The respective philosophies of Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson have not intermeshed smoothly so far. In two separate hour-length podcasts, the two men could not agree on a common concept of “truth” or an agreed upon method for the discovery of truth. Things have gone downhill from there. But it is in the nature of both men to continue to try. And so they meet in public appearance for the first time tonight in Vancouver.
Clash of the Cognitive Titans
Harris has a PhD in neuroscience, and Peterson has a PhD in clinical psychology. Both are popular authors who have also published scientific research that falls into the realm of “cognitive science.” Both men are philosophically inclined and seemingly comfortable speaking before large crowds. They are meeting tonight and tomorrow night in the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver. But what are the odds that they will be able to get past the epistemological obstacles that tripped up both their previous efforts to gain common philosophical ground?
In light of their previous two failures to meet on the same wavelength, Jordan Peterson took it upon himself to read all of Sam Harris’ published books. This is what Peterson does: He reads a lot of books and articles — many of which are bound to contradict each other — and attempts to achieve a deep set of meanings by combining what he has read with what he had read, heard, and known in the past.
In fact, that is how Peterson came to write his first book “Maps of Meaning,” which is a massive synthesis of many scores of deep tomes, myths, fables, and tales.
Did Harris Watch All of Peterson’s Videos?
I suspect not. Peterson’s Maps of Meaning videos dig deeply into the mines of truth that the Canadian professor, researcher, and clinician has discovered over the past 30 + years. Like a sculptor, he has brought together a wildly diverse set of ideas, and synthesised something useful for today’s thinking people.
Peterson is a clinical psychologist who cares about helping people to move beyond their personal fears and shortcomings, to build a purposeful life. Peterson wants to learn something from Harris, and to hopefully add to his own grand synthesis.
Peterson is Serious About Learning from Harris
Peterson is a clinical psychologist who has seen troubled clients on a regular basis. Doing this for decades allowed him to become a master at getting inside other people’s heads. We can get a hint of this in the Cathy Newman interview on UK Channel 4.
Peterson is better at this empathetic feat when he is not being distracted by a lot of ideas flying at him from different directions all at once. A master therapist needs to focus on the person’s thoughts-behind-the-words, and ignore most everything else. From there, the therapist’s own subconscious will supply what is needed to move the person past the rut that is stopping progress.
Harris Matured as a Public Persona Much Earlier
Sam Harris has become famous using his incisive intellect, which is capable of cutting through logical tangles to expose the presence or absence of inner cores of logical meaning. This is a substantial part of his public image, much of what he is known for.
Sam Harris is also known as a proponent of meditation to achieve inner peace and clarity. This is important, since any public intellectual who regularly wades into deep controversies is going to need a peaceful place to recuperate.
Defending the Public Throne
Harris was born into an entertainment media family. His father an actor, his mother a TV producer. Harris himself has been in the limelight — more or less — for more than a decade and a half. When he looks at Peterson, he sees a newcomer, an interloper on his own territory who threatens to provide an alternative approach to truth than Harris’ own.
In the two podcasts where Harris hosted Jordan Peterson, Harris’ frustration at being unable to make the “fatal cuts” of logic, was palpable. And the same frustration at Peterson has been clear in Harris’ subsequent interviews, podcasts, and public appearances whenever Peterson’s name is mentioned.
On the other hand, Peterson is also frustrated at Harris, but in a different way. Peterson wants to learn from Harris, and to hopefully add something important from Harris’ ideas, to his grand synthesis. Harris just wants to make Peterson go away.
Neither Man is Going Away
To most people it is inconceivable, why Harris and Peterson would be willing to interact with — and be interviewed by — personalities in media or academia who are openly trying to contradict their ideas. In the case of media personalities, some are actually trying to destroy the careers of public intellectuals who do not toe the public line of what is politically correct.
Of the two, Harris is distinctly more mainstream — and generally works to stay that way. His podcast with Charles Murray was a bold step into the unknown, which met significant backlash from the mainstream. When Harris brought Ezra Klein onto his podcast, he met a clever enemy inside his own “house” for an open discussion. Harris was wise to meet Klein on his own territory, rather than going to Klein’s “house” for a meeting where he would no doubt have been stabbed repeatedly in the back.
Peterson, on the other hand, goes everywhere, heedless of the danger. He has received his share of backstabbing. But for the most part — as in the Cathy Newman interview — all of the efforts of the media to destroy Peterson have only brought Peterson more fame, more followers, and more influence.
Sam Harris’ Truth is Negative; Peterson’s is Positive
Sam Harris’ fame was based upon his logical destruction of religious faith. Like a surgeon excising a tumour, Harris set about removing the roots of faith. He takes great pleasure in the task, like a happy surgeon.
Jordan Peterson has devoted his life to providing an approach to life that provides deep purpose — whether or not any religious faith is present.
Harris Sees Peterson as a Threat
Peterson talks extensively about religion — and draws deeply from concepts and “archetypes” which are found in religious writings. Although Peterson does not promote religious faith as such, the very fact that Peterson gives religious writings a certain level of respect and value is a fact that Harris (and the other career atheists) seem to resent very deeply.
Harris does not seem to feel that his work with Peterson is truly done until he destroys Peterson’s credibility — at least in front of the audience that Harris values.
But that is not the way that Peterson seems to be approaching Harris.
Peterson Just Wants to Learn and Add to the Synthesis
One of Peterson’s 12 Rules is (paraphrased): “Always assume the person you are speaking with has something to teach you.” By taking the time to read all of Harris’ books, Peterson demonstrates that ethic clearly.
We will see whether Peterson can get to the core of Harris’ ideas which might prove useful in building a purposeful life, in Peterson’s view. Peterson must find in Harris the things that Peterson finds admirable and potent, and develop those things in ways that can be incorporated into a larger approach to a purposeful life.
The Two Men Do Not Need to Like Each Other
Career atheists are unlikely to admire anyone who seems to move too closely to the orbits of religious or quasi-religious concepts or themes. It is in the nature of a career atheist to destroy belief in god(s) and to destroy faith. If another person’s ideas threaten to provide solace to any religious person’s faith, then those ideas must also be attacked and destroyed. This is a negative approach to truth, which cuts and cuts until nothing “threatening” is left.
But can the emotional guidance systems of the career atheists be trusted to judge and distinguish the “threatening” from the “non-threatening?” Probably not. But humans are only human.
Harris does not need to like Peterson, and Peterson does not have to like Harris. They only need to be honest, open, and articulate — in the context of clashing epistemologies.
In fact, for those who understand these things, it is better that the two men have no special regard for each other when their ideas clash. We are not judging the outcome of this clash by a few interactions. Neither man seems inclined to bow to the other’s established epistemology.
The confrontation is not for the two men. It is for the observers who must make up their own minds.
If only today’s mainstream culture could understand the need for such open and honest confrontations of opposing ideas and traditions. Instead, we are drowning in a monoculture of politically correct strait-jacketed idiocy.
Three cheers for Harris and Peterson. And for Brett Weinstein, appearing tomorrow night with Peterson and Harris at the Orpheum.