All that’s good about Jordan Peterson

I can’t stand Jordan Petersen. I can’t stand his remorseless humourlessness first of all. His self-righteousness, his grandiosity and megalomania, his boastfulness about how learned he is coupled with his preparedness to wade into subjects like what he calls cultural Marxism as if he is doing it as an intellectual. No problems with his objecting to what our culture (and our economy) has made of critical theory, but to speak as if he even understands its intellectual content — well you don’t have to know much about it to know that, for all his bravado, and all his apparent meat only diet self-belief, it’s not his forte.

Then again, complaining about Peterson in those terms is like his complaining about ‘cultural Marxism’ — that is it’s focussing on what’s worst about him. I recall when he first came up on my feed a year or three ago, I thought he was a breath of fresh air. I still do, it’s just that when one gets blown by exactly the same breath of fresh air every other day for a few years, it ceases to be quite so fresh. That’s the stage I’m at with Peterson.

In any event, that’s my #ItWasTheBestOfTimesItWasTheWorstOfTimes intro. Check out this fabulous lecture back in Peterson’s pre-famous days. What’s so good about it? He’s crafted his bullets brilliantly and aimed them viscerally into the nihilistic heart of our culture. And he spoke from what he knew and what he felt and, so was able to speak directly to that same place in millions of actual, channel surfing, wondering, struggling, suffering human beings.

Good on Jordan Peterson for the magnificent contribution above, one of finest reports from the front of modern times. I’ll be interested to see if he’s got anything new to offer us in another few years. But I’m not optimistic. Few people emerge intact from the belly of such an all-consuming beast, especially one so assiduously cultivated. As George Harrison observed, “They gave their money, and they gave their screams. But the Beatles kind of gave their nervous systems”. But he gave what he had. Who amongst us can say that?

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48 Responses to All that’s good about Jordan Peterson

  1. Antonios Sarhanis says:

    I probably have more time for Jordan Peterson than you do, however I fully acknowledge many of his shortcomings that you bring up.

    And often his shortcomings are double-edged swords — who else speaks so sincerely in this age of irony and mealy-mouthed delicacy? Sure, it often leads to pomposity and megalomania, but that sincerity is just so shocking.

    This is a great lecture. He has many that are excellent. His lectures on the Bible are phenomenal. As a scholarly interpretation of the Bible, they’re probably well debunked, however he has gotten plenty of support from priests, so they could not have been too bad. But who else could you say has made Biblical content compelling?

    Is amusing too that he’s not looked on fondly by the left, yet he’s made some of the best full-throated cases for creativity and the arts. Here’s one good one:

    He’s also miles apart from the robotic Sam Harris-style hyper-rationalist atheists. They’re such bores.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Yes, I like where JP is coming from — very much. I just think he’s over-exposed and this magnifies his human limitations.

      And yes, Sam Harris is a ghastly figure I think — though I must admit to occasions when I’ve listened to him and thought I’d underestimated him somewhat. But defs not to my taste.

      In fact that reminds me of an hilarious section in Harris’s first podcast interview with Peterson in which Peterson talks about God or something with religious overtones and then follows about 20 odd minutes of Harris reading him the riot act beginning sentences with “surely you’re not saying that …” whereupon Harris would insert some quick getaway into a toy world where men are men and the truth is the truth e.g. “the planet Jupiter is socially constructed” or whatever. (The answer to such questions is almost always “well in the cardboard cutout way you intend it no, but in some other ways yes”.)

      • Antonios Sarhanis says:

        Sam Harris has his good points: he is so rational that he will try to analyse something on its merits. So for smaller, more discrete issues, he can analyse them well.

        But for anything else, disaster.

        A living incarnation of everything that is wrong with utilitarianism.

  2. Graham Young says:

    Nicholas, I’ve never said “Jordan Peterson says, therefore”, but at the same time he’s much more right than he is wrong, even when he might be wrong on the detail. Megalomaniacal? Probably. But his output is awesome. Not books, but personal appearances on- and off-line. Jesus was smart enough to limit his public life to three years. But he paid a high price for it. The rest of us stretch our public lives out over a much longer period, and pay a lesser, but more corrosive price for it. I don’t think Jordan is the Christ, but he’s going to be less corroded than most when his public life is finished.

  3. DAVID DRAKE says:

    Thank you, Nicholas Gruen, for providing the link to Mr Peterson’s articulate lecture on virtue and vulnerability. And thank you, Graham Young, for expanding the ripple.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      I love the way Peterson has boiled down very deep concepts — like being — in ways that are simple and compelling. You can tell almost all of it comes from his own deep engagement with the material, not from book learning. Sadly, incredibly rare.

  4. paul frijters says:

    it is a good lecture, agreed, but I find myself disagreeing with almost everything he says. I just don’t experience life or society in the way he sketches it. In a way he is grasping for solid ground and seems to think he has found it. Maybe some internal solid ground is what is needed to disagree with his own changing culture to the degree that he has.

    Still, as a presentation and a way to engage with people, its great.

    • Antonios Sarhanis says:

      Interesting that you say that!

