Mistake Mystique in Learning and in Life

10 February 2021 in Resource Center.

Comprehensivity is our inclination to integrate all our sources of learning so as to better comprehend the world and how it works. To effectively guide our newfound comprehensivity we require newfound epistemic virtues, new criteria for good knowledge. In previous resources, we have explored two such proposed epistemic virtues: the inductive attitude and the method of multiple working hypotheses.

This resource will investigate mistake mystique as a third proposed epistemic virtue for our comprehensivity. Our primary guide for this exploration is R. Buckminster Fuller’s essay Mistake Mystique. It was published in the now defunct periodical East/West Journal, you can find a copy in some anthologies including “Your Private Sky: Discourse: Buckminster Fuller” edited by Joachim Krausse and Claude Lichtenstein (2001) and Education Automation: Comprehensive Learning for Emergent Humanity published by Lars Muller Publishers (2010). We will also consider some ideas of Stuart Firestein from the 2012 book “Ignorance: How It Drives Science”.

The Value of Mistake Mystique

In the Buckminster Fuller essay Mistake Mystique first published in 1977, Bucky, as he is affectionately known, entreats us to adopt the inductive attitude, the discipline of effectively adapting our thinking to our experience:

From my viewpoint, by far the greatest challenge facing the young people today is that of responding and conforming only to their own most delicately insistent intuitive awarenesses of what the truth seems to them to be as based on their own experiences and not on what others have interpreted to be the truth regarding events of which neither they nor others have experienced-based knowledge.

— Buckminster Fuller

Bucky goes on to warn us against unthinkingly joining fads and other “in” movements, crowd psychology, or group tendencies that might usurp our individual attention to the truth of our experiences and thwart us from adapting our understandings to our experiences.

By highlighting the value of an individual’s experience and their intuitive ability to make sense of it, Bucky emphasizes the importance of diversity in forming our collective understandings of the world. Comprehensivism as the emerging practice for coming to understand our worlds ever more broadly and deeply embraces the many different perspectives on offer from the world’s many traditions of inquiry and action, our many cultural zones (our Ethnosphere), and the communications of each individual’s experiences. By degrees these learnings percolate through society to become our collective wisdom. It is therefore vitally important to realize that your unique interpretations of your experiences are essential in forming our collective intelligence.

Bucky explains why the inductive attitude is necessary:

By cosmic designing wisdom we are all born naked, helpless for months, and though superbly equipped cerebrally, utterly lacking in experience, ergo utterly ignorant.

— Buckminster Fuller

This quote is reminiscent of Bucky’s explanation in “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth” that we have only our intellects and our experience with which to learn how the world works. That was the great lesson from Bucky’s realization that the “outstandingly important fact regarding Spaceship Earth [is] that no instruction book came with it”.

How can we apply our intellects to learn from experience?

[W]hatever humans have learned had to be learned as a consequence only of trial-and-error experience. Humans have learned only through mistakes….

It is only at the moment of humans’ realistic admission to selves of having made a mistake that they are closest to that mysterious integrity governing the universe. Only then are humans able to free themselves of the misconceptions that have brought about their mistakes. With the misconceptions out of the way, they have their first view of the truth and immediately subsequent insights into the significance of the misconception as usually fostered by their pride and vanity, or by unthinking popular accord.

— Buckminster Fuller

Is it true that we cannot learn except through mistake-making? Yes, I think so. Otherwise, we would be either phenomenally lucky or gods who can bypass any errors in concept, interpretation, or practice. Everyone I know is a mistake-maker, just like me, not a god.

With Bucky’s help, we suddenly realize that all our knowledge is the collective result of all our mistake-making. That means that all Humanity’s great traditions of inquiry and action, all of the practices, rituals, and beliefs that comprise our Ethnosphere (our cultural zones), as well as each individual’s communicated experiences are each a towering edifice of learned-only-from-mistakes, experience-won know-what, know-why, and know-how.

In “Mistake Mystique” Bucky presents the wonderful vision of learning as the practice of ever more refined course corrections informed by the on-going realizations, acknowledgements, and adjustments of our mistake-making. In short, our mistakes provide the essential feedback to guide our knowing and actions to ever more effective results.

Mistake mystique is our profound sense that mistake-making is the crux, the most important part, of our learning. It is a vital epistemic virtue for our comprehensivity because it puts us in direct contact with how we create knowledge at an elemental level.

We can begin to see how our mistake mystique can inform our collective intelligence: your experiences and your mistake-making effectively curated and shared provide inputs for others to refine their understandings. Gradually a community of people attentively tuned to mistake mystique can develop ever more refined and comprehensively considered learning.

