Don’t be a follower of Jordan Peterson, be a thinker for Jordan Peterson -3-
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 to his ideas. Because I think Jordan Peterson needs more constructive criticism.
Nothing fascinates me more than the idea of free will. In recent psychological literature this idea got a serious hit. Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman demonstrated in “Thinking Fast and Slow” that most of our decisions are influenced by cognitive biases and heuristics rather than rational thinking. Jonathan Haidt in “The Righteous Mind” showed that our morality is part of human nature rather than careful ethical reasoning, post-hoc rationalisations are meant for the bühne, not actual reasoning. And then there is of course Sam Harris, who as a neuroscientist calls free will merely an illusion.
Peterson defending free will
On the other side you have someone like Jordan Peterson, who is a firm believer that besides biological and cultural determinism there is still room for individual consciousness e.g. free will in the equation. Peterson believes modern science simply lacks the tools to incorporate that in their models and theories (point taken). He dismisses mechanistic explanations of consciousness by Daniel Dennet out of hand (“You don’t do that!”) and rather prefers phenomenological explanations by Martin Heidegger (while not explaining why Heidegger’s explanation of consciousness is stronger than Dennet’s). He also makes an argumentum ad populum: because people believe free will is true, it should be considered to be true.
In another video, Peterson claims that societies who adopt free will as axiom prosper, while the causal relationship between those two is unfounded (there are probably many, many more important explanations, such as capitalism and scientific and technological advances). Peterson ends with again criticism of Dennet’s view and somehow makes the statement that consciousness needs to be a mystery in order for the mysterious potential to transform into actuality. It is bad reasoning all together. That’s not something I’m used to from Peterson and it kinda disappointed me.
Jordan Peterson defending soft determinism
Compare those two videos with one of his Biblical lectures (starts at 36:45 and ends at 40:05) in which he seems to turn 180°: your control over your consciousness is limited, you don’t choose your impulses or interests and divine power is used as psychological representation for the existence of several sub-personalities in all of us. Isn’t it that foreign interest drives us, possesses us, akin to a divine calling?
And then there is this lecture (starts at 02:15:40 and ends at 02:24:50), in which Peterson elaborates further on the existence of sub-personalities (voices) inside you. He believes that these are getting integrated during a child´s development (with the aid of external social forces) so you won’t go from laughing to crying in seconds (which babies do). But he also postulates two integrations to happen: one good side and one evil side (I think the latter would be akin to the Jungian shadow). What you do as an individual is to navigate between those two, and feed one or the other. That’s what the indivual thinks is free choice (or that is at least how it feels to him, even though he doesn’t understand free choice yet). Peterson thinks we listen to the voice that is in keeping with our fundamental aims (but we might feed the wrong side, making it ultimately dominant).
Peterson’s conflicting views
It seems that Jordan Peterson is jumping on two legs: he needs free will and independent consciousness for his existential philosophy. At the same time he knows psychologically speaking we are not independent, but puppets to external forces (in fact different internal parts of the self). You even might call it God, (but what about determinism?) but you should listen to it, or face terrible consequences.
I can be wrong in the interpretation of his words, but to me it seems like a huge inconsistency and a problem. It is literally a ticking time bomb and he needs to reconcile those two conflicting views, otherwise his life’s work will collapse. And yes, it is a matter of time before a person that is a lot smarter and more importantly, more influential, than me makes the same observation and totally discredits Jordan Peterson as inconsistent. That’s not something I want to happen.
Free will vs. determinism
I began with the conceptualisation of free will. Libertarian free will presumes free will is the ability to choose between two or more alternate possibilities. Libertarian free will requires that the choice is made independently. Ultimately, to meet that requirement, the choice has to made without causation.
As determinists believe everything has a cause, the will must have a cause as well. This means human agents do not exist in a vacuum, deciding independently. Human minds are part of the natural world and are subject to internal and/or external forces which can alter the probability of one choice over another. As a consequence of that, determinists reject free will. That’s roughly the impasse that existed since the ancient Greeks.
Determinism as process
I believe there are however several misconceptions about this discussion. Firstly, determinism should not be interpreted as predeterminism. Determinism is about the process, not the result. If there is some randomness in the process, the result will is still be determined but not predetermined.
Secondly, randomness does not mean free will, a random process is still out of control of an agent just as a fully predetermined process.
