Some thoughts on Jordan Peterson’s discussion with Stephen Hicks on Post Modernism

JBP Post Modernism – History and diagnosis

Video of discussion between Jordan and Stephen Hicks concerning Hicks’ book “Explaining Post Modernism”

22:40 SH “Our having legitimate cognitive processes to understand the world, that is exactly what we are arguing about in the first place.” That supposition does not seem to be challengable. If we do not have such a thing, then there can be no basis for communication or argument. The basis of language is communication about something.
Sure, that something may be our personal, imperfect, subconsciously generated, model of reality, rather than reality itself, and as such subject to all manner of social influences, errors and uncertainties; and unless one has at least that as a minimum, no communication is possible.

Acknowledging that our models and our understandings are subject to many different sorts of errors and limits of accuracy, is not at all the same thing as saying that all models have identical utility or accuracy (these are two very different and very important aspects).

22:58 “They will say that there is a circular reasoning problem that evolutionary epistemology finds itself trapped in.”
In a sense, yes.
And in the same sense, all forms of epistemology are subject to exactly the same sort of circularity.
Evolutionary epistemology at least has evidence to back it up, which none of the others do.
And evolutionary epistemology is extremely complex, with many levels of very complex systems.
Simple explanations always miss important aspects, and all explanations are essentially incomplete in important yet subtle aspects. It really does seem to be that complex.

47:22 SH “Enlightenment humanism, where we are going to take power seriously, but we are going to constrain power in a way that respects the individual and simultaneously enables individuals to form mutually beneficial social networks across time and so on.”

49:57 JBP “We shouldn’t fall prey to the illusion that there is necessarily any unifying matrix that makes all those different forms of power importantly similar except for the terminology.” … “A proclivity to collapse all these different modes of power into power itself. That’s not reasonable, because it is reasonable to note that many of the forms of power that you just described contend against one another rather than mutually fortifying one another.”
[Pumping the oscillator.]

51:01 SH “If you think by contrast, about the individual human rights respecting enlightenment vision that you are articulating and that I agree with as well, normatively that wants to devolve social power to the individual, and leave individuals with a great deal of self responsibility and control over their own domain.”

51;50 JBP “It also means, and this is where I think the post modernists are open to you might say conceptual assault, is that in order to have that freedom devolve upon the individual in that manner, the individual has to take responsibility for acting as a locus of power in the world. Actual responsibility, and cannot conceive of themselves or act in a manner that only makes them an avatar of a social movement.”

SH “Far left and right conceive as the individual as a vehicle through which social forces flow.”

54:20 SH “The individualism that is built into enlightenment humanism, we start to see it developing in Renaissance humanism, is to take seriously the notion that individuals have some significant measure of control over their thoughts, over their actions, the shape of their own character, the shape of their own destiny, and that is fundamental to one’s moral dignity as a human being. That view of human nature built into the ethics fundamentally, then all social relationships, have to be respectful of that individuality, and the consequently, when we start to turn to political theory, and we start to talk about very heavy duty uses of power such as the police and the military, then we want to have serious constraints on government power to make sure that we are respecting individual sovereignty.”

59:30 JBP “There is a performative contradiction. ….”

1:00:38 SH “So then we have a tension between what our intellectual theories are telling us, and what our empirical data is telling us. We don’t yet have a way to put those two together.”

That last statement is one I fundamentally disagree with.
We have evolutionary theory, which can account for the selection of systems that survive in different sorts of contexts – leading to all the diversity of life we see.
That same mechanism, in the realm of culture and human behaviour, seems to have selected the very complex sets of behaviours we call culture, language, and intellectual knowledge.
In software we have the possibility of declarative statements instantiating new entities, which is what we each seem to do to ourselves in the way we use language and declarative judgement to instantiate levels of higher awareness within ourselves.
We have Quantum mechanics telling us that at the scale of the very small things that are collected in vast collections to make us possible, that all is uncertain beyond Planck limits; that uncertainty seems to be a fundamental element of the fabric of being.
We have Wolfram and Turing and von Neuman and others exploring computational and strategic and complexity spaces that seems to be telling us that even very simple and fully deterministic systems can be beyond prediction (without allowing at all for quantum effects). Then we have the realms of probabilistic systems and chaos.

