In a book, 12 Rules for Life – An Antidote to Chaos, that is justifiably making waves in many circles today, Jordan Peterson shares his journey towards truth and meaning. Here is that story:
At one point in his life, while still young and finding his own path, Peterson reached a stage where he felt agnostic, not just about the shallow Christianity he’d been raised on, but also about most everything else in terms of truth and trust. What can we really believe in? What’s ultimately to be trusted?
Too humble to compare himself to one of the great minds in history – René Descartes, who, 500 years ago, struggled with a similar agnosticism – Peterson none the less could not help but employ Descartes’ approach in trying to find a truth that you could not doubt. So, like Descartes, he set off in search off an “indubitable” (Descartes’ term), that is, to find a premise that absolutely cannot be doubted.
Descartes, as we know, found his “indubitable” in his famous dictum: I think, therefore, I am. Nobody can be deceived in believing that since even to be deceived would be indisputable proof that you existed. The philosophy that Descartes then built upon the indubitable premise is left for history to judge. But history doesn’t dispute the truth of his dictum.
So Peterson sets out with the same essential question: What single thing cannot be doubted? Is there something so evidently true that nobody can doubt it? For Peterson, it’s not the fact that we think that is indisputable, it’s the fact that we, all of us, suffer. That’s his indubitable truth: suffering is real. It cannot be doubted: “Nihilists cannot undermine it with skepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape its reality.” Suffering is real beyond all doubt.
Moreover, in Peterson’s understanding, the worst kind of suffering isn’t that which is inflicted upon us by the innate contingencies of our being and our mortality, nor by the sometimes blind brutality of nature. The worst kind of suffering is the kind that one person inflicts upon another, the kind that one part of humankind inflicts upon another part, the kind we see in the atrocities of the 20th century – Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and countless others responsible for the torture, rape, suffering and death of millions.
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