Jordan Peterson vs. Sam Harris (Vancouver, 1): Analysed Arguments


“Someone once asked you whether you thought
Jesus was literally resurrected, and you said it would take me 40 hours to answer that question
[…] The point is–” “I said it would take me 40 hours to answer the question, I didn’t
say he was.” “How’s this for an answer? Almost certainly not. *Clapping” What-what’s
wrong with that answer? Between June and July, 2018, Pangburn Philosophy hosted 4 live debates
between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson – in which Bret Weinstein moderated the first and
second, and Douglas Murray participated within the third and fourth. Now there was an enormous
amount of anticipation for these conversations, as people (including myself) felt that these
men had something truly important to discuss, and that their previous two conversations
(on Sam Harris’ podcast) were unfortunately not very fruitful. But finally, these debates
occurred, and then several months later most of us got to see them (more on this in just
a second). First, I want to explain exactly how I’m going to address these debates.
Over the next month or so I plan to create an episode for each conversation, and this
video, no surprise, is dedicated to the first, which occurred in Vancouver, on the 23rd of
June. Now as a quick disclaimer, know that I’m not an impartial commentator. What follows
is an abridged version of the debate and my own personal analysis, and so if you haven’t
already, I highly recommend that you watch the full debate before watching this. This
is my views on Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson’s first conversation in Vancouver. Before we
delve into the debate, I want to issue an open letter to Travis Pangburn, the organiser
of these events. Travis, I sincerely appreciate you facilitating these conversations, and
I thoroughly enjoyed attending the one at the O2 Arena, but in the future, once such
conversations have been had, please hastily release them to the public for free (with
adverts, of course). The momentum coming into these debates was of a level I’ve never
witnessed before, but by holding them behind a pay-wall you halted interest considerably.
If hiring big venues requires such measures, I humbly request that you cease hiring big
venues – as this isn’t conducive to the ongoing, important discussion, that we’re
all a part off. Thank you. On this note, Bret Christened the debate by asking the audience
not to film (“To that end I would ask that you not film tonight’s discussion to broadcast
it online”), but a few days later apologised for doing so (“I feel I owe an apology to
the audience for making the request I did”) as evidently, he too believes that such conversations
should be accessible shortly after they’ve been had (“Had I known that it might be
a very long time before the taps were going to emerge I would not have made that request”).
Anyhow, let’s get to the debate already. It started of relatively slow (and consequently,
so too will my review), but it picked up dramatically half an hour in. In fact, it picked up at
such a pace that in order to prevent this video from being two hours long itself, I’ve
had to choose which areas to focus on, and which to back-pocket for another time. So,
Sam opened by stating that he finds 90% of what Jordan says to be very wise, insightful
and useful, but the other 10% to be nonsense – and I have to say, I completely share
his sentiment. “I just want to express my motive for… for helping to stage these events,
because I reached out to Jordan and, eh, it was really born of seeing him in conversation
with other people than myself – I saw him do a podcast with Joe Rogan, I saw him speak
to Dave Rubin, I saw him speak with Bret on Rogan’s podcast, and I had so much admiration
for him in those conversations… 90% of what he said in those conversations struck me as
really wise and useful and well-intentioned, and 10% didn’t. And I noticed that… it’s
clear to me that seeing these successful conversations with other people who I respect, I began to
wonder that I might be the problem. And I think… I think I am the problem! *Clapping*
Before you applaud, maybe I didn’t mean that quite the way you took it.” Following
this, Jordan opened by steelmanning Sam’s position, which proved extremely effective,
respectful, and is a courtesy I’d like to see practiced more often by all parties. Honestly,
it was a solid way to start the evening. “See, one of the things that Carl Rodgers said (the
psychologist) was that one of… a good way to have a discussion with someone is to tell
them what you think they think until they think that what you said reflects what they
said.” “I think that partly what’s driving you (if this is accurate) is that you want
to ground a structure of ethics in something solid. And there’s two… there’s two
things you want to avoid (two catastrophes, let’s say). One is the catastrophe that
you identified with religious fundamentalism, and the other is the catastrophe that’s
associated with moral relativism. Is that reasonable?” “Yeah, that’s good.”
