Cosmic Arena: Peterson’s Pearls (2)

This is the second in 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. Cosmic Dichotomy: Peterson’s Pearls (1) provides an overview explaining why this is important to me and perhaps to others.

[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 Arena (Excerpts from Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief Title is link to pdf)

Along with our animal cousins, we devote ourselves to fundamentals: will this (new) thing eat me? Can I eat it? Will it chase me? Should I chase it? Can I mate with it? We may construct models of “objective reality,” and it is no doubt useful to do so. We must model meanings, however, in order to survive. Our most fundamental maps of meaning—maps which have a narrative structure—portray the motivational value of our current state, conceived of in contrast to a hypothetical ideal, accompanied by plans of action, which are our pragmatic notions about how to get what we want.

Description of these three elements—current state, ideal future state, and means of active mediation—constitute the necessary and sufficient preconditions for the weaving of the most simple narrative, which is a means for describing the valence of a given environment, in reference to a temporally and spatially bounded set of action patterns. Getting to point “b” presupposes that you are at point “a”—you can’t plan movement in the absence of an initial position. The fact that point “b” constitutes the end goal means that it is valenced more highly than point “a”—that it is a place more desirable, when considered against the necessary contrast of the current position. It is the perceived improvement of point “b” that makes the whole map meaningful or affect-laden; it is the capacity to construct hypothetical or abstract end points, such as “b”—and to contrast them against “the present”—that makes human beings capable of using their cognitive systems to modulate their affective reactions.

We know how to act in some places, and not in others. The plans we put into action sometimes work, and sometimes do not work. The experiential domains we inhabit—our “environments,” so to speak—are therefore permanently characterized by the fact of the predictable and controllable, in juxtaposition with the unpredictable and uncontrollable. The universe is composed of “order” and “chaos”—at least from the metaphorical perspective. Oddly enough, however, it is to this “metaphorical” universe that our nervous system appears to have adapted.

The unknown is, of course, defined in contradistinction to the known. Everything not understood or not explored is unknown. The relationship between the oft- (and unfairly) separated domains of “cognition” and “emotion” can be more clearly comprehended in light of this rather obvious fact. It is the absence of an expected satisfaction, for example, that is punishing, hurtful—the emotion is generated as a default response to sudden and unpredictable alteration in the theoretically comprehended structure of the world. It is the man expecting a raise because of his outstanding work—the man configuring a desired future on the basis of his understanding of the present—who is hurt when someone “less deserving” is promoted before him (“one is best punished,” after all, “for one’s virtues”). The man whose expectations have been dashed—who has been threatened and hurt—is likely to work less hard in the future, with more resentment and anger. Conversely, the child who has not completed her homework is thrilled when the bell signaling class end rings, before she is called upon. The bell signals the absence of an expected punishment, and therefore induces positive affect, relief, happiness.

The maps that configure our motivated behavior have a certain comprehensible structure. They contain two fundamental and mutually interdependent poles, one present, the other future. The present is sensory experience as it is currently manifested to us—as we currently understand it—granted motivational significance according to our current knowledge and desires. The future is an image or partial image of perfection, to which we compare the present, insofar as we understand its significance. Wherever there exists a mismatch between the two, the unexpected or novel occurs (by definition), grips our attention, and activates the intrapsychic systems that govern fear and hope.

We strive to bring novel occurrences back into the realm of predictability or to exploit them for previously unconsidered potential by altering our behavior or our patterns of representation. We conceive of a path connecting present to future. This path is “composed” of the behaviors required to produce the transformations we desire— required to turn the (eternally) insufficient present into the (ever-receding) paradisal future. This path is normally conceived of as linear, so to speak, as something analogous to Thomas Kuhn’s notion of normal science, wherein known patterns of behavior operate.

