Wrong: Part I

Some see the world in black and white, others see it as gray. Some believe that every action is either right or wrong, others believe that some, or even many actions, fall somewhere in between. Is one of these perspectives right and the other wrong, or is it a gray area?

If we define a true, right, or correct statement as one that is 100% accurate and always applicable with no exceptions, caveats, generalizations, or oversimplifications, then most statements are false. In fact, it’s likely that all statements written and uttered are false by this standard, including this statement. Let’s look at some age-old adages and see how they measure up:

  • It’s better to be safe than sorry.
  • Actions speak louder than words.
  • The early bird catches the worm.
  • Don’t judge a book by its cover.
  • Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
  • If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

If we ponder these proverbs for a moment, we can quickly decipher the simple and mildly profound principle that’s meant to illuminate our decision-making, but are these statements true? Should we always lean toward safety? Is it always better to be early? Is every desirable outcome achievable? Surely it’s no challenge to imagine some plausible, and even common examples in which these statements are completely misleading or irrelevant.

If you are a racecar driver, then exercising caution at all times will not serve you well. And even in less extreme, hyper-competitive situations, such as pursuing a potential romantic partner, taking a chance is often exactly what is required.

Being early is preferable much of the time, but obviously being too early is inefficient and could even be irritating to others. But even if showing up early to in a specific instance does provide a benefit, can we just assume that there’s nothing better to be done with that time? What if instead of being 20 minutes early to work you could have been 10 minutes early and warmed up your car, stretched, or flossed?

There are many things that are impossible to do, and not just because they are a paradox – like standing and sitting simultaneously – or because they violate the laws of physics – like levitating – but simply because life is hard and we constantly fail. Humans are perpetually making trade-offs because we have limited time, energy, and money, but unlimited desires. And we’re always facing challenges that we simply do not have the skills, patience, or determination to accomplish. For most, we cannot will ourselves to become a chess Grandmaster or a Hollywood celebrity any more than we can will ourselves to levitate.

But this leads an important question, if these statements are not true in the sense that they are 100% accurate at all times, then are they really false? Certainly a statement that is helpful for many people and generally correct most of the time is valuable and shouldn’t branded as wrong and discarded. So how do we categorize such a statement?

It seems like these statements should fall into a category that doesn’t really relate to true or false, right or wrong. They’re pretty accurate under normal circumstances, useful much of the time, and require some wisdom in order to be applied. But this isn’t just true of ancient maxims, it’s also true of many of the statements we make every day. Indeed, whenever you express an opinion, especially a political opinion, chances are you’re saying something that is irrelevant, counterproductive, or destructive in many circumstances. Let’s look at some examples:

  • Bullying should never be tolerated.
  • Drug use should be illegal.
  • The rich should pay more taxes.
  • Criminals should go to prison.
  • Offensive language should be banned.
  • Every human life must be preserved at any cost.

Use your imagination for a moment to think of a situation in which the statement above should not apply. It shouldn’t be difficult to imagine a scenario where making an exception is the right thing to do. Here are some ideas to get the wheels turning:

  • What if a student bullies another student by shaming or intimidating them because they’re doing something seriously wrong, like harassing, sabotaging, or plagiarizing another student?
  • What if the person using the illegal drug would endure extreme suffering, or even die, if they didn’t use it?
  • What if the rich person, unlike their peers, is already paying a majority of their income in taxes?
  • What if someone breaks just one extremely old, insignificant, and irrelevant law (as we constantly do)?
  • What if someone finds mainstream language, such as vulgar or sacrilegious language, offensive?
  • What if saving a human life requires inflicting suffering on many others?

And it’s not just proclamations about society, law, and morality that are often wrong. Even the most commonplace, mundane statements are most certainly untrue. Even something as innocent as expressing the simple thoughts and preferences such as, “I don’t have an addictive personality,” or, “Pepsi is better than Coke,” don’t hold up under even tepid scrutiny. Now that we know that everything we read, hear, write, and say is wrong, let’s look at some other kinds of statements and analyze whether they are true, false, or something else.

In science there are principles, equations, and relationships that are measurable and testable both in theory and in practice. We can use Newton’s physics equations to make predictions about the movement of objects, and then we can test those predictions in the real world. They work. That is, they work under normal circumstances with normal-sized objects moving at normal speed. But if we’re working with a subatomic particle in a sub-zero vacuum moving at nearly the speed of light, Newton’s equations break down. Does this mean Newton’s statements about the mass and velocity of objects aren’t true? How can equations that have proven incredibly reliable and immensely useful for centuries be wrong?  Perhaps Newton wasn’t wrong, he was merely mistaken?

