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Book Review: Twelve Rules For Life

I.

I got Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules For Life for the same reason as the other 210,000 people: to make fun of the lobster thing. Or if not the lobster thing, then the neo-Marxism thing, or the transgender thing, or the thing where the neo-Marxist transgender lobsters want to steal your precious bodily fluids.

But, uh…I’m really embarrassed to say this. And I totally understand if you want to stop reading me after this, or revoke my book-reviewing license, or whatever. But guys, Twelve Rules For Life is actually good.

The best analogy I can think of is C.S. Lewis. Lewis was a believer in the Old Religion, which at this point has been reduced to cliche. What could be less interesting than hearing that Jesus loves you, or being harangued about sin, or getting promised Heaven, or threatened with Hell? But for some reason, when Lewis writes, the cliches suddenly work. Jesus’ love becomes a palpable force. Sin becomes so revolting you want to take a shower just for having ever engaged in it. When Lewis writes about Heaven you can hear harp music; when he writes about Hell you can smell brimstone.

Jordan Peterson is a believer in the New Religion, the one where God is the force for good inside each of us, and all religions are paths to wisdom, and the Bible stories are just guides on how to live our lives. This is the only thing even more cliched than the Old Religion. But for some reason, when Peterson writes about it, it works. When he says that God is the force for good inside each of us, you can feel that force pulsing through your veins. When he says the Bible stories are guides to how to live, you feel tempted to change your life goal to fighting Philistines.

The politics in this book lean a bit right, but if you think of Peterson as a political commentator you’re missing the point. The science in this book leans a bit Malcolm Gladwell, but if you think of him as a scientist you’re missing the point. Philosopher, missing the point. Public intellectual, missing the point. Mythographer, missing the point. So what’s the point?

About once per news cycle, we get a thinkpiece about how Modern Life Lacks Meaning. These all go through the same series of tropes. The decline of Religion. The rise of Science. The limitless material abundance of modern society. The fact that in the end all these material goods do not make us happy. If written from the left, something about people trying to use consumer capitalism to fill the gap; if written from the right, something about people trying to use drugs and casual sex. The vague plea that we get something better than this.

Twelve Rules isn’t another such thinkpiece. The thinkpieces are people pointing out a gap. Twelve Rules is an attempt to fill it. This isn’t unprecedented – there are always a handful of cult leaders and ideologues making vague promises. But if you join the cult leaders you become a cultist, and if you join the ideologues you become the kind of person Eric Hoffer warned you about. Twelve Rules is something that could, in theory, work for intact human beings. It’s really impressive.

The non-point-missing description of Jordan Peterson is that he’s a prophet.

Cult leaders tell you something new, like “there’s a UFO hidden inside that comet”. Self-help gurus do the same: “All you need to do is get the right amount of medium-chain-triglycerides in your diet”. Ideologues tell you something controversial, like “we should rearrange society”. But prophets are neither new nor controversial. To a first approximation, they only ever say three things:

First, good and evil are definitely real. You know they’re real. You can talk in philosophy class about how subtle and complicated they are, but this is bullshit and you know it. Good and evil are the realest and most obvious things you will ever see, and you recognize them on sight.

Second, you are kind of crap. You know what good is, but you don’t do it. You know what evil is, but you do it anyway. You avoid the straight and narrow path in favor of the easy and comfortable one. You make excuses for yourself and you blame your problems on other people. You can say otherwise, and maybe other people will believe you, but you and I both know you’re lying.

Third, it’s not too late to change. You say you’re too far gone, but that’s another lie you tell yourself. If you repented, you would be forgiven. If you take one step towards God, He will take twenty toward you. Though your sins be like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.

This is the General Prophetic Method. It’s easy, it’s old as dirt, and it works.

So how come not everyone can be a prophet? The Bible tells us why people who wouldn’t listen to the Pharisees listened to Jesus: “He spoke as one who had confidence”. You become a prophet by saying things that you would have to either be a prophet or the most pompous windbag in the Universe to say, then looking a little too wild-eyed for anyone to be comfortable calling you the most pompous windbag in the universe. You say the old cliches with such power and gravity that it wouldn’t even make sense for someone who wasn’t a prophet to say them that way.

“He, uh, told us that we should do good, and not do evil, and now he’s looking at us like we should fall to our knees.”

“Weird. Must be a prophet. Better kneel.”

Maybe it’s just that everyone else is such crap at it. Maybe it’s just that the alternatives are mostly either god-hates-fags fundamentalists or more-inclusive-than-thou milquetoasts. Maybe if anyone else was any good at this, it would be easy to recognize Jordan Peterson as what he is – a mildly competent purveyor of pseudo-religious platitudes. But I actually acted as a slightly better person during the week or so I read Jordan Peterson’s book. I feel properly ashamed about this. If you ask me whether I was using dragon-related metaphors, I will vociferously deny it. But I tried a little harder at work. I was a little bit nicer to people I interacted with at home. It was very subtle. It certainly wasn’t because of anything new or non-cliched in his writing. But God help me, for some reason the cliches worked.

II.

Twelve Rules is twelve chapters centered around twelve cutesy-sounding rules that are supposed to guide your life. The meat of the chapters never has anything to do with the cutesy-sounding rules. “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping” is about slaying dragons. “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street” is about a heart-wrenchingly honest investigation of the Problem of Evil. “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding” is about neo-Marxist transgender lobsters stealing your precious bodily fluids. All of them turn out to be the General Prophetic Method applied in slightly different ways.

And a lot of them – especially the second – center around Peterson’s idea of Order vs. Chaos. Order is the comfortable habit-filled world of everyday existence, symbolized by the Shire or any of a thousand other Shire-equivalent locations in other fantasies or fairy tales. Chaos is scary things you don’t understand pushing you out of your comfort zone, symbolized by dragons or the Underworld or [approximately 30% of mythological objects, characters, and locations]. Humans are living their best lives when they’re always balanced on the edge of Order and Chaos, converting the Chaos into new Order. Lean too far toward Order, and you get boredom and tyranny and stagnation. Lean too far toward Chaos, and you get utterly discombobulated and have a total breakdown. Balance them correctly, and you’re always encountering new things, grappling with them, and using them to enrich your life and the lives of those you care about.

So far, so cliched – but again, when Peterson says cliches, they work. And at the risk of becoming a cliche myself, I couldn’t help connecting this to the uncertainty-reduction drives we’ve been talking about recently. These run into a pair of paradoxes: if your goal is to minimize prediction error, you should sit quietly in a dark room with earplugs on, doing nothing. But if your goal is to minimize model uncertainty, you should be infinitely curious, spending your entire life having crazier and crazier experiences in a way that doesn’t match the behavior of real humans. Peterson’s claim – that our goal is to balance these two – seems more true to life, albeit not as mathematically grounded as any of the actual neuroscience theories. But it would be really interesting if one day we could determine that this universal overused metaphor actually reflects something important about the structure of our brains.

Failing to balance these (Peterson continues) retards our growth as people. If we lack courage, we might stick with Order, refusing to believe anything that would disrupt our cozy view of life, and letting our problems gradually grow larger and larger. This is the person who sticks with a job they hate because they fear the unknown of starting a new career, or the political ideologue who tries to fit everything into one bucket so he doesn’t have to admit he was wrong. Or we might fall into Chaos, always being too timid to make a choice, “keeping our options open” in a way that makes us never become anyone at all.

This is where Peterson is at his most Lewisian. Lewis believes that Hell is a choice. On the literal level, it’s a choice not to accept God. But on a more metaphorical level, it’s a choice to avoid facing a difficult reality by ensconcing yourself in narratives of victimhood and pride. You start with some problem – maybe your career is stuck. You could try to figure out what your weaknesses are and how to improve – but that would require an admission of failure and a difficult commitment. You could change companies or change fields until you found a position that better suited your talents – but that would require a difficult leap into the unknown. So instead you complain to yourself about your sucky boss, who is too dull and self-absorbed to realize how much potential you have. You think “I’m too good for this company anyway”. You think “Why would I want to go into a better job, that’s just the rat race, good thing I’m not the sort of scumbag who’s obsessed with financial success.” When your friends and family members try to point out that you’re getting really bitter and sabotaging your own prospects, you dismiss them as tools of the corrupt system. Finally you reach the point where you hate everybody – and also, if someone handed you a promotion on a silver platter, you would knock it aside just to spite them.

…except a thousand times more subtle than this, and reaching into every corner of life, and so omnipresent that avoiding it may be the key life skill. Maybe I’m not good at explaining it; read The Great Divorce (online copy, my review).

Part of me feels guilty about all the Lewis comparisons. One reason is that maybe Peterson isn’t that much like Lewis. Maybe they’re just the two representatives I’m really familiar with from the vast humanistic self-cultivation tradition. Is Peterson really more like Lewis than he is like, let’s say, Marcus Aurelius? I’m not sure, except insofar as Lewis and Peterson are both moderns and so more immediately-readable than Meditations.

Peterson is very conscious of his role as just another backwater stop on the railroad line of Western Culture. His favorite citations are Jung and Nietzsche, but he also likes name-dropping Dostoevsky, Plato, Solzhenitsyn, Milton, and Goethe. He interprets all of them as part of this grand project of determining how to live well, how to deal with the misery of existence and transmute it into something holy.

And on the one hand, of course they are. This is what every humanities scholar has been saying for centuries when asked to defend their intellectual turf. “The arts and humanities are there to teach you the meaning of life and how to live.” On the other hand, I’ve been in humanities classes. Dozens of them, really. They were never about that. They were about “explain how the depiction of whaling in Moby Dick sheds light on the economic transformations of the 19th century, giving three examples from the text. Ten pages, single spaced.” And maybe this isn’t totally disconnected from the question of how to live. Maybe being able to understand this kind of thing is a necessary part of being able to get anything out of the books at all.

But just like all the other cliches, somehow Peterson does this better than anyone else. When he talks about the Great Works, you understand, on a deep level, that they really are about how to live. You feel grateful and even humbled to be the recipient of several thousand years of brilliant minds working on this problem and writing down their results. You understand why this is all such a Big Deal.

You can almost believe that there really is this Science-Of-How-To-Live-Well, separate from all the other sciences, barely-communicable by normal means but expressible through art and prophecy. And that this connects with the question on everyone’s lips, the one about how we find a meaning for ourselves beyond just consumerism and casual sex.

III.

But the other reason I feel guilty about the Lewis comparison is that C.S. Lewis would probably have hated Jordan Peterson.

Lewis has his demon character Screwtape tell a fellow demon:

Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man [for Hell], and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours — and the more “religious” (on those terms) the more securely ours.

I’m not confident in my interpretation of either Lewis or Peterson, but I think Lewis would think Peterson does this. He makes the world an end and faith a means. His Heaven is a metaphorical Heaven. If you sort yourself out and trust in metaphorical God, you can live a wholesome self-respecting life, make your parents proud, and make the world a better place. Even though Peterson claims “nobody is really an atheist” and mentions Jesus about three times per page, I think C.S. Lewis would consider him every bit as atheist as Richard Dawkins, and the worst sort of false prophet.

That forces the question – how does Peterson ground his system? If you’re not doing all this difficult self-cultivation work because there’s an objective morality handed down from on high, why is it so important? “C’mon, we both know good and evil exist” takes you pretty far, but it might not entirely bridge the Abyss on its own. You come of age, you become a man (offer valid for boys only, otherwise the neo-Marxist lobsters will get our bodily fluids), you act as a pillar of your community, you balance order and chaos – why is this so much better than the other person who smokes pot their whole life?

On one level, Peterson knocks this one out of the park:

I [was] tormented by the fact of the Cold War. It obsessed me. It gave me nightmares. It drove me into the desert, into the long night of the human soul. I could not understand how it had come to pass that the world’s two great factions aimed mutual assured destruction at each other. Was one system just as arbitrary and corrupt as the other? Was it a mere matter of opinion? Were all value structures merely the clothing of power?

Was everyone crazy?

Just exactly what happened in the twentieth century, anyway? How was it that so many tens of millions had to die, sacrificed to the new dogmas and ideologies? How was it that we discovered something worse, much worse, than the aristocracy and corrupt religious beliefs that communism and fascism sought so rationally to supplant? No one had answered those questions, as far as I could tell. Like Descartes, I was plagued with doubt. I searched for one thing— anything— I could regard as indisputable. I wanted a rock upon which to build my house. It was doubt that led me to it […]

What can I not doubt? The reality of suffering. It brooks no arguments. Nihilists cannot undermine it with skepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape from its reality. Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief. Searching through the lowest reaches of human thought and action, understanding my own capacity to act like a Nazi prison guard or gulag archipelago trustee or a torturer of children in a dunegon, I grasped what it means to “take the sins of the world onto oneself.” Each human being has an immense capacity for evil. Each human being understands, a priori, perhaps not what is good, but certainly what is not. And if there is something that is not good, then there is something that is good. If the worst sin is the torment of others, merely for the sake of the suffering produced – then the good is whatever is diametrically opposite to that. The good is whatever stops such things from happening.

It was from this that I drew my fundamental moral conclusions. Aim up. Pay attention. Fix what you can fix. Don’t be arrogant in your knowledge. Strive for humility, because totalitarian pride manifests itself in intolerance, oppression, torture and death. Become aware of your own insufficiency— your cowardice, malevolence, resentment and hatred. Consider the murderousness of your own spirit before you dare accuse others, and before you attempt to repair the fabric of the world. Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark. You’ve missed the target. You’ve fallen short of the glory of God. You’ve sinned. And all of that is your contribution to the insufficiency and evil of the world. And, above all, don’t lie. Don’t lie about anything, ever. Lying leads to Hell. It was the great and the small lies of the Nazi and Communist states that produced the deaths of millions of people.

Consider then that the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering is a good. Make that an axiom: to the best of my ability I will act in a manner that leads to the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering. You have now placed at the pinnacle of your moral hierarchy a set of presuppositions and actions aimed at the betterment of Being. Why? Because we know the alternative. The alternative was the twentieth century. The alternative was so close to Hell that the difference is not worth discussing. And the opposite of Hell is Heaven. To place the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering at the pinnacle of your hierarchy of value is to work to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth.

I think he’s saying – suffering is bad. This is so obvious as to require no justification. If you want to be the sort of person who doesn’t cause suffering, you need to be strong. If you want to be the sort of person who can fight back against it, you need to be even stronger. To strengthen yourself, you’ll need to deploy useful concepts like “God”, “faith”, and “Heaven”. Then you can dive into the whole Western tradition of self-cultivation which will help you take it from there. This is a better philosophical system-grounding than I expect from a random psychology-professor-turned-prophet.

But on another level, something about it seems a bit off. Taken literally, wouldn’t this turn you into a negative utilitarian? (I’m not fixated on the “negative” part, maybe Peterson would admit positive utility into his calculus). One person donating a few hundred bucks to the Against Malaria Foundation will prevent suffering more effectively than a hundred people cleaning their rooms and becoming slightly psychologically stronger. I think Peterson is very against utilitarianism, but I’m not really sure why.

Also, later he goes on and says that suffering is an important part of life, and that attempting to banish suffering will destroy your ability to be a complete human. I think he’s still kind of working along a consequentialist framework, where if you banish suffering now by hiding your head in the sand, you won’t become stronger and you won’t be ready for some other worse form of suffering you can’t banish. But if you ask him “Is it okay to banish suffering if you’re pretty sure it won’t cause more problems down the line?” I cannot possibly imagine him responding with anything except beautifully crafted prose on the importance of suffering in the forging of the human spirit or something. I worry he’s pretending to ground his system in “against suffering” when it suits him, but going back to “vague traditionalist platitudes” once we stop bothering him about the grounding question.

In a widely-followed debate with Sam Harris, Peterson defended a pragmatic notion of Truth: things are True if they help in this project of sorting yourself out and becoming a better person. So God is True, the Bible is True, etc. This awkwardly jars with book-Peterson’s obsessive demand that people tell the truth at all times, which seems to use a definition of Truth which is more reality-focused. If Truth is what helps societies survive and people become better, can’t a devoted Communist say that believing the slogans of the Party will help society and make you a better person?

Peterson has a bad habit of saying he supports pragmatism when he really supports very specific values for their own sake. This is hardly the worst habit to have, but it means all of his supposed pragmatic justifications don’t actually justify the things he says, and a lot of his system is left hanging.

I said before that thinking of Peterson as a philosopher was missing the point. Am I missing the point here? Surely some lapses in philosophical groundwork are excusable if he’s trying to add meaning to the lives of millions of disillusioned young people.

But that’s exactly the problem. I worry Peterson wakes up in the morning and thinks “How can I help add meaning to people’s lives?” and then he says really meaningful-sounding stuff, and then people think their lives are meaningful. But at some point, things actually have to mean a specific other thing. They can’t just mean meaning. “Mean” is a transitive verb. It needs some direct object.

Peterson has a paper on how he defines “meaning”, but it’s not super comprehensible. I think it boils down to his “creating order out of chaos” thing again. But unless you use a purely mathematical definition of “order” where you comb through random bit streams and make them more compressible, that’s not enough. Somebody who strove to kill all blue-eyed people would be acting against entropy, in a sense, but if they felt their life was meaningful it would at best be a sort of artificial wireheaded meaning. What is it that makes you wake up in the morning and reduce a specific patch of chaos into a specific kind of order?

What about the most classic case of someone seeking meaning – the person who wants meaning for their suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people? Peterson talks about this question a lot, but his answers are partial and unsatisfying. Why do bad things happen to good people? “If you work really hard on cultivating yourself, you can have fewer bad things happen to you.” Granted, but why do bad things happen to good people? “If you tried to ignore all bad things and shelter yourself from them, you would be weak and contemptible.” Sure, but why do bad things happen to good people? “Suffering makes us stronger, and then we can use that strength to help others.” But, on the broader scale, why do bad things happen to good people? “The mindset that demands no bad thing ever happen will inevitably lead to totalitarianism.” Okay, but why do bad things happen to good people? “Uh, look, a neo-Marxist transgender lobster! Quick, catch it before it gets away!”

C.S. Lewis sort of has an answer: it’s all part of a mysterious divine plan. And atheists also sort of have an answer: it’s the random sputtering of a purposeless universe. What about Peterson?

I think – and I’m really uncertain here – that he doesn’t think of meaning this way. He thinks of meaning as some function mapping goals (which you already have) to motivation (which you need). Part of you already wants to be successful and happy and virtuous, but you’re not currently doing any of those things. If you understand your role in the great cosmic drama, which is as a hero-figure transforming chaos into order, then you’ll do the things you know are right, be at one with yourself, and be happier, more productive, and less susceptible to totalitarianism.

If that’s what you’re going for, then that’s what you’re going for. But a lot of the great Western intellectuals Peterson idolizes spent their lives grappling with the fact that you can’t do exactly the thing Peterson is trying to do. Peterson has no answer to them except to turn the inspiringness up to 11. A commenter writes:

I think Nietzsche was right – you can’t just take God out of the narrative and pretend the whole moral metastructure still holds. It doesn’t. JP himself somehow manages to say Nietzsche was right, lament the collapse, then proceed to try to salvage the situation with a metaphorical fluff God.

So despite the similarities between Peterson and C.S. Lewis, if the great man himself were to read Twelve Rules, I think he would say – in some kind of impeccably polite Christian English gentleman way – fuck that shit.

IV.

Peterson works as a clinical psychologist. Many of the examples in the book come from his patients; a lot of the things he thinks about comes from their stories. Much of what I think I got from this book was psychotherapy advice; I would have killed to have Peterson as a teacher during residency.

C.S. Lewis might have hated Peterson, but we already know he loathed Freud. Yet Peterson does interesting work connecting the Lewisian idea of the person trapped in their victimization and pride narratives to Freud’s idea of the defense mechanism. In both cases, somebody who can’t tolerate reality diverts their emotions into a protective psychic self-defense system; in both cases, the defense system outlives its usefulness and leads to further problems down the line. Noticing the similarity helped me understand both Freud and Lewis better, and helped me push through Freud’s scientific veneer and Lewis’ Christian veneer to find the ordinary everyday concept underneath both. I notice I wrote about this several years ago in my review of The Great Divorce, but I guess I forgot. Peterson reminded me, and it’s worth being reminded of.

But Peterson is not really a Freudian. Like many great therapists, he’s a minimalist. He discusses his philosophy of therapy in the context of a particularly difficult client, writing:

Miss S knew nothing about herself. She knew nothing about other individuals. She knew nothing about the world. She was a movie played out of focus. And she was desperately waiting for a story about herself to make it all make sense.

If you add some sugar to cold water, and stir it, the sugar will dissolve. If you heat up that water, you can dissolve more. If you heat the water to boiling, you an add a lot more sugar and get that to dissolve too. Then, if you take that boiling sugar water, and slowly cool it, and don’t bump it or jar it, you can trick it (I don’t know how else to phrase this) into holding a lot more dissolved sugar than it would have if it had remained cool all along. That’s called a super-saturated solution. If you drop a single crystal of sugar into that super-saturated solution, all the excess sugar will suddenly and dramatically crystallize. It’s as if it were crying out for order.

That was my client. People like her are the reason that the many forms of psychotherapy currently practised all work. People can be so confused that their psyches will be ordered and their lives improved by the adoption of any reasonably orderly system of interpretation.

This is the bringing together of the disparate elements of their lives in a disciplined manner – any disciplined manner. So, if you have come apart at the seams (or you have never been together at all) you can restructure your life on Freudian, Jungian, Adlerian, Rogerian, or behavioral principles. At least then you make sense. At least then you’re coherent. At least then you might be good for something, if not yet good for everything.

I have to admit, I read the therapy parts of this book with a little more desperation than might be considered proper. Psychotherapy is really hard, maybe impossible. Your patient comes in, says their twelve-year old kid just died in some tragic accident. Didn’t even get to say good-bye. They’re past their childbearing age now, so they’ll never have any more children. And then they ask you for help. What do you say? “It’s not as bad as all that”? But it’s exactly as bad as all that. All you’ve got are cliches. “Give yourself time to grieve”. “You know that she wouldn’t have wanted you to be unhappy”. “At some point you have to move on with your life”.

Jordan Peterson’s superpower is saying cliches and having them sound meaningful. There are times – like when I have a desperate and grieving patient in front of me – that I would give almost anything for this talent. “You know that she wouldn’t have wanted you to be unhappy.” “Oh my God, you’re right! I’m wasting my life grieving when I could be helping others and making her proud of me, let me go out and do this right now!” If only.

So how does Jordan Peterson, the only person in the world who can say our social truisms and get a genuine reaction with them, do psychotherapy?

He mostly just listens:

The people I listen to need to talk, because that’s how people think. People need to think…True thinking is complex and demanding. It requires you to be articulate speaker and careful, judicious listener at the same time. It involves conflict. So you have to tolerate conflict. Conflict involves negotiation and compromise. So, you have to learn to give and take and to modify your premises and adjust your thoughts – even your perceptions of the world…Thinking is emotionally painful and physiologically demanding, more so than anything else – exept not thinking. But you have to be very articulate and sophisticated to have all this thinking occur inside your own head. What are you to do, then, if you aren’t very good at thinking, at being two people at one time? That’s easy. You talk. But you need someone to listen. A listening person is your collaborator and your opponent […]

The fact is important enough to bear repeating: people organize their brains through conversation. If they don’t have anyone to tell their story to, they lose their minds. Like hoarders, they cannot unclutter themselves. The input of the community is required for the integrity of the individual psyche. To put it another way: it takes a village to build a mind.

And:

A client of mine might say, “I hate my wife”. It’s out there, once said. It’s hanging in the air. It has emerged from the underworld, materialized from chaos, and manifested itself. It is perceptible and concrete and no longer easily ignored. It’s become real. The speaker has even startled himself. He sees the same thing reflected in my eyes. He notes that, and continues on the road to sanity. “Hold it,” he says. “Back up That’s too harsh. Sometimes I hate my wife. I hate her when she won’t tell me what she wants. My mom did that all the time, too. It drove Dad crazy. It drove all of us crazy, to tell you the truth. It even drove Mom crazy! She was a nice person, but she was very resentful. Well, at least my wife isn’t as bad as my mother. Not at all. Wait! I guess my wife is atually pretty good at telling me what she wants, but I get really bothered when she doesn’t, because Mom tortured us all half to death being a martyr. That really affected me. Maybe I overreact now when it happens even a bit. Hey! I’m acting just like Dad did when Mom upset him! That isn’t me. That doesn’t have anthing to do with my wife! I better let her know.” I observe from all this that my client had failed previously to properly distinguish his wife from his mother. And I see that he was possessed, unconsciously, by the spirit of his father. He sees all of that too. Now he is a bit more differentiated, a bit less of an uncarved block, a bit less hidden in the fog. He has sewed up a small tear in the fabric of his culture. He says “That was a good session, Dr. Peterson.” I nod.

This is what all the textbooks say too. But it was helpful hearing Jordan Peterson say it. Everybody – at least every therapist, but probably every human being – has this desperate desire to do something to help the people in front of them who are in pain, right now. And you always think – if I were just a deeper, more eloquent person, I could say something that would solve this right now. Part of the therapeutic skillset is realizing that this isn’t true, and that you’ll do more harm than good if you try. But you still feel inadequate. And so learning that Jordan Peterson, who in his off-hours injects pharmaceutical-grade meaning into thousands of disillusioned young people – learning that even he doesn’t have much he can do except listen and try to help people organize their narrative – is really calming and helpful.

And it makes me even more convinced that he’s good. Not just a good psychotherapist, but a good person. To be able to create narratives like Peterson does – but also to lay that talent aside because someone else needs to create their own without your interference – is a heck of a sacrifice.

I am not sure if Jordan Peterson is trying to found a religion. If he is, I’m not interested. I think if he had gotten to me at age 15, when I was young and miserable and confused about everything, I would be cleaning my room and calling people “bucko” and worshiping giant gold lobster idols just like all the other teens. But now I’m older, I’ve got my identity a little more screwed down, and I’ve long-since departed the burned-over district of the soul for the Utah of respectability-within-a-mature-cult.

But if Peterson forms a religion, I think it will be a force for good. Or if not, it will be one of those religions that at least started off with a good message before later generations perverted the original teachings and ruined everything. I see the r/jordanpeterson subreddit is already two-thirds culture wars, so they’re off to a good start. Why can’t we stick to the purity of the original teachings, with their giant gold lobster idols?

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869 Responses to Book Review: Twelve Rules For Life

  1. AwaitingCertainty says:

    WHY PEOPLE LIKE HIM – and I can’t BELIEVE, Dr. Alexander, that you find his videos boring, mundane, unwatchable. :-0 I had a conversation such as he describes with a girlfriend when we were 16, up talking all night as I’d never spoken with anyone before, and ultimately words flowed back and forth like water sloshing in a glass (no more “waiting impatiently for the other to finish the boring thing they were saying so we/I could talk”). After this had been going on for some time, we glanced at each other’s faces in the moonlight and they were too scary to look at.

    JBP: “In a sense what we’re doing is, we’re participating in the process of ‘articulating each other’s spirits’ and I mean that most technically…”
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5_-pfqFGJI&t=1s
    From first Joe Rogan interview – Jordan Peterson
    Snippet about reconciling Science and Religion – 524,656 views
    12/1/16 [<– shortly after he came to prominence by posting his videos against Bill C-16]

    Starting at 10:49 "Look at this discussion we're having, to the degree that it's working. We're trying to articulate our notions of reality. I do that, and you listen; maybe you have some comments. Then you do that and I listen, and maybe you have some comments… But together we're building something that's different from what we both came in here with, right? And in a sense what we're doing is we're participating in the process of 'articulating each other's spirits,' and I mean that most TECHNICALLY – like, part of your spirit is an amalgam of the information that you've encountered – a lot of that is articulated wisdom.

    "And so it's 'soul construction' if you're having a good conversation, and that's also a conversation that IS meaningful and you can tell that when you're HAVING it.

    "It's that you're decomposing parts of yourself – your false presuppositions – you're letting them die, and you're letting something new be born as an alternative! And you're participating in this process of death and rebirth CONSTANTLY when you're having a meaningful conversation.

    "It's like, 'Oh, that was wrong – I'm going to let that die…Oooh, that's a little painful, I was kind of attached to that concept; but I'll let it go, I'll let it burn off…"

    "And a new part of you will emerge, and then another part dies and the new part emerges. That's this process of eternal death and rebirth that's part of the general 'mythology of redemption.' You see that all the time in the Harry Potter series for example. At the very end of the Harry Potter series, Potter undergoes a literal death and rebirth and that's how he finally defeats evil.

    "These stories are deeply built into people! There's a reason J.K. Rowling become the richest person in England. She's richer than the Queen! She got rich by telling the story properly."

  2. AwaitingCertainty says:

    Dr.Alexander – The most poignant (i.e. super painful) part of your post is where you find yourself, well dry, nothing of comfort to say to a patient / client. I’m writing because I believe there might BE something. In fact I know there is. I found it in the (true) story “Poetry in Buchenwald” by Jacques Lusseyran. It’s poetry (you have to know it, and the right kind, but that’s not hard) AND have a poem blossom in your mind and then you recite it to the patient. (By the way, in Jung’s “Memories, Dreams, Reflections” he tells of one time this happened to him but it was a song, a nursery song I think, and he, feeling the “unconscious” must have prompted it, took a chance and sang it to his client. It cured her – hate as I do to say unambiguous things such as that, and hate as people might to hear them).

    THE MAN WHO DISCOVERED THIS EFFECT OF POETRY WHILE IN BUCHENWALD: Jacques Lusseyran (1924-1971) is known as the “Blind Hero of the French Resistance.” He has two collections: “And There Was light” and “Against the Pollution of the I” – My favorite stories (both true), Jeremy and Poetry in Buchenwald are both from the latter collection. In fact I gave both these stories to Jordan Peterson (in a manila folder on which I wrote “Jordan Peterson. Refreshment Kit” :-)) when my husband and I saw him after his Beacon Theatre lecture in NYC on 3/25/18, this being his first U.S. book tour appearance. We had VIP tickets and shook his hand and had our photo taken with him – whoop de doo!).

    Here is are two instances from Jacques Lusseyran’s story “Poetry in Buchanwald” of “curing” with poetry when one has no words of one’s own:

    I met a modest and gentle man. His name was Maurice. I rested near him, because there was no violence in him, not even hidden. Each day he had the same serene expression; he spoke in short, abbreviated sentences, He looked at life from far away, always from very far away. It was as though there was a window between it and himself. Maurice was very sentimental. He was afraid of imposing himself on others. So normally he didn’t speak, or else he simply repeated in a solmen way the last words of each sentence of whoever was talking to him.

    Maurice had been an accountant in a firm at Saint-Etienne. He had very few memories, but those had pained him terribly. They all centered around a woman, his wife. I listened to him intensely because it was the first time in months that a man had spoken to me of his legitimate loves and been overcome by emotion.

    Maurice had a wife who was not particularly pretty, as he was always repeating, but who was his, who had always consoled him, supported him, and whom, certainly, he would never forget. His voice tightened when he made this promise, as though his return to this woman was forever impossible.

    He spoke of Simone’s hands, her hair, her heart, her dreams. He spoke of her personality and of her body without the slightest distinction. For him, all of Simone had the same tender and bitter taste.

    He spoke to me about her one time, two times, ten times. At last one day I saw that this man was devouring himself. These memories were killing him. “I shouldn’t think of her like this,” he said. “It’s too real. I know. But what can I do?” And one day I thought of poetry. I drew my accountant into a corner and recited to him a poem from Eluard which Saint-Jean had taught me.

    She is there on my eyelids
    And her hair is in mine,
    She has the form of my hands,
    And the color of my eyes,
    She is engulfed by my shadow
    Like a stone under the sky
    Her eyes are always open
    And do not let me sleep
    Her dreams in broad daylight
    Evaporate the suns
    And make me laugh, cry, and laugh
    And speak without having anything to say.

    Maurice listened, and said nothing, left. But the next day at wake-up time, he stopped me at the barrack’s entrance.

    “You know, my friend,” he said, “since you told me that poem I haven’t been thinking of her in the same way. I see her, but it doesn’t hurt anymore. She seems to be everywhere, rather than being at Saint-Etienne. Your Eluard has cured me.”

    DR. ALEXANDER, ANOTHER EPISODE FROM POETRY IN BUCHANWALD, EXPLAINING THE HEALING POWER OF POETRY MORE GENERALLY (by the way, “Jeremy” from this collection is about someone just like JBP, tho not an intellectual):

    …during the time that, unbeknownst to us, the Allied armies were liberating France – I found myself in the same spot. I sat on the little stone wall which faced this long and narrow structure: the basins. A door, several high windows, and, in the interior darkness, a line of big red basins, over which hung a sort of metal mushroom from which icy water hissed. Each morning, the moment the night floodlights went out from the tops of the watchtowers, we were herded here and had to clean ourselves in the dense and sweaty atmosphere packed with bodies.

    I was sitting on the wall in the sun, between a young Parisian actor – a frightened and too beautiful young man with the hands of a woman – and a conscientious and somewhat skeptical teacher from Bourgogne. I said to them,

    “Poetry, true poetry, is not ‘literature.’”

    They both cried out, “Not literature!”

    I had surprised, even shocked them. I saw that I would have to explain myself, although I didn’t want to. And I began to recite verses, at random, any that I could think of, any that resembled our life at the moment. In a plain, undramatic voice I recited Baudelaire, Rimbaud.

    Little by little, another voice was added to my own. I did not know where it came from – I hardly asked myself. Finally, though, I had to listen: the verses were being repeated in the darkness. Voices had timidly joined in behind me, and in front of me. I was surrounded. Without even intending to, I began to recite more slowly.

    More men came. They formed a circle. They echoed the words. At the end of each stanza, in each pause, there rose a great hum of the last syllables.

    “Keep going! Keep going!” whispered the actor with the hands of a woman. “What’s happening is truly extraordinary.”

    I chanted. It seemed to me in that moment that I knew all the poems I had read, even those I thought I’d forgotten. The circle of men pressed in closer around me: it was a crowd of men. I heard men who weren’t French. The echo which they sent back to me was sometimes disfigured – like the sound of a violin with a loose string—sometimes harmonious. The breath of all these men came closer, I felt it now on my face. There were perhaps fifty of them.

    I said to them, “Who are you?” The response came immediately, but in a frightening disorder: some spoke German, others Russian, other Hungarian. Others simply repeated the last words of the last verse in French. They leaned toward me, gesturing, swaying, beating chests, lisping, muttering, crying out, seized by a sudden passion. I was dumbstruck, happy like a child. The noise had grown so loud in a few seconds that I could no longer distinguish a single word. Far from me, behind the oscillating mob, men hailed the passers-by in all the languages of Eastern Europe. No longer trying to understand what was happening, incapable of feeling anything but happiness, a happiness of the throat and breath, I began to recite again. All I had left in my memory was a poem of Baudelaire. “Death of the Lovers.” I recited it. And scores of voices, gravelly, croaking, caressing voices repeated, “The dead flames. . . .”

    I had a hard time leaving this crowd, escaping from it. I had to throw my arms out and leave, step by step, still reciting. I know that this is hard to believe, but behind me I heard men weeping.

    My teacher-friend told me that all these men wore on their shirts the letter “U”: Ungar – they were Hungarians.

    “But what happened?” I asked.

    “We didn’t see anything,” my two friends said. “They came from all directions at once, like flies,” said the actor with the hends of a girl. But he who usually snickered at the end of each sentence was now serious and sincere.

    In the following days I got to know some of these Hungarians. I learned that most of them were Jews who were waiting for what the SS called “transfer to the sky.” They all knew they would soon die. I also knew that none of them spoke French, not even a little, but that listening to a man recite poetry, they had thrown themselves upon it as upon food. After a month one of them, Alexander, could repeat without fault the last stanza of “Death of the Lovers”; he could put together all these words which had no sense for him. I asked him what his work was: he was a journalist in Miskolcz, a little village northeast of Budapest.

    NO, POETRY WAS NOT SIMPLY ‘LITERATURE.’ It did not belong to the world of books. It was not made just for those who read. The proof of this was growing.

    One dark winter morning, in the ink of dawn, we were about thirty exhausted men, shivering, and we were bumping up against each other around one of the red basins for a little icy water. This brutal water, intercepted by a hand, crazed a face that pressed itself too close, snaked down our naked chests. There was silence, the obligatory silence of all communal activities. But all of a sudden a neighbor began to sing. His voice took off before him and extended out toward us in an immediately magical way. It was the voice of Boris, a man so extraordinary that I can’t speak about him just yet. A voice as supple as a head of hair, as rich as the feathers of a bird, the cry of a bird, a natural song, a voice of promise. Without giving notice, Boris had suddenly left this place of cold, dreary dawn and the crowd of human bodies. He recited from Péguy’s “The Tapestry of Notre Dame,” I think.

    Which of us knew what Boris was saying? Who cared? But the thirty of us stayed with our arms held out, leaning forward, a handful of water slipping through our fingers. At last, when the poem was over, a little man whom I had thought for many months was awkward and dull said to me,

    “Touch my forehead. It’s sweat! That’s what warms us up, poetry!”

    In fact, the iciness had disappeared. We no longer felt our exhaustion.

    There’s a lot more to the story, 8 pages long… Worth getting “Against the Pollution of the I” to read – plus “Jeremy” is in that collection.

    Thank you for the work you do!

  3. societyismyfriend says:

    My first comment on SSC! Here’s hoping it’s not totally buried and maybe someone replies.

    I’ve been digging into JP’s content a bit and I agree that I think the fundamentals he suggests can be really valuable to people, and make a lot of sense from a clinical perspective. I’m glad to see that someone like this is speaking to a lot of young white men like me and giving them a role model.

    What concerns me so far is the lobster stuff, or maybe the lobster-type rationalizations. In this video he talks about income inequality as being a reflection of the Pareto Principle and claims it’s a natural law. And then he says well, we don’t know how much inequality is needed to create wealth, and in the two examples he uses of societies that tried to address inequality, the cure was worse than the disease (China and the Soviet Union.)

    I’m completely on board until I hear stuff like this. Like, why the need to justify a perfectly useful and rational idea about comparing yourself to others by pointing to a complex situation where the evidence is far from certain, and using examples that demonstrate an obvious bias? It alienates people like me, and moreso I worry about the vulnerable people who can most benefit from JP’s ideas who will come away from it with not only the tools to improve their lives, but also ideological ideas about different areas of science that are presented as fact but are actually flawed at best.

    It just seems like it’s possible to do the former without the latter, am I wrong? Is the hope that people who pull themselves up with the benefit of his advice will eventually reach a point at which they can be appropriately skeptical of the underlying arguments he makes?

    • AwaitingCertainty says:

      What I think is interesting about JBP’s sometimes shaky science is that it still leads to common-sense. On his recent Greg Gutfield Show appearance, he points out that the Left is not taking the income-disparity issue “with the requisite seriousness. It’s a far worse problem than they even know.” He believes when incomes get out of whack, that it seriously destabilizes societies. (Look at China! The USSR! Cambodia!) But that “equity” leads just about immediately to mass murder (Look at China. The USSR. Cambodia. And it really did happen in these places, and it was kind of gross, folks). He said WE DON’T KNOW HOW TO REMEDY THIS. So let’s think. (He’s considered Basic Income by the way….)

  4. Hitfoav says:

    course Peterson is good! Very interesting review.

    The point of him being a (lowercase) prophet is well taken and very well expressed here by Scott.

    To Scott’s doubts about the philosophical grounding of Peterson’s system (does he have a system? if don’t think he’d claim to; I think he proposes some useful tools for a system, and furthermore that each individual must/does build their own system):

    It seems to me that part of good-living is to become skillful in using harmoniously the various sources of knowledge at our disposal – let’s say the list is something like: reason, our senses, intuition, tradition and authority. None of these is complete, infinite or perfect. Thus we rely on a balance or harmony of all of them used together. They check each other, they each have strengths and weaknesses.

    We test the input/knowledge of these various systems (and our management of their totality) by their effectiveness in application – do they help us adapt? Do they work in the world?

    And in certain areas of life, certain systems will produce limited, ineffective or distorted results. Our senses are of little use in working out relativistic physics (though Einstein’s thought experiments of course rely on imagined sensory scenarios); and raw reason is of limited use in working out problems for which subjectivity is inherently involved (though we keep it close to interrogate and check our investigations by other means).

    This is why Dan Dennett is not a prophet.

    I’m thinking of the (hilarious) recent post of harsh critiques of Slate Star. I think the “autistic” attacks are, charitably here, saying, “you are over-using/over relying on reason, or using it where other sources would fill in the gaps, and it’s making you foolish”.

    And I think that’s what happens to Scott in this review when he tries to see if Peterson’s ‘system’ covers all the logical bases. Of course it doesn’t; reason itself will always have limits; and isn’t this the kind of thing Scott parodied so wonderfully in his post on libertarian critiques as writing prompts?

    And I think that’s part of why Peterson can be so powerful: he is employing a powerful suite of balanced sources of knowledge towards his project (the ur-project?) of good(right)-living. (And it also appears he’s read/written/thought/practiced hard for about 35 years.)

    In other words: he is possessed of wisdom; and since its something our culture lacks, maybe doesn’t even believe in, we perceive him to have superpowers. And arguably, the ability to use clichés (commonplaces) with authority is one of the primary marks of the wise. They know (deeply, fully and for themselves) why the commonplace became common.

    *

    PS I encourage Scott and anyone interested to take a shot at Peterson’s first and more challenging academic book, Maps of Meaning. I got a 100 page glimpse of it and found it remarkably well written and reasoned.

  5. Pistol_Episteme says:

    His kind of tradition lite, metaphor heavy, secular religion would be perfect for our age and with his looks and articulation has the potential to be a media darling. He does in fact have the bearing of a “prophet” and if hadn’t made those comments about trans-identity he’d be on Oprah every month and have his own show on a major cable news network. Now, he has to be content being the “opposition” to the mainstream media and find love on YouTube.

  6. أيمن إبراهيم says:

    Regarding the point about thinking being overwhelming, there’s one trick I’d like to share: write it down.
    Writing is an essential thinking tool for me, especially when I don’t have (or don’t want) someone to hear my thoughts.

    Love your blog.

    • albatross11 says:

      +1

      Alternatively, go into a room by yourself and talk–try to explain the ideas or worries or whatever you’re thinking through to that empty room. This is often really helpful!

  7. The Obsolete Man says:

    Peterson works as a clinical psychologist. Many of the examples in the book come from his patients; a lot of the things he thinks about comes from their stories. Much of what I think I got from this book was psychotherapy advice; I would have killed to have Peterson as a teacher during residency.

    Your excellent post piqued my interest in Peterson and I spent several hours listening to a bunch of his YouTube videos. The stuff that interested me the most was his clinical advice and commentary. One video in particular was this one (Advice for People with Depression):
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6c9Uu5eILZ8

    It would be nice to see him interviewed for an hour or more talking exclusively about psychotherapy.

  8. abubtratsche says:

    I find myself very troubled by the rise of Jordan Peterson, and I have not yet figured out why. Some of it likely is simply bias against scientists/researchers who court fame outside of their field, and I think it’s beyond question that he has indeed worked pretty hard to make himself famous (while his initial brush with fame outside of his own field might have been accidental, he pretty obviously enjoyed it). My father, who was a researcher and held a joint appointment in psychology and psychiatry at a major university, once told me never to trust a scientist who wanted to be on TV, which I took to mean that real science is generally not done by people who want to be famous for it outside of their field (obviously there are exceptions), and perhaps even that the most important scientific advances are made in ways that can’t really be understood by the contemporaneous general public.

    Scott described Peterson as a prophet. To the extent one can compare Peterson with those historical figures generally accepted as prophets, I don’t think the word fits. Prophets don’t become rich and famous, as a rule – usually the reverse, if anything. Peterson comes across far more as a preacher, and apparently a very effective one. Perhaps “guru” would be a better description – gurus generally claim more ownership over their teachings than do preachers. But, in both cases, one sees a very effective delivery of a non-original moral or ethical message.

    CS Lewis was, in this sense, also a very effective preacher, and of course claimed no originality at all in the message he was preaching. That didn’t stop people from treating him as a guru, of course. One of his more attractive traits was that he never accepted that role.

    I see no contradiction between Peterson being a gifted clinician and him not being right about anything or even everything. I’m not sure that his being a gifted clinician is necessarily proof that he’s a good person, for that matter – although I’m sure that most clinical psychologists are good people. Most priests and pastors are good people as well, but the fact that there are exceptions has become glaringly obvious in recent years.

    I also see no contradiction between Peterson being a gifted clinician and him saying nonsensical BS about lobsters. To equate the role of serotonin in lobsters and in people is like saying that, because both lobsters and people need water, water serves the same purpose for both species. Not exactly the same water, and not the same role(s).

    Nathan Robinson’s selection of Peterson’s writings may be unfair, but his criticisms of those writings that he does select seems spot-on to me.

  9. Eric Zhang says:

    But I actually acted as a slightly better person during the week or so I read Jordan Peterson’s book. I feel properly ashamed about this. If you ask me whether I was using dragon-related metaphors, I will vociferously deny it. But I tried a little harder at work. I was a little bit nicer to people I interacted with at home. It was very subtle. It certainly wasn’t because of anything new or non-cliched in his writing. But God help me, for some reason the cliches worked.

    Reading any of the Unsong chapters about the Comet King had this effect on me.

  10. Statist Josh says:

    “One person donating a few hundred bucks to the Against Malaria Foundation will prevent suffering more effectively than a hundred people cleaning their rooms and becoming slightly psychologically stronger.” – From the Article, Section III

    Not if those 100 people are a small villiage in Africa, then sanitation is a must.

  11. madcapredcap says:

    This article is a review of the self-help/prophetic aspect of Jordan Peterson’s “12 rules for life”. Will there be a review of how Peterson engages with the concept of postmodernism?

    • SaiNushi says:

      It’s a book review. Scott does book reviews. He doesn’t generally then jump off the book review to review other things about the author, unless it’s another book by the same author.

  12. name99 says:

    I think you’re mistaken here Scott. Specifically I understand why you care about the therapy part, and that’s your bailiwick, I won’t argue about that.

    But I think you’re wrong in your understanding of “meaningful”. Talking about “meaning” especially in the context of “what gives a life meaning” is tricky because words mean many things, and different people (ESPECIALLY once they start acting in bad faith) are more interested in playing the gotcha game than the understanding game. Even so, let’s move on. I’m not interested in what “gives a life meaning”, which implies some sort of outside observer weighing and pronouncing judgement; I’m interested in the simpler “what makes a life feel meaningful”, which is judged by the self (perhaps with occasional input from friends and family).

    Based on my observations, I think the usual answers to this, whether they’re about god good and evil, about helping others, about having and creating a family, are all missing the point. What makes a lived life feel meaningful is deep thick repetition. That doesn’t sound like much, what does it even mean?
    Well one way to deep thick repetition is to have a canonical book (which may or may not be holy) which is constantly quoted. If we’re all always quoting to each other from the King James Bible, then we feel that these words bind us together, that different situations are tied together, that “things have meaning”.
    But it doesn’t have to be the Bible that does this, or the Koran. Shakespeare could do the same, and as far as I can tell Homer DID do the same.

    The important things are the repetition, that what’s being repeated is vague enough that it seems to apply to many situations, and that we’re all enough on the same page that we all understand each others references.

    Enter now the modern condition. The problem with modernity is not that we don’t read the Bible or whatever, it is that there is just SO MUCH cultural production out there, and getting worse every year.
    The most successful in our society tend to have their own subfields of deep thick repetition, for example science (and social science, and history) have all these interconnections, a well-educated person knows them, and that gives them a sort of background feeling of memory and connectedness. But for the less well educated, there’s nothing but a constant floundering. Game of Thrones may be the big thing for five years, but it will pass and a new big thing will come along. Even Game of Thrones will be watched by some small fraction of the country, while the rest are watching other things.

