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We fight over the right to be right

24 November 2012, 18:10
- and the Importance of Being Wrong

According to Kathryn Schulz, author of 'Being Wrong': "to be wrong is to believe something is true when it is false - or, conversely, to believe it is false when it is true."

There's a lot of heated debate on this forum, which boils down to two groups, often, both of which claim to be right.  You'd be hard pressed to find anyone admitting that there is something they do not know, and worse, that they did not know something and thanks to another's input, have in fact learnt something.

Of course if you're convinced you're right, new information is simply rejected and no learning takes place (which calls into question whether one's self sense of rightness is ever checked, tested and verified).  But why does it matter who is right?

Committing an error can mean the loss of life.  Literally.  What if, halfway through your life, you realise you were wrong about your faith, your politics, yourself, your lover, or your life's work, as Kathryn Schultz postulates in her book 'Being Wrong'.  And here's the rub, when you find out you were wrong, as Schultz says, "you will not find any obvious, ready-to-hand resources to help you deal with it."

This is because no one is comfortable admitting they are wrong; neither publically or to themselves.  So is being wrong a very uncommon condition?  Is being right common?  And if so, is everyone right all the time?

We live in a world where we use, second hand, the efforts of others who have lived before us.  We've inherited inventions, ideas, psychologies, systems.  The work of people who came before us effectively saves us a lot of time, lifetimes even, because we don't have to go and check the work...such as how electricity works.  We don't have to test it out, we simply use it.  But at the same time, there are other secondary resources that we may use, thinking these are of benefit to us, but which effectively wastes significant fractions of our entire lives. 

We may be suckered into pursuing a particular line of work only to find the entire industry fraudulent.  How might a professional cyclist feel, for example, upon discovering that the sport he loves is defined by doping?  Who then decides to dope, and then efforts that amount to something are subsequently invalidated?  This is the pain of making a mistake with substantial fractions of one's life's work. 

What if we vote for a leader who makes promises, only to turn around and enrich himself with our collective taxes (and thus efforts).  And the entire society has to wait half a decade in order to replace this 'mistake', with another. 

But to return to the danger of second hand information, while we inherit the benefits of second hand information, such as technology, we also run the risk of inheriting a curse.  For example, if you agree that the entire running shoe industry actually causes injuries, it means the world's runners have been conning themselves for the past 2-3 decades.  Plenty of time and effort wasted.  If we discover that it is carbohydrate that makes us fat, and sick, and gives us heart disease, and not meats or fats, years of dieting and restrictions - once again, all for not.  In other words, in an effort o avoid injury, we've been making things worse.  In order to try to slim down, we've only made ourselves fatter.  We've compounded our error by making an effort in the wrong direction.

While there are self help groups for alcoholics, and divorcees, are there any for Christians who discover they have been addicted to a defective idea? Where do we go to deal with the pain of lost time?  Where can we discuss the mistake-malaise?  Where can we admit we were wrong?  The answer is nowhere.  No one really wants to talk about it.  Even many atheists sometimes find themselves embarassed by their naivety in the past, and also want to hurry up and get busy living constructive lives and not waste any further time either debating their tried and tested beliefs, or convince (or warn) Christians of their experience (which often makes the original waste of time, twice wasted, adding insult to injury).

Interestingly, this forum probably is such a resource, though possibly not the greatest.  The thing is, what if, a Christian realises that everything he or she has believed is wrong, where can this person go for counseling?  Family, friends and others in the community are likely to all have the same beliefs.  So how is one to extricate oneself once one emerges, as Thomas A. Anderson does as Neo, born into the hard (and often paralysing terrors) of The real World.

The trouble with society seems to be that we espouse full and utter commitment to something (which means any doubts that we could be wrong must be entirely suppressed). 

The interesting thing is that for as long as we proudly proclaim our rightness, nothing happens.  As soon as we discover we are mistaken, we begin to change, we begin to grow, we begin to be enriched.  In fact, while admitting that we don't know, or are mistaken is verboten, most of us are wrong most of the time.  We're routinely wrong about what we thought someone said, even our own narratives of our own lives. 

It turns out that our species have been spectacularly wrong for centuries about a range of subjects - Schulz cites the flat earth, the geocentric universe, the cosmological constant and cold fusion. There's more - we were wrong about continental drift, people thought if we moved in cars our organs would be crushed by the speed of moving forward, we also thought that primitive man wasn't capable of being spiritual or of creating art.  It's looking like we're also wrong about even more fundamental issues, such as ordinary economics, and it turns out, we've been fundamentally wrong about ourselves.  We lie to ourselves daily by pretending that what we do matters (despite the fact that ultimately all of us are dead, and even the universe, ultimately, will expire).  

Interestingly, as Schulz points out, "as soon as we know we are wrong, we aren't wrong any more."  Which brings us to the zealots.  "What zealots have in common, then, is the absolute conviction that they are right."  Schulz adds: "Zealotry demands a complete rejection of the possibility of error."  Her point is that in the end, certainty "is lethal to two of our most redeeming and humane qualities".  These are imagination and empathy.  As we stick to how right we are, we forget who we are, or at least, the best of who we are.  We stop asking, what if.  We stop growing.  We are no longer enriched, but the opposite, we're impoverished. 

Evangelism, of course, is about making claims en mass, unsubstantiated claims, which are expected to be taken on faith, and often are.  Crowds gather and reinforce one another by virtue of common consent.  Of course the depressed person who is depressed because their view of the world has turned out to be wrong, also happens to be more passive (and silent) and have less desire to shout about their error.  Nonetheless, it is the depressed person whose view of the world aligns with reality that provides better enlightenment.

And this is the humble destination that we reach when we realise our wrongness.  A more stable energy, and one more aligned with reality, but one that is quiet and self contained as opposed to loud, shallow, untested and ultimately, false.

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