Relationships and Fallibility

Note: By "relationships" I mean romantic or intimate relationships. They have dating or courtship, and could become a marriage. Anything where people are "more than friends". These generally involve love, sex, living together, trust and monogamy, or hope to involve those in the future. Some of these ideas may apply to other kinds of relationships as well, such as friendships, employee/employer or child/parent.

Some people search for a "soulmate" who they get along with perfectly. They want "someone who understands me (really, really well)." Sometimes they want a person who will understand them without them having to explain. They want a person they never disagree with. And many people want someone to "spend their life with" — they want long term guarantees or promises.

These might be nice things if they were possible. But they aren't. Everyone makes frequent mistakes, and no one understands everything the same way. That means no people will ever get along perfectly. And you can't just find a person who understands you well; it takes learning to create understanding. You can't reliably understand each other without explaining ideas to each other; communication helps people correct errors in their ideas about each other, and without error correction mistakes will be a constant occurrence. Fighting in a mean way can be avoided, but disagreements cannot be, and disagreements may be substantial, may be about important issues like core principles or right and wrong, and may not be resolved for centuries even if both parties approach them rationally.

As fallible people, we must make a serious and continued effort to find and correct errors if we hope to solve a lot of our problems and be happy. That means using communication and criticism as best we can, not dreaming of a day when we won't need it.

There's three ways people can seem to understand each other without communicating. The first is when they both have a one-size-fits-all stereotypical idea from their culture. In that case, they can both understand the same idea without ever discussing it together. The second way is to have extremely true ideas; truth seeking can lead people to become more similar. And the third way is to have simple ideas; the less content there is, the less communication is required; if the idea is insubstantial enough, it may be able to be communicated purely through body language or other non-verbal mechanisms.

Sometimes philosophical debates last centuries or more. Scientific debates can too. So can religious debates. In fact, any debate can last indefinitely. There are no guarantees about when someone will think of a good enough explanation to satisfy everyone. And even if a debate is resolved, it could potentially be reopened if someone has a new idea. This means that we need to have a type of relationship that can handle disagreements. We need to be prepared to live with them, and not as a mild annoyance we're stuck with, but so that we genuinely don't mind at all. That means avoiding unrealistic expectations about agreeing with any person about everything. It means disagreement can't be seen as failure.

Some people hope to be together forever. But how do they know what they will want in the future? They can have pretty good guesses about the future, but they should be open to changing their minds, and allow for it by avoiding such strong commitments. Long term and large commitments are possible, but unlimited commitments are unreasonable. All good people change and grow over time because they learn new things. This can result in similar people becoming different. It can even result in similar people one day finding they have nothing in common anymore. When people disagree about what new interests are worth taking up, they can discuss that and try to agree. And they might succeed, but they might not. People should be open to the possibility that it may no longer make sense to be with the same person at some point in the future.

Candidly acknowledging the issue that people's interests can and do drift apart, and this may be good for both of them, and they may not be able to rationally prevent it even if they both want to, can help people stay together longer, or move on more amicably. Some people try to avoid thinking about the issue, and hope that promises and vows can make it go away. But not thinking means not correcting errors and always ends badly.

There are two techniques that do a pretty good job of keeping people similar. The first is to suppress all change and all learning; don't do that. The second is continued, open-ended discussions. Sometimes people are scared of fighting and hide their differences. By the time they tell their spouse about their new interest, they've already developed it pretty far, but their spouse knows nothing about it. They have created a difference between them! If they had discussions from day one, they might learn about the new thing together. Each time one person found something good about it, he could share the idea, and the other person could learn to like it too. Because people are different, this isn't going to work every time, but it can work sometimes because there is a truth of the matter about what is interesting, what activities are worthwhile, and so on, and as people learn they can converge on the truth, which creates agreement.

It doesn't make sense to try to rely on one person for everything because people are different and have a variety of skills, talents, interests, and knowledge. Interacting with a variety of people is also valuable for error correction: you'll get a broader range of criticism that way. If you focus on one person, and you both share a blind spot or misconception — and you should expect to share several — then you will have a hard time finding out.

Focusing your life around one person is a risky strategy. What if that person makes a large mistake in his or her thinking and becomes a bad person, or stops making progress and becomes unhappy? Many people assume that could never happen to their spouse. But why not? People, including people who are currently pretty smart and rational, frequently make mistakes. Some of those mistakes will be large. A fallibilist must acknowledge that his spouse is fully capable of making large mistakes, and then making further mistakes that prevent the first from being corrected. Equally possible is that I think my spouse has made a huge mistake, but actually he or she has learned an important truth, and I am making a mistake in not understanding this. If either of these things happens, we may not get along well anymore, and will benefit from having plenty of other things and other people in our lives.

By Elliot Temple, Feb 2010 | Blog |

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