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Obsession with negativity

Sat 7 May 2011 15:00:32 6 comments

I spend a bit of time occasionally considering whether I have some form of political or philosophical identity. Recently there’s been a few blog posts I’ve read lately that had me thinking about it a bit more, and perhaps more importantly linking the question back to ideas I had well before I began reading much about politics or philosophy. From everything I’ve read online, the “Radical Centrist” label I first came across on Club Troppo appeals to me the most. Reading the Rooting out Cognitive Bias post was probably the most signficant trigger for thinking about ideas that I’d had previously.

One the attributes I’d considered key to a distinguishing feature of my identity was my hypercritical intuition. When encountering new people, things or ideas, I would instinctively identify and consider their flaws and negative aspects over and above the positive ones. Looking back I can see this had significant influence on who I was, and who I have become. Firstly, given the first things I noticed about people I would meet would be their flaws, it was difficult for me to see the point to investing the energy in forming friendships and my negative comments towards them, no matter how well intentioned, were naturally off-putting from their perspective. Strong critical introspection also left me with a lack of self confidence, particularly in social situations where I’d assume that my flaws be as glaringly obvious to others as they were to me. So I have long been someone who is introverted and often withdrawn from others.

This attribute also contributed to the strength and direction of my learning. The pure and flawless nature of mathematics was something I enjoyed and naturally excelled at. Science also appealed to me with its approach of continual improvement of understanding and its humble acknowledgement of the limits of human knowledge. However, it was probably computer programming however that best fit my critical temperament. The ability to take a piece of code and directly correct the faults that were so apparent to me, enabled me transform a somewhat negative trait into something that could produce a productive outcome. This process of iterative self correction was something that shaped the way I would continue to learn throughout life. In many cases during my engineering degree I found that I could consider the topic of a particular lecture and predict the direction and content it would take, using the actual lecture to confirm my hypothesis and focus on any detail or side issues I might not have considered.

Considering all this I’m not sure the ‘Radical Centrist’ label is completely accurate for where I’m coming from. A label of ‘Radical Critic’ probably best fits the fact that I generally focus on why an argument is wrong but remain content for others to be concerned about what the right answer is and remain open-minded about what that might be. This thought process has also led me to consider an idea I’ve been mentally chewing on for a while. It’s something I’m tentatively labelling the “Philosophy of Wrongness”1 and the basic premise is that it’s more important to understand why something is wrong than why it is right.

More generally, it’s based on the pragmatic premise that as humans any thoughts and ideas we have an imperfect abstractions of the truth or reality they are supposed to represent. Thus all thoughts and ideas are wrong, and that it is better to build complex structures of ideas using their wrongness rather than their rightness. When considering such idea structures one might consider that such a process could never lead anywhere constructive. However it’s important that the negativity is recursive and that when considering a particular wrongness of an idea you consider why that wrongness is wrong in itself. This second layer of wrongness ideas may in fact be a layer in positive support of the original idea (or indeed could be somewhat orthogonal). Thus one can construct positive idea structures but only through acknowledging the inherent wrongness. In consider how to visualise or graphically represent idea structures, positive idea structures are comment show as hierarchies, webs, Venn diagrams, etc. Negative idea structures could be represented similarly, however would likely hold fractal like qualities. The graphic would focus attention on the boundaries of right and wrong providing a more accurate depiction of the “shape” of an idea compared to a graphic that focuses attention on the internal structures of an idea and how it is built from general principles.

Perhaps the clearest benefit of structuring ideas in such a way is that it combats against compounding errors. By explicitly including faults in the structure itself, the faults become inherently included in any conclusion or ‘big picture’. Additionally, I think it would govern the thought process to focus on aspects within the current context. Consider how a young child might repeatedly ask their parents ‘why?’. The answers will inevitably end up more and more abstracted from the context of the original question. However if the child were to repeatedly ask ‘why might you be wrong?’ then it becomes possible to reverse this process of abstraction to keep the process of questioning within a relevant context. This is not something we just see in children. This post2 made me think of how often I’ve seen discussions devolve into arguments about abstract ideals, political identities and mindless partisanism. If an augmentation structure that enabled better context governance was used in place of one that drives arguments to abstraction and identity then the outcome could be more civil and productive. Finally, I think it’s an approach that can discipline the mind to be more humble by being better at identifying faults, particularly within its own thought process. Which is something that could help address the cognitive bias problem identified at the start of this post.

1. Alternatively one might call it “Recursive negative construction”.
2. Via here.

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