How Jordan Peterson helped me see that I should clean things

I’ve always been a messy person.  As a child, my military father would make me clean my room and do my homework.  But it never stuck.  I’ve struggled with organization my entire life.  Part of this is my Platonic nature.  I’m often more concerned with ideas than the physical world. At least that’s what I tell myself.  But recently I watched a video that actually changed my life.

In the short clip, Jordan Peterson explains very simply how our brain interprets things as either tools or obstacles.  He explains that for about five minutes.  When we see things out of place, we see obstacles. That does a number on our productivity.  It often makes me feel out of sorts, for example.  Tools, on the other hand, are things that are useful in our work.  Some degree of order is therefore a tool.  After his explanation, the good Dr. explains that this is the reason we should clean up our workspace.  Peterson had already been speaking my language, the language of ideas, science, and abstraction.  But then he connected it firmly to a very concrete thing: my workspace.

I’m not sure exactly how to explain this, but somehow that little bit of  commonsense has dramatically changed the way I function.  I now make my bed every morning, put away clothes after I wear them, clean up the kitchen and living room, and clean up my desk.  I even organize my days now with a tasklist, and I get most of the things done!  Anyone who knows me a smidge can testify that this is out of the ordinary for me.

I have continued my study of Peterson by reading his book, 12 Rules for Life, and even reading some of the books on his reading list.  He has expanded my understanding of this quest for order as a cosmic fight for the good, true, and beautiful.  And all this lines up perfectly with what the Bible says about our creation in the image of God as his stewards on the earth.  We’re here for order, creativity, and conservation of the good.  All of this ordering helps us begin to launch out into areas where we have never been before.  It can help us get a better handle on our very purpose for living.

How should we pursue equality?

Well-known philosopher, Harry Frankfurt, in his book, On Inequality, argues that extreme economic inequality is concerning because of its tendency to cause social unrest; yet he doesn’t think we should try to eliminate all inequality.  Instead, he argues that poverty is the major culprit that we should all agree to fight, not inequality itself.  But that’s not so much what I want to talk about in this article.  An intriguing part of Frankfurt’s book highlights the psychology of many crusaders for equality.  He points out that many equality justice warriors treat equality as an end in itself.  Yet, Frankfurt, like Immanuel Kant before him, believes that people are ends in themselves.  Mutual respect for the person should underlie any reasonable pursuit of equality.  Frankfurt argues that pursuing equality for its own sake can lead people into an inauthentic existence, to what the existentialists call “bad faith.”  It can lead, for example, to constant comparison with others; through envy we lay waste our souls, not to mention society at large.  Frankfurt argues that instead of this surface level envious pursuit of equality, we should take careful note of our gifts, abilities, nature, and context. Who are we? What are we? And what are we and other people able to accomplish in our current context?  If we do this, we will have a much savvier  perspective on how to advance both ourselves and others. If we do not start there, we can never have an authentic equality. The foundation for all this is always a respect for our shared humanity, along with knowledge of individual needs and abilities.  The answer is not always re-organization of society’s resources, institutions, and relationships as the cultural Marxists of today would have it.  We know from history, just as the book Animal Farm teaches, that even in “utopias,” some animals still be more equal than others.  I’m inclined to agree with Frankfurt that there are a lot of flakey pursuits of equality today that are not well-thought through, do not take account of nature, context, or ability.  Instead of shouting, we should learn through quiet reflection and study how we can make the world a better place.  We should look at the world in terms of respect for individual people, not merely social groups. And that also includes asking and answering the larger philosophical question posed by the agrarian essayist Wendell Berry, “what are people for?”

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Identity Politics

People’s sense of identity today is often thinner than a Victoria’s Secret model. Instead of the age old idea of using reason, common sense, and common ground to navigate conflicts of ideas, many think that the individual is just part of whatever group identity he aligns with. Postmodern theory even suggests that there is no common ground between group identities; all communication is lost in translation between groups. People are locked into their own psycho-socio-political-sexual-religious lenses and cannot escape. All we can do, supposedly, is coddle each other’s emotions and affirm each other’s chosen ways of life. Suffice it to say that this notion is self-contradictory and won’t help anyone bridge difficult cultural divides.

