Saturday, February 4, 2017

Peterson's Truth

Abstract: Peterson is saying we can't know what's really eternally true, so it's pragmatically a waste of time to worry about it. What we can do is arrange our beliefs in such a way as to serve our goals.
When I studied the idea of truth, I found enough constraints on what it could be that I concluded the definition isn't arbitrary. (E.g. the exact boundary of 'red' doesn't have to be in any particular place, but the boundaries of all ideas in the vicinity of 'true' form contradictions unless they're in a particular spot.)

Peterson closely approximates this definition, but fails to explain his reasoning. Like all but a few moderns, he finds discipline impossible, and as a result misuses language. Thus I will explain on his behalf. I will try (but fail) to leave the steelman for another time.

Timestamps will be late & wrong because I'm too lazy to rewind repeatedly.


Let's start with an example, because this topic is fraught with negative knowledge.
Peterson says atomic theory is wrong. What Peterson means is atomic theory is incomplete.

He would say it's irretrievably entangled with moral considerations. I would say you have to not get bogged down in the weeds. You're making a hydrogen bomb, in Peterson's tale, to prove atomic theory, but why are you proving atomic theory? Largely, for sex and survival. Don't get bogged down in the short-term parochial goal of proving a particular atomic theory.

This particular (exploding) proof, according to Peterson's unexamined priors, decreases the odds of survival. It is therefore quite literally fatally incomplete. Much as the belief [ammonia and bleach produce an interesting chemical reaction] is fatally incomplete if I decide to realize the interest of this reaction in closed quarters.

Peterson may or may not believe we should pursue atomic theory or atomic weapons. If he examined his priors and learned some game theory, he would realize it is inevitable.

At no point does Peterson claim or imply that mass is not energy, that electrons don't form a probability cloud around the nucleus, etc. What he's saying is if you try to fly a test plane without a rudder, you'll justify the insurance company's high premium for test pilots. Atomic theory is the lifting surfaces, but morality and consciousness is the rudder that stop you flying into the ground. Engineering can stop the bomb literally blowing up in your face, but it can't stop the existence of bomb technology metaphorically blowing up in your face.


To repeat, Peterson is saying we can't know what's really eternally true, so it's pragmatically a waste of time to worry about it. What we can do is arrange our beliefs in such a way as to serve our goals.

For example, if you're concerned about eternal truth, you start arguing about whether social justice is really 'justice' or some kind of perversion. If you're not, the discussion ends in about ten seconds when you ask, "What is it for?" and then, "Okay, what kinds of things in fact lead to that purpose?" Instead of an interminable Wittgensteinian sin, you end up with a concrete testable prediction. You try the thing and go look and see if it leads to, for example, lower crime and racial harmony, or higher crime and [politics reference redacted]ism.

Because of this, if we run across a theory which is less true in some objective detail, but better for survival, then Peterson says we should adopt this theory, even though it's 'provably' false. (I go into this with the smallpox below.) If the latter theory is better for survival, the previous theory is in fact the more false one. The new theory must have something new and true in it, even though we can't put our finger on it.

Is it really 'justice?' Who cares, it's doing what you want. Is your theory about why it's doing that correct? Who cares, it's doing what you want.
His goal is to justify religion, though I have to ironically note the heresy involved in this path.

If believing Jesus is God and died for your sins reduces crime over the competing theory, who cares if Jesus in fact existed or still exists? Let's say for the sake of argument it's pure fantasy. However, the mechanistic theory leads to higher crime. It must be false in a way we can't figure out, and Christianity must likewise be true in a way we can't figure out, and on balance mysterious desert sky gods is more true.

The only advantage to a truer theory, and thus the only purpose for pursuing truth in detail, is when it does what you want even harder. In other words, if you're only making a mangonel, use Newtonian physics. It's true enough. Doing a full Einsteinian treatment is a waste of time unless it's a GPS enabled silicon-age mangonel.

Peterson has the further specific claim that science is trying to use Newtonian morality to launch a moral GPS, and it's going to point your moral compass in the wrong direction. Quite possibly to civilization-ending results.

The Greek skeptics have never been widely accepted to have been refuted. Science is often said to be based on the idea that everything can be questioned; that all theories are merely our current best guess, and downright likely to be completely overturned in the future. By the lay definition, a thing that must be overturned isn't true.

Perhaps there is some way to rephrase the supposed scientific respect for contradictory evidence such that the scientist culture in fact respects it instead of resists it. Or there is at the least a way to prove there is no such rephrasing, and the cultural resistance is inevitable.

Even if we had access to eternal truth, it's not an end to itself. (Well, for me it is.) We access this truth for some purpose, and it therefore philosophically behooves us to keep this purpose in mind. Especially as our minds are limited - we must cull some knowledge, not access all of it - we're apt to make complicated versions of the [mustard gas reaction for fun] thing.

Anyway a few more details, then I'll try to sum it up again.



Peterson is of course correct that leaving out subjectivity is fatal. I've written about this extensively.


"I think about science as a tool instead of a description of reality."
Science defines itself as a tool and not a description of reality. This, however, is a motte-and-bailey thing. Scientists and Harris think of science as a description of reality, and as a matter of fact this makes them resist the overturning they say they support. This is the sort of pragmatic 'not true enough' thing which Peterson is trying to point out.



