Friday, November 26, 2021

An Excellent Conversation


Jordan Peterson hosted a discussion to include Bishop Robert Barron, John Vervaeke, and Jonathan Pageau.  This conversation was held over two months ago, on September 10.  The video is entitled The 4 Horsemen of Meaning.  I will say, the interaction of Peterson here was much better than when he spoke one-on-one with Vervaeke – when Peterson was hyper-activated and interrupted often; the interaction between Peterson and Barron was also much better, as it seemed the two of them better understood each other than the last time I saw the two of them together.

I do believe the conversation would have been greatly aided by including Paul VanderKlay, somewhat because he brings a Protestant view to a conversation that includes the Catholic and Orthodox, but especially because he has a way of taking the high level, intellectual conversations and breaking these down into understandable chunks for the masses (myself included).

The conversation started slowly.  I think four people trying to feel each other out, and, especially, when one of the four, Bishop Baron, is outside of the circle of these conversations – he does not have the history or familiarity with the others.  In any case, from about the 1 hour, 20-minute mark and on, it was a terribly engaging conversation.

The conversation goes for two hours.  It is too much to cover in one post, so I will split it into two.

The conversation begins with Peterson asking the others to give an explanation of meaning.  Baron offers a clean and simple definition: a purposive pursuit of a value.  This definition helps me to clarify what is meant when I use or hear the phrase “meaning crisis.”

We live in a world with no objective truth when it comes to action, behavior, ethics – in other words, we have abandoned the natural law ethic.  We are each left to choose our own highest value, and every choice is equally valid – we are not guided by the purpose for which we are made. 

But what does this mean in practice?  I have no fixed target at which to aim, the target is of my making.  Any target I choose is no better or worse than any other target I could have chosen.  In fact, there is no such things as “better” or “worse.”

In other words, there might as well not even be a target.  But without a target, there is no purposive pursuit.  The pursuit is aimless – a perfect picture for one shooting without a target.  What is the meaning of pursuit if the thing one is pursuing is meaningless?  Hence, the meaning crisis.

They turn to addressing why the meaning crisis has become so problematic.  Vervaeke offers the following, which he also puts to his students:

We have a scientific worldview in which science and the scientists and their meaning-making have no proper ontological place.  We are the hole – science – we are the black hole in this worldview that dominates.

Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one who wanted a little more explanation about what Vervaeke means.  Peterson asked:I am still unclear about that.  What is this black hole?”  Vervaeke offers:

What I mean is: does science exist?  If it is, what kind of entity is it?  Tell me, just using chemistry, physics, or biology – using just those – tell me what science is.  And tell me how it has the status to make the claims that it does.  And tell me how science is related to meaning and truth.  And how do meaning and truth fit into the scientific worldview.  They are presupposed by that worldview, but they have no proper place within it.  That’s what I mean.

Science – as chemistry, physics, biology, etc. – cannot answer any of these questions.  It cannot discover the answers via something acted on by science; the answers are to be found in something that makes room for science to act.  Vervaeke continues:

Whenever we are doing science and saying “this is what the world is,” we are absenting ourselves from it; we have no home in which we are properly situated.  And I think that ramifies itself into everything we say and do to each other and with each other in a profoundly corrosive way. 

The idea is that science sees itself as coming from a neutral space, that it can act outside of, or uninfluenced by, the stage on which it is acting.  As Vervaeke concludes, this is “causing massive suffering.”  Hence, the meaning crisis.

Now, Peterson digs further: “What is the profoundly corrosive way? He asks.  And Vervaeke offers an interesting example:

I was talking to someone in Australia, and there are more deaths by suicide than there are from covid.  And Australia is one of the epitomes of the best countries in the world, affluent, liberal democracy, not much conflict, at peace for a long time, blah, blah, blah, blah [yes, those are his words, not my shortcut]. 

