Jordan Peterson’s Biblical Series III
In May 2017 Dr. Jordan B. Peterson began his 12-part lecture series on the Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories. With this lecture series he aims to try to better understand and learn about the stories, and the continual impact they have had on civilization.
You can view the transcript of his video here
In May 2017, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson began his 12-part lecture series on the Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories. With this lecture series, he aims to try to better understand and learn about the stories, and the continual impact they have had on civilization. This is part 3 of that series. In this particular lecture, Dr. Peterson wraps the stories within Genesis I, he also continues to discuss the notion of a God as an abstracted ideal, as well as the hierarchy of authority.
Peterson begins the third segment of his lecture series, titled Biblical Series III: God and the Hierarchy of Authority, by continuing his discussion on the psychological significance of the idea of God. The hypothesis which he has been developing throughout these lectures is that; “The Trinitarian idea is the earliest emergence, in the image, of the idea that there has to be an underlying cognitive structure that gives rise to consciousness, as well as consciousness itself.” What he is suggesting with this hypothesis is that the idea of God as the Father is something akin to the notion of the a priori structure, which gave rise to consciousness. This structure is inherently ingrained in our psyche, and it is needed to make sense of the world.
Peterson compares this to the argument that Immanuel Kant put forward against the notion that all of the information we acquire during our lifetime is simply a consequence of “incoming sense data.” Meaning that everything that we know about ourselves and the world around us is based on the information our senses provide us with. Kant’s argument to that was that “you can’t make sense of sense data without a prior structure. You can’t extract from sense data the structure that enables you to make sense of sense data.” What he is saying is, your senses alone wouldn’t be able to equip you with the foundation to build any cognitive structure which would enable you to interpret the world, because it is that structure itself which provides you with the ability to make sense of the information your senses put forward.
Another aspect of that a priori structure is heavily based on perception. Peterson uses the complications engineers have had with developing AI, and autonomous robots, to further explain the difficulties in understanding perception. The issue with AI is that it turned out you have to have an actual body before you can see and think. This is because “the act of seeing is the act of mapping the patterns of the world onto the patterns of the body.” the example Peterson gives is that your eyes map right onto your spinal cord, and your emotional system.
Rodney Brooks, the robotics engineer who created the Roomba, was one of the first people to stress that to have a machine which can perceive well well enough to work in the world, you had to give it a body and the perception would have to be built from the body up. This is because attitude is very tightly tied to action.
Another hypothesis Peterson puts forth in this lecture is, “I think the idea of God the Father is something like the birth of the idea that there has to be an internal structure, out of which consciousness itself rises, that gives form to things.” In layman terms, the ideas which are represented in the concept of God the Father are among the first notions humankind had of any sort of structure which gives order to the world, and birth to consciousness. And that underlying structure has this complex quasi-patriarchal nature, partly because it’s a reflection of the social fabric. Then that structure uses consciousness, mainly in the form of truthful language, to “produce the world in a manner that’s good.”
Frans De Waal, biologist and primatologist who is known for the work he has done on the behavior and social intelligence of primates, noticed when working with chimpanzees that weren’t the ruthless and barbaric chimp who ruled with success. That chimp would be taken down the second it showed any signs of weakness. Instead, it was the chimp who was reciprocal in the interactions and relations with its fellow primates who had a stable rule.
Peterson uses this example to make his point that the attributes which can be prescribed for dominance in a “male competence hierarchy” is not predicated on something as simple as the brute power. Peterson remarks that he believes the idea that male hierarchies are fundamentally predicated on power, in a law-abiding society, is absurd. On the contrary, people who are in positions of authority are usually just as confined by ethical responsibility as people on other levels of the hierarchy, sometimes even more so. This is made apparent when you observe a manager’s relationship with their subordinates. Generally, you’ll find the people under them more stressed than the managers.
This is due, in part, to the fact that the higher up in a hierarchy someone is, the larger the group of people they become responsible. And the higher up you are, the less stable your standing becomes, because you’re subject to more criticism and scrutiny. On the other hand, we know because of evolutionary sexual selection, that an individual at the top of any particularly hierarchy is much likelier to be able to reproduce successfully than anyone at the bottom. “So you’ve got two factors that are driving human sexual selection across vast stretches of evolutionary time. One is the election of me, by men, to positions where they’re much more likely to reproduce. The second is the tendency of women to peel off the top of the male dominance hierarchy.”
