One Way of Knowing (redux)

Posted: March 9, 2018 in Culture, Debate, Media, Science
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Long again this time and a bit contentious. Sorry for trying your patience.

Having watched a few hundred Joe Rogan webcasts by now (previous blog on this topic here), I am pretty well acquainted with guests and ideas that cycle through periodically. This is not a criticism as I’m aware I recycle my own ideas here, which is more nearly thematic than simply repetitive. Among all the MMA folks and comedians, Rogan features people — mostly academics — who might be called thought leaders. A group of them has even been dubbed the “intellectual dark web.” I dunno who coined the phrase or established its membership, but the names might include, in no particular order, Jordan Peterson, Bret Weinstein, Eric Weinstein, Douglas Murray, Sam Harris, Jonathan Haidt, Gad Saad, Camille Paglia, Dave Ruben, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Lawrence Krauss. I doubt any of them would have been considered cool kids in high school, and it’s unclear whether they’re any cooler now that they’ve all achieved some level of Internet fame on top of other public exposure. Only a couple seem especially concerned with being thought cool now (names withheld), though the chase for clicks, views, likes, and Patreon support is fairly upfront. That they can usually sit down and have meaningful conversations without rancor (admirably facilitated by Joe Rogan up until one of his own oxen is gored, less admirably by Dave Ruben) about free speech, Postmodernism, social justice warriors, politics, or the latest meme means that the cliquishness of high school has relaxed considerably.

I’m pleased (I guess) that today’s public intellectuals have found an online medium to develop. Lots of imitators are out there putting up their own YouTube channels to proselytize their own opinions. However, I still prefer to get deeper understanding from books (and to a lesser degree, blogs and articles online), which are far better at delivering thoughtful analysis. The conversational style of the webcast is relentlessly up-to-date and entertaining enough but relies too heavily on charisma. And besides, so many of these folks are such fast talkers, often talking over each other to win imaginary debate points or just dominate the conversational space, that they frustrate and bewilder more than they communicate or convince.

Considering that the ongoing epistemological crisis I’ve been blogging about over time is central to the claims and arguments of these folks (though they never quite call it that), I want to focus on the infamous disagreement between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson on the question of what counts as truth. This conflict immediately put me in mind of C.P. Snow’s lecture The Two Cultures, referring to the sciences and the humanities and how their advocates and adherents frequently lack sufficient knowledge and understanding of the other’s culture. As a result, they talk or argue past each other. Lawrence Krauss provided a brief update almost a decade ago (long before he was revealed to be a creep — charged with sexual misconduct and brought low like so many men over the past year). Being a theoretical physicist, his preference is predictable:

… God is essentially irrelevant to both our understanding of nature and our actions based on it. Until we are willing to accept the world the way it is, without miracles that all empirical evidence argues against, without myths that distort our comprehension of nature, we are unlikely to bridge the divide between science and culture and, more important, we are unlikely to be fully ready to address the urgent technical challenges facing humanity.

So the sciences (and by proxy logic and reason) are pitted against the humanities (and by proxy society and culture), the latter of which are often disingenuously mischaracterized as limited to myth, belief, faith, and/or the fine arts. Which of the two cultures possesses better truth claims depends on perspective, and most experts are too heavily invested on one side or the other to escape obvious biases and conclusions. Sam Harris subscribes to what I’ll call “objective truth” as known through science, whereas Jordan Peterson subscribes to what I’ll call “biological truth” as evidenced by human flourishing and reproductive success. More about the second of these later, since it doesn’t match up with a humanities approach. The video embedded below gives a pretty decent outline of their conflict and clearly falls on the side of objective truth.

