Chasing consensus

I like the comedy of David Mitchell. Not only is it funny but it’s intelligent. He has recently released a […]

I like the comedy of David Mitchell. Not only is it funny but it’s intelligent. He has recently released a compilation of his articles for the Observer, entitled Thinking About it Only Makes it Worse, in which he rants about a range of world problems. It is primarily a fun read, but at the risk of taking Mitchell a bit too seriously, I reckon that he has cleverly put his finger on the fraught nature of public debate concerning serious philosophical questions.  The gist of the issue is nailed in the promo video, which plays on the idea that debate about important problems in the world is tricky since those problems are so complex we can’t even agree on the nature of the problems themselves.

Clearly complexity makes life hard work and it is a common enough observation that the public arena has decreasing patience for complex argument. There is little truck for any idea that can’t be put simply and ideally with a heart-rending story of how it plays out in someone’s life. But Mitchell recognises that there is more behind this than just a sort of social ADD that inclines us away from thinking hard about things.

His promo puts the finger on an underlying hunch, or vibe, that consensus should be important in matters of public truth. Put more philosophically, there should be a strong correlation between the truth of a belief and the number of people that believe it.  How this hunch plays out in public debate is that any idea worthy of general acceptance should be essentially uncontroversial. And that, of course, is the value of the heart-rending illustration: it can’t be denied.

The tangle Mitchell deliberately gets himself into trying to fulfil this “simple and uncontroversial” requirement shows how all this is a problem.  He shows that the need for consensus is an incredibly high bar for any idea to jump over. Consensus is next to impossible, even with the most general of claims, so if we need consensus before we put ideas in the public arena we will say next to nothing.  If Mitchell can’t say anything deep yet uncontroversial about serial killers, what can we speak about?

In any case, the intuition that truth is somehow connected to the number of people who believe something cannot be right. Since the main human views on the nature of things – Theism, Buddhism, Materialism, etc – are all mutually exclusive, and since each view is held by vast numbers of people, this means that on life’s deepest questions the majority of people (if not all of us!) are clearly wrong.

For better or worse, life, the universe and everything is extraordinarily complicated in ways that can’t be accounted for by agreed-upon sound-bites. Does thinking about this make it worse? It definitely makes it harder. But to avoid this hard road is to descend into hopeless triviality. 

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