Democracy and the ‘Wisdom’ of Crowds

In an earlier post, “On political agnosticism”, I shared my struggle with participating in electoral politics in a way consistent with Platonic notions of justice. (Please understand that I am not advocating that anyone else adopt my practice of not-voting — perhaps it is my understanding of Platonic justice that is in error.) In this post, I want to think against myself a little bit.

Perhaps democratic elections are a phenomenon of the type described by James Surowiecki’s (excellent) book “The Wisdom of Crowds.”  There Surowiecki provides some vivid examples of crowds converging on truth through the aggregation of their untutored guessing. A few of the more impressive of his illustrations:

1. In 1906, the British scientist Francis Galton attended a livestock fair, which had as one of its diversions a contest to guess the weight of fat ox on display. The closest guess would win a prize. Each of the 800 contestants paid 6 pence each to enter the contest. The participants were a diverse lot. The crowd of guessers included some who might be presumed to have some particular expertise in reckoning weight such as butchers and cattle farmers, but a fair number of non-experts competed. The correct weight was 1197; the average guess of the crowd was 1198 — a nearly perfect guess!

2. In 1968, the U.S. submarine Scorpion disappeared in the North Atlantic and the Navy had only a vague idea of where it may have gone down. Although the search are was a seemingly manageable twenty miles in diameter, it may have well have been the entire ocean given the great depths involved (many thousands of feet). Something closer to pinpoint accuracy would be required to find a submarine on the bottom of the ocean. The Navy consulted a variety of experts with diverse forms of knowledge relevant to the task, not only submariners but oceanographers, meteorologists, mathematicians and salvage men. Again the results were aggregated (although this time not averaged but employing Bayesean updating of the original guess based on the various inputs.) When the submarine was originally found five months later, it was a mere 220 yards from the aggregated result.

Surely these two examples are impressive pieces of evidence for the value of the aggregation of guesses. Perhaps something similar happens in a democracy. You may be biased one way and I in another, so that, when we vote, our biases cancel and our best notions converge toward something like a good result. Perhaps good governance can be the emergent effect of a lot of good and bad surmises — the bad guesses tend to cancel and the good guesses tend to converge. (Since two opinions may or may not be in agreement; two knowers always are.) That is the hope that lies behind our faith in democracies, yes?

There is a problem though. The “wisdom of crowds” phenomenon is only effective if the guesses are uncorrelated with each other. For a democratic process to converge on wisdom, the voters must be diverse and independent of one another. But in a media saturated age, they rarely are. The voices of the loudest demagogues and media sources cause the aggregation of bias, and not distributed wisdom. The scandalized response of each side to the bias of the other side then tends to enforces each bias rather than cancelling it. So if we imagine independent opinion scattered in a bell-curve pattern around a virtuous mean position (which is a presupposition of the wisdom of crowds phenomenon) then the correlating of bias leads to the extremes to be favored over the virtuous mean. We get a choice between biases and not a choice that contributes to the dampening of bias. This is the absurd position toward which elections in the media-age lead us. Pick your poison.

You can see this problem of a contaminating correlations in committees. The wisdom of crowds only function if there is sufficient diversity of opinion in the group. Assuming that diversity exists (i.e. rarely), a vote should be taken right away, before anyone sways the opinion of anyone else. This is not what happens. Instead, the committee will discuss the issue; and the less confident will become swayed by the more confident, decreasing the diversity and increasing the correlation with the bias of the more confident. When the vote is taken, the dominant bias is confirmed, the very bias that we hope to eliminate by aggregating diverse opinions. Committees often produce results that are dumber than the sum of its parts. Perhaps you have noticed.

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it…good and hard.” — H. L. Mencken

Where diversity of opinion is lost, the demos becomes an ochlos, an undifferentiated crowd. The “motives” of a crowd are by their very definition purposeless and random. A crowd usually moves toward whatever attracts its basest impulses. Since cultural/personal advance must often move against the gravity of the pull of mere sentiment and appetite, the target of those playing to the crowd must often be the civilizing forces that urge moderating checks on appetitive behavior, along with hatreds, resentments and fears. The result is usually not pretty.

“Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it.” — Soren Kierkegaard

Now, I am certainly a believer in the distributed wisdom of the many in a society. I agree with the proponents of democracy that everyone has something vital to contribute to defining the concrete ends of politics. I do not want to hand the reigns of society over to “experts” who disregard the people’s true interests. (FYI — I don’t think Plato did either.) I simply disagree that the mechanism of voting for electoral candidates is a productive means for teasing out the collective wisdom that is the aim of a virtuous politics. I think the virtuous political path can never be to turn my ignorance into power at the ballot box.

