Jordan Peterson “We often get the question wrong”

You can watch a video of a panel discussion with Rebecca Goldstein, Jordan Peterson and William Lane Craig on “Does Life have meaning?” here. The whole video is worth watching.

I just want to highlight here on a fantastically telling quote from Jordan Peterson here:[1]

“One of the things that’s really struck me about intellectual life is how often we get the questions wrong and often not only wrong but backwards. So, as a clinical psychologist I’ve  often treated people with anxiety. And people wonder… ‘why are people anxious?’ And I think that’s an absolutely ridiculous question. The reasons for anxiety are starkly obvious.’ What I wonder is ‘why aren’t people terrified out of their skulls so badly every second of their life that they cannot move.’ …. A client will come to me and ask ‘Why do I procrastinate.’ No that’s stupid, procrastination is the default. It’s easy just to sit there and do nothing. What’s the mystery is why you ever get up and do anything at all… Psychologists and doctors ask ‘why do people take cocaine’ … no, it’s the wrong question. The right question is why don’t you, like an addicted rat take cocaine all  the time until you die?”

Peterson goes on to say that “Does life have a meaning?” is the wrong question. Life obviously has a meaning. When you are in pain, the meaning is the pain. The question is whether or not there is a positive meaning.

I suggest you watch the full clip to see how he answers the question and the risk of getting meaningless answers if you use an invalid framework.

Then take a bit of time to think about the following

  1. How would you answer the question about life and meaning?


  1. What do you make of Peterson’s claim that we ask the wrong questions?


  1. If Peterson is right? Then how does that affect our approach to pastoral care. In other words, what do you have to say to the drug addict, the procrastinator, the anxious?


Peterson goes on to talk about how Descartes, incontrovertible fact was “I think, therefore I am.”  He on the other hand reached a different conclusion. Rather, he was brought face to face with the horror of Auschwitz. He realised that there were acts that were purely malevolent, they were objectively evil. He reasons that if objective evil exists, then the polar opposite of this, objective good must exist. Turning our back on evil and pursing the polar opposite will lead us to the good and help us to discover our eternal values. Note that he believes that we do not create our own values, we have to discover them.

What do you make of his world-view? Does he provide a persuasive apologetic for his world-view. Does he manage to create a positive meaning?

I want to suggest that

  1. The point he makes is helpful in that many people who do not want to accept the possibility of objective truth and/or a creator God are still very willing to identify and recognise certain events as objectively evil.
  2. His worldview seems to philosophically draw on romanticism and existentialism.
  3. I find it deeply inadequate and unsatisfying. Implicit within this view is that we need evil, that good and the pursuit of good exists relative to it. Evil is prioritised. Why can we not pursue things the other way. Why can we not start from the point of view that there is something -indeed someone who reveals themselves as objectively good?   This worldview puts me back in the Garden of Eden needing to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  It does not help me to answer the serpent’s question.  Nor, I suggest does it really help me answer the alternative/ “right” questions suggested by Peterson above. I don’t think it gives me a compelling enough vision to say “Don’t be anxious, don’t procrastinate, don’t get hooked on hard drugs.”

[1] It’s at about the 45 minute mark.