Wikidebates:The 21st Century Agora

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This text was written by Emmanuel-Just Duits, in the mid-1990s, as a chapter of his book L'homme réseau - Penser et agir dans la complexité (The Network Man. Thinking and Acting in Complexity). This visionary text describes the guidelines of a site such as what Wikidebates aims to become, regarding its goals and its purposes. All this is to be considered in a society that lacks a tool allowing to summarise, confront, and test the political, philosophical, religious and social ideas that we may deem subject to debate.

Cover of the book "The Network Man. Thinking and Acting in Complexity", by Emmanuel Juste Duits
The Network Man. Thinking and Acting in Complexity, from Emmanuel Juste Duits

How do we make a choice? Is it possible to truly map out the political and social choices available at hand? A single person is often overwhelmed by any comprehensive list or collection of “pro” or “con” arguments, or any recollection of individual personal experiences. For such a comprehensive examination to be worth anything for any thinking individual, it is essential that experts and specialists in their own fields, as well as people of different cultures, etc., take part.

Which begs the question: how can we bring about a constructive, comprehensive and collective dialog?

Undoubtedly, there are existing public forums, conferences and talks. Often, participants will partake for two or three days. They will engage with other participants, but do they even have the luxury of having the time to carefully examine all that is being said? Is any argument truly being examined to its core? Are the participants really debating to the limits, establishing if such or such an argument is truly valid, or untenable?

Given the current volume of established scientific facts, of psychological research, of political and social experiments; some concepts have inevitably been refuted. We know that the concept of “race”, for instance, has been overwhelmingly rejected, in the light of modern biology. Is this not also the case regarding many other concepts? Is it not true that quantum physics render obsolete a mechanistic approach to the world? Is it not equally so with environmental and systemic research, regarding free-market economy and its productivist ideology?

All these questions are debated within one group or another. Are they, however, expanded upon? The current state of knowledge, by being constantly diluted within great amounts of groups and circles, or congresses around the world, is now strangely misty. Collectively, we no longer know where we are.

We are lacking a collective space where any fundamental debate could be both structured and visible. One where fundamental results, if any, could be witnessed. When one reads the accounts of the aforementioned forums, we unfortunately feel like we are witnessing a mere collection of points of view, one in which no “productive conflict” of ideology is even orchestrated, much less led to its term.

During the Scholastic Middle Ages, and even before, during the Antiquity, philosophers would invest the Agora to develop and confront their views. This was not about holding a conference, presenting a point of view and then pretending to question it for a couple of hours, only then to quickly fly back to New York.

We should re-establish the requirement that we need intellectual risk and careful examination of any proposed argument; in order to deeply feel the essential options at stake.

I believe that such a place, dedicated to this task, will necessarily come about. I will try to describe it, and to show that this ambition – the Great Debate – is feasible. Christian Camus, who invented this project along with myself, has named it The Institute for Philosophical Research (Institut de Recherche philosophique, in French). Let’s temporarily keep that name.

Functioning and structure

The Institute for Philosophical Research would organise several grand debates, each dedicated to one fundamental question. Each question would address every related existential, philosophical and political problem at stake.

Each grand question, the subject of a specific debate, will be formulated in a way that will bring about a short list of settled answers. For example the question: “Is there an intention behind the universe?” would have these possible answers: “There is an intention”, “There isn’t”, “The question cannot be answered”, or “The term ‘intention’ needs to be clarified”.

These debates would be held on a website, enabling people from all countries to participate, and to do so whenever they choose to.

How can we make sure that the ideas debated are made visible? Within each debate, observers will summarise interventions, participations, and the general state of the discussion. Through their summary, they will try to briefly, but comprehensively, inventory each argument in its full relevance – even those with which they disagree. From then on, for each debate, a summary of all the arguments will be established. Thus one will find a section corresponding to each, with the the latest interventions available. Each of these will be tagged to specify if it is a reasoning, a first-hand account, scientific evidence based on an experiment, etc.

Those arriving on the site will find a table of contents listing all the big debates. Upon accessing one of them, they will browse between several sub-groups (representing the different options available) and access a list of key arguments. They may even create a new “option”, if they deem that a point of view is missing.

Debates are to be limitless. It will be impossible to leave the scene without having developed or gone to the depths of each argument. Although, obviously, the same participants will not be able to stay on the site indefinitely.

This may cause some problems. Let us examine which ones and imagine some feasible solutions.

If such a forum is to be open to all – and this is what we want –, there is a risk of it being overwhelmed by contributions that are purposeless, obscure, or even outright outrageous. How can we avoid this?

Each sub-group, regrouping defenders of a same opinion (for example: those who believe that “There is no other thing than a Greater Intention as a cause of the universe”), will be able to appoint delegates to curate and summarise their side’s contributions, before presenting these contributions within the general conversation. This will prevent censorship or redundancy.

New contributions, once streamlined by the delegates, will be flagged in the table of contents of the arguments. For each new argument, one will be able to click on the available counter-argument or opinion.

The debate will not strictly be of philosophical nature. Factual information, properly referenced and, if possible, verified, will be considered. Parapsychological experiments, for instance, may be referenced, within their degree of truth and in relation to the corresponding criticism. The same will go with scientific theories that are interesting regarding philosophical, economical and social thinking; and even with pertinent psychological studies. (Social psychology, for instance, has taught us many things about human psyche, including its relation to Evil.)

