Errors in the fundamentals lead to problems down the road. I believe that at the core of Jordan Peterson’s system is an error that leads to his inability to see Christianity for what it truly is. Christianity is not just a mythological story that has utility for organizing flourishing societies. Christianity is also an accurate depiction of historical events with a message of God’s plan of salvation for the world.
What is this error?
Jordan Peterson’s conception of the nature of truth is the fatal flaw in his entire system. It is this particular reason that Peterson is, in fact, leading people further from, not closer to the truth.
In this first post of two parts, I will give a brief background on Peterson, his version of truth, and compare it to a classical theistic view of truth. In the next post, we will look at some specific examples of Peterson’s arguments for his version of truth, and draw out their illogical conclusions and incompatibilities with Christianity.
Rule #9 Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t 1
Jordan Peterson knows a lot that most people don’t. He has a background in clinical psychology but is also very fluent in topics of the humanities: art, literature, music, politics, and even some philosophy. I have personally learned a great deal from Dr. Peterson and am very grateful for the work he is doing in many areas.
Peterson’s ideas are often both layered and practical. He also has a way with words that make his ideas stick in your head. For instance, he offers the advice to “clean your room” meaning put yourself in order before you try and change the world. Another is to act like a hero and “slay your dragon”. These Peterson-isms are just a few of the many examples of ways Peterson motivates people to improve their lives.
Peterson also has an ability to cut right to the core of people’s motivations by showing the underlying psychological forces that people are often not aware of. In this latter respect is where a lot of Psychologist Carl Jung’s influence of archetypal analysis especially comes through in Peterson’s thought.
One of my favorite examples of this type of analysis is from Peterson’s first appearance on The Rubin Report. As Peterson is fighting back tears, he says one of the keys to life is to “get rid of your strings”. Like Pinocchio, in order to become a real boy (grow up and become an upright individual), you need to stop being a victim and always speak the truth. 2
It is hard not to be moved by Peterson when he is doing a psychological analysis of the story Pinocchio like this. He seems to have a rare ability to eloquently articulate some very deep truths about human nature and the human condition.
Peterson has a high capacity for empathy and has clearly spent a great deal of time meditating on suffering and the dark side of human nature that has brought forth so much of it. It seems it is a life mission of his to help humanity bend away from the possible hells it always seems it is trying to create.
It is no wonder that Peterson has amassed such a large following, then. Many people are clearly searching for meaning and purpose in life and Peterson’s message has helped give that to them. Others just want some practical advice on how to set a clear path forward to improving themselves, and in this regard, Peterson’s message also has great utility.
Is what Peterson is selling truth, though?
A Strange Turn of Events
It wasn’t until I heard Jordan Peterson’s first discussion with Sam Harris on the Harris’s Waking Up podcast, that I realized that Peterson has a serious flaw of his own in his system.
I was especially interested to hear this Podcast episode because I expected it to be a tough challenge for Harris (who is an outspoken atheist) and his naturalistic views by a very intellectually capable opponent. This ended up being an extremely interesting conversation but for reasons, I did not anticipate.
Instead of a challenge to Harris’s atheism, we got a 2-hour plus conversation between the two on the nature of truth. Peterson was mostly on the defensive, and I found myself agreeing with Harris almost entirely throughout.
This dialogue really showed what I believe to be the fatal flaw in Peterson’s entire system. This flaw is holding to an evolutionary pragmatic version of the nature of truth. This stands in stark contrast to the correspondence theory of truth that many in the classical western philosophical traditions and especially classical theistic traditions have held to for millennia.
This was an unfortunate revelation for me. I really thought Peterson was turning out to be a great new champion for objective truth and metaphysical realism. These are ideas that seem to have all but been forgotten by most in our world today. As we shall see, Peterson’s own version of truth is both hard to pin down, and ultimately, subjective in nature.
As a Christian of the classical theistic stripe, I believe it is the initial error over the ontological status of truth that has lead Peterson to an end that is not only incongruous with Christianity, it is antithetical to the very idea of Christianity.
What is Truth?
33 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
34 “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”
35 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
38 “What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.
What is truth? In some ways, this question almost sums up the entirety of human existence. A yearning to know why we are here. A yearning to know what “here” is even.
There are many versions of truth that people sometimes hold to, realism, anti-realism, pluralism, correspondence, coherence, pragmatic, and others. The aim of this post is not to try and prove one version of truth, but I will use the classical theistic model of a correspondence theory of truth to contrast against Peterson’s evolutionary pragmatism.
