Cosmic Dichotomy: Peterson’s Pearls (1)

This is the first of a series of posts based upon Jordan Peterson’s book Maps of Meaning, published in 1999 after 17 years of research and writing. It is rich in description and insight with many references and quotations from original sources. Reading it I began to copy passages that struck me as especially lucid and pertinent. Those paragraphs of his text are provided below in italics as excerpts selected to explain five themes emerging in my reflections while pondering his book. This post explores one of those themes. Before that is an overview to explain why this is important to me and perhaps to others.

Introduction, Context and My Reflections

I have long been interested in the interface between science and religion, since my education includes degrees in both Organic Chemistry and Theology. The interaction between faith and fact is brought to heightened awareness by Jordan Peterson’s book Maps of Meaning bringing recent psychology and neurology insights to bear on the interrelation. As usual, Peterson surprises by staking out a position honoring and balancing seemingly contrary perspectives. The history of science is replete with examples of how observations and and discoveries were motivated by flashes of inspiration coming from hidden places. One guru I admired used to say he went to sleep with questions and in the morning he could comb the answers out of his hair. The structure of benzene was revealed long ago in just that way.

Peterson provides a framework for understanding and appreciating how myth and science serve us, how we operate in a zone between known and unknown, between what is and what should be. And he reminds us that mythological thinking is primordial for both individuals and societies. Reading this book reminded me of experiences working in community development when I would lead workshop discussions with people wanting to improve their neighborhoods or villages. At the round-table brainstorming we asked them to say what things in their community they would change to make it better. And as Peterson notes, the responses most often came out of the ideal, their community as it should be. For instance, someone might say, “There is a lack of community services.” My job as facilitator was to press that participant to describe the specific existing condition of concern. The interchange might end with a statement: “The streets are full of junk people just throw away. It just stays there and the place is mess.” Now we have an actionable item: A definite gap between “what is” and “what should be.” After an hour or more, we have a list of dozens of items that can be categorized into targets for improvement programs. In management and organizational consulting there is a saying: “A problem well-defined is halfway solved.” The next step is making a plan to get from a to b.

So the ideal or mythological provides a value set from which we choose things to study and to bring under our control either by understanding (reducing the fear of the unknown), or by actually manipulating the thing to serve our purpose. Ancient stargazers designed constellations and gave them mythological identities to make them familiar and less menacing. Astrologers provided guidance how to take advantage or precaution in our actions considering the stars and planets influences. With advances in telescopes astronomers could map the orbits, and events like eclipses could be predicted, making them them occasions of wonder rather than terror.

The field of climate is in a rudimentary state. The ancients made sacrifices to assure favorable weather for agriculture and for safety from storms. Climatology was and is the documenting of weather observations to discern patterns over seasons, years and longer. Weather forecasting makes use of such patterns and enhanced observations from airplanes, drones and satellites to give us warnings and time to prepare for destructive events. The mythological is honored by giving human names to storms, originally only female designations, respecting the unpredictable nature of the timing and location of destruction. (Q: Why is a woman like a hurricane? A: She comes in hot and steamy, and she leaves with your house and car.)

Nowadays, weather forecasts are improved but still are increasingly uncertain after a few days, being SWAGs after a week. (Scientific Wild-Ass Guess). Storms may now have male names, since men can also be out of control. Gender-neutral names are the latest development, to the point where some PC parents name a child “Storm” not to limit its gender options. If this suggests that a new mythology has overtaken the science, then you have got my drift. The whole notion that our computer models can predict future surface temperatures up to a century from now shows that climatology is closer to astrology than to astronomy.

Those who claim “The Science is Settled” are actually giving up on our understanding climate. As Peterson says, unexplored territory is approached with fear and any approach is made under anxiety, which is exactly what global warming doomsayers are manifesting. Many of these are urban dwellers who fear that nature is out of control, and they default to a mindset typical of pre-experimental people. In a primitive way they think that cities can be spared by sacrificing fossil fuels like a sacrificial lamb. In olden days people made idols in their own images and worshiped them to ensure favorable weather. Today people bow before computer models they have made, whose predictions are sure to scare the bejesus out of us.

