Opinion philosophy

Understanding The Jordan Peterson vs Sam Harris Debates

Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson have engaged in a series of debates that included Bret Weinstein and Douglas Murray as moderators, in addition to two podcasts. One in which they famously debated the nature of truth for over two hours.

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Jordan Peterson

There is beauty, art and poetry that goes along with religion. It is true that religion can be dogmatic but so can secularism, and this suggests that the atrocities of the 20th century should not be attributed to religion or atheism, but to dogmatism. There is only one way to fight dogmatism, and it is through logos (truthful speech). And often, what is truthful is not what is factually accurate, but what is functional.

What is Logos?

A myth may not be factually true, but it is true in a deeper sense, it motivates people to act in ways that are beneficial to themselves and the general community – it is a “metaphorical truth.” If people acted as if “the gun was loaded”, that the myths were real, the outcome would likely be more peaceful than if people thought that anything goes, and you make up your truths as you go along.

The development of logos in the West can be attributed to the interplay between the Enlightenment and the Christian ethic. It cannot only be attributed to Christianity since Orthodox Christianity did not lead to the same kinds of cultural developments that were seen in Western Europe.

But the story of Christ provides a mythological foundation for the primacy of true speech, and the combination of art, literature, and architecture that is contained within the Christian tradition, has compelled people to take logos very seriously for hundreds of years. And this was a prerequisite for the development of the scientific method.

As Nietzsche remarked, Christianity was responsible for its own downfall precisely because of importance it placed on truth-seeking. But the problem is that by getting rid of the mythological substructure that informs our pursuit of truth (Christianity), we risk getting rid of the entire edifice altogether, since the hole that is left behind will not be filled by a relentless pursuit of reason, as Harris imagines, but something far more pernicious, which was evidenced in the 20th century, and can still be seen today, in journalism, science, and politics.

We are not beyond self-destruction, as a species, and we should seek to put aside our arrogance, and hold on to the wisdom of our ancestors, if we are going to properly navigate the dangers of the new world.  

Sam Harris

The problem with religion is that people take it too seriously. If people were not fundamentalist about their belief, we would not see the rise of radical Islam, and we would not see world leaders go to war for irrational reasons in the name of religious truths.

But today, the world is filled with bad ideas, and we have an obligation to rid ourselves of these bad ideas, if we want to witness the flourishing of humankind, and if we want to prevent unnecessary suffering.

The authors of scripture may have been talented, but they are no more profound than Marcus Aurelius or Shakespeare. There is no reason why the Biblical texts should be taken more seriously than any philosophical text that was written by a mere mortal. And by failing to acknowledge this, we hinder our own pursuit of truth. We need free speech and love, but we don’t need to ascribe religious connotations to these ideas.

The Similarities

Both believe in the primacy of free speech. Both are opposed to dogmatism, in all its forms, and both think that tolerance is secondary to truth in the hierarchy of values.

The Arguments

The main points of contention are around what should be taken seriously. The first concerns ancient myths, the second concerns human rationality.

The Importance of the Christian Myth

Jordan Peterson thinks that myths, particularly the Christian myth, that has laid the foundation of a truth seeking culture, is not easily replaceable, and we should do whatever we can to preserve the wisdom contained in these texts.

Sam Harris thinks that the profundity of Christianity can be replaced with any other religion, particularly those of the East, and that it can even be replaced with astrology, if one tries hard enough. In other words, there is nothing implicit within Christianity that is special, or that should be preserved, over any other philosophical text that has been written in the past. And there is certainly no reason why we should think that there is anything divine about the Bible.

Peterson thinks that Harris is wrong because it is not an arbitrary coincidence that these texts have endured the test of the time, and have been so influential. He thinks that the stories themselves reveal a truth about the human condition that should be taken seriously, and the fact that it can relate these truths in one paragraph parables or stories such as the Story of Cain and Abel, should make us revere them, and not assume that they are mediocre and misguided intellectual products, as Harris would claim.

And here the backgrounds of the two men is particularly important. Harris’ ideas are the products the Enlightenment, in that he thinks that rationality and science is all we have, if we want to make progress, while Peterson is more influenced by Romanticism, in that he thinks that art, architecture, and the role of the individual, cannot be understated. But this leads to responses that are often confusing.

In one of the first debates, Harris asked Peterson a simple question, “Do you think Jesus was resurrected?” after commenting that Peterson had previously claimed that it would take him over 40 hours to answer that question. Peterson agreed that the issue is complex, that it would take him a lot of time to answer, and the biblical accounts don’t clearly say that Jesus was literally resurrected.

Harris then asked Peterson to give a probabilistic guess, since he too acknowledged that anything was possible. Harris at this point had lost his patience, and after reaching the maximal point of frustration, asks Peterson, “How about this for an answer? Almost certainly not!”

Peterson’s unwillingness to grant that some interpretations were more valid than, his refusal to have clear answers (even probabilistic ones) to simple questions, identifies the hypocrisy of his philosophy.

