As a Christian apologist, Jordan Peterson has done much to show the literary and psychological value of Biblical stories and the Judeo-Christian tradition. However, while he avoids metaphysical speculation, he smuggles in the concept of God through a wrongheaded theory of belief: that what one believes is how one acts. This allows Peterson to think he can have it both ways: be empirically grounded and yet retain some important concept of God. His argument is based on a fairly obscure philosophical contention—that belief is really just action. It is perhaps the most recent popular argument for the existence of God, and it offers a way to reconcile belief in God with science. Its philosophical obscurity, as well as the religious orientation of much Peterson’s audience, likely explain the paucity of attention this argument has received. However, this theory of belief—and therefore any belief in God based upon this theory—is fundamentally flawed.
Intuitively, we think of beliefs as mental states. That is, when a person believes x, his mind is in a particular condition. What exactly this state is—whether it is an experience accessed purely phenomenologically, or equivalent to a particular state of the brain—is unclear. Such a belief may well have actionable consequences, but the belief itself is a distinct kind of thing from action.
But Peterson, self-consciously building on some existentialists, defines belief as action (Ironically, Jean-Paul Sartre puts forth a similar argument in Existentialism is a Humanism. Peterson does not acknowledge this, mentioning Sartre only to castigate his Marxist sympathies). A belief, according to Peterson, is itself a certain kind of action. As he has said before, in a recently published interview, Peterson states (at around an hour in) that “I act as if God exists, which is actually my definition of belief.” According to this account, if I believe that there is a cup in front of me, then I won’t try to put my hand through the cup. Rather, I will use it to drink, put it on the table, and so forth. I will act as if I believe in the cup.
The problem is not that Peterson has an unconventional idea of belief, but that his theory leads to an absurd consequence: it does not allow us to actually determine what a person believes. Peterson assumes that there are certain actions by which we can read off, so to speak, beliefs. But the reality is that any given action is compatible with an infinite number of beliefs.
Take the example of the cup: when I reach out my hand as if the cup were not there, this could indeed mean that I do not believe the cup is there. But it could also mean that I do believe the cup is there but I am pretending not to believe the cup is there; or that I believe the cup is made of rubber or somehow porous and therefore won’t be affected by my hand; or that I believe there is indeed a cup but I don’t care etc. There is therefore no reason to say that I believe the cup is not there, rather than holding another, alternative belief.
Perhaps, a Petersonian might object, this question could be settled by simply asking the person what she believes. But this would be to misunderstand Peterson’s fundamental argument. Peterson puts forth an ontological argument about belief—not an epistemological argument. That is, he is suggesting what beliefs are, not how we know them. For him, beliefs do not simply evidence action—which is common sense—beliefs are action. Therefore, recourse to self-reporting as a means of discerning belief is diametrically opposed to the theory. Verbal testimony is not epistemically relevant if beliefs are action, and if it is required then the theory must be wrong.
Let’s now turn to belief in God. Peterson has said that actions like not killing, and otherwise being a good person mean belief in God, i.e. that the person who does or refrains from these actions believes in God. The weird consequence of this theory is that Peterson can justifiably tell someone who says he does not believe in God that in fact he does.
This is no different than if I were to tell you, when you turn on the television, that what you really believe is that there is a monster commanding you to turn on the television. Your actions are indeed compatible with that belief. Similarly, an atheist may well act in accordance with Judeo-Christian principles, just as a theist would. But the conclusion that such actions show a belief in a television monster (or God) is arbitrary. Perhaps the atheist is pretending to believe; perhaps he thinks he must act a certain way to avoid jail time; perhaps he thinks he is in a movie and he is playing a Christian believer; perhaps he thinks such actions are somehow going to get him a reward which has nothing to do with God. Every action is compatible with an infinite number of beliefs, and there is no way, based upon action alone, to decide which is the true belief underlying it.
Peterson could say that he is merely defining certain actions—such as not killing—as belief in God. But if it comes down to mere stipulation then the argument is worthless. If I merely wanted to come up with idiosyncratic definitions, I could say that God means acting in a moral way, but this would be no more interesting or worthy of debate than any other arbitrary definition of “God.” However, Peterson makes a more substantial point: that belief itself is action, which requires philosophical, and not merely definitional, analysis.
When interpreting an atheist’s actions, we can only discern that he does in fact, generally, act in accordance with a belief in God—just as the person who turns on the television acts in accordance with a belief in the television monster. The fact that Peterson chooses to interpret ethical action as a belief in God is arbitrary.
I am not skeptical that we can ever know what someone else believes. But belief cannot be understood as equivalent to action without absurdity. Peterson’s theory does not allow us to say what in fact one believes, and cannot settle contradictory accounts of beliefs. It therefore ought to be abandoned. Concomitantly, Peterson must give up his action-oriented theory of God.