Saturday, February 17, 2018

357. The success of failure

A Hegelian principle is that one gets to know something best in its failure.

This appeared in my discussion of what I made of Levinas (item 61 in this blog): in order to achieve the highest level of freedom, which is freedom from pre-conceptions and errors, one needs opposition from the other. 

It also appears in the Popperian principle of falsification in science. One cannot prove the truth of a proposition on the basis of evidence, but one can falsify it. Criticism of failures in science is needed, in the forum of science, for science to succeed.

It appears in democracy: cumbersome and often inefficient as it is, political opposition is needed to prevent survival of failed policies. In a centralized, non-democratic, authoritarian regime such failure is not recognized or acknowledged, to protect the prestige and position of the regime. The strength of democracy is that it can fail (item 339).

It appears in innovation: the failure of an innovative venture is not waste, but has value in showing what does not work, as a basis for further research and development. Entrepreneurs serve society in their failures.

The necessity arising from failure of what exists is the mother of invention.

Evolution arises from a selection environment that eliminates failures to fit. Humans, however, have a distinctive capacity to deliberately and consciously select or construct a favourable niche, and there failure may fail to succeed.

Similarly, a virtue of markets is that competition ensures that no waste of resources arises from failures that survive.

The present perversions of capitalism serve to clarify why and how capitalism fails, and to understand some of the sources of populism (item 47) and shortcomings of the political left.

The most fruitful failures are those that could not be foreseen, and were in that sense uncertain (as opposed to risky), because they most radically close off existing avenues, to open up new ones.

However, failures need to accumulate, to clarify the boundaries of validity of the old, to build up motivation to drop the old and search for the new, and to give indications of directions for the new. This progressive form of conservatism was recognized in a famous debate in the philosophy of science, between Popper, Kuhn and Feyerabend, in the 1960’s, in which Popper consented that instantaneous falsification, at the merest falsification, was not rational.

In ontology and epistemology, the need for outside opposition to success, in order to recognize failure, to motivate and indicate avenues for novelty, is the most convincing argument for objects in the world to exist independently from ideas, as a selection environment for the evolution of ideas.

Žižek argued that strict, universal rules demand too much from people, who are imperfect and are also caught in the vagaries of contingency, so that for the rules to succeed there must be some space for deviance, failure to conform (item 337).

All this is consistent with my argument for ‘imperfection on the move’ (items 19 and 127).     

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