Literal Truth and Living Truth

Over the past two days, we have been discussing whether or not Dr. Jordan Peterson believes in truth and in what sense of the word.

One of my readers politely offered an extensive transcript of a conversation between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson discussing the concept of truth.

Harris wanted to define truth as being literal truth: truth is what reality says it is, whether we say so or not. Peterson was talking about truth in a higher sense, in the older and broader sense of the word, to mean what is trusty or trustworthy, as we speak of a sword striking true, or as a jury of twelve good men and true, or as we speak of a man being true to his word or true to his country.

That is all the conversation is about. That is it.

Persons trying to read some deeper meaning into the exchange are missing the point, or, if I may, are being misled by dishonest rhetoric to miss the point.

Peterson made the point that if your worldview leads to widespread misery, disaster, and death, it is not true in the sense of it not serving the higher truth, the spiritual truth.

Harris, an atheist, and a man of limited intelligence, could not follow the concept, and continued to insist that on the literal level, a thing was either true or untrue. For him, there is no higher truth.

Peterson agreed, but said that the literal level (in their dialog, they used the awkward term micro-examples) was not the only level there was. He meant that any specific interpretation of true or false takes place inside a worldview.

The truth of one’s worldview cannot be examined within the worldview because your worldview is what provides the tools used for the examination of ideas.

Hence, for Peterson, the only practical test of a worldview was whether it led to success or to disaster.

Here is the relevant passage:

“Something can be true at one level of analysis and not true at another. That happens all the time, that’s what a white lie is. It happens all the time. The reason we’re stuck on this discussion is because you won’t allow me to make a distinction between provisional factual truths, which I don’t want to dispute because it’s self evident that they’re correct, but that isn’t what I’m saying. I’m saying that there’s an underlying metaphysics that at question here.”

Let us interpret this line by line:

Peterson says that a thing true “at one level” means whether it is literally true or not. “Not true at another” refers to the more general context in which something is embedded, the higher truth.

He uses the example of a little white lie as something literally untrue but meant for the good of the hearer.

One could use the opposite example of when a man speaks a literal truth but it is a partial truth, not the whole truth, and his intent is to deceive.

When he says, “It happens all the time” he is asking the audience to reflect upon the myriad examples of when something has been true metaphorically, or true in a poetical sense, and not literal. It is true that Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark, tormented by indecision. But this is not a literal truth because Hamlet is a fictional character. It is true that SJWs always lie. But this is not a literal truth because there are exceptions to the statement, but the exceptions are insignificant in face of the broader rhetorical point being made. It is true that God anointed Queen Elizabeth to be sovereign of England; it is true that the US Constitution is a social contract to which all citizens agree; it is true that if you look at a Grecian Urn, it will speak to you, and say “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

He then identifies why Harris and he cannot agree and cannot move past this point in the discussion. Harris simply and flatly denies that there is a higher truth. For him, a statement of fact, regardless of context, regardless of intent, and regardless of the consequences of uttering it, is true. Peterson admits that this is a valid definition in the narrow sense of the word, but wants to be permitted to use the word in the broader sense of also meaning what is wise and good, what is trusty, what is trustworthy.

That is the “underlying metaphysics” to which he refers in his last line: he is trying to draw Sam Harris’ attention to the unspoken assumptions of Sam’s worldview, which forms the framework and the lens through which Sam views the world. Sam’s worldview forms the coign of vantage from which Sam views the world.

But unlike Peterson, who is a psychiatrist and hence acutely aware of the unconscious influences that might shape (or distort) the worldview of a patient, Sam merely treats his worldview as invisible, as self evident.

And Peterson exhausts himself by saying it is not. Your worldview is not self evident: it is based on assumptions of which you are unaware, and until and unless you test that worldview by repeated exposure to reality, and see what the real world results of such unspoken assumptions in action are, really are, not what you’d like them to be, then you cannot know the truth. You cannot know if your view of the world is healthy, successful, or is a disaster waiting to happen.

Consider the result of atheism in the Twentieth Century. The only explicitly atheistic regimes, who adopted scientific-flavored atheism as their political doctrine and metaphysical view, were the Socialists. This includes the National Socialists of Germany and the Fascists of Italy, as well as the Communists of Soviet Russia and Maoist China.

