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Towards a More Sophisticated Understanding of Myth and Religion (?)

3 Post author: Erfeyah 16 April 2017 08:31PM

Lately I have been investigating the work of Jordan Peterson which I have found to be of great value. Indeed, I have to admit that I am being persuaded but trying to keep a critical mind and balance between doubt and belief.

I thought this is a strong argument for a more sophisticated understanding of the function of religion that would be quite fun to throw to the LessWrong community for an attempt to dismantle ;)

You can find his lectures online on YouTube. The 'Maps of Meaning' series is a fairly detailed exposition of the concepts. For a quick taste you can watch the Joe Rogan podcast with him (they talk a bit of religion in the last hour or so) though in this kind of format you inevitably only get a sketch.

Have fun!

Comments (29)

Comment author: CronoDAS 16 April 2017 10:39:11PM 4 points [-]

I don't much care about the "function" of religion; I care whether it is factually correct. (Which it isn't.)

Comment author: RomeoStevens 18 April 2017 04:55:10AM 3 points [-]

This wouldn't be a problem except for the fact that you have tacit beliefs installed by the path dependent process that is hugely religion influenced. It's useful to know about this. E.g. Nietzsche has useful insights for people who consider themselves non-christian but are still running the same OS. Etc.

Comment author: bogus 17 April 2017 02:21:42PM *  1 point [-]

I don't much care about the "function" of religion; I care whether it is factually correct.

So, is Confucianism factually correct? Or shamanic animism, for that matter? Not all religions involve a cosmology (i.e. claims about what the real world is factually like)!

Comment author: CronoDAS 18 April 2017 03:08:09PM 0 points [-]

Shamanic animism is false; that's a pretty easy one.

As I understand it, Confucianism is a collection of advice on how to live a good life and have a good society. That makes it harder to evaluate empirically; I imagine that some of it is true of people generally, some of it is true of ancient China, some of it is false, and some of it is not truth-apt.

Comment author: bogus 18 April 2017 04:56:44PM *  0 points [-]

Shamanic animism is false; that's a pretty easy one.

So, you think that shamanic practices are not doing anything interesting? e.g. that altered states of consciousness, such as are claimed to be inherent in these practices, don't really exist? (If so, that would seem to be falsified by the available evidence.) Or perhaps that practices and cognitive stances linked to shamanic animism are not in fact beneficial to those who pursue them (Such as the stance of striving to relate to the enduring 'spirit' of one's ancestors, in order to heal a perceived psychological weakness or illness)?

Comment author: CronoDAS 19 April 2017 01:45:29PM *  1 point [-]

Some of the practices may have effects, but generally not for the reasons claimed.

Comment author: Dagon 17 April 2017 10:20:26PM 0 points [-]

is Confucianism factually correct? Or shamanic animism, for that matter? Not all religions involve a cosmology (i.e. claims about what the real world is factually like)!

There are multiple levels of claim to evaluate. For the religions I've paid any attention to, the surface factual claims which differ from standard atheist science are false, and the typically unstated underlying claims that their metaphors are "best" for some set of "proper" life goals is false or meaningless.

Can you give an example of a claim of Confucianism or shamanic animism that's true and useful?

Note that I do care about the functions of religion, in the same way I care about the functions of political systems or the function of music. A lot of people claim to believe nonsensical things, and deconstructing claims and associations helps me understand them and myself better.

Comment author: Viliam 20 April 2017 09:55:16AM 0 points [-]

In similar situations I usually think about Dr. Semmelweis, whose theories were dismissed as incorrect (and yes, they were incorrect in some minor technical details), and not enough attention was paid to the fact that they saved lives anyway.

Analogically, religion may be doing some right things for the wrong reasons. We shouldn't copy its reasoning blindly, but we also shouldn't dismiss the whole area without exploring it.

Even if all the insights would turn out to be something unimpressive-in-hindsight like "singing together increases group cohesion", it is still a body of knowledge that is good to have. (Specifically for a community that is known by its "inability to cooperate".)

Comment author: Jiro 20 April 2017 06:30:56PM 0 points [-]

Analogically, religion may be doing some right things for the wrong reasons. We shouldn't copy its reasoning blindly, but we also shouldn't dismiss the whole area without exploring it.

Following newspaper horoscopes may also produce the right results for the wrong reasons. Listening to advice from a 5 year old may produce the right results for the wrong reasons. Opening an encyclopedia to a random page and reading whatever paragraph you point to as a solution to your problem may produce the right results for the wrong reasons.

