STORYTELLING, TRUTH, AND “THE GOD PROBLEM” — IS BRET WEINSTEIN WRONG?

Part 3 in a continuing conversation about storytellers and storytelling started (unwittingly) by Bret Weinstein and Jordan Peterson. Want to catch up? Read Part 1 and Part 2.

We have reached a place in this conversation about storytelling where our behavior comes face-to-face with our beliefs. And I’ll be honest, this article focuses far more on questioning reality and truth than it does on storytelling. But the storytelling ramifications are real, and worth considering.

The path we’ve traveled thus far has revealed:

  • Metaphorical truth may be more important than literal truth. [Read more in Part 1, but the short version is that belief in an afterlife may have propelled humanity forward evolutionarily. Bret Weinstein called belief in an afterlife “metaphorically true, but literally false.” Ergo (Note: always use “ergo” when the opportunity presents itself), Jordan Peterson wondered if metaphorical truth could be superior to literal truth, and then questioned whether the highest form of truth could be considered Divine.]
  • Fiction writers and storytellers, as purveyors of “metaphorical truth,” have a responsibility to behave like scientists and theologians. [Read more in Part 2. Basically: scientists observe, hypothesize, and then test those hypotheses, just like writers should. And theologians study the Divine. Storytellers should combine those two mindsets when telling a story that intends to reveal the truth.]

Some storytellers or fans of storytelling reading this series will reject both of these premises outright. But, before anyone does that, consider this: If Jordan Peterson and Bret Weistien are onto something (and again, they may not be), then the implications must be wrestled with. If metaphorical truth is more important than literal truth, and if — evolutionarily speaking — stories propelled the ability for humans to survive and thrive to new heights, then we might also assume that:

The stories we tell today will either help us become better as a species or ultimately bring about our demise.

Hence, me suggesting that storytellers have an obligation to behave as both scientists and theologians in the second article.

But, since I already built arguments for that approach in Part 1 and Part 2. Before we pick up that discussion further, I think we have to do something else first. We must put on our scientist and theologian caps, at least momentarily, before we continue.

Because Bret Weinsteim and Jordan Peterson may be completely and utterly wrong. But not in the way you might think….

The God Problem

What if the conclusions that Bret Weinstein and Jordan Peterson have hinted at are correct, but what if the building blocks of their arguments are completely wrong? What if the highest form of truth isn’t “metaphorically true, but literally false”?

Let’s go back one step. Why are Bret Weinstein and Jordan Peterson posing these questions in the first place? Neither of them claim to be storytellers. Bret Weinstein refers to himself as an evolutionary biologist and Jordan Peterson refers to himself as a psychologist. Both could be considered modern day philosophers. Some people consider them both abhorrent. But wherever one lands on who they are or what they’re all about, we do need to consider the origins of the discussion.

In other words, why should we care?

Simply put, Weinstein and Peterson are posing the same questions that philosophers have posed for millennia. And, in their own way, they are behaving like both scientists and theologians (as I have suggested storytellers should behave).

  • They have observed their environment and landed on a question: What makes human beings different from animals?
  • They have formed a hypothesis: Delayed gratification separates human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom.
  • Their discussion begins to test this hypothesis. Notably, Bret has already considered this. And he has a suggestion: The ultimate form of delayed gratification, a belief in the afterlife, seems to have separated human beings from animals. We construct stories in order to avoid “sinning,” and by doing so we delay gratification and help our species thrive. Except Bret Weinstein says that belief in an afterlife, while extremely beneficial to the species, is: “metaphorically true, but literally false.”
  • That prompts Jordan Peterson to present another question: Can metaphorical truth, if it’s the highest possible form of truth (i.e., abiding by said truth produces the best possible outcome for humanity), be considered Divine?

I’ve already written about each of these points. Why repeat them? Because three possibilities exist, and we should probably address them (they’re likely to show up in our stories):

  1. These hypotheses and theories are bullshit (i.e., unproven and unsound). Completely flawed.
  2. These hypotheses and theories are onto something, but they’re not complete. Partially flawed.
  3. These hypotheses and theories are Divine truth. Flawless.

Why must we address them? Because they impact our very lives, which means they impact our stories.

