Jordan Peterson makes stupid (and tautological) arguments against atheism

July 2, 2018 • 9:00 am

Many of you must have seen the video of the debate between Jordan Peterson and Matt Dillahunty. I don’t think people can argue that Peterson’s words are taken out of context in this 12-minute snippet hosted by “Rationality Rules”. Peterson argues, as many religionists have, that religion is good because it keeps us moral. He also makes the following arguments:

a.) Atheists really believe in a god, and act as if they do. This is part of Peterson’s intellectual scam of conceiving of nearly everything—in this case, any “motivating purpose” or “implicit axioms”—as fundamentally religious. Under this scheme, nobody really is an atheist, at least nobody who lives their life according to certain beliefs. I’ve gone after this argument before: it’s a way of enabling religion by simply redefining the theistic God that most religionists worship as some abstract body of guiding principles. It’s an intellectually disingenuous argument.

b.) The loss of religion would strip the world of art, poetry, literature, and so on (“There are artists and poets who think they are godless.”) This is certainly not true in today’s world where avowed atheists are cranking out all kinds of wonderful music, art, and literature. But of course since Peterson appears to think that true atheism is vanishingly rare, his claim is untestable, because even a work like “Piss Christ” could be conceived of as fundamentally religious.

c.) A “genuine atheist” would be like Raskolnikov, the murderer in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, motivated by “rationality” and uninhibited by any “metaphysical reason to stop him from committing this act.”   Here Peterson shows a fundamental ignorance of how morality works in today’s world. First, he ignores the Euthyphro argument, which shows by logic that notions of good, right, and proper behavior must necessarily be antecedent to God, since God conforms to a pre-existing notion of “good.” Second, what about Scandinavia, which is loaded with atheists but also notably well behaved? Yes, there are genuine atheists there, though perhaps not by Peterson’s lights.

Note that the commenter “Rationality Rules” says that morality is hard-wired into us by natural selection, so it needn’t come from a numinous source. I think he’s partly right, but some bits of morality, I think, come from culture: rational processing of how a social species should behave if it is to live in a harmonious society. That is, morality is a combination of evolved behaviors and thoughts as well as a veneer from culture and rationality—the rationality coming from an adaptive program in our brains that tells us how to achieve desired ends, as well as what ends are desirable.

At the end, Matt simply trashes Peterson’s whole argument by showing that it’s a big tautology: if nobody is an atheist, and we all behave morally because in the end we have absorbed “religious” Judeo-Christian principles, then even the morality of atheists derives from religion. (This, of course, means you have to adopt Peterson’s expanded definition of religion.) In fact, if you are moral, you must be religious because you are acting according to a motivating purpose based on axioms of belief, like utilitarianism.) Ergo, there can be no such thing as non-religious morality.

I won’t pass general judgment on Peterson as I have avoided reading his books and listening to him, knowing what a morass (and what arguments) lie in store. But in this video, at least, I see him purveying sophistry, which sounds good because he has a forceful and charismatic delivery. But it’s still sophistry, and his argument here is just dumb.

Kudos to Matt for taking him apart so handily. Note that Dillahunty is wearing cowboy boots (I claim partial credit), which of course increases his brainpower.

Here’s a 36-minute video in which Matt does a postmortem analysis of his debate with Peterson. I haven’t watched it yet.

h/t: Heather Hastie

115 thoughts on “Jordan Peterson makes stupid (and tautological) arguments against atheism

  1. “Deep down you really do believe even if you say otherwise.” Well alright. And how about when your PoMo opponents say things like “Deep down you’re a woman hating white supremacist even if you say otherwise”? Can you at least comprehend the trap you’ve set for yourself Mr. P?

    1. “There are artists and poets who think they are godless.

      Oh you mean like how your opponents claim that all the oppressive people like Peterson just think they aren’t racist/sexist/x-ist/x-phobic? Isn’t this kind of shit what pisses him off when his pomo opponents do it via critical race theory or feminist theory or queer theory, analyzing a piece of art or culture or institution or person and telling us how unintentionally oppressive it is? That kind of thing really pisses Peterson off, but only when the other side does it.

