What Sam Harris was missing re: Jordan Peterson and “What is true?”

January 30, 2017 by  

harris-peterson“One thing that will be interesting for me is if anyone can point out to me what I am missing about your argument thus far, ’cause you are reacting to me like there is something you are saying that makes sense, that I’m not seeing, that does actually nullify the import of the kinds of ‘toy examples’ I have been putting forward, and I don’t see it.”  Such was the way in which neuroscientist and author Sam Harris summed-up his January 21, 2017 conversation with University of Toronto clinical psychologist and professor Jordan Peterson.  The following sets out what I believe Harris was missing (and what Peterson was not making explicit), in the hope that Harris and Peterson can, with a better understanding of each other’s assumptions, continue what promised to be an interesting conversation.

To listen to this blog entry being read to you by Paul McKeever, play this video.


On the January 21, 2017 edition of the podcast “Waking Up with Sam Harris #62: What Is Truth?“, Harris (starting at about 25 mins, 6 sec into the recording) had intended to cover a wide range of topics with Peterson – such as religion, science, atheism, the foundations of morality, meaning, Peterson’s interest in mythology and fear of nihilism – but the two soon found themselves involved in a discussion about the nature of truth. After spending the last three quarters of the conversation discussing the nature of truth, Harris “pulled the brake” on the conversation. He said it would be difficult to move on to discussing the relation between “scientific truth and moral truth” without first understanding one another’s positions on the nature of truth. Hoping to find out what he was “missing” in Peterson’s position on truth – to find out why Peterson would not agree to certain claims that Harris thought to be obviously and indisputably true – he asked listeners to provide him with feedback helping him to find out what went wrong in the conversation. In what follows, I provide an overview of what Harris and Peterson said, followed by my understanding of what Harris was missing and how the conversation ended up getting bogged down in a protracted effort, by Harris, to understand Peterson’s rejection of Harris’ theory of truth.

The Explicit Disagreement Between Harris and Peterson

The essence of the explicit disagreement between Harris and Peterson concerned the issue of whether the truth or falsity of an idea depends upon the moral value (e.g., good or evil) of the idea. On Harris’ view, an idea is true if it corresponds to the facts of reality, and the moral goodness or evil of the idea has no bearing on its truth or falsity: the good is a species of the true. On Peterson’s view, an idea is true only if it is morally good: the true is a species of the good. Hence Peterson’s characterization of the two men’s respective positions on truth:

“The claim I’m making is that scientific truth is nested inside moral truth, and moral truth is the final adjudicator. And your claim is ‘No! Moral truth is nested within scientific truth and scientific truth is the final adjudicator’.”

The following exchange between Harris and Peterson confirmed Peterson’s characterization of the dispute:

Harris: “You clearly have to have a conception of facts and truth, that is possible to know, that exceeds what anyone currently knows and exceeds any concern about whether it is useful or compatible with your own survival even to know these truths.”

Peterson: “Well then I would say that I don’t think that facts are necessarily true. So I don’t think that scientific facts – even if they are correct from within the domain that they were generated – I don’t think that that necessarily makes them true…”

Harris: “The truth value of a proposition can be evaluated whether or not this is a fact worth knowing or whether or not it’s dangerous to know.”

Peterson: “No, but that’s the thing I don’t agree with because I think that’s the kind of conception of what constitutes a fact that does in fact present a moral danger to people; a mortal danger to people; and I also think that that’s partly why the scientific endeavour – as it’s demolished the traditional underpinnings of our moral systems – has produced an emergent nihilism and hopelessness among people that makes them more susceptible to ideological possession. I think it’s a fundamental problem. And I do believe that the highest truths – let’s put it that way – the highest truths are moral truths. I’m thinking about that from a Darwinian perspective.”

I will explain, below, that I do not believe the essential disagreement between Harris and Peterson was the explicit one indicated above.  The essential disagreement – which remained largely implicit and unexpressed – was much more fundamental.

