Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson, on storytelling and scientific reasoning

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Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

This afternoon I watched the first part of the debate between Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris in Vancouver (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jey_CzIOfYE), in which both sides had lengthy propositions on the relevance of religion (Jordan Peterson) and science (Sam Harris) to ethics and morality, specifically for making sense of good and evil.

In brief, Jordan Peterson argued that religious texts provide an interpretative framework and structure that helps us define and iteratively shape our presuppositions, beliefs, and values over the course of evolution. Since religious texts are not meant to be taken literally but contextually as a whole, he is in favorable of leveraging religious texts as an anchor, or a starting point, to help us navigate within the space of morality, on the spectrum of being good and evil.

Sam Harris respectfully disagreed and argued that boundless interpretations of religious texts are what precisely gave rise to dogmatism and human atrocities. For example, the Bible and the Quran legitimize slavery, which in the 21st century should be completely abolished. Our code of ethics should be constantly updating to the highest standards of humanity, but ancient religious texts were written once and for all, and although they were constantly re-interpreted by modern scholars, many serious followers who had acted in accordance with the literal meanings in religious texts inflicted great tragedies in history. We need science and logic to ground our understanding and everyday practice of being good.

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Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

I agree with Sam Harris, but I also think we need the best of both worlds — storytelling and scientific reasoning — to advance as the human species. Storytelling in art and religion give us new lenses on the world; however, there are obviously problematic narratives and interpretations, so we need scientific reasoning to help us stay on track of the practical reality. Jordan Peterson actually pointed out that the initial condition for conceiving the notion of good and evil is in fact religious (based on stories) and could not have originated from scientific work alone.

We could use a religious or experiential frame of reference to justify our being and life pursuits, while science could support and improve our belief system by informing us about the history of humanity (psychology, sociology, neuroscience…) and universe (evolution, physics, astronomy…). When we talk about good and evil, we should always discuss what is currently universally acceptable, because this is how we make progress on the well-being of humanity, and this is where Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris both agree, that free speech is essential for humanity.

Beyond alluding to good and evil or right and wrong, storytelling is about recognizing the beauty of life. Narratives make us feel alive. When we feel trapped within the walls of society, we find liberation in movies and novels, for they show us what is possible in life. We reinvent our own identity and self-narratives over and over. When we encounter failures, we remind ourselves of the narratives that had always motivated us: to share knowledge, to bring peace, to think the unimaginable, and to find love.

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Photo by Free To Use Sounds on Unsplash

I read, write, and reflect on human lives. Previously HCI Researcher @ Lancaster, UCL, and St Andrews. Website: https://chijuiwu.space/

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