Sam Harris versus Jordan Peterson Debate: Who Was The Real Winner?
If you are anything like myself, you probably took a few sittings to digest the entirety of the two-part debate between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson held by Pangburn Philosophy.
However, if you similarly realized the magnitude of the discussion, you will have sat through it readily, as I did.
This event was a meeting of intellectual juggernauts, with Sam Harris on one hand, an author, prominent atheist and Neuroscientist, and on the other, Mr. Jordan Peterson, Psychology professor at the University of Toronto in Canada and now bestselling author of ‘12 Rules to Life: an Antidote to Chaos.’
Finally, moderating the debate was Bret Weinstein, author and Professor of Biology at Evergreen State.
The debate centered around a litany of subjects, though it revolved primarily around issues of religion and morality. Both Peterson and Harris are no strangers to these realms of discussion, as Harris rose to fame alongside the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens, a group who were later known as the ‘New Atheists’ or ‘Four Horsemen.’
Peterson, on the other hand, known for his contrarian opinions and his intellectual discussions, held a series of Biblical lectures last year which he later posted on Youtube. Some parts of the series amassed upwards of 2.5 million views.
The debate spanned close to five hours, delving deep into complex issues, which I have attempted to boil down into the core arguments of each speaker.
In essence, Harris’ arguments are as follows:
- Religion is often founded upon belief without evidence which is enforced through dogma.
- It is these dogmatic elements of religion which persuade otherwise good people to do wicked things.
- There is a distinction between good and bad behavior that we can map without the assistance of religion, and therefore religion isn’t necessary or beneficial.
- Bad can be defined as the maximum suffering for all humans, and Good can be considered the opposite.
Peterson’s arguments are much harder to plainly lay out, but I shall try my best:
- Without religion, we have no objective morality.
- Without an objective morality we end up in moral relativism.
- Religious mythology can be analysed and understood on a psychological and metaphorical level.
- There is a difference between logical truth and metaphorical truth.
Now we’ve ironed that out, let’s get into the nitty-gritty.
NIGHT ONE: THE REALITY OF RELIGION
The first night of the debate, as far as I’m concerned, was a whitewash by Sam Harris.
To me it was a display of Harris’ years of practice in dismantling religion, to which Peterson seemed unprepared.
Sam was very precise in his speech (perhaps in homage to Peterson) in his acknowledgement of the benefits of stories and mythology, and in accepting that religion was likely necessary for mankind's development.
Harris was careful as to not throw out the baby with the bathwater in regards to the spiritual experiences as depicted within religious texts, and even has a book entitled ‘Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion’.
Sam Harris wouldn’t refute the potential for benefits to religion. The issue lies more in the fact that Peterson is also reluctant to throw out the bathwater.
During the discussion, Weinstein probes Peterson’s religious belief by asking if there are any sentences that Peterson could say conclusively were morally wrong. Peterson dances around the question for a while before Harris asks him again, to which Peterson makes a somewhat postmodernist response:
“Sentence by sentence, yes. Paragraph by paragraph, maybe.”
Here Peterson is suggesting that what we would consider as morally wrong sentences in the Bible, are actually much more complex when you consider them in the context of the entire text, and often aren’t as bad as meets the eye.
As a rebuttal, both Harris and Weinstein offer concrete examples where religious texts offer instructive, and yet deleterious advice, one of which is Moses’ laws for going to war:
“Whenever you capture towns in the land the Lord your God is giving you, be sure to kill all the people and animals. He has commanded you to completely wipe out the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. If you allow them to live, they will persuade you to worship their disgusting gods, and you will be unfaithful to the Lord.”
Peterson once again tries to “contextualise” his way out of accepting the abhorrent nature of the text, by suggesting that the New Testament supersedes the Old Testament and statements such as Moses Law’s are now overridden.
It seemed a running theme of the event for Peterson to simply suggest his religious belief was too complex for Harris, and that Harris was operating on a surface level.
My issue is that while Peterson may define God as “ the truthful speech that rectifies pathological hierarchies and confronts the chaos of being itself and generates habitable order,” this may not be the same God in which an Islamic Extremist believes, or a bible-thumper from the South.
Furthermore, to dismiss Harris’ arguments for being too surface-level seems to also ignore mainstream religious beliefs and the effects which arise from them. As we’ve seen above, religious fundamentalists are often interpreting religious texts as literally as one can. And clearly, this isn’t without problems.
NIGHT TWO: MORALITY
The second night centered more around the moral lessons taught by religion and whether or not they can be maintained while abandoning religious belief.
Harris’ viewpoint of morality is that we should minimize suffering for the maximum number of individuals possible, and that this has no necessity for belief in a supernatural being. Sounds pretty simple.
The issue? Well, in a practical sense these guidelines are vague to say the least. If life is suffering, would it then be morally right to abstain from having children? What of hedonism? Are there flaws in that? While the most egregious cases of what we might define as “evil” are easily demarcated, such as murder or genocide, it is in the grey areas between good and evil where this murky moral philosophy falls short.
And Peterson accurately mentions that Harris’ moral standpoint is ironically somewhat Biblical, in that he essentially wishes to avoid hell in the hopes of arriving in heaven. (Albeit, a heaven reached through logic rather than unfounded dogma.) On top of this, Peterson notes that Harris is taking for granted just what exactly ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behavior is. Harris is, as the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume would say: “deriving an ought from an is.”
What this means, is that while Sam can make objective claims about reality, none of them come with a set of rules for how to operate in the world. Harris acknowledges this himself as a “navigation problem” and in order to overcome it, he uses the analogy of a hot stove. You touch the stove, and due to the sheer pain of the heat, you pull your hand away. It isn’t a set of moral beliefs which guides your hand away from the stove, it is simply your knowledge that the pain is bad.
Though as the pair go onto discuss, this becomes more complicated when the situation becomes another person in a burning building. Do you risk your own life to save the other? Even if it means getting permanent burns? What does Harris’ morality say for these situations? And how can we say it is objectively correct? The issue is, we can’t.
Philosophers have debated about morality for centuries and will likely continue to. Peterson however, seems to attribute morality to Christian beliefs. Now, while I can understand by what he means when he says he “acts as though there is a god”, I can’t see why belief in the Bible for morality is any different to what Harris promotes. Unless, however, Peterson is suggesting the Bible is in fact divinely revealed. This stance however, as most will know, is an untenable position to maintain.
In fact, Harris recently had born-again Christian Bart Ehrman on his podcast ‘Waking up with Sam Harris’, in which Ehrman, who, despite possessing a PHD in theology, couldn’t reconcile the inconsistencies of the Bible. Erhman remarked that it was his realization of the potential for human error in the construction of the Bible that led to his eventual atheism.
Peterson seems to give the same credence to the Bible as Harris does to his own ‘objective’ morality, which is where the pair unknowingly overlap.
It is unclear what Peterson’s views are on Non-Christian religions, and whether or not they too are divinely revealed.
If however, he acknowledges they are man-made, then he too falls into the moral quagmire that he sees Sam Harris to exist in. The morality is no longer objective.
I do believe our values have indeed transcended religion, however to codify them or ground them in objective fact seems an insurmountable task, which seems to require some kind of ‘divine’ intervention.
I look forward to future discussion around these kinds of topics.