      Peterson has gone from someone I valued and respected and, in the last year, continually dropped like a stone when it comes to my esteem. It appears that, as his popularity has solidified, he’s been happy to come out with the things he really wanted to say all along, and those things are stupid, reductive, ignorant, incoherent, and/or just plain old flat out buttfuck bananas. It’s the incoherent stuff that pisses me off the most because he manages to convince people he’s brilliant when it comes to subjects like theology by vacillating and prevaricating, talking for an hour and managing to say nothing.

      The man’s a hypocrite. He’s pomo for people who don’t like pomo. He’s pomo for the religious and the right.

      1. Peterson seems increasingly to tailor his preachments to the men’s-rights/red-pill/incel doofi who constitute his choir. I hear it’s become a rather lucrative gig for him.

      2. It’s the incoherent stuff that pisses me off the most because he manages to convince people he’s brilliant when it comes to subjects like theology by vacillating and prevaricating, talking for an hour and managing to say nothing.

        The man’s a hypocrite. He’s pomo for people who don’t like pomo. He’s pomo for the religious and the right.

        Well said.

      3. You hit the nail on the head that Harrison put in place.

        Lurking not so far beneath the surface of his argument re atheists and art is the primitive assertion, which still holds among some groups, including ‘progressive’ “woke” folk that only spiritually attuned people can create genuine art, which is a kind of corollary to his assertion about people who think they’re atheists but really aren’t.

      4. +1. A take-down of the first order BJ. An excellent rant.

        I especially like that you point out that he’s doing exactly what he criticizes others of doing. Hypocrisy 101.

    2. I really liked this comment…so much that I want to apply it to the frequent accusation that all whites are racist at heart whether they deny it or not. The NY Times even published a letter making this claim! The only defense is no response at all. Anything you say will only reinforce their views.
      It’s like “When did you stop beating your
      wife?”. You can’t win.

  2. Yes, there’s a particular flaw in the reasoning made by the God squad about how anyone – especially atheists – can live a moral life, outside of their own deluded belief system. It’s nicely expressed in J.L. Mackie’s “The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the existence of God” where he mentions “[…] Richard Robinson’s story of a priest saying to a pair of well-behaved atheists, ‘I can’t understand you boys; if I didn’t believe in God I should be having a high old time’”.

    1. I should have mentioned that Mackie attributes the quote to R. Robinson, An Atheist’s Values, UOP (1964). Mackie acknowledges that, “The story is no doubt apocryphal”, adding, “[Robinson’s] book as a whole gives a very full answer to the question of the moral consequences of atheism”.

  3. … it’s a way of enabling religion by simply redefining the theistic God that most religionists worship as some abstract body of guiding principles.

    Sounds downright Feserian.

    1. Feserian indeed. Someone should, perhaps Dan Barker should write a refutation to his book and title it, “Atheism, the Ultimate Antisuperstition”

  4. I haven’t viewed this video yet, If I can’t squeeze it in this afternoon, I might end up watching it right before I crash late tonight. I’m a “,fan” of Mr. Dillahunty, but sometimes have difficulties keeping up with his info-packed videos. I try to make time to re-,peruse the parts I didn’t keep up with. I have similar issues with Dr. Daniel C. Dennett, but find it quite worthy of research efforts. I find this (W.E.I.T.) site quite “reading -friendly” from the source (PCC(E) and the vast majority of comments😙

  5. Peterson fails to consider the more likely alternative — morality comes from our nature and culture and was co-opted by religions. There is nothing intrinsically religious about the Golden Rule and the Code of Hammurabi significantly predates Peterson’s preferred sect.

    1. I agree. I quite like Jordan Peterson’s main idea that people should take responsibility for themselves first, then they are better placed to reduce the suffering of the rest of the world.

      I think where Peterson struggles is when he suggests myths and archetypes contain wisdom that helps people do this. He has drifted away from Jung’s collective unconscious and believes that our myths and archetypes are culturally transmitted. So far so good.

      He can’t quite seem to grasp that how people behave is socially determined (I’d argue by imitation of older people during development) and *not* determined by the myths and archetypes themselves. Myths and archetypes are not real but his argument is that they are relevant and reality doesn’t matter.

      I’d argue that myths and archetypes are an effect, not a cause, of social behaviour and genetic dispositions. Arguing that atheists are really acting out religious ideas bends the idea of ‘religious’ beyond any reasonable use.

