Sam Harris v Jordan Peterson Debate Summary

Diana Davison
June 28, 2018

On the second night of debate, the conversation resumed from where Harris and Peterson had left off the night before. Bret Weinstein was the moderator. All three approached the debate as a much needed conversation, noting the polarization in modern society which has prevented meaningful dialogue.

Harris eloquently reminded everyone of the purpose of the event in his closing remarks, emphasizing the importance of rational and respectful conversation when dealing with topics that can become emotional and personal.

The request at the beginning of the event that the audience not record live was to enable Peterson and Harris to be able to speak openly without concern that anything would be edited out of context. Hopefully the full debates will be made available to the public soon, not just for the content of what was said but as an example of how important it is to have these types of conversations without hostility.

The subject, generally, was whether or not religion serves an essential purpose that outweighs the negative effects in society. Both Peterson and Harris presented their arguments well and with humour.

From the previous evening, concessions were made by both. Harris had conceded that stories, such as found in religious texts can be useful. Peterson had conceded that stories should be updated to reflect modern understandings and morals.

(As a side note before getting into the details of the discussion, the opening music and introduction was played so loudly I had to plug my ears to both make the words being said audible and to protect my hearing.)

Harris and Peterson both began by “steelmanning” each others points from the first day. As opposed to “strawmanning” the intention is to give the most generous interpretation to what they feel each other had said.

By general agreement, Peterson felt that religious stories “encode wisdom and information” and as a class of stories, religious texts give meaning to life addressing issues of what is “worth living and dying for.” Peterson felt that being tasked with figuring out how to live on our own is dangerous. That if we edit or ignore the stories of our ancestors we do so at great peril.

Peterson urged that we have immense respect towards these stories and their origins. He felt that Harris chose the extreme cases of religious history, avoiding the nuanced versions of religious belief that most people hold.

Peterson outlined his understanding of Harris’ arguments after commenting on the importance of debating with people who disagree with you. That where he holds an opinion he’s sure of, he can’t undermine his own arguments so the only way to do that is to converse with others who can challenge you in order to both check your logic and fortify your own position. The only way to create strong arguments is to rigorously challenge them.

Peterson’s take on Harris’ position was that Harris felt that good value systems have to be grounded in something real. While they could agree on obvious issues of what is good or bad, regarding things like physical health vs illness, abundance vs poverty, that the dogma ensconced in religion was a problem.

He felt Harris’ rejected ancient stories on the basis they are a) pathological b) dangerously outdated c) there were too many interpretations abounding and d) they are rife with bias and unreliable. That Harris felt religion was dangerous and in opposition with what we learned in the Enlightment era and that claims that religious texts reveal truth are particularly dangerous.

Harris corrected Peterson that he is not such a stickler on some of the areas as Peterson had put it, then we moved into new discussion for the evening.

The issue of “metaphorical truth” was the first topic – the idea that a concept can be literally false but choosing to believe it may be helpful. Harris thought religions didn’t require literal truth. A very useful analogy was discussed, framed around how people with proper gun safety handle an unloaded gun. The analogy had been provided a while ago by a commenter in one of Harris’ podcasts.

If two people are passing an unloaded gun back and forth, each time it changes hands people with gun safety awareness would check the gun to ensure it’s not loaded. Upon receipt, the other will recheck the gun even though they just saw the check performed. Both people now having confirmed that the gun is empty would continue to recheck it each time the gun changed hands. If asked to bet a million dollars at a casino across the street he would bet the gun wasn’t loaded yet he would still check for safety every time it was handed to him again.

In my own summary, even though it seems irrational to keep checking a gun you know to be empty it is still good practice and promotes well-being.

Peterson expanded on that, commenting on the relationship between facts and values. He contrasts conscious human behaviour with the example of how wolves will stop attacking a rival in their own group if the wolf shows submission. Not ripping out the other’s throat could be called “good wolf ethics” if it was a conscious decision but, for wolves, it’s instinctive not consciously thought out.