Peterson’s Expressed Views on Truth

To understand how Harris and Peterson got bogged-down on a discussion about the nature of truth, it is important that the reader first understand the various aspects of Peterson’s relatively complicated view on the nature of truth, to the extent that they were explicitly identified during the conversation.  Only then will the reader be able to appreciate what was missing from the discussion; to appreciate what omissions resulted in Harris’ confusion with Peterson’s rejection of Harris’ theory of truth.

On Peterson’s stated theory of truth, an idea can be thought to be true (or false) at a “micro” or “proximal” level – e.g., at the level of a scientific experiment, or at some other level that does not take the morality of the idea into account – yet actually be false (or true) at a “macro” or “distal” level that includes a consideration of whether the idea is pro-survival or anti-survival (i.e., good or evil). As Peterson put it:

“Something can be true at one level of analysis and not true at another. That happens all of the time. That’s what a white lie is.”

“…the fundamental axiom that I’m playing with is something that was basically expressed by Nietzsche. And it’s a definition of truth. And so, I would say, if it doesn’t serve life, it’s not true.”

For Peterson, it is the macro/distal level – the level that includes a consideration of the morality of the effects of an idea – that determines the idea’s truth or falsity.  For Peterson, the standard of the moral truth – i.e., of the goodness – of an idea is that the effect of the using or acting upon an idea is ultimately pro-survival (of the individual, or a number of individuals, or all of humanity).

On Peterson’s view, it is a bit misleading to use the phrase “truth or falsity” because, on his view, ideas have degrees of truthiness. On his view, nobody can ever be 100% certain that an idea is true or that it is false.  Rather, on his view, an idea is an instrument or tool, and an idea can be “true enough” or “sufficiently true” that it, at a given point in time, is not doubted and is therefore worthy of being used or acted upon; and an idea can be “insufficiently true”, such that it is doubted and is not worthy of being used or acted upon.

Peterson asserted that “The only final way of sorting out whether a scientific claim is sufficiently true is through Darwinian means, because I think that the Darwinian process is the only way of adjudicating truth”.  On Peterson’s view, the truth or falsity of an idea evolves in a Darwinian fashion both as that which we call “the world” changes and as one’s system of ideas expands. That which is not doubted and is thought to be sufficiently true to be acted upon today might in the future – when the world changes, or when Man has more knowledge, hence a broader, more macro context – become doubted and judged to be insufficiently true to act upon. In the manner of a survival of the fittest, insufficiently true ideas will die out and sufficiently true ones will survive. There is never a point at which one gets to “cash the cheque” (as Harris put it).  As Peterson put it: “…you’re never right, you’re only sufficiently right to go ahead”.  Ideas are constantly undergoing evaluation and, over the course of the process, there are always ideas that die and others that are born or survive.

The above elements of Peterson’s position on truth can be seen in Peterson’s example of the invention of the hydrogen bomb.  He explained that at a micro/proximal level – i.e., on the “Newtonian” perspective to which Peterson submitted Harris subscribes – that the bomb works is a “pretty damn potent demonstration” that “our theories about the sub-atomic structure of reality are accurate”.  However, at the macro/distal level – i.e., from what Peterson referred to as a “Darwinian” perspective, to which Peterson subscribes – if use of the H-bomb were to have led to the destruction of mankind, then:

“…I would say that the proposition that the universe is best conceptualized as sub-atomic particles was true enough to generate a hydrogen bomb, but it wasn’t true enough to stop everyone from dying.  And, therefore, from a Darwinian perspective, it was an insufficient pragmatic proposition and was therefore in some fundamental sense, wrong.  And, perhaps it was wrong because of what it left out.  You know, maybe it is wrong, in the Darwinian sense, to reduce the complexity of being to a material substrate and forget about the surrounding context.”

