Harris and Peterson discussion

(Mervin Bitikofer) #1

I know that several here have been fascinated with Jordan Peterson - and I too wonder at some of what he says and find his online popularity among certain populist groups to be (for me) a mark of suspicion, even if that may be unwarranted cynicism. But I just spent almost two hours (at 1.5 speed) listening to this part-2 of a forum conversation between Sam Harris and Peterson hosted by Bret Weinstein in Vancouver [August 2018], and I think many here would enjoy much of what transpires. There was a part-1, but they open part-2 with a “steel-man” (get it?) exercise of summarizing each other from part 1, and apparently do such a good job that I don’t feel a need to go back and hear that part.

What I do have to say about this, though, is that I’m glad it took place in Canada (probably with a largely Canadian audience I imagine) and not in the U.S. Because while in the U.S. this would have been most likely characterized as a debate, complete with a partisan and rowdy audience hungrily eager to spot and cheer the best smack-downs, what we are treated to here instead is a respectful conversation between two very intelligent persons, and a polite audience and moderator that applauds both and is apparently interested in … wait for it! … truth!.

After listening to this, my respect for both Peterson and Harris has grown, and while I can certainly find points of disagreement, I thought they both had a lot of vital things to say and to rightly provoke us with. If you have a couple hours to spare … it may make for some good conversation.

Peterson and Harris ... part 3
(Mitchell W McKain) #2

I had already watched some of part one before reading this, and this encouraged me to take a look a part 2. One interesting thought which come to me, though. Is that I hadn’t seen Sam Harris speak before this. so at the very least, this debate has given me that opportunity. The steel man beginning of part 2 was indeed terrific.

I don’t know if I buy the conclusion of Peterson’s basic argument. Even if I credit his idea that religious stories are derived from a behavioral enactment of truth, I suppose I share Sam Harris’ doubt that it follows that we must therefore take these stories seriously. But frankly, I don’t think such an argument is even necessary. I think it is sufficient that people do take these stories seriously and for that reason alone we cannot abandon them. Thus instead of pointing at supposed answers buried in these stories, I would point at the questions buried in them, and say that it is not wise to ignore these questions. Perhaps I would remind Peterson of his own explanation of the need we have for the conservative-liberal dialogue and ask him if we don’t need the same dialogue with respect to these stories: believers to point out merits and atheists to point out flaws and dangers.

I started writing this response when I heard Sam Harris make his claim that “Christianity is a cult of human sacrifice.” The problem with this is that this characterization is specifically derived from the western Christian dogma of substitutionary atonement which I believe is a medieval distortion and which in any case does not describe all of Christianity. It certainly doesn’t describe what I see of value in Christianity. And interestingly enough Peterson’s response is reminiscent of my own explanation of the metaphorical understanding that people change when the innocent suffer from what we do.

(Shawn T Murphy) #3

Dear Mervin, Thank you for the link. I was not impressed listening to Peterson. I was astounded by the discussion of human sacrifice, that he take it to be a fact of humanity. I agree with the comments of Harris in regard to this point. Christian historians should listen to Harris when looking at the practice of human sacrifice and their interpretation of the Bible.

Peterson said that human sacrifice was practiced for delayed gratification, but this is factually untrue. These sacrifices were made to the gods for immediate gratification, and the Oracles of Delphi is the most highly research example of this. Blood was offered for information. Harris is correct that in every case they are abhorrent. Look at the death of Socrates and you will see what the father of logic thought about blood sacrifice. He gave his life instead of offering blood sacrifices to the pagan gods.

In my book, Torn Between Two Worlds: Wisdom and Rhetoric, I provide an analysis of Abram’s life and his interaction with the gods. I show that it was not Yahweh who asked him to sacrifice his son, but one of the gods known for asking for human sacrifice - the ones that the first commandment warns against.

(Dominik Kowalski) #4

If I think of “human sacrifice”, I think of the rituals of the Aztecs. That this discussion can even arise when talking about Christianity, blows my mind. Maybe I will give it a shot later, but I am not a fan of debates, especially if the two participants are specializing in different fields. And often enough I don’t agree with either side

(Mervin Bitikofer) #5

Me neither. That is why I was so pleasantly surprised to find these men in [seemingly] actual conversation. There is still an underlying and very serious debate, to be sure - but they did a good job modeling respectful listening coupled with vigorous exchange. And that was the fuel for my heightened respect for both. I still disagree with them (and especially Harris) at many points of course.