It opens the question as to what Socrates meant when he said in the Gorgias that he was the only practitioner of the “true political art:

“I am one of the few Athenians perhaps indeed the only one who studies the true political art, and that I alone of my contemporaries put it into practice, because what I say on any occasion is not designed to please, and because I aim not at what is most agreeable but at what is best.” (Gorgias, 512d)

Is the “true political art” really just the Socratic form of pedagogy? And can it serve as a model for virtuous practice for anyone else? Why isn’t Plato’s Gorgias at the forefront of political education?

On “facile rejection”

One of my pet peeves is the facile dismissal of a philosopher’s entire corpus based on a criticism that can be summarized in a few lines or less. Let me call this the problem of “facile rejection.” For example, I continuously come across the same slogan-like criticisms:

  • Plato takes abstractions for realities and dismisses the concrete world;
  • Descartes tries to deduce the world from “I think therefore I am” and can never escape his head;
  • Kantian ethics are empty and formal and not applicable to lived existence;
  • Hegel is a sinister totalitarian who wants to reduce the other to the same;
  • Heidegger is a sinister totalitarian Nazi who couldn’t make room for “the other” in his being.

Obviously, I could go on…

Now there is something half-right in all of these criticisms. My objection to facile rejection is not directed against the criticisms themselves; it is that objections become outright rejections without redeeming what is still true in the philosophy. Here are some additional pointers toward what is wrong with facile rejection:

1. No philosophy cannot be entirely summarized without distortion, even by the originating philosopher. Only doxic versions of noetic insights are communicable and doxa is always defective in relation to noesis. (** Doxa is the word usually translated “opinion” and I discuss Plato’s technical understanding of the term here. **)

2. Understanding builds upon experience and it is important to try to reconstruct the experience that gives rise to the questions that the articulated philosophy tries to answer. An interpretation/criticism that is not grounded in the living question of the philosopher and the experiential background that gives rise to it fails to even engage the philosophy.

3. Since every work of philosophy as written must be written in the form of doxa, it must represent a middle ground between knowledge and ignorance. Doxa is neither true nor false but true/false. So a criticism that uncovers some evidence of ignorance cannot justly reject the entire doxa without making sense of the residual knowledge still indicated by it. I have found in reading the dialogues that rejected definitions by Socratic interlocutors often contain kernels of truth that haunt the rest of the dialogue. These bits of neglected truth glimmer in the dramatic developments, even if lost in the thematic ones.

4. The facile rejection of an entire philosopher’s work based on a single line of criticism is an indication that the one doing the rejection is probably stuck in a doxic mindset and that an adequate philosophy can be contained in a written doxa. This is a fallacy.

5. Although I have given examples of criticisms that have some merit, even if half-truths, many facile rejections are nothing more than rhetorical dismissals based on the latest philosophical fashion. Continental philosophy, more so than Analytic, tends to exhibit the facile rejection based on what is trending in the academy. (I say this as one who is generally more sympathetic to the Continentals than the Analytics.)

Interestingly, I learned most of this by studying Plato, the one who is lost in airy abstractions (per his facile critics). Isn’t it odd that Plato (by the standard facile rejection) is considered the most distant from concrete concerns and yet his philosophy is the most concrete in presentation?

The Cardinal Virtues and the Divided Line

Picking up again an earlier discussion (here and here) about the Divided Line image from Republic, Book VI, which I have argued is the hermeneutic key of the organization and aim of the entire dialogue, let me lay before the definitions of the four cardinal virtues that are given provided there. It is important to contextualize these definitions within the terms of Book IV — they are based on a tripartite psychology (434d – 441a) consisting of a “desiring part” (epithumia), a “spirited part” (thumoeides), and a “calculating part” (logistikon), which correspond to money-makers, auxiliaries and guardians in the city. Later parts of the dialogue will disturb this threefold organization, but it is background to the last stated definitions of the virtues given in the dialogue. The Divided Line opens them up further, but not explicitly. It is up to the reader of the dialogue to grasp the necessity for the line and determine for his/herself how the virtues could be explored further by its help.

For now, I am just going to present the definitions of the four virtues, slightly different for city and soul, next to the corresponding segments on the Divided Line. See if you can grasp the morphological kinship. (All of the quoted texts are from Allan Bloom’s translation of the Republic, Basic Books, 1968.)

JUSTICE (Dikaiosyne)

Justice-in-the-city definition — “Minding one’s own business and not being a busybody.” (433a)

Justice-in-the-soul definition — “As far as ruling or ruled are concerned, each of the parts in him minds its own business.” (443b-c)

DIVIDED LINE — corresponds to eikasia, which means the ability to grasp an image as an image and not mistake it for reality.

