Friday, August 27, 2010

I Always Want to Be Right (And You Should, Too)

I always want to be right. When I say this, I don't mean that I want to win arguments. That's not being right -- that's having other people tell you you're right. I mean that I want my beliefs to reflect reality. I want all of my beliefs to reflect reality -- if not perfectly, then at least as fully and completely as possible.

I do not want to believe I can fly when I can't. The practical consequences of this are perhaps best described by the term "splat".

I do not want to believe that a cure for cancer works when it doesn't. The practical consequences of this are paid in wasted money and unnecessary side effects. By the same token, however, I don't want to believe that a cure doesn't work when it does. The practical consequences of this are commonly referred to as "dying in horrific agony". Selecting an effective (and helpful) treatment or cure is one of the hardest -- and most important -- parts of medicine.

I do not want reality to conform to my existing beliefs. That idea -- the foolish wishing for what I tend to derisively call "magic god powers" -- may make for a nice fantasy on occasion, but is usually a waste of time. I want my beliefs to conform to reality. I want to believe what is true, not for reality to follow from what I believe.

I do not want others to sit back and say nothing when I express an inaccurate belief. If they do so, I lose the opportunity to correct my beliefs. I fully understand that the price of being right is admitting that you have been wrong. I accept and eagerly pay this price. Metaphorical humble pie may taste awful, but it's very good for you.

I do not want others to hold back in debate. I want to hear the best, most valid arguments that the people I'm debating can put forth -- and I want them to support these arguments as well as they can. I, in turn, will do the same. I will hold my position with the best arguments I can come up with (as the circumstances allow) in hopes of drawing out the best, most thorough counterarguments possible. If I did otherwise, I would deprive myself of evidence and reasoning that could help me develop a better, more informed view of the issue we're debating. If I "win", so be it. If I "lose", so be it. Either way, I'll be using the reasoning and evidence to reevaluate my position... and will very often change it.

Of course, this changing isn't always obvious. I usually reevaluate my position after the debate... and I often play "devil's advocate", offering forth arguments that I don't really believe (but can't easily counter) in order to draw out a precious -- and useful -- counterargument.

I don't want to reach premature final judgment... and my beliefs tend to be more probability estimates regarding the possibility of something being true than actual beliefs that something is true. Truly wanting to be right means being comfortable with the limitations of one's knowledge.

And, in the end, as I reflect on my attitudes and my desire to be right... I can't help but think that the world would be a better place if more people desired to be right, too.


  1. Alex, I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed a lot of times, because most of the time, people will argue from an emotional standpoint. They'll argue an idea that they have become wedded to somehow, for whatever reason, and nothing you can say will dislodge it. Ah well, at least, you should be able to recognize when that happens. That would save you some grief.

  2. Oh, I'm well aware of that. Still... "people do stupid things" does not mean "you should, too."

  3. The idea has been suggested to me (I think by Scott Adams of Dilbert fame or someone of his ilk) that people typically make an emotional decision first, and rationalize it second. It was suggested that it was always the case that the emotional decision, the gut feeling, the instinct, takes less time for the brain to process, and the rational foundation comes later. Of course, the soundness of the rational foundation is quite dependent on the reasoning ability of the person in question. I would also propose, that if the rational foundation is flawed, then that individual creating the flawed foundation is in poor shape to assess their own correctness or objectively judge their future ideas.