Following Dennett’s use of Rapoport’s rules, Peterson is right to ask (we are translating him here) that while we can ask if a particular proposition is true, we must ask if it is wise to do so and if it is wise to make practical use of such knowledge.
That is, scientific rationality and scientists focus, necessarily, on the truth – objective truth – of some matter but, necessarily, neglect the ethical and social consequences of scientific knowledge.
Peterson is also right that, beyond perceptual accuracy, there is a very strong selection pressure (politically, socially and psychologically) to select that which is useful and not that which is true.
Peterson is right to say that there is a Darwinian contest between memes. Dan Dennett call this contest an “arms race of persuaders” with one group who want to persuade people using reason in order to spread truth and those who want to persuade people in order to acquire power.
This is true, important and neglected by most people, including Harris.
Nevertheless, Peterson seems to struggle with presenting his position with both philosophical coherence and argumentative clarity. Spandrell has done an excellent job explaining why and sets out Peterson’s position in a much better way here and here.
Peterson has unnecessarily conflated knowledge with wisdom, epistemology with ethics and (scientific) truth with moral and even spiritual significance.
He has also, unfortunately, bought into the epistemology of the subjective pragmatists -James, Dewey and Rorty – as opposed to the objective pragmatists – Pierce, Quine and Rescher.
Peterson has hung himself up on his own petard because while he attacks transgenderism on the grounds of truth (or so it seems) he then refutes (or confuses) himself by saying….what he says…..
Peterson is into Carl Jung and archtypes and according to this site his typology is that of an INFJ – the same type as Sam Harris, interestingly enough (though Peterson apparently claims he is an ENFJ). Peterson and Harris are both “sages” and, according to typology, their main judging function is extroverted feeling. An extroverted feeler judges things according to how it affects other people. Peterson’s claim that, to paraphrase, “scientific truth is nested within moral truth” and that “moral truths are higher truths” is something that an extroverted feeler would say.
Harris, on the other hand, has a strongly developed introverted thinking function (INFJ’s third function), which means that his logical reasoning skills are well developed – something that Spandrell notes. Harris, after all, is a philosophy graduate and a student of Richard Rorty (the great pragmatist himself). Harris clearly and elegantly distinguishes and strongly insists on the distinction between truth and value, epistemology and morality – as we do – in a way that makes Peterson look like a kook.
Maybe Peterson was having an off day. Take a look at this video and you will see that the man can reason and draw sharp distinctions when necessary (Peterson gave a virtuoso performance).
Theory of Truth.
One thing that did not come up in the podcast is the philosophical theory of truth itself.
Our own view is somewhere between a correspondence theory and a deflationist account. Correspondence theory – X is true if and only if it corresponds to some fact or reality – often gets bogged down in bad metaphysics quickly and deflationist accounts are….deflating…..
In the end, our answer to Pilate’s question “what is truth?” is the following: do not ask me what “truth” is, ask me whether X or Y is true and we will answer if we can.
The Trouble with (Subjective) Pragmatism.
The problem with pragmatism is that while it is true, it is not very useful.
The trouble with Peterson’s position is that it gives licence (as if this were ever needed) to leftists who will embrace anything to further their own agenda. More importantly, however, is that it justifies intellectual, political and social dishonesty. Even more dangerously, it blinds people to the need to have a clear, accurate account of reality in favour of having “narratives”. And if you live by a narrative, you will die by it.
One of Napoleon’s rules was that while good news can wait, bad news must always be brought to his attention at once. This is the correct attitude – not in spite of but because of the fact that Napoleon was a great deceiver and a propagandist of the first rank. (Nietzsche has many interesting things to say about this.)
In other words, if you are going to lie, then you need to be inwardly committed to truth and actually know what is true and what is false.
For example, listen to this phone call between Nixon and Daniel Patrick Moynihan on the subject of race and IQ. Nixon says, in effect, that while black people on average has lower IQ’s than Whites and Asians, his job – as president – is to first understand this and then do “everything he can to deny it.”
Nixon is half right. He is right in that he has a responsibility – a duty – to get the facts right. What he gets wrong is that he has to perpetuate a lie – and not even a noble one.
The trouble with lies is that they get exposed. Liars almost always get caught. Lies destroy trust and without trust there can be no cooperation.
Lying is, however, necessary and commendable in two instances. Firstly, when you are weak and telling the truth will get you harmed by an aggressive party; secondly, when you are in a war with another party.
Assuming that is correct, what does it say when the most powerful man in the world (president Nixon) had to lie to the American people? It means that he was actually weak and that he – and America – was at war – at war with itself. (Moldbug points this out when he says that the “the sovereign is the story”.)
Here are five books we recommend to follow up the topic of truth, knowledge, wisdom and pragmatism. The following is from a diverse list of contemporary, western philosophers. Three are male, one is female; two are theists and two are atheists; there is a naturalist, a rationalist, a pragmatist and an Aristotelian here (can you tell which one is which?).
2: Simon Blackburn’s Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed.
3: Thomas Nagel’s The Last Word.
4: Nicholas Rescher’s Methodological Pragmatism.
5: Nicholas Rescher’s Realistic Pragmatism.