I would say that the same was true just prior to World War One.  Europe reached peak Enlightenment and peak Classical Liberalism, just before the time it blew itself apart.  Vervaeke continues:

All the things that the Enlightenment said would bring in unending happiness.  And what you have is spiking in suicide, you have the loneliness epidemic, you have the addiction epidemic, people choosing to live in the virtual world rather than in the real world.

Science (so-called) has dictated certain actions to be taken regarding covid.  But what does science know about meaning?  Science (so-called) sees a problem to solve, and will solve it.  But on what basis does it justify the solution?  How does science determine the ends at which it is aiming?  This is not a question science can answer.

Further, what no one said, but had to be obvious to all of them: the government reaction to covid is designed to exaggerate every single one of these miseries: suicide, loneliness, addiction, living in a virtual world, etc.  The government reaction is designed to crush any last sense of a meaningful life out of the population.

Keeping in mind that this video was recorded more than two months ago, and, in the past, I have noted that Peterson hasn’t really jumped into the purposeful destruction caused by government against the people, it is interesting that he has recently commented on this topic: 

Look, I got vaccinated, and people took me to task for that. And I thought, 'All right, I’ll get the damn vaccine.' Here’s the deal, guys: I’ll get the vaccine, you f***ing leave me alone. And did that work? No. So, stupid me.

In any case, returning to the subject video.  Pageau asks the obvious question regarding this scientific (scientistic) vision:

So, where are we then?  Are we not in the world?  Where does this floating intelligence come from, that is able to separate itself so completely from the world that its just able to analyze it objectively and then project – to realize that it’s projecting subjective meaning on top of it.

Bishop Barron offered that Bret Weinstein recently commented that the physical sciences belong in the supreme position, to which he emphatically replied “NO, NO, NO!”

I am reminded of Pageau’s video on what it means to “follow the science” (which I touched on here), in which he mentions science is always geared toward some end.  It is the end that is important – do we want science to deliver nuclear bombs or don’t we?  That kind of thing.  Science is always in service of some end; science cannot give us the end to be served, although many still try to make that square peg fit in a round hole.  Peterson offers:

Sam Harris and other thinkers like Harris have tried to bring the domain of value within the domain of science.  I think it’s an effort that’s doomed to failure.  They aren’t of the same type.  Science, by its very nature, does everything it can to exclude value.

That last sentence, obvious on its face, is powerful.  By definition, proper science aims toward being as value-free as humanly possible.

The conversation continues with mention of Duns Scotus and Occam, and the breakdown of a participation metaphysics – in other words, leaving us with nominalism.  Bishop Baron many times brings up Aquinas, but there is no mention of natural law.  Vervaeke addresses the wrong turn taken in the West with this nominalist focus:

The cutting edge of cognitive science is challenging the reduction of knowing to propositional knowing. 

This is the scientific (scientistic) vision.  It describes the purpose of creeds – nothing wrong with creeds, but these should not be taken as the only form of knowing.  It is the type of knowing that is found in the Sunday sermon or homily.  Continuing with Vervaeke:

There is also procedural knowing – knowing how to do something with skills; there is perspectival knowing, knowing what its like to be here, in this state of mind, in this situation; then the deepest is participatory knowing, the way in which we know by how we are conformed and transformed by others and by the world.

Regarding Christianity, that last one, participatory knowing, is most visible in the more liturgical traditions – although it is not absent from Protestant worship.

We have suffered a kind of propositional tyranny from Occam on, where we reduced all of knowing to the propositional.  

And this, as Bishop Barron often pointed out, is scientism.

It is at this point, with about forty minutes remaining in the conversation, that the group really started to flow – making, at least for me, some of the most insightful comments.  As this post has already gone long enough, I will review these in a subsequent post.


  1. Respectfully, there is a fourth level of knowledge which os largely ignored outside the Orthodox communion (and within it as well): Theosis. The actual process of knowingly sharing in Jesus's Life. Such knowledge of the integrated human-divine being is difficult. It is only possible in a deeply Sacramental community that encourages deep repentance and has good, experienced spiritual guides.
    While the Orthodox communion has our fair share of unrepentant sinners, what else could be expected. The deep knowing of what it is to be fully human that Jesus revealed on The Cross is beyond any other, especially so-called "natural law".

