The Metaphorical Blindness of Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson
The Vancouver debates saw the two Intellectual Dark Web heavyweights get tantalizingly close to — but ultimately miss — a middle ground.
Okay, I admit it, I’m a cliché! As an over-educated white guy with a background in the humanities and a longstanding interest in religion (but an antagonistic relationship with most of its organized forms) I completely ate up the twin debates between philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris and psychologist Jordan Peterson. Moreover, like the cliché that I am, I entered the debates (like most of the audience members clearly were) firmly in the camp of one of the two intellectual pugilists, namely Sam Harris — a man I have long counted as an intellectual (and even spiritual) hero of mine. As somebody who has never cared much for Dr. Lobster-Hierarchy, I was looking forward to seeing Mr. Moral Landscape take him to the cleaners.
I finished the second debate with three things I wasn’t expecting, namely a grudging new respect for Jordan Peterson and a certain frustration with Sam Harris’ stubborn attachment to the “real”, but also a nagging feeling that a middle ground encompassing much of both men’s shared values clearly exists — but that the protagonists’ dogmatic attachments prevented them from reaching it.
For those unfamiliar with the above-mentioned debates, Harris and Peterson met on stage at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver on June 23 and 24 for two “discussions” (debates, really) refereed by evolutionary biologist and fellow Intellectual Dark Webber Bret Weinstein. Weinstein was uniquely well suited to the role given his public espousal of the notion of “metaphorical truth”, namely the idea that certain fictions (like religious narratives) can be adaptive in evolutionary terms, providing individuals and groups that adhere to them with tangible advantages. Weinstein therefore straddles Harris’ hyper-realism with Peterson’s often woolly-headed attachment to the importance of myth and stories, and his own hard-to-pin-down attachment to Christianity.
Prior to the Vancouver debates, Peterson and Harris met twice on the latter’s Waking Up podcasts, wherein both conversations were quickly bogged down by basic fundamental differences on the notion of “truth”. Having previously been unfamiliar with Peterson, I quickly developed a caricature of him as a cantankerous knee-jerk cultural chauvinist driven by a deep-seated need to defend western, Judeo-Christian cultural values and everything this generally entails, whereas Harris seemed to anchor his axioms to something outside western cultural architecture — namely scientific rationalism and an open-mindedness to a panoply of spiritual experiences generally better sought through an eastern (specifically Buddhist) lens.
The first of the two Vancouver debates seemed to further strengthen this impression, with Harris calmly dismantling most of Peterson’s arguments. The second, however, was much more interesting — leading me to a somewhat more charitable view of Dr. Peterson and his views on sacred myths and the like.
Peterson, much to his credit, clearly did his homework for the debate in a way that Harris didn’t, quoting passage after passage from The Moral Landscape, Waking Up, and other of the man’s books. One particular quote from Waking Up, which Peterson cited, stood out for me, as it simultaneously underlines the strength of much of Harris’ argument but also hinted at some of its liabilities:
I still considered the world’s religions to be mere intellectual ruins, maintained at enormous economic and social cost, but I now understood that important psychological truths could be found in the rubble.
Harris has long stood apart from the rest of the New Atheist crowd for his openmindedness vis-à-vis spiritual experience. Unlike his fellow anti-god-squadders Hitchens, Dennett, and Dawkins, Harris spent much of his younger adult life in search of spiritual learning and fulfillment in Asia, imbibing traditions ranging from Burmese Therevada Buddhism to the nominally Hindu practice of Advaita Vedanta, and ultimately embracing the Tibetan discipline of Dzogchen meditation under the tutelage of the late Tibetan lama Tulku Urgyen Rimpoche.
But while he acknowledges that certain traditions do a far better job of maximizing the possibilities of understanding one’s own mind, he stops short of the woollier, more Petersonian, aspects of Dzogchen and other such traditions, namely the religious narratives and iconography. In other words, while Harris’ views on Buddhism and related spiritual traditions are logically sound and no doubt helpful, they can begin to feel remarkably dry and emotionally unsatisfying. Harris would no doubt argue that attachment to Zen koans, Tibetan mandalas, and the other appealingly ancient arcana of the “religious” side of these traditions is symptomatic of the sort of base material attachments that Buddhism, at its core, seeks to dispense with, but as a person who attempts to meditate but still feels a yearning for incense, Buddha statues, and other woo-woo props that proliferate in new-age stores there’s still something missing for me.
This, I have begun to realize, is what lies at the core of Jordan Peterson’s fast-growing stature as a sort of semi-secular sect leader. (I almost wrote cult leader, but this would be needlessly inflammatory.) The need for stories, myths, and the other gossamer spawn of organized religion does speak to something fundamental in most if not all of us. Even as an atheist through and through, I still feel the need for it. Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous get this. Hell, even our corporations seem to get this far better than our scholars do. Clothing brands like Lululemon are essentially in the religion business, and are doing it far more effectively than most mainstream churches are (let alone scholars like Sam Harris). They have their temples (i.e. yoga studios), their myths (detoxifying seaweed wicking fabric), their mantras (“Friends are more important than money” etc.), and their inspiring narratives (in Lulu’s case about becoming fit and beautiful).
I remain agnostic as to whether a need for myths and stories are truly baked into our DNA, but it seems like a reasonable argument, and one for which Peterson appears to build quite a convincing case. Meanwhile, Harris appeared intent to straw-man his opponent by continually bringing up religious fundamentalism, while at the same time applying 21st century standards to ancient stories with a view to paint them as barbaric, while failing to acknowledge that, as Peterson pointed out, grisly accounts of child sacrifice would have sounded very different to a premodern audience for whom infanticide was, more often than not, a necessary evil in a time before contraception and of widespread malnutrition and starvation.
In Harris’ view, all religious narratives are to be taken either at face value, as though they had been written by a literal creator of the universe who knew in advance that our modern world would look far different from the world that existed at the time the text, or to be entirely rejected. And this argument, as the second debate drew to a close, appeared increasingly shaky and untenable.
Which is a pity, because if Harris had conceded more of Peterson’s argument about the outsize role of stories and myths in our evolution as a species, he would have been in a better position to attack what I still believe is the fundamental flaw in Peterson’s worldview, which is his dogmatic attachment to one particular religious narrative, namely that of the Christian religion.
When Harris challenged Peterson to articulate his religious views, he stated that he “acts as though God existed.” He did not then specifically ask him “Which God?” but it is clear, both from the debate and from his innumerable other statements on the topic, that he means the god of the Christian religion, i.e. Yahweh, the God of the Israelites. And while Peterson makes a compelling case for a continual role for religion and spiritual traditions in our lives, as custodians of metaphorical truth, his case for why this particular spiritual tradition and narrative should hold a commanding role appears shaky at best.
Nearly sixty percent of the world’s population claims adherence to an Abrahamic religion. Roughly 2.4 billion people worldwide claim to be Christian, accounting for about a third of humanity. Islam counts a further 1.8 billion, nearly a quarter of humanity, with Judaism rounding out the Abrahamic faiths with a relatively tiny 14 million adherents (about 0.2 percent of the global population). Christianity’s outsize presence the world over owes much to European colonization of the Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, and other part of the nonwhite, non-western world, and indeed it is in these former European colonies where much of the most zealous practice of Christianity can be found today, while the fast growing “non-of-the-above” category of humanity (roughly 1.2 billion or 16 percent and growing) is disproportionately concentrated in First World countries in the west, as well as in the more economically prosperous countries of East Asia.
This begs the question of whether the world — be it First or Third World — is any better off for having been bequeathed this Christian substrate. It’s difficult to say for sure, but evidence of the harms that Christian conversion (or Muslim conversion for that matter) has caused are not hard to find. In most cases, Christian missionaries actively sought to crush and supplant other cultures’ “useful myths”. In the best cases, traditional narratives achieved a symbiotic relationship with imported Abrahamic religions, be it in the happy coexistence of Mesoamerican lore with Catholicism in Latin America or the beguiling interplay of Dharmic and Abrahamic traditions in places like Indonesia. But from the Canadian plains to the Congo to the Australian Outback, Christianization occurred at the expense of older traditions, at a massive societal cost.
Meanwhile, the “pagan” countries of the east that took great pains to keep Christianity and other western imports at bay for many centuries (specifically China, Japan, and Korea) are thriving in the modern world in a way that most of the formerly colonized world is not. Clearly, more Christianity (or more Islam, for that matter) does not yield better societies. Today, sexual minorities in countries like Uganda and Papua New Guinea continue to bear the brunt of this religious colonial legacy, while Indigenous people in Canada, Australia, and elsewhere continue to struggle with the shackles of a colonial religious ideology that taught them to despise their own cultures. One can only wonder where these cultures would be today if they had been able to access the material benefits of the western world (i.e. medical science and technology) without the religious dogma. Perhaps they would look more like modern Japan does today.