“Okay, good, good!” “That’s your first priority. Then maybe your second priority
is something like you see undue suffering in the world (plenty of it), and you would
think that things would be better if that wasn’t the case, and that this morality
(whatever it’s going to be) is at least in part going to ground itself in (in part)
on the presupposition that the less undue suffering in the world the better. Is that
also reasonable?” “Yeah, I would just add to that the positive side of the continuum
to that as well.” As just hinted, after acknowledging Jordan’s steelman, Sam then
spent a few minutes to clarify his stance, and considering that Sam’s position was
heavily under siege within this debate, it’s worth me showing it now: “I’m a realist
– I’m a moral realist, and what realism means is that there are right and wrong answers
to questions of this kind, and you can know what you’re not missing.” “And I would
add (just closing the door to moral relativism here) that those who do want Auschwitz are
wrong to want Auschwitz.” Now what would’ve been perfect at this point is if Sam similarly
steemanned Jordan’s views, but the conversation naturally (and understandably) took a different
direction. However, with that said, Jordan essentially steelmanned himself by contrasting
his views against Sam’s, which I’ll show now (alone side clarifications he gave in
a subsequent blog post): “I thought what I might do is just lay out some places where
Sam and I agree (because there’s lots of places we agree, and so– then I want to figure
out, where we disagree (which I’ve been trying to sort out) and then I want to see
if we can hash it out a bit and then move forward on that.” “I’ve conceptualised
that slightly different from you, and that might be relevant, but I think of that as
a pathology of order and a pathology of chaos (so the terminology is slightly different
but I think we’re working on the same axis).” “I also belief that there’s a catastrophe
of arbitrary moral injunction, and there’s a catastrophe of moral relativism, and that–
that has to be dealt with. And that there are genuine differences between the proper
way of behaving morally, and the improper way of behaving morally. And I think that
they are grounded in human universals, even though there’s a wide amount of variation.
So that’s a lot of points of agreement, right? So, we know there’s two things we
want to avoid, conceptually speaking, which is moral relativism and this find of moral
absolutism that’s grounded in an arbitrary statements of fact that you identify with
religious fundamentalism. I would identify that with fundamentalism more generally, not
with religious fundamentalism per se.” You said that (for example) ‘I still considered
the world’s religions to be mere intellectual runes maintained at enormous economic, and
social cost, but now I understood that important psychological truths could be found in the
rubble.’ Well- I’m trying to find the ‘important psychological truths, in the
rubble.’ And so… and so, but, but… we have to decide also if we agree about that
– like, are there important psychological truths to be found in the rubble?” “Oh-
absolutely.” So there’s Sam and Jordan’s positions – they are, as acknowledged within
the conversation, actually very similar; both men see moral relativism and religious fundamentalism
to be the enemy, and both, in their different ways, have been trying to combat these adversaries
– Jordan by attempting to salvage the rubble of Christianity (and religion in general),
and Sam by using new stone that’s comprised of reason, rationality, science and logic.
From here, the following 10 minutes of the conversation, believe it or not, can be summed
up as Jordan conveying, in several ways, why he thinks the problem with religious fundamentalism
is that it’s fundamental (or dogmatic) rather than that it’s religious, and then Sam conveying,
in several ways, that he agrees. Here’s the first wave: “We know there’s two things
we want to avoid (conceptually speaking), which is moral relativism and this more kind
of moral absolutism that’s grounded in arbitrary statements of fact that you identify with
religious fundamentalism… I would identify that with fundamentalism more generally, not
with religious fundamentalism per se, because I see it also happening in secular states,
let’s say, like Nazi Germany or… so it doesn’t seem to be religious fundamentalism
per se that’s crucial to your argument.” “No, it’s not. To just close the loop
on that, the only reason I would focus on religion in particular there is that religion
is the only language game wherein fundamentalism and dogmatism… dogmatism is not a pejorative
concept – dogma is a good word, specifically within Catholicism, and the notion that you
must believe things on faith (that is in the absence of compelling evidence that would
otherwise cause a rational person to believe it), that in a religious context is considered
a feature, not a bug. Elsewhere we recognise it to be a bug.” Now I personally think
that Sam’s point here is of critical importance, and that it perfectly represents why religion
is a synonym of dogma. To quote Matt Dillahunty, “Beliefs inform actions and actions have
consequences”, and so when someone is convinced that the creator of the universe has communicated
with them via telepathy or scripture, it’s easy to understand why they tend to regard
their beliefs to be absolutely, 100% infallible. Anyhow, Jordan’s second way of making this
point was by giving examples of dogmas that he deems not religious (such as the USSR and
Nazi Germany) – and Sam replied by agreeing, but making clear that Nazi Germany was religious,
and that atheism had nothing to do with the atrocities of the USSR (contrary to what Jordan
has claimed in the past). “Right, but what I’m curious about specifically, is because
it seems to me that the dogmas of the USSR and the dogmas of Nazi Germany was as pernicious
as any religious dogmas – and they may also share important features with religious dogmas,
but it isn’t clear for me, from your perspective, what those commonalities would be.” “Well,
so… in some ways you’re recapitulating an argument I’ve made (and this is an argument
I would use against you were you to claim, as you have elsewhere, that atheism is responsible