And herein lies the problem: right and wrong can mean many things. We say that the statement 2+2 = 4 is right, but we also say that helping those in need is right, that it’s right to signal when we make a turn while driving, and that brushing after every meal is the right thing to do. We say that that the geocentric model of the universe is wrong, but we also say it’s wrong to steal, that it’s wrong to make digital copies of a movie, and that burping out loud in public is wrong. We use these terms to assess whether or not something is technically accurate, morally virtuous, compliant with regulation, or simply a good idea, and that’s a very strange thing indeed.

When someone knocks down a set of dominos and one of them doesn’t fall, we say something went wrong. Nothing immoral took place. Some dominos simply weren’t lined up in exactly the right way, which is an honest mistake that’s very easy to make. But what if a child set up the dominos and they were just learning how to do it? Then we probably wouldn’t even say something went wrong. In fact, we’d congratulate them on their success! But what if someone answers a test question wrong? It’s likely a mistake, just like the domino placement, but it could be immoral if the person didn’t study or intentionally answered it wrong out of spite.

When someone tortures an animal, we say that’s wrong. What we mean in this case isn’t that the person made a mistake, but that they did something immoral. It doesn’t matter if they did a good job torturing the animal, whatever that means, or if they tried their hardest or were very sincere, careful, and deliberate about it. The reason they are wrong is that the action they took is unethical – it’s prohibited by the prevailing moral code. The fact that it’s even possible to use the same word to describe committing such a heinous act as we can to describe filling in the wrong circle on a piece of paper really speaks to the gaping chasm that exists in this area of our language.

When someone purposefully leaves their vehicle in a parking stall longer than the allotted time, we say that’s wrong. But they didn’t make a mistake, and it’s not really an immoral act. Some might say it’s immoral, but if we simply imagine that the person was delayed by an unusually long line at the grocery store, how do we categorize the deed then? It’s a mistake, but it’s not an honest mistake (perhaps the person should have noticed that the grocery store’s parking lot was full) and it has consequences for other people. What we could say it that the act was not a mistake, nor was it immoral, but rather it was an infraction or violation. A rule was broken. This doesn’t imply  anything about whether or not he person’s actions were justified or whether or not they deserve a parking ticket. We just say that it’s wrong in the sense that there was a very specific requirement in place – unrelated to the prevailing moral code – and that the requirement was not met.

When someone doesn’t get their oil changed on their car for a very long time, we say that’s wrong. It’s not a mistake, it’s not immoral, it doesn’t break any rules, but it’s still wrong somehow. It certainly has consequences, and it’s certainly frowned upon by many people, including the car’s manufacturer, but no one would say this makes the person who does it a bad person or that they should be punished. This type of action is best described as foolishness. The person did not exercise wisdom, because they made a decision – or series of decisions – which will bring about an outcome that they do not want to occur. In a sense, they reaped the benefits when they weren’t prepared to pay the cost.

Stay tuned for Part II, in which we will discuss subcategories and degrees of wrongness, and we’ll also find out why everyone you know is wrong about everything.

Zero One Infinity

In life there is great uncertainty. Humans are constantly seeking explanations and crafting theories, struggling to decipher what is meaningless and categorize what is random. This urge to eradicate uncertainty gives rise to superstitions, rituals and maxims. We crave a fixed framework which correlates our behavior with our experience. More often than not, no such correlation exists, but that doesn’t stop us from trying.

In primitive cultures, the harvest of creatures and crops is a matter of survival. Because of the paramount importance and unpredictable nature of these harvests, members go to great length to ensure a bountiful yield. Sacrifice, worship, and ritual are common practices aimed at inducing a favorable outcome. Despite their lack of empirical support, these rituals are often based on inductive reasoning. Imagine, for example, a hunter, before setting out in search of prey, kneels down and rubs dirt on his hands. After having a successful hunt, a correlation is made between the behavior and the result and a ritual is born.

Though we have shed our primal roots, we still operate with an expectation that certain behavior will produce certain results. Slogans such as, “you reap what you sow,” and, “the early bird catches the worm” represent the common association of hard work and fiscal gain. Although these slogans may define a general pattern, as guiding principles they are as reliable as a rain dance or animal sacrifice. There are many notorious quotes by renowned thinkers which describe these  patterns, yet they all fall distinctly short of absolute credibility. Sometimes the diligent are punished while the lazy are rewarded. Sometimes the deceitful are praised while the honest are ostracized.

