Philosophically, there are two problems with the idea of learning from a mistake.
- How do you know it was a mistake?
- Even if it was a mistake, how will you know when you've made the same mistake twice?
Heraclitus, all the way from B.C. times —a pre-Socractic Greek philosopher says, "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.”
We are continually changing. Situations are continually changing —how will we know that what was "true" yesterday will be "true" today? A mistake made yesterday may not be a mistake given time.
True is in quotes because we assign truth as a static, unchanging, fact, observation, or otherwise known phenomena. We think "gravity" is a truth. The Earth revolves around the sun is a fact and therefore true. "Humans die" is an observation we believe is true.
The problem with all these "truths" is that they are fallible to change. Gravity doesn't apply in quantum mechanics, we used to believe the Earth was the center of the Universe, and it's very possible in the future for humans to live forever or otherwise exist in virtual space. A truth is supposed to be an unchanging fact —and yet the "truths" we've laid out here are very capable of change and therefore capable of being false. Our hypotheses, conclusions, observations, and findings are not so permanent —truth is not so truthful.
When we attempt to learn from our mistakes, we apply a scientific mindset to our living. We attempt to understand cause and effect relationships, we try to make rules —laws, facts, "truths". If I made my parents angry, I might consider what I said "a mistake". If I dropped out of school and feel pressured by finances, I may consider dropping out a "mistake". After that assignment —I'll try a negation: "I should not have said what I said," "I should not have dropped out," etc. What I'm saying when I do a negation is that —I do not feel good right now, therefore if I undid what I did to arrive at feeling bad, it will be good.
This is erroneous thinking, as nothing guarantees that the negation provides the opposite effect or a neutralizing of the bad feeling, it may lead to other consequences —after all, I dropped out of school because I didn't want to go to class because I did not enjoy it. I may stop talking to my parents, but then I'll have to rely on myself more. If we want to understand how to make better decisions, we have to unravel the fallacy in thinking, in our reasoning, in "scientific" thinking —cause and effect, truth oriented, reasoned, etc.
Science is built on top of rules. If 2 + 2 ≠ 4, then all Science breaks. The idea of gravity cannot exist without numbers that denote a constant acceleration. The speed of light cannot have a speed without numbers. Money, accounting doesn't exist without numbers. Math, numbers is the first cause and effect law postulated in the universe. 2 + 2 will always equal 4. That is as absolute as things get.
But the world is not absolute. It is forever changing, and we'd be silly to assign static models to dynamic, stateless phenomena. A photon chooses its path dynamically —science says randomly because it's rule based, anything that is not "rule-based" seems random, but that would be a fallacy in thinking. The world is highly dynamic, it is not random, and although there are plausible laws explaining some facets of the world, rules can't account for exceptions, dynamism. The platypus is a considered a mammal that can lay eggs —but it's generally excepted that part of what distinguishes mammals from other animal groups is that we don't lay eggs. Science finds roundabout ways to deal with exceptions, but a theory that has to make exceptions weakens for every exception it has to make.
Heisenburg's uncertainty principle actually accounts for this flaw if we make a few conceptual leaps. The principle states you can't know the position and the speed of an object at the same time. A position is an absolute state, whereas an object that has speed is moving, it's dynamic, stateless.
Science works around this problem by assigning absolutes, then using variables to create relativity or comparative states. In other words, Force = mass * acceleration relies on 2 constants (absolutes) in order to calculate a third constant or I can have 1 constant and one of the other variables as dynamic to find a second constant. We call these functions. f(x) = x + 2 which is a graph or continuum of states. Because Science cannot properly deal with stateless concepts, it creates a continuum of states to try to mimic "statelessness", it's a contradiction —a dynamic state (singular) does not exist, but it becomes a misnomer when we say dynamic states (plural) which kind of exist.
Understanding this misnomer is the key to resolving the scientific problem —we've been tricked into believing there is a dynamic state when there is no such thing —a dynamic state is stateless. Dynamic states, however, are just multiple absolute states strung together to create the illusion of dynamism, but it would be more accurate to treat each state as separate, but it's useful to use them on a continuum, so fine.
Just to restate this but using mathematics as an example, mathematics is inherently comparative —having an absolute helps us see relativity. We know 100 is relatively bigger than 4 because the numbers themselves are absolutes, but who made them absolute? Do numbers exist? No, they are made up, and if you say they weren't invented by someone and that numbers actually exist in the natural world, then tell me where you see "zero". Zero is an invention. In which case, our judgment of "an absolute" is still subjective and relative to our thought patterns.
