Sam Harris and Jordan B Peterson: On truth

As part of Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast, Harris invited someone I had not heard of ― Jordan B Peterson ― with a schedule that, I presume, included discussions of morality and religion. However, Harris and Peterson ended up having a disagreement about what it means for something to be true. Harris didn’t really offer a definition of truth, and so I can only fill in a guessed working definition for Harris. Peterson, however, did give a definition of truth. I want to criticise Peterson’s definition and offer some of my own thoughts.

Peterson defined his conception of truth as both Darwinian and pragmatic. What this means is this: a thing is more true the more useful it is, and the metric of usefulness is ― quite literally ― evolutionary success; if a claim hinders human biological progress, then it is ‘not sufficiently true’. Harris challenges this view by imagining two virology labs, both of which have identical and accurate empirical conceptions of the smallpox virus. One of them uses this knowledge to create a cure, whereas the other uses this knowledge to manufacture a weapon. Under Peterson’s conception of truth, the cure-creating lab has a ‘truer’ conception of the smallpox virus than the “nefarious” lab. This is despite the labs having identical conceptions.

if it doesn’t serve life, it’s not true.

– Jordan B Peterson

Peterson defends this position ― the position whereby the nefarious lab’s conception of the smallpox virus is ‘not sufficiently true’ ― by claiming that moral truths are a deeper truth than scientific or empirical truth. And because the nefarious lab has failed on some moral grounds, then similarly it fails on truth grounds. The ‘moral ground’ is equally grounded within the idea literally Darwinian success. Peterson ties the intentions of the nefarious lab with the claims they understand. The ‘truth’ we don’t have here, which apparently corrupts the whole enterprise, is the truth on how to modulate the behaviour of nefarious people.

Harris goes a step further, all the while finding synonyms like ‘accurate’ and ‘description of reality’, and talks of two labs with identical conceptions of smallpox (‘true to a first approximation’, and good enough to synthesis either cures or weapons from) and equally good intentions. However, one lab ― completely by accident ― has a small breach and releases smallpox into the general population, creating a horrific epidemic. Under this circumstance, is one lab further from the truth about smallpox than the other? Again, Peterson argues that the answer is ‘yes’; this time the truth has been corrupted by a clearly failed discussion about the ethics of science: the tool is ‘pretty damned dangerous’ and thus the research should not have been happening. It is moral truths in that discussion we do not have this time, and that corrupts the whole enterprise.

Peterson’s model is this: if a description of reality is destructive in any sense, then there has been some pragmatic failure. That failure, in turn, corrupts the description of reality (despite any claims of empirical accuracy).

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’.

– Jordan B Peterson

I do have a number of areas of agreement with Peterson: I do think ‘truth’ has Darwinian elements to it, but not in such a literal sense; and I do think there are pragmatic concerns in ‘truth’. However, I also disagree: where Peterson thinks the hierarchy of truth has ‘moral truth’ at its deepest level and scientific truth is subservient to that, I think ‘reality’ is the adjudicator of truth and scientific truth is our best approximation to that truth (better called ‘knowledge’ than ‘truth’), and moral truths emerge from there. (I have a scheduled post in April that argues moral truths are parochial. Still true, but not universal.)

First, the agreements: truth is Darwinian. Peterson thinks truth is literally Darwinian, where knowledge is a part of the ‘extended phenotype’, and the ability of that phenotype to propagate is the arbiter of truth. I think knowledge is figuratively Darwinian, competing is a very different environment. Knowledge competes in a rational environment, where success is measured in citations and failure is simply falling out of being cited. Descriptions of reality are tweaked (mutated) and if that mutation allows it to better account for reality it is cited more (selection). Worse mutations are measured by the vigour with which they are hit in peer-review. This is what Deutsch calls a ‘rational meme’. By contrast, ‘nonrational memes’ are claims that spread by appealing to nonrational parts of the mind or aggressively attacking and demonising competing views.

