I've reproduced below Sam Harris' incredible example of interpreting texts. Harris brought this up at the end of a long podcast with Peterson, but didn't press Peterson on it.
Make sure to compare it to a transcript of Jordan Peterson's interpretation of Cain and Abel, which is representative of many of the things Peterson speaks about:
Once you read Harris' Cookbook exposition, you never see Peterson the same again. Peterson claims that he only believes those interpretations that can be tied to four difference levels of understanding simultaneously, but I think that ends up being a smokescreen and that the same linguistic gymnastics can be done even in this case.
The problem with such hermeneutical efforts [...] is that they are perfectly unconstrained by the contents of the texts themselves. One can interpret every text in such a way as to yield almost any mystical or occult instruction.
A case in point: I have selected another book at random, this time from the cookbook aisle of a bookstore. The book is A Taste of Hawaii: New Cooking from the Crossroads of the Pacific. Therein I have discovered an as yet uncelebrated mystical treatise. While it appears to be a recipe for wok-seared fish and shrimp cakes with ogo-tomato relish, we need only study its list of ingredients to know that we are in the presence of an unrivaled spiritual intelligence:
- snapper filet, cubed
- 3 teaspoons chopped scallions
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- a dash of cayenne pepper
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh ginger
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- 8 shrimp, peeled, deveined, and cubed
- 1⁄2 cup heavy cream; 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 3 teaspoons rice wine; 2 cups bread crumbs
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil; 2 1⁄2 cups ogo-tomato relish
The snapper filet, of course, is the individual himself —you and I— awash in the sea of existence. But here we find it cubed, which is to say that our situation must be remedied in all three dimensions of body, mind, and spirit.
Three teaspoons of chopped scallions further partakes of the cubic symmetry, suggesting that that which we need add to each level of our being by way of antidote comes likewise in equal proportions. The import of the passage is clear: the body, mind, and spirit need to be tended to with the same care.
Salt and freshly ground black pepper: here we have the perennial invocation of opposites—the white and the black aspects of our nature. Both good and evil must be understood if we would fulfill the recipe for spiritual life. Nothing, after all, can be excluded from the human experience (this seems to be a Tantric text). What is more, salt and pepper come to us in the form of grains, which is to say that our good and bad qualities are born of the tiniest actions. Thus, we are not good or evil in general, but only by virtue of innumerable moments, which color the stream of our being by force of repetition.
A dash of cayenne pepper: clearly, being of such robust color and flavor, this signifies the spiritual influence of an enlightened adept. What shall we make of the ambiguity of its measurement? How large is a dash? Here we must rely upon the wisdom of the universe at large. The teacher himself will know precisely what we need by way of instruction. And it is at just this point in the text that the ingredients that bespeak the heat of spiritual endeavor are added to the list—for after a dash of cayenne pepper, we find two teaspoons of chopped fresh ginger and one teaspoon of minced garlic. These form an isosceles trinity of sorts, signifying the two sides of our spiritual nature (male and female) united with the object meditation.
Next comes eight shrimp—peeled, deveined, and cubed. The eight shrimp, of course, represent the eight worldly concerns that every spiritual aspirant must decry: fame and shame; loss and gain; pleasure and pain; praise and blame. Each needs to be deveined, peeled, and cubed— that is, purged of its power to entrance us and incorporated on the path of practice.
That such metaphorical acrobatics can be performed on almost any text—and that they are therefore meaningless—should be obvious.