Thirdly, choices themselves are not infinite. Before you chose, a selection process has already filtered out most possibilities. One such filter is path-dependency: choices are causally linked and choices made earlier exclude some possibilities in the future. Choices are also limited in resources (time, space and matter), cognition (skills, knowledge and education), the laws of nature (physics, chemistry and biology, especially genetics) and outcome (aims, purposes and function). The latter means that you should consider it through various temporal and spatial scales (as Peterson explains from 52:30 till 54:00). That’s really hard and probably prone to error, but how often do people experience they did something out of necessity to avoid an adverse outcome?
There is a third way: compatibilism. Compatibilists believe that human agents should act based on their motives without coercion. This only invokes more questions. Should we interpret coercion as physical force or should we also include non-physical things like social conformism, advertising or soft nudging? Should we see it on a contingent basis (freedom from interference) or a structural basis (freedom of domination) (see republicanism what those mean)?
I think it is a matter of proportionality. However, compatibilism is merely a form of soft determinism, as you don’t choose your motives and it presumes you cannot restrain your impulses. You’re still a slave of your desires. Compatibilism is no solution for the true libertarian free-will adherent.
Restrained will and conscious awareness
Restraint, that’s the key word here. We are looking at it the wrong way. Rather than seeing the will as free, we should see the will as restraining. The will can filter impulses (or not). The question of free will is not: “Have I made a choice freely or unconstrained?” but “Do I have control over the choices I make?“.
Now, consciousness kicks in. A person needs to be consciously aware of the fact that their decisions are unconsciously influenced by other forces. Awareness does not mean: “I learned what cognitive biases are and from now I won’t subject myself to them anymore!“. No, it doesn’t work like that. Rather, I see it more as a sceptical attitude towards your own thoughts. You need to ask yourself: “Is doing this or that in my best interest or am I being played here?”.
You must be reasonable: you will not be able to do this all the time (in fact, for your sanity I strongly recommend you not to do it). If today, your decisions are 100% made intuitively, you can reduce it with consciousness training to 90%, maybe even 80% tops. That’s not a lot, but maybe those 10% to 20% of your decisions have life-altering outcomes so consciousness training is worthwhile.
Conscience and consciousness
It isn’t sufficient to be conscious, you also require a conscience. You need to know the difference between right and wrong. The social environment can help you with that. A community that values the cardial virtues (prudence, justice, temperance and courage), moral education, culture and arts, gives agents the tools to conduct an ethical life. It is what the Romans considered to be humanitas and the Germans refer to as Bildung. This by default presumes the need of a proportionate amount of social pressure by laws, financial stimuli and moral values (the classical stick-carrot-sermon).
Besides character development, you also need general knowledge of the world and the scientist’s way of life to make rational choices. Ignorance, rather than determinism, is the greatest threat to conscious individuals. Otherwise, being is the mere stumbling into the dark rather than a clear path towards your aims. Letting people believe in free will is akin to keeping them ignorant and makes them more, not less, susceptible to external forces. Even worse, ignorant people might believe that they do what they do based on their own volition. The fairy-tale of free will does them a disservice.
Restraining = suppression?
So far I emphasised how one should use consciousness to avoid making biased decisions. There is a potential pitfall in my line of thinking, which Jordan Peterson has mentioned in one of his lectures (starts at 01:27:00 and ends 01:31:40): the Enlightenment perspective that juxtaposes the mind from the body and that the purpose of the rational mind is to not be contaminated by emotions of the body (or that your rational thoughts should suppress your bodily emotions).
However, I must stress this is not my view. One should not use your own thoughts to struggle with your body. As Jordan Peterson, I accept that your mind can never be fully independent from your body. Objectivity is an honourable ideal, one that scientists and journalists should actively pursue for certain, but it cannot be achieved for 100%. I do not want to dismiss the striving of objectivity entirely as the postmodernists do, the choice between either 100% objectivity or not at all is a false choice. You should do what you can and hope for the best.
Another point that must be emphasised is not to ignore your emotions (or better said, your intuitions). Often, your intuitions are merely the gathering of inarticulate information you unconsciously perceived. Let me illustrate that with a personal story. I once met a person at university, who was friendly though overly familiarising towards me. Rationally, I knew there was nothing wrong with this person but intuitively, I found him creepy and preferred to avoid him. I followed my gut feeling, and I have not regretted that. He proved to be a very unpleasant person who in the end even scared his best friends off. Following only your rational mind has also its risks and you should take responsibility to what you listen to: your mind or your body.
Nature, culture, the individual and emergentism
While writing this blog, Jordan Peterson posted a conversation with Ben Shapiro and free will was one of the subjects (it starts at 06:29). Peterson talked about the existence of three components: nature (the great mother), culture (the great father) and the independent individual as a causal force with a choice. I feel this requires elaboration.