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.

– Sam Harris

I also think there are pragmatic judgements to make in the issue of what is true. In this sense, like Peterson, I am a pragmatist. But it is not an evolutionary pragmatism, like the one Peterson espoused. Instead, my pragmatic judgement is one where we carefully ring fence off different topics. This is in stark contrast to Peterson’s conception. Where Peterson intentionally ring fences truth claims with moral considerations, thus groups an accurate conception of smallpox with the nefarious intentions of a person who understands this conception, I believe these are very different topics. Hypothetically, if a terrorist organisation gets a hold of a stockpile of nuclear weapons and places a weapon in every city and town on the planet and then detonates them at the same time, Peterson would argue this act works to demonstrate our understanding of nuclear physics is ‘not sufficiently true’; I very strongly disagree: the detonation is further empirical evidence of the truth of our understanding of nuclear physics; what we were wrong about is what constitutes ‘adequate nuclear security’.

There is a conversation to be had about which domain is more important to society. Moral considerations are more important when talking about how a society should organise itself, and funding scientific research that is clearly dangerous may not be sensible. But that priority in social structure is not indicative of ‘deeper truths’. There may be a case where we decide not to properly investigate the differences between human ‘races’, because if we find a difference in intelligence or humour or sociability (or anything else we tend to value) that may be destructive to our society. But that appears, to me, to be an admission that the scientific truth would be true regardless of our moral wishes; if anything, we know it would be true, regardless of its moral implications.

Many commentators, and even Harris, has noted that this conversation seems like a distraction from what they presumably scheduled to talk about: religion and morality. As I see it, though, it is completely necessary ground work. Imagine a conversation between Harris and Peterson talk about religion from within their differing views of truth. Peterson could easily claim religions are ‘true’ because they are useful, even if they do not comport with reality. If a religion aids social structures and therefore survival, it becomes both true and moral, in Peterson’s view. This is independent of whether the two religions are contradictory, and independent of whether the religions increase wellbeing or comport to reality. The apologists old dodge of ‘religion is useful’ would be given a whole new lease of life: ‘religion is true, because it’s useful’.

I don’t know Peterson’s view on the topic of religion, and I’m sure his book The Architecture of Belief will make for very interesting reading. But a concept of ‘truth’ that unties the claim from reality, by applying a moral judgement to it, allows him to claim just about anything is true ― so long as a good person knows it.

11 thoughts on “Sam Harris and Jordan B Peterson: On truth”

  1. This is a provocative post Allallt. Thank you Sir!

    I wish Harris and Peterson had gotten into the correlations/contrasts of morality and religion. Nonetheless, I think you’ve introduced some intriguing concepts about “What is truth?” I too agree with your final paragraph. Along the lines of your mention of “necessary ground work“, I’d like to toss in my additional psychological POV…

    “Truth” is a human-created illusion constructed from Cognitive Ease and hopefully Cognitive Strain.

    Laws of Nature and the Multiverse/Universe are completely independent of human notions of truth, in my experience. Hence, BOTH conditions are needed in fairly balanced proportions relative to circumstances; i.e. uncomfortable novelty should be nurtured just as equally as comfortable intuition. Perhaps more so. Why is this? Because of the trap of repetition and artificially created cognitive ease.

    Numerous pysch studies at various universities have shown that repetition plays a HUGE role in illusions of human truth through the brain mechanism of cognitive ease. Repeat the stimulus enough times and it will eventually FEEL true. For example, religious rituals. Religious rituals have been occuring since the dawn of organized hunter-gatherers and civilizations. Now today, at least 7 major religions “feel” true to millions of people even though the religions are merely illusions of truth via cognitive ease and/or artificially created (placebo effects) cognitive ease reinforced by others also feeling good all together. Your nefarious groups are a great example of just how INDEPENDENT human-organized illusions/notions of “truth” can illicit self and/or external extinction/destruction and death! Here is where Cognitive Strain must also be kept in healthy frequent doses!

