Jordan Peterson and the Problem of Evil

I hereby cede the rights to this post’s title to J. K. Rowling.

Here’s another “I lean left and I’m embarrassed to say I like Jordan Peterson” book review. Thoughtful and worth reading.
      &nbspby Scott Alexander

This passage caught my attention, because its snark and jarring misapprehension seem out of place in an otherwise balanced, even sympathetic, article. Peterson, author of Maps of Meaning, refuses to answer THE question about the search for meaning?

What about the most classic case of someone seeking meaning – the person who wants meaning for their suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people? Peterson talks about this question a lot, but his answers are partial and unsatisfying. Why do bad things happen to good people? “If you work really hard on cultivating yourself, you can have fewer bad things happen to you.” Granted, but why do bad things happen to good people? “If you tried to ignore all bad things and shelter yourself from them, you would be weak and contemptible.” Sure, but why do bad things happen to good people? “Suffering makes us stronger, and then we can use that strength to help others.” But, on the broader scale, why do bad things happen to good people? “The mindset that demands no bad thing ever happen will inevitably lead to totalitarianism.” Okay, but why do bad things happen to good people? “Uh, look, a neo-Marxist transgender lobster! Quick, catch it before it gets away!”

“[W]hy do bad things happen to good people?,” is also known as the Problem of Evil.

Despite the mockery, the quality of the rest of the article makes me charitable: This is probably not deliberate misrepresentation. But it is a serious error. Alexander acknowledges Peterson does address the Problem of Evil, ““Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street” is about a heart-wrenchingly honest investigation of the Problem of Evil,” (Rule 12) and then puts that paragraph in?

Still, there’s more than one class of evil. There’s evil chosen by man, and then there’s the random, impersonal, perverse chaos of existence. Let’s see if Peterson is evading either of those.

To the first evil, Peterson tells us in no uncertain terms one of the reasons bad things happen to good people is that “good people” lie – often to themselves. This answers questions about why there is war; speaks (mostly and in the present, at least) to why famine; and tells us the cause of all manner of man-made evil. It’s explained by Rule 8, forms the basis for Peterson’s admiration of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and informs many of Peterson’s lectures.

Other bad things come under the heading of “Why does the universe tend toward perversity, when innocent people are randomly made to suffer terribly?”

That is, why cancer? Why Alzheimer’s? Why chaos? Why… Well, I can’t miss the opportunity to quote (truncated) one of my favorite Joeseph Heller passages from Catch-22:

“And don’t tell me God works in mysterious ways,” Yossarian continued… “There’s nothing so mysterious about it. He’s not working at all. He’s playing. Or else he’s forgotten all about us. That’s the kind of God you people talk about — a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed. Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatalogical mind of His when He robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did He ever create pain?”

“Stop it! Stop it!” Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife screamed suddenly, and began beating him ineffectually about the head with both fists. “Stop it!”

… “What the hell are you getting so upset about?” He asked her bewilderedly in a tone of contrite amusement. “I thought you didn’t believe in God.”

“I don’t,” she sobbed, bursting violently into tears. “But the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He’s not the mean and stupid God you make Him out to be.”

Yossarian laughed… “Let’s have a little more religious freedom between us,” he proposed obligingly. “You don’t believe in the God you want to, and I won’t believe in the God I want to. Is that a deal?”

I think the God Jordan Peterson doesn’t believe in is the God you can blame your suffering on, thereby absolving you of responsibility for your own life. The God who cares about every sparrow’s fall is the God who also doesn’t do anything about it. The totalitarian state is like that, too. When they’re not engaged in actively shooting the sparrows. Which is a difference between man-made evil and random evil.

Peterson addresses the Problem of Random Evil extensively in his lectures Maps of Meaning and The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories.

He confronts the problem and suggests a psychological/ evolutionary-biological answer is at least partly in the archetypal stories humans have created over millenia. More succinctly than 60 hours of lectures: “Take up your own burden. Learn from mistakes, take corrective actions, and don’t repeat. Don’t whine.” One of the received truths is that you have to take responsibility for yourself – in doing so you find not the answer to life, the universe and everthing, but meaning. It’s all you can ask for. Ignoring it leads to evil.

Maybe the the offending paragraph results from the fact that this is narrowly a book review, and perhaps Alexander is not well acquainted with Peterson’s other works:

The politics in this book lean a bit right, but if you think of Peterson as a political commentator you’re missing the point. The science in this book leans a bit Malcolm Gladwell, but if you think of him as a scientist you’re missing the point. Philosopher, missing the point. Public intellectual, missing the point. Mythographer, missing the point. So what’s the point?

The non-point-missing description of Jordan Peterson is that he’s a prophet.

[Peterson is] the only person in the world who can say our social truisms and get a genuine reaction with them…

Maybe that’s because they aren’t social truisms anymore. Why? Well, that brings us to an oversight in the piece. It’s because many people have never heard them, and there’s an organized effort to suppress them.

So, one might ask the question “If Peterson is indeed evading the Problem of Evil with cliches, what is the alternative?” Well, one popular on our campuses is the postmodernist answer, which Peterson identifies as evil for good reason. Here’s their answer:

Postmodernism, the school of “thought” that proclaimed “There are no truths, only interpretations” has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for “conversations” in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster.
-Dr. Daniel Dennett

That is, the Problem of Evil is irrelevant – if it did have any relevance it would be sexist, racist and patriarchal. Only power matters. All this angst about good and evil is pointless. Cultural relativism and moral equivalency are absolutes in a universe where truth cannot be known.

This nihilism could serve as a definition of evil. It’s what Peterson stands against. If his metaphysical answers to the Problem of Evil are somehow less than satisfactory to you, fine; but to assert he’s evading the question is simply ludicrous.

And Alexander knows it. One of the ideas continually showing up in reasoned critiques of Peterson is that he is a good man.

And it makes me even more convinced that he’s good. Not just a good psychotherapist, but a good person. To be able to create narratives like Peterson does – but also to lay that talent aside because someone else needs to create their own without your interference – is a heck of a sacrifice.

Yes. Exactly. How did he become a good man? By squarely facing the Problem of Evil.

So, he provides a role model, which is another thing prophets* do. He came to be that model by prolonged, intense grappling with the question, among other phrasings, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” You can even see him continuing to do that when he frequently pauses to make sure he’s telling the truth (Has anything changed since I last thought this thought which would cause me to change my mind? Are these words the right words?).

The more of him you see the more you will be convinced he is intelligent, articulate, polymathic, grounded, kind, thoughtful and humbly aware of his own exhaustively examined faults. One of which is not refusing to answer the question about why bad things happen to good people. It’s not possible to spend a little time listening to him and come to any other intellectually honest conclusion.

It is unreasonable to complain Peterson hasn’t supplied a tidy sound bite answering the Problem of Evil to your satisfaction, it’s quite another thing to mock him for it when his life-work has been dedicated to answering it.

*Alexander’s word. I’m not claiming it, and I’m quite sure Jordan Peterson would be uncomfortable with it. Because he knows full well the danger.