Producing the right results for the wrong reasons is uninteresting unless it produces them often--at least more often than a nonreligious person using basic educated guesses.

Comment author: Erfeyah 20 April 2017 07:08:33PM *  1 point [-]

Just to gently point out that you both, seems to me, haven't actually checked the work I created this post about in the first place. It is not a matter of right results for the wrong reasons. It is about the right results, for the right reasons, in a different approach than the scientific one, but one that is part of human culture even today. It explains the function of ritual, myth and religion in the development of human thought tracing it through thousands of years of cultural development in humans and linking it even further down to biological structures through evolutionary time. With scientific evidence.

You are still having the old religion debate where rationality and science won. This is the new one.

Comment author: Erfeyah 17 April 2017 12:43:28PM 0 points [-]

This is a subtle argument and if Peterson is correct with his assessment you do care. And his argument is really strong if you give it due attention. This is a time to use humility as even our view of religion should be open to updating.

Then we can debate the actual arguments and learn.

Comment author: CronoDAS 17 April 2017 02:22:31PM 2 points [-]

I really, really hate videos and podcasts and am not going to deal with them. Is there a text link I can read?

Comment author: Erfeyah 17 April 2017 04:45:04PM *  0 points [-]

You can get the Maps of Meaning book as a hard copy or pdf.

I am going through it at the moment and have to warn you that this is not a general public book. It is a really dense academic work. If I was you I would get the main concepts by watching the university lectures. Then, if you want to explore further, you can go through the evidence he is putting forward in detail.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 06 May 2017 04:36:39PM *  1 point [-]

I recommend a different version of Peterson's Maps of Meaning. The course versions are very flabby, while version recorded for TVO in 2004 has been edited down to 6 hours, compared to 23 and counting for the 2017 version linked above. Probably the best place to get them is his podcast either via a podcast app, or 1 2 3 4 (via soundcloud). But there are also videos, so that you can see his face, although not his slides.

Comment author: J_Thomas_Moros 18 April 2017 02:43:30AM 1 point [-]

I find Jordon Peterson's views fascinating and have a rationalist friend whose thinking has recently been greatly influenced by him. So much so that my friend recently went to a church service. My problem with his view is that it ignores the on the ground reality that many adherents believe their religion to be true in the sense of being a proper map of the territory. This is in direct contradiction to Peterson's use of religion and truth. I warned my friend that this is what he would find in church. Sure enough, that is what he found, and he will not be returning.

Comment author: Erfeyah 18 April 2017 12:33:02PM 1 point [-]

:)

Well now, we should not confuse the church with religion. Certainly not in the arguments Peterson is making. What you are describing is the first reaction I get when talking to friends about the ideas. They are like: "What! Are you going to become Christian? You are supporting the damn priests! Haven't you seen what the church has done through the ages! They think the earth is 3000 years old etc.". It is a fair reaction but represents an all or nothing view of the world as well as a lack of understanding regarding the separation between internal and external realities. I can be a murderer in a Buddhist garment, a liar pretending to be humble and sincere or a power corrupted attention seeker pretending (and even thinking to myself) that I am a priest. This is not about the majority view. It is about understanding the complexity, sophistication and relevance of what some of us thought until now as primitive.

To be clear, I am certainly not in favour of a resurgence of classical Christianity. Just the possibility that there is advanced behavioural and experiential knowledge to be extracted from these kind of sources.

Comment author: tristanm 17 April 2017 11:54:39PM 1 point [-]

Jordan Peterson seems to work within a "meta-narrative" view of the universe, where everything follows a grand plan, but the major difference he has with other "meta-narrative" philosophers is that this grand narrative is what he terms as "Darwinian." You will find that this "Darwinian" conception of the world to be completely at odds with the optimization view of evolution which is articulated very well in almost all of the evolutionary biology literature. Almost everything he bases his philosophy on seems to be based on a catastrophic (though quite common) misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution - essentially the view that things evolve according to some master plan where everything is constantly improving or moving according to the whims of some evolution fairy. Because he takes an extreme pragmatist view of "truth", the "truth" has to square with the results of evolution - but this can only work if his understanding of evolution were correct. But given that it's a gross mischaracterization, it's fairly easy to see that his particular pragmatist view of truth cannot be correct, or else we would be given numerous examples of conflicting "truths." For example, one biological adaptation could be useful for survival in one environment and totally useless or even deadly in another. Or, it could be useful for survival in the current situation, but ultimately lead the species to its extinction in the long run. In my mind this totally erases all possibility for a Darwinian meta-narrative.