    This explains a number of things that otherwise seem crazy, for example why are people so obsessed with their musical sub-genre, and concerned with finding other listeners? Because they’re hoping that someone who’s been moved by band A will be able to establish deep thick repetition with them in deeds and language. (And in a few rare cases, perhaps they might, but a few individuals, especially if they have to constantly interact with the rest of the world, aren’t enough to do it.) Likewise one sees grasping at this in shows like The Simpsons or Family Guy, or Twitter GIF meme culture. We can create a few think repetitions this way, enough to make us smile a little, but no more than that — the pool of reliably shared culture is not deep enough, nor the mechanisms of repetition. Likewise people wanting to hear the oldies from Blondie or the Stones or whatever, not the new stuff.

    Note that the problem here is not one of modernity per se, or even of “capitalism”, it is one of technological possibilities. Presumable we want people to be able to create novelty in culture (god knows we say so all the time) but whereas in the past this happened slowly, and in such a way that the whole village got to share in (and bond over discussing…) the outrageous novelties being installed in the cathedral stained glass windows, now it’s millions of new pages, new songs, new movies/video every damn day.

    Is there any hope? I don’t know, but I suspect not. The problem is solved for the smart people, so they have no incentive to care (in the sense of creating new religions or whatever it was humans did thousands of years ago). Jordan Peterson can write his book, but it’s one of many self-help books — I can’t be sure you’ve read it, so I can’t start to pepper my language with phrases, analogies, stories drawn from it. The people pushing the book today (and likewise those denigrating it) will move on to pushing/denigrating something else within a year.

    It is interesting to see Marvel trying to create some sort of entire universe of deep rich connections within its movies and TV shows, and the result is impressive. (And succeeds in part because it’s willing to adopt so many tones, not to insist on a single company tone, whether it’s emotional tone or the type of story told.) Even so I think the best something like that can do is provide some fun for the viewers. Like I said about Jordan Peterson, you can’t be sure that analogizing how sad thing you are trying to comfort someone about to the plot of Guardians of the Galaxy 2 will be understood or well-received. The issue, ALWAYS, is not so much the source material we’re working with as the lack of shared background we all KNOW will be there, allowing for constant repetition.
    Likewise for the other weak repetitions created for us by corporations — the Thanksgiving tropes, the Christmas tropes, the Prom tropes. They’re better than nothing, they DO help the bulk of our society feel some connection to the rest of their countrymen; but they’re weak gruel.

    But fixing this would require essentially impossible societal control — enforcing things like an extremely restricted set of books, songs, tv shows that we all have to listen to/watch, and do so over and over again…

    • warrel says:

      Thanks for articulating something I’ve long thought myself. …

    • theredsheep says:

      Disagree, though I don’t think you’re all wrong. “Meaning,” at least in one sense, is about tying one’s individual life story to a larger one, to give it a significance beyond its passing impulses and finite length. This does not always take the form of theistic religion–the assumption that all things existing are intentional, that the whole story is one big story somehow–but that’s one of the most common. You can also find meaning in, say, nationalism, or tribalism, or just your immediate family. Or in a particularly important or long-lasting kind of work.

      Unfortunately, most people simply aren’t in a position to do important or long-lasting work; there are only a few Einsteins, Armstrongs (Neil or Louie), Beethovens, or Carnegies as a percentage of population. Most of us aren’t even cut out to be “ordinary” oncologists or Navy SEALs. The extraordinary, by definition, must be rare. Somebody’s got to be the garbageman, or the maid, and for them it’s true that modernity has put the axe to most larger stories they can believe in. Individualism has dissolved religion, race and nationality, intermediate modes of association like guilds or unions, and even made it difficult to form lasting families for various reasons.

      It’s true that people can bond over shared experiences, but I don’t think these are as meaningful as stories that actually tie into our lives directly. We can agree that the last episode of The Walking Dead (or whatever people are watching, IDK) was awesome, but in the end it’s not really about us except in the weak sense that the characters were also human beings who speak English, etc. I think of those things, and the broader phenomenon of fads and references you’re referring to, as a distinct phenomenon. You can get somebody to charge into machine gun fire for his God, or his country, or his family. You might get him to do it for very close friends. I seriously hope you never get him to do it for Black Panther.

    • patrickwagner734 says:

      Its those who you would least want to have societal control that “constantly try to escape From the darkness outside and within By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.” [T S Eliot]

  13. jiriki says:

    Prophet? Really?

    I’m sure he has smart things to say. I agree, the world doesn’t need paralegal vigilante justice systems (SJW) etc.

    If I watch 10-20 of his videos am I going to learn something new? If not, I don’t see how the marginal 20 extra are going to be any more useful.

    He may be YouTube celebrity but can someone tell me what scientific breakthroughs he has done. Can someone link to his top 5 papers?

    As far as I know he doesn’t understand economics, signaling theory OR rationality. An adult man talking about fictitious people who some dude invented 5000 years ago is a big no-no for me.

    Look he’s getting a million mentions and not have invented relativity or electricity. As far as I can see, he just advertises religion and some conventional wisdom with better marketing. That’s class A male game.

    • Aapje says:

      You can find top papers of a scholar using Google Scholar:

      https://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=author%3Ajordan+peterson

    • theredsheep says:

      Okay, where do atheists keep coming up with the 5000 years figure? I keep running into it–Bill Nye used the same thing in a pro-choice video a while back–but the Bible simply isn’t that old. The very oldest parts of the OT (and we’re talking fragments of Genesis here) might date back a thousand years before Christ. The remainder were composed over the next, say, five or six centuries. That’s ballpark from a non-Biblical scholar here, but really, you’re talking some time like 500 BC, half the age you imply here. Where is that 5000 coming from?

      • There was a famous calculation by Bishop Usher, using the chronology in the Bible to calculate how long it had been since the creation. By his calculation, creation occurred in 4004 B.C., so about six thousand years ago.

        • theredsheep says:

          Yes, but

          A. That’s still off by a thousand, and
          B. No part of the revelation was supposedly given five or six thousand years ago; that’s the highly-imaginative estimate of the world’s age. It doesn’t make sense.

          Looking back at the post up there, I guess I can read “fictitious people who some dude invented 5000 years ago” as being about a false estimate of the world’s age, just expressed poorly. But the more natural parsing would be that the Old Testament (or Torah, or some such) was itself made up 5KYA in the speaker’s estimation.

        • jiriki says:

          1. I got the number 5000 with Harrison-Stetson method and theredsheep can replace it with whichever number is the correct one.

          2. Honestly I am not interested in religion but I am interested in evolutionary origins of religion (and spirituality). If someone can recommend literature on that part I’d be grateful.

          3. Hey professor Friedman I got your book Machinery of Freedom. I already loved the part on the impossibility of universities (I think its missing a lot things that I learned later on though).

          I actually wonder what’s the best single book for someone logically-minded to advertise liberty and free market.

      • The original Mr. X says:

        If you’re relying on chronological snobbery to make your point, the older your opponent’s ideas, the better.

        • theredsheep says:

          Yes, which is dumb because AFAIK democracy (Athens, sixth century BC) and naturalism/atheism (Greek Asia minor, around the same time) are about as old as the OT, give or take a century. Whereas Christianity is substantially newer, and Scientology is less than a hundred years old. However, this fellow didn’t seem terribly open to debate so I didn’t bother with bringing it up.

    • Hitfoav says:

      To my knowledge no one has claimed he’s made scientific breakthroughs.

    • jiriki says:

      I will though admit he is a very reasonable man.

  14. Tranquilitypool says:

    Hey Scott thanks for the thoughtful review. It seems to me you didn’t discuss an important aspect of Dr. Peterson’s whole approach. I think I notice Dr. Peterson’s 12 step program seems to look away from theological negativism and favour more positivistic/linguistic approaches to understanding suffering and the meaning coming from it. And I see that his experience of psychotherapy and its limits is similarly rooted in a linguistic reality – and thus the limits of language in approaching and healing the felt reality of suffering.
    What’s your opinion on the value theological negativism of the kind found in Zen/Orthodox christianity etc in creating a meaningful life? And do you think non-verbal/negativistic/body centered approaches to psychotherapy such as somatic therapies might succeed where more linguistically rooted therapies fail?
    My feelings are, as you might guess, positive re negativism 🙂

  15. skippan says:

    to make fun of the lobster thing. Or if not the lobster thing, then the neo-Marxism thing, or the transgender thing, or the thing where the neo-Marxist transgender lobsters want to steal your precious bodily fluids.

    I’ve been mostly avoiding JP, but from the few clips I’ve seen he seems like a smart guy. Can someone point me to particularly ridiculous things he’s said that warrant this representation?

    • Ryan X says:

      Quick question. Peterson has hundreds of hours of video, podcasts, etc. If you had hundreds of hours of yourself speaking, do you think that there aren’t some things you said that could be construed as ridiculous, particularly when divorced from context? Hell, I say ridiculous things at times when I’m not mischaracterized. And if you are a creative thinker who isn’t calibrating your word choice to fit a particular dominant discourse, you are certainly going to stretch close to the boundaries of heresy, if you are any good at all.

      • skippan says:

        I understand. But SSC has higher standards, so I expect by asking that question here, I’ll get something more useful than if I were to search “Jordan Peterson says dumb things” on YouTube.

        • theredsheep says:

          He doesn’t like Marxism, says the transgender movement is trying to crush all dissent, and points to the development of hierarchies in lobsters as evidence that human beings are naturally hierarchical. Or so I gather. I don’t know about the lobster thing, but pretty much any clip of him talking about contemporary Leftism will get you evidence for the other two.

        • Ryan X says:

          Apparently you overrate the knowledge contained in SSC comments, including the one above.

          Peterson specifically delineates transgender activist radicals from transgender individuals as a “whole”. He says this over and over again- how the intransigent minority of radicals claim to speak for “all” transgender people, but they don’t. Nobody elected them. Just as Peterson doesn’t speak for the “white community”, and Al Sharpton doesn’t speak for the “black community.” You can oppose
          the aims of political radicals, and not oppose the people those radicals claim to represent and support. The Bolshevik party claimed to represent and support the working class. I think the vast majority of the working class sent to the gulags would beg to differ.

          Peterson has said over and over he is not opposed to trans individuals, and he doesn’t have a blanket policy to not use preferred pronouns if asked, as
          part of normal human communication and not government mandated speech under penalty of criminal offense.

          His point on hierarchies is obvious to a non-ideologue. You can’t claim that all evils in capitalism (or western society) result from hierarchy. Hierarchies are ubiquitous in non human populations. In fact, lobsters share certain neurotransmitters with humans, and these neurotransmitters appear to act in a (very) broadly similar fashion to humans, despite the species being separated by hundreds of millions of years.

          The anti-science ideas of the radical left- that we are blank slates, gender is entirely a cultural construct, there are no biological differences between men and women- these are all attacked by Peterson. It’s almost silly to say they are “attacked”, as their opposites have been scientific consensus for over 40 years, but that’s where we are today.

          • LadyJane says:

            His point on hierarchies is obvious to a non-ideologue. You can’t claim that all evils in capitalism (or western society) result from hierarchy. Hierarchies are ubiquitous in non human populations. In fact, lobsters share certain neurotransmitters with humans, and these neurotransmitters appear to act in a (very) broadly similar fashion to humans, despite the species being separated by hundreds of millions of years.

            This claim seems highly dubious to me, at best. “Lobsters and humans share certain neurotransmitters; lobsters are innately hierarchical; ergo, humans are innately hierarchical; ergo, human society should be organized in a hierarchical fashion.” Every step of that argument is rather shaky, to say the least.

            The anti-science ideas of the radical left- that we are blank slates, gender is entirely a cultural construct, there are no biological differences between men and women- these are all attacked by Peterson. It’s almost silly to say they are “attacked”, as their opposites have been scientific consensus for over 40 years, but that’s where we are today.

            Humans probably aren’t completely blank slates. But we should generally strive to treat them as if they were, partially because nurture probably does make a greater difference than nature overall, and partially because erring in the direction of biological determinism leads to vastly worse outcomes than erring in the direction of tabula rasa.

          • Doctor Mist says:

            “Lobsters and humans share certain neurotransmitters; lobsters are innately hierarchical; ergo, humans are innately hierarchical; ergo, human society should be organized in a hierarchical fashion.” Every step of that argument is rather shaky, to say the least.

            I agree completely. But that’s not his argument, or even close to it.

          • Ryan X says:

            this is to ladyjane below- i wasnt able to reply directly.

            “This claim seems highly dubious to me, at best. “Lobsters and humans share certain neurotransmitters; lobsters are innately hierarchical; ergo, humans are innately hierarchical; ergo, human society should be organized in a hierarchical fashion.” Every step of that argument is rather shaky, to say the least.”

            You are confusing “is” with “ought”, and you are not understanding the importance and robustness of hierarchy. Peterson isn’t claiming that human society *should* be organized in a hierarchical fashion- he is pointing out that it *is*, as are countless non-human societies, and the fact that hierarchy has survived the ruthlessness of natural selection in a cross-species fashion over *hundreds of millions of years* implies that hierarchy has an adaptive function for life itself. Peterson further makes the point that of course human hierarchies have varying degrees of corruption, and that we need to be always on the alert for rooting out such corruption (and the ever present free-riders, the rent-seekers.)

            You then state that “Humans probably aren’t completely blank slates.”

            This gives gives away the fact that you have no serious knowledge of biological science or genetics. I don’t mean that as an insult, but humans aren’t even remotely close to blank slates. Indeed, the modern consensus in genetics is that shared environment, your home environment growing up with your siblings, contributes close to *zero* for many measurable personality traits and even IQ, relative to your genes and your nonshared environment (birth order, prenatal environment, etc.) The fact that this consensus view is basically unknown to the modern layperson is indicative of where our culture exists in relation to scientific evidence.

          • LadyJane says:

            Indeed, the modern consensus in genetics is that shared environment, your home environment growing up with your siblings, contributes close to *zero* for many measurable personality traits and even IQ, relative to your genes and your nonshared environment (birth order, prenatal environment, etc.)

            I strongly doubt that. Do you have any evidence supporting your claim that post-natal environment has almost no effect whatsoever on personality and intelligence? That’s just as strong a claim (and in my opinion, just as unlikely) as saying that humans are total blank slates and genetic factors have no influence at all.

            It’s been shown that improper nutrition during childhood – not even the kind of outright starvation that you’d see in horribly impoverished developing countries, just the less-than-optimally-nutritious diets that are fairly common among poorer people in the developed world – can result in lower IQs. That alone seems like pretty strong evidence against your claim. And the fact that people in abusive situations are more likely to display abusive behavior shows that completely non-biological factors have a strong effect on personality too.

          • Ryan X says:

            again this is directed to ladyjane, as i can’t respond directly for some reason.

            ladyjane: “I strongly doubt that. Do you have any evidence supporting your claim that post-natal environment has almost no effect whatsoever on personality and intelligence? That’s just as strong a claim (and in my opinion, just as unlikely) as saying that humans are total blank slates and genetic factors have no influence at all.”

            Exactly.

            The fact that shared environmental effects on IQ and certain personality traits is minimal is mainstream science, and you, an intelligent person, not only have no clue that this is mainstream science, but you view this with extreme suspicion, as it is only very rarely mentioned by typical media. Don’t you find that interesting? Why would that be?

            The idea that subpar nutrition can impact IQ is obvious, noncontroversial, and does nothing to advance the blank slate thesis. Once nutrition is “good enough”, we are back to genetics and nonshared environment which account for almost all the variance.

            Does this mean we can throw little jonny in the closet for 5 years and expect that he will be unaffected by that environment? Of course not. Raising a child in a loving household will be more likely to help create conditions of love for that child and future adult. Obviously environment *matters*, it just doesn’t seem to have much effect on IQ and major personality characteristics, as long as its “good enough”. I personally think the actual science could relieve suffering for many modern middle class parents who think they need to drive little jonny to sports practice 5 times a week, music practice twice a week, help tutor jonny every nite, in order to make sure jonny reaches his “potential.”

            http://people.virginia.edu/~ent3c/papers2/Turkheimer.Nonshared-Environment.pt1.pdf

            https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10519-018-9887-1

            https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10519-015-9730-x

            There are countless studies supporting the minimal effects of shared environment versus genetics and nonshared. If you are interested, you won’t find a lack of information out there.

          • quanta413 says:

            @LadyJane

            I strongly doubt that. Do you have any evidence supporting your claim that post-natal environment has almost no effect whatsoever on personality and intelligence?

            I believe the claim is maybe somewhat mis-stated but pretty close to correct. It’s important to note that person your are responding to used the term “shared environment”. This is not the entire environment.

            Shared environment is that shared with your siblings. When regression is done to compare the amount of variance in IQ due to genetic factors compared to shared environmental factors when restricted to the majority of not very impoverished U.S. families (very important qualifier, so not someone in a warzone, famine, or very poor place who may lack nutrients etc.; you could use Swedes instead of the U.S. if you want though) compared to non-shared environmental factors (so your environment but the part you don’t share with your siblings) the variance is mostly due to genetic factors followed by non-shared environment. Shared environment turns out to be have weak effects once you restrict yourself to first world countries. See the wikipedia page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heritability_of_IQ#Shared_family_environment. It’s a mess of a page, but good enough for the point.

            So like you said, you can brick someone’s IQ by physical abuse or severe neglect (although those sorts of things would often show up in the non-shared environment component), but the vast majority of possible interventions are either already done in first world countries by most of the population or almost no one does them yet so the entire distribution could shift upwards but it’s unlikely gaps would change. Environmental influences can cause broad shifts, but it takes a complicated model (and thus it’s less plausible a priori given the evidence) for them to matter in a way that doesn’t leave most disparities in the first world intact even after finding new tricks.

          • Ryan X says:

            @ladyjane

            Scott has written about the impact of genetics, shared and non shared environment here:

            https://slatestarcodex.com/2016/03/16/non-shared-environment-doesnt-just-mean-schools-and-peers/

            What I find so interesting is *why* this information is so little known. I have a few hypotheses.

            The simplest one is that modern liberals are afraid of the implications that genes are far more powerful than they have naively assumed or hoped for, and that environmental interventions to increase intelligence have been dismally unsuccessful. Therefore this topic has become borderline taboo, and many well established facts in the IQ literature are full blown taboos punishable by excommunication and loss of career.

            It reminds me of the days when the Church had a powerful role in deciding which scientific findings were acceptable and which were not.

            But hey, that was centuries ago, right? We are waaay past that now…

          • dndnrsn says:

            @Ryan X

            You don’t have to think there’s some sort of attempt to suppress truths people are scared of. I’ve noticed that a lot of intelligent people don’t like the idea that smarts are probably about as genetic as they are environmental, and that a lot of the environmental stuff is out of their control. I think what’s going on is that people like thinking of their positive attributes as having moral value. If someone can think of their intelligence (and resulting academic achievements, let’s say) as purely being because of their hard work and general virtue, they will probably prefer that to “you rolled well for INT at character creation”. Note also that there are plenty of right-wing people who aren’t biodeterminists either: they’re the ones who blame culture, schools, parents, teacher’s unions, etc for kids being bad at school.

    • Notsocrazy 24 says:

      Peterson loves to characterize what I’ll call (with apologies to Bret Weinstein) the Left’s bad actors as neo-Marxists (and postmodernists). Whether or not this is true of them is up for debate, but that said bad actors exist is empirically verifiable by paying attention to college campus protests, the whole thing that happened with Bret Weinstein and others, and the people in some of the videos that made Peterson famous where they mostly scream incoherently at him and he remains calm and measured.

      “The lobster thing” comes from a point he likes to make about dominance hierarchies and the fact that they appear to be ingrained in us biologically (basically, even lobsters have serotonin-reception structures that I guess respond to dominance hierarchies, and we diverged quite a long time ago on the phylogenetic tree), so it’s not going to be a simple thing to just throw out hierarchies all together. (I personally have spent some non-trivial amount of time in leftist, ostensibly anti-hierarchy internet spaces and BOY do they have hierarchy out the wazoo.)

      The transgender thing comes from the fact that his rise to fame mostly comes from his opposition to Bill C-16, which has to do with discrimination against transgender people and could quite conceivably be enforced as “you have to use the exact pronouns trans/nonbinary people request and/or make up for themselves at all times”. However there is some disagreement on how far the bill actually goes.

      I have no idea about the bodily fluids. Some reference to the fact that Peterson is often lumped in with the manosphere, perhaps? I really don’t know.

      • lvlln says:

        (I personally have spent some non-trivial amount of time in leftist, ostensibly anti-hierarchy internet spaces and BOY do they have hierarchy out the wazoo.)

        I’ve watched a few YouTube videos from a recent Evergreen alumn named Benjamin Boyce, where he’s showed off and done commentary on recordings of meetings within Evergreen, and this is something that really stood out to me, too. There was a community discussion on, IIRC, banning police from coming onto campus, and the discussion was ostensibly supposed to be non-hierarchical, but people were clearly being placed into favored and unfavored positions, such as one white student who was just straight up denied the right to speak at some point. Seeing this made me think a bit more about the Occupy Wall Street protests from about a decade ago, and made me wonder if that’s what those protests looked like from the inside, with their similar anti-hierarchical organizational philosophy.

        It made me think a bit more about why explicit hierarchies tend to be in place in societies, and maybe they were social innovations designed to keep hierarchies stable rather than devolving into power-grabbing chaos, and the reason they survive to this day is at least partly because societies that had explicit hierarchies tended to survive better than societies that didn’t.

        I have no idea about the bodily fluids. Some reference to the fact that Peterson is often lumped in with the manosphere, perhaps? I really don’t know.

        “Bodily fluids” is a generic term for connecting anything with a conspiracy theory. It was made most famous in Dr. Strangelove, which had a US general who was paranoid about Communists from USSR tainting his bodily fluids by fluoridating the water supply.

        • Ghillie Dhu says:

          I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.

          -General Jack D. Ripper, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”

        • The original Mr. X says:

          It made me think a bit more about why explicit hierarchies tend to be in place in societies, and maybe they were social innovations designed to keep hierarchies stable rather than devolving into power-grabbing chaos, and the reason they survive to this day is at least partly because societies that had explicit hierarchies tended to survive better than societies that didn’t.

          Incidentally, one of the old arguments in favour of hereditary aristocracy (which I first encountered in Shakespeare, of all places) was that, without it, society would just descend into a free-for-all, with the strongest and most unscrupulous inevitably ending out on top and oppressing everyone else.

          • LadyJane says:

            Given the choice between two bad options, I would rather live in a ruthlessly cutthroat individualist society where social mobility was possible than a rigidly hierarchical and traditionalist society where everyone was born into a designated social role and had no chance of leaving that role or switching to another. Even if I would be happier and safer in the latter society, and even if my chances of upward mobility in the former society were extremely low, I’d still prefer the former. In my eyes, self-determination is a terminal value in its own right.

          • Ryan X says:

            to ladyjane:

            I absolutely agree with you. I would much rather live in a society of mobility where talent, creativity and hard work could produce positive results, versus a stagnant hereditary aristocracy of Hapsburg-style inbred rulers.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            You’re both misunderstanding the argument. It’s not saying that a society without hierarchies would become “a society of mobility where talent, creativity and hard work could produce positive results”, nor even “a ruthlessly cutthroat individualist society where social mobility was possible”, but that it would descend into chaos until the most ruthless and unscrupulous people manage to claw their way to the top and institute a new hierarchy — which, since it was obviously based on nothing but brute force, would make society worse for everybody.

    • Viliam says:

      Can someone point me to particularly ridiculous things he’s said that warrant this representation?

      There aren’t any. This is just Scott announcing “see, I am making fun of the right-wing guy!” at the beginning of the article, hoping to appease potential readers who believe it is their duty to punch everyone on the wrong side of history. If someone sends such mobs here, they are probably going to read just the beginning of the article, anyway.

      When I was younger, people in my country used to add irrelevant quotations of Lenin to the introduction of their books, in order to signal being on the right side of history. I do not approve, but I understand.

      • There aren’t any. This is just Scott announcing “see, I am making fun of the right-wing guy!” at the beginning of the article, hoping to appease potential readers who believe it is their duty to punch everyone on the wrong side of history.

        You are entirely misreading it.

        This is Scott saying “everyone has this image of how nutty Peterson is, so I started with the same image,” just before he tells you that he discovered that the image wasn’t true.

        Very nearly the opposite of your reading.

      • skippan says:

        Thanks, this makes the most sense: that likely wasn’t his initial opinion of JP, it was a rhetorical device. I remember reading other stuff (but can’t remember which stuff) where he makes flippant anti-SJ comments in pro-SJ posts. Once he went meta (“7. Figure out who you’re trying to convince, then use the right tribal signals”) on the subject.

  16. Worley says:

    For many years, I read occasional mentions in the semi-scientific literature that the average happiness level of a country was uncorrelated with the average income of the country, if the country’s average income was above some very low level. Ten or twenty years after I first read this result, I saw a mention of the obvious “next question”: However, a person’s happiness level is correlated with their income relative to the average income in their country.

    Seriously, hasn’t this guy read The Selfish Gene? Is he actually mystified by war — an activity we’ve been engaging in since before we were humans?

  17. Ryan X says:

    Scott- for an interesting discussion between Jordan Peterson and Ian McGilchrist that touches on the order vs chaos principle and its relation to the neural architecture of the brain check out:

    https://youtu.be/ea4mEnsTv6Q

    • Ryan X says:

      Scott-

      If you aren’t aware Iain McGilchrist is a Oxford scholar who later retrained as a psychiatrist and engaged in neuroimaging research at Johns Hopkins… I think he is an interesting fellow.

  18. Well... says:

    A month or so ago I reached a point in my JBP-video watching where I stopped hearing him say anything new. I had managed to gain exposure to enough of what he thinks that the remaining gaps filled themselves in. (At that point I stopped watching so many of his videos. The few I do occasionally watch now just more or less repeat things I’ve already heard him say.)

    Has this happened to anyone else?

    Do you think he’ll start saying new things soon?

    BTW, since I first heard of JBP around mid-January, that means it took me about one month to reach JBP-saturation. That’s not a dig necessarily, just kind of an amusing tidbit; I’m sure if I videotaped myself giving lectures or was interviewed on camera about the things I care about and know enough about to speak on, I might start repeating myself after only 12-24 hours of footage had been recorded. After editing it’d be maybe 6 hours of video if I was lucky.

    • Nick says:

      What about his Bible lectures? I haven’t really watched much of his other stuff (a few podcasts, plus some collected clips), but it’s my impression that the Bible lectures are a pretty different thing, with the overlap perhaps being the modern psychology he draws on and the ultimate lessons he draws (e.g. the reality of suffering).

  19. sa3 says:

    Just wanted to chime in and say this is quite well-put. And it addresses, indirectly, my two main doubts about Peterson: the culture-war stuff and the marketing stuff.

    Culture-war. He does consciously exaggerate the impact of certain rules. He’s famous for exaggerating the immediate impact of transgender pronouns. I wouldn’t say he’s wrong, but he’s also vacillating a bit between taking a set of ideas to their logical theoretical extreme and making actual claims about what is really happening right now. I think he’s genuine on the theoretical side; he’s been doing it for years. But shifting that perspective into commentary on actual current policy is a bit tricky. We’re not at the logical extreme; probably aren’t terribly close. It’s in no way untrue that a lot of university professors are leftist ideologues and that administrators tend to support their positions over right-wing equivalents, but it’s also not exactly facism. It’s not proto-facism. But he likes to make it sound that way.

    Aside: maybe the strongest claim that could be made is that these people don’t grapple with the limits of their theories. My favorite test question for any ideological type (of any persuasion) is something like: and where does it stop? For a lot of leftists, this can spiral out of control pretty fast. You can cycle through hundreds of specific policy ideas and get them to effectively endorse a quasi-totalitarian regime without realizing that they’ve done it; all the specific programs sound reasonable to them, but add up to a government with virtually unlimited powers, but that doesn’t use them for …. reasons.

    Second issue is marketing, which relates to the first. He plugs his future authoring program a lot. It costs money. A relatively small sum of money, but money. There are good psychological reasons for this (people don’t trust free stuff, especially when it’s supposed to change their lives), but he’s not donating it to charity or anything. He also accepts a lot of money from supporters.

    On the one hand, this is all fine. Free people, free country. He’s adding value to their lives. They clearly think so. He believes in his system and thinks it can help people, so he tries to get people to do it. It’s pretty cheap. On the other hand, something feels a little off about it.

    The key is really the point you make throughout: for whatever reason, I believe him. He sounds like he means it. This is actually not terribly common. Some people have theories and systems, but most people don’t live by them fully, haven’t thought through the implications completely, and probably didn’t come up with them independently. Doing those things puts you in a rare group to start. Add in that sincerity and he’s got a lot going for him.

    TLDR version, which I’m aware is unnecessary here (being on SSC implies immunity to the TL part): the key question about Peterson is, like with most people selling a vision, whether he’s for real or full of shit. I think he’s the former. I also reserve the right to change my mind.

    And, as if this wasn’t already long enough, I’ve got a fun (for me at least) parallel to suggest here between two types of public intellectual selling a particular worldview. On the one hand, Peterson, who’s actively trying to help people and persuade them. On the other, Nassim Taleb, who is probably the last prominent thinker I could imagine trying to help strangers on the internet at an hourly rate. The latter sells his worldview by not selling it. They’re just his ideas, he likes them, he has fuck you money now and can take the time to put them out into the world as he sees fit. Peterson sells in the more conventional sense. He wants to talk to you and persuade you that his system can change your life. He very well might be right. They both believe in their ideas deeply. They both have a radical sort of sincerity that is incredibly attractive. They both try to live by their ideas. They’re both even obsessed with the idea of using ancient wisdom to deal with life. So, some things of interest. It’s a Neal Stephenson ending (also length) for this comment.

  20. SpectresOfPeterson says:

    It took me a minute to recognize the irony in deconstructing 12 Rules, but once it hit me…. Very subtle, very funny stuff Scott!

  21. fr8train_ssc says:

    Jordan Peterson’s superpower is saying cliches and having them sound meaningful.

    Jordan Peterson isn’t the first. In fact I’ll argue that there’s another person that should be read, who has about 80 years on him: Dale Carnegie. Carnegie will also be a useful historical illustration for where I see Peterson going in the next five years. This will be a long post, but bare with me.

    Second, you are kind of crap. You know what good is, but you don’t do it. You know what evil is, but you do it anyway. You avoid the straight and narrow path in favor of the easy and comfortable one. You make excuses for yourself and you blame your problems on other people. You can say otherwise, and maybe other people will believe you, but you and I both know you’re lying.

    I read How to Win Friends and Influence People about a year ago, and while I wouldn’t ascribe Carnegie to saying something similar in the book, a lot of his instructions in there are things that, if you told an elderly person, they’d be like “Well that’s just common sense.” Principles like “Don’t Criticism, Complain, or Condemn” or “Talk in Terms of the Other Persons’ Interest” When I read the book, a felt a bit miffed. I thought to myself, “Well, I’m already doing at least half the stuff in here when I’m interacting with co-workers, why haven’t I been bumped up to senior staff yet?” After reading the book, there’s a call to action at the end that recommends you try the Dale Carnegie leadership course.

    I committed myself and ended up taking one October through December 2017. I was surprised to find I learned more about myself, society, and leadership skills in 8 weeks than I did in my 4 years of undergrad.

    Part of the courses call for not only learning, but putting into practice the principles from the book. Then at the next session, we’d break into small groups and discuss how we effective they were, and compare them from how we would have behaved or handled the situation before we started the course. The stories were illustrating. Even though it’s common sense that being nice makes it easier to get what you want, you would be convinced that everyone was an idiot for not trying to do that before and instead yelling or putting coworkers down.

    I even found this out about myself. Perhaps one of the key things that made the course effective for me was the memory exercises related to retaining people’s names and information, along with mnemonics for remembering the principles. When I did drills for those, I was able to capitalize and use them more frequently. I became more conscious about my speech patterns writing e-mails, and by just changing subtle differences, the coworkers who were usually the grumpiest to work with became a lot friendlier with me.

    So what does Dale Carnegie have to do with Jordan Peterson? Well, how to Win Friends… was written after Dale Carnegie had already been doing his effective communication/management courses for several years. In the middle of the Great Depression. While times may not be as desperate as they were then, a lot of people are in despair right now. Especially men who are 21-35. Jordan wrote this book after he started his self-authoring seminars and psychotherapy. This book was the next step. I would not be surprised if within the next five years his self authoring service becomes a lot more widespread, or if it becomes more of a live seminar session: Come in. Figure out ten of your virtuous traits. Break off into groups of people who share those virtues, and learn how to use them in various life scenarios to add meaning.

    I remember Scott writing some posts a while back saying that religion was nomic or at the very least, that rules were more important for maintaining an in-group identity than the aesthetics of belief. I would argue a step further, and add three qualifications that separate religions from cults or other organizations:
    1) The rules are not arbitrary, and must at least be applicable to self-cultivation
    2) The rituals and ceremonies either reinforce, or provide a subtle means of practicing the rules.
    3) Heresy and excommunication are not only for violating conduct, but doing so in such a way that interferes practitioners benefits from 1 and 2.

    After a week into the live course, I certainly felt like the Dale Carnegie course was a religion. If Jordan Peterson starts expanding beyond lectures and starts doing live courses, then he will have fulfilled Scott’s Prophecy.

    As a coda to this post, one of the first comment threads discussed how the subreddits for here and Jordan Peterson devolve into culture war topics. I would argue that such is necessary. Scott talks about how Christianity was amazing at being able to convert European Pagans and get them to follow norms with a minimum of bloodshed compared to other religions. Whenever I see a link to some action or conversation thread involving SJW’s, I can only think to myself “Wow, if only they took a D.C. course maybe they’d actually be a lot more dangerous” They complain that hate speech is violence, and yet their speech is violent. They assert that because they are oppressed, they cannot do harm, and yet they harm eachother. Slowly however, more of them are getting red-pilled. In this case, they are the Pagans, and the 12 principles is the church.

    • The Nybbler says:

      I read How to Win Friends and Influence People some years ago, and one of my impressions were “Wow, so that’s where all the transparently manipulative douchebaggery from people trying to put one over on me comes from”. Of course, that’s not really fair to Carnegie, he didn’t invent it, he merely wrote it down. Aside from the advice, it’s mostly a bunch of anecdotes about how Carnegie is really good at this stuff, with a lot of name-dropping of names that mostly aren’t recognized any more.

      • Bugmaster says:

        That’s the same impression I have of Carnegie, as well. I could never understand how his book acquired such a stellar reputation… and I still can’t.

        • Aapje says:

          Because it works on most people?

          • Bugmaster says:

            Because it works on most people?

            As The Nybbler alludes to above, we only have Carnegie’s word for that. The only evidence he provides for his position is that his advice works on (and/or works when used by) a few specific people who used to be famous back in his day.

          • fr8train_ssc says:

            I mean, both you and Nybbler have affirmed my post. I was miffed when I first read the book, because as I said, half of it I was already practicing because it was common sense (like don’t tell off your boss if they decide you need to work overtime)

            The difference came when I took the course, because I got to experience out a group of 17:
            1) Six low energy people, who on day 1 weren’t very enthusiastic, bumbling, become very different personality wise.
            2) Another six people who were aggressive type-a personalities manage to actually cut back and be less intimidating without losing any assertiveness.
            3) Everyone else, myself included, become/practice a lot more mindfulness, or just apply mindfulness skills from CBT/meditation/etc and apply them to the business world.

            I know Dale Carnegie courses publish their own statistics about improving employee effectiveness, but the course also requires you to get tangible metrics on how you taking the course improved some part of business operations. Since I work on DoD contracts, we have to meticulously log hours for aspects of the project. I was able to get metrics from my HR showing that the amount of overtime we were billing to meet targets was reduced for me and my teammates by about 20 hours a week amongst the four of us between comparing before and after I started taking the course. I subsequently got an $18k raise from that, or an 800% ROI on the $2k I spent on the course.

            one of my impressions were “Wow, so that’s where all the transparently manipulative douchebaggery from people trying to put one over on me comes from”

            I don’t blame you. Charles Manson took the course before he formed the Manson family. Obviously confidence men would use these skills to improve their ability. I suppose where Jordan Peterson does better than Carnegie is that most of these principles apply to cultivating oneself, rather than cultivating your business relationships, which always involve others.

      • cyanochlorous says:

        Strikingly, it has been published in China with the title “The Weaknesses of Human Nature” (http://www.renxingruodian.com/).

  22. Galle says:

    Peterson is a psychologist, and this book appears to be, on at least some level, about psychology. So it’s not really surprising that it’s good. People aren’t just generally bad or generally good, after all. It’s possible to be knowledgeable about psychology while simultaneously holding a perverse belief that not being allowed to discriminate against trans people is an attack on free speech in a way that not being allowed to discriminate against black people isn’t.

    • I think you are misusing “discriminate against.”

      If I say something a black person doesn’t want me to say, for instance that I think the average IQ of sub-saharan Africans is lower than that of Europeans, that isn’t discriminating against him. If I say something a trans person doesn’t want me to say, for instance that I believe most trans people are not really trans, which seems to be Peterson’s view if I understand it, I’m not discriminating against him. Both are examples of free speech.

      So is using the pronouns the speaker thinks appropriate to the subject rather than the ones the person referred to thinks appropriate.

      • Galle says:

        I’m confused about your definition of the word “discrimination”. It seems obvious to me that saying the average IQ of sub-Saharan Africans is lower than that of Europeans is discrimination by definition. Your counter argument is that this is permitted by free speech. That’s true, and as it should be, but I don’t understand how it follows from that that it’s not discrimination. Discrimination and free speech are not mutually exclusive.

        In any case, my point is that Peterson believes that Bill C-16 establishes rights for trans people that black people did not have under existing hate speech laws, even though no such rights are mentioned in the bill, the government has told him that they do not share his interpretation of the bill, and nobody has yet been sued or prosecuted for violating these alleged new rights.

        • suntzuanime says:

          In the sense that all declarative statements are discrimination as they distinguish between worldstates compatible with the statement and worldstates incompatible with it. Discrimination by definition is good.

        • It seems obvious to me that saying the average IQ of sub-Saharan Africans is lower than that of Europeans is discrimination by definition.

          Is it discrimination if it’s true?

          I assume we are using the term in the legal sense, not in the sense in which someone deciding whether to call a car blue or green is discriminating among different colors. If so, I take it that to discriminate racially is to treat someone differently because of his race, all else held constant. The hypothetical speaker isn’t doing that.

          You might describe it as prejudice—are you thinking of that as the same thing as discrimination? But prejudice is a bad thing only if the belief you start with is false. The fact that I believe a two year old is much less likely to be able to read than a fifteen year old is prejudice, but it is also true.

        • lvlln says:

          It seems obvious to me that saying the average IQ of sub-Saharan Africans is lower than that of Europeans is discrimination by definition.

          As suntzuanime & David Friedman have pointed out, this is “discrimination by definition” only in the most trivial definition of “discrimination” in the sense that making any truth statement about the world is discriminating between what’s true or false. This trivial sense of “discrimination” is literally impossible to avoid if one wants to do anything, and there’s basically no ethical system by which that trivial sense of “discrimination” would be unethical, immoral, wrong, evil, etc. That’s entirely different from what’s meant by “discrimination” when describing discriminating against certain racial groups.

          A statement of fact – “average IQ of sub-Saharan Africans is lower than that of Europeans” isn’t discriminatory in that latter sense. If someone were to use that statement of fact (which may or may not actually be true) to leap to the conclusion that therefore they should treat sub-Saharan Africans differently than Europeans – a wholly unjustified and honestly quite bizarre leap in logic – that would fit that latter definition of “discrimination.” But the “discrimination” portion would be in the unjustified & bizarre leap in logic, rather than in the statement of fact.

  23. mark abrams says:

    As our society has grown wealthier it has also become possible to survive without becoming mature enough to be either competent or responsible. As a consequence many fall prey to and never escape from the most infantile of ideologies, that of Marxism. They become adults trying to retain Marxism’s single fundamental concept as a model of the real world. At its heart Marxism views all of history, all of human activity as a struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed. Life is a struggle of the weak and oppressed, yourself, against the immense powers and unspeakable evils that thwart you, that somehow prevent a perfect world in which your every wish would be instantly and effortlessly granted. Everything depends upon gaining that power, so that you can vanquish the oppressor, and cease to be oppressed. The possibility that were you to possess such power you might become the oppressor is not worthy of consideration, since, obviously, were that power yours all would be perfect and there would be neither oppressors or oppressed. Assumption of power is the only purpose there is. This is the viewpoint of a very young child, solipsistic to the extent that others exist only as impediments or entities to be manipulated. Cooperation, mutually beneficial exchange and even the idea of subjective value have yet to be grasped. This is the Marxist mindset. And this is the mindset that Peterson addresses, trying to bring those stuck in what is an infantile ideology into adolescence. This is why Peterson seems political, the mental confusion and immaturity he is dealing with has a political form and expression. Once Peterson has rescued the physically mature infant, brought them safely into adolescence so that they can become a responsible adult, then it is time to confront truly adult questions of virtue, truth and beauty. C.S Lewis is a not a bad start.

  24. sdb says:

    And if there is something that is not good, then there is something that is good. If the worst sin is the torment of others, merely for the sake of the suffering produced – then the good is whatever is diametrically opposite to that.

    His reasoning here seems flawed. How is that different than, “If there is something that is not supernatural, there is something that is supernatural.” Or is his assertion different because “good” is relative to some ideal? I still don’t see how that rescues his reasoning. The fact that a polka band is not good doesn’t entail a polka band that is.

    His second sentence here also seems problematic. If the worst exercise is jogging, the best exercise is not necessarily sitting on the couch.

    • lvlln says:

      His reasoning here seems flawed. How is that different than, “If there is something that is not supernatural, there is something that is supernatural.” Or is his assertion different because “good” is relative to some ideal? I still don’t see how that rescues his reasoning. The fact that a polka band is not good doesn’t entail a polka band that is.

      Starting from the question of whether there’s actual good or evil in this world, or if it’s all just arbitrary value judgments, if we know that there’s something that’s evil or “not good,” then we can simply define “good” as being the opposite of “evil.” That doesn’t tell us exactly what “good” is, but at the very least, it has to be something that gets us away from “evil.”

      To use the polka band example, the fact that a polka band isn’t good doesn’t imply that there exists a polka band that is good, you are correct. But it DOES imply that there is some state of things such that that state is better than listening to that bad polka band. Whether that better state is “silence” or “some better polka band” or “some better band that’s of a different genre” or something else, will have to depend on context, but the very fact that that polka band is “not good” means that we can say that “not subjecting myself to that polka band” is “good.”

      His second sentence here also seems problematic. If the worst exercise is jogging, the best exercise is not necessarily sitting on the couch.

      Well 1st, “good” and “bad” aren’t exactly comparable to “best” and “worst.” 2nd, you’re limiting the “worst” to cases of “exercise” in the 1st example, but unbounding it in the latter – “sitting on the couch” isn’t a form of exercise, and if it did count as exercise, then it would surely be worse exercise than jogging, which would mean jogging wouldn’t be the worst exercise.

      But more to the point, if we had an entire field of possible exercises, and the only thing we knew was that “jogging” was the “worst” one, then we could also posit that exercises that are diametrically opposed to “jogging” are “not the worst.” It doesn’t help much in answering the question of what’s the “best” exercise, but at the least, it tells us that it’s something dissimilar to “jogging” in some meaningful way.

      • SpectresOfPeterson says:

        Strictly speaking, if all we know is that we have a set U (e.g. ‘things’/actions), a set A that is a subset of U (e.g. evil actions/sins) and a set B equal to the complement of A in U (‘things that are good, or at least not evil’), that there is at least one element of A (‘worst sin’), it is entirely possible that B is empty. If the element of A is maximal it doesn’t imply another element of U necessarily exists, or that there are minimal elements, only that compared to the element any other element is less than it.

        If all we know is that there is a worst sin, it could still be that all actions are sins and moreover that everything else is equally evil.

        • lvlln says:

          If all we know is that there is a worst sin, it could still be that all actions are sins and moreover that everything else is equally evil.

          The issue here is that if everything is equally evil, you are actually just defining away the meaning of the word “evil.” Describing something as [adjective] in a non-trivial way only makes sense if [adjective] is a categorization tool by which some things fit within that category and other things don’t fit within that category.

          So if we claim to know that something is the “worst sin,” then we’re claiming that that “worst sin” is “worse” than some other sin. It’s still possible that all things are sinful, but if that’s the case, then we can define some sins to be “good” merely by the distance between those sins and the “worst sin.”

          Of course, this kind of looks like begging the question and taking a leap of faith. To a certain extent, I think it is. It’s quite possible that all things in this world are equally sinful, and that, say, sadistically torturing an innocent child purely for the purpose of causing him the worst suffering is equally sinful as, say, scratching my butt, and so even though the former is the “worst sin,” it’s the “worst sin” in the trivial sense that everything is the “worst sin” for being equally sinful. But my intuition tells me that sadistically torturing an innocent child purely for the purpose of causing him the worst suffering is the “worst sin” in a non-trivial way, and that it’s meaningfully more evil than scratching my butt. That may be an article of faith, but it’s hard for me to believe otherwise.

          One thing I find interesting is that this is something I’ve heard both Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson say as their basis for belief in morality. Harris says that we should start with the presumption that the worst suffering for everyone for no positive gain is bad, and then we can build morality on top of that, and that if you’re not willing to grant him that the worst suffering for everyone for no positive gain is bad, then he can’t really convince you of his sense of morality (you can hear him talk about this in a recent podcast episode with Rebecca Goldstein & Max Tegmark). It’s just funny to see 2 people with such different views on faith and religion have such similar views when it comes to meaning and morality. They also both have an almost divine respect for truth (Peterson seeming to have a literal divine respect for it) and the importance of always telling it. Harris has an entire book on it called “Lying,” while Peterson has explicit faith in the ability of truth to do “good,” and one of his 12 rules is to always tell the truth (or at least don’t lie).

          • SpectresOfPeterson says:

            The jump from “sadistic acts are obviously bad” to “we can determine what is good” is a massive one that Peterson is just skipping over.

            I don’t think “bad things exist and sadism is the worst bad thing” is a strong enough pair of axioms to develop any kind of cogent system of morals. You can’t determine a thing’s distance from your defined reference point without much more tooling.

          • lvlln says:

            To be clear, I’m just reaffirming sdb’s questioning of the flaws in Peterson’s logic.

            And to be clear, I showed how that reaffirmation and the original questioning were flawed.

            I don’t think “bad things exist and sadism is the worst bad thing” is a strong enough pair of axioms to develop any kind of cogent system of morals.

            Not really relevant to the discussion, but I certainly agree with that statement.

  25. Jaskologist says:

    I think if he had gotten to me at age 15, when I was young and miserable and confused about everything, I would be cleaning my room and calling people “bucko” and worshiping giant gold lobster idols just like all the other teens.

    I’ve often thought the major difference between the theists and atheists around here is whether we discovered Big Yud or First Things at that critical age.

    • Nick says:

      Hah!

      I discovered both around that critical age, but—if this is how we’re going to frame it—I was already set in my ways by then.

    • I was reading Lewis and Tolkien well before 15, and Yudkowsky hadn’t been born at the time. I still ended up an atheist.

      • Mr Mind says:

        My story exactly, and I suspect the story of many others. Reducing atheism to nurture is insulting.

        • suntzuanime says:

          Well, no, certainly the rise of atheism has happened too fast to be a result of human evolution. Or maybe you’re proposing that chemicals in the water are turning the frogs atheist?

          • Mr Mind says:

            I’ve written “nurture”, not “nature”.

          • theredsheep says:

            Yes, but if you’re objecting to the idea that unbelief is induced by nurture (i.e. environmental or upbringing factors), that implies you favor nature as a cause instead. Suntzuanime is saying that natural selection favoring atheism is rather improbable, if only for time reasons, so nurture of one type or another it is.

            Now, it could be that you’re rejecting the whole nature vs. nurture paradigm altogether, but you didn’t say as much.

