Sunday, July 06, 2014

Error, Being Right, and Layers

I'm working on a speculation that's grown out of my thoughts on resolution and my own elaboration of Pascal's insight concerning "being right." These are not fully formed thoughts.

Colleen and I were having a minor and harmless dispute, more playful than serious, when a joke she meant in jest made me sting. I felt her joke was hurtful, when she was only using the lead I gave her. I had said that I easily fall for appearances. A few measures of conversation later, she jokes about my indiscretion with falling for people who might not always have my better interests in mind. She was right, but it felt wrong—the timing of the joke hit my ego, and I reacted negatively. But because I have been priming myself for a while now to think of right as a matter of perspective—there is always a perspective from which what someone says is right—it was much easier to catch the emotion in place and settle my own issues than if we got into a mismatched communication and argued wildly.

But in working out with her what happened, it became clearer to me how thinking about the layers of conversations and rightness greatly aids in resolving conflicts. The idea goes like this.

A conversation occurs at a certain resolution, sometimes shifting and becoming higher in resolution or lower. Higher resolutions involve more information, more detail, more surfaces to investigate, and require larger displays to properly convey everything. Higher resolutions are not necessarily "zoomed in" to the finest details, though higher resolutions better accommodate certain ways of conveying the fine details. Resolution is not a measure of the closeness one has to the topic of investigation, but about the amount of information represented in the description. Lower resolutions are what people mean when they want the "basics" of something. Less information, less detail, less surfaces to investigate. Concise statements, not paragraphs. Or paragraph, not a monograph. There isn't an examination of how the conclusion came to be, but it's more important for the lower resolutions to display arrival at a destination than to displaying paths taken to the destination.

For example, you ask your friend when she'll arrive to plan out what you need to do, but you don't always ask her how she'll be dressed, how she'll get there, what routes to take, what music she'll listen to on the way, and so on. But if you do start to ask, and your friendship is close, this kind of information helps to enlarge what you know and how you know one another. Enlarging relationships increases the resolution of those relationships for the people involved. But asking for the low resolution detail doesn't cheapen or reduce or mediate the relationship. Instead, it allows for speed of processing, and this is generally why we resort to low resolutions prior to receiving the high resolutions.

Now, what I tend to do in thinking about issues, from dialectical philosophy to interpersonal relationships, is set up multiple resolutions, or layers, of interconnected relations between information I know, tentatively know, infer, guess, and so on. I use fixed points at the various layers to help coordinate the information and the relations, but sometimes this creates problems. The conversation I was having with Colleen was one of those moments.

That is, I took the conviction I had at one layer of information to be an indication I had the information correct at another layer, which is pretty much what I think goes wrong every time stubbornness prevents discourse from reaching mutual understanding. Let's say you're thinking about things at different resolutions A, B, C, and D. A is a very low resolution but quick-thinking layer. It is a condensation of the processing taken/taking place at the higher resolutions. D is a very detailed, high resolution layer of processing, and for this reason is very slow to express and takes time to elaborate. In between are layers where various shortcuts and stances concatenate responses to appropriate questions, saving processing time while storing this for later use (whether to shorten the response even more or analyze the response for its underlying patterns and inferences and choices).

Suppose you believe very firmly in something you hold at layer C, but in a conversation at layer A you are led to say something that disagrees with this. This conflict sends you into a set of options: either respond by shifting the conversation to the layer where you feel right (I do think the firmness of a belief is an expression of the feeling of rightness) or claim you've been misunderstood (scramble to find the coherent way of expressing yourself or blame the instigation of the other party) or begin the process of tracking down how beliefs at C trickle to beliefs at A to see where things got confused.

I think most of us will choose to hold onto whatever feels settled to preserve that aspect of our belief and attribute the problem, or miscommunication, to the other person first ("You're misunderstanding what I clearly said/wrote!"), and then to the nature of the conversation ("You know better than to talk politics with me!"), and then to the language we use ("You know words just don't capture what we're trying to say!"), all before simply acknowledging internal inconsistency. But once we do acknowledge internal inconsistency, because we're assuming ourselves to be completely exposed to ourselves in terms of how we think about things—we think we know just how we came to the beliefs we have—we try and look for ways of resolving the conflict internally by holding out all of our relevant or related beliefs as one big group of ideas or beliefs or opinions for analysis.

But if we think of it as "one big group," then we don't quite capture how we're right at one layer but wrong at another layer, because thinking through the OBG treats inconsistency as a direct contradiction between competing claims. Yet this is clearly not right to do.

For example, at a low resolution it is completely correct to say "Oxygen is necessary for life." But at higher resolutions, this need not be the case: there are different ways of conceiving how life evolves, and it might be possible for certain things to occur where oxygen is not as important as other metabolic processes. Someone more trained and experienced and current with the sciences of biology and chemistry and so on can give much more detailed ways of refuting the claim. One example I've been engaged in a lot lately is Descartes' cogito argument: it is true that Descartes argues that if thinking occurs, then whatever is thinking as it is thinking must exist. This is acceptable at low resolutions, and so it gets taught to people this way, and there's not much harm in that, so long as it's understood that higher resolution analysis will undermine the argument. But, because people find they firmly believe they must exist if they are thinking at all, then they're firmly going to believe that deeper analysis of what it means to think or to exist won't be necessary: they are right, and there is only one way to be right.

That is, truth is taken to be monotonic, which is to say that truth doesn't change regardless of how much more you add to it or take away what's related to it. A pregnant woman is always going to be a pregnant woman so long as she's pregnant: she will still be pregnant on Mars, or standing on a subway carriage, or described in the context of her family, or reduced to a statistical commonplace. Once declared as a truth, it will remain no matter how you place her.

