Features, Philosophy
comments 49

Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson: Heroes for Moral Realism?

In his recent Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris, by very popular demand, engaged in discussion with the clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson. The bulk of their conversation centered on epistemology, and the concept of truth in particular. The hope on Harris’s end was that they could profitably discuss their respective views on big and important topics such as morality, science, religion, and atheism if they could establish a shared frame of reference with regard to how to conceptualize truth.

It quickly became apparent, however, that they had fundamentally different ways of approaching the matter, if not simply different terms to refer to the same terrain. And so the discussion amounted to something of a friendly debate.

Very roughly speaking, Peterson’s view of truth holds that a given proposition, ultimately speaking, cannot in fact be true if, say, it turned out to have very adverse effects on an individual or society at large. Accordingly — and to use an example — this might imply that our understanding of physics is fundamentally flawed (perhaps utterly false) if our civilization experienced a nuclear holocaust at some point in the future.

For in Peterson’s view, the mark of truthful propositions — including, in this case, modern physics—is their capacity to serve those ends which have Darwinian currency, namely survival and reproduction. And if such a nuclear holocaust were to occur, it would stand to reason, on Peterson’s view, that modern physics (or something about it) is false — since anything that seemingly reduces evolutionary fitness in this manner is ipso facto untrue.

Large-scale events such as this are perhaps instructive in diagnosing possible pitfalls for (what I understand to be) Peterson’s view, however. This is because a gene-centered and inclusive-fitness approach to understanding the nature of evolutionary selection might very well escape his criterion for truth-making, since there could very well be survivors in a nuclear holocaust. As such, at least some genes (that is, the genes of some individuals) might survive such an event, possibly even replicating themselves into future generations. In brief, Peterson’s conception of truth appears to have a retrospective quality to it, in that propositions that currently appear to be well-justified could hypothetically be shown to be false by future events that prove to be fitness-diminishing — or even civilization-ending, in this case.

On the other hand, it is quite unclear what to make of Peterson’s epistemic position given the just mentioned ambiguities surrounding precisely how to interpret its Darwinian criterion. Must everyone in a hypothetical nuclear holocaust perish for it to cast doubt on our current understanding of physics (or some aspect of it), or is there some threshold that much be reached in terms of casualties for there to be a negative epistemological verdict? And if there is some threshold, what would justify placing it precisely where it is, and in a way that would escape the charge of being arbitrary?

But even more fundamentally, however, Peterson’s criterion of truth is just downright absurd. Harris is quite right to say that truth is not contingent, either currently or retrospectively, on the evolutionary fitness of individuals — or ‘goodness’ (however defined), or utility, or well-being, or whatever other normative criterion one wishes to substitute hereabouts. Indeed, I find Harris’ construal here to be rather obvious — and Peterson’s to be extremely controversial and badly thought-out.

In any event, one of Peterson’s lifelong projects — as detailed in his book, Maps of Meaning, and in his various lectures — has been to develop a guide for acting in the world. Peterson’s aim is thus not unlike the project that Sam Harris has attempted to articulate in The Moral Landscape. On Harris’ approach, though, his attempt to bridge the divide between is- and-ought made famous by Hume implicates the sciences. Accordingly, it is science, for Harris, which would continually inform and revise an open-ended, evolving understanding of human wellbeing. And, similarly, science would be relied upon to ascertain how, for instance, one ought to behave in the world, and how to structure societies, all in service to maximizing human wellbeing. And it is in this fundamental way in which Harris’ moral realism differs from that of Peterson’s.

At any rate, the two appear, at least at first glance, to be fellow travellers in this area. At root, both thinkers postulate what they take to be the highest value to which morality should aspire: for Peterson, the value that should be maximized is some sort of construal of evolutionary fitness; for Harris, it’s a scientifically-informed concept of wellbeing.¹ But in tying his highest moral value to a Darwinian foundation, Peterson seemingly violates the naturalistic fallacy, moving straight from descriptive facts to normative prescriptions. Harris, on the other hand, argues that our highest moral end ought to aim towards something much more humane than simply what nature has happened to foist on our species.

In a recent open-letter video addressed to Harris, Peterson has continued the conversation (to which Harris has mounted a rejoinder). In it, he claims that the ability to climb up dominance hierarchies is diagnostic of one’s apprehension of truth. And the best means of climbing dominance hierarchies, in turn, as Peterson sees it, is embodied by the mythological archetype of the hero. As Peterson points out, women have evolved to prefer high-status men when selecting a mate (at the very least, in long-term mating contexts). Now, this is all true enough, but I confess to being baffled as to what import this has to a basic epistemological sense of truth.

Should Peterson be taken to be arguing — or at least implying — that, among men anyway, dedicating oneself to climbing dominance hierarchies is the ultimate lodestar by which one can ascertain truth? If so, this seems rather farfetched. Having the aspiration to climb up a dominance hierarchy as high as possible may or may not be one’s summum bonum, but if it is, there is nothing about it that makes that pursuit somehow ‘more truthful’ than understanding mathematics or computer science (to take two examples). Indeed, it is quite plausible that such a summum bonum might lead one to understand fewer truths about reality, in an absolute sense, than aspiring to become a historian or scientist, say.

