The Value of Being Wrong: Lewis Thomas on Generative Mistakes
In praise of our “property of error, spontaneous, uncontrolled, and rich in possibilities.”
By Maria Popova
We know that life is the self-correcting mechanism for error — as much in its evolutionary history as in its existential reality. And yet we are living our lives under the tyranny of perfection, as if all the right answers await us at the end of some vector we must follow infallibly until we arrive at the ultimate ideal. But the truth is that we simply don’t know — we don’t know where life ultimately leads, we don’t know what we want or what to want, and we don’t really know ourselves. It is by erring again and again that we find the shape of the path, by tripping again and again that we learn to walk it. Along the way, the answers emerge not before us but in us.
Van Gogh knew this when he reckoned with how inspired mistakes propel us forward, and the poetic scientist Lewis Thomas (November 25, 1913–December 3, 1993) knew it when he composed his wonderful essay “To Err Is Human,” found in his 1979 collection The Medusa and the Snail (public library) — one of my all-time favorite books.
With an eye to the advances in so-called artificial intelligence that our machines made in a blink of evolutionary time — the fruition of Samuel Butler’s prescient Victorian prophecy of the emergency of a new “mechanical kingdom” of life — Thomas writes:
A good computer can think clearly and quickly, enough to beat you at chess, and some of them have even been programmed to write obscure verse. They can do anything we can do, and more besides.
An epoch before ChatGPT, he adds:
As extensions of the human brain, they have been constructed with the same property of error, spontaneous, uncontrolled, and rich in possibilities.
Rather than measuring the merit of our machines the punitive way we measure our own — by fidelity to some ideal of perfection — Thomas argues that this capacity for error is the supreme gift of the mind, of the more-than-machine we live inside, capable of surprising itself and capable, therefore, of glorious deviations from course, into new vistas of possibility:
Mistakes are at the very base of human thought, embedded there, feeding the structure like root nodules. If we were not provided with the knack of being wrong, we could never get anything useful done. We think our way along by choosing between right and wrong alternatives, and the wrong choices have to be made as frequently as the right ones. We get along in life this way. We are built to make mistakes, coded for error.
We learn, as we say, by “trial and error.” Why do we always say that? Why not “trial and rightness” or “trial and triumph”? The old phrase puts it that way because that is, in real life, the way it is done.
This generative possibility of being wrong is by definition a function of the friction around being right — contention is the crucible of creation, within us and between us. (The great writer and jazz scholar Albert Murray called this creative friction “antagonistic cooperation.”) Thomas observes:
Whenever new kinds of thinking are about to be accomplished, or new varieties of music, there has to be an argument beforehand. With two sides debating in the same mind, haranguing, there is an amiable understanding that one is right and the other wrong. Sooner or later the thing is settled, but there can be no action at all if there are not the two sides, and the argument. The hope is in the faculty of wrongness, the tendency toward error. The capacity to leap across mountains of information to land lightly on the wrong side represents the highest of human endowments.
The possibility of wrong choices is itself an assurance of multiple options — a multiplicity that is always our best bet for creative paths forward that transcend the blockages of the past. Thomas writes:
We are at our human finest, dancing with our minds, when there are more choices than two. Sometimes there are ten, even twenty different ways to go, all but one bound to be wrong, and the richness of selection in such situations can lift us onto totally new ground. This process is called exploration and is based on human fallibility. If we had only a single center in our brains, capable of responding only when a correct decision was to be made, instead of the jumble of different, credulous, easily conned clusters of neurons that provide for being flung off into blind alleys, up trees, down dead ends, out into blue sky, along wrong turnings, around bends, we could only stay the way we are today, stuck fast.
In a sentiment that applies as much to our personal existential evolution as to the collective creative challenge of abating climate change, he adds:
What we need, then, for moving ahead, is a set of wrong alternatives much longer and more interesting than the short list of mistaken courses that any of us can think up right now… If it is a big enough mistake, we could find ourselves on a new level, stunned, out in the clear, ready to move again.
Complement with philosopher Daniel Dennett on the art-science of making fertile mistakes and philosopher Amélie Rorty on the value of our self-delusions, then revisit Lewis Thomas on the mystery of the self, our human potential, and his forgotten masterpiece about how to live with ourselves and each other.
Published March 18, 2023