Why myth matters: a review of Jordan B. Peterson’s Maps of Meaning

Somewhere in northern Arizona

Maps of Meaning. That’s psychologist Jordan B. Peterson’s description of myth. His book is by a professor for professors, so it’s a challenging read – very technical and dense. I didn’t make it through the entire book, but enough to get the gist.

Part of what Peterson does is connect neurology to “the architecture of belief,” with a particular focus on Jungian archetypes. I won’t go into detail about that. But the basic idea is that just as the general structure of language is hardwired in the human brain even though specific languages must be learned, the general structure of storytelling is also hardwired even though specific stories must be created and learned.

Science & myth

Peterson makes a crucial distinction about the role of science and the role of myth. Science describes the world of things – what composes them, how they physically interact with other things, etc. But myth is about meaning. More so, myth is a call to action.

Familiar territory feels predictable and safe, but unexplored territory feels unpredictable and chaotic. The unknown is both frightening and alluring at the same time. And myth is a journey from the known to the unknown to bring back something of value.

The basic mythological template, Peterson writes, is a metaphor for our lives. Our present state is familiar, and we may be complacent even if things aren’t so good right now. But we also have an ideal future – a desire for how things could be better.

That desire is an expression of meaning. It’s not a scientific endeavor even though scientific knowledge can help us navigate the world. Further, this hero’s quest is a responsibility. Responsibility being the primary source of meaning.

Myth is a challenge

The challenge myth articulates is that we must act without truly knowing what our actions will bring. Unpredictability is chaos, and when things don’t go as expected we can become irate.

The world is a forum for action and myth serves as a guide. A particular pitfall, however, is that we’re inclined to compare what we have with what we want, not with what may actually be. That is, we’re prone to illusion.

Each person’s challenge, Peterson says, is to develop a personality capable of facing even extreme conditions. The exploratory act quells chaos, freeing something valuable from its grip (sometimes represented as a dragon’s gold). By incorporating this value we are transformed.

Psychology

Peterson analyzes myth and claims there are common archetypes or images used to represent the process – the hero’s journey – of leaving the comfort of familiar territory, which protects us from chaos, to undertake the dangerous task of confronting chaos in unexplored territory.

Seen through a Freudian lens, the unknown is the Id, the known is the superego, and the knower/hero is the ego.

The structure of myth

In myth there’s a threat to the comfortable state of affairs. This status quo, this unself-conscious paradise, however, is incomplete. It represents childhood, and the terrible mother – nature’s chaos – is the threat. The hero confronts her but is swallowed, often represented as a visit to the underworld. There the hero must defeat a monster (or perhaps death itself), and be transformed. The hero must then return to transform the community.

Sigmund Freud’s student, Carl Jung, articulated several archetypes or characters that appear in myths worldwide. It all starts with primordial chaos before creation, represented variously as dragons, serpents, waters of the deep, and so on:

  • Nature is the eternal unknown. Every archetype has positive and negative aspects. At the positive pole, the great mother gives birth to nature from primordial chaos. But everything must also die. The terrible mother is a devourer, the goddess of anxiety, depression, even pain and death. Nature uses destruction to create new things, so primordial chaos is somewhat retained in nature. The great mother also gives birth to the hero, who might be her lover as well. Myths are weird in the same way that dreams are weird. Maybe that’s where many myths came from.
  • The known is culture – the wise king or father whose shadow is the tyrant. Culture is predictable and disciplined, but can be restrictive and tyrannical. Ritual imitation of the great father protects us from the fear of unprotected exposure to unexplored territory. The resulting culture, or group identity, restricts the meaning of things and makes social interactions more predictable. But it can also heighten social aggression when the unknown intrudes. And denial of the unknown (“we have infallible knowledge”) can lead to hell on earth.
  • The knower is the hero, who is sometimes a sun god or the son of the great god. The hero slays the dragon, vanquishes the villain, or defeats death, which represent chaos. But the hero’s shadow side is the adversary – the prince of darkness – who rejects the unknown. Loyalty to personal interest – identification with the hero – is important to counteract group pressure.

