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Potential: Jordan Peterson TEDxUofT
So I’m going to talk to you today about a different way of looking at what real is. It’s not easy to figure out what real is because we don’t really have infinite knowledge and so we’re always making some sets of presuppositions about what’s most real. And it really matters what you assume is most real because you base the decisions that you make that run the entire course of your life on those assumptions, whether you recognize it or not. And, if you get the assumptions wrong, or even if you leave them incomplete, you’re going to pay a big price for it. And.. the assumptions that we use in our culture, although they’ve enabled us to develop tremendously potent technology, are incomplete in ways that have also cost us and that are extremely dangerous.
Since the scientific age began, we’ve lived in a universe where the bottom strata of reality is considered to be something that’s dead, like dirt. It’s like it’s matter; it’s objective; it’s external and there isn’t any element of it that lends any reality to phenomena like meaning or purpose. That’s all being relegated to the subjective and in some ways to the illusory but it’s by no means self-evident that that set of presuppositions is correct because we lack infinite knowledge and there’s many things about the structure of being that we don’t understand – the main one being consciousness. We can’t account for it at all and we can’t account for the role it appears to play in the transformation of potential into actuality, which is a role that’s been recognized by physicists for almost a hundred years now, and which remains one of the biggest unsolved mysteries in science.
There are other ways of looking at what’s real and these other ways have some advantages and one of the advantages they have is that they protect us – knowing these other ways of operating within reality, defining reality, protect us from certain kinds of pathologies modern people are prone to. A fair number of pathologies that stem from the assumptions of the systems they use to define reality, and one of those pathologies is a kind of a nihilistic hopelessness which is a consequence of the recognition that in the final analysis, nothing really has any meaning and because life is difficult, and that’s a meaning that you can’t escape, being forced to abandon your belief in a positive or a transcendent meaning can leave you weak at times when you really can least afford to be weak. And there’s more important pathologies that it’s opened us up to too and those are pathologies of belief and I think we saw the most horrifying examples of that – hopefully the most horrifying examples in the 20th century where people whose belief systems were shattered, at least in part, by the competition between religious and scientific viewpoints, turned in large numbers to mass movements that were in error in every way – a substitute, a moral rationale in some sense, a substitute for religious beliefs that appeared no longer tenable. And the consequence of that was, it was just about annihilation, because we came close to annihilation twice – once in the 60s and once in the 80s. And even without the totality of annihilation, we lost hundreds of millions of people as a consequence of pathological belief systems in the 20th century.
So, if belief systems become pathological, they put – that pathology can pose the biggest threat possible to our very existence, and if you’re a Darwinian in any sense, you have to understand that the things that pose the biggest threats to your survival are the most real things. They have to be dealt with.
Now, here’s another way of looking at things. I’ll start with the definition of this word. This word “Phainesthai” is the root word of phenomena, phenomenon. Phenomena are the things that appear to you and phainesthai means to shine forth and the phenomenologists who were interested in the shining forth of things made the presumption that the things that manifested themselves to you as most meaningful were the most real things and I think you can make a strong case that that’s actually how your brain is wired, because your brain is wired to react to things that have meaning before they construct the perceptions that you think of as objects. And the reason for that is because the meaning of things is more real, in some sense, but more important than the view of things as objects. And, so for example, a famous philosopher – psychologist division said that when you approach a cliff, you don’t see a cliff. You see a falling off place. It isn’t that it’s an object “cliff” to which you attribute the meaning of ‘falling off place,’ to. It’s the ‘falling off place’ perception comes first and the abstraction of the objective cliff, if it ever happens at all, comes much later – much later conceptually because even babies can detect cliffs and much later historically.
Poets have noticed this phenomena, shining forth reality, and they’ve often associated with childhood and I think there’s good reasons for that. I think your brain is not so much of an inhibitory structure when you’re a child before it’s fully developed. And, so, there’s neurological reasons for noting it but there’s also reasons that stem from the level of lived experience. You can tell when you’re around children that they’re open to things in a way that adults aren’t. They’re wide-eyed with wonder, and adults like being around children for that reason, because although the child takes an awful lot of care, and is a terrifying object in some ways to behold if you have a relationship with the child because they’re so vulnerable. Part of the way they pay you back is they open up your eyes – your eyes that have been closed by your experience, and that have learned to shield out the things that shine forth and when you have a child, you can look through the child’s eyes again. And to me, it’s like they’re on fire in a sense; they’re like a candle or something that’s burning brightly. I think that’s also partly because we actually don’t screen out fire, we actually see fire and that’s why we can’t not look at it when it’s around.
I think the same thing happens when you’re in love with someone. If it’s genuine love, because genuine love gives you a hint of what could be in the future if you could just set yourself right. You get a glimpse of what could be in the future if you fall in love with someone. You don’t get that without work but you get a glimpse of it and I think it’s because when you fall in love, and I believe this is likely a biochemical transformation, is the perceptual structures that normally stop you from seeing people because you really don’t see people, you just see shadows. The barriers are lifted temporarily and what’s really there shines through and it’s overwhelming. But to stay in that state, well, it requires a tremendous amount of moral effort, is really the right way of thinking about it.
