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.

Hypothetical Arguments

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.

Technical Arguments

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 science fair.

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 told us.

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
  1. An understanding of the world is an active construct attempting to produce perfect rules of an imperfect world
  2. These rules take a finite amount of time to revise as they are found wrong
  3. The demands of conversation are time critical
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.

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.

All content copyright 2017, Sean Woods | email: | phone: 703-342-2662