Maps of Meaning, discussion – Part 2a, The Meaning of Meaning and Value of Value

Maps of Meaning is quite a dense book, and perhaps I was overly optimistic in thinking I could take it all in how I thought I could. Since my last writing, I have been listening on walks across slick mud, on two 5k runs and while negotiating footpaths that should not be quite so full while the UK is in lockdown. And so, again as a health warning to Peterson fans, I apologise if I miss important points in Peterson’s argument. That said, I won’t take full responsibility: the writing is almost as dense as the subject material, and I’m not sure it has to be.

At the end of the last post, we had left our platonic “Divine Son” at the interface of the known and unknown. Which is to say, we had left a character struggling with the world he thought he knew and had set plans and goals in dangling over a metaphorical cliff edge; it turned out he was wrong about the world in ways that were catastrophic to his plans. And so, I picked up where I left off expecting a discussion about how a generic character tells themselves stories to get themselves out of the rut. Instead, I trudged through the rain listening to some trivialities and mouse experiments.

Behaviourist experiments ― experiments that focus not on the internal world of people, but how their outward behaviour changes ― define different stimuli as positive or negative based on how they affect people’s behaviour: if something produces an increase in a certain behaviour, that something is good; if it inhibits the behaviour, it is bad. The good and the bad can be subdivided once: the actual presence of the thing, or the promise of the thing. For example, food or the promise of food; an electric shock, or the threat of an electric shock.

These seem so general to us that it is easy to assume that the goodness or badness of that thing is inherent to the thing. Food is always good. Being hit is always bad. When a girl says she saw a “scary man” we know, on some level, what she means, as if “scary” were a literally true feature of the man. But, using just food, we can see it immediately isn’t that simple. Food isn’t as good to a person who is full compared to a person who is hungry; a person on a diet for health reasons (whether it be diabetes or weight loss) or even just for vanity reasons will have an ambivalence towards food: it is good, in that basic primal sense, but bad with respect to that higher-order goal. Perhaps more significantly, to an anorexic food is primarily bad; to a sexual masochist, an electric shock might be good on a primal level.

In rather excessive, but perhaps not inapt, imagery, Peterson gives an account of Jewish people being ecstatically happy at going to a concentration camp. How is that possible? If things inherently hold the value of good and bad ― even in a slightly complex way, as alluded to in the previous paragraph ― how can the main valence of a concentration camp, of all things, be good? The answer, somewhat graphically, is that it wasn’t that concentration camp; it was one without an “oven”, and they only discovered that en route. It was still a barbaric place, where severe group punishments were meted out for individual minor infractions, where they were made to stand naked in the rain and blistering cold. And, they knew a journey to an oven was always possible. But, it wasn’t on site, and that was a positive worthy of celebration.

All of this is to make the perhaps trivially simple point that values of good and bad are not inherent to a thing, but emerge in the relationship between a person and the thing. But Peterson goes one step further. The thing is, in some important way, identical to the value we place on it. That’s not precisely the point; more accurately, the thing is in some way motivating to a person and that motivation is an important feature in the models (“maps”) people create of the world.

I got to the top of my road, looking down the arrow straight path, thinking that perhaps this walk wasn’t going to say anything or particular interest. But, then he said it: goals and values should be nested in darwinian survival. That claim was the seed of a discussion with Sam Harris that I have already taken interest in once before (1, 2). Maps of Meaning was published in 1999, so there’s no way the book was going to respond to that discussion. But, still, perhaps it was going to articulate his ideas better than he had in that discussion.

Nevertheless, I was home. It would have to wait for the next walk.

My wife had recommended walking through the local cemetery; apparently our dog went wild for the many smells. And, she wasn’t wrong; he was chaotic. During this walk, Peterson discussed a brain-in-a-vat-in-a-trolley, and mouse experiments where he disagreed with the entire design. I look back at this and wonder if perhaps I am forgetting an entire walk: the last walk left me with a promise of a discussion about values as nested in evolution. But we’re talking, in abstracted terms, about decision making as a ‘Brain in a Trolley Problem’ and mouse experiments.