Woodsworth said about children:
There was a time when
meadow, grove and stream,
and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
Earth fills her lap
with pleasures of her own;
Yearnings she hath
in her own natural kind,
And, even with something
of a mother’s mind,
And no unworthy aim,
The homely nurse doth all she can
To make her foster-child, her inmate, Man,
Forget the glories he hath known
And that imperial palace whence he came.
And what Woodsworth means by this is that as you develop as a competent adult, which is precisely the direction towards which you should develop, much of what you are doing is actually closing in and narrowing. You’re closing in and narrowing towards a particular goal in a particular way of being and that’s necessary because as you develop, you have to develop towards a particular way of being or you don’t develop at all. And you can’t stay a child forever – that goes sour of its own accord. And so, human beings are destined to close their perceptions in, to sharpen themselves, and to focus on very little so that they can at least do that. But the price we pay for that is that we start to replace the relationship we have with untrammeled reality with the shadows that are only complex enough to let us do what we need to do and no more. And in some sense, although we become more competent, in other ways we’ve become more blind and we kind of know how this happens. That happens from the bottom up.
Now this is a Magritte painting, and the painting has an obvious meaning in a sense, which is that we’re blinded even to what’s right in front of us, by the objects that we see. And we think that seeing is letting in the light, but it’s only letting in a very small fraction of the light, because we’re only capable of contemplating a small fraction of everything whenever we’re doing any particular thing. And so very much of what we’re doing is screening things out. Very much of your cortex is inhibitory, and Magritte is trying to get at that with that idea. It’s like, there’s a businessman there. He’s dressed in his uniform. He can’t see beyond the immediate thing that’s in front of his eyes.
How does that happen? Well, let’s say you’re a baby. What’s the first thing you learn – you learn to build your body from the bottom up. You build your perceptual and action structures from the bottom up. You learn to move your arm. You learn to closer your hand, then you learn to do things that are practical with those abilities: you lift a spoon – well, you have to do that to feed yourself. You learn to move a plate. You learn to set the table. That’s starting to become social now because you can set the table for you and for other people. You learn to make a meal. That’s a more complex sequencing of motor activities and perceptual abilities. It’s very focused.
As you continue to develop, the things you chain together become more and more complex, and.. but also more specific. You have to care for your family, which means there’s all sorts of other things you’re not doing. You have to find a good job, which almost everyone, when they’re young, experiences as the contemplation of limitation. Well, not everyone, but many people think, “oh no,” you know, “I’m going to have to settle for this role. Oh I don’t want to only be that role but it’s better to be that role than no role at all.” And maybe the way through the role to the other side is through the role, not around it. There’s no avoiding the responsibility of narrowing and shaping and specializing.
Be a good parent – well that’s a sacrifice you make for the next generation. Be a good partner – the same thing. Be a good citizen. Well it’s easy for young people in particular to be skeptical of that because the old society is always corrupt and archaic and blind, and to become a member of that seems to be in part to allow yourself to adopt that same aged blindness. But that thing also educates you. It shapes every word you speak. It’s something that you have to be grateful to even in its aged archaic form. And it’s part of the necessity of human responsibility that you become a good citizen. And that means, in some sense, giving up more of what could be, at least to sustain what is. A satirical song from the late 1890s English:
I am the very model of
a modern Major-General,
vegetable, animal, and
I know the kings of
England, and I quote
the fights historical,
From Marathon to
Waterloo, in order
And the satire is, well, he has the knowledge, he’s an official functionary and it’s very difficult to do that but in the same way it’s very limited and categorical and of course an artist would object to that. But it’s better than nothing at all and that’s the alternative. Well, above that, maybe, what’s above good citizen? Because sometimes good citizen is not so good. If you were a good citizen of Nazi Germany or if you’re a good citizen of the Soviet Union or of Mao’s China, you know, you were narrowed in a particular way but – and then maybe in a necessary way but also in a very pathological way. And so it seems to be that there has to be something, even though adopting that restricted viewpoint is necessary, there has to be something above it, and I think that’s also the thing that can restore the sense you have of a true entanglement with the deepest and most meaningful realities of life.
And that’s the issue of being a good person. It’s above being a citizen. It’s something else. It has something to do with the development of individuality, and I think we’re also wired for that. So it looks like we’re wired to lose what we had to specialize, but then once we’re specialized to reopen, once we’ve got the skills built into our body and then can handle reality because we’re more adapted and more fluid and more flexible, then we can start opening the doors again.