One avenue to certainty is statistical probability. Instead of attempting to mold rigid models to predict results, we can rely on the malleable and empirical nature of probability. Although this method has great value in certain areas, it does not satisfy our craving. Knowing that honesty is the best policy 57% of the time does not inspire honesty.

Though correlation and reasoning may not produce stable hypotheses, there are other tools which can be used to provide certainty. Mathematics is a field in which certainty is abundant; every equation has one result, one solution. In math, there is no interpretation, no ambiguity and no subjectivity. Unfortunately, mathematics does not correspond to our experience, but his cousin, physics, can be more helpful.

Everywhere we look, we can find patterns and trends in the universe. Truth can be found in the gravity of a black hole and the structure of an atom. The concept that no two things are identical is an example of extracting truth by observing our physical world. This idea reminds us that we should never treat two people or situations the same way. There is another principle which we can pry from the laws of the universe, one which can teach us a great deal about life, death and morality. This concept is known as the Zero One Infinity Theory.

The theory describes how objects and events of significance only manifest in one of three ways:

  1. The object or event has never existed and will never exist in the future.
  2. The object or event will only exist once, or under one condition, for a finite length of time.
  3. The object or event has always existed and will exist for all of time.

From this theory we can learn many things, let’s look at two examples. First, that cosmic and spiritual objects and events must exist in one of the three forms. For example, there is either no such thing as reincarnation, one reincarnation (or under one condition), or eternal reincarnation. The same rule applies to the number of inhabited planets, best men, deities and universes. One need not know a great deal about physics to realize that it does not make sense to only two universes in existence.

The second thing we can learn is that moral behavior in our lives should exist in one of the three forms. For example, we should either never tell the truth, tell the truth under only one condition, or always tell the truth. This also applies to things like theft, divorce, drug use, abortion and eating animals. All significant human behavior should be forbidden, permitted or required under one condition, or always permitted or required. Applying this pattern to our moral code will chisel the surface of the slope of judgement into the rigid and defined steps of judgment.

Some argue that a fourth option should be instated, that two is a legitimate number of occurrences. Though their thoughts are pure, these poor people are mistaken. Any amount of occurrences or exceptions beyond the first is arbitrary and shall be relinquished to the hands of infinity. Humans attach significance to many numbers for many reasons. We might value two because most external body parts appear in pairs, or because relationships require two people, we value three because three points are required to draw an enclosed shape and we value ten because of the decimal system. Regardless of the reasoning, these supposedly sacred numbers are generated by humans, who cannot be trusted in such matters. Principles of this magnitude must exist beyond humanity, uncorrupted by our interpretation. Though the number two may its own significance, you cannot have two universes or two gods. As Isaac Asimov stated, “Two is an impossible number, and can’t exist.”

The Good Stone

Most of us think we are a pretty good person. Although we may not declare the fact with words, our self-righteousness is spoken by our actions. We all do things that we know aren’t right, but we do them anyway because they aren’t really that bad, like spitting our gum on the sidewalk or writing a blog while we’re at work. However, each of us has a list of things we would never do, because those things are really wrong, like stealing a car or cheating on a spouse. This list of inconceivable acts keeps us safely elevated above others, so that we may gaze down with contempt at those who do not hold to our standards.

This system also applies to social laws, ensuring that we don’t fall into that stereotypical group of people we enjoy disliking so much. We may have a nice house, but we don’t waste money like those people. We may not have the best kept yard, but at least we don’t have car parts lying about like them. Even if we were to break one of our rules, we would have a completely logical reason for this exception. All of our deeds are reasonable and fair, neither too hot nor too cold.

Basically, the idea is that, no matter who we are, we can use certain rules and behaviors to distinguish ourselves from others. We create an arbitrarily line in the sand, or a point on a slope, based on what we feel is right and say, “Anything beyond this point is unacceptable.”

As shown above, you rank somewhere slightly above average goodness which those people cannot seem to attain. Wait, why is A Stone on the graph? The reason is that the whole system we have set up to measure our goodness uses only negative indicators. We think we are good because we don’t swear too much, drink too much, drive too fast or watch too much television, but, according to that standard, a rock is superior to us in every facet.

A stone will never hurt, never steal, never lie,

Never will it curse you, or ever leave your side.

But a stone will never love, never smile, never give,

And never will it praise you, for it will never live.

Be better than a stone.