Τρίτη, 14 Φεβρουαρίου 2017


The Truthening - Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson

Recently, Jordan Peterson was a guest of Sam Harris. The 2 hours long podcast was hampered early on, by a disagreement on the definition and meaning of truth. This was frustrating both for the audience and the participants. I will try to break down the nature of this dispute.

In case you are not aware, Jordan Peterson is a Canadian Psychology professor, and a clinical psychologist. He attracted wide attention especially from Internet audiences after he openly opposed bill C16, and faced severe reactions for his opposition. On the weeks that followed, he appeared on multiple interviews, podcasts, and Youtube shows. The audience of Sam Harris wanted to talk between him and Professor Peterson. That led to the recent podcast. 

The conversation between Harris and Peterson was meant to reach the subject of morality, but got stuck on the definition of what is true. In essence though, there was a conflict of world views and perspectives.

To Sam Harris the definition of true or Truth seems quite obvious and clear. Any claim or belief can be valid or invalid as far as reality and science are concerned. This however, is a conflation of truth with facts and theories.

Harris sees facts as small truths which in turn form the bigger truth, which is merely a collection of all facts. True to Sam, means factual, and truth means all of the factual things. While this seems intuitively correct, and often comes handy in daily life, it is a very limited definition. For one, this definition of truth cannot support a morality derived simply from truth, which is Sam’s own overarching thesis. If truth is merely a collection of facts, how can the finite facts we know, lead to innumerable moral codes? If Sam argues that only one or few interpretations of facts are moral, then morality cannot depend exclusively on a collection of facts, but requires judgment as well.

Judgment however overlaps with morality. So not only morality would require more than an accumulation of facts, namely judgment, but judgment itself, requires morality. That makes the causal hierarchy circular and invalid.

Precisely this was Jordan Peterson’s point. How does Sam Harris conclude on what is objectively moral, simply drawing from facts? Is Sam Harris imposing a subjective filter on facts, a filter that stems from his own acquired and inbuilt morality, without knowing it? Sam Harris in his books, basically claims we can put facts in the service of good. Yet the mechanism he derived the “good” by, is unclear. Dr Peterson and I are certain that Sam Harris did not derive his sense of good and wellbeing by simply connecting pages of equations and facts. If Sam clings on his mammalian, primate and cultural morals, which do form a large part of everyone’s morality, then he has to accept that his morality is not based simply on truth or a gathering of facts. In that case, Sam’s morality would be an intricate series of learned behaviors imprinted on his neural networks by lived experience and instincts, informed by facts, but not limited to them. Is Sam hiding his own subjectivity from himself?

If what Sam proposes, is to arm ourselves with facts and evaluate all our cultural norms and behaviors, to isolate and keep only the rationally good ones, he once again appeals to judgment, which is subjective and beyond mere facts, thus defeating his thesis.
This is terribly subjective, especially for Sam who not only accuses Dr Peterson of being confused by subjectivity, but also claims to have established a rational basis for objective morality.

Dr Peterson on the other hand, does not deny that people, including him, base their morality on a wide array of factors, only some of which are facts. This lends more honesty to his approach on morality. Dr Peterson has identified the conflict between Sam’s definition of truth and Sam’s thesis on morality. But how does Peterson’s definition of true score?
For Jordan Peterson, facts are just universally verifiable or confirmed pieces of information or observation. They are not mini-truths. The absolute arbiter of truth for Dr Peterson is the Darwinian Framework. Sam wrongly takes that to mean a daily urge to donate sperm, as he wrote on his blog, making a fool of himself. The Darwinian Framework, is the set of limitations and possibilities, a carbon based life form with reproduction has to abide by to thrive.

The Darwinian Framework is the absolute falsifier, because when something fails to hold true in that framework, it is not theoretically disproved, but annihilated from reality. Jordan Peterson holds truth to be the state of understanding the world, in a manner that keeps one alive and well in the Darwinian Framework. He holds that nothing can be completely verified, unless it passes the test of reality itself. For Peterson, truth is the fluid, ever changing frontier of what it takes to thrive in a Darwinist natural world. Consequently, according to Dr Peterson, something is true, if it is a part of the larger truth that has not yet been falsified within the Darwinian framework. Otherwise, it is just factual.

Facts are subjected to conditional, local and temporal limitations. This is fine, but life is literally a live interactive process. It is not always limited to the factors that limit facts. Life includes unknowns, twists, risks and all sort of things, that are not exactly testable in the lab. So for Dr Peterson, truth is more like a mindset that allows a successful navigation of both facts and unknowns alike. As such, truth cannot be completely separate from the beings that believe it. It is not so for Sam Harris.

For Harris, facts have their own intrinsic trueness value, which adds up to a total sum of truth. For Peterson, it is the greater truth that lends its trueness to its smaller components. Facts can be relevant or irrelevant to the greater truth, regardless of them being valid.
Dr Peterson’s position on truth, will seem ambiguous and convoluted to many. Some will say that it leaves the door open, for nonsensical woo to enter the realm of logic. Does it though?
Dr Peterson does not deny the methodology of science, or the value of facts, he cherishes them. He readily accepts all the scientific facts Harris accepts. What Peterson does, is trying to align, our biggest cognitive standard, which is truth, to the most crucial challenge to our cognition, which is meaningful existence. Dr Peterson’s truth, is the daily challenge of succeeding in the Darwinian canvas of life.

The word fact, already covers the meaning of true, as Sam Harris sees it. The word theory, already covers what Sam sees as truth. Sam believes that an ever growing accumulation of ever more accurate facts will offer us an ever improving truth. Which is basically the way scientific theories work.

Jordan Peterson takes the truth from the hands of the beings that do the theory formulation, and places it in the hands of a higher objective reviewing mechanism, that can in practice nullify those theories, the Darwinian Framework. To Dr Peterson, we can’t have a final confirmation of our working theories for the world. We can only have the temporary assurance, that we are not wrong enough to have been eradicated already. In that sense, Dr Peterson’s notion of truth may well be far more humble and objective, than that of Sam Harris.

Instead of perplexing the concept of truth, Jordan Peterson informs us that we as humans are unable to see reality beyond the very limitations that govern our cognition and senses. Dr Peterson points out that we are not equipped to access all facts, and even if we were, we would still fail to always put them in the most meaningful order. We are therefore incapable of attaining the absolute truth. What we are capable of, is holding views true enough for us to thrive, and that limitation should inform our way of thinking in general. Jordan Peterson does not perplex truth. He merely elevates it, to its most crucial level.

I hope I did justice to the highly nuanced positions of Dr Jordan Peterson. I offer my analysis, as a potential aid to future conversations among Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson, and their respective followers.


I want to acquaint myself a lot more with Dr Peterson’s positions and arguments, and despite the vast body of works he has produced, I would urge him to explain more of his theory on truth and morality.

Further more, I would ask all of you to not cling comfortably on Sam’s notion of truth. We already understand and use that tool with great success. Instead, I urge you to keep digging in the depths of Dr Peterson’s views. Our understanding of the world is far from complete, and Dr Peterson’s views, hold the promise of expanding our perspectives in very beneficial ways.

Thank you for watching.

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