Jordan Peterson & Sam Harris Debate the Nature of God

A friend recently shared a video clip with me from an event on June 23, 2018, which was a public conversation and debate between psychologist and professor Jordan Peterson and philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris, moderated by biologist Bret Weinstein. It’s an interesting discussion between a theist (Peterson) and an atheist (Harris) on the nature of God, which I think begins to get at the heart of the issue from both sides.

A friend recently shared a video clip with me from an event on June 23, 2018, which was a public conversation and debate between psychologist and professor Jordan Peterson and philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris, moderated by biologist Bret Weinstein. It’s an interesting discussion between a theist (Peterson) and an atheist (Harris) on the nature of God, which I think begins to get at the heart of the issue from both sides. Peterson shares his thoughts about what God is, and then there is discussion that follows. I’ll share the clip here, and then comment on it below. (Note: I don’t agree with the video’s commentator at the start, so I’ll just start the video from the point of the event itself.)

Here’s a transcript of Peterson’s description of God (just the portions he read):

God is how we imaginatively and collectively represent the existence and action of consciousness across time, as the most real aspects of existence manifest themselves across the longest of time-frames but are not necessarily apprehensible as objects in the here and now…

God is that which eternally dies and is reborn in the pursuit of higher being and truth. (That’s a fundamental element of hero mythology). God is the highest value in the hierarchy of values… God is what calls and what responds in the eternal call to adventure. God is the voice of conscience. God is the source of judgment, and mercy, and guilt. God is the future to which we make sacrifices and something akin to the transcendental repository of reputation… God is that which selects among men in the eternal hierarchy of men.

That’s quite a definition of God! Of course, I don’t think that Jordan Peterson is looking to comprehensively define exactly what God is, but rather is pointing at the idea of God from many angles. He seems to be saying that God is wrapped up in the nature of consciousness, and is existent in a timeless frame of being that may not be directly objectively observable by that consciousness, that God is an evolving being of the lifecycle of nature, and of deep archetypes embedded in our biology. God is what speaks in our inner mind from outside conscious awareness.
I think I agree with most of those ideas. I do believe God is deeply intertwined with consciousness itself, as I have had experiences of consciousness which I very much label as “Divine.” God becomes manifest in a dimension of consciousness which is not directly observable in our everyday waking state of consciousness. I agree that God is the source and being of nature and life itself, which is eternally born and dies and is reborn again. And God is a deep part of our very own biological nature, even the ground of that nature.
The thing is, I think Sam Harris agrees with the observations of the deeply mysterious nature of consciousness (which he recently called a “miracle”), that there are states of consciousness which reveal transcendent realities such as pure Love (which he has experienced himself), and that we come from a source that is unknown but which interconnects us all in a web of life and being. Where Harris disagrees, it seems, is in calling these things “God.”
It seems Harris believes, as do I, that much of religious understanding of the nature of God is generally incorrect in the light of modern science, that those understandings of God have long ago been shown to be wrong or in error, and that nothing like the general literalist-fundamentalist understanding of a personal or anthropomorphic God located up in the clouds somewhere can be justified in the light of what we understand through our scientific observations of the universe over the last two centuries.
I think Peterson agrees with this, that many of our traditional descriptions and definitions of God are highly problematic and insufficient, otherwise why would he come up with such new psychology-inspired conceptions of God. He seems to admit that people may not have considered God in this way before, and that he may be articulating their intuitions in a new manner that is justifiable in our modern day and scientific age.
Harris wants to debunk the old unscientific unnatural notions of God, while Peterson wants to re-conceptualize God in the light of modern psychological understandings informed by mythology and ancient wisdom. It seems they are both working on the same task, just at opposite ends. Harris is burning the old (at least in this dialogue), while Peterson is bringing in the new. I think there is a place for both viewpoints, and both viewpoints have validity.
As Peterson notes in the clip, humanity’s understanding of God is ultimately undefinable. God transcends the capacity of language and human concepts to fully grasp. But that doesn’t mean we can’t point at it in many ways, or have an intuitive feel for it, or even have full-blown mystical experiences which many describe as Transcendent and Divine, and which opens our understanding and vision to astonishing new Light and Wisdom.
In a way, Harris represents an apophatic way of approaching the question of God, that God is something which cannot be proved, shown, or demonstrated, that any particular thing we point to and say is God is not God, and believes that one of the most Mysterious things in existence is consciousness itself for which we do not have ultimate answers as to how it arises or what it is, but which holds the key to achieving a healthy mind and wellbeing in life. Peterson represents a cataphatic approach to the Divine, pointing at all the qualities and concepts that seem to embody or express the Ultimate or Absolute, the most High. Not a single one of them is a final or comprehensive description, but they all contribute to leading us toward that thing of highest value that we all desire, and which brings meaning to our lives.
Neither approach is wrong, and both have actually been used by philosophers, thinkers, theologians, and mystics of the past both in the East and the West. There is value in both approaches, and neither is necessarily better. Both approaches can be read about in the scriptures of many traditions, and in the writings of mystics, scientists and philosophers of the past.
Where I might disagree with Harris is that he seems to sometimes want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. He has said that there are real psychological truths that can be found in the rubble of religious institutions, and that the religions’ founders likely had real insightful experiences into the nature of consciousness and being, and he seems to want to uncover or recover those truths anew as they may be key to human well-being, but doesn’t seem to want to do it in the framework of religion at all. I don’t think that will work. Religion has been with humanity for as long as we were capable of any religious impulse, and I don’t think science alone can replace that religious impulse. Religion, in its most basic sense, is humanity’s striving towards something it deems greater than itself, something of highest worth that transcends the individual, and such striving organizes into groups that seek to experience those transcendental realities. Harris accepts and values spirituality. Religion is what happens when spirituality is organized, even in traditions such as Dzogchen Buddism, and Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, both of which Harris finds most spiritually useful.
With Peterson, I might disagree with his approach that seems to deny that our general notions of God are not in need of significant updating. Yes, there is hidden wisdom to be found in ancient scripture and mythology, but we are barely scratching the surface of what can be plumbed there. I just finished watching The Power of Myth with Joseph Campbell on Netflix, and was awed by the understanding Campbell had of the myths, and how they pointed to the archetypal nature of God in humanity, nature, and being. And as Campbell pointed out, the Divine was often known through direct mystical experiences, shamanic experiences, experiences which lifted consciousness out of ego into Divine states, from which flowed all the mythologies, narratives, stories, etc. These pointed back to those experiences and the wisdom only known in and through the experiences themselves. It seems to me that we can’t fully uncover the hidden wisdom within those mythologies purely through psychology and speculation of the symbolism, but we will need to return to mystical practices such as meditation and contemplation and other means that evoke transcendent states of consciousness in order to better understand them, and derive value from them. Interpreting the myths in a psychological framework without direct experience won’t be sufficient.
I appreciate both what Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris are doing, and think they can both be helpful in recovering and discovering these metaphysical truths, and how they can be of best use in our society today. Whether we call it “God” or not is perhaps beside the point that there are ultimate truths and values and well-being towards which we all are striving as humans. We need to be careful to avoid egotism, that the way we particularly view these things is the only way to view them. I prefer a pluralistic perspective, that there is much value in seeing things from many points of view, and that we may actually be able to arrive at higher truth through looking through many different lenses.

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