Sam Harris vs. Jordan Peterson: The Vancouver Debates Decoded
An analysis and comparison of the two intellectual’s arguments surrounding religion, truth, and meaning.
Links to the Debates:
Night 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jey_CzIOfYE
Night 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xRJ91lVQyRA&t=1889s
Since the video has been released, I have been fascinated with the two nights of discussion that Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson recently shared in Vancouver. They discussed topics including meaning, the value and limits of reason, the utility of religion, and the nature of truth. I find that even though I have thought about these ideas for a very long time, I am still apt to get lost in the weeds. The topics they discussed are complex enough that it can be hard for anyone to keep everything straight. In this post I will do my best to give these topics enough structure to facilitate further discussion. I will attempt to steel-man both arguments first, presenting the strongest version of each before giving my analysis. I will be interspersing my own ideas, arguments, and examples to elucidate both of their points in a way that is hopefully both accessible and accurate.
The disagreements between the two philosophical heavyweights are numerous, but I will get down to the crux of what I see as the main difference between them.
Harris believes that you can derive values from facts. He thinks we can use reason to inform morality. To do this, he argues that we can arrive at notions of good or bad, better or worse, simply with the facts at hand. This is a pragmatic definition, not an ultimate truth or an axiom of the universe. It is a practical truth given what we know now about consciousness and the universe at this moment. It works with the facts we have access to with our senses, and the best theories we have derived from the process of reason. It will need to be adapted with time.
When discussing morality, we start with consciousness. Is this an arbitrary starting point? Sam thinks not. We are discussing morality amongst conscious organisms. Consciousness — being aware, experiencing — is the subject matter of morality. Try to formulate a value structure that does not involve conscious beings in any way. Those values must have no bearing on any human, animal, or potentially conscious organism. Not in this moment or at any time in the past or future. What you come up with would be the least interesting idea in the universe. Consciousness has to be where we focus these discussions.
We can say that with the way the universe is now, in relation to the humans and animals that are alive, there is a worst possible scenario for everyone. The most possible suffering for everyone for the longest time. No silver lining, no afterlife, no meaningful outcome. This is a worst-case for consciousness, a scenario that no one benefits from, and that every participant in the torture would wish to avoid.
Suffering is complicated, and everyone suffers in different ways and from different causes. However, we can imagine a scenario where everyone is having their worst possible fate enacted on them in the specific way that causes them to suffer the most. Everyone on this earth can agree that this potential scenario is worth avoiding. Even in the case of a terrible sadist who wanted everyone else to suffer the worst possible fate imaginable, they would not want to suffer it themselves. Their moral compass is aimed away from this worst possible scenario, just like everyone else’s. Again, I’m not saying that “suffering should be avoided” is a universal, capital-T Truth. I am saying this is a truth based on the fact that everyone involved in this morality calculation would agree that we should avoid the ultimate suffering. It fits with our intuitions AND our logic. From there, we have a starting point. We have an anchor for values. We have directionality. We can aim away from that worst possible spot.
This importance of this cannot be understated. This is our bridge from facts — our understanding of the world and causality — to values.
It is important to note that morality is not a single line toward one final goal. Instead, Sam Harris describes a Moral Landscape. There are valleys, and there are mountains, or peaks. There can be many different peaks of the same height that are constructed of different materials. There are many different ways to be happy and fulfilled. You could reach a certain level of fulfillment in a way completely at odds with someone who is also at that exact same level of fulfillment. The same goes for valleys: there are many different ways to suffer. The fact that we have a lowest possible valley gives us directionality. Conscious organisms should want the universe to be better than the worst possible outcome for everyone. From there you have the emergence of morality. It is better for an individual to be higher up than lower down on this continuum from suffering to flourishing. It is better for the universe to be in a state where the average height (as an analogy for happiness) is at higher value than a lower value. It is amoral to try to lower conscious organisms on that spectrum, and moral to attempt to lift them. Values can arise from facts.