Now, if Peterson merely were to say that there are truths — for instance, in the form of generalizations that are empirically well-grounded — that conduce to climbing dominance hierarchies, generally and or locally (in space and time), he’d be on much more solid ground —  and I doubt very much that Harris would gainsay the possibility of there being such truths. In this way, we could say that there are (perhaps) truths to be discovered about the best methods to climb human status hierarchies (universally speaking), which are a (vanishingly small) subset of the larger class of truths about reality on the whole. Now, it may very well be the case that apprehending the former is much likelier to increase one’s fitness more than the latter (particularly for men, and at least ancestrally). But it does not follow in the slightest that what makes something true or not is its ability to conduce to evolutionary fitness. That is to say, evolutionary fitness plays no role whatsoever, in and of itself, in making something true, objectively speaking.

In the particular case of truths about how best to climb status hierarchies, what we have instead are just more facts (i.e., generalizations) — facts nested in the much vaster domain of facts about reality-at-large, with a key difference being that one set of these facts is much more straightforwardly relevant to an individual’s evolutionary fitness (while, for instance, being acquainted with a random assortment of arcane facts, such as the current distances between Mars and Neptune, and Los Angeles and the Sun, are much less obviously conducive to evolutionary fitness, if at all). And neither does a truth’s conducing to evolutionary fitness make it more truthful than other truths about reality. People value the truths of how to obtain water in a given context more than they generally value the truth about the charge of a charm quark, but this contingent fact about humans does not make the former more truthful than the latter.

Moreover, it is easy to see how serious problems could arise if morality was anchored in that which conduces to evolutionary fitness. For example, empirically speaking, it may be that, at least within certain temporal and social contexts, certain traits which are genetically or memetically most fit also happen to hamper, rather than enhance, human wellbeing in the aggregate (and or possibly in the individual possessing such traits). Such a scenario would run afoul of Harris’ construal of morality. Finally, one might challenge Peterson’s view that exemplifying the hero archetype is, in fact, the most optimal manner in which to ascend status hierarchies, on average. Perhaps, in point of fact, there is a much less savory set of characteristics that make it more likely that one will ascend up a status hierarchy in contemporary large-scale societies (this might be true even if it were the case that the hero archetype was the best available means of climbing status hierarchies at some point in the past, say). On the other hand, Peterson might conceivably respond to this challenge by providing a specific definition of the hero archetype, along with empirical evidence to support the contention that it is the best means of ascending up status hierarchies, currently and or generally speaking.

But let’s try to be a bit more charitable to Peterson’s approach and suggest a way of profitably interfacing it with Harris’ own approach, namely by taking seriously Peterson’s contention that the hero archetype is the optimal means by which to ascend status hierarchies. Specifically, let’s ask, as a first pass, whether the best possible way of cultivating human wellbeing is by aspiring to embody the hero archetype as best as possible, as well as structuring society in as best a manner as we can so as to facilitate the inculcation, development, and expression of that kind of heroism.

There is, to my mind, a fairly straightforward sense in which we can treat all of this as a kind of hypothesis within Harris’ framework — one that may or may not turn out to be vindicated in some manner (either in whole or in part) by the relevant sciences at some (perhaps very far) point in the future. Of course, it is not currently possible to spell out an ‘ultimate’ conception of human wellbeing, as, by Harris’s lights (and rightly in my view), it is a concept to be subject to continual input and revision from any and all sciences of relevance to it. At any rate, treating Peterson’s hero archetype as a hypothesis within Harris’ moral realism could enable one to at least think about how it might make contact with such an emerging, scientifically-grounded conception of human wellbeing. One might, for instance, envision various ways of developing reasonably rigorous scientific formulations of the hero archetype (or aspects of it) and attempting to empirically test how well it accords with our best, ever-evolving scientific understanding of human wellbeing. This would be a way, in short, of appraising Peterson’s approach within Harris’ framework of moral realism.

Additionally, we could examine Peterson’s related claim that our minds are in some manner evolutionarily adapted to the hero archetype and attempt to formulate it in a way that’s rigorous enough to test scientifically (indeed, existing scientific evidence across a range of disciplines may already permit for a good case to be made on this front). After all, it is perfectly reasonable to hypothesize that natural selection has shaped the mind in some manner such that it embodies the hero archetype, at least to some extent. Furthermore, it is likewise perfectly reasonable to hypothesize that the hero archetype has correspondingly emerged over time via cultural evolution — as represented in, for instance, various mythological narratives — and for adaptive reasons, at least in part (that is, for reasons that enhanced individual genetic fitness in the evolutionary past).

Naturally, this kind of framing would also raise the possibility of gene–culture co-evolution, with the mind having been shaped over some period of evolutionary time by cultural manifestations of the hero archetype, and the hero archetype, in turn, having been reciprocally shaped by features of the mind. And it is furthermore reasonable to wonder whether any of these hypotheses can connect to more recent and sophisticated formulations and tests of multi-level selection — in particular the manner in which the hero archetype, as a cultural meme (or ‘memeplex’ of some kind), may have contributed to group success in the context of inter-group competition across evolutionary time, hence facilitated its cultural diffusion.

Fundamentally, however, it’s hard to see how both Harris and Peterson could attempt to make much progress on the prospect of a shared moral realism unless Harris was willing to view Peterson’s core ideas as testable empirical hypotheses within his (Harris’) particular framework of moral realism — and unless Peterson likewise could get on board with formulating his ideas in a way that was rigorous and specific enough to be tested scientifically, and on the terms outlined by Harris (or unless, of course, one of them changed their approach in some substantive way). But in principle at least, this strategy, apart from being seemingly coherent and tractable, is prima facie one that could get them speaking the same language, so to speak.

