Feb 152012

Jordan Peterson spoke at TEDxToronto. He needed a better introduction to his ideas so I thought I’d write it up.

One of the biggest and lasting changes in the way I see the world has been to integrate Jordan Peterson’s idea of order and chaos. If you want to understand yourself, the world and me, it’s fundamental that you understand this distinction.

Order is a place or situation or state where things are predictable. You’re on solid ground and you know what will happen next. Too much order and this state can become boring, restrictive or even repressive. Too little order and there’s not enough structure for anything to exist at all. The right amount of order though, allows you to relax and feel comfortable (activation of the parasympathetic nervous system–sleep/relax/digest/rebuild system).

Chaos is state or place where things are unpredictable and uncertain. They are outside or under the little islands of order we build around us. We don’t know that’s going to happen next, and that can make chaos quite thrilling. But chaos can also be destructive as well as creative. You are most interested when there’s just the right amount of chaos—maybe even excited. Too much chaos and you are overwhelmed, anxious and afraid (activation of the sympathetic nervous system–fight/flight system).

Myths and old stories are often about the relationship between order and chaos, and something that converts one into the other–usually the hero. Order is often represented as some sort of “safe place” often enclosed by boundaries. The fort, the walled city, the island, the house/home we live in, the village in the clearing surrounded by dark forests. Outside the little speck of order, there is great chaos. This can be the darkened forest, space, the desert, the ocean or the city outside your house.

In Narrative

Order and chaos also show up in stories all the time, especially very popular stories that appeal to a lot of people because they have a mythic substructure. Take The Dark Knight, for example, or superheroes in general. They are our modern myths—our Hercules, Samson or Thor. The Dark Knight made over a billion dollars. $1,001,921,825. I’ve checked and rechecked this figure and it remains a shitload of money. Why would millions of people pay to see a man in a silly costume beat up another deranged man with facepaint and scars? The spectacle certainly has something to do with it, but there’s also the dynamic of order and chaos. The Joker says to Harvey Dent in the hospital room:

“It’s a schemer who put you where you are. You were a schemer. You had plans. Look where it got you. I just did what I do best-I took your plan and turned it on itself. Look what I have done to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple bullets. Nobody panics when the expected people get killed. Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plans are horrifying. If I tell the press that tomorrow a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will get blown up, nobody panics. But when I say one little old mayor will die, everyone loses their minds! Introduce a little anarchy, you upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I am an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? It’s fair.”

Then Harvey Dent flips a coin to determine if he’ll kill The Joker.

The hero tends to be a creature in between order and chaos. He converts chaos into order and often revitalizes the culture or community he is coming from, but often he cannot stay in that community because he is tainted by chaos. The cowboy must ride away into the sunset from the town he just saved and Batman must be labelled a criminal and never accepted by the society he defends. In other stories, the hero returns to revitalize the community and is accepted at the top ranks of it. He jumps from being the peasant to marrying the princess and becoming the next king after slaying the dragon of chaos.

These stories teach us how to react to chaos–to the unknown. With courage and resolute strength. Looking fear in the eye and battling to the last breath. A good story or myth contains this element of battling chaos or battling order–especially a tyrannical, repressive one–think V for Vendetta, 1984 or Robin Hood, or your parents when you were a teenager.

In Religion

This interplay between order and chaos shows up in religions all the time, especially since religions are a collection of various myths. The yin-yang symbol is the representation of order and chaos, and only in the harmonious balance between them is some sort of perfection achieved. There is a speck of one in the other with the black dot in the white and white dot in the black.

Take the story of Jonah and the whale. Jonah is going along in order and the totality of reality commands him to do something. He seeks to escape from it and flees from safe and dry land onto the oceans. A great storm comes and threatens the ship. The crew throw him overboard at which point he’s swallowed by a giant whale and taken deep underwater until he prays and is let back on onto dry land to fulfill God’s command.

If you take this story literally, you’ll find yourself at odds with a lot of facts. Whales don’t generally eat people nor can you survive in the belly of a whale. Ancient people had no idea what a whale looked like so the depictions of the whale look reptilian. But through the lens of order and chaos you get a much clearer understanding—and a lesson!

Have you ever had an experience when you’re going along and feeling fine but then something happens to throw you completely off-balance? Maybe your parents got divorced, maybe you had a major breakup, maybe you failed a year of school, maybe you broke your leg or someone close to you died. Unexpected and unplanned things happened and you felt like you were drowning and didn’t know when the clouds would ever part. But one day, over time, you woke up and things seemed less dark. Eventually, you even noticed that the sun had broken through the clouds of your life and you felt like you were on solid ground again. This is an experience everyone who’s lived at all has had and that’s the experience this story of Jonah talks about. That’s why this tale has been repeated for over four thousand years—because it says something true about the nature of human existence.

