I’m going to go a little off-topic today to share something controversial but I think important. Jordan Peterson has made an interesting connection between Marxism, artificial intelligence, and postmodernism in the video interview below. I’m always interested in where we get ideas so this got my attention.
Another reason this is of interest to me is because postmodern ideology is where we get subjectivism, the doctrine that knowledge is merely subjective and that there is no external or objective truth. I’ve already talked about “Why Subjectivism Fails” a while back, noting C.S. Lewis’s classic work, The Abolition of Man.
A brief aside, I’ve been following the Jordan Peterson phenomenon for about a year now and I’m not sure what to think of him yet, but what I do find fascinating is that he seems to appeal to both left and right: conservatives, liberals, atheists, humanists, and religious folk. He’s also not particularly political, which appeals to me. He also seems to offend a lot of people, especially those on the radical left. But, as Peterson points out, one cannot say anything meaningful without offending someone.
To me personally, Peterson seems to be a voice of clarity and reason in a culture of confusion and political polarization obsessed with its first-world problems.
In the video, Peterson succinctly lays out the historical progression for how what is known as the frame problem, discovered while working on artificial intelligence, was a catalyst for postmodern ideology:
“Among the people who were working on Artificial Intelligence (AI) since the early 1960’s, it was always supposed that we’d could make machines move around in the natural environment without too much problem because the world was thought to be made of simple objects…but it turned out that the AI people ran into this problem known as the “frame problem”…that there’s almost an infinite number of ways to look at a finite set of objects….what’s at the bottom of this is that any set of phenomena can be seen a very large number of ways.”
According to Peterson, when Marxism fell out of favor in the 1970’s (because it was proven over and over again to produce evil empires), committed Marxists, like French philosophers Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, latched on to the frame problem (among other deconstructionist theories) and began to develop what we know today as postmodernism, which has had a huge influence in our universities.
From there, they concluded there was no right way to do things, which leads us to subjectivism. “These Marxist ideologues realized that if you take a complex book, like the Bible or a Shakespeare play, there’s an endless number of potential interpretations that you derive from it, because it’s so complex and so sophisticated. So the conclusion is, there is no objective truth, just different subjective opinions.”
We also see the fruit of this Marxist ideology popping up today in the trigger issues of our culture. The bourgeoisie-proletariat class wars of Marxism have now become the race and gender wars and identity politics of today. It’s just different lyrics to the same old song—the struggle of the oppressed against the oppressor.
While some of Derrida’s and Foucault’s ideas were actually helpful to understanding and correcting some of the historical abuses of our history, Peterson warns that postmodern ideals are toxic to our culture on two fronts:
“Postmodernism is assault on two things: One, it’s an assault on the metaphysical substrate of our culture, one that looks somewhat like a religious substrate, it’s a direct assault on that. And the second thing it’s assault on everything that’s been established since the Enlightenment–rationality, empiricism, science, clarity of mind dialogue, the idea of the individual…all of that is not only up for grabs…it’s to be destroyed.”
Ironically, as Peterson has pointed out in other lectures, these radical ideologues are often intolerant and authoritarian, especially in the world of academia.
Having spent some time researching this, I agree there are some helpful things that we can gain from these ideas. For instance, simplistically embracing a rigid dogma of either objective or subjective truth without being willing to change are the equally dangerous flip sides of the same coin. There are a myriad of ways to interpret something. So, in one sense, the truth is subjective. But it’s not because there’s no objective truth, or that it actually changes. It’s that we change in our understanding of truth.
I think truth is like a mystery: it’s not never knowing, it’s ever knowing and growing in it.
So, as believers, even our theology must grow and change with better understanding. As I’ve said in the past, I think it’s healthy to practice the art of faithfully questioning everything about what we believe (including questioning our doubts).
But it’s dangerously wrong-headed and actually anti-science and irrational to say one can never know objective truth, which is nothing more than an incoherent subjectivist fallacy (“there’s no objective truth,” is not only question-begging, it’s stated as an objective truth!) Our society, science and technology, could not even function if we fully embraced this ideal.
Truth is important because it’s the truth that brings clarity and purpose where there’s confusion and chaos. And it doesn’t take any special powers of observation to see what a morass of confusion our relativist culture has stuck itself in today.
I believe that when we know the truth we will know real freedom (John 8:31-32), which is found in other-centered, self-giving love. But, as we grow as human beings, we should always have grace for one another and listen thoughtfully to those we disagree with as we explore and discuss these things about the world we live in that, if we’re honest, we’ll admit are things way beyond our ability to fully comprehend.
Peterson has a lot more interesting things to say about all of this but you can watch the video for that.