Equations of Meaning: the Architecture of Systems of Belief
A review of 'Maps of Meaning: the Architecture of Belief.'
What is a belief? A belief is that which we consider to be the truth. That which we consider true constitutes a belief in something. That which we do not believe, we consider to be false. We hence believe that the proposition “the grass is purple” to be true, because the world of our experience, where the grass is always green, tells us otherwise. Connected to the belief that the ‘grass is green’ are three words, ‘is’ which roughly translates as ‘to be’, ‘green which corresponds to a colour in the world of human sensory input identifiable by association with the third word ‘grass’, which indicates a common species of plant life present on our planet. The same may be said of propositions such as: “the sky is blue,” we say that it is true, because we all assent to it; and if our language is different, we translate and infer; we may ask: “well, what colour is the sky (in your language)?” They may reply: “It is x.” Then we say: “well that is your word for blue.” Meaning always implies an equation. If one thing means something, this process is equivalent to something being equal to something else. I was once told, somewhat disingenuously I think, that we determine what a thing is in relation to those things that it isn’t; this isn’t at all how we do it. What we do is we equate the thing in itself simultaneously to our visual impression of it, and also to a sound that we make with our mouths. Hence we can recognise an image of an apple, and associate with a real apple, because it looks the same as one (or at least similar to it), and we associate this with a sound, because we’ve heard other people do the same thing, we then use this sound (or the written word) to indicate that we mean an ‘apple’ when talking about one.
The very first problem that Jordan Peterson encounters in Maps of Meaning is making the false step that because “everything is something” that “everything means something”; this isn’t at all true. He gives the example of a little girl whose attempting to play with a glass vase on a table, in the opening chapter, and the little girl’s mother shouts at her for doing so. The little girl comes to associate the vase, or the attempt to play with it, as being dangerous; this does not, in any reasonable sense of the word, mean that the vase in itself has any meaning. A vase doesn’t mean anything. The action of holding, or playing with a vase also doesn’t mean anything. The only thing that can mean anything at all is a human form of communication, or possibly an animal one if we’ve figured out how to decode their communications with one another, or with us. A flower doesn’t mean anything. A hill doesn’t mean anything. An anteater doesn’t mean anything. The sky doesn’t mean anything. Even the whole of human civilization in the 21st century doesn’t mean anything at all inherently. The only things that mean anything are written and verbal communications, and other art forms that are to some extent open to interpretation. Nothing that exists in nature, including ourselves, appears to have any meaning per se, what they can do is produce sense impressions in a person’s mind, and we will then perhaps associate it with other things, or it will remind us of something else, and in a sense perhaps (and in this sense alone) we may in our mind form rough associations between things, which are not exactly the same, and yet are roughly equivalent; or looking at a hill may make us think of William Wordsworth, because he also liked hills; and hence we form associations. Decoding the nature of these sorts of associations is the business of psychology, I guess, and he rightly points out that it’s not the business of true scientific enquiry, but then he trips himself right up again by saying that “narrative adequately captures the nature of raw experience,” does it? I often find that narrative very inadequately captures the nature of raw experience, some of it can, some of it such as Wordsworth might push upon the boundaries of being able to distill the feeling of wandering the “sylvan Wye” into words, but it’s actually, I think, very uncommon (often, even oneself) to properly assemble a narrative, not only for things occurring in the world, but for things occurring in one’s life.
I was driven to write this, I think, because of the sort of mythological and symbolic thinking that Peterson seems to be selling here, and of course it’s present in his online output as well. What he also disregards in the opening chapter of his book, it seems, is an exploration of the idea of narrative itself, and how it may pertain to mental illness. In all cases of mental illness there is usually a narrative of some description that has led to someone becoming mentally ill. Perhaps a person was abused in childhood. Perhaps someone was bereaved at an early age. Perhaps someone was bullied at school or tormented by a sibling or parent. With every illness there stands a history, addressed or not (as the case may be), that in order to dispose of and pull oneself out of a state of trauma into a state of stability, calm, happiness, and positive stress in the pursuit of fulfillment, one must understand and come to terms with it if one is to recover successfully from a mental illness. This involves the formation of a narrative. It may also be the case that the repeated patterns of volatile behaviour, disordered thinking, erratic tendencies, high levels of stress, and inability to cope with life as seen in many of the more severe mental illnesses result perhaps from the ingrained traumas themselves in the form of a defective endocrine system, and the release of too much cortisol, and this may be possible to reverse with lifestyle changes coupled with an attempt to psychologically come to terms with the traumatic experiences themselves, and possibly moderate recreational drug use; the sort that harms nobody. It is the construction and deconstruction of these narratives, and the ways in which we infer meaning from the events in our lives, the conclusions we arrive at, which form the basis for mental illnesses; to think that narrative deconstruction wouldn’t be somewhat fundamental to that process is frankly beyond me.