          • Randy M says:

            I think it’s clear that Mr Mind wants his atheism to be considered the result of freely chosen and carefully undertaken deliberations.
            I’m a bit amused that it is the atheist arguing for free will in the exchange, though.

          • theredsheep says:

            Well, yes, he should have known that that earns us valuable condescension points according to the standard rulebooks. But it seemed gauche for me, as a new guy, to say so.

  26. solarity says:

    Peterson is the only person I know who has publicly acknowledged having read “Hitler’s Table Talk.” A large tome devoted exclusively to the after-dinner ramblings of one of history’s greatest monsters. He did this reading, and a lot more of similar ilk, to develop a deeper understanding of the depths to which the human soul can descend. I believe that one cannot speak to the various ways in which citizens may organize themselves politically without a very clear-headed knowledge of how evil permeates humankind and will corrupt any system over time.

    Evil is a word that tends to be encumbered with religious overtones. Yet the depredations perpetrated by the dictators of the 20th century are the worst in human history and had almost nothing to do with religion. Their evil was innate and they surrounded themselves with people of similar ilk and then implemented programs that literally mutated otherwise good people into genocidal warriors.

    This knowledge of the “potential for evil” that lurks in the souls of all of us is what seems to drive Peterson to promote an introspective evaluation of our own lives for purposes of “evil-proofing”. How can anyone plausibly advise others on what aspects of our culture need fixing when they “haven’t cleaned up their own room” so to speak? And if you can’t clean up your own room how in hell do you have the moral standing to tell others how the world should be run? I believe he would agree with the sentiment that if you want to be heard and seriously considered as an advocate for some sort of “reform”, then please first convince me that you truly have a coherent understanding of history, an awareness of the potential for the best of ideas to have very bad unintended consequences and that your standing as a credibile advocate is enhanced by appearing to have “cleaned up your room”.

  27. carvenvisage says:

    It seems to me that the order into chaos metaphor might reflect a psycotherapists/public intellectual (zeitgeist therapist)’s profession:

    A builder resides in order and converts order into more order with a great emphasis on avoiding any unplanned chaos. A boxer or soldier converts chaos into stillness, from the middle, not the edge. What kind of person spends all their life converting chaos into order, from the border? Maybe someone who spends their time trying to patch up human souls.

    Counteragument: But then, maybe it’s desirable for everyone to occupy this ‘therapist’ position, of patching up human souls, safeguarding them, etc, -if only for themselves and perhaps their friends/family.

  28. hnau says:

    I’m not confident in my interpretation of either Lewis or Peterson, but I think Lewis would think Peterson does this. He makes the world an end and faith a means. His Heaven is a metaphorical Heaven. If you sort yourself out and trust in metaphorical God, you can live a wholesome self-respecting life, make your parents proud, and make the world a better place. Even though Peterson claims “nobody is really an atheist” and mentions Jesus about three times per page, I think C.S. Lewis would consider him every bit as atheist as Richard Dawkins, and the worst sort of false prophet.

    This is exactly right. Thank you for understanding.

    I respect the people along the Jordan Peterson – Jonathan Haidt – samzdat axis who have honestly reached the conclusion that religion is a social / evolutionary benefit and getting rid of it is a bad idea. But if they think this ought to earn them the approval of religious people, they’re deluding themselves.

    From a secular point of view, it’s actually quite easy to see the absurdity here. They think and say that religion is a social / evolutionary benefit, and that it ought to exist because it’s a social / evolutionary benefit, but no religion in human history has claimed “I OUGHT TO BE BELIEVED BECAUSE I AM A SOCIAL / EVOLUTIONARY BENEFIT”. Did they ever stop to consider that, on the social / evolutionary benefit theory, not being up-front about it was crucial to the benefit? Well, yes, they did, but they get very quiet when you ask them what to do about it. It’s pretty obvious that consciously adopting religion for the sake of its benefits is a non-starter.

    From a religious point of view, 1 Corinthians 14:15, oops, I broke your argument.

    • Winter Shaker says:

      But if they think this ought to earn them the approval of religious people, they’re deluding themselves.

      To someone who is unpersuaded by the factual claims of any religion, there are only two possibilities: 1) that religion has net positive effects, despite its central claims being factually false, or 2) that religion has net negative effects, such that we would be better off abandoning it altogether.

      Would you at least agree that it is reasonable for someone in group 1 to expect religious people to give more approval to group 1) than group 2)?

      After all, as I think you are saying in your last big paragraph, just because a religion says that it would be worthless if its factual claims are untrue (as in Corinthians), that doesn’t make it the case – it may be that in order to be useful (or to be persuasive enough to enough people for its usefulness to be detectable), a religion has to claim that it is useless-if-factually-untrue. So surely the people who are at least in favour of other people following the religion, even if they cannot personally accept its truth-claims, are a lot closer to being allies than the people who are in favour of people not following the religion?

      (for the record, I am unsure of whether I personally stand in group 2 in all cases, or whether there are religions for which I should count myself in group 1)

      • hnau says:

        Would you at least agree that it is reasonable for someone in group 1 to expect religious people to give more approval to group 1) than group 2)?

        I would not necessarily agree.

        I notice that for option #2 you said “such that we would be better off abandoning it altogether”, but what’s the equivalent for option #1? “Such that we would be better off trying to get more people to adopt it?” Good luck with that pitch. “I think this is a false belief, but it’s useful and therefore you should adopt it!” That’s not going to persuade a religious or possibly-religious person. In fact it’s more likely to come off as patronizing and insincere than option #1 is.

        To me as a Christian, the important question about religion is not net-positive versus net-negative; it’s true versus untrue. Of course I also find it to be a local net positive (I won’t get into claims about global +/-), but the truth comes first, and the verse I cited is a major reason why.

        Certainly some Christians might find option #1 people more likely to be their ally in the culture wars, but I consider that a terrible reason for giving “more approval” to their ideas. So I guess I should clarify what I mean by “more approval”. Primarily I mean “endorsing this as truth, or as part of the truth, or as likely to help people learn the truth.”

        There is an important sense in which I consider option #2 people to be closer to the truth than option #1 people, in that both option #2 people and Christians would agree with the conditional in 1 Corinthians 14:15, while option #1 people wouldn’t. And pragmatically, when the debate is framed as option #2 versus Christianity, it suggests an obvious empirical route (does becoming Christian have overall positive effects?) for gathering data about which position is true.

        My own feeling about option #1 is that it’s marginally more correct on the object level, but suspect on the meta-level. It asserts half-truths about the nature and role of religion that do more to obscure the real debate than to clarify it. Also, promoters of option #1 have a tendency (cf. what Scott says about Peterson above) to use pseudo-religious language that makes them sound “pro-religion”, I suspect in an effort to appeal more to religious people. This comes off to me as deceptive, because theologically (i.e. when you ask the much more important question of “true versus untrue”) they are in exactly the same place as the option #2 people.

      • Deiseach says:

        So surely the people who are at least in favour of other people following the religion, even if they cannot personally accept its truth-claims, are a lot closer to being allies than the people who are in favour of people not following the religion?

        No, because they only approve or are allies so long as the religion (whatever one it may be) is considered useful by them, a help or means to an end they think good or wish to come about. As soon as something else appears to be better at that, they’ll dump religion and the religious. Or when the religion butts up against something they like/dislike.

        It’s not caring whether it’s true or not – indeed, often it’s accompanied by “well of course we don’t believe it’s true, that would be stupid” – it’s taking advantage of something, the way Voltaire is supposed to have said he wanted his servants to believe in God because that meant he would be cheated less often. I don’t know if he really said it, and if he did probably it was meant as an epigram, but if he did write it and mean it then it strikes me as massively dishonest. A genuine atheist would want his servants to be as liberated from the shackles of falsehood as he himself was; a genuine freethinker would have regarded those of a lower social station as being on equal grounds as human beings with him.

        But that smirking, hard, conceited, self-satisfied worldliness where we are too smart to be taken in by religion, but after all it’s convenient as a tool of social control for the natural dupes and underlings who are our natural servants – that offends me much worse than any “strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest”.

        A tyrant may approve of religion in that sense, as it keeps the masses docile by promising them pie in the sky. That does not mean I will be happy to welcome the tyrant as an ally and closer to my point of view.

      • theredsheep says:

        I call it the “for-the-peasants” argument: I, personally, am too clever to believe X, but it is socially useful that other, dumber people believe X, so I should encourage it. Because we have to be magnanimous and look out for the little people, you see. The general tone of the argument implies some combination of feeling superior to other people, viewing them as a means to your ends, and/or just having a sloppy attitude towards honesty. It says “do not let this person within arm’s reach of your wallet pocket,” regardless of your own beliefs.

        Now, I haven’t read or watched much of Peterson, but he seems to have a somewhat different take on it, that religion developed for a purpose and can still fulfill that purpose regardless of its truth values. And (consults Wikipedia) he identifies as sort of wishy-washy cultural Christian-ish, which, yes, strikes me as dubious, but that could be read as “I want to be Christian because I have realized it’s better to be that way than otherwise, even if I don’t totally get it/have a hard time accepting some aspects intellectually.” From what Scott says here, however, it sounds like he’s talked himself into believing or supporting a kind of bastardized mush version of the faith, which would have him oddly stuck between the “atheist” and “heretic” chairs. From my Christian perspective, he really should try to pick one or the other.

        Now, I believe in Christianity (specifically Orthodox) because I find that I agree strongly with certain core propositions, most notably the Orthodox conception of Original Sin, and I find it nonsensical to postulate a normative worldview without some kind of grounding in the transcendent (is-ought problem). I agree that, while I can’t know what happened two thousand years ago in Jerusalem, evidence would seem to suggest it was something really weird. On the other hand, I’m fully aware that a lot of the Old Testament is extremely dubious, and that’s putting it mildly. I’m not the kind of person who’s naturally religious–I don’t find it easy to pray–but I accept that this is going to be difficult, and hope I will be accepted in turn for making the effort anyway.

        So I can see how it’s difficult to reconcile oneself to these things. I just feel that one really should make an effort to be crystal clear on what one does believe, and why, and where that puts you. It doesn’t sound like Peterson has done this. Correct me if I’m wrong.

        • Aapje says:

          @theredsheep

          I think that it can both be cruel to keep people ‘small,’ but also to expect people to be bigger than they can be.

          • theredsheep says:

            Not sure I follow you. How do you know how big another person can be without trying them? And how do you know the results of trying to be big and failing are worse than the results of not trying at all? Cf. The Grand Inquisitor.

          • Aapje says:

            One way to try people is to offer them access to a higher level.

            Another way is to expect people to measure up to the higher level and not provide a backup, lower level for people who cannot measure up.

            The steelman/nice version of “for-the-peasants” acts like a safety net.

          • theredsheep says:

            We’re getting into the metaphorical weeds here, but by offering the higher level you mean explicit atheism, etc. (on the assumption that it is true), with all the existential baggage, right? What would failing that look like? Nihilism?

            Have you read the Grand Inquisitor? That’s an extended exploration of the psychology of someone with “for the peasants” motives–a cleric who knowingly spreads a bastardized version of Christianity because it’s easier for most people to accept and follow. He says it’s a gesture of compassion, and the characters in the story accept that, but he doesn’t seem to actually like people all that much. It’s hard to begin with the motive of deceiving people, even for benign reasons, and end without holding them in contempt. If only because you’re assuming the right to treat people as tools, control their access to information, etc.

          • Aapje says:

            The lower and higher level can be anything where the higher level requires a certain capability to have a better end result than sticking with the lower level.

            An example is that they changed the rules for welfare in my country a while back, to give people an advance much more often. However, this advance can be too high and then has to (partially) be paid back. As it turns out, many people on welfare are not very capable of budgeting and spend what they get. So when they are forced to pay back, they don’t have the reserves to do so & can easily get into a debt spiral.

            A more paternalistic system that only gives people money if they get to keep it, is probably better for this group on average.

            PS. I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t address your atheism vs religion example. It’s interesting, but so complex that addressing it would likely result in debating the example, rather than the general principle.

          • theredsheep says:

            Ah. This argument started with Peterson’s religious beliefs (or lack thereof), which is why I was talking religion. If we’re not talking about withholding information from people for their own supposed good, I have no objection in the short term, though in the case of your welfare agency it leaves the obvious question of how these people are going to get off welfare and be self-sufficient without those budgeting skills. What the answer to that is, I don’t know, but it seems to me that you can’t help people while accepting their weakness and inadequacy as a permanent condition.

          • Aapje says:

            I think that a major failure of (Dutch) schooling is not teaching proper budgeting skills.

            However, I also think that there is a portion of the population that is not very capable of doing this and/or negotiating a complex bureaucratic system.

        • beleester says:

          I’m very sympathetic to the “I want to be religious but I have a hard time accepting it intellectually” mindset, so I’m surprised to see how everyone else reads it as “Look at this guy looking down his nose at the peasants.”

          Personally, I view it more like Bohr’s horseshoe – “I don’t believe it, but I’m told it works whether you believe in it or not.” I wish I had faith as deep as my rabbi’s, but in its absence I’ll keep going through the motions and see how that works out.

          • theredsheep says:

            It’s the “socially useful” that sets off red flags (again, bear in mind that I’m working off Scott’s report here, have not read Peterson directly, etc). There’s a long, long history of people using Christianity, at least, as a tool for socially useful ends, and it has a tendency to distort the religion substantially. Because Christianity, in the end analysis, is a deeply otherworldly religion (I realize the same cannot be said of Judaism), and the social benefit is not its main goal.

      • JohnofSalisbury says:

        I’m puzzled by some of my fellow theists’ stances here. Yes, much depends on framing and intentions, and I share people’s concern about contempt and exploitation. But what’s wrong with an atheist disinterestedly believing that religion is a potential source of value? Disregard for truth had been mentioned, but it strikes me that some of the theists are showing this.

        Suppose I think that my religion is indeed a source of what the atheist would recognise as value. Stress the ultimacy of spiritual value all you like, it’s natural to expect the true faith to be holistically valuable, and so valuable in wordly ways too: bringing constant trouble perhaps, but absurd happiness too. Now insofar as I want people, atheist or otherwise, to be believe truths rather than falsehoods, shouldn’t I want atheists to acknowledge at least the worldly value my religion brings? Preferring that they deny it is surely perverse.

        • mcd says:

          The devil quoting scripture aside, traditionally in Christianity even minor theological differences (heresies) were considered sufficient cause for damnation, not to mention war, torture, inquisitions and other worldly means of getting folks back on the right path. So it’s in no way surprising that an entirely unacceptable theology (whether explicit secularism or merely agnosticism) that selects bits and pieces from the tradition feels dangerous. It’s not so much a question of whether those bits are true in their extracted form (though maybe they aren’t) but whether they’re more dangerous to the soul of the individual than no Christianity at all would be.

          I think of it as part of Christianity’s gnostic heritage; Judaism is much less worried by extraction of its wisdom or by partial, imperfect, and even atheistic or agnostic practice.

          • JohnofSalisbury says:

            Sure, and that position makes sense as a response to the atheist who cries ‘Come try my Christianity substitute, come try, come try!’, but not so much to the one who says ‘My enquiries into evolutionary psychology have led me to conclude that religion is an important social glue’.

          • mcd says:

            Sure, and that position makes sense as a response to the atheist who cries ‘Come try my Christianity substitute, come try, come try!’, but not so much to the one who says ‘My enquiries into evolutionary psychology have led me to conclude that religion is an important social glue’.

            Sorry, I’m not seeing the distinction, or at least not one that wouldn’t apply all the more so to Christian heresies or Christian sectarian movements who were nevertheless considered damned and better drowned (literally, in some cases) than heard.

          • JohnofSalisbury says:

            The distinction is between an atheist trying to convert people to a pseudo-Christianity of their own invention and one who simply accepts a particular hypothesis about the psychology of religion. Even in a regime of active heresy-hunting, a preacher of heresy will always be a more important target than a mere subscriber to heresy.
            Besides which, I don’t see the relevance here We’re talking about which of two atheists is ‘better’ from the theist’s point of view: one who thinks that religion is valuable, and one who doesn’t. I’m pushing back against those who seem to be saying that the latter is better.

            ‘Religion is a powerful social glue’ can be pushed in unsavoury directions, from ‘It’s good for the rabble, so let them indulge their superstitions’ to ‘how can I harness this power for my own ends?’, but it need not be, and may lead a person to a more general re-evaluation of religion, or even to church to see what’s going on. Moreover, ‘religion is a useless mental virus’ can also be pushed in unsavoury directions, from ‘jow dare those benighted tubes spread their mental virus’ to ‘the transmission of this virus must be terminated with extreme prejudice’.

          • mcd says:

            Besides which, I don’t see the relevance here. We’re talking about which of two atheists is ‘better’ from the theist’s point of view: one who thinks that religion is valuable, and one who doesn’t. I’m pushing back against those who seem to be saying that the latter is better.

            Sorry, I wasn’t talking about two atheists, I was talking about the reasons traditional Christians would be suspicious of Peterson’s kind of religion despite his good intentions. That they ought to (also) be suspicious of the more problematic of two questionable Christians (or whatever distinction you were making between your two non-traditional Christian cases), and that they ought/do punish heretical preachers more than practitioners, are both beside the point; “he could be worse” is not much of an argument in Peterson’s favor.

            Personally, I don’t think it’s at all clear that the atheist who finds value in religion is “better” for the religion in some way than the atheist who doesn’t. You seem to be taking that as a given, but in many cases the obvious poison is less dangerous than the subtle one, and I don’t see any argument (in Christian terms) for why that isn’t the case here.

  29. hnau says:

    The best analogy I can think of is C.S. Lewis. Lewis was a believer in the Old Religion, which at this point has been reduced to cliche. What could be less interesting than hearing that Jesus loves you, or being harangued about sin, or getting promised Heaven, or threatened with Hell? But for some reason, when Lewis writes, the cliches suddenly work. Jesus’ love becomes a palpable force. Sin becomes so revolting you want to take a shower just for having ever engaged in it. When Lewis writes about Heaven you can hear harp music; when he writes about Hell you can smell brimstone. He didn’t make me convert to Christianity, but he made me understand why some people would.

    So much facepalm. What you are comparing here is not Christian cliches vs. some kind of reality-distortion field that Lewis projects. It’s the opposite.

    I’ve heard 500+ sermons in my life, and while many made me cringe in one way or another, none of them sounded like the cliches you describe. This was across 3+ different churches in completely different parts of the country, all broadly “Evangelical”. Two of them were theologically conservative; the other one was the one whose preaching most resembled the “cliche” version.

    What you refer to as “cliches” are Christian ideas filtered through a combination of lazy preaching, pop-culture simplification, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (aka New Religion?), misunderstanding by secularists out of unfamiliarity, misinterpretation by opponents of Christianity incentivized not to present a complete picture, and fundamentalists’ thoughtless knee-jerk reactions to all of the above.

    What you refer to as “the cliches suddenly work” is simply Christian orthodoxy. Lewis was a student of it, and an exceptionally good communicator of it in terms that secular moderns can understand. So was Chesterton (whom you’ve mentioned produces a similar effect). They’re the best, but it’s not like they’re huge outliers. Authors like N.T. Wright, Tim Keller, John Stott, and others are also very good at this. Prior to the late 19th century the material gets less accessible to a modern reader, because authors would be writing on the assumption that their audience was already familiar with and accepting of basic Christian teaching. But even if you take one of the dense, argumentative medieval texts, there’s tons of fascinating, even moving material if you understand where they’re coming from. Remember, Lewis was a scholar of medieval literature!

    I know this was just a throwaway paragraph in a blog post that was actually about something else. But I felt like your tone was perpetuating the un-representative cliches, and muddying the waters for people who might actually want to find out about these things.

    • sclmlw says:

      He gives a small qualifier that maybe he’s just not steeped enough in the literature to understand the frequency of communicators similar to Peterson, so I think you have to at least give him the “you’re arguing from ignorance” angle. And I do think it’s a simple matter that Scott is not familiar with much of this literature.

      For example, one of the most successful books in the self-help category is The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Which is basically a manual that takes a lot of ideas from religious contexts and secularizes them for modern audiences. Peterson doesn’t really do anything profoundly different from what Covey did. I would argue they’re following similar models (7 Habits, 12 Rules), and that is why they have been successful. There are lots of examples of people becoming popular by taking religious concepts and secularizing them without making them implicitly atheist.

      And one of the elements of this kind of method is that it focuses as much on preaching as it does on teaching. I think preaching is something that is not well-enough understood by atheists, and an area where they should take a page from religion. Teaching is all well and good, in that it is specifically intended to transmit information, but preaching is a different exercise altogether and is important in its own right. When a preacher gets up on Easter Sunday and tells the same Passion story that everyone in the audience has heard a million times before, he is not focused specifically on teaching. It would be kind of dumb to gather a whole congregation into one place on the off chance that 1-2 of them haven’t heard the message before. And I think when atheists see this kind of thing happening they’re tempted to shrug and say, “Yeah, I know this one so there’s nothing else happening here than a guy telling a bunch of people stuff they already know, and telling them that therefore they should do good. No thanks.”

      But preaching is serving a different function from teaching, and that’s why it looks similar but feels different. Teaching tells you something you didn’t know before, and you have to take time to process that information and add it to your store of knowledge, as well as work it into your understanding of the world. Preaching takes information you’ve already incorporated, and reinforces it. It fundamentally understands that people need to be continually reminded of goals, aspirations, and cautions they once internalized; because without constant drilling they don’t change their behavior in accordance with received wisdom.

      Another example of this type of ‘not-quite-secular preacher’ is Dave Ramsey, who constantly reminds his listeners that finance is influenced more by behavior than by the underlying math. Ramsey, accordingly, has a daily radio show that is designed to preach to his audience the same message, but in a way that is sufficiently entertaining that people continue to listen and be reminded of it. That’s the goal of preaching, and it’s an important element in how humans incorporate received knowledge/wisdom into behavioral patterns. The best preachers find a way to communicate many of the same messages over and over again, but in ways that are sufficiently interesting that you want to keep listening to them to hear what they say next – even though you know the general message by heart.

      One way to think of this is to think of your brain as a Bayesian processor. You get information saying something like, “in a capitalist system, the best long-term strategy is to build wealth by accumulating capital.” And you could get this message by reading Thomas Piketty’s research. But that’s not likely to change your behavior much when you’re looking to buy a new car and the car salesman says you can take home the convertible if only you sign a 7-year lease. You got one data point, and probably formed a weak prior from that, but you’re not going to read Capital in the 21st Century over and over again feeling inspired by the message. Meanwhile, if you listen to Dave Ramsey’s radio show you’ll hear daily accounts of people who took home the 7-year lease and it ended up hurting them in the long run. Then you’ll hear a bunch of people talking about how they’re debt-free and happy. Finally, you’ll get a couple high-rollers talking about how they saved up capital and it outpaced returns from other strategies, so now they’re rich.

      And each time you listen to the show you’re strengthening your prior that capital accumulation is good. Then when you go to that car salesman your prior is strong enough to overcome your momentary desire to own a convertible. This is how preaching influences behavior in a way teaching struggles to do.

  30. soreff says:

    One comment about C.S.Lewis’s “The Screwtape Letters”:

    Lewis has Screwtape write:

    I sometimes wonder if you young fiends are not kept out on temptation-duty too long at a time — if you are not in some danger of becoming infected by the sentiments and values of the humans among whom you work. they, of course, do tend to regard death as the prime evil and survival as the greatest good. But that is because we have taught them to do so. Do not let us be infected by our own propaganda. i know it seems strange that your chief aim at the moment should be the very same thing for which the patient’s lover and his mother are praying —
    namely his bodily safety. But so it is; you should be guarding him like the apple of your eye.

    My point of view is: Wait a bloody minute here. Lewis, as the author-antagonist of
    Screwtape, wants to get one of the people on his own side killed???
    This is as repulsive as anything from any mass killer. Yetch!

    • hnau says:

      Interesting. I never interpreted it that way. Let me try to explain why.

      They, of course, do tend to regard death as the prime evil and survival as the greatest good.

      It sounds like you might agree with this. Screwtape doesn’t, and neither does Lewis. Screwtape is trying to keep the character alive as a means to his own ends. But Lewis is not trying to make the character die, because Lewis isn’t a character; he’s an author making a point about what’s ultimately important. It doesn’t have anything to do with being “on his own side” and there’s nothing here to suggest even that Lewis wishes particular people would die, let alone that he wants to get them killed.

      Let me try to phrase this kind of situation in terms familiar to a utilitarian. One might well believe, in principle, that it would on the whole be a very good thing if Donald Trump were to die suddenly. I don’t see anything particularly repulsive about believing this. On the other hand, actively hoping for his death, and perhaps taking steps to effect it, would be much more likely to strike me as repulsive.

      • soreff says:

        Interesting. I never interpreted it that way. Let me try to explain why.

        Many Thanks!

        They, of course, do tend to regard death as the prime evil and survival as the greatest good.

        It sounds like you might agree with this. Screwtape doesn’t, and neither does Lewis.

        Roughly speaking, I do agree with it. There are, of course, corner cases – e.g. illnesses unpleasant enough that I’d die rather than endure them.

        Screwtape is trying to keep the character alive as a means to his own ends. But Lewis is not trying to make the character die, because Lewis isn’t a character; he’s an author making a point about what’s ultimately important. It doesn’t have anything to do with being “on his own side” and there’s nothing here to suggest even that Lewis wishes particular people would die, let alone that he wants to get them killed.

        I think that this largely comes down to viewing my view as attacking a strawman version of Lewis’s view. Mea Culpa, but I plead extenuating circumstances. If I am to discuss the ideas in “The Screwtape Letters” at all, there is the problem of extracting the real world views of an author from a work of fiction (anyone want to try to solidly nail down Shakespeare’s views on ambition from Macbeth?). In this case, there is the secondary problem that Screwtape is approximately an anti-mouthpiece of the author (and even that is oversimplifying – Lewis in some case agrees with Screwtape on facts, but will generally have preferences in the opposite direction). There is also a third consideration in that, since Lewis is long since dead and gone, I’m not writing to influence him, but rather am writing to influence anyone considering his ideas (with the same ambiguities I face) to “Watch carefully at what you are letting yourself get into”.

        Basically, I’m taking Screwtape’s “your chief aim at the moment should be the very same thing for which the patient’s lover and his mother are praying — namely his bodily safety” to indicate that Lewis has the opposite preference. I agree with you that I don’t know whether Lewis wants particular people to die, or wants them killed. I actually interpret him as probably intending that certain (rather broad) classes of people in certain situations are theologically better off dead – and I don’t know how broadly or forcefully he intends the preference. I don’t think he intends the preference to be hostile. In the book, he is applying it to a co-religionist – which is what I meant as being applied to someone on the same side. Nonetheless, as I read it, Lewis is cheering on the grim reaper, and on a target in his own religion. That is what I find abhorrent.

        • Nonetheless, as I read it, Lewis is cheering on the grim reaper, and on a target in his own religion. That is what I find abhorrent.

          Abhorrent because it depends on factual beliefs you think mistaken or on moral beliefs you think mistaken?

          The implied argument, I think, is that the person at present is in a spiritual state such that if he dies he will go to heaven. Screwtape is arguing that it is therefor better for him to live, be tempted, fall, and go to hell. If the assumed facts about heaven and hell are true, is Lewis’ position still, in your view, abhorrent?

          • soreff says:

            Abhorrent because it depends on factual beliefs you think mistaken or on moral beliefs you think mistaken?

            I see Lewis as analogous to an Anti-Vaxer:
            When someone gives lethally bad advice on the basis of factual beliefs that are ruled out by a mountain of solid evidence, it starts to shade into a moral failing.

            Lewis wrote “The Screwtape Letters” almost a century after Phineas Gage had his soul rearranged by a tamping rod. There had been enough brain trauma studies by Lewis’s time to make it abundantly clear that our selves are utterly dependent on the structure and function of our brains.

            Now, as I said earlier in the thread, there is a lot of ambiguity in interpreting a work of fiction, particularly one with a (roughly) anti-mouthpiece character. Very roughly, to the extent that Lewis can be viewed as advising Christians something like “Don’t focus on survival, you will go to heaven if you are killed.” it is lethally bad advice.

            I don’t think “If the assumed facts about heaven and hell are true,” is a reasonable hypothetical. If there had been a human organ that held our minds, memories, preferences, and personalities, and the was robust enough to survive the death of the rest of our bodies then the world would look drastically different.

          • @Soreff:

            Would it be a fair summary of your position that, in your view, the Christian belief in the immortality of the soul is provably false?

          • The original Mr. X says:

            I’m not sure what brain trauma studies have to do with anything; people have known that the physical affects the mental since ancient times. Just look at the four humours theory, for example.

          • keranih says:

            @ soreff

            Lewis wrote “The Screwtape Letters” almost a century after Phineas Gage had his soul rearranged by a tamping rod. There had been enough brain trauma studies by Lewis’s time to make it abundantly clear that our selves are utterly dependent on the structure and function of our brains.

            And thousands of years before that, a scribe recorded the story of Esau selling his birthright to his brother for a bowl of stew. That our human bodies affect our thoughts and our hearts has been long known and accepted by the Church.

          • soreff says:

            @DavidFriedman

            Would it be a fair summary of your position that, in your view, the Christian belief in the immortality of the soul is provably false?

            Yes, in the “proven beyond a reasonable doubt” sense of provably, not in the “axioms->theorem” sense.

            Also, this applies to souls with content: minds, memories, preferences, and personalities, as I said earlier.

            Christianity has many interpreters, and some of them talk of souls with so little content that the claim that they exist becomes unfalsifiable – and typically “not even wrong”.

            Now, to return to Lewis: perhaps a compact description of the whole end section of “The Screwtape Letters” is that it is written from a viewpoint with “a depraved indifference to human life”.

          • @Soreff:

            Thank you.

            I don’t see how the sort of evidence you cite can establish your conclusion. Suppose I interpret myself as software running on the hardware of my brain, which seems as good a guess as any. The fact that the hardware can be slowed or injured isn’t a statement about the software. If my body dies but I get uploaded, there is some sense in which “I,” my consciousness, is still around.

            Suppose the software that is I exists in some form not perceptible by our instruments, a form which continues to exist after the hardware is destroyed—think of it as automatic invisible uploading. What evidence do you have that lets you confidently reject that interpretation of the available data?

            Aside from the difficulty of finding evidence to disprove the religious view of the soul, there is another problem. I do not have a clear idea of what I am. It feels like I am a consciousness existing inside my body. Seen from the outside I am explainable as a physical body with a programmed brain, but how does that explain my consciousness as I directly perceive it?

            Once I realize that I really don’t understand the nature of my own consciousness yet, as per Descartes, am certain of its existence—more certain than of almost anything else—it becomes difficult to confidently reject someone else’s conjecture on the subject.

          • soreff says:

            @DavidFriedman

            I don’t see how the sort of evidence you cite can establish your conclusion. Suppose I interpret myself as software running on the hardware of my brain, which seems as good a guess as any. The fact that the hardware can be slowed or injured isn’t a statement about the software. If my body dies but I get uploaded, there is some sense in which “I,” my consciousness, is still around.

            Come on. Except for Alcor and CI (and, prospectively, nectome customers?) members, everyone else seems to be letting their software rot in a single copy in most cases literally buried with their hardware. I like the “is some sense” 🙂 Sidesteps the interminable arguments over whether uploading counts as survival or not, or as “mere copying” and whether multiple copies count…

            Suppose the software that is I exists in some form not perceptible by our instruments, a form which continues to exist after the hardware is destroyed—think of it as automatic invisible uploading. What evidence do you have that lets you confidently reject that interpretation of the available data?

            Occam’s razor? We have no evidence that any such backups are being done. BTW, while the energies required are small, they can’t be quite zero. Each measurement need an interaction energy bigger than thermal noise. For 10^15 synapses this is getting close to macroscopic total energy needed.

            You are positing new physics (for the form not perceptible by our instruments), finer grained technology than we have yet built or seen, and a systematic, well-timed effort to archive connectomes. And for all that, even with all of those assumptions, this still wouldn’t say enough to anticipate whether the intent was to stock heaven, hell, or Cthulhu’s pantry.

            Aside from the difficulty of finding evidence to disprove the religious view of the soul, there is another problem. I do not have a clear idea of what I am. It feels like I am a consciousness existing inside my body. Seen from the outside I am explainable as a physical body with a programmed brain, but how does that explain my consciousness as I directly perceive it?

            I don’t know, but let me tell you what I think the perception of free will looks like to me: Consider a deterministic robot planning a trip through a maze. It needs at least a minimal self-model: At least the x,y coordinates of where it will be at each leg of the journey. What’s a simple way for it to represent choices of turns made along the way? A simple representation is just to have a list of turn choices – filled in as the robot doing the planning inserts the choices generated by its algorithm. In other words, the simplified model “feels like” it is making successive choices entered on a blank slate from no source internal to the simplified model. It “feels like” it made choices of its own “free will” – though the whole system is deterministic – but the simplifying representation in its self-model obscure that.

          • Nick says:

            soreff,

            Come on. Except for Alcor and CI (and, prospectively, nectome customers?) members, everyone else seems to be letting their software rot in a single copy in most cases literally buried with their hardware.

            No they’re not. They’re taking steps to preserve their immortal soul by following the revelation of their God. And note that your accusation of a “depraved indifference to human life” plainly goes for anyone religious who believes in a life after death; Lewis isn’t unique in this regard.

            You are positing new physics (for the form not perceptible by our instruments), finer grained technology than we have yet built or seen, and a systematic, well-timed effort to archive connectomes.

            No, David’s positing a metaphysics—at least if he’s defending Lewis and not just doing his own thing here. If you object to metaphysics wholesale, why? And if you don’t, then what’s the problem with either the Aristotelian division of matter and form and the immateriality of the intellect, the Christian identification of form with soul, or the observation that a substantial form separated from matter still possesses immaterial capacities like the intellect and so can persist without matter? If you don’t have an objection to any of that, then I don’t see how me and my coreligionists are depraved.

            And for all that, even with all of those assumptions, this still wouldn’t say enough to anticipate whether the intent was to stock heaven, hell, or Cthulhu’s pantry.

            This isn’t relevant, especially not to Lewis’ purposes, which were obviously directed at his coreligionists.

          • soreff says:

            @Nick

            And note that your accusation of a “depraved indifference to human life” plainly goes for anyone religious who believes in a life after death; Lewis isn’t unique in this regard.

            Agreed, he is not. Nonetheless, Lewis wrote

            It is obvious that to Him human birth is important chiefly as the qualification for human death, and death solely as the gate to that other kind of life.

            This is unusually destructive. I usually look at religions from the viewpoint of harm reduction:

            It is fairly common for large religions to form subsects over time with varying emphasis on the pieces of their creed. Usually, some of the pieces wind up falling pretty close to recommending what a prudent human would recommend anyway, and these are close to harmless. Unfortunately, there are also splinters that prioritize a nonexistent afterlife over human life, and the last section of “The Screwtape Letters” looks like it puts Lewis in that grisly bucket.

            No, David’s positing a metaphysics—at least if he’s defending Lewis and not just doing his own thing here. If you object to metaphysics wholesale, why? And if you don’t, then what’s the problem with either the Aristotelian division of matter and form and the immateriality of the intellect, the Christian identification of form with soul, or the observation that a substantial form separated from matter still possesses immaterial capacities like the intellect and so can persist without matter?

            Hmm – I’m not familiar with the division of matter and form. From what you wrote, I think what you are saying is equivalent to a hardware/software distinction. By the way, it turns out that this is not separate from physics: There is no way Lewis, let alone Aristotle, could have known this, but

            Landauer’s principle is a physical principle pertaining to the lower theoretical limit of energy consumption of computation. It holds that “any logically irreversible manipulation of information, such as the erasure of a bit or the merging of two computation paths, must be accompanied by a corresponding entropy increase in non-information-bearing degrees of freedom of the information-processing apparatus or its environment”.[1]

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Landauer%27s_principle

            In the current context, the important point is that information/form needs a physical substrate due to the links between thermodynamics and information.

            This isn’t relevant, especially not to Lewis’ purposes, which were obviously directed at his coreligionists.

            Actually, I think David Friedman is also a non-believer,
            so when he and I are discussing a religious
            question, the relevant set of deities is all the deities humans have dreamed up, not just Christian ones.

          • I like the “is some sense” 🙂 Sidesteps the interminable arguments over whether uploading counts as survival or not, or as “mere copying” and whether multiple copies count…

            Correct. I’m not trying to demonstrate what the right answer to these questions is, since I don’t know. I am trying to show that your confidence that you know for certain that the answer accepted by Lewis and many others is wrong is not justified. One of your arguments was that we know that things that physically affect the brain affect the person, and I was demonstrating that that did not show that the person was not something distinct from the physical body by the analogous case of uploading.

            As best I can tell by the later parts of your response, you also don’t understand the nature of consciousness, but you think you do. I’m pretty confident that the A.I. controlling an NPC in WoW is not conscious, that there is no person actually looking out of the NPC’s eyes—almost as confident as you are that Lewis is obviously wrong.

            And I am even more confident than that that there is someone looking out of my eyes, that being the first observation from which everything else follows, as per Descartes.

          • soreff says:

            @DavidFriedman

            I am trying to show that your confidence that you know for certain that the answer accepted by Lewis and many others is wrong is not justified. One of your arguments was that we know that things that physically affect the brain affect the person, and I was demonstrating that that did not show that the person was not something distinct from the physical body by the analogous case of uploading.

            Ok, and thanks for the response. I think at this point we are discussing what degree of confidence I have, and what degree is justified. I did write “beyond a reasonable doubt”, not “beyond a shadow of a doubt”. (BTW, even if the state of the evidence for Lewis’s time were 50:50, I’d still view his writing what he wrote as irresponsible).

            In terms of the actual evidence:
            Yes, I’m basically reasoning from the fact that things that physically affect the brain affect the person. I would also make the slightly stronger claim that we don’t see any evidence of anything which affects the person which doesn’t affect the brain. I agree with you that the uploading gedankenexperiment illustrates a case where it would be reasonable to view successful uploading as a person’s survival beyond their brain’s survival. But I return to Occam’s razor: We have no evidence that this is actually happening. We can posit that every cat’s immune system’s stored knowledge is routinely uploaded to a feline immunological deity made of dark matter, but we have no reason to suppose that this is actually true either.

            Re consciousness:
            It isn’t that I think I understand the nature of consciousness, but rather that I haven’t seen a convincing case that it presents a problem for a materialistic view of the mind. We can clearly see how self-reports of consciousness can arise from material systems, printf(“cogito ergo sum”) in the minimal case. I agree that the NPC case is unlikely to be truly conscious – but I don’t see an obvious problem with the possibility that the same material process that leads from asking someone “Are you there?” to their “Yes.” is the same process that leads to their subjective feeling of consciousness.

          • Nick says:

            Hmm – I’m not familiar with the division of matter and form. From what you wrote, I think what you are saying is equivalent to a hardware/software distinction.

            That’s not what the division of matter and form is. I get the impression—please correct me if I’m unintentionally strawmanning—that you think the soul is something which acts on or interacts with things like our emotional state, what we’re thinking about, and so on, that in other words it’s one more interacting entity in the physical system and so it’s susceptible to the laws of thermodynamics. But it’s not that way, because the soul isn’t physical at all, and its relationship to the body is not one of efficient causation but formal. I realize that’s a completely alien idea. But that’s the sort of idea you have to actually engage with before declaring that the existence of the soul is proved false beyond a reasonable doubt and Lewis and co are depraved. Which, to your credit, you’re trying to do right now! It’s just, maybe you should admit that you owe us an apology and that you need to do some background reading for next time.

          • soreff says:

            That’s not what the division of matter and form is. I get the impression—please correct me if I’m unintentionally strawmanning—that you think the soul is something which acts on or interacts with things like our emotional state, what we’re thinking about, and so on, that in other words it’s one more interacting entity in the physical system and so it’s susceptible to the laws of thermodynamics. But it’s not that way, because the soul isn’t physical at all, and its relationship to the body is not one of efficient causation but formal. I realize that’s a completely alien idea.

            If it isn’t physical at all, and it doesn’t cause anything to happen in someone’s body, then what makes you think it exists at all? Why would you think it is a necessary part of the description of reality? What evidence is there for a non-interacting, non-physical thing? If you have a pointer to a compact description of what you mean by the relationship to the body being “formal”, I’ll look at that.

          • Nick says:

            If you have a pointer to a compact description of what you mean by the relationship to the body being “formal”, I’ll look at that.

            That’s a tall order! I’d usually recommend an intro book like Feser’s. But if you’re looking for something shorter I’ll see what I can find. (Lurkers are welcome to make their own recommendations.)

          • I don’t see an obvious problem with the possibility that the same material process that leads from asking someone “Are you there?” to their “Yes.” is the same process that leads to their subjective feeling of consciousness.

            I agree. That is why I wrote “Seen from the outside I am explainable as a physical body with a programmed brain”.

            The problem is that I am seeing from the inside, and I don’t see how the same explanation explains that.

          • soreff says:

            @DavidFriedman
            Many Thanks!

            The problem is that I am seeing from the inside, and I don’t see how the same explanation explains that.

            Agreed. I don’t know of a coherent explanation. (waves arms vigorously) I wouldn’t be surprised if something like leakage from the mechanism that generates our self-reports to others into our internal dialogue winds up accounting for for our perception of our consciousness. Maybe I just have blurrier qualia than most people, so I see this as less of a distinct problem…

          • soreff says:

            @Nick

            That’s a tall order! I’d usually recommend an intro book like Feser’s. But if you’re looking for something shorter I’ll see what I can find.

            Thanks!
            I googled him, and I see he has a blog
            http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/
            but, unfortunately, trying to dig into the obvious place to try in that,
            http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2012/03/what-is-soul.html
            one of the things I see is

            In particular, a human being can be damaged to such an extent that it completely loses the organs of its animal and vegetative powers, and thus cannot exercise them at all — to such an extent that only its intellectual and volitional powers remain. But those intellectual and volitional aspects of human nature, precisely because they are immaterial and thus do not depend on any corruptible material organ, cannot themselves perish, any more than they can in the case of an angel — though they would be impaired given that the human intellect’s normal source of data is the sense organs, which are material, and given that its activity is normally carried out in conjunction with imagination, which is also material.

            Unless he is using “intellectual” and “volitional” as terms of art, which do not mean what they appear to mean, then this is just wrong. Both types of capabilities depend on brain structures. The way he puts “imagination” into a different category is downright bizarre.

            Nonetheless, if you can point me to something
            (even if written by Feser) reasonably compact that describes what you mean by a formal relationship between body and soul, I’ll look at it.

          • Nick says:

            Intellect and volition are indeed terms in Scholastic metaphysics. And yes, the imagination is considered a separate faculty of the mind: it produces and entertains images, which is not what the intellect does. Imagining a triangle involves imagining, say, a particular red right-angled triangle or yellow isosceles triangle or what have you. Conceiving of triangularity with one’s intellect, however—say, grasping it for the purposes of some proof—isn’t like that at all, even if it coincides with or even requires imagining for the purposes of the proof one or a few triangles as aids.

            I didn’t want to link to Feser since, like, I do read other folks, but since you went ahead and linked to his soul post, here’s a followup which addresses precisely your new question. The money quote:

            There are really two issues here which need to be disentangled. One is the question of the intellect’s survival of death, the other concerns its operation after death. Now the facts the reader calls attention to don’t affect the former question. Remember, the Thomist allows that in the intellect’s normal state, corporeal activity is necessary for its operation — it’s just not sufficient for it, which is why intellectual activity is essentially incorporeal. Even if corporeal activity were necessary full stop, and not just under normal conditions, it wouldn’t follow that the Thomist’s arguments for the intellect’s immateriality are undermined. Hence it wouldn’t follow that the soul does not survive death. What would follow is only that it would be inert after death. So the reader is just mistaken to think that the dependence of intellectual activity on the brain threatens to “ruin [the] argument… for its survival after bodily death.” At most it threatens the claim that the intellect can function after death. A proponent of the “soul sleep” theory of personal immortality could happily accept that, and argue that the intellect functions again only when the body is restored to it at the resurrection.

            Now of course, the Thomist does not accept the “soul sleep” theory. He holds that the intellect does function after death. How can this be? Remember that I said that corporeal activity is necessary for the intellect’s operation under normal conditions. But as Aquinas argues in the article linked to above, it is not necessary full stop. The intellect functions one way when it is in its normal state — that is, when conjoined to the body — but in another way under the abnormal circumstances when we are no longer “in the flesh.”

            Is this an ad hoc move? Not at all. To see why not, consider some parallel cases. In normal circumstances a tree needs to be rooted firmly in the ground if it is going to survive. That’s what roots are for, after all — to root the tree to the ground so as to provide it stability and take in nutrients. Knock it over so that it is torn out by the roots and it will die. But there are, of course, abnormal circumstances wherein it can survive without being rooted to the ground — namely when it is nourished hydroponically instead. Similarly, normally a human being cannot be nourished without a properly functioning digestive system. Destroy the stomach, say, and a human being will in normal circumstances die. But of course there are abnormal circumstances in which nourishment can occur without a stomach — via intravenous feeding. Examples can easily be multiplied: In normal circumstances, you cannot walk without properly functioning legs; in unusual circumstances you can (e.g. when fitted with prosthetics). In normal circumstances you cannot hear when the various parts of the ear are not functioning properly; in unusual circumstances you can (e.g. via an artificial tympanic membrane). And so forth.

            All these cases involve interventions in the natural course of things. In the natural course of things, such-and-such is necessary, and we remedy the loss of such-and-such by supplementing nature. And that’s what happens, in Aquinas’s view, vis-à-vis the intellect after death. In the natural course of things, the intellect cannot operate without input from sensation and imagination. Hence if it is to operate after death it needs some supplement to make up for what it has lost. Of course, unlike hydroponics, artificial limbs, etc., we can’t provide the sort of metaphysical supplement required in this case. But God can. As Aquinas says in the article linked to, “the soul in that state understands by means of participated species arising from the influence of the Divine light.”

            Now, as my emphasis above indicates, you don’t have to accept all the stuff about soul sleep and God’s hydroponics for the soul. The key point is that, yes, the intellect is of course tied up in the functioning of the brain. But the intellect being immaterial persists shorn of the brain, though that means it can’t function (without the literal intervention of God). The same goes for the will.

            As for your original question, regarding the relationship between soul and body—that’s going to be for another day. I’m otherwise occupied at the moment, but I’ll find something, and if I can’t I’ll just have to write something up.

          • soreff says:

            @Nick

            Intellect and volition are indeed terms in Scholastic metaphysics.

            Thank you. I was afraid of that, but terms of art are unavoidable (particularly in a practice spread across 600 years and most of Europe).

            Thanks very much for your examples. They make the terms much clearer. I would use somewhat different ones in ordinary English. What they named as “imagination” sounds closer to what I would call “visual imagination”. To use an example from another branch of this thread, when I mentioned a hypothetical, nonexistent feline immunological deity made of dark matter, I’d call that an act of imagination, though only the “feline” part was associated with an image. The immunological part was conceptual – from picking a part of mammalian bodies with environmentally learned information that isn’t part of the brain.

            I’m still not quite sure quite what is meant by intellect. Let me approximate by taking your triangle theorem proving example as at least something included in intellect. As you quoted,
            (thanks!), Feser wrote:

            in the intellect’s normal state, corporeal activity is necessary for its operation — it’s just not sufficient for it, which is why intellectual activity is essentially incorporeal.

            so, as per Feser, matter is insufficient for intellectual activity, and, from your example, one part of that is theorem proving.

            Automated theorem proving is one of the oldest branches of AI, with an early example going back to 1954.
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automated_theorem_proving
            It actually is sufficiently successful that it is used routinely:

            Commercial use of automated theorem proving is mostly concentrated in integrated circuit design and verification. Since the Pentium FDIV bug, the complicated floating point units of modern microprocessors have been designed with extra scrutiny. AMD, Intel and others use automated theorem proving to verify that division and other operations are correctly implemented in their processors.

