Can truth be democratised? It should be obvious: of course not! The truth is the truth! But it isn’t that simple is it? Sometimes we can all look at exactly the same situation and disagree passionately on its interpretation.
I think the real answer is yes, and ‘truth’ already is democratised, along with its derivative, knowledge. We redefine truth daily based on our own prejudices, which grew based on the ‘truths’ we consumed yesterday. Today, with all the zillions of blogs, online encyclopedias and forums, raw data is generally lost, altered, cherry-picked, filtered, otherwise corrupted or swamped by the tide of interpretation. Our views are inevitably based on this interpreted information, but our natures make us tend mostly to read stuff that fits comfortably with our existing viewpoints. In a glut of opinion and data at any level of digestion, this self-reinforcement can lock us deeper and deeper into a mindset. If there is any ‘absolute truth’, we can no longer easily find it or identify it – we have to search hard, and in a busy schedule, few of us bother to do that very often. This is very dangerous. The bulk of the population will tend to be pulled in whatever direction the weight of opinion is facing and that is determined as much by the pre-existing weight of opinion as by any actual ‘truth’. When true objectivity is scarce, we only progress in random walks and often we head backwards.
Disagreement about the raw facts of a situation happens every day in the media and politics of course. Journalists or politicians commenting on exactly the same event routinely draw opposite conclusions by looking at the same visual inputs via very different filters. Whatever ‘actually’ happened, happened, but the ‘actually’ bit is very much is open to discussion since it depends on how it was observed and by whom – who or what will each of us choose to believe? We are long used to such filtering in media and politics, but now even in supposedly rational fields as diverse as climate change, basic physics, health and economics, the same polarisation is prominent. If we can’t even agree on the facts before our eyes, what chance do we have of proceeding towards a better future?
So we have democratisation of truth and democratisation of knowledge. At the most grass roots level, people can indulge themselves in a comfortable knowledge environment that really is little more than a self-reinforcing illusion. Even if we try to read broadly and get opinions from different points of view, the volume of opinion on one side or another still carries some influence. It takes a great deal of discipline and a thick skin to stay with a minority view, and also quite a lot of expertise in that specific field on which to base your input selections and weightings. Going with the majority view is usually easier. But the majority view usually depends on what the majority view was yesterday, with pretty much random steering by celebrity opinion formers who essentially pop up at random, or worse still, by politicians, who by their nature are skilled at manipulating mass opinions. And who amongst us would think that the whims of politicians and celebrities necessarily offer the best route to a prosperous future?
This is not good. Random progress is no progress. We are bathed in democratised information; what should be the anchor of true scientific investigation has been hijacked by politics, which is always locked in an endless feedback loop with public opinion. Religion has long lost its hold on the wheel (thankfully, though at least it did give direction of sorts). And now in our modern world, there is extreme complexity of interaction between all the various forces of influence on each of us. If there is any rudder at all that determines the direction we head as a community, or nation, or indeed a civilisation, it is any random force that is self-reinforcing.
And that to me is terrifying. It isn’t, and perhaps even can’t be truth that drives us any more, it is now random self-reinforcing forces. We can be a little more descriptive of these forces. Ultimately, the ones that matter are ideas. Let’s call them self-reinforcing ideas, or SRIs to save my fingers (I don’t want to use the term ideology because it isn’t quite the same). Although I don’t always agree with Dawkins, one of his better ideas is the meme, and SRIs are a particular class of meme. If you haven’t come across memes before, check out his works. But it isn’t memes generally that I want to discuss now, it is only those ones that are SRIs.
So let’s identify a few self reinforcing ideas, SRIs: then you have a think too and come up with some more. If we are to be slaves to them, we should at least know their names.
The easiest to spot is religion. I don’t need to say why, you have almost certainly done the analysis many times yourself. It has been an important driver for most of humanity for millennia.
Another is science. Simple enough. Look at what appears to be happening and come up with some sort of theory to explain it, test it, test it again, share the results with others and let them test them. Argue strongly and carry on arguing, while all the while at least partly accepting and building on those results that seem to be most solid. Continue ad infinitum. This process has been self reinforcing because it has conspicuously worked for centuries and given us huge rewards. That is, until hijacked in the last decade by political forces and possibly now polluted to a degree where its repair may take many decades. It will struggle on, but its benefits will be lessened greatly. As an SRI, it is temporarily weakened.
Another whole set of SRIs springs from religion, or rather its substitution as religion has started to evolve into our modern world. A lot of the people driven by religion substitutes would hate to recognise them as such, but that if anything only adds to their efficacy, since the believer gets the added stroke of self-atributed rationalism. We have many religion substitutes, and they arise from the same inner engines and rewards of wanting to feel yourself to be a good person or that your life is somehow worthwhile and purposeful. Some of these are more personal and don’t spread well, such as vegetarianism. A vegetarian might feel better about themselves because they don’t eat animals, but the idea doesn’t spread as well as they might like because for most of us, the desire for meat is strong.
A similarly motivated desire is environmentalism. We tend to agree that it is good to care for the environment, so that makes it self-reinforcing. But there isn’t the same opposing force here. It satisfies the same need for ‘holiness’ that religion did, and there isn’t necessarily any large personal cost. We seek out affirmation that we are good for the environment, and look down on others who we think aren’t. But just as the world’s religions create denominations within themselves, and various levels of elite within those, if someone builds up another layer to climb on within environmentalism, then some will strive to occupy and defend that higher ground. This has conspicuously happened now. Entire belief systems have formed, their advocates have sought to protect and reinforce their influence and rival denominations have even formed within environmentalism.Today’s environmentalism shows many of the same forces, behaviours and inquisitions as medieval religion.
Political correctness is another SRI from the same mould, even though it has many threads. Even though people often recognise political correctness as a negative force, they can’t help getting sucked in. Certain parts of it appeal to our sense of fair play, but it is self reinforcing. As more people become politically correct, those left outside feel more ostracised until they feel obliged to conform. Conforming confers social acceptance and rewards the feeling of inner worth. If someone creates an even more politically correct form, some will race to occupy it, and then draw other in behind them. But although political correctness is today driven seemingly endlessly towards the left, it doesn’t really have any absolute goals. If everyone believes, you no longer get a reward for believing; the reward comes from doing or believing something that is somehow better than everyone else. So political correctness is inevitably driven by the extremes of the value sets at any point in time, and these will change over time. If it is defined by anything, it is the defence of minority interests. As I’ve argued often, it takes about 30 years for something to go from being totally unacceptable to fashionable. Today’s politically correct will in some cases be unacceptable thinking in 30 years time and vice versa. It is a random walk to nowhere, driven by the endless pursuit of something that is an illusion.
Economic and political ideologies are also heavily self reinforcing (and of course are linked), so you might think we’d all have come to the same conclusion by now about the best way to run an economy or organise ourselves. Of course the reason we haven’t is that none of them looks after everyone’s interests equally. They all favour one part of a community over others. Everyone says they want fairness, but most vote for those who promise to give them most, even if that will be at someone else’s expense. The selfishness forces fully usually offset the SRI forces. Usually. There are exceptions. Firstly, a charismatic new leader with bold and exciting new ideas can change things. We crave excitement, but even more than that we crave leadership. Communism was once such an idea, and led millions of people into poverty and oppression for decades by promising equality, fairness, and utopia. An SRI can win out over selfish forces if a strong enough leader takes it to critical mass. And once past critical mass, it drives itself.
I suspect very strongly that today’s liberalism will prove a repeat of that same false communist dream, and it has already achieved critical mass. It will drive us further and further to the left, dragging the centre of gravity as it goes, so that today’s centre becomes tomorrow’s right. Liberalism is a strong SRI, harnessing words like fairness and equality and progress, using religion substitutes as primary drivers, wrapping the wolf of oppression in clothing from the sheep of liberty, and relying on the fog from the democratisation of information to hide any evidence that it doesn’t work. I think it’s a bit like being drunk – motivators work better when inhibitions are reduced and judgement impeded. Liberalism is an SRI built for our age, thriving in the sea of democratised knowledge and political correctness, harnessing human nature in pursuit of false dreams, and it may well take us all the way to catastrophic economic and social collapse. It’s already doing pretty well on that score.
But liberalism isn’t the only player. While it may drag the West on an spiral downwards, the developing regions of the world have different pasts, and different SRIs are taking hold there. China is coming to the end of it communist era, discovering at last that people are actually motivated less by equality of misery and more so by the prospect of personal prosperity via personal effort. Capitalism is their SRI now, though it will certainly develop with different characteristics. India, Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, will all develop differently too, with quite different characters because they have very different situations. I don’t know enough about any of these regions to identify appropriate SRIs there. So the West may decline, but the rest of the world may well improve and eventually our SRIs will be driven by looking at their prosperity and starting to value their ideas over our failed ones. They’ll look fresh again by then.
SRIs are very powerful forces, but the world is large and diverse, and big enough for competing ones to exist and act in parallel. There are very few things that all countries agree on, and even the pursuit of common interests is often a weak force compared to local SRIs. But in an otherwise random walk, it is SRI’s that drive change, and most of us are little more than helpless passengers waiting to see where they will take us.
We can at least look out of the windows on our journey. Human nature is an excellent starting point both in identifying SRIs and working out their mechanisms. By Human Nature, I mean those internal brain architectures, perceptive processes, and even hormonal systems that determine how external ideas get processed into individual thoughts and eventual action. Maslow and many psychologists since have identified some of our major needs and rewards and I don’t want to list or debate them here. But whatever they are, SRI’s fit onto them and use them to grow and spread.
But I come back to my starting point. The highly dangerous democratisation of knowledge that we have today sets us on an almost random walk. The direction of drift is determined by self reinforcing ideas. We can identify those, even if we can’t control them. And they are so powerful that very few people individually can have any real control over them. If we are to regain control over our own civilisation, we will need great leaders. Till they come, we will be dragged happily towards our peril, deluded that we are heading to some promised land. And I just don’t see those leaders. Do you?