In Peterson’s view, science currently errs by divorcing moral considerations from the assessment of the truth or falsity of ideas. According to Peterson, science’s divorcing of morality from truth renders science rather myopic. Science tends to evaluate the truth or falsity of an idea at a micro or proximal level and, failing to take into account a broader context, including the morality of the idea, science ends up concluding that the idea is true, but according to a “dopey framework of reference”, such that the idea is only “trivially true” (Peterson gives the example of someone concluding that he is in no danger because the room he is sitting in is not yet on fire, though the rest of the house is engulfed in flames). The myopia results in a manner of doing science that can lead society blindly to pro-survival or anti-survival consequences.

Why the Harris-Peterson Conversation Got Bogged Down: The Unstated

Harris appeared – at least at many points in the conversation – to understand what Peterson was asserting about science and truth. It was clear also that Peterson understood Harris’ theory of truth, which was relatively straightforward (one might rightly say that the theory of truth to which Harris subscribes is the common, widespread, common-sense notion of the nature of truth).  Thus, the conversation did not bog-down in a discussion about the nature of truth because of a failure on either man’s part to understand what the other man was explicitly asserting.

Rather, the duration and repetitiveness of the conversation was due to an apparent inability, on Harris’ part, to understand why Peterson holds the view he holds about the nature of truth; why Peterson does not accept the absolute truth of a proposition that seems indisputably or certainly true on Harris’ theory of truth. This was made clear by Harris’ ongoing, time-consuming, and repetitive but failed attempt to get Peterson to accept that something can be true whether or not it is pro-survival; whether or not it is good; independently of moral considerations.

Harris’ attempt took the form of presenting Peterson with a series of scenarios, each containing a proposition that Harris regarded to be clearly, obviously, certainly and indisputably true, and asking Peterson, in respect of each scenario, to admit the truth of the proposition. Peterson never bit the hook. For example, Harris suggested that if the number of hairs on Peterson’s body is odd, it is absolutely true that the number of hairs is odd even if a madman would shoot Peterson dead for having an odd number of hairs. Peterson disagreed: if having an odd number of hairs would result in Peterson’s murder, then it is not sufficiently true to act on the proposition that that Peterson has an odd number of hairs. Harris asserted that the  largest prime number anyone has ever seen written down was a prime number even before anyone existed or saw it, and that the truth or falsity of idea that it is prime does not turn on anyone’s survival or well-being. Peterson disagreed, saying that the idea that a number is a prime number is founded upon a whole set of underlying metaphysical assumptions that might turn out to be false, and that if the effect of the idea that a given number is prime (pursuant to a given set of metaphysical assumptions) is anti-survival (hence not good), then the idea that the number is a prime number is not sufficiently true: i.e., it might be “trivially true” in a micro/proximal sense – in the sense that it is consistent with the false underlying metaphysical assumptions – yet not be sufficiently true to be acted upon in the broader macro/distal sense of being consistent with survival/goodness.

Harris then moved away from his several examples in which there was a single destructive effect of an idea, and instead tried a scenario in which the same idea gives rise to an equal amount of human survival and human destruction. Two almost-identical laboratories on opposite sides of the globe are researching a smallpox vaccine. In one of the labs, an accident happens, small pox escapes the lab and gets into the surrounding population killing half of the population. The vaccine developed in the other lab saves the other half of the population. Harris submitted that if the exact same idea simultaneously has two diametrically opposed effects of equal magnitude, one can neither say that the idea is true nor that it is false, on Peterson’s theory of truth. Again, Peterson disagreed. In his view, a rational person would look at what happened and conclude that nobody would have died had nobody been “messing around with smallpox” in a lab; that, overall, the idea of messing around with smallpox is dangerous and destructive, hence evil, with the result that messing around with smallpox is not a sufficiently true idea to act upon.

