By Andrew Sweeny

The intellectual dark web died as soon as it was baptised by The New York Times. And I don’t believe its death is something to be mourned. That is not to criticise its ‘members’, who are all lively, brilliant people — only there is a problem with the label. The anti-tribalism that the IDW represents a new kind of tribalism or groupthink. This is nobody’s fault—the same thing always happens when movements become too self-conscious. But I’m afraid the intellectual dark web is being criticised for a good reason. Those associated with it should not be defensive of the label but dis-identify with it.

When David Fuller wrote ‘How to join the Intellectual Dark Web — a user’s guide’ a couple months ago, the term still had some resonance, the flavour of an underground movement. Things change pretty quickly. The reason this term no longer rings true is that the IDW has reached critical mass. It feels more like an ‘over-ground’ movement — a ‘light web’ rather than a ‘dark web’. Furthermore, its world-view is actually pretty moderate — the central themes being classic liberalism and the western enlightenment with a materialistic bent. That’s not the exactly radical, occult stuff, which the term dark web implies.

New media stars of the IDW cannot complain that they don’t have a voice anymore: their voices are quite loud and powerful. The fact that they are criticised by legacy media has been a boon rather than a curse — and this has been pretty good marketing. The problem is that the name suggests the members are victims of censorship, which is hardly the case. These folks are rather wildly successful entrepreneurs of new media who have finally made the big time. Besides, victimhood has never been their ethos. It’s true that Peterson risked his tenured post and Bret Weinstein was forced out of his — but both have become superstars.

The early excitement of this group was that they facilitated intelligent conversations between people whose views are diverse and not ‘ideologically possessed’; they helped collapse polarities. These conversations have been illuminating for a lot of people certainly. However, this group may not be as heterodox as it claims, and is even less so when it starts to brands itself as a band of outsiders.

Jordan Peterson

To my mind Jordan Peterson is the single most important thinker in the group. He is more than an just an ‘intellectual’ or a pundit — and is the one who really does have a radical and challenging view. Again, that is not to say that the others are not brilliant talkers, writers and thinkers — but only Peterson merits a comparison to titans such as Marshall Mcluhan. My difficulty with some of the others is their inability to embrace religious phenomenology, a serious deficiency from my perspective.

Peterson’s view is unlike the new atheist skeptics (Matt Dillahunty and Sam Harris) and the enlightenment evangelists (Steve Pinker) and he lives in a different space — a more integrated and deeper one I would argue. Again, my purpose here again is not to devalue Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, and others. Their attacks on post-modern obscurantism, victimhood culture, anti-science and progress, polarisation in the culture etc. — are all very necessary and appropriate, but to claim that this represents a massive underground movement has a touch of hubris.

The difference is that Peterson clearly embraces the mythical and symbolic worldview that the western enlightenment aimed to transcend—which makes him either a reactionary or a visionary, depending on who you ask, and different from the others. Sam Harris and gang are promoting the western enlightenment, reason, and material progress more or less, and they are trying to conserve something in culture that has been losing out in the era of Trump and fake news: that is, dialogue and reason.

Certainly this is a laudable mission but Peterson goes deeper: he does not believe that religion is arbitrary or that the scientific world view is the one and only saviour of mankind—he knows too much about existentialism, psychoanalysis, and religion to adhere to this view. He draws from traditions that are much deeper than the western enlightenment: Egyptian mythology and crustaceans that are older than trees, not to mention Jungian alchemy, Nietzsche and 19th Century Russian literature—Peterson sees the poverty of a merely modernist or post modern view, in other words.

Jordan Peterson is not a classical enlightenment thinker; he has criticised the materialistic view — even if he embraces classic liberalism. What makes him both loved and reviled, is that he promotes myth and tradition, which the others IDW people seek to denigrate (with the exception of Ben Shapiro who is an orthodox Jew). Peterson is more aware of the metaphysical ground of culture than the others — even if he has equal or greater scientific credentials. And because of his connection to the great myths of the past — to archetypal structures of being — his ideas go beyond the merely intellectual sphere.

