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.

Our brain is constantly mapping the world in this way, and like all map projections, distortion of reality is necessary in order to establish a comprehensible form of it. This distortion 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 biasCongruence biasChoice-supportive biasSelective perceptionObserver-expectancy effectOstrich effectSubjective validationContinued influence effectSemmelweis 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. If you wish to think seriously about your world, and act capably within it—forming simplified maps of reality via models, theories, concepts, and paradigms are necessary.

The problems I wish to address within this article are as follows:

The Prejudiced Thinker:
We each struggle to form an accurate outlook of the world outside the boundaries of our own prejudices.

Dealing with Stress & Frustration:
We become stressed when the external reality differs from our own outlook and expectations.

Breakdown in Communication:
We find it difficult to convey the accuracy of our own outlook to others—while simultaneously adding to the problem as a result of our own limitations.

Dealing with Disagreement of Differing Opinions:
Not everybody is striving for the truth in a debate. Some people simply wish to vindicate their position, irrespective of the facts. It’s important to know what game you’re playing.


The Prejudiced Thinker

Ptolemy’s world map, reconstituted from Ptolemy’s Geography (circa 150AD) in the 15th century

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 simplified and distorted in a manner similar to the vague mapping of the Asian continent above.

As far as I can tell, this phenomenon is a consequence of two fundamental factors:

1) Biological limitations: Humans perceive their world through a lens of evolved adaptions.

2) Information processing: Humans translate the properties of the world into useful units of information.

And it is precisely the usefulness of our impressions that I’m concerned about here. 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 and assumptions of life are continuously being formed to advance our own particular ends, ensuring that our maps are each prejudiced in our own favour. These impressions of ours allow us to see where we stand, and where we might be headed relative to the motivations we happen to hold.

And while these maps of ours are going to be very useful for some tasks, they’re going to be rather useless for others. Take a road map for example, it shows us how to get from A to B, but you’d hardly use it when flying a plane—for each map serves a specific purpose and chooses what details are important to portray and what details are not, from the infinite array of details available. We formulate the basis of our understanding of reality through these useful paradigms. Intellectual abstractions that allow us to use our inner eye to see a path, choose the next action in accordance to a need, and predict the future accordingly.

So let’s say you’re trying to make sense of an ongoing international crisis, or a sudden political drama—At first, you’ll be depending upon historic abstractions of the mind that covers the parties involved to get a sense of what is happening. It will be distorted, prejudiced, out of date, lacking in many areas—but what else have you got to work from? You need a starting place after all. News outlets will contribute to your map through their own prejudiced narratives and friends will contribute to the narrative by painting their own image. Soon, you’ll be in possession of a variety of different abstractions that make up this new map of yours. If a friend asks you for your opinion on this crisis, you will be referring to this very map to explain it. But, here’s the thing. Unless you’re working for a state intelligence agency with a formidable set of resources at your disposal, that map of yours is probably a very poor representation of what is actually going on. And that’s perfectly understandable—after all, you probably don’t have the time, nor the necessity, to investigate the situation thoroughly. Therefore, we are each depending upon these types of simplifications to make sense of the world around us.

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. That you’re using simplified paradigms by necessity to explain complex phenomenon around you. If you refuse to accept your own fallibility, you are essentially saying that your internal maps represent 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 outlooks 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 maps 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.

Action Steps:

  • 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?
  • Does my map distinguish what is important from what is unimportant to assist me in my query? Could I include additional features of importance? Could I remove unnecessary points? 
  • Does my map accurately anticipate future outcomes? If not—do I hold myself accountable for any inaccurate predictions I may have had? Do I update my map accordingly?
  • Don’t allow your ego to cloud you from seeing the world with greater precision. Embrace your fallibility by charting your impressions with objectivity as the goal.

Dealing with Stress & Frustration

Land? My map tells me otherwise. Something must be wrong here.

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 simulationshaving 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.

Action Steps:

. Frustration arises when your internal map differs from that of the external world. In the event of a problemlook 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.


Breakdown in communication

So we’re each mapping a unique internal landscape of abstraction that is only accessible to ourselves. But if you ever hope to teach somebody something, or cooperate on a problem, or prove somebody wrongyou must convey the worth of your maps through communication. And this whole affair, in my opinion, is quite possibly one of the most problematic issues in human cooperation.

Let’s imagine that you have a passionate opinion that you wish to convey to me. (Let’s call it viewpoint Z) what are the chances that you can get viewpoint Z into my head, precisely as you see it in your own head so that I can understand your outlook?

Your first obstacle begins with language. Before you can even describe viewpoint Z to me, you must select the medium of communication. In this case, let’s assume it’s a verbal conversation in English. Right off the bat, your outlook is confined to the limitations of the English language. All those vibrant visuals and details of viewpoint Z now needs to be described to me through a particular set of noises and expressions. Immediately, your map is undergoing compression.

