On Error and Correction

We might be tempted to say that the student who sees a snake and subsequently sees it is a rope made a mistake. Thought inclines towards right and wrong so that kind of judgment can seem natural and even necessary. Yet there is a way to see this that is not about mistakes at all.

We see the snake on the path and we recoil. In that moment, based on all the available data, we are “right.” We are seeing a snake and so we react accordingly. We don’t have any information to the contrary. What else are we supposed to do?

Yet a moment later, we recognize that we’re looking at a rope and so the snake is effectively canceled out. The first vision of the coiled object is corrected. It is a rope. It was always a rope.

And we are right now, of course. But does it follow that we were wrong earlier? The wrongness of our earlier vision is only evident based on what we know now; back then, it was right. Back then it was solid.

Still, we might say, “well, sure. It was right. But now that we have all the facts we can see it is clearly wrong. So it was wrong then, too. We just didn’t know it.”

That’s a valid observation, but it rests on the dubious premise that now we do have all the facts, and that we can know that we have all the facts, and so we can rest absolutely assured that our rightness now will never become our wrongness in the future.

But can we really say that? Should we?

What if the rope turns out to be a stick? Or becomes a snake again? What if it’s a water hose? Or an old shirt tossed just so?

Since those outcomes are possible – our earlier shift from snake to rope makes that clear – then we have to allow that future shifts are possible, too. Today’s right may very well be tomorrow’s wrong.

So maybe we can see the way in which our confidence – and the self-righteousness it engenders – is misplaced. Some things seem clear – that there is something in the path, that we thought it was a snake, that it turned out to be a rope.

But inherent in that clarity is the recognition that perception is fallible – that experience is rife with fallibility. This is an interesting observation because we are always so certain that we are right, that what we are seeing and thinking and feeling is correct and real and the only way to see it.

This is a reflexive position: we tend not to be aware we are taking it. We aren’t constantly inquiring into perception – is that really a tree? Are those really birds I hear? We just see a tree and hear birds singing in it.

And that example might seem very simple and basic – a tree is a tree, birds are birds – but as the snake/rope example demonstrates, it is possible to be wrong even about that of which we are presently very certain. The issue becomes cloudier when we think about who we love and who we hate and how we behave in this or that social situation.

If we look closely and openly, then we might notice that it’s almost as if thought is at odds with the fact that “the known” is not really “all the known” or “the whole known” but is only “part of the known.”

It is by its very nature fragmented, and we cannot escape that. We can only notice it.

So the suggestion is that we give attention to the ways in which thought and perception are misleading or slippery. This isn’t like facing down a snarling ego or peering into the abyss. It’s just the nature of things. All we can do is be aware of it so that when it comes up we can check it – we can be cautious and attentive before rushing to judgment.

At first blush, this kind of attentiveness and passivity is destabilizing. The center turns out not to be so central, the foundation not so sure. But in time it might also reveal itself as a kind of calming force. It takes some of the pressure off and allows us to let life be as it is without having to be responsible to it or for it.

Of course judgment and preference will keep on keeping on. But that’s not a problem. We might think of it like going to the bathroom. Most of the time that’s a barely-noticed physical experience – we have to go so we go – but sometimes it’s very pleasant, sometimes urgent or even painful, and sometimes stressful.

Going to the bathroom is all of that depending on where we’re at with it in a given moment but whatever it is, however it shows up, we don’t make a metaphysical issue of it. We aren’t asking: why do I pee? What is peeing? Why can’t I pee better?

It’s just peeing, right? And like that, thought it just thinking. The former is a hint about how to handle the latter. Let thought be thought and see what happens.

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