From a psychiatric point of view, socialism is insane. To deny the law of supply and demand, and to deny that men have vast differences in talent and ability hence in productivity and success, is to deny the undeniable. To indulge in bloody and sadistic fantasies of revenge against innocent bystanders, blaming them for imaginary crimes, or to blame sinister Jewish conspiracies for your national ills, or to blame conspiracies of make believe capitalist boogie-men versus make believe creatures called proletarians,  is to substitute a sick hallucination for reality.

To continue to insist that real Marxism has never been tried, and that those one hundred million corpses piled up by atheists in the Twentieth Century was not a real representation of godlessness in action, is literally insane. It is an hallucination. It is a worldview utterly divorced from reality.

Obviously the Sam Harris test of literal truth cannot operate from within the context of an insane worldview, because the worldview will produce an insane test. See for example, Soviet cosmonauts claiming that there was no God because the saw nothing with the naked eye in their space capsule when they cleared the atmosphere. Even if this was meant as a joke or a jibe, it is an insane jibe, as it has nothing to do with the actual claims make of the Christian God, who is an invisible spirit existing in Eternity outside of time.

So the only test is the Peterson test: does the worldview lead to disaster? In the case of atheism in the Twentieth Century, the answer is obviously, overwhelmingly, a resounding yes. Atheism leads to more mass deaths and more misery than anything in history. The one hundred million corpses is only the beginning of the tally. Who can even begin to calculate the misery of living in a regime where to admit that one was unhappy was treason punishable by death?

Well, small wonder that Sam Harris had to halt the conversation and not let Peterson move past the point. He no doubt saw where the next step would lead.

Peterson’s point: if you cannot live by it, it is not true. If it leads to death and disaster, widespread suffering and misery, it is not true. If what it says on the tin is not what is inside the can, it is not true.

This is not some abstract or philosophical definition of the truth. Men in their common speech speak this way all the time. The proof of the pudding is in the tasting.

I strongly suggest anyone yearning to invent some hypothetical where a literal truth leads to disaster or a higher truth is untrue on the literal level cease to exercise their avid brains. The paradox of life is that any objective truth, if you look at it from the point where you are standing, is a truth viewed from your subjective viewpoint. If you look at it with your eye, you are seeing it through a lens. If your lens is distorted, so is your view.

Hence there are at least two levels of truth: the phenomenal we see each man from his subjective coign of vantage, and the noumenal, the truth in itself, which a man knows by intuition or not at all.

In addition, there is also degrees of inaccuracy, of simile, of fiction or of capturing truths in figurative speech which cannot, or cannot accurately, be put in literal speech.

It is, in fact, misleading to say “No unicorn is a one horned equine” on the grounds that unicorns do not exist at all. That is as silly as a man saying he did not see the sunrise on the grounds that his eyeball saw the sunrise, not him.

Now, can I think of examples where, in the short run, a literal truth does not lead to health and happiness, or a literal lie might have utility? I need not: Sam Harris gave several perfectly cromulent examples, not a single one of which was to the point. They were not to the point because Peterson at no point denied either the truth or the utility of literal truths. He merely said that literal truth was not the whole story. Beauty and virtue and higher truth are also part of the story. What you do with the truth, whether you use it as a scalpel to heal or a sword to behead, is also part of the story.

And you just the merit of the whole story by whether it has a happy ending, so to speak.

Christianity put paid to gladiatorial games, polygamy, pederasty, divorce, and ended the slave trade worldwide. No other culture ever even contemplated such a thing. There is no record of anyone anywhere attempting to abolish slavery outside Christendom.

Atheism in the Twentieth Century led to entire nations being turned into slave camps. The word genocide was coined in this century because otherwise there were no terms for the mass murders of a nation’s own peoples by their own leaders which atheism leads to.

When Peterson says you judge a truth by its effect on life and healthy and happiness, critics jump on him. But when Christ says you will know true prophets and teacher from false by the fruits of their doctrines, that is, by the practical results when ideas are put in action, that is saluted as divine wisdom.

But they are the same idea, phrased differently.

To bring this full circle, allow me to suggest that candid readers use the Jordan Peterson method to examine the truth of the claims being made against him. If someone misconstrued you, and twisted your words to make you out to be saying something you were not, how many iterations of that game would you play? If you continued that game, would it lead to health and happiness and joy, or to misery, stagnation, and catastrophe?