Last year, neuroscientist Sam Harris interviewed psychologist Jordan Peterson on Harris’ podcast Waking Up. What followed was a convoluted and, at times, mind-numbing two-hour discussion of the question “What is truth?” As far as I know, I followed the discussion reasonably well and I’ll give my impressions below. Overall, I think Harris raised numerous fatal objections to Peterson’s view which Peterson seemed unable to answer.
Harris is a well-known writer whose books The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation pushed him to the forefront of the Neoatheist movement. Unsurprisingly, he is an avid advocate of science. Somewhat more surprising, he is a vehement critic of moral relativism and insists that moral facts are identical to scientific facts about human flourishing. Harris holds to what is known as the “correspondence theory of truth”, the common-sense view that true statements are those which correspond to reality (hence the name).
Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto who became a YouTube sensation after opposing bill C16 mandating the use of gender pronouns. Since then, he’s become an articulate defender of free speech on campus and a fierce opponent of what he calls “postmodern Neomarxism,” the kind of identity politics that saturates Gender Studies and anthropology departments in the US and Canada.
Peterson’s view of truth is less traditional than Harris’, to say the least. He identifies himself as a pragmatist along the lines of John Dewey and William James, though he adamantly rejects the radical pragmatism of (postmodernist) Richard Rorty. Over the course of the debate, Harris expressed increasing incredulity that Peterson actually meant what he said. Harris kept insisting that there must be a misunderstanding. Here, I’m sympathetic to Harris. Peterson’s position seems so ad hoc and subject to so many obvious flaws that one wonders why he accepts it. I’ll say more on this at the end.
The main tenet of Peterson’s “pragmatic” approach to truth is that truth-claims are value-laden. For example, we might think that a statement like “smallpox is a virus” (one of the examples furnished by Harris) is value-neutral; that is, it is neither inherently good nor bad. But Peterson argues that we only obtain such knowledge in the context of scientific research into the nature of smallpox. Such research makes all kinds of assumptions about the value of truth, the value of the scientific enterprise, and the value of experimenting on smallpox. If we did not affirm these values, we would never have acquired this knowledge. Thus, we cannot affirm the truth of the statement “smallpox is a virus” without simultaneously affirming the validity of all the underlying assumptions connected to that claim.
The question which immediately arises is: “what imparts value?” Peterson’s answer is that evolutionary survival imparts value. A discipline, or methodology, or claim has value only insofar as it contributes to the survival of the human species. For example, if the scientists who claim that “smallpox is a virus” also weaponize smallpox to kill half the world’s population, then their action calls into question the values on which their research is based.
While many people, including Harris, could affirm parts of these ideas, the leap that Peterson makes next is truly difficult to swallow. He argues that if a proposition like “smallpox is a virus” leads to the death of billions of people, then this proposition is ultimately not true. Yes, you read that right. While the proposition that “smallpox is a virus” might be correct in some ‘local’ scientific sense, it is not true in an absolute sense because it is causes harm to humanity. To put it another way, Peterson argues that truth is determined by natural selection; ideas which fail to promote human existence will fail the test and must be deemed Not True, even if they are technically correct in some narrow context. One can see why, after two hours of cross-examination, Harris still had trouble believing that he was understanding Peterson correctly.
During the interview, Harris called attention to a number of fatal flaws in Peterson’s conception of truth. First, he pointed out that if we accept Peterson’s definition of ‘truth’, then we can only know truth retrospectively, at the end of history. Because natural selection continues indefinitely, there’s no way to know which scientific claims will lead to our death and which to our flourishing. In other words, we cannot know -even today- whether “smallpox is a virus”; we’ll have to wait a hundred years to see if we are killed by weaponized smallpox before we can verify that claim. Peterson bit the bullet and admitted that we cannot know whether claims are true in the present. affirming that ultimate knowledge of the truth will have to await the end of history.
Second, Harris pointed out that Peterson’s definition of truth makes truth-claims incredibly contingent. For example, if a lab claims that “smallpox is a virus”, the truth of that claim could hinge on something as minor as a microscopic hole in a lab glove. If there is no hole in the glove the scientists succeed in developing a vaccine, then this claim is true. If there is a hole in the glove and the scientists accidentally expose the world to smallpox, then this claim is false. For the truth or falsity of every claim to depend on the vagaries of historical circumstance seems highly implausible. Peterson responded that these thought experiments are not realistic, but failed to explain exactly what makes them unrealistic.
Finally, Harris pointed out that ‘survival’ itself is vague and morally insufficient. How many humans need to survive to underwrite the truth of a claim? 100%? 50%? 1%? And does ‘survival’ matter as much as ‘flourishing’? If some scientific claim consigned all of humanity to live in agony for centuries, would we conclude that it was ‘true’ provided that it permitted humanity’s survival? Peterson granted that this objection was reasonable.
Indeed, Peterson granted that all of Harris’ objections are reasonable and agreed that he had posed some serious objections to Peterson’s view. Moreover, in a lapse which Harris failed to notice, Peterson at one point wondered aloud whether his claim that “truth will ultimately produce human survival” was itself True. Here, Peterson unknowingly demonstrated that his view is incoherent. If we adopt pragmatism then the statement that “truth will ultimately produce human survival” is true by definition. In admitting that he was not certain whether this claim was true, Peterson was unconsciously adopting the correspondence view of truth, totally undermining his own claim to pragmatism.
So why does Peterson adopt a pragmatic view of truth? For me, this is the really interesting question.
Throughout the debate, Peterson mentioned that he perceived problems in Harris’ “realist” view of ethics. Because Harris consistently redirected the discussion back to Peterson’s views, we can’t be certain what Peterson’s argument would have been, but my guess is that he (like many philosophers) sees an unavoidable tension between Harris’ naturalism and his insistence that values can be derived from scientific facts. To avoid this tension, Peterson reverses this move. He makes ‘value’ a foundational component of his metaphysics, grounding it in Darwinian survival, and then derives facts from this fundamental value. So it’s possible that Peterson’s acceptance of pragmatism is driven not so much by positive arguments in its favor as by arguments against Harris’ view.
However, this reasoning only works if Harris’ and Peterson’s views are the only options. They’re not. As a Christian, I’d argue that theism solves all of the issues that arose during this debate, as well as a few others that were only touched on tangentially. Yes, given naturalism, there is an unbridgeable divide between facts and values. But that doesn’t matter, since the natural world is not all that exists. Yes, truth is a correspondence between a proposition and reality. But no, we don’t need to reduce Truth to material facts about subatomic particles and fields since immaterial realities like love and justice also exist. Yes, human knowledge is incomplete and uncertain. But that fact doesn’t make knowledge impossible, since there exists an omniscient God who perceives all truth.
In summary, I think the objections Harris raised to Peterson’s view of truth were devastating. Whether Harris’ moral realism could withstand a similar cross-examination from Peterson remains to be seen. This entire exchange reminded me of the importance of listening to and learning from intelligent people who deeply disagree with us. Without constructive debate, we’ll be left with all kinds of unexamined premises and buried inconsistencies. Hopefully, these kinds of discussions will help both Peterson and Harris sharpen their respective positions and challenge listeners to reevaluate their own beliefs.