Perfection? Fuhgeddaboudit!

The new digital magazine Nautilus offers an essay by physicist and author David Deutsch, who describes the peculiar logic of failure, or why an openness to being wrong can make better outcomes more likely.

His essay was one of Nautilus' "Best of 2013," according to the online magazine.

Beginning with the logical paradoxes of fallibility, Deutsch describes the nature of error and eventually touches on how civil systems address it.

We used to think that there was a way to organize ourselves that would minimize errors. This [claim] has been part of every tyranny since time immemorial, from the 'divine right of kings' to centralized economic planning.

...We can hope to detect and eliminate error if we set up traditions of criticism—substantive criticism, directed at the content of ideas, not their sources, and directed at whether they solve the problems that they purport to solve.... Our systems of checks and balances are steeped in traditions—such as freedom of speech and of the press, elections, and parliamentary procedures, the values behind concepts of contract and of tort—that survive not because they are deferred to but precisely because they are not: They themselves are continually criticized, and either survive criticism (which allows them to be adopted without deference) or are improved (for example, when the franchise is extended, or slavery abolished). Democracy, in this conception, is not a system for enforcing obedience to the authority of the majority. In the bigger picture, it is a mechanism for promoting the creation of consent, by creating objectively better ideas, by eliminating errors from existing ones.

It's a straightforward point. Participants in civil society consent to these checks and balances because, over time, this imperfect system tends to weed out the really bad ideas, and improve on the good ones.

The fact is, we get it wrong. And we get it wrong in part because even individual experience is mediated. For example, our eyes, which psychologist and former IdeaFestival speaker Daniel Simons demonstrates in his work with invisible gorillas, are more than capable of leading us astray. The argument isn't that ultimate truths outside our perception don't exist, but that our apprehension of those truths is necessarily a shaky one that calls for a certain humbleness of thought.

So when it comes to worthwhile innovation, a willingness to get it wrong is indispensable. There are no fool proof systems that can protect individuals or organizations. The only question is this one: how will we fail? By engaging in a rear guard action against that possibility, or by failing forward, knowing that mistake and error are baked into any system, office or person, and discovering something new in the process? 

Stay curious!


Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by Ian Sane