In June, Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson had a debate (or discussion, if you prefer) about ethics and religion. They’d met before on Harris’s podcast, but this was their first in-person matchup. Their first podcast discussion on the nature of truth was underwhelming, even by their own admission, mostly because it seemed that they were talking past each other. That said, with this debate I think Harris and Peterson fans alike were looking forward to the interesting, substantive discussion that they’d originally hoped for on the podcasts.
After watching the recently released video footage of the debate, I figured I’d provide a recap. Ideally this recap will achieve a few goals.
First, for those who are less familiar with Harris’s and Peterson’s work (and their respective jargon), maybe this can serve as a primer for this debate or other debates they have in the future. Even as someone who is trained in philosophy, I found this discussion tough to follow; I want to clear up some of the muddiness and get to the root disagreements between Harris and Peterson.
Second, something that made this debate highly-anticipated is that Harris and Peterson are both members of what has become known as the “Intellectual Dark Web,” a group which also includes people like Ben Shapiro, Dave Rubin, Joe Rogan, and actually the debate’s moderator, Bret Weinstein. There has been quite a bit of speculation (particularly amongst its members) about what unites the I.D.W., and usually the answer is something like this: they aren’t fans of identity politics, and they aren’t afraid to have long-form conversations. I myself think the ‘I.D.W.’ label is actually a bit misleading. In my opinion its members are quite diverse in their intellectual attitudes. Perhaps I’ll make a more detailed case for this point in the future, but I hope my commentary here will give you a sense of what I mean.
Finally, I want to provide some of my own opinions about the debate. I think Harris got the better of Peterson in this first bout, and I’ll explain why.
On to the debate.
Fundamentalism and Relativism
The debate starts with Harris expressing how much he agrees with Peterson on a number of issues (90% of issues, apparently). Peterson agrees that they agree on many things, and he wants to begin by making these agreed-on points explicit.
One of the things they apparently agree on is this: two things we should avoid in ethical theory are dogmatic fundamentalism and relativism. Basically, our ethics shouldn’t be tied to a fundamentalist reading of religious texts like the Bible, and there are objective, mind-independent facts about what is morally right or wrong (that the Holocaust was bad, for instance). Peterson says he agrees that we should avoid fundamentalism and relativism, but that he tends to use different language to describe them: one of them is a “pathology of order” and the other is a “pathology of chaos.”
How “pathology of chaos” came to be just another word for “relativism” in Peterson’s idiolect is a mystery to me. First, wouldn’t it make more sense to say that a certain pathology is the cause of relativism, that it explains why people find relativism appealing? Second, is this even close to a psychologically respectable claim—that the reason relativists are relativists is that they have a pathology of chaos? What would that even mean? Peterson failed to make this clear. It’s also unclear that they reached an agreement on this point, as I’m pretty sure Harris isn’t arguing that relativists are suffering from a mental illness.
In an attempt to get a better grasp on what Peterson means by this terminology, I turned to his new book. Here’s an excerpt on order and chaos from the introduction:
Order is where the people around you act according to well-understood social norms, and remain predictable and cooperative. It’s the world of social structure, explored territory, and familiarity. The state of Order is typically portrayed, symbolically—imaginatively—as masculine. It’s the Wise King and the Tyrant, forever bound together, as society is simultaneously structure and oppression.
Chaos, by contrast, is where—or when—something unexpected happens. Chaos emerges, in trivial form, when you tell a joke at a party with people you think you know and a silent and embarrassing chill falls over the gathering. Chaos is what emerges more catastrophically when you suddenly find yourself without employment, or are betrayed by a lover. As the antithesis of symbolically masculine order, it’s presented imaginatively as feminine. It’s the new and unpredictable suddenly emerging in the midst of the commonplace familiar. It’s Creation and Destruction, the source of new things and the destination of the dead (as nature, as opposed to culture, is simultaneously birth and demise).
Too much order or chaos in one’s life is presumably bad, and perhaps we can call these instances of excess “pathologies.” Still, I’m struggling to see how chaos relates to relativism. What does moral relativism have to do with “something unexpected” happening? Maybe Peterson explains this elsewhere, but, again, it wasn’t clear in the debate. (Plus, I know plenty of women who are moral realists.)
The Impact of Religious Belief
Next topic. About 20 minutes into the debate, Peterson brings up the point that chimps commit atrocities against one another without religion, presumably without any metaphysical beliefs at all. Therefore, Peterson suggests, religion cannot be the proximate cause of atrocities committed by humans. The upshot is that Harris is too harsh on religion.
Peterson’s argument here isn’t that compelling. First, the more we understand about evolutionary and moral psychology, the more we understand that our fellow primates do have beliefs. They have customs and beliefs about right and wrong just like we do. Setting this point aside, though, Harris goes on to decisively refute Peterson’s argument, pointing to people who, had they not acquired certain religious beliefs, would not have been violent. There are people who, just because they were led to believe in a fundamentalist form of a religion, do bad things. Of course there are other factors (geopolitics, social/civil unrest, nationalism, racism, poverty) that can lead to similar violence. But this doesn’t mean that religious belief isn’t the cause of a lot of unnecessary violence.