      With your relatively controversial Coronavirus stances, I would have thought that you especially would have plenty of sympathy with what Peterson is saying.

      You seem very much like the kind of person who would pursue virtue at the expense of plenty of discomfort. If something in you, let’s call it your “being”, doesn’t like what’s going on, you would definitely raise your voice to protest. I’ve seen it here on Club Troppo!

      • paul frijters says:

        I know, it is ironic and agree with everything you say. And, like Nick, I have very much appreciated Jordan’s position on what we would now term ‘woke’.

        But, for instance, I dont recognise the notion that life is suffering. Or that inflicting hurt is an obvious bad. Or that to notice being watched brings forth a desire to be covered. Or that virtue starts with some notion of being. Etc. I neither recognise nor agree with anything he says on that stuff. The main big thing I agree with is that, in a sense, to be virtuous (as understood by others) is a kind of existential choice.

        My own take on all that kind of stuff is that all of it is abstractions that are culturally dependent and largely figments of our brains. These things are not the same over time and across cultures. Humans are far more flexible in their thinking than that. We are capable of viewing ourselves completely differently from how Jordan describes and there is enormous variation. Even this whole business of ‘me’ and ‘a consciousness’ is just another highly abstract notion that varies hugely across people and cultures.

        So everything Jordan takes to be solid, I take to be incredibly fluid and culturally dependent. His story hence might work and even be ‘roughly true’ for a large audience. But not for me. I dont find life is suffering at all, nor do I mind the occasional personal suffering. I am also comfortable with the idea that our societies inflict suffering and ‘evil’ on a regular basis to others (both at home and abroad) and that there is no real escape from doing so because the world is not a nice place and it is often better to be the bully than the bullied. Etc. To me, Jordan sounds like a little boy who needs a certainty and a moral stance that I neither need nor agree with.

        And yet I totally agree with you that his willingness to stand for something and to speak out for his truth and his notion of good is very similar to me. We just seem to have hit upon totally different stories that facilitate us in doing this.

        • Antonios Sarhanis says:

          I don’t think Peterson thinks life is suffering. He’s not a Buddhist and he was just using that as a reference. I believe he’s essentially trying to answer Camus and the Myth of Sisyphus: why even continue? why even try?

          The narrative of your life has to be higher than just pursuing “happiness” because it has to beat the inevitable suffering that you will face. And the question becomes why can some people handle suffering better than others? It’s pretty strange. The easy option would be to just submit and die.

          It’s also strange to me that you would say inflicting hurt is not an obvious bad. You clearly act as if inflicting hurt is an obvious bad. Why would you be so strident with your coronavirus stance if it wasn’t that you thought unnecessary hurt was being inflicted?

          I also think Jordan’s point is that the myths and stories across all cultures, Joseph Campbell style, are very similar. The stories manifest slightly differently in each culture, but they share strong similarities. I don’t know how true this is — I tried reading one of Joseph Campbell’s books and ditched it because I was bored. But there does seem to be at least some recurring mythology that cultures develop, too similar to be to chance.

          • Nicholas Gruen says:

            Thanks Antonios,

            I was trying to get at similar points in my response to Homer – and Paul — below.

  5. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    I am glad you think this is terrific.
    I left it after his bit on suffering. Very simplistic Wrong about Christianity and he really did not attempt it from a jewish perspective either.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Thanks Homer

      I am glad that my post has led quite a few people to listen to the lecture (I can’t stand WATCHING lectures so I convert them to mp3s and listen in the gym, on a walk or battling insomnia).

      While we’re all totally disagreeing with everyone else (while agreeing with them too), I’ll put in my oar. I don’t really react to its being ‘Christian’ in its construction. To me that’s like saying that I am sympathetic to what he was saying, or think I am, but think he should have explained it in German.

      He’s speaking to pretty fundamental things and he’s explaining them using the Judeo-Christian story of Genesis, though it’s from a Christian perspective. But I don’t’ know what a ‘Jewish perspective’ would be beyond what he’s said.

      I think you could describe very similar things in terms of Adam Smith’s dialectic of sympathetic seeing and being seen by others in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. I wouldn’t rate it much for someone to ‘disagree’ with that presentation because it seems to me it’s not exactly a ‘scientific’ explanation so much as building an interpretative structure which speaks to our experience and therefore gives us a language for exploring our own psychology and doing so in a way that enables us to share it with that of others.

      Both Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and the Genesis story of nakedness as elucidated by Peterson speaks to me as a general start in speaking about human psychology — my own and others. I’m sure some bits of each will speak more to certain types of people than others, but both provide enough verisimilitude — enough ‘touch-points’ with our lives as experienced to be useful both in self-reflection and in communication between different people.

      When Paul says he doesn’t think ‘life is suffering’ that chimes with my understanding of how Paul understands himself. But even if I can’t persuade Paul, I’m still going to think that Peterson’s inaccuracy in describing Paul’s sense of his own psychology is not total — it’s not that his general approach is just wrong. After all, to say ‘life is at bottom suffering’ is a kind of metaphysical claim to which I think it is a category mistake to bring our search for scientific testing and potential falsification. It’s part of a structure which is general and which will strike people as more fundamental and true than others, but like some statement like “People are fundamentally good” or “People are fundamentally bad”, its relevance, it’s fruitfulness as a starting point will wax and wane between people and between different parts of our lives.

