THE JOYFUL REDUCTION OF UNCERTAINTY

Highlights From The Comments On Twelve Rules

[Taken from the responses to this post.]

From sclmlw:

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.

From theredsheep:

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.

I agree; I’ve also watched his videos and find them unwatchable and boring. I don’t know why the book seems so much better – maybe I just respond more to the written word, or maybe he had a really good editor. I would wonder if this is what’s behind the high variance in how people respond to him, except I think a lot of the people who absolutely love him are working off the videos. Weird. It takes all kinds, I guess.

From Dry Raven:

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.

Also an interesting data point in the “why do people have such different responses to his different works?” question.

From Macruise on the subreddit:

I think one could stress more the distinction between morality and meaning, because it seems central to the specific point Peterson is making. Alexander writes, for instance:

“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.”

No, he’s not merely saying ‘suffering is bad’. He is saying that it matters. Think about hell. One thinks, from one’s armchair and slippers, that there’s something conceptually fishy about hell, about the very idea of infinite suffering. One wants to say ‘Well, that would just be the new normal, and you’d adapt. It too will become devoid of meaning’. Habituation is such a common experience that you tend to think ‘That too shall pass’ about everything. Even sex, which you’d think would always mean something given its centrality to our animal existence, gets quotidian, just another 17 bus. But pain never gets old. It’s always meaningful. You cannot write The Myth of Sisyphus whilst getting waterboarded, and it’s not merely because the keyboard would get wet.

So it’s not ‘negative utility’ that Peterson is shooting for; it’s ‘negative meaning’. ‘Positive meaning’ is where someone comes along and says ‘Here’s what you should try to achieve in your life because it is inherently meaningful’. ‘Negative meaning’, however, is about the avoidance of suffering, from which certain hypothetical imperatives (subject to our best psychological and medical knowledge) spring.

The good news here is that this notion of ‘negative meaning’ can be divorced from the specifics of Peterson’s injunctions insofar as they’re based in Jungian woo (which they pretty much always are, as far as I can see). The general idea – that pain matters, and you want to live your life to avoid it as much as you can – seems fairly solid as an answer to existential angst.

The bad news is that I think Peterson is wrong about life being suffering. It’s certainly true that experiencing suffering will solve the meaning crisis, and that looking to avoid suffering is a solid plan. But the problem with it as a solution to the problem of meaning is its contingency, made worse by the fact that we live in a world where suffering has no real urgency. The reality is that it is entirely possible now to live your life in a way where true suffering is very delayed. You can make it all the way to 60 without experiencing a serious loss (parent, partner sibling, child), without experiencing painful illness, and without having any existential crisis. These people actually exist, as much as you want to tell yourself otherwise in order to avoid resentment.

If you’re the sort of person who has bipolar disorder and is in a manic phase, it might seem reasonable to say something like ‘life is suffering’. Depressed people too understand that all-powerful-but-transitory truth in their bones. But even those who have had a period of suffering tend to forget how bad it was, and you tend to look back on those periods as times where you were strapped in to the rollercoaster ride, and that you knew all along that it too would pass (even though at the time you didn’t, and that’s what was really awful about it – the sheer, unadulterated despair of thinking ‘this is it’).

Thus, I don’t think negative meaning works. Life isn’t suffering. That’s only a contingent fact that’s true of certain people at certain points of their lives. In general, we have it so good that we invent problems for ourselves and tell ourselves it’s real suffering, and indulge in phoney culture-wars where we can pretend that the damn postmodern, neo-marxist superjews are taking over the world and need to be stopped and that’s that. We all know in our hearts that it’s a load of shit, and the world will carry bumbling on, and that we’ll all die of something insultingly banal, doped to the eyeballs on morphine. We won’t, as our emo selves tell us, be lonely tonight, and lonely tomorrow; we’ll be made comfortable.

Thus, I find myself stuck in the absurd. I know that I’m the sort of being that has to have a purpose, and I don’t believe that one can invent it as Sartre enjoined us to do, but the universe doesn’t owe me an answer, and doesn’t seem disposed to giving me one. I accept that this is, in some sense, bad for me, but one cannot tell oneself that the lines are equal in length and then be able to see it that way.

I appreciate the clarification, but I don’t know if I agree.

Is this the same as just saying that you don’t need a logically coherent life goal, because your biological drives will goad you forward whether you have the goal or not? I’d agree with that one – except maybe in depression, when biological drives suddenly become a lot less convincing. But one of the questions of meaning is “why should I do anything other than follow my immediate biological drives?”

I can imagine Peterson saying (though I don’t know if he would really endorse this) that living a good life is just satisfying your biological drives in an intelligent way. You want to become a good person because then you’re less likely to end up low-status in a way that frustrates your drive for belonging and sex and so on. The argument that moral behavior is really the selfishly best thing to do over the long term is popular, venerable – and way too convenient for me to ever believe.

I find the strongest argument against this to be the question of suicide. Peterson is against it, for vague cliched reasons. But it cuts through all of this “well I guess I have to follow my biological drives” stuff with great finality. You really don’t. If your reason for living doesn’t present the argument against suicide, it’s not much of a reason for living.

From Roe_ on the subreddit:

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

Yes – this is absolutely his super-power. How did he get it?

Because he lives the cliches. The cliches are easy to say, but they’re difficult as fuck to actually implement in your life. And, unless you’ve done so, you’re just talking shit.

As far as I can tell, Peterson has done so. Which is why he “speaks with authority”.

“Rescue your father from the underworld” means precisely this – try to live the old wisdom (ie. the cliches) – which wasn’t easy for our fathers, and sure isn’t any easier now.

This is a good explanation of the “rescue your father from the underworld” thing, and reminds me of my despair about every generation having to learn everything all over again. It’s also why I get fed up with accusations of “that’s not original” or “you’re just reinventing the wheel”.

The part about living the cliches making you able to say them more confidently sounds nice, but is it really true? What would the mechanism for this be? Also, lots of the most charismatic preachers and cult leaders are moral catastrophes. And if this is sort of like saying “he’s so authentic”, I don’t know how that idea interacts with the “actually an alien” point above.

I think of Part I of Liber ABA as being about the process by which prophets become able to speak with confidence, and I sort of wonder whether a lifetime of very successful Jungian analysis might be able to accomplish something similar.

Rocket discusses the inevitable AI angle:

A bit of an aside from Peterson, but relevant to the idea of conflicting Order-Chaos drives and uncertainty-minimization: There was a paper about a month ago about getting AI agents to learn new and interesting behaviours, which touched surprisingly close to that.

Background: Lots of people have tried “reinforcement learning”, where you plop an AI agent in some environment in which it can take actions, and doing certain things nets it a ‘reward’, then you let it do its own thing to try to learn how to maximize that reward. The problem with this is that if reward is rare, as it can be in many scenarios, the AI gets very few opportunities to learn from it. Imagine a game where such an AI only got a reward for finishing a complex level, but no reward for incremental progress: The odds of it coincidentally stumbling into that reward are extremely low, and it will take it a vast, vast amount of time and random button-mashing to join up the dots and figure out which chains of actions got it to that state, and so learn how to get that reward more efficiently in future.

The paper took a different approach: Rather than purely seeking out reward, the AI agent should give itself its own goal, namely to understand how to manipulate the environment it’s in. They achieved that goal (and here’s where the Order-Chaos part comes in) by giving it two components. The first component looks at the input it’s getting (i.e. what the agent can see in the virtual world it’s in) and the action (i.e. what “buttons” the agent is pushing). It then tries to predict what the agent will see next – in other words, to predict the consequences of that action.

The fun part comes from the second component, though, which has an adversarial relationship with the first. It’s the bit that gets to choose actions, and it chooses actions so as to maximally challenge the first component. It’s the Chaos, in this analogy, but it’s also the driver of learning, because if the first component was in control, and the only goal was to minimize uncertainty, it would just sit still and stare at a blank wall. With the two components, though, the AI effectively “learns through play”, starting by moving itself around until the predictor component has mastered that before focusing on objects in the scene, and specifically how to toss them around in maximally confusing ways. (Insert your own analogy to toddlers here)

As well as being an interesting piece of computer-psychology (this is sort of becoming a field lately), the longer-term hope is that such agents will build a model of their environment even in the absence of external reward signals, and so when reward arrives, they’ll have some higher-level abstractions ready to go (“Maybe I need to move the blocks onto the button”) rather than having to painstakingly bootstrap their world-model from raw pixels and rare rewards. In other words, such agents may be far more effective at getting reward than ones that are solely motivated by getting reward.

From Jacek Lach:

“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.

This helps bring into focus one of the things I wasn’t able to discuss in the original review.

When we say we want our lives to be meaningful, are we saying we want our lives to actually have meaning? Or that we want to feel and act as if our lives have meaning?

Before virtuous people like ourselves slam our fists on the table and insist on actual meaning, keep in mind – don’t we have actual meaning already? Most of us would endorse something like helping others as being inherently meaningful – we might add things like creating great art, discovering new scientific truths, and the like. If we could reprogram ourselves like robots, a lot of us would just program ourselves to do whatever helps others or achieves some conception of human values most efficiently, then say “problem solved”. If there’s something left after realizing we can do that, it’s not wondering what the meaning of life is, it’s having some kind of vague emotional will to go on.

This is one reason I respect Jordan Peterson’s pragmatism on a pragmatic level, even as I think it’s a crappy theory of truth. I can imagine a version of him saying (I don’t know if the real one does) “Look, I’m giving you all of these inspirational slogans. You can pick my science and philosophy and mythography apart if you really want, but are you sure you want to do that? You’ll just ruin my attempt to inspire you, and go back to lying on the couch all day wishing you had a reason to get up in the morning.”

Maybe aliens would view it as a tragic quirk of the human psyche that we have to conflate inspiration and truth. Maybe to them, inspiration is just another genre, closer to art or poetry than to an attempt to describe the world as it is. Maybe to them, if there’s an intuitively satisfying explanation of the meaning of life, asking “Is that really the meaning?” or “Is that really true?” would be just as stupid and annoying as nitpicking the lyrics of Ode To Joy. “Ode to Joy says ‘all creatures drink of joy’, but some creatures are unhappy, and joy is not a liquid! Politifact rates your symphony FALSE.”

It’s disappointing that nobody frames it this way: “Inspiring things should be taken as a work of art and not judged on their truth value”. Instead, it’s always some formulation like “Inspiring things are true in a way different from the way factual claims are true”, at which point I have to interject that truth is a useful word and insist on defending its “factually correct” meaning.

Karl Smith on Twitter:

Scott quibbles with Peterson’s tendency to waffle between pragmatism and platitudes. But, this waffling is actually the correct answer.

Maybe I’m misunderstanding this, but I interpret it as sort of related to the above. If we can waffle between factual truth and inspirational things in a way that lets us blur the distinction, so that we feel suitably inspired without necessarily believing false stuff in a way that could ever be pinned down, is this good or bad? Should we interpret this as an intellectual failure, or a cool skill that lets you do more than rationality alone? What about the claim that “rationalists should win”?

My own position is to question whether anyone is really good enough at this not to let their inspirational beliefs bleed over into the factual world. I discuss this a little bit here.

And my position on the larger problem of meaning is to notice that my life always seems really meaningful and great when I have coffee. If I’m going to try to figure out what the actual meaning of life is, in some sort of deep principled way, I’m going to do it with as much attention to Truth as possible. And if I’m going to give myself some emotional hack that lets myself go on and continue finding life worth living, I think caffeine probably has fewer side effects than falsehood, and is just as effective.

And if you don’t respond to caffeine as well as I do, then I think the overall lesson is that the emotional problem of meaning is a basically biological one, that doesn’t connect with the philosophical problem of meaning nearly as much as you think. Get a good psychiatrist and you’ll solve the emotional problem. The philosophical problem might not be solvable, but “helping others” or “creating a positive singularity” or “[your ingroup’s political goals here]” are, though not Perfectly Objectively Grounded, grounded enough that most people don’t really want to question them once the emotional problem is solved.

I find some of Peterson’s non-truth-value-having writing effective in the same sense as caffeine; it makes me more emotionally willing to follow the truths I know I should be following. Since, jokes aside, I can’t literally be drugged 100% of the time, I appreciate that. And maybe the drug would be stronger if I were to swallow his truth-value-having claims too. But that’s not a risk-benefit profile I’m okay with right now.

Userfriedlyyy writes:

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.

Peterson turns Marx on his head and claims that political activism is the opiate of the masses. That is, it’s something people use to make themselves feel sort of vaguely good and self-satisfied, but which prevents them from engaging in the actually important work of spiritual struggle.

My interpretation of him (can’t be sure it’s right) says that he is worried that there are problems with society, and all else being equal he would like people to solve them. But he has the psychoanalyst’s usual worry that anything which is not the Work will be a defense mechanism that people use to avoid the Work. Here again I find a comparison with Lewis helpful (this is from his demon character Screwtape’s advice on how to tempt humans):

“I had not forgotten my promise to consider whether we should make the patient an extreme patriot or an extreme pacifist. All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy [God], are to be encouraged. Not always, of course, but at this period. Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them. Any small coterie, bound together by some interest which other men dislike or ignore, tends to develop inside itself a hothouse mutual admiration, and towards the outer world, a great deal of pride and hatred which is entertained without shame because the “Cause” is its sponsor and it is thought to be impersonal.”

I think Peterson assumes that a psychologically undeveloped person starting to dabble in politics will be eaten alive by various virulent memes, chewed up, and spit out as a Hofferian True Believer in about five minutes. At best they will end up as an never-shutting-up slacktivist who calls people out for not changing their profile picture on Facebook quickly enough, and at worst as some kind of totalitarian. I think he would argue there’s a vicious cycle here – the less psychologically developed you are, the more political activism will destroy you, and the more political activism destroys you, the less likely you are to ever psychologically develop further.

One of his twelve rules, “Set Your House In Perfect Order Before Criticizing The World”, is about this, and doesn’t preclude the possibility of getting involved in politics after you’ve sorted out your own life. I don’t know what this is supposed to mean, since presumably this is an eternal project that is never completed. Clearly Peterson himself thinks he’s at the point where he can participate in politics, so I don’t know.

Do I agree with him here? From a consequentialist point of view, what would it mean to get the least psychologically developed 50% of people out of political activism? If you’re a mistake theorist, it might be great – it takes an equal number of people away from both sides, but raises the quality of discourse. If you’re a conflict theorist, it might be awful – it decreases the number of troops available to the People in their struggle to overcome inertia and fight the Elites.

Rather than try to resolve that, I would just note that “Jordan Peterson saying psychologically underdeveloped people shouldn’t get involved in politics” does not remove the least psychologically developed people from politics. It removes from politics some group of people weighted towards reading Jordan Peterson, being psychologically underdeveloped, and having enough humility to realize that they might be psychologically underdeveloped (which is itself possibly a sign of not being underdeveloped). Whether or not you think this is worth it depends on your opinion of the average Peterson reader.

Philipp questions my use of Lewis:

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.

I acknowledge his greater expertise on Lewis scholarship. I base my concerns on two points. First, although Lewis seems broadly friendly to non-Christians who approximate Christian morality, he is broadly hostile to people who do that and say “And this, not that boring literal Jesus stuff, is the true essence of Christianity”.

Again quoting Screwtape Letters:

“When the humans disbelieve in our [demons’] existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and sceptics. at least, not yet. I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalise and mythologise their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, a belief in us, (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in [God]. The “life force”, the worship of sex, and some aspects of Psychoanalysis, may here prove useful. If once we can produce our perfect work — the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls “forces” while denying the existence of “spirits” — then the end of the war will be in sight.”

I don’t think Peterson exactly fits this description, but the idea of the pseudo-religious person who uses psychoanalysis but doesn’t quite believe in God is suggestive enough to make me think Lewis would at least be a little uncomfortable.

From St. Rev on Twitter:

I sort of see Peterson as the Meaningness of the normies.