      1. Peterson’s main problem seems to be that he’s religious. My gut feel is that he knows this is a problem and, until recently, has avoided discussing religion. As others have noted, his recent fame is now giving him the confidence to let it all come out. Now we are starting to see the junk in his closet.

    2. Peterson:

      People, going all the way back to our primate forebears, organized themselves into functional hierarchies…. [S]o then you get the idea of hierarchy, and then you get the idea of the hero as the person who moves up the hierarchy…. Then, out of that, you get the extraction of the idea of the hero, and then you get development of that idea. Out of that you get the monotheistic religions. So the procedure and the hierarchy come first.

      1. Matt, thank you very much for the link you posted below to the Ben Shapiro interview (which thankfully had a transcript).

        I still don’t think it changes my views that saying atheists are acting out religious ideas is a fumbled use of the word religious, but the interview teased out Peterson’s views that we act out (I’d prefer practice) our socially derived ideas of good and poor behaviour. Clearly he is aware of a deeper seam of evolutionarily driven ‘beliefs-in-action’ than formal religion. And then he moves away from the real into the relevant by calling it ‘logos’.

        I expect that a ‘personality psychologist’ might have a different (and pragmatic) world view and uses his language in a theraputic manner. A point of view that needs teasing out rather than automatically jumping in with both feet to criticise ‘the philosopher’ or ‘the politician’ or ‘the scholar’.

  6. The argument from fine art never ceases to amaze me. How much art have these people seen or heard? Only some of it is religious, and the more refined the culture’s art gets, the less religious it gets.

    1. I wonder if anyone has laid out the various historical arguments from aesthetic experience for all to see in their stupefying absurdity? The argument from fine art. The argument from religious art. The argument from pretty sunsets. I think it might be a hoot. (Is there an argument from hoots?)

    2. I just got back from a trip to Italy, where I visited quite a few museums (including the Vatican Museum). OMG — if I never see another “Madonna and Child” again it will be too soon!

    3. It’s a messy soup of only conceiving of art as ‘art for art’s sake’/art as self expression and ignoring ‘art is my job’, and then running to examples of religious art that are unmistakably ‘art is my job’ and trying to claim them as some kind of magical, divinely inspired act, birthed from the mind of god with man as its conduit. People who think this way often ignore everyday art because amazing package design or a beautiful building doesn’t hit the god notes.

    4. Back in the days when religion permeated virtually every corner of life, art almost always had at least some religious component. But that doesn’t make religion the primary cause of art. If people lost their religion, they would still produce art.

      1. I commented above in reply to comment 1 on this. My point was that there are people who claim that a person cannot produce “real” art unless one is a believer in god or some supernatural agency, and this belief is held by some on the left, as well as conservative religious folk. Also, these people say that art MUST be moral and reflect moral values (the moral values of those who assert this), or it’s not art — and not simply that it’s schlock, but it is an actively corrupting influence on society and the individual(perhaps even the work of satan). I.e., if you don’t believe, it ain’t art yet, and never will be.

        1. The idea that all “real” art has to be based in religious belief or “wokeness” is outrageous and repulsive. So simple self-expression or the desire to please others are just not good enough? That’s crazy. Who do these people think they are?

          1. The “woke” folk assert that artistic expression was first manifested in a religious or spiritual context that shows its spiritual roots; thus art is inextricable from spirituality and is/must be a manifestation of it. By the same token, I’ve encountered people who believe in astrology defend it as a legitimate ‘science’ by saying that astronomy developed from astrology; ergo…

            1. I would respond to those astrologists that people looked up at the stars, planets, and moon and theorized about them for long before the invention of either astrology or astronomy.

          2. Paul, you’re right.

            I would add that the aesthetic ‘value’ we ascribe to works of art is often extrinsic to the actual subject of the work.

            Theists are especially prone to not getting this. Christians think that the Crucifiction, or the Madonna and Child, are the most exalted images in their iconography, and therefore the highest achievement of Western art; but the aesthetic worth is not in the iconography, so much, but in the artistic treatment, which often comes down to formalist concerns.

