The Most Important Question
Fact and Meaning
A year ago, the intellectual giants Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson got together on Sam’s podcast to talk about the relationship between fact and morality, and ended up arguing for two hours about the definition of the word “truth.” Sam argued for what Jordan called Newtonian truth, which is the set of beliefs that most closely resemble fact, while Jordan argued for what he called Darwinian truth, which is the set of beliefs that lead to the survival and flourishing of humankind. Though they parted on a friendly note, they left with the frustration of talking in circles without end, and their audience felt the same.
|From the promotional poster for their Vancouver event this coming June.|
Although I side with Sam over this disagreement of definition, the question begs to be asked, what went wrong between them? How can two men with IQs so far through the roof that you couldn’t see them with binoculars disagree so stubbornly about the mere definition of a single word? I suspect it was not about the word at all, but something deeper and more profound than either of them realized. It surrounds a single question so basic and monumental that the entirety of human existence revolves around it.
For most of my life, I thought the most important question was, “What is true?” After all, it seemed like the quest to understand the universe and how we have come to wake up in it was the highest, most noble goal of being alive. If someone was factually incorrect, it seemed my duty to drum up a logical argument and correct them for Truth’s sake. As recently as August of last year, I wrote a blog post titled “Truth,” in which I treated Truth with a capital T as if it were a god. But being skeptical in nature, I came to doubt that putting Truth at the center of my existence was, in fact, objectively correct. To my great surprise, I discovered that there is another, more fundamental, more profound question than what is true.
One of the observations that led me to this conclusion is that not all truth is equal. For instance, it never does you any good to know exactly how many atoms are in the paint on a particular stop sign. It is obvious that this type of fact is pointless, but I needed to know why. What makes some truths worth knowing, and others a waste of time?
We are here, existing with corporeal bodies on Planet Earth. We have internal drives that cause us to do things, but we also have a strange feature called a will, which lets us choose actions and courses that deviate from the path of least resistance. We can do things that are easy, or things that are hard. We can reach for pleasure or satisfaction, or to meet the needs and desires of others. We can set out to punish wrong, or to forgive. Thus, after the observation of self-existence, the very first question, which guides our lives from beginning to end, and which must be asked anew every waking moment, is “What should we do?”
In answering this, we find a momentary purpose. Some people go out and act on this purpose immediately, but those who are wise look open-mindedly for relevant facts, using the purpose as a guide. For the most part, the better informed we are about the facts relating to our purpose, the better we can fulfill this purpose. It may be that during our pursuit of relevant knowledge, we discover something that makes us reevaluate our purpose, and this new purpose may send us looking for other information, and the cycle continues. We might say that this is the course of intellectual maturity. Looking at this cycle, it is easy to see how one might get these questions, “What is True?” and “What should we do?” mixed up in their order of importance. It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario. Which came first? It’s hard to tell.
But it can be resolved by considering an asymmetry between the questions’ results. It is possible to have great and meaningful purpose while being completely wrong about the facts. Just compare people from different religions, who believe different sets of facts that contradict each other, but who have equally purposeful lives. On the flip side, however, things are different. It is completely possible to have deep and thorough knowledge about many things, problems that need solving, injustices that need correcting, and also have a clear understanding of the boundaries of one’s knowledge, and yet do nothing at all. While logically these amount to A and not B, and B and not A, there is no question that from a human perspective there is a world of difference between the two. It is infinitely more fulfilling to be with purpose than with knowledge, and fulfillment is what we spend every bit of energy striving toward.
I think the core of the argument between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson, the disagreement between the lines, is to what degree one must ground themselves in factual reality in order to have a maximally positive purpose-driven life. Sam’s position is that it is essential to have the facts straight, and the more factually correct you are, the nobler a purpose you find, and the better you will be able to successfully live it out. Jordan is more interested in what to do when the facts are beyond one’s reach or comprehension, or when doubting one’s current knowledge might lead to a loss of purpose. Both men have important things to say, and are well worth a respectful listen.