[Note: I use the word “cosmic” since each individual’s world is at risk, and as we see in the agitation over climate change, entire social groups can also fear for their collective world.]

Jordan Peterson on the Cosmic Dichotomy (Excerpts from Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief Title is link to pdf)

My religious convictions, ill-formed to begin with, disappeared when I was very young. My confidence in socialism (that is, in political utopia) vanished when I realized that the world was not merely a place of economics. My faith in ideology departed, when I began to see that ideological identification itself posed a profound and mysterious problem. I could not accept the theoretical explanations my chosen field of study had to offer, and no longer had any practical reasons to continue in my original direction. I finished my three-year bachelor’s degree, and left university. All my beliefs—which had lent order to the chaos of my existence, at least temporarily—had proved illusory; I could no longer see the sense in things. I was cast adrift; I did not know what to do or what to think.

The people I knew well were no more resolutely goal-directed or satisfied than I was. Their beliefs and modes of being seemed merely to disguise frequent doubt and profound disquietude. More disturbingly, on the more general plane, something truly insane was taking place. The great societies of the world were feverishly constructing a nuclear machine, with unimaginably destructive capabilities. Someone or something was making terrible plans. Why? Theoretically normal and well-adapted people were going about their business prosaically, as if nothing were the matter. Why weren’t they disturbed? Weren’t they paying attention? Wasn’t I?

My concern with the general social and political insanity and evil of the world— sublimated by temporary infatuation with utopian socialism and political machination— returned with a vengeance. The mysterious fact of the Cold War increasingly occupied the forefront of my consciousness. How could things have come to such ah point?

All the things I “believed” were things I thought sounded good, admirable, respectable, courageous. They weren’t my things, however—I had stolen them. Most of them I had taken from books. Having “understood” them, abstractly, I presumed I had a right to them—presumed that I could adopt them, as if they were mine: presumed that they were me. My head was stuffed full of the ideas of others; stuffed full of arguments I could not logically refute. I did not know then that an irrefutable argument is not necessarily true, nor that the right to identify with certain ideas had to be earned.

The study of “comparative mythological material” in fact made my horrible dreams disappear. The cure wrought by this study, however, was purchased at the price of complete and often painful transformation: what I believe about the world, now—and how I act, in consequence—is so much at variance with what I believed when I was younger that I might as well be a completely different person.

I discovered that beliefs make the world, in a very real way—that beliefs are the world, in a more than metaphysical sense. This discovery has not turned me into a moral relativist, however: quite the contrary. I have become convinced that the world-that-is-belief is orderly; that there are universal moral absolutes (although these are structured such that a diverse range of human opinion remains both possible and beneficial). I believe that individuals and societies who flout these absolutes—in ignorance or in willful opposition—are doomed to misery and eventual dissolution.

I hope that I can bring those who read this book to the same conclusions, without demanding any unreasonable “suspension of critical judgment”—excepting that necessary to initially encounter and consider the arguments I present.

The world can be validly construed as a forum for action, as well as a place of things. We describe the world as a place of things, using the formal methods of science. The techniques of narrative, however—myth, literature and drama—portray the world as a forum for action. The two forms of representation have been unnecessarily set at odds, because we have not yet formed a clear picture of their respective domains. The domain of the former is the objective world—what is, from the perspective of intersubjective perception. The domain of the latter is the world of value—what is and what should be, from the perspective of emotion and action.

The former manner of interpretation-more primordial, and less clearly understood-finds its expression in the arts or humanities, in ritual, drama, literature and mythology. The world as forum for action is a place of value, a place where all things have meaning. This meaning, which is shaped as a consequence of social interaction, is implication for action, or-at a higher level of analysisimplication for the configuration of the interpretive schema that produces or guides action.

The latter manner of interpretation-the world as place of things-finds its formal expression in the methods and theories of science. Science allows for increasingly precise determination of the consensually validatable properties of things, and for efficient utilization of precisely determined things as tools (once the direction such use is to take has been determined, through application of more fundamental narrative processes).

No complete world-picture can be generated without use of both modes of construal. The fact that one mode is generally set at odds with the other means only that the nature of their respective domains remains insufficiently discriminated. Adherents of the mythological worldview tend to regard the statements of their creeds as indistinguishable from empirical “fact,” even though such statements were generally formulated long before the notion of objective reality emerged. Those who, by contrast, accept the scientific perspective—who assume that it is, or might become, complete—forget that an impassable gulf currently divides what is from what should be.

We need to know four things:
what there is,
what to do about what there is,
that there is a difference between knowing what there is, and knowing what to do about what there is
and what that difference is.

Imagine that a baby girl, toddling around in the course of her initial tentative investigations, reaches up onto a countertop to touch a fragile and expensive glass sculpture. She observes its color, sees its shine, feels that it is smooth and cold and heavy to the touch. Suddenly her mother interferes, grasps her hand, tells her not to ever touch that object. The child has just learned a number of specifically consequential things about the sculpture—has identified its sensory properties, certainly. More importantly, however, she has determined that approached in the wrong manner, the sculpture is dangerous (at least in the presence of mother); has discovered as well that the sculpture is regarded more highly, in its present unaltered configuration, than the exploratory tendency—at least (once again) by mother. The baby girl has simultaneously encountered an object, from the empirical perspective, and its socioculturally determined status. The empirical object might be regarded as those sensory properties “intrinsic” to the object. The status of the object, by contrast, consists of its meaning—consists of its implication for behavior. Everything a child encounters has this dual nature, experienced by the child as part of a unified totality. Everything is something, and means something—and the distinction between essence and significance is not necessarily drawn.

The automatic attribution of meaning to things—or the failure to distinguish between them initially—is a characteristic of narrative, of myth, not of scientific thought. Narrative accurately captures the nature of raw experience. Things are scary, people are irritating, events are promising, food is satisfying—at least in terms of our basic experience. The modern mind, which regards itself as having transcended the domain of the magical, is nonetheless still endlessly capable of “irrational” (read motivated) reactions. We fall under the spell of experience whenever we attribute our frustration, aggression, devotion or lust to the person or situation that exists as the proximal “cause” of such agitation. We are not yet “objective,” even in our most clear-headed moments (and thank God for that). We become immediately immersed in a motion picture or a novel, and willingly suspend disbelief. We become impressed or terrified, despite ourselves, in the presence of a sufficiently powerful cultural figurehead (an intellectual idol, a sports superstar, a movie actor, a political leader, the pope, a famous beauty, even our superior at work)—in the presence, that is, of anyone who sufficiently embodies the oft-implicit values and ideals that protect us from disorder and lead us on.

The “natural,” pre-experimental, or mythical mind is in fact primarily concerned with meaning—which is essentially implication for action—and not with “objective” nature. . .And, in truth—in real life—to know what something is still means to know two things about it: its motivational relevance, and the specific nature of its sensory qualities. The two forms of knowing are not identical; furthermore, experience and registration of the former necessarily precedes development of the latter. Something must have emotional impact before it will attract enough attention to be explored and mapped in accordance with its sensory properties.

How, precisely, did people think, not so very long ago, before they were experimentalists? What were things before they were objective things? These are very difficult questions. The “things” that existed prior to the development of experimental science do not appear valid either as things or as the meaning of things to the modern mind.

The alchemist could not separate his subjective ideas about the nature of things—that is, his hypotheses—from the things themselves. His hypotheses, in turn—products of his imagination—were derived from the unquestioned and unrecognized “explanatory” presuppositions that made up his culture. The medieval man lived, for example, in a universe that was moral—where everything, even ores and metals, strived above all for perfection. Things, for the alchemical mind, were therefore characterized in large part by their moral nature—by their impact on what we would describe as affect, emotion or motivation; were therefore characterized by their relevance or value (which is impact on affect). Description of this relevance took narrative form, mythic form—as in the example drawn from Jung, where the sulphuric aspect of the sun’s substance is attributed negative, demonic characteristics. It was the great feat of science to strip affect from perception, so to speak, and to allow for the description of experiences purely in terms of their consensually apprehensible features. However, it is the case that the affects generated by experiences are real, as well.

We have lost the mythic universe of the pre-experimental mind, or have at least ceased to further its development. That loss has left our increased technological power ever more dangerously at the mercy of our still unconscious systems of valuation.

Prior to the time of Descartes, Bacon and Newton, man lived in an animated, spiritual world, saturated with meaning, imbued with moral purpose. The nature of this purpose was revealed in the stories people told each other—stories about the structure of the cosmos and the place of man. But now we think empirically (at least we think we think empirically), and the spirits that once inhabited the universe have vanished.

Furthermore—and more importantly—the new theories that arose to make sense of empirical reality posed a severe threat to the integrity of traditional models of reality, which had provided the world with determinate meaning. The mythological cosmos had man at its midpoint; the objective universe was heliocentric at first, and less than that later. Man no longer occupies center stage. The world is, in consequence, a completely different place.

The mythological perspective has been overthrown by the empirical; or so it appears. This should mean that the morality predicated upon such myth should have disappeared, as well, as belief in comfortable illusion vanished.

If the presuppositions of a theory have been invalidated, argues Nietzsche, then the theory has been invalidated. But in this case the “theory” survives. The fundamental tenets of the Judeo-Christian moral tradition continue to govern every aspect of the actual individual behavior and basic values of the typical Westerner—even if he is atheistic and well-educated, even if his abstract notions and utterances appear iconoclastic.

Our systems of post-experimental thought and our systems of motivation and action therefore co-exist in paradoxical union. One is “up-to-date”; the other, archaic. One is scientific; the other, traditional, even superstitious. We have become atheistic in our description, but remain evidently religious—that is, moral—in our disposition.

We have become trapped by our own capacity for abstraction: it provides us with accurate descriptive information but also undermines our belief in the utility and meaning of existence. This problem has frequently been regarded as tragic (it seems to me, at least, ridiculous)—and has been thoroughly explored in existential philosophy and literature.

Our behavior is shaped (at least in the ideal) by the same mythic rules—thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not covet—that guided our ancestors for the thousands of years they lived without benefit of formal empirical thought. This means that those rules are so powerful—so necessary, at least—that they maintain their existence (and expand their domain) even in the presence of explicit theories that undermine their validity. That is a mystery. And here is another:

How is it that complex and admirable ancient civilizations could have developed and flourished, initially, if they were predicated upon nonsense? If a culture survives, and grows, does that not indicate in some profound way that the ideas it is based upon are valid?

Our great rationalist ideologies, after all—fascist, say, or communist— demonstrated their essential uselessness within the space of mere generations, despite their intellectually compelling nature. Traditional societies, predicated on religious notions, have survived—essentially unchanged, in some cases, for tens of thousands of years. How can this longevity be understood?

We do not understand pre-experimental thinking, so we try to explain it in terms that we do understand—which means that we explain it away, define it as nonsense. After all, we think scientifically—so we believe—and we think we know what that means (since scientific thinking can in principle be defined). We are familiar with scientific thinking and value it highly—so we tend to presume that it is all there is to thinking (presume that all other “forms of thought” are approximations, at best, to the ideal of scientific thought). But this is not accurate. Thinking also and more fundamentally is specification of value, specification of implication for behavior.

The painstaking empirical process of identification, communication and comparison has proved to be a strikingly effective means for specifying the nature of the relatively invariant features of the collectively apprehensible world. Unfortunately, this useful methodology cannot be applied to determination of value—to consideration of what should be, to specification of the direction that things should take (which means, to description of the future we should construct, as a consequence of our actions). Such acts of valuation necessarily constitute moral decisions. We can use information generated in consequence of the application of science to guide those decisions, but not to tell us if they are correct. We lack a process of verification, in the moral domain, that is as powerful or as universally acceptable as the experimental (empirical) method in the realm of description.