Peterson mentions the well documented history of human societies engaging in sacrifice, like sacrificing an animal. Harris interrupts and says “or like a child.” This interjection garnered deserved applause. In the spirit of having important discussions in the limited time that people like Harris or Peterson can afford to attend these types of events it’s good to cut to the heart of the issues. At the same time, Peterson had criticized Harris for taking the most extreme examples to undermine more nuanced discussion and the ensuing conversation explored that problem.

Harris pointed out that other forms of religious sacrifice were just substitutes for human sacrifice after it became taboo. The ill formed reasoning behind human sacrifice was in effort to force order and meaning on the world and from which superstition evolved.

Peterson acknowledged that human sacrifice and other similar practices were the consequence of ignorance – in times when science couldn’t answer many questions about how the world worked. What he wanted to focus on was the progression of human consciousness and their understanding, unlike animals, that there was a future that present sacrifice could improve. It was a relationship to invisible others in the future and discovery of “future” as a concept that is valuable and it was a difficult lesson to learn, to sacrifice what we’d like in the present for a better future.

Weinstein humorously interjected that we have the problem that animals aren’t very good at filling out the questionnaires after experiments.

Peterson reminded Harris to not just focus on the extremes, like children buried in the foundations of buildings on the misguided notion it would make the building stronger, but to think of the valuable lessons from ancient beliefs about delayed gratification. That parents learn to sacrifice pleasures and comfort to save for their children so they can get an education is an important aspect of human and social evolution.

Harris countered that delayed gratification is separable from religion. He felt saying it was the only path forward was inaccurate. He stated that Christianity is a cult steeped in human sacrifice, which he finds morally repugnant – referencing the crucifixion of Christ as a symbol that someone must die for the sins of others.

Peterson and Harris then talked about the complexity of determining what is “right” or “up” in comparison to judgments of “wrong” or “down” on a value scale. Harris asserted that some ideas are not just “wrong” but the effects of the belief are disastrous. He mentioned the witchcraft ideas still existing that result in “albino hunting” in African countries. Harris asserted to applause that we don’t have to respect the worst ideas that some people have.

Brett Weinstein talked about needing an “upgrade” to “Metaphorical Truth.” Upgrade was a term used a number of times which seemed to be familiar to all involved but I think it needs to be explained in more simple terms than what was offered at the event.

Conversation returned to the gun analogy, as it was such a good example. Harris said that when you go to a casino to place your bet you want to have “purchase on the truth.” Weinstein echoed that the irrational act of rechecking an unloaded gun had “low cost” to the person engaging in the act. Weinstein then postulated that an issue was in trying to make sense of why other people choose differently in what they believe.

Peterson, wanting to resolve some incredulity towards the human sacrifice roots of delayed gratification, suggested that people remember that costs to people in the past were not equivalent to what those sacrifices would mean today. As an aside (not Peterson’s words) he is correct in pointing out that infant mortality was extremely common in a way we fortunately don’t have to deal with anymore. In some cases children wouldn’t even be given names for years to avoid emotional attachment until they proved likely to survive.

Harris turned the conversation back to questions around the reverence shown towards religious texts, questioning why it is deemed necessary. Specifically, Harris objected to the status given to a “class of books” and that religious texts are usually presented as not written by human hands. To Harris, this myth about divine authorship contributes to the dogmatism that plagues religion. It’s a type of reverence not found with any other books, no matter how greatly written.

Harris points out that there are two categories of books: those that can be criticized and those that can not. The second class are considered “divine” and that dogmatism is the problem.

Peterson and Harris then discuss the need for development in how this “class” of book is discussed. Harris clarifies that he accepts there is not one singular “good” life and that there are “peaks and valleys” where you can have two very “good” lives that are vastly different and there is a valley between each example of good filled with a variety of “bad.”