Having said all of that, although one might very well find Peterson’s perspective promising, there are foreseeable issues that might potentially militate against it, at least given the backdrop of Harris’ rendering of moral realism. For example, even if it were to turn out that embodying the hero archetype is a good or even optimal way of flourishing as an individual, it may turn out to be quite ineffective at maximizing human wellbeing at the level of societies (or civilization at large). Indeed, it is possible, for all we know, that manifesting the hero archetype leaves a net negative impact on human wellbeing on the whole—that is, when looking at the wellbeing of humans in the aggregate. For instance, it seems plausible to suggest that there may be negative externalities which lead to decreases in aggregate human wellbeing as a result of even just some individuals single-mindedly attempting to climb status hierarchies as high as they can, and at all costs.

Of course, even if it turned out that manifesting the hero archetype had a negative impact on aggregate human wellbeing, it may be that supplementary moral prescriptions could conceivably redress the negative spillover effects — so that we could have our cake and eat it too, so to speak (e.g., by implementing certain scientifically-grounded government policies, etc.). Alternatively, perhaps prescribing the hero archetype as an ultimate moral aim would optimize the well-being of only some individuals, but, at the same time, nonetheless raise the wellbeing of most if not everyone else in the process — i.e., through the various effects that the ‘heroes’ had on society on the whole. Perhaps this arrangement would be roughly analogous to the Rawlsian ‘difference principle’, which, roughly speaking, allows for certain individuals to hold prized positions so long as doing so would ultimately redound to the benefit of the individuals who are unable (for whatever reasons) to hold those positions. I raise these scenarios merely as possibilities to be examined.

So in sum, I see an avenue that might help Harris and Peterson escape their current impasse, find common ground, and ideally make some progress in advancing this important discussion. One important question that they should probably come to some consensus on is whether the value they are trying to maximize is individual evolutionary fitness or human wellbeing (in Harris’ species-wide and open-ended, scientifically-grounded sense). I see very little promise in grounding a moral realism (insofar as such a thing is ultimately a viable project) in terms of evolutionary fitness, and much more promise is taking Harris’ tack. Yet this would not mean that Peterson’s perspective could not be a viable contender in Harris’ framework, all the same. If they can get that far, it will be important to place an emphasis on Harris’ conception of wellbeing. And Peterson’s hero archetype would need to be rigorously formulated so as to function, effectively, as a scientific hypothesis about how best to maximize human wellbeing, so defined.

 

John Klasios is an academic researcher currently based in Toronto. His peer-reviewed publications can be found here.

 

Endnote

[1] Technically, the highest value to be maximized in Harris’ moral realism is the wellbeing of all conscious creatures (which would include, of course, non-humans). I focus on human wellbeing in this essay simply to compare Harris’ thinking with Peterson’s in a more streamlined way.

Did you like this post? Support Quillette on Patreon

49 Comments

  1. Matt Soltis says

    If Sam Harris’s purpose is to have a series of meaningful conversations, then this podcast episode was an epic fail. It was obvious in 10 minutes that Peterson was hijacking the meaning of the word truth. However, I still wanted to hear about Jordan’s views on big topics. Though he possibly had a flawed and absurd axiom on the definition of truth, he may very well have had great insights on science and morality and how they intertwine. But of course we did not get to that because Sam was like a dog with a bone. It was as if my wife and I wanted to spend two hours discussing our financial plans for the next five years but fought about the cable bill instead. I’m seeing more and more from Sam as needing to be right on every point rather than truly having a meaningful conversation with someone.

    • If you can’t agree on truth what the point of a debate? If you want Peterson view on thing he has a YouTube channel. What would be the point of Peterson stating his view and Sam nodding his head when you can look them up?

    • Harry says

      I don’t get this, you agree that Peterson hijacked the meaning of truth yet expect Harris to ignore dissonance on the point of any discussion.
      Peterson’s attempt to simply slip his nebulous definition of truth past Harris was quite dishonest and certainly a reason for Harris’ insistence.

      Unfortunately your wish will be granted and I get to pay for more wisdom of Chopra.

    • I would argue that having a “meaningful conversation” with anyone, Peterson included, wherein the concept of what does and does not constitute truth is up for grabs, is fundamentally impossible. As such, I think Harris was correct in his insistence on the matter. It’s unfortunate because, as you say, one would like to hear them explore other topics, but I see it as insuperable.

    • Andre says

      @Matt Soltis. Suggested revision to your analogy: You planned to discuss financial plans with your wife and began reviewing the budget, but she insisted that you discuss expenses using acorns and cotton balls as currency, with variable exchange rates between dollars, acorns, and cotton balls…

      …and with the proviso that today’s budget would be subject to revision based on acorn and cotton ball prices during the next nuclear winter.

    • Question Everything says

      The details of your analogy fighting with your wife about the cable bill matter a lot. For example you could make a ridiculous claim about the whole concept of bills and then you are eager to move on to other things that involve your financial plans. At that point, it is perfectly justifiable for your wife to jump in and insist you make sense on that concept. To make this analogy more aligned with Jordan’s claim about “truthfulness”, you would have to say that you can’t be sure this cable bill is true. Because you would have to wait and see if that single bill makes you go bankrupt first and if it does, you say that bill wasn’t true or less true or false. Now at this point, with that claim you make, it is ridiculous to even entertain the idea to move forward and discuss future financial plans.

