Truth: is it coherent? (A follow up on Sam Harris and Jordan B Peterson)

Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson, a very long time ago now, had their first podcast together. Whatever their schedule, their conversation turned to a massive disagreement about the concept of truth. It wasn’t about whether ‘truth’ is ever attainable, they disagreed about what it literally is. And, despite the commentary, it is not a case of one person being very rational and the other spouting insanity. It came down to this: is truth about what comports to reality, or about a pragmatic model you build in your head?

(For more detail read my previous post. For a beginners guide to the dense writing that follows, read the comment thread between Professor Taboo and me. For the podcast that inspired this, see the Waking Up episode, What is True?)

Harris argued that truth is about what comports to an external reality ― a coherence model of truth. There is an external reality and a true comment is one that relates in a one-to-one fashion with reality. There’s at least one assumption in the middle: that reality is knowable. The reason for this is that if reality is not knowable, then the best one can ever get to is the illusion of truth; things appearing to comport to a reality.

Peterson argued for a pragmatic version of truth, which may well be independent of ‘a reality’. There’s a certain amount of reading between the lines and partial reading on philosophy in this paragraph, because Peterson omitted a lot of his view from the debate. With that in mind, I may be getting this wrong. However, Peterson’s pragmatic view of truth takes seriously the proposition that all a mind ever experiences appears only in the mind; the external reality is entirely invisible to the mind; thoughts and experiences may not comport to an external view. Reality, outside the mind, may well be a quantum haze that the mind creates a useful fiction out of ― or it may not. One need not speculate about what reality is once one takes seriously the idea that the mind has no direct access to reality. Separated from the restraints of reality, Peterson’s model of truth appears to be the correspondence model: any new claim has to be taken in and correspond with a claim already accepted.

Peterson’s view already has a lot of support from within psychology. The concepts of Cognitive Ease and Cognitive Strain describe the operating system of the human mind: we more easily accept and draw meaning from claims that fit into our existing model of reality (cognitive ease) and struggle to accept, assimilate or make meaning from claims that go against what we already ‘know’ (cognitive strain). If these psychology concepts held as a complete description of correspondence, then it may well be more easily defensible. After all, commonly occurring things eventually lead to Cognitive Ease, whereas spectacularly different things cause Cognitive Strain. As such, a Cognitive Ease/Strain model creates a sort of inductio-empirical model of one’s environment; a sort of pseudo-truth based on a limited and selective sample of the universe.

Peterson’s version of a correspondence model of truth is one where claims have to correspond with the Darwinian imperative to survive: it is this pragmatic and Darwinian point that defines Peterson’s view. As revolution can lead to survival, it would be wrong to say that the Cognitive Ease/Strain model truly represents Peterson’s correspondence model.

On first evaluation, I thought I held to the coherence model of truth: the one where ‘true’ claims comport to reality. But on deeper evaluation I really struggled to put the pin down on the spectrum to meaningfully give myself either label. Here’s why: I get that the operating system of the brain very much defaults to a correspondence model of truth; people do not accept as true things that are in explicit contradiction (at the level they have evaluated them to); people’s minds appear to have a basal or a priori set of claim or values to which later ‘truths’ must correspond. But, one of those basal claims in my mind is that claims that comport to reality are the true ones; that other claims may be useful or form a part of a greater model a person values, but the true claims are to lie in a strict relationship with a reality that exists independent of the human mind.

That means that my coherence model of truth is actually subservient to a correspondence model of truth, from within which the coherence model operates. But it gets more complicated as you continue thinking: so far I’ve explored the way I think the mind functions (correspondence) and the basal claim I value and think makes sense (coherence). But there is then the dirty task of collecting and evaluating claims. Now, given time and resources and evidence I will invest in the coherence model and look at empirical arguments and consider rational arguments. But given less resources and an innocuous claim ― so defined as a claim that doesn’t overturn my way of thinking ― I find that Correspondant thinking about truth influences my evaluation. To use the language of the psychologist, claims that put me at cognitive ease get an easier ride in the evaluation process, and ones that cause me cognitive strain get a harder time.

So there’s three layers there, at varying levels of coherence and correspondence. So I can’t really evaluate where I fall on the distinction.

There is a distinction here that needs to be made, but hasn’t been. The difference between truth and knowledge. The discussion doesn’t actually benefit from this distinction being drawn, especially if one considers ‘knowledge’ a ‘justified true belief’. However, it is worth pointing out that “truth” on the coherence model is policed by reality, knowledge is when claims stringently policed by reality are held in a mind. On the correspondence model, truth is much more personal. Except, this is not the case in Peterson’s correspondence: truth is that which helps survival, and so a person can still be wrong; in this ‘truth’ and ‘Darwinian utility’ are the same thing. Knowledge is when things useful to Darwinian success enter a mind.

One question I think Peterson may struggle with is this: on average, is it the post-Enlightenment scientific model of universe held in developed countries, or the less scientifically aware, superstitious model of the universe held in undeveloped countries that have the more ‘true’ conceptions? On the one hand, it is easy to say that undeveloped countries have a higher birth rate and rate of population increase, a Darwinian success. On the other hand, it isn’t a stretch to argue that developed countries have afforded themselves greater security and therefore longevity, which is also an evolutionary success. Which is truer?