Mistake mystique is, therefore, an important epistemic virtue for our comprehensivity, our “wanting to understand all and put everything together” as Bucky put it in his book “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth”.

So, we should heed the grand moral injunction, from Bucky’s book “Synergetics”, to guide us toward more effective mistake mystique: “Dare to be naïve“.

What do you think? Is mistake mystique as the dynamic process of attentively identifying and correcting our mistakes an important epistemic virtue to guide our learning? And our lives?

The Role of Ignorance

Bucky’s virtue of mistake mystique resonates with Stuart Firestein’s wonderful short book “Ignorance: How It Drives Science”. Firestein begins his book:

Knowledge is a big subject. Ignorance is bigger. And it is more interesting.

— Stuart Firestein

Firestein provides an image for understanding the relationship between our knowledge and our ignorance: “[Learning is] like the widening ripples on the surface of a pond, the ever larger circumference in touch with more and more of what’s outside the circle, the unknown.” This insight suggests that knowledge and ignorance are like inside and outside: they always co-exist and co-define each other.

I think this observation resonates with the great Marina Warner insight that stories including fantasy, fairy tale, and myth are a kind of inquiry. I interpret Warner to mean that even fantastic assertions such as we find in fairy tales and myths are, in fact, veiled questions. We might then infer that assertions and questions imply and define each other. Ignorance as questions and inquiry and knowledge as assertions seem to be two complementary perspectives for our learning: one the inversion of the other. Exploration can be seen as the attempt to clarify the boundary between our ignorance and our knowledge. So exploration might be the mistake mystique feedback loop that Bucky described.

Our ignorance might be seen as the system formed by our questions, our unknowns, and our unknown unknowns. The complement to our ignorance, our knowledge, is the system formed by our guesses, hypotheses, or theories that we posit as knowns or answers to our questions. In this model, our understanding would be the structure formed by the dynamic connections between our always co-existing ignorance and knowledge. Mistake mystique may then be seen as the epistemic virtue, the tool, that guides us in clarifying the structure of the connections between our ignorance and our knowledge.

As we explore the dynamic boundary between our always co-existing ignorance and knowledge, we suddenly realize that the worlds of our ignorance and knowledge are, in fact, a further source for our learning. As we fill this landscape for exploration with guesses, hypotheses, theories, assumptions, or other kinds of assertions and we fill it with questions and unknowns, we form the field of our learning. Any such landscape inhabited by questions and their possible answers becomes a new source for our learning.

Could it be that our always co-existing ignorance and knowledge is another source for our learning in support of our comprehensivity, our disposition to compose ever broader and deeper understandings of our worlds and its peoples?

This essay was written to provide ideas in support of the 17 February 2021 session of “Comprehensivist Wednesdays” at 52 Living Ideas (crossposted at The Greater Philadelphia Thinking Society).

Addendum: 1h 39m video from the 17 February 2021 event:

A Theory of Learning for Comprehensivity

We have begun to sketch a theory of learning for our comprehensivity. Let us recapitulate to assess our progress in thinking about how we might understand our worlds ever more extensively and ever more intensively.

Our comprehensivity engages us to understand the world and its peoples. So far we have identified four sources for this learning. The first source we surveyed was Humanity’s great traditions of inquiry and action. Then we examined Bucky Fuller’s cosmic intellectual Universe which includes all Humanity’s communicated experiences. Next we explored Wade Davis’ concept of the Ethnosphere as the full breadth and depth of our cultural zones. Finally, in this resource, we identified the always co-existing and co-defined systems of our ignorance and knowledge as a fourth source for our learning.

There may be other sources for our learning and there may be better ways to characterize them, but we hope this list of four sources helps practitioners of our nascent tradition begin to get a handle on our project. How would you circumscribe the sources of learning you use to inform your comprehensivity?

In addition to attempting to circumscribe the sources of comprehensivist learning, we have begun the process of attempting to identify the epistemic virtues that should guide us in making sense of all these sources. In this resource we highlighted mistake mystique, the value of attending to the ever more refined correcting of our mistake-making. Previously, we identified the inductive attitude as the intellectual courage to be ready to revise any of our beliefs, the intellectual honesty to change our beliefs when our experience disputes them, and the intellectual steadfastness to resist the wanton changing of our beliefs. Finally, we identified the method of multiple working hypotheses as the discipline to consider a wide range of possible explanations before beginning our assessments.

Are these three epistemic virtues a good start in providing us with tools to assess our comprehensivist learning? How might we refine this list? What else do we need to guide our judgment as we attempt to formulate comprehensive comprehensions about our worlds and its peoples?

Addendum: 28m clip from the 17 February 2021 event discussing the epistemology for our comprehensivity:

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Posted by CJ Fearnley

Explorer in Universe.

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