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

Thu, Mar 31, 2011

Essentials, Reviews

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Rating: A Essential Reading

Jordan Peterson, in a personal quest to understand the horror of war, the existence of evil, and why religious belief exists, has set out to create a rational philosophy informed by science to unlock the very structure of belief.  The book is an attempt to bring religion and belief under the umbrella of science and discover how belief is formed, for if such a knowledge can be gained then religion can be reduced to another system of scientific thought, which in turn should allow academics to create the belief systems needed by humanity.

Straightaway, in the preface, Peterson describes the personal journey that led him to this book.  Raised a Christian, he “could not swallow what was being taught,”1 his main problem being that none of the ministers could reconcile biblical stories with science, so he left the church to join a socialist party, adopting the belief that “economic injustice was at the root of all evil,”2 but after some time, concluding that socialist ideology simply served to mask resentment and hatred for the wealthy, he lost faith in all ideology and belief.  Yet, he could not take his mind off the “political insanity and the evil of the world,”3 and bereft of solutions he returned to the university to study psychology.

While at university, Peterson visited a maximum security prison under the supervision of an eccentric professor, where he came face to face with men who had committed horrific crimes, but he painfully reasoned that essentially he was no different from these men, and that all of his beliefs, things that made him good, were stolen from books and other people.

He made his first important discovery, then, after reading about the concept of the persona, a mask of feigned individuality or collective psyche, a concept formulated by Carl Jung.4 Following this discovery, a series of horrific dreams brought him to the conclusion that “beliefs make the world (and that) beliefs are the world.”5

Perhaps this one concept, that the world is made of beliefs, is the most important point of this book.  Peterson’s unconventional description of his own story is also a welcome departure from common practice as it lays bare Peterson’s assumptions and starting point, essential for evaluating his arguments.

Peterson explains that we see the world in two ways: as “a place for things” and as “a forum for action.”  We examine “a place for things” through science; we examine “a forum for action” through narrative–myth, literature, and the arts.  Our knowledge of a place for things is objective knowledge; our knowledge of a forum for action is a value system.  Beliefs are what informs us as we participate in the forum for action, and meaning is the stuff beliefs are made of.

For example, when we see a cup, we do not relate to it as a thing to be studied objectively.  Instead, we evaluate what the cup means to us, whether it is useful for drinking water, or, if it has a unique shape, if it is meant for a special occasion, or if it is ceremonial, or if it is meant to be crushed in celebration of a wedding.  We repeat this kind of thinking with everything we encounter.  In effect, our primary relationship to all things is through meaning, which are “interpretive schema” that produce “guides for action.”6

An important implication is that if the evolution of a belief system has allowed a culture to survive, then in some profound way the ideas underlying such beliefs must be valid. Myths, as Peterson explains, are “description of the world as it signifies (for action),”7 and such myths as guided cultures are therefore filled with valid knowledge to guide our actions, something that “pure, abstract rationality, ungrounded in tradition,”8 together with its great statist experiments have failed to do.

So, given Myths are the expression of beliefs that have ensured human survival, finding the common values shared across myths would be the cornerstone for constructing a rational system of universal morality (i.e. rules for survival). In other words, if we can mine the universal meaning behind myths of the world and systematize this knowledge in a scientific and rational manner, then we can construct morality from rational first principles, which clearly is the philosopher’s stone of all philosophies. This then becomes the Peterson’s goal.

What follows is an analysis on three levels of the process of meaning and belief creation. On the first level, Peterson describes current psychological theory on human behavior, tracing its origins to the Russian school beginning with Pavlov and continuing with Sokolov, Vinogradova, Luria, and Goldberg. These theories hold that human beings are biologically programmed to respond to novelty with instinctive mechanisms of learning, which include responses such as “redirection of attention, generation of emotion (fear followed by curiosity), and behavioral compulsion,”9 which includes such actions as stopping what you are doing followed by active investigation.

These behavioral responses work in turn on two sublevels: one in normal life, the other in revolutionary life, but underlying both sublevels is the assumption that all life and all human action is goal driven. Thus in normal life small deviations from set goals produce instinctive responses which result in the study and analysis of the deviation, followed by learning and course correction. Once the problem is understood it then ceases to be of interest and the individual can continue with either the original goal or a slightly modified goal. In revolutionary life, on the other hand, deviations from intended goals are so large that the individual’s entire belief system collapses, calling into question the very goals themselves.

