The Right to be Wrong
The Book of Sean
One item missing from modern debate in the U.S. is the idea that many viewpoints
on a subject can actually be right at the same time. So convinced are we
that problems have a single answers that we have a sport of ruining dinners
and other social situations by engaging in stupid arguments. I am as guilty
as the next guy, and I suspect that this sort of problem is more widespread
than just the U.S.
The issue is that we are all the best experts to interpret our own experiences
and feelings. A sure fire way to start an argument on any matter is to declare
that your opinion is more valid than the other person's. We all know what
we saw. We all feel what we feel. For someone to call your reality invalid
or wrong is frustrating down to the core of our being.
Say we have 2 laypeople discussing if God can create a rock that he himself
can lift is one thing. In this matter, neither person generally has any reason
to have first-hand knowledge on the matter. Not many people see the guy upstairs
at the gym benching stones. The answer one way or another is not really going
to change matters here on Earth. It is a wonderful hypothetical exercise
for which NO answer exists.
For the record anything you say about a diety, regardless of his or her name,
and regardless of how many (is any) exist, is right an wrong at the same
time. Logic does not apply to powers higher than yourself. You can't make
up a rule about God, because by definition God makes up the rules.
Say we have an engineer trying to explain to a manager that the manager's
answer to a crisis is going to destroy the equipment. In this matter the
engineer has an intimate knowledge of how the equipment was designed. He
has seen it taken to its limits on a test bench, or has a body of published
information about how the individual components will react to different inputs.
The manager has operated the equipment for months, and has his own understanding
of how the system works. He understands cause and effect, and he has a lot
of experience operating other types of equipment. He may have even seen this
exact situation before in other settings.
The issue of right and wrong is a bit different here. In this case the engineer
has experience that trancends that of the manager, at least in regards to
this specific case. The engineer's experience does not invalidate the manager's
experience. The fallicy of the manager is trying to apply experience to a
situation for which it does not apply.
Wrong to be Right?
Every statement uttered by a human being contains elements of innacuracy,
imprecision, deciet and outright error. Is this a bad thing? Bad does not
apply, nor does good, or wrong or right. It is.
The natural world does not seem to cherish any notion of perfection. The
powers that created this world and the rules that govern it seems to abhor
extremes. If you suck all of the gas from a container, the surrounding air
will try to fill it again in any way possible. If you build pressure inside
of a container, that air within will try to get out in any way possible.
An extrememly hot or cold object doesn't stay that way for long without help.
If you build up a big enough difference in electrical charge, electricity
will arc across a vacuum, or a solid object, or even a great distance.
Human beings have been given a gift, or curse, that we can deal with concepts
that do not exist in reality. Think back to geometry with the point. In reality,
points do not exist. You can't put one under a microscope and see it. You
can't take a bucket of points to a carnival and throw them at a target. You
can't even descrive a point in words, it's simply a point. Yet, you can state
that 2 points produces a line, which also does not really exist in nature.
Indeed we have an entire system of rules regarding points and lines and arcs
that we then use to try to explain the universe.
The problem is, the Universe has other ideas. Except for human architecture
and artifacts, you will never find a perfect line, arc, or sphere in nature.
Our "globe" is actually fatter around the middle than at the poles. So is
every planet or star. Satellites around a body do not orbit in perfect arcs,
or even ellipses. The fact of the matter is they are jostled by the gravity
of everything else in orbit. They also encounter resistance from friction,
and need tweaks and boosts to stay in orbit. You also have to take into account
general relativity at high speeds.
To describe a system of any complexity requires you to state what the conditions
are under which it was observed. In scientific papers, the conditions under
which a behavior is observed is longer than the actual observation. The environmental
description includes the location of the lab, the equipment used to observe
the results, what was going on at the time the observations were recorded,
even what the observer was expecting to see. Something as simple as flipping
a light switch could be developed into a 10 page paper, just go to any Junior-High
Everyday communication can't afford to be this exact and precise. Instead
both sender and recipient generally assume that we are referring to the world
in which we ourselves live in. To facilitate this "compression" of communication
we each carry around a corpus of assumptions. These assumptions build up
over time, and are based on our own experience, or from what others have
To revise an assumption is a painful process of self-introspection. One can't
just take an idea that one has built one's psyche around and tweak it. One
has to also revise the assumptions that were based on the initial assumption,
and the assumptions that were based on the assumptions that were based on
the initial assumptions, and so on. It takes a lot of work, doubly so because
assumptions generally work below the level of the concious mind. We usually
don't even know they are there.
Assuming you agree with me that
We get to a point were we have to allow for one party in a conversation to
be in error, including oneself. "Perfection" for all its flaws is not a goal,
it is a path. No person can have a "Perfect" understanding of the Universe,
because the Universe is in itself not perfect by human standards. To demand
utter perfection of the other party is unreasonable. To insist that you be
perfect all the time is either decietful or paralyzing.
- An understanding of the world is an active construct attempting to
produce perfect rules of an imperfect world
- These rules take a finite amount of time to revise as they are found
- The demands of conversation are time critical
Indeed, to look back at all of the great thinkers and doers of society, every
one of them was wrong. Edison was fond of saying that while he could tell
you what material DID work as a light filimant, he also knew about 40,000
materials that didn't. Einstien has said the "1000 experiments will never
prove my theory right, but one experiment can prove it wrong." Socrates believed
he had a leg up on the rest of the world because he knew he was wrong.
Indeed Socrates developed a sport by which by continually asking questions
he could force a person to admit he didn't understand something.
If the great minds of Western Culture can admit their own limitations, I
take with a grain of salt when someone insists that all of my work be perfect.
And so should you. Like it or lump it, it is ok to be in error. To be wrong
requires ignoring the world as it is.