Peterson explains that he believes that there have been close ties, across human evolution, between reproductive success and the election of the male dominance hierarchy. If that were to be the case, theoretically what would happen is that men would evolve to be better at continually climbing up the dominance hierarchy. But the world isn’t made up of only one authority, and one could reasonably come to assume that there are commonalities across most authorities. Someone who has success in one hierarchy is more prone to succeed in another, and the ability to progress in multiple hierarchies is something akin to general intelligence or IQ.
There is this rule in the Biblical stories, that is when a ruler becomes confused with the abstracted ideal, or God, then the state which they rule over will turn into tyranny and collapse. Peterson remarks that what our ancestors had to figure out is that “you had to take the abstraction, divorce it from any particular power structure, and then think about it as something that existed as an abstraction, but also as a real thing.” It was something to be considered of higher authority than even the king, because it covered everyone’s behavior, including the king.
The Christian Trinitarian idea is that there is a Father who is a dramatic representation or embodiment of the underlying structure, which gives rise to consciousness. There is a Son, who represents consciousness in a particular time and place in history, and then there is the consciousness as it is, which is represented by the Holy Spirit. Peterson argues that these ideas had to have an origin and that they must have emerged throughout history through dreams and art and hypothesis. The concept can be seen manifesting in little kids when they’re playing house. What a child is doing when they’re playing house is that they’re watching the mother, for example, over multiple instances. Then they’re extracting out the spirit of the mother, and then they manifest and act out whatever is mother like across all the cases.
Merlin Donald, a psychologist and Queen’s University, wrote a couple of books that looked into the importance of imitation for the development of higher cognition in humans. Similarly, Piaget also thought that children acted out ideas before they understand them. “The notion that we embody ideas before we abstract them out, and then represent them in an articulated way, is an extraordinarily solid idea.” On the same note, we know that children who don’t engage in pretend play as much are often not properly socialized. Imitation play is critical for the development of self-understanding, as well as the development of the ability to be around others.
The same principle can be seen when one observes wolves when they’re having a dominance dispute. When that happens the wolves put up their fur and they snarl and growl and each other until one wolf bows, that wolf then rolls over and puts its neck up as a sign of submissions. With this display, what you see is, in a sense, one wolf admitting its inadequacy and the other, generally opting to not kill it because of its possible future usefulness to the pact. “If you’re an anthropologist, or an ethologist, and you went and watched the wolves; you’d say it’s almost as if they were acting according to a rule. That often confused me, because I thought, do wolves act out rules? No, no, no. A rule is what we construct when we articulate a behavioral pattern.”
For the wolves, it’s not a rule; it’s just a stable pattern of behavior. For human beings, however, we observe a steady pattern of behavior, and then we articulated it. It’s the act of articulating it, which makes it a rule. We know this to be accurate, partly because there was a time when humans acted more like wolves or chimp troops. We were, at one point, more body and instinct than the mind. So we must have acted fundamental things out before we understood them.
There is this idea within the Trinitarian notion that the Father employed the Son to generate habitable order out of chaos. We see this even today, if you strip the idea of any religious context, what it is saying is that the older generations employ, the younger for creative ideas to renew the world. This is proven even more evident when you consider that people are generally most innovative in their youth. People are much less constrained and beaten down in their youth, and usually wild imaginations and adventurous tendencies. It’s through the teachings of your parents and elders that you learn how to go out into the world and encounter the unknown and make something of it.
It is the encountering of the unknown, which generates knowledge itself. Generally, one doesn’t know what to do when confronted with the unknown and often encounters it with some startled expression. This, according to Peterson, is the first representation of the unknown, a combination of freezing and curiosity. Then we act out our encounter with the unknown, and we act it out in a manner that is akin to extracting habitable order out of chaos. After acting it out, you watch others who act it out, and you start to extract representations of that. Those representations are stories, and works of art, and after a long time, you can collect a bunch of those stories from which you can pick out and articulate patterns. One of the things Nietzsche believed, and he was quite right, was that our ideas emerged out of the ground of our actions over thousands and thousands of years. There was this notion, for a long time, that your first thing, and then you act. Of course, we now know this to be generally untrue, as humans are incredibly impulsive, especially when emotional.
