Posts Tagged ‘Jordan B Peterson’

After all this whinging about what Peterson has written it’s about time I tried to explain what it all looks like to me.

What do I think?

I’m not sure yet whether all I have said undermines his basic argument.

I am still struggling to articulate exactly how I would develop a model to bring it closer to what I experience as reality. In a way, I am grateful to him for having pushed me to think more deeply about this issue, even though I am uneasy about a basic aspect of his model.

Anyhow this is how my thinking goes so far. And in case any of you need to know I’m handing over the writing of this to my right-brain, which, when I have the patience to listen to it on such matters, is almost always right.

First things first. I firmly believe that labels, dichotomies and categories, when employed in the social or cultural field are almost always not only false, but potentially fatal. I am not saying this as a reward to my right-brain for having had the patience to let my left-brain bang on about everything it’s read on the subject for the last ten years. My left-brain believes it too, but can’t always act on it in the heat of the moment. It’s so much easier to slap a sticky label over the complexity of social experience: it makes deciding what to do so much quicker and easier.

So, you can see why I’m so uncomfortable when I feel that Peterson, in spite of all the good things he says, seems to be happily dwelling in the land of opposites. If he was distancing himself from the categorising tendency he ascribes to our interpretation of the world, instead of seeming to be contentedly identifying with it, I’d be more inclined to agree with him. Yes, he sees its limitations, but seems to feel that it is an inescapable feature of our perception of the world, one which we have to be aware of, and adapt to, even if we need to soften its hard edges, if we are to function wisely in the world.

He seems to have decided, perhaps not consciously, to live in the left-brain world of, to use McGilchrist’s words I quoted earlier, ‘language, logic and linearity.’ He doesn’t seem to entertain, at least in the first half of the book, the possibility that we could give more space in our perspective to the paradoxical and ambiguous take on the world of the right-hemisphere as McGilchrist describes it. This suggests to me that the part of his analysis, which contrasts chaos and order so definitively, is buying into the left-brain’s perceptual bias in favour of categories.

He does eventually produce an admission of the dangerous weakness of the left-brain approach (page 217):

The capacity of the rational mind to deceive, manipulate, scheme, trick, falsify, minimise, mislead, betray, prevaricate, deny, omit, rationalise, bias, exaggerate and obscure is so endless, so remarkable, centuries of prescientific thought, concentrating on clarifying the nature of moral endeavour, regarded it as positively demonic. This is not because of rationality itself, as a process. That process can produce clarity and progress. It is because rationality is subject to the single worst temptation – to raise what it knows now to the status of an absolute.

However, he reverts, in my view, to overstating the value of words again later (page 281):

The past can be redeemed, when reduced by precise language to its essence. The present can flow by without robbing the future if its realities are spoken out clearly. With careful thought and language, the singular, stellar destiny that justifies existence can be extracted from the multitude of murky and unpleasant futures that are far more likely to manifest themselves of their own accord.

An ‘essence’ or ‘stellar destiny’ of any kind is more elusive than that. Peterson’s lack of coherence in the presentation of his ideas sometimes allows him to believe that he can have his cake and eat it too. Believing language can accurately capture the essence of experience is one of the things that can lead to our succumbing to the temptation of believing that what we know is the absolute truth.

Again I need to acknowledge that an earlier discussion on genuine conversation (pages 253-56) illustrates how we can enhance our understanding by the use of words, rather in the same manner as I would argue can be done by consultation, in the Bahá’í sense of that word.

In addition, I must add that what the right-brain would see as beautiful, if we let it, comes to seem scary rather than promising when the left-brain dominates with too little restraint. As McGilchrist puts it: ‘This is much like the problem of the analytic versus holistic understanding of what a metaphor is: to one hemisphere a perhaps beautiful, but ultimately irrelevant, lie; to the other the only path to truth.’

Only when we refuse to categorise, and can rise to the challenge of absorbing the blending of parts that is reality, can we have any hope of accessing the truth. Not a possibility Peterson seems to recognise. Without linguistic analysis, he claims (page 282): ‘Everything will bleed into everything else. This makes the world too complex to be managed.’

I feel the right-brain can make a better fist of grasping the blended complexity of reality than he allows for. Einstein, after all, describes how he sensed the truths that he was groping for, at first as almost kinaesthetic shapes in his mind or as a kind of music: ‘If… I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music.’

In consequence, I even think that not just our social world, but developments in modern post-Newtonian science are forcing us to accept this as a fundamental characteristic of reality. Flux, unpredictability and ambiguity confront us the more deeply we seek to penetrate below the surface of our world. Machado captures this brilliantly when he says: ‘cambian la mar y el monte y el ojo que los mira’ (sea and mountain change, as does the eye that sees them’ – quoted in Xon de Ros The Poetry of Antonio Machado, page 5). If we refuse to let the way we see change, we will never see the world as it is, only as we think it should be. Seeing the world more as it is may be scary, but it’s not chaos, and it need not be dangerous.

