Saturday, January 27, 2018

Non serviam

I watched the recent dialogue between Craig, Peterson, and Goldstein:

1. It was somewhat disappointing. A lost opportunity. The discussion was too diffuse. Three speakers is one too many. A debate or dialogue is more effective if it's like a tennis match between two players who bounce off each other. 

In addition, Goldstein rambled and filibustered. Running out the clock. 

2. Peterson is the best speaker of the three. Craig has a tinny, creaky voice. Peterson is emotionally compelling in a way that Craig is not. 

But that depends on what you're listening for. When Peterson tries to justify his moral intuitions, it's a mishmash of evolutionary ethics with a gesture at Platonic realism. Very ad hoc.

Peterson has become a folk hero due to his courageous refusal to knuckle under to the SJWs. In addition, he's defended common sense differences between men and women. Good for him. But in a discussion like this, he's out of his element. And he exposes the hollowness of his naturalism. 

3. Peterson's opening speech was very aggressive. He says Craig is giving the wrong answer because Craig is asking the wrong question. Indeed, that Craig has it backwards. The way Craig poses the question creates the problem by generating a sense of futility. 

4. Peterson used two examples. A suffering child and the fall of the Berlin wall. On that occasion, Beethoven's Ode to Joy was performed. Very inspirational. But what if someone objected that the music is ultimately meaningless because it comes to an end? Likewise, if child is in pain, how is telling the child that the universe will cease to exist in 10 billion years the right answer? 

But there are serious problems with Peterson's comparisons:

i) Music ending is not analogous to life ending if we pass into oblivion:

a) Music is memorable. 

b) Music is repeatable.

Even when it ends, we can still hear it in our minds. Even replay it in our minds. And in the age of recordings, we can repeat a performance. Many of us have favorite pieces of music which we like to revisit from time to time. 

Moreover, there's the aftereffect of music. It's mood-altering. 

If, however, humans lack immortality, then that's not analogous to savoring a musical performance. Music is repeatable while life is unrepeatable. Music is memorable but memories die with the brain. Music has an aftereffect, but if there's no afterlife, then the comparison breaks down.

ii) In addition, a piece of music is designed to end. But it doesn't merely end. It usually has a shape and direction. It builds to a climax. The experience and appreciation of music depends on its finitude. That's what makes it possible to absorb. Never-ending music would be impossible to follow. It goes nowhere because it goes everywhere. 

But music appreciation involves a listener who doesn't cease the moment when the music ceases. A listener who can look back on the performance or look forward to a repeat performance.  

Indeed, Peterson himself is recounting an unforgettable event in his own experience. If, however, he ceases to exist, then that retrospective viewpoint will be voided. So his comparison is counterproductive. 

5.  How we view the future is all-important to how we view the present. It just depends on the future in view. Sure, telling a suffering child that the universe will end in 10 billion years is irrelevant to his situation. 

But that misses the point. If this life is all there is, then what happens in the distant future is beside the point since you won't be a part of that future. If, however, this life is not all there is, then what happens in the distant future is germane since you have a personal stake in that future. 

And not just you, but all your loved ones. Parents and grandparents, kids and grandkids. Friends and neighbors. Old classmates and coworkers. As soon as you’re gone, someone will clean out your desk, trade your family photos for his own, and take your place on death row.

It's a cliche that intense suffering here and now is more bearable if we know that the future will be better. If we know there will come a point when the worst is behind us, when nothing worse will befall us. 

iii) The Berlin wall ruined entire lives. People kissed their loves ones good-bye to make a day-trip to the other part of town, only to be cut off. They never saw each other again. They died apart. No reunion in this life, and from Peterson's standpoint, no possibility of reunion in the afterlife. 

6. Peterson's appeal to biological adaptation is self-defeating. If evolution is a stochastic process, then every time you reset the process, you get a different outcome. So what we value is arbitrary, since that's the luck of the draw. Reshuffle the deck and you get different moral instincts. 

