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  • Paul D. Wilke

Jordan Peterson v. Sam Harris


I'd encourage everyone interested in religion, philosophy, or psychology to give this debate (video below) a listen. Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris are both very articulate guys who nonetheless have some very fundamental disagreements when it comes to the nature of religion. I've listened to both speak on a variety of topics and have been a long-time listener to Harris's "Waking Up" podcast. Here are some of my takeaways:

1. Anyone who has heard Peterson debate knows he's good at it. He's a smart guy and articulates his positions well. This discussion was no different. However, it was the first time I've seen him get a little flummoxed and stumble to respond to a few of Harris's points. The one criticism I have with Peterson is his occasional difficulty giving simple, concise answers to questions (for example watch the video from 36:20 - 43:10). Of course, he would argue that these are not simple questions that can be answered in short soundbites. Peterson can also be frustratingly vague on his views at times, and I was glad to see Harris make a point of calling him out on it when he started to descend into a jargon-filled word salad. Christians out there who think Peterson is one of them should listen to what he actually says God is (1:27:57) and decide for themselves if that's the transcendental God of the Bible. It felt like obfuscation to me. On that note, Harris brought up something else I've noticed about Peterson. Peterson speaks the language of the Bible in a way that makes Christians think he's actually one of them. Harris finally got Peterson (starting at 1:48:00-1:53:00) to respond to the charge that his views on religion invite confusion, though Peterson's response was more defensive than explanatory. This may have been the tensest exchange of the debate, and the one that seemed to get to Peterson the most.

2. All the same, I felt Peterson scored some points by trying to pin down Harris on his assertion that we can objectively ground values from facts. Or, put another way, we can use the tools of science and reason to get to an objective Good in ways that religion never can. Unfortunately, I think Harris is swimming upstream with this claim. The conventional wisdom says that we cannot do this, that we cannot merely pluck values from facts without acknowledging the critical role of our subjective experience. As Peterson rightly points out (54:00), "facts" are always mediated by a pre-existing interpretive framework (our subjective perspective) that gets between us and those facts. Peterson believes that the "stories" of the great religious traditions are an effective means, or at least functioning heuristics, to bridge this gap between facts and values. As such, they have value in ways that an atheist realist like Harris is reluctant to admit. Peterson is repeating a by now pretty standard critique of Harris's book, The Moral Landscape, which argues that science and reason are the best tools we have to discover anything resembling objective truths. Peterson also made a great observation that the examples (imagining a real-world of perfect misery and one of perfect bliss) Harris uses in The Moral Landscape to make his argument are also stories, meta-narratives that sound like secular versions of the Christian heaven and hell. Peterson said that by doing so Harris is actually using the same descriptive and conceptual tools (stories) to make his cases as religion (58:40; 1:11:00). That's an interesting thought.

Anyway, here's the video of the debate. There's a part two that took place a day later, but more on that later.


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