YouTube ratings magnet Jordan Peterson had a sit-down with Susan Blackmore to discuss/debate the question, “Do We Need God to Make Sense of Life?” The conversation is lightly moderated by Justin Brierley and is part of a weekly radio broadcast called Unbelievable? (a/k/a The Big Conversation, “the flagship apologetics and theology discussion show on Premier Christian Radio in the UK”). One might wonder why evangelicals are so eager to pit believers and atheists against each other. I suppose earnest questioning of one’s faith is preferable to proselytizing, though both undoubtedly occur. The full episode (47 min.) is embedded below:

I’m drawing attention to this video (not that it needs it, nor that I’m effective at it) to bitch about Jordan Peterson. Like Sam Harris, he has turned into an intellectual bully. Their first discussion together on Harris’s podcast was a notorious disaster. Both overwhelm debates with constant interruptions, deluges on their pet subject matter (well rehearsed through repetition), and intransigence (always gotta be fucking right about everything, even when clearly not). It’s as though, all evidence to the contrary, they believe their arguments might be lost in the scrum, so best to overstate and domineer.

I might have guessed that Susan Blackmore would hold her own in debate, but she was surprisingly demure. It’s not that she failed to seek agreement, avoided disagreement when needed, or pulled her punches; it’s that (I suspect) she quickly sensed that there was little point in trying too hard, especially when the moderator kept steering the conversation toward Peterson, who conveniently falls on the belief side of the main question.

I recognize that online debates have become the equivalent of MMA matches for thinkers, where participates lob rhetorical bombs instead of throwing kicks, elbows, and punches. Thus, some fireworks are to be expected. But conversation isn’t fighting, and getting at the meat of issues isn’t fruitful when participants misbehave. Jordan Peterson has become (or always was, I dunno) a most ungenerous and disingenuous combatant despite all the perfunctory pleasantries at the beginnings and ends of his appearances. His typical rejoinders when pushback occurs are “well, that depends on how you define ________,” “the devil’s in the details,” and some form of is not-is too! Even when correct, these tactics fail to advance the discussion but point instead to an infinite regress of “before we can talk about that, we have to talk about this.”

The irritating rejoinder Peterson deployed against Blackmore was to repeatedly swallow whole one category of thing into another in an attempt to nullify, discredit, or define out of existence the first thing. I blogged about this before here. Erecting a bigger umbrella to cover over all distinctions is not much of an argument, IMO. Principled thinkers recognize the need to consider ideas at their proper resolution and don’t insist on using the wrong perspective or tool (e.g., telescope vs. microscope) to render the subject inscrutable. Further, even preschoolers are taught “one of these things is not like the other.” It’s rudimentary Venn diagramming and a basic part of human cognition (apples are not oranges even though they’re both fruits).

For example, when discussing meme theory (alternately, memetics), one of Blackmore’s areas of expertise, Peterson subsumed all of culture and mental life into genetics, as though genes account for absolutely everything all the way down to individual behaviors. He flatly denied gene-culture co-evolution as a valuable way of understanding human sociology as distinguished from human physiology. Similarly, one of his oft-repeated tropes on consciousness insists that conscious awareness — our moment-by-moment experience, or the contents of consciousness (what else is there in that metaphorical container?) — is the only thing that matters to us. This is nonsensical absolutism, much like saying, “all that is, is; all that is not, is not.” Yeah, so what? It’s not profound, insightful, or meaningful. It’s pointlessly paradoxical and causes many interlocutors to stumble. Score one roundhouse for Peterson, I guess.

Peterson pulls the same shit with respect to value systems, saying that adhering to any system whatsoever elevates that belief system to religion and is thus latent theism. According to Peterson, there is no way to be a “true” atheist unless one is completely free or independent of all sociological or cultural constraints, which is to say, anarchist and nihilistic (read: criminal). Honest atheists have been arguing for decades that atheism is not synonymous with amorality and that value structures need not rise to the level of religion and/or an anthropomorphized deity. The fact that Peterson can’t conceptualize value-laden atheism absent a big guy in the sky doesn’t mean atheism doesn’t function for those who can. Peterson may actually subscribe to a rather narrow interpretation of spirituality. Who can say? He’s notoriously slippery when asked pointedly about his spiritual beliefs. Tally one elbow to the temple for Peterson. Others have used similar rhetoric to insist, for instance, that science (or scientism) is a de facto religion rather than a methodology or way of knowing. By this reasoning, avid enthusiasts of any aspect of culture (baseball, opera, video games, pulp romance, cosplay, etc.) are “religious” (scare quotes intentional) about their fetish.

Gradually, I’m returning to my initial assessment of Peterson, namely, that he’s a salesman on the make. He’s selling books, psychological self-assessment tools, and ultimately, his worldview. Although he disclaims money as a primary motivator, it seems to have found its way to him as Patreons flood his coffers. I don’t normally care a whole hell of a lot how much someone makes — at least until it becomes absurd (the 1%) — but it’s clear he’s parlayed his initial notoriety into considerable influence and has even joked that he’s figured out how to monetize SJWs.

It took me a while to make the connection, but it dawned on me at last that Peterson shares one signal characteristic with Donald Rumsfeld: a perverse self-satisfaction with his own answers. Errol Morris’ documentary (really an extended interview) The Unknown Known (2013) features Rumsfeld addressing questions without the least apparent guile or awareness of his own raging bullshit (whom else does that sound like?), and (as memory serves) at least once, overtly pleased with himself for supposedly evading a challenging question by reframing it as something else entirely. Over the course of the film, Rumsfeld’s sincerity becomes pitiable for its rank cluelessness. Peterson hasn’t been in the public eye for nearly as long as Rumsfeld, but if fame, wealth, and adoration (Peterson’s public appearances are described by Dave Rubin as lovefests) are inescapable character deformations as all the mythical stories indicate, Peterson would be well advised to give it a rest before he’s completely corrupted.


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