One thinker quotes convincing evidence to confirm that this fluidity and chaos underpins not just quantum matter but our biology as well. Jonah Lehrer writes in Proust was a Neuroscientist (page 47):

Molecular biology, confronted with the unruliness of life, is also forced to accept chaos. Just as physics discovered the indeterminate quantum world – a discovery that erased classical notions about the fixed reality of time and space – so biology is uncovering the unknowable mess at its core. Life is built on an edifice randomness.

It seems we can’t escape it.

What needs to change is our attitude to what our analytical mind, with its fixation on the maps it already has, finds disturbing. If we can trust our flexible right-brain intuitions more, what is new to us will feel less scary, and we will also tune in earlier to subtle shifts in the familiar, which are telegraphing imminent change, in a way that will help us deal with it more effectively. What I am striving for a lot of the time is to let my right-brain lead when I have to process complexity. After that, I need to integrate what it shows me into my left-brain maps without distorting or discounting anything essential.

Much of our way of seeing, when we use the categorising tendency that Peterson both critiques and yet accepts as somehow inevitable, creates avoidable problems, even becomes toxic, lethal. More of that in a moment.

I am not convinced that replacing categories with dimensions will in the end be a completely satisfactory way of interpreting the world. For a start it’s hard to use the difference between the known and the unknown as ends of a dimension anymore than to see it as indicating two categories.

I have concluded, as I explained earlier, that knowing/unknowing are not identical, as Peterson seems to think, with chaos and order, which I am also saying may not be so easily distinguished either. This is because knowing and not knowing are characteristics of consciousness. The diagram on the left attempts to express that relationship.

The dotted line around the edge of the known indicates my sense that the boundary, if there is one, is at best fluid. How do we deal with the forgotten – what was once known, is now not consciously remembered and yet almost certainly subliminally influences how we see the world and how we react to it?

The dark area around the outer circle is meant to represent where physical consciousness of any kind ends – death if you like. Even this needs a dotted line, I think, given my belief that physical consciousness is not all there is. As I have explored that at length elsewhere, I’ve decided not to go there in this sequence which is already long enough, and I have to keep my left-brain quiet long enough to finish even this much.

If we accept for now that thinking in terms of dimensions is legitimate, there are at least two categories of dimension active here, within the zones, if that is the right word, of knowing and unknowing. One concerns perceived reality, which stretches along a dimension relating to order and disorder between the extremes of order on the one hand, which can become tyranny, and on the other of chaos, which can be creative. The other dimension concerns the preference pattern of the mind that interacts with those perceived possibilities: among many other possibilities, in addition to the holistic and analytical I’ve already touched on, there will be risk-takers and risk avoiders, as Peterson makes clear he is aware towards the end of his book. Please hold in mind my fundamental scepticism about the need to accept that we have to split reality up, either in terms of order/disorder or degrees of risk taking, whether as dimensions or categories. Let’s accept for now that they hold good up to a point.

A risk-taker will delight in what they experience as the excitement of what the risk-avoider will see as the dangers of chaos, and conversely will feel stifled by the perceived order a risk-avoider thrives in.

It is important to note that perception is indeed an unavoidable mediator of all these interactions between reality and consciousness. I don’t think Peterson attaches sufficient importance to the flexibility of perception, and even fails to consider the possibility of its using dimensions rather than discrete categories. Nowhere that I’ve read so far does he deal with the possibility that we could potentially transcend even dimensional thinking when it is necessary to do so, either because it ceases to be useful or becomes potentially dangerous. Left-brain perception is his default mode, just as much as it is that of our culture. The rich potential of right-brain perception, in spite of the value he clearly sets on myths (reduced though to his left-brain interpretations of his selection from them), doesn’t really feature.

Why should we exert ourselves to go against our left-brain tendencies? They’ve lifted us out of the middle ages. Why can’t they lift us further?

That’s a complex issue, parts of which I’ve addressed at length elsewhere on this blog in terms of altruism, compassion and civilisation building.

In the light of the various references I quoted in the earlier two posts in the context of why human beings can perpetrate such evil, I’m going to focus briefly on why labelling, a left-brain temptation with emotional consequences, is so toxic.