This unfortunate fact means that we cannot declare that a mistake is a mistake because the past is not static, it is changeable to the degree that we can take different perspectives on what we remember of past events. This means the past is dynamic and it is the whole purpose of honest reflection to "reflect" or otherwise look for different angles to see the past in. It is also noted in a lot of cases that once thought "mistakes" turned out to be "gifts". Nietzsche says,
"Amor fati: this is the very core of my being —And as to my prolonged illness, do I not owe much more to it than I owe to my health? To it I owe a higher kind of health, a sort of health which grows stronger under everything that does not actually kill it! —To it, I owe even my philosophy.… Only great suffering is the ultimate emancipator of spirit, for it teaches one that vast suspiciousness which makes an X out of every U, a genuine and proper X, i.e., the antepenultimate letter. Only great suffering; that great suffering, under which we seem to be over a fire of greenwood, the suffering that takes its time—forces us philosophers to descend into our nethermost depths, and to let go of all trustfulness, all good-nature, all whittling-down, all mildness, all mediocrity,—on which things we had formerly staked our humanity.
"In this case, Nietzsche's reflection on his tumultuous health is seen as a gift rather than a burden. It is not necessarily a "mistake" since he was not given a choice, and yet, it is a sufficient example for how past ills can over time be seen as gifts, and if this is possible, then we can see that past mistakes may actually be seen as correct decisions in the future.
Furthermore, the present and future are never static either. They too are dynamic and because of this, "learned" wisdom from mistakes attempts to assign functions to stateless situations by "connecting the dots" or otherwise comparing the present and future with the past in order to create a graph of personal or human progress. Again, this is inherently making a stateless world into a series of states which are static but give the illusion of dynamism. "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man."
Using functions we try to predict the appropriate response to a situation, but this assumes that the function we use is the proper function for this specific case in order to prevent the same mistake from happening twice. How do we know if the situation is the same?
Take for example a boy who, after trying to kiss a girl, is told that she has no interest in him, and that they are only friends. He takes this to heart, and declares his imprudence a mistake —his intent was not to discomfort her, but to express his affection and so he looks for different ways to express his affection.A new girl comes along, and he, for lack of being able to express interest in the girl by actions, says, "Hey, I want to kiss you!" to which the girl, embarrassed and shocked by his misunderstanding of women, says, "Sorry! I have a boyfriend."Now, completely dismayed, the boy has failed twice, and does not see that the very "mistake" he made with the first girl, would have been the "solution" for the second girl. Having failed both, what could you possibly give as advice for this boy trying to express his affections?
I think you could only say —pay attention to the girl, love her, and do what you think is right. If you were to give this advice, then we would have to see both decisions as correct decisions! since the boy simply did as he thought was right —and this is of merit: with the results, the consequence being of no significance.
But of course, this makes us uncomfortable because we feel that what is right should also result in the right results. If we can't learn from mistakes, what can we do?
Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher, weighed in on this in the 1800s. He says, "Alas, those great, uplifting, simple thoughts, those first thoughts, are more and more forgotten, perhaps entirely forgotten in the weekday and worldly life of comparisons."
The problem with learning from mistakes is that it is an art of comparison! And here Kierkegaard is advocating for a return to non-comparison, to these "simple thoughts." What are they? How do we make sense of phenomena without comparing?
The key is to see the intent of "learning from mistakes" can be transferred to "how do I live better." That is, the former is a negation, whereas the second attempts to define right and wrong. A negation does not lead to positive action —most often when a person learns from a mistake, they postulate a rule in their mind that says, "Never do that again," where "that" is the corresponding action they took in reference to the effect that took place.
As noted previously, we cannot connect causation here —we cannot say that this person's action caused the event to happen, yet by learning from a mistake, that is exactly what we assume. We assume a causation that doesn't necessarily exist.
The second problem is "never do this" does not arrive at a solution of "what to do" —the person tends to drift into another negation for lack of creativity. They think —I'll never do this in that situation again, I'll do the opposite!
A woman that has gone through several quick relationships that have failed concludes that she hasn't found the right man. She says, "I'll never date that jerk again! What a mistake!" and her hypothesis will always be correct, but she will be no closer to recognizing that the solution may require her to change a few of her assumptions instead of merely avoiding "jerks". i.e. that what she wants in a relationship: sexual passion and comfort are at odds and she probably has to choose one and a half and be content with it.
Another example is the old man who, on his deathbed, recounts his regrets and laments to his son that he wished he had pursued his ambitions instead of merely working. The son, taken in by the old man's grief vows to diligently pursue his ambitions —does so, and finds himself broke, alone, homeless, and without a normal life. The son laments his inability to be normal!
The key, again, is to remove the negation and formulate the question as "how do I live better." This avoids the traps above, but requires a different mentality of thought. We need to remove comparisons and begin trusting "those great, uplifting, simple thoughts," which are the key to freedom of choice.
When we arrive at a situation in which we don't know the answer, we should consider that there is no thinkable answer. The objectively right answer, is the felt answer. This is not mysticism. I am not advocating for blind faith. There are situations in which "we know", but we cannot express our knowing. These are the most difficult situations and they frustrate our intellect which wants to know —but we cannot come to know what we already know. We just cannot know our knowing since it is a feeling or intuition of things.
Previously we've given no weight to feelings, and so it feels absurd to trust it, but if we follow the argument above on senses, it's quite clear that we have a case of Sense --> Feeling --> NULL (thought). In other words, the feeling does come from a tangible reality, our senses, however, the feeling has no direct translation into observation with conscious words —it only implies a direction that consciousness cannot grasp.