Correspondence Theory of Truth
Even as far back as the time of the ancient Greeks, there were those who denied that truth exists. The most famous case is probably the debate between Protagoras and Socrates. Protagoras (anti-realist) thought that truth was relative to what man defined it as, and Socrates (realist) thought truth is objective; that it exists outside of man and was discoverable. This was the beginnings of the anti-realists vs. realists views of truth.
Classical theism follows in the footsteps of the realist tradition. Great thinkers, such as Thomas Aquinas, typically held to what is now called a correspondence theory of truth. This means that a proposition is true when it represents reality as it really is.
“Truth is the conformity of intellect and thing.”
So for example, if we say there is a red car parked in the driveway, on the correspondence theory of truth, this means just that. There is an actual car that exists outside our minds, it is in the driveway, and it is red in color.
One of the most famous formulations of the correspondence theory of truth is often traced back to Aristotle (Metaphysics 1011b25):
“To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true”
While the Bible doesn’t explicitly endorse a theory of truth, it is hard not see how it doesn’t presuppose a correspondence theory to make sense of anything contained in it.
It would seem, then, that Scripture regularly presupposes some form of correspondence theory of truth and, indeed, this is both the commonsense view and the classic position embraced by virtually all philosophers until the nineteenth century. 3
–William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland
The correspondence theory of truth is really just the common-sense view of truth. Things are what they are, and we can know things in some sense. And yet, much of philosophy has been a debate between those who affirm this common-sense view of the world and those who are skeptical of it.
Pragmatism is generally equated with the philosophers William James and John Dewey. In their view of pragmatism, something is true only if it works or is useful. 4
Peterson has taken the general ideas of pragmatism and combined it with Darwinian thought. Peterson believes then that whatever aids survivability is what is true. If something kills you, it is false.
You may think that I am mischaracterizing Peterson somehow because this likely sounds absurd to you on just a face level. Unfortunately, Peterson has been very direct that this is exactly what he means. The following is an example from the now infamous first meeting of Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris on Harris’s Podcast Waking Up.
But I would say that we’re actually starting from different fundamental axioms. The fundamental axiom that I’m playing with is something that was basically expressed by Nietzsche and it’s a definition of truth. And so I would say if it doesn’t serve life, it’s not true. 5
Then, a couple minutes later Peterson states:
Okay, well then I would say that I don’t think facts are necessarily true (laughs). So I don’t think that scientific facts, even if they’re correct from within the domain that they were generated, I don’t think that that necessarily makes them true. And I know that I am gerrymandering the definition of truth, but I’m doing that on purpose, because I’m trying to nest truth within the Darwinian framework which I think is a moral framework and I think that your, the logic of your argument about morality is going to push you in the same direction inevitably. 6
In other words, truth for Peterson is contingent on its usefulness, with survivability being the ultimate arbiter of usefulness.
Peterson quite often emphasizes Nietzsche’s influence on his thought. How much and where are important questions because Nietzsche had some pretty radical views, especially on the nature of truth.
“There are no facts, only interpretations.”
from Nietzsche’s Nachlass, A. Danto translation.
Charles Larmore says it is a mistake to take Nietzsche to be saying that there are no facts, hard stop. He is saying something more along the lines that there are no facts apart from interpretation. Also, that our perspectives are what create meaning in the world.
Nietzsche’s perspectivism is at bottom a doctrine not so much about the nature of what is as about the nature of what ought to be. What a perspective does is to lay down, to establish (as opposed to discovering) what will count as right and good and what will not. The thesis that there is no true world independent of perspective means that there is no way we ought to think and act apart from how we choose to do so. The world itself contains no directions about how we are to think and act, no objective values that we should acknowledge. The only values are the ones we create. Of course, this view can carry implications about the nature of what exists. If norms of good evidence are, like all values, something we invent rather than discover; and if we also assume (as so-called metaphysical realists may not, but Nietzsche certainly did) that “facts” are whatever we have good evidence for; then there can be no facts independent of perspective, no way the world can be said to be apart from how we choose (and could just as well have chosen otherwise) to view it. There are only optional interpretations. 7
Nietzsche thinks truth is a matter of perspective. Truth is a matter of many interpretations. Meaning isn’t out there to be discovered, it is ours to create.
“In so far as the word “knowledge” has any meaning, the world is knowable; but it is interpretable otherwise, it has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings.”
–Nietzsche, Will to Power
Nietzsche offers this view of truth at the expense of absolute, metaphysical truth.
