Don’t be a follower of Jordan Peterson, be a thinker for Jordan Peterson -2-
Jordan Peterson, either you love him or hate him. As an admirer of Peterson myself, I’ve hanged on every word he said. But this doesn’t prevent me from looking with a critical eye. Because I think Jordan Peterson needs more constructive criticism. Introduction
The second blog of my critical Jordan Peterson series (the first one is about his claims on campus ills and postmodernism), is about his Biblical lectures.
As an atheist, I find the Biblical lectures of Jordan Peterson fascinating. It reinvigorates my appreciation for the cultural roots of western society. I have always been interested in Christianity but I lacked a “translator” who could show me religious texts from a scientific viewpoint. Jordan Peterson is such a translator and it has changed my way of looking at religion and of looking at contemporary atheists, who all of a sudden look ignorant, childish, bitter and resentful. It certainly made me more critical of the New Atheist movement.
Emergence of religion
In one of his lectures, Peterson explains how religions form. Every religion starts from a behavioural substructure that produces general pro-social and evolutionary successful behavioural patterns. Which is why religions have so many similarities.
Next you’ll have the cultural practices predicated on it with firstly the (religious) symbolic representation of what this pro-social behaviour would be like. Symbolic representations are for instant a messianic figure (Jesus), the hostile brothers (Cain and Abel), serpents (the devil-in-disguise), a walled garden, etc.
On top of that lies the set of articulate religious propositions (the Bible) which then gets a philosophy extracted out of it (encyclicals for instant). Religions strive for coherence on all those scales of analysis. Peterson argues that the conscious part of religion (the philosophy and religious propositions) got debunked by science as factually untrue, but this doesn’t mean there is no behavioural truth in religion. That’s how he’ structured his Biblical lectures: showing the behavioural truth of religions, and with apparent success.
God as abstract ideal
In one of his very first lectures, Peterson put some fundamental presuppositions as the foundation of his psychology: the idea of God. His propositions are:
- Men are evolved to climb up dominance hierarchies.
- There are a set of characteristics or strategy that increases the chance of climbing up the hierarchy.
- Women peel men from the top of the hierarchy, so only winners pass their genes.
- Having watched men climbing dominance hierarchies for generations, humans became more apt in distinguishing good from bad men.
- The abstract extraction of the very best man out of the set of all possible dominance hierarchies is what we call God or the Messianic figure of Jesus.
In short: according to Peterson God is the central idea behind an abstract ideal.
Strategy or outcome? Objection #1
I can agree with that up to point 4. The peculiarity is that Peterson from there on switches from strategy to outcome. To me, it isn’t clear if Peterson looks upon God as the mode of being that is required to become the abstract ideal, or if God is the ideal being itself, and must be the central being one tries to join.
He seems to be switching between those two perspectives often. Peterson uses the former when he discusses the logos of Western society (roughly speaking the act of participating in a truthful dialogue) but he uses the latter if he presents God as a metaphorical judicial figure, because we judge ourselves on the basis of the abstract ideal.
From an evolutionary viewpoint, the former is preferable to the latter. Mainly because environments change rapidly and you are more flexible in your strategies than in your genotype.
As an organism, you want to have evolvability rather than adaptability. Otherwise you will go extinct. In fact, you can recognize a doomed species on the basis of its evolvability. For instant, the panda is very much adapted to eating only one thing: bamboo. As the panda became more specialised in eating bamboo, it can focus more on growth and as the panda grew larger, it has larger costs for reproduction. This works as long the environment supplies lots of bamboo. But if it would no longer panda’s could become extinct.
You recognise this pattern repeating itself across all evolutionary history. An organism starts small, finds a good strategy in a relatively stable environment, specialises itself in that particular strategy. Once it allocates more resources towards growth and competition than reproduction, and consecutively the environment changes rapidly, the organism shows to lack sufficient adaptability to cope, and subsequently becomes extinct. Mammoths? Very good for Ice Ages, very bad for warm climates. Megapredators? Very good if there is megaprey available, but at a loss when those disappear. That’s pretty much what happened 10,000 years ago.
Peterson has given me insufficient evidence that we as a species are more like panda’s and mammoths. This is my first objection.
God as ESS? Objection #2
Let us presume that God as an abstract idea is a strategy rather than an outcome. Imagine there are two populations of humans with two different dominance hierarchies. What will happen is a simple evolutionary game: migrants from one population mingle with the other population. If the strategy of the original population is better than that of the migrants, the migrant has no chance of success. In evolutionary game theory, the strategy of the original population is called an ESS or evolutionarily stable strategy. Vice versa, if the strategy of the migrant is better than the strategy of the original population, that original population will lose out. The strategy of the original population is not an ESS. So to determine whether something is an ESS, it has to pass the invasion test.
Peterson gives no insight whatsoever in the evolutionary game mechanics of his God theory, nor gives he any evidence that what he says is factually true. Yes, it could be that God is the meta-strategy, but it could also be that the Judeo-Christian God is simply one of the many strategies that could supersede all other strategies. Some evidence suggests the latter, as Christianity is by far the most successful religion in the world, extinguishing many religions it came into contact with (nobody believes in the Greek, Roman or Norman gods anymore). This is objection number two.
