So let me follow up on my last post on Sam Harris vs. Jordan Peterson, and what constitutes a solid epistemology. The podcast itself is quite painful to listen to, and Jordan Peterson doesn´t do much of an argument there. I think the guy doesn’t do debates well. He’s best when you let him speak for hours. Just give him a mike and let him ramble. He’ll get somewhere. You’ll notice he doesn’t use notes when he speaks, he improvises all the time.
That’s impressive, but there’s a reason why most good intellectual output, like for example this blog, is done on writing. We’re kinda losing that, now with the popularity of podcasts and Youtube videos with men speaking in pseudoprofound voice tones. You can get away with being incoherent and contradicting yourself in speech if you push the appropriate emotional buttons frequently enough. But in writing you have to make logical sense, else people will stop reading. The Greeks realized that pretty soon; they’d go in the Agora and make some sophist speech, and they’d get famous, because even if people don’t like what you’re saying, they can’t help hearing you blabber, and odds are you’ll say some good line sooner or later, and people can’t help remembering that one line that made sense.
Anyway, the reason I like Jordan Peterson is, besides because he has balls of steel and refuses to bow down to the latest bout of the leftist singularity, where a law has been passed in Ontario saying that self-styled transexuals can demand you to refer to them with whatever pronoun they wish, on punishment of a $100,000 fine or something. Now, I’ve been against leftists since way before this; if I were a Interview with the Vampire character I would have started opposing leftism around 1880 or so. But as a linguist, playing with language is a 是可忍孰不可忍 moment. You don’t play with words. And you especially don’t fucking play with closed-class words. That’s evil. But I digress.
The reason I respect Prof. Peterson intellectually is because he understands evolutionary psychology, he understands pragmatic philosophy, and he’s even read his Wittgenstein. Now that is quite something. Ever since he completely demolished traditional philosophy and linguistics in 1953, poor Wittgenstein has been totally ignored by the intellectual establishment. That’s no wonder, philosophers like having a job, as do linguists, and understanding Wittgenstein basically means you should go home, shut up, and take a job in the private sector. It’s much more lucrative to just keep going with the bullshit and pretending nobody has noticed that it’s precisely that: misunderstanding how language works and sounding arcane so that nobody actually notices what you’re blabbering about. Nobody besides your fellow philosophers who, of course, have a vested interest in keeping the racket going.
The key insight of Wittgenstein is that speech is a kind of a game. You agree on a set of rules, e.g. that the word “apple” stands for a certain kind of fruit, and you agree to use that word to refer to that fruit. But games, like most human social interactions, are a local thing. There’s no universal set of rules, and you can come up with a different set of rules with other people. Kinda like good friends sometimes may modify the rules of their card games just went playing among themselves. So you can use the word “apple” to refer to apples, but with some other group you can use the word “apple” to refer to the breasts of women, or whatever. The thing often gets out of hand, as in things like Cockney rhyming slang. The point being that words don’t have “meaning”, they only have patterns of use in certain contexts, governed by local sets of rules. Understanding those rules is a form of sociology.
If you can only watch one clip by Jordan Peterson, it should be this one. I’ll say more: just watch this one clip, you can skip the others. Sorry Jordan, no disrespect, but you’re making enough money. This video is by far the most insightful. Here he explains how human society is in fact just a collection of overlapping games, and what we call morality is just the rules of the game(s). This is not a new idea. Confucius didn’t call it “game”, he called it “ritual”. Plenty of people, most infamously communists, have seized upon this idea to argue that political power can change the rules of the social game in order to change people’s behavior. To some extent that is true, but game rules aren’t completely arbitrary. A game to be a game has to be playable. And that puts severe limits in what kind of rules it can have. The game has to be playable. It has to work. There are natural limits to that. Which brings us back to Gnon’s law. But do listen to him.
From 30:00 there’s a fairly good, if rather unfocused, exposition of pragmatic philosophy. Humans have brains; brains have evolved in order to survive and reproduce. It follows that while your brain has to perceive external reality, it only has to do so to the extent that it allows you to survive and reproduce. Once it has gone to that level it’s quite free to evolve in ways that make you completely oblivious of it. Or at least unaware of reality’s details. Humans being a social species, survival and reproduction depends on your social status inside the group. So if for some reason the group has decided that that animal isn’t edible, even though all evidence tells you it is, you better believe it’s not edible, else the group is going to murder you, skin you and put your head in a pike. Hence groupthink.
That’s one part. The other part, which necessarily follows, is that you can never be sure of your knowledge. You have some ideas in your brain, how do you know which are true and which aren’t? David Hume said it well, you never know what’s going to happen. All you have is some confidence that things that happened before with some frequency are going to happen again. What Hume missed is that there’s a reason why habit makes you have that confidence. Kant kinda got halfway there, but the very reason why “custom” basically stands as knowledge is that, well, humans have evolved over millions of years that propensity to take habit of perception to stand for the laws of nature. And they have evolved that because it pretty much works like that. To put it in other words, you don’t really “have ideas in your brain”. Your brain is not a hard-disk. What your brain has is a proclivity to modify its behavior in order to expect that things that happened before on a certain sequence will happen again, which is a good approximation of causality.
Being skeptical of knowledge at this level is just being an ass (David Hume had good reasons for being an ass). All living beings understand causality at the behavioral level because causality is real. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t have survived and reproduced. Causality is true because it works. That’s what “true” means, as Jordan Peterson wants to put it.
