The following is an excerpt from Dr. Jordan Peterson’s new series Vision and Destiny. You can watch the special on DailyWire+.
Let us speak about vision a bit. We can start by thinking about vision technically. Vision is what occurs when you look out at the world. You see the world array itself in front of you, and you think, “That is vision.” But vision has another sense too, and that is the sense of visionary. A visionary is someone who can envision not actuality, but possibility. We should start by assessing the relationship between vision in the narrow technical sense — what happens when you orient your eyes toward the world — and vision in the visionary sense.
You need to use your vision to weave your way through life. You look at the world so that you can move forward to desirable goals, and your vision specifies something like pathways, tools, and obstacles. You might say, “Well, the world consists of what is.” You can derive sufficient vision by observing what is. It is obvious that you can derive a fair bit of vision by observing what is. If you walk up the stairs, you should match your steps to the stairs that you see. But the problem with the idea that you can derive sufficient direction from seeing what is is that, what is changes — and that is really the problem of the future. So, you might say the past is fixed and you might say that the present is stable, but the future is indeterminate — and it is technically indeterminate. What I mean by that is, you cannot compute your way through the present into the future by using an algorithm.
What you already know is not sufficient to guide you into the future because the future is actually different from the past. Not only are we not clockwork machines, but we cannot be because a clockwork machine, which operates according to principles that have already been established, cannot compute its way forward into an indeterminate reality. And the future is not entirely indeterminate because it is constrained by the past, but it is indeterminate in many ways. The future is something like the possibility of multiple pathways forward. That is one way of looking at it. If you are walking across a field, there are an infinite number of directions you can take across the field, and the future is the space in which those possibilities are latent before it becomes manifest. When you look at the world, you might say, “Well, I am confronting the actuality of the present world.” But your apprehension does not really work that way. What you apprehend are the possibilities that make themselves manifest in that determinate space in the present. You grapple with the possibility; you grapple with the future.
I think you could say, in some sense, that the past and the present are finite and bounded, and the future is the infinity that surrounds us. The horizon of the future that we make contact with, with our consciousness, is the point where the infinite meets the finite for us. The infinite has to be somewhere, and it makes its presence known in the form of the future — and the future is what we envision. You can think about that neurophysiologically. We use vision to orient ourselves in relationship to the territory that currently exists, but there is a new territory constantly manifesting itself, and that is the future.
Then the question is, how do you orient yourself to the world of possibility? That might really be what your consciousness is doing because your consciousness does not have to attend to things that are already fixed. You ignore everything that is already fixed and predictable. You actually attend consciously — so this is your reality — to that which is transforming or is most likely to transform because why otherwise pay attention to it? You have already got it mastered. You do not have to pay attention to the floor (unless there is an earthquake, which is a transformation of the future). You can ignore the floor as you walk toward the door. In fact, the concept floor is predicated on the ignore-ability of solid surfaces. It is an axiomatic assumption — the solidity of the floor — and most of the time, it is true (although not always).
Everything that is predictable, you can make unconscious, and so it disappears out of reality itself in some real sense. It is this horizon of transformation that you are contending with. That is what your consciousness does. That is the essence of the human being: The spirit that confronts the possibility — or possibility itself — and then endeavors to transform that into habitable actuality that is good. That is the logos. That is the image of God in which human beings are created. That is real. Insofar as anything is real, that is real. It might be the most real thing.
Then the question is, how do you conduct yourself as an entity existing on the horizon between the present and the future, or between order and chaos? That is another way of thinking about it. That is where you exist. The answer is: by envisioning the future. The way human beings have evolved is that we can see what is there, but we can also see what is not there. We have an imagination, and an imagination is a visionary capacity. We have the ability to generate possible worlds in a psychological meta space that is dissociated from the real world.