One could do much worse.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

148 Responses to Highlights From The Comments On Twelve Rules

  1. societyismyfriend says:

    It strikes me as ironic to hear “Jordan Peterson saying psychologically underdeveloped people shouldn’t get involved in politics”, particularly alongside Scott’s caveat that “Whether or not you think this is worth it depends on your opinion of the average Peterson reader.”

    It seems to me that the outcome of Peterson’s very public persona is a lot of psychologically underdeveloped people getting involved in [social justice/gender] politics. It would be one thing if he focused on self-help, but the very thing that launched him into the public sphere was a highly directed campaign against a law that he believed capable of enforcing the use of transgender pronouns.

    The ensuing debate hasn’t been any kind of constructive discussion of how transgender people could earn more societal respect in other ways, or how the rest of society might address an area of abject suffering. Peterson’s work issued hunting licenses for people to attack transgender science under the banner of common sense self-improvement, despite his own stated position that he is in support of transgender people and would happily use any requested pronoun if asked by those people themselves. He seems to be happy to capitalize on his increasing popularity (or more charitably, to leverage it to improve more people’s lives) but doesn’t seem to exhibit the appropriate level of concern or recrimination towards people who use it to abuse others.

    I think my larger beef though is the idea that shoring up self-help advice with flawed or even junk interpretations of science is ok as long as its inspirational. I’ve gotten engaged in debate with a number of JP supporters whose rhetorical strategy seems to involve citing these common-sense interpretations of lobster physiology and economics and then motte and bailey-ing into “well, it’s just an analogy” or “post-modern marxism is no more scientific” when confronted by the complexity of research on those topics. If someone is maybe too “psychologically underdeveloped” to be critical of the justification for this inspirational content, it can lead them in some worrying directions, and last thing most of these people are doing is staying in to clean their rooms and letting transgender and feminist activists fight their own battles.

    EDIT: I wanted to add that one of the things I really like about SSC is that it makes me feel a strong moral responsibility to have positive, supportive and constructive discussions about really difficult issues. It drives me to try and bring people closer together and find common ground based on scientific facts, instead of left/right ideology. And I think what bothers me about Peterson is not only that his work suggests people should stop talking and focus on themselves, but that his own behaviour isn’t consistent with that philosophy, and so people modelling themselves on him are more likely to try and flame back at transgender advocates and his leftist opponents than they are to simply find happiness as the best revenge (or go beyond and aim to bridge the divide.)

    • benwave says:

      With the disclaimer that everything I know about Jordan Peterson comes from the previous SSC post, and related reading, it really seems to me like JP never meant to get involved in politics at all. His books and other publications don’t focus on it or even learn towards it, when I heard him on the radio he didn’t mention it at all. He seems to me more interested in his inward looking philosophy.

      I feel like it’s more likely that he became involved in politics sort of by accident. He wanted to object to a law based on how it affected him, and others like him. Then this mass movement sort of crystalised around him and he hadn’t thought about the implications of that or how to deal with it. I think the apparent inconsistencies between his philosophy and his actions in the political sphere can be better explained by him not coming into it with a plan or much in the way of preparation. Does anyone else get this impression, or is it just me?

      • Douglas Knight says:

        His first political video claims that he doesn’t know what to do, so, yes, he had not thought through what he was doing. If that’s your main point, then you’re apparently right, but I think you’re wrong on the details. Probably the main point was just to plant a flag and say that professors are not homogeneous. But the law did not have any particular effect on him. I think your point about the law is exactly backwards: I think he chose to talk about the law to indicate that he was talking generally, and not just about universities; I think it was an intentional entry into broader politics.

        • benwave says:

          I don’t suppose there are any transcripts of these? I don’t think I can get through much in that presentation

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Everything on youtube has a transcript. On the desktop version of youtube there is an ellipsis just under the video, on the right. Click on it, then choose “open transcript.”

          • benwave says:

            Well, that was a bit of a slog but I got through that one and his most watched ones. And I have to say that my impression of him is lower than where it started. So, good on SSC for staying true to its charitable roots!

      • JPNunez says:

        Not getting involved in politics is still a political position. It will normally mean conformism with the status quo. That the mass movement that crystalized around him as you put it, is as it is, also shows that this conformism translated into conservativism.

    • Aapje says:

      @societyismyfriend

      Peterson believes that transgender issues are used to push through a far larger agenda, which threatens to create a totalitarian society for everyone. His main objection, that made him so famous, is in essence not about transgender people at all, but about defending the principle that people should not be forced to say things.

      Surely from Peterson’s perspective, it was the other side that chose to abuse* the issue of transgender rights to force the abandonment of an important right and who made transgender people victims of the culture war. So is it then not understandable that he seeks to point out that the biggest issue is the threat to society and that he refuses to step into the frame chosen by his opponents?

      Demanding that Peterson become a transgender activist if he objects to one demand that ostensibly benefits this group, to prevent people who object to trans people in general from allying with him, seems like a good way to minimize his support and thus neuter him. Martin Niemöller’s poem famously explains how one can divide and conquer the opposition, by gradually taking out more and more people.

      So aren’t you just calling for a strategy on the part of Peterson that will make him lose? That you are not simultaneously calling for the opponents to Peterson to reject their extremists makes this a one-sided demand that seems to greatly favor one side.

      * By avoiding the larger questions/general principles, but instead demanding concessions to a small group. The result is that people can get away with defending double standards, ignoring the negative impact on other groups, claiming to speak for an entire group as if they have a single need/opinion, etc.

      • Toby Bartels says:

        I think that this is all a bit much for the hypothetical consequences of adding gender identity to a list of criteria in already existing laws. I can see what you are saying, that from Peterson's perspective, he is simply defending himself from a political attack that he did not start, but in taking this perspective, I reach the point where my suspension of disbelief breaks down.

        • Aapje says:

          Given the earlier discussions, it seems that there are quite a few who share your opinion that Peterson’s worry when it comes to forced pronoun use are completely irrational, but also quite a few who don’t feel that way.

          Can we agree that, aside from your personal views on the matter, Peterson seems to genuinely belong to the latter group?

          • Deiseach says:

            Peterson’s worry when it comes to forced pronoun use are completely irrational

            I don’t think there were a lot of people expecting that “Now you have the right to civilly marry your same-gender parent” came bundled in with “Also you have the right to sue a florist for refusing your business”, but that half of the camel followed its nose inside the tent very fast.

            Some government mailing sends out a hundred thousand letters and one of them is addressed to Mr Occupier rather than Ms Occupier, I’m willing to bet you’ll see the first court case over “discriminating on the grounds of gender identity or expression ” and “dead naming”, precisely because it is a government (local or national) body and this will be Important for establishing the principle, doncha know!

            The purpose of this Act is to extend the laws in Canada to give effect, within the purview of matters coming within the legislative authority of Parliament, to the principle that all individuals should have an opportunity equal with other individuals to make for themselves the lives that they are able and wish to have and to have their needs accommodated, consistent with their duties and obligations as members of society, without being hindered in or prevented from doing so by discriminatory practices based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, 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.

            Mr Brown and Ms Jones get to be addressed correctly in the manner they wish to be addressed, Ms Robinson is emphatically not (any more) Mr Robinson and being listed on the electoral register or letter dropped in the postbox as such is denying them the “opportunity equal with other individuals to make for themselves the lives that they are able and wish to have” and is hindering or preventing them from having “their needs accommodated”.

            Sure, nobody thought a simple and non-malicious error in a database of hundreds of thousands of names and addresses by a public or private body would come to court, this was only for hate speech and deliberate misgendering, but it’s the law now so you better make sure you dot all your is and cross all your ts or else!

          • beleester says:

            Gay marriage isn’t to blame there – the “camel” has been in the tent since the 1960s. The logic that prevents businesses from refusing service based on sexual orientation is the same as the logic that prevents them from refusing service based on race. We’re just quibbling over the margins of what counts as a protected class.

            As for your “Mr. Occupier” case, that can’t actually happen. There is no section of the act that says “You can be sued for $X for accidentally misgendering someone.” There’s nothing in the bill that says “We’re getting rid of all mens rea requirements for hate crimes, because we want to punish people who make innocent mistakes as much as possible.” It just takes the existing discrimination laws and tacks “gender identity” on to the list.

            Basically, if doing it to a black person, because they are black, would be a crime, then the same is now true for doing it to a transgender person because they are transgender.

            (You’ll also notice that marital status, family status, and age are already on the list. Are you also predicting that people will sue for being called “Mrs.” instead of “Ms.”, or that you’ll get sued if you can’t guess an old lady’s age?)

            Did you actually read the whole bill, or did you just read the preamble and then extrapolate all your worst fears from it?

          • The logic that prevents businesses from refusing service based on sexual orientation

            The U.S. cases Deiseach is referring to are not about refusing service based on sexual orientation. They are about refusing to participate, via service, in a ceremony endorsing a view that the provider of the service disagrees with.

            That’s the difference between refusing to bake a cake for someone who is gay, which the losing defendant did not do, and refusing to bake a wedding cake for a gay wedding, which he did do.

          • theredsheep says:

            In the Baronelle Stutzman case, the defendant had knowingly provided flowers to the gay plaintiff for years. She just wouldn’t do his wedding.

            (there’s also the matter that we’re talking about a handful of disorganized merchants refusing nonessential services under certain narrow circumstances, rather than a coordinated attempt, aided and enforced by the state, to set up a parallel world of inferior services)

          • Jaskologist says:

            There is no section of the act that says “You can be sued for $X for accidentally misgendering someone.” There’s nothing in the bill that says “We’re getting rid of all mens rea requirements for hate crimes, because we want to punish people who make innocent mistakes as much as possible.”

            Here’s something really crazy: I actually know some people who think the US Constitution guarantees a right to abortion and gay marriage, even though there’s nothing in it that even mentions those! Bunch of cranks, right?

          • beleester says:

            @Jaskologist: True, judicial precedent can lead you into some weird places. Are there any Canadian court cases that would support Deiseach’s “Ms. Occupier” case? Has someone previously sued over being called “Mrs.” instead of “Ms.”, like I suggested? No?

            Again, these laws are already on the books, with a pretty long list of protected classes. I’m finding it very hard to believe that “race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, disability or conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted” are all perfectly fine, but when we add “gender identity” to the list, that will open the floodgates for a purge of the unbelievers.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            but when we add “gender identity” to the list,

            But it’s not just adding one more element to a list of like elements.

            It’s also adding new kinds of discrimination that are not allowed.

            “You can’t deny housing to blacks. What’s so bad about saying you can’t deny housing to transpeople?”

            The organization in charge of the enforcing the law says that “refusing to refer to a person by their self-identified name and proper personal pronoun” is harassment, as is outting someone as trans. What is the historical analogue for this? Would people call black people white? Would they threaten to say “hey, this black person is actually black?”

            Maybe these new list of banned behaviors are okay and will improve society, but it’s intellectually dishonest to just say that they are simply adding one new category to the list of protected classes.

          • Why says:

            What people here hopefully remember is that human rights complaints are made to human rights tribunals.

            I mean, the wording that Peterson didn’t want added to the federal human rights code is in place in other jurisdictions in Canada. Take a close look at paragraph 270. I’ll paste 269 and 270 because the complainant wasn’t awarded $15,000 just for the prounoun use, but:

            [269] I have found that Angela Dawson was discriminated against with her treatment by the VPB on March 29-30 when she was in custody and her concerns about undergoing her post-operative procedure of dilating were virtually ignored but, in any event, not seriously considered. She also had those concerns on June 18 but was not as vocal about them in the jail.

            [270] I also find that, when Ms. Dawson was referred-to with male pronouns in the report of the occurrence on June 18, 2010, it amounted to discrimination on the basis of sex. Notwithstanding that her legal name was Jeffrey, she advised the officers that she was a transsexual female and was not treated as such. I declare that the conduct complained of is discrimination contrary to this Code. I order that:
            • The VPB cease the contraventions and to refrain from committing the same or a similar contravention.

            • VPB pay Ms. Dawson the sum of $15,000 as damages for injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect.

          • Eigengrau says:

            I’d heard that Peterson’s real objection had to do with the Ontario Human Rights Commission, a non-elected body tasked with interpreting the new law. It was them who came up with the controversial phrasing which Peterson amounted to “forced speech”

            But from that same court case:

            APPLICABILITY OF A POLICY RELEASED BY THE ONTARIO HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION REGARDING DISCRIMINATION ON THE BASIS OF GENDER IDENTITY

            [266] VPB submits that Ms. Dawson’s reliance on this document is inappropriate, in the circumstances, as it was not introduced into evidence at the hearing, despite having been released by the Commission prior to the hearing dates. VPB submits that the Ontario policy is neither evidence of discrimination against Ms. Dawson nor a legal authority.

            [267] I agree. While the findings in Ontario may be of interest to the VPB when they develop policies and training for their officers to reduce discrimination against trans people, I find that they are not material in this case. I have had no regard to the findings.

          • Why says:

            Not sure if this will thread correctly as a response to you, Eigengrau, but Peterson also objected to the federal human rights code being changed to have similar language to the B.C. and Ontario human rights code.

            And as I read 79 and 80, all that states is that even though the Human Rights Tribunal in B.C. didn’t use the Ontario Guidelines for interpreting the code, that tribunal still found that using the wrong pronoun lead to an actionable complaint.

            Just hard to take anyone seriously when they say “This wording in the human rights codes won’t lead to people being found in violation of the code for using the wrong pronouns” when it’s already happened in one province that used that wording.

          • Guy in TN says:

            The organization in charge of the enforcing the law says that “refusing to refer to a person by their self-identified name and proper personal pronoun” is harassment, as is outting someone as trans. What is the historical analogue for this? Would people call black people white?

            A historical analogue would be to not recognize a black person as a “person”. This could be accomplished by referring to them as, for example, “subhumans” (or harsher words, one can easily imagine).

            What would your take be, if a professor said:
            “In my judgement, blacks are not human. Therefore, they are not “people”, and I refuse to be compelled to refer to them as such.”

            It seems that it would be normal and well-precedented for the state to compel speech, by firing this person if they did not comply.

          • Iain says:

            @Why:

            Take a close look at paragraph 270. I’ll paste 269 and 270 because the complainant wasn’t awarded $15,000 just for the prounoun use, but:

            This is a significant understatement. When the complaints are “they addressed me with the wrong pronouns” and “they denied me access to medical treatment”, it is not hard to guess which of those two factors contributed most to the damages awarded. I’ll also point out that “VPB” in this case is the Vancouver Police Board. Canadian law quite reasonably holds law enforcement officers to a higher standard of non-discrimination than private citizens.

            I encourage people to peruse the entire decision. It’s quite reasonable, and should throw cold water on a lot of the alarmism in this discussion.

          • Why says:

            Paragraph 269 was provided for context. I didn’t want to give the impression that the $15,000 was awarded for the wrong pronoun use. Because the decision maker there just awarded the complainant $15,000.00 as a global payment for all wrongs, I don’t want to give the impression that there weren’t other and more serious instances of discrimination.

            But the Human Rights Tribunal specifically found that using the wrong pronoun was discrimination within the meaning of the Code.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            “In my judgement, blacks are not human. Therefore, they are not “people”, and I refuse to be compelled to refer to them as such.”

            This is good pushback on my comment. Thanks.

            I thought some more about analogue to deadnaming, and Rachel Dolezal came up. Under the new law, since deadnaming is harassment, if a coworker knew of Rachel Dolezal’s “dead race,” would pointing that out be considered harassment?

          • Guy in TN says:

            From a legal standpoint, the intent of the law is vital. So if the “deadnaming” aspect of the law was intended to apply only to gender identity, then it would be difficult to expand it to racial or cultural identity (without at least some serious judicial wrangling). But, if the state determined that it was in its interest, it certainly could create a new law to expand it in this way. It is important to remember that U.S. courts have not found compelled speech to be strictly unconstitutional.