So it seems very clear to me that our empirical data and the theoretical frameworks referred to above are saying that we are very complex entities, with many aspects that will be forever beyond our full conscious awareness, and that at higher levels we can exert conscious influence on who we get to be, and what we do in the world, and that such choices matter.
It is the ability to choose, which embodies the ability to question (anything and everything), and to be responsibile for the consequences of those choices, in an eternal dance of influences across many domains simultaneously, that seems to be this experience of being human.

Nothing can be beyond question in such profound uncertainty.
And some things can be known with great operational confidence – like the need to hold individual sapient life and the liberty of all such individuals, as our highest values – and that liberty demands of each and every one of us responsibility in both social and ecological contexts.
These things seem to be required if we wish survival as an outcome. There are far more ways not to exist than to continue to exist (it seems to be a far larger infinity).
And David Snowden’s Cynefin Framework for the management of complexity is a very powerful simple framework that gives some useful ideas of how to respond to the profoundly different levels of complexity that seem (beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt) to exist in reality.

Morality matters.

Choices matter.

We matter.

Our freedom and our responsibility to act in reality matter!

Developing social structures and systems that both empower and enable individuals must be our highest priority.

It is not a matter of individuals or society.
It is a matter of individuals in society.
We are biological and social entities – entities of both matter and language.

We require both biology and social interaction.

We must exhibit responsibility in both ecological and social contexts.

We are profoundly complex in ways that very few have any real idea of, and my 50 years of interest in life, evolution, systems, computers, programming, cosmology, etc has given me some faint glimmer of an understanding of (a very broad brush stroke sketch, nothing more).

We need to honour our past and our present, and be open to profound change in our future.
And that does not mean that all things are equally valid.
Extinctions happen.
Reality does have very real rules and limits, even if they are defined in probability statements.
Peril is very real beyond certain limits.
Freedom must be valued, and it must be understood in the contexts of the physical, ecological and social limits that are currently in existence.

Avoiding the twin tyrannies (majority and minority) is not easy.
It requires responsible action from each and every one of us.
Responsibility in how we treat the environment, in what we release into it, in how we influence the biological systems we are so dependent upon, but few today have any real understanding of the profound connections and relationships present.
Responsibility in how we treat each other, in the need to provide everyone with a high minimum standard, and not ignore the problems that others face.

I have a personal desire to live a very long time (billions of years).
That has been a real possibility for me (if improbable) for over 42 years, since completing undergrad biochemistry studies and being confident beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt that indefinite life is the default cellular condition, and that the age related senescence we see in organisms like ourselves is an added layer of genetic control.
That means that with sufficient knowledge, control and life extension must be possible.

The real trick is all the other risk factors that are not cellular in origin.
Identifying and mitigating all other forms of existential risk has been the major focus of my life for the past 42 years.

The sort of “either or”, rather than “both and”, thinking embodied in this conversation are one of the very real sets of existential risk present; in terms of the intolerance generated by such thinking.

1:01:07 SH speaking of Enlightenment view “The big three: truth ideals and power”

1:03:28 SH “Power in then structured as a means to an end. And we want to empower people cognitively, teach them how to read, teach them how to think, so that they themselves can understand the truth and discover new truth. So Power leads to Truth.”

The idea of teaching people how to think can be a dangerous one if taken too far. We all use many different modes of thought normally.
What is powerful is teaching people about those different modes of thought, about the sorts of contexts that different modes are usually best used in, and the sorts of dangers one faces and benefits one can gain by using different combinations in different contexts. And beyond that, the modes of thought one actually uses must be a matter of personal choice.

1:05:55 SH “We don’t believe that human beings are capable of getting any sort of objective truth.”