I don’t know that any of us are in a position to declare that untrue (any more than Peterson can know that it’s true.) But it does sound very plausible to me, and I thought it insightful of Peterson to claim that the whole notion of sacrifice (even leading to human sacrifice) could have originated along such a path. It may be important to you to attempt to demonstrate distance between God and what is claimed on God’s behalf in Genesis. But I don’t think the Christian need go there. Another of Peterson’s responses that I resonate with is that the Bible seems to progressively lead God’s people away from human sacrifice (Harris’ claims notwithstanding in that regard). Abraham almost sacrifices his son - but does not, and later on finally in the new covenant, what Jesus does puts the last nail in the coffin of the whole notion of human sacrifice, so to speak. Harris sees the whole thing as a flat book with the “final act” on the cross representing all the same abhorrence as what came before. But that is only true with “sacrifice-to-a-wrathful-God” views of atonement (which is not a small thing - many Christians dwell exactly there still today; so it must be acknowledged that Harris does not just pull that out of a vacuum). But (and here is where I place my main critique of Harris) - he still wants to view Christianity as a once-for-all laid out system of belief denied any possibility of development or growth over the centuries. And that oversight is a serious one in his case against religion generally - fueled with great and true insights as it may otherwise be.

Yeah - I thought that was good of Harris to point out. I liked his example of “how much is this ‘ordinary’ glass worth to you if it had last been drunk from by Elton John?” And after acknowledging that we construct value for things all the time that would not be empirically detectable in the material itself (no scientific analysis of any such glass will show it to have any such value), yet nonetheless if we were to start fighting over possession of such a valued object, it is certainly significant to learn the literal truth regarding Elton John and this particular glass: that it just isn’t so! And I think Peterson was quick to affirm that people don’t just choose to believe things as a matter of efficacy. We must in the end only believe things because we think they are actually true. I think I saw that as a point of agreement between them, and certainly for me too. I really liked Harris’ “concession” (he didn’t think of it in those terms, but I maintain it is in a way) about the loaded gun. He thinks it healthy to maintain a superstition that every gun he holds is a loaded gun, even if he has checked and re-checked the chamber multiple times. He still doesn’t just casually point the barrel towards things or people that he would not want to shoot. I.e. he allows that his superstition to always consider such things as if they were loaded to be a useful fiction that serves a good purpose. But the truth of its “unloadedness” still exists too. I think that example to be insightful and revealing in ways beyond what Harris may have perhaps intended.

I agree. I think Harris’ criticism falls at this point - though it must be acknowledged that his fire here has never been (and still isn’t) bereft of fuel. I too share in your critical appraisal of notions of substitutionary atonement.

I think one of my main observations from the debate is that Peterson seemed to remain unconvinced to the end that Harris ever supplied a satisfactory account of just how people (apart from any received narrative) are to proceed from universally recognized “bad places” toward universally recognized “good places”. Peterson kept insisting that “the devil is in the details” for that, and I think he is right.

(RiderOnTheClouds) #6

Do you mean El Elyon?

(Shawn T Murphy) #7

Hi Reggie,
They have has thousands of names and appear in every culture, but the names lead back to the three gods that Abram encounters in Genesis 18. Here is the passage from chapter 2 of my book.

There is a benevolent force acting on this world with vision and purpose, based in goodness and wisdom, attempting to inspire people to choose a path to it. At the same time, the ruling power of this world is trying to circumvent any and all attempts by the benevolent force to maintain its power over mankind.

As a pioneer, working for this benevolent force, Abram did not have any written laws to go by, to help guide him on his Journey. He required direct communication to find his way on this narrow path, and this allowed imposters to step in and try to mislead Abram. I would suggest that the push to procreate, the offers for material greatness and rhetoric used to try to get him to kill Isaac all came from an imposter, another god opposed to the benevolent force. By Genesis 18 he becomes suspicious and I believe he starts to recognize the pagan gods when they visited him. Abram keeps Sarai away from these three visitors while he offers them the traditional dressed calf.

