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.