That view I challenge.
I certainly dismiss the notion of absolute truth, and I dismiss it in several different senses.
I dismiss it as a simplistic approximation to something – useful in certain contexts but prone to failure if pushed too far.
In that sense, QM seems to be telling us that there are very real limits to degree to which the universe is knowable. It seems to be knowable only in the probabilistic sense, but since the smallest thing we can see with our unaided eyes contains many trillions of fundamental particles, they behave in very predictable fashions.
So the classical idea of Truth seems to have been falsified, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt.
What we are left with is something much more powerful and useful, an idea of context sensitive dependability, and context sensitive creativity and freedom.

The sort of objective truth I have is one based in probability, where evidence sets and paradigms of interpretation contain uncertainties, and uncertainties are required in all things, yet in some things those uncertainties are so small as to be ignored in practical life – yet in intellectual life one must always be conscious of them.

If you think about it for just a very short time – even quite basic geometry points to such unknowability.
The ratio of the diameter to the circumference of a circle (Pi) is an irrational number. It cannot be known with certainty, only approximated to some useful degree.
If that doesn’t tell you something fundamental about the idea of Truth, then you really haven’t thought about it enough.

For someone like myself, with 50 years of interest in the biochemistry of life, in the structure and function of brains, in the concepts of information and algorithm and strategy, and the domain spaces resulting from the intersection of all the things I have investigated and contemplated; the idea of objective knowledge I have is based in uncertainties on dozens of different levels – yet because of that, it has a confidence in some areas that is a very close approximation to unity, while in other areas there remain profound unknowns and unknowables.

This seems to be the only sort of objective knowledge that reality has on offer, so we might as well accept it, and get on with life.
And that process of life, demands of us respect for the realities of existence.
Far more life forms are extinct than are living.
Reality seems to have its own rules.

We either learn them, or perish.

One of those rules comes out of the combination of evolutionary theory and strategy space, and that is that if we want a reasonable chance of surviving a long time, then we need to respect individual life and liberty, and we need to cooperate for our mutual benefit.

1:06:01 SH “We are just left with Power. And also, on the normative side, we don’t believe in justice anymore. We don’t believe that any sort of normative principle or ethical ideals can be objectively grounded. .. Power in the service of truth, power in the service of justice, that gores away – all we are left with is power.”

I certainly don’t believe that.
I do believe (based on vast evidence sets) that justice can be objectively grounded in survival of complex cooperatives.
I do believe (based on vast evidence sets) that ethics are based in the survival of complex cooperative social structures, and without them those structures will fail in catastrophic ways.

I don’t believe in gods or revelations from god.
I do understand many levels of the power of our brains, our subconscious abilities, and how those must have seemed like revelations, voices of gods, to our ancestors.
Most of the teachings of Jesus, in the ways in which he suggested we relate to each other, seem to me to be clearly supported by our current best understanding of the strategies most likely to deliver individual security and individual liberty, in practice.

But the understanding I have is not common, and has taken me decades to acquire.

1:06:23 SH “So, power in the service of Truth, power in the service of justice, that goes away, and all we are left with is power.”

That is a very simplistic understanding, and to my understanding has been falsified beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt – as outlined above.

1:14:40 JBP “If the objective facts are stacking up against your theory then it is time to mount an attack on objective facts.”

When anyone gets attached to a belief, a truth, a faith, at any level, and they allow that belief to be greater than their respect for individual life or individual liberty, then they become a threat to the rest of us.
To that degree, they must be restrained in a way that mitigates the threat that they pose.

That applies to any belief, capitalist, socialist, religious, objectivist, whatever.
If it cannot tolerate the diversity that must result from freedom; then it is a threat to freedom itself.
In as much as actions resulting from any mode of thought pose a significant direct threat to the life or liberty (responsibly exercised) of anyone else, then we all have a responsibility to restrain such actions to whatever degree we reasonably can.

I make the strong claim that only in such a world, do any of us have any significant probability of living a very long time.
Reality does seem to be that complex, that sometimes the outliers do in fact see something important for the rest of us (even if most of the time they are wrong).

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see www.tedhowardnz.com/money
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