for the greatest atrocities in the 20th century – the idea that Stalinism and Nazism and
fascism were expressions of atheism, simply doesn’t make any sense. I mean, in the case
of fascism and Nazism it doesn’t make any sense because the fascists and the Nazis by
in large were not even atheists. I mean, Hitler wasn’t even and atheist, and he was talking
about executing a divine plan, and he got support from the churches, and the Vatican
did nothing to stop him. And fascism, as you know, coexisted quite happily with Catholicism
in Croatia, Portugal and Spain and Italy, so… and even in the case of Stalin, what
was so wrong with that situation was all of the ways it so resembled a religion. You had
a personality cult, you had dogmatism, that held sway to a point where apostasy and blasphemy
were killable offenses. You know, the people who didn’t toe the line were eradicated,
and you know… to take a more modern example, North Korea is a religious cult, it just doesn’t
happen to be one that is focused on the next life, or the supernatural claims.” […] “The
problem is dogmatism – the overarching problem is believing things strongly on bad evidence
– and the reason dogmatism is so dangerous is that it is… it doesn’t allow us to
revise our bad ideas in real time through conversation.” Now as previously said, this
point was reiterated multiple times, but I’ll just show one more, this time from Bret: “The
reason to fear religious dogma is really on the dogma side and not the religious side,
which leaves open the possibility that something could exist over the religion side that doesn’t
have that characteristic – right? That they often travel in tandem, but that the thing
to fear is not the religious belief, it is the dogmatic nature of the–” “Well yeah,
the other way to say that is that the only thing that’s wrong with religion is the
dogmatism. If you get rid of the dogma– I have no problem with the buildings, and the
music, and the paintings…” *Laughing* “No! No – wait – wait a minute! That’s
not a trivial– that’s not a trivial point, and it’s not just a joke, because the buildings
and the music are very important parts of religious process, and so, I know there’s
a humorous element to that, but it’s not like Sam is throwing out the baby with the
bath water there.” Finally, with this settled, Jordan proceeded to explain that tribal violence
is also not inherent to religion, and again, Sam agreed – but he also explained why exactly
it’s so heavily associated with religion. “One of things that was really shocking
to me, I would say, was my reading of what was originally Jane Goodall’s discovery
about chimp behaviour. You know, because there was this idea, that was really routed in Rusolio
thinking, that the reason people committed atrocities in the service of their group identity,
let’s say (their tribal identity) was that culture had corrupted us… it was a uniquely
human thing. But of course Goodall showed in the 1970s that the chimps in Gombe (I think
I’m pronouncing that correctly) would go on raiding parties, right? And so there would
be like four or five adolescent chimps (usually male, sometimes with a female in there), they
would patrol the borders of their territory. If they found an interloper on the border,
near the border, from another troop (even if it was a member of their troop that had
emigrated so to speak, and that they had had some history with, they would tear them to
pieces! […] The fact that chimps do it shows that it can’t be a consequence of something
like religious belief, unless you’re willing to say something like the reason chimps commit
atrocity in the service of their troop, and their territory, is because chimps are religious.”
“But the… obviously, the problem of primate aggression (which we’ve inherited along
with the chimps) is deeper, or at least different, than the problem of religious violence or
totalitarian political structures that get the worse out of people. So, we have… we
have these primate capacities that we have to correct for, and we’re busily trying
to correct for almost everything we’re evolved to do. We’re not, you know, we don’t like
the state of nature for good reason, and virtually everything that’s good about human life
is born or our… I would argue culture-based and highly intelligent and necessary effort
to mitigate what is in fact natural for us. There’s nothing more natural than tribal
violence.” “It’s not unique to religion, it’s also nationalism, and it’s racism,
and it’s all other kinds of dogmatism. But what most worries me are those cases wear
clearly good people, who’re not necessarily captured by tribalism per se, are doing the
unthinkable based purely on religious doctrines that they believe wholeheartedly without good
evidence.” You know, there’s a great quote from Steven Weinberg – that being “With
or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and bad people doing bad
things. But if you want a good person to do bad thing, that takes religion”, and I think
that’s pretty much what Sam was conveying here. It’s an imperfect but very important
point, and it can’t just be hand-waved away. All of us unfortunately know an otherwise
wonderful person who, because of religion, dislikes homosexuals – don’t we? Moving
on, the next phase of the conversation pivoted on interpretation of scripture, and this was
where true disagreement emerged (and where I’ll get a bit more involved). It began
with Jordan replying to Sam’s previous point by saying that what it comes down to is interpretation,
and that this a really big problem because fundamentalists not only claim that their
scripture is infallible, but that so too is their interpretation of that scripture (which
is a brilliant point): “And so the fundamentalist claim is far worse – it’s that not only
is there a reality (truth) embedded in the book, but that their particular take on that
absolute morality is the absolute take on that book. And so they conflate their own–
they make an assumption of their own omniscience and then pass that off onto god.” And Sam
responded, true to form, with a what I think is an exceptional point – and that is that
some scripture (such as verses that prescribe rules and regulations) are very hard to interpret
other than as literal, since they’re by their very nature… instructions to be followed.