      I this is more about interpretive skill and usefulness than whether claims are right or wrong — or Christian or Jewish for that matter.

  6. paul frijters says:

    Antonios, Nick,

    [new thread is easier]

    Yes, I am not berating Jordan for being obtuse or telling a story that will not resonate with many others. I am just saying it doesn’t work for me. I watched the video in bemusement as he was describing an inner world alien to me. I cannot put it simpler than to say I have no personal need for that kind of story.

    On hurt, I am not against the principle of inflicting hurt in an essentially competitive long-run environment. I object to clear instances of dysfunctional hurt, ie hurt with no reasonable chance of being of help to the society inflicting it, nor humanity as a whole. I am hence making the classic utilitarian consequentialist argument, but then seen from both the perspective of individual societies and the whole of humanity.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:


      Just to clarify, Paul’s gig at Troppo was only offered, and he was only prepared to accept it, on the grounds that he shave his head and play Troppo’s Bond Villain, a role previously played by Rafe. He is the only Bond Villain known to the franchise with a strictly utilitarian objective function. (Which is why he doesn’t get the Aston to drive around.)

      • paul frijters says:

        More true than I care to admit. I hope this doesn’t taint me with the same brush apparently reserved for Sam Harris?
        Perhaps I should call myself a pragmatic utilitarian just to differentiate?

        • Antonios Sarhanis says:

          My bald head must represent the crime-solving noggin of Kojak’s. Telly Savalas and I both have Greek heritage after all ;-)

          Although Greek, I tend to describe the history of philosophy as a continual overturning of the naive rationalism of Plato. To me, Plato should be presented with the same disdain as the logical positivists. I think there are four absolute and interlinked mistakes in Platonic thought that haven’t been sufficiently attacked:

          1. You can know things, including the meaning of words, without being able to explicitly and rationally explain them. In fact, a significant portion of knowledge is not explicit, cannot be put into words.
          2. Knowing how, rather than knowing what, or physical knowledge versus intellectual knowledge, is the higher form of knowledge. Plato’s allegory of the cave is completely wrong.
          3. A strictly segregated society with a philosophical class of intellectual gatekeepers and governors is a dystopic nightmare, not an ideal society
          4. The state has not necessarily failed a citizen if the citizen turns out warped or down and out. The state should be somewhat limited in its extent and recognise the limits in its own capacity for shaping human society.

          So pragmatic utilitarianism? Yes! As I try and describe in another thread, utilitarianism doesn’t need to be rationalist!

  7. Chris Lloyd says:

    So why are you guys so down on Sam Harris? His BLM so-called “suicide note” in 2020 was the highlight of the year to me. I checked all his stats and they were right. I do not feel the need to check them in future. #trust

    Is being hyper-utilitarian a problem in these times, when lived experience (as opposed to just plain old experience) trumps everything – if you will pardon the pun. Is counting deaths of black men at the hands of other black men and weighing them the same as deaths at the hands of white cops really COMPLETELY missing the point?

    • paul frijters says:

      yes, I haven’t yet heard why I should hate Sam Harris either. I read his BLM post and the main thing I disliked about it was how slow and anguished he made his points. He comes across totally scared of upsetting anyone. You sort of want to hug him and offer him asylum in a more gentle and civilised society where people talk to each other in a civilised way.

      • Chris Lloyd says:

        I guess he might be a bit full of himself. He speaks incredibly carefully which sounds a little pontifical at times but I think he is just trying very hard to be exact in his speech.

        The BLM podcast was a bit too apologetic. There were about 10 minutes of caveats before he got to his points. However, I don’t think he was worried about being cancelled. He is immune to that now. I think he was just trying to keep some listeners from turning off and not getting the message.

      • Chris Lloyd says:

        BTW: I guess you know we are completely locked down here in Melbourne. Do you give it any chance of “working”?!

        • paul frijters says:

          well, on past form, all waves in all Australian states have died down no matter what. So something is ‘working’. Poor Victorians though.

  8. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Chris, you guessed my objection to Sam Harris. It’s certainly not his stance on BLM which, judging by what you’re saying is mine. I’m also pleased and not surprised that he’s punctilious about his facts. A huge plus.

    But you start unpacking my distaste when you say “I guess he might be a bit full of himself”. I find his whole style antithetical to my own ideas of what discussion should be. He’s what I think of as an intellectual authoritarian. He wants things sorted out so that everyone behaves — and then we can all follow the jolly old scientific method and there’ll never be any diseases ever again.

    The fact that all attempts to define or codify the scientific method have failed is hushed up and on we go. Of course his fans will respond to this and say ‘but the world is awash with junk science and anti-science’. That’s true, I doubt finger wagging from people who are incurious about the weaknesses and confusions of their own position will improve the situation.