He often attacks the post-modernists, particularly for their refusal to acknowledge that literary interpretations fall within a hierarchical structure, that some interpretations are better than others, but when it comes to the Bible, he becomes a post-modernist himself (by his definition). That is, he refuses to say which Christian interpretations are most likely, and even whether the central claim of Christianity (the resurrection of Jesus) is true.

The Importance of Rationality

Peterson thinks that myths are superior to rational arguments, and this is because of the emotional power they have, and their ability to relate to a much larger segment of the population, thus indicating that they pertain to deep truths. Whereas rationality and science are great for technological and economic progress, they don’t address the human need for meaning, and they don’t have the ability to appeal to the masses.

The true mark of genius of any story is in its generalizability. If you can write something that everyone can relate to, and contains a deep truth, that Peterson talks about, is something that he considers divine. 

What he means by divine is other worldly, or something we cannot understand, but he does not restrict his definition of the divine to any strictly Biblical ideas. And this is a point that Harris finds confusing, since he does not see exactly what foundations Peterson is resting on. But Peterson’s idea of the divine seems to be contained in the structure of the myth itself, as a kind of hyper reality, that is more than real. If something is hyper-real, then it applies to various contexts, and is not just contained in a literal example (think of mathematics).

Harris thinks that it is easy to recreate these stories by using other arbitrary imagistic representations in their place, but Peterson contends that if that were true, anyone would be able to write a great novel. It is for this reason that Dostoevsky was superior to Nietzsche in Peterson’s opinion, because the former was able to represent his logical arguments in story form, and could therefore deliver his ideas to a greater number of people.

The story of Christ is an example of a perfect archetypal story, if the goal is to motivate people to speak the truth, and to confront evil forthrightly.

Harris also says that if a religious text is interpreted a sufficient number of times, then one can find an infinite number of meanings in it, and there is nothing implicit in that text that should be preserved. Again, to him, these are arbitrary stories that one can read into any way they please.

Peterson not only thinks that novels are superior to rational arguments, but that there is a clear difference in quality between novels. Shakespeare’s work contains a certain amount of truth that is much deeper than what you can find by reading the work of an amateur novelist. And in the same way, religious texts vary in quality. It is worth noting that Harris does not think all religious texts are equally bad, he thinks that some religions have more dangerous ideas than others, but in terms of quality, they are all the same, they are the products of human minds.

When asked about whether he thought these ideas were the product of human minds as well, Peterson agreed, but he contends that they are also indicative of a deeper truth, that the creative process is a mystery, and that it is too simplistic to say that these texts can be compared to any other product of the human mind.

But Peterson does does not explicitly say that scripture was a result of supernatural intervention, only that we ought to treat revelation with a kind of reverence – something Harris could not agree with, since to him, revelation is simply a collection of ideas, that is no different to his, Peterson’s, or those of Marcus Aurelius.

And this is worth thinking about because it highlights another important difference in the ways these two people think.

Peterson is open to new ideas; he sees ideas as a conduit to which we can experience the world. There is nothing fixed about ideas and they are very mysterious. Even logic is mysterious, and we don’t really know how to use it, in an unadulterated way.

In fact, he does not think that it is within our abilities to truly be logical, because we must make value judgments before we process facts. In simple language, Peterson is saying that we don’t process reality as if we are robots, taking facts in and then interpreting them. Instead, we are choosing which facts we want to take in, and which picture of reality we want to focus on, and this informs our ideas about the world much more strongly than does pure rationality.

And for that reason, it would be futile to believe that pure rationalism can fill the void left behind by the eradication of religion, because rationality does not point towards one answer that everyone can agree on.

There was a comical point in one of the debates when Sam asked Jordan what he believed in because he still couldn’t figure it out after several hours of debates, and the crowd cheered loudly, as if Sam had read their minds and vented their collective frustration at Peterson’s blatant ambiguity.

To which Jordan cleverly evaded the question once again by alluding to the point that no one can really articulate what they believe in, if they are honest with themselves. That the human mind is complicated, especially when you consider that the surface level thoughts that you have are barely representative of what you truly believe in, since you are acting in ways that oppose these thoughts all the time, indeed, you are a collection of opposing impulses. Not to mention that language itself is limited, and is incapable of properly articulating what one really thinks about an abstract and complicated idea like God.

That said, Peterson has attempted to define God in the past.

When Harris pushed Peterson on a point he made earlier, that religion is necessary for stupid people, but not so necessary for smart people, Peterson held on to his guns, proverbially “sticking his foot in his mouth” for a second time, but like the previous point, it is important to understand what Peterson is saying. That is, it isn’t that some people need religion because they are stupid, it is because rationality is deeply flawed, and if they are not sufficiently rational (most people aren’t), then they can make very bad choices without religion.

If reality is very confusing, and you aren’t good at navigating it yourself, you are better off doing what everyone else is doing, and erring on the side of conservatism.

