What is true?

What follows is an attempt to contextualize the mutual impasse between Harris and Peterson in their podcast, “What is true?”  It is proposed here that at issue in the impasse is not the question of truth as a property of propositions or statements, i.e. the epistemological/metaphysical question of what makes a proposition true, as illustrated by the smallpox lab example on which Harris relies but Peterson rejects.  Rather, the underlying issue is the relative placement of two kinds of truth claims, the moral and the scientific, with respect to one another—truth claims that may or may not share a common basis.  As a provisional move to make this underlying issue clearer, the implicit assumptions driving the impasse are granted.  First, Harris’ moral science is assumed true.  That is, it is presumed that a scientific moral truth is possible because an “ought,” a moral precept, follows from an “is,” a true scientific statement about the world.  Second, Peterson’s denial that the truth of a moral claim depends on a factual claim is also granted.  That is, it is assumed that there is a sense in which a moral truth can be posed that does not depend on a factual claim.  As far as this author can tell, granting both positions only emphasizes the underlying issue of whether or not scientifically true claims and moral truth claims share a common basis, and to be more specific, whether or not that common basis is ultimately governed by the pressures of natural selection.  To make this mutual interplay between moral truth, scientific truth and natural selection clearer, a simple thought experiment is analyzed in terms of both premises as granted here.  At the end the (proposed) underlying issue is raised, namely:  what might the limitations of a scientific morality be if founded on factual claims about a human architecture honed by natural selection, and how are we to understand moral imperatives not so founded as contextualizing these otherwise scientific claims?

To start, imagine a small band of early humans eking out a living on the Savannah.  Resources are scarce; life is hard; but several million years of natural selection has honed cognitive skills, physical capacity and emotional biases well suited to survival.   The have an evolved architecture suited to their niche, so the band thrives—not perhaps as successfully as its potential suggests it could, but well enough that births and deaths are in balance to insure a growing population where occasional members splinter off and join smaller bands, etc.  Assume as well that a social structure fitted to surviving in this niche has also evolved in conjunction with the cognitive, physical and emotional capacities.  Assume finally that this social structure is dominantly patriarchal: men are given preferential treatment when it comes to status and resource distribution because it so happens that male traits are most suited to insuring survival of the band.  They are physically stronger, more adept at cooperative organization among tasks, and their emotional biases and cognitive mechanisms are well suited to augmenting these skills in the successful gathering of the resources which the band needs to survive.  These stipulations are purely hypothetical but are grounded in some prejudices for a specific reason that will become clear later.

Several observations can be made about this group.  First, in a metaphorical sense, the suitability of their traits for survival in this ecological niche can be said to be a ‘true’ gearing into the possibilities afforded by their environment.  Let us assume that they have a rough but adequate way of conceptualizing this fit; they are able to articulate among themselves basic reasons for why the use of their skills enables successful survival.  Let us call this their scientific truth: it is the truth of “what is” about their environment, themselves, and the ecological setting in which they thrive.  Second, from this scientific truth about existence follows certain stipulations of what ought to be done—“ought” here referring mainly to moral concepts specific to fairness, distribution, and justice within the band.  As stipulated already, men have traits and skills differentially more suited to survival of the band than women do.  Chance among natural selection has made them stronger and able to better organize in small hierarchical groups in the performance of hunting, etc.  From these facts, then, follow certain moral precepts favoring men, in so far as survival of the group is the end-in-view—that is, in so far as the group is only concerned with its continued prosperity.  Men ought to be given preferential treatment when resources are scarce, for instance, because strong men are more required to secure even those scarce resources on which the band depends, and so forth.  The details are not important; all that matters is that from the scientific truth this band knows follows quite naturally a moral and social order fitted to the reality of group survival.  Like with their evolved traits, this moral and social order is adaptive.

What Peterson is pointing out, I think, is that in a context like this—where survival is the imperative of existence, and certain norms follow from the needs of survival—“truth” as related to this adaptive fitting is incomplete, and it is incomplete because as humans we want more than to just survive: we posit values beyond mere getting by and instead look to a higher sense of flourishing for everyone.  Assume this band does that.  That is, assume this looking toward broader flourishing creates, in effect, a new end-in-view for the band.  Instead of merely getting by well enough for reproduction to outweigh deaths, the band can, if it so choses, set a different end-in-view, one guiding not simply this steady state of adaptive survival, but one guiding a more equitable thriving for all members.  They can, as it were, say that men and women should be equal.   They can propose a new moral order that defies the existing moral order based in science.  From this proposal arises a new conflict in two respects.

