Consensus Building and the Monolectic vs. Dialectic Distinction

 In Building Knowledge, Our Global Society

For this post, I want to explain the distinction between monolectical consensus-building, which involves finding a single source to build consensus around, and dialectical thinking, which involves building consensus through the synthesis of perspectives.  The term “dialectic” and grammatical variations such as “dialectical” have been used for centuries in philosophical discourse and were used extensively by Kant, Hegel, and Marx and their intellectual successors.  The Greek words from which this term derives mean something like “to gather across”, which signifies that we are gathering ideas across multiple perspectives so as to accumulate them into a fuller conception of reality that incorporates them all.  The term “monolectic” is quite new to philosophical discourse, and it can be understood to mean “to gather into one”.  This new term is intended to refer to epistemic processes that gather disparate ideas and beliefs toward an optimal set of beliefs that supersedes the others.  Before explaining these two concepts in more detail, we will need to consider the different ways in which people can come to agree with each other so as to build consensus around some idea, proposition, or perspective.

Any episteme that is even partially mutually understandable must have a reliable process for building consensus.  There has to be some sort of a way for people to come to agreements with each other, otherwise the episteme is purely subjective because it ultimately comes down to each individual’s point of view and their idiosyncratic conceptions of reality.  One of the main goals of this project is to minimize unnecessary conflicts and to promote peace through improved communication and understanding, which is why consensus building is so important.  There are multiple ways of building consensus, which might take place within communities of practitioners or within classroom settings where the teacher is giving instructions or in public forums where people present their perspectives and try to get others to understand their point of view.

Some might read this and wonder why we don’t just hold up the truth and promote the basic facts as the basis for consensus.  Do we want consensus, or do we want the truth?  Of course, it makes sense that we wouldn’t want to build consensus around falsehoods, but there is a problem in framing this so simply around a simplistic and naïve distinction between truth and falsehood that is supposedly as clear as night and day and is always self-evident for everyone to see.  The most important things in life are not quite so cut-and-dry.  Sure, it is easy enough to just say let’s have consensus around the truth and facts.  It certainly makes sense that reality should be our ground for consensus, but what we’re concerned about it how to figure out what is the truth.  It does not work for a person to say that they have the truth, the whole truth, and that everyone should just recognize this because it is so self-evident and obvious.  It does not work for a person to simply figure that everyone who disagrees is just wrong.  We need to acknowledge that there have to be identifiable processes that we can rely on to get people to recognize the truth.  Also, from a metamodern orientation, we acknowledge that there are going to at best be partial truths within our public discourse and that these are colored by people’s perspectives.  We need reliable processes for getting people to mostly agree upon the facts, and we also need to accept that there are limits to our ability to know the full and detailed truth and there are also a lot of hurdles to overcome in conveying the facts to other people.  This applies even in situations where a person does have a very solid, detailed, and appropriately contextualized understanding of certain things, because there is no automatic way for other people to download this information into their own minds.  Also, we often think that we know more than we actually do and we sometimes need the help of others to recognize the limits of our own understanding.  As such, simply speaking of “facts” and “truth” can sometimes erect additional hurdles because it sometimes blinds people to the nuanced processes that are necessary to properly convey their knowledge to others.

We can now consider the different possible ways of building consensus, not all of which are rational.  Perhaps the most straightforward means of building consensus would be through unchallengable and dogmatic belief in tradition or in what is written in some book or in some person’s authority.  Epistemes that are based on dogma simply involve people accepting certain beliefs as a matter of blind faith.  This has the effect of building consensus among likeminded people within a belief community, but the ability to expand this consensus is rather limited, unless one resorts to violence or threats, which was often the way that dogmatic beliefs were spread in ancient and medieval times.  Also, there is a lot of evidence that if one has enough power and privilege in society, they can brainwash significant numbers of people into agreeing with their message by simply repeating it over and over through media that have broad reach and a large potential audience.  We have also seen a lot of examples where powerful people were able to build public consensus by coercively silencing opposing views so that their messages are not widely available in public discourse.  Authoritarian political regimes and societies where wealth and power are concentrated in very few hands tend to have more of this subtle form of mind control, wherein common people tend to consent to the will of the powerful without fully realizing that they are being manipulated through propaganda.

