The Peterson–Craig Encounter: A Missed Opportunity?

by Scott Ventureyra | Another troubling aspect of Peterson’s naturalistic outlook is that, as he stated in the discussion period (also found in his book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief), he views the transcendent as an ‘irrational’ component. Sam Harris has said of Craig that he is the “one Christian apologist who seems to have put the fear of God into many of my fellow atheists.” (image: The Kathmandu Post)

On January 26, Wycliffe College, a graduate school federated with the University of Toronto, hosted a discussion on the question: “Is there meaning to life?” The three participants included, philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig, atheist philosopher Rebecca Goldstein, and clinical psychologist and professor of psychology Jordan Peterson. This encounter made me reflect more deeply on the areas where I have found disagreement in Peterson’s understanding of philosophical and theological issues, and the anticipated interaction between Craig and Peterson.

Having said that, none of what I am about to say is meant to denigrate Peterson and the tremendous cultural impact he is having. I do believe that almost single-handedly, Peterson is rescuing a decadent Western culture and a tragically lost generation of men. Without affirming belief in God, ironically, on this front, he is accomplishing more than many Christian preachers, Catholic Church officials including the Bishop of Rome. It should be noted, I am not saying there are no other thinkers who are involved in this battle, there are, but not at the unprecedented appeal and influence of Peterson. I also know that his research in his field is top-notch. I can also see how effective he would be as a clinical psychologist. But, we are called to speak the truth; here is my analysis of his understanding of philosophical and theological issues, as they pertain to Christian truth.

Natural Law Theory
I had hoped that Craig would have pressed Peterson on the grounds of natural law theory. However, Craig, as a Protestant, most likely does not agree with the tenets of natural law theory, although he is one of the most influential Christian philosophers defending natural theology. He has brilliantly defended the axiological argument, which would be of tremendous aid to Peterson, if not solely as a thought experiment.

Natural law theory entails a set of normative guidelines for human behavior and action that are not human created but endowed by a transcendent source such as God. Human reason can ascertain these laws of nature. They exist independently of the laws of any given state or socio-cultural milieu. Interestingly, Craig did mention he appreciated Peterson’s presentation in his affirmation of objective moral standards as opposed to a relativistic understanding of moral values and duties. The issue is whether Peterson has any foundation to make these affirmations, since they cannot be grounded in naturalism. Naturalism alone has nothing to offer as an explanation of objective moral values and duties. As Craig had pointed out, if morality is the byproduct of undirected naturalistic socio-biological evolution, it is just merely contingent on how we have evolved. There is no necessary and objective morality. As the late Harvard paleontologist, Stephen J. Gould, observed, if we re-ran the evolutionary “tape” of history, we would get different sorts of creatures emerging since evolution is not a deterministic but a contingent process. The same would be true of moral values.

Peterson spoke of a Cartesian moment, namely his realization of something he could not doubt. The existence of human evil is the most indubitable fact of reality for Peterson. By coming to this realization, he then comes to understand there must be good as well. Therefore, Peterson understands that there is a mode of discernment between good and evil. Peterson comes to a moral understanding through reasoning. Yet, this presupposes the existence of a moral lawgiver even though the problem of evil seeks to undermine the very existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving God. I believe it inevitably creates more of a difficulty for the nonbelievers, who assume evil. On the one hand, they must confront the nihilist who denies any objective meaning and value in the absence of God; and on the other, the theist who has coherent grounds for affirming objective meaning and value. This means that one can reason through morality, evil and suffering in a framework of natural law—devoid of supernatural revelation. Oddly, in the dialogue portion, Peterson affirms a Platonic sort of realm, thus acknowledging the insufficiency of naturalism to account for morality. There is indeed, a deep tension for Peterson between a naturalistic outlook and a very intuitive transcendent reality.

Methodological Naturalism vs Metaphysical Naturalism
Methodological naturalism is a tool that excludes supernatural explanations to understand the natural world, whereas metaphysical naturalism says the supernatural realm does not exist. In his dialogue with Craig and Goldstein, and elsewhere, Peterson refers to the power of the naturalistic method in science—which I take him to mean methodological naturalism. This is true but methodological naturalism has its limitations and cannot answer the deep questions of theology and metaphysics. He does not make a clear distinction between the two. It seems as though he conflates them.

