Conscious Intelligence is Not a Logical Proposition
Clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson has staked out a large territory in the sphere of public discussion, which borders on several distinctly different areas of thought and belief. These multiple “boundary lines” have become lightning rods of controversy, as “experts” of various types come to feel that an outsider is treading upon their treasured turf.
One of the most interesting lines of controversy between Professor Peterson and antagonists, involves the opposition of militant atheists to Peterson’s symbolic and allegorical treatment of religious thought and the Christian bible.
The main problem that I see with this controversial cross-border interaction, is that two distinct languages are being spoken on either side of the dividing line. The “true believer” atheists are using the language of logical propositions, while Dr. Peterson is using a much deeper language of metaphor and allegory. It could be argued that logical propositions may be suitable for describing how a conscious intelligence might arrive at reasonable moral values or judgments — although that is open to debate. But I submit that the unconscious mental processes which comprise almost the entirety of what is happening in the brain, function far from any hint of propositional logic. And understanding this moves the entire discussion to an entirely different foundation than what “born again” atheists might believe in their hearts of atheist faith.
The Rider and the Elephant
The overwhelming mass of our brains is dedicated to unconscious processing — like “the rider and the elephant” analogy by psychologist Jonathan Haidt:
Even more than conscious intelligence, unconscious intelligence is not a logical proposition — not even a complex set of logical propositions. This is particularly true when dealing with morals, values, and questions of ethics. Consider the following approach to value judgments formulated by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt:
The Intuitive Judgment Link
We reach our moral judgments effortlessly through moral intuitions.
The Post Hoc Reasoning Link
Moral reasoning, on the other hand, is an effortful process that takes place after judgments are reached.
The Reasoned Persuasion Link
We produce and verbally express our moral reasoning in order to justify the conclusions we have already made.
The Social Persuasion Link
We are all highly susceptible to group norms of morality, even to the mere knowledge that our associates have a moral judgment.
This description seems closer to the underlying reality than the idea that we reach value judgments or moral decisions using conventional logic. Logical reasoning is indeed a “johnny come lately” to the evolutionary party. Much like statistical reasoning, it is not a natural style of thought for the untrained brain. When Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens attempt to refute religious approaches to thought using propositional logic, they are committing a basic logical fallacy of “epistemological mismatch.”
It is true that “scientific reasoning” has opened the world of possibilities for humans to an extent undreamed of several hundred years ago. And it is likewise true that propositional logic in the form of “algorithmic reasoning” has sped up and extended the development of several areas of human enterprise in an impressive manner.
And yet there are definite limits to scientific and logical reasoning which must be faced and dealt with by intelligent beings, if humans are to use their distinctly evolved brains to achieve higher levels of existence.
Propositional Logic vs. Invisible Metaphor
The ongoing debates between philosophical neuroscientist Sam Harris and philosophical clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson highlight this epistemological difference. Our brains did not evolve along logical lines, but rather under the influence of a long chain of environmental conditions over hundreds of millions of years. As a result, only a relatively few humans — even today — can do science, math, statistics, or careful rational thinking of any kind at very high levels.
I am reminded of the old “Prolog vs. Lisp” controversy a few decades ago in Artificial Intelligence research. Prolog is clearly superior for abstracting logical propositions, but Lisp has distinct strengths of its own, making it a better language to use for other forms of high level abstraction.
Prolog lost much of its appeal as cognition researchers came to understand the massive differences between logical propositions and the generation of intelligent output. The “limits of logic” parallel the “limits of science” in many ways. Born again atheists such as Sam Harris attempt to stretch the concept of “science” far beyond any reasonable limits, in order to plant the flag of victory of conscious logical propositions over the unconscious and massive elephant of irrationality that lies beneath. The evolved human brain is that elephant, and evolution continues — for now — to be the master, in this ongoing master-slave relationship.
Al Fin was Atheist Before Atheism was Cool
Back in the early 2000s, four influential books on atheism were published by 4 men belonging to a group sometimes referred to as “The New Atheists.”
On September 30, 2007 four prominent atheists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett) met at Hitchens’ residence in Washington, D.C., for a private two-hour unmoderated discussion. The event was videotaped and titled “The Four Horsemen”.
Personally, I had been an “atheist” for many years, and in addition I had long admired some of the work of Dawkins and Dennett, and was sympathetic with some of Hitchens’ work. But after skimming these works and watching some videos of the different men describing their views, I was struck by the militancy and the quasi-religious proselytisation aspects of much of the atheism being presented by this group.
