Note: This is a repost of a blog series that I started in January 2018. Because this was prior to the blog being syndicated on PeakD, and it was some of my most-viewed content on the old blog. I’m going to be editing these slightly, but I’m also going to be adding my own thoughts as I re-read what I wrote. You can find the original post here.
For those of us just joining me, I’ve been reading Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Amazon Affiliate link). Moving into Peterson’s tenth chapter, the focus on honesty continues; this time with a focus on using precise language to simplify problems so that they can be solved.
Peterson starts this chapter with an overview of how we form concepts; people form concepts based on a sort of emotional utility, not on form and function, as much as we would like it to be the latter. Peterson uses the example of electronics: people will get rid of old electronics, even if they still function perfectly, because they do not do what we grow to expect electronics to do based on our perceptions of others’ devices and what we see in advertisements, life, or opportunities.
Basically, we don’t see things, we see useful things and burdens/barriers. Peterson points out that we do this because it is practical; I could find food that I like, but realize that it has been on the ground. The dirt (and assorted contaminants) that have alighted on the food serve as a barrier to its nutrition and enjoyment. At the same time, we would not expect me to judge and critique my food on several scales of quality every time I eat: this would be something that would seem both wasteful and pedantic. (I may have missed Peterson’s point a little, but I’ve been trying to generalize his arguments more in my own terms)
We don’t see valueless entities and then attribute meaning to them. We perceive the meaning directly. We see floors, to walk on, and doors, to duck through, and chairs, to sit on. It’s for this reason that a beanbag and a stump both fall into the latter category, despite having little objectively in common.
The reason why it is important to use precision in language is because it is easy to shift down to the conscious or subconscious process of assessing things on their utility, rather than their nature: my neighbor might seem a “bad person” because they make noise late at night—but the fact that they have to go to work and don’t feel like hanging up their phone conversation as they walk out into the dark is not a particularly unreasonable assumption, and would chagrin me for my selfishness (if I were on the phone walking out to my car, I would probably not hang up until the time came to start the ignition, but I work “normal hours” and as such absolve myself of guilt for such things; this is, of course, also a relatively subjective perception of the world, rather than an objective one).
One thing to note is that it’s not just the small details that get abstracted out, but also the large systems. Peterson has mentioned on several occasions the ways that society has shaped our perceptions and lives, and he reminds us that the great networks we have built in the developed world rely on a multitude of conscious decisions: limited corruption, high degrees of education, a general emphasis on cooperation, a complicated economic system involving lending and investment of money, and so forth.
When any of these things break down, we know about it and are incensed.
But it is easy for us to forget to pursue these things, because we don’t see past the utility of what we have into the work that went into it.
At the same time, it is not wise to simply open up our minds to infinity. Such things are beyond the capacity of our brains, so rather we make our aims precise.
Tool-use is given as an example. When we use a screwdriver, or even a car, our brains naturally intuit it as an extension of ourselves, because it fits into our aim of what we are doing. The counter-part to this is that we become dependent on our extensions, or at the very least emotionally attached to them: they are part of our picture of a sure world (and loss plunges us into the chaos of a world whose complexity we have to, and usually do, make abstract).
Simplicity then comes from the world behaving, and when the world misbehaves we lose our own simplicity.
When things collapse around us our perception disappears, and we act. Ancient reflexive responses, rendered automatic and efficient over hundreds of millions of years, protect us in those dire moments when not only thought but perception itself fails. Under such circumstances, our bodies ready themselves for all possible eventualities. First, we freeze. The reflexes of the body then shade into emotion, the next stage of perception.
The difficulty with our loss of simplicity is that we often go into two stages that lead us astray (though there are other things going on that are related). Our previous course needs to be adjusted (or we carry on blindly despite the knowledge that such a thing is likely destructive), and we begin to feel our way, because our senses and our schema did not do their job.
When you precisely identify problems, however, you free yourself from emotional response (not that such a thing is always bad) and allow yourself to consider the situation. Maybe the first impulse is correct (and it often is), but there is also a chance that you can narrow down the problem. Maybe instead of students always being late to turn in homework because they’re “lazy”, the fault lies with the teacher who fails to communicate deadlines (or the problem is a little in both courts; with past expectations being lower than present expectations).
Why avoid, when avoidance necessarily and inevitably poisons the future? Because the possibility of a monster lurks underneath all disagreements and errors.