Both men were understandably tired by the time Harris introduced his last scenario, in which a man kills himself after being presented with photographs showing his wife having sex with another man. Harris asserted that Peterson cannot point to the suicide of the husband and, on the basis of his suicide, conclude that the idea that wife cheated on her husband is false. After a long pause, Peterson asserted that – as with all of Harris’ other “micro” or “toy” scenarios – this scenario is stripped of context in a way that is tailored to make Harris’ assertion seem true. Peterson explained that, for example, Harris has characterized the wife’s behaviour as cheating on the husband, but one can imagine investigating further – obtaining information about the broader context – and concluding that the husband’s behaviour (toward his wife) was such that it would be “such a perversion of the truth” that it makes the photographic evidence (i.e., the evidence upon which the assertion of the truth of the cheating was founded) “not only irrelevant but positively malevolent”.

In response to the whole series of scenarios, and to Harris’ frustration with Peterson’s refusal to accept propositions in those scenarios to be true independently of moral considerations, Peterson explained the problem with the conversation, as he saw it:

“The reason we’re stuck on this discussion is you won’t allow me to make a distinction between provisional factual truths [like the micro/proximal propositions in Harris’ scenarios] – which I don’t want to dispute because it’s self evident that they’re correct, but that isn’t what I’m saying. I’m saying there’s an underlying metaphysics that’s at question here.”

Harris could not bring himself to believe that Peterson actually believed his own argument about truth:

“I honestly can’t convince myself that, when push comes to shove, we really have a different conception of truth here.  I feel like you are committed to playing a language game by certain rules of your own design here which are not helping you achieve clarity with an interlocutor like me or anyone else on this topic…”

It is clear that, by the end of their conversation, Harris remained puzzled and stunned by Peterson’s refusal to admit the truth of the various propositions set out in his various scenarios.  For that reason, Harris “pulled the brake” on the discussion, proposing that they turn the recorded discussion over to his listeners to see what they thought, and to see if maybe one man or the other was misunderstanding the other.

In my view, Peterson’s assessment of the problem with the conversation was correct.  Contra Harris, I submit that the two men hold very different conceptions of truth, but that the participants examined truth only superficially, such that the reasons for Peterson’s refusal to concede the truth of the propositions in Harris’ various “toy” scenarios were never made explicit.

The Two Major Categories of Theories of Truth

It was fairly obvious that Harris subscribes to a Correspondence theory of truth, whereas Peterson subscribes to a pragmatist version of the Coherence theory of truth. I submit that a proper understanding of what went wrong with the Harris-Peterson conversation requires an understanding of the difference between Correspondence and Coherence theories of truth, but – more importantly – an understanding of the other philosophical assumptions that lead one to subscribe to a Correspondence theory or to a Coherence theory.

A Correspondence theory of truth essentially is one that holds up reality as the standard of whether one’s propositions are true or false. As Aristotle put it:

“To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true”.

Thus, for one to subscribe to a Correspondence theory of truth, one must assume that there is a reality that exists independently of what anyone thinks about reality.  Harris makes that assumption, as was made clear in such of his comments as this one:

“It just seems to be undeniable that there are facts whether or not any of us – any existing population of human beings – are aware of those facts.  So, before there was any understanding of the energy trapped in an atom, the energy was still trapped in the atom.”

On the Correspondence theory of truth, a proposition about reality is true if it corresponds to reality, and false if it does not correspond to reality. Thus, if apples do fall from trees, then – by a Correspondence theory of truth – the proposition “Apples fall from trees” is true, and the proposition “Apples rise into the sky” is false.

In contrast to Correspondence theories, Coherence theories of truth essentially are those that hold a proposition to be true if it is compatible – logically, or in some other way – with a system of beliefs (e.g., with one’s other beliefs, or with the beliefs held widely by a number of people). For example, one’s proposition “Apples rise from trees” is compatible with one’s belief that things rise into the sky (instead of falling to the ground): the proposition coheres with the belief, so it is true on a Coherence theory of truth. In contrast, if one believes that all objects rise into the sky, one’s proposition that “Apples fall to the ground” does not cohere with one’s belief that all things rise into the sky. Under those circumstances, the proposition about falling apples would be adjudged false by a Coherence theory of truth. As I will explain below, the Pragmatic theory of truth to which Peterson apparently subscribes essentially is a Coherence theory of truth.