And I believe your nervous system is set up to help you do that if you don’t interfere with it, if you notice. And you notice that by paying attention to the things that manifest themselves to you, that shine forth as interesting. They grab you, and where you’re grabbed is where the obscuring map you live in isn’t obscuring the reality that’s underneath. It’s like there’s a hole in the map and the light shines through that and you’re attracted to that and that will pull you along. And that’s when your interest is seized by something. That’s your nervous system doing that. You don’t do that. It’s an unconscious force. You could even say it was the world itself talking to you. And the phenomenologists did feel that way. And it’s a real phenomena – it’s not a secondary thing and you know that because you can’t live without it. You die, you stultify, you get cynical, you get nihilistic or you adopt some wild belief system if you don’t have the attachment to some genuine life-giving meaning in your own life. And it’s a hard thing to follow that because it doesn’t necessarily put you into perfect juxtaposition with society because it’s not society. It’s not being a good citizen. It’s something else. It’s also the thing that rebuilds how you would be a good citizen.
The Egyptians knew about this a long time ago. They didn’t really know they do because they acted things out in drama and portrayed them mythologically because they didn’t have the capacity to articulate the ideas fully. But the Egyptians worshipped the human eye, and they worshipped the eye because they knew the eye was the thing that paid attention. Like we’re really visual creatures and your eye is automatically attracted to the things that manifest themselves or shine forth in front of you, and you have to look at them. If you pay attention to the things that shine forth, because what you’re seeing is the reality instead of the map, you’re gaining access to the real information that’s in the world. It’s not prepackaged information because that can be false. It’s the real information flowing out from the ground of being, and if you pay attention to that, it will help you move towards the goals that you’ve already established for yourself as a good citizen, that are part of the inbuilt value structure that you’ve adopted, but at the same time, it will do something else. It will lead you to transform the nature of those goals because as you pursue the thing that guides your interest, and more and more information is revealed. Then by absorbing that information, which is learning, essentially, you build yourself into a different person – a stronger and more informed person, and a more intact person. A person with more integrity and with more strength and with more direction. And at the same time, you’re differentiating your map so you’re living more and more in the real world. So as you approach your specific goal, even if it’s a culturally conditioned goal, the learning that you do along the way transforms you. And it transforms the nature of your goal.
Things shine forth. There’s a reason for that, and you know that because when you’re attending to something you’re interested in, and you’re engaged in it, that’s when you’re alive. That’s when life is worthwhile. It’s so worthwhile that in those moments, you don’t even ask the question about it. The question itself goes away because the meaning that you’re united with is so powerful that it can push back the adversity that would otherwise characterize life. Nietzsche said, “the person who has a why can bear any how.” And that’s a really useful thing to know because you think, well, we’re very vulnerable creatures and our life ends catastrophically and terrible things happen and how can we bear that? And the answer to that is and always has been that you have to be in sync with something that’s beyond you, because that synchrony gives you the strength that you need to bear your terrible limitations. You see this played out. People know this. Everyone knows this. It’s just that our culture isn’t good at articulating it. We’ve lost a lot of this. We haven’t developed our knowledge about this as much as we’ve developed our knowledge of the objective world. And we’re paying for it.
You see it in weird places. On the right here, there’s an old symbol at the bottom. It’s called the round chaos. When the alchemists believed that the round chaos was the thing that held what was, what the world was ultimately made of. The thing that was most real. And they conceptualized it as something like information. They thought about it as a combination of spirit and matter, and it was a combination of spirit and matter, which is what information is, in a sense, because when you interacted with it, you took some of the information and you built yourself out of it so that was the spiritual element, and you took some of the information and you built the world out of it. And that was the material element. And they thought of the reality itself as something that preceded the spiritual and the material, and that that reality was what shone forth. And that’s being dramatized and entails modern tales of transformation – the most interesting it popped up is in the Harry Potter stories where, central to the Harry Potter theme is a game called Quidditch. And in Quidditch, which is a game, the way you win the game is by playing a game that’s sort of outside the Quidditch game. You win the Quidditch game by finding, following this thing that beckons. This golden thing that glimmers and moves around you. If you catch that, then you win the game and so does your whole team. And inside that is the resurrection stone. It’s a diamond, it’s a jewel.
Sweet are the uses
Which like the toad,
ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel
in his head.
The idea is that if you follow the thing that manifests itself to you as interesting, it will lead you through adversity, lead you to do things that are difficult and as that happens, but not beyond your capacity because it’s tempered for that. What will happen is, as you hit yourself against the world, pursuing what you’re interested in, you’ll tap yourself into alignment. Your molecules, your structure, internal structure, will become non-contradictory, like the internal structure of a jewel, which is something that reflects light, that makes you hard and durable and able to bear the terrible conditions of existence without becoming corrupt.
T.S. Eliot said something about this. “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and to know the place for the first time.”
And that’s a five-line summary of the most remarkable elaboration of the nature of the relationship between the individual human consciousness and reality itself that’s ever been penned. And the culmination of a system of thought that’s been developing over thousands and thousands of years which we have lost and cannot properly articulate.
Follow what you’re interested in. It’ll take you to adversity and then through it. It’ll transform you from a citizen into an individual and then the doors will open again. And at that point, you’re strong enough to have your life. And at that point you’re strong enough not to fall prey to pathological belief systems and work towards the destruction of things.