Full text of psychologist Jordan Peterson’s talk on Potential at TEDxUofT event.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Potential Jordan Peterson at TEDxUofT
Jordan B. Peterson – Psychologist
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 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 a 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 been 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 100 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 their systems they use to define reality. And one of those pathologies is 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, were 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 every way a substitute, a more rational, in some sense substitute, for religious beliefs that appeared no longer tenable.
And the consequence of that was, 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, that pathology can pose the biggest threat, possibly, 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 a definition of this word, this word ‘Phainesthai’– is the root word of phenomena, phenomenon. And 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 the 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.
So for example, a famous philosopher-psychologist visionary 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 then 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 a child, because they’re so vulnerable, the 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 you’ve 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. And 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 – 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 now I believe this is like, like 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 – it’s really the right way of thinking about it.
Wordsworth said about children…
“There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.