Moreover, there is plenty of evidence of Indigenous cultures rediscovering ancient and powerful myths of their own and re-leveraging them to re-empower themselves. In such cases, metaphorical truths like those espoused by Peterson and Weinstein are indeed doing heavy lifting — but they are being enlisted in large part to counteract the damage done to these cultures by Christianity.
The Wetiko Principles — Decolonization through Metaphorical Truths
In the traditional folklore of the Cree, Anishinabek and other Algonquian cultures, the wetiko (alternately spelled windigo or wendigo) is the go-to personification of terror and anguish. Depicted as ghoulish giants with an insatiable appetite for human flesh, wetikos were usually imagined to be human beings infected with a sort of mind virus that caused them to wander the forests in a state of perpetual hunger, growing larger with every human victim but never reaching satiety.
As a metaphor, however, the wetiko concept does a great deal more than scare children into not wandering off in the forest alone. As Dr. Hadley Friedland, professor of Indigenous Law at the University of Alberta, explains in new book The Wetiko (Windigo) Legal Principles: Cree and Anishinabek Responses to Violence and Victimization, this traditional embodiment of evil serves as a useful framework for addressing societal ills — and holds promise as a legal foothold in the struggle to curb violence in Indigenous communities today.
In precolonial times, individuals accused of violent crimes would frequently be cast as wetikos, making the term more than a metaphor but a very useful legal category — one that drew a clear distinction between the criminal act (the mind virus) and the perpetrator (the infected person). Ironically, this very term which helped societies address stigmatized topics such as sexual abuse and other forms of violence was effectively stigmatized as a childish cultural relic by non-Indigenous authorities as part of their imposition of European-style jurisprudence.
The result, Friedland asserts, has been a sense of powerlessness on the part of Indigenous communities to address criminality and social ills in the face of an epidemic of intergenerational violence and profound social suffering.
“The wetiko stories offer a Cree and Anishinabek legal framework for speaking about otherwise unspeakable subjects,” said Friedland in an interview in early 2018.
“As a metaphor for capturing the current predicament of child victimization within Indigenous communities, I think the wetiko narratives should be taken very seriously.”
In other words, this is “metaphorical truth” in action — albeit probably in a mode that Dr. Peterson doesn’t have in mind when he invokes the term.
For all of his vast (mostly negative) commentary on religion, I have yet to read or hear Sam Harris comment on any religious or spiritual traditions outside the Abrahamic or Dharmic spheres. Be it European-style neopaganism or the traditional lore of precolonial Africa, Australasia, or the Americas, the so-called “pagan” religions are completely absent from his discussions on the topic. Perhaps he avoids them so as to steer clear from unnecessary controversy, or perhaps he simply doesn’t take them sufficiently seriously to discuss them. This is much to his discredit, as I truly believe that, at least from the point of view of Petersonian metaphorical truth, there are psychological truths to be found within these piles of rubble as well.
As for Peterson, I have no idea what his views on the traditional lore of non-European and non-Asian peoples are. He does appear to have a soft spot for the Indigenous cultures of the Canadian west coast (He has claimed on multiple occasions to have been inducted into the Kwakwaka’wakw nation on Vancouver Island, although this claim has been thrown into doubt by some.) which he invoked in his bestseller 12 Rules for Life, but aside from some vaguely worded mentions of Indigenous trauma (He doesn’t specifically mention the Indian Residential School system, whose mandate was explicitly Christian.) he remains mute on the subject of such traditions’ potential healing power.
In sum, Sam and/or Jordan, if you are by any chance reading this article, here is my challenge to you both. The next time the two of you face off, Sam, you’re not allowed to talk about fundamentalism, of either the Islamic or Christian variety. This is a straw-man argument, and I think you know it at heart. And Jordan, you’re more than welcome to continue arguing the fundamental evolutionary need for stories and narratives, but you HAVE to move away from specifically Christian ones — or at the very least do a better job of explaining how the Judeo-Christian narratives are intrinsically superior to the innumerable other narratives that either persist to this day in successful societies like Japan or have largely fallen by the wayside as a result of the spiritual bulldozers of Christianity and Islam.
That, I’m sure we can all agree, would be a fascinating talk.