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Nobody is clever enough to be wrong all the time
The philosophy YouTuber James Cussen discusses the most useful philosophical maxim he's ever discovered.
Written by James Cussen.
Ken Wilber once wrote that “Nobody is smart enough to be wrong 100% of the time.” When I first read that I thought “obviously” but, like random pop songs from the 90’s, you can overlook something in the moment and find it months and years later bubbling up repeatedly.
The weight of Wilber’s words don’t lie in some profound truth but in their pragmatic power. Like “waste not, want not” or “reduce, reuse, recycle”, the quote can function as one of Wittgenstein’s “philosophical reminders” — a sort of therapy for the mind.
We live in an age of polarity. Whether this polarity is exceptional or not, it is undeniably present. The technologies that fuel the global village of the internet have made it all too easy to segregate us by our beliefs — reds from blues, vaxxers from antivaxxers, BLM from 4Chan.
The human psyche is riddled with biases. As such, we’re prone to what Carl Schmitt called the friend-enemy distinction: the need to identify an out-group in order to define ourselves. The problem is that enemies are often conceptualised as embodying all that is wrong. In a word, they are evil. Of course, this low-resolution map might not be held by everybody. In fact, the smartest Machiavellians almost always recognise the strengths and truths in their enemy’s arguments. But on a more base, primal, or physiological level, it’s hard not to wince when we encounter the moral outsider, the avatar of all we are not. Put simply, it is hard not to feel that they are biased whilst we are fully rational, something the Princeton psychologist Emily Pronin calls the bias blind spot.
The power of Wilber’s adage is that it acts as a meditation on what Noam Chomsky once called intellectual self-defence. No individual and no group is capable of being entirely wrong. Seeing this is seeing past the routine System One exploitation, to use Daniel Kahneman’s now famous language. Just like the now dangerous oversupply of calories, so too is there an abundance of information and manipulation, principally generated by the desire for more people watching more shit more of the time.
“Real schools ought to provide people with techniques of self-defence, but that would mean teaching the truth about the world and about the society, and schools couldn't survive very long if they did that.”
— Noam Chomsky
Much like the era of the “yellow journalism” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a plume of fake news now billows forth. And the fog of war is about to grow thicker thanks, again, to technology. The deep fake is a prime example:
Such environments create concomitant needs for nuance. A growing savviness around knowledge consumption is evident. Thus, the pragmatic power of Wilber’s words is a philosophical reminder that the antagonists in our narrative are not demons but fellow humans with more psychological depth than any strawman. It is a soundbite that invokes just a hint of uncertainty —a philosophical reminder of the all-too-human biases that threaten to ensnare us in our own point-of-view.
In an era of increasing fragmentation which serves mainly to distract from the major crises we are facing, I am fond of the romantic idea of questioning beliefs and first principles. A return to the Socratic roots of philosophy — an invitation to think outside of the externally imposed echo chambers, to remind ourselves that everybody (or at least most people) are not hellbent on destroying the world we love. Most people identify as the hero in their story; I want to find out why and to build a bridge between these chambers.
There is an extra enticement (if tidying up the commons weren’t enough) for those who enjoy thinking and who revel in original thoughts: the majority of people are singing from the same hymn sheets. When you dance between the echo chambers, however, you are encountering a lattice of information that few others have accessed; there is a whole field of potential cross-pollinations of ideas that do not usually interact. Detailing this in video form has been one of my most successful projects to date:
For a generalist there is no greater boon than asking: What happens when you bring Derrida into conversation with Incels? Foucault with Jung? Thomas Sowell with Metamodernism? It's this kind of novel connection-making that I want to play around with and that I see the possibility of when I hear “nobody is clever enough to be wrong all the time”.