Maps of Meaning with Jordan Peterson: Week 5, Why You Should Study the Bible

Having argued that myths, as maps of meaning, create for us a forum of action, Peterson goes on to describe the paradox at the heart of Western civilization. 

One the one hand, we reject, on scientific grounds, the truthfulness of the Judeo-Christian myth. And yet, on the other hand, we continue to operate within the "forum of action" that was created by the Judeo-Christian myth. The truth of the Judeo-Christian tradition isn't endorsed metaphysically but behaviorally. We all live "as if" the Bible were true.

Peterson starts this argument by describing how the scientific mind striped affect, value, and meaning from perception, from our descriptions of reality. Having lost value we destroyed our "map of meaning," lost our "forum of action": 

The medieval man lived, for example, in a universe that was moral--where everything, even ores and metals, strived above all for perfections. Things, for the alchemical mind, were therefore characterized in large part by their moral nature--by their impact on what we would describe as affect, emotion or motivation; were therefore characterized by their relevance or value (which is impact on affect)...It was the great feat of science to strip affect from perception...We have removed the affect from the thing, and can therefore brilliantly manipulate the thing...We have lost the mythic universe of the pre-experimental mind...

Prior to the time of Descartes, Bacon and Newton, man lived in an animated, spiritual world, saturated with meaning, imbued with moral purpose. The nature of this purpose was revealed in the stories told each other--stories about the structure of the cosmos and the place of man. But now we think empirically (at least we think we think empirically), and the spirits that once inhabited the universe have vanished. The forces released by the advent of the experiment have wreaked havoc within the mythic world...

But myths are not so easily avoided. Since meaning, value and morality are encoded behaviorally, we still operate, implicitly, according to the Judeo-Christian myth:

The fundamental tenets of the Judeo-Christian moral tradition continue to govern every aspect of the actual individual behavior and basic values of the typical Westerner--even if he is atheistic and well-educated, even if his abstract notions and utterances appear iconoclastic. He neither kills nor steals (or if he does, he hides his actions, even from his own awareness), and he tends, in theory, to treat his neighbors as himself. The principles that govern his society (and, increasingly, all others) remain predicated on mythic notions of individual value--intrinsic right and responsibility--despite scientific evidence of causality and determinism in human motivation...

Our systems of post-experimental thought and our systems of motivation and action therefore co-exist in paradoxical union. One is "up-to-date"; the other, archaic. One is scientific; the other, traditional, even superstitious. We have become atheistic in our description, but remain evidently religious--that is, moral--in our disposition. What we accept as true and how we act are no longer commensurate. We carry on as if our experience has meaning--as if our activities have transcendent value--but we are unable to justify this belief intellectually. We have become trapped by our own capacity for abstraction: it provides us with accurate descriptive information but also undermines our belief in the utility and meaning of existence...

We find ourselves in an absurd and unfortunate situation...It seems impossible to believe that life is intrinsically, religiously meaningful. We continue to act and think "as if"...We still act out the precepts of our forebears, nonetheless, although we can no longer justify our actions. Our behavior is shaped (at least in the ideal) by the same mythic rules...This means that those rules are so powerful--so necessary, at least--that they maintain their existence (and expand their domain) even in the presence of explicit theories that undermine their validity. That is a mystery.

This passage from Maps of Meaning explains a lot about why Peterson is interested in the Bible and how he interprets the Bible. 

Specifically, the Bible is the great myth of Western civilization. So if you're living in Western civilization you're living out this myth, operating within its forum of action. Everyone lives "as if" this myth is true, even atheists. This myth imbues life with value, and therefore with morality and meaning. Studying the Bible, therefore, is absolutely necessary as it maps the meaning of your life and the society you live within. If you want to understand yourself, you have to study this map. To change the metaphor, the Bible is the operating system of your mind and society, so if you want to understand your life you need to look at the computer code. That's why you should study the Bible.

But the other thing to note in Peterson's passage above is that Western civilization is a house of cards, an existential ticking time bomb. Why? Peterson says it plainly, "We carry on as if our experience has meaning...but we are unable to justify this belief intellectually." That is the problem in a nutshell. We carry on as if life has meaning but have become unable to justify this belief intellectually. We're existential zombies. 

But the situation is even worse than that. It's not simply that we cannot justify the meaning of our life. We are actively undermining our ability to justify this belief. As Peterson notes: We've embraced science because "it provides us with accurate descriptive information" but this very embrace "undermines our belief in the utility and meaning of existence." Our modern vision of "truth" is slowly, inexorably, evacuating life of meaning.

Listen. Do you hear that sound? 

That's the sound of us sawing the branch we are sitting on.

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