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 When a theory is apparently 'proved' to be 'true' and beyond all reasonable doubt, it's often overturned and superseded at some later date: look, for instance, at all the various historical conjectures about the creation and makeup of the universe.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.