Graph of the Model that states Psychosis is on a continuum with Normal Functioning (Source: The route to psychosis by Dr Emmanuelle Peters)

I have worked for more than thirty years in mental health. I have seen at close quarters the costs and benefits of diagnostic labels. Yes, getting the label of schizophrenia will open the door to the benefits system and give you access at least to some form of drug treatment. But drugs are a double-edged sword as I have discussed before. One edge can, if the patient is lucky, cut through the tormenting ropes woven around the mind by derogatory voices, but the other edge all too often clouds any clarity of thought and stupefies the mind. The diagnosis also carries, as so many labels do, a heavy weight of social stigma, which all too often more than outweighs any benefits. It’s far better, in my view, to look at the person as a whole, and tackle the more complex question of what these so-called psychotic experiences mean, and where their roots are in the felt life of the person.

Other labels are often at least as bad if not worse: abnormal, disabled, backward, black, unclean, alien, outsider, mad, cockroach, sewer rat, immigrant – the list is potentially endless.

If we see ourselves as in the normal, able, white, clean, insider, sane, human, legitimate citizen category, we can smugly comfort ourselves that we deserve all the good things we have whereas these people don’t and perhaps even couldn’t. It’s very cosy. It gives us no motivation to change anything. It even justifies to us in our own minds taking steps to protect what we are and what we have from ‘contamination’ or destruction, even if that means harming other people perceived as coming from any of those completely false categories. It wouldn’t take long, given the right circumstances, to tipple over into enthusiastic eugenics or even forms of genocide. We can see these toxic options unfolding around us even now.

Using only our left-brain analytic mind it is hard for us to experience the world except in such categorising ways. Yet, experiencing the world holistically is exactly what we have to do, especially in terms of our perceptions of our fellow human beings, and also the life-world around us. Labels won’t work if we’re going to survive. We are interconnected. In fact we are in essence one family, even one huge multi-minded entity. Only by operationalising this insight can we transcend this problem. And I think, from the evidence I’ve quoted earlier in this sequence, it’s not just Bahá’ís that see it this way.

View of the Terraces above the Shrine of the Báb on Mount Carmel, Haifa

We believe that this will not be an easy vision to bring into reality. The Universal House of Justice, our central body, wrote in a letter to Bahá’ís of Iran (2 March 2013 – my emphasis):

The rejection of deeply ingrained prejudices and a growing sense of world citizenship are among the signs of [a] heightened awareness. Yet, however promising the rise in collective consciousness may be, it should be seen as only the first step of a process that will take decades—nay, centuries—to unfold. For the principle of the oneness of humankind, as proclaimed by Bahá’u’lláh, asks not merely for cooperation among people and nations. It calls for a complete reconceptualization of the relationships that sustain society.

The bar is raised very high, as the Universal House of Justice explained to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the Shrine and Terraces project there on 24th May 2001:

Humanity’s crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionizing principle will increasingly empower individual believers and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to the Day of God and to the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

Not for nothing do they describe it as the work of centuries, and Paul Lample, clarifying this is not just the work of the Bahá’í community, writes (Revelation and Social Reality – page 48):

Generation after generation of believers will strive to translate the teachings into a new social reality… It is not a project in which Baha’is engage apart from the rest of humanity.

The diagram at the bottom of this post seeks to represent the magnitude of the task we face, moving as we must from the self-centred and short-term processing our bodies are programmed for, to the transcendent vision of our ultimate goal, far in the future though it may be, of a united humanity working together in harmony.

We acknowledge that religion has been and sometimes still is an obstacle in the path. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, anticipating by at least six decades Robert Wright’s caveat quoted in the first post, made it quite clear that ‘religion must be conducive to love and unity among mankind; for if it be the cause of enmity and strife, the absence of religion is preferable.’ (Promulgation of Universal Peacepage 128).

Treading this long and difficult road will involve resolving conflicts within us as well as between us. Most of us are still divided selves, as Bahá’u’lláh indicated (Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 163):

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union. The Great Being saith: O well-beloved ones! The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.

And the way forward, we believe, lies in recognising a higher and inspiring source of value that will help us lift our game in a way that can be sustained over centuries. For us that is God (From Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 76):

Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

For others, such as Rifkin, it is awareness of the supreme importance of preserving our planetary homeland.

Whatever the source of our inspiration, it has to bring the warring selves within us into harmony before we can create a truly peaceful world. Whatever the value is that we find, it has to be a very powerfully motivating one, but essentially benign nonetheless. It must not replicate the self-righteous crusading we can still see around us, which believes that if you are not for us we can kill you.

A commonly used phrase captures an important aspect of this vision: unity in diversity. It allows for perceived differences within an essential unity, but does not fossilise them or make them an excuse for discrimination.

I am fairly sure that Peterson would not disagree, at least, with this sense of our common humanity, and the imperative need confronting us to recognise and act upon it. Because he comes from a Christian perspective, I’m sure he would recognise the importance of God as well.

I hope I have not been attacking a straw man in all this. Even if I have, I hope I managed to avoid placing him in a separate category of human being from my more enlightened self. In many ways he seems to have thought more deeply than I have about whole aspects of this problem, and I owe him a debt of gratitude for forcing me to think more deeply about my own model of the world.

Oh, and in case you hadn’t realised, his book, 12 Rules for Life, though its over-assertive and somewhat divisive in tone, confusingly organised, very left-brain in most of its language and at times testingly macho in style, has flashes of insight that might make it worth reading despite all I’ve said, even though I abandoned it before finishing the last chapter. Before going out and buying a copy it might be worth reading someone who has had the patience to wade through far more of Peterson’s prose than I did and probed more deeply into the problems and challenges his perspective creates. Nathan J. Robinson concludes at the end of a long critique:

. . . since Jordan Peterson does indeed have a good claim to being the most influential intellectual in the Western world, we need to think seriously about what has gone wrong. What have we done to end up with this man? His success is our failure, and while it’s easy to scoff at him, it’s more important to inquire into how we got to this point. He is a symptom. He shows a culture bereft of ideas, a politics without inspiration or principle. Jordan Peterson may not be the intellectual we want. But he is probably the intellectual we deserve.

‘You finished now?’ I hear my right-brain snap. ‘Can we get back to the poetry again please?’

‘I guess so,’ my left-brain sighs wearily. ‘This last lot was all your idea though!’ it growls, trying to fight back, but in the end can’t be bothered. ‘I’m too tired to argue after scribbling your stuff down for so long. I’m not doing this again though. Take my word for it.’

My right-brain smiles quietly, thinks ‘Fat chance!’ but says nothing.


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Having done a helicopter view of my reading about what pushes us into evil action, now I must tackle Jordan Peterson’s approach to all this.

What exactly is my problem, given that so much that he says resonates with so much that I have read and come to believe? Maybe he doesn’t carry my understanding any deeper, but why do a step back from endorsing his viewpoint where it matches?

I have to say I am struggling to define this exactly. It’s more a gut feeling in some ways than a fully articulated critique.

I don’t like his rather over-confident and somewhat dogmatic style, it’s true. But it feels as though it’s something more than that. What I’m going to say is the closest I can get for now. I hope to put more effort into tackling it more carefully later, but at the moment my right-brain more poetic side is getting fed up with what it experiences as my left-brain yet again hijacking the plan to spend more time on spiritual poetry. So after this rough and ready attempt to pin down my problem with Peterson’s approach, I plan to pick up the threads of my exploration of Antonio Machado.

Concerning Peterson, I think it is largely because I have some difficulties with his fundamental premise. I’m concerned that his perspective might be like a tower of pennies standing on a bent coin at the bottom. It feels as though it could topple over at any moment. I cannot quite trust it even when he seems to be saying something I should agree with. I need to get a better grip of it.

Order and Chaos

The premise he seems to operate from at times is the dichotomy he detects between order and chaos, equating the former with masculinity and the latter with the feminine (pages 40-42):

Order, the known, appears symbolically associated with masculinity (as illustrated in the… yang of the Taoist yin-yang symbol). This is perhaps because the primary hierarchal structure of human society is masculine, as it is among most animals… Order, when pushed too far, when imbalanced, can also manifest itself destructively and terribly.

. . . Chaos – the unknown – is symbolically associated with feminine. This is partly because all the things we have come to know were born, originally, of the unknown, just as all beings we encounter were born of mothers… As a negative force, it’s the impenetrable darkness of the cave and the accident at the side of the road.

… Elkhonon Goldberg … has proposed quite lucidly and directly that the very hemispheric structure of the cortex reflects the fundamental division between novelty (the unknown, or chaos) and routinisation (the known, order).

For a start I feel there may well be two misattributions or confusions here, even before we dig more deeply: yin-yang and masculine-feminine.

Richard Wilhelm, in his introduction to the I-Ching (lxvi), tackles the issue of linking yin/yang with feminine/masculine, he writes:

To the disappointment of such discoverers it must be said that there is nothing to indicate this in the original meaning of the words yin and yang. In its primary meaning yin is “the cloudy,” “the overcast,” and yang means actually “banners waving in the sun,” that is, something “shone upon,” or bright… Thence the two expressions were carried over into the Book of Changes and applied to the two alternating primal states of being. It should be pointed out, however, that the terms yin and yang do not occur in this derived sense either in the actual text of the book or in the oldest commentaries. In the Commentary on the Decision the terms used for the opposites are “the firm” and “the yielding,” not yang and yin.

Wilhelm goes on to say that ‘change is conceived of partly as the continuous transformation of the one force into the other and partly as a cycle of complexes of phenomenon, in themselves connected, such as day and night, summer and winter.’ It is all subject to the universal law of tao.