There may be a few people who devote their entire lives to reading Kant and Hegel, but they are a tiny minority, and even they may not get very far. As for most people, they can only use rationality in a very limited sense, because of time constraints and mental ability.

This, combined with the fact that rationality itself is insufficient, as stated above, suggests that Sam Harris’ antidote, which is to act rationally, is a weak, almost naïve proposition.

Harris has a straightforward perspective, one that Jordan rightfully said can be summed up in two lines. Do the maximum good, avoid unnecessary suffering.

At one point, Peterson coyly asked Harris if he really thought that a watered-down version of Buddhism can really be a serious contender with the Christian ethos that has stood the test of time.

Harris’ contention was that there hasn’t been the opportunity to fill the religious void because of religious dogmatism, that for the longest time, has claimed a monopoly on meaning.

Note 1: The reason why Peterson used the term “watered-down version of Buddhism” is because what Sam Harris continuously promotes is in line with basic Buddhist teachings such as avoiding unnecessary pain, meditating, being awareness of one’s own thoughts and programming. But Sam doesn’t promote Buddhism entirely, with its myths and rituals.

Note 2: I found that to be a strange criticism, coming from Peterson, since what he is essentially promoting is a watered-down version of Christianity himself. It is basically a call to accept the wisdom contained in some of the Biblical stories, but not all, and without accepting the stringent demands that some people like Dostoevsky (who Peterson considers a hero, judging by how often he refers to him) called for, which is the imitation of Christ in one’s own life.

The Conclusion

It is not just logic that guides us or animates us or gives meaning to our lives. There is so much more. But the danger to Sam, is that by allowing ourselves to be swept away with the art and the literature of religion, we risk being swept away by its dogma. And to make sure this never happens; we must get rid of any dogmas that don’t stand the test of science and logic.

The two big dangers are dogmatism and nihilism. Peterson more afraid of nihilism, Harris more afraid of dogmatism. The former is a conservative position, the latter is a liberal position. And as Peterson rightfully said, this was temperamentally determined, which indirectly supports his point about the limitations of reason alone.

And this is where we come to the end of an enjoyable and stimulating series of debates.

What will fill the void of religion Is Harris right when he said that we just need common sense and meditation? Or is Peterson right when he says we need perfectly written and highly generalizable stories that reveal to us truths about human nature? 

Clearly, the answer isn’t straightforward. But the important takeaway here is to stand in awe of our own ignorance.

I think that the problem with Sam’s argument, is that he thinks these problems have a very simple solution, when they clearly don’t. It’s as if he doesn’t recognize that these exact conversations have been taking place for a very long time. To brush away the valid objections against a rationality-based morality that have been made in the past, makes Harris seem arrogant, and more interested in selling a world view that can be digested with ease, than following the argument where it leads, even if it comes at the expense of coherence.

I think that Peterson’s problem is that he does not sufficiently address the need for new ways of thinking in a world is changing very quickly, and that is different from Sam’s need to address the arguments made in the past with regards to a purely rational based ethos. Peterson’s over-reliance on mythology becomes worrisome when confronted with modern issues that require different ways of thinking.

It is one thing to think of yourself as the hero of your own story, or to try to rescue your proverbial father from the belly of the beast, but it is a different thing to think about political and socioeconomic problems by taking myths too seriously. Sometimes, the sound answer from a mythological perspective can have terrible consequences, and this is not a philosophical thought experiment – we have seen how over reliance on myth for guidance and direction has resulted in religious extremism and violence, both in the past and the present.

The myths of the past undoubtedly are valuable and must be preserved, but Sam is right when he says that slipping into dogmatism is too easy and too dangerous, and in a world that is increasingly reactionary, clear thinking, even if it comes at the expense of old ideas, is our only hope.  

A final point about both authors, is that both are pop philosophers, but I don’t say this dismissively. They may lack the profundity of ancient philosophers, but they have managed to make philosophy accessible to a general audience, and inspire a deeper interest in truth-seeking, using rationality, and reading great books. This cannot but lead to higher quality conversations, and more critical thinking, which is lacking, and well worth fighting for.

6 replies on “Understanding The Jordan Peterson vs Sam Harris Debates”

super nice write up. one point i heard harris provide is that JP’s deep lessons from religious texts can be derived from other texts. what is required is applying sufficiently deep post-reading analysis. in other words the apparently special and useful nature of religious texts comes from willingness of people to endlessly analyse them and refine their meaning to be useful. their usefulness doesnt arise from any particular inherent feature in them

Thank you, I will add this point, as well as Peterson’s response, which was that there is hierarchy of quality when it comes to religious texts. That, for example, there is more truth contained in Shakespeare than an amateur novelist. In the same way, there is more truth in Christianity than other religions, because of its generalizability and endurance.

“…watered-down version of Buddhism” — why would it need to be watered down? Isn’t Buddhism older than Christianity? I’m saying this rhetorically because obviously I’m missing the point, but others may be missing it too, so I thought I’d ask for clarification.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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