Nobody in Particular

Why do we believe something? How do we know that we are right? When I was a child, I was certain that the Fleetwood television set my parents had just purchased, was the best. So was the make of our car -and our vacuum cleaner too, come to think of it. But why? Was it simply because authority figures in my young life had told me, or was there an objective reality to their assertions? For that matter, how did they know, anyway? Other parents had different opinions, so who was right?

I was too young to question these things then, but gradually, I came to seek other sources of knowledge. And yet, even these sometimes differed. It’s difficult to know in what direction to face when confronted with disparate opinions. Different ‘truths’. Everybody can’t be right. Usually, in fact, the correct answer lies somewhere in the middle of it all, and it becomes a matter of knowing which truths to discard -choosing the ‘correct’ truth.

Despite the fact that most of us rely on some method like this, it sounds completely counterintuitive. How many truths can there be? Is each a truth, or merely an opinion? And what’s wrong with having a particular opinion? Again, how would we know? How could we know?

Nowadays, with social media algorithms selecting which particular news they report on the basis of our past choices, it’s difficult to know if we are in an echo chamber unless we purposely and critically examine whatever truths we hold dear -step back to burst the bubble. Canvas different people, and sample different opinions. But, even then, without resorting to mythology, or a presumed ‘revealed’ truth that substantiates a particular religious dogma, is there an objective truth that somehow transcends all the others? Conversely is all truth relative -situationally contextualized, temporally dependent, and ultimately socially endorsed?

Should we, in fact, rely on a random sample of opinions to arrive at an answer to some questions that are only a matter of values, but not about realistically verifiable facts -such as the height of a building, say, or maybe the type of bacterium that causes a particular disease? Would that bring us closer to the truth, or simply yet another truth?

Well, it turns out that the average of a large group of diverse and even contrary opinions has some statistical merit:  ‘[T]here is some truth underpinning the idea that the masses can make more accurate collective judgements than expert individuals.’ The Wisdom of Crowds ‘is generally traced back to an observation by Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton in 1907. Galton pointed out that the average of all the entries in a ‘guess the weight of the ox’ competition at a country fair was amazingly accurate – beating not only most of the individual guesses but also those of alleged cattle experts. This is the essence of the wisdom of crowds: their average judgement converges on the right solution.’

But the problem is in the sampling -the diversity of the members of that crowd. ‘If everyone let themselves be influenced by each other’s guesses, there’s more chance that the guesses will drift towards a misplaced bias.’ Of course ‘This finding challenges a common view in management and politics that it is best to seek consensus in group decision making. What you can end up with instead is herding towards a relatively arbitrary position. Just how arbitrary depends on what kind of pool of opinions you start off with. […] copycat behaviour has been widely regarded as one of the major contributing factors to the financial crisis, and indeed to all financial crises of the past. [And] this detrimental herding effect is likely to be even greater for deciding problems for which no objectively correct answer exists. […] All of these findings suggest that knowing who is in the crowd, and how diverse they are, is vital before you attribute to them any real wisdom.’

This might imply that ‘you should add random individuals whose decisions are unrelated to those of existing group members. That would be good, but it’s better still to add individuals who aren’t simply independent thinkers but whose views are ‘negatively correlated’ – as different as possible – from the existing members. In other words, diversity trumps independence. If you want accuracy, then, add those who might disagree strongly with your group.’

Do you see where I’m going with all this? We should try to be open enough to consider all sides of an argument before making a considered decision. Let’s face it, you have to know what it is that you’re up against before you can arrive at a compromise. And perhaps, the thing you thought you were opposing is not so different from your own view after all.

Even our values fluctuate. Unless we are willing to be historical revisionists, it’s obvious that people in the past often assigned values differently to how we do today -sexual orientation, for example, or racial characteristic and stereotyping. And who nowadays would dare argue that women are not the equal of men, and deserve the same rights?

There are some things about which we will continue to disagree, no doubt. And yet, even a willingness to listen to an opposing opinion instead of shutting it down without a fair acknowledgment of whatever merits it might have hidden within it, or commonalities it might share with ours, is a step in the right direction.

I’m not at all sure that it’s healthy to agree about everything, anyway, nor to assume we possess the truth. It’s our truth. I think that without some dissenting input, we’d be bored, condemned to float in the increasingly stagnant backwater we chose, while just beyond our banks, a creek runs merrily past, excited to discover another view that lies beyond and behind the next hill.

