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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 12/12/22

Ernest Becker versus Jordan Peterson

Message Herbert Calhoun
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Ernest Becker versus Jordan Peterson

Both Becker and Peterson seek answers to the same perennial questions: What motivates people to do the things they do? And how does evil get into this world?

Each of their answers begins with four psychological axioms: (1) that all human meanings are synthetic in the sense they are products of our ability to create and use symbols; (2) that human beings are animals, sharing in the evolutionary project of the animal species, but with a distinctly human psychology rooted in the uniquely human awareness of the self and its mortality; (3) that the purpose of human motivation is to act in defense of survival; and finally (4) that Jung's "collective consciousness" may be treated as psychological reality.

How they interpret and then deploy these foundational axioms in service of creating meanings that promote human survival, is where these two scholars sometimes differ.

Peterson believes that all human motivations derive from, and are placed in the service of, cultural beliefs, a symbolic basket older and larger than the sum of the individual parts it contains.

Thus theorizing that cultural beliefs are not mere metaphysical notions giving meaning to the non-scientific world, Peterson sees them as layers of stored cultural knowledge excavated from the depths of the very psycho-archaeological substrate of human existence. Peterson thus believes they ARE that world!

Further to this point, Peterson, believes also that this substrate of universal beliefs contained in our collective consciousness, make up a shared psycho-cultural heritage of irreducible moral absolutes, absolutes that provide the foundation of our moral order.

In his "Maps of Meaning," Peterson explains how the psychology of cultural beliefs serve the moral order in essentially the same way that facts serve the scientific. However, it is "moral order" rather than the "scientific order" that shapes human actions. And narratives are the forum in which human actions get played out. Narratives are the unfolding dramas of human morals.

Becker believes that human motivation is primarily psychological " a direct byproduct of hyperawareness of our mortality. It is this overbearing perception of impending death that produces repressed anxiety that drives the human motivational train from below consciousness.

In his first book, "The Birth and Death of Meaning," Becker traces human emotions and the formation of perceptions back to animal reactivity to environmental stimuli.

To him, perceptions, emotions, and values have evolved and grown directly out of increasingly sensitive animal reactivity to the environment.

In addition to animal reactivity, Peterson sees cultural beliefs and a value-centered moral order as the prerequisite for future-directed action.

Becker believes as the existentialists do, that we have been flung out into a terrifying world, forced to make meaning to underwrite and ensure our survival. Thus, death denial is a prerequisite for psychological stability: One must remain psychologically stable long enough to be able to move forward into future-oriented action.

And, although neither of them deny the beauty, and wonders of nature, Becker's model of humanity is mostly pessimistic while Peterson's leans in the direction of optimism.

The perception of death, the death anxiety itself, is what can cut the human survival project short.

Because the terror of death echoes in the deepest recesses of our being, Becker believes that there is nothing in evolutionary history that would lead us to be hopeful about prospects for the success of the human project. So much so, that even when we act out and recite our narratives of heroism, we can never mistake them for reality itself.

In order to remain alive as stable viable functioning psychic beings, Becker claims we are forced to employ an array of culturally constructed "necessary fictions" to aid us in the repression of our "real anxiety," fear of the certainty of death.

Our walk down the path of life is a "staged performance." But Becker sees that without this self-deception about the reality of the certainty of death, there is little hope. However, paradoxically, with it, we have a sense of purpose and a possibility for action into the future.

In other words, in Becker's view, the most basic anxiety is not sexual urgency or aggressiveness, it is the anxiousness produced in self-aware animals who know that they will die.

Since the terror of death is so overpowering we cannot face it unaided and thus conspire to keep it below deck in the unconscious.

But Becker's analysis goes much further.

In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, "The Denial of Death," he attempts to show that death awareness and the anxiety it produces is so threatening to the human psyche that the psychic energy needed to mask and repress it, covers the entire range of psychological defenses. And, in fact, may well have been the stimulus from the very start of all of our psychological defenses. In short, the terror of death may be what is responsible for creating individual and social character.

He thus sees the unit of motivation for human behavior as the need to control our basic anxiety and perception of the fear of death.

In Becker's way of thinking, sanity itself is just successful death denial. And thus, human personality is a mere faà ade to deflect us from the death fear.

Though he gives lavish praise to Becker's Pulitzer Prize winning book, Peterson believes that complexity has been human's greatest problem, not the fear of death. Thus he does not believe Becker's theory is entirely correct.

Peterson believes that we have sufficient tools to get to the bottom of the human project and indeed get it correct, if only we could expand our conceptual space enough to put all the psychological pieces together in the correct way. He has devoted his life to doing so.

The key to putting the pieces together in Peterson's view is understanding that before science humans restricted their focus on interpretations of the sensory inputs in the "subjectively relevant frame of reference."

In a way not dissimilar to Becker, Peterson believes that instincts, touch, and then emotions' sole purpose is to provide clues as to how to take action for the future.

Early humans needed clues because they could not separate their subjective ideas from the nature of things in the physical world. It took us a long time to get from being "tactile experimentalists" to being "mental realists;" and to get from the point where we could separate what was "real" from what was "relevant."

As the archaeologists tell us primitive cultures still do, the imagination of early humans formed hypotheses based not on facts, but on presuppositions drawn from their culture.

Our human forebears lived in a moral world where affect ruled, and where everything was seen as striving toward an idealized future. What was proximate, that is, in the subjectively relevant frame of reference, was not the death fear, but reducing complexity enough to survive from day to day.