            If people turned many of the old master religious paintings upside down, they’d probably get this, because a good painting should still hold up, from a formal point of view, even though the immediate subject is ‘lost’.

            There was probably as much second-rate religious art produced as first-rate, on the same sorts of subjects, it’s just that the bad tends to disappear over time; a form of ‘natural selection’, if you will.

        2. “Also, these people say that art MUST be moral and reflect moral values (the moral values of those who assert this), or it’s not art…”

          Thomas Kinkaid’s saccharine treacle easily refutes this position. Then again, I guess one could argue that even his art contains a moral message — that of a wholesome pablum of American, one to make even Norman Rockwell blush in embarrassment at the shallow idyll.

          1. Or you could just question whether Thomas Kincaide’s art is art at all. Someone like Leni Riefenstahl, though, really puts the moralistic claim to the test.

            1. I would argue that (most?) art is deliberately created to attempt to provoke reactions, often emotional, on the part of the perceiver. Riefenstahl’s work is certainly that; the fact that the emotions are being used for evil shows the ambivalence of our species. (And the reprehensibility of propaganda for evil and injustice.)

          2. Kinkaid’s work may refute the position to those who find the position absurd, but the moralists are talking about Art with a capital “A” and Kinkaid’s kitsch epitomizes that kind of Art, Art with a Moral Message. Kinkade himself said that “he was placing emphasis on the value of simple pleasures and that his intent was to communicate inspirational, life-affirming messages through his paintings. A self-described ‘devout Christian’…Kinkade believed he gained his inspiration from his religious beliefs and that his work was intended to contain a larger moral dimension. He also said that his goal as an artist was to touch people of all faiths and to bring a sense of peace into their lives through the images he created. Many pictures contain specific chapter-and-verse allusions to Bible passages.”

            1. One one hand, I’m glad to have my knowledge updated so I don’t make the same mistake again.

              On the other hand, I now know even more about this guy than I ever wanted to.

    1. I deny he exists, but act as though he does. One of us is going to hell, though I’m damned (!) if I can work out who…

  7. I had already seen the “debate”, or parts of it, but hadn’t seen Dillahunty’s post-mortem. Thanks for posting it!

  8. Actually, WITH god, everything is permitted by whatever directives some human prophet declares to be from the mouth of his god, no matter how abhorrent those directives might otherwise be to our sense of reason. As a result, the word of god as found in the Judeo-Christian bible approves or commands the murder of people who pick up sticks for firewood on Sunday, slavery (including the selling of one’s own daughters into slavery), the capture and rape of virgins as spoils of war, and the concept of substitutionary justice – the idea that it’s acceptable or even noble for one person to be punished for the offenses of another (the very premise of Christianity). The Koran sanctions the murder of apostates and infidels, apparently including the use of airplanes as missiles to destroy occupied office buildings. The Book of Mormon sanctions discrimination against dark-skinned people for the crime of not being “white and delightsome.” And, each of those books promotes its own brand of misogyny. It is ONLY by rejecting the supposed “word of god” and employing reason that we have concluded that every single one of those things constitute moral wrongs rather than moral teachings – despite the fact that each of those teachings remains a part of these “holy” books to this very day.

    1. Agreed (mostly). I’m sure there are plenty who would argue against any suggestion that the Koran endorses any 9/11-style attacks, regardless of whatever other atrocities it (and the Bible, of course) do appear to support.

      1. Agreed (mostly). 🙂 Every major religion has lots and lots of different sects, and each of those sects believes lots and lots of different things than the other sects based on their own interpretation of the exact same religious text. The fact that ANY Muslims rely on the Koran in support of the idea that allah approves of flying airplanes into buildings is precisely my point — which is that claiming to take your moral direction from god does nothing whatsoever to prevent what most of us (now, in the 21st Century) consider to be moral atrocities.

  9. I agree with your assessment of morality. I’m also starting to be convinced by the virtue ethics philosophy and the idea that one needs to actively develop a moral habit through continued practice. I think our moral intuitions are ingrained in us through evolution but these are very inchoate tendencies that was good enough for our primate ancestors but to fulfill our true destiny as refined moral beings, we must develop those tendencies into moral frameworks informed by culture and tradition, and most importantly, work at building up a character in our everyday practice that’s commensurate with those lofty ideals. The point being that we can get better at being moral and nobody simply attains the status of a moral being by discovering or learning of its dictates and theoretical underpinnings.

