Every morning I read another chapter of Julia Galef's The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don't, the subject of two previous posts (here and here).
I really liked her "How to Be Wrong" chapter.
Along with most people, I don't enjoy finding out I was wrong about something. But it's a heck of a lot better than continuing on in my wrongness, which keeps me from learning a more complete truth about that thing.
Below you can read excerpts from that chapter.
They're in three sections, dealing with changing your mind frequently, the ease of saying "I was wrong," and viewing beliefs as needing updating rather than being proven wrong or right.
After each section I'll provide an example of how I changed from being a firm believer in an India-based religious organization, Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), to becoming an open-minded atheist.
(1) Changing your mind frequently.
Changing your mind frequently, especially about important beliefs, might sound mentally and emotionally taxing. But, in a way, it's less stressful than the alternative.
If you see the world in binary black-and-white terms, then what happens when you encounter evidence against one of your beliefs?
The stakes are high: you have to find a way to dismiss the evidence, because if you can't, your entire belief is in jeopardy.
If instead you see the world in shades of gray, and you think of "changing your mind" as an incremental shift, then the experience of encountering evidence against one of your beliefs is very different.
If you're 80% sure that immigration is good for the economy, and a study comes out showing that immigration lowers wages, you can adjust your confidence in your belief down to 70 percent.
It may later turn out that study was flawed, or further evidence may come out showing that immigration boosts the economy in other ways, and your confidence in your belief may go back up to 80 percent or even higher.
Or you may find additional evidence about the downsides of immigration, which could gradually lower your confidence even further below 70 percent. Either way, each adjustment is comparatively low stakes.
This is pretty much how I gradually came to have increasing doubts about whether the teachings of Radha Soami Satsang Beas were true.
I always had taken a scientific approach to meditation and spirituality. I liked how RSSB also was termed the "science of the soul." So I never considered that this religion was absolutely, positively, 100% true because scientific truths always are open to being modified or proven wrong.
I viewed the RSSB teachings as a hypothesis, an experiment to be conducted within the laboratory of my consciousness. As years, and then decades, went by, I revised my estimate of how likely it was that the RSSB teachings were true.
Because I hadn't started at 100%, but more like 90%, it felt comfortable to reduce that probability downward as I learned more and more about RSSB and had meditation experiences that failed to confirm the science of the soul hypothesis.
(2) The ease of saying "I was wrong."
A friend of mine named Andrew was surprised when one of his colleagues accused him of never admitting he was wrong. In response, Andrew pointed out two recent occasions on which he had been wrong and readily acknowledged it -- in the company of that very same colleague.
The colleague, whom I'll call Mark, was surprised in turn. He replied, "I guess that's right. Why did I have the opposite impression?" Mark was silent for a minute, reflecting.
Then he said, "You know... I think it's because you never seem embarrassed about it. You're so matter-of-fact, it almost doesn't register to me that you're admitting you were wrong."
It's true. I've seen Andrew acknowledge he was wrong many times, and it usually sounds something like this: "Ah, yup, you're correct. Scratch what I said earlier. I don't believe it anymore." It's cheerful, straightforward, nonchalant.
Mark's implicit assumption was that changing your mind is humbling. That saying "I was wrong" is equivalent to saying "I screwed up" -- something you confess with contrition or sheepishness. Indeed, that's the standard way of thinking about being wrong.
...Scouts reject that premise. You've learned new information and come to a new conclusion, but that doesn't mean you were wrong to believe differently in the past.
I can't say that my shift from embracing RSSB teachings to viewing them as likely being wrong went as smoothly as Andrew's nonchalant manner of acknowledging being wrong.
However, I've never viewed this change as being anything to be ashamed or regretful about. As I've pointed out on this blog many times since I started it in 2004, I've experienced many other shifts in my beliefs.
To offer an example, for eighteen years I was married to a woman who I loved a lot at first, and then not so much. After our divorce, I remarried. Now I've been married for thirty-one years to a woman I loved soon after I met her, and continue to love now.
Similarly, I worked as a health services researcher and planner for quite a few years. Then I realized that I just didn't care anymore about the field that once was so important to me, and moved in a different direction.
Changing our beliefs isn't always easy. But it's less difficult if we hold on to those beliefs lightly enough that we aren't devastated when our beliefs change.
(3) Updating beliefs.
Even the language scouts use to describe being wrong reflects this attitude. Instead of "admitting a mistake" scouts will sometimes talk about "updating."
That's a reference to Bayesian updating, a technical term from probability theory for the correct way to revise a probability after learning new information.
The way people use the word updating colloquially isn't nearly so precise, but it still gestures at the spirit of revising one's beliefs in response to new evidence and arguments.
...If you at least start to think in terms of "updating" instead of "admitting you were wrong," you may find that it takes a lot of friction out of the process.
An update is routine. Low-key. It's the opposite of an overwrought confession of sin. An update makes something better or more current without implying that its previous form was a failure.
This is a nice way of looking upon mistakes. Rather than thinking "I was wrong," we can say to ourselves "I've updated how I look upon this."
Over the years I've been asked by many RSSB devotees how I could possibly have been so wrong about the religion that meant so much to me for such a long tine. I don't understand this perspective.
As noted above, it wasn't that I went from 100% certainty to 100% doubt. I started at maybe 90% certainty that the RSSB teachings were true and steadily updated that probability, mostly downward. So I feel no need to admit "I was wrong" because I never considered myself to be absolutely right.
My iPhone has lots of apps. Almost every day one or more of them get an update. I don't view the maker of the app as having screwed-up when they release an update. Rather, I appreciate that now the app should work better than before.
In much the same way, every day I learn something. I assume this is true for you also. My wife and I enjoy our Apple TV device. We stream a show with it most evenings.
Until today I was pleased with the device, which I bought five or so years ago, can't remember exactly when. Then I read a review of the updated Apple TV device with an improved remote.
That made me better realize the drawbacks of the device we have now. So this afternoon I ordered the new Apple TV.
I wasn't wrong to have bought the one we have now. I just updated my belief about how good that one was.