Wednesday, October 14, 2009

If you're wrong then how will you find out?

What is the truth? How can you find it? One of the interesting things about reading the works of the most intelligent people that ever lived is that even though they have amazing minds, they all seem to have the ability to be very silly sometimes and frequently are plain wrong, to my mind. Great minds don't think alike and so, a significant portion of them are wrong.

I reckon, the first step on the path to the truth is to realise that if one of the convictions that you currently hold is false, then you won't know it. That follows from the definition of conviction. So then what do you do?

Well, next step is to ask yourself the question: if I'm wrong, then how will I find out? We could think of some method that we could employ, but then the follow on question is of course, if that method doesn't work, how will I find out?

Suppose someone is asked: if your religious faith is incorrect, how will you find out? and they answer that God will tell them, then you can rightly tell them that they're being a nitwit, since if their faith is fundamentally wrong and God doesn't exist, then he won't be around to tell them. So they would need a better answer. To be honest I've never heard a sensibe answer to the quesition from a religious devotee. The statement I have the truth, I don't need to search any further, is very arrogant and is likely to lead to an end to progress for people who have that opinion.

To really answer the question about how we'll find out if we're wrong takes significant humility. The starting point is that we may well be wrong.

However there are some groups who really do try to answer the question about how they'll find out if they are wrong. For example scientists will say that if they are wrong, then future experiments will show it and so old theories will be dumped in favour of new ones that agree with the evidence. To me that is a reasonable answer, though there are perhaps flaws. For example if some new brilliant scientist comes along with a new exciting theory which explains all sorts of existing anomalies, it could well be rejected by the main-stream because the ideas are just too revolutionary. Older people in particular have difficulty taking on new ideas and so science may well miss out. The peer-review system in journals is not perfect, but to my mind, the achievments of science ovew the past few centuries have been amazing

Wikipedia is an interesting case. They have really shown humility. They say that they'll find out if they're wrong by allowing anyone correct it. The result is absolutely astounding. They have created the largest encyclopedia in the history of humanity and no other has been faster at fixing mistakes. The down-side is that it sometimes is vandalised, however when people vandalise articles, they get corrected and that is the key.

For me the important thing is not to absolutely know the truth, but rather the ensure that you have a path to get there.