Literally Physical

I’m in the process of watching and listening to the three four recent Sam Harris / Jordan Peterson conversations.

[So far I’ve only watched the odd clipnow watched and annotated below, the whole of Parts 1 and 2. First one and first half of the second are excellent – second one degenerates into spurious assertions too complex to be properly discussed, despite brave efforts of Bret Weinstein.]

[Also, although I’d already captured the links from Peterson and Harris, the prompt to start this thread and actually watching them, was a tweet by Godless Spellchecker that shared one small clip – from late in Part 1 it turns out. I wish I hadn’t. Sadly that is just a religion-bashing-with-zero-attempt-at-understanding sound-bite. The conversation and Harris are much better than that. Utterly unrepresentative clip for a private agenda.]

Anyway, before I do, I’m prompted to post my starting position, as I often do, in order to keep myself honest on any eventual opinion.

Harris I have problems with – as one of the four horsemen, he is one face of “new atheism” that appeals to many of the objectively reductionist  types. Even though I question his credentials for the positions he holds, he is a good writer though, and through his many recent “conversations” what he is missing, with that “scientistic” position when it comes to facts and evidence, is becoming more apparent. Dennett gave up trying to educate him, but eventually they made up and parted friends. Some other recent conversations I saw him as “chastened” by what he didn’t understand, a sure sign that he may be starting to appreciate what that is.

Peterson is controversial – polemical by design – but is nevertheless an interesting thinker. More to the point he sees the value of actual conversation over and above any logical argument content of such dialogue. It’s a feature of the IDW (Intellectual Dark Web) he inhabits in dialogue with other controversial thinkers, when not in the blinding spotlight of publicity (BSP) he clearly also seeks. For me that irony is his point.

Stephen Knight is one of the post-new-atheist on-line personalities with his Godless Spellchecker podcasts of interviews debunking supernatural religious myths – and related cultural evils – as he would see it. Good luck to him I say. Me too. But, like Harris he has the same initial blind spot to his own thinking. Seeing all argument, and even conversational dialogue, in terms of physical evidence for physical facts.

He repeatedly emphasised “literal” in pointing out JBP’s difficulty answering SH’s question about a “physical” resurrection. In fact when challenged he insisted it was obfuscation (by me too) not to accept literal as synonymous with physical.

Quite simply, any talk of “god” and supernatural “miracles” is a branch of philosophy called theology, no matter how much a physical scientist qualifies his question with “literally”. The irony is that literally is literally about words, and the scientistic fallacy is to conflate the word with the object represented. To reify it in the physical world. Anyway, time I watched the Harris / Peterson dialogues. Back soon.

[Post Note after Parts 1 & 2 – why would anyone (Godless Spellchecker) pick up on that one “SH has a go at JBP” snippet from near the end of Part 1? The whole dialogue is EXCELLENT. Very bad faith by Godless Spellchecker.]


Maybe not that soon!
(4 x 2 hours of material?)
Part 1

Excellent. JBP starts with what I call Rappaport’s Rule, after Dennett (JBP refers to psychologist Karl Rogers) … the only way to start progress.

So, JBP on SH – Structuring ethics on something solid – avoiding two catastrophes, religious dogmatism and moral relativism. Yep says SH.

And, objective to minimise suffering / maximise well-being (kinda) Yep. (Classic Utilitarianism, though SH disowns the ism later.)

And yep, dogmatic fundamentalism of any kind, not just religious. (But not all dogmas are created equal? Sure. Cults resemble religion even if not strictly religious or theistic.) THE PROBLEM IS DOGMA – agreement reinforced. [Science is at risk of dogma as any religion.]

Hence primacy of “freedoms of thought and expression” – the antidote to dogma – enshrined in UN. Everything is in the details.

The only thing wrong with religion is dogma – this is not a joke. (Man, SH is setting-up some straw-man, JBP hauls this one back into the dialogue.) Anyway, joke aside, dogma is the problem. True belief has to be more than  cultural or religious heritage. (Chimps example – inherited culture deeper than religion and politics. [Sticklebacks, I’d add, too.])

Good people corrupted by religion – ISIS recruit example? Hmmm. Lot of “ifs” in the elaboration. Unpicked by JBP. Conflated claims of truth and understanding. Non-allegorical unambiguous (bad) content of Quran … sure. Pretext or veracity. Not sure where we’re headed here. Who’s arguing?

SH cracking jokes to score points? Still not sure who’s arguing – 14th century religious values and practice are dismantled by rationality, etc. And obviously old text could be better if written differently – this is the Irish argument. “I wouldn’t start from there.” Fine! [Dreadful partisan audience! Both ways!]

Whole (narrative) vs parts (sentences). However bad the parts, the whole provides context. OT is brutal. Harris is obsessed by “the text” – Christian, Jewish or Islamic. Psychological truths “in the rubble” not in all parts.

Straw-man! End of the book is not excusing the categorically bad.

Psychological truths is JBP’s thrust (unsurprisingly). Infinite interpretation of ANY narrative, including the would-be objectively factual one.

Fundamentalism beats subtle theology – sure – that’s memetics. We agree it’s dangerous. Things need “grounding” even where not cast in dogma.

Back to grounding values in (objective) truth. The old “is to ought” chestnut, without some interpretive framework? Not best captured by stories? No SH. No-one’s saying we lose grip on objective reality, it’s simply saying that’s not the same as moral value.

Abstractions are fictions, powerful and useful. (Why not extend good/bad parables to heaven and hell?) Aha – literal and metaphorical truth, we’ve arrived. (Bogging down, suggests Weinstein.)

No JBP’s not playing devil’s advocate – he agrees with you that hell is bad – he is simply saying that’s not an objective truth. An intuition that is (typically) captured in stories – even hypotheticals written by SH.

Yay! Evolutionary Heuristics! – in lieu of impractical objective calculation – to enable us to function in the world. (Again vague / multiple interpretation loses out to clear literal dogma – in a bad way, sure.) Memetic advantage says SH, as I already said above? Instrumental evolutionary advantage summarises Weinstein.

(The asymmetric memetic war is the real issue – my agenda. We know dogma is the problem, yet we allow simplistic memes to mislead our discourse.)

And we end on Dostoevsky!

Kinda Q&A – Weinstein by popular audience demand.

[?JBP wrote Maps of Meaning before E O Wilson coined consilience?]

[Different belief patterns in different cultural contexts. No self-consistency of belief patterns – Godel & Logical Utilitarianism! TIG Dissertation?]

[SH is now into straw-men – arguing against suggestions of moral relativism, even though they have been explicitly discarded.]

Own it! What game? Don’t understand, me too. Ah, now we’re getting the “literal” reincarnation question. Obvious why there is no clear cut answer. – He doesn’t even literally (physically) believe in god, as he has said several times. Weinstein understands this is a long topic. We’re down to “the word” and “literal” again … it’s complicated, how long have we got [2hrs later].

[The whole dialogue is about metaphysical / theological relations to physical science – absolutely right to hang onto that despite insistence on a physically -literally – phrased question.]

Part 2

Steelmanning (opposite of strawman – ie Rappaport again, see Part 1) Restating position of each as seen by the other, better than the other.

Both pretty good. The POINT of this kind of dialogue. SH gag – “you write my next book, I’ll write yours” – is the key point.

Focus is metaphorical vs “literal” truth. Except they stick to the sacrifice / deferred-gratification angle. The “metaphorical” angle is simply the “as if” behaviour, even where not literally true. Fiction is more useful than fact “sometimes” but relatively few and far between says SH. Emotional – irrational – attachment to gun safety – low-cost / high-risk-consequence. JBP strong on many “fictional” stories derived from – evolved from – empirical experience. Not “invented” a priori. Obviously.

SH position, says Weinstein, Why would anyone NOT unpack the literal truth of these “as if” truths? [This is so much better than “trolleyology”!]

Pascal’s wager – unattributed – by SH.

Rational (“cash”) based approach will always beat a traditional religious based approach. Sure. That’s about allowing reason to question (and change) dogma – but the conservatism has value in resisting stupid and dangerous – less than perfectly informed – new ideas. Where is there anything remotely contentious here? What is stupid is to throw conservative tradition out with the bathwater.

We’ve already agreed literal dogma is the problem. But “facts” need to include subjectivity. Value of a thing is not intrinsic to the assembly of its component parts. Jeez, the hypothetical statement that emotional (subjective) value is in detectable brain states. This just the crazy reductionist problem. Reflected in the brain(s) sure, but not deterministically (objectively reductionist) related. Objectifying the subjective – obviously – that is the problem, presuming only the objectifiable components of the subjective have value. SH getting too dismissive here. This is just a practical vs theoretical argument. In an ideal world we would aim to use the most objective rational resources to make our decisions – but life’s too short to exclude timely available traditional and subjective resources that have not yet been objectified (may never be).