This notion that we are locked into a group identity and cannot get out is scarier than being trapped in a dream with Freddy Kruger. Think about it. If we are stuck in our own ways of thinking and cannot get out, then there is no point to ever attempting to change anyone’s mind. If it’s true, then you can’t change my mind about this topic, nor can I you. The group-think idea is also self-refuting. If it’s true that communication is locked within groups, then it is also false because this idea too is just another culturally bound idea. It’s like writing on the mirror “this sentence is a lie” with bright red lipstick. It may look sexy, but it just contradicts itself. If no groups can communicate, then we cannot even agree that no groups can communicate. We are left in the end with utter silence.

If no groups can communicate, then we cannot even agree that no groups can communicate.

Postmodern theory also leads to the quest for power. It’s just like the Lord Voldemort said to Harry Potter, “there is no good or evil, there is only power.” If the postmodern theory of truth is true (note the irony) then there can never be good things such as tolerance or peace. Because we are locked in our group identities, we are always confused by one another, and what we are left with is the struggle for power. Life begins to look more like a Monster Truck rally than an ordered or moral universe. In this theory, there is no pursuit of truth or virtue; we are left with students shouting down guest speakers that they don’t like. It’s more like a world resembling the movie Idiocracy. And let’s face it. We’re almost there.

It’s more like a world resembling the movie Idiocracy. And let’s face it. We’re almost there.

But another way this theory affects us is the facile and condescending quest to silence people from speaking about groups they are not involved in. So for example, some people start to squirm if we talk about policies in Islamic countries in a mildly negative light. The idea is that unless we are a part of a group, we can’t speak critically of them. Another strange example is when men claim ignorance about the issue of abortion because they are “not a woman,” as if it is only women would are allowed to have an opinion. But, you see, none of this follows if we are in fact not locked into our own group identities after all. We are influenced by cultural backgrounds, but that doesn’t mean we are determined by them. Sensitivity is needed, not silence.

Sensitivity is needed, not silence.

So while it is important to realize how our culture colors our view of the world, to make that into a barrier to truth yields an idiocracy in which none can speak publicly on anything of importance. If we are trapped into our group’s perspective, it leads to the quest for pure power, the dissolution of virtue, and the censoring of factual information about any group you do not belong to. So for all these reasons, we should chuck this theory out the window along with its brackish and filthy bilge-water. At the same time, let’s not forget that we are culturally and emotionally influenced creatures. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued that our reason and emotion are like a rider on an elephant. Reason is the rider. Emotion is the elephant. Emotion, influenced by our cultural backgrounds, is much stronger than reason. But that doesn’t mean we can;t train our riders and our elephants to function better together. With a well-trained rider and elephant, we won’t censure people for speaking of others just because they hold different group identities.

Quick Guide to Karma

Often I hear something like this, “It’s karma,” which appears to mean something like “what you do will come back around to you later in life.”  We hear this phrase everywhere from the grocery store to Radiohead’s song “Karma Police.”  A refrain in the song is, “this is what you’ll get, when you mess with us.”  All this is puzzling and a bit amusing because it is clear that westerners haven’t the foggiest idea what karma actually is.  What they mean when they use it is “you will reap what you sow.”  They have a notion that there is some kind of ironic, cosmic justice that catches those who do evil off guard and cuts them down to size.  Another layer of irony is that this idea has more similarities with the biblical narratives than with actual karma.  Let me flesh that out.

The biblical narratives teach that the transcendent and personal God is just and that he brings an ironic reversal on those who do evil.  God is working for justice in the world to lift up the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner.  One day God will put everything right in this world.

But karma in Hinduism (this is similar to how it is used in various forms of its cousin religion, Buddhism), is related to the idea that since forever ago there has been a wheel of good and evil, of death and rebirth (samsara).  This struggle has always been, and it always will be.  Karma is the principle that you will be payed back for evil and rewarded for good.  But that does not so much happen in this life.  According to karma, in this life, you are being repaid for good and evil of your previous lives.  Your next life will repay you for good and evil from this life.  The ultimate point of seeking enlightenment on Hinduism as well as Buddhism is escape from this cosmic wheel of misfortune.

