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Dividing the One into the Many: The Hero as the Process of Differentiation

I am currently halfway through Dr. Jordan Peterson’s seminal work Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, and it has thus far provided me with considerable insights into the

ontology, the actual existence, of the world, and the role human beings play as heroes in that ontology. I wish to first present two quotations from the book, one on the ontology of the world and the other focusing on one aspect of what it means to be a hero, and then move to argue that the world without consciousness is not an “objective world” of independent objects as might be imagined, but that the existence of objects themselves is dependent on the heroic action of conscious beings to differentiate the world into discernible existence.

What might be regarded as the standard objective viewpoint is predicated on the idea that “things” as they are perceived exist regardless of the perceiver…However, the job of determining what a thing is in the absence of the subject is much more difficult than might initially be imagined. Any given object—a table, say—exists as a table because it is apprehended only in a very limited and restrained manner. Something is a table at a particular and isolated level of analysis, specified by the nature of the observer. In the a sense of this observer, one might ask, what is it that is being apprehended? Is the proper level of analysis and specification subatomic, atomic or molecular (or all three at once)? Should the table be considered an indistinguishable element of the earth upon which it rests, or of the solar system, which constrains the earth, or of the galaxy itself?…Is that “thing” everything it once was, everything it is, and everything it will be, all at the same time? Where then are its boarders? How can it be distinguished from other things? And without such distinction, in what manner can it be said to exist? Question: what is an object, in the absence of a frame of reference? Answer: it is everything conceivable, at once—is something that constitutes the union of all currently discriminable opposites (and something that cannot, therefore, be easily distinguished from nothing). (Peterson 138-139)

The exploratory hero, mankind’s savior, cuts the primordial chaos into pieces and makes the world. (Peterson 179)

The implications of this strange, subjectless world described by Peterson’s second quote are significant and deserve to be explicated. Consider the cliché thought experiment of the tree falling in the woods when there’s no one there to hear it fall: does it still make a sound? The experiment would normally compel us to say yes, for the “sound”, that is, the vibration of particles which might be received by human ears, is still created by the tree falling. However, when one imagines the tree falling, as they inevitably do, and when they might imagine the sound wave produced by the tree’s falling, the person imagining is smuggling in an implicit observer into an otherwise observer-less situation in order to do their imagining. This is crucial because only by the implicit observer's observation is the distinguishing of the sound wave brought about. The wave is a chain of particles vibrating in a wave-like pattern through the air, but describing this “chain” implies a unity of particles, a unity of particles into the object called “sound wave”, that is by no means inherent to materiality at all. Who says we must look at the sound wave? Is it not equally as valid to view each individual microscopic particle and to ignore the of the wave? Is it not also valid to say that the wave is simply apart of the sea of air, dust, light, and other kinds of molecules floating around the forest? From what “frame of reference”, as Peterson calls it, are we compelled to view this falling tree from? When there is no conscious observer in the forest, there seems to be no one valid frame we are compelled to see from. The sound wave is apart of everything, and nothing, all at once because of this total lack of frame.

The mode of being by which conscious beings are able to perceive distinguishable objects out of this state of everything and nothing is a creative, heroic mode of confrontation and differentiation. An example of this paradoxical state of the union between everything and nothing can be seen in Genesis 1, where the earth was “without form and void”. God, in a heroic act of confrontation of this formlessness and emptiness, creates from habitable world of Earth. What exactly is the nature of this act? God performs five kinds of actions in the course of his creation: speaking, seeing (that is, judging), separating, naming, and making. These five modes of action constitute heroic methods by which the monolithic world of everything and nothing, the formless and empty earth, can be made. Human beings, God’s creation, all are capable of enacting these heroic methods according to the Christian Scripture. For example, to address the act of speaking, humans by speaking are able to utilize Christ, who is the Word (logos) who was with God in the beginning according to John 1, to declare in manner taking after God the father the creation of discernible objects (like sound waves and trees) out of formally inscrutable, formless, and empty oneness. This is what Peterson means when he says the hero “cuts primordial chaos into pieces.” When considering times before these acts are performed, it is a fiction to smuggle in an observer to imagine what such times would be like. Imagining a forest in which a tree falls with no observer is a fiction, therefore, because it is not possible to imagine something without an implicit observer. The creative, heroic acts listed above are necessarily enacted to imagine such a scenario.

The notion of an “objective world” without consciousness, wherein objects of discrete and distinguishable separation exist, is a fiction, and it is necessary for creative, heroic action akin to those enacted by God in Genesis 1 to be performed for the world to exist. Because there is nothing compelling us to decide on one particular frame of reference when considering the world before consciousness, it is impossible to separate everything there is into discrete objects, which means that the world before consciousness is actually one, undifferentiated thing and non-thing. Furthermore, creative, heroic acts such as speech as exemplified, for example by God in Genesis 1 is necessary to separate this undifferentiated world into one with discrete objects.

By Richard Wilson

Works Cited Peterson, Jordan B. Maps of Meaning. 1st Edition ed., Routledge, 1999, pp. 138-79.

1 Comment

John J Parker
John J Parker
Jun 15, 2022

LOVED this read. I've been debating getting into Peterson's densest work and this has compelled me to do it. The connection you draw between the hero and consciousness itself is something that immediately came to mind when reading the quotes together, but you articulated it incredibly well and it was fun to be thinking "of course, of course" to things I had not thought of explicitly yet as I read a long. And obviously the source material is unbearably interesting of in itself. Kudos man, looking forward to more!

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