Peterson disagrees with Sam, saying that there is no way to connect facts and values. He sees that there are an infinite number of facts to choose from, and therefore an infinite way of interpreting those facts. Ergo, there is an infinite range of values to choose from. He believes that it is therefore impossible to anchor values with facts.
Value structures are important. Peterson sees the threat of nihilism, the belief that nothing matters and everything is meaningless, as one of the two largest threats to humanity. The second threat is nihilism’s opposite, totalitarianism. Nihilism comes from too little rigidity of value structures, and totalitarianism is the result of too much rigidity. He sees these perilous states as the root of the Holocaust and other atrocities throughout history. He sees them as the root of Evil. Since he does not think we can find values and morality from without, he instead looks within.
He believes in Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious. Put simply, this is the idea that throughout evolution the human unconscious has evolved through the process of natural selection, just as our physical bodies have. Certain actions and behaviors increase fitness (our ability to survive and reproduce) and those ideas are encoded into the brain in our unconscious. These ideas are referred to as archetypes. Peterson believes archetypes are valuable because they have been selected for by evolution. Since the human race is a product of the same process of natural selection, each of our minds has an area that stores these archetypes: a collective unconscious. This is analogous to animal instincts. Behaviors that enhance fitness have become ingrained deep into our psyche, often below our level of awareness.
How do we access these archetypes? If they are stored in the unconscious, how can we become conscious of them? Peterson argues we do this via story. Stories in any form are products of this collective unconscious, where the spark of creativity is first lit. The most important of these stories are religious stories, because they have captured the attention of billions of minds over the span of many years.
Peterson does not necessarily believe any religion is true, as in factual. But he sees them as expressions of a great Truth, an evolutionary Truth, a metaphorical Truth. Values that over time have lead to increased fitness, to better outcomes of survival and reproduction.
Let me explain my interpretation of how these truths might be expressed with a short story:
Sometimes I read an essay, listen to a song, or watch a video that I really enjoy. It resonates with me. It seems important.
These are all forms of stories.
Sometimes I think that there is a deep truth in a story like that, and I want to share it with others.
Now imagine if instead of seeing that story, that song, I was the one who thought of it. Whether I was trying to craft it or not, this story came from somewhere inside of me.
If I were to have a story like that in my head 2,000 years ago, and it resonated with me and seemed important, I might share it with someone else.
Maybe it resonated with them too, and they shared it. It starts to spread.
Think of how hard it was to communicate over distances, how short lifespans were, how poor record keeping was, and how narrow our understanding of science. A fictional story could easily be interpreted and spread as a fact.
Maybe that story resonates deeply with people, because it does hold some truth that is known somewhere in the mind.
Because it is a creation from the human mind.
The story came from the collective unconscious, and is accessing archetypes that are shared in this collective unconscious.
My story was an expression of those archetypes, those instincts, those useful adaptations.
Maybe my story spread like a virus, with no one knowing or caring that it started as a fiction.
Some people might REALLY resonate with this story.
The story puts into reality something they feel deep inside and cannot access by themselves.
Perhaps those people realize that we are what we consume. If the story accesses something true inside of me, we can cultivate that part of our unconscious by activating it more.
If we are exposed to that archetypal truth enough times than it will become our nature. It will pull that unconscious structure into our conscious.
If we focus our attention on it, if we worship it, that spark inside of us can burst into a flame.
My story contains a useful value, and having people hear the story over and over will instill that value in them.
Our thoughts determine our actions, so my story will make their actions more closely aligned to that value.
Even if my story is not true, maybe the value still makes a person better. Maybe it makes the world better. Maybe it is worth worshipping.
My story was probably flawed, but as it was retold over and over, it changed. It was subject to another process of evolution. Each time the story was slightly changed, and the most resonant version of the story was passed on and remembered. Over time, my original story has been molded into a much better version, a version that likely has a clearer and more powerful depiction of the archetypes represents.
Maybe, I think, we should get people together to worship it regularly. Perhaps every Sunday, perhaps certain days of the year.
If people asked me where my story came from, I would say the mysterious place inside me that seems to tap into this collective unconscious.