Additionally this story gives a lesson: listen to the decrees of the totality of reality otherwise risk falling into chaos.

In Politics

Democrats and Republicans in the US tend to align to these two mythological positions. Chaos loving democrats run campaigns based on “change” (perhaps some that we can believe in) while Republicans espouse safety, security and order which tends to come from conservatism.

In Psychology

Psychologists have found out that people’s identity is fundamentally a narrative. What links you now to the 7 years old you? Every single one of your cells has been replaced so your body is not the same. But you tell a story that links you to who you are today. Jung once said that we are all living out a myth and it’s a really good idea to figure out what your story is, because it could be one that doesn’t end well for you. Maybe it’s a story of safety and security that your parents want you to live out by becoming an accountant or a lawyer or a doctor, but it’s too much order and boring. Not having a compelling story to live out, though, can cause feelings of living a life that has no meaning. Not the only cause, but one of the most prevalent, especially in the university years.

So, what creates a life of excitement? The feeling of battling chaos (or order) and succeeding—even if slowly. It can also be the excitement of expanding the realm of order and knowledge. The right balance and timing of order and chaos in your life. A compelling story that provides context and meaning for your actions today. You of course need more than this, but this is the big stuff.

More technically, Dan Seigal makes a compelling argument in his book in Mindsight, that if you take almost every psychological disorder you find either an excess of chaos or an excess of order.

In Dynamical Systems Theory

I believe order and chaos represent a particular kind of dynamical system and since our world is infested by dynamical systems; myths and stories teach us how to deal with them. Evolution, for example, is the interplay between chaos and order. Chaos generates new possibilities through mutations and the like. Order selects within the possibilities through environmental, social and sexual pressures. This process keeps going back and forth in order to continually produce organisms fitted for a particular time and place. There is no single definition of “fitness”. The biggest or strongest don’t always win and are often at a detriment (think dinosaurs).

In Personality Transformation

Similarly, human personalities transform through contact with chaos. Things go wrong and we wake up. The unexpected happens and you’re forced to rethink your life, how you interact with it and what your future will be. You fail a test and maybe that means you fail the course and maybe that means your GPA is very low and maybe that makes you wonder if you’re a smart person at all and maybe if you’re not a smart person than you can’t be a success in life and maybe that means that people will always judge and look down upon you. But after dealing with all this, maybe you wake up and realize that what people try to convince you is important in life isn’t actually important, so you don’t worry as much about climbing some social ladder anymore and impressing people, and because your goals are different, your methods become different, too, and you start taking only interesting courses and change majors to something that actually interests you (and perhaps has just the right amount of chaos in it to be interesting) and maybe you turn getting good grades with the minimum work possible into a fun game and figure out ways to hack grades and start doing really well in school anyway.

My old personality died and a new one arose from the ashes, like a Pheonix, and this new one is robust to this sort of chaos.


Our bodies evolved for those two “realities” of order and chaos. We parse up the world as being made up of objects because of the very powerful lenses provided us by the enlightenment and the success of physics. But the world is more complicated than that and has an infinite ways of looking at it (meaning it is chaos) and we’re constantly adjusting the way we look at the world (converting it into order). The other big change I’ve been making is recognizing that objects don’t end at their boundaries. I don’t end at my skin. I’m a combination of my past, my future, my friends, my work, my peace, even the weather and how you see me today is dependent on all those things.

Apr 272009

Welcome! Here are some links: I’ve tried to write a concise introduction to his ideas of order and chaosThe Necessity of Virtue is an excellent lecture. To watch lectures of his Maps of Meaning class (based on his book), click here. I’ve watched all of them 2-3 times. He is a regular on TVO, especially on The Agenda with Steve Paiken. His lecture on the nature of evil can be watched here and I’ve seen it likely over 20 times. He teaches three courses at the University of Toronto.

Regular readers know I love clinical Psychologist and lecturer Dr. Jordan Peterson. I took one of his classes last year and sat in on it again this out, purely out of interest. It’s different every year and you also get something new out. For example, this year, he showed the class an interview with cops of Paul Bernardo, who is a serial murderer, rapist and psychopath. Then he proceeded to dissect all the various body language/relationship dynamic games he was playing. It was mind-blowing to see this guy say with a straight face, “Fine I made some mistakes 17 years ago” as if talking about an affair, when he’s really talking about murdering many women. The scary part is no one objects–that’s how well he’s controlling the room. I spent that hour and half with my jaw literally dropped.