It’s highly unlikely that their theories are flawless. Their theories are probably not complete bullshit, either. Which means they may be onto something, but gray areas exist. I’m sure readers will already have thought of ways to poke holes in their conversation and their hypotheses. I’ll present one that I care about: the God problem.

But let’s address each possible outcome before we get into “the God problem” in more depth.

If These Hypotheses Are Bullshit… (Completely Flawed)

Before we continue, I’ll address the first bullet point: that their theories are completely flawed. This is fairly simple. Maybe everything Weinstien and Peterson have suggested is utter nonsense. Human beings may not be as different from other animals as they suggest. Maybe. Or maybe we are different, but it has nothing to do with delayed gratification. Maybe. Or maybe delayed gratification is only one variable in a far more complex equation. Maybe (probably).

In order to avoid “the God problem,” we would need to be able to toss out their arguments, but still find reasons human beings evolved in the manner that we did (something other than delayed gratification). If readers have ideas, I’d love to hear them in the comments section. (One of my readers, the brilliant comic book writer and artist Malachi Ward, mentioned that Weinstein and Peterson’s perspectives seem to follow a Judeo-Christian understanding of “the afterlife,” and there are many different perspectives on the afterlife that they didn’t address and far more variables than they’re addressing. Great points.) In the meantime, here’s my take:

My Take: Bret Weinstein and Jordan Peterson’s questions, hypotheses, and suggestions are worth considering (otherwise I’d be writing a series of articles in rebuttal to their core questions and hypotheses). We know that our species has worshipped gods for millennia. We know that the human brain is wired for storytelling (e.g., read Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story). We don’t know how that occurred. Weinstein and Peterson are exploring the topic, and the topic is worthy of consideration. Though, as Malachi pointed out… maybe they need to consider more variables.

If These Hypotheses are at Least Partially True (or Partially Flawed)

Now, let’s assume that Weistein and Peterson are onto something, even if only partially. I’m only going to focus on one way their argument could be flawed, but the reality is that there could be thousands of ways. My focus: “the God problem.” How we get there:

  1. Let’s say that the initial hypothesis is accurate: Humans are different from animals in meaningful ways.
  2. Then, let’s assume the second hypothesis is also accurate: The ability to delay gratification is one of the more significant ways humans are different from animals.
  3. And finally, let’s say the third hypothesis is also accurate: Delayed gratification has led to the formulation of belief systems that include rewards in the form of an afterlife.

Note that any of those could be partially or completely flawed. Human beings may not be very different from animals. Humans may be very different from animals, but delayed gratification is either not one of the reasons or there are other, more significant differences that should also be considered. And even then, maybe delayed gratification didn’t result in beliefs about the afterlife. Or maybe there were other variables that encouraged a belief in an afterlife. But, for the sake of my next argument, we’ll assume these hypotheses are at least partially accurate. Because the fourth hypothesis feels more like a conclusion than a hypothesis, and it deserves a conversation.

Which brings me to Bret Weinstein’s fourth hypothesis (or his conclusion or suggestion depending on how we take it):

Belief in an afterlife is metaphorically true, but literally false.

This suggests that a belief in an afterlife benefits humanity, but there’s actually no such thing as an afterlife. Belief in an afterlife is helpful, but it’s not true. It’s almost like me choosing to believe that broccoli tastes like ice cream. It doesn’t, but it’s highly beneficial for me to eat broccoli, and I get to reap the longer term health benefits of broccoli and enjoy eating it. Except, it definitely does not taste like ice cream. There are ways to measure that broccoli does not taste like ice cream. Meaning that if I say, “I love having broccoli for dessert because it tastes like ice cream,” that would trigger a listener to say that I’m either crazy, or something is far different about my brain than the average human. An analysis of the chemical composition of broccoli and ice cream would show notable differences between the two foods. So, if broccoli did taste like ice cream to me, it wouldn’t be objective truth, but rather subjective truth.

But can we actually measure Bret Weinstein’s bold statement about the afterlife? Can we say, with 100% certainty, that an afterlife does not exist? That an afterlife is literally false? I don’t think so. To Malachi’s point, there are probably hundreds if not thousands of perspectives on what the afterlife even is. Can we disprove each and every one?

