This breakout article accompanies the summary of the Intellectual Dark Web event in Dublin on Saturday July 14th - On Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson and Douglas Murray at Dublin’s 3Arena. As that article frames much of the conversation below you are encouraged to start there first.

Ethics Picture
Photo by Dan Mason under the CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence.

The title of this breakout is a little uncomfortable. The conversation on the evening isn’t really best described as Peterson vs Harris. Rather it was a case of both debaters, along with Douglas Murray, trying to work towards more a common viewpoint. Though they never quite got there on the core issue. To give this core issue a descriptive title, let’s coin a phrase “fact-only morality”. What is this and why does this matter? Well, if there can be agreement that a moral way to live can be based on facts and truth claims alone, then it undermines the idea that humanity needs a little bit of extra supernatural embellishment to coerce ourselves into doing what’s best for both us and our neighbour. First up we need to establish one piece of jargon - “human values”. These are defined as the principles that are the foundation for how to live a moral life. What consitutes a human value may not always be clear. For example, what is best for one group of people may be negative for another. So as we navigate the solution space of what is “net best” for the complete set of groups (which may overlap), there will be tradeoffs to make. Now that this definition is out of the way1, let’s dive right in…

Peterson provided interesting anecdotes ranging from how, in moving from a simplistic creature such as a sea sponge to a higher level animal such as a human, there is simply too much information processing by the brain occurring to be explained by a simple mapping of facts to human values. He argued that within this space there must be some unit other than facts at play - a unit that is a function of human perception and human interpretation of the sensory data arriving at the brain. The intractable problem of not being able to anchor these non-fact based units of human thinking to human values meant that religion was necessary - to provide that anchoring.

Harris disagreed and countered with a view of the human brain’s information processing as “facts all the way down” - that what Peterson had claimed as non-facts due to their complexity and unknowability was still simply facts. He argued unknowablity does not preclude us from making truth claims about an unknowable answer. For example, we don’t know whether we have an odd or even number of hairs on our body, yet we should be confident in asserting that the number of hairs on our body is odd or even. On the other hand, he illustrated that even when artificial systems - such as neural networks in computer science - can provide answers to questions, we do not fundamentally know how they have arrived at their conclusions. Being a black box, the neural network provides a similar space in which we could consider non-facts as existing; yet we don’t need a religious wedge to fill the void there.

"Anytime it entered the crosshairs of the conversation, Harris used an Occam-like razor to quickly carve religion off the carcass of the moral debate."

Many of the other points Peterson made followed a similar arc - often punctuated with elegant language and showman-like gestures. He has a talent for explaining complex biological subjects in a simple manner. One of the interesting features of the night was that he avoided the meat of religious discourse and doctrine. Instead he went as far as to say that he was going to consciously focus on explaining his religious argument in purely biological and scientific terms. He kept to his word. Nonetheless, whether through biological reasoning or otherwise, anytime it entered the crosshairs of the conversation, Harris used an Occam-like razor to quickly carve religion off the carcass of the moral debate. Peterson voiced a concern with the purely secular approach to society building as lacking in storytelling and not being sufficiently inspiring to unify large groups of people to co-exist together. Unsurprisingly Harris disagreed. All the time Murray bridged the space between them, leaning more towards Peterson’s side on these latter concerns.

That was the main topic of the evening. So with this sidebar over, you can return to where you were in the On Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson and Douglas Murray at Dublin’s 3Arena article. Or enjoy a well-deserved coffee break or something stronger after powering though all of the above.

1 Being relatively new to the subject matter in this paragraph, I have outlined my understanding of the term “human values”, which I don’t recall being explicitly defined on the evening. Please comment if this understanding is erroneous.