“(…) strong emergentism is that at a certain level of physical complexity novel properties appear that are not shared by the parts of the object they emerge from [the whole is more than the sum of it parts], that are ontologically irreducible to the more fundamental matter from which they emerge [reductionism is flawed] and that contribute causally to the world. That is, emergent properties have new downward causal powers that are irreducible to the causal powers of the properties of their subvenient or subjacent (to be more etymologically correct) base.”
“[Weak emergentism] is that a property is emergent if it is a systemic property of a system—a property of a system that none if its smaller parts share—and it is unpredictable or unexpected given the properties and the laws governing the lower-level, more fundamental, domain from which it emerged [e.g. chaos theory].”
The mind or consciousness is an example of strong emergentism (perhaps even the only example) and strong emergentism is as far as I know the only philosophical position of the philosophy of mind that can survive a naturalist’s onslaught, as well as being the basis for human agency. The only problem would be downward causal power of the mind. Without it, the mind is nothing more than an epiphenomenon (although such objections can be countered). I won´t elaborate further then necessary to make my point.
The philosophy of emergentism helps us to make the statement that due to its irreducibility, the conscious mind cannot be described with concrete objective materialistic terminology. Thus, it requires an entirely different plethora of linguistic tools: abstract subjective idealistic terminology. This creates a parallel universe of the idealistic world – next to the materialistic world – that is equally real as the latter but for which we lack the scientific means to observe it. You could even call it a spiritual world (in a non-theistic sense).
Four dimensions of being
Back to the distinction nature-culture-individual Jordan Peterson made. I see the world as a system, divided in various nested sub-systems. It is like a Matroesjka doll: you open the natural system or ecosystem, in which there is a social system or sociality, and further a human biosystem or body. This scale of organisation is accompanied by a spatial scale (from the universe till the subatomic level) and a temporal scale (past, present and future from eons till a billionth of a second). These form the three dimensions of materialism. I would add a fourth dimension: the systems itself produces an emergent “spirit”. The body has a mind, the sociality has a culture and the ecosystem has a nature.
Perhaps the “spirit” of nature is conceptually the most difficult to comprehend. It is different from the other one because it lacks agency. You can say our mind has agency and a collection of minds has agency, but you can’t say nature has that. Mother Nature seems to be a personification of the spirit of nature. So what will it be? Nature is more a state than a thing on itself. It is akin to what is called dynamic equilibrium or functional integrity. Take for instant a forest. It has various energetic and materialistic flows and interactions between the living and non-living components. The natural spirit of the forest however is not dependent on the individual trees or any other specific component. All other things being equal, trees may come and go but the forest remains.
Because the body and its associated mind is a semi-closed, physically delineated system, there is no point of keeping them separate and combine them into an individual (individual is etymologically derived from indivisible). So nature-culture-individual.
Spirit as the source of the sublime and transcendence
I deliberately use the word spirit as that’s how we psychologically view nature and culture. Alhought you could argue this is merely a product of our Agent Detection System, an encounter with nature and culture is like a spiritual/religious experience. Imagine standing inside a Gothic cathedral and looking up towards the sky-high clock tower. It’s difficult to resist a sense of awe.
The same thing happens when you look at a thunder storm. All of a sudden, you’re confronted with your own insignificance as Mother Nature’s most brutal forces rain down upon you. This sense of epic was called “sublime” by Edmund Burke. A similar experience is called by psychologist Jonathan Haidt as self-transcendence, and indeed, many religions purposely try to re-enact such feeling through meditation or psychedelic drugs.
I’m aware this is speculation though I feel that in our day-to-day life we do not experience the spiritual dimension. Occasionally though, we can reach a higher state of consciousness that allows our sensory systems to breach the fourth dimension. This experience is accompanied by a sense of lightness, being one with the universe and all-knowing. Haidt refers to Durkheim, who called us “homo duplex”, capable of living in the profane and in the sacred.
Although I agree with Haidt that self-transcendence can happen in large crowds and the function is to merge large groups emphatically, this doesn’t explain why nature may supply the same experience. Edward O. Wilson hypothesised that humans have a sense of biophilia, and that this was beneficial as it would sustain the environment humans are part of. Maybe our access to the spirit of nature is part of our biophilia.