    Then again, I’ll confess that that last sentence is really just a rationalisation. The truth is that I have a deep distaste for intellectual finger wagging by anyone other than someone who’s really mastered what they’re talking about (and I don’t know of any of those types who aren’t leading by example, rather than by finger wagging.)

    This obsession with policing others’ speech and thought is deeply philistine. It’s also the lowest form of self-advancement — the puffing up of oneself by pulling others down — usually misunderstanding them along the way. I’ve written about intellectual authoritarianism a few times on this blog — for instance here, here. Note the prevalence of women in those stories. Note the role the intellectual authoritarians have played in creating an environment that’s hostile to patient, thoughtful, self-critical curiosity, quick to accuse it of soft-headedness of being ‘unscientific’.

    And have a listen to SH’s first interview with Jordan Peterson. When they get onto myth and religion, SH blows a gasket and thus begins a large chunk of the interview in which SH begins each of his contributions saying “surely you’re not saying …” He’s so mesmerised by this distinction between the literal truth and unreality, that he’s utterly unequipped to follow what Peterson is saying.

    He’s simply unable to imagine that he needs to step back, try to assist Peterson say what it is he’s trying to say and then take his time — perhaps over a few days, weeks or years — to come back and ponder what he might possibly be trying to get at. Instead we get the intellectual authoritarian’s stock in trade — the relentless and peremptory retreat to the obvious — the Cartesian obvious — that reality is ‘out there’ and we’re ‘in here’. (Well, as I wrote in this post, “yes and no”.)

    We are — our intellects are — very weak reeds. After we’ve done a quick reality check on whomever we’re talking to, on whomever we’re disagreeing with, if they pass the ‘respect’ test if we acknowledge that they’re not obviously having a lend of us or themselves, we need to notice when we don’t understand something. Of course we might press for some explanation, but on metaphysical, or even ideological things, we should be alive to being surprised. If we’re surprised at what someone we respect says, and after we’ve poked and prodded a bit, we need to make room however we can to try to start taking our time and trying to work out how things could be making sense to this person in a way that is currently beyond us.

    Poor old Sam would say that he does all those things. But Sam is too committed to an idea of himself as a smart intellectual arbiter to create that kind of room for himself. In short, what I object to about him is that he’s my idea of someone who masquerades as the solution while exemplifying the problem.

    All that having been said, when I’ve suppressed my own distaste and listened to a podcast or two at length, I’ve been intrigued that he was as serious as he is about meditation, and also with his discussion of studying with Richard Rorty. I had to admit, against my priors, that he wasn’t as ignorant of philosophy that wasn’t just reinforcing his own schtick as I’d expected. In that regard I found him of greater interest on such matters than Richard Dawkins, who it seems to me couldn’t really go two rounds with that stuff.

    • Chris Lloyd says:

      I can see your POV Nick. I think that I probably listen to most podcast for more selfish motives – I really just want to learn something new, new facts, new arguments, new ways of thinking. And I often get this from a SH podcast.
      He certainly is not a great interviewer. He completely inserts himself into the conversation and does on occasions completely take over. The interviewee may well find this annoying, but from my POV it does not ruin the whole experience.

      I quite like a podcast called Rationally Speaking, that you have probably heard of. It is a produced by NY Sceptics and presented by Julia Galef. I think she is quite good at testing some of the arguments of her guests without trying to refute them, though she is quite prepared on occasions to say “well, I personally don’t agree with that but let’s move on to the next point.”

      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        Thanks — Julia Galef is another one I’ve already identified as not my kind. I expect her methods of interviewing are much better, but I’m really just dead against this idea of intellectually policing others’ thinking.

        Of course stated as baldly as that, it’s just hypocrisy from me because I do it myself. I spend a lot of my time having a go at people here and elsewhere!

        I guess my defence is that I try to do it with a lot of regard for my ‘respect’ principle (is this person having a lend of themselves or me) and Iris Murdoch’s idea of humility as a reverent sense of reality.

        The very identification of oneself as a ‘sceptic’ (and often the same is true of self-styled ‘rationalists’) is to define oneself by what one is against — what one thinks of as self-evidently nuts.

        Why bother?

        I appreciate that in a political sense there’s a reason to bother, but I’m not going to spend my time wagging my finger at deniers of cigarettes harming your health, climate change, the holocaust or voter fraud in the 2020 US election. I’ll vote against them, I’ll make it clear I support their intellectual opponents, but I won’t give their claims much thought (other than to ponder how they might illuminate our times and how we might be doing things differently) or listen to podcasts explaining how stupid and venal they are.

  9. Antonios Sarhanis says:

    Excellent words, Nicholas.

    My own disdain for the rationalism and utilitarianism stems from their not recognising the difference between wisdom and intelligence. According to rationalism, there cannot be such a difference or the goal is to extinguish the difference, which is something that I don’t think is at all possible.

    Hence, rationalists have that streak of pomposity and authoritarianism that you eloquently describe. It’s because they think they’ve got the right answers — rationalism says so! The rules have been followed!

