Is the idea of a metaphysical substrate, of stories, meaningful? I have been listening to some talks by Jordan Peterson, and it seems he posits this idea of a metaphysical substrate as counterpoint to the postmodern condition, that there are real subjective preferences for specific systems of thought based around presumably aesthetic preferences for living particular types of stories.

I am instinctively hostile to his privileging of the mythos of his own in-group. But at the same time as a former atheist and now agnostic Buddhist, I feel we have been over quick to dismiss all religious ideas as misguided, and failing to see the true context and functions of ideas that can turn out to be far more sophisticated than expected when we do account for them.

Peterson uses this metaphysical substrate idea to suggest there is something unique about Judeo-Christian practices or thought and it's impact on how we live, that has contributed to the modern Western ideas landscape, and scientific thought in particular, which we overly-minimise or fail to be aware of. It is an argument I have heard from Jewish scholars too. Even if there is, is any legacy still valueble? I guess observing the dynamics of it historically could give insights.

A criticism that immediately springs to mind, is that we can see from the https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Needham#Needham_Question that although compasses, gunpowder, canals and paper, all originated in China they didn't have the transformative effect of ushering in the modern age until they reached Europe. That seems to have been because of conflict across Europe, shaped by geography. Religious ideas in Europe too, went through a more dynamic diversification and selection process, eventually leading to robust secilarism.

Positive evidence seems to relate to the generation of a law-based idea of causality, as opposed to karmic (psycological) and life-force based views of causality in India and China respectively. Covenant-based religion and the arising of social contract theory also seem like they might be linked. The Red Cross, just war theory and human rights, as well as hospitals, could also be said to have arisen directly from a Christian group.

It seems the bigger picture, is looking away from individualism, and towards what stories that bind people and societies together. Perhaps there is a way in which consciously admitting that stories -religious or otherwise- are fictional, diminishes them? Some modern stories, like Harry Potter and Starwars, or even Marvel & DC, seem to have been especially taken up and 'lived' or identified with by fans, who expand the cosmologies of the worlds described. Do we misunderstand our politics, by looking for evidence instead of stories? Are they what really motivate and bind us together?

Does the idea of a metaphysical substrate offer any useful analysis of history, or ways to shape our behaviours and choose our stories for the future?

  • 1
    I got interested in something like this through the route of Mortimer Adler, though I am not a "follower". In my opinion, your concerns are "spot on" (binding us together), for various reasons I think we will need this. As long as this was never dogmatic; well it couldn't be anyway today because the cat is long out of the bag.
    – Gordon
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 4:09
  • Christians were in China in the 7th century, according to Daniel H. Bays, author of "A New History of Christianity in China", the #2 reference for this: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_in_China. Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 6:37
  • 1
    I don'tt understand the phrase 'metaphysical substrate' here so cannot answer the question. 'Substrate' suggests 'Ground of Existence' but this doesn't seem to fit. There's no doubt that the Roman form of Christianity is better for wealth creation that any esoteric tradition. It's work ethic is perfect for the task. The lilies of the field are forgotten. (By the way karma is 'a law-based idea of causality'). If you're suggesting that religious stories often contain metaphysical truths then 'Doh!'. But I'm not quite sure what is being asked.
    – user20253
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 9:30
  • Another thing I would mention is the incarnate Christ. The incarnation was pregnant with all sorts of possibilities to apply the earlier philosophy of the Greeks. Think of essence made existent. God brought down to this world into existence here, the incarnation. Now Augustine used Plato (Neoplatonism), but Aquinas used Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle gave Aquinas the real world. Meaning naive realism. Of course this realism is exactly what exists in the world, Christ was God incarnate in this world, so the philosophers had all sorts of material to work with on the Christian project.
    – Gordon
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 17:14
  • 1
    Similal claims are made by geographic neo-determinists like Diamond, according to whom the "substrate" reflects environmental traits of culture's location. This is supposed to explain European dominance in recent centuries. However, when specific trait/advantage linkages are attempted counterexamples invariably pop up, see Guss-Meyer's Neo-Environmental Determinism. It looks more likely that Judeo-Christian "superiority" is just a fleeting historical contingency, with no particular "substrate" to it.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 18:15

2 Answers 2


I say, if you get true insights from this way of evaluating our present market of ideas in light of the past, then go ahead and look at it that way.

But if this scheme makes pointless or bad predictions, or fails to explain enough, or seems unnecessarily arbitrary, then drop it for something you like better.


Jordan Peterson Professor of Psychology. He is attempting to link life outlooks expressed in biblical stories to actual behaviour and health in human societies.

Religion attempts to summarise and answer questions of purpose and direction, meaning and significance. By their nature they are summaries and approximate.

It is our emotional life and social interactions that define us rather than our intellectual perception and ideas. Nihilism and the total cynic is searching for absolutes, in a subjective world, dismissing human history and the stories that express this human history in meaningful ways.

The attempt by certain groups to suggest they are the holders of truth while destroying its very foundations is a valid thing to point out.

What Peterson has discovered is biological and psychological realities mirror many biblical perspectives, and it is dangerous to dismiss them from merely a cynical perspective. Rather the suggestion is marxist identity politics is behind this criticism and any society that goes too far down this road will end up where Stalin and Mao arrived. Equally popularist of evolutionary development love to dismiss everything except their incomplete theories as if this way is life rather than just an unthinking survival of organisms in an aggressive world. We need a lot more than this to help guide us.

  • It seems to me a subjectivist outlook can validly say meaning is nested ultimately in questions of purpose and direction, meaning and significance. Do you think that is invalid?
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 14:56
  • Everything we say is subjective, including our outlooks. The problem I see is in dismissing observations because of their subjective context, rather than any observation is useful. Identity politics is a valid perspective, but it is not the only one, or justifies dismissing all others. One sees what you look for, but it does not mean there are not other aspects present as well which one has not seen.
    – PeterJens
    Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 15:01
  • You can be a substance dualist, and consider that fundamental substance to be mind, and the nature of reality to be primarily psychological rather than material, I think. Buddhism does this. It does not mean dismissing the regularities of the material world, it only points out that they are phenomena which cannot truly be considered outside the context of percieving minds.. The anthropic principle writ large.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 15:07

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .