Maps of Meaning: Abridged and Translated

by Vaniver10 min read11th Oct 201814 comments

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Jordan Peterson has come up in the rationalsphere before; SSC reviewed his recent book 12 Rules for Life, which caused me to read it; Jacobian wrote about The Jordan Peterson Mask, and Robin Hanson reviewed his major scholarly work, Maps of Meaning. A key line from Hanson’s review:

In sum, Peterson comes across as pompous, self-absorbed, and not very self-aware. But on the one key criteria by which such a book should most be judged, I have to give it to him: the book offers insight.

So this article is my attempt to distill the core insight I found in Maps of Meaning. One reason I titled this “abridged” is because Peterson gives excellent summaries of his sections, which I will often just reprint fully. “Translated” is because he goes about his case much differently than I would; understandable, given the difference between our audiences. Peterson spends much of the book establishing plausibility that many different cultures have similar myths, and explaining what they represent using his terminology, whereas I am not moved by archaic human universality; even if all ancient cultures believed that the Sun revolved around an unmoving Earth, I want to believe in modern astronomy. To the extent that his subject matter is human psychology, even if all ancient cultures had the same view of what humans were like, I want to focus on what WEIRD people are like. But, thankfully, Peterson is primarily making an argument for a better understanding of progress, not obedience to the past. First I’ll try to explain the mythic perspective, and then Peterson’s characterization of the human condition, and then some commentary.

WHAT A MYTH IS

The world can be validly construed as forum for action, or as place of things.
The former manner of interpretation--more primordial, and less clearly understood--finds its expression in the arts of humanities, in ritual, drama, literature, and mythology. The world as a forum for action is a place of value, a place where all things have meaning. This meaning, which is shaped as a consequence of social interaction, is implication for action, or--at a higher level of analysis--implication for the configuration of the interpretive schema that produces or guides action.
The latter manner of interpretation--the world as place of things--finds its formal expression in the methods and theories of science. Science allows for increasingly precise determination of the consensually validatable properties of things, and for efficient utilization of precisely determined things as tools (once the direction such use is to take has been determined, through application of more fundamental narrative processes).
No complete world-picture can be generated without use of both modes of construal. The fact that one mode is generally set at odds with the other means only that the nature of their respective domains remains insufficiently discriminated. Adherents of the mythological worldview tend to regard the statements of their creeds as indistinguishable from empirical “fact,” even though such statements were generally formulated long before the notion of objective reality emerged. Those who, by contrast, accept the scientific perspective--who assume that it is, or might become, complete--forget that an impassable gulf currently divides what is from what should be.

Some of the language here seems obscure on first reading--what exactly is meant by “forum for action,” or “consensually validatable”?--but eventually seemed sensible to me. By ‘forum for action,’ he means the agents that take actions have their worldview molded around the constraints of determining the right actions to take. To use one of Peterson’s later examples, consider a rat in a cage it has explored well. Add a foreign object to the cage, like a cube of iron; the rat will initially flee, then as no danger presents itself, it will cautiously approach and inspect the object, attempting to figure out what it is good for. Can it be eaten? Used as bedding? If this exploration reveals the object is useless, it will ignored, as it distracts from the bits of the environment that are relevant to deciding what actions to take.

But, of course, useless is a two-place word. The cube of iron may be useless_rat without being useless_vaniver; there might be useful actions I could do with that cube, like fiddle with it or toss it or decorate with it or throw it away or store it. This example so far has focused on possibilities in a way that made the values implicit--while the cube might be too large for the rat to swallow it, it’s small enough that I could, but I didn’t include that in my list of actions because none of my goals are advanced by eating raw iron.

So the mythological worldview is one where the motivational role of beliefs takes center stage. But do we really have to call this “myth”? People frequently talk about “narrative” in ways that capture this ‘forum for action’ or ‘motivational’ business. It seems like we could discard the word “myth”: calling it narrative might just be fine, and makes clearer the relevance of the myths that describe “where we are” and “how we got here” as opposed to just “how to behave.” For the rest of this post, I’ll use ‘myth’ and ‘narrative’ interchangeably, but default to ‘myth’ because it’s Peterson’s language.

There seem to be two important takeaways from this section of the book:

First, functional humans require a motivational worldview, and the type signature of a motivational worldview is different than the type signature of the outputs of science. That doesn’t mean scientific knowledge isn’t useful for building that motivational worldview, it just means that there’s a gap between the outputs of the scientific process and the inputs of your ‘tastes’ that has to be filled by something. Reading through Is Humanism A Religion Substitute with this lens, I come away with “yep, Humanism counts as a motivational worldview and can be understood through the lens of myth.” Reading through Raised in Technophilia, it’s easy to see how science (seeing the world as a place of things) is insufficient to reach that particular viewpoint, and how the mythological mode of thinking captures the cultural transmission that’s happening. Science just describes changes that are happening; it is technophilia that identifies those changes as progress and the people making them as the Good Guys.