But what I am saying is that rightness is something different from truth, and perhaps truth is something different from monotonic claims. Rightness gives the feeling of conviction or correctness, but because we're right at certain resolutions and likely wrong at others, we have to rely less upon the feeling of correctness as a blanket justification for all the ways we might be right/wrong. We have to, instead, think about what layer or resolution confirms our view, and which ones do not. We have to pay closer attention to how we are being refuted or responded to, criticized, not simply that we are being refuted, especially if we want to practice a diligence in learning how to correct ourselves. Truth is very likely perspectival, but grounding it in perspective does not make it "relative" or "anything goes." In fact, thinking about truth as responsive to layers or resolutions makes it much more possible to find commonalities, since we no longer have to think about the OBG of all beliefs—a totality of all the ways anyone can see something restricting all of our opinions, or where the OBG conforms to the One True Way. Instead, we can start to ask at what resolution is this person disagreeing with us, and how will shifting our resolutions change how we agree and disagree.

I know, I know. This is all very obvious. It's captured in the pithy slogan "Wait 'til all the facts are in." A great example of how layer A is a collection of slogans and useful gnomes. But this is also an example of how I think about such a slogan and adapt it to fit my own theory about rightness and the feeling of knowing something, a theory I also want to make correspond with current neuroscientific assessments of how knowing feels in the first place.

Even so, I get why people find it frustrating to have to dig deeper into something when they already have the feeling of being right. There is an inherent insecurity in learning how we deceive ourselves, but if we can demonstrate these illusions are as unintentional as optical illusions—are you really to blame for thinking that silhouette is a larger person that this other silhouette because your optical machinery processed it that way?—then perhaps we can overcome the stigma we have to correction.

I think, in some respects, that's the moral purpose of an argument such as Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow. It is also part of the moral purpose in the Stoicism advanced by Epictetus in the Enchiridion. These cognitive errors occur so fast, so deeply, and so commonly, accusing ourselves of being jackasses over them is counterproductive. Vanity is definitely a moral failing, but one based in immediate procedural inferences that take time to work through. Perhaps it is something like an addiction to a drug, such as sugar. It is not helpful to treat addiction like a strictly moral failure of will. It is counterproductive, since the impotency we feel towards our addictions makes the accusations all the more damning, turns frustration into self-destruction, and isolates the real opening to an exercise of will from becoming an option.

By this I mean that if we continue to point out how someone's error is the result of active self-delusion—a choice to continue believing in false or incorrect truths—we exacerbate the problem. Pascal is right to point back to Epictetus when it comes to losing our temper to be told we're wrong about an argument. We don't respond similarly when we are told we have a headache. We don't think of error as a physical condition. For whatever reasons, reasons that will be worth exploring, ego is deeply connected to how we hold our beliefs and our justifications for them. But if our cognitive errors are physical conditions, cognitive illusions brought about by a failure to observe more carefully how our minds appear to ourselves, then perhaps we wouldn't take such immediate offense at a joke or a claim we misplace. We are, by virtue of being the kind of humans who did evolve as these humans, open to common illusions.

Knowing these things are illusions doesn't detract from their appearance to us as illusions. We are still deceived by all the optical and auditory illusions even as we're being told that they are illusions, how they work as illusions, and how to investigate to reveal the illusory inferences. Knowing how the mind deceives itself into feeling rightness doesn't change the fact that it still misplaces the rightness, but it does encourage a habit of actively investigating if the immediacy of the feeling is an illusion brought about by quick and low resolution thinking or if the feeling is justified through many different resolutions.

Of course, even this account doesn't guarantee that we have Truth on our side. That's not the point of this. The point is to foster active humility regarding what we know to be true. If all it takes to be right is a switch in perspective and figuring out the appropriate resolution, then being right is not enough to have truth on one's side, much less using one's own rightness to compel others into agreement.

Being right, on this account, is not enough.


  1. And, on that last bit, I have the feeling and intuition this is a large portion of why Pascal spends much time following through with Montaigne's argument from The Apology of Raymond Sebond. Geography has more role to play in what we think is true than truth itself, to the point where having the truth amounts to luck at times.

    The trick, then, is to play and wager with a better awareness of how much luck has to do with all of it. And since, for Pascal, luck is a human way of describing the passage through "infinite chaos" the coin's toss takes to come to us—the coin's flip decides whether or not the being without parts or bounds is—what we're really talking about is the inscrutable will of God and our relation to it. Pascal is undermining Descartes' methodology for producing truths through careful analysis of one's thoughts to accept only what is clear and distinct. Not completely destroying it in favor of willy-nilly believing in anything, but undermining the illusion that one comes to one's beliefs in the method solely via contemplative analysis of the clarity and distinctness of the ideas.

    If God's ways are hidden, then how we had been lead into our beliefs, how we have been situated and habituated into them, is part of the obscured machine's operations. Humility with respect to what we believe is a prerequisite for receiving the grace of God.

    You cannot come to God believing the world is solely material; you cannot accept Jesus believing there is no redemption nor glory. There will be some beliefs you will have to leave behind, making space and time for others. Coming to see that your beliefs are not your own, are not your children, seems to be important in order to be freed from them. If they are the products of force or imagination or geography, you have few reasons to hold onto them.

  2. I wonder how that last paragraph in my earlier comment responds to something I have been saying about Platonic thoughtbabies, the offspring in the understanding of ideas having intercourse with us.


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