This second half is more adversarial. SH is using spurious strawmen metaphorical arguments – this is falling apart. Pretending to care. No-one really lives their life the 100% rational way. Weinstein spots we have passed through the core here. Can anything sufficiently complicated – the mid-east problem – really be grounded in one person’s (or an impersonal no-personal)  rationality. A blank sheet of paper without the context and history of populations?

Naturalistic fallacy – natural selection isn’t naturally good. Absolutely – just look at memes, where popular = “best” by definition. [Not all evolution – biological and/or cultural – is progress. Coincidentally I’m currently reading JBS Haldane “Possible Worlds” collection and he makes this warning in “Darwin Today” back in the 1920’s. Very enlightening.]

Valuing “all” the variables – no we don’t, we encapsulate many sets of them in handy metaphorical, goods – heuristics – in real time. I agree this is the crux.

Jeez! – more trolleyology – orphaning my child for the life of another. This is not moral philosophy SH! It’s not. Such extreme, binary examples that prove this is NOT how real everyday moral choice works (like Schrodinger’s cat). A though experiment that illustrates the absurdity. SH is just not a credible moral philosopher.

Explanatory reasoning reach – SH get’s this – but it’s not exclusive. Reason (conscious, conceptual cognition) or die. More spurious strawmen – Batman and superheroes. Jeez SH. Good faith has left the building. Back to Weinstein.

Believing in the power of stories without believing what we shouldn’t believe? Sorry SH, you’ve lost your grounding. But intuitions ARE statements of faith – even local / temporary / tentative ones. (Not “dogmatic” faith, sure, we’ve already rejected those.)

SH on real AI now.

Weinstein summation of JBP “Some large fraction of [tradition] must be honoured.” Yep, agreed. (Divided brain … excellent. Good vs evil on a lansdcape of order and chaos.) (Spurious “eastern” noddy argument – sure there is a spectrum of evil and ignorance – who’s arguing. The Whitman brain-tumour defence. These are very complex arguments – SH unsuccessfully argued these with Dennett earlier.)

Good people ruled by bad ideas? – are evil people. People ARE their ideas – a very complex network of them. Back to free-will and “could have done otherwise”?

Universal good and evil – in a “right mind”. Categories don’t exist. We have the whole world on the table now – no chance of new progress.

“Well being” is good and we should ground our values in fact. Who’s arguing? All we’re acknowledging is that we have [useful] values that are NOT (yet, maybe never) grounded causally in such objective fact.

Integrative long-term evolved (subjective) value networks. Tools – rationality – are valued here and now.

Yep, good reasons don’t scale, bad reasons do in fact. Contrary to SH earlier claim. (Every gun is loaded. Valuable if not true.) Basic memetic argument – popular beats good.

I’m done. Not hearing anything new beyond my starting position.

(Need to read JBP’s posts about these dialogues:)

Facts and Values/Science and Religion: Notes on the Sam Harris Discussions (Part I)

[Post Note: Seems a fair summary to be, including the “steelmanning” of SH’s position and responses pretty much aligned with my take above. As I’ve said several times above – who’s arguing?]


Facts from Values? Not without an intermediary: Notes on the Sam Harris Discussions (Part II)

[Post Note: Also seems OK, but this is a deeper comparative review of the two positions beyond the 5 hours of dialogue, based on their two books. Maps of Meaning and The Moral Landscape. Neither of which I’ve read yet. I can’t buy and read books fast enough these days. Gonna have to start using the library(ies) more for research. Anyway, all looks credible, but can’t verify against the book contents.]

On facts, values, rationality and stories: Part III of Response to Harris

[And Part III of JBP’s response is effectively a chapter taken from his “Maps of Meaning” on Stories as the mediation between Facts and Values.]


Also published on Medium.

2 thoughts on “Literally Physical”

  1. Using “literally” metaphorically is no less fraught with ambiguity than taking metaphors literally.

    And while it’s easy to distinguish Theology from Metaphysics , and they are distinct : how do we distinguish “metaphysical” from “supernatural” ?

  2. Sure, I see that. I think here that is a point more subtle and abstract than the basic “physics or nothing” mentality. We need to get the (public) conversation off the first page. (Obviously one avenue is to talk more subtlety about “physics” itself, but it’s a question of where to start. Suggesting even physics isn’t all that physical requires another level of buy in.)

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