Second, historical cultures operated prior to the formation of the materialist / reductionist / naturalist / empiricist paradigm, and so their claims will be misunderstood if parsed in the empiricist language instead of in the mythical language. The core job of cultures is to teach their members how to properly integrate into the society, and so their stories are about that, rather than about what actually happened or how the world actually works. Stories and myths serve as catalogs of situations and examples of how to behave (or how not to behave) in those situations.

So suppose we agree that people need ‘purpose’ or ‘meaning’ or something similar, and that the type signature for this is ‘narrative’ or ‘myth’ or something similar. So what?

ORDER AND CHAOS

Peterson is mostly concerned with the myth of the hero, and spends most of the book discussing it. This is actually somewhat remarkable, given my presentation of the last chapter: one might assume that the book is like the catalog of human universals, and so collects myths that cover all of the important behaviors. That’s closer to what’s happening in Twelve Rules for Life; each of the rules is associated with stories that are important to the meaning and interpretation of that rule, and the combination of rules paints a picture of something like a whole human being. In Maps of Meaning, Peterson is instead trying to point to the core psychological need for myth, and the core myth that addresses this psychological need. Peterson spends much of the later bit of the book on the atrocities of the twentieth century; his desire to understand how they were possible (and, ideally, preventable) led to his discovery of the importance of myth, in part because this core myth ties into his diagnosis. The myth, in brief:

The world begins in a state of undifferentiated unity or unconsciousness; everything is the same because differences don’t exist yet. Then there is a separation, into the known and predictable (“order”) and the unknown and unpredictable (“chaos”). Order is secure and familiar; Chaos is dangerous and promising. The forces of order become insufficient to withstand the forces of chaos. An exploratory process (“the hero”) meets with chaos, defeats it, and transmutes it into order.

This is, in some sense, a presentation of the human condition--beginning in ignorance, learning some things, becoming self-aware enough to notice the difference between what is known and what is unknown, and deliberately learning about the unknown despite risks and discomfort and change. The myth typically includes a history of the gods that created the world, creating a mirror between the creation of an individual’s map and the creation of the external territory. Even beyond the individual process of learning and development, it describes the cultural process of learning and development; the society has some orderly way of dealing with what it knows, but the universe is larger than the society and so may change unpredictably (from the society’s viewpoint), causing decay and despair (another typical element of these myths) and the hero, by grappling with chaos, reforms the society and restores order and prosperity. Peterson often uses literary, figurative, and mythical language, in a way that I’m trying to avoid doing here, in a way that possibly makes his point easier to miss. For example, he connects ‘order’ with masculinity and ‘chaos’ with femininity, because this is so often done in historical myths, and one can see the connections. The unknown, containing many possibilities, is like the mother of many children. Tiamat (the feminine dragon of chaos) or her equivalent is depicted as birthing many different monsters. But while referring to the cluster of order-known-masculine and chaos-unknown-feminine lets you see the similarities across myths, it makes the reductionist project of separating out the distinct elements harder. If we load the core myth of the hero with all of these different features, then we can’t really point to a specific psychological need that this matches instead of ‘the human condition.’ It is not clear to me how much Peterson sees this holism as critical, as opposed to simply a feature of accumulated traditions. When faced with the wisdom of millenia, it is somewhat arrogant to say “ah, this lesson that I inferred from this myth is the final lesson to be inferred from that myth.”

But to some extent, this is the problem of psychology and self-understanding. Once a piece of the puzzle moves from chaos to order, there is yet more chaos to incorporate. Peterson makes a big deal out of how the Egyptian heroic deity myth includes a detail that the Babylonian heroic deity myth doesn’t (and how the creation and inclusion of this detail was the product of heroic cultural activity). In the Babylonian tradition, the king is associated with Marduk, youngest of the gods, who defeats the world-threatening Tiamat and becomes king of the gods. In the Egyptian tradition, the pharaoh is associated with Horus, child of Osiris, who defeats the improper king Set and rescues his father from the underworld, and becomes king of the gods. Osiris, in this telling, is the cultural practices of the past, Set is the way in which those practices have become maladaptive, and Horus is the process of discernment and discovery that creates the cultural practices of the present in continuity with those of the past while adapting to changing circumstances.

