Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Truth and the debate on truth between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson

Sam Harris reports that Jordan Peterson was the person his current audience most wanted him to podcast just because the latter was the only person who spoke of religion in a way that they (largely atheists) could make sense of. The pair started their discussion by agreeing their common ground on the issue of freedom of speech, the Canadian human rights commissions being kangaroo courts and the perniciousness of embedding social constructivist theories of human identity in the law.  Sam Harris then turned to identifying what he thinks is their important disagreement:  a disagreement over the nature of truth. Jordan Peterson distinguishes religious/spiritual/moral truth from scientific truth, claiming that this distinction is licensed by pragmatism, and Sam Harris rejects that distinction. The conversation went on a very long time without resolution and raised two possibilities: either one or the other  was confused about truth or that there was a deeper disagreement about truth than they had managed to bring to light. Quite well known philosophical theory throws a light on this question.

 The first issue to get clear is what things are eligible for truth or falsity, or which things are truth bearers, as philosophers like to put it. We speak of true friends, art that is true to life and even true arrows. The first is a matter of friends who, as such, are as they ought to be, the third is a matter of arrows being straight and the second is… a highly contentious issue. It is also the kind of truth that is one of Jordan Peterson’s great interests. He offers the view (developed from Jung’s views on archetypes) that art gives us images of ourselves and the world that are accurate but inchoate psychological and moral theories and has written a book attempting to make such theories more explicit..

Philosophers, however, are agreed that it is a mistake to attempt to understand truth by taking apparent truth bearers such as friends, art or arrows as  paradigms. It is better to start with entirely uncontentious examples and perhaps when that is sorted out we can turn to considering whether contentious uses of ‘true’ speak literally of truth or are mere metaphor.

The truth bearers that philosophers consider first are beliefs, sentences and propositions, the last understood as being what is believed or what is expressed by a specific use of a sentence. These primary bearers of truth are semantic entities because they are about something other than themselves, a feature we call intentionality. But not all semantic entities are truth bearers: for example, concepts are not truth bearers. Only propositional semantic entities are truth bearers. From hereon when I speak of propositions I should be understood to be speaking generally of propositional semantic entities.

So now we can turn to what is borne by truth bearers: truth. The first distinction here is between theories that deny or affirm the existence of a property of truth. Minimalist or redundancy theories deny, saying that the word and concept are merely semantic devices: that to say it is true that the cat is on the mat is to say no more than that the cat is on the mat. Their usefulness is exhibited in examples such as ‘what Henry said about quasars last night was true’. On these theories there is no additional property that a proposition has when it is true.

Correspondence, coherence and pragmatic theories, by contrast, affirm the existence of a property of truth. Correspondence theory says a proposition is true just in case it corresponds to a fact (modern versions speak in terms of truth-makers). Coherence theory says that a proposition is true just in case it coheres with a body of propositions. Pragmatism says that a proposition is true just in case it is useful.

A further distinction is between realist and anti-realist theories of truth. Realist theories hold that truth is entirely independent of subjects and antirealist theories deny this. Under realism, we could be ideal enquirers who had completed an ideal enquiry and thereby be in possession of the best evidence, and yet still end up with radically false beliefs about the world. Realism creates a gap between our beliefs and the world that evidence cannot completely fill and thereby makes philosophical skepticism (that we have no knowledge of the world) a live option. We might be deceived by Descartes’ evil demon and our best evidence would never reveal this to us. Anti-realism closes that gap: truth is ideally justified belief and whatever the best evidence supports is therefore true.

Turning now to the dialectic between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson, I want to start with a bit of ground clearing. Neither deny the existence of a property of truth and prima facie Sam Harris is a correspondence theorist and Jordan Peterson a pragmatist. I think it is unfortunate that Sam Harris characterises truth as an element of epistemology, since this is ambiguous. For anti-realist theories of truth that define the nature of truth in epistemic terms (ideally justified belief), truth is secondary to epistemology, whereas for realists truth is presupposed by epistemology. In terms of this distinction,  Sam Harris is a realist and Jordan Peterson manifests some anti-realist tendencies. Their discussion is sometimes obscured by arguments about evidence because absent making explicit their view of the relation of truth and evidence, such arguments can be question begging.

Sam Harris starts (and continues and finishes) by making the standard objection to pragmatism by giving examples of propositions that are true but not useful or useful but not true. Towards the end he offers two virology labs in which all the scientist have identically true beliefs about smallpox but one lab makes an error in handling and creates an epidemic which would wipe out all humanity but for the other lab, which makes a vaccine that saves half of humanity. The way I would put his objection is that according to Jordan Peterson the beliefs of the first scientists must be false because of the bad result they produce whilst those of the second scientists must be true because of the good result they produce but the beliefs of the scientists are identical and hence all the beliefs must be both true and false, which is incoherent.

Jordan Peterson’s response was to deny the possibility of the example on the grounds that the difference of the outcomes means they must have different beliefs. Sam Harris attempted to block this by claiming he could simply stipulate that they do have the same beliefs and the only difference is in their actions. Jordan Peterson then rejects this kind of stipulation on the grounds that it always amounts to excluding crucial elements of the wider context that cannot properly be excluded.

The way  Jordan Peterson prefers to characterise these examples is a matter of cherry picking a limited context in which a proposition is ‘true enough’ for some purposes but which a wider context may reveal to result in bad outcomes and therefore not be true. So the examples that Sam Harris calls scientific truths are only true as what  Jordan Peterson calls micro-claims, by which I think is meant a fairly simple claim considered within an narrowed context for which the question of value is ignored. An example he offers is the claim that there is a fire in this room. When the context is widened and we take account of their value then we discover that they are not true. The extension of his example that he offers is when the question is whether we are in danger and the building is on fire even if this room is not. In this way we should understand scientific truth to be embedded in the wider moral truth, which determines whether scientific ‘truth’ is really true, where the last is to be understood in terms of  pragmatism. We commonly think that the distinction between moral truth and scientific truth is made by the subject matter of their true propositions, but I suspect that for Jordan Peterson that is incorrect. We should rather understand moral truth  to be a superior variety of truth to that of scientific truth and hence, ultimately, the true and the good are united by moral truth (or perhaps I should say by religious/spiritual/moral truth).

The broader claim that Sam Harris wants to make about his  examples is that Jordan Peterson is equivocating on truth: that what he means by scientific truth is correspondence truth and when he moves to speaking of moral truth as pragmatic truth he is really changing the subject to moral questions, such as the wisdom of pursuing certain enquiries and the possibility that some knowledge ought not to be known. So the claimed ultimate unity of the true and the good is effected by changing the subject in the middle of theorising about truth. I think there may be some truth in Sam Harris’s broader claim but I also think that there is another possibility: that Jordan Peterson’s theory of truth is sailing under false colours and doing so unbeknownst to himself.  

Jordan Peterson defines his version of pragmatism by Darwinian survival and offers an example of Irish elks that were ‘true enough’ to get so far but eventually became extinct because sexual selection resulted in the males have such unwieldy antlers that it interfered with feeding. The first thing I want to say about this is that Jordan Peterson frequently indulges in this kind of loose talk about truth bearers when speaking of his pragmatism. Its cogency is much reduced when we query the idea that animals or species can be truth bearers in the relevant sense because we see the danger of an illicit equation of truth with the survival property had by such animals and species.  So we really need him to define how propositions have or lack the property of truth on the basis of Darwinian survival. Presumably this would have to go via beliefs, for example, that true propositions are what is believed when a belief is true and a belief is true when it promotes survival, or belongs to a set of beliefs that promote survival.

That being said, perhaps we do not need to go that way if we attend more closely to the analysis of scientific truth that Jordan Peterson offers. When offered a scientific truth, and when he thinks we need to attend to the nature of its truth, he repeatedly analyses this as a matter of being true enough for some purposes and then criticises the limited context that must be maintained to preserve this, suggesting that a wider context will reveal that it is not true enough for other purposes. When he does this I think the best way of developing what he wants to say is not as Sam Harris interprets him, and as he himself seems on occasion to grant, as affirming that the proposition has the property of truth but may lose it when the context is widened. On the contrary, the best way of developing his position is as the claim that no limited proposition is ever true sans phrase. Limited propositions are only ever partially true. The wider the context they encompass, the truer they may be, but their limitation means they must fall short of truth itself. There is only one proposition that does not fall short, an absolutely unlimited proposition that supersedes and subsumes all the partial truths, namely, the absolute truth. The absolute truth may be an ideal limit that is out of our reach but it is that to which our efforts are, or should be, directed.

So here, truth is not a discrete property, that is either had or not, but is a graded property, had to some degree, bounded above by a maximal degree had by the absolute truth, which maximal degree is therefore the only thing properly called truth sans phrase. This is naturally understood as a coherence theory of truth, of the kind developed by Bosanquet and Bradley,  in which the degree of truth had by limited propositions is the degree to which they cohere with the absolute truth.

On this kind of account, being partially true may be true enough for some purposes, and for that reason we may mistake it for truth, but the partiality of its truth is revealed when we widen the context and discover that it is not true enough for others. Since widening the context must eventually include the value of the propositions, their tendency to promote better or worse outcomes, or indeed their tendency to promote beauty or ugliness, and since the absolute truth must subsume all such contexts, the absolute truth thereby subsumes goodness and beauty.  Hence we have the unity at which Peterson aimed, the unity of truth, beauty and goodness.

On this account, the virology lab example poses no problems, since now Peterson does not have to reject the scientists having all the same true beliefs. Rather, the example proves the partiality of the truth of their beliefs through its illustration of their beliefs having both bad consequences and good consequences. The inadvisability of having any such labs, the possibility that the knowledge is knowledge that ought not to be known, is in part explained by the partiality of the truths involved. Indeed, the partiality is precisely articulated by the categories of goods and bads promoted by the beliefs, since these are ways in which they cohere with or are incoherent with the absolute truth. Note, however, that the evasion of the difficulty has been effected by shifting from pragmatism, the colours under which Jordan Peterson sails,  to a certain variety of coherentism. What variety is that, exactly?


Well, now add in his Darwinian survival thought, that truer is survival enhancing, and the thought that survival enhancement is achieved by those parts of the world that can better understand themselves and the world. Idealise these and we have truth is absolute survival which can only be achieved by the world itself understanding itself in its entirety. Our rationality thereby is seen to be a partial reflection of the absolute rationality that the world is aimed at eventually embodying. This is a variety of Hegelian absolute idealism, with Hegel's dialectical theory of the historical process replaced by a Darwinian theory. So I think Jordan Peterson is better understood as an absolute idealist sailing under the false colours of pragmatism. 

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