Recently, Vancouver hosted a debate between two intellectual heavyweights – Professor Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris. Dr. Peterson, a clinical psychologist and controversial figure, is best known for taking a stance against the excesses of campus identity politics and the compulsory use of non-traditional gender pronouns. Sam Harris is the author of “The Moral Landscape” and widely known as one of the four horsemen of atheism alongside Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens.
The debate took place over two days, June 23rd and 24th, and lasted a total of about four and a half hours. Moderated by the esteemed evolutionary biologist Brett Weinstein, Peterson and Harris came together to debate the centuries-old controversial argument of the importance of religion and the existence of God.
People from both sides of the argument have been looking forward to this debate for a long time. These two figures are undoubtedly among the best experts to represent either side of this issue; Jordan Peterson has studied religious mythology from Christianity, Judaism, and various pagan cultures such as early Egypt and Mesopotamia for decades. He has also delved into the work of Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, and the pragmatic philosophers on this topic, all paving the way to inform the courses he has offered on Biblical stories and religious symbology.
Peterson’s position is that religious myths and stories instruct how people should act within the world; that these myths outline a precise path for the individual to walk in order to bring harmony to themselves, their families, and society as a larger whole. Furthermore, he argues that “God” is the super ordinate principle, or the highest objective, which constitutes meaning in the world and serves as a threshold for people to attempt to move towards as they walk this path.
On the other hand, Sam Harris has devoted his intellectual capacity to outline a code of morals and ethics for people to live by–without having to resort to religion. He claims that moral code is grounded purely in objective scientific facts about the world. Thus he establishes in his book “The Moral Landscape” that human beings can rely on their rationality alone to discern the objective moral framework of reality, without falling into the subjectivity of moral relativism and nihilism on one hand, and the repressive and superstitious dogmas of organized religion on the other.
Peterson and Harris spent a large part of the first night discussing what they had in common. For example, both agreed that it was important to establish an objective moral code to live by in the world. The notion of moral relativism was disavowed by both intellectuals, for mostly the same reasons. Furthermore, both agreed that not all religions were equal in their moral claims. However, here Peterson’s focus was positive; he claimed some religions were only conscious of pieces of absolute truth, while other religions, such as Christianity and perhaps Judaism, had articulated this truth with much more sophistication.
By contrast, Harris’ focus was on the negative end; he claimed some religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam had perpetuated much more oppression and violence in the world, historically and contemporarily. This was done by enforcing their dogmatic claims unlike other religions, such as Buddhism–though he admits Buddhism has initiated violence to some degree as well.
Here is where the central point of disagreement arose: Harris was concerned that Peterson was cherry-picking the positive results of religion while making excuses or downplaying the atrocities it was responsible for. Furthermore, he believes the positive aspects could be attained outside religion and thus the whole institution of religion is unnecessary. On the other hand, Peterson was highly suspicious of Sam’s confidence that an objective moral code could be established without recourse to an a priori hierarchy of values, one which would presumably lie outside our scientific analysis of the physical world.
In Peterson’s view, the realm of meaning is not perceivable through this lens, but a light is cast onto it from the domain of religion, and perhaps philosophy and literature to some degree as well, through the intercession of God and the Logos. Peterson believes these are the root of Being and are necessary prerequisites for the existence of purpose, order, and value.
By an “a priori hierarchy of values”, what Peterson means is a pre-established sense that objectively, some things are better than others, by extension that some things are good and some are bad, that some things are worth pursuing and others are not, etc. Thus we can know the fact that throwing a stone at someone’s head will cause them pain, but we cannot establish through science that doing such a thing is right or wrong because science doesn’t make moral value judgements. Similarly, science demonstrates that we can create nuclear bombs, but does not inform us as to whether we should or should not drop them on populations.
One may claim, as Harris does, the fact that we naturally feel that it is wrong to do something is sufficient, but one could easily cast doubt on the authority of this judgement by pointing out that not everyone feels this way. According to his analysis, the idea that a majority of people feel something doesn’t make it objectively right. Furthermore, we may have been socialized into believing it is wrong to cause unprovoked harm to others by our society and our parents, and thus our sense of morality would be a mere cultural dogma. However, Peterson and Harris both agree that there is an objective morality, and therefore Harris would need to provide more stable evidence for the objective validity of these moral intuitions.
The majority of the debate was spent with these two concerns raised; Harris critiqued Peterson for downplaying the negative consequences of religion, and Peterson probed Harris for his perceived lack of foundation to establish values and morality in the world. Brett Weinstein moderated the conversation well, asking questions to each speaker throughout to address shortcomings in their arguments. He also asked them both to steel man each other’s argument at the beginning of the second night of the debate; essentially, to put the other’s argument into their own words and make it as strong as possible. This was an ingenious idea, as it served as a good recap from the first night and introduction to the second night, and warded off the potential for either Peterson or Harris to straw man their opponent and misrepresent each other’s position unintentionally for the remainder of the debate.
Most interesting of all, however, was the audience’s undying and passionate attentiveness to such a profound and intellectual clash of ideas. A period at the end of each night was reserved for questions from the audience, and on both nights when that period came, Weinstein asked whether the audience wanted to ask questions or whether they wanted to let the two speakers continue. The overwhelming majority of the audience wanted the speakers to continue, forfeiting their opportunity to ask questions for the chance to hear these two bright men speak even longer.
This, combined with the hundreds of thousands of views the Youtube videos of the debate received within the span of a mere few days, demonstrates that there is a monumental wave of people who are committed to understanding complex philosophical problems that go to the root of Being itself. These aren’t “Jordan Peterson destroys smug atheist” or “Sam Harris schools crazy religious nut” videos: they’re two hour long in-depth discussions between two highly respected and intelligent thinkers.
People are not watching these videos to have their own biases confirmed, they’re challenging their own notions of religion, morality, and philosophy by exposing themselves to some of the best counter-arguments to their own positions, or further strengthening both sides of the argument if they themselves are undecided. Many of them are willing to patiently sit through long format discussions to learn new things.
More than anything, this debate demonstrated that there is an enormous congregation of people around the world faithfully devoted to the discovery of truth. They are willing to have their own assumptions die in the process, they are willing to sacrifice their own inclination to speak in order to listen–as the audience did during both nights of the debate–and they are willing to devote large segments of time to patiently learn.
Most broadcasting outlets would have us believe that their media must be kept short, simple, and catchy in order to sustain the viewer’s fleeting and shallow attention. While this may be true for some, the popularity of Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, and other such intellectuals on YouTube has colossally shifted the cognitive and conceptual reputation of the larger internet audience.
In the words of Professor Peterson himself, when asked about this on Joe Rogan’s show, “It turns out everyone is way smarter than we thought.”
The only way to defeat bad ideas is with better ideas.
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