If this consensus-building process isn’t based on anyone’s authority nor on dogmatic adherence to traditional beliefs and if the information ecosystem allows for free flows of ideas, then people need to be rationally convinced to believe in these ideas on their own accord.  An episteme that doesn’t rely on any of the irrational tactics mentioned just above would probably need to have convincing power in the form of reason or evidence that anyone can come to understand or observe or replicate.  Perhaps the most reliable way of building consensus through rational means is by using pure deductive logic and reason.  This is quite effective within educational institutions since the teacher can explain the rules for logically deriving conclusions and because it simply does not make sense to challenge any conclusions that are based on sound reasoning, wherein no logical fallacies are committed.  However, this purely logical approach has limited applicability because it doesn’t usually apply to anything we and observe nor to any practical situations.  Pure logic always requires axioms and postulates to start, and these cannot themselves be derived from pure logic.  Any axioms and postulates that might serve as the starting point for the deductive reasoning process must be known through other means, such as observation or tradition or authority, and anything of this sort can be the subject of dispute.

One person might observe something, and others might not believe her if they didn’t also personally make the same observation.  We cannot personally observe and verify every point of information that is important to our lives, so we do sometimes need to believe the claims made by others.  Hearsay alone is not an effective means of consensus-building.  It might be possible to at least to have enough public understanding of the information gathering and vetting processes that the experts employ so that one can come to reasonably trust the results.  There are heuristics that people can rationally employ to scrutinize public information and for each person to judge for themselves the likelihood of the veracity of claims and this can allow well-informed and reasonable people to come to agreements regarding what is most likely going on in some matters of public interest and in current events that few people could personally witness or verify.  When common people learn to think a bit like investigative journalists, they can develop a certain measure of reliable agreement regarding what is going on in the world.

The most reliable way of building consensus for observable phenomena involves the scientific method and the institutions that practice it.  Modern science gives us the power to build consensus through the gathering of evidence, the publication of findings with tentative conclusions, and the invitation for other researchers to reproduce experiments, wherein they might or might not come to similar conclusions.  If enough experiments are conducted and enough corroborating evidence is gathered, people tend to accept the accuracy, or at least the usefulness, of a scientific theory.  It is true that even the most well-attested theories can eventually be replaced by better ones, but people usually tend to believe in scientific results and theories that have demonstrated their usefulness.  There are inevitably disputes about the finer details of any scientific field, and we can note that consensus does not require absolute unanimity among all specialists within a given field.  The process overall is quite reliable for consensus-building on the most significant aspects of physics, chemistry, and biology, and this is also true to a lesser extent as it relates to the human sciences such as psychology, sociology, and economics.

While dogmatic religion, mathematics, journalism, and science are quite different in many important ways, all of those have something in common: consensus-building can be reliably achieved through the assumption that some people’s beliefs and perspectives can be mostly or entirely incorrect and there are epistemic processes for discovering the most accurate beliefs, which serve as the engine for compelling more and more people to discard their ignorant beliefs and accept the consensus.  Within modern science, the consensus certainly changes over time, and it is not supposed to be based on authority or dogma or going along with the crowd, but there is still this overarching assumption that there are knowable factors that sort out what are the most reasonable conclusions from those that don’t have evidentiary support.

Each of these reliable consensus-building processes have built-in ways to get people to coalesce around shared beliefs because they have standards for determining which should be accepted and which should be discarded.  Each of the epistemes has ways to weed out inaccurate claims, ideas, and false beliefs, or at least they each have some way for certain beliefs to be considered authoritative.  In each case, it might be the case that one person has the correct answer and there are processes to get everyone else to understand this.  It might also be the case that nobody knows the correct answer and there are processes to teach them all.  It might be the case that everyone has completely inaccurate beliefs and these can be weeded out.  It might even be the case that a single person can use these methods to figure out entirely on their own what is the most accurate information and then to convince large numbers of people by explaining how they derived their conclusions.