Jordan Peterson is an excellent speaker and quite interesting to listen to, mostly due to his almost encyclopedic knowledge of mythology and literature. But this makes him an expert of mythology and literature, but I would hesitate to extend his qualities beyond that. I think his popularity is basically due to a few factors, namely, that he possesses some charisma, he fights against identity politics (but doesn't seem to be far-right in any sense), and his "hero archetype" serves to amplify his perceived qualities in a way (because, as a somewhat theatrical person, he appears to try and emulate that archetype).

Comment author: Erfeyah 18 April 2017 12:13:46PM *  1 point [-]

I do not see how a directional "meta-narrative" or master plan is needed for an understanding of Peterson's view. What he is saying is that our mythology preceded rationality and its qualities reflect behavioural patterns and attitudes that allowed adaptation, survival and growth. Morality, for example, did not emerge through rationality but through acting out patterns of behaviours and experiencing the results according to the underlying qualities of nature. The patterns that produced beneficial results were encoded into stories, rituals, myths and religions.

His view of "truth" as discussed in Sam Harris' podcast is a separate philosophical point that I am not in alignment with myself. I believe that using the word "wisdom" for this kind of truth is much clearer for the purpose of conversation in our current culture. That is what Peterson in the end chose to do during the second podcast with Harris. It is worth noting that when talking about Peterson (or anyone else for that matter) discussing his points is not an all or nothing affair. As it is usual with thinkers he will get some things right and other things wrong. But the things he is getting right (in my estimation) are really important.

If I am missing something in your point could you address some of his more specific claims?

Comment author: tristanm 18 April 2017 01:32:56PM 0 points [-]

The patterns that produced beneficial results were encoded into stories, rituals, myths and religions.

How is this view different than, say, Richard Dawkins' concept of the meme?

Comment author: Erfeyah 18 April 2017 02:18:38PM 1 point [-]

I am not that familiar with the details of the 'meme' concept so I will give you my assessment and you can correct me if I have misunderstood.

Peterson has stated that the idea of a meme is Dawkins beginning to understand the concept of an archetype. He will then explain (this is in the "maps of meaning" lectures if I remember correctly) why he did not go deep enough. I will try to give an example but, again, this is complex and Peterson is mapping the concepts in multiple levels including brain functions.

[1] If we take the example of a snake as a symbol we can find that humans have a direct connection with the symbol. There is evidence that our reaction to a snake is encoded directly into our biology in the same way that a rat that has never seen a cat is afraid of it the first time it sees one during its life. This will directly influence our use of the symbol so that we do not use it to represent let's say security. We will use it to represent something with negative affect.

[2] Now, there is evidence that shows quite clearly that we have first developed capacities for visualisation, imitation and play and only much later verbalisation capabilities and even later rational thought. Tribal cultures have been observed to use ritual and later myth. It is safe to assume that knowledge structures started developing through visualised and ritualised patterns into myths and then into religions. The best "stories" produced the cultures that are now in existence. These are stories that have been developed through thousands of years based on biological structures developed over billions of years.

Taking [1] and [2] together we can ask if there is any relevant information that has been encoded in these kind of practises and stories. In other words maybe the stories are not primitive and to be disposed of and we need to extract the meanings and verbalise them.

You can find a hint on these stories relevance by looking at the instance of morality. If you follow rationality to its end with our current data you will have to end in moral relativism. But instead our societies have retained the meanings of the religious stories with concepts such as virtues and vices, good and evil, lower and higher and are structured around them. At the same time our rationality is (unsuccessfully for the moment) trying to reconcile rationality with morality.

What I just wrote doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of Peterson's exposition.

Comment author: tristanm 18 April 2017 05:14:32PM 0 points [-]

So it seems safe to say that Jordan Peterson is essentially claiming that morality exists external to and independent from minds, a sort of moral objectivism, and that humanity has essentially picked this up over time by evolving in accordance with it.

If you follow rationality to its end with our current data you will have to end in moral relativism.

You will end up with a weaker belief in moral objectivism, yes. But I don't think you end up with "relativism" in the sense in which it is typically used: To refer to the belief that all cultural mores and taboos are equally true (or false), or equally useful. Rationalists usually come to believe the exact opposite of that.

But instead our societies have retained the meanings of the religious stories with concepts such as virtues and vices, good and evil, lower and higher and are structured around them.