I don’t think that Peterson means to offer the same rejection of truth on an absolute level. If he was, Peterson would actually be more in line with postmodernists, which Nietzsche is in fact credited with being a great influence for. A large part of Peterson’s message has been speaking out against postmodernism, so I think there is something else driving Peterson’s first principles. Ultimately, I do believe that Peterson just doesn’t see some of the incoherence of his first principles.
It does appear to me that his adoption of some of Nietzsche’s ideas is what leads to a great deal of his confusion. For example, above we saw Peterson claim that he doesn’t think that, “scientific facts are necessarily true”. We also saw Peterson say that he holds to Nietzsche’s version of truth “if it doesn’t serve life, it’s not true”.
Taking these together, I have a hard time seeing how Peterson isn’t advocating for a type of subjectivism, similar to how Nietzsche was. He may just be confused, too. Whichever the case, this view of truth clearly stands in contradistinction to the classical theistic view that we discover meaning and uncover truth in the world, not create it ourselves.
Will the Real Jordan Peterson Please Stand Up?
Jordan Peterson is a conflicted person. I don’t believe he tries to hide this in the least. Nor is this a bad thing as we are all finite beings with limited knowledge and many questions.
There are countless examples of Peterson saying that he has reached the limits of his understanding on a topic and he doesn’t know what to make of it. One example is when Peterson tries to explain his thoughts on Christianity. He often will present them from a secular lens.
Now when I did my biblical lectures last year I called them a psychological approach to the biblical stories, right, because I wanted to push a secular interpretation, a scientific interpretation…8
On the other hand, Jordan Peterson does claim that he not only believes in God, but he would even call himself a Christian. The problem here is that he is pointing people to a false version of Christianity as he gives his lectures from a secular standpoint. Furthermore, Peterson has repeatedly stated that he doesn’t believe Christ really rose from the dead.
Nonetheless, Peterson is able to craft very deep psychological reads of theological ideas and craft them in a way to “leave the door open” to the possibility of something transcendent being the cause of this meaning. In other words, Peterson isn’t a strict materialist, and somehow he can present his ideas in a way that appeals to theists and non-theists alike.
having said that I’m not willing to dispense with the metaphysical. I’m stretching the edges of my cognitive ability when I’m talking about this sort of thing because I’m in realms that I don’t understand, that I am just getting vague pictures of. But I think it’s as if there’s a revelation from evolution that matches the revelation from above, that the two things come together and I don’t understand how that can be possible. I think it has something to do with the fundamental nature of consciousness which is something we seriously do not understand. And so, I can see you can make a straight biological case for the evolution of archetypes, but I don’t think that the biological explanation exhausts the archetype. There’s more to it. And because and what I’ve learned too in delving into these religious stories but also into religious experience is that it’s bottomless, like there is a point where as you dig into the archetypal everything turns into one thing; biological, spiritual, transcendent, it’s all one thing from the top to the bottom, and I think people get intonations of this when they have profound experiences. 9
Which is the real Jordan Peterson? This is one of the problems with Jordan Peterson. When he wades into these very abstract areas of thought, he starts to often say things that contradict himself or are so murky, anyone can use what he is saying to make their case. This is why some have even started calling him the Deepak Chopra of Christianity.
It is no surprise, then, why you will see people in the comments section of his YouTube biblical series lectures say things like:
“I am an atheist and I finally now understand Christianity.”
“I’m sure l am not the only atheist who loves Peterson, for me he has put religion into a wonderful context that explains why there is still a fundamental utility to belief that needs to be addressed and understood before we rid ourselves entirely of it.”
“I went to this lecture I can say without a doubt that it was one of the best moments of my life. The man is resurrecting religion for me, even as an atheist. I now position myself as a CHRISTIAN ATHEIST > the belief that the bible is a phenomenologically and existentially accurate representation of Being-in-the-world, while simultaneously finding the notion of a metaphysical god’s existence to be barren. I would call myself CHRISTIAN because I strive to be the manifestation of the morality that emerges from the bible, but an ATHEIST because I lack the belief in a real god. I believe there will be a resurgence of the morally religious, but believe that they will be the atheist bunch adopting the emergent moral systems of religious texts as a result of their extreme existential utility.”
There are also a great many things that are attractive in his thought to Christians (myself included). Some of his psychological interpretations of scripture are actually in line with ideas from theologians. This psychological aspect of theology is definitely present in the Bible.