The Trolley Problem talks about the impossible complexity of moral decisions when you know more. There’s a trolley travelling at such a speed that it will kill whoever it hits, and it is coming up to a fork in the rails with a right and a left direction. On the left, there is a man who will kill 5 people ― but he will kill them because they themselves are threatening to kill 25 children. Those children would otherwise go on to become great people: pioneers in medical science, iconic artistic and cultural figures, successful politicians of peace. On the right is a doctor who will save a man’s life, but that man will go on to murder several people. Those several people will be organ donors who go on to save many more lives and restore people’s sight. The brain knows all this, but does not know that organs would be available even if the people weren’t killed and turned into organ donors. Again, this discussion of decision making and knowledge is something I have written about before (3).

Peterson doesn’t resolve this complex issue. Suffice it, I think, to say that a decision about taking the left or right fork is complex enough to need a way of simplifying how we navigate it.

It’s apt that I would be in a cemetery for a discussion about a brain having to decide who to kill, and for the torturing of mice. If it wasn’t for the fact the sun was out, it might have seemed like foreshadowing. But, discussion about mouse torture follows.

The experiment was about putting a mouse in a cage, letting it acclimate to its new environment, then changing its new environment so that it includes a tone followed by a shock. Eventually, the tone plays without the shock and the mouse freezes. This is deemed evidence that fear is a learned trait. Peterson makes a compelling argument to the contrary. The simple fact that the mouse is given time to acclimate to the new cage is evidence that fear is the default; it is in the unknown. It is only by exploring the cage, particularly with respect to what it contains that might be motivating, that the mouse becomes familiar with it and learns to not be afraid ― or, at least, learns there is nothing to be afraid of. The mouse is looking for things it might eat, or that might eat it, or things it can mate with.

A more naturalised experiment seems to support Peterson’s point of view, that to not be afraid is learned. A mouse burrow in an “open” (i.e. in a glass case such that some parts of it can be observed) set up was exposed to a cat. Before the cat, the burrow was a known and instinctively safe environment. In the presence of the cat, it’s not just the cat that becomes fear-inducing, but also the burrow itself; it has gone from a known environment that is naturally devoid of cats, to one that might permit cats. In this quite severe and newly unknown environment, there are alarm squeals and a constant busying of investigation. As soon as their environment went from something that learned to be comfortable in, to something new, fear set it. Their behaviour over the next few hours is a frantic re-discovering of their burrow, and only once they have re-learned there are no cats do they begin to be comfortable again.

It is possible to see, here, how a valence of a thing (event, physical thing) has a relationship to survival. It is worth pointing out that “valence” is used to mean, approximately, the subjective meaning of a thing to an individual and how it motivates them.

The discussion then shifted to what these behaviours look like in a social species that is capable of mimicry and copying. Types of copying are quite interesting: a child that explores, say, one of those toys that will ‘moo’ when they turn it upside down will mimic themselves to show other people. Young babies explore their vocal repertoire by first mimicking what they see you do (I wager that is one of the functions of a baby laughing at your baby noises ― to encourage you to keep making them so they can see more of what it is they are mimicking). In older children through to adulthood, people can be seen mimicking each other in conversation or their elders (and celebrities, through the TV).

Peterson suggests that which elders and celebrities get mimicked will depend on the appearance that the elder has achieved things which are important to the mime. In some sense, the behaviour of a professional footballer is inseparable from the footballing success, because on an instinctive (and mimicking) level, there is an implied assumption they are related. This is problematic in modern society, because we don’t see the extensive training and the diet and practice of the professional athletes that might become the subjects of mimicry. Nevertheless, this may be the origins of worship and superstardom.

This mimicry leads to procedural “knowledge”. One to do something, but not what that something is. I have doubts about whether there is any such thing as exclusively procedural knowledge through mimicry, based on a rather compelling argument from David Deutsch in Beginning of Infinity: imagine one primate who has learned to sharpen flint by striking it, and others watch the process. The others do not just exactly copy, and reach down and pick up whatever is in front of them, in the same way. They have some creative understanding that a tuft of grass and a stick aren’t the right materials, do they don’t precisely mimic the reaching forward and picking it up. They look for stones (or, if their understanding is more acute, flint). And so it might be better to think not of a distinction between declarative knowledge (e.g. this is, that is ― the traditional sense of “true” claims) and procedural knowledge (e.g do it this way) but a scale between solely declarative knowledge, and knowledge just of how to use things. At its purest, procedural knowledge must still contain some declarations. It’s not clear that the reverse is true.

