Introduction: The Principle of Fallibility
It is generally accepted by most that the complexity of the world far exceeds our capacity to fully comprehend it. Meaning we’re each forced to resort to various methods of simplification in our efforts to interpret things and make sound decisions in our lives—metaphors, rules, and generalizations are some of the methods we depend upon to do just that. This phenomenon is what’s known as the Principle of Fallibilty. And all Humans are affected by it. Now that shouldn’t really be news for anyone who is paying attention. But the extent of the problem and how it affects us negatively isn’t as widely accepted as I believe it probably should be.
Here’s an easy way of looking at the problem of fallibility. Think of a map for a moment. A map will always fall short of portraying the actual state of the environment it’s attempting to portray. You don’t look at a map and believe for one second that it truly represents the portrayed environment. It’s a lower resolution impression of reality—limited by its scale, detail, time period etc. If any map was truly capable of representing reality with 100% accuracy, it would literally have to be the size of the territory itself to account for every single detail—remodeling in real-time to comprehend any new variables that arose—like a huge slab of rock falling into the sea for example. Could a map tell me how many trees are in a forest? Or how cold the river is right now? Almost certainly not. A map’s utility is confined to its capacity of resembling reality.
One’s worldview shares similar parallels. It’s like a map in its own right—an impression of the world, restricted by the limits of our perceptional functions and our own prejudices. And like a map, the utility of our worldview is confined to its capacity of resembling reality. Could my worldview tell me where to invest my money? Or how to deal with a troubled relationship? That depends on how accurately one’s map represents reality. The closer your map can portray objectivity, the more likely your strategies will succeed and the better you’re able to understand the world around you. But know this: Your map’s impression of the external world is never objective. It can always be improved upon.
And this is no easy task. Because the impressions we form about reality are also subject to scale. With so much information available, our brain has no choice but to automatically filter most of it out and form a lower resolution impression of reality—choosing to retain only what information is deemed important enough for us to need. (like a map does) See: Confirmation bias, Congruence bias, Choice-supportive bias, Selective perception, Observer-expectancy effect, Ostrich effect, Subjective validation, Continued influence effect, Semmelweis reflex [See our Cognitive Bias Field Manual for further reading.]
Thinking like a Cartographer
In this article, I want you to imagine your worldview like a cartographer cultivating a map—I’m going to outline various different problems that I believe this cartographic metaphor will assist you with. If only to serve as a means to better understand your own thinking and nothing more.
The problems I wish to address with this approach are as follows:
The Prejudged Thinker:
We each struggle to form an accurate outlook of the world outside the boundaries of our own prejudges.
Dealing with Stress & Frustration:
We become stressed when the external reality differs from our own outlook and expectations.
Dealing with Disagreement of Differing Opinions:
We find it difficult to convey the accuracy of our own outlook to others—while simultaneously adding to the problem by not accepting the limitations of our own views.
The Prejudged Thinker
To begin, I’d like you to take a look at the ancient map above. Its cartographer, a man named Ptolemy—lived in the ancient city of Alexandria (A Roman province of Egypt) and produced this world map sometime around the year 150AD. As you can see, the accuracy of the Mediterranean sea and its surroundings is quite apparent relative to the more distant portrayals of faraway lands.
And we all know from personal experience that our own views are equally as vague and distorted if we are asked to clarify our position on matters that are unfamiliar to us. The accuracy of our local environment will be decently mapped—while matters that we have little concern about, or experience in, will be generalised in a manner similar to the vague mapping of the Asian continent above. And there is a good reason for this. Human action is grounded firmly in human motives, and human motives are typically grounded in human desires and perceived interests. The intrinsic motivation to do what is necessary to attain wealth, respect and power fundamentally shapes how we understand the situations and circumstances of our daily lives. Our Interpretations, assumptions and judgments are continuously being formed to advance our own particular ends, ensuring that our maps are each prejudiced in our own favour. These truths can be described as Darwinian truths—locally held truths that inform you of action, not merely hard facts; and not just any action, but correct action which serves the unique purposes of your own life to the extent that you benefit directly from them.