In one respect, the scientific truth of the group leads to a regime of moral truth, in this case certain moral and social precepts favor men because these precepts (“oughts”) follow from the facts that men are differentially more necessary to survival of the band than women; thus they get preferable treatment when resources are scarce.  In this sense, “what is” leads to an “ought,” and the way things are in the moral and social order reflects the way things ought to be in that order:  the oughts match what is; they are adaptively suited for survival.  In another respect, however, with this new end-in-view, a new moral order is conceived, and this conception is in conflict with the moral order that currently exists, a moral order that is justified by the ends of survival.  This new moral order does not follow from the “ought” specific to adaptive survival.  In a real sense, this moral order belongs to a different order of ‘truth’ than the kind of moral ‘truths’ that follow from the scientific ‘truths’ of the band.  This ought does not follow from what is; this ought is not naturally justified by the end of survival because in fact it posits a new end, one that necessarily includes survival but that extends mere survival to human flourishing for everyone equally.  Peterson seems to be asking: what is the basis of this new moral order?  If one moral order follows from what is—if it is in fact adaptive because it matches the realities of the capacities and opportunities in existence—on what basis does one justify this new moral order?  How does one say this new moral knowledge is preferable?  How can it even be knowledge?  In other words, since this moral order conflicts with the justified one in place, in what sense can the new moral precept be ‘true’?

To emphasize the terms of this conflict, recall that ‘true’ in the sense of gearing into the possibilities afforded by the environment is basically how the band conceptualizes its scientific knowledge. True for them is what promotes survival (in our terms, one can simply say that their theories work because they are true, and they understand this truth because their theories work so well).  Now as applied to the existing moral theory, that theory is true in the same sense: it promotes a social order that in turn promotes band survival, and it is because of these determinable effects that the band knows its truth.  In other words, the moral order is true because as developed, it is fitted to the facts of existence, and as fitted, in both a literal and metaphysical sense it too is adaptive for survival.   In this common adaptive function, then, the basis of truth in science and morals is essentially the same: both are true in the sense of being fitted to the facts of reality, both are adaptive under natural selection, and what’s more, both reflexively reinforce each other—“reflexively reinforce” in the sense that the moral order is derived from science, insuring its truth, and the truth of the moral order in turn reflects back on the scientific order, giving it its meaning.  In this mutual reflection of derivation and reinforcement, the circle of truth between science and morals can be seen as complete.  Scientific truth grounds moral truth, making the facts of the existing moral order scientifically sound, even as those moral facts contextualize in a meaningful way the scientific truths grounding them.

What Peterson seems to be objecting to is that there seems to be no scientific way to break into this circle and insert, in scientific terms, a new moral truth.  As long as one assumes that scientific truth is the sole criterion of truth—and recall, this assumption has worked for the band for generations principally because it is true in an adaptive sense—there is simply no way to bring about justified change on new moral grounds.   As long as the justification of moral truth remains scientific, the moral order will simply remain what it is—or perhaps more precisely, remain what is discoverable about the realities of natural existence.  In other words, as long as moral truths are derived from “what is the case,” there is no basis for inserting a new sense of what ought to be the case, if that new precept is seen to violate “what is the case”—as it surely would, ungrounded in current science as it would be.   Peterson seems to be saying that without a separate ground of moral truth, there is simply no basis to propose, enforce, and justify new moral truth that at least at first proposal might violate currently scientifically derived moral truth, and in fact, once implemented, might indeed be inconsistent with what science can determine—to wit, it might lead to consequences known to be non-adaptive to survival, and in this sense it would not be a true moral theory because consequences prove it simply doesn’t work.  It’s not critical here do dive into the metaphysics of a pragmatic criterion of truth.  It should be enough to point out that consistent with scientific standards, the new non-adaptive moral precept could be said to be untrue in so far as its proven consequences demonstrate that it is not fitted to the facts of our evolved cognitive, physical and emotional architecture.   In short, it does not follow from what is the case, as science determines that to be.

So to reiterate, under Harris’s account, scientific truth determines what is the case, and what ought to be the case is derived from whatever is the case.  In a reflective way, then, scientific truth determines moral truth, even as moral truth is intrinsically scientific.  For our band, where survival is the only imposition imposed by natural selection,  both scientific and moral truth is known because of its adaptive consequences.  As proposed their stipulations may always be tentative, but in practice scientific and moral truths (being one in the same) are proven as true because they wouldn’t work so well were they not already fitted to reality.  Harris, as the philosopher of the band, might articulate this philosophy, and this philosophy works.  It has helped the band prosper for millennia.

Now imagine a chap like Peterson arises in the band.  He thinks the end-in-view for the group shouldn’t just be survival (the end naturally imposed by natural selection, the only one they are currently aware of, and for which they strive): it should, he suggests, be equal flourishing between men and women.  In other words, instead of the dominant patriarchy that is justified in terms of its adaptive function, he wants a moral order justified in terms of a new end-in-view—equal flourishing.  He wants to redefine prosperity toward non-evolutionary ends—ends “non-evolutionary” in the sense that there is no reason to believe that nature made the sexes equal, and in fact, it is clear that natural selection has made them unequal.   In a sense, then, this non-evolutionary end is a “higher” truth.  It is higher in the sense that it does require the existing truth of adaptive survival (what group can flourish equally if it is not at least surviving?), but it adds something new, something beyond mere adaptive survival.  It adds the moral truth of equality.  I think what Peterson is trying to say is that if you ground moral truth on scientific truth—a powerful grounding given its concordance with the way the worlds really is (recall, it’s worked so well for the band)—then there is no room to justify new moral truth.  In other words, if science determines what is and what ought to be the case based on its conception of truth, then how does one truly justify a moral precept that does not fit into the scheme of adaptive survival, the only scheme our hypothetical band knows, and the one that in fact has structured their reality?  The question has a force equal to the force of the justification of the existing moral order.  For recall again: this moral order is grounded scientifically in ‘what is the case.’  It is a fact that men are more necessary to the survival of the band.  It is therefore a fact that their survival in times of scarcity should be paramount, otherwise the band as such will simply cease to survive.  Science has determined a moral order justified by the realities of existence, so anyone challenging that moral order with a new moral precept is going to be hard pressed to do so on scientific grounds.  For how is he going to show that this moral precept of equality is as reliable for survival when in fact it appears not to be, given the best scientific theories and scientific morality of the band?  On what basis will he say men and women ought to be equal when all evidence says they ought not to be?  How will he bring about justified moral change if the truth of moral precepts goes against the truth of existing scientific precepts?  The very fact of moral progress seems to require that some grounds other than scientific determinations of “what is the case” serve as a foundation for moral truth.

Now it could immediately be pointed out that the band’s scientific knowledge might be incomplete, that in fact equality between the sexes is more adaptive to survival because women have traits that could be but haven’t been exploited yet because of incomplete – or even inaccurate—scientific knowledge.  And this is certainly true; it may be the case.  But instead of solving the dilemma Peterson seems to be invoking, it only strengthens it.   For raising scientific uncertainty opens the door to the possibility of a new scientific footing for new moral truth, even as it also opens it to the possibility that the new moral truth may be scientifically unfounded.  In other words, given the forces of natural selection, there is no reason a priori to assume that better scientific knowledge will reveal that men and women in the band are in fact equal in any sense adaptive to survival, one that serves as well as, much less better, than the inequality currently in place.  To see why this is so, one need only compare the relative performance of male and female athletes in today’s sports.  In fact, men outperform women in all swimming, running, and track and field events, and no amount of scientific understanding is going to change that fact.  All that is stipulated here is that with sports, so perhaps with survival and natural selection.  There could in fact be inequalities, or limits, or what not definitively known to be the case— facts shaped by natural selection—and these facts would lead, under the Harris’ philosophy for the band—to adaptive, natural moral truths not in accord with the ends we might prefer.  In fact, Title 9 was created to achieve just such a moral end in college athletics, one that overrides the obvious biological differences between male and female athletes, should the standards of competitive performance be used as a basis for moral precepts.  All that is asserted here with this loose analogy is that it is entirely possible, even likely, that the “oughts” following from “what is the case” given the pressures of natural selection may in fact collide with valid moral precepts, just as the biological facts of male and female athletic performance collide with the moral precept of equality between the sexes.  There is simply no reason to think that moral precepts evolve in sync with natural selection when selection’s only pressure is differential survival through adaptation.  This raises the important question as to the basis of these precepts.  Are they real, and if so, on what basis are they real?

