Despite tickets costing up to $110 the Orpheum theatre was packed with 3,000 enthusiasts – a sign that complex and intellectual discourse is desired. The surprisingly young audience were unsubdued by the late start.
The debate was calmly moderated by Bret Weinstein, an American biologist described as being part of the intellectual dark web. Weinstein is a proponent of free speech and libertarianism, which made him ideal to govern the discussion.
Ethics, religion, metaphysics and philosophy were intensively examined. Both men were so spellbinding that I didn’t miss a conversation on politics. A discussion on religion and slavery dominated the first third of the debate. Harris began by saying he agreed with 90 per cent of Peterson’s philosophy. In an attempt to distinguish between commonality and conflict Peterson explained Harris’s ideology back to him. Harris is known to be more liberal than conservative Peterson but is critical of parts of the Left, particularly because of its bizarre adoration of Islam, a religion which Harris reserves most of his ire for. Harris is a secularist, although he is interested in the spiritual experience.
Peterson initially mentioned G E Moore and infinite regress. He thought that Harris had identified that if someone having a life where everything was suffering, then that was bad. Peterson asked how could we know that this is bad. Proponents of the philosophical concept of infinite regress would ask for justification of this, and keep asking why suffering was bad. Peterson said that some religions would suggest that good could come out of suffering, but that Harris, by positing the worst suffering possible, was identifying a state in which even a religion could not claim that this suffering was good. The desired outcome is less suffering and more wellbeing.
Although Harris reiterated his criticism of the Abrahamic religions he agreed with Peterson that not all religions are equal and that there is an important distinction to be made between religious cultures.He said the study of ethics illuminates the catastrophe of religious fundamentalism and moral relativism. Peterson added that secularist fundamentalism, embodied by the Nazis and the USSR, is also responsible for suffering. Both agreed that free expression corrects religious dogma but Peterson qualified this by pointing out that it is also the antithesis to totalitarianism and nihilism.
Harris said that religious fundamentalism has an advantage because it is so straightforward, a point Peterson agreed with. He summarised his critique of the Abrahamic religions by saying that religion keeps us shackled to Iron Age conversations when we really should be having a 21st century conversation about ethics. He questioned how the Bible and the Koran could be the word of God if these condone slavery and made the essential point that it would have been much better if one of the Ten Commandments forbade keeping slaves.
Peterson counteracted this by pointing out that Christians abolished slavery, encapsulating the premise of both men that not all religions are equal. This resonated with me – Christianity has had its reformation, Islam has not. Peterson also explained that the Bible must be understood within its entire developmental narrative and that extrapolating a single sentence, as Harris has done, is a disservice.
I was disappointed that Peterson didn’t expand his valid argument into a discussion on Jungian archetypes. The story of Exodus, with its flawed hero Moses and his struggle with his shadow self, would have augmented the conversation on narratives, suffering and wellbeing.
Weinstein shifted the debate by saying that religious texts have value in the way they help people navigate their lives and offer a functional framework towards understanding the world and solving problems.
He asked if this was a useful heuristic. Peterson replied that an interpretive framework is needed to understand the concepts of good and evil. Harris vigorously redressed this by saying our intuition provides a far deeper interpretive framework for this than religion. Intuition guides us to what is right and wrong, good and evil, heaven and hell.
Peterson disagreed and said that religion and a sense of God is vital to comprehending morality and suffering. He kept questioning Harris: ‘How do you know what good and bad is if you don’t have an interpretive framework?’ until it became obvious that no consensus could be found.
Until this point Harris had come across as sharp, concise and humorous. He intellectually towered over his tired and distracted opponent. But then Peterson launched into a précis on the nature of God and finally showed his mesmerising ingenuity.
Harris claimed that Peterson said that God exists. Peterson explained that he acts as though God exists. But is there a difference between acting as though God exists and faithfully believing in God? Both will lead to similar moderation of actions. Harris and Peterson agreed they don’t know where anything comes from so perhaps Peterson used this clarification to try to offset the implied conundrum.
Peterson asked Harris what prevents him from being bad. And it was here that Harris stumbled and said our own sense of moral intuition is universal and transcends the religious indoctrination from our parents. I found this to be an unsatisfactory answer. Peterson explained that God timelessly transcends our reality. God is to be found in the pursuit of higher truth, in our conscience and the qualities of guilt and mercy and in the free expression which corrects tyranny. Harris said that most people don’t believe in God in that way to which Peterson replied that it’s not obvious how God is defined.
Peterson astounded me with his interpretation of God and redeemed the sophistry I found earlier in his wavering and waffling arguments. Throughout the debate Peterson came across as the gentler person, saying on occasion to Harris that he was not trying to trap him. Towards the end I was more drawn to Peterson’s ideology, informed by my own belief in God and the knowledge that humans, in every historical culture, have always fashioned some kind of metaphysical and divine belief system for themselves.
And I was not the only one to be finally astonished by Peterson. The audience roared their approval when Weinstein asked if they were happy to forgo the question and answer section in favour of Harris and Peterson deliberating on the nature of God.
The entire debate was extraordinary. I was captivated by the exceptional intelligence that all three men possess. At another time Peterson and Harris would be valued for the gifted academics they are. But in our post-liberal Puritan society they are heretics. Conservatism is the new subversive ideology and they are brilliantly leading from the front.