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Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson

Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson on Dogma

April 11, 2024


Whatever “dogma” is, Sam Harris certainly doesn’t like it. In his recent conversation with Jordan Peterson, Harris repeatedly condemns dogma, and Peterson repeatedly tries to moderate this condemnation. Harris notes correctly that dogma is “a Catholic term.” But what exactly is being condemned? The target is moving.

First, Harris defines dogma as “a belief that is held in spite of the fact that there’s no good evidence for it.” According to this definition, belief in God is not a dogma. If Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Liebniz, Plantinga or William Lane Craig are right, there is good evidence to believe that God exists. Indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that, “By natural reason man can know God with certainty.” 

But belief in God is not only a dogma, but is the fundamental dogma of the Catholic creed. So, Harris’ definition of dogma must differ radically from Catholic understandings of the term. In which case, his critique of “dogma” is a straw man of his own invention.

Harris offers a second understanding of dogma, “If I say to you, listen, I believe X and there’s nothing you can say to convince me otherwise, and no matter how good your evidence gets, no matter how good your arguments get, I’m not gonna want to hear it. And if you press the case, I’m gonna get angrier and angrier until the possibility of having a conversation about anything fully erodes.”  “Dogma” in this sense means close-mindedness. 

Yet close-mindedness is a characteristic that can afflict a believer or a skeptic, an atheist or a theist. As woke mobs show us, you could reject all “dogma” in the religious sense of the term and yet be utterly certain of your beliefs and closed off from learning from others. Moreover, you could believe in a dogma (let’s say, “God exists”) and also not get angry and indeed (as I do) even enjoy talking to people who see things differently. So, “close-mindedness” is a sloppy definition of dogma.  

Everyone who reasons has basic beliefs, first principles, fundamental axioms, or “dogmas” from which they begin to reason to other conclusions.

In a third characterization, Harris seems to understand dogma as a belief that leads to harming others. Harris is right that dogma can lead to harming others. But anything, even the best of things, can be misused, distorted, degraded. Romantic love can be the beginning of a relationship that lasts a lifetime. But, as countless true crime episodes indicate, the abuse of romantic love can lead to murder. Harris and I share an admiration for the achievements of science. But can science be abused? The answer to this question is found in the scientific experiments conducted at Tuskegee as well as those of Dr. Josef Mengele. So, it hardly counts against dogma that it can lead to bad consequences. 

Peterson recognizes this when he says we should “try to distinguish between religious experience per se, or the religious experience that’s valuable and a counterproductive totalitarian dogmatism.” Indeed, if someone believes and lives in accordance with the dogma that every single human being deserves respect, this belief would in general help rather than harm people. The world would be a much better place if the dictum of Bernard Lonergan were universally adopted as dogma, “Be attentive, be intelligent, be responsible, be loving, and, if necessary, change.”

In a fourth way of using the term, Harris contrasts dogma and method,

Dogma is not a statement of how good the method was. Dogma is just, we didn’t have a method, but this is so. It says so in the book, the book is perfect. How do we know it’s perfect? ’cause the book itself says so, right? That’s a dog that bites its own tail. That’s not a method. That is dogmatism and in my view, totally illegitimate.

I totally agree with Harris that circular arguments are invalid. But as Karl Keating points out in his book, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, “[Catholics] are not basing the inspiration of the Bible on the Church’s infallibility and the Church’s infallibility on the word of an inspired Bible. That indeed would be a circular argument.” At least if his target is Catholic belief, Harris has again attacked a straw man.

Harris has confidence in method, and in this too I think he is right. But even the best method cannot be self-authenticating. If I have questions about whether I can trust the empirical method, it hardly helps to gather empirical evidence. If I am unsure whether logically valid deductive arguments show their conclusion, I cannot settle the matter by means of a logically valid deductive argument. 

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So, as Aristotle noted, first principles are necessary in order to begin the process of reasoning. Every method must presuppose some starting points. There is nothing illegitimate or “dogmatic” in a pejorative sense about having first principles in science, in philosophy, or in theology. 

As the philosopher Alvin Plantinga pointed out, “Every train of argument will have to start somewhere, and the ultimate premises from which it starts will not themselves be believed on the evidential basis of other propositions; they will have to be accepted in the basic way, that is, not on the evidential basis of other beliefs.” Everyone who reasons has basic beliefs, first principles, fundamental axioms, or “dogmas” from which they begin to reason to other conclusions.

So, what is dogma actually? Rather than understand the meaning of the term as Catholics understand it, Harris gives his own idiosyncratic meanings to the term dogma and then criticizes figments of his imagination. This method is like ignoring what evolutionary biologists mean by the term evolution, and understanding evolution as, “the belief that one day an ape gave birth to a human being.” 

An accurate definition of dogma comes from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later elected Pope Benedict XVI). He wrote that “dogma is by definition nothing other than an interpretation of Scripture.” Catholic dogma constitutes the first principles or basic beliefs of Catholics expressed, for example, in the Nicene Creed.  

There is nothing close-minded, harmful, or viciously circular about intellectual activities arising from first principles or basic beliefs. Mathematicians, philosophers, and scientists all begin to reason from fundamental axioms. But, despite Peterson’s efforts to pull Harris away from caricatures, this sympathetic understanding was not found in Harris’ diatribes against dogma.