Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, What is Good and the Case for Naturalism.
By - Maharan
This is a really good post.
Personally I'm not sure that the problem of truth is really all that big of a problem. It seems to me that it's really a semantic issue.
I think they agree on two basic axioms here:
- There exists moral truth.
- Moral truth (generally speaking) trumps scientific truth.
Jordan then goes on to make a proposition like this: if moral truth and scientific truth are both kinds of truth, and moral truth trumps scientific truth, then moral truth is *more true* than scientific truth. That's the proposition Sam has a problem with, which is fair I suppose. The issue I see here is that much of Sam's objection is just linguistic in that it's confusing if we just say vaguely that something is "true". I don't think that's actually a problem though, because we could easily say that something is both scientifically true and morally false if we wanted to be precise.
It seems to me that getting worried about what exactly we might mean if we just say that a particular fact is "true" without qualifying whether we mean in the moral sense or the scientific sense is kind of silly. We should just use a qualifier if we don't want to create confusion.
If we wanted to be really precise, we could say that both kinds of truth taken together is "ultimate truth" and that when considering a conflict, moral truth trumps scientific truth.
In other words our truth table is like this:
1. Morally true, scientifically true: ultimately true
2. Morally false, scientifically false: ultimately false
3. Morally true, scientifically false: ultimately true
4. Morally false, scientifically true: ultimately false
I suppose case 3 seems weird, but I'm sure we could construct a scenario where lying is beneficial in a legitimate way. Obviously most of Sam's contentious scenarios revolve around case 4.
And still, I don't think all this stops us from talking meaningfully about scientific truth.
But that's the point: what is "moral truth"? This is a made up concept. It requires another definition. Truth is truth. Morality is morality. There is no true or false morality. There is good and bad morality. Let's not substitute the word true for good.
My problem with this is that the domains of factual/scientific truths and moral truths are distinct and intersect very little.
For instance, "7 is prime" is a factual truth which can hardly be assigned any moral value.
OTOH, "you should not torture animals" is a moral judgment — and is probably true in most moral frameworks — but it doesn't make sense to ask whether this maxim is factually true.
I think this was Sam's issue with this: how can you say that the knowledge about smallpox is morally good or bad? You could argue whether a particular application of that knowledge is good or bad; you could even argue that the decision to acquire that knowledge was bad; but the knowledge itself can only be more accurate or less accurate.
Without getting too involved in the details, I certainly agree that JP's argument would be greatly simplified if he just reduced the scope of his behavioral truth so that it only pertained to behavior. You can still make a strong claim "a complete theory of smallpox includes how people should use smallpox" without saying that an improper theory of how to use smallpox actually somehow falsifies the facts about biology. (Although, I'm not sure that he was actually trying to say that the scientific facts are falsified, but that's a longer discussion. I think that might have just been a misunderstanding on Sam's part.)
Excruciatingly enjoyable podcast. Always a lesson in restraint Sam: perhaps an unintentional but powerful side effect of listening to your conversations.
Sam was trying to obtain consensus on one simple point: that truth, by its very definition, does not change. Of course, our understanding of what is true (because we are fallible humans) absolutely can change - however our mere understanding does not change what is actually true. Jordan seems focussed on the fallibility of humans and their incapability of knowing pure truth (let's say in that omniscient way people attribute to a god) so he makes the leap of wanting to then reinvent the definition of truth, as if it’s purported unattainability disclaims its right to exist as a concept.
But, as Sam explained, whether we know the truth or are even capable of knowing the truth, the truth does in fact exist. How we feel about it or the effect of it is an entirely different question (a completely valid question but a separate question). Notably, if a truth-seeking question requires a subjective understanding of something (i.e. did your wife have an affair - “affair” could be subjective. ie. is kissing having an affair?) then the answer cannot be pure truth because it involves human fallible subjectivity, an assessment that would be different depending on who you ask. But this, as Sam tried to explain, is a weakness in the question. It does not prove that pure truth does not exist or that truth always depends on a context.
This was obviously a debate about terminology but got bogged down because Jordan didn’t meet Sam half-way on agreement as to the basic definition of truth. It felt, near the end that this reticence to concede a point of terminology was a fear of what that would do to other positions. It would be interesting to find out, upon reflection, if Jordan can agree to the definition of truth - and in turn, how that changes (or doesn't change) his position elsewhere.