            I’d mostly been leaning away from bringing up AI in this overall discussion. If we currently had AI that displayed the _full_ range of human capabilities which had been considered as incorporeal, then I’d have brought it up as an argument for the sufficiency of matter. But in the special case of theorem proving – yes, that works.

          • Nick says:

            Siri and Cortana can talk, but it doesn’t follow that they have anything like a speech center of the brain, so it’s likewise not obvious to me that AI have intellects just because they can do theorem proving. But if they really did have intellects after all, the Thomist can bite the bullet here and say they have souls too.

            I didn’t find any explanations of formal causes I like, so here’s my own attempt. Aristotle outlines four cases for an object’s being what it is: the material, the formal, the efficient, and the final. The efficient is the easy one: if I make a sandwich for lunch, I’m the efficient cause of the sandwich. Complications abound when you, for instance, bring instruments and chains of causes into it—I’m still the one who made the sandwich even if I used a knife to spread the peanut butter rather than my fingers—but we’ll set those aside. Material is easy too: that’s the constituents out of which the sandwich is made. There’s some complications here too, where you might reasonably ask whether the sandwich is really made out of bread and peanut butter vs fats and protein, and something Aristotelians call “prime matter,” but we don’t need to get into that here. The final cause is a lot harder to get a handle on, but put simply it’s teleological: the acorn’s final cause, for instance, is its mature state as a tree, likewise for other organisms, an artifact like a tool the purpose you’ve made it for, and so on. Of course, there’s teleology imposed from without and teleology from within, as it were: an artifact like a tool’s teleology is extrinsic because it’s imposed by humans, but the acorn’s is imposed by its genetic makeup (and perhaps it’s ecological niche, and whatever else, we don’t need to get into the weeds here). Naturally, this means the Aristotelian sees teleology as a real feature in the world, but that’s not strictly relevant to this account.

            The formal cause, lastly, is the shape which the thing takes, construed broadly. I don’t literally mean shape, of course, I just don’t have a good way of putting this. There are many varieties of forms in Aristotle’s metaphysics, like the (literal) shape of a thing, its texture, color, and so on, which you might hear called tropes in modern philosophy, or abstract particulars: not redness as such, but the redness which inheres in this apple, that sort of thing. Now, the fundamental unit in Aristotle’s metaphysics is the substance, and a substance has its own substantial form, what makes it the particular thing it is. Living organisms, surprisingly enough, are Aristotle’s archetypal substances, and for him we can speak intelligibly of the nature of a cat or a human, taken abstractly. And a given human can be said to have a nature because they, as a substance, have a form, which defines the (literal) shape of them, the texture, the color, and so on.

            Why do we need the form/matter distinction in the first place, though? There are two traditional arguments. The first is the argument from change: things go on being the same way they were despite changes in their matter, so something other than their matter must be persisting through these changes. Somehow, despite exchanging out all my material constituents on a regular basis I’m still human, indeed still me (let’s leave aside problems of personal identity though). The second is the argument from limitations: an abstract universal like a circle is, of course, perfectly round, that’s part of what a circle is, but things in the world are not. So how can we say that something in the world is circular at all? The solution is to have these abstract particulars which themselves instantiate the abstract universal: it’s circularity, to be sure, but imperfectly realized, so that it’s not the universal itself which inheres in the more-or-less-circular object. Note here we’re being careful there to distinguish the particular from the universal; it’s usually pretty obvious when we’re talking about one or the other, but— especially an individual human’s substantial form vs “human nature” as I’ve been using it— this distinction is something to keep in mind.

            Now, it’s a key part of Aristotle’s scientific enterprise that not only can these natures be discovered and known, but that’s just the kind of knowledge scientific knowledge is. You should be able to reason, for instance, from features of human nature to other features of human nature, or to features of particular humans. For instance, take the classic syllogism, All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal. This is only true because humans have a nature, and mortality is of course an essential feature of that, not just some accidental one so that some humans might be immortal, and because Socrates himself instantiates that nature, literally has that form, so that there is a connection between what’s true for man in general and what’s true for Socrates the man specifically.

            In Aristotle’s science substantial forms are related to one another as genus and species. Note this isn’t the modern, biological meaning but rather the logical one. That old definition of man as a rational animal? It’s that way because man’s genus is animal and his specific difference (literally, the feature of his nature that makes him specific, a species, differentiated from other species of his genus) is his rationality. We don’t need to quibble about what rationality here means (you’ll find a lot of poor definitions of it, I’m afraid) except to say that man has an intellect in a way that other animals don’t. Again, we’re not going to quibble with what precisely the capacity of the intellect is.

            It may be objected that substantial forms don’t really cover all the ways in which a substance is. Humans can have blue or green or brown eyes, so which eye color does the substantial form specify? Well, none of them; that’s accidental to the nature of the human. It’s not at all accidental that a human has eyes, though. It might be objected again that there exist rare cases of humans born without eyes; are they not human? No, they are; the substantial form defines the norm or ideal, as it were, of the human—it’s not a big conjunction of everything humans have in common. Indeed, humans can have features in common that aren’t really part of the essence; the medieval example of this was our ability to laugh and make jokes, which is accidental with respect to our rationality, but common to man anyway.

            It follows from what I’ve said above that a human needs a substantial form to be called a human at all; without something like that unifying and organizing it, as it were, it’s just an aggregate of whatever substances themselves constitute it materially (molecules, plausibly). In fact, a dead human is just that, since being alive is an obvious feature of living things. In other words, upon death, the substantial form leaves the body. Under normal circumstances this kind of substantial change (literally, change from one substance to another) means the first substance is destroyed; we’ll see why this is not the case for humans next.

            Now, since humans have, as we said, an intellect, they have a capacity which isn’t material. Aristotle had arguments for why the intellect must be material; the short of it is that to grasp a universal like triangularity or circularity you need it “in mind” in some way; the intellect just is that capacity for “being” the form as thought, but it would make no sense to say this capacity itself has a material component, because you in no way have a physical triangle in your head when you think about a triangle. At the same time, that there is in some way a representation of the thought about the triangle in your brain is fine; we’ve acknowledged after all that without the brain the intellect isn’t going to be doing any grasping of forms.

            So, humans have a substantial form, part of which of course is our possessing an intellect—something which is immaterial and hence can persist (albeit nonfunctionally) beyond death. Consequently, upon death an individual human’s form might persist, shorn of its matter, the body, but not of its immaterial capacities, like the intellect. I think it’s easy to see, by now, why a medieval would call this the soul.

            One last objection: one might ask what all this has to do with regular Christians. Well, until the Reformation, this was Western Christianity’s view of the soul. This account was developed by celebrated theologians and affirmed by the Council of Vienne, so it still is the Catholic’s view, and to my knowledge it wasn’t explicitly denied by Protestants of the time (though to be sure you can folks like Luther shitting all over philosophy in general). Lewis being a medievalist, and not himself a philosopher so much as a theologian and popularizer, he appreciated Scholastic thought—so while he likely wouldn’t have endorsed the specific account of the soul I’ve given here, he wouldn’t have condemned it either, nor would he be interested in giving some different account.

            This has been my own explanation, and it’s mostly first draft material, so I can’t say it is perfectly accurate, or that it explains things nearly as well as they could be explained. And of course any mistakes are my own. This is really only a taste of the subject; I haven’t even given many arguments, mostly just placed the soul in its broader metaphysical context. Read Feser’s Scholastic Metaphysics or something if you want a more robust defense of all of it.

          • soreff says:

            @Nick

            Many Thanks, and Happy Easter!

            Siri and Cortana can talk, but it doesn’t follow that they have anything like a speech center of the brain

            Agreed.

            so it’s likewise not obvious to me that AI have intellects just because they can do theorem proving. But if they really did have intellects after all, the Thomist can bite the bullet here and say they have souls too.

            Ouch. Then I’m not following what counts as an intellect, or whether this is or is not a counterexample to the claim that it is immaterial. Lets set this one aside.

            To return the the central question:

            The formal cause, lastly, is the shape which the thing takes, construed broadly. I don’t literally mean shape, of course, I just don’t have a good way of putting this.

            In a nutshell: This makes formal souls uploads.

            First: Sorry about the term of art “upload”, I’ll expand this shortly. Second: Uploads do not exist (yet?). Sorry to be using a thus-far-nonexistent technology in a discussion about whether souls exist. It may well be, depending on the path of future technology development and historical events that human uploads will never exist.

            To expand: An upload would be a data structure with detailed information on an individual human’s brain, probably down to the level of the strength and sign of every synapse. The idea is to have enough information to capture all of their long term memories, minds, preferences and personalities. Roughly speaking, my understanding of the scientific consensus is that if we measured all of the synapses and all the neural interconnections and a relatively small amount of additional data like sensitivities of (some?) neurons to global quantities like blood sugar and some hormone concentrations, we’d be able to run a simulation of the neural net and it would generate brain states (in the sense of which neurons were firing) and think like the original person did. We can do some of these measurements on a small scale but we are orders of magnitude away from doing it on a complete human brain.

            To expand on why I think this matches the formal soul: I apologize if I unintentionally strawman what you said. You wrote of

            abstract particulars: not redness as such, but the redness which inheres in this apple, that sort of thing

            and (if I’m reading you correctly) these are those particulars which are sufficient to establish that

            Somehow, despite exchanging out all my material constituents on a regular basis I’m still human, indeed still me

            Although I don’t think you’ve said it explicitly, I think you mean that the sum of someone’s abstract particulars is their (Aristotelean) form, which is their soul.

            To go further out on a limb, let me fixate on “particulars”. What makes you you and me me are the specific ways that we differ from a randomized human (say from a population average of everything measurable about a person). That is exactly what information, data, in the sense of Shannon’s information theory, tells us. It tells us what the particulars are, out of a set of possibilities. For the data necessary to describe someone’s particular mind, memory, preferences, and personality, that comes back to an upload.

            One side note:

            Now, since humans have, as we said, an intellect, they have a capacity which isn’t material. Aristotle had arguments for why the intellect must be material; the short of it is that to grasp a universal like triangularity or circularity you need it “in mind” in some way; the intellect just is that capacity for “being” the form as thought, but it would make no sense to say this capacity itself has a material component, because you in no way have a physical triangle in your head when you think about a triangle. At the same time, that there is in some way a representation of the thought about the triangle in your brain is fine; we’ve acknowledged after all that without the brain the intellect isn’t going to be doing any grasping of forms.

            As you’ve said, there is a physical representation of the thought about the triangle. I’m going to assume that this is either in long term memory and part of the thinker’s neural connections or in short term memory and part of their transient brain state. The first is consistent with capturing it in an upload. The latter would lose it from an upload – but we lose short term memories all the time, and this is no big deal.
            Also, the universality of triangularity doesn’t preclude a physical representation.
            {(P1,P2),(P2,P3),(P3,P1)}
            is one of many possible representations for all triangles in general, and the representation sits in a finite number of physical bit storage cells in our computers’ DRAM.

            Returning to the main thread:
            If formal souls would be equivalent to uploads, then neural connections would be precursors to souls, and the tamping rod would have rearranged these precursors in Phineas Gage.

            I think this merges this sub-thread with the sub-thread where DavidFriedman and I were discussing his hypothetical uploading scenario, which was the first post that this sub-thread branches off from.

            So I’d basically come to the same conclusion I did there:

            I agree with you that the uploading gedankenexperiment illustrates a case where it would be reasonable to view successful uploading as a person’s survival beyond their brain’s survival. But I return to Occam’s razor: We have no evidence that this is actually happening. We can posit that every cat’s immune system’s stored knowledge is routinely uploaded to a feline immunological deity made of dark matter, but we have no reason to suppose that this is actually true either.

          • Doctor Mist says:

            I wouldn’t be surprised if something like leakage from the mechanism that generates our self-reports to others into our internal dialogue winds up accounting for for our perception of our consciousness.

            Yes. We have a well-evolved system going back to fish and lizards for building a model of the world as we perceive it. In humans, this is augmented by a system for planning and imagining and modeling the behavior of others in our tribe — which is our superpower, since it’s what gives us the ability to improve via cultural changes, much faster than by biological changes. (See Henrich’s The Secret of Our Success.)

            Evolution would not do that (and probably could not do that) by inventing a whole separate system — it would co-opt the existing system and adapt it to this new purpose, so it’s quite natural to find that we perceive an inner life in a way that seems a lot like our perception of the physical world.

          • soreff says:

            @Doctor Mist
            Many Thanks!

          • Nick says:

            Sorry for the delay in my response. Other duties.

            I’m not following what counts as an intellect, or whether this is or is not a counterexample to the claim that it is immaterial. Lets set this one aside.

            I was only trying to make a necessary vs sufficient condition point, but agreed, we can set aside the AI question. Though my response right now might bring this to the fore anyway.

            (if I’m reading you correctly) these are those particulars which are sufficient to establish that [despite changing material constituents I’m still human]

            I can’t tell whether you’ve got this forwards or backwards, which is partially my fault. It’s difficult in a situation like this, when I’m mostly just defining the terms and relating them to one another, for you to know how we actually proceed deductively from one to another. So to run it by again, for the sake of clarity, we start with the supposition that I’m human and have been human all my life, what else would I be; then we observe that my material constituents are changing all the time; then we conclude that matter is not sufficient to determine my species. So we posit something else united to matter which is responsible for it, which we’re here calling form.

            As you’ve said, there is a physical representation of the thought about the triangle. I’m going to assume that this is either in long term memory and part of the thinker’s neural connections or in short term memory and part of their transient brain state. The first is consistent with capturing it in an upload. The latter would lose it from an upload – but we lose short term memories all the time, and this is no big deal.
            Also, the universality of triangularity doesn’t preclude a physical representation.
            {(P1,P2),(P2,P3),(P3,P1)}
            is one of many possible representations for all triangles in general, and the representation sits in a finite number of physical bit storage cells in our computers’ DRAM.

            This isn’t quite right, and I think it gets to the crux of our disagreement. I agree that a triangle can be represented by {(P1,P2),(P2,P3),(P3,P1)}, but, however you’ve encoded information about the triangle in the brain, it doesn’t actually have a determinate meaning, i.e. it can’t be identified as being about the concept triangle, specifically, and not visually similar things like the letter delta, or representationally similar things like a quiz problem I’m doing which defines a particular triangle as {(P1, P2), … }, or conceptually similar things like the trilateral. Folks like Kripke have put forward arguments of this sort, like the famous “quus”; James Ross has a short paper using this example and others. Consequently, I think there has to be an immaterial aspect, or else we lose any certainty that we’re thinking about triangles, about modus ponens, etc., and perversely, our ability even to reason comes into question.

            Now, you may object with this thought experiment: suppose we do a brain upload, and then we ask the human what a triangle is, and we ask the upload what a triangle is. Both will very likely give the same answer, and if they do the upload’s virtual neurons containing the definition will even light up in correspondence with the human’s real ones. So what could possibly be missing from the upload? I agree that that’s likely what would happen, assuming uploading is possible. But I maintain that however that description is realized materially is not determinate.

            Suppose the neurons represented a description, in English, like “a polygon with three edges and three vertices.” Even to account for what that means you actually need to include all the neurons accounting for the meaning of each term in it, like polygon, edge, and vertex: if you didn’t, then those terms could be replaced with nonsense definitions, or something for which it really means, to the rest of us, “a mammal with two legs and two arms.” Of course, that’s fine, because we uploaded the whole brain. But wait a second, English is all just convention anyway. So you’ve actually located the meaning this sentence holds in conventions which the brain happens to share for the purposes of description with other humans, which is more or less entirely outside the brain itself. It’s not like the following pixel arrangement, “A polygon with three edges and three vertices” is triangular in its literal form the way Δ is. Likewise, outside of very specific conventions from outside on how to interpret the content of the brain, you can’t just assign meaning to it.

            All right, you may object, but surely we can come up with descriptions of things which even alien archaeologists, coming upon artifacts of Earth in ten thousand years, might understand. This is the whole point of things like the Arrecibo signal, right? So doesn’t that show that there are more and less reasonable interpretations of something’s meaning, and therefore that there’s something in the description itself which has lent it to mean triangular and not two-armed bipeds? Well, yes and no. Yes, some descriptions are better of things than others. Don’t accidentally define a triangle as a trilateral! But no, it’s not determinate in the way that thoughts need to be if we’re going to say confidently that we’re thinking, as Ross explains above in his paper. And if your solution for putting meaning back in the descriptions is an application of alien intelligence, that risks begging the question as to whether aliens have immaterial intellects the way people do or not.

          • soreff says:

            @Nick

            Many Thanks! This is going to take me a while to respond to. Very roughly, I think that this make the criteria for determinate meaning so stringent that I don’t think it exists at all. Roughly speaking, I think that all that we ever have are some version of finite computations: Either on particular outcomes of processes, like squaring 4 to get 16, or on representations of algorithms, like taking a representation for squaring an even number, and manipulating it in a finite number of steps like (2N)^2 -> 4*N^2 to assert that the result is a multiple of 4.

            Both of these work because they use reasonably reliable computational processes on data that actually does fit in our heads. Now the “quus” example has a compact description, and we can compute (or simulate computation, if you prefer) consequences of that. There “are” intractable examples where the most compact description of the outputs or of the procedure itself can’t fit inside out heads (or, in more extreme cases, in the observable universe). I think it is quite plausible to say that reasoning about such cases (the cases themselves – not about the compact representation “functions with too many bits to fit in the universe”) just doesn’t happen. (The sense of “are” above is itself a bit messy – I don’t mean to imply that Platonic ideals of such things actually exist.)

          • Nick says:

            soreff,

            I’ll give you time to read the paper if you like, but Ross actually anticipates that response in section III of his paper. The money quote, from p. 146:

            [I]n order to maintain that the processes are basically material, the philosopher has to deny outright that we do the very things we had claimed all along that we do. Yet our doing these things is essential to the reliability of our reasoning. Moreover, we certainly can, Platonistically, define the ideal functions, otherwise we cannot say definitively what we cannot do.

            If I’m reading you right, you’ve done just this. You’ve said, on the one hand, yeah, there are these things we can’t really do and we’re only approximating by way of finite computation, but on the other hand at least we can do that. But how in the world can you grasp that-thing-we-can’t-do, which you need to do to see the difference in the first place? More:

            That exposes a contradiction in the denial that we can think in pure functions, however; for to define such a function is to think in a form that is not indeterminate among incompossible forms. To become convinced that I can only simulate the recognition that two Euclidean right triangles with equal sides are congruent, I have to judge negatively with all the determinateness that has just been denied.

          • soreff says:

            @Nick

            In order to maintain that the processes are basically material, the philosopher has to deny outright that we do the very things we had claimed all along that we do.

            Yes, I basically agree with the objection to Ross here, and I basically disagree with Ross. Ross talks about “reliability of our reasoning”, with such a stringent requirement that it cannot exist.

            But how in the world can you grasp that-thing-we-can’t-do, which you need to do to see the difference in the first place?

            In a nutshell, I’m comparing an oversimplified specification to a slightly less oversimplified algorithm. If I look at e.g. a process, human or silicon-based, for adding two numbers, e.g. based on their digits, and if I _do_ look at the memory limitations when analyzing the process, but I _don’t_ look at memory limitations when defining the specification for what is the desired correct answer, then I’ll notice that the computational process will fail when it hits the memory limit.

            Really, the specification itself is also oversimplified. Even counting has its limits in a finite universe. The observable universe has a volume of about 5×10^185 cubic Planck lengths, each of which can hold at most one bit. In any representation for integers, if one wants to count 1, 2, 3… with each integer distinct from all previous ones, at around 2^(5X10^185), the best that the universe can do is, roughly, … 2^(5X10^185)-2, 2^(5X10^185)-1, “many”.

            To return to a human scale:
            When Ross asserts that humans perform e.g.

            Adding-genuinely adding, not estimating-is a sum-giving thought form for any[emphasis added] suitable array of numbers.

            he is basically overestimating human capability. He (elsewhere in the paper) acknowledges but then disregards human limitations, which he calls “accidental”. In essence, he is describing human capabilities with an approximation that overestimates them – and then argues for an immaterial component to human intelligence based on precisely the place where his approximation fails.

            Limitations are important. One facet of both quantum mechanics and special relativity is that they exclude certain questions that Newtonian physics expected to be able to answer, “What are the exact position and velocity for a given particle” for the former and “Of two distant events, outside of each others’ light cones, for all observers, which came first?”. Distinguishing behaviors of functions which require too many bits to fit in the universe may well be in the same category. There may not be a right answer.

            One quip I’ve been using, which is still true:
            Anyone who thinks that current AI exceeds all human capabilities overestimates current AI.
            Anyone who thinks AI will never exceed all human capabilities overestimates humans.

        • Randy M says:

          Basically, I’m taking Screwtape’s “your chief aim at the moment should be the very same thing for which the patient’s lover and his mother are praying — namely his bodily safety” to indicate that Lewis has the opposite preference.

          Lewis’ ultimate aims are the opposite of Screwtapes, but that doesn’t mean he is diametrically opposed to every single thing they want.
          The demon’s goal (right then) is the man to be safe != Lewis/God wants the man dead.
          Rather, Lewis/God-in-Lewis-view instead doesn’t chiefly want the man safe. He has other goals for the man. Purposes beyond the man’s own life, which incidentally usually can’t be fulfilled when the man is dead, but (Lewis is arguing) the man’s perfect safety and comfort can obscure these purposes from view.

          It’s very clear Lewis wants this to bother his readers, to make them think “Wait, I pray for health and safety. Why would demons agree with that? Demons want misery.” Lewis wants them to think about the goals that their comfort may be distracting them from. I don’t think it’s a necessary conclusion that he wants them dead, though.

          Lewis would hold the grim reaper to be an enemy, but not the only or ultimately most dangerous enemy, primarily because Lewis doesn’t believe death is the end of a person.

          • soreff says:

            I don’t think it’s a necessary conclusion that he wants them dead, though.

            Fair enough. There is ambiguity in inferring what Lewis would want from the text. Would you agree that the text is consistent with my interpretation of Lewis’s preferences as one possible interpretation?

            Note that Lewis has other passages in this section which also suggest rather grisly interpretations:

            How valuable time is to us may be gauged by the fact that the enemy allows us so little of it. The majority of the human race dies in infancy; of the survivors, a good many die in youth.
            it is obvious that to him human birth is important chiefly as the qualification for human death, and death solely as the gate to that other kind of life.

            To me this reads as Lewis worshiping a god which chooses to crank up infant mortality. Yetch.

          • Notsocrazy 24 says:

            @soreff

            That seems to be what you think because you are (from Lewis’s perspective) more on Screwtape’s side than Lewis’s. Of course Screwtape characterize’s God’s actions that way, he finds them abhorrent. I doubt, however, that Lewis would think of infant mortality (or any other kind of mortality) in that way.

            It is certainly a common atheist/non-Christian complaint that if one presumes God’s omnipotence and omniscience, then he seems to be doing a bad job with the whole infant mortality/torture/bugs that burrow into people’s eyes, lay eggs, and then the larvae eat their way out thing, yeah? But that’s not how Christians view it.

            Of course, as a non-believer myself, I don’t think I’m the person argue the pro-Christian side, but I do think understanding the difference in perspectives is important.

        • Tracy W says:

          Why are you taking this as indicating that Lewis has the opposite preference? Why dismiss the possibility that Lewis has a preference in a way that is fundamentally different to the demons’, but not opposite?

    • Tracy W says:

      There’s nothing valiant in your mind in someone willing to risk or even choose death for their ideals? For a man to, say, throw himself on a grenade to save his comrades? C. S. Lewis fought in WWI.

      Even in more modern times, we see a willingness to risk death for high enough stakes as admirable – think of the praise for the firefighters who headed into the World Trade Centre on September 11.

      • vV_Vv says:

        Even in more modern times, we see a willingness to risk death for high enough stakes as admirable – think of the praise for the firefighters who headed into the World Trade Centre on September 11.

        There was another group of people who chose their own death for what their high ideals on 9/11, and we Westerners regard them as evil.

        • Nick says:

          But we don’t regard them as evil for being willing to risk death for high enough ideals. If they had those ideals and were cowards, they’d still be evil. They’d be worse people, really, even if they’re less dangerous for it.

          I’m happy to continue this discussion (it’s a reminder for me to finish my review of Natural Goodness, for one), but I do want to note it’s all beside whatever point soreff or Lewis was making.

          • soreff says:

            I do want to note it’s all beside whatever point soreff or Lewis was making.

            Thank you. This discussion would indeed be a separate one.

        • Doctor Locketopus says:

          You are equating people whose “high ideals” required that they murder a bunch of total strangers with people whose high ideals required them to expose themselves to extreme personal danger to save other people’s lives.

          You might want to reexamine your algebra there… I don’t think the two sides of that equation match up exactly.

      • dorrk says:

        On the other hand, in the documentary Shoah, one of the interviewees was a Jewish Holocaust survivor whose job in the concentration camp was to guide other Jews into the crematorium. He said that he considered suicide daily, but the Jews who knew they were about to be killed implored him to stay alive if he can and tell the story of what had happened. Surely, if he were to have killed himself or died in opposition to the inhumanity in which he was being forced to participate, he would have been justified; but, just as many Jews would have been killed (+1 actually) and his compelling testimony would have been lost. Risking one’s life for one’s ideals may be a net good, or it may just be selfish; I don’t think it’s inherently good, and the sacrifice:benefits ration would need to be addressed on an individual basis.

        • Tracy W says:

          I’m not sure how that contradicts anything I said? I don’t think anyone is saying that it’s always good to risk your life. There can be some situations where it is good to risk your life and others where it is good to endure your life.

    • Deiseach says:

      My point of view is: Wait a bloody minute here. Lewis, as the author-antagonist of Screwtape, wants to get one of the people on his own side killed???

      Not any more than a surgeon wants to cut off your leg. But if your leg is gangrenous, it has to come off. The “patient”, as Screwtape calls him, is in a wartime situtation. He is in imminent danger of death. But if he were not, even then death is the one inevitable thing we all know will happen to us. So being afraid of death is not going to do any good.

      The demons don’t care if humans live or die, in fact they prefer that we die. Humans want to live, and their loved ones want them to live and not die (for various reasons). The mother and lover want the patient to live from motives of love, the demons want him to live from motives of hatred – because if he dies now, he will possibly escape them and they will have lost out on food and a victim.

      What is that fear of death in the situation described in the book? The man is doing work that means there is a small but real risk of being killed. If he goes around every waking moment “omg omg omg i’m gonna die!” he will be useless, he will shirk and fail in his duty, he will make his life miserable. Lewis does not want him to die, he wants him to be free of cowardice. Yes, I could die, and having acknowledged that, I will put it out of my mind and do my best to do my duty and live my life. The demons want to trap him in a web of cowardice and selfishness and fear so that he will be constantly thinking about how he can minimise the risk of death (which, beyond some basic precautions, he can’t realistically do anything about) and will be huddled up in himself worrying and doing his best to avoid, and avoid thinking about.

      Death is not the absolute worst thing that can happen. If he gets free of that fear, he will be free in a lot more ways.

      • soreff says:

        Many Thanks!

        Death is not the absolute worst thing that can happen. If he gets free of that fear, he will be free in a lot more ways.

        True enough (e.g. some illnesses are worse). It is, however, the end of everything, both positive and negative, for the person concerned.

        Ideally, one wants to treat the disadvantage of a mortal risk as roughly the product of the probability of dying times the difference between the amount of pleasure and pain in one’s life, times one’s remaining life expectancy. And then weigh this against what one gains by taking the risk – rejecting risks where one’s loss outweighs one’s gain, and accepting those where one’s gain outweighs one’s loss. This is, of course, a hard calculation to do, and the best that can be managed is a very rough approximation.

        • SaiNushi says:

          “It is, however, the end of everything, both positive and negative, for the person concerned.”

          Unless you’re Christian and happen to believe it’s NOT the end of everything.

          • soreff says:

            Unless you’re Christian and happen to believe it’s NOT the end of everything.

            Actually, neither necessary nor sufficient 🙂

            A Christian who happens to believe that it is not the end of everything for them, but who is in fact wrong, will still end.

            A Hindu who happens to believe in reincarnation, if they should happen to be correct (no, I’m not expecting that they are), would not end.

            Belated Happy Easter!

  31. walkeredwards says:

    It seems to me that this review, as well as a fair number of the comments below, miss the real value of Peterson’s writings and lectures. Peterson makes cliches “sound” meaningful not because of some sort of Steve Jobsian charisma, but because he integrates them into a belief system as emotionally compelling as Christianity and with a basis in evolutionary biology(The lobsters, differences between genders, the manner of function for the human eye, etc) and developmental psychology(his references to Freud, Piaget, Jung). The criticism that Peterson is an unoriginal spouter of cliches would be well founded if it were not for the value he offers his audience by starting from the most base rules of biology and from them deriving an argument for the Bible’s validity, as well as his many other conservative-leaning hobby horses. I think this more than anything else is the reason he’s appealed to a group of people who otherwise might have ended up as self-righteous Reddit atheists.

  32. philwelch says:

    Is Peterson really more like Lewis than he is like, let’s say, Marcus Aurelius? I’m not sure, except insofar as Lewis and Peterson are both moderns and so more immediately-readable than Meditations.

    Give the Gregory Hays translation a shot. People make Marcus Aurelius sound portentous and formal when Meditations is literally just a set of journals he kept to remind himself how to be a good person. Hays did them a service by translating them into very contemporary and colloquial English.

  33. theredsheep says:

    Re: prophecy, I think it’s more that we’re wired to trust people who sound absolutely certain in general, for whatever reason. It might be some function of the percentage of people who turn out to be confident for good reason vs. the percentage of people who are confident because they’re stupid or crazy. I once heard a woman speak who identified herself as a “prophetess” and told everyone in the room (a meet-the-author event at the library) about what God wanted. Now, I don’t believe in a bit of what she was saying, other than very broad generalities like “God exists.” Certainly I thought she was a loon. But because she spoke in just the right firm, level tone, I felt absurdly tempted to listen to her anyway. There are plenty of people out there who we think are absolutely certain of the words coming out of their mouths, but there’s always a certain defensiveness about them. To be actually able to say something with perfect, calm conviction is really quite rare. Most of us are plagued and undermined by some level of doubt or modesty.

    Have not read Peterson, have seen videos of his lectures where he seems unremarkable and uninteresting. Maybe it’s just that I’m not in the market for a belief system, I don’t know.

  34. jonnyallred says:

    What does Scott mean by

    I’ve long-since departed the burned-over district of the soul for the Utah of respectability-within-a-mature-cult.

    ?

    • Jared P says:

      I took it to mean that he is no longer a wandering soul being thrown about by every wind of doctrine. He has found his cult, and has his foundation well set.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        I think it’s more like “I’m old and unable to get caught up in philosophical fervor.” The burned-out district was burned out. All the energy people had for gettin’ high on Jesus was used up, because they already got high on Jesus.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burned-over_district

      If I hadn’t know it was a reference to actual history, I would have assumed it was allegorical.

      Note that Mormonism started there.

  35. fnord says:

    So you’ve reconsidered your position on charisma now, I imagine?

  36. Carl Milsted says:

    Regarding “making the world an end:” This concept is closer to what the Bible says than what C.S. Lewis implies in the quote above. The Bible is very political!. The Old Testament is heavily about enforcing a certain legal system. The New Testament promises crowns and kingdoms for the saints when Jesus returns.

    And that return is to here on Earth. The Bible does not promise a cushy heavenly retirement home for the righteous. It promises government jobs in the far future. See here for relevant citations.

    • hnau says:

      I have nothing against your Biblical interpretation, but I think you’re missing the point. When Lewis and most other Christian writers refer to the “world”, they mean it in the sense of John 18:36 and similar passages. In other words, it doesn’t include God’s kingdom, wherever and whatever that is. In fact the two are always contrasted. Peterson, along with others of the mindset Lewis identifies, seems to envision a (shallow) kind of salvation through institutions, cultures, technologies, etc. as we know them.

  37. jvalim says:

    The words “cliche” and “platitude” used in the review could equally well be replaced by “ancient wisdom”. Peterson admits that he’s not saying new things, and that these are old truths. The thing is, when most people speak about them, cliches and platitudes are what comes out. What makes Peterson different?

    Charisma, confidence and facility with language certainly help. But I think a crucial thing about Peterson is that he understands these ideas about life on a level most people don’t, and he believes, deeply, in their importance in actually relieving needless suffering. Let’s take the idea of telling the truth, or at least not lying. Most people would indeed agree that it’s not good to lie, but that confidence wouldn’t go very deep. For Peterson, it’s bone deep, coming from decades of reflection on clinical experience, research on totalitarianism and mythology and other things. So he can explain the idea about why being truthful is important very well. He can make the idea concrete from multiple perspectives, connecting it to results in real life, in the society and in the psychology of the individual.

    Anybody can spout off a cliche / ancient truth about life. It take something more to make that cliche come alive again in the minds of listeners and to help them appreciate it’s importance. Actually, this ties rather nicely to Peterson’s idea about how the culture is dead, and needs to be revivified all the time. That’s what a cliche is, it’s the corpse of a dead idea, an idea that may have once been something important, even crucially so. The idea behind the cliche must be grasped, understood and applied to current life by living minds for it to come alive.

    • hnau says:

      I agree with your first paragraph but I want to propose a different answer.

      Truths don’t change, but culture does. Any given bit of communication necessarily targets a particular point in the (truth, culture) space. (OK, more of a small region than a point, but you get the idea.) I barely know anything about Peterson, but my secondhand impression is that his success is more about being the first to reach the “young, Internet-y, secular-ish, right-wing” audience with these particular ideas than about anything in the ideas themselves.

      EDIT: reading your comment more carefully, this is actually pretty close to what you said in your last paragraph.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      “The Bible is new to every generation.”

  38. sclmlw says:

    Good post overall. While I don’t agree with lots of Jordan Peterson, I think Scott fundamentally missed the boat in some of his criticisms because he systematically views things from a different perspective than Peterson, which was missed.

    From what I can tell, Peterson is intensely interested in the idea, “Everyone has the capacity to become a Nazi war criminal. What causes that phenomenon?” His answer, and the central driving idea of his philosophy, seems to be, “Anarchy/chaos is worse for society/humanity than horrific, unimaginable cruelty. So evolution pushed society to develop in a way that will always choose cruelty over chaos. Thus, if you were in Stalin’s Russia, you’d run the gulags to stave off anarchy, and you’d kill hundreds of people if you had to. You may hate it, but it was required for humanity to soldier on, so it’s what evolutionary forces produced.” Peterson cares because he wants to understand how to steer societies away from the gulags and the killing fields.

    This appears to be the foundation of his philosophy, and you can understand a lot of what he talks about as an outgrowth of this idea. For example his answers to, Why do good things happen to bad people? He accepts that good things happen to bad people as a given. However, when good things happen to bad people, those people have a choice to make: should I give in to chaos and ascribe meaninglessness, or should I accept some order of some kind? And Peterson would say that societies that would have chosen the chaos angle didn’t survive. Evolution now has the choice as a built-in function, where you will always accept order of some kind. And that order could manifest in a number of different ways, such as the killing fields of Cambodia, but what matters is that if your choice is killing fields or chaos you’ll choose killing fields every time. So Peterson wants to ensure we don’t get to the point where that’s the only choice left; he advises his acolytes not to destroy society (which leads to the chaos/authoritarian dilemma), but to recognize that they’re going to choose to follow some order of some kind, and that they should therefore intentionally follow even a flawed societal order, because it’s better than gas chambers and ethnic cleansing. The reality that “bad things happen to good people” shouldn’t persuade them to tear down society and try starting all over again, because that leads to the chaos/tyrant choice, and we can’t go there. So when bad things happen, you have to do your part to keep flawed society going, or else we get concentration camps. Go back and read the quotes above in that context and they all make sense. He’s not trying to answer “why do bad things happen”, he’s trying to direct what he sees as an appropriate response to when they do.

    This also directs his motivations when talking to people about his theory. Fundamentally, he has hypothesized a reason so many people in the 20th century became horrible, and he sees the current non-awful state of civilization as unstable. He sees trends he believes could tear down society, and cause people to spiral back to the point where they will be willing to do anything to stave off the chaos. In some of his videos he gets passionate, and in most cases he reserves his passion for this basic idea in some form or another: everyone has the capacity to become a Hutu killing Tutsis; you would do it, even if you think you’re better than that; if you don’t follow certain ideas, you (and society in general) will devolve into that awful state.

    I don’t know if any of that is true, or if it’s a different kind of psychobabble, but the fundamental observation that Scott is missing is that Peterson is thinking on a society-wide and philosophically-projected evolutionary development axis. Peterson’s pronouncements flow from this angle. He’s not thinking as a utilitarian or deontologist or consequentialist. He’s thinking, “What do populations do in these situations, and how can we nudge populations away from mass torture/murder?” That’s not utilitarian maximization, or negative utilitarianism. It’s sort of like Nassim Taleb’s concern about fat-tail events breaking fragile systems, and how to avoid that.

    • Garrett says:

      So evolution pushed society to develop in a way that will always choose cruelty over chaos.

      This sounds to me like school-yard bullying is thus a fact of the human condition and any attempts to remedy it are bound to fail.

      • Viliam says:

        The proper way to prevent school-yard bullying is to have some teacher present at the school yard and to punish those who try to bully others.

        Using Peterson’s language: Chaos (absence of teachers) naturally evolves into a primitive order (bullying). To improve that situation, we need to establish better order (teacher oversight; where the teachers are bound by the laws of society, which have evolved over centuries…).

        You can’t remedy a primitive order by merely removing it. The power vacuum gets automatically filled by another primitive order. (If the current bullies would e.g. accidentally get hit by a bus, given large enough population someone else would become the new bully.) You fix problems by creating a better order. (But the kids do not have the mental capacity and time to reinvent Magna Carta etc. among themselves during the school breaks.)

      • sclmlw says:

        Peterson has a response to this, which is basically, “Bulllying is not generally a strong strategy given iterative games”. He gives the example of primates, where apparently most alpha males are not bullies. The problem with establishing dominance through bullying is that maybe you got the situational upper hand, but you have to worry about the present and the future as well. If you’re a primate, eventually you take a nap, or a couple of the lesser males gang up on you, and that’s it for you. So sustained dominance is generally established on principles that look something like ‘good, righteous behavior’ that inspires admiration and/or trust.

        On the playground, this might present as ‘eventually you want to play a cooperative game like basketball, and nobody wants to play with you’, or some similar situation. My understanding of evolutionary biology (not my field of expertise) is that the theory of why homo sapiens was able to out-compete neanderthals was because we’re better at cooperative group behavior. So a strategy that undermines or ignores cooperative group cohesion is likely to fail in the long run, even if it succeeds in the short run.

        Of course, this doesn’t exactly explain why people bully in the first place. Likely it’s because people don’t always naturally choose the most successful strategies, but rather test strategies they think will work, and bullying looks like a good strategy if you don’t consider the long-term implications.

        It’s also likely that the long-term social implications of bullying is why the suicide attempt rate for bullies is on par with the attempt rate for their victims as well. Or maybe the causality works in the reverse, and it’s only social outcasts who choose to eschew more successful ways of establishing themselves in social circles (they tried those and they didn’t work). So they can choose to become a social outcast, or they can turn to bullying as a last resort strategy of getting respected and admired.

        Any way you slice it, bullying isn’t as successful a strategy in practice as its reputation suggests.

  39. Vanessa Kowalski says:

    Humans are living their best lives when they’re always balanced on the edge of Order and Chaos, converting the Chaos into new Order. Lean too far toward Order, and you get boredom and tyranny and stagnation. Lean too far toward Chaos, and you get utterly discombobulated and have a total breakdown… Peterson’s claim – that our goal is to balance these two – seems more true to life, albeit not as mathematically grounded as any of the actual neuroscience theories. But it would be really interesting if one day we could determine that this universal overused metaphor actually reflects something important about the structure of our brains.

    The Order/Chaos dichotomy seems more or less the same as the completely standard exploitation-exploration dilemma in reinforcement learning. Any RL algorithm has to strike a balance between exploiting already known strategies and experimenting with new ones. Surely this is reflected in the design of the human brain as well.

  40. vaniver says:

    I think Peterson is very against utilitarianism, but I’m not really sure why.

    See the earlier paragraph you quoted:

    Don’t be arrogant in your knowledge. Strive for humility, because totalitarian pride manifests itself in intolerance, oppression, torture and death.

    Most people who use utilitarianism use it to argue how doing the ‘wrong’ thing in the short-term really will help long-term. But also most people are bad at predicting the long-term, and would be better off doing something that they can be highly confident will actually have good local effects.

  41. apedeaux says:

    Oh my God.
    Jordan B. Peterson just redpilled Slate Star Codex.

    But seriously, as a huge fan of SSC and a megasuper fan of Peterson, I was rather shocked by your introduction: “But, uh…I’m really embarrassed to say this. And I totally understand if you want to stop reading me after this, or revoke my book-reviewing license, or whatever. But guys, Jordan Peterson is actually good.”

    Scott, why did you have such a negative, and I would assume misinformed idea of what Peterson is about? Why would it be so shocking to your audience to hear you express your admiration for the man and his ideas? I can understand some points of disagreement, but you act like you’re going to be thrown out of your own community for some kind of blasphemy.

    • Jack Lecter says:

      you act like you’re going to be thrown out of your own community for some kind of blasphemy.

      I can’t speak for Scott, but my own (casual, almost entirely uninformed) impression of Peterson prior to this was that he was an anti-sj hack. If this lines up at all with the general public perception, we’d expect that

      1. SSC commenters who are pro-sj wouldn’t like him because they’re pro sj.
      2. SSC commenters who are anti-sj wouldn’t like him because he’s a hack and they don’t want to be associated with him.
      and
      3. SSC commenters who are pro-sj would additionally dislike him because, like the anti-sj commenters, they have standards.

      (This ignores neutrals, and people who don’t care very much, not because there aren’t any but because they’re unlikely to factor in to the calculus.)

  42. Levantine says:

    Regarding JBP, I oscillate between solid approval and high irritation.

    I sent him a couple of messages respectfully arguing to correct an error. Months later he still talks as if he hasn’t read them. Meanwhile, I learned that what I was trying to tell him … strikes at the basic motive of his endeavour! It’s to explain and ward off totalitarian evils. Well, since c. 1984 when he had become fascinated by them, newly opened archives and mainstream historiography showed that those totalitarian evils were I. neither that totalitarian, II. nor that destructive, and on top of it, there is lack of care by JBP to methodologically treat them comparably to the evils of our own societies.

    It shows to me that Peterson is not unlike myself in my teenage and adolescent years. I see his very postulation of the problem is plainly flawed, and without the virtue of being original.

    Predictably, many of you will brush aside what I just said as some idiosyncratic apologetics for dictators. (As a matter of fact I’m libertarianish.) Yesterday I came across this sub-reddit that, with its 4.5 M subscribers & all, indicates the spread of irritation with JBP’s flaws:
    https://www.reddit.com/r/enoughpetersonspam/top/

    To be sure, I’m glad for most of what JBP does.

    • manwhoisthursday says:

      He says he has been getting thousands of emails a day since the controversy over pronouns broke out. Don’t take it personally.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I get a lot of emails “correcting” me on stuff. I try to read as many as I can, but a lot of them I still disagree with, and I don’t have time to turn all of them into long discussions trying to resolve our disagreement, so it probably looks like I just ignore them.

      Peterson is a hundred times more famous than I am, so he probably gets this even worse.

    • m1el says:

      > Yesterday I came across this sub-reddit that, with its 4.5 M subscribers & all, indicates the spread of irritation with JBP’s flaws:

      The 4.5M figure is a lie. The visible value is exaggerated by a factor of a thousand by CSS. https://i.imgur.com/phyuF3E.png

      Now, the question is: if the subreddit is lying to you about the number of subscribers, what else is it willing to lie to you about?

    • SaiNushi says:

      “newly opened archives and mainstream historiography showed that those totalitarian evils were I. neither that totalitarian, II. nor that destructive”

      So it was perfectly safe in communist Russia to criticize the government? Communism didn’t starve hundreds of millions of people to death? What about all those accounts from people who escaped there? Are they lying? Hallucinating? (See Gulag Archipelago, and images from History textbooks in the 90’s.)

      Do you believe that the Gulags were real? If yes, then why do you think it wasn’t totalitarian? If no, do you also not believe in the concentration camps?

      • Communism didn’t starve hundreds of millions of people to death?

        Maoist China probably holds the record with about thirty or forty million. Both Stalinist Russia and Khmer Rouge Cambodia would be substantially less than that. Rummel’s total democide figure for the three is about 140 million, but nothing like all of that was starvation.

        So tens of millions, not hundreds of millions.

        • SaiNushi says:

          I appreciate the correction. Point still stands, tens of millions of people is still very destructive.

  43. joshmaundering says:

    With all the talk about transforming chaos into order, did anybody else have a flashback to the Incarnations of Immortality series by Piers Anthony? Those seem like such inconsequential books to me now, but they were some of the first literature I came across that included gradations of meaning.

    • Winter Shaker says:

      No, but I remember reading them (apart from no. 7, which I didn’t manage to get hold of when I was at an age to appreciate the rest of the series – hope I didn’t miss anything life-changing).

  44. MugaSofer says:

    But prophets are neither new nor controversial. To a first approximation, they only ever say three things:

    First, good and evil are definitely real. You know they’re real. You can talk in philosophy class about how subtle and complicated they are, but this is bullshit and you know it. Good and evil are the realest and most obvious things you will ever see, and you recognize them on sight.

    Second, you are kind of crap. You know what good is, but you don’t do it. You know what evil is, but you do it anyway. You avoid the straight and narrow path in favor of the easy and comfortable one. You make excuses for yourself and you blame your problems on other people. You can say otherwise, and maybe other people will believe you, but you and I both know you’re lying.

    Third, it’s not too late to change. You say you’re too far gone, but that’s another lie you tell yourself. If you repented, you would be forgiven. If you take one step towards God, He will take twenty toward you. Though your sins be like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.

    This is the General Prophetic Method. It’s easy, it’s old as dirt, and it works.

    Really?

    Those aren’t the central teachings of the Buddha. They’re not the central teachings of Moses. They’re not the central teachings of L Ron Hubbard.

    I think you’ve mistaken the tenets of Christianity, as generally recapitulated by Christian holy men, for generic Prophetic Wisdom that makes you lead a better life.

    Peterson is, at best, an atheist attempting to re-build Christianity out of objectively false Unsong-esque gibberish about “universal archetypes” and “racial memory”. At worst, he’s a wannabe cult leader who’s skilled at pretending to be smart and little else and actively opposed to those “generic” prophetic truths.

    • fontesmustgo says:

      S.A. didn’t say anything about “central teachings.” He said that those three things ((i) You can identify evil, (ii) You don’t want to avoid it, (iii) but you can) are common to the messages of prophets.

      Is the Buddha considered a “prophet”? Forgive me for doing this, but the Wikipedia entry states that he’s a prophet for a small Muslim sect and for Manichaeism. So if he doesn’t seem to fit under S.A.’s “prophet” definition, maybe it’s because he’s not generally considered to be a prophet.

      Moses? Well, he did a lot of stuff, but one thing he did was to give the Hebrews the law (which literally set in stone what was right and what was wrong), note that they don’t want to follow the law, and call them to knock it off. Prophet.

      Hubbard? I have no idea.

      • MugaSofer says:

        Scott said, and I quoted:

        To a first approximation, they only ever say three things:

        This is a very different statement from “they all say these three things at some point, buried in the middle of the stuff they actually care about.”

        Is the Buddha considered a “prophet”?

        I guess I did take a broad definition of “prophet”, as anyone who acts wild-eyed and convinces people they have special religious/moral wisdom.

        If we’re limiting ourselves to those people agreed upon as prophets by all three Abrahamic religions, I challenge you to give three examples that fits Scott’s description.

        • fontesmustgo says:

          Well, “only” is too broad; Elijah also said “make me a loaf of bread” (1 Kings 17:13). But I don’t think that invalidates SA’s point.

          If we’re limiting ourselves to those people agreed upon as prophets by all three Abrahamic religions, I challenge you to give three examples that fits Scott’s description.