Peterson theorizes that we have lost this pre-experimental mind as well as its optimism, and are now left at the mercy of the scientific worldview with its cold calculating verifiable but unconscious and unacknowledged systems of valuations.

Becker, anticipating our post-secular world joins Peterson in insisting that our cultural worldviews are basically religico-cultural in character, and that the choice is not between sacred and secular, or even between scientific and non-scientific, but rather between religico-cultural visions that exact different moral terms from our humanity and our cultural communities. That admission, moves Becker at least half the distance towards Peterson.

Sometimes sacrifices and scapegoats are necessary diversions to keep our minds on the mythical creations that stand in the breach between the reality of our inevitable deaths and the fictions we have created to ward it off.

Although Peterson respects the power of the death fear, he does not see it as overwhelmingly important as Becker does: as the sole motivational factor driving the train of human destiny.

The very definItion of a successful culture in Becker's terms is that it offers viable and convincing avenues for achieving triumphant sublimation of the death anxiety in the form of cultural heroics. The heroic drive being the psychological counterpart to the terror of death, it is a varied and culturally-shaped push-back from terror toward excellence:

Each person must make his mark to prove his worth and value to the community, and thereby earn symbolic immortality. Most religions allow us to identify our perceptions with the immortal, directly.

Peterson tells us that the religico-cultural, for the pre-experimental mind, dealt in belief, faith and then fact. In that order. When science got rid of the religico-cultural, it also got rid of the infrastructure of myths, narratives and dramas to which most of our cultural meanings are attached. The mythological perspective was overthrown by the empirical.

Becker tells us that because it remains unconscious and repressed, human beings will displace and scapegoat the terror of death with anything.

We are able to focus on almost any perceived threat, whether of people, political or economic ideology, race, religion, and blow it up psychologically into a life and death struggle against ultimate evil. To Becker, this is the primary way evil gets into the world. But Peterson believes that there is more than just psychology at play.

In allowing it to sneak in through the back door, we lose the very faculties that allow us to place limits on the violence we are willing to employ against this perceived threat. This dynamic of spiraling violence, more than anything else, remains the underside of the terror of death. It affects human social interaction at all levels, from personal and interpersonal, to interactions between nation states.

Peterson has a different theoretical view of how we allowed evil into the world.

He thinks that religiosity may have killed the very truth it fathered, and that in lieu of the scientific revolution, we came to understand that it is impossible to believe that life can be intrinsically religiously meaningful. But maybe this is a crucial misunderstanding?

Yet, even as science dethroned god, morally, we still act as if nothing has happened. God's divine eminence and supra-cultural essence remains intact, even as it goes unacknowledged.

We continue to act out in "bad faith" the precepts of the same mythic religious rules that have guided us up through the psycho-archaeological substrate for millennia. But now, we do so only as secular humanists and atheists, pretending not to believe in the very things that anchor the psychology and the social contract that binds them both to our human culture.

Thus god, as Nietzsche forecasted, has vanished. It was religions that made him disappear. So too have myths, our biblical narratives and stories, the wisdom of the past, and most of all, our moral integrity.

Peterson believes that man cannot live by scientistism alone, that is without retaining morality as the key driver in the loop of human perception and action.

By Peterson's way of thinking evil is just one of the many residues of living in "cultural and religious bad faith."

Understanding the complexity of meanings inherent in cultural and religious categories requires not only thinking differently, but also thinking about thinking differently.

For all our modern scientific powers, Peterson believes we find ourselves morally neutered, unable to deal with the very mechanisms of death that science has invented. How then can we forget that actions presuppose a human psychology, a social contract, and moral calculations " even in the absence of sufficient information and tools of verification and validation?

This has led Peterson to ask yet another question: Is it not science that sidesteps this problem of the relationship between psychology, the social contract and careful moral calculations, rather than the religico-cultural?

Neither author's theories are easily rendered into optimism about the human condition. However, Becker's theory, depending as it does on an unconscious fight against mortality itself, seems doomed to repeated defeat, and guaranteed to devolve into spirals of violence that can never be eliminated from human behavior. Even though towards the end of the "Denial of Death," Becker does make a half-hearted attempt to save the religico-cultural project by proposing that we are all a part of the divine universe. However, that bit of hand waving was not nearly enough to address the problem.

On the other hand, Peterson urges that if we are completely honest with ourselves, we will be able to recognize the true nature of our struggles against evil. This may assist us in demythologizing the real threats posed by our perceived enemies (most of whom are mere scapegoats of our death fears), thus at least giving us a rational way of controlling violence at the psychological level.

Peterson is certain that humans are prepared biologically to learn by responding not just to fear, but also to novelty and curiosity. All are defined in terms of what is known, and what is proximate, or as he puts it, "in the subjectively relevant frame of reference," and more or less objectively urgent, in terms of what is needed moment-to-moment to regulate our emotions and otherwise satisfy our survival needs.

Peterson's model of the emotional significance of the present is defined not so much in terms of the deeper fears, such as the fear of death, which is certainly there but in any case might be remote rather than proximate. But how can such fears be defined in opposition to our own idealized version of the future?

Even in the face of deep fears, we must find a way and the energy to act to get from the present to the future as we have idealized it. When our plans of action work, we remain committed to belief in the knowledge that led to that success. When they fail, we move further outwards into the domain of the unknown where more primordial forces rule.

We bootstrap our way across this terrain and into the future one step at a time, using our imagination, cultural myths, our psychology, our morality, and the social contracts of our communities that binds them altogether, as they then serve as guides along this always perilous human journey.

(Article changed on Dec 13, 2022 at 6:24 AM EST)

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Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)
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