    1. Building “moral frameworks” seems to be more about us explaining morality and ethics to each other than making ourselves more moral. Does morality really need to be taught? Religious people would say “yes” as it justifies their religious infrastructure. It is in the interest of their religion to claim that one needs to go to church to learn morality. I think it is somewhat the same with non-religious morality.

      I suppose that teaching people that men and women should have equal opportunity could be viewed as teaching morality. I see it as more cultural adaptation base on our underlying morality — a sort of “applied morality”, just as engineering is applied physics.

      1. Generally speaking I think morality only needs to be taught in the sense that an individual needs to be raised as a member of a society. The society as a whole includes individuals who may specialize in studying morality and those people have an impact (as do many other factors) on the general moral zeitgeist, but really it is a rather small fraction of the whole.

        1. There aren’t very many humans that have been raised without a surrounding society. I don’t have references handy but I believe that those that have been separated from society still show morality. Of course, separating innate human behavior from cultural motivation is difficult, as is separating applied morality from morality itself.

          1. I see that my comment could easily be interpreted as me implying that morality is all or mostly learned as opposed to there being a significant innate component to it. Didn’t mean to imply that at all. Should have clarified that.

            I think it is pretty clear that morality has a basis in innate evolved characteristics and that those innate characteristics are not easily overridden. I also think it is pretty clear that there is a significant component of morality that is derived by culture, like an overlay on those innate characteristics, as evidenced by the fact that morals are different in different times and places. It is that aspect of morality that I meant in my first comment.

            That aspect of morality is learned. I was trying to say that it does not seem necessary to learn it in a formal way as in taking courses at school in morality but rather it is something that is typically learned by simply developing and living embedded in a society.

            Of course many of the changes in morality could be seen as simply increasing or decreasing circles of inclusion.

            1. I agree. It has been noted that someday soon killing animals for food will be considered immoral. Of course, some people already think that but it is a small minority. It will be interesting to see if that happens, though it probably won’t be in my lifetime.

      2. I would argue that there’s often a wide gulf in what people profess as their guiding moral principles and their actions. So with regards to the equality of the sexes, it’s not enough that people learn to profess that viewpoint, but must act in accordance with it, learning to recognize their implicit biases if any and navigate effectively through the many situations that life throws at us. Life’s messy and I don’t think people can always apply principles to real life situations in an effective way. So I guess what’s being emphasized is not morality per se, but the agent. Schwitzgebel has done some interesting studies showing ethics professors are no more moral on average than laymen and other studies on things like moral licensing suggest there are unconscious barriers to leading a moral life that can possibly be improved upon by training our moral habits, viewed as an ongoing practice.

          1. My ethics professor from my undergraduate days (Sarah Stroud) explicitly denied that her courses were there to make you more ethical.

            They were (like any philosophy courses) meant to make you more aware of ethics as a complex, difficult and important part of the human condition (my paraphrase, after ~20 years.)

            Note the contrast with that and a “professional ethics” course taught to (say) engineering or medical students, which *are* supposed to in some sense improve ethical behaviour.

            I years later did one of those at the Canada School of Public Service, which was a mess of many different viewpoints run together as if they were compatible, and seemed to provoke rationalizations rather than ethical behaviour.

    2. To follow your analogy, describe then what was the morally correct behaviour of the ancient atheist, as opposed to the nasty biblical stuff. I wonder if you argue that the ancient atheist had a much better moral paradigm and was not as brutal and cruel. If you do that, you make a rather broad supposition in the face of primitive times in an unforgiving world. I would tend to doubt that the atheist exhibited a more highly virtuous existence, but there is no way of knowing, since the atheists of the day did not write books about themselves, as far as I know.

  10. It is good we have people like Matt Dillahunty to unwind the words and beliefs of a confused psychologist. Like Matt, I stopped smoking several years ago and there was nothing mystical about it. Being a life long atheist I have somehow avoided murder and g*d all these years. Peterson would not put me in his clinical study, conflicting with all of his realities/fantasies.

    1. The idea that you can’t quit smoking without a mystical experience is so profoundly absurd that it makes your head spin.