More recently, I took one of his courses and write an essay about what Jordan Peterson has taught me and I wanted to share his work with you. It’s amazing how much I’ve learned from about such diverse topics as improving your relationships, how to think better, how to live life in an authentic way and so forth. Here it is:


What Jordan Peterson Taught Me

Personality transformation is a key theme in the courses of Dr. Jordan Peterson. He teaches this through teaching about the nature of human beings and reality, so that the new personality is better equipped to deal with that reality. The following are some of the most important things I have learned from Dr. Jordan Peterson, my thoughts on them and how I have applied them to my life.

Winning an Argument Doesn’t Mean You’re Right

This was a comment Dr. Peterson made in a Personality Psychology class last year. He was talking about relationships and I realized that this is something I was doing with those around me. I have a fairly strong personality, and sometimes I can accidentally bulldoze over my friends’ opinions without taking the time to understand them.

Growing up in our culture, which emphasizes reason as the source of truth, made me assume that winning an argument equated to being right. That is not always the case because you can win arguments not by convincing the other person of the correctness of your position but by tiring out the other person until they give up. Dr. Peterson has been similarly critical of an over-reliance on reason. As he said, reason is a tool and it should be used as such. It is a great servant but a terrible master. He points out the many millennia that human kind survived before the Enlightenment placed reason on a pedestal a few hundred years ago. Reason, as he points out, has mythically been associated with pathology and tyrannical order. Pure rationality is great for dealing with what is already known, but it can not begin to handle not knowing what is not known. The extent of our lack of knowledge is unknown and may well be infinite, and pure reason cannot get a grasp on that. Reason as the enemy of emotion is also a mistaken dichotomy. The two work together and if one person does not have a balance between the two, they suffer.

The alternative in relationships is to figure out what the goal is and to listen deeply. Once two or more people can agree on the same goal; the question becomes, “how do we get to that goal in the best way possible?” instead of, “how can I prove I am right for the sake of being right?” If someone feels listened to, as Stephen Covey points out, then they feel a lot more receptive to listening to you. This has radically changed my relationships with other people, greatly reduced conflict and made my relationships much more productive.

Reality is not How We Think It Is

Reality has many ways of perceiving it. This is completely different from the materialist doctrine that I absorbed unconsciously. The idea that the world is composed of objects is a necessary perspective, but it is an incomplete story compared to the phenomenological one Dr. Peterson stresses.

The materialist doctrine also fails to account sufficiently for meaning, which is not a feature of the environment, but the response of a consciousness to the environment. The standard world view is “dead in some fundamental sense” as Dr. Peterson says. This problem is also faced in Cognitive Science and its attempt to understand cognition. It was separated into two problems called the paradox of mechanical reason and the problem of original meaning. How does something completely mechanical handle meaning, which is not physical at all? Despite decades of work, meaning-making machines have not been created and this points to the difficulty of understanding meaning, yet it is ignored by the standard materialist doctrine to the detriment of the people who follow it.

The phenomenological perspective is that a person’s experience is real. These things may not correspond to physical things out in the world, however treating them as real is a much better way to handle them. For example, fear is not a feature of the physical environment. This leads to response parents have to children who say they are afraid of monsters under their beds: “there’s no such thing as monsters”. If the fear was to be treated as real, as Dr. Peterson suggests, the parents would help the children check under the bed to find out that there is nothing to fear. The child would become bigger than its fear through facing it and its personality would grow and transform into something greater.

This manner of dealing with features of consciousness, especially emotions, provides a good basis for dealing with them in a healthy way, rather than repressing or disrespecting them. Treating fear and anxiety as real means that a person finds ways to deal with them and get over them, rather than simply trying to fruitlessly ignore them. This has helped proved me with greater inner peace and integration of my emotions, as well as respect for others’ emotions.

Dominance Hierarchies Are Everywhere

When I learn something fundamental about the world, it completely changes my perspective and I see everything anew. I relish these paradigm shifts. This helped me understand what Marcel Proust said, “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Dr. Peterson has caused these shifts a number of times. One of them was learning about dominance hierarchies in human beings.

Dominance hierarchies are a pyramid-like organization in many species. In animals, these are often regulated by size or other physical advantages. In human beings, while size hierarchies do exist (a bully, for example), we can form hierarchies over almost anything. This leads to seemingly odd hierarchy games, such as one-upmanship about how bad someone’s day way. In university, implicit hierarchies are often based on intelligence, grades or even laziness. Someone will brag to others in an effort to raise their hierarchy position and gain the approval of others. The concept of self-esteem is almost exactly dominance hierarchy positions and regulated by the same neurochemical: serotonin.

