posted on 2020-03-31

Book Review: 12 Rules For Life

Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote To Chaos is a burger of self-help life advice.

The core meat is mostly good advice; everyone will find some of the rules obvious but not others, but which ones those are will likely vary a lot; which if anything gives the book more points.

However, the advice is surrounded by two buns; one above and one below. I have big issues with both. Let's start with the bottom one.


It has become kind of a meme to mention lobsters in relation to Jordan Peterson. In the book they feature as evidence that competition and hierarchies have been hard coded into fauna for hundreds of millions of years. But some interviews and internet shitposting later, and lobsters are just The Peterson Meme now.

What would he think about it ? Oh, he'd just love for that to be deeply meaningful, wouldn't he ? But the lobster meme is exactly that: a meme. If you look inside, you won't find a core essence that fundamentally says something about human nature. If you look inside, you'll find a concept graph that has high memetic value.

Though Peterson seems to have read The Selfish Gene, he does not seem to have gotten the point about memes. They're replicators too. Something becoming a meme, and then crystallizing into culture, is not evidence that the concept helps us; it's only evidence that the concept helps itself.

Do religious texts, such as the bible he likes to cite and analyze to death, carry deep meaning about the human condition ? Maybe so. But I suspect that when you analyze something for decades, as he says he has, then eventually your bruteforcing is gonna find something meaningful, and you'll become persuaded that this meaning is the core, canonical, intended interpretation. The human brain is very good at tricking itself; in fact, it has evolved to do exactly that: persuade itself that the culture it has inherited makes sense, at all costs.

This was a useful piece of evolution for humans; it's how we survived so many environments and developed such complex social structures. But today we have actual engineering; we have the very new ability to intently make stuff up. Which brings me to the upper bun.

Where do we go

Peterson is, and rightfully so, terrified of utopian thinking. It's very scary. If you try to design a system by which all humans will have to live forever, then you're probably going to fail. See nazi germany and the soviet union, which Peterson loves to bring up; especially the soviet union, because he's right-wing aligned so it's easier for him to point out what's wrong in extreme authoritarian leftism. Fair enough. (Peterson also loves saying "fair enough").

The issue is that we don't have a choice.

Not only is the modern world already highly engineered (look at neoliberal economic policy) but eventually, someone is gonna make AGI, and whatever the AGI wants is what we'll live by forever. Hopefully we can come up with something reasonable, but we have to come up with something, or become paperclips. Or worse.

As for the individual's direction, 12 Rules For Life aims to make you into a functional, social, reasonable adult. I'd like to offer an alternative, here, which for a lack of better term I'll call Digibroism.

I'm weird. I want to be weird. I want more other people to be weird, and few things make me as happy as finding out someone else is weird.

Weirdness creates deep culture. Do you want to be Jennifer Diane Reitz, or Toby Fox, or a discordian, or anyone that features on The Dick Show including Dick himself ? Or do you want to be just another efficient, functional cog in whatever the status quo of the day is ?

Do you want to just enjoy the system, as a highly functional cog rewarded for its efficiency, and blame people for their own problems as Peterson likes to do, or do you want to look forward, invent solutions, suggest better worlds and work towards one ?

People, to an extent, are responsible for their own problems. But to another much larger extent, they aren't. That's what civilization is about. Malaria isn't solved by giving solid self-help advice to people with malaria so they take their life into their hands and get meaning from god. Malaria is solved by having eccentric geniuses innovate weird new ways to fight diseases. Even if their house isn't in order. You don't have time to clean your house, there's Malaria to solve !

What to keep

The 12 rules themselves, as I've mentioned, are alright; and their rationale is somewhat helpful to read, to grasp the concept. That said, I think you can get the gist of the advice just by reading the 12 rules themselves without their explanation. And if you don't know where you're going in life, sure, maybe read the book and you'll get some useful advice about pursuing meaning. But I know where I'm going; and I'd like to think most of us at least have some idea.

And don't forget that the universe is not narrative, there is no god, quarks don't care about humans. You can't derive ought from is; you can't think hard enough that you obtain purpose. Go out, and find something you like, and make that your meaning. Maybe that's a book about how to find meaning. More likely it's not as meta and it's an actual thing in the world that you care about.

posted on 2020-03-31

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