Underlying Assumptions of Correspondence Theories and Coherence Theories

A theory of truth is not axiomatic. It is founded upon beliefs about reality and one’s capacity or incapacity for knowledge of reality. For the most part, these foundational beliefs were not addressed in any detail by Harris and Peterson during their discussion, but I think that Harris’ confusion about Peterson’s position on truth is attributable to Harris not knowing the assumptions that underlie a Pragmatist theory of truth.

Pragmatists, for the most part, accept most of what philosopher David Hume submitted in his books “A Treatise of Human Nature” (1740) and “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (posthumous edition, 1777)”.  In particular, they adopt his Sensualism: they believe that sensations are the only objects of thought (i.e., the only thing that one can think about).  A sensualist believes that one has no way of knowing what causes the sensations that one experiences with one’s five senses (sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing): it could be a god that creates those sensations, or one’s own mind, or some sort of external reality, but we cannot know what causes the sensations, so we must reject from consideration any assertion that reality is this way or that, or that there is any existence or reality other than the content of one’s own mind. The pragmatist essentially says that all that one can know is the stream of experiences that one undergoes in one’s mind. One cannot know anything about what causes those experiences. All talk of what exists independently of one’s mind is, to the pragmatist, meaningless gibberish. In the pragmatist’s view, it is unscientific to think or speak of “external reality” or anything other than the content of one’s own mind.

In the pragmatist’s view, there is no separation between the thinker (i.e., the subject) and the thing about which he thinks (i.e., the object of his thought). One thinks not about the world around one, but about the content of one’s mind; about the stream of sensations one experiences.

It follows that a pragmatist’s theory of truth cannot be one in which ‘the way things really are, out there, independently of me’ is the standard for deciding whether a proposition is true or false. There is no “out there”. All that one can be aware of is what is “in here”; in one’s mind.  Hence Peterson’s statement that:

“There’s a claim inside Darwinian thinking which was recognized by all of the pragmatists – who were very very smart people – that there’s a truth metaphysic nested in Darwinian theory, which is that you don’t have access to the truth, even if you think you have.  The best you have are the truths that support the probability that you will continue with your existence and the existence of the species, and there is no truth outside that.”

When a pragmatist uses the word “truth”, he is referring to a proposition’s Coherence with his system of beliefs. But what, in the pragmatist’s view, is the sort of thing that qualifies as Coherence? I’ll turn to that next.

Pragmatic Coherence

For Harris, ideas are propositions about what really exists, independently of one’s mind, and science is an attempt to identify facts (i.e., ideas) about reality.  However, to a pragmatist such as Peterson, reality – i.e. the world around oneself – is not the thing under consideration because one cannot  obtain any knowledge at all of what causes one’s sensations: what exists outside of one’s own mind is not knowable.  For Peterson, there are no “facts” about reality.  For Peterson an “idea” is not a proposition about reality.  Instead, for Peterson, every “idea” is a plan of action.  The meaning of an idea is the effect of acting upon the idea. Thus, for a pragmatist, the meaning of “grizzly bear” is not “man-eating beast” but something like “run away!” or “throw a stone at it!”.

On this view, the truth of an idea is determined by its efficacy in achieving some goal (different pragmatists have differing ideas about what sorts of goals should be achieved). For example, if the goal is to remain unbitten, “run away” is a plan of action that is sufficiently true to act upon if running away is an effective way to remain unbitten, but “run away” is not a sufficiently true plan of action to act upon if running away is not an effective way to remain bitten. Likewise, “throw a stone at it!” is sufficiently true to act upon if throwing a stone at the grizzly bear is effective in preventing one from being bitten, but “throw a stone at it!” is not sufficiently true to act upon if throwing a stone at the grizzly bear is ineffective in preventing one from being bitten.