Peterson’s brand of truth stems from psychology and evolutionary biology and is unapologetically anthropocentric. Peterson relies heavily on science for many of his arguments. But it’s not so simple as, say, your science or statistics vs. my science and statistics. Instead, Peterson argues that what works, what succeeds, is situationally or metaphorically true even if literally, realistically, scientifically, or factually false. Put a different way, might makes right in the sense that utility confers power. (This bears some resemblance to my blog about cognitive sufficiency — poorly formed belief being “good enough” to act upon — as contrasted with accuracy or perfection.) So if it’s fact vs. force, both sides believing they uniquely hold the ace of trumps, there can be no resolution. The two cultures will always be in conflict.

Peterson goes even further, however, stating that because human flourishing is what really matters, science fits within the humanities. Here he introduces a fundamental nesting problem: subordinating outer, objective reality (the world before and/or without human actors) to human activity and experience within that reality. This inversion is a trick of argumentation and fails to convince those whose orientation toward truth is more nearly empirical than experiential. To be charitable, placing science in the service of the humanities may well be a properly prioritized relationship. Otherwise, what’s the point of knowledge? After all, useful orientations toward the world (e.g., cosmologies) are offered by each of the two cultures. But it’s a monumental mistake to conclude that either wholly encapsulates the other. Peterson’s gambit may also be why his elevation of biological truth over objective truth looks superficially like a humanities approach.

My main issue with arguments citing evolutionary biology is that they too often use behaviors, especially survival and mating strategies, observable in aggregate (over time with large populations) to describe individual motivations and instincts in the here and now. In so doing, argumentative types arrive at just-so stories to explain very specific results arising out of an incredibly complex and contingent stew of variables. The same thing occurs when one zooms in to examine minutia or or out to provide context and in so doing discards or loses the proper resolution. It’s a conspicuously easy trap to fall into and a terrible way to debate a point, though viewers and readers are often taken in because they, too, take their eye off the ball. Politicians and pundits use this rhetorical device constantly, which some people recognize as a form of whataboutism.

More specifically, a number of Peterson’s arguments citing evolutionary biology (oft repeated from interview to interview based on his previous writing) are dispelled by an actual evolutionary biologist:

After several of Peterson’s claims have been invalidated, one can’t help but to wonder where else he plays loose with the facts to make a point. He’s not indulging in mere sleight of hand, though he’s been shown to play word games and get slippery and evasive when challenged effectively. Rather, he’s making fundamental errors of fact and distorting the science to draw unwarranted conclusions and argue for them rather forcefully. I can’t guess whether these distortions and just-so explanations are intentional or the result of error (i.e., the same inadequate understanding of evolutionary biology I have, which is why I point to someone who actually knows better), but considering the commitment with which Peterson argues and his notable lack of revision or apology when caught in an error, it’s hard to be charitable. The self-refuting reflex built into reputable science seems to be missing or forgotten in Peterson’s approach. Once that’s lost, one becomes a demagogue.

It’s worth pointing out that erroneous beliefs or indeed wholly magical thinking can in fact be carriers of significant, impressive power, typically by widespread subscription. Religious faith is one obvious example. The propaganda campaign that led the American public into guilelessly supporting multiple U.S. military incursions (now ongoing wars never formally declared) in the Middle East is another. They form into consensus reality and guide our actions, but it would be impossible to argue that they lead inexorably to human flourishing or reproductive success in the sense of biological truth for which Peterson argues. Quite the opposite in fact, as these two examples (from among many others I could cite) are both provocation and rationalization for mass death.

I don’t wish to refute Peterson entirely, or for that matter, support Harris entirely. (I’m no one’s fan, but I’ll indulge most anyone long enough to determine whether he or she is worth more of my attention.) They both make worthwhile contributions to the public sphere, but they also both seem locked within their respective ways of knowing and don’t acknowledge opposing perspectives easily. Indeed, when making public appearances, they’re often attacked (sometimes playing along, sometimes provoking) as though sharing and developing ideas in public view is best accomplished as a gladiatorial exploit. Wins, defeats, gloats, and humiliations may be tallied by onlookers, but I demand better from those who would position themselves to instruct me.

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