    • Agreed. Few philosophical arguments get tiresome more quickly than ones about the nature of “truth.” After all, it’s perfectly possible to have a productive conversation while working from different epistemological standpoints, so long as you keep them in mind. Objective vs. subjective, abstract vs. pragmatic, independent vs. what I would call Peterson’s “value-dependent” truth… whatever. It’s important to remember that Peterson is a clinical psychologist, not a philosopher; he’s more interested in helping people navigate reality than simply describing it.

      Harris should have humored him. If he had, they could have had a really interesting conversation about subjectivity and values, e.g. meditation, archetypes, myths, morality, etc. Hopefully they will if Harris has him back.

  2. Peterson’s hero archetype and dominance hierarchies sound like arguments for truth to be based on a type of evolutionary fitness. His ideas sound like social Darwinism. If I have understood Peterson’s ideas correctly this morality is deeply problematic.

  3. Howard Nelson says

    What is truth? What’s its relation to reality? Is it related to context, situation variables?
    To me, truth is an expression of reality and must be true at all extremes as well as all in-betweens in which it is called for as necessary.
    Truth neither takes nor gives a crap for opinions, interpretations, or expressed attitudes.
    To find the truth, define the test for truthfulness and the necessary and sufficient results to confirm the truth’s reality.
    As a path for Peterson and Harris, try Buddha’s approach for appropriate behavior:
    Ask and answer truthfully–
    Is it true?
    Is it necessary?
    Is it kind?

    If it’s not necessary, return to Go or to the womb, and begin again.
    It’s pointless pontificating about the imponderables.
    If you don’t believe that yet, just ask me again.

  4. Stephanos says

    Does not one get the sense that Harris approached this conversation exactly as he would if he didn’t know anyone was listening? One might consider this approach the makings of an “epic fail.” However, given the platform, a positive view of the host highlights the respect for unfettered conversation. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but how do ideas evolve with listeners in real time without a little, or a lot of, “wait, back up the train…”?

    • Howard Nelson says

      Yes, and back up the brain with adequate evidence for the positions presented.
      Vapid verbalizations and nounages are more blinding than dust in the breaking wind.
      Not every so-called pundit is a pandit.

  5. Matt Soltis says

    Good points all, but debates aren’t necessarily conversations and if I could figure out Jordan was out to lunch in 10 minutes, surely Sam didn’t need 2 hours. Either gracefully end the whole thing or change the subject. That’s how I tak with other adults

  6. Jordan Peterson took a ridiculous stance and ruined what could have been an interesting conversation.

  7. Kendall Burks says

    I would argue that your basic understanding of Peterson’s point of view is not accurate, though understandable given the limited frame in which you seem to be assessing it.

    Evolutionary fitness is not his highest moral value. His basic moral conception seems to be largely grounded in the thinking of Jean Piaget. As such, the highest value for Peterson is to achieve an “equilibrated state”. This is actually much closer to Harris’ conception of well-being as a world-wide consciousness improvement enterprise.

    Furthermore, Peterson’s conception of the hero archetype as a distillation of that which climbs status hierarchies is true, though it’s important to note that what Peterson truly values is not just climbing a particular status hiarchy “at any cost”. Rather, he combines this notion with that of Piaget’s equilabrated state. The best ruler is one whose subjects are totally happy (or, at least, can agree with the genuine sovereignty of the ruler). If you tear down the social order on the way to the top, you are not playing by rules conducive to an equilabrated state.

    Also, while climbing hierarchies is an important notion for Peterson, I would say that the ability to transcend hierarchies in general, or even to create new hierarchies, is a higher value for Peterson. The social order naturally arranges itself in the form of a dominance hierarchy. The role of the individual is to renew and revivify the social order, utilizing his fundamentally creative capacity. For Peterson, this is why society must hold the individual as sacred. Society itself cannot be sacred, because the creative capacity fundamentally does not exist at the level of the group, but at the level of the individual.

    And now, if I can, I will try to clarify Peterson’s fundamental point of disagreement with Harris surrounding the nature of “truth”. For Harris, there are facts that exist “out there”, in a way that is totally independent of human consciousness. These facts would be there whether we existed or not. Science is the system by which we can gain knowledge, however imperfect, of these facts. The truth of a given proposition is fundamentally determined by the agreement of that proposition with those facts. It is the objective nature of these facts which has the capacity to endow our propositions with truth. I can see how all of this seems obscenely obvious. No sane person denies objective reality. An awareness of the enduring presence of things independent of our consciousness is in fact one of the primary stages of development for Piaget! If you’re a decently functioning person, you don’t honestly think your house could simply vanish just because you are no longer there, or that the Grand Canyon would no longer be there if all life on earth vanished, correct?

    I myself, want to defend this conception of reality to a certain degree. There is a kind of common sense soundness to it. But anyone who studies philosophy, or even modern physics, understands that common sense does not always point towards what is most real, and while it might be easy to accept in an everyday sort of manner such notions as objective reality, it becomes an abysmally complex affair to defend such ideas from a philosophically rigorous perspective.

