The Idea of Consensus

Today, there is much in modern society that is argued, and agreed, based on some perceived ‘consensus of opinion’, although we might have to considered the nature of this consensus in the context of past, present and future developments. However, let us start with a general semantic breakdown of this phrase beginning with the word ‘consensus’:

Consensus is a noun, which is usually intended to signify some general level of agreement achieved within some group. By way of synonyms, we might cite other words like accord, unanimity, solidarity or simply like-mindedness.

However, the scope of the group implied in the note above can encompass agreement between two individuals, small communities, nation-states or even some wider global consensus. Consensus may be sought on any number of issues, which may range from the frivolous to the profound, although we shall try to focus on the more important issues that may come to affect future developments. Consensus may also be considered in terms of its quality and quantity, where the consensus of a group of experts might be perceived to carry more ‘weight of authority’ than some arbitrary and uninformed group. Given this potential scope, we might recognise that the idea of a consensus may become increasingly ambiguous as the size of the group is expanded, irrespective of whether this group is informed or uninformed, even if we assume that debate is not suppressed. The other word in the opening phrase was ‘opinion’, which also needs some possible definition.

Opinion is also a noun that expresses a view or judgement about some issue, which is not necessarily based on fact or knowledge. Again, we might cite other synonyms, e.g. belief, judgement, viewpoint, attitude, perspective.

It is said that western languages are often biased towards nouns, whereas other languages can be biased more towards verbs. As such, it might be argued that Western languages like to give things and concepts names, which it is assumed infers some meaning, and therefore some understanding of the thing or concept being discussed, although this latter assumption may need to be further questioned. However, if the ‘consensus of opinion’ does represent some collective position, we also need to understand the history as to how this collective position or worldview was formed, i.e. its cultural context, which may have involved both education as well as indoctrination. Likewise, an apparent consensus does not necessarily have to represent a majority view as history suggests that powerful minorities have often simply imposed their worldview on a broader majority. Therefore, within this historical context, we might also consider the development of a collective cultural worldview in terms of three fundamental components, i.e. theology, philosophy and science. We might then describe the nature of any consensus within each component as follows:

  • Theology represents ideas or assumptions based on belief.
  • Philosophy represents ideas or assumptions based on logic.
  • Science represents ideas or assumptions based on facts.

Of course, at this stage, these definitions are not intended to be taken too literally, as aspects of belief, logic and fact underpin all three components of any worldview, which can then be subject to much variation. Again, it might be recognised that we have introduced yet more names of concepts in the list above, which it is assumed infers some meaning, although it is recognised that there may be a considerable variation of understanding of each word. Therefore, some initial clarification is possibly required.

  • Belief: We might simply define a belief as a position that does not necessarily have any tangible supportive evidence. However, in this context, a belief is not confined to theology as it might be seen to exist in a philosophical conjecture or scientific hypothesis.

  • Philosophy: Is often perceived to require some form of logical reasoning, e.g. deductive or inductive, but which may not necessarily have any tangible supportive evidence. Again, we might recognise that theological beliefs may cite varying degrees of philosophical logic, while scientific hypothesis may rest primarily on mathematical deductive logic.

  • Science: The idea of a fact is usually assumed to be supported by empirical evidence that can be cross-checked by others. However, we might separate the nature of a fact into various categories, where the degree of certainty in the verification process may be more subjective, e.g. anecdotal evidence versus empirical evidence. Of course, history tells us that scientific facts are constantly being revised and therefore may also come with no absolute certainty.

So, what might we initially conclude about all these words?

In the discussion to follow, it will be argued that the very idea of consensus may be problematic for a variety of reasons, which the previous introduction has only alluded. For the scope of any consensus is often based on limited information compounded by different cultural and social norms, where consensus has often been ‘engineered’ by a powerful minority to support their own worldview, or possibly more simply their own self-interests, such that any alternative perspective is supressed. While this may appear to be a negative summation, there are numerous historical examples of this type of engineering of a consensus in order to maintain either religious or political power. It is therefore possibly naïve to assume that such problems are not manifest in present-day society. However, the danger of ‘engineering a consensus ’ might be expressed in much more blunt language, i.e. the majority are fooled by ignorance or an inability to understand the issues at hand, such that their opinion can be manipulated, even if sought. We might attempt to described the first part of this problem in the words of William Clifford, written in 1877.

“The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them, for then it must sink back into savagery. It may matter little to me, in my cloud-castle of sweet illusions and darling lies; but it matters much to Man that I have made my neighbours ready to deceive. The credulous man is father to the liar and the cheat."

While Clifford’s choice of words may appear overly dramatic in the modern context, the ‘danger to society’ may still be real enough, if future developments are predicated on an ill-formed or easily deceived ‘consensus of opinion’. Today, we might recognise the issue of ‘fake news’, which may be engineered based on a new generation of AI manipulation and then widely distributed via the Internet. Of course, the real danger of any consensus may be based on the presumption of certainty that often accompanies any wide-spread acceptance, especially if primarily based on ill-informed opinion. Again, history tells us that previous generations have often been certain of specific beliefs, such that their apparent consensus would not tolerate debate, even though many of the beliefs were subsequently proved wrong. In this respect, we might summarise the limitations of certainty in the words of Voltaire (1694-1778):

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.

However, there is possibly another more serious problem surrounding the idea of any perceived consensus, which might be characterised in the form of the next question.

Is the idea of any large-scale consensus simply an illusion?

It is recognised that many will reject this initial inference as being far too negative, although it may be conceded that the real nature of any consensus might lie in a compromise. However, while some powerful group may compromise on some issues in order to reach any agreement, it is often with the condition that their primary objectives are not put at risk. If we are to pursue this possibly contentious argument, we need to better define the nature of a ‘primary objective’, which may initially be considered in terms of simple self-interest, but then expanded to include the wider goals of some political or economic ideology. If so, we need to consider the real scope of consensus and the framework within which it is assumed to have been established.