I am concerned that Jordan was having a stroke. The point he was trying to make was nonsense.
Morality - good and bad - is a judgement based on some observer's criteria. It has no connection to truth. To define truth as morally "good" is nonsense. It's not what the word truth means. To define truth as "morally good" isn't useful because then truth doesn't mean truth anymore. What word would use use to mean truth?
Let's say you used this nonsense definition of truth. "Morally good" based on who's criteria? How would you know if that person was defining the criteria accurately or not?
Finally, Jordan admits that the whole thing breaks down in the micro-examples. The problem is that what is the macro-example? The macro-example is the sum of many many micro-examples. Therefore if the thing is nonsense in the micro-example, it is also non-sense in the macro-example.
My only criticism of your account is how you characterize pragmatism which on my reading is more concerned with epistemological limits than metaphysical concern with what is out there, "serving both science and practical life: accommodating the
“truths” and forms of “knowledge” of ethics and language and mathematics, as well as of the empirical sciences, within a reasonably articulated naturalism"
>My only criticism of your account is how you characterize pragmatism which on my reading is more concerned with epistemological limits than metaphysical concern with what is out there
But this is just a misunderstanding of pragmatism, which does ontologically assert that things are only true insofar as they are "pragmatically useful". It is not merely an epistemological position.
Pragmatism is not a metaethical position. It's a position about the nature of general truth. The podcast is so long and tiring because this subject is incredibly trivial and uninteresting. Pragmatism about truth is unbelievably stupid and easily refuted by kids in elementary school. Things aren't true because they work, or make you feel better, or help you survive, or whatever. You can dress that theory up all you want and call it Darwinian truth or whatever, but it's still ridiculous nonsense that nobody actually believes.
This whole podcast was a giant philosophical circlejerking and navel-gazing about what is actually a trivial issue. However Peterson like anyone with any background in continental philosophy and psychobabble has a unique talent for making philosophical mountains out molehills.
it seems like Jordan is after absolute truth, beyond capacity for humans to truly know, and Sam is defining truth as absolute KNOWABLE truth. that is the distinction it appears to me. Jordan is suggesting truth goes beyond the most fundamental physical and metaphysical concepts: like, why it would exist in the first place? why physical reality exists at all? Sam is searching for the truth within physical reality, where Jordan admits that there must be a cause to physical reality that exists as yet another deeper layer of truth. and down the rabbit hole we go.. but really, but are smart men, i wonder is they have read anything by rick straussman, albert hoffmann, or the McKennas, or better even yet, experienced what they have written about.
more importantly, they should understand the science that Ruper Sheldrake is involved in. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKHUaNAxsTg
also, watch terrence McKenna's video on "true enough" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NoMMNlX6Ny4
I think understanding these two videos along with the double slit expirement can help Sam understand Jordan
Double Slit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HiAj7S6ko9Q
I think that sometimes we go down rabbit holes and Sam and Jordan certainly did that. The ultimate discussion of truth and ethics was stalled in the first corner where they could not agree that there is something in the world called objective or empirical truth and that it stands out separate from ethics.
It certainly should have been the case that the two be brought together and that their implications be explored but we did indeed need that first acknowledgement to be made.
Essentially I think that Jordan's approach is ill-advised since - and Sam pointed this out - unless you know the ultimate results of the truth claim you are making i.e. did we survive or suffer, or did we not, then you can never adjudicate whether that thing is the truth.
This really leads you into a condition where: We can never know 'anything' until we know 'everything'.
This is a non-sensible position and even though I agree that ethics ultimately have to be weighed in, this does not stop us from asserting that we know what we are doing at the moment, especially while conducting science. Whether science is ultimately useful or beneficial to our species does not take away from the fact that cold is cold, hot is hot and that I am in-deed having my morning coffee.
this was hard to listen to. Sam is so coherent and you could hear Jordan struggle against his logic.
Jordan may have become famous on the internet, but he's not a very coherent thinker.
Sam was right to stop on this point as had he glossed over it, any meaningful conversation would have invariably eroded to "different views of the word truth".