Keep in mind that recorded human society has been around for only a few thousand years, which on an evolutionary timescale is almost nothing. But Peterson seems to be using the observation that we have a lot of similar stories that show up across the centuries to mean that there is some objective moral truth underlying all of it. He appears to be taking what he observes to be a relative constancy over a relatively short time-scale and inferring that that constancy has been around over geological timescales. And what I think he also might be doing is downplaying the significant differences you see in cultures over time - take the difference between Eastern and Western philosophy, for example. I'm sure Peterson could point out a lot of similarities (such as similar archetypes between the myths), but the problem is that he'd be missing the divergence that is most clear when you dig in to what each of the ancient archetypical sages actually taught.

Comment author: Erfeyah 18 April 2017 06:35:05PM *  0 points [-]

Thank you for the thoughtful points.

So it seems safe to say that Jordan Peterson is essentially claiming that morality exists external to and independent from minds, a sort of moral objectivism, and that humanity has essentially picked this up over time by evolving in accordance with it.

I haven't heard of him stating it explicitly but I think it is fair to assume that this is at least partly true. For the moment we can agree that this is, at least, a valid hypothesis/possibility. But I would personally add that there is no need to prematurely extract a universal principle. Let's say that there are evolved and evolving behavioural patterns of adaptation to reality (as interacted with by humans) which we can call 'morality'.

You will end up with a weaker belief in moral objectivism, yes. But I don't think you end up with "relativism" in the sense in which it is typically used.

I don't see how you can extract objective valence by rational means. You have to presuppose a distinction parallel to good and evil at some level. Could you elaborate?

Keep in mind that recorded human society has been around for only a few thousand years, which on an evolutionary timescale is almost nothing.

Peterson is talking in an evolutionary time scale. He is tracing the emergence of these structures through the evolutionary layers of biological organisms preceding humans. He then gives examples of possible emerging proto-morality in animal behaviour while pointing to the parts of the brain involved and to the existence and identical function of these parts in humans.

(But also I think you are still talking during this paragraph about the existence of objective morality. As I said above I don't think it is necessary to extract a universal principle at the moment.)

I think he also might be doing is downplaying the significant differences you see in cultures over time - take the difference between Eastern and Western philosophy, for example.

I do not see divergence at the core of Eastern and Western ancient thought. On the contrary I see a quite remarkable statement of the same things. I think you might be confusing the dogmatic and social organisation elements with the underlying concepts. Every formulation needs to be in accordance with the current time and culture in order to work in multiple levels at the same time. This is were "morality" diverges a lot. But there are clear patterns in the emergence of basic distinctions like good and evil and virtues and vices as I stated.

Peterson in his exposition examines the stories in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Tao Te Ching, Alchemy and Christianity. He does not seem to have any knowledge of the Islamic tradition. I happen to have some knowledge of that part and I have to say that there is no dissonance I can detect at least for now (I am still exploring as sceptically as I can).

Comment author: Lumifer 18 April 2017 02:29:45PM 0 points [-]

Dawkins' meme is, notably, selfish.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 18 April 2017 04:58:19AM 0 points [-]

I'd recommend the second Harris podcast instead. They got bogged down on a side point in the first one as they mention. https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/meaning-and-chaos

Comment author: Erfeyah 18 April 2017 12:42:13PM 0 points [-]

I would actually recommend Peterson's material before the Sam Harris podcasts. I can see many people that are arguing against his view just by listening to this podcast and it is obvious to me that they have not understood the actual thesis. I can see the votes going up on CronoDAS' "factually correct" comment above which is one of the things that Peterson successfully addresses right from the get go...

Comment author: RomeoStevens 18 April 2017 08:20:46PM 0 points [-]

If you really want people to engage with it you might want to do the hard work for them and strip out the preface and bold type chapter summaries from his book and upload and link them. Otherwise 99% of people aren't going to engage.

Comment author: Erfeyah 18 April 2017 09:03:31PM *  0 points [-]

I see what you are saying but this is of such depth that if someone does not have the patience to engage with the material I, on my part, don't see how I can benefit through engaging with them on a debate about it.

(By the way Sam Harris seems to be one of the people that haven't engaged with the material...)

Comment author: Elo 17 April 2017 07:40:01AM 0 points [-]

Self authoring looks promising but I had never had time to try it. If you are in need of that guidance I see it as likely to work.

Comment author: Erfeyah 17 April 2017 12:45:53PM 0 points [-]

There is some evidence that it is successful but I haven't checked the sources carefully. Maybe for another thread as I don't see a direct connection with the myth/religion argument.