According to Peterson, myths feature the positive aspects of order (the father) and the hero (usually the son) protecting against destruction (the terrible mother); or the negative aspects of tyranny and the adversary against creation.

Notice that he places the masculine and feminine in opposite directions. It’s like the father and the hero’s positive poles point one way, and the mother’s pole points in the opposite direction. I’m not sure what to make of that.

Real world implications

Throughout human history myth has been central to people’s worldviews. Modern Western society is an outlier because myth is seen as superstition. But science and myth are not incompatible considering the distinction that science is an objective description of things while myth is a guide for acting on the subjective meaning we ascribe to things.

However, Peterson warns that involuntary exposure to chaos can unleash forces that can undermine a culture’s known world. The societal destruction that accompanied European contact with the people of the Americas is one example.

Further, there’s a tension between freedom and security. Order can keep the chaos of untamed nature at bay, but order can also be overbearing and deadly. The hero must achieve a delicate balance of creating order from chaos while maintaining novelty and flexibility.

Too much order and predictability denies the unknown, which can lead to violence to suppress the perceived threat. Lucifer’s pride is thinking that all he knows is all that’s necessary to know – an apt description of religious fundamentalism or secular utopian schemes such as communism and fascism. This arrogance creates hell on earth.

Advertisements

Marcus Aurelius and the gods

Stoicism is usually described as pantheistic. But Marcus Aurelius and other Stoics also refer to the gods, which sounds polytheistic. Modern Stoicism is more agnostic.

img_1110
Butcher Jones Trail, Tonto National Forest, Arizona

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

God & Providence

Everything is interwoven in a sacred bond. There is one God in the whole. There is one substance, one law, and one reason common to all intelligent beings. And one truth (7.9).

What is divine is full of providence. Even chance is not divorced from nature, from the inweaving and enfolding of things governed by providence. Everything proceeds from it (2.3).

An individual’s mind is God and of God (12.26).

Trusting the gods

Entrust everything willingly to the gods, and then make your way through life — no one’s master and no one’s slave (4.31). Hand yourself over to Clotho voluntarily, and let her spin you into whatever she pleases (4.34).

Everywhere and at all times it’s up to you to honor God in contentment with your present circumstances: you have the option to accept each event with humility, to treat each person as he should be treated, to approach each thought with care so that nothing irrational creeps in (7.54, see also 12.11).

Of gods and men

The gods live forever and yet they don’t seem annoyed at having to put up with human beings and their behavior throughout eternity. And not only put up with but actively care for them. And you {Marcus is writing about himself} — on the verge of death — you still refuse to care for them, although you’re one of them yourself (7.70).

The gods are not to blame. They do nothing wrong, on purpose or by accident. Nor men either. They don’t do it on purpose. No one is to blame (12.12).

Do gods exist?

People ask, “Have you ever seen the gods you worship? How can you be sure they exist?” Answers: Just look around you. I’ve never seen my soul either. And yet I revere it. That’s how I know the gods exist and why I revere them — from having felt their power, over and over (12.28).

Either the gods have power or they don’t. If they don’t, why pray? If they do, then why not pray for something else instead of for things to happen or not to happen? Pray not to feel fear, or desire, or grief. If the gods can do anything, they can surely do that for us (9.40).

If the gods have made decisions about me and the things that happen to me, then they were good decisions. (It’s hard to picture a god who makes bad ones.) And why would they expend their energies on causing me harm? What good would it do them — or the world, which is their primary concern? And if they haven’t made decisions about me as an individual, they certainly have about the general welfare. And anything that follows from that is something I have to welcome and embrace.

And if they make no decisions, about anything (and it’s blasphemous even to think so because if so then let’s stop sacrificing, praying, swearing oaths, and doing all the other things we do, believing the whole time that the gods are right here with us) — if they decide nothing about our lives, I can still make decisions. I can still consider what it’s to my benefit to do. And what benefits anyone is to do what his own nature requires. And mine is rational. Rational and civic (6.44).