The experience cast a negative pall over my view of several authors whom I would otherwise find generally enlightening. Why? The sheer militant superficiality of their zeal. They reminded me of christian crusaders off the kill the jew and the mohammedan, in any manifestation whatsoever.
I was once a Christian, and am now an “atheist.” But I came to my “atheism” honestly, and maintained deep sympathies toward others who chose — for their own reasons — to believe otherwise than myself. I had no reason to want to “convert” them. Probably if we were living in the age of the crusades or the Spanish Inquisition I would see this divide differently. But it is only the muslims today who are killing in the name of religion — at least outside of Africa. Even Northern Ireland seems to have brought about a de facto peace between the green and the orange.
Jordan Peterson Chooses the Evolutionary Path
Rather than trying to force the round brain into a square hole of propositional logic, Peterson is willing to follow the evolutionary twists and turns of the irrational human mind. As a research scientist — and clinician — in the field of psychology, Peterson is deeply immersed in both the scientific literature and the clinical experience of real human beings in all their glorious dysfunction.
But Peterson went further. Understanding too well the limits of science and logic, Peterson dove into the works of Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Jung, Rogers, and many more — in an attempt to understand more clearly the nature of our evolved brains, and especially the minds they generate. He devoted 3 hours of every day for between 15 and 20 years to this quest for understanding, and the product was the book “Maps of Meaning.” A lecture series by the same name is available (in multiple iterations) free for viewing on YouTube.
Let’s be frank (and don’t call me Shirley!). No one person can master all of the mental pursuits which Jordan Peterson is attempting. But it is a measure of the soundness and robust resilience of his complex psyche that he is able to achieve what he has done. Peterson delivers more insights in many single videos than most people will ever absorb in their entire lifetimes. Metaphor, allegory, and symbol penetrate much more deeply than propositional logic can do — at least when it comes to the human experience, which is the only experience we are capable of having.
And make no mistake: Peterson is not finished yet. Although currently sidetracked and overwhelmed by speaking engagements, travel, requests for interviews, and other demands on his time, he has also been working on a series of videos on The Psychological Significance of Biblical Stories. Although I am no longer particularly interested in “biblical stories,” I will likely take the time to look in on most of these new videos. Why? Because of the insight which Peterson brings to virtually everything he approaches. Scientific, clinical, philosophical, and personal insights, which are unique to him because of the combination of his evolved genetic complement and his unique experiences over time.
Why I am an “Atheist” and Not an Atheist
Al Fin is an “Atheist” in quotes, because the entire idea of atheism is absurd. There is no credible or consistent definition of “god” to which a person can declare his non-belief. Every believer holds a different conception of “god” in his heart. And for many, it is the belief in this being which provides meaning to their lives — and a reason to continue living. While an atheist might find satisfaction in tearing down another person’s deepest source of personal value, an “Atheist” certainly would not.
Most atheists are too superficial in their understanding of evolved mind and culture. They stop digging just when things get interesting, certain that they have already discovered “truth.” But there are different epistemologies, with different abilities to measure different facets of real world realities. Settling for merely one of many without taking a broader view is the mark of someone who quits too early in the pursuit.
Take your time. Experience life while learning about yourself and others. Sample widely. Choose wisely while being true to yourself. Keep a sharp and open mind. Make yourself very Dangerous, just in case.
Book recommendation: Critique of Religion and Philosophy by philosopher Walter Kaufmann
I am also an atheist who is becoming more irritated with militant atheists. Indeed, I don’t like the new atheists much these days. Their schtick gets old. The other reason why I am becoming more favorable towards Christians and Christianity is that they are not the problem, the wacko left is, and they are obsessed with crushing Christianity any way they can.
Christianity is associated with western culture, capitalism, the colonial empires of Europe, and civilisational supremacy. As such it must be crushed and all the fields of western civilisation must be salted.
I am intrigued by the nascent resistance to this crushing of Christianity and the west in general. Under Obama (and presumably under President Hillary) any effective resistance to the crusade to crush the west would have been almost impossible. But elections have consequences. That is why power elites inside media, academia, government, foundations, and other cultural institutions have gone so wildly and hysterically insane toward the inhabitant of the Oval Office in 2018.