“Except, and I don’t often rise to the defence of fundamentalists, it’s—it’s
very easy to get there because some of the claims in the book are not at all hard to
parse. In fact, many of them can only honestly be interpreted one way. So, again, to take
an example that will not be inflammatory to you (but makes the point), it just says that
the remedy to theft in the Quran is to cut the hands off a thief. I mean, that is the
unambiguous injunction. It’s not an allegory – it’s not a—the– you have to… you
have to indulge some kind of tortured interpretive scheme to avoid the shocking fact that creator
of the universe think you should live this way.” “Slavery is condoned in both testaments
and the Quran. There’s no getting away from that. Now you can say, well it isn’t the
central thrust of any of these books, but if you go to the books and try to figure out
what the creator of the universe wants in respect to the owning and needless immiseration
of other people, right, he expects you to keep slaves, and he’s told you how to do
it. You know, don’t knock out their eyes and their teeth… eh, if you’re a Muslim
don’t take other Muslims as slaves – but it’s not an accident that the people that
joined ISIS thought that it was absolutely kosher to take slaves.” Okay, so, I’m going
to bolster this point in just a minute, but first, here’s Bret’s objection to it: “So
Sam, you said the problem here is that the dogma can’t be updated, right? That slavery
is with us permanently because it’s written into the dogma. But clearly most of the traditions
in which it’s written into the holy book don’t practice slavery, and the people who
adhere to these belief systems wouldn’t defend slavery, and so clearly there is the
capacity for an update mechanism.” “Well, no, not really. They’ve been forced… they’ve
had it beaten out of them, right? We fought a civil war in the U.S to get rid of slavery.”
“It was Christians that abolished slavery in England though.” “What was that?”
“It was Christians that were at the forefront of the movement to abolish slavery–” “Yeah,
but there were Christians either side of everything. There’s no one else to do the job.” “Yeah,
but wait a minute… Yes, but it was specifically Christians who were using their religious
belief for justification eradicating it.” “But the problem was that they were actually
on the losing side of a theological argument, and it would’ve been much better – and
I think you would agree, if one of the 10 commandments had been ‘Don’t keep slaves’.
There’s certainly one we could swap out for that one. And so it would’ve been much
easier for Christians to have fought against slavery… and it’s much harder for Muslims,
quite frankly, to fight against it now. The problem is (and I think this is a point I
made in my first book) is that the doors leading out of this kind of fundamentalism don’t
open from the inside… they get bashed open from the inside, and it’s humanism, and
it’s secularism, and it’s scientific rationality that has exerted such pressure (such winnowing
pressure of Christianity now for multiple centuries) that that’s why we’re not encountering
the Christians of the 14th century on a daily basis.” Now I find this point to be resounding;
just imagine if the holy books said “Thou shalt not own other people” instead of “Whosoever
doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death”, or even “Don’t
rape other people” instead of “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images”, huh?
Or at the very least, imagine if the holy books didn’t include clear instructions
detailing who you can enslave, and what you’re permitted to do to them? Anyhow, from here,
Bret switched his attention to Jordan, and asked the following: “Would you agree that
there are things written into these religious texts that are unambiguously unacceptable
viewed through a modern lens, and not because the texts are so complicated that we have
missed something, but because there are things that are just written there that we now understand
to be wrong?” And this where, in my opinion, Jordan’s house of cards began to fall…
and I’ll explain why in just a moment, but for now, enjoy the next 4 minutes. “The
first thing I would say is that we have to be very careful about equating all the religious
texts, and I do actually think that you are careful about that (but that’s something
we can have a discussion about a little later).” “I agree with you there”. “So… so,
for a lot of my life, I was… I would say more interested in the universal truth expressed
in religious beliefs across different cultures, but I’ve become more and more aware of the
important distinctions of the religious cultures, maybe in the last 10 years – so it isn’t
clear to me that you can throw all religious dictum (dicta) in the same bucket. And there
maybe… there’s complex reason for that. So, you know, one question that you kind of
said already is ‘Do you see a hierarchy of unacceptability between different religious
doctrines? And I would say you act– okay – fine, fine, fine. Okay, so – now here’s
an interesting distinction, and I think we’re starting to zero in on… we’ve covered
what we agree on (a lot of it), but there’s another–” “Answer Bret’s question, because—”
“Oh, sorry! Sorry, I answered the first part of it, but the second part is, um, I
think that… this is where I’m going to sound like a postmodernist (which I really
hate); I would say sentence by sentence, yes, you’re correct. Paragraph by paragraph,
perhaps. But here’s… here’s the problem with complicated texts (especially ones that
constitute narratives). So, imagine this… imagine, imagine you’re at a movie, and
it’s a movie with a twist at the end. And so the entire movie is set up to make you
think in one particular way and have one set of experiences, but when you put the twist
in at the end it changes the entire structure. And so this is one of the complex problems