The great reason why we hate to confront our problems is that we are afraid to find out what they really are. Many failures and flaws can be explained away as a flaw of the system, not of the character. Sometimes they even are. However, there is usually something we ourselves can do to prevent the worst events in our lives; even if they will unfold, we can prepare ourselves or diminish their impact by realizing their place in the grand scheme of things (for instance, it is inevitable that we will all die, but by confronting that fact we can make a better decision about what to do with our lives).
The problem with problems is that when they go unresolved, they keep growing. We can deny a small problem and ignore it. Doing so actually rewards us; we did not fail at all, and indeed we may even have been successful. Of course, failing to define things often begins with success itself: without success as an option, there can be no failure, pleads the man who continues to live without confronting his problems.
To insert a personal note: I think that this is actually the point of pathologizing behavior as has been a trend of late in the media and psychology. We talk about things and say “This person has a problem with their behavior, and it is due to this psychological condition that we just discovered.”
One example of this is the classification of people who spend crippling amount of time playing video games as having a unique disorder.
It may be that some of these people have disorders. At the same time, many of these people (and I myself am not so far from them, but for the benefit of forcing myself, through concerted effort, to recognize my own tendencies) simply have never prioritized their lives and as such find no reason to exist.
While Calhoun’s rat experiments probably aren’t directly related to humans, there is something to be said for the existence of a behavioral sink. This is a topic that is too complex to touch on now.
Returning to Peterson, the mind is organized and built into the psyche (or soul, or whatever term people want to use for it) through communication with others. Communicating things is needed and healthy, but often requires expanding beyond one’s comfort zone.
We need to voluntarily encounter new information and experiences for them to transform us. If we avert our eyes and cast away our gaze, we will not have that opportunity, but that is the temptation when what we encounter is not pleasant.
He uses the example of a patient who is in pain.
They might be dying. This is not out of the realm of possibilities, since pain shows a dysfunction in the body.
By going to a doctor, talking about their problems, and having a thorough diagnosis, they are able to find exactly what is wrong.
Sometimes the problem is minor or easily fixed, and the conversation was well worth having because it ends the pain.
Sometimes the problem will be fatal or irreparable, but the conversation will still have merit, because it expresses the truth about the situation and prepares the patient for their life.
(Shout-out to Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which basically turns this narrative into the plot of a novella).
If you shirk the responsibility of confronting the unexpected, even when it appears in manageable doses, reality itself will become unsustainably disorganized and chaotic.
The ultimate goal of life is to have a goal and follow through on it. Peterson points out that this is very hard to do in chaos, when one has not defined the world fully.
Reflections from 2021
One thing that’s been on my mind lately is the idea of cognitive resolution.
In short, how clearly can we really understand things?
Of course, some of this comes from my perspective of humility; I think of myself as something like a speck in the universe (which doesn’t diminish my responsibility for or the power of my right action, but means that there are things I’ll never understand).
This aligns really well with this chapter.
Naming and Unnaming
Of course, naming things is a key part of establishing order. In Genesis, God creates the world by using his voice. Later, Adam naming the animals is a symbolic gesture of human dominion over creation.
One idea here that Peterson brings up is how we conceive of things by what they mean on a level that’s not clearly understood, which is part of what I’ve been thinking about with regards to cognitive resolution. When was the last time you thought about a light switch? It’s probably at too high a level of resolution for people in the average day-to-day, something that we don’t even think about because we use it reflexively when entering or leaving rooms.
I have a light on my desk that is the only light in my room, in part because it has a nice warm hue for an LED and in part because it suffices for my needs. When it gets dark, I often turn it on and off by reaching for its switch, which is part of its cord and runs under my desk.
Even though it’s not physically simple to turn it on, both because it’s not a convenient wall-mounted switch right next to the door and because it will change orientation when I’m not paying attention to it and I have to grope around to feel the switch in hits housing, I do not remember the last time I actually flipped the switch.
Of course, the light is only on during the evening, so I must have turned it on either in the early afternoon or the night. I certainly did not have to stagger through my room in the dark after returning from dinner.
This seems like a tangent, but there are two points I want to make here.
It would be absurd to create a designated name for the act of turning on a light switch because it is something that we do not consider a significant part of our lives. We can use descriptions like “illuminate” or “turn on”, but these are not novel to the phenomena at hand.
The lesson from this is that we do not name things which we do not actively deal with.