The Interpretation of Religious Text
Around the 27-minute mark, Peterson brings up a point about fundamentalism: that not only do fundamentalists think the text is the word of God, but they also think their interpretation is the correct one. This begins a discussion about the challenge of interpreting religious texts. Basically, Peterson seems to think interpretation is tougher than Harris does. Harris thinks there are pretty straightforward, unambiguous falsehoods in religious texts. Bret Weinstein, the debate’s moderator, presses Peterson on this point: will he admit that there are unambiguous falsehoods in the Bible?
Instead of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’, Peterson goes on to explain (reluctantly, because he’s worried he’ll “sound like a postmodernist”) that there are unique problems with interpreting religious texts. We need to consider that the Bible, for instance, is a narrative, and that each sentence needs to be considered in its context—and not just its immediate context. Understanding a sentence within a narrative, for instance, requires understanding its role within the entire story.
If you find yourself thinking that this is a reasonable point, that’s because it is a reasonable point. Obviously context can make a difference in how we interpret just about anything. One needn’t be a postmodernist to believe that context matters. (And this isn’t even close to as radical as the interpretive skepticism expressed in postmodernist works like “Death of the Author.”) It’s just that the relevant context of religious texts often fails to be suggestive of non-literal interpretation.
I’m still not sure whether Peterson thinks the Bible contains falsehoods. (Like the part with zombies.)
Ethics and “A Priori Interpretive Frameworks”
Around 50 minutes in, Peterson shifts back to Harris’s ethical theory. (If you’re not familiar with Harris’s ethical framework, you can check out The Moral Landscape or his TED talk.) In my opinion, this was one of the more interesting parts of the debate. There was a lot going on here, but I think I can clear it up.
Peterson’s central point seemed to be that Harris’s ethical theory was in some sense on a par with religious doctrine (presumably non-fundamentalist religious doctrine, as Peterson thinks Harris’s pursuit is noble). Harris’s secularized ethics, according to Peterson, avails itself of the same theoretical machinery that religions do. What is it that they share in common? Peterson says they all rely on “a priori interpretive frameworks.”
What is an a priori interpretive framework? Peterson is not clear about this, but he does provide instances: story seems to be one form, and intuition seems to be another form. Let’s stop for a second. A priori knowledge is knowledge that we have independently of experience. Philosophers (especially in the rationalist tradition) have long treated intuition as the faculty that gives us a priori knowledge. Just as our perceptual faculties give us empirical knowledge, intuition gives us a priori knowledge. Even empiricist philosophers like John Locke endorsed this kind of picture. In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke put it like this: “The mind perceives, that White is not Black, That a Circle is not a Triangle, That Three are more than Two, and equal to One and Two…by bare Intuition…” So that part of Peterson’s claim makes sense. Intuition is often associated with the a priori. But how is a story an a priori interpretive framework?
Later it becomes clearer how Peterson thinks Harris’s ethical theory is similar to religion: it’s that Harris uses thought experiments to get at our intuitions about right and wrong. In his book, Harris describes a scenario which he commonly refers to as “The Worst Possible Misery for Everyone.” This is a scenario, we are to imagine, where everyone is suffering in the worst possible way for the longest time possible. Surely, if anything deserves to be labeled “bad,” it’s this scenario.
Peterson thinks Harris’s use of thought experiments (like The Worst Possible Misery for Everyone) is really just a form of storytelling. The obvious reply here, though, is that Harris doesn’t pretend that his thought experiments are actual things that happened. Peterson is stretching the definition of ‘story’ by quite a bit. Ultimately, Peterson’s attempt to place Harris’s secularized ethics on a par with religion fails. His point boils down to the fact that Harris uses, if you wish, “storylike” thought experiments to drive our intuitions about right and wrong. But when you put it this way, it’s not obvious at all that religion does the same thing. Though the Bible certainly contains stories, these stories aren’t used to gauge our intuitions about right and wrong; more often, they’re used to tell us what’s right and wrong.
So, if Harris does appeal to storytelling, it’s not the same kind of storytelling that is used in religion. But what about intuition? Does Harris rely on intuition just as much as religion?
This is similar to a common response in debates about the existence of God. The atheist says it’s foolish to have faith in something without sufficient evidence. And then the religious person responds that the atheist has an unfounded faith in science and reason. Now everyone’s on equal footing. Pick your faith.
Harris criticizes religious intuition, but doesn’t he rely on his own unquestioned intuitions himself (like the intuition that The Greatest Possible Misery for Everyone is bad)? Here Harris makes an important point that not all intuitions are equal. There are some intuitions (including intuitions about logic) that are fundamental, intuitions about the nature of the world that we have to take for granted if we are to suppose we have any knowledge at all. But more complex intuitions about the past—that Jesus was literally resurrected from the dead, for instance—are just not the same kind of intuition. Plus, it’s often the case that those who claim that atheists have “faith” in logic have that very same faith in logic themselves. So Peterson fails to show Harris’s ethical theory is similar to religion on these grounds as well.