It follows that, for Peterson, science is not an attempt to discover ideas about, or “facts” about, reality.  Rather, science is an attempt to discover plans of action that, given the other ideas we hold, appear to be sufficiently true to act upon in order to attain one’s ethical purpose.  Hence Peterson’s statement that:

“I think of science as a tool, rather than as a description of reality.  And, well, that’s where we differ.”

Peterson’s Pragmatist Ethics/Purpose

For pragmatism, it is not enough for an idea (i.e., a plan of action) to “work” or to be “effective”.  Pragmatism requires the idea to be effective in achieving an ethically good end.  Thus, one might invent a weapon that is extremely effective in doing one thing: turning the Earth and every living thing on it to lifeless ash in milliseconds.  However, such a weapon does not “work” – is not “efficacious” – by the pragmatic standard, because it does not achieve an ethically good purpose.  Hence Peterson’s assertion that the sufficiency of an idea’s truth depends upon the idea being ethically good.

Different pragmatists hold differing versions of what constitutes a proper ethical purpose.  Peterson’s clearly was: survival; survival of the individual or of humanity as a whole.  Thus, for Peterson, an idea (i.e., a plan of action) is good if it is efficacious in achieving survival of the individual or of humanity as a whole.  Staying with the grizzly bear example, if a given idea – e.g., “run away!” – is an effective plan of action for surviving, then the idea “grizzly bear” (meaning “run away”) is a sufficiently true idea because it is a good idea.

Contrast this with Harris’ perspective on truth.   For Harris, “grizzly bear” is not a plan of action.  It is instead a concept of a large, hairy, man-eating mammal.  For Harris, it is true that a grizzly bear is a large, hairy, man-eating mammal because a grizzly bear can be observed to be exactly that, in reality.  In other words, on the Correspondence theory of truth to which Harris subscribes, the concept of a grizzly bear being a large, hairy, man-eating mammal is true if the concept corresponds to the facts of reality.  If grizzly bears – independently of what anyone thinks of them – really are large, hairy, man-eating mammals, then the concept in one’s head (i.e., large, hairy, man-eating mammal) is true because it Corresponds to the facts of reality.  And, on the Correspondence theory of truth, the concept is true whether or not running from a grizzly bear would be effective in avoiding a grizzly bite.

What Harris Seemed to be Missing

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.

Harris wrongly thought Peterson to believe that there are facts of reality that exist independently of ones senses.  Peterson rejects the very idea that one can even consider any reality other than the experiences in one’s own head.

Harris wrongly thought that Peterson views ideas and propositions as ideas and propositions about reality; about the world around one.  Peterson views ideas not as claims about what exists in reality, but as plans of action.

Harris wrongly thought that Peterson views the role of science as the endeavour to discover the facts of reality.  Peterson views the role of science as the discovery of plans of action that are effective in achieving the ethical purpose of surviving.

Harris could not understand Peterson’s refusal to admit the truth of propositions independently of moral considerations because pragmatism is founded upon a whole lot of premises that Harris apparently is unaware of, and that were not discussed explicitly during the Harris-Peterson conversation.  In other words, as Peterson asserted:

“I think we’re differing on something fundamental…To me, it’s obvious that we’re approaching this from, I would say, almost different ontological perspectives…”

Looking Forward to Round Two

It’s my hope, of course, that the preceding explanation will help Harris and Peterson to see why and how their conversation got stuck on the question of the nature of truth.  Armed with a common understanding that the two men have very different views on reality, facts, ideas, and to what an idea must be true in order to be evaluated as true (or as “sufficiently true” to be acted upon), I think that the two distinguished gentlemen could – in a second round of conversation – have a most enlightening and profitable experience.  I, for one, look forward to it.


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