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The following is a transcript excerpt from Dr. Jordan Peterson’s conversation with Angus Fletcher on how we understand stories through abstractions. You can listen to or watch the full podcast on DailyWire+.
Start time: 34:43
Dreams are precognitive in some sense. This is how I think it works: We are watching people act all the time — all the time — in small groups, in large groups, as individuals, in fiction, all the time. So we have this vast knowledge of embodied action. Now, that is not propositionalized. It is imagistic. It is like the movie that runs in your head. It is like a dream, and we cannot propositionalize all that. That is partly what a great storyteller does, [a storyteller] takes a great set of images that reflect a compelling pattern of behavior and turn it into verbalized propositions.
Imagine you have these images of behavior, and in those images, there are patterns. But we do not know what the patterns are because they are extremely sophisticated, and we are not intelligent enough to fully understand them, which is only to say that human behavior, at the individual and the social level, supersedes our explicit grasp. No one would dispute that. That is why you have to learn about yourself, which is kind of a strange thing. You are you, but you do not know who you are. So, we have these patterns of behavior at hand. Then we abstract out images of those patterns of behavior, and that is, at least in part, the source of dreams. It is the abstract representation of the patterns — not of the actual behaviors themselves but of the commonalities — the commonalities between behaviors.
You talked about the Greek gods as being super humans. So imagine this: There are patterns of behavior that strike us as admirable. Those are in our zone of proximal development; otherwise, we do not understand them. Our brain — and maybe this is a right hemisphere function — makes associations between these patterns of admirable behavior based on their emotional commonality. Then it abstracts out a pattern that constitutes that set of admirable behaviors. OK, that is a super stimulus that is a hero or, perhaps, someone who is successful at romance.
I will go back to childhood. I was struck when my children were young about their fantasy play. I was very interested in fantasy play as a psychological phenomenon. One of the things that is interesting about watching children pretend play is that we tend to say that what they are doing is imitating. So, say they are playing “father” when they play house. But they are not actually imitating because they never do exactly what they saw their father do. What they do is watch their father across multiple manifestations of father behavior, and they combine that with fathers in books and fathers in movies. They are pulling out a pattern of the father, and that is made out of all these representations of these behavioral patterns. Then the fantasy is trying to represent that abstractly in images to draw out the central spirit, and the spirit is the thing that is imitated. That is what drives the fantasy play.
I will jump one more place here. I also think that is the source of the abstraction of religious conceptions. Imagine that you extract out the Father as such. It is not characteristic of any one human being. It is that ideal spirit that transcends the individual that is immortal in some sense because it manifests itself in body after body throughout time. [Carl] Jung talked about this space where these transcendent spirits existed. This is something almost no one knows about his work. He called that the Pleroma, and the Pleroma was the space where abstracted figures of imagination exist above temporality and death. It is a very weird way of thinking about it. You can imagine there is this space that is composed of the collective imagination. In that collective imagination, there are beings, and those beings outlast all of us. I am not making a case that that place is material the same way that we think of materiality, but all the human nervous systems are constituent elements of that space, and those characters inhabit that. It does not matter if one person dies; the spirit continues. You can think about the spirit of evil that way. And you can think about our attempts to represent it.
Here is another interesting thought: My brother-in-law is a computer chip designer. He is one of the best computer chip designers in the world. I have had very interesting conversations with him about computation and artificial intelligence. To your point about the importance of stories, much of what drives the demand for higher and higher computational resources is the economic viability of producing artificial realities for fantasy simulation to play out scenarios like the eternal battle between good and evil. Those Marvel movies, the superhero movies, cost hundreds of millions of dollars; they are unbelievably technologically sophisticated. They gather huge audiences. That is part of the representation of that Pleroma.
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Dr. Jordan B. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. From 1993 to 1998 he served as assistant and then associate professor of psychology at Harvard. He is the international bestselling author of Maps of Meaning, 12 Rules For Life, and Beyond Order. You can now listen to or watch his popular lectures on DailyWire+.