Saturday, September 15, 2012

Consensual Wisdom

I have a theory that almost all of us agree on almost everything. But we're wired somehow to zero in on the things we disagree about, however minor they may be, and debate/argue/fight over them. It seems the larger our base of common understanding, the more intense the disagreements over the details. Sunnis and Shiites, Christians and Muslims, Republicans and Democrats, kill each other (figuratively and sometimes literally) over the smallest ideological differences, despite their enormous shared premise. As a result, we ignore the big problems that challenge us all and focus instead on the minutiae of our dissonance.

But what if there were an environment where we were rewarded for finding our kernel of consensus? A game, say, where the rules guide us toward addressing the problems we all agree exist. An economy where one becomes individually wealthy only by taking actions that benefit everyone. A society that can grow as large and diverse as necessary and still make progress toward common goals.

I'm not talking about Utopia here. I'm just asking, is there a set of rewards and punishments, however artificially enforced, that will lead a group of people to focus on their considerable shared world view rather than their comparatively tiny differences?

Science, politics, and religion all have enormous edifices of consensual wisdom. Evidence and ideas that diverge from or seem to contradict those shared bodies of knowledge induce different reflexes in each discipline. Religious thinkers tend to reject them, scientists embrace them, and politicians use them as leverage. That's all fine, but the incessant preoccupation with what makes us different tends naturally to fragment us, to balkanize our churches, our research disciplines, and our societies until, in the limit, we will be left completely harmonious but quite alone. Social entropy will be at its maximum.

None of our institutions have evolved mechanisms of inclusion, systems that seek to expand groups by including more and more people who actually disagree with us. It's so rare that you may not even see the point in doing so. Maybe I am being hopelessly naive here, but it seems to me that recognizing our kernel of consensus, the common knowledge, shared problems, and joint solutions becomes more and more valuable as the size of the union gets larger, even if the intersection becomes smaller; particularly so if my hunch is correct that almost all of us agree on almost everything.

Perhaps I'm wrong though. Maybe, if all the religions of the world were to somehow identify their kernel of consensus, it would turn out to be trivial; something stupid and obvious like, we all have an ethical core and we should all give ourselves permission to obey it. But wait. Is that really so trivial? I, of course, don't know what the intersection of all our beliefs would be, but imagine the incredible power inherent in being able to make a statement like that! "We, the combined theological intelligentsia of the entire planet, believe the following to be true..." Imagine the societal and spiritual benefit that might ensue from simply communicating that consensus, whatever it turns out to be. I believe that benefit might far outweigh whatever good comes from arguing about who has the coolest prophet and whether we should utter its name or view its likeness.

I don't mean to pick on religion here. In many ways science is even less concerned with consensus and more obsessed with the deltas and outliers. That's what they do for a living, and it's what makes it so difficult for societies to choose courses of action based on reason and scientific consensus at a point in time. Many scientists believe it isn't their jobs to even try to identify consensus among themselves, rather they should provide politicians and decision-makers with all the possible alternatives and let them make decisions about what, if any actions to take. I think this is an abdication of their social responsibility. We are left to guess, infer, and in many cases, attempt to obfuscate scientific consensus on important topics.

Is the Earth's climate changing at a rate unprecedented in recorded history? I think I'm safe in saying almost all climate scientists agree that it is. Is this climate change anthropogenic (caused by human activities)? Maybe there's a consensus answer to that question, maybe not. Does evolution exist? Absolutely it does, in the same sense that quicksort (a well-known sorting algorithm) exists. Is it sufficient to explain the diversity of life on the planet? Without inviting criticism and controversy, I can't say whether there is a scientific consensus on that question. My point is, there are no conventional mechanisms in science for reaching and communicating conventional wisdom. Claiming that no consensus exists because one or a few scientists disagree is fallacious. Consensus does not require unanimity. It does, however, require a collaborative mechanism of discovery and refinement.

No, I'm not having a Kumbaya moment. My advanced age guarantees I have a healthy daily dose of skepticism and pessimism. The events of the past few days have done absolutely nothing to make me suddenly feel optimistic about our ability to live together without killing each other for nonsensical reasons.

But even with all this negative energy swirling around today, I'm left with an intellectual curiosity about the central question of this post: Now that the Internet has given the world a way to communicate instantly, can we also find a way to agree?