So, you might remember a series of posts I did about Jordan Peterson, now famous psychology professor from Canada, about his philosophy of life. I wrote about him here and here and here.
You might also remember that Jordan Peterson was invited to the podcast of Sam Harris, of which I wrote about here and elaborated here. That podcast made me very, very conflicted. Because I think that Peterson is right, and Harris is wrong. But Peterson makes absolutely no sense in the podcasts, neither the first or second; while Harris is eloquent and logical and just sounds smarter. Or at the very least easier to understand. Peterson just sounds like a broken record of a snake’s oil salesman pitch. But make no mistake about it: Peterson is right. Harris is wrong. The problem is he isn’t capable of explaining it in a way that makes sense so that he can win the argument. Now they made a second podcast; and while it’s better, it’s still far from persuasive.
Well, allow me to win the argument for him. And I’ll do it for 1% of his Patreon salary. Nah, I’ll do it for free. Sam Harris deserves being proved wrong. That’s the least I can do for his good cadence of speech and the clarity of his thought.
So the two men are basically arguing about ethics: how should human people behave in society. Peterson goes on his by now familiar shtick about evolution and lobster serotonin and archetypes and Horus and Set. Harris answers that all that’s very good as biology or history perhaps; but not as ethics. We’re trying to come up with a system of morals, with rules of behavior; an accurate explanation of human nature, to the extent that Peterson’s explanation is accurate, doesn’t help there. And that’s because really existing humans have had, and some still have, pretty fucked up systems of morality. Read some ethnographies and you’ll find out plenty of stone age tribes with unbelievably stupid religions (i.e. beliefs about ghosts and stuff) and appalling behavior towards one another. My personal favorite are the lip plate wearers in East Africa. And of course, Harris is an outspoken enemy of Islam; and surely if you’re an Enlightened, blue-pill, 1960s guy, Muslim societies today are in general quite appalling.
Harris’ argument, which you can listen to from about 48:00 in the Youtube clip, is that appalling societies just have “failed science”. Their religion is a way of figuring things out: but they’re wrong. They’re mistaken, and so they do bad things, and their societies suck. If they only knew the truth, the Scientific Truth as discovered by Western Civilization, their societies would flourish and they’d all be as nice as Scott Alexander at a gaypride parade.
This argument is, of course, as old as sin. It’s moral intellectualism. That’s Socrates’ idea. People do bad things because they are ignorant. We should strive to know more so that we can be good. How do we know more? By asking questions and having a Socratic dialogue. Rince, repeat, then have Socrates executed for being annoying as hell.
It doesn’t occur to Harris that, even granting the Whig theory of history, that humankind progressed from ignorance to wisdom on a straight line, and things get better that way, that truth needs to be sold . There’s this thing in linguistics called diachrony and synchrony. Diachrony is watching the evolution of a language through time. Synchrony is watching to a language as it currently exists. You can take a synchronic look at the world today: and you’ll see that while Western Civilization has used Science™ to get to this pinnacle of wisdom and morality, there are plenty of other societies out there who aren’t buying it. They could buy it. Some even were buying it 50 years ago. But they’re not buying it now. And they’re right there, looking at us, kinda envying our technology and our wealth: but they’re still not buying it. These guys are out there and they don’t give a crap about we knowing the truth while they are suffering in falsehood.
And why aren’t they buying it? Peterson should have explained this to him. I guess it’s what he wanted to explain to him all along. The guy is a creative one and he very often finds it hard to put things into words. He should speak less and write more. He’d find it easier to make coherent arguments. Alas he gets paid infinite times more to speak than I get paid to write, so I don’t blame him there. But the point is that the Scientific Truth does not matter when you try to arrange a society. Not only it does not matter; pervasive knowledge of truth quite likely is deleterious for societal harmony. You basically can’t have a society, not a long-lasting one anyway, if the truth is widely known.
You may have noticed that after centuries of the scientific method; most people, i.e. 70% of the population don’t give a crap. Homeopathy is still around. People believe in all sort of crap; and they’re not even consistent about it. Why don’t people care about the truth? Because, as Peterson said, what people care about is what their biological drives have them care about; and those biological drives have evolved over millions of years. What they tell us to care about is what people across age and culture care about; and you can discover that by reading their myths and stories. What they care about is the survival of the tribe as a unit, i.e. the resiliency of their society. What makes the group function. And sex; how to get those picky annoying women to notice you individually. Here, I spared you 20 hours of Jordan Peterson’s Youtube clips. That is his argument.
Actually Sam Harris makes his own counterargument when he claims that the fact of human evolution has no place in a system of ethics, because if so anybody who understood Darwin would spend his whole life in a sperm bank so that he could have the maximum number of descendants. Yes, indeed. A society which placed high value on scientific knowledge would have people do exactly that. People want to win. Certainly guys want to win. But a society in which people understood in very clear terms that human females only mate with high-status men, and the status is a zero-sum game; well that wouldn’t be a very cooperative society, would it. And so humans have evolved to put a lid over all that stuff, which is kinda obvious when you think about it. But seeing the obvious is not what human nature is about. We wouldn’t be here if it were. Human nature is about coming up with bullshit, believing it and sticking to it, so that we can all get along.
Now there’s a lot of ways of getting along. Some people put 10 inch diameter plates inside our lower lips. Some people have women wear burkas while they shove their dicks in the anus of 12 year old boys. Some give high public status to women, while actually paying money to high-IQ code monkeys, who then can’t get laid, then dress like women so they can get the status, and allow this men to use the women’s restroom, which women hate but can’t complain because… I’m not really sure about that one.
Sam Harris wants a new system of ethics: well then he first must understand how systems of ethics came to exist. Peterson knows something about that. Then you can argue, indeed, that some ways of getting along are better than others. But the truth argument just doesn’t make sense. You can’t just drop the truth on a stone age tribe and expect they’ll come out next day as Californian 140 IQ Jews. Two reasons for that. The present American culture that Harris finds so dear wasn’t produced by the truth. It was produced by the Blue Pill. Which contains some truth, and a lot of made up unfalsifiable crap. That is, a lot of religion. And, as it happens, the society the blue pill produced is collapsing before our eyes. Peterson knows something about that too.
What we need is two things. One, ironically, is what Harris says he wants, but doesn’t actually want. The truth. The red pill. The other is some other stuff, not quite true, to put inside the red pill and make it sweeter. Else people won’t take it. People like sweet pills. That’s how we evolved.
By the way it’s the content of this second pill that Peterson wants to call “truth”. That which works. And yeah, ok, you can put that on the package. That’s probably good salesmanship. But first we have to make it. And you sure as hell shouldn’t be telling people at this stage that what we call truth isn’t really the truth.