          Elijah, Moses, Jonah, Ezekiel.

      • beleester says:

        Moses is, doctrinally, “the greatest prophet,” because he talked to God all the time about everything, but narratively, he’s a law-giver rather than a guy who reminds you of the laws you already know.

        The “Generic Prophetic Method” prophets in Judaism would be the post-Torah prophets, the Nevi’im. They follow a pretty reliable pattern of saying that Israel has strayed and followed false gods and done all sorts of obviously evil things, and if they don’t turn back and do what is right, there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Jeremiah is the foremost example of this type.

        You also get the flip side of that – prophets promising that Israel’s current awful situation will be restored if they keep their faith. The Haftarot of Consolation from Isaiah are the archetype there.

        (Although keep in mind that the prophets are not only writing Generic Prophecy. Isaiah talks about politics as much as he talks about faith.)

        Another famous example is Micah: “And what does the LORD require of you, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?

        • carvenvisage says:

          commandments 1-4 are ritual particularities, 5 is a generally uncontroversial moral prescriptions barring some exceptional cases, 6-9 seem exactly the sort of thing scott is talking about, and 10 I guess might be a new/radical idea, but that’s in raising to the level of a commandment, not in ‘covet’ing intuitively seeming a healthy or high rather than deleterious/low thing to be caught up in.

          -So of the 6 commandments making genuine moral prescriptions at least 4 are reinforcements of natural moral intuition, and really the fifth and six are too. (over-reinforcements if you ask me, but that’s not the question)

          • beleester says:

            Moses wrote down a hell of a lot more laws than the 10 Commandments. “Ritual particularities” take up basically the entire book of Leviticus and more besides.

            EDIT: Even if you narrow your scope to the “worldly” laws, I wouldn’t describe the writing style of the Torah’s laws as Generic Prophetic Method. It’s more like the Near Eastern version of legalese. “If someone commits this action, this is the punishment. If they additionally did X, they suffer Y punishment as well, except in extenuating circumstance Z.” It’s not “You know the laws in your heart, now follow them,” it’s “We’re building a new society, let’s write down the laws so that a court can actually execute them.”

    • manwhoisthursday says:

      “skilled at pretending to be smart”

      Peterson has a 10 old paper, with nearly 1000 citations. It’s a major advance in the study of human personality. He has an h-index of 50. (20 is your average tenured psych prof. 40 is something of a star.) He’s genuinely smart.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’m using “prophet” here not in the sense of “great religious figure” but in the sense of “the kind of guy who’s got a book of Nevi’im named after him”. Think Jeremiah, Isaiah, etc.

    • David Speyer says:

      Moses doesn’t spend much time calling people to repentance — when the Israelites under his leadership screw up, either they get smote immediately, or else Moses intercedes with God to save them. But plenty of Jewish prophets after this fit the mold: Jeremiah, Hosea, Micah, Jonah … I’ll agree that this is an Abrahamic model, but not that it is a Christian one.

    • Do…have you got a rationally defensible version of Christianity, Mr Not Objectively True?

  45. daystareld says:

    I predict most people who dislike Peterson are not going to be particularly swayed by this piece, because it’s a review of his BOOK, and only a little bit of a review of the man himself, but not a review of what actually made him (in)famous, which is his role in the culture wars and his political beliefs.

    The people who like Peterson are going to fixate on the glowing praises and run around asserting that Scott likes Peterson and thinks his teachings are good and useful, and feel validated in liking him too… and that will often bleed over into validation for agreeing with Peterson’s politics and dogmatic beliefs, which Scott barely touches on, but criticizes when he does.

    Like countless popular intellectuals, Peterson is someone who is most famous for the things he says and believes that are outside of his expertise. Him being effective and valuable within his expertise is good to know, particularly to me, as a therapist. After reading this, I’d actually be interested in reading a condensed version of Peterson’s therapy advice, with all the dogma and politics and religious fluff taken out to improve the Signal:Noise.

    But all that is also mostly beside the point: how good he is as a therapist and how good his intentions are and what benefits people can get from his teachings do little to nothing to address the undermining cracks in his ideology, the contradictions in his asserted beliefs, and the whiff of danger that everyone on the other side is yelling about. To wit, it is very easy to like someone if you only focus on what they’re good at and right about, and not what they’re not.

    Again, Scott only briefly touches on those other things in this review, which is probably for the best: it is, after all, a book review, not a Peterson review. But Peterson is more than this book, and the people who are against him are not against him for this book.

  46. Prussian says:

    Will someone please explain to me what is all this stuff about the transsexual lobsters or whatever?

    But from reading this – there’s a parallel here with Ayn Rand. I don’t want to get into the weeds about her philosophy for the moment, but something I heard a lot from people who read Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead and found the guts to kick drugs and booze and start a new career and leave a loveless, empty marriage etc. What they got from her wasn’t what to do so much as an absolute, burning sense that it was the right thing to do. Change is really difficult [citation needed] and often what is necessary is for people not just to know that change would be good, but that it would be essential. That it is the morally correct thing to do. A sense that goes far beyond self-help and into something closer to a kind of religious awakening. I may be overthinking things, but this sounds a lot like what Scott’s talking about here when he says that Peterson makes things feel meaningful, so meaningful that he found his own behaviour changing?

    N.B.: Would love to read Scott’s reaction to Rucka Rucka on Jordan Peterson.

    • suntzuanime says:

      The word-we-can’t-say have been running a smear campaign on Peterson to make him look like a loony and a bigot. It’s in reference to that.

    • danylmc says:

      Peterson’s first rule – stand up straight and don’t slouch – is justified based on the dominance hierarchy of lobsters, which is hard-coded into their brains by evolution. It is pretty much the first thing you encounter in the book and, to be honest, makes very little sense so his critics have seized on it.

      • Prussian says:

        That explains more.

      • Aapje says:

        His claim is that adopting a more dominant posture makes you feel as if you are higher in the dominance hierarchy.

      • Deiseach says:

        People who were oohing and aahing over Gay Penguin Couples as “see? it’s in nature! this is why we should have same-sex marriage!” can’t throw stones about using examples from nature such as dominant lobsters, is my opinion 🙂

        But isn’t the “Stand up straight and don’t slouch” (a) the advice our mothers and grandmothers and teachers gave us (b) related to that Power Pose thing? That having been refuted would seem to be a better counter-argument than saying he thinks humans are lobsters.

        • Jack Lecter says:

          hat having been refuted would seem to be a better counter-argument than saying he thinks humans are lobsters.

          Better, but less rhetorically effective.

          I doubt the general public knows what ‘failed to replicate’ means, and expecting them to actually modify their worldview based on it is setting yourself up for disappointment.

    • LadyJane says:

      The difference is, Peterson’s philosophy tells people to be the best they can be within the context of their given societal roles and the constraints of conventional morality. Whereas Rand’s philosophy tells people to be the best they can be, even if that means subverting societal roles and social norms and conventional morality, so long as you’re not actively harming others. Peterson and Rand both encourage people to work hard and be assertive and find strength within themselves, and they both reject the idea of blaming external factors for one’s problems. However, Peterson rejects it because he believes people should learn to be content with external factors as they are, whereas Rand rejects it because she believes that people can and should change those external factors if they’re not content with them. Peterson’s philosophy is ultimately centered around acceptance of circumstance, whereas Rand’s philosophy is ultimately centered around shaping your own circumstances.

      I’d say they both agree on the worst way to live (i.e. sitting around bitching about how much your life sucks without doing anything about it, while blaming other people or society as a whole or bad luck for your misery and inaction), but they have very different and almost diametrically opposed ideas on the best way to live.

      • bbeck310 says:

        Peterson rejects it because he believes people should learn to be content with external factors as they are, whereas Rand rejects it because she believes that people can and should change those external factors if they’re not content with them.

        Is this really correct? Based on the previous comments, that sounds not quite right–I don’t think Peterson would say people “should learn to be content with external factors as they are,” but that people should accept that external factors will not change quickly or easily and do the best they can within them. E.g., a black person in 1950’s Georgia should work to change the unjust law, but shouldn’t let the unjust law be an excuse for laziness or misbehavior. If people are going to discriminate against me unjustly for whatever reason, I should advocate against discrimination–while trying to be as good at what I do as I can despite it.

        • LadyJane says:

          See the gulag example above. Rand would probably say that someone wrongfully imprisoned in a gulag should try to revolt or escape, even at the risk of their own lives. In her eyes, they had a right to refuse a life in bondage, and to reject the unjust constraints of such an immoral system. Whereas Peterson’s view is that the prisoner should accept their conditions and live the best life they can within the gulag.

          Rand believed that it was acceptable for an entrepreneur to destroy their own land and resources, rather than let those resources be stolen from them by an unjust collectivist government. Peterson would probably say that the entrepreneur should probably just make the best of it and take whatever small amount of compensation the government was offering, even if it wasn’t fair.

          As the saying goes: Grant me the courage to change what I can, the serenity to accept what I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference. Rand’s philosophy heavily emphasized the first part; Peterson’s philosophy heavily emphasizes the second. In his eyes, the only thing a person really can change is their outlook, and some fairly minor aspects of their immediate surroundings (e.g. how clean their room is).

          • Aapje says:

            No, Peterson is anti-revolutionary, which is not the same as pro-stasis, because there is a middle ground: pro-evolution.

          • LadyJane says:

            @Aapje: Would you consider Rand’s point of view to be revolutionary, then?

          • Aapje says:

            Yes, in both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, revolutionary interventions are lauded.

            Rand sees it as admirable when Roark dynamites the Cortlandt housing project, where Roark is justified to destroy the property of others, because he can’t get his way within the confines of the ‘system.’

            The ‘strike’ of the productive against the freeloaders in Atlas Shrugged is even more overt, where this strike results in the collapse of government, allowing the strikers to build a new capitalist society based on Galt’s philosophy of reason and individualism.

            This is revolutionary Utopianism, not seeking evolutionary improvements while recognizing the value of the system as it exists.

          • where Roark is justified to destroy the property of others, because he can’t get his way within the confines of the ‘system.’

            I don’t think that’s an accurate description. The project has been built by defrauding him. He agreed to contribute his talent, a critical input, on a condition and that condition was violated. Hence the project is not, morally speaking, the property of others, any more than my wallet is the property of a pickpocket.

          • Aapje says:

            @DavidFriedman

            Roark made a gentlemen’s agreement with Keating to share his designs in return for the project being built exactly to the designs. However, Keating was not the financial owner of the project, nor did he have a contract granting him full creative control over the project. As such, he didn’t have the ability to make good on the promise and was in fact overruled.

            At most, one can then argue that Roark has a claim against Keating*. By striking against the Cortlandt housing project, Roark mainly harmed the (financial) owner of the project, who never made a promise to Roark and thus cannot be bound by the promise that Keating made. Furthermore, even if Roark had a claim against the Cortlandt housing project, the proper, legal way to go about it is to file that claim in court, not to engage in vigilantism.

            The standard in civilized society is that the courts decide whether and to what extent a promise has to be kept & when it isn’t, what remedy is reasonable.

            Those who break this standard are revolutionaries, who take it upon themselves to be judge, jury and executioner. This is not always wrong (like the resistance against the Nazi occupation), but then we are talking about (fairly rare) situations where revolution is justified.

            David, imagine that your wife would make a hard promise to ‘Bob’ to get you to attend an event. However, you refuse. Would Bob then be justified to shoot you (because he thinks that you are bound by the promise of your wife and that shooting you is a reasonable remedy)? Or do you think as I, that Bob merely has a claim against your wife and that shooting is not a reasonable remedy for not making good on such a promise?

            * Although Keating might reasonably argue that Roark knew that he had limited influence and that he could thus only be held to making every effort to get Roark’s design implemented fully, rather than be held to an outcome. He and/or the courts might also reason that only a clear contract can be considered a hard promise and that by not demanding this, Roark implicitly accepted that his demand might not be fulfilled.

          • @ Aapje:

            One of the issues various legal systems have to deal with is what happens if A steals something from B and then sells it to innocent C. One common answer is that B gets his property back and it is up to C to then sue A to get his money back, if he can find A.

            Keating bought Roark’s services with a promise which he did not fulfill, hence the services were, morally speaking, stolen. Hence the buildings in which those services were embedded were not “the property of others.” They were properties to which several people, including Roark, had a claim.

            I wasn’t challenging your point that Roark’s solution to the problem was that of a revolutionary rather than someone working within the system.

          • Aapje says:

            That is not the law in my country, unless C should have known that the sale was likely to not be legit (like the price being way too low).

            Anyway, I accept that there is a spectrum, where it is accepted that people engage in low level vigilantism, but Ayn Rand goes way into ‘this is not a reasonable response to a system that is not terrible unjust’ territory.

            Of course, Rand would presumably disagree with that last bit…

    • Galle says:

      Will someone please explain to me what is all this stuff about the transsexual lobsters or whatever?

      Peterson has a reputation as a crank because he tends to say really, really stupid shit about things that aren’t his field.

      In particular, the “lobsters” thing refers to an interview in which he claimed that human dominance structures must be genetically innate because lobsters also have dominance structures.

      The trans thing refers to his belief that it is illegal in Canada to not use a trans person’s preferred pronouns. He is objectively and verifiably wrong about this – the law does not say that it is illegal to not use a trans person’s preferred pronoun, the people who are responsible for enforcing the law have said that it is not illegal to not use a trans person’s preferred pronoun, and nobody has ever been sued or prosecuted for not using a trans person’s preferred pronoun. But Peterson persists in this belief nonetheless.

      • baconbits9 says:

        In particular, the “lobsters” thing refers to an interview in which he claimed that human dominance structures must be genetically innate because lobsters also have dominance structures.

        No, it refers to statements that he has made about how lobsters have serotonin receptor systems that are similar (to some extent) to ours and that we can understand some of our more basic behaviors by looking at their basic behaviors.

        The trans thing refers to his belief that it is illegal in Canada to not use a trans person’s preferred pronouns. He is objectively and verifiably wrong about this

        For him to be objectively wrong about this you would have to accurately represent his statements, can you do so?

        • Galle says:

          I can accurately represent the statement that he believes that Bill C-16 goes beyond existing hate speech legislation, which it obviously and verifiably does not.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Then please represent his position on C-16 with a citation, so we can address the position.

          • Deiseach says:

            which it obviously and verifiably does not

            Until somebody takes the first “sue the bakery/florist’s shop that didn’t cater my gay wedding” case, which we were all assured would never ever happen, what kind of crazy slippery slope talk is that, why would people who just want the freedom to LOVE bother with a case like that?

            Somebody is going to take a “you deliberately and maliciously misgendered me” case when some poor idiot in the public service sends out a thousand person mass mailing and inputs “Ms” instead of “Mr” (or vice versa) for “Occupant, No. 10 Whitebeam Way”. That’s how the world works, and if you think you can guarantee that nothing will ever slip, slide or stretch when it comes to laws and how they’ll be interpreted, good luck with that!

            Our organisation is currently labouring under the shadow of the forthcoming GDPR and you would not believe how shit-scared people are of making the tiniest error in case they get sued – because not alone “Organizations can be fined up to 4% of annual global turnover for breaching GDPR or €20 Million”, the complainant can also still sue the organisation separately, to the point where my boss has already had two melt-downs over implementing this, and it’s not law until May!

            Nobody is entirely sure how the law will be interpreted or if they will be hammered with the worst possible interpretation of a breach if it happens, because this is brand-new law that hasn’t been applied before. That’s why they’re scared. And your blithe assurance that a very hot-topic law will not at all go beyond existing legislation is nice, but it’s still only your opinion until it becomes the law of the land and the first disputes under it occur.

          • Galle says:

            Then please represent his position on C-16 with a citation, so we can address the position.

            Let’s take a look at the transcript of Peterson’s Senate hearing, because that’s the best text source I can find for both his claims and the core issue with them.

            Peterson’s primary crankish belief is the following:

            I think the most egregious elements of the policies are that it requires compelled speech. The Ontario Human Rights Commission explicitly states that refusing to refer to a person by their self-identified name and proper personal pronoun, which are the pronouns I was objecting to, can be interpreted as harassment. That’s explicitly defined in the relevant policies. I think that’s appalling, first of all, because there hasn’t been a piece of legislation that requires Canadians to utter a particular form of address that has particular ideological implications before, and I think it’s a line we shouldn’t cross.

            Peterson is making two claims here:

            1. That Bill C-16 does not merely prohibit speech, but rather compels speech.
            2. That no existing Canadian law compels speech.

            A simple reading of Bill C-16 reveals that these two claims cannot possibly both be true simultaneously. Bill C-16 does not except add the phrase “gender identity” to already existing laws, so it cannot possibly have the effect of outlawing any class of action that those laws do not outlaw already.

            (the transcript also reveals the reason that Peterson tries to make this distinction – compelled speech is considered unconstitutional, while prohibited speech is not)

            Now, the compelled speech issue revolves around the issue of pronouns. There are a lot of different things you can hypothetically call a trans person:

            1. Their birth name.
            2. The pronoun for their biological sex.
            3. Their preferred name.
            4. Their preferred pronoun.
            5. Singular “they”.

            Peterson argues that the Ontario Human Rights Commission considers it to be hate speech to refer to a trans person by 1 or 2, under certain circumstances. He argues that this compels him to use 4, and that therefore this is compelled speech. This argument is pretty obviously specious when you have all the different options listed like that.

            Senator Pratte eventually raised the obvious objection, and I’m going to reproduce this exchange in full, because it’s illustrative:

            Senator Pratte: Thank you for being here. I want to quote briefly from a document from the Ontario Human Rights Commission. It says:

            Some people may not know how to determine what pronoun to use. Others may feel uncomfortable using gender-neutral pronouns. Generally, when in doubt, ask a person how they wish to be addressed. Use “they” if you don’t know which pronoun is preferred. Simply referring to the person by their chosen name is always a respectful approach.

            So you can use a pronoun, or you can use their chosen name.

            If someone chooses to change his name from Paul to Peter, surely you would use Peter because it’s a matter of simple politeness and respect. If the same person chooses to change their name from Paul to Paula, why wouldn’t you use the name Paula simply as a matter of respect? What’s the difference here?

            Mr. Brown: I’ll speak about the legal issue there, which is you’re now introducing the full force of the law behind the requirement to use – and I’m dealing, obviously, with the pronoun issue. In terms of not addressing somebody by their legally registered name, for instance, I don’t think that’s where we’re running into trouble here. I think the issue becomes that if you don’t address somebody by the pronoun that they self-identify by, as I’ve read out to you, the fact that the full force of the law will be behind that person, that’s what I’m finding is troubling in the legislation.

            Senator Pratte: But the Ontario Human Rights Commission gives people the alternative not to use pronouns and use the person’s chosen name, which is always a respectful approach, so pronouns are not necessary or not mandatory. You can always choose the person’s chosen name as a respectful approach. Therefore, I argue—

            Mr. Brown: I’m not aware that there is a piece of legislation that compels you to use my proper name. In other words, once again, it’s the fact that the full force of the law will be behind it when we’re dealing with the group being identified in the legislation. So for instance, if I were not to call you by your chosen name, I’m not sure you would enjoy the full force of the law behind you as a result of that. That’s what I’m suggesting to you is the difference here.

            Senator Pratte: I’m arguing, sir, that you always base whatever you say on what the Ontario Human Rights Commission is saying. I’m quoting from the Ontario Human Rights Commission document. They are saying they’re not mandating pronouns. You can always use the person’s chosen name as a respectful approach.

            Mr. Brown: I respectfully disagree.

            Mr. Peterson: I would say that’s actually an indication of just how poorly the policy documents are written because I can quote this one, which is also from the Ontario Human Rights Commission website that says “refusing to refer to a person by their self-identified name and proper personal pronoun” constitutes gender-based harassment.

            So if the policies were written in a coherent manner and there weren’t internal contradictions, then your statement would be a reasonable objection. But since it’s not written that way – and I do believe, firmly, that’s a testament to the degree to which it is a poorly written set of policies – it’s full of internal contradictions that will be worked out very painfully within the confines of people’s private lives.

            Brown’s attempted counterargument makes it clear that my earlier characterization of Peterson was not a strawman – he really does believe that out of the five options I listed, the OHRC would force him to use number four. Pratte counters that the OHRC has said that no, they wouldn’t. Peterson finally objects that the OHRC website says that yes, they would, and that this indicates that the law is confused and for all we know maybe federal courts will compel someone to use preferred pronouns.

            I have three problems with this:

            1. Peterson almost always presents his concerns with Bill C-16 as absolutes. It’s only when pressed into a corner like this that he admits that he’s actually just discussing one possible hypothetical. Otherwise, he acts as if it was a certainty. It’s a classic motte-and-bailey maneuver.
            2. As previously mentioned, the Supreme Court of Canada has found that compelled speech is unconstitutional. This is binding on all federal courts. Or to put it another way: Peterson claims that the law should not be passed because if the federal courts interpret it in a very particular way that they are not legally allowed to interpret it in, it will be illegal.
            3. Bill C-16 is the simplest, cleanest, and most minimal possible extension of existing law to protect trans people. This means that Peterson is reading a great deal into it. It is difficult to imagine how the bill could have been written in such a way that Peterson’s interpretation was obviously ruled out without also ruling out Pratte’s interpretation.

            Essentially, the steelman of Peterson’s position is that Bill C-16 is bad because it could, hypothetically, given a judicial system with no respect for stare decisis, be interpreted in such a way that it would violate human rights. Peterson’s actual position is that it definitely will be interpreted that way. I don’t find the steelman something to be reasonably concerned about, as the same argument could be made against literally any bill, and I find his actual position to be crankish.

          • dorrk says:

            Some people may not know how to determine what pronoun to use. Others may feel uncomfortable using gender-neutral pronouns. Generally, when in doubt, ask a person how they wish to be addressed. Use “they” if you don’t know which pronoun is preferred. Simply referring to the person by their chosen name is always a respectful approach.

            This, alone, is something in which government has no business involving itself: dictating the parameters and methods of polite conversation. This is what people negotiate with each other on an individual basis as they meet and get to know each other. I know this is Canada we’re talking about, but doesn’t it strike anyone else as simply crazy that a governmental body is meddling in small talk?

            Second, it strikes me as an undue burden to require 99% of society to traverse an investigational matrix so as not to offend a fraction of a small group of people who, purposely or not, are at-odds with foundational and innate components of human organization. The burden should be on the 1% to introduce their unusual demands, as needed, at which point their interlocutors may accept or reject their terms according to free will.

            Presumably, this 1% feels that introducing themselves as individuals with atypical circumstances is an emotional burden that they are unwilling to bear. There’s no way, however, that the burden of the 1% equals the burden of the 99% having to now approach all other citizens as if they might belong to the 1%, just in case. All meetings between all people who are gender-conforming — that is, most meetings — must now begin with the presumption that someone in the party might be gender-nonconforming? It’s so ridiculous that it’s easy to ignore how ghastly it is that the force of law is getting involved.

          • Galle says:

            That is a perfectly legitimate argument against hate speech laws that deserves due consideration.

            But it’s not the argument that Peterson is actually making, nor is it a reasonable steelman of that argument. I’m not arguing over whether or not hate speech laws in general are a good thing, I’m just saying that Peterson’s specific objection to this specific hate speech law is crankish.

          • baconbits9 says:

            @ Galle- thanks for responding

            Peterson is making two claims here:

            1. That Bill C-16 does not merely prohibit speech, but rather compels speech.

            No, the actual quote is

            The Ontario Human Rights Commission explicitly states that refusing to refer to a person by their self-identified name and proper personal pronoun, which are the pronouns I was objecting to, can be interpreted as harassment. That’s explicitly defined in the relevant policies.

            Peterson does not state here (nor anywhere else I have seen, but I certainly haven’t read or heard everything he says on the subject) that bill C-16 specifically says X, he is testifying about how it will be interpreted. His specific claim is early in the testimony that you link

            When I first encountered Bill C‑16 and its surrounding policies, it seemed to me that the appropriate level of analysis was to look at the context of interpretation surrounding the bill, which is what I did when I scoured the Ontario Human Rights Commission web pages and examined its policies. I did that because at that point, the Department of Justice had clearly indicated on their website, in a link that was later taken down, that Bill C‑16 would be interpreted within the policy precedents already established by the Ontario Human Rights Commission. So when I looked on the website, I thought there were broader issues at stake here, and I tried to outline some of those broader issues.

          • Galle says:

            If you read the rest of my post, you’ll see that I already discussed that.

  47. Conrad Honcho says:

    So God is True, the Bible is True, etc. This awkwardly jars with book-Peterson’s obsessive demand that people tell the truth at all times, which seems to use a definition of Truth which is more reality-focused.

    Not exactly. He says not to lie. Peterson doesn’t say to tell the truth. It’s hard to know what’s true, but we definitely know when we’re lying. So don’t do that.

    My corollary to the “do not lie” rule is “do not do things one would feel tempted to lie about.” It makes life a lot easier.

  48. wickedfighting says:

    > But I actually acted as a slightly better person during the week or so I read Jordan Peterson’s book. I feel properly ashamed about this. If you ask me whether I was using dragon-related metaphors, I will vociferously deny it. But I tried a little harder at work. I was a little bit nicer to people I interacted with at home. It was very subtle. It certainly wasn’t because of anything new or non-cliched in his writing. But God help me, for some reason the cliches worked.

    perhaps the crazy thing is that i know exactly what Scott is talking about, just that it’s not in reference to any of JP’s works (i haven’t read them). when i finish a good book/anime/manga/visual novel which contains fictional characters who are simply such admirably good characters (see: Madoka Magica), i deliberately try to become a better person. at least for a while. the effects peter out over time, though they certainly do have more than a subtle impact on how i try to view the world after that (even if they don’t change my actions in the long term per se).

    but still. basically Scott is saying that the book impacted him on an emotional level. that’s something i can respect, but maybe Scott should try consuming other kinds of media (fictional or not) which are more likely to draw out an emotional impact, and re-evaluate JP in light of that.

  49. Edward Scizorhands says:

    My teenage son seems like the person that would benefit from a Peterson-style kick-in-the-pants, but if I bought the book for him, it would likely sit on his shelf until it got covered stuff and never end up read. I think Peterson’s resistance to some current authority regimes would make it more likely he would read it, but it would still sit there.

    • moridinamael says:

      Well, Rule 5: Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        I cannot force him, and if I did I suspect any kick-in-the-pants lesson would be quickly lost.

    • lvlln says:

      What about one of his many many YouTube videos? A lot easier to passively take something like that in, rather than cracking open a book, even though a video is likely to be less influential or effective. Here’s a talk he gives specifically on the book, in which he goes over each of the 12 rules and the thinking behind them.

    • PaulVK says:

      Many of Peterson’s followers are post-literate. Many of them work in IT and listen to YT all day and like most of American seldom read a book. The book puts Peterson on the radar for the literate world but YT is its own universe.

  50. moridinamael says:

    On Peterson hating utilitarianism: I kinda get it. I feel like utilitarianism is a wonderful tool for stopping yourself from recognizing evil when you see it, especially if you try to apply it at the micro-level. What a wonderful opportunity to put your finger on the scale and rule in favor of whatever is most convenient for you on every moral decision!

    Peterson is exactly right that the burning sense of “this is wrong” is natural to most people, but we become practiced at ignoring it. Trying to actually live by any kind of explicit consequentialism tends to train you even further in ignoring it. Thought experiments like Torture vs Specks seem to be designed to teach you to ignore your intuitions and just “calculate”.

    On meaning: I admit, at this point, the more I read various intellectuals talk about “meaning” the more I suspect meaning is just a feeling. Your boring corporate life doesn’t feel meaningful because your meaning-generating brain centers, attuned to the savanna, don’t generate the feeling of meaning. When you go on a road trip with your best pals, it’s meaningful because your brain recognizes this is a meaningful context.

    And when you’re on a road trip with your best pals and still don’t feel it’s meaningful, well, that’s depression. We recognize the disconnect between feeling and obvious correlates of human joy as a dysfunction.

    You’re not going to find something fundamental to ground meaning beyond “how much does this situation look like something a homo sapiens should be doing?” What else could it even be?

    • drethelin says:

      Weird, I feel like utilitarianism is the exact opposite of this

      • moridinamael says:

        It seems like it should be that way until you actually try to use it in daily life. Trying to be explicitly utilitarian just made me more of an asshole.

        Like Peterson says, you already know right and wrong when you see it in the vast, vast majority of situations.

        • drethelin says:

          This seems like it’s more a problem with you than it is a problem with utilitarianism.

          It’s also the case that there are a LOT of situations where it’s correct to be an asshole instead of being a nice doormat

      • The original Mr. X says:

        Utilitarianism is *supposed to be* the exact opposite of this. In practice, however, the difficulty of actually measuring utility and of predicting the likely consequences of our actions leaves it wide open to abuse. Like, for example, JS Mill calculating that utilitarianism demanded that he have an affair with another man’s wife, and that said man’s objections were just a mark of his selfishness.

  51. Mathamatical says:

    What evidence is there that JP’s methods *work*? His book sales?
    It seems like his fanbase is True Believers in exactly the sense outlined by Hoffer via lou keep! Not understanding that the young men who spend their day watching ‘SJWs evicerated!!’ youtube video also have an insatiable appetite for vacuous self-help advice is to not understand the history of Peterson’s rise. Devoting a significant amount of time and emotional energy to internet-culture war tends to at least correlate, and probably cause, a deep feeling that you’re doing things wrong and need serious change in your life, and this is evidenced by the dual purpose of communities like reddit’s theredpill.
    The main problem with this article is that ultimately Jordan’s platitudes and prophecy are not his major effect on the world. He is not a guru. His most popular work is as political figure and philosopher, and the fact that he echoes motivational Content is just personal-credibility evidence for his fans– who may have cleaner rooms but who Hoffer would predict are not going to stop watching important analysis of Trudeau’s ‘people-kind’
    BTW I do agree Peterson would be a fantastic teacher. He’s had absolutely fantastic reviews his whole career it seems, so he’s almost certainly a nice enough guy.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      What evidence is there that JP’s methods *work*?

      His decades of clinical practice that did not seem to result in obvious failure?

      • manwhoisthursday says:

        The Future Authoring program seems to have a lot of empirical support behind it.

        • lvlln says:

          I don’t think there’s a lot. Peterson always says that it’s been shown to work when he talks about it, but obviously he’d be motivated to say that, and also Beware the Man of One Study. And given the replication crisis in psychology, it’s especially good to be skeptical.

      • Mathamatical says:

        My comment is about jp as guru for the disaffected masses not jp as clinical psychologist

  52. Jack says:

    I tried a little harder at work. I was a little bit nicer to people I interacted with at home. It was very subtle. It certainly wasn’t because of anything new or non-cliched in his writing. But God help me, for some reason the cliches worked.

    Why do you think this? Sounds like reading a book about being “good” framed your week. Possibilities include: your behaviour wasn’t different at all but you drew different judgements about it; or, you could have acheived the same effect with a page-a-day calendar that says “TRY HARDER AT WORK. BE NICER TO PEOPLE.”

    • hnau says:

      Page-a-day calendars doesn’t work– they’re not nearly engaging or memorable enough to make a difference. Really internalizing these or any other rules for life requires persistent, creative, detailed haranguing.

  53. Jared P says:

    I rode the Jordan Peterson train and have seen enough videos that I feel I can clarify a few thing. (I recommend his earlier stuff before he became just another talking head.)

    Jordan Peterson is an atheist if your definition of God is “A big bearded guy that lives in the sky.” Which really is more just like a learning tool than an actual God. His understanding of God is something more like capital-B Being. The universe itself. The God of Spinoza and the God of Classical Theism. Is *that* God? Well, it depends on what you mean by “God”. If you don’t want to call *that* God, then don’t call that God! But some people experience that as God and live perfectly happy religious lives. (See: The Case for God by Karen Armstrong)

    Is God good? Well, is the universe good? The answer seems to be no. Being is blind, uncaring, and random. Jordan Peterson definitely believes that. BUT! Jordan Peterson believes that implicit in the Hebrew scriptures is the idea that Being is good. Which really is a crazy thing to say or believe in. It almost seems immediately wrong on the surface. Life is suffering! Everyone knows it. You can’t deny it. BUT! If you assume Being is good, then all suffering is under OUR control. To assume Being is good is to live in a non-fatalistic, non-nihilistic universe. To have “faith” that Being is good is *transformative.* The faith itself makes *meaning* possible. It orients your life.

    But maybe your life sucks. Maybe you have the worst life ever. Maybe you decide, “God (Being) is a monster! Everyone would be better off dead! Or to have never lived!” That’s what the negative utilitarian’s have decided. It’s what the anti-natalists have decided. And it’s what the columbine shooters decided.

    So instead of hating Being, try having faith that Being is good. Transform your life and transform the universe. Commit yourself to Being in the same way that a soldier commits to his country. Have faith in God, in this view, is more like having faith in your country. It’s not the answer to “Does your country exist?” It’s the answer to, “Should your country continue to exist?”

    Peterson then backs this up with myth. And I agree with him, this does seem to be the central myth. At some point both the good and the wicked must pass through fire, die, and their orientation towards Being revealed and/or solidified. The fire transforms the protagonist into a hero, and kills and/or transforms the weak into the villain. The fire (suffering) is sort of a selecting mechanism for goodness. The fire itself is neither good or bad (both PTSD and Post-Traumatic Growth exist. Suffering cannot be the cause of both. There must be an internal mechanism), instead it’s what you bring into the fire that matters. If you are suffering and have the assumption that Being is evil, you become Columbine. You become Vader on Mustafar. But if you suffer and commit yourself to Life, then you become an Altruist and a Hero. You are Harry Potter passing through Snape’s flames to save the Sorcerer’s Stone, a source of Eternal Life. You become a Cherubim with a flaming sword, protecting the Tree of Life. You become a Jedi with a flaming sword. You become part of that same fire which selects, because in protecting Being you become a Hero. And sometimes Heroes have to fight and kill in order to protect Being and Life.

    Every Harry Potter book, LoTR, Star Wars, Hunger Games, the bible, Buddha, the process of reincarnation…it all follows that pattern. It’s a meme passed down for thousands of years. Not immediately obvious, but saturating our entire culture. A naturally occurring esoteric mystery. Baptism by water and by fire, followed by rebirth or resurrection. Whether Jesus actually did what the bible says, at that point, is irrelevant to Peterson. Psychologically resurrection is very real. It’s the True Myth.

    • PaulVK says:

      I think this is a terrific summary of Peterson. It’s when you get to the last sentence that Lewis and Tolkien would diverge.

      • Jared P says:

        Paul VanderKlay? I had forgotten that you had mentioned you read Scott Alexander. I’ve watched some of your videos. I’ve been trying to work through and understand Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien, and Peterson and you’ve been a part of that journey. I’ve recently lost interest in Peterson as he’s become a little bit repetitive and too much like Glenn Beck circa 2008. But you definitely helped me conceptualize his ideas into a framework that I can now wrestle with.

    • Aevylmar says:

      But, like… did the miracles reported in the Bible actually happen? Does he think they did?

      Because as someone who studies history, I wouldn’t say that the question is a ‘learning tool’. I would say that the question is ‘vitally important’ and that the answer to the question is ‘not certain’. And if I knew, it would have a very significant impact on my actions.

      • Jared P says:

        Fundamentalism only ever seems to pop-up in times of conflict with a larger culture that poses an existential crises. But outside of that, only atheists seem to care about whether the miracles of the Old Testament actually happened.

        The reality of the Resurrection, on the other hand, is very important to people. But it seems less important to Peterson. To Peterson Christianity is the best and most accurate depiction of human nature. Its prescriptions really do seem to bring the blessings that it promises, albeit through naturalistic reasons. But repentance, prayer, and study of the scriptures really does work. And it really does seem to change your very nature, as well as creates stable societies. To just abandon those truths because a fundamentalist interpretation of them is wrong…well it could be an existential crises for the west.

        • Aevylmar says:

          Fundamentalism only ever seems to pop-up in times of conflict with a larger culture that poses an existential crises.

          To taboo the word ‘fundamentalism’ for a moment – the Christian faith in the Roman Empire was spread by people who believed, really believed with all their hearts, that it was 100% True, and were prepared to literally die for it. (Pagan sources confirm this, mostly with puzzled expressions on their faces.)

          You can, if you want, say that they were in a sense ‘in times of conflict with a larger culture that posed an existential crisis’, because a lot of the converts were slaves who’d been uprooted from their homes and were living in a distant place where the gods of their fathers were much less real to them. But if you’re going to describe the glory of the High Roman Empire more than a hundred years after it had conquered the people who converted as being a ‘time of conflict with a larger culture that posed an existential crisis,’ I don’t know what you wouldn’t use it for.

          But outside of that, only atheists seem to care about whether the miracles of the Old Testament actually happened.

          Explanation, I think: If the Resurrection is historical fact and the Gospels historical sources as good as any other, then even you don’t trust anything in the Old Testament you ought to convert to what is basically mainline Christianity. On the other hand,

          If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is worthless, and so is your faith

          , as Saint Paul put it.

          While I do, in fact, think that the best argument for the existence of God is nowhere in the events of the New Testament (Joan of Arc, though that’s a side note) I do think that, as Chesterton put it, the cross is the crux of the whole matter. That – not the Old Testament, and not the medieval saints – is where a decisive intellectual battle can, if won for either side, settle the war.

          • Jared P says:

            As I said, resurrection is a little different. To be a Christian and not believe in the literal resurrection makes one an odd ball in just about any era. It’s the Old Testament that no one seems to care about. If I remember Karen Armstrong on the topic, the church fathers even made the argument that the Old Testament was paradoxical on purpose so that people WOULDNT believe it was literal.

      • lvlln says:

        I’ve seen Peterson directly asked about the Bible, and from what I recall, he said that he didn’t believe in literal Genesis and the various supernatural things, but the one thing he couldn’t answer was the resurrection of Christ. He said he honestly didn’t know, and I think he said something like, “When someone gets everything aligned so perfectly, who knows what can happen? The world is a very strange place.” Which sounds kinda like kooky mysticism. Which he actually acknowledged.

        I think the resurrection is a phenomenon that’s genuinely at the edges of his understanding, and so he honestly doesn’t have an answer to that, at least not yet. As an atheist who doesn’t believe in the supernatural, I think it’s obvious that Jesus Christ didn’t resurrect, but after seeing a bunch of his videos (though none of his Biblical ones, actually), I can understand that it’s quite reasonable for him to see it as an open question rather than one that’s obviously false.

    • Michael Handy says:

      Giant nitpick, but isn’t Buddha’s entire point, kinda, that being, for some definition of the term, is evil, as is say Schopenhauer. And yet they affirm life as kind of a Transitional Program, because Voldemorting about doesn’t really help things.

      • Jared P says:

        I should have been more clear. And yea, “some definition” of Being gets complicated.

        >Jordan Peterson believes that implicit in the Hebrew scriptures is the idea that Being is good.

        The idea is in the Hebrew scriptures and not necessarily any other tradition. And by that assumption you get religions which are actively trying to change the world. Whereas in Buddhism there is more passivity. If Being/God is evil, then trying to change it does nothing.

        That is one definition of Being.

        Another definition which is more focused on smal-b beings recognizes that being is good. Almost every religious tradition teaches the golden rule in form or another. If everything were really that bad, then we should just nuke ourselves. But yet I don’t think Buddha would have approved of that. So Being must not be that bad.

        I don’t think there is actually a distinction between Being and being. But we need a way to talk about the fact that the universe sucks, and yet being in it is better than suicide.

    • hnau says:

      The God of Spinoza and the God of Classical Theism.

      I have to assume you meant classical Deism. Theism describes the position taken by Christian (and Islamic, etc.) orthodoxy, which asserts (among other things) the reality of the supernatural and of miracles. Not in the weaselly, mostly-metaphorical notion of reality that your comment leans on, but in the sense of “yes, this is its own independently-existing thing”.

      Theologically, the notion of “Being” is vacuous. You can obfuscate that all you like with vaguely spiritual-sounding language, but as soon as one starts asking “Why” questions it becomes obvious that the worship of “Being” has no real grounding.

      Practically, it’s sufficient to note that no successful religion has ever subscribed to this understanding of divinity.

      • Jared P says:

        I could be wrong on my definitions. I’m not an expert in the subject and am going off of my limited understanding of Karen Armstrong (my recent interest), wikipedia articles, and conversations with people smarter than I am. But the God that Peterson describes is basically what Spinoza described. It is not something to be believed in, but that thing which self-evidently exists. And he is saying, ‘Serve that. Serve creation. It sucks. Its claw, and tooth, and nail. But it is also everything you love, and everything good.’

        As I have listened to Karen Armstrong, I do not think her concept of God is incredibly different from that. And her argument is that her understanding of God is closer to what everyone (muslims, christians, jews, hindus) understood “God” to mean before modernity. Whatever it is that she is describing is not something to be believed in, but something that self-evidently exists. (The etymology of faith and belief have changed to epistemics when before the words means something more like ‘loyalty’ and ‘service’, according to her.) She even compares this ‘God’ to the Tao and Nirvana. She makes a powerful case that this is what the great christian theologians believed in, and is what I understand to be called “Classical Theism”. But again, I could be wrong. I’m not sure what the wiki means when it says “absolutely metaphysically ultimate being”.

        As far as whether this God “intervenes” is a question Peterson seems agnostic on. He is not sure whether God is more than Being itself or not. He is open to the idea that God could be more, but he is content with that thing which self-evidently exists. As Karen Armstrong would say, it is “unskillful” to theorize about theology.

  54. manwhoisthursday says:

    I tried to post a bunch of links to what I consider Jordan Peterson’s best video lectures, but the spam filter ate it because of all the links.

    In any event, the short version is that I most recommend watching the recordings he made of his University of Toronto courses, both Maps of Meaning and Personality and Its Transformations.

    I particularly recommend the second half of his personality course, as he talks about the refinement of the Big 5 model he created with Colin De Young. It’s based on the scientific paper for which Peterson is best known:
    Colin G. DeYoung, Lena C. Quilty, Jordan B. Peterson. Between facets and domains: 10 aspects of the Big Five. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 93(5), Nov 2007, 880-896.

    As for Maps of Meaning, I liked his analysis of Pinocchio for the 2017 course.

    The same courses vary from year to year, so you can get new things out of watching different versions of the same course.

    Happy watching!

  55. George Oleinikov says:

    So you’re saying “to make fun of the lobster thing”? Is that all you understood in that interview? Cathy is that you?

  56. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    Does Peterson tell people to not troll/ Trolling strikes me as both causing unnecessary suffering and also something that sucks up an amazing amount of time. I’m assuming that he wouldn’t have a following from the alt-right if he’s against trolling, but I could be wrong.

    Thank you for underlining that part of Peterson’s appeal is simply that he’s in favor of living ordinary life well. This is refreshing in an era when there’s a pressure to assume that nothing is more important than politics and/or that only extraordinary achievement matters,

    • christhenottopher says:

      In some of the Q&As he puts up I’ve seen him speak against trolling or telling fans wanting to fight “meme wars” to cool it and focus on themselves. It’s not a core thing he prioritizes because his priority is on either his general self help or speech restrictions when he gets to the culture war stuff.

    • Nick says:

      Folks occasionally request that he disavow people doing violence and “abuse” (as I think Cathy Newman put it) in his name, and I believe he responded that he would need evidence that anything of the sort was going on—going on in his name, that is. That’s is not a very helpful response, but I suspect it’s to avoid the old LBJ “I want him to deny it” thing. In one video, a transgender person confronted him over whether his views align with that of white supremacists, and he says something like, that’s a foolish question, if you want to know what my views are watch my lectures.

      I’m assuming that he wouldn’t have a following from the alt-right if he’s against trolling, but I could be wrong.

      I don’t think this view is at all tenable. Trump is not a white supremacist, but KKK members were still happy to vote for him. Likewise, Peterson says himself he doesn’t like Nazis, but it doesn’t mean the all trite won’t happily take advantage of his message for their own purposes.

      (This is not to say the all trite is Nazis, of course.)

      • Aapje says:

        That’s is not a very helpful response

        Why not? Shouldn’t people first prove a claim/accusation before demanding you respond to it?

        If you were asked to denounce a friend for being a rapist, wouldn’t you first want to see some actual evidence for that claim?

        I suspect it’s to avoid the old LBJ “I want him to deny it” thing.

        He did say that people should not be abusive towards Cathy Newman and that was immediately used as evidence that large scale abuse was actually happening (when Peterson didn’t say that at all).

        That is the problem of operating in a hostile media environment: statements will misrepresented to create a one-sided narrative.

        Note that the only person that I know of to actually do some research found very little evidence of support for violence against Newman, while he found far more targeted at Peterson. Now, this person is very partisan and I wouldn’t necessarily believe that the research was done well, but those who claimed serious abuse seemed to put forth no evidence at all. Not even a single tweet!

        • Nick says:

          Why not? Shouldn’t people first prove a claim/accusation before demanding you respond to it?

          If you were asked to denounce a friend for being a rapist, wouldn’t you first want to see some actual evidence for that claim?

          Of course they should, asking for evidence is the reasonable thing to do! My point was just that doing it still looks like avoiding a simple question. I think Peterson took the better option, but it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation—for precisely the reason you point out, namely that the reply will be misunderstood or misrepresented.

    • Levantine says:

      I’m assuming that he wouldn’t have a following from the alt-right if he’s against trolling, but I could be wrong.

      Peterson speaks explicitly against “the alt-right” as such. (There are YT videos.)

      The alt-right is sufficiently ill-defined that it’s hard to answer whether, or how many, of his followers belong to it, or have belonged.

      In addition, Peterson is pretty much unconditionally against ideologies.

  57. Mr Mind says:

    Good and evil are the realest and most obvious things you will ever see, and you recognize them on sight.

    I feel that this point has not been challenged enough. Epistemic humility is at the core of rationality, and taking the said point for granted is dangerous. It shouldn’t be repeated in the blog of a psychiatrist, but the brain evolved to distinguish on sight the good and evil of a sabretooth, not of a complex societal system. After all, witches were obviously evil…

    • fontesmustgo says:

      It hasn’t been challenged because it isn’t SA’s position. It’s the first of the three claims of the prophet:

      (1) You know what the right thing to do is, because it’s self-evident and obvious.
      (2) You don’t want to do it.
      (3) But you can.

      SA has defined a “prophet” as someone who says those three things. (A good working definition, I’d say, at least within the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, which are the most relevant to the West). You can argue about his definition, (I would add “(4) Woe to you if you don’t”) but the veracity of those claims is not at issue here.

      • manwhoisthursday says:

        You know what the right thing to do is, because it’s self-evident and obvious.

        This isn’t always true, but it’s often true.

        • Mr Mind says:

          Yes, maybe, but the point is that there’s nothing that tells you which is the case: there’s nothing that infallibly tells you when your moral compass is adequate or not.
          Epistemic humility is acknowledging that sometimes, when you’re totally sure you’re right, you’re being actually wrong. Which undermines the “evil is self-evident” thing.

      • Mr Mind says:

        It’s not Scott’s position, but it is the position that Scott attributes to Peterson. So if I trust his review (and I have no reason not to), I would have liked a little more challenges on this obviously very shaky assumption.

    • emblem14 says:

      Witches ARE evil, the issue is we have a tendency to falsely accuse without strong evidence – which leads to runaway abuse and unjust persecution…

      The part about the ultimate grounding of morality absent divine authority is food for thought. I suppose it does come down to faith in the end, except in the existence of a quasi-universal collective conscience instead of godly commandment.

      Without faith that (most) people really do have the capacity to know right from wrong, and that such knowledge is broadly shared in a naturally emergent way, we’re not only stuck in the relativistic morass, but the case for a universalist humanism is shattered. If basic morality isn’t something all individuals have in common, then “right” and “wrong” are just labels to serve the particular interests of particular people, and we’re back in the jungle.

      I personally have that faith, because appeals to universal morality, and humanity, have been occasionally effective at supplanting more parochial moral frameworks and we’ve seen that we’re capable of emerging from the jungle (at least temporarily).