Despite the supposition of nuance I am adding to Peterson’s work, I don’t think it changes the direction of his thesis. Mostly procedural knowledge is still very powerful. It dictates social norms, underpins cultures and may, eventually, even get into what makes a religion.

Something which can be inferred, uncontroversially, from Peterson’s works is that religion is not true in the declarative sense. However, he never says that. I don’t know whether it’s not important to him, or if he is pandering to Christians ― giving them access to the sentence “Christianity is true”, without any of the detail of what he’s talking about. What Peterson appears to mean by true is that religions are useful in a Darwinian sense, or at least they have useful origins in procedural knowledge.

Put simply, if you think Peterson’s thesis leads to the conclusion that there was a literal Eden, or that man is made directly from clay, or that a global flood happened, or that a man could part the sea, or that another man could walk on water and come back to life after 3 days, you’re wrong. In terms of declarative knowledge and what is literally true, Peterson appears to avoid saying anything about religion.

For me, this raises a really interesting question: what can the function of the stories be? In part 1, I bemoaned that Peterson took Nietzsche’s Madman approach, concerned that we had thrown out God and therefore the whole of the stories, but kept the morality. This seems entirely backwards, especially if Peterson is also arguing that the stories are entirely manmade. If they are based on procedural knowledge, why is it not trivially easy to create the modern version of those values without the ancient fictions?

I say “modern version” because there are values that we don’t want to come through. If we take Peterson’s premise that we either take the whole or none of Christianity (I assume this works for all religions, but Peterson is a Christian) then we take none, for the following reason: there is no value worth preserving in the idea of stoning homosexuals, or in keeping virgin girls as the spoils of war, or making slaves of foreign people.

Taleb, author of The Black Swan, the last book I read, quipped that the most useful thing religion may have done is keep people away from pre-experimental and pre-scientific “medicine”, which in many cases may have been more dangerous than just letting a condition pass. Other than that, it’s just a story. Believing it, or pretending to believe it, and even taking part in some of the rituals (e.g. prayer, fasting in lent) may be an outward badge of a tribal identity, but that actual content of the beliefs and ritual are completely fungible: you could replace Christianity, wholesale, with Buddhism.

3 thoughts on “Maps of Meaning, discussion – Part 2a, The Meaning of Meaning and Value of Value”

  1. The original trolley problem simply involved one person on one track and five people on the other. There was no consideration of what those people might do in the future (“. . . one of the five is Adolf Hitler as a teenager . . . “).

    The makers of the trolley problem hadn’t anticipated that we might think that people who hang out upon the tracks deserve to die and receive an honorable mention Darwin Award. Or, someone like me who thinks that no one should “die by trolley” and reaches into his imaginary pocket and pulls out his imaginary pistol and fires off three warning shots, which (because the speed of sound is much faster than the trolley gets there before the trolley and . . .) causes all of the people to look in my direction and to flee the dangerous tracks.
    Decisions involving life or death are never well informed or even particularly clear, nor does one get hours and hours to think about them (except on rare occasions). One engages in Type 1 thinking and acts. That is the human thing to do.

  2. I’m sure this is not the kind of reaction you might be looking for, but the first question would be: why waste any time on this obvious, pathetic fraud? There’s only so many people in any reader’s lifetime that are worthy of engagement, and this Christian’s idiot’s public psychic meltdowns deserve complete avoidance.

    1. Well, I don’t know anything about his public breakdown.
      However, the reason I am reading him is because I want to understand his arguments. I still think I will put 12 Rules for Life on my reading list. He’s influential, but I really can’t see why. He’s basically arguing that stories that aren’t true can still be important, which is fine but not exactly revolutionary.
      But, he is co-opted by people who want to argue the literal truth of Christianity. And so, if nothing else, it’s good to know what he’s arguing even if all it achieves is arming me to say to people citing Peterson “he’s not arguing what you’re arguing, at all — he says Christianity is ‘true’ in precisely the same way ancient Greek religions are ‘true’ and all religions are ‘true’, i.e. not true.”

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