The main word of the discussion on Saturday night between professor of psychology Jordan Peterson and prominent atheist Sam Harris was undoubtedly steelman. No, this does not refer to some obscure Marvel bloke, this refers to the act of doing the opposite of the strawman fallacy; make the opponent’s argument as strong and as airtight as possible before trying to tear it apart.
It was this exact exercise that moderator Douglas Murray asked both interlocutors to engage in. Firstly, in regards to their opponents argument in regards to the necessity of religion in the modern world, and specifically in regards to the creation and maintenance of a morality and moral values. Both parties did this rather well, and neither seemed to have a major problem with how the other articulated his views.
This brought us into the main part of the discussion, which was in regards to the creation of morality without a reference to the metaphysical. Harris tried to postulate the concept of saying anything is moral that moves society further from the metaphorical hell and towards the metaphorical heaven. That the greatest good is to make society operate more closely to a utopia and the greatest evil is to push it towards dystopia. He suggested that through facts alone we can postulate this morality, since we, as humans, can all agree that some qualitative experiences are factually detrimental towards our well-being, such as putting one’s hand on a hot stove. Establish these facts, and an objective morality without metaphysics could be generated.
Peterson, however, disagreed with this argument profusely. He took issue with this idea of a qualitative factual nature, and refused the idea that factual data could be used to create a system of morality. He instead promoted the view that there is a gulf between facts and values, and that it is the values which humans choose for themselves that serve as the foundation for morality. These values have historically found their expression through religion, and that we should look to it if we wish to create a truly moral society. He suggested that the use of story and symbolism that people could believe to be genuinely real was the only real way of copper fastening morality within a society. Furthermore, since some people do not have the mental capacity to understand the systems Harris is suggesting to be put in place, an entire society could never really follow or practice it effectively.
This discussion was an interesting and at, points, quite entertaining back and forth, however, it was also one that seemed ultimately frustrating. There was clapping from the more atheistic when Harris scored a point and clapping from the more theistic when Peterson scored a point. Personally, I never really felt that they got to the core of why religion exists as the cornerstone of many moral systems in the first place, or why some people think these moralities are genuinely divine and perfect.
This was in part because of Murray’s introduction of the term ‘Jesus-smuggling’, defined as the act of sneaking in a divine aspect of Christianity into a rational or scientific argument. A term which was later employed by Harris to effectively shut down one of Peterson’s points on the logos incarnate, without the point being fleshed out or properly addressed. That being said, it was nonetheless a discussion that probably opened people’s eyes to a number of perspectives they possibly hadn’t seen before, so it had enough merit in that department alone, although hoping for a clear resolution was perhaps a little too optimistic.
The latter half of the discussion however was probably more to the interest of many of the event goers. Again, the trio tried to steelman an argument, but this time, the argument made by the ‘left’ against themselves. Peterson summed it up as though the left suspected them of ‘Hitler-smuggling’, a inversion of the term used by Murray earlier. In the end, the three agreed that it was the fear that the left had in regards to their motives that drives the left’s resistance to them.
This latter half, in my opinion, turned into something a little too self-congratulatory for my taste, however, also generated a number of interesting remarks from the intellectuals, especially Murray. He brought up the case of a rather obscure German politician by the name of Joschka Fischer, whose main goal in life was to resist fascism and Nazism by any and all means necessary. However he ended up being horrified when people he knew in the radical German left hijacked a plane leaving Tel Aviv, landed it in Uganda and separated the Jews from Gentiles for execution. His point seemed strange in that initially, it seemed like he was suggesting that those who try not to be Nazis will become them, but later morphed into something more nuanced, especially in regards to his criticism of how people don’t really know the history of the Nazis. There are so many ways to charitably and non-charitably interpret this statement that I won’t even try to do so here, and will perhaps leave it instead for a future article.
Overall however, it was a good night, though perhaps it was a little too heavy on the high-brow philosophical side of things. As someone who studies philosophy full time I felt like I had just barely understood the arguments presented due to having read material on the topics beforehand and knew the terminology. Had I been illiterate on the topics of qualia, dualism, functionalism and a large plethora of religious philosophies I would have found following the debate nigh impossible. However, the latter half of the debate probably brought a lot of people back into the loop, especially considering that many in attendance were likely seeking respite from the left’s stranglehold on public discourse. All in all it made the night well worth it for all those who attended.