Stoicism: Jordan Peterson and Identity Politics

I comment on controversy surrounding Clinical Psychologist and Professor Dr. Jordan Peterson who opposes Canadian Bill C-16; talk about the dangers of identity politics and mob mentality; and offer my thoughts concerning group identity.

My Stoic Philosophy video series explores the philosophical tradition of Stoicism with goals to inform, empower, and help others benefit from the practical wisdom of Ancient Greek, Roman, and modern thinkers. I tackle many topics including handling adversity, finding meaning in life, working toward contentment, dealing with change, anger, and gratitude.

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Canadian bill C-16

BBC reporting on Peterson’s opposition to bill C-16

Letter from UoT admins to Peterson:

Protestors disrupting Peterson’s talk at McMaster University:

Seneca’s Letters to a Stoic

Jordan Peterson’s YouTube channel:

Unsolicited advice

Businessman drawing thought bubble over man Credit: Gary Waters/ Getty Images
Businessman drawing thought bubble over man
Credit: Gary Waters/Getty Images

A short reflection on unsolicited advice

Unsolicited advice — recommendations that others office without first being asked for input — seems to be quite common in my life. Family members, friends, acquaintances, and total strangers offer their advice likely with good intentions of wanting to help me although I don’t ask them to offer input. Some may become bothered when others offer unsolicited advice, but I largely do not become annoyed and can sometimes use unsolicited advice as an opportunity to learn new information, engage with alternative ideas, and explain my reasoning.

Advice others offer can conflict with our deeply held values and be viewed as an unwelcome intrusion into a conversation. Recently, I was speaking with a friend of a family member about poker. He offered what I considered to be uninformed and inaccurate opinions about poker rather than asking me questions; he said, among other things, that I should quit playing poker because all gamblers eventually go broke and that he’s worried I might have a gambling addiction.

I did not become bothered by the unsolicited advice, but instead took time to explain myself as I believed there was a serious lack of understanding on his behalf. Perhaps this person would reconsider his views [in time] and not think of me as a degenerate failure. I think that although he was well-meaning, he simply didn’t approach the topic well due to his own biases and lack of information. Why be upset with someone who doesn’t know that their advice is faulty? Surely the person is well-meaning, but they are simply uninformed. What about unsolicited advice from strangers who may not be well-intentioned?

Perhaps strangers will offer unsolicited advice in an attempt to appear intelligent, outdo others, validate their own perspectives, belittle, or even help others. Strangers’ intentions can be unknown although some context clues can be helpful in inferring intentions. However, I don’t become bothered when strangers offer such unsolicited advice. I can easily dismiss/ignore bad advice and people behaving in a nasty manner. Explaining myself to strangers who may not be well-intentioned may not be a great use of my time and effort.

Perhaps, though, some advice from strangers can be helpful, but this can be few and far between – left to a recipient of advice to determine whether the advice is good or bad. The open-minded, thoughtful person concerned with improving one’s quality of life should be receptive to advice — whether it be from strangers, friends, or acquaintances — they determine as worthwhile.


Jehovah’s Witnesses Watchtower mag demonizes skeptics

Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania
Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania

A 2011 piece from the Jehovah’s Witness publication The Watchtower considers apostates to be mentally diseased criminals who should be shunned and avoided.

A frequent criticism of organized religion I and others voice is that religion often creates division. While creating division does not necessarily make particular religious ideas false, one can focus on the harm that is caused by religion when talking about its divisive nature.

Personally, I’ve encountered a large amount of vitriol from religious individuals (some of whom are family members) in my community following my activism for separation of church and state – most prominently in 2009 when I objected to a nativity scene placed on county courthouse property. A local disc jockey, on his radio show, called me the ‘third most hated person in Luzerne County‘ (only to be ‘topped’ by two judges implicated in the infamous Kids for Cash scandal) reflecting the outlook of many in my community who sent me hate mail (physical and electronic), tried to interfere with my education/scholarships, and sent nasty letters to my parents.

I have maintained that if the Christian faith (or any religious belief for that matter) is based in truth, individual believers should welcome critical discussion and be prepared, as the Bible says, to answer objections. Shouldn’t one be sure about what they believe if they want to dedicate their lives to a belief? I began a journey listening to criticisms of the religious beliefs I held and determined that there is no good reason to believe the Christian god exists after finding significant objections — unsatisfactorily answered by Christians — and determining that the reasons Christians provide for belief in God are not sufficient to justify belief.

