Consensus truth

John Meier explained his definition of a “historical Jesus” as the result of imagining the results of what an “unpapal enclave” of what a Jew, Christian, Aganostic, etc. could all agree about Jesus. In other words, the “historical” is formally what can win broad consensus. The historical shares this formal characteristic with the scientific.

Science is consensus-truth, scientific truth is what you can get your own “unpapal enclave” to accept, and short of this it is at best capax scientiae. Not all truths can be like this: If someone decided he was only going to believe what was communly accepted he (a) wouldn’t be able to act politically, be religious or irreligious, have definite beliefs about mysterious things in nature, write a legal opinion, critique a movie, etc and (b) he’d be living according to a belief that itself had no community consensus.

And what if we wanted to prove that consensus truth was superior? We’d have to show consensus was truer, which can’t be done without an account of truth broader than consensus. So maybe we ask everyone to guess the number of balls in a jar and find that taking the average guess is almost always better than taking any individual at random. This is fine, except that the whole meaning of “better” requires some access to a truth for which consensus is irrelevant, namely opening the jar and counting the balls. Even without this formal problem there would be clear scaling problems: not all cognitive work is like guessing the number of balls in a jar. So it’s It’s pointless to argue, as Tim Maudlin did, that science is better than religion because it is better at producing consensus – it’s like arguing that knives are better than forks because they are better at cutting. Science is designed to produce consensus by excluding a priori all sorts of beliefs that can’t be “boiled down”  or for which there is no “least common denominator”.

Consensus inevitably involves some degree of boiling things down, so its value for truth only extends to the sort of truth that can be distilled and not evaporated. Distilling truths tolerates a degree of superficiality for the sake of a kind of self-evidence, though in the usual case the superficiality consists in the truth in question not being the sort of thing for which one could live, die, kill, pray, be celibate or fast for but which gives value to life in other ways.

Said without metaphor, consensus truth is a sort of abstraction or separation from truth as we actually find it. In real life there is an interpenetration of what we can get consensus on and what we can’t.





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