Faith & Science Icon Faith & Science

Jordan Peterson Springs the Trap of Scientism

Elizabeth Whately
Image credit: M W via Pixabay.

Is science nested in religion, or is religion nested in science? Is it just the practitioners of organized religion who are “religious,” or is everyone religious, in some sense? If so, where did this religious impulse come from, and what does it mean about our past and our future? Rock-star psychologist Jordan Peterson may be primarily known for his political controversies, but in fact, these are the sorts of questions that really keep him up at night. Listeners who tune into his podcast will hear him wrestle through them in collaboration with his guests. One of his livelier recent conversation partners was physicist Lawrence Krauss, a notorious name in ID circles. 

I wrote some thoughts on that podcast here, but the conversation was too wide-ranging to be contained to one post. In one of the most interesting sections, Peterson laid out his own off-beat take on the relationship between science and religion. Krauss didn’t fully disagree, but didn’t fully agree either. Both their insights and their mistakes are fascinating. 

Got Religion?

Krauss and Peterson are agreed here: Everybody’s got religion. In fact, Krauss surprised atheist colleagues like Michael Shermer and Andrew Copson when he took up this position in an Oxford Union debate on the question. One definitely wouldn’t have predicted that Lawrence Krauss and John Lennox would be arguing from the same side of the debate table, but in fact they both argued the “pro” side of the house’s assertion that “We are all religious.” Michael Shermer dissented that “If everyone is religious, no one is.” But Krauss suggested one has only to look at movements like the rise of wokeness as ersatz religiosity to see that with or without a formal belief in a supernatural entity, people will inevitably apply the patterns of religious practice to their ideology of choice.

Peterson heartily agrees, but he wants to go deeper, into the psychology of the scientific enterprise itself. He believes science is nested in religion, not the other way around. By this, he means that the motivating forces behind scientific discovery aren’t themselves “scientific.” Borrowing from Carl Jung, he frames the Scientific Revolution as the replacement of one “myth” with another — a “materialist redemptive myth” to fill the gap left behind by the collapse of the “spiritualist redemptive myth.” We tried to “redeem our inadequacy through spiritual discipline,” but meanwhile, people were still dying of leprosy. This was not good! Something had to be done, but what? 

Well, we collectively thought, perhaps it was time to have a look at how we could arrange an improvement in our material condition by studying matter. But the thing driving us, the reason we were interested in solving these particular problems, was the desire to “expand human competence” and increase human well-being. 

In other words, our values were guiding the choice, exploration and manipulation of our facts. But where did those values come from? Certainly not from “science.” 

Krauss is picking up what Peterson is laying down…sort of. He cautions that we want to be careful not to slip into a post-modern frame where we no longer care about the facts. Yes, he agrees, certainly “Reason is the slave of passion,” and certainly scientists are only human, thus driven by subjective desires like everyone else. But at the end of the day, the great thing about science is that it’s not “based just on what I want.” It’s about “what nature tells me.” All the best scientists could be looking in the wrong place, but if someone is wrong, they have to change their minds. “And that’s the beauty of science. It’s that nature determines what’s beautiful.” 

Really? Including “the beauty of science”? 

Objectively Speaking

So far, so interesting. But careful listeners will quickly pick up a persistent flaw in how Peterson presents his thesis. Both in his writing and his speaking, he consistently uses the word “objective” for empirical, scientific observations, then emphasizes the great divide between this world and the “subjective” world of value judgments about human worth, behavior, and proper goals. For him, statements like “The Holocaust was wrong” or “It is noble to seek a cure for leprosy” are not objective statements of fact, but subjective statements of value. 

Not that Peterson intends to demote the importance of such statements. To the contrary, he believes these are the principles that govern and cradle the scientific enterprise — indeed, the whole enterprise of civilization. His thesis is not that “subjective = bad.” Rather, it is that we’re all subjectively driven creatures, like it or not.

In this sense, one could say Peterson is opposed to scientism, which makes science the most authoritative discipline of all disciplines. Yet in another sense, one could say he’s still fallen into the scientistic trap, because he has still co-identified the “objective” with the material, the measurable, the empirically observable. It’s as if it hasn’t seriously occurred to him that something might be “objectively” true without being discoverable by “the scientific method.” Yet moral facts are just as discoverable as empirical facts. We just use a different set of tools and intuitions to access them. Just as we know a metal detector won’t go off on a walk in the woods, we know right and wrong can’t be put in a test tube.

It’s curious to watch Peterson’s mind work in these conversations, because he is clearly impassioned and clearly has better intuitions than people like Lawrence Krauss and Sam Harris. The problem is that he’s still just enough of a secular modernist himself to be ultimately stuck in the same rut as they are.

Both Right, Both Wrong

Of course, there’s a gaping God-shaped hole in both Krauss and Peterson’s particular ways of spinning all this. Peterson’s history of ideas leaves out the fact that scientists like Kepler weren’t just motivated to do science to “expand human competence.” As Stephen Meyer notes in Return of the God Hypothesis, they were motivated to “think God’s thoughts after Him.” Figures like Kepler are a particular annoyance for Krauss, but they also pose a challenge to Peterson, who, sympathetic as he is to religion, still wants to work within a naturalistic frame. 

But each of them still gets something right. Krauss correctly intuits that Peterson’s thinking has a pragmatic flavor which could endanger a correspondence view of truth, redefining it as “that which is useful.” Meanwhile, Peterson correctly intuits that we are the ones who have to tell nature what is beautiful, not vice versa. In the same way, we may unlock the secrets of the hydrogen atom and determine the steps to build a bomb with it. But should we? And once we have, what do we do next? 

Science cannot explain. And as long as science cannot explain, we will be searching for the thing which can. Lawrence Krauss seems to be content to stop searching. But I look forward to where Jordan Peterson’s search takes him.