Besides the very healthy rationality and empirical science that the IDW promote, they lack a deep consideration of the great spiritual traditions. Science doesn’t have much to say about religion and philosophy — it is a mistake to conflate these three spheres. As Heidegger has said: ‘science doesn’t think’ — and this is not to denigrate science in any way, only to point out that science is not, in isolation, a spiritual or moral activity. Science could as easily destroy the world as save it—it is not the realm of spiritual and ethical truths but the realm of physical truths. For example, the monitoring of the brain waves in a Tibetan monk meditator doesn’t tell us that much about his spiritual realisation, but might give us valuable data about the brain. Data and facts are important, but they are not the whole of human experience.

As Peterson rightly tells us, we don’t live in a world of mere objects but rather of spiritually significant actions — a world of karma, in other words. The ‘thing’ or objective part of reality is only the surface — even if that surface is very complex. Our world is not just random atoms, but a realm of spirit, with dense and overlapping meanings and metaphors—hidden realities that are as real (or actually more real) than atoms. The meaning side of reality cannot be addressed by scientific facts, and only described in a limited way. And yet Peterson knows the greatness of science as well: like Jean Piaget before him he seeks to reconcile science and religion — which again puts him at odds with many of the others in the group. Peterson is trying to keep religion and science from becoming enemy brothers like Cain and Abel — to cite his favourite biblical myth.

Also, Peterson has shown that one can be an empirical scientist and still be deeply religious, which is another tension between him and most of the IDW. He has caused many to go back and explore their spiritual roots, but also helped those of us with a more spiritual bent to become more scientifically educated and articulate. Peterson tells a compelling story. For instance, that darwinism is as much about our spiritual development and religion as the progress of the ‘mechanical ape’. This is a rejection of the machine metaphor version of reality that Sam Harris embraces.

With his trojan horse Peterson has won over the minds of many former atheists, but never in a dogmatic manner. This is no small achievement. The rational mind cannot easily explain religion; spiritual phenomenology can be easily refuted with the rational mind — no wonder the Catholic church continues to view intellectuals as devils in disguise. But Peterson is not advocating for a return to dogmatic traditionalism either: he knows the the value of both tradition and skepticism. You need both wings for a bird to fly— both spirit and matter. And religion has its empirical thinkers and skeptics as well.

Peterson isn’t about mere rationality, which isn’t to say he doesn’t value it as much as the others. Matt Dillahunty, who some say outmanoeuvred Peterson in a recent debate, show us that rational mind can be very convincing, even when it is wrong. But Petersons’ major mission and real genius is to bridge disparate worlds — not just to win arguments. And as any mystic, lover, depth psychologist, or artist knows — scientific realism and scepticism are not the whole story.

Peterson, by moving into depth psychology, literature, myth and meaning, can easily swim in a sea with the other enlightenment types, but that doesn’t mean that this is his ocean. He is making religious, not just polemical or culture-war statements. However, he is doing this in a novel way, by arguing, not for the existence of God per-say—which he leaves to the theologians — but for the phenomenology of God and the necessity of a higher, ultimate principal. He isn’t promoting belief but example — the imitation of Christ, in Christian language. And he understands the essential richness of religious myth, which has to be integrated before any sense of real enlightenment or transcendence is possible. Therefore, his position is a thorn in the side of both progressives and traditionalists alike. They just don’t know what to make of him.

An Alternative Intellectual Dark Web?

There is a radical difference between those who have a materialistic world view and those who embrace or value deeper traditions. The religious people—for instance Peterson’s friend Jonathan Pageau, an orthodox Christian icon carver — might still be authentically considered IDW because they are at odds with the progressive, merely rationalist discourse. On the more psychological end, the Documentary maker David Fuller’s and Rebel wisdom is doing cutting edge interventions inspired by Peterson and Jung. Another example is Jordan Greenhall’s Deep Code, which has some amazing sociological observations, especially about how we use technology. These are just a few who represent a genuine cutting edge underground and there are many others. Perhaps there will have to be an alternative intellectual dark web, although the term is still somewhat unfortunate, even if it is meant somewhat ironically.

In any case, let us not mourn it’s death but rather find an alternative, intellectual—but also spiritual—dark web. The mission of the IDW has always been to shun group identity politics anyway. A real dark web, or secret path, or hidden community of likeminded souls, will never be mainstream, but it can make a great, though often an invisible difference.