    NL from my understanding after 35 years a part of the Orthodox communion, and a student of history for far longer seems to he based on a false understanding of our human nature and God's great mercy.

    Forgive me if my statement offends, I do not mean it to.

    1. Natural law recognizes that man is made for a purpose. It places as the highest value the love of God and, next to it, the love of our neighbor. Just as Jesus summarized the commandments. From this, natural law can be derived, and fully in accord with Scripture (as I have written elsewhere).

      It offers an ethic by which humans can live peaceably with each other, nothing more. You seem to be placing on it too large a burden for natural law to carry.

  2. Participatory knowledge is explicitly in the Bible in the word "epignosis". I have heard it taught and taught is as experiential knowledge. It is the highest level of knowledge and/or the type that has the most effect on life.

    I will add some other ways in which Evangelical Protestants do this and outside of ritual. The first is prayer. Praying long, personal, spiritual, biblical prayers puts your faith into action in all the ways you are calling Christians to do that Bionic. The other way is be approaching scripture in a devotional way. When you read it, put yourself in it before God. When you do that you are not learning propositions or theological statements. You are putting yourself under God's authority, submitting yourself to God's word actively, evaluating your attitudes and behaviors according to God's divine standard.

    I think taking communion every week would be a good thing. I think some responsive readings could be helpful in this regard too in public worship. But privately there is much an individual believer can do too.

    1. RMB, I hope I am not coming across as one-sided on this, or making absolute statements. I think we can agree that Protestants are, for the most part, much more propositional than Orthodox or Catholics; and the latter are more participatory than the Protestants.

      I will offer again something I have noted several times: I am glad that God has made available multiple ways to reach different people who benefit from being reached in different ways.

    2. I'm just thinking aloud for the most part. Evaluating what my church does, sufficient or insufficient.

  3. I get sooooo tired of people equating (consciously or not) science with the physical sciences. That's utter nonsense. Is game theory (just to name one obvious example) a physical theory? Nope. It's study and development requires acknowledging human PURPOSE as a fact. So do (properly understood) economics, for that matter (which makes Austrian economics the only truly scientific economics). Until everyone gets off this false track, any discussion on this topic is useless. We can't just do with descriptive Natural La, we must address the normative (or prescriptive) Law before we can figure out Meaning. By the way, it's not enough to say that meaning comes from pursuing goals. It must be added that the goal itself must be meaningful, which is something you properly address in your commentary. In addition, meaning is only found when there is a direct relationship between action/decision and results. Which is precisely what the modern welfare/interventionist state at first distorts, and then utterly destroys. Look n further for the roots of the "Meaning Crisis." The evidence is everywhere.

    1. "Until everyone gets off this false track, any discussion on this topic is useless." -- Unknown

      If this statement is true, then we might just as well quit talking about it because there will never come a time when EVERYONE gets on the right track. There will always be those who cannot get it figured out. It is also likely that UNLESS we talk about it, no one will ever get on that track.

      Oh, dear! What to do? Should we talk about it or not?

      "Should I stay or should I go? If I go, there will be trouble and if I stay, it will be double." -- The Clash

  4. Mr Bauman makes an important point: Theosis, union with God, leads to the fullest knowledge possible. From the Fathers:

    ‘St. Symeon the New Theologian, speaking of inner stillness and describing its holy atmosphere, says: “Hesychia is an undisturbed state of the nous, calmness of a free and rejoicing soul, a heart’s untroubled and unwavering foundation, vision of light, knowledge of the mysteries of God, a word of wisdom, depth of conceptual images of God, rapture of the nous, pure converse with God, a vigilant eye, inner prayer, union with God and contact and complete theosis, and painless repose in great ascetic labours” (13).’


    ‘Moreover, there is the rationalistic belief in the Church that saints and holy elders can not speak reliably on medical matters, if they have not studied the subject. This however is proven false by at least two modern day saints; namely, St. Porphyrios (†1991), who, despite only having a very basic education, used to be invited by doctors into consultations with their patients; and the abovementioned St. Paisios. Only completing elementary school, we read in the life of the latter that, “He was knowledgeable about everything, though without occupying himself with everything. He knew about the things of the world while living in the desert. Though far from everyone, he was spiritually with all, and he loved the entire world. He knew many things without having studied. He associated comfortably with scientists and other distinguished people, speaking with them easily and without any feelings of inferiority. On the contrary, the worldly wise consulted him…. He could, with one descriptive hand gesture, communicate information about a person or an entire situation.”’


    1. Mr. Garlington,

      I do not dispute the "facts" as you present them. However, I am acquainted with too many Christians whose only concern in this life is "knowing God" and they spend inordinate amounts of time trying to reach that goal, with the result that they spend little time trying to know their neighbor. They are, as the famous quote says, so heavenly minded they are no earthly good.

      I daresay that within the modern Christian Church there are many ascetics who, like the Essenes of old, only want to withdraw from public life into a desert of their own making, with the (supposed) intention of getting to "know" God.

      Now, perhaps this is not what you are referring to, but this is my experience and I am not inspired by it.

    2. I don't discount his point. Yet we live in a world of many who have dismissed Christianity; some subset of these are sympathetic with natural law.

      Even many Christians will not achieve this state while breathing in the current human form.

      How shall we speak to them, especially if we want to live in some sort of conviviality with believers and non-believers alike?

  5. I had a feeling you would be covering this. I watched the video a few days ago. I've also begun watching Vanderclay's reaction video. It is a very interesting talk, but a lot of it was either beyond me or it seemed to skirt around the heart of the issue. I think that I thought I would enjoy it more than I did. Mostly it left me with the bad taste in mouth of where is the discussion on natural law???

    Also, I kept getting the impression that this conversation (especially regarding Vervaeke's contributions) is getting so abstract and esoteric that it itself is becoming meaningless. Get out an help a random person in need. You'll get a taste of meaning. Join a church. Get to know God. Marry a women, and live your whole life with her best interests at heart. Have some kids with her and raise them up right with their best interests at heart. All these things will provide meaning to your life. Get to know your neighbors and love and help them despite their flaws. None of these will be completed perfectly. And when you are forgiven for making mistakes, this too will provide a brief but profound window into what meaning is.

    Maybe I was just too tired and distracted when I watched it though. Perhaps I'll give it another go this weekend.

    You made a very good point that science should not be in the driver's seat of the determination of ends. The only ends that may somewhat be determined or guided by science are 1) prolonging an individual's life, 2) the continuation of the species and 3) the promotion of pleasure inducing activities. The last two clearly point towards sex as the ultimate end. And the modern world does seem to put sex above most things. It is one of the only purely material acts that can give yield a sense of transcendence. But when you put sex in the driver seat of society you get, along with much else that is not healthy for any community, sexualization of kids and mass abortion. Yay science!

    I would touch on the importance of their discussion on psychedelics, but I'll wait for your next post on this to see if you cover it there.

    1. ATL, the more I have reflected on this conversation, the more I have considered what is lacking.

      I am pleased with it for the reasons mentioned. But, you are right - no mention of natural law - and this is where this conversation must go; it is the place where the atheists and Christians in this conversation are both aiming.

      Further, I have reflected on Baron's definition of meaning: "a purposive pursuit of a value."

      But Hitler had this, as did Stalin, as does Fauci. It is also the problem Peterson has. The issue isn't merely to aim at something meaningful; the first issue is..what is a proper value at which to aim. And the highest value is love (not in the simplistic sense, as you know) - other regarding action.

      I think for my next post, I will want to clarify some of this. Time has a way of filtering....

  6. Actually, theosis/the prayer of the heart/the Jesus Prayer are very much meant for the common folks. For a recent example from a simple farming village:

    Also a popular account of this truth is presented in this book: