Jordan Peterson discusses metaphorical truth and in one place states that metaphorical truth is “more true” than literal truth. I agree and disagree. I think metaphorical truth is more true when it has legs and less true when it doesn’t have legs. This article briefly explains what I mean by that and why I think so.
A metaphorical truth has legs when it is true both in metaphor and in literal observation. For example, Peterson refers often to the Archetype of Christ. The Archetype of Christ has legs if and only if it is constituted of claims which are metaphorically true and literally true. Some such claims include:
- Son of God
- Died and Rose Again
- Lived a Sinless Life
- Forgives Sins
Metaphorical truths are hollow, or without legs, if they are not literally true. I believe this hollow nature undercuts the metaphorical nature of the truth of the claim: If it’s not actually or literally true than it’s not true at all.
At the same time, if a statement is both literally true and metaphorically true, it is most true in its metaphorical form. Why? Because that metaphorical form is more generic, and it can be implemented into many truth claims, all of which are concretely true. This metaphorical truth has the same advantages of a generic function over a concrete function in the sciences, programming, and so on.
Consider that the following statements are concretely true:
- Jim is 10 and weighs 100 lbs
- Joe is 15 and weighs 150 lbs
- Jake is 20 and weighs 200 lbs
Given many observations we could eventually determine a more generic truth:
- People’s weight is generally 10 times their age
Now of course that’s not actually true. It’s just to illustrate the notion that abstracted, generic truths can capture many concrete truths in a small, efficient statement. This sort of inducted, or otherwise arrived at, generic truth is analogous or even nearly identical to the metaphorical truths I see in Peterson – with one key difference. Peterson doesn’t guarantee the truth of his metaphorical claims.
I continue to agree with Peterson up until this point. Induction from observation is not the only logical method of analysis. Other methods of analysis, including inference to the best explanation, deductive, and other forms of reasoning, allow generic truth claims to be generated without appealing to observation.
I support the notion that a generic, or metaphorical, truth should be held as valid in the absence of a defeater, where empirical evidence to the contrary may form a defeater. Consider that we identify a metaphorical truth, and the empirical truth can take three forms:
- It agrees
- It disagrees
- It is unknown
Only under condition 2 is the metaphorical truth defeated in my view, and my concern is that Peterson doesn’t share that concern. I agree with Peterson, however, in holding the generic or metaphorical truth as valid under a condition of unknown empirical truth. This relates to my old discussion on the Law of Unobservable Phenomena.
I also agree that the metaphorical truth is more true than any particular concrete truth, so long as it is undefeated, because it covers all concretely true statements and then makes additional true statements. It also does so in a conveniently small package, which makes it easier to comprehend in a person’s mind. I think a person can be more confident in a truth claim which they more fully comprehend.
Finally, I will appeal to Peterson himself for consistency. I think the notion that metaphorical truth must have legs in order to be actually true is consistent with his entire thesis in 12 Rules for Life. See the following clip:
The host states that he is concerned about an ethic of hyper-individualism, where a person only attends to their own things and never to communal issues. Peterson agrees, stating that he does not advocate for any such hyper-individualistic ethic. Rather, one must accomplish the elementary task of personal improvement before effectively attempting the complex task of social improvement.
This is exactly parallel to my message: A truth must accomplish the elementary task of being actually true before it attempts the complex task of becoming a deep metaphorical truth. I agree we can come to know deep metaphorical truths by means other than induction from concrete instances, perhaps while being ignorant of the empirical truth or even in such cases as the empirical truth may be unverifiable or non-falsifiable. But I by no means agree that we can hold metaphorical truths in the presence of reasonable empirical evidence to the contrary.
What is a reasonable degree of empirical evidence? That’s actually a complex question which is asked in the sciences all the time. It’s a separate question I won’t go into here. I do think axiomatically derived truths carry some amount of weight; it’s not as if one or two anecdotes, or even one or two moderately good academic papers, should defeat a decently grounded structurally derived claim. But there is some point at which the empirical becomes more plausible and comparatively credible.