Peterson elaborates on the details and incorporates more myths (including Christianity and alchemy), but this is enough to capture the basic worldview and how it seems fundamentally compatible with the rationalist worldview. But instead of discussing more myths, I’ll jump straight to his diagnosis of the 20th century.

THE HERO AND THE ADVERSARY

One of these “hostile brothers” or “eternal sons of God” is the mythological hero. He faces the unknown with the presumption of its benevolence--with the (unprovable) attitude that confrontation with the unknown will bring renewal and redemption. He enters, voluntarily, into creative “union with the Great Mother,” builds of regenerates society, and brings peace to a warring world.
The other “son of God” is the eternal adversary. This “spirit of unbridled rationality,” horrified by his limited apprehension of the conditions of existence, shrinks from contact with everything he does not understand. This shrinking weakens his personality, no longer nourished by the “water of life,” and makes him rigid and authoritarian, as he clings desperately to the familiar, “rational,” and stable. Every deceitful retreat increases his fear; every new “protective law” increases his frustration, boredom, and contempt for life. His weakness, in combination with his neurotic suffering, engenders resentment and hatred for existence itself.
The personality of the adversary comes in two forms, so to speak--although these two forms are inseparably linked. The fascist sacrifices his soul, which would enable him to confront change on his own, to the group, which promises to protect him from everything unknown. The decadent, by contrast, refuses to join the social world, and clings rigidly to his own ideas--merely because he is too undisciplined to serve as an apprentice. The fascist wants to crush everything different, and then everything; the decadent immolates himself, and builds the fascist from his ashes. The bloody excesses of the twentieth century, manifest most evidently in the culture of the concentration camp, stand as testimony to the desires of the adversary and as monument to his power.

Here, “unbridled rationality” means something closer to the “high modernism” of Seeing Like a State. The core argument, as I understand it, is that totalitarianism grows from too much or too little confidence in knowledge. Both the overconfident and the underconfident have nothing left to learn; the first because they think they already know it (or it’s useless), and the second because they have abdicated their ability to learn. By nature, groups are associated with the known, rather than the process of the knower.

Peterson’s antidote is the heroic myth, as gradually constructed and refined by the slow accumulation of Western culture, which built up a myth of individual divinity / moral worth / moral judgment that involves a weird combination of humility and confidence--the sort of humility that allows one to actually adapt to reality, and the sort of confidence that allows one to stand up to the group or make mistakes while venturing into the unknown.

While a nice story (especially because it prescribes things I like), I find myself not convinced of its relevance or success. It seems like an important part of the story of Peterson’s life, and useful to include as context for why things are shaped particular ways (“ah, that’s why this aspect of the adversary is emphasized and that other bit minimized; this is the view of the adversary one gets by looking at the Nazis and Soviets.”). I also suspect that people should attempt to embody the heroic myth. But I suspect systemic problems have systemic solutions--the hero doesn’t just perfect themselves, they reorder society, and Peterson’s attempt to heroically reorder society in a way that causes more people to be heroes (because they have a crisper, more accessible view of what heroism means) seems possibly mismatched to the problem. It seems like the question of “what is the optimal number of scientists?”--yes, on the margin I would increase the amount of scientific thinking done by everyone, but how much I would pay to increase that for various people seems like the actual question.

It’s also not at all obvious that 20th century totalitarianism is incompatible with heroism as he sketches it out. Would a society in which more people set out to use their judgment to integrate their experience of their environment and the past be more tolerant and peaceful, or more revolutionary and violent?

CONCLUSION

Overall, the book was worth reading for me, and gave me a better sense of what ‘narrative’ is and what it’s useful for, but is not one I’d confidently recommend. The second quarter (“Mythological Representation: the Constituent Elements of Experience”) and last quarter (on alchemy) can probably be skipped, or heavily skimmed. Reading the summaries also seems like it captures much of the value of the book, and reading this summary perhaps captures much of the value of reading those summaries.

There seems to be a brand of scientific ennui which is somewhat common in the rationality community, where one focuses on predictions and models and ends up detached from the value in everyday life or pessimistic about one’s own prospects, which it seems like Peterson’s brand of mythological thinking is well-poised to counteract. As an example, the person who is convinced that the only cause that matters now is AI safety, but who is also convinced that they can’t be of any value to AI safety, seems at risk to see themselves as worthless and fall into depression. But this doesn’t help the project of AI safety, and it doesn’t help the individual in question. Contrast to ‘clean your room,’ which both makes the world more orderly (and the individual feel more powerful) on the object level, and teaches lessons about scale on the meta level (in that one should tackle challenges that are appropriately sized, and by doing so level up to be able to take on larger and more complicated challenges).