It’s highly unlikely. Bret isn’t saying here that God (or a pantheon of gods) doesn’t exist, but he is suggesting that religious belief in an afterlife is not true. One could extrapolate that any religion where a God or gods declare that an afterlife does exist would be literally false as well. Either that or those gods or that God is lying (more on this later).

Which is how we reach “the God problem.”

Bret has declared that belief in an afterlife is literally false. But what if he’s wrong? The reason I call it “the God problem” is that many religions suggest that there is a God (or gods) and that an afterlife actually exists. Who’s correct?

What if a deity actually exists? This question challenges Bret’s quote head-on (which, to be fair, he doesn’t present an argument for or against, so there’s no way to break down any specific evidence).

Rather than try to build a counterargument to Brett’s conclusion (because he didn’t present an initial argument to test), what if we simply asked: Could Bret Weinstein be wrong?

In other words, Brett has stated, from an evolutionary biologist’s perspective, that belief in an afterlife has helped our species survive and even thrive (my words, not his, but I believe that captures his intent). He’s even willing to call belief in an afterlife “metaphorically true.” Is it possible that belief in an afterlife is literally true? In other words, human beings recognized the importance of a belief in the afterlife because an afterlife actually exists.

The reason this matters is that we need to understand whether or not Jordan Peterson’s suggestion — that supreme truth may be Divine — holds any weight. If it does, if supreme truth is Divine, then what if there’s a deity associated with that truth? Wouldn’t we want to know? Wouldn’t storytellers be interested in not only knowing and tapping into supreme truth, but also knowing where that truth originated from?

If Jordan Peterson’s question regarding metaphorical truth being Divine is answered with, “Yes, metaphorical truth is Divine,” then Brett’s conclusion about an afterlife being “literally false” becomes extremely suspect. Because if metaphorical truth turns out to be the highest form of truth, and if that means that metaphorical truth is Divine, then the next question becomes: “Is Brett Weinsten’s conclusion simply bullshit?” (Which is just more fun than saying “unsound.”)

Now, we have uncovered “the God problem.” That is, what if there actually is a deity (or a set of deities)? What if metaphorical truth is literal truth and literal truth exists because of a deity? Meaning, human beings didn’t invent the concept of a deity or set of deities, but rather a deity created human beings and we discovered the existence of said deity? Those questions alone contain so many variables that trillions of pages have been written on them over the course of human history.

If we conclude that metaphorical truth is Divine (which, to be fair, neither Weinstein nor Peterson concluded, it was only raised as a question), then it would seem foolish not to attempt to find the deity to whom that truth belongs. We might fail, and discover that no such deity exists (or maybe a deity did exist, but has ceased to exist), but to not try seems… unscientific.

My Take: Storytellers should at least consider the possibility that a deity exists, because that question is core to the human experience and weighs on real human beings. Characters in stories care about this question. How they answer it will shape them. As storytellers seeking truth, it feels necessary to at least ponder the concept of a deity in some way in our stories, even if that means asking, “How would the world be different if nobody believed in a deity or if one literally does not exist?”

The issue with “the God problem” is that we don’t have a definitive answer. People have definitive beliefs. Bret Weinstein sounds pretty definitive in his belief that an afterlife is literally false. But I don’t think there’s enough evidence to suggest that he’s correct. And the same thing is true of Jordan Peterson’s suggestion that supreme truth might be Divine. There’s not enough definitive evidence to prove or disprove that hypothesis, which means…

…we’re back to acting like scientists and theologians as we seek truth in our storytelling.

More Thoughts to Come

As writers, I think we should test these hypotheses in our stories. We should explore characters who gain faith in something bigger or who lose their faith in something beyond themselves. But I would caution against Bret’s conclusion. He could be right, but what if he’s wrong? How would a story test those belief systems?

I do have more thoughts on this topic as it pertains to storytelling! But let’s stop here. I’d like for readers to weigh in. What do you think about “the God problem” as it pertains to storytelling? Is this a hypothesis you’ve tested in your own storytelling? Let me know in the comments down below!

I love storytelling. I write novels and screenplays. My latest book, DEATH OF A BOUNTY HUNTER, is out now!