What is the a priori motivational significance of the unknown? Can such a question even be asked? After all, the unknown by definition has not yet been explored. Nothing can be said, by the dictates of standard logic, about something that has not yet been encountered. We are not concerned with sensory information, however—nor with particular material attributes—but with valence. Valence, in and of itself, might be most simply considered as bipolar: negative or positive (or, of course, as neither). We are familiar enough with the ultimate potential range of valence, negative and positive, to place provisional borders around possibility. The worst the unknown could be, in general, is death (or, perhaps, lengthy suffering followed by death); the fact of our vulnerable mortality provides the limiting case. The best the unknown could be is more difficult to specify, but some generalizations might prove acceptable. We would like to be wealthy (or at least free from want), possessed of good health, wise and well-loved. The greatest good the unknown might confer, then, might be regarded as that which would allow us to transcend our innate limitations (poverty, ignorance, vulnerability), rather than to remain miserably subject to them. The emotional “area” covered by the unknown is therefore very large, ranging from that which we fear most to that which we desire most intently.

It appears, therefore, that the image of a goal (a fantasy about the nature of the desired future, conceived of in relationship to a model of the significance of the present) provides much of the framework determining the motivational significance of ongoing current events. The individual uses his or her knowledge to construct a hypothetical state of affairs, where the motivational balance of ongoing events is optimized: where there is sufficient satisfaction, minimal punishment, tolerable threat and abundant hope, all balanced together properly over the short and longer terms. This optimal state of affairs might be conceptualized as a pattern of career advancement, with a long-term state in mind, signifying perfection, as it might be attained profanely (richest drug dealer, happily married matron, chief executive officer of a large corporation, tenured Harvard professor).

Alternatively, perfection might be regarded as the absence of all unnecessary things, and the pleasures of an ascetic life. The point is that some desirable future state of affairs is conceptualized in fantasy and used as a target point for operation in the present. Such operations may be conceived of as links in a chain (with the end of the chain anchored to the desirable future state).

[Imagine this predicament] Your encounter with the terrible unknown has shaken the foundations of your worldview. You have been exposed, involuntarily, to the unexpected and revolutionary. Chaos has eaten your soul. This means that your long-term goals have to be reconstructed, and the motivational significance of events in your current environment reevaluated—literally revalued. This capacity for complete revaluation, in the light of new information, is even more particularly human than the aforementioned capability for exploration of the unknown and generation of new information. Sometimes, in the course of our actions, we elicit phenomena whose very existence is impossible, according to our standard methods of construal (which are at base a mode of attributing motivational significance to events). Exploration of these new phenomena, and integration of our findings into our knowledge, occasionally means reconceptualization of that knowledge (and consequent re-exposure to the unknown, no longer inhibited by our mode of classification). This means that simple movement from present to future is occasionally interrupted by a complete breakdown and reformulation, a reconstitution of what the present is and what the future should be. The ascent of the individual, so to speak, is punctuated by periods of dissolution and rebirth. The more general model of human adaptation—conceptualized most simply as steady state, breach, crisis, redress—therefore ends up looking like Figure 4: Revolutionary Adaptation.

It is reasonable to regard the world, as forum for action, as a “place”—a place made up of the familiar, and the unfamiliar, in eternal juxtaposition. The brain is actually composed, in large part, of two subsystems, adapted for action in that place. The right hemisphere, broadly speaking, responds to novelty with caution, and rapid, global hypothesis formation. The left hemisphere, by contrast, tends to remain in charge when things—that is, explicitly categorized things—are unfolding according to plan. The right hemisphere draws rapid, global, valence-based, metaphorical pictures of novel things; the left, with its greater capacity for detail, makes such pictures explicit and verbal. Thus the exploratory capacity of the brain “builds” the world of the familiar (the known), from the world of the unfamiliar (the unknown).

When the world remains known and familiar—that is, when our beliefs maintain their validity—our emotions remain under control. When the world suddenly transforms itself into something new, however, our emotions are dysregulated, in keeping with the relative novelty of that transformation, and we are forced to retreat or to explore once again.

The essential similarities of our judgments of meaning can easily lead us to conclude that the goodness or badness of things or situations is something more or less fixed. However, the fact of subjective interpretation—and its effects on evaluation and behavior—complicate this simple picture. We will work, expend energy and overcome obstacles to gain a good (or to avoid something bad). But we won’t work for food, at least not very hard, if we have enough food; we won’t work for sex, if we are satisfied with our present levels of sexual activity; and we might be very pleased to go hungry, if that means our enemy will starve. Our predictions, expectations and desires condition our evaluations to a finally unspecifiable degree. Things have no absolutely fixed significance, despite our ability to generalize about their value. It is our personal preferences, therefore, that determine the import of the world (but these preferences have constraints!).

It is not possible to finally determine how or whether something is meaningful by observing the objective features of that thing. Value is not invariant, in contrast to objective reality; furthermore, it is not possible to derive an ought from an is (this is the “naturalistic fallacy” of David Hume). It is possible, however, to determine the conditional meaning of something, by observing how behavior (one’s own behavior, or someone else’s) is conducted in the presence of that thing (or in its absence). “Things” (objects, processes) emerge—into subjective experience, at least—as a consequence of behaviors.

Past experience—learning—does not merely condition; rather, such experience determines the precise nature of the framework of reference or context that will be brought to bear on the analysis of a given situation. This cognitive frame of reference acts as the intermediary between past learning, present experience and future desire. This intermediary is a valid object of scientific exploration—a phenomenon as real as anything abstracted is real—and is far more parsimonious and accessible, as such a phenomenon, than the simple noninterpreted (and nonmeasurable, in any case) sum total of reinforcement history. Frameworks of reference, influenced in their structure by learning, specify the valence of ongoing experience; determine what might be regarded, in a given time and place, as good, bad or indifferent. Furthermore, inferences about the nature of the framework of reference governing the behavior of others (that is, looking at the world through the eyes of another) may produce results that are more useful, more broadly generalizable (as “insights” into the “personality” of another), and less demanding of cognitive resources than attempts to understand the details of a given reinforcement history.

Our actual situations, however, are almost always more complex. If things or situations were straightforwardly or simply positive or negative, good or bad, we would not have to make judgments regarding them, would not have to think about our behavior, and how and when it should be modified—indeed, would not have to think at all. We are faced, however, with the constant problem of ambivalence in meaning, which is to say that a thing or situation might be bad and good simultaneously (or good in two conflicting manners; or bad, in two conflicting manners).

Nothing comes without a cost, and the cost has to be factored in, when the meaning of something is evaluated. Meaning depends on context; contexts—stories, in a word—constitute goals, desires, wishes. It is unfortunate, from the perspective of conflict-free adaptation, that we have many goals—many stories, many visions of the ideal future—and that the pursuit of one often interferes with our chances (or someone else’s chances) of obtaining another.

The plans we formulate are mechanisms designed to bring the envisioned perfect future into being. Once formulated, plans govern our behavior—until we make a mistake. A mistake, which is the appearance of a thing or situation not envisioned, provides evidence for the incomplete nature of our plans—indicates that those plans and the presumptions upon which they are erected are in error and must be updated (or, heaven forbid, abandoned). As long as everything is proceeding according to plan, we remain on familiar ground—but when we err, we enter unexplored territory.

Deviations from desired outcome constitute (relatively) novel events, indicative of errors in presumption, either at the level of analysis of current state, process or ideal future. Such mismatches—unpredictable, nonredundant or novel occurrences—constantly comprise the most intrinsically meaningful, interesting elements of the human experiential field. This interest and meaning signifies the presence of new information and constitutes a prepotent stimulus for human (and animal) action. It is where the unpredictable emerges that the possibility for all new and useful information exists. It is during the process of exploration of the unpredictable or unexpected that all knowledge and wisdom is generated, all boundaries of adaptive competence extended, all foreign territory explored, mapped and mastered.

St. George slaying the dragon.

Everything presently known to each, everything rendered predictable, was at one time unknown to all, and had to be rendered predictable—beneficial at best, irrelevant at worst—as a consequence of active exploration-driven adaptation. The matrix is of indeterminable breadth: despite our great storehouse of culture, despite the wisdom bequeathed to us by our ancestors, we are still fundamentally ignorant, and will remain so, no matter how much we learn. The domain of the unknown surrounds us like an ocean surrounds an island. We can increase the area of the island, but we never take away much from the sea.

The constant and universal presence of the incomprehensible in the world has elicited adaptive response from us and from all other creatures with highly developed nervous systems. We have evolved to operate successfully in a world eternally composed of the predictable, in paradoxical juxtaposition with the unpredictable. The combination of what we have explored and what we have still to evaluate actually comprises our environment, insofar as its nature can be broadly specified—and it is to that environment that our physiological structure has become matched. One set of the systems that comprise our brain and mind governs activity, when we are guided by our plans—when we are in the domain of the known. Another appears to operate when we face something unexpected— when we have entered the realm of the unknown.

The consequence of exploration that allows for emotional regulation (that generates security, essentially) is not objective description, as the scientist might have it, but categorization of the implications of an unexpected occurrence for specification of means and ends. Such categorization is what an object “is,” from the perspective of archaic affect and subjective experience. The orienting reflex, and the exploratory behavior following its manifestation, also allows for the differentiation of the unknown into the familiar categories of objective reality. However, this ability is a late development, emerging only four hundred years ago, and cannot be considered basic to “thinking.”

The “higher” cortex controls behavior until the unknown emerges—until it makes a mistake in judgment, until memory no longer serves—until the activity it governs produces a mismatch between what is desired and what actually occurs. When such a mismatch occurs, appropriate affect (fear and curiosity) emerges.

It is the amygdala, at bottom, that appears responsible for the (disinhibited) generation of this a priori meaning—terror and curiosity. The amygdala appears to automatically respond to all things or situations, unless told not to. It is told not to—is functionally inhibited—when ongoing goal-directed behaviors produce the desired (intended) results. When an error occurs, however—indicating that current memory-guided motivated plans and goals are insufficient—the amygdala is released from inhibition and labels the unpredictable occurrence with meaning. Anything unknown is dangerous and promising, simultaneously: evokes anxiety, curiosity, excitement and hope automatically and prior to what we would normally regard as exploration or as (more context-specific) classification. The operations of the amygdala are responsible for ensuring that the unknown is regarded with respect, as the default decision.

The desired output of behavior (what should be) is initially posited; if the current strategy fails, the approach and exploration system is activated, although it remains under the governance of anxiety.

Classical behavioral psychology is wrong in the same manner our folk presumptions are wrong: fear is not secondary, not learned; security is secondary, learned. Everything not explored is tainted, a priori, with apprehension. Any thing or situation that undermines the foundations of the familiar and secure is therefore to be feared.

It might be said, with a certain amount of justification, that we devote our entire lives to making sure that we never have to face anything unknown, in the revolutionary sense—at least not accidentally. Our success in doing so deludes us about the true nature, power and intensity of our potential emotional responses. As civilized people, we are secure. We can predict the behaviors of others (that is, if they share our stories); furthermore, we can control our environments well enough to ensure that our subjection to threat and punishment remains at a minimum. It is the cumulative consequences of our adaptive struggle—our cultures—which enable this prediction and control. The existence of our cultures, however, blinds us to the nature of our true (emotional) natures—at least to the range of that nature, and to the consequences of its emergence.

Our emotional regulation depends as much (or more) on the stability and predictability of the social environment (on the maintenance of our cultures) as on “interior” processes, classically related to the strength of the ego or the personality. Social order is a necessary precondition for psychological stability: it is primarily our companions and their actions (or inactions) that stabilize or destabilize our emotions.

Modern experimental psychologists have begun to examine the response of animals to natural sources of mystery and threat. They allow the animals to set up their own environments, realistic environments, and then expose them to the kinds of surprising circumstances they might encounter in real life. The appearance of a predator in previously safe space (space previously explored, that is, and mapped as useful or irrelevant) constitutes one type of realistic surprise.