The gods and death

How is it that the gods arranged everything with such skill, such care for our well-being, and somehow overlooked one thing: that certain people — in fact, the best of them, the gods’ own partners, the ones whose piety and good works brought them closest to the divine — that these people, when they die, should cease to exist forever? Utterly vanished (12.5).

If the gods exist, then departure from the world of men is not frightening – the gods would never subject you to harm. And if they don’t exist, or don’t care what happens to us, then what is life to me in a world without gods or providence? But they do exist, they do care what happens to us. They have placed within us everything we need to avoid real harm. If there were anything harmful on the other side of death they would have made sure we had the ability to avoid it (2.11).

___________________

Summary

Metaphysics

Nature & the universe

The gods

The soul

Justice & Providence

Impermanence

Death

Reason & Virtue

Reason & the mind

Mindfulness

Virtue, good, & evil

Psychology

Pleasure & pain

Praise & criticism

Anger & fear

Kindness

___________________

I’ve shortened and arranged the quotations for readability. Quotations are from Gregory Hays translation published by Modern Library, a translation by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor and published by the Liberty Fund, Inc, and the Penguin Classics translated by Martin Hammond.

Belief & disbelief in God is just an opinion

Telegraph Pass Phoenix, Arizona
Telegraph Pass
Phoenix, Arizona

Religious belief or disbelief isn’t really a big deal. After all, religion and atheism are only matters of opinion.

Agnosticism is a half answer

Does God exist? How can we quantify the something that’s allegedly infinite? It’s not a testable claim.

Agnosticism, however, is about what we can know or not know for a fact. But you don’t have to know to believe or disbelieve.

Science doesn’t settle the question

Each perspective has its strengths and weaknesses. The improbability of our life sustaining universe is a serious objection to atheism. Speculations such as multiple universes, where the improbable would become inevitable, are unproven. Ideas like our universe being a simulation are even less satisfying. Who created the simulation? An alien from another universe? Who created that alien?

But then, who created God? And who created the one who created God?

It’s enough to make your head spin.

Proving the multiverse exists wouldn’t settle the debate, though. Who created the multiverse? Besides, true believers already reject evolution and would reject any new scientific evidence.

Faith doesn’t answer the question

At least science is about testing propositions, not asserting opinions. But religions often prohibit tests of their doctrines.

If God exists there’s the question of what God is like. That’s where revelation and sacred texts, which are based on someone’s personal experiences, enter the picture.

I can’t deny your personal experience because it doesn’t belong to me. But because it doesn’t belong to me I can’t accept your experience as the basis of my belief. Instead I accept that it’s your perspective.

But for your or my experience to be accepted as fact requires empirical verification under strictly controlled conditions that must then be independently verified.

Besides, personal experiences and religious texts vary wildly. How you can be so certain – even to the point of condemning others – is a question anyone must answer if they’re going to claim their beliefs are facts.

Further, Christians often say the Bible is inerrant. Yet biblical contradictions are numerous. The Bible also justifies slavery and orders women to marry their rapists. So it’s reasonable to question the claim that the Bible is the word of a perfectly good deity.

Our flawed world raises more questions about God (if he exists)

The belief that God can do anything has its problems. The universe appears to work a certain way, and there are no verified instances of the laws of nature being violated. Miracles where the laws of nature are suspended either rely on hearsay or turn out to be false when rigorously tested. Atheists like to point out that amputees never regrow limbs no matter how hard they pray.

It’s not unreasonable to say God (if he exists) either won’t or can’t suspend the laws of nature. If God can’t then he’s not omnipotent. If he won’t then he’s not perfectly good.

On top of that, the design of the world could be better. Birth defects are an obvious example. Or the fact that it’s easy to choke on food or for women to develop fistulas after childbirth when a better design would prevent these raises serious questions about the omnipotence of the Designer.

