Comments (By a Muslim) on 12 Rules for Life.
I’ve been making my way through Jordan Peterson’s most recent book. I have decided to give it a read for a number of reasons, but most importantly, because he is one of the greatest attempts to confront the threat of nihilism in “The West” and make a massive impact.
Now there are many things that he says that I find questionable (most notably his conception of ‘God’, and his opinions surrounding Islam); but nonetheless, he still offers many gems in a lot of his work, and I wish to flush them out where they may be relevant to Islam and of use to Muslims. I also intend to draw attention to these disagreements in other posts beyond this particular one as well, but where this one is concerned, I wish to highlight a particular quote and share my thoughts on it. So without further ado, here it is…
Nature is not simply dynamic, either. Some things change quickly, but they are nested within other things that change less quickly (music frequently models this, too). Leaves change more quickly than trees, and trees more quickly than forests. Weather changes faster than climate. If it wasn’t this way, then the conservatism of evolution would not work, as the basic morphology of arms and hands would have to change as fast as the length of arm bones and the function of fingers. It’s chaos, within order, within chaos, within higher order. The order that is most real is the order that is most unchanging–and that is not necessarily the order that is most easily seen. The leaf, when perceived, might blind the observer to the tree. The tree can blind him to the forest. And some things that are most real (such as the ever present dominance hierarchy) cannot be “seen” at all.Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2018) p. 13
I think this is a great quote to begin my observations on. Its the first one that I mark out in his book that I find interesting and worthy of a bit of thought and attention. So the parts that are most interesting to me are what I have bolded. That is:
(A) The order that is “most real” is the order that is most unchanging
(B) And some things that are most unchanging cannot be “seen” at all.
Now one of the major issues I have with Peterson, is his strange way of sitting on the fence with his conception of God (in what seems to be) an attempt to appease both believers and disbelievers. This has some utility for him in terms of his reach, acting as a bridge between both worlds, and as a method of avoiding backlash from a large portion of his following; but it makes it nearly impossible to find out what exactly it is that he believes in. Despite this however, this particular quote and the two parts I have highlighted are interesting, and I will argue they should draw you closer to an islamic interpretation of God. That is, to pure monotheism!
So looking at point A, it is said that that which is *most real* is that which is the most unchanging; or rather, it could be stated in other words as that which does not change at all. This is synonymous to calling it perfect, which is to say it lacks nothing, is eternal, pure, infinite etc. After all, if it did change, that would suggest that what ever it became was not what it was, and that it lost or gained something in order to transform. If it was able to lose or gain something, then it was not perfect/infinite in the first place.
Now for some reason, despite talking about God a lot, Peterson’s go-to example of something which is “the most real” is the “ever present dominance hierarchy”. Now although I agree with him that the dominance hierarchy has a high degree of reality, I find it telling that this is his go-to example. If he sincerely believes in the creator, you would think that his talking of hierarchy so much would lead him to accepting that the pinnacle of this is God (the source of all Being), and so maybe he would have mentioned that, above all else, as the most real. For whatever reason though, he didn’t. Allahu alam.
Now taking into account point B, we can again elude to Allah (swt) as that which cannot be “seen” at all. Yet this does not take away one iota from his reality. He is the source of all Being, and is the source of all time & space and everything you find within it. This, by necessity, puts him beyond time & space and therefore beyond the reaches of the empirical eye; but not necessarily beyond rational conclusions. We can guide ourselves to His necessity through discussion, and also upon a revealing of our fitrah to ourselves.
Let us imagine there is AI in a computer generated world, and one of them comes to the conclusion that their world has been created by something outside of it because there is evidence for a beginning, and also intelligence in the design of the reality they find themselves within. Let’s also say they postulate intelligence in the creation of their world, and claim there is a being that is beyond the confines of their worlds space and time (because this being can pause their time, fast forward, rewind, load up details of the hidden aspects of characters like their thoughts and desires etc and so has access to many layers of their reality). Imagine now, if when trying to explain this to the other beings in their world, that these beings scoff and laugh and say “well where is this creator? Where is the evidence of it in this world? Show us. We searched the heavens above our planet and couldn’t find anything of a creator. Why should we believe you?
See the problem here? They are searching for the painter inside of the painting, rather than trying to think beyond it. They are equating the creator and the created as the same thing. Abstract this to ourselves and our world. How exactly are these atheists, that subscribe to scientism, naturalism and absolute materialism, expecting us to provide empirical evidence for something which is beyond the empirical and the source of all that which is empirical?
Now one might say well what created the creator? In the computer game example, we ourselves are finite beings with beginnings and ends, so you can postulate something giving rise to use, and something else giving rise to that, on and on indefinitely. But then one must ask, well what gave rise to this chain in the first place? Does it go on forever? Being creates being, creates being, creates being… ∞
I would argue no. An infinite amount of time cannot pass. If the past is infinite, then today would never have arrived. Just as if I tell you that I will give you that money I owe you in in an infinite amount of time, you’ll never get it back. So it can only be said that if you posit the past has an infinite regression, or if there is an infinite regression of creators, then our creation would never have occurred as it is infinitely beyond past events.
So there must have been a starting point for these finite succession of moments. And that which gave rise to this starting point must be something unique, and unlike the finite parts that we are discussing here. It must itself be beyond the confines of time and space to escape the issues faced by the impossibility of an infinite regress. In other words, this being must be eternal, with no beginning and no end. It cannot be compartmentalised, because this is a feature of spacial and temporal things. It must be unchanging, as change implies time. If it doesn’t change then it is complete, and if it is the source of all power and being, then it must itself be infinite and perfect.
This is the highest state of reality and the “most real” as Peterson puts it in the quote at the beginning of this essay. It is the most unchanging, because it doesn’t change at all. And it cannot be seen because it gives rise to all that can be seen, and so transcends this and the categories that allow for things to be seen in the first place (space & time again).
Here in Peterson’s work, we have the seeds of pure monotheism, and the starts of what could potentially lead people to the concept of tawheed; and insha’Allah, accepting Islam.