            Switching now to the normative question, I think being opposed to compelled speech in principle is a more radical and socially destabilizing position than people often give it credit for. In addition to the legal examples linked above, whenever the state creates a university department (including its curriculum, textbooks, and educational goals) it is seeking to advance a viewpoint. And when it hires professors to teach at that university, it is hiring them, and compelling them, to advance that viewpoint. For example, while the idea that the Earth is more than 6,000 years old has its defenders, you never see these people in Geology departments. Geology professors are compelled to teach otherwise, because the state has no interest in advancing that idea.

            My position, is that this is a good thing. The state should not be strictly agnostic about what values and ideas it seeks to cultivate in society.

            So to answer the Rachel Dolezal case, we have to get down to the nitty-gritty object-level questions of whether racial fluidity is a value the state wants to endorse, or a value it does not. Each instance of compelled speech should be either objected to, or supported, based on the contents of what that speech entails. The meta-debate about whether the state should compel speech at all doesn’t hold much water.

        • @Toby:

          Are you missing the fact that Peterson had received a letter from his university claiming, on the basis of that legal change, that he was obliged to refer to students by their preferred gender terminology?

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            And on the previous thread, a defender of the law said that it would apply in schools, which kind of makes Peterson someone who is vulnerable to it, instead of just some outsider talking about politics.

            http://slatestarcodex.com/2018/03/26/book-review-twelve-rules-for-life/#comment-614315

          • Eigengrau says:

            That’s not entirely true. The letter from his employer was more oblique than that. It reminded him that he must follow the law. I interpreted the message as “hey, be careful — we’re not prepared to back you up if your actions are found to constitute legal discrimination” rather than “you must refer to students by their preferred pronouns immediately, or we will discipline you”.

            It should be noted that Peterson still works for U of T and has not been disciplined in any way by his employer despite not changing his rhetoric — even though the law has been in effect for almost a year now.

          • Aapje says:

            @Eigengrau

            Firstly, AFAIK Peterson has never been put to the test at the university (and/or refused to use pronouns there), so we merely know that he has not been fired for expressing his opinion. We don’t know for sure what would happen if he would actually claim the right to not use certain pronouns (like ‘xe’) for a specific person, at the university.

            Secondly, the letter has an overt threat to fire Peterson, expressed in a legalistic way that makes it easiest to defend a firing in the courts:

            The impact of your behaviour runs the risk of undermining your ability to conduct essential components of your job as a faculty member and we urge you to consider your obligations as a faculty member to act in a manner that is consistent with the law and with University policy.

            This kind of reasoning is pretty typically used to get rid of people over their statements, refusal to engage in certain behavior or because of a personal conflict, in a legal environment where a person has strong job protections. In such an environment, a decision to fire a person typically requires evidence that they can no longer do their job (and often warnings beforehand to allow the person to change their behavior).

            If you are more familiar with a legal environment where employment is ‘at will,’ you may not be aware how employers (need to) set up a firing of a person who has strong job protections.

          • Iain says:

            It should be noted that Peterson still works for U of T and has not been disciplined in any way by his employer despite not changing his rhetoric — even though the law has been in effect for almost a year now.

            Longer than that, actually. The Ontario equivalent of Bill C-16 passed in 2012.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      Peterson’s work issued hunting licenses for people to attack transgender science under the banner of common sense self-improvement, despite his own stated position that he is in support of transgender people and would happily use any requested pronoun if asked by those people themselves.

      Do people do this? Peterson doesn’t. He got famous, yes, by posting the video about his opposition to compelled speech wrt gender pronouns. But that’s not attacking “transgender science.” And then everybody saw his Maps of Meaning / Bible series / self-authoring / 12 Rules stuff and that’s what people tune in for. My exposure to Peterson is that I watched his 2017 Maps of Meaning lectures, and his 15-part series on the psychological significance of Biblical stories. I do not remember him “attacking transgender science” once, or even mentioning it in any context other than that of opposition to compelled speech (and even that rarely because it has little to do with the decades-old content of Maps of Meaning or the millennia-old content of the Bible). I have not read “12 Rules” and someone who has, please correct me if I’m wrong, but I was not under the impression he spent any time in that dealing with transgender issues, either.

      I have, however, also seen a few interviews with him, and the interviewers frequently go straight for “but y u hate transgenders?!”

      ETA: I guess what I’m saying is that yes, the transgender pronoun video was an (unintentional) signal flare that got people to take a look at Peterson. But it has nothing to do with what people eventually got out of Peterson. If no one ever mentioned the words “transgender” and “Peterson” together ever again, it would not change Peterson’s talks, ideas, or the behaviors that Peterson’s fans are getting from him. The transgender issue is essentially meaningless to the Peterson phenomenon and yet draws laser focus from his critics.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        It’s just the heckler’s veto. “Hey, if you say this, someone else might do something bad.” Those people have their own agency, of course.

        Calling them “hunting licenses” is a nice scary image, though.

      • therm says:

        I mean, this discussion is almost meaningless since neither of us have a good way of measuring what the “Peterson phenomenon” means/believes/acts like…but I’ve seen on multiple occasions people attacking trans ideas and citing Peterson.

        I thought it was very obvious that the comment you were responding to was drawing a distinction between what Peterson seems to believe and say and what anti-trans-stuff people were reading him to say.

      • russellsteapot42 says:

        ‘I do not remember him “attacking transgender science” once’

        This may refer to his stated opposition to the ‘gender unicorn’ lesson plan that’s been run in some schools for very young children, which he objects to on the grounds that it indicates that sex, gender, sexuality, and gender expression are wildly and independently variable, rather than vastly conformative to each other with a handful of exceptions.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      people to attack transgender science…people who use it to abuse others

      Those are two very different actions.

  2. Toby Bartels says:

    “Inspiring things should be taken as a work of art and not judged on their truth value”.

    Yes, this is right up there with ‘You can't derive an Ought from an Is.’ as a basic philosophical truism. I kind of assumed that everybody here already knows that, but apparently not!

    • Horse Rotorvator says:

      At some point you get around to judging inspiring things on merits that are not artistic. As a kid I read Karl Marx (what is accessible to a kid, anyway) and Ayn Rand in that order. For better or worse they are both inspiring writers. My opinion is that Rand is closer to the truth than Marx, even though Marx does not work in fiction. Dostoevsky’s fiction, and the Bible, are closer still to the truth.

      Many people will disagree with those as value judgements, or even as factual judgements. But they won’t say that my use of “truth” is incoherent, or that I am merely making an artistic judgement.

      • Toby Bartels says:

        I wouldn’t say that your notion of truth is incoherent, but it’s a bit metaphorical. It’s not Scott’s notion of factual accuracy; it’s a judgement on another basis.

        In terms of factual accuracy, to say that the Bible beats Dostoevsky beats Rand beats Marx makes little sense. At least the Bible and Marx make, at times, factual claims about historical events, but Rand and Dostoevsky don’t. (In fact, Marx’s claims are more accurate than the Bible’s, but even if you disagree, that’s clearly not what you were getting at.) Marx, Rand, and the Bible make theoretical claims about human society, and I could almost believe that this is what you were referring to, except that that I don’t think that Dostoevsky does this. (I haven’t read Dostoevsky, but reading about him doesn’t turn up any grand theories such as one finds in the other three.)

        I’m not worried about the debasement of the term ‘truth’ like Scott is; you can say ‘factual accuracy’ if you need to. So if you say that the Bible is truer than Marx, then I think that I understand what you mean. But understanding that, I’m not going to dispute it by citing specific factual errors in the Bible (or defending against charges of factual errors in Marx). Because if I understand you, then that’s not what you’re talking about!

        • Horse Rotorvator says:

          I don’t disagree much. What I’m talking about is a third kind of thing that people can mean by “truth,” besides factual accuracy and inspiration. And maybe I am disputing that “inspiration” is in the same category at all.

          Fiction, wrong historical accounts, and other kinds of non-factual narratives can lead you to understand something. Almost never about archaeology or science but about more abstract humanistic things, like empathy or consequences. They can do that intentionally, and with good or bad motives. Your newfound understanding can be right or wrong. If you are being sold a bad world-model by a fiction writer with bad motives, I think it makes sense to say “what a pack of lies.” If it a good world-model then…

          For another example I think that “Children of Men”-the-book is more honest than “Children of Men”-the-movie, even though they are both just high-quality fiction. I don’t think I mean “more honest” metaphorically.

      • nameless1 says:

        Interestingly I used to enjoy Marxist fiction, or at least fiction branded so, Soviet-camp propaganda novels and films. They are very reassuring. Now that the Party is in power history is solved and everything is going to get better and better, without even political decisions, all we have to do is technical decisions i.e. what is the best way to build that railroad. There are a few imperialist agents trying to sabotage us, but they are ridiculously inept, our skilled counter-espionage agents are asily thwarting their plans.

        I was never a far-lefter, but when you feel down this sort of very comfy, safe, reassuring, all-nontechnical-problems-solved, perpetual-progress fictional world can feel like a protective safe womb.

        • Mark Atwood says:

          Do you have a suggested reading/watching list? This sounds hilarious.

          I used to collect and read the genre of “person from our savage time wakes up in the socialist utopia future and is given a tour of how great everything is”. The ur-example is Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backwards”, but there are lots more. They are always funny, and are always insightful period pieces.

          • Bugmaster says:

            That depends, can you read or speak Russian ? If you can, then you might read some of the books by the Russian children’s writer Kir Bulychov (sp?). I say “some”, because he was really good at toeing the party line for quite some time; his most well-known work was adapted into a movie that revolutionized Soviet pop culture in the same way that e.g. Star Wars revolutionized American pop culture. However, he was actually a good author, which means that he never fully embraced Communist ideology, and IMO his humanity does shine through in his work.

            Contrast this with the work of the Strugatsky Brothers. While they do envision a better world (albeit not a Utopian one), their critique of the Soviet regime is absolutely devastating. Most of their works were only published relatively recently, since publishing them at the time when they were written would’ve likely led to swift executions of the authors themselves, their families, and pretty much anyone who’s ever been within a 100m radius of the manuscript.

          • nameless1 says:

            In English I know none.

        • Mikk Salu says:

          Bugmaster says:

          Contrast this with the work of the Strugatsky Brothers. While they do envision a better world (albeit not a Utopian one), their critique of the Soviet regime is absolutely devastating. Most of their works were only published relatively recently, since publishing them at the time when they were written would’ve likely led to swift executions of the authors themselves, their families, and pretty much anyone who’s ever been within a 100m radius of the manuscript.

          That’s not entirely true. Strugatsky brothers were well published during Soviet time. True, they had their problems with censorship and couple of their works had to be postponed, but generally, they were well received, well published.
          Sure, they turned from optimistic progressivists to pessimistic anti-progressivists and the latter part was read as a critique to the Soviet regime. But they were clever writers and knew how to deal with authorities.

  3. manwhoisthursday says:

    I agree; I’ve also watched his videos and find them unwatchable and boring.

    Geez, which videos? There are ton of them out there, of highly varying quality.

    I most recommend watching the recordings he made of his University of Toronto courses, especially the second, scientifically focused half of Personality and Its Transformations. Also, I made a list of worthwhile JBP videos here: https://pastebin.com/4Jamx5Lm

    For what it’s worth, I happen to think that Peterson is a pretty terrible writer. I’ve picked up 12 Rules a couple times and been really put off by the prose, but perhaps I just happened on the worst parts. Maps of Meaning is pretty bad though too.

    • laughingagave says:

      I liked the later personality videos as well. I had heard for several years that psychologists favored the five factor model, but then didn’t go into any detail, making it basically useless. Peterson does a good job expanding on each trait dimension, especially unexpected results like the dangers of high conscientiousness in chaotic circumstances.

      • manwhoisthursday says:

        Yeah, I had found the 5 factor model pretty uninteresting too, until Peterson put flesh on the bones, so to speak. I can’t imagine any good therapist not putting that information to good use. I’ve repeatedly tried to get Scott to take a look at those particular videos, but he just doesn’t seem interested.

    • Tracy W says:

      For what it’s worth, I happen to think that Peterson is a pretty terrible writer.

      There’s a bit of randomness about taste though – I find Dickens a pretty terrible writer but that’s clearly a minority position.

      • manwhoisthursday says:

        Dickens prose, in itself, is always fluent and clean. It’s never outright annoying or offputting, like Peterson’s. On the other hand, much like Jordan Peterson on video, there is a lot of Dickens out there, of highly variable quality. Many of his books contain long boring sections.

        Here is my guide to the Dickens books I’ve read:

        The Pickwick Papers – basically an episodic sitcom, some good bits (like the Ode to an Expiring Frog, see below) but mostly pretty boring in the age of Seinfeld and Simpsons reruns
        Oliver Twist – starts off well for about 1/4 of the book, then is incredibly boring for the middle 1/2, then gets good again at the end, might want to watch a good film version like David Lean’s and then just read the good bits.
        A Christmas Carol – very good short novel but you don’t lose much by watching a good film or TV version
        Dombey and Son – some very good bits, maybe 1/4 of the book, the rest is boring
        David Copperfield – often considered his masterpiece, about 2/3 of the book is great, the good and bad bits are fairly evenly distributed so you’re never stuck for long
        Bleak House – others consider this his masterpiece, about 1/2 good bits, longer and more unevenly spaced boring bits, the great bits are really great but there are places where you can really get stuck
        Hard Times – starts off really strong but D had a breakdown in the middle of writing it, so he hastily slapped on a rather unsatisfactory ending
        Little Dorritt – I can barely remember this one, seemed ok, but nothing that special
        A Tale of Two Cities – one of his more consistent and well planned books but more subdued and low key than much of his other work
        Great Expectations – takes its time getting started but picks up steam as you keep going, overall quite consistent and really good
        Our Mutual Friend – this one was just pretty boring

        So, basically I’d recommend Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, with all the caveats above.

        —–

        Ode to an Expiring Frog

        Can I view thee panting, lying
        On thy stomach, without sighing;
        Can I unmoved see thee dying
        On a log
        Expiring frog!

        Say, have fiends in shape of boys,
        With wild halloo, and brutal noise,
        Hunted thee from marshy joys,
        With a dog,
        Expiring frog!

  4. One could do much worse.

    Thank you!

    People often compare my work to JP’s. I’m still not sure what to think about that.

    My position on the larger problem of meaning is to notice that my life always seems really meaningful and great when I have coffee

    To me this seems true and important (as well as a fine joke!). And:

    The overall lesson is that the emotional problem of meaning is a basically biological one, that doesn’t connect with the philosophical problem of meaning nearly as much as you think

    This probably encapsulates one of my main points, more concisely than I’ve been able to.

    • MereComments says:

      I’m neither a Peterson nor a Chapman completionist, but I’ve delved a fair bit into both. My general takeaway has been that although you’re both talking about meaning, you’re coming at it from very different angles. Meaningness, if I’m understanding it correctly, is about framing meaning out of what seems like ever-shifting noise. An analogy would be a Magic Eye picture where, depending on the pattern-matching you’re doing, you could see 3-4 different images come into focus. It seems to involve a will element that imposes meaning onto what is objectively a bunch of noisy images.

      Peterson’s ideas about meaning are (seemingly) deeply rooted in his perceptions of human history and biology. He never drops the Natural Law bomb, but his thinking seems at the very least tangentially informed by it. He seems to believe more in a telos that is the “good life” for all of man, and believe that meaning is derived from pursuing this eudaimonia.

      So, to answer St. Rev’s assertion above, I’d say that Peterson is more of a normie Alasdair MacIntyre, and Meaningness is more of a cheerful, 21st century take on Nietszche.

      • I’d say that Peterson is more of a normie Alasdair MacIntyre, and Meaningness is more of a cheerful, 21st century take on Nietszche.

