Flavors of truth

Nearly one and a half years ago Neuroscientist, author and famous public thinker Sam Harris hosted Jordan Peterson, arguably the most popular Clinical Psychologist there is at the moment and author of the best seller “12 rules for life”, in his podcast to have the first of what would become a series of conversations. There was a considerable hype around this first encounter among the very large audiences of both men. In fact, Harris declared that Peterson had been the guest most requested for by his listeners up to that point, maybe the honor still holds. A great deal of the hype was certainly due to the fact that the conversation was expected to lead to a climactic head-to-head on the subject of religion. You see, with Harris being a well-known and quite vocal “unbeliever” who’s prominence took off thanks to books like “The end of faith” and “Letter to a Christian nation” and Peterson who identifies as a Christian (although at times seems to struggle to straightforwardly abide by central Christian dogmas) and who stresses the central role of the Christian tradition as a pillar of the moral structure of modern “Western civilization”, it was only natural to expect an intellectual collision. However, the clash failed to materialize because another much more fundamental clash got in their way. They got “bogged down” while attempting to find an answer to the question of “what is true?” that both could subscribe to. Suitably, that question ended up being the title of the podcast episode.

Harris and Peterson certainly delivered the kind of lively debate that was expected of them, however, it was not to be centered around the expected issue: religion. Instead, the showdown unfolded as an argument about epistemology that extended for over 2 hours. By and large the general feeling from the part of the audience was, at best, of disappointment. They simply felt that they had been delivered something that was not in the menu. Our impression about the conversation, especially about its relevance, was very much in contrast to the generalized reception. We enjoyed the episode quite a bit. But to explain why we need to get a bit deeper into the details of what was discussed in it.

Here is our (possibly biased) synthesis:

Peterson advanced a rather peculiar definition of truth that could be referred to as “Darwinian truth”. From that moment onward the rest of the episode consisted on a more or less uninterrupted argumentative assault mounted by Harris that progressively and effectively undermined Peterson’s position.

Perhaps the dynamic was inevitable given the, shall we say, unorthodox position of Peterson’s conception of truth. In a nutshell, Darwinian truth states that a true proposition is that which leads to an increase of well-being, flourishing potential or prospects for survival when it is enacted. There is a rationale motivating this unfamiliar way of conceptualizing truth and it is hard to make full justice to it in this reduced space, but again, we will try to package it in a nutshell.

We humans – just as every other animal – are the product of a very long process of evolution by natural selection that we have navigated by making all sorts of assumptions about how the world around us works. Now, here is the key point, those assumptions do not necessarily need to be exceptionally accurate descriptions of the workings of nature, they just need to lead to an increase in our chances of survival and reproduction. Insofar as they accomplish that they can be labelled as “true” in a Darwinian sense, or at least that would be the implication of the thesis that Peterson defended.

A clear example of the sort of thing that qualifies as a Darwinian truth (or “metaphorical truth” to use his own coinage) was provided by biologist Eric Weinstein. He posits that it might have been useful for our ancestors to believe that porcupines can shoot their quills at menacing targets. Believing that to be true would – or at least should – seriously disincentivize anyone from wanting to get too close to a porcupine. Gladly, you can discount quill-shooting porcupines from the catalog of critters that should give you nightmares because, to the relief of countless beings, porcupines can’t actually project ultra-sharp darts at will (or unwillingly for that matter). Nevertheless, something that is factually true is that being wounded by a porcupine quill is a painful experience that you would do well to avoid. In fact a close encounter with a porcupine can be much worse than “just” painful. You could walk away with an open wound that, in the wild and without an antiseptic, would be prone to fester. The resulting infection could actually be fatal; needless to say that such an outcome is not precisely a boost to your Darwinian fitness… or indeed any other kind of fitness that you care to maintain. So, one could imagine a plausible scenario where guys that were afraid of being within shooting range from fictional sniper porcupines had an advantage over guys that were not so wary of porcupine proximity. Even if the latter group had in fact a more accurate knowledge of true porcupine’s biology.

Well, the set of false but useful fictions or utilitarian misconceptions (like the belief in spike-shooting porcupines) that arguably gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage is the set of “Darwinian truths” that Peterson chose to position as the truths of the highest level inside which all other possible truths are nested.

Harris, on the other hand, stuck a handful of definitions of truth that are much closer to those most of us apply when we evaluate the factfulness or falsehood of a claim. He was willing to grant that a claim is true when: it can be backed up by experiment (scientific truth), supported upon sufficiently compelling evidence (factual truth) or proven formally (mathematical truth).

Now, in all fairness, one can always construct a conversation using whatever definitions one fancies as long as all the participants accept the customized semantics and play along. Perhaps, there is one more crucial condition to keep a conversation rolling once the definitions are in place: one has to stick to them and their implications all throughout. It is hard to concede that Peterson abode by that last rule in his conversation with Harris and unfortunately for him that transgression was at his peril.

Peterson would not concede that when put toe-to-toe Darwinian truths must give way to scientific, factual and even mathematical truths since they are demonstrably more fundamental.

Harris summoned several hypothetical examples in order to prove that Peterson’s position was untenable. He did so by constructing his examples in such a way holding Darwinian truths are at the top of the hierarchy of truths would lead to a glaring absurdity. The result were a series of logic choke-holds that became increasingly painful to listen to. Perhaps the most tortuous of all going something like this:

Harris asked Peterson to imagine that his wife had cheated on him. That verifiable evidence exposing the affair was available, and as a consequence, the hypothetical Peterson had ended up committing suicide. Thus, according to the Darwinian definition of truth in which things are true only true if they lead to an increment of well-being ( flourishing, fitness,…). The affair could not have possibly been true since it ended in death… the one thing that puts a full stop on the flourishing of any kind. The situation had turned utterly bizarre for a Darwinian “truther” since it had to be true that the affair had happened – since fictional Peterson committed suicide because of that fact – but it had to be simultaneously true that the affair did not happen – because its outcome lead to suicide which is an act that does not increase well-being. Ergo, to suppose that factual truth is subservient to Darwinian truth can often lead to absurd scenarios.

With barely concealed exasperation, which was justified after nearly two hours of forceful back and forth, Harris tried to point out the fallacy by pleading:

“Jordan, you have to grant one thing! There’s one piece that doesn’t get moved here. You cannot move the piece that because you killed yourself it’s not true that she was having an affair. That move is not open to you and yet you’re acting like it is!…”

Check mate. Or so one would think. Peterson kept quiet for nearly 20 seconds before coming up with an answer that revealed his mental exhaustion. Nevertheless, tired and all, Peterson did not capitulate.

The moral of the story is not only that we can breathe easy because our more quotidian notion of truth which has much more to do with weighing evidence than with survival was not overthrown. Beyond the performative quality of the conversation which was a stunning display of argumentative force (mostly from Harris’ side), we think that a more valuable lesson can be extracted when one looks at the bigger picture. Particularly if one focuses on the reception from the public as soon as this long awaited encounter was published.

Although we are somewhat sympathetic to the feeling of disappointment that was justifiably aroused by having Harris and Peterson talking for over 2 hours without even tangentially addressing their theological differences, we believe that the absence of a theological debate unfairly overshadowed the relevance of having this type of conversations. In what’s left, we will try to substantiate why we think so.

For whatever strange reason, mankind has not transcended the need to reassure itself that there are good reasons to trust reason. Well-crafted reasons in defense of reason have been on offer for at least as long as people have debated and it is reasonable to imagine that debates are at least as old as language. Yet somehow it seems that, as a species, we regularly need to revive and re-brand antique arguments to remind us that it is reasonable to use reason as the basis to construct models about how the world works. If that strikes a somewhat paradoxical tone, it is certainly not as paradoxical as trying to find reasons to try to justify the abandonment of reason, which believe it or not, some people have tried and still try to do. This has happened some times with an extraordinary and completely unfortunate level of success which has contributed to the stultification – and even regression – of the scientific progress of entire populations.