This might seem perfectly natural, and it might not seem to even be possible that things could work otherwise.  After all, if there are mind-independent facts, which are things that have to be true regardless of what anyone thinks or believes to be the case.  These are usually objective, but this might perhaps even include some things that are intersubjective, such as certain ethical matters.  We have to acknowledge that some beliefs are closer to the truth than others and that some people just have the wrong beliefs and that they would benefit from having more accurate beliefs.  However, this is all based on propositional knowing, wherein some propositions are certainly more accurate than others.  If we consider perspectival knowing, then it is more difficult to consider what perspectives are more accurate than others.  A person’s perspective on certain matters incorporates their thoughts, feelings, desires, values, and related aspects of their cultural background and experiences in life.  It is often that a person’s perspective includes propositions that might be inaccurate, but it is not so simple to say that any of their perspectives in life could just simply be entirely inaccurate.  It is also likely that each person has unique perspectives that need to be given special consideration so that we can develop a deeper and more comprehensive picture of objective reality and also the intersubjective reality that would be the mutually understandable aggregate of each person’s inner world.

Bringing together people’s perspectives requires constructive dialogue and synthesizing perspectives, which is called a dialectic.  With a dialectical process, each perspective gives some understanding that needs to be incorporated into the greater synthesis rather than weeded out and each person’s perspective is grown to incorporate all others, and this can eventually lead to mutual understanding and consensus-building without anyone necessarily discarding their prior perspectives.  For propositional knowing, consensus-building relies on a process we can call monolectic, which often involves examining the propositions that are embedded within each person’s perspective and setting the record straight and building more detailed propositional knowing within each person’s mind through epistemic processes that don’t take into account each individual’s perspectives because that is not relevant to the matter at hand.  For science and math and also for dogmatic religion, a person’s perspective is not important to arrive at the most accurate beliefs, so these can be pruned away in order to build consensus.

Dialectical thinking necessarily requires multiple people with different perspectives and each person working to understand certain aspects of the inner world of each person that they are interacting with.  This is because is not possible for any single person to develop deeper, more complex, and more comprehensive perspectives entirely on their own without engaging in dialogue with other conscious and self-reflective beings.  The dialectical process involves considering other points of view to challenge one’s own point of view.  The idea is that different perspectives can be more accurate and more inaccurate than others in some cases, but none are 100% accurate nor 100% inaccurate because there is always something gained by incorporating other perspectives even if one of them happens to be mostly wrong.

The perspectives are put into context and there is an inherently greater understanding from seeing how another sees things and the personal experiences and cultural symbols that are wound up within each perspective.  By default, each of us only has our own perspective to draw from, but the dialectical process can develop additional perspectives without losing any, and this can then afford better propositional knowledge for each person as well.  This is why certain phenomena can only be adequately addressed through some sort of dialectic and that analytic and scientific processes are inadequate to understand certain aspects of life.

Dialectical thinking is based on the principle that any conception that one might have in mind can only be some imperfect and partial representation of reality.  No mental representation can ever fully capture reality.  This entails that every conceptualized system, every set of beliefs, and every worldview inevitably leaves things out.  There is always something lacking, some inconsistencies, and perhaps even some incoherence in every set of conceptual beliefs.  This is not a personal failing on anyone’s part.  This is just the nature of conceptual thought.  This shortcoming, inconsistency, or lack of coherence is what ensures that every level of mental development can be surpassed.  The lack is the door that opens into a larger more inclusive level of insight and development.

The goal is that dialectical thinking would tend toward less one-sidedness in thought, less ideological exclusivity, less hardening around one’s own position, and less opposition to the views of others.  In general, a dialectic occurs when one considers notions that are inconsistent with and seemingly contradictory to their existing beliefs and perspective on some matter or where one considers two or more possible concepts that seem incompatible with each other.  The competing perspectives, which we can call the thesis and the antithesis, are then synthesized in a way that removes the contradiction and the synthesis includes and transcends both the thesis and the antithesis.

One type of real-life scenario would involve two or more people who disagree, or perhaps two camps of people who are at odds with each other on some contentious issue who go through the dialectical process, through which everyone carefully takes into account the other camp’s perspective and try to understand the factors that led to them having this perspective on things.  This process can ideally result in all parties essentially merging their perspectives and synthesizing their opinions so that each of them walks away with their own perspective integrated with the other’s perspective.

[i] Some of this comes from Steven White in the Metamodern forum

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