      • Mr Mind says:

        Witches ARE evil

        How do you know?

        If basic morality isn’t something all individuals have in common, then “right” and “wrong” are just labels to serve the particular interests of particular people, and we’re back in the jungle.

        I don’t know what you mean by “back in the jungle”, could you taboo that and explain it to me a little more? I feel that therein lies the heart of our disagreement.

        appeals to universal morality, and humanity, have been occasionally effective at supplanting more parochial moral frameworks

        It is my understanding that appeals to universal morality is a frail concept, because you can never say what “universal” encompasses. If you can see your opponent as a subhuman or an alient entity, universal always means “those similar to mine”.

        • emblem14 says:

          I was using some cultural shorthand.

          Witches, in the western christian tradition, are evil because they worship and get their powers from Satan. Obviously more modern interpretations and non christian examples exist of magic wielders that don’t derive their power from dark forces.

          My point was to respond to the argument that our moral intuitions often fail us by telling us something is evil when it really isn’t, whereas I think that’s true in a subler sense – when we get a feeling that something is evil and we’re wrong, the error usually isn’t in what we think is evil about it, it’s whether that signal is accurate – we’re terrible at filtering out false positives. In other words, our notion of evil is probably sound, but we are prone to misdiagnose things as evil out of fear and/or ignorance.

          By “Back in the Jungle” I guess I mean a Hobbesian state of nature, war of all-against-all where there is no trust or cooperation and everyone is a defector from a game theory standpoint. If people don’t believe their counterparts share a common moral framework, we’re more likely to devolve into warfare.

          “Universal” in the sense I’m using it means the typical liberal notion that all human beings have equal rights and dignity. That may be stretched by some to include all sentient life capable of suffering, as a kind of Star Trek ideal. Yes, it’s a frail concept because it’s an intellectual abstraction of the parochial morality we “feel” extended to perfect strangers, out of some sense that there is no logically defensible way to exclude strangers from the same moral considerations we instinctively give to our friends and family on the arbitrary basis that we don’t know them personally. It’s also conveniently self-serving and beneficial to collective cooperation, because we all want to be treated with decency by strangers, and the way to ensure that is to adopt a rubric of conditional reciprocity.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I was mentioning this position rather than asserting it, but I think I’ll assert that it’s true on the tails, although complicated at the margins. I like moral philosophy as much as anyone else, but I am more certain that the Nazis were evil than I am that evil is a real concept.

      • Randy M says:

        Is the first contingent on the second?

      • Mr Mind says:

        In your own writing, ambijectivity is just when language cannot capture the full complexity of an analysis. So if you’re saying that evil is ambijective, you’re saying that ‘evil’ is a word that does not completely embrace the complexity of your position on the Nazis, which is the almost polar opposite of saying that evil is real and self-evident (besides, the mother of the three year old girl playing upstair, would probably appreciate more the daughter’s music than Mozart’s).
        Anyway, I wasn’t ascribing the position to you, but I was surprised that the wakest argument from Peterson didn’t attracted much attention.

        • alef says:

          Seconding Mr Mind (as I understand him)…

          Your hypothetical prophet is not illustrating ambijectivity; (s)he is saying that we all recognize good and evil as real thing (very real things) and are deluding ourselves or lying to think otherwise. This seems like a denial of ambijectivity.

          This prophet is wrong (“obviously” wrong – hey, if she can do it, so can I). So why can’t we just stop listening at this point? What further, built on such a shallow premise, could have deep value? I have a selfish motive in pushing back against such prophets: I see no net good, in the current world, arising from people trained to believe good vs evil is real and relevant to life. Not true, not useful.
          This is nothing against Peterson, but I sincerely hope he is not following your prophet’s script.

  58. christhenottopher says:

    I’m not surprised you wound up liking Peterson once you read him (at least in his current mature writing style rather than the somewhat less coherent style of Maps of Meaning). Ultimately he fits well into the metis type thinkers I’ve found myself drawn towards. He approaches the problem of how do we deal with a world that is too complex for effective algorithmic calculation (at least with the calculators we humans have) on a personal “what is your life plan?” basis. This fits in with the James Scott concept that cultures learn through practice not rational system designing, or the Nassim Taleb concept of anti-fragility, or even the Thomas Kuhn idea of accidents driving scientific revolutions more than institutions. Heck, I’d also say that the mode of urban planning advocated by new urbanists like Strong Towns is an outgrowth of this type of thought. And of course there is an underlying mechanism behind all of this with a type of natural selection driving the metis rather than conscious thought (and before you mention them I know there are way more thinkers along these lines, Popper, Chesterton, Burke, Hume, Al-Ghazali, Laozi, it’s an old and broad tradition I’m trying to point at here). Hence why Peterson goes to cliche’d ideas, the fact that they’ve survived as long as they have is a good indicator of some value.

    This mode of thought gets coded as right leaning in modern American political discourse (can’t and won’t speak for you non-Americans out there), but one can have over rationalized right wing governments (I’m very pointedly looking at you divine right absolutists). And ultimately I think the true value is really to take a step back from politics altogether, especially at national/international levels. Focus on areas where you can gain metis such as one’s personal life or sufficiently small political units where trying out ideas and letting the bad ones die won’t impact too many people (archipelago ftw).

    And this is where I think the transgender pronoun controversy fits into Peterson’s thought. Laws like Bill 89 are trying to skip the natural process of discussion and interacting with people to learn how to deal with new groups by having the law apply universal rules. Peterson himself has said if he is asked by a person who he believes is asking to have different pronouns used for legitimate reasons. The complaint I see about this is along the lines of “well this just means he can arbitrarily decide to ignore other people’s preferences.” Here’s the problem though, any situation where a person can force you to change your actions or words is a potential situation where people who like having power over others can have power over you. Controlling others because one likes having the ability to force others to jump when you say so is how abuse gets started. And any overly rigid rule that is universalized will be exploited by people following the letter but not the spirit of the rule. So having in the back pocket “if I perceive you’re just trying to gain power over me I will ignore your power play” is important. And the very act of stating rules when another person is just doing a power play makes one vulnerable to people following the letter but not the spirit of the rule.

    Now in everyday life, the vast majority of people who you will encounter who are transgender are asking for pronoun changes in your language in good faith. I’ve never had a situation where I felt a transgendered person was trying to use language to put my on the defensive or to rhetorically seize control of the conversation. And I’ve never deliberately (or even accidentally to my knowledge) misgendered a transperson as a result. But I also don’t hang out in places where people who enjoy controlling others tend to congregate (like say, political rallies or among groups that like the saying “the customer is always right”). Therefore, if I’m facing a conversational bully, rather than a person just trying to feel at home in their own body, I reserve the right to not follow the request (and probably to leave the conversation ASAP). No, I can’t articulate a hard-and-fast-always-true rule to define the difference. There is a metis to personal interactions that defies simplistic (i.e. explainable in words) systems. And yes there are people who mis-calibrate and wind up being jerks by rejecting legitimate requests (or worse, people who try to control others by deliberately misgendering). I even believe that most likely the culture we live in has historically (and possibly currently) had a bigger problem with people ignoring legitimate preferences of transpeople or the controlling jerks trying to rhetorically dominate transpeople than vice versa. But these are still situations that must be dealt with on case-by-case bases not by centralized law makers for millions of people.

    Ultimately though, I do think Peterson dives too deep into the culture war, even if most of his positions are nuanced, simply by talking about it too much. The lesson I take from his own ideas, and from the broader metis school around him, is that large scale cultural conversations tend to overly systematize and overly prize what can be articulated in print/rhetoric. You can’t have a global conversation about metis because that sort of local knowledge is almost inherently specific to very particular situations and the people who can enact a particular metis the best are not correlated (and may even be anti-correlated) with the people who can best articulate rules and systems. If there is any possible way for you to ignore a dumb law or an overly general cultural conversation, do it. If you think you can’t ignore such things, stop, try ignoring it for a while (say a month) and see how your life is going.

    Ultimately, engage less in The Discourse(tm) is probably the best take away I’ve gotten from listening to Peterson.

    • Telminha says:

      +1

    • Galle says:

      My problem with Peterson’s objection to the bill isn’t so much that he objects to being obligated not to call trans people their biological sex, or even slurs – I think you can make a consistent argument in favor of free speech absolutism. The problem is, that isn’t actually Peterson’s position on the issue.

      His position on the issue is that he is not a free speech absolutist and accepts the idea of hate speech laws in general, but believes that this is not an ordinary hate speech law and goes beyond those to create “compelled speech”. This is objectively incorrect – the bill did nothing but expand existing hate speech laws to cover gender identity. It is impossible for it to have created any new kinds of violations. The people who are responsible for enforcing and interpreting the law have continually said that they do not share Peterson’s interpretation.

      This is a crank belief, regardless of your opinion on free speech – Peterson believes something that is objectively false. He may very well be a good self-help writer, but it does not automatically follow from this that he isn’t also kind of a nutter.

      • Jaskologist says:

        You keep saying he’s a crank and objectively wrong, but it’s the people who say he’s right in this thread that are providing links to actual supporting documentation.

        • Galle says:

          Well, I could just link to the text of Bill C-16 itself and point out that it clearly does not say what Peterson claims it says, but unfortunately I don’t believe that fact will be accepted without dispute.

          • The Nybbler says:

            The text amends various bits of the existing code, the operative sections of which are not at all reproduced in your text. It seems that many Canadian lawyers DO believe that adding those protected categories would have the effect of requiring people to use a person’s desired pronouns. It’s easy to see a line of reasoning implying that using the “correct” pronouns for men and women but not for nonbinary persons is “discriminatory practices based on […] gender identity or expression”

          • oppressedminority says:

            http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/policy-preventing-discrimination-because-gender-identity-and-gender-expression/7-forms-discrimination

            Gender-based harassment can involve:
            Derogatory language toward trans people or trans communities
            Insults, comments that ridicule, humiliate or demean people because of their gender identity or expression[44]
            Behaviour that “polices and or reinforces traditional heterosexual gender norms”[45]
            Refusing to refer to a person by their self-identified name and proper personal pronoun

            The text of the bill adds gender identity to prohibited grounds of discrimination, and the body charged with enforcing the human rights act construes “discrimination” as cited above.

            Just reading the text of the bill doesn’t give you much info and anybody who relies on just the plain text of the bill to explain its legal effects is not to be relied upon.

          • Galle says:

            The text amends various bits of the existing code, the operative sections of which are not at all reproduced in your text. It seems that many Canadian lawyers DO believe that adding those protected categories would have the effect of requiring people to use a person’s desired pronouns. It’s easy to see a line of reasoning implying that using the “correct” pronouns for men and women but not for nonbinary persons is “discriminatory practices based on […] gender identity or expression”

            I agree that the law probably outlaws that is something kinda-sorta like refusing to use a trans person’s preferred pronoun. If Peterson were just arguing that he should be allowed to use ethnic slurs and call trans people by their biological sex, then… well, I still wouldn’t cry too many tears if U of T fired him, but I would think he at least had a legitimate point of view on the issue worth considering.

            The problem is that Peterson draws a distinction between “prohibited speech” and “compelled speech”, and he claims that the existing laws only prohibit speech, but Bill C-16 compels speech. Since Bill C-16 only extends existing protections to cover trans people, I don’t see how this is possible.

            The text of the bill adds gender identity to prohibited grounds of discrimination, and the body charged with enforcing the human rights act construes “discrimination” as cited above.

            Just reading the text of the bill doesn’t give you much info and anybody who relies on just the plain text of the bill to explain its legal effects is not to be relied upon.

            There are two issues with this argument. First, the Ontario Human Rights Commission is provincial, while Bill C-16 is federal. Second, the Ontario Human Rights Commission claims that it considers using a person’s name to be a perfectly acceptable alternative to using their preferred pronoun, while Peterson claims, without evidence, that the Ontario Human Rights Commission claims the exact opposite (see Peterson’s Senate appearance).

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Galle,
            The discrepancies you draw are anachronistic. They are changes that occurred after Peterson talked about it, quite plausibly because he created publicity. (1) The federal commission’s explicit plan was to copy the Ontario regulations, so he was quite right to describe the consequences based on the Ontario regulations. Somewhere along the way they scrapped that, and now have no plan, which is much worse than copying, because his complaint is much more that it’s open-ended, than anything specific. The Ontario regulations are not set in stone, but they’re better than not knowing. (2) The original 2014 Ontario regulation, linked above, said that refusing to use pronouns is harassment, full stop, without any outs. The subsequently issued a clarification (the same month as the hearing, I’m not sure of precise timing), that said that it’s OK to avoid using pronouns at all and that neologisms are not required. Was it reasonable for him to interpret that one line literally? Maybe it was predictable how the Commission would clarify, but only if actually did clarify, while the usual way these rules work is by decentralized secret enforcement with crazy interpretations and no seeking of clarification.

          • Well, I could just link to the text of Bill C-16 itself and point out that it clearly does not say what Peterson claims it says,

            But not clearly enough to prevent the Ontario body charged with enforcing the rules from believing, and asserting online, that it did say that. You have been shown the relevant quotes.

      • lvlln says:

        His position on the issue is that he is not a free speech absolutist and accepts the idea of hate speech laws in general

        This is objectively incorrect. Every time he’s talked about hate speech laws, he has stated that he considers them reprehensible.

        • Galle says:

          I admit, it’s hard to find a source now, since Google is basically drowned in more recent things Peterson has said. But my point is that Peterson draws a distinction between “prohibited speech laws”, which he claims are acceptable, and “compelled speech laws”, which he claims are not, and attempts to categorize existing Canadian law as prohibited speech law and Bill C-16 as compelled speech law, even though a reading of the text of the bill can’t possible support that claim.

    • CEOUNICOM says:

      “” I’ve never had a situation where I felt a transgendered person was trying to use language to put my on the defensive or to rhetorically seize control of the conversation””

      this was one which i think was widely noted at the time

      Dan Savage’s: “About the hate crime i committed a the University of Chicago

    • Hitfoav says:

      +1 – yes thank God for pulling back from only thinking what can be argued in words. Makes us peculiarly narrow-minded and foolish.

  59. melboiko says:

    > They were about “explain how the depiction of whaling in Moby Dick sheds light on the economic transformations of the 19th century, giving three examples from the text. Ten pages, single spaced.

    I have a degree in computer science, and a degree on language studies (literature+linguistics).

    You people have some weird-ass humanities classes. In all of my literature courses, I’ve never had a single assignment like that.

    • Aapje says:

      That’s probably because you went to Oxford, rather than Cambridge.

    • Deiseach says:

      You people have some weird-ass humanities classes. In all of my literature courses, I’ve never had a single assignment like that.

      I can’t speak about college, but it does sound like the kind of essay you would be set in secondary school.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Did you not get writing assignments about classic books, or were they all about the deep ways the books related to the meaning of life?

      • andrewflicker says:

        I got ’em in AP English- and they were all about relating it to the deep meanings of human life, and the human condition, etc., etc.

        Now the AP English test, that one wanted you to talk about 18th century mercantilism and whatnot.

      • greghb says:

        My experience in high school English classes was that it didn’t take much to get a top grade, and the kind of essay didn’t matter. You could do historical analyses, stylistic analyses, thematic (meaning-of-life) analyses, all without much thought, all getting A’s.

        But then in college, in a poetry seminar I took my first semester, I remember so vividly how our professor reacted after reading our first essay assignments. He sort of sheepishly said he had forgotten that there was no reason to expect any of us to know how to write about poetry, and that since he only taught this seminar every other year, he always forgot about this problem. He handed back our papers with scathing comments, but told us to ignore them. He was changing the curriculum, and for the next week we would not read poetry, but we would read essays by great authors about poetry.

        He picked a single Robert Frost poem and had us read three essays that covered it (among other poems), each by a different literature Nobel laureate. The essays were amazing. Here’s a quote from the one by Joseph Brodsky, titled “On Grief and Reason”.

        There is a difference between the way a European perceives nature and the way an American does. Addressing this difference, W.H. Auden, in his short essay on Frost (perhaps the best thing on the poet) suggests something to the effect that when a European conceives of nature, he walks out of his cottage or a little inn, filled with either friends or family, and goes for an evening stroll. If he encounters a tree, it’s a tree made familiar by history, to which it’s been a witness. This or that king sat underneath it, laying down this or that law – something of that sort. A tree stands there rustling, as it were, with allusions. Pleased and somewhat pensive, our man, refreshed but unchanged by that encounter, returns to his inn or cottage, finds his friends or family absolutely intact, and proceeds to have a good, merry time. Whereas when an American walks out of his house and encounters a tree it is a meeting of equals. Man and tree face each other in their respective primal power, free of references: neither has a past, and as to whose future is greater, it is a toss-up. Basically, it’s epidermis meeting bark. Our man returns to his cabin in a state of bewilderment, to say the least, if not in actual shock or terror.

        It’s no exaggeration to say that this passage helped me understand something about being American, which I had felt before but not been able to articulate. Moreover, I was blown away because apparently the professor had really, really high standards. Like, you want us to write like this? With such feeling and such insight?

        From then on, I thought of art criticism as just another form of art.

        • Aapje says:

          @greghb

          Interestingly, while reading the quoted text, I was anticipating a dismissal of such an absurd claim about Americans and Europeans. So you caught me by surprise by liking it.

          To me, such a text is pretty much the epitome of bad academic writing, by making huge claims with minimal evidence.

          In so far that there is any validity to it, it would be that Americans probably have more of a ‘frontier mentality,’ where nature is seen as more of an enemy to be subdued. However, it is surely more of a moderate difference than a fundamentally different point of view & individual differences between Americans and Europeans are surely far greater than the cultural difference (and substantial cultural differences between various European peoples exist as well).

          For example, one of the major themes in the movies of Werner Herzog, who is German, is the conflict between man and the uncivilized (both nature and non-civilized man), where the primal forces are to be feared and respected & where hubris undoes man. Perhaps most illustrative of this theme is his documentary Grizzly Man, about a guy who lived among bears & was eaten by them.

          • greghb says:

            @Aapje

            At least Auden views at least some nature as hospitable. See, e.g., In Praise of Limestone, another poem we read in that class. Maybe it’s more precise to say this is an English and/or Mediterranean way of thinking? Surely not German.

            And fair enough, “European” is too broad, and presumably “American” is as well. It worked for me, though. I grew up in Tennessee, and what resonated with me was the feeling of being unmoored in time: the woods around us were not “made familiar by history”. And I just loved the phrase “bark meets epidermis”. Maybe watching Grizzly Man would have as well, but, if I had to guess, the overt danger of a literal grizzly bear would be a bit too heavy-handed. What these authors were saying about Frost is that he captures the subtle terror behind American nature without anything so overt and aggressive. Anyway, my point is, that passage did more for me to understand life and the world than I had realized essays about art could do.

            “huge claims with minimal evidence” — that doesn’t seem like quite the right standard for art, and I put this sort of essay in the same category as art itself. What is the standard for art? If it works for you, I guess.

          • Aapje says:

            I agree that art, advocacy and such can resonate with people, enabling them to put their experiences in a context that advances their thinking.

            However, it is fundamentally not scientific.

            I believe that we should distinguish the scientific from the nonscientific, which doesn’t mean that the nonscientific has no value or should not be funded, but rather that we should hold them to different standards and value them in different ways.

  60. dahud says:

    I seem to have missed the Discourse on this particular book, so can someone let me in on what the “neo-marxist transgender lobsters” are about? Each interpretation that I come up with is more confusing than the last.

    • lvlln says:

      Peterson first became famous in late 2016 for posting a YouTube video in which he decried a then-proposed now-law Canadian bill that he posited would compel people to use people’s preferred pronouns. This led to disruptive and violent protests in a few occasions when he was invited to give talks or take part in debates at some colleges. That’s where the “transgender” comes from.

      Since then, he’s claimed to identify the movement that reacted so strongly to him as being “postmodern neo-Marxists” who have essentially “taken over the humanities” in colleges. This has led to some people claiming that he’s a conspiracy theorist, and that really it’s just a bunch of excited college students who just want people to be nice to each other. That’s where the “neo-Marxist” comes from.

      More recently, his comparison of human competence hierarchies with those found in lobsters have become a bit of a meme. His point being that the same serotonin-based systems for indicating one’s status in a hierarchy exist in the neuronal circuitry of lobsters and of humans, indicating that such hierarchies go back at least as far as our common ancestor. “They’re older than trees!” I’ve seen him excitedly proclaim. He’s actually been making this point for a while (I saw a video from 2015, I think, where he made the same point), but it probably became famous recently due to an interview on UK’s Channel 4 with Cathy Newman, in which she claimed something like, “So you’re saying we should organize our society like lobsters?” That’s where the lobsters come from.

      So basically, he’s been saying that neo-Marxist transgender lobsters have been taking over humanities departments of colleges in a long-running conspiracy to dominate the culture and take down Western civilization.

      • dahud says:

        Huh. That’s unfortunate. I double checked what you said, and apparently he makes a point of not using preferred pronouns when students request that he do so. (EDIT: unless that pronoun is “he” or “she”.) That would seem to run counter to the philosophies that Scott described in the review, specifically the minimization of suffering. (I’m going to digress here, because this particular kind of thing annoys me.)

        Regardless of Peterson’s views on trans-ness, it is apparent that calling someone “he” when they’d rather you call them “they” does cause them some suffering. Using the preferred pronoun would be about as difficult as calling someone by their middle name because they dislike their first, and is unlikely to cause suffering to others.

        Thus, it seems that Peterson is willing to inflict some amount of personal suffering to advance his views on this matter. That goal being, as far as I can tell, that trans-ness isn’t real and we should all stop pretending.

        This allows four possibilities:
        1. Peterson believes that allowing trans-ness to exist causes greater suffering than all his misgendering.
        2. Calling someone “they” when Peterson thinks “he” would be more appropriate causes him suffering that he judges to be greater than what the other person would feel if he did the reverse.
        3. Peterson simply hasn’t rubbed this particular habit up against his suffering-minimization principle.
        4. Peterson is aware of the contradiction, persists regardless, and is philosophizing about suffering-minimization in bad faith.

        Any of those possibilities would make me suspect the rest of his work. Peterson is apparently quite a good writer, so I can never really be sure if any particular point is truly sound, or if I just missed where he palmed the Lady in a rhetorical shell game.

        Edit: Originally, my pronoun examples were of swapping “he” and “she”. Peterson is actually fine with that, but refuses to use any other personal pronouns. I have edited the examples to match this.

        • lvlln says:

          I double checked what you said, and apparently he makes a point of not using preferred pronouns when students request that he do so.

          I do not believe that’s accurate. Would you mind pointing me to what led you to this conclusion? I’ve seen an interview of him where he’s said that he’d be happy to use someone’s preferred pronoun, as long as he believed that person was asking him to use it in good faith. I don’t think he went into so much detail, but in the infamous Cathy Newman interview, he also said as much.

          But certainly, if it’s the case that he outright refuses to call people by their preferred pronouns no matter what, that seems like a contradiction to a desire to minimize suffering. So I’d be curious to know when he has said that or demonstrated it.

          • dahud says:

            BBC report.

            I misread the report at first. I saw this:

            Dr Peterson is concerned proposed federal human rights legislation “will elevate into hate speech” his refusal to use alternative pronouns.

            But I missed this:

            Dr Peterson says he does not object to trans people or to choosing which traditional pronoun they prefer.

            So he’s fine if you want to go by “he” or “she”, but refuses, for example, the singular specific “they”. I believe my point stands, but I will edit my post, then read the rest of your comment.

          • lvlln says:

            So he’s fine if you want to go by “he” or “she”, but refuses, for example, the singular specific “they”. I believe my point stands, but I will edit my post, then read the rest of your comment.

            I actually don’t think that it’s reasonable to conclude that he would refuse to use singular “they” or even “xe” or “xer,” but I honestly don’t know his opinion on that. What he’s made clear, though, is that he sees the choice of pronouns as a negotiation between 2 humans, and that’s a game he’s willing to play. He only objects when it’s not a negotiation but rather a tyranny – one party dominating the other party and forcing them to submit. Which is why he sees a good faith request as so critical to the issue. And it certainly seems reasonable to say that some people having the power to compel others to say whatever arbitrary new words they want them to is likely to lead to far more suffering than whatever suffering individuals go through from not being called by those arbitrary new words.

            Thinking about it a little more, one weird thing about pronouns, of course, is that you rarely actually use them with the person it’s describing. If I want to be referred to by “they” or “xe,” it’s actually unlikely that the person I’m talking to will call me by that – they’ll just call me “you” or “lvlln.” It’s really when I’m not around, but I’m being talked about by others that the issue of whether to use “he” or “she” or “they” or “xe” or anything else comes up, and it’s actually quite unreasonable for me to claim that I suffer when others refer to me in a way that doesn’t affect me in the slightest.

          • dahud says:

            Dr Peterson was especially frustrated with being asked to use alternative pronouns as requested by trans students or staff, like the singular ‘they’ or ‘ze’ and ‘zir’, used by some as alternatives to ‘she’ or ‘he’.

            That, combined with the first quote I shared, suggests that Peterson regards ‘they’, ‘ze’, and so on as ‘alternative’ pronouns, and actively refuses to use them. If this report is accurate, he is only willing to comply with good-faith requests for ‘he’ or ‘she’.

            Regarding the power dynamic you describe, that already exists and is somewhat socially acceptable. If a man is named “Robert”, but prefers “Bob”, he’ll probably introduce himself as “Hi, I’m Bob.” If someone discovers that Bob’s birth certificate says “Robert”, and goes out of their way to address Bob as such, polite society would at the very least regard them as a boor.

            I see what you mean about one’s pronouns rarely being used in direct address, but I think that it still comes up enough to be a problem. “I think Sally has everything she needs for the project. Isn’t that right, Sally?” In any case, let’s extend the Bob example. If someone only called Bob “Robert” when Bob couldn’t hear, I’d probably think even worse of them. Not only are they a boor, but they’re a cowardly one.

            Digression:
            I’ve often daydreamed of a language where pronouns are considered to be a part of one’s name. Perhaps you’d introduce yourself like “Hi, I’m Jessie, he.” Maybe you use the singular “they” if you don’t happen to know their pro-name. Maybe using the personal pronoun instead of “they” would be a sign of familiarity, like being on first-name basis. It’s a shame I’m not an SF writer, this language feature would probably make for a nice bit of worldbuilding.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            If I ask you to call me Ed, or Edward, or even Mr. Scizorhands, sure, you’ll probably comply, because whatever.

            If I insist you address me as Doctor Professor Scizorhands, Esquire, Phd, MD, RN, CPA every time, you will realize I’m playing a status signaling game, and you lose if you play. Even if I honestly have and have earned all those titles.

          • lvlln says:

            Huh, that’s actually the first time I’ve read about him being frustrated by staff or students directly. I’ll have to look more into that to see how well that report holds up.

            Regarding the power dynamic you describe, that already exists and is somewhat socially acceptable. If a man is named “Robert”, but prefers “Bob”, he’ll probably introduce himself as “Hi, I’m Bob.” If someone discovers that Bob’s birth certificate says “Robert”, and goes out of their way to address Bob as such, polite society would at the very least regard them as a boor.

            Well yes, these all work in degrees. If the same “Robert” prefers “Your lord and savior Bob,” someone calling him “Robert” or just “Bob” wouldn’t generally be considered out of line. This is because, while “Bob” a version of “Robert” has become commonly accepted in society through natural usage (rather than, say, a bunch of Roberts getting together and declaring by fiat that “Bob” is now what they want to be called), “Your lord and savior Bob” hasn’t.

            And this even extends to the cases where this Robert has a middle name, say, Lee, and wants to be called “Lee” rather than “Robert” or “Bob.” The practice of calling someone by their middle name rather than their 1st name is something that has developed naturally in language rather than by fiat, and that’s why it’d be boorish to call Robert “Robert” or “Bob” instead of his preferred “Lee” in this example.

            And we can even extend this further to Robert choosing a whole new name, say, “Eric,” that he wants you to use to refer to him. I think this is right around the border, though – if you told him that you’ll keep calling him “Bob” or “Robert” until he legally changed his name, while some would say you’re in the wrong, others would say Robert is being unreasonable. And if it’s not Eric but rather, say, “Jong-un” or “Mohammed” or “Jenny,” more people would probably be on the side of saying that Robert is being unreasonable.

            The point being, there are gradations based on general practices as naturally developed through voluntary interactions between individuals in society, and there’s no absolute rule that anyone gets to pick whatever they want as their preferred name to be called. “Robert” to “Bob” is entirely reasonable. “Robert” to “Jenny” at the very least raises some eyebrows. “Robert” to “Your lord and savior Bob” is clearly unreasonable.

            Now, pronouns aren’t the same as names, but I think there are some similarities. In English, pronouns for people are gendered (coming from Korean which has no gendered pronouns, this always seemed to be bonkers to me, but it is what it is) depending on the gender of the people they’re referring to. Now, what gender that person is is the question, but on first blush, it’s generally acceptable to trust your own judgment; if you believe someone’s male, use “he,” if you believe someone’s female, use “she.” With ambiguous cases, use “they” or don’t use pronouns or ask (though that also comes with costs as that’s a major social faux pas in some circumstances). Transgender folk add complexity, but it’s generally accepted that if a transman wants you to use “he,” you’re being the boor if you don’t use “he.” There’s extra complexity of he hasn’t physically transitioned and/or presents as completely female, and some people will reasonably balk at being expected to use “he” in such cases.

            And going even further, if someone asks that you call them “xe” or “they,” that’s highly non-standard, and it’s not clear to me how reasonable the request is. Again, there’s no absolute rule that anyone has to call anyone by whatever they demand to be called, whether that be names or pronouns; what demands or requests are reasonable are mediated by society and culture. My impulse would be to just use those preferred pronouns, in order to minimize friction, but that’s my own impulse, and it’s not the only reasonable one.

            So getting back to Peterson, if it is the case that he would outright refuse to use non-standard pronouns in all cases no matter what, I think that’s unreasonable, and it’d be right to call him out on it, because that just creates needless suffering. If his position is that, when he’s requested to go far outside the regular norms of conversation, he would like to be asked to do so in good faith and to be convinced of using them rather than being forced to, I think that’s reasonable. Because creating and enforcing a norm by fiat of giving everyone the responsibility of using whatever arbitrary pronouns that one desires to be referred by seems likely to cause lots of suffering, far beyond whatever suffering one goes through from explaining to someone why their highly unusual non-standard pronoun is so important to them (I certainly refuse to consider any party to be utility monsters).

            I see what you mean about one’s pronouns rarely being used in direct address, but I think that it still comes up enough to be a problem. “I think Sally has everything she needs for the project. Isn’t that right, Sally?” In any case, let’s extend the Bob example. If someone only called Bob “Robert” when Bob couldn’t hear, I’d probably think even worse of them. Not only are they a boor, but they’re a cowardly one.

            That’s your call to make, but it seems true to me that someone who only calls Bob “Robert” behind his back isn’t causing Bob any suffering. And now that I think about it more, it seems to me that names and pronouns exist for the benefit of the speaker and the listener, rather than for the benefit of the person being spoken about. It doesn’t harm me whether you refer to me as “lvlln” behind my back or you refer to me as “that asshole” behind my back, as long as you and the person you’re speaking to knows that you’re referring to me.

          • manwhoisthursday says:

            I do think Peterson has said he would refuse to use the new, invented pronouns because he thinks they reflect a political ideology that he does not agree with. He has also said he is against the use of individualized pronouns because pronouns are were never intended to convey a detailed picture of who you are: they are intended mainly for interactions with people who don’t know you very well and don’t need to convey your individuality in a nuanced manner.

            He’s against the use of “they” because he says we don’t want to lose the distinction between singular and plural. (As a side note, I’ve actually seen times where Scott has used “they” and it did end up genuinely confusing me.)

            He does not have a problem using the opposite set of pronouns for trans people.

            —–

            It is completely reasonable to refuse to use these alternative pronouns. If someone is going to suffer immensely because someone else doesn’t use them, they have serious problems and who uses what pronoun to refer to you is the least of them.

          • antpocalypse says:

            @dahud: It’s certainly not the level of linguistic integration you’re speculating about, but there are places (mostly queer community events) where it’s conventional to include your pronouns when you introduce yourself (e.g. “Hi, I’m and I use he/him/his pronouns”) or to write them on your nametag if you have one.

            This seems worth exporting to society at large, because it really doesn’t cost anything but a little initial awkwardness and, as your comparison makes clear, you should feel roughly as embarrassed to misgender someone as to call them by the wrong given name: a bit, fleetingly, if you do it once or twice by accident; fairly sheepish if you flub it several; and like a right asshole if you do it continuously and without compunction despite knowing better.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Peterson (recently) told Cathy Newman that he has never had a student request a pronoun. I don’t see anyone claiming anywhere that anyone (student or not) ever made any such request of him.

            He has made a lot of different claims about what he would do. He has said that he would never use a neologism (unless widely adopted); he has said that he would use he and she; he has waffled on they. Those are compatible, although they sure didn’t sound the same when he said them. But in other places he has taken the very different position it’s not the pronoun that matters, but other details of the request. And it may be that his very definite statements were not about neologisms, but about legal confrontation.

          • carvenvisage says:

            If I ask you to call me Ed, or Edward, or even Mr. Scizorhands, sure, you’ll probably comply, because whatever.

            asked as a genuine question, (something to which you’re willing to accept no as an answer), then probably, but someone non-negotiably demanding “don’t call me by my screen name” or any variation thereupon at e.g an IRL gaming convention would strike me as pretty psycho/inconsiderate of other people’s mental freedom.-

            Even though that setting is exactly a place that splits the identities down the middle and could easily go either way, the actual name being requested is unobtrusive, easy, was a live option half a second ago, etc. Seems to me like the simple rule is you can request people refer to you/conceive of you a certain way but demanding it is deranged.

            (as the content of people’s thoughts is their own and for most people the between what you say and what you think doesn’t go only one way.)

          • Tracy W says:

            @dahud: but pronouns aren’t like personal names. Their grammatical function is to be more generic than a personal name.

            We do something similar, grammatically, with other nouns. E.g. if you are writing about a Cadillac at length, once you’ve established it’s a Cadillac you’ll mostly shift to talking about cars.

            If you ask people to use a particular pronoun that is not in common use in their language, you’re asking them to do something harder than changing a name. And, you’re changing shared language (as opposed to a personal reference), which is a bigger demand again.

        • CthulhuChild says:

          In an early CBC interview (As It Happens, fall 2016, where “I’m not a bigot” became associated with him) he talked his willingness to use pronouns. I can’t find the exact wording, but he basically said it depends on the person, and what he saw as their intention. IE, he believed that many (most?) people insisting on neutral pronouns were doing so as a political statement in order to compel others to adopt a particular worldview. He seems to have no issues with using gendered pronouns for trans individuals, although this only seems to have been tested in the case of trans people who are clearly presenting as their stated gender (IE he might challenge a non-transitioned biologically male with masculine features and masculine clothing who describes themselves as “she”).

          With respect to the gender neutral pronouns, as near as I can tell he believes that identity (especially gender identity) is a negotiated arrangement. Identity is the result of a compromise between how you ask others to perceive you, and how they would otherwise be inclined to perceive you. Social norms have changed quite a bit in recent years: the increasing acceptance of trans people indicates that there is willingness to accept gender identity as divorced from biological sex, but it’s not carte blanche and their is an expectation that the individual will put effort into presenting as their declared gender.

          Persons who want gender identity to be a purely internal designation that society must accept are fighting an uphill battle, because that is a striking exception to how identity works in every other domain. Consider for example class: your ability to identify as upper class depend on your mastery of that identity’s outward signifiers. And it works both ways: more than one politician has tried to identify as lower class and been called out for the presumption.

          The struggle for non-gendered status is a particularly steep uphill battle, because society by and large doesn’t recognize it as a valid category.

          (sidebar: this is not a political opinion, it is an empirically verifiable truth. Go ask a random selection of people from around the globe whether there is something other than “male” and “female”. With very few exceptions male and female are the only accepted options)

          While every society has some idea of what “maleness” and “femaleness” means, there is no clear template for “agenderedness”. The declaration of agenderedness appears to be at the sole discretion of the declarant, and using non-standard pronouns entails tacit acceptance of their right to define their own identity, independent of society or social norms. Peterson sees this as an inherently political act with an ideological basis he finds repellent, and reacts accordingly. I’m speculating, but I suspect he’d have far less issue if there were some broadly accepted standard for what makes a person agendered (other than mere assertion), and persons asking to be identified without gender strove to present themselves as such.

      • CthulhuChild says:

        So I generally like Peterson, but I take some umbridge at his describing humanities and social studies as infected by post-modern marxism, because none of what he is describing meshes with my understanding of either post modernism or marxism. He might as well say that schools are being infected by pro-gun bubblegum gnostics. The phenomena he is railing against clashes with the words he uses to describe it. If there’s one thing I like about the reactionaries (and it is pretty much just the one thing), it’s their use of the word “cathedral” as shorthand for a particular concept, which is very clearly divorced from the word’s original meaning. See also Scott’s use of “Moloch”.

        Anyway, I know very little about evolutionary biology, but mocking him about lobsters seems weird. My understanding is that he’s pointing out how many species, even extremely primitive and asocial ones, have dominance hierarchies, so its not surprising that humans do too. This seems entirely reasonable, but I keep seeing “WE ARE NOT LOBSTERS” posters hoisted by anti-Peterson protesters. Are they failing to comprehend his argument, or have I been overly charitable and he’s made unsupportable claims that deserve mockery?

        (Related: I always thought the mockery of Rumsfields “known unknowns vs unknown unknowns” was unjust. It’s a hard concept to explain quickly).

        • suntzuanime says:

          You’ve been overly charitable: they’re not trying to comprehend his argument, they’re just mining it for things they can mock him about.

    • fion says:

      And what about “bodily fluids”? The best I could come up with was that it might be a Dr Strangelove reference, but that doesn’t seem related to Peterson…

  61. flylo says:

    This is an interesting take, but aren’t Peterson’s writings directly aimed at cisgendered (white?) men? So it’s not surprising that Scott would have a positive emotional reaction to them. The objection to Peterson is partly that his writings inspire the opposite emotional response in everyone else. It might not be his fault, since he can’t fully enter into the worldview of someone who’s not a cisgendered male, but then even if you agree with Scott’s (generous) reading and interpretation of Peterson’s goals, Peterson is still failing in a sense by not reaching a broader audience and instead provoking further culture wars. As Scott says, it’s less about the intellectual content than the emotional reaction Peterson incites in the reader, so we can’t blame readers for not “getting” Peterson.

    On a related note, if a religion did start around Peterson, and this religion was exclusively made up of conservative white guys, is that a good thing? More generally, is it good to have religions aimed at specific segments of the population? Or does this just lead to too much division and reinforce culture wars?

    • lvlln says:

      aren’t Peterson’s writings directly aimed at cisgendered (white?) men?

      I haven’t seen anything to indicate this. What gave you that idea?

      • dorrk says:

        Unfortunately, if an idea is not targeted exclusively at some identity group, it is now perceived as targeting only white men, as if there are no ideas that may apply to individuals across many groups.

        I think Peterson would say that his ideas apply to every individual within their own context, but the assumption in that, that group identity is not primary and exclusive, is itself considered a hostile expression of white privilege.

      • Aapje says:

        @lvlln

        I can see the point that his writings are aimed more at men, because Peterson seems to believe that men commonly need a different hero narrative from women and he himself has said that his understanding of the female hero narrative is less developed than his male hero narrative.

    • fontesmustgo says:

      I’ll assume arguendo that trans people would object to Peterson, based either on what he intends to say about transgenderism or what they understand him to be saying. But which of his ideas/suggestions are inapplicable to Chinese men or white women?

    • manwhoisthursday says:

      He has a significant following among minority and women students in Toronto.

    • flylo says:

      What does “significant” mean? What fraction of minority and female readers buy into Peterson’s ideas? And what fraction are repelled? My point is it’s probably much smaller than the fraction of male readers. Rightly or wrongly, he is against identity politics, and he described feminism as a “murderous equity doctrine”. Even Scott says: “(offer valid for boys only, otherwise the neo-Marxist lobsters will get our bodily fluids)”

      All of this would apply in a reverse sense to some militant feminists/etc.

      My basic point is that Scott’s review pointed out that Peterson’s fundamental appeal is emotional. Scott had a positive reaction, which isn’t surprising since he’s in the target demographic, and he then assessed the value of Peterson’s work on this basis. Someone who had a negative reaction (and many people do) would have the opposite reaction. Is there a way for someone like Peterson to promote these ideas in a more constructive way, without turning off the majority of people outside his demographic?

      • lvlln says:

        What does “significant” mean? What fraction of minority and female readers buy into Peterson’s ideas? And what fraction are repelled? My point is it’s probably much smaller than the fraction of male readers.

        Do we actually know this? How much is “much?” Is there any empirical evidence to indicate this?

        Rightly or wrongly, he is against identity politics, and he described feminism as a “murderous equity doctrine”.

        I hardly think being against identity politics or describing feminism* as “murderous equity doctrine” makes his points targeted at cis white men. From the stats I’ve read, the majority of people who aren’t cis white men aren’t fully on board with identity politics or the strain of feminism he describes, though perhaps they mostly don’t have the same level of antipathy he does.

        *obviously “feminism” has many meanings, and just as obviously this one is referring to the specific strain that’s powerful right now and is calling for equity in results of everything. As a feminist myself, I don’t find the statement to be off-putting in the least.

        Scott had a positive reaction, which isn’t surprising since he’s in the target demographic

        Again, what makes you say that Scott’s in the target demographic?

        • fontesmustgo says:

          From the stats I’ve read, the majority of people who aren’t cis white men aren’t fully on board with… the strain of feminism he describes,

          I suppose the distinction is whether Peterson is perceived to be attacking Motte Feminism or Bailey Feminism, and behind which wall the listener stands.

        • Iain says:

          Do we actually know this? How much is “much?” Is there any empirical evidence to indicate this?

          I can’t find any specifics about race, but it’s undisputed that Peterson’s fanbase is mostly male. The top answer indicates that Peterson himself has addressed this several times, and he’s in the best position to know.

          • lvlln says:

            That doesn’t actually address the question which was asked, which was “What fraction of minority and female readers buy into Peterson’s ideas?”

            As Peterson has pointed out, his fanbase being mostly male coincides with most YouTube viewers being male. It’s hard to disentangle what the relative effects are between his message and the YouTube audience. It’s, as some might put it, a multivariate issue where a univariate analysis will invariably fail.

            But more to the point, it tells us nothing about what fraction of females who encountered Peterson “buy into” his ideas versus are repelled by it. For that, we’d need stats on the # of females who encountered his ideas and the # of females who are his “fans.”

          • manwhoisthursday says:

            No evidence has been put forward that Peterson’s fans are mostly white.

            His Youtube audience is, like the rest of Youtube, mostly male.

            His students at UofT are mostly female.

          • Tenacious D says:

            I don’t have any hard data either on Peterson’s support among visible minorities, but I went to uni in the same city as Lindsey Shepherd (a few years before JP became infamous) so I feel like I’ve got a decent sense of the demographics and culture on campuses in southern Ontario. My priors are that there are a lot of Asian-Canadian young men among his fanbase.
            There’s more than a little overlap between what Peterson says and some culturally-Confucian values, after all.

          • Watchman says:

            He teaches psychology so his students will be mostly female – at elite anglophone universities (which includes Toronto) psychology is almost invariably the most female subject, although now I state this I find that I can’t find the stats that underlie the assertion (anyone who wants to trawl back issues of the Times Higher Education Supplement, I think it is from there). So this is the same basic fact as YouTube being male dominated – the environment determines the audience.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      Peterson is still failing in a sense by not reaching a broader audience

      I don’t see why this matters. If a black female author wrote profound truths about the black female experience and connected with black female readers and imparted in them behaviors and thought patterns that improved their lives, I don’t think I’d call her a failure for not reaching a broader audience that included white and Asian men.

      • fontesmustgo says:

        Surely you know how this works: those with a higher Oppression Score can exclude those with a lower Oppression Score, but not vice-versa. Consult your local Intersectionalitologist to determine your Oppression Score.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          Consult your local Intersectionalitologist to determine your Oppression Score.

          I took some online quiz like that and as a white, cis, hetero, male, Christian, engineer, able-bodied, American, etc, I was completely off the charts on the “evil oppressor” side. Like, if I were a super hero, I would be Captain Patriarchy, and my catchphrase would be “PRIVILEGE OVERWHELMING!!!!”

          • Deiseach says:

            Like, if I were a super hero, I would be Captain Patriarchy, and my catchphrase would be “PRIVILEGE OVERWHELMING!!!!”

            Don’t you mean super-villain, Captain Patriarchy? 😉

        • SaiNushi says:

          I took the oppression meter test. It failed to account for my background as a former foster child.

  62. Philipp says:

    Scott, I’m surprised no one on this thread (I’ve not looked at the sub-reddit) has taken you up on the C.S. Lewis angle, so I guess, as something of a Lewis fan, that I’ll bite. I’ll state at the outset that I’ve not read Jordan Peterson, though I have watched a few clips of him and read quite a bit about him.

    I realize that your talk of C.S. Lewis ‘hating’ Jordan Peterson is hyperbole, but it’s well worth realizing that he was actually a man of broad friendships and, much though he later rejected his youthful flirtations with non- or anti-Christian ideas, a broad personal experience. I mean, the man had variously been a dabbler in the occult (something he rejected with particular ferocity, after one of his spiritualist friends went insane), an idealist, and an atheist materialist, before he became a Christian, in part through the long intellectual influence of George MacDonald and G.K. Chesterton (two very different figures) and in part because of a late-night conversation with Hugo Dyson and the very Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien. Of his friends throughout his life, one of the closest was the anthroposophist Owen Barfield, and another, Charles Williams, was, well, it’s rather hard to figure out, but at least eccentric.

    In fact, Peterson sounds, whenever I hear him described, as a kind of prophet of what Lewis called ‘the Tao’ in The Abolition of Man. Lewis is not, so far as I can see it, using the word in the technical sense–this is not Tao as ancient Chinese doctrine–but instead borrowing a word to refer to the basic sense of right and wrong, truth and goodness, and, at least to some degree, beauty and order as reflections thereof. It is, in other words, the natural law, understood not as an arcane system for judging morality in the abstract (the unfortunate impression some less-talented writers leave), but as it is really is: the basic moral order imprinted in the universe itself and in the hearts of mankind.

    The central problem of The Abolition of Man (and a central problem also of the novel That Hideous Strength, which was likewise published in 1943 and is very close to it in thought) is the failure of modern education to teach that sense of right and wrong: its tendency to produce ‘men without chests’, or people whose actions are not grounded in the law of nature, in what is true and good, but ultimately only in their own preferences. From this perspective (or so I infer–I don’t have the book in front of me and I don’t remember whether he treats any kind of sophisticated utilitarian thought), utilitarianism, though it purports to judge what is moral, must fail, as it is not ultimately beholden to what is actually right in and of itself. At best, the utilitarian, despite his doctrine, still acts on the basis of his ingrained sense of rightness, and that sense of rightness needs to be shaped to the Tao, or it is nothing.

    So, where does this leave Jordan Peterson? Not, I think, straightforwardly on the outside. I doubt Lewis would see in him a proto-Christian, since Peterson knows scripture and rejects Christian orthodoxy, but he is at least–or so it seems–a man with a strong apprehension of right and wrong, who is trying to grow the chests of people, especially young men, whose morality has been stunted. He is, as it were, on the side of the Tao.

    To any Christian, and Lewis was one, there is a danger here, of course, and that is that Peterson is nevertheless still not on the side of God. Morality simply is not, because it cannot be, a matter of self-help and self-improvement. There, I think, your own characterization of Lewis goes wrong. He is not part of a “vast humanistic self-cultivation tradition”; though he does draw on ancient philosophy, he is a Christian lay theologian, and therefore believes in human frailty and the need for divine grace. ‘We have not got to try to climb up into spiritual life by our own efforts’, he wrote in Mere Christianity. ‘It has already come down into the human race. If we will only lay ourselves open to the one Man in whom it was fully present, and who, in spite of being God, is also a real man, He will do it in us and for us.’