Then, depending on the importance of the conversation, and the time you have to speakyou may have to force the description of viewpoint Z into 30 words or less as you explain it to me. Think about it, not everyone is going to allow you 500 words to describe that thing you want to talk about. We’re each afforded a socially acceptable window of communication that limits the number of words we can often use in any given situation. Failure to honor these social boundaries will often result in people tuning out in real-timeand that guarantees your map will be misunderstood. So, make a note—the difference between using 500 words and 30 words to describe viewpoint Z, is additional compression to your map.

Finally, once you’re blabbering those mouth-sounds of yours—you’re assuming that those noises mean the same for me as they would do for you. And in a lot of cases, they probably do. But in many cases, they won’t, even if we speak the same language. So beyond the compression issues we face above, we’re now dealing with translation issues. More distortion to our mapping is inevitable.

And on top of all of that. Am I even listening to you properly? And I don’t mean simply going through the motions of hearing. I mean methodically paying attention to your words with the intent to understanding your map’s original form. Because a lot of people ain’t doing that. They’re just waiting for their turn to speak.

So after all of this—whatever is now in my head, is certainly not viewpoint Z. Rather, we can call this distorted rendition of mine viewpoint Y. Furthermore, each of us will probably be none the wiser to this predicament.

And there’s a good chance that I won’t agree with viewpoint Y, seeing as it’s some distorted interpretation of an already simplified impression of reality. So now I’m disagreeing with your viewpoint for the wrong reasons. Viewpoint Z still might be valid and immensely valuable to me. But I’m simply unable to comprehend the form that you’re trying to get across—so confusion and dispute is often the price we pay. You can now hopefully see why I believe this to be one of the most problematic issues in human cooperation.

But what if I did listen properly? Let’s assume that we overcame the distortion issues outlined above because you’re a good communicator and I’m a good listener.

But I disagree with viewpoint Z.

Well then, we’re now onto the next step. Debate.

Action Steps:

. When we or others attempt to communicate our maps to one another—we’re up against distortion. There are several things you should be considering during a discussion:

. When listening to someone else, make an active effort to attain the strongest representation of the other person’s viewpoint before judging itAm I paying attention? Am I being charitable to the person’s original intentions before I respond? Am I contributing to the distortion in any way?

. When speaking to someone else, take care when choosing your words. You’re looking to reduce the compression of your view as much as possibleAm I speaking clearly? Do my words represent the complexity of my idea? Am I considering the listener’s thought process when I speak?


Dealing with disagreement of differing opinions

Debate and disagreement with others is an inevitable part of life as we each attempt to protect the integrity of our maps. This essentially involves two or more parties laying their maps out 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

When a person collaborates for truth, they take ownership of their worldview by integrating any new information that improves upon it. With such a mindset, one doesn’t have to rely on controlling the debate, only himself. Each debate is a chance to get stronger. A chance to strengthen the integrity of one’s outlook. I strive to do this whenever I possibly can. Much to the disapproval of my ego.

Understanding the Primate Dominance Game

“You’re acting highly irrational!”

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, they will genuinely believe they hold the truth. In such cases, 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 that directly contradict 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 real world consequences for doing so.

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 would be quite pointless in this case.

Secondly, in more conservative settings it’s possible that one’s family and community relationships are formed around 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 has supported layers and layers of real-world order and prosperity to those who adhere to such truths. To suddenly dismiss these truths, would be quite literally chaotic in most cases.

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.

Action Steps:

. 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.

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3 comments

  1. Fantastic article, in a time of a social ignorance and a left versus right culture, a lot of people could benefit from reading this.

  2. “To do so is to admit that you’re fallible, that is, to accept that your outlook isn’t perfect.”

    “If somebody isn’t open to the idea that they could be wrong, they will genuinely believe they hold the truth. In such cases, we’re off to the worst possible start. Self-awareness of fallibility is an essential step for anyone serious about truth-seeking.”

    This is so true. The ideal is that every conversation to improve both of our world-views and come closer to the truth. However, the truth hurts in most cases and like you mentioned, changing one of our core beliefs is like pulling a leg out of a table. Plus the idea of changing such a part of our identity ends up leaving our world in chaos which is something we would want to avoid for the most part.

    I guess the only way is to tread lightly, realize we know nothing and always seek to improve our personal map to be in alignment with the truth.

    —-

    Great article John. Really enjoyed it. Your action steps are A1. Will put “how could I have seen this coming? + how can I improve the resolution of my map so that this doesn’t happen again?” and others immediately into life.

    -Daniel

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