Spiritualism as suprarealism
Nature and culture may be even more real and relevant than the ecosystem and sociality they emerge from. My first argument is substitutability: one can easily replace a part of the system without significantly altering its spirit. More precise: the amount of change of the culture or nature is a magnitude lower than the amount of change of its underlying system. Let me elaborate on this. Every day, numerous individuals die and numerous individuals are born. This constant change in composition of the sociality, the culture has little or no changing effects, those can perhaps only be noticed gradually per generation. That stability makes nature and culture everlasting and thus more real.
My second argument is scaleless: the existence of culture or nature is not predicated on the scale of the system, the scale of the system only determines the content, stability and complexity of the spirit. Whether the sociality consists out of 100 or 100.000.000 individuals, both have a culture. The replacement of one individual in both cultures however has a different effect. You can question if culture can truly “die” as in ceasing to exist. Yes, the composition of the sociality can change so rapidly that the culture before and after is entirely different in essence, but culture an sich didn’t die. That makes nature and culture immortal, and thus more real.
Free will and purpose
Back to the discussion between Peterson and Shapiro. The way Shapiro attached the concept of free will to the concept of telos or purpose and finality gave me food for thought.
Emergentism presumes self-organisation, an “invisible hand” that shapes natural order rather than intelligent design assigning everything with a purpose as the Greeks, Romans and Christians believed. The design is merely illusionary, because the interactions governing the system shape it that way. I fully believe that the watchmaker is blind (cf. Richard Dawkins) and any scientist cannot credibly believe in purpose in the sense of intelligent design.
However, the existentialist answer that all purpose is thus self-created, seems to me overly idealistic. That’s something Jordan Peterson learned me when he criticised Nietzsche’s idea that we can create our own values (from 02:25 till 06:40) as a result of the non-teleological world. Peterson responds with the phenomenological thinking of Heidegger: we don’t create our values but are lead by them and merely discover values within ourselves. Peterson doesn’t rule out there might be a process of co-creation (he doesn’t believe in hard determinism), but nature and culture constrain it.
The same concept can be applied to purpose. Through a coincidental recombination of your mother’s and father’s DNA, it produced the unique you with all the talents, desires and capabilities that come with it. Evolution is based on a bet: you have a variety of individuals that act out those talents, desires and capabilities, in the hope that your combination will survive and reproduce in a brutal, selective environment. It is a frightening notion: but we all stand on a pile of corpses of those who’s combination led to utter failure.
The realisation is that we live in an unfair world that doesn’t care about our well-being. Providence is not conscious care by some supernatural being or deity, but an inherited body of natural selection, shaped by the indifferent struggle for life. There is no grand plan, no deity to help us, nothing. Existentialists called facing this reality a meeting with the Absurd. Even worse, we humans are as far as we know the only species capable of experiencing this feeling of angst due to our more developed consciousness. Our consciousness makes that we have a choice: we can fulfil our evolutionary expectations, or we can reject them all together.
The latter means you will bitterly and resentfully wrestle with being you, like a modern Don Quichot. Undoubtedly, you will fail miserably and as a consequence, ruin or take your own life (or worse, other people”s lives). Our existence would be characterised by anxiety and suffering. The former means you can accept things being as they are, and try to make the best of it. You have your talents which nature has randomly given you and you should try to develop them further. You also have your flaws, which nature has granted you in a twist of pique, and you should attempt to rectify them or at least learn to cope. In return, nature rewards you with happiness (yay, you are increasing your chance of survival!).
That is as far as a Darwinist as myself can go to conceptualise purpose: the fulfilment of one’s talents and the mediation of one’s flaws. They are not a conscious choice, but are a gift of nature and circumstance. The job of the individual is to discover them. You can only bear this burden with strength, valour and courage.
Existence precedes essence?
If purpose is not self-created but merely discovered, this means that the phrase “existence precedes essence” of existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre is false. Better it is to state “essence and existence co-develop”, in such way that a clear cause-effect relation cannot be posited. What I mean is, that for every instance of essence or existence, you can argue for an existence or essence that precedes it in an infinite loophole.
Take for instant your DNA, there is nothing more essentialist than that. But that DNA is the result of the existential choices of your parents to mate (and a bit of luck). But those existential choices are founded on essentialist aspects of sexual attractiveness.
Not only regression in time, but also progression creates a loop. Your DNA, as essentialist as it may be, is influenced by the existence of your mother. If your mother is a smoker, alcoholist or drug abuser, the expression of that DNA and thus your development is predicated on those existential choices of your mother. But that inclination might be caused by other essentialist aspects of her DNA and so on.