On the second level of analysis, Peterson attempts to map the learning behavior described above to neurophysiological processes. The primary function of the nervous system, Peterson explains, is first to classify Stimuli–or deviations from goals–as either promising or threatening followed by invoking a pattern of behavior to defend against or exploit stimuli.   If stimuli are novel and unknown, a special instinctive pattern of behavior is invoked.   At first the limbic unit of the brain, detecting a departure from desired goals, creates an orienting reflex, which is an involuntary redirection of attention to the new stimuli.   This orientation prompts behavior first to protect the individual from threat, and then to explore.

It is here, with exploratory behavior, that Peterson lays the groundwork for much of the rest of the book.  Exploration function between two domains: the domain of chaos or the unknown, full of danger and potential for discovery, novelty and creativity, and the domain of the known, encompassing structure, order, and safety.  Faced with the unknown, the right brain kicks in with creative, imaginative, non-linear thinking, forming hypothesis and theories; faced with the known, the left brain kicks in, with ordered, procedural thinking, directing behavior and action. More explicitly, the right brain “derive(s) from repeated observations of behavior images of action patterns that the verbal left can arrange, with increasing logic and detail, into stories.”10

Right-brain/left-brain activity works recursively, building a ladder of knowledge, starting from knowing how to act with gut instinct or tacit knowledge, and ending with knowing what or why to act, expressed first as story or myth, and eventually as theory or a model of the world (world view).   Thus learning begins from “creative exploration,” to “adaptive behavior,” to “play,” “ritual,” and “drama,” to “narrative,” “mythology,” and “religion,” to “philosophy,”11 with perhaps science, as natural philosophy, being the very omega of knowledge creation.  All knowledge has to be transformed through these steps to yield explicit philosophical and scientific knowledge, and all of this knowledge constitutes “maps of patterns of actions (and) behaviors.”12

All of which brings us to Peterson’s third level of analysis, an inquiry into the structure of myth. By this point, Peterson has established that the individual or society starts from the known, descends into chaos when faced with something new, and engaging a creative/organizing exploratory behavior returns to the known, albeit with more advanced knowledge. By analyzing a number of myths, Peterson shows that myths depict the undifferentiated universe as the Uroborus (snake biting its tail), which then splits into the known depicted as The Father, and the unknown shown as The Mother. Creative exploration, the process that transforms aspects of the creative mother into the ordered father, is The Hero. The father protects and rules, the mother provides potential for new creation, and the hero faces the forces of chaos (mother), and after overcoming challenges, returns victorious with new treasure (knowledge) that transforms society, renewing the father–for example, by restoring the king’s health or by becoming the new king.

It is the dynamics of this process that lead to war and conflict, Peterson postulates. Failure or refusal to adapt to new realities, is a manifestation of the tyrannical father, one who clings to power and to what is known because he fears the unknown, is not willing to face it, and when new knowledge arrives in the form of a hero, for example Christ, acts to eliminate this knowledge, persecuting and destroying the hero.

Why should this be so? Because descent into chaos (the mother) is painful and fraught with danger, where no order can be relied on to protect, where the safety of group identity melts away, and where conflicting points of view lead to confusion and chaos. The same holds true for an individual who delves into chaos, for he is faced with depression and anxiety, from which he might never recover. Yet, over time this process has repeated again and again, and through the action of successful heros society has developed the structures on which it relies for its survival. Thus, for example, The Rule of Law, brought back by Moses from the realm of chaos, is one structure on which all modern societies depend.