    Theoretically, there are two versions of utilitarianism: the rationalist side reads science fiction and assumes these just-so stories about the future are a real vision of how humans can live; the other more empirical side reads history and realises how delicate human life and society is, how so much is beyond the scope of rational understanding and how humble one must be when wanting to reshape it.

    If utilitarianists were true empiricists that followed the scientific method, they’d read history more often than they’d read science fiction, but it certainly doesn’t appear to be that way!

    Rational utilitarians in the Western tradition also have a notion of avoiding suffering or pursuing happiness that is thoroughly limited in scope. The assumption is that people cannot be happier if their life has fewer options, fewer means to realise one’s “potential”. Human desire is deeply contradictory and we have little idea of what actually makes us happy. And more importantly, what is thoroughly utilitarian and happiness maximising for one person might be a disaster if everyone in society lived the same way that one utility-maximising person did.

    According to lifestyle statistics that I’ve read, the best thing an American can do to ensure a good life is to become a Mormon. Can a rationalist utilitarian admit that?

  10. Chris Lloyd says:

    “My own disdain for the rationalism and utilitarianism.” I am not sure what the definition of rationalism is. Utilitarianism is pretty well-defined, I think. I will refrain for asking whether you prefer being irrational and don’t appreciate utility. Doh, I just succumbed!

    I reckon Nick and Antonius, you could both benefit from SteelManning both of these philosophical stances because I think that you are criticising caricatures of what you don’t like. I have never heard Julia Galef “finger pointing” and do not really understand what this means. Though I must admit that I have only listened to three episodes of Rationally Speaking.

    Nick, are you not doing exactly what you warn against in your post, focussing on what’s worst about Sam Harris (and surprisingly to me, Julia Galef)?

    I have listened to at least a dozen JP offerings, some recorded lectures at his university as well as celebrated BBC interviews and appearances on friendly podcasts like Coleman and the Glenn Show. I saw him on Q&A where I thought he was a complete jerk, but he was hospitalised soon after so I will cut him some slack. He has elected to take on a biblical sized serving of pressure.

    In his public lectures, he has a narrow focus of themes that he can rap on. The idea that existence requires limits is not a new idea. Yin-Yang. He always mentions Solzjenitsyn. How many people actually read that book? About as many as have read Origin of Species, I reckon! And he always brings up Old Testament Myths. I have heard the snake and fruit thing before, and how it relates to evolution. Cool point as far as it goes, but where does it lead? That the ancient Rabbi’s had some unique insights? They did at the time, but they got lots of stuff wrong as well. Can we just fast forward three thousand years?

    Perhaps this lecture was the first public airing of these ideas. But I have heard them many times now. And as Nick noted in his post, his take down of Pomo and Marxism is a head high reportable tackle on our old friend from the Wizard of Oz, the straw man. And as Nick also says: “I’ll be interested to see if he’s got anything new to offer us in another few years.”

    BTW: I think there is an early decision one makes in literature taste. Ray Bradbury’s thread or Jane Austin’s thread. I chose the former, and have no regrets.

    • Antonios Sarhanis says:

      I don’t think I’m strawmanning by saying that Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are rationalist utilitarians who think religion should be eradicated because it’s some kind of mind virus.

      My strong claim: in Western societies, religious people seem to have the best life outcomes. They are the happiest by plenty of statistical measures.

      So why aren’t Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins advocating for more people to become religious? The “rational” thing to do is often irrational.

      • Chris Lloyd says:

        I think I have a good answer to your final query Antonius, taken right from JP. That happiness is not the only way to measure utility, especially when “life is suffering”, which I do not really accept. Much of the time it is just frustrating.

        For me, utility is largely a function of what I can understand and appreciate. General relativity. Beethoven. Sunrise. A great comedy routine. Being a Mormon might make you happy as measured by endorphins, but so does Heroin. (Believe me, I am going to get heavily into Heroin in my last months. I have it all planned out and organised now).

        I believe Harris and Dawkins would answer the same. Mormon happiness is an affront to human dignity, just as opiates are.

        And I asked you to Steelman these guys, which you haven’t done. You could start by noting that we live in a world of Fake News, Lived Experience, media driven identities, social media contagion, short attention span, partisan politics disconnected from any political principles and religious zealotry (of so many sorts) across the globe.

        Some hyper-rational public commentaries surely cannot do too much harm. Who does more damage. Sam Harris or Al Sharpton? You can always ignore hyper-rational arguments if you want, but at least you will realise you are ignoring a rational argument with real utility implications.

        Bottom line: Do you think there are too many devoutly religious people in the world or too few? If you want to make an argument in favour of religion you should make your own post. Otherwise, it is all too vague. Dawkins is a rude jerk etc. yada yada

        • Antonios Sarhanis says:

          Happiness not being based on endorphins is exactly my point! If happiness is not based on endorphins or any other unit of value with which one can do a rational calculation, how can strict utilitarianism or rationality apply?

