On January 2 and March 13 Jordan Peterson was a guest on Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast. The particular styles of these two are very unique and charismatic, so the talk was burdened by great anticipation and expectations for something extraordinary to happen.
When their starting points seemed so incompatible, many wanted to know which of them was “right”. But, sometimes people can say differing things and both be “right”, like two people on opposite points of a map who are asked which direction leads to the mountain in the centre. I don’t mean this to be the kind of relativism that says, “Everyone is right in their own way, because everything is subjective,” because I think the mountain in the centre of their conversation is objectively there, and worth climbing. When one points east and the other points west, a look at the intended destination can at least yield some fruit.
I admit that sometimes this effort is a waste of time and energy, but you can only find out after the fact. Bridging the gap and creating some kind of unifying and complete context between views involves facts (pure information), empathy (an emotional understanding of someone’s motivation), and creativity (which occasionally “stretches” the truth too much). Finally, we must combat bias and information overload. This is a lot to ask.
In Peterson and Harris’ first conversation they struggled with “truth”. Harris insisted on an empirical, objective definition of truth before taking any further steps in a conversation on reality. Peterson insisted on measuring “how true something is” by its ultimate effect on our survival. Harris provided abstract, thought-experiment type examples to clarify (a typical philosophical tool). Peterson countered that these were “micro examples” (too far removed from reality to ascertain whether or not they truly contributed to our net survival). It was like watching two athletes trying to play two different sports at the same time.
Perhaps Peterson’s insistence on measuring a given “truth” by its impact on us and our survival was a “move” (in the game) which would have allowed him to argue in favour of preserving some mythological and religious narratives, because of their potential positive psychological benefits to us and our survival. This kind of initial position allows these narratives to be “true” for us regardless of how true they are in an empirical or factual sense – so the way we “live” these stories matters more than our scientific understanding of them.
Heidegger argues similarly, saying that a botanical analysis of a beautiful field is “less true” than what a person experiences when walking through it in real-time; we “truly” understand things by “living” them, and we are fooling ourselves if we think we can stand outside of reality and time as impartial observers. This is the basis of the conflict between an objective, scientific perspective (the Enlightenment’s ultimate authority) and a “lived” perspective (which Heidegger’s phenomenology values somewhat more, and has now been co-opted by some of postmodernism as the “only” perspective).
Another way of looking at it is through the lens of chess. Losing a queen for a pawn is objectively bad, but making this sacrifice to achieve check-mate is objectively good. On one level it is “true” that this is a bad move (empirically, if we take the move out of time, and out of the context of a “lived” game being played), while on another level this is a good move (because it led to the victory, or “survival”, of our pieces). Though this might hover too closely to utilitarianism, which would kill a few to save many, it partially illustrates the idea.
Or, take the rehabilitation of a drug addict. What is the most effective method? Give facts about the biochemical damage to the body, sociological statistics on quality of life, and psychological information about drug abuse in society and its effects on others, OR provide a compelling narrative the addict must live out by surrendering a part of himself to become an archetypal hero of his own story? It depends on the addict. Harris gives the facts, outside of emotion. Peterson gives the narrative, full of emotion. Successful recovery stories vary, like the directions of travellers, but there seems to be a common mountain they are heading towards.
For me, the “mountain” or common goal of these two men is to empower people against the darkness of that specific ignorance which comes from false ideas backed by dangerous ideologies; for us to reclaim the life that is our birthright. But, while Harris wants to suck the power out of potentially damaging narratives and destroy them before they do any more harm, Peterson wants to focus the latent potential energy in some of them to propel us to new (and sometimes forgotten) heights.
They both have followers who genuinely benefit from their respective approaches, and also followers who just want to be on the right “team”, so they can lash out at and bash others. Many who did just that obviously did not notice the civility expressed by both Sam and Jordan in their sometimes frustrating conversation; in their sincere desire to converge, and their willingness to do a potentially painful round two. Peterson was at a disadvantage, though, because he seemed to see the exchange as important, and probably hoped to have an impact on an influential intellectual. Harris, on the other hand, was able to just sit back and try to learn why people wanted so much for them to speak in the first place.