that actually led to the rise of postmodern interpretations of literature, which is that
if you take a complex narrative there’s a very large number of ways of interpreting
it, and it isn’t self-evident which of those are canonically correct. We can deal with
that horrible issue later, but it’s a good objection and it’s true. And what it does
is make these sorts of things quite complicated, because in the– The bible’s a series of
books, and they had influence on one another, and they had sequenced very complex editorial
process, and there’s actually a developmental narrative that links all the chapters together,
and what that means (at least… I’m going to speak from the perspective… or in terms
of analysis of the Christian bible), eh, what it means is that you have to read the beginning
as if it’s also influenced by the end – which is what, by the way, in case you think I’m
weaselling around here (and I’m not!) is that that’s exactly what you do any time
you read any story – any work of fiction. It’s like, you’re claiming the bible is
a work of fiction… don’t, don’t… that’s just a cheap objection – that’s not my
point. My point is that it’s a narrative. And everything in a narrative is conditioned
by all the things in the narrative. And it’s well know – if you’re a screenwriter,
for example, there’s an old dictum (I can’t remember who generated it – it was one of
the great Russians) that if there was a rifle laying on the table in the first scene then
it better be used by the end of the second scene, or it shouldn’t have been there at
all. And so there’s this coherence–” “I’m looking for the rifle in your answer because
I want it to be used.” Indeed, where’s the rifle? Sure, Jordan admitted that sentence
by sentence some scripture is unacceptable, but he immediately negated this admission
by subsequently saying “The bible’s a series of books, and they had influence on
one another, and they had sequenced very complex editorial process, and there’s actually
a developmental narrative that links all the chapters together, and what that means […] you
have to read the beginning as if it’s also influenced by the end.” Now many of Jordan’s
fans will insist that I’m just missing his point here (perhaps even deliberately), but
I’m not. He is weaselling! This is an example of the 10%, ladies and gentlemen. I completely
understand, and accept, that fiction tends to be written with a narrative in mind, and
that narrative can (and often does) dramatically change the way in which we experience a story.
But here’s the thing – the holy books are not movies – they don’t claim to be
fiction. When Leviticus states “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of
them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death”, this isn’t a
story, and it’s not an allegory, it’s a divine demand! It’s a prescription, supposedly
authored by the creator of everything! Now I could go on, but there’s a lot more to
cover. “My point is that it isn’t reasonable to take a single sentence out of a coherent
narrative and say that stands on its own (or it’s rarely reasonable), because you have
to interpret the word in the sentence and the sentence in the paragraph and paragraph
in the chapter and chapter in the context of the entire book. You have to do that! Now
you could object, and reasonable so, that there are some sentences that are so blatant
that you can’t use context to… what, paraphrase them, let’s say, but I think you also have
to give the devil its due – the Christian bible is a developmental narrative, and the
beginning has to be read in light of the end. And that’s a… that’s a… is it a fact?”
“So what does that do to Moses’ laws of war? This is not a narrative… this is instructions
about what to do when you invade a foreign land. If you intent to take over that land
you kill everybody, right? There are other rules in there about killing husbands and
taking their wives–” “Yeah the Old Testament is a brutal document.” “Absolutely brutal.
And so my point would be, I don’t know that reading that portion in light of the end (even
if you call the end the New Testament), I don’t know that it changes Moses’ laws
of war and their acceptability–” “Well hypothetically, if you take the New Testament
seriously it does, because it’s a document that supersedes it. And I think there are
actually–” “But it doesn’t supersede it on every point. I mean, this is the problem.
Slavery is a very straight-forward case, because clearly the bible-thumpers of the South who
were defending slavery with reference to the text felt they were on firm ground (and I
would invite anyone to read what the New Testament and Old Testament say about slavery to see
that they were on fairly firm ground). That the balance of the honest reading was on the
side of the… clearly, we can keep slaves. Jesus never envisioned a world without slavery,
and he admonished slaves to serve their masters well, and to serve their Christian masters
especially well. “The English Protestants wouldn’t of agreed with that, because like
I said they were at the forefront of the—” “They were influenced by something outside
of the text, and again… you’re making this harder than what it is… and my concern
is why?” “Well, I don’t think I am Sam, because I think that fundamental message in
the New Testament, for example, is that–” “So if we– so Jews are in position of a
book that has some diabolical passages that would be better left out?” “Sigh…”
Again, how is this not weaselling? Why doesn’t Jordan simply say “Yes, the verses that
command us to keep slaves, and execute homosexuals, apostates and blasphemers are unacceptable,
but this doesn’t mean that everything in the book in unacceptable or unwise?” That would
be a perfectly good answer, because it wouldn’t forfeit any of the valuable archetypes that
Jordan sees in the bible – but for some reason, he just wouldn’t sincerely say this.