It’s often the case that those who question religious belief are demonized – portrayed as agents of Satan trying to ruin the lives of Christians – bringing them down the wrong path in life. A piece titled ‘Will You Pay Attention to Jehovah’s Clear Warnings‘ in 2011 issue of The Watchtower — a Jehovah’s Witness publication — is a clear example of this. Apostates — people who have abandoned religious faith — are compared to and/or considered ‘false teachers,’ ‘wolves that eat the sheep,’ ‘criminals,’ ‘mentally diseased’ people, ‘and ‘gossipers.’

The Watchtower provides advice about how Jehovah’s Witnesses should deal with such ‘false teachers,’

“We do not speak to them or invite them into our houses. We do not read their books, watch them on television, read what they write on the Internet, or add our own comments about what they write on the Internet. Why are we do determined to avoid them? First of all, it is because we love “the God of truth.” So we do not want to listen to false teachings that go against the truth in God’s word.”

The divisive nature of religious belief is apparent when viewing this passage; the message for Jehovah’s Witnesses is to shun those who disagree on matters of religious belief. Witnesses are not to even respond to or be friends with ‘false teachers.’

Personally, I’m friends with many religious people. It’s almost never been the case — barring some fringe cases of extreme disrespect almost certainly due to religious beliefs — that because I was aware someone was religious I abandoned a friendship or refused to talk to a person. On the contrary, I enjoy interactions with people I disagree with whether the disagreement falls in the realm of religion, politics, law, or other areas.

 Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania
Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania

The religious person who refuses to interact with sincere non-believers* or people questioning religious faith seems weak in their religious beliefs and very likely worse off for not examining their own beliefs. Openness to experience, exposure to a variety of ideas, and a rigorous examination of one’s core beliefs are almost always beneficial and critical to self-development.

If religious belief cannot stand inquiry and must be abandoned, religious believes will be better off – holding beliefs better reflecting the way the world actually is. If reasons for religious belief are based in truth and atheists must abandon their non-belief, atheists will be better off.

Don’t demonize people merely because they disagree with you on matters of religion. Do not let religion be a more divisive force than it already is.

As always, feel free to leave comments below.

* By sincere non-believer, I mean a person who appears to be genuinely interested in a meaningful discussion. I don’t believe everyone should answer or take seriously people who do not appear sincere in their criticisms or are extremely disrespectful/attacking persons. A burden of responding to every person would also be unreasonable.

Can we trust reason if God doesn’t exist?

Photo: Getty Images/DiatoZen
Photo: Getty Images/DiatoZen

I respond to the assertion that if the Christian god does not exist we cannot trust our own reasoning.

C.S. Lewis and other Christian apologists often formulate arguments such that an atheist has no grounds to trust their own reasoning faculties if it is the case that the universe were not designed by the Christian god. C.S. Lewis, in his book The Case for Christianity, explains,

“Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, that gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But is so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? […] But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God” (Lewis, 32).

Lewis’ reasoning has several flaws. First, Lewis assumes that we cannot believe our reasoning faculties are reliable/trustworthy if it is the case that random processes (rather than a supreme intelligence) lead to thought. Why is this the case? Lewis merely, at least in this passage, only asserts that random processes do not provide justification for believing our thought faculties are available – that thought processes can only be thought of as reliable if a supreme intelligence had created them.

The process by which thought came to exist, I think, has no bearing on whether thought processes can be thought of as reliable, but rather looking at perhaps the results and analyzing the accuracy (in most cases) of said thought processes should lead to whether we can be justified in believing our thought processes are reliable.

As I explained in a piece refuting presuppositional apologetics, believing induction — that the future will resemble the past given sufficient trials or experiences — is reliable…and the circularity of induction is not only a problem for atheists, but also a problem for theists which — in order to start reasoning at all — ought to be believed lest we live reckless, destructive lives.

We can distrust out own thinking when we have good reasons to, but in tasks of everyday life we have very good reason to trust our thinking. We believe that our toothbrushes are not going to randomly fly out of our hands or harm us in some way. We understand that when we pour water from a pitcher water will empty into a glass and not spill. Because of tremendous experience with mundane life tasks (and even more complex tasks) we have good grounds to trust our reasoning; our thought processes are constantly vindicated when we are able to properly function as human beings. God, then, need not enter into explanations about justification for reasoning.phillyflight

Another flaw in Lewis’ piece surrounds ‘arguments for atheism’ – as if disbelief in Christian theology is only justified if atheists can raise successful counter-arguments. While several good counter-arguments exist to cast significant doubt upon Christian belief (problem of natural suffering; incompatibility between free will and divine foreknowledge; similar epistemological methods leading to different conclusions about religious beliefs…) , it is ultimately the case that without Christians advancing good arguments for Christian belief there is no good reason to suggest Christian belief is true [the burden of proof is on the Christian who makes a positive claim].