Harris thinks he doesn't discount subjectivity. I'm genuinely laughing out loud at how deluded he is.

"No Plato, these shadows are totes real! See, that one right there is green!"

>You look at the ruddy shadow. There's a little post-it note. It says 'green' on it.



Peterson is correct. Harris is ontologically committed to agreeing with Peterson. Harris' brain is too broken to realize it though.


After this my patience was utterly exhausted. Spot checks makes it looks like Harris continues to repeat the dogma as if Peterson hadn't heard it millions of times before, and Peterson continues to repeat his failure to communicate in various different ways.

I did find a thing about smallpox that might be a good example.


So there's a lab of good people who don't understand smallpox, and a lab of bad people who do.

Harris wants to say the bad people believe something true about smallpox.

Peterson is saying neither is true enough. Both of these sets of beliefs end up with smallpox epidemics that kill enough people to disrupt civilization. "But the bad folks have correct biology." Good for them. So what?

What you want is a theory of smallpox-and-morality, and these things aren't disentangleable the way Harris thinks they are, which leads to no smallpox epidemics. If it gets the smallpox biology wrong, then so be it. It beats the bad lab with good biology.

Note - Harris is ontologically committed to communism. "But the first lab had good intentions!" Right. Just like Lincoln and FDR had 'good' intentions. Do you want to ban medical malpractice lawsuits, or do we condemn FDR and Lincoln for their results?

If Harris wanted a discussion, he would have said something like, "But we can in fact combine good biology and no epidemics. Indeed in reality (not thought experiment) it should even make it easier." And indeed this is the case. But the priority is the no epidemics. Scientists do not have this prioritization, and neither do their funders.

Christianity might be patently false. There should be a theory that's not false but doesn't lead to ennui, alienation, atomization and crime. But we don't know what it is. (I might know what it is. Certainly, neither Harris nor Peterson know it.) The problem is having Christianity widespread is incompatible with having Progressivism widespread. They're self-entangled in complex ways. Trying to have it a la carte doesn't work: we can't simply combine non-genocidalism with good smallpox biology like we easily can with the lab. You can have Democracy or Christianity, but they cannot coexist.

The further problem is that Christianity is incompatible with widespread Philosophy as well. The Bible has logical contradictions. If we are to seek the truth, then both Christianity and Progressivism must fall. However, in the meantime, Christianity is clearly the more true of the pair, and should be kept around, even if you don't accept that Progressivism is philosophical sin.


Talk about being bogged down in the weeds. What is this conversation for? At which point do we accept that our theory about how conversation works has been falsified, because we have comprehensively failed to do whatever it is for? If you're talking to me, it takes substantially less than an hour and a half.

By the way, in short Harris' problem is he's not trying to understand what Peterson is saying, he's trying to convert Peterson to Harrisism. Peterson is likewise trying to evangelize and has zero interest in being converted, and thus unproductivity ensues.

As a judge I find in favour of Peterson, as the host has the power. When you invite a guest you're executing the guest in the sense of a program. If Harris did not invite Peterson for the purpose of activating him, he did a dumb, and Gnon punishes him accordingly. If Harris listeners don't already know what Harris thinks, they're beyond help, but they're curious about what Peterson thinks, and Harris' failure is not being curious on their behalf. If he could not bring himself to be curious, he should have recused himself.


Anonymous said...

Harris studied philosophy at Stanford with Richard Rorty. Apparently, he used to "drive the man mad" with his "realism."

In the End of Faith, he gives the standard philosophical argument againsts pragmatists that "pragmatic theories of truth" either collapse into realism, or face self-contradiction before they have even "laced up their boots."

Harris is influenced by Thomas Nagel's View from Nowhere and the Last Word which I highly recommend.

I think you're right about Greek Skepticism though; Sextus Empiricius has still not been refuted! What a scandal.

See The Way of the Skeptic by Myles Burnyeat.

Dark Reformation.

Alrenous said...

I find it ironic that the words Harris uses closely approximates the solution I found.

Namely, consciousness can't be an illusion. What you think you're thinking is defined by what you're thinking. Law of identity. Hence at the very surface level you can be 100% sure of what's going on. Or: the Cogito generalizes.

Problem being this implies the imagination is real and the 'real' 'physical' world is a figment of your imagination, and Harris' realism isn't looking too healthy.

Garr said...

I recently read Harris's Spirituality Without Religion (I think that's the title)-- He tells us "you'll feel better if you realize that there's no you." Okay, then who's the "you" he's addressing, who's supposed to realize something and then feel better? (Same problem with Hume telling us to look for ourselves beneath our thought-stuff -- who's he addressing?) Harris repeatedly chides us for imagining that we're located behind our own eyes,riding around inside of our skulls. Well, sometimes I do imagine this but usually I don't. And I doubt that many people do this very frequently. Maybe most do sometimes, but some probably never do and most only rarely do. So if this is the big problem that he takes himself to be addressing ... "People, stop imagining that you're riding around inside of your own skulls!" ... he doesn't have to worry so much, because people actually aren't very inclined to imagine themselves in this way. It's interesting that he's inclined to imagine himself in this way, though -- shows that he's an imaginative person.