A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Saturday, 5 March 2011

To Err Is To Wander

I err therefore I am. AUGUSTINE The City Of God

In her brilliant and thought-provoking book Being Wrong: Adventures In The Margin Of Error (2010) Kathryn Schulz claims that it's an inherent part of the human condition to err, to make mistakes, to get things wrong much of the time; and she explains - physiologically, psychologically and philosophically - why this is so. We have only to reflect a little to realise that we seem to get things wrong far more often than we get them right.

Consider the unreliable evidence of our senses, the compensatory mechanisms of the brain, the subjective nature of memory (there's a lot of scientific evidence showing how we embellish and grossly distort our memories, even making them up completely - yet we still manage to convince ourselves that they are absolutely true).

Scientists are wrong rather than right in their hypotheses most of the time - indeed, that's the nature of the scientific method. When a theory is apparently 'proved' to be 'true' and beyond all reasonable doubt, it's often overturned and superseded at some later date: look, for instance, at all the various historical conjectures about the creation and makeup of the universe.

And just dwell for a moment on all our great religions, philosophies, ideologies and belief systems. They can't all be right, can they? Indeed, are any of them right? (And what about Iraq's WMD? Were Bush and Blair right about them? Absolutely - and catastrophically - not.) The list of our mistakes and errors, false beliefs and failures of perception, is endless, and will carry on being added to forever.

The more we think about it, the more we realise there's not much we can point to as an example of pure, objective, certain knowledge; pretty much all we think we know we actually only feel we know. We live according to all-too-fallible constructs of trust and belief, and these beliefs are often misguided and shakily rooted. Yet we cling to these beliefs in unwavering certainty of their rectitude.

However, paradoxically, our constant falling into error can also bring insight, illumination and understanding. Rather than error being a shaming, embarrassing, negative thing, Schulz argues that it's both necessary and inevitable, that it can be salutory, even noble. In this extract from her book she writes fascinatingly about the origin of the word 'error':

In ancient Indo-European, the ancestral language of nearly half of today's global population, the word er meant 'to move', 'to set in motion', or simply 'to go'. (Spanish speakers will recognize it as ir.) That root gave rise to the Latin verb errare, meaning to wander or, more rakishly, to roam. The Latin, in turn, gave us the English word 'erratic', used to describe movement that is unpredictable or aimless. And, of course, it gave us 'error'. From the beginning, then, the idea of error has contained a sense of motion: of wandering, seeking, going astray. Implicitly, what we are seeking - and what we have strayed from - is the truth.

Schulz goes on to consider the idea of the knight errant - Galahad, Gawain, Lancelot, Don Quixote - then concludes Part One of her book with this inspiring paragraph:

To err is to wander, and wandering is the way we discover the world; and, lost in thought, it is also the way we discover ourselves. Being right might be gratifying, but in the end it is static, a mere statement. Being wrong is hard and humbling, and sometimes even dangerous, but in the end it is a journey, and a story. Who really wants to stay home and be right when you can don your armor, spring up on your steed and go forth to explore the world? True, you might get lost along the way, get stranded in a swamp, have a scare at the edge of a cliff; thieves might steal your gold, brigands might imprison you in a cave, sorcerers might turn you into a toad - but what of that? To fuck up is to find adventure: it is in that spirit that this book is written.


Bonnie said...

There is so much to learn from word origins, as you so beautifully demonstrate here Robert.

When you think of it, there is no where to go once you make the assumption you are 'right'. Wrong immediately offers a fresh path, questions, opportunity, an option to explore and learn.

It makes me think of the garden of eden story. There is no where for the mind to go when parked in the middle of seeming perfection. Thus the temptation of the tree of knowledge. Minds need to explore and wander - even if it is out of 'paradise' ...

Here's to 'being wrong'!

Ruth said...

I love this post, Robert. Today I have witnessed firsthand many misunderstandings due to misrepresentations, like the game of "telephone" where the end message is much changed from the original. It reminds me to go to the source.

I've always liked the fact that most scientific discoveries happen by accident, on the way looking for something else to prove.

My best experience of evidence for the truth of your post and Schulz's thesis is when we lived in Istanbul. Our daughter was 5 when we moved there. She learned Turkish within minutes it seemed, while we labored with language helpers. She was down in the garden making mistakes, and her friends correcting her. She was not worried about being wrong (though our younger son was; he was painfully shy and didn't like making mistakes, and therefore he did not learn the language nearly as well as she did). She just kept making mistakes, and her friends just kept correcting her. She had no mental block against foolishness, or being found in error. She just quickly learned from it, corrected herself, and moved on.

Thank you for this reminder of the world-opening joy and adventure of taking risks, falling down, and mistaking windmills for giants. How rich the terrain of our life becomes!

The Solitary Walker said...

Bonnie ... I love tracing the origin of words. It's so exciting and surprising. You are so right (!) - wrong is much more interesting, adventuresome and open-ended. The trouble is - most of us don't ever like to admit we are wrong, like to feel superior to others and their opinions by considering they are wrong and we are right, feel dejected and ashamed when making foolish and laughable mistakes etc. etc.

I'm with you in embracing wrong! I've learnt so much from Schulz's book; it's quite a revelation.

Ruth ... What a supremely relevant story. You are completely right (!) that young children, before the self-consciousness of adolescence and the concomitant anxiety about the judgement of one's peers, are able to pick up languages in this immediate and carefree way. Not worrying about being wrong ... making the 'mistake' then learning and moving on ... that's the key. As adults we get too bogged down in our own sense of pride and self-importance, don't we?

Here's to taking risks now and then, and tilting at windmills!

Friko said...

Only two things are certain: we are born and we die.
In between we go wrong.

I love this thoughtful post, Robert; that's the sort of discussion B. and I frequently have.

I am so glad that you expound no certainties; the most irritating people on earth are those who are certain.

Tramp said...

Hey you've got me thinking there, and that can be dangerous.
There are two words in Czech used to talk about "error". One origin seems linked with the concept of missing the target, as we see in English with misjudge, misplace, mistake etc. The other word is more connected to the idea of something lacking, not being quite as it should, there not being enough of something, also it is used in the situation where you miss something in the sense of Tramp wandering through the forests of Bohemia trying to sniff the sea air.
I think this adds to your argument that errors are not wrong, they are just us being somehow short of perfection. Without them where would be the chance to experience, learn and develop.
Then the frustration sets in when we repeat errors again and again.

The Solitary Walker said...

I'm sure you're right, Friko - one thing I am certain of.

Or sailing the Polar seas sniffing the fragrance of pine trees, Tramp?

Yes, errors are unavoidable' they are part of what we are.

There's nothing worse than those who won't ever admit to any mistakes, who think they're always right and everyone else is wrong. Such attitudes lead to zealotry, despotism and irreconcilable conflict.