And this brings me to a question I’d like to ask you, the viewer – when Sam said “You’re
making this harder than what it is… and my concern is why?” What’re your thoughts?
Is Jordan making this harder than what it is? Anyhow, this video is getting very long
now (and I’ll put that down to teething problems my end), and so what I’m going
to do is fast-forward to the primary remaining points of contention – starting with Jordan
criticising Sam’s Moral Landscape, and then Sam criticising Jordan’s god. So here’s
Jordan challenging Sam: “You tell two stories. You tell a story about someone who has an
absolutely terrible life. There in a… in a jungle, where nature is trying to kill them
all the time and while they’re trying to be killed by nature… while nature is trying
to kill them all the time, horrible barbaric thugs are making their life miserable in every
possible way. Okay, so that’s one poll, let’s say, and then another poll– you identify–
and these are hypotheticals, so I guess they’re fictions (that’s one way of thinking about
it… even though they’re extracted from real situations) – they’re meta-fictions,
they’re meta-truths, that’s another way of thinking about it, you contrast a good
life- and, you know, that’s a life where the person has enough to eat, and enough shelter,
and- you know- they have the things that you would expect people to want. You say this
is a bad life, and you say this is a good life. And so– and then you say that’s–
and then you make a side move, which I would say is that that’s an objectively verifiable
fact. I would say, ‘I don’t think it is an objectively verifiable fact. I think it’s
a fundamental moral claim, and I think that’s where you put your stake in the ground.’
And I would say, when I read that, I thought: well, if you take your jungle story, which
you’ve extracted from a bunch of horrors, and compiled, and you take your positive story,
which you’ve extracted from a bunch of horrors… or a bunch of quasi-utopias, let’s say,
and compiled, you’re two-thirds of the way to a landscape of Hell and Heaven.” “Right.”
“Well, so, why not continue the abstraction, and say ‘look what we’re really trying
to avoid here is Hell’, and we’re really trying to move towards is Heaven’– “Yeah”
“But, oh yeah?! But as soon as you do that you’re in a religious landscape…” “But
no, my name for hell is–” *Applaud* “It’s very interesting because… like… you and
I were talking about this over dinner– and how the overlap, or lack of overlap, between
our audiences– and so, like, I just heard from your audience there–” “You might have
heard from the odd convert.” “But what’s amazing to me is, so, like… I have to do
some work to figure out what point they think you made.” “Look! Wait a second. Wait
a second. Wait a second. Hold on. I said, if you’re going to produce a fiction, why
not go right to the very end? Because you did produce a fiction!” […] “Tell me
why I’m wrong, because I’m really trying to understand it. See, because I think you
dealt with GE Moore’s problem of infinite regress, by staking a moral proposition, and
your moral proposition was: look here’s a way things can be horrible, and here’s
a way things can be good; can we accept that this is horrible, and this is good, and that
we should move towards good? And if the answer is ‘yes we can accept’ then we can proceed
(and maybe we can even proceed with extracting values from facts), but we have to accept
that a priori presupposition first. And you insist that we have to accept it because it’s
objectively true, and I don’t think that’s correct.” [..] “Because you say, ‘This
is horrible. This is good. We should move from what’s horrible to what’s good’.
So yes, you’ve… you’ve taken a fragment of the universal story, and you’ve made
it the axiom of your moral system- which is what you should do. But… but, the claim
that I think is not helpful (even though I understand it) is that that’s purely a claim,
of like, of unmediated fact. It’s like no, there is no unmediated fact!” “There is,
yes. Even facts aren’t unmediated facts.” “Right.” “I mean, you can’t… you
can’t judge something to be factual without presupposing the validity of certain intuitions
like, causes precede events, or causes precede their effects. So, yeah, again – you do
pull yourself up by your bootstraps and that… there’s no branch of science, or mathematics,
or anything fundamental, logic… that can get away from that. But, given that picture
that doesn’t render all intuitions equally respectable. Now I personally believe Jordan
did a pretty damn good job here of expressing the concerns that many people have with Sam’s
Moral Landscape, and that he is indeed right when he says that us wanting to avoid suffering
(or hell) is an unmediated fact, but… and I don’t want to get too bogged down in epistemology
here, when Sam said “You can’t judge something to be factual without presupposing the validity
of certain intuitions like, causes precede events, or causes precede their effects”
he nailed it. People don’t tend to realise this (because it’s deeply intuitive), but
we all ignore G E Moore’s infinite regress because we don’t actually have justification
for using reason, evidence, logic, or intuition without appealing to reason, evidence, logic,
or intuition. You see, we can keep asking “Why?”, and when we do we find that it
really is turtles all the way down. However, we don’t keep asking “why?” when it
comes to “facts” about physics and, say, biology, but most people do keep asking “why?”
when it comes to morality, and Sam sees that as a kind of backward special-pleading fallacy
(and so too do I). I’ve created a recent video dedicated to morality in which I further
explain this, and so won’t delve too much into it here – but please check it out if
you want to know more. And so, let’s move on to Jordan’s definition of god: what follows
is Jordan putting it surprisingly succinctly (and so I’ll see you in about three hours…).
