19 May 2007

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Mistakes in Life + other items

Dear friends,

Apologies for sending you the essay so late.

Julian has asked me to remind you that he is, "still looking for a place
to live. Flat, flat share, temporary lodging or other alternative."
------ juliand1@yahoo.com

And don't forget the day trip to Segovia on the 3^rd June.

Take Care


**********HOLIDAY FLATS**********
Mayte; Almería (Villa de Níjar);


Paloma; Marbella (near Elviria);


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Mistakes in life

The anatomy of a mistake is made up of three components: information,
action, and consequences. A mistake may also be one of commission or

Of course, mistakes are a result of autonomous action by an agent. And
although action might very well be determined there are, at least, some
actions that we can do to influence a desired outcome. It is not so
much, however, an argument of determinism against freewill, but rather
determinism as a function of a determining agency and degree of
influence. By autonomous action of an agent, I mean natural living
things: an amoeba, a bacterium, an elephant and human being, you know
what I mean. And although I have no doubt that a bacterium can make a
mistake, I am only interested in human mistakes.

A human being is, of course, as much a determining agency as the next
critter. But what distinguishes a living creature and an inanimate
object, such as a volcano, is that a living creature determines its
environment for its own survival. A volcano is just the result of
geological processes in the Earth's crust. This is an important
distinction because volcanoes cannot make mistakes, but humans can and
do make mistakes.

Coupled with the idea of determining one's environment, is the idea that
determinism comes in degrees. As we know human beings have been very
successful at determining their environment, maybe even too successful
to wit. On the other hand, other creatures can also determine their
environment to various degrees of determinism. It goes without saying
that by environment I am also including other creatures, human or
otherwise, that are involved in our life. For example, we can determine
the life of a chicken as much as the bacteria in that chicken can
determine our well being.

What has this got to do with mistakes? Simple, mistakes are still part
of that process of an agency to determine its environment. Furthermore,
mistakes can still have a positive or negative effect on others as much
as on itself.

Is there a significant difference between mistakes of omission and
mistakes of commission? A mistake of omission is something we should or
ought to have done, but we didn't. Such mistakes are usually
characterised with such expressions as, "if only I knew," "I should have
done that," and so on. Mistakes of commission are the result of acts we
did perform. Usually these are identified with such expressions as, "I
shouldn't have done that," "maybe that wasn't the best thing to do," and
so on.

Sometimes, things would turn out badly irrespective of what we do.
Usually such things are also linked to high moral content. For example,
should we try to rescue someone in rough seas; if we don't they would
certainly drown, and if we do we might drown. Or on a more serious note,
as Britain and other countries in 1939 found themselves having to decide
whether to meet the treaty obligations they had with Poland (that's the
theory at least). Going to war against German resulted in a world war,
but what would have happened if they didn't go to war. If the Second
World War was a mistake, then what would have been if they did not go to
war? Some might say that these two examples are not real mistakes. I'm
not sure about that. If the outcome of the Second World War was a
stronger Nazi party, few of those who supported this group would have
said that it was a mistake to go to war. Usually, if things turn out
well, few would describe these things as a mistake. In a way it does not
matter whether there is a difference between mistakes of omission or
commission. If things turn out well, then we can justly claim that no
mistake was made, and if things turn out badly, then we can account for
this by looking at the anatomy of the mistake.

It is quite ironic that when we discuss mistakes, and maybe point at the
mistakes of others, we usually start with the cardinal mistake of
judging the situation with 20/20 hindsight. We further conspire in our
judgment by ignoring the psychological or mental state of the actor of
the mistake. Not to mention our own psychological state. I would argue
that although this state of affairs points at a mistake, for failing to
take some fundamental considerations, I want to argue that what is
behind this judging situation is a valid strategy, even if it is an
unpleasant one as i will point out.

Imagine a colleague who decides to change their stable and well paid job
for a position with a start up company. Now the new start up company
fails twenty months down the line. It is reasonable to say that this
colleague made a serious mistake? To complicate matters, sometimes
things turn out as they did in this example but we might not say that
this person made a mistake. But when we do say that this colleague made
a mistake it does not necessarily follow that we know all the
circumstances of this colleague: they might have been under stress, or
simply could not stand us any more, whatever. Whilst it might be that
this colleague made a mistake, it does not follow that we have some a
priori right or capacity to say that this person made a mistake. But we
do, even if we do not have such an a priori right.

This becomes serious or relevant when sanctions are to be associated
with a mistake. It is one thing to applying the label mistake but
another when it comes to apply sanctions as a consequence. I agree with
you that reasonable and rational agents would not jump to conclusions.
For example, many legal systems take this into account when they
administer justice. However, I am not interested in this aspect.

The reason why mistakes are followed by disapproval (in many cases) from
observers is because other people's mistakes can materially affect us.
But ironically, affect here can be both negative and positive. Our
colleague's failed career move affects us positively because they are
now at a competitive disadvantage from us. On the labour market (read:
competitive survival environment) we are better off than they are; at
least in the short term. And whether we want to or not, or whether we
are aware of it or not, we do benefit from our colleague's unfortunate
career move. This is nature and nature of the survival gene: someone
else's misfortune, at the evolutionary level at least, might easily be
our fortune. Now, the longer this advantage persists the better it is
for us.