Realizing this helped me get my motivations straight. Instead of being led by my unconscious motives such as status games or self-esteem games, I learned to choose my motivations consciously towards the highest good for all or based on thoughtfully chosen goals. It became easy to tell when I or someone else was playing a status or self-esteem game and this has deepened my relationships greatly. I have been able to be sensitive to others’ egos when necessary.

Hold Your Beliefs Lightly

I learned this from both Dr. Peterson and my study of Bhuddhist thought. Both recommend not to identify yourself with your beliefs but to identify yourself with the thing inside you which changes beliefs. If you identify too strongly with your beliefs, then you are more rigid and less likely to question them, which can be dangerous because beliefs are inherently fallible. Since we are not omnipotent, we make assumptions about the nature of reality which are inherently incomplete and can be wrong. Holding on too strongly to these assumptions and not allowing them to be changed can lead to many negative consequences.

This has been very important to know in my relationships and in my personal development. In relationships, conflict often occurs around different beliefs. If a person becomes too attached to maintaining their sense of the world and proving that they are right, they may stop themselves from learning more accurate beliefs. This can sustain deep conflict for a long time, so being willing to change my beliefs and being with someone who also is resolves conflicts and creates a stronger relationship than before.

In my personal development, changing beliefs has been crucial to achieving my goals. For example, I used to believe that my grades were a direct reflection of my intelligence. This belief created many problems for me, including failing a year through deep procrastination and identity crisis. However, since I have changed this belief, my grades have skyrocketed. My only regret is that I did not let go of this belief sooner, before it hurt my academic record.

I Dont Know What Games Im Playing

I was struck by this realization recently. Despite having spent three years trying to figure myself out, I still do not understand all of the games I play. A lot of the games remain unknown because human beings are extremely complicated, and our consciousnesses simply inhabit a tiny part of ourselves with the rest being unconscious. As an example of unconscious games: a friend of mine claims his goal is to get the best grades he can, however he ignores advice such as to read books by the author of Study Hacks (http://www.calnewport.com/blog/) which I used to get a 92% on a major test with less studying. He claims he does it because he wants to figure out how to get better grades himself. This is a different game and it is likely a game to validate his sense of self-competence. Unfortunately, this game conflicts with his stated game so he does worse on the stated game, ironically lowering his sense of competence at getting good grades. Of course, I can identify this game in another person because I used to play it. There are many games that I am playing right now that I cannot identify because I am blind to them.

This realization that I play games and that I often do not know which ones I play has humbled me and pushed me to seek out my true motives. Prof. Vervaeke claims that the parts of our cognition that we are conscious of are a tiny part of our total cognition. The part that is conscious or “our self” is run similarly to a computer on a neural network, and we are only aware of the computer part, while the rest is dark to most of us. Some meditaters can access deep functions such as controlling their body heat, heart rate or brain wave activity. A lot of implicit but important patterns are formed in the unconscious parts and while our conscious minds lulls us into believing that we know what we are doing; this is an illusion.

Become Bigger than Fear, Listen to your Conscience and Be Authentic

According to Dr. Peterson, becoming a fully realized person is supremely important. An actualized individual is a powerful force that, “when they say no all of society stops”. He cites Nelson Mandela and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (who wrote the Gulag Archipelago which helped bring down the Soviet Union) as fully actualized individuals. A fully realized personality is powerful enough to stop lying in the face of tyranny and bring it down. Lesser personalities cave to tyranny and can commit horrible acts in the name of following orders. This personality is essentially the highest mode of being and an excellent goal to be aimed at.

The way to become this personality, according to Dr. Peterson, is to become bigger than fear by facing it. Hiding from fear causes the creation of a weak personality while facing fear creates a courageous one. This is important because one needs to have courage to face the big problems that challenge humanity, while being a small, vulnerable human being.

Another important way to develop a stronger personality is to listen to your conscience. Your conscience is a pretty good, though fallible, guide to what will expand your personality. So, if your conscience is bugging you a bit about something in particular, do it.

It is extremely important to be authentic to create a deeply resilient personality. Dr. Peterson suggests watching your actions and your words for a week and figure out how much of what you do and say is yourself. It is possible to feel a sort of internal rift when you say something other than what you truly believe. If, however, you communicate from this place of deep authenticity, people listen and pay attention.

To be sure, many different systems of thought have a highest sort of personality to be aimed at however there are commonalities that include Dr. Peterson’s ideas. Buddhism has the enlightened being and the Dalai Lama is certainly a powerful person within Dr. Peterson’s criteria.

I have learned a lot from Dr. Peterson. I often learn gain new insights by going over the same material again, such as his videos online. I want to continue to learn more and more from him that can help me to live my life in a better way.