But again, your human brain has also evolved so that if your tribe says you gotta put a lip-plate or some ghost is going to snatch your husband’s penis, well you’re gonna put a lip-plate and make sure every single friend of yours does so too. So we’re back to square one. Epistemology is hard. What is true? Is causality true, contra Hume? Well you bet it is. Is true the fact that failing to put a lip-plate will make your husband lose his penis? Well many Nilotic tribesmen say it is. Passionately so. Why? It works for them. By Jordan Peterson’s argument, it is true. I don’t think it’s true.
Again, epistemology is hard. Given how brains work, and how the brains of social species work, there is just no way to set up a complete set of axioms. You can propose a One God that does that for you; but we don’t have that, and even if we did, social factions would soon start to twist the definitions of things to fuck with their enemies. So we don’t only need a One God, we need a One God which is constantly coming down to earth to make sure that we don’t change the agreements we had on what is real. That we don’t have. All we can do is make an agreement among ourselves, fallen humans, on what is true, what is not, and how to go find it. That’s what we have right now, actually, with most scientific minded people agreeing that the best standard of truth is predictive power. You’ll notice that is similar to the animal instinct of assuming causality after confirmation of predictive validity. It works pretty well.
So we non-Sudanese lip-plate wearers, have this rule among ourselves, to assume an objective reality independent of subjective hangups, and to test the truth of theories according to experimentation, observability and predictive power. This rule is, again, a kind of game. It is a good game. A playable game. A very productive game.
So when Jordan Peterson says that the concept of “truth” shouldn’t be just applied to objective reality, but should be modified so to aid the flourishing of human existence, whatever that means, he’s proposing we change the rules of the game. Of this particular game, which we call the English language, in which the word “truth” is generally used to mean conformity to external reality. He makes it sound as if some cabal of scientists conspire together to change the meaning of the word so that it excluded subjectivity and religion and whatnot. Well, no, it wasn’t like that. The word “truth” has always excluded subjectivity. In English and in all languages I’m aware of, which are quite a few. That doesn’t mean some groups of people, like say Christian theologians, didn’t have their local rules where they used the word to refer to unfalsifiable and honestly quite bizarre claims. But that wasn’t about claiming a new sense for the word. They really meant that their stuff was also objective reality. If only to signal that they had the power to get away with any sort of absurd claim.
Even the Sudanese lip-plate guys actually think that ghosts are objectively real and they actually snatch the penises of dissenters. They don’t think it’s “true enough” for the purposes of tribal cohesion. So you can’t change the rules of the “truth” game even if you wanted to. I get it that he wants to stop Communist scientists from crossing Ebola with Smallpox. But the way to do that is not by changing the rules of the language and epistemology game. To the extent that that’s even possible; you can’t mess with one word and expect the others to stay the same. Language is a self-referential network. You change one node and the other nodes shift too. Often in unpredictable ways.
Now, I’m a friend of Jordan Peterson. I agree with his dislike of modern society. I agree there’s lots of problems. Lots of nihilism and mental illness and despair. Society is going to hell. Sure enough. But that’s not because of the overzealous objectivism of the scientific establishment. Again, Prof. Peterson is being attacked by Gender Scholars. The problem with science is not that it insists in analyzing objective reality. The problem is that the scientific method only works when observation is reliable. Which worked well in earlier physics and biology. But the prestige of science made us come up with things which just can’t be measured with any reliability. Economics. Psychology. Climate science. Much of medical science. It’s just too complicated to take any reliable data on much of it. And we refuse to admit that we don’t know much about it, and that we can’t know much about it. It is not possible. There is only one ancient intellectual discipline which hasn’t been made into a science: history. It can’t be done. The data just isn’t there. And historians always understood that. There was this healthy skepticism about “history is written by the victors”. You had to take it with a grain of salt. But it has its value nonetheless.
Instead of understanding Economics, or Climate Science any other intellectual disciplines as being the same sort of intellectually dubious and politically charged discipline as history is, we have deluded ourselves into thinking they are epistemologically sound sciences such as physics or chemistry. No, they are not. And they can’t be. And it’s ok. We just have to stop spending billions on them and using them to justify public policy. Yet again history is used to justify public policy all the time.
That half, or 80%, or 90% of modern science is bullshit that doesn’t replicate, and obfuscates more than reveals, is a problem of our modern scientific establishment, not of the scientific method itself. And most certainly not of the idea of “truth”, which again, predates science by millennia, and is a very important foundation of human sociability. Even if Prof. Peterson were to get his way and change the definition; which would require Stalinist levels of social influence; people would soon invent another word to refer that stuff to that stuff out there which doesn’t depend on our subjectivity: the Truth. That’s a good game.
Let me finish with some Chinese history. I wrote about this before. During the last stages of the Jurchen-Chinese war, in the 1140s. General Yue Fei, the most successful Chinese general, was arrested for plotting a coup against the emperor. One of his fellow generals, Han Shizhong, run towards the prime minister, Qin Hui, at court. He then asked him: “What is this thing about Yue Fei plotting a coup? Is any of this true?”.
The prime minister, laconically answered: “It doesn’t have to be”.
By which he meant, the emperor wants him dead, so the hell cares anyway. Note that he didn’t say “it’s true enough”.
Now after reading all this, you can listen to Prof. Peterson make his truth argument at length. Tell me what you think of it now.