          And on that matter, a Mormon life seems very low on endorphins. I consider it the opposite of a life of heroin. And as far as I’m aware, Mormon life forbids all alcohol, drugs, premarital sex and cigarettes. I think they’re even down on coffee. If you’re chasing endorphins, you’re probably leaving Mormonism well behind.

          But based on what you’ve stated above, you seem to consider Truth as some kind of Good, which is a very Platonic view of the world.

          Well, I don’t believe in Truth. Truth is not very forgiving. Rationalism implies a single answer, a single mode of living that is Truth, which is a very dangerous way for all humans across the globe to live. Variety is supremely important for the continued existence of humans through time, and modes of living that rely on tradition and local variations are what’s best to lean on.

          And I’m not religious! Not in the slightest. Plenty of people get a lot out of religion, however. Good for them, as long they don’t turn into murderous crazies.

          But then again, who’s had a worse record? Devout religious people or devout rationalists? Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot are plenty more murderous than the Ayatollah Khomeini.

      • Chris Lloyd says:

        I will start a new thread because the display is becoming too narrow!

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Hi Chris

      We’ve ended up in a strange place. You’re now arguing that JP has a very limited repertoire. I kind of started out intimating the same thing. But it was a repertoire that interested me. He’s a preacher and I like his (limited) message. In many ways I was saying “JP is to my taste”. Sam Harris is not to my taste for reasons I’ve mentioned. Likewise Galef. I’m not really accusing her of anything other than not being of interest to me. Not to my taste. I like science and I like the ‘humanities’ or trying to think about how to improve the world, but I dislike, the conflation of the two — that is this idea that one just needs to ‘think straight’ and try to be aware of one’s biases and you’ll get to the right answer. What could be wrong with that? The idea that you’re missing a whole part of the repertoire of human reason which begins with Iris Murdoch’s idea of humility.

      It’s as hard for me to explain why as it would be for me to explain what gives me the pip about all these folks militant atheism whilst being effectively an atheist myself. Technically I guess I’m agnostic, but in the sense of whether I take Genesis at all seriously as science, the answer is “of course I don’t”.

      Here’s a quote from John Dewey that captures it a little bit, but if you’re not sympathetic to what he’s saying, if you’re not on his ‘wave-length’ you’ll take him to be making a pretty trivial point that science and morals are different — whereas I think he’s making a profound point that is difficult to grasp in our own scientistic culture. Anyway, here’s the quote:

      And this explains what is meant by saying that love of wisdom is not after all the same thing as eagerness for scientific knowledge. By wisdom we mean not systematic and proved knowledge of fact and truth, but a conviction about moral values, a sense for the better kind of life to be led. John Dewey

      Here’s Leo Strauss making what I take to be a similar point:

      Human reason is active, above all, in two ways: as regulating human conduct, & as attempting to understand whatever can be understood by man; as practical reason & theoretical reason. The pillars of civilization, therefore, are morals & science, & both united.

      And finally, here’s a clip of Sam Harris which I enjoyed.

  11. Chris Lloyd says:

    Hi Nick,

    I am glad you made this post.

    My favourite quote in your comment: “I like science and I like the humanities… but I dislike the conflation of the two.” This from the son of an economist who is an economics consultant! I am just extracting the urine here. No need to take it seriously.

    I don’t have time for a full response tonight but you mentioned the notion of “finger wagging” in your earlier comments which I do not see in relation to Julia Galef.

    I like the stance of a Militant Agnostic which means “I don’t know that answer and you effing don’t know either!”. This allows you to properly engage with Atheists and Believers without looking like a fence sitter.

    Dewey’s quote is a good one and like most deep statements can sound trite, as Peter Sellers brilliantly demonstrated in film Being There.

  12. Chris Lloyd says:

    I only listened to the first half of the JP video but I have heard heaps of this guy and Nick’s framing of it has encouraged an interesting conversation in any event.

    My comment was sloppy and you “hit me out of the park” with your observation that Mormon life is low on endorphins! While you manage to lay some heavy blows on me, I do not feel like you really engaged with the points I was inarticulately making. Sorry about the boxing metaphor but one of my hobbies is martial arts, which is decidedly irrational but still heavily grounded in reality.

    • Both JP and I agree that suffering is unequivocally bad but unavoidable yet happiness, in itself, is not the measure of life success as it can be induced by drugs or delusion.
    • Utility and rationalism should not depend on a notion of happiness. Utility should involve meaning and satisfaction and rationalism is a way of getting there, not an end in itself.
    • My examples of Platonic forms were respectively scientific, musical and natural. You kind of dismiss this as concern with The Truth.
    • Anyone who can breathe believes in Truth, which is not the same as The Truth.
    • Mormons may be happy and content but it is based on nonsense and I would have no hesitation on telling them the John Smith never saw any tablet with The Truth printed on it.
    • I would be less confident in telling Aldous Huxley that his LSD experiences are not Truth,
    • Truth is hard to pin down but Bullshit is not. John Smith, or any oracle, knowing The Truth is Bullshit.
    • The problem with Bullshit is not only that it will probably hurt the holder in the long run. It hurts everybody else in the medium run. Smiths tablet outlaws drinking (which might be good) but also homosexuality. And it is The Truth so you cannot challenge it. Gender ideology says you can choose your sex. This ends up with teenagers being given hormone replacement and people who disagree being sacked.
    • At this point of time, the world would do better with more utilitarianism and rationalism. Do you not agree? We have China, we have Fox News, we have Gender Ideology and BLM, we have alternative therapies. All of these are based on how people feel and can be demonstrated to be based on Bullshit and sure to lead to more suffering and less meaning and satisfaction.
    • Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were all part of irrational non-utilitarian movements. They were shooting for some vision of The Truth disconnected from human utility and eschewing rationality unless it could be used to advantage of the movement.