The power struggle between wisdom and rhetoric is evident in the bible. God tells Moses in no uncertain terms that he is the only god Moses should follow. This is an acknowledgement that others are trying to impersonate him. It wasn’t until the time of Moses that the rules of this benevolent God could be written down, but doesn’t it stand to reason, that the same unwritten laws existed at the time of Abram? So why would this god tell Abram to violate his own law? Or for that matter, the same question can be posed anywhere in the bible. It is rhetoric that leads man to kill in the name of their god, not wisdom. Wisdom is firmly based in law, so it is defeated when those pursuing the narrow benevolent path fall victim to rhetoric and violate the law.

These three are the leaders of the gods that Yahweh teaches us to forsake in Exodus 20:1-3. The enlightened Greeks depicted this symbolically in Poseidon [Satan] and his trident.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #8

Actually, I think it was Harris that insisted human sacrifice is a brute fact of religion, and Peterson was only conceding that indeed it is a part of history, including [Judeo-]Christian history. This is a far cry from justifying it in any way or form, which Peterson was definitely not doing. So I think your ire toward Peterson may be misplaced in this regard.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #9

Regarding all these Greek equivalencies for biblical personas, the Judeo-Christian narrative is quite rich enough in its interactions with our current world. We don’t need to go supplementing the narratives of our own tradition with other ancient pagan narratives as if our own tradition were somehow deficient or lacking in material to work with already. Sure, there were many pagan philosophies and practices that were merged into Christian tradition (for better or worse) over the centuries - fine; that’s part of our history now too. We struggle with enough false gods today that go by quite different sounding modern names. I don’t need to learn yet other ancient names for false gods except as a matter of specialized historical scholarship in those matters. But as for lay discussions on Christian living and spirituality today, Zeus, Poseidon, & Co. can all stay happily buried back in the dust bin of history. I feel no compulsion whatsoever to try to resurrect them or whatever it is they may have represented to ancient peoples of another time.

(Shawn T Murphy) #10

You might listen again. Peterson goes on to say how important sacrifice is to Christianity, with Jesus being the ultimate sacrifice. He justifies the sacrifice of Isaac as Christian, even though it violates the 10 commandments.

(Shawn T Murphy) #11

Without understanding the pagan gods, you cannot see the significance of the trinity, nor recognize its pagan roots.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #12

First of all … what sacrifice of Isaac? Isaac wasn’t sacrificed. And that was a major part of Peterson’s point. Can you site a time in the video where you think Peterson comes anywhere close to justifying human sacrifice? I only gave it one listen, but I’m pretty sure you’re wrong about this.

Hastening to add to my last harsh reply … It isn’t that I think that all ancient paganism must be seen as bad or evil. It’s just that you make me feel a bit more like Harris when you dwell on all this Socrates / Poseidon stuff. Harris insists that we can get all the good morality we need just from reason and informed awareness alone without any religious input needed. I disagree, but yet get my own dander up in similar turn when others insist that we need Christianity + “lots of other ancient Greek god stuff you wish to add” to help us properly understand. I respond that Christianity has the potential (with Christ as revealed and testified about in Scriptures) to do just fine without needing any extra help from long-defunct ancient religions. Modern Christians do well to get their information from attending to God’s creation (i.e. science, reason, and self-reflection are huge beneficial parts of that), and to their own scriptural narratives.

Added edit: [knowing and understanding lots of stuff about other religions both contemporary and ancient can be beneficial, of course - don’t get me wrong. But today when so many are busy divesting themselves of any theologically informed narrative at all, I think it understandable if Christians are excited to even just get folks back into being informed about any Christian teachings at all. Diluting it with peripheral or even wrong-headed stuff should be recognized as a bad use of attention resources in many secular contests.]

(Mervin Bitikofer) #13

Nobody fully understands the trinity. Adding in Greek gods isn’t going to close that gap for you - sorry. I’m confident I understand just enough of what I need of that from Paul’s writings to get by - no Greek gods needed.