And you would be wise to bring this realisation to the forefront of your attention. To do so is to admit that you’re fallible, that is, to accept that your outlook isn’t perfect. If you refuse to accept your own fallibility, you are essentially saying that your map represents reality as it actually is. And that’s a big problem—one that is all too common, unfortunately. It’s one thing to be confident in your outlook as a result of sound reasoning and evidence—but it’s an entirely different thing to be closed off to the idea that your view can’t be improved upon.
When you embrace your fallibility and see that your map can always be of a higher resolution, you can now see the opportunity to learn something from everyone. And however cliché that may sound, it’s true. I guarantee you that every single person in this world has a particular part of reality, more precisely mapped than your own rendition of it. Whether or not that information is useful to you, is another matter entirely—but never overlook this point.
- When trying to fix a problem with limited information, ask yourself—what resolution is my current map and how can it be improved upon? And is there anybody I know with a higher resolution map on this issue who can help me on this?
- Don’t allow your ego to cloud you from seeing the world with greater precision. Embrace your fallibility.
Dealing with Stress & Frustration
Imagine you have a clear goal in mind. Your goal is to arrive at point B from point A. During your journey, reality hits you with a feature that you hadn’t anticipated. You look towards your map for guidance, it shouldn’t be this way! Your map clearly differs from the environment that it was attempting to portray. With time against you, and your options slim, frustration emerges and your intuitive response is to look for something external to blame.
When our internal map differs from the external world, we become confused, frustrated, and often angry. Nobody gets confused or frustrated by things they genuinely anticipated. Therefore it’s imperative that our maps are open to the notion of uncharted variables and chaos. But how can we map things that are outside of our experience and control? It was the ancient Stoics that had a meditation on this note, as an aid to prepare the mind for the inevitable appearance of chaos and adversity:
Those who practice praemeditatio do not flinch beneath the blows of Fate, because they have calculated its attacks in advance; for of those things which happen against our will, even the most painful are lessened by foresight, when our thought no longer encounters anything unexpected in events but dulls the perception of them, as if they were old, worn-out things.
— Philo of Alexandria
Praemeditatio Malorum – Preparing a map for adversity
In the absence of chaos, one must prepare maps of adversity via meditation—to prepare the mind for the different “catastrophes” that could befall you. From time to time, find a quiet area (In bed before I sleep at night is a favoured preference of mine) and imagine a calamity that involves you. Visualise the moment as if it was happening in real-time. Form an indifference to the details of the crisis but focus on the elements entirely within your control that allows you to overcome the crisis and win.
One of the reasons I highly advocate this approach is due to Normalcy bias. This physiological theory explains the tendency for people to underestimate the likelihood of adversity. We simply believe things will always function the way things normally have functioned in our default state, leaving the majority of people bewildered when chaos eventually strikes. Outside of challenge-specific training simulations—having access to low-resolution mental impressions depicting possible catastrophes is an excellent mental exercise to keep the claws of normalcy bias from gripping the mind. Failure to do so, is to welcome mental complacency in the event of a crisis.
. Frustration arises when your internal map differs from that of the external world. In the event of a problem—look inwards before blaming the external variables. Take ownership of your problems by forming the following maxims: How could I have seen this coming? How can I improve the resolution of my map so that this doesn’t happen again?
. Practice Stoic Meditation to prepare for the unforeseen variables of chaos. Visualise precisely how you would like to act during a calamity. How should I breathe? How would I keep my emotions in check? How many people would be involved? How should I interact with them? How do I win? Play it out like a movie scene in your head—raise the difficulty of the calamities as you improve.
Example: House/Apartment fire in the middle of the night. What is the first thing that you do? Play out the entire experience in the mind.
Dealing with disagreement of differing opinions
Debate and disagreement with others is an inevitable part of life if you hold any particular beliefs or principles. This essentially involves two or more parties laying out their maps on the table and trying to win—by convincing the other side that their map is superior.
In the traditional sense of an argument, the opposing ideas or concepts will clash, and a verbal argument of war is declared where each person attempts to out-reason each other to win. Unfortunately, the truth is not often the aim of the debate in most cases. Rather, the ability to proclaim your map as the superior one is.
Here I’ve outlined 3 types of arguments that I’ve ranked by hierarchical importance, based on my own opinion:
- Collaboration for Truth
A debate with the mutual aim to find the best rendition of objectivity. Both sides open the discussion by admitting their fallibility, before putting their arguments forth. All parties wish to leave this discussion with more accurate maps than they arrived with. This is considered the highest form of human conversation.
- Intellectual Sparring match
Somebody wishes to test the strengths of their argument by thinking aloud and receiving critique. Devil’s advocate strategies will be encouraged by others (even if they agree)—the ultimate aim is to test ideas and strengthen viewpoints.
- Primate dominance hierarchal game
No rules. This is a debate in which one side is trying to prove their superiority over the other. Pure Darwinian wrangling with an emphasis on emotions rather than reason. The most common form of debate. Truth will take a back seat—the primary objective is clear: Win the discussion and assert dominance over your opponents.
Understanding the Primate Dominance Game
We’re all too familiar with debating an ego that is in possession of a bad idea but is entirely unwilling to let it go for egocentric reasons. But it can be a lot more sophisticated than mere stubbornness, and you’d do well to know why. The first idea is simple. If somebody isn’t open to the idea that they could be wrong, and genuinely believes they hold the truth. We’re off to the worst possible start. Self-awareness of fallibility is an essential step for anyone serious about truth-seeking.
The next problem we face involves a crucial precondition for anybody being able to accept facts outside of their own maps—and it depends upon the degree to which they must undo commitments made to others. So many people have their relationships, reputations, and occupations entirely contingent on the specifics of their worldview being valid. They don’t just get to acknowledge their idea as invalid without there being actual consequences for doing so. Some people would quite literally have to accept the fact that they have wasted a tremendous amount of time, energy and resources on an idea that was invalid—a counter-intuitive notion to say the least.
Take for example a believer of an organised religion. The first problem of course, is that a believer may not be open to the possibility of fallibility. (As noted above) If they genuinely believe their scripture to be without fault, and truly representative of reality—then they have admitted that no ideas outside of this particular rendition of reality can possibly be valid to them. Therefore, a debate is quite literally pointless. Secondly, in more conservative settings it’s quite possible that their family and friend’s acceptance of them is entirely dependent on the membership of this idea. Apostasy of one’s faith can often result in damaged relationships and the severing of community ties. (Death and imprisonment in some cases also) Therefore, to defend a viewpoint can be far more nuanced than mere ego. It’s a way of life, a Darwinian truth system that supports layers and layers of real-world beneficial factors. To change it, could be quite literally to welcome chaos itself.
So you can see the problem here. For most of mankind, it’s never been about what’s true and what’s not. It’s survival first. For most people of the world, facts that act against them are the only truths. When layers and layers of one’s lifestyle are built upon truths that must remain valid in order for one to validate and accumulate power, respect, and security—then objectivity may quite literally threaten the walls of the subjective order in question. The inner voice of its naive beneficiaries will self-validate their way and oppose all those who disagree, with merciless ease. Look at the sheer amount of systems around our world that are built upon ideas that are contradictory, self-verifying, illogical and entirely closed off to the notion of fallibility. It’s not exactly difficult to see why conflict is often inevitable in this game. Any thinker or system that refuses to admit their fallibility is a problem simply waiting to happen.
. When entering your debate. Be mindful of the objective you seek before you begin. Is it a collaboration for truth? An intellectual spar? Or a Primate dominance hierarchal game? Know the objective. Let your fallibility be known if you’re seeking truth.
. Be mindful of the difference between egocentric truths and seeing things for what they truly are. I’m not advocating a treasonous abandonment of the self—The ego and its intuitive maps drive our passions and successes in life. But don’t be clouded by the ego’s vision. Keep it in check by having well reasoned, high-resolution maps of areas of interest for strategic referencing.