The Right to be Wrong

by sarahconstantin 2y28th Nov 20179 comments

76


Epistemic Status: pretty confident

Zvi recently came out with a post “You Have the Right to Think”, in response to Robin Hanson’s “Why be Contrarian?”, itself a response to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s new book Inadequate Equilibria. All of these revolve around the question of when you should think you “know better” or can “do better” than the status quo of human knowledge or accomplishment.  But I think there’s a lot of conflation of different kinds of “should” going on.

Yudkowsky’s book, and Hanson’s post, are mostly about epistemic questions — when are you likely to get the right answer by examining an issue yourself vs. trusting experts?

Inadequate Equilibria starts with the canonical example of when you can’t outperform the experts — betting on the stock market — and explains about efficient markets, and then goes on to look into what kinds of situations deviate from efficient markets such that an individual could outperform the collective intelligence of everyone who’s tried so far.  For instance, you might well be able to find a DIY treatment for your health problem that works better than anything your doctor would prescribe you, in certain situations — but due to the same incentive problems that prevented medical consensus from finding that treatment, you probably wouldn’t be able to get it to become the standard of care in the mass market.

Hanson mostly agrees with Yudkowsky’s analysis, except on some points where he thinks the argument for individual judgment being reliable is weaker.

Zvi seems to be talking about a different thing altogether when he talks about the “rights” that people have.

When he says “You have the right to disagree even when others would not, given your facts and reasoning, update their beliefs in your direction” or “You have the right to believe that someone else has superior meta-rationality and all your facts and reasoning, and still disagree with them”, I assume he’s not saying that you’d be more likely to get the right answer to a question in such cases — I think that would be false.  If we posit someone who knows better than me in every relevant way, I’d definitionally be more likely to get the right answer by listening to her than disagreeing with her!

So, what does it mean to have a right to disagree even when it makes you more likely to be wrong?  How can you have a right to be wrong?

I can think of two simple meanings and one subtle meaning.

The Right To Your Opinion

The first sense in which you “have a right to be wrong” is social and psychological.

It’s a basic tenet of free and pluralistic societies that you have the legal right to believe a false thing, and express your belief.  It is not a crime to write a horoscope column.  You can’t be punished by force just for being wrong.  “Bad argument gets counterargument.  Does not get bullet.  Never.  Never ever never for ever.”

And tolerant, pluralist cultures generally don’t believe in doing too much social punishment of people for being wrong, either.  It’s human to make mistakes; it’s normal for people to disagree and not be able to resolve the disagreement; if you shame people as though being wrong is horribly taboo, your community is going to be a more disagreeable and stressful place. (Though some communities are willing to make that tradeoff in exchange for higher standards of common knowledge.)

If you are regularly stressed out and scared that you’ll be punished by other people if they find out you believe a wrong thing, then either you’re overly timid or you’re living in an oppressive environment.  If fear of punishment or ostracism comes up regularly when you’re in the process of forming an opinion, I think that’s too much fear for critical thinking to work properly at all; and the mantra “I have the right to my opinion” is a good counterweight to that.

Discovery Requires Risking Mistakes

The second sense in which you have a “right to be wrong” is prudential.

You could ensure that you’d never be wrong by never venturing an opinion on anything.  But going all the way to this extreme is, of course, absurd — you’d never be able to make a decision in your life!  The most effective way to accomplish any goal always involves some decision-making under uncertainty.

And attempting more difficult goals involves more risk of failure. Scientists make a lot of hypotheses that get falsified; entrepreneurs and engineers try a lot of ideas that don’t work; artists make a lot of sketches that wind up in the wastebasket.  Comfort with repeated (hopefully low-stakes) failure is essential for succeeding at original work.

Even from a purely epistemic perspective, if you want to have the most accurate possible model of some part of the world, the best strategy is going to involve probabilistically believing some wrong things; you get information by testing guesses and seeing where you’re mistaken.  Minimizing error requires finding out where your errors are.

Note, though, that from this prudential perspective, it’s not a good idea to have habits or strategies that systematically bias you towards being wrong.  In the “right to your opinion” sense, you have a “right” to epistemic vices, in that nobody should be attacking you for them; but in this goal-oriented sense, they’re not going to help you succeed.