Third, why does Lewis privilege the Christian god over competing religious claims; that is, why assume that the creator of the universe is the Christian god? Lewis’ argumentation, if we accept it for sake of argument, can only lead someone to believe a creative intelligence which created the universe exists or existed. After all, the Christian god is not the only possible ‘greatest conceivable being.’

Finally, Lewis’ argument just reeks of ‘God of the gaps’ or ‘mystery therefore magic‘ reasoning. Because the atheist can’t give an accounting for thought processes without assuming the Christian god exists, Lewis asserts, the Christian god must exist. Centuries ago (and even in decades past) theists almost certainly have used this line of reasoning with other natural phenomena such as earthquakes, diseases, lightning, etc.; because there appeared to be no explanation for x phenomenon God must exist – only an explanation appealing to God is viable since no good competing explanations exist.

Even if the atheist has no accounting for reasoning (or any other phenomena), the theist is not justified in asserting that because something can’t be explained one has good reason to suggest the Christian god exists. The atheist can say ‘I don’t know.’ How ought one bridge the gap from ‘I don’t know’ to the Christian god did it…and the story of the resurrection, Holy Trinity, various miracles, a global flood, etc. are also true by the way.

A more modern version of Lewis’ argument is recast by Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga. Watch Plantinga discuss his evolutionary argument against naturalism with atheist philosopher Stephen Law below.

As always, feel free to comment below.


“Turn your mind off” says Joel Osteen

Photo: D Dipasupil / Getty Images
Photo: D Dipasupil / Getty Images

I respond to Joel Osteen’s anti-intellectual encouragement for people to ‘turn their minds off’ and embrace faith.

Megachurch pastor Joel Osteen frequently advances a prominent anti-intellectual attitude of neglecting reason, argument, and evidence in favor of faith within a philosophically barren sphere of Christianity.

On October 2, Osteen wrote, “Faith is not in your head. Faith is in your heart. Sometimes you have to turn your mind off and listen to your heart.”

It is difficult to charitably interpret Joel Osteen’s comment particularly because his position appears to be self-refuting; Osteen advances what he would consider reasonable advice while simultaneously telling people to neglect using their minds which would be necessary for comprehending advice. Perhaps Osteen is being metaphorical — particularly because thought is a product of the brain and not the heart — and wants people to prioritizing feelings while neglecting anything which would seem to oppose feeling?

Nevertheless, it is quite clear that Osteen is not advancing what some Christians would call a reasonable faith or a combination of faith and reason which would warrant belief in the Christian god. Rather than providing reasons for Christian belief — without merely appealing to faith — Osteen advocates a position of ‘listening to the heart’ – a faulty approach to attaining justified true beliefs which ironically leads religious people of various denominations to radically different conclusions about the nature of the supernatural…and presumably also leads some to believe that no gods exist.

If Christian belief — or any belief for that matter — is worthy of consideration it should have no difficulty facing the greatest intellectual challenges. Rather than ‘turning the mind off,’ Christian adherents ought to, as 1 Peter 3:15 suggests, provide reasons for their belief in God. Besides, if there is good reason to suggest Christian belief is warranted, faith — in Osteen’s case, ‘listening to the heart’ — need not enter the picture.

I am extremely skeptical of someone who casts reason, argument, and evidence as something to be shunned – something to be ‘turned off’ – especially when very good reasons exist to doubt the claim being advanced. Osteen’s position, it seems, regarding Christians dealing with doubt, is not to rationally evaluate whether Christian beliefs should be maintained, but rather appears to be a suggestion to self-delude and neglect to wrestle with any challenges. Perhaps this position also further mires Osteen in an epistemological wasteland since this renders Christian belief is unfalsifiable — immune to revision — if it is the case that all challenges should be neglected in favor of faith.

Resorting to a position of telling others to ‘turn their minds off’ is a tactic of desperation and a huge red flag indicating that a claim may not stand to face intellectual rigor. Osteen offers a faulty epistemology with his anti-intellectual appeals. Christians should do much better than this. Are there any other areas in life in which people should ‘turn their minds off’ and ‘listen to their heart?’ If not, why take this approach when considering Christian belief?

As always, feel free to comment below.