Now, I’m well aware that I stretched the meaning of existence and essence. Existence and essence are used in a context of an individual with agency. A fetus being subject to toxic chemicals is not existence but rather essence of an environmental rather than a genetic kind.
However, this is where existentialists got it wrong. Existence and essence should not be seen from the referential perspective of the individual. Every individual is embedded in an environmental matrix of other existing individuals. This observation lead the personalists to believe there is no such thing as the individual that can be separated from other individuals. There are only persons who mutually influence each other.
The same problem is encountered with the concept of authenticity. Authenticity is often seen as the condition of self-making: do I succeed in making myself, or am I merely be a function of the roles I find myself in? Am I the author of my story or merely the reader? Commitment, autonomy and self-appropriation are also concepts linked with authenticity.
The notion that the world is divided in free-will possessing, autonomous individuals and the external, heteronomous deterministic environment, unnecessarily conflates existence with the former and essence with the latter. Existence for me is being a person while essence is the property of a person. Purpose for me means the alignment of being and property in a way that brings harmony to yourself and the world.
Meaning as the betterment of being
More importantly: you are not alone. You’re not the only wretched human on this planet who needs to find purpose. We have developed to social creatures with a sense of culture. You can contribute to the being of the group and generations to come. It can be grand as in some life-changing invention, or something small as in being a good person, parent and spouse. Death by anxiety is bad, but being forgotten at all is worse.
Religious believers often wonder how you can be ethical and atheist. They presume being ethical in life is nothing more than a ticket to heaven after death. Dennis Prager of PragerU only sees the purpose of the afterlife to punish wrongdoers.
There is nothing more cynical than that, and it’s nothing to brag about. They do not realise life is an opportunity to create heaven on earth, not in the utopian sense but in the existential sense. Your reward for pursuing your purpose is the betterment of being, and the reward is remembrance and honour. You can call this “meaningless” like Dennis Prager, but that doesn’t make this less real from a functional perspective.
I started this blog by laying out the very difficult conundrum of free will and determinism. My conclusion so far is that free will does not exist and determinism is a fact of life.
I understand Jordan Peterson is against determinism, as it can threaten his existential philosophy. I believe this is based on an incorrect understanding of determinism as some form of predeterminism. The difference between the two is consciousness: you need to be aware of the source of your thoughts and look at them critically. You need character development and knowledge to do this. However, do not think foolishly your rational mind makes the best decision, there are limitations on what you can consciously perceive.
But where does consciousness come from? I view consciousness as an emergent property of our collective neurons. I have identified emergent properties not only in our body, but also in our sociality and even the ecosystem, called culture and nature. I referred to emergent properties as “spirits”, but stripped them of any supernatural connotations. Spirit is merely a metaphor, part of the idealist terminology to describe what materialist terminology can not. I even argued that the spiritualist dimension is more real than the materialist dimensions. As our spirit meets the spirit of culture or nature, we can have something akin to a religious experience, which is referred to as the sublime or the transcendent.
I also discussed the relation between consciousness and purpose, rejecting the old notion of divine design but rather seeing purpose as the alignment of being and property in a way that brings harmony to yourself and the world. You do that by discovering, not creating, that which compels you, that which you excel in. At the same time you’ll find what detests you, and in which you will fail. Purpose is the fulfilment of one’s talents and the mediation of one’s flaws, although you didn’t chose either two.
Existentialists attempt to somehow make existence superior to essence. I stated this is based on a misunderstand of causality: you cannot claim one is superior to the other because they are both intertwined in an endless causal loop. Existence is being a person while essence is the property of a person. Both are necessary for making who you are.
Once you pursue that purpose in a forthright way, you will not only bring happiness to yourselves but also to others. In doing so, you make being less tragic and more bearable, and the reward is that your existence has made an imprint on life itself and in the memories of others. That’s what is closest to meaning you can get.
What I told regarding the constraining will, is very similar to that of the ancient Stoics (for blogs about Stoicism, volition, determinism and modern neuroscience: check this, this and this link). Lastly, I would also like to recommend this video of philosopher Alain de Botton, who gives an interesting alternative perspective to the free will vs. determinism conundrum.
I do hope Jordan Peterson dedicates more thinking regarding free will and determinism, as it is so central to part of his philosophy. I do not pretend that I solved the problem, or that my reasoning is flawless. I think it is a valuable contribution to the discussion, and one that addresses many objections against Jordan Peterson’s way of thinking you might have.
Meer over het Nederlandse Leeuw-event waar Jordan Peterson aanstaande virijdag de keynote speech houdt vindt u hier.