But is it worth believing in a God who is not all-powerful even if he’s more powerful than anyone else? For some, yes. For others, no. It depends on your opinion.

Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full

Telegraph Pass Phoenix, Arizona
Telegraph Pass
Phoenix, Arizona

Stoicism is a major theme in Tom Wolfe’s 1998 novel A Man in FullBut Wolfe portrays Stoicism as a religion rather than a philosophy. Yet, while ancient philosopher Epictetus believed in Zeus, it’s hard to find a Stoic today who worships Greek deities.

In Wolfe’s novel, Conrad discovers Stoicism while in prison. An out of work father, Conrad leaves a job interview only to see his car being towed. He hadn’t parked on the sidewalk – a truck parked behind him had pushed his car out of its spot. Conrad argues with parking enforcement to no avail. Then he goes to the impound lot only to find that the fee is higher than he was told. So Conrad attempts to break his car out of impound. He fights back when the attendant tries to physically restrain him, and even attacks a police officer who intervenes. Conrad believes he was justified, however, so he turns down a misdemeanor plea bargain and is convicted of felony aggravated assault.

Maybe if Conrad had been a Stoic beforehand he would have handled things differently. His attempts at persuasion having failed, he might have realized that an impounded car is not within his control. He can’t force others to do anything against their will, and choosing assault must also come with choosing the consequences.

After escaping from prison, Conrad assumes a stolen identity and begins working as a personal care assistant for business tycoon Charlie Crocker, who recently had a knee replacement. Crocker is deep in debt, but a corrupt politician offers to pull some strings with the bank if Crocker will serve as a political pawn.

Crocker asks Conrad for advice, and Conrad says, “To a Stoic there are no dilemmas. They don’t exist.”

Confused, Crocker asks for clarification, and Conrad tells him the story of Agrippinus. Emperor Nero had asked Agrippinus and Florus to humiliate themselves by acting like clowns – or face execution. Florus didn’t know what to do, but Agrippinus says that Florus will act like a clown while Agrippinus will not.

Why? Because Florus had already considered the possibility of acting like a clown. Agrippinus, instead, tells Nero, “It’s up to you to do your part, and it’s up to me to do mine.”

Point being, your only true possession is your character.

Crocker decides to sacrifice his business empire (and lose his trophy wife in the process) rather than be the politician’s clown. Then he becomes a Stoic evangelist.

Wolfe does a great job of illustrating a central Stoic idea – that there are no dilemmas when you’re asked to sacrifice your character. Maybe that’s why Stoicism appealed to early Christians. It echos Jesus’ rhetorical question, “What does it profit a man to gain the world but lose his soul?”

This underscores the point that Stoicism is a philosophy independent of any religious tradition, though it can intersect with many different religions – or no religion at all.

Is faith essential – even if you don’t believe in the supernatural?

The FTC Building in Washington, D.C.
The FTC Building in Washington, D.C.

Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind covers an enormous range of topics in 400 plus pages. But one (of many) ideas that got me thinking is his claim that we all believe in things that aren’t objectively real.


Money is a cultural myth.


Take money. Why do we think a green piece of paper is so valuable? By itself it has no practical use (though you can exchange it for things, such as food, that do have a practical use). A dollar is backed by the United States of America, and that’s good enough for us.

But why do we trust the US government? It’s faith.

On page 117 Harari writes that “an objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs.” The subjective is dependent on the “beliefs of a single individual.” But the inter-subjective “exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals.”

Money is inter-subjective. It’s a cultural myth.

We as a society believe that a little green piece of paper is valuable. But if society lost faith in the backing of the United States then the dollar would become worthless overnight.

Not so with an apple. An apple can provide nutrition even if you don’t believe it can.


Human rights don’t exist objectively.


Harari also argues that human rights don’t exist objectively like an apple does. Human rights are a cultural belief, and a relatively new one at that.

But this doesn’t mean that human rights aren’t real. This mythos is real because it serves not only a practical, but an essential, purpose in human societies.

