Thursday, May 03, 2018

Nietzsche's Critique of Jordan Peterson's Nietzschean Religion

The first three YouTube videos here are short. The fourth is a compilation of videos that is longer--about 55 minutes.

Oh, I know, many of you think I have already written too much about Jordan Peterson. So you can skip this post. And I promise this will be my last one on Peterson.

These videos show Peterson presenting his interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche's proclamation of the death of God as creating a problem for morality--particularly, the Western morality of natural rights or human rights as founded on the sacred dignity of all individuals.  Peterson claims that this shows that morality is impossible without a grounding in a transcendent religious metaphysics.  Even those who think they are scientific atheists--like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, for example--are actually acting out their implicit practical belief in Christian metaphysics, because they embrace a Christian morality of natural individual rights.  This shows that "we're running on the fumes of Christianity in the West."  Or to use another metaphor, we're living inside the corpse of a whale (the dead God), and there has been plenty for us to eat; but we don't realize that soon there will be nothing left for us to eat.

People like Dawkins and Harris think that their morality can be based on pure rationality--the rational science of the Enlightenment.  But in fact, as Dostoevsky shows in Crime and Punishment, there's nothing irrational about choosing to become a psychopathic murderer (like Raskolnikov): It's perfectly rational to choose to take whatever you want whenever you want it from others without any concern for their welfare, as long as you can escape punishment.  Dostoevsky is showing us that this is what we would do if we truly were atheists.

This is the Ring of Gyges argument in Plato's Republic: if I could make myself invisible, so that I could steal, cheat, and murder for my pleasure, without ever getting caught, why not?  As Dostoevsky declared: If God is dead, then everything is permitted.  This explains why Peterson thinks he has to appeal to a Nietzschean/Jungian religion--an atheistic religion--to solve the problem of morality collapsing into nihilism if there is no religiously grounded morality.

As indicated in his lectures and in Maps of Meaning (6-7), Peterson's two favorite passages from Nietzsche are from Twilight of the Idols (ix.5) and The Gay Science (sec. 125).  In the first passage, Nietzsche ridicules George Eliot and the English generally for thinking they can deny the existence of the Christian God while keeping Christian morality, without realizing that Christian morality must be a command of God--its origin is transcendental--and therefore the death of God must bring the death of Christian morality. 

The second passage is Nietzsche's first statement  of his famous declaration that "God is dead."  What is notable about this passage, as Peterson points out, is how Nietzsche laments this as a disaster for humanity: "What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continuously? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions?  Is there any up or down left?  Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?  Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder?  Is not night and more night coming on all the while?  Must not lanterns be lit in the morning?  Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God?  Do we not smell anything yet of God's decomposition? Gods too decompose."  Peterson goes off on Nietzsche's suggestion that the death of God means that there is no longer any up or down--without God to command what is right or wrong, there are no standards of higher or lower for us.

But then even as Peterson agrees with Nietzsche's claim that human morality depends on transcendent standards--a moral cosmology--Peterson also says that his whole position is embedded in a Darwinian evolutionary science that would seem to view human morality as founded on empirical standards--a moral anthropology.  This contradiction in Peterson's reasoning actually coincides with a contradiction between the early and later writings of Nietzsche showing a longing for transcendence and religious redemption and the middle writings of Nietzsche showing a Darwinian science that explains morality as rooted in evolved human nature.  (I have written about this in a series of posts in January to April, 2013.)

That Peterson agrees with the middle Nietzsche in seeing morality as grounded on a Darwinian moral anthropology is clear in 12 Rules for Life.  Agreeing with my principle that the good is the desirable, Peterson writes:
"Think about it like this.  Start from the observation that we indeed desire things--even that we need them. That's human nature.  We share the experience of hunger, loneliness, thirst, sexual desire, aggression, fear, and pain.  Such things are elements of Being--primordial axiomatic elements of Being. But we must sort and organize these primordial desires, because  the world is a complex and obstinately real place.  We can't just get the one particular thing we especially just want now, along with everything else we usually want, because our desires can produce conflict with our other desires, as well as with other people, and with the world.  Thus, we must become conscious of our desires, and articulate them, and prioritize them, and arrange them into hierarchies.  That makes them sophisticated. That makes them work with each other, and with the desires of other people, and with the world.  It is in that manner that our desires elevate themselves.  It is in that manner that they organize themselves into values and become moral. Our values, our morality--they are indicators of our sophistication" (101-102).
Here Peterson seems to agree with me (and with Philippa Foot) that morality is a system of hypothetical imperatives that depend on human interests and desires.  Morality is informed desire.  The good is the desirable, and reason judges how best to satisfy the desires over a whole life, which often requires settling conflicts between desires by judging how one desire fits with others in some deliberate conception of a whole life well lived.  Hypothetical moral imperatives can be understood as following a given/if/then structure: Given what we know about our evolved human nature and our individual circumstances,  if we want to live a flourishing human life, then we must organize the satisfaction of our desires into a coherent plan of life, which requires the moral and intellectual virtues.