(Shawn T Murphy) #14

I am not sure how you can make this sweeping judgment. With this statement, you are supporting the mystery created by the church to cover up their illogical doctrine. You are at the same time downplaying the wisdom of the founders of logic and science. There is overwhelming evidence to pagan origin of the trinity. Just look at the exponential growth of Christians following the creation of the doctrine and their barbaric actions. You do not become Christian through indoctrination, but through seeking and learning yourself. Christianity is a narrow path that does not include blood sacrifice or sins against the spirit of others - indoctrination is a sin against the spirit, which is unforgivable.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #15

To echo what Christy just said in another post … I’m not interested in looking to those you venerate as the “founders” of logic and science for my spiritual cues. I have paid some attention to things you’ve said, and have not seen any compelling evidence offered for the weird stuff. I don’t accept all of what the Catholic church has accrued over the centuries either, but nor do I see a demon behind every Catholic innovation or Scriptural insight as you seem to. I know you want venues to promote your book in, but let’s bring this discussion back to the Harris-Peterson conversation; i.e. - to modern-day experiences of religion and whether or not it still has good functions.


This sounds like something that Dan Brown would write.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #17

I think one of the bells I would like to see rung a lot more is the apparent agreement between people like Harris and science-attentive Christians that there is universal truth to be had, even if we have trouble getting at it sometimes. Harris argues that science is the only reliable tool (or the most reliable one) to get at that. I think there is [or has often been] an implication that any shift over into more subjective domains of value must mean a departure from the world of objectivity. And yet… I think we see Harris allowing that there is still an objectively universal good to be aimed for. And I welcome the significance of that. The empirically testable world is not the only world that contains universal truth and falsehood. Our important questions at these other less-empirically-accessible levels can also be true and false in universal ways. Christians have been pounding that drum for centuries, and I think it a healthy sign that nonbelievers are at least accepting that this is a valid pursuit. The trick is in finding agreement about tools of discernment in areas not accessible to empirical scrutiny and measurement.

(Mitchell W McKain) #18

For me, finding value in religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is not about finding the objective truths in it. Rather it is about recognizing the value of the subjective and more importantly avoiding the reduction of reality and significance to the objective alone. Doing this means we have to accept the inherent diversity of this aspect of truth and reality. It is all well and good to get all excited when science finds reason to support some of our religious convictions. But if that is all you are looking for then I cannot see why you wouldn’t just go with Sam Harris’ idea of science as the one reliable source of truth. The only rational reason I see for resisting this is because you don’t buy into the idea that the objective apprehension of truth (which science certainly excels at) is all there is.

And frankly there are some really simple reasons for thinking this. It is a demonstrable truth that people can know things even when they haven’t a shred of proof or objective evidence. Therefore there is no objective reason for thinking that science can encompass the totality of reality. The most we can say is that we have really good reasons for believing that there is an objective aspect to reality, but none whatsoever for claiming that reality is exclusively objective. But while we can logically never have objective evidence for an irreducibly subjective aspect to reality, we do have some excellent pragmatic reasons for believing this in the value of tolerance, diversity of thought, and respect for other people.

(Shawn T Murphy) #19

Dear Mervin,
My discussion is completely about the veneration of Peterson as a “Christian”, who also brings the pagan concept of blood sacrifice into the core of Christianity. Harris rightly abhors sacrifice as Christians should. You were the one who posted this discussion and I am sorry you find my comments as strange. Christianity today cannot afford to hold on to the illogical doctrines that make it vulnerable to logical attack. When Peterson does this, I feel he comes across as arrogant and ridiculous and not Christ-ike.
Best Wishes, Shawn

(Mervin Bitikofer) #20

I know nothing of Peterson’s spiritual status - though that seems to be the endless speculative game of those enthusiasts who admire him. I have little interest in that (not being his or anyone else’s eternal judge and all). But I am interested in what he says.

Christianity needs to chase and embrace truth - whether or not that makes us “vulnerable to attack”. And I don’t have much confidence that what you hold to be logical / illogical is the same as how many of the rest of us would parse those categories.

Abhors sacrifice? I hardly think so. I think what you meant to say there was that we should “abhor human sacrifice”. Making sacrifices for the greater good of others is a very noble and honorable thing indeed - close to the heart of what Christianity is all about. Everybody here (and there in the debate) abhors human sacrifice. I’m still not sure where you got the idea where Peterson or anybody else here was ever for such a thing.

Well - that is a charge that we all probably succumb to often - especially smart or witty people like both Harris and Peterson. I do at least agree with you on that. But since I wasn’t listening to the event expecting to find any explicitly “Christian” party or apologetic, I guess I wasn’t much disturbed that one or both parties may not always be very Christ-like.