It is just as illuminating to consider the responses of rats to their kin, who constitute “explored territory,” in contrast to their attitude toward “strangers,” whose behavior is not predictable. Rats are highly social animals, perfectly capable of living with their familiar compatriots in peace. They do not like members of other kin groups, however; they will hunt them down and kill them. Accidental or purposeful intruders are dealt with in the same manner. Rats identify one another by smell. If an experimenter removes a well-loved rat from its familial surroundings, scrubs it down, provides it with a new odor, and returns it to its peers, it will be promptly dispatched by those who once loved it. The “new” rat constitutes “unexplored territory”; his presence is regarded as a threat (not unreasonably) to everything currently secure.

Chimpanzees, perfectly capable of killing “foreign devils” (even those who were once familiar), act in much the same manner.

More sophistication in development of the prefrontal centers means, in part, heightened capability for abstract exploration, which means investigation in the absence of actual movement, which means the capacity to learn from the observation of others and through consideration of potential actions before they emerge in behavior. This means increasing capability for thought, considered as abstracted action and representation. Action and thought produce phenomena. Novel acts and thoughts necessarily produce new phenomena. Creative exploration, concrete and abstract, is therefore linked in a direct sense to being. Increased capacity for exploration means existence in a qualitatively different—even new—world. This entire argument implies, of course, that more complex and behaviorally flexible animals inhabit (“construct,” if you will) a more complex universe.

Combination of hand and eye enabled Homo sapiens to manipulate things in ways qualitatively different from those of any other animal. The individual can discover what things are like under various, voluntarily produced or accidentally encountered (yet considered) conditions— upside down, flying through the air, hit against other things, broken into pieces, heated in fire, and so on. The combination of hand and eye allowed human beings to experience and analyze the (emergent) nature of things. This ability, revolutionary as it was, was dramatically extended by application of hand-mediated, spoken (and written) language.

Simple animals perform simple operations and inhabit a world whose properties are equally constrained (a world where most “information” remains “latent”). Human beings can manipulate—take apart and put together—with far more facility than any other creature. Furthermore, our capacity for communication, both verbal and nonverbal, has meant almost unbelievable facilitation of exploration, and subsequent diversity of adaptation.

Thinking might in many cases be regarded as the abstracted form of exploration—as the capacity to investigate, without the necessity of direct motoric action. Abstract analysis (verbal and nonverbal) of the unexpected or novel plays a much greater role for humans than for animals—a role that generally takes primacy over action. It is only when this capacity fails partially or completely in humans—or when it plays a paradoxical role (amplifying the significance or potential danger of the unknown through definitive but “false” negative labeling)—that active exploration (or active avoidance), with its limitations and dangers, becomes necessary.

The capacity to create novel behaviors and categories of interpretation in response to the emergence of the unknown might be regarded as the primary hallmark of human consciousness—indeed, of human being. Our engagement in this process literally allows us to carve the world out of the undifferentiated mass of unobserved and unencountered “existence” (a form of existence that exists only hypothetically, as a necessary fiction; a form about which nothing can be experienced, and less accurately stated).

It is certainly the case that many of our skills and our automatized strategies of classification are “opaque” to explicit consciousness. The fact of our multiple memory systems, and their qualitatively different modes of representation—described later— ensures that such is the case. This opaqueness means, essentially, that we “understand” more than we “know”; it is for this reason that psychologists continue to depend on notions of the “unconscious” to provide explanations for behavior. This unconsciousness—the psychoanalytic god—is our capacity for the implicit storage of information about the nature and valence of things. This information is generated in the course of active exploration, and modified, often unrecognizably, by constant, multigenerational, interpersonal communication.

We know that the right hemisphere—at least its frontal portion—is specialized for response to punishment and threat. We also know that damage to the right hemisphere impairs our ability to detect patterns and to understand the meaning of stories. Is it too much to suggest that the emotional, imagistic and narrative capabilities of the right hemisphere play a key role in the initial stages of transforming something novel and complex, such as the behaviors of others (or ourselves) and the valence of new things, into something thoroughly understood?

The uniquely specialized capacities of the right hemisphere appear to allow it to derive from repeated observations of behavior images of action patterns that the verbal left can arrange, with increasingly logic and detail, into stories. A story is a map of meaning, a “strategy” for emotional regulation and behavioral output—a description of how to act in a circumstance, to ensure that the circumstance retains its positive motivational salience (or at least has its negative qualities reduced to the greatest possible degree).