    One cannot speak for a dead man, and others know Lewis’s works better than I do. Nonetheless, I suspect that he would see in Jordan Peterson a man who sees clearly some of the worst errors of his own age, but who can only be a kind of stop on the way to the full truth, who is (of course) Christ himself. Like the world’s moral traditions which, Lewis believed, reflected the truth of the Tao, he might prepare for the Gospel; but making of his teaching a Gospel–treating it, that is, as if it really could make people good enough–would simply be to pave yet another path that leads away from God and real health of the soul.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      Small point: “‘men without chests’, or people whose actions are not grounded in the law of nature, in what is true and good, but ultimately only in their own preferences. ”

      I read that passage somewhat differently– the problem is that the emotional connection to what is right was getting broken, so people could affirm what is right in theory but not act on it. I suppose that all that’s left is preferences.

    • Macrofauna says:

      A little more on Lewis:

      So despite the similarities between Peterson and C.S. Lewis, if the great man himself were to read Twelve Rules, I think he would say – in some kind of impeccably polite Christian English gentleman way – fuck that shit.

      I believe the impeccably polite way in question might be the one Lewis said in Mere Christianity, in the section on conceptions of God, against a statement of the Pantheists: “Don’t talk damned nonsense.”

      There’s a footnote: “One listener complained of the word damned as frivolous swearing. But I mean exactly what I say — nonsense that is damned is under God’s curse, and will (apart from God’s grace) lead those who believe it to eternal death.”

      • Philipp says:

        Oh, I agree, Macrofauna; the quotation is quite to the point. But I don’t think Lewis would dismiss Peterson’s efforts to encourage morality and self-discipline, even while he deplored his notions about God. It’s a matter of taking what is good and rejecting what is not, something Lewis also believed in quite strongly–witness, for example, the end of The Last Battle, in which a pagan who tried to worship his god rightly ends up actually worshipping the right God, or the pervasive presence of Greek mythology in Lewis’s writing.

        The key thing, I think, in understanding Lewis, is not to imagine that all the God-stuff is just window-dressing, which calling him a ‘humanist’ tends to imply. Neither seeing Lewis as straightforwardly antagonistic to Peterson’s way of thinking nor as a member of the same tradition is quite right. There are aspects of agreement, along with a fundamental divergence on what was for Lewis the most important point. I simply think that Lewis was intellectually broad enough to be able to recognize that agreement, though I don’t doubt that he would have sternly warned Peterson’s readers (mostly, it seems, young and impressionable men) against thinking that it was enough.

        I may have misstated things, Nancy, but I don’t think, as I now re-read the passage, that what you are finding in it is substantially different from what I had inferred in my previous readings (though again, I didn’t have the text in front of me; always perilous!) Lewis wrote, ‘It still remains true that no justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism.’

        The problem is that mere theory is not, in Lewis’s eyes, enough actually to ground one’s actions in what is right; that requires a genuine love and desire for rightness and goodness. To say it rather differently, I think, from the way he did, the Tao isn’t just an idea; it is a conviction and a way of life, and the path to it leads not through philosophy in the abstract, but through moral formation. I rather elided the problem of sentiment, but then, I don’t think Lewis is aiming at the weak feelings we often call ’emotions’. He is talking about a properly-balanced impulse toward what is good and away from what is evil–an (if I may be a bit colloquial) ‘ick-factor’ that is aimed at what is really repulsive, and, yet more importantly for any Christian, a desire aimed at what is truly good. Does that seem closer to the mark?

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      So, where does this leave Jordan Peterson? Not, I think, straightforwardly on the outside. I doubt Lewis would see in him a proto-Christian, since Peterson knows scripture and rejects Christian orthodoxy,

      Peterson always dodges the “are you a Christian” or “do you believe in God” questions. He says “he acts as though God exists.” We don’t actually know what Peterson’s religious beliefs are, or whether or accepts or rejects Christian orthodoxy.

      In my imagination, Lewis would chastise Peterson for his temerity.

      • Philipp says:

        Like I said, I don’t know Peterson well. Everything I’ve read suggests that his stated views on scripture are far from orthodox, but I concede that that may not be quite the same thing as consciously rejecting Christian orthodoxy per se. If it really is true, however, that he sees God chiefly as metaphor–or treats him as such in practice–it would be very difficult to reconcile him with Christianity. With aspects of Christian law, maybe, but the first commandment is still ‘love the Lord Your God’, and Christianity is precisely something more than law.

        Temerity or timorousness, by the way? That sounds to me more like the latter.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          If it really is true, however, that he sees God chiefly as metaphor–or treats him as such in practice–it would be very difficult to reconcile him with Christianity.

          He treats God at least as a metaphor, as do I. I do not have the language to describe God. When I refer to God as “Father,” I’m using a metaphor. My father is a swell guy, but he’s not God, and God is not literally my father.

          I’m a practicing Catholic. I treat God as a metaphor…and then much more than that. Peterson treats God as a metaphor…and then we don’t know because he doesn’t answer those questions. It could be that he doesn’t answer the questions because he, as you say, rejects Christian orthodoxy. It could also be that he is a Christian, but as an academic/speaker/seller of books wants to speak in a broader a language instead of simply being another televangelist. I’ve watched a lot of Jordan Peterson and I honestly couldn’t tell you which one it is.

          Temerity or timorousness, by the way? That sounds to me more like the latter.

          Yes, that. Words are hard and make me look bad 🙁

          • Philipp says:

            Words can make us all look bad. I was just trying to make sure what you meant, as I can see a way of construing temerity to fit the context, but it seemed a little unusual–letting one’s own worries get in the way of speaking the truth could I suppose be seen as a kind of rashness, as it fails to treat the most important things as the most important.

            I’d be happy to learn that Peterson is more orthodox than he’s been made to sound. As I said, I don’t know, and you certainly sound better positioned to judge.

          • tjohnson314 says:

            Perhaps I’m misunderstanding, but based on how frequently Peterson mentions Jung’s archetypes, I think he believes that the metaphors are what’s actually Real in some deeper sense.

            So it might not be as simple as distinguishing between metaphor vs. something more than a metaphor.

        • Jaskologist says:

          My impression is that whatever Peterson might call himself, his beliefs are very far from orthodox. However, what I’ve seen in his series on the Bible is not heretical. It is perfectly licit and even scriptural to interpret the Biblical stories in a metaphorical way, as long as that is in addition to the literal meaning (and there’s some wiggle room even there). I don’t think it would be a hard task to harmonize his neo-Jungian interpretation with an orthodox belief system.

          Probably you’d have to dial down the love affair with Marduk, though.

          • wondersforoyarsa says:

            If you’re speaking for Lewis, I think you’d be quite mistaken on dialing down the Marduk love affair. ‘Till We Have Faces anyone? The man loved pagan mythology for all the reasons Peterson does.

      • PaulVK says:

        You can’t talk about Peterson’s “god” and not consider Jung. Peterson isn’t a Jungian like some I’ve encountered since delving into this on YouTube but Jung is a huge influence on Peterson. Jung brought Peterson to the Bible and Jung has not be exorcised from Peterson’s religious matrix.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Lewis seems broadly friendly to non-Christians who approximate Christian morality, but broadly hostile to people who do that and say “And this, not that boring literal Jesus stuff, is the true essence of Christianity”

      • fontesmustgo says:

        This is consistent with a Catholic (and some forms of Protestant, although I can’t speak for the hundreds of sects) understanding that ignorance and doubt of Christ is less of an obstacle to salvation than rejection of Christ. Faith is hard – much harder than deciding that the words in the Gospels to provide a coherent and workable moral code. Doubt is preferable to erroneous certainty.

      • Philipp says:

        That’s quite true. I’m not sure, from what others are saying, that that is what Peterson is doing, but it sounds as if his work is at least susceptible to that reading.

        EDIT: Fontesmustgo, that’s akin to the interpretation of the famous ‘blasphemy against the Holy Ghost’-passages that I’ve most often heard. It’s one thing, and very bad, to worship a false God or not worship God; but it’s much, much worse knowingly and intentionally to reject him (or persist in sin, which amounts to the same thing), as that is the kind of thing that, by its very nature, can’t be forgiven.

      • PaulVK says:

        Lewis was hard on Freud but I’m less clear on his take on Jung. Jung shows up infrequently in Lewis’ main texts but more often in the letters. Owen Barfield frustrated Lewis to no end but Lewis loved and respected him and his Theosophism. If I had a clearer picture on what Lewis thought of Jung it would be easier to guess what he’d think of Peterson.

    • wondersforoyarsa says:

      I think I can speak as someone who is reasonably read up on both Lewis and Peterson, and I think they would have got along just fine. I’m not sure how familiar Peterson is with Lewis, but I think he’d benefit from reading him. I’d love to see him read some N. T. Wright as well. But I digress.

      Anyway, it’s a remarkably bad reading of Lewis to see him as someone who’d hate someone because they aren’t a strong apologist for dogmatic Christianity. He would of course argue for it himself, but he also recognized an ally when he saw one. He was a great admirer of the good in pagan religion, and indeed all human striving towards truth, goodness, and beauty. That he saw all this fulfilled in Christ, and God himself to be the source of that good (even if the person himself doesn’t believe in God), didn’t make him petty and tribal.

      So I’d very much agree, Philipp, with your argument. I was going to make the point about the Last Battle, when I saw you’d already brought it up. However, I might go even further. I think Lewis might even fully embrace Peterson as a fellow Christian for the purposes of public discourse, even if in private he’d urge Peterson to more direct faith. I don’t think Lewis would see Peterson as the sort of liberal theologian that he abhorred – those who were embarrassed by the faith of the past, and just wanted some feel-good religious trapping sprinkled on social niceties and modern philosophy. Because that’s not Peterson’s attitude toward the Western heritage at all.

      Peterson doesn’t push Christian dogma – this is true. But he doesn’t reject it or belittle it, either. I’ll say this – as a traditional dogmatic Christian myself, I don’t really find anything he says problematic from a religious perspective. Some of what he says I don’t agree with (though it’s always interesting), but I’ve never heard him say anything that would be incomparable with classical faith. Not affirming and rejecting are two very different things. And Peterson is constantly suggesting that we may very well need to go deeper than praxis – into metaphysics – but that he just can’t be the guide here.

      As far as the “fuck that shit” comment – where Lewis would say “Don’t talk damned nonsense” – he was referring to pantheists talking of evil and suffering and cancer as equally valid expressions of the divine. Peterson and Lewis would be shoulder to shoulder on this.

      I really don’t think Lewis would look down on Peterson’s theology at all – his “let’s just act like its true, and not worry about proving the metaphysics”. Take this quote from Mere Christianity:

      The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him…

      Compare this to Peterson’s answer to a question about how a person who is an atheist might come to believe again:

      I would say that you start believing not by convincing yourself that the statement “there is a God” is true, like a fact is true, but rather act out the proposition that you should shoulder your cross and stumble uphill towards the city of God. That’s belief, man!

      By this logic, I’d say Lewis would consider Peterson a believer in the ways that really matter – at least in public. And he might also respect Peterson’s wish to keep his dogmatic commitments private.

      I think I’d love to be a fly on the wall for Peterson to join Lewis at The Eagle and the Child. I think they’d talk late into the night, and enjoy every minute of it.

      • Philipp says:

        Interesting thoughts, wondersforoyarsa. I suppose what I think of is what Ransom says to Jane Studdock, before they are going to go out to find Merlin in That Hideous Strength–that her obedience to him is enough for the moment, but Christ (‘Maleldil’) will have her for himself, in the end. Although Lewis was willing (too willing, maybe; I think the scriptural witness is almost totally against the idea) to countenance the possibility of salvation for the not-explicitly-Christian, he still retained a clear awareness that one cannot stand outside of Christ and the Church forever, who is visibly called to it.

        Getting back to the quotation from Mere Christianity, is Peterson a man who is trying (or advising others to try) ‘to climb up into spiritual life by our own efforts’? It’s one thing to give that advice about love to just anyone; it’s another thing to tell a Christian the same thing. Lewis didn’t always emphasize divine grace, but he still believed in it. Still, I would agree that it is at least possible that he would see Peterson as a man moving along the right path, though I doubt he would see him as already a Christian, if he made no such profession, or if his doctrines really do seem, in the end, to get back to self-help.

  63. Anonymous says:

    Super-saturated solutions are really cool.

  64. userfriendlyyy says:

    My problem with Jordan Peterson’s world view is that he completely ignores the structural problems in the way of self improvement. It’s all well and good to do everything in your power to make yourself stronger and improve your lot in life but it risks turning all of his devotees into fervent believers in the Horatio Alger myth. There will always be a segment of society that can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps; but it is an absolute certainty that it will not work for everyone. Then the problems arise when all those Horatio Alger’s go ‘I did it my self, your moral failings must be why you didn’t so you deserve what you get.’

    It just feeds into the individualistic narrative that everything about your life is 100% the result of things you have control over. Just ignore why your wages aren’t going up, just work harder to get paid more. Just ignore that you are making less than your parents when they were your age, just keep working harder to get paid more.

    It completely ignores workers banding together to demand better treatment. I’m not even against some of the self improvement stuff but I cringe when it is offered as the sole solution.

    • fontesmustgo says:

      I don’t know Peterson well enough to say whether he offers “self improvement stuff… as the sole solution,” but he strikes me as too thoughtful and humble for that. I doubt that he would suggest that anyone take his advice as anything less than a partial guide to living.

      You directly control little in your life, but you control some, and you’re almost certainly not doing everything you can to help yourself. Getting yourself in order won’t solve all your problems, but it will be an improvement – perhaps to the point where the structural inequities won’t matter to you as much. Certainly it’s faster. You won’t overthrow cisheteropatriarchical capitalism by the summer, but you can lose some weight and get organized.

      And if you’ve done that and you still want to band together to demand better treatment, self-improvement will enhance your charisma, clarify your thinking, and give you more energy – all things that will make you a better labor leader (or participant in a movement).

      • lvlln says:

        I’ve seen an interviewer push him on this a couple times (same interviewer in 2 different occasions), and I’ve never quite seen a response from him that was fully satisfactory to me. The best response I saw was him comparing society to a military helicopter, and how attempting to fix it or make improvements without fully knowing what you’re doing is more likely to cause it to spin out of control and send us all crashing to our fiery deaths than it is to actually make things better. Instead, better to start small, gain an understanding of the things around you and make incremental improvements that you KNOW are better, even if they’re tiny and don’t do anything to fix the underlying, larger problems that may be the far greater source of your problems.

        The disasters of Nazism and Communism in the 20th century, which seem to take up a lot of room in his mind, do serve as pretty good evidence that his way might be the way to go.

        And yet, fact remains that there HAVE been activist movements in the US, like the suffragettes or the civil rights movement in the 60s or the more recent gay marriage movement that have caused what I think are unambiguously good society-wide changes. So it’s hard to find his argument fully convincing; sometimes, even something as complex as a military helicopter really has a simple and dumb problem that a simple layman with no specialized knowledge can fix.

        Now, one person Peterson does bring up a lot is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who he claims found himself in the GULAG system in Stalinist USSR and, instead of resentfully decrying his current unfair predicament (I think it’s fair to say that pretty much anyone who suffered in the GULAG system probably had it far worse for unfair reasons than pretty much anyone in modern US society – at the least, I doubt that many people in modern US would be willing to trade places with someone in the GULAG system), he decided to take responsibility for each of his decisions that eventually led him to that place, and he decided to fix each of those things and to see how much good he could do. Peterson claims that this eventually led to him writing and publishing the GULAG Archipelago, which had a large impact in discrediting Communism and eventually leading to the downfall of USSR.

        So he seems to think that bringing about good societal change comes from taking full responsibility for one’s own predicament and working to fix it, rather than from finding something someone else is doing wrong and then coercing them into doing it right. Not knowing the history myself, I don’t know if Peterson’s account of Solzhenitsyn is apocryphal or deluded in some way, though, which is part of what I don’t find so fully convincing.

        I do think it’d be unfair to say that Peterson would say anything like “I did it my self, your moral failings must be why you didn’t so you deserve what you get,” or that any honest engagement with what he says would lead anyone to say anything of that sort.

        • fontesmustgo says:

          [S]tart small, gain an understanding of the things around you and make incremental improvements that you KNOW are better, even if they’re tiny and don’t do anything to fix the underlying, larger problems that may be the far greater source of your problems.

          I’m not seeing this as in conflict with your example of (for example) same-sex marriage.

          First, my point about timelines holds: you’re not going to change the world quickly. The Overton Window shift on homosexuality was comparatively fast, but it still took decades. If you were a gay man in 1980 hoping for full legal and social recognition/acceptance of your romantic relationship, you had to wait for a huge chunk of your life.

          Second, to the extent that there were incremental improvements, they resulted in significant part from the types of small-scale behaviors that individuals can control for themselves. Gay marriage became thinkable when heterosexuals saw homosexuals living their lives not as the God-hating exotic hedonists they expected, but as ordinary folks. Along the way, hating someone simply for the sex of their romantic partner seemed increasingly arbitrary and weird.

          I am not arguing that homosexuals were doing something wrong that they needed to improve, but I am suggesting that individual behaviors had an aggregate effect of normalizing homosexuality.

        • Randy M says:

          he [Solzhenitsyn] decided to take responsibility for each of his decisions that eventually led him to that place

          This seems like a weird thing to say. Weren’t there plenty of virtuous actions that could lead someone to be in, particularly, the soviet gulags, like failing to produce enough or honestly critiquing the communist system or party leaders, etc.?
          Taking responsibility generally means identifying faults of yours that lead to a problem.

          • Lambert says:

            In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, most of the prisoners of the camp seem to be there simply for having been captured by the Nazis during the war, under the pretext of being spies (for a regime that no longer exists).

          • Randy M says:

            All the more odd, the, would it be to tell them to “take responsibility for the decisions that led them there.”

          • lvlln says:

            I don’t know Solzhenitsyn’s life story (though I did recently read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich), so I can’t really say what it meant for him to “take responsibility” for ending up in the GULAG system. I don’t fully recall what Peterson said on this, either. I think the point might have been that, for better or for worse, the USSR government and the GULAG system were essentially forces of nature in the environment in which Solzhenitsyn lived. The system was corrupt, unjust, and unfair, but he also made various decisions along the way that didn’t minimize his odds that he didn’t end up in a GULAG camp. And maybe even if he acted perfectly, the random injustice of the system would’ve ensnared him anyway. But instead of focusing on that and deciding that he would’ve ended up there anyway, he focused on those decisions that contributed to increasing the chances of him ending up there, and strove at least not to make those decisions again.

            One issue I have with this is that it has major survivorship bias. How many other people did what Solzhenitsyn did in the GULAG system and still ended up starved or frozen to death or just didn’t do much of worth? But then again perhaps the point is that good things such as the great societal change that he helped to create, or even personal survival, are never guaranteed, but the best way to make them possible is by taking responsibility for oneself.

            But that also runs into the civil rights movement counterexample.

            As an aside, writing this out reminded me of a couple of things. One was a Vietnam vet and former POW that Jocko Willink interviewed on his podcast, who said that one rule he followed as a POW was to exercise every single day, even on days where his wrists and neck were bound to the stocks the entire time. Another is a possibly apocryphal story about people in some death camp (I think it was Nazi) surviving only by virtue of surreptitiously changing his own name to someone else’s in the list of people to be executed on a certain day and delaying his execution long enough that he got freed.

          • Lambert says:

            I think you’re on to something.

            Perhaps you’re not responsible for getting into the GULAG in the first place, but an awful lot of One Day is about how one’s actions in the camps affect one’s chances of ever getting out. That the only way to survive is to accept that you are a zek, to take care of what few personal possessions you have and to take care of your relationships with the others in the camp.

          • Mr Mind says:

            @lvlln

            One issue I have with this is that it has major survivorship bias. How many other people did what Solzhenitsyn did in the GULAG system and still ended up starved or frozen to death or just didn’t do much of worth?

            Not only this, but also: how many did thrive in a Gulag without doing anything particularly significant?

          • FacelessCraven says:

            “And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?… The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! If…if…We didn’t love freedom enough. And even more – we had no awareness of the real situation…. We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward.”

            -Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

            It’s been a decade or more since I read the book, but my memory is that this theme is constant throughout the work. The author has great sympathy for those whose lives were destroyed by the communist system, as in fact his own was… but at the same time, he constantly returns to how complacency, venality, cowardice, greed, and spite among the people themselves made the system possible. He argues that the Russian people, including himself, refused to make hard choices to uphold the right, and so evil reigned unhindered.

            @Mr Mind – Not only this, but also: how many did thrive in a Gulag without doing anything particularly significant?

            The author gives numerous examples of how people survived and even thrived by hoarding what volition remained to them; writing songs or poetry, whole books, working on mathematical theory, and so on. One story that stuck with me is the guy who surmised that the two numbers stamped on the bottom of his gruel bowl were its radius and circumference, used them to make a ruler from a thread pulled from his cell’s mattress, measured and memorized the dimensions of his cell, and then “walked to freedom” by pacing and counting his steps. In this way he retained his sanity through multiple years of solitary confinement. I would argue that retaining your sanity despite the best efforts of a totalitarian superpower to destroy it qualifies as a significant achievement.

            The book is also full of numerous examples of those who simply died, or who preyed upon their fellow prisoners.

        • Iain says:

          Some problems can be solved by self-improvement, and some problems are systematic. And yet, fact remains that there HAVE been activist movements in the US, like the suffragettes or the civil rights movement in the 60s or the more recent gay marriage movement that have caused what I think are unambiguously good society-wide changes.

          Yeah, I think this is important.

          Jordan Peterson pushes the self-improvement angle very heavily. In a lot of ways, that’s a good thing. Everybody has things in their life that they could improve. If you are a clinical psychologist trying to give useful advice, that is absolutely where you should focus.

          But not all problems are solved by the quiet pursuit of individual excellence. Sometimes problems are systemic, and need a movement to solve. And that’s where Peterson goes off the rails. Take this bit, from his interview with Cathy Newman:

          PETERSON: No, I’m saying that the philosophy that drives their utterances is the same philosophy that already has driven us to the deaths of millions of people.
          NEWMAN: Okay. Tell us how that philosophy is in any way comparable.
          PETERSON: Sure. That’s no problem. The first thing is that their philosophy presumes that group identity is paramount. That’s the fundamental philosophy that drove the Soviet Union and Maoist China. And it’s the fundamental philosophy of the left-wing activists. It’s identity politics. It doesn’t matter who you are as an individual, it matters who you are in terms of your group identity.

          This is a wholesale rejection of the idea of systemic fixes. It is a fully generalizable counter-argument: “You can’t have a movement to address discrimination against Group X, because that would privilege group identity over individual identity. Nice try, Mao.” (Ironically, Jordan Peterson is not above using group membership as a shield himself.)

          • baconbits9 says:

            This is a wholesale rejection of the idea of systemic fixes

            No it isn’t, it is wholesale rejection of group identity being used for systemic fixes, this would not preclude systemic fixes such as the early civil rights movements in the US.

          • lvlln says:

            baconbits9 is absolutely right. The similarities between Communism and identity politics isn’t that they both call for systemic fixes to problems. It’s that they elevate group identity over individual identity. It’s very possible to address discrimination against group X while still privileging individual identity over group identity. The suffragettes and the civil rights movement of the 60s and the recent gay marriage movement did just that. They didn’t call on all men or all white people or all straight people to be considered oppressors who all benefit from systemic oppression and thus need to be resisted and punished. They called for individuals to be treated as individuals – for women to have the same voting rights as men because female individuals are equal to male individuals, for blacks to have the same access to services and protection as whites because black individuals are equal to white individuals, for gays to have the same access to marriage as straights because gay individuals are equal to straight individuals.

            Those were quite explicitly about rejecting the privileging of group identities over individual identities. Those combated systems in place that deemed certain individuals as worthy of fewer rights or privileges based on their membership in certain group identities. Identity politics and, say, dekulakization are the direct opposite of those, where individuals are deemed worthy of fewer rights or privileges based on their membership in certain group identities.

          • ilikekittycat says:

            Wow, I hadn’t read that last bit before, but that confirms Peterson’s understanding of Marx is terribly sloppy. Proletarian/bourgeoisie aren’t group identities, they’re material circumstances. Marx wasn’t advocating for vulgar workerism. The whole point is to destroy the notion of “worker” as a category that defines someone at their core. It couldn’t be more different than modern social justice notions of “I am BLACK and you MUST acknowledge the dignity in that forming the core of who I am, and choose to present as, forever” “I am TRANS and…” etc. etc.

          • Aapje says:

            @Iain

            No, it is the rejection of populism/reductionism:
            – All white people benefit from and should want a policy that benefits the upper class
            – All black people benefit from and should want affirmative action

            Etc.

          • baconbits9 says:

            @ Ilikekittykat

            Marx’s whole deal is that if there are differences between groups that there must then be perpetual conflict between them. The only way to end the conflict is to end the differences and make people 1 group, this is identity politics to its extreme. Peterson is in the tradition where by each individual is treated as their own group which is on the far end of Marx.

          • benwave says:

            @baconbits9 where did Marx say that? My reading of Marx made it very clear that the particular character of capitalism was what was forcing workers and capitalists into competition, not the mere fact that it was possible to draw meaningful category lines around them.

          • baconbits9 says:

            @baconbits9 where did Marx say that? My reading of Marx made it very clear that the particular character of capitalism was what was forcing workers and capitalists into competition, not the mere fact that it was possible to draw meaningful category lines around them.

            Marx deals with the different economic and political incentives between groups. It isn’t workers vs capitalists, it is every group vs every group with internal divisions in addition. In the communist manifesto he writes

            This organisation of the proletarians into a class, and, consequently into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves

            . The bourgeoisie finds itself involved in a constant battle. At first with the aristocracy; later on, with those portions of the bourgeoisie itself, whose interests have become antagonistic to the progress of industry; at all time with the bourgeoisie of foreign countries

            The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class

            Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers.

            His solution is that in the socialist society everyone’s economic and political interests are aligned. It is not a classless society, but a society of a single class to which everyone belongs, where all ownership is public and so everyone’s interests are toward the public good.

            Further he says

            To be a capitalist, is to have not only a purely personal, but a social status in production.

            When, therefore, capital is converted into common property, into the property of all members of society, personal property is not thereby transformed into social property. It is only the social character of the property that is changed. It loses its class character.

            and finally

            From the moment when labour can no longer be converted into capital, money, or rent, into a social power capable of being monopolised, i.e., from the moment when individual property can no longer be transformed into bourgeois property, into capital, from that moment, you say, individuality vanishes.

            For reference here is the version I am quoting from

          • benwave says:

            @baconbits I have a lot to learn about late-career Marx, it would seem. But I’m not here to defend the communist manifesto.

          • Hoopdawg says:

            I would invite everyone to actually read the text baconbits9 linked above if only to see how dishonest he is in his selective quoting.

            I especially love the part where Marx’s restating of a bourgeois strawman of communism is taken as his actual position.

          • baconbits9 says:

            I’ll help every do that Hoopdawg, here is the surrounding text for each quote with the parts I quoted in bold.

            Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers. This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry, and that place the workers of different localities in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralise the numerous local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes. But every class struggle is a political struggle. And that union, to attain which the burghers of the Middle Ages, with their miserable highways, required centuries, the modern proletarian, thanks to railways, achieve in a few years.
            This organisation of the proletarians into a class, and, consequently into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves. But it ever rises up again, stronger, firmer, mightier. It compels legislative recognition of particular interests of the workers, by taking advantage of the divisions among the bourgeoisie itself. Thus, the tenhours’ bill in England was carried.
            Altogether collisions between the classes of the old society further, in many ways, the course of development of the proletariat. The bourgeoisie finds itself involved in a constant battle. At first with the aristocracy; later on, with those portions of the bourgeoisie itself, whose interests have become antagonistic to the progress of industry; at all time with the bourgeoisie of foreign countries. In all these battles, it sees itself compelled to appeal to the proletariat, to ask for help, and thus, to drag it into the political arena. The bourgeoisie itself, therefore, supplies the proletariat with its own elements of political and general education, in other words, it furnishes the proletariat with weapons for fighting the bourgeoisie.

            That covers the first two quotes, so what was taken out of context there?

            Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of Modern Industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product.
            The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionary, but conservative. Nay more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history. If by chance, they are revolutionary, they are only so in view of their impending transfer into the proletariat; they thus defend not their present, but their future interests, they desert their own standpoint to place themselves at that of the proletariat. The “dangerous class”, [lumpenproletariat] the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society, may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution; its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.

            It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society.
            The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour. Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.

            Anything in these two? Nope.

            You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society. In one word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.
            From the moment when labour can no longer be converted into capital, money, or rent, into a social power capable of being monopolised, i.e., from the moment when individual property can no longer be transformed into bourgeois property, into capital, from that moment, you say,individuality vanishes.
            You must, therefore, confess that by “individual” you mean no other person than the bourgeois, than the middle-class owner of property. This person must, indeed, be swept out of the way, and made impossible.

            I guess that it is this last one which you are claiming is Marx is defending against a strawman of communism, but it is not so, Marx is in agreement. He is saying ‘if this is what you call individuality, then yes we are getting rid of it’.

          • benwave says:

            Thank you for quoting out larger portions of the text. I still probably have to go through and read the whole thing (sigh) but with the context around them, I am largely unconvinced they say what you propose they say. The first quote says that competition between workers under capitalism is a force preventing workers from uniting to change capitalism. The second gives some examples of competitions that capitalists find themselves in. The third proposes that various fractions of society are in competition with capitalists to retain their claim over the means of production by which they make their living. The fourth is saying the same as the first. The fifth suggests that Marx thinks the idea that ending of private ownership of the means of production will destroy individuality is nonsense.

            Most of these quotes refer to conflicts between groups which once again, is caused by the particular character of capitalism. I don’t mean to claim that competition would not exist in another possible economic mode, but I don’t think your selection generalises to show that Marx thought that “if there are differences between groups that there must then be perpetual conflict between them.”

        • Z says:

          Not knowing the history myself, I don’t know if Peterson’s account of Solzhenitsyn is apocryphal or deluded in some way, though

          The Gulag Archipelago is in audio book format on YouTube. It’s long, but it won’t take long at all to determine whether Peterson’s account of it is faithful.

    • manwhoisthursday says:

      I think Peterson would say that in the West there is a lot more opportunity out there than people are taking advantage of. In other words, the problems of most people in the First World . . . are First World problems.

      That isn’t to say that there aren’t a non-trivial number of people in the West who don’t have really serious problems that they can’t do much about: IQ under 85, serious physical illness, genetic propensity to mental problems etc. But those aren’t most people.

    • BillG says:

      I don’t think he ignores these structural impediments at all– in fact, I think he explicitly addresses that it will always be the case that there will be impediments. “Of course the order is tyrannical.”

      His solution is to address what is in front of you. If there’s nothing that you can impact beyond cleaning your room, start there. If you have the power to chip away at some of that tyranny, do so. The problem he correctly points out is how many folks default to screaming at the biggest thing they can scream at, in the process failing into foolishness or inactivity.

      For example, if you are not making a fair wage that supports a reasonable lifestyle, your only option may be to change your qualifications, work a bit harder and advance some in a ladder. Or, you may have the option to help influence a corporation’s compensation scheme in a way that makes the world a better place. If you do, that’s in front of you and you should do so. Or, you may have a leadership role that lets you impact the market on a grander scale. If you do, that’s in front of you and you should do so. In each case, you will have the expertise and access to address the problem in front of you.

      The situation he decries is the guy who shows up late for work and misses out on available advancement options, all while explaining the horrors of the system. Maybe showing up on time and working diligently won’t solve his problem, but his current approach definitely will not.

    • thepenforests says:

      See that’s interesting, I have a sort of similar reaction, but from the opposite side. I worry that, far from being neglected, messages about structural problems have completely saturated the cultural zeitgeist, to the point where even people who could pull themselves up by their bootstraps are discouraged from trying. I see Peterson as reacting to (and pushing back against) that cultural narrative, not because it’s invalid but because it’s become too all-encompassing.

      I won’t put words in Peterson’s mouth, but speaking for myself: I unreservedly agree with your last sentence – I think it’s obviously the case that structural problems lead to gross injustices in society, and that anyone who claims that “self-improvement” can completely nullify these is lying, mistaken, or engaging in wishful thinking.

      But that being said, I think the counterpart sentence “I’m not against the ‘dealing with structural problems collectively’ stuff, but I cringe when it is offered as the sole solution” is also a valid concern, and in fact is (in my estimation) probably a more pressing one, at least at the moment. I think it’s almost certainly the case that many social justice messages, while helping a great deal of people, have caused harm to many others by pushing them away from self-improvement. And I don’t think the idea that social justice messages even can cause harm is widely acknowledged enough.

      I can’t help but see this as one of those Should You Reverse Any Advice You Hear situations, in that I genuinely believe there’s a huge group of people out there who haven’t heard messages like Peterson’s nearly enough, and who would benefit from listening to him.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        100% endorsed.

        • userfriendlyyy says:

          I really wasn’t talking about social justice. I meant more along the lines of economic justice. Peterson tends to help you optimize becoming a cog in the machine status quo. Sure, doing so will help you make some material gains. But it doesn’t help those people who are already working a full time minimum wage job get anywhere except assistant manager maybe. What does that pay $10/hr? He also encourages you to just do what you have to succeed. If that owner treats you like crap there really are not many options, you can’t afford college and the other jobs are just as bad. Sounds like a wonderful life.

          There are SOO many jobs where decent people work hard and barely make ends meet. Fixing your outlook is not a realistic solution for many of these people. Better working conditions is. The only way we ensure that every person is treated fairly at work is by collectively organizing and giving workers more power.

          My preferred solution is a federally funded, locally administered, Job Guarantee at a living wage with benefits for anyone ready, willing, and able to work. It sets a floor for what we as a society see as acceptable working conditions for human beings while giving private sector employees leverage to negotiate better conditions. It has AMAZING bipartisan appeal among the poorest Americans and there is no end to the things that would be an overwhelming societal good that the market has failed to provide. Building out Green infrastructure for one.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Peterson tends to help you optimize becoming a cog in the machine status quo.

            I don’t really see how you can defend this position. Peterson specifically says that if you show up and do your job well that other people will want to open doors for you, and never advises that you take and keep a terrible job indefinitely.

            If that owner treats you like crap there really are not many options, you can’t afford college and the other jobs are just as bad. Sounds like a wonderful life.

            You are aggressively stacking the deck here. So the only job you could possible get is $10 an hour, and the boss is terrible and every boss is terrible. Even then you haven’t given a reason why Peterson’s advice is harmful in this situation.

          • userfriendlyyy says:

            if you show up and do your job well that other people will want to open doors for you

            Is just false, or the only doors they can open are small fry like up to assistant manager.

            His advice is terrible because it practically advocates complacency. Do you have any idea how many millions of people are going above and beyond in hopeless dead end jobs while not making enough to make ends meet. The one and only thing that has ever substantially increased workers working conditions is collective organizing. Otherwise we wouldn’t even have the 5 day work week and child labor laws.

          • j r says:

            I meant more along the lines of economic justice. Peterson tends to help you optimize becoming a cog in the machine status quo. Sure, doing so will help you make some material gains. But it doesn’t help those people who are already working a full time minimum wage job get anywhere except assistant manager maybe. What does that pay $10/hr?

            I think that you’re taking this hypothetical advice in the wrong way. The point to buckling down and being the best damn fry cook at McBurger’s isn’t really to make it to assistant manager (unless that’s what you want). The point to doing the thing in front of you to the best of your ability is that it develops the discipline and focus that you’ll need to take the steps necessary to move away from that and towards a more sustainable and fulfilling long term path.

            Put another way, if you ask a ten-year old child what she wants to be when she grows up and she says Assistant Manager at a fast food franchise, its time for a Dutch Uncle moment.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Is just false, or the only doors they can open are small fry like up to assistant manager.

            This is obviously not true in the US as data on income mobility within lifetimes attests.

            His advice is terrible because it practically advocates complacency.

            Indefensible. Complacency would be doing enough to not get fired, and this isn’t his advice at all, and he believes his advice will lead to change.

            Do you have any idea how many millions of people are going above and beyond in hopeless dead end jobs while not making enough to make ends meet.

            I don’t because there are no real definitions of ‘above and beyone’, ‘dead end jobs’ and ‘making ends meet’, but a recent study claimed that 73% of American adults would spend at least 1 year in the top quintile of income, marginal revolution recently linked a claim that total income for the bottom quintile was up almost 70% since 1980. It seems very unlikely that a large percent of the country are working hard year in an year out and struggling to make ends meet.

          • To add to Baconbits point …

            Average real income in the U.S. at present is about twenty to thirty times as high as it was, on a global level, through most of history. That number is enough to show that “making ends meet” is not an objective standard, since what you define as failing to make ends meet is many times higher than the income on which most people in the past lived.

          • suntzuanime says:

            But the government has banned many of the conditions under which people lived in the past – they’re not available at 1/20 the cost, they’re just not available at all. And some of the other conditions might be available so long as you don’t have children, but asking your children to live in those conditions could get them kidnapped by the state. And if you want to have a minimally functional social life, the standard for what goes into that has increased, etc… “Making ends meet” may not be an intertemporally objective standard, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a real standard or that failing to make ends meet doesn’t have devastating consequences. In human society most stuff is graded on a curve.

          • userfriendlyyy says:

            @ j r

            The point to doing the thing in front of you to the best of your ability is that it develops the discipline and focus that you’ll need to take the steps necessary to move away from that and towards a more sustainable and fulfilling long term path.

            All well and good to develop discipline and focus, but out of the half million fast food cooks in this country making less than $10/hr how many do you think will be able to use those acquired skills to climb the social ladder? Does having kids make it more or less likely our fry cook can take some community college classes and level up?

            Even under the rosiest of scenarios there are bound to be a significant number of people who max out at the top 90th percentile of fry cooks making $12/hr, presumably with minimal benefits no matter how much focus and skill building Peterson can get them to do.

            In a society where 3 people have as much wealth as the bottom 90% are we satisfied telling that guy just keep plugging away and you’ll get there?

            To the extent that @thepenforests above is talking about breaking up in to social / racial groups I agree that has been done WAY too far and needs rolling back. Where it has not been done AT ALL is class groups. Warren Buffett’s line

            `There’s been class warfare for the last 20 years, and my class has won’

            is very true. The only way working people get a better deal is by sticking together and demanding better conditions somethings Petersons waves away by talking about Mao and Stalin.

          • baconbits9 says:

            All well and good to develop discipline and focus, but out of the half million fast food cooks in this country making less than $10/hr how many do you think will be able to use those acquired skills to climb the social ladder? Does having kids make it more or less likely our fry cook can take some community college classes and level up

            This is a misrepresentation. Your link says that there are 513,000 fast food cooks with the mean hourly wage being $9.89 and the median being $9.55, so roughly a quarter of a million cooks are making $9.55 or less and a substantial portion are making more than $10 an hour.

            The 90% level is $12.16 an hour, so there is an obvious pathway forward for hard worker cooks to make 20%+ more than your $10 minimum without changes jobs or employers. Further Wal-Mart reports its average hourly earnings for a full time worker at $13 an hour, so if working hard at McDonald’s can get you a good reference for Wal-Mart and you go on to be an average employee there that is a 30% boost. If they have a similar distribution as the fast food cooks do then the 90% percentile would be in the $15-16 dollar an hour range.

            it is entirely reasonable to expect a hard working fast food cook to be able to increase their earnings by 20-50% over a few years, and anecdotally I, and other people I know, have done so in similar situations.

          • lvlln says:

            The only way working people get a better deal is by sticking together and demanding better conditions somethings Petersons waves away by talking about Mao and Stalin.

            I don’t think I’ve seen anything to indicate that Peterson is against things like unionizing and collective bargaining. From what I can tell, he’s been pretty good about comparing only identity politics to Mao & the like, not any sort of coordinated action. For instance, I believe he’s spoken positively about universal health care like the kind his own home country provides, and he has stated he has no in-principle problem with Universal Basic Income, though he does have skepticism that stems from his worry that it could be harmful to some people, specifically drug addicts who haven’t overdosed yet only by virtue of not having enough $ to buy the drugs necessary to do so. Surely it’s possible to effectively stick together and demand better conditions without using class-based guilt to demonize and punish individuals purely on the basis of identity categories. That said, he does tend to be highly suspicious of coordinated action, more suspicious than is warranted, IMHO.

            On the broader point of economic inequality, Peterson has pretty consistently spoken out about the problem of inequality and has criticized the left for not taking it seriously enough, rather than denying that it’s a problem. Certainly he hasn’t said that one should just accept one’s lot in life and not attempt to make changes. He mainly has a big problem with people who he considers arrogant for thinking that they know how to fix the problems in society before they try everything in their power to improve their lot. It’s not a blank denial that structural changes aren’t possible – he doesn’t say don’t dare criticize the world, he says just to make sure your house is in perfect order first. Again, my opinion is that even this is a bit stronger than my liking, but there’s a world of difference between that and just saying that people shouldn’t stick together and demand better conditions.

          • userfriendlyyy says:

            @baconbits9

            This is obviously not true in the US as data on income mobility within lifetimes attests

            Hummm like this data?

            We estimate rates of “absolute income mobility” – the fraction of children who earn more than their parents – by combining historical data from Census and CPS cross-sections with panel data for recent birth cohorts from de-identified tax records. Our approach overcomes the key data limitation that has hampered research on trends in intergenerational mobility: the lack of large panel datasets linking parents and children. We find that rates of absolute mobility have fallen from approximately 90% for children born in 1940 to 50% for children born in the 1980s. The result that absolute mobility has fallen sharply over the past half century is robust to the choice of price deflator, the definition of income,and accounting for taxes and transfers. In counterfactual simulations, we find that increasing GDP growth rates alone cannot restore absolute mobility to the rates experienced by children born in the1940s. In contrast, changing the distribution of growth across income groups to the more equal distribution experienced by the 1940 birth cohort would reverse more than 70% of the decline in mobility. These results imply that reviving the “American Dream” of high rates of absolute mobility would require economic growth that is spread more broadly across the income distribution.

            Or this?

            The report found that millennials—15 to 34-year-olds in 2013—were worth roughly half as much as the boomer generation and are earning about 20% less in comparison to young adults in 1989. While millennials earned $40,581 on average in 2013, members of the boomer generation earned $50,910 annually in 1989.

            What I meant by complacency is accepting the status quo power relationship at work. Excepting that all fry cooks will just have bad lives and if he doesn’t want a bad life he needs to fix himself. Rather than realizing there is no world where fry cooks don’t exist for at least a while and demanding a living wage.

            Our entire society has been intently focused on individualistic self improvement (get a fitbit, monitor your sleep, be on call 24/7, save your boss money by getting a gym membership, college isn’t a societal good generating a more educated workforce it’s building human capital and you better be ready to pay out the nose for it, single payer health care is bad because having a healthier society isn’t important because I’ve got mine jack, ect.)

            73% of American adults would spend at least 1 year in the top quintile of income,

            You left out household. Sure, Husband wife have their parent move in to watch out might bring the household to over $110k/yr. Or maybe a boomerang kid working part time with both of his parents working full time.

            that total income for the bottom quintile was up almost 70% since 1980.

            Adjust for inflation.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Do you have any idea how many millions of people are going above and beyond in hopeless dead end jobs while not making enough to make ends meet.

            According to BLS data, not very many. There’s this gilded-age stereotype of an idle-rich and working-their-butts-off-at-80-hours-a-week-poor, but in the twenty-first century, work-hours scale in a straight line with income quintile.

          • userfriendlyyy says:

            @DavidFriedman;
            @suntzuanime had a good response to you but I’d add I would like us to ensure that everyone ready willing and able to work knows that they have a Guaranteed Job at a living wage even if DC and Wall Street get so greedy that they explode the world’s economy. I want honest, hard working people to know that they are not just trash, that society hasn’t discarded them, and that they have value. I want there to be less Americans killing themselves on opiates every year out of desperation than died in the entirety of the Iraq and Vietnam wars combined.

            Sure, we are better off in the sense that we aren’t running around naked hunting animals for food but we are nowhere near living in a society where most people are happy, healthy, and secure.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Adjust for inflation

            Adjust for taxes and transfers

          • userfriendlyyy says:

            @baconbits9
            To your attempted debugging of the fry cook data. My point all along has been that yes, it is possible to make small improvements by working harder. That does nothing for the rest of society. What happens if every last one of those fry cooks becomes Peterson devotees?

            Like I said, well and good to improve yourself where you can but it is not a universal solution and actually is marginally detrimental to universal solutions. That fry cook who worked extra hard and got a little bit ahead is likely to have some resistance to collective action because his first thought will be ‘I worked my way up, why can’t you?’

            @lvlln
            Thank you for the clarification, I’ve read a bit of Peterson but I’m certainly not an expert on the nuances of all his opinions. I apologize if I’ve made unfair straw men or representations.

            @Edward Scizorhands
            Hours worked is a poor metric because rich people are salaried and don’t get paid any differently if they work 35 hours or 80 so there is a constant pressure to be seen to be doing your part and working longer. Poor people get paid hourly and their pay jumps to time and a half if they work over 40 hrs, a punishable / fireable offence at many jobs (including ones I’ve worked at). Plus there are jobs that won’t let employees go over 32 hrs to avoid having to offer health insurance.

            @everyone…
            Geez you guys all respond quickly, this has been a fun and enjoyable conversation unfortunately I have things I need to do today. I will check back later tonight or tomorrow and respond if there is anything else.

          • userfriendlyyy says:

            Still meaningless without inflation adjustment. Besides, taxes and transfers go almost entirely to healthcare. You want to see something even worse? Go look at wealth distribution.

          • baconbits9 says:

            To your attempted debugging of the fry cook data. My point all along has been that yes, it is possible to make small improvements by working harder. That does nothing for the rest of society. What happens if every last one of those fry cooks becomes Peterson devotees?

            Productivity would rise, so real output would rise and real wealth would rise, that is the expected outcome of many people choosing to do their best (and is the case for universal college education).

            Like I said, well and good to improve yourself where you can but it is not a universal solution and actually is marginally detrimental to universal solutions. That fry cook who worked extra hard and got a little bit ahead is likely to have some resistance to collective action because his first thought will be ‘I worked my way up, why can’t you?’

            You have started with, and without defending, the assumption that collective action is the primary way in which gains are made and not individual action.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Still meaningless without inflation adjustment.

            That graph (99% sure) is inflation adjusted as well.

            Besides, taxes and transfers go almost entirely to healthcare.

            Even if true, so what?

            You want to see something even worse? Go look at wealth distribution.

            The wealth distribution is not actually scary at all as it lines up very nicely with age, you could come to the conclusion that everyone is going to die rich if you looked at it through an age prism (which would also be an inaccurate way to look at it, but just as valid as using it for scare tactics).

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            but it is not a universal solution and actually is marginally detrimental to universal solutions. That fry cook who worked extra hard and got a little bit ahead is likely to have some resistance to collective action because his first thought will be ‘I worked my way up, why can’t you?’

            “Don’t try to get better, it might work!”

          • baconbits9 says:

            “Don’t try to get better, it might work!”

            No, its worse than that. Its “Don’t try to get better if it works you will make other people feel bad”

          • The Nybbler says:

            @baconbits9

            That’s crabs, not lobsters, I believe.

          • userfriendlyyy says:

            @baconbits9

            Productivity would rise, so real output would rise and real wealth would rise, that is the expected outcome of many people choosing to do their best (and is the case for universal college education).

            I wish.

            Wage stagnation experienced by the vast majority of American workers has emerged as a central issue in economic policy debates, with candidates and leaders of both parties noting its importance. This is a welcome development because it means that economic inequality has become a focus of attention and that policymakers are seeing the connection between wage stagnation and inequality. Put simply, wage stagnation is how the rise in inequality has damaged the vast majority of American workers.

            The Economic Policy Institute’s earlier paper, Raising America’s Pay: Why It’s Our Central Economic Policy Challenge, presented a thorough analysis of income and wage trends, documented rising wage inequality, and provided strong evidence that wage stagnation is largely the result of policy choices that boosted the bargaining power of those with the most wealth and power (Bivens et al. 2014). As we argued, better policy choices, made with low- and moderate-wage earners in mind, can lead to more widespread wage growth and strengthen and expand the middle class.

            This paper updates and explains the implications of the central component of the wage stagnation story: the growing gap between overall productivity growth and the pay of the vast majority of workers since the 1970s. A careful analysis of this gap between pay and productivity provides several important insights for the ongoing debate about how to address wage stagnation and rising inequality. First, wages did not stagnate for the vast majority because growth in productivity (or income and wealth creation) collapsed. Yes, the policy shifts that led to rising inequality were also associated with a slowdown in productivity growth, but even with this slowdown, productivity still managed to rise substantially in recent decades. But essentially none of this productivity growth flowed into the paychecks of typical American workers.

            You have started with, and without defending, the assumption that collective action is the primary way in which gains are made and not individual action.

            My point, which has been inferred by most of the links is that individual action can be effective for some people some of the time. Since the neoliberal revolution workers pay has stagnated. (same link)

            Since 1973, hourly compensation of the vast majority of American workers has not risen in line with economy-wide productivity. In fact, hourly compensation has almost stopped rising at all. Net productivity grew 72.2 percent between 1973 and 2014. Yet inflation-adjusted hourly compensation of the median worker rose just 8.7 percent, or 0.20 percent annually, over this same period, with essentially all of the growth occurring between 1995 and 2002. Another measure of the pay of the typical worker, real hourly compensation of production, nonsupervisory workers, who make up 80 percent of the workforce, also shows pay stagnation for most of the period since 1973, rising 9.2 percent between 1973 and 2014. Again, the lion’s share of this growth occurred between 1995 and 2002.
            Net productivity grew 1.33 percent each year between 1973 and 2014, faster than the meager 0.20 percent annual rise in median hourly compensation. In essence, about 15 percent of productivity growth between 1973 and 2014 translated into higher hourly wages and benefits for the typical American worker. Since 2000, the gap between productivity and pay has risen even faster. The net productivity growth of 21.6 percent from 2000 to 2014 translated into just a 1.8 percent rise in inflation-adjusted compensation for the median worker (just 8 percent of net productivity growth).
            Since 2000, more than 80 percent of the divergence between a typical (median) worker’s pay growth and overall net productivity growth has been driven by rising inequality (specifically, greater inequality of compensation and a falling share of income going to workers relative to capital owners). Over the entire 1973–2014 period, rising inequality explains over two-thirds of the productivity–pay divergence.
            If the hourly pay of typical American workers had kept pace with productivity growth since the 1970s, then there would have been no rise in income inequality during that period. Instead, productivity growth that did not accrue to typical workers’ pay concentrated at the very top of the pay scale (in inflated CEO pay, for example) and boosted incomes accruing to owners of capital.
            These trends indicate that while rising productivity in recent decades provided the potential for a substantial growth in the pay for the vast majority of workers, this potential was squandered due to rising inequality putting a wedge between potential and actual pay growth for these workers.

            “Don’t bother getting better, your boss and the bankers take almost all the extra gains”

      • Incurian says:

        All debates are bravery debates?

      • benwave says:

        Another idea in that vein is that those structural problems are only able to be addressed and improved by people who have already found their own stable footing as a person. On a personal level, ‘cleaning your room’ is a prerequisite for cleaning up all of human society.

        My personal impression is that dealing with structural problems collectively is not an overpushed message, but then I mostly tend to interact with people who already have the self-improvement part working for them. So, maybe I am just seeing and responding to an unrepresentative world.

      • Null Hypothesis says:

        I mean, it’s pretty obvious that Peterson would agree that systemic problems can certainly exist and do bad things to society.

        The whole reason he was catapulted to fame was the C-16 Bill in Canada, which he argued gave a ‘human rights council’ authority to prosecute people for failing to use particular gender pronouns.

        He was pretty obviously arguing that that would be a systemically bad law, and that crossing the line from saying; “You cannot say some hurtful things” to “you must say these specific things” interferes with society’s ability to think and discuss and reason stuff out, and that’d obviously be bad independent of how ‘sorted out’ any individual’s life is.

      • lvlln says:

        But that being said, I think the counterpart sentence “I’m not against the ‘dealing with structural problems collectively’ stuff, but I cringe when it is offered as the sole solution” is also a valid concern, and in fact is (in my estimation) probably a more pressing one, at least at the moment. I think it’s almost certainly the case that many social justice messages, while helping a great deal of people, have caused harm to many others by pushing them away from self-improvement. And I don’t think the idea that social justice messages even can cause harm is widely acknowledged enough.

        (Bolding mine).

        I agree with this point. This almost looks like a sort of a growth mindset/fixed mindset kind of dichotomy – I’m not really up on the research, but isn’t it the case from the psychological literature that people tend to do worse at self-improvement if they believe that they lack the ability to self-improve? Always emphasizing the unfairness and injustice of life and how it’s all stacked against you seems like a formula for making sure that people in bad situations don’t find ways to escape those bad situations. It’ll be great for their sense of guilt, because it externalizes responsibility, but sense of guilt isn’t the only thing that matters, and real-world circumstances also matter somewhat.

        A slightly different, but related point: I don’t recall if it was Scott, but I recall reading a post by a psychiatrist a brief period after Trump’s win of an LGBT patient coming to him crying, in deadly fear that they were in real danger of soon being sent to death camps where they’ll be shoved into gas chambers. I had already noticed the incredible harm that the SJ movement was causing in its opponents as well as for its cause simply by emboldening its opponents & making more people join their ranks, but I think that was the first time I noticed so clearly that the SJ movement was directly causing unnecessary suffering in the people it was claiming to support. Since then, I’ve noticed more similar examples, like a couple women saying they’re choosing not to pursue a STEM career because the SJ messaging tells them that those jobs are hotbeds of misogyny where they’ll never get a fair chance.

        There are grains of truth there, such as the fact that Trump’s administration really will probably end up being net negative to LGBT people compared to if Clinton had won, and there probably exist various obstacles in certain STEM jobs that women have to face that men wouldn’t, but the overwhelming message are the exaggerated versions stated above. I think that’s why I think Peterson’s message of personal responsibility is appealing and isn’t a bad thing right now, even though there’s a lot in that message I don’t find compelling.

        I vaguely recall sometime after Bush 2’s election that some right-wing pundit wrote some essay saying that he decided to support Democrats and their policies, because sometimes if you’re in a car swerving way to the right into a ditch, the correct thing to do is to jerk the wheel sharply to the left.

      • RobJ says:

        I think the biggest reason messages about structural problems keep getting repeated from certain corners is because there is a significant portion of the population that just doesn’t buy them. I don’t know if repeating these messages ad-nauseum is an effective strategy to get people on board, but the reason they get repeated so much is because they continue to get pushed back on so hard.

        Personally, I’d say different messages are more important for different folks, but there’s no controlling your audience in the internet age.

        • Aapje says:

          Sure, but you can flip that around and argue that people are pushing back in part because there is a significant portion of the population that just doesn’t buy into the ability of the individual to improve their lives significantly.

          • RobJ says:

            I mean, maybe it gets downplayed too much in the rhetoric from certain corners, but even today 90% of the advice anyone gets from friends, family, teachers, etc. is about improving themself. It’s not like at the parent-teacher conference the teacher will say “Little Johnny is disruptive in class, but it’s due to structural racism so it’s not his fault.
            He should put no effort into improving his behavior, but protest instead.”

            I’m sure the emphasis on structural issues gives people an excuse not to take responsibility for themselves, but people are pretty good at finding those excuses in any case. Maybe it makes a difference at the margins, but my feeling (and granted, this is just a feeling) is that the improvement in our institutions based on this awareness will be far greater than any potential loss of internal locus-of-control by individuals.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Most parent teacher conferences devolve into the teacher skirting around the fact that they think its the parents’ fault, and the parents skirting around the fact that they think its the school’s fault.

    • baconbits9 says:

      Even if we granted the premise here, what can an individual do about it? Structural issues in the way? One person can’t fix those, it is self defeating to say ‘hey, not your fault oh well’. Peterson’s message is deal with what you can deal with, very explicitly he starts with things that an individual clearly can do and tells them to build from there. Structural impediments might get in the way, but these are secondary considerations as you won’t even bump up against them if your are getting in your own way.

    • shenanigans24 says:

      If telling people to help themselves works for 95% of people and telling people they are helpless and screwed works for 0% of people you should go with the first option.

    • John Schilling says:

      Unless your names are “Martin”, “Luther”, and “King”, you’re not going to solve the problem of structural oppression in your society. The only ways your miserable life gets even a little bit better are, A: you improve yourself, not society, or B: a whole bunch of other people improve society for you. You can join that team if you like, but it won’t make any measurable difference to society and if it makes a difference to you it will be because you’ve joined a community and not because of the improved society. Also, if you really want your personal membership in Team Improve Society to have even a slightly measurable impact, you’re going to need to be an extraordinary person. So personal improvement seems like a win all around.

      Unless you’re a team leader and you think all your followers will defect if they are capable of making their own lives better by their own efforts, of course.

  65. greghb says:

    If you can’t get from

    “the depiction of whaling in Moby Dick sheds light on the economic transformations of the 19th century.”

    to

    “the meaning of life and how to live”

    then you have much to learn as a kabbalist.

    • Peffern says:

      There goes Scott Alexander, always with the macabre whale metaphors.

      • greghb says:

        The etymology of “macabre” is unknown, but it’s suspected to come from Maccabees, the sect of Jews who lead the revolt against the Seleucid Greeks, purified the Temple, and whose victory is commemorated in the holiday Chanukkah. It’s not coincidence that you chose that word, so what are we meant to make of a Maccabean whale metaphor?

        In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab pursues the whale at all cost. In the story of Chanukah, the Maccabees pursue their traditional way of life at all costs. But the historical Ahab was an evil king of Israel, who lead the nation astray by endorsing idol worship — and he ultiamtely failed. The Maccabees were holy and successful. What accounts for the difference?

        First ask: what was the commercial purpose of whaling in the 19th century? Whale fat was rendered into oil, especially to be used in lamps. (Literally to “shed light”, as Scott said.) What was the miracle of Hanukah? That a single jar of oil lasted for eight days, ensuring that the lamp in the Temple could burn continuously.

        The lesson is obvious. Ahab was wrong to pursue the whale in order to have enough oil. Only God decides who gets enough oil. Rather Ahab should have followed the example of the Maccabees and tried to purify the Temple, at which point God would have made sure that he got the whale (oil) he needed.

        This is essentially Peterson’s 6th principle: “set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.” Don’t read “house”, but “Temple” — which is the house of God on earth. And don’t read “whale” but “world”.

        In other words, purify your Temple before you attack the whale.

        If this doesn’t connect how “the depiction of whaling in Moby Dick sheds light on the economic transformations of the 19th century” to “the meaning of life and how to live” then I don’t know what does.

        • Deiseach says:

          Captain Ahab also sets up an idol for his crew, the golden coin he nails to the mast, which he promises to the first man to raise sight of the great whale. Thus he diverts their purpose to false worship from the True Light to the false golden sun of the coin, the worldly wealth which deceives and leads astray:

          It so chanced that the doubloon of the Pequod was a most wealthy example of these things. On its round border it bore the letters, Republica del Ecuador: Quito. So this bright coin came from a country planted in the middle of the world, and beneath the great equator, and named after it; and it had been cast midway up the Andes, in the unwaning clime that knows no autumn. Zoned by those letters you saw the likeness of three Andes’ summits; from one a flame; a tower on another; on the third a crowing cock; while arching over all was a segment of the partitioned zodiac, the signs all marked with their usual cabalistics, and the keystone sun entering the equinoctial point at Libra.

          The task of the whaling crew is (ultimately) to seek light – the oil for the lamps – but Ahab bends that task to his personal vengeance; he seeks the whale not for its oil but for its blood, to satisfy his anger and vengefulness, and sets up a golden idol to distract his men into abandoning their lawful mission and following the false way which eventually leads them all down to death, save Ishmael, the sole survivor. Ahab of the novel repeats the errors of King Ahab in setting up false idols and making himself the ultimate authority rather than submitting to God, and receives the fruit of his actions which end in disaster.

  66. Jacek Lach says:

    > But that’s exactly the problem. I worry Peterson wakes up in the morning and thinks “How can I help add meaning to people’s lives?” and then he says really meaningful-sounding stuff, and then people think their lives are meaningful. But at some point, things actually have to mean a specific other thing. They can’t just mean meaning. “Mean” is a transitive verb. It needs some direct object.

    I would contest that! Yes, for a perfectly rational agent that is the case; you can just look at the effects of your life, see that it is on net positive, and call that ‘meaning’.

    But what we really care about when talking about the people, is the *impression of meaning*. It is not important for your wellbeing whether your life is actually rational-meaningful. It is important if your system 1 is satisfied with your life in the certain ways, that it signals this satisfaction in certain ways that we call ‘meaningful’.

    As such, it’s not strictly necessary to tie your meaning to some objective measures. If your life feels meaningful, and you have reasonable expectation that this feeling will persist (so presumably – if you accept the assumption that this feeling of meaning evolved, culturally or genetically, for ‘a reason’, i.e. meaning is adaptive – just cheating system1 with drugs is not the right long term answer), and not causing too many negative externalities… Then you’re good?

    Obviously meaningfullness is not the only thing one should optimise their life for. But it’s definitely one of the things you should be looking at.

  67. Deiseach says:

    They were about “explain how the depiction of whaling in Moby Dick sheds light on the economic transformations of the 19th century, giving three examples from the text. Ten pages, single spaced.”

    Oh gosh. This makes me smile an evil smile, as one of the three examples I’d love to use would be this whacked-out (technical term) description of preparing the spermaceti obtained from cutting up the whale that Melville himself uses:

    It had cooled and crystallized to such a degree, that when, with several others, I sat down before a large Constantine’s bath of it, I found it strangely concreted into lumps, here and there rolling about in the liquid part. It was our business to squeeze these lumps back into fluid. A sweet and unctuous duty! no wonder that in old times this sperm was such a favorite cosmetic. Such a clearer! such a sweetener! such a softener! such a delicious mollifier! After having my hands in it for only a few minutes, my fingers felt like eels, and began, as it were, to serpentine and spiralize.

    As I sat there at my ease, cross-legged on the deck; after the bitter exertion at the windlass; under a blue tranquil sky; the ship under indolent sail, and gliding so serenely along; as I bathed my hands among those soft, gentle globules of infiltrated tissues, woven almost within the hour; as they richly broke to my fingers, and discharged all their opulence, like fully ripe grapes their wine; as I snuffed up that uncontaminated aroma, – literally and truly, like the smell of spring violets; I declare to you, that for the time I lived as in a musky meadow; I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible sperm, I washed my hands and my heart of it; I almost began to credit the old Paracelsan superstition that sperm is of rare virtue in allaying the heat of anger: while bathing in that bath, I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulence, or malice, of any sort whatsoever.

    Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, – Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.

    I dunno what kind of economic transformation this describes but it would be fun to work it out 🙂

    • Aapje says:

      I wonder how many people masturbated to that…

    • Nick says:

      After having my hands in it for only a few minutes, my fingers felt like eels, and began, as it were, to serpentine and spiralize.

      What kind of Lovecraftian horror is this gunk?!

  68. Dry Raven says:

    As someone who is deep into the Peterson hole, I have a warning. Peterson is like an alien whose words travel through several layers of perceptual distortion before they come out to a regular human being. You think you understand what he means when he says something, but he means something entirely different. His words come out like static to people, and they make the mistake of thinking they understand his intent because the sentence still parses in English. But he’s changed the meaning of all the words. Reading 12 rules for life is like watching him attempt to simulate a normal human being with hilariously punchy sentences, but maps of meaning and his absurd recursive diagrams is where you should go if you want to get an idea of what’s really floating around in Peterson’s head.

    • Mr Mind says:

      Then I ask you: how do you know you’re reading at the correct layer? Is there a formal documents that says: this is the correct translation from Petersonian to human?
      Otherwise, how could you know that you’re at the correct level, instead of being at a level that is not enough deep or one that is too deep, that you invented for yourself?

      • Dry Raven says:

        My answer 1: Your interpretation is always partially correct and partially incorrect, other people are mysterious and their words shrouded in depth even they don’t fully understand.
        My opinion: You can only ever look at your projection of another person. Your image of Peterson is simply a refuse of aged implicit desires, a mirror masquerading in his image.
        My answer 2: You are always at a level you’ve invented for yourself, whether you like it or not.

        • Mr Mind says:

          Then, accepting your premises, I have a problem with this sentence:

          You think you understand what he means when he says something, but he means something entirely different.

          Because if we basically cannot cross the subjectivity barrier, then it’s meaningless to warn about what Peterson means.

          • Dry Raven says:

            Things are only partially subjective, you must negotiate with your reality to decide what kind of game you’re playing. You can’t just decide to play any game. Our experience is characterized by many constraints.

            I’m basically just saying that regular person conversation-game X and regular person conversation-game Y have greater coherence with each other than they do with Peterson’s alien-conversation-game zeta.

            But I do really mean it. Peterson uses words like they are new identities to try on, rather than tools interpreted by his single identity. I’ve almost never seen or read anyone else who uses words in this way. But I am not particularly well read, so hey.

  69. lvlln says:

    Searching through the lowest reaches of human thought and action, understanding my own capacity to act like a Nazi prison guard or gulag archipelago trustee or a torturer of children in a dunegon, I grasped what it means to “take the sins of the world onto oneself.”

    (Bolding mine)

    1st, “dungeon” is misspelled there. Is that an error from the original book, or did Scott just transcribe it incorrectly? Based on the lack of “(sic),” I’m guessing the latter.

    2nd, I think Peterson crystallized these concepts during the 80s, during which there were the child sex abuse hoaxes that were based on literally nothing but figments of imaginations. Nazi prisons and gulags and the guards and trustees thereof are very well established empirically, but I wonder how much the child dungeon torture that inspired him was based on a hoax, rather than real human behavior. Of course, torturing children a dungeon has been proven to happen, like that Ariel Castro guy a few years back, but I don’t know how much it was known in the 80s.

    • andrewflicker says:

      See, I thought this was a reference to Omelas.

    • Null Hypothesis says:

      It’s kind of funny you mention that since Peterson himself, delivered just as an anecdote during one of his lectures, gave one of the best breakdowns of that very hoax.

      He does a great job articulating the main issue I have with a lot of child psychology studies, which is that the idea that you can control the input given to kids, and expect them to be unaffected, is ridiculous, and most child psychology are almost embarrassingly obviously dependent on this priming.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        Did the early accusers of Satanic child abuse actually have histories of psychiatric disorders?

      • Doctor Locketopus says:

        We’re seeing this play out in a realpolitik way right now.

        An astounding number of children are now terrified that they are going to die in a school shooting, even though the actual probability of that happening is somewhat less than that of the child being struck by lightning, and a couple of orders of magnitude less than the child being killed due to texting while driving.

        I mean, schools in the Midwest now spend more training time on school shootings than they do on tornadoes. Schools on West Coast spend more time on it than they do on earthquakes.

        That’s just nuts. It’s simultaneously terrifying the kids and making the kids less safe.

  70. Deiseach says:

    You become a prophet by saying things that you would have to either be a prophet or the most pompous windbag in the Universe to say, then looking a little too wild-eyed for anyone to be comfortable calling you the most pompous windbag in the universe.

    I was smiling a little up to this about Peterson the Prophet, but I have to admit it made me pause: if he’s just a pompous windbag as his critics and opponents are insisting he is, why are they so wound up about him?

    The only thing I really know is that he gets called a transphobe because of some kind of refusal to use special pronouns, but is the trans activism movement really so big a deal that someone has to be burned at the stake for not falling in line? As I said, the little I know of it is that A (where “A” means “people online as in on Tumblr and sometimes in the sub-reddit and quoted articles from elsewhere”) says Peterson wants to murder trans people (or the like) and this is all because – he won’t use “preferred pronouns” if he thinks the particular ones are stupid?

    I don’t know. I don’t think Peterson is doing anything strange, new or startling (“eat your vegetables, stand up straight, wash your clothes” is what our mothers told us) and I certainly find it very difficult to think of him as a guru or inspired seer or anything other than a middling public sort-of-intellectual, but he seems to provoke a striking response out of all proportion in those who detest him, so maybe he is a prophet – and as we know, they kill the prophets and stone those sent to them.

    • lvlln says:

      The only thing I really know is that he gets called a transphobe because of some kind of refusal to use special pronouns, but is the trans activism movement really so big a deal that someone has to be burned at the stake for not falling in line?

      Peterson himself has commented on the sort of absurdity at this. After all, though he’s been public for a while, he never courted fame, and what caused him to be famous was a few YouTube videos he made some night when he couldn’t sleep, due to being consumed by thoughts about a client of his who was being bullied by social justice warriors.

      This is where I think he’d say the “post-modern neo-Marxism” comes in. The issue was never truly about pronouns, it was about power. For one, he’s been consistent in stating that he sees no problem with using preferred pronouns, as long as it’s negotiated in good will between himself and the person who wants him to use a certain pronoun. What he objected to was enforcing the use of preferred pronouns in law. So it’s not that the trans activism movement is particularly big, but rather that there’s a larger movement that’s using the trans movement as a tool to achieve greater ends than just convincing people to use certain pronouns.

      Especially making the issue confusing is that this isn’t even a “trans activist” issue. After all, the vast majority of trans people just want to be called the pronoun they identify as rather than the one of their birth, whereas what made Peterson so famous was his objection to a law compelling the use of recently-created pronouns such as “xe” or “xer.” The proportion of people within the trans population who go by these non-standard pronouns is fairly small, I believe, so it’s not necessarily clear that compelling others to use such pronouns is a major interest for the trans community at large. Which points to a larger, deeper cause.

      It’s hard to say how much of this is Peterson being hypersensitive to totalitarianism due to his field of expertise and applying a particularly strong pattern-matching algorithm. On the one hand, of all things, totalitarianism seems to be not such a terrible thing to be hypersensitive to. On the other hand, I think the reaction of the left to Trump shows that being hypersensitive to totalitarianism can cause incredible amounts of harm to oneself and to others that far exceed the original threat that triggered the response in the first place. On the other OTHER hand, the left that caused this harm seem to have, at best, a cargo cult level understanding of totalitarianism while Peterson’s understanding seems actually meaningful.

      • Iain says:

        whereas what made Peterson so famous was his objection to a law compelling the use of recently-created pronouns such as “xe” or “xer.”

        It looks like it is time for me to yet again step in and point out that the law in question said nothing of the sort. It merely added “gender identity or expression” to the existing laundry list of prohibited grounds for discrimination, just after “sexual orientation” and just before “marital status, family status, disability or conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted or in respect of which a record suspension has been ordered”.

        At the federal level, that is. Peterson’s home province of Ontario updated made the equivalent change on a provincial level way back in 2012.

        If this is what a meaningful understanding of totalitarianism looks like, then sign me up for the cargo cult.

        • Nicholas Conrad says:

          You’re not wrong, but you’re not *not* wrong. The text of the legistlation doesn’t directly mention pronouns, but the body charged with *enforcing* it DID explicitly list on their website mis-pronouning as a cause for enforcement under the law. So while technically correct that the “law” doesn’t mention it, the legal opinion of the enforcing body is that it’s broad enough to encompass pronouns, and in fact the “law” in the broader sense of the government-at-large did explicitly mention pronouns. By the way, a distinction Peterson had made *many* times, so good job feeling smug about knocking down that haggard strawman.

          • lvlln says:

            I believe this is the video where Peterson criticizes C-16 and which triggered the firestorm of controversy around him. This distinction is a core part of his argument for why he considers the bill to be pernicious.

            Perhaps I ought to be clearer in saying that the law doesn’t explicitly compel the use of such pronouns, but rather that it amends existing policies around enforcement such that use of such pronouns is now compelled under threat of legal punishment.

          • Anatoly says:

            When I tried to get to the bottom of this some time ago, the most thorough and convincing argument I could find about it claimed that mis-pronouning wouldn’t fall under the law after all.

            Now it’s also written in a very smug style and I’m loath to take it on faith, but the article seems to make good points, especially when it claims that most everyone talking about it interprets the phrases in the law in a prima facie way, which extra confuses the picture.

          • but the body charged with *enforcing* it DID explicitly list on their website mis-pronouning as a cause for enforcement under the law.

            Do you have a link to that? It’s relevant, since one side is claiming that Peterson’s interpretation of the law is obvious nonsense and if it isn’t that casts serious doubt on other claims made by that side.

          • Jack Lecter says:

            @Nicholas Conrad: Seconding David Friedman’s request for a link. Partly ’cause I’m lazy.

          • Aapje says:

            AFAIK, the legislation is enforced by the courts, mostly. So presumably, any decision on this matter would require an actual case and then perhaps a decision by the Canadian Supreme Court.

            Of course, institutions also make policy, also on their interpretation of the law, which doesn’t have to concur with the courts. Peterson’s university threatened him with dismissal if he refused to use pronouns when asked.

            @Anatoly

            The article you link to seems to mainly argue that Peterson is wrong to complain because it is civil law, not criminal law, so he can’t be put in jail for it, but merely fired.

            While that is a reasonable rebuttal to Peterson’s claim that he might be put in jail for refusing to use pronouns when asked, it doesn’t address the question whether people can legally be fired or face other court-mandated or -supported consequences when refusing to use pronouns when asked.

          • opressedminority says:

            Bill C-16 added gender identity to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination to the Canadian Human Rights Act. So on a superficial reading of the bill, there is no legislated prohibition against pronoun usage. But the Act is managed by the Human Rights Commission and the Human Rights Tribunal, and this is where the trouble starts. The HRC is an investigative body and the HRT is a pseudo-judicial tribunal with relaxed rules of evidence, where they are allowed to ignore stare decisis and basically where everything goes in order to achieve a “progressive” result.

            There are similar commissions and tribunals in all Canadian provinces, including Ontario. The Ontario human rights tribunal has published guidelines that it would consider misgendering to be discrimination and against the law, and the Canadian human rights tribunal has said that it would follow the Ontario guidelines.

            So JPB is actually quite correct that using the wrong pronoun can land you in legal trouble. You can argue that it’s not against the law, and legally speaking you would have a point. But the body charged with enforcing the law just said that it is against the law. You can scream that you are a loyal soviet subject all the way to the gulag, it wont matter.

            That’s what the professors at Laurier University told Lindsey Shepperd in the recorded interrogation: that she broke the law by showing a five minute clip of JBP to her students (a clip of a show from TV Ontario, a public broadcaster).

            The HRT’s decisions are subject to judicial reviews by real courts, but by the time you’re in a real court you’ve spent $100,000+ in legal fees and you’ve spent the last 4 years of your life under the stigma of being a bigot. Also, real courts in Canada are just as activist and progressive as the HRT so there is likely no relief there either.

            As for jail, you can always end up in jail if you refuse to comply to a court order and are found in contempt of court.

          • From Aapje’s link, a letter to Peterson from his university:

            The law of Ontario, specifically the Ontario Human Rights Code, protects against discrimination based on gender expression and gender identity. Depending on the context, if personal pronouns are being used, the refusal by a teacher or colleague to use the personal pronoun that is an expression of the person’s gender identity can constitute discrimination.

            That doesn’t prove Peterson’s view of the law is correct–his university might be wrong. But I think it’s inconsistent with the claim that Peterson is obviously wrong in his view.

            What I was responding to, however, was:

            but the body charged with *enforcing* it DID explicitly list on their website mis-pronouning as a cause for enforcement under the law.

            That was the website link I was asking for.

          • oppressedminority says:

            DavidFriedman:

            This is the link to the Ontario Human Right’s commission stating that misgendering someone is discrimination (and therefore against the law):
            http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/policy-preventing-discrimination-because-gender-identity-and-gender-expression/7-forms-discrimination

            Gender-based harassment can involve:

            Derogatory language toward trans people or trans communities
            Insults, comments that ridicule, humiliate or demean people because of their gender identity or expression[44]
            Behaviour that “polices and or reinforces traditional heterosexual gender norms”[45]
            Refusing to refer to a person by their self-identified name and proper personal pronoun

            The bill that Peterson was fighting is federal, but the Canadian Human Rights Commission stated their intention to follow the Ontario guidelines.

          • baconbits9 says:

            In addition here is a link to a piece put up by Brenda Cossman who debates Peterson on the law here. The key quote is

            Non-discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression may very well be interpreted by the courts in the future to include the right to be identified by a person’s self identified pronoun. The Ontario Human Rights Commission, for example, in their Policy on Preventing Discrimination Because of Gender Identity and Expression states that gender harassment should include “ Refusing to refer to a person by their self-identified name and proper personal pronoun”. In other words, pronoun misuse may become actionable, though the Human Rights Tribunals and courts. And the remedies? Monetary damages, non-financial remedies (for example, ceasing the discriminatory practice or reinstatement to job) and public interest remedies (for example, changing hiring practices or developing non-discriminatory policies and procedures). Jail time is not one of them.

            As far as I can tell (as a layman) the legal (or at least this one) disagreement with Peterson’s interpretation boils down to the fact that this is written in the civil code as opposed to the criminal code and that the threat of jail time is a secondary threat only to be included if fines are not paid (and technically that the sentence would be for contempt of court).

    • Doctor Locketopus says:

      > The only thing I really know is that he gets called a transphobe because of some kind of refusal to use special pronouns

      That is not quite correct. He refuses to be ordered to be use those pronouns. He doesn’t refuse to use them at all (and in fact has said that he probably would use them if requested).

      There is a subtle but important difference here.

      Example:

      I am an agnostic (more or less), but still generally refer to the Pope as “His Holiness” should I happen to mention him.

      That’s not because I believe the office of Pope has any special holiness associated with it (I don’t believe that at all) but because it’s the polite convention and I don’t wish to be gratuitously rude to those who do believe the Pope is holy.

      That’s an entirely different thing from someone ordering me to call the Pope “His Holiness” or else be hounded from my job.

      • Riley Martine says:

        Someone in another comment linked Robinson’s The Intellectual We Deserve. The relevant piece is as follows:

        Peterson first came to international prominence when he publicly opposed Canada’s Bill C-16, which added gender expression and identity to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act. Peterson claimed that under the bill, he could be compelled to use a student’s preferred gender pronoun or face criminal prosecution, and suggested that social justice activists were promoting a totalitarian ideology. In fact, there was nothing in the bill that criminalized the failure to use people’s preferred gender pronouns (full text), and I share the belief that government legislation requiring people to use particular pronouns would be an infringement on civil liberties. But since that’s a position shared by Noam Chomsky and the ACLU, it’s not a particularly devastating criticism of the left.

        After this, the linked essay talks about Peterson’s comparison of trans activists to Mao, and how “The first thing is that their philosophy presumes that group identity is paramount. That’s the fundamental philosophy that drove the Soviet Union and Maoist China. And it’s the fundamental philosophy of the left-wing activists.” (Quote from Peterson) The essay continues with a restatement of the goals of activists:

        I think it’s worth remembering here what anti-discrimination activists are actually asking for: they want transgender people not to be fired from their jobs for being transgender, not to suffer gratuitously in prisons, to be able to access appropriate healthcare, not to be victimized in hate crimes, and not to be ostracized, evicted, or disdained.

        Peterson’s stance of not wanting to be “forced” to use correct pronouns is disingenuous and reeks of the “identity politics” he is seeking to vilify. He makes a demonstrably false claim about the bill and opposes it on supposedly virtuous grounds. In the process, he compares people fighting for trans rights to Mao and summarily dismisses their progress and actual ideals. This has, unsurprisingly, attracted people with a genuine distaste for our (trans people’s) existence.

        I desperately wanted to be wrong, to think that maybe all of this was a misunderstanding on my part, that Peterson really does only not want to be forced to say something, and that his followers are equally rational, thoughtful devotees. And, to be fair, my position has softened since I started writing this comment, as I did more research. Since I saw it linked in another comment, I went to /r/jordanpeterson and searched for “trans”.
        Here are the top 5 link titles, unedited:

        “Why should your right to freedom of speech trump a trans person’s right not to be offended?”
        Trans man on the failures of the social justice movement (tumblrinaction x-post)
        “I called a trans boy a girl by mistake… and it may cost me my job as a teacher: Maths tutor suspended after praising pupil using the wrong gender”
        Charity calls police after a teacher ‘misgenders’ a trans pupil and say he has committed a ‘hate crime’
        What are some of Jordan Peterson’s more controversial ideas, aside from trans people and gender identity?

        Wonderful. I have seen this rhetoric before, quite often, and it is /never/ in communities that seek the betterment of circumstances for trans people. One linked community is /r/tumblrinaction, and if you are not already familiar, I would encourage you to spend a few minutes in that cesspit to see exactly how strong my distaste for it is. There are a few comments from the /r/jordanperterson subreddit I would like to highlight here:

        On nonbinary people:

        Just pick “he” or “she” and move on. Society is a group dynamic, it can’t cater to every whim of every individual. The bigger issue here is the growing tyranny that wants to enforce these ridiculously minor rules. The bigger issue is the stripping away of our freedom of speech to make way for ridiculous and unrealistic demands. (+28)

        On the rarity of “true” trans people:

        My intuitive feel is that there are true trans people out there, but they’re very rare, and likely a product of genetic flukes or hormones going haywire in utero so you wind up an XY-chromosome baby with a feminized brain or vice versa. (+186)

        On the origins of the LGBT movement:

        They are just hijacking this Trans-topic. Nothing more.
        I mean has anyone ever made the research and went down the rabbit hole on how this entire LGBT-something something Movement started?
        I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if the start was an internet troll and nothing else. (+36)

        On who is pushing this nonsense:

        Great post, except one thing: it ain’t “middle America” pushing the nonsense. It’s the attention-seeking hive-mind women (and their beta-male partners) on the Coasts.

        On respecting a trans-male student’s pronouns:

        “my 2nd person pronoun isn’t ‘you’, it’s ‘grue’, so if you want to praise me you have to say it like ‘grue did a good job!’ ”

        fuck. these. people. (+56)

        On transtrenders:

        Having known several in some stage, the fact that it’s becoming “in” worries me. I think there are some genuine trans people to whom reassignment may very well be the best course of action, but it attracts people desperate for an identity. If you meet someone who’s trans and it’s the centerpiece of their personality, I suspect that may be a problem.

        I have no problem with anyone doing whatever they want, but 40% suicide rates are a pretty big fuckin deal.

        Also it’s evil to give hormone treatments to children. They are children. Wait until the kid’s an adult and let them make their own choices, that shit is fucked up. (+23)

        I hope I do not have to go into detail on why the ideas espoused here are harmful.

        These are all quotes I cherry-picked from the multitude available. There were plenty that seemed reasonable, and even a few trans people defending him. However, I still am convinced that what he says and does is ultimately harmful to the trans community, and attracts those who hold ~problematic~ views. Characterizing his argument as free speech avoids the reality of the effects it has.

        • Radu Floricica says:

          > Characterizing his argument as free speech avoids the reality of the effects it has.

          But isn’t this what free speech means? Allowing opinions you disagree with? Not just have a slight preference against them, but strongly believe that they’re “bad” – but still chose to support the freedom of expression because of a rule that lives at a higher level of abstraction, that says stuff like “I want all opinions visible in the public agora, because it’s a better strategy long term”, or stuff like “There is a 1% chance I am wrong, so by having the dispute in public we can correct our mistakes”.

          Having only arguments with “good” consequences is the opposite of this – partly because it utterly breaks meta rules like that, and because _somebody_ still has to chose which arguments are right – and that’s a slippery slope if there ever was one.

          • Riley Martine says:

            It is not illegal to make people uncomfortable, and it is not illegal to offend people, and I doubt it ever will be. (However, hate speech is an offense that is illegal.) Repeatedly doing so may lose you a position, but come on, it’s really not that hard to get someone’s pronouns right. Free speech is not on trial here. It is not a slippery slope.

          • Well Armed Sheep says:

            >(However, hate speech is an offense that is illegal.)

            Not in the United States.

            In Canada and the UK it is in practice illegal to make certain groups uncomfortable or offended. People are prosecuted for doing so. Free speech is very much on trial, and it very much is a slippery slope. One can’t simply say “well, that isn’t free speech”–that’s an attempt to hide a moral judgment in a definitional shift. If your reason for suppressing speech is that it is morally bad, you are no different than any other censor.

          • Jack Lecter says:

            @Riley Martine:

            (However, hate speech is an offense that is illegal.)

            Something that’s always bothered me about this: do you have a precise definition of the term?

            I’ve looked into it before, and I recall coming away with a feeling that the whole approach was overly broad and vague. But the law does that sometimes.

            It would be disingenuous for me to suggest that this is my only issue with ‘hate speech’ laws, but it’s definitely one of them.

          • Paul Zrimsek says:

            It’s not that hard to say “The great leader and teacher Comrade Donald Trump” either. But if it were made mandatory, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that it would raise a free speech issue.

        • Tenacious D says:

          In fact, there was nothing in the bill that criminalized the failure to use people’s preferred gender pronouns, and I share the belief that government legislation requiring people to use particular pronouns would be an infringement on civil liberties.

          Robinson is coming at this from an American perspective. He even refers to the ACLU in the next sentence. I’d suggest that this overlooks differences in how free speech issues are approached in the US and Canada. IANAL, but I’ll note that the faculty of law at Queen’s University invited Dr. Peterson to give a guest lecture on compelled speech so at least some lawyers in Ontario see it as an open question on this side of the border.

        • WashedOut says:

          Firstly, from your lower comment:

          Repeatedly doing so may lose you a position, but come on, it’s really not that hard to get someone’s pronouns right. Free speech is not on trial here. It is not a slippery slope.

          With any half-decent education it is not hard to learn the pronouns of the English language. However now you are talking about “someone’s” pronouns, which is an individual who occupies any arbitrary point on a gender ‘spectrum’, a point which many such people insist is ‘fluid’ (subject to change). By definition, what could be harder or more fraught for the naive English speaker than to be coerced into a constant, evolving game of guess-who wherein the onus is entirely on them to correctly abide by the rules of the pronoun-definer? Honest question.

          Some of the quotes you’ve cherry-picked appear to be simply mean-spirited and aim to upset trans people. Some of them are scientifically ignorant. A lot of them are plain expressions of frustration. You don’t offer your own take as to why this frustration might exist and be so widespread, esp. among young men, but im sure you can hazard a few correct guesses.

          However, I still am convinced that what he says and does is ultimately harmful to the trans community, and attracts those who hold ~problematic~ views.

          Views are problematic insofar as they demonstrate an unwillingness to be tested in free civil dialogue by the scientific process. Given the postmodern left’s recent displays of violent intolerance toward their outgroup (e.g. campus protests in the last 2 years), i’d say the search for views that are truly “harmful” should extend beyond the listenership of a middle-aged classical liberal Christian.

          Characterizing his argument as free speech avoids the reality of the effects it has.

          You don’t “characterize” something as free speech. Someone is allowed to say something precisely because the foundational right to free speech exists.

          Free, open dialogue (including hurt feelings) or violence – pick one.

          • LadyJane says:

            Some of the quotes you’ve cherry-picked appear to be simply mean-spirited and aim to upset trans people. Some of them are scientifically ignorant. A lot of them are plain expressions of frustration. You don’t offer your own take as to why this frustration might exist and be so widespread, esp. among young men, but im sure you can hazard a few correct guesses.

            Quite frankly, it’s becoming increasingly hard for me to care why they’re frustrated. I can sympathize with the unemployed Rust Belt factory worker who voted for Trump because he wanted manufacturing jobs to stop being automated or outsourced to China. I have no sympathy for the racist who voted for Trump because he hates Mexicans and Muslims, or the hardcore social conservative who voted for Trump because he hates LGBT people. And I have even less sympathy for the straight white dude who isn’t actually racist or sexist or homophobic or transphobic himself, but allies himself with racists and sexists and homophobes and transphobes just to spite the SJWs he hates so much. At least the actual bigots have the courage of their convictions; the rabid anti-SJW is simply a vindictive contrarian prick who doesn’t care if he hurts innocent people as long as his side in the Culture War wins some points.

            You don’t “characterize” something as free speech. Someone is allowed to say something precisely because the foundational right to free speech exists.

            Except, again, Peterson’s interpretation of the C-16 bill is just flat-out wrong. The bill doesn’t make it illegal for someone to misgender trans people in general, it makes it illegal for someone to consistently and deliberate misgender a specific trans person as part of an ongoing campaign of harassment. It doesn’t mean someone can go to jail or be fined/sued for accidentally misgendering a trans co-worker, or even for deliberately misgendering that co-worker in a conversation with other people outside of the workplace. It doesn’t even mean that someone can suffer legal consequences for writing a public article that deliberately misgenders a trans celebrity.

            If I continually referred to a black co-worker with the n-word, that could also be construed as harassment. Hell, if I misgendered Jordan Peterson by continually referring to him as a woman in public spaces, and kept going out of my way to do so, that could be construed as harassment too. The law just takes the same standards of harassment that apply to everyone else and applies them to trans people.

            For what it’s worth, if any government proposed a law that actually prohibited individuals from misgendering trans people, I would whole-heartedly oppose it.

            Free, open dialogue (including hurt feelings) or violence – pick one.

            What if I believe that people shouldn’t be punished by law (or by extralegal violence) for offensive speech, but should still be punished by social ostracization, termination of employment, expulsion, etc.? I don’t think the government has any place enforcing tolerance at gunpoint; that doesn’t mean I’m against punishing intolerance in general, just that I don’t want the state doing it by force.

          • Except, again, Peterson’s interpretation of the C-16 bill is just flat-out wrong. The bill doesn’t make it illegal for someone to misgender trans people in general, it makes it illegal for someone to consistently and deliberate misgender a specific trans person as part of an ongoing campaign of harassment.

            That does not seem to have been the opinion of Peterson’s employer. From the letter sent to him by his dean that Aapje linked to:

            The law of Ontario, specifically the Ontario Human Rights Code, protects against discrimination based on gender expression and gender identity. Depending on the context, if personal pronouns are being used, the refusal by a teacher or colleague to use the personal pronoun that is an expression of the person’s gender identity can constitute discrimination.

            Nothing there about restricting it to an ongoing campaign of harassment.

          • LadyJane says:

            @DavidFriedman: Well, that depends on exactly what you consider to constitute harassment. If a trans person’s employer or co-workers kept deliberately misgendering them, I would consider that a form of workplace harassment. The same applies for a classmates or professors in an academic environment.

            In my opinion, it’s unfair and unreasonable to put a student in a position where they have to deal with people actively invalidating a fundamental aspect of their identity on a day-to-day basis, especially if one of those people is in a position of authority over the student. That’s a level of emotional and psychological distress well beyond what’s generally considered acceptable for a professional setting. It’s also likely to hinder the student’s performance, discourage them from participating in class, and make them feel unwelcome at the school.

        • shenanigans24 says:

          Not calling people by their preferred pronouns discriminates against their gender expression or identity. The law defines that discrimination even if it doesn’t expressly list all actions that could be discriminatory (as no law would do that anyway. It’s like saying patting a woman on the butt isn’t harassment because the law never mentions butts.

          Peterson received a letter from his legal department at the university saying he would be discriminating in violation of the law if he doesn’t use preferred pronouns.

          His stance has been, that if you think he’s wrong address the legal department who wrote that letter and has not changed their opinion. He has read the letter out loud and made it available. So besides interpreting the law by himself (I would argue correctly) he has evidence that his interpretation is correct by lawyers charged with enforcing it.

        • Doctor Locketopus says:

          > /r/jordanperterson subreddit

          “Randos on /r/jordanpeterson” and “Jordan Peterson” are two different things.

          Entirely.

          This “guilt by association” technique of finding some (alleged) follower or associate of the person one wants to denigrate and imputing the second party’s opinions to the first party is, in fact, right out of the totalitarian playbook.

          > Peterson’s comparison of trans activists to Mao,

          Maybe they (and you) should stop acting like Mao.

  71. edgepatrol says:

    Ahhh. I have been hoping you would read his new book and post your thoughts on it. 😉 I enjoyed reading this, and tbh I also enjoy JP’s philosophy quite a bit, although it’s not without its own set of errors.

    As to why bad things happen to good people, I have been meaning to tell you that I’ve NEVER read a more satisfying answer to that question, than the one at the conclusion of Unsong.

  72. Doctor Locketopus says:

    >One person donating a few hundred bucks to the Against Malaria Foundation will prevent suffering more effectively than a hundred people cleaning their rooms and becoming slightly psychologically stronger.

    Just about everyone will be more strongly affected by (say) a dozen local children being killed in a school bus accident than they will be by (say) a thousand people being killed in an earthquake in Uzbekistan. When it comes to your own child, or a child who is otherwise close to you, even one child being killed is going to cause you more distress than the thousand people in Uzbekistan. A holder of the homo economicus or utilitarian view would argue that the Uzbekistan event should somehow make us feel worse, but that is not how human beings actually work.

    Similarly, while it might be emotionally rewarding to write a check to an organization that tries to prevent animal suffering, that is not going to give you anything like the direct psychological reward you’ll get from bandaging up a kitten’s injured paw.

    People have a stronger emotional connection with those nearer to them, and, of course, no one is nearer than oneself.

  73. Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

    I see the r/jordanpeterson subreddit is already two-thirds culture wars, so they’re off to a good start. Why can’t we stick to the purity of the original teachings, with their giant gold lobster idols?

    Tragically, the most ardent Peterson defenders on the internet are the ones that are failing the hardest to follow his “teachings”.

  74. AeXeaz says:

    Huh, I’ve watched a lot of his youtube videos, and I still don’t understand how Peterson’s ideas are “traditionalist”, or move people towards a “traditionalist” path – could someone help me out here?

    • fion says:

      Belief in importance of institutions such as marriage and nuclear family, belief in “traditional” gender roles, belief that religion is a valuable part of our culture.

      I know people who explicitly want to erode the institution of marriage because they think it is harmful to humanity, who are somewhat estranged from their immediate family and instead form almost familial-strength bonds with their friends and (multiple) lovers, who believe it is healthy and normal to ‘be in touch with your *-ine side’ and who think that religion is dangerous and harmful.

      The first paragraph describes “traditionalist” values and ideas. The second describes values and ideas that are not “traditionalist”.

      *=mascul/femin – the opposite of your birth gender

      • Lambert says:

        Why is it always the nuclear family touted by traditionalists? Extended family has been the norm for far longer, and has increasing benefits in this day and age.

        • fontesmustgo says:

          I would imagine difference in outcomes between Nuclear and Single-Parent families are greater than the difference in outcomes between Nuclear and Extended families.

        • Sniffnoy says:

          Because for your garden-variety traditionalist, the “tradition” has nothing to do with what’s actually been practiced for a long time, and has a lot to do with such things as A. what you grew up with, and B. what people tell you the tradition is.

          • Jack Lecter says:

            +1 for insight.

            This is the sort of thing that can come off as snarky, but it answers something than can be genuinely puzzling, especially if you’re not closely acquainted with any traditionalists.

            The difference between what people are optimizing for and what they say they’re optimizing for is practically impossible to point out without sounding sarcastic, with the result that, if you’re not intuitive about this stuff, you can be confused about it for years without anyone setting you straight.

            (I’m not knocking snark, per se, and if snark was your intent you can consider the +1 for insight a bonus; on the margin, there’s a lot to be said for encouraging insightful snark over insightless snark.)

          • Sniffnoy says:

            Yes to be clear I meant that as an honest answer. I did realize it might come off as snarky but didn’t feel like putting in the effort to make sure it didn’t. 😛

          • m.alex.matt says:

            And what their parent’s parents grew up with, and their parent’s parent’s parents, and…

            Or did you not know that nuclear families versus extended fam