Tuesday, November 7, 2017

On Truth

I listen to Sam Harris' podcast, have for years, called Waking Up, and it is usually quite informative, and all the more entertaining because Harris is not a professional interviewer and he sometimes gets frustrated, defensive, irate, when he disagrees with an interviewee.  Harris has done two podcasts with Jordan Peterson, and that's how Peterson got on my radar.  The first one was what I can only call a debacle as Harris and Peterson got bogged down on how to define truth.  It was fascinating to listen to these two intellectuals hit an impasse, and Harris just kept on flogging away and Peterson refused to budge.  As near as I can tell, Harris worked with a definition of truth from a scientific perspective, which makes sense given that he is a scientist, and insisted that concrete and objective truths exist, such as 2 + 2 = 4, or that some numbers are prime, and so forth.  Nothing really controversial there, to my thinking.  Peterson's ideas about truth, though, I'm still struggling to pin down, though I am making some headway.  I think his ideas about truth are not contingent on the objective, but that some truths are good enough.  He focuses a lot of his attention on myths, old stories, Bible stories, and extols the idea that the Bible, especially the Bible, is full of truth, or what he might call, I think, functional truths.  I think that's getting close to his view, and I think a lot of their struggle to find a consensus was that he came into the interview prepared to battle Harris' stone-cold atheism.  I think Peterson came into the conversation with the goal to be on the attack, and I think he had a straw man built up with regard to Harris.  That's just my speculation, but you can hear it for yourself by listening to the podcast.

I might call Peterson's truths contingent truths, which seems a bit contradictory, especially juxtaposed with Harris more hard-line objective scientific truths.  I think for Harris something is true or it isn't, and truth can't be contingent on anything.  For Peterson, the contingent truths are functional to the human species, which very much seems to spring from his training as a psychologist.  Truths are human, and some things are true for humans, in a human context, and I'll try to elaborate.  Peterson, in his lectures and in his YouTube videos, often references stories like Pinocchio, and stories from the Old Testament, to illustrate his truths.  He is given to offer platitudes like what has become essentially his catch phrase, clean your room, that a person, before he or she can achieve anything, has to order his or her own personal space, and that order becomes a starting point for one to expand his or her sphere of influence, something that resonated with me in particular so much so that I started paying close attention to cleaning up my space, to keeping my house in order, and I can even see a connection between my order and chaos, that when I can maintain my room, that order seems to carry over to other things, like paying my bills, or taking care of that speeding ticket, and sometimes when I let things slide, it is almost a metaphor for avoiding that speeding ticket to the last minute, and I work on facing the music because I have a tendency to put things off despite that I know it is almost always better to go ahead and take care of business, that nothing good has ever come of avoiding my responsibilities.  This, to me, seems true, but it certainly isn't 2 + 2.

Peterson has struck a nerve and struck a chord.  He first became a public figure when he opposed the pronoun legislation in Canada, which put the force of law behind using a person's preferred pronouns, and Peterson objected to the government legislating that one use certain words, a sentiment that is hard to disagree with.  This, predictably, has earned him the malice of the regressive/Marxist left; which means he's doing something right.

From there, his truths have earned him, last I checked, a $50,000.00 per month Patreon income, which is breathtaking, and he never misses a chance to shill for his Future Authoring program, which is a glorified journal-writing project, which is right in my wheelhouse.  I dislike this one thing about Peterson, that he shills for this program on every interview he does, and it is, in essence, Ira Progoff's Intensive Journaling program repackaged, and I've never heard Peterson credit Progoff.  Most of the time I think Peterson is sincere, and I think he has the scholarly chops, so let's just say I object to the shilling, and I think he's ripped off Ira Progoff without giving him credit.  Leave it at that.

I digress.  Peterson, it appears, has struck a chord with males, young males, and I'm not sure what to make of that beyond speculation, and I don't feel up to speculating at present (maybe some other time).  Leave it at, Peterson has struck a chord with white males, and they are paying him for his services, and his message is positive, to clean up your room.  To go out there and do something.  To stop complaining.  To make a choice between giving up and getting going.  It is all good stuff, and it has indeed struck a chord with me.  Namely, this word functional.

I spent years, several years, mired in nihilism, which I still regard as about as true a philosophical stance as I can articulate.  I can't see how anything matters, at all, and I see no compelling reason to go on living, for all that it seems to matter.  Thomas Ligotti's book, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, is, for my money, about as succinct and dead-on book of philosophy I've ever found, and I chafe at writing that, but it is true, as I see it.  (Back to that slippery word.)  Ligotti's conspiracy is that we are told at every turn that life matters, and that we ought to be positive.  Ligotti is, in many ways, the antithesis of Jordan Peterson.  I guess my encounter with Peterson was a necessary collision of ideas because I can verify that nihilism, or pessimism as put by Ligotti, is pretty much a non-starter.  I think it is essentially true that there's no real meaning to be had in life, and that all meaning we are able to find is just manufactured, no better than a self-sustained, self-perpetuated delusion.  As near as I can tell, the only meaning I'm likely to generate is in my relationships with the people I care about, who are all going to turn to dust, and I near as I can tell, a mere 40 years after my death my children will die, and it all just adds up to nothing.

I think all of that is true.

Peterson's functional truth I like much better, even if it isn't true.  (I'm just as confused as you are likely to be at this point.)  Meaning here, that Ligotti's truth doesn't help.  It keeps me from getting out of bed in the morning.  It keeps me from carrying on.  Life may add up to nothing, but I am in fact alive, so here I am.  Might as well do something.  But what should I do?  Peterson's emphasis on mythology comes into play here, that the hero in every story goes on some kind of quest, encounters hardships, and wins something from the effort.  Ligotti would see this as probably something to do, but essentially meaningless.  I see it that way, too, but I want to buy into Peterson's functional truth nonetheless.  It is, in the truest sense, better than nothing.

All of this has added up to my reevaluating the stories of the Bible, teaching them to my children, and forgetting about Harris' objective truth.  It isn't all that useful to me anymore.  I've grown past the stage of rejecting them because they are fantastic, and they are, and they ought to be rejected in that sense, that one can't stuff every animal onto a wooden boat.  I'd forgotten the value of a figurative reading of those texts, yet the sorts of truth that one can find in a figurative, light-hearted reading are good enough, and functional.  A friend of mine, just a few days ago, whose wife up and left him after fourteen years, and who, seems to be rolling with the punches much better than I ever did, told me, "Be Still and know I am God."  Fuck yes, I thought.  Let the woman do what woman seem compelled to do in their middle age nowadays, and know it is going to be all right.  Let God handle the worrying.  That seems to be working for my friend, and that's true enough.

All of this is just to say, a mere two years ago I was Sam Harris.  Nowadays, I'm Jordan Peterson.  I'm the hero of my own myth.  Better than nothing.

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