When we say that someone made a "mistake," as in our example, we are
employing a linguistic strategy (and psychological) which is meant to
maintain this state of perceived advantage. I submit that we do not
necessarily do this consciously or intentionally, it is built into the
system, if you like. Hence, by applying the label "mistake" we are in
effect inflicting pain (psychological) on the other person. And of
course, pain disadvantages people; in English we have an expression for
this, kicking a man when he's down. (See for example, Men inflict
greater pain than women, Will Knight, 06 February 2004, NewScientist.com).

Maybe it is much easier to understand when someone else's mistake
affects us directly. It is also quite natural to complain. What might
not be obvious is how does this affect a survival strategy?

I think we can agree that by applying the label mistake, we are also
trying to affect the mental or psychological state of the other person.
When a mistake affects us we are, sort of forewarning that person to be
more careful with us in future encounters. In fact, mistakes, or rather
their effects, only interest us when they have a direct bearing on us.
How many of us, for example, complained at the mistakes done by the
local deli, yesterday, in down town El Paso, Texas. Unless yesterday you
were in down town El Paso the chances are you didn't. In fact I don't
even know if there is a deli in down town El Paso. Applying this
principle on a larger scale, this might explain why we tend to complain
more about the imperfections our politicians rather than the genocide
aggression of dictators in far of lands. We might not even know that
such transgressions are taking place at all.

Hence, mistakes are those actions or acts which affect us directly. And
as I have tried to point out with the dictator or deli examples, it is
not even a matter of degree but a matter of fact. Mistakes, as a
consequence, are also subjective. If it does not affect us directly it,
probably does not feature on our moral event horizon. We have no moral
opinion about it because we don't know about it or it is not captured by
our moral gravitational field.

So far I have looked at the action and consequence of what I described
the anatomy of a mistake. Of course, mistakes can also be seen as the
result of a flawed decision process. By implication, when me make a
mistake we can say that the decision process was also flawed. Of course,
skill and experience do help us in this process, especially in matters
we have been dealing with for a long time. But what I am interested in
is the information (also knowledge) we take into consideration.

When we decide to do something, we are deciding to act in the future. We
want to influence our future; we want to influence future events. This
is what we mean when we say that a determining agency tries to influence
their environment. We want to make things happen in the future. Of
course, the future can be the next second in our life or the next
quarter of a century. How far into the future is immaterial.

However, our future actions are limited by two powerful principles. The
Heisenberg uncertainty principle tells us that it is physically
impossible to predict the future because we are unable to determine the
course of physical events into the future. Basically, this principle
tells us, as you will remember, that there is a point in the quantum
world where it is impossible to find the momentum and position of an
object. Of course it is not within the scope of this essay to go into
quantum mechanics, but what is important us is that we establish the
principle that we cannot predict the future and that the future is a
function of the probabilities. The implication of the Heisenberg
principle is that the future is a probability function of present state
of events; we do not need to go into the meaning of present here. This
probability function explains the claim that skills and experience can
help us limit the number of the type of mistakes we make.

The second principle is based on The Paradox of Choice which is the
result of research by Prof Barry Schwartz*. The idea behind this study
is that the more choice we have the more confused or unsatisfied we
become. This does not mean that choice is bad, but that unless we really
know what we are doing, having more choice need not mean better or
happier or whatever. The implication of this paradox is that we might
still think we made a mistake just because we had more choice in the
first place. In the video presentation Schwartz gives an example of how
some people in the US fore go participating in a retirement investment
plan (401(K)), sponsored by an employer, with deferred tax. Employees
who are offered more choice to invest their money tend to participate
less in this investment scheme. They are inundated with choice so they
do nothing about it (a mistake of omission).

You will immediately realise that the Paradox of choice has a lot in
common with information overload. Information overload is when we are
inundated with information to the point that we become inefficient or
ineffective. A more technical description of information overload is a
low content-to-noise ratio. And accord to a report in the New Scientist
it quotes Glenn Wilson as saying that un-checked info-mania can reduce
our mental sharpness. ('Info-mania' dents IQ more than marijuana, 22
April 2005, NewScientist.com). Of course one answer to information
overload is to have quality information.

How is this relevant to our subject? Information is the third leg of
what I have called the anatomy of a mistake. In order to interact or
change our environment we need information about the environment and
about us. The quality, quantity and nature of the information we have
determines the out come of our actions and how we act.

It seems to me that there is a sort of balancing operation going on with
mistakes. On the one hand, we are justified in believing that the better
the quality of our information the better will be our decision making
process. For example, if we know that a company is in good financial
health our decision to invest in this company ought to be more sound
than knowing nothing about the company. However, we also know that we
are limited to what we can say about the future. Moreover, no matter how
well our company does, it does not exclude other companies doing better.
Hence, a seemingly justified course of action can easily be thwarted by
other events and by the choice we have.

Mistakes are more complex phenomena than just being wrong about
something. But then the label "wrong" has never been that helpful on how
we should or ought to do things. The most important aspect of mistakes
is that mistakes help us assess the probabilistic outcomes of future
events. We might do this by learning from our mistakes. By they also
have a sinister side, as I have tried to show. The label "mistake" can
be used to manipulate, or at the very least, influence others (and them
to us); how they feel and how they behave.

Over and above everything else, mistakes have two very relevant short
comings. The first is that we try to avoid them, but we do not always
succeed. The second is that we try to learn from them, but we do not
always get a second chance.

Take care


*The Paradox of Choice - Why More Is Less

Barry Schwartz


from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Mistakes in Life +
other items

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