 

COURAGE (Andreia)

Courage-in-the-city definition — “Power and preservation, through everything, of the right and lawful opinion about what is terrible and what is not.” (430b)

Courage-in-the-soul definition — A virtue in which one’s “spirited part preserves, through pains and pleasures, what has been proclaimed by the speeches [of the guardians] about that which is terrible and that which is not.” (442c)

DIVIDED LINE — corresponds to pistis, which means trust, belief or confidence

 

MODERATION (Sophrosyne)

Moderation-in-the-city definition — “Unanimity (homonoia)…an accord of worse and better, according to nature, as to which must rule in the city and in each one.” (432a)

Moderation-in-the-soul definition — A “friendship and accord of these parts — when the ruling part and the two ruled parts are of a single opinion that the calculating part ought to rule and don’t raise faction against it.” (442c-d)

DIVIDED LINE — corresponds to dianoia, the thinking through opinion toward noetic insight; thinking towards the whole by means of the parts.

 

WISDOM (Sophia)

Wisdom-in-the-city definition — “A kind of knowledge belonging to some of the citizens that counsels not about the affairs connected with some particular thing in the city, but about how the city as a whole would best deal with itself and the other cities.” (428c-d)

Wisdom-in-the-soul definition — Possession of the knowledge of that which is beneficial for each part [of the soul] and for the whole composed of the community of these three parts.” (442c)

DIVIDED LINE — Noetic insight; understanding of the whole that forms the animating union of the parts; grasp of form (eidos)

 

Just food for thought:

One of the defects of the presentation of the virtues is that Socrates proceeds as if there are four and only four virtues, without providing a ground for this number. His discovery of the virtue of justice depends on there being four and only four. But in at least one other place I know (the dialogue Protagoras), piety is listed a fifth distinct virtue. Shall we leave ourselves open to the possibility that the omission is both important and intentional?

PIETY (Eusebia)

Piety-in-the-city — Not given explicity

Piety-in-the-soul — Not given explicitly

DIVIDED LINE — No equivalent segment. Ties to the “Good Beyond Being” perhaps?

What I’m Currently Reading

1. Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Volume III  — I just received this in the email and am eager to plow through it this weekend. The Norwegian writer’s Proustian memoir, six volumes in all, are slowly being published in English. I think this is one of the finest works of literature in our time — at least based on my reading of the first two volumes.

2. Aristotle, Politics, translated by Joe Sachs — I am studying this as part of my research into the topic of homonoia (like-mindedness) for the paper I will presenting in Germany this summer. (I just completed a study of his Eudemian Ethics for the same reason.) I just discovered that Sachs had translated it and am obviously delighted. My one disappointment is that he didn’t write the introduction. I have nothing bad to say about Lijun Gu‘s introduction, but Sachs’ other introductions are some of the best short pieces on Aristotle.

3. Kostas Kalimtzis, Aristotle on Political Enmity and Disease: An Inquiry Into Stasis — A nice study of the concept of stasis, which means something like political disorder/disagreement/civil war. Stasis is the contrary of homonoia, so it is important for me to well understand stasis.

4. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, translated by Lewis White Beck — I am reading this with a friend who is doing some work on Kant. I have read the Groundwork many times, but have not read the Second Critique since 20 years ago. As I have been doing some reflective thinking on homonoia, it suddenly occurred to me that Kant had already figured out much of what I had been discovering. The Categorical Imperative might even be an articulation of the condition of the possibility of homonoia.

5. John McCumber, Hegel’s Mature Critique of Kant — I picked this up as a complement to my Kant reading and am finding it quite stimulating. Hegel thought through some implications of Kant quite well, however idiosyncratically, adapting Kant to his own purposes. Hegel’s relation to Kant reminds me of Aristotle’s to Plato. Interpreters often focus too much on disagreement and not enough of the treasure of deep and tacit agreement between each pair. I am frustrated with a common tendency to emphasize disagreement at the expense of deeper agreement. The riches of the tradition are more to be found in homonoia than doctrinal conflict.

6. Rene Girard, Battling to the End — I am still working through this slowly as one of the core textual sources of my paper. A provocative work, at once stimulating and maddening. Girard thinks through the war theorist Clausewitz as a way of understanding the apocalyptic dangers of our age. Girard’s last major work, more important than I thought on my first superficial reading.

7. Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers, translated by John Woods — Somehow I convinced my reading group to take up this massive 1500 page epic, a work that Mann had considered his best but which had suffered from a bad English translation until Woods remedied that. We start in a couple of weeks. We’ll see…

 

 

 

On political agnosticism

I am a political agnostic, or at least I try to be.

Let me put this agnosticism in personal context. Just like anyone else, I have my political opinions and habitual reactions to political happenings. I like everyone else suffer from biases that color my view of the world: I “see” more acutely confirmatory evidence for my opinions and can glaze over those that call them into question. I enjoy polemics against leaders from other political persuasion. I can point out evidential support for my beliefs, but such “evidence” is within the context of my prior opinions. However much I would like to attribute my opinions to a superior intellect or access to better information, I simply can’t. I meet intelligent people of varying stripes: those whose opinion agree with mine and others who disagree.