The second point is that if we do not have a name for something, we do not have a stable and intimate relationship with it. My light is on or off, but it is relevant to me only in the sense that it might be in the wrong state, and I would remedy that state reflexively. I’ve become somewhat particular about this lamp because it fits my needs perfectly in a way that I don’t necessarily expect other lights to, but I haven’t named it because this would, of course, be absurd due to the lack of emotional attachment I have. It is a tool, not a companion.
If we do not name something, we do not have a context for dealing with that thing on its own basis.
There is perhaps another point here to deal with social utility; I could call this particular lamp a zel for all it matters to me, but I would need to describe it as a something like an LED lamp with a long and flexible but shape-retaining spine and a heavy round base in order to give other people an idea of what exactly the lamp is. I don’t think this really matters because social utility flows from collected individual experiences (which is not the same as a collective experience) and there has not been a sufficient need for this sort of lamp to justify the creation of a new term.
Naming as Order
One of the reasons why we name things on their abstract properties regardless of the concrete distinctions between them is that we order things based on our relationship to them.
At first I said that we name things on an emotional level, but I think this is confused. We name things on a psychological level. For instance, it is patently absurd for anyone but a small child to name a lamp.
But how many people have named weapons?
In many places, naming a weapon is a tradition, though it would now strike many people as gauche.
However, I think there’s a lesson to be had here.
We name things because they hold numen, which can be understood as spiritual energy or more accurately psychological attraction. For things which hold numen at a low level, we grant them a common name. My desk, for instance, has no proper name. Things which hold greater numen receive a proper name.
This is, coincidentally, correlated with the reason why a child can name a lamp but not an adult. Children are experiencing things through a novel lens, and one way that numen is exhausted is through exploration. The old fable about familiarity breeding contempt holds true.
But it is also the case that there are some sources of numen that are inexhaustible. For instance, people change and develop, living lives of their own outside the presence of others. At the very least they are frequently unpredictable.
Then there are things which hold particular significance. We name places, for instance. There is something obscene in referring to a place in a way that strips it of a name (e.g. there is something spiritually dissatisfying about living in “City Five”) precisely because the role that a place plays in the lives of those who occupy it is massive.
And we name weapons sometimes because they represent a numen that is curious to us, being physical manifestations of the barriers between life and death. It may be said that life and death are mutually incompatible dual opposites, though I think this perspective is a gross simplification of the way things really are. In fact, I have written about this and have come to a somewhat mystical conclusion that life and death are never absolutely applicable to any circumstance, but this is not the place to further explore that concept.
And the reason why it is useful to cut that exploration short is because weapons represent, in particular, death in its purest and unabstracted form. Even a dead person has an impact on the world, but by being inanimate and associated with death, a weapon has a numen that is wholly different.
It helps that in the modern era we have developed weapons that are devoid of any utility as tools. In the same way that a sword holds a different numen than a hammer, a firearm has no numen other than as an implement of destruction.
I feel that this comes across as overly negative. I actually have nothing against weapons, despite being an absolute pacifist. I believe that I became a man the first time I held a gun. Wielding the power of death in such a way that it was functionally harmless was an experience that altered my conception of being, and I would have been able to communicate a less articulate version of this immediately after that experience.
I don’t think this process would work the same for everyone. It was a particular step in my development, probably related to the same tendencies that make me a pacifist, that familiarizing myself with power told me I could handle it responsibly when I combined it with principles for right action. It also helps that my first experience with a firearm came when I was seventeen or eighteen, which is an appropriate time to step from childhood into adulthood.
However, I think that this is part of why people name weapons; they have the potential to bear numen and as a result their relationship to us is more than that of an inanimate object.
The Power of Precision
Naming things makes them a part of us, and the more precisely we name them the more likely we are to use them to their highest purpose.
“Quick, pass me the thing!”
Will that statement work well for anyone? It’s overtly comic when viewed in a vacuum, and eminently tragic when used in a time of need.
We would view someone who says this as a person poorly aligned to the task and situation at hand.
So it is with problems, at an even more dangerous and exasperating level. There are a finite number of meaningful objects in our environment, especially when we are in a crafted space. We do poorly when the number of objects we perceive exceeds those we can comfortably deal with because it provides additional cognitive loads on top of any task we are attempting.
We also cannot deal with a thing directly unless it has a name, the tragedy of Tolstoy’s poor Ivan Ilyich.
Precision is how we turn the universe to our needs and our aspirations.