Peterson and Brandom on Pragmatism

Lobster Diavolo

After listening to a hilarious send up of conservative contrarian Jordan Peterson and his book Twelve Rules for Life by the Chapo Trap House team, I thought I would check out a debate they reference between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson on the topic of truth. It’s something of a jeu de massacre, with Peterson (who became famous in right-wing circles for spreading moral panic about gender-neutral pronouns) completely out of his depth in trying to defend a pragmatist theory of truth. Much of the two hour long podcast consists of Peterson stammering and inexplicably laughing his way through the exchange, while Harris, smelling blood, repeatedly bashes Peterson over the head with contrived counter-examples.

Peterson sets out to show that he is more “Darwinian” than Harris (whatever that means) by arguing that the truth of a belief or a theory is ultimately determined by its contribution to the survival of the species. Harris has no trouble showing that this definition of truth leads to completely nonsensical consequences. It would mean that something which is inaccurate, mistaken or otherwise fails to correspond to how things are could be “true” insofar as it contributes to our survival (e.g. a mistaken belief might, under certain circumstances, save one’s life). It also means that a belief or theory which is “true” at one time, because it contributes to survival, becomes “not true” for reasons which have nothing to do with its accuracy but only with the use to which the theory is put. For example, knowledge about a virus might be “true” when it helps to cure disease, but “false” when used to produce a biological weapon. But of course, the reason we need scare quotes when talking about truth in this way is that it’s not actually what we mean when we talk about truth.

Peterson’s response to these points is all over the place: sometimes he claims he’s not really committed to his own position; other times he wants to accept the counter-intuitive consequences of the examples; and yet other times he wants to distinguish between Harris’s “localised” examples and broader metaphysical questions. In other words, his position is not even internally consistent. And, as Harris intimates a couple of times, it’s not really a version of pragmatism either.

Pragmatism has a number of variants; the one Peterson’s account seems closest to can be described as instrumental pragmatism. It is the view that the truth of our beliefs can be associated with the success of some practical enterprise. Now success might be associated with survival in certain instances, but more typically it relates to completing some mundane task or satisfying some desire. The pragmatists’ idea is that our beliefs about how things are inform our strategies for achieving our ends, and that the success of these strategies can tell us something about the truth of those beliefs. Note that nothing in this view implies that truth might be independent of how things actually are, contrary to what Peterson seems to think is entailed by pragmatism. An instrumental pragmatist can easily agree with Harris that the extinction of the human race through a nuclear holocaust, for example, does not in any way demonstrate that our theories about nuclear physics are not true in some sense. (It does what it says on the tin!) The pragmatist’s point, rather, is that talk of truth as correspondence with reality ought to be explicable in practical terms, since the only way for us to know that a belief or theory corresponds to reality is by virtue of the success of some action or practical activity associated with those beliefs; whether in the form of an experiment, the satisfaction of a desire, or the achievement of some goal. The fact that Peterson can’t even get this right about the position he purports to be defending is simply further proof to me that he is a complete hack.

Unlike Peterson’s account, then, instrumental pragmatism isn’t obviously wrong. Nevertheless, there are some persuasive objections to instrumental pragmatism. Harris, who portrays himself as something of an expert on pragmatism, was too busy pointing out the absurdity of Peterson’s arguments to take time out to explore this philosophically more interesting subject in the podcast. I would recommend the philosopher Robert Brandom’s discussion in his book Perspectives on Pragmatism, where he lays out a number of objections to the instrumental pragmatist’s account of truth. (Coincidentally Brandom, like Harris, was taught by the pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty.)

The first set of objections have to do with the notion of success. How is success to be understood? If one relies on a notion of how things really are in order to define success, then the pragmatist can’t claim that their practical conception of truth does away with the need for this way of talking. For example, if the success of trying to put a ball through a hoop is simply that the ball really does go through the hoop, then one is relying on a notion of truth as correspondence to reality in order to explain success. However the whole point of explaining truth in terms of success was that it is supposed to explain truth without itself depending on a metaphysical notion like correspondence.

Alternatively, the pragmatist might appeal to subjective states to account for success. For example, the success of scratching an itch might be explained by the disappearance of an itchy feeling. In this case, one does not have to appeal to a correspondence with an external reality in order to determine whether some action is successful. One simply needs to be aware of how one feels, whether one feels satisfied in some way, in order to determine success. And indeed, the satisfaction of desires was a paradigmatic instance of success for the instrumental pragmatists.

The problem with this approach, however, is that these feeling-states are understood by the pragmatist to play a dual role: they are both something which can be immediately known, and they play a role in our practical reasoning about the world in the form of conceptually articulated beliefs. The latter is necessary because the truth of a belief, for the pragmatist, is accounted for by the contribution it makes to the success of some action. It is only insofar as a belief is associated with some pattern of practical reasoning (e.g. “I believe it is raining and I want to stay dry, so I’ll open my umbrella”) that it can be said to contribute to the success or otherwise of an action at all. Now Brandom points out that nothing can play this dual role. That is, nothing can be both immediately known and conceptually articulated in this way. In order to play a role in practical reasoning, a belief has to be able to serve as a reason and so be inferentially related to other beliefs. But this means that it has to be open to interpretation, which is not the case for a feeling which can be known immediately. The mistake of treating something which can be immediately known or simply “given” in experience, with something which can serve as a reason for something else, is what Brandom calls the “myth of the given” (following Wilfred Sellars). In the case of the itch, it is not the itchy-feeling which plays a role in practical reasoning, but some conceptually articulated desire which the deliberate act of scratching the itch is intended to satisfy. The desire to alleviate an itchy-state is something which has to be conceptually articulated and so interpreted. It is not the same thing as the subjective state itself. (Of course, one might scratch an itch as a kind of reflex; but then the issue of belief, and so of truth, doesn’t come into it.)

Finally, the instrumental pragmatist has to be able to isolate the contribution which a belief makes to the success of an action in order to explain its truth. That is, the pragmatist has to be able to say: we know that this belief is true because without it the action which it contributes to wouldn’t have succeeded. The problem is that beliefs cannot be isolated in this way because whether or not they contribute to the success of an action depends on the truth of many other background beliefs. Even in the simple case of opening an umbrella when it starts raining, the truth of my belief that opening my umbrella will keep me dry will only help me to stay dry in the light of other background beliefs which are true, such as the property of rain being wet, that my umbrella doesn’t have holes in it, and so on. Indeed, depending on one’s other background beliefs, a completely mistaken belief might contribute to the success of an action while a true belief might cause it to fail. So the pragmatist really can’t say, of any particular belief, that they know it is true because a resulting action was successful.

Despite these objections, Brandom still thinks there is a great deal to be learned from instrumental pragmatism. He just doesn’t think its value lies in its theory of truth. Indeed, as a pragmatist himself, Brandom builds on the insights of earlier pragmatists such as William James and John Dewey, who advanced versions of instrumental pragmatism. But to pursue this any further would involve doing real philosophy, and we’re already a long way from the intellectual pantomime of Harris’ “Waking Up” podcast.