Peterson also examines the alchemical process, basing his discussion on the explorations of Carl Jung, in an attempt to rehabilitate Carl Jung back into the fold of academic dons, who considered Jung “delv(ing) into areas that were forbidden, because of their religious association, to devout scientists.”13

Quoting Jung’s student, Marie-Louis von Franz, Peterson explains that modern empirical sciences are rooted in archetypal ideas. For example the idea of three dimensions is based on the Trinity, and the idea of causality is based on God.   This is referred as “projection,” systems of thought that have unconscious rules, the same concept as paradigmatic thinking as described by Thomas Kuhn. Peterson continues by rendering the alchemical process in terms of his psychological theory, explaining for example, how the nigredo is descent into chaos, how transmutation of base metal into gold is the return of the king to health, and how the work of the hero is the process of alchemy itself. What is most striking is the explanation that as alchemists searched for god in matter they laid down the principles, methods, and assumptions of modern science, the very notion that matter is worth studying being something entirely new.

Peterson ends his book the same way he started it.  By returning to his personal quest, Peterson comes to the conclusion that history must and should be studied for its psychological meaning, and given that belief is inherent to the human mind, and since individuals act to protect the “father” or group identity, both belief and conflict are inevitable. He explains that “the great myths of Christianity … no longer speak to the majority of Westerners who regard themselves … educated.”14 But he resolves this by explaining that the problem arises because empirical fact has been mixed with moral truth.  He considers the wholesale rejection of the meaning inherent in religious myth as a lie and abandonment of all past human adaptation.   Following the theories he has laid down, and focusing on pursuing the meaning behind the myths of the past, will lead to new knowledge and more advanced adaptation. He places at the top of his tower of meaning, “a society predicated upon belief in the paramount divinity of the individual allow(ing) personal interest to flourish,” thus protecting society against the tyranny of culture and the terror of nature.


Jordan Peterson has made a great stride forward in uniting science with religion. He has demonstrated that past modes of adaptation, embedded in the mythology of the world, developed over tens of thousands of years, constitutes an evolutionary adaptation that must be valid given the survival of the cultures employing such myths. And he has shown how such knowledge can fit well into current psychological and neurophysiological thinking.

Where he falls short is in assuming that he has uncovered the whole picture and not showing where further research is necessary, this despite the sparseness of data. For example, much of his analysis of religion is based on figures such as Christ and Buddha, whose histories are so ancient and steeped in mythical thinking, it is impossible to draw definitive conclusions about them. Yet, Peterson, introducing a plethora of assumptions, not only has defined these figures, but laid in concrete certainty how such minds have operated, in many ways discounting their influence and attributing patterns of adaptation either as “emergent” behavior or evolutionary, this despite not having met one such person, being one such person, or having reliable and comprehensive historical records. Peterson has made great strides in describing the process of the hero, yet again, we are faced with many assumptions, such as all behavior is goal driven, and that human beings are compelled instinctually to explore all things, despite the fact that many of our great discoveries are owing to exceptional minds such as Einstein that are difficult to fathom.

Still, I consider this book as an important foundation for understanding meaning and meaning creation in a world that is increasingly moving towards the creation and exchange of meaning.

Maps of Meaning – Buy it at Amazon

  1. Maps of Meaning, p. xi
  2. ibid. p. xi
  3. ibid. p. xv
  4. Jung, C.G., Vol.7, p.157, The Collected Works of C.G.Jung, (RFC Hull, Trans.), Bollington Series, XX. Princeton University Press.
  5. Maps of Meaning, p.xx
  6. ibid. p.1
  7. ibid. p.9
  8. ibid. p.11
  9. ibid. p.19
  10. ibid. p.72
  11. ibid. fig. 13, p.80
  12. ibid. p.71
  13. ibid. p.402
  14. ibid. p.466
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3 Responses to “Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief – Jordan B. Peterson”

  1. vv111y Says:

    Thanks for this. I always enjoy listening to Peterson, he resonantes with me. Recently he was on a TVO episode discussing his chronic condition of depression.


  2. Muhammad Habibullah Says:

    Enjoyed reading the article above , really explains everything in detail,the article is very interesting and effective.Thank you and good luck for the upcoming articles


  3. John Says:

    Excellent review Mr. Alai. This is the best summary of “Maps of Meaning” I have read so far.

    I am approaching page 300 of Mr. Peterson’s long and complex book, and I have not seen him assert that “religion can be reduced to another system of scientific thought, which in turn should allow academics to create the belief systems needed by humanity” as you say in the first paragraph of your article. Is this something that comes up towards the end of the book?


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