Updated: Oct 23, 2019
Knowledge is a piece of understanding from the world that humans have acquired. This knowledge is ultimately
destined to be flawed in some way due to our nature as humans, and the limitation of our methodologies. We can infer then, that some of this knowledge is inherently more robust than other, as it provides a more meaningful and useful interpretation of the world. But, what should this knowledge be? The one that is widely agreed upon? Of course agreement provides a frame in which we can advance in our understanding. Disagreement on the other hand, makes us inquire further and ultimately also advance, making our knowledge more robust. But, if consensus or disagreement are required for robust knowledge, can we presume that personal knowledge is worthless? Or could we say that robust knowledge is the one that is closest to the never-to-be-reached idea of truth: the most meaningful interpretation? Could consensus in fact not aid but hinder the pursuit of robust knowledge?
In the Natural Sciences, the consensus in the scientific community is imperative, at least for to a large extent. We must agree in the paradigm that we believe in to be able to advance within it — we must have faith. On the other hand, disagreement makes us inquire further to test the veracity of our knowledge, making our knowledge advance and thereby more robust. For instance, during the times in which the Classical Physics by Isaac Newton was the most meaningful way to explain physical phenomena, the knowledge within this paradigm was robust: it was widely agreed upon by the scientific community and more, it was very useful to explain the world and develop technology. Nonetheless, some calculations made with Classical Physics brought about a too large margin of error that couldn’t be explained. The scientists from the time still believed in their paradigm because it was still useful, and attributed errors to mere calculation problems, they had, to some extent, an emotional bond to their belief and refused to change it. If they had completely denied Classical Physics because of this, there would’ve been chaos as no other logical explanation of the phenomena was known. Many years later, Albert Einstein disagreed with Classical Physics and formulated the Theory of Relativity, which could explain phenomena in a much more meaningful way, being hence more robust: the former schema was broken, the prior ‘robust knowledge’ was partly falsified, and we advanced in our understanding. Then, could we say that Classical Physics isn’t robust knowledge because it was partially falsified? We need to consider that it was the stepping stone for the Theory of Relativity to be developed and it was (and still is) useful, because it help us understand the world. Disagreement and consensus were able to produce a more meaningful robust knowledge. But of course, we will only know if our knowledge is meaningful or not if this is proven faulty.
Further, problems can arise when agreement in the scientific community is too wide. In 1977 Carl Woese made a discovery that challenged the status quo in the world of classification of biodiversity. He recognized that Archaea, a type of organism, had in fact a separate line of evolutionary descent from bacteria. Famous scientist like Salvador Luria and Ernst Mayr, who enjoyed a remarkable reputation in biology, disagreed with this division between Archaea and bacteria. After his publishing, he became a joke in the scientific community, and important journals like Science described him as “Microbiology's Scarred Revolutionary”. People’s faith in the authorities that these scientist represented, made them regard Carl Woese’s findings as incorrect without giving them a second thought. It took years for the scientific community to recognize Woese’s efforts adopting the new classification in the mid-1980’s. The consensus was so vast that no disagreement that could possibly shed light on something relevant was taken serious. This conservatism hindered the pursuit of meaningful robust knowledge.
On the other hand, if we examine the basis of every natural science, the scientific method, we can identify that neither consensus nor disagreement are required to produce meaningful robust knowledge. In the very first stage of the scientific method, the scientist formulates a hypothesis which is based on prior knowledge, imagination, and most importantly, intuition. For instance, Albert Einstein once said “I believe in intuition and aspiration...at times I feel certain I’m right while not knowing the reason”. The intuition and faith that Albert Einstein had in his theories led to the production of robust knowledge in the sense that it was a meaningful interpretation of the world, but it lacked any consensus or disagreement since at the very first stage of his research, the knowledge that he possessed was personal. It took years for the scientific community to verify (and also partly falsify) the theory thereby creating consensus or opposition. The same thing occurs in our everyday life. For example, I decide to follow a vegan lifestyle. Although there might be an overwhelming opposition or disagreement, I follow my own feelings and intuition to decide what I believe is best for me.
Another area of knowledge in which agreement and disagreement are important is Ethics. There must be a sort of agreement, at least at a local level, for knowledge in Ethics to be robust. For instance, if we consider the legal system to be “the institution that regulates ethics”, the creation of laws must be legitimate for the people to whom it applies. The people must have faith in the laws and these must be reasonable for the institution to be considered legitimate. No legitimation means no real power for the institution. The robustness from the legal system comes from its consensus, like the Declaration of Human Rights that almost every country has signed. Notwithstanding, disagreement on laws also makes the knowledge in ethics more robust as it makes us advance towards this idea of truth. For example, the Civil Rights Movement was in utter disagreement with what had been established with regard to racial relations. Individuals like Rosa Parks had strong emotions that pointed to aspects of reality that weren’t right. Their reason and logic made them see that the laws were in fact not in line with the Constitution which assures that every man and woman are created equal. Her disagreement with the law made her commit civil disobedience. Eventually, Rosa Parks’ actions and that of all the member of the Civil Rights Movement accomplished a change in the law, a law considered more just. Thanks to this example, we can see how consensus and disagreement within Ethics contributed to the creation of a more robust knowledge.
This past paragraph is based on a fundamental assumption that some actions are intrinsically right or wrong, and therefore consensus on what is right and what is wrong ultimately must be met. This is the strength of moral absolutist. Ideas like utilitarianism or Kant’s deontological philosophy categorize all actions as inherently right or wrong according to their characteristics: the robustness of its knowledge comes from the assumption that their conclusions must be the most rightful, and therefore must be ultimately agreed upon. Conversely, moral (and cultural) relativism assumes that nothing is intrinsically right nor wrong, and consequently leaves that judgement on the hands of every single individual, who are to determine what they consider just. This is determined by our culture, identity, beliefs, personal experiences, etc. Consensus and disagreement thus have no real value for the moral relativism in ethics, as the robustness of its knowledge comes from the reason, emotion, intuition and imagination from every individual person. Advancements in ethics are, for the moral relativist, simple lateral movements. In my home country, Spain, spanking children for parenting purposes is widely regarded as socially appropriate. When I first came to Sweden, the act of spanking a child is regarded as utterly wrong. This is based on the values of Swedish society. For them, this is robust knowledge as their emotions, authorities, culture, and reason have brought them to consider it wrong. This holds true also for Spain, in which the same factors makes them state that it is right. Of course, individuals in both cultures can think otherwise because of their own personal knowledge and experience i.e. some people in Sweden believe spanking children is right, some in Spain believe it is wrong. In this case, neither do consensus nor disagreement bring any change into the discussion of this topic: both cultures and different individuals will continue to think in the same fashion about spanking. From this, we can infer that robust knowledge doesn’t require consensus nor disagreement in ethics if we take a relativist perspective, and that the personal knowledge that comes from ourselves and our culture are able to produce knowledge that is just as meaningful and useful for us.
Summarizing, we can conclude that consensus is needed as a frame in which we can pursue further knowledge within an area, but that there should be an open ground for discussion: disagreement makes us advance because the veracity of our shared knowledge isn’t dependant on the consensus it holds. We’ve seen how both consensus and disagreement might be completely irrelevant if the nature of our knowledge is solely personal and we have good reasons to take it as our truth. Always moving forward, backwards or sideways, being proved or disproved; what is clear, is that many aspects that concern our knowledge of the world are very complex and interact in unfathomable ways. Perhaps, our only relief is the notion that nothing will ever be for certain, and that something new will always come along.