      I, too, am a former smoker. I quit long, long, ago. I’m still waiting for my mystical experience to arrive.

      1. All of my mystical experiences were the result of smoking. Granted, it wasn’t tobacco, and it was combined with some other substances…

        1. What that was is colorful fantasy. LST as I recall can expose all kinds things within the imagination you never had. Mostly it keeps you awake for very long periods.

      2. Same here, nearly. In my case “dip,” as in Copenhagen and Kodiak, tobacco that you put between your gum and lip. From 13 to 40 something. No mystical experience when I stopped. I simply decided to stop because I became disgusted by it.

      3. I gave up smoking on 1 January 1981, having spent most of the previous day and night on an extended pub crawl, and smoked about 80 ciggies in the process. I woke up the following afternoon with a mouth like the traditional Chinese wrestler’s jockstrap, and I haven’t touched tobacco since. There was very little religious or mystical about that experience, I can assure you.

        I still go on the occasional pub crawl, though.

    1. Apparently Dostoyevsky has a superpower that he doesn’t make a “strawman out of his opponents”. Superman can jump buildings, Dracula can turn into a bat, and Dostoyevsky doesn’t make a strawman out of his opponents.

  11. I’ll watch these videos later today, but my first impression is that this is one of America’s sharpest atheists (Dillahunty) vs. one of America’s most sophistical and slippery religion-defenders.
    Mohammed Ali vs. Leon Spinks

  12. because even a work like “Piss Christ” could be conceived of as fundamentally religious.

    I remember seeing this after hearing so much about it. An unassuming photo with a warm glow, one would hardly know it were blasphemous if they hadn’t yelled so loudly about it.

    1. Quite right. As I recall, it was mostly Catholics carrying on about it.

      If that work- by now a thoroughly banal, almost meaningless image for many of us- had been entitled something like, “Aquatic Christ” or “Submerged Christ”, no-one would have batted an eyelid.

      But Serrano, being a Catholic, seems to have aspired to nothing more than jejune provocation, on purely Catholic terms. And they responded accordingly.

      Hardly worth it, really.

  13. The argument about “atheism” inevitably is an argument about the existence of the Christian ‘God’. A far better terrain for this battle is whether ANY supernatural beings (such as gods and souls), or supernatural places (such as Heaven and Hell), exist. On this terrain, the “Materialist” who claims that only material beings and places exist, has the upper hand. The burden of proof that there are immaterial entities (both gods and souls) and places falls squarely on the theist. I strongly suggest that the debate about “atheist” be refocused as a debate about “materialist”.

    1. Agreed. Theists can’t even define what they mean by “immaterial entities”, and what they could possibly be made of.

      An immaterial entity sounds to me like an oxymoron, and just another dodgy, nebulous theistic concept.

    2. There are (almost) materialists who are theists (in a way: like Epicurus and the Stoics), which makes it a bit of a complicated matter.

      (The stoics are materialists about everything except lekta, which translates to something like “meanings” [of words].)

  14. A couple of points:

    1. Perhaps Peterson’s belief that there are no real atheists and that religion is behind art, music, morality, etc. is just an extension of the “I see God in everything” viewpoint that many religious people claim to have. They are the most difficult to argue with as there’s no place to put your wedge.

    2. I think morality is totally hardwired into us by natural selection. We can’t do anything that isn’t colored by our culture but culture is not necessary for morality.

    1. I’d agree that

      “…think morality is totally hardwired into us by natural selection. ”

      except that I’d reword it into

      “a sense of what are socially acceptable behaviours, and when to dodge them for personal benefit, is part of our genetic and cultural heritage. The acceptable behaviours vary over time and culture.”

  15. I came to the personal belief some years ago, with the help of a college professor whose specialty was moral philosophy, that there is an objective, empirical basis for judgments of right and wrong. Morality (per his/my interpretation) isn’t just about how our brains are wired; there are judgments that are, put simply, right, and others are are simply wrong, regardless of what people think. The whole argument rests on the fact that we are all sentient beings who value their own lives and experiences, and can grasp that fact, and to treat one group as though their experiences mattered and another as though they did not is, among other things, logically inconsistent. In other words, the concept of Justice has a basis in reality, not just wiring.