I would say this part of me that feels mysterious and divine, where words and ideas emerge, but do not feel as if they came from me.
Maybe I would call that place God.
So in Peterson’s view, stories access a useful product of evolution. Some religions have tapped into the most widespread and resonant, and therefore most useful and True, stories from the collective unconscious.
An important strength of these innate truths is that they have an anchor. They are not just an interpretation of the handful of facts that we have access to. They come from inside of us. They are anchored to evolution. They are anchored to the psychology that is so innate inside of us that we cannot escape it.
Better still, these archetypes have a mechanism for growth. They are still evolving. Peterson is quick to acknowledge the danger of dogma: ideas that are held to be incontrovertibly true. Beliefs that cannot be questioned. Peterson thinks both religious and secular dogma is extremely dangerous. So instead Peterson would rather rely on values that come from within and are updated by the process of natural selection. These values have a faster mechanism of improvement as well: even after the story is expressed, it is retold and adapted, so an even better version is selected for over time. A version that resonates with the most people and the way reality is now, as opposed to the way it was when the archetype was first developed. This would be the defense for why most people who practice religion now avoid the very worst parts of the stories: slavery, needless violence, sacrifice, etc.
A final point for Peterson: The fact that these archetypes resonate with us is extremely important. It does not matter if you discover the most factual and perfect iteration of a moral code if no one will follow it. Humans are not evolved to interpret the world as facts to be rationally interpreted. Humans naturally view that world through narrative, through our subjective experience. The fact that these values have the ability to tap into the unconscious of everyone alive, to resonate and feel true, makes them extremely powerful for influencing thought and behavior.
Even if Peterson were to concede to Sam Harris’s view of factual morality, that view might not be practical. Morality based in fact, not intuition, may be less likely to be adopted by a large part of the population. Maybe it is even impossible for that many people to accept a factual morality. This is a pragmatic and consequentialist argument against Sam’s view. Sam’s ideas offer a potentially better outcome for humanity, a better morality. But if it is improbable for people to adopt that morality, then a more flawed view of morality that is easier to adopt may actually be a better option for the human race.
Peterson could argue that even though our instincts — our archetypes — are flawed, they are better than a fact-based morality that most people will not accept. The morality that comes from within has the benefit of a strong anchor to the human psyche, which avoids the risk of nihilism we face when we seek value in an infinite and indifferent universe. It might offer the best potential for widespread adoption because of its innate origin, whereas we cannot know how difficult it will be to get people to accept values that come from reason. Values that come from reason may not resonate enough for people to feel they are true, and therefore live by them.
I side with Sam Harris. Peterson has a strong and brilliant argument, but it has a few fatal flaws.
- Underestimating Reason
Peterson is right that there are infinite facts, but we only need to deal with the facts that we have access to. Within the realm of human senses and understanding, there is a subset of facts for us to work with. Only a subset of those facts relates to conscious experience, to suffering or flourishing. From those, we can use the process of reason to get to values. We can see causality via the scientific method. We can test a hypothesis and learn how one variable affects another. We can use this knowledge to predict the consequences of actions. We can figure out a map that gets us away from the worst possible suffering.
Peterson also seems to think that the world is too complicated to predict accurately, which gets in the way of defining morality. We can never be certain of the outcome of an action, but that should not cripple us. Let us say I have a friend struggling with depression and I want to help them. I could give them a hug. I could teach them how to meditate. I could recommend therapy. I could recommend anti-depressants. I could set them on fire.
I cannot say which of these actions will do the most good for this individual in their lifetime, but I can tell you which is the LEAST LIKELY to help. By looking for relevant research, I can see which of these options has the most evidence of working on humans. Using reason, I can look at the mechanisms for how each choice might help, and make a judgment on whether that mechanism is likely to be generalizable and work in this case. I can try to rank the likelihood of success for each of the options. This system is not perfect, but it will keep me from setting that friend on fire every single time. That is significant. I do not need to be paralyzed with uncertainty. I can use reason to guide my actions, and therefore I can use reason to guide morality.