Beliefs are not knowledge. In fact political beliefs can be the very impediment for becoming knowledgeable about that which we tend to overlook or discount. So while I have beliefs, I don’t credit them as being knowledge. They simply are not.

Note that by claiming to be an agnostic, I am not therefore what is called an independent or moderate. For however those labels may take a stance of agnosticism toward parties and partisanship, neither is shy about professing and acting upon their beliefs as if they were knowledgeable.

Well, what to do? How ought I participate in a democratic process? The essence of injustice for Plato is to act upon another without knowledge of the sphere in which they operate, without appropriate respect for the immanent law/nomos of the good in which they know how to effect. Justice is “doing one’s own work and not meddling in the proper work of another.” I cannot see how voting or assuming political office in our current system is consistent with that conception of justice. (See my earlier post “On Tyranny” for some background to my thinking on this.) The positive side of justice to “do one’s own work,” i.e. to accomplish what one knowingly can, obedient to the immanent laws of the production of good in the world. The baking of the baker and the carpentry of the carpenter are positive expressions of just action. But the presumptive meddling of the carpenter in the baking of the baker (or vice-versa) is unjust. Our system is unjust in the Platonic sense of being institutionalized meddling, whether Republican, Democrat, Green Party, Libertarian, etc.

The most heretical-sounding position toward which my philosophical education leads concerns voting. The world is complicated and not reducible to sound-bites and political platforms. Those who pursue zealously the opportunity to rule over others, despite their manifest ignorance concerning the mass of this complication, are hubristic in the extreme. To choose right-wing hubris over left-wing hubris or vice-versa is akin to choosing the color of the whips and chains used against others. Can we really vote knowingly when candidates must practice every form of disguise and keep us diverted from the fact of their own ignorance? Professions of ignorance and doubt are punished at the ballot box. Confident-sounding opinions are extravagantly rewarded. I don’t vote not out of apathy, but in open acknowledgment of my ignorance. I would like to know, but find that I don’t. I am still waiting for the barest evidence of knowledge (even knowledge of ignorance) in those who would presume to rule me and others.

To practice the “political art” of Plato and Socrates in modern America requires, or it seems to me, the following:

1. To pursue excellence in one’s craft.

2. To respect the excellence and autonomy of the other’s craft.

3. To acknowledge that where the other is expert, the other is authoritative for me.

4. Not to participate in systems of meddling, nor act as an authority where one is not — which includes not voting.

5. To pursue political knowledge and work to cure one’s own political ignorance.

6. To question the claims to political knowledge of those who would presume to rule, perhaps leading them or others into pursuing a more just course, such as a humble life in pursuit of excellent work.

7. To acknowledge openly and inquiringly my own ignorance, submitting it to whatever would cure me.

So — in the light of number 5, 6 and 7 above, feel free to correct me in the comments where you find me in error. Make clear to me political obligations that my ignorance keep me from seeing. I truly want to be a good citizen and contribute as I can to a just political order.

Any thoughts?

“Like-minded people do not fight.”

“Like-mindedness (homonoia) occurs among good people; base people, at any rate, both decide on and have an appetite for the same things but still harm each other. And it seems that like-mindedness is not univocal any more than friendship is. Rather, the primary and natural kind is excellent, which is why it is not possible for base people to be like-minded; but there is another kind according to which even base people can be like-minded whenever they both decide on and have an appetite for the same things. They have to desire the same things in such a way that it is possible for both to get what they desire; if they desire the sort of thing which both cannot have, then they fight.  But like-minded people do not fight.” — Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics, 1241a

Aristotle distinguishes two kinds of like-mindedness (homonoia) in this passage, one version among the virtuous and one among the base, although really only the former type is like-mindedness in the fullest sense. The passage ends with the astonishing claim that “like-minded people do not fight.”

Is this so? Or better, assume that it is so, and ask what could Aristotle mean by “like-mindedness” such that it precludes fighting. Any thoughts?

 

See this link to an earlier discussion of the importance of commonality.

Plato on the communication of philosophy

Thus much at least, I can say about all writers, past or future, who say they know the things to which I devote myself, whether by hearing the teaching of me or of others, or by their own discoveries-that according to my view it is not possible for them to have any real skill in the matter. There neither is nor ever will be a treatise of mine on the subject. For it does not admit of exposition like other branches of knowledge; but after much converse about the matter itself and a life lived together, suddenly a light, as it were, is kindled in one soul by a flame that leaps to it from another, and thereafter sustains itself. 

             — Plato, Seventh Letter, J. Harward translation.