        Thanks! That’s been roughly my take so far. But I haven’t read/watched as much of JP as I’d need to in order to have an informed opinion.

        If I could do nothing more than provide a cheerful, 21st century interpretation of Nietzsche… Well, one could do much worse!

    • j r says:

      The overall lesson is that the emotional problem of meaning is a basically biological one, that doesn’t connect with the philosophical problem of meaning nearly as much as you think

      This probably encapsulates one of my main points, more concisely than I’ve been able to.

      I find this statement very interesting. In my understanding, there already is a pretty robust tradition of ontology within Continental philosophy, which is focused on cataloging different categories of being. Are you saying that there is a separate emotional need for understanding being that is distinctly separate from the philosophical tradition?

      • In “Stances Trump Systems,” I wrote:

        Mostly, people think about thinking about meaning in terms of systems. (By “systems,” I mean religions, philosophies, political ideologies, psychological frameworks, and so on.) But I think that is not how we actually think about meaningness.

        When I say “think about thinking about,” I mean that if you ask “How do you think about questions of meaning, value, purpose, or ethics,” the answer is something like “I’m a Christian / existentialist / progressive / Jungian.” Or more likely, nowadays when few people want to commit to a single system, they may mention several.

        It seems to me that this is a mistake. In practice, when we actually need to make decisions, we do it mainly on the basis of stances, not systems.

        Stances are simple, compelling patterns of thinking and feelings concerning meaningness. For example: “I’m an ordinary guy,” or “the only real purpose in life is to squeeze as much pleasure out of it as you can before you die,” or “good people follow the rules,” or “everyone is responsible for their personal reality.”

        I’m not sure if that addresses your question, which I wasn’t sure I understood? If not, maybe you could say which Continental ontologist(s) you have in mind. The Continental tradition is vast, and contains diverse, mutually-contradictory ontologies.

  5. Bugmaster says:

    Maybe aliens would view it as a tragic quirk of the human psyche that we have to conflate inspiration and truth. Maybe to them, inspiration is just another genre, closer to art or poetry than to an attempt to describe the world as it is.

    TIL I’m an alien. Who knew !

  6. userfriendlyyy says:

    Peterson turns Marx on his head and claims that political activism is the opiate of the masses. That is, it’s something people use to make themselves feel sort of vaguely good and self-satisfied, but which prevents them from engaging in the actually important work of spiritual struggle.

    My interpretation of him (can’t be sure it’s right) says that he is worried that there are problems with society, and all else being equal he would like people to solve them. But he has the psychoanalyst’s usual worry that anything which is not the Work will be a defense mechanism that people use to avoid the Work.

    I wonder if psychoanalysts tend to default to individualistic solutions because that is essentially what you have to advise people to do all day long. Advising patients that we have a society set up to screw everyone that isn’t in the top 10%, go call your congress critter, isn’t likely to do much good so you tend to focus on what you can change to the point where you hardly notice the structural problems anymore. Besides that what fraction of patients do you see that aren’t in the top 10%? Hammering nails and all that.

    I think Peterson assumes that a psychologically undeveloped person starting to dabble in politics will be eaten alive by various virulent memes, chewed up, and spit out as a Hofferian True Believer in about five minutes. At best they will end up as an never-shutting-up slacktivist who calls people out for not changing their profile picture on Facebook quickly enough, and at worst as some kind of totalitarian. I think he would argue there’s a vicious cycle here – the less psychologically developed you are, the more political activism will destroy you, and the more political activism destroys you, the less likely you are to ever psychologically develop further.

    One of his twelve rules, “Set Your House In Perfect Order Before Criticizing The World”, is about this, and doesn’t preclude the possibility of getting involved in politics after you’ve sorted out your own life. I don’t know what this is supposed to mean, since presumably this is an eternal project that is never completed. Clearly Peterson himself thinks he’s at the point where he can participate in politics, so I don’t know.

    Participate in politics is too vague here. Your definition seams to be anything from reading about it to voting. Does that make a Petersoneske self improvement binge inherently apolitical? I’d argue locking yourself up and focusing on individualist self improvement is to some extent picking a political narrative about how the world works and how to fix it already.

    If by don’t participate in politics Peterson means shut up and listen rather than try to persuade others that is fine but it’s not something I really see anyone, his supporters or others, listening to. Which kind of leaves me wondering if anyone actually thinks ‘Gee this advice is great for me’ or if there is a lot more people running around saying ‘this is great advice for everyone else.’ And once you’ve emerged from your cocoon of not participating in politics how likely are you to assert that other people need a similar period of introspection before they can be seen as having a valid opinion?

    • lliamander says:

      > If by don’t participate in politics Peterson means shut up and listen rather than try to persuade others that is fine but it’s not something I really see anyone, his supporters or others, listening to. Which kind of leaves me wondering if anyone actually thinks ‘Gee this advice is great for me’ or if there is a lot more people running around saying ‘this is great advice for everyone else.’

      But where are you looking? If you are just looking in the places that people normally use for political ranting, then that is all you are going to see.

      As it stands, a lot of people are watching his (non-political) videos, reading his book, and using his online self-help classes. Many people even write to him to tell him how they’ve started fixing themselves more and hating the world less. That’s at least evidence people are supporting him in a non-hypocritical way.

      > And once you’ve emerged from your cocoon of not participating in politics how likely are you to assert that other people need a similar period of introspection before they can be seen as having a valid opinion?

      I personally don’t see it as a single transition point, but rather as an iterative process. And the point is not that you are merely introspecting, but fixing the problems in your life. You start at a point where you feel you are being oppressed and your life is a mess. And maybe you are really being marginalized by other people. But then you fix one small thing in your life, such as cleaning your room. Then you evaluate how you feel, and maybe you feel mostly the same but at least a little proud at having control over something. Then you fix another thing, such as showing up to work on time. Then you evaluate how you feel and you find that maybe people treat you a little better than before.

      You continue the process throughout your life, but hopefully a few things start to happen along the way:
      1. You remove the sources of subconscious anxiety that were making you more sensitive to exogenous threats in the first place
      2. You develop a clearer picture of what problems are actually systematic vs. just the results of your own poor choices
      3. You develop the credibility with society at large that you can actually fix problems, rather than make them worse

      It is perhaps through this last point that I think many vocal Jordan Peterson supporters can be best understood. They are not (merely) saying “this is great advice for everyone else”. Rather, it is to the activists that they are asking “Who are you to say that you can fix our society? What have you improved lately?”.

  7. MawBTS says:

    Yes, it’s certainly interesting that CS Lewis calls out psychoanalysis as a hallmark of the “Materialist Magician,” given that Jordan Peterson comes from the Jungian tradition.

    Here’s a Christian writing on JP/Lewis, echoing much of what you wrote. https://mereorthodoxy.com/book-review-12-rules-life-jordan-peterson/

    • theredsheep says:

      I saw that some time ago, couldn’t remember where it was to post it. Thanks!

      Re: pride, I think a certain amount of self-respect is not only helpful, but requisite from a Christian perspective. You can’t repent until you’re disgusted by what you’ve become, and you can’t be disgusted unless you have standards for yourself. The Prodigal Son has to be able to look around and say, “I was not put on this earth to envy pigs their slops.” At the same time, he has to overcome pride to say he was a fool and should go back, and at a lesser status than before.

      When I was growing up, we were always encouraged to have self-esteem, to think well of ourselves. I’ve always been skeptical of that. I read a review of the recent Wrinkle in Time movie where it says that [spoiler for AWiT] ng gur pyvznpgvp zbzrag bs gur onggyr jvgu VG, vafgrnq bs qrpynevat ure ybir sbe Puneyrf Jnyynpr, Zrt fnlf gung fur npprcgf bguref’ ybir sbe ure, orpnhfr fur qrfreirf gb or ybirq. Obviously this is an enormous shift from what the novel said, and it’s about as far as you can take “self-esteem.” From this Christian’s perspective, it’s rather horrifying. I think there’s an argument to be made that, while self-respect can shift into obnoxious pride, it’s probably healthier than the most popular alternative.

  8. sharper13 says:

    Regarding the comment he “completely ignores the structural problems in the way of self improvement”:

    There is a lot of value in people focusing on improving what they have control over. No one thinks that “everything about your life is 100% the result of things you have control over”, specifically the “everything” and the “100%” part, but the percentage of your control over your life doesn’t change the advice. Even if you only control 10%, of what use is complaining about, focusing on, worrying about, things you have no control over? If you have control over your vote, or your political activism, then sure, use them for what you can accomplish with them, but spend your time and energy where it’ll do the most good, which is generally where control isn’t divided among 128 million people (see also the myth of the rational voter).

    People can actually accomplish things when they focus on the part of their life which is within their control. You can’t change other people, all you can do is change yourself and then possibly use your strength to influence other people. That sounds like a platitude, but it’s also a literal truth, in Scott’s sense.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      It definitely seems important that individual work gets you one unit of change if you put one unit of effort into your own life, whereas politics gets you one million units of change if each of one million people put in one unit of effort into a collective action problem, but I’m not sure in what direction it’s important.

      • nameless1 says:

        Mancur Olson? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Logic_of_Collective_Action#Overview ? Nassim Taleb on the most intolerant groups winning? Coordination problems?

      • Jaskologist says:

        It’s not just the collective action problem, though. It’s also the fact that you know a lot more about the near problem than the far problem, and will receive feedback a lot faster if your solution isn’t working. If I set out to clean my room, I know whether or not the room actually got clean. I don’t really know if Bill 17056C Revsion 93 actually reduced structural inequality. All the far problems need to be discounted just as we would discount our expected value from investments the more uncertain they become.

        • lvlln says:

          It’s also the fact that you know a lot more about the near problem than the far problem, and will receive feedback a lot faster if your solution isn’t working. If I set out to clean my room, I know whether or not the room actually got clean. I don’t really know if Bill 17056C Revsion 93 actually reduced structural inequality.

          I feel like this is one of Peterson’s major concerns that pushes him so strongly toward individual self-improvement. Society is ridiculously complicated, far more complicated than any given individual, and it does take a certain level of hubris to believe that one’s preferred intervention is more likely to make it better than it is to make it go crumbling down, particularly if that person also lacks the competence and wherewithal to put their own tiny corner of society in order. I think his views on this have been shaped by a couple of things, 1 being the history of Communism, which saw some very nice sounding ideas translate into perhaps the closest that human society has come to being literal hell, and 2 being social science research, which he’s observed as being fraught with unintended consequences in which intelligent and educated researchers designing well-meaning interventions to help some group of people result in harm to that group of people.

          I do think he has a penchant for taking this to near-paranoid extremes – sometimes, there really are solutions to society-wide problems which really are as easy as they appear, and not taking those easy solutions causes more harm than being too afraid to take them for fear of causing catastrophe – but I do think his message is a good counterbalance to the overwhelming volume of the opposite message that seems to dominate the rest of political discourse.

          That said, he’s also clearly not an individualist extremist or against societal change or collective action. He’s almost Pinker-esque in his views about how much better human life has gotten in the past few centuries for vast swaths of people, and his optimism about what we could collectively accomplish if we keep up the hard work that took us to this point in history rivals that of the most naive utopian dreamer. It’s just that he also has a deep pessimism about how precarious our position is and how easily it could descend into chaos and perhaps hell if we push forward in a manner that’s not grounded in some humility and gratitude for the really complicated systems that allow for basically all of the Western world to enjoy a quality of life that is absurdly luxurious relative to the default state for 99% of human history.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            I’ve watched lots of people march from “this principle is a good idea for me to do” to “this is a good idea for other people to do” to “actually, it doesn’t matter if I do it if I can get 1000 other people to do it” to “I’m going to completely violate my own principle myself but force others to comply.”

            Keeping your own room in order would stop you at several steps along this path.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            lvlln, what’s an example of an easy solution that he rejects?

          • lvlln says:

            @Douglas Knight

            lvlln, what’s an example of an easy solution that he rejects?

            There aren’t any specific political issues where I feel like he does this right now. I was more commenting on my worry that his heuristic could err on the side of conservatism by pushing people to seek out individual self-improvement when, in fact, collective action really is the right solution. Like I said, I think right now, the vast majority of society (at least as it pertains to me, living in the United States) is erring on the opposite side, so maybe that’s why I don’t perceive any issue in particular right now where I find his emphasis of personal responsibility over collective protest to be problematic.

            One example that’s sort of borderline for me is gay marriage, which he’s expressed skepticism of. But (a) he’s not against it, which really is very different from being merely skeptical of it, and (b) his reasoning for being skeptical of it actually seem pretty sound (though I also wonder about its empirical validity, which is something I wonder about a lot of what he talks about), so I’ve come around to the idea that legal gay marriage isn’t the obvious easy solution that I always thought it was, even if I still think it’s the right solution.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Gay marriage is a good example.
            But when you say that “he has a penchant for taking this to near-paranoid extremes,” you seem to be talking about him, not about the hypothetical danger of other people using the heuristic.
            The choice of the word “paranoid” is interesting because the objection that he has to the transgender law and objection other people have to gay marriage are about memetic warfare, which can certainly sound paranoid.

      • Deiseach says:

        But sometimes you have to put the one unit of work in to get the one unit of individual change to become the kind of person who will then put the one unit of effort into the collective action that adds up to the one million units of change.

        I saw somewhere about an idea floated to give the vote to sixteen year olds, the idea being that since eighteen year olds don’t bother voting in the numbers that they should, dropping the age down further will hook them when they’re younger and get them into the habit.

        This seems stupid to me, since the age of eighteen was already a reduction from twenty-one, and if an eighteen year old thinks whatever is going on in their life is more important than all the trouble and effort to make sure they’re registered to vote and get to the polling booth and so on, how do they expect sixteen year olds to put in that effort? (Unless they expect the parents to put all the preparation in, then drop Junior off at the polls after telling them “and you are to vote for Candidate Rogers”, in which case they may as well just give the vote to the parents anyway).

        But the idea there is the same: to get the collective change, there is the necessity first of individual change. Instead of eighteen year old Bruce or Sadie staying home because what good is it, a single vote is no use, the parties have it all sewn up already and so on, they encourage Bruce and Sadie to become the type of person who considers voting their civic duty so they go out and do it.

    • J Mann says:

      I thought a lot about this back when people were arguing about Barack Obama’s impact as a community organizer, so some time around 2007-08. As background, Obama’s major accomplishment in that role was, IIRC, coordinating Chicago residents to rally for a jobs retraining program, in response to which the government did create some kind of program.

      Whether personal or community activity produces more (a) results and (b) well-being depends on your priors and the specifics of the situation, I guess, but Petersen’s argument is reasonable. Let’s say I’m unhappy that my family is overweight – we can’t move around as well as we want, we suspect our lives will be shorter, etc. I can spend my time on:

      Personal: We all try a series of interventions. Weight Watchers, Beeminder, MyFitnessPal, we join a gym, we join the Y, we join a water polo rec league. We shop differently. We chat on whatever subreddit is appropriate. Result: we (a) get more fit or (b) show temporary improvements and then return to trend and we feel (a) empowered or (b) discouraged.

      Community: We join various groups lobbying for different social change. We lobby the kids’ school to change what’s in the school lunches and the vending machines. We try to get a class action against big sugar and big fast food. We picket the local McDonalds for serving scientifically designed fat/sugar/salt bombs. We lobby for people to stop discriminating against the obese. Result: we (a) get some incremental wins or we (b) don’t and feel (a) empowered or (b) discouraged.

      I tend to be on Petersen’s side – I tend to think that people accomplish more in their lives by working the personal side, although it definitely varies depending on the case. Rosa Parks and MLK certainly accomplished a lot politically, as did Margaret Thatcher and Reagan.

      I do worry that activism often keeps people motivated by scaring and angering them, and by demonizing their opponents, and that this is not a fulfilling way to live, but I don’t have any systematic proof beyond how frightening all the letters asking me for money are, and how angry so many of my facebook friends are. I suppose self-improvement can also be destructive, if you end up falling short and blaming yourself, so maybe the method is more important than the overall goal.