But then immediately after the passage just quoted, Peterson says that we need to move to a deeper level of morality to see how the "ultimate values" depend on religion, which is what Plato meant by the transcendent "Idea of the Good."  So all of our morality depends on our religious beliefs.  And if someone objects, "But I'm an atheist," Peterson will answer:
"No, you're not (and if you want to understand this, you could read Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, perhaps the greatest novel ever written, in which the main character, Raskolnikov, decides to take his atheism with true seriousness, commits what he has rationalized as a benevolent murder, and pays the price). You're simply not an atheist in your actions, and it is your actions that most accurately reflect your deepest beliefs--those that are implicit, embedded in your being, underneath your conscious apprehensions and articulable attitudes and surface-level self-knowledge. You can only find out what you actually believe (rather than what you think you believe) by watching how you act.  You simply don't know what you believe, before that. You are too complex to understand yourself" (103).
Although Peterson offers this as some profound insight, it's really quite ridiculous.  The only reason we don't commit murder is because we believe that God commands us not to murder.  So if we believed that God was dead, we would commit murder.  Therefore, if we don't commit murder, our actions show that we are not atheists.  But then, eventually, as modern atheism becomes such a deeply felt belief that it becomes expressed in our actions--once we have consumed God's corpse, and there's nothing more to eat--we should expect that we will all become murderers.

If this were true, we would expect to see empirical historical evidence that religious belief is correlated with a low homicide rate, and declining religious belief is correlated with a high homicide rate.  But as we've seen in many previous posts, there is a lot of evidence for declining violence over the past centuries, with some of the steepest declines in the less religious countries. 

In fact, even Peterson cites Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature as supporting this conclusion: "The probability that a modern person, in a functional democratic country, will now kill or be killed is infinitesimally low compared to what it was in previous societies (and still is, in the unorganized and anarchic parts of the world)" (58).  Oddly, Peterson does not notice how this contradicts his prediction that the modern death of God must necessarily turn us all into murderous Raskolnikovs.

It's surprising to me that in all the commentary on Peterson that I have read, no one has pointed out this fundamental contradiction in his arguments.

There is another aspect of this fundamental contradiction.  On the one hand, Peterson insists that the domain of science as the study of objective facts is completely separated from the domain of religion as mythic storytelling about subjective values (34-35, 188).  On the other hand, he accepts the "social brain" hypothesis of evolutionary psychology as explaining the evolution of religious belief as expressing the "hyperactive agency detection device" in our brains (38-40).  Peterson doesn't recognize that this evolutionary theory of religious belief was first proposed by Darwin in The Descent of Man and by Nietzsche in Human, All Too Human (as I have indicated in posts here and here).  Nor does he recognize the contradiction in asserting that science both can and cannot study religious belief.

I have elaborated my criticisms of the claim that the death of the Christian God means the death of morality herehere, and here.


Unknown said...

I have never read Peterson, but I share what you describe as being his point. Pinker shows violence as going down and says its due to "enlightened" reasoning. But several alternative reasons also exist- 1) post WWII economic growth that lifts all boats and papers over simmering, below the surface tensions. In other words the potential remains present but is merely latent. Second, isnt Peterson's point that people who say they are atheists not really living as atheists. In other words, is there really such a contradiction? Finally, nuclear weapons have frightened leaders into keeping a lid on great power wars and the epic bloodshed those unleash.

Maybe we really are still living in the shadow of Faith, but that will eventually fade away. Then we will see if Pinker is right. Also, for a moral society transcending Faith and coming out om as a result, it is worth pointing out that America alone has aborted around 60 million babies since Roe v. Wade. If you believe those are lives, then we are talking about mass murder on a very large scale. That does not exactly seem to make for a "less violent" society, just one that puts on less of a show about it than in past eras with public executions or nomadic raiders laying waste to agricultural pastoralists.

