While “We May Be Wrong” is new, the attitude it embodies has been taking shape for some time.
One of the first indications of it came back in the 1990’s, when I was still a full participant in the workday world of work. I’d noticed there were people where I worked who (for reasons mysterious to me) were apologetic when they disagreed with me. Was I being too strong-willed? Was I doing something that discouraged disagreement? As I reflected on that question, I decided there was a need to let my co-workers know how healthy I thought fair-minded, open-minded disagreement was. I thought about what I wanted to say, and within a few days, I’d created two signs which I displayed prominently in my office. You couldn’t walk through the door without noticing them.
The first of them read like this:
Agree with me once, and I’ll like you.
Agree with me all the time, and I’ll think you’re a fool.
Convince me I’m wrong, and I’ll be in your debt forever.
I thought it captured the sentiment I wanted to express well. If you surround yourself with sycophants and people who think just like you do, how will you ever learn anything from anybody?
Just to be sure people understood where I was coming from, for the rest of the time I inhabited that office, I pointed the sign out to anyone I felt might be reluctant to tell me things I didn’t want to hear.
Meanwhile, as an additional reminder, both to myself and to others, I displayed a second sign near the first one:
Never be afraid to question your convictions. The Truth is too important ever to abandon the search for it.
That one was a little trickier, I think. It may represent a paradox of sorts. It capitalizes the word “Truth” in the fashion of those who believe that, in answer to any question, there is an absolute “Truth,” a single answer that cannot, and should not, be questioned. My fear, for those who see the world this way, is that once they’ve identified this Absolute Truth (or think they have), their job becomes one of adhering to it, come what may, fighting against any seed of doubt that might creep in. Shunning those seeds of doubt may lead to avoiding those who would encourage their taking hold, and avoiding those people may lead to surrounding oneself with those who are like-minded. Before you know it, the world is divided into camps of like-minded people, both camps convinced they are right, when the only sure thing (from my perspective) is that they’ll be in hopeless conflict with each other, a state that inevitably seems to lead to violence and war.
I once engaged in a debate over whether Absolute Truth exists or not. While I took the position it did not, I didn’t feel sure of myself. (The purpose of debate, as I see it, should be to test propositions, in order to learn — not to convince your opponent that you’re right, and he or she is wrong.) I ended up entirely unsure of whether Absolute Truth exists or not, and to this day, I’m undecided on that question. But as time progressed, I adopted a fairly strong belief as to a closely related question: assuming that Absolute Truth does exist, is the human mind capable of knowing when they’ve come across it? On that question, I confess to have developed a strong opinion. Not a certainty, mind you, but a very strong opinion. And I came down on the negative side of that one. Even if there is such a thing as Absolute Truth, and even if the human mind is capable of seeing or comprehending that Absolute Truth , I concluded, the human mind is not capable of knowing when it has done so.
And so, on the sign I hung in my office all those years ago, I didn’t hesitate to capitalize the word “Truth” — because even if it exists, and even if we’ve already somehow stumbled upon it, we can’t be certain that we have — so the Truth is too important to abandon the search for it.
More in future blogs on what science and reason suggest about the limits of human understanding.