territory, natural or constructed, simply is, without judgment, a given, like the spots on a leopard. One might even argue that if an animal could choose with intelligence, it would opt for living in a zoo, since the major difference between a zoo and the wild is the absence of parasites and enemies and the abundance of food in the first, and their respective abundance and scarcity in the second. Think about it yourself. Would you rather be put up at the Ritz with free room service and unlimited access to a doctor or be homeless without a soul to care for you?

Martel, Yann. Life of Pi (pp. 21-22). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

The best argument for Jordan Peterson being right and Sam Harris being wrong is the opiod epidemic and the suicide rates of middle aged white males in the United States. They are the new lions in the zoo.

We live for something and Peterson says that the real threat is not really our Christian past but what is filling the materialist vacuum which is a new fideism of post-modern neo-marxism. We must recapture the Bible or lose what the West has won.

Two Observations

Now in a way this is a redux of the 19th century modernist movement before they decided to simply dismiss the Bible. He is in some ways like those old times who tried to bring Christianity into our world in terms of his project. What might be different will be the way instead of dis-enchanting the world he now wishes to re-enchant it.

The second is, again, how similar this is in some ways to CS Lewis’ project. I find CS Lewis’ book Miracles to be a very helpful guide and reading companion to Peterson. Peterson is struggling to see Jesus as the true myth. He’s already had a conversion experience.

When I heard this I thought of Dwight Moody’s experience

one day, in the city of New York—oh, what a day!—I cannot describe it, I seldom refer to it; it is almost too sacred an experience to name…. I can only say that God revealed himself to me, and I had such an experience of his love that I had to ask him to stay his hand. I went to preaching again. The sermons were not different; I did not present any new truths, and yet hundreds were converted. I would not now be placed back where I was before that blessed experience if you should give me all the world—it would be small dust in the balance. (W. R. Moody, The Life of D. L. Moody, New York: 1900, p. 149)

Or Pascal’s experience

Monday, 23 November, feast of St. Clement, pope and martyr, and others in the martyrology. Vigil of St. Chrysogonus, martyr, and others. From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight,

FIRE.

GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob
not of the philosophers and of the learned.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
GOD of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
Your GOD will be my God.
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD.
He is only found by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Grandeur of the human soul.
Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you.
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have departed from him:
They have forsaken me, the fount of living water.
My God, will you leave me?
Let me not be separated from him forever.
This is eternal life, that they know you, the one true God, and the one that you sent, Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
I left him; I fled him, renounced, crucified.
Let me never be separated from him.
He is only kept securely by the ways taught in the Gospel:
Renunciation, total and sweet.
Complete submission to Jesus Christ and to my director.
Eternally in joy for a day’s exercise on the earth.
May I not forget your words. Amen.

Now I know experience is broad and my Christian brothers will be skeptical, but I’d suggest “by their fruit you shall know them”. So keep an eye on the fruit.

 

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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