“God is how we imaginatively and collectively represent the existence and action of consciousness
across time, as the most real aspects of existence manifest themselves across the longest of
time frames, but are not necessarily apprehensible as objects in the here and now. So what that
means, in some sense, is that you have conceptions of reality built into your biological and
metaphysical, structure that are a consequence of processes of evolution that occurred over
unbelievably vasts expanses of time, and that structure your perception of reality, in ways
that it wouldn’t be structured if you only lived for the amount of time that you’re
going to live. And that’s also part of the problem of deriving values from facts, because
you’re evanescent and… and you can’t derive the right values from the facts that
portray themselves to you in your lifespan, which is why you have a biological structure
that’s like 3.5 billion years old. So, God is that which eternally dies and is reborn
in the pursuit of higher being and truth (that’s a fundamental element of hero mythology).
God is the highest value in the hierarchy of values – that’s another way of looking
at it. God is what calls, and what responds, in the eternal call to adventure. God is the
voice of conscience. God is the source of judgment, and mercy, and guilt. God is the
future to which we make sacrifices, and something akin to the transcendental repository of reputation.
Here’s a cool one, if you’re an evolutionary biologist, God… god… god is that which
selects among men in the eternal hierarchy of men. So, you know, men arrange themselves
into hierarchies, and then men rise in the hierarchy, and there’s principles that are
important that determine the probability of their rise – and those principles aren’t
tyrannical power, they’re something like, the ability to articulate truth, and the ability
to be competent, and the ability to make appropriate moral judgments. And if you can do that in
a given situation, then all the other men will vote you up the hierarchy, so to speak,
and that will radically increase your reproductive fitness- and the operation of that process
across long expanses of time, looks to me, like it’s codified in something like the
notion of God, the Father. It’s also the same thing that makes women– men attractive
to women, because women peel off the top of the male hierarchy – and the question is
what should be at the top of the hierarchy – and the answer right now is tyranny, as
part of the patriarchy, but the real answer is something more like the ability to use
truthful speech in the service of let’s say well-being. And so, that… that’s something
that operates across tremendous expanses of time, and it plays a role in the selection
for survival itself, which makes it a fundamental reality–” “Jordan, if I can just cut in
here with one question?” “I’ll stop with that for now.” … And, people wonder
why I compare Jordan to Deepak Chopra, huh? “God is the mystery of our origin, and therefore
god is our highest instinct.” “God is the highest value in the hierarchy of values.”
“We are a drop in the ocean that we call god.” “God is how we imaginatively and
collectively represent the existence and action of consciousness across time.” “Devine
intelligence that permeates every aspect of the cosmos, the whole universe.” “God
is that which eternally dies and is reborn in the pursuit of higher being and truth.”
In response to Jordan’s definition, Sam gave several decisive criticisms, but I’m
just going to focus on a few of them here. Now, as a side-note, I’ve decided to dedicate
an entire video to Jordan’s definition of god, and so here I’ll be a little more terse.
So, Sam’s main objections was that Jordan’s god is significantly different to conventional
definitions (both modern and historical) (“I’m not hearing a god… a personal god who can
possible hear anyone’s prayers, much less answer them”), that he’s playing a similar
game to New Agers who redefine god to mean energy (“By shifting the definition, you
have robbed the noun… the traditional noun of its traditional meaning”), and that anyone
could play this game with any nonsense and yet seem sophisticated. “You could do the
same thing with the ideas of ghosts… so people have traditionally believed in ghosts,
it’s an archetype, you might say (the ghost… survival of death is certain an archetype),
and we know what most people most of the time mean when they say they believe in ghosts,
and I say ‘I don’t believe in ghosts’, and you say ‘No no, you do believe in ghosts
– ghosts are your relationship to the unseen – that’s a ghost’. So you have a new
definition of ghost that you’re putting in the place provided… which I have to say
‘Yes, of course I have a relationship to the unseen, so, yeah, I guess I do believe
in ghosts. You know, you win that argument.” *Applaud* “But that simply isn’t what
more people mean by a ghost!” Again, Sam said more, but I’ll show that another time.