    For Peterson, he would also agree with aspects of this conception. Where he would begin to have a problem, is in trying to pinpoint where exactly “being” as such bottoms out. Do these material facts constitute the fundamental reality of being? For Peterson, the answer is a very loud NO. This does not imply that he denies the validity of science, but he would stress that because science is fundamentally a human enterprise, it will always be couched within a more fundamental “moral” framework. Whether we like it or not, we are stuck in a basically embodied, goal-oriented existence, and as such absolutely everything we do is bounded by an orientation towards meaning and value, not material facts.

    Though science has been very successful at expanding our technological power and even extending our understanding of the way the world operates, it cannot become one’s fundamental orientation when it comes to ontological questions. Science as a process has the remarkable capacity to strip evaluation from our observations of reality. That is the core of its phenomenal power. The dangerous temptation that arises within a scientific frame of mind is to conclude that “the world” as such, and therefore “being” proper, has nothing to do with values. What follows from such a conclusion is that values have no fundamental connection to what is true, because they don’t ground out in being, and therefore can’t have any reality.

    Jordan Peterson’s solution, to use a favorite phrase of his, is to say that matter is not what is most real, what’s most real is what matters. In other words, meaning is the fundamental reality. Not material things. Another way he likes to put it is that the world is best construed as fundamentally a forum for action as opposed to as a place of things. This shift places moral, and therefore human reality, as the fundamental arbiter of being, and therefore of truth. Again, he is very clearly not anti-science. What he’s against is placing science at the bottom of how we understand the world, and therefore of what being is.

    One way he likes to argue for this picture of things is the nuclear weapon example. If we were to annihilate ourselves with nuclear weapons, that would clearly be a moral failing (even if it was not total annihilation). Now, the science that unlocked that amazing destructive power is totally valid insofar as it was based on sound agreement with the factual nature of atoms. But one has to remember that every scientific enterprise is inevitably couched within an embodied, and therefore moral context. That context is what is fundamental. So though the propositions about the structure of subatomic particles were perfectly true insofar as they agreed with the facts of material reality, those propositions were being made by moral agents whose understanding of moral reality was sufficiently untrue that they annihilated the species. The moral ignorance was ultimately more important than the scientific knowledge.

    Now, you could go on arguing that the science underpinning the creation of those weapons was still true, and furthermore, that the argument doesn’t really demonstrate the ontological primacy of morality over materiality. The universe would go on its merry way even if we utterly destroyed the planet. Correct? Doesn’t that imply that the material reality is more fundamental? Sure we destroyed ourselves, but reality at bottom is indifferent to that event. Facts do not care what we value. Facts do not care what we care about. Facts endure above, below, and beyond such things.

    In other words, Jordan’s hypothetical Armageddon, while perhaps illuminating the importance of getting our moral heads on straight, does not convince me to make the ontological leap into his basically fantastical realm of anthropocentric wishful thinking. Sure, our values mean a whole lot to us, but they do not mean a whole lot to the universe we inhabit. After all, it is we who inhabit the world, not the other way around. How is it then, that a strictly human reality (morality) can be considered more “fundamental” than the environment in which it operates?

    This seems to me how Sam Harris, and other science-centric atheists like him, would respond to Peterson’s position. It seems to me that his disagreement with them therefore is not merely semantic, and it’s certainly not minor. It is a very basic and fundamental disagreement. This is why I was not disappointed with the way the conversation went. They got a bit stuck, but to me they were butting heads where it matters. It’s just not something that can be sorted out in 2 hours, however reasonable both parties are.

    These arguments I’ve just articulated seem to me to be ones that Peterson has never really addressed with much power or clarity. That’s why I really hope he and Harris will continue to engage in sincere dialogue. He needs to confront these very powerful objections to his most fundamental philosophical pillars. It’s not an easy thing to do, and I won’t presume to do it here, though I will take a brief stab at it…

    Fundamentally there is a kind of forgetfulness associated with the purely materialistic metaphysical picture. Forgetfulness of the subjective aspect of existence. By placing the whole of your ontology in things that are utterly indifferent to your personal, conscious existence seems to require that you forget yourself. This is not the same as a philosophical denial. It is the rare that atheist denies that they exist, or that they are conscious. It is rather a kind of forgetfulness. What do I really care about? Why am I making such proclamations? I am the one, the thing, the person making such proclamations! It’s a kind of comedy to do so…

    The world I am so intent on elevating to the supreme levels of being… what would it be if I were not here doing such elevating? Can I really talk about such things with any meaningfulness? And to say that it is at the supreme level of being… how then shall I orient my life? If I say that something is the most real, the most true, what am I talking about? Does such a thing not have profound personal implications? Shouldn’t a thing matter profoundly to me? And yet, the precise claim I am making is that this thing has a reality that is precisely indifferent to what matters to me. What a strange claim to make. What a comedic claim to make! Does the person making such a claim recognize that they are still there, as an existing individual, whose time is short, and whose finite cares are spent at his own peril?! How can you possibly begin to talk sense to such a man? Where is the point of friction, where you can begin to get some traction? How can you remind somebody of there own existence?

    • Phillip Rowe says

      I enjoyed your reply. I wish to encourage you if only because I observe in most replies to the podcast a misrepresentation of Peterson’s view. You seem to be aware of the subtleties involved far more than the average critic. Of course I shouldn’t pretend I know his views exactly. But to put it very simply..Being of the opinion that truth exists along a spectrum doesn’t mean you have denied objective truth..It’s simply acknowledging that our ability to know that truth fully is fundamentally compromised by being inseperable from the truth itself. This to me is not controversial at all. Saying something is true without this humility is our attempt to touch the sacred. And as Jordan points our you touch the sacred at your own peril. This is a meta truth that I “believe” to be forever a hair ahead of the progress of science. To acknowledge this is the definition of wisdom. I perceive the criticque of Jordan Peterson in this podcast much of a straw man.