Space Mom Accepts All Her Children

The third sense in which you have a “right to be wrong” is a little weirder, so please bear with me.

There’s a mental motion you can do, when you’re trying to get the right answer or do the right thing, where you’re trying very hard to stay on the straight path, and any time you slip off, you violently jerk yourself back on track.  You have an aversion to wrongness.

I have an intuition that this is…inefficient, or mistaken, somehow.

Instead, there’s a mental motion where you have peripheral vision, and you see all the branching paths, and consider where they might go — all of them are possible, all of them are in some cosmic sense “okay” — and you perform some kind of optimization procedure among the paths and then go along the right path smoothly and without any jerks.

Or, consider the space of all mental objects, all possible thoughts or propositions or emotions or phenomena or concepts.  Some of these are true statements; some of them are false statements. Most of them are unknown, or not truth-apt in the first place.  Now, you don’t really want to label the false ones as true — that would just be error.  But all of them, true or false or neither or unknown, are here, hanging like constellations in this hypothetical heaven. You can look at them, consider them, call some of them pretty.  You don’t need to have an aversion response to them. They are “valid”, as the kids say; even if they don’t have the label “true” on them, they’re still here in possibility-space and that’s “okay”.

In a lot of traditions, the physical metaphor for “good” is high and bright.  Like the sun, or a mountaintop. The Biblical God is described as high and bright, as are the Greek Olympians or the Norse gods; in Indian and Chinese traditions a lot of divine or idealized entities are represented as high and bright; in ordinary English we talk about an idealistic person as “high-minded” and everybody knows that the “light side of the Force” is the side of the good guys.

To me, the “high and bright” ideal feels connected to the pattern of seeking a goal, seeking truth, trying not to err.

But there are also traditions in which “high and bright” needs to be balanced with another principle whose physical metaphor is dark and vast.  Like the void of space, or the deeps of the sea.  Like yin as a complement to yang, or prakrti as a complement to purusa, or emptiness as a complement to form.  

The “high and bright” stuff is value — knowledge, happiness, righteousness, the things that people seek and benefit from.  The “dark and vast” stuff is possibility.  Room to breathe. Freedom. Potential. Mystery. Space.

You can feel trapped by only seeking value — you can feel like you lack the “space to be wrong”.  But it’s not really that you want to be wrong, or that you want the opposite of value; what you want is this sense of “enough room to move”.

It’s something like Keats’ “negative capability“:

…at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge.

or something like the “mother” Ahab perceives behind God:

But thou art but my fiery father; my sweet mother, I know not. Oh, cruel! what hast thou done with her? There lies my puzzle; but thine is greater. Thou knowest not how came ye, hence callest thyself unbegotten; certainly knowest not thy beginning, hence callest thyself unbegun. I know that of me, which thou knowest not of thyself, oh, thou omnipotent. There is some unsuffusing thing beyond thee, thou clear spirit, to whom all thy eternity is but time, all thy creativeness mechanical. Through thee, thy flaming self, my scorched eyes do dimly see it. Oh, thou foundling fire, thou hermit immemorial, thou too hast thy incommunicable riddle, thy unparticipated grief.

The womb of nature, the dark vastness of possibility — Space Mom, so to speak — is not the opposite of reason and righteousness so much as the dual to these things, the space in which they operate.  The opposite of being right is being wrong, and nobody really wants that per se.  The complement to being right is something like “letting possibilities arise” or “being curious.” Generation, as opposed to selection.  Opening up, as opposed to narrowing down.

The third sense in which you have the “right to be wrong” is a lived experience, a way of thinking, something whose slogan would be something like “Possibility Is.”

If you have a problem with “gripping too tight” on goals or getting the right answer, if it’s starting to get oppressive and rigid, if you can’t be creative or even perceive that much of the world around you, you need Space Mom.  The impulse to assert “I have the right to disagree even with people who know better than me” seems like it might be a sign that you’re suffocating from a lack of Space Mom.  You need openness and optionality and the awareness that you could do anything within your powers, even the imprudent or taboo things.  You need to be free as well as to be right.

76