Sam Harris vs Jordan Peterson Tonight!
What to expect during the debate and why it might be worth watching.
The upcoming debate between Harris and Peterson has the potential to be a historical even. The conversation may be looked back on like the storied Vidal/Buckley, or it may be as boring and cringe inducing as their past meetings.
I’m optimistic that the conversation will be productive. The two men have large followings consisting of people who rarely interact. Hopefully, the shared experience will lead to numerous productive conversations taking place between two previously isolated demographics that nonetheless have much in common. This alone makes the conversation worth having.
In past meetings the barrier to a productive exchange was semantic. Each man defended his definition of words like, Truth, Consciousness and Belief, rather than examining his the other’s point of view. If this unattractive insistence on “word thinking” is alleviated by a skillful moderator, a productive discussion is guaranteed.
Luckily, Bret Weinstein has agreed to moderate. Bret has a great record on moving arguments past semantics and getting to the heart of the issue. I suspect that he will prepare very effectively and end up being the hero of the night.
Here are some issues we can expect to surface:
The Belief Issue:
Jordan makes it very clear that “belief” is not something we consciously avow, but something that we display through our actions. In “Maps of Meaning” Jordan describes doubting his avowed beliefs and wondering whether the doubting or the avowing part of his mind was more authentically “him”. By asking this question Jordan reveals a definition of belief which includes the subconscious mind. Sam is very focused on the conscious mind and reserves the right to say definitively what he believes.
Harris talks about belief, including metaphysical and religious belief, in terms of verifiable claims about the natural world. One example of this is that Sam points out that it is highly rational for a suicide bomber to blow himself up if he believes that doing so will result in a much happier life seconds after detonation.
Sam talks about religious beliefs as if they are claims about reality in the same sense as scientific claims and does not use the word to apply to sub-conscious motivations for action. The closest thing in Sam’s vocabulary to belief in the Jordan Peterson sense is “cognitive bias”. A Cognitive bias is a subconscious irrational tendency of the mind which causes people to behave differently than a rational assessment of what they “believe” to be true would indicate.
Harris: “I don’t believe in God and that effects my behavior on a daily basis.”
Peterson: “You do believe in God because your insistence on the value of human life ascribes a value to consciousness which is not scientifically observable and is therefore religious.”
Harris: No it isn’t
Peterson: Yes it is.
The Free Will Issue:
Harris’s definition of free will is a situation where people consciously choose their actions. Sam argues that this is a logically incoherent concept, because every function of the brain is a result of a causal chain of physical events which necessarily begin below the level of consciousness. Sam likes to point out that this has been demonstrated with FMRI scans but it’s already obvious that this type of free will can’t exist in a world where the brain is governed by physical laws.
Jordan Peterson has a more extended notion of “the self.” Jordan’s concept of free will presumes that the “choosing entity” includes not just the conscious mind by the unconscious mind, and holds the entire individual responsible for both conscious and subconscious actions.
Jordan, claims that free will does exist because individuals are responsible for the set of heuristics that they setup in their subconscious mind, and therefore “intend” the consequences of their actions even if they are not aware of their intent before during or after the action. Interestingly, this assumption is also found in the common law when evaluating civil liability, and Jordan Peterson is a vocal proponent of common law principles
Sam Harris: “I have no control over my actions because the decision to act is made independently of my consciousness.”
Jordan Peterson: “You act as if you are responsible for your actions, therefore that’s what you believe, and when you argue against personal responsibility while otherwise acting responsibly you are guilty of an irresponsible lie.”
Sam Harris: “No I’m not.”
Jordan Peterson: “Yes, you are!”
The Religion Issue:
Peterson’s definition of Religion is “A set of myths that closely approximate the ultimate myth.” To Peterson these myths constitute a “Map of Meaning” which is actually truer than scientific observation because it is more readily used by the human mind as a basis for correct action.
Peterson states that all action signifies a preferred outcome, action necessarily entails a value judgment and therefore a standard for evaluating good or bad futures. Peterson further defines morality as a standard used for evaluating the desirability of actions in terms of their consequences.
Since Peterson maintains that the human mind conceives of desirable futures in terms of narratives, similar actions are the result of similar narratives. Therefore, acting in accordance with the moral precepts common to all major religions, is a manifestation of religious belief.
Sam says that a religion consists of faith based philosophical claims and claims about the natural world. The distinguishing quality of religion is that the veracity of its claims and precepts are based on faith and not subject to change via reason. Sam says that disavowal of the truth of core religions claims is sufficient to designate oneself non-religious.
Sam disagrees that religion has any inherently moral aspect to it. He maintans that religions make philosophical claims that are more or less coherent, and that by separating the philosophical aspect of the claims from the religions aspect, the claims can be subjected to reason and thereby improved. Sam emphasizes that “faith” is the quintessential aspect of religion and since he relies on reason rather than faith he is not religious.
Jordan Peterson: “You agree with me that the Ukrainian famine was bad. That’s a religious belief.”
Sam Harris: “It’s rational to oppose needless suffering by sentient beings, there’s no faith involved.”
Jordan Peterson: “Yes there is!”
Sam Harris: “No there isn’t”
I have no idea how these guys are going to get past these impasses! It seems unthinkable that there could be any common ground between the two positions. This is what I find so exciting. The fact that both positions have merit, indicates that there must be some way to reconcile them. Perhaps this will be one of those great debates where both sides actually learn something that could only have been arrived at through discussion!