Continuing on the topic of AI alignment, it seems to me like thinking about narrative is useful in at least two ways. First, it seems to point towards the sort of self-awareness that’s necessary to encode ideas like corrigibility, and second, to the extent that alignment requires understanding humans, models of human psychology that more closely connect with what’s actually important to humans seem more likely to capture what’s important in life. For some reason, I feel more optimistic about an AI that has a good sense of what someone’s desired heroic journey is than an AI that has a good sense of what someone’s utility function is, in part because the first feels like it captures more meta-values and is less likely to be a snapshot of current opinions.

It seems to me like an important part of being a complete human is understanding the role narrative plays in one’s thinking, and how to take command of it. Myths, narratives, one’s taste and perception of the world as a place of fear and hope, danger and opportunity, and actions to be pursued or avoided, are all necessary parts of the human experience. The more advanced person does narrative to themselves, instead of having narrative done to them, embodying the role of the hero by incorporating their judgment into the process.

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Thanks to Kurt Brown for some discussion of the draft, which led to improvements to the conclusion.

I wrote ~90% of this post on September 19th, and then today returned to finish it, with some revisions and additions. The primary reason it happened today as opposed to 'eventually' was because I was walking home, thinking about my plans for the week, wondering when I would write the series of posts I wanted to write instead of playing video games or working on a side project or handling other errands, and realized that I should do "do it for All Might," a fictional character; from the outside, this might sound insane. From the inside, it was extremely compelling (notice that the post is published). I notice Jacobian's post also discusses how he spend hours writing his post instead of playing video games, because of a deliberate decision to turn towards meaning.

Why mention this? One of the traps that leads to low-motivation states is one in which narratives that motivate action are relentlessly optimized for presentability or justification. External opinions often provide useful information--other people thinking that you shouldn't murder is actually pretty good reason to not murder--but overreliance on them and underreliance on one's own tastes leads to an evaporation of the self.

The core job of cultures is to teach their members how to properly integrate into the society, and so their stories are about that, rather than about what actually happened or how the world actually works.

This is definitely not culturally universal. For example, the Inuit people have highly accurate maps and accurate oral history (1, 2). When you live in such a harsh climate, you can't get away with communicating only about what people should do, you also have to communicate about what's true, or you die.

See also: Actors and scribes, words and deeds; The face of the ice.

Neat!

When you live in such a harsh climate, you can't get away with communicating only about what people should do, you also have to communicate about what's true, or you die.

One thing that the post doesn't highlight is the interaction between the "world as forum for action" and "world as place of things" views, where the implication is that typically the latter view informs the former view. (If medicine is more effective at healing the sick than prayer, then it seems adaptive for someone sick to generate more 'should'-juice for medicine than prayer.) One view on the heroic myth is that it's about someone taking on the 'most important false belief' of their culture, and changing it to a true belief (in a way that also allows for 'absent' beliefs to count as false).

I should make it clear that the "rather" in that sentence doesn't mean it's anti-optimizing for truth, just that truth is important to cultural transmission to the degree that it serves the core purpose of cultural transmission. It seems to me like cultures closer to the 'survive' end of the 'survive - thrive' spectrum should have 'the importance of doing things right / believing true things / doing things by the book' as important parts of their narratives, because that is an important part of properly integrating in society. Cultures closer to the 'thrive' end of the spectrum instead likely have their narratives focus more on the importance of self-expression and exploration, because that's an important part of properly integrating into their society.

One contemporary example that comes to mind is the different mindsets promoted by different video games: games like XCOM or Dark Souls build cultures in which "don't make mistakes" and "pay attention to the environment" and "git gud" are fundamental pieces of advice that are reinforced by the world, whereas games that are more exploratory or forgiving don't promote the same sort of mindset or culture.

This all seems right. I guess what I meant to focus on was that the narratives themselves (at least the ones that are part of oral history, and almost certainly others) are accurate and are consistent with a world-as-place-of-things interpretation. Which indicates that world-as-place-of-things is not a recent development, as Peterson seems to think, though I am not sure whether to interpret "long before the notion of objective reality emerged" as indicating that the notion of objective reality emerged only in the past millennium (e.g. with Francis Bacon and the Enlightenment).

I should note that I definitely agree that many narratives are accurate and consistent with a world-as-place-of-things interpretation, and that some pressures towards accuracy are not new. But there are other pressures that are new--the development of materialist religions, for example, seems to mostly have resulted from materialist worldviews dominating supernaturalist worldviews, and I think Peterson is pointing to those new pressures in that section.