    Over the last 60,000 to 20,000 years our human brains have evolved to perceive potential threats; i.e. anything that causes cognitive strain. This certainly includes “novel” ideas or challenges. The reality from Nature and the Multiverse/Universe, however, is that if no physical harm takes place after repeated exposure to the cognitive strain, it soon becomes or should become familiar, comfortable, safe(?) and no longer perceived as a potential threat. This general phenomena extends beyond humans into many animal species too. Therefore maintaining an acute balance helps avoid the pitfalls of hyper-cognitive ease and their (addictive?) feel good sensations, even within peer-pressured large groups like religion.

    These paradoxes of intuition and counter-intuition will never stop and IMO shouldn’t. They are in so many respects independent of human notions & illusions of “truth.”

    My bottom-line? Too much Cognitive Ease, sensations of Cognitive Ease, and their repetition usually becomes a BAD THING! (laughing) 😉

    1. Thank you for your reply. It certainly is interesting. As your training is in psychology, I’m sure you’ll understand that I had to do a little searching about what cognitive ease and strain are (in more detail than their immediately obvious meaning).

      I should have dedicated more time in this post to the distinction (as I understand it) between truth and ‘knowledge’. I only made a passing remark and I think that was probably short-sighted of me.
      I think reality is the arbiter of truth. Claims we make that we believe to be ‘true’ — in this context — are knowledge.
      So, where you refer to ‘conception of truth’, that appears to me to be synonymous with ‘knowledge’, ‘belief’ or ‘thing a person thinks’. This is a model of truth called coherence: it is the ability of a claim to cohere to reality that defines the truthfulness of the claim.
      As a side note, I’m an empiricist (and fallibilist and model dependent realist) as well as having a coherence model of truth. (There’s a sentence that begins to illuminate why labels aren’t always useful.) So, the distinction between knowledge and belief is the level of empirical evidence a person has. Failing empiricism, rationalism. And so on.
      Harris also holds to coherence, so far as I can see.

      Peterson and, to a degree, your description in that comment hold to a correspondence model of truth. This is based on the claim that the ‘external’ reality is entirely invisible to you, and you can only ever experience your own senses inside your own mind. And, as such, true things are things with correspond with things you already believe.

      I can see that if one takes a correspondence model of truth, and blends that model with the cognitive ease and strain, you do get an almost inductio-empirical model of the world, where that which is ‘cognitively easy’ is true, and that which is cognitively straining is false (or, at least, rare enough to not consider) — but it comes from a very selective sample of the universe.

      (A correspondence model of belief — if not “truth”, because that feels relativistic to me — does appear to explain the fervent adamance with certain people reject empirically demonstrable things. Especially when coupled with the ‘backfire effect’, where contrary evidence only encourages people to double down on their initial belief.)

      In Peterson’s view, the beliefs that new claims have to respond with are claims about survival (not necessarily familiarity or novelty, which is the model you describe — although, given our evolutionary heritage the distinction may not be significant).
      That means that a grizzly bear is better described as ‘fucking RUUUUUNNN!!’ — as that corresponds with survival. In coherence, the grizzly bear is better described as ‘a large, hairy, meat-eating mammal’. But a thinker in that situation will still, eventually, conclude ‘fucking RUUUUUNNN!!’.

      Do let me know if/when I appear to be indulging in intellectual masturbation instead of giving an interesting conversation.

      1. I have a busy morning this morning Allallt and will reply as soon as I get the chance. I wanted to give you the courtesy of knowing that this is indeed good “cognitive strain” and needed, needed more often in this world! 😉 On the contrary, this is excellent conversation.

        You may delete this comment when I answer fully later today Sir.

