We all know the passage in the Gospel According to Matthew, the one that says, “You are Peterson, and upon this Jungian reduction of the Christian faith I shall build my institutional imitators of the archetype.” Or something like that. Point is, we all can acknowledge that Jordan Peterson is doing something good, but because we can acknowledge he’s doing “something” good, doesn’t mean we should take everything he has to say as equally valid. The main issue I have with Peterson is that he’s a psychologist, not a philosopher, or a theologian, or a philosophical theologian, but it seems as if he’s trying to branch out a little and it isn’t a good look. First, something I can appreciate.
One of Peterson’s hallmarks is the naturalist approach to understanding spiritual issues. I personally feel this is a good idea. There’s a general reluctance to acknowledge our more animal impulses (especially among religious types), and how those drive a lot of what we do, even those things that seem like wholly rational endeavors. A reduction of human motivation to our more base, natural impulses is in my opinion actually helpful for working things out at the purely psychological level. That’s also good for those interested in transcending those impulses, like Christians. It isn’t insulting, it’s actually illuminating, since knowing one’s true motivation is also a good way of determining right from wrong and resisting an impulse that once exposed might prove detrimental. That’s what Peterson’s project in large part seems to be. He wants to develop purely psychological explanations for religious phenomena and myth.
In his series on the bible Peterson tries to draw out some principles that he has no problem referring to as “eternal,” although what he means by that is unclear. Unless Peterson believes consciousness is eternal, the idea of eternal principles, dating back to before there were conscious beings to actually have principles, seems a little ridiculous. I have no problem believing there are eternal principles, but I’m also consistent (another important principle), since I also believe in an eternal consciousness that is the fountainhead of those principles. Peterson seems absolutely reluctant to admit to that. That makes any assertion of the eternal on his part at best poetry, and at worst an attempt at pleasing the religious while keeping the irreligious interested, by never confessing he who should not be named. You know… God.
One of the reasons Peterson is so reluctant to confess a belief in an actual transcendence is that such a statement, according to Peterson, is not at the same level of “fact” as scientific fact. This is where Peterson seems to be going ahead of his area of expertise. Any trained philosopher (or untrained wannabe such as myself) can recognize that Peterson has made a philosophical statement, not a scientific one, when he claims that scientific facts are the only kind you can assert with any kind of certainty. How does he know that? Is it a certain fact that scientific assertions are more factual than metaphysical ones? If so, can Peterson prove that scientifically? While I appreciate Peterson’s critique of the new atheists, in this instance he’s making the same mistake that Dawkins and friends make at least 10 times between breakfast and brunch. They give a philosophical ground for asserting that science is the only trustworthy field of facts. That’s like standing on a boat in the middle of the ocean and saying the only reliable place for fish is the market.
All in all, Peterson, in my opinion, has some truly beneficial psychological insights, and we ought to pay attention, especially if you feel something he is saying might be beneficial for you personally. However, when he goes beyond his area of expertise, and begins throwing around terms like “being,” one begins to wonder how familiar he is with the philosophical understanding of that term, and if so, how does he go on refusing to acknowledge the obvious. That where there are beings there is being, and where there is Being you do well to say your prayers and give thanks to the fountainhead of existence.