This absence does not allow us to sidestep the problem. No functioning society or individual can avoid rendering moral judgment, regardless of what might be said or imagined about the necessity of such judgment. Action presupposes valuation, or its implicit or “unconscious” equivalent. To act is literally to manifest preference about one set of possibilities, contrasted with an infinite set of alternatives. If we wish to live, we must act. Acting, we value. Lacking omniscience, painfully, we must make decisions, in the absence of sufficient information. It is, traditionally speaking, our knowledge of good and evil, our moral sensibility, that allows us this ability. It is our mythological conventions, operating implicitly or explicitly, that guide our choices. But what are these conventions? How are we to understand the fact of their existence? How are we to understand them?

Our constant cross-cultural interchanges and our capacity for critical reasoning have undermined our faith in the traditions of our forebears, perhaps for good reason. However, the individual cannot live without belief—without action and valuation—and science cannot provide that belief. We must nonetheless put our faith into something. Are the myths we have turned to since the rise of science more sophisticated, less dangerous, and more complete than those we rejected?

The ideological structures that dominated social relations in the twentieth century appear no less absurd, on the face of it, than the older belief systems they supplanted; they lacked, in addition, any of the incomprehensible mystery that necessarily remains part of genuinely artistic and creative production. The fundamental propositions of fascism and communism were rational, logical, statable, comprehensible—and terribly wrong.

No great ideological struggle presently tears at the soul of the world, but it is difficult to believe that we have outgrown our gullibility. The rise of the New Age movement in the West, for example—as compensation for the decline of traditional spirituality—provides sufficient evidence for our continued ability to swallow a camel, while straining at a gnat.

Could we do better? Is it possible to understand what might reasonably, even admirably, be believed, after understanding that we must believe? Our vast power makes self-control (and, perhaps, self-comprehension) a necessity—so we have the motivation, at least in principle. Furthermore, the time is auspicious. The third Christian millennium is dawning—at the end of an era when we have demonstrated, to the apparent satisfaction of everyone, that certain forms of social regulation just do not work (even when judged by their own criteria for success).

Footnote: Navajos and Prairie Dogs

The intersection of folk and scientific wisdom is demonstrated in a case regarding an Arizona Navajo reservation.

Government officials in the 1950’s proposed to get rid of prairie dogs on some parts of the reservation in order to protect the roots of the sparse desert grass and thereby maintain at least marginal grazing for sheep.

Navajos objected strongly, insisting, “If you kill off all the prairie dogs, there will be no one to cry for the rain.” Of course they were assured by the amused government men that there was no conceivable connection between rain and prairie dogs, a fact that could be proven easily by a simple scientific experiment: a specific area would be set aside and all the burrowing animals there would be exterminated.

The experiment was carried out, over the continued objections of the Navajos, and its outcome was surprising only to the white scientists. Today, the area […] has become a virtual wasteland with very little grass. Apparently, without the ground-turning processes of the little burrowing animals, the sand in the area becomes solidly packed, causing a fierce runoff whenever it rains.

It would be incautious to suggest in this instance that the Navajos were possessed of a clear, conscious objective theory about water retention and absorption in packed sand. On the other hand, it would be difficult to ignore the fact that the Navajo myth system, which insists on delicate reciprocal responsibilities among elements of nature, dramatized more accurately than our science the results of an imbalance between principals in the rain process. (Barre Toelken here p. 21)

But folk wisdom is an unreliable, inconsistent kind of wisdom. For one thing, most proverbs coexist with their exact opposites, or at least with proverbs that give somewhat different advice. Now that climate change has passed into social discourse, proverbs and unsubstantiated claims are voiced among like-minded people, thereby reinforcing shared beliefs without any critical analysis to verify an objective reality to the sayings.

Disney’s portrayal of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in over his head.

The moral of the story pertains to the arrogance of scientists who think they have empirical understanding of a natural system, and can predict its behavior. The deeper truth is that even when knowledge is added by experiment, life and the world contain other mysteries yet to be explored. Each new answer raises many new questions, if we are brave and curious enough to investigate. In later posts, Peterson gets into the perversion of turning a present scientific understanding into an ideology, i.e. freezing a relative, incomplete known into a myth, thus discouraging further analysis in order to protect the status quo.

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