Belief is Not Action: Why Peterson’s Theory of God is Wrong

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.

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20 comments

  1. –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 important distinction here is that I don’t need to believe there’s a cup, or choose to behave accordingly; I can see it in front of me. Peterson’s assertion seems to be confined to the metaphysical, where his only option is to act as if it truly existed. How else can one demonstrate belief in the absence of proof etc?

    The canard here is that the supposed psychological value of Biblical stories and the Judeo-Christian tradition is based on a highly selective gathering of tales that have been filtered through a more modern moral lens. This more modern moral lens does not require religious tradition on which to base a common understanding.

    1. You can see a cup in front of you, but can you “see” whether you have freewill? No. Can you “see” that the universe is rational? No. Can you “see” that living is better than dying? No. Yet your choice of belief in each of these questions will shape—nay, determine—how you live; or, in the case of the last, whether to go on living at all. So it turns out that you also have metaphysical beliefs that you have no proof for and that you act on.

      You write that the “psychological value of Biblical stories and the Judeo-Christian tradition is based on a highly selective gathering of tales that have been filtered through a more modern moral lens.” I don’t know what you mean by “selective gathering” or why it should matter, and I fail to see what “modern moral lens” you could be referring to or how it changes the meaning of biblical stories. In what way, for example, does “our” understanding of the story of the Good Samaritan differ from those who originally heard and retold it–e.g., the Church Fathers? Or how have moral principles about casting the first stone or loving one’s neighbour been changed by something called the “modern moral lens”?

      You write that the “modern moral lens does not require religious tradition on which to base a common understanding.” I have to wonder about your understanding of “common understanding” with regard to morals and religion. Strictly speaking, morals have no empirical justification, so any common understanding that two or more people come to on moral principles can be called their religion.

      Or maybe you mean something different by “common understanding.” Maybe you’re referring to what might be called the ethicist’s we—that mysterious community of shared sentiment out there in the aether that magically transforms fallacious appeals to popular feeling into concrete moral premises for casuistic reasoning. Who belongs to this commons exactly? How do you know that the common understanding exists? Surely you won’t claim that you “see” it—unless, of course, the “moral lens” and “common understanding” you’re referring to is really just your own. If that’s the case, then yes, you can have your very own moral and religious beliefs without any reference to Judeo-Christian tradition.

      1. Hmm, that’s a little too deconstructionist for me. Maybe I’m too rooted in the literal but putting words in inverted commas doesn’t render their meaning less tangible.
        Do I really have to explain the point about selected Bible stories? We like the peace and love stories, and we quietly ignore the accounts of genocide, rape, human sacrifice and so on. Our modern moral compass tells us to ignore the unpleasant stuff and preach the peaceful stuff. That’s a pretty common understanding and
        it’s not hard to understand… Do we really need to bring the argument back to first principles?!

        1. My quotation marks identified quoted words.

          The blood-and-guts stories belong to the Old Testament, the peace and love stories to the New—the one about Jesus that Christians take to be their own. So I don’t see what’s changed.

          Maybe it’s the “we” that’s the problem here. I don’t know who you mean by “we” and the “common understanding.” As far as I’m aware, we don’t know each other, and we’ve never come to some sort of détente over morals.

          1. OK, so you’ve pointed out the difference between old and new testaments, which is the point I’m making. We choose to conveniently ignore the unpleasantness of the old testament in favour of the new. We (including many christians, but not all) have simply discarded that which does not fit our moral principles. It’s often said that old testament proscriptions are superseded by the new testament, but jesus also said:

            “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.”

            Of course we’ve never come to an official organised detente regarding morals; there was a never a UN symposium etc, but I believe our morals evolve in consensus.

            For example, in Ireland where I live, we have slowly over a period of 25 years discarded with bans on homosexuality, divorce, and abortion; We have embraced gay marriage, and removed the blasphemy laws.We, the population of a supposedly Catholic/Christian country, agreed this by a referendum process in spite of staunch opposition from the various churches armed with both old and new testament quotes…

  2. To tell one, who categorically rejects the idea of gods, that one does indeed believe in god, is the kind of unfathomable hubris that arises in the compelled ignorance of a gender studies class. Peterson should know better.

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  3. «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.» – Arguments of a third-rate atheist, sorry…

  4. I think this article would be spot on if Peterson were a normal card-carrying Christian. But he is not. His vision of God is incredibly secular–not even close to the idea of a being who can act on any person. More or less, his idea of God is narrative, the idea that there is good and evil and that through the course of time people have been able to come up with more and more lucid ideas of what good and evil actually look like, and that they will continue to be able to do so, and will continue to discard the chaff, exactly because there are people who believe in rationality above dogmatism. In essence, his idea of God is belief–his “belief”–itself. I might even say that his idea of God is praxis, founded on the lessons of history and evolution.

    In the Harris-Peterson Discussions, Harris continually asked how we can be sure that dogmatism doesn’t win out over rationality under Peterson’s theory, and I was very surprised that Peterson could never answer the question–maybe because of his irrational fear of the postmodernists (because he is quite in line with Richard Rorty, if anyone hasn’t noticed already). This is me speaking, but the way we know unfounded dogmatism will lose in the end is because it is losing, and it is losing exactly because there are people who fight for rationality who are persuasive, and history is dialectical.