CJColucci said...

I've never found the Ring of Gyges argument all that convincing. I'm as much a sinner as the next fellow, but I don't think I would come close to exploiting the ring's potential for mischief or outright evil if I had one. Maybe I'd occasionally skulk around the women's locker room or sneak into the movie theater or the museum or the ballpark without paying, but that's about it.

Anonymous said...

Only a morality grounded in a transcendent reality is an objective morality.
That is, it exist independently of what humans think, believe or feel.
If there is no transcendent consciousness, then there aren't any moral facts.
The moral sentiments we possess, are just that, sentiments, feelings, resulting from our accidentally,randomly evolved brains.
They're not eternal truths about right and wrong good and evil, just products of our evolution.
No more meaningful than the fact that most of us have five digits on each hand.
An accident of evolution.
Our brains could have been hardwired differently and we might have evolved a different moral code,or none at all.
The one thing a Theist can consistently do that an Atheist can't is claim some act is morally wrong.
If Atheist were consistent they could only claim the act is felt to be wrong by most people, or that the act is not normal behavior for humans.
By the way I'm agnostic.

Larry Arnhart said...

Is there any empirical evidence that those who believe in a transcendent morality are more moral than those who believe in a secular morality? Are homicide rates lower in religious societies than in more secular societies?

Anonymous said...

I suspect the answer to both questions is "No."
Most people internalize the beliefs of their society and one's metaphysics doesn't seem to affect that ability,nor, always ,
one's behavior.
I don't know the statistics to definitively answer your last question.
As far the first question, that is even harder to answer.
It depends on how we define an immoral act, which requires a definition of morality to serve as a guiding principle when evaluating actions.
If abortion is murder, then the U.S.and other Western societies are among the most immoral in history,dwarfing, in evil, Nazis and Communist alike.
If Atheist/Materialist are correct. If there is no transcendent consciousness ,then we can't even say murder is wrong.
Only that we feel it is.
The proposition, "Murder is wrong. ",tells us more about the speaker than the act of murder.
For a Theist an action is wrong because it violates our true nature, the purpose for which we're created.
The template for our behavior is in the mind of God.So it exist independently of us and in that sense is objective.
Just as only the creator of a machine can determine whether or not it's "acting" according to it's design and the machine would have no say so in the matter, so it is with us.
For the Atheist there is no "true" human nature ,only temporarily evolved tendencies,subject to natural selection which could ,in time make us Elois or Morlocks.
Consequently there is no template by which to evaluate human actions,except as "means" to some "end" .
Unfortunately there is no "objective" preferred end.

Larry Arnhart said...

Doesn't the theist say that what is right or wrong depends on God's command? So, for example, murder and slavery are right when God commands this in the Bible? Isn't that what Kierkegaard meant by the "suspension of the ethical" required by faithful obedience to God?

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that the conclusion that " what is right or wrong for humans is dependent on God's will"is an inescapable conclusion of Theism.
So if God wills it, it is right and good,whether it's slavery or genocide, and regardless of how we feel about it.
For Theist, it seems to me, must accept ,humans can be wrong about morality but God can't, for he is the source of morality.
I've read of Kierkegaard, but never read him.
However if the phrase "suspension of the ethical" implies, as it seems to, a distinction between ethical behavior and behavior in accordance with God's will, then I believe it's a false distinction.
I don't see how, assuming Theism is true, there can be no difference between God's Will/ Command and ethical actions.
I believe values exist only in/for minds. Nothing is good/ evil, right/ wrong except to a mind.
Theism maintains God is the Supreme Mind.
The Supreme Mind must be the source of the Supreme values.
This belief can lead to behaviors that don't seem to advance human flourishing.
It's possible of course that we're wrong about what advances human flourishing while God isn't, or that human flourishing
isn't the Supreme value.

Roger Sweeny said...

CJColucci, I'm sure that's all you would do after you first found the Ring. But after a while, seeing how well things have gone so far, would you want to do more? Maybe convince yourself that you're kind of a superhero doing good: I'll kill Trump, or Kim Jong Un, or Richard Spencer? And after all the good I've done humanity, I'm entitled to some good things for myself ...

Jay said...

Interesting article... Even though Peterson references Nietzsche all the time, I think an astute reader will eventually realize that Peterson is fiercely ANTI-Nietzschean, in his conclusions.