      2. Apologies Allallt that I was unable to complete my reply yesterday. Better late than never, as they say. And no, the conversation is indeed delightfully straining AND easing cognitively. A great balance! 😉

        Distinguishing differences between truth & knowledge would’ve been great as well. They both play significant parts don’t they, if for no other reason than to solicite the importance of ‘time’ in the truth-equation, yes? I do like your definition of coherence with reality. It fits nicely into my concept of (strict?) independence between human perception and reality. Now here’s the tricky part that I find humoring: can humans perceive the full extent of reality in their lifetime to “test” their coherence models? And you’re absolutely correct… what IS perceived still comes “from a very selective sample of the universe” AND their own specific life-experiences. In recognizing this and embracing it as a substantial reality — collective reality? — i.e. admitting an endless amount of human limitations, one could/should reasonably ask, “How can full-to-the-subatomic-percentile… 100% certainty be known, ever at any given time?” To me, from the human brain-perception POV, there will always be degrees of truth and degrees of error.

        Your #7, 8, and 9 paragraphs I find a bit more cognitively straining (LOL), but I’ll give ’em a go. P#7 — there are definitely those personalities who, via their DNA makeup and psych pathology, have higher levels of manifested paranoia caused by not ONE particular genesis, but typically several. “Doubling down” as you aptly put it, is quite typical of hyper-arrogance, e.g. Alpha-males. They see most every event, thing, or person as potential threats until their nervous system eventually malfunctions or shuts down. PTSD is one prime consequence of non-stop “doubling down” — its early onset is usually witnessed by aggressive volatile language.

        P#8 — I think I’ll just add this: “survival” mechanisms come in various forms, not just physical or organic survival, but cognitive and/or emotional too. This in turn involves, or CAN involve many additional sub-systems, both internally as well as externally. For example, the human Fight-or-Flight trigger. Sometimes it is correct in a situation, other times it is an overreaction, sometimes SEVERE overreaction physically and/or emotionally-mentally. Think of “survival” in degrees.

        P#9 — I LOVE this analogy Allallt! Hahahahaha! Definitely a Fight-or-Flight trigger! Or in this case FUCKING FLY OUT OF HERE if momma bear is protecting cubs, huh? Keep throwing darts at her and you WILL be running if not eaten! 😉
        Seriously though, in cases of lions or lionesses in the African Savanna, running is the very LAST THING a human wants to do! “Fear” is something lions literally feed off of! To contrast, if I was a very young boy who had no previous knowledge of lions hunting-feeding habits, and showed fearless innocence to the lion… would it necessarily kill me or other fearless innocent children every single time? There have been documented footage of lions/lionesses adopting gazelle yearlings! So to me there seems to be no full-proof algorithm (truth) for every single human and every single event. If that makes sense.

        Perhaps now I am guilty of cerebral masturbation? Hahahaha.

        Circling back around to my “Cognitive Ease” and “Cognitive Strain,” physiologically and mentally… cognitive strain should NOT be constantly seen or perceived as threats or judged as psychotic or delusional expression. In my personal opinion, “truth” as a word/claim gets overly used/abused and can be is disguised by gross oversimplification called artificial Cognitive Ease… which can be quite risky within reality. Hope I’ve made coherent sense Allallt. Hahaha 😉

  2. My brother and I were talking about coherence and correspondence models of truth in the car the other day, and he made me really drill down on what I believe. It made for a really interesting exercise:

    The operating system of the human brain — i.e. how our brain works — only ever really allows us to have a correspondence model of reality. We have some basal thoughts about reality, and absolutely everything we learn must find a way to coexist with those initial thoughts. It’s just that the basal thought that other facts have to be taken in the context of, for a lot of people, is that reality is understandable (i.e. coherence).

    There is a pragmatic defense for this, in that the coherence claim — that reality is understandable — is the assumption one can make for pragmatic reasons, even if certainty isn’t available. We can’t get to certainty here for the reasons of solipsism… but in terms of the reality we actually navigate, regardless of whether it is “true”, we have good reasons to assume its ‘truth’ as the only reality that matters to us.

