The Aletheia Problem

Human Connectome Project

All of our success depends on making the right decisions, yet our public decision-making tools are primitive. Can software revolutionize the pursuit of truth? 

There’s something special about humans. In the vastness of space there’s something special about any kind of life, sure. But even here on lush and bustling Earth, we humans are different. We are the ones sending rockets into space and visiting the other animals at the zoo. We’re the ones that have mastered agriculture and built societies in which millions of our kind live their entire lives without ever knowing the fear of starvation — a luxury that the universe doesn’t grant to living creatures by default.

What makes us special is our extraordinary talent for reasoning. To an extent far surpassing any other creature, we successfully reason about what’s good for us and how to get it. That talent lets us act in such a way that our fields produce feasts of vegetables in autumn, rather than dirt and weeds. It is what lets us plan our retirement, and avoid turning cold wars into hot ones. It’s not an overstatement to say that all of our success depends upon our ability to reason.

And yet, as important as it is that we reason well, the way that we go about it as a public is a disaster. Look, for example, at the way America makes decisions about matters like gun control and health care for its citizens. It’s a political clusterfuck. Science and the academy are wonderful developments — but when it comes to influencing a democratic population, research papers are but more noise in the chamber. The debate around climate change is a stark illustration: the consensus among the scientific community is at 98%. Yet among the public, it’s closer to 48%. Something is broken.

The costs of this problem are too great to ignore. When we reason poorly, we erode our ability to make smart plans and achieve smart goals. We fumble, we fight, and we miss opportunities to make the world a better place. Worse, our animalistic infighting may carry us, blundering and bickering, into catastrophe. Ours would not be the first species to meet a brutal reckoning in this amoral universe.

But there’s reason for hope. The emergence of software and the wiring-up of the world began just a moment ago, on the grand view. The problem described above — call it the ‘aletheia problem’ after the Greek word for truth — is at its heart a matter of organizing information.

There are those who believe that software will revolutionize the pursuit of truth. Imagine a world in which reasoning — that sacred process of pondering, planning, conversing, and debating, all for the goal of getting things right — is scientific. Objective. Transparent. Where the ‘truth’ of a statement, understood as the opinion that you yourself would come to hold if you were to investigate the matter, is an objective value that you can just look up, instantly, the way you would look up a stock quote. And the structure of reasoning that lies behind that belief is mapped, the lattice of connections well-traversed by others, so that it’s transparently and asynchronously available, the way the pages of Wikipedia, though constantly in flux, are always there when you need them.

This would be a world in which the deciding voice is not the one that shouts the loudest or has the most money. It’s a world in which truth is not, in the end, a matter of opinion.

There is right now a confluence of forces that makes it feasible that such a solution to the aletheia problem is on the horizon.

Software is eating the world, and like history’s most significant revolutions, this is a process that will go through many iterations of creative destruction before it finds a lasting stasis. The aletheia problem will not be easy to solve. But we have ample reason to expect that the digital revolution, that software-powered assault on inefficiency in all its forms, will transform the way we pursue truth. Fifteen years ago there were still those who called the nascent internet a “fad”. Now, in 2014, we’ve seen enough to know that the reality is far more exciting than we imagined. The early internet wasn’t a fad. It was the first flicker of life.