Peterson's presentation, while rhetorically effective, is a dodge and a bluff. Although he may be a sincere, there's a willful and prideful evasiveness. At one point he questioned objective truth. But that's self-refuting. 

Like many atheists, he's impatient with questions of ultimate meaning. He resents them. He refuses to take his position to a logical conclusion. He doesn't want to think that far. Perhaps because he's convinced that this life is all there is, so why judge it by a hopeless ideal? Yet he still wants life to have "positive value". 

In addition, I think people like Peterson cling to their autonomy. They bristle at the specter of a God to whom they're answerable. Non serviam.  

Yet according to their own worldview, they are slaves of physical determinism. Toy soldiers wound and bound by the blind toymaker. According to naturalistic evolution, we've been brainwashed to be altruistic. But like false memories, once we realize that the significance we attach to things is conditioned and arbitrary, we know it's a sham. There's no underlying good to back up our sense of good.


  1. Does this sound like an atheist?

    1. What sounds like an atheist is Peterson's visceral animus towards Craig's position in last night's debate.

    2. Given what atheists have said about Jordan Peterson in Jerry Coyne's combox, does it sound like Peterson is a theist let alone Christian? I'm not sure it does.

    3. Animus? Did we watch the same thing? I would say he wasn't on his A game nor was he correct but it didn't seem like he was really all that hostile. But perhaps that was because Goldstein was actually hostile.

  2. Three speakers is one too many. A debate or dialogue is more effective if it's like a tennis match between two players who bounce off each other.

    Yeah, the discussion didn't get very in-depth because of that. I was also surprised by how Goldstein was completely ignorant regarding theistic responses to the Euthyphro Dilemma. She spoke as if it was an unrefuted and irrefutable objection. Makes me wonder why her theistic Jewish friends haven't brought her up to speed on these issues.

    Also, I was expecting Goldstein would toss twinkies into the audience like Christian comedian Tim Hawkins sometimes does. Twinkies apparently served as Goldstein's forbidden fruit that eventually contributed to her doubting or rejecting God's existence. At least some Jews, like Ben Shapiro, are willing to resist Bacon for the sake of being faithful to his Jewish conception of God [g].

  3. Also...

    1. Just watched it. I think Peterson is criticizing a certain kind of atheism, i.e., "soft atheism", as James Anderson terms it, "which fails to grapple seriously with the implications of the 'death of God'". Starting around 3 mins. 45 secs. Peterson states:

      "It's as if the psychopathic tendency is irrational. There's nothing irrational about it. It's pure naked self-interest. How is that irrational? I don't understand that. Where's the pathway from rationality to an egalitarian virtue? Why the hell not every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost? It's a perfectly coherent philosophy. And it's actually one you can institute in the world with a fair bit of material success if you want to do it. So, to me, I think that the universe that people like Dawkins and Harris inhabit is so intensely conditioned by mythological presuppositions that they take for granted the ethic that emerges out of that as if it's just a given, a rational given. And this of course is precisely Nietzsche's observation, as well as Dostoevsky's, that's Nietzsche's observation, that you don't get it. The ethic that you think is normative is a consequence of its nesting inside this tremendously lengthy history, much of which was expressed in mythological formulation. You wipe that out, you don't get to keep all the presuppositions and just assume that they're rationally axiomatic. To make a rational argument, you have to start with an initial proposition. Well, the proposition that underlies Western culture is that there's a transcendent morality. Now you can say that's a transcendent morality instantiated in the figure of God. That's fine, you can even call that a personification of the morality if you don't want to move in a metaphysical space. I'm not arguing for the existence of God. I'm arguing that the ethic that drives our culture is predicated on the idea of God and you can't just take that idea away and expect the thing to remain intact mid-air without any foundational support."

      Peterson's criticisms of "soft atheism" could be consistent with Peterson himself being an atheist or agnostic.