    So, at bottom, we all hold to a correspondence model of truth. But, at a layer above that, we value a coherence model of truth. But — as this reasoning goes on — we actually operate on a correspondence model of truth on a day-to-day basis. By this, I mean when we hear a claim in our day-to-day life, we place it within the context of what we already understand.

    That operational level correspondence will be trumped by our assumption of coherence, when we have the opportunity and motivation to research that claim we heard. But even that assumption of coherence rests in a context of correspondence. I struggle, then, with really putting a pin anywhere in that spectrum to give myself a relevant label. I recognise that at both a fundamental level and a day-to-day level that I am using a correspondence model of truth. But the defining value that shapes how I navigate the idea of knowledge and ‘truth’ is a coherence model, definitely.

    It also worth saying that I see “truth” in a very similar way to what Asimov describes in his essay ‘The Relativity of Wrong’ (easily available on Google, but also read out on YouTube). The thesis is basically this: we can construct methods of knowing that become increasingly less wrong. It may be that they are never ‘true’. But the idea that there is a ‘true’ out there — a reality for which claims can be compared to their ability to comport to it — is the point. Our knowledge may never be perfect, but that doesn’t mean we can’t continually strive for it and ever-refine and ever-improve our knowledge.

    In relation to paragraphs 8 and 9 (truth being survival-based and bears being accurately defined as “RUUUUNNN!!”) and your reply (that survival is broader than literal Darwinian interpretations): I do agree that survival is much broader, and managing ones own wellbeing — even if it does end up being to the loss of a desire for children and thus ‘evolutionary survival’ — is a type of personal survival, Peterson’s view is specifically about a literal Darwinian view. I don’t necessarily agree, but I do see a number of merits to his point. For one, treating knowledge as a rational meme, the survival of thinking minds is vital to the survival of knowledge. If one is only talking about knowledge and its value, then survival is clearly vital. This is a place where the distinction between truth and knowledge is important — because as we both have coherence models of truth, truth and knowledge are not the same thing — but such a distinction is meaningless on the correspondence model, as there is no ‘truth’ except in the context of human knowledge.

    The other merit of Peterson’s view is that it has a very practical and empirical metric: survival. I think that the metric (survival) and the subject (truth) are too divorced of each other to be meaningful, but I do think that it is at least simple. There is an interesting consequence of this: who has the truer conception of reality: developed countries of the undeveloped countries? Birth rates are much higher in undeveloped countries, meaning greater evolutionary success, but there are rational reasons to think that the developed countries have afforded themselves greater security and thus (possibly) greater longevity, which is also an evolutionary success.

    1. Allallt, another wonderful reply! Thanks for a great discussion Sir. You wrote:

      By this, I mean when we hear a claim in our day-to-day life, we place it within the context of what we already understand.

      This is so very true. Again, I’ll recall the displeasure many of us have toward Cognitive Strain: we do NOT want to suspend what we already know in order to (greatly?) expand/overturn our knowledge and experience. That “chance” is usually perceived as a threat! This I understand.

      Your 6th paragraph is very well stated, and its last sentence I find to be overly “true”! 😉 To ride your coat-tails there, one of my favorite quotes:

      No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” — Heraclitus

      In other words, what you state in P#6 should always be heeded if for no other reason than our knowledge, coherence or correspondended, can NEVER be 100% perfect. We and the rivers are always in motion and evolving. Charles Darwin wrote “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.” Don’t we find this to be the case all too often!? Hahaha.

      And so as Darwin implies, knowledge (should) lead us to a kind of productive humility — BUT how often is that exhibited? Darwin is NOT advocating the Socratic proverb of “the more you know the more you realize how little you know,” but instead… The more you know, the more you realize that science can go forward, hopefully chiseling away at ignorance! George Gaylord Simpson carries this further by simply implying to be human is to be ignorant, apparently. Hahaha. 😉

      Your P#7 is worded and structured very well and I find I completely agree.