    • Hitfoav says:

      Another element of the “set your own house in order” principle is the belief that the very real and immediate feedback of solving near at hand problems will teach you lessons that scale either analogously or directly to larger problems – whereas if you focus only on large problems you may never receive sufficient feedback to learn much of anything except “my actions make no difference” (activist burnout, “I was a teenage anarchist” et. al)

      It also seems to me that there’s an implied natural progression. People often seem to struggle with Peterson’s set-your-house because they want to know exactly when and why you might get to be involved in the larger problems.

      (Peterson is a good example. He worked his metaphorical heiny off answering some questions which were very personal to him; 30-some years into that process, he’s gone from an eccentric 20 something to a major cultural figure to which many including myself ascribe a significant degree of moral and intellectual inspiration and education, passing through increasingly broad spheres of familial and professional and public responsibility along the way. If he went for the big prize right away he would have been less than useful.)

      Whereas lived experience (or analogies to creative endeavours like making a movie or a complex piece of software) suggests that by dealing with the problems at hand you gradually build capacity which allows you to tackle larger and larger problems.

      Peterson himself has used an analogy of “I want to fix society-under-capitalism” being like “I want to to fix this helicopter engine” – its going to take a hell of a lot of practice and study, both personal and collective expertise and resources, and “smashing” doesn’t enter into either.

      And: the larger problems exist in our daily personal experience. The more capable you are (broadly speaking) the more you effect them.

      And/but: you never get to solve it all, and that’s humble pie and a promise of continuing uncertainty and suffering that many of us find hard to swallow.

  9. russellsteapot42 says:

    CGP Grey did a video a while back about ‘ways to be miserable’. One of the ways he suggested was to focus on goals that are ‘Vague, Amorphous, Pie-in-the-sky, Irrelevant, Delayed’.

    He also talks about ‘using the things you care about as further sources of misery, focus on the bad to fuel your resentment or despair. If you must contribute do so only in the most meaningless, token ways, and be disappointed in the lack of change.’

    This pattern seems to describe a lot of modern political activism, and I think this is exactly what Peterson wants to fight against, though of course Ironically he’s become a lightningrod for much of this exact kind of political argumentation.

    • christianschwalbach says:

      I think a lot of dis- illusionment in activism can indeed be traced to Idealist mores not coming to fruition, and rather than trying to scale back, abandoning hope altogether. That being said, I often wonder how much an individual person truly believes in Utopian ideals anyways. I think in some ways, it serves simply as a form of self-therapy, of distraction, or gives a temporary source of meaning. Example Obama’s original “Hope and Change” campaign , and the (I assume) people that got really caught up in it.

  10. fion says:

    Maybe aliens would view it as a tragic quirk of the human psyche that we have to conflate inspiration and truth. Maybe to them, inspiration is just another genre, closer to art or poetry than to an attempt to describe the world as it is. Maybe to them, if there’s an intuitively satisfying explanation of the meaning of life, asking “Is that really the meaning?” or “Is that really true?” would be just as stupid and annoying as nitpicking the lyrics of Ode To Joy.

    My impression (perhaps I’m being cynical) is that most people outside the rationalist sphere would agree with your aliens. “Conflate X with truth” is something that we do a lot and most people just view as vaguely annoying. When I was going through my ‘evangelical atheist’ phase I would repeatedly have arguments with people where I said “but that doesn’t make it true!” The response was a shrug of the shoulders, or a vague comment about what truth means. Sometimes even “there’s more to life than truth.”

  11. Steve Sailer says:

    Scott writes: “I’ve also watched his videos and find them unwatchable and boring. I don’t know why the book seems so much better – maybe I just respond more to the written word, or maybe he had a really good editor. I would wonder if this is what’s behind the high variance in how people respond to him, except I think a lot of the people who absolutely love him are working off the videos. Weird. It takes all kinds, I guess.”

    If Dr. Peterson can wow the 80th to 98th percentiles with his videos and wow Scott with his book, well, maybe he really is something?

    It’s not common to be able to do both.

    • oppressedminority says:

      That’s a great point.

      I really enjoy Peterson because of his ability to connect biblical stories and archetypes to tangible life lessons. He makes sense of these stories in a way no one else ever could. Growing up in a catholic household I attended mass regularly and not one sermon delivered by a priest was ever interesting. But Peterson’s talks could very well serve as sermons and I look forward to them with a lot of enthusiasm. I am agnostic and I appreciate that his interpretations of the Bible doesn’t require belief or disbelief.

      I introduced him to my father who is a devout catholic and he likes him very much also. At the same time based on the questions posed at the end of his talks it’s clear he appeals to many atheists, muslims, Christians, jews, etc…

      Like Steve Sailer said “he really is something”.

      A lot of comments are dismissing him because they dont like the side he’s on in the culture wars. I would advise against taking him lightly, and issuing knee-jerk criticism of him without having understood what he stands for and the source of his broad appeal. You dont sell out auditoriums for talks on the psychological meaning of the book of genesis by repeating cliches.

  12. Mikk Salu says:

    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.

    It relates somewhat to Timothy Snyder´s work (“Bloodlands”, “Black Earth”). Nazis and Soviets killed about 14 million civilians (the vast majority of Nazi and Soviet killings) on a rather narrow strip of territory (Eastern Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Baltic states) or “Bloodlands” as Snyder calls it. He points out that on this land Nazis were able to do things what they were not able to do in France, in Balkans or even in Germany. Same with Soviets, what Soviets did in Ukraine or Poland or in Baltic states is qualitatively and quantitatively different, what they did elsewhere. Snyder is intensely interested why there, but not elsewhere? What was so special in this piece of land?

    Snyder´s answer is chaos. Soviets and Nazis destroyed states in eastern Europe, they destroyed civilian society, they destroyed everything. In Germany, even Nazis had to follow laws (cruel laws, but still laws). When they occupied Austria, they were able to things what they could not do in Germany, Snyder says. In Czechoslovakia, they were able to do even more. And in “Bloodlands” everything was destroyed(Soviets had done a lot of work for Nazis there already), no rules and laws anymore. Just chaos.

    • sclmlw says:

      My understanding is that JP’s focus is not just on Nazis and Russians. He spares a thought for the variety of different ways the 20th century gave birth to totalitarianism masquerading as “comprehensive societal reform”. Given the history of Eastern Europe, I think they were ripe for this kind of revolutionary transformation at the beginning of the 20th century in a way Western Europe (outside Spain) was not.

      For this reason, I don’t think you can equate the conditions in Vichy France to those in the Ukraine, even before the communist revolution. For one, Ukraine had never been its own nation, and was working to establish one while also implementing a brand of communism and a bunch of other goals; meanwhile, the Russians saw the rich Ukrainian soil as “Little Russia” ripe for exploitation, and balked at the idea of Ukrainian independence that would make that strategy untenable. Ukraine (as just one particularly important example from E. Europe) was being pulled in a dozen directions at once, and all that pulling resulted in societal collapse. Meanwhile, the French didn’t like their current leadership and a faction of French society preferred to let Hitler roll over them as an easier mechanism for effecting regime change. That’s a far cry from the “societal collapse driven by multiple competing forces” that was going on in the Eastern Europe.

      Again, look at the Germans under the Weimar Republic. You have hyperinflation and near societal collapse. Hitler, through a plurality not a majority, takes over on a promise of radical change and a return to greatness. Mussolini got the trains running on time again. In each case, the dictators are granted power because they’re effective at establishing order, at least initially. If there’s anything JP claims that’s well-founded, I think it’s the point that societies lacking strong institutions of civilization and governance (more chaotic societies, in other words) are more susceptible to capture by totalitarian forces. That’s not particularly new or original, and certainly not where I would choose as a point of departure with Peterson’s philosophy.

      And if the point is “totalitarians tend to get carried away, and this eventually leads them to do a poor job of imposing order” I’d agree with that. Again, look at what Stalin did in the Ukraine. Millions of people died of starvation in a country with some of the most fertile soil on Earth. Nobody would argue that Stalin’s policy of confiscating seed grain (and every crust of bread from starving peasants’ mouths) by coercing neighbors to do the taking, all the while exporting grain abroad in exchange for cash, is any kind of formula for promoting civil society.

      Peterson’s point isn’t, “you’ll choose totalitarianism because it’s actually good for you”. His point is “you’ll participate in the killing fields because you can’t help yourself.” Society collapses and you grasp at straws. And strongman leadership is one of the oldest straws there is, so people follow it. Even if it leads to a program of mass murder or mass starvation, you get stuck in it when there are no alternatives. Again, I think this is where Peterson is on pretty solid ground, and it’s not a point I would heavily dispute.

      The questions to ask Peterson are more fundamental to his concerns, though. He wants to avoid the gulags. Agreed. Let’s make darn sure we don’t fall into that trap. But instead of saying “we should never have a goal of complete societal transformation, or even try to work toward some grand ideal”, wouldn’t it be better to simply state, “If your goal is complete societal transformation, just make sure you don’t try to do it all at once. They did that a bunch in the 20th century and it lead to a really bad place. Let’s not go there. Whatever you want to do, make sure you do it gradually.”? That seems like a better way to achieve the goal of “don’t fall to murderous dictatorships” without structuring your entire society and moral system around the somewhat limiting idea that “we’re one false move from murderous dictatorship; everybody watch out!”

      • Mikk Salu says:

        I am not disputing. Just pointing that Snyder has used order-chaos axis to explain mass murder in E-Europe. If I am reading Snyder correctly, he is not saying that “totalitarians tend to get carried away, and this eventually leads them to do a poor job of imposing order”. Snyder says that totalitarian regimes deliberately created chaos. Chaos was prerequisite. Laws, customs, rules, states even if cruel and even if controlled by them, were still an obstacle. They needed chaos to go full scale.

        • sclmlw says:

          Haven’t read Snyder, but I put it on the reading list. It sounds like you’re saying the chaos was intentional, which is contrary to most accounts I’ve read. If you’re saying the chaos was a necessary result of the policies pursued, regardless of the intention, I’d wholeheartedly agree.

          Most of these types of mass murder projects appear to be instances of the leadership taking simple principles or goals to their logical extremes, with what should have been predictable results. Since they’re founded on an ideology, they measure success by their ability to approach an ideal, heedless of the long-term consequences. In fact, there seems to be a blind faith that long-run effects will be worthwhile, so long as they can finally reach utopia.

          A couple of famous examples:
          1. Hutu agitators parroted over and over again all the ways they had been ‘wronged’ by Tutsis in the past. According to the Hutu thinking of the time, in order to successfully take over the government from the ‘oppressive’ Tutsis, Hutus needed to make sure the Tutsis were in no position to subversively gain a foothold ever again. The nature of the Tutsi was to gain power over Hutus and lord it over them, while doing no work themselves. Therefore, all Tutsis needed to be killed, and deserved it because of real or imagined past group-level transgressions. Any Tutsi left alive was a threat to Hutu sovereignty.
          2. Nazi scientists, following the best social Darwinism of the day, were worried about genetic contamination by undesirable elements; the theory wasn’t strictly about creating a master race. The theory was that if nothing were done, genetic contamination would destroy humanity and modern civilization as we know it. By this logic, the Final Solution was more important than the war, because if it failed German civilization was at risk. This wasn’t extreme thinking, but rather matched mainstream scientific thought throughout Europe and the US. The extreme element was in rounding up all these ‘undesirables’, murdering them, or performing experiments on them. But as you pointed out, that didn’t exactly lead to chaos within Germany. At least, not until near the end when people started wondering if this project was really sufficiently important to prolong a very costly war that was already lost.
          3. In Cambodia the theory was that capitalism had led to materialism, and people needed to get back to more primitive roots. People who had never worked an acre of land were sent to live on farms, and all their modern conveniences were suddenly called sin. Communism wasn’t about producing more, but was more of a purification ritual. Meanwhile, collective agriculture was directed by non-farmers. When this poorly-planned scheme didn’t work, bad leadership didn’t take the blame. It dished out the blame, and started ‘finding’ dissidents and usurpers among the innocent. These people were purged, so the leadership could realize their utopian ideals. In interviews decades after these events, the leadership still claimed – in all sincerity – that what they did was right, and nobody was killed (including children and babies) who didn’t deserve it.
          3. Lenin and Stalin appear to be along the same mold, just with a longer run, and larger populations. Communist theory at the time believed it would out-produce capitalism hands down. That’s what they expected, and that is how they governed regardless of reality. They started by taking as much grain as possible from peasants, but many of these peasants were true believers and worked extra-hard to produce more for the cause. Suspicious leaders considered the most productive farmers to be bourgeois, or at least bourgeois sympathizers, and punished them. They believed they were eliminating subversive counter-revolutionary elements. In error, the leadership ended up cutting off their most productive citizens because the ideology always trumped the reality on the ground. Then in subsequent years they would expect increased production, but see decreased output. They started blaming all the peasants (peasants aren’t true communists, since Marx said communism would arise from workers; many peasants own their own land, and are therefore suspect of being bourgeois agitators), and accused them of withholding grain. Soon they started taking the grain the peasants were living off of. Then they took the seed grain, the livestock, their possessions, etc. The fact that people were starving in the streets, and emaciated skeletons were staggering into population centers did not dissuade Stalin from belief in ideology over evidence. Stalin couldn’t take the blame for widespread famine, especially since he’d so recently called collective farming a resounding success! So he continued to blame the starving peasants, and claim they’d brought these things on themselves.

          From what I’ve read, it looks like the chaos is a result of ideology refusing to budge in the face of overwhelming evidence. That’s not surprising. The belief that you could bomb your enemy into submission never worked until the US dropped the Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but that didn’t prevent people on both sides of the conflict in WWII (or in Spain in the interwar period) from developing ever more sophisticated methods of increasing the body count. Or, on a smaller scale, my liberal, conservative, and libertarian friends all hold more tightly to their ideological positions in the face of strong evidence their theories aren’t working. In all these examples, the excuse is the same, “It was only implemented part-way. Once it’s fully embraced, we’ll see the promised benefits.” Somehow, all these ideological ideas are only effective in their absolutely pure form. You’d think if they worked they would work in a dose-dependent manner, instead of all or nothing.

          • Mikk Salu says:

            Snyder explains his views here:
            link text


            As a personal note. I live in Estonia. My late grandfather was a child in 1941, he witnessed how NKVD killed teachers in his school. Basically, some men came, teachers and schoolchildren were sent to the schoolyard and some teachers were shot. Men drove away. These NKVD units were called “hävituspataljonid“, literally “Battalions of destruction”. In theory, they had some guidelines and goals, but in practice, it turned random violence: went to one village and bunt it down, went to next village and shot some men, went to the third village and remained it untouched.

            When deportations to Gulag took place in Estonia in 1940-41, the story looks similar. There were lists of class enemies and quotas (Soviets loved quotas), you have to take 1000 from this county, 3000 from another county, but in practice, it also turned quite random. Memories of NKVD men show that they followed quotas, but from there, it was quite often whatever they wanted. Went to the farm and said: “We have the name of your husband on our list. Oh, he is not home? Okay, we will take you instead.” Had an order to empty one particular village, but in practice: “Oh, this village is so far away, let’s take closer one.”

            Part of this story is bureaucratic incompetence, but another part was quite deliberate. It was not even a secret, Soviet newspapers of that time used the term “Battalions of destruction” and freely described what their job was: to sow fear, random violence, to break spirits, to create hopelessness, “you never know where from blow comes”. Andrei Zhdanov, member of Politburo who in 1940-41 supervised sovietization of Estonia, in his writings admitted the same. (It was not new nor original, Trotsky, Zinoviev and other Soviet theorists of terror, spoke the same much earlier and much larger scale.)

    • Levantine says:

      Snyder’s work is poor. See Blood Lies.