    I know this is controversial, but it resolves a number of logical problems with the idea that morality is relative, or simply a product of evolution; for instance in our own world where slavery was widely accepted and just a few people thought it wrong, were those people right or wrong? And after slavery was discarded did the people of that time period suddenly, posthumously, become right? Per this theory slavery was *always* wrong, and people slowly came to understand and accept that fact.

    As a recent convert to atheism (grasping the truth of evolution was key in my conversion) I believe that I have largely discovered the moral universe for the first time. There are deeply moving stories in religion that speak to the moral conscience (although religion can be as easily used to justify evil), but learning to see through the fog of our stories to see others as they (more or less) really are, and grasping the reality that we are all travelers together for a very short time on a small, fragile planet — only supports the moral compassion that we need to master to justify our existence here.

    My 2 cents…

    1. Postscript: After writing this, I realized a serious flaw in my argument. If behavior is deterministic, and specifically if a person can’t *choose* to do otherwise, then the argument that right and wrong are based in objective reality kind of falls apart it would seem. A person can be said to have done harm to another, but can’t rationally be said to have made a bad choice in doing so, and thus can’t be rationally blamed for the action.

      Somehow knowledge comes into play, and the knowledge that slaves are people like oneself in morally relevant ways probably made it possible for societies to finally stop allowing slavery. But if the ultimate arbiter of what could and did happen was the mechanistic brain acting on the basis of physical causes, then the sense of choosing is itself an illusion. How can we rationally blame a computer?

      I find this very troubling. Back to square one. I still believe in good (that which leads to happiness) and evil (that which leads to suffering). I just hope good eventually triumphs over evil in this fragile, temporary world we inhabit.

      And thanks, Prof. C. Cat, for the forum to think through problems like this.

      1. Thanks, Lee, for your nicely-expressed thoughts & afterthoughts. You’ve given me fresh food for my own.

    2. I’m sympathetic to the notion of an objective morality. I think this is empirically testable in theory, and hopefully in practice in a faraway time, if we were to study the millions of putative intelligent civilizations in the universe. Even in the most absurdly pessimistic scenario, there should be some tens or hundreds of civilizations like ours out there. If we could only know them right now.

      1. There can be objective and *also* relational morality. Also objective as in independent of any given mind, or as independent of all minds? I sometimes believe the first, never the second: the analogy is to, say, money.

  16. Peterson simply has it backwards. Morals did not find their way into us because they are in our ancient cultural texts and norms. They found their way into our cultural texts and norms because they are in us.

      1. Right, I’ve seen him make this point but then somehow he also seems to say if we ditch the Bible we’re fucked.

        1. I think the ‘judeo-christian heritage’ has far less to offer than Peterson believes, and what it does is actually hellenic.

          If I understand Peterson correctly, though, he feels that dumping the old, value-conveying traditions without a replacement leads to nihilism. I agree with that in principle, but disagree that’s what occurred across the board, especially among atheists.

            1. He has but he doesn’t seem to have a clue what it actually is. In the 2nd video in the OP Matt touches on just this and wonders if Peterson is actually as clueless about humanism as his comments seem to indicate or if he is being disingenuous.

            2. Well I think he has, but wasn’t impressed. Humanism, in the US at least, is just progressive ideology passed off as the Revealed Truth of the universe. Dillahunty in his debate with Peterson — both of them annoyed me that night, btw — fell into that by saying the morality of not throwing Sam Harris off the stage was “self-evident”. Peterson was overly pedantic, but was correct to reject it as self-evident.

              I’ve yet to hear a humanist provide sound reasoning for why their ‘truths’ are the true ones derived from the Laws of Nature™. Incidentally, imo Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape does the best at establishing an a priori axiom.

              1. I think the humanist/naturalist moral position is self evident and backed up by evolutionary science. Why not throw Sam Harris off the stage? Because it would not be in your self interest to do so. If it was in your self interest, you ought to go ahead and throw him off the stage. But just make sure you’re right that it is in your self interest. It might only seem like it is in your self interest because you haven’t thought it through completely. In the case raised by Dilahunty, it was definitely not in his self interest to throw Sam Harris off the stage. Being kind and generous to people you interact with is almost always in your best self interest.