As long as we disconnect the link Peterson implies between the left-brain and masculinity and the right-brain and femininity, I’m happy to accept the idea that the former deals with the known and the latter with the unknown. Iain McGilchrist sees this as one of the characteristic distinctions between the two hemispheres (The Master & his Emissary – page 40): ‘… in almost every case what is new must first be present in the right hemisphere. … The left hemisphere deals with what it knows.’

I don’t propose to dwell at any length on the way Peterson ignores the evidence that there have been matriarchal societies. I will accept that we have currently inherited a long tradition, going back millennia, of pragmatically successful and enduring cultures that are male dominated. I also accept that over all he does see some positives in chaos, such as creativity, and a downside to order, in terms of resistance to necessary change and overcontrol.

On Ditching Dichotomies

What bothers me most of all is what appears sometimes to be his investment in the reality of this dichotomy and his understanding of its nature. I’m with McGilchrist when he writes in his introduction (page 11): ‘It has been said that the world is divided into two types of people, those who divide the world into two types of people, and those who don’t. I am with the second group.’

Peterson doesn’t seem to see it that way. Plausibly, but I think mistakenly, he writes (page 43 – my emphasis):

We eternally inhabit order, surrounded by chaos. We eternally occupy known territory, surrounded by the unknown. We experience meaningful engagement when we mediate appropriately between them.

I need to quote also from Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief to capture his full sense though:

Unprotected exposure to unexplored territory produces fear. The individual is protected from such fear as a consequence of “ritual imitation of the Great Father” – as a consequence of the adoption of group identity, which restricts the meaning of things, and confers predictability on social interactions. When identification with the group is made absolute, however – when everything has to be controlled, when the unknown is no longer allowed to exist – the creative exploratory process that updates the group can no longer manifest itself. This “restriction of adaptive capacity” dramatically increases the probability of social aggression and chaos.

In 12 Rules for Life he expands on this (page 38 – my emphasis):

Chaos and order are two of the most fundamental elements of lived experience – two of the most basic subdivisions Being itself. But they’re not things, or objects, and they’re not experienced as such. Things or objects are part of the objective world. They’re inanimate; spiritless. They’re dead. This is not true of chaos and order. Those are perceived, experienced and understood… as personalities . . .

Because 12 Rules for Life is written in a somewhat unsystematic way, with different chapters dealing with different rules rather than having a progressive and consistent analysis of his overall view in some logical fashion, it’s hard to be sure I’ve really grasped his core point correctly yet. Because my other half, as I have said, wants to get back to Machado, I’m reluctant to tackle his much longer book Maps of Meaning even so.

Why does his approach trouble me? It’s partly because he looks as though he has assumed that we only apply the word chaos in a deeply negative sense to what we don’t know. This makes two mistakes, it seems to me.

I’ll make my definition of his first mistake concretely.

Chaos is not inevitably the death at the side of the road, any more than Order is sweetness and light. Order was also the organized slaughter of the Holocaust, just as chaos can lead to new insights and new beginnings. While he seems to acknowledge this possibility in some places the dogmatic certainty of his language in other places seems to ignore it. Both the known (order/the firm) and the unknown (chaos/the yielding) can lead to the negation we call death, of which we are understandably terrified, but they are intrinsically neither negation nor death in themselves.

Now for my sense of a second mistake on his part, which I realise may be simply nitpicking but I can’t shake it off as it feels important to me.

Even more of a problem for me is that I am not convinced that we perceive order and chaos as two distinct categories. I think we can just as easily see them as at opposite ends of the same dimension, and many of us do.

Moreover, I am not convinced either that they are coterminous with the known and the unknown, something that I will be coming back to in more detail in the final post. What we know or do not know, as he realises, is to do with a subjective dimension, and the familiarity of what we know can lead some of us to feel comfortable and safe, whereas the unfamiliarity of what we do not know makes many of us afraid. There are many people for whom the converse is also true: order is suffocating and to be avoided at all costs, and chaos is exciting and to welcomed whenever possible. These subjective states will occur in ways that map onto chaos or order when we have correctly identified those objective conditions. However an order that we do not recognize as such because it is unfamiliar will frighten us, just as a chaos that we fail to see as such might leave us feeling safe. Things are possibly more complicated than his model seems to allow for.

Two examples of one aspect of that will help here, I think.

The incipient chaos that climate change is brewing went for a long time completely unrecognised. Similarly the native inhabitants of a volcanic region can sense the impending chaos of an eruption to which incomers are completely blind. Some people still refuse to accept the reality of climate change in the defensive manoeuvre we call denial: that is not quite the same thing as being completely oblivious to impending or actual chaos.

Again I think that later in the book he clearly acknowledges this aspect when he writes (page 266):

Imagine a loyal and honest wife suddenly confronted by evidence of her husband’s infidelity… One day she sees him in a downtown cafe with another woman, interacting with her in a manner difficult to rationalise and ignore. The limitations and inaccuracy of her former perceptions become immediately and painfully obvious.