      Whatever crimes happened in the USSR, they happened in time of plurality of political discourse:
      from the 1920s, as reported by the anti-stalinist eyewitness Victor Serge, through the 30s and 40s as ‘reported’ by present-day establishment historian Robert Thurston. The problems of the USSR were much less about a “dictatorship” based on “blind faith,” and more about a class of upper-level administrators that were both abusive and hard to get rid of.
      As for the Jordan Peterson’s claim of forty million killed by Communism by the 1950s in a country of 150 million, it’s hard to understand how the plain, truth-seeking and bright Peterson can avoid being intrigued about its physical aspect: i.e. how could that country survive such a thing at all. Then, how it could finish that period with some outstanding achievements. As a psychologist, Peterson might be expected to be curious about the mind of a nation that accepts total brutality while developing Sputnik. Maybe it’s possible, but one has to wonder how exactly. And to wonder what’s with that nation today.

      On those matters, I’ve never noticed curiosity on his part.
      If reading a couple of famous novelists is an adequate way to study a nation or society, then let us all learn about the US through Melville and Hemingway/Steinbeck … exclusively.

      Similarly, Nazi Germany was plausibly less totalitarian than popularly assumed. Everyone knows, it switched to full war economy only in mid-1943. But Tooze says it matters not, so let’s leave that aside.
      George Kennan was living in Germany at the start of WW2. The nation’s mood, he emphasises, was more bohemian than militant.
      The Nazi war crimes were mostly Wehrmacht crimes, and the Wehrmacht officer corps was only one-third Nazi party members. You may say membership is irrelevant, what matters is the loyalty to an ideology. It’s tricky to between an expression of ideology and – simply mentality. … Instead of pointing to the dangers of Nazi and Communist ideology, and lack of strong institutions, how about pointing to dangers of German and Russian cultures that were so hospitable to those ideologies, and so adverse to strong institutions, and that breed dangers the civilized world as we speak. That’s at least more direct, more honest.

      sclmlw: If there’s anything JP claims that’s well-founded, I think it’s the point that societies lacking strong institutions of civilization and governance (more chaotic societies, in other words) are more susceptible to capture by totalitarian forces.

      In that respect, China has largely weak institutions and is indeed strongly totalitarian. Instead of producing mass poverty, it eliminates it faster than the West has ever done. Instead of collapsing or initiating war within a few decades, it continues for three decades in more peace than the West. Peterson is said to care about scientific truth. Here are observations that apparently run contrary to his theoretical views. If this were to happen to an astronomer, or physicist, it would have occupied the headlines.

      • mcd says:

        As for the Jordan Peterson’s claim of forty million killed by Communism by the 1950s in a country of 150 million, it’s hard to understand how the plain, truth-seeking and bright Peterson can avoid being intrigued about its physical aspect: i.e. how could that country survive such a thing at all. Then, how it could finish that period with some outstanding achievements. As a psychologist, Peterson might be expected to be curious about the mind of a nation that accepts total brutality while developing Sputnik. Maybe it’s possible, but one has to wonder how exactly. And to wonder what’s with that nation today.

        Agrarian societies have absorbed great losses and come out of the experience with impressive technological advances; see the Middle Ages, or the Great Leap Forward. Even if his numbers are wrong the way you insinuate, that actually doesn’t make a difference to his arguments; they don’t rely on a particular number of tens of millions of corpses.

        On those matters, I’ve never noticed curiosity on his part.
        If reading a couple of famous novelists is an adequate way to study a nation or society, then let us all learn about the US through Melville and Hemingway/Steinbeck … exclusively.

        Literature in this case is useful for conveying the horror and the psychology of the situation; Peterson has read plenty of Western literature as well, even if you don’t count Jung.

        • Levantine says:

          Literature in this case is useful for conveying the horror and the psychology of the situation; Peterson has read plenty of Western literature as well,

          If he had read anything by sovietologists after the 1993, he would have stopped talking about tens of millions of deaths at that time. He just shows he’s read the Black Book of Communism. It’s a crappy piece of historical literature. History promoted to the masses has always been, and is, instrumental to political interests.

          Agrarian societies have absorbed great losses and come out of the experience with impressive technological advances;

          The historical examples you name are true, and delightful. They differ from the USSR. The USSR developed and rebuild itself exactly during the time the demographic losses happened. It did so arguably faster than China. At the time it suffered its greatest demographic losses, in the 1940s, the USSR was just a half an agrarian society.

      • SaiNushi says:

        “As for the Jordan Peterson’s claim of forty million killed by Communism by the 1950s in a country of 150 million”

        His response to that is “how many tens of millions of deaths do you need to be against this? even if it’s ‘only’ 10 million, that’s still too many!”

        Also, 110 million people left is still a whole hell of a lot of people. I don’t see a problem with imagining a country being able to recover quickly with that level of population, assuming they’re allowed to make their own choices instead of the government micro-managing their lives.

        • Levantine says:

          His response to that is “how many tens of millions of deaths do you need to be against this? even if it’s ‘only’ 10 million, that’s still too many!”

          The problem with this is that one can apply similar criteria to say how “capitalism was responsible for tens of millions of deaths.”
          The simplest example requires just taking a look at India. If you wish for a sophisticated- sounding argument, here is the American economist Michael Hudson (2016): “A research team from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York estimates 875,000 deaths in the United States in year 2000 could be attributed to social factors related to poverty and income inequality. … After the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, death rates soared, lifespans shortened, health standards decreased all throughout the Yeltsin administration, until finally President Putin came in and stabilized matters. Putin said that the destruction caused by neoliberal economic policies had killed more Russians than all of whom died in World War II, the 22 million people.” (link)

          If one wishes, one can argue that Christianity was responsible for the Thirty Years War, the Taiping Rebellion, and so on, and is therefore responsible for tens of millions of deaths.

          And one can argue that lack of Christianity is responsible for tens, or hundreds of millions of deaths through abortion.

          Also, 110 million people left is still a whole hell of a lot of people. I don’t see a problem with imagining a country being able to recover quickly with that level of population, assuming they’re allowed to make their own choices instead of the government micro-managing their lives.

          Well, it happens that the widespread assumption is that the Soviet state DID micromanage their lives.

          On the other hand, some anthropologists and historians have adopted a different view: Carroll Quigley, 1976: “Even in a society where it looks as if all power is in the hands of the government — let’s say, Soviet Russia — still eighty percent, at least, of human behavior in Russia is controlled by internalized controls which were socialized in them by the way they were treated from the moment that they were born. And as a result, they have come to accept certain things which allow the Russian state to act as if it can do anything, when it obviously can’t.” (link)

      • In that respect, China has largely weak institutions and is indeed strongly totalitarian. Instead of producing mass poverty, it eliminates it faster than the West has ever done.

        China maintained mass poverty for decades while other poor societies, most obviously Taiwan, were eliminating it—and in the process starved tens of millions of its people to death. It was only after Mao died and the society was able to become much less totalitarian that it produced the astonishing growth rate of the post-Mao period.

        • Levantine says:

          Yes, I should be more precise: At the start of the China’s reforms around 1980s, China’s institutions were weak. Fast forward 10 years: you can read in literature of the nineties (example) that China’s institutions are still weak, that the Chinese officials are deeply incompetent, and conservative, and interested only in keeping their power. And the experts drew pessimistic judgements about China’s development future. That was wrong. It follows that the thesis of good, strong institutions as the basic prerequisite for development … is wrong. It also follows that the thesis of totalitarianism being a response to weak institutions is wrong. The general trend in China is that both totalitarianism and weak institutions have been gradually diminishing. I’m not going to comment on why.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        As for the Jordan Peterson’s claim of forty million killed by Communism by the 1950s in a country of 150 million

        Where did he say this?

  13. nameless1 says:

    >It’s disappointing that nobody frames it this way: “Inspiring things should be taken as a work of art and not judged on their truth value”. Instead, it’s always some formulation like “Inspiring things are true in a way different from the way factual claims are true”, at which point I have to interject that truth is a useful word and insist on defending its “factually correct” meaning.

    Suppose Scott considers going on an arm-wrestling match with someone, betting $100 on it. Before deciding whether to do this or not, with the rational (most human, most evolved) part of the brain what he needs is a factually correct prediction which one of them is stronger. But once he already committed to to the match, he is best off if all the bystanders chant “Scott you are stronger!” before and during the match. He will not rationally believe it, but will believe it with a different part of his brain, less evolved, more primal, where this belief will make him feel all pumped and confident, resulting, as far as I can tell, different hormonal release, blood pressure etc. helping him to actually exert more force and win the match. See also “pep talk”.

    So you should always believe factually correct claims with the rational part of your brain. You should sometimes believe factually incorrect inspiring things with… another part of your brain.

    Can’t we define “true” as “things we should believe, because such a belief is useful”?

    Isn’t it the point of words and beliefs to inspire action? If words A and B inspire the same action is all circumstances, they mean the same thing, functionally, if you see words as code programming flesh robots, and why not see them so. Well, sometimes you should not believe inspiring falsehoods so it means sometimes they are not true, but you get the idea.

    An AI may be a pure prediction machine but your brain is not. The predictive part of your brain should believe factually correct claims but other parts not necessarily so. Whatever helps them do their job best. It is factually correct input that makes the predictive part of your brain work best. But other parts?

    • J Mann says:

      Neil Gaiman said “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us they tell us dragons can be beaten.”

      False but constructive beliefs are interesting. I’m sure there’s a sequence for them somewhere. I choose to be an optimist about human nature because (1) it makes me happier and (2) given the way I implement it, it won’t cost me much if I’m wrong. I do think you have to ask both questions, though.

      • Doctor Mist says:

        given the way I implement it, it won’t cost me much if I’m wrong.

        Heh, I smell a hedge. Details?

        • J Mann says:

          Well, it doesn’t have a material difference. If someone cuts me off in traffic and swears at me, then after I’ve examined my own driving to see if it needs improvement, I think “Well, she must have some deep personal problems that are coming out in the way she dealt with me. I feel sorry for her.”

          On the other hand, if I have to loan someone money, I use the same Bayesian analysis of the risk that I would if I were a pessimist about human nature, I just assume that most people who don’t pay mean to pay and wish they could, but fall short because humans are fallible.

          I probably am a little nicer to people as a result of assuming that people basically mean well but fall short, but it doesn’t cost me much and as I said, I get a lot of personal peace from believing it, so AFAICT, there’s nothing in it for me to examine the belief any more deeply.

    • Bugmaster says:

      Isn’t it the point of words and beliefs to inspire action?

      No, the point is to inspire the action that is most likely to further your goals. The problem with hacking your mind so that you can believe whatever you want at will, is that it becomes difficult to discern which action would actually have the impact that you desire.

    • carvenvisage says:

      An animal in a fight to the death doesn’t need any ‘beliefs’ to amp itself up, their mind can naturally combined intent, focus, anticipation, etc, and process them without any need of propositional sentences. If we share 99% genes with monkeys, presumably this ability is native to us as well.

      I don’t doubt that ‘belief’ can be effective, but to me it seems like a stopgap middleman for the problem where someone doesn’t feel entitled (or something) to really let loose. Like if you don’t feel puff yourself up a bit you won’t feel high status enough, and will subconsciously hold back in case winning a fight you’re not entitled to will get you executed for making the duke’s favourite courtier look bad. In the short term it might be effective, hopefully allowing you to step into the arena with divine wrath rather than shuffle in with apologies, ..but as a long term solution it strikes me as quite tragic.

      I wonder if this is part of why so many gyms/dojos have such strong norms of deference to authority. Insofar as you’re training people not to hold back, -not to reflexively “hide their power level” (and also insofar as people who seek out places dedicated to fighting might be less prone to do so already), this might be counterbalanced by an internalised norm of deferring in, basically, most of the situations where not doing so has a realistic chance of harming you.

  14. Theodore says:

    I’m relatively familiar with Peterson’s oeuvre and I’d like to clarify two aspects of his thought that are somewhat regularly misrepresented.
    On his (un)belief in God:
    I don’t think Peterson is as far away from Lewis as is claimed. While he may not enjoy the palpable reality of God in the way that a true believer might, his “belief” in God is not restricted to a conception generated by pragmatic utility. He has speculated that the “metaphysical/archetypal and historical met in the figure of Jesus” – take from this what you will about his rational faculties; furthermore, firstly, he recognizes that embracing God purely pragmatically is an insufficient conception of God for the moral metastructure to hold, but more importantly, is very cagey when asked about his positive belief in God (What do you mean by “you”? what do you mean by “belief”? What do you mean by “God”?) and seems to indicate that he/we lack(s) the epistomological sophistication necessary to define “belief” in relation to “God”, and thus make the related propositional statements. At the very least, it is difficult to differentiate our language into various epistemological strata and he is thus uncomfortable making truth-claims about God in the same forum that speculation about the weather occurs.
    On his idea of “truth”:
    Even though he has identified himself with the American pragmatists and refers to his theory of truth offhand as pragmatism – and he undoubtedly uses pragmatic concerns as a falsifiability tool – when he elaborates on it he indicates that he assigns it more essential and metaphysical value. (I think he’s elaborated in discussions with Joe Rogan and Jonathan Pageau). I’m not entirely sure of the precise nature of his theory (is he?) but it’s more than pragmatic. With Sam Harris he mentioned his necessity for his propositions to hold across multiple levels of analysis, with others he’s claimed that the truth embodied in the Bible and other metanarratives is more fundamental than the type of truth that science yields without which we would have no mechanism to frame scientific discoveries – he may have even referenced Kant.
    He does seem a bit epistemologically confused since he has subjected the truth of science to pragmatic considerations (if we end up chemically wiping out the human race…) but when he engages with his epistemology directly he goes beyond pragmatism

    • Doctor Mist says:

      This reminds me vaguely of the story I read somewhere, possibly Tolkien’s biography, of how Lewis converted Tolkien. Paraphrasing:

      Tolkien: But it’s obviously an allegory.
      Lewis: Yeah, so what?
      Tolkien: If it’s an allegory, it can’t be true.
      Lewis: Yes. It can.

      He must have been pretty close to converted already, because usually overcoming a person’s objection to a claim doesn’t by itself convince them of the claim. But I’ve always found the story sort of charming.

  15. Carl Milsted says:

    Many people go to college to learn to parse difficult texts. It doesn’t matter how stupid the texts are, as long as they are hard to read. So study Plato, Marx, Heidegger, Derrida, Freud, etc. Someone who writes/talks clearly is clearly a dum dum.

    Peterson, by being “deep” and convoluted in his thinking gets a license to criticize the priesthood of Modern Indignation Theory denied to those who simply point out what should be obvious.

  16. J Mann says:

    I haven’t read 12 Rules yet, but it’s sitting in my Kindle pile.

    Reading these comments, if you rephrase Petersen’s work as “Learn About 12 Crazy Hacks that Can Help Many People Accomplish More of Their Goals and Feel More Satisfied with Their Lives!!!!,” I’m not sure many people would object.

  17. therm says:

    I’m always confused by what people mean by having a meaning to their lives.

    It just seems like such a confused idea and yet it seems so important to so many people.

    I’ve always assumed that this is because at some level I’ve already filled that hole in my life with something other than what I’d call “meaning” and so it just makes me confused when people start trying to explain to me what they’re meaning by “meaning”!

    • J Mann says:

      If you don’t feel existential despair, that’s great! (I don’t either).

      But lots of people do – it’s upsetting to some people that they are going to spend their lives doing the same stuff as tens of millions of other people, then they will die, and everything they’ve accomplished will be forgotten and turn to dust, and the only variable is how long that will take.

      • 1soru1 says:

        At a guess, is the need for such a thing related to at one time believing something else, then coming to find that belief unsupportably false?

        Specifically, how many of those who find JP’s mythopraxis useful could be reasonably described as Christian atheists?