      Ooooo…and you wrote:

      There is an interesting consequence of this: who has the truer conception of reality: developed countries of the undeveloped countries? Birth rates are much higher in undeveloped countries, meaning greater evolutionary success, but there are rational reasons to think that the developed countries have afforded themselves greater security and thus (possibly) greater longevity, which is also an evolutionary success.

      Fantastic question and follow-up! I do know this Allallt, if Earth was to receive a direct hit from an EMP or some other Natural/Cosmic phenomena knocking out all electric-electronic devices, that would catapult “developed countries” like the U.S. back into 19th century lifestyles. During those types of phenomena — which have particular probabilities — I would be wishing BADLY I lived in an “undeveloped country” where daily many/most live off the land, hand-to-mouth! My years of university education (and occupational experience) may not serve me and my immediate family one bit! So, who then has the best knowledge/truth? Hahaha.

      1. The Herclitus quote — “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man” — has always had a different interpretation to me: it highlights a ‘universal view’ by standing as a criticism of induction.
        Induction — as you probably know — is the formalised version of ‘common things occur commonly’; the ‘because I have seen it frequently, I accept it provisionally as true’ line of thinking. Needless to say, that is a strong reasoning style, and science depends on it (that’s what duplication experiments are for).
        Heraclitus’ quote is good in pointing out a flaw in the reasoning: nothing happens twice. The concept of ‘similar events’ is a human conception — or, at least, a conception of thought and consciousness — in that it requires intelligence to group one event with another as ‘similar’. In reality, it is not the same river, and he is not the same man.
        And, you have to take this concept slightly further to get to the universalist view: that all the boundaries that group things together or separate them are entirely artifacts of intelligent grouping and defining; they are not facts about the universe.
        Even the boundary that defines objects, like a pencil and the table it is on, is artificial. To a non-intelligent observer (a paradox to think of, but follow it) there is just the quantum field and particles; just energy. The boundary between the table and the pencil is a useful fiction we place on ‘reality’, a model of reality that is useful to our survival.

        Intelligence allows us to create this model of reality, with distinct objects and similar events. And this is not entirely arbitrary, either: it allows for the transfer of ideas and of knowledge. It not just that there is no utility in seeing things from a universalists view, but that by rejecting the universalists view I am able to write and spread an idea.

        So — is there more to the model of reality that has distinct boundaries than just pragmatism? (The universalist view is a Buddhism inspired view that my brother particularly admires for its nihilistic calming influence.) If distinction is necessary for the spread of ideas, that could not spread in the universalist approach, sure the boundaries must be ‘true’.

        Again, blurring the meaningfulness of the distinction between coherence and correspondence.

        Sometimes I think I should have taken a philosophy degree…

      2. You wrote: “Heraclitus’ quote is good in pointing out a flaw in the reasoning: nothing happens twice.

        Agreed. Our biologic sense-induced human perceptions are so woven into an immediate timeline that in order to properly perceive nothing happens twice, ever… we must either step out of our frame-of-reference of daily, monthly, yearly, and into one of centuries or millenial increments OR down to a cellular microscopic or atomic measurement to actually deduce and infer how literally nothing ever happens twice. And on the cosmic, universal/multiversal levels how constant is “time”? It is indeed a “human conception” as you put it.

        Allallt, I believe you — with the use of Harris and Peterson — have done a wonderful job at teasing out sufficient questions, if not evidence, that compel us to at least consider, if not accept, there is no such thing as constant immovable truth outside human intelligence. I find that utterly fascinating and liberating! 😉

      3. I suspect — although I cannot empirically defend it — that there is such a thing as a reality. And as such, our knowledge has a standard which it can refine in on. ‘True’, then, just becomes a judgement call about how the ‘knowledge’ relates to reality. The whole concept of ‘truth’ starts to evaporate. You do have to call on human judgement and intelligence to reinvigorate the idea of truth.

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