The Fundamental Human Story, Confronting the Dragon of Chaos - Lecture by Jordan Peterson

This lecture by Dr. Jordan Peterson from 2002 expresses two fundamental ideas key to the understanding of his work as a whole, but also extremely interesting on their own. He proposes a view of the world that is religious in nature rather than Materialist. We don't live in a world of dead objects, but a world in which there lives a moral and spiritual reality through the material. This world or moral interactions can only be expressed by means of stories, as they deal with complexities that a scientific description cannot engage with. Thus, all stories express common human themes ... most fundamentally, how to deal with the unknown and unexpected. This is the second part of the talk, a call to confront the unknown, to confront that which we are afraid of, to go through the process of human transformation willingly, taking the path of the hero and entering into the unknown in order to make it known and to improve one's life and those around them. 

This, of course, is such a surprising way of thinking coming from a psychology professor. Most psychology professors that I have encountered have been strict Materialists, reducing everything down to the brain and scientifically accessible motivations. I had a hard time in Psychology in undergraduate because the professor would interpret all the data presented with a Materialist lens, coming to vastly different conclusions than I would. This theme of stories and religion dealing with aspects of reality that science cannot is also present in other thinkers in the early 20th Century. See my paper on Walker Percy's treatment of this topic here. Percy references the American Pragmatist Charles Peirce, who offered a technical explanation for why science fails to talk about morality. Also this is a common theme in the metaphysical works of Jose Ortega y Gasset. He is very critical of what he calls the "worship of the laboratories." Click here for a set of posts on his work regarding this topic. This is also central to what I have learned from the works of Hannah Arendt. She clearly shows that every school of philosophical thinking depends on a fundamental set of axioms which are based on faith. And these fundamental axioms make up a "common world" by which society is regulated, for better or worse. If you have a corrupt set of beliefs, society will inevitably express that corruption. Click here for more on that. 

The Structure of the Human Story 

Peterson begins by making the claim that The standard scientific world is incomplete. It doesn't take into account the phenomena of consciousness, phenomena that aren't directly material but yet the majority of people would claim are more real than anything else in human experience. These are our experience of consciousness, motivations, pains, etc. For many of the fundamental realities that we know, at least implicitly, scientific theories are not adequate. We need models of the world in stories, not scientific theories. Stories have a structure to us which is comprehensible, and can hold a profound meaning. This is visible even in children's stories. There is something to these deep stories that we understand, even if not consciously. The story is no more about the props or details than a play is. It is rather a drama about real human realities which are common to us all. 

They always share a common structure which mirrors life. We always inhabited a bounded space. We are always "somewhere," and going to "somewhere." The present is always insufficient, and thus we are always trying to move toward somewhere better. Usually there is something unexpected along the way which happens in this journey, and a way in which the unexpected problem is hopefully solved. We are always faced with the unexpected, and so when we hear the stories of others, and how they overcame the unexpected or unknown, we are intrigued. Is there a proper way to encounter what is unexpected? A good way to do this? This, at its heart, are what valuable stories are. They are common maps and answers to the unexpected and unconscious that we can all benefit from. Peterson mentions how those with post traumatic stress encounter the unexpected and non-understood as a threat which their brain alerts them to over and over, until they are figure out a solution and understand the evil that lay there. 

"There's No Such Thing as a Dragon"

To make the point that stories make visible for us invisible realities about ourselves and the human condition, Peterson retells a children's story called, "There's No Such Thing as a Dragon." There's no such thing as a dragon, right? It doesn't exist. But they are universal characters in literature and mythology around the world. They are terrible, ancient, dangerous, but hold a treasure. Well, little Billy sees a dragon in his room. He goes to tell his mom, but she says that there's no such thing as a dragon. The dragon then begins to live with Billy, but he ignores it because his mom said they don't exist. Later the dragon grows, and follows him to breakfast. The dragon even breaks the rules and sits on the table. Since it doesn't exist, they didn't do anything about it. His mother made pancakes, but the dragon eats them, and all the food, until they were out. Billy goes to brush his teeth, but the dragon falls asleep on the floor, growing bigger and bigger. He takes up the whole hall, such they couldn't even go around the house. The mother denies the reality of the dragon still, even though it bothers Billy. She can't even clean the house because he takes up so much space. By noon, the dragon filled the whole house from back to front. When he awoke, he was hungry and ran down the street after a food truck, carrying the house on his back. When the dad comes home for lunch, he sees that his house is gone. The dad goes around looking for his house, and finally finds it with the wife and child trapped inside. Once they acknowledge the dragon, it finally begins to shrink and become manageable. The dragon grew big because it wanted to be noticed and yet they ignored it. 

Generating a Map

Peterson says the point of the dragon is to deal with something as soon as you can. To leave issues unchecked or ignored is to ignore the dragon of chaos which looms in your life. Eventually it will swallow everything up if left unconfronted. But what if it's already too late and a problem has already ballooned to a large one? Well, regardless, you have to confront the darkest parts of yourself, even the terrifying ones, otherwise it will keep growing and growing. He again talks about a fundamental plot in human stories, to encounter the unknown on an adventure, or in another person, and to be transformed because of it. We all have the same types of motivations or needs as human beings. We want to move towards a goal, and this produces positive emotion in us. And vice versa for not moving towards our goal. The interesting thing about stories is that we can simulate in our minds a version of this through watching someone else do it. It actually produces an understanding within ourselves. Language, even, is about story telling and learning how we should act and deal with the unknown, and the motivation towards something better. This is essentially also what myth is about. It's the compilation of the best stories being boiled down into their meaningful parts. Why look at the world at the resolution of human stories, though? Why not more specific, for example the number of cracks in the sidewalk or holes in the ceiling tile? Well, we break down the world in terms of our motivation and movement in this fundamental human drama. Again, this is fundamentally to deal with the unknown and unexpected because it is the unknown and unexpected that destroys the limited map that we have of the world, thus requiring us to grow and reconstitute a new and better map … or be destroyed. To ignore the loss of our map is to fall into devastation. 

Run Toward the Unknown

We have to, then, run towards the unknown, not away from it. Rats even know to desensitize themselves to something they are afraid of by exploring it slowly. "The rat knows that if something is terrifying it should be investigated, not run away from." Fear is natural, and it takes effort to overcome this and learn to not be afraid. When encountering the unexpected you first see discomfort and fear because the world wasn't like you thought it was. You have to then investigate the world to understand it better. You have to teach people to little by little confront what they are afraid of, not run from it. "What they learn from the combat with the unknown is that they can confront it without it being destroyed by it." We can learn that we can grow stronger and face the challenges. The OCD person, for example, becomes hyper aware of the risks all around them. But the treatment is the same as a regular person, do those things anyway and something in you responds to it, and you still grow stronger. We are larger than our fear. 

What do we encounter when we encounter something unexpected? It's not clear. It's not the world of simple objects. There's so much more to it. It frightens us, but makes us curious also because of the potential for learning that's hidden in it. That's the dragon's gold that it sits on. "The dragon represents everything you're afraid of. What's in there? Everything you need to find. Run from that and you run from what you need to find. What you most need will always be found where you least want to look. The world is much more like a story than a place of dead objects. You have absolutely everything you need but if you run away from any of it you don't get that piece of the dragon. If you miss even one piece you have a chink in your armor or a vulnerability." If we set out to never run away when we know we shouldn't then ... well that is authentic human transformation, the fundamental human story behind every story … one which a scientific model cannot generate.