        • russellsteapot42 says:

          I feel like a lot of people on the conservative side of the fence are desperate for a language they can use to defend their traditional values that doesn’t rely on the often discredited idea of God being real.

          • J Mann says:

            Is existentialism really just adrift former Christians? I’m a current Christian, and many of us suspect that most other people are suffering from a lack of God, but a lot of it is based on reading Camus and watching people have mid life crises in dramatic movies, so I can’t rule it out that only former Christians (and I guess people who convert to religions) feel a lack of meaning in their lives.

          • russellsteapot42 says:

            From the stats I’ve seen, devout Christians and solidly-declared atheists tend to have about the same amount of a sense of ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ in their lives. It’s the people who sort of fall between, not coming to any clear conclusions, that tend to feel adrift in life.

    • nameless1 says:

      >I’m always confused by what people mean by having a meaning to their lives.

      Understanding the meaning of words, like “das Wetter ist schlecht” means understanding the intent of the other person, of what message he wanted to get across.

      So I think meaning is intent and having (instead of making) a meaning to our lives means someone else having an intent with our lives, basically God or some sort of mysterious fate.

      We may be directly atheists but indirectly still crave that. That a moment comes where there is a huge problem, like an asteroid about to hit Earth and you are the only one who can solve it and then feel like “yes, that is what I was born for, that is why I am on this world”, so you have your meaning. And it means even in the lack of a direct belief in God a certain feeling that some mysterous fate intended to create you for that purpose.

      When the existentialists came and said you gotta make your own meaning i.e. fill your life with your own intentions… well I suppose a lot of people liked that and I sort of envy them but I am not someone who could do it. Probably my depression. But I don’t intend things just on my own. Have some desires but they don’t feel too important because I think I am not too important and so on.

      Suppose depression is really widespread and in many cases the shrinks can only manage it, not fully heal it – true in my case, got cheerful enough but still feel like just doing my duties and then turning myself off and putting myself into a cabinet for the next days duties, like a vacuum cleaner, still have no motivations on my own that are not duties.

      So suppose we are suffering from a widespread illness of self-motivation. Self-intent, self-meaning.

      In that case we want someone else to have some sort of intent and goal with our lives. Hence searching for meaning.

      From a biological standpoint I never understood why are we supposed to have our own desires, motives, intents and if we do not, that correlates strongly with depression? I mean in Nature the danger of the environment motivates us to stay safe and get food. If you get that, if you are male, you lock horns with other males to earn the right to reproduce. If you female, you get pregnant and look after your offspring. That is really all.

      Well, I am well fed, too well. And very safe. And even managed to reproduce, but even I didn’t, well, most male mammal animals die as virgins, so that would still be well withing the normal.

      So I have what evolutions wants me to have. Why and how exactly should I have desires and motives beyond that? Why and how – biologically – do people who are safe, fed and maybe even reproduced (or having sex) have a passion for something like music? Just what in our biology, in our evolutionary process says that onces you did everything for passing on your genes, and in the animal kingdom that is hard enough, you should also be motivated for some extra stuff?

    • Baeraad says:

      There was a time when I was desperate for meaning. Now I’m not, even though nothing has really changed in my life. As near as I can tell, what happened was that I decided to fully and without reservation accept my own moral intuitions. To let myself believe that if something seems good to me, then IT IS GOOD, no matter what anyone else says. I have filled the cold, empty universe with my moral egotism! :p

      I do not entirely feel comfortable with the idea that the way to make your life feel meaningful is to remorselessly kill your sense of intellectual integrity and embrace your inherent egocentrism, but… it’s the only thing that’s worked for me, and I tried an awful lot of different approaches before arriving at that one.

    • shenanigans24 says:

      I think by meaning he means something like purpose. I don’t think you can escape the need for meaning. Everything you do is because you think it’s better than what you were doing. So among the set of things you can do are things that are better or worse then what you are doing.

      Things that are better are better for a reason in ones mind. You choose to do A instead of B because it creates a better you. You have some idea of what a better you would look like and you analyze your options and do the ones that are best for achieving that purpose.

      Meaning is so fundamental to being alive that I don’t think you can escape it. You can hand wave it but you still must continue living life and doing things as if those things have meaning.

  18. warrel says:

    I’m wondering if “meaning” and “motivation” have to be separated out. Or you have to ask whether they can be.

    Is it possible to be meaninglessly motivated? (maybe like a ‘busybody?) Or meaningfully unmotivated? (existential ennui, maybe?)

    It seems the idea is : in order to be motivated, you have to have meaning. But that means we’ve already decided that it’s good to be motivated, and bad to be unmotivated.

    So JP provides motivation to some people by providing meaning?

    Or do people need meaning , so become ‘motivated’ to seek it?

  19. honhonhonhon says:

    The ML quote piqued my interest. I read the paper but couldn’t figure out how their predictor-agent decides which actions are novel yet doable. The paper is pretty short but more likely I just didn’t get the math. Any takers?

  20. herculesorion says:

    That last Screwtape quote strikes me as profound, because it’s very descriptive of our times. We live in an era of magical thinking, of reasoning by contagion. Any sufficiently-advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and if you don’t understand how things work then “complex” is a good stand-in for “advanced”. All hail Science, whom we Fucking Love.

    • Bugmaster says:

      Yes, I was going to say something similar but you beat me to it.

      We live in an era of techno-wizardry that would make Lewis’s hair stand on end, and that is even assuming he was able to fully comprehend its scope. We are talking to each other by means of “a global network whose language is light”, as Penny Arcade’s Tycho says, and this monumental achievement is so commonplace that children are using it without a second thought.

      On the one hand, yes, the fact that most people treat our technology as magic is pretty bad — this is one of the reasons why nonsense such as Young-Earth Creationism is still around. But on the other hand, I’m kind of happy that we spent the last century piercing the mysteries of the cosmos and rendering them mundane, as opposed to sitting quietly in a corner and praying…

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        the fact that most people treat our technology as magic is pretty bad — this is one of the reasons why nonsense such as Young-Earth Creationism is still around.

        How does this follow?

    • nameless1 says:

      I used to understand how technology works, both engineering and software, up to the last few years. Understand a web server, no problem. But this AI-like Apple/Google Home stuff that understands your verbal questions like hey find me a recipe for baked potatoes, is able to parse the recipe site, read you aloud, how the hell can that work? How do you program that? You don’t, it is some sort of a software that learns on its own?

  21. Cecil Harvey says:

    Rather than try to resolve that, I would just note that “Jordan Peterson saying psychologically underdeveloped people shouldn’t get involved in politics” does not remove the least psychologically developed people from politics.

    Huh… this is something I arrived about a few years back on my own, and largely dropped out of political activism. Not just because I think my own house isn’t enough in order, but I more and more feel that the problem with modern politics is that too many people wish to exert their will on too many other people that don’t share culture, needs, preferences, and particular circumstances with the group doing the exerting. So a whole lot more humility and focusing on getting our own houses in order is due, from everyone. May as well start with me.

    I didn’t read Peterson, and I’m not much of a pragmatist. In fact, I read your review of him and am somewhat repulsed, as I see seeking truth as more important than feeling at ease with the world.

  22. Hitfoav says:

    I’m a little confused, from my position of relative ignorance, with the kerfuffle about truth.

    Scientific ‘truth’ is determined by what works (can be replicated, can be employed in technology). The more true the better the predictions or tech (Newtonian physics is not false/wrong/untrue, but less true).

    Wisdom or cultural truth is likewise determined by what works – what leads to better individual and social outcomes – with the truest being that which produces the most good across the largest possible timespan and sphere of concern (“seven generations”, “until the next apocalypse/Prophet”; “for the tribe/the nation/all humankind”)

    Perhaps the important wrinkle is that we cannot abstract out the time dimension of the human/cultural truth/wisdom – neither the extraordinary complexity of human systems.

    This is why history and tradition are indispensable (necessary but not totally sufficient). And for believers, why humanity stands in need of Revelation – a being/beings able to prescribe guidance based on a superhuman perspective. There will never be an equation for society, says I (deist projections on our future AI overlords notwithstanding).

    So: I dig the myth and religion angle, and thus can go a long way with Peterson. (I’ve also long-enjoyed Jungian ideas.)

    My counter-example is someone like Sam Harris, who despite his intelligence and eloquence, prioritizes certain approaches to human questions in ways that don’t appeal or make much sense to me.

    His determinism is not only “scientifically unprovable” in the same sense as any assertions about human questions, including Jung’s and Peterson’s and Christ’s (no equivalence suggested), and so shall it always be; but it also conflicts with my experience and is 1000% untenable as guidance for living. And Harris himself does not live by it or claim to as far as I know (please correct me if I’m wrong).

    For someone like me who thinks someone’s philosophy should bear out in their life, thus making their life a partial proof of their philosophy’s validity, Harris is thus, whatever I may appreciate about him, a no-go in the sense of someone whose fundamental ideas I could get really excited about.

    If Harris writes a book that I respond unexpectedly positively to, my review will have a somewhat similar tenor to Scott’s review of 12 Rules.

    As Scott said, it does indeed take all kinds – and there’s no accounting for taste.

  23. Silver V says:

    Scott, this is quoting myself posting my initial reaction to your previous post on Peterson. It is more bellic than I endorse, but I’m going to let it stand:

    Scott’s confusion here reminds me of his confusion about Trump’s Art of the Deal. He has some special kind of failure of modelling other people. He intellectually almost, almost recognizes it, but not quite.
    On the review of the Art of the Deal he says ” I think it’s the honest output of a mind that works very differently from mine. I’ve been designing ideal systems of government for the heck of it ever since I was old enough to realize what a government was.” and then he turns and disparagingly talks about “three hundred forty-eight pages are Trump gushing about the minutiae all of the interesting deals he’s been a part of” when that is precisely the point for Trump.

    Same thing with Peterson. He can’t understand why Peterson can pull off the prophet thing and hand-waves confidence, which is not what is happening at all. What is happening is that Peterson actually faced the depths of evil in him — and this is obvious from his demeanour, talks, and Maps of Meaning — and thus speaks with the power of someone who has. Scott hasn’t, he lives in intellectual system-builder la-la-land and so can’t even conceive of someone who has. Same way he fails to conceive of someone for whom this world and getting ahead in this world is all that matters.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      What is happening is that Peterson actually faced the depths of evil in him — and this is obvious from his demeanour, talks, and Maps of Meaning — and thus speaks with the power of someone who has. Scott hasn’t,

      I would call this unkind, but…spoiler for Unsong, at the end of the book even Scott’s Devil didn’t want to be evil.

  24. walkeredwards says:

    Has anyone actually completed any of Peterson’s Self Authoring programs? I got most of the way through Past Authoring and then stopped because I found dividing my life into separate “epochs” with each being characterized by three significant events incredibly difficult, even painful. Conscious recall of memories from ages 4-8 feels a bit like grasping at smoke and then losing track of which particles were there to begin with, and which you placed there yourself for obscure reasons of self-comfort or self-immolation, especially when recalling the memories for the explicit purposes of analyzing them and pulling out connecting threads of meaning.

    • laughingagave says:

      Not quite the same, but I tried doing self authoring and had a similar problem with both the past and present authoring segments. I decided on epochs alright (by collaging a bunch of photos into a kind of scrapbook), but then had a terrible time remembering particular experiences in any detail, and eventually gave up. Also, the particular experiences I could remember didn’t seem very significant — the significant part was how relationships unfolded, which was hard to encapsulate in particular moments of time.

      I suspect my narrative memory might be rather poor, though I’m above slightly average at remembering school sorts of facts. I was evangelical as a teen, and leaders were constantly asking us to talk about life changing experiences. I was always confused about it and felt rather left out. Maybe it’s like the visual imagination thing: some people probably do have much stronger episodic memories than I do, and assume everyone is the same. I do suspect my visual imagination is also rather poor, which is surprising because I’m good at visual arts and even teach them — but I very much need reference objects or photos in front of me all the time. I’m not sure if that’s related to narrative memory or not.

    • a reader says:

      I’ve just started Peterson’s Self Authoring program – beginning with the Present (Faults and Virtues). I chose 10 of my “faults” and 10 of my “virtues” (from long lists based on the Five Factors: Openness, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Neuroticism), but after I wrote about my first (and main) fault: “Often procrastinate”, I started to procrastinate Self Authoring writing itself – today I didn’t open it…

      I didn’t touch the Past yet, but almost surely I’ll have the same problem as you (walkeredwards) – my childhood memories became quite foggy. Should I start with the Future, maybe – is it easier to keep writing?

      Btw, as I said in other threads, I bought the promotional 2 for 1 suite and I want to sell the second username&password for half the price – 15 dollars via Paypal (a complete program: Past, Present and Future). I thought it wouldn’t be a problem to find someone to share the price of a 2 in 1 suite among so many Jordan Peterson fans here – but it seems that most fans are more interested in Jordan Peterson the culture warrior than in Jordan Peterson the psychologist.

      • Telminha says:

        gryzvaun@tznvy.pbz
        But I wouldn’t call myself a fan. Procrastination is my favorite hobby.

        • a reader says:

          I’ve sent you a mail – and a payment request via Paypal.

          I too wouldn’t call myself a Jordan Peterson fan – although I may become if his program really works and helps me improve my life.

          But I certainly am a Scott Alexander fan and if Scott Alexander considers Jordan Peterson helpful, I trust him enough to give it a try.

          I forgot to mention above, among the 5 Factors (that form the basis for the Virtues/Faults program) Extroversion/Introversion.

  25. melboiko says:

    > If you’re a conflict theorist, it might be awful – it decreases the number of troops available to the People in their struggle to overcome inertia and fight the Elites.

    The characterization of “conflict theorist” remains hopelessly alien to anyone who might actually worry about the kind of thing broadly described by the “conflict theorist” moniker.

    Here’s my insider’s rewrite of the above:

    If you’re a conflict theorist, it might be awful – it decreases the political participation of precisely those who are oppressed the most. The rule is a Reverse Robin Hood of power, taking power away from the powerless and giving it to the powerful.

    New-agey wibbly-wobbly self-development and Perfectly Ordered Homes are luxuries accessible proportionally to privilege. Rules like “Only Marie Kondo devotees who lovingly fold all their socks should unionize” are variants of the classic “only male landowning patricians can vote”, with the same prejudices behind it (“I don’t believe using your pronouns will do you any good in the long run” → “I don’t believe your protests will do your category any good in the long run” → “I don’t believe your folk governing yourselves will do you any good in the long run”). It’s not about “troops” or “inertia”, it’s about a principle that would actively consolidate structural injustice, cruelty and abuse.

    • brmic says:

      Thank you, I meant to make the same point but less eloquently.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Can you explain why my characterization of “conflict theorist” is alien to yours?

      You say that “it takes power away from the powerless and gives it to the powerful”.

      I say that it “decreases the number of troops available to the People in their struggle [against] the Elites”.

      The troop thing is metaphorical and just means “people who are participating in the political system and lending support to one side”. So substitute “powerless” for “people” and “powerful” for “elites” (which sound like more or less synonyms), and it sounds like we’re saying exactly the same thing. So how come you make it sound like I’m completely misunderstanding you?

      Re: the last paragraph – do you agree that there’s such a thing as being not a very mentally healthy person (not even on the medical model, just in terms of “doesn’t make any effort to achieve their goals” or “throws tantrums at the slightest provocation” or “blames everyone else for their problems” or “hates themselves and feels worthless”)? Do you agree that, although maybe poor people have more of these problems, they can happen among people of any race and class, even people who couldn’t be considered oppressed by any stretch of the imagination? I’m surprised you dismiss everything in the realm of character is “new-agey wibbly-wobbly self-development”, and I’m wondering if that was a cheap shot or if you’re working off of strongly held positions I don’t understand.