So the irony is that when people say, “it’s karma,” they are implying either that the person did something wrong in a past life or that he did something now and will be payed back in his next life.  Another irony is that we westerners tend to be very democratic and egalitarian.  We don’t like aristocracy bossing us around.  But karma implies that various classes of society are the result of karmic justice.  This is why they have a Brahmin class in India along with the Dalit class, the untouchables.  An interesting book along this topic is Why I am Not a Hindu by a Dalit named Kancha Ilaiah.  In his book, Ilaiah exposes the many injustices of the caste system in India.

So next time someone tells you “it’s karma,” perhaps you should ask them, “what do you mean?  Do you mean that such a person has been reincarnated and is being punished for crimes of a past life?  Or do you mean that this person will be punished in a future life, perhaps by being reborn as a lower class?”  That might spoil the dinner party, but it would orient the conversation towards the question of real meaning.  And unless a conversation is oriented around meaning and truth, it’s just bullshit in the end.

 

Four Reasons Jesus was not just another Avatar.

Remember the movie Avatar?  Humans could use a computer to plug into these giant purple aliens and live through them.  This idea comes from the venerable and ancient religion of Hinduism.  It was claimed that God often manifested himself in physical form.  Sometimes this is as a man.  Sometimes it is an elephant or another animal.  These manifestations, called avatars, were not considered a permanent state for the deity.  They were temporary scenarios where God or a god was attempting to change the karmic imbalance.  God was trying to tilt the world back towards moral harmony.  In Christianity, Jesus Christ is God made man as well who came to save humanity from their lack of moral wholeness.  Can these two pictures be harmonized?  Many in our pluralistic age have sought to do this.  It is surely a tempting route to bring together all the world’s great religions.  Perhaps it could help us co-exist as the bumper sticker puts it. But is this harmonization really an intellectually or existentially satisfying explanation?  I’m voting no on this.  Here are four reasons why.

1. Jesus permanently became a man

In the Christian Scriptures, God did not simply appear as a man.  He was made man permanently. John 1:14 says that the Word, that is, the 2nd person of the Trinity, was made or became man.  Everyone is familiar with the Christmas story where Jesus is born of the virgin Mary.  He grows up like a regular person and lives as a man from cradle to grave, eating, drinking, becoming tired and so on.  Other than his miracles and profound teaching, he is an ordinary man.  Also, Christian theology recognized that he stayed a man after his death and resurrection.  He now is man forever, performing the role of a priest and intercessor for all humans.  I need not harp on the fact that Brahman, the one God of Hinduism does not continue to retain his human or animal forms.

2. God is radically different in both faiths

Jesus believed that God was personal, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present, loving, righteous, and good.  He often referred to God as “Father” and taught his disciples to do the same (Matt. 6).  It gets thicker though.  Jesus also claimed to be God in some sense, equal with the Father and yet having taken the flesh of a man (Matt 11:25-27).  This teaches that God is not just personal, but that he has always had a loving relationship within himself, so to speak.  God is so personal, he is three-persons.  That explains how God can be a loving being from all eternity.  Hinduism on the other hand, points in the opposite direction; God is ultimately impersonal and beyond all distinctions.  Therefore, God is really us and we are God (Atman is Brahman).  On Hinduism, God is also a banana, building, and a barrio.  It is true that some Hindu thinkers, such as Ramanuja, have argued that God is both personal and part of creation.  Creation is God’s body, so to speak, always existent.  But Biblical religion posits that creation is God’s workmanship, something he made out of nothing (Gen. 1:1).  Creation is more like God’s garments that he puts on or a tent that he stretches out (Psalm 104).

3. Jesus’ teaching contradicts Hindu Avatars

Jesus not only taught that God was the infinite personal creator, but he also taught a very different way of spirituality.  Hinduism has many different paths of salvation such as the way of knowledge, the way of devotion, and the way of works.  Krishna, an avatar of Brahman, explains the “way of love” as a form of devotion in chapter 12 of the Bhagavad Gita, for example.  All these ways imply action primarily on the part of humans to achieve salvation.  Jesus teaches to the contrary that salvation is something that God achieves and that humans receive by trust (John 3:16; 6:29; Luke 15).  Good works and spiritual disciplines are a response to that God-achieved salvation.  Salvation is not a human achievement at all.  We see this, for example, in the account of the sinful woman who came and anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume and tears (Luke 7:36-50).   Jesus says that her actions were a result of faith and being forgiven, not vice versa.  Loving relationship is at the center of Christ’s teaching, and it is always a gift, one where God himself is the giver and relationship with him the gift.