For example, radical religious and anti-rationalist doctrines like the “occassionalism” championed by Al-Ghazali in the Muslim world of the XII century and Nicholas Malebranch in Christian Europe centuries later, advocated for the rejection of the existence of a natural order underlying the workings of the world. Instead, God’s direct intervention at every moment is the sole cause setting every event in motion, however mundane and insignificant. Al-Ghazali explained that the blackening of cotton set on fire was not a consequence of the fire having an inherent capacity to burn cotton, instead, God (or his angels) had to actively put the abrasiveness of fire into the fire every time that it came in contact with cotton. The corollary to this particular example is that cotton could become the ultimate fire resistant material if God capriciously decided it to be so. In one stroke, this doctrine “explained” what miracles are all about and totally discarded the possibility of a naturalistic link connecting causes and effects. If the world is such that it is impossible to draw even the most flimsy causal connection between any pair of subsequent events, then, it is equally impossible to sketch anything that resembles a theory about… well… anything! A worldview that has no room for the development of naturalistic theories is a worldview that has little place, need or even tolerance for the edification of reason.

We took the liberty of talking a little bit about “reason” without having it carefully defined. That is not a big deal since a “common sense” definition of reason is sufficiently consistent with what has been written and with what is left to write. Let us stick to the second definition that appears when one googles “reason definition”, that is: the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgements logically. This laid-back definition will allow us to connect a few dots and try to come full circle.

Once a handful of axioms have been explicitly or implicitly acknowledged, one needs to have a way to assert the veracity or falsehood of a claim or premise in order to “form judgements logically”. This is simply an unsophisticated way to say that an epistemology is necessary to ascertain truth value. But, one’s epistemology is at least partially contained in the definition of truth that one subscribes to. This last point can be easily illustrated taking the case of Darwinian truth.

If what is true is what increases well-being (…fitness, flourishing, etc.) then in order to cash the truth value of a proposition one needs to wait to see what is the net effect that the instantiation of the said proposition has on well-being. The litmus test of Darwinian epistemology relies entirely on the evaluation of that “net effect”. It is not hard to see how this epistemology runs into trouble. For instance, what would a Darwinian truther make of the claim “atomic fission can be used to produce dangerous weapons”? Imagine that nuclear war breaks out and the entire human race and God knows how many other species go extinct? Well, chances are that the “amount” of well-being in this post-apocalyptic world has dramatically decreased. Thus, following the guidelines of Darwinian epistemology as dictated by the Darwinian conception of truth one is forced to conclude that the claim “atomic fission can be used to produce dangerous weapons” is false. This is a claim about physics. It negates that the energy released when the right heavy atomic nucleus cracks is large enough to become weaponized precisely because, in our hypothetical example, that very energy made possible the creation of weapons that did destroy life. Essentially this identical example of reductio ad absurdum was deployed by Harris but to no avail from Peterson. For the most people should be uncontroversially clear that a Darwinian epistemology cannot lead the way towards refining our understanding about physics.

The rabbit hole that we opened in this entry turned out to be short but not shallow. Defining truth guides the epistemology that guides the reasoning process that guides us through the world. If this deductive chain does not highlight the relevance of debates about “what is true?”, then, we do not know which kind of reasoning will do the job.

On a second thought, here is another one. It is often said that we are living in a “post truth”age, an era of “alternative facts” and “fake news”, a moment in time when some sing more praises to persuasiveness than to truthfulness (see Scott Addams, the cartoonist and “expert” decoder of Trump-speak), if there’s a reason to believe that there is even a scintilla of truth to any of these modern concerns, then we think that conversations about the nature of truth(s) are prescient.

Here at Till The Bottom we are committed to speak as truthfully as we can. However, we are not under the delusion of thinking that we can uncover new factual truths merely through conversation and unaided reasoning as the Platonists used to believe. With the exception of mathematical truths, truth-seeking necessitates experimentation. We must leave the experiments to others and pay a little homage to them by trying to build a conversation relying on the truths they find. That much we can aspire to.

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