      • Kendall Burks says

        Thank you! Would it be possible for you to clarify what you mean by truth existing along a spectrum? Also, what do you mean when you say “fundamentally compromised by being inseparable from the truth itself”? I’d like to hear more if you would oblige me!

    • Pettersons view is highly incoherent in itself. He needs scientific and evolutionary concepts like “survival”, “reproduction” and “status hierarchy” *to be able atleast in principle* to actually be true to be able to hold the position against notion of independent truths.

      Holding the position he holds he is actually very subtly falsifying his own thesis, he is discreetly relying himself the truth he tries to debunk.

      • Nonsense. Survival and reproduction were concepts long long before science.
        Peterson’s position is not new.
        Go and study some coherence theory.
        Morality is built into the system for Peterson.
        The system is relevant to his understanding of truth.

    • Jordan H. says

      “These arguments I’ve just articulated seem to me to be ones that Peterson has never really addressed with much power or clarity.” It seems to me Peterson repeatedly addresses exactly the lack of clarity you point at, not by providing more clarity in the way you look for, but by saying simply you do not get to have powerful clarity on these matters. Is this a lack philosophically? Maybe from some perspectives (Harris seems to think so). Pragmatism incorporates this apparent lack easily enough. Modern physics seems to suggest that reality is the universe observing itself. How can the observer of this equation have clarity about the observed?

      It seems that overall you see Peterson as erring inso far as he attempts to leave out the intuitive sense we have of an element of reality outside of our experiencing? You might ask him, “okay fine, but what about the powerful intersubjective experience of an Other? What do we do with it?” An answer comes without too much trouble; namely within Peterson’s framework the very intuition you identify is still encompassed within the subjective; the intuition is an experience. Eventually Peterson I expect would simply arrive at faith, which he does openly; he claims no more or less. Is this a lack? (The obviousness of this “answer” suggest to me that I don’t fully understand your critique. Thus I’ll leave it there.)

      As far as I can tell, Peterson’s presupposition and (the most) modern physics seem to be congruent. You say: “Sure our values mean a whole lot to us, but they do not mean a whole lot to the universe we inhabit.” But Peterson and theoretical physicists both might say, ‘Sure we and our values don’t mean a whole lot to the universe, but the universe wouldn’t exist without us and our values.’ I see these seemingly oppositional statements pointing to a convergence for Harris and Peterson, in fact it was perhaps the one thing they did not disagree on and an element Peterson at least identified as a place from which to move forward; namely that I cannot doubt that I experience. It is after this axiom that they diverge. Our experiencing might at first glance appear to be the level below the interaction of the observer and the observed in which case there would be a subject and object, but in fact, within the unitarian construal Peterson presupposes and that modern physics points towards, Experience is Indivisible. (I admit, I could be ascribing this interpretation to Peterson, but this is where I’ve arrived after working my way through his material, so perhaps the attribution is sound.) This is the problem for Harris: how can he axiomatically presuppose simultaneously that the one thing he cannot doubt is that he experiences and continue to hold on to some notion of an objective reality? In short, I don’t see how Harris squares with Quantum Theories; I see with as much clarity as one might be able to hope, how Peterson’s framework does square with Quantum Theories.

      And because I’m enjoying channeling your Kierkegaardian-esque double speak; to misquote you: ‘Harris’s hypothetical obejctive reality detection mechanism, while perhaps allowing powerful intersubjective observation, does not convince me to make the ontological leap into his basically fantastical realm of non-anthropocentic wishful being.’

    • timebetweentrains says

      What a fantastic response. Thank you! Do you write anywhere else? Blog perhaps?

    • With regard to Piaget’s “equilibrated state”, it’s possible, as you suggest, that it converges with or comes somewhere in the vicinity of Harris’ construal of human wellbeing. In which case, perhaps Harris and Peterson have something similar in mind on the issue of what our summum bonum ought to be and can further the conversation in a productive way. That remains to be seen – perhaps Peterson thinks our summum bonum should be something other than maximizing wellbeing. At any rate, on Harris’ approach the Piagetian/hero archetype idea (or whatever Peterson has in mind) should ultimately be scientifically testable so as to assess whether, and to what extent, it conduces to human wellbeing, whatever that ends up being. (The Piagetian/hero archetype idea would be one scientific hypothesis among many other potential ones, and they would all be comparatively assessed in terms of how they accorded with Harris’ construal of wellbeing.) Though I’m still unsure why Peterson invoked evolutionary fitness and dominance hierarchies if what he really means to be getting at is the hero archetype and the Piagetian notion of an equilibrated state… For what it’s worth, I’ve always viewed Peterson’s work minimally as a kind of pragmatic wisdom (and I don’t say that to devalue it, either).

