It is perhaps surprising that corporations are so interested in our opinions of their products and services, given that simultaneously we contend that opinions don’t matter. Or at least, other people’s don’t.
We charge ourselves with the capacity to discern the truth, and also to know where our perspective should not expect universal assent. However, we rarely assume that other people have this same, basic power - at least until they show themselves capable of producing similar conclusions to us, and are therefore ‘of like mind’. To say that this reinforces our inflated impression of our skills at discerning truth from opinion is an understatement. It’s engrained. Other people’s opinions are, for the most part, merely something irrelevant we can dismiss.
Yet corporations spend large amounts of money collating opinions - if opinions are worthless, why bother? “Ah,” (we say with confidence), “they gather data and use scientific techniques to derive the truth.” It’s a plausible hypothesis as far as it goes, but it radically overstates the matter. Marketeers just need to know what people will pay money for, and to do that they need opinions, for there is no truth about what you must buy. If you want to know what people will pay for, you need to get at the truth buried in mere opinions.
But what if this description is only part of the truth of the matter? What if, in collecting opinions, the business world had developed a very crude way of successfully distilling the essence of opinions into truth. And what if there was a way for us to come at this truth for something more valuable than mere market knowledge...?
Wheat from Chaff
Over the millennia, a diverse set of philosophers developed our understanding of truth in ways that still influence how we think. Our current views come more-or-less directly from the Enlightenment philosophers, such as Immanual Kant or Mary Wollstonecraft, who examined how it was that we grasped the reality of our existence. The Enlightenment philosophers contrasted thinking subjects to ‘inanimate’ objects, but in later years the subtlety of this philosophy was ground down into a an all-too-simple split between ‘objective knowledge’, which was true, and ‘subjective knowledge’, which wasn’t. From there, it’s just a short hop to tossing all ‘subjective knowledge’ in the trash as ‘mere opinion’.
Oh dear. How spectacularly this philosophy went awry as it fell into common usage and today’s philosophers largely withdrew from life to argue about minutiae with one another... We were left thinking we can effortlessly split objective from subjective, that we can focus on the truth provided by objectivity, as if we merely had to sort the wheat from the chaff. Trouble is, there’s nowhere near as much wheat as we like to think...
The Belgian philosopher and chemist Isabelle Stengers suggests objective knowledge, as the name alludes, is the knowledge of objects. The sciences devise methods of getting objects to reveal their secrets, through experiments. But the grain bins of scientists are not bursting and full, because the kind of knowledge we can tease from objects is rather thin. Atomic weights, boiling points, equations of motion, quantum mechanical relationships... we would be hard pressed to apply this kind of knowledge to anything more than making what we like to call ‘technology’.
Objective knowledge about our technology is similarly thin, and does nothing to warn us of potential dangers or abuses. Researchers can give us nuclear bombs, automobiles (by far our biggest killer technology in practice), mustard gas, social media, armed drones, crack cocaine, gas chambers... not only these, of course, other, less problematic technologies as well - but those involved in inventing our tools are rarely able to discriminate the harmless from the dangerous until it is too late. The same practices that give us new technologies do not provide any means of assessing them except in objective terms, which are generally inadequate for any important assessment. We can measure how much energy a nuclear warhead can give out - but that does not help us to make the important decisions about atomic weapons, like whether we should ever use them.
Objective knowledge is not only thinner and less impressive than we imagine, it is strictly meaningless. That’s because giving meaning is the activity of thinking subjects - and we threw away all that as chaff.
Now we are getting to the madness brought about by monomaniacal focus upon the objective. We were always deceived when we thought objective knowledge must be the sole thing that was important because importance could never be anything so thin and dry as objective knowledge. To determine whether something is important requires subjective knowledge - what knows the grain better than the wheat itself? We forget that before we ground it up, that worthless chaff was the wheat plant itself, the thing that mattered.
We focus on the grain because that’s what’s useful to us, since we can grind it into flour. The chaff does nothing. Yet before we got involved, the chaff was the thing that ought to have mattered - the thing that was alive. The same logic that rendered objective knowledge into all that seemed to matter fooled us into making life the thing we discard. From that one mistake, all the problems of the last century flow.
Importance and Being Earnest
If you knew every possible datum of objective knowledge you would still be entirely clueless about what matters. That’s because making a decision about what does and doesn’t matter requires more than dry facts. It requires the capacity that beings possess to assess what is or is not important, and how important everything is requires context, a world in which these kinds of questions take upon a meaning.
Even a plant can respond to importance; they twist and unfurl to face the sun - since for a plant, sunlight is important. Humans are capable of much more complex assessments of importance, but that doesn’t mean we’re especially good at it. Our intuitions about what is or isn’t important are routinely misguided, we latch onto things that feel important but aren’t as vital as they seem, and we entirely miss things that in hindsight are revealed as important. No amount of scientific research can solve this problem, for the sciences can only ask the questions and develop the methods for getting at objective knowledge, while judging importance is always the knowledge of subjects. Which means that when we assess importance, we are forming opinions, and therefore that opinions must, in fact, matter far more than we tend to think they do.