Her theory of her husband collapses. However, the spread-out nature of his argument across so many different rules, discussed in so many different chapters, makes it hard to grasp his overall perspective coherently: you have to pick up on and blend complementary aspects of his argument divided across so many pages.

When I have visited China I have encountered a parallel but not identical problem in that culture – where we experience order as chaos: a simple example is the traffic in the big cities. Those who live there seem able to detect an order and predictability that allow them to know when and how to cross the road which is invisible to me when I am standing on the corner of the junction of two dual carriageways and am clearly expected to cross diagonally. I see chaos in-between me and the opposite corner of the junction: the locals calmly navigate across to the other side. I am sure that on a larger scale an immigrant struggles to make sense of a new culture as a whole, and it takes some considerable time before the pattern underlying what looks like chaotic nonsense begins to emerge. Order is experienced as chaos. This point he does not seem so aware of.

When we stare into the complex chaos of the economic and political system some of us believe we can read it accurately, even when this is impossible, as Kahneman has demonstrated. He investigated where the border falls between what we can and what we cannot predict (Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow – Kindle Reference 4339-4347):

If subjective confidence is not to be trusted, how can we evaluate the probable validity of an intuitive judgment? When do judgments reflect true expertise? When do they display an illusion of validity? The answer comes from the two basic conditions for acquiring a skill:

1. an environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable

2. an opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice. . . . .

Physicians, nurses, athletes, and firefighters . . . face complex but fundamentally orderly situations. The accurate intuitions . . .  described are due to highly valid cues that the expert . . .  has learned to use. . . In contrast, stock pickers and political scientists who make long-term forecasts operate in a zero-validity environment. Their failures reflect the basic unpredictability of the events that they try to forecast.

In this context it is interesting to note that many civilisations have chosen to found themselves in danger zones such as near volcanoes and close to shifting tectonic plates that trigger earthquakes. The reason for that, apparently, is the soil fertility near volcanoes and the useful or valuable metals and minerals more readily available in earthquake zones.

This illustrates that chaos can be productive, so productive in fact that it sometimes compensates for the risk of trading with it. I think it is a mistake though to completely conflate the disruption of chaos with either creativity or death. It has the potential for either, but is simply a profound disruption of an existing order or a complete absence of obvious order, making it feel unpredictable and potentially dangerous, though sometimes worth plunging into at the risk of death as the rewards could make it worthwhile.

A pause for breath now. In any case my left-brain is getting pretty fed up of finding words to express my right-brain’s perspective. More on this next time.

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Last time I described my quest to understand our penchant for evil acts, including what might help us get past this fatal flaw, and what drew me to buy and start reading Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life.

Before I begin to tackle his exact contribution to this quest, I need to summarise the key ideas I’ve gleaned from those who are his forerunners in my investigations. My right-brain has agreed to this because I can pull most of this in from previous posts so it won’t greatly delay its desperately needed return to poetry.

Our Moral Imagination

Robert Wright in his book The Evolution of God argues that in evolutionary terms we are being forced to expand our sense of common humanity ever wider if we are not to face destructive challenges.

He states (page 428):

The moral imagination was ‘designed’ by natural selection . . . . . to help us cement fruitfully peaceful relations when they’re available.

He is aware that this sounds like a glorified pursuit of self-interest. He argues, though, that it leads beyond that (page 428-429):

The expansion of the moral imagination forces us to see the interior of more and more other people for what the interior of other people is – namely remarkably like our own interior.

He rescues this from cliché by pointing out that the idea of common humanity may be a self-evident point when we read or hear it, but it’s far from obvious if you look at the way we act. This is because we are under the illusion that we are special (page 429):

We all base our daily lives on this premise – that our welfare is more important than the welfare of pretty much anyone else, with the possible exception of close kin. . . . We see our own resentments as bona fide grievances and we see the grievances of others as mere resentments.

He links the progress of humanity with the application of the unifying insight in daily life (page 429):

. . . . the salvation of the global social system entails moral progress not just in the sense of human welfare; there has to be as a prerequisite for that growth, a closer encounter by individual human beings with moral truth.

At the end of this sequence I will be exploring more fully the implications of this with the help of the diagram on the left. For now all I will say is that it will take a long period of time before enough of us to make a real difference shift from the ‘me now’ position to expanding the compass of our compassionate understanding so that it embraces the whole of humanity.

Writght feels that it is inevitable that we will either move closer to moral truth or descend into chaos (we’ll be coming back to that word again in much more detail later). He feels that (ibid):

. . . history has driven us closer and closer to moral truth, and now our moving still closer to moral truth is the only path to salvation . . .

by which he means salvation of the social structure. He feels (page 430) that religions that have ‘failed to align individual salvation with social salvation have not, in the end, fared well.’

