Science, Human Action, The Search for “Truth”, and Consequences | Part 2: Sam Harris–Jordan Peterson “What Is True?” Podcast Analysis

Thinking on the Potential Dangers of Science Myopia (Photo: Joao Silas at

© 2018, Barry L. Linetsky. All Rights Reserved.

The challenge Sam Harris faced in his discussion with Jordan Peterson on his Waking Up podcast episode 62, in my opinion, is that he couldn’t or wouldn’t comprehend the position Peterson was putting forth because it was outside of his philosophic and scientific paradigm of a materialist/positivist/empiricist worldview. These are premises that in my assessment Peterson understands perfectly well and appears to reject as being insufficiently robust to capture the full spectrum of the subject matter of science. The materialist/positivist world-view is too narrow and exclusionary of the full gamut of real-world events important to, and reflective of, human meaning, human values, human experience, and human action.

It is clear from the discussion that Harris was aggressively, though not inappropriately, trying to force-fit Peterson’s worldview into his own, but couldn’t do so successfully it because his scientific worldview is narrower and more exclusionary about what constitutes the realm of legitimate science and legitimate action in pursuit of knowledge than is Peterson.

Peterson’s worldview, on the other hand, appears to be broader with more scope to account for the scientific worldview put forth by Harris, and more. For Harris, knowledge seems to be exclusive to what can be validated by the process and methods of empirical science, and there is no more. Whatever Peterson regards as more, including motives and meaning, is for Harris outside the realm of science – hidden from the realm of observation – and has no standing in relation to “truth.”

Unfortunately, given Harris’s position on the scope of science, Peterson’s technique of using metaphor, allegory, and examples didn’t cut to the core of the issue they were grappling with.

Peterson loves to tell stories and provide examples to concretize his thoughts, which makes his stories compelling but doesn’t follow a logical, linear, and clear progression of explanation. Harris challenges the usefulness of such stories and examples because they have no bearing on science and no place in the scientific world, and must therefore be off-limits, or at best tangential to the main discussion.

The discussion itself was illustrative of critical issues in epistemology related to answering a question that seems relevant only to academics, but has immense consequences not only for scientists, but for everybody, especially those who engage themselves as entrepreneurs, organizational leaders, and mangers.

In order for individuals to anticipate the future and make plans of actions to bring about desired outcomes, they have to have knowledge, ability, and confidence to identify (by human means) truth and distinguish it from falsehoods and errors. They also have to identify and understand causal connections if they are to develop and implement plans that utilize people and things to achieve the results they set out to attain.

At the root of successful managerial action is a critical issue in epistemology (theory of knowledge) of how to identify truths when human actors are involved and whether the methodology required in the study of human action is different from that required to identify the brute facts of physical, mechanical, materialistic nature.

Most of us never have to think about these issues because they rarely arise. We wake up each morning and get on with out lives by making plans, taking action, applying reasoned judgment, anticipating cause and effect, working to deadlines, and constantly dealing with obstacles and new information as it arises.

In doing so, we easily engage in working and integrating the world of material objects that abide by the strictly causal laws of nature, with the world of human beings.

Human beings also abide by the strict causal laws of nature because they are entities with a specific constitution and nature, but who also operate as self-motivated or “self-caused” agents capable of making choices based on self-generated motives and values to guide their behavior.

When as individuals we choose to cooperate with others to achieve more complex and higher-value organized ends, we have to take the intricacies of our myriad engagements with other people and their own unique dispositions into account.

NEXT: Part 3. Science for Civilization, or Chaos?

Mises: The A Priori Nature of Human Action (pdf)

Barry Linetsky has learned a considerable amount from the writings of Mises and Hayek. Barry makes his living specializing in value-driven strategic management, and is the author of the acclaimed business biography The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success (Theme Park Press, 2017) and Free Will: Sam Harris Has It (Wrong), both available from amazon. He frequently blogs at and has been published in the Ivey Business Journal and Rotman Magazine. Twitter @BizPhilosopher.

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