Jordan B. Peterson and Sam Harris Debate

I would like to weigh in on the recent Sam Harris and Jordan B. Peterson debate and try to offer a solution to the problem at hand. If you are not familiar with what I'm talking about, I would recommend listening to it, but here's a quick summary. On one side you have Harris who is advocating for an objective truth that sits outside any moral judgements that human beings make about it, and on the other, you have Peterson who argues that there is no truth except a moral truth, one that is contextual and darwinian, i.e. dependent upon the survival of the species.

The problem with Peterson's argument is that it takes a concept such as truth that everyone is familiar with and uses it in a way that would significantly change our relationship to it. This is not a fatal problem, but it does make it hard to talk about. It also puts one in the position of saying some pretty silly things are "true", such as the many micro examples Harris throws at him throughout the interview.

I am, however, sympathetic to the overall point that Peterson is making, and I think he can make it more effectively if he takes his argument and frames it around the word "intelligence".

Take for example a tiny multi-celled organism that can only sense light and dark. This is a form of intelligence, in that, it is a way of interacting with the world that provides it with good (true) information which it uses to survive and reproduce. If the sensor is malfunctioning and it thinks light is dark and dark is light, then the information will be bad (untrue) and it will die. 

But let's say there is a mutation and a new version of this organism springs into being. The difference is that this new organism has another sense, temperature. It can tell when things get hot or cold. It is undeniable that with two senses this new organism has a more truthful interpretation of reality than the first, but is it as intelligent? Well, that depends on how it uses the information, how it acts in the world and whether this new vision of reality is more helpful to its flourishing.

Let's say, for the sake of the example, that this new sense of temperature actually leads to the organism's destruction, that it's lured into a hot environment that's detrimental to its survival and is killed without ever having reproduced. You would be hard pressed to describe this organism as "intelligent" and I think this is precisely Peterson's argument, only he applies this to the world of ideas instead of organisms.

For instance, you can imagine two tribes of early humans, one who spends most of its time studying the environment and learning farming techniques, and the other who spends most of its time learning how to fight and pillage. This more brutish tribe comes along and kills all of the farmers and eats their crops.  In this micro-conception, biologically speaking, the brutish tribe is more intelligent, in that, their way of surviving in this particular example leads to survival. 

However, if you zoom out with a historical lens, the ways that these brutish tribes existed, the ideas and beliefs that they valued, do not end up surviving. They're small numbers and overly aggressive tactics are in the large scheme of things outmaneuvered by large scale human cooperation enhanced by a division of labor.  So while you can make a tiny example of where "intelligence" seems at odds with our conception of it, i.e. brutish tribes are more intelligent than farming tribes, you simply have to wait for history to play out to show that this strategy fails.

This framework would then let Peterson make the argument that if some visions of the world lead to our destruction, even if they more accurately describe reality, we can say that vision was more truthful, but less intelligent.  Using this framework, Harris and Peterson could agree on the word "truth" and stop having definitional arguments over its meaning and shift the debate to "intelligence" where I think the conversation could be more fruitful.