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Thoughts on Jordan Peterson

Entry 2000, on 2019-09-12 at 16:25:41 (Rating 3, Philosophy)

Jordan Peterson is an interesting character. He's clearly a very thoughtful and intelligent person, but at the same time he does tend to stray into areas where symbolism and metaphor might make his message more obscure to some people (including me sometimes). For example, his original podcast interview with Sam Harris, where he seemed to redefine the word "true" by saying that Christian myths are literally true, didn't earn him any extra points for credibility with me.

If he wanted to say that those myths were an important symbolic way to represent the real world, then why not just say that. Redefining words like "true" is not a good way to engage in debate. I think Peterson and Harris probably agreed on a lot more than what they seemed to on the surface, but by understanding the meaning of words differently, they seemed to be more in conflict than they really were.

In fact, Peterson seems to spend a lot of his time commenting on the state of the world in highly symbolic ways, sometimes in relation to stories from the Old Testament. I think there is some validity in this, but I also think it is possible to find parallels between myth and reality if you look hard enough and expect to find them, even when they don't really exist. It's sort of like a slightly less dishonest version of the trick some creationists use when they look for superficial similarities between parts of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science.

That criticism aside though, I do admire Peterson and enjoy listening to his debates and discussions, even when they stray too far into metaphor and supposition.

But maybe I've got ahead of myself. Who is Jordan Peterson? He is a Canadian professor of psychology and a clinical psychologist. If you have never heard of him - what planet do you live on? - he has become well known in recent years, starting with his rejection of a new Canadian law around politically correct use of gendered pronouns. Since then he is primarily known for his philosophical and psychological advice to people on how they might live better lives.

When I studied psychology at university there were two main parts to the subject - at least the way I saw it. The first was the old psychoanalytic model, with its theories based on the work of famous psychologists who developed theories around the beginning of last century, especially Freud and Jung. Note that their work could be seen as being based on a similar view to Peterson's metaphorical thoughts. For example: how should we interpret Freud's Oedipus Complex? Surely we shouldn't interpret it as being "true" in any reasonable sense. Peterson is clearly a big enthusiast for Jung's work, so his mindset shouldn't be a surprise here.

The second part of my psychology training (which was one of my majors in my degree, along with computer science) was more around empirical and experimental psychology. This based its knowledge more on the outcome of experiments than pure thought. It was a bit like philosophy versus science. It should be clear that I prefer the more "empirical" or "scientific" approach, but I must be fair and point out that the recent discovery of the "replication crisis" in psychology (and other subjects to a lesser extent) casts some doubt on this approach too!

Recently I listened to a couple of podcasts where Peterson explained his ideas on whether he believed in a god or not. You might wonder why it would take 2 podcasts, both of which might be an hour or two long, to offer an opinion on this, but if you did wonder that maybe you haven't heard a Peterson podcast before!

So to summarise his thoughts, it seems that he does believe in a god, and that he favours Christianity, although I didn't find his reasoning on this particularly convincing. He is not the only person to make a lot of what I think are unsupported claims in favour of theological beliefs, and I have commented on the same phenomenon with Ben Shapiro in the past. Again, I have to say that, like Peterson, I like a lot of what Shapiro says too, but I find his arguments for religion (Judaism in his case) a bit less rigorous than those he has on other subjects, and seem to be designed to try to prove a belief he has for non-rational reasons, such as tradition.

Of course, I found a couple of recent podcasts featuring Peterson discussing religion with Shapiro and Bishop Robert Barron particularly annoying! Because when two people agree on unsubstantiated facts, and just bypass any question about their relevance and move onto the next point, you can prove anything. But I listened to these podcasts anyway, because some people just have interesting ideas, even when I think they're wrong!

But what are my specific objections? Well, there's ideas like humans have some basic values they know are good, therefore those must have originated with a god. And there's the idea that without a higher power of some sort people have no meaning or purpose. The first seems to be one possible explanation, but there are plenty of others, such as our values being shaped by social evolution. And the second seems nothing much more than an "argumentum ad consequentiam", that is the consequences of a god existing are positive therefore one mush exist.

It seems unlikely that Peterson would really be so inept that he would commit basic informal logical fallacies such as these, but in discussions about religion - especially where other participants are also believers - it is easy for even very intelligent people to use arguments which are less rigorous than they might be in other areas.

So, in the end, I think I have to say that I find Peterson's talks worth listening to, even though I only agree with about half of what he says. That would be the bits where he rejects political correctness, neo-Marxism, and postmodernism, which I also find problematic. I guess it would be rather boring if I agreed with him on everything, so it is good to "suffer" through some other subjects where I inwardly cringe when I hear them. That applies to everyone to some extent, because I don't agree 100% (or disagree 100%) with anyone, and if he was more empirical he wouldn't be the same, interesting person.

It's always good to accept the good with the bad, and realise everyone has both good and bad ideas. If everyone followed this conviction I think the world would be a better place, but today people seem more interested in evaluating the ideas based on who the person is (leftists think Trump is always wrong, for example - he isn't) rather than what they are saying. And that's really unfortunate, I think.

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