Now Jordan replied by, well… I’ll play it and then comment. “But wait- wait a second-
wait a second. What do you mean by traditional meaning? Look, it’s one of the elemental
claims in the Old Testament, is that you’re not even supposed to utter the name of God
because by defining it too tightly you lose its essence, and so, let’s not be talking
about what the classical definition of God is, here- okay? It’s a historical non-starter”
Sure, many religions have (and still do) forbid their congregation from uttering their god’s
name or depicting their god’s form, but none (of at least the major religions) forbid
their congregation from understanding their god. In fact, they do the opposite – they
encourage their flock to understand their central structures (including their gods,
if they have them), and that really is the same thing as defining their god. To understand
something you must have a coherent definition. Or to put this another way, I think Jordan
made a good point here, but that he didn’t address the actual criticism – he bypassed
it. Look I’ve never said, I’ve never said– I’ve never made the claim that what I’m
talking about is like what other people are talking about. I mean, it is in some ways-
but I’ve not made that claim so I don’t see why that’s a justifiable criticism.”
Now to be fair, so far as I’m aware, Jordan’s correct here – I don’t think he’s ever
actually claimed that he’s speaking about the same god that most have in mind. But…
because he calls himself a Christian, and because 99% of Christians believe that god
is a literal being that consciously created the universe, that Jesus was literally the
son of god, and that Jesus literally resurrected, for Jordan not to make crystal clear that
his Christianity is radically different to any of the conventional denominations, is
indeed a problem. It’s not wrong, but again, it’s problematic, and in my opinion, it’s
akin to what Deepak Chopra does with new age woo woo – and, incidentally, that’s actually
the point Sam made: “It’s a criticism with respect to the very likely effects of
communicating, in that way, because I see the results of that communication. This is
going to sound more invidious than it is, but this is the kind of thing that I get into
with Deepak Chopra. Deepak, and I agree, about Allah—” “I think it’s more invidious
than it sounds actually.” “Well- you’re not wearing rhinestone glasses. If you graduate
to that, we’ll have more of a problem. But, Deepak clearly wants to let his audience believe
that everything they’re into is on some level justifiable by his reading of quantum
spookiness, right? So, you know, if you want to go out and just buy a lot of crystals,
and think they’re gonna heal you- it has something to do with quantum—” “That sounds
absolutely nothing like me!” “God is the mystery of our origin, and therefore god is
our highest instinct.” “God is the highest value in the hierarchy of values.” “If
I got his back to the wall, Deepak could say- honestly say- “Listen, I’ve never said anything
about crystals, right? I’m not selling crystals. I’ve never said they work”. But, it’s
the way in which he’s failing to make the clear differentiation.” This, for me, nails
it. There’s nothing technically wrong with Jordan’s definition of words such as ‘god’,
‘religion’, ‘truth’, ‘real’, ‘Jesus’, ‘Christianity’, ‘atheist’, or ‘you’,
but the way in which he’s using them is (at least seemingly) insidious and evasive.
Despite Jordan’s protestations to the contrary, Sam’s ghost analogy is spot on. Anyhow,
before wrapping up, I couldn’t do so without showing my personal favourite exchange of
the night, and it was this: “Someone once asked you whether you thought Jesus was literally
resurrected, and you said it would take me 40 hours to answer that question, okay? That…
that’s the kind of thing I’m responding to here. You don’t need to do that, if you
have a clear-cut answer to that question–” “I don’t have a clear cut answer to that
question.” “And if you don’t… and if you don’t, that connects with many other
things that we still have to talk about.” “Let’s put it probabilistically. I mean,
anything’s possible. I’ll tell you that it’s possible that he was physically resurrected.
I mean, it’s even possible with respect to quantum mechanics–” “But, wait a second.
I didn’t say that it was. I said it would take me 40 hours to answer the question. I
didn’t say that he was.” “How’s this for an answer: almost certainly not?” *Applaud*
“What’s wrong with that answer?” And with that bombshell, I’ll conclude. Overall,
I found this debate to be very productive. Sure, it started slow, but when it finally
ignited, it did so dramatically. A lot of ground was covered, and many huge fires were
extinguished, but it also left many still raging – which was fine, of course, because
there were three debates to come. It would’ve been nice, however, to have listened to this
conversation (and the one that followed) before attending the third at the O2, but I’ve
already made this point. Anyhow, I’m Steve, or Rationality Rules, and as always, thank
you kindly for the view and an extra special thank you to my wonderful patrons and those
of you who’ve donated via PayPal. And I’ll leave you with just one more of my favourite
parts of the debate: “If you’re in a parish of one, or in a parish of one thousand, or
a parish of a hundred thousand, but not in the parish that has anything in common with
the bible-thumpers in my country, who think that Jesus is very likely coming back in their
lifetime because he never died, and he’s gonna judge the living, and the dead, and
there will be a resurrection, and Hellfire, and all the rest. If that’s not the game
you’re playing- at all- own it.” *Applause*

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