Chapter Thirteen – Choices

After the heavy physics of chapters eleven and twelve, Deutsch throws a change up in chapter thirteen, talking about (of all things) politics. I get a bit nervous here because other things I’ve read show me that politically Deutsch is a bit right-leaning for my taste. But if he can convince me about so much else, maybe he can convince me about politics, too.

And he does convince me about some things. He makes an interesting argument about how compromise in politics is not such a good thing, because a compromise plan is one that no one voted for. He argues that politics is like an experiment. Voters choose what experiment to try next, and a good political system is one in which voters can correct their mistakes easily. The big problem with compromise is that when the compromise experiment doesn’t work, no one knows just what was learned. Would one side’s idea, or the other side’s, have achieved a positive result? There’s no way to know, so we haven’t learned as much as we might have.

Interesting, but what struck a true chord with me was the idea that we actually have learned a lot. Emancipation of slaves, the end of Jim Crow laws, women’s suffrage and right to work, universal education (not one that Deutsch mentions, but important to me nonetheless), the legal necessity of autopsies, and many other things that were once controversial no longer are. So the great disagreements and rancor in today’s political environment really mask how very much we agree on. And who’s going to talk about all we agree on? As Deutsch says, we will never disagree any less than we do right now. People are different. In order for knowledge to grow, we need to try different ideas.

Again, Deutsch strikes at the heart of the issue when he shows that politics is not a zero-sum game. New knowledge can be created, and that’s how progress always occurs. Try new things. If they don’t work, try something else.

Finally, Deutsch inserts a phrase to which he will return. “ . . . human life can improve without limit as we advance from misconception to ever better misconception.” (p 314)

This idea, which follows directly from Deutsch’s proposition that knowledge is infinite, is one that I’ve considered again and again, both before and since reading the book. Misconceptions are our models of the world. Our knowledge will always be imperfect, both the collective knowledge of society as a whole and our personal, individual knowledge. Every learner, myself included, depends upon our misconceptions to carry us on to a deeper (and still infinitely imperfect) understanding. Misconceptions are not to be stamped out. They are best seen as ladders, stepping stones, helping us to the next idea. Sometimes they can cause a struggle, sure. But the struggle itself is valuable, memorable, and can help us learn lessons about future struggles as we grapple with the next misconception that inevitably arises. In one of the original Star Trek movies, Captain Kirk said, “We need our pain!” I say, with equal force, “We need our misconceptions!”

(Now that I’ve quoted Kirk, I have to find a way to quote Picard, as of course I am a Picard man through and through.)