To sum this up so far, and to tie it in to the impasse in the podcast, it seems that Harris and Peterson are talking past each other because the underlying problem has not been specified correctly, and it has not been specified correctly because they are talking about truth in two different ways, but only using one application as an example.  In other words, their impasse hinges on the question “what is truth?” and in fact as posed here, the question “what is truth?” is really about asking: how are we going to accommodate both moral and scientific truth together in a non-epistemological sense.  In other words, what makes a statement true as a proposition is not in question so much as what do the respective truths mean for human existence, once we realize our human architecture is in fact crafted by natural selection only with respect to our survival, not with respect to the ‘higher’ truths and ends we seek.   In this thought experiment, these two senses of “truth” (moral and scientific) seem to be in conflict.  In a very real sense, the moral inequality of men and women in the band is grounded scientifically.  In a very real sense, what is true, both morally and scientifically, says men and women should be unequal.  The question thus arises in full force: should this continue to be the case, and if we want to believe in moral progress according to moral truth, can we say then that scientific truth guides moral truth, as Harris is saying, or that moral truth guides our scientific application—that it guides scientific truth—as Peterson is saying?  Does the way we think the world ‘ought to be’ contextualize our understanding of the way the world is?  Should it, if we want to call ourselves a moral people in a higher sense than ‘moral’ simply in in the sense of insuring survival?  Recurring to the possibility that a moral entrepreneur like Peterson arises in a society governed by Harris’ scientifically determined moral truth, what if a scientifically determined morality leads to precepts that defy the moral intuitions of some members of the band?  If Harris is right in his assessment of scientific and moral truth, what are we to do if “what is the case” naturally leads to moral precepts that in another sense of ‘true’ we want to call immoral—in other words, what if in fact a certain moral regime gives us our most probable chances for survival, but it diminishes us in ways we don’t want to accept?  This issue can be even more clearly specified, ironically enough, by examining it in more abstract terms.

Returning to our hypothetical band, it may well be that equality between men and women will in fact turn out to better the chances of survival.  It may well be that this advance in moral knowledge will in fact lead to better adaptive survival.  But as humans we must remember that our cognitive, physical, and moral architectures have been honed by natural selection without only survival as its organizing theme.  From this it follows that what is most suited to our continued survival as a species may in fact turn out to be morally unpalatable to us now—that moral knowledge outpaces scientific knowledge if scientific knowledge is the basis for moral precepts, moral precepts being thus founded on an architecture honed by natural selection.  In other words, there is no basis a priori for thinking that what is morally desirable achieves what is necessary to survive; therefore the moral precepts currently following from our actual cognitive architecture may in practice lead to precepts considered immoral under another scheme.  I think Peterson is simply saying that if we want to see ourselves as a moral species, we may end up having to look beyond the relatively fixed ends given to us by natural selection, and in that sense moral truth “contextualizes” or “trumps” scientific truth, including the truth of scientific morality.

If this is what Peterson is driving at, it raises an interesting theoretical question: given that our human architecture is fitted by natural selection, how can we even propose ends not limited to survival?  In other words, how can we even focus on ends-in-view that may be disadvantageous to survival, not just on a case by case basis, but in a systematic way, if we are in fact a natural species?  Other animals don’t do this.  They clearly make individual decisions detrimental to their survival, but they don’t posit ends-in-view the pursuit of which stand to systematically reduce survival chances (they don’t make nuclear weapons, for instance; they don’t manufacture diseases).  In short, if we are a natural species, as we are, and if our architecture has been shaped by natural selection with survival in view, as it has been, then how can we even fix for ourselves ends detached from survival concerns, ends not limited to the serviceability for survival?  No other species does this; how do we?

No answer to this question is proposed here.  Instead, it is simply asserted as a fact: our human architecture is such that unlike any other natural species, we can fixate on ends-in-view not directly shaped by natural selection, and we can in fact construct our own niches functional for survival on both selection-pressured ends (survival) and ends divorced from any adaptively fixed survival needs (moral ends, aesthetic ends, etc.).  To be sure, the capacity to do this is a product of natural selection.  The feature surely evolved, and since it proved adaptive, it is minimally functional for survival.  And equally for sure, however this capacity is exploited in the larger context of human existence, it will carry remnants and traces and nuances of its origins in the necessities of natural selection.   But it may simply be an irreducible fact of the evolution of complex systems that natural selection can yield an organism capable of detaching itself from direct selection pressures by constructing an ecological, social, and moral niche, one that in effect ‘domesticates’ the species, thus allowing the selection of non-survival ends to come into view.  In any case, these metaphysical issues are set aside, and it is simply asserted here as a fact: human beings do in fact construct an ecological, moral and social niche beyond the adaptive needs of mere survival, and this fact has consequences for the issue raised in the Harris-Peterson podcast.