      • brmic says:

        not melboiko but
        In addition, to your phrasing which comes across as slightly mocking to me, the key difference (for me) is that you seem to be working off the assumption that those excluded are more or less missing completely at random. This to me is re-emphasized when you say that ‘maybe’ poor people have more of these problems, but they ‘can’ happen to anyone. I’d argue that it’s highly suspicious somewhone with your background (both education and work experience) writes ‘maybe’ where to the best of my knowledge the facts clearly and unequivocally require ‘without any doubt’.
        To me, the crucial bit is that I don’t consider the effect to be neutral, or slightly skeewed, but massively in favour of the currently powerful and your phrasing appears to me to be purposefully eliding that.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          Except the people Peterson is mostly addressing are not downtrodden workers attempting to unionize but western college students screaming about gender pronouns.

          Also, those people tend to hate the downtrodden workers, because the downtrodden workers did just engage in political action to elect Donald Trump so he could help downtrodden workers by enacting tariffs to protect their industries and build a wall / deploy the National Guard to the borders to stop the influx of cheap illegal labor from depressing their wages.

          The people Peterson is addressing are probably the most pampered, privileged individuals to ever walk the face of the earth and yet have convinced themselves they’re downtrodden and oppressed and the entire system needs to come tumbling down because somebody, somewhere, might be calling a pansexual dragonkin transmidget “she” instead of “xe.”

      • benwave says:

        Well I can’t speak for melboiko and I’m hopelessly late to the party as always, but I can pattern match it to something within my own insiders’ view of left political movements: It is a reasonably popular tenet on the left that active participation is a crucial part of political struggle – ‘a government for the workers’ is not sufficient, and is just a different form of oppression, it must be ‘a government of the workers.’

        So, then when people are taken away from the struggle, it’s not just that the ‘side loses troops’ but also that the side becomes less valid in its claim to speak for or represent those troops. It takes the ‘side’ as a whole further away from where it needs to be and makes it less democratic, independently of its effect on any battle/conflict.

    • Baeraad says:

      Yes, Scott does seem to have real trouble understanding this mindset, doesn’t he? I actually find it almost endearing how genuinely, innocently bewildered he seems whenever he talks about it. It’s like he just can’t understand why someone might not trust him to fix everything that’s wrong with the world, so he just vaguely assumes that it must be because they hatefully stereotype him as an “elite” and not as the nice fellow he really is.

      Well, I do think Scott is a nice fellow. But I don’t trust him to fix the world either. At the very least, the people he’s trying to fix the world for should have some means of getting his attention if what he’s doing is making them hurt more instead of less.

      I think that Jordan Peterson’s “set your own house in order first” sentiments do apply to a lot of pampered middle-class brats who really should spend a little more time working on becoming nice, and a little less time ranting online about how everyone needs to be nicer. But speaking as someone with a bunch of mental issues that absolutely disqualify me from being politically active in a world a la Peterson, I definitely feel that I want the ability to speak out when it looks like a bunch of neurotypicals are about to make some change that they might not even realise is going to screw me over.

      And applying that more widely, I don’t trust middle-aged men with successful careers and families and nice houses to fully understand, much less fully care about, the plight of the burnouts and the failures, no matter how compassionate they claim to be. People like Peterson need to be reminded that we exist every so often, because it’s all too easy and tempting for them to forget all about us – not because they’re evil, but because they’re human.

      • Toby Bartels says:

        I more or less agree with what you're saying, but I wish that you wouldn't talk about Scott as if he's not here. I understand that you didn't realize that Scott was writing a reply to the same comment as you were at the same time!, but it's still his blog, and he is known for reading the comments (as the existence of this post suggests).

        As you say, Scott means well, so saying ‘Scott does seem to have real trouble understanding this mindset, doesn’t he?’, especially right in front of him, comes across as diagnosing and insulting. At the very least, it discourages him from listening to you; it discourages me, and I think that you have a perspective that needs to be listened to.

        I suggest at least adding an aside that explicitly acknowledges Scott's implicit presence, such as ‘(No offence meant, Scott, I know that you mean well, but you seem to have a blind spot here.)’, assuming that you agree with that statement. (Scott, what do you think; would you have appreciated that?)

      • IrishDude says:

        And applying that more widely, I don’t trust middle-aged men with successful careers and families and nice houses to fully understand, much less fully care about, the plight of the burnouts and the failures, no matter how compassionate they claim to be. People like Peterson need to be reminded that we exist every so often, because it’s all too easy and tempting for them to forget all about us – not because they’re evil, but because they’re human.

        Peterson is a clinical psychologist who has helped treat burnouts and failures, so I think this critique is misplaced. Here he is, in the context of discussing inequality and poverty, talking about his clients that were drug addicts (at 18 minutes) and his client that had very low IQ (at 23 minutes), and the problems they caused.

    • J Mann says:

      Well, there are two questions that have factual questions:

      1) Would you yourself be better off personally if you spent a different fraction of your time working on your own life instead of politics, and if so, which direction makes you better off? (If you want, add a second axis with other non-political community activities like volunteering).

      2) Would society be better off if you changed your ratio, and if so, which direction makes society better off?

      I don’t know the answer, but I think it’s an important question to ask.

      For what it’s worth, I usually don’t vote in judicial or local elections. I’m not confident enough that I would improve the result and I don’t think that researching them is a good use of my time.

  26. AwaitingCertainty says:

    Dr. Alexander – Poetry is curative in impossible situations, the only thing that is (Jung mentions something on this order in “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” but in his case, facing a client, it’s a nursery or folk song that occurs to him, so, feeling he was prompted, that it welled up for a purpose, he sang it, and it worked). The comment I left in your 12 Rules review gives two examples from Jacques Lusseyran’s (true) story, “Poetry in Buchenwald” wherein poetry is curative in impossible situations, such as you mention in your review: your situation being the poignant (i.e. super painful) circumstance wherein you (and don’t we all, some time in life) find yourself unable to comfort a patient / client who is in an extreme circumstance; Buchenwald was an extreme circumstance.

    It was there that Lusseyran (1924-1971), at age 19 (and blind, but don’t feel sorry for him for that) discovered the power of poetry.

    I gave both stories (“Poetry in Buchenwald” and another great one, “Jeremy” – both from “Against the Pollution of the I”) to Jordan Peterson when my husband and I met him for a few whirlwind seconds 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 but it was pretty exciting – I put the stories in a manila folder entitled “Jordan Peterson – Refreshment Kit” :-).

    In my prior post I give two other instances from “Poetry in Buchenwald” of “curing” with poetry when one has no words of one’s own. But I wanted to give this instance too, contained in the beginning of the story. Here’s how it begins:

    “HEY, LUSSEYRAN! Wait up! Listen!”

    The hand of Saint-Jean, thin as a knife-blade, so eager that the bones vibrated like nerves, grabbed my arm. His voice became lower, graver, both angry and tender. He recited,

    I know all sorts of people
    Who are not equal to their lives
    Their hearts are poorly smothered fires
    Their hearts
    Open and close like their doors.

    The hand on my arm relaxed, let go, and begin gesturing in the air to an invisible witness.

    “It’s Apollinaire,” said Saint-Jean. “Apollinaire. He knew!”

    Already my wonderful friend had taken a step away from me. He stood up, lifted his arms. He seemed to have grown taller and to have learned something so essential and so urgent that he had to let me know about it immediately. Yes! It was as though he came bearing news – good news which was going to brighten our wretched lives. I listened to him intently.

    I know all sorts of people
    Who are not equal to their lives
    Their hearts are poorly smothered fires
    Their hearts
    Open and close like their doors.

    He recited the verse again, but with a stronger, more confident voice. This time it wasn’t necessary for him to convince me of anything. It had become obvious for me as well.

    Now he leaned against my shoulder, as if to make me turn about inside myself and examine the horizon with the new eyes he had just given me.

    “Apollinaire wasn’t thinking about us,” he said. “He was thinking about a prostitute, Marizibill. And yet, Lusseyran – !”

    There was no need for him to say anything more. I let him know I had understood. Or rather – I saw. I saw around us the ring of sharp rocks that closed off the road and these men, this multitude of men who were almost faceless and whose eyes open and shut without ever really opening. I saw the lines of prisoners who trudged toward the central square to report for work. I saw the cold, the hunger, the fear, all these things that we were not equal to – that were greater than us, too great for us. I knew that the first man I would bump into would not speak my language and would have none of my thoughts. And that for him I, in turn, would be an utter stranger.

    As for Saint-Jean, this man who ordinarily asked so many questions, who was so determined to see, to know, to arrive at a simple certainty, a final truth which could sustain him – he gave no further explanations, he sought no further.

    I asked, “How did you find these verses?”

    “They were there,” he said. “I have known them a long time. But it was just then, when I saw the big Russian, a Tartar, and those fifty other Russians who slowly made a circle around him and drew closer in silence and then, finally, threw themselves upon him with cries of hatred and scratched him, trampled him, killed him while nobody did anything or said anything and maybe didn’t even see anything. . . .Then, Lusseyran, I understood.”

    I know all sorts of people
    Who are not equal to their lives. . . .

    At this my friend made a great gesture with his arm as if to leave unspoken an unbearable thought. This thought had occurred to me in the same instant, and I too, had found it unbearable. There was this powerlessness of men, our powerlessness, in the face of the events of men’s lives, our lives! This was as frightening as the threat of perishing by fire. But Apollinaire had spoken this powerlessness. He had known how to say it in such a way that it no longer had the same face. It wasn’t any softer, but it was clearer. It began to be reclaimed a little bit, just enough to leave a little room in which to live.

  27. Big Jay says:

    Maybe aliens would view it as a tragic quirk of the human psyche that we have to conflate inspiration and truth.

    I don’t know about aliens, but aspies find it absurd that most people do this. You also tend to add tribal loyalty and social status into the mix for one big confused smoothie. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t likely to render the planet uninhabitable.

  28. Baeraad says:

    I am more and more getting the impression (from, admittedly, second-hand sources such as this) that Jordan Peterson’s whole thing is that he’s inching very close to saying straight out what has gotten increasingly obvious. Namely, that the whole conservative-ish/rationalist/anti-SWJ sphere isn’t actually concerned with the truth, or reason, or facts, or any of those high-minded things. What it’s about is THE MANLY ACT OF THINKING and how everyone has to respect THE MANLY ACT OF THINKING and pay reverent attention to those who engage in THE MANLY ACT OF THINKING.

    (to be clear: I think liberals are equally in denial about their true motivations. In their case, it’s THE WOMANLY DISPLAY OF COMPASSION that everything else is a pretext for. But that’s another topic)

    What Jordan Peterson seems to me to be saying is, “yes, so? We have to base a society around something, or else we get chaos, which no one wants. So why not base it around the general awesomeness of being a ruggedly intellectual, sophisticated manly-man?”

    And I admit that he’s got a point there. There have certainly been societies based around worse things.

    However, what he doesn’t seem to want to quite admit is that there are any number of ideals we could conceivably base a society around, and funnily enough he’s just happened to pick the one that puts him at the top. Back before liberalism descended into nitpicky madness, we had a pretty good thing going there – peace, diversity, welfare, a celebration of our culture’s noblest aspirations and achievements. It even had some echoes of Peterson’s “people aren’t allowed to talk until they’ve made themselves respectable!” sentiments, it just had a different idea of respectability that didn’t revolve around earning such-and-such amount of money per year and having plopped out 2.4 kids.

    I wonder what Peterson would say if someone presented him with a viable way to put sane liberalism on the throne? Would he be receptive to his own argument of “don’t question, just accept the purpose your society gives you” if that society was one where he had to play second fiddle?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I would ask you to give any evidence at all that rationalists aren’t interested in truth or reason or facts, or deserve to be lumped in with any of those other groups, even in the extremely speculative scenario that it’s a fair description of those groups.

      I feel like I’ve said pretty consistently that Peterson is wrong about his theory of truth, and that it’s important to keep “being inspiring” and “being right” separate. It sounds like you’re going from “Scott said he found Jordan Peterson’s inspirational writing inspirational-sounding” to “no rationalist really cares about truth or facts, just as no conservative really cares about truth or facts”, which is pretty…well…I’ll just say I’m interested to hear your justification.

      • Baeraad says:

        I wrote a long reply before I ended up floundering and realising that I didn’t actually understand the question. It seems to rely on some premises that I’m not clear on. Let me try again, taking that into account:

        My “evidence” for rationalists caring more about sentiment than about substance is that they are human beings, and it is my experience that human beings do that (something I thought that I made it clear). If you are offended by me “lumping in” rationalists with the rest of the human race, er… I don’t actually know what to say to that. I mean, to be clear here, is it your stance that rationalists are better than other people? I mean, I guess that sentiment (that rationalists are good and honest and reasonable, unlike all that other rabble) is always sort of floating around under the surface, and occasionally drifts into view for a moment, but are you really willing to state it that plainly? Because if so, all I can say is that I very strongly disagree with the notion that any group of people are meaningfully better than any other.

        As for the “lumping in” with other groups that you yourself have at times described as being “the Grey Tribe”… there I must ask the opposite question and say, is that a kinship you deny now? Because I didn’t think it was in doubt. Do you insist on being treated as entirely your own thing now?

        • Aapje says:

          Some ideologies are pretty clearly a lot better than other ideologies at getting the people who believe in those ideologies to do good things rather than bad things.

          I am honestly quite amazed that you are surprised that Scott might consider his own ideology better than other ideologies. Isn’t that something that human beings commonly believe?

          Because if so, all I can say is that I very strongly disagree with the notion that any group of people are meaningfully better than any other.

          So you believe that a group of social democrats are not meaningfully better than a group of Nazis?

        • uau says:

          If you are offended by me “lumping in” rationalists with the rest of the human race, er…

          This is a completely dishonest way to argue. You’re basically claiming that any group whatsoever can’t even in principle achieve any better-than-average ability (or actually you’re claiming even more than that, namely that they couldn’t even be concerned with something to any greater degree, whether they achieve more or not). You could use the same argument to claim that professional athletes are no more fit than a random couch potato, and so on. Yet obviously people can achieve higher levels of fitness.

          Because if so, all I can say is that I very strongly disagree with the notion that any group of people are meaningfully better than any other.

          I strongly disagree with your opinion. I consider it self-evident that for example people with severe dementia are inferior to most other groups of people.

        • J Mann says:

          My “evidence” for rationalists caring more about sentiment than about substance is that they are human beings, and it is my experience that human beings do that (something I thought that I made it clear). If you are offended by me “lumping in” rationalists with the rest of the human race, er… I don’t actually know what to say to that. I mean, to be clear here, is it your stance that rationalists are better than other people?

          With respect, I think jumping to “better” is confusing the issue a little. I think people are different on various axes. Examples:

          – On average, I think people who identify as sports fans are more interested in sports than people who don’t

          – I think the average mathematicians is better at math than the average non mathematician.

          – So it’s not out of the question that self-identified “rationalists” might be interesting in a substance/sentiment ratio that’s higher than the average non-rationalist. (Either because of their personal philosophy or from selection effects).

  29. Tom Paynter says:

    “I find the strongest argument against this to be the question of suicide. Peterson is against it, for vague cliched reasons.”

    One thing I like about Peterson is he takes the nihilism and the idea that life isn’t worth living seriously. His response to “wouldn’t it be better to kill yourself” “well, yeah, fair enough.”

    What he holds out as an alternative is the possibility that if we live as well as we can, taking on the challenges and responsibilities of life, just maybe we can mitigate enough suffering that our lives will be worth living. And maybe they can be more than just barely worth living; he’s fond of saying that “we don’t know the limits” of how good our lives could be if we stacked improvement on improvement, or how good the world could be if we all did that.

    I think his response to the question of suicide is, “Yeah, maybe you should. Are you ready to? No? Then why not clean your room, then do the next thing and the next, and see how it goes? Because the alternative to neither dying nor trying is to sit around in nihilistic, resentful meaninglessness, and that guarantees experiencing all the suffering of life, without mitigation.”

    Is that a cliche? Perhaps.

Leave a Reply