Playing the Indian Card

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Meaning of Life

Just a few days ago, a marvellous event was held at U of Toronto. You can see the video on YouTube. A debate or panel discussion on “The Meaning of Life,” featuring William Lane Craig and Jordan Peterson. It reveals some fascinating things.

This is what universities, at their best, are here for. Congratulations to Wycliffe College and U of T.

Willie Craig is a hero of mine. He brings the same beautiful clarity that I love in Benedict XVII.

I have been until recently less enthusiastic about Jordan Peterson. He’s the local hero, and has been making a lot of news recently for opposing, bravely, the enforced use of invented gender pronouns for the “transgendered.” I certainly agree with him on that, but, more generally, I have previously found him rather rambling and incoherent. My first inkling that he was a legitimate intellect was when he KO’ed British interviewer Cathy Newman just a week or two ago. Have you seen that?

Still, I expected Craig to mop the floor with him. I expected a mismatch.

What I saw surprised me, and now I think at last I get where Peterson is coming from. He’s a Buddhist.

Nobody remarked on it during the discussion, and nobody on the panel may have noticed it, but what we really had at the Toronto event was two very fine minds, the one outlining the Western religious position, Craig, and the other outlining the Eastern religious position, Peterson. Both did a great job. The third panelist, Rebecca Goldstein, and I think the moderator, described these two views as being in conflict. I do not think they were at all. Reviewing what the two said, however, Craig and Peterson, gives a good summary of East vs. West. I guess we can all decide for ourselves whether we think there is a disagreement there.

First, on Peterson being Oriental in his thinking: I feel he must have been consciously schooled in the Oriental traditions. He begins his opening comments and his summing up with the same point the Buddha begins with, in his Four Noble Truths: the basic truth of existence is suffering. His take on Genesis, on all morality being founded on calling things by their correct names, is Confucius’s starting premise: good government begins with “the rectification of terms.” It also explains why he saw the use of proper gender pronouns, rightly, as a hill worth fighting for.

His resistance to philosophizing is both Buddhist and Confucian. The Buddha says, “What else matters when your house is on fire?” Peterson says “What else matters when you see a child suffering?” At the same time, Peterson’s resistance to abstraction is based on Confucius’s insight that the good is a priori: the danger is that, if we philosophize, we open ourselves up to rationalizing out of our moral obligations.

The difference is that Peterson and the East take a psychological, practical, and empirical approach. Craig and the West take a philosophical approach. Buddhism and Confucianism are absolutely right from a psychological perspective; Christianity is absolutely right philosophically. Not only are they reconcilable; they are mutually reinforcing. Peterson suggested this: he gave us a useful new lesson from Genesis, and a psychological justification for Christianity with his dream narrative.

Granted, there was a criticism of the Western view in Peterson’s comments: that philosophizing can take us away from out immediate moral duty. True enough. My response, which Craig did not give, is that the Eastern approach gives us little to build on. If the correct moral response is more or less spontaneously evident, you cannot go anywhere else from here. You cannot, for example, do much to improve society. The Western approach, on the other hand, gives a deeper foundation, on which further things can be built. “Upon this rock, I build my church.”

It is a trade-off. Sometimes the one approach is called for, sometimes the other.

The third member of the panel, Goldstein, was the contrast: the “naturalist,” the secularist. I think her position was revealed as untenable; Craig brought her up short just as Peterson brought Newman up short in that interview, by pointing out that she contradicted her naturalistic claims when she said morality was getting better since the Enlightenment. By what objective moral standard? She was dead in the water. He might also have questioned her claim that morality was clearly getting better: it was her naturalistic view that brought us the Holocaust, after all, and the worse slaughter of the Communists. But that would have distracted from this more fundamental point.

The fact that it was Craig who was able to bring Goldstein up short, and not Peterson, perhaps demonstrates the value of Christianity's philosophical underpinnings. Could the Buddhist Peterson have responded?

She wanted to base meaning on the idea that “Everyone’s life is meaningful and important to themselves.” Therefore, our lives have meaning. Yet, as even she herself mentioned, apparently without registering the contradiction, the depressed commonly do not feel their lives are meaningful. Neither do Buddhists. This “it has meaning because it is mine” is not a satisfactory answer to any thoughtful person. If it were, it would never have occurred to anybody to hold or to attend a panel discussion on the question.

Her argument was also immoral. It was an appeal to egotism: “everyone’s life has meaning to themselves, because it is their life.” This is the poison commonly promoted in the modern academy. The morality that follows from that is, “if I want something for myself, my getting it is the moral good, because I want it.” Simple selfishness; a war of all against all. Which is the root of all evil. She gave the example of someone stepping on her on the beach: obviously, instinctively, that is wrong, she insisted. But, tellingly, she did not think to present it the other way: what could possibly be wrong with her stepping on someone else on the beach? One wonders. Would she see it?

Her actual behaviour at the talk showed such egotism. She was repeatedly pleading for special consideration for herself: I am owed something because I am a Jew. I am owed something because I am a woman. I am owed something because I am against Trump. Look at me, look at me; gimme, gimme, gimme. And, of course, she wanted to make everything “personal.”

Welcome to the modern university. Welcome to modern life. And so much for improving morality.

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