When you encounter the unknown, and then you act it out, and then you dream about the action, and then you talk about it or articulate it. But the causal direction isn’t just one way, and once you speak about it, it affects how you dream, and then how your dream affects how you act, and so on. So it goes “from the unknown, through the body, through the imagination, into our articulation. That’s the primary mode of the generation of wisdom, let’s say.” It makes sense, when thinking evolutionary, because we had bodies, and then we had imaginations, and then the ability to speak.
The image of the dragon is unbelievably widespread throughout the world and history. Most cultures throughout history have had some depiction of a dragon, and according to Peterson, it is the underlying representation of the unknown. “It’s half spirit because of it partakes of the air like a bird, and it half matters, because it’s on the ground like a snake. That is what you think is there when you don’t know what is there.”
Furthermore, Peterson references An Instinct for Dragons by David E. Jones, an anthropologist at the University of Central Florida. In which Jones hypothesized that the dragon was a category of primate predator. His theory was that if you were a monkey, then you would have to make sure that a bird didn’t come to pick you off. And if the bird didn’t get you, you had to make sure the cat didn’t, because they climb trees. And if the bird and the cat didn’t do it, you had to watch out for snakes on the ground, or they would get you. And so the dragon is sort of an amalgamation of all of those fears, a “Tree-cat-snake-bird” as Peterson puts it.
Much like how chimps, monkeys, and many other primates, including humans, have this snake detection circuitry built into us. It’s instinctual, and not something that is taught.
It is a known fact that you can make someone more afraid in a conditioning experiment using a snake than you could a gun. People have speculated that maybe we were prepared to develop fears of snakes and spiders, but Peterson argues that more recent research has indicated that it’s more than that just made; it’s that we have the detection circuitry build right into us.
Dragons often appear in our legends and mythology as well. Stories like that of Saint George are iconic and archetypal. In them, Saint George is forced to confront the dragon, to save the castle and free the virgin. It’s a story that has been repeated thousands of times throughout history, and we see it even still in superhero movies. It’s is your typical good guy vs. absolute chaos.
Peterson points out that there is a staggering amount of continuity between the neurochemistry of human beings and that of individual animals. “It’s the sort of thing that makes the fact of evolution something like self-evident.” We see this in lobsters, as they are creatures that engage in dominance disputes. Because lobsters aren’t very empathetic, or social, then it generally stands that the toughest lobsters win. So when a lobster wins a dominance dispute, it flexes and makes itself look more prominent, and the neurochemical system that makes it do this is serotonergic. The interesting about it is that it’s the same chemical that’s affected by antidepressants in human beings. “When you’re depressed, you’re a defeated lobster. You’re like; I’m small, things are dangerous, I don’t want to fight. You give someone an antidepressant, up they stretch, and then they’re ready to take on the world again.” The same thing holds if you give a lobster who has just been defeated in fight serotonin, they stretch up and fight again. “We separated from those creatures on the evolutionary time scale somewhere between 350-600 million years ago, and the damn neurochemistry is the same!”
Jaak Panksepp noticed during his studies on rats, that male juveniles like to play and wrestle, much like humans or dogs might. The fascinating thing about rats is that they play fair. If you have one rat that is 10 percent bigger than another, then that rat is likely going to win. So the big rat ins the little rat, and the next time around, the little rat invites the larger one to play. Unless the larger rat lets the small one win 30 percent of the time, the little rat will not encourage it to play.
Another thing Panksepp figured out while observing the rats, was that if you give juvenile rats attention deficit disorder drugs, it suppresses play much as it does in people. And if you don’t let them play, their prefrontal cortexes don’t develop properly, and they’re not able to mature. It is the same for kids, particularly little kids between the ages of two and four. Peterson makes the case that play is actually what civilizes children. Children who are not socialized and civilized by the age of four are more likely to be aggressive and antisocial throughout life. “I’m trying to make the case that the hierarchy of authority emerges out of an underlying game-like matrix.”
You often hear parents telling their children that ‘It’s not about whether or not you win; it’s about how you play the game.’ Even though this is something most everyone has heard, in some form, in their lifetime, it’s not something everyone necessarily understands. Most people can figure out that it goes further than just the games you play with your friends, but that it also applies to everyday life. The thing is, life isn’t only one game. Life is a set of games, and the general rule is to never sacrifice victory across the collection of games for success in one game. Much like how the rats expect their peers to play fair, you have to play live as honest as you can, so that people continue to invite you to play with them.