High quality scientific studies on human subjects have been around for less than a century. We will only get better at understanding cause and effect over time; which actions lead to suffering, and which to wellbeing. We will better appreciate the similarities and differences of human beings, and how to best generalize scientific findings. We have been using reason to make the world a better placer millennia, so Peterson is unjustified in claiming that this process is insufficient.
2. Outdated Stories
While evolution will continue to update our values from the collective unconscious, this process moves far too slowly for us to rely on it now. For all intents and purposes, our internal archetypes are now dogma. They developed from a dynamic process, evolution, but that process is so slow that our intuitions are in effect stagnant and will be for the future of every person alive right now, and probably many generations of people after that. Evolution is far too slow of a process. These archetypes were useful in the past, but are now outdated.
However, these archetypes do escape our minds as stories and are then subject to more selection through communication and revision. This process is flawed as well. The stories still come from a flawed start, an evolutionary benefit relevant to the past, not the present. The stories then have to be interpreted by fallible humans. They are seen through a filter of the cognitive biases and weaknesses of the human mind. Our fear of death, our innate tribalism, and every other imperfection we have will distort any knowledge these archetype have to offer. Additionally, the archetypal lessons are attached to the stories they were born from, and so in picking the best parts we will always be hindered by the rest of the stories.
People mistake these stories for reality. People want to believe in an afterlife, an omnipotent protector, a sense of order to the universe. Clinging to these beliefs halts the progress of humanity. While I agree with Peterson that there is wisdom to be gleaned from these stories, when we hold on to their literal truth we cause more harm than good. Some people, like Peterson, are able to separate the lessons from the metaphor after many years of study. I think the vast majority of people will not, and do not want to. There is much more security in truth than in metaphor, so people are inclined to the believe the stories are true. Religious stories are dangerous. When groups have incompatible versions of reality, they work toward different goals. There are versions of morality that involve feeding starving children, and versions that involve throwing homosexuals off of rooftops. Reason can helps us navigate toward the better versions of reality; religious stories cannot.
With regard to the issue of practicality, Peterson is right that it is easier to maintain values that come from our intuitions. However, Sam’s moral anchor of the worst possible eventuality for every living being also fits with people’s intuitions. I argue it fits with our intuitions better than any other archetype. There is nothing more fundamental to our psychology than the intuition that the universe would be better if it did not consist of the worst possible suffering for everyone. It may be challenging to convince people of the value of reason; the ability to divine useful values from reality without the help of outdated stories. It is worth the effort. Reason is the path that can lead us to the highest peaks, away from the lowest valleys. Relying on the crutch of stories, of religions, of archetypes may be a slow and steady path away from the worst possible suffering. But that path is so slow that unconscionable suffering will be inflicted if we take this meandering route. That path has so much needless suffering, too many doctrines that causes more harm than good. It is morally unacceptable to go down that flawed path when there is a way to derive moral wisdom from reason alone.
To be fair, I want to point out what I see as the weakest parts of my argument:
- The major crux of my argument is the stability of Sam’s anchor to reality. That it is a factual truth, at this point in the universe and the near future, that the worst possible suffering for everyone should be avoided.
- Peterson may be right about the dangers of nihilism. Maybe it is impossible for people to accept a factual morality. Maybe religious stories are invaluable for keeping nihilism at bay. If Peterson is right that nihilism is the source of the worst actions of humanity, the danger of moving from religion to reason may be too great of a risk. The slower route of revising our narratives over time might be the safer decision. Maybe that route avoids nihilism or other dangers we cannot see that our adaptive intuitions have protected us from thus far.
Thank you for taking the time to walk through this analysis. Please comment if you agree, disagree, or if none of this made any sense at all. I clearly believe this is a valuable and important discussion, and we still have progress to be made. Discourse is the best way to make this progress. I found this out firsthand while writing this, so I want to give a HUGE thank you to Jordan Stern for discussing these ideas with me and reviewing this post. The value of discourse cannot be overstated for making progress with difficult ideas, and Jordan is one of the best there is to discuss with. Follow him on Twitter: @brevityisthesou