I just listened to Sam Harris’s latest podcast, “What is True?”, which is two hours of Harris and psychologist Jordan B. Peterson debating the definition of “truth”, which was timely for me given the topic of my last post. It was unbelievable, no pun intended. TL;DR, Peterson believes that scientific truth is nested inside of moral truth, and Harris vice versa. What that means, in practice, is that Peterson doesn’t believe anything is “true” unless it leads to the survival of the human species. That literally means that something like “1+1=2”, or “George Washington was the 1st president of the United States”, or “Trump’s Inauguration had the greatest attendance of any Inauguration in U.S. history”, for that matter, can only be deemed “sufficiently true” for the rest of time, potentially, as long as the human species continues to survive. I really didn’t think anyone would dumbfound me more than Kellyanne Conway today, but this purported scientist has surely done it.
Harris and Peterson ultimately called it a break and asked the listeners to perform a post mortem analysis of what went wrong; if I can distill the misunderstanding down to its essence, I hope that it’s just an issue of semantics. Basically Harris defines truth to be “accurate vs. inaccurate”, as I suspect most people do; Peterson wants to imbue truth with the additional qualities of “good vs. bad for human survival” for an apparently higher-level ethical reason, as if forcing our language into this construct will condition us into the very ethical framework that will allow us to continue surviving in the first place (think Arrival’s idea of the power of language to rewire us). This is astounding, given that Peterson is apparently famous for rejecting the Canadian Human Rights authority organization which is attempting to legalize the rights of Canadians to use a variety of new gender pronouns on the basis of social justice concerns of their moral rights to identity, but his own construct of truth is just as superfluously moral as he claims “(f)aer/em/per/ver/xem/hir” to be. (Digression to be challenged/elaborated upon at another time, but I am on Peterson’s (and Harris’s) side on the specific subject of gender inclusivity, which I cannot believe to be “true” in a Petersonian (nor Harrisian) sense.) But anyway, granted that Peterson is really just contriving this intolerably meta- definition of truth for moral goals (and doing a bad job at his own game, given he still has no problem using the word “true” in a normal colloquial way throughout the 2 hours), then I think the angle Harris should have focused on was whether this “heuristic” or “hypothesis” of the moral way to think about truth was in fact better (i.e. more helpful for the survival of the human species) than a purely realist version of truth. I think Harris automatically wins that argument, given how agonizing that conversation was. I’m curious to hear the thoughts of anyone else who survived this debate.