One of the things Piaget said about children is that they learn how to play a game before they know what the rules are. What that means is, if you have a group of little kids, say around the age of six, playing a game together, and you took one of them aside and asked them what the rules were, they would only be able to give you a representation. And if you went back to request a different child, they would give you a different answer. But if you stick them together and just let them go, they can all play. They embody the knowledge that allows them to play together. Piaget felt that the last step wasn’t the kids playing by the rules; it was them learning that they could make the rules.
Peterson explains, “I’m not assuming that his is a literal, historical story. I think, again, it’s a condensation,” however, that he thinks that is precisely what happened to Moses in the story of Exodus. Moses is out leading the Israelites through the desert, and they are lawless and unhappy about their circumstances, and they’re worshiping false idols. They experience one catastrophe after another, and they call upon Moses to judge their conflicts. And then Moses goes up onto the mountains, and he has a revelation, and he can see a pattern of behavior which they regularly view as more just. Patterns that, for the most part, everyone is already living by. According to Peterson, that’s the revelation of the commandments. It’s another example of how patterns of behavior become articulated, and from that point, they become rules.
Piaget had this idea about the equilibrated state, and it was an extension of Immanuel Kant’s idea about a universal maxim. Kant’s idea was that you should act in a way so that each action could become a universal rule. Piaget took it further than that by saying, you should act in a way that works for you now, and that operates continuously in the future, and that also works for the people around you, and the broader society. The key is to play a game that continues to work overtime, without degenerating, and part of what goes into playing a non-degenerating game is paying attention.
One of the things Nietzsche thought, in regards to the Old Testament, was that it was incredibly accurate in its representation of the phenomenology of being. “Stay awake, speak properly, be honest, or watch the hell out, because things will come your way that you just do not want to see at all.” There is this idea within the Bible that God has a book in heaven with a list of everything you’ve ever done. Although it probably isn’t a literal book, the universe has a way of keeping track of things. It can often be observed that some level of paranoia accompanies most rises in society. Everyone knows that pride comes before a fall, and no one is capable of twisting the fabric of reality without having it snap back at some point, with repercussions.
Peterson explains that he believes in the advantages of putting the New Testament with the Old is the idea of transformation, or grown, in morality. It seems as if the Old Testaments’ morality is something like prohibition. It’s a list of all of the things you shouldn’t do. It’s similar to how you teach your young children. You spend a decent part of their formative years explain why specific behavior is terrible. The idea is that you have first to control yourself, so that you don’t get into to much trouble. Then once you’ve figured out the don’ts and the why’s, maybe you can work towards something better.
There are underlying tones of this idea within the story of Sisyphus. At the end of Sisyphus’s story, Camus said something like, “One must imagine him happy.” Peterson remarks that “If there’s a rock at the bottom of a hill, then you might as well push it up a hill. If it rolls back down, well, you’ve got something else to do, don’t you?” And no one could say Sisyphus is weak, and the same things goes for Atlas, who voluntarily takes the world onto his shoulders. Both are like the idea of Christ take the weight of the sins of the world onto his shoulders. The idea is that you should be able to recognize within yourself all of the horrors of humanity, and take responsibility for it. If you cannot acknowledge that every awful thing that has ever happened was likely committed by a human and that you also are capable of those very things, then you will never truly understand what you’re capable of. Peterson references one of Jung’s beliefs, that “ the first step to enlightenment is the encounter with the shadow.”
You have to recognize that every horrible thing that humans have done was done by human beings and that you are one of them. Before you realize this, you have no potency to your being, no idea of what you’re capable of. More than that, however, you don’t know what the world around you is capable of.
Peterson explains how Marduk created humans after he defeated Tiamat. He created humans out of the blood of Kingu, the kind of demons, and he created the to be servants of the Gods. Most can agree that the idea of being generated from the blood of the worst demon ever is kind of pessimistic. It is, however, along the same lines as the idea of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden apple. It is to say that humans have the capacity for evil and deceit. Just because we have the capacity for it doesn’t mean we are all monsters, and it is the act of seeking out appropriate and harmonious behavior that the Biblical Stories embodied so thoroughly.
With that, we come to the end of Genesis 1. In the next lecture, Peterson will look at the older two creation stories in Genesis, as well as the story of Adam and Eve.
Cachet is an early 20’s freelance writer out of the US Midwest. Along with a longstanding passion for writing, she has a great interest in the psychedelics, states of consciousness and the human psyche. Her main interests are in the different dream states, and their influences on the mind, as well as alternative pharmaceutical uses for certain psychedelics.
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