This inescapable truth, that importance is not and can never be objective knowledge, does not mean that the sciences cannot help us in making good decisions. On the contrary, they can be vital, and are frequently central to the decisions we make. But the worth of research towards providing a foundation for judgement does not change the fact that the judgement itself is never something as precise and flat as objective data. It requires skilled judgement. It requires opinions.
When we focus on the huge difference in degree between those few things we can establish as objective knowledge and the uncertainty of opinion, we become enamoured with the apparent perfection of certainty. But certainty is the wrong measure for judgements. We fret about whether our judgements are true, even though this isn’t something we can ever determine in advance. Even if we retreat to a weaker conception, such as how probable it might be that our judgements will pan out as expected, we’re still playing the same game of trying to assess the knowledge of subjects by the logic of objects. The relationship between our opinions and the truth is real, but we cannot access it directly (a point Kant brilliantly explored). So we need a different standard when we’re assessing opinions to the ones we might use to judge the work of the sciences.
Do we have these tools, these ways of judging our judgements? Yes, we do, and we’ve already seen a crude form of it - when a business surveys their market to establish whether something is going to sell. Their method works because the corporate world has learned to trust that with a suitably proportionate sample of earnest respondents, opinions can be synthesised into fair judgements. What’s more, there’s already a method for rendering political judgements in this way. No, not by referendums, which are merely polls designed to reach pre-defined conclusions (objective logic mistakenly trying to ‘tame’ opinion by its own dry standards), but by letting the governing decisions fall to anyone via the drawing of lots (sortition). Rather than a democracy of politicians who are chosen for their qualifying ability to win elections, this would be a democracy of anyone, even those with no qualifications, who are chosen solely at random. This is what democracy originally meant - rule of everyone and no-one.
If you recoil in horror at the thought of political decisions made this way, pause to consider whether the skills politicians require to win elections are likely to be those that help them render good judgements, and why, if we do not trust the opinions of strangers, we trust people’s lives to a jury of twelve random people when they are on trial. When it comes to assessing the relative importance of arbitrary matters, why should we not expect a suitable random sample to be up to the task? After all, a great many scientific investigations rely upon this very same technique, the collective judgement of a representative sample. It is as if we trust the opinion of others only when we call it ‘science’ but not when we call it ‘government’.
This resistance we experience when we confront the idea of democracy leaves us more than a few options for how to respond.
Firstly, we could dismiss democracy as too idealistic, and argue that the kind of rule by elites we have is the best we can do. This choice effectively rejects democracy outright, and sides instead with injustice as an alleged compromise. But there is nothing to compromise with. We have rejected democracy on this path, and chosen to lend our support to feudal capitalism instead.
Alternatively, we can make some attempt to rescue democracy through an imagined intervention that gives more power and influence to intellectual forces (most likely that nebulous catch-all ‘scientists’). And while it is wise to hope for a world where those making the governing decisions take the work of researchers into account, the danger of this compromise is to wish for a grand theocracy of science, where those who make objects speak through remarkable methods are falsely attributed a greater capacity to govern. This is to trade one set of elites for another whom we have no decisive reason to trust will do any better.
Eventually, when all the ways we can compromise and thus betray democracy have been revealed as only slight variations upon our voluntary oppression, we are forced to ask: how could we make democracy work? Only now are we in a strange new world where we can ask questions like ‘how many people is enough to render a fair judgement?’, ‘is twelve a good number for strangers trying to reach agreement?’, or ‘could sets of juries collate more representative decisions than a single group?’ Only then are we future advocates for democracy, capable of facing the truth about opinion... that it is enough, more than enough, to govern amidst uncertainty. Democracy should be at no greater risk of bad decisions in the hands of the unqualified than it is in the clutches of those whose only qualification is their bitter experience of the brutal battleground of opinion we have currently chosen - that is, the elections we have chosen instead of democracy.
Mary Wollstonecraft offered this advice to the reformers of her own time:
Men and women must be educated, in a great degree, by the opinions and manners of the society they live in. In every age there has been a stream of popular opinion that has carried all before it, and given a family character, as it were, to the century. It may then fairly be inferred, that, till society be differently constituted, much cannot be expected from education.
Perhaps all this is too terrifying to contemplate. But I don’t understand why it should be, unless we’ve misunderstood what democracy means, what actually living as equals might mean. The truth is that our opinions matter, and need to matter more than we let them. We need to learn to disagree. We need to learn to live together. We need to remember that we are equal. The truth is important - but then, so are our opinions. Perhaps it’s time to take our opinions a lot more seriously than we have been.
The opening image is a detail from The Last Messenger to Democracy by Aramis Marchetony, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.