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