After all, remember what happened to Caesar after Shakespeare had him boast: “I am constant as the northern star, of whose true-fix’d and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament.”

Just saying…



As I Age

As I age, it becomes increasingly clear to me that Life is far more complicated than I could ever have suspected. It is like a stew where I keep finding new ingredients –some to my liking, and some… Well, let’s just characterize them as unexpected -mysterious strangers that surface from time to time, wreak havoc, then disappear again like shadows on a moonless night.

Social movements are often like that –or, rather, social solutions. Society changes over time and it has been the fashion of late, to see this as an evolutionary adaptation to underlying conditions –the slow but steady metamorphosis of caterpillar into butterfly. And yet, sometimes the change is more abrupt -a mutation- and we are forced to deal with the consequences. When things around us change, we attempt to keep up –or at least, like the Red Queen in Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, find ourselves running faster and faster to stay in the same place.

And one manifestation of this is the need to preserve a thin weft of values as a template during the inchoate and often thread-bare interregnum. I’m thinking, of course, about the age-old philosophical conundrum of whether we should tolerate the intolerant –and if so, then how? And at what price the compromise? One example from many: the need to establish special female-only transportation in the city of Zhengzhou in eastern China to help women feel safe from sexual harassment. To guard them.  Of course, the problem is by no means unique to China -other countries have discovered the same need and arrived at similar solutions.

But it seems to me that the issue is far more complex than these solutions might suggest. This gender issue, in some ways is not dissimilar to the racial problems that surfaced so violently in the last century in America. To think that having different buses for people of colour would salve the problem was proven to be naïve, and in itself discriminatory.

It comes down to the difference between toleration and acceptance: putting up with something that might not actually be approved of –enduring it: ‘toleration is directed by an agent toward something perceived as negative. It would be odd to say, for example, that someone has a high tolerance for pleasure’; versus  Acceptance: acknowledging and welcoming something as itself; permission versus approval. A power struggle either deferred, or shared.

To equivocate for a moment, should we tolerate mere tolerance, or accept it…? As an interim solution, of course. In other words, is it better to have the segregated buses for women, say, than groping and intimidation on more inclusive public transit? To say that there should not be sexual harassment is all well and good, but it ignores the present reality –there is, and to ignore it would therefore be akin to tolerating it. So are we  trapped in a never-ending game of chase-your-tail, forever condemned to wander the Mobius strip looking for an exit?

Perhaps it might be helpful to distinguish the component parts of the issue (I have adapted some principles from the peer-reviewed Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:  It seems to me that there is a difference between the more superficial and emotional response to whatever is being tolerated (Let’s call this the Reactive Stage) –the need to separate the aggrieved from the aggressor, for example- and the Rational Stage: the more dispassionate and reasoned analysis of the problem –if indeed such an analysis is feasible, or could even be rationally justified. In other words, on what grounds does the prejudice in question continue to exist? Is it remediable, or inevitable? Should we be forced to retreat behind our own societal boundaries and accept the relativistic excuses proffered that we simply can’t superimpose our own values on those who are not like us? That we, in fact, do not understand –nor likely ever will, since we are other?

Or, closer to home, can we ever hope to change attitudes such as disrespect and insensitivity to aspects of personal autonomy that have been entrenched –and indeed accepted- for countless unquestioning generations -that, until recently, were not even considered problems requiring solutions?

Well, societies do alter as time and members change; I’m not sure we could characterize the alterations as necessarily evolutionary, or teleologically driven, but certainly the initial reactive and then the more rational stages can often be discerned. The societal attitudes towards Gay rights, for example, have undergone major shifts within the past few years –even the initial toleration, which was rare in past decades, is now remodelling itself as acceptance.

So what -if anything- has Age taught me? What has the passage of years and the successive unfolding of events disclosed? Well, it has become clear that in the long run, our enemies become our friends; that we seek and find compromises satisfactory to each –bargains that in due course cease to be seen as concessions by either party, but rather as amicable balance; that Force only suppresses while it is being applied; and that discussion is inevitable and infinitely preferable to confrontation. We may not be able to evince our much-touted rationality in all things, but we are all eventually susceptible –amenable even- to accommodation.

Omnia vincit amor, I suppose.