Which indicates that world-as-place-of-things is not a recent development, as Peterson seems to think

I can see a handful of different ways to interpret his statement, and don't know which one Peterson is trying to point at.

One way I conceptualize this is that a lizard is able to perceive the world around it and navigate its environment, but likely doesn't have a sense of what it would be like for there to be an environment without a lizard at the center of it. But for a physicist, imagining a world without a physicist at the center of it is the basic act of physics. In this view, whether the Inuit map-making counts as belief in 'objective reality' hinges on whether they viewed the maps as meaningful in the absence of Inuit to relate to the maps or traverse the territory.

His writings on alchemy seem somewhat relevant here; a compressed summary is that he viewed the alchemists as empiricists / engaged in the heroic project, but they had this incorrect belief that internal orientations were relevant to the outcomes of rituals. A quote:

Virtually every process undertaken by pre-experimental individuals--from agriculture to metallurgy--was accompanied by rituals designed to "bring about the state of mind" or "illustrate the procedure" necessary to the successful outcome desired. This is because the action precedes the idea. So ritual sexual unions accompanied sowing of the earth, and sacrificial rituals and their like abounded among miners, smiths, and potters. Nature had to be "shown what do to"; man led, not least, by example. The correct procedure could only be brought about by those who had placed themselves in the correct state of mind.

The process of discovering that this was false--that nature did not have to be shown what to do, and 'just happened' or followed deterministic dynamical laws--transmuted alchemy into chemistry. I think this is what he means by world-as-place-of-things and it likely is a recent development, whereas world-as-thing-that-can-be-perceived (and thus accurately mapped) is obviously an old development, possibly old enough that lizards have it.

But for a physicist, imagining a world without a physicist at the center of it is the basic act of physics.

I think this was mostly only true of Newtonian physics. Relativity gets rid of an imaginable perspectiveless reality (you might be able to mathematically describe it, but as early as Descartes people noticed that this isn’t the same as imagining), and quantum mechanics are also famously resistant to imagination as a means of understanding the whole, and focused on observations instead.

Also this reminded me of Tradition Is Smarter Than You Are, linked by Kaj_Sotala, where unjustified rules passed down from generation to generation only recently became understandable as necessary to prevent long-term damage, or where divination is understood as the implementation of game-theoretically correct mixed strategies.

Truth tracking as a function of environmental harshness runs deep. Convergence speed has to be high, so pruning occurs at meta levels as well.

Does he actually begin by saying "The world can be validly construed as forum for action, or as place of things."? I ask because if so then I have a crackpot theory: Peterson read Wittgenstein's Tractatus, which famously begins "The world is the totality of facts, not of things", and ... just deleted an f.

(Of course he says "both", but it seems clear that he's arguing for focusing on the former rather than the latter. And no, I am not advancing this as a serious guess at why Peterson says what he does. But the parallel is amusing even if coincidental.)

Does he actually begin by saying

That is the first non-title text on page 1, yes.

it seems clear that he's arguing for focusing on the former rather than the latter.

I think this is neglectedness concerns, rather than actually thinking the former is more important than the latter. Both are part of being complete, but Peterson sees more people missing the former.

Communication prioritizing neglectedness considerations over descriptive range reflects a preexisting disposition towards acts over facts.

This suggests a core tension. Good scholarship happens when you don't take credit for much (more citations, more expository work). But status pressures you to take credit for everything, which involves renaming already existing concepts and obscuring the trail.

Probably true. But, to be clear, I'm not suggesting that Peterson is (or even might be) plagiarizing Wittgenstein here. "The world is made up of facts rather than things" and "the world can be regarded as composed of actions or as composed of things; let's focus on the actions and see what we find" are very different from one another.

What seems maybe-kinda-sorta possible: either (1) Peterson read or heard that dictum of Wittgenstein's, and thought something like "hmm, maybe not facts but acts ..." and developed his ideas from there; or (2) Peterson did a bunch of thinking about understanding the world in terms of actions, and one day he thought "ha, I could make it sound like Wittgenstein". (Which might have been appealing because it's funny, or because if you're trying to develop a reputation as a serious thinker then it probably doesn't hurt to give some readers a vague feeling that something about what you just wrote reminds them of Wittgenstein.)

More likely, though, it's a coincidence, because everything is always a coincidence.

Incidentally, if it was deliberate then my money is on "trying to remind people subconsciously of Wittgenstein". Because if you're aiming for humour, or wanting to acknowledge a source, surely what you do is to begin with something that exposes the parallel more clearly, and then explain further if that seems likely to mislead.