Comparative religious analysis? Objection #3
Neither does Peterson sufficiently take into account that the abstract concept of God differs between populations, differs within populations and differs in time. The God of the Israelites is not the same as the God of christendom today. If God was always the same fixed meta-strategy, then it would remain the same. How Peterson can reconcile this variability with his universalist claims, is a big question for me. I think he can’t.
That’s because God is not a meta-strategy but a strategy, one of many competing abstract concepts. Evolution is not a race towards some kind of finish line, to stop there. Nor do symbolic representations. I do not doubt humanity is striving to accomplish some kind of meta-strategy, the ultimate God. I argue that the process towards it is far from complete and humanity is still producing new and variable concepts of God to (a) fit into the ever changing environment and (b) win the endless struggle of life.
Peterson should shift his attention further towards a comparative analysis of religions, especially the two dominant (and colliding) monotheistic religions of the present day± Christianity and islam. That’s the present most important struggle, and to me it isn’t clear which one is best suited for our present environment. Peterson has stated before that he has not enough knowledge about Islam to judge it.
(To be honest, my take on Islam is that Muhammed was a charismatic warlord who used bits of Christianity and Judaism and made-up on the spot propositions to construct a new religion which sole purpose was to unite all Arab tribes and start a conquering rampage. Later scholars have expanded the religious practices, but it is artificial and Islam always risks regressing into the murderous expansionist ideology of its beginning. That’s what salafists and fundamentalists aim to do. Radical-right politicians like Geert Wilders are not ignorant (like some claim) of this, but are actually very aware of Islam’s roots and original goals. They refuse therefore to accept it as a religion.)
Anyway, it’s a big weakness in his theory. This is objection number three.
Other evolutionary pressures? Objection #4
Lastly, Peterson has focused so much on religion as a strategy for being, that he has neglected other evolutionary pressures that gave rise to religion. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt sees religion more as a binding tool for social groups within the context of a multi-level society. Although his ideas are controversial (most evolutionary biologists reject groups as units of selection), we can’t dismiss them out of hand either.
But what if I interpose a variant of Peterson’s argument: that the belief in God is in itself a selective mechanism? Imagine: you’re a prehistoric man living in small social groups. Probably, not accepting the religion of the group would squash any chance of having a dominant position in the group and at best women would stay out of your way. At worst, you would be cast out of the group and die a very lonely and painful death.
On the opposite end, someone who signalled their virtuous character (according to group´s religion) would accomplish a high standing in that tribal community, and reproductive success would be guaranteed. So religiously devoted men were assigned by other men to the top and woman peeled religiously devoted men from the top so only the religiously devoted men would reproduce. What I expect is that those who could identify genuine pro-social behaviour and had a keen moral sense of sacredness, will have an advantage over their peers.
I don’t claim that these signals have any relationship with actual behaviour. I’m not being cynical here, but I’m feeling my way around a new kind of theodicy. If living a life in alignment with being (so speaking truthfully) virtuous is evolutionary advantageous, why is there so much evil in this world? Peterson can state that liars don’t last long in the long run, but from an evolutionary point of view it is a statement that cannot be corroborated. Our bodies are merely packages for our genes. It could indeed be that some of the men are faking, but as long they could keep up the façade until they reproduce, their genes would be passed on.
Evolution tends to produce two strategies which are frequency-dependent: a dominant and popular one and a subdominant and rare but potentially highly rewarding one. Deceit is a very risky but very rewarding endeavour. So you would expect that over time, deceivers will improve their conning and manipulating other people, and the truthful have to keep up to be able to identify them. It is similar to a host-parasite co-evolution, but within one species. I believe this can be the evolutionary origin of sociopathy.
But here’s a twist: as deceivers climbed up the dominance hierarchy, there is no reason why they wouldn’t use that position for tyrannical purposes. Success would be fruitful. Peterson can say tyrant hierarchies are unstable, but that just misses the point. Roughly 8% of the men of the Central Asian region descended from Genghis Khan, probably the most tyrannical leader of human history. So if the social structure allows for polygamy (which is more often than we think), a tyrannical sociopath could have a lot of offspring before getting his throat slit. That’s pretty much a definition of evolutionary success.
Bottom-line is this: Peterson should include the social dimension of religion in his analysis, both cooperative and deceptive, not only the competitive dimension. That is objection number four.
All this objections considered, one might think Peterson is factually wrong. This could be and he’s well aware of it. But he might be functionally true, and that’s a kind of truth which is also important. Jordan Peterson gives us, theists and atheists alike, new tools to look at religious scripture differently, and appreciate the symbolism underlying our culture.
As Peterson stated, you can’t keep the culture but reject the underlying symbolism (as in the existence of a transcendental morality personified by the abstract idea of God) like New Atheists do. Our culture is therefor on the verge of collapse. If we don’t know how to reconcile the symbolic roots with science we may be doomed. That’s a devastating critique of atheism and as an atheist, I have not seen anyone (not even Sam Harris) refute that properly. The consequences of atheist hubris could have serious results because of this…
That’s why I believe as an atheist there is a transcendental morality, transcendent as in going beyond mere individual or communal beliefs, but grounded in existence itself. I believe humanity has tried to express it through literature, folk tales, fairy-tales and yes, religious scripture. I believe atheism should take religious scripture more seriously, going beyond the childish literalist readings. The Biblical lectures of Jordan Peterson are an essential contribution in the search for a transcendental morality, and should be considered as such.
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Dit essay verscheen eerder op De Mondige Student.