How To Be Yourself
Fifteen Years Today!

Concerning Your Opinion

The Last Messenger to Democracy.cropIt 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’.

Collective Opinion

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.


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I've heard the type of knowledge granted by 'objective' science as "is, but not ought".

I've always thought that a good summary. By studying a physical object, I can discover facts about its current state, can infer some about its previous state, and can even make some predictions about its future state, but I can never know how, or even _if_ it should be used.

Thank you again for writing this articulate post.

My problem is not with absolutes per say, because I think if you ever hope to land on stable particulars you need something solid to start building from. My main problem is the current cabal of "experts" claiming such authority for themselves.

You've absolutely nailed the fatal flaw latent in empirical/objective philosophy. One of the most painful things to watch (even more so now that it's all around us now) is watching "the experts" (the aristocracy you alluded to) speak as if they absolutely know what's best for everyone, while only having access to a limited set of tools. And faced with the option of getting surgery from a doctor with a few tools, versus one with more, I think I'd stick with the latter. Again, the problem is not the experts, but that the experts are increasingly vested with almost godlike powers.

Now in the interests of full disclosure, I am operating from a worldview that would likely approach the duality of soul/body from a different set of presuppositions than you would; however, as it relates to our suspicion of the current "fact autocracy," I think we'd be in agreement.

I am also generally in agreement with your emphasis on a representative sample somehow playing a larger part in the political/decision-making process. In fact I wrote about this exact thing (albeit much less eloquently) here:

But you even have a problem with that process, because ultimately we are all (largely) downstream of an education and a culture that has taught us that we are nothing more than molecules in motion; which means that your average person on the street has, even unconsciously, been shaped by the absolutism of materialism. Even though you may hook random fish, they're all still swimming in the same pool of thought - which is probably why everyone seems so happy to have a magisterium of scientists in charge.

And even if you are able to achieve a truly representative opinion from the people, whose to say we haven't sunk to a level as a society where the collective ambitions of the people are not actually the best thing for the people? Again you are faced with the problem of absolutes. Can the whims of the majority be that absolute?

All that being said, you've got some really compelling thoughts here Chris, really happy to read through this.

Goodness *two* comments, in one day! That hasn't happened here at Only a Game in many a year! :)

RodeoClown: Aye, this distinction between 'is' and 'ought' originates in the work of the Scottish philosopher David Hume. It is usually taken to be something of a fatal argument towards moral thinking... but it really shouldn't. Interestingly, when Hume revised his main text of philosophy, he removed this element. I rather suspect it was being used in a way he hadn't intended! :)

Benjamin: Thank you for your commentary here, and I will look into your link as soon as I get through my work tasks for the week. And, for what it's worth, I am highly resistant to materialist ontology, which seems to me entirely misleading and confused. I have been very heavily swayed by Alfred North Whitehead, whose influence is finally being felt, about a century after he did the work. Such is the pacing of philosophy. :)

My unlimited love to you both!


This is a delightful piece as always.

At the outset, let me state what I think you're *not* arguing:

Firstly, while you claim we are all equals in some holistic sense, you make no claim we are all equal in abilities (that is, in any person's capability to intentionally effect change).

Secondly, you seem to discuss values as subjective judgments where there exists significant disagreement -- perhaps subjects like a society's nuanced approaches toward taxation, education, freedom of expression and so forth. Values like "don't kill random people for selfish reasons" are pretty universal, and it seems you're not arguing for some absolute moral relativity where psychopaths' values are as valid as everyone else's.

In general, I can agree that most values are subjective, and in this respect we must all be treated as equals; no one has an inherent right to impose their values on others.

But you seem to extend this reasoning into the implementation of values -- that is, the concrete actions we take to best manifest our values in material ways, like how political decisions are made. Here, I claim it's not even close; the "elites" (that is, those with specialized skills relevant to a given task at hand) -- massively outperform random people without qualifications, provided they're operating in good faith, of course.

For example -- in California, at least -- we do not choose twelve random people for trial; there is a pool of random people for the prosecution and defense attorneys to more or less choose from: specialist lawyerly expertise is exercised to best approximate a fair trial. (The murder trial on which I was not selected to serve had over a hundred potential jurors).

Expertise is also gained over time. Politicians, once elected, gain experience in how the machinery of government actually works, often becoming more effective at implementing the values their constituents elected them for (and please allow me to elide a discussion about the sorry state of American political campaign finance -- my understanding is that, unlike the USA, you Brits fund political campaigns purely with taxpayer funds like civilized folk, leading elected officials to be comparatively responsive to voters. In America, politicians are mostly beholden to what we lovingly term the "donor class").

And if you impugne politicians for being overly reliant on persuasion -- or "the brutal battleground of opinion", if you prefer -- consider that persuasion is also a crucial skill for job candidates, romantic partners, and almost everything that involves cooperation. For those aspects of our society we place in the domain of government, what better method have we than to let politicians argue for some approximation of our values at the party or the candidate level -- where a rich person's vote is of equal value to that of a poor person -- and then give the victorious candidates a few years to focus on how to implement those values? Today's press is still pretty vigilant, and we, the people get to judge our representatives in the court of persuasion come next term.

As a voter in California, I participate in the local direct democracy experiment every two years by voting on Propositions. This mechanism does allow voters to effect change that politicians, as a group, are disincentivized to make (specifically, I am proud to say we were able to take the redrawing of voting districts away from the politicians in power and give it to a nonpartisan committee, thus preventing the party in power from remaining in power -- in part -- by grouping voters such that their majority representation is much safer). However, many Propositions are obvious ploys to dupe unwitting voters into government action our elected representatives would know better than to undertake.