Coherence (and, thus, Harris ― our representative in this now-overly-long post) also has a challenge that is difficult to navigate: it is, in fact, very reasonable to note that the external reality is invisible to human senses, and all we get is models composed for us against our will. Without intelligence modelling reality ― object recognition’ and grouping of similar events so that induction can take place ― the universe simply doesn’t have these distinctions. There’s no such thing as ‘a beach’, and such a grouping is an artifact of intelligence making the pragmatic grouping and recognising it. But, to the universe, it is simply quantum haze. The mind brings meaning to it. And so there must be meaning-creation and correspondence function to create a coherence-based model of truth.

Despite that criticism of coherence, I’ve achieved something remarkable. I have conveyed ideas. They may be awful ideas, that’s for you to evaluate, but they are ideas nonetheless. They generated in my mind, and by recognising the distinctions of the keys on my keyboard and the laptop from my desk I conveyed ideas. And this alludes to another model of truth, inspired by David Deutsch. I don’t know the name for it, but vague description, in this context, is this: if the model of truth I use allows for the spread of knowledge, it is non-arbitrary. Therefore, that I allow intelligence to avoid the universal view of quantum haze, and to make grouping and distinctions, and those distinctions allow for the spread of ideas, then the grouping is non-arbitrary. This is a flavour of coherence which recognises the spread of knowledge as a solution to whether the models of reality the mind creates are meaningful. By allowing the spread of knowledge, the model is demonstrating its own realism. But it does start to blur the line between coherence and correspondence.


A thank you to Professor Taboo, for following me on this discussion, is highly deserved.

6 thoughts on “Truth: is it coherent? (A follow up on Sam Harris and Jordan B Peterson)”

  1. You are a braver person than I. I know a nest of snakes when I see one and did not jump in. My first impression is evolution success is a very dull instrument to base truth upon. (No Occam’s razor, that.) Parasites experience evolutionary success, so do predators, so do … all kinds of things. And so what? I think evolutionary success is a measure of evolutionary fitness. It all depends on niche; none of us would do very well on the Moon. A measure of truth … uh, not so much.

    1. In Peterson’s defence, if we went to the moon and died, Peterson would say the knowledge we had ‘wasn’t sufficiently true’. His explanation would be that what we did know doesn’t account for the question of human survival: either we didn’t know how to live on the moon (clearly), or that we didn’t generate the proper knowledge when dealing with the question of whether we should try to live on the moon.
      What I’m saying is that it is perfectly possible to follow Peterson’s model and remain consistent. But Peterson does seem to be making an error in confusing what he understands about the ‘operating system of the mind’ — how we generate knowledge, and cognitive ease — with reality. He admits to simply not valuing reality — or, importantly, that he doesn’t value it over Darwinian survival (which he also considers to be the base of morality).
      But Peterson’s view does mean that a Chimp who thinks reality consists only of its territory knows something ‘truer’ than the architects of the Manhattan Project. But — is our objection just that it’s counter-intuitive? Because that’s correspondence… not coherence.

  2. Friar William of Ockham’s razor comes in handy in this situation.

    For people who believe in reason, mathematics and science, Sam Harris wins the day.

    Jordan Peterson’s rationale has too many moving parts and applies as its foundation the concept of natural selection which is only fundamental to animals and plants that live in natural ecosystems.

    Human reason and the pursuit of truth is what led mankind out of the brutal universe of natural selection into a universe of civil society, science and technology.

    Consequently, Jordan Peterson’s idea are contrived and inconsistent with human nature.

  3. You wrote: “So there’s three layers there, at varying levels of coherence and correspondence. So I can’t really evaluate where I fall on the distinction.

    I realize I probably do not need to say it, but just in case 😉 …don’t suffer too much Cognitive Strain on this your present/temporary position. “Time” (evolution as we humans create it, maintain it, or deconstruct it?) is another beast in all of this truthiness. Hahahaha.

    Your final paragraph elicited an idea in my head: Strength in collaborative numbers. How so? I am a big fan of E.O. Wilson’s definition of eusociality conjoined with my personal experiences in team sports. Observers, scientists, reporters/journalists, whatever the case may be, all witness the astonishing cooperation (teamwork) and achievements of a Superorganism. That is any 1 of 12 species which have been practicing it for millions of years. Wilson proports that, as the dominate and highly-intelligent species, humans ARE beyond capable of practicing superorganism eusociality as well. The problem of course is that emotion-based ignorance historically pervades our species which too often has been our species’ neverending schism. Why should this be when the sharing, examining, and exchanging of all coherance/correspondence models and their submodels do our species such an invaluable service!? Hmmmmm.

    “Life/Reality plays and swims in paradox while the kill-joys go mad.” — Me

    So Allallt, I KNOW full well you are NOT a “kill-joy”, but be sure not to go mad! 😛 Indeed, you have conveyed intriguing ideas and have delightfully caused me HEALTHY Cognitive Strain and hopefully for others too!

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