      In any case, Peterson’s radical position with regard to truth is needless, since he would lose nothing by abandoning it. He needn’t state that truth must always be contingent on human values or outcomes, ultimately, and in the long run. He can affirm that truths – for example, truths about chemistry, history, and mathematics – whatever they are, are what they are independent of what we think or value. He can do all of this while still affirming that the normative sphere is supremely important to us – or that we ought to take it extremely seriously (just as Harris does). This way, he could still attempt to make a moral argument that, for instance, there might be various questions for which we would be better off not knowing or investigating, and or even that we should direct our various inquiries in certain directions. Just as importantly, if not more so, he could still make arguments for how we ought to act – which his book and lectures are primarily concerned with addressing.

      Further, I see no fundamental contradiction between taking an approach to morality like Harris’ and being a physicalist and (some form of) a scientific realist. Nor is it the case that views such as physicalism and scientific realism entail that human needs and wants must be overlooked, ‘forgotten’, or downplayed. And neither is it true that science has nothing useful to say with regard to those needs and wants, either currently or potentially. So one can hold, as Harris basically does, that our normative ends are entirely up for us to decide, while at the same time allowing for empirical facts to help us achieve those ends. We needn’t concoct unjustified metaphysical worldviews that insist that values (or the individual) must somehow “ground out in being” in order to think about morality in a way that resembles, if not reaches, objectivity. On the other hand, I take it to be an empirical question whether some proportion of humanity at any given time must be told white lies about how human values “ground out in being”, so as to ensure that they live meaningful, well-adjusted lives and don’t suffer from debilitating existential despair. Perhaps Peterson suspects that this might be the case and thinks that this kind of faith is required for some. Alternatively, the atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg suggests taking “a Prozac or your favorite serotonin reuptake inhibitor” in cases of depressive, existential despair. So there’s that, too.

    • James Bradwell says

      This is a very good summary of Peterson’s thought on the matter, and expressed with more clarity than he managed to muster in his talk with Harris.

  8. Thank you for clarifying Peterson’s views on dominance hierarchies and evolutionary fitness. But there are still many objectionable ideas for instance the idea that “the creative capacity fundamentally does not exist at the level of the group, but at the level of the individual” – This is debatable.

    • Kendall Burks says

      True! It is debatable… to clarify: when I speak of the group as not containing a creative capacity, I do not mean to say that you can’t speak of groups as contributing in a creative manner to society at large. Clearly, you can speak of groups as being creative in this way. Even speaking of certain groups as fostering creativity more than others, via cultural trends, is possible. It is strange… any capacity that you might ascribe to an individual you might also extend out to the group in which they belong. But it is not clear where the ontology of a given trait bottoms out, if not in the individual. I would even say that the group as such doesn’t really “exist”, that it is only individuals that exist. This is why we speak of individual rights, not of group rights. It seems that the sanctity of the individual is at the core of western civilization, and I would argue that at least in part this is because western man “discovered” that the individual is where “being” bottoms out. Where do the joys and sufferings of life exist, if not in the individual?

      To think of this in Petersonian terms: the group, or society, which arranges itself as a dominance hierarchy, is one mythical category, represented as the great father. The individual on the other hand, is another mythical category. Society, the established order, the accumulation of past behavioral wisdom, is essentially dead because it is based on what once was. It is what worked in the past, and was built by people who are dead. It is the individual, on the other hand, who, endowed with living consciousness, can attend to both the chaos of the present and the order of the past, mediating between the two and creating a new order out of both. This is another reason why I speak of the creative capacity as existing within the individual, and not within the group. Creativity can be understood as the mediation of order and chaos. The group is by definition representative of order, nature is representative of chaos (the great mother), and the individual is the force that mediates between the two.

      • I agree that “the sanctity of the individual” is a core Enlightenment value and I may agree that the individual is where “being” bottoms out, as you put it. However, the idea that groups don’t really exist seems quite strange. Aren’t Individuals always enmeshed in groups – communities and cultures? Isn’t accumulated wisdom “alive” in various ways as for example as scientific knowledge, cultural norms, or specific skills. How can an individual be independent of history and culture? Aren’t groups needed to select which creative endeavors are valuable and worth preserving?

        • Kendall Burks says

          I would argue that it’s more than merely an enlightenment value. It seems to be at the core of the Judeo-Christian world view and value system as well, and as such is much older and more fundamental to western civilization.

          I can see what you mean about the notion that groups don’t exist being strange. I certainly don’t want to suggest that individuals exist independently of history and culture. That’s not my point. We are social creatures, and the social context we live in is massively influential for the individuals that compose it.

          I suppose one way of expressing the notion that groups don’t really exist, is that groups are always composed of individuals, and at the most concrete level of analysis, it is only individuals that really exist. I’m not arguing that we should stop using concepts related to groups and social dynamics to understand humanity and reality. By pointing out the ontologically tricky nature of groups, I’m attempting to clarify where our priorities should be. For me, the individual is sacred, while the group is not. In this context, I’m speaking of the group as distinct from traditions as such. I can understand holding certain traditions as sacred, to a degree. Though even then, the individual is for me ultimately primary.

          I would also argue that accumulated wisdom is only really alive if currently living individuals are actively embodying that tradition. I would also say that groups don’t have any ultimate authority to determine which creative endeavors are valuable and worth preserving. That is entirely up to the peculiar interests and judgments of individuals.

          • “If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants” – Issac Newton

    • Thanks Kendall, that was fantastic!

      Seconded. Not to besmirch the original article, but your comment was arguably better than it.

      And I agree that “forgetfulness of the subjective aspect of existence” is the primary flaw in Western thinking. Don’t get me wrong, objective observation and the experimental mindset kicks a** in understanding the world around us. But it can be pernicious.