Democracy in the sense of empowering "random unqualified folks to implement values" is a sham. Random people usually don't have the time, ability or interest to gain expertise in dealing with the decisions society's leaders face.

Perhaps in the UK scientists could be said to be the ruling class; here in America it's more or less oligarchs all the way down. (Consider that climate change denialism was the position of the status quo decades after scientific consensus was achieved). For what it's worth, at least most American oligarchs are beholden to shareholders, who are in turn usually beholden to consumers.

Thanks for keeping up your always-interesting blogging project, and I hope my response wasn't too pessimistic, and didn't inadvertently straw-man your position!

Hi Nathan,
Thank you for this thoughtful riposte, within which you allege that democracy (as empowering "random unqualified folks") is a sham - that's quite a claim! I shall be very glad to explain why I do not think this piece entails quite that conclusion...

First, let me congratulate you and other Californians in successfully stopping an attempt at gerrymandering. This is a pernicious political tool which I tend to associate with the 19th century, but which has been used more and more often in the US in recent decades. I cannot help but wonder if we do not need to produce more robust defences against this. But alas, it seems gerrymandering is not constrained to voting districts, but can in fact be used to massage the shape of entire political issues, especially wherever politics and the sciences collide - a problem for which Bruno Latour already shone a light, but that I did entirely appreciate the severity of the risks until recently. On this front, I should bite my tongue and wait for January... Please accept my apologies for even foreshadowing a topic I'm not yet ready to discuss! The time will come for this...

On to your specific objection:

"Random people usually don't have the time, ability or interest to gain expertise in dealing with the decisions society's leaders face."

In a sense, this is true - but it is also true that the vast majority of politicans don't have the time, ability, or interest to gain expertise in dealing with the decisions that society's leaders face. So as an objection, this strikes me as one that doesn't travel very far indeed. Either it amounts to saying that just government is essentially impossible, or at the very least it highlights a suite of problems we need to solve regardless of whether random people or career politicians are charged with attempting to govern (hopefully the latter!).

You argue that "Politicians, once elected, gain experience in how the machinery of government actually works, often becoming more effective at implementing the values their constituents elected them for..." I don't see this happening, to be honest. Some politicians are indeed good at representing their constituents in terms of giving them a voice in parliament or some similar legislative body - but these politicians also wield next to zero political power. In the UK, these politicians (and we thankfully have a few!) take tremendous flak from those who hold the reigns whenever they try to speak up, precisely because they are such an inconvenience to the establishment at large in doing whatever it happens to want at any given time.

Political power is wielded primarily by those who will turn their attention away from the challenges of representing constituents and into the strategic engagements of the wider political battlefield. So the claim that politicians are gaining experience at implementing the values of their constituents strikes me as essentially false - because the ones that gain enough power to implement anything only do so by giving up their relationship with their constituents, discarding them like a used booster rocket to work instead on the big political power struggles.

Thus the objection that politicians are experienced and random people are not doesn't really work for me, as the experience that politicians are gaining at implementing legislation is severed from their relationship to their constituents almost entirely, such that what they implement is not what reflects their constituents values at all... That for me is a fatal political problem right there!

I think I can make it clear why your objection isn't as severe as it seems by pointing out that it is not politicians that implement policy. Nor is it politicians that investigate policy. Nor is it politicians that instigate actual policy. In fact, the involvement of politicians in policy is extremely minimal - although highly parallel with the involvement a CEO of a corporation has in implementing operational changes. They may bark a command and point a finger... but they do none of the legwork.

Almost everything in the context of policy is handled by civil servants, either professional lifetime civil servants (we have a whole community of those in the UK) or by agencies and such that perform these roles of investigating, advising, and (if it proceeds) implementing. The main thing a politician contributes in such cases is a decision, based upon what they have been told by the civil servants. And since the politician has to be educated in understanding what is going on more-or-less 100% of the time, I can see little difference between this arrangement and pulling together a dozen (or whatever a good number might be) citizens by lottery to resolve each decision on the merits. Indeed, the random citizens are far more likely to give each decision its due, precisely because they are only charged with making one decision!

At the very least, the random people might be less swayed by political (which is to say commercial) influence because they would be in play for less time (less than a month in each case, perhaps just a day or two) and therefore less able to be greased. At the most, the random people might actually be able to make political decisions in ways strikingly more democratic than those of a politician precisely for that one reason. I mean, whatever you make of this claim in broadstrokes, you will be hard-pressed to eliminate a priori this possibility, which is the very essence of what this piece ended up exploring. (It was not, I think, what it was about when I started writing it, mind you...)

I am not throwing my hat all the way into the ring on political sortition. But I think it viable, I think it truly deserves the name democracy, and frankly, I think we ought to start trying it out and seeing if it does in fact resolve some of the problems we are currently facing in terms of the purchase of political power and the flattening of the citizen's role to choosing between (say) two terrible presidents. There are plenty of opportunities for us to try this out and see if and how it works in practice. I'd like to see that happening as soon as possible.

Of course, I'm wildly idealistic! Yet, I am not impractical about how I do it. I increasingly suspect that career politicians may be the greatest barrier to democracy... so perhaps we should start experimenting with democracy that does not need them. We can start small, if you like, it will be far easier to do that than overthrow our existing power structures! But I don't think we can continue to accept the status quo, nor to expect elected officials (especially in the US) to bite down hard enough on the hands that feed them to effect change.

Perhaps it's time for a return to democracy.

With great thanks to you for engaging on this piece,


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