Harris then moves to discuss what being conscious means and the different possibilities of where consciousness might reside. Some people think there is a soul, others think it’s just a brain, and there are many possibilities as to how “that” (consciousness) works. Additionally, bad things can happen but we can determine that we are a better person for having experienced the trauma. It’s a “navigation problem.”

Some things happen to us that have good outcomes despite the stress and other problems have no “silver lining.” Harris asserts that the least helpful approach is to say that we need to make the “right noises” whilst alive to make sure we don’t end up in hell. (“The right noises” seems to be a reductive way of describing prayer or worship but the point is still valid. Many religious people despair at the hypocrisy of others within their church on the same premise.)

Bret Weinstein interjects that a rationalist approach will always beat traditional pragmatism and that it seems best to move away from it as much as possible. He then turned to Peterson to say he was surprised Peterson seemed to have argued that dogmatism was a “bug” and not a feature of religion.

Peterson responded that he thought both were true. It is a bug and a feature. He expanded, to laughter and applause, that “most new ideas are stupid.” This led into a discussion of a primary point of Peterson’s that people can not form a coherent view and approach to the world without “a priori” structure. Peterson then gave an analogy of buying or owning a valuable antique and the uselessness of trying to take that antique apart to figure out “where” the value was. “Good luck finding it!” he said to applause, while all acknowledged that the antique did in fact have value. He points out it is the social agreement that gives that item value, something not intrinsic to the piece.

Harris agreed and expanded, using his water glass as an example. He pointed out that the glass was just a simple glass but if he said that Elton John once drank from that same glass people who are big fans of Elton John’s would be willing to pay large amounts of money for it. They expanded to agree that if you were selling a guitar that Elvis once played it would gain social value (my aside- even though the guitar would not make you play guitar better)

Harris later points out that the changing value of the glass says nothing about the glass, it says more about people and how they assign value. (As a friend of mine pointed out later, this is a very important principle in economics that people keep forgetting then rediscovering.)

The conversation moved into discussion of the Israel/Palestine conflict. (No one made or seemed to intend to make a political statement about how the situation should be resolved.) Peterson took the position that the value ascribed to the land was important because of the meaning it gave to the lives and historical meaning of those involved. He summarized that the situation, though bad, was not irrational. Harris returned, appropriately and with a good point, that it’s like fighting over the glass that Elton John supposedly once drank from… and Elton John was never even here!

Peterson thought the comment was dismissive but for people who can’t understand why neither the Israelis nor Palestinians will walk away from land based on who “God” gave it to, it makes perfect sense and is a wonderful summary. That said, for people who take meaning from ancestral roots it’s like asking them why they care about walking away from their family home.

Harris criticized that many fundamentalists pretended to care about cosmology while making clear they had no real interest in what can be known. He felt that the deep connections people form with “holy” books could be forged into other things that were more stable and productive. Peterson challenged Harris on that claim, in keeping with Peterson’s central argument that stable cultural ideas take generations to perfect and hone. He asked Harris simply and quite beautifully “well…what is it?”

Of course Harris could not be expected to lay out his “life map” for people looking for meaning and value in a world of chaos, and that is a good point in favour of a collection of texts, be they Christian or otherwise. That Harris couldn’t deliver a zinger in comeback doesn’t undermine his position, but it does encapsulate a valid point on Peterson’s part. I don’t think we can look forward to an “Atheist Bible” any time in the near future that will guide people through what Harris calls “bad questions” like what the meaning of life is. Even if they are bad questions, at some point most of us have not just asked them, we’ve practically begged for the answer. Sometimes asking those questions in a suicidal state.

Still an aside, we can’t expect that every child will have perfect parents who can guide them through all of their life problems. Many people turn to a church, mosque or other religious group to help guide their children as a community. Harris was not asked to answer this issue and I expect he would have a good response not represented here. The moment “what is it?!” does stand out in my mind as one of Peterson’s best moments and it was an honest moment, not a linguistic trick.

