In a recent discussion between the popular Atheist Sam Harris and Canadian Psychology professor Jordan Peterson, the topic of how we define truth came to the fore of the conversation and remained as a point of contentious debate for most of the length of the podcast.
Ultimately, Harris and Peterson have views of truth which are in opposition with one another and the debate centred around Harris attempting to illustrate to Peterson why a Realist interpretation of facts should be categorized as the truth, rather than Peterson’s assertion that truth emerging from a Darwinian perspective should be interpreted as a pragmatic value by which we ascribe a sense of value to truth, rather than treating it merely as some assertion of things which are factual.
Harris was frustrated by Peterson’s refusal to agree to truth as something which must be nestled in fact, rather than Personson’s concept that fact is in fact nestled within broader truth.
This conversation is very important because it reflects two divergent ways in which western intellectuals think about truth. The way that Harris discusses truth is based on a realist and modernist sensibility that truth can be measured and known, and is essentially the current hegemonic conception of truth prevalent within the science community. This way of thinking asserts that if something can be measured, it can be known, therefore that which is known to be of a certain quality can be said to be true.
Peterson oscillates between a religious or mythological conception of truth which is that which is the origin of good, and a somewhat more post modernist idea of truth as a construct of society and something that is predicated on moral agreements between people, as well as with our own ability to judge the qualities of objects and events with values, rather than merely through a set of facts.
It is important to point out that both Harris and Peterson believe in values, especially in the ethical and moral realm, but that Peterson weights truth as being accordant with value, while Harris believes that there are truths which are essential and intrinsic and thus have no essential value other than that which is ascribed to them (although they have no essential value, they remain true because they exist and can be verified to exist).
This conversation is an important one to have because to current hegemonic materialist view of truth which Harris puts forward is in many ways simply an example of a successful philosophy which has permeated science, but it has the flaw of not giving us any special understanding of what types of ethics we ought to use to govern our society. This means that the realm of science and other pursuits can run a risk of being abused by immoral people or even just by a lack of consideration about risks inherent in learning certain sets of facts (A.I. and the synthesis of Ebola are two things that come to mind).
The problem throughout the entire debate is that Harris is perplexed by what he sees as a needlessly convoluted view of truth that eschews facts in favour of moral considerations of value, so although his basic premise is challenged on a fundamental level, it remains difficult for him to engage with the concept on its own merit and he continually moves back to a point of “micro-examples” in order to verify that there are indeed facts and that facts in his summation should constitute truth.
What I would like to hopefully add to this conversation is that truth as a term can be understood in different fashions in order to achieve different goals. Truth can both be a recognition of things which may be observed and established as existing and having the functions that are native to them, but it can also be used as a way to discuss value and how people should engage with the world. Further to this, there is another type of truth, which neither discuss and which should be brought into the lime light in order to add to the scope of this debate. That truth is anything which is intrinsically real and fixed. This problem of that which is intrinsically real and fixed is something which is impossible to define, since all things within our perception, whether real or not, are not fixed. For instance, the computer I am writing on is sitting on a table which is standing on the floor of a house. Each of these items is real in a physical sense as well as being aspects of human technological development that came about as a result of agreements on certain types of values and also operate based on complex systems in physical and temporal reality which can be speculated about and measured, so in that sense, each of those things is real. Conversely, each of these things exists within a limited time and space and are not fixed in any definite way, at least in the sense of a sense of time which is based on linear development. The computer, the table, and the house will all eventually be transformed into some other object, most likely garbage, or perhaps they will be recycled and processed into different items entirely. What is sure is that the basic existence and use of these items is that they only exist and serve their function within an extremely limited capacity of the time and space in which they are utilitarian, and even if it were the case that the computer were to stay in this place for 1000 years, if there were no person here to use it, then its utility would case to be that of a computer, even though perhaps its function would remain intact during that time.
What I am suggesting is that a physical truth of measurable facts is temporally predicated and definite, meaning that the quality of such a truth is also something which will decay in the same way that the physical artifact does so itself.
A truth based on a moral value or similar assertion is also something which is contained within the temporal realm, although perhaps on a longer chronological scale, since these types of truths have existed for much longer than our ability to measure the qualities of physical reality.
This means that outside of these two temporally contingent truths, which exist in changing and complex systems, we are left with only one other possible type of truth, which is one that cannot be accurately measured or discussed in any way that gives it a value.
This truth is what Carl Jung called the Pleroma and it is a universal, or perhaps something even beyond universal nature of reality which is not distinguished and cannot be fathomed.
Jung suggested that the Pleroma is something which cannot be accessed by Creatura, or the created being (IE: humans) because created being is distinct and as such, in the sense that he is distinct, is outside of the Pleroma which is indistinct.
At the same time, Creatura exists as the entire Pleroma, since nothing can exist outside of it.
This problem, which is discussed in complexity by Jung is treated as the essential assumption of the philosophical aspect of Daoist thought, and it is the thing which all imagery in Daoism bend back toward.
This intrinsic truth of the Pleroma, or the Dao is that aspect of creation which encompasses and contains everything existing and non existing and yet is not any of those things, and it is not knowable. because of its indistinct magnitude, we can only understand it by the traces of itself that it leaves behind in material objects, time, events, and other experienced aspects of reality.
If we take this intrinsic nature of nature as something which is true, but beyond our ability to accurately define, we can see how the truth of that which can be accurately measured as part of the physical operations of reality and the truth of that which can be said to have a value which is not entirely predicated on physical nature both emerge from the undefined nature of nature which pervades and incubates all things without itself being quantified.
In order to illustrate this point, I would like to end this post with the first chapter of the Dao De Jing, which I feel provides an accurate solution to these variant problems of truth:
“The way which may be called the way is not the eternal way,
the name which may be named is not the eternal name.
Without a name it was at the beginning of heaven and earth,
with a name, it was called the mother of the myriad phenomena.
Eternally without desire, observe its wonderful.
Eternally with desire, observe its borders.
These two things are conceived as being different,
but emerge from the same place.
Together their meaning is vague,
vague upon vague,
and the gateway to all wonders.”
I believe that this passage accurately reflects the tension between truths which may be treated as intrinsically related to meaning values and truths which may be fundamentally observed as qualitative. Neither is more true than the other, although it can be argued that qualitative values may be easier to observe than meaning values, they are equally apt to change, especially as we expand our understanding of those values. Meaning values attempt to help us give context to material values and as such serve as a means by which to navigate reality in such a way that we are able to differentiate good from bad. The mere existence of facts does not presuppose truth and the mere existence of meaning does not presuppose truth. Truth is predicated upon both fact and meaning in order to express itself in a way that we can understand. Both fact truth and meaning truth exist as part of the foundation of the complex system of the fabric of our experienced reality and try to help us illustrate the nature of the truth of that reality which is intrinsic and mysterious to us.
Link to the debate below: