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What is Truth? Sam Harris vs Jordan Peterson

Sam Harris
Sam Harris

Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson had a two hour exchange over the definition of truth in 2017. If you have the hard luck of having a friend who’s philosophically inclined and unlikely to let a single statement pass unchallenged, you’ll feel right at home when listening to the conversation. If not, you’ll probably switch off 10 to 15 minutes in.

I enjoyed the conversation. Sam Harris was clever in coming up with many philosophical scenarios to trap Peterson, but the latter wasn’t in a conciliatory mood. He preferred to hold on to his initial presupposition and use it as an impermeable shield to Sam’s varied, often eclectic, and eventually offensive thought experiments (near the end Sam was asking Peterson how he would react to scientific evidence of his wife cheating on him).

The subtle bursts of anger, resentment and spite were audible to the careful listener but otherwise – it was an interesting debate about an important idea.

The Debate

Sam Harris defines truth the same way any scientifically minded and sane human being defines truth – an objective fact of reality that is true independently of what we think. Nothing that could happen as a consequence could ever affect either that truth remained a truth.

Jordan Peterson had a different conception of truth. He thought that it was more subjective than objective. He made references to the American pragmatists, Darwin, and (only obliquely) slipped in some Nietzsche to back up his viewpoint. Jordan doesn’t think that truth could be reduced to something that was provisionally correct. Scientific  truths have historically never been durable. They’ve constantly been updated and therefore it would have always been an error to assume that the scientific consensus at any given time was the truth.

More than that, a scientific truth is only a provisional truth until proven otherwise. For example, let’s say there was some breakthrough in science like self driving cars that made it easier for us to commute. For 10 years following the invention, society would have prospered immeasurably. The science behind the automation at this point would have been true for both Harris and Peterson.

But now imagine that in the 11th year, after automated cars have become ubiquitous,a malevolent terrorist hijacks the system and directs all the cars to crash into each other, killing billions of people as a result.

According to Peterson, that scientific truth is no longer true. Not because someone has disproved it scientifically but because the scientific endeavor itself was morally misguided. It was only “trivially correct” in that it helped people survive for 10 years in a more prosperous, efficient, and safer driving environment but failed catastrophically after the first 10 year.

Sam Harris would disagree. He would say that the scientific  truth that allowed automated cars to even function was still true. And that’s completely separate from whether or not we were wise enough to make advances in that field.

For Harris, scientific truth is an independent truth – it does not depend on moral truth. Whereas for Peterson, moral truth is the independent truth and it doesn’t depend on scientific truth. (Hume: you can’t derive an ought from an is). Harris thinks we can find moral truths through scientific discoveries. Peterson doesn’t think we can.

And the two went back and forth with examples and counter examples for two hours but made little ground. It was ironic because Peterson – prior to the podcast –  talked about how the postmodernists couldn’t conceive of a conversation between two people with different opinions ever ending in agreement.

I think I left out one important detail about both arguments. Harris was trying to be pragmatic. He understood what Peterson’s point was but didn’t see the need to warp a commonly used word like “truth” because we don’t think it sufficiently tells the bigger and more pertinent story. It’s not useful for any kind of debate.

But Peterson was trying to make a deeper point. He didn’t like Harris’ scientific rationalist philosophy and he was trying to show him that his worldview was insufficient – that it was not taking the necessary factors into consideration.

It wasn’t only a dig at Harris, but at anyone in the scientific community who wasn’t considering the moral ramifications of their work. Peterson wanted to revoke the privilege of attributing “truth” to the research of a malevolent scientist who wanted to bring about the destruction or suffering of human beings.

Peterson was giving moral truth the highest position in the truth hierarchy. While his method could have been better conceived, the project he’s trying to bring forward is one that isn’t being considered nearly as much as it should be.

It’s obvious that all of our scientific knowledge is an approximation of truth. Inevitably future generations with more advanced tools will make today’s theories irrelevant. The fact that a scientific idea can create functional objects in the world says nothing about the absolute truth of the underlying theory (Ex: Newton) when one accepts the presupposition that human beings matter the most.

It is imperative in science to doubt; it is absolutely necessary, for progress in science, to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature. To make progress in understanding, we must remain modest and allow that we do not know. – Richard Feynman

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