              2. Yes, the evolutionary origin of the Golden Rule is clear. But even a cooperative ESS can sustain a minority of individuals who thrive by acting selfishly.

                Dillahunty identifies one element, but it’s not the whole story, nor a sufficient first principle. For, if throwing someone off a stage (or a pier) truly is in your own best interest, then that act, under this formula, is moral.

      1. “hoo-boy” is right. What kind of raging dementia gave rise to Trying to read it, every sentence causes thousands of synapses in my brain to die, and soon I’ll be as demented as the person who wrote this incomprehensible drivel.

          1. That’s God’s punishment, infidel!

            (Just joking – of course, there is no God and therefore no infidels, but wouldn’t want my comment to be misconstrued as a threat.) Though next time the Jehovah’s Witnesses come round I might ask them my fate as an unbeliever, and then consider a lawsuit against their Almighty just to see if he shows up in court to defend himself…

            1. That’s pretty good, except that the God of the Jehovah’s Witnesses will admit precisely 144,000 souls into heaven out of all the people who’ve ever lived and will be born, and Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t even know who those are. So you can’t sue until after the rapture. As an atheist, none of it makes any sense, but why join a religion that doesn’t even guarantee salvation if you faithfully fulfill their commandments?

              Ask them that, the next time they come to your door. And also ask them if one of them isn’t Michael Jackson in disguise.

              1. Calvinists have been with us for some time, famously without that guarantee. AFAIK, though, they have no heaven quota. All I can think of is that this is Pascal’s Wager-ism taken to the extreme.

  17. Is that a surlyramic around the neck of that audience member?

    Sorry, but after vlogger Rational Atheist’s assertion that homosexuality evolved in cavemen because it caused some men to help out with the chores, I’m not inclined to take seriously his assessment of any subject.

  18. “Under this scheme, nobody really is an atheist. . . .”

    I’m inclined to agree,* and I say this as one who has little use for religion and perhaps less for the word God. Like the word poetry, the word God has gotten a bad rap. People say “I don’t like poetry” or “I don’t believe in God,” and what they’re really talking about is some construct that’s been foisted on them in school or at church. For me what both statements translate to is “I haven’t had the experience you’re talking about—or, if I have, I don’t associate it with the terms you’re using.” In short, I don’t believe in atheists (and I have my doubts about agnostics 😊).

    *With the sentiment, not with Peterson’s “scheme,” which I haven’t had a chance to look at.

      1. You’re right, Diane–and my apologies about that. I had hoped the emoji might convey that I was aware of the absurdity of denying the existence of the people I was addressing, but re-reading the post I can see that it might come across as arrogant. Please know that I have nothing but respect for you and others here.


  19. Jordan Peterson is live on The Joe Rogan Experience right now– or at least he was a few minutes ago, I stopped watching.

  20. I’ve observed that Jordan Peterson, although he has some profound things to say (like his apt criticism of post modernism), has learned from Donald Trump that just uttering contentious statements in a public forum increases the number of people talking about you. And that, in Peterson’s case, leads to book sales. Deepity leeds to dollars. It’s the modern media game, and he does it well.

    So Peterson will continue to spout opinions about this and that and just keep everybody talking. =$.


    1. Except before his recent fame, he’d been saying the exact same things for decades in his lectures, and had posted those lectures online for free — in relative obscurity.

      It’s a weak aspersion indeed to impute that anyone who realizes financial success must be solely motivated by it.

  21. Jordan Peterson is the new William lane Craig and we as atheists need to fight against his ideas. We can support him when he rails for free speech pushes back against censoring SJWs, but we must not give his atheist shunning or sophistry a pass. He is ultimately an enemy of clear thought, a Scot Adams who is in love with iconology. By the way, he is a man who wanted to buy a church, and who surrounds himself with communist propaganda which he learns from.

  22. b.) The loss of religion would strip the world of art, poetry, literature, and so on (“There are artists and poets who think they are godless.”) This is certainly not true in today’s world where avowed atheists are cranking out all kinds of wonderful music, art, and literature.

    Not to mention there’s nothing preventing atheists from producing art, poetry etc. about religion or using religious themes. If White Christmas can be written by a Jew, nothing stops atheists from doing the same.

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