I thought I would share a version of an email I wrote a little while ago. I help to organise my research group's weekly seminars - the idea has, broadly, been to foster an open space in which to discuss things of a less technical nature. Recently, however, one of the profs raised some concerns about people making less substantiated or emotional statements. It got me to thinking about how or whether these two goals reconcile. In any case it reminded me of the discussions around the Sam Altman post from a while back, and just hubski's mantra/culture in general.
Of late I have been thinking quite broadly about issues around debate, discussion and opinion. It seems perhaps a bit trite but it appears to me that in many spheres of public discourse we seem to be constantly bombarded with people disagreeing with one another and a fair amount of the vitriol that often accompanies such disagreements.
Whether the nature of public discourse now is any different to how it was in the past is not really something I have the experience to say – in any case I mention this state only inasmuch as it forms a contextual basis for discourse writ large.
The main point is that it feels self-evidently necessary to have discussions which are worthwhile (constructive?) as opposed to pointless – from the national level down to the interpersonal. The question is then what form a worthwhile, valuable or constructive discussion should take. In order to begin to answer this question we must unpack a number of issues – knowledge, perception, opinion, experience and truth are all elements which form part of this muddle.
With that in mind I want to put forward a few of the nascent ideas I have had around all these and their relationships with one another. I do not for a minute believe the thinking is "complete" nor even necessarily consistent. But hopefully it can be food for thought amongst us all, and something which may stimulate (recursively) some discussion.
The dynamics of opinion
My first contention is about belief and opinion. It may seem paradoxical but in the moment where a person expresses an opinion of theirs, I think it is impossible for them to not simultaneously believe that opinion to be true. Consider the converse – that it is possible. What would this look like, in terms of cognition and expression? I make a statement: “I believe the world to be this way”, but in my heart of hearts I believe that it is in fact a different way – in this case I have simply not expressed the opinion that I actually believe, but I still have a certain truth that I hold on to.
There are some edge cases to this theory: I believe thing A as well as thing B, but these happen to be logically inconsistent. In this case I am suffering from cognitive dissonance, which is in fact the exact paradox I am attempting to describe – the situation where, because A and B are both my opinions, I must hold both to be true regardless of their inconsistency (the stability of such a situation is a separate issue).
The reason I mention this oddity is that it naturally plays itself out whenever two people engage in a debate – both people have different beliefs, but their beliefs are equally true to themselves. Of course, beliefs can change, but during this process one’s internal truth remains intact – I was wrong but I can never be wrong (in the sense I am describing here).
On a personal level, I know that my opinion has changed for many things over the years. To me this firstly signifies that I really shouldn’t clutch my current opinion with too much force, regardless of the fact that I must believe it – and for anyone interested is also the reason why I much prefer playing Devil’s advocate than actually expressing my real opinion.
Note that this is related, but subtly different to the idea that “we are all ignorant”. To my mind, ignorance implies that there is some truth we are not aware of. I think my point is that “truth” is not really what we are after, but rather the ability to see opinions/beliefs as malleable and ductile.
Furthermore, I am explicitly not saying that we can never know anything or that there is no universal truth. What perhaps is questionable is the conflation of individual truth and universal truth.
The dynamics of perception
My second contention is that what constitutes this individual truth is influenced by perception in ways that are very fundamental to the acquisition of knowledge. Without getting into the philosophy too deeply, it seems fair to me that we can only really know the world which we perceive: Sartre said that “consciousness and the world are given in the same blow” and I tend to agree. Because, however, our own consciousnesses are all different in any myriad ways, does it not follow that we all perceive equally valid yet irreconcilably different worlds?
Consider the case of languages with different conceptualisations of colour – in Japanese for example (I am told), there is only one word which captures both blue and green. So to a Japanese person, the sky and the trees appear to be the same colour (or at least, shades of the same colour) in a way that is not the case for others. The point is that our perceptions in turn are modulated by a number of different things which are probably unique for every person, although there may be similarities among people who share the same way of interpreting aspects of the world.
This idea needs to be borne in mind very strongly when we begin to discuss things with the idea of reaching a consensus or advancing our understanding – that the sky and the trees have different wavelengths of light is largely irrelevant in terms of the effect it will have on our perceptions. Consensus in this context becomes more of a practicable understanding of how everyone sees the issue, rather than everyone seeing it the same way. Otherwise stated, at which point do our different lived experiences of the same physical world imply that a “rational” basis might not be able to accommodate all “worldviews”? Hence the need for a different basis.