What I, and others (although I’m not a psychologist) suspect, is that traumas themselves persist through time, because the conscious mind has failed to ‘digest’ those experiences, and transfer them from working memory to long term memory, where they can no longer cause recurrent traumas. In this process of ‘digesting’ it has been shown to be helpful that processes of putting those troubling experiences into words, and to establish a narrative to explain those experiences to oneself, but also to others, is essential in the process of escaping the recurrent emotional pain of those traumatic experiences. That’s the theory at least. In an earlier part of Maps of Meaning, he equates an object's meaning with its ‘potential for action’, and that this is its meaning; this is also untrue, and this sort of thinking is somewhat mechanistic, that the meaning of the thing is what it does, it isn’t. Insofar as symbols are things that have meaning, things can have meaning; if something isn’t symbolic in nature, i.e. if it doesn’t stand for anything, it has no meaning. I should have said this earlier perhaps, instead of communication, it is however roughly the same idea; meaning is that which can be communicated using symbols, letters and numbers, at the most basic level. Vases hence, still do not have any inherent meaning, and neither do machines merely because they perform a function. The machine ‘tractor’ does not mean ‘a piece of farm machinery’, but the word ‘tractor’ does mean ‘a piece of farm machinery’; a tractor, the machine itself, in the real world, not the world of ideas, has no meaning. Ideas, of course, always have meaning; an idea is like a distilled, pure, and purely mental basic form of meaning; whether or not the idea is linguistic or electro-chemical is, I suppose, irrelevant (it must surely be both to some extent); but this is not a meaning that can be shared only through a form of communication, i.e. through language. We may be very subtly able to communicate non-verbally, but typically we’re not very good at this, unless we’ve trained for years as a mime.
I think a lot of what Peterson attempts to do in Maps of Meaning is attempt to relate networks of associations between different objects and experiences, between audible and tactile sensations experienced in development in the real world. These chains of causality and patterns picked out within memory serve to inform our present selves of what has happened in the past, if we’re mentally unwell, we may hunt in the past for the culprits, and attempt to form a narrative based on causality if we don’t know the true causes to begin with. What these are aren’t necessarily events that mean anything inherently, and in a sense what they mean is irrelevant; I think what one ought to relate are how the events made you feel, and this isn’t necessarily what those events ‘mean’, ‘imply’, ‘reveal’ or anything of that kind; often these are of no consequence, I don’t think, to the person having experienced them; and the events are not themselves ‘how they made you feel’; a horror film isn’t in itself the same thing as ‘the feeling of fear’; the ‘meaning’ of horror films is often irrelevant, and we don’t exactly watch them for their meaning, not that they ever mean much usually, they are just scary, and we watch them for a thrill. What is necessary in many psychiatric disorders is for a certain feeling, or repetitive stressor, or fear, or character flaw, or any combination of these, to somehow be amended, addressed, and dealt with until all parties are satisfied. It’s common to hear people discuss this idea of living a life of happiness, versus a life of meaning, and I hate this sort of motivational poster tripe; surely that which gives meaning in your life, gives you fulfillment, and hence also happiness; likewise in the Petersonian system of metaphysics we find suddenly a need to strike a balance between ‘responsibility and meaning’; would these not also be equated with one another, even in the Petersonian system? Surely the meaning of one’s life are the same as their responsibilities. If you say your children give your life meaning, it means you're working to support them for their future, it therefore provides a rationalisation for the work your doing, i.e. the facts of a person’s life are explained by all sorts of things, and I suppose that all goes together in forming what an individual life amounts to, what it means, what it equates to; the reasons for living are part of it, but part of it also are the facts of life; the reasons for living though don’t form part of this Petersonian synthesis of ‘what should be’, the ‘what should be’ is that life we imagine for ourselves in the future, and then Peterson brings in this metaphysics notion of how to bring that about. Set a goal and then go about achieving that goal. Well, he sort of solves the problem right there, if you want a thing in life you’ll have help yourself and figure out how to get it; if you want to build a boat, you’ll have to learn how to build a boat; if you want to catch a fish you’ll need a rod; if you want to write a book you’ll need an idea, lots of ideas, an education, and a computer (or notebook for the old-fashioned). Either way, when it comes to finding meaning in life, the most important thing is to identify that which gives us meaning and fulfillment, after this, we all know what we need to do, keep going with whatever it is until we earn our living from it, or give it up.