    As for your poor view of Sci-Fi, I would like to point you towards Ted Chiang, who I consider a genius. His most famous story is The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate which involves time travel but in a manner that puts truth, human experience and causality in a completely new light. Chiang is well versed in modern physics and there are no paradoxes.

    But the story I think you would really enjoy and which is relevant to the current discussion is “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” which tells two tales side by side. One is about how the written word changed oral history based indigenous being fundamentally. The second is how digital recording of our personal memories will inevitably do the same for our being. There are different truths. Yet our external and internal truths will still have to be somehow resolved.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      First half is very much enough ;)

      JP is a hologram — with the body of what he has to offer being straigthforwardly deducible from much smaller portions.

    • Antonios Sarhanis says:

      I like some science fiction — I like Ted Chiang for instance! But they’re all just-so stories that do not reflect how societies could actually work. Plato’s Republic is a science-fiction story where he proposes people would be happy with parents not knowing who their children are. It’s ghastly and unworkable. There are no “insights” in science-fiction, just fantasy.

      (And on the subject of Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life and the movie Arrival, it’s grossly wrong about the effect of language on human cognition — strong versions of the Sapir Whorf hypothesis are a massive error).

      (And another case in point: Krugman got interested in economics because he read Asimov’s Foundation series and its science of psychohistory with Seldon as the all-knowing seer. The books are terribly written, emotionally hollow and the conceit is laughable — no surprise to me that Krugman loved it).

      Fox News is against gender ideology and BLM. In fact, most of the traditional, well-regarded news outlets are proponents of gender ideology and BLM. Sometimes adversarial approaches to truth, where the other side of a debate gets a strong airing out of sheer contrariness, are better than rational approaches.

      You say utility should involve meaning and satisfaction. I’m just not sure strict rationalism is a way of getting there. That’s my point. Mormons seem to have more meaning and satisfaction in their lives than strict rationalists — so according to utilitarianism, we should be Mormons!

      Even things like simple optimism are a delusion, but one with positive effects in the right situations. Should people not be optimists because that’s not how things really are? 50% of marriages end in divorce, so should you go into your marriage without much commitment because it’s likely to fail anyway despite your best efforts? Of course not — because lots of these things are self-fulfilling. Ancient Greek oracles are better guides to life than Plato’s Republic.

      • Chris Lloyd says:

        Thanks for your comments Antonius. I agree that strict rationalism is not the road to salvation and should have made it clearer. That is the problem with back-and-forth comments. One tends to pick at one or two sentences and the author thinks you are against everything they said.

        At the risk of making the same mistake, I cannot let “There are no insights in science-fiction, just fantasy” go unpunished. Every fictional story is written in an alternative universe that never happened. War and Peace is fantasy. So is the Plague. So is 2001. The story is a vehicle for playing with ideas or making points of politics and philosophy. Thus there is an issue of one’s definition of SF/Fantasy. It has become pretty blurred. Buck Rogers is not literature of course. Most of Ted Chiang definitely is, at the same time as exploring some physics and linguistics. BTW: There are plenty of other good writers in the genre and I am glad you had already discovered him.

        • Antonios Sarhanis says:

          Very true comments.

          And yes, I am being overly harsh on science-fiction. However, science-fiction broadly does have a tendency to make hollow cardboard cut-outs of humans and imagine future societies in which no actual humans would ever accept. This is a generalisation, one not entirely justified, although with Asimov in particular, I would argue very justified!

          • Chris Lloyd says:

            I think the genre thankfully matured.

            Around the 1930s writers suddenly realised: “We don’t have to imagine we are in the Belgian Congo like Joseph Conrad. We can be on Mars in 2030! Let’s play around with that and see where it leads.” It took a while to settle down, just like the hippies and drug in the 60s.

            The Foundation series is premised on a pretty interesting idea you have to admit. The writing is stilted, but not nearly as bad as Heinlein, as I’m sure you grok. I recall the “The Gods Themselves” (an Asimov novel) made me think when I read it 40 years ago. It described a society based on there sexes that have all these cultural rivalries but physically unify to reproduce (a fact kept secret in their society). And “The Day is Done” is a really, lovely short story about the last Neanderthal.

  13. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks Chris,

    I totally agree on your point about BS — and remember, my point there is that I leave BS mostly alone or send it up. I don’t spend my time trying to argue with someone that it might be in the Bible but that doesn’t mean it’s true.