The right hemisphere has the ability to decode the nonverbal and melodic aspects of speech, to empathize (or to engage, more generally, in interpersonal relationships), and the capacity to comprehend imagery, metaphor and analogy. The left-hemisphere “linguistic” systems “finish” the story, adding logic, proper temporal order, internal consistency, verbal representation, and possibility for rapid abstract explicit communication. In this way, our explicit knowledge of value is expanded, through the analysis of our own “dreams.” Interpretations that “work”—that is, that improve our capacity to regulate our own emotions (to turn the current world into the desired world, to say it differently)— qualify as valid. It is in this manner that we verify the accuracy of our increasingly abstracted presumptions.

Knowing-how information, described alternatively as procedural, habitual, dispositional, or skilled, and knowing-what information, described alternatively as declarative, episodic, factual, autobiographical, or representational, appear physiologically distinct in their material basis, and separable in course of phylo- and ontogenetic development.

Procedural knowledge develops long before declarative knowledge, in evolution and individual development, and appears represented in “unconscious” form, expressible purely in performance. Declarative knowledge, by contrast—knowledge of what—simultaneously constitutes consciously accessible and communicable episodic imagination (the world in fantasy) and subsumes even more recently developed semantic (linguistically mediated) knowledge, whose operations, in large part, allow for abstract representation and communication of the contents of the imagination.

It is only after behavioral (procedural) wisdom has become “represented” in episodic memory and portrayed in drama and narrative that it becomes accessible to “conscious” verbal formulation and potential modification in abstraction. Procedural knowledge is not representational, in its basic form. Knowing-how information, generated in the course of exploratory activity, can nonetheless be transferred from individual to individual, in the social community, through means of imitation.

Explicit (moral) philosophy arises from the mythos of culture, grounded in procedure, rendered progressively more abstract and episodic through ritual action and observation of that action. The process of increasing abstraction has allowed the knowing what “system” to generate a representation, in imagination, of the “implicit predicates” of behavior governed by the knowing how this faith.


Kabuki performance in Japan.

Each developmental “stage”—action, imitation, play, ritual, drama, narrative, myth, religion, philosophy, rationality—offers an increasingly abstracted, generalized and detailed representation of the behavioral wisdom embedded in and established during the previous stage.

The fact that the many “stories” we live by can be coded and transmitted at different levels of “abstraction,” ranging from the purely motoric or procedural (transmitted through imitation) to the more purely semantic (transmitted through the medium of explicit ethical philosophy, say) makes comprehension of their structure and interrelationships conceptually difficult. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that different stories have different spatial-temporal “resolutions”—that is, we may be governed at one moment by short-term, simple considerations and at the next by longer term, more complex considerations.

Our stories are nested (one thing leads to another) and hierarchically arranged [pursuit “a” is superordinate to pursuit “b” (love is more important than money)]. Within this nested hierarchy, our consciousness—our apperception—appears to have a “natural” level of resolution, or categorization. This default resolution is reflected in the fact, as alluded to previously, of the basic object level. We “see” some things naturally; that is, in Roger Brown’s terminology, at a level that gives us “maximal information with minimal cognitive effort.” I don’t know what drives the mechanism that determines the appropriate level of analysis. Elements of probability and predictability must play a role. It is, after all, increasingly useless to speculate over increasingly large spatial-temporal areas, as the number of variables that must be considered increases rapidly, even exponentially (and the probability of accurate prediction, therefore, decreases). Perhaps the answer is something along the lines of “the simplest solution that does not generate additional evident problems wins,” which I suppose is a variant of Occam’s razor. So the simplest cognitive/exploratory maneuver that renders an unpredictable occurrence conditionally predictable or familiar is most likely to be adopted. This is another example of proof through utility—if a solution “works” (serves to further progress toward a given goal), then it is “right.”

Footnote:  The discussion about rats and chimps reminded me of this.

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