I like to call myself an agnostic, but day-to-day I am an atheist. I am theoretically an agnostic because I am willing to entertain the idea that there is a creator god. In that sense I am a deist. But, I regard the gods of the Jews, Christians, Muslims, animists, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., as absurdities.
It is interesting to entertain such ideas as “creator gods,” as long as we understand where we are drawing such concepts from.
Science fiction literature envisages a wide range of superior beings capable of all kinds of god-like and demigod-like powers. Superman is a pop culture version of one such creature.
Humans are attempting to grant god-like powers to humans via scientific research, at the same time as they are trying to grant god-like powers to machines. I sense a conflict in the making somehow.
Thank you for your excellent website.
Peterson is articulate and often his reasoning is razor sharp in dialogue with others. However, his exchange with Harris was not his best work. Despite Peterson being quite right – righter than Harris – about the fact that religion is not going away and that people are just not going to be like Harris, Harris was correct about the issue of truth.
Whether God or Nature produced us, the question of whether or not it is true that 2+2=4 is a question that must be answered, in the final analysis, rationally. Reason cannot be displaced by psychology or sociology. Even if data from these disciplines undermine much of what we think we know or how rational we think we are, this is still material in which a newly informed rational person must now use to decide what is true.
Peterson was never able to produce a coherent response to Harris on this issue for Peterson kept confusing truth and wisdom or social and personal utility.
And always insert “in my opinion” when dismissing another person’s argument as incoherent, or when accusing someone of confusing truth, wisdom, social/personal utility, or any other value loaded term.
I may or may not agree with you on the points you make, but “human rationality” is not a cut and dried question. The human brain did not evolve as a reasoning machine in the sense of scientific, logical, or statistical reasoning. The overwhelming mass of the human brain — even of the portion of the human brain dedicated to “cognition” — has absolutely nothing to do with “logic” as moderns understand it.
Thanks for the reply.
The question of Peterson’s philosophical coherence has also just been raised by Vox Day. It is an old chestnut, however. Prior to Peterson, there was Rorty and James and before that there was Protagoras with his “man is the measure of all things.”
To borrow from G.E Moore, even if belief X is useful it is perfectly coherent to ask if it is true.
There are any number of examples that can be given to illustrate this point. What drives Harris and Vox (and myself) up the wall is that Peterson seems incapable of grasping this basic point (Harris and Peterson went on for two hours about this very issue).
For what its worth, I think Ray Dalio has a similar but, from what I have read of him, a better system of “Darwinism”.
Thank you for presenting your thoughts in a clear and open manner.
Something which seems to be important to you (and others you cite) is the idea that Jordan Peterson is “incapable of grasping” a basic idea that “if belief X is useful it is perfectly coherent to ask if it is true.”
On the level of axiomatic logic, what you say certainly seems reasonable. But do we live most of our lives on the level of axiomatic logic?
Consider what the perspective might be of someone such as Jordan Peterson — professor, clinical psychologist, author, scientific researcher, scholar of the bloody history of the human subconscious (Maps of Meaning), student of political philosophy, father and husband, public speaker, etc. — when weighing the miniscule content of axiomatic logic rattling around inside the cranium against the roiling mass of irrational subconscious which seems to be in control almost all of the time.
Logical truth is a tiny subset of all forms of “truth” — which must always be taken within context. Most things that happen in life cannot truly be abstracted, or realistically be taken out of context without destroying them.
We live in a wonderful world of science and technology, made possible by careful adherence to various logics on multiple levels. Within each context, the truth or falsity of a “proposition” can be tested. But some contexts are quite inaccessible to those who have not put in the time and blood to understand them or work within them credibly.
These public discussions between Peterson and the atheists are important, just as the discussions between Peterson and Haier, Peterson and Haidt, Peterson and Hicks, Peterson and Paglia, and Peterson and anyone with the guts to stand up and openly discuss topics falling within the man’s vast range of interests.
Peterson spent 3 hours a day every day for at least 15 years just putting together the ideas in Maps of Meaning. He did all of that while teaching at Harvard and the University of Toronto, while maintaining an intense clinical psychology practise, while performing scientific research and publishing well-cited research papers, while raising a family, while consulting for various organisations and businesses, while creating commercial software for purposes of self understanding and self help, while donating time to Canadian public TV and public radio, while taping many hours of lectures to be made available free of charge on YouTube, etc etc etc.
For some it may be easy to dismiss the man’s ideas with a few sentences or aphorisms, but that is not so easy for me to do.
Thanks again for your clear and courteous comments.