      For example, after practicing yoga (which I consider to be a subjectively meditative practice) for a couple of years, I’m wary of all the mirrors I see in yoga studios and gyms. To me, they exemplify what one yogi called “the outward-looking Western mind.” We in the West think the best way to develop one’s physical technique is to study it visually from afar via reflection, rather than accruing the subjective sense of proprioception. Proprioception is not included among the major senses (even though it’s a huge one), and most Westerners would be surprised to learn that it can be honed in a way akin to the honing of a musician’s auditory sense. Probably because, unlike music which vibrates through the air, the neural connection to the physical body is totally subjective. Thus we ignore it.

      Peterson and Harris stand out in that they care deeply about subjective experience. Hopefully they have a conversation about it.

      • Kendall Burks says

        Thank you! That’s an interesting way of thinking about the objective/objective divide… it is certainly useful to compare and contrast east vs. west with that dichotomy in mind.

        For me, I was basically stealing that idea of forgetfulness from Kierkegaard, whose thinking would be extremely valuable in this context…

        • Gwynn Artorius says

          can someone please explain to me how Peterson’s views are not just a super high IQ, super mumbo jumbo laden version of the naturalistic fallacy. He seems to see morality as being truths contained in myths, stories, and parables that have survived our evolution…..and our 1000s of years of cultural distillation and knowledge….and I have heard him say on multiple occasions that these stories (like Pinocchio) are more real than real……and more true than true……whatever the hell that means sounds like mumbo jumbo to me meant to convince people of something. He always implies that a story or a myth that has survived is inherently good and true…..he has said this multiple times, while going on to talk about the mythic hero, medusa, snakes, gardens, flood stories, and all kinds of benign ideas to make his point. But he leaves out all the shitty and terrible ideas that have also survived darwinian selection and our cultural evolution…….which there are tons….tons of terrible ideas, beliefs, and myths that are actively harmful and terrible for our societies and our survival…..that have survived regardless just by chance, or by luck or because we have crappy elements to our nature. Which brings me back to the naturalistic fallacy…..it seems like he ignores this possibility that many of our “more real than real” myths are actually defying his darwinian definition of true in that they are bad for our survival and our cultures despite their own surviving.

          • Paul Lindemeyer says

            When Peterson is vague, given his erudition and conceptual faculties, I assume there must be a good reason. I think it may be a deep commitment to not asking questions and not being questioned. He can go for a half hour or more in a lecture without even posing a question rhetorically. His commenters on YouTube and such don’t engage in the questioning habit either – truth seekers that they are, they treat him as a fount of transmissive wisdom.

            It could be that thru his denial of postmodernism and deconstruction, Peterson has become convinced that the way forward for thinking humanity is non-discursive. That opens a door to untold pitfalls for both individuals and societies. Maybe his answer is that if we think evolutionally about the goodness of a belief, it will all come out in the wash. But if so, he is arguing for the simplistic and the pat. And maybe he is! He just has to present that argument out in the open. Right now it seems he would rather be passively accepted than defend his thought.

  9. When one needs child psychologists Jean Piagets ideas, status hierarchies or some hero methodology when discussion the notion of *truth* one cant help but think what are the reasons and beliefs one tries to cover with this elobarate building of the rationalizations.

    Again: Peterson needs and uses scientific and evolutionary concepts like “survival”, “reproduction” and “status hierarchy” *to be able atleast in principle* to actually BE TRUE. He leans himself to the notion of some things being already true (concepts he uses). He is discreetly relying himself some truths while trying to debunk the metanotion of truth.

    • Andy~ I agree with you completely, this is the reason the rest of Peterson’s epistimontology (like my new word?) as it appears to be self-refuting as you alluded to. I appreciate all of the added explication coming from commenters here (Kendall, Jordan, et al.) but I cannot help but feel that the conceptual premises he uses themselves rely on there being a different operant truth. I cannot help but feel that Peterson’s truth simply cannot derived from the premises he offers. This fundamental disconnect still hasn’t been adequately explained – at least not enough to dispense with my objection.

      Thanks for everyone’s great input!

    • Agree with you.

      My best guess: Peterson’s truth is based on something like Nietzsche’s “will to power” which Peterson combines with Darwinian selection, dominance hierarchies, and hero myths. I think he uses the hero archetype because otherwise Nietzsche’s overman and the “will to power” can be evil. The “will to power” combined with the hero archetype is a guide for action and is meant to be used as a means of self-mastery. This self-mastery is highly adaptive and represents a kind of truth.

  10. Steve Howarth says

    Another great article here. Proposes Harris misses Peterson’s point as he (Harris) is not sufficiently informed. “At this point, it should be clear to the reader that Harris seemed unaware of the foundations of pragmatism, his talk about arguing with Richard Rorty in undergraduate courses notwithstanding.” Also implies that Peterson could have explained it better – perhaps he had assumed Harris was sufficiently grounded. http://blog.paulmckeever.ca/uncategorized/what-sam-harris-was-missing-re-jordan-peterson-and-what-is-true/

  11. Since we are bringing ‘science’ and ‘mind’ in the same discussion, let us put this footnote: one individual can find no empirical evidence of ‘other minds’ – the most scientific approach of all, if one is impressed by the successes of reductionism, is to see other individuals as aggregates of dumb particles, manipulated by blind forces.

Leave a Reply