I am commenting here because in the conversation Sam seemed genuinely interested in hearing feedback.
I read through some of the comments to avoid complete overlap, but if I go through more thoroughly I believe I may lose my perspective.
The first comment is solid - appreciate the approach.
Now for the comments:
In the debate I heard the blockage for progress in an almost tonal sense - and if that turns you off, this thread may not be for you.
I have only recently discovered Sam, and I think he is an absolutely brilliant mind, beautiful as well. Important, all that.
However I hear a tone lending itself towards entitlement, someone who may have never gone hungry (or a spiritual experience akin to) or ever been truly poor.
I get lost in the style of Metaphor choice as well.
A few times Sam presents a specific metaphor (let's say your wife cheats on you)...
These metaphor presentations (to be discussed "scientifically") hit the human heart. You say wife is cheating in you in theory - I am reeling from bringing in such a microcosm of human life.
And then the person in the debate (in this case, Peterson) responds respectfully, but this man cannot be without some cringe either consciously or sub-consciously, and then has to clear up all this grey area of what words mean in this "scientific investigation" of sorts.
High level pragmatism is great, necessary, etcetera - but the extremity of it seems off-the-charts at time.
Most of these listeners are going to have feelings and they are not paid to explore pragmatism in their lives (for the most part, I assume) - so to strip down everything-ness into pragmatism is jarring.
That is a luxury, I think it Should be a necessity, but from the listener side, it has no femininity to it. I strongly believe some nurturing tones could go a long way in this kind of debate.
Being clinically pragmatic (not allowing for quantum integration) I believe is influenced by the military-industrial complex and dualistic nature.
The man talks firm.
Their is not much elegance to the atmosphere created by the words - a key sentence here would be "let's accept this value system and talk from here" (which comes after metaphors at times)
Is sort of light-bullying. It feels like an emperors approach. Why not ask the other participant if that "lab test" works instead of asking to "accept" it as is.
I believe laymen call this "mansplaining". Which I think is a bullshit catch-term - but it has its validity in culture.
Lots of Sam saying "no". Hard no.
Do hard no's even Actually Exist in a Quantum reality?
I know we are not quantum but we Are Quantum.
So if you are saying no, you are in hard disagreement with someone who you've chosen to speak with.
No feels old. Imperical.
"What are you saying exactly - can you clarify details - I am not sure I understand because I am registering 100% disagreement"
Examples of things that could widen the scope of call and response and Conversation Collaboration here.
It seems there is a root ambition to prove at times.
I truly did love the podcast. I thought it was very intriguing and brave to ask for honest feedback.
My feedback may lean into a too-intimate-to-process zone.
Wanted to be honest and participate.
Although a bit late to this thread, I feel compelled to respond to this:
>However I hear a tone lending itself towards entitlement, someone who may have never gone hungry (or a spiritual experience akin to) or ever been truly poor.
The identity of the person making the argument cannot be used to judge the argument. The argument must stand on its own merit. (Even if I were to concede your point for a second, which I don't, Sam has been on a journey of seeking spirituality for a long time now so his "lack of spiritual hunger" is inaccurate.)
>A few times Sam presents a specific metaphor (let's say your >wife cheats on you)...
>These metaphor presentations (to be discussed "scientifically") hit the human heart. You say wife is cheating in you in theory - I am reeling from bringing in such a microcosm of human life.
Again, is this relevant? An argument making you uncomfortable cannot be used to devalue its merit as an argumentative device.
>That is a luxury, I think it Should be a necessity, but from the listener side, it has no femininity to it. I strongly believe some nurturing tones could go a long way in this kind of debate.
Once again, I am left questioning the relevance of this point. The "masculinity" or "femininity" of the interlocutors cannot be used to judge the arguments. I, at least, did not see anything wrong with the way the topics were argued, and fail to see how having one or both speakers be female or more feminine would add or take away from the merits of their arguments.
>Being clinically pragmatic (not allowing for quantum integration) I believe is influenced by the military-industrial complex and dualistic nature.
I have absolutely no idea what is being said here. This honestly sounds like obscurantism. Explain?
