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.

Nov 282008

Someone posted this comment on Steve Pavlina‘s blog a while ago:

Why improve at all? We are born. We die. Everything else shares the same fate. Then why this struggle to improve? What is the use? Expectations can only lead to misery if we dont achieve. Why not just lead a life of no expecation and see what happens?

That chap Jim achieved first place. Cool! So what next? He will now set his goals to win the Milky Way Speaking Championship? Ok, let us give him the first place there. Then what?

Has anybody here tried to live a life of no goal setting, competition, improvement? Doing things intuitively without expectation. Isnt that peace? Isnt that what we are truly after?

Steve addressed it in the blog post titled, Why pursue personal growth at all? I feel he could have done a better job in addressing it by making more of the issues and hidden assumptions conscious and then addressing them. His actual answer seems to be that, no, nothing really matters in the long run, and that your subjective experience is what’s important.

I’ve held the beliefs that are mentioned by the commenter above so I feel I can offer a different intepretation. The first is that a materialist/physicalist/naturalist perspective pervades our society, which essentially rejects metaphysical or super-natural concepts. Materialism, as a philosophy, considers matter the only philosophical substance. Sorta like how an old Greek idea was that the world was made up of the four elements: fire, water, earth and air, except the universe is made up of matter and nothing exists beyond that. Now, in our folk philosophies we tend to assume that meaning of things in inherent in them. For example, if I say an elephant is big, we assume that “bigness” is somehow a property of an elephant (it’s noumenon), while I believe that “bigness” is a property imposed on the elephant within our own consciousness. In fact, I believe that meaning or value exists only in our consciousness and results as a consequence of the interaction between the “actual” thing, my sense and my consciousness. This is a tough concept to get across at first, so I suggest re-reading this paragraph a few times. Another thing to consider: what’s “red”? I’m colour-blind, so your experience of the wave frequencies that we perceive as “red” is different from mine. Red is not a quality of the object itself, but rather my experience of it.

Now for the second part of this argument: what the commenter is referring to is a realization that things don’t have meaning or value in and of themselves, and because materialism may be the dominant philosophy (often unconsciously), the meanings of our actions are value-less because they are not physical, but rather metaphysical in some way. This led me to a sort of nihilism. Not nihilism as a sense of dispair, but simply a recognition that existance has no inherent value or meaning. This can be dispair-inducing and may cause people to ask, “what is the point of it all, if it doesn’t matter in the long run?”

Of course, the hidden assumption in that question is two-fold: Things have meaning, value or point if they last or are eternal (an inheritance with Plato who claimed that “reality” is permanent); and that meaning only comes when things have physical form and last a long time. I would add that there may be a third assumption: to wonder whether things have meanings if there is no human consciousness to “judge” it. If a third-person, “objective” observer was to look at this, what would they say? This may be the primary way that folk philosophy looks at this problem.

I am arguing that things have no meanings in and of themselves, and that there is no meaning without human consciousness. That is my mind/consciousness creates the meanings around me. So, while something may not have any meaning in the long run or the rest of the universe or even to the rest of the world, my own conscious experience in this present moment is what’s important, and that is bar I judge things by, rather than how things would look to an “objective” observer looking at things in the context of the universe and a long time horizon. This view actually creates some interesting side-effects. For example, losing your job does not include disappointment, anger, dispair or however you may feel, and in fact, can be a non-issue because those are all reactions and you can choose to have a reaction of happiness in all situations.

There’s two broad movements that fail us here: religion and folk theories of science. The major religions emphasizes the immaterial, the supernatural, the permanent and can lead to the following: “But a person who rejects God and the divine may still retain the belief that all “base”, “earthly”, or “human” ideas are still valueless because they were considered so in the previous belief system (such as a Christian who becomes a communist and believes fully in the party structure and leader). In this interpretation, any form of idealism, after being rejected by the idealist, leads to nihilism.”

Folk theories of “rationalism” and “scientific” perspective can lead us astray by making us think of things in brutally logical and greedy reductionistic terms which may strip away the meaning of things by asking “so what?”. There’s nothing wrong with that perspective but I believe it is inherently disempowering to my consciousness while being less accurate than the phenomomenlogical perspective I’m advocating.

Additionally, goals are important for the psychological health and well-being of individuals. Hope this was interesting! I wish I could go back six or seven years go and tell my younger self about this stuff.