4. The reason for incarnation/manifestation is very different

Jesus’ came to save his people from their sins and fulfill the Old Testament Scriptures offering ultimate reconciliation with God to all people.  His life, death, and resurrection is a work that accomplished God’s plan, bringing his story to its climax.  God had created people to be his image bearers, his vice-regents on earth, but they have, sometime in the primordial past, turned away from him.  God chose a man, Abraham, and then his descendants to be a special nation to represent him on earth.  Though they failed as his representatives time and again, he sent prophets who foretold the coming of a Savior, one who would bring people into harmony with God, themselves, others, and the creation.  Jesus claimed to be the Messiah and then, in a grand-reversal of everyone’s expectations, died as a sacrificial victim and rose again.  I don’t have time to go into all the stunning parallels and implications or facts about all this.  one thing, however, is that his resurrection is the beginning of the restoration of all of creation.   As N.T. Wright points out, “The point of Christianity is not… to go to heaven when you die. [Rather, it is] putting the whole creation to rights…”  This is vastly different than Hindu avatars.  Avatars come to shift the karmic imbalance which, as far as Hindu scholars know, has always been the case.  The material order has always been rife with karmic imbalance, so the manifestations of Brahman are there to bring things back around a little, as the endless cycle of balance and imbalance continues.  Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, “For the protection of the virtuous and the destruction of evil acts, for the purpose of establishing dharma, I become fully manifest from age to age.”  This karmic imbalance is one reason that salvation in Hinduism is escape from the material order, not redemption of it.

Conclusion

For all these reasons, Jesus is vastly different than Hindu avatars.  Since he is different, he cannot therefore be another Avatar.  In fact, one way to look at these two religions is to see one of them as preparatory for the other.  Perhaps one is a vague shadow with some truths, pointing to a reality, and the other one is the concrete reality.  The question is, which one is a vague shadow and which one a concrete reality?  Is there any way to figure that out?  Contrary to popular sentiment, worldviews should be assessed for their truth value, coherency, factual accuracy, and livability.  This is not inherently dishonorable but can be done with gentleness and respect.  Now that we have distinguished between Messiah and Avatar, we can continue on that journey of discovery.

Can we justify real morality in a godless world?

Sam Harris’s book, The Moral Landscape, promises us that morals can be objective and scientific with no reference to a deity.  All we have to do is accept the supposedly common sense idea that morality is nothing else than the well-being or happiness of conscious creatures.  Since, according to Harris, humankind is just material in makeup, happiness is simply physical and psychological.  He thinks that brain scans and neuroscience are key to unlocking more of our moral questions.  Well-being just is morality and morality well-being, so to speak.

The problem with this is that well-being and morality do not appear to be identical.  To figure out if two things are identical, we just need to consider whether they have the same properties.  For example, if I say red is the same as blue, we can determine quickly that they are not the same.  If I say that my wife, Meridith, is the same as Cleopatra, then all of the two women’s attributes would have to match.  In the same way, morality and well-being would have to be identical for them to be the same thing.

Are they?  Nerp.  Not exactly.  Let me illustrate.  It is possible to experience well-being upon sipping a cup of coffee or climbing a mountain.  Does that mean we have done something moral?  What about moral choices where our own well-being is negated, such as sacrificing our joy for the sake of another?  Further, what if we simply handed out medication to increase serotonin levels and make everyone happy?  Would that make the world moral?  I don’t think so.  Simply put, since well-being and moral actions do not have the exact same properties, they cannot be the same thing.  Well-being is part of morality, surely, but it is not the whole thing.