Metaphysical naturalism seems patently false given the many arguments in favor of God’s existence. Methodological naturalism has its power but also possesses severe limitations and remains logically neutral on questions such as the existence of God, objective moral values and duties, and the nature and origin of consciousness itself. Catholic philosopher Edward Feser has given a brilliant analogy that explains the limitations of methodological naturalism. He likens methodological naturalism with a metal detector. A metal detector is extremely useful for detecting metal but nothing else. Thus, it does not follow that, if the metal detector detects A, B, and C, that only A, B, and C exist. It could be that D, E, or F also exist, but the metal detector is not meant to detect non-metallic entities. Similarly, methodological naturalism has its scope and is not a reliable method for studying non-material phenomena.

The Existence of God
Another troubling aspect of Peterson’s naturalistic outlook is that, as he stated in the discussion period (also found in his book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief), he views the transcendent as an ‘irrational’ component. But why? The relationship between faith and reason, and, science and theology are highly complex. It would be more appropriate to discuss belief in the transcendent as supra-rational. The transcendent is not to be understood by reason alone but it doesn’t make it irrational. It merely transcends the rational. Peterson has been frustratingly ambiguous on his belief in God and Christianity. He suggests that people have different ideas about God.

This is true, but there are clear and cogent explanations on the nature and existence of God. Has Peterson not read the works of the great Christian philosophers such as St. Augustine, St. Anselm of Canterbury, St. Thomas Aquinas, Richard Swinburne, and Alvin Plantinga? Is he not aware that such works exist? There has been much ink spilled on explaining the coherence of the concept of God and in defining precisely what God means. In one of his lectures, when asked about the existence of God, he refers to the singularity and Big Bang Cosmology. This is one of Craig’s areas of expertise—the existence of God and Big Bang Cosmology.

 On the Historicity of Jesus Christ and His Resurrection
Peterson suggests that he is afraid of being “boxed in” when it comes to his belief or nonbelief in Christianity. He has also made dubious claims that the historicity of Jesus is questionable. The truth is that the historicity of Jesus is on more solid ground than even the existence of Socrates. We have more firsthand documents about Jesus than any other figure of antiquity. The New Testament books are more than 99.5 percent textually pure. In other words, throughout the 20,000 lines of the New Testament, only 40 lines are questionable; this amounts to 400 words. It is important to note that these 400 words do not affect any Christian doctrine. This is much more accuracy than any text dealing with Plato or Socrates. Still, this does not mean we can demonstrate the existence of Jesus beyond a shadow of a doubt but his existence rests on strong evidentiary grounds. The New Testament critic and self-professing agnostic, Bart Ehrman, has gone out of his way to correct our culture’s theological illiteracy to argue for the historicity of Jesus’s existence, in his book: Did Jesus Exist: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth.

There are also plenty of cogent arguments defending the dual nature of Christ and Jesus’s divine self-awareness. Furthermore, there are stronger arguments for a supernatural resurrection of Jesus, over a natural one. Peterson seems to affirm a naturalistic one in this video. The majority of scholars engaging in New Testament studies (including a vast number of nonbelievers), particularly those revolving around the events of the resurrection of Jesus agree upon three well-established facts that constitute historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus: the empty tomb of Jesus; the appearances of Jesus to his disciples; and the origin of the Christian faith. For a rigorous study of a novel historiographical approach to the resurrection, I recommend Michael Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach.

Peterson’s Epistemology of Truth
I think much of the problematic nature of Peterson’s view concerning sustaining a foundation for his morality—God’s existence—is predicated on his epistemology. Peterson’s epistemological approach to truth is two pronged. The first prong adheres to what he refers to as objective truth, this you can think of as a conventional definition of truth. This, in its most basic sense is whatever is in accordance with reality. The second prong, which is where the general thrust of his thought and discourse revolves around, is the notion of pragmatic truth. Essentially his understanding of pragmatic truth is one of action, which follows a question of value, of how one should act in the world. Closely tied to this, is Darwinian survivability since for Peterson, this pragmatic truth is related to the ability for one to exist and reproduce. Thus conferring a selective advantage and functional utility.