Jeremy Rifkin, in his thought-provoking book The Empathic Civilisation, articulates an important caveat to any assumption that an increasing global culture will inevitably move us onward and upward. He adduces evidence to illustrate the role of entropy. We hit this forcefully almost from the start of the book (page 25):

If there were any lingering doubt as to how close our species is coming to the very limits of its sustainability on earth, a single statistic is revealing of our current state of affairs: our scientists tell us that the nearly seven billion human beings now inhabiting the Earth make up less than 1% of the total biomass of all the Earth’s consumers. Yet with our complex global economic and social infrastructure, we are currently consuming nearly 24% of the net primary production on Earth . . .

He then spells out what that means (page 26):

Our journey begins at the crossroads where the laws of energy that govern the universe come up against the human inclination to continually transcend our sense of isolation by seeking the companionship of others in evermore complex energy-consuming social arrangements. The underlying dialectic of human history is the continuous feedback loop between expanding empathy and increasing entropy.

In terms of Wright’s position, entropy notwithstanding, what we need to understand is what is blocking the process he describes of expanding the scope and range of our ‘moral imagination,’ or in my terms the compass of our compassion.

My very battered copy of this classic.

Our Objects of Devotion

In his attempt to understand the horrors of Nazism, Erich Fromm writes in his masterpiece, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, a dog-eared disintegrating paperback copy of which I bought in 1976 and still cling onto, something which deserves quoting at length (pages 260-61):

The intensity of the need for a frame of orientation explains a fact that has puzzled many students of man, namely the ease with which people fall under the spell of irrational doctrines, either political or religious or of any other nature, when to the one who is not under their influence it seems obvious that they are worthless constructs. . . . . Man would probably not be so suggestive were it not that his need for a cohesive frame of orientation is so vital. The more an ideology pretends to give answers to all questions, the more attractive it is; here may lie the reason why irrational or even plainly insane thought systems can so easily attract the minds of men.

But a map is not enough as a guide for action; man also needs a goal that tells him where to go. . . . man, lacking instinctive determination and having a brain that permits him to think of many directions in which he could go, needs an object of total devotion; he needs an object of devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings and the basis for all his effective – and not only proclaimed – values. . . . In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity.

The objects man’s devotion vary. He can be devoted to an idol which requires him to kill his children or to an ideal the makes him protect children; he can be devoted to the growth of life or to its destruction. He can be devoted to the goal of amassing a fortune, of acquiring power, of destruction, or to that of loving and being productive and courageous. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols; yet while the difference in the objects of devotion are of immense importance, the need for devotion itself is a primary, existential need demanding fulfilment regardless of how this need is fulfilled.

When we choose the wrong object of devotion the price can be terrifying.

Eric Reitan makes essentially the same point. He warns us that we need to take care that the object of devotion we choose needs to be worthy of our trust. In his book, Is God a delusion?, he explains a key premise that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry, including the secular variations such a Fascism and Nazism.

In Wright’s terms, if the compass of our compassion is set too narrow, and we only identify with a subgroup of humanity rather than with humanity as a whole, we’re doomed.

Idealism, Ideology and Mistaking our Maps for Reality

Once we have taken that fatal step into mistaken devotion we are in the danger zone of idealism. Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

McGilchrist’s contribution towards enriching my understanding of this issue is in his profound interrogation of the negative impact of the dominant left-hemisphere’s processing on our thinking. The conclusion he reaches that most matters when we look at our western society is on pages 228-229:

The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates . . . . The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere that speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere. . . . which construes the world as inherently giving rise to what the left hemisphere calls paradox and ambiguity. This is much like the problem of the analytic versus holistic understanding of what a metaphor is: to one hemisphere a perhaps beautiful, but ultimately irrelevant, lie; to the other the only path to truth. . . . . .

There is a huge disadvantage for the right hemisphere here. If . . . knowledge has to be conveyed to someone else, it is in fact essential to be able to offer (apparent) certainties: to be able to repeat the process for the other person, build it up from the bits. That kind of knowledge can be handed on. . . . By contrast, passing on what the right hemisphere knows requires the other party already to have an understanding of it, which can be awakened in them. . .

On the whole he concludes that the left hemisphere’s analytic, intolerant, fragmented but apparently clear and certain ‘map’ or representation of reality is the modern world’s preferred take on experience. Perhaps because it has been hugely successful at controlling the concrete material mechanistic aspects of our reality, and perhaps also because it is more easily communicated than the subtle, nuanced, tentative, fluid and directly sensed approximation of reality that constitutes the right hemisphere experience, the left hemisphere view becomes the norm within which we end up imprisoned. People, communities, values and relationships though are far better understood by the right hemisphere, which is characterised by empathy, a sense of the organic, and a rich morality, whereas the left hemisphere tends in its black and white world fairly unscrupulously to make living beings, as well as inanimate matter, objects for analysis, use and exploitation.