Peterson and Harris both agreed, earlier, that they were on the same page in terms of opposition to postmodernism and the idea that reality is subjective. At this point Weinstein interjected that he felt the core of the conflict between Peterson’s and Harris’ arguments wound down to whether or not we could just start with a “blank sheet” to solve problems, whether or not ideas could drive people to extinction, “meta-rationality” and issues around a naturalistic fallacy – just because something IS does not mean it OUGHT to be.

Peterson agreed that evolutionary selection behaviour can select the abhorrent. He was asked by Weinstein, to some laughter, if Peterson had some kind of “sorting algorythm.” Obviously not.

Harris started to address Peterson’s question about “what is it?” in terms of his life suggestions or alternative but Peterson cut him off after “Live our life every day…” Harris then moved on to a morality dilemma as an example. He talked about the simple decision for a father to risk his life running into a burning building to save his own child vs the more complicated problem of whether or not to risk orphaning his child by running into a burning building to save someone else’s child. These are complicated questions of morality and “good.” Harris felt this question could be resolved but that “religion gives bad reasons to be good.” He asserts there are other ways to get there.

As the debate drew to a close, like the evening before, the audience preferred to let the conversation continue instead of going into a Q&A. With knowledge that there was limited time the conversation jumped a bit more.

A humourous analogy was drawn by Harris talking about how his daughters had an obsession with Batgirl and wanting to dress up like that for Halloween but that we’d see a different outcome if they were told that they would burn in hell if their attachment to Batgirl ever wavered. They’d likely dress like Batgirl for the rest of their lives.

Peterson countered that the reason Batgirl was on their radar was that the story was built on a structured hero narrative. He then returned to asking Harris how to meaningfully or effectively provide an a priori understanding of the world for children.

After a bit of discussion about “good vs evil” with Harris pointing out that what some people call “evil” can be connected to biology, tumours or disorders, and a fun joke from Peterson about how a sadist would never abuse a masochist if that’s what the masochist asked for, there was a good discussion about the phenomenon of empathy attachment.

Harris pointed out research regarding public sympathy for a girl stuck in a well vs how few people responded to news of a genocide. The more people attached to the story of the girl in the well, the less people cared about her. If you add that she had a brother, then maybe an extended family, then talked about the poverty of her whole community… the more people added to the sympathy plea the less people cared.

Peterson and Harris agreed that there is a limit to how much we can extend ourselves emotionally within reason. Our families and friends come first, then we work outward but can’t take on the sorrow and tragedy of the whole world while remaining functional.

In summaries, Peterson admonished that we need a structure to interpret the world and it must be one based on value. Good structure takes time to evolve and build. He felt that while religion is dismissed on the basis of extreme examples of where it can lead the “devil is in the details” and the details are the baby in the bathwater that people have been encouraged to throw out.

Harris conclude that he felt compelling stories don’t need to be grounded in ideas of supernatural origins. He feels that the supernatural isn’t necessary and if we remove that component then we are “out of the religion business.” He reiterated that conversations like the one that took place that night were essential in moving forward. It wasn’t a debate scoring “points” for either side but a way to show that people can be passionate and still find a way to speak to each other and try to reason.

Harris felt that religion sent a message that, along with things not being open to criticism, it says we don’t need to discover things anymore. Ultimately, there should not be different rules for a certain class of books. His biggest criticism for Peterson was that he let too many people “off the hook” when they block questioning. While there may be value to religious stories Harris felt is should stop at claims of “revelations” and divine origins.

This has been a summary of the event to the best of my ability. (Not even proofread yet) I don’t take any side to the debate and have tried to represent what was said as fairly as possible. I may have misunderstood some of what was said and certainly make no claims to be an expert on any of the issues. I will add or correct any errors and simply offer this as feedback to the presenters on how a general member of the audience heard their positions and to people who weren’t able to attend while they wait for the official upload.