But let’s take this further.   Does it even make sense to say that physical states of well-being are the same as moral states?  I’d say no.  This is because of the is/ought problem.  What is this?  The philosopher, David Hume, pointed out that material things, or the “is,” can never imply a moral “ought.”  Stay with me here.  According to Hume, there is nothing about the world itself in its matter that could justify us saying, “you shouldn’t act like that.”  My brain states or chemistry can never produce a moral ought, such as “it’s wrong to take my Eggo waffle.”  Make sense?  It’s hard to wrap the mind around this, which is why Harris can get away with his casual dismissal of the is/ought problem.  Another example comes to us from the classic movie, “Psycho.”  As the murderer creeps up to the shower with his knife in hand, is there anything about that state of affairs that makes it so that he ought not kill the hapless woman?  Not really.  There is no ought coming from the killer or the knife or the shower curtain or the blissfully ignorant woman.  Moral duties or “oughts” need to come from some from somewhere, such as a non-physical being, adequate to explain moral experience.  Theists explain this with God, an all-powerful, good, and loving law-giver.  Harris’s best counter argument against the is/ought distinction, however, is simply to dismiss it out of hand and scoff at it.

One part of his argument is true, however; we can investigate nature and come to understand ethical situations better through various sciences.  Psychology might teach us more about why people behave with bias, giving us more compassion for others when they display it.  Social science shows us that a close connection with a mother and a father are vital for a child’s development and that a good relationship with a father figures curb violent tendencies in males.  Looking to nature to inform ethics is called natural law, an idea which helped form the foundation of our legal system.  But Harris’s anti-God worldview leads to a universe where there is no ultimate purpose, value, or meaning.  Unfortunately, even conscious creatures like us do not have the miraculous power to endow nature with these bountiful gifts.

What is bullshit and why is there so much of it?

Harry Frankfurt’s influential essay “On Bullshit” is comically titled.  As the essay progresses, however, the comedy gives way to serious social commentary.  Frankfurt writes, “One of the most salient features of our culture is the proliferation of bullshit.  Everyone knows this.  Each of us contributes his share.  But we tend to take the situation for granted.”  Just as the fish does not stop swimming to notice water, so we, living in our time and place, scarcely stop to wonder, why all the bullshit?

What is bullshit?  According to Frankfurt, bullshit is when people represent themselves as being accurate when they have no concern for whether what they are saying is actually true or not.  The result could be true or not, but the communicator does not care much either way.  Bullshit might bring to mind a high school student’s college entrance essay sincerely describing beliefs that he does not in fact hold.  Or it may call to mind the typical argument between lovers where the man argues that he couldn’t get around to washing the dishes sitting in the sink even though he had three hours.

Another aspect of bullshit is when the speaker says something without much concern for the actual words she is using.  J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit starts off with an apt example.  Gandalf strolls up to the unsuspecting Bilbo Baggins, who quickly says, “Good morning!”  The wizard responds, saying, “What do you mean?  Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on.”  Bilbo responds, “all of them at once.”  Phrases like good morning do betray a lack of accuracy that we seldom examine.  Which meaning do we mean when we say it?  We tend to mean that we hope the person has a good morning, I suspect.  Later, when Bilbo tries to get rid of Gandalf, he says “good morning” in another sense, that of goodbye.  The ever wry and perceptive Gandalf points this out to the unadventurous Hobbit.  Bullshit often has this sense of inaccuracy of wording or thought.  So many of our expressions have the same quality.  How many of us have actually been in a butt kicking contest with a one legged man, for example?  I’d say none of us.  The point is that we ought to think about what we mean before we say it, just like Mom used to tell us.

Our inaccuracy often betrays our lack of concern for the truth.  This is the crux of the matter.  Many people in Western society today take the skeptical route, either rejecting  the existence of truth or of ever knowing truth.  If you cannot really know the truth, then why bother with accuracy of reasoning from evidence?  The result is an epidemic of unvirtuous intellects.  All the while, we often try our best to be sincere and authentic.  If we cannot know the truth, perhaps we can still be true to ourselves.  Yet the problem, as Frankfurt points out, is that if we cannot know truth, how can we know truth about ourselves?  Our own natures are just as illusive, if not more so, than any other object in the universe.  Being “authentic” without pursuing truth, is, in fact, bullshit.

What’s the anti-bullshit route?  It involves actually thinking about ideas, facts, and truth.  Yes, you may end up holding some false positions, but you can always improve as you learn more.  This is the anti-meme, anti-sentimentality, anti-mainstream media, anti-anti-intellectual route.  And, yes, this actually means we have to read good books.  These must be real books, not just short articles on the net.  From the looks of it, very few are taking this route today.  But just because that is the case does not mean that it has to be the case for any one of us.  The rebellion has begun…against bullshit.