Daily Archives: August 29, 2018

A Book Review

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[Today’s run: hill workout in Columbus, 3 miles]

While I was in Iowa I spent some time with my Uncle Ron. That was quite a treat.  Uncle Ron also loaned me a book he had just finished reading, and recommended that I give it a try, so I did.  I had heard about the book already.  So I did read it and I enjoyed it.

The book is “12 Rules for Life : An antidote to chaos” by Dr. Jordan Peterson.

I had watched some of Dr. Peterson’s lectures on Youtube and found them interesting.

I like Peterson’s stuff in some ways:  I like the conclusions he comes to, and I like the weight he gives to tradition and cultural knowledge.  But I think he has the wrong end of the stick to understand how these traditions came about.

Dr. Peterson seems to argue a version of cultural evolution, that the wisdom of many generations, on an evolutionary scale, is contained in books and stories like the Bible (and other religious works) and creation myths and other pervasive themes. Then he becomes a “conservative” in that he wants to retain the benefit of this cultural evolutionary treasure trove and not be quick to throw it over for whatever fashionable ideas may come up.

I’m for that.  But I see two problems.  The first problem is that his cultural evolutionary argument really has no moral basis other than a utilitarian argument based on the natural evolution of life on our planet.  For instance, he points out that even the most basic life forms (lobsters) live in hierarchical organizations.  Therefore we, as higher forms of the same life, are also bent toward hierarchical organization (etc) and such organizing principles are baked into the form of life that evolved on Earth.  I think a lot of his Rules build on that kind of structure.  It is not a bad structure, but I think it is ultimately built on sand:  maybe we humans have evolved more completely and are no longer  bound to all of these lower principles;  maybe other planets evolved life that would not have these principles.  So also his cultural evolution is bound by a chain to the nature of life on Earth.

My second problem is that I really don’t believe that peak cultural evolution would have happened with the writing of the Bible or the Koran or the development of these common thematic stories.  Physical evolution is said to have taken millions and millions of years.  But the Bible, for example, seems to appear near the beginning of the period of written history, not in the middle or the end.  Somehow I don’t think all of these very wise people contemplated these very wise things and eventually got around to figuring out an alphabet and writing them down and since then it’s been downhill toward People Magazine and The National Enquirer.  Peterson’s book itself is derivative of philosophy and psychology of the last few centuries, in a way of interpreting the ancient texts and stories. Maybe he would explain it by saying the ancient stories encapsulate wisdom in some unclear/prophetic form and it has taken until modern times to explain the meanings… maybe?  like reading the dreams of all of human kind.  That part doesn’t work for me.  I find it easier to see the wisdom as intentional, but that makes the timeline backwards.

I’m biased of course.  I was taught, and still believe that wisdom doesn’t only come from cultural evolution (and in fact many cultures evolve toward evil instead of toward wisdom), but mainly comes from revelation from outside sources.  When Peterson refers to God, he appears to be talking about this body of wisdom we should all be tuned into for a better life.  My understanding of God is as the designer of the system.  Peterson implies that a better life is one tuned into the wisdom of the nature of life.  I would instead say that a better life is one that is tuned into the intention of the Creator.

I find it tempting to just be happy that Peterson reaches the “right” conclusions.  After all, does God have to get credit?  Isn’t it a better world if there is more peace and harmony even if the reasoning behind it is misguided and humanistic?  Well that wisdom book, the Bible, says that God isn’t impressed with that conclusion.  It says in the book of Romans  “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him…They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.”  The ‘big picture’ in the Bible (speaking of ancient themes) is one of perfection, loss and redemption, not self improvement. And in that I agree with many other reviewers who classify Peterson’s book under ‘self help’.

So that’s where I came down.  I enjoyed the book.  I think our social systems would work more smoothly if people were to embrace the “12 Rules for Life”,  that people would understand themselves better and maybe find better outlets for their energies.  But I don’t think ultimately that will happen.  People don’t seem to follow good ideas (which is why a guy like Peterson has to write a book like this yelling “stop” in the face of cultural change).  He is missing some fundamental parts of the wisdom system, things like inspiration, revelation, redemption and worship.


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Aug 29, 2018
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