Similar analogies can be made with Alpha Go, an AI who beat grandmaster Lee Se-Dol in Go, and how it made an unexpected move #102 in game one that defied traditional logic and intellect. It is only unfathomable by consciousness —that does not mean it is incomprehensible because it turned out to be a good move.
From a Quartz article, here.
"In their fourth game, the only one in which Lee was victorious, he appeared to adopt some of AlphaGo’s strategy by pursuing less expected and riskier maneuvers that proved successful in the end.
Lee played a “wedge” move, placing his white stone between two of AlphaGo’s. This is generally avoided since the point of Go is to surround the other player’s stones, and a wedge move is essentially the opposite. But Lee did so right in the middle of the board, puzzling observers.
“It’s hard to say if it was a correct move or not,” Li said.
Seven moves after Lee’s wedge, AlphaGo had lost its grip on the right side of the board...
Lee went on to win the fourth game."
Bingo. The best moves are the hardest to say if they are correct or not. Intellect cannot grasp the right moves. We have to move past intellect if we want to live better, if we consider decisions in a lifetime to be "moves" in an closed environment, "game".
This is not to say life is a game, only if we would like to "live better", we should not be afraid to risk the right moves —this is primarily called "the leap of faith," which defies intellect and asks the individual to trust in the outcome, whatever it may be. Once we arrive at this method of decision-making, we are dynamic —we don't adhere to static rules, we can look into how to live better.
How to Live Better
The key once we've arrived at a mentality of taking "leaps of faith" (yes, multiple over the course of a lifetime) is to recognize the role of thought. This is important because previously thought confined us, it prevented us from taking leaps of faith, but having adopted a mentality of faith, it's important that it does not become blind faith —it must be reasoned faith.
Reasoned faith acknowledges the multiplicity of all decisions. It is the acknowledgment of true freedom, what Kierkegaard calls, "the dizziness of freedom."
Simone de Beauvoir explains in The Second Sex that when "no outside law, recipe, reasoning, or example can then guide them; they have to decide alone: this abandon is the extreme moment of freedom." In other words, when we seek to learn from our mistakes, when we attempt to know everything through our consciousness, through rationality, when we fail to trust in ourselves, fail to confront the absurd which is "born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world," (Myth of Sisyphsus, Albert Camus), when we can't accept our not knowing but feeling of knowing, when we deny those "simple thoughts", those "first thoughts" that come always unexpected and leave no room for explanation, it is freedom itself we are turning away from. We escape into "absolute" laws so we do not have to confront ourselves. Living in this manner, we hardly live at all —we only exist.
Life is constant motion —without which there would only exist static, unchanging environments; uninhabitable. That the Earth moves, the seasons change, and people fade provide the basis for life —through death, permanency, absolutes: we can come to realize life's dynamicism.
Our desire for laws and rules, absolutes, is in accordance with death —it is because we fear death that we attempt to bring it into existence and by doing so we succeed and create a world of 1's and 0's, this or that, step-by-step instructions, and how-to guides for life.
Life is dynamic! It is learned through experience and the ruthless devouring of other people's experience —not as fact, but as fellow artists. Just as a painter cannot learn to paint through textbooks, but must eventually paint through their own brush, so too must a human eventually learn to live through their own merits. What are those merits? It is those "simple thoughts" —those "first thoughts", the one's true and genuine to the individual themselves, it is the dizziness of freedom, of choosing between these simple thoughts that form the drama of life.
If we continually ask others how to live, we will not live. Eventually we will have to answer our own questions. Learning from mistakes is a mistake because it attempts to assign a static law or rule to one's own life. Just like riding a bike, there are no explicit defined ways to learn —you try, you fail, you get a sense for it, then eventually succeed or else give up altogether.
So how do you know how to live? You just do —it comes through trial and error, through decisions decisions decisions, and each decision follows the same pattern of life —how do you know what decision to make? You just know —and even if you don't know, you still know that you have to do it. This will cause extreme anxiety, but you have to do it or else give up altogether.
The capacity to use reason in faith —to properly think is to find the situation itself as all the information that is needed. That is where true thought finds activity, and it is a dreadful activity that reveals the multi-faceted nature of the situation —of all the varying events that are relevant; no comparison could encapsulate all these details, but it only through these details that thought can accurately apply itself to a decision. Once thought has decided, it then has to act on faith for there is no comparison, no necessary ideas that ground the thought that was thought as an absolute —those thoughts seem flimsy, but they are also the most honest thoughts because they brave the unknown —they are dynamic and are therefore a sign of life and motion.
The truth is that reasoned faith relies heavily on looking past the surface of situations into their essence or generalized form. Do your comparisons with reason, but upon seeing no valid comparisons and understanding the difference of the situation at hand, move past it into faith which will accord a more appropriate response than only sticking to the limited set that reason has.
We begin to move past abstractions ("Don't do xyz") into images of processes and form ("Try xyz visualization").