The “cognitive revolution,” as Harari calls it, occurred when humans evolved the ability for abstract thought. Abstract concepts are mental tools just as spears are physical tools. We need to conceptualize our world, and shared concepts are essential for cooperation and cohesion in a society of more than a hundred or two hundred people.

The gods, and later the one God, are also social constructs. Zeus no longer exists because too few people believe in him. But the God of the Bible does still exist (as a human construct rather than an objective reality) because many people do believe in him.

A lot of people see religious diversity (especially atheism) as a threat to social cohesion because diversity and disbelief mean that society loses the uniting mythos of the one true God.


The faith that science will save us is mistaken.


How does this bode for the atheist quest to rid the human race of faith?

From Harari’s point of view, reason also is a human construct with no objective reality. Though reason has been immensely useful as a cognitive tool.

But the belief – the faith – that science will save us is mistaken. On page 253 Harari states that, “All modern attempts to stabilise the sociopolitical order have had no choice but to rely on either of two unscientific methods.”

One is to “declare that it [a scientific theory] is a final and absolute truth.” The Nazis did this with biological claims, and Communists did it with economic claims.

The other is to reject science in favor of “a non-scientific absolute truth.” This is what evangelicals and Islamic fundamentalists do.

A casual look at the progressive/conservative divide in America today reflects these options. Conservatives deny climate change and want biblical myths taught in science class rather than the theory of evolution. And some progressives (particularly radical left-wing students) insist that their theories about social justice must be believed and not debated.


The 1950s mythos will not reassert itself in the long run.


As such, today’s culture war (like all culture wars) represents a rejection of the established mythos and an attempt to have a new mythos dominate.

The 1960s and ’70s saw the rejection of the 1950s mythos. The 1980s through the early 2000s saw the new mythos’s quest for mainstream acceptance, which was accomplished through cultural relativism. Demanding dominance would have failed, but asking people just to think about the new mythos as one set of beliefs among many gets your foot in the door.

Today we see a demand for ideological dominance among progressive students at private colleges (and some state universities). Where this will go is hard to say.

There are several possibilities. Progressive students might see their mythos dominate within three or four decades. Or, mainstream culture might adopt some ideas that today are considered radical (much like gay marriage was radical twenty years ago) while retaining some traditional ideas. Alternatively, a third as yet undefined mythos could emerge (though that’s highly unlikely).

But the 1950s mythos will not reassert itself in the long run. Donald Trump wants to make America great again, implicitly invoking the 1950s of the Silent Generation’s young adulthood, Baby Boomer’s childhood, and Generations X’s imagination. But even if Trump becomes president the older cohorts that elect him will eventually age out of the political system.

We are a tribal species. But it doesn’t have to be our downfall.

Us vs. them is human nature. Human rights, equality & democracy are the answers.

Us versus them is one of the most common themes in politics, history, IMG_0472sports, business, music – in human nature in general. But people also can be amazingly generous, compassionate, and cooperative.

In the 1970s E.O. Wilson proposed sociobiology to explain this contradiction. We’re a super social species, and just as adaptations to the environment drive our physical evolution, adaptations to the demands of our social group drive psychological evolution. In other words, our social behavior has biological roots.


Today’s social groups are like the tribes of the past.


But this social behavior has its limits. In The Social Conquest of Earth Wilson notes, “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”

Social skills are key to human survival. The most socially cohesive tribes surpassed less adept tribes. And today’s social groups are like the tribes of the past. But cooperation, while valued among members of the ingroup, is valued far less with the outgroup. Often there’s violence.

And we mustn’t forget about competition within a tribe for power and social status. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt likes to quote a Bedouin saying: it’s me against my brother; me and my brother against our cousin; and me, my brother, and our cousin against the stranger. The more distant our connection the less you matter to me.

This is why Wilson tells us that human beings seem to be of two minds: self-sacrificing and viciously selfish, altruistic and self-interested, peacemakers and warriors, empathic and uncaring, and so on.


The more distant our connection the less you matter to me.