    There’s also this idea that questions of religious belief are like scientific questions. If they are, I’m 100% militant atheist with you. If the question ‘is there a god in the universe’ is like the question ‘is there a chair in my living room’ then I’m an atheist.

    It’s just that it’s not and it so the question evaporates and takes one back to what is being said. The philosopher Michael Polanyi described himself as a believer or at least a Christian. He wasn’t denominational but he produced a substantial body of philosophy that is the foundation for quite a bit of theology these days. I recall listening to him in an interview being asked about God and he said that the question ‘does God exist’ was like the question does truth exist.

    Well, we have some idea of what we mean by the concept, but not a great deal. It’s a word in our language and it certainly means something. It certainly fits in sentences of the same grammatical structure as ‘is there a chair in my living room?’. But there’s the trap. As Sherlock Holmes once said — a fictional character I know but bear with me — “there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact”.

    We’ve not had experience of ‘truth’ like we have with the chair in our living room. ‘Truth’ is a metaphysical construct. Anyway, I realise that this can look like just so much evasion to someone who’s unsympathetic to the point I’m making, but there you go. You and I were both brought up by devout atheists, and we have the same degree of confidence that there’s nothing like the guy Michelangelo painted on the Sistine Ceiling up there looking over us. We’re sure that’s basically ridiculous if it’s taken literally.

    So we agree on a lot :)

    But beyond that fact, I find the comfort of the militant atheist that ‘there is no God’ kind of silly. I tried to say something a little similar a while back in a different context here.

  14. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Speaking of rationalists ;)

    • Antonios Sarhanis says:

      That’s a pretty great article.

      I also find it pretty strange that extreme rationalists have rational proofs of irrationality — Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem — yet cling doggedly to rationality regardless.

      • Nicholas Gruen says:


        Their excuse? They need the eggs.

      • paul frijters says:

        what strange examples of ‘proofs of irrationality’. Both theorems you talk about say nothing more than that particular sets of assumptions are inconsistent with each other. They are just sophisticated versions of saying “if 2+2=4 then 2+2 cannot also be 5”. How that is proof of irrationality is beyond me.

        Much more persuasive ‘rational proofs’ of irrationality come from the implications of the fact that measurement and analysis involve costly effort, which automatically puts limits on how ‘rational’ it is to be ‘rational in the conventional sense of that word’ (ie making consistent clear-goal oriented decisions based on all the available information). If it is costly to get information and analyse it, then it is not obviously rational to gather all available information or analyse all of it. Another ‘rational proof’ is the observation that humans are not set up physiologically for either truth or rationality: it takes great effort to (pretend to) be like that, so it is more ‘rational’ to say that we humans are irrational monkeys who must line up many irrationalities in very particular ways to get thought processes that vaguely resemble the ideal of rationality. Yet another ‘proof’ is the observation that ‘irrational’ people can do observably better in important goals (like, indeed, happiness), making a prima facie rational case for being irrational.

  15. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Just saw a tweet linking to this amazing letter from Rilke. I quote it not because I imagine it will induce anyone to ‘believe in God’ whatever the hell that means, but to open up the ways of seeing which such a notion takes as foreclosed:

    And if it frightens and torments you to think of childhood and of the simplicity and silence that accompanies it, because you can no longer believe in God, who appears in it everywhere, then ask yourself, dear Mr. Kappus, whether you have really lost God. Isn’t it much truer to say that you have never yet possessed him? For when could that have been? Do you think that a child can hold him, him whom grown men bear only with great effort and whose weight crushes the old? Do you suppose that someone who really has him could lose him like a little stone? Or don’t you think that someone who once had him could only be lost by him? But if you realize that he did not exist in your childhood, and did not exist previously, if you suspect that Christ was deluded by his yearning and Muhammad deceived by his pride – and if you are terrified to feel that even now he does not exist, even at this moment when we are talking about him – what justifies you then, if he never existed, in missing him like someone who has passed away and in searching for him as though he were lost?

    Why don’t you think of him as the one who is coming, who has been approaching from all eternity, the one who will someday arrive, the ultimate fruit of a tree whose leaves we are? What keeps you from projecting his birth into the ages that are coming into existence, and living your life as a painful and lovely day in the history of a great pregnancy? Don’t you see how everything that happens is again and again a beginning, and couldn’t it be His beginning, since, in itself, starting is always so beautiful? If he is the most perfect one, must not what is less perfect precede him, so that he can choose himself out of fullness and superabundance? Must he not be the last one, so that he can include everything in himself, and what meaning would we have if he whom we are longing for has already existed?

    As bees gather honey, so we collect what is sweetest out of all things and build Him. Even with the trivial, with the insignificant (as long as it is done out of love) we begin, with work and with the repose that comes afterward, with a silence or with a small solitary joy, with everything that we do alone, without anyone to join or help us, we start Him whom we will not live to see, just as our ancestors could not live to see us. And yet they, who passed away long ago, still exist in us, as predisposition, as burden upon our fate, as murmuring blood, and as gesture that rises up from the depths of time.

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