    I think if Peterson were someone else, this article would be right, but he’s not, and his ideas are incredibly complex. He might not be the best person to be forwarding them because he falls into the habit of appropriating less desireable terms to define his ideas, but I think if you really want to understand him, you need to look a little but further than the kind of God we first think of when we hear the word.

  5. Ask devout believers in God at this time about recent scientific discoveries e.g., CRISPR, and they either will not know or care—worse yet, will read up on the subject but attribute it to God instead of giving credit to educated, intelligent, hardworking humans.

    Like my effort, the author is trying to explain how a rigid belief in a god is simply absurd especially when people only give credit to a god, when in reality, a human being—say, a physician—helps to prolong life not a god. It is bizarre when a terminally ill patient whom a doctor has given a timeframe lives past the time and gives glory to their god and prayer. Physicians can only guess life expectancy and in no way should their prognoses be taken as absolute, as written in stone.

    It’s futile trying to explain a delusion learned at a young age which narrows and distorts reality, believes makes them superior or feel secure about an afterlife. People who believe in God are in a catch-23–a fear that not believing has terrible circumstances as written by mere mortal men in the scriptures.

    Peterson, despite his intelligence, education and ableness to study the Bible obviously has no desire to look into the Bible’s forgeries, the many edited changes made by kings back then, the recorded hypocracy and total lack of relevancy in today’s world or future.

    In a nutshell: Jordan Peterson, like many religious people, was told about God at a tender age and has not questioned such beliefs for fear of facing eternal damnation. Like other religious practitioners, Peterson does not give credit to the amazing, fallible humans for their inventive intelligence and effort of perseverance but feels it’s the made-up-man-God who works through humans to achieve all things. It’s also an ingratiating way to look humble and pious if you’re looking to influence people to buy your books.

  6. This seems to me like a load of gogglegoop. As I can see no logical reason to use the word belief at all. If you can have no reason to think something is true or false, then just say “I don’t know”.

  7. Jesus made the same point as Peterson in the parable of the two sons. Matthew 21:28–32 . Jesus used this parable to illustrate that deeds are the true measure of what someone believes.

      1. …”the same point as Jesus” and “(the authors of the NT)” makes no sense.

        Jesus didn’t record his exploits but hundreds of years later men with little knowledge or education wrote stories/scripture because it was a trend in long ago times to try and give answers to questions about life, death, or reason why this reality exists.

        It’s still all a mystery to this day unless you believe in dogma ignorant men of long ago had scribes write down regarding what they believed is the meaning of life devoid of empirical scientific studies they knew nothing about nor had imagined in their quest for answers.

  8. By way of disclaimer, I am should say that I’m not interested in defending Peterson’s philosophy of religion. I’m just here to criticise this particular argument against it.

    First of all, it’s unclear whether the objection to the ‘action theory of belief’ is that it leads to scepticism about belief (people have beliefs, we just can’t know what they are), or whether it leaves it indeterminate what a person believes (there are no facts to know about what a person believes). Sometimes the objection is framed in terms of ignorance, but the argument naturally lends itself to the stronger conclusion of indeterminacy of belief.

    This is rather by the by, since the argument is poor. Firstly, it refuses to consider the possibility that actions might cohere better with some beliefs rather than others. The claim is that ‘any given action is compatible with an infinite number of beliefs’. I grant that this is true, for a weak kind of compatibility. By tweaking the background beliefs and desires, you can get any action to conform with any belief. I could assassinate Trump, but this is compatible with the belief that Trump deserves to rule America forever, given the further belief that Trump will return from death as an immortal demi-god. And yet: no one ever would interpret a Trump assassin this way. Much more plausible is the interpretation that I believe Trump deserves to be, and stay, dead. So for the cup: absent other evidence favouring one of the mooted alternatives, the most plausible interpretation is simply that you believe that the cup is not there. The claim that there is ‘no reason’ to favour one interpretation over another is bizarre.

    Secondly, it falsely sets up verbal testimony over against action. But speech is just another species of action. If I say ‘I don’t believe in God’, then I am acting as if I do not believe in God. Thus what people say does help to determine what they believe, on the action theory of belief.

    Of course, one might still think that the kinds of action Peterson takes to constitute belief in God do not in fact do so, even granting the action theory. If, when challenged on what God is like, and what the evidence for God is, Peterson is reticent and quick to invoke the actions theory of belief; whereas he’s comparatively forthcoming about what gender differences are like, and what the evidence for them is; this suggests that he really believes in the latter but only pretends to believe in the former.

    Nonetheless, the general criticisms levelled against the action theory of belief are misplaced.

    1. In particular, “I am not skeptical that we can ever know what someone else believes,” becomes totally inscrutable in the larger context of this essay. How far are we supposed to take the litotes? Or did the author feel that the direct and sober way to say “I think sometimes we can be pretty sure what someone believes,” was too boring?

  9. Okay, this is weird. An entire column that doesn’t call Peterson a fascist? Are we in Bizarro World?

    It does tell him what he should think, though. Still, that’s a far cry from the slander that consists of most Peterson articles. Why are people engaging with his ideas, even if it is to say he’s wrong? Needs more name-calling. Try calling him a pre-fascist, that seems to have caught on lately.

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