I don’t think argue pure altruism exists. Evolution ultimately is about the perpetuation of an individual’s genes, so it all comes down to self-interest. But there’s narrow self-interest, or competition, which is win-lose; and there’s broader self-interest, or cooperation, which is win-win.

Both cooperation and competition can be good. But narrow self-interest is our default. And this can be problematic. Our shared humanity (and shared DNA with other species) means we’re closer to others than we often think. But failing to realize this leads us to think that others don’t matter, and we can do whatever we want to them. This is how rape, murder, genocide, torture, and any number of horrible things happen.

Human societies have tried to solve these problems. It took us thousands of years, however, to figure out that democracy, equality, and universal human rights are essential to mitigate the dark side of human nature.


Religion fuels tribalism, but atheism is just another tribe.


And we can do better still. Religion fuels tribalism, but atheism is just another tribe to contend with. What can we do about this? Wilson suggests:

  • Challenging the claims of those in power that they speak for God, are God’s special representatives, and have exclusive knowledge. This includes challenging the alleged special status of the pope and even the Dali Lama.
  • Acknowledging that we are solely responsible for our actions, which includes how we treat others, animals, and the earth.
  • Accepting that science is the best method we have for discovering objective truth about the world.

To this I would add that we should try to figure out what encourages cooperation, and what encourages competition. After all, competition is often good. Competition drives us toward something better. But competition can get out of hand. Where is the line, and what leads to us crossing it?


We need democracy on a global scale, and a universal bill of human rights.


We need democracy on a global scale. There are still too many undemocratic countries. And most corporations are not democracies even though there’s no reason why corporations can’t be run more democratically.

I don’t advocate a strong world government, however, because that would be too big of a temptation for a would-be dictator. But we could have a universal bill of human rights that we would strive for all nations to amend into their national constitutions.

When Is It Okay to Criticize Religion?

A person’s religion is a huge part of their identity, so criticism of religion is often taken as a personal attack. Progressives claim it’s racist to criticize Islam, conservatives say liberals unfairly single out Christianity, and atheists criticize every religion (even Buddhism).

Some people say we shouldn’t criticize religion. Yet, religious beliefs have an enormous impact on people’s lives – especially for those don’t belong to the dominant religion.

Others say we can and should criticize religion because attacking ideas is not the same as attacking people. But it’s an easy line to cross. If a belief is absurd does that make the believer absurd?

At least some criticism of religion is hard to avoid, however. Christians try to convert others, and they back it up with the threat of eternal damnation. By proselytizing a believer invites a response, and that response might be critical.

And Christians in the United States led the campaign against same-sex marriage primarily because of biblical morality. There was no way for marriage equality supporters to argue their case without criticizing what Christians believe.

The same is true of Islam. The severe impact Islam has on the lives of women, religious minorities, and others in Middle Eastern countries opens Islam to criticism. Yet, in 2014 Hirsi Ayaan Ali (an ex-Muslim and survivor of female genital mutilation) was disinvited from a speaking engagement at Brandeis University because she is an outspoken critic of Islam, which she calls a “cult of death.”

While I wouldn’t call Islam a violent religion, I wouldn’t call Islam a peaceful religion either. The same is true for Christianity, Buddhism, and other religions. And atheism too. Every one of these is a mixed bag because human beings are neither inherently violent nor inherently peaceful. We all have the capacity for both.

Perhaps it all comes down to how religion is criticized. I don’t go out of my way to dis religion, but neither am I silent. However, I avoid saying “you’re wrong” in favor of saying “I disagree.”

I try to minimize adjectives such as irrational, harmful, etc. Instead, I try to be specific about my objections, such as saying, “I can think of several biblical contradictions.”

I try to be friendly and humorous. I try to be open minded, which in my view doesn’t mean agreeing. Open mindedness means a willingness to listen, trying to accurately understand the other person’s perspective – even if I disagree.

Finally, there are some ideologues who only want to fight rather than engage in true dialogue. In those cases it’s best to just walk away if I can.