Also, a lot of Christians will be attracted to Peterson’s ideas of self-growth and to aim toward the good. Part of the Christian vocation is to love our neighbors as ourselves. Christians would certainly agree with Peterson’s idea that we should try and “help direct the world, on its careening trajectory, a bit more toward Heaven and a bit more away from Hell.”10
Peterson has somehow found a way to speak to both sides of the God divide. Is Peterson willfully playing both sides of the game? Is his confusion actually double-speak? Maybe it is all to sell more books? Or, maybe he truly is a conflicted individual that is simply airing out his search for truth for the whole world to see?
I won’t pretend to be able to read his mind. Only time will tell his true motivations through his future actions. Either way, it seems that he has captured lightning in a bottle, as he can get theists and atheists alike to turn out by the millions to watch lectures on the Bible.
One thing that is clear is that Peterson believes Christianity is the best moral framework from which to organize society and help it flourish. He believes history has proven this true as Christianity was the social glue that built the western society that our modern world is predicated upon. On these last points, Christians would largely agree. What is the problem, then?
The first problem is that Christianity is favored by him for its utility, not its ontological truth status. This is simply Social Darwinism. Peterson gives psychological interpretations of the stories it contains and argues they could arise from an evolutionary mechanism without being literally true.
The second problem is in this psychological view of the Bible, Christ isn’t God. Christ is simply the example of the best human that we should all strive to emulate. 11 This is basically the idea of the Nietzschean Ubermensch (Overman/Superman). 12 The Ubermensch is a metaphor for the person we should all strive to be if we all collectively want to survive better.
Of course, I disagree with Peterson’s evolutionary read of the Bible. As previously stated, there are many deep psychological truths in the Bible that Peterson is very in line with other great Christian thinkers in uncovering. I am afraid that he is blocking off the more obvious truth, though. This is that not only does the Bible contain great archetypal meaning, it also contains literal, historical truth of events that really took place.
Again, it is Peterson’s starting point on what truth is, that is one of the root causes for how we end up in completely different places on what is true and important about Christianity. His version of truth allows him to leave the door open to the possibility of something being morally true but not scientifically true. This just isn’t a possibility that Christianity leaves open, though.
In our next post, we will dive into the specific examples of Peterson’s thought on truth. We will see how his views lead to absurdity. We will also see that his erroneous starting point with truth ultimately contribute to his incorrect conclusions on the nature of Christianity.
And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
- Peterson, J. B., Doidge, N., & Sciver, E. V. (2018). 12 rules for life: An antidote to chaos.* Toronto: Random House Canada. Ebook. loc. 544 ↩︎
- Peterson, Jordan. Jordan Peterson and Dave Rubin: Gender Pronouns and the Free Speech War. Rubin Report. 55:00 minutes
- Moreland, James Porter; William Lane Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (p. 132). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition. ↩︎
- Pragmatism often falls somewhere in the middle between realism and anti-realism. A lot of influence of the ideas in pragmatism can be trace back to nominalism. Nominalism was a tradition starting in the middle ages that started to doubt some commonly held notions of Aristotelian realism, mainly the idea of universals being ontological features of reality. As such, pragmatism will have many of the same problems that arise from holding to a nominalist position. This view of pragmatism should not be confused with C.S. Peirce’s views of pragmatism. Peirce is often described as a hyper metaphysical realist and was a staunch opponent of the ideas of nominalism. ↩︎
- Peterson, Jordan. #62 – WHAT IS TRUE? A Conversation with Jordan B. Peterson Waking Up Podcast. Around 53:00 minutes ↩︎
- ibid. ↩︎
- Larmore, C. E. (2014). The morals of modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 82 ↩︎
- Peterson, Jordan. Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro: Frontline of Free Speech. The Rubin Report. Jan. 31st, 2018. About 5:48 minutes ↩︎
- ibid, About 6:30 minutes ↩︎
- Peterson, J. B., Doidge, N., & Sciver, E. V. (2018). 12 rules for life: An antidote to chaos.* Toronto: Random House Canada. Ebook. loc. 198 ↩︎
- Peterson, Jordan. YouTube: 2016/12/31: A New Years Letter to the World. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YnEFt20qe0o&t ↩︎
- ‘Whatever else may be said about the Übermensch, Nietzsche clearly had in mind an exemplary figure and an exception among humans, one “whose inexhaustible fertility and power keep up the faith in man.”’ https://www.iep.utm.edu/nietzsch/ ↩︎