On axioms and substantiation
One of my friends often has stories of his classmate with a fringe political ideology. I never want to meet the guy because him and I apparently do not see eye to eye on some very fundamental issues – things like whether equality is an ideal etc. Inasmuch as it seems like one’s deepest-downest ethics are not really based on anything else, it follows that we probably won’t ever agree on some things unless one of us changes our foundational ethics.
The reason I bring this up is because I think it’s often pointless to try and debate something if we can’t agree on the axioms which underpin the discussion. In other words, it’s a different kettle of fish to disagree on the way in which the idea that “all men are created equal” should manifest itself than to disagree about that same statement: on the one hand can be a discussion of how to navigate redress/affirmative action when all should be equal, on the other hand live “race realists” and eugenicists. No prizes for guessing which of the two debates I am not interested in having.
Tying it back to consensus building (i.e. the process I mentioned above), it seems to me that we stand to benefit the most in terms of a discussion when we attempt to drill down into opinions and dissect the axioms/justifications on which they are based – regardless of what form these axioms may take, from feelings to data. Note how this flips around the traditional academic notion of substantiation – in this mode we move from the starting point that the justification exists somewhere (i.e. I must hold my opinions to be true) and seek instead to expose and interrogate it, rather than expect that everyone is explicitly aware of every belief or fact they base their worldview on.
The dynamics of spaces
Which brings us to the next question – what kind of spaces are conducive to this process? In order to answer this, we must first examine what it is that gives a space a certain nature. Firstly, there is the question of what kinds of opinions are admissible. This can be stated in terms of axioms as well: what are the axioms that we must assume to be shared in order to have a discussion that is meaningful. These are best defined in terms of what the stated goal of the space is: in a court environment, one assumes that everyone is reading and basing their arguments off the same laws. In a completely open, “anything goes” discussion there are no prescriptions. I have been sat in many plenary sessions during FeesMustFall protests in which the discussion moves from a very particular ideology, and where deviations from this are not appropriate.
I want to mention here that part of what I am getting at is that the classically liberal notion of free speech and open debate is in fact a very myopic way to consider discussion and discourse. In my view, what kinds of opinions are acceptable depends entirely on the nature of the space and more pertinently on the whims of the humans involved in that space. Note that I don’t think anyone has ever accused the Constitutional Court of being an “echo chamber” due to its deliberations being based on a single and human-defined set of axioms, i.e. the constitution.
What I am getting at is that setting up these axiomatic boundaries is exactly what constitutes defining a space. The idea that there is one universal set of rules which must define how we approach discussion and discourse is one which, I think, neglects to factor in the way that it is our relations with one another which shape our worldview, and not necessarily the prescriptions of a universal moral truth.
The second issue that must be addressed is a practical one: when the discussion does start to veer into the realm of inadmissible opinions, who will play the role of the arbiter? Arbitration is necessary because it is impossible to know a priori everything that is in the limits and everything that is outside the limits. This is also an issue of discipline in terms of the space being dynamically held together by those who constitute it. When an opinion is threatening to dissolve the space (via challenging the axioms that it is based on), this opinion can either be accepted or rejected (with the axioms then changing to accommodate this). In many ways this process of acceptance and rejection is the hallmark of a constructive discussion. How we fill such a role in the broader public discourse is however not clear…
Opinions are malleable, ductile and furthermore shaped by perception as well as reason. Opinions are not static. Nevertheless, any opinion held represents (for the time being) the holder’s truth. When different truths clash we can hopefully channel this clash in a way that allows both parties to walk away with an improved understanding of one another’s views, and occasionally with a new shared consensus.
Whether this will be possible depends heavily on who is involved in the discussion, mostly because our opinions are either explicitly or implicitly based on certain axioms. In order to have a constructive debate, what must be interrogated is not so much the opinion itself, but the chain of axiomatic justification which underpins it.
I hope that this exposition gives a little bit more structure to the kinds of questions which I certainly know have been milling around in the back of my head for a while. I found it valuable to try and analyse the things we find seem to represent competing or irreconcilable goals – open discussion vs knowledge-based; free speech vs safe spaces etc.