Peterson’s best challenge to Harris’s ethical theory was one he probably didn’t know he was making. Peterson refers to an argument from G.E. Moore, a so-called “infinite regress argument.” And while Moore did have things to say about regresses, the more relevant argument here is Moore’s “Open Question Argument.” The Open Question Argument runs as follows:
- If x means the same thing as ‘good’, then the question ‘Is it true that x is good?’ is meaningless.
- The question ‘Is it true that x is good?’ is not meaningless.
- So x doesn’t mean the same thing as ‘good’.
The idea is something like this. There is a traditional question in ethics—or meta-ethics—about what the word ‘good’ means in a moral sense. Whenever a philosopher suggests an answer (e.g., that ‘good’ means ‘maximizes happiness’) we can subject this answer to a test. If ‘good’ truly means ‘maximizes happiness’ it wouldn’t make sense to ask whether something that maximizes happiness is good. But it does make sense to ask this question—it’s an open question. So the suggested answer fails.
And indeed, Peterson presses Harris on the meaning of ‘bad’ around the 1:07:00 mark, so he seems to be expressing this Open Question worry. Harris’s response is that it’s not an open question whether The Worst Possible Misery for Everyone is bad; if ‘bad’ means anything, it applies in this scenario.
Fair enough, but does this get Harris around the Open Question Argument? Not really. That’s because his thought experiment doesn’t show that people think ‘good’ means the same thing as ‘maximizes well-being’ (or however Harris would like to fill in the blank). Unfortunately, Peterson fails to put the point this way. (To his credit, Harris does explicitly engage with the Open Question Argument in The Moral Landscape. You can decide for yourself whether you think his answer is satisfactory.)
The Open Question Argument is related to a distinct but similar meta-ethical problem that Harris’s framework faces. It’s not clear that Harris adequately addresses the “is/ought” problem, an idea that traces back to David Hume. We commonly recognize the difference between “is” and “ought” statements, but it’s tough to see how we can read an “ought” statement off of the “is” statements. In other words, we can’t infer a prescriptive conclusion from purely descriptive premises. In Harris’s case, it’s not clear how we can go from ‘x maximizes well-being’ (a descriptive fact) to ‘x is good’ (a prescriptive fact). On Harris’s podcast, philosopher Peter Singer pressed him forcefully on this point. Again, to Harris’s credit, he discusses the is/ought problem in The Moral Landscape, but you can decide for yourself whether he successfully addresses it. It’s worth mentioning that these meta-ethical problems are certainly not unique to Harris’s theory, and some academic philosophers have questioned the is/ought distinction; but any successful theory will hopefully address these problems in a satisfactory way.
The idea of “metaphorical truth” was a major point of contention in the second night of debate. According to Weinstein, metaphorical truths are things that are literally false but behaving as though they are true will give you an advantage in the long run. An example that Harris used was this: If you have a gun, it’s good to treat it as if it’s loaded at all times. This way you’ll be extra careful and you’ll never have an accident. You may have really good reason to think it’s not loaded (because you just checked a minute ago, for instance), so you may not even believe it’s loaded; but it’s still good to treat it as if it is loaded, just in case. So even if it’s literally false that the gun is loaded, it’s metaphorically true that the gun is loaded.
Peterson’s position seems to be that religious texts offer us many metaphorical truths. He doesn’t like the question ‘Do you believe in God?’, but he will say that he behaves as if God exists. So is it metaphorically true that God exists? That heaven or hell exists? For this to be so, behaving as if God exists had better give us some kind of advantage that we wouldn’t have if we behaved otherwise. And here Peterson leans heavily on the idea that without religion we are prone to relativism and nihilism.
But this is an empirical question: Are we better off acting as if God exists, even if it’s literally false? It’s not an easy question to answer, but Harris makes a compelling case that we’re not better off. For all of the useful things religion would have us believe, there are enough disastrous things to make us question whether belief in God (or acting as if he exists) is useful in the net.
In the gun example, we maintain our belief in the literal truth. We know the gun isn’t loaded, yet it’s useful in the long term to behave as if it’s loaded. With the existence of God, Peterson seems to think it’s metaphorically true that God exists, so he behaves as if he exists. But what about his actual belief? If he’s calling for us to actually believe in God, then we’ve got a disanalogy with the gun example. We can make an important distinction.
Metaphorical truth: Something that is not literally true, but it’s good for you to believe it’s true.
Useful belief: Something that is good for you to believe, regardless of its truth-value.
Does Peterson think that God’s existence is merely a metaphorical truth, or does he think it’s useful to really believe he exists? If it’s the former, Peterson has work to do to show why acting as if God exists is beneficial on the whole. If it’s the latter, Peterson runs into a similar problem. He has to show why believing that God exists is beneficial on the whole. On top of that, he runs into the traditional philosophical problem associated with Pascal’s Wager. Namely, can we will ourselves to change our beliefs to only the useful ones?
Ultimately, I think Harris won this debate. As for the quality of the conversation, it did remind me of their previous podcast discussions. Throughout much of the debate, Peterson seemed to be arguing in good faith. This is evident from his attempt at the beginning to find common ground with Harris. But all too often his answers were unnecessarily complex. And even when I could make sense of his claims, they were often straightforwardly false.