Nevertheless, Darwinian survivability does not provide any veritable linkage between knowledge of truth and the brute fact of mere existence and reproduction. Physicist Paul Davies eloquently illustrates this same tension in his book The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World. Davies wonders how we can even comprehend the rationality and structure of reality—why should it be comprehensible to us especially from an evolutionary survival standpoint?

The mystery in all this is that human intellectual powers are presumably determined by biological evolution and have absolutely no connection with doing science. Our brains have evolved in response to environmental pressures, such as the ability to hunt, avoid predators, dodge falling objects, etc. How fortuitous that our minds (or at least the minds of some) should be poised to fathom the depths of Nature’s secrets.

Thus, the aspect of pragmatic truth Peterson refers to is wholly insufficient to explain the capacity for knowledge of objective truth which humans possess. Unfortunately, Peterson’s understanding of truth is mostly usurped by his fixation on its connection to pragmatism and Darwinism. This fixation resulting in confusion was demonstrated in a debate with neo-atheist, Sam Harris titled: “What is true?” The problem for Peterson was that his notion of pragmatic truth is nested not only in Darwinism but also within the concepts of good and evil. Although, in other instances, such as in his course lectures based on his book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, he makes reference to objective meaning, he seems to completely neglect it in other instances. The discussion that ensued between Harris and Peterson involved some sophomoric fumbling in ascertaining what truth really is. The safest place to start is with the laws of logic; for instance, without the validity of the law of non-contradiction correct thinking would be impossible. Without it, how would we make assessments and conclusions about anything?

A More In-depth Dialogue with Craig
There is no other Christian philosopher who has not only rigorously engaged academically with the big questions of metaphysics and theology, while also being involved heavily in university debates and the wider culture, than Craig. Sam Harris has said of Craig that he is the “one Christian apologist who seems to have put the fear of God into many of my fellow atheists.” The Best Schools named Craig one of the 50 most influential living philosophers. His first doctorate and much of his subsequent publications have dealt with what I consider the most convincing argument for God’s existence: The Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA) which was supervised by John Hick, a leading philosopher, in arguments for God’s existence in the 1970s at the University of Birmingham. His second doctorate dealt with the most fundamental question in Christian theology: the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, which was supervised by arguably the most influential Protestant theologian of the twentieth century, Wolfhart Pannenberg, at the University of Munich. Pannenberg set the theological world on fire in the 1960s with his now classic book: Jesus – God and Man.

Craig is also a leading philosopher of time who has explored God’s relationship to time—defending the notion that God is timeless without the existence of the universe and temporal with the existence of the universe. He also worked on divine foreknowledge and human freedom; the challenge of Platonism to divine aseity; and most recently the doctrine of Christ’s atonement. An in-depth dialogue between Peterson and Craig, would help Peterson realize that the existence of God and arguments for the divinity of Christ and his resurrection are reasonable to believe in. Although, not absolutely compelling, they best explain the data available to us.

Thus, Christianity best explains the data of the universe and the plight that humanity finds itself in—something that Peterson recognizes all too well as a psychologist and observer of the history of totalitarian regimes. How much better would it be for Peterson to live his life knowing that Christianity really is true rather than merely act as if it were true? As St. Paul wrote: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). It seems as though Peterson is stuck in the archetypal understanding of Biblical truths, which are indeed useful, but may not be giving other profound questions the proper care that they deserve. Will he become the most reluctant convert in Canada, as C.S. Lewis was 87 years ago in England?

Scott Ventureyra earned a doctorate in theology from Dominican University College in Ottawa, Canada in 2017. He has published in academic journals such as Science et Esprit, The American Journal of Biblical Theology, Studies in Religion and Maritain Studies (the journal of the Canadian Jacques Maritain Association). He has also written for magazines such as Crisis and Convivium and newspapers such as The National Post, City Light News, The Ottawa Citizen and The Times Colonist.