When possible, the Institute for Philosophical Research will propose crucial experiments, which will differ from intellectual conversations, in order to bring answers to certain questions.

In time, a General Document will emerge from these efforts, containing contributions from all who wish to partake; marginals, PhDs, physics scientists, religious scholars, activists, etc.

Regularly, delegates and “observers” will be tasked with summarising the body of contributions, highlighting decisive elements. For instance, these may include irreducible divergencies, facts that irrefutably invalidate an argument, etc. The purpose of this general document will be to make sure that the entirety of a question remains visible and accessible.

Such a structure will be flexible in its form as, over time, individual delegates and observers might come and go as they please. However, a collective mind, or thought, will form. Naturally, the Institute’s method will be applicable to social questions as well as other concrete issues. Observers may then try to observe those of the points which are to be considered as concluded, unresolved, or rationally undecidable.

An ethical committee will make sure that the IPR’s guidelines are respected. These guidelines are not meant to favour any specific point of view. The committee will have to guarantee to each and every participant that their arguments, experience, and objections will be considered and taken into account, even if these arguments were to go against mainstream opinions, or if they were to be deemed “politically incorrect”. Personal quarrels, insults or rants will be discarded; although the process of selection will have to be kept in check in order to avoid any censorship.

What about funding? Money, albeit modest sums, will be required in order to register these debates and to circumvent them, but mostly to pay the people who will properly summarise them. Such sums would be considerably lower than those that are raised to finance a boat race around the world. If individual benevolent patrons can give ten million francs to build a steady ship, why not also have them fund the IPR? The investment would be considerably lower, as would the requirements regarding the personnel: writers, moderators, translators, recording technicians. If physical offices were required, these would be modest in size, since most debates would be held on the internet or in small, temporarily rented spaces.

The IPR would nevertheless require funding in order to become better known to the public, as well as to efficiently publicise what it has produced. The institution could only meet its full purpose if it were to become a permanent tool, or go-to, for an ever-increasing amount of people. Thus, ideally, any scientist, any person committed to doing research, or even any individual who is seeking answers to a fundamental question, would use the IPR. And would find useful elements: an inventory of arguments/practical or personal experiences/first-hand accounts, regarding his or her question; as well as any required development or criticism on a given point, or even any exterior event that would illustrate the question, etc.

Thus, instead of losing himself in the maze that is the Internet, a citizen will be able to access a database of debated knowledge, one that is as broad as possible, one that is genuinely linked to his existence in society. He or she will no longer feel like a consumer of an unreal body of virtual experience, but rather as a protagonist of his or her own life choices, or even as an actor of our global fate. This may sound utopian, but I feel that making philosophical and society issues truly visible, as well as their answers and ramifications, will be an indispensable tool to our future.

Once again, I wish to be clear: according to me, no opinion should be discarded from these debates, even those that stem from the far-right or from other extremist points of view. On the contrary, this could be the very moment to submit them to the utmost, thorough criticism. Just as much as would be all the other points of view, of course.

What can the IPR bring about?

There are two possibilities.

Either, in the end, with the mass of exchanges and facts brought forward, one truth prevails. This, today, seems unlikely.

Or we end up with different systems which cannot be broken down into any knot of connection to each other, all the while remaining individually true to most of the available facts. These systems will constitute different and separate philosophical concepts, which reflect fundamentally differing visions of the world. At this point, it is up to the will, or psyche of each, to decide. In any case, the IPR will have to organise debates regarding the influence of human psyche. Thus, a debate of the likes of “Are our opinions a mere reflection of our psychological conditioning?” would be useful. But it wouldn’t solve the problem of philosophical choices.

Finally, the IPR will interestingly influence political debates. It will allow to define fundamental types of societies, as well as their consequences. Instead of having to withstand the supposedly irresistible influence of the evolution of the economy on society, citizens will be brought to imagine all the possible regimes, to debate their respective positive and negative aspects, their inconveniences, as well as their philosophical foundations. The differences between these different models, and our societies as they are, might become a full part of the debate. Thus, a broader choice of types of society than the ones of today would be made available to humanity.

We believe that, one day, an IPR will come to existence. To us, it seems to be in phase with a greater French tradition, that of the Encyclopaedia. By compiling knowledge at a given moment in time, in order to avoid its fragmentation while it was subject to a geometrical expansion, the philosophers of the Enlightenment created a new civilisation. But it is now our world that could be dissolved within its own wealth of information: the splitting into a series of social atoms evermore immeasurable. By creating a tool to bridge and unify that knowledge, we might bring about this new way of thinking, one that we restlessly feel might happen.

Using the Internet as a means to bring about a great philosophical debate – one that will truly dig into the fundamental questions, without any other point of focus than to improve the quality of discussions – is the goal of Christian Camus’ IPR. One such organised area, dedicated to debating whilst being non-exclusive, could put an end to a current tendency of separating common knowledge – and the Internet – into segregated little areas.

Every time when, throughout history, there was an “explosion” or a partition of our common knowledge, a summarising effort to compile that knowledge was undertaken. Such was the case with the Great Summaes of ancient Greece or the late Middle Age, as well as the encyclopaedia of the 18th century. This is the substance of this original project: to enable a dynamic and collective synthesis.

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