Superstition and wisdom: Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris

Sam Harris’s recent podcast featuring psychologist Jordan Peterson is a debate about how we should view religious meaning in a scientific context.

Jordan Peterson’s project is part of his Jungian attempt to answer Nietzsche. The essential problem here is that since Christianity was a disciplining force in human civilisation, perhaps the strongest, the cultural coup d’etat of science and Darwinism leaves us with a problem of where we are to get our values from.

When God is dead, how do we avoid nihilism?

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Sam Harris’s project is to show that we can source moral truths, truths about how to act, from the world of science. We can avoid the historic crimes of religious belief, and find equally compelling ethical systems that are sourced from our scientific view if the world.

For Peterson, Christianity, although Sam Harris perfectly lays out its problems, gave us the primacy of the individual, the purifying honesty of the word. It gave to us a model of honour and integrity in the face of suffering that is unmatched by any other religion. So the issue is not about how do we deduce moral laws from the world of facts. Peterson accepts Harris’s arguments on this – he does not have any argument with the idea that moral truths are grounded in fact, rather than decrees based superstition.

Peterson’s point is that religious imagery and tradition has a more powerful connection to our basic evolutionary impulses than mere scientific deductions could ever have. The critical task here is for the cultural excavator to go through the tradition and salvage these primal rituals and images and place them in the very ethical context that Sam Harris has laid out in The Moral Landscape and Waking Up.

The first conversation between Harris and Peterson got bogged down in the question of truth. Harris takes a hard, materialist line about truth. He accepts that mind might play a part in what we call truth, but he is not prepared to accept that the goal-posts of what is true can change. Truth has to be grounded in facts. It has to be scientific.

Peterson, though completely committed to scientific method, thinks there is a need for an notion of truth that is more expansive. Peterson is concerned with how we retain the moral truths of our religious and mythic past in the face of science.

Harris has deep worries about any such attempt if it means modifying the standard of measured fact in the scientific method. If we accept any other idea of what truth is, we are in danger of relativism and ‘playing tennis without the net’. It’s this free for all that in Harris’s mind, has caused the great crimes of religion.

For me, the key moment was Peterson’s challenge about the wisdom contained in fiction. The intuition at the heart of Peterson’s more ‘evolutionary’ or ‘pragmatist’ concept of truth (truth is what works), is not a desire to get non-scientific claims in through the back door of intellectual discourse. Rather, it is based on the fact that we know there are profound truths about ourselves contained in Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, that are grounded in scientific existence, but cannot be claimed to be truths based on fact.

Peterson, reflecting on the stalemate in his previous conversation with Harris, distinguishes between wisdom and truth. Truth is scientific, wisdom is cultural. Peterson then is concerned with salvaging the wisdom that religious traditions and images are uniquely placed to bequeath to us. This uniqueness is based on our evolution, our needs and desires and our recognition of ethical self-transcendence, even before we can put such a need in conceptual propositions.

Harris remains sceptical amid all of this. His worry is when fiction starts to pass itself off as fact, and he is correct in asserting that this is the recurrent habit of religious institutions. They go from storytelling as a form of primal ethical discipline, to claiming those stories are representations of fact, as statements of authority about reality. This is what makes them descend into factionalism, tyranny and dogmatic barbarism.

One core objection from Harris about Peterson’s project is its Joseph Campbellian tendency to create a kind of industry of interpretation about religious claims, that somehow gives them legitimacy they don’t deserve. It’s not hard to claim that even the most absurd stories, the most brutal and psychopathic representations of God, could have some basis in evolutionary truth, that they are descendants of a primal ethical instinct.

Again, for Harris, this is tennis without the net, and it is not really that productive. It doesn’t serve the modern individual in his  or her moral challenges now, and in fact can just get us bogged down in more absurdities.

Peterson accepts this challenge. He is not advocating uncritical acceptance of any story that can be told about religious claims. He is simply attempting to rehabilitate tradition in the face of post-modernism, which he sees as a dangerous amputation of human culture and therefore a threat to civilised life.

Both Harris and Peterson left a question unanswered. For Harris, he could do more to explain why Dostoevsky and Shakespeare continue to offer ethical truth that are non-scientific. Why do we find truth, even when such truths are not factual? I think in exploring this more deeply, it will make his position about moral truths more persuasive to non-scientifically minded people.

Peterson would do well to demonstrate his system of critical analysis as regards to what is salvageable and what is dangerous superstition in our religious traditions. If we don’t find some standard of wisdom that is as rigorous as our standard of factual truth, we will continue to face the danger of religious violence and sectarian tyranny.

Peterson’s claim about mythic truth, as opposed to simply factual, propositional truth, is an important one. It is important not just because it is clear that we all have some tendency to find truth in fiction, but also because it is a primal, non-linguistic or conceptual need within us to do so.

There is something unique about the power of myth and imagery and ritual that conveys ethical truths. Attempts to relay these truths in conceptual reflection tend to be prescriptive and authoritarian, like the Ten Commandments. Seeing the truth in beauty, allows us to arrive at wisdom from within, as individuals, and this is a crucial requirement if society is to be coherent, rather than held together through fear of retribution.

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