Specifically, as a result of this capacity for niche construction, we must figure out for ourselves how scientific truth and moral truth are to get along.  That is, we must prepare ourselves for the possibility that what natural selection has given us—our current cognitive, physical and emotional architecture—may lead to moral precepts inconsistent with the moral ends in view made possible because of our own self-domestication in niche construction.  The metaphor of domestication is apt here because “domestication” is precisely what permits traits to be selected for against natural selection.  It stands to reason, then, that in so far as human society takes care of its survival needs through constructing its own ecological, moral and social niche, ends detached from mere survival needs will come into view as ends capable of being pursued without incurring any direct survival cost.  In other words, just as domesticated animals can be selectively bred for traits like sociability, or long coats, or any other trait that in nature would incur an insurmountable survival cost, so humans can select for themselves ‘traits’ for development that in a strictly natural setting—one under natural selection pressures—could never be selectively developed because of their negative survival cost.  With this in mind, the imperative of the question between Harris and Peterson arises.  For if ‘the way we are’ is shaped by natural selection, and if our moral precepts are derived from ‘the way we are,’ it stands to reason that most, if not all, of our moral precepts will be shaped by natural selection as well.  But if our survival needs are secured, then the opportunity for selectively emphasizing components of our moral architecture in ways not possible under strict survival arises.  We can, as it were, domesticate our moral precepts to favor rules and customs and institutions that promote flourishing guided by ends higher than mere survival.  Recurring to our hypothetical band: if survival needs are met, then equality between the sexes can in fact promote a kind of desirable human flourishing because, despite being ‘unnatural” and unfounded scientifically in ‘what is the case as provided by natural selection,’ equality between the sexes remains morally preferable.   Moral knowledge independent of scientific morality would therefore shape how human beings should live together.  In other words, given our self-domestication, we can’t simply say the moral order following from our natural dispositions, as disclosed by a science of morality, is suited to our ultimate moral ends because those ends come into view precisely because the selection pressures that made those scientific moral precepts so persuasive have been removed; therefore as a moral standard they no longer strictly apply.  In effect moral selection pressures can be thought to have replaced natural selection pressures, and there seems to be nothing in the science of moral theory—under Peterson’s understanding of Harris, and perhaps under Harris’s conception itself—that would anticipate this self-selection by moral ends—rooted, as scientific morality seems to be, in the truth of natural selection.

As posed here, this I think sharpens the issue between Peterson and Harris in their recent podcast.  So far their disagreement seems to have centered on the epistemological status of knowledge claims—that is, can a given claim be true in a scientific sense if the moral context for that truth changes; hence the small pox lab example that Harris uses and Peterson rejects.  Instead of focusing on that epistemological aspect of a given propositional truth claim, the points here turn the focus to the relative placement of morally true and scientifically true statements with respect to one another.  In other words, in their current disagreement they seem to be a talking past one another over the epistemic status of any given truth claim, when in fact the real difference is on whether or not the basis for a true moral claim is the same as the basis for a true scientific claim.  As brought out in this example, the basis for a scientific moral truth claim would be the facts of the human architecture as shaped by natural selection.  From these facts follow certain moral precepts: as Harris wants to say, certain “oughts” do in fact follow from what “is.”  What Peterson wants to say is that so long as the basis of a scientific truth claim about morality is based on a scientific understanding of our naturally selected moral dispositions, that basis is inadequate for our truly moral claims because the truth of those more genuine moral claims is based first on what ought to be the case, not what is the case.  Recurring to our hypothetical band, the moral truth of equality is not based on ‘what is the case,’ even as the moral truth of inequality is.  Peterson wants to say, contra what he thinks Harris wants to say: if we are going to have a truly moral life outside the arena provided by natural selection, moral truth “contextualizes” this scientific truth.  It must take precedence.  In our hypothetical band, the moral truth of equality is paramount over the scientifically moral truth of inequality, giving it its proper context for evaluation, even though the former is based on scientific grounds and the latter is not.

This analysis, perhaps not held by either party, makes sense of their disagreement, and it suggests an avenue for further discussion, namely: is this so?  Is a science of morality limited to determining what ought to be the case based on our evolved human architecture (“what is the case”), or can human values be determined in a scientific means not yet thought of?  Is science more a methodological commitment to a type of verification than a body of truths specific to a subject matter, and if this is so, is a scientific method for morality—one not tethered to truth claims about out de facto evolved moral architecture—possible?  And so forth…. I for one would like to see their next discussion turn this way, since selfishly I have those very questions.  Can science determine the truth of human values, or does it merely give us a means for assessing the realization of morally true values in a given society, values determined true on independent (as yet to be determined) grounds?

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