Most animals manage adaptation to the transforming horizon of the future by producing variants of their physical self. Mosquitoes are like that. Mosquitos will lay thousands and thousands of eggs, and each of those eggs, if fertilized, will turn into a mosquito that is a tiny bit different than the original mosquito, partly because of the mixing of genes from two different organisms that sex enables but also because of mutations. So, a mosquito pair will produce variant mosquitoes, and each of those mosquitoes is slightly differently adapted to the changing environment. And most of them die — almost all of them. In fact, more or less all die but two. Otherwise, we would be knee-deep in mosquitoes in no time flat. So the mosquitoes allow all of their children to die except two. That is how they deal with the encroaching chaos of the future.
Human beings also do that to some degree because we produce children and they vary from us because of sexual reasons and because of mutations, but we do not produce tens of thousands of variants. We have taken a different tack which is, all our eggs are in one basket, so to speak. But inside each person is that capacity to generate variation. As our prefrontal cortex emerged out of our motor cortex, we were able to generate variant sub-personalities of our future selves — so they are imaginary avatars — we are able to evaluate how that imaginary avatar might perform in the world to envision that before implementing it corporeally, before actually acting it out. So when you are thinking, “Well, what might I do today,” you generate variant selves. You think: “I could go to the drugstore. That is how this would work. I could go mow the lawn. I could go have a fight with my wife. I could go have an affair. I could go down to the bar.” You lay out your character traversing this imaginary space, and you evaluate the various options that present themselves for their suitability given your goals. Then you collapse that space of apprehension into a single actuality, and you implement that. You are performing the equivalent of variant generation and death. It is the Darwinian selection process conducted abstractly. You generate these variant selves, and you evaluate them.
Now you can do that in imagination and that is with vision because you play it out like you imagine the characters in a book; you play it out on the internal visionary landscape. You think, “Oh, that is a stupid idea,” or “Well, I would like to do that, but I do not think it will turn out very well.” Then you might think too, “My wife and my kids would not be very happy if I did that.” And then you might think, “Well, that would be fun, but man, I am going pay for it tomorrow.” So you just dispense with those avatars and worlds until you narrow it down to the one thing that you can implement. You embody that, and then you walk forward. Or you do it in conversation with someone else because maybe you are sitting with your wife at the breakfast table and you say, “What should we do today?” — which is: What should our vision of the day be? What game are we going to jointly play, and what outcome do we both expect and desire from that? It is more important to think about it as desire because you play a game in relationship to a desired end, and that also means that you select the game you play according to your hierarchy of desire. And that is bloody well worth thinking about. What do you really want? That is part of developing a vision in the more fundamental sense. What do you want?
There is a gospel saying: “Knock and the door will open. Seek and you will find. Ask and you will receive.” And you think, “No, it cannot be that way.” Well, it is that way a lot more than you think because you transform the chaotic potential of the future into actuality with vision. And you might say, “I do not really make plans.” No, what you are saying is, you will just make bad plans because someone who does not make a plan — it is not that they do not make plans — makes unconscious plans so they are ruled by their own whims or their plans are so short-term that they do not really count as plans. If you are going to the pantry to get some bread to make a peanut butter sandwich, that is a plan. Now, it is not the sort of plan you might write down. It is not a medium to long-term strategy encompassing all the different aspects of your being, but it is still a plan.
The truth of the matter is, you cannot do anything without at least a micro plan. You might say, “I am nothing but an aggregate of micro plans” — although no one ever says that, but you get the point — and that is a pretty confused person. They just move from one short-term, unconscious attention orientation to another. The problem with that is, there is no coherence to their actions. The actions then contradict — or they are so multiplicitous that the person is anxious — and because there is no long-term goal or vision, they do not have any hope because hope is experienced in relationship to a superordinate goal. You might hope that you make the peanut butter sandwich properly, and fair enough; that is important in that tiny frame of time and space, but because it is so short-term, it is not the sort of thing that can give deep and abiding meaning to your life. You need that deep and abiding meaning to orient you so you are not terrified by the multiplicity of possibilities, and you need it to aim toward something that is high enough so that you feel hope and enthusiasm as you observe yourself moving toward the goal.
To hear the rest of Dr. Peterson’s analysis, watch the first episode of Vision and Destiny on DailyWire+.
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+.