>Their is not much elegance to the atmosphere created by the words - a key sentence here would be "let's accept this value system and talk from here" (which comes after metaphors at times)
No, you shouldn't "accept and move on" when you don't agree with something. The whole point of a debate is to come to a consensus, not to talk past each other. I disagree with Peterson here, but I want to end up agreeing with him whether that comes about through me being convinced with his arguments or him being convinced with mine (Sam's).
>Is sort of light-bullying.
What on earth are you talking about? Bullying is the use of fear or force to intimidate. This was a rational discussion between intellectuals.
>I believe laymen call this "mansplaining". Which I think is a bullshit catch-term - but it has its validity in culture.
What? You believe Sam was "mansplaining" to Peterson as the word is culturally understood? You're losing credibility now and I almost regret writing this whole response.
>Lots of Sam saying "no". Hard no.
>Do hard no's even Actually Exist in a Quantum reality?
>I know we are not quantum but we Are Quantum.
Okay I've had enough nonsense. Direct logical contradictions and obscurantism.
>My feedback may lean into a too-intimate-to-process zone.
No, honest people can separate their personal opinions from the merits of an argument. Your feedback is bad for other reasons I've described above.
>Wanted to be honest and participate.
Then why the obscurantism?
Anyway, time to move on. This kind of got on my nerves so had to respond.
I don't understand how JP is a professor. Famous, sure--these days anyone can become famous. He doesn't have the basic vocabulary needed for philosophical debate. W in TF is a "micro claim"? Jesus; painful.
Good post though.
To me, Peterson seems quite capable of carrying out an intellectual conversation where difficult and deep ideas are being discussed. His vocabulary was sufficient. I just don't this his views stand up to scrutiny, which is why he was unable to sufficiently defend them in a clear way.
Allets1 : Excruciatingly enjoyable podcast. (+1; Well put!)
It was long and tedious at times but enjoyable as they kept going at the word "truth" in different ways using their own lenses (Realism vs Pragmatism).
Sam made some very cogent points about how something that is factually correct is the "truth" regardless of the outcome of the situation and regardless of when it happened.
Jordan's most salient point against this was that the truth is unknowable at any point in time especially from a scientific/realist point of view because by definition scientific truths are open to change if better proof/evidence is available at a later point in time although I did have a problem with the morality and survival argument which he says should supercede the scientific truth.
A question for Sam would be "what if the speed of light is discovered to be a number different than 186000 mi/s a 100 yrs from now"? (The factual consensus and experimentation all show it is infact 186000 mi/s right now but what if).
A question for Jordan would be "If someone dies, they are dead? Right?" Its a fact...its a truth regardless of how or why, beneficial or not.
>Jordan's most salient point against this was that the truth is unknowable at any point in time especially from a scientific/realist point of view because by definition scientific truths are open to change if better proof/evidence is available at a later point in time
I think you're conflating two things here. Our **models** of reality are subject to revision and even total overhaul in light of new evidence, but the facts of reality (which are independent of whether anyone knows them or not) are not subject to such change.
>A question for Sam would be "what if the speed of light is discovered to be a number different than 186000 mi/s a 100 yrs from now"? (The factual consensus and experimentation all show it is infact 186000 mi/s right now but what if).
Then our **understanding/model** of the speed of light was wrong. The speed of light **itself** does not change based on your understanding of it.
>A question for Jordan would be "If someone dies, they are dead? Right?" Its a fact...its a truth regardless of how or why, beneficial or not.
This would be an example of an inconvenient truth as Sam points out. In Jordan's confusing model of truth, there can be no inconvenient truth because that is one of the factors that disqualifies it from being true at all. Absurd and not useful.
So in essence you are saying Jordan's argument is absurd (and I kind of agree with you) but I was trying to maybe elucidate the point he was trying to make.
> The second problem is that it becomes somewhat obvious (especially in his lectures) that the only reason someone would use 'truth' in this sense is to vindicate some religious stories and thereby justify their beliefs.
Ah, this explains it all — why a person would adopt such a strange definition of truth. Of course, then you could use it to argue that since religion has been beneficial to humanity, it's true. (Roughly speaking; I haven't watched the lectures and don't know what Jordan's precise argument is.)
I wonder if Sam knew about it and hesitated to mention it as an argument — but at the same time did not want to concede the definition, as that would make the rest trivial.