Are Mistakes a Bug or a Feature?

"Human thought is fallible, so it can never be certain." That is a favorite argument against certainty. To see if it is a good argument, think of a light switch.

Few things in the world are as certain as a light switch. You turn on the lights in perfect confidence, because of past experience. It would not occur to you to doubt the outcome of reaching for the light switch. But sometimes nothing happens. Bulbs burn out. Storms interrupt the power. Wouldn't it be wiser to reach for the switch hesitantly, so as not to be surprised?

In fact, it would be pointless. Your certainty about the switch is the same as your certainty about your name, your street, and your conviction that murder is evil. Adopting a doubting attitude toward these things would not change them, but only make them less useful. They have been tested by experience, and you are sure.

To put that another way, a common method of being certain of things is to test them out by experience. If this method did not work with thinking, how could one ever know that a mistake had been made? Human fallibility is taken as self evident precisely because experience reveals mistakes. Just as the way to find a burned out bulb is to flip the switch with confidence, so the way to find a flawed conclusion is to act on it with confidence and see if the experience matches the expectation.

The argument against certainty fails to match up with experience, which shows that certainty works. Because human thought gives certainty, it controls action, which reveals any flaws so they can be corrected. Doubting the results of reason has the same effect as reaching for the light switch timidly. It just gets in the way of finding mistakes.

Experience shows two exceptions to this rule. If mistakes are made carelessly, then careless observation will not discover them. If mistakes are made on purpose, then they will be concealed on purpose.

What would it mean to be incapable of making a mistake? If you could only choose one way, then you could not choose at all. If your thinking process were incapable of error, then it would be automatic, and not yours. If being wrong were impossible, then being right would be meaningless.

Human fallibility is neither a bug nor a feature. It is another way of expressing the fact that human cognition regulates itself, so you need to discover the proper methods for getting things right. When you have done that, experience will confirm your confidence and reveal your doubt as a mistake.

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