Group Dynamics

There are also social facilitation, group difference and status differential effects. Take, for instance, Zimbardo’s perspective, which is rooted in the study he initiated at Stanford University. Student volunteers were divided randomly into two groups: prisoners and guards. It did not take long for the guards to descend into abusive behaviours that meant the study had to be halted before serious harm was done. From this, and after examining the behaviour of American troops at Abu Ghraib, he came to disturbing conclusions about human behaviour in situations that steer us towards evil. He feels strongly that good people can do bad things, not necessarily because they are bad apples who should bear full responsibility for their crimes, but because they are placed in a bad barrel that rots them. More than that, it is too simplistic to then blame the barrel for the whole problem. The barrel maker has to take his share of the responsibility. Corrupt systems can corrupt good people. Only the minority in his experience are able to resist.

The power of such influences is reinforced by Haidt’s idea of the hive effect.

Haidt, in his other brilliant book The Righteous Mind, comes back to our need to belong and to the role of religion as one of the main ways we meet that need. Haidt discusses this at some length in his book and what he says is both fascinating and critically important (page 247):

Why do the students sing, chant, dance, sway, chop, and stomp so enthusiastically during the game? . . . From a Durkheimian perspective these behaviors serve a [particular] function, and it is the same one that Durkheim saw at work in most religious rituals: the creation of a community. A college football game is a superb analogy for religion.

How does he justify that apparently bizarre statement? He feels the fundamental effect is the same (ibid.):

. . . from a sociologically informed perspective, . . . a religious rite . . . . pulls people up from Durkheim’s lower level (the profane) to his higher level (the sacred). It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are “simply a part of a whole.”

Being ‘part of a whole’ can have an unacceptable price, though, as I will explore next time.

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How to live: Peterson’s self-help book, 12 Rules for Life, is offered as ‘an antidote to chaos’. Photograph: Phil Fisk for the Observer

Last Monday I read about an intriguing interview with Jordan B Peterson on the Guardian website. Given that I have recently stated that spiritually oriented psychologists are almost as rare as the Phoenix, I may have to eat my words. Peterson may say some things I don’t quite agree with, but more often that not what he says about giving life meaning resonates strongly with me. I think I will have to buy his book. I can hear my shelves groaning with the weight of that thought. [I have now bought the book and my views are expressed in a short sequence starting in March.]  Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

It is uncomfortable to be told to get in touch with your inner psychopath, that life is a catastrophe and that the aim of living is not to be happy. This is hardly the staple of most self-help books. And yet, superficially at least, a self-help book containing these messages is what the Canadian psychologist Jordan B Peterson has written.

His book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is an ambitious, some would say hubristic, attempt to explain how an individual should live their life, ethically rather than in the service of self. It is informed by the Bible, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung and Dostoevsky – again, uncommon sources for the genre. . .

Peterson’s worldview is complex, although 12 Rules makes a heroic attempt to simplify it into digestible material. It might be encapsulated thus: “Life is tragic. You are tiny and flawed and ignorant and weak and everything else is huge, complex and overwhelming. Once, we had Christianity as a bulwark against that terrifying reality. But God died. Since then the defence has either been ideology – most notably Marxism or fascism – or nihilism. These lead, and have led in the 20th century, to catastrophe.

“‘Happiness’ is a pointless goal. Don’t compare yourself with other people, compare yourself with who you were yesterday. No one gets away with anything, ever, so take responsibility for your own life. You conjure your own world, not only metaphorically but also literally and neurologically. These lessons are what the great stories and myths have been telling us since civilisation began.”

. . . “It’s all very well to think the meaning of life is happiness, but what happens when you’re unhappy? Happiness is a great side effect. When it comes, accept it gratefully. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable. It’s not something to aim at – because it’s not an aim. And if happiness is the purpose of life, what happens when you’re unhappy? Then you’re a failure. And perhaps a suicidal failure. Happiness is like cotton candy. It’s just not going to do the job.”

But how do we build meaning? By putting it before expediency. Which is quite close to simply “acting right”. Peterson believes that everyone is born with an instinct for ethics and meaning. It is also a matter of responsibility – you need to have the courage to voluntarily shoulder the great burden of being in order to move towards that meaning. This is what the biblical stories tell us. The great world stories have a moral purpose – they teach us how to pursue meaning over narrow self-interest. Whether it’s Pinocchio, The Lion King, Harry Potter or the Bible, they are all saying the same thing – take the highest path, pick up the heaviest rock and you will have the hope of being psychologically reborn despite the inevitable suffering that life brings.

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