July 16, 2009

Maps of Meaning

Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief
by Jordan B. Peterson

We think we live in the "objective" world, but we do not. The objective world is something that has been conjured up for us recently - absurdly recently, from the perspective of evolutionary biology - by the processes of science operating over a span of five centuries (or, perhaps, to give the Greeks their due, over the last thirty centuries). This does not mean that the objective world is not real, even though theories about its nature are in constant flux. What it does mean is that the environment of human beings might well be regarded as "spiritual," as well as "material."

It is of course virtually impossible - even forbidden, at least implicitly - to use terms such as "spiritual" in a serious scientific discussion. How could it be that reality is "spiritual," rather than material, given the overwhelming practical success of the experimental sciences?

There are perhaps two answers to this question. The first concerns our capacity to categorize. It has become increasingly clear, at least since the time of Wittgenstein (1968), and perhaps also as a consequence of Piaget's work, that the categories we use to orient ourselves are at least as much action or significance-predicated as they are descriptive, which is to say contra Augustine that words are not labels for things as much as they are tools for the obtaining of goals. Since it is not precisely clear where the "object" ends and the "category" begins, perhaps it is the case that even those things we naturally perceive as "things" might be better regarded as tools for the obtaining of goals rather than as absolute entities in and of themselves.

The second answer is somewhat more abstract, but is related conceptually to the first. It is clearly the case that our concept of situation or thing is context-dependent. What we parse out of the exceedingly complex "environment" that presents itself to us is always only a limited subset of that environment, and perhaps precisely that subset which serves our present purposes (as we attend to some few things, and ignore a multitude of others). We might say, then, that different purposes require different "objects", and that the highest and most general (and also therefore necessarily the most abstract and "long-term" and least immediately evident) purposes require us to parse out the highest and most general categories, tools, or conceptions. If what we extract from the environment are things more like tools than objects, it might be possible to take a radically fresh look at conceptual systems other than those of science, on the chance that what they are talking about are things which are more like tools than objects.

As a consequence of adopting such a perspective, it may be possible to posit that we are no better at understanding our own past than we are at truly coming to grips with the conceptual systems of other cultures, and to remember or at least hypothesize that we really do not understand what our forebears meant when they used categories such as "spiritual" (any more than we understand what they meant when they said "virgin birth," for example, or "holy Trinity," or "resurrection of the Savior", or even "Tao"). If that is the case (which is the only alternative to presuming that everyone unfortunate enough to live prior to the dawn of the scientific age was pathetically ignorant, despite their incontrovertible success at surviving), then things may still be seriously other than we presently presume.

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