Jordan Peterson, Falsehoods and Consequences

A friend of mine (rather incautiously, given how little provocation it takes to get me to write a blog post) said,

[T]here’s a part in the trailer for this movie where Peterson says “Falsehoods have consequences. That’s what makes them false.” If you discern any meaning in that statement, please tell me.

I’m now going to explain what Peterson means. (Or what I think he means—I haven’t been given the gift of reading souls.) First, I think that we can rephrase this less poetically but more clearly as:

[Falsehoods have negative consequences. That’s intrinsic to them being false.]

To break this down, we need to start with what a “falsehood” is. It’s not merely something that’s not true, but it’s an idea of something that’s not true. An idea points to something. What a false idea points to is something that’s simply not there. That is, the falsity is a relationship between the idea and reality.

Take a really simple example from classic bugs bunny cartoons: someone walks off a cliff but doesn’t look down so he keeps walking as if the ground is there. He only falls when he notices. This is funny because it’s the opposite of how reality works—in real life if you believe the cliff is a flat plain and walk off the cliff, you fall immediately. Believing the cliff to be a prairie is the falsity. Falling when you try to stand on what’s not there is the consequence.

What Peterson is trying to point out is that this relationship is inherent because truth and falsity are not properties of the idea but of the relationship of the idea to reality. We live in such a pluralistic culture and want so badly to get along with each other that we try to pretend that truth and falsity are private things—that they only apply to the idea itself. If we can believe this, we can then not care about what awful beliefs someone else has because we can pretend it doesn’t really matter.

But ideas do matter—precisely because they either correspond to reality or don’t. If you treat reality as if it’s something else, very bad things will happen because what you’re actually doing is contrary to reality. That’s the primary meaning.

However, this quote also works the other way—you can use consequences as a test for truth. This is, basically, the entire approach of science. It’s got some major problems if you take it too seriously, but if it’s only one tool in your tool belt, pragmatic truth can be a useful tool. To continue our original analogy—suppose instead of thinking that the cliff is a cliff you think it’s a canyon but the opposite side of the canyon is too far away to see. There’s a pragmatic sense in which this isn’t false—to put it in a more scientific way, your model corresponds to reality as far as you are able to measure.

A more practical example of this would be the “white lie”. Suppose your wife asks you if she looks good in a particular dress and suppose further that it’s really one of the least flattering dresses she owns. But suppose further that the question at hand—whether she knows it or not—is really, “should I be embarrassed to show my face while I wear this dress—will I be risking social ostracism by wearing it?”

If you give the answer, “yes, it looks good on you”, what is the difference between that and the strictly more accurate, “It doesn’t look very good on you but is still well within the range in which no one’s opinion of you is going to change because they love you, they will still think you put effort into your appearance for their sake, and realistically you would need to be wearing a rotting corpse or something equally extreme to change our friends’ opinion of you and hence your social standing, so by all means wear it if your favorite dress is in the wash and this is way more comfortable than the other dress which looks better on you and is clean”?

Assuming for the sake of the example the obviously unrealistic idea that your wife could accept such a robot-like answer at face value, neither of them has any sort of negative consequence to living—in both cases your wife will wear the dress, feel that she didn’t quite make the maximal effort she could have, and not worry more than she would regardless of what she was wearing. So in a practical sense, neither of these statements is false—that is, neither